Sunday, May 14, 2006

Short Reviews: Art School Confidential, Inside Man, Freedomland and Akeelah

Oh, it's been ages since I was "reviewing" dear readers but I'm getting back to it. Some short pieces on things I haven't gotten around to yet.

Akeelah and the Bee
Spellbound, that endearing spelling bee documentary from a few years back seems to have created a whole mini-wave of enthusiasm for this uniquely geeky competitive sport. There's been a Broadway musical, Bee Season, and now this charming if formulaic ode to to the bee. What makes Akeelah work despite its derivative nature is that its a genuinely warm movie. Nobody is breaking any new ground therein including the actors --I doubt this is what anyone expected when they prayed for Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne to work together again --but one senses that the sentimentality of the filmmaking is coming from a place of utter conviction rather than lathered on cynically to bait audiences into loving the film. It's still shamelessly sentimental but it's sweet. Keke Palmer, who plays the title character with natural grace, is a find.

Art School Confidential
I did not attend an art school but I was a design major in college. I was smiling near the beginning of this new film from the Ghost World team as the various art 'types' were trotted out. I suspect though that these very broad targets for satire don't need the audience to have a working knowledge of this world. The targets are too broad really. It's a little hard to laugh when you can see a joke coming a mile away. Especially when the punch lines don't twist the joke you saw from a distance. I suppose I'd also hoped to see more visual wit in the filmmaking since that would have been fitting for a comedy about the arts. The chief pleasure (and also a source of disappointment) in Art School Confidential is waiting around for the more seasoned actors to do their thing. John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent, and Angelica Huston as the professors are all great at what they do but they aren't given terribly much screen time in which to do it.

This drama about racial tension erupting in the projects when a white child goes missing is in trouble from the very first frames. It starts off so loud and agitated that you start suspecting the reels were put in the projector in the wrong order. By the time the film quiets down and the story begins you've already got a headache. This technique ("start with a bang!") generally works well with action films but it's very problematic for what wants to be a wrenching psychological drama. Or is that really what this film wants to be? Freedomland is truly all over the place in tone and narrative. There's at least four movies in it fighting for dominance. All that's left is to watch the actors try to make sense of it. Samuel L Jackson phones it in. Edie Falco manages against all odds to eke out an interesting character. And Julianne... Oh, Julianne.

I've tried pleading with her directly but it's time to get her friends, husband, agents, and management involved. Do not even hand this woman a script involving a missing or dead child! Yes, she's good at this stuff and obviously drawn to fictional women with these issues but she's worked this terrain so many times now she's fast approaching self parody. That would be a sorry fate for one of the great screen actresses.

Inside Man
Though he's an acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee also has a reputation for being highly uneven in execution. If the pleasures of Inside Man are any indication a director-for-hire gig now and then is just what he needs to rejuvenate his auteurial mojo. This bank robbery picture strikes me as one of those films that might not stand up to intense plot scrutiny but, as with any heist picture (or any other relative of the adventure genre), what matters is the fun you're having as an audience member. Fun is something that Inside Man provides in generous helpings.

Everything within Inside Man seems shot through with adrenaline. Take for instance the score. Terence Blanchard did terrific work with Spike before on 25th Hour (top ten in 2002) and this time there's an inspired addition of a Bollywood song to kick things off. It's not surprising to see multicultural elements in a Spike Lee joint but it's a pleasure to see them woven in to the film and narrative with wit and without much fuss as they are throughout this picture. The writing too is quick witted. The plot is complex and peculiar enough to keep you riveted for what amounts to an overextended running time.

Most importantly the performances are bliss. It's almost always annoying when actors speak directly to the camera but Clive Owen does it superbly. He plays this thief with such charismatic 'you love me. you hate me. you love to hate me' confidence that his scenes called to mind the 'razzle dazzle' con that the musical Chicago warns you about. It's also a kick to see Jodie Foster sprung from her woman-trapped-in-small spaces thriller phase and gleefully intoxicating to see her try and fail at something she's not suited for. (Hey, I'll take the often missing Jodie wherever I can get her these days). But in the end Inside Man is all about watching Denzel Washington having a ball. This actor sometimes gets bogged down in overly earnest characterizations. This is his most satisfying and lively star turn since the one that won him his second Oscar in Training Day (2001).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Best regards from NY! » »