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Brosnan shows comedic chops

By Lady Liberty
web posted January 30, 2006


* 1/2 out of ****

AnnapolisI'd been seeing trailers for Annapolis at the theatre for the past several months, and it looked interesting. I like James Franco. I love military movies. On the surface, it made perfect sense for me to buy a ticket. Unfortunately, the surface was all that there was and Annapolis proved to be very shallow indeed.

Annapolis focuses on the trials and tribulations of a particular group of plebes (first year students) at the US Naval Academy which happens to be in Annapolis, Maryland. One of this year's plebes is the fractious Jake Huard (James Franco). Huard makes his living as a welder at a local shipyard where his father (Brian Goodman) is his boss. But the dream of his dead mother and of Huard himself since her death has been to be accepted at the Academy.

Though his grades aren't the greatest, his persistence lands him on a waiting list at the academy. And when some other students can't accept their commissions for whatever reason, Huard's name hits the top of the list. He's informed of his good fortune personally by the Academy's Lieutenant Commander Burton (Donnie Wahlberg) just a day before classes are due to begin.

The academy proves tougher than he'd imagined he'd imagined on many levels. Taking orders grates on him, particularly those from the man in charge of his unit. Cole (Tyrese Gibson) is a marine with combat experience, and he never lets the plebes in his charge forget it. The beautiful Ali (Jordana Brewster) is an upperclassman from whom he not only has to take orders but, because he is a first year student, is also off limits to him where off duty fraternization is concerned.

Meanwhile, Plebe Loo (Roger Fan) is incensed that Huard won't work harder nor will he accept help from those who might improve his academic standings. And the overweight plebe nicknamed "Twins" (Vicellous Reon Shannon) drags the unit down still further when he can't pass the rigorous physical challenges demanded of all of the students. Things are so bad, in fact, that Huard decides that he has no other option but to admit he can't handle the Academy and go back to shipbuilding. But for reasons all their own — some of them entirely selfish — there are others who don't want to let Huard take the easy way out.

Annapolis had some possibilities, virtually none of which were realized. In fact, the story itself had such gaping implausibilities that the movie was essentially doomed from the beginning. For example, there's a good deal of focus on Twins and his many problems. But Twins would never have been permitted Academy entry in the first place due to his patent lack of physical fitness. Jake, too, would likely have not been allowed in because his academics came nowhere near measuring up. With tens of thousands of applicants from which only a small percentage are selected, any waiting list would have been comprised of far more qualified candidates that these two men!

Adding insult to injury is a script that was so entirely predictable from the beginning that there were virtually no surprises of any kind and certainly no suspense. There were many intriguing glimpses at Huard's background, none of which were explained and some of which needed to be (and which could have added a good deal of interest if they had been). And while the editing was fine and the direction serviceable, there were a few instances of some terrible matte work that utterly destroyed the credibility of the location all together.

James Franco is a credible actor who did a fine job here, particularly in the case of some boxing scenes. With clever editing, the fights seemed at least plausible. Tyrese Gibson was tough as nails and clearly loved the Marines and his country. Jordana Brewster, while acting well enough, wasn't convincing as either potential officer material or even a woman who'd gone through an incredibly tough plebe year of her own. And the Brian Goodman was left with a few hostile lines and absolutely no clues to any of us why there was so much hostility between him and his onscreen son, and as such was two-dimensional at best.

I'd be more than a little interested to see a movie that takes me inside Annapolis — or West Point or the Air Force Academy. I have a great deal of respect for these institutions and even more for the men and women who come out of them. But Annapolis does them a disservice with its inaccuracies, and it insults its audience while it's at it. That, to me, seems a shame virtually any way you look at it.

POLITICAL NOTES: Surprisingly there was little here of a political nature. I would certainly hope the military was apolitical, but always fear that Hollywood will use such vehicles to make statements all its own. In this one instance, I can't fault the makers of Annapolis.

FAMILY SUITABILY: Annapolis is rated PG-13 for "some violence, sexual content, and language." I didn't find any of these things remotely problematic and think the rating might be a bit harsh based on those criteria. But as a story, I'm not entirely sure that anyone would find Annapolis to be particularly stimulating or interesting, either. I'm afraid I can't really recommend Annapolis for anyone of any age and that has nothing to do with the rating and everything to do with the storyline and an entirely lackluster script.

The Matador

*** out of ****

The MatadorThe Matador is one of those films I'd started hearing more about as awards season geared up. The role was, I heard, a real departure for Pierce Brosnan (lately of 007 fame). The script was, I'd read, clever, and the story a good one. I'll also confess that a few clips I saw of the film on "Entertainment Tonight" were intriguing to say the least. So when The Matador came to a theatre not too far away, a friend and I decided to take a look. The result: She wasn't impressed. On the other hand, I liked it quite a bit.

The Matador isn't about a matador, though the metaphor is solid enough. It's about ironically named aging hit man, Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan).When we first meet Julian, he's in Denver, Colorado for a job. As he all too casually completes his contract, there's no indication that he's nearing a total burn-out. In fact, he efficiently packs up and gets ready to head south of the border where his next job awaits him.

Meanwhile, Denver resident Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) is packing, too. He's going to Mexico for an all important job interview for a project that could make or break his fledgling firm. His wife, Carolyn (Hope Davis), is behind her husband all the way. But it's hard to wonder if it's not an omen when, the morning Danny is to catch his plane, a storm blows a tree right into through the roof of their kitchen.

Somehow, Danny and his partner make it in time for their flight and they arrive in sunny Mexico where they worriedly rehearse their sales pitch. Julian is also making plans. In fact, he has to move forward more quickly than he'd like when his quarry unexpectedly gets ready to leave for Europe. The early completion of his job leaves Julian with some spare time on his hands, and that's how it is he's in the hotel bar at just the right time to meet Danny.

Julian drinks because he has nothing else to do; Danny is having margaritas because the pitch went so well. The two men, of course, are polar opposites. They strike up a conversation which ends quickly when Julian is inexcusably insensitive. As a sort of a peace offering, Julian tells Danny he's got an extra ticket to a bullfight on Sunday afternoon. It's when the two are seated next to each other in the arena that they start making small talk, and Danny eventually gets out of Julian the information that he "facilitates fatalities" for a living. Danny is first incredulous and then intrigued. Julian is just happy to have somebody to talk to for a change.

But nothing lasts forever, and Danny soon goes home and Julian moves on. Neither should have ever expected to see the other again. But some months later, Julian lands on Danny's doorstep. And that's when things really begin to get interesting!

Pierce Brosnan is surprisingly perfect for the role. He's dashing enough to intrigue the ladies, and he's got a surprising bent for comedy. Greg Kinnear has both the looks and the demeanor to play the mild-mannered Danny, but he's also able to believably rise to more serious occasions. Hope Davis is a delightful foil for Kinnear's wide-eyed innocence.

The direction is just fine, and the editing is excellent, and the location shots are well rendered. The script is understated and very, very funny, and the story itself was one worth hearing. (Before you ask, my friend didn't like the movie because she felt it was too slow moving and that a few genuinely funny moments didn't make up for it; I, on the other hand, thought it was understated and that that very quality made the action more surprising and the comedy more effective.)

If you're looking for non-stop action or to leave the theatre sore from the belly laughs, The Matador isn't the movie for you. But adult movie-goers who appreciate some twists and turns that aren't taken too seriously could do much worse than this largely unheralded little movie.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Matador is rated R for "strong sexual content and language." There are some of both in the movie — more of the latter than the former. And certainly the implied violence is strong at the least (hit men do, after all, kill people for a living). But there's no graphic nudity, and frankly some of the worst language includes some of the funniest lines in the movie which means the movie wouldn't be unnattractive or inappropriate for mature teens of about age 16 and up. My good friend notwithstanding, I'd still recommemnd The Matador.

The Aristocrats

** out of ****

The AristocratsWhen this little documentary first began getting publicity last year, I knew it would never come to a theatre anywhere near me. There was talk of an NC-17 rating, and reviewers were calling it "obscene" and worse (though almost all claimed it was also very funny). At that point, I also knew I had to see it. Believe it or not, I actually looked up the scheduled DVD release date months ago, programmed it into my Palm Pilot, and did everything I could to ensure I saw the film as soon as possible after last Tuesday's release.

The Aristocrats is actually the punchline of a joke well known to professional comedians, but largely unheard by most of the rest of us. It always starts with the same premise: A man walks into a talent agent's office and tells the agent he's got a new act he simply must see. It always ends with the same punch line. But in between the start and finish, the teller is on his or her own to devise a description of the "must see" act.

Comedians have sometimes used the joke as an improvisational warm-up before going on stage. Some have tried to see how long they could make the joke last (there are rumored instances where it lasted well over an hour); each tries to be as creative and different as possible from other comedians and even from other personal tellings of the joke. In virtually every instance, the teller also makes the attempt to make his or her version of the joke as disgusting, obscene, or outright sickening as it can possibly be.

In early promotional copy for The Aristocrats, we were urged to watch the film if we wanted to see the kind of joke comedians tell other comedians. But The Aristocrats is more than that as, through its interviews, it also discusses the origin of the joke (which apparently first became a backstage staple in the days of vaudeville) and the finer points of what makes a joke funny in the first place. Of course, the movie also features a variety of very famous comedians give their own take on the joke.

Classic comedians such as George Carlin and Phyllis Diller offer up their memories of their own first exposure to the joke; Carlin tells one version and then explains his thought process. Kevin Pollack tells the joke (at least in part) in the voice of his dead-on Christopher Walken impersonation; Whoopie Goldberg notes how the times have changed insofar as shock value for audiences is gauged. Drew Carey tells how he himself tells the joke (and the telling of the telling is even funnier than the joke). Martin Mull's classic and relatively straight telling of the joke is funny, but also serves as something of a baseline that will shortly be decimated by the others who follow including a shockingly vulgar Bob Saget (who knew?).

Among the many who actually treat us to their own version of the joke are a man in a bathroom (who also offers a follow-up that's hysterical), a sleight-of-hand man who illustrates his telling with a handy deck of cards, and a sweet-spoken woman who obviously doesn't understand the joke at all — and who then nails us with a very clear understanding indeed. Penn and Teller offer a story about the joke instead of the joke, and it's also a hoot. Even the South Park boys put in an appearance (Cartman's classing telling is not to be missed), while Gilbert Gottfried's antics are yet another highlight (or lowlight, as the case may be).

The Aristocrats is a few parts educational and interesting from an historic standpoint. But it's mostly at least as obscene as I'd heard it was. The language is as bad as it gets; the acts described in graphic terms are even worse. The joke itself isn't really even very funny. But the telling of the joke can be very funny indeed if it's in the right hands, and many of the right hands were willing to play along with Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette who put the idea and the subsequent interviews together.

The film was clearly made on the cheap, and in many places it's glaringly overedited. But it stays largely true to its documentary nature and as such can be excused many of its lesser production qualities. In fact, the grittiness lends a bit to the idea that we're getting a sneak peek at things we mere mortals don't usually get to see.

Dozens of comedians are featured throughout the 90 minute film, and most of them are familiar faces to those who love a few laughs: Robin Williams, David Brenner, John Stewart, Dave Thomas, Rita Rudner, Billy the Mime (sorry, you'll just have to see for yourself how a mime manages to tell his own obscene version of the joke) and many, many more. The DVD extras are also well worth a look, including expanded interviews with some whose appearances were edited in the movie proper.

I didn't laugh as often as I would have hoped, but I did laugh; there are a number of moments both within and without the joke that are genuinely very, very funny. I also appreciated the documentary itself. On balance, I'm glad I went to the trouble to see The Aristocrats. If you're not easily offended, you will be too.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Aristocrats is unrated (but, as the producers point out, is protected by the First Amendment). Early word was that the film would likely garner an NC-17, so the moviemakers chose to seek no rating at all. The bottom line here is that The Aristocrats is incredibly vulgar, and I don't know that obscene would be too strong a word. That being said, vulgarity and obscenity don't typically disturb me, and in some instances can actually add to the humor in a "forbidden fruit" sort of way. This is unquestionably one of those instances. I don't think for a minute that you should let your kids see it — and I don't care how old they are. I also caution adults who are easily offended to steer clear of The Aristocrats. But many of the rest of you might just find The Aristocrats to be as entertaining as I did.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.


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