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Column Fri Jan 23 2015

The Boy Next Door, Cake, Song One & Match

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The Boy Next Door

(Or 'Twas Booty Killed the Beast)
Calling the new Jennifer Lopez sexually charged thriller The Boy Next Door sleazy implies that the film has the balls to be sleazy, which it certainly does not. Instead we get what is essentially a tossed-off subplot from "Desperate Housewives" turned into a C-grade stalker story. As if the filmmakers were afraid of offending anyone with this limp tale, the affair between Lopez's high school teacher Claire Peterson and her neighbor/student Noah (Ryan Guzman) is made "acceptable" by making sure it's clear that Noah took a year off of high school, and that he's actually 19 years old. Wouldn't want you to think anything shady is going on.

Claire is struggling to get her life back together after her husband (John Corbett) cheated on her with a co-worker. Their teen son Kevin, (Ian Nelson, recently seen in The Judge), is caught in the middle, living with his mother but encouraging his father to make the effort to win Claire back — and effort that seems to be working despite the meddling of her best friend and school vice-principal, played by the ghoulish-looking Kristin Chenoweth. In a moment of weakness, Claire allows Noah to seduce her, and the second she starts to voice regret about them sleeping together, he starts to get possessive and stalkery, tormenting her with innuendo at inappropriate times, graffiti and threatening to post a video of their encounter if she doesn't agree to a relationship with him.

But Noah also gets violent, with veiled and not-so-veiled threats of raping Claire if she doesn't submit, an element that severely undercuts any chance for the audience to actually have even a low-grade amount of fun with the material. It also doesn't help that Lopez barely looks like she's trying here. The film is largely an excuse to see her in her underwear several times during the course of film, which may be enough for some, but frankly her music videos are sexier and have better plots.

The Boy Next Door comes courtesy of director Rob Cohen, who is apparently in movie jail after somewhat more interesting work in Daylight, The Fast and the Furious (the original) and XXX. But if you saw his last film, Alex Cross, you have some idea what we're dealing with here. The film is loaded with gaps in logic, common sense or intelligence. I'll give you that most of us don't attend movies like this for any of those elements, so I'll add that the film also lacks any real sexual heat or chemistry, largely because Guzman (Step Up All In) is a pretty-boy dud whose acting abilities are isn't nearly as defined as his abs. He's just an asshole who knows enough about cars to cut the brake line, but not enough about computers to maybe not label files he's trying to hide "Claire Video."

There's really only one way for The Boy Next Door to end, and god forbid the filmmakers attempt to surprise us. This is the kind of typical dretch that comes out right after the Oscar nominations are announced. It's the reason that two of the big films opening this weekend (Strange Magic and Mortdecai) didn't screen for most critics across the country. If you're still curious about seeing this film, you probably need a slap across your brain. Do yourself a favor, and see anything else in theaters right now. I promise you, it's better than The Boy Next Door.

Cake

If you've been paying any kind of attention to the films and performances asking for consideration this awards season, you may have heard of the film Cake for one reason only: Jennifer Aniston's performance as a badly scarred, chronic pain sufferer — a performance that for a brief time was threatening to infiltrate the esteemed ranks of Oscar nominees, coming seemingly out of nowhere and seen by almost no critics. Well, they did finally screen the film for critics this week, and like most other things that have generated massive think pieces on the internet, the actual film isn't nearly as much of a train wreck as you've been led to believe, and Aniston's performance is actually quite good.

Cake picks up Claire Bennett's story about a year after a tragic incident that has left her in the condition in which we meet her. The exact details of the accident are kept from us initially, parceled out over the course of the film for reasons I'm still not sure of, but ultimately they don't really impact the emotional weight of the production. Aniston captures her condition quite perfectly, to the point where it hurts to watch her make even the slightly movement. In addition to her physical ailments, Claire, a lawyer before the incident, is an emotional timebomb. She's popping pain pills like M&Ms, she's permanently adopted a bitter, angry attitude toward everyone she comes into contact with — such as her housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza), her doctors, her physical therapist (Mamie Gummer), the other women in her pain support group (led by Felicity Huffman), and her estranged husband (Chris Messina), whom she pushed away after the accident.

But Claire's depression isn't just the result of her constant pain; she also suffered a tragic loss that I won't go into here. And when one of the women in her pain group, Nina (Anna Kendrick), commits suicide, Claire becomes obsessed with learning the details of her death and life. She wants to know how a woman with a husband (Sam Worthington) and young son could do such a thing. In her drug-fueled haze, Claire occasionally sees and talks to Nina, but gets very few answers.

Cake doesn't have a traditional plot but instead gives us a series of incidents that make up Claire's daily struggle to keep it together. She has good days and bad days, but mostly bad ones. But when she gives herself a mission — like invading Nina's life in search of answers — she seems energetic and full of purpose. She strikes up a tentative friendship with Nina's husband, Roy, and together they stumble through recovering from their varying degrees of sadness — not always at the same speed and rarely at the same time.

There's also an interesting and often moving subplot involving Claire and Silvana, who cares deeply for her employer despite being treated like crap by her most of the time. Their friendship keeps the film propped up when the weight of its seriousness threatens to topple it. A trip they take to Mexico to buy illegal prescription drugs could have been played for laughs, but instead is treated as what it is: an act of desperation.

Writer Patrick Tobin and director Daniel Barnz (Won't Back Down, Beastly) have chosen an odd way around what should be a fairly straight-forward story about the ways in which we suffer, and the result detracts from the overall film. But Aniston's performance anchors the film in ways I was not prepared for. As much as some would like to portray her work here as "Oscar bait," I can't imagine she thought anyone would see this film upon hearing what it's about.

There may be a little bit too much of the playfully cynical Aniston humor mixed into Claire, but there are worse things. For the most part, she's convincing and hits the right emotional beats. If you can stand to watch Aniston in agony for 90-plus minutes, you might actually get something out of viewing Cake. There are certainly much better films to see right now (something in a similar vein is Still Alice, also a fairly flawed film), but if you're anticipating complete drivel, you'll be sadly disappointed that the internet has lied to you for the first time ever.

Song One

Perhaps the most lasting impression that Song One will leave on the world is, appropriately enough, its music, which was written by noted singer-songwriters Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice (collectively known as Jenny and Johnny). It's performed mostly as solo acoustic folk numbers in the film by another musician, Johnny Flynn (who fronts Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Witt in the real world), playing James Forester, a performer who had a fairly well-received album a few years earlier and is now struggling to find the magic to make his follow-up. But the film isn't about Forester; it's about his biggest fan and fellow musician, Henry (Ben Rosenfield), and how his sister Franny (Anne Hathaway) used Forester's music to bring her brother back to the world.

Off in Monoco doing research for her graduate thesis, Franny receives word from her mother (Mary Steenburgen) that her brother was hit by a car and is now in a coma. Sporting a fabulous pixie cut and looking lovely even when she's trying to look fraught and sunken with emotion, Franny returns home to Brooklyn to sit by Henry's bedside, hoping he takes a turn for the better. Upon exploring his room, she find poster and CDs of Forester, as well as a ticket to see him in concert that night. She goes to the show and approaches the musician afterward to explain her brother's situation and hand off a song Henry recorded so he can see the influence and impact Forester had on Henry. Not surprisingly, Forester shows up at the hospital the next day, guitar in hand, and plays a song for Henry. The experience triggers something in Franny, and she sets out to record familiar city sounds that she can play for her brother as a type of sense memory experiment to see if it might pull him out of his coma.

Forester and Franny begin spending time together, drawn together by a vague sense of loss — she of her brother and he of a combination of his inspiration to write new music as well as a long-time girlfriend (they may be one in the same). First-time feature writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland has set Song One is a very cozy, mildly bohemian version of New York City, where crime isn't really a thing, and there's always a comfy seat in every folk club. There are no real antagonists here, just a dark mood that hovers over everything like misty rain. The growing relationships between Franny and Forester isn't surprising or unwelcome, even if it does tend to overshadow the reason they know each other in the first place. Thankfully Steenburgen pops in every so often to remind/annoy everyone in a generic New York mom way.

Despite the kid in a coma undercurrents, Song One is a fairly featherlight movie. The fact that Forester is only in town for a few days, gives us a sense that no matter how close these two might get, this is a temporary romance — which in turn makes a feel a lot more like Once than it probably should. Hathaway has always been a master crier, and boy, does she turn on the tears in this one. But by doing so, she gives the film a false sense of drama and significance that just isn't there on the page. In other words, she's overqualified for this role. Forester is actually pretty solid as the sensitive artist type, who also has a fairly sensible grip on the music business and his own appeal (limited as it might be). The songs from Lewis and Rice are the film's top-ranking asset. They're fragile, emotionally charged pieces that work to elevate the proceedings significantly. And yes, Hathaway does get to use her Oscar-winning pipes on one of the tunes.

There's nothing inherently wrong with Song One, other than its sense of significance to the world of suffering. It's an easy watch, especially if you're a hipster in a romantic mood. For a bit of counter-programming against the current Oscar nominees dominating screens right now, you might appreciate something whose message is to keep plugging away at a problem and hopefully that'll solve it. Oh, and music brings good people together. There are worse message out there in movies right now. As far as I can tell, if you want to see Song One in the Chicago area, it's opening at the Pickwick 4 in Park Ridge, and is also available on all VOD platforms, including iTunes.

Match

Based on the three-character Broadway play from Stephen Belber (who also wrote and directed this adaptation) comes Match, the emotionally depleting day-in-the-life tale of Tobi Powell (Patrick Stewart), a gay ballet instructor at Julliard, who was once the talk of the dance world as both a performer and choreographer. But today, he's something of a hermit when he isn't teaching, living out his days alone in an immaculate apartment. On this particular day, he has arranged to meet Lisa (Carla Gugino) and husband Mike (Matthew Lillard), who are in town from Seattle to interview Tobi about the glory days of the "dance community" for her dissertation.

They meet at Tobi's favorite local restaurant, listen to his stories — told with a great deal of enthusiasm and a fading glimmer in his eyes. But once they're back at Tobi's place, the conversation takes a turn and gets very specific, concerning a particular love affair he had with a woman. For most of the interview process, Lisa has been asking questions, but the inquiries around Tobi's very active sexual history all come from Mike. It doesn't take long to figure out where this is all leading, with Mike ramping up the interrogation and intimidation (turns out, he's a cop back in Seattle), and Lisa trying in vain to keep things from getting out of hand.

At one point in the story, Mike leaves for a few hours, leaving Tobi and Lisa to talk honestly for the first time since they've met. And it's the also the first time in Match where it doesn't feel like simply a filmed play. Stewart is supposed to be playing Tobi with flamboyance, but it feels more like he's playing to the back row — a fine line, granted, but there is a difference. But when Tobi and Lisa are alone, the mood becomes more intimate and personal, and something resembling real emotions make their way to the surface. It helps that Gugino has a natural kindness that she brings to most performances that makes her instantly likable, despite Lisa's deception.

Apparently exiting the goofball phase of his career since 2011's The Descendants, Lillard takes Mike down a road of excessive force, bordering on psychotic, to get information out of Tobi. But it isn't just facts that Mike is seeking; it's for Tobi to accept a certain level of responsibility for his actions some 45 years earlier. His level of hostility seems somewhat out of place in this film, but maybe the point of Match is to throw a hand grenade into Tobi's life of quiet solitude.

The actors in this micro-budget production are all varying degrees of quite good, with Stewart leading the charge and being utterly convincing as a man for whom discipline has almost been a good companion (lately, his only one). Belber (whose only other feature film was 2008's very amusing and heartwarming Management) is obviously familiar with the material, perhaps too much. There are moments when things would have benefited from feeling more natural and less stagey, but the actors save the production from feeling stiff and cold. The stakes are small in Match, but the emotions are volatile, and the film makes for a breezy 90-minute distraction that you'll likely enjoy but won't retain. 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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