Jay Roach’s political comedy couldn’t have come at a better time. Just as the U.S. is beginning to suffer from the fatigue that comes with enduring the final months of the heated presidential campaign between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis give us exactly what we need: a good laugh.
The Campaign stars Ferrell as Conservative Senate shoe-in Cam Newton who gets himself in a bit of a campaigning pickle – if you can call a widely publicized sexual slip-up a pickle – and prompts the powers that be (an evil duo courtesy of the always fantastic John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) to bring in a ringer: Marty Huggins (Galifianakis). Huggins is flanked by his two trusty pugs and spends his days giving empty trolley tours of his tiny North Carolina town – a naïve happy existence that flummoxes his former political operator of a father (Brian Cox). But once Marty’s appointed campaign manager gangster Tim (a ruthless and surprisingly hilarious Dylan McDermott) Pretty-Womans the grinning familial misfit into a standard cutthroat political candidate the messy misinformation-driven games begin.
Everything we’ve ever feared or discovered about our shiny politicians during campaign season is magnified for the sake of this 90-minute cathartic joke. Right as Romney and Obama are getting headlines for the underhanded loosely regulated practice that is the campaign commercial Ferrell and Galifianakis’ characters take the seemingly lawless practice to a wonderful hyperbolic place where having a mustache makes you a friend of Sadam Hussein and splicing quotes to blaspheme your opponent is kosher. Oh wait that last part is actually true.
This story from frequent Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay along with Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell plays on the clichés of the campaign trail and dresses them up with baby-punching and butt-licking. Right out of the gate we’re treated to Ferrell cheating on his wife with a squealing harlot in a porta-potty. The writers have no mercy for the political world and coincidentally neither do most of us. And even as the film stretches the limits of our ability to stomach schlocky gross gags it’s not entirely uncalled for. In fact this over-the-top flick is practically an extension of the way many of us view the idea of campaigning in the U.S. – the key is abject cynicism.
Raunchy gags are the name of the game but The Campaign doesn’t shirk the necessary weight of its source material. Sure Ferrell’s requisite nude scene merits a few giggles but it’s the moments that are centered on speeches and strategy that really make the film. They’re rife with spot-on frustrated commentary about the emptiness of political speeches and promises and draped in the hilarious inflections of the films’ funnymen.
But beyond the parts that make us laugh hard enough to eke out a sideways tear The Campaign actually has something that most raunchy Ferrell comedies only purport deliver: a heart-warming gooey center. We can chalk this up to Galifianikis’ Marty who represents the political fantasy we try to believe in every election: the existence of a truly honest well-meaning politician. He’s the guy who runs on the platform that “Washington is a mess” and he actually believes he can clean it up. When Cam is running his mouth about loving America Marty is the one who actually offers up idealistic solutions. To some extent Marty is a character we’ve seen before but he’s this bright spot that keeps The Campaign from becoming a long-form rant.
In addition to Galifianakis’ lovable Marty we find gems in the form of McDermott – whose phantom-like presence throughout the film is always worth a laugh – and newcomer Katherine La Nasa as Rose Cam’s gut-wrenchingly opportunistic Barbie of a wife. Oddly enough a big name like Jason Sudeikis receives low-billing this time around and perhaps it’s because his role is a rather mild one for a man who’s solidified himself as the overgrown frat-boy du jour. Still it’s Galifianakis who carries the film and Farrell’s usual shtick that provides the platform for his character’s unavoidable goodness.
The Campaign is a surprising oddly adorable summer comedy combining the disgusting cringe-worthy visuals we’ve come to expect from a Will Ferrell flick with the brains we hope for any time we see the word “political” tied to a film.
On the outside Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) couldn’t be further from the mold of a “normal teenager.” He wears a suit everywhere he is precocious and he has a spring in his step that suggests oblivion to his high school surroundings. Of course Charlie isn’t really at all oblivious and at his core is very much that “normal teenager”: He wants only to be popular. After starting anew at a public school--because he got kicked out of yet another private school for distributing fake IDs--Charlie is promptly pummeled for the way he dresses by the school’s bully (Tyler Hilton). He complains to his psychiatrist whom his mother (Hope Davis) keeps on retainer. The shrink decides to put Charlie on Ritalin. Ever the entrepreneur Charlie tries to parlay his easy access to drugs into popularity and it works like gangbusters. Before long “Dr. Charlie” is listening diagnosing and prescribing drugs to the entire student faculty. He’s got the popularity the trust and the girl (Kat Dennings) the latter of which just happens to be the principal’s (Robert Downey Jr.) daughter. And that relationship--not to mention the slight legality issue of prescribing controlled substances to minors--threatens to ruin his whole operation. Yelchin (Alpha Dog) is a Hollywood rarity: He’s an ‘it’ boy because of his acting not his looks (sorry Anton). Rarer still is the fact that Yelchin’s actual age is near that of Charlie Bartlett and not since the days of Freaks and Geeks has that industry taboo been broken so successfully. It’s all a credit to the young actor who in the span of Bartlett oozes everything from vulnerability and precociousness to Ritalin-induced mania and the theatricality of a much older actor. There’s nothing he can’t do in this movie; the same goes for his acting future. And the same goes for his adversary in Bartlett Downey Jr. although that’s been abundantly clear for decades now. Downey Jr. is famous for making seemingly effortless work of a complex character which is precisely what he does with Principal Gardner--a concerned parent recovering alcoholic and dutiful high school enforcer/villain. He’s a force to be reckoned with on screen and when Yelchin’s Charlie finally squares off with him the scene is a thing of beauty. As an essential link between those two characters Dennings (40-Year-Old Virgin) is a credible charmer and refreshingly the rare non-ditzy non-clichéd high school-portrayed girl we’re used to seeing. Rounding out the cast is Davis (American Splendor) aka Laura Linney-in-waiting. Her clueless alcoholic mom is a source of laughs and ultimately sobriety--for the character and us. For the first time in his decades-long career Jon Poll trades the editing room for the director’s chair. And after seeing Bartlett it makes sense that Poll who has edited movies like Austin Powers in Goldmember and Meet the Parents/Fockers is a behind-the-scenes veteran but a rookie helmer. His debut is fresh and loose but also very sure-handed. The movie is constantly a pleasant unclassifiable surprise spurning both the raunchiness of teen comedies and the pretention of psychology dramedies. The result is something far less precious and opaque than Wes Anderson’s Rushmore--to which Bartlett bears a broad thematic resemblance--yet a sharp commentary nonetheless. To that end Gustin Nash’s debut screenplay is just as impressive as his director’s rookie effort. His writing is clearly steeped in satire namely how loose today’s doctors are with the prescription pads--especially when it comes to our children--but it’s also able to be sweet and real when necessary. It’s the most impressive screenplay debut we’ve seen in a while--gold standard Juno notwithstanding--and the directorial one isn’t too shabby itself.
When infamous outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) gets captured in late 19th century Arizona the plan is to transport him to a train en route to Yuma prison(leaving at 3:10 of course). But in the 1800s bringing someone to justice is as arduous as it sounds especially since horses are the only mode of transportation and their carriages the only place to house a prisoner. Across “town ” rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is struggling mightily to support his wife (Gretchen Mol) and kids (Logan Lerman and Benjamin Petry) following a drought and needs to build a well for his family. So when he receives a nominal financial offer to help transport the notorious felon he jumps at it dutifully and desperately. While on the trail that leads to the train station no amount of physical or verbal threat is too much for Wade to break free of with ease. But when it comes to the law-abiding rancher for whom Wade has a certain respect his escape becomes much more complicated than getting out of handcuffs. 3:10 to Yuma’s pairing of Batman and Cinderella Man is perfect in concept and execution and watching the two stars is more than a sight to behold—it is transfixing like watching any two longtime professionals make something difficult look easy. It’s the first of two such powerhouse pairings for Crowe this fall—he co-stars with Denzel Washington in November’s American Gangster—and if this small sample size is any indication big-name costars bring out the best in him. Crowe evokes the kind of real humanistic villain that could only exist in a Western and by playing Wade with equal parts amiability and evil the Oscar winner turns in what is probably his most purely charismatic performance to date. Bale’s character on the other hand—and per usual—is loath to crack a smile a quality the actor has mastered. The Yoda of dialect Welsh-born Bale also has no difficulty switching over to Ol’ West speak but it’s the way he conveys the rancher’s stoicism and will that makes him even more credible. Among the supporting turns Ben Foster (Alpha Dog) stands out as a cranked-up trigger-happy member of Wade’s gang and stalwart Peter Fonda is perfectly cast as a tough ‘n’ gruff bounty hunter. When director James Mangold turned Johnny Cash’s life story into Walk the Line it was the romantic version of a much darker tale. For 3:10 to Yuma a remake of the beloved 1957 Glenn Ford-starrer Mangold gives the Western the same treatment. In attempting to reel in today’s action-happy audience Mangold waters down the drama and speeds up the pace. Minor tweaks for this modern update equal a bit of a departure from true Western style with the dialogue for example as snappy as one of today’s action comedies. But it’s all in good fun. The Old West looks completely authentic and the unforgettable ending is perhaps made possible by the director’s innocuous first two acts. Even so his efforts and those of the screenwriters (Derek Haas Michael Brandt and Halstead Wells who wrote the original) aren’t enough to perform CPR on the Western—not that it’s fair to rest the fate of entire dying genre in their hands.
With stories like this who even needs the “Inspired by true events” shield? Primeval tells of the world’s most prolific killer Gustave. You see Gustave is a crocodile and he remains at large to this day. His thirst for human blood goes unpublicized until he chows down on a white woman at which point an American newsman Tim Manfrey (Dominic Purcell) his cameraman Steven (Orlando Jones) and TV personality Aviva (Brooke Langton) head down to Burundi Africa where they hope to document the capture of Gustave. They’re joined by a wildlife preservationist of sorts (Gideon Emery)—a rare breed in a post-Steve Irwin world—who doesn’t want to harm Gustave. The deep jungles of Africa become a veritable obstacle course when the locals embroiled in a long-standing civil war and unwilling to have some damn Yankees televising their homeland stand in the crew’s way not to mention Gustave proving an evasive 20-foot-long um little bugger! The names might not ring a bell but you’ve seen these three stooges before--all on TV in fact. Purcell is currently enjoying about half the 15 minutes of fame of Wentworth Miller on Fox’s slipping Prison Break. Purcell plays Tim with steel and virility as he hides his Aussie accent for the most part but he’s still got a ways to go to reach Clive Owen’s caliber of acting--and more importantly Owen’s caliber of roles. Langton of The Net (the TV show adapted from the Sandra Bullock movie of the same name) and Melrose Place fame shows off the beauty that will afford endless opportunities to prove herself as a “real” actress—which is ironically similar to her character’s plight—but will never get there with roles in movies like Primeval. And Jones still best known for and plagued by his 7-Up commercials is in true negligible-sidekick mode here--worthy of a snicker approximately once out of every dozen times he tries overzealously to get one. Jaws may come to mind based on the water creature-stalking-man plot but well it’s tough to even mention those two in the same sentence. Director Michael Katleman a TV fixture himself at least doesn’t even aim high enough to reach that level. No from the get-go he’s shooting more for an Anacondas feel—and yes that’s the horrific sequel to the so-terrible-it’s-fun J.Lo “original.” Katleman almost reaches Anacondas-ian highs but not quite. Among other notable problems the director cannot for one moment strike the right balance between the aforementioned level of guilty pleasure-dom and genuine horror. Instead he catches us off guard with what are supposed to be the thrills—and also with the comedy. Finally once Gustave is revealed which should essentially be the moviegoers’ reward the croc looks more a prop sitting in a theme-park lot. And the script from John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (Terminator 3 co-writers)—well let’s just hope with the story being uber-derivative and cheesy enough as it is Orlando Jones ad-libbed all of his unlaughable comedy!
The story of the late great Johnny Cash depicted in Walk the Line is not quite all encompassing. The film dramatizes just one moment in Cash's life: his tumultuous 20s and rise to fame. The young Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) married and straight out of the army struggles with his music finally finding his patented blend of country blues and rock music. Haunted by a troubled childhood Cash sings songs about death love treachery and sin--and shoots straight to the top of the charts. On tour he also meets and falls for his future wife June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) whose refusal to meddle with a married man only further fuels the fire and contributes to his eventual drug addiction. Their cat-and-mouse love story provides the film’s core but unfortunately can’t quite overcome Walk the Line’s formulaic nature. Biopics are generally good to actors. Phoenix and Witherspoon could easily each walk away with Oscar statuettes for turning in two of the most jaw-dropping spellbinding performances since well Jamie Foxx in Ray. Neither actor had any musical background whatsoever but they both underwent painstaking transformations for the sake of authenticity doing all of their own singing as well as guitar-playing for Phoenix. The actor's performance is purely raw and visceral; his vulnerability is aptly palpable at first but then he becomes the Cash with the unflinching swagger. Witherspoon's Carter is Cash's temptress and she'll be yours too by movie's end. She eerily reincarnates Carter as if she was born to play the part. If Walk the Line is the ultimate actor's canvas then Phoenix and Witherspoon make priceless art-and music-together. While good for the actors biopics can prove to be difficult for the director. It’s hard to highlight a person’s life without it coming off like a TV movie of the week. Unfortunately director James Mangold (Copland) plays it safe with Walk the Line. The duets between Johnny and June on stage are about the only electrifying moments of the film. The rest is pretty stereotypical. And it isn’t because the film only focuses on certain years of Cash's life. It's simply not possible to fit a lifetime into the short duration of a film. The problem instead is that Mangold's presentation of Cash's life would lead one to believe that Cash actually exorcised his demons. But in reality his lifelong demons are what endeared him to the layperson. There was nothing cut and dry about the Cash story--and adding a little grit would have given Walk the Line the edge it needed.
Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.