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 3/30/2010

Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969). Some fragrant locations and period trappings, although Demy’s lack of “touch” with American speech and behavior paralyzes the movie. Can’t entirely dismiss a film that has many sequences of driving in a car with music playing, however, which this movie does, as Gary Lockwood drives his MG around the L.A. haze with classical tunes or Spirit (the band also appears in the film) on the soundtrack.

Clash of the Titans (Louis Leterrier, 2010). Hate to say it, but better on most counts than the original (Harryhausen’s eerie Medusa sequence aside), with a truly bizarre cast; Worthington’s still a cipher, though. (full review 4/2)

The Exploding Girl (Bradley Rust Gray, 2009). Oblique artlessness a la Wendy and Lucy is one thing (and a lovely thing, in that case), but you gotta give us something more than this. Zoe Kazan stars, although “stars” is not a relevant word in this context. (full review 4/2)

Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss (Felix Moeller, 2009). A curious approach on the director of the most notorious anti-Semitic film of the Third Reich: a smattering of history (but not so much that you’d know anything about the postwar legal cases against Veit Harlan), a but a lot about how Jew Suss has affected Harlan’s family, including his grandchildren – and his niece, who happened to be married to Stanley Kubrick. Interviews with them constitute the bulk of the picture; an intriguing take, though not the last word on the subject.

Mother and Child (Rodrigo Garcia, 2009). An awfully good cast doing awfully good things in one of those multiple-vectors-crossing movies; Garcia did the interesting Nine Lives. Strange sub-theme: actors from 1980s TV classics (Jimmy Smits, David Morse, Michael Warren).

Dancing Across Borders (Anne Bass, 2009). Straight-ahead dance documentary about a traditional Cambodian dancer uprooted in his teens to learn ballet in the U.S. (full review 4/9)

The Last Song (Julie Anne Robinson, 2010). Miley Cyrus, angry at the world, but saving sea turtle eggs. It’s a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, so one of the characters had better be putting his accounts in order. (full review 4/2)