Friday, November 17, 2006

Movie Review: "Stranger Than Fiction"

Starring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah and Emma Thompson
Directed by Marc Forster

Never mind the commercials you’ve been seeing on TV, advertising “Stranger Than Fiction” as another wacky Will Ferrell comedy, with the actor running about while the tune of “Don’t Bring Me Down” by Electric Light Orchestra plays in the background. Laughs are in fairly short supply during the movie’s nearly two-hour running time.

That in itself isn’t too big of a deal, as the movie would appear to be taking aim much more as a drama with humorous and romantic situations included. But what is a little harder to overlook is the sometimes overly clever screenplay and inconsistent pacing of the proceedings. It’s a two-hour movie that plays a lot longer.

“Stranger Than Fiction” plays out as Ferrell’s antithesis to Ricky Bobby, his overly emotional and intellectually challenged NASCAR driver from this summer’s hit film, “Talladega Nights.” In “Fiction,” he portrays Harold Crick, an emotionally bottled up IRS worker who lives a life of solitude, yet doesn’t really seem to dislike the path that his life has taken. There is a significant amount of order in his life, from the precise time he arrives at the bus stop every workday to the number of brush strokes he uses when cleaning his teeth. Clearly, this is a guy that may have a problem dealing with change.

That change comes about when Harold begins to hear a voice – a British woman’s voice, to be precise, complete with “a better vocabulary,” as Harold helpfully points out. But the voice doesn’t talk to Harold. Rather, it talks about him, narrating his mundane life while only Harold can hear the comments. Unbeknownst to Harold, reclusive author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is who Harold is hearing, as he is the central character in her latest book. She has no idea that her character is roaming out in society and thus has no qualms with killing off the poor sap. After all, knocking off the main character is a regular occurence in her books.

This proves to be a bit of a problem for Harold, however, who enlists the aid of Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) to determine why his life seems to be spiraling out of control. Hoffman, as the straight talking, yet slightly eccentric college professor, helps keep the rather unbelievable storyline on a more grounded level. His interactions with Ferrell are among the more well written and comical moments in the film.

To his credit, Ferrell steps away from his normal wild comedic roles to play a real introvert. It’s much the same kind of strategy that Jim Carrey employed when tackling “The Truman Show,” to which the film bears more than a passing resemblance in tone and attitude. He shows an ability to do drama, yet still maintain a comic presence. However, the character is maybe a bit too muted and his transformation in the film’s latter half takes some real leaps of faith.

While the script by Zach Helm does show some wit, emotion and invention, it’s limited and draws obvious comparisons to wittier, smarter and better material by noted screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation,” “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”)

Ultimately, “Fiction” struggles to maintain its whimsical tone, while still moving towards its seemingly inevitable conclusion. There’s quite a bit to like about the movie, from its eye catching production design to its earnest performances from Ferrell, Hoffman and Maggie Gyllenhaal as the romantic object of Harold’s eye. It’s just that a movie built on a creative, yet underdeveloped conceit should be more of a fizzy and fun concoction. Instead, this “Fiction” is a just a little flat.
Grade: C+
(Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Movie Review: "Borat"

Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Pamela Anderson
Directed by Larry Charles

With most people only having been exposed to the comedic skills of Sacha Baron Cohen in this summer’s hit film, “Talladega Nights,” where he played the bizarre French rival driver to Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby, it’s safe to say that the 34-year-old British comedian is a bit of an unknown commodity. But with the release of “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” that status will undoubtedly and quickly change.

There is no way to watch the film impassively and with a straight face. It’s simply and unequivocally the most outrageous comedy to hit theaters in years. Your enjoyment of the movie will likely be directly tied to the level at which you can withstand being offended, as Baron Cohen paints a likable foreign character who also happens to be sexist, anti-Semitic and horny, not necessarily in that order.

As Borat Sagdiyev, a TV reporter from Kazakhstan, Baron Cohen is fearless in his portrayal as a man looking to learn culture from Americans that he can take back to his ignorant and impoverished people back home. Shot in a faux-documentary style and directed by Larry Charles (”Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Seinfeld”), the cast, such as it is, only really consists of Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian as Borat’s cranky producer, Azamat, and Pamela Anderson, portraying herself. The remainder of the people in the movie are unknowingly becoming a part of a Hollywood film, while likely believing they are part of a Kazakh documentary. It’s clearly a ruse that goes well beyond hidden camera TV shows such as “Candid Camera” and “Punk’d.”

In some of the scenes, Borat’s ignorance of American customs allows for some seat-squirming situations, such as his behavior at a formal dinner party or singing his country’s national anthem at a rodeo in Virginia. In others, he’s simply able to operate as an observer while the ignorant and inappropriate comments come from others. Case in point: one man suggests Borat shave off his mustache so that he doesn’t get mistaken for a terrorist. That kind of an approach is certainly a bold one, as it exposes some of the prejudices and cultural differences in America. It’s not quite what you’d expect from most comedies, to be sure.

That said, a caveat must be included here, as this is definitely not a movie for children. For one, most of the humor will go over their heads. But more importantly, some of the content is so outrageous (some may say offensive) that it’s best to not expose younger audiences to the movie. One sequence involving a hotel room fight is admittedly funny, but its shock value may be so strong that it will turn off some (a couple of audience members walked out during the scene at a screening I attended).

There’s little doubt of Baron Cohen’s comic prowess and the fearlessness he has in attacking a role. But it’s also hard to deny that there could be a bit of a polarizing affect of the film on audiences. Still, you will laugh (and possibly quite often) during “Borat.” Whether you feel OK for doing so after the fact may be another story.
Grade: B+
(Rated R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including
graphic nudity, and language.)

Movie Review: "A Prairie Home Companion"

Starring Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin
Directed by Robert Altman

Perhaps better than any other director in modern motion pictures, Robert Altman has the ability to assemble an all-star cast simply for the chance to work with him. Take a look back at the casts of some of his more recent triumphs, such as “The Player” and “Short Cuts” and you’ll see a who’s who of acting talent on display. That attraction had to be one of, if not the main draw for the great cast assembled for “A Prairie Home Companion,” a somewhat fictionalized big screen presentation of the popular radio variety show started in the 1970s by Garrison Keillor.

Watching the cast have fun singing and gabbing backstage is the central point of enjoyment for the film, which has the slightest of story lines. Keillor portrays himself in the film, or at least some close approximation, acting as the emcee, performer and frequent product pitchman during the variety show. Presumably set in present day Minnesota, where the show plays before a live audience and is broadcast on a local radio station, the movie operates almost entirely within the confines of the theater – almost as if it’s a world all its own. The movie depicts the final night of the show, as a recent company acquisition means that the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) cometh, set to turn the theater into a parking lot.

Altman has always displayed a gift at having scenes filled with characters that speak true to life, meaning they stop and start sentences, cut each other off and overlap in conversations. It’s a trait that can take some getting accustomed to, but is one that is likely embraced by the actors, whether it’s an Altman film veteran (Lily Tomlin) or just a truly great and versatile actress (Meryl Streep). Those two women play a musical sister act who lament the end of an era with the show, while another performing duo, Dusty (Woody Harrleson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), seem to take the pending demise in stride. For his part, Keillor chooses to treat the final show just like any other, with nary a mention to the audience or acknowledgment of anything being out of the ordinary. (That even holds true upon his learning of the backstage death of one of the performers.)

The focus of the film primarily remains on stage with the various musical performances, which are quite well done and give the actors a chance to show off some singing and musical instrument playing ability. Yet, it’s the backstage conversations that allude to some of the background of the characters that hold a bit more interest. However, the movie doesn’t seem very interested in delving much into their backgrounds, beyond cursory tidbits here and there, leaving the audience wanting more.

Operating less as characters and more like plot devices, the roles portrayed by Kevin Kline and Virginia Madsen don’t comfortably fit into the story. Not that that’s a criticism of the actors, who are both very good. It’s just that they tend to take the focus away from the show and its performers.

Ultimately, there’s not a lot of a driving force to the story, which causes it to go a bit slack in places. But the cast helps plow through the slower spots, including a winning performance from Lindsay Lohan as the suicide-preoccupied daughter of Streep’s character.Slight though it may be, “A Prairie Home Companion” still paints a pretty picture of the kind of shows that it would be nice to know that radio still offers. But in this day and age of satellite radio and computer programmed playlists, it’s clear we shouldn’t be holding our breaths for them.
Grade: B
(Rated PG-13 for risqué humor.)