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
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone feverishly attempt to offend everyone with this new film thats cast entirely with marionettes. 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 from these guys. The comic highlights are punched across at regular intervals (check out the hilarious depiction of Michael Moore), but once the novelty of the marionettes wears off, the movie has trouble sustaining its length or its level of outrageousness.
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 (whose past exercises in gloppy metaphysics include Phenomenon and Angel Eyes) 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. Set in 1988, the story unfolds in the small Texas town of Odessa, where practically every resident is glued to the fortunes of the local high school team. An underlying theme is that this cracker towns obsession with football is an unhealthy one, yet Berg skirts around this important issue simply so he can spend more time on motivational speeches and gridiron heroics in other words, the same-old same-old.
LADDER 49 P1/2
It was probably inevitable perhaps even desirable for a post-9/11 movie to be made that celebrated firemen, but did it have to be as dull as this one? If theres an original moment in this tedious (if earnest) drama, I must have been rubbing my eyes for a nanosecond and missed it; instead, director Jay Russell and writer Lewis Colick have managed to cram just about every overused melodramatic device into this one picture. In an effort to elevate these men (played by, among others, Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta) to the level of heroes,
SHALL WE DANCE PP1/2
Dogged by a malaise that wont go away, a lawyer (Richard Gere) is lured by the mere presence of a dance instructor (Jennifer Lopez) to sign up for ballroom dance lessons. She quickly makes it clear that shes not romantically interested, yet it doesnt matter because he soon realizes that its the hoofing and not the fantasy of a younger woman that has revitalized his lust for life. This is the Hollywood remake of a wonderful art-house hit from Japan, yet it turns out that the 1997 original isnt its worst enemy. Instead, the sabotage comes from within, with Lopez so monotonous that they could have cast a blow-up doll in her role and few would have noticed. What elevates this slight film is the exemplary work by Susan Sarandon, who provides the emotional connection as Geres in-the-dark wife.
SHARK TALE PP
Forget the Finding Nemo comparisons: On its own, this animated dud still only qualifies as so much cinematic chum. Will Smith provides the voice for Oscar, a hip-hopping fish whose dreams of success are realized once hes mistaken for a courageous shark-slayer; hes aided in his efforts at duplicity by Lenny (Jack Black), an out-of-the-closet shark running away from a mob family that doesnt accept his alternative lifestyle. Shark Tale is all about getting jiggy with pop culture references, with much of the weak humor coming from riffs on famous products, famous songs and famous people (amazingly, todays two biggest media whores arent on hand under the monikers Larry King Mackerel and Stingray Leno). A few clever sight gags pop up now and then, but for the most part, this one smells fishy from the start.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD PPP
No mere splatterfest, this cheeky UK import turns out to be a horror film, a romantic comedy, and a social satire all rolled into one. Shaun (played by co-scripter Simon Pegg), normally found getting drunk at the pub, snaps into action when a zombie epidemic suddenly hits town. If George Romeros Dawn of the Dead was able to draw a correlation between modern suburbanites and the post-apocalyptic zombies both of whom spend their time mindlessly wandering through malls then Shaun equals that feat by presenting its humans as zombies-in-training, aimless people who shuffle through life with no ambitions, no skills and no awareness of the world around them.
SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW PPP
While the actors are flesh-and-blood or, in the case of Angelina Jolie, fleshy-and-bloody-hot practically everything around them was created on computers by debuting writer-director Kerry Conran. I wish that Conrans script (and his attendant direction) exhibited a bit more pizzazz, but its serviceable enough, with heroic Sky Captain (Jude Law) and spunky reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) trying to uncover a labyrinthine plot. From German Expressionism to screwball comedy, from The Wizard of Oz to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Conrans influences often make this seem like the fever dream of a hopeless film buff it may be derivative, but its never dull.
VANITY FAIR PP1/2
A condensation and softening of William Makepeace Thackerays novel. As the poor but plucky Becky Sharp, the 19th century social climber determined to carve out a better life for herself, Reese Witherspoon makes a perky protagonist, though her character needs a nastier edge to be truly believable. w
WICKER PARK P
Josh Hartnett, offering further proof that anybody can make it in Hollywood without a shred of talent, charisma or even a pulse, plays Matthew, who meets the love of his life in Lisa (Diane Kruger) and is heartbroken when she unexpectedly drops out of sight. Two years later, he thinks he spots her in a restaurant, but his subsequent sleuthing only puts him into contact with a clingy individual (Rose Byrne) who may know more than shes revealing. A remake of a French thriller (LAppartement) that never reached the US, Wicker Park is nothing more than a dull melodrama marked by plot coincidences of staggering stupidity. Kruger, the weak link in Troy, is even worse here, and whenever she and Hartnett share the same frame, you can almost hear the whooshing sound created by the two human vacuums filling the screen.
Like Mr. 3000, heres another generic sports flick that manages to somewhat transcend its mediocrity through some deft casting. Certainly, this romantic comedy is all been-there-done-that, centering on a struggling British player who falls for an American tennis star and finds his game improving as their relationship deepens. Coming from the same outfit that brought us Notting Hill, we expect to see Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts huffing on the court and off; instead, its Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst, and this unlikely match (not to mention the actors natural charm) provides the necessary bounce to this undemanding trifle.