On the outside Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) couldn’t be further from the mold of a “normal teenager.” He wears a suit everywhere he is precocious and he has a spring in his step that suggests oblivion to his high school surroundings. Of course Charlie isn’t really at all oblivious and at his core is very much that “normal teenager”: He wants only to be popular. After starting anew at a public school--because he got kicked out of yet another private school for distributing fake IDs--Charlie is promptly pummeled for the way he dresses by the school’s bully (Tyler Hilton). He complains to his psychiatrist whom his mother (Hope Davis) keeps on retainer. The shrink decides to put Charlie on Ritalin. Ever the entrepreneur Charlie tries to parlay his easy access to drugs into popularity and it works like gangbusters. Before long “Dr. Charlie” is listening diagnosing and prescribing drugs to the entire student faculty. He’s got the popularity the trust and the girl (Kat Dennings) the latter of which just happens to be the principal’s (Robert Downey Jr.) daughter. And that relationship--not to mention the slight legality issue of prescribing controlled substances to minors--threatens to ruin his whole operation. Yelchin (Alpha Dog) is a Hollywood rarity: He’s an ‘it’ boy because of his acting not his looks (sorry Anton). Rarer still is the fact that Yelchin’s actual age is near that of Charlie Bartlett and not since the days of Freaks and Geeks has that industry taboo been broken so successfully. It’s all a credit to the young actor who in the span of Bartlett oozes everything from vulnerability and precociousness to Ritalin-induced mania and the theatricality of a much older actor. There’s nothing he can’t do in this movie; the same goes for his acting future. And the same goes for his adversary in Bartlett Downey Jr. although that’s been abundantly clear for decades now. Downey Jr. is famous for making seemingly effortless work of a complex character which is precisely what he does with Principal Gardner--a concerned parent recovering alcoholic and dutiful high school enforcer/villain. He’s a force to be reckoned with on screen and when Yelchin’s Charlie finally squares off with him the scene is a thing of beauty. As an essential link between those two characters Dennings (40-Year-Old Virgin) is a credible charmer and refreshingly the rare non-ditzy non-clichéd high school-portrayed girl we’re used to seeing. Rounding out the cast is Davis (American Splendor) aka Laura Linney-in-waiting. Her clueless alcoholic mom is a source of laughs and ultimately sobriety--for the character and us. For the first time in his decades-long career Jon Poll trades the editing room for the director’s chair. And after seeing Bartlett it makes sense that Poll who has edited movies like Austin Powers in Goldmember and Meet the Parents/Fockers is a behind-the-scenes veteran but a rookie helmer. His debut is fresh and loose but also very sure-handed. The movie is constantly a pleasant unclassifiable surprise spurning both the raunchiness of teen comedies and the pretention of psychology dramedies. The result is something far less precious and opaque than Wes Anderson’s Rushmore--to which Bartlett bears a broad thematic resemblance--yet a sharp commentary nonetheless. To that end Gustin Nash’s debut screenplay is just as impressive as his director’s rookie effort. His writing is clearly steeped in satire namely how loose today’s doctors are with the prescription pads--especially when it comes to our children--but it’s also able to be sweet and real when necessary. It’s the most impressive screenplay debut we’ve seen in a while--gold standard Juno notwithstanding--and the directorial one isn’t too shabby itself.
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.
In this latest doomsday pic Earth's inner core has stopped rotating a situation that will eventually cause the planet's electromagnetic fields to collapse. If it isn't fixed pronto static charges will create "super storms" that will generate hundreds of lightening strikes per square mile and cause microwave radiation to ultimately cook the planet. Government and military officials conjure up a team of scientists led by geophysicist Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) to travel to the planet's core and get it spinning again. Accompanying them are geophysicist Dr. Zimsky (Stanley Tucci) atomic weapons expert Dr. Levesque (Tchéky Karyo) "terranauts" Major Childs (Hilary Swank) and Commander Iverson (Bruce Greenwood) and Dr. Brazzelton (Delroy Lindo)--the renegade scientist who built the subterranean vessel. Their mission is to travel to the center of the earth to detonate a nuclear device that will hopefully jump-start the core and save the world. Like the "terranauts" grinding their way through Earth's layers to get to the planet's core The Core laboriously plods through the storyline to get to its climax--and both are equally uneventful.
Despite a really corny scene in which he demonstrates what will happen to the planet by torching some sort of fruit on a fork Eckhart (Possession) is believable as the sensible Keyes. Co-star Swank (Insomnia) meanwhile brings intensity to the role of fledgling astronaut Childs. It is Tucci (Big Trouble) however who creates the film's most interesting character the arrogant Dr. Zimsky. The diva-esque geophysicist heads to the center of the earth in style with his Louis Vuitton monogrammed canvas bag and an endless supply of cigarettes--making him politically--and refreshingly--incorrect. You'll love how he pompously records the mission's progress in a Carl Sagan-style narration. Back at mission control D.J. Qualls' computer-hacking character Rat mirrors a recent report describing the characteristics of computer virus writers: Male. Obsessed with computers. Lacking a girlfriend. Aged 14 to 34. Capable of sowing chaos worldwide. Qualls (The New Guy) couldn't be more suited for this digital graffiti artist role.
Director Jon Amiel helps define the film's main characters by weaving vignettes of their everyday lives throughout the first half of the film but so much effort is devoted to exploring their individual backgrounds that relationships among the team members are never established. The minor characters are like extras in a Star Trek episode--they're just onscreen to die. The Core also fizzles as a believable disaster movie because of its flimsy scientific reasoning even if you try to suspend your disbelief for the sake of cinematic "escapism." While I can make myself believe for example that a government-created weapon of mass destruction is to blame for the planet's imminent annihilation I cannot buy into the notion that this high-tech vessel was built by a renegade scientist in his backyard and is able to withstand the rough trip to the center of the earth. Although the film's original November release date was delayed because more time was needed to complete the special effects don't expect to be visually dazzled by the voyage. Most of what we see is what the "terranauts" see on their screen: spotty black-and-white renditions of sharp jagged rock. Scenes of the Roman Coliseum getting zapped by lightening and San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge melting aren't convincing either.