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by Bill Gibron

23 Sep 2008

You’d figure such an announcement would stir geek nation to its very core. After all, the battle for respectable treatment for all superheroes has been trailblazed since a certain Caped Crusader “boffed” and “zipped” his way through a ‘60s pop art landscape. Granted, the Green Hornet had less commercial cache than Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, but the character still suffered from a similarly styled disrespect during the Peace Decade - Bruce Lee or no Bruce Lee. Ever since his less than successful media cross over, the emerald icon has been sitting in that most sullied of cinematic spaces - development Hell. Everyone from Kevin Smith to Michel Gondry has been attached to a big screen adaptation, with leads ranging from Jake Gyllenhaal and George Clooney to Jason Scott Lee and Jet Li.

But when Seth Rogen was announced as the new creative force behind the franchise, the fanbase became a tad apoplectic. After all, with Batman Begins revitalizing the genre with its combination of scope and psychological serious, someone best known for his superb slacker comedy inspired little confidence. Even with The Pineapple Express showing some action scene scripting panache, Rogen remains a question mark. Oddly enough, when his co-star and director was announced last week, the arguments all but faded away. Yet it would seem that Stephen Chow should inspire even more unease. Though he truly is a Hong Kong legend, his output as a filmmaker suggests a return to the more jokey, cartoonish qualities of the past.

Most American fans know the 46 year old superstar as the genius behind Shaolin Soccer and the universally beloved Kung Fu Hustle. While his last effort, the ET-inspired family comedy CJ7 failed to resonate outside his native land, DVD has allowed the icon’s better known films (God of Cookery, King of Comedy) to finally get some exposure. Still, Chow is not some manner of guarantee. He’s been part of China’s cinema since the late ‘80s, and it took him nearly 20 years to develop into an international name. And the scariest part is, he’s done it through a devotion to all things slapstick and hyper-stylized. While Soccer and Hustle were wonderful, some fear there will be too much Looney Tunes in his Hornet

Of course, many are completely unaware of the character’s true origins. He wasn’t born out of pen and ink, but wireless waves and Saturday matinees. Clearly inspired by Bob Kane’s celebrated crimefighter, George W. Trendle and Fran Striker created the concept for ‘30s radio. During the ‘40s, celluloid stepped in and serialized the man. Soon, comic books and other marketing moves kept the story of newspaper publisher turned masked vigilante Britt Reid and his Asian manservant Kato in the public eye. Yet after the aborted ‘60s series featuring Van Williams and Bruce Lee, the Hornet fell out of the cultural conversation. While linked properties including the Lone Ranger (who is actually a blood relative) saw a cinematic send up, Reid and his butt kicking butler remained in entertainment exile.

The Green Hornet does seem to have a limited appeal. He’s not a man of inordinate powers or otherworldly abilities. He is very much cut from the ‘playboy as punisher’ dynamic. Though he’s considered quite skilled at hand to hand combat, Kato tended to take up most of the martial artistry. This was especially true of the TV series, which saw Lee extending his influence over the genre by turning the sidekick into the center of action attention. There was never a hint of humor in the Hornet’s story, no satiric slant or sense of inferred irony. Instead, we have Batman minus the winged obsession, most of the heroic heavy lifting done by a technologically advanced vehicle known as The Black Beauty.

As in the case of most movies, initial casting should cause concern - or at the very least, send out warning signs. Rogen is great at slovenly self deprecation, but can he manage a more mature role? Even playing the cop in Superbad, his proposed authority was countermanded by a mutton-chopped mimicry. His ability to fill Reid’s shoes seems questionable, especially when you consider his well honed persona is based solely on the silly. The biggest hurdle The Green Hornet faces however will be finding a proper balance between competing cinematic types. On the one hand, fans aren’t anxious to see their established stars swaying too far from what’s familiar. Rare is the instance where someone known for humor - say a Michael Keaton - manages to make the transition to champion of choice.

Chow is another story all together. His limited exposure as part of mainstream moviemaking suggests someone with an equal number of potential strikes. For all the brilliance he brought to Kung Fu Hustle, CJ7 suggested a man equally adept at feigned emotions and abject manipulation. He owes as much to the Golden Age of Hollywood as he does his Hong Kong brethren, with the biggest debt claimed by such classic silent comedians as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Again, this fails to inspire much Christopher Nolan like knowledge of the superhero’s story needs. Chow may be able to concoct a great fight scene, or bring his unbridled imagination to the entire core concept, but he’s not a warranty against failure.

Sure, the same could be said for Mr. Dark Knight, or the man first pegged to put a new spin on the growing graphic novel influence - one Tim Burton. But Chow has less of a track record, at least when it comes to handing Hollywood a pure popcorn experience. And remember, we are now looking at the genre through a necessary new wave wariness. Iron Man proved that acting is just as important as F/X in selling such outsized ideas and yet even someone as skilled as Edward Norton couldn’t completely salvage The Incredible Hulk. In fact, it seems Rogen and Chow are facing odds so monumental that if they succeed, it will certainly say something about both men’s ability and talent. But what if it tanks, or merely underperforms?

We’ve got a couple of years to wait, since The Green Hornet is not scheduled to appear at your local Cineplex until 2010. By then, we will have seen the way Watchmen redefines everything, while Marvel will be offering their takes on Thor as well as another journey into Tony Stark territory. A few years ago, a substandard superhero film like Daredevil or Ghost Rider could find a supportive audience. But thanks to the Summer of 2008, the entire paradigm has shifted. While one has to hope that Rogen and Chow know what they’re up against, the suits who supported their signing typically inspire little faith. For the time being geek nation is settled and sympathetic. If they stay that way, everything should be fine. If not…

by Bill Gibron

22 Sep 2008

We barely recognize them. The fringe dwellers, the ones who live life along the edges of the social structure we struggle so mightily to maintain. They clean our offices. They cook our convenience foods. They plow through a mound of monotonous, meaningless tasks so that we can savor our sense of superiority and entitlement. They begin and end in anonymity, and for the most part, we prefer it that way. And yet art loves to drag out these ‘dregs’ turning them into figures of heroic virtue and stretched stoic nobility.

Not the Campbell Brothers, however. Ohio auteurs Luke and Andy have created a masterful look at service-oriented tedium and lowlife illegitimacy called Cordoba Nights, and with this early morning adventure into the dark underbelly of a Midwestern metropolis, we see the boys responsible for such cult classics as Midnight Skater, Demon Summer, and The Red Skulls finally finding their voice as mainstream moviemakers. Though it may sound a little like a certain video store clerk turned Pulp pioneer every now and again, this is a wonderful slice of seedy substrata that suggests, if anyone can overcome the outsider tag to become a patented indie icon, it’s the Campbell boys.

Former drummer Finn doesn’t mind delivering pizzas. He doesn’t care that most of his customers are lousy tippers or that his boss, the prickly Mickey, gives him crap most of the time. Alone in his car, vinyl LP record player spinning tunes from forgotten eras in his ear, he cruises the small town of Bronston and attempts to avoid his ever-present melancholia. When an attractive girl named Allie asks for a ride uptown, Finn agrees. After all, a little company wouldn’t be too bad, especially with the kind of deliveries he has to make. But he soon learns of his passenger’s unspoken motives. Seems she’s trying to escape the clutches of cruel crime boss Darren, and the thug won’t take her absence lightly. As a matter of fact, he will send out his harried henchmen to capture her and kill whoever helped her out - and that puts Finn right in his gun sights.

Like a trippy tone poem embellished with some equally marvelous 16mm specks, the Campbell Brothers bravura Cordoba Nights is undeniably good. As a matter of fact, it more or less borders on the great. With its intricate narrative wrapped around marginal individuals, and characterization that’s both subtle and sophisticated, the boys have seemingly perfected their lurking quirk perspective. Instead of making jokes for the sake of humor, or adding violence to up the geek factor, the Brothers have mellowed. They have found their groove among the various cinematic references that have long fueled their fascinating film work. Again, the cloud of Tarantino seems prevalent here, but the link may be more tenuous than tired. Since they are mining the same material as their far more famous counterpart, we may simply be seeing a shared interest, not an outright rip.

Certainly QT would never champion a hero as dry as Finn. Played with laconic likeability by Raymond Turturro, we can see the actual wear and tear of a pointless existence written all over our pizza guy’s grubby mug. The Campbells give the slouch several interesting idiosyncrasies - the love of unusual songs, the record player boom box, the sudden speed freak frenzy that comes with breaking the law - but Finn is also a classic slacker. He’s directionless and doesn’t care, driven but only because it beats sitting around without the cash to buy some beer. Ragged and retro, our lead is just open enough to keep us interested, and yet the Campbells fill his storyline with so many secrets that we sense we’d never get to know the real deal.

Allie is supposed to be the contrast, the wild child spirit sent to jar Finn out of his malaise. But as played by longtime Campbell company member Ashleigh Holeman, our fascinating free spirit appears cut from the same aimless cloth. It’s clear she is a user - of people, of favors, of circumstance - and there are times when we wish someone would wipe the beaming smile off her smug face. Cordoba Nights never excuses Allie - it may be the movie’s biggest gamble - but since Finn is so far gone into an insular existence built out of unusual obsessions, the pair seem perfectly in tune. Oddly enough, the movie doesn’t try for a romantic or sexual counterpoint. Together, the duo acts as mutual muses, inspiring the other to take risks, if only for one night.

The rest of the cast is expertly employed, the Brothers bringing out the best in such diverse actors as Duane Whitaker (another link to Tarantino) and Joe Estevez. The Sheen sibling is excellent here, delivering a memorable minor moment as a calzone loving mobster with a special place in his heart for hot food. Elsewhere, the standard Campbell crew comes out to support their sponsors, with Chuck Cieslik and Andrew Mercer as standouts. But the real breakout work done here belongs to the boys themselves. Like this past Spring’s Poison Sweethearts which tried to mimic the standard static grindhouse titillation (and did so marvelously), the cinematography stays completely in character. The Ohio nights are loaded with low tech filmmaker flavor, the gray spots of grain embellishing an already atmospheric natural light look.

Even better, the boys keep the camera moving. This isn’t ‘point and shoot’ camcorder-ing, the kind of unprofessional practice we see from most homemade moviemakers. Here, the lens looks inside and around objects, strapped to the hood of Finn’s car to capture the vehicular movements through a dark and depressing cityscape. Handheld sequences complement purposeful tracking shots, and everything feels planned out and primed for ease of editing. Indeed, everything about Cordoba Nights, except the budget, screams out for inclusion in the IFC/Sundance strain of modern indie moviemaking. If you didn’t know about their previous love of all things gory and zombified, you’d swear Luke and Andy were trying to ride on the genre’s contemporary coattails.

Instead, we wind up with an original vision from a pair of filmmakers who should be branching out into even more meaningful Cineplex fare. While they could conceivably emulate their celluloid heroes for the next few years, hoping that someone recognizes their talent among the DVD din, the truth is, their filmic future is now. Here’s hoping some studio gives the guys a shot at doing something within the system. Only then will we know how far they truly have progressed. For those who’ve loved the lunatic lyricism of such unlikely classics as Demon Summer, Cordoba Nights will seem like a million motion picture light years from such a past. In the case of these clever creators, that’s perfectly all right. Sometimes, it takes a risk to really prove one’s mantle. Thanks to their most recent output, the Campbell Brothers are clearly ready for the big time.

by Bill Gibron

21 Sep 2008

In the world of completely independent filmmaking, there are only four legitimate auteurs. For those unaware of the noted French theory, André Bazin, co-founder of the Cahiers du cinema is often credited with establishing a clear criterion for such consideration. The influential writer argued that all film should reflect a director’s personal vision, and in turn, should always be indicative of his or her own individual and recognizable style or approach. Examples in the mainstream are easily identifiable - Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, The Coen Brothers. But when it comes to those working way outside the frameworks of the typical Tinsel Town terrain, there’s only a quartet of qualified candidates.

Brothers Luke and Andy Campbell are among that noted number. They sit on the revisionist Mount Rushmore along with the nostalgic non-sequitors of Damon Packard, the trailer trash triumphs of Giuseppe Andrews, and the ‘80s high conceptualization of Chris Seaver. Located in Ohio, and versed in the kind of videotape varieties that educated an entire generation of film geeks, the boys have carved out a creative canon meshing the gore fests of their formative years with the broader aspects of genre devotion. From sports to seasonal wistfulness, insular universes and old school exploitation, the Campbells have managed to make the most of limited budgets, incomplete capabilities, and unbridled narrative invention.

With a review of their latest, Corboda Nights, in preparation for tomorrow’s blog post, SE&L has decided to look back on the previous five films made by these Midwestern mavericks. The first three efforts represent the standard growing pains - the uneasy balance between copycatting and creativity. Don’t be mistaken - inside this talented triptych are a series of sunny surprises. But when they offered up their street gang revenge zombie flick The Red Skulls in 2005, the Campbells announced themselves as full blown filmmakers, legitimized by a far more focused contrast between homage and originality. With Poison Sweethearts and now Cordoba, the duo delivers the kind of cinematic specificity that argues for both their reverence and redefinition of the artform.

Let’s begin our overview with the freak-out film that started it all:

Splatter Rampage Wrestling
For their first film, the Campbells collected a group of their friends, grabbed the singlets, and went gonzo for a surreal backyard wrestling experience. From Mullet Man and Philbert (a grappler who carries around a wooden rabbit named…Philbert) to the mighty Skulls, this collection of satiric superstars clearly illustrates the brothers’ strongest cinematic attribute - imagination. Presented as an overview of the fictional World ‘Rastling Coalition’s famous feuds and most charismatic gladiators, host Sam the Dirty Bum gives us an agonizing blow-by-d’oh round up of the best falls, the fiercest rivalries, and the nastiest injuries ever to come out of a bunch of drop-outs drop kicking each other. It’s dumb, deliberate, and a heck of a lot of fun.

Midnight Skater
Midnight Skater is a classic example of a “look beyond” film. If you can “look beyond” the amateur antics, unprofessional production values and overall neophyte nonsense exploding all around you and simply merge with this movie’s mindset, you’ll really enjoy yourself. Unfortunately, getting in the same Spock state of brain with the insane and inventive no-budget filmmakers here may require Ritalin, a gross of sugary juice boxes and about a hundred trips to the video store (or at least a couple readings of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film). Sometimes, the brothers reach beyond the scope of their ability and come back with a hand full of failure. But more times than not, they create a unusual and unique motion picture experience, one that hints at being a believable, if bargain basement slice of slasher while always showing how the tongue is planted firmly in ass cheek.

Demon Summer
In this follow-up production, a Slacker meets slasher, Dazed and Confused with Evil Dead-like demonology, the portrait of small town America is far more polished and professional. Indeed, while Skater was a celebration of the barf bag variety Summer strives to capture that lost and lonely feeling of being stuck in a one-horse hovel in the deadly dull middle of America’s heartland, with nothing better to do on a warm weekend evening but cruise the strip mall parking lot and drink Near Beer. Yes, there is bloodletting and body carving in this well-crafted, crackerjack thriller, but unlike most of their independent brethren, the Campbells hope to flesh out both divergent elements of their title with strong narratives that satisfy both as cinema and as entertainment. And for the most part, they succeed.

The Red Skulls
You see it from the first few frames – something has definitely changed about the way Luke and Andy Campbell make movies. It used to be that they gathered up a group of their friends, fashioned a storyline out of horror movie odds and ends, then festoon it all with a gallon or ten of grue, pop on the ska-punk soundtrack. That the result was usually something quite special, an intriguing glimpse into what engages the mind of some Ohio cinematic wannabes, was the icing on the camcorder cake. But here things feel special. There is a concentration on the fringe elements of filmmaking, items like set design, costuming, character clarity and actual performances. With The Red Skulls, the boys have fashioned their first real attempt at a conventional motion picture. Even with all its ingratiating genre elements, and its last act lurch into some over the top fight clubbing, this film represents real, measurable growth from the duo.

Poison Sweethearts
With its exploitation derived framework and silly chauvinistic sheen, Poison Sweethearts truly marks the moment when Andy and Luke completely shed their homemade horror mantle and become real directors. This is not to say that their previous efforts represent lesser behind the lens mannerisms. But the truth is that movie macabre has a certain set of specs - cinematic formulas and prerequisites that keep vision hemmed in and innovation stifled. But with Sweethearts, the boys branch out into good old fashioned grindhouse territory, and inside such a conceit they find a wonderfully wicked, homage heavy masterpiece. Not every vignette works perfectly, and before we know it, the faux flesh peddler fun is over and done. But while it lasts, the boys deliver enough recognizable references to the forgotten genre that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino should be ashamed.

by Bill Gibron

20 Sep 2008

Fright fans have been waiting for this event for nearly three decades. After 1980’s Inferno introduced the concept of a continuing saga about the infamous Three Mothers, and the possibility of the ultimate horror trilogy, those who’ve followed Dario Argento’s career have wondered when he would finally deliver the last act of his terror triptych. Suspiria has long been considered a macabre masterpiece, the kind of unbridled moviemaking genius that ushered in copycats, great expectations and the prospect of even better things to come. The Italian auteur’s follow up was crucified, critics and audiences both startled by its dissimilarity to its source, as well as its purposeful sense of style over substance. Now comes Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, and again, Argento is defying convention to deliver another totally unique take on his previously forged black magic reality.

When an ancient urn is unearthed in an old Italian cemetery, it brings with it the standard portents of evil. The death of an innocent art historian marks just the first of many unspeakable acts. Soon, Sarah Mandy is caught up in a sinister situation that she barely understands. Chased by forces bent on destroying her, and unsure of the admonishing voice in her head, she seeks the help of fellow museum employee Michael Pierce. When he proves ineffectual, she searches out the counsel of the Vatican’s last official Exorcist, as well as one of Rome’s leading alchemists. Through her connection to her late mother, and the previous incarnations of Maters Suspiriorum and Tenebrarum, Sarah soon learns that Mother Lachrimarum has risen, and plans on orchestrating the second fall of Rome - unless our heroine can find a way to stop her.

Hitting the ground running and never giving up for 90 nasty minutes, The Mother of Tears (new to DVD from Genius Products, Dimension Extreme, and the Weinstein Company) is Dario Argento’s final statement on his precedent as the definitive Delacroix of dread. Avoiding most of the slow burn visual splendor that made Suspiria a classic, and shunning all of Inferno‘s incomprehensible tone poetry, the 68 year old director has finally finished this long gestating journey - for better and for worse. There will be complaints that this film feels nothing like its predecessors, that there’s an obvious scary movie overkill methodology at play. Indeed, the first film used witchcraft as an afterthought, the denouement in a plotline that had numerous other elements going for it. Similarly, the notion that pagans ruled a decadent New York apartment building was but a single facet in a film overloaded with optical - and occult - wonders.

Here, Argento seems to be saying ‘enough is enough’. Instead of painting the screen with memorable imagery, or provocative pictures, he just antes up the arterial spray and hopes for the horrific. Luckily, he delivers some delightfully disgusting set pieces. Throats are slit, bodies carved open, and various torture devices remove eyes, mouths, and other organs from their biological owners. This is also one of the few films that put kids directly in harms way. A baby is tossed off the side of a bridge, while another toddler is vivisected into several disturbing parts. The F/X work is wonderful, unsettling in its power and putrescence. Sure, there are some moments of mindless CGI that get in the way of the wickedness, but overall, The Mother of Tears provides an open grave full of gruesomeness.

The director also has a capable cast on hand to sell the sluice. Though she’s reduced to ‘last girl’ role quite often in this splatter rampage, daughter Asia Argento is an agreeable lead. She may act whiny and weak a great deal of the time, but she has a presence that the camera can’t deny. And though she’s hidden in smoke and mirrors for her part here, it’s great to see Daria Nicolodi back in the genre camp. As Detective Enzio Marchi, Christian Solimeno may come across as nothing more than plot fodder, but he makes good use of his screen time, and Adam James does a decent job as Mike, the art historian with an interest in the supernatural. Elsewhere, moments with the legendary Udo Kier and Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni remind us of why Argento is the master. No one kills a character like Dario.

As for the DVD itself, the added content is underwhelming in its quantity, wonderful in its quality. Argento is present for both an onscreen interview and various backstage sequences. The Q&A even drops a delicious bombshell - he may revisit the Three Mothers again. Having enjoyed himself immensely while making this film, a suggestion regarding a prequel has inspired the spirited 68 year old. An origins picture would be right up his alley, especially considering his love of making movies. During the Behind the Scenes featurette, we see Argento in his favorite position - implement of death in hand, camera over his shoulder ready to capture another senseless bit of slaughter. No matter his recent track record, this is an artist who clearly gets a thrill out of bringing his bravura vision to the big screen.

Yet what most fans are probably wondering is where Mother of Tears fits in the entire Mater mythology. It is clear that, when he came to this fabled finale, Argento knew his narrative would have to do some rather basic back peddling. He ties to Suspiria and it’s dance school setting and makes reference to the Manhattan mayhem section of his set-up. There are call backs to the original Three Mothers book (which we see in Inferno) and lots of exposition regarding architecture, cults, history, and death. Again, this is the first of these films to feature the Mother plotline almost exclusively. We aren’t dealing with a character discovering the witch and her secret, underlying purpose. Here, everything’s out in the open and a part of it.

The observant obsessive will see references to other Argento works as well. The obvious bow is to his mostly forgotten effort Phenomena. With the use of a monkey familiar, and a last act flood of maggot-filled offal, the director clearly delights in reminding us of his legacy. Similarly, he seems to be channeling the entire post-modern creepshow canon, tossing in a homage to Clive Barker here, a direct reference to Peter Jackson and The Frighteners there.

Mother of Tears works best when it avoids conversation and simply brings on the carnage. It may not satisfy every fan of Argento’s prosaic past, nor is it the realistic return to form everyone has been hoping for. Still, for anyone who doubts his power behind the lens, one look at this luxuriant, ludicrous exercise in excess will convince you - Dario Argento is a master, and Mother of Tears is an effective, engaging statement of same.

by Bill Gibron

19 Sep 2008

The media just loves to fawn over George Clooney. With his combination of classic Hollywood charisma and contemporary self-effacing nerve, he tends to enhance, and sometimes overwhelm, the projects he touches. From his early, ineffectual work in films like One Fine Day, to the critical acclaim accompanying his turns with the Coens, he’s a student of the old studio system as well as a jester in his own idiosyncratic kingdom of considered cool. But what’s most fascinating about this man’s career is not his rise to mainstream prominence. Instead, his unique turns behind the camera - Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck - indicate an artist willing to bend tradition in order to place his own unique stamp on cinema. His latest effort, the attempted screwball comedy Leatherheads, is no different.

Poor Dodge Connelly. All he knows is football. He’s been playing an unappreciated professional version of the sport for years, unable to capture the public imagination the way the college game has. When his team folds, he heads to Chicago to talk with old ally C.C. Frazier. The sleazy entrepreneur is representing Princeton star Carter Rutherford, and Connelly thinks he can con the young war hero into going legit. Of course, as with every story like this, there’s a dame in the mix - in this case, ace Tribune reporter Lexie Littleton. Quick with a word and decisive on a deadline, she is out to undermine Rutherford. Seems his WWI mythos might just be bunk after all. Of course, destroying his reputation may just put the fledgling fortunes of professional football in jeopardy - and Connelly won’t let that happen.

You’ve got to give Clooney credit for trying, especially when most of Leatherheads is a jaunty, jazz age dream. He’s definitely learned a lot from his many collaborations with ones Joel and Ethan, and his visual flair never fails him. This is a smart, good looking movie, never overplaying its period piece precision or resorting to camp or kitsch. Clooney’s attention to detail is flawless, his comic timing as polished as the brass of a speakeasy’s spittoon. And as we learn on the included commentary track of the new DVD from Universal Home Video, he’s a student of several old school cinematic masters. So why then is this movie merely good, and not the amazing masterpiece it wants to be? Where did this director and his dedicated cast go wrong, especially in light of all the things they both get so very, very right?

One answer may be the genre. As Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day indicated, the screwball comedy is a dead genre for a very good reason - it’s hard as Hell to recreate. Not only was the format a product of its time, but it also reflected the obvious anxieties of a world between wars. Clooney clicks into the aspects that cause instant recognition - ditzy dialogue, razor-sharp put downs, lightning quick conversations - but never finds the narrative mechanics to amplify everything else onscreen. During the opening football sequence, we see the kind of cinematic zing required to pull this off. By the middle of the second act, all that pizzazz has petered out.

Then there’s Renee Zellweger. While far more tolerable here than in other starring roles, she’s still the hollow feminine side of a rather lax lover’s triangle. With a pinched up face that blocks her needs to be expressive eyes, and a delivery pitched somewhere between community college thespianism and The Hudsucker Proxy, she never settles in to her function here. It’s the same with John Krasinski as Rutherford. He is supposed to be a genial lox, the kind of wide eyed innocent who doesn’t mind dipping into the dark side once in a while - or at least, that’s how the script handles him. He goes along with the get rich quick scheme forwarded by Connelly and Frazier, rather mercenary in his decision. But then, when Zellweger’s Littleton betrays him, he acts like a hurt puppy - albeit one that freely stained the companionship carpet whenever and wherever he wanted.

It’s up to our creative cheerleader to hold everything together, and it’s a testament to Clooney’s talent and magnetism that he manages to make it work. Connelly’s moxie, his sense of purpose and passion for playing football comes across loud and clear. Similarly, when smitten with Littleton and jealous of her wandering attentions, we believe in the legitimacy of their love. It’s too bad that the second act gets bogged down in ancillary plot points. Had Leatherheads simply stayed focused on showing how football moved from a college to national pastime, we’d have a winning sports epic. But emotions that should soar merely lumber along, failing to get our undivided attention.

As part of the hefty DVD packaging, we get a wealth of explanatory extras. Clooney’s commentary with producer Grant Heslov is a might dry, yet the two do offer up some solid production insights. The deleted scenes argue for a film that could have been even longer (at 116 minutes, its 26 too long) and the various Making-of documentaries showcase Leatherheads’ attention to detail. Of course, none of this addresses the bigger question - what would this film have been like had Clooney found castmates equal to his movie idol mantle? What if, instead of Zellweger and Krasinski, he had managed Matt Damon and, say, Jodie Foster? This is a movie that cries out for all around classicism. As we learn from the bonus features, Clooney was required to do most of the heavy lifting.

As a result, Leatherheads stands as an almost success. It does the best it can with the cast and content collected, and still ends up delivering an occasionally delightful entertainment. It’s clear that, as he continues his career, Clooney’s choice behind the camera will be as brave and as interesting as the movie roles he options - maybe even more so. No one but this mainstream man-crush could use his considerable clout to forge a ‘20s era experiment in style and sass. While it doesn’t always work, Leatherheads definitely looks and feels right. And in the case of this clever attempt, two out of three is all that’s really needed.

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