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Friday, August 11, 2006
The summer movie review

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Did I ever tell you that August is my least favorite month? Nothing ever goes right for me in August. Look at this month: I got demolished in the WSOP; the Red Sox are swooning against the dregs of the American League; Team USA is quietly headed for another hoops disaster (strangely, nobody sees it coming); the sight of Adam Vinatieri in a Colts uniform makes me want to throw up; and the only three watchable shows on TV right now just featured (A) a skanky girl in a cocktail dress crapping on a flight of stairs; (B) someone splitting kings in Vegas when someone else had 300 grand on the table; and (C) a reality show that might be won by somebody named "Storm Large." I hate August.

But here's something that can cheer me up … that's right, it's my annual Summer Movie Review! Suck it up and let me babble about movies for 4,500 words. Just humor me. I don't ask for much.

Incredibly, I didn't see my first summer movie until late July, nearly 10 weeks after "Mission Impossible III" kicked off the season. (Important note: Cruise is out for me after the events of the past year -- I refuse to pay for his movies and can't even watch any of the old ones anymore except for "Cocktail," and only because his real-life craziness adds to the insanity of that movie, especially the scenes where young Flanagan sings his poetry or belts out the lyrics to "Addicted to Love" while juggling Absolut bottles. Clearly, Cruise was nuts this whole time and we never realized it. This is a whole other column.) "Pirates of Penzance" did nothing for me. "The Break-Up" was a complete ripoff of "War of the Roses," and even worse, nobody cared. My kid is still about a year too young for "Cars." Etc., etc. etc. Things were so bleak by mid-July that I almost caught the new Ed Burns movie before realizing that Burns is like Jerry Porter -- you think he's good, and he always goes higher in fantasy drafts than he should, but there's no real statistical evidence to back it up.

So what was my first summer movie? "The Devil Wears Prada." Yes, it was Date Night. But you know what? As far as chick flicks go, this was the most tolerable one since "Picture Perfect" (back when Aniston was in her absolute prime, right before she stopped eating carbs). That movie had everything: An appropriately ridiculous plot, smoking-hot female star, semi-likable male lead (Jay Mohr, back when it was OK to like Jay Mohr), and the always important chick flick lesson that it's OK for a woman to act utterly and completely insane as long as she's single and has a good job. But "Prada" isn't your typical chick flick because …

Anne Hathaway
We could have run a photo of Meryl Streep, but ... well, we went with Anne Hathaway instead.

1. No female character acts crazy;
2. Anyone who ever had a horrible boss can relate to the plot;
3. It's legitimately funny at times; and
4. Everyone's dressed up and everyone looks good at all times.

Now here's a chick flick I can support! It's like a really well-done "Melrose Place" episode. Meryl Streep plays the evil boss of a Vogue-like fashion magazine; Anne Hathaway plays her frumpy assistant who evolves into a high-class stunner and lets the clothes/lifestyle slowly corrupt her values. Streep is getting Oscar buzz (deservedly so), but the underrated Hathaway carries the movie in a much tougher role (shades of Cruise in "Rain Man"). She's at the same stage as Reese Witherspoon a few years ago -- she's been around for awhile now, she's an excellent actress, and most importantly, she's acceptably attractive. In other words, guys are attracted because of her, umm, curves, but she's somehow non-threatening to other women because she looks like Julia Roberts' younger, not-quite-as-cute sister who turns into a stunner after about five beers. You could even say out loud, "Hey, you know who's cute? That Anne Hathaway!" and they don't mind at all. Of course, if you said the same thing about Brittany Murphy or Heidi from "The Hills," F-bombs immediately start flying.

Anyway, Hathaway carries the film, Streep steals it, and it's definitely worth seeing -- if only for the scenes when Vince from "Entourage" (playing Hathaway's boyfriend) shows about as much range as Mark Loretta. Actually, every scene with Vince made me laugh out loud (to the point that people were turning around and glaring at me) … I kept waiting for him to break character and scream, "Ari, I told you, I'll handle it, don't worry about it!" while shrugging his shoulders and raising the palms of his hands. Maybe they saved that for the deleted scenes on the DVD.

Final Grade: A-minus

(Sports Gal's grade: A-triple-plus)


Let's be honest: "Talladega Nights" isn't a NASCAR parody as much as a well-disguised excuse to tweak everyone down South without them realizing it. It's funny to read the trades calling the $47 million opening weekend a "surprise hit." I mean, was there any doubt that this movie would be huge? What NASCAR fan wasn't going to see this movie? What Ferrell fan wasn't going? Come on.

There's a lot to like about "Talladega," including …

Ricky Bobby
The only thing missing from "Talladega Nights" was Ricky Bobby getting into a fight with Tony Stewart.

• Ferrell playing NASCAR star Ricky Bobby and doing tons of Will Ferrell stuff. Just think, eight years ago, this would have been a semi-watchable Adam Sandler movie that would have aged worse than Al Davis.

• John C. Reilly as Ricky's best friend, Cale Naughton Jr. Not only has Reilly's career been disappointing since "Boogie Nights" -- tons of crap roles along the lines of Costner's catcher in "For Love of the Game" and the boring cop in "Magnolia" -- he was about two more lean years away from joining the cast of "Law and Order" or something. It's amazing it took him this long to crack one of the Ferrell-Stiller-Vaughn-Wilson brothers comedies. Good to have him back.

• Sacha Baron Cohen as Ricky's archrival, a gay French driver with Perrier as his sponsor. It's going to take me about 10-15 years to decide if this performance worked for me … but it was definitely interesting.

• An eclectic supporting cast of accomplished names, including Gary Cole (a scene-stealer as Ricky's lowlife father), Jane Lynch (she's one of Those Ladies, you'll recognize her from "Best In Show"), Greg Germann, Leslie Bibb (Ricky's ridiculously hot wife), Molly Shannon (where's she been?), David Koechner, Amy Adams (weird to see her in a normal movie), Andy Richter, a surprisingly enjoyable Michael Clarke Duncan and others. Cole's performance was my favorite -- he's one of those guys who never quite made it and it's hard to figure out why (much like Frank Reich or Paul Westphal's NBA coaching career).

• This was a good big-screen movie because of the driving scenes -- driving movies on a 60-foot screen are always enjoyable, no matter how atrocious they are. (Even "Driven" was worth eight bucks on the big screen.) I should also mention that the Arclight (the greatest movie theater in America, as well as one of the top 10 reasons to live in Los Angeles) featured "Talladega" in the Arclight Dome, a special theater with stadium seating and a 100-foot, curved screen. It's practically an Imax theater, for God's sake. And you thought a matinee movie couldn't possibly be worth 11 bucks.

• Ferrell and writing partner/director Adam McKay loaded the movie with genuinely funny/ridiculous moments along the lines of the "You pooped in the refrigerator AND you ate a wheel of cheese? I'm not even mad, that's amazing" scene in "Anchorman." I probably laughed out loud 14-15 times. Considering that the state of American comedy is so crummy right now, 4-5 out-loud laughs is a victory at this point. This should also be an exceedingly rewatchable cable movie. At worst.

(Note: I don't want to spoil any of the bits, but my favorite was John C. Reilly's Playgirl confession. That slayed me.)

Yup, "Talladega" delivers the goods. No big surprise. But as I was leaving the theater, I couldn't help but wonder where Ferrell's career is headed. Comedians usually have a five-to-six-year run of success before one of two things happens: Either they make so much money that they stop hanging around normal people and inevitably lose their sense of what's funny and not funny (see: Murphy, Eddie or Sandler, Adam), or they experience too much success and decide to prove themselves as real actors because it's the only real challenge left. Tom Hanks pulled it off the best; Jim Carrey, Michael Keaton and Robin Williams had mixed results; Sandler has bombed so far; and Bill Murray transformed his career to the point that it's weird to see him in "Stripes" or "Meatballs" now (even though he can play only one character: Bill Murray). I see Ferrell shifting directions soon -- one more big-budget comedy, then a couple of serious projects (hopefully along the lines of "The Truman Show" and not "Razor's Edge"). And who knows? He might be able to pull it off. But it seems like just yesterday that I was watching Ferrell's first SNL episode at my buddy Grady's house and giggling at the "Get off the shed!" sketch.

(And by the way, Grady didn't think he was that funny. I think we even argued about it -- he will deny this to death now. But it's true. See, it wasn't that easy to predict Will Ferrell would be a star.)

Grade: B-plus


The "Miami Vice" movie scared me for three reasons: remakes never work, they were messing with my favorite '80s show, and they were messing with my favorite cop team of all time. But Michael Mann was involved. I mean, the man created "Vice," "Heat," "Last of the Mohicans," "Manhunter" and the so-underrated-you-can't-even-find-it-in-a-video-store classic "The Jericho Mile." If he wanted to remake "Vice," I had to support the man with my $11. It's that simple.

Miami Vice
Foxx and Farrell have about as much chemistry as Bonds and Kent.

And I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy the movie (sorry, double negative). I just didn't understand the point. When I say the movie had nothing to do with the TV show … I mean, the movie had NOTHING to do with the TV show. Here's what they had in common: A white cop named Sonny Crockett teams up with a black cop named Rico Tubbs to crack a drug case in Miami. That's it. Everything else was different. Everything. So why call it "Miami Vice"? Why not call it "Miami Heat" or "Miami Nights" or anything else with the word "Miami" in it?

For instance, let's say Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David decided, "All right, we're making a movie version of 'Seinfeld.'" Wouldn't you have a certain level of expectations for that movie? If you paid $11 and it turned out to be a movie where Seinfeld was a famous comic battling a drug problem, Elaine was his mean-spirited wife, Kramer was a friend from drug rehab trying to help him out, and George Costanza was a former NFL player who served as Jerry's bodyguard … and the movie was kinda funny, but totally different from any "Seinfeld" episode, only the movie was called "Seinfeld" … well, wouldn't you be a little confused? What's the point?

"Vice" was especially misleading because of Mann's involvement (giving the movie validity for "Vice" fans like myself) and Jamie Foxx, the perfect actor to capture Tubbs' lovable qualities (over-the-top charisma, big-time ladies man, goofy imitations, reliably good in the action scenes, a loyal sidekick to the bitter end). In the movie? Tubbs turns out to be humorless, charisma-less and devoid of anything distinguishable except for one of those billy goat goatees (like the one Caldwell Jones used to have). He also has no chemistry with Colin Farrell at all -- zero, none, zilch -- to the point that every time Foxx looks at him, you can almost see him thinking, "Wow, I can't believe this guy made it to the set today -- the last time I saw him, it was 5 a.m. and he was shotgunning a bottle of Bushmills and snorting blow off one of the extras!" What a waste of Jamie Foxx. It's unbelievable. They could have had Mos Def, 50 Cent, Andre 3000, Nelly or any other rapper-turned-actor play Tubbs and gotten the same result. Crazy.

Meanwhile, Farrell gives a decidedly uneven performance … you know, just like he does in every other Colin Farrell movie. As always, he mumbles his lines in a guttural monotone and appears to be nursing a serious hangover. (Note: It should come as no surprise that he entered drug rehab immediately after the filming ended -- and I mean, immediately, as in, "the following morning after they wrapped.") Don Johnson must have been delighted when he found out who was playing Sonny. Here's one of the Hall of Fame TV characters, Sonny Crockett, the last great smoking/drinking/wisecracking/philandering TV cop, a guy's guy to the bitter end, the guy who mastered the art of "cradling a dying friend in his arms and looking away helplessly in slow motion" … and they give the role to Colin Farrell? Who was the other choice, Josh Hartnett? Freddie Prinze Jr.?

So what's left, you ask? A sleek, humorless, dreary cop movie with no real connection to the TV show, save for the city and one speedboat scene when Sonny whisks a female Asian druglord (played by Gong Li, who may or may not have been attractive in this movie, it's been seven days and I still can't decide) to Cuba for a night of dancing, mojitos and unprotected sex. Now that's something that would have happened on the show. (By the way, there were so many mojito scenes in this movie that I almost expected to see "Mojito: Himself" in the closing credits. Do not see this movie if you're trying to quit drinking.) Even right before the inevitable, over-the-top, Mann-like shootout between the good guys and the bad guys (which pales in comparison to the bank robbery in "Heat"), Mann passes up the inevitable driving scene with Crockett and Tubbs with a goose-bump-inducing song in the background (even the semi-lame cover of "In the Air Tonight" would have worked for symmetry purposes). It's almost like Mann was intentionally trying to go in the opposite direction with every expectation you would have ever had with a "Miami Vice" movie. Why? You got me.

One bonus: The thought of Don Johnson and Phil Mike Thomas seeing this movie together on opening day, then high-fiving in delight on their way out of the theater while Thomas yelled out stuff like, "The legacy lives on!"

Grade: C-plus


Clerks 2
Yep, you see women like this working at your local fast-food joint every day.

After 12 years of Kevin Smith movies, you know what to expect at this point: Some funny scenes, some painful scenes, at least one classic pop culture riff, at least one truly atrocious acting performance, at least one "I can't believe he thought that was a good idea" scene, polarizing debates on any message board that discusses him, and just enough quality material to keep you coming back for the next one. I've paid to see every Smith movie in the theater -- with the exception of "Jersey Girl" -- and always leave feeling the same way: torn. In fact, I almost didn't want to see "Clerks 2" for this very reason. In the end, I couldn't resist.

Here's the thing: You can't complain if you know what you're getting and keep coming back for more. With Smith, the plusses always outweigh the minuses and I'm willing to put up with some bad decisions (and he always has two or three) for the sake of the larger good (like Randal's phenomenal "Lord of the Rings" riff in the sequel). Strangely, even Smith's book played out that way -- a collection of weird, eclectic essays about Hollywood that were haphazardly edited together, only there was just enough meat in there to keep me plowing through it. His defining movie should have been "Chasing Amy" except for his head-scratching decision to have Jason Lee and Ben Affleck nearly go Brokeback at the film's climax. I hated that ending. HATED it. But you know what? I own that movie on DVD. You figure it out. I can't wait for the season when Smith makes a semi-disappointing, exceedingly watchable three-episode arc on "Entourage" -- it will be like two semi-entertaining worlds colliding.

Still, "Clerks" remains his defining movie, the indie classic about 20-something slackers working behind the counter of a Quik Stop in Jersey. At the time, we forgave the subpar production and crummy acting because Smith made the movie for $28,000; there was real art to what he pulled off given the limitations. (You could make a strong case that he made the funniest home movie ever.) But the same quality that made the original so endearing ends up hurting the sequel -- namely, that the guys playing Dante and Randal (the slacker leads) are porn-level actors. (Note: Randal is better than Dante, but that's like saying that Rudy Seanez is better than Julian Tavarez.) And I'm not sure what Smith could have done here. His career doesn't happen without "Clerks." From a karma standpoint, making "Clerks 2" without the original leads wouldn't have been right. Then again, he's also not operating with a $28,000 budget anymore. He could have gotten real actors for those roles, funny actors, actors I might want to see on a big screen, actors who actually bring something to the table without making you cringe half the time.

So what's the answer? Probably what Smith ended up doing: sucking it up for karma purposes, casting the original guys, having a blast filming the movie and accepting the B-minus ceiling. To put everything in perspective, Rosario Dawson plays Dante's pseudo-mistress in the sequel -- like she would ever fall for a burger flipper who looks like Dante -- and absolutely BLOWS EVERYONE ELSE OFF THE SCREEN for 90 straight minutes. She's like the Hispanic Meryl Streep in this thing. Should she be blowing anyone off the screen in a movie where she's never topless? I think not.

One other problem: It's fine to be a slacker in your 20s … but when it's still happening in your 30s, you're not a slacker, you're a loser. Big difference. The movie never truly deals with that question until the end, and even then, it almost seems thrown in, like the Weinsteins ordered them to address it after production ended. It's hard to nitpick with a movie that includes a bestiality scene, so I won't even try. "Clerks 2" plays out just like you would think -- incredibly vulgar, funny at times, painful at other times (the climax in the jail cell was excruciating), poorly acted, self-indulgent (did we really need an Affleck cameo?) and just entertaining enough that it makes up for every other problem. Then again, I will support any movie that includes one of the characters repeatedly reenacting Buffalo Bill's cross-dressing scene in "Silence of the Lambs" (right down to the creepy song). That was brilliant. OK, maybe not brilliant. But it made me laugh. And not enough movies make me laugh anymore.

As for the Sports Gal, here was her take as we were leaving: "I don't know if I feel sick because of that movie, or because of the corn dog, the popcorn and the milk duds." And yes, that's an actual quote.

Grade: B-minus

The Sports Gal's take: D-plus


As for our final movie, "Invincible" doesn't come out until Aug. 25, but I weaseled my way into an afternoon press screening on the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank. Before I moved out here, I always imagined these advance screenings were high-class affairs -- you parked on the lot, then they chaffeured you around in a fancy golf cart and showed you the productions of different movies, finally bringing you to some state-of-the-art screening theater where you watched the movie and dined on cocktails and shellfish.

In real life? You show up at the front entrance of the lot, a security guard tells you, "Park over there (pointing to his right), the theater is over there (pointing to his left)," then you park and wander around aimlessly on this giant Hollywood lot for about 20 minutes (it's like being lost in an amusement park), until you eventually run into two more people also wandering around and wondering why every building looks the same, and eventually, you evolve into this herd of people holding notebooks and wandering aimlessly around until you finally find the right building, only it has three floors and no signs telling you where to go, so you wander around some more until you stumble across the PR people standing outside the screening room who are just friendly enough that you hold off on making one of those sarcastic "thanks for the great directions"-type remarks. And the actual theater is tiny, with uncomfortable seats and a small screen, and there's no popcorn, candy or soda ever, ever, EVER, under any circumstances. Although there's always a 75-page booklet that tells you everything you would ever want to know about the movie. I feel like you need to know these things.

So I was in rare form when the movie started -- sweaty, pissed off, already mulling ways to skewer a crummy Disney football movie in this column that runs on a Web site owned by Disney (just as tough a task as you would think). But then something incredible happened. The movie started …

And …

Well …

Invincible
Philly just loves an underdog story.

It was really good. I mean, right off the bat.

Who woulda thunk? Mark Walhberg plays Vince Papale, a 30-year-old Philly bartender/teacher who moonlights as the best guy in his weekly tackle football game and dreams of playing for the Eagles. (Bonus points because this guy actually existed -- the real Papale ended up becoming a special teams ace for the Eagles for three years, although the movie takes some liberties with his story.) As soon as I saw Marky Mark in another one of those Dirk Diggler wigs, I got one of those Jack Horner looks on my face -- I knew there was a great sports movie in his pants just itching to get out. And I was almost right.

We start rooting for Vince as soon as his wife dumps him in the second scene; fortunately, she never comes back when things turn around like Gabe Kaplan's bandwagon wife in "Fast Break," or even Adrian in "Rocky 4." Fortunately, he still has his buddies from the bar, a bunch of Philly sad sacks/sports nuts (shades of the first "Rocky") led by his best friend, the guy who once played Miguel Alvarez on "Oz." And 20 minutes into the movie, Elizabeth Banks (my favorite Hollywood actress who hasn't become famous yet) starts waitressing there, playing the adorable cousin of the owner who doubles as a humongous Giants fan and football buff.

(Note: That's a classic ridiculous Hollywood subplot -- the ugly bar owner who's somehow related to a beautiful single woman in her mid-20s who loves sports, has a great sense of humor and enjoys hanging out with loser locals at a bar. Like that person exists. And if that wasn't unrealistic enough, they have the gall to make her an extremely attractive, naturally blonde Giants fan? Why not just cast Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster?)

And just when poor Vince loses his teaching job and seems irrevocably down on his luck, new Philly coach Dick Vermeil (played by Greg Kinnear, who officially has the most peculiar IMDB.com profile in Hollywood now) announces that he's holding tryouts for anyone who wants to try out for the Eagles. That's right, anyone. Even 30-year-old bartenders wearing '70s wigs. And you can guess what happens next. In fact, I won't spoil it for you. But I will tell you this much …

• This movie has MULTIPLE chill scenes (four by my count). Even a speech gave me chills (the pep talk from his dad).

• Not only are the football scenes believable, you don't care that Wahlberg is probably 5-foot-9 in real life (and I'm being generous). Then again, if Sean Astin can play a Notre Dame football player and a hobbit in a 10-year span, anything's possible in a sports movie at this point.

• Wahlberg has three successful acting personalities: Beaten Down But Serenely Confident (first hour of "Boogie Nights"), Cool, Cocky & Flashy (second hour of "Boogie Nights"), Strung Out & Scared (the Sister Christian scene in "Boogie Nights"). If he's trying to play anything other than those three types, we're in trouble (rent "Rock Star" and "Planet of the Apes," you'll see what I mean). But he's in "first hour of "Boogie Nights"/Eddie Adams" mode for the entire movie here. Right in his wheelhouse. Did I want him to start screaming at Vermeil, "You're not the boss of me! You're not the boss of me!" during the scene when Vermeil chewed him out for a missed tackle near the end? Of course. That goes without saying. But he's come a long way since the "Good Vibrations" video, you have to admit.

• I liked Kinnear's portrayal of Vermeil, but he doesn't cry once. How is that possible? There better be a deleted scene on the DVD when he's bawling like a baby in the locker room. And while we're here, can we have a director's commentary where Vermeil alternately comments and sobs as he watches the movie?

• Did I mention that Elizabeth Banks is going to be a huge star? When you can pull off the Token Hot Chick role in a sports movie and actually bring something to the table, you've accomplished something. She's great. As always.

• Thanks to CGI, any football scene in any crowded stadium is officially awesome. Totally realistic. We need to re-do every crowd scene from every sports movie in the '70s and '80s with CGI. Let's get on this.

• I need to research this a little more, but there's a good chance that "Invincible" broke "Slapshot"'s Hideous Facial Hair record for a sports movie. That's always fun.

So what were the problems with "Invincible"? I had three. First, as much as I enjoyed the '70s soundtrack, the instrumental music during games that was supposed to give me goose bumps just didn't cut it. (Inexcusable. You can't drop the ball on the goose-bump music.) Second, if you're going to have his Eagle teammates riding him throughout the movie, you HAVE to give me the scene later on when they accept him. (And I'm not talking about a hug on the sidelines -- I'm talking about one of those "You're all right, white boy" scenes at 3 a.m. after about 20 beers in someone's hotel room. These things make me happy.) And third, the ending didn't quite work for me -- a little too improbable for a "based on a real life" story, filmed too tightly, disappointing payoff. It just fell flat. I was slightly bummed out. And then the movie suddenly ended like how the Red Sox games end on the Extra Innings package, where they're still shaking hands and suddenly you're staring at the "Thank You For Watching Comcast" graphic. I hate that.

For now, I'm slapping this one with the "very good, not great" tag. For the official verdict, we'll have to wait until HBO is showing it 900 times next August. In the meantime, I urge every Philly sports fan to see this movie -- you'll love the old Eagles footage, you'll love the scenes of Philly fans doing the whole down-in-the-dumps-at-a-bar thing, you'll love the footage of the city, and you even get a happy ending for once. Enjoy.

Grade: A-minus

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.