As of January 1, 2016, Gapers Block has ceased publication. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions over the past 12-plus years. 

TODAY

Monday, July 22

Gapers Block
Search

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr


Airbags

Changeling

Someone asked me what the last bad Clint Eastwood movie was as a director, and I had a hard time answering the question. I guess the last one I didn't recommend was Space Cowboys, in which he also starred. I guess this is my weak-ass way at telling you that, while I didn't dislike his latest work Changeling, there is something about the film that just doesn't work. There is certainly no shortage of great performances in this film, especially the work done by such well-known players as Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich as well as lesser-known character actors like Michael Kelly and Jason Butler Harner. Perhaps it's the story that never quite drew me in. But more than that, it feels like Eastwood's heart just isn't in this tale of a missing child in 1928 Los Angeles. The twists and turns of this bizarre, real-life case — in which the police return a boy to Christine Collins (Jolie), who is in fact not her son — are so hard to conceive of and wrap your head around that they leave you a little empty. I know enough about the actual case to know that Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski took some serious liberties with the facts, but that's not my problem either.

There's just too much going on here, and too many grand personalities vying for screen time and possible awards accolades. Eastwood covered a missing child scenario before in Mystic River, but that film seemed more focused and less flailing. I loved Malkovich's take on radio evangelist Rev. Gustav Briegleb, who has made it his mission to expose corruption in the LAPD and protect Collins from them as her voice and claims get louder and believed by more. The police are so afraid of the embarrassment of having reunited Collins with the wrong child that they refuse to believe her claims that the young man is not her son, despite the fact that he is apparently three inches shorter and has different dental records. At one point, she's even put into an insane asylum by the police for acting hysterical. Last year's Oscar nominee Amy Ryan (from Gone Baby Gone and currently guesting on "The Office") makes an all-too-brief appearance in this sequence as a fellow patient who was also put in the loony bin falsely by the police.

Part of the problem is that there are so many subplots to the Collins boy's disappearance that the film ends up feeling scattered and unfocused. The asylum sequence is too long and brings the plot to a grinding stop. Then there are the scenes involving a fairly honest cop (Kelly) interrogating a kid and eventually chasing down a possible serial killer. And the police chief and his right-hand stooge are involved in an endless succession of dirty tricks against Collins. While these distractions are meant to close the book on what exactly happened to Collins' son, they drag the film down and on (the running time is nearly 2.5 hours). Jolie's devastating good looks and solid acting are certainly welcome, but I got so lost in her perfect makeup and clothes, I sometimes lost interest in what was going on with the plot(s). As I said, there are many good things about Changeling, but there's a central piece needed to hold everything together that is simply missing. It should be Jolie, but it isn't. And I usually don't have issues with her as an actress. It might have been Malkovich, but he's not in the film enough to make that happen. No, the problem with this movie is that something — other than a little boy — is missing... a spark, an energy, a passion is lacking, despite a whole lot of trying. It's a valiant effort on Eastwood's part, but this is a rare instance where I did not connect with his usually flawless work.

Happy-Go-Lucky

Speaking of filmmakers who have rarely, if ever, made a bad movie, the 65-year-old British auteur Mike Leigh delivers what may be his most accessible but no less compelling work, featuring yet another in a long line of lead female performances that is worthy of every award nomination it's likely to garner. Sally Hawkins stars as Poppy, a school teacher with a spirit, attitude and sense of humor that is completely without boundaries. Hawkins plays the role like it was hers from birth, which in many ways it is. As with many of Leigh's films, the "story" (as much as there is one) emerges from what is essentially a character study of Poppy simply going through her day to day routine. She pretty, dresses a bit loud, and finds it in herself to laugh and crack jokes through even some truly painful experiences, such as throwing her back out. For her, life's glass is always half full. Although the film's title might lead you to believe Happy-Go-Lucky is an unabashed comedy or some sort of light-hearted fare, don't be too sure. While this is certainly one of Leigh's lighter efforts, it's by no means lightweight as we see Poppy deal with a possible abuse situation regarding one of her students.

But by far the film's most intense sequences comes from the least likely source: Poppy's weekly driving lessons with Scott (Eddie Marsan), a bitter and buttoned-up man whose methods of instruction would fit right in at any prison camp. His is one of the most well-rounded characters in the film, and we see a transformation in his persona that is both sad and scary. Almost as a means to counter that, there's a single sequence in which Poppy meets an older homeless man that is simply one of the most touching moments you will see on film all year. The film's final act centers on Poppy's almost accidental love life, a situation that arises out of the child abuse situation (irrefutable proof that she can turn any negative into a positive).

Leigh is best known for his high drama in films such as Naked, Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake, and while Happy-Go-Lucky is no less satisfying, it falls more in line thematically and tonally with works like Life Is Sweet, Career Girls and All or Nothing. If these titles mean nothing to you, first of all, shame on you, but second, this is an excellent opportunity to introduce yourself to the wonders of true modern British cinema. More importantly, the film gives us all a chance to meet one of the most richly drawn female characters of this year or any in recent memory. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

RocknRolla

I keep waiting for Guy Ritchie to find his footing again, and his latest film does return him to the world of gun-toting British gangsters, rapid-fire editing and swirling camera movements, all of which are steps in the direction of his early and best works, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. But what RocknRolla is missing is a solid entry point such as Jason Statham gave us in those two films. Although 300's Gerald Butler is being touted as the star of the film, he's not really; he's just one of many seedy types that populate the film and give Ritchie's vision its patented mixture of over-inflated machismo and dark, dark humor. The narrator of the film is actually one of my favorite actors working today, Mark Strong, who also happens to be the best thing about Ridley Scott's latest, Body of Lies. Strong is a chameleon, so you may not know exactly what he looks like. I remember first noticing him in Stardust last year. In RocknRolla, Strong plays the right-hand man to one of London's most important crime lords (played by Tim Wilkinson), who has made a small fortune getting things done in the real estate market. A few more scenes with Strong would have established him as our door into Ritchie's complicated plot, and allowed me to like this film a whole lot more.

As it is, the movie isn't half bad. I couldn't begin to dive into the plot in any kind of detail, but it involves million of pounds of money meant for bribing purposes so a Russian gangster can buy up and develop massive amounts of London real estate. Money is stolen, low-level criminal types are beat up or killed outright, a valuable painting is passed around from scumbag to scumbag, and there's some drugged-out rock star whom most people think is dead but is actually just holed up somewhere taking massive quantities of drugs. Why do we care about him? It takes way too long to find out. Ritchie's strong suit is pulling together all of these stories and characters, and making the experience of watching them go through the paces fun even if the various plot elements don't all make sense (the did for me in this case). And he always seems to attract great (or at least interesting) actors to his movies. In RocknRolla, we see the likes of Jeremy Piven, Thandie Newton, Ludacris, Toby Kebbell, Gemma Arterton and Idris Elba (Stringer Bell from "The Wire"). Some of the characters are overly slick, while others are patsies and thugs, but they are certainly never boring to watch. In a weird way, RocknRolla's flaws are also its strengths. I've seen Ritchie do versions of this before, and working in his comfort zone is where he operates best. The problem with that is that he doesn't bring anything really new to the table beyond a chorus of new faces to replace the old. For the most part, I enjoyed this movie for my own reasons, but I'm not sure those reasons quite translate into a universal recommendation. If you've been impressed with Ritchie's work in the past (excluding Swept Away and parts of Revolver), you might really enjoy you time watching this one. Either way, I'm really excited to see his take on Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law (and Mark Strong as the villain, I might add), set for release next year. RocknRolla is a toss-up.

Pride and Glory

One thing no one can ever accuse writer-director Gavin O'Connor of doing is short-changing his audience on energy or being disingenuous about how he approaches his material. His two previous films (the fantastic 1999 indie hit Tumbleweeds and Miracle, 2004's docudrama about the 1980 Olympic hockey team) are examples of what an absolutely solid filmmaker the guy is. His latest work (co-scripted with Joe Carnahan, director of Smokin' Aces and Narc), Pride and Glory, swings for the fences in terms of scope and intensity but is continually thwarted by its simply and constantly spiraling out of control. When you get two spirited actors like Edward Norton and Colin Farrell, with a shot of ham courtesy of Jon Voight, you can probably expect that reining those characters in might be a full-time gig. Still, the story of two generations of New York cops who become linked with a pretty ugly scandal involving dead officers, drugs, and all sorts of unseemly criminal types has its moments. Norton plays Ray Tierney, who is pulled back into the fold after a personal tragedy by his father Francis (Voight), the chief of Manhattan detectives, to lead the investigation into the deaths of four policemen. Farrell plays Ray's brother-in-law (married to Ray's sister) Jimmy, a lose cannon in the classic sense. One of the problems I had with this film is Farrell's choice to play Jimmy as so obviously guilty of something. The movie's secret weapon is the always-reliable Noah Emmerich as elder brother Francis Jr., the family's and the force's stable, often silent pillar.

The investigation in this film seems secondary to the character portraits, and I'm OK with that. The film is strongest when it focuses on the relationships between the family members. There's a dinner sequence featuring the entire cast that is something to behold and feels wonderfully alive and spontaneous. In a way, I wish O'Connor had enough confidence in those sections of the movie to make that the focal point. Francis Jr.'s wife (Jennifer Ehle) has cancer, and Ehle is such a strong actress that whenever she's on screen, I never wanted to see her leave. Lake Bell plays the Tierney family's only sister (married to Jimmy), and she's terrific but gets so little screen time that it's frustrating. The world has enough police dramas on TV and in movies that Pride and Glory does not seem particularly special or necessary. I liked that O'Connor tried to draw parallels between the secretive world of the police and way governments or corporations protect and deal with their own, but even that isn't exactly uncharted waters. Pride and Glory has a great look, some fine acting, and a select few moments that I thought carried me through it, but ultimately the effort is disappointing considering how long we've had to wait for a new film from O'Connor.

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

Yeah, that's right. I saw it. What are you going to do about it, you sonofabitch? I not only saw it, I watched the first two High School Musical movies as a primer. I made the decision long ago that if I was going to dive in, I'd do so head first... and maybe I'd be lucky enough to crack my head open and miss the third installment of the single safest movie you will ever see (or not see) this year. I'll admit that the level of enthusiasm the largely young female audience I saw HSM3 with fascinated me to no ends. But more than that, I'm intrigued by Zac Efron for a couple of reasons. First off, he's the only one of this bunch of not-so-young-anymore actors who can actually act. He's the best singer, the best dancer, and, based on the screaming when he flops his floppy hair a certain way or takes his shirt off, the best looking of the bunch. I'm really glad that my first exposure to him was Hairspray, and not one of these movies.

Forgetting the easily forgettable plot of HSM3 — about Efron and his girlfriend (Vanessa "I Saw You Naked So Stop Playing All Virginal" Hudgens) and their friends preparing for graduation and college — the film's highlights are the musical numbers. But here's the thing, it's very clear to me that in order to secure Efron in this third sequel that I'm fairly certain he didn't want to do, the song-and-dance makers had to showcase him a whole lot more in this movie than the previous two. What's even more interesting is that those are the film's strongest moments. There's one angst-ridden solo sequence where Efron tears through the empty school trying to contemplate what his next move will be. Will he continue playing basketball at a nearby college in Albuquerque, or will her head off to Julliard where he can sing and dance until the gay cows come home? Will he and Miss Naked Virgin stay together, perform in the big senior show or will she leave to go to Stanford on an early admission program? These are important issues, people! There's another impressive song-and-dance scene with Efron and co-star Corbin Bleu set in a car junkyard that so clearly casts Efron as Justin Timberlake it made me laugh.

It was a little frustrating watching HSM3 since none of the other actors seem to adjust their play to the back row style of overacting for the big screen. You don't have to wave your arms around and make faces on the big screen. We can see you; stop trying so hard to get noticed. Wait, am I trying to say I liked this movie? In a way, I guess I did. I wasn't clawing at my eyes as I ran screaming for the exits when it ended. And the fact is, I dig Efron as a performer, and I hope that in future roles he's able to continue in future musicals. I seem to recall he's going to star in a Footloose remake, which actually sounds like a great idea. As an actor, the kid's not bad either. I'm hearing good things about him in Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles. He'll probably be one of the actors who is always fighting to be taken seriously because of his good looks and his twinkle toes, but the fact is, Efron is a great all-around entertainer who will look back at HSM3 as the end of the first chapter of that part of his life, while I look at it as the beginning of a new chapter in mine called "Me and Zac: 2 Gether 4 Ever." Toodles!

An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt / I Am So Proud of You

So here's the thing about Don Hertzfeldt: the guy is a certifiable genius. Anyone who has watched his glorious and hilarious hand-drawn animated shorts Billy's Balloon, Ah, L'Amour, or Rejected knows this already, and you've more than likely watched these shorts more times than you can count, especially the truly inspired Rejected. But beginning with The Meaning of Life and continuing on to the 2006-07 exercise in mental gymnastics Everything will be ok, the Oscar-nominated Hertzfeldt has gone from being a gifted writer and animator of comic shorts into a more existential realm which faithfully examines the way the human mind works and doesn't work. He's showing us the mental movie that runs inside a fractured mind, maintaining a level of humor, but adding a blanket of melancholy and despair. One could see these recent works as a portrait of a man trying to fend off a psychological meltdown, or perhaps this is said meltdown in its earliest incarnation. Most importantly, Hertzfeldt has transformed himself from animator and storyteller into a true artist. And his latest work, I am so proud of you, is heartfelt proof of this.

His longest short to date, this new piece is something of a follow-up to Everything will be ok, and much like that work, it's impossible to summarize or explain. You just need to see it, and in doing so, you'll understand that behind Hertzfeldt's countless triumphs and accolades over the years is a man with some serious issues in dealing with the everyday world. This is the first of his films that got a genuinely deep emotional response from me, and I think it's accurate to say I was fairly devastated after watching it, which of course forced me to watch it again.

But don't take my word for it. Go see it for yourself in an evening of really special events. On Friday, Oct, 24, Hertzfeldt will be in Chicago as part of his North American tour for an "Evening with Don Hertzfeldt" at the famed Music Box Theatre. A second show has just been added, so advance tickets are now available for an 8pm show and an 11:30pm show. First off, a selection of Don's classic animated shorts will be screened, concluding with I am so proud of you. After the shorts, what is sure to be one of the most awkward and uncomfortable Q&As you'll ever see will commence. You do no want to miss this rare event. I've heard from people I trust who have seen Hertzfeldt do Q&As that he's a bit shy and reserved, which surprises me not even a little. But hopefully, great questions and an enthusiastic crowd will lure some excellent responses from him.

And what if you don't live in Chicago or can't make the trip? Perhaps Don is coming to a city near you. He's already hit the Northwest as well as the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar in Austin recently. Chicago is about the midway point on this tour, which then takes Hertzfeldt to Omaha, Calgary, Atlanta, Allentown, Rochester, New York City, Denver and Los Angeles by November 30. Check the Bitter Films website for specific dates and locations. I implore you if you live in one of the towns not to miss this evening of classic animation and a chance to spent a little time with this talented artist.

GB store
 

About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for more than 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15