18 April 2008

Smart People

I’m sure we’ve all had at least one professor like Lawrence Wetherhold, played by Dennis Quaid in the new film “Smart People.” As the title infers, he’s smart, and he knows it. And he has no problem lording his intellectual superiority over his students, much to their, and our chagrin.
It is a bit painful to watch a character who we should view as sympathetic act in such a singularly self-destructive manner. In fact, most of the “smart people” in the film do the same, but it’s a testament to the filmmakers that such masochism never causes us to lose interest.
We get the sense that Lawrence has always been a misanthrope, but since the death of his wife, his attitude has worsened. His high school age daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) seems to be a chip off the old block, even mimicking her father’s indifference toward his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church).
Lawrence becomes involved with a former student (who he doesn’t remember) named Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), who is now a doctor. As expected, Lawrence’s sour disposition isn’t exactly great fodder for a good relationship, and the two start to have problems.
There’s not really that much of a central plot, just scenes from a specific point in all these characters lives where they must ultimately decide if they will take the necessary steps to become happy again. Considering their personalities, one doesn’t expect much, and the film doesn’t necessarily spell out a certain happy ending.
So why would anyone want to spend an hour and a half with such unpleasant characters? I’ll admit it takes a certain mindset and patience, but it can be rewarding. It works, pure and simple, but not in an easily identifiable way.
That’s not to say it’s perfect all the time. Dr. Hartigan comes off as particularly ill-developed and confusing. It’s no wonder Lawrence has a hard time figuring her out. And an odd subplot involving Vanessa and her adopted, emphasis on the adopted, Uncle Chuck may fit the theme but doesn’t fit well with the rest of the comparatively realistic story.
Dennis Quaid continues to be one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood today. Considering his choice of projects, it’s no wonder. He usually seems content to be involved in mediocre action films or shallow comedies. But when he’s given a chance, like he is here, to really stretch himself and show his chops, he never disappoints.
The rest of the cast is capable enough, if not particularly brilliant. Ellen Page shows considerable range in being able to play a completely different kind of smart-aleck than we saw in last year’s “Juno.” It would have been easy for her to repeat characters, but she goes the extra mile to make sure she doesn’t.
It’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t necessarily give into artificial character arcs or forced poetic justice. Their lives are just as messy at the end of the film as they are in the beginning, but for whatever reason, there’s just a little bit more hope.

11 April 2008


George Clooney’s new film “Leatherheads” seems to be wandering between two worlds. On one side is a relatively realistic period picture, depicting the formation and popularization of the National Football League. On the other side is a nostalgic view of the 1920s gleaned from classic early Hollywood screwball comedies.
There’s merit on both sides, particularly in the screwball portions. You have the familiar character types: the sassy female reporter, the blustery newspaper editor, the quiet pretty boy, and the more rugged and world-weary leading man.
The female reporter is Lexie Littleton, played by Renee Zellwegger, who is assigned to cover a supposed war hero turned college football star, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski). She’s been tipped off that his combat stories may not be all true, and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to save his financially scrapped NFL team, ‘Dodge’ Connelly (Clooney) has recruited Carter to lend his star power and skills to the team’s profile, launching them into the heights of victory and fame.
The central comedic conflict comes when Dodge and Carter both fall for Lexie, leading to a series of misadventures and drunken brawls. There’s no sense in saying anything more, because you can probably predict how it will end.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Clooney’s goal seems to evoke a bygone era, which fits the tale about the end of an era when people like Dodge could play football in a more interesting, albeit dishonest, way. The legitimization of football becomes the harbinger of doom for Dodge.
So while at times it seems uneven to be bouncing back and forth between screwball antics and a mellow swan song, it oddly enough seems to work. The film is consistently enjoyable, despite some plot devices being a tad out of place, like Dodge and Lexie dressing up as cops to escape a raid on a speakeasy.
But such over-the-top flourishes can be welcome, in a way. They keep things interesting and pique your interest before it has a chance to wane. It’s a hard balancing act to manage, but the cast is more than capable.
As a director, I think Clooney is still maturing. His previous efforts, the underrated “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and the overrated “Good Night, and Good Luck” showed good promise, and “Leatherheads” continues to show that potential, though it’s clear he hasn’t hit his peak. He still seems a little bit too concerned with style over story.
Still, it’s refreshing to see a group of stars led by such a socially-conscious figure as Clooney taking the time to let loose and have some fun. Watching his previous two films would not lead you to expect such lighthearted fare. In its own way, it’s quite the bold move.
It’s not a perfect film; few are. But it’s a riskier film than many have given credit for. With everyone so concerned about the future, it’s nice to see someone looking lovingly at the past. If it leads viewers to discover the old films it’s referencing, then I’m all for it.

08 April 2008


Charlton Heston
"The shadow of death will pass over us tonight,
and tomorrow we will see the light of freedom."
-The Ten Commandments

04 April 2008

Shine a Light

For me, concert films are a mixed bag. To me, it seems counterproductive for a film to try to reproduce the feeling of being at a live performance. It simply can’t work. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying.
Director Martin Scorsese has been in this avenue before, having directed his chronicle of The Band in “The Last Waltz.” His Bob Dylan documentary, “No Direction Home,” worked so well because it was mainly a documentary with some concert footage sprinkled throughout.
But in “Shine a Light,” which many are labeling incorrectly as a documentary, he returns to a more straightforward concert format. It has some interview excerpts between some of the songs, but it is mainly a recording of a concert by The Rolling Stones in New York City as part of their “A Bigger Bang” tour.
The film seems to presuppose a couple of things if you are going to be able to enjoy it. One: you must either consider concert films an accurate similar experience to actually being there, or consider the concert film a different animal altogether but something still worthwhile. And two: you are a Rolling Stones fan.
If you can agree with both statements, then more power to you. This film is for you. I’m not a huge Stones fan, and thus it was not a pleasant experience. My feelings were equal parts indifference, boredom, and, by virtue of seeing it on an IMAX screen, nausea.
That’s not to say it’s badly made. Scorsese knows how to put together a nice looking product, whatever the subject. The opening is the most interesting, chronicling his own efforts to organize the documentary amidst the flurry of preparations for the concert, coupled with a visit by sponsor Bill Clinton and his family and friends.
We see the difficulty he encounters in getting the musicians to commit to a set list, which he finally receives mere seconds before the show begins. We see Mick’s hesitation at the presence of so many cameras. Whether this is all staged is up for debate.
Then the concert kicks in, as did my malaise. The main event is visually frenetic, with quick editing marring some of the momentum that could have contributed to a true-concert-feeling experience. However, seeing the way Jagger moves, it becomes clear that the approach was necessary.
The Stones are great performers, there’s no doubt about that. To have that much energy when they’re that old is a wonder. They all seem to be at the top of their game, and loving the ride. Some guest performers like Jack White and Christina Aguilera pop in to contribute.
Despite the performances, the film just suffers from a lack of a destination. Perhaps it’s just the way I’m used to looking at films. It’s difficult for me to have interest in a film that I realize is going to be the same thing for two hours.
But that said, it’s a relatively unique experience. Be warned though, if you are easily prone to motion sickness, skip the IMAX version. It may be the closest you can get to the real thing, though in my opinion, such an attempt is ultimately futile.

02 April 2008


Jules Dassin
Rififi, Brute Force, The Naked City


“21” is about very smart people. They are math students at MIT who are able to count cards in games of blackjack at Las Vegas casinos, and in turn win hundreds of thousands of dollars. They have an intricate system, unbreakable codes, and even some clever disguises.
We may not be math prodigies, but it’s unfortunate that the filmmakers do not consider we audience members to be smart enough to figure out a basic, predictable plot such as the one presented here. While the movie manages to entertain, it begins to get tedious by the end.
Jim Sturgess stars as Ben Campbell, a boy genius with dreams of medical school but without the funds to realize those dreams. Enter shady math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) who has put together a crack team of stellar students to take Vegas for all its worth. All Ben has to do is join and he will have the money he needs.
He joins. We know that he must join, because if he doesn’t, there is no film. At least not the one promised us through the advertisements. Still, we have to sit through a refusal, a failed recruitment and another refusal before Ben finally joins the team. I hope I wasn’t the only one to see that coming.
Other blatant foreshadowing abounds. Ben notices a girl named Jill (Kate Bosworth) that he finds attractive. Guess what! She’s on the blackjack team and they are soon living it up in Sin City with lots of cash to blow. We know by the rules of poetic justice, and coming-of-age films, that Ben’s misdeeds must catch up to him. They do.
If I seem overly sarcastic, I must apologize. It’s not a bad film, really. It’s just that little grinds my gears more than a film that insults my intelligence. They do not even try to clearly explain the team’s card-counting method. I suppose they did not think we could grasp what they repeatedly call “basic math.”
Still, it’s entertaining enough. All the glitz and glamour of Vegas is on display, with plenty of flashy and perhaps overly frenetic camerawork to go with it. The performances are satisfactory. We are left satisfied by the ending.
Perhaps the root of my problem with the film is its billing as “based on a true story.” The film adds in lots of artificial plot devices to move the story along, and you can tell they are not part of the factual events.
Elements of chase films and heist pictures fall in, turning the movie into average escapist fare. It’s better than many films out in theatres now, but won’t be remembered once the summer arrives.
Perhaps I have been overly critical. Perhaps, comparatively, it is a good film, one that makes intellectuals into heroes for a change, a film that does not paint virtue and vice in clear-cut terms. And, as I said, it’s entertaining. It just seems to me that maybe we can aim higher, that maybe the movie industry should try to deliver films that challenge instead of spoon-feed.

Drillbit Taylor

I’ll go ahead and make this admission: I can sympathize with the young protagonists of “Drillbit Taylor.” Maybe some of you can, too. That’s right, I was not one of the popular kids in school, nor was I particularly adept at most social situations. Luckily, I encountered no bullies like the character of Filkins, who engages in some of the most outlandish tactics you could imagine. It’s that level of impossibility that ultimately kills the film.
The film is produced by Judd Apatow, who brought us last summer’s hits “Knocked Up” and “Superbad,” both of which were marked by a certain universality that anchored the humor. “Drillbit Taylor” contains such sympathetic situations, but the film is doomed from the beginning by a plot that denies the possibility of such universality.
The unfortunate victims, Wade, Ryan and Emmit have just started high school and are at the mercy of Filkins, until they hatch a plan to hire a bodyguard to protect them. Since they are strapped for cash, all they can afford is Drillbit (Owen Wilson), an army deserter and local homeless person who latches onto the kids as a source of cash and easily pilfered items.
Drillbit poses as a substitute teacher and becomes popular with the teachers, especially an English teacher (Leslie Mann) who finds him attractive. Meanwhile, Filkins gets a little comeuppance, but gets angrier at his frustrated attempts to pummel the boys.
All of this heads toward a very predictable conclusion. Drillbit is exposed, illusions are shattered, and the boys must fend for themselves. This mirrors the pattern of the entire film: interesting developments or opportunities for humor are set up and then cancelled out by some mediocre gag.
This script is co-written by Seth Rogen, who should really know better, having starred in some of Apatow’s previous hits, including “Knocked Up.” One wonders, watching this film, if he was just as strapped for cash at the time of writing it as its titular character is.
The film is not necessarily awful, it’s just so frustratingly average. There’s always the promise, the possibility, but no one seems able to make it materialize. Not even Owen Wilson, one of the most likable actors working today, can turn the material into something worthwhile.
Part of the problem is its young cast. It’s not that they are incompetent, it’s that they are rather inexperienced, and it shows. They are meant to anchor the film, but they’re not skillful enough to provide a range of emotion that makes us care. Having them at the center of the film gives the whole thing an amateurish feeling. Like the film, you know there is potential there, but they just can’t fulfill it.
It’s the kind of film that is hard to review. There’s so many out there like it, and writing about it makes me feel like I’m repeating myself. Perhaps this drivel must exist for us to recognize the true comic gems. I just wish they weren’t so few and far between.

The Bank Job

It’s a credit to the filmmakers that “The Bank Job” is not a three hour film. It could have been. It’s a marvel that they were able to distill so many plots into just under two hours. With that much plot, though, there’s little room for anything else.
The movie is supposedly based on a true story, but the facts are a bit hazy; there’s clearly lots of conjecture here. Rather the point is to try to explain away the mystery surrounding one of the biggest bank robberies in history amidst an atmosphere of vice and corruption in the 1970s.
The basic premise is this: a member of the royal family is photographed in a compromising situation on a Caribbean island, and the photo ends up in the hands of a black revolutionary figure. He uses it as leverage to get out of any legal trouble he runs into.
The government is tired of his evasions, and so it secretly contracts a group of thieves to rob the bank and unknowingly recover the photograph. Meanwhile, it also sends a spy into the black revolutionary gang to try to obtain any copies that might exist.
Unfortunately for the thieves, the robbery also draws the ire of the regular London police who don’t know of the government’s plan, a pornography magnate who has to recover evidence of his bribing other London cops, and other government officials whose photos were taken in compromising situations by a conniving brothel owner.
It’s a large amount of characters to keep track of, and with so many different allegiances, particularly among the various government and law enforcement types, it can get a bit confusing. Luckily director Roger Donaldson is up to the task, imbuing the narrative with all the certainty of a Scorsese film.
However, by the time all the plot devices are in place and the story is running at full speed, there’s no time left for character development, or reflection of any other kind. The story’s entertaining enough, but the weight of it crushes everything else in its path.
Still, there’s an interesting style here, with a muted color palate trying to reflect memorable 70s films. It would have been easy to try to make an intricate Tarantino-esque odyssey with lots of quick shots and frenetic visuals, but Donaldson wisely keeps things more conventional. It’s more like “Rififi” than “Reservoir Dogs.”
The cast is led by perennial British tough guy Jason Statham, who thankfully shows more humanity than in the truly awful “The Transporter.” He doesn’t have the greatest range, but his previous work in Guy Ritchie movies serves him well here. The rest of the cast is capable enough, and because the movie’s all plot, they never have to dip deep into the well of emotion beyond anger or excitement.
Now that I think about it, the whole movie is a little like a Guy Ritchie film. It’s essentially a 70s “fact-based” version of “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” which has its merits. Thankfully the filmmakers here seem to have a better handle on their style, and a better sense of purpose.


I am making a new law. Let’s call it the “Law of Diminishing Shorts.” This law will state that any film featuring Will Ferrell in 70s-style basketball shorts, that is, short shorts, cannot try to be serious. Ever. So let it be written, so let it be done.
Such is the central flaw of Ferrell’s latest 1970s farce “Semi-Pro.” The story takes place in the world of the American Basketball Association (ABA), facing its waning days and the promise of a merger with the NBA. All the ridiculous grandstanding and flamboyancy of the 70s combined with the almost-ludicrous energy of professional basketball makes for a rather exotic locale.
And this is the kind of world that Ferrell does best in. His pompous fools Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby could not exist in a normal world; they need to be surrounded by characters just as silly as they are. The same is true for Jackie Moon of “Semi-Pro.” When he starts the film by singing his love ballad “Love Me Sexy,” you think things are off on the right track.
So you can imagine the disappointment every time the filmmakers try to plug in a serious subplot or a relatively serious emotional moment. It doesn’t jive with Jackie Moon, and so he wanders through the picture, occasionally wrestling a bear or jumping over cheerleaders while wearing roller skates. Besides the occasional scene with Andy Richter or Will Arnett, there seems to be no one who will play along.
The serious moments I refer to mostly revolve around an aging ex-NBA player (Woody Harrelson) who is trying to connect with his ex-girlfriend. The pieces of the subplot are sparse and random, and create nothing but sluggishness as we wait for Ferrell’s next crazy stunt.
Also in the mix are a couple of mismatched commentators, the afro-hooded “Coffee” Black (Andre Benjamin), and a clueless hippie (Jackie Earle Haley). These are the characters that make Jackie feel at home, and the comedy is strongest when it indulges in their ridiculous banter. The best scene of the film is the one that most feels like improvisation. It features poker, a gun, and Tim Meadows, and that’s all you need to know.
Some might consider this a sign that Will Ferrell needs to move on, forget the 70s, and start doing some more sophisticated comedy or serious roles. I would have to disagree. In the right hands, Ferrell’s energy and persona can work wonders. They just have to be harnessed to the right task, in the right world. A clown’s just not as funny outside of the circus.
One thing is for sure, though. He stills has that manic energy and conviction that makes him talented, in my eyes. Few comedians will jump through the hoops that Ferrell does with such gusto, and a feeling of genuine investment in the often foolish concerns of his characters. It takes a sort of courage that you don’t often find. Unfortunately for him, “Semi-Pro” was a losing battle from the beginning.