Wednesday, January 30, 2008

You know what? Make that a DOUBLE quarter-pounder, you preaching ass: "Fast Food Nation"

And hell, put some bacon on it. The more animals killed for my meal, the better.

I never thought while reading this pretty good book a few years ago that it could become a movie. First, it was nonfiction. Second, it went all over the country. Third, it pretty much called McDonald's a bunch of murderous pr!cks. No matter how much money such a movie grossed -- and I do mean gross -- it wouldn't be enough to pay the legal fees from the lawsuits.

But they didn't count on one thing: Richard Linklater. Yes, Mr. Experimental strikes again. Maybe an odd choice given there's no reefer or weird animation. But here's a guy who has done ensemble stuff before, so why not?

Our story follows a bunch of folks from very different backgrounds that end up in the fictional town of Cody, Colorado, which apparently has gone from a small burg to a booming mecca for all kind of chain restaurants. One of them is "Mickey's," a fast-food joint modeled after, of course, Taco Bell. (In case you really can't tell, we get one clear shot of a McDonald's early on.)

Greg Kinnear plays the new marketing guru at Mickey's, and he's dispatched to Cody to visit the meat-processing plant after reports that "The Big One" -- Mickey's top burger -- is, shall we say, less than pristine. He does a decent job with the role -- Kinnear has earnestness down pat -- although I didn't quite buy the idea that he was so innocent and upset at what he learns.

Working at the plant are a host of illegal immigrants, a few of whom we meet when they cross the border. They go on to work at the plant, where conditions suggest they aren't covered by an HMO or get time-and-a-half on weekends. Catalina Sandino Moreno ("Maria Full of Grace") and Wilmer Valderrama -- yeah, I know -- are a married immigrant couple, while Bobby Cannavale is the evil supervisor. He's really good.

The third main player in this tale is a high-school student who works at the local Mickey's. She's a good worker but eventually comes to question whether her employer is a pillar of society. Our would-be heroine is played by Ashley Johnson, whom I couldn't place but is believable.

Some good points of view, complemented by a host of smaller roles -- some practically cameos and a few featuring famous faces: Luis Guzman, Bruce Willis, Paul Dano, Patricia Arquette, Esai Morales, Ethan Hawke, Kris Kristofferson, even Avril Lavigne. I probably enjoyed Willis the most, although Hawke wasn't annoying, and it was good to see Kristofferson play subdued instead of just crusty and rambling. He actually might have been better than Willis.

Good performances, interesting story, generally successful adaption ... much to like. But while I like "Fast Food Nation" more than not, I was disappointed with how it wrapped up. I didn't have a problem with it being a downer. But the last few minutes were designed to shock and disgust, and instead they left me shrugging.

It's hard to explain, but the issue that set Kinnear's plot line in motion isn't addressed in the end. Rather, we simply see what happens to cows in the slaughterhouse. It's gross, sure, but where do you think beef comes from? This movie might make you become a vegetarian, which is fine. But as for how pure that pattie is, we still don't know.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Fine, I'll give you a pass on the title: "Michael Clayton"

Because I have to say, I've never been fond of films with the full name of somebody I've never heard of as the title. "Ned Kelly," "Charlotte Gray, " "Veronica Guerin," "Seabiscuit." Many are fine movies, I'm sure, but if I don't recognize who we're talking about, it's hard for me to get excited.

In this case, the plot revolves around a fictional person. Michael Clayton (George "Lip Syncing Transvestite in 'The Harvest'" Clooney) is a fixer for a big New York law firm, and right from the start things are buzzing. Soon we learn all this was set in motion four days earlier, when Mikey was dispatched to Milwaukee to rein in a senior partner (Tom Wilkinson) whose briefs most definitely were not in order. How do we know this? Because he stripped down to his other briefs during a deposition. Can't wait to see that noted in the billable hours.

Michael's got other problems, too, namely a big debt from a failed bar that his loser brother torpedoed. Then there's trying to be good father to his kid, apparently well after he and mom split up. So he's trying to manage all that while bringing Mr. Nutso back into the fold. This is important because Wilkinson was defending a huge agricultural conglomerate against a $3 billion class action suit. Yes, nine zeroes. More than a little interested in how that goes is the ag company's top lawyer, the chilly -- and apparently very bitchy in real life -- Tilda Swinton.

There are a few other names of note; Sydney "I used to direct but what I really want to do is act" Pollack plays the head partner at the law firm. Michael O'Keefe -- yeah, Danny from "Caddyshack!" -- is the No. 2, and acts like it. But this movie is mostly about Clooney's quest -- for Wilkinson, for cash, for overall clarity.

While this isn't Clooney's finest hour -- most would point to "Syriana," but I still say "Out of Sight" is his best -- he's solid. Still not a lot of range for the former Dr. Ross, but he does his schtick well. I never totally believed he was as sleazy as his job required, nor did I buy into his dismay over his lot in life. A more expressive -- not flamboyant, but expressive -- actor could have sealed the deal better. But we could do worse than Clooney here, so no worries.

There's also some good suspense, even if things slow down here and there. Watching Georgie Boy put the pieces together while others try to keep them apart is interesting, and although things come to a head somewhat predictably -- the opening scene sort of gives one key plot point away -- it's still satisfying.

Among the Best Picture nominees I've seen, this is easily the most mainstream. Not sure what that means for its chances. Maybe a different title would have helped. "The Fixer?" Nope, already taken several times over. "Adjustable Truth?" Probably too awkward. "Unclassy Action?" Too sophisticated. Wait ... I've got it. Let's change Clooney's character's name to Michael Upper. Voila! "Fixer Upper." If that doesn't get a statue, I'll storm the Academy ...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Potpourri, parade or plethora

Call it what you will, but here's another righteous roundup, complete with an old Clint Eastwood movie as our theme.


The Truman Show

I think I saw this in the theater, and maybe again on video. But that was a long time ago, and while I knew it was good, I forgot just how good.

The story of a man whose whole life has been on TV -- unbeknownst to him -- is sharp and breezes right along. Right away we learn that Truman is the star, that everyone else in his life is acting and that his whole world is one big set. Jim Carrey, in one of his first roles not entirely about clowning around, is good as Truman, although I could probably think of several "serious" actors who could have done better.

Still, he gets it done, along with a supporting cast that includes Ed Harris as the puppet master, Laura Linney as Truman's wife and Natascha McElhone as his long lost love. Things get really interesting when Truman starts to figure things out, and if this movie doesn't make you wonder if you're being watched, something's wrong with you.

The Queen

I skipped this in the theater and wasn't planning to watch it at home, but The Essence of Beauty Who Shares My Bed said I'd like it. Guess what? She was right!

As opposed to other boring movies about monarchs, this follows Queen Elizabeth II in the days following the death of Princess Diana. No need to rehash all that happened with these folks before then, but suffice it to say relations were strained. Then the girl goes and get herself killed -- becomes a martyr, practically -- and how the royal family reacts becomes a big, big deal to the British people.

Helen Mirren plays the queen. Strike that. Helen Mirren is the queen. Damn spooky, and easy to see why she won an Oscar here -- not just the look but the whole stoic schtick. Not too shabby is Michael Sheen as the new prime minister, Tony Blair. Between the two, it's fascinating to watch all the politics and posturing after Diana's death. Although not during tea, of course.

We Are Marshall

This was more than a little weepy for my taste, but how else are you going to talk about a plane crash that wiped out an entire college football team, and the long road back for that football program?

After the crash, Huntington, West Virginia, mourns, then debates putting together another team. (Booster Ian McShane vs. dean David Strathairn.) Soon there's a new coach (Matthew McConaughey) and a whole lot of new players, plus a few people from the old team (player Anthony Mackie and assistant coach Matthew Fox) who weren't on that fateful flight.

All in all, it's not bad, and the football scenes are decent. Then again, I almost dropped this lower in the post because of the director: McG. Maybe he's a nice guy and all, but dude ... "McG?" Is there anyway a grown man can walk around calling himself that? You're better off with McLovin.


My Date With Drew

Or "Loser Stalks a Nutty Actress." My wife will be the first to tell you that I like crazy deadline-type stunts. I'm the guy who went to 50 states in 50 days, and has talked about riding every mile of the New York City subway system on one fare. So sure, I was willing to see if this hirsute Jewish lad could actually get a date with Drew Barrymore in a mere 30 days.

Two big problems, however. One, there's a good argument to be made on whether he accomplishes his goal. Not to "ruin" the movie for you, but let's say one of the original conditions isn't met. Second, how he ultimately ends up with the date ... well, it's not anything earth-shattering, and it kind of was cheating in my opinion. In other words, things start out one way, but then the boys try another tack, which ends up being successful.

I'll admit that parts of this documentary are funny, and that you can't help but root for the guy. But he's more annoying than endearing. And then there's Drew, who does little to dispel her reputation as a dingbat. Nice girl? Sure. Cute? Yeah. Nuttier than a Payday bar? No doubt.


That's right! "Phantoms like a mallf*cker!!!" You know, some people watch "When Harry Met Sally" and get inspired to see "Casablanca." I've already seen "Casablanca," but after seeing "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," I knew I'd have to see "Phantoms" someday. I mean, Affleck was the *bomb,* yo!

Alas, this movie sucks. Yes, even Affleck.

Big Ben is sheriff in a small Colorado town where almost everyone has either disappeared or got themselves dead. Also running around is Rose McGowan, whom I've had a crush on since "The Doom Generation," way before "Charmed." Yet here's another in a long line of crappy roles for her. That's what you get for dating Marilyn Manson.

That's not the worst casting news, though. Featured in this muddled monster tale with crappy effects and a "boo" every two minutes is none other than Peter O'Toole. Good lord ... Lawrence of Arabia? The Lion in Winter? Mr. Chips? What on earth are you doing here? And with second billing to Daredevil? We're going to have to ask for that honorary Oscar back, sir.


Reno 911!: Miami

Whoa. Here's a group of people you don't want to look at very much. While I don't watch it regularly, "Reno 911!" is funny. So yeah, I wanted to see the feature-film version of these raunchier "Police Academy" types wreaking havoc on South Florida. I just didn't expect my eyes to burn so much.

The Reno cops have to keep the peace when a terrorist attack traps thousands of police officers inside the Miami convention center. As you might guess, hijinks ensue. And by "hijinks," I mean twisted interludes between cast members in various states of undress. (Shudder.)

Fortunately, this is little more than an extended version of a typical "Reno 911!" episode. Really, it's maybe 75 minutes long between opening and ending credits. That greatly helps with the digestion of such unappealing acts. If I never see a tubby deputy with hellacious sunburn on her back again, I'll be happy. Very happy.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Brad Renfro is one thing

But I didn't see this coming:

That sucks. True, I still haven't seen "A Knight's Tale," but other movies showed the guy could act. Besides "Brokeback," he was solid in "Monster's Ball," and by all indications kicks ass in "The Dark Knight." Which will be even darker now. Drag.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Am I the only one who thinks the title should start with "Oh yes ... "?: "There Will Be Blood"

Because whenever anyone makes a point to say something *will* happen, it really needs to come with that extra oomph, like when Wayne Campbell was talking about buying that guitar or bagging Cassandra. "Oh yes ... there will be blood."

That was one reason why I took in this tale of oil men in the early 20th century. The other was Daniel Day-Lewis, who I was told knocked the role of tough-ass oil man out of the park. When I think about it, I haven't seen this guy in much. Meaning only one movie. Not entirely my fault, though, since he's been in fewer than 20 movies, and that's counting his turn as "Colin, South African Street Tough" in "Gandhi."

If I recall correctly, Day-Lewis caught everyone's eye almost 20 years ago in "My Left Foot," winning an Oscar. All I've seen, however, is "In the Name of the Father," which was solid. Been meaning to see "Gangs of New York" but just haven't gotten around to it. All this is to say that while I know Danny Boy is supposed to be one of today's greats, I had very little proof through my own viewings. Until now.

We meet Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) as a solitary gold and silver prospector in 1898. We quickly follow him to oil in 1902, then to 1911, when most of the movie is set. Plainview has become a bonafide oil man and totes along his 10-year-old son to win leases anywhere he can. He soon learns there may be a whole mess of black gold in the piddling California town called Little Boston. Sure enough, there is, but he soon finds all sorts of hurdles -- psychological and sociological more than physical -- to extracting his fortune.

From this somewhat simple plot we get a deliberate tale by the man who earlier gave us a dysfunctional family of pornographers. Yep, Paul Thomas Anderson. Calling this a departure from the type of stories we saw in "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "Punch-Drunk Love" is like calling Jessica Simpson a little dim. Sure, there be some of the same themes of screwed-up families and the need to conquer your demons, but ... well, how do you go from Dirk Diggler to oil derricks?

However it happened, Anderson delivers a pretty good movie. No question the two-and-a-half hour running time required some patience, but Day-Lewis grabbed my attention and never let it go. Quite simply, Daniel Plainview wants to win, period. At oil, sure, but also everything. His biggest problem here isn't the big oil companies, but rather a preacher at a tiny church, who also happens to be from the family whose land is Plainview's first purchase in Little Boston.

Playing the preacher is Paul Dano, whom you may remember as the sullen, mute teen in "Little Miss Sunshine." (And even odder, Klitz from "The Girl Next Door.") He's good, too, as are the actors who play Plainview's kid, Plainview's brother and just about everyone. Can't say I've read much about the early 1900s oil boom in California, but everyone and everything looked authentic enough to me.

Ultimately, though, this is Day-Lewis's show, and he's probably going to win another Oscar as a result. His bitterness and refusal to give in continues all the way to through the final scene, which would have been nice to see if the film hadn't cut off a few minutes before the end.

That's right. I haul my ass to one of my city's two art-house theaters, sit through about 135-140 minutes of a movie, and right at the point that a crusty old Plainview and the smirking preacher are talking and tension is building ... cut! The lights come on, we all sit around for a bit, then a theater employee comes in and says that's the end of the movie except for the credits.

Hmmmm ... I'm not sure I believe you, miss. Sure seemed abrupt to me, but fine, I'll take you at your word that there's nothing left and you can't start the movie back up. Then I get home, check one of the IMDB message boards and ... son of a bitch! Turns out that something pretty damn significant happens at the end, you twit. And I got to read about it instead of seeing this critical and apparently amazing scene. Well, f*ck me.

Anyway, I called the theater, explained my dismay and -- thanks to a reasonable manager who knows it's wrong to d!ck around with customers -- should have a couple of movie passes and some free popcorn coupons coming my way. That helps a bit, but it really sucks that I didn't see the end. So yeah, if you decide to see "There Will Be Blood," trust me that there will be a reason to stay to the very end. And make sure to tell me how good it is.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Actually, this doesn't seem familiar at all: "Deja Vu"

Astute readers know how I feel about Tony Scott. That is, not good. Yes, there's the legendary "Top Gun," as well as decent fare such as "Crimson Tide" and "Enemy of the State." Heck, I didn't think "Spy Game" was that bad, and, well, I may the only person who enjoys -- nay, thoroughly enjoys -- "The Last Boy Scout."

Sounds like an endorsement, I know. Then came the one-two gut punch of "Man on Fire" and "Domino," which were overly muddled messes that made me regard Ridley's little brother as a less-than-skilled helmsman. And let us now forget the overrated "True Romance" and laughable "Days of Thunder." Watch that last one just for Cruise's late '80s wardrobe and hair. Awesome.

So it was with trepidation that I gave Tony's latest turn a shot. "Deja Vu" follows an ATF agent (Denzel "Carbon Copy" Washington) as he investigates a terrorist attack on a New Orleans ferry. The case gets a little weird when a body turns up that doesn't quite fit. Then it gets a lot weird when the FBI shows Denzel a new program that provides some unique surveillance. (Is that how that's spelled? Hell, I don't care.) I don't want to ruin the surprise, but let's say it wreaks havoc on that whole "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it" motto.

In all, it's kind of a strange movie. Things start off with a bang, I admit to being sucked in right away to what seemed to be a police story. Then we take a sudden sci-fi turn, but without that many doo-dads or any rayguns. It was odd, to say the least, to have this "wrap your mind around this" stuff going on in a modern-day setting -- in post-Katrina New Orleans, no less.

But as you may know, I've got a weakness for sci-fi and a bigger one for time travel. Yes, I'm the guy who has seen "TimeCop" with Jean-Claude Van Damme at least three times and would kill for a DVD of "Timerider" starring Fred Ward. (Don't even get me started on "Time Bandits" and "12 Monkeys.") Not saying I'd pull an Uncle Rico and stick some doohickey I bought off the Internet between my legs so I could go back and win the big game. But yeah, I dig the tales of people popping up when they shouldn't be there.

Another plus: good casting. Val Kilmer is a relatively straitlaced FBI agent who still gets off some subtle one-liners. Adam Goldberg is the goofy tech guy. Jim Caviezel is a not-too-stable citizen. Paula Patton -- whom I'd never seen before but apparently was in "Hitch" -- is a key player who we end up seeing plenty of despite first meeting her as a corpse.

All these folks deliver decent performances, and Denzel isn't bad, either. A little bit of scenery-chewing, sure, and this role isn't demonstrably different from a few others. ("Inside Man," "Out of Time," "The Siege" and so on.) But hey, it's a good role for him, and clearly he likes working with Mr. Scott.

So yeah, I'm as surprised as you are. True, there are some plot holes in "Deja Vu," and the whole movie requires a healthy suspension of logic. But it's different than most movies while still being accessible. Plus, it got me thinking what I'd do if I could go back in time. Maybe ask out Erika Lubkowitz in high school. Because, you know, one more rejection by a good looking girl definitely would have changed my whole life.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Putting the "high" in high school: "Dazed and Confused"

Here's one of those movies that some people swear by but that has never hit a home run for me. I think I had seen it at least twice before it popped up again a week or so ago. Although there's a decent amount of laughs, neither time left me totally rolling. Still, it's left such an impression on some that I felt compelled to give it another whirl. That, and I'm pretty much always up for juvenile comedy. More wedgies, please!

Released in 1993 -- when I was in college, which explains why I missed it in the theater -- "Dazed and Confused" is the movie that made Richard Linklater (him again) more accessible to general audiences. His previous film, "Slacker," was notable for its stream-of-consciousness plot -- or lack thereof -- and absence of known actors.

Here, we get a lot of then-young talent in a familiar setting: high school -- specifically, the last day of school in 1976. I can only assume the year is special to Linklater because that's when he finished his freshman year. Not sure why else you drag the mid-'70s into the early '90s, but whatever, man.

In any case, the basic story is kids hanging out, with a nominal subplot of seniors beating on freshmen in some kind of initiation, and everyone trying to party. I guess the two main characters are Mitch, the skinny freshman who ends up hanging with seniors, and Randall "Pink" Floyd, the senior quarterback not too thrilled about his coach having players sign a no drugs/booze pledge. Then there are various jocks, stoners, geeks, a$$holes, bitches, etc., played by people who would go on to gain a little more fame: Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Milla Jovovich and Parker Posey, among others.

And then there is Wooderson, played by one Mr. Matthew McConaughey.

David Wooderson -- although I don't recall ever hearing his first name mentioned -- is that guy who graduated years ago yet is still hanging around, always willing to party. And why not? As he eloquently puts it -- and altogether now -- "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age."

That's one of many good lines Matty gets as Wooderson, although it's not just the words. It's how Mr. Laid Back carries himself, be it asking a freshman if he's got a joint or trying to lure an awkward redhead in the other car away from her two nerd pals. In Wooderson's world, there are no real worries. Again to the quote list: "You just gotta keep livin' man, L-I-V-I-N."

Some of the other characters have funny bits, mainly Slater the stoner and Dawson the jock. Goldberg also is amusing as Mike the too-smart-for-his-own-good guy. And on the whole, sure, "Dazed and Confused" is funny. But you know, there's not much to it, even in a "holy sh!t, that was hilarious" way.

I've been meaning to watch "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" again, but I don't need to do that to know it's 10 times funnier, plus more perceptive about high school kids. That remains the gold standard, but other fare -- from the recent "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Superbad" to '80s fun "Better Off Dead" to "Sixteen Candles" -- still ranks higher than this movie for me. Hell, "American Pie" made me laugh more.

D&C fans may argue that there's more to this movie than belly laughs. OK ... what? Looks like a bunch of slackers d!cking around to me. Nothing wrong with that at all, but if that's what it is, it could have been better. In the end, I liked the movie well enough but still don't know what all the fuss is about. I mean, there's not even the obligatory nudity! When is "Porky's" coming on cable again?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A little more skin and we could have had an espionage a trois: "The Good Shepherd"

I mean, it's never a good sign when the only total nudity is a bunch of Yale men mud wresting with each other. What a drag.

This movie premiered on the day my daughter was born and went into wide release a couple of weeks later. Suffice it to say I was a little busy then and missed it in theaters. Caught it on cable not long ago, though, and while it requires a good chunk of time, it's a worthy investment.

Our story follows Matt Damon as Edward Wilson, a key figure in the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency. That's right, the CIA. We actually bounce back and forth between Edward now -- or rather, in 1961 -- and the years leading up to then. You know, to see how he got from here to there, and all the mess in between. There's also the device of solving a riddle in the present -- whether a mysterious film and tape reveal how the Bay of Pigs invasion failed -- to keep us interested in old Edward. Following young Eddie isn't so hard given all the "oh, so now this happens" stuff.

Along with Damon, there's a top-notch cast: Angelina Jolie as Damon's wife, Alec Baldwin as the FBI director, William Hurt as the CIA director, Robert De Niro (also the film's director ... so many directors!) as a general, Billy Crudup as a British intelligence guy, Michael Gambon as a college professor and John Turturro as Damon's assistant.

While most of these folks are good, the better performances come from lesser-known names: Lee Pace as another CIA guy, Hanna Schiller as a translator and Oleg Shtefanko as a Russian agent. The last might have been the best. I kept wondering where I had seen that guy before, but since I hadn't, it must have been wishful thinking. Really, the guy was good.

Some may argue that the story meanders along, and sure, I could see trimming a few scenes and maybe knocking the running time down by 15-20 minutes. Any more than that, though, and you risk damaging the ambitious scope of this movie, which covers a good 25 years. That actually worked well, I thought, probably because I didn't know anything about the CIA and liked seeing how it was borne out of World War II and evolved into a pretty big deal during the Cold War.

Damon is decent in the role; I bought him more as a college student than a fortysomething father. Generally he's better when he can emote a bit, and there's definitely no emoting here. There also isn't much in the Bourne movies, but this is a different animal, and a not altogether successful one. All that means is that he's capable, just not incredible. Jolie fares worse in a role that doesn't give her much to do. But hey, she shows she can do An Important Picture without it being a vehicle just for her, so good show there.

The rest of the players are solid, and in general I liked the movie. I'd place it above Bobby D's other, official directorial turn, "A Bronx Tale," which was a tad schmaltzy for me. At the very least, it'll do until Damon gets the stones to push through "EuroTrip 2: Donny Takes Amsterdam."

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Breaking one of my cardinal rules: "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"

That is, to never watch a movie with "Hard" and "Cox" in the title.

Yes, it really was Christmas at Casa de Movievangelist. How else to explain how I got see three -- count 'em, three! -- movies on the big screen in less than two weeks time? And I think we'll agree that if any of these is going to sweep the Oscars, it'll be "Walk Hard."

I recall laughing several times at the trailer for this movie, which tracks the rise and fall and rise again of a Johnny Cash-type singer, only dumber. Much dumber. Heretofore second banana John C. Reilly plays the lead, embodying Dewey Cox as he evolves, transforms and generally does all kinds of stupid stuff that we're accustomed to seeing on "Behind the Music."

It's not hard to imagine how this goes. The '50s heartthrob becomes a '60s hippie and then a '70s disco has-been before disappearing altogether. Along the way, he tries every drug ever invented, beds hundreds of women and has a couple of failed marriages. What I didn't see coming: a completely unnecessary dick-and-balls shot the morning after a hotel-room romp. Not John C., but damn disturbing and -- per our rules -- an automatic one-star deduction.

That doesn't mean "Walk Hard" walks away with three stars, though. Reilly certainly is game here; hey, the guy's a pro. And there are plenty of funny bits. Dewey's Indian encounter with the Beatles was hilarious; I don't want to spoil the surprise, but one of the Fab Four is played by a guy whose name rhymes with Fall Mud. (We love that guy!) I also dug Dewey's Beach Boys/"Pet Sounds" phase.

There's other stuff to like, too. Dewey's two wives, Kristen Wiig and Jenna "Pam" Fischer, give solid efforts, and Fischer wears some revealing clothes to boot. Always a plus. And the music is pretty good throughout. Reilly can sing -- check out "Chicago" -- and coming up with takeoffs for each of the genres Cox dabbles in couldn't have been easy. Hell, I could see buying the soundtrack. It's that good.

The movie as a whole, however, is too uneven to totally succeed. I'll probably watch it again on video or cable, and I applaud the effort. Any nitwit can mock NASCAR, but it takes talent to ape the Johnny Cash story, complete with musical numbers. Maybe if some of the locker-room stuff had given way to more sly or deadpan humor, I'd sing Dewey's praises more. And I, too, would walk hard.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Blame it on the writers strike

You read earlier that our house recently got DirecTV and a slew of free movie channels. Between that, the lack of new episodes for some TV series and a little time off during the holidays, the family and I have managed to see a veritable buttload -- that's metric, not U.S. -- of movies. Some may deserve their own posts, but due to time constraints, we're going to turbo through them quickly, breaking them into two categories.

(Actual quote from my wife a few days back: "I smell a roundup!")


Not only cute and fun to look at, but pretty funny. Makes sense, given the guy behind it is Brad Bird of "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles" fame. Won't be surprised if he ends up winning another Oscar for this one. In short, a French rat with a great sense of smell ends up being the brains behind a bumbling guy's rise to top chef. Only minus: It takes place in France, where there are French people, who smell and smoke too much. Still, great fun.

A Mighty Heart
Here's another laughfest. I may be part of the working press, but I can' t say I was too pumped for this tale of a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who is kidnapped by Muslim bad guys in Pakistan, and his wife's dogged quest to find him. Oh, but the story is about the wife, really, since it stars Angelina Jolie in that role and some dude from "Judging Amy" as the WSJ guy. I'll admit Jolie and the movie were better than I expected, and I was pleasantly surprised that the director was the same guy who did "24 Hour Party People." But this isn't as good as that. Jolie dropped her "show my boobs" clause, and there was hardly any singing here.

Now here's a movie where I could have done with seeing a lot more of the wife. Kate Beckinsale ... woof. She's always been hot, but here, with the whole smokin' wife thing and the little pajama shorts and tank tops. Oh, mommy. I'm with Christopher Walken on this one: I couldn't get her rockin' body out of my mind. By the way, the movie also stars Adam Sandler as a workaholic who gets a crazy remote control that allows him to control his life. A few laughs, but mostly dumb and preachy. The moral of the story: Don't be a d*ck. Beckinsale, though. Naughty.

Music and Lyrics
She Who Causes Stirring in My Loins -- not Kate Beckinsale ... my wife! My wife! -- had seen this but figured it passed the "watch together" test. She was right, although it's nothing great. Hugh Grant plays an aging '80s pop singer, aka yet another wisecracking goof -- less edge than "Bridget Jones' Diary" and "About a Boy," but better than "American Dreamz." He has to write a song for a Britney Spears-type singer (before she went bonkers) but doesn't do lyrics. Enter a kooky Drew Barrymore, surprisingly less annoying that usual. Hijinks ensue, and while it's mostly sappy, I found this more tolerable than others of its ilk. And the "video" of Grant in a Wham!-esque band was priceless. Can't get that song out of my head, dammit.


Boyz n the Hood
Man, this was exactly like my childhood, except if the all-black Compton was mostly-white suburbs in Kansas and Tennessee. Scary. Anyway, I had seen this at least once before and gave it another whirl if only to see Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Jr. before they became jokes and Laurence Fishburne when he was Larry ... and one-third as wide. On the plus side, his character's name, Furious Styles, may be one of the best in movie history, right after Gaylord Focker. "Hood" suffers a bit now because there's been so much gang/drug stuff in movies since then, but I can see how it was a big deal back in 1991. Big enough to net John Singleton an Oscar nomination at the age of 24. Normally I'd say, "And look at what I've done with my life." But you know what? He also directed "2 Fast 2 Furious." At least I don't have that hanging over my head.

Mission: Impossible III
It's still one of my proudest moviegoing moments: buying a ticket for "Akeelah and the Bee" and going to see this movie instead. That way, Crazyass Cruise doesn't get any of my cash. "M:I:III" wasn't bad, but it didn't get any better in my living room. Philip Seymour Hoffman kind of mails it in as the sleazy bad guy, beefy Larry Fishburne is Cruise's boss, as is Billy Crudup. Ving Rhames is back with other helpers. While the explanation for how the cool spy stuff works was nice, this movie also was kind of dark -- literally, it seemed like the lights were out in several scenes -- and looked like a glorified episode of "Alias," which makes sense given that the series' creator is the director here.

Dawn of the Dead
OK, running out of steam here. I liked this movie a lot when I saw it in the theater -- Denver, I think, with my lawyer friend (and notorious necrophiliac) Louie -- so I jumped to TiVo it the other day. Something strange has turned everyone into zombies who can run pretty damn fast, forcing the remaining normal people to hole up in a mall. Whereas George Romero's original from the '70s was more laid-back and threw a little social commentary at us, this is all about killing and surviving. Still some cool and clever stuff here, especially if you stay right until the very end. That's right ... Rosebud was the zombie's sled.

Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
I was hoping this would be another "Anchorman." Hell, it's the same people and same kind of title, right? I didn't think that movie was that good the first time around but have come to love it with each viewing. (Hey, Paul Rudd!) So I gave Will Ferrell's race movie another try. Alas, it wasn't any funnier the second time and may have fallen even more flat. Ferrell has been much better in a lot of other stuff, and while the idea of a Perrier car in NASCAR is funny, Sacha Baron Cohen's French driver isn't a great show of his considerable talents. Worse, no Paul Rudd! About the only people who stand out are two old pros: Gary Cole (always solid) as Ricky Bobby's dad and John C. Reilly as Ricky's clueless pal. Suffice it to say that I may start checking into hotels as Mike Honcho.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

These boots are made for stalkin': "No Country for Old Men"

I've never read a Cormac McCarthy book, and after seeing "No Country for Old Men," I'm not sure I ever will.

Listen, I know the Coen Brothers can be uneven with their movies. For every "Fargo," there's a "Man Who Wasn't There." For every "Raising Arizona," there's a "Hudsucker Proxy." But I'm chalking the sudden left turn about three-fourths of the way through their latest movie up to ol' Cormac, since it sounds like Joel and Ethan for the most part went for a faithful adaptation. In any case, this turn of events doesn't ruin the movie by any stretch, but it definitely downgrades it from potential masterpiece to merely good.

Our story centers around a simple West Texas man who, while out hunting, comes across a drug deal gone bad -- that explains all the dead bodies -- and $2 million in cash. He decides to keep it, but as he rightly guesses, some folks don't want to dismiss that money as missing.

Sure enough, a fella who totes around a rather unique tool -- check out the first plot keyword here -- and who we learn in the first few minutes isn't a nice man starts tracking our sort-of protagonist, while the local sheriff tries to make sense of all the bloodshed. This sets off some cool cat-and-mouse action, as well as delicious scenes with close-to-perfect dialogue and great atmosphere. This may be miles away from Minnesota, but the Coens capture the mood quite well, with plenty of help from their cast.

Tommy Lee Jones plays the grizzled sheriff, and thankfully he trades some of that tough-guy "Fugitive" schtick for something more contemplative and colorful here. In other words, he has some funny lines. The hunter who makes off with the money is Josh Brolin, who probably gives the best performance of his life. I was all ready to say he's not that bad an actor, but then I looked at his IMDB page and wasn't blown away. Sure, he was good in "Flirting With Disaster," but nothing else really jumped out at me. (No, not even "The Goonies.") All the more reason to be impressed with his work here.

Neither of these guys, however, can hold a candle to the psycho hitman, played by a truly impressive Javier Bardem. People, this cat can capital-A act. Before "Old Men," I had seen him in "The Sea Inside" -- he was the lead -- and "Collateral," where he had little more than a bit part. Both were solid turns, and let's not forget his Oscar nomination for "Before Night Falls."

Here, he's perfectly subdued as a killer -- not so much matter-of-fact as knowing who he is and going with it. Not even running with it or reveling in it, just going with it. He's single-minded, to be sure, but also philosophical, yet not in an annoying way. The nitpickers among us could complain about him pontificating and playing with victims one time too many, but I thoroughly enjoyed his character, and not just because of that air tank.

So this sounds like a pretty good movie, right? Well, it is for about 90 minutes. Great story, intriguing characters, quirkiness, tension, etc. etc. Then it gets too cute for some damn reason just as things build to a climax.

I'm pretty sure I didn't say "What the hell?" out loud in the theater, but I can't be sure. There's no way to explain this without ruining the movie, but suffice it to say that the craft and elegance that went into the storytelling to that point inexplicably is dumped in favor of something more disjointed and vague. Hey, I don't need to see every plot point unfold on the screen, but a little bit of clarity and closure wouldn't kill you, Cormac. And if it did, well, I can live with that.

Speaking of comic book movies ...

Scroll down a bit to see the trailer now in theaters. Looks pretty badass to me. Then again, I also think "Vantage Point" looks promising, so take that for what it's worth.