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.
The story of the late great Johnny Cash depicted in Walk the Line is not quite all encompassing. The film dramatizes just one moment in Cash's life: his tumultuous 20s and rise to fame. The young Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) married and straight out of the army struggles with his music finally finding his patented blend of country blues and rock music. Haunted by a troubled childhood Cash sings songs about death love treachery and sin--and shoots straight to the top of the charts. On tour he also meets and falls for his future wife June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) whose refusal to meddle with a married man only further fuels the fire and contributes to his eventual drug addiction. Their cat-and-mouse love story provides the film’s core but unfortunately can’t quite overcome Walk the Line’s formulaic nature. Biopics are generally good to actors. Phoenix and Witherspoon could easily each walk away with Oscar statuettes for turning in two of the most jaw-dropping spellbinding performances since well Jamie Foxx in Ray. Neither actor had any musical background whatsoever but they both underwent painstaking transformations for the sake of authenticity doing all of their own singing as well as guitar-playing for Phoenix. The actor's performance is purely raw and visceral; his vulnerability is aptly palpable at first but then he becomes the Cash with the unflinching swagger. Witherspoon's Carter is Cash's temptress and she'll be yours too by movie's end. She eerily reincarnates Carter as if she was born to play the part. If Walk the Line is the ultimate actor's canvas then Phoenix and Witherspoon make priceless art-and music-together. While good for the actors biopics can prove to be difficult for the director. It’s hard to highlight a person’s life without it coming off like a TV movie of the week. Unfortunately director James Mangold (Copland) plays it safe with Walk the Line. The duets between Johnny and June on stage are about the only electrifying moments of the film. The rest is pretty stereotypical. And it isn’t because the film only focuses on certain years of Cash's life. It's simply not possible to fit a lifetime into the short duration of a film. The problem instead is that Mangold's presentation of Cash's life would lead one to believe that Cash actually exorcised his demons. But in reality his lifelong demons are what endeared him to the layperson. There was nothing cut and dry about the Cash story--and adding a little grit would have given Walk the Line the edge it needed.
September 14, 2001 8:54am EST
When gambler Conor O'Neill (Reeves) hits rock bottom after he fails to cover the spread on a Chicago Bulls game he's the prey of every bookie in town. To dig himself out of a seemingly bottomless fiscal hole he tries to squeeze a loan out of his friend Jimmy (Mike McGlone) a broker at a downtown Chicago firm who instead offers him $500 a week to coach his company-sponsored inner city Little League team. In no position to bargain O'Neill reluctantly agrees to do the deed. At first he sits hung over on the bench chain smoking while the Kekambas toss the ball around a dingy field swear and pick fights with one another. Eventually O'Neill grows attached to the kids providing them with leadership defending them from fanatic rival coaches and teaching them how to win. In the meantime he's getting friendly with the kids' teacher played by Diane Lane. In Hardball's predictable if workable story line O'Neill ultimately has to choose between redemption or a life of booze and crime.
Reeves' surprisingly impressive turn as the gritty O'Neill almost makes up for the schmaltzy and romantic Sweet November. As a boozy gambler Reeves holds his cigarette like an old pro with just the right amount of tremble and is convincingly nervous sweaty and awkward. Equally impressive is John Hawkes' performance in a small but fantastic part as O'Neill's friend and partner in crime Ticky. He's hilarious without being cartoonish and the same can be said for the cast of kids that makes up the Kekambas ball team. Sure the potty-mouthed gang will tug at your heartstrings at every opportunity but they are sharp not pitiful. DeWayne Warren Julian Griffith and A. Delon Ellis Jr. stand out as G-Baby Michael Perkins and Jefferson Tibbs. Above all it's a relief not to have to witness a gushy romance between Reeves and Lane whose dedicated grade school teacher is appropriately low-key.
Hardball is based on Daniel Coyle's novel Hardball: A Season in the Projects which was inspired by a true story a genre that can sometimes lead to too-cute too-sappy films. But director Brian Robbins doesn't go down that road. Instead he's created a poignant film about a group of kids and one grown man all in need of a positive distraction from a harsh world. O'Neill is not the great white hope for black inner city youths; he's a lost cause. The kids talk trash listen to gansta' rap and fight. While some have called the language in the film vulgar it is no worse than the song lyrics kids listen to every day. That being said Hardball is not really a kids' movie. The subject matter is slightly unsettling and the language coarse for those under 13 years of age (the film was originally rated R before Paramount toned it down).