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Column Fri Dec 21 2012

This is 40, The Impossible, Jack Reacher, The Guilt Trip, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away & Scrooge & Marley

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When you strip away the jokes (and I'm not suggest in any way that you do that; the film is extraordinarily funny), This is 40 is about the results of bad parenting and the daily struggle not to be a bad parent. Both lead characters, Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann), supporting players in Apatow's Knocked Up, come from broken homes. Pete's father (played magnificently by Albert Brooks) is a world-class mooch, borrowing tens of thousands of dollars from his son so he can support his relatively new family that includes triplet toddlers. He levels guilt trips on his son that belong in the hall of fame for guilt trips (I firmly believe such a place exists). While Debbie's long-absent dad (John Lithgow) left when she was young and has made infrequent stops into her life every seven or eight years. Amid all of the spousal dismay over money, sex, aging, child rearing, etc., it's the details about these parent/grown child relationships that I found myself most drawn into.

When you strip away the jokes (and I'm not suggest in any way that you do that; the film is extraordinarily funny), This is 40 is about the results of bad parenting and the daily struggle not to be a bad parent. Both lead characters, Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann), supporting players in Apatow's Knocked Up, come from broken homes. Pete's father (played magnificently by Albert Brooks) is a world-class mooch, borrowing tens of thousands of dollars from his son so he can support his relatively new family that includes triplet toddlers. He levels guilt trips on his son that belong in the hall of fame for guilt trips (I firmly believe such a place exists). While Debbie's long-absent dad (John Lithgow) left when she was young and has made infrequent stops into her life every seven or eight years. Amid all of the spousal dismay over money, sex, aging, child rearing, etc., it's the details about these parent/grown child relationships that I found myself most drawn into.

Pete and Debbie seem to life a fairly comfortable California life. Peter has moved on from the record label he used to work for to starting his own retro-focused indie label (with co-workers like Lena Dunham and Chris O'Dowd, you could work in a worse place). He's recently arranged to put out the new album by the reunited Graham Parker and the Rumor, and it's not exactly setting the world on fire. Still, the jokes at Parker's expense are pretty hilarious. Debbie owns a clothing boutique, staffed by the likes of Charlyne Yi and Megan Fox, but Debbie suspects one of them has been stealing a whole lot of cash from the business.

Pete and Debbie still have two daughters (played by Apatow siblings Maude and Iris), and what's fascinating to notice is how different the girls' senses of humor are from each other. The older, Maude, is becoming a great actress; her tantrums laced with every four-letter word in the book are the stuff of legend. While Iris is more the straight-up joke teller. But their personal dramas (school bullies, living without certain technology to help the family save money) are in many ways a reflection of what is going on between their parents, who seem to bob and weave between deep understanding and affection for each other and outright rage.

This Is 40 is peppered with wonderful lines that seem to sum up their relationship for better or worse. A pillow talk moment where both agree that Pete is a dick. ("People think I'm so nice, but I'm such a dick," Pete says with a knowing grin.) Or the dismissive way Debbie talks about Pete when a girlfriend wonders if Debbie is worried about having the Megan Fox character work in such close proximity to her husband. "He wouldn't know what to do with that," she counters. Ouch! It's bizarre that a conversation Pete has with his best friend (Robert Smigel) about fantasizing about their wives dying (peacefully, of course) is one of the least disturbing moments in the movie.

But the film succeeds and shows Apatow maturing as a filmmakers through smaller, more dramatic scenes such as Debbie trying in a small way to seduce her husband and him accidentally rejecting her because he's so preoccupied with his failing business. Another scene has Debbie at lunch with her father flipping through the photos of his new family on his phone while he's away from the table. The look on her face tells the whole sad story. But there are signs that Pete and Debbie are destined to be together, the best example of which is when they team up in a school meeting against the parent (Melissa McCarthy) of a boy who is cyber-bullying their eldest. They essentially lie their way through the meeting, but it works and McCarthy is made to look like she has raised a devil child in the process. After this victory, rather than celebrate, Pete and Debbie simply go to their respective cars. It's a sobering moment.

I don't mean to paint a picture of This Is 40 that makes it seem heavy and sad. There are a few moments like that, but mostly it's the kind of smart, observant humor that we've come to expect from Apatow. He's a master of having the casting do much of the work for him, although appearances by Jason Segel (reprising his Knocked Up role as well) as Debbie's trainer or Michael Ian Black as the family accountant don't really pay off. But those of small parts of a much larger, well-executed comedy about a serious subject.

What the film isn't really about is age. Sure there are a few gags about Debbie lying about her age so often she's completely lost track of what age she's given to which people. But once the film gets past that tried-and-tested concept, it has much more interesting things to say about feeling old versus being old. There's a great sequence where Debbie goes out with Fox's character, Desi, to a club, and she meets a hockey player who clearly has a crush on her. It's a sweet, harmless scene despite the fact that the player is trying to sleep with her. And it's a great play on the feeling we get when someone shows an interest in us even though we're well aware we won't let it go beyond flirting.

The honesty in a moment like that is what sets This Is 40 apart. Pete eats too many sweets; Debbie sneaks cigarettes. They make vows to each other to quit and break them almost immediately. That's how relationships work — they ebb and flow and exist on a bed of little white lies, a couple of big secrets, and the wisdom to know when the truth can be your best friend and when it will destroy your very existence. Apatow has lived the kind of life where he can speak on these subjects knowingly and give us a sense of what this life is like if we haven't lived it ourselves. The film is as silly as it is important in the realm of relationship comedies. Not all of the observations ring true (the way the film wraps up the relationship between Debbie and her father is almost unforgivably quaint), but in the arena of comedy, no other film this year gets as many of the details this right.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with This Is 40 writer-director Judd Apatow.

The Impossible

Manipulative? Pulling hard on the heart strings? Check and check. Culturally insensitive by substituting a white family for the Spanish family these events actually happened to? Or because it barely acknowledges the Thai citizens who were killed or uprooted as a result of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami? I would argue this isn't their story, and I would say that the only way this movie could make any money is by front-loading it with recognizable actors such as Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, both of whom give spectacularly heart-wrenching performances. I'm not saying it was the best decision, but I'm certainly not going to dismiss an entire movie for anything other than what's on the screen. And what's on the screen during The Impossible is raw, unguarded emotion in the face of unspeakable disaster and the hideous power that not knowing can have.

Maria, Henry and their three kids are on Christmas vacation at a high-end beachfront resort in Thailand. There's a small scene near the beginning of the film where Henry (McGregor) tells Maria (Watts) that he fears he might lose his job (the family lives in Japan for his work), and that they might have to move "back home" so he can keep working. The smallest of disagreements begins between the couple, but they agree to table the discussion for later. The scene is fascinating because it reveals that for a brief moment, the couple thinks that this mini-fight is the worst thing that is going to happen to them on this trip. And then, the day after Christmas, the ocean rolls in for a visit.

Writer Sergio Sanchez and director Juan Antonio Bayona (the pair made the wonderful ghost story The Orphanage five years ago) divide up the movie cleverly. For roughly the first half of the story, we follow Maria and the oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland, who played "Billy Elliot" on the London stage for several years) as they get swept away by the initial tidal wave and pushed deep inland, attempting to avoid deadly debris and drowning while still holding onto each other. Eventually the deluge ends, but their journey is just beginning as it is revealed that Maria has a deep, scary wound on the back of her leg. In a strange and sincere moment, Lucas first sees his mom's injuries and calls out to her. When she turns around, she reveals that her shirt has torn partially away, revealing one of her breasts. The embarrassment on Holland's face is so genuine that you can't help feel for the kid who can barely process what's happening.

Eventually the pair land in a barely functioning hospital with her leg wounds even worse, and suddenly I realized that although the film's trailers reveal that the entire family survives the initial tsunami, I had no idea whether they lived long enough to find each other. At about the halfway point of the film, we change perspectives and find out what happened to Henry and the other two, younger boys. Henry is on a never-ending struggle to find his wife and Lucas. He eventually ships the younger boys to a children's shelter while he continues his frustrating search. There's a great moment where he gets a hold of a functioning cellphone to call Maria's parents, and he simply breaks down in tears as he's finally able to speak about the horrific event he's just survived, having no idea whether the rest of his family is living or dead.

I'll leave the plot synopsis at this point, but simply say that the entire film builds beautifully to a second giant wave — this one made up of the audience's collective tears. The Impossible is not the most devastating story that could have been told; it's simply the story that the filmmakers came across about people using every ounce of courage and strength to find their loved one, because to give up the search would let in such terrible feelings into their hearts. Watts is especially impressive, battling all manner of wounds, exhaustion, and possible heartbreak at the thought that the rest of her family is gone forever. For me, the title of the film refers to the odds of me being able to take my eyes off of Watts as she builds this strong female character as said character gets physically weaker.

Lest I be accused of downplaying the impact that the initial tsunami sequence will have on you, rest assured, you will have nightmares about it for weeks to come. I can't wrap my brain around the sheer will- and lung-power it must have taken to survive something like that, and Bayona's crew has created a visual and sound landscape that puts you right there in the water with Watts as she slams into cars, trees, random pointed or sharp objects that scratch and pierce her skin. It creeps across my skin just thinking about it. But it's the quieter, more thoughtful moments that drive this story home and give it its undeniable power. You may resent the filmmakers getting to you by using such obvious and time-tested methods, but as God as my witness, they will get to you and likely make you weep. You may curse them for this, but you'll hug your kids or other loved ones of choice a little tighter the first chance you get. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with The Impossible director Juan Antonio Bayona, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Jack Reacher

Right off the bat, I'll admit I don't know a thing about author Lee Chidl's series of books featuring the ex-military investigator known as Jack Reacher. As a result, I don't give a damn about whether this fictional character is written as a six-and-a-half-foot-tall small house of a man, or a little stick of short-fused dynamite named Tom Cruise. Going into Jack Reacher, I was curious to see if Cruise could pull off an action character that was significantly different than the ones he's played in so many other films, particularly the Mission: Impossible movies. And I'm happy to report that Reacher is nothing like Ethan Hunt. Whereas Hunt is gadgeted to the teeth, sleek and endlessly confident, Reacher is a rough-around-the-edges soldier who has few social graces and a fighting style that requires as little movement on this part as possible. He's a trained killer who has spent most of his career going after other trained killers. He's just a little better at his job.

The film begins with the assassination of a seemingly random number of citizens out in the middle of the day for their lunch. A suspect is picked up who seems beyond guilty, and he scribbles down a note to the police that have him — "Get Jack Reacher." — before he slips into a coma. But no sooner has the District Attorney (Richard Jenkins) started trying to track down Reacher, then the man himself strolls into his office to figure out why this total stranger summoned him.

What surprised me most about Jack Reacher wasn't just the economic filmmaking and action sequences that come at the hands of adaptor/director Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun and writer of The Usual Suspects) but also the time devoted to actually solving the many mysteries unveiled during this course of the investigation. What especially fascinating about Cruise's take on Reacher is two-fold: he's got a dry, dark sense of humor and he seems completely devoid in social pleasantries, especially when dealing with the murder suspect's lawyer, Helen (Rosamund Pike), who just happens to be the DA's daughter. David Oyelowo is also on hand as the lead investigating detective in the mass murder case.

Reacher's own investigation brings him into the company of some of the most interesting villains I've seen in quite some time, including Jai Courtney as the button man for a criminal leader named The Zec, played by the incomparable director (and occasional actor) Werner Herzog, who just looks horribly strung out in every scene he's in. The film's cast takes part and/or is the victim of some fairly shocking levels of brutal violence that is in no way glorified. McQuarrie has made the decision to go this route, and the results are unlike most studio action films. One last cast member who must be mentioned is Robert Duvall as Cash, a gun store owner who is something of a kindred spirit to Reacher and is certainly the closest thing Reacher has to a soulmate (or perhaps a glimpse into his future). Their scenes are probably my favorite in the film.

Jack Reacher isn't exactly breaking new ground; if anything, it's taking a few steps back and remembering how basic a fight scene or chase sequence can get and still be wonderfully effective. There's something refreshingly old school about director McQuarrie's visuals, Cruise's acting choices, and Duvall and Herzog just being plain-old badass. This isn't the best of the holiday offerings, but it might be the best action flick of the season.

The Guilt Trip

Now I know there are a few of you out there who are ready to heap a whole lot of derision onto this mother-son road trip film from the director of The Proposal, and if you really have your heart set on going that route, I won't stop you. The Guilt Trip isn't a great movie, there's no disputing that, but if you really want to take a dump on an end-of-year "comedy," please wait a week. I'll say no more. But this harmless whelp of a movie starring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand as Andy and Joyce Brewster at least has a few laughs and more than a few rather poignant revelations about how we treat our parents and why. I know, right? It took me by surprise too, especially how infrequently Rogen lets loose with one of his patented chuckles. The film gets downright serious for brief moments, and I was surprised at how well these two worked together.

Andy is a chemist who has invented a cleaning product that is both made with non-toxic, organic elements and works better than standard cleaners. He sets up a series of meetings across the country, starting with New York and ending in Las Vegas. While in New York, he spends a few days with his mother where she coddles him, puts him on display for her friends, and treats him like he's somewhere in the neighborhood of 13-15 years old. During one particularly personal conversation, Joyce admits that she fell in love with a man before Andy's long-dead father, but that fate kept them apart (the other man's name was also Andy, which is just wrong). With a little digging, Andy finds out that his namesake is living in San Francisco, and he concocts an excuse to both take his trip to that city and drag his mother along for his business trip so she can be reunited with her former love. What could go wrong? Hilarity ensues.

OK, most of the jokes come from the most obvious places. Joyce tells stories about Andy as a youngster, ruins his pitch meetings by being too chatty, and has oodles of worthless advice. You may notice a pattern here: Joyce never shuts up. And if there's one overwhelming terrible thing about The Guilt Trip it's that Streisand lets prattling on pass as humor a few too many million times. Rogen, on the other hand, seem to substitute general fuming at his mother's behavior for actual jokes, but at least that's a change of pace for him. I'll admit, I'm always rooting for Streisand to come back in a serious way to films. At least here, she isn't playing the cartoonish Jewish mother she does in the Meet the Parents/Fockers movies. There are a few more layers to her character in this work, but only a few.

There are some interesting/curious cameos from the likes of Colin Hanks, Yvonne Strahovski, Kathy Najimy, and Adam Scott that at least keep the scenery from getting too boring, and I liked the way the filmmakers wrapped things up in a slightly more believable way than most lame comedies that come out during the holiday season. The Guilt Trip is more or less safe to take the parents or grandparents to see, even though Babs is the one to drop the single F-bomb in this PG-13-rated wonderment. Basically, if you're thinking about checking out a film with the elders in the next week or so, and you don't think they can handle the sadness of Les Miserables, then The Guilt Trip should do the trick.

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away

One could make a case (and look at me doing so) that Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away is the finest and most legitimate use of 3-D since the format came back into style thanks to Avatar. Now please realize that I'm talking about the nature of the work — as opposed to the quality — being well suited to the format. But the truth is, I had a blast watching Worlds Away, a sort of Greatest Hits of the Cirque's Las Vegas productions, including O, , Zumanity, Viva Elvis, Believe, Mystère, and even the Beatles tribute show Love.

The thread that brings these incredible productions in one movie is the "story" of Mia (Erica Linz), a woman who is drawn to a circus that has come to town and has different acts in various test. In the first tent, she spots The Aerialist (a trapeze artist played by Igor Zaripov), but when he vanishes after he falls from on high, she goes from tent to tent searching for him. In each tent is a different production, and after Mia checks if anyone has seen her aerialist, she watches their little show and moves on. But man, what about these shows. I've never actually seen a Cirque du Soleil production in person, but these brilliantly conceived, technically perfect performances are inspirational. And while the filmmakers don't often throw things at the camera, the scope and massive spaces involved in each show lend themselves brilliant to the depth of field advantages of 3-D.

Is the entire conceit behind Cirque du Soleil ridiculous? I guess some cynical bastards out there might think so, but for those of us who still get a thrill from awe-inspiring acrobatics, tricks of perception and gravity, and beautiful women in skintight body stockings, Worlds Away seems to fit the bill quite nicely. I'm not even sure how you review a film like this. I can't exactly describe each set piece — that would be boring — but I can tell you that director Andrew Adamson (James Cameron is listed as executive producer, and I'm guessing his camera had a lot to do with this film getting made) tends to keep his direction simple, concentrating on getting as much of the image on screen and maintaining the massive scale of each performance. The artistry and athleticism fill the screen, and the 3-D makes it pop. If you're willing to open your mind, you likely have a great time with this unique wok.

Scrooge & Marley

I'll be honest, I get so many amateur-hour films slipped to me in the course of the year, I hardly have the chance to watch any of them. But every so often, something about the description of one of these films intrigues me to the point where I can't resist popping it in and checking out the first 15 minutes. Well, I'm happy to report that 90 minutes after curiosity got the best of me with Scrooge & Marley, the film is a silly, warm-hearted re-imagining of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (still one of my all-time favorite stories) in which pretty much every character with lines is gay.

The product of co-directors Peter Neville and Richard Knight Jr. (also a co-writer and -star) and starring a bevy of mostly Chicago actors, the story of Scrooge & Marley is left largely untouched from its source material. What's different is that Scrooge (called Ben and played by David Pevsner) is an old gay man who hasn't had much love in his life as the owner of a cabaret club (called Screws). He doesn't believe any of his employees deserve raises, nor does he care that his most loyal worker, Bob Cratchit (David Moretti) deserves health care for him, his partner, or their half-dozen adopted kids. Scrooge's niece and her girlfriend want to love him, but he thinks they're after his money. You get the idea.

Things pick up in terms of both poignancy and laughs when the ghosts enter the picture, starting with Scrooge's old business partner, Jacob Marley (the terrific Tim Kazurinsky), who has recently discovered that helping others (even as a ghost) helps him relinquish the many chains that wrap him from years of taking advantage of poor mistrusting fools like his and Scrooge's old mentor Fezziwig (Bruce Vilanch, whose Muppet-like features tend to scare me). The other ghosts — Ronnie Kroell as the flamboyant Randy, the Ghost of Christmas Past, Megan Cavanagh as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the downright freaky Jojo Baby's Ghost of Christmas Future — add such great twists to their characters that you can't help but be thoroughly amused and entertained after having seen so many straight-forward takes on the material.

As I said, the film has all the marks (and a few of the trappings) of a homemade production. But every effort is made to make the most of small budgets and limited sets, and the result is a charming, often hilarious. There are a few risque cabaret numbers to flesh out the proceedings from Knight and Becca Kaufman, but it's Dickens' story that also takes precedent and carries the film through some of its rougher spots. The film's only agenda is promoting fun, love, and holiday spirit. And if you get the chance to see it with an audience, I'd imagine that's the best way to experience this little slice of queer magic.

I believe Scrooge & Marley is actually available on DVD already, but screenings are happening around the country this holiday season as well. Details on both can be found at Scroogeandmarleymovies.com.

The film playing in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, Dec. 21st at 8:15pm, Saturday, Dec. 22nd at 7:45pm, and Thursday, Dec. 27th at 7:45pm. On Friday, Dick O'Day (Knight's alter ego) and Becca Kaufman, the comedy cabaret duo The Show Biz Kids, who appear in the film, will lead the audience in a rousing 10-minute holiday sing-a-long prior to the screening. On Saturday, cast member Rusty Schwimmer will join O'Day for another round of holiday sing-a-long prior to the screening.

 
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