Man of the year ¶
It’s junk like Man of the Year that makes me remember movie reviewing often isn’t just a job; it’s an adventure -- and I’m owed some serious combat pay. Merging the premises of Warren Beatty’s razor-sharp Bulworth, Kevin Kline’s decent Dave and Chris Rock’s flaccid Head of State, writer-director Barry Levinson imagines what would happen if an outspoken and compassionate comedian became president of the United States. Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-like TV talk show host who, after joking that he should run for office, finds himself on the ballot in 13 states. It’s a decent premise for a piercing satire, but Levinson’s approach is so timid that it makes last spring’s soggy American Dreamz look as incendiary as a Michael Moore documentary by comparison. The main problem, of course, is Williams, who isn’t playing a fictional character running for president as much as he’s playing Robin Williams playing a fictional character running for president. In other words, it’s the same lazy performance we almost always get, with the actor groveling for laughs via his patented physical shtick and repertoire of stale jokes that were already passe around the time Roman emperors began chucking Christian standup comics to the lions. Soon, the attempts at humor dry up completely to make room for a dismal plotline in which a techie (Laura Linney) at a company that produces Diebold-style voting machines realizes that a computer glitch led to Dobbs’ ascendancy to the Oval Office. As she tries to reveal the truth, the company goons (led by a what-is-he-doing-here? Jeff Goldblum) decide to shut her up permanently, but Three Days of the Condor this ain’t.
The departed ¶¶¶
At this point in his illustrious career, it’s hard to imagine Martin Scorsese accepting another filmmaker’s hand-me-downs. Yet in essence, that’s what’s taking place with The Departed, which isn’t an original screen story but rather a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong film titled Infernal Affairs. Working from a script by William Monahan, Scorsese has made a picture that’s more in line with such past mob morality tales as GoodFellas and Mean Streets than with his recent spate of ambitious (and Oscar-lunging) period epics like The Aviator and Gangs of New York. But while The Departed is a strong film, it’s by no means a match for any of those aforementioned titles. Nor is it equal to Infernal Affairs, which wore its sleek 100-minute running time far better than this one navigates its 150-minute length. Set in Boston, this new take casts Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello, the crime lord with the foresight to make sure that one of his protégées, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), is placed in a position to be able to rise through the ranks of the Massachusetts State Police Department. Colin is eventually assigned to the special unit tasked with investigating Costello, an outfit run by the animated Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin). Ellerby trusts Colin, little suspecting that his right-hand man is actually the informant. Meanwhile, down the hall, the paternal Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and the blunt Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) are just as determined as Ellerby to nail Costello. To that end, they assign Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) to get his hands dirty enough to convince Costello that he’s a bona fide criminal and worth adding to his band of outlaws. Having been raised on the wrong side of the tracks, Billy has no trouble fitting in, although the strain of having to lead a double life soon wears him down. He strikes up a relationship with the police department’s psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga), not realizing that she’s Colin’s girlfriend. Issues of identity, duplicity and deception remain constants throughout the film, and it’s refreshing to find a stateside remake that for once doesn’t feel the need to dumb down its philosophical musings for the sake of Yank audiences. The violence and vulgarity -- trademarks of this sort of Scorsese outing -- are pitched at operatic levels, and even taking the milieu into consideration, they occasionally verge on overkill. So, too, does the performance by Nicholson, who begins the film as a terrifying villain but winds down as a raving buffoon. The younger actors do a better job maintaining the appropriate levels of intensity. DiCaprio is coiled and edgy, Damon alternates between charismatic and creepy, and Wahlberg (stealing the film) somehow turns surlinessinto an endearing character trait.
Isn’t it too soon to be subjected to another showing of Flyboys all over again? At least that’s the sense of deja vu that settled in after viewing the two films in consecutive weeks. Here we have the same running time (an overextended 135 minutes), the same degree of quality in the CGI work (impressive), and the same fortune-cookie-level pontificating about the need for sacrifice, bravery and personal responsibility. Even more than Flyboys, though, this resembles An Officer and a Gentleman, right down to the scene where our handsome hero bursts into his girlfriend’s place of employment to declare his everlasting love. Kevin Costner plays Louis Gossett Jr., the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer instructor whose tough-love approach to training works wonders for the young recruits; Ashton Kutcher is Richard Gere, a narcissistic pretty-boy student more interested in making a name for himself and romancing the local cutie (Melissa Sagemiller) than in actually saving lives. For a long while, The Guardian wears its cliches pretty well, but because this is a Kevin Costner film -- and because Costner spends more time playing mythic, larger-than-life Christ figures instead of ordinary mortals -- we sense this can only end one way.
THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP
I doubt any other movie of 2006 will inspire as many walkouts as The Science of Sleep, a declaration which in itself should function as a no-holds-barred recommendation for those seeking something unusual in their moviegoing diet. Michel Gondry previously helmed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, yet his latest picture (which he both wrote and directed) is so out there that it makes that Charlie Kaufman-penned movie seem as streamlined as Bambi by comparison. With its dialogue alternately spoken in English, French and Spanish (those who whine about subtitles be warned), this oddity stars Y Tu Mama Tambien’s Gael Garcia Bernal as Stephane, a young man who moves from Mexico to Paris and lands a dull job working at a calendar publishing firm. Stephane has a hard time keeping his waking life separate from his dream state, which causes all manner of complications both professionally and personally, the latter mainly built around trying to forge a relationship with across-the-hall neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Before turning to film, Gondry established his rep as the creator of highly celebrated commercials and music videos, yet while this new film allows him to once more tap into those largely unregulated arenas, his real inspiration seems to come from Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay -- those masters of offbeat (and unsettling) animated efforts -- to say nothing of Freud, Jung and Adler. The Science of Sleep employs deliberately rudimentary effects and slipshod animation to convey Stephane’s REM visions, yet it also posits the character as a childlike individual whose inability to cope with adult emotions balances him precariously on the line between untainted innocence and troublesome obsession. It’s a shame the movie pulls back from examining this angle, but at it stands, it’s still a marvel of wide-eyed whimsy.
TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY¶¶¶
Like Spam, energy drinks and the music of Yanni, Will Ferrell is one of those acquired tastes that satisfy devotees while perplexing everyone else. While some folks swear by his 2004 starring vehicle Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, I’m not one of them. This one-note movie struck me as annoying rather than amusing, meaning I wasn’t exactly anticipating Ferrell and director Adam McKay reteaming for a comedy about a NASCAR redneck. My mistake. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is often uproarious, and it’s clever in a way that Anchorman rarely attempted. Like Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby is also an egotistical, none-too-bright boor. “I piss excellence,” he declares, and his standing as NASCAR’s best driver certainly signals that he’s excellent at something. He has a best friend (John C. Reilly) who’s even dumber than he is, a blonde trophy wife (Leslie Bibb) who’s always looking to get ahead, and two obnoxious sons named Walker and Texas Ranger (“But we call him TR for short”). Ricky has spent his life trying to work out issues with his deadbeat dad (Gary Cole, delivering the film’s shrewdest performance), but that doesn’t excuse his repellent behavior and the way he takes everyone and everything for granted. ç