Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

In the history of.. well, the world, only three movies have ever made a billion dollars at the box-office worldwide, and Orlando Bloom has starred in two of them. He wasn't in 'Titanic', the behemoth of a movie that's closer to the two billion mark (give or take a hundred million or so..) but he was in 'Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' and the only other billion dollar baby in existence: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest'.

However, the Orlando Bloom connection isn't the only thing that Dead Man's Chest has in common with 'The Return of The King'. Both are big-budget fantasy stories involving quests, heroes, villains and a collection of cinematic special effects set-pieces that will quite literally make your jaw drop. The similarity possibly ends there however, as the characters in Dead Man's Chest are altoghether more ambiguous than their peers from the LOTR franchise. In particular, Pirates has a trump character that simply does not exist in the Lord of the Rings universe, a certain Cap'n Jack Sparrow, played with the idiosyncratic verve you would expect from Johnny Depp.

In terms of his relationship with Hollywood, Johnny Depp is something of an oddity. Somehow, he has managed to be a part of an oeuvre of work which consistently receives critical acclaim, and generally does well as the box-office. However, much of his output would be considered off the beaten track as far as someone like, say Jerry Bruckheimer would be concerned. Yet movies like 'Edward Scissorhands', 'Donnie Brasco', 'Sleepy Hollow', and 'Blow' are just some examples of big box-office successes that Depp improved with his presence early in his career. These successes have allowed Depp a certain amount of professional freedom to balance his box-office heavy-hitters with more 'difficult' work that other more risk-averse actors would have baulked at. Movies such as 'Ed Wood', 'Dead Man', 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' and 'Before Night Falls' are not the fare of your average A-lister, but these are films that demonstrate Depp's maturity, and are an indication that he plies his trade with an eye on improving and developing as an actor.

His working relationship with Tim Burton is arguably the most productive of his career, Pirates of the Caribbean notwithstanding. With four critically acclaimed hit movies already under their belts, and another in the pipeline (2007 will see the release of 'Sweeney Todd', with Depp starring alongside Sacha Baron Cohen) they seem to bring out the best in each other.

Sleepy Hollow is a good place to start before talking about Depp's ubiquitous character in Pirates of the Caribbean: Jack Sparrow. In Sleepy Hollow, Depp portrayed his character with an English accent, and managed to do something Hollywood actors rarely do with accents, he pulled it off. (Lets forget about his Irish accent in 'Chocolat' for a moment!). His fondness for English comedies such as 'The Fast Show' (he even had a cameo in a scene alongside the slimy tailors) has endeared him to many this side of the water, and the influence of this sense of humour is another ingredient in the makeup of Cap'n Sparrow. The moment of inspiration, which may or may not be accredited to Depp, was to play Sparrow as Keith Richards... and this is essentially the DNA of Sparrow.

Although I was a big fan of the Lord of the Rings movies, there is nothing in that trilogy quite so comically entertaining as Jack Sparrow. His slurred words belie an extremely duplicitous mind (he's a pirate after all) but it's his mannerisms, including an effeminate mincing run and various over-staged reactions to remarks and plot developments, that really make the character. If Depp isn't enjoying himself as Jack Sparrow, then he's an even better actor than he appears, because it really comes across on screen.

Without a good script however, the Pirates movies would really just be the Jack Sparrow show. In the case of Dead Man's Chest, the script again possibly has a lot in common with Return of the King in that it is trying to cram in an awful lot of plot around the spectacular set-pieces, and at times this sheer volume of developments threatens to overload the movie. However, the dialogue is great, and even though it is principally a driver of the action, it is generally pretty smart and witty.

Aside from Jack Sparrow, the other two main leads are Keira Knightley and of course the two-billion-dollar-man himself, Orlando Bloom. These two characters aren't anywhere near as interesting as Sparrow, but they are slightly more unpredictable than you might give them credit for. They never fully trust Sparrow, even if they have a strong bond with the man, and the dynamic between the three is interesting enough, even though they don't actually share a huge amount of screen time all together.

More interesting than either Knightley or Bloom's characters is the baddie of the piece, a certain Davy Jones. An unrecognizale Bill Nighy plays a character resembling a modern updating of Squid-Head from the early Star Wars movies. His CGI costume is expertly rendered however, and he is allowed to act despite certain constraints, such as the lack of a nose or eyebrows for example. But Nighy's dialogue is excellent, his character is properly evil, and he manages to be credible enough as an ominous foe, and someone even the likes of Jack Sparrow would fear.

The special effects on display in Dead Man's Chest are properly breathtaking at times. Day Jones' crew are almost all CGI-rendered, but this is a million miles from Jar-Jar Binks, you'll be glad to hear. Also, the set-pieces involving the sea monster are large-scale disaster-movie awesome in their sheer scope.

In effect, Dead Man's Chest, much like 'Curse of the Black Pearl', is one of those movies that is just so damn likeable, that you can't help but enjoy it. The action is fast-moving and at times breath-taking, the characters are well-drawn - both heroes and villains - and the sense of humour is engaging enough to keep you listening to the dialogue, and wondering what will happen next.

I've compared this one to The Return of The King, but perhaps a more valid comparison would be with the Indiana Jones movies (my favourite of those: 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'). These movies are what Michael Palin might call 'ripping yarns'. You watch them to be entertained and that is exactly what they do.

So, although his collaboration with Tim Burton has perhaps a body of work that has brought Depp to the hollywood A-List, it is rather unfeasibly, with Jerry Bruckheimer that Depp has entered the next level. The third Pirates movie has a lot to live up to, but I think it has every chance of being another billion-dollar-movie. After enjoying Dead Man's Chest so much, I think I'll treat myself to seeing 'Pirates of the Caribbean at World's End' in the cinemas when it's released next year. If you haven't seen 'Dead Man's Chest' yet, I can heartily recommend it as a quality option for a DVD night, and I think you'd be hard pushed to find someone who wouldn't think likewise.

The Verdict: Quality entertainment with powderkegs full of crash bang wallop, and more than a few laughs. All in all, a ripping yarn.
The Rating: 8/10

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

You've got to love that title. And really, you've got to love this movie. For once folks, I may break my own rule here by talking about bits from this movie, so if you haven't seen Borat yet, go now, while it's still in the cinema!! You'll have to wait two months otherwise!!

Borat has crashed onto cinema screens at a time when comedy was really in need of something fresh. 'The Wedding Crashers' was possibly the best comedy of 2005, and oh lordy, that says a lot. 2006 has been a little better, but the two best comedies of the year for me so far have one man in common: Sacha Baron Cohen. This name is now associated with big fat dollar signs in hollywood, and with good reason. Talladega Nights was Will Ferrell's baby, and a massive hit, but Cohen was a scene-stealer in that movie. 'Borat' is now that mythical being most comic actors (unless you're Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller) generally only aspire to: a $100 million dollar picture. DVD sales will probably double that amount, so you can expect to see Cohen loitering with intent around Hollywood for a little while yet.

Amid rumours of an Best Actor Oscar Nomination for Sacha Baron Cohen, I thought I should finally drag my lazy ass to the picture-house to see Borat, and although I watched it in the company of perhaps only twelve other cinema-goers, I could get a feel for the effect this movie was having on audiences. Everyone there reacted viscerally to the images on screen in front of their eyes.. when their eyes weren't covered that is!

In many respects, Borat is something of a redemption for Cohen, as his initial foray onto the big screen with Borat, in the lamentably awful 'Ali G in Da House' didn't live up to the expectations generated by the successful television show. As I've mentioned previously though, failure can be a great motivator, and Cohen has picked himself up, dusted himself down and produced a comedy of a quality that, in my book, hasn't been seen on cinema screens for a few years.

The guile of Cohen's creation is extremely duplicitous, as Borat appears initially to be such an innocent. His nationality is unimportant, but perhaps it was useful for Cohen to pick a country most people in the U.S. would have had little or no knowledge of. However, Borat's behaviour is so foreign, and his slightly off-colour English so amusing, that he becomes instantly disarming to the people he meets, and this allows his interviewees to immediately feel culturally superior to him. Borat's apparent innocence reveals character traits in people that they may not have been aware of, and manages to make them voice beliefs of which they may not have previously been conscious. This is Cohen's evil genius at work. By asking simple questions about his interviewees basic behaviour, and why things are the way they are in the U.S. and A, Borat elicits responses that are possibly more revealing about his interviewees than they would like to admit! Perhaps this explains the amount of litigation that the movie has attracted, from people who were paid, say, $500 to appear in a little movie playing themselves! I doubt they ever expected the finished product to end up looking like this!

Also, as to the physical humour on show in Borat - and there is a lot on show at times! - don't be fooled by the crap in the plastic bag being simply a toilet gag. What Cohen is aiming for is a test of the limits of how nice his party hostess can be, and she does admirably well, despite the massive pressure of explaining to a six foot six Kazakhstani oaf in a small toilet "how one wipes one's behind".. this is priceless stuff.

However, it is when Borat helps uncover the less attractive side of people that the awkward comedy of the 'car-crash' variety is really generated. His questioning of a car and gun salesman would have most people telling him to sling his hook, but they hardly blink, focussed instead on the sale they're about to make, and perhaps remembering the story 'for the guys' later. These are instances of politeness perhaps going a little far, in that Borat is so outlandishly weird to American beliefs, that he becomes little more than a caricature of something 'foreign'. His encounter with a southern gentleman at a rodeo raises eyebrows in particular, as the man's deep-seated prejudices simply vent forth, packaged with a smile and a southern twang.

The gatecrashing of the mortage broker's conference is worth the admission price of Borat alone, and you will not see this scene coming. I really did think something around my stomach area was going to burst I was laughing so much.

As to the script, well, it's very coherent and not simply a smattering of set-pieces hastily cut together to make an 80-minute slap-stick vehicle. Borat has a beginning, a middle and an end, with vital moments in the movie continually providing turning points for the central character. He learns along the way - despite his appearance of an imbecile! - and because he is motivated by simple things, love, learning and the fear of loneliness, we can relate to his mission. Also, because of his truly foreign attitudes and behaviour, we never really see Borat as a bad guy, even when his wife passes away. (High five!)

And in the middle of all the belly laughs are some genuinely nice moments, ones which are not really played for laughs. You'll know the ones I mean, after gatecrashing the broker's conference, and after getting kicked out of the 'etiquette' party. Despite these heart-warming moments though, Borat goes through the ringer in this movie, make no mistake!

Leaving the cinema, I knew I had missed parts of the movie, not because I wasn't paying attention, but because I was literally covering my eyes. The humour in Borat literally grabs you, and while other movies make you laugh, this one will evoke many emotions at once: disgust, disbelief, shock, surprise, awe, but mostly just pure enjoyment. So, I was left with the feeling of needing to see it again, and for me, this is a rare and great feeling for a movie to generate. I associate this feeling with some of the movies I'm really attached to: 'Twelve Monkeys', 'Pi', '28 Days Later' and 'Seven', among others. (What can I say, I like movies with numbers in the titles!)

However, my favourite comedies are the ones I can watch when I need to be cheered up, or simply when I want to have a good belly laugh: 'SouthPark', 'Airplane!', 'Napoleon Dynamite' and Monty Python's 'Holy Grail' to name the few that spring to mind most readily. I would have no hesitation in putting Borat in the same category as these, and would heartily recommend it as an intelligent, boundary-pushing comedy to make you laugh and cringe in equal measure. No, actually scrach that, you'll laugh more than you'll cringe.. I think!

So.. I liked it, can you tell!? But the real question we should now be asking about Borat is: will it stand the test of time? In five, ten or twenty years time, will we be talking about Borat in the same terms as other classic and enduring comedies such as 'Blazing Saddles', 'Trading Places', 'This is Spinal Tap', 'Airplane!' or, dare I say it, 'The Life of Brian'? Well, in my opinion, for however much it counts, I believe Borat will withstand the rigours or time, repeated viewings, and the verbose analysis provided by idiots like me. Put it this way folks, 'Shaun of the Dead' still makes it onto british film critics 'top 50' lists. For me that was an good comedy.. but not great, not.. 'Spinal Tap', and definitely not as good as 'Borat'.

The verdict: Great success, high five etc etc. A seriously good comedy with brains, balls, belly laughs and a heart to boot. Thank you Borat, and chin quee.
The Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Nacho Libre

Success can be a double-edged sword. For those involved in any kind of enterprise, be it creative, sporting or even the world of business, a good year brings with it praise and expectation in equal measure. For those involved in artistic pursuits, success can foster a devil-may-care attitude, and even the likes of Steven Spielberg have succumbed to it's seductive promises. After reaching the dizzy pinnacle of his success with 'Close Encounters' and 'Jaws' - back-to-back - Spielberg embarked on another over-blown, over-budget production and proceeded to make his biggest ever flop to date: '1941'. Another legend of the silver screen, Michael Cimino made 'The Deer Hunter', and this movie was such a phenomenon, he was given free rein by United Artists to make his chef d'oeuvre, and promptly bankrupted the studio with 'Heaven's Gate'. Cimino's career never really recovered.

Flirtation with box-office disaster does not always kill careers however. Spielberg reflected on the 1941 effect and conquered his internal prima donna to great effect with his next movie 'Raiders of The Lost Ark'. The rest, to employ a tired cliche, is history. As mentioned in a previous review, Hollywood loves a good re-invention!

However, the ineviable following chapter to an unprecedented success early in one's career is the 'difficult' second effort. Musicians often complain of the difficulty of following a successful first album, and many are curious to see if this may even knock the holier than holy Arctic Monkeys out of their meteoric orbit. As far as Jared Hess is concerned, he was always going to have an awful lot to live up to after the success of his first movie, the massively popular cult comedy 'Napoleon Dynamite'.

Now, if you haven't seen Napoleon Dynamite, I urge you to stop reading this blog instantly, and go get your hands on the DVD. Hess created a strange animal with that movie, but it is memorable and funny enough to even withstand repeated viewings, one of the hallmarks of a great comedy for me.

So when you have a difficult second effort to tackle, who do you possibly call for help? Why, Jack Black of course. Or, in this case, Jack Black calls you, as Hess was fortunate enough to have been approached by Black, and the idea for the movie was hatched between them.

Essentially, 'Nacho Libre' is a simple enough idea: Ignacio is an orphan, left at a monastery in Mexico to spend his days as a religious brother, preparing food each morning and noon for the orphan children of the village. However, Ignacio dreams of more, and longs to be a luchador, or mexican wrestler. After trying out his skills at an amateurs only event, he discovers that, although it's more difficult being a luchador than he had previously thought, it turns out to be very lucrative indeed. He and his tag-team partner Esqueleto (played by Hector Jimenez) pocket a fistful of pesos even after losing their first bout, and the funds breathe new life into Nacho's grocery shopping, much to the delight of the orphan kids..

So the story is simple enough. As Nacho gets further into the world of the luchadores, he wants more and more. Then, however, the arrival into the monastery of the demurely beautiful Sister Encarnacion gets Nacho thinking about whether the monastic life is for heem after all...

I say for heem, because the Me-hee-can accent is almost a character in this movie. Jack Black's over-pronounced gringo accent is not the only one in the movie, and all the characters speak as if Eengleesh is their a-secon language.. if you get my drift. This didn't bother me, and actually made me laugh on occasions, but I could imagine it getting on some people's nerves.. imagine everyone in Napoleon Dynamite talking like Pedro and you get a clue as to what Nacho's world is like.

By now I imagine you'll be close to deciding whether you will like 'Nacho Libre' or not, and a big influence on that decision will be your opinion of Jack Black. His star has been on the rise in Hollywood since the surprisingly great 'School of Rock', in which he capably demonstrated his ability to shoulder the burden of being in a lead role. Despite his physical appearance, which Hollywood would traditionally have consigned to a casting agent's trash can, or at best the category of 'character actor', Black has somehow crowd-surfed to a position where he can carry hit Hollywood movies. Make no mistake folks, Nacho Libre was a big hit, and Black is now starring in a romantic comedy opposite Kate Winslet called 'The Holiday'. This movie is about as far from 'Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny' as most chick-flicks are gonna get, but it will test the waters of whether Black can appeal to chicks as well as dudes. Let's face it though, most lads do like Jack Black. I mean, he's already a touring rock star with a band that worships at the sacred altar of 'Spinal Tap'. He's mates with Dave Grohl, Josh Homme and billion-dollar-Ben Stiller, and his success has been principally due to his personality and his talent. Personally, I think he must have more fun than anyone else in the world ever, all the time.

Black really does shoulder the weight of Nacho Libre quite well, which is fortunate for Jared Hess as he appears in almost every scene of the film. He even breaks into song in a number of moments which were more Tenacious D than Napoleon Dynamite!

The comedy in Nacho Libre is similar to Napoleon Dynamite, in that the laughs are probably dependent on you getting to know and like the characters first. However, the wrestling scenes are more immediate, and Black's tag team partner screams in such genuine pain at times that it would need a cold heart not to laugh.. These are basic laughs of the 'man being hit in groin with football' kind.. but this is no bad thing as the film has a decent enough script, and doesn't rely on Black for all the gags. Nor does it shoot for easy catch-phrases too often.

The mood of the film is similar to Napoleon Dynamite, and you may find - although I cannot verify this - that there is not one single naughty word between either movie. These are movies your kids could watch with your grandparents, and everyone would leave with a smile on their faces. I think the right word may be 'sweet' but not in the SouthPark sense. Generation X-ers, do not fear however, as the sweetness is balanced effectively enough with enough craziness to make Nacho Libre more than watchable even for the moodiest teenager. Think of an early episode of the Simpsons, when they still had important lessons at the end, that kind of feeling. Plenty of belly laughs, and a bit at the end where everyone goes 'aaaww'.

So is Nacho Libre worth watching? I think so, but like a difficult second album, you need to take it on it's own merits and understand that, while you will never like it as much as the first one (Napoleon Dynamite), it ain't bad in it's own weird way.

So now for Hess comes the difficult third outing... I think Jon Heder might be ready for Napoleon Dynamite 2 right about now, but it would probably take a flop from Hess to make it a possibility... don't rule it out folks!!

(And by the way, if you think luchadores aren't big in Mexico, think again buddy. In the world cup in Germany this summer, about one in ten Mexican football fans sported a luchador mask like the one Nacho wears in the movie.)

The verdict: warm, sweet, and funny, but not hilarious. Seriously though dude, Jack Black, like, rules.
The rating: 7/10

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Miami Vice

The movie business, like most areas of the entertainment industry, loves a good re-invention. Hollywood remakes have been hitting the multiplex screens in their droves of late, and the focus has recently shifted to contemporary updating of familiar, but dated tv shows: Bewitched, The Dukes of Hazzard, the troubled - but apparently imminent - Dallas, and of course Michael Mann's recent re-mix of Miami Vice. Now, this list should demonstrate that the TV-to-movie adaptation hasn't exactly produced a string of roaring box-office successes to date. Indeed, audiences are often reluctant to buy into what they perceive to be another re-hash of an old idea.

However, Michael Mann, the director of Miami Vice, is a genuine Hollywood heavyweight. (Think 'Manhunter', 'The Insider' and of course 'Heat'). This is a man who can squeeze an oscar-nomination-worthy performance out of Will Smith (Ali) and who in 'Collateral' successfully experimented with landmark digital photography techniques, bringing Los Angeles to life on the big screen to visually stunning effect. The critics loved Collateral, and it seemd Mann could pick and choose his projects on the foot of this success.

So why then, would he choose to remake Miami Vice? Well, I'm not sure I can provide an answer to that question and to be honest, I'm not sure if the movie can either. The contemporising of a franchise that is so emblematic of 1980's America can only have been something of a personal challenge and labour of love for the director, who has a close relationship with Miami Vice, having produced many episodes of the tv show early in his career.

The movie version of Miami Vice does not bear much resemblance to world populated by Don Johnson's sleeves, that Jan Hammer soundtrack, and all the associated trappings of 80's extravagance. No, this is a grittier more modern world altogether, and this Tubs and Crockett are most certainly not a buddy buddy partnership a la Lethal Weapon. Neither is theirs a frosty-at-first, but thanks to surviving a few scrapes, actually best mates scenario, in the vein of the Die Hard movies. Mann has avoided obvious cliches in the relationship between Sonny (Colin Farrell) and Rico (Jamie Foxx) and this is something I enjoyed about the movie. The closest the two come to a buddy moment is in the build-up to their final showdown scene, where they exchange a few terse words, and, as Colin Farrell starts the Ferrari, a quick handshake. I got the feeling as the two lads exchanged the odd macho word with each other that perhaps Mann was aiming for a knowing familiarity between the two, and a relationship that meant they didn't need to constantly ask what the other was thinking. Indeed, the line "where you at?" is exchanged between the two only a couple of times, despite the almost absurd complexity of what they are routinely faced with in the course of their undercover work.

While Mann has avoided the cliched two-dimensional caricatures of action heroes with his two Miami Vice leads, I was left a little cold by Colin and Jamie. The knowing familiarity between the two characters would perhaps have been better portrayed by two actors who knew each other well, and I got the impression Farrell and Foxx lacked a little of that kind of chemistry themselves.

In terms of their other on-screen relationships, Farrell shares some of his best scenes with the really quite beautiful Gong Li, and although these are pretty hot and heavy more often than not, the two characters at least develop something approaching a relationship. It's in these scenes with Gong Li that Farrell demonstrates his acting ability, rather than simply using his disguise of that truly shocking handlebar moustache, designer mullet and gravelly voice.

Foxx, too has a love interest, but they aren't really given much of a chance in the movie to share anything except a few soft-focus moments, so this relationship was less interesting for me, and one which I always felt was building up to a moment where Foxx cried "noooo!!". (This didn't happen in the movie by the way!)

However, the action scenes, as you would expect from Michael Mann, are expertly crafted. There is a shootout sequence that is very reminiscent of Heat, but modernised, and with more of a feel of the beach in 'Saving Private Ryan' than a Miami dockside, and this was the strongest action sequence for me. However, the tension is always high, as the two lads get further involved with the criminals they are trying to take down, the tempo of the action moves along nicely.

The movie looks amazing, and at times is genuinely breathtaking. Mann has a unique celluloid signature, and his sweeping shots of Venezuelan waterfalls, beachside mansions, and of course the night-time cityscapes of Miami fill the screen and are as cinematic as you are likely to see.

The plot of Miami Vice is tight enough, and the action rolls along with nary a dull moment. Both love interests are involved in the action, and both Sonny and Rico have a lot at stake as the inevitable climactic bullet-fest approaches. The logistical detail of the crime syndicate is dense, and is believable if a little fantastic. However the 'baddies' are basically just that, and are little more than two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. The vice squad themselves though, are believable enough in their roles, in particular the unlikely chief who does a better than decent job.

So, a solid enough actioner then? Well, yes, but like much of the decade of the 80's, it was a little shallow for my liking. Miami Vice is heavily reliant on the performances of its two male leads and, while Farrell was debatably the stronger of the two, I wouldn't single out either as being exceptional. Farrell's accent is particularly annoying, and he mumbles much of his dialogue in a gravelly southern drawl that almost makes him incomprehensible. He is good in the scenes where some vulnerability is required, but not so strong at the action hero routine... My advice for Colin is: try another comedy mate. All these earnest performances are fine, but in my book, his two best performances have been in the excellent 'Intermission' and as Bullseye in the otherwise appaling 'Daredevil'.

One thing the re-make of Miami Vice has in common with another franchise reboot - Casino Royale - is the presence of Chris Cornell on the soundtrack, this time in his more usual day job with Audioslave. Cornell himself is going through a bit of a renaissance lately, so perhaps his presence in these two remakes is no accident. Perhaps the theme of reinvention is moot however, as although Casino Royale left the audience wanting more from Bond, I unfortunately don't think the same can be said for Miami Vice.

The Verdict: Slick and polished, but ultimately shallow. If this movie was a decade, it would be the 80's.
Rating: 6/10

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Talladega Nights: the ballad of ricky bobby

'Saturday Night Live' has a lot to answer for. Hollywood would have had a whole lot less comedy classics in its repertoire were it not for the likes of Ayckroyd, Murray, Belushi, Myers and co. But it seems the latest graduate from the hit-and-miss American comedy show is really starting to look like something of a Hollywood bigshot. Talladega Nights: the ballad of Ricky Bobby, co-written by Ferrell, was a massive hit at the U.S. box office, raking in around $50 million in its opening weekend alone. Should we be surprised at his apparently sudden meteoric rise to his current position of the top banana comic actor in tinseltown? Well, for me, I've never been against Will Ferrell, when I think of his scene-stealing turn in Old School and the excellent Anchorman I can't really stay mad at him for long!

Talladega Nights is a comedy about Nascar racing featuring Will Ferrell as a dumb Southern guy named Ricky Bobby, and Sacha Baron Cohen (yep, Borat..) as his gay French nemesis: Jean Girard. Do I even need to say much more? This movie is not a surprise package by any means, and delivers exactly what it promises. Leave your brain at the cinema door folks, it's gonna get a bit dopey round these parts... and that's exactly what makes Talladega Nights so enjoyable!

Farrelly Brothers comedies went through a bit of a purple patch in the 90's with Dumb and Dumber, Me, Myself and Irene, and of course There's Something About Mary. However, I sometimes felt that the level the Farrellys were aiming for meant that the best moments of those movies were a little diluted by interludes of pretty basic farce. What all of these movies had that made them appealing though was a genuine heart at the centre of all the lunacy. Cameron Diaz was at her wholesome best in 'Mary', Rene Zellwegger actually married Jim Carrey after 'Irene', and Dumb and Dumber.. well, sometimes the most complex genius just can't be explained!

'Ricky Bobby' has a slightly different brand of comedy than you would see in a Farrelly Brothers farce, but there is a similar thread of genuine emotion running through the movie, even if it is very definitely tongue in cheek, and never even coming close to the territory of schmaltz. (There's no 'Scrubs' style voice-over summing up the lessons at the end, don't worry!)

Jim Carrey's prat falls and gurning created his own niche in Hollywood which rapidly became a genre, and his comic style polarised audiences. You either loved him or hated him for his over the top, rubber-faced physical comedy... and then came 'The Truman Show'. After that 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'. It seems Jim had something to prove, and it could be argued that he shown he can be a serious actor.

Ferrell has made a few comedies at this stage, and has a couple of very big box office hits to his name. However, his next outing looks like it may be the 'Truman Show' moment of his career. 'Stranger Than Fiction' has the look of a good one folks, and I may even find my way to the cinema to have a look.

Back to Talladega Nights though, and here Ferrell is convincing, but not just as a dumb redneck caricature of a race-car driver. He convinces by virtue of the fact that much of the dialogue exchanged by the characters in the movie has his anarchic signature, and is the better for it. His performance is nothing like an early Jim Carrey flick, and the best lines in the movie aren't childish catchphrases, but rather have the feel of something more improvised and spontaneous than that. It's this improvised feel that gives Talladega Nights a kind of unique atmosphere. You get the sense the actors are enjoying themselves, especially in Ferrell's scenes with his best buddy, John C. Reilly.

I had always associated Reilly with tragic characters, but I blame Paul Thomas Anderson for that. If you've seen Magnolia or Boogie Nights, you'll know what I mean. But in this one, he is genuinely funny, and seems to really relish the freedom offered by a comic role. The out-takes in the end credits of the movie give some hints to how many liberties he took with his dialogue, worth staying in your seat for! The relationship between himself and Ferrell is an important one, because it's really the lynch-pin of this movie. Some of their conversations are priceless, watch out for Reilly helping Ferrell say grace near the start..

Sacha Baron Cohen delivers a solid performance as Ferrell's gay French Nascar nemesis, and his big entrance in the movie is worth the admission price alone. He has some of the best lines in the movie, and handles the weighty responsibility of being Ferrell's foil with aplomb. He'll have done his Hollywood credentials no harm with a hit this big under his belt, and now that Borat has hit the stratosphere, we can expect to see more of his Hollywood adventures in the near future. Watch out for him alongside Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's musical version of Sweeney Todd, coming soon, I kid you not folks.

The supporting cast are all decent, with Ricky Bobby's two young sons in particular delivering some classic lines.. until they get disciplined by Ricky's momma that is. That guy from Anchorman and Thank You For Smoking, David Koechner is in there, amongst a few other familiar faces.

But to be honest, Ferrell steals the show in Talladega Nights. He's not a guy who will polarise audiences in the same way as Jim Carrey, and his comedy is more anarchic than ridiculous, so he'll have a broader appeal than old rubber-face as a comic actor. However, if Stranger Than Fiction sits well with cinema audiences, his Carrey-esque departure into more serious stuff might happen sooner than it did for Jim..

Fear not though, for if you think Ferrell is giving up dumb sports comedies to follow his thespian aspirations, you are sorely mistaken. He's already done soccer (Kicking and Screaming) and Nascar (Talladega Nights), but he's got a basketball (Semi-Pro) and an ice-hockey movie (Blades of Glory) in the pipeline, and neither look like they'll be garnering too many oscar nominations just yet. So in the domain of the MTV movie awards he'll stay for the moment, and to be honest, that's fine by me, as long as the quality stays around the level of Talladega Nights.

Overall, The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is generally good for a laugh, and the level of comedy is broad enough to appeal to most, without ever aiming for the lowest common denominator, like the Farrellys - albeit expertly - might have done. You won't be edified culturally by this movie, but fuck it, sometimes movies are just about entertainment... so shake and bake, baby! Yeah! Woo! U! S! A!

The Verdict: Good solid fun.
Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Thank You For Smoking

For all the bad-mouthing I give the standard output of Hollywood, occasionally you've got to acknowledge Tinseltown's ability to really hit the mark with a piece of cinema. Amid the raft of dreck that gets relentlessly pumped onto the googolplex screens across the globe, there occasionally emerges a piece of work that is genuinely worth two hours of your time and ten euros of your money. The relationship between quality and quantity isn't something Hollywood often understands though, as the existence of a third 'Fast and Furious' movie should underline. However, amid the sequels, prequels and remakes, there are occasional little gems that Hollywood sneaks onto the silver screen. The unfortunate paradox is that these slow-burning labours of love often tiptoe under the general public's collective radar without so much as a squeak of publicity.

'Thank You for Smoking' is very much in this category. A morality play isn't easy to get into one of those jaw-dropping trailers, where a gravel-throated voice-over tells us in no uncertain terms that to miss this movie means we are effectively dead. No, a morality play ends up on something called 'limited release', which in Dublin means that it may show in three cinemas, and for not very long. For the limited release movie to succeed, therefore, Dvd sales must be kind. In the case of 'Thank You for Smoking', I can only hope this is the case.

Based on the book written by Christopher Buckley, the movie tells the story of Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a lobbyist representing the interests of Big Tobacco, one of the big seven American tobacco companies. We learn very early on that Naylor is a master of argument, and his speeches in the movie are carefully crafted and loaded with wit. In effect he is a spin-doctor, and when he is asked, as he is repeatedly throughout the movie, whether he likes his job, despite the obvious dangers of promoting something as lethal as cigarettes, his responses are logical and intelligent justifications for his role.

What's in a job anyway? Can't someone representing the interests of tobacco companies be a nice guy? It seems difficult for this to be the case, as is evident from Naylor's day-time talk show appearance early in the movie, when middle-class housewives boo and spit on him from the audience. This seems to be the core question in the movie, and we are challenged to dislike Nick Naylor, who is played with disarming charm by Aaron Eckhart. Eckhart is a square-jawed, sharp-suited all-american good guy, and in any other job he would certainly not be vilified in the same manner. We are left to wonder why he puts himself in a position where he is open to such bile and hatred, and this question is also explored in the movie.

In effect, Eckhart's character enjoys winning arguments.. actually, to refine that slightly, he enjoys showing up the other guy as being the loser of the argument! These arguments make the comedy in Thank You for Smoking. Some of Eckhart's exchanges with William H. Macy, playing an anti-tobacco Vermont senator, are genuinely funny, and incredibly challenging for the senator who may have previously thought it would be impossible to lose a debate on the dangers of tobacco.

Eckhart's relationship with his son is the most interesting in the movie. His influence on the Naylor junior is unquestionable, but the virtue of his influence is certainly doubtful. He teaches the boy how to argue, and the effects of these lessons are startling. He takes the boy on business trips - a product of necessity since his job leaves him with little free time - and the kid learns what kind of man his father is by watching him at work. As Naylor seems to find himself repeatedly engaging in morally questionable activities on behalf of 'big tobacco', we are left a little uncomfortable in our seats as junior sponges up his father's influence.

The supporting cast of Thank You for Smoking is as strong as you will see. Robert Duvall even makes an appearance as the tobacco chief, otherwise known as 'the Captain'. Katie Holmes does a half-decent job as the reporter looking to tell Naylor's story, but Maria Bello - who you may remember from 'A History of Violence' - does a great job as one of Naylor's two only friends. She plays an alcohol lobbyist, and David Koechner - the hillbilly from Anchorman - plays the other link in the trio and Naylor's other friend, a firearm lobbyist. The three affectionately refer to themselves as the 'Merchants of Death' and their luncthtime conversations are darkly hilarious. Rob Lowe, Sam Elliott and William H. Macy round out the principals, and this support is genuinely good. Each supporting character aids the telling of the story, and their influence is important outside of their scenes. In the third act of the movie, when we see the cumulative effect of each of Naylor's morally questionable acts slowly beginning to impact on his life, it is easy to recollect each of the characters he has met or had an impact upon.

The production, too, is expertly rendered. This movie looks and sounds great, and the action flows at a jaunty, comfortable pace. However, the script really stands up. Eckhart's dialogue sparkles with intelligence, and while his deivery is to be commended, for his really is an excellent performance, the dialogue is sharp, smart and layered, to the point where you are almost tempted to get your hands on a copy of the book.

Now, I have a fear that 'Thank You for Smoking' will pass most people by, but this is a crying shame. It isn't 'Casino Royale' or 'Crank' by any means, but it is the ideal Dvd for home watching (him/herself may also like it, you never know!). The appeal of the subject matter is broad enough to appeal to most, and while the talent on display may not appeal to fans of 'Torque' or the 'Fast and Furious' franchise, most people should be surprised by how engaging and warm this funny, thought-provoking and entertaining movie really is.

The Verdict: A hidden gem, warm, funny, and thoughtful.
Rating: 8/10

Monday, December 11, 2006

Casino Royale (2006)

Even as event movies go, James Bond is one of those rare beasts: a franchise that seems to transcend audiences, appealing to many different types of cinema-goer. The old cliche of 'men wanting to be him and women wanting to be with him' is probably the easiest mental shortcut to make when thinking of double o'seven's appeal to a global audience. But Bond has been rather in the doldrums of late, even if the box office hasn't reflected the dip in quality of the franchise since 'Tomorrow Never Dies'.

And so with the event of this new Bond movie comes the added audience giddiness provided by a new James Bond. There can hardly be many ways of mainlining yourself more rapidly into the global cultural mainstream than by reprising the role of Mr. Bond. You know all their names, I'm sure, even if the names of other Timothy Dalton or George Lazenby movies don't spring to mind all that readily...

If you have read some of my other reviews on this site, you'll know I was happy with Daniel Craig's appointment as Bond after seeing Munich. However, I hadn't been interested in the Bond franchise at all since that one with Teri Hatcher.. even Halle Berry's presence just seemed to make Pierce Brosnan descend into hammy double entendre, and when Madonna was given a guest starring role in Die Another Day, well.. let's call it a bit of a low point for double o'seven.

I'm happy to say that this Bond is definitely different from Pierce Brosnan's outings. Paul Haggis - who also wrote the po-faced 'Crash' - was drafted into the writing team on Casino Royale, and the result of his influence is a script full of character, nuance and intelligence. Whether this is what the Bond faithful really want is another thing, but there is also plenty of crash bang wallop for the entry fee. Two memorable action set-pieces book-end the movie, and both are really high-octane episodes, and memorable for their originality. However, between these set pieces, there's.. well, Bond's budding relationship with Versper Lynd is developed, and after many flirty sparring sessions of wordsmithery between the two, we learn much about both. And this is what makes this Bond so different. Rather than presuming we know Bond, we are actually introduced to him in Casino Royale. Daniel Craig screams in pain in Casino Royale. He falls in love, he bleeds, he sweats and yes, he almost cries near the end... Sean Connery wouldn't have been caught bloody dead in this one, I can tell you!

There's a high-stakes poker game involved as the centrepiece of Casino Royale, and plenty of assorted unpleasantness for Bond to deal with in between hands while he tries to outwit the deeply unwholesome 'Le Chiffre', played with cold repulsiveness by Mads Mikkelsen.

The ambition appears to be to make Bond more real, someone audiences can relate to, and in my opinion, Daniel Craig's performance is strong enough to achieve this. His intimate moments with Vesper are as watchable as his assorted action sequences, where he regularly gets bruised and battered, but overall he should remove all doubt that he is a more than capable Bond.

The gadgets are numerous and integrate well with the story, even if there is no 'Q'.. or 'R'. (Still not sure about that whole John Cleese episode either..) And the cars, well they gradually improve throughout the flick, and by the end, Bond is driving a rather nice Aston Martin DB9 which will provide a pleasant distraction for all the blokes in the audience while some of the boring chick flick bits are going on!

More importantly than simply being a good movie in its own right though, Casino Royale has, for me, re-invented the Bond franchise. As Casino Royale ends, we're left with little doubt that Daniel Craig's Bond is meaner than the one we met at the start of the picture, and you get the impression that next time round, we'll have a very different movie as a result. Roll on Bond 22 but if the Bond producers are reading, dudes, you gotta make it shorter! Two and a half hours of any Bond is too much... unless it's Thunderball, then it's ok! Oh, and if you're still listening, Quentin Tarantino's available to direct...

Verdict: Bond, but not as you know it.. a solid reboot for a previously tired franchise.
Rating: 7/10

Sunday, December 10, 2006


In Hollywood, a thirty second 'pitch' can make or break careers. Time is money and all that, so if large bellied cigar-smoking Hollyood fat cats cannot digest the entire premise of your movie idea in thirty seconds flat, chances are they won't give you the sacred 'green-light'. If I was ever in the unenviable position of needing to pitch a movie idea to a Weinstein or one of his mogul cronies, I think I'd be comfortable if it was something like Crank, confident even. So my pitch for this one would go as follows:

"Ok, Harvey baby, this is a sure-fire winner. Stick with me now, ok? Action movie. Hard core. No special effects though, gritty violence, with a Grand Theft Auto sense of humour, you got me? (For the kids these days, know what I'm saying?) Ok, the story, here it is: a guy wakes up. He's a hitman, but he's been poisoned and is going to die unless he finds an antidote. But here's the thing: the only way he can stop the poison from working is to keep his adrenaline levels as high as he can! So this guy (we're thinking Jason Statham, you know, the big british kid) he's got to keep himself pepped up, moving fast and get into as many dangerous situations as he can, just to stay alive."

I imagine Harvey slowly raising an eyebrow, puffing on his Dominican stogie, and asking "how much?" or possibly "will there be titties?".

A simple idea then. But to really profit from a good idea, you need all the elements of your movie to pull together, and in this case, it seems to have happened. Crank is a mature action movie, and is all too aware of it's reason for being. Put quite simply, this is lively, ballsy entertainment. Jason Statham is perfect in the lead role of the hitman who has been double-crossed, and now needs to max his adrenaline to survive. Much has been made of Daniel Craig's screen presence lately, but Statham really makes a case for himself as a leading man in Crank. In Munich, I got the sense that Craig was pretty dangerous, and this convinced me of his Bond credentials (Casino Royale review to follow folks!) However, Statham is as convincing a deranged lunatic as any I've seen on screen recently. He also looks like he would break you in two, a quality lead for an actioner like this.

It's interesting to chart the progress of someone trying to make it big in Hollywood. Statham has taken a route that is difficult territory: he wants to be an action hero. Looking at the choices he has made though, I have to say I think he's doing a pretty good job. Since 'Lock Stock' and 'Snatch' he's picked his roles carefully, and has craftily cultivated an image of himself as the next Bruce Willis (but more British). Movies like 'The One', 'The Transporter' and 'Mean Machine' are gradually making Jason Statham a very bankable star. Hollywood likes bankable stars. Watch this space folks, for he'll be earning $20 million a picture soon.

Anyway, back to Crank. The action scenes are very well constructed, in that there is no reliance on intricate special effects sequences, no martial arts, no cyborgs, there aren't even many big guns to speak of. Crank's action relies on primarily on car chases and in-your-face fist fights to drive the adrenaline levels up.

However, the action alone isn't all there is, the sense of humour on display in Crank is really excellent. There are some great lines, and not of the Arnie-style catchphrase variety, genuinely good lines. Watch out for when Statham asks his girlfriend to "save my life baby", priceless!

Amy Smart has a nice turn in Crank as Statham's ditzy stoner girlfriend, and although she's not the feminist's idea of a three-dimensional character, she's a welcome foil to Statham's driven rampaging.

Much of the action takes place while Statham is busy sorting out his next move on his mobile phone, and this device means that the audience has to multi-task, taking in the action while registering the dialogue. It's an interesting technique, and means that even though the action is impressive, it never dominates proceedings at the expense of a good one-liner or more importantly, a plot!

If this movie was a man, it would be 'Duffman', saying 'booyah" repeatedly, and thrusting his pelvis like Gary Neville at Anfield. Watching Crank, I found myself laughing out loud more than once, and the action sequences genuinely do get the adrenaline levels going. This is a real alpha male of a movie, and definitely worthy of a look.

Verdict: Booyah! If you're looking for an hour and a half of polished action with a great sense of humour, then you really could do a lot worse than Crank.
Rating: 8/10

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Casino Royale (1967)

Now this really is a funny egg. I was curious to see what a 1960's comedy version of James Bond could offer, and to be honest, after watching it, I'm really not sure... inspiration to Mike Myers perhaps? If you're looking for either a good James Bond movie, or a good comedy though, I'd have to say you're not likely to find either in this version of Casino Royale.

The 1967 version features David Niven as a prissy aristocratic Bond caricature, a really very large Orson Welles as the original 'le Chiffre', and Peter Sellers as one of a number of Bond impersonators... Woody Allen even turns up as Jimmy Bond, James's american nephew, and John Huston plays a Scottish M, replete with novelty comedy accent dyed ginger hair, and a surname of McTarry... at this point, Ricky Gervais might claim someone was having a laugh.

But that's kind of the point with this one. It looks like the film-makers really enjoyed themselves making this. David Niven is a class act, and he does well with the odd version of Bond that the numerous scriptwriters and no less than five directors concocted in this truly bizarre Bond parody. Casino Royale starts as a farce, and eventually degenerates into a python-esque slapstick finale that resembles a cross between Blazing Saddles and Austin Powers. This finale sequence goes over the top and then further again, I'm not sure if it was the red indian dance sequence of the monkey in the wig blowing bubbles that pushed it over the edge into the surreal for me...

The spirit of this movie is warm-hearted, and there is a lot of budget on display on screen. And it must be said, it has its moments.. Nicholas Roeg, of 'Don't Look Now' notoriety, cut his teeth as a filmographer on this one, and I'm not sure which scenes bear his hallmarks, but the scene where Niven's Bond is introduced to his daughter is a viaually stunning dance sequence that even briefly evoked memories of 'House of Flying Daggers'. In addition, there are certain sequences in Doctor Noah's lair where the cast are subjected to a sequence of rooms resembling optical illusions, and these are very nicely done. Also, Orson Welles! Well, he's his usual charismatic self here, but a little too larger than life unfortunately. He was already deep into Marlon Brando territory as far as his size by the time this movie was made. Even still, his card game with Peter Sellers in the Casino of the title is quite a good sequence.

Unfortunately, despite the warm heart of this movie, it's really quite confusing in parts, possibly due to the large number of directors involved (five in total). I'm currently in college, working quite a lot on group projects, and this movie smacks of a collaborative effort that was broken into pieces at the outset, and then hastily assembled together in an attempt to derive a narrative thread... to be honest, the plot is largely irrelevant to this movie. It's a spoof, and is probably in the same genre as Airplane, Blazing Saddles or Austin Powers, all of which are far better than this.

The problem is, despite cameos from Peter O'Toole and Jean-Paul Belmondo, even Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress and Orson Welles can't save this. There simply arent enough jokes, the soundtrack is camp and annoying (Burt Bacharach, who also did the Austin Powers soundtrack) and the plot just doesn't make sense. Honestly, unless you're a Bond completionist (I'm shifting embarassingly in my seat as I type this..) or someone who watches a lot of movies and has time to kill (ahem..) you won't get much from the 1967 version of Casino Royale.

The verdict: a curiosity, nothing more. Movie buffs may enjoy, most people wont.
The rating: 5/10

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