Charlie Bartlett (2008)

Add *Charlie Bartlett* to the overcrowded roster of teen misfit dramedies. This one does not especially distinguish itself, although it goes for a quirky, offbeat kind of tone like the far better *Rushmore*, cribs some notes from eighties teen movie king John Hughes, and, with its massively wealthy, ennui-plagued teen hero, and prominent use of a song by Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens), manages to evoke *Harold and Maude*. All of that effort to be like other, popular movies, to be *liked* -- it's just so high school.

Which does, I suppose, make the movie and its exertions to be likable a lot like the title character. Being popular is Charlie Bartlett's primary goal. As the movie begins, Charlie (Anton Yelchin) has been expelled from another in what is apparently a long list of prep schools, this time for manufacturing and selling fake IDs. He's got entrepreneurial zeal, to be sure, and an overdeveloped sense of rebellion to match it. His mother Marilyn (Hope Davis), overmedicated to placid, emotional zombiehood, sends him to the school of last resort, the dreaded public high school. There, Charlie, who still sports a prep school blazer and briefcase, is predictably bullied and treated like an outcast. His family's on-call psychiatrist fixes him right up with a prescription for Ritalin, which Charlie soon realizes has a resale value that far exceeds any possible therapeutic worth. He teams up with school bully Murph (Tyler Hilton) to sell the drug, as well as assorted other psychoactive substances to which he has ready access thanks to his familiarity with psychiatrists who are quick to prescribe a pill for every ill. He sets up a school counseling center in the boy's room too, offering soothing, nonjudgmental words and pharmaceutical remedies for teen angst in all its forms. All of which makes Charlie extremely popular with everyone except Mr. Gardner (Robert Downey, Jr.), the stressed, ineffectual, can't-get-no-respect, alcoholic school principal, who also happens to be the father of Charlie's girlfriend Susan (Kat Dennings).

Downey is at first blush an inspired choice to play the conflicted authority figure in a movie about teen angst and rebellion. He was practically Mister Teen Angst and Rebellion back in the day, the guy every high school principal dreaded, but he's kind of wasted  in *Charlie Bartlett* as the Uncool Yet Secretly Cool Adult Guy. Or something like that. At any rate, his Mr. Gardner is in the thick of things when Charlie's pill-pushing and psychobabble result in a crisis, and then another crisis, and then yet another one. Even medicated teens get the blues.

Written by Gustin Nash and directed by Jon Poll, *Charlie Bartlett* is ultimately fairly bland, predictable, and more self-amused than amusing. The self-medicating adults say things like "there are more important things in life than being popular," to skeptical teens who in no way believe them; kids from broken families get naked, get high, forge unlikely friendships, and work out their problems, sort of. *Charlie Bartlett* had the effect of making me fondly remember better movies of the genre, while being itself almost completely forgettable.


Definitely Maybe (2008)

A soon-to-be divorced dad has to have The Talk with his 11 year old daughter in the wake of a confusing school sex-ed lesson. Maya (Abigail Breslin) has questions, lots and lots of questions. Her dad Will (Ryan Reynolds) has few easy answers, but the lesson on the fundamentals turns into a lesson on the fundamental messiness not of sex, but of love, as Will weaves a bedtime story about the Three Loves of His Life, one of whom (he won't say which, and the names will be changed) is Maya's mom. 

Interwoven with Will's tale is that of another William, ex-president Clinton, which is an early clue that *Definitely, Maybe* will be a story of great expectations and great disappointment, high ideals and disillusionment, on both the political and personal fronts. There is plenty of uncynical comic sweetness and romance in *Definitely, Maybe*, but writer-director Adam Brooks doses it with enough irresolvably complicated, unsentimental realism to make it all decidedly yet appealingly bittersweet. Happily ever after, Maya already knows, doesn't always happen.

It all starts when Will, full of hope and political zeal, leaves Wisconsin, and his blond college sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks), to go to New York to work for the Clinton campaign, back in 1992. Some time between Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky, Will meets Summer (Rachel Weisz), a sultry, slightly dangerous would-be writer in love with a much older, crankier journalist (Kevin Kline), and April (Isla Fisher), the apolitical, free-spirited, slightly kooky redhead who collects copies of *Jane Eyre*. Although each woman starts out as an archetype, they are ultimately distinguishable by more than their hair color, and their characters fill out quite nicely, even while Will remains something of a cipher. Breslin (*Little Miss Sunshine*) is the fourth woman in Will's life, and provides a lively counterpoint to Will, keeping his character honest, and preventing him from lapsing into self-pity and blaming. *Definitely, Maybe* is not the kind of movie in which the Wise Child is allowed to be utterly cynical about adult relationships, and so Will's task is to impart his tale of failed romance without shattering his daughter's faith in the possibility of love and romantic bliss. 

Maya's task is to figure out which Miss Right turns out to be Mrs. Mom, but they're all good candidates, and *Definitely, Maybe* is refreshingly unchauvinistic in the way it doesn't turn any of them into harpies or homicidal maniacs. None of them are perfect, but none turns out to be fatally flawed in either, although it is clear that Will doesn't know any of them as well as he should, and that, coupled with uncannily bad timing on his part, makes his path to True Love (at least for a while), fairly strewn with obstacles and underutilized engagement rings.

*Definitely, Maybe* is, for all its sweetness and honesty, a little bland, a little too warm when it could stand a touch more hot and cold. But it's still smart and engaging and truthful enough about the confusing, chancy precariousness of love, with all its hazards and rewards, to count as a refreshing change of pace from what passes for romance and comedy, and romantic comedy, these days.


Fool's Gold (2008)

It is a well-established fact that the sight of someone being whacked upside the head with a hard object is hilarious. There is probably a scientific explanation for it. Near instant access to repeated viewings of a good head-bonk is the real reason DVDs are so much better than VHS. 

It is my sad duty to report to the scientists of humorous head-whacking that they now have to explain how a movie in which Matthew McConaughey is repeatedly whacked on the noggin is so darned unfunny. *Fool's Gold* not only features numerous head-whacks, with such implements as a cane, a cricket bat, and a shovel, but it also features a crotch-whacking-with-shovel as well. If the head-whacking is the gold standard of whackings, the kibbles-n-bits whacking is the silver standard, and probably only because it is primarily utilized against one half of humanity, and primarily enjoyed by the other half. You can see funny examples of both types of physical abuse in a mere 30 seconds in Justin Timberlake's Pepsi commercial, and I heartily endorse that efficiently hilarious option over *Fool's Gold*.

This screwball comedy (at least I think that's what it's supposed to be) reunites Kate Hudson and McConaughey (*How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days*) who, despite their individual charms and undeniable good looks, are no latter day Kate Hepburn and Cary Grant. (For a superior exemplar of the screwball comedy, see Hepburn and Grant in *Bringing Up Baby*.) The plot of *Fool's Gold* concerns a 300 year old sunken treasure that McConaughey's Finn seeks somewhere in the Caribbean. An exploding boat, an attempt to murder Finn, and eventual rescue by a boatload of rowdy teens all conspire to make him late for his divorce. Not showing up for the divorce is par for the course, according to his ex-wife Tess (Hudson), who announces that she is returning to grad school, apparently to study history. Finn somehow convinces her that it is better to *live* history by finding sunken treasure. This after finding his way onto the yacht where Tess works as a steward for the marvelously wealthy but familially benighted Nigel Honeycutt (Donald Sutherland, well-tanned and no doubt enjoying a leisurely tropical vacation). Nigel and his jet-setting bimbo daughter Gemma (Alexis Dziena) need some father-daughter time, and decide it would be fun to look for treasure too.

Thrown into this mix are a competing bunch of treasure hunters led by crusty Moe (Ray Winstone), a felonious rapper named Bigg Bunny (Kevin Hart) who, after bankrolling a previous Finn expedition, now wants in on the action, and Bigg's assorted inept henchmen. Andy Tennant, who directed and cowrote this haphazard movie, throws in a couple of gay chefs too, mostly, I suspect, to make possible a scene late in the movie in which they struggle with a shotgun and scream "I can't cock it!" It's possible that was supposed to be funny too. 

There are boat chases, jet ski chases, derring-do involving airplanes, underwater fight scenes, harpoonings, stabbings, shootings, and the aforementioned cranial whackings and bits bonkings. Tess and Finn bicker, unconvincingly and pretty much humorlessly -- mostly about how immature and unreliable he is, while he, in his defense, counters that he's carefree! exciting! adventurous! All of which is true, and he also sports a nice, even tan (like almost everyone else in the movie) and is generally soaking wet *and* getting bonked in the head, all of which should add up to a rollicking good time. But still, there's something missing in *Fool's Gold*, a gaping hole that all the sunny tans, bikinis, bimbo and himbo jokes, and suggestions of great sex don't fill. The movie is frantic without being fun or purposeful, like it all started with a list of stunts, and a story was cobbled together around them in no particular order. *Fool's Gold* tells us -- at one point Moe literally says, "Now there's a guy who really loves his wife!" -- that Tess and Finn are still in love without providing any convincing evidence aside from airplane dangling on his part and a certain otherwise inexplicable foolhardiness on hers. It is otherwise inexplicable foolhardiness only because Tess is supposed to be exceptionally smart, which is also something that has to be literally pointed out by other characters, since tangible evidence is lacking.

The cast looks jolly good cavorting in the sand and zipping around the Caribbean, and the sun-soaked tropical locales look mighty inviting here in the dark, cold days of winter. For all that, and its breathlessly frenetic pace, *Fool's Gold* is still boring and tedious. It is an action-romantic comedy that has lots of action, but it is neither romantic nor funny, and apparently no amount of head-whacking can fix that. Although, for the sake of science, I'm willing to let them try.


There Will Be Blood (2007)

Sinister sounds and chords ringing with foreboding, images of bleak, parched hills, and a title -- There Will Be Blood -- rendered in grim Gothic blackletter, all suggest horror. And there is violence, deep in the earth, where a solitary, single-minded man with a pickax scratches at the rocky belly of the hills. He's looking for silver, and he finds it, though not before the  earth exacts a price. The man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), will eventually make the ground bleed and ooze liquid gold from deep wounds, clawing his fortune from the soil with his bare hands. The earth gives him a son too, an angel-faced boy, and tenderness and warmth oozes out of the hard, callused man. All this before a word is spoken in There Will Be Blood, a positively brilliant film by Paul Thomas Anderson. 

Set in California at the turn of the century, There Will Be Blood is loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil! Has there ever been a more perfect metaphor for moral corruption than sticky, black, dirty crude oil? How perfect is it that this stuff that oozes from the bowels of the earth, from the hot hell beneath our feet, has inspired so much evil? It seeps into every pore of There Will Be Blood -- it is the intoxicating blood of the earth that poisons man's blood, and causes blood to be spilled. Anderson's movie ends in 1927, and has much to say about capitalism and greed (then and now), corruption and exploitation, about fathers and sons, religious zealotry and pious hypocrisy, broken trust, and revenge, and about blood -- the blood of the earth, the blood between family, the blood of the lamb. Anderson has crafted a riveting, intelligent, multi-layered, modern day Citizen Kane in this tale of a tycoon who literally pulled himself up out of the dirt. There Will Be Blood, which Anderson also wrote, is filled with indelible images vibrating with portent and consequence, and carefully chosen words that split open like onions to reveal layers of meaning. The musical score, composed by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, with a little help from Brahms and Arvo Pärt, veers from stark, savage minimalism to orchestral grandness -- the score is a work of original art in its own right, enhancing the film's emotional depth and mood, and demanding attention without taking any away from the rest of the film.

Plainview is played with fascinating complexity in a magnificent, mesmerizing, eerie performance by Day-Lewis. Even at his most monstrous, Plainview is an enigmatic and charismatic figure, and though he speaks in a authoritarian and stentorian manner, there is remarkable subtlety in Day-Lewis' performance. You can hear in that voice veiled threats, disdain, triumph, hatred, pride, and love. There's not an ounce of sloth in the hands-on, earthy mogul, but the other sins are well accounted for, seen in the hard glint of the eyes, felt in the aggressive, in-your-face body language, and heard in the long dusty road of a voice lubricated by crude oil and whisky. You can hear in that voice, through bitter, cruel words, the unexpected sound of a black heart breaking. Plainview's son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) is the perfect foil, an observant, quiet, gentle boy who stands at his father's right shoulder like his conscience, and is the object of utterly incongruous tenderness. H.W. is his father's moral compass, requiring, as children do, justification and explanation. The father's face, his jaw jutting out and his lower lip lifted in an almost perpetual frown -- the visible marks of his misanthropy -- crinkles and smiles around the boy, until a tragic accident breaks the bond between them, and breaks the magnetic needle that insistently tugged at Plainview's soul. 

There Will Be Blood is a fable of American capitalism, captured at a pivotal moment of appetite and discovery. It's the kind of story that, in decades past, was the subject of heroic movies, movies in which the conquest of people and the planet were considered admirable, even if the conquerors were less than perfect specimens of humanity. In a thousand small ways, the moral of that story has changed. There Will Be Blood is premised on the idea that avarice and competitiveness are so ingrained in our national soul that it corrupts every relationship and every person, including the shifty, spooky, evangelical preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who vexes Plainview and haunts his schemes, and who is every bit as ambitious, covetous, and rapacious as the businessman. The story is set in the past, but the film is rooted in the present, informed by modern wars, land grabs, and treacheries inspired now (as then) by the lust for oil, informed by the insidious entanglements of piety, prophets, and profit, and piety for profit. Yet for all its epic and provocative themes, for all the expansiveness of a story that spans three decades, There Will Be Blood remains strikingly, captivatingly intimate, an exciting, visionary, perfect movie told in small, bold, devastating strokes. I haven't stopped thinking about There Will Be Blood since I saw it, and I can't think of a thing that's wrong with it.