Back in the mid-sixties, during a period when movies like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were causing all sorts of headaches for the MPAA's moral watchdogs, one such ruckus-raiser was 1966's Alfie, with Michael Caine in a star-making performance as a callow bachelor whose womanizing ways finally catch up to him. The plotline that had the censors howling involved an illegal abortion sought by one of Alfie's conquests. The new Alfie also includes scenes centering around an abortion, but because the act is now legal, the moment doesn't carry the same charge that its 1966 counterpart did. In fact, there isn't much in this update that resonates beyond the screen - Alfie '66 may still hold import as an artifact of its era, but Alfie '04 likely won't be remembered as anything more than one more unnecessary remake. And yet, as far as these things go, this one's not bad at all. The setting has been curiously switched from London to New York, and Alfie's escapades now seem almost tame in a nation that frequently celebrates its sexual predators in film and on television. Yet the key to this movie's success rests in the central performance by Jude Law - this easily represents his best acting to date, and he's aided by a letter-perfect supporting cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Marisa Tomei and Nia Long as various sack partners.
Just how good is Jamie Foxx's performance in Ray? Let's just say that without him, this new biopic about music legend Ray Charles would possess only marginally more value than a film about, say, Tiffany or The Village People. Director Taylor Hackford, who has never met a movie he can't stretch well past two hours, wastes an awful amount of screen time going over variations on the same themes: Throughout the first part of his adult life, Ray (blind since age seven) alternates between taking drugs, cheating on his wife (sympathetically played by Kerry Washington) and -- oh, yeah -- emerging as a musical genius. Despite an occasional sameness to these scenes the film skips along thanks to the inherent drama in many of the presented conflicts. Yet shouldn't a movie named Ray give us a complete portrait of the man? Still, it's easy to overlook the flaws in the storytelling with Foxx commanding our attention in virtually every scene. The actor loses himself so thoroughly in the role that it's impossible to tell where Ray Charles ends and Jamie Foxx begins.
AROUND THE BEND P1/2
A product placement in a summer or holiday blockbuster is nothing new, but what on earth compelled Kentucky Fried Chicken to partner with writer-director Jordan Roberts for his low-budget debut feature? It certainly wasnt to attach itself to a quality flick on the contrary, this family drama is sooo dull and dreary that KFC might want to brace itself for plummeting stocks. Michael Caine, going through the motions, plays an old codger who divides his 20 minutes of screen time between regaling his grandson (Josh Charles) and great-grandson (Jonah Bobo) with homespun homilies and hiding the boners he gets whenever his Danish nurse (Glenne Headly) enters the room. He then drops dead at the local KFC around the time that his long lost son, whos been cooling his heels behind bars, makes a sudden reappearance; this black sheep is played by Christopher Walken, sporting the same shock-hair that seemed more appropriate for his role in Sleepy Hollow. At any rate, in a posthumous attempt to bring the family back together, the old man has left a will that instructs the three surviving generations to stop at various KFCs on their way to spreading his ashes all over the landscape. Well-intentioned but not even remotely involving, Around the Bend leaves plenty of time for either dozing or daydreaming. My inspired idea during my frequent mental drifts: Given the plotline, how about a KFC promotion in which their chicken is sold in a bucket thats shaped like an urn?
In this age of cookie cutter thrillers, heres one that, for better or worse (or a bit of both), stands apart from the pack. Most moviegoers didnt want to spend even two minutes discussing the imbecilic likes of Taking Lives or Twisted, yet theyll be endlessly jawboning after seeing this grisly serial killer opus that clearly aspires to be the next Seven. Two men, a doctor (Cary Elwes) and a photographer (Leigh Whannell, who co-wrote the script with director James Wan), wake up to find themselves shackled to the plumbing in an abandoned buildings bathroom. Realizing that theyre the prisoners of a notorious serial killer whos fond of playing mind games with his victims, they decide to work together in an attempt to outsmart their captor. But their suspicions of each others motives as well as the specific guidelines laid out by their torturer work against their success, and the involvement of an emotionally scarred detective (Danny Glover) doesnt seem likely to help them in any manner. As director, Wan needs to trust his instincts more the rapid-speed camerawork and choppy editing occasionally on display prove to be pointless and distracting and as writer, he and Whannell could have taken more care to plug up some gaping plot holes. Yet the unique setting adds some intrigue, and the twist ending should jolt the majority of moviegoers right out of their seats.
I HEART HUCKABEES PPP
Or, Being Charlie Kaufman, as writer-director David O. Russell tries to expand the parameters of mainstream cinema as much as the scripter of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Yet while Russells movie doesnt quite capture the freewheeling dementia of Kaufmans output, its still a noteworthy effort, with enough engaging hi-jinks not to mention a high-wattage cast to distract us from the frequent fuzziness of its psychobabble. Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) handles what is ostensibly the lead role: Albert Markovski, an activist who hires a pair of existential detectives (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to help him discover if a series of coincidences is actually an indication of some deeper meaning behind life itself. As the private eyes go about their business, Albert continues to lock horns with Brad Stand (Jude Law), a rising executive with the Huckabees super-store chain and Alberts nemesis on environmental matters. Brads model girlfriend (Naomi Watts) and an emotionally distraught firefighter (Mark Wahlberg) are also drawn into the fray, and matters become even more heated with the arrival of a French anarchist (Isabelle Huppert) whose nihilistic outlook affects Albert. The philosophical musings espoused by Russells characters are ultimately about as deep as those found in fast-food fortune cookies, yet the passion with which these folks rail against their unbearable lightness of being is inspiring, and the uniformly fine cast provides shadings that otherwise might not have been there.
TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE PP1/2
The title outfit super-macho warriors willing to destroy the world in order to stop the terrorist threat (there goes the Eiffel Tower; there go the pyramids) is a Republican presidents wet dream, as is the notion of depicting liberal Hollywood actors like Tim Robbins and Alec Baldwin as anti-American stooges who suffer gruesome deaths for opposing our valiant heroes (you havent lived until youve seen a puppet Sean Penn ripped apart by a kitty cat posing as a panther). But wait, theres more! A Broadway stage show featuring the song Everybodys Got AIDS, Middle Eastern terrorists who speak entirely in gibberish (though we can frequently make out jihad), an explicit sex scene between anatomically incorrect dolls, and perhaps the longest vomiting scene ever recorded on film. Juvenile? Sure. Funny? Certainly though not nearly as often as one might reasonably expect.
THE FINAL CUT PPP
Robin Williams continues his exploration of the dark side of human nature in this sci-fi saga thats set at a point when microchips installed in individuals serve to record their entire lives. Williams plays Alan Hakman, whose job as a cutter requires him to go through the memories of recently deceased people, edit out the sins, and present loving montages that can be screened at funerals. But the stakes are raised when it turns out that his latest job involves a slimeball whose chip is sought by those who will stop at nothing to obtain it. For a movie that often feels like its cobbled together from pieces of Minority Report, Blade Runner and other futuristic odysseys, this ones weirdly engrossing, and so in thrall with its own big ideas that the occasional plotholes can easily be overlooked.
THE FORGOTTEN PP
Slumming Julianne Moore stars as a woman who, after mourning the death of her son for 14 months, is suddenly told that she never had a child and that he only existed within her own delusional mind. What begins as an unsettling psychological thriller eventually morphs into a sci-fi curio that becomes less intriguing as it plays out. Certainly, this was one way to go, but scripter Gerald DiPego never plays fair, changing the rules based squarely on the demands of his storyline. Director Joseph Ruben manages to stage some genuinely creepy moments here and there, but theyre squandered in a movie that ultimately drowns itself in an ocean of inconsistency.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS PP
A true-life yarn that was dubbed by Sports Illustrated as one of the greatest sports stories of all time has now been turned into one of the dullest sports films of recent years. Peter Berg has adapted his cousin H.G. Bissingers acclaimed novel but in the process stripped it of any complexity, leaving only a generic pigskin tale.
Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book, Hidden Figures places Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) at the forefront, relating how she was tapped for her skills as a mathematician to help NASA’s Space Task Group (headed by Kevin Costner’s tough but fair director) crunch the numbers needed to successfully send astronaut John Glenn (winningly played by Glen Powell) into space and have him safely return to Earth.