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Column Fri Mar 27 2015

Get Hard; Serena; Danny Collins; Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter & Algren

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Get Hard


I suppose I could do my job and review the new film Get Hard, starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, as a film critic, which I'm paid to do. Or I could deputize myself and become a member of the morality police and judge the content of the film and ignore the rest of it, which seems beside the point, since that doesn't really give you, the potential audience member, a clue whether this might be a film you'd enjoy or not. But let's quickly do the morality thing, just for a second, because it's easier to defuse than you might think.

Is Get Hard racist? For sure, certain characters in the film are supposed to be racist, including Will Ferrell's millionaire character James King, who is on the verge of getting married to Alissa (Alison Brie), the daughter of his boss Martin (Craig T. Nelson). King is set up to take the fall for some illegal trading, and after he is convicted, he's given 30 days to get his affairs in order and report to prison. Thinking that he's the last guy who belongs in prison, he hires his office car wash attendant Darnell Lewis (Hart) to teach him to get "prison ready," which reduces itself during the course of the film to the equivalent of turning a white dude into a black dude, in James' eyes.

So is that racist? Certainly James is a bit prejudiced — he assumes Darnell has been to prison by playing the law of averages. But Darnell (who has, in fact, never been to prison) uses James' stereotyping to his advantage. It's not a sophisticated take on race and racial profiling, but it's a start. As the film goes on, there's something of an awakening in James that makes him appreciate black culture. Again, he doesn't do so in the most subtle ways, but there certain seems to be a humorous attempt made to right his previous wrongs.

If a lot of this storyline sounds familiar, make no mistake, Get Hard is a whole lot like Trading Places, even more so when we discover who has been pulling the strings to land James in jail. In a session of getting him prison-ready with Darnell's cousin (played by T.I.), he teaches the former prisoner how to become a fairly savvy online trader. Meanwhile, Darnell is planning on using the money he gets from James to start up his own business. And while some of the racial jokes might not be in the best taste (or even funny), they hardly qualify as racist.

Next question: Is Get Hard homophobic? That's a tougher question because never in my wildest thoughts did I ever equate getting raped in prison with gay behavior (make all the jokes you want, but if you disagree: congratulations, you'll probably love this movie). That being said, prison rape jokes aren't the only forms of sketchy sex jokes in the film.

There's a sequence in which Darnell suggests that James perform oral sex on another man to prepare him for the inevitable, so they head to a gay bar, pick up a man (Matt Walsh from "Veep"), take him into the bathroom, and for what seems like an eternity, James attempts to do the deed, leading to a lot of dry heaving, crying, and screaming without actually going through with it. Admittedly, the crowd I saw the film with was laughing hysterically for this sequence, mostly at the sight of a flaccid penis up against Ferrell's face. But the scene leaves you feeling really bizarre, like you're watching a film from the '70s or '80s, when sensitivity to such things seemed less of any issue. But is first-time director and co-screenwriter Etan Cohen (who co-wrote Idiocracy and Tropic Thunder) mocking James by casting him as a homophobe as well as a bigot? Or are the filmmakers truly that clueless that this material might offend huge groups of people?

Whether you laugh you shoes off or sit there in silence, the sad truth about Get Hard isn't that its jokes might offend you morally; it's that the film isn't that funny even when it sticks to more conventional humor. When the visual gag that Ferrell is about three feet taller than Hart is your best running joke, you have a problem. Everyone in the film is overplaying their parts, beginning with Brie and Nelson, who are so broadly doing the spoiled little rich girl / doting father routine that they practically performing as silent film actors. Hart has never been a nuanced actor, but I've always managed to find some value in his performances. But with him doing three or four movies per year lately, you can spot when even he thinks the material is weak and overcompensates with improvisation to make up the difference. The results, needless to say, are mixed.

And then there's the veteran Ferrell, who seems to have a hit a wall with Get Hard. Although I've probably noticed signs of this before. I feel like I know all of Ferrell's comedy tricks now, and where there might have been a time when he would go out of his way to come up with a new batch to add to the old friends with each new movie, in Get Hard, there's simply nothing new. The crying, the affected voices, the posturing, the jokes at the expense of his pasty white skin and less-than-defined body — we've seen these things so many times before, and they can still be funny. But none of it feels original in this context. And in a comedy that deals with race, each actor needs to try on a new skin. When a broad comedy can't even get the basics right, the problem is much worse than tasteless or offensive jokes.

Serena

Admittedly, the combination of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence has become a formidable one in just a few short years, with Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle between them. So the idea of throwing the pair in a 1920s-era melodrama set in North Carolina's Smokey Mountains is not the craziest idea of the year. In Serena, they play the Pembertons, a severely lovestruck couple who are in the process of building up a fairly substantial timber empire and a community to surround their main operations. Fully loaded with jealousy, lustful glances, longing and bloodlust, the film (from the Ron Rash novel, adapted by Christopher Kyle) is a little unsteady on its feet, despite being anchored by two tremendous lead performances.

As directed by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier (an Oscar winner for In a Better World), Serena has a great deal of midnight whisperings from husband to wife about who in his life can be trusted and who can't. At first, she wants him to off his right-hand man and best friend (David Dencik), then she gets jealous of a local girl (Ana Ularu) whom Pemberton had an affair with before they met and wants her dead as well. The girl now skulks around town with their lovechild, while Serena's one shot at motherhood ends with a miscarriage. The local sheriff (Toby Jones) is rightfully suspect when the best friend dies in a hunting accident, but he and Pemberton already have bad blood between them because of the way the sheriff fears he'll strip the land of its trees and the leave the people with nothing to show for it.

Rhys Ifans is also on hand as Galloway, a worker who has a fondness for Serena, and will happily carry out any deadly command she gives him. There aren't really any heroes in Serena, and that's perfectly fine, but there also really isn't any emotional entry point into this story to make us care about who lives or dies. There's a strange subplot involving Pemberton's obsession with finding a panther (which may or may not actually exist) in the local forests. I'm sure there's some not-so-buried message in that about Pemberton always seeking something he'll likely never find in his life, but by the time we find out if the panther is real or not, we've stopped caring about so many things in the film.

Serena possesses an eerie beauty as shot by cinematographer Morten Søborg, and Lawrence's transition from sensual newlywed to Lady Macbeth is pretty fantastic, but the film refused to gel for me, and I found myself getting easily distracted by the incredible attention to detail in the production design (courtesy of Richard Bridgland) or the way the entire community seemed to exist under a permanent, oppressive fog. And as the plot gets more and more heated, the film loses its sense of authenticity, despite the terrific acting going on here. This was a close call for me, but ultimately Serena falls short in too many ways. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Danny Collins


If you haven't already given up on Al Pacino as a credible film actor and you stow your cynicism and objections to a degree of sentimentality in your cinematic diet (I realize this is a lot to ask of some of you), I think you'll find Danny Collins a pretty pleasant story about an artist at war with himself after a lifetime of effectively selling out. And none of it would work without Pacino committing himself to a role like he hasn't done in quite some time, thanks in large degree to a functioning screenplay from first-time director Dan Fogleman.

The film opens with a great '60s-era moment when young Danny is doing his first interview with a music magazine. It's a shaky interview, made all the weirder by its stoned reporter (an unrecognizable Nick Offerman) asking heavy questions about influences and the possibility of selling out if he hits it big. Then the film jumps to the ultimate sellout of the modern era, with Danny (Pacino) performing yet another nostalgia show of greatest hits for old timers — likely in the same way he's performed these songs for decades. During the afterparty, Danny expresses his dislike for the lifestyle to his longtime manager Frank (Christopher Plummer) and decides to get rid of the hangers-on, stop the tour, and disappear for a time to parts unknown... also known as New Jersey.

Danny Collins makes pretty much anyone who cross paths with the singer a possible character in his life, including the staff at the modest hotel where he's staying. Annette Bening plays hotel manager Mary, while Melissa Benoist (Whiplash and soon to be the TV's new Supergirl) is the desk clerk, with Josh Peck popping in every so often as the hotel valet. The banter between Pacino and Bening is actually pretty great, recalling a '40s screwball comedy, with rapid-fire dialogue and witty retorts. Danny wants to take her to dinner; she rebuffs him politely, but the banter continues. And if this were the story of a sweet romance between the two, I would have actually been pretty okay with that. Bening is never boring and seeing her keep her distance from this man who isn't often told no is fun to watch.

But there's much more to this story. Turns out Danny's choice in geographical location is not completely random. Turns out he has a grown son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale), who has his own wife, Samantha (Jennifer Garner), who is pregnant with their second child. Danny shows up at their doorstep hoping to step up and be the father he never was to his son and be a helpful grandfather to Tom's young daughter who has learning disabilities and requires expensive schooling. So between fighting against decades of resentment from Tom and attempting to write his first new song in ages, it's an emotional journey for Danny.

But this change of heart didn't come from nowhere. Turns out Danny Collins (or at least the beginning of it) is based on a true story of a folk musician who received a letter from John Lennon (complete with his phone number), who happened to have read that first interview and sent a glorious page of advice and encouragement to the young singer. The letter didn't reach the singer until 40 years after it was written (the greedy magazine editor held onto it, thinking it might be worth something someday), and Fogelman took that portion of the story and put the fictional Danny Collins squarely in the middle of it, so that when the letter arrives it triggers a flood of What If... thoughts in Danny's mind about how much different his life might have been if he'd gotten the letter on when it was written and he'd been able to call and talk to Lennon at the time.

Danny Collins gets a lot of the emotions and their various levels pretty much spot on. The material about the rock star life and live show is so authentic, it may embarrass performers currently on that greatest hits circuit (although the unreleased songs from Ryan Adams providing the bulk of the new material). The scenes in the hotel are great, mostly just because I wanted to see these two old pros go at it. Although the dinner remains elusive, there's a scene in the hotel bar between Pacino and Bening that is fantastic and funny. The material with Danny's family takes a little longer to get going, and the sight of him simply throwing money at their middle-class financial problems is borderline gross at first, but it becomes clear that he's simply removing the obstacles to them building a relationship for the first time.

There's one moment where Danny slips back into his old, bad habits, and that feels unnecessary and more a device to keep the plot moving than an actual, sensible development. But it's short and doesn't detract from the fact that Danny Collins gets a lot right and reminds us that Pacino still has something to offer. (And if what I'm hearing about Manglehorn, his soon-to-be-released collaboration with David Gordon Green is true, the streak will continue.) It's an unusual story, for sure, but I think one worth telling and hearing. This is one worth giving a shot, even if you aren't quite convinced. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Danny Collins writer-director Dan Fogelman, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

One element of the latest work from indie-filmmaking veteran David Zellner (Kid-Thing) worth noticing is that two of the credited executive producers of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter are filmmaker Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (who produced, among other film, Payne's The Descendants). There's a certain accessibility to Kumiko that remind me a great deal of what Payne brings to his off-the-beaten-path brand of storytelling. Working with constant collaborator (and brother) Nathan Zellner, Kumiko is also a strange, haunting cautionary tale about putting too much stake and faith in movies.

Very loosely based on the true story of a Japanese woman found dead in the snow-clad fields of Minnesota in 2001, the film follows Tokyo secretary Kumiko (Oscar-nominee Rinko Kikuchi, of Babel, The Brothers Bloom, Pacific Rim) who is verbally abused by her mother for being unmarried at the advanced age of 29. She is practically comatose with sadness about her life and somehow finds solace in an old VHS copy of Fargo she discovers in a dreamlike sequence in the film. And when she watches it, she interprets the scene of Steve Buscemi burying money by a wire fence in North Dakota as a clue to finding a case of money. (If only she'd waited and seen the first season of the "Fargo" television series to find out what happened to that money later.)

Believing the sequence in the film to be true (hey, the Coen Brothers said Fargo was based on true events), she stitches herself a map, steals the boss's credit card and heads to America in search of this non-existent treasure.

Kimiko gets as far as Minnesota, where she is befriended by a sweet old lady (Shirley Venard). But it's clear that her not knowing the English language is holding her back from getting any real assistance, even when a sheriff (played by the director) who might be a little sweet on Kumiko attempts to do so, but ends up taking her a Chinese restaurant in hopes of finding a translator. As it was in Fargo, the snowy landscapes are used to wonderful, isolating effect by the Zellners. Kikuchi's sad and lonely portrayal of Kumiko is undeniably troubling at times as we see her slight, underdressed frame cast against the bitter landscapes that she walks across. The film is meant to feel dangerous and never gets too cutesy in scenes when Kumiko interacts with Middle Americans.

The Zellners are not trying to tell a true story any more than the Coens were nearly 20 years ago. Kumiko feels like a twisted but always engaging folk story. At a certain point in the story, we have to come to terms with the truth that we are watching the story of a woman going slowly insane. She snapped in Japan and has come to America to live out her madness. And by the time Kumiko makes it to North Dakota, we're genuinely worried about how this grim tale will end. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter might be too much strange and deliberate pacing for everyone, but I promise you, you've never seen any story quite this beautifully deranged (except maybe Fargo itself). The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Algren

As seen through the eyes of Chicago filmmaker Michael Caplan in his work Algren, the chronicler of the underbelly and underlings of the Windy City Nelson Algren was a man determined to give voice to and tell the stories of people that were never featured on the covers of popular magazines and literature. He thrived in a drunken environment of hookers, junkies and low-grade criminals, many of whom he called his friends. Armed with an abrasive personality, a sharp, unflinching eye, and a pen at the ready, Algren wrote such classics as The Man with the Golden Arm (adapted into a film starring Frank Sinatra, which Algren was not happy with, naturally), Chicago, City on the Make and Walk on the Wild Side. Caplan's film does an impressive job capturing the period and landscape Algren often found himself, and through what few available photos there are and a handful of interviews with acquaintances and fans, he has pieced together probably the best possible version of this man's life story.

The filmmaker wisely makes use of some stunning black-and-white photos of the era by photographer Art Shay, who seems to have the visual component to Algren's words. There's grit and grime, but there's also a sad elegance to the images that suits the narrative. Perhaps the most confusing and contradictory portion of Algren's life story is his on-again/off-again relationship with French feminist Simone de Beauvoir. The pair seemed to be a match made, well, absolutely nowhere, but they somehow managed to keep finding each other, paving the road for an inevitable tempest of emotions.

There are a few choice interviews with other artists of our time who just happen to be big fans of Algren, including filmmakers John Sayles, Andrew Davis, William Friedkin and musician Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins, who almost seems ready to fight anyone who doesn't like the author. If I told you that Algren popularized the phrase "monkey on my back" as a reference to heroin use, you'd have some idea what this man's life was like and the kind of folks he like to hang around. Thankfully, the film pulls no punches when it comes to citing examples of some of Algren's finest, uncensored writing (one of his most vocal admirers was Ernest Hemingway). Algren is a taut, unflinching and respectful tribute to a man who is difficult to embrace but is essential to understanding a huge portion of American culture — the part we often want to look away from.

The film opens in Chicago on Saturday, March 28 at the Music Box Theatre, when it will have a limited run ending Monday, March 30.

 
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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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