Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. This week, something peculiar and mainstream, and something peculiar and arthousey...
Anchor? Sounds a bit like...
Sometimes someone seems to sneak up out of nowhere and becomes a star without anyone really noticing them doing it. I am, of course, thinking of Will Ferrell, whose career seemed to be going nowhere in particular only a couple of years ago. But on the back of some scene-stealing cameos in Old School and Starsky & Hutch, and a bona fide hit with Elf, his star is waxing and some are even hailing him as the new Jim Carrey.
This seems a rather harsh thing to say about anyone, especially when his new movie, Adam McKay's Anchorman - The Legend of Ron Burgundy, is such good fun. This is another 70s-set romp in which Ferrell plays Ron Burgundy, head honcho newsreader on a San Diego station. With his sidekicks Brian, Champ, and Brick, Ron rules the roost, master of all the news he surveys. But this changes when a need for a more diverse line-up forces management to hire perky new reporter Veronica (Christina Applegate) to join the team. Ron finds himself instantly drawn to her poise, her insight, and - more specifically - her lovely butt. But can they find true happiness together given that her ambition is to venture where no woman has gone before and - horror - actually read the news?
Well, it sounds a bit like we're heading into rom-com territory and while this is broadly speaking true, don't base your decision on whether or not to see Anchorman solely on that. More than any film I've seen in years, this is a throwback to the old Zucker-Abrahams movies like Airplane and The Naked Gun. It doesn't have the same reliance on sight-gags and parody, but it is exuberantly silly and a tiny bit hit and miss. The opening of the movie, setting up the story, is actually a bit flat as the script has to trouble itself with establishing characters and suchlike. But with this done it perks up considerably.
Although on the face of it a story about relationship troubles and equality in the workplace, most of the humour has absolutely nothing to do with either of these things. One strongly gets the impression Ferrell, McKay, and the cast sat down and just spent a fortnight coming up with as many gags and bits of foolishness as they could and then wrote the script to accommodate the best ones. In this respect Anchorman is a bit like an extended series of sketches, some better than others. A lot of the stuff you may have seen in the trailer hasn't made it into the final cut (a phenomenon that long-term readers may recall never fails to push my buttons), but the film is so episodic and loosely-structured that the disappearance of whole subplots isn't at all obvious.
But the better ones are very funny indeed and few of them fail to at least raise a smile. This is broad, broad comedy, based around talking dogs, rival newsreaders duelling in the streets, and characters possessed of a quite breathtaking level of stupidity. The performances are... well, they're not subtle, but then this isn't a subtle film. Ferrell's lead performance consists of shouting a lot and failing to be urbane. He's well supported by a cast one suspects are improvising a lot, though there are some wonderful scripted gags too: one running joke about the station manager's delinquent son struck me as particularly droll. As with Dodgeball, the sole major female character is saddled with all the straight lines, but Applegate does her best with this.
Anchorman is a bit more zany and scattershot in its approach than Dodgeball, but those suggesting that all modern Hollywood comedies are the product of the same tiny clique who all appear in each others' movies will find some ammunition here, as virtually every star comedian in America (well, all the funny ones, anyway) cameos in Anchorman, along with an Oscar-winning actor best known for his serious roles. A lot of this seems a bit smug, given that the cameos themselves form part of the joke in the sequence where they occur, but it's undeniably amusing: and one swiftly-rising star in particular shows a welcome sense of his own ridiculousness, if only for allowing an out-take to be used in which he displays a total inability to kick a stuffed dog over a three-foot fence.
This is another one of those comedies with no agenda or axe to grind beyond simply getting the audience to laugh. Well, once past that slightly slow start I was hooting like a loon for most of the movie. Anchorman is an enormously likeable film, unpretentious and with a formidable gags-per-minute workrate. Definitely worth a look if a healthy mixture of wackiness and smut appeals to you.
Short Story Cinema
And so to another long-overdue visit to the House known as Art. I tell you, folks, when you watch as many films as I do you're sometimes in danger of forgetting just why you go in the first place - in other words, of forgetting just how magical an experience seeing a well-made film on the big screen can be. I received the best reminder possibly recently when I caught an art-house showing of Tom McCarthy's wonderful The Station Agent.
This movie is built around a magnificent performance by Peter Dinklage as Fin, a man with a single abiding obsession: he loves trains and railways. He works in a model train store, watches the local line from the roof of his apartment building and, in the evening, goes to meetings where he and kindred spirits watch films of trains. He is basically what we here in the UK would call a trainspotter. Fin wouldn't mind if he was only labelled that way, because the bane of his life is that he is only four-foot-six tall. A lifetime of being stared at in the supermarket and shouted at in the streets by children has made him rather cool towards other people and when his best friend and employer dies, leaving him a disused railway station in the wilds of New Jersey in his will, Fin is only too happy to decamp to the countryside and - he hopes - peace and quiet.
But things don't work out quite like that as a series of random events lead to Fin getting to know Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a local artist. Their relationship is misinterpreted by boisterous local ice cream man Joe (Bobby Cannavale), who instantly concludes that Fin is some sort of playboy superstud and sets out to make friends with him. Rather unexpectedly, Fin finds himself putting aside his studied reserve and starting to enjoy the company of other people...
Well, The Station Agent isn't exactly overflowing with plot, the closest thing it has to a big name is Patricia Clarkson, and the biggest action sequence in the movie depicts a low-speed chase where Joe's ice cream van pursues a train so Fin can rather inexpertly film it with a camcorder. But it's a movie that absolutely oozes charm and warmth. Most of the movie is just about these three very different people hanging out together and getting to know each other, and it's just beautifully written and performed, and utterly believeable.
Dinklage is brilliant: Fin could have been too cold and aloof to hold the audience's sympathy, or too cutesy to retain any integrity, but Dinklage's restrained, deadpan performance is both dignified, funny, and - as the film goes on - deeply moving. If the film has anything to say, it's that dwarfs are people too, and this is a lesson that both Fin and the people he meets have to learn. Too often little people in the cinema get stuck playing comic relief, or aliens, or both, but Peter Dinklage is a genuinely great actor and hopefully he'll be able to get some decent roles off the back of this (although as his next couple of movies are apparently entitled The Dwarf and Little Fugitive, this may be a vain hope). His brooding good looks and gravelly voice may also make him the first bona fide dwarf sex-symbol.
But all the performances are good, the writing is amusing without seeming forcedly so, and the gradual shifts in the tone of the film are virtually seamless. As I say, not a huge amount happens and the end of the film seems a bit abrupt. Towards the end McCarthy clearly feels the need to add a little plot and conflict, which isn't as successful as the more atmospheric earlier sections, and there's a very slight lack of subtlety and coherence in these closing stages. Apart from, this, though, The Station Agent is a gem, the best film I've seen in a very long time. Seek it out; you won't be disappointed.
Time for a shameless plug for another of my favourite films of the year. Here in the UK we occasionally get movies at the same time as the USA if they're particularly prone to being pirated, but most of the time we have to wait (for many months in the case of some films). This means I very seldom get the chance to recommend a movie ahead of its American release. One fortunate exception to this, however, is Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's romantic comedy zombie gorefest Shaun of the Dead, which gets its American release very soon. Now, as you can probably tell, I wrote about this film when it came out in the UK, so all I will add is that it's really really good and a lot scarier than 28 Days Later, and not as pompous either. So give it a whirl if it's on near you.