This week in movies, we’ve got tough chicks fighting for their lives ("The Descent"), a redneck racing saga ("Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby"), a psychological thriller starring Mork from Ork ("The Night Listener"), and farm animals who just wanna have fun ("Barnyard: The Original Party Animals"). Which flicks will get the critical seal of approval?
Two constants in Hollywood are that (A) foreign flicks generally don’t have widespread appeal and (B) horror flicks don’t get critical praise, like, ever. "The Descent," about six female spelunkers whose weekend cave-diving adventure turns deadly, has defied these tenets — a low-budget import from Scotland, of all places, this female-driven frightener has critics on the edges of their popcorn-strewn seats. The scribes say that director Neil Marshall ("Dog Soldiers") has masterfully created a claustrophobe’s nightmare, and has added a compelling meditation on morality, vengeance, and the depths to which we might go for human survival. High marks also go to the cast of relatively unknown actresses, who manage to balance sex appeal and strength as believable adventuresses. At 90 percent, this gory thriller has earned RT’s Certified Fresh stamp — and is on track to becoming the best-reviewed horror film of the year!
Perennial jester Will Ferrell stars as hard-driven, bumbling NASCAR ace Ricky Bobby in "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," a high-octane comedy set in the all-American world of race car driving. Inescapably drawing comparisons to 2004’s "Anchorman" (which, like "Talladega," starred Ferrell and was co-written by director Adam McKay), there’s no doubt that Ferrell is on his comedic game in this sweet-natured send-up of the NASCAR world. Critics also agree on the strength of Ferrell’s supporting cast (including John C. Reilly as Ricky Bobby’s steadfast racing buddy, and British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen ("Da Ali G Show") as his scene-stealing gay French rival). But is it funny? While the largely-improvised laughs are occasionally uneven, critics say the highs are indeed hilarious and worth the ride. At 73 percent on the Tomatometer, go ahead and buckle up for "Talladega."
"The Night Listener" marks another revisiting of comic genius Robin Williams to that oh-so-foreign milieu — dramatic acting — in a psychological thriller adapted from Armistead Maupin’s story of the same name. Williams plays Gabriel, a lonely nighttime radio host who forges a relationship with a young abuse victim named Pete (Rory Culkin), but begins to question the truth behind Pete’s story; eventually, he wonders if Pete really exists at all. The critics say that, despite a real-life relevancy in light of such fictitious media sensations as J.T. Leroy, any suspensefulness built up by Patrick Stettner‘s creepy, atmospheric direction fizzles out with muddled storytelling; perhaps, too, funnyman Williams has been slightly miscast in a sad-sack role that requires more believable misery. However, many scribes are quick to point out the film’s unusually brief 81-minute runtime, if that gives you any more incentive to buy a ticket, but at 45 percent on the Tomatometer, you probably want to tune out this "Listener."
When the farmer’s asleep, the cows cut loose in "Barnyard"
Are you in the mood for an animated tale of farm animals who party when the humans aren’t looking? How about one with a rebellious boy cow as the hero? "Barnyard" offers up such fare with the story of Otis (voiced by Kevin James), a fun-loving cow who would rather carouse about the farm than protect its denizens from ravenous coyotes, a duty that his father (Sam Elliott) tries in vain to impart to him. With a voice cast that includes Wanda Sykes and Courteney Cox, "Barnyard" aims for comedic targets in the form of anthropomorphized animal laughs, gross humor, and sight gags (courtesy of "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls" director Steve Oedekirk) — lowbrow humor that, critics moan, appeal only to the senses of children under the age of eight. Unfortunately for the chaperones of the target demographic, aside from some spontaneous musical numbers and a few adult-oriented jokes, there’s not much here to entertain grown-ups. At 33 percent, "Barnyard" is only for parents who love their kids enough to sit through it.
Also opening this week, albeit in limited release: "My Country, My Country," a political documentary about the Iraq 2005 election, is at 100 percent; French romantic thriller "The Bridesmaid" is at 83 percent; the coming-of-age tale (and Sundance fave) "Quinceanera" is at 81 percent; retiree rom-com "The Boynton Beach Club" is at 55 percent; the prison cell drama "Jailbait" is at 14 percent; and gay teen drama "Vacationland" is at — gulp — 0 percent.