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Tuesday, Jan 22, 2008


It’s River Phoenix all over again. Don’t recognize the name? No need to worry. He’s definitely related to Joaquin (look it up). Many in the current pop culture demo were teething when the unlikely Hollywood hunk, a combination of staggering talent and blond boy good looks was found dead from a drug induced heart attack. It was 1993. Phoenix was only 23. And now he has a slightly older companion with a similar star power spiral in the late Heath Ledger. When the tab-net tragedy went wildfire on 21 January, the assumption divvied into two distinct camps - pissed it away and impossible to believe. As the pundits began the piling on, and the speculation went seismic, other questions came up. Not surprisingly, very few have easy, understandable answers.


Here’s what we do know - Heath Ledger, a rising A-list member of the Tinsel Town elite, accidental gay cowboy extraordinaire and Australian son, was found dead in a New York apartment sometime on Tuesday afternoon. He left behind a daughter (with ex-partner - and co-star of Brokeback Mountain - Michelle Williams) and a devastated core of family and friends. He had just begun work on the Terry Gilliam fantasy The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, leaving the state of that project (and its seemingly cursed director) in temporary limbo. More importantly, he had beaten out several big name actors to be Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the Joker in said filmmaker’s continued reimagining of the Batman character. The Dark Knight, as the summer spectacle is called, was already one of 2008’s most anticipated films. Now, its name is nuclear. 


And it’s just starting. The concern over the need for Ledger’s participation in post-production on said film drove Harry Knowles and the gang over at Ain’t It Cool News to go a little pre grave digging and contact the studio. Nerd nation was assured that the actor had completed his commitment to the project. The clown face was 100%. It was part of the deal to do the Gilliam movie. So the Caped Crusader saga remains intact. It will also probably be the last time Ledger is seen on the big screen. His turn as the early ‘70s Bob Dylan archetype in Todd Haynes I’m Not There and as a drug casualty in Candy now stand as his last stints as a serious dramatic type. While his super hero villainy promises to be terrifying (the trailer hints at delightfully twisted horrors), it’s the more streamlined leading man form that audiences will remember.


Ledger began acting the year before Phoenix’s senseless self-destruction. He had a small part in the Aussie film Clowning Around, as well as more unusual Downunder efforts like Blackrock. He came to our shores to co-star in 10 Things I Hate About You, and found some fleeting small screen fame in the Shaun Cassidy created sword and sandal series Roar. Yet it was working alongside another of Australia’s favored sons, Mel Gibson, that brought Ledger to the big time. With the one-two punch of revolutionary war actioner The Patriot, and the modern rock meets medieval jousting of A Knight’s Tale, he finally arrived. From then on, his choices seemed random, and in a couple of cases, very brave.


He was one of the Brothers Grimm in the Gilliam flop for Miramax. He was Billy Bob Thorton’s embittered son in Monster’s Ball. Between the period piece pomp of Four Feathers and Casanova, to the lesser outings in genre jokes like The Order, he seemed like a star being poised and prepped for a massive mainstream breakout. That came with his turn as tortured Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain. He earned one of the film’s two male acting honors (he was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy) and saw his status rise. Where once he appeared unlikely to be a popcorn hero, he did look ready to balance both aspects of his craft with occasionally bouts with box office clout.


It was a path followed rather closely by Phoenix. He too was a young man playing in an aggressive adult’s world, a critically acclaimed effigy that seemed to suggest great things over a long, successful time. Sure, there also were undercurrents of trouble and tragedy, a soul too old for the teenage body of a boy to contain, but in the dead-eyed ‘80s where everyone was coked and cooked from greed and gumption, such a dark side was dead sexy. Phoenix took the first part of that flimsy phraseology to heart, even after landing one of the most important parts of his young career - the original young Indiana Jones in Last Crusade. Of course, he rejected the recognition and crawled back into his Indie skin, leaving behind remarkable performances in My Own Private Idaho and Dogfight.


There is a difference, however. Phoenix’s appetite for destruction - and drugs - was all too deliberate, that stereotyped cry for help from someone who many felt was beyond the basic psychological needs of the common man. From all initial reports, Ledger’s pharmaceutical finale may have been accidental, spur of the moment, or just plain inconsequential. While his closest relatives regale the media, and anyone else willing to sacrifice etiquette and listen, with tales of his giving spirit, easy going nature and love for his two year old, the celebrity chumsuckers are already smelling buckets of ratings blood. They’re circling the story, and its 24 news cycle ocean, ready to pick apart the bones of any snippet of sensationalism with their own brand of self-serving guesswork.


Was an Olson twin involved? Maybe, and then a definite ‘No’. Did the recent break-up with Williams (and resulting party animalism) plant a suicidal seed, or did he simply mix too many sleeping pills with a case of exhaustion, pneumonia and/or some other fatalistic catalyst? Who saw him last? Who has insight into what he was thinking before, during, and after the act? Sign them up, champion their appearance and indirect information, and let the ethically inert yakking begin. As the Gilliam camp regroups, as Nolan eventually releases a statement in support and suffering for his lost collaborator, as mothers weep, fangals gawk and fanboys fidget (no Joker in Part 3, huh?), the tragedy of a human life lost will be swept up in yet another wave of that grand old Day of the Locust legend of young prominence poisoned and fading into myth.


You’ll hear the names of other Hall of Flame-Out members mentioned, nods to everyone from James Dean to Kurt Cobain. Even when his death is ruled something other than a purposeful attack on everything he achieved, his acting skill and the resulting acclaim will play Devil’s advocate to the continuing disbelief. Poems will attempt to explain his allure, songs will be sung trying to make sense of potential snuffed out, the standard siren’s lament to all fallen figureheads. While it may sound resoundingly callous, we’ll get over this death. We’ll mourn the fallen, place him in perspective, line up for Dark Knight come July, and indulge in the months of unfathomable pre-release publicity. It will all be so careful, so cautious, so…cash flowing.


Ironically enough, the tagline for Nolan’s blockbuster in the making is a snide little comment from Ledger’s Joker - “Why So Serious?” The answer, sadly, is succinct. It’s because you left us too soon, Heath. We thought we knew you, and now we never will. You leave behind a body of work for future generations to judge. They’ll have the much better perspective. For now, we’ll have to suffer the whirlwind of conjecture and gossip. It will be funny sad, Mr. Joker, not funny ha-ha. No one feels much like laughing now, and you really can’t blame them. After all, 15 years ago we went through something very similar to this. It was, like this, horrible and unexplainable. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much a guarantee we’ll go through it again sometime in the future.


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Tuesday, Jan 22, 2008


On 22 January, the Nominees for the 80th Annual Academy Awards® were announced. In preparation for 23 January’s op-ed piece, here is a list of those chosen for recognition on 24 February:


Best Motion Picture of the Year
Atonement (Focus Features) A Working Title Production: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster, Producers
Juno (Fox Searchlight) A Dancing Elk Pictures, LLC Production: Lianne Halfon, Mason Novick and Russell Smith, Producers
Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.) A Clayton Productions, LLC Production: Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox and Kerry Orent, Producers
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage) A Scott Rudin/Mike Zoss Production: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Producers
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax) A JoAnne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Company Production: JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Lupi, Producers


Performance By an Actor in a Leading Role
George Clooney in Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.)
Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax)
Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah (Warner Independent)
Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises (Focus Features)


Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner Bros.)
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson’s War (Universal)
Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild (Paramount Vantage and River Road Entertainment)
Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.)


Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Universal)
Julie Christie in Away from Her (Lionsgate)
Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (Picturehouse)
Laura Linney in The Savages (Fox Searchlight)
Ellen Page in Juno (Fox Searchlight)


Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There (The Weinstein Company)
Ruby Dee in American Gangster (Universal)
Saoirse Ronan in Atonement (Focus Features)
Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone (Miramax)
Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.)


Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
Persepolis (Sony Pictures Classics): Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Ratatouille (Walt Disney): Brad Bird
Surf’s Up (Sony Pictures Releasing): Ash Brannon and Chris Buck


Achievement in Directing
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Julian Schnabel
Juno (Fox Searchlight), Jason Reitman
Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.), Tony Gilroy
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Paul Thomas Anderson


Achievement in Cinematography
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner Bros.): Roger Deakins
Atonement (Focus Features): Seamus McGarvey
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax/Pathé Renn): Janusz Kaminski
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage): Roger Deakins
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Robert Elswit


Best Documentary Feature
No End in Sight (Magnolia Pictures) A Representational Pictures Production: Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience (The Documentary Group) A Documentary Group Production: Richard E. Robbins
SiCKO (Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company) A Dog Eat Dog Films Production: Michael Moore and Meghan O’Hara
Taxi to the Dark Side (THINKFilm) An X-Ray Production: Alex Gibney and Eva Orner
War/Dance (THINKFilm) A Shine Global and Fine Films Production: Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine


Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
Beaufort Israel
The Counterfeiters Austria
Katyn Poland
Mongol Kazakhstan
12 Russia


Achievement in Visual Effects
The Golden Compass (New Line in association with Ingenious Film Partners): Michael Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris and Trevor Wood
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Walt Disney): John Knoll, Hal Hickel, Charles Gibson and John Frazier
Transformers (DreamWorks and Paramount in association with Hasbro): Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Russell Earl and John Frazier


Best Adapted Screenplay
Atonement (Focus Features), Screenplay by Christopher Hampton
Away from Her (Lionsgate), Written by Sarah Polley
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Screenplay by Ronald Harwood
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson


Best Original Screenplay
Juno (Fox Searchlight), Written by Diablo Cody
Lars and the Real Girl (MGM), Written by Nancy Oliver
Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.), Written by Tony Gilroy
Ratatouille (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Brad Bird; Story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, Brad Bird
The Savages (Fox Searchlight), Written by Tamara Jenkins


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Sunday, Jan 20, 2008


It’s so high concept and gimmicky that it should crumble under the weight of its own ambitions. It takes an already tired approach - the first person POV perspective milked to death by all the surrounding Blair Witch hoopla - and channels it through a much more coherent and creative ideal. Some have called it an event film, a rollercoaster ride through a city under monstrous siege. Others have referred to it by another, less flattering name - the bile express, perhaps in reference to the motion sickness inducing cinematography. But there’s no denying one fact - the J.J. Abrams produced monster movie Cloverfield is poised to become a true phenomenon. And in these dog days of January, the most lax time for cinematic excellence, that’s an amazing fact.


Yet this has also been a divisive affair, one that has just as many complainers as champions. All appreciation is opinion based, as is consensus. Majority rule does not determine a film’s final assessment as art, nor does the amount of money made instantly mandate a rejection reconfiguration. Basically, people are entitled to their view of the film, even if they use some specious reasons in support of their disdain. As a matter of fact, reading over the initial reactions to the film, certain constants can be gleaned. Aside from the purely physical responses (more on this in a moment), the various grounds for grousing deserve some discussion. In looking them over, one by one, we begin to see how expectations can undermine any entertainment experience. We also see that Cloverfield can create incredibly passionate feelings on either side of the summation. 


Issue 1 - The Camerawork
This complaint is actually a dangerous double edged sword. On the one hand, it’s easy to understand people who didn’t like the handheld shaky cam POV because it made them ill. Both Blair Witch and the last two Bourne films claimed many a queasy stomach on their way to box office fortunes. So a clear caveat should come with every ticket sold - “Warning: This Movie May Cause You to Lose Your Lunch”. But barking about it afterwards seems like an aggravation sticking point, an “I got sick so it sucks” rationale that just doesn’t float. No, the real noggin scratcher comes from those who don’t like the approach from an aesthetic standpoint.


Now, no one hid the fact that Abrams wanted to make the movie this way. The trailer offered nothing more than starring at the lens logistics. In interviews, he explained that the film was inspired by a trip to Japan where he saw thousands of Godzilla toys. He speculated that it would be interesting to create an American version of said monster, yet handle the narrative in a novel, contemporary fashion - from the perspective of the petrified citizenry, lets say. So anyone mad that the movie ended up as a camcorder creation is misguided. It’s like arguing that a chocolate bar was horrible because it was made with cocoa. Huh? If you don’t like sugar, don’t eat candy. If you don’t want to see grainy, digital photography, you picked the wrong flick.


Issue 2 - The No-Name Cast
Remember the pretense here - a realistic depiction of New York being overwhelmed by a giant creature. It’s the event, not the individuals that are important. Sure, we have to warm up to the characters a little before the chaos occurs, if just to keep us locked in during the many action scenes. But why would famous faces make this any easier? Some, including this critic, would argue that recognizable actors would ruin the atmosphere. Being identifiable is one thing. Having sure superstar impact is another. For those who’ve seen the film, imagine the Army triage sequence with someone from The Hills as the victim. Aside from the vicarious thrill inherent in such a fatal set up, such a vacuous celebrity space saver would destroy everything Cloverfield has going for.


Issue 3 - The Running Time
By most accounts, this is an 80+ minute movie that ends up being about 70 minus credits. That breaks down to 15 minutes of party-based premise, and 55 minutes of bedlam. The complaints, however, have ranged from the film being too short (arguable) to being WAY, WAY too long (what?). Many argue that the send-off could be clipped by at least half, and that there needed to be more sci-fi stunting and action. Granted, there is a little down time in between bouts of monster madness, but to say that the film needs more of this material is ludicrous. Again, the intention of Abrams and his crew was not to make the same old horror show. Instead this was a real time type story strategy, letting events play out over a few heart stopping hours instead of several days and night. While it’s possible to argue over the allotment, the movie really seems perfectly paced.


Issue 4 - The Lack of Monster
This is a real deal breaker. You either like the way director Matt Reeves handled the numerous creature reveals, keeping the beast locked in its carnage and not posing or pussyfooting for the camera, or you’re flashing back to Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla and cringing in CG-ire. Frankly, the subtle approach has never endeared itself to the masses. Spielberg devotees will never get over the way he handled War of the Worlds’ many army/alien confrontations. One big battle took place completely off screen. Similarly, M Night Shyamalan’s Signs had an extraterrestrial invasion and then went and forgot most of the little green men. The idea of keeping the mayhem money shot just out of reach is one of the reasons Clovefield works. It was also the reason why Frank Darabont’s The Mist was so masterful. Jaws kept its fiend underwater for most of the movie. Doing the same with this skyscraping scrapping entity only amplifies its impact. Still, in the ‘show me’ state of the mainstream, this apparently wasn’t good enough.


Issue 5 - The Downer Ending
It’s SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER time. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to go in 100% untainted as to major plot developments, leave this part of the piece NOW. There, now that all the neophyte tenderfooters are gone…you just know that our main gang of survivors is not going to come out of this intact. We are going to loose a few along the way (and we do) and the death of the beast (if it can be achieved) will come with lots of character collateral damage. We do see a couple of the kids take off in a helicopter. There is no follow up. Of course, our hero, his buddy Hud, and plot catalyst Beth all end up in Central Park, their transport torn apart by the creature. There’s a close-up, a crunch, and some last minute monologuing. We leave our couple cowering as jets fly overhead, delivering an inferred nuclear payload. There’s an explosion, and then silence. Now, ‘Net rumors have unearthed a garbled bit of dialogue that plays over the final credits. Unscrambled, the ominous line has a faint voice whispering “It’s still alive”. Slam! Sequel!



Come to think of it, Cloverfield appears purposefully set up to tweak many a moviegoer’s most cherished viewership clichés. It’s not filmed particularly well, presents actors that don’t inspire a preconceived notion of heroics or hindrance, offers a monster movie with minimal monster, and gets its business over and done with in a short, succinct, and very somber manner.  To many in the plebian viewership (not all audiences, by the way), this will truly cramp their celluloid style. Epics aren’t erratic and scope should come from carefully controlled compositions, not the haphazard luck of a wavering camcorder. And yet it’s these very things, these bows to the You Tube/MySpace generation (to quote craggy members of the older generation) that make Cloverfield a flop. Oddly enough, to others, they’re the reason the film feels like a revelation.


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Saturday, Jan 19, 2008


As a rule, melodrama and martial arts don’t really mix. Sure, it seems like, every kung fu classic utilizes hyper-stylized heroism and ample Asian tradition to tag its subtext, but pure Hollywood hokum is never the best battle support. It just seems so silly for a champion, capable of the greatest feats of physical force ever seen by man, to play the schlub in a lover’s triangle or find himself manipulated and taken in by a faux femme fatale. Oddly enough, this is the recipe used by Hong Kong filmmaker Dennis Law for his 2006 fight club crime saga Fatal Contact. With up and coming star Jacky Wu Jing in the lead, and some astounding hand to hand combat at its core, this is the kind of flamboyant fisticuffs that genre devotees dig. Too bad the narrative keeps tripping over into potboiler country, applying a campy kitchen sink formula to an otherwise wonderful bit of brawling.


When we first meet Kong, he is a member of the Chinese Opera. His obvious skills attract the attention of gamblers who want to use him as part of their underground boxing ring. Initially reluctant, our hero has a change of heart when a young woman named Tin wanders into his life. Carrying a deep, dark secret and angry at her impoverished lot in life, she hears the amount of money the mobsters are offering and tries to convince Kong to join up. But it takes a public dressing down at a fancy restaurant before he finally concedes. Instantly successful, his undefeated ways get the attention of some very high rollers. They stage bigger and bigger contests with larger and larger purses. Eventually, Kong is taking on the reigning martial arts campaigns with millions of dollars changing hands. But when the stakes get too high, no one is safe - not Tin, not the former kung fu master known as Captain, and definitely not our stalwart warrior.


For all its hang wringing theatrics and convoluted plotting, Fatal Contact has some amazing fight scenes. They crackle with the kind of energy that only comes from professional martial artists performing at the top of their game. Set-up like chapters in an otherwise overwrought story, Jing manages to make each one different - especially when you add in the calculating bit where he begins to LIKE hurting people - and we sense it all building to a major climax. While the good vs. evil element is present, as well as the decent vs. the depraved, it’s hard to really figure out what the character of Kong gets out of all this. He definitely has feelings for Tin, but they are muffled by money. And while he worries about his position on the National Team, he ends up taking on some one of similar stature. And many of his bouts end up in the paper. Wouldn’t that undermine his position automatically?

But the biggest problem with Fatal Contact is the kept woman/prostitute subplot. We learn that Tin’s friend is a hypocritical harlot, the kind of ‘woe is me’ character used to influence audiences just as easily as she does rich men. Just as we’re about to see another sequence of man-on-man face smashing, along comes this dolled up drone and - ZAP - the energy and life is literally leeched out of the movie. It’s not that we don’t care about this sad woman’s lot in life. It truly is horrible that she believes her fate lies in serving abusive tycoons for cash. It’s just that it plays like nothing more than a narrative tangent meant to give depth to a basically simple story. The underground crime tale should take center stage. But director Law lets the sidelights subvert his intent.


There’s also a problem with the basic setup, something mandating a SPOILER warning. If you don’t want to know where the story goes, skip this paragraph and move on. During each fight, we learn that Kong is, more or less, invincible. Even the best combatants in his camp fall to the enemy (during wonderful “street fighter” style sequences). But not our semi-superhuman hero. He can take several nail gouges to the face and still kick ass. He is so good, so flawless in form and execution, that he can more or less call his own shots. And then, when the murderous urge overtakes him, he is like a comic book caricature, a Hong Kong Hulk that no one can defeat. So there is little suspense in each action scene, a knowledge that Kong will triumph even within the most outrageous odds.


With this new DVD from Genius Entertainment and The Weinstein Group’s Dragon Dynasty Collection, some of these stumbling blocks are acknowledged and addressed. Thanks to this two disc set, we learn about the volatile state of Asian cinema, the needs of the producers, and the waning interest from audiences. The full length audio commentary from Law and film scholar Bay Logan details the problems with bringing untried talent to the screen, the reason for added dramatics, and how this type of entertainment compares to the past glories of the genre. On the second DVD, we get interviews with the female stars, learning from them the need to draw a divergent viewership and the hardships of working in the industry. Even Jing explains the tenuous position of such spectacle.


And it’s sad, especially when you consider the status of this rising action hero. We want to understand more about Kong’s lot, about his National Team backstory and the reasons for his quiet gullibility. He’s an intriguing character, inherently interesting because of his physical agility and geniality. But when we see the sudden shift over into killer mode, when he gets that murderous glint in his eye and goes primal, the lack of context throws us off. We’re supposed to read it as instinctual. It comes across as insane. Because of the attention paid to factors swirling around our lead, we never learn enough about Kong to keep him center stage. It’s an issue that concerns Jing as well.


Through these conversations, we discover that all is not well in the once thriving Hong Kong arena, that Western conventions and other influences have taken the filmmaking in directions that the creative element doesn’t agree with. In attempting to ‘modernize’ or cater to this new ideal, some of the standards used to make their movie magic have been lost. Indeed, a good way of describing Fatal Contact is as an epic battle of physical proportions constantly brought back down to earth by standard archetypal dramatics. The undeniable grace of the body ballet, the well choreographed majesty of a martial arts tussle have been cast aside for more mindless character pursuits. Between the comedy of the Captain (who’s taken freeloading to a whole new level of laziness) and the dour hooker histrionics, there’s very little room for our champion to shine. And that’s a shame. 


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Friday, Jan 18, 2008


Star power is everything. That’s how it used to be back in the golden days of the Tinsel Town studio system. Acting was never priority number one. Instead, the way a man or woman commanded the camera, the direct connection with the audience beyond the character or the performance, were the key to cinematic success. Few in the current crop of celebrity have this special trait. Most get by on a combination of publicity and hype-enforced popularity. But if you’re looking for a post-modern example of this old school ideal, then Amanda Bynes is your amiable icon. After years making Nickelodeon’s kid vid offerings (All That, The Amanda Show) eminently watchable, and delivering the WB one of its few sitcom hits (What I Like About You), she’s finally branched out into features.


With her winsome, wholesome persona and slightly kooky undercurrent, she’s like a Bratz Lucille Ball, a seemingly serious actress who can easily slip on the requisite banana peels when needed. Though she’s currently geared toward the tween to Pinkberry set, her potential easily surpasses her demographical reach. That’s why the winning Sydney White is such an important step for the star. Now available from Universal on an excellent DVD release, this wonderfully effective film is her first foray into quasi-adult fare. As a result, it functions as a future career gauge, measuring how much true star staying power she really has.


By the looks of it, the answer is quite a bit. Based (intermittently) on the famed fairytale - the film’s title should provide the necessary hint - and featuring a cast of fresh faced newcomers, George Lucas in Love director Joe Nussbaum takes something that could be cloying and pat and really makes it hum. In fact, it’s hard to fathom how the Olson Twins, or anyone else in the Hannah Montana demo, passed on this project. The simple storyline – tomboy Sydney heads off to college and pledges her late mother’s snooty sorority – lays the groundwork for moments of ‘meet-cute’ comedy and standard Tri-Delt dementia. It’s all very Revenge of the John Hughes Nerds in its make-up and manipulation, and the last act confirms our current laugh-along love affair with geek nation.

This is a film that relies on Bynes’ innate ability to be both comely and klutzy in a scene. When she meets BMOC fraternity president (and future beau) Tyler Prince, her ridiculous ramblings are cute and corny. Similarly, her interaction with the resident rejects of the all dork Vortex House reminds us of how fragile the combination of coming of age awkwardness and adolescent awakening can be. Yet our young actress maneuvers through such tenuous circumstances with grace, wit, and a sense of wide-eyed wonder. One of the best traits Bynes brings to her roles is the sense of freshness. We never doubt the shock of her reactions, nor are her responses over-rehearsed or rote. Instead, we feel as if life is constantly surprising this sprite, and her good natured, normative takes come naturally, not out of some screenwriter’s notebook.


Wisely, Nussbaum surrounds Bynes with actors capable of conveying a similar snap. As the prime villain, Sara Paxton’s “witchy” Rachel is the perfect blond baddie. She’s all pampered and privileged poison, without a single saving sentiment. As the rightly named Prince, Matt Long has a too good to be true quality that should have the adolescent gals in the audience wiggling in their wish fulfillment. While his ‘feeding the homeless’ hunkiness may be a bit much, this actor finds a way to make it work. Some of the best moments, however, come from the seven likeable losers, performers like Jack Carpenter (winning as the nebbish Lenny), Danny Strong (the perpetually pissed-off blogger, Gurkin) and Freaks and Geeks’ Samm Levine (as horndog dope Spanky) turning stereotypes into individuals with effortless engagement.


In fact, it’s proper to compare Sydney White favorably to the classic college comedies of the ‘80s, especially the smarter, sassier ones like Real Genius. While Nussbaum and his writer Chad Gomez Creasey realize the need to keep the mentality geared toward the middle school marketplace, they also infuse the film with lots of grown up grins. When the Vortex dweebs head off onto the Student Body President Campaign trail, the classic sing-along “Hi Ho, Hi Ho” gives one of its words a satiric, contemporary nod. Similarly, Rachel’s set of “calming words” come across as a Super Sweet 16 registry list. A few of the jokes are obvious, and the narrative can’t help but follow traditional plot contrivances, but since both actors and filmmakers are trying everything to avoid cliché, the truisms don’t seem so tacky.


As part of the DVD package, Universal includes some interesting extras. Director Nussbaum gets an opportunity to explain his motives and what drew him to the project in a sitdown Q&A, while he’s also around to introduce a collection of intriguing deleted scenes. Many in the cast, including Bynes and the dorks, get a chance to play EPK with the film, praising each other and their efforts. From specific set design choices to dealing with the various personalities on set, the material here all leads to one conclusion - everyone here tried really hard to make a sunny, successful comedy. And they succeeded.


In fact, it’s clear that what we wind up with is an obvious throwback to the Disney University cavalcades of the mid ‘60s, movies where Kurt Russell shined as genial undergrad Dexter Reilly. All that’s missing is the supernatural/sci-fi premise, the occasional slapstick setpiece, and Cesar Romero as a too suave underworld figure. Yet the same pleasure principles clearly apply. A movie like Sydney White is only out to entertain, to provide the emotional underpinning that will get us through the various purposeful plot machinations. It will establish sides, provide motivation, clarify the characters, and then deliver everything in a clean, convincing manner. We may not end up with something special, or overly endearing, but there will be no denying its effervescent entertainment qualities. You’ll leave happy, and hardly embarrassed.


It also provides proof that Amanda Bynes is the next big thing, a Meg Ryan in the making who will one day dominate the cinematic stratosphere. As long as she continues to mark time, putting in professional work both as star (She’s the Man) and sidekick (she was great in the musical hit Hairspray) there is nothing but fame in her future. Unlike so many others in her former child star position, she appears resolute on building a career, not a criminal record. And pure star power is the foundation. Perfect for the kids and inviting for adults, Sydney White is a surprisingly effective film that produces nothing but piles of smiles…and Amanda Bynes is the reason why.


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