EW review: 'Kicking' saved by Ferrell
Film scarcely deserves comic's inspired performance
By Owen Gleiberman
(Entertainment Weekly) -- Few could have predicted that Bill Murray, Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler would ever be taken seriously as actors, so hear me out when I say that Will Ferrell, over the next decade, could make a similar transformation.
You get the latest hint of that deeper, committed talent -- the humanist behind the prankster's mask -- in "Kicking & Screaming," even if the movie itself is just a klutzy, broad and genially dumbed-down kiddie-sports comedy.
As Phil Weston, a wimpy suburban vitamin salesman who becomes the maniacally competitive coach of his 10-year-old's soccer team, Ferrell takes a character who was probably never much more than a concept on a screenwriter's Post-it note and invests it with a buzz of desperation and anger, a mild-guy-goes-nutzoid arc it scarcely deserved.
Playing Phil the emasculated New Millennium Dad, ridiculed by his macho-jock father (Robert Duvall), Ferrell makes himself into the clown prince of girlyman domestic masochism.
When Phil's own son, Sam (Dylan McLaughlin), joins the Tigers, a team of local losers, Phil steps forward to coach, if only because no one else will take the job. Attempting to whip a bunch of outcasts -- a worm eater, a hippie nerd and so forth -- into shape, he guzzles coffee the way that Beavis once did cappuccino, using the caffeine high to catapult himself into a kind of tough-dad catharsis.
Ferrell weeps like a baby; he bares his jelly belly in a tetherball death match; he vents the frustration of the damned by spitting out phrases like ''mother of pearl!''; he even blurts '90s techno-pop so that the soundtrack doesn't have to.
"Kicking & Screaming" may be a prefab cartoon out of the "Bad News Bears" cookie cutter, but Ferrell doesn't just save this junk -- he rules it.
EW Grade: B-
Reviewed by Gregory Kirschling
Bounding out of the gate like a greyhound, "Unleashed" needs only its first 30 seconds or so to elevate itself well above the average action potboiler.
Bob Hoskins is Bart, a Glasgow gangster with fireballs for eyes, and in the opening moments he snarls, ''Get 'em!'' at Jet Li's Danny, his brainwashed strong-arm.
According to the hilarious, risky chutzpah of the movie's bonkers conceit, Danny is a sleeping Doberman. Just take off his dog collar and he leaps into action, here first against a warehouse full of henchmen, tommy-gunning them with his fists, head-butting incoming punches and tossing furniture across the room with not much more than a shake of his hips.
Furiously choreographed by the go-to guy for this sort of thing, Yuen Wo Ping, this lightning-round opening salvo amazes in a way few movie mortal combats manage anymore. And it's just the first of three or four gangbusters action sequences, all of which are unexpectedly stomach-clenching.
When the collar is on, Danny is just a forlorn little pup staring askance out the backseat window while his master barks at him. (If Li logged any research time hanging out at kennels, it's paid off. In non-attack mode, he lends the movie true heart.)
One day, after a stunning car ambush, Danny roams off Bart's chain and ends up getting nursed toward normal mental health (he eats ice cream, he obsesses over his long-lost mother, he embraces pacifism) by Morgan Freeman's blind piano tuner and Kerry Condon's loopy teen.
The goopy awww factor here gets awfully high, especially for a violent martial-arts movie, but the only real problem with these scenes -- written by "The Professional's" Luc Besson, who also produced -- is that they keep Hoskins off screen for a bit too long. His Bart is the king pit bull of the block, and he tears into the role as if it were a lamb chop.
He's one of the best villains to saunter along since Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast."
EW Grade: A-
Reviewed by Scott Brown
With "Deep Blue Sea," director Renny Harlin set the B-thriller bar pretty high. The Finnish auteur who gave us smart sharks (not to mention the most elegantly truncated Samuel L. Jackson monologue on record) now riffs on "Ten Little Indians," with each potential victim/killer a fresh-faced profiler cadet.
In "Mindhunters," what begins as a routine FBI training session on (naturally) a remote island quickly turns into an unscheduled bloodbath: One by one, the trainees are picked off by a killer who's almost certainly one of them. (Or possibly their mentor, a barely there Val Kilmer.)
Given the psycho's methods -- elaborate stratagems involving dominoes, liquid nitrogen, creeeepy kiddie music, etc. -- one suspects either Rube Goldberg or a video-store clerk. The twists in movies like these have become exercises in schlock math (subtract a character, divide by running time, add a red-herring cliche), and the revelations bring no more satisfaction than consulting an answer key.
What does satisfy is the pleasantly becalming presence of "Deep" costar LL Cool J. He's fast becoming Liv Ullmann to Harlin's Bergman.
EW Grade: C+
'Ladies in Lavender'
Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum
The way one raises an eyebrow and the other pulls in her chin may be reason enough for those in the right mood to indulge in "Ladies in Lavender."
The champion eyebrow waggler, after all, is Dame Maggie Smith, the unbeatable chin puller is Dame Judi Dench, and you know how the saying goes, the two thespian lovelies would enchant just reading the phone book, and yada yada yada.
Alas, since this re-creation of a period-piece dainty is set in Cornwall, England, in 1936, with a rumor of war in the air, there are no phone books to be consulted. But there is a handsome Polish stranger (Daniel Bruhl), who washes up on the shore of the beachy cottage inhabited by a widow (Smith) and her spinster sister (Dench), setting both hearts aflutter in different ways as they nurse the injured young man. Natascha McElhone plays an artsy, foreign-born siren who, the ladies decide, is up to no good.
In adapting a story by Edwardian-era writer William J. Locke for his directorial debut, "Jewel in the Crown" royalty Charles Dance favors cap-Q Quaint scenes of villagers hoisting pints and dancing in pubs. His cinematic style mixes the scent of mothballs with that of the lavender in which these ladies are preserved.
EW Grade: B-
Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman
Daniel Craig stars in "Layer Cake."
The English actor Daniel Craig has the rare face that can look dashing and tormented at the same time. He's sexy in a hollow-cheeked, almost depressive way, like Steve McQueen after too many days on the Atkins diet, and his eyes -- a set of steely blues -- are as piercing as Peter Weller's were in RoboCop.
In "Layer Cake," the fast, convulsive and densely exciting new British gangster thriller, Craig plays a London cocaine dealer, never named, who is forced to put his most ruthless underworld survival tactics to the test. The movie is organized around a reality that most gangster dramas (though not "The Sopranos") repress: the high anxiety of the criminal life.
Written by J.J. Connolly, who adapted his own novel, this is the first film directed by Matthew Vaughn, who was Guy Ritchie's producer on "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," and even if you thought that those films were all vacuous, tricked-up kinetic flash, you won't want to miss "Layer Cake." A twisty film noir in daylight, with enough spinning time leaps to keep you on the edge of your mind and seat, it's like a Guy Ritchie movie with a brain. It's also the most crackerjack entertainment I've seen so far this year.
At the center of "Layer Cake" is a crook who isn't quite a gangster -- at least, not yet. Craig's character is a deadpan yuppie of the streets, a stealth opportunist who grooves on the easiness of cocaine money. As he talks to us in voice-over, confiding the tricks of the trade (and his secret plan to leave it all behind) with a seductive aplomb that recalls Ray Liotta's at the kickoff of "GoodFellas," we think: This guy knows it all -- the odds and the angles.
Actually, he knows next to nothing. Summoned to a meeting with Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), his shark-grinned rotter of a boss, Craig is given a pair of booby-trapped assignments. He's to track down the runaway daughter of Jimmy's associate and purchase and distribute a million Ecstasy pills from the disreputable Duke (Jamie Foreman).
Jimmy, it turns out, has dastardly reasons for wanting the daughter found, and the pills have been stolen -- from a ruthless Serb who'll stop at nothing to get them back. By doing no more than following orders, Craig is in a deep jam.
He meets every dilemma with fierce finesse, yet whether he's turning himself into a balletic assassin of the night or engineering a sting that pulls the rug out from under the audience, the movie lets us see his invisible sweat.
Vaughn stages one tautly electric scene after the next, serving up such memorable hooligans as a ghostly Serbian hitman who's a step ahead of you even when you think you're two steps ahead of him; Colm Meaney and George Harris as Craig's viciously loyal henchmen (one gets off on guns, the other revenge); and the great Michael Gambon as a silky philosophic Mr. Big who's at once a gentleman and the dirtiest of double-crossers.
"Layer Cake" doesn't divorce criminality from cool, but by the end of its bravura display of underworld grace under pressure, only a fool would envy these blokes their cutthroat lives.
EW Grade: A
Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum
One adult sibling, Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), is the designated screwup in the gripping, politically grounded family drama "Brothers." The other, Michael ("Kingdom of Heaven's" Ulrich Thomsen), is the good son, a responsible husband and father whose duty as a Danish military man sends him to Afghanistan.
When his helicopter crashes, Michael is presumed dead, leaving behind a grieving wife, Sarah ("Gladiator" star Connie Nielsen), and two young daughters. And in Michael's absence, Jannik -- just recently out of prison, a drinker, a flake -- finds a new sense of purpose, and emotional connection, in helping Sarah and the girls.
To say more would erode the power of director Susanne Bier's expressive storytelling, which accomplishes the rare feat of believably incorporating violence in another part of the world into an intimate study of shifting domestic relationships. We do live in a fraught world of interconnections, Bier makes clear, and what happens far away matters, in unexpected ways, close to home.
The fine script is by Anders Thomas Jensen, who also wrote Bier's lovely previous film, "Open Hearts." In that one, the filmmaker set herself the challenge of employing Dogma aesthetics without harping on Dogma aesthetics. Now (unDogmatically) as then, her interest is first and foremost in action and consequence -- in things that matter.
EW Grade: A
'Funny Ha Ha'
Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman
The pauses and stammers, the thoughts that roll over each other, the skittery spirit of disconnection -- for those, like me, who admire the films of John Cassavetes in theory but weary of them in execution, the trouble with his shaggy improv style is that it's realism italicized, made overstated in its understatement.
But time -- or conversation, at least -- may finally have caught up with him. Andrew Bujalski's "Funny Ha Ha," an ebullient sliver of a movie, follows a group of men and women in their early 20s, and for once the un-dialogue dialogue doesn't come off as an affectation.
It's the sound of the Tentative Generation -- slackers who stutter to look cute, then use a phrase like ''Got it!'' as a weapon. Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), smart but careerless, with a sensual curl to her lips, is caught between her desire for love and her girlish compulsion to show no aggression whatsoever. She's trapped in an abstract bohemia of the brain, and Dollenmayer makes her fumbling fragmentation a thing of awkward beauty.
EW Grade: B+
Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman
Gregg Araki has always been a filmmaker of extremes -- wilder! kinkier! campier! more! -- so perhaps it took a subject as extreme as pedophilia to move the director of "The Doom Generation" into creating his first work of feeling.
In "Mysterious Skin," two 8-year-old Kansas boys are abused in the summer of 1981 by their Little League coach (Bill Sage), a practiced seducer of children who has the creepy look of a jock-turned-Chippendales dancer.
The boys are marked in opposite ways: Brian (Brady Corbet), who entirely blanks out his night of hell, grows up into a stunted pasty nerd, convinced that he was abducted by aliens. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the coach's ''favorite,'' suffers both less and more, becoming the most insolent of teen hustlers, and Gordon-Levitt, who has the horsey, mean-eyed sensuality of a Larry Clark pinup, gives a remarkable performance.
"Mysterious Skin" dawdles more than it flows, but it comes alive whenever Araki, hovering between tragedy and voyeurism, reveals how sex can tear lives to pieces.
EW Grade: B+
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