Hey everyone. Before I get started this week, I want to pay tribute to a man who actually has two films opening nationwide today — the late and truly great Chicagoan Bernie Mac, who has a starring role (one of the far too few of his career) in Soul Men and does the voice of a lion king in Madagascar: Back 2 Africa. Although I never had the chance to sit down and interview Mac, I did run into him around the city on more than one occasion over the many years since I really took notice of him in Spike's Lee's groundbreaking concert documentary, The Real Kings of Comedy. There's a reason the Mac-man is the last comic featured in the film, because Spike knew to save the best for last. I feel confident in saying that Bernie Mac had no idea who I was and had never heard of any of the modest little sites for which I write, but when a true fan expressed his/her appreciation for Mac's great work as both a stand-up comedian and an actor, Bernie Mac always took the time to listen and express appreciation right back.
Mac the comic, which is the Bernie I'll know and love best, could be vulgar, sensitive, vicious, touching, and above all else funny. In fact, if it wasn't funny, it wasn't worth uttering, according to Mac. As an actor, I still believe that the best work Mac ever did was in a lesser-known Ted Demme-directed work called Life, opposite Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. As a comic actor, it's hard to beat Bad Santa, although I have a great deal of affection for Mr. 3000. I never missed an episode of "The Bernie Mac Show," despite Fox's constant moving around the show's timeslot. Boy, will I miss Bernie Mac, one of the few men in the world who can do entire routine about beating children so hard "you can see the white meat." I wish he could have gone out with better films as two of his final works (his last film, Old Dogs, will come out late in 2009), but I'll take Bernie where I can get him. If you don't find yourself honoring his memory by catching his latest films, remember Mac this weekend in some of his older, better works.
Synecdoche, New York
Whatever you do, do not let someone (including me) try to explain the plot of writer-director Charlie Kaufman's film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. First off, it's impossible to do. Second, the film is also totally devalued the minute you attempt to explain or analyze it to someone who hasn't seen it. Kaufman has written some of the most original works in the last 10 years, including Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In my book, the man is a certifiable genius when it comes to his writing. Synecdoche, New York is also written by Kaufman, who attempts his most ambitious work yet about theater director Caden (Hoffman), who is married to a woman (Catherine Keener) who despises him and has a daughter who barely knows him. Caden wins a major theater grant that gives him license to perform any show over any period of time for as long as he likes without fear of not being fully financed at all times. With his life falling apart before him, Caden decides to cast actors to play characters in his life, including an actor to play him. He recreates moments from his miserable life in the hopes of finding some greater purpose to his existence. As the days, weeks, months and years (yes, the timeline of the film goes across decades of Caden's life) pass, each new person he meets on the street or in his apartment building goes right into his work. There is no actual performance of these mini-plays. Instead, he ends up a building a replica of the buildings he goes into on a daily basis. As the actors he's using begin to form bonds and have love affairs, those relationships, too, must be represented in the ongoing, never-actually-put-on play.
You see what I mean about the plot being impossible to explain? And as much time as it took me to get used to the rhythms of Kaufman's film, it's not a struggle or pain to keep up with what's going on in the film. Synecdoche doesn't feel like a gimmick either, which I thought it would. The almost too good to be true cast of mostly women (including Samantha Morton , Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Hope Davis) breathe so much beautiful life into the proceedings that it's easy to get lost in the warmth the film does manage to deliver despite its dreary lead performance from Hoffman, who has never been more stark-raving miserable. As the film enters its final act, it becomes less about the specific incidents in Caden's life and more about embracing the ordinary things that happen to us in our day-to-day existence. For most of us, real life is mundane with punctuations of excitement. Movies and plays are the opposite. Charlie Kauffman is attempting, through his character, to capture the ordinary and make it seem less so. Synecdoche is like nothing you've ever seen before, while trying very hard to display things you see everyday. Some may have issues with the movie's final moments, but I cherish them, especially when Dianne Wiest enters the story. This film is a gamble, both on Kaufman's part and yours. Take the chance, and check out one of the most unnerving and comforting films you'll see all year. I can't explain it any better than that. And don't let anyone else try to talk to you about it before you see it. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Sometimes it is possible to take a formula film, with a predictable ending and all, and make it something special and exceedingly funny thanks in large part to an absolutely dead-on cast. Role Models is a collection of some of the funniest people working today, both known and relatively unknown, doing dumb shit and doing it oh so well. Master ad-libber Paul Rudd plays Danny, an energy drink salesman who goes from school to school with Wheeler (Seann William Scott), who dresses in a Minotaur costume selling a product called Minotaur (how do they come up with this stuff!?). The men are arrested and sentenced to community service, serving as big brothers to two trouble kids played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Bobb'e J. Thompson. The program is part of Sturdy Wings, run by an ex-con director played by the goddess Jane Lynch (Best in Show, The 40 Year Old Virgin), who is determined to turn this reckless energy into something constructive for these two kids.
What Rudd (credited as a co-writer of the film, along with Ken Marino, Timothy Dowling and director David Wain) managed to pull off is some truly funny comedy. Wain and Marino were part of the vastly talented group of folks who did "The State" on MTV about 100 years ago, but they continue to produce quality funny films, such as Wet Hot American Summer and last year's The Ten. I'll admit, I kept waiting for the film to falter or get unbearably boring, but it never really does. The concluding battle set among live-action role playing (LARP) cast members goes on a bit too long and isn't that satisfying, but based on the two times I've seen the film, the sequence is a solid crowd pleaser. Throw in the lovely and unbelievably busy Elizabeth Banks as Rudd's on-again/off-again girlfriend, and you've got a damn fine movie that isn't going to win any awards for originality but still remains one of the funniest things out there right now. Rudd is just funny whenever he opens his mouth, and Scott (American Pie) has become of the most reliable comic actors working today. He's not simply doing a variation of his Stifler riff. This is a far more measured performance than we're used to from him, and he pulls it off like an expert. Between this film and The Promotion early this year, Scott continues to surprise me with how much of his untapped comedy resources we have yet to explore. The film goes for the cheap laughs nearly as often as tries out things that are truly new. Role Models won't teach you be a better parent, camp counselor, or how to LARP, but it does seem determined to make you laugh a lot. It's hard to believe there's someone out there who wouldn't get a kick out of this baby.
To read my exclusive interview with Role Models star Paul Rudd, go to Ain't It Cool News.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
I'm not going to say too much about this absolutely flawless documentary opening today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, because the story it tells and the unpredictable nature of its narrative are so gripping and emotionally wrenching that to spoil any part of it would be criminal. What little I will reveal is that the film from director Kurt Kuenne began life as something much more simple than it turned out to be. One of Kuenne's best friends, Dr. Andrew Bagby, was murdered in 2001. It turns out Bagby's former girlfriend was pregnant with his child at the time of his death, so the filmmaker decided to travel the country to meet dozens of Bagby's closest friends and family in an effort to piece together a profile of a father this child would never know. It is one of the purest forms of cinematic kindness I've ever been made aware of, and if that were all the film was, it would probably still be quite good.
But as Kuenne is on his journey, events are unfolding concerning Bagby's murder that play out like one of the greatest crime dramas that has yet to be written by Hollywood. In fact, if a screenwriter ever put this story down on paper, I'd probably be telling you how outrageous and unbelievable it was. Your mind almost can't wrap itself around the events as they unfold, and Kuenne edits his work to maximize the shocking turns the case takes with it feeling like exploitation. I implore not just those of you who embrace documentaries on a regular basis to see this — I know that you will — but I beg anyone who cares anything about quality cinema to make the journey to whatever theater is playing this film and see it. Drag along as many people as you can, and see it. Nothing I can tell you will quite brace you for what's in store for you, and that's the best way to experience this or any other movie. Dear Zachary will quite literally change your life, even if it's only for a day. To give you a sense of the film's power, I first saw this film for the right around the time it premiered at the SXSW Film Festival back in March, and I'm still talking about it. Don't miss this rare and special opportunity.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
I can't imagine that most people who see this tale of the son of a Nazi officer wouldn't have the same reaction I did. Look, I realize that the nature of cinema is manipulation, both visual and emotional. That's how things work. A filmmaker directs his/her actors, edits and scores his/her work as part of a grand manipulation process. But good films don't wear their manipulative tools on their collective sleeves. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seems almost proud of them. Director Mark Herman (whose previous films have been far lighter fare, such as Brassed Off and Little Voice) may be in over his emotional head with this story (based on the novel by John Boyne) of a German family (played by non-Germans David Thewlis as the Nazi in charge of a death camp and Vera Farmiga as his wife) who move to a remote location where the couple's young son Bruno (Asa Butterfield) decides to explore the grounds. He stumbles upon the camp, which he believes is a farm, and meets a young Jewish boy named Schmuel (Jack Scanlon). The pair strike up a friendship through the barbed wire, and it becomes increasingly clear to Bruno that something far more sinister is going ton with the "farm" and with his father than he first believed.
The first of many problems with the film is that since we know right off the bat what's going on at the camp, Bruno's awakening doesn't translate into ours giving a crap what's going on. "But he's an innocent child. Of course we care what happens to him." Yeah, not so much. When a film like this asks us to become emotionally involved in the fate of a Nazi officer's son, and pays far less attention to fully realizing Schmuel or any other Jewish characters, there's a serious miscalculation about how much sympathy people are capable of. The entire film feels like a gross miscalculation. The "German" characters frequently use expressions that are clearly British. Farmiga herself adopts a British accent for consistency's sake. The movie never moves beyond a bunch of actors playing dress up for a story that is missing several crucial emotional components. By the time the plot reaches its almost ludicrous climax, I had long since reached for threshold for being tugged and pushed into caring about what happens to anyone in this story. If you have a passion for poorly made Holocaust films, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Not a great movie befitting Bernie Mac but not a complete bust either, Soul Men is the fictional account of two back-up singers Floyd and Louis (Mac and Samuel L. Jackson, respectively) for megastar Marcus Hooks (a funny, non-speaking cameo by singer John Legend). When Hooks broke out as a highly successful solo act, Louis and Floyd started their own group called The Real Deal; they even had a hit. But internal strife broke up the band some 30 years prior to the real story being told in the film, which involved the death of Hooks and a tribute concert being organized at the Apollo Theatre during which The Real Deal might possibly reunite. Floyd is now a successful car salesman, while Louis is a mechanic who has had one hard time after another. Soul Men is really a road movie disguised as some sort of musical tribute to great soul tunes. Certainly, the film features a handful of great old music sung by Legend, Mac, and Jackson (with varying degrees of success). The one thing this movie is not is a male version of Dreamgirls (I wish).
The saving grace of Soul Men (and there aren't many) is that the film allows Mac and Jackson to swear up a storm. I realize that relying on four-letter words for your comedy is something of a crutch, but when Bernie Mac curses, it's music to my ears. Hearing "motherfucker" come out of his mouth makes me tear up just thinking about it. Nobody swears like Bernie Mac, except maybe Dennis Farina. Even when they are pretending to despise each other, Mac and Jackson have a great familiarity on screen, like they've worked together for decades before the cameras ever started rolling. And if the film had just been about them being cantankerous, I think I would have loved it. But director Malcolm D. Lee (Undercover Brother, Roll Bounce) clutters his film with sentimentality in its back half. One of the pair may or may not have fathered a child with a woman they both had a relationship with at different points in their lives. There's a domestic abuse scenario that is played for laughs, and it really doesn't feel right. There are a couple of supporting characters (in particular, Affion Crockett and Adam Herschman) that completely break the mood of the film by behaving like cartoon version of real people. There are also a handful of cameos (by the likes of Jennifer Coolidge, Ken Davitian, Sean Hayes and Vanessa del Rio) who don't add anything to the film except time.
Despite my feelings on this movie being decidedly mixed, I'm forced to recommend it slightly just to watch Bernie Mac give a role (even one as underwritten as this one) his best. There's a great collection of scenes during the end credits that really got me choked up. They combine outtakes, on-set interviews with Mac, and footage of him warming up a crowd of extras during the film's climactic music number at the Apollo. My god, did he love being in front of an audience. Mac was a master storyteller, more than a joke teller. He told the funniest, dirtiest stories I've ever heard, and I will miss knowing that he will never again show up at a Cubs game to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," or that I will not run into him at a restaurant or store in Chicago. This movie isn't the best Mac has to offer, but for us completists, it holds the place just fine.
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
I bet most of you don't remember that the original Madagascar opened the same day as Revenge of the Sith. I'm guessing even fewer of you care. I guess my point is that Madagascar did remarkably strong business against a juggernaut of a film, and I actually thought it wasn't half bad. For those of you who relished in the idea that this kids animated work still featured a fair number of adult gags for parents to giggle at, here's more of the same. Looking a little better than I remember the first film looking, Madagascar 2 concerns the animals from the Central Park Zoo picking up right where they left off at the end of the first movie. Attempting to get back to New York on a refurbished airplane (refurbished by penguins, I should add), Alex the performing lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) end up crashing down somewhere in Africa where Alex ends up meeting his parents, (Bernie Mac and Sherri Shepherd), the king and queen of the lion pride. Marty meets a massive herd of zebras (all of which have Rock's voice), and starts to feel not so unique in the eyes of his friends, while the Melman-Gloria romance heats up when she starts seeing another hippo (voiced by will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas and CNN Holograph Central).
Madagascar 2 is standard-issue simple plots and subplots with easy-to-solve problems for all of our heroes. But it's the small touches that make the film work a bit better than standard-issue animated fare. Sacha Baron Cohen blessedly returns as King Julien, the borderline psychotic lemur, as is Cedric the Entertainer as his buddy Maurice. Cohen can make me laugh harder with a cast-off line than most people can spending hours crafting a single joke. One welcome addition to the lineup is Alec Baldwin as Mac's rival lion Makunga, who even has a variation of Baldwin's slicked back hairstyle. Makunga is basically Scar from The Lion King, but he has way more fun with the role than Jeremy Irons did. He's a prancing, preening force of evil who would rather let his people die of thirst when the local watering hole dries up than give up power. Baldwin can do very little wrong in the world right now.
Madagascar 2 is probably about as lovable and entertaining as the first film. Take that for what it's worth. If you never saw the original film, the addition of Baldwin to the cast as well as more lemurs and penguins might be enough to get your butt in the seats this time around. I think I chuckled a bit more three years later. Rock and Stiller have a better chemistry this time around, and even Schwimmer's moody giraffe made me laugh quite a bit. It's no Wall*E or even Kung Fu Panda, but this one's not too bad. And it beats the shit out of Clone Wars! (Feel free to use that on your posters, Dreamworks.)