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By 1996, Jim Carrey was a household name. After carving out a space for himself on television on the sketch comedy show In Living Color, he exploded onto the big screen in Ace Venture Pet Detective. His irreverent style and rubber-faced delivery made him a star, seemingly overnight, despite a string of earlier supporting film roles dating back to the mid-80s. He follow-up that success with four more films, showcasing his absurdist style, with each new character a spin on the others, all wildly funny and lightweight with the last of those a sequel to Ventura. Audiences had come to expect his highly satisfying mix of charm and silliness, even winning over critics who were slow to accept his broad stroke comedy approach.
Then came director Ben Stiller‘s The Cable Guy, starring Matthew Broderick as Steven Kovacs, a heartbroken architect just booted out of his apartment by his girlfriend. Now with his own place, he is given a tip to offer the cable guy (Carrey) a $50 bribe to unlock all the pay channels. Long story short, the cable guy, named Ernie “Chip” Douglas, thinks he’s made a friend and ingratiates himself into Steven’s life. It’s not so bad at first, but Chip, desperate for a friend, gets a little too attached to the relationship. A wickedly dark and brutal satirical film, it is a far cry from the breezy fun of Carrey’s earlier work. Expecting looney, ticket buyers got lunacy instead, with Carrey’s scathing turn as a misguided, lonely extrovert. Audiences turned away.
Truth is, the film is really very good. Broderick is a perfect straight man for Carrey’s tour de force black comedy performance. Chip is a menacing delight, a zealously over the top character, and Carrey sells it with so much gusto, it’s impossible to look away. It feels like the role Carrey had been preparing to play for a decade and hinted at most in his juicy turn as The Riddler in 1995’s Batman Forever, a villain that was comical but equally unhinged, though restrained by the goofy comic book direction of the film. With The Cable Guy, Stiller set Carry loose and he delivers a deliciously creepy portrayal of a maniac that is nothing like anything in his prior films, yet for the time was too far removed from the expectations of his fans. Looking back though, it is arguably the best work he’s ever done (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind aside).
Read these two words: Romantic Comedy. Who are you picturing in your mind? That’s a rhetorical question of course because there is only one name that should pop into your head. Miss Roberts basically defined the genre and made it so successful, everyone has been trying to copy the formula to this day. By 2000, Roberts was the unquestioned, crowned Queen of rom-coms, even though she had dabbled in some of other genres. So it was with come concern when she was cast as the lead in the biographical film Erin Brockovich about a woman who stands up to a powerful corporation to defend a small town. Not a rom-com by any definition, it won Roberts an Academy Award and forever changed the books on what Roberts can do.
Based on the true story of Brockovich, she is an unemployed single mom who is injured in a car accident but loses her case in court but expects a job from her lawyer who promised she’s win. Feeling sorry, he gives her a clerk job and she ends up reading some files on a group of people in a small town who are receiving hush money from Pacific Gas and Electric Company who have polluted their water and made them sick. She becomes a warrior for their cause and exposes the corruption and conspiracy. And gets a fat paycheck for it.
The story is really compelling, but the film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, is a mess, so overly saccharine and emotionally manipulative it mars the message. Giving way too much focus on Robert’s bustline (as if she’s the first woman in the world to show cleavage) and wardrobe choices, the film feels empty and while Roberts is blisteringly good, she is lost in a vapid script that tries way too hard to push all the right buttons. Roberts proves she can do be more than be a pretty woman, and easily earns the acclaim. It’s just too bad the overall experience couldn’t match her effort.
Just saying Murphy’s names conjures a dozen images of his numerous comedic roles that made him a superstar since the 1980s. His early raucous work and his later more family-friendly fare were all high-energy, zany stories of outrageous characters in even more ridiculous circumstances, with Murphy often playing more than one character in the same movie. By 2006 though, his movies had fallen to substandard, heavily criticized outings with no substance. So when he showed up in this musical drama as a drugged-out R&B soul singer, people were skeptical. But not for long. Giving the performance of his career, he earned numerous accolades (including an Academy Award nomination) for his effort and left critics and audiences floored.
The story of Motown is the setting and Murphy plays Jimmy “Thunder” Early, inspired by the real James Brown. He’s a reckless but popular singer who loses the spotlight to his back-up singers when he makes a shift to a pop-ballad singer. His adulterous affair with Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) only leads to more problems and as things fall apart, he becomes depressed and dependent on drugs. His breakdown on stage and the aftermath are devastating.
Murphy has always been a raw bundle of talent, his performances explosive and usually one level higher than his co-stars. With Dreamgirls, director Bill Condon reigns in that energy and sees Murphy hold it inside with powerful effect. A dizzying display of the best work in his career, he gives Dreamgirls a dark edge and adds dramatic punch to the already emotional story. It’s too bad Murphy hasn’t found more roles that allow him to showcase this side of his talents.
The Frankenstein monster is one of the most recognizable characters in horror film history, if not all of cinema. Made famous in the 1930s by Boris Karloff, the reanimated corpse with a less than perfect brain has shocked and fascinated theater goers for decades. When a remake was planned in the early 1990s, it fell upon English actor and director Kenneth Branagh to bring it the big screen. He had already earned high acclaim for his adaptations of William Shakespeare and seemed the perfect choice to bring another literary classic to the movies. Naturally, the first question when tackling Mary Shelley‘s masterwork is who will play the monster.
Casting screen legend Robert De Niro was unexpected. Steering away from the classic look and physical attributes that Karloff had established as lore, despite not being accurate to the book, was a bold step. For many, it was like changing Superman’s colors yet De Niro makes it work, even if the film as a whole misses the mark.
The movie is way too big for itself and is over-indulgent, going for epic instead of personal. However, the scenes with De Niro are some of the best as he plays the Monster with much more awareness of who and what he is compared to other versions of the creature, even asking of his creator some profound questions. While it’s sometimes hard to separate the De Niro we know so well, mostly his impressive gangster characters, he makes the Monster his own and delivers a unique, darkly personal (and sometimes frightening) performance.
The story of famed female serial killer Aileen Wuornos begins and ends with the transcending performance of Charlize Theron. A former model, she had already begun to establish herself as a Hollywood beauty, though worked hard to steer clear of glamorous overtly sexual roles. Nonetheless, the tall, statuesque blonde woman turned a lot of heads and landed a lot of parts where her beauty was made a signature part of her character. Labeled an ‘it’ girl, she was a fast-rising star with all eyes on her. Then, in 2003, she took the lead in Monster and forever changed perceptions about her talents. Gaining 30 pounds and wearing a number of prosthetics she dramatically changed her looks, but it’s what Theron did with that new image that was so remarkable, giving what some say is one of the greatest performances in cinema history.
The movie is less about the murders and more about the woman, the disturbing background and insights into her torturous past. As she and her girlfriend Selby (Christina Ricci) struggle to make a life together, Wuornos is constantly set back and faced with dark choices. Director Patty Jenkins, for which this film was a passion project, produces a haunting experience, giving Theron great freedom to create a complex character who is very bad but one for whom we ultimately sympathize.
There is little to say about Monster other than it is one that should not be missed. A troubling story that has lasting impact, it delves not just into the mind of a killer but the motivations and perversions of her thinking that lead to such a tragedy. It’s not often that a biography film doesn’t spend all its time over-dramatizing the subject, but Monster steers clear of these trappings, taking us to the real places where it all happened, populating it with people who were there and affected by the swath of devastation she left behind. One of the most moving films you will ever see.
In compiling a list of names who have made some of the best comedies in movies, zooming to the top of that list must be Bill Murray. Starting on television in the 1970s on Saturday Night Live, his dead pan delivery and dry wit made him a star and launched him onto the big screen. With hit after hit, he reached stratospheric fame with 1984’s Ghostbusters and from there, became one of the most popular comedic actors working in movies. But he always had a seriousness about him that was wholly untapped. Meanwhile, the daughter of iconic and influential film director Francis Ford Coppola was scratching out a career of her own behind the camera, one that was raw, honest, and challenging. So when Sophia Coppola and Murray got together to make Lost in Translation, it was a perfect storm of acting and directing.
Bob Harris (Murray) is a washed up has-been actor who once was world famous. Borrowing on that clout to make some money as a pitch man for a Japanese Whiskey, he travels to Tokyo and in the hotel, meets a young, lonely, married girl (Scarlett Johansson) in the bar. Theirs is not a sexual relationship, but one of comparisons, discovery, adoration, and connection. Both are wallowing in their own lives and find a bit of reprieve in the company of the other. That’s not to say they aren’t attracted to each other because the are. Yet this is not about baser actions but rather deeper emotions and lasting impact.
Murray is astonishing as Harris, a weathered, weary man with questions about his past and concerns about his future. Delivering a character of such sincerity, it is unlike anything he has ever done, but because of it, opened up a whole new world of acting opportunities where slices of Harris can be seen in every part after. A monumental achievement from an unexpected source, Murray proves himself to be a man of surprising talents.
We at last come to Mr. Adam Sandler. For the entirety of his career to 2002, he played the lovable moron, a dimwitted fool with a big heart in increasingly silly and mindless comedies that somehow found big audiences. Recycling and tweaking basically the same character from one film to the next, he released one movie after another that were pure formula, low-brow, lowest common denominator fluff that made him very wealthy but also stuck. Enter visionary director Paul Thomas Anderson, who was on a roll with two award-winning, highly-innovative films (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) that earned him high praise. He wanted to work with Sandler and produce a small, 90-minute project that would give the comedic actor a new canvas on which to paint. What they made together remains some of the best either has ever done.
The story centers on Barry Egan (Sandler) who is a crushingly introverted man living in a tightly wound world dominated by the women in his life. He finds a loophole in a Healthy Choice pudding promotion that can get him a million free air miles and on the same day meets Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a woman who will forever change him. We’ve already written about this extraordinary performance, and how it remains one of the most startling actor surprises in movie history, but suffice to say, this is a crowning achievement.
When examining Egan closely, we can see, much like Anderson, that this character is not unlike many of Sandler’s bombastic, childish creations, but more tightly wound and compressed. Under Anderson’s direction, Sandler explores the realities of Egan’s troubled existence with honesty and passion that is heartbreaking to watch. We look at Sandler with awe and wonder and inspiration and marvel at how deeply he captures the true nature of loneliness and hope. But sadly, it was all for naught. Roger Ebert famously wrote in his review of Sandler in Punch Drunk-Love and his acting choices, “He has darkness, obsession and power. He can’t go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he?” Yes he can. And does.