Film Openings

Week of April 27, 2006

 Akeelah and the Bee. (PG) Doug Atchison's sweet-natured, immensely likable family film recasts the innate human drama of the spelling bee — captured memorably in the 2002 documentary Spellbound — in the familiar but satisfying terms of an after-school special. Keke Palmer plays a bright 11-year-old languishing in an underfunded, underequipped South Central L.A. public school; when her principal hits upon the PR strategy of entering a student in a bee competition, with the help of a Zen-like instructor (Laurence Fishburne in Morpheus mode), the girl accepts the challenge and ignites the hopes of her neighborhood. "Fantasy" may be the right word for a movie in which study alone overcomes all the savage inequalities of poverty, in which all bad people have some inner gold, in which circumstance ultimately favors the good at heart. But these are fantasies worth believing in, and because of Palmer, we do believe. If you can keep from biting your nails when Akeelah gets "argillaceous," or from tearing up at the resolution, you're made of sterner stuff than I. (Jim Ridley) ARN, CPP, CGX, CW10, CC12, DP, EQ, J14, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, WO

Brick. (R) Calling Rian Johnson's high school noir a piece of stuntwork might seem tantamount to hitting it with a pie. But Brick represents an impossible dream: the recycling — with conviction — of cinema's most calloused and beloved genre, as applied to contemporary middle-class life. Opening with a found corpse, the film then flashes back in time to show us a heartbroken teen named Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), lured into his ex-girlfriend's drug troubles with a single mysterious phone call. Thereafter, he starts investigating how deeply she was involved with the local drug kingpin (Lukas Haas) and why she was killed. Every step of the process is a deft shadow of noir logic — just showing up at the right party, or beating the tar out of the right thug, sends unspoken messages to "the right people." Noir's inherent cynicism is deployed here as a near-tears metaphor for pre-adult isolation, insecurity, and self-destruction; it's such a simple fusion of potent American cultural ideas that it ends up seeming seminal. (Michael Atkinson) HP

Hard Candy. (R) Reviewed in this issue. TV

Killer Diller. (PG-13) Even with the rough edges of its Clyde Edgerton source novel sanded away, this tall tale about a delinquent car thief (William Lee Scott) who introduces demon boogie to a Christian halfway house's decrepit gospel band has a loopy, lackadaisical charm. Yes, it's yet another movie in which a white boy proves the savior of the blues; yes, the hero's friendship with a piano-pounding autistic savant (Lucas Black) hits every predicted note, while their black bandmates are barely sketched. But writer-director Tricia Block, a TV veteran, steeps the movie in southern college-town atmosphere, and her sauntering, unhurried pace lets the actors breathe. Fred Willard effectively ditches his trademark smarm as the house's hopelessly square minister, and Deadwood's W. Earl Brown exudes a credible threat (and equally plausible tenderness) as the savant's surly, burly mechanic dad. And with Taj Mahal, Keb' Mo', Furry Lewis, and more on the soundtrack, the music kicks ass. For more on Diller and its director, see this week's film section. (Ridley) CGX, CC12, DP, J14, RON, STCH, STCL, WO

Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School. (PG-13) This flatfooted male weepie musters an insurance ad's worth of clichés about the importance of busting a move in middle age — and it strains so hard to do so that it's almost perversely compelling. Grieving the loss of his wife, a timid bakery owner (Robert Carlyle) on a routine delivery happens upon a car-wreck victim (John Goodman) who remains near death and chatty for much, much longer than it takes him to explain that he was en route to meet a childhood sweetheart at the titular school when fate thumbed a ride. Persuaded to keep the dying stranger's appointment for him, our widowed baker hero ends up scoring on the dance floor with a fellow wallflower (Marisa Tomei), leading to a risible love scene wherein co-writer/director Randall Miller yearns to do for sexy breadmaking what Ghost did for sexy pottery. A veteran of Sinbad and Kid 'n' Play vehicles, Miller apparently couldn't secure studio financing even for this, a 12-step movie of square-dance convention. (Nelson) PF

RV. (PG) There is probably a level of hell built around cross-country road trips with Robin Williams. So it's quite a surprise that RV, in which Williams treks from L.A. to Boulder with his wife and kids, isn't actively painful to watch. Thankfully, he plays it relatively straight, sparing the world from yet another round of his trademark gibbering, in favor of aping the hapless but earnest Clark Griswold of the Vacation films, RV's obvious source material. The result is a workmanlike family comedy with enough pratfalls and poo jokes for tykes and enough sentimentality for parents (Williams still pours the schmaltz with a heavy hand). Add a few points for the funny and foxy Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) in the wife role and Jeff Daniels as a roving redneck. Then take the points back for director Barry Sonnenfeld's decision to film his American road movie . . . in Canada. (Jordan Harper) ARN, CGX, CW10, DP, EG, EQ, GL, J14, KEN, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, WO

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