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Catching Up On Reviews With Erik Childress (Art of Getting By, The Best & Brightest, Kidnapped)
by Erik Childress

This week we get around a really funny indie that deserves an audience, more Sundance teenage angst and a gruesome, but stylish home invasion that I wish could have swapped families with the Sundance flick.

This film, which went under the title of Homework at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is one that requires no heavy lifting and no need to take it home with you after you leave. It stars the now grown-up Freddie Highmore, so wonderful in Finding Neverland and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, now entering his philosophical, cynical teenage phase. He plays George, a high school senior who has managed to skirt by most of his academic career without doing any actual work. It's beneath him. He's the mold of a character that should actually be watching Miranda July's film, The Future, to gather some fresh ideas about looking at mortality. Emma Roberts (who needs someone to pick better indie projects for her) plays cute classmate Sally whom he's had an eye on but never found the moment to make a move until he saves her from a campus smoking charge. Teachers (including Alicia Silverstone) and the principal (Blair Underwood) want him to express himself more. Both George & Sally have moms (Rita Wilson & Elisabeth Reaser) with questionable suitor radar. There's also a former student (Michael Angarano), now a successful artist, who befriends the both of them so someone can be a catalyst in getting them to realize they are made for each other.

Gavin Wiesen's writing/directing debut is basically a collection of subplots for its lead character to look upon with smug insights while never having the stones to actually resolve any of them until a third act when we are long past the point of caring. This is festival 101 stuff with many of the usual fest actors, all of the young fest film angst and nothing to suggest it should be considered as anything but. Other than being able to put a lot of names on a poster, it is surprising that Fox Searchlight would embrace such a generic work when they have had such a better eye in the past with films like Garden State and (500) Days of Summer (which the studio brought to Sundance rather than picking up.) At least they still have Win Win cause The Art of Getting By barely qualifies as a draw.

Farce has consistently been one of the most difficult sub-genres of comedy to pull off in the modern era. Surely, the French still think they pull it off in style. But ask Francis Veber how often it translates to the American scene. Last year's Dinner For Schmucks being a perfect example of this failing. Gather a group of eccentric characters, center the plot around a single big lie (or two) and watch everyone scramble to react. It's a scenario that requires timing, great reactive skills, plus actors and filmmakers who understand the type of comedy they are trying to make. In this sad period of time when The Hangover is considered the end-all, be-all of this sort, it's really refreshing to see a film like Josh Shelov's The Best and the Brightest that understands it better than most. It may dawn on you that the film really only has one, big joke up its sleeve, but like The Aristocrats it finds so many great ways to tell it that the punchline rarely matters.

Jeff (Neil Patrick Harris) and Samantha (Bonnie Somerville - not Monica Potter) are moving to New York with their 5 year-old daughter, Beatrice (Amelia Talbot). While not living in the upper one percent, they are still hoping to get their child in one of the prestigious schools in the city. This is a procedure that normally begins when the kid is still in the womb, so they are already well behind the curve. Their first step is to hire Sue Lemon (Amy Sedaris), a freelance consultant that specializes in making couples like them more palatable to the elite holding their kid's fate. Their unfortunate step is trusting Jeff's spoiled college buddy, Clark ( a fantastic Peter Serafinowicz) with looking after their daughter while they have their first meeting. Without spoiling matters, it is this relationship that leads to the film's running joke, which the couple has to maintain through the school's upper echelon board members who begin to develop a kinship of varying artistic merits with this "genius."

The Best and the Brightest settles quite nicely into its elements once it finally establishes it, but Josh Shelov and Michael Jaegar's screenplay was already well ahead in the laugh game prior to the half-hour mark when things begin to slowly spiral out of control. Harris already supplies two good laughs just on the ride into New York and Somerville's increasing frustration with the school system is readily milked and we're only in the first ten minutes. Adding in quick zingers from Sedaris and the vulgar Serafinowicz and the film has already out-laughed most comedies this year and the entire resume of Todd Phillips. But the film doesn't stop there, adding in the likes of John Hodgman, Kate Mulgrew and the indispensable Christopher McDonald as the school's collection of black-kettle hypocrites. The 10-15 minute "book club" sequence in the middle of the film well outdoes Dinner for Schmucks' climactic gathering with Hodgman's glorious misinterpretations of the text involved and the beginnings of Mulgrew's status-guarding contempt for McDonald's in-the-open philandering. Shelov doesn't allow the scene to overstay its welcome, which must have been tough not to let the cameras keep rolling when his actors are giving him gold.

Most films would have trouble making such an easy joke get multiple laughs as it keeps returning to the same well, but between Harris' perfected deadpan appeal and McDonald swooping into each scene like a storm of unrepressed sexuality, Shelov has all the backup he needs. A side trip with a former crush of Jeff's (Legend of the Seeker's Bridget Regan) is not fully developed, though even Regan delivers a line of what she hates with such awkward glee that you can't help but be on board for what might come next, most of it again sold by McDonald's inappropriate defusing of the situation. If there is any real downside to The Best and the Brightest, it is that it will be seen in theaters by less people than the first national showing of The Hangover Part II. Too bad there isn't a board that could decide which merrily naughty comedies could make it into national theaters, which it does on June 24. It does hit DVD on Aug. 16 from New Video and if it's not playing in a theater near you, hopefully you will support a film, a cast, and a filmmaker who have done almost the impossible - make a really funny farce in the 21st century.

KIDNAPPED - One of the last things the world needed was another hostage drama. Further down on that list would be another foreign job that festival audiences can fawn over while a new filmmaker pushes the limits of violence and shock value. In many ways, Kidnapped proves to be the rule and the exception though as writer/director Miguel Ángel Vivas has a few tricks up his sleeves on the fringes of the same old ones.

Rare is the film that can jolt you twice before the titles come up, but Kidnapped did just that to this cynical critic as a man gains consciousness under a shroud in the middle of the woods as he frantically tries to reach safety and discover the fate of his family. Seems they were the victim of an ordeal in which the patriarch was unsuccessful in his instructions. Cut to dad Jaime (Fernando Cayo) coming home to a day of moving-in with his wife, Marta (Ana Wagener) and teenage daughter, Isa (Chaotic Ana's Manuela Vellés). Their biggest struggle appears to be the tug o' war over whether Isa can go out with her boyfriend to a party. That is when, literally without warning, a trio of bad men force their way into their new suburban home and bound them up until dad can retrieve as much ATM money from their credit cards.

Take a little of Them (and its American counterpart, The Strangers), a dash of Funny Games (and its American scene-by-scene counterpart) and a splash of Panic Room and the recipe for Kidnapped should have you asking, "why do I need to go through this exercise once again?" More than a fair question, especially since even with the early jolts, Kidnapped appears to be going through many of the very same beats. The left-behind women plot opportunities for escape, someone unexpectedly shows up at the front door, and the three thugs are divided into the calm facilitator, the brutishly out-of-control and the nervous, halfway decent guy. These scenes become tiresome as we've seen it all before.

Where Kidnapped separates itself (or, at least, warrants an undercard showing with the best of the genre) is in Vivas' prowess in taking DePalma's split-screen antics to another level. Actually, it's more like taking Roger Avery's show-offy throwaway in The Rules of Attraction to the next level as he allows unbroken shots of varying locales and situations to play out in real-time only to eventually converge. At first the gimmick only briefly spices up the familiar, but by the time the film gets around to its no-holds-barred Gaspar Noe-esque climax, Kidnapped had just about won me over (or beat me down) enough to honor the effectiveness of its best moments. Plus, nothing could compare one for the bookended shocks that Rivas had in store. At 80 minutes, Kidnapped is a pretty solid highlight reel for Rivas' strengths behind the camera. Hopefully they will be put to good use on a project he can own rather than borrow from.

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originally posted: 06/17/11 05:36:48
last updated: 06/17/11 05:44:30
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