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Column Fri Jul 27 2012

The Watch, Ruby Sparks, Red Lights & Sacrifice

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

The Watch

I'm guessing there's a running theory in filmmaking that if you throw enough funny people in a movie, something funny is bound to result. And considering the sheer volume of usually talented folks involved in the making of The Watch (both in front of and behind the camera), on paper this movie should be the fucking end-all comedy of the decade. Alas, it is not. From a script by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (along with contributions from Jared Stern), directed by Lonely Island member Akiva Schaffer, and starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and British scene-stealer Richard Ayoade ("The IT Crowd"), The Watch has a few big laughs, a handful of medium-size laughs, and a few chuckles, but honestly, this thing should have been so much better.

The problems are many. First off, the script is flimsy, focusing on a group of guys in the community forming a neighborhood watch group after a security guard at the local Costco (managed by Stiller's character) is brutally murdered in the overnight hours. I don't think at this point I'm spoiling anything by mentioning that there's an alien-invasion angle to this material, and once that is fully revealed and explored, we basically get a group of grown men acting like brain-damaged children.

The performances don't help as nearly all of the actors play a variation of their go-to personas. Stiller is neurotic, controlling and substitutes actual friendships for starting up neighborhood clubs. Vaughn is a motor mouth, who sees the neighborhood watch as an excuse to hang out with local dudes and drink beer in his man-cave. Even Ayoade, who might be the most consistently funny performer in the movie, is playing the lovable nerd he played so well in "The IT Crowd."

Jonah Hill is the only actor playing a character, but even then, he's essentially playing a variation of Seth Rogen character in Observe and Report, a guy who failed to get in the police academy, has a stash of guns, and has only joined up to kick ass. Hill gets off some of the best improv lines, but it feels like he's filling in the blanks on a weak screenplay. Will Forte is on hand as a local cop who hates the neighborhood watch guys because they think they are somehow members of law enforcement.

The Watch isn't unwatchable; far from it. This cast makes it easy to kick back and just let the plot unfold in fairly standard ways. There's some nice creature suit work from Doug Jones, and it's tough to complain too much whenever R. Lee Ermey gets to wield a shotgun and curse, but there were particular characters and subplots in this movie that bored me almost from the first frame. There's a storyline about Stiller being unable to get his wife (Rosemarie Dewitt) pregnant, and I still don't understand why any of that was in this movie. At least the subplot about Vaughn's teenage daughter getting physical with her boyfriend has a solid payoff, but until it gets there, those scenes feel really pervy.

I didn't do a joke count on The Watch, but the jokes-per-minute rate was pretty low, and I found it almost troubling how few times Ben Stiller even gets to be funny. He's painted as the heavy, intense beige character whose hangups aren't playing for laughs. Nothing says funny like being infertile, I guess. I wish I had more to say about this collection of comic actors I really like to varying degrees, but the cricket noises in the theater will probably say it all. The Watch feels like filler material, beefed up with improv that's taking the place of an actual script. That's too bad because I genuinely like the concept, but this one simply doesn't cut it.

Ruby Sparks

What is it about human nature that makes us want to control everything around us — nature, information, money and, above all else, other people? The last thing on that list is easy: if we can control the people around us, life would be so much easier, right? The problem comes when the people around us refuse to fall in line, and therein lies the heart and soul of the fascinating new film from writer/actor Zoe Kazan (The Exploding Girl, Meek's Cutoff) and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine).

Although many would like to pigeonhole Ruby Sparks as an indie-style romantic-comedy, that doesn't really do it justice. Yes, the film is at times light and funny, the dark and occasionally sinister places it goes keep it from occupying that label comfortably. This is the story of Calvin (Kazan's real-life boyfriend Paul Dano, of There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine), a novelist who wrote a hugely influential novel when he was still a teenager and has yet to capitalize on that success as an adult. He can't even seem to produce a single page of new material on his old-school manual typewriter, so how can he be expected to hold down a relationship, when his creativity is so stifled.

He has a dream about meeting a girl in the park, and he's convinced she's perfection and, with the prompting of his therapist (Elliott Gould), he effortlessly writes several dozen pages about her in one night. But then he wakes up one morning to a living, breathing version of this woman named Ruby in his apartment acting like they are an established couple and exhibiting every last detail of how he wrote her. Dano displays some surprisingly deft comic timing and skill in these scenes, and he's particularly funny once he realizes she's real, others can see her, and she loves him without fail. One scene in which Calvin and his brother (Chris Messina) do tests to see if she is in fact a product of Calvin's mind is especially good.

But as we branch out outside Calvin's apartment, we start to see traits in other that Calvin has either written into Ruby or deliberately written out. When we meet his hippie mother (Annette Bening) and her wood-working boyfriend (Antonio Banderas), we see certain personality elements in mom that have made their way into Ruby. On the other hand, when Calvin runs into his ex-girlfriend (Deborah Ann Woll) at a party, we see that Ruby's claim that she's not much of a reader comes from the ex being too much of a reader and, by Calvin's standards, too involved in his writing career.

This is not the first time I've been this impressed by Kazan as an actor, but her ability to transform and fulfill certain needs that Calvin has as a result of his insecurities is astonishing. At the same time, her trips out into the world broaden her perspective (she has no idea she's a created person), and Calvin feels them drifting apart, leading to a series of "fine-tuning" episodes at the typewriter that are sometimes painful to watch. "If only I could change this one thing about someone, they would be perfect..." Not exactly. One particularly painful sequence comes after Ruby is caught flirting with Calvin's colleague (Steve Coogan), and there's a climactic moment where the film goes from tragic to borderline horrific.

Kazan's screenplay is sharp, witty and laced with just the right amount of psychological insight to allow the metaphor of the controlled person to work almost perfectly. Dayton and Faris do an admirable job keeping the film from getting bogged down in too much visual trickery and simply let the story unfold naturally, with just the right amount of magic. There's a very good chance you'll come out of this film truly hating Calvin, and I think that's OK. You don't have to like him to enjoy this movie. Plus, no one hates Calvin more than Calvin, so you'd really just be kicking a man when he's down. But maybe he deserves that too. The movie is smart and entertaining, and at the end of the day that's all I require. Ruby Sparks is now playing at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interviews with Ruby Sparks writer/star Zoe Kazan, star/producer Paul Dano, and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

Red Lights

A couple years back, writer-director Rodrigo Cortés made Buried, one of the most tense and claustrophobia-inducing films in recent memor. One could only wonder how this talented filmmaker was going to top himself, and wisely he doesn't seem to have tried exactly. Rather than keep his cinematic world small, Cortés has gone big with Red Lights, the story of a pair of paranormal activity debunkers who go head to head with the world's most well-known psychic, who went into seclusion after one of his biggest detractors died under mysterious circumstances.

The university-employed debunkers are played by Sigourney Weaver as Margaret Matheson and Cillian Murphy as Tom Buckley, and Cortés places them in the middle of a very creepy scenario right off the bat, which they immediately tear to shreds using science and logic (don't you hate party poopers like them?) The pair have a remarkable bond and friendship that doesn't seem to extend beyond the job, yet Tom's loyalty to Margaret is unwavering for reasons only he knows. When legendary psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) comes out of hiding, he starts making public appearances again, wowing the crowd with his powers. Immediately Tom and Margaret want to take a peak behind the curtain and debunk the one man they were never able to. Tom recruits a lovely student from Margaret's class (Elizabeth Olsen), and the team begin their work.

I don't want to say too much about where the story goes from here (if any critics go into details about the second half of the film, you should stop reading them because they're assholes), but I will say that Silver does agree to tests, the team secretly observes one of his performances looking for tells that trickery is afoot, and a big showdown is almost inevitable. There's a great scene between Murphy and De Niro in a rundown apartment building that turns up the tension significantly. But for the most part, Cortés is about the slow burn punctuated by insanity. The atmosphere of Red Lights seems intentionally heightened, like a '70s Italian horror film that is both supremely melodramatic and perfectly tempered, except when it's trying to scare the crap out of you.

In so many ways, this movie shouldn't work. De Niro is aiming just a little past the bleacher seats. Murphy seems frantic or psychotic for most of the film. And bizarre supporting performances from the likes of Joely Richardson and Toby Jones seem grossly underwritten, but there is something about the film that does work. I was impressed with the clinical, realistic approach the investigators take to their work, and how even the midst of what appears to be be ghosts and other characters stirring up trouble during a séance, for example, they keep their cool because they know exactly what's going on. If you're able to overlook a few minor bits of silliness, Red Lights is actually a lot of twisted fun.

Sacrifice

For simple elegance on a grand scale, one need go no further than the works of the great Chinese director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, Temptress Moon, The Emperor and the Assassin), whose latest work to reach our shores is Sacrifice, a tale of warring clans, loyalty, and putting country before self. This costume period piece shows us a time when the Zhao family had ruled over a particular as long as anyone could remember. But its rule is threatened when Tu'An Gu decides to eliminate every member of the Zhao clan, including newborns.

The one last Zhao baby is put into the care of the doctor (Ge You) who delivered it, and without meaning to, he gives up his own child for slaughter in an effort to save the Zhao child. Determined to make the best of this terrible situation, the doctor raises the child as his own, but as he gets older, he attracts the attention of Tu'an Gu, the man who would see him dead. Having brought the doctor and boy into his home, Tu'an Gu begins training the boy as a warrior while the doctor plots with the boy to have patience and eventually kill his parents' executioner when he's old enough to do so. Sacrifice as a few surprises up its sleeve as the boy grows to respect Tu'an Gu as a mentor and stops believing his father's stories about the warlord awful deeds, thus threatening the doctor's master plan.

Sacrifice is a visually stunning work that treats its moments of substantial violence as something poetic, bordering on lovely. The performances, especially by Ge You as the doctor, are tempered but often wrought with emotion. They are exquisite lessons in holding back, so that when they do unleash their verbal and physical violence, the raw power is devastating beyond words. And yes, Sacrifice gets pretty gory at times thanks to a whole lot of sword play. But I don't remember ever cringing at any of the wonderfully staged action sequences. The film is both sweeping and intimate, classical (set in 583 BC and modern day), and concludes with an ending that is both inevitable and still quite shocking. There's a type of perfection in a movie like this, and I hope you seek it out when it comes to a theater near you. The film opens in Chicago today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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