Set in 1976 an arrogant doofus--who loves booze partying and women--buys an underdog professional basketball team and basically runs it into the ground until he is inspired to take his rag-tag team all the way to the NBA. Sound familiar? Semi-Pro is pretty much a mixture of every other Will Ferrell movie. He plays Jackie Moon a one-hit wonder who buys the Flint Michigan Tropics off the proceeds of his hit song “Love Me Sexy.” and tries to coach them even playing on the team. But he ends up dragging them down to last place with his promotional antics. And when the wild and crazy ABA basketball league--known for its slam dunk contests--is about to merge with the all-powerful NBA the Tropics only have one shot to make the cut. Can they pull themselves together in time? This is an underdog sports movie after all. It’s really the same old Will Ferrell shtick in Semi-Pro. Sometimes it’s hilarious but unfortunately after Anchorman Kicking & Screaming Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory much of it is rehash. Tiresome rehash. Nevertheless Ferrell has surrounded himself with another eclectic crew mixing some old favorites with new faces: old Ferrell cronies include David Koechner as the ABA commissioner and Will Arnett as a Tropics sports announcer while the newbies include Andre Benjamin as Clarence “Coffee” Black the Tropics star player and Woody Harrelson as Ed Monix a veteran player Moon brings in to help the team. Think of Monix as Bull Durham’s Crash Davis who once played in the show but has been demoted to the B leagues. Oddly enough Harrelson actually brings some dignity to the otherwise silly proceedings. Veteran executive producer Kent Alterman who has overseen such diverse films as Balls of Fury and Little Children helms his first feature film with Semi-Pro--and that’s basically how the film comes off: semi-professional. Alterman probably figured he only had to point and shoot which is mostly the case and doesn’t do anything above and beyond. The real effort comes from the script written by comedy veteran Scot Armstrong (Old School Starsky & Hutch). The first half of the film is pure Will Ferrell non sequitur fodder--beginning with Moon singing his hit “Love Me Sexy” (lyrics also included is “Lick Me Sexy” and “Hump Me Sexy”) and the obligatory scene of Moon sitting around with his buddies saying “nutty things because they’re not true.” Then there’s the bear wrestling scene. Ferrell must have a thing for the big furry animals (remember the bear pit in Anchorman?) Unfortunately the outrageousness lessens in the second half of the film becoming your straight forward underdog movie. If Semi-Pro is a huge hit Ferrell won't stop making these movies; but if it falls flat maybe he'll think of ways to reinvent himself. One can only hope.
For the uninitiated Firefly's 26th-century final frontier resembled the wild wild West with gunslingers shooting up mining towns on far-flung worlds. The show playfully chronicled the criminal endeavors of Serenity's motley crew of smugglers captained by the glib but principled Mal (Nathan Fillion). The ship also serves as home to passengers Simon (Sean Maher) and his sister River (Summer Glau). Serenity swiftly but awkwardly recounts how Simon risked his promising career as a doctor to rescue River from scientists working for the nefarious Alliance the victors in a cruel war against freedom fighters known as Browncoats (yes our good captain was a Browncoat). The Alliance turned River a young psychic into a killing machine. Now the siblings are on the run. Serenity opens with the Alliance dispatching its harshest operative known only as--yes--the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to capture River. So Mal must put on hold his illicit dealings to protect the increasingly violent River. And that means putting Serenity--and the crew Mal regards as family--in harms way. So does it help if you have partaken of Firefly's 14 episodes? It certainly does. Whedon makes few concessions to those unfamiliar with Firefly or its crew and passengers. But if you can grasp the gist of Firefly's intricate political machinations then the flight's somewhat enjoyable.
Serenity's crew and passengers are all present and accounted for led as always by Fillion's captain of the ship. Imagine Jason Bateman playing Han Solo--that's Mal and he's one of the reasons why Firefly was such a exuberant romp across the universe. Fillion's deliciously sarcastic but he never allows Mal's sharp tongue to overshadow his wily ways and noble intentions. As Serenity adopts a more serious tone than Firefly Fillion heightens the tension by employing Mal's brashness as an unstoppable force of vengeance. Of course Mal's a pussycat compared to River. Sure she's a one-woman army but Glau doesn't allow River to devolve into a lethal weapon. With a face wracked with pain and eyes filled with sorrow Glau heartbreakingly presents a teen at odds with herself and fearful of what she may do to those willing to risk their lives for her. That includes her brother Simon who's played with little more backbone by Maher than he was in Firefly. Otherwise Serenity's remaining crew and passengers--including the brawny Adam Baldwin the steadfast Gina Torres and the righteous Ron Glass--serve the same functions as they did in Firefly. Only Alan Tudyk stands out from the crowd as Serenity's pilot and the source of much-needed comic relief. But it is Four Brothers' Ejiofor who steals Serenity. He's clever articulate and devout with a quiet and calm demeanor that hides his cruelty. How merciless is this self-described "monster" of a man? He kills children in his crusade to create a world without sin or so Ejiofor chillingly reveals. Ejiofor had better be careful that he's not typecasting himself as a brute but there's no denying he's fulfilling the promise he showed in Dirty Pretty Things.
Whedon's not one to abandon his children. He transformed the bloodless Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a cult TV series. Now he's salvaged his beloved Firefly which Fox unceremoniously canceled in 1992 after airing 11 episodes--mostly in the wrong order. But Firefly thrived on DVD so Universal's sank $40 million into a film that skillfully ties up most of the show's loose ends. The reason behind the Alliance's desperate attempt to recapture its science project gone awry is finally revealed and the answer isn't pretty. The dreaded Reavers--self-mutilating cannibals who prefer their meals alive and kicking--play a pivotal role in the proceedings. And at least one of Serenity's budding romances is consummated. The bad news though is that Serenity will make little sense to anyone who isn't a Browncoat. Serenity unfolds like Firefly's series finale and by the time you figure out what's what the day's on the verge of being saved. Worse Whedon is so intent on wrapping up everything that he neglects to retain Firefly's roguish charm. The mischievousness is gone replaced with a dark and brooding mood rarely hinted at in the TV show. It also doesn't help that Serenity makes little effort to reintroduce the crew and passengers. Whedon does a poor job of making anyone but Browncoats care about the people aboard Serenity. And that's a huge problem when death strikes Serenity. In the case of one influential Firefly character whose presence is rarely felt in Serenity a non-Browncoat just won't appreciate the enormity of this sad loss. Browncoats though will be stunned that Whedon can be so bloodthirsty. Still they will feel satisfied Whedon made these sacrifices so that Serenity would prove doggedly true to the Firefly mythology.
About Schmidt is a curious slice of Americana. The film is really about ordinary Americans going about their everyday lives but the characters are so clearly drawn and the dialogue so rich you are immediately hooked. Somewhat reluctantly 66-year-old Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) retires from his long-standing job as an insurance salesman. He wonders what he is going to do with his time now. His wife Helen (June Squibb) convinces him to buy a motor home so they can travel around the country together in their golden years. That would be great if Helen didn't bug Warren incessantly. He is also plagued by the fact his only daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) is marrying Randall (Dermot Mulroney) a dimwitted fellow Warren does not consider worthy of his daughter (and really isn't). Still Warren would go on living his life without any change indefinitely even if he wasn't very happy because darn it that's what you do. But suddenly things do change for Warren--Helen unexpectedly dies leaving him with a big empty house and his own nagging thoughts which he writes down in letters to the third-world foster child he sponsors in Africa for $22 a month. Finally one day he wakes up with a purpose in life--to stop Jeannie's marriage. He decides to drive the Winnebago across the country to convince her she's making a mistake but as with any good soul-searching journey he discovers more things about himself than anything else.
Oscar-winning Nicholson is one of those performers who continually surprises you. He may have that same maniacal grin and the unmistakable "Jack" voice but he is an actor of immeasurable talent--and he goes way out on a limb as Warren Schmidt. He plays all 66 years right up there on screen in vivid Technicolor--down to the gray hair wrinkles black socks and saggy boxer shorts. Nicholson lets his vanity go to epitomize the aging white Midwest American man. The process the actor uses to transform Warren from a cold and selfish man into a somewhat decent human being is mesmerizing. This is Jack's movie and he should almost certainly get an Oscar nod for this. But to give credit to the rest of the cast almost everyone in the film turns in gutsy performances. Davis (Hearts in Atlantis) downplays her good looks to play the mousy Jeannie who eventually stands up to her father. Mulroney's performance as the mullet-haired Randall is a far cry from his romantic leading man in My Best Friend's Wedding. The supporting role which stands out the most is Randall's New Age mom Roberta as played by Oscar winner Kathy Bates. She bares it all--literally and figuratively--and gives the spunky Roberta a wonderful very human twist. Her scene with Nicholson in a hot tub is one for the movie anthologies.
Much like his excellent films Election and Citizen Ruth writer/director Alexander Payne likes to paint a picture of true blue Americans perhaps somewhat exaggerated for the big screen but nonetheless real. Anyone who sees About Schmidt will know at least one Warren Schmidt in their lives--an uncle a friend but more than likely a father. Payne exquisitely details this man's life visually and with the spoken word. From the opening shots of the insurance building Schmidt works in to seeing Warren sitting in his empty office boxes packed waiting for the hour hand to hit 5:00 so he can leave to his less-than-happy retirement party you immediately understand what this character is all about. He lives his life by the book rarely venturing off the beaten path until at 66 he realizes he wants to break free. As soon as Warren starts his journey things unravel ruts are broken out of and even though Warren won't entirely change who he is he tries to be a better person. His toast to his daughter at her wedding reception is classic--you think at any moment he is going to ruin it for her and do something typically "Schmidt-like " but he ends up surprising you instead. There are only a few moments when the film drags a little but for the rest it is riveting.