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.
As with seemingly every other tentpole release to hit the multiplex this summer the action thriller Cowboys & Aliens is based on a comic book – albeit a lesser-known one. It’s directed by Jon Favreau whose previous comic-book adaptations Iron Man and Iron Man 2 proved how much better those films can be when they’re grounded in character. Unfortunately his latest effort is grounded not in character but a hook an alt-history scenario best expressed in the language of the average twelve-year-old: “Like wouldn’t it be awesome if like a bunch of 1870s cowboys had to fight a bunch of crazy aliens with exoskeletons and spaceships and super-advanced weapons?”
Like perhaps. The hook was compelling enough to get someone to pony up a reported $160 million to find out and the result is a film in which the western and science-fiction genres don’t so much blend as violently collide. After the wreckage is cleared both emerge worse for wear.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan a stranger who awakens in the New Mexico Territory with a case of amnesia a wound in his side and a strange contraption strapped to his wrist. After dispatching a trio of bandits with Bourne-like efficiency he rides to the nearby town of Absolution where he stumbles on what appears to be an elaborate Western Iconography exhibit presented by the local historical preservation society. There’s the well-meaning town Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) struggling to enforce order amidst lawlessness; the greedy rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who really runs things; his debaucherous cowardly son Percy (Paul Dano); the timid saloonkeeper Doc (Sam Rockwell) who’s going to stand up for himself one of these days; the humble preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) dispensing homespun spiritual advice; et al.
Jake of course has his own part to play – the fugitive train-robber – as we discover when his face shows up on a wanted poster and a sneering Dolarhyde fingers him for the theft of his gold. The only character who doesn’t quite conform to type is Ella (Olivia Wilde) who as neither a prostitute nor some man’s wife – the traditional female occupations in westerns – immediately arouses suspicion.
Jake is arrested and ordered to stand trial in Federal court but before he can be shipped off a squadron of alien planes appears in the sky besieging Absolution and making off with several of its terrified citizenry. In the course of the melee Jake’s wrist contraption wherever it came from reveals itself to be quite useful in defense against the alien invaders. Thrown by circumstances into an uneasy alliance with Dolarhyde he helps organize a posse to counter the otherworldly threat – and bring back the abductees if possible.
Cowboys & Aliens has many of the ingredients of a solid summer blockbuster but none in sufficient amounts to rate in a summer season crowded with bigger-budget (and better-crafted) spectacle. For a film with five credited screenwriters Cowboys & Aliens’ script is sorely lacking for verve or imagination. And what happened to the Favreau of Iron Man? The playful cheekiness that made those films so much fun is all but absent in this film which takes itself much more seriously than any film called Cowboys & Aliens has a right to. Dude you’ve got men on horses with six-shooters battling laser-powered alien crab people. Lighten up.
Craig certainly looks the part of the western anti-hero – his only rival in the area of rugged handsomeness is Viggo Mortensen – but his character is reduced to little more than an angry glare. And Wilde the poor girl is burdened with loads of clunky exposition. The two show promising glimpses of a romantic spark but their relationship remains woefully underdeveloped. Faring far better is Ford who gets not only the bulk of the film’s choicest lines but also its only touching subplot in which his character’s adopted Indian son played by Adam Beach quietly coaxes the humanity out of the grizzled old man.
Charlie (Michael Douglas) has been a mess for quite a while. A jazz musician who has battled schizophrenia and manic depression for years has spent the last couple living in a mental hospital. His 16-year-old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has been living on her own in the family home (mom is long gone) having quit school and gone to work at McDonald’s to make ends meet. When Charlie is released and comes home the pair begins to tentatively rebuild their relationship. The good news is that Charlie is taking his meds and handling the real world reasonably well; the bad is that he’s developed an obsession with a legendary cache of Spanish gold doubloons reportedly buried near their dusty California home. When Charlie begins to convince Miranda that he really isn’t crazy--at least when it comes to the treasure--together they begin a Don Quixote-like journey that cements their fractured relationship back together. Forget Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko the ultra-smooth Wall Street guy or as dashing Jack Colton of Romancing the Stone fame. These days Douglas now 62 has said he needs a really good reason to leave his family so this role where he can play a scraggly bearded wild-eyed edge-of-nuts guy is just the ticket. Douglas gives one of his best performances ever as Charlie striking just the right balance of intellect insanity and inherent love for his no-longer-little girl. Plus the man whose on-screen persona has often been all about male vanity is anything but that in King of California. He’s a scrawny whippet of a guy rather than a hunky leading man and it’s a transformation that just may get him another Academy Award nomination. Meanwhile 20-year-old Evan Rachel Wood proves that she really is an acting force to be reckoned with giving a gently nuanced performance as a girl who has had to grow up way too soon yet still completely loves the father who has struggled to care for her as he struggles with his personal demons. First-time writer/director Mike Cahill has done a first-rate job of bringing this quirky funny and slightly poignant story to the screen. Perhaps the reason he’s been so successful is in the company he keeps. A film-school friend of Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (Sideways About Schmidt) Cahill enlisted his producing help for his film along with Payne’s Sideways partner Michael London. King of California bears Cahill’s own stamp however--a combination of terrific visuals that often make wry satiric statements deftly melded with an assortment of memorable characters and situations. Perhaps his biggest strength is in the casting of the film in his choice of the two talented actors who bring a believability and sense of real family ties to their roles. With King of California Cahill begins what looks to be a long and beautiful friendship with moviegoers who love to be transported to interesting and funny places.
Idi Amin was the ruthless dictator of the African nation of Uganda throughout much of the 1970s. He was ultimately blamed for thousands upon thousands of deaths (some estimates place the death toll in the hundreds of thousands) during his tenure. The Last King of Scotland is a fictionalized version of Amin’s (Forest Whitaker) reign of terror. Giddy after graduating from med school in Scotland Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) randomly picks Uganda to be his first post-college destination. When he gets there the locals are abuzz after the new leader has been sworn in and vows to right all that is wrong with the country. After a chance encounter with Amin Garrigan bears witness to his dichotomous personalities as the ruler goes from threatening to charming on a whim. Amin is so taken with the young doctor--and vice versa--that he invites Garrigan to become his personal physician. A doctor-patient relationship leads to close friendship and before long Garrigan is the very center of the dictator’s inner circle. And not long thereafter he learns that there is no worse place to be. For over 20 years now we’ve all bore witness to Whitaker’s mastery of acting. His choices have been eclectic and his performances consistently great but it’s always been a case of “And oh Forest Whitaker’s great too.” Until now. Whitaker makes what can only be described as an earthquake of an entrance. It’s clear in the movie when Amin will first appear and yet the actor still manages to catch us off-guard. Amin’s manic personalities are child’s play for Whitaker but he never has fun with it which is where other actors might have gone overboard. He is now leading the race for the Best Actor Oscar too. Not that the supporting players are too shabby though. McAvoy's (The Chronicles of Narnia) Garrigan is actually the heart of the story allowing for more screen time than Whitaker and the Scotsman soaks up every second. He sticks out like a sore thumb in the film but not only because he’s from the opposite side of the earth; it’s because McAvoy the actor makes sure to react differently to everything. In addition former X-File-r Gillian Anderson turns in a solid if short apperance--and you’ll be surprised how amazingly hot she is! Kerry Washington (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) as one of Amin’s countless neglected ex-wives is superb as well.
The contrast between Last King's first and second half is as night-and-day as Amin's personalities. In the first half director Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void) allows the story to simmer to the point of perfection; in the second half he gets sloppy as though in a rush to finish a different movie than the one he started. The ending also a mix of truth and fable (plucked from the highly acclaimed book by Giles Foden) quickly spirals towards its conclusion which is tough to watch for very different reasons. But prior to that--even at some points in the uneven second half--MacDonald paints a beautiful monster out of Amin. Maybe more importantly he paints a beautiful picture of African ambiance an indirect thank you to the Ugandan people that allowed unprecedented access to their country for the sake of Last King. Even with MacDonald's occasional blunders it's hard to deny the power of his film.
Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector opens with a man scratching his plumber’s-crack re-using a cotton swab to clean his ear and wearing the sleeveless shirt he uses as a towel. Naturally this is Larry (the Cable Guy) a health inspector. Halfheartedly inspecting the local food joints he’s leading the life that suits him well. But when his boss (Thomas F. Wilson) assigns him a serious-minded female partner (Iris Bahr) his world is turned upside down--or at least made less comfy. Larry’s called in to investigate “some fartin’ Jewish folks” at a swankier restaurant and learns that it’s not an isolated incident. While Larry’s unorthodox methods manage to arouse the interest of a waitress (Megyn Price) with bowel habits that he adores his tactics arouse the ire of the restaurateurs he investigates and it costs him his job. Now he’s forced to do whatever it takes to prove his innocence. Even the D-listers here must’ve gone straight to confession upon accepting these roles to help cushion their bank accounts. Let’s start with Larry the Cable Guy (of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour “Git-R-Done” fame) who is one of the most successful stand-up comics today. He’s right in his element seemingly with fart blanche on toilet humor but to the unconverted he’s a little more than grating. Speaking of grating the (hopefully) affected voice of Bahr makes the movie mostly unlistenable in addition to being unwatchable. But take pity on her for this is no way to jumpstart a movie career. Tony Hale clearly still reeling from the potential cancellation of TV’s Arrested Development (on which he plays Buster) also lowers his star and integrity with an ambiguous character here. And Joe Pantoliano shows his face. The once great character actor reaches a new low with this one even if his performance isn’t all bad. Health Inspector masters the art of the fart. But more disgusting than the settings with which the farts are juxtaposed is the ad nauseam (pun intended) level of over-usage. So congratulations go to along with fart Yoda Larry the Cable Guy director Trent Cooper who makes his feature directorial debut. And might we add what a fart-tastic debut it is! But it’s not all farts ladies and gentleman--all forms of gross-out humor are exploited unlike ever before. On the er serious side the collection of running jokes adds to a few legit laughs. Cooper helms a story that naturally doesn’t work deferring instead to Larry’s natural um charisma. The script offers no segue into Larry’s stand-up persona but anyone who sees this here flick ain’t lookin’ for no dang Oscar winner. Clearly Health Inspector will appeal to Larry’s following but is not meant for those of sound mind.
Don Johnston (Murray)--yes he often gets the allusion to Melanie Griffith's ex but he's tired of hearing it by now--has just been left by yet another girlfriend (Julie Delpy). He doesn't really mind one way or the other. In fact he doesn't have much emotion towards any aspect of his life except for perhaps lying on the couch watching his TV and listening to his offbeat music. Even when receives an anonymous letter in the mail from an ex-lover telling him that he has a now-grown son he shrugs it off. But once his quasi-sleuth neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) gets wind of this he spurs Don on to investigate further. And so the journey begins with Don embarking on a cross-country trek to find the writer of the letter. He revisits his old flames: a widow (Sharon Stone) who's raising a daughter (aptly) named Lolita; an animal communicator (Jessica Lange) with a thriving "practice"; a rather sterile real estate agent (Six Feet Under's Frances Conroy) who's loath to recall her past; and a country bumpkin (Tilda Swinton) resistant to Don's inquiries. Fed up and weary Don returns home to his comfortable misery much to Winston's dismay. But a chance encounter around town sends Don spinning in circles waking him up for the first time in eons.
Much has been said about the minimalist acting in Flowers. That could be because there is actually minimal acting in the film. Instead the focus is on what's not spoken. What's between the lines the dynamics between the characters and what's going on internally--and Murray is brilliant at it. The actor is at his deadpan-best. The neo-Murray embodies everything this man's past has reduced him to--without having to actually rehash said past. Of course we hate to say this since we've been disappointed in the past but Murray may get another good shot at winning his sought-after Oscar. As his partner in crime the always dazzling Wright (HBO's Angels in America)--the Stanley Kubrick of actors who chooses roles that will not compromise his artistic integrity--provides all the overt comedy and interactions we might have expected from Murray. It's a flawless performance. As Don's four ex-flames the actresses' collective screen time are short but necessarily succinct. Most noteworthy among them is Swinton a native Brit who is utterly unrecognizable as Don's backwoods ex.
Writer-director Jim Jarmusch is truly in a class of his own. The auteur with highly eclectic tastes who is also revered in the indie cult community puts out movies few and far between. But he's always prided himself on the fact his films such as Coffee and Cigarettes and Stranger Than Paradise are limited only to his arthouse devotees. Yet with Flowers there has been some trepidation from even his most faithful that this film may be his most mainstream to date. Heaven forbid! It still doesn't detract from the film's brilliance. As with most of Jarmusch's pieces Flowers' central core is discovering the beauty in the mundane. And anyone who thinks Jarmusch may have sold out will be put into their places after seeing the film's most-divisive climax--an ending that is far from the cut-and-dry sweetness to most audiences are accustomed. The writer-director also demonstrates an uncanny ability to tap into Murray's dry sense of humor and cynical outlook on life better than other director. Having previously worked together in Cigarettes we can only hope that the collaboration of Murray and Jarmusch becomes the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton of indie world.