Sunday, December 25, 2005

This "Ringer" is humor-challenged

I'm not sure what I was expecting from a movie about a guy who pretends to be retarded to rig the Special Olympics, but it certainly wasn't this.

Ricky Blitt, a writer for the sharply satirical and usually dead-on "Family Guy," has made "The Ringer" into just another pedestrian generic-guy-learns-life-lesson-and-gets-the-girl flick (if that gives too much away, I'm sorry. Believe me, there's not much suspense here.)

I miss the days when Johnny Knoxville was just a "Jackass." I never caught much of the TV show, but the movie is the definition of guilty pleasure, just tons of laughs. No one learned anything, or at least they shouldn't have.

Here, he just wants to be Adam Sandler, but we already have one too many of those.

The principal fault of "The Ringer" is that Knoxville's character, Steve something-or-other, is supposed to be likable. He's just duped into this scheme by his evil uncle, national comedic treasure Brian Cox, whose star turn is long overdue.

How much funnier would it have been if Knoxville played this one in "Jackass" form, as someone vile enough to take on such a stunt, and then to get his comeuppance at the hands of the people Cox repeatedly refers to as "tards?" Loads more than "The Ringer" is.

On the bright side, the mentally challenged actors are in on what little joke there is, and they are all charming. Can you laugh at these people? Well, I can, and not feel guilty at all, because they are funny as hell, and they know it.

They make every scene they are in with Knoxville better, which sends mixed signals at best about his future in movies. There's a sweetness to it all, but not nearly enough to carry a feature-length flick.

In case you can't tell, I take my humor like I do my coffee, black. Dave Chappelle's blind white supremacist Clayton Bigsby who, unbeknownst to him, is black? Hilarious. The "South Park" episode in which Cartman thinks he can take down the Special Olympics and handicapable Jimmy gets hooked on steroids? Infinitely funnier than "The Ringer," which stole its premise but forgot to hijack the jokes.

Satire should have a bite along with its bark, and at least one target. "The Ringer" has none, and still manages to miss them all.

I was supposed to see "The Producers" today, but Young Jeezy made sure that wouldn't happen by not taking the stage at Money's this morning until just after 2 a.m. Perhaps that's the standard in hip-hop circles, but for someone who is often in bed by 9:30 p.m. it was a stretch.

I attempted to take some photos for The Telegraph with a friend's digital camera, but the scene was chaos and I probably failed epicly. Great show, but definitely my oddest Christmas morning yet, and I simply don't have the energy to sit through two hours of Nathan Lane.

Tomorrow I'm heading to NYC to see my family, and also some great movies. Check in at week's end for a head's up on some that will eventually even hit Macon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Peter Jackson's truly great ape

What kind of pull did Peter Jackson have after turning J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy into an international box-office sensation? Enough to make what is at its core a $200 million midnight movie.

His take on "King Kong" is a goofy love story about a very beautiful woman and a very big ape. And an often very glorious one at that.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, it starts out in Depression-era NYC. How do we know it's the Depression? Not because, like in "Seabiscuit" and many other earnest, well-meaning flicks, a narrator tells us so, but because we see it vividly with our own eyes. Jackson couldn't have re-created it any better if he had spent his huge stash of cash on a time machine.

In rapid succession we meet Naomi Watts' Ann Darrow, a struggling Vaudeville actress who has just lost her performance space, and Jack Black's Carl Denham, a more-than-slightly malevolent huckster who also happens to make movies.

Jackson is a master at the calm before the storm, and the care he takes in building these early scenes is reminiscent of the opening scenes of "Fellowship of the Ring" in the Shire, still my favorite part of the "Rings" trilogy.

The story lags a bit as we meet the crew who have been hoodwinked into transporting Denham, his starlet and the screenwriter he abducts for the voyage, an entirely out of place Adrien Brody, to Skull Island.

We have to wait awhile for the big payback, but when it comes, it's gigantic. Jackson's take on Skull Island, home to Kong and many other creepy creatures, takes cues from "Apocalypse Now" and "Jurassic Park" and melds them into something you've never seen before.

Jackson stretches the limits of his PG-13 rating even before we get to see Kong. The natives are enough to terrify anyone regardless of age. Like Steven Spielberg, Jackson has become a master at building suspense, so that even when you know what's coming, you'll still almost jump out of your seat.

I won't reveal everything you'll see on Skull Island, but here's a taste: Terrifying T-Rex's, spine-tingling spiders and a dinosaur stampede that will make you forget all about "Jurassic Park." I won't tell you how, but at one point, Naomi Watts ends up dangling from the tooth of a T-Rex. Wild, weird and wonderful.

The action on the island is almost non-stop, with small gaps between the set pieces, just enough to catch your breath, or, as in the audience I saw it with, let out some nervous laughter. Unlike the monotonous car chases and explosions that populate most "action" movies, these scenes are so unique that they keep you riveted the entire time.

And then, of course, there's Kong. It's what CGI technology was made for, to create fantastic creatures that, if you let yourself believe, look entirely real.

Jackson's Kong is clearly king of Skull Island, but you can see it hasn't been an easy reign. Kong is old, scratched-up and weary. He's still a brutal monster, of course, but an almost human one at moments. It's a true accomplishment for WETA, the special effects company that has worked with Jackson since "The Frighteners," his first dabble into big-budget territory.

Watts does a solid job of selling the preposterous idea that she cares for the great ape. And no cracks about monkey love are necessary here. It's more an understanding of Kong's plight that you see in her eyes, and she makes you believe in it.

As Kong is finally brought to NYC and put on display, Jackson wisely wraps things up quickly. If I hadn't already known going in, I never would have guessed the movie was three hours long. It's a brisk ride that rarely takes its foot off the gas.

In one truly odd scene near the end, Kong and Watts glide as gracefully as an ape can across a frozen pond in Central Park. It's unsettling to watch at best, but captures Kong's quest for beauty in one perfect moment.

It's a little strange that Jackson chose to make Carl Denham, the moviemaker within the movie, more of a con man than in the 1933 original "King Kong." But you get the sense that Jackson is more than a bit of a shyster himself. He had to be laughing as he created one of the best B-movies of all time, albeit with an A-plus budget.

Is it flawless? No way. It's far too ambitious to be. But it is by far the most fun I've had at the movies this year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Nothing is connected

George Clooney said he wants the new political thriller "Syriana" to test viewers. Well, while sitting through it I did flash back to high school, to a civics class taught by my wrestling coach.

Screenwriter and director Stephen Gaghan takes the same heavyhanded approach Mr. Dietrich did back then, and complicates matters by biting off much, much more than he can chew.

Using the same tactic he did successfully with "Traffic," Gaghan packs his script with multiple storylines and characters intended to interconnect and teach us something about how the U.S. government is conspiring with conglomerates to run the world. The main problem is that, although its poster boldly proclaims "Everything is connected," this fractured attempt at agenda filmmaking leaves us with a complicated mess.

Without giving too much away, I'll try to run down the many players and plots in "Syriana." George Clooney plays a CIA agent left out in the cold while on a mission to the Middle East, Matt Damon is a commodities "expert" who backs a reform-minded heir to the throne of an Arab country and Jeffrey Wright is an attorney charged with making sure the merger of two American oil companies passes muster with the Justice Department.

As if this isn't enough, along the way we get Damon struggling to save his marriage to Amanda Peet, Jeffrey Wright struggling to care for his alcoholic father, played by William Charles Mitchell, and an additional storyline about young Arabs who turn to radical Islam after struggling to find steady employment. Whew!

That's a lot of struggling to ingest, with no time left over for anything resembling character development. Why should we care for any of these people when we know next to nothing about them? Gaghan sorely misses director Steven Soderbergh, who added a human touch to "Traffic" that kept viewers engrossed as the story became more and more complicated.

Given my world view, I'm predisposed to like movies like this. I'm a nut for conspiracies, and I love agenda filmmaking as a genre.

For a nearly flawless example, check out this year's "The Constant Gardener," which this morning garnered a deserved Golden Globe nomination for best dramatic picture.

In that searing indictment of drug company practices, we get Ralph Fiennes as a British diplomat who seeks answers after his wife mysteriously disappears in Africa. It tackles a complicated subject, but director Fernando Meirelles, director of the even better "City of God," always keeps Fiennes' plight front and center. As complicated plot twists pile up, you (well, I, at least) never get lost because there's a very human story to follow.

This is sorely lacking in "Syriana," relegating it to agitprop rather than entertainment. For a political movie out now, Telegraph entertainment writer Maggie Large reccomends "Good Night, and Good Luck," which she said is a great movie about journalism. I'll be checking it out this weekend, after I recover from KING KONG!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

For Narnia, and for Aslan

There are several ways to look at "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (which will henceforth be referred to as "Narnia" to save me some keystrokes and you a little time.)

Given C.S. Lewis' religious conversion just before starting the "Narnia" series, you can view it as thinly veiled Christian allegory. Given Peter Jackson's epic treatment of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy by Lewis' comrade J.R.R. Tolkein, you can also view it in comparison to those movies. But I wouldn't recommend either approach.

"Narnia," which was written by Lewis for four children who came to stay with him during World War II, is best viewed through the eyes of its young heroine, Lucy Pevensie. Through the eyes of a wide-eyed child, which most of us still have hiding inside us somewhere, it's nearly perfect.

Watching Georgie Henley's Lucy go through the wardrobe for the first time, her reaction was the same as mine: sheer wonder. Director Andrew Adamson of "Shrek" fame, with the help of the New Zealand countryside and some very real looking CGI snow, nailed the look of the winter-bound Narnia perfectly. It was just as it looked in my mind, where it had existed until now.

The initial encounter with Mr. Tumnus the faun is also just as I pictured it, down to his legs, which are a technological marvel. Try not to laugh as he stamps his hooves to knock off the snow.

The children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and young Lucy, are refreshingly unremarkable. They're not remotely cool. They're just very believable pasty-faced Brits.

As they journey through Narnia and meet the beavers, I had a fearful flashback to Eddie Murphy's wiseass donkey in the "Shrek" flicks. There's no place in Narnia for such cheap humor, and Adamson luckily holds his worst impulses in check. Instead, we get British actors Dawn French and Ray Winstone as clever but never crass CGI talking beavers.

Tilda Swinton as the White Witch Jadis was a bit of a letdown, getting by mostly on the fact, that, in real life, she looks much like a witch. Liam Neeson as the voice of Aslan is, likewise, very one-dimensional, all nobility and little spirit. Lewis saw the world of good and evil in very strict terms, making neither terribly interesting.

Without revealing too much to anyone unfamiliar with the story (if such a person exists), Adamson keeps the action brisk as the Pevensie children make their way to their destiny, the epic battle between the forces of Aslan and those of the White Witch.

The battle is a joy to behold. Think what it would be like to see all kinds of creatures, real and mythological, converging on the field of battle. Minotaurs vs. centaurs, leopards vs. rhinos, and even armed beavers. Then forget all about it, because Adamson makes it crazier than you can imagine.

Because Lewis, and apparently Adamson, intended these scenes to be appropriate for children of all ages, there's no blood and guts. This isn't a realistic battle, it's a fantastic one, in every meaning of the word. Seeing as Lewis gave Lucy a potion that will magically nurse the wounded back to life, the vagaries of war were clearly not really on his mind.

The true test of whether you can swallow all this is how you react to Santa Claus showing up about 2/3 of the way through. It's straight from Lewis' mind, since the White Witch had banned Christmas when she created perpetual Winter, and only the ascension of the Pevensie children to the Narnia throne can bring about its return.

If you're too cynical to believe that, move on. This movie isn't for you. Myself, I'm very, very cynical. But for a little over two hours in the magical world of Narnia, I forgot all that and just let my inner child come out. And he had a blast with this flick.

P.S. I'll be going to either "Syriana" or "Good Night, and Good Luck" tomorrow, and will post something about it in the next couple of days. Check back if you'd like. Everyone's welcome. Then, finally bring on KING KONG!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

No "Narnia" for you

Sometimes life isn't fair, and sometimes it's cruelly so. In my case, it's usually the latter.

I had my heart set on seeing "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" at Riverside United Methodist Church Wednesday night. When I arrived at the church, however, I was told that the kind people at the church would be talking about C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles, but, like most of the world, would have to wait until Friday to see the movie.

This after I was told on Tuesday, after asking if I would need a ticket and being told no, just show up. I didn't actually ask, will you be showing the movie? After all, the listing in the Praise Dates in The Telegraph said the church "presents" "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

I guess it's what I deserve for being less than inquisitive. For a moment I considered giving up on organized religion altogether, but I'll get over it. And I still can't wait to see the movie with the rest of the world this weekend.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Of pride, prejudice and Oscars

Did the world really need another "Pride & Prejudice?" Perhaps not, but I sure did.

As I was watching the SEC championship game Saturday night with some friends of mine, the subject of Joe Wright's new big-screen adaptation of Jane Austen's best novel came up (because, I always want to talk about movies, and I brought it up.)

Someone asked how the story that had been told so well in A&E's celebrated five-hour miniseries could be condensed to a little more than two hours. "Did they just talk really fast?," one smartalec asked.

Well, in a way, yes. Wright keeps the action brisk and screenwriter Deborah Moggach keeps the barbs sharp. They understand that although "Pride & Prejudice" is an epic love story, it is even more a comedy of manners, or more often the lack thereof.

The reason Austen is so tempting an author for filmmakers is her books are above all else about class envy and its ills, which have only intensified over time. To pull off her vision, you need two perfect foils, the apparent snob and the latent snob, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.

Luckily we get Keira Knightley and the until-now unknown (at least to me) Matthew MacFadyen.

I've adored Knightley ever since the delightful popcorn nugget "Bend it Like Beckham," and here she has a role that actually requires some acting. She knows that, though a wise-cracking, impetuous young woman on the outside, Elizabeth is the most vulnerable character in "Pride & Prejudice," and she conveys this with her eyes as much as her voice.

A co-worker said she found Knightley's bad wig to be a distraction, but that was her biggest beef about the movie, so she liked it almost as much as I did.

As Mr. Darcy, MacFadyen is nearly perfect, as snotty and insolent as he can be. I can only think of one big-screen Austen hero I've liked more, Ciaran Hinds as Captain Frederick Wentworth in 1995's "Persuasion." Check it out.

In smaller roles, Donald Sutherland works well as the pater familias of the Bennet clan, though his charm tends to make you overlook Mr. Bennet's many faults, and Dame Judi Dench shows up about halfway in as a perfectly brusque Lady Catherine de Bourg.

But the real star here is Wright, who as far as I can tell had never directed anything beyond TV miniseries before this. His large ensemble scenes in particular, the balls, have a kinetic energy that make them hard to keep up with but well worth the effort.

Oscar talk

Is it ever really too early to talk about the Oscars? I think not, and "Pride & Prejudice" has me primed for it.

If I were a betting man, which I no longer am, I would lay odds on "Good Night and Good Luck," "Memoirs of a Geisha," "The Constant Gardener," "Walk the Line" and "Pride & Prejudice." My own list would be "Broken Flowers," "A History of Violence," "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and "Pride & Prejudice," with the the last spot reserved for the upcoming "Munich," "King Kong" or "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

As for actresses, it will definitely be a youth movement, with Knightley leading the way along with Reese Witherspoon from "Walk the Line" and Ziyi Zhang from "Memoirs of a Geisha." I'd also love to see Rachel Weisz from "The Constant Gardener" on this list, but I rarely get exactly what I want.

Look here for a Wednesday night (well, 'round midnight anyway) review of "Narnia," courtesy of a pre-theaters screening at Macon's Riverside United Methodist Church.