On the Aisle (2008)

Very Good

Content written by Tony Macklin. Originally published on April 17, 2008 in Fayetteville Free Weekly.

Both "Street Kings" and "Smart People" have opened to very tepid reviews, but both should please their target audiences. I can recommend both, and I particularly enjoyed "Street Kings."

A lot of reviewers seem to have disliked "Street Kings" because of its negative view of the LA police, and perhaps the country at large. That is not a problem for me.

Keanu Reeves also has received the usual, reflexive, bored response, but he's put on some weight and now seems to be an actor with more heft as a loner cop.

"Street Kings" is the best film of 1997. Actually that was "L.A. Confidential," and "Street Kings" is the 2008 updated version. Both movies came from stories by James Ellroy.

In between other Ellroy novels were made into movies -- "Dark Blue" (2003), directed by Ron Shelton, screenplay by David Ayres, and starring Kurt Russell. "Dark Blue" is a very under-rated movie. In 2006 another James Ellroy novel "The Black Dahlia" was made into a movie directed by Brian DePalma. It floundered absurdly.

"Street Kings" is steeped in Ellroy's patented themes of police corruption, loyalty and greed, slam-bang violence, two odd fellows who partner up, and the manic twists of fate and human nature.

It's no wonder that "Street Kings" and "L.A. Confidential" seem brethren. Ellroy is a clumsy stylist, who writes punchy dialogue, but his vision of law and disorder in LA is perceptive and penetrating.

As in "L.A. Confidential," "Street Kings" reeks with intrigue and betrayal. But this time the straight-arrow cop (Keanu Reeves) is a dark knight -- a vengeful lone wolf who will do anything to bring the bad guys to his own personal idea of justice, whatever the cost.

As in "L.A. Confidential," "Street Kings" has a strong cast. Reeves is more than serviceable as Tom Ludlow, the tormented cop. Jack Wander, Ludlow's boss and father figure, is effectively portrayed by Forest Whitaker. The ubiquitous captain from Internal Affairs is Hugh Laurie. He's more like the father in Stuart Little than TV's Gregory House, both of which he plays -- a little more House might have helped by giving the character more edge.

Cedric the Entertainer, Martha Higareda, and Naomie Harris add personality. Chris Evans is the rookie cop who assists Ludlow.

"Street Kings" is the second directorial outing for David Ayers. His debut was "Harsh Times" (2005). He also wrote "Training Day" (2001), for which Denzel Washington won an Oscar as a bad cop.

Ayers got his start as a writer, and ironically Curtis Hanson, the director of "L.A. Confidential," also was a writer -- a film critic. Both are literary men, aware of the rhythms of writer Ellroy.

"Street Kings" proves again that the streets of LA can be mean but entertaining.

Smart People

"Smart People" trots out the characters from the 21st century's most popular assemblage: a dysfunctional family. Movies today are littered with dysfunctional characters. One dysfunction tops another.

The dysfunctional ones in "Smart People" are a widower, who is an insensitive, self-absorbed university teacher (Dennis Quaid); his isolated, perfectionist, high school senior daughter (Ellen Page); his irresponsible brother (Thomas Haden Church), and a former student who is now a doctor burdened with issues (Sarah Jessica Parker).

It's one big therapy session.

If this sounds oppressive, at times it is. At other times, thanks to some intelligent writing and an able cast, it rises above its tired roots.

The characters basically are likable, although the professor is something of an educated dope. Quaid mugs and takes lengthy, pregnant pauses as the dope.

Ellen Page (Juno) continues her career as a wise cracking ingénue, and Sarah Jessica Parker escapes the pseudo-sophisticated throes of the city to portray a woman struggling for romance.

But the actor who steals the show and makes the movie well worth seeing is irrepressible Thomas Haden Church as the reprobate brother, who is witty but lethargic. The screenplay by Mark Poirier gives him the best lines.

First-time director Noam Murro likes to show him bare-arsed, and one chuckles, despite himself, at the absurd image.

"Smart People" is a film of chuckles about smart but chuckle-headed people.


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