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Monday, December 11

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Airbags

Two films escaped my clutches this week thanks to the studios. The first is the Spanish-produced (but English-language) horror movie The Abandoned, which looks as though it has some potential. Alas, we'll never know in this column. The second film, Reno 911!: Miami, did screen for those critics willing to interview the film's stars, Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant, which I would have been happy to do were it not for the fact that I was out of town when the screening took place. I'd assumed I'd have another chance to see the film, but the studio got spooked and canceled the only other early screening of the film, which again, I was looking forward to. I've never seen the show, but the bits and pieces I had seen look pretty funny, and I like this crew of comic actors, especially Lennon. This is the weekend of the Academy Awards, so don't expect too many great things. But there are one or two picks this week worth seeking out.

The Number 23

This is supposed to be the film that puts Jim Carrey on the map as a serious actor. Sure, he's tried the non-goofball thing before, but in The Number 23, Carrey is angst-ridden and perhaps even dangerous. Hide your children. The problem is that under the direction of Joel Schumacher, Carrey doesn't exactly put forth a compelling performance, which isn't necessarily his fault since the material is as meaningless as it is ludicrous. Even if you are aware of the so-called "23 Enigma," so what. Just because you can find the number, or numbers that add up to 23, all over the place in history or in your own life, what the hell does that mean? Is the number stalking you? I once thought the letter Q was following me, but it turned out to be a fat guy dragging an umbrella. So what if the number of chromosomes contributed to a child from each parent equals the number of times Caesar was stabbed or the number of seconds it takes blood to circulate through the human body?

But the film doesn't explore these coincidences as much as use them as a springboard for an overbearing and bloated murder mystery, one that begins when a woman buys her husband a book called The Number 23. Virginia Madsen plays Carrey's wife, who finds the detective novel in a used books store. Carrey's Walter Sparrow finds so many similarities between the lead character, a cop named Fingerling, and himself that he begins to see the story with himself as the lead character. The book obsesses on the 23 phenomenon, and thus so does Walter, who begins to have terrible nightmares about murder. He also begins to envision his wife in the role of the novel's femme fatale, who has her sights set on the detective. These flashes into the book's story are full of spooky atmosphere and deviant behavior, but they don't really add any tension to the proceedings.

The plot spins a bit out of control as Walter decides to find out who the author really is and how he seemingly knows so much about Walter's past and current life. His wife enlists the help of family friend (and potential rival in Walter's paranoid mind) Isaac, played by the debonair Danny Huston (Madsen's real-life ex-husband) to no avail. I'm not the kind of person that gets confused by even the most complicated plot twists, but I'll admit I was baffled by a lot of what transpires here. When all is revealed, things don't quite add up. Certain characters' behaviors don't make sense, and that's just the beginning of the confusion. But, more importantly, the movie just isn't as interesting as it thinks it is. I tend to like Schumacher's work when he's not going for larger-than-life execution, with films like Phone Booth, 8mm, Veronica Guerin and Tigerland. But here, he's out of control, and the results are largely disastrous. The film is sloppy and dense with nonsense. The plot has a tough time keeping up with the overly emoting Carrey, and he hasn't got a clue how to appear genuinely tormented. Not shaving for a couple of days and piling on makeup to make you look like you haven't slept in nine days doesn't convince me the man can pull off serious acting. I think he probably can do it, but this film isn't the best proving ground, and The Number 23 will disappoint you as it sadly wastes his talents as an actor. If I was cruel enough to reveal any more of this film's plot, I would deny you the opportunity to be disappointed by it. Suffice it to say, it's not shocking or suspenseful or compelling; it's simply loud and sloppy. (That's what she said!)

The Astronaut Farmer

This is a busy week for Virginia Madsen between The Number 23 and this film. Here, her dutiful wife role has a bit more substance and heart, which is required since her husband (played by Billy Bob Thornton) is a man with a seemingly impossible dream. Charles Farmer (Thornton) is a man who has built a full-size rocket in his barn and plans on taking it for a spin one time around the earth. All he needs is 10,000 lbs. of rocket fuel and the blessing of the FAA. No problem.

In this allegorical world from the Polish brothers (Michael is the director; Mark is his co-writer and one of the stars of the film), Farmer's potentially deadly dream will not be swept under the rug as so many other American dreams are. The film opens with Farmer in full spaceman get-up riding a horse across his farm (yes, the man named Farmer is a farmer). The Polish brothers are no strangers to these visions of America, which are at times idealized and critical. In films like Twin Falls Idaho and Northfork, the brothers have given us their manliest men and very feminine women to tell their odd and beautiful stories. Here, they have delivered a film that is as accessible and family-friendly as anything from Disney, while still maintaining their subversive and dark corners.

Farmer's world is filled with critics and naysayers, who dismiss his vision as suicidal and self-centered. The government has labeled him a security threat because his rocket could be used to deliver a warhead. Plus, you know, all that jet fuel could be a little dangerous in the wrong hands. But as long as Farmer's family and friends rally behind his cause and believe in him, he continues to plan his launch. The Astronaut Farmer may bother some of you with kids, because it's hard to see the sense or logic in what Farmer is doing. He's more or less bankrupting the family building his rocket. Dying wouldn't exactly help their situation. But Thornton is so utterly folksy and likable in this role, those doubts won't stay with you long.

I don't want to give away anything about the launch attempt, but whether or not the launch is successful isn't the end of this film. In fact, the film's weakest section takes place immediately after that pivotal moment. The ending feels too tacked on, but that doesn't mean you won't be cheering by the end. The Astronaut Farmer is filled to the brim with great supporting performances by Bruce Dern as Madsen's father, Tim Blake Nelson, J.K. Simmons, Jon Gries and an uncredited Bruce Willis as a real-life astronaut and old friend of Farmer's, who wants to be supportive but is duty-bound to talk him out of the launch.

This is a movie with the spirit and conviction to inspire and entertain audiences of any age. I know fathers who should be dying to take their children to this. The film manages to be good family viewing without pandering or talking down to the viewer. There are no cheap jokes here, but there are plenty of laughs. At once, the film manages to take its subject seriously without sacrificing humor and good times. One look at Farmer's "mission control" should be enough for one big laugh, at least. The Astronaut Farmer is a work well worth your support and adoration, and not just because of its positive message. The fact that it's geared toward families (not just the kids) shouldn't scare you away. As much as I love and adore the dark and bloody side of the world, every so often it's nice to reminded that truly fun films come in all shapes and sizes. I have many good feelings about this one.

Read both my interviews with stars Billy Bob Thornton and Virginia Madsen and director Michael Polish and his co-writer/brother Mark at Ain't It Cool News.

Days of Glory

The last few months have been an extraordinary time to learn about facets of World War II that simply have never been seen by mass audiences before. Letters from Iwo Jima gave us a side of that bloody and prolonged battle that is perhaps one of the finest statements about the toll of war I have ever seen. With Days of Glory, the Oscar-nominated Best Foreign Language Film from Algeria (although most of te film is in French), the story is about the great injustice perpetrated on a small but fierce group of North African soldiers who fought with the French to rid the country of German troops. These brave men had never been on French soil before (their country was a colony), but they loved the nation as if it were their own and were some of the strongest and most dependable fighters of the war. They fought their way from North Africa through Italy, Provence and into the heart of France for a final standoff in a small Alsatian village.

Days of Glory is as strong and painful a film to watch as Iwo Jima, but for different reasons. These men were treated like absolute shit by the French soldiers and their commanding officers. They were promised large payments for fighting in the French cause, payments which were never delivered until this film sparked outrage in France to deliver pensions to the remaining survivors. The acting here is startlingly good (the cast won a collective Best Actor award at last year's Cannes Film Festival) as the men struggle to stay alive against the enemy and stay humble and strong against those they are supposed to be fighting beside.

For those of you familiar with French cinema, some of the faces here should seem familiar, but I have to single out Roschdy Zem (who also starred in Le Petit Lieutenant recently released here) as the "leader" of this group of fighters. He is their angriest supporter and probably the most loyal to France and the French leadership. His rage flies off the screen, and he's as strong an actor as I saw all last year (when I first saw this film). The battle sequences are ferocious, while the scenes off the battlefield are sometimes just as ugly. Days of Glory has been open in some cities since early this year, but with its well-deserved Oscar nod, the film is getting a wide release today. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. If you have a particular love for well-made war films or movies that highlight some of the world's great injustices, this one covers both of those grounds quite nicely.

Amazing Grace

Speaking of the world's great injustices, it never really got any worse than slavery. And while the United States held onto this practice until well into the 19th century, a small group of politicians began a movement in Britain around the time this country was breaking free of English rule to use the nation's deeply religious roots to convince those in charge that slavery should be abolished. This fascinating story tells the almost unknown tale of one member of Parliament, William Wilberforce (played with great conviction by Ioan Gruffudd), who acted as the mouthpiece for the abolitionist movement in Britain and whose efforts nearly resulted in his untimely death from sheer exhaustion.

Gruffudd (probably best known as Mr. Fantastic in The Fantastic Four and as Horatio Hornblower in that series of television movies) has just the right blend of confidence and cockiness as the young Wilberforce, whose verbal jousting with other members of Parliament earned him a reputation as being an influential persuader of the people to his causes. He also happened to be best friends with William Pitt the Younger (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the youngest-ever Prime Minister. Pitt gave over the cause of abolition to Wilberforce, who spent most of his career gaining support.

The supporting cast in Amazing Grace is a veritable who's whos of great British actor, including Toby Jones (who recently played Truman Capote in Infamous), Michael Gambon, Ciaran Hinds and Rufus Sewell (playing a good guy for once as Thomas Clarkson, Wilberforce's key civilian contact in the abolitionist movement). But I want to single out two exception performers. In his first feature film, singer Youssou N'Dour plays a former slave and current man of means who serves as an inspiration and key figure for the cause. His even-keeled take on his character adds a sense of grace to the proceedings. But the man who owns this film every time he appears on screen is Albert Finney as John Newton, the former slaveship captain, who was so haunted by what he saw on those vessels that he left the business and went to work cleaning floors in a church to make up for the suffering he caused. He also happens to be the man who wrote the song that serves as the film's title. The movie's plot could have been told without this character, but it would have been missing its very soul if it had been.

Amazing Grace nicely documents the history of this cause and the birth of what we now consider commonplace political strategy: petitions, boycotts, village meetings to discuss issues and gather support and even buttons with messages on them. It may sounds like a history lesson, but it's likely a part of history you know nothing about, and it's endlessly interesting. Master director Michael Apted (Coal Miner's Daughter, the Up documentary series) is meticulous in capturing the period and style of the time while avoiding many of the trappings of standard Hollywood "message" films. We all agree that slavery is bad, so he doesn't waste time trying to convince us of this. What he is intrigued with is the process that led to its eradication, and that is where he focuses his camera. While Apted attempts to tell both sides of the story (the end of slave trading would prove temporarily disastrous for plantation owners), it's pretty clear who the heroes and villains are. Amazing Grace is quality filmmaking from an exceptional director leading a powerful and committed cast, and it's one of my favorite films of the year so far.

Read my interview with star Ioan Gruffudd at Ain't It Cool News.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her…

In my many decades (it really has been decades) of trying to educate and enlighten myself on every facet of cinema, I've seen many of the films that are considered Jean-Luc Godard's finest. I've sat through everything from Breathless to Contempt to Band of Outsiders to Alphaville (probably my favorite) to Masculine Feminine to Hail Mary. But almost without fail, I draw the same conclusions about his films: Screw Godard. But I've continued to see his films whenever the Music Box or Gene Siskel Film Center revives his work, gets a restored print or offers a retrospective, so there must be something about him I enjoy. Perhaps he keeps my blood boiling, and I get a strange kick out it.

Two or Three Things… is said to be one of his most accessible works, and that's probably true, as Godard offers up his vague and disjointed thoughts on commercialization, war (in this case Vietnam; the film was released in 1967), the threat of nuclear disaster, sexual repression and the society's different types of prostitution. There's a rhythm and flow to the work that I did like, and a splashy, colorful look that mirrors commercial work of the time. And there's actually a plot at work here, which is a nice change. A beautiful housewife (Juliette Janson) becomes a call girl to earn extra household cash. The whorehouse happens to be in the same building as her kids' day care, which makes things convenient for everybody. In case you weren't baffled enough by the dialogue the characters are spouting, Godard also gives us a running narrative in his own voice offering pearls of wisdom on psychology, culture and revolution.

If you believe yourself to be a Godard admirer and have never seen Two or Three Things…,you're in for a treat. And even if you can't stand the man's films, you might manage to keep your sanity through this one. But ultimately, this cinematic essay is as meaningless and tiresome as most of his other films. I may be committing some form of treason by saying this, and I keep waiting for my part of brain that is supposed to get excited about Godard to click on, but I don't think that's ever going to happen. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Darkon

Playing all week at the Gene Siskel Film Center is Darkon, a weird but ultimately charming documentary about a group of men, women and children who gather in the woods and soccer fields near Baltimore, Maryland on various weekends to act out live-action role-playing battles in full costume and with real stakes (well, at least real enough for those playing and fighting). Although the swords and shields and other weapons are rendered harmless, emotions run high as kingdom (basically a large number of people that all rally around a guy with an attack plan) battles kingdom for supremacy over…well, a park, maybe a swing-set and some monkey bars.

I don't mean to make fun, and the filmmakers are extremely tolerant of the goings on, but it is kind of tough even for a nerd like me (although I never went through a D&D phase) not to bust out laughing at some of the things that go on here. These players have entire backstories for their characters, their kingdoms, weapons and allies. And the one person in the entire film who attempts to pull out of the lifestyle is completely dismissed when he dares to mention the plain and simple fact that "it's only a game." How dare you, sir!

What I loved about Darkon (the name of the fictional realm in which all of this activity takes place) is getting to know where these players come from. There's a former stripper and single mom, who has just moved into her own place for the first time; the stay-at-home dad; or the software professional, who uses the confidence and leadership skills he's learned from playing Darkon in his career. There is one younger player who admits that a game-inspired pairing he has with a female character is the first real interaction he's had with any girl. His simple, honest declaration that he hopes the relationship can translate into his talking to girls in the real world is very moving. Darkon has played at many film festivals in recent months, and is creeping across the country in art houses hoping to find an audience. This is great, revealing stuff about how imagination isn't wasted on the young. And I guarantee that when the final War Crimes Tribunal pits the leader of the Mordomian Empire against the defector, Bannor of Laconia, you'll be on the edge of your seat. I know I was.

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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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