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Sunday, May 19

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You, Me and Dupree

The powers that be who schedule the preview screenings in Chicago were not playing fair this week. They scheduled two press screenings of two films opening this week on the same day: the Wayans Brothers comedy Little Man and the Owen Wilson vehicle You, Me and Dupree. Since I figured more people would ask me about Dupree, I went that route even though my expectations for both films were extremely low. The best thing I can say about Dupree is that my expectations were met, and I should put more faith in the Wayans family. Was White Chicks really THAT bad?

The usually likeable Wilson plays Randy Dupree, the 30-something perpetual slacker who is forced to live with his best friend Carl (Matt Dillon) and his brand-spanking new wife Molly (Kate Hudson). Dupree is obnoxious but far from ill-intentioned, and it becomes clear early in the film that he will grow on us like a loveable, shaggy dog who won't stop crapping on the carpet. Actually if Wilson had crapped on the carpet, I might have found this film vastly more entertaining. Since Dupree isn't the antagonist type, filmmakers Anthony and Joe Russo (directors of the underrated Welcome to Colinwood and several episodes of "Arrested Development") force feed us the character of Molly's real estate developer father, played by Michael Douglas, who never really liked or trusted Carl, who works for the firm. Douglas is strictly picking up the paycheck here, and doesn't even bother to pull out his best menacing face for the job. You know, the one he used to play Gordon Gekko.

Kate Hudson isn't too bad here, but largely all that is required of her is to look at Carl and/or Dupree disapprovingly and look good in her underwear. She does both very well, thank you. Dillon, on the other hand, looks pent up through most of the film, like a long trip to the bathroom is waaaay overdue. His character is supposed to go from mildly frustrated to raving irrational lunatic by the end of the film, but the result is that we never get to see Carl just be the nice guy that Molly fell in love with. This man was just rightfully nominated for an Oscar last year. Can't we give him a little dignity?

I noticed Wilson was listed as one of Dupree's producers; that would probably explain his overuse all of the standard Owen Wilson tricks at us. I don't mind his surfer-dude persona, his overly sincere delivery. It still makes me laugh. About halfway through the film, Dupree becomes obsessed with Lance Armstrong's "Live Strong" approach to life, which results in some mildly humorous moments and probably the film's biggest laugh during a vision Carl has of Dupree stealing away his wife. But the film is just so obvious and each joke is set up so far in advance that there are zero surprises. Even the presence of The 40-Year-Old Virgin's Seth Rogen as the painfully p-whipped friend of Carl and Dupree's does nothing to elevate this sad excuse for a comedy. In fact, all I could think about was how much better a film Wilson's sometimes on-screen partner in crime Vince Vaughn made with The Break Up earlier this year. Compare the scenes of couples fighting in both films, and you'll clearly see that Vaughn at least made an effort. Of course, in order to compare both films, you'd actually have to go see You, Me and Dupree, which I'm absolutely not recommending you do.

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man

My interest and respect for Canadian-born songsmith Leonard Cohen has always been from a distance. Like many, my knowledge and love of his music came from hearing other artists covering his powerfully measured and painfully melancholy songs. Jeff Buckley's angelic version of "Hallelujah" comes to mind, as does Concrete Blonde's evil take of "Everybody Knows." As if taking this into account, director Lian Lunson uses as the focal point of her documentary on Cohen's life and music an Australian tribute concert featuring some well-known performers doing their best to capture what is essential and influential about Cohen's music.

Lunson stays deliberately sketchy on Cohen's biography, and it feels like we're only given the essentials. The man himself has a deep, gravely voice that nearly hypnotizes you into his world. We get one story on his childhood, one story about his one-time reputation as the premiere ladies' man, one story about working with the psychotic Phil Spector, one story about living in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, and one (rather long) story about his commitment to Buddhism. Put together, these stories frame enough of Cohen's history that we start to see where the inspiration for his writings comes from. But just barely.

Perhaps the film's greatest misstep is not allowing us to hear Cohen's original recordings or seeing any footage of him performing live in the 1970s, when even Bob Dylan was in awe of him. Still, the alternative isn't half bad. Cohen tells a story, sometimes about a particular song's birth, and then we see that song performed at the tribute concert by the likes of Nick Cave, Beth Orton, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, the McGarrigle Sisters and a truly inspired performance by Antony, a singer I've never even heard of, but his freakish performance here is breathtaking. There's also a music-video-style segment at the end of the film featuring Cohen singing "Tower of Song" along with U2 in a lounge setting. It's slightly stagy, but I was happy just to hear the guy sing his own song.

I'm a great lover of documentary on bands or performers I know very little about. It's the job of these films to convince me that this act is worth investigating and listening to. I'm Your Man accomplishes this just barely, and if I hadn't already been familiar with Cohen's work, I'm not sure this movie would have pushed me over the edge to check him out. As it stands, the film is one or two tribute performances too long, and a big dodgy on the clearly fascinating biographic details. Still, what's here is solid most of the time, and any chance to really listen to Cohen's poetic lyrics can't be all bad.

Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos

In case you couldn't tell from the title, this documentary about the legendary soccer team the New York Cosmos is "extraordinary." Here is yet another attempt by Hollywood to get Americans jazzed about soccer. Granted, the recent, seemingly never-ending World Cup was much watched in the U.S., and this particular story is one for the history books, more as an example of there can actually be too much of a good thing in sports.

New York sports do one thing well: team owners spend ridiculous amounts of money to build incredible teams whose lineups were really only designed to last a couple of years and get butts in the seats. Never was this more evident than with the Cosmos and its media mogul owner Steve Ross, the Time-Warner chief who not only wanted his own team; he wanted an entire league for that team to play in.

Once in a Lifetime is an overly slick but still entertaining bit of sports history that features more than its fair share of egomaniacal owners, players and sports writers, all of whom shaped the team, the sport and the crowds that steadily grew as the teams' goal of winning a championship grew more likely. The film begins in 1977, one of New York's darker times complete with the Son of Sam, blackouts and the early years of the decadence kingdom known as Studio 54. Co-directors John Dower and Paul Crowder (the editor of such wonderful films as Riding Giants and Dogtown and Z-Boys) do a respectable job capturing the times; the music licensing budget alone on the this film must have been in the millions. Needless to say, the city was ready for a major uplifting, and Steve Ross wanted to make that confidence booster the New York Cosmos soccer team.

Ross was an early pioneer in cross-promoting his properties. He got some of the greatest players in the world to sign on to his team, and he got some of the biggest names in film, TV and music to attend the games, garnering all sorts of publicity. The team's roster read like a who's who of world-class players, including Germany's Franz Beckenbauer, Italy's Giorgio Chinaglia, and Brazilian superstars Carlos Alberto and Pele. Henry Kissinger himself intervened with the Brazilian government to get Pele signed to his three-year deal. OK...

Chinaglia is portrayed as the bully and bad guy of the Cosmos, using his friendship with Steve Ross as a way to change the way the team was run and putting him as the main scorer on a team full of scoring machines. With the exception of Pele (and Ross, who is dead) all of the major players in the Cosmos team and management are interviewed for this film. Once in a Lifetime, narrated by Matt Dillon (in a far more engaged performance than in You, Me and Dupree), portrays the team as a clash of personalities, all with the common goal of becoming champions and selling out their eventual home field of Giants Stadium. The film spends an equal amount of time tracking the players off the field. They were the toast of New York and frequent guests at Studio 54 and on local talk shows. The ways in which the players' lives were changed, and in some ways corrupted, are the most fascinating (albeit predictable) part of the film.

The fact that the sport of soccer was ever this popular in America may come as a shock to anyone under the age of 30, but I have vague recollections of this team and these players. The team and game fell out of favor almost as quickly as its meteoric rise in popularity. Its demise is slightly pathetic, and the lucky players got out early. Over the years, the Cosmos' leadership unofficially and then officially fell under the power of Chinaglia, who went on to essentially drain the team's funds by giving his entourage salaries and playing sub-par games after a night of heavy partying. Once in a Lifetime highlights the best and worst that the 1970s had to offer, and offers an exciting time capsule of a phenomenon that some may simply find impossible to comprehend. The groovy soundtrack, great game footage, and sometimes-damning testimony from those interviewed keeps the electricity sparkling. So why isn't Pele interviewed for this film? The filmmakers don't specifically say. However, the cha-ching sound effect that accompanies a title card telling us Pele would not do an interview may offer some clue as to his motives.

Beowulf & Grendel

One of the strangest films you're likely to see this year is this bizarre offering based on the 9th Century epic poem. Set in Denmark (but filmed entirely in director Sturla Gunnarsson's home nation of Iceland), Beowulf & Grendel begins with the first of dozens of bloody murders of a man looking after young troll-boy Grendel. Years later, the freakishly large and violent Grendel (Ingvar Sigurdsson) lays siege on King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard) and his troops, picking off several at a time whenever they least expect an attack. This results in the king becoming paranoid and feeling slightly emasculated. Fiercely loyal to his king, Beowulf (Phantom of the Opera's Gerard Butler) and his men arrive in Denmark to protect the kingdom and track down this marauding creature.

Director Gunnarsson takes his visual cues from horror films, draping many outdoor scenes in fog and staging Grendel's flesh-ripping attacks as you'd expect to see in a slasher film. The film also moderately successful as a historical adventure featuring more manly warriors than you can shake a sword at. And let's not forget the mystical element to this story, including a pagan witch named Selma, played with an unusually dirty passion by Sarah Polley. I also liked that the film puts the era's conflicting religious beliefs in context. A Christian priest travels with these Danish warriors (who still believe in multiple gods), and as times get tough and the attacks from Grendel become more savage, they start to line up to be baptized, thinking it will save them from having their head or limbs torn off.

I'm fairly certain that the objective of Beowulf and Grendel is to show us this legendary tale as it might have actually unfolded if it had really occurred. The film is well-shot, even if the entire production looks considerably cheap and under-funded. Skarsgard is the king of hamming things up, and on that level he doesn't let us down. I'm still not convinced Gerard Butler is even an actor, but he does what is probably his best work here. The entire production just struck me as odd, and you may find yourself wondering, "Why did they even make this movie?" Still, I was always curious where the story was going and what strange place would the filmmaker take me next. If you're looking for a high-action alternative to superheroes, pirates, animated characters and Owen Wilson, consider this little ditty, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Mostly Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green

Imagine if you had to spend 90 minutes listening to a good-looking, highly desirable man complain about how rough his life of constant flirtation, clubbing, sex and an endless string of companions is so rough. Welcome to The Mostly Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green. A truer title has never been assigned to a movie. I'm officially over gay cinema. I'm not saying I'll never enjoy another gay character in a film or another gay-themed film, but gay cinema (I'm talking about the non-porn variety) has officially bored the crap out of me for so many years that I'm done thinking there's a chance any of these films stand a chance of being original, funny or relevant.

No, this isn't about watching two men kiss or simulate sex. This is about witty banter that is witless; tired cultural references to show tunes, Judy, Barbra and Liza; bitchy critiques of fashion or interior design; guys dressed in drag for comic effect. You know the drill. And these are usually films written and directed by gay men. Strangest of all, these films never have an edge. Except for the occasional sex scene, these movies seem to exist in an almost puritanical bubble, built in an idealized world that doesn't exist. When the press kit for a film feels compelled to tell you that a film is "kitchy" or "outrageous," you know it probably is neither.

Ethan Green, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, is the story of Ethan (Daniel Letterle, who bored me in the film Camp recently), a man in his mid-20s who falls for a recently self-outed baseball player (Diego Serrano). But because neither knows how to act like a grownup, they break up. Ethan whines about it to an endless parade of gay male and female stereotypes, while ending up in bed with a few different specimens, including an ex-boyfriend and a 19-year-old horndog named Punch. If any of the characters stopped acting like irresponsible children for five minutes, their problems would probably vanish. But what a totally unfabulous movie that would make. I'm scheduled to see a movie this weekend called Another Gay Movie. Lord, please let this movie try to be something different. The title alone give me hope that maybe the filmmakers will be poking fun of exactly the kinds of films I'm talking about. We can only hope.

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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 .

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