Daily Archives: December 20, 2007

The Great Debaters

The story of the champion debate team nurtured in the 1930s at the all-black Wiley College in rural Texas is so amazing that it’s infuriating to see producer Oprah Winfrey, director Denzel Washington, and screenwriter Robert Eisele add so much spin, including a climactic argument that anticipates Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent tactics by two decades. Washington plays the tough-love coach, poet and activist Melvin B. Tolson; Denzel Whitaker is the team’s youngest member, James Farmer Jr., who later founded the Congress of Racial Equality; and Forest Whitaker (no relation) plays his remarkable father. The other three debaters (Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker, Jermaine Williams) are fictional composites, and for some reason the climactic match has been moved from the University of Southern California to Harvard. Conceived like a sports movie, this delivers passion, nuance, and historical insight along with unnecessary hokum. PG-13, 123 min. (JR) Read more

27 Dresses

Katherine Heigl stars as a compulsive bridesmaidshe cultivates friends for the sole purpose of joining their wedding parties. Secretly in love with her boss (Edward Burns), she has to negotiate an emotional obstacle course after he proposes to her dependent and popular younger sister (Malin Akerman). Meanwhile a wedding reporter (James Marsden) has been dogging the older sister’s steps, writing a story about her compulsion. For most of this romantic comedy, fatuous contrivances run neck and neck with what seem to be authentic observations about repressed sibling rivalry; some of the latter are too painful to be funny, and eventually the contrivances win out, but the cast keeps it all watchable. Anne Fletcher directed a script by Aline Brosh McKenna. PG-13, 107 min. (JR) Read more

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s arty blood opera about revenge, squalor, cannibalism, and despair in Victorian London provides a good many challenges to nonprofessional singers, including unhummable tunes, and one accomplishment of this well-crafted if relatively impersonal adaptation by director Tim Burton and writer John Logan is that Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Sacha Baron Cohen do a lot more than simply survive the songs. Like Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons in Guys and Dolls (1955), they dissolve the distinction between singing and acting. Dante Ferrett’s claustrophobic setsvirtually the reverse of the spacious settings in Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factoryare pretty effective too. R, 117 min. (JR) Read more

Youth Without Youth

After a decade’s absence from directing, Francis Ford Coppola seizes on a metaphysical fantasy novella by Mircea Eliadeabout a Romanian linguist in the 1930s (Tim Roth) who starts to grow younger after being hit by lightningas both a personal allegory and, like his lively Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), an opportunity to try out a good many visual effects. Unfortunately this lacks the safety net of Dracula’s familiar story and heaps on one outlandish premise after another (the hero produces a doppelganger and falls in love with a woman who goes into trances, speaks in ancient languages, and starts to age rapidly), eventually skirting incoherence. I’m all for bold screwiness, but this provocation seems labored despite the striking images. With Alexandra Maria Lara. R, 124 min. (JR) Read more

P.S. I Love You

B.S. I Love You would be a more accurate title. After a young Irishman in New York (Gerard Butler) dies of a brain tumor, his bereft widow (Hilary Swank) receives a series of messages from him, written when he knew he was dying, that fondly advise her on how to resume her life. New Agey Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers) cowrote this interminable tearjerker with Steven Rogers, adapting a Cecelia Ahern novel, and directs as if he and we had all the time in the world. At least he has the wit to open with the couple fighting bitterly in their Chinatown flat, which implicitly qualifies the fond memories that follow. With Lisa Kudrow, Gina Gershon, and Kathy Bates, all squandered. PG-13, 126 min. (JR) Read more