Even if you’re one of the 19 other people in a competitive internship at Dean Witter with Chris Gardner (Will Smith) you gotta root for the guy. Life’s beaten him up but not got him down. He lugs his computer-monitor-sized bone density scanner all over San Francisco hoping to sell just one to make ends meet for his family—but nobody’s buying. As his wife’s (Thandie Newton) discontentment nears a boiling point Chris accepts an internship at financial institution Dean Witter—six months without pay and only one of the 20 applicants will ultimately get a job out of it. This sends her packing. She leaves Chris and their son Christopher (Jaden Smith) to fend for themselves at which point they get evicted. It’s the tip of the iceberg because over the course of Chris’ penniless pursuit of the Dean Witter job (and “happyness”) he and Christopher will get by sleeping in homeless shelter--and even in train-station bathrooms. Chris had always vowed to never leave his son and he keeps his promise but there’s no guarantee that his perseverance will pay off. Except for the fact that Happyness is “INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY”! Will Smith is getting all the awards buzz but it’s his real-life son Jaden who transcends all expectations in Happyness. Jaden’s never acted in a movie before and it’s safe to assume that because of his father's long-running movie stardom he could not have grown up in a more different environment than that of his character. Which makes it all the more amazing for this 8-year-old Hollywood tyke to grasp even if coincidentally the plight of a nomadic urban child. The best part about little Jaden is that his performance doesn’t seem robotic like so many child actors who are already too "seasoned" for their own good. Aside from the expected cutesy laughs there’s genuine spontaneity in Jaden’s performance obviously thanks to the fact that he’s acting opposite his dad. Papa Smith gives what’s probably his best performance to date although he's had a career of primarily action roles that weren't exactly conducive to a skills showcase. He delivers the goods here—as seen in the tear-rific trailer—as a man whose whole life is his child but frankly the tears evoked might be too few for Oscar’s liking. Newton (Crash) in a small role is terribly miscast but Mr. and Mr. Smith dominate the screen anyway. Even with the studio flaunting the movie’s "Inspired by a true story..." tagline like a badge of honor—as studios tend to do—and this being the holiday season and all Italian director Gabriele Muccino expends way too much effort into the crowd-pleasing/feel-good aspects of Happyness. The happy ending everyone already knows about should be saccharine enough. Granted this is why a studio loves true stories—one that begins on a low note ends on a really high note and fluctuates all over the radar in between—and it may make the film more pleasing to its targeted mainstream audiences but Muccino and writer Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) really take the gloss factor much too far. In this case they essentially try to tell us a mostly sad story but will not let us feel sad. For instance during what could be very dark reflective scenes potentially connecting with viewers who have struggled through similar problems music befitting a children’s tale overtakes the would-be drama so we don’t ever feel too badly for Chris. It’s nice that the director cares so much for us but oftentimes the best directors are the ones who show an audience tough love.
Dave Chappelle is a Hollywood anomaly. Not only because the comedian felt his soul was worth more than $50 million (the reported amount he walked away from when he left his Chappelle's Show) but also because he lives worlds apart from the place--literally and figuratively. In Block Party not a moment is spent trying to go deep inside the man behind the comedy yet that much is ascertainable. The documentary tells instead of his September 2004 mission to organize a rap/R&B block party/concert in Brooklyn and hand out the event’s "golden tickets" at random to people in his Dayton Ohio community. It cuts back and forth between concert footage with his standup and the often-funny events that precipitated it. Those hoping for some sort of mea culpa will be disappointed (and should be ashamed); rather it's Chappelle's show seemingly the way he wanted Chappelle's Show. While Block Party obviously contains no acting there is a bevy of performers. The catalyst of course is Chappelle and as he did so well on his show he turns mundane observations into knee-slapping hilarity—thanks in no small part to his infectious laugh that follows everything he says. He also plays the part of hip-hop goodwill ambassador both reuniting groups and diversifying the lineup. His tastes and schoolboy enthusiasm might even be enough to endear the hip-hop naysayer. See he prefers artists who are progressive--artists who say something punctuated by actual live music! Acts like The Roots Kanye West Common Erykah Badu Jill Scott Mos Def Talib Kweli Dead Prez and a reunited Fugees--the film’s climax if you will--make theater dancing all but unavoidable and massacre stereotypes. And they're all Chappelle-approved for an extra layer of authenticity. Block Party perfectly pairs subject with director. Michel Gondry--best known as director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind--has a voyeur’s curiosity an artist’s eye for aesthetics and an ear for left-of-center music (he is also an acclaimed music-video director). He is not interested in somehow exposing Chappelle to his legions of fans and few detractors but he does touch on something that might surprise: Chappelle with his genuine benevolence seems just as content to get a smile as he does a laugh. Such is the case when he invites an entire college band to come play at his block party and pays their way; or when he pleases the crowd by assembling the aforementioned eclectic mix of musical acts groups which might’ve gone their careers without appearing together. But what Gondry captures best is this freak of nature who’s so maddeningly candid in front of a camera.
Cold Creek Manor starts out setting the mood for an eerie thriller. Having had enough of the hustle-bustle of New York life the Tilsons-- a documentary filmmaker Cooper (Dennis Quaid) his corporate exec wife Leah (Sharon Stone) and their two kids--seek the quiet serenity of the countryside and buy a repossessed dilapidated manor with intentions of fixing it up. They also inherit the previous owner's personal things which include pornographic photos ominous press clippings and some nasty looking farming tools hanging on the wall. You'd think that would be the first clue things aren't quite right but Cooper finds the stuff fascinating and decides to make a documentary about the place--not realizing the danger which lurks around the corner. Up pops Dale Massie (Stephen Dorff) a mean-as-a-snake redneck just out of prison whose looking to come home to the house that's been in his family for generations except the house has strangers living in it. He doesn't take too kindly to that fact and nor do the rest of the townsfolk who rally around him. The volatile ex-con tries everything possible to get the Tilsons out--as well as keep them from finding out the grisly truth about what happened in the manor--but instead of getting scarier the film falls apart. Ultimately what could potentially been a real frightfest simply denigrates into another typical good guy-bad guy showdown.
Cold Creek Manor's cast do what they can with formulaic characters. Quaid hot off a career jump with last year's gems The Rookie and Far from Heaven handles Cooper with the requisite amount of citified savvy an urban hipster adjusting to country living who is saddled with protecting his family from a raging lunatic while as his wife Stone basically sleepwalks through most of the movie with phoned-in screams and scared looks. It's a shame the talented actress decided to get back into the swing of moviemaking with such a dull part (her last movie was 2000's Beautiful Joe). Dorff (feardotcom) on the other hand gets to chew his way through the film as the over-the-top Dale. There's really no question of who the villain is when Dale comes on the screen all sweaty and menacing flexing his pecs with a wild look in his eyes and Dorff plays it full-tilt with not a subtle bone in his body. Juliette Lewis makes an appearance as Dale's trailer-trash girlfriend who sticks up for him even after he gives her a bloody nose in public (why you never really know). Yet the only genuine standout worth mentioning is Kristen Stewart who did such a great job as Jodie Foster's daughter in Panic Room. Stewart plays Tilson's sullen teenage daughter Kristen able to convey to Dale with just a scowl that she knows he's trouble. The young actress could be one to look out for.
With such a promising start Cold Creek Manor could have been a real nail-biter; instead the film is rife with missed opportunities. Screenwriter Richard Jefferies and director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) choose to go the typical thriller route rather than build the suspense on the more intriguing aspects of the story namely the house and the secrets it hides. Instead Figgis first concentrates on Cooper and how he has to prove to everyone including his wife why he doesn't trust the seemingly helpful Dale. Then Figgis turns to Dale who is so obviously a psychopath it's hard to understand why anyone would buy him as a normal guy. Cold Creek is reminiscent of the 1990 thriller Pacific Heights about a couple who rents out part of their dream house to a sociopath who ruins their lives. Far from a classic Heights still holds up as a scary thriller--although you always know who the villain is you are nonetheless terrified wondering when and how his clever deadly tactics will strike next. In Cold Creek the enemy is too visible too recognizable and has little method to his madness. The final confrontation is so overdone--Dale chasing Cooper and Leah around the house one of those menacing farm tools in hand while a storm rages outside-- that you feel cheated.