Jude Law and Sean Penn in All the King's MenALL THE KING'S MEN

In his role as the initially idealistic, eventually corrupt Louisiana governor Willie Stark in All the King's Men, Sean Penn delivers a series of impassioned orations to Stark's constituency, and every time he does, the movie displays a robust, dramatic fire. A self-described "hick" preaching to those he feels have been similarly politically oppressed, Stark barks out his plans for a better future, and Penn, with a thick drawl and a timbre that rises and falls in waves, attacks these scenes with an egocentric bluster that, at first, veers dangerously close to parody - close your eyes, and he could be Jackie Gleason on a dyspeptic tirade in Smokey & the Bandit. Yet you don't laugh at him. Penn's Stark is such a powerful, daunting presence that he transcends hammy Southern caricature through the legitimate emotion in his outbursts and the intensity of his gaze, and during the governor's stump speeches, King's Men writer/director Steven Zaillian has the good sense to get out of Penn's way and let him run the show.

Yet part of the reason these scenes have such force is that Penn is practically the whole show. Zaillian seems to have directed the rest of his intimidating acting ensemble to do as little as possible, and his screenplay - an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel - is clunky and shapeless, with numerous, lengthy flashbacks competing for screen time with an almost frustrating number of subplots. This might not have been a liability if the supporting actors were allowed to be as vibrant as Penn, but nearly all of them - including Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini, and Patricia Clarkson - are dully forgettable, as if they were intentionally staying out of Penn's limelight; beyond its star, All the King's Men is criminally devoid of character. Maybe that's why, as a director, Zaillian takes pains to emphasize a series of heavily symbolic visual leitmotifs and James Horner's overly insistent score, but whenever he does, All the King's Men winds up uncomfortably mirroring its leading figure - long-winded, inflated with self-importance, and just this side of a complete joke.


Jackass: Number TwoJACKASS: NUMBER TWO

Driving home from seeing - and loving - Jackass: Number Two, I was briefly concerned about my tastes becoming more juvenile. I'm much closer to 40 than 30, so why have my few favorite movies this year included Clerks II, X-Men: The Last Stand, and this revolting, shapeless, profoundly unimportant lark from Johnny Knoxville and the rest of MTV's masochistic Jackass cabal? Is it because juvenilia is just about the only honesty we're getting from modern movies?

The laughs generated by Jackass: Number Two don't feel like the laughs you get from any other movie. It's performance art of the most unembarrassed, happily dumb-ass sort - frat-boy shenanigans taken to the Nth degree - and as it's been so long since my last encounter with the Jackass gang in 2002's movie, I was reminded of what legitimate hilarity feels like when unencumbered by elements such as wit and intelligence; there's a reason that a guy slipping on a banana peel is inherently funny, only in the Jackass presentations, people are slipping on far worse. I have a lot of theories why the Jackass works are particularly hysterical, but in the end, it's because it's all so joyously honest - these guys are having the time of their lives, even when they bitch and whimper about the stunts they're pulling off, and their goal is nothing more than to make you laugh as hard as they're laughing themselves. The forthrightness of Jackass: Number Two is positively exhilarating.

At one point, after the mother of one of the Jackass boys sees that her son has had male genitalia permanently branded on his ass, she asks the guy who did the branding, "Why would you do that?" "'Cause it's funny,'" he replies, with perfect deadpan. Yes, folks. It certainly is.


Sebastian Stan in The CovenantTHE COVENANT

I was a couple weeks late in getting to The Covenant, but it's hard to feel negligent about that, as the movie itself feels like it's arriving about 20 years late; Renny Harlin's teen thriller is just like The Lost Boys, only with boy witches - "bitches"? - instead of vampires. (Also without the humor. And worse effects. And actors of no discernible skill.) But you can feel the synthetic blandness of the '80s - '80s movies, at any rate - all throughout this laughably earnest mess, from the pseudo-hipster characters (our leather-clad pin-ups here are named Caleb, Chase, Reid, and Tyler) to the eye-rollingly dated manner in which the heroine seduces her man (to Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll"!) to the insufferably bad acting; watching The Covenant, you'd never know that, more often than not, movies of this ilk are actually rather well-performed these days. (At least the kids in them sound like humans, a species you'll never mistake this crew for.) The movie brought back memories of those witless, direct-to-cable, cheese-and-beefcake flicks we'd goof on in college - on those late nights when you're too apathetic to change the channel - and while it's always a treat to feel young again, the adolescent posturing and faux coolness of The Covenant, it turns out, made me feel about a million years old.


Everyone's HeroEVERYONE'S HERO

I'm trying to determine the moment at which I hated the computer-animated Everyone's Hero the most. Could it have been when our heroic tyke had his first conversation with a mouthy baseball named Screwlie, and I realized we'd be enduring Rob Reiner's gratingly obnoxious growlings for the next 90 minutes? How about when Whoopi Goldberg, voicing Babe Ruth's babeball bat "Darlin'," snuck out of the film's Depression-era setting with a request for a non-fat mochaccino? (In a similarly anachronistic moment, Screwlie makes a crack at the expense of mimes - uh, this is the age of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin ... didn't we like mimes then?) Or maybe when I first heard the exasperatingly unfunny cadences of Robin Williams, who managed to have his name removed from the credits. (Those who starred in Patch Adams should not turn up their nose at Everyone's Hero.)

I certainly hated the movie when we took a bus ride with Negro League players from Cincinnati, a nice, historically informative touch made racially insensitive by the modern-day hip-hop music that accompanied the scene. And when saccharine, sad-bastard songs underscored images of that little tow-head trudging from New York to Chicago in the span of a week. And when the film's chief nemeses are revealed as the general manager and pitcher for the Chicago Cubs - haven't the poor Cubbies endured enough humiliation over the years?

But I think I hated Everyone's Hero the absolute most when this staggeringly charmless, utterly senseless film finally ended, the title card "Directed by Christopher Reeve" popped on-screen, and I realized that scores of viewers who, similarly, didn't enjoy the movie would probably - now - let it off on a pass, even though Everyone's Hero is about as depressing a memorial tribute as could be imagined. And I thought the Cubs deserved better.

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