ALL THE KING’S MEN An adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the solid 1949 movie version of All the King’s Men has found its standing diminished over the passage of time; even with a handful of Oscars to its name (including Best Picture), it’s rarely brought up when discussing the notable films of 50-odd years ago. Still, it doubtless will beat the life expectancy of the new screen take on All the King’s Men, as it’s hard to imagine anyone discussing this bomb 50 days from now. Warren’s book centered on boisterous, larger-than-life governor Willie Stark, but really it was just a thinly disguised look at the career of Louisiana politician Huey Long. If high school memory serves me, the novel spent more time on Willie’s right-hand man, former newspaper reporter Jack Burden, yet still presented Long as such a dynamic figure that the roles were essentially balanced. In crafting his 1949 feature, writer-director Robert Rossen wisely made Willie Stark the unequivocal central character, with Burden relegated to the sidekick part of conflicted narrator. The earlier film is by no means perfect, yet Rossen did a masterful job with the exposition. Steven Zaillian’s new film is an unmitigated disaster, choked by miscast actors, suffocated by illogical editing and drowned by a choppy script that offers no real sense of period (oddly, the time frame has been shifted from the 1930s to the 1950s) and no clear delineation of its central themes. Let’s start with the grotesque miscasting of Sean Penn as Willie Stark. Broderick Crawford earned the Best Actor Oscar for his turn as Willie, and while that might have been an overly generous gesture on the part of the Academy, there’s no denying that Crawford’s bluster and burly frame were perfect for the role of a self-proclaimed “hick” whose folksy charms endeared him to his state’s rural population. West Coast kid Penn, on the other hand, is about as folksy as a Manhattan Starbucks, and never mind that he looks nothing like Stark model Huey Long. This is one of Penn’s worst performances, second only to his shameless “Look, Ma, I’m retarded!” showboating in I Am Sam; even his pompadour hair is miscast. While Brits are renowned for their ability to mimic Southern accents (for starters, think Vivien Leigh as either Scarlett or Blanche), the ones employed here -- excellent actors, all -- barely even make an effort to merge into the setting. Jude Law (as Burden) and Anthony Hopkins seem bored; Kate Winslet merely seems lost.
THE BLACK DAHLIA Until it derails while heading into its final turn, The Black Dahlia represents Brian De Palma’s most assured moviemaking in at least a decade, a glorious and gritty neo-noir which reminds us that only Scorsese and maybe a couple of others can match this maverick filmmaker when it comes to astonishing feats of technical derring-do. Based on the novel by James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), it presents a fictionalized take on the real-life slaying of Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short (touchingly played by Mia Kirshner). Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are the cops on the case, with Lee’s girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson) and the mysterious society woman Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) set up as the potential femme fatales. Working from Josh Friedman’s sharp screenplay and backed by tremendous production values, DePalma spins a compelling murder-mystery that clicks until the last act, at which point the movie madly dashes through its messy resolutions, pausing only long enough to succumb to some ill-placed camp. Yet even if the movie had kept its head from start to finish, it still wouldn’t have survived some critical miscasting. Along with Kirshner, Eckhart takes top acting honors, infusing Lee with a sense of moral indignity that might potentially run counter to some less savory qualities. Johansson and Swank are adequate as the women in the cops’ lives, though neither brings enough force of personality to their respective parts to truly make them their own. But it’s the selection of Hartnett that immediately sabotages this picture’s chances at complete success. His Bucky Bleichert doesn’t seem like a detective as much as a Boy Scout shilling for a sleuthing merit badge. But factor in Hartnett’s complete inability to project anything more than glazed befuddlement, and The Black Dahlia has a cavernous hole right where its noir heart should beat.
THE GUARDIAN Isn’t it too soon to be subjected to another showing of Flyboys all over again? At least that’s the sense of deja vu that settled in after viewing the two films in consecutive weeks. Here we have the same running time (an overextended 135 minutes), the same degree of quality in the CGI work (impressive), and the same fortune-cookie-level pontificating about the need for sacrifice, bravery and personal responsibility. Even more than Flyboys, though, this resembles An Officer and a Gentleman, right down to the scene where our handsome hero bursts into his girlfriend’s place of employment to declare his everlasting love (sign of the times: Instead of the Oscar-winning “Up Where We Belong,” the soundtrack swells with a treacly Bryan Adams tune). Kevin Costner plays Louis Gossett Jr., the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer instructor whose tough-love approach to training works wonders for the young recruits; Ashton Kutcher is Richard Gere, a narcissistic pretty-boy student more interested in making a name for himself and romancing the local cutie (Melissa Sagemiller) than in actually saving lives. For a long while, The Guardian wears its cliches pretty well, but because this is a Kevin Costner film -- and because Costner spends more time playing mythic, larger-than-life Christ figures instead of ordinary mortals -- we sense this can only end one way. Director Andrew Davis and scripter Ron L. Brinkerhoff tease us by hinting that the final act might actually stray from its preordained path, but no: When push comes to shove, the pair pummel us with the shameless ending we dreaded from the minute the opening credits appeared on the screen.
THE LAST KISS A major award winner both at Sundance and in its Italian homeland, 2001’s The Last Kiss (L’Ultimo Bacio) tackles the topic of relationships in such a straightforward and emotionally honest manner that by the end, it’s impossible to ascertain whether the film is, at its core, deeply pessimistic or quietly hopeful. An American remake would naturally be expected to dumb down the entire experience. But that’s not exactly what happens with the new stateside take on The Last Kiss. To a startling degree, this version retains many of the prickly elements that made the original so memorable; it only falters at the very end, and even then by a far lesser degree than one would reasonably expect. The Last Kiss places its primary focus on the relationship between Michael (Zach Braff) and Jenna (Jacinda Barrett). Michael is about to turn 30 and elects to have his mid-life crisis about a decade earlier than planned. He’s deeply in love with his longtime girlfriend Jenna, but once she announces that she’s pregnant, he freaks out, deciding that he’s not prepared to cope with either being a husband or being a father. Kim (Rachel Bilson), a college student who’s perpetually perky, spots Michael at a wedding and is instantly attracted to him. Initially, Michael feebly fights off her advances, but soon he’s the one dropping by the campus to see her and making plans to go with her to a party. The situations presented here are strikingly similar to the ones on display in the Italian original, which means that this film rarely backs away from confronting thorny situations head-on. If there’s a key difference, it’s in the personalities of these various players. The characters in L’Ultimo Bacio felt in every sense like real adults, grown people with a passion for life and, for the most part, a determination to ultimately face up to their own shortcomings. This latest Kiss, on the other hand, fits more comfortably into the niche of recent films that portray the American male as a man-child incapable of achieving and/or sustaining the level of maturity and clear-eyed vision enjoyed by his female counterpart. The final sequence is more open-ended than what’s typically served up in American films of this nature, yet I still found myself wishing it had gone farther. It’s been 3-1/2 years since I’ve seen L’Ultimo Bacio, yet what’s stuck with me the most is the nicely ambiguous coda that not only drolly illustrates the dilemma of keeping any given relationship perennially fresh but also beautifully tips the balance in the story’s central skirmish between the sexes. The Last Kiss inexplicably lops off this epilogue, and it’s a regrettable omission. In this instance, imitation wouldn’t just have been the sincerest form of flattery; it would also have been the most honest.
TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY Like Spam, energy drinks and the music of Yanni, Will Ferrell is one of those acquired tastes that satisfy devotees while perplexing everyone else. While some folks swear by his 2004 starring vehicle Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, I’m not one of them. This one-note movie struck me as annoying rather than amusing, meaning I wasn’t exactly anticipating Ferrell and director Adam McKay reteaming for a comedy about a NASCAR redneck. My mistake. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is often uproarious, and it’s clever in a way that Anchorman rarely attempted. Like Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby is also an egotistical, none-too-bright boor. “I piss excellence,” he declares, and his standing as NASCAR’s best driver certainly signals that he’s excellent at something. He has a best friend (John C. Reilly) who’s even dumber than he is, a blonde trophy wife (Leslie Bibb) who’s always looking to get ahead, and two obnoxious sons named Walker and Texas Ranger (“But we call him TR for short”). Ricky has spent his life trying to work out issues with his deadbeat dad (Gary Cole, delivering the film’s shrewdest comic performance), but that doesn’t excuse his repellent behavior and the way he takes everyone and everything for granted. Clearly, Ricky Bobby is primed to receive a comeuppance, and it arrives in the form of Jean Girard (hilarious Sacha Baron Cohen), a French homosexual race car driver whose prowess on the track leads to Ricky’s fall from grace and his subsequent (and humbled) climb back to the top.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST At 145 minutes, Dead Man’s Chest ends up providing too much bang for the buck. That’s just about the same running time as its predecessor, but that film wore its length better, given that the screenplay had its hands full establishing setting, introducing characters, hammering out its weighty plot, and still finding time to include action scenes in the best swashbuckling tradition. Certainly, those expecting amazing feats of derring-do won’t be disappointed by this new film. The effects-driven action scenes are clearly the picture’s highlights, and they alone make Dead Man’s Chest worth the price of admission.