Thursday, August 31, 2006

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby / *** (PG-13)

Ricky Bobby: Will Ferrell
Cal Naughton, Jr.: John C. Reilly
Jean Girard: Sacha Baron Cohen
Reese Bobby: Gary Cole
Lucius Washington: Michael Clarke Duncan
Susan: Amy Adams
Lucy Bobby: Jane Lynch
Larry Dennit, Jr.: Greg Germann
Carley Bobby: Leslie Bibb

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Adam McKay. Written by Will Ferrell and McKay. Running time: 105 min. Rated PG-13 (for crude and sexual humor, language, drug references, and brief comic violence).

Will Farrell is one of those rare Saturday Night Live veterans who’ve been able to break away and develop a lucrative career with films that are both financially and artistically successful. An easy comparison would be to Adam Sandler, but Farrell is the more artistically successful of the two. Both have high profile projects where they play characters that basically act like idiots and are based in the lower forms of humor. The difference is Sandler’s characters are adolescents who refuse to grow up, while Farrell’s are adolescents who can’t help but grow up.

Farrell’s latest socially stunted moron is the NASCAR driver “who could only count to #1,” according to the film’s tag line. Farrell and his writing partner and director Adam McKay have said that “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” is the second installment in a planned trilogy of men whose celebrity outmatches their talent in their chosen fields. Their first collaboration was the enjoyable news anchor skewering “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”. My first question is what other profession would go perfectly with a name containing the initials “R.B.”? Perhaps in their final installment, the unlikely hero will be a movie star who shockingly becomes one of the biggest box office draws in Hollywood after humbly beginning as a cast member on a late night sketch comedy show.

But I digress. “Talladega Nights” is about the ever-so-wonderfully named racing maverick Ricky Bobby (Farrell), who’s actually a pretty damn good driver. What Ricky Bobby lacks is any sense of tact, most necessary social graces, and what might even pass for half a brain. He’s a good ol’ boy destined from birth to go fast. Born in the back seat of a muscle car going 110 mph, Ricky Bobby brings a new definition to Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun” line, “I feel the need… the need for speed!”

The film has a lot of fun with Ricky Bobby’s family, both his parents and his wife and kids. His father Reese (Gary Cole, “The Brady Bunch Movie”) is a particular low form of trailer trash who bails on Ricky and his mom (Jane Lynch, “Best in Show”), but not before instilling upon the impressionable young Ricky that first place is the only place there is because everyone else is a loser.

After Ricky has become a NASCAR Champion, his family consists of his “smokin’ hot wife” Carley (Leslie Bibb of TV’s “Crossing Jordan”) and their two sons Walker and Texas Ranger. “If we wanted two little girls, we would have named them ‘Dr. Quinn’ and ‘Medicine Woman’.” Conversations at the Bobby household consist of arguing the merits of praying to the infant Jesus over the grown up one.

Ricky’s life long friend Cal Naughton, Jr. is played with impeccable stupidity by John C. Reilly (“Chicago”). Cal makes Ricky look like a college drop-out at least, but their mutual love for driving has lead to a great team; Cal always takes second place. When Call asks Ricky if he could let him win just once, Ricky doesn’t even consider it because there cannot be two number ones. Cal’s understanding of Ricky’s denial is simple, “’Cause that would make eleven.”

Ricky’s bullheadedness requires that he either finish first in every race or crash. This does not bode well for his racing team in the mind boggling NASCAR points system. In order to produce a true number one driver, Ricky’s sponsor Larry Dennit, Jr. (Greg Germann, TV’s “Ally McBeal”) hires the number one French Formula One driver as his new lead driver. Played by the chameleon comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (HBO’s “Da Ali G Show”), Jean Girard is like a mentally challenged version of the snooty Frenchman and he throws down the gauntlet with Ricky before their first race – giving him a debilitating injury that leads to a most embarrassing night on the track.

It takes all of the people closest to Ricky to put him back on his feet. He doesn’t make it easy for anyone, including his father, who has some pretty unusual training techniques for a NASCAR driver. One involves a live cougar.

While “Anchorman” played kind of like an extended, albeit very clever and amusing, sketch comedy idea blown up into a full length feature, “Talladega Nights” seems more like a genuine movie idea. Using quite a few actual NASCAR personalities for the track scenes and providing thrilling racing sequences to go along with the story, this film is more of a theatrical experience than you might expect from an idiot comedy.

Farrell and McKay are also true to their own senses of humor. They don’t pander to their audience with typical jokes or even plot developments. They are willing to take a risk on their own unique sense of humor, trusting their audience to follow them into the absurd while keeping a firm grasp on the human elements of their characters.

Not only did Ricky Bobby and his family make me laugh, I also cared about them. I would have like to have seen more development of the Amy Adams (“Junebug”) character, who provides the sexual catalyst for one of the films biggest laughs; but I came out of the theater feeling like I had spent a good time with some friends. Thank God my friends aren’t quite as dense as those people, even if they do know how to go fast.

Monday, August 21, 2006

World Trade Center / **** (PG-13)

Sgt. John McLoughlin: Nicolas Cage
Donna McLoughlin: Maria Bello
Will Jimeno: Michael Pena
Allison Jimeno: Maggie Gyllenhaal
USMC Staff Sgt. David Karnes: Michael Shannon

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Andrea Berloff. Based on the true stories of John & Donna McLoughlin and Will & Allison Jimeno. Running time: 125 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense and emotional content, some disturbing images and language).

Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” tells the story of two Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, trapped after the collapse of the twin World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. It also tells of the emotional turmoil suffered by these men’s wives, Donna McLoughlin and Allison Jimeno. It tells of the emotional and physical perseverance of these four people. It is simply a story of survival and nothing else.

“World Trade Center” is not a detailed account of everything that happened on that historic and horrific day. It is not a political film. It is not an indictment of the Bush administration, or an attack on the conspiratorial nature of our government or any other. It is not a flag-waving, patriotic, “let’s pat ourselves on the back for being Americans” propaganda piece, as some critics have suggested. Nor does it carry a message of Christian righteousness just because one of the rescuers was “called” to duty by God. It depicts the ordeal of these two men and these two women during that event that touched our whole country, our whole world, and so it may seem to be more than what it is.

At the same time, though, it is more. People will not be able to walk into the theater or pop in the DVD without bringing to it their own baggage. As a film buff, I am one of those rare audience members who enjoys going to the theater by myself. One reason I think that is, is because when I’m alone it is easier to dump that baggage and just experience a film.

My wife didn’t think she could handle this film emotionally, and she may have made the right decision. Seeing it by myself, it was a rough passage. I am not a man who ever expresses much emotion and there were several points in the film where I could not hold back the tears, the exhaustion, the weight, the pain, or even the shame the images I saw presented to me.

What this film does so well is to make a very personal connection with its audience by presenting the specific stories of these four individuals. While these stories take place during a real life disaster almost all Americans have some sort of connection to, it is not presented like a typical disaster picture. It is not about the disaster, but about the people.

There are almost no images of the towers falling. And those iconic images which are referenced have little meaning to the characters involved as they are occurring.
Jimeno sees the shadow of a plane across a building when on duty at the Port Authority. The officers see Tower One burning as they approach the scene and rumors about a second plane hitting Tower Two circulate, but since they can only see the smoke from Tower One they dismiss it as not possible. When Tower One falls, we are given a brief glimpse of the debris coming down outside Building Five between the Twin Towers, where McLoughlin and Jimeno were located at the time, but they only just have time to react before any realization of what is happening becomes apparent.

Stone does not bother to recreate those images we all saw hundreds of times in the days following 9/11. This gives us a more direct line into the humanity of the two men trapped under the wreckage, since we are only given the insight they have into their own situation as they struggle to survive. It also allows us to connect more directly with their wives’ frustration as later in the day they have been subjected to those same televised images of the towers falling that we can’t help but remember viewing over and over again.

There are some effective reaction shots taken from news coverage of people throughout the world as they watched the actual events unfold. These do a good job in serving as audience representation of emotion, keeping enough reminder of where the rest of us were emotionally as we are simultaneously immersed in the unique emotions of the McLoughlins and the Jimenos.

It will be no surprise if the cast members are honored during awards season this year. Nicolas Cage (“National Treasure”) turns in another subtly powerful performance as the fairly soft spoken John McLoughlin, and Michael Pena (“Crash”) is a fresh face in the challenging role of Will Jimeno, who must do most of the work to keep the two men going long enough for rescue.

It is the women who must carry a great deal of the kinetic energy of the film, however. Maria Bello (“A History of Violence”) has the task of providing the film’s emotional stability, playing the veteran policeman’s wife Donna. She’s dealt the tough hand of having to remain strong for their four children, one of whom insists she is not doing enough. Maggie Gyllenhaal (“Criminal”) has a totally different stress to deal with as Allison, the wife of the younger officer, with both his and her families treating her with the delicateness reserved for a woman whose future has just disappeared only months away from the birth of their second child.

There are other characters that play peripheral roles, such as the former EMT played by Stone regular Frank Whaley (“The Doors”), one of the first men to go in after Jimeno and McLoughlin. A more prominent supporting character is USMC Staff Sgt. David Karnes (Michael Shannon, “Bad Boys II”). The Marine is credited with finding the two Port Authority officers, and much has been made of the character’s religious motivations. There is little development given to these smaller roles, which are included mostly as reference to the facts of what happened and to honor these men for their efforts in a story that could not exist without them. Their religion or politics are not the point, but rather the fuel for their being there.

I have read some comments disparaging Stone’s and screenwriter Andrea Berloff’s lack of subtlety. At one point Staff Sgt. Karnes looks at the cloud surrounding Ground Zero and says it is “like God made a curtain with the smoke to shield us from what we're not ready to see.” Whether these are really Karnes’ words or not, it does wax a little poetical, but isn’t that part of the point of making a film about it? Plus it is quite a beautiful way to look at that ugly scar of smoke that hung off the end of Manhattan Island for so long.

For the most part, however, Stone (“Nixon”, “Alexander”) is like a director reborn. Gone are all of his typical directorial signatures of revolving film stock and aggressive editing. Stone has gone back to the basics of seemingly straightforward camera direction, and it is as if he has rediscovered the gift of beautiful photography. He photographs New York in the opening moments of the film with the loving care of a lifelong resident, capturing the crispness of the fateful fall morning. And when Jimeno is finally pulled from the wreckage crying, “Where are all the buildings?” the audience can finally see just why “Ground Zero” was such an appropriate moniker for what had only shortly before been one of the world’s financial capitals.

I suppose my own personal baggage, having lived in and loved New York, allowed me to see the film Oliver Stone wanted me to see, while others may merely see a disaster picture and more of Stone’s agenda-driven posturing. But the emotional effect this movie had on me was so strong, I’m tempted to say it is a film everybody would do good to see, if only to discover how far along the healing process each of us has come since 9/11.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Basic Instinct 2 / *½ (R)

Catherine Tramell: Sharon Stone
Dr. Michael Glass: David Morrissey
Milena Gardosh: Charlotte Rampling
Roy Washburn: David Thewlis
Adam Tower: Hugh Dancy
Denise Glass: Indira Varma
Dr. Jakob Gerst: Heathcote Williams

MGM/Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Michael Canton-Jones. Written by Leora Barish and Henry Bean. Running time: 113 min. Rated R (for strong sexuality, nudity, violence, language and some drug content).

Why would I even bother to rent one of the worst reviewed movies of the year so far? Because like anyone, I have guilty pleasures, and upon its theatrical release, many of the reviews of “Basic Instinct 2” suggested that this film fell in that “so bad it’s good” category reserved for a special kind of cinematic disaster. Roger Ebert included a footnote in his review of the film that said, “My 1½-star rating is like a cold shower, designed to take my mind away from giving it four stars.”

While not being a big fan of the original “Basic Instinct”, but not hating it either, I thought I might just openly relish the film in a way Ebert was unwilling to admit with his star rating (but quite readily admitted in his written review). And with my recent generosity for awarding stars, I was ready to let every one know it at first glance. But alas, it was not to be.

Yes, it is a bad movie. Yes, it has some moments that would fit right into an episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (without the “Science” anyway). But it’s a film that takes itself far too seriously-- as if some of its audience members might actually be buying into its absurd plot-- to deserve the suggestion that it just might be so awful as to touch upon some form of demented genius.

The film opens with a fairly spectacular sequence in which thriller novelist Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone reprising her sultry role from the original film) drives a speeding car through London and into the river Thames during a sexual act. Tramell escapes the wreck, but is suspected of murdering the soccer star who was in the car with her.

Dr. Michael Glass (David Morrissey, “Derailed”) is assigned to Tramell to assess her mental state. He determines that Tramell has a “risk addiction”, a phrase that is then endlessly bandied about for the remainder of the film. “You have a risk addiction.” “I don’t have a risk addiction.” “How bad is her risk addiction?” “Maybe you’re the one with a risk addiction.” “Maybe I do have a risk addiction.” “Does her risk addiction make her dangerous to others?” “You’re the risk addiction expert.” In fact, the original title of the script was “Risk Addiction.” Now, that’s shocking!

Shocking the audience with the sexual audacity of its characters is really what the film is about. The convoluted plot only exists as an excuse to invite the audience into the sexual perversity of the characters, and this may very well be what the target audience of “Basic Instinct 2” is looking for. It is a film filled with sexy people yearning to jump in the sack with each other. Of course, many of them prefer a plastic sack over their heads during sex. Even the sets and locations seem to have a sexuality about them.

It can certainly be said that Stone has not lost that sexual appeal that skyrocketed her to stardom with “Basic Instinct”. She drips sex, and the wardrobe designers don’t miss a chance to throw her into loin rattling outfits. There aren’t many women outside her character who would feel comfortable in the sheer, squeaking and stretched clothes she wears.

Of course, all of this sex would be wonderful for a good old fashioned porno, but unfortunately this is not pornography. Pornography wouldn’t require you to pay attention to such an over-involved plot, or the indulgent dialogue like this winning exchange:

“Kevin Franks died. You don’t seem very worried.”
“I’m devastated… I may never cum again.”

OK, I guess the dialogue resembles pornography too, only here you’re actually expected to care what they’re talking about.

The biggest bafflement is the involvement of such distinguished British actors as Charlotte Rampling and David Thewlis. Rampling plays a colleague of Dr. Glass who inexplicably warns him away from Tramell and uncharacteristically seems sexually attracted to her as well. Rampling can be seen in a much better sexual thriller, “Swimming Pool”, which I would recommend even over finishing this review.

Thewlis, who can be seen in such recent films as “Kingdom of Heaven”, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, and “The New World”, here finds himself as a detective possibly a little too determined to bring Tramell down. He lands the regrettable task of providing the film’s biggest laugh in its grandest moment of absurdity. This was the type of unintended camp I was looking forward to when I rented the film, but alas it comes too late to save any face.

I believe Ebert was correct to call for a cold shower after viewing this film, but that shower has two purposes and soap is required for both of them.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

My Super Ex-Girlfriend / *** (PG-13)

Jenny Johnson/G-Girl: Uma Thurman
Matt Saunders: Luke Wilson
Hannah: Anna Faris
Vaughn: Rainn Wilson
Professor Bedlam/Barry: Eddie Izzard
Carla: Wanda Sykes

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Ivan Reitman. Written by Don Payne. Running time: 95 min. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content, crude humor, language and brief nudity).

OK, now I’m even beginning to question my own integrity as a movie critic. Over the past few weeks, I’ve given three star reviews to at least four films that have been certified rotten by the film critics’ compendium website Rotten Tomatoes. The last time I panned a film was over two months ago.

I my defense, I will say that I’ve only been reviewing films this summer that I have seen in theaters. If I were dicussing video rentals, I could let you know that I felt Harrison Ford’s “Firewall” seemed to tell its audience to think without really wanting them to. I could tell you how dull Rob Reiner seems to have become even though his “Rumor has it…” had good intentions and an ellipsis. And I could warn you that the comic book actioner “Ultraviolet” is the worst movie I’ve seen since 2000’s remake of “Rollerball”, but that might be an insult to “Rollerball”.

“My Super Ex-Girlfriend” is a silly movie. It’s predictable, formulaic and adds little to the superhero or romantic comedy genres. It has stock characters and offers no challenges for the audience. Yet it does what it is attempting to do and carries a string of laughter throughout. While it aspires to little beyond a desire to humor its audience, it works as a comedy and even offers a slightly new way of looking at the differences between men and women, if only for comedic purposes.

The film follows the hapless romantic life of Matt, played by Luke Wilson (“Old School”). It has been six months since his last romance, with a girl who all of Matt’s closest friends describe as “crazy.” Matt is constantly badgered to get back into the dating game by his best friend Vaughn (Rainn Wilson of NBC’s “The Office”), who deludes himself that he is a ladies man. Of course, Matt secretly harbors feelings for his office buddy Hannah (Anna Faris, “Scary Movie”). Check off one romantic comedy requirement right there.

One day in the subway Vaughn spots a bookish looking woman and encourages Matt to ask her out, reasoning that the quiet ones are always such “vixens” in the sack. Despite an initially cold reaction from the woman with the alliterated name of Jenny Johnson, she eventually agrees to a date. Matt’s initial impression is that she is a little weird and “clingy.” He soon learns that some of her quirky behavior is due to the fact that she is also the city’s resident superhero, G-Girl.

Uma Thurman (“Kill Bill”) is perfect in both of her personalities, the desperate Jenny and the powerful G-Girl. Thurman lets her comedic chops salivate with her frantic attempts to seem normal for her new boyfriend. During the early moments of their relationship we’re treated to one of the funnier sex scenes seen in a while.

Eventually Matt realizes that Jenny really is clingy and has other personality defects that result from having lived in her own world of extraordinary power for so long. He also realizes an opportunity to allow Hannah to know his true feelings for her. Luke Wilson is also perfect, capturing that sense of walking on thin ice just long enough to escape and run screaming away.

Wilson and Thurman do a virtuous job carrying what is basically a tired romantic comedy plot. Man loves woman but feels he can’t have her because she is already spoken for, hooks up with another woman who makes him realize the first woman is worth the risk. Their support staff is also expertly cast. The ever-underrated Faris has that bubbliness that makes her irresistible, and Rainn Wilson (no relation to Luke) is a uniquely grotesque version of the slimy best friend.

British drag comedian Eddie Izzard (“Ocean’s 12”), on the other hand, seems somewhat of a stretch as G-Girl’s arch nemesis Professor Bedlam. He has the abuse and mistreatment of both his victims and his henchmen down. There is a good laugh when he is testing the strength of G-Girl’s hair and the blade of his saw flies off and into a lackey’s chest. But he never really comes across as someone who could terrorize an entire city in the same way that G-Girl champions it. Plus, the secret behind his evil is a little hard to swallow given his flamboyant nature.

Despite the predictability of the movie’s plot, director Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters”) and screenwriter Don Payne (TV’s “The Simpsons”) keep the jokes smart and rapid. While not high art, “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” kept me well amused from beginning to end. Perhaps this critic is just a softy, but this is one movie that will give you a few laughs if you’re willing to let it.