MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Date Night, When You’re Strange, The Greatest and more …

Date Night (Three Stars)
U.S.; Shawn Levy, 2010

Steve Carell and Tina Fey make a potentially great movie comedy couple in Date Night — even though they’re handicapped by the movie’s script. Playing a nice suburban hubby-and-wife accidentally set loose in a wild and crazy urban underworld, they’re loose and sharp and totally in command. Carell and Fey, a primo pair, engage our sympathies, make us smile and laugh. They do everything we’d expect from the stars of two smart shows like The Office and 30 Rock — and from the comedians who nailed weasely office bosses like Michael Scott and personality-kid politicos like Sarah Palin for all time.

But the movie itself — a slick and quick but often shallow and silly mix of North by Northwest and the 1970 The Out-of Towners, from director Shawn (Night at the Museum) Levy — keeps letting them down, shoving clichés and car chases down our throats. Some of the humor suggests Norman Lear just past his prime, but too much of it suggests Chevy Chase just past his — or the inferior 1999 Steve Martin-Goldie Hawn Out-of-Towners. (To be more precise, it suggests someone who’d like to be as funny as Lear, but can’t quite pull himself from the swamps of high-concept stereotype.)

At the end, when the moviemakers put some outtakes under the credits — and Carell and Fey get to play around with funny accents and different comic personas — we get a glimpse of what Date Night could have been, if Levy had really set them loose, and if they all weren’t partly hamstrung by Josh Klausner’s thin, obvious fish-out-of-water scenario.

Say what you want, though: This movie gets its laughs. Carell and Fey, as funny a pair as TV has right now, play Phil and Blaire Foster, a good-hearted, very likeable, fairly hip suburban couple trying to light a fire under their now boring and routine marriage, by turning their regular date night into something special: eschewing the usual Friday night at the movies (where they’d maybe see something like Date Night), heading off to an ultra-chic Manhattan restaurant and shooting the works. Of course they end up with more than they bargained for, but not more than you could expect from Levy.

Soon, in fact, the works are shooting back at them. After the Fosters recklessly jump ahead in line at the trendy eatery Phil picks, by claiming to be the no-show Tripplehorns (a mythical couple who‘ve been paged, just like the mythical George Kaplan was at the start of North by Northwest), bad things start to happen. They’re pulled from their table by two thugs, Armstrong and Collins (Jimmi Simpson and Common), whom they mistake for restaurant security, but who prove to be gunmen in the pay of the local wise-guy gangster boss (Ray Liotta, mysteriously unbilled), who‘s very angry at the ”Tripplehorns,” and wants either his goods or their corpses.

The Fosters escape, the thugs on their tail, and are soon involved in everything from shoot-outs to sex clubs to slapstick sub-French Connection high speed chases with taxi cabs and screaming drivers stuck to their grilles.


And since Armstrong and Collins prove to be crooked cops, the fugitive Fosters, amazingly plucky and resourceful through all their misadventures, can’t even get police help in Rudy Giuliani‘s city.


One of the remarkable things about Date Night is what a smashing cast Levy has assembled for this over-obvious, not-too-swift script. Besides Carell, Fey and the others above, there are middling to brief star turns by Mark Wahlberg as Holbrooke, a shirtless stud of a security guy who helps the Fosters out, James Franco and Mila Kunis, terrific as the real “Tripplehorns,” Taraji P. Henson as good cop Det. Arroyo, William Fichtner as the D.A., Leighton Meester as the Foster’s babysitter, and, most surprisingly, Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig — who have almost nothing to do as the troubled New Jersey suburban couple next door, but do it very well. I also saw someone I could swear was Michael Moriarity hanging around with Arroyo, but since he was unbilled too, maybe it was a doppelganger or a Law and Order flashback.

Tina Fey and Steve Carell make it all mesh and click. He’s playing a good-hearted, super-organized, bread-winner, not a schmuck like “Office’s” Michael , but someone who could work with the schmucks: a guy who wants to show his wife he can be not just a regular Joe, but a take-charge stud as well, and who keeps trying to play it cool when he keeps getting in over his head. Carell is great at this kind of half-anal, show-off role. And when Phil gets intimidated by Holbrooke’s bare chest, we can see the character’s flipside, the insecurities he‘s hiding, not too successfully.

Fey’s Claire is a perfect nice-to-the-bone, super-organized housewife. She manages to be both sexy and funny — and even sweet — as well. Part of the kick of Fay’s now-legendary Palin impression, is that she gets ditziness, phoniness, ignorance and even a sweet, goofy side to her Palin as well — although the real-life lady they called “Sarah Barracuda” in high school, is probably more aware and more of a phony than Fey plays. Palin obviously has some meanness and cut-throat political cunning under the ever-smiling cutes and sexy fluff.

What Date Night winds up doing at the end — putting Claire and Phil in the wise-guy’s sex club, disguised as a dancer-hooker and her pimp — is the key to its comic strategy, which is not unlike all those ’60s’ Rock Hudson/Doris Day double-entendre comedies where the movie played at showing gamy, sexually promiscuous and perverse stuff, but the characters were really faking it. Phil and Claire are faking it too, especially in the sex-club scene, when they start dancing around a stripper’s pole, and this is something the two stars get exactly right. They make the Fosters knowing, but not too knowing, hip but not too hip. (They’ve clearly gotten almost all of their info about the underworld from movies and TV, but then so probably has writer Klausner.) We see the naiveté beneath the phony bravura, and that makes them more charming.

The movie misses a trick though by not exploiting what Carell and Fey show us in the outtakes: their near-genius flair for impersonations — even in this case mimicry that the non show biz Fosters aren’t doing too well. The actors are clearly winging some of it, and they’re hilarious.

Date Night would have been much better if the filmmakers had axed or shortened the car-chase and the action, dumped some of the Marky Mark pec jokes, and let Carell and Fey play around with the lines and scenes a lot more. Yet what these two genuinely crowd-pleasing co-stars prove here is they can carry a movie, even a movie that might be limping without them. Even though this isn’t that good a show on its own, I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing the Fosters together again, even on another date night — and even if they had to include an honest-to-goodness Sarah Barracuda cameo.


When You’re Strange (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Tom DiCillo, 2010

I just can’t understand the scanty distribution given to Tom DiCillo’s powerful documentary on The Doors and their magnetic, doomed lead singer/songwriter Jim Morrison. What the hell? The Doors were the ultimate ‘60s American rock n’ roll band, just behind the Beatles and The Rolling Stones in importance (and above them in a few respects). They were highly gifted, massively popular and culturally prototypical. Their only real American rivals were Bob Dylan and the Hawks (the Band), and Bobby and the Hawks weren’t really a regular, functioning band.

The Doors’ story — keying on Morrison’s sad, indulgent rise and fall – is one of the great show biz cautionary chronicles, and it’s very well-told here. This is the best film ever on The Doors, and one of the best of all rock movies — a mix of wonderful songs and performances (“Light My Fire,” “Break on Through,” “L. A. Woman,” “The Crystal Ship,” “When the Music‘s Over,” “The End“ “Five to One“ and many others), with incredible concert and backstage footage, plus a good chunk of an Easy Rider style experimental fiction film starring Morrison, mostly shot by Morrison’s UCLA filmmaking friend Paul Ferrara, and all of it narrated by Doors admirer Johnny Depp.

Why isn’t this getting regular art house distribution?

It should. This movie rocks. Among other things, it convinced me that Morrison‘s infamous “indecent exposure” at the Miami concert, probably never happened and that his alleged feigned onstage fellatio on band mate Robby Krieger was a crock too. Though Morrison kneeled in the show before his blazing lead guitarist, he’s clearly looking spellbound at Krieger‘s hot guitar licks, not trying to theatrically fake a blow job.

And unless Morrison whisked his wang out and in with lightning speed at that concert, it’s almost impossible to imagine that such a million dollar peter-shot wouldn’t have been caught on somebody‘s camera. (Anyone who can imagine it, probably never went to a rock concert in the ‘60s.) That means that the Doors’ career-damaging “obscene” concert may have been a myth, and perhaps political persecution as well.

Anyway, When You’re Strange is easily the best new movie out this week. So why is it playing in only three theaters nationwide?

Obviously, you‘ll have a hard time seeking it out. But seek it out you should. The three surviving Doors — keyboardist-composer Ray Manzarek, guitarist-composer Krieger and drummer John Densmore — obviously didn’t want to make a conventional archival/talking heads concert doc and they’ve made the decision (mistakenly I think) to include no new footage or interviews with themselves, or anyone else. Wrong as I think that choice was — I want to know what they all have to say now and I‘m sure lorts of others do too — it does give the movie more of a time capsule feel. And the mix of songs and biography — the strange, compelling tale of a great band born on Venice Beach, a quintessential ‘60s quartet that took its name from Aldous Huxley and illegal substances, and blended the blues-bred rhythm and beat and screaming guitars of ’60s rock with poetry ranging from Blake to Brecht to Morrison’s own scary death-haunted lyrics and sex-soaked lyricism, all encased in drummer Densmore’s hammer-blows and the rousing, eerie, blasting, carnivalesque music of Krieger and Manzarek.

Morrison was the James Dean of the ‘60s. And the film excerpts here, from Ferrara’s unfinished Hwy: An American Pastorale, show that he probably could have been a major movie star too, at least on the Kris Kristofferson level and probably higher — if only he could have killed the paradoxical shyness that plagued him from the start, with something other than rivers of booze. Morrison‘s Doors survivors toured through Chicago a few years ago, with Jim still in the band, thanks to old films and clips that the other three played to. So they still lament and revere him, want to be with him. They should have talked about him and them here, and they should definitely include new interviews with all the three Doors left, when the DVD comes out.

The movie beguiles and scares you, just as The Doors did when “Light My Fire” appeared on jukeboxes and radio in 1967. Here’s my only other complaint. The title “When You’re Strange,“ which comes from a line in “People are Strange” on their second album, should be changed. They should have used instead the obvious, but perfect, Doors movie title: “Light My Fire.”


The Greatest (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Shana Feste, 2009

The Greatest, which is also the title of the 1977 Muhammad Ali bio-drama, is a good, decent moviemaking feature debut for writer-director Shana Feste: a sometimes moving Ordinary People-style romance and domestic drama, in which a jolting tragedy happens in the first few minutes, and we get the whole romance in flashback.


Aaron Johnson is the title character, Bennett Brewer, a high school BMOC and heart-throb infatuated with pixie-cut/brainy classmate Rose (Carey Mulligan, who shouldn’t get typed in too many more heart-ache roles). Pierce Brosnan gets to cry, one of those tearless Glenn Beck-style tearless crying jags, as Bennett’s math prof dad Alton. Susan Sarandon is Bennett’s possessive mom, unable to accept her son‘s death or the grandchild in Rose’s womb. And Johnny Simmons steals a lot of scenes as Bennett’s screw-up younger brother Ryan.


All these actors are good, and the production is smooth. This is the kind of compassionate realist drama I always like to like. But to tell the truth, The Greatest began to dissolve away as soon as I walked from the theatre. And, unlike Brosnan, I didn’t cry.


After.Life (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Agnieszka Wostowicz-Vosloo, 2009

Christina Ricci, as car-crash victim Anna Taylor, spends most of this movie nude, or in a red slip, and lying on a table at the funeral home. Liam Neeson, as funeral home manager/departures specialist Eliot Deacon, spends much of it staring down at her and speaking softly, trying to get Anna to accept her fate.

No this is not the breakthrough in necrophiliac movie romance we’re all not waiting for. It’s a sophisticated, scary horror film in which Deacon proves to have a wild talent, albeit one very helpful in his profession. Deacon can speak to the dead, before their interment — although here, he spends most of his time jawboning with Anna, and ignoring the others, who aren’t as pretty and don’t have red slips. Anna’s guilt-tripping boyfriend Paul (Justin Long), who would like to talk to her too, gets mysterious calls from the funeral home, and is very suspicious of both Deacon and his business and home, into which he keeps trying to break. And little Jack (Chandler Canterbury) can hear and see Anna, though that may simply mean he‘s a potential departures expert.

Neeson, underplaying beautifully, shows that he could have played Hannibal Lecter, or any of Peter Cushing‘s old Hammer roles, and done a first-rate job. It’s hard though, to imagine how Deacon is able to take care of a thriving funeral business in a huge house with a mortuary and an accompanying graveyard, and do it all, even the grave digging, all by himself — besides carrying on long conversations with corpses and making sure they don’t escape.

Ricci is a fine damsel in grisly distress. Long, also the Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel is suitably perturbed, especially when he gets his ghostly calls or takes a roll in the cemetery.

I think that Wostowicz-Vosloo shows a lot of talent here, but that her subject matter is a shade too grisly and a little too lacking in real dark humor. Don’t confuse this movie, by the way, with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s wonderful 1998 fantasy After Life — which is not at all gruesome, and in which Ricci and Neeson do not appear, in red slips or otherwise.


The Square (Three Stars)
Australia; Nash Edgerton, 2008

This Australian neo-noir, which takes the Double Indemnity-Blood Simple guilty-lovers plot to another murderous extreme, keeps us on the hook with a series of bloody jolts, tense set-pieces and gruesome twists — all handled by a very capable cast that includes David Roberts as the probable “square‘. of the title, Raymond Yale, an increasingly nervous building contractor who sometimes bends the rules and here breaks them entirely when his adulterous lover Carla (Claire van der Boom) pulls him into a vortex of crime.

Her scheme, which begins going wrong almost immediately, also involves her crooked husband Smithy (Anthony Hayes), his skuzzy mates, a bad-tempered arsonist named Billy (played by co-writer Joel Edgerton, Nash‘s brother) and Billy’s unreliable girlfriend (Lisa Bailey). Sternly looking down on them all is Raymond’s boss Gil, a good Edward G. Robinson equivalent, played by that very fine Australian actor Bill Hunter.

There are lots of shocks here and the whole movie has a dark hue and extremely hard edges — and a sheer toughness befitting Edgerton‘s decades-long background as a stunt man and stunt expert. He‘s the first of his profession perhaps to break through as a director since Burt Reynolds‘ buddy Hal Needham. (Edgerton uses better scripts.) Accompanying the feature is Nash Edgerton‘s excellent prize-winning short Spider, in which Nash also stars, and which has a deadlier shock than anything in The Square.


Mother (Three and a Half Stars)
South Korea; Joon-Ho Bong, 2008

Belatedly, I add to that of many other colleagues, my own strong approval of Mother, this excellent, highly praised murder mystery by Joon-Ho Bong, South Korean director of the equally excellent monster movie The Host.

And I also offer my kudos for the superb lead performance by Hye-Ja Kim as the mother of the title — an underprivileged, poor but indomitable woman who mounts a determined crusade to exonerate her mentally-challenged son, Yoon Do-Joon (Bin Wan), after he is accused and convicted of the murder of the city belle. It’s another shocker, as good and gripping and sharply atmospheric as the current Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and possessed of a more deadly plausibility. You will not soon forget actress Kim as this movie’s mother. And you shouldn’t. (In Korean, with English subtitles.)

– Michael Wilmington
April 8, 2010

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