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Film Reviews

Familiar tale gets knocked around a bit

Two things happen in Knockaround Guys that shape the film: an important bag is lost, a man takes a journey and discovers who he is.

One is a plot device, while the other serves as the structure of a film that is trying to make a statement. Screenwriters sometimes get caught up in focusing too much effort on one or the other. Unfortunately for this film, the plot was given too much thought.

This story has been told before – most notably in Road to Perdition. But the moral backbone of that film wasn’t tarnished by a contrived scenario with so many silly twists that bordered on comedy. Rather, it was a simple story.

In both films, a son wants his father’s approval. The father is a mobster. And in the end, the son realizes he isn’t cut out for that line of work.

Here, the opening scene foreshadows the final one. The audience knows Matty (Barry Pepper) isn’t a killer. The audience is also told that mobsters say one thing and turn around and do another. To Pepper and his fellow cast members’ credit, though, the film is still watchable despite its ultimate predictability.

The bag that is lost contains half a million big ones. It goes missing when Matty’s Cessna-flying friend Marbles (Seth Green) leaves it on an airstrip in Montana. Soon, the boys from Brooklyn ascend on a Midwest town where they encounter two stoner skate boarders, two corrupt cops and a local tough guy.

Joining Matty in correcting the mess are childhood buddies Chris (Andrew Navoli) and Taylor (Vin Diesel), who are also sons and relatives of wise guys. Matty wants to impress daddy Benny Chains (Dennis Hopper) and his “uncle” Teddy (John Malkovich).

They see this mishap as a reflection of what they thought about Matty all along.

In an early scene, Matty meets them at a handball court and brings them lunch. He tells his father he is ready to join the business and asks what he can do. Benny responds, “You brought the sandwiches. What more can you do?” Malkovich’s laughter, with his mouth half-full with a Cuban, is priceless.

It’s times such as this when Knockaround Guys is hilarious. Of course, that’s mostly Malkovich, who, along with Diesel, stands out in the testosterone-packed dramedy. Other humorous scenes are set up by the aforementioned pothead duo, which always makes for genuine stupidity (see Half Baked).

But comedy has its place. And when Pepper is trying to convey his character’s disdain for living in his father’s shadow, it just doesn’t fit.

Co-written and co-directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who both wrote 1998’s Rounders together), the film comes across as though it was told with two points of view.

Again, the film is watchable because of the comic aspect. But it’s also the humor that hurts the statement that this film fails to make.

Racial motives don’t sour Sugar’s sweet story

It’s hard to talk about a film such as Brown Sugar and not bring up race. Even the film’s screenwriter, Mike Elliot, said his motivation was to write a great love story with black people in it. In one scene, when a music executive tells an aspiring hip-hopper that he quit his job, he is told, “Hey, don’t sweat it. Stay black, man.”

The plot is heavy on the world of hip-hop music. All of the main characters are black. There is a running gag about a hip-hop group that is “too white.” On the surface, it seems as though the film is an anthem for an urban audience, and nothing else.

But beneath all that, Elliot still tells a pretty good love story. Oh, and it just happens to have black people in it.

Directed by Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood), Brown Sugar correlates falling in love with hip-hop with, well, falling in love. The metaphor is laid on thick. But the performances by, and the chemistry between, all actors involved make up for any shallow story arc.

The film is narrated by Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) as she writes her memoir about hip-hop. However, the audience soon realizes she’s really talking about her childhood friend Dre (Taye Diggs). She’s a music critic who’s leaving the Los Angeles Times for the magazine XXL. He’s a record producer who is tired of “gimmick” artists and wants to return hip-hop to its roots. Sidney’s cousin is Queen Latifah and Dre is trying to represent Mos Def.

The film is about relationships and it chronicles ups and downs. Although the ending is just like any other celluloid romance, Famuyiwa’s sharp eye for adept storytelling keeps the audience interested. And the underlying soundtrack doesn’t saturate the audience with hip-hop as much as it celebrates the genre that provides the film’s foundation.

In the end, the number of stereotypes on which the film apparently has to depend is small compared to the levels on which this romance drama succeeds.

Girly Tuck Everlasting possesses limited appeal

Starring three distinguished Oscar winners can’t steer you wrong. And adapting a beloved children’s novel usually gets you a built-in audience, even if you gut the source material.

But Tuck Everlasting’s appeal doesn’t verge too far beyond those aspects.

If you are a white, upper class ‘tween girl, you will absolutely adore this flick. Because, despite quality production value and fine performances, it seems as though updating the 1975 Natalie Babbitt novel didn’t include anything to which someone who isn’t a porcelain-faced white kid can relate. But don’t worry, this will still be the middle school date movie of the season.

A rich girl named Winnie (Alexis Bledel, TV’s Gilmore Girls) thinks her home is a prison, and she goes to seek what lies beyond her gated estate. A poor boy named Jesse (Jonathan Jackson) spots her in his secret garden. Uh-oh. What begins as a harmless kidnapping turns into a budding romance. Of course, it’s really all a misunderstanding because she is taken to the house of Tuck, where Oscar winners and immortals roam. William Hurt and Sissy Spacek play Papa and Mama Tuck, who have seen their two boys, Jesse and Miles (Scott Bairstow), grow up and outlive generations of people “not like them.” But then Ben Kingsley, with a ridiculously long, blond wig, comes strolling into town asking questions about a fountain of youth.

This is a funny film. It’s a sweet story. There’s romance, even though the steamiest scene involves a kiss on the hand. What’s not to like about it?

Hurt is fabulous as a man who’s seen and lived through centuries. Kingsley shows he can translate his Don Logan from an ornery, foul-mouthed Sexy Beast to a conniving snake that is fit for the whole family. Spacek rocks in just about everything she does; her performance here is no different. Ditto for the deceivingly young-looking, 21-year-old Bledel.

Tuck Everlasting has plenty of redeeming qualities. But that doesn’t change the fact this is nothing more than a girly movie made for little girls.

All three films open Friday.

Contact Will Albritton at