Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Tribeca VII: Family Films, part one

Lassie

Written and Directed
by Charles Sturridge

Remember, this is a kid's film. Sure this is pure unadulterated schmaltz. It's supposed to be. After all, Eric Knight's original 1938 novel was schmaltzy, the first movie version, which introduced Elizabeth Taylor to the world, was also, and the 756,342 remakes, redos, TV shows and gawd knows what else, also are. It's the nature of the beast.

What matters here is if the film is done well, which it is. The plot follows that of the original book. We're in Yorkshire, England, where little Joe Carraclough(Jonathan Mason) is living with his working-class parents(Samantha Morton and John Lynch) and not doing very well at school. Things are happy anyway, until Dad is laid off at the mine and they're forced to sell their eponymous collie to the crotchety-yet-lovable Duke of Rudling(Peter O'Toole), who wants it for his cute-yet-formidable granddaughter Cilla(Hester Odgers).

Lassie, that Einstein of canines, doesn't like the situation very much, especially since the Duke has given Lassie's care over to the evil Eddie Hynes (Steve Pemberton), who runs his kennels. But he's not match for Lassie, who can dig tunnels and leap tall buildings in a single bound.

After she's escaped several times to return to the Carraclough's tiny apartment, The Duke and Cilla take the bitch up to Scotland, five hundred miles to the north. Lassie escapes yet again, and begins the epic journey where she testifies in court, outwits Glascow dog catchers, testifies in court, and helps an itinerant dwarf(Peter Dinklage) with his puppet theater and fending off ignorant muggers. Lassie can do anything except maybe fly a plane, but then again we knew that from the beginning…at least those of us who are old enough to remember the various TV shows or were forced to read the book in grade school do.

With the exception of a brief appearance by a CGI Loch Ness monster, this is moviemaking of the old school, and is worth taking the little ones to before they get too cynical.

One Last Thing…

Directed by
Alex Steyermark

Drama-dy is hard to do, especially when we've got one of those made-for-TV tearjerker ones which are too cute by half. Barry Stringfellow's script manages to do it successfully, and not bad for a first time screenwriter.

Dylan Jameison(Michael Angarano) in the final stages of some sort of cancer. He's applied to the “United Wish Givers” society for one last good time, and on the day he's to have his wish announced, he's realized he's made a mistake, he doesn't really want to go fishing with football star Jason O'Malley(Johnny Messner), he wants a rollicking weekend with supermodel Nikki Sinclair(Sunny Mabrey).

This, of course, mortifies both his mother Karen(Cynthia Nixon) and the foundation. But Nikki's agent Arlene(Gina Gershon) thinks that a visit would make for good publicity for one of the most troublesome models in the fashion biz, and a brief visit is quickly arranged. It doesn't go all that well, because she keeps dreaming about the boyfriend she dumped and who then killed himself.

Through a typical movie-of-the-week style plot twist, our hero and his two best friends(Matt Bush and Gideon Glick) head off to New York to basically stalk Nikki and see what the city is all about. Being teenagers, the friends behave wackilly. Nothing really wrong with that. The whole thing has a spiritual dimension that kind'a works under the circumstances, especially with Buddhist shopkeeper from
Brooklyn explaining reincarnation and Dylan's visions of his dead father(an uncredited Ethan Hawke) all over the place. The ending is sweet, and there's no real happy ending, which under the circumstances is also rather good.

Since the thing is coming out on DVD three weeks after the theatrical release, wait and rent it.

The Heart of the Game

Directed by
Ward Serrill

One thing about documentaries is that the filmmakers don't always know how the film is going to end. When Ward Serril began working on the film seven years ago, it was supposed to be about a guy named Bill Resler, who was a tax attorney teaching tax law at a university who decided to moonlight as a coach for a girl's basketball team, and to a small extent it still is, but then, a couple of years after Serrill started filming, something happened.

What that was was the arrival of Darnellia Russell, an extremely talented freshman who basically takes over the plot. She's not one of those perky poor heroines who's only flaw is her economic background. Since this is a documentary rather than one of those “inspired by a true story” fluffers, she has a number of problems which are her own damn fault.

There are also other girls who have problems, and since Daranellia wasn't the focus of the film for the first few years of the project, we get to see what those were as well. We also see the team's archrivals as well, and they're pretty inspirational was well.

But the focus of the film becomes Darnellia and her problems, which turns into a court case and a fight with the governing body of the Washington state high school basketball league, who wind up looking like a bunch of intolerant fools.

This is one of the best docs of this sort I've seen since “Murderball,” and one could probably see a dramatization sometime in the next few years. In the meantime, see it now.

Akeelah and the Bee

Written and Directed
by Doug Atchison

Too cute by half, that's the whole film in a nutshell. Of course the plot is exactly what you'd expect it to be as this is an inspirational kiddy flick. Call me jaded, but one would expect that a film with this cast would deserve a better script.

So, we've got cute-as-a-button little Akeelah(Keke Palmer), an underachiever living in the ghetto in LA, who's English teacher knows that she is a possible genius if only she puts her mind to it. Her love of words is great and she can whip pretty much everyone's butt in Scrabble®. So the principal of her run-down sorry-ass school, Mr. Welch(Curtis Armstrong), decides to force her to get into the school's first Scripps® Spelling Bee. The obvious happens.

Here's where the film begins to fall apart. Akeela's mom Tanya (Angela Bassett) hates her. Not HATES her, but there's a tension that doesn't ring true, here. Mom doesn't want her to achieve in school, so Akeela has to study behind her back. When Mr. Welch gets the eminent and erudite academic Dr. Larabee(Laurence Fishburne) to tutor her over the summer.

When Fishburne and Palmer are working together the film is magic, they have chemistry together and the acting is both subtle and moving. Same thing when she's with the other “brainiacs” she begins to hang out with in Beverly hills.

But we get back to the insane relationship with the mother which ruins the whole movie. There's a scene during the state finals where the mother tries to destroy Akeela's chances. Not only doesn't ring true, but it's absurd as hell. It's one of THE wasted scenes in the entire history of cinema, destroying whatever credibility that follows and lets the writer-director sleepwalk through the rest of the film in a particularly formulistic way.

From that point on, it's not only stupid, it's dim-witted, brainless and obtuse to the point of being insulting to the audience.

This film is, quite simply, a gilded turd. Geez!

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