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Sunday, March 24

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Airbags

I make a habit not to discuss the box office for the simple reason that box office success and film quality so rarely go hand in hand. Needless to say, it pisses me off when people make a case for a movie being no good because it "bombed" at the box office. The same people who subscribe to this theory probably get most of their news about film from "Access Hollywood" and Us Weekly. But the overwhelming success of Borat last weekend forces me to enter into the realm of box office returns. Entertainment Weekly made the bold move of running an entire article on why Borat would be a failure.

The argument was that Internet geek interest doesn't translate into large audiences—just look at Snakes on a Plane. The big difference between SoaP and Borat is that SoaP sucked and Borat is screamingly funny. Entertainment Weekly predicted the third installment of The Santa Clause to sweep the weekend, which it would have were it not for the raging anti-Semitic mustachioed faux-Kazak journalist. And don't even get me started on that non-story every media outlet ran without researching about Fox pulling back on the number of theatres on which Borat opened. The plan had always been to open it smaller in its first week (to create an artificial demand with sell-out crowds nationwide) and then open huge this weekend. This was always the release platform; don't let anyone tell you different. The plain and simple fact is that EW has egg on its pages, and Borat rules despite all the pre-release hype and nay-sayers.

On a completely unrelated note, Sarah Michelle Gellar's The Return arrives in theatres today without being screened for critics, which means it sucks…kind of the way Snakes on a Plane didn't get advanced screenings because it sucked.


Stranger Than Fiction

The opening night offering at this year's Chicago International Film Festival was the mediocre Stranger Than Fiction, from director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland; Monster's Ball). Forgetting that the concept of the film (a sappy IRS agent hears a female narrator detail his every move, and he attempts to find out who she is) seems like a rejected rough draft of a Charlie Kaufman script (actually written by first-timer Zach Helm), the film just did not hold my interest. And it's shocking that, in a film starring Will Ferrell (in his stone-faced serious mode that tends to pass for High Drama) and Emma Thompson, the most exciting and interesting part of the work is a lively performance by Dustin Hoffman as a literature professor Ferrell turns to for assistance when he discovers the writer intends to kill him off soon.

On paper the film sounds like a winner, but Forster manages to drain all the energy from the production. Ferrell walks around like a zombie; Emma Thompson as the writer plays her role as a caricature of a wacky novelist; and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as the object of Ferrell's affection and audits, might have been better if she didn't disappear for huge chunks of the film. That being said, the film does occasionally have some laughs, and the awkward relationship between Ferrell and Gyllenhaal has moments of sweetness and charm. Hoffman handles the surrealist humor in this movie with much more grace than he did in the awful I Heart Huckabees, but it's truly not enough to save this film. I am compelled to chalk this one up as a disappointment, and not just because most of Stranger Than Fiction's best moments are spoiled by the trailer and commercials. The film is flighty and weightless when it's clearly attempting to be taken as true dark comic art. It is not; it is boring.


A Good Year

I've been hearing rumblings for a little over a month that there was something not quite right about this frilly fare concerning a ruthless London investment expert (Russell Crowe) who rediscovers his softer side when he visits the French vineyard where he spent the better part of his formative years. But as I sat down to watch what I thought, at worst, would be a passably dull voyage of self-discovery, I had no concept of just how abysmally awful A Good Year would turn out to be.

The problems are apparent from the beginning. Crowe plays the shrewd Max Skinner as a charming rogue. Crowe is an awesome actor who has spent his entire career giving us memorable characters, almost without fail. But rarely has he pulled off charming, and certainly never to the level where he can carry what is essentially a male "chick flick" (a term I abhor and almost never use). A Good Year is also supposed to be amusing, bordering on a comedy. Again, Crowe isn't exactly known as the Giggle King, and there are dozens of lines in this film that clearly are supposed to induce laughter that just hang there like a dense fart in a room with no breeze.

What absolutely kills me is that this movie represents a reunion between Crowe and director Ridley Scott, the pair that knocked my socks off with Gladiator. You can be a Gladiator hater, but when I first saw it on a big-ass screen with a beefy sound system, it rattled my fillings. I don't expect this reteaming to yield similar results, but I'd at least expect them to try to make something different. A Good Year breaks no new ground. In fact, it shamelessly tramples on some disgustingly familiar territory. Anyone who saw Under the Tuscan Sun might have an idea of the tone of this film; screenwriter Marc Klein (Serendipity) makes sure of that with his adaptation of Peter Mayle's book.

The most frustrating thing about this film is that most of the elements are there. Skinner's uncle (the energetic Albert Finney) raised him at the picturesque vineyard as boy after his parents died. Young Max is played thoughtfully by Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Finding Neverland). But when Max gets old enough, he leaves behind the serene Provençal lifestyle for life in the big city. We don't quite get the missing piece to the Max puzzle—his journey from sweet kid to sublime asshole adult—and that may be part of the problem with the movie. When Uncle Henry dies, he leaves his estate to Max, who has no interest in holding onto it. After a possibly illegal bit of dirty (and quite successful) trading on the London stock market, Max decides it's time for a holiday (if only to avoid being fired or arrested). The vineyard is in disrepair, so Max decides to clean it up a bit with help from the staff and sell it with the help of his sleazy realtor (Tom Hollander of Pirates of the Caribbean).

Naturally Max begins to grow fond of the property and the people, especially a beautiful waitress played by French actress Marion Cotillard (probably best know for her work in the Taxi film). Max also gets an unexpected visit from a young American woman (fellow Australian actor Abbie Cornish) who appears to be the illegitimate child of his uncle and may have a rightful claim to the vineyard.

The cringe factor really takes hold in this work whenever Max harkens back to how wonderful and carefree his childhood was with his uncle, who would let Max sip various wines and pretty much just have free reign and no responsibilities. Nothing is more boring on film than watching someone else have fun. I count myself a fan of most of the major players in this film, but there's no denying they are floundering here, Crowe most of all. I've grown quite fond of Abbie Cornish lately, having seen her put forth powerful performances in the Australian offerings Somersault and Candy (opposite Heath Ledger, which should come out in the United States fairly soon), but she seems completely uninspired with her California girl accent and ultra-tiny bikini.

I guess my only question to Scott and Crowe is: Why? Why this project? Why this story? Were you both looking to prove you could do something beyond extraordinary action and intense drama? I'm all for actors and directors stretching their wings and showing us their range, but not when the results fail so resoundingly. A Good Year is a failure of the highest magnitude, and if you read this and still go to see it, you have no one to blame but yourself. Enjoy.


Come Early Morning

One film that lifted my spirits a great deal at the Chicago Film Festival was the writing-directing debut from actress Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy; The Break-Up). Her beyond-low-key Come Early Morning is an honest and authentic look at a small-town woman named Lucy (Ashley Judd, reminding us what a tremendous actress she can be), whose troubled upbringing results in her becoming the town's drunken floozy.

The core of Lucy's troubles is her struggle to shed her hard-learned ways when she meets Call (Jeffrey Donovan), a man who actually wants to kiss her when she's sober and have her stick around when the sun comes up. After a string of mostly ludicrous crime-thrillers, Judd returns to the type of role I knew she was capable of since she first caught my eye in Ruby in Paradise. But more impressive is Adams' sure-handed direction. Unlike most new filmmakers, Adams isn't afraid to linger and let the camera stay still while her characters share the space with each other, often uncomfortably. Adams' script is also an exercise in maturity and a lifetime of knowing (or perhaps even being) many of the people in this film. Everything about this tale feels authentic.

Come Early Morning doesn't have much of a plot, but this isn't really a problem. As a slice of small-town life, it's a winner. Laura Prepon gives a sweet and moving performance as Judd's roommate who still believes in true love. Other solid supporting turns are given by Tim Blake Nelson, Diane Ladd and Ray McKinnon as the town preacher to whom Lucy turns for guidance and understanding about her largely miserable life to this point. Without falling back on a series of explosive dramatic encounters, Come Early Morning instead relies on small, deeply felt scenes that add up to something quietly meaningful. I really hope this tiny wonder of a film doesn't get lost in the early phase of awards season because it's well worth seeking out.

To read my interview with Joey Lauren Adams, visit Ain't It Cool News.


Harsh Times

It doesn't happen as often as it did when I was younger, but every so often a film takes you so completely off guard that you don't know exactly how to process it. The long-on-the-shelf Harsh Times fits into the category of "Where the hell did this come from?" Christian Bale is an actor I have watched grow up on film, and he still finds ways of surprising me. But even coming off the one-two punch of Batman Begins and The Prestige (and I'm quite desperate to see him in Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn), I don't think most people are going to be prepared for the shockingly strong effort he puts forth in this film.

Bale plays Jim Davis, an ex-Army Ranger recently back from the current Gulf War, who is trying to find a law enforcement job in Los Angeles. Clearly, Davis went into the military to gain much-needed discipline and to perhaps redirect his violent tendencies toward an enemy he was actually allowed and encouraged to kill. But his return to L.A. has not been an easy one. He effortlessly slips back into small-time thug life, drinking and smoking pot. His one saving grace is a beautiful Mexican girlfriend still living south of the border, whom he desperately wants to marry. The LAPD rejects his application because of a failed psyche exam, but that doesn't stop a Homeland Security agent (J.K. Simmons) from taking an interest in him for some of its more dangerous and deadly work.

As Jim proceeds through their screening process during the day, he and his best friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) cruise through L.A. looking for trouble, stealing stashes from drug dealers, getting into fights and drinking like today is the last day alcohol will be available on the face of the earth. Mike is supposed to be looking for a new job at the behest of his nagging girlfriend, Sylvia (Eva Longoria), but Jim is a persuasive instigator of bad behavior, even to the point of staging fake phone calls to Mike's home answering machine to make Sylvia think job interviews are being lined up.

Needless to say, Bale does an astonishing job of playing two versions of Jim: the professional, military-grade good solider who is polite and respectful to his superiors and potential federal bosses; and the Caucasian Mexican wannabe, who speaks not only perfect Spanglish but with a dead-on Mexican accent. This dance between these two very different worlds is fascinating to watch, and Bale moves in an out seamlessly, playing the Neanderthal one minute and sensitive, straight-laced guy the next.

But Bale isn't the only surprise in Harsh Times. The film marks Rodriguez's first real starring role, after much acclaim playing Federico on "Six Feet Under" and a succession of supporting roles in high-profile films this year like Poseidon, Lady in the Water and the upcoming Bobby. (He's also in Robert Rodriguez's upcoming Grindhouse entry, "Planet Terror.") Rodriguez has never gotten a chance to cut loose and show us what he's capable of until this film. In many ways, his character is us, the hapless viewer watching the craziness around him and making a futile attempt to please both Sylvia and Jim. When the two men decide to go to Mexico to party before Jim is scheduled to be shipped off for his Homeland Security training, Sylvia has a fit and threatens to leave him. Mike is something of a man-child, wanting very much to make Sylvia happy but also being constantly distracted by anything that looks fun.

Aspects of Harsh Times (in particular the countless scenes of the two men just driving around the city's underbelly looking for trouble) are reminiscent of Training Day, which should come as no surprise since this work marks the directorial debut of that film's writer David Ayer (S.W.A.T. and The Fast and the Furious). There's no denying Ayer is a master of testosterone-fueled movies about men behaving like animals, but there's a buried but still visible thoughtfulness in Harsh Times. Jim clearly suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome from his time at war, and it clouds his judgment and makes him aggressive and stupid when he drinks.

Harsh Times' third act falls apart to a degree, as the story never quite knows what it wants to be or how it wants to end, but by that point you are fully invested in the perilous futures of all of the characters and your only concern is just seeing them safely through their dangerous existence. As Jim, Bale confirms that he is a force to be reckoned. But it's Freddy Rodriguez who snapped up my attention, and the film serves as a solid introduction to this terrific actor whose days playing second fiddle are probably at an end.


Iraq in Fragments

Not only one of the best documentary offerings of this year's Chicago International Film Festival, but also one of the most penetrating looks at aspects of the Iraq War that we as Americans simply do not see. Rather than rely on brutal footage of countless dead Iraqi civilian casualties and flattened buildings, Iraq in Fragments instead allows us to spend time with groups of Iraqis who have no real power but so much to lose or gain depending on who is running their country. These three portraits give us the most complete picture of the Iraqi people I've ever seen on film.

The most heartbreaking is the tale of a fatherless 11-year-old boy, who works for a sometimes-cruel "uncle" in a Baghdad garage. The boy is dirty, probably diseased, hungry and illiterate. Even if he survives wartime, his future in Iraq is bleak, and the pain on his face hurts to look at. We see his spirit broken repeatedly in the short time we spend with him, and it never stops crushing your soul. A second story involves the attempt at a regional election in two Shiite cities. The struggle is to make the elections as free as possible while maintaining some semblance of order while election officials, candidates and voters are being threatened with death. The exact thing the government didn't want were guns at the polls, and guns are exactly what they got. The third story is the most interesting because it involves a family of Kurdish farmers who are genuinely happy that the United States has moved in and given them a level of freedom they weren't used to before the war.

A big winner in the documentary categories at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Iraq in Fragments was filmed over the course of two years by American James Longley, who seemingly had unprecedented access to the war-savaged country, and gives us a look at all ethnic mixes that make up Iraq. I don't want to say too much about what happens to the individuals here, since the film—which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema—is composed of the small moments that make up the lives of these ordinary people living in explosive and largely tragic times. Iraq in Fragments is edited like an art film and less like a long-form news report, as so many of the recent films on Iraq are. Like the country itself, this exceptional work uses a splintered approach in telling the story of a nation being torn apart by religion, culture and outside influence.


Unknown

The crime drama Unknown begins with an outrageous premise and gets more ridiculous from there. Five men wake up in a locked warehouse. Some are bound or otherwise made immobile, some are injured, but all of them have severe memory loss, to the point where they can't even remember their own names. They deduce that a kidnapping scenario has gone horribly wrong, that a gas tank stored in the warehouse leaked, knocking them all out and causing their hopefully temporary amnesia. What they don't know is which of the group are the kidnappers and which are the hostages. The entire film becomes a race to figure out exactly what happened, who's who, and whose memory will return first.

Unknown includes a whole lot of yelling, men attempting to show who's the tougher guy (but not too tough, because no one wants to be labeled as one of the kidnappers), and tentative alliances between characters who seem fairly certain they are among the good guys. The silly factor of this film comes with way too convenient pieces of the puzzle dropping in right when they are needed. It's similar, I suppose, to films featuring mentally challenged characters who are just smart enough to forward the plot when needed. The downfall of Unknown is by no means the actors' faults. This is a surprisingly solid cast that includes Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear, Joe Pantoliano, Barry Pepper and Jeremy Sisto as the warehouse captives, as well as supporting roles from the always wacky Peter Stormare and Bridget Moynahan, as the wife of one of the kidnapping victims (of course, we don't find out until it's necessary to the plot).

The film is the feature directing debut from music video and commercial director Simon Brand, and there's no doubt the guy knows how to move a camera through tight quarters (with help from Brick cinematographer Steve Yedlin) and keep the tension level high (mostly with the aforementioned yelling). But it's the by-the-number screenplay (from first-timer Matthew Waynee) that sinks this vessel. Most of the plot consists of moments like this:

"We need this piece of information right now."
"Okay, let's have one of the characters remember it."
"Done. Now everybody yell!"

I'm paraphrasing, of course. But you catch my drift. I was in the mood to like this film. These are all actors I really enjoy watching, and the chance to just watch them bounce off each other in an aggressive, fast-moving storyline sounded like fun. But by the end, I just wanted it done, especially after the second false ending. I'm not sure there were just one or two things that could have been changed to make Unknown a better movie. More than likely this decent premise turned horribly wrong was terminally ill from the first draft, but for those Greg Kinnear completists out there, it's something to distract you until his vastly superior turn in Fast Food Nation hits theatres later this month.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 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.

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