Monday, March 31, 2008

Drillbit Taylor

DRILLBIT TAYLOR (Steven Brill, 2008)

Gangly Wade (Nate Hartley) and chubby Ryan (Troy Gentile) are stoked for the first day of high school. They can carve out new, cool identities for themselves, that is until they show up wearing the same shirt and stand up for tiny, bullied Emmit (David Dorfman). These fashion and social blunders put them on the radar of Filkins (Alex Frost), the school's most fearsome bully. Filkins is emancipated from his Hong Kong-dwelling parents and snookers Principal Doppler (Stephen Root) with his Eddie Haskell act, meaning he is answerable to no one.

In DRILLBIT TAYLOR the boys determine that their only means for survival is to hire a bodyguard. They interview many but can only afford the curiously named Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson). Claiming to have been discharged from the Army for going beyond the permissible limits of heroism, Drillbit talks up his fighting and covert ops expertise to earn their trust. Whether he is telling the truth is beside the point. The homeless beggar is only interested in scrounging up a few hundred dollars to get him to the better life he believes is waiting in Canada.

Drillbit intends for the bodyguard arrangement to provide a quick monetary gain but discovers that he can string along the boys for much more. He holds impromptu self-defense lessons that he makes up as he goes along. To keep their suspicions down, Drillbit infiltrates their school using a substitute teacher's guise, which has the side benefit of attracting a pretty English teacher (Leslie Mann).

Produced by Judd Apatow and co-written by Seth Rogen, DRILLBIT TAYLOR has a been there, done that quality reminiscent of SUPERBAD if it were much tamer and less funnier. The character names may be different, but these types are mirror images of Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. It's very easy to envision those actors' younger selves as Wade, Ryan, and Emmit. Although not a prequel in any way, DRILLBIT TAYLOR is essentially the unofficial bookend SUPERBAD: FRESHMAN YEAR and a sign of diminishing returns from the Apatow brand.

Ultimately DRILLBIT TAYLOR lacks enough fresh material with the boys to sustain interest for the stretches when their bodyguard is bumming around off-screen. Nothing distinguishes their ordeals from the zillion other teen comedies in decades past. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising since John Hughes gets a story credit under the pseudonym Edmond Dantes.

Yet for as overly familiar much of DRILLBIT TAYLOR is, Wilson salvages a good deal of it with his trademarked space case shtick. The lines he delivers aren't inherently funny; it's how sunnily and seriously he speaks them in his lilting voice that makes the words humorous. The Zen cowboy/mystic surfer routine is fitting for a script that doesn't tether the character to the world or this particular cinematic one. Drillbit floats in and away when the spirit moves him, leaving the bulk of a film named after him to the three boys he's supposed to be protecting.

Where Wilson struggles, though, is in defining a character that the writers don't see clearly. Is Drillbit looking to exploit the kids, or does he truly like them and take their safety to heart? Is there something darker spinning in his head, or is he an amiable bum with a severe lack of motivation? DRILLBIT TAYLOR suggests all of these as it flip-flops to an ending that opts for the softest landing. The film could have cut loose more if the writers decided Drillbit doesn't care at all or is a mother hen. It's safer in the school hallways to stay neutral, but in comedy a side needs to be picked.

Grade: C

Run Fatboy Run

RUN FATBOY RUN (David Schwimmer, 2007)

In a fit of last minute panic in RUN FATBOY RUN, Dennis (Simon Pegg) sprints from his own wedding, leaving behind his pregnant fiancée Libby (Thandie Newton). Five years later Dennis is wasting away as a potbellied lingerie store security guard on the verge of being evicted from his apartment. He finally realizes the magnitude of his mistake but is incapable of correcting it.

Libby allows Dennis to spend time with their son Jake (Matthew Fenton), but she's moved past thoughts of romantic reconciliation, not that she's seeking it. Plus, American financial executive Whit (Hank Azaria) is actively wooing her. He's a kind, thoughtful, and rich marathon runner. It doesn't take a genius to see that even if Dennis were to turn things around, he doesn't stack up to the competition.

Still, Dennis bristles when he sees Whit taking what he views as his still rightful place among Libby and Jake. In an irrational moment of macho posturing to diminish Whit and impress Libby, Dennis announces that he too is running in the charity marathon along the Thames in three weeks. Never mind that he's an overweight smoker who can barely jog a block without huffing and puffing.

Making his feature film directing debut, David Schwimmer paces the film well for the most part; however, like a runner, he and the movie hit the wall in the latter third. The jokes land softly, but RUN FATBOY RUN moves at a sitcom-like clip that keeps it watchable even when it isn't especially funny.

Schwimmer proves to be anonymous behind the camera the first time out. With better material, though, he could become a reliable for-hire director. He gets game performances from his cast, and Richard Greatrex's warm cinematography gives the film a rich look contrary to the cheap, washed out visuals that mar so many of today's comedies.

The screenplay is credited to Michael Ian Black, a member of the defunct sketch comedy troupe The State, and SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ co-writer Pegg. Despite their edgy credentials, RUN FATBOY RUN is a highly conventional comedy. Pegg punctured movie formulas for big laughs when collaborating with SHAUN and FUZZ writer-director Edgar Wright. RUN FATBOY RUN trots out the kind of tired clichés they mocked, and the film can't help but feel restrained because of it.

The uplifting sports film sequences, particularly the marathon that drags out the final third, are ripe for parody but presented in a straightforward manner. Romantic comedy tropes are lazily employed. Whit flips from great guy to conniving boyfriend because custom demands it, not due to anything developed in the screenplay.

Sometimes RUN FATBOY RUN follows the blueprint for the novel-to-film adaptations of Nick Hornby's character-driven work (HIGH FIDELITY, ABOUT A BOY), but too often it reaches for easy laughs and ignores personality and heart. At worst RUN FATBOY RUN is derivative and passably amusing. The same is true for the film at its best.

Grade: C

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Snow Angels

SNOW ANGELS (David Gordon Green, 2007)

Two nearby pops of a shotgun interrupt band practice in a small town in SNOW ANGELS. The echoing blasts don't signify hunting season but the tragic consequences of broken hearts and shattered illusions.

Interweaving stories of burgeoning and disintegrating love, SNOW ANGELS follows three couples in uncertain relationships. The most damaged one exists between Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn Marchand (Sam Rockwell). The longtime sweethearts are separated and do not appear to have a chance of reconciling their marriage. Glenn attempted to kill himself after Annie first rejected him. Now he's giving born-again Christianity and newfound but weak sobriety a whirl in hopes of repairing the rift.

Glenn aims to be a better man for his wife and daughter, but his new job and outlook on life don't seem to be making much of an impression on Annie. She has found comfort in the arms of Nate Petite (Nicky Katt), the husband of Barb (Amy Sedaris), a friend and co-worker at the Chinese restaurant. The more Glenn's efforts are ignored, the more he backslides.

High school trombone player Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano) works alongside Annie at the Chinese place. He once harbored a crush on his former babysitter, but as an observer of her marital difficulties, she has lost much of her fantasy mystique. With his parents (Griffin Dunne and Jeanetta Arnette) freshly split, Arthur is discovering that love is more complicated than it might seem. While he is cautious around Lila Raybern (Olivia Thirlby), a quirky new girl who takes an immediate shine to him, Arthur finds that he can't help but fall for her.

Although SNOW ANGELS has some of the trappings of a suburban hell film--think AMERICAN BEAUTY and LITTLE CHILDREN--writer-director David Gordon Green embraces the characters in his rurally located movie rather than keeping them at arm's length with snarkiness and irony. Viewing these often unlikeable people with empathy, and sometimes humor, instead of judgment and condescension makes all the difference in what could have otherwise been a miserabilist tour of a rocky relationship landscape.

The opening scene, in which the band director takes his young charges to task for a sloppy rendition of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer", explicitly lays out Green's opinion of the damaged souls we will come to know: every person matters. At first glance the moment plays as a comedic remembrance of too-serious instructors making impassioned pleas to jaded students, but by the end it becomes obvious that this is the director's way of asking the audience to respect the humanity of characters who may be beyond the understanding of most viewers.

Clearly, the character Green has most in mind is Glenn. Rockwell's high wire act of a performance teeters from humorous to harrowing. The charm that Glenn once exhibited has given way to desperation that, while with its funny qualities, can be all too frightening. Glenn tends to be quick to abuse himself to show seriousness and penance. The trait can produce comic effects until it becomes apparent that he's near another breaking point.

Rockwell puts on a friendly face and acts like a man who is trying to get his life together, but in reality this is a rickety facade Glenn has tacked up to cover the truth that he's working frantically not to fall apart. His nervous body language, forced smiles, and blindly upbeat talk reveal him as the emotionally fragile man he wants to hide. Glenn makes others uneasy, yet Rockwell's jittery performance and Green's devotion to telling his story humanize him in spite of it.

The darkness of the Glenn and Annie thread in SNOW ANGELS is lightened with Arthur and Lila's tender and tentative romance, although the separated couple's carefree high school days linger in the distant horizon too. As he demonstrated in the excellent ALL THE REAL GIRLS, Green has a knack for articulating what his characters can't, especially when it comes to love. With Angarano and Thirlby gracefully conveying awkwardness, Arthur and Lila fumble their way into a sweet, realistic relationship in which sharing one's artistic photographs is a better indicator of trust and affection than mere words.

Likewise, Green often prefers longtime cinematographer Tim Orr's poetic images to tell as much of the story as possible over the dialogue. SNOW ANGELS may be the director's most plot-driven film, but it's still very much a mood piece that establishes place with an unerring eye and ear.

Whereas many filmmakers condescend in presenting working class people and their environment--either through sentimentalized small town fantasies or the outsider's pitiable view--Green respects the stolid folk and rugged beauty, both natural and man-made, by showing everyone and everything for what they are instead of putting them in scare quotes. The impassive people behave in familiar manners, and home interiors dressed with quilts and country knickknacks feel lived in. It's a major part of driving home Green's insistence to value these characters.

In retracing the steps that led to the opening shots fired, Green's adaptation of Stewart O'Nan's novel provides the context rarely found in news reports or fictional films about common tragedies. SNOW ANGELS can painfully burrow into one's heart, but such is the cost of empathy, or any human connection for that matter.

Grade: B+

(For more on SNOW ANGELS and the director, read my interview with David Gordon Green.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Ebertfest 2008 speculating

The official Ebertfest website states that this year's line-up will be announced in March, but so far the lists of titles and guests have not materialized. A little information has trickled out, though, which confirms the opening night film and allows for some speculating about other selections.

Traditionally a film in 70mm has kicked off the festival, and this year the slot goes to Kenneth Branagh's HAMLET. Very cool.

The news article lists filmmakers Sally Potter, Paul Schrader, and Fred Schepisi as panelists for the event, so it's fair to assume that each will have a film playing Ebertfest. What might they be? YES and ICEMAN both received four star reviews from Roger Ebert. Schrader's most recent film, THE WALKER, got a positive review and was mostly off the cinematic radar, so I think there's a good chance it will be on the slate.

The event was previously known as Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, but the way the fest has developed has led to "Overlooked" being dropped from the name. It's probably just as well, although perhaps it would apply more to this year's movies. The Reuters article mentions that the critic "is in the process of finalizing the remainder of this year's lineup, which will include several low-budget projects."

As long as I'm tossing out guesses, I wouldn't be stunned if ACROSS THE UNIVERSE turned out to be the closing film. A musical has tended to round out the event, and Ebert loved it. Will the Alloy Orchestra be back? They've played Ebertfest many times, although not last year, so it stands to reason that they might return with something from their current touring repetoire.

We'll find out soon enough as the 10th annual Ebertfest takes place from April 23-27, 2008 in Champaign, Illinois.

Monday, March 17, 2008

10,000 BC

10,000 BC (Roland Emmerich, 2008)

Pity mammoth hunter D'Leh (Steven Strait) in 10,000 BC. When he was a boy, his father left for the good of the tribe. Now a young man, dreadlocked D'Leh can't relish his crowning achievement making the kill on the big hunt because it was more or less an accident. Feeling as though he is not worthy of his rewards--the white spear and his longtime crush Evolet (Camilla Belle)--D'Leh returns what he does not believe he has earned.

Another chance arrives for D'Leh to prove his mettle when Evolet is among those taken from the tribe by four-legged demons, which is the prehistoric people's scarier way of describing men on horses. During his epic journey to save his true love from enslavement D'Leh encounters terrifying beasts and slowly builds an army to fight back against a god.

Omar Sharif's grave and too-frequent narration suggests that 10,000 BC is to be taken seriously, but it's hard to avoid laughing when not struggling to stay awake during the countless continent-traversing scenes. Better to show D'Leh and his men walking than having them talk, though. The dialogue can be pretty idiotic even by the standards of pre-civilized mankind's usual film depictions.

The prehistorical inaccuracies are glaring even to this untrained observer. Mammoths as domesticated service animals for transporting materials to build pyramids? Really? Look, no one expects to be educated from a Roland Emmerich film. If he didn't want to put the effort into being true to the era, he should have gone entirely in a fantasy direction. Otherwise the result plays as unintended comedy.

One wonders how Mel Gibson, star of Emmerich's THE PATRIOT, might have been able to improve this material. Emmerich borrows from BRAVEHEART and APOCALYPTO, so such conjecture has a basis in what turns up on screen. 10,000 BC'S director lacks Gibson's visual acumen and anthropological curiosity. Emmerich stages the so-so CGI setpieces and plodding tribal camp scenes with little sense of awe or danger, something Gibson would have instilled in every frame. Even if Gibson weren't behind the camera, the film desperately needs his (or someone's) star power for the hero role. Strait is found lacking in every way.

Technology has made it possible to recreate anything in the movies, but rendering saber-toothed tigers and a bygone time and making it all come alive are not the same thing. With a dreadfully dull story and performances as petrified as 12,000-year-old wooden artifacts, 10,000 BC shambles along as if on a march to its own extinction.

Grade: D

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Bank Job

THE BANK JOB (Roger Donaldson, 2008)

The 1971 robbery of Lloyds Bank on Baker Street in London is considered to be one of the biggest heists in England's history, yet no money was recovered nor any arrests made. Perhaps even more stunning is that this tantalizing story was reported in the media for just a few days because of a government request not to publish or broadcast information about the matter. THE BANK JOB, a fictionalized account of the event, purports to reveal untold truths about what happened.

Struggling car dealer Terry Leather (Jason Statham) has been known to be involved with unsavory characters and enterprises, but he is strictly a small-time crook. He admits as much when longtime acquaintance Martine Love (Saffron Burrows) presents him with a tempting opportunity to make a quick killing. She claims inside knowledge of a bank whose security system will be out of commission temporarily, leaving a vault full of safe deposit boxes vulnerable to thieving hands.

The prospects sound too promising to turn down, so Terry assembles a team of amateur criminals to assist with pulling off the robbery. They acquire a shop two doors down from the bank and go about the arduous tunneling so they can break into the vault from below.

This is not an ordinary heist, though. Black militant Michael X (Peter De Jersey) is storing scandalous photographs of a Royal Family member in this particular bank. He uses the threat of the pictures going public as a means of keeping the authorities at bay. MI5 is determined to get the photos. Using Martine's legal troubles as leverage, the government agency concocts the plan for her to carry out. Ideally MI5 gets the compromising pictures, Martine escapes prosecution on drug charges, and Terry and his oblivious crew go away with a fortune.

Undoubtedly director Roger Donaldson and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have taken liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes. THE BANK JOB doesn't get its juice from being based on real events, though. The truthful element is simply a sweet bonus. Densely plotted and briskly paced, the film weaves a fascinating story of cops and robbers and sex scandals and police corruption.

The fun really begins after the heist has concluded. Storylines converge so that Terry and his buddies are put in a seemingly unwinnable position. Turning over the pictures to MI5 gets them free and clear with the government, but doing so puts them at risk with the underground porn king who had a ledger documenting his police bribes stolen from his safe deposit box. He also has ties with Michael X and a vested interest in holding onto his damaging photographic evidence. The crooked policemen aren't keen about being found out either, yet stiffing the intelligence agency is obviously a losing proposition.

Watching Terry finagle out of the jam is as satisfying as any of the break-in's particulars. Cool and collected as ever, Statham plays an outlaw capable of capturing the public's favor.

Executed with machine-like precision, THE BANK JOB is a ripping good caper with plenty of interesting twists. Ultimately, how much of it is true is secondary to its entertaining nature.

Grade: B

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Cleveland Film Festival 2008: There Will Be Snow

As is to be expected, there has not been much time to write while shuttling between films. I'd hoped to do some quick write-ups this morning, but with the weather being what it is, I ought to get out to clear off my car and drive the less than a mile to Tower City Center to gear up for another full day of movies.

Yesterday's slate included:

-Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock'n'Roll
-The Brother from Another Planet
-Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story
-What We Do is Secret
-Timecrimes (Los Cronoscrimenes)

I was going to see The International (Beynelmilel), but I punted the first session of the day while dithering over whether to make the trek north. I planned to watch Stiletto, but all screenings of it have been cancelled. The attendees are still showing up for the 32nd Cleveland International Film Festival, although numbers appear to be down for obvious reasons.

The highs weren't too high and lows not too low, so it was a decent moviegoing day. Spine Tingler! was my favorite of the bunch, but I'll save specific thoughts on these films for later.

Today's screenings include new films from Hou Hsiao-hsien and Christophe Honoré.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Cleveland Film Festival 2008: And so it begins

If you live in Ohio, you probably expect that I listened to the gloom and doom in the local weather forecasts and stayed parked at home. A foot of snow! Possible blizzard-like conditions!

I am, without a doubt, an idiot, but I wanted to attend this weekend. So here I am in Tower City Center ready to begin watching movies. I've switched my hotel to one much closer, so at least if the snow becomes a problem, I will still have relatively easy access to the theater.

More later...

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day


Dismissed from yet another governess job, Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is no longer considered fit for assignments from the employment office. Without even two pence to her name, this drab vicar's daughter is nothing if not industrious in pre-World War II London. Miss Pettigrew swipes the card of club singer Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), who seeks a social secretary, and allows herself to be mistaken for the woman who previously assisted Carole Lombard.

Like many pretty young women, Delysia aspires to be an actress, and she's not above juggling three men to make her dream a reality. She is in crisis mode when Miss Pettigrew rings her bell. Theater producer's son Phil Goldman (Tom Payne), who is almost ready to cast the lead role in a West End play, is still in bed from the previous night's persuasion. Nick (Mark Strong), the club owner whose penthouse Delysia is staying in, is on his way home. Miss Pettigrew deftly manages the situation, earning Delysia's immediate trust and a request to help save her from herself for the day.

Also in the picture is Delysia's piano player Michael (Lee Pace), who has just been released from prison. He loves her but wants a commitment. Michael asks Delysia to marry him, a choice she will have little time to ponder since he has two tickets for a boat that departs for New York the next morning.

Further complicating the scenario in MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY is the duplicitous Edythe Dubarry (Shirley Henderson). She recognizes Miss Pettigrew from the soup kitchen and is willing to reveal her true identity unless she can repair Edythe's broken engagement to lingerie designer Joe (Ciarán Hinds).

That's a lot of set-up for a farce that is otherwise as careful in rationing plot details and character introductions as a down-on-their-luck resident of 1939 England would be with the staples of life. Director Bharat Nalluri can be slack in pacing the story's wind-up and unraveling. Shot in widescreen, all the better to appreciate the swanky art deco sets, MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY can feel static, like a stage play brought to the screen despite its origin as a Winifred Watson novel, but the wonderful lead actresses provide the momentum that the composition and editing fail to provide.

McDormand's Miss Pettigrew is the moral outsider plunked into debauched high society, yet she plays her not as a scold or judge but as a compassionate witness and adviser. This characteristic permits her to be funnier as she rolls along with every eyebrow-raising development. Still, McDormand gives regular reminders of the bittersweet nature of Miss Pettigrew's plight. After all, this is a woman desperate enough to eat the cucumber slices placed over her eyes during a facial and who hungrily eyes a half-eaten apple on the train station floor. As written, Miss Pettigrew is not a three-dimensional character, but McDormand's firm presence and subtle emoting fill in the gaps.

As a sweet ditz Adams receives the juicier part and savors every bit of it. Delysia's manner is highly affected, as if she believes she lives in a screwball comedy. She has a lot of fun playing up Delysia's perception of how she thinks men want her to behave, including a slightly naughty side absent in Adams' pure-hearted previous roles. She delivers a bright, bouncy performance that makes one wish a producer would pair Adams, who radiates timeless movie star qualities, and George Clooney for a modern screwball picture.

Old Hollywood glamour and filmmaking sensibilities are resurrected in this slight but appealing comedy. The sets, period fashions, and soundtrack standards in MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY add old-fashioned elegance and dazzle. The film as a whole is less than the sum of its parts. Despite its pacing weaknesses and thin characterization, it builds to an unexpectedly satisfying conclusion. The final scenes are completely predictable, but it's a testament to McDormand and Adams that nothing less than Hollywood endings are desired for these charming ladies.

Grade: B-

College Road Trip

COLLEGE ROAD TRIP (Roger Kumble, 2008)

Woe to the uninformed moviegoer who wanders into COLLEGE ROAD TRIP expecting a sequel to the raunchy 2000 comedy ROAD TRIP. Instead of seeing frat parties, bare breasts, and Tom Green, such a mistaken person will get a G-rated Disney family film with Donny Osmond in the scene-stealing supporting role.

Police chief James Porter (Martin Lawrence) is the typical overprotective dad who doesn't realize that he's smothering his daughter Melanie (Raven-Symoné). Dad already has her college plan mapped out. She will attend Northwestern, which is only forty miles (and twenty-eight minutes) away, so he can be nearby in case the slightest thing goes wrong.

Of course, Melanie has a different idea. She wants to go to Georgetown and participate in a program that will send her to Japan for a term. Her dad's predicted objection notwithstanding, Melanie's dream seems unlikely until a judge impressed with her skills at mock trial puts in a good word with an old friend in the admissions office. He gets Melanie an interview that will take place in three days.

Rather than have his little girl travel to Washington, D.C. with two high school friends, which is to include an overnight stay in a University of Pittsburgh sorority house, James insists on driving Melanie so they can spend some father-daughter quality time together. If they happen to visit a fine school in Evanston along the way, well, whoever could have expected it?

COLLEGE ROAD TRIP finds Lawrence trying on the bumbling dad role in what has been Tim Allen's family movie domain. He draws a couple chuckles from how he plays James' paranoia regarding how his son's pet pig looks at him and his jealousy over the parent-child bond between super-chipper Doug (Osmond) and his daughter. Comedy-wise, though, there's little for Lawrence to do other than being in a perpetual state of exaggerated exasperation.

Although COLLEGE ROAD TRIP deals with entering young adulthood and starting to break away from parents while still needing them, the movie is aimed squarely at tweens and younger with half-formed ideas of campus life. As depicted here, college seems like a fantasy cobbled together from old movies. One half expects to see youngsters wearing raccoon coats as they cheer on their dear alma mater.

While the film allows kids to have safely scrubbed visions of the collegiate experience, it's primary purpose appears to be assuaging the fears of their moms and dads. COLLEGE ROAD TRIP plays like an instructional video shown at orientation to ease sheltering parents afraid to let their children leave the nest.

The film has a lot of high-pitched teenage girl shrieking in it, enough that a passerby could be forgiven for thinking COLLEGE ROAD TRIP is a horror movie. Otherwise this is harmless stuff that isn't particularly funny or original but manages to be relatively painless watch.

Grade: C-