Thursday, December 27, 2007

Laughing 'hard' with John C. Reilly

“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” is a box office dud, just sneaking in at the bottom of the top 10 movies in its opening weekend. It is hard to say why since the film is a silly, but sly lampoon of the musician bio-pic.

The film’s co-writer Judd Apatow had a good year with two big summer hits, one as a writer/director (“Knocked Up”) and the other as a producer (“Superbad”). It looked like the Apatow branding was becoming a sure path to the top of the box office. So what went amiss with “Walk Hard,” because it certainly isn’t an issue of quality? Maybe this style of comedy just doesn’t play well this time of year.

Or perhaps audiences have grown weary of parody films given the slew of lame films like “Epic Movie,” “Date Movie” and “The Comebacks.” These films are made quick and with little thought. The formula is to reference several recent films and do a shot-by-shot remake of a scene with a slight twist. This can work, but more often than not it is just lazy and cheap filmmaking.

A genre parody shouldn’t merely reference films that fall within its target of satire, but mock the conventions and clichés of the genre. Mel Brooks’ best films did this better than any other, and thankfully “Walk Hard” is in that tradition rather than the new parody formula. “Walk Hard” also recalls “This is Spinal Tap” in a good way even if its comedy volume doesn't quite make it to 11.

“Walk Hard” stars John C. Reilly as Dewey Cox, a rock star who is most directly tailored after Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” but who has an uncanny ability to play any style. This leads to amusing songs in the style of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson.

Apatow and co-writer/director Jake Kasdan hit all the ups and down of the rock star lifestyle and do a fine job mocking the somber tones of “Ray” and “Walk the Line.” The childhood flashbacks of those films are sent up in a hilarious sequence in which Dewey accidental cuts his brother in half. As the doctor informs Dewey and his parents, “It is a particularly bad case of somebody being cut in half.”

Reilly, who has been a reliable supporting player for a decade in films as diverse as “Boogie Nights,” “The Aviator” and “Talladega Nights,” is on top form in his first lead role. He is adept at the physical comedy and can deliver a joke with the best, but Reilly, who is also a good dramatic actor, does more with the material. There’s an underlining sincerity in his performance that keeps the more raucous comedy grounded.

There are moments when the film seems to be trying too hard to make Reilly be Will Ferrell, especially during a scene when he is running around in his underwear, but Reilly has his own goofy charm and shines most in the musical numbers. The songs range from relatively straight homage to outrageous spoof. The best is a duet with Jenna Fisher (“The Office”) called “Let’s Duet.” Fisher as Dewey’s June Carter-esque second wife is a perfect comedic match for Reilly and has just the right tone for the material.

The whole cast, which includes “Saturday Night Live” cast members and veterans Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell and Kristin Wiig and cameos by Jack White, Harold Ramis, Frankie Muniz, Jewel, Lyle Lovett and others, is excellent. Cast members approach the material at just the right angle. There’s a wink and nudge, but there’s also an attention to detail provided by Kasdan.

The film gets the look and feel right. Kasdan as a director switches to grainy black and white for a great Bob Dylan parody and alters his palate again to take on the bright, tacky colors of 1970s variety shows. There’s a particularly humorous sequence featuring Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Rudd and Justin Long as The Beatles that recalls the obscure mockumentary “The Rutles: All You Need is Cash.”

When reviewing comedy all you can do is say whether you laughed, and I did laugh, often heartily and louder than anyone in the theater. The film’s humor is at times vulgar, but never mean-spirited. The more familiar you are with music history, the funnier the film will be. Those who grew up in the era the film targets or those well versed in the time period will have the most fun.

The absurdity of politics: Five favorite political satires

When one is inundated by the political machine by all forms of the media — as we have been in the yearlong lead-up to the primaries — it is hard not to see the absurdity in the mechanism. Shining a light on that absurdity is the basis of one of the United States' great institutions: satire.

With the New Hampshire primary quickly approaching on Jan. 8, months of build-up to the primary will be replaced with the months of build-up to the election. If you find your cynicism bubbling up to a scalding boil, perhaps this is an apt time to rent a few political satires. What I provide here are five personal favorites to help you keep your sanity in the political circus.

“A Face in the Crowd”
This obscure 1957 film from director Elia Kazan features Andy Griffith brilliantly playing against his type as a charming country bumpkin, who becomes a cold, calculating megalomaniac following his overwhelming success as a TV star. The corrupting influence of power is hardly an original concept, but Kazan crafted an eerily prophetic film about the ever-blurring worlds of entertainment and politics. This is most evident in a powerful scene in which Griffith is shown coaching politicians on how to play to the camera and win audiences. Made in the early years of television, the film saw that this then-new medium was, for better or quite possibly worse, the future.

“Wag the Dog”
Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog” is a satire in the very best sense of the word because it pulls no punches and targets everyone: politicians, the media and even the electorate. Robert DeNiro stars as a political analyst who hires a Hollywood director (Dustin Hoffman) to produce a fake war to distract from a scandal during a president’s campaign for re-election. The premise sounds like farce, but the film is so sharply written and performed as to make the viewer pause to wonder just how much of what the media shows is merely manufactured.

Warren Beatty stars as a suicidal, disenchanted politician who decides to end it by hiring a hit man to off him. Knowing he will die in a few days, Beatty begins to speak bluntly with incendiary language about the corruption of the political system and even adopts a hip-hop look and vernacular. Beatty is a well-known liberal, but it would be foolish to dismiss his work here as writer, director and star as nothing more than liberal propaganda. The film goes beyond mere party stereotyping, and, like its lead character, reveals the flaws of the entire system, and because of that the film is sharp and on target.

“Primary Colors”
Director Mike Nichols chronicles the primary campaign trial of a Bill Clinton-esque politician played by John Travolta in a film that feels authentic when it could’ve been mere caricature. Anyone can do a spoof of Bill Clinton as a lech and get a laugh, but comedy is at its strongest when the humor is laced with weightier, thought-provoking ideas. Travolta’s thinly disguised version of Clinton is remarkably good, but his performance and the film itself are not one-dimensional mimicry. The film features a strong line of cynicism placed next to a hopeful heart and isn’t afraid to raise hard questions about what it means to be a politician in America.

Don’t be fooled by the MTV Production’s logo as the film’s opening credits unfold. This not another dumb teen film, but rather a biting allegory for political corruption. Reese Witherspoon stars as an overachiever who will do anything to become student body president. Matthew Broderick playing against his former Ferris Bueller persona is the one teacher who attempts to oppose Witherspoon. Director/co-writer Alexander Payne's choice of setting for his lampoon of politics forces the audience to ask if national elections are any more sophisticated or meaningful than ones on a high school level. After all, high school presidential elections are popularity contests and student body presidents are figure heads who can never deliver on their promises.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

'No Country for Old Men' is exceptional in every way

“No Country for Old Men” has already been named the best film of the year by the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critic Circle, but that’s likely only the beginning of accolades to be lauded on the Coen Brothers latest film. It is an exceptional piece of filmmaking.

This marks Joel and Ethan Coen’s first true adaptation, although "O Brother, Where Art Thou" borrowed themes from "The Odyssey." "No Country for Old Men" is an extremely faithful reworking of Cormac McCarthy’s novel about a man who stumbles upon a satchel of money from a drug deal gone wrong and the unrelenting killer that comes after him.

Whole sequences unfold exactly as they do on the page, and passages of McCarthy’s rich dialogue from the minute to the lengthy appear nearly verbatim. It is refreshing to see filmmakers be respectful to their source material, but the Coens aren’t blinded by their revere of McCarthy’s words.

In many ways they have improved upon McCarthy’s novel. They have distilled the best parts of the novel, removed scenes that didn’t work, clarified the unclear and tightened the pacing in the cat-and-mouse game that ensues between Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, “American Gangster”) and his pursuer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, “The Sea Inside.”)

On the level of plot, “No Country for Old Men” is simple. Llewelyn takes the money and Chigurh comes after him. It is the execution that is so astounding. The Coens have always been fine filmmakers, but something about the darker side of humanity brings out the best in them. Like “Blood Simple” and “Fargo,” this is an atmospheric, moody piece of filmmaking that lingers in the mind.

The cinematography by Roger Deakin creates sequences of growing, quiet tension. There are small moments like a single lightning bolt cracking during a chase through a desert and a looming shadow in a doorway that stick with you.

The cast is uniformly excellent, but the performance that is sure to be talked about for years to come is Bardem’s Chigurh, one of the best screen villains in years. Bardem — a Spanish actor who is largely unknown by American audiences — is menacing, but never over-the-top. In fact, if anything he is subdued. There is glint of joy in is eye as he gambles with people's life at the flip of a coin that is more frightening than anything you’ll see in splatter films like “Saw” or “Hostel.”

Don’t be mistaken though. This is a violent, bloody movie, but this isn’t violence for violence’s sake. McCarthy and the Coens are attempting to say something about our society. There is a questioning of how things have gotten where they are in the world. There are no answers provided to these questions. Everything isn’t tied up neatly in the end. Audiences well trained to have a sense of closure in their films will surely be let down, but the ending is exactly what it needs to be.

The film’s questioning nature takes the form of Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell. Bell is a weary sheriff worn down by a society he no longer understands. This is hardly a new archetype in fiction, but Jones brings levels of nuance to the character that weren’t on the page. Jones has played law enforcement figures for decades, but there’s something different about his performance here. Simple put, he is great.

This isn’t to short Brolin, who after bouncing around Hollywood as a B-actor for 20 years final got some juicy roles this year. His work here and in “American Gangster” put him in a new league. Like with Jones, the word that comes to mind is nuanced.

There is no showboating in the cast, even when Woody Harrelson and Stephen Root pop up in the latter part of the film to provide a bit of comic relief. And the movie is funny. Pitch black, but funny. After all, when faced with the terrible, as Jones’ Bell suggests, you have to laugh because “there ain’t a whole lot else you can do.”

Amy Adams truly is enchanting

For the legions of people who grew up watching classic Disney animated films — specifically “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella” — “Enchanted,” with its blend of homage and self-parody, is an absolute delight.

“Enchanted” starts out in a magical kingdom where Princess Giselle (Amy Adams) awaits her prince. It has been a long wait since Prince Edward (James Marsden, Cyclops in the “X-Men” movies) is easily distracted by battles with trolls. Once they meet it is love at first sight, but naturally there is an evil stepmother (Susan Sarandon) who banishes the sweet but naïve Giselle to a place where there are no happily ever afters: New York.

This prologue is pleasant, but familiar. The animation is brightly drawn, Giselle’s animal helpers — led by the chipmunk Pip — are amusing and the songs are fun, but things truly come alive when Giselle enters the very real New York. No longer animated, Giselle struggles to apply fairy tale rules to the real world. Prince Edward, his servant (Timothy Spall), Pip and eventually the stepmother all follow after her.

Giselle meets a father (Patrick Dempsey, “Grey’s Anatomy”) and daughter (Rachel Covey) who take her in for one night that extends to several. There is fiancé in the mix, but even the most novice filmgoer knows that the stiff Dempsey will fall in love with Giselle.

“Enchanted” is pure formula filmmaking. It offers no surprises on the story level, and that's OK. Formulaic filmmaking is only bad when done poorly, and here the execution is excellent. Screenwriter Bill Kelly, who wrote “Blast from the Past” — another cheeky fish-out-of-water story — creates a knowing tone that doesn’t push its satire too far.

If the story doesn’t surprise, the presentation does. Sequences that would feel derivative in an animated film are fresh and funny here where the logic of the animated world is suddenly imposed on reality. Remember when Snow White was able to command all the woodland creatures to help her clean house? Giselle has the same ability, only this time it is pigeons, rats and cockroaches doing the cleaning. It is not nearly as gross as it sounds — after all this is a PG Disney film — and is one of the comedic highlights of the film.

Similarly, in a scene in which Giselle leads a lavish song and dance number in Central Park, the screen is full of infectious energy that yields big laughs. But while these are all good reasons to see “Enchanted,” it is Amy Adams’ effervescent performance that is the film’s true raison d’être.

Adams was nominated for best supporting actress in 2005 for her role in the little seen “Junebug.” It was a sour film with unpleasant characters, the one exception being the bright and charming Adams. She brings that same sunny charisma to

“Enchanted” and makes Giselle a character that is completely lovable. Adams' charms need to be seen to believe, and they alone are well worth the price of admission.

This is not to slight the rest of the cast. Dempsey, who basically has the straight-man role, plays it well and is charming in his own way. Marsden gets laughs as the overly earnest, well intentioned, but slightly dense Prince Edwards.

Sarandon is clearly having fun hamming it up as the evil stepmother, and even though her non-animated screen time is limited, she makes every second count. The computer animated Pip, although not an actual actor, per se, also steals scenes and is going to be a hard act to follow for the new “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie.

“Enchanted” is a movie that kids will drag parents to and girlfriends will force boyfriends to see, but the film is a rare breed that should appeal to almost everyone. The film is light and fluffy and proud of it. It is just good, clean, escapist fun.