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Column Fri Jun 20 2014

Jersey Boys, Think Like a Man Too, The Rover & Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case


Jersey Boys

I was talking to a friend recently about Purple Rain, a film I hold very near and dear to my heart while still recognizing (now more so than ever) its deep, deep flaws. During the conversation, I admitted that after a few months of fast forwarding through the story to get to the live performances, I eventually edited together a version of the film that was nothing but the musical moments and subsequently wore out that tape in short order. I hadn't really thought about having done that until watching director Clint Eastwood's adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical Jersey Boys, because I realized after one viewing that if I ever watched it again, I would have to be able to skip through the energy-free story to get to the stunning music sections.

I never saw the stage version of Jersey Boys for the simple reason that I'm not a fan of musicals that take the greatest hits of a band and manufacture a story around the songs (I'm looking at you Mamma Mia, Movin' Out, We Will Rock You and I guess Rock of Ages; I'll give American Idiot a slight pass only because it's based on a concept album that essentially was one story set to music). But Jersey Boys always intrigued me because it was the only one of these types of musicals whose plot was the actual story of the group whose music they were using — sort of a biopic on stage. So converting it to the big screen didn't seem like that much of a stretch, and I truly love the music of The Four Seasons and their front man, Frankie Valli.

Most of the film's lead actors come from some version of the stage show, including the remarkable John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony for playing Valli, as well as Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi (bass and vocal arrangements), Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio (keyboards and lead songwriter), and Renée Marino as Valli's volatile and frustrated wife Mary. Key to the cast is "Boardwalk Empire" featured player Vincent Piazza as group founder Tommy DeVito. Tommy is his own worst enemy, preferring shady deals and massive overspending to playing it straight or risk losing any power in the group.

The story is fairly typical of many bands that rose up from nothing and became international superstars while they were still in their 20s. In fact, the story is so familiar, it feels a bit stale as we have to endure band fights, inflated egos, bad business deals, troubles at home, and the perks of the job gone awry. Some of the more unique elements of The Four Seasons have to do with their connections to the mob, given to us in the form of Gyp DeCarlo (a real made man brought to life by a spirited Christopher Walken). The language in Jersey Boys is rather salty, easily pushing it into R-rated territory. But even this twist to the story isn't enough to make the non-musical moments especially interesting.

Even director Eastwood seems less interested in the rise-to-success part of the story than he is in staging the musical numbers (all done with live vocals), which don't have a lot of flash, but at least he has the common sense to let the songs play from beginning to end. But the screenplay from the musical's book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice resorts to one tired "Behind the Music" cliche after another, and even if it's all factually accurate, it feels like a template.

Aside from John Lloyd Young's singing, other elements that do shine include some fun moments of discovery in the studio, scenes early in the film showing the group coming together in between smalltime heists committed by DeVito and his crew, as well as some great dramatic scenes of the band falling apart near the end of the movie. I also liked the bittersweet recreation of The Four Seasons' induction into and performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. (Although why Valli's work on the theme song from Grease was excluded from this story, I'll never understand.)

To put it simply, there's a much-needed spark missing from Jersey Boys that all the yelling and swearing doesn't quite make up for. Even the scenes with music aren't that special, but the music is so good, they feel better than they actually are visually. I don't tend to speculate on things like this, but the film feels like a payday for Eastwood, something he has very little personal connection to. The result is watching good actors go through the motions. Perhaps the worst decision the filmmakers made was to include fourth-wall-breaking narrations, traded off by all of the Four Seasons depending on where we are in their story and who moves to the forefront of the episode being told. There is literally nothing given to us by a narration that couldn't have been dealt with by adding one or two lines of dialogue during a given scene.

And then there's that weird ending. Don't worry, this isn't a spoiler, but there's essentially a curtain call for every actor who appears in the film. Everyone is singing and dancing in the street together, and when the song is over, they all freeze in place... for a long time... as if waiting for applause that will never come. I think that sums up my feelings about Jersey Boys perfectly. If you're still interested in the film, go buy the soundtrack album — it's like a highlights reel without all the Italian stereotypes and music industry cliches.

Think Like A Man Too

When is a sequel to a fairly profitable comedy not really a sequel at all? Let's take a look at Think Like A Man Too, which effectively jettisons all of things that make 2012's Think Like A Man work, and throws the exact same cast into a standard-issue, paint-by-numbers Vegas adventure that doesn't even have the balls to dabble in some risqué behavior thanks to its commitment to a PG-13 rating. The first film was about the comforts of same-sex friendships and the perils of opposite-sex couplings, with riffs on both being largely inspired by Steve Harvey's comically inspired book Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man. And for the most part, the insight into and portrait of both types of relationships were accurate and amusing.

But with Think Like A Man Too, all of that is gone. Harvey's lessons are gone, and this becomes the story of two roving parties moving through Sin City the weekend of the wedding between Candace (Regina Hall) and Michael (Terrence Jenkins). All of the gang is back, and there are even some new faces as well. Also back is director Tim Story, who did the first film as well as Kevin Hart's wildly successful January release Ride Along. Story has a real gift at getting his actors to improvise and take some degree of chance with their performances, but in this film, that usually results in little more than actors talking over each other, with whoever talks the loudest getting the laugh; 95 percent of the time, that would be Hart, as the film's sole sort-of-solo male (his wife/ex-wife/whatever she is, is played by talk show host Wendy Williams and is only seen and heard via phone).

Some of the issues the couples are dealing with are different. Some are trying to get pregnant, some are trying to move to the "next level" of seriousness, some are just trying to make sure they still find each other attractive, and of course the bride and groom still have to deal with his overbearing mother (Jenifer Lewis), in a plot line that wasn't funny in the first film, and surprisingly enough, it hasn't gotten funnier in the sequel.

The only thing worse than the completely manufactured issues these couples are facing is the way they deal with them. Romany Malco's Zeke is haunted by his player past life when he gets to Vegas, as women all over the city greet him with tales of his philandering ways, making his girlfriend Mya (Meagan Good) exceedingly unhappy. I won't ruin the non-surprise of how he handles this, but it's basically the equivalent of throwing enough money at Mya to show her he loves her. Nothing degrading about that, nope.

The guys' bachelor party and the ladies' bachelorette party naturally bump into each other by the end of the night and wackiness ensues. Throw in a few celebrity cameos, excessive drinking, and a night in jail, and you've got, well, a variation of every Vegas comedy made since The Hangover, minus Mike Tyson. Supporting work from Michael Ealy, Jerry Ferrara, Taraji P. Henson, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Gary Owen, Adam Brody, Gabrielle Union, Dennis Haysbert and La La Anthony do very little for the film's entertainment value beyond crowd the screen with characters in search of a plot.

I'm still in a bit of shock about how far the makers of Think Like A Man Too strayed from what worked in the first film. Not that it was any landmark in cinema as relationship comedies went, but at least the laughs were there more often than they weren't, and Harvey's loose structure worked as something akin to a goofy therapy session. But it's all gone from the sequel, and what remains in its place is a dull, uninspired mess of a film that does this great cast every indignity.

To read my exclusive interview with Think Like A Man Too stars Kevin Hart, Regina Hall and Terrance Jenkins, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Rover

In the opening title card of The Rover, the latest film from Australian director and co-writer David Michôd (Animal Kingdom), we are informed that the story we are about to watch is set "10 years after the collapse," and it's the word "collapse" that I fixated on. When a dystopian world is created by war or disease or some other sweeping terror, it's not called a "collapse." No "collapse" is reserved for governments or economies (often both), and it seems a much more possible way for the world to end — not with a bang or series of bangs, but in a slow, grueling, exhausting rot that results from human beings simply resorting to their primal instincts for self preservation. So the world of The Rover is not that of Mad Max; it's something much more recognizable.

When we first meet Eric (a grizzled Guy Pearce), he's simply driving through the Outback, charged with a purpose we don't know yet. He stops briefly for a meal (restaurants and stores still exist, but not like we know them exactly), and during his brief time in the establishment, a horrific car crash happens right outside that he somehow doesn't hear or see. When he comes outside, his car is gone and there's a half-dead man in the street. At its core, The Rover is about a man trying to retrieve his vehicle, and there must be something in it we can't see because when he gets ahold of another car to chase down them that stole from him, he insists on getting his old car back, accepting no substitutions.

Eric snatches up the left-behind man, Rey (Robert Pattinson, sporting a thick and highly believable trashy Southern accent) to track down the thieves (one of whom is Rey's brother) and get his car back. Along the way, the two men stop frequently, kill more frequently and ask question of strangers about whether a carload of assholes has passed through. Rey thinks he knows where they're going, but Eric's (and our) confidence in him is not strong.

Pearce has played variations on the brooding loner before, and as Eric, he has explosive, unpredictable moments that are absolutely shocking in their ferocity. But the real surprise here is Pattinson, who has certain improved since the Twilight films petered out. He's given a real opportunity with The Rover to dig his fangs into the best role he's ever been given, and he responds in kind with his finest performance to date.

With each pause in the pursuit, we learn a little more about the way this new, stripped-down society works and about these two men, each with a secret agenda that they don't want the other to know about. The mystery grows more interesting as the tension level increases exponentially. Michôd is not in a hurry to push through his story, but complaints about the pacing are totally unfounded. God forbid, we get to know these maniacs a little better before they find a new way to get into trouble.

Something resembling a bond forms between the two men, but when Rey gets his hands on a gun and accidentally shoots an innocent, he becomes a liability to the success of Eric's mission and a twitchy, trigger-happy freak for us to glue our eyes to and never look away. The Rover has an atmosphere that is both dry and dusty, and sticky with a foul sweat that seems to make everyone and everything simultaneously glisten and appear grimy — a shower will be required after viewing.

For those who have already grown tired of the way most summer releases blaze through plot and character development like so many lines on the highway during a high-speed chase, allow The Rover to take you through its paces at something more akin to a brisk walk. It's an exceptionally well acted work, with enough intrigue and nasty undertones to keep it interesting and suspenseful. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case

Although this film is from a different director, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case is undeniably a sequel to Alison Klyaman's 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, about the famed and outspoken Chinese artist and political figure who has used social media and his art to speak out against the oppressive government and police force in China. At the end of Never Sorry, we see Ai get detailed for nearly three months, have his house and street put under severe surveillance, and basically get scared into silence. But as The Fake Case opens, we see his silence is short lived, and although he has been forbidden to give interviews or speak out against the government, it's clear Ai takes great pleasure in finding loopholes or just flat out defying his captors.

Danish director Andreas Johnsen has as much access as Klayman did, but maintains more of a professional distance from his subject, unlike Klayman who was clearly a long-time friend as well as a filmmaker. The version of Ai Weiwei we see in this new film is tired due to high blood pressure (he often falls asleep in the middle of the day — sometimes in the middle of a conversation), aggravated by anxiety at his new situation, which includes a year on probation and house arrest, as well as a hefty fine for a trumped-up tax evasion charge.

But the remarkable part of this time in Ai's life is that he still finds time to make subversive art, such as the eerie six-part re-creation of his 81 days of solitary confinement and daily interrogations. Ai makes it clear he has nothing to hide and maintains that it is, in fact, the government that is doing all the hiding. But the sad fact is that something about this entire experience has taken a piece out of Ai Weiwei. Still, just when he seems far more content to be at home and play with his new son and let the injustice in the world pass him by, something inspires or enrages him, and the old Ai is back making trouble and challenging authority eye to eye.

Johnsen's film is a perfect testament to a noble and powerful spirit that isn't afraid to do what is right, but that doesn't mean he's blind to what is scary around him. There are many moments in which Ai seems torn between protecting his family and working to win freedom in his homeland. But the good news is, there are signs in The Fake Case that both might be possible at the same time, and that there is a small army of followers that might be willing to take up his cause either with him or after him. The movie is inspiring and a continuing chapter in the life of a man who never let us forget that it is the ordinary person who makes the most change; not the sanctioned political mouthpieces and other elected officials. It's a bit rough around the edges, but the messages are undeniable. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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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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