BETTER LUCK TOMORROW
Just as the recent City of God seemed to transfer the GoodFellas formula to the Brazilian slums, here's a strong effort from writer-director Justin Lin that places Asian-American high school students in a similar scenario. Lin starts with the stereotype of the Asian-American kid as clean-cut, hard-working and industrious and turns it on its head. At their California school, Ben (Parry Shen) and his three buddies are straight-A students with a laundry list of extra-curricular activities (sports, school newspaper, charity events, you name it) and their pick of Ivy League universities to attend after their impending graduation. But perhaps precisely because they're pegged as harmless, these teens decide that breaking the law should be their next extra-curricular assignment -- they start off small, by selling cheat sheets to other kids, but eventually find themselves trafficking in drugs and even packing pistols. Apparently aiming for the histrionic heights of GoodFellas and Boogie Nights, Lin and his co-scripters carry their story too far -- I didn't believe the reasons and circumstances surrounding a third-act murder for one second -- but they capture teen anxiety beautifully, with a strong cast of unknowns aiding them in their effort.
If The Good Thief represents the Old School brand of heist flicks, then Confidence serves as its New School equivalent, a picture carrying the torch for Mamet and Tarantino in its love of rapid-fire dialogue, roving camerawork and multiple plot twists. As such, it's one of the better examples of late (it overshadows Gene Hackman's Heist and Robert De Niro's The Score), even if it does run out of steam (and originality) before the end. The prime-cut cast is its strongest asset, with Edward Burns oozing charisma as a wily con artist, Paul Giamatti a welcome presence as a straight-talking member of his team, and, in a startling bit of casting, Dustin Hoffman as a venal small-time kingpin with a quick temper and a fondness for both the ladies and the gents. You also get Rachel Weisz as the requisite femme fatale and reliable Luis Guzman as a corrupt cop, but by the time Andy Garcia gets thrown into the mix late in the game as a shady government agent, it becomes clear that director James Foley (who orchestrated similar rat-a-tat-tat patter in Glengarry Glen Ross) and scripter Doug Jung have overstuffed their plates -- in this case, less probably would have been more. 1/2
Louis Sachar's award-winning children's book might be a "must-read" among students and teachers, but the widely circulated trailer made the new screen version look like a "must-avoid." The finished product is far more engaging than the clumsy preview would lead anyone to believe -- in fact, it's good enough to be enjoyed equally by kids and their attendant parents. Sachar himself wrote the script, which focuses on the plight of hapless teen Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf of the Disney Channel's Even Stevens), who's wrongly convicted of robbery and sent to Camp Green Lake, a boys' correctional facility located in the middle of a desert. There, he and the other guys are subjected to the demands of the warden (Sigourney Weaver) and her two sidekicks (Tim Blake Nelson and a hilariously over-the-top Jon Voight), who order the boys to spend every day digging holes. Sachar and director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) have crafted a fresh comedy-drama that nicely weaves the present-day story together with related flashbacks set in the Old West (Patricia Arquette stars in this section of the film). While the ending may tie everything up a bit too tidily, there's no denying that there's real imagination at work here.
After delivering subtle, shaded performances in The Pledge and About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson reverts back to his familiar "wild and crazy guy" persona in Anger Management -- and that's actually not a bad thing. Nicholson gamely gets into the swing of the satire as Buddy Rydell, an unorthodox therapist whose methods threaten to unnerve his latest patient, a meek businessman (Adam Sandler) railroaded into subjecting himself to the good doctor's anger management program. It's doubtful we'll ever see Sandler tackling Hamlet or Willy Loman, but both last fall's Punch-Drunk Love and now Anger Management demonstrate that he can be an engaging presence when he drags himself away from projects aimed at mentally deficient frat boys. Even if some of the situations seem overly familiar (the Yankee Stadium climax) or needlessly protracted (ditto), the movie zips by on the strength of some big laughs, sharply cast supporting roles (notably John Turturro and an unbilled Heather Graham) and the two well-matched stars at its core.
BASIC The satisfaction derived from such "gotcha!" titles as Seven and The Usual Suspects is that these movies successfully take us for a perplexing ride before zapping us with a surprise ending that feels absolutely right. Conversely, many similar brain twisters have fallen flat from the start by offering supposed plot turns that are obvious 10 minutes into the picture. Basic doesn't exactly reside in either camp: Not even Nostradamus could have predicted every twist in this convoluted thriller, yet in the end, we don't feel fulfilled as much as happy to get out of the auditorium alive. Initially, the intrigue is entertaining, as an ex-Army Ranger (John Travolta) in Panama is tapped to find out what went wrong on a military exercise that led to the death of a reviled sergeant (Samuel L. Jackson). Two witnesses (Brian Van Holt and insufferable Giovanni Ribisi) offer differing versions of what went down, but any hope of a modern-day Rashomon is soon dashed as the movie gets bogged down in a haphazard series of twists, turns, backslides and pirouettes -- few of which make sense after the whole story is revealed.