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Thursday, December 14

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Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

He may have made a career playing goofballs on TV and in films, but Will Farrell might be the smartest man in comedy. I'm still not sure how exactly he did it, but Farrell and his Anchorman director and co-writer Adam McKay have managed to make a ridiculously funny film about the NASCAR scene without dozens of driver cameos that those of us who could care less about the sport would miss, and never once makes fun of NASCAR fans. In less capable hands, Talladega Nights would have been redneck joke after redneck joke about how stupid and hillbilly the fans are, but Farrell and McKay stay on topic by focusing on a group of drivers, each one more hilarious than the once before.

Farrell plays Ricky Bobby, who even as a child was addicted to speed thanks to his grossly irresponsible, white trash father (Gary Cole), who pops in and out of Bobby's life to offer the boy drunk advice, including one motto that Ricky carried with him throughout his racing career: If you're not first, you're last. Ricky's patient mother (the wonderfully understated Jane Lynch, best known from most of the Christopher Guest films and as the store manager in The 40-Year-Old Virgin) ends up raising him alone. Ricky becomes best friends at an early age with Cal Naughton, Jr. (played as an adult by John C. Reilly), and eventually the pair become racing's most formidable duo, with Naughton always clearing a path on the track for Ricky to slingshot through to win. They call their partnership "Shake 'N' Bake," and a truer moniker has never been given.

Ricky begins work in NASCAR as a member of a pit crew to a losing driver who would rather eat lunch during his pit stops than actually get back in the race. So one day the crew chief (Michael Clarke Duncan) calls upon Ricky to finish the last couple laps of a race (the always funny David Koechner, also in Anchorman, also is part of the pit crew). He pulls ahead of most of the drivers and comes in third. It doesn't take long for Ricky to become the best driver in NASCAR, complete with a hot wife (Leslie Bibb), two children (Walker and Texas Ranger; yes, they ruined this joke by putting it in every trailer, but it still made me laugh watching the film) and a cute assistant (played by recent Oscar nominee [for Junebug] Amy Adams.

At the peak of his career, Bobby meets his most fearsome foe on the racetrack: Jean Girard (the funniest man on the planet right now, Sacha Baron Cohen), the gay Frenchman and loving husband to Gregory (Andy Richter). Talladega Nights has no trouble being funny before Cohen arrives (a dinner-time prayer from Ricky to the "Lord baby Jesus" is a scream), but when Cohen shows up, this movie is an entirely different and more absurd monster. His facial expressions, his clothes, his accent, his philosophies, everything the guy says is funny and had me giggling whenever he was on screen.

I'll confess, after watching Ferrell and Reilly do some recent promotional appearances (in costume, in character) to push this movie, I've been extremely nervous about this movie being bad. They didn't seem very funny running around the country pretending to be NASCAR drivers. But much like they did with Anchorman, McKay and Ferrell have whittled down what was certainly hours of funny stuff into this near-perfect comedy giggle-fest.

Ricky is in a terrible accident and has trouble recovering from the stress. He wants to get back in the racing game, but he's too scared to get back in a car. His wife leaves him for Cal, who never quite understands why he and Ricky can't still be friends. "I have to be married to a driver," she explains. Ricky finds solace for a time moving back in with his mother, his father reappears in his life, and slowly he builds pack up his confidence behind the wheel. The only mission Talladega Nights is to make you laugh, and the filmmakers throw every joke they know at you; most times, they stick. The film's biggest misfire is the character of race team owner Larry Dennit, Jr. (Greg Germann), who hires Girard onto the same team as Ricky and Cal, causing much friction. The movie already has one of the great screen villains (at least in comedies) in Girard, so Germann's cookie-cutter villain antics seem pretty flaccid.

But with his earnest face, furrowed brow, and deadpan delivery, Farrell absolutely knocks this one right out of the speedway. It doesn't happen often, but actual tears were in my eyes from laughing so hard at times. Sure Talladega Nights is 27 brands of silly and juvenile, but I'm not above laughing at well-timed kick to the crotch to spice things up in a film like this. Usually August offerings begin to get a little dismal, but this is by far the funniest movie of the summer.

The Descent

At last year's Butt-Numb-a-Thon, there was one film that kind of stole the show away from such higher-profile films on the bill like King Kong and V for Vendetta. And the reason it did was because, well, it was the scariest and most entertaining fright flick I'd seen in years. I spent many months trying to get people to seek out British writer-director Neil Marshall's previous film, Dog Soldiers, which was a tough job since it never actually came out in U.S. theatres. And the thought on everybody's mind at BNAT was, "When does The Descent come out in this country?" There just didn't seem to be any doubt that it would because it's so much better than any American horror film in a very long time. Oh, and for those of you who have seen UK version of The Descent, the rumors are true: the version being released in the U.S. has a different ending. More on that in a minute.

The film opens at the end of what appears to be a wild nature adventure that a group of women friends are taking. We see some of the women at the tail end of what looks like a treacherous white water rafting ride, with the husband and child of one of the women waiting on the shore, looking a bit nervous. This family suffers a terrible, violent tragedy on the drive home, one that leaves the woman emotionally traumatized. One year later, the women (mostly British) are gathering again, this time in a remote mountain area of the Appalachians for a little cave exploring. The film takes its time getting us into the caves, and that's OK. We get to know a little about these women, most of whom are played by actors unfamiliar to American audiences (the only one I recognized was Nora-Jane Noone, whom I liked a great deal in The Magdalene Sisters). We subtly discover where the hidden rivalries lie in the group, who the more irresponsible ones are, and which of the women were more or less supportive of the woman in the accident. These things don't seem all that important at first, but they come into play later.

The trip into the cave seems to be going along nicely enough, and The Descent might have worked as simply as a tale of claustrophobia and seeing things in the shadows of this dark, unexplored world. A small cave-in sets into motion a series of events that, alone, would have made a hell of a movie. The way the women came into the cave is blocked, and it turns out the one who brought them to this particular place lied about the tunnels being well-mapped. It turns out this is an unexplored cave, with no route out, and so they must find another way. With food and batteries running low, time is critical. Then the women start to hear these slithery clicking sounds... they see movement out the corners of their eyes... then the attacks start.

One of the more unfortunate things about The Descent's U.S. release is that Lionsgate has given away too much in the trailer. When we saw this film in December, we had no idea that monsters were a part of this equation, and once that knowledge becomes part of the equation, the full-on mindfucking begins. Marshall doesn't waste our time explaining where these creatures came from (they look somewhat human, but it's clear that they rarely see the light of day, operating by sense of sound). Even knowing about the monsters doesn't quite prepare you for how scary they and this movie are. Ever fear you've ever had about what lurks in the dark, in the absolute pitch black corners of this world, are turned into reality with this movie. And one by one, the women are simply picked off or attacked as their search for an escape seems more and more fruitless.

The thing that intrigued me the most about The Descent is that it actually might be a bloody, violent horror film that women might actually turn out for. The actresses in the film are certainly attractive, but this isn't a collection of models or MTV reality stars collected simply to be picked off by some slasher after a tasty shower scene. The Descent takes its scares seriously, and it never forgets that some of these women have issues with each other that come into play when fighting for their lives. Oh, and about that ending, let's just say that there was a "dream-like" aspect to the original version that is missing from this one. And while this alternate ending hardly qualifies as "happy," it certainly more hopeful than the one we saw at BNAT. I doubt you'll encounter a more skillfully made horror film this year, at least not one released by a major distributor. The Descent is a soul-shaking good time, and, after seeing it, you'll probably never want to be in a dark tunnel again for a very long time.

Little Miss Sunshine

I thought it might be too early in the year to say such things, but Little Miss Sunshine is one of the year's best. And I don't think I'll be the only critic to say so, which probably means that before the end of the year, they'll be an enormous backlash against this movie, so you better run out and see it now before things get ugly. The film is the perfect blend of comedy, emotional family drama, road movie, introspective unpleasantries, and charm.

I'm a music video geek from way back, so I always made a point to notice who directed what videos. I'm not talking about Martin Scorsese or John Landis directing a Michael Jackson video; I'm talking about people who made their living at creating 5-minute videos and never seemed to run dry at the creative well. While Little Miss Sunshine is, in fact, directed by first-time feature directors (and husband-and-wife team) Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the pair have been coming up with powerful visual statements for many years. Why they don't have their own "Director's Series" compilation like Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze is beyond me. So when I heard earlier this year that this film had stolen the hearts of those at the Sundance Film Festival, I was pleasantly surprised.

The Hoover family is a mess, but their baseless sense of optimism is something of an inspiration. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker who needs a little help motivating people to actually come see him speak. He thinks he had the answers (in the form of pithy catchphrases) to solving anyone's problems, but his family is falling apart and he pretends not to notice. His fraying wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) wants an open dialogue within the family, which is tough considering her teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano, most recently seen in The King) has stopped speaking altogether. Sheryl's gay brother, Frank (Steve Carell), has just moved in with the family after attempting suicide when his lover leaves him. Also living in the home is Richard's foul-mouthed, heroin-snorting father (Alan Arkin; the primary reason for the film's R rating is Arkin's language). The binding force is the sweetly nerdy, 7-year-old Olive (a remarkable Abigail Breslin), a second place finisher in a local beauty pageant. When the pageant's winner is made ineligible, Olive and her family must pile into the family's dilapidated VW bus (is there any better vehicle for a family road movie?) and drive to California for the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant.

Their three-day journey makes up the bulk of the film, and the resulting trip is one of the most grueling and hilarious undertakings you're likely to see this year. Let's start with the obvious: Carell is a gift. His performance as the brooding, bearded Proust scholar is as different from anything he's done as he gets to show another level of a his acting talents that has never been tapped. Kinnear has proven to be a solid actor before (the guy did get an Oscar nomination after all), but this might be the best he's ever been. His driven Richard is both pathetic and strong as the man hoping to turn his nine-step program for success into a book deal (he's on the phone constantly to see if a book pitch has garnered any interest). And there was never any doubt in my mind how that endeavor was going to turn out.

The Hoovers are a family of misfits, some of whom know it and hate it, some of whom simply embrace it, like Olive. There will not be a more inspirational character in another film this year. Her dance number during the pageant (choreographed off-camera with the help of her grandfather) is one of the funniest things I've ever seen and will become the stuff of legend in filmdom. We've been spoiled for years by the acting gift that is Toni Collette, so to say that she turns in an extraordinary performance here is pointless. The film's biggest surprise (other than watching Arkin snort heroin) was Dano, as the fuming son whose only goal in life is to fly planes in the Air Force. The scene in which he melts down after discovering he is color blind and thus could never fly planes is devastating.

But it is the family's insecurities and collective loser status that binds them and makes them stronger and able to continue living (even Frank). Little Miss Sunshine is not based on a play or a book or a TV show or a graphic novel; it's an extraordinary original screenplay (what a concept) from first-time writer Michael Arndt, and it's kind of remarkable to see this kind of film released in the summer (albeit the late summer). Maybe it's because the film stands out so much from the rest of the films out right now that it may catch people's attention. God, I hope so.

This is one of those rare film you champion and push people to see for months. As all classic family road movies, the characters change and grow during the course of their trip, hopefully for the better. And at no time does it try to force laughs out of its story with lame jokes and site gags. The situations are ridiculous enough; they don't need punchlines. This is just one of those works that makes your life a tiny bit better because you know there are filmmakers actually trying to make something great without reinventing the wheel. Prepare to be enriched, or, at the very least, you'll breathe a sigh of relief that your family isn't as screwed up as the Hoovers.

The Night Listener

Based on a novel by Armistead Maupin, The Night Listener is meant to be intriguing, mysterious and atmospheric. What it actually is is weird, and not always the good kind of weird. Robin Williams stars as public radio storyteller Gabriel Noone, a gay man who has spent many of his recent broadcasts focusing on his lover Jess' struggle to survive AIDS. Jess has made a remarkable comeback from the disease, and now wants to separate from Gabriel for a time just to be on his own and live life a little more fully than he would be if he was living with someone. Gabriel believes this is a precursor to a break-up and takes the entire development very hard, to the point where he's unable to do his show.

To take his mind off his trouble, Gabriel's producer (Joe Morton) puts him in touch with a soon-to-be-published 14-year-old boy named Pete (Rory Culkin), who has written a book detailing his years of sexual abuse at the hands of his mother, father and their acquaintances. Pete's story is heartbreaking and uplifting as he managed to escape their torture (during which he acquired just about ever STD known to man) and get his father arrested. Gabriel and Peter form a strong bond over the phone, and Pete's adopted mother Donna (Toni Collette again) also grows to love the storyteller, whom they listen to faithfully on the radio every week. There are times when Pete must be rushed to the hospital, and thus he is unreachable. These times are torture for Gabriel.

At one point Jess is visiting Gabriel and hears a message left by the mother and son, and his reaction to it sends shockwaves through Gabriel. Jess is convinced that both voices on the machine are the same person. This one accusation makes Gabriel doubt everything he knows about the pair, who live out of state and whom he's never actually met. He even doubts the content of Pete's book. He doesn't voice his doubts to Donna immediately, but repeated attempts to arrange visits are cancelled at the last minute, and Gabe just flies out unannounced.

Donna has told everyone in the small town where she and Pete live that some of the sexual predators that took advantage of Pete might still be looking for him, so anytime a stranger comes around asking about the pair, the townsfolk get mean. Of course, Gabriel discovers that none of people in town have actually seen the fragile boy, whom they have all been told, spends many of his days in the hospital.

The film's main mystery concerns Donna. Is she a mentally disturbed woman who has invented a sick son to get attention and sympathy, or is she on the level? The problem with the film is that whenever we see Gabriel talking to either Donna or Pete, we actually see them and their homelife. It takes a while to realize that what we're actually seeing is Gabe's perception of how they live, but the audience's inclination is to believe Pete exists because we've seen him. In other words, the film cheats.

The scenes with Williams in the town where Donna (who turns out to be blind... or is she?) may or may not be taking care of a sick child are the best in the film. Prior to that the only exceptional scenes involve Gabe and Pete on the phone talking about their lives, and breaking Gabe out of his self-imposed funk. But the stuff with Williams essentially taking on the small-town, small-minded folks is solid stuff, especially when he's arrested by a local sheriff, who tasers him repeatedly before taking him to jail.

Normally I'm not prejudiced against films that have inconclusive endings. Would knowing or not knowing if Pete was real make the film any more or less watchable? Not really. But that isn't the only unanswered question left hanging at the end of The Night Listener; it's just the most frustrating one. I was astonished to find out that this story is "based on true events," but that doesn't really change the fact that the film is a mess by the conclusion, and a tagged on epilogue really doesn't make any of the three people who adapted the film (including Maupin) seem any more clever.

There are some nice performances here, especially from Collette and Culkin, but most of the actors seem disinterested or outright bored by the material. Even the usually reliable Sandra Oh (playing a friend of Gabriel) barely registered in this movie. Director Patrick Stettner (The Business of Strangers) is going for some sort of character study about obsession and loneliness, but he ends up making us obsessed with looking for a satisfying ending. The climax of a film doesn't have to answer all of my questions, but it has be convince me that those questions aren't as important as the film's bigger issues. The only thing is, The Night Listener doesn't have any bigger issues. And while this may have made for great reading, this relatively short film bugged me immensely.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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