My Son, My Date Night (Weekly Links)

Fey/Carell/Date Night

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Date Night.

by Robert Horton

The value of employing top-drawer comedy performers is amply demonstrated in “Date Night,” a movie with a lazy concept redeemed by a pair of superb comic brains.

The brains belong to Tina Fey and Steve Carell. In one of those end-credits blooper reels, they can be seen improvising variations on their dialogue, which only confirms what you’ve probably suspected while watching the movie itself: that these two have punched up, embroidered and otherwise re-written the script credited to Josh Klausner.

The premise is simple enough: A suburban couple, aware that their marriage is losing its fizz, book a night at a pretentious new Manhattan restaurant. A mistaken-identity situation results in their taking a roller-coaster ride through the rest of the evening, as they’re chased by gangsters, crooked cops and assorted lowlifes.

Capable actors flash by in smaller roles throughout the film: Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig as friends, James Franco and Mila Kunis as small-time thieves, Ray Liotta as a gangster. In one of the funnier running bits, Mark Wahlberg appears as a secret agent who refuses to put his shirt on. No, it doesn’t sound funny, but the nature of running gags is that they build over time.

But mostly the film consists of the two comedy pros at centerstage, bantering with each other and panning for gold. Both are accomplished improvisers, and Fey has as long a track record as a writer (with “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock”) as she does as an actor. Frequently, the film simply stops to allow these two to toss one-liners at each other. They pretty much stick with their usual screen images: Fey is smart and acerbic, Carell is fatuous and prone to sudden outbursts of hysteria (though ultimately he’s much nicer than his character on “The Office,” needless to say).

It’s a good argument for the importance of character over plot — the story line is nothing, but the people onscreen are good company. Credit director Shawn Levy, whose slapstick filmography has wasted a lot of hours over the last few years (“Night at the Museum,” “The Pink Panther”), for letting his actors do their thing. In fact, if the DVD has extended outtakes, it might be a better idea to skip the film entirely and simply watch those. And no, I’m not really kidding.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.

by Robert Horton

“He claims his name is Farouk, shouts about God and tosses oatmeal at us.” That’s the investigating officer’s assessment of a murder suspect in Werner Herzog’s “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” a fruit-loopy new movie.

The audience also has a considerable amount of oatmeal thrown at it, in the form of Herzog’s unpredictable style, left-field dialogue and unexplained eruptions of weirdness.

Herzog, a true original whose fiction films (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God”) and documentaries (“Grizzly Man”) have explored the boundaries of madness, has recently made a sojourn into U.S. indie filmmaking. Last fall’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” was an especially mind-bending instance of his dreamy style colliding with a cop movie.

The result there was fascinating. In “My Son, My Son,” it’s mystifying. The material sounds well-suited for Herzog and producer David Lynch: a real-life killing in San Diego a couple of decades ago, in which an unstable young actor murdered his mother. The murderer had recently been fired from a stage production in which he played Orestes, the mythological character who commits matricide. The mix of theater and life is a point Herzog seizes on, needless to say.

The movie takes place on the day of the murder, as a police officer (Willem Dafoe) pieces together the story from flashbacks provided by the suspect’s fiance (Chloe Sevigny), stage director (Udo Kier) and neighbors (Loretta Devine and Irma P. Hall).

The suspect himself is played by Michael Shannon, that tall, discomfiting actor who’s been working steadily since his Oscar nomination for “Revolutionary Road.” He handles everything Herzog throws at him in this movie, no matter how large the non sequitur.

There is nothing exactly wrong with the setup of the movie, but (in the police-procedural scenes especially), the dialogue is so pedestrian and the delivery so flat, I couldn’t help but assume that Herzog was mounting a kind of parody of the typical cop show.

Herzog might be interested in this murder case, but the freak-show aspects are what rise to the surface, especially when the investigation travels to an ostrich farm run by Brad Dourif, one of filmdom’s reliable crazies.

It’s hard to know what producer Lynch had to do with this, although some scenes play like outtakes from “Twin Peaks,” complete with Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie, who plays Shannon’s overbearing mother in flashbacks, and an appreciation for a good cup of coffee.

If it didn’t have Herzog’s name on it, “My Son, My Son” would be chalked up as an incompetent police picture with a few interestingly weird touches; knowing it’s Herzog, I can see it as a black comedy about cultural strangeness and (maybe) formula movies. But I’m still not sure who’s supposed to sit through this feature-length experiment.

The Greatest. “The emotional ups and downs are strenuously navigated.”

City Island. “As believable as the average sitcom.”

Dancing Across Borders. “A more objective filmmaker might have looked deeper.”

Formosa Betrayed. “Feels like a lecture dressed up as a movie.”

Also appearing tonight on Art Zone with host Nancy Guppy; 8 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. tonight on channel 21; repeats on channel 9 Wed. night at 7 p.m.

And a few 3D ponderings on KUOW’s “Weekday,” archived here. The movie bit kicks in at 14:40.

Movie Diary 4/8/2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010). When you despise graffiti in all its forms, it makes it difficult to admire the mysterious street artist Bansky, which is further complicated by the fact that he’s sort of glorious. I don’t know what this movie is – it purports to be a documentary about the graffiti-art scene, but as far as I know half of it is made up. I promise I will find out before I actually have to write a review. Amusing, though. (full review 4/23)

Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010). If you could just get rid of the cutesy song cues, this movie would be half as much better. There are some pretty damn funny sights in it, though, amoral and narratively berserk as it is. (full review 4/16)

Movie Diary 4/7/2010

Rocaterrania (Brett Ingram, 2008). Another study of a prolific, secret, and eeriely focused artist from the director of Monster Road (which profiled the Seattle-area stop-motion visionary Bruce Bickford). The subject here is 76-year-old Reynaldo Kuhler, who in the course of his social-misfit life has invented an elaborate alternate world (see title) with a detailed history, rendered in accomplished drawings. Kuhler’s own family history is as interesting as his fictional universe – his father was an industrial designer celebrated for his classic streamlined trains – and setting the two chronologies side by side superbly contrasts personal psychology with Rocaterrania’s imagined political history.

The Square (Nash Edgerton, 2008). Tangled Aussie noir that gets genuinely startling when it needs to. The director’s movie-star brother, Joel, also co-wrote the script, and modestly takes a co-starring role in the ensemble.

Movie Diary 4/6/2010

Multiple Sarcasms (Brooks Branch, 2010). There’s a 2007 copyright at the end. Timothy Hutton wants to be a playwright, so he dresses like one and grows a persistent three-day beard, and Dana Delany and Mira Sorvino are his wife and best friend. It’s 1979. Kind of a puzzler. (full review 5/7)

Date Night (Shawn Levy, 2010). The end-credits outtakes suggest mucho improvising by Tina Fey and Steve Carrell, which is pretty much what you’d want to happen if you had them in your movie, right? And they are the movie. (full review 4/9)

Movie Diary 4/5/2010

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (Werner Herzog, 2009). Herzog and David Lynch, working together as director and producer. Can the nuttiness be long in coming? When Michael Shannon shares a scene with Udo Kier and Brad Dourif, it’s like he’s been officially welcomed into a brotherhood of character-actor weirdness. (full review 4/9)

Formosa Betrayed (Adam Kane, 2009). Odd, sincere little item that tries to work up some thriller excitement as it educates you about the history of the Taiwanese independence movement – and, sure enough, it will probably educate people on the subject. It’s no City of Sadness. (full review 4/9)

Warlords (Peter Ho-Sun Chan, 2007). Lots of history here, too, of a familiar kind. Some star power: Jet Li, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Andy Lau. I could keep everything reasonably straight for the first 90 minutes or so, which is saying something. (full review 4/16)

The Joneses (Derrick Borte, 2009). This thing has a nice wicked rollout in the first two or three reels, especially if you don’t know what the subject of the movie is, which I didn’t. Kind of hard to sustain after that unless you’re Kubrick, but David Duchovny is good in it. (full review 4/16)

1977 Ten Best Movies

from Killer of Sheep

1977’s list has this going on: my choice for #1 is a film I didn’t see until decades after the year itself had passed, although I was aware and conscious (well, more or less) and “into” movies in 1977. At the time, the debate was simple: there were people who thought Star Wars should win the Best Picture Oscar, no question, and other people (like me) who thought Annie Hall was the only possible choice and that Star Wars, while nice enough for the masses, should not win anything. (It was, in fact, a great day when Annie Hall won.)

Time, while making me less high-minded on that subject, also introduced other movies to the year’s bounty. A couple of years after it was released in Europe, The American Friend arrived on the arthouse circuit, and made a huge impact on me as I was taking my first film class. Now that was a movie to write a paper about. (No, I will not be posting “Red Lights and Murder: Madness in Recent Movies” to The Crop Duster.) Also, repeat viewings of Close Encounters of the Third Kind showed what a beauty that film is, although I’m a little irritated by the multiple versions.

And then eventually came Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, a movie barely seen by anybody in its early years of existence; that finally settled a very close race at the top of the ’77 heap. Blending realism and poetry in a highly original way, and looking at a particular world (Watts, where the protagonist works in a slaughterhouse) from the inside, Killer of Sheep maintains an amazing balance through its measured, deliberately-chosen moments. And so it perches at the top of the ten best movies of 1977:

1. Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)

2. The American Friend (Wim Wenders)

3. Annie Hall (Woody Allen)

4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg)

5. That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel)

6. The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko)

7. Stroszek (Werner Herzog) and Eraserhead (David Lynch)

8. New York, New York (Martin Scorsese)

9. Camouflage (Krzysztof Zanussi)

10. Star Wars (George Lucas)

Just missing out, mostly because it’s been a while, are Bresson’s The Devil, Probably, and Resnais’ Providence; a  notch below are Altman’s 3 Women and Truffaut’s Man Who Loved Women, all top-ten-worthy. But New York, New York is exciting in ways that flawed movies are exciting, and Camouflage is a brilliant effort by a Polish director who is still very active but whose movies haven’t been shown over here (at least not near Seattle) in a long time. A Criterion Eclipse DVD has brought The Ascent to a broader audience than it ever knew, and this WWII film by a short-lived Soviet filmmaker (she died at age 41, in a car accident) is an uncommonly intense experience. And, you know, Star Wars.

I couldn’t find a spot for Jonathan Demme’s Handle with Care, which I liked a lot back then but liked less when I watched it again on a crappy VHS tape. The year has quite a few movies that offer various levels of pleasure: The Duellists, The Gauntlet (Eastwood doing a screwball comedy as a shoot ’em up), Sorcerer, The Last Wave, Soldier of OrangeSaturday Night Fever, The Late Show, and the shamefully entertaining Capricorn One (among the great all-time cable-TV time-suckers). And what about the brainy, self-conscious horror offerings of the year? Cronenberg had Rabid, Romero had Martin, and John Boorman came up with a notably audacious franchise-killer, Exorcist II: The Heretic. They’d never allow that one to happen these days.

Clash of the Last Song (Weekly Links)

Elina Lowensohn, impeccable in Lourdes

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

Clash of the Titans. “That’s just like the gods, always messing about for the sake of messing about.”

The Last Song. “Might be bearable as entertaining junk if it weren’t for the funereal pace.”

Lourdes. “Perhaps you’re supposed to take them on faith.”

Vincere. “How people are seduced by demagogues.”

The Exploding Girl. (Not yet posted.)

And I talk with KUOW’s Steve Scher about Greenberg and the audience’s resistence to “unsympathetic” protagonists, here; the movie bit kicks in at the 14-minute point.

Movie Diary 4/1/2010

Repo Men (Miguel Sapochnik, 2010). Catching up with this. Not quite as bad as reported, although it has the look of post-production futzing around. The ending is either desperate or inspired, which could describe quite a bit of the movie, actually. Good support from Liev Schrieber and Forest Whitaker; Jude Law looks like he’s ready to break something in half. A lot of it makes no sense. Alex Cox should be pissed, too.

City Island (Raymond De Felitta, 2009). Kind of a frowzier variation on Moonstruck, with an agreeable attitude and pleasant cast; Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, Emily Mortimer, and a funny kid who’s actually funny, Ezra Miller. (full review 4/9)