WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
High-school misfit Will moves to New Jersey with his single mom and finds himself as socially anonymous at his new school as he was at the last. A music fanatic (he keeps a one-way letter-writing correspondence with David Bowie) Will finds his calling when much to his surprise the school’s hot blonde Charlotte Banks asks him to manage her fledgling garage band. Will accepts the offer taking a group that cranks out uninspired covers of "I Want You to Want Me" and molding it into a high-functioning jamband which he christens “I Can’t Go On I’ll Go On.” Thanks to his coaching they're soon skilled enough to take on the high school’s musical hotshots Glory Dogs at the city-wide battle of the bands Bandslam.
All the while Will is falling for the wry deadpan Sa5m (the 5 is silent I don’t know why) and dealing with the social and emotional damage wrought by his no-good absentee father.
WHO'S IN IT?
Gaelan Connell makes a compelling lead as the gangly and sweetly animated Will. Connell is smart funny and endearing like your awkward little brother. Lisa Kudrow fully engages her perfect comedic timing as Will’s kind smothering mother. Aly Michalka plays Charlotte Banks the blonde guitar-playing former cheerleader with heart and Vanessa Hudgens rounds out the crew as the introverted bookish nerd dream girl Sa5m. Rock legend David Bowie plays himself in a cameo.
The film is laugh-out-loud funny and trusts its young target audience to pick up on humor more subtle than what’s usually found in such teen fare. The dead/loser father subplots give the story a serious hook making it a little deeper and more authentically poignant than what’s expected. These twists also give Connell and Banks the opportunity to display their characters’ emotional range and they're up to the task. The way Will sways a surly audience of high school hecklers into a cheering crowd of fans might just bring happy proud mother-style tears to your eyes.
The flick boasts solid musicianship from its cast members and a deep cut-heavy soundtrack featuring artists including Nick Drake Wilco The Velvet Underground & Nico and Bowie himself.
The characters — sweet nerd alluring alterna-girl affected popular chick gaggle of musical dorks — are all cliches but the fine acting humanizes the crew in that relatable Breakfast Club kind of way.
Also at nearly two hours the film is longer than the subject matter requires.
Will and Sa5m’s trip across the bridge to Manhattan is a lovely grainy hand-held camera montage. This young love field trip/perfect first date reaches a high note when the duo breaks into shuttered punk mecca CBGB and Will finds it everything he's dreamed (a scuzzy shrine to his idols) and more (a fine place to romance his Sex Pistols-endeared love interest).
Lisa Kudrow also reminds us why she was our favorite Friend for so long in her neurotic mom role. The scene in which when she pretends to be a young babe on the prowl in order to help Will lure in a drummer to the band is pure comedic parental love.
It’s understandable that the public at large would perceive this flick to be a cheesy High School Musical-style hokefest for the Disney Channel set. Give Bandslam a chance though and it’ll prove itself to be a surprisingly smart little high school comedy that could simultaneously tide the Twilight legion over until New Moon comes out and endear itself to a broader audience wistful for a John Hughes-style junior year coming-of-age story.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Although The Great Buck Howard is not the literal story of the once popular (in the '60s and '70s) entertainer known as the Amazing Kreskin the film makes it known this is a pretty thinly disguised tribute to the man who made 88 appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show before fading into obscurity on the dinner theater circuit. Writer/director Sean McGinly who worked briefly as Kreskin’s assistant has reinvented him essentially as Buck Howard a “mentalist extraordinaire ” who once strode in the limelight with numerous TV and Vegas appearances but now plays faded community centers and hasn’t filled a theater in decades. As his new assistant law-school dropout Troy Gable quickly learns it isn’t easy working for Buck who still sees himself as a big star but when a quirk of fate intervenes and he really does get a second chance at the national spotlight neither one is quite prepared for what comes next.
WHO’S IN IT?
John Malkovich is a fine actor but he isn’t exactly known for comedy. As Buck Howard however he has the role of a lifetime and he’s simply amazing wryly funny as the has-been mentalist who would never admit he isn’t still every bit the top celebrity he used to be. Although Malkovich plays him somewhat pompously he’s ultimately quite touching as a celeb who once commanded great attention and still craves it on his own terms. As his new unwitting assistant Colin Hanks drolly underplays most of his scenes with Buck and effortlessly shows the quiet desperation of a wannabe writer who’s not exactly sure what he should be doing with his life. Emily Blunt is lovely as a publicist who helps engineer Buck’s surprising comeback; and there are also small but fun bits with Steve Zahn Griffin Dunne and even Colin’s real-life dad Tom Hanks whose company bankrolled the movie.
In the same sweet but low-key vein of My Favorite Year McGinly paints a portrait of the less glamorous aspect of showbiz when an outsized personality starts traveling on the downside of the entertainment world. Clearly his days with Kreskin gave him an entree into this life and his film is nicely observant and respectful. But still very funny.
The film plays it all a little too safe. It doesn’t seem to want to be anything more than a snapshot of life after huge success has faded; adding a little more complexity might have offered an even richer role for Malkovich. It’s pleasant but there’s not a whole lot of depth.
Buck hypnotizes a large crowd of volunteers but gets sidetracked and neglects to snap them out of it. It’s pricelessly funny and captures the ego of the guy perfectly in the expert hands of Malkovich.
Jules Verne’s classic 1864 novel has inspired many film and TV versions. None has matched the success of the penultimate 1959 Journey which starred James Mason and Pat Boone and remains a baby-boomer favorite and classic of the sci-fi genre. That could change with this clever remake--ingeniously filmed in 3D--which goes directly back to the source material of the book and comes off like an endless thrill ride. This updated tale begins with the daily travails of American professor Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) who has never gotten over the mysterious disappearance of his brother Max several years earlier. When Max’s son Sean (Josh Hutcherson) pays a visit bearing a box of Dad’s papers the Trevor discovers hand-written notes in a copy of an original Jules Verne book suggesting his brother may have found a way to confirm Verne’s theories about a direct volcanic entrance into the center of the earth. With nephew in tow and the book in hand the twosome set out for Iceland on their own perilous journey to test Max’s thesis and trace his steps. There they are joined by Hannah (Anita Briem) a skeptical mountain guide who agrees to show them the way--though she highly doubts they find anything resembling Verne’s imagined lost world of natural wonders and roaming dinosaurs. But stranger things have happened right?
Anchoring the proceedings with enough derring-do to suggest he would be ideally cast as the next Indiana Jones if Harrison Ford ever wants to hang up his hat Fraser has just the right amount of authority cynicism and dry wit to make us connect to a down and out professor whose “crazy” geological beliefs have torched his reputation. Key to liking this guy is clearly the fun Fraser has in playing him. Hutcherson is thankfully a little looser in this flick than the spiritually-driven boy he played in Bridge To Terabithia even though the two films share odd similarities especially with their descent from mundane real life into fantasy adventures any kid would salivate over. Briem nicely rounds out the threesome as the reluctant guide trying to deny the beliefs of her own late father a Verne disciple who as it turns out shared the same dreams of the two nascent adventurers she now finds herself shepherding to parts unknown. In a relatively minor role SNL’s Seth Meyers also turns up early on as a disbelieving colleague of Andersons. Oscar-winning visual effects veteran Eric Brevig (Total Recall) makes his directorial debut and turns out to be perfectly chosen for what is after all an effects- driven summer ride. Leaving a lot of the talkiness and exposition of Verne’s book (and previous film versions) on the cutting room floor Brevig cuts right to the chase in this breezy 90-minute guilty pleasure. He clearly knows today’s moviegoers have the attention span of a mosquito so he piles on the action but still manages to keep the sense of wonder crucial to the story alive. Best of all the 3D technology which has been part of Hollywood for over half a century is still remarkable to behold even in the CGI era. Rather than just selected sequences the entire film has been shot with 3D in mind so expect to have lots of objects hurled directly at you--none more effectively than a scene in which our explorers encounter flying fish. And even without the glasses prepare to hold your breath and hang on for a great time at the movies.
So exactly how DO you eat fried worms? Very carefully. Or if you’re the gaggle of pre-teen boys in How to Eat Fried Worms in as many inventive and repulsive ways as possible. Based on the hugely popular novel by Thomas Rockwell the story focuses on Billy (Luke Benward) a new kid at school who on his first day is immediately harassed by bully Joe (Adam Hicks) and his crew. But Billy isn’t the type to just roll over. He decides to stand up for himself and excepts a bet to eat 10 worms in one day. Of course he’s secretly horrified but by god he’s going to go through it—eating one disgusting worm concoction mixed up by Joe’s gang after another. Of course the kids eventually learn some important lessons giving us that certain warm and fuzzy feeling. Right after the queasiness passes. The child actors are all appropriately scrubbed fresh and generally act like regular kids without being too hammy. Benward (Because of Winn-Dixie) does a fine job as the hapless Billy. You definitely have to admire him for sticking to his guns and plowing through those worms no matter how revolting. Hicks (Disney's The Shaggy Dog) is actually refreshing as a bully in the fact he doesn’t exactly look like one besides being slightly taller than the rest of the boys. He’s skinny with red hair and freckles but he throws his weight around effectively. Some of the other boys you might recognize: Alexander Gould (Weeds) plays Twitch aptly named for his spastic behavior; Ryan Malgarini (Freaky Friday) as Benjy the chef du jour; and the most veteran of the kids Hallie Kate Eisenberg (Bicentennial Man TV’s The Miracle Worker) as the lone girl in the group who proclaims regularly “Boys are so weird.” As for the adults Ed’s Tom Cavanagh and According to Jim’s Kimberly Williams stand out as Billy’s parents. Production company Walden Media’s mission to bring wholesome family movies based on kid novels to the big screen is actually a smart move because there is definitely a market for good clean entertainment combined with popular children’s literature. They’ve already had tremendous success with The Chronicles of Narnia as well as with modest hits Because of Winn-Dixie and Holes. Of course these movies (besides maybe the fantastical Narnia) are still glorified after-school TV specials but I suppose with a little more money behind the idea feature films work. How to Eat Fried Worms has been a pre-teen staple on the bookshelves since it was first published in 1973 and writer/director Bob Dolman (The Banger Sisters) certainly captures the novel’s spirit. It’s down to earth has a message we can all relate to—and the worm shenanigans should tickle your youngster’s fancy.
Based on the novel by Clive Cussler we meet master explorer Dirk Pitt who is just itching to go on his next treasure hunt. He gets that chance when he finds a fabled coin linked to a historical legend and heads to some of the most dangerous regions of West Africa searching for what the locals call the "Ship of Death"--a long-lost Civil War battleship that harbors a secret cargo. But don't waste a second of time wondering how a Civil War battleship found its way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Sahara Desert; no one involved in the movie did either. Along for the ride is Dirk's wisecracking "sidekick" Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) who always knows just what to say in the most dire of situations. Not. The boys also meet Dr. Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz) a beautiful doctor who believes that the hidden treasure may be connected to a larger problem that not only threatens the lives of the locals but possibly like the entire world. Whoa dude! Although the guys spend most of the movie blowing things up together you just know that somehow their paths are going to cross again with Eva's and when they do it's gonna be EXPLOSIVE! Like literally. Duuuuuude!
Who can act with all those explosions going off? And in the middle of the desert? McConaughey is so suntanned so blow-dried so lovingly filmed in this movie that I was half expecting the distinctive twang of the "porn guitar" every time he made an entrance. In every shot he's glistening bronzed with a megawatt smile and that laid-back inflection of his that makes it sound like he just rolled out of bed stretched scratched himself and then moseyed himself down to stand in front of the cameras. Similarly Zahn who is usually cast as the hyperactive frenetic best friend is cast as--big surprise--the frenetic hyperactive frenetic best friend. The only difference is that in Sahara he must have been allowed to use McConaughey's personal trainer because Zahn has never looked more studly. He too is all windswept and taut muscles matching McConaughey's frosted tips to frosted tips and squint for squint. Oh yeah Penelope Cruz is in the movie too walking around with horned rimmed glasses perched on her face to show that she's a Serious Doctor Person. Yep that just about does it for the acting.
Matthew McConaughey tells us "the word Sahara actually means 'desert'." If we take our English lesson one step further we can define desert as: "A region of permanent cold that is largely or entirely devoid of life." Yep that about sums the movie up. Although director Breck Eisner has done his best to assemble all the elements and set pieces of an action/adventure film we've seen them all before. Never throw one punch when you can throw 10; never drive in a straight line when you can zoom around in a long sweeping curve being sure to kick up as much dust as you can. And don't sweat the small details like finding a working pay phone or a gas station in the middle of a desert or locating live ammunition in a ship that's 150 years old. Never say "I'll be fine!"(because for sure you're going to die). Or "I'll be right back." (because again you're guaranteed not to). And of course the ever popular "How many times am I gonna have to save your ass?" (c'mon that was rhetorical). We already know that a train is going to be involved; someone is going to get tied to a truck and somewhere somehow there will be camels. It's the desert for heaven's sakes. There's nothing fresh here. Dialogue is just a mere convenience to move the actors from one band of bad guys to the next and none of the actors are really given much to do other than whoop and holler a whole lot. Oh yeah and blow things up. Don't ask how the 150 year old cannonball can still explode. Just leave well enough alone.