Dumb and Dumber for the art-house crowd
Imagine Of Mice and Men if George and Lenny were both boobs, The Odd Couple if Felix and Oscar were Norwegian, or Dumb and Dumber without the scatological humor, and you'll most likely conjure up Elling, one of the overlooked nominees for Best Foreign Language Film in the most recent Oscar race (all the attention went to Amélie and eventual winner No Man's Land). Yeah, it's a comedy about a couple of mentally challenged guys, but it manages to be funny without being exploitive or preaching the upbeat Forrest Gump message that, no matter how damaged we seem to be on the outside, we're all the same on the inside (in my case, guts, black stuff, and about 50 Slim Jims).
Based on a play adapted from a popular Ingvar Ambjørnsen book, Elling opens with the diminutive title character (Per Christian Ellefsen), a 40-something mama's boy, being sent to the nuthouse when his mother dies. He's assigned to live with the hulking, Gerard Depardieu look-alike Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin), a man of similar age who's obsessed with both food and women, although he's a virgin.
Two years later, and without much explanation, Elling and Kjell Bjarne get their own apartment in Oslo. It's kind of a halfway house, with social worker Frank Åsli (Jørgen Langhelle) occasionally checking in on the duo to make sure they haven't burned the place down. Elling and Kjell Bjarne are very apprehensive about the whole living-on-their-own thing, as they were much happier within the safe confines of their psych ward. The situation is made worse, at least in their eyes, by Frank, who insists they do things like learn to use the phone and, occasionally, even leave the apartment to get groceries.
Much of the first half of Elling is fish-out-of-water stuff made tolerable due to strong writing, the whole Odd Couple angle (Elling and Kjell Bjarne --- or fussy superego and slobby id --- bicker like an old married couple), and the fact that both characters are extreme agoraphobics. The second half has them opening their minds and venturing out into the world a bit, with Kjell Bjarne falling in love with a pregnant neighbor (Marit Pia Jacobsen) and Elling writing poetry that he hides in sauerkraut packaging at the grocery store.
Director Petter Næss, who also helmed the stage production of Elling, has a knack for the timing of physical comedy and for set pieces. He's also blessed with wonderful performances from his two leads. There aren't too many films that can be simultaneously funny, offbeat, and heartwarming (at least, without a thick shmear of the goo), but Elling manages to do all three quite well, making it one of the year's most enjoyable releases.
Reese Witherspoon is a good actress. Her talent and charisma were enough to save Legally Blonde, but there isn't an actor on this planet gifted enough to rescue her latest project, Sweet Home Alabama. It's a painfully predictable romantic comedy with approximately zero originality, except the part where the filmmakers didn't cast Owen Wilson as the charming, blond redneck.
Witherspoon plays Melanie Carmichael, an up-and-coming designer in New York City's fashion world. When we first meet her, she's dreaming about her first kiss, but soon awakens to the chaos that is her first big runway show. Luckily, it's a hit, and her JFK, Jr.-esque boyfriend, Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), who happens to be the son of the city's mayor (Candice Bergen), sneaks her into Tiffany's for a memorable engagement scene.
Melanie wants to hold off announcing the engagement, though initially we don't know why. When she heads down to Pigeon Creek, Alabama, her ancestral birthplace, we begin to get an inkling why she's acting so strangely. It turns out she's still technically married to her high-school sweetheart, former star quarterback Jake (Josh Lucas), a grease monkey complete with coonhound. Melanie has made numerous attempts to finalize the divorce during the seven years she's spent in New York, but Jake has thus far refused to comply.
The tug of war between Melanie and Jake is everything you'd expect it to be, with Melanie hating his guts until the second after he signs the papers, at which time she gets that dreamy look in her eye.
Meanwhile, the more interesting part of the film (strictly by default) is the transformation city-slicker Melanie undergoes once she returns to Pigeon Creek and runs into various inbred friends and family, as well as her criminal past (as Felony Melanie). Her accent slowly resurfaces, and her hair gets less and less chic. Alabama's numerous scenes involving Civil War re-enactments are a subtle reminder to us and to Melanie that you can't ignore your past. Technically, Alabama's not a fish-out-of-water story, it's a fish-back-into-a-backwater story, though the film sticks close to the formula of the former (except it doesn't make Andrew odiferous enough).
Most of Alabama's humor comes at the expense of the hillbillies (though gays and lesbians take quite a hit, as well), but in contrast to the way Yankees are portrayed, Southerners come out smelling like roses. Everyone north of the Mason-Dixon Line is shallow and malicious, while our Dixie friends are all wacky, but warm. All I could do was sit there and wait for the damn thing to end, while simultaneously feeling sorry for talented co-stars like Fred Ward, Mary Kay Place, Jean Smart, and Melanie Lynskey.
A brainless action flick, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever does little besides offer a barrage of explosions and gunplay. Its ridiculous story takes a backseat to the over-the-top direction of Wych Kaosayananda, a Thai filmmaker who uses the pseudonym Kaos. That's right --- Kaos. That should give you some idea of what you're in for if you go to see this movie. It's like watching somebody else play a violent videogame.
Ballistic is about a former FBI agent named Jeremiah Ecks (Antonio Banderas), who lost his wife in a car explosion several years before the film opens. Content to look sad and spend his time in dark bars, Ecks is approached one day by his ex-boss (Miguel Sandoval), who has some surprising news --- Ecks' wife, Vinn (Talisa Soto), is still alive. The catch is that Ecks will have to take on one last case before he'll be told where his wife can be found. The case involves a kidnapping, and the suspect is a former FBI agent named Sever (Lucy Liu), who is really good at blowing stuff up, flipping through the air, and shooting whatever stuff she didn't already blow up.
Aside from a nifty shot in which the camera follows a man as he falls off a tall building and onto the roof of a parked car, Kaos' idea of style seems to be showing typical action scenes in slow motion. There are so many slo-mo sequences, the film would run about 42 minutes if played at normal speed. Because of the way Kaos cobbles together the story, and the dippy way he shows flashbacks, Ballistic is often a bit confusing, but that doesn't prevent it from being one of the worst action films of the year.
Interested in more movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy, at www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.