From the Chicago Reader (February 21, 2008). I believe this was my last long review before I left my staff job there. — J.R.
CHARLIE BARTLETT ***
Directed by Jon Poll
I just rewatched Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume, a radical and rebellious teen movie I gave four stars in 1990. I think it holds up, and apparently I’m not the only one: the average rating of the 62 customer reviews it has on Amazon.com is four and a half out of five stars.
The new rebellious teen movie Charlie Bartlett isn’t as good or as radical; it’s more an edgy comedy than a rabble-rouser. But it reminded me of Pump Up the Volume in many ways: it’s one of the first features for a middle-aged director; it captures teenage despair leading up to a suicide attempt (successful in Pump Up the Volume, unsuccessful here); one of its lead characters has a school administrator as a father (the hero in Pump Up the Volume, the heroine here); and it depicts a general disgruntlement about the way schools are run, culminating in a student uprising. The movies are even comparably derivative of others: Pump Up the Volume plundered some of its best ideas from Rebel Without a Cause, Citizens Band, Network, and Talk Radio, while Charlie Bartlett seems especially indebted to Mumford, all the way down to its final blackout gag.… Read more »
At a historic summit in Spain against global terrorism, the U.S. president (William Hurt) is shot, a bomb explodes, and two federal agents (Dennis Quaid and Matthew Fox) rush to find the culprits. This gripping if ridiculous thriller repeatedly backtracks to present the same events from different viewpoints, though ironically it has no viewpoint of its own, just a desire to pile up plot twists and extend a thrilling car chase ad infinitum. Milking an international crisis for thrills may seem tasteless, but of course the news media do it all the time, which is highlighted by the movie’s shameless lack of interest in such drab matters as political motivation. If you’re up for good nihilist entertainment, look no further. With Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, and Edgar Ramirez. PG-13, 90 min. (JR)… Read more »
A rebellious teen comedy that isn’t as good or as radical as Pump Up the Volume, but still feels like a shot in the arm and is full of irreverent energy. Jon Poll’s debut featurewith a witty script by Gustin Nashcenters on a wealthy, frequently expelled title hero (Anton Yelchin) who becomes the most popular kid at his high school once he starts prescribing and selling pharmaceuticals to his classmates that he acquires from his own shrink, and then leads a revolt against surveillance cameras in the student lounge. Despite an ineffectual subplot about the hero’s absent father, there are some good satirical riffs here on adult hypocrisies (with Robert Downey Jr. especially good as the beleaguered, alcoholic school principal), a few echoes of the underrated Mumford, and lots of high spirits. With Kat Dennings, Hope Davis, and Tyler Hilton. R, 97 min. (JR)… Read more »
Starting with From the Pole to the Equator (1987), the Milan-based couple Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi have excelled at compiling silent archival footage, encouraging the material to speak, both historically and poetically, through masterful use of music, tinting, and variable speeds. (Their mystical reverence for the footage is reflected in how they commune with it by keeping film cans around the house before opening them.) Drawn from many war museums, this 1995 work is the first part of a World War I trilogy, and it’s a spellbinder, alternately beautiful and horrifying. It concentrates on POWs in prerevolutionary Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but there’s also some extraordinary combat footage. The few Italian intertitles, most of them identifying dates and locations, are unsubtitled. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »
The sweet-tempered Michel Gondry works well with sharp-edged material (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but his projects as a solo writer-director have been soft and surreal celebrations of innocence that threaten to drift off into whimsy (The Science of Sleep and now this feature). Danny Glover entrusts his run-down video shop in Passaic to clueless assistants Jack Black and Mos Def, who accidentally erase all the videos and decide to shoot their own low-rent versions of popular hits. Their project is a great success with customers, but the studios object and Glover gets an eviction notice. This anachronistic tale goes beyond Capracorn to evoke Depression-era fare like One Hundred Men and a Girl in which the charm is overtaken by mush. One wants to protect this, but it’s hard not to gag on the cuteness. With Melonie Diaz and Mia Farrow. PG-13, 101 min. (JR)… Read more »
The visual brilliance of Shohei Imamura’s kinky and satirical black-and-white ‘Scope feature (1966), about a man who makes eight-millimeter porno loops, often suggests the inventiveness of the French New Wave, but not so much the New Wave features of auteurs like Godard and Truffaut as the more illustrative offshoots of that movement, like Sundays and Cybele and Zazie, that applied its dazzling visceral techniques like fresh coats of paint to the material at hand. Often framing his action through windows and fish tanks, punctuating his action with abrupt freeze-frames and fantasy interludes, Imamura attacks the whole question of contemporary eroticism with mordant intelligence, though his style here seems not so much organic as a witty and independent form of commentary. In Japanese with subtitles. 127 min. (JR)… Read more »