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Column Fri Apr 25 2014
Even if Detroit is a hpllowed-out, dilapidated version of its former self, at least for the foreseeable future it can serve as a modern dystopian location for all sorts of films, including Brick Mansions, an American remake of the energetic and enjoyable French actions District B13, which introduced many of us to David Belle, one of the founders of the action style known as parkour. As with the original, this film is working from a script by Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri, and is nearly an identical story of corruption, social injustice and lawlessness on both sides of the financial equation.
In this version of the story, set just a few years into the future, Belle plays Lino, who is determined to clean up the drugs and related bad behaviors in a walled-off section of Detroit called Brick Mansions (referred to the housing projects inside the walls). The criminal leader running the drug trade is Tremaine (RZA), and he's out for revenge against Lino after the self-appointed crime fighter steals a great deal of heroin from him and essentially flushes it. Using his incredible acrobatics, he escapes capture, but that only forces Tremaine to set his sights on Lino's ex-girlfriend Lola (Catalina Denis), whom he kidnaps and holds onto, waiting for Lino to come get her.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall, undercover cop Damien Collier (the late Paul Walker, to whom the film is dedicated) is making a name for himself catching high-level drug dealers of his own, which gets him an audience with the mayor for a special assignment. Turns out Tremaine has hijacked a powerful bomb that was just passing through Brick Mansions for no good reason, and it's set to explode in less than 12 hours. City officials want Damien to sneak into the the walled-off community and disarm the bomb... or do they? Naturally, our two heroes join forces through convoluted storytelling and their shared desire to take down Tremaine.
It's actually kind of adorable to think that the makers of Brick Mansions (led by first-time director Camille Delamarre, an editor on Besson-scripted and -produced films like Taken 2, Lockout, Colombiana and Transporter 3) actually believe anyone cares about their overblown plot, with every character trying to out-badass each other. The mission is simple: bring us as much unbelievable action as humanly possible, and it's entirely likely we'll forgive your lapses in sense and intelligence. But Brick Mansions insists on tossing in generic baddies, clichéd corrupt politicians and fairly run-of-the-mill action sequences (outside of the parkour). The cumulative effect is fairly disappointing. I'm not just saying this because this film was the last one he actually completed before his untimely demise, but Paul Walker is the obvious highlight in a film that otherwise seems like a competition for Worst Actor in an Action Movie. He brings an intensity and knowing to his character, who can't quite match Lino jump for insane jump, but still gives it a try with often disastrous results.
Most of the dialogue is laugh-out-loud awful, and scenes designed to be tense fall apart into dust before they generate any heat. I'm certainly giving the film points for continuing to give Belle a place to choreograph and execute his unique physical talents, but beyond that, there isn't much to recommend about Brick Mansions aside from its obvious legacy, and maybe that's enough. It just wasn't for me. But it does make me crave Walker's final Fast & Furious film even more.
The Other Woman
With almost no exceptions, there is nothing enjoyable about watching other people pretend to have fun in a movie. If anything, it reminds you that what the characters on screen are doing is so much more entertaining that what you've been up to in your life lately. My personal favorite example of this is watching people in a film at an amusement park. How does it make my life any more exciting watching people on a roller coaster? I'm sure you have your own example. Lately in some romantic comedies or other films that think they're appealing to women, this idea that people would get some pleasure out of watching women get together, drink, try on dresses, do each other's hair, and put on makeup is infuriating. And if you do get a kick out of watching actors in a movie that doesn't star you do this, I can't help you. I'm not saying that these activities can't be fun if you do them yourselves (like me and my girlfriends do), but how is watching others do it entertainment?
Welcome to The Other Woman from director Nick Cassavetes (let that sink in for a minute), the filmmaker who brought us The Notebook, She's So Lovely and My Sister's Keeper, a film that actually does have a story that could have been made into a relevant statement about cheating men, but instead decides to focus its attentions on women united by a single penis getting drunk, screaming and acting generally slap-happy at all times.
The alleged plot of The Other Woman involves corporate lawyer Carly (Cameron Diaz), who has been dating Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of Mama and "Game of Thrones") for a couple of months and thinks this great guy might be something special. She's stopped dating all other men, so that should tell you something. We find out slightly before Carly does that Mr. Perfect is actually married to Kate (Leslie Mann of This Is 40 and The Bling Ring), and when Carly decides to surprise Mark at his home one night and Kate answers the door, Kate figures a few things out for herself and has a colossal meltdown. She loses her perspective so much that she shows up at Carly's house to find out just how bad the problem really is, and in the process they get loaded, try on shoes and clothes, and bond over the fact that the same man screwed them over. Revenge seems like the only option, followed quickly by divorce.
While digging into Mark's professional and extracurricular life as an arranger of start-up companies and a chronic adulterer, the women find out that he has yet another mistress, Amber (supermodel Kate Upton), whom they naturally approach and recruit into their plot to hurt Mark where it will crush him the most. While the film sets itself up as a wacky comedy about three women done wrong, there's something really sad and sexist going on here. The screenplay (by Melissa K. Stack) seems determined to make sure all of the women end up with a man, so random unnecessary male character are introduced to make sure that happens, and it seriously clutters the film. Oh look, there's Don Johnson as Carly's womanizing dad, and hey, there Taylor Kinney as Kate's handsome contractor brother. Really?
It hurt me to watch these three capable (to varying degrees) women seemingly toss away whatever they do with the rest of their lives to focus on this bastard of a man. But it feels dishonest to paint each of the women as hapless victims, especially Carly, who seems to be the most experienced on the dating/sex scene, yet she refuses to be a home-wrecker by dating a married man. I'm not questioning her morals about being a certified mistress; it's more about the fact that she'd want such nasty revenge on a guy who lied to her about it, because in the dating world, lying NEVER happens. Pretty much ever step of this film feels like overcompensating.
While I was certainly happy to see Mark get the screws put to him, the method of revenge is telegraphed from the first moment we meet Kate, when Mark asks her to sign some business documents about companies that are clearly being run in her name. Gee, I wonder if that will come into play in the third act? I'd actually like to think I'd be able to have fun in a film about seeking vengeance on a cheating spouse. A truly dark, nasty comedy on the subject could be a great deal of fun. But The Other Woman is not that film. It wants it all — the laughs, the giddy-girl fun time, the romantic-comedy vibe, and the revenge sting. What it is instead is a screechy mess, a film that thinks people talking over each other passes for comedy, or that long-legged, beautiful women trying to run or creep around in high heels is funny. This is an abysmal time at the movies, and I hope women around the world rise up and defy works like this once and for all, not only because it's insulting but because it's in no way entertaining. I'd be happy to lead the male contingent.
If hearing the character name Alan Partridge does nothing for you, you've been missing a vital part of your comedy education for the past 20 years or so. On and off through various BBC-TV series and special, the great performer Steve Coogan (recently Oscar nominated for co-writing Philomena, in which he also starred) has been inhabiting the role of the self-centered radio host Alan Partridge, who seems to specialize in making those around him and audience members recoil with awkwardness. He's the personification of the lovable twat whom you'd never want to spend time with, but you can't take your eyes off of him. An now Partridge is being featured for the first time in his own eponymous feature film that is as biting and inappropriate as we've come to expect from this character. But if you've never been exposed to this egomaniacal creature, consider this an excellent jumping in point from which you will work backwards.
Working with frequent collaborators, director Declan Lowney and co-screenwriters Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, "Veep"), Peter Baynham, Neil Gibbons, and Rob Gibbons, Coogan brings us a version of Partridge that is at a point of change in his life. He's working at a mid-size radio station that is in the midst of being taken over by a media giant that is plotting sweeping changes, including the name of the station and some staff cuts. When Alan finds out that the big wigs have narrowed the on-air cuts to himself and his best friend Pat (Colm Meaney), Alan lobbies hard for his own self interests, and Pat is given the sack.
Naturally unhappy with the decision, Pat leaves, grabs a shotgun and comes back to the station, taking everyone hostage and beginning his own radio show, using Alan (not knowing his role in his firing) as his go-between with the negotiators outside and as his spirited co-host. When Alan realizes the amount of publicity he's getting in this dual role, he naturally lets it go to his head and does what he can to extend the stand-off while getting maximum exposure for himself as the would-be hero of the day. Alan Partridge is classic Coogan, in the same way that his more recent films The Trip and the forthcoming sequel The Trip to Italy are perfect examples of what Coogan is capable of today. In both cases, the characters that he has brilliantly created are so convincingly dickish that you utterly believe that they reflect what Coogan is like in real life.
There's an exceptional collection of fun actors surrounding Coogan in Alan Partridge, many playing fellow DJs whom both Alan and Pat can't stand. There are young, hipster morning-zoo types who openly mock Pat's more mellow overnight show. And naturally there are the new bosses who Pat has no problem openly abusing as his prisoners. The film doesn't ever truly make it feel like Pat is an actual killer, but he's just enough of a headcase that he might hurt someone accidentally, in particular Tim Key as Alan's sidekick Simon, on whose head Pat has constructed a device to hold a shotgun in place. It sounds horrifying, but it's actually quite funny.
For those who have never seen Coogan play Partridge before, some of the physical comedy in the show might seen slightly low brow (a bit in which Alan attempts to escape and loses his pants in the process comes to mind), but even in those moments, there's something deeper and smarter at hand than you might realize. Either way, it's funny as hell. It's rare to see an actor so clearly at home and in his element on the big screen the way Coogan is playing Alan Partridge, but he's spent a couple of decades fine tuning this goofy creature. You could compare it to seeing an actor who has played a particular Shakespearean character for years finally bring that performance to the screen. Yeah, it's pretty much exactly the same.
As you watch Alan Partridge, you'll grow to hate the man but love the character and its creator, and you'll likely want more (might I suggest The Steve Coogan Collection?). I'll admit, my love for this character could easily cloud my judgement on the film, but after seeing it for the first time last October, I watched it again recently, and I'm fairly certain I laughed even harder the second time. It's a smart comedy about idiotic people, and you'll laugh at the chaos and irreverence on display. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
On My Way
There's no denying that Catherine Deneuve is one of the greatest living actors the world currently possesses, not just because she's a talented performer but also because she has consistently aligned herself with some of the most artistically daring filmmakers, going back to her early work with Jacques Demy, Roman Polanski, Luis Buñuel, and François Truffaut to more recent works by André Téchiné, Leos Carax, Lars von Trier, François Ozon and Arnaud Desplechin. I'd even argue that the 70-year-old Deneuve's acting and choices have gotten bolder and better as she's gotten older.
Her latest work to be released in the United States will likely not be added to the pantheon of great films she has been a part of, but it's certainly not because of any lack of effort on Deneuve's part. On My Way is the story of former beauty queen and current restauranteur Bettie, whose establishment in her hometown of Brittany is in financial trouble. When she finds out that her current lover has left her for his pregnant girlfriend, she has a bit of a meltdown, hops in the car and drives to get her head on straight... but then she keeps driving, deep into the French countryside.
Directed and co-written by actor-turned-filmmaker Emmanuelle Bercot, On My Way feels like stream-of-consciousness filmmaking, with Bettie going from place to place, meeting new people, old friends, family members, and revisiting events in her life that make her both joyful and mournful for a lost time. It's a brutal blow when she realizes she may have hit her emotional peak at around age 20. Been there, sister.
The film turns into a fairly standard-issue road trip experience, especially once Bettie picks up her pre-teen grandson Charly (Nemo Schiffman). He asks her the tough questions about her life that no one else will because he doesn't know it's impolite to do so, but it forces her to come to grips with a few tough things about the absentee way she's experienced her life. A reunion with her estranged grown daughter Muriel (Camille) and a first-time meeting with Charly's paternal grandfather Alain (Gérard Garouste) toward the end of the film, change the course of Bettie's life once again, to the point where I began to wonder why I should bother getting invested in her at all, since she seems to find new meaning in her life with the conviction of a stiff breeze changing direction.
I love that Bettie is a woman who hasn't given up on love and passion in her life, but her propensity to act on impulse and be fickle about her feelings toward people will likely do more to alienate her from audiences than make us empathize about her confusion. Ironically, it's the very elements of Bettie that make her like most human beings that also make her infuriating as a film character, and make On My Way let us down as a movie. Deneuve injects so much life into every character she plays — and Bettie is no exception — but with writing and motivation this scattered, it's hard to appreciate the film that surround her. The movie opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Back in 2007, I watched a lovely, poingnant, and serene documentary called Manufactured Landscapes, from director Jennifer Baichwal, who went around the globe with photographer Edward Burtynsky, who sought out changes in landscapes due to industrial work and manufacturing. Years later, Baichwal and Burtynsky have reunited for Watermark, a film that isn't so much about water conversation, but more about our relationship with water all over the world. It's about how humans consume, honor, destroy, control and just generally interact with water, using stunning images of the planet's various man-made and natural structures that guide water.
We see the construction of a dam in China that will dwarf the Hoover Dam; ancient step wells in Rajasthan; a massive bathing ceremony in the Ganges River where millions walk into the water to cleanse themselves; terrible, flagrant polluting going on near tanneries in Bangladesh; vast rice paddies being irrigated; and perhaps most shockingly, a dried up Colorado River, which used to go to the ocean, but no loner. The film isn't trying to ply us with facts and figures, but instead fills our eyes with lush or shocking images in the hopes of having these pictures seer into our brains and never be forgotten. More than anything, the film makes us realize that the relationship human have with water is one that comes with a price, and today the bill is due.
Watermark does incorporate some interviews into the mix, but largely they are with people who are the most impacted by the various uses and abuses of water on display. For example, an elderly Native American woman voices her outrage at a government that promised the Colorado River was not in any danger of being drained, but once it was, no federal officials were there with answers. Without having a running theme of protest or politicking, this stirring work simply provides the audience with image after image of these excesses in water usage — both good and bad — and allows us to make up our own minds about what to do next during future encounters with large quantities of water (oh, hello Lake Michigan). The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.
Watermark director Jennifer Baichwal is scheduled to appear for a post-screening Q&A after the 7:20pm screenings on Friday, April 25 and Saturday, April 26.
If it's humanly possible, I see every documentary I can get my hands on, and a great number of them present some spectacular information via the usual talking-head interviews, observational camera work, narration, statistics, archival footage — you know how this works. And then every so often, something slightly odd and wonderful and experimental is attempted in the documentary world. It's rarely something we've seen before, and it doesn't always work, but I have to give people points for trying to take the familiar and shakes things up a bit.
Case in point, there is the new film Teenage , which reveals something I didn't know: the group of young people known and classified as "teenagers" wasn't always a thing. Sure, there were always kinds in the teens, but that's not what the film is talking about. "Teenagers" as a concept and culture (and often counter-culture) was a gradual invention of the late 1800s through the mid-1940s that was created for several reasons — marketing and easy societal organization among them. The way director Matt Wolf (Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell) demonstrates this cultural shift is using entirely archival material and diary entries read by actors like Ben Whishaw, Alden Ehrenreich and Jena Malone, each of whom read the private thoughts of American, English and German teens during various times in recent history, covering the era of Flappers, Swing Kids, Sub-Debs and even Nazi Youth.
Wolf based Teenage on the book by punk author Jon Savage, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875-1945, and the film succinctly and convincingly lays out the evolution of this societal shift, which seemed to culminate (at least in America) with "A Young Person's Bill of Rights," which includes among its many edicts the most important "I have a right to be encouraged to grow to maturity at my own pace." The film shows that this wasn't always the case, as children were forced to work at young ages, making them grow up much sooner than many were ready to.
The way the movie is pieced together almost resembles moving newspaper stories that give example after example of the birth of the modern teenager. It's an eye-opening examination of a time and phenomenon that I'm guessing today's young people couldn't care less about, but still might find interesting how similar their gripes with parents and other authority figures are with turn-of-the-century teens. It's a fascinating profile told in a unique and inspired manner that admirers of documentaries will likely enjoy, and those who were once teenagers will probably find moments of familiarity throughout. The film opens in Chicago today at the AMC River East theaters.