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Column Fri Jul 18 2014

Sex Tape, The Purge: Anarchy, Boyhood, Wish I Was Here, Dormant Beauty

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

Sex Tape

It may be an unwritten rule, but I'm pretty sure it's a rule nonetheless. If you're going to make a movie called Sex Tape about a suburban couple who make a three-hour-long sex tape to spice up their marriage, you have to have nudity for it to be both funny and effective. And when I say nudity, I mean committed baring of all parts from both leads, and not some Cameron Diaz ass double. Hire someone who is both funny and willing to commit to the conceit of the film. We know from films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall that Jason Segel (playing Diaz's husband, Jay) is not against going full frontal for laughs. I'm not saying we needed prolonged actual sex acts on screen, but give us some amount of nudity to enhance to laughs, because putting it all out there can be very funny.

Sex Tape actually does have one example of someone going the extra distance, although not in a naked way, and that person is Rob Lowe, who plays Hank, the mild-mannered CEO of a company looking to buy Annie's (Diaz) mommy blog. He has outlined a fairly conservative image he'd like Annie to project, and a leaked sex tape is not part of that image. When she and Jay end up at Hank's house, he has a prolonged conversation with Annie that gets stranger and more deranged with each passing second, and it's hilarious... while the rest of the movie struggles to generate consistent laughs.

The premise is fairly basic. Jay and Annie make the recording; Jay gives out a bunch of his company's used iPads as gifts, but said devices are still synched up to each other and the Cloud, so the video gets loaded onto a handful of gifted iPads, and the couple must race around to their friends to erase the video. A quick stop at their best friends Robby and Tess (Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper) is kind of lame in the comedy department, because of course Robby is hesitant to give up the iPad when he finds out what's on it. The film only seems to really work when it's capable of surprising us, which isn't that often.

The film is especially disappointing because Segel, Diaz and director Jake Kasdan are capable of generating much bigger laughs, as they did in Bad Teacher, which actually lived up to its title by presenting the worst possible character in Diaz. I know it sounds sexist to say, "Hey, show us Cameron Diaz naked, and I'll probably like the movie more." But that's only half true. I think showing Segel just as naked would have resulted in a better film as well. Instead we get a sexy romp that turns into a truly by-the-numbers film about marriages going sexually stale and the lengths people will go to rekindle the heat. Yawn.

A final-act trip to the offices of YouPorn (complete with an unexpected, but surprisingly dull cameo as someone playing the CEO of the porn site) is just a limp attempt to say a string of nasty porn site names in a row. Some of them are funny, but by this point in the film, it's too little too late. Part of the issue with the film might also be part of the reason any of it works. The screenplay is attributed to Kate Angelo (who I believe wrote the original version of this story) as well as the frequent writing team of Segel and Nicholas Stoller, who are quite proficient and talented comedy writers, whose names have never been attached to something quite this flat and uninspired.

Sex Tape is neither especially funny nor sexy, and it's largely because the actors don't fully commit to the concept. You spend most of the movie noticing the lengths Segel and Diaz are going to not to show us their naughty bits, and the comedy suffers immensely because we simply stopped paying attention. Nudity in and of itself isn't necessarily funny, but as a tool in the hands of comedic actors of this caliber, it gives them something to work with. When you take it off the table, you're left with a whole lot of overplaying the parts in an uninspired story. I can't think of a worst formula for humor.

The Purge: Anarchy

This week, the movie-going public has been handed two sequels that are actually better than the originals. That doesn't mean that either of them are good, but they are an improvement. First up is the one-year-later follow-up to the surprise hit from last year, The Purge, which followed a once-a-year night in a future America in which all crime is legal for 12 hours. That Ethan Hawke vehicle was an exercise in claustrophobia and pure paranoia, and the action rarely left the house that Hawke shared with his family. The Purge: Anarchy wisely changes the battlefield, showing us what it's like for folks who are trapped outside during the Purge and are never allowed to hide for long.

Returning writer-director James DeMonaco wrote the screenplay for the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 (also starring Hawke), so it should come as no surprise that Anarchy often feels like a film John Carpenter might have tackled in his younger, action-oriented days. DeMonaco does a solid job building up the tension as the hours tick down until the Purge, and we start to realize that a few nasty folks set the stage for killing and other crimes long before the Purge actually begins. We also learn about the existence of an insurgency group (led by Michael K. Williams' Carmelo) that has taken it upon themselves to decry the Purge and expose it as a means for the government to keep the population of the country's underclass under control.

There's a lively, if not especially inspired, cast on hand to run from building to building, getting targeted and attacked over the course of the Purge, but the only character worth a damn in terms of investing your time and energy is Sgt. Leo (Frank Grillo, most recently seen in the latest Captain America film, as well as The Grey and Warrior). Grillo is terrific character actor who puts just enough of a spin on Leo to make him interesting and colorful as a fully weaponized guy who seems to have put himself out in the Purge deliberately, seeking some manner of revenge.

Also interesting are real-life married couple Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez, playing Shane and Liz, whose car breaks down as they're driving somewhere to begin the process of telling relatives that they are separating. They both seem like the least likely to survive the Purge, and what happens to them is especially interesting. The Purge: Anarchy not only illustrates just how organized some of the roving bands of marauders is, but also gives us examples about how even the safest places can be infected by the spirit of lawlessness during the Purge. The resulting levels of fear easily surpass the closed-in feel of the first film. By opening up the number of places to hide, the chase feels more like the stuff of nightmares.

If you get hung up on the politics behind the Purge films, you may be missing the point. The movies certainly don't celebrate the thinking behind Purge night, and this second film makes it abundantly clear that the ruling classes are out to thin the herd on a massive scale, and while the film's take on class warfare might be a bit silly, it still makes for great social commentary that is often missing from B movies. The Purge: Anarchy is far from great cinema, but it does offer up an angry point of view that makes for a highly entertaining creation.

Boyhood

Many critics who have talked at length about writer-director Richard Linklater's almost inconceivable master work Boyhood have allowed the film to sink into their own lives and pull out memories that have shaped and rattled them from a young age to quite recently. And I'd almost hate to think that a person could go into Boyhood and feel it lacks something because they don't come out with their entire world changed and these memories dredged up. The film isn't meant to be the cause of an emotional maelstrom — quite the opposite. Linklater has beautifully and elegantly crafted a work that speaks to each of us uniquely and with a slightly different voice. I'm guessing an 18-year-old watching this film will respond quite differently someone in their 40s (as is the case with most films), but I'm also guessing that that some 18-year-old would see the film in an entirely different way 10 years from now.

Boyhood is meant to capture universal truths through the eyes of young Mason (newcomer Ellar Coltrane) over the course of 12 years. Against all types of logic and odds, Linklater was able to gather us the same core cast members — Coltraine, his daughter Lorelei Linklater as Mason's slightly older sister, and Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the boy's divorced parents — each year for a couple of days or weeks at a time to shoot a new small sequence that chronicles some small but significant moment in Mason's life. Although the framework isn't specifically said to be a flashback, it's clear that everything we see is meant to be viewed as a remembrance from Mason's perspective. They aren't meant to be seen as individual moments, but rather as the ingredients that when mixed together become the young man the film presents us with at the end.

If you only see Boyhood once, I think you'll be denying yourself a wonderful opportunity to have the film open up in ways that a single viewing simply doesn't allow. The first time through, you'll focus on Mason, as you should. But additional viewings give you a chance to appreciate the work of the other actors all the more, especially Arquette's work as Mason's tireless single mom who raises her children the best she can, which isn't always that great considering the "parade of drunken assholes" (as Mason puts it late in the film) she ends up dating or marrying after Hawke. Arquette is a stand-in for all moms who put in thankless years of playing the bad guy and protector in the hopes that her kids don't make any truly terrible mistakes — that's about the best she can hope for.

Not that Hawke doesn't have his qualities here. He gets to pop in and out of his kids' lives and play the cool dad who they find it easier to talk to, even if they can't rely on him for any kind of true stability. In many ways, Mason Sr. grows up just as much as his children as the film goes on, and the place he is by the end of the 12 years is both unexpected and remarkable. Linklater makes the cumulative experience seem to natural and effortless, it almost feels like a documentary at times, with Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater turning in such natural performances that it's impossible to spot them acting. An early sequence in which Hawke talks to the pair at a bowling alley about safe sex is clearly as impossibly embarrassing for Lorelei to listen to as it is for us to watch. Her reactions are 100 percent genuine, and I loved watching these kids act without an actor tricks to lean on.

For a film that runs more than two-and-a-half hours, it moves remarkably fast. We're too preoccupied looking and listening at the details in in scene to notice the time passing around us. The music, the video games, a significant presidential election, and other cultural sign posts give us a clear indication where we are in history without distracting us from the story at hand. The film refuses to be nostalgic in traditional ways, instead making each scene feel like the present and all around us. Boyhood can be appreciated as a pure cinematic event or as a trigger into your own memories.

I couldn't help but wonder what moments might appear in a version of Boyhood surrounding the same 12-year period in my life. I can't imagine three years of writing film reviews for my high school newspaper would be that exciting, but who knows? I guess my point is, don't be disappointed if watching the film doesn't result in a wave of devastating callbacks flooding back into your brain. It won't do that for everyone; it isn't supposed to. Use it as you see fit, and enjoy the experience on your own terms and not the way others might. You'll get the most out of it, believe me. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Boyhood writer-director Richard Linklater and star Ellar Coltrane, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Wish I Was Here

I truly adored Garden State, and I see the spiritual fingerprints of that film all over writer-director-actor Zach Braff's latest work Wish I Was Here. But like most things covered in fingerprints, this new film is smudged with the evidence of past great work without actually being great work itself. Garden State's musings on life and love seem to rise up from it's simple story almost by accident; there were quotable lines and great music choices. Wish I Was Here has those elements as well, but it feels forced and overly precious. There are literally moments where two characters will be having a conversation and then one of them lets loose with a "meaningful" line, and there's a noticeable pause in the action, as if Braff wants that heavy thought to sink in a little longer.

Wish I Was Here works best when it allows humor to rule the day. This is not a jokey piece, but Braff's inherent charm (as well as the comic strengths of a cast that includes Kate Hudson as his wife Sarah and Josh Gad as brother Noah) seems most in display when he's commenting on the darker sides of life through the lens of comedy. Braff plays Aidan Bloom, a perpetually out-of-work actor, who is starting to feel guilty about not properly providing for his family. The guilt isn't just coming from him, however. His ailing father (Mandy Patinkin) and even his rabbi pile on as well, insisting that he consider another career. Some of the film funniest moments are Aidan's auditions, where he runs into characters played by the likes of Jim Parsons.

When Aidan's father announces that he is severely ill, the focus of the film shifts. Suddenly the divide the brothers have with their father seems wider, and Aidan tries to remedy that, while also playing newly appointed home school teacher to his kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon). King as Grace is particularly good here as a growing child who is struggling with how deeply and devoutly she wants to follow the Jewish religion. Aidan isn't especially observant, so he's not quite sure how to advise her, but the film's attempts at addressing this issue fall apart slowly and sloppily as the story progresses. In fact, the same could be said for pretty much all of the story threads in Wish I Was Here. The issues between Noah and his father are never really addressed; they just resolve without much resolution. And a silly subplot involving Noah and a fellow cosplay cutie (Ashley Greene) is just dumb.

There are also bizarre fantasy sequences in which Aidan envisions himself as a sci-fi hero that are so unnecessary as to be infuriating at times. To hear Aidan discuss how he and his brother used to pretend they were space rangers is one thing, but to actually see it is just embarrassing. There are a few stray moments here that worked for me. When the film concentrates on Aidan and his wife and kids, things feel plausible and sometimes even worthy of contemplation. But when the proceedings stray outside of the walls of their home, my mind began to wander as well. It just isn't worth it when you try and be quirky. It's like those people who constantly remind you that they have a crazy sense of humor because actually they don't. I want Braff to keep making films, because there is a talent for it there. I just wish he'd stop trying so hard to be deep and meaningful. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Wish I Was Here director, co-writer and star Zach Braff.

Dormant Beauty

It the week's most truly curious offering, Italian director and co-writer Marco Bellocchio tells several interconnecting stories, several of which call into question the practice or mercy killing/euthanasia. In some cases the examples are based on actual cases (including the infamous case of Eluana Englaro, who spent 17 years in a vegetative state and whose case nearly caused the laws to be changed). In Dormant Beauty, the young woman in question is treated like some sort of living statue by her suffering father and slightly manic mother (Isabelle Huppert), while her brother with violent tendencies would rather have her dead so his parents will even notice him.

Another storyline involves a politician (Toni Servillo) on his way to Rome to cast a vote in the matter, while his daughter is among the young protestors attempting to persuade the Italian parliament to vote one way or the other. And because of personal reasons, Servillo's character is possibly on the verge of voting against his party.

Dormant Beauty loops around itself and its several stories, all of which are all touched by life and death themes, but often veer into tales of everything from young romance to acting to religion to politics. Some of these seem right at home as part of this discussion, and others seem weirdly out of place. That doesn't make them any less interesting, and the film does seem to attempt to sum up the current mindset of the Italian political landscape, but in the end, the film is a mixed bag of issues that don't always make sense juxtaposed the way they are. It's a visually gorgeous work and the performances are mostly quite strong, but director Bellocchio seems to be attempting to cram too much into one movie, and the result is a lovely mess. The film opens today in Chicago exclusively at the Davis Theatre.

 

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Culture Tue Nov 04 2014

7,550 Miles from Home, Chicago's Ethiopians Build a Cultural Museum

By Danielle Elliott

Some 7,550 miles separate Chicago from Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. For the 10,000 Ethiopians living in Chicago, that distance seems a lot smaller due to the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Nov 21 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Foxcatcher, The Homesman, Force Majeure, America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth, National Gallery & Miss Meadows

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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