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 4/5/2010

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)