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Wednesday, October 18

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Airbags

In a week where so much is coming out, you'd figure every film being released would want any advantage they can get to draw in an audience. But don't try telling that to the distributors of War, the new Jet Li-Jason Statham action work from director Philip G. Atwell, known primarily for his work as a music video director for gangsta rappers like Eminem and 50 Cent. I was really excited about seeing this particular film. Alas, it was held from critics' prying eyes, and thus we have no review for you this week. Still, you've got a million things to choose from. Take your pick.

The Nanny Diaries

Exposing the true nature of Upper East Side child-rearing practices the same way The Devil Wears Prada showed us the inner workings of the fashion-publishing game, The Nanny Diaries is proof positive that the only thing keeping these children of filthy rich parents out of hands of Child Services is cold hard cash. In what is by far her most fully realized character since Lost In Translation, Scarlett Johansson plays Annie, a girl from Jersey fresh out of business school who decides to take a temporary job as a nanny before she decides to enter the real world. Her diaries take on the form of anthropological observations of parents who treat their children like accessories or a means to hold their crumbling marriages together. The film is a sickeningly display of parenting, but an excellent examination of the lengths these wealthy folks will go to not raise their kids, despite the fact that the mothers often do not work.

While killing time and figuring out her future in Central Park (apparently a popular spot for unemployed nannies to meet rich moms in need of their services), Annie meets young Grayer (Nicholas Art) and his mother, known only as Mrs. X (Laura Linney), who mistakes Annie for a nanny in waiting and immediately asks her to come in for an interview. Within hours Annie becomes a hot property in the wealthy mom circuit, but she ends up with the Xes. It doesn't take her long to realize two things: she doesn't know a thing about childcare, and this is the wrong job in which to find that out. From this point on, the film becomes a series of Annie's humiliations and dehumanizations, primarily at the hands of Mrs. X, who refers to Annie only as "Nanny" and offers up nothing in the way of positive feedback. Annie tells herself and others (including her best friend played nicely by singer Alicia Keys) that she's enduring the pain and indignity for the sake of Grayer, but that never quite holds water with anyone, including us.

There are quite a few laughs in The Nanny Diaries, but I wouldn't quite qualify it as a comedy. There's just a little too much pain for that, and not just Annie's. Mr. and Mrs. X clearly despise each other, despite Mrs. X's attempt to inject some much-needed romance into their relationship. Filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (who also adapted the novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus) know a little something about finding humor in pain since they are the gifted filmmakers who brought us American Splendor. They also do something very clever with the character of Mr. X, whose face remains largely unseen by Annie for much of the beginning of the film. He's one of those men who works late; travels constantly; and even when he's home, he pats his son on the head, calls him "sport," and thinks that counts are parenting. I don't think it's any big secret that Paul Giamatti plays Mr. X, but I was blissfully unaware of it until I saw his name in the opening credits. And trust me when I saw, you have never seen Giamatti play a character like this; he's downright ruthless and deplorable, the kind of mind who uses his work as an excuse to hide from his family, then engages in a whole lot of slap and tickle with a young female coworker the first chance he gets. Both Linney and Giamatti are perfection in their roles individually, but put them in a room together and ka-Blam! Let the ugly fireworks commence, in some of the nastiest couple's fighting I've seen since War of the Roses.

A few select scenes between Johansson and a handsome young man in the building nicknamed Park Avenue Hottie (Chris Evans) take us away from Annie's torturous life with the X's. As much as we want Annie to save herself, the plain fact is that her interactions with Mr. and Mrs. X are the film's most interesting and uncomfortable. In other words, when she's with the Hottie, I was a little bored since it felt like the filmmakers were attempting to cram a little romance into this story about suffering in paradise. I did, however, like the interaction between Annie and her nurse mother (Donna Murphy), still home in Jersey. Annie has lied to her mother about her employment and living arrangement, and although the inevitable discovery by mom is a predictable moment in the movie, it didn't play out how I thought it would and I appreciated the effort to try something different and more believable.

I found The Nanny Diaries an enjoyable if not particularly challenging work with a lot more going for it than the cutesy commercials and print ads would lead you to believe. Wisely, the film reminds us that it is the child whose future is truly at stake, not Annie. And it is Grayer whose mental well-being that may or may not suffer as a result of his uptight, bickering parents. Annie sees herself as his protector and perhaps the only really positive influence in his life. The film wraps up a little too neatly for my tastes, but there's a hint by the end that at least one of the boy's parents may be on the road to looking out for him like a loving parent should. The movie is more compelling than I'd anticipated, and although it has flaws, they are forgivable and, in some ways, make the offering a little more interesting.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Just the other day, I was trying to explain to someone how truly awesome this film is, and their response surprised me, even though it shouldn't have. "So, why should I care about watching two guys playing video games?" Fair enough, and if this were a film that did nothing more than show us two guys playing video games (the game in question is the classic arcade game Donkey Kong), it's unlikely I wouldn't pay money to see it. But in the case of King of Kong, the two guys happen to be the two best players the world has ever seen. Even so, why should you care? It's simple. The way this film is structured, the way its subject are portrayed, and the way the rivalry between these two men plays out exemplifies high drama at its finest. It also brings back every memory I ever had as a kid playing these games, the frustration of trying to top whatever the high score was on a given machine, and the run-ins I'd have with guys (and it was always guys, never girls) who took game playing about as seriously as anything in life.

The King of Kong has heroes, villains and those that tread the fine line between lackey and ally. The film begins in the early '80s, the hey-day of video games, when Life magazine took a group photo of some of the top players in the world, including one Billy Mitchell, who was named "Gamer of the Year" thanks to his record high score on Donkey Kong (among others). Mitchell sounds like he's always been a cocky S.O.B., but one who turned his positive self-attitude into a successful hot sauce and restaurant business. He also has a mullet that could destroy worlds. Cut to 2003, when a kindly family man named Steve Wiebe of Seattle discovered that the world record score for the game he loved and owned was well within his reach. And one fateful day in his garage, he shattered Mitchell's score and videotaped the whole game (a tape of a record-breaking game is permissible by rules established by Twin Galaxies, the keeper of such records). But Wiebe was an unknown to the gaming community, and he was backed by a man who was considered a real shit-stirrer (although Wiebe had no knowledge of this going into the submittal process) and enemy of Mitchell and Twin Galaxies. Ultimately Wiebe's score is disqualified on a technicality, but it inspired him to prove his abilities in an indisputable fashion. Mitchell, his reputation and legacy on the line, instantly began hating Steve Wiebe.

The film tracks Wiebe's journey and Mitchell's plans to thwart his plans and mess with his head. You couldn't write the shit that happens from this point on. Much of the behavior (especially on the part of Mitchell and his cronies) is straight out of high school. That being said, I was surprised how un-villain-like Mitchell really is. He wants you to think of him as a confident, scheming champion, but the guy doesn't have the balls to fill the role of villain or champion. He seems afraid to even be in the same room with Wiebe, and while videotapes are acceptable to some, it is curious that Wiebe goes out of his way to play most of his record-breaking games in front of an audience, while Mitchell silently submits tapes and then calls his people to find out what the reaction is. He's not the kind of bad guy you want to see dead, but you wouldn't mind bitch-slapping him a few dozen times just to wipe the cocky off his face.

There's something of a third lead in King of Kong, who is certainly worth mentioning. Walter Day, a man who wears a referee's shirt and maintains Twin Galaxies' record books. He's friends with Mitchell, but he knows right from wrong and good gamesmanship from bad. He seems particularly put off that Mitchell refuses to take on Wiebe head to head, and his opinion of Wiebe takes a much-deserved turn during the course of the film. He's just as fascinating a man as the two gamers, and you can't help but get excited for him and his organization when he gets the call from Guinness World Records that they want Twin Galaxies to be the official submitter of record scores to its book.

There isn't a dull moment or person in King of Kong. The film is as much a tribute to grown men who haven't completely grown up (self included) as it is a salute to families, competitive spirit (or lack thereof), perseverance, dreams and evil mullets. This is a film that honors the geek in all of us and turning our obsessions into careers. I love this movie with all my heart and twisted soul, and would love to one day personally thank director Seth Gordon for finding this story and telling it so well. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

2 Days In Paris

Knowing full well that most filmgoers know her primarily as Ethan Hawke's love interest in the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset films from director Richard Linklater, French actress Julie Delpy has made her latest film as a writer-director about a young American man (the screamingly funny Adam Goldberg) and French woman (Delpy) stopping in Paris briefly while on vacation in Europe. At first, you think the setting is familiar having seen her in somewhat similar circumstances with Ethan Hawke, but it doesn't take long to realize that her pairing with Goldberg is about as different as, well, American and French culture. Everything about 2 Days In Paris surprised me in the most pleasant of ways, especially Delpy's witty, intelligent script, which draws from her having lived for extended periods in both France and the U.S., and being able to recognize the worst that each culture and its people have to offer.

Delpy's Marion is a professional photographer whose parents and sister (played by Delpy's actual family members) still live in Paris, so she and Jack (Goldberg) pop into the city after a vacation in Venice. Jack and Marion are not the happiest of couples who have been together for about two years and may be experiencing the early stages of a breakup. They still get along and make each other laugh, but being on her turf and all that that implies begins to stress out Jack. His biggest issues is that the two keep running into Marion's old boyfriends as they explore the city. Marion tells little white lies about how serious these men were in her life, but when the truth is discovered (usually by the men simply telling Jack the truth), it makes her look like she's had sex with half the men in Paris. The cultural divides underscore the chasms in their own relationship, which sounds terrible for them, but it's immensely funny and entertaining for us.

Delpy doesn't spare either country in her characterizations, and what makes it even more enjoyable is that she plays with perceptions and misconceptions about both cultures. America is a nation of warmongers; France is filled with sex-crazed men and racist cab drivers. Neither is completely true or totally false, but she's smart enough to weave her way through the arguments as both the writer and speaker of the dialog. I've been an Adam Goldberg fan for years, but I can't think of a time when I've enjoyed him more. And this film, more than anything else he's done, proves that the guy deserves more leading roles. His pain is funny, and his discomfort with so many of the situations in this film had me laughing out loud. To me that pretty much trumps all else: this is a comedy and it had me in stitches constantly. There are a few surprisingly strong dramatic moments near the end of the film, and Delpy is brave enough to leave it open whether the couple will survive beyond this trip. 2 Days In Paris is an easy film to adore, and succeeds as a sparkling effort from a consummate actress who has again proved that her talents as a writer and director (she also edited and scored the film!) are just as impressive. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my interview with Julie Delpy, visit Ain't It Cool News.

Resurrecting the Champ

I like surprises, and here's another one that sneaked into my world and really impressed me. I've mentioned this before, but it's rare that I ever walk into a screening with no knowledge of what a film's plot is. When it happens, it usually happens by accident; I may have just forgotten to read beyond the cast list on the screening invitation. And that's exactly what happened with Resurrecting the Champ, the true story of low-level Denver sports reporter Erik Kernan (Josh Hartnett), the son of a legendary sports broadcaster. He's not particularly good at his job, or perhaps he's just not being given the opportunity to be by his editor (Alan Alda). His estranged wife (Kathryn Morris) also works at the paper, and that distraction doesn't help things. One night after covering a boxing match, Erik stumbles upon some young punks beating up homeless man they refer to as "Champ" (Samuel L. Jackson). While making sure the man is alright, Erik discovers that he is "Battling" Bob Satterfield, a legendary boxer who went toe to toe with many boxing legends many years earlier. Erik is so eager to get a chance to write a real feature story that he shops the Satterfield piece to a Sunday magazine rather than his paper.

Erik and the Champ spend day after day together as the reporter observes and gathers information on this man who many believed had passed away years earlier. But his basic fighting skills are still a part of him, and his ability to read a fight are un-phased by the years or his hard living. As he compiles the story, Erik also feels his own self-value returning to him and his confidence in his abilities as a husband and father to his young son slowly returns. When the article about the rise and fall of the Champ hits the streets, he is praised as a great writer and Satterfield becomes a local celebrity. The trouble is, this occurs at about the halfway point of the film. Although not entirely unpredictable, the film takes a remarkable turn at this juncture in the plot, and things stop looking particularly rosy for either man. Kernan's newly acquired job as a ringside announcer for Showtime boxing matches and at the Sunday magazine disappear because of a key flaw in his reporting of the story. I'm sure other critics will, but I don't want to ruin the turn of events because it's actually fairly exciting to watch things change so abruptly.

Resurrecting the Champ is easily the best acting in Hartnett's career. And between Black Snake Moan and this film, Jackson is having a pretty great year as well. Some may find the higher-range voice he uses for the Champ to be a little off putting, but after a couple of minutes, it worked for me. I'm not sure how much of the film's final act is 100 percent accurate — things wrap up just a little too nicely for Erik — but that doesn't stop the movie from finishing strong.

The film comes from director Rod Lurie, who gave us a few flawed but compelling political thrillers in the last 10 years, including Deterrence, The Last Castle and the best of the bunch, The Contender. I tend to like Lurie's style, and his straightforward approach to the material suits it perfectly. There's nothing particularly flashy about Champ, and that's perfectly suitable for the tale being told. There's a perfectly constructed scene in which an almost unrecognizable Peter Coyote (who plays an elderly boxing gym owner) makes a couple of quick phone calls with Erik in the room. With each passing second, your heart sinks a little more, a little more, a little more, until a sense of pure dread takes over. The sequence is a thing of beauty, and much of the film takes it cue from that moment. This is an impressive work from a filmmaker who still manages to surprise me.

The 11th Hour

Armed with more stock footage than the Smithsonian and more apocalyptic predictions than an Omen movie, the Leonardo DiCaprio-narrated documentary The 11th Hour is pretty scary and depressing stuff. The hammering your brain will take at the hands of this gloom-and-doom look at the future of our unchecked world makes Al Gore's lecture in An Inconvenient Truth feel like a Sunday picnic. Not that Mr. Gore's words felt like they were pulling any punches, but the group of scientists that deliver our planet's status report paint a pretty bleak picture of humanity's future.

I am officially a member of the choir that this film is preaching to, and even I felt overwhelmed with this movie's messages and means of delivering it. But The 11th Hour isn't trying to be soft and cuddly; it wants to scare you straight. What I did like about the movie is that the entire last third of the film is devoted to solutions. Instead of a broad call to recycle and use less fossil fuels, the sustainable development experts interviewed here actually map out the way buildings and even cities need to be retrofitted to lessen their carbon footprint. It's a fascinating look at our world, and I was more impressed by this film's call to action than I was with the one delivered in An Inconvenient Truth. DiCaprio puts on his best serious face for his on-camera narration, but it's the men and women who speak as experts that impressed me far more. I can't imagine audiences lining up to have the shit scared out of them, but if they have the guts to check this one out, I don't think it's possible they could come out the other side unscathed. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Them

How this movie ever got a release in the United States is a mystery, but horror fans have cause for small-scale celebration as this French scare film from directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud (who are currently remaking the terrifying Japanese thriller The Eye) have pieced together a bare-bones fright fest shot in Romania. The plot is ridiculously simple as a handsome couple (Olivia Bonamy and Michael Cohen, both pretty big names in France) are terrorized by unseen people or creatures for the better part of an hour. They are not completely sure what or who it is that is chasing them through their home, but whatever or whoever seems to be able to anticipate their every move and be in multiple places at once. They also seem to be make a truly creepy noise as they stalk their prey.

And once we find out what it is exactly that is terrorizing the couple, that doesn't really go a long way toward alleviating our fears about their lifespan. Moreau and Palud have a keen sense of the simple things in life that scare us to death: a change in lighting, a sound, a quick but uncertain glimpse at something disappearing around a corner. Bonamy does not play the hapless female victim; she's a tough woman who is probably more courageous than Cohen's character. This is exactly the kind of old-school horror I've been looking for, one that carries a bit of mystery about its attackers, but doesn't loose its gripping effect when the curtain is pulled back. Them is quick but powerful jolt to the scare gland that is opening today at Pipers Alley.

Private Property

There is at least one irrefutable piece of evidence that there are film gods in Chicago, and that is that we always seem to get the latest film starring French acting legend Isabelle Huppert. Even as she rests comfortably in middle age, she's a cool and distant beauty who shows no fear in the roles she chooses or the attitudes she must adhere to in those roles. It's rare that she plays an easily embraceable character, but that never stops us from being eternally curious which dark directions she'll take us with each new part. Her latest offering to hit Chicago today (at the Music Box Theatre to be precise) is Private Property, a particularly uneasy work about a woman living with her two grown sons (real-life twin brothers Jeremie and Yannick Renier) in a spacious home that she is looking to sell because money is tight and as a means of forcing the brothers to finally get off their lazy asses and depend on her less so she can start her life again as a single, divorced woman.

Still influenced a great deal by their father (who has since remarried and is essentially their only source of income), the boys declare war on their mother and her plans by treating her with absolute verbal cruelty. It turns out that in the divorce proceeding, the father put the house in the boys' names, so Huppert cannot sell it. Huppert's usual brand of detached ambivalence is used to full effect as she responds to her sons' behavior by abandoning the house, leaving them as helpless as two small children. Without their mother as an outlet for their childlike aggression, the brothers soon turn on each other, as one flaunts his new girlfriend in front of the other.

The film takes a completely unexpected turn near the end that punctuates the tragic nature of the entire film. This is a family that never really had a chance. The sons never really grew up; their mother cared for and fed them without question or desire to see them leave her nest; and their father quietly controls all their lives with his wallet. These people were doomed long before the end of this film. Private Property is a superb exercise in twisted and unhealthy family dynamics.

Summercamp!

I never did the full-fledged summer camp thing as a kid (I was more a day camp youngster), but so many other kids I grew up with were dumped at summer camp for two or three weeks, and I'm guessing the experience hasn't changed too terribly much over the years. As if to prove my point, I recently watched the terrific new documentary Summercamp! with my wife (who was a summer camp kid), and she even knew many of the songs the young campers were singing. Some things never change. The film serves as proof that the camp experience for many children is a place for them to make new friends, many of whom stay friends for life; for others, it's hell on earth. I haven't seen this many crying kids since the last time I watched Bambi with an audience.

Summercamp! focuses on a nature camp in northern Wisconsin attended largely by kids from suburban Chicago, and it's a work a remember absolutely loving when I saw it last October as part of the Chicago Film Festival. Somehow filmmakers Sarah Price (The Yes Men) and Bradley Beesley (who worked on the Flaming Lips doc Fearless Freaks) gain the trust of about 90 children and a handful of counselors, some of whom are shockingly honest about their attitudes toward children and the camp itself. But the real eye opener is the way the filmmakers get the kids to open up. There are dozens of unforgettable campers here, some of whom are the sweetest people you'll ever meet, while others are unforgivable bullies who should be leashed and tied to a tree. There is one little girl who is obsessed with the chickadee bird. At first we just think she's a little weird, but as we get to know her, she reveals to her cabin mates the reason behind her obsession and you'll be blinded with tears when you hear her story.

But most of Summercamp! is about watching friendships forged and tested, endurance challenges, messy craft projects, and a wonderful set of tunes by The Flaming Lips and Noisola that truly sets the mood for this quirky work that is one of the finest profiles of childhood I've ever seen. You might not think a film about children can teach you much about your adult life, but that just goes to show how much you still have to learn about the birthplace of life lessons. The film is often funny, but it also find several opportunities to break your heart in big and small ways.

The film is slowly making its way across the country, including a handful of screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, August 25 at 3:30pm (co-director Sarah Price and editor JoLynn Garnes will be present for audience discussion after the film); Sunday, August 26 at 3:15pm; and Monday-Wednesday, August 27-29 at 6:00pm.

Mr. Bean's Holiday

Although it has been 10 years since Rowan Atkinson dazzled us with Bean, he hasn't been sitting around doing nothing in all that time. He took time out to make the astonishing Bond parody Johnny English and put in supporting roles in such films as Richard Curtis's Love Actually (one shouldn't forget that Curtis is one of the creators and original writers of the Mr. Bean character) and Keeping Mum. Hopefully a small fraction of my sarcasm is seeping through, but in all honestly, I remember finding the original "Mr. Bean" shorts pretty damn funny. The 1997 film was a disaster, but this latest entry, Mr. Bean's Holiday, is much closer in spirit and comic style to the shorts. Under the direction of Steve Bendelack (who helmed nearly all of the "League of Gentleman" episodes as well as that team's Apocalypse movie), it's still not a particularly inspired film but there are at least some laughs contained within.

In this installment of his life, Bean wins a trip to cross-country trip to France with the ultimate destination being Cannes during the city's famed film festival. Only under these circumstances would Mr. Bean be at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is essentially a collection of small adventures as Bean loses his traveling papers and somehow gets saddled with the son of a German director, who just happens to be on the jury of the festival. By pairing Bean with the young man (played by Max Baldry), the filmmakers beg comparisons to Chaplin's The Kid. I don't respond well to begging, so I'm not taking that bait. The pair eventually hooks up with an aspiring actress (Emma de Caunes of The Science of Sleep and Ma Mere), who (coincidentally) has a film in which she appears at the festival. Perhaps the most shocking cameo is that of the legendary French actor Jean Rochefort, who has been making films since the 1950s. Here, he plays a maitre'd in a high-end restaurant in one of the film's funnier sequences.

Another pretty startling appearance is that of Willem Dafoe as the pushy, egocentric American director (is there any other kind?) Carson Clay, whose film premieres at Cannes on the day Bean and his crew arrives. Since the film is set in France, it immediately made me think of a far worse film of late also set in that nation — Steve Martin's Pink Panther remake. Yes, I'm going out on a limb and saying definitively that Mr. Bean's Holiday is better than The Pink Panther remake. That rumble you feel is the earth changing direction on its axis.

Atkinson has certain provided me with plenty of laughs with both his television and film work, but Mr. Bean stretched out to even a paltry 80 minutes feels too long. But before I go, I should, in the interest of full disclosure, leave you with two pieces of information. The crowd with whom I saw this film was roaring with laughter almost the entire time; and this film has already played in most other countries around the world and raked in somewhere in the neighborhood of $185 million dollars. As with so many other things, the United States is clearly completely out of step with the rest of the planet. If you ever found Mr. Bean to be an amusing character, you could do a whole lot worse than Mr. Bean's Holiday.

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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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