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Sundance: Quick Reviews

January 21, 2008  |  1:06pm

Catching up with a few more recent screenings:

• Robert Deniro plays a Hollywood producer in Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened? a quick and funny farce about the movie business. It’ll draw comparisons to The Player, since a behind-the-scenes film with lots of cameos usually does, but this manic week in the life of a movie juggler is noisier, funnier, and probably more accurate. It was shot quickly on digital video, and it could have used a few quiet moments to give the eardrums a rest, but Levinson seems to have fun flopping around in the wall-to-wall sound, revealing with a quick wink that the overly dramatic music (think Morricone) is almost always blaring from something in the story.

The Recruiter (formerly called An American Soldier) is a sober and sobering documentary about the Army recruiting office in a small town in Louisiana, paying special attention to the star recruiter and a handful of his latest recruits, eventually following them through basic training. It’s a fair movie about an important aspect of the war that I don’t remember seeing onscreen except for a brief segment in Michael Moore’s film. The scenes that I found the most unexpectedly moving were the ones where the recruiter, sincerely I imagine, tells the recruits individually how proud he is of them; the way some of these young men and women soak up his praise, beaming, says a great deal about why they chose to sign up.

• An unshaven, smoking, tuxedoed Stanley Tucci and an elegant Patricia Clarkson meet at the bar/theater where he performs a terrible magic act to mostly empty tables in Blind Date, a visually beautiful, somnolent acting exercise based on the Theo Van Gogh film of the same name. It turns out that they’re not meeting for the first time; they have a huge history, and the date—along with a dozen others that take place entirely within the same bar—is actually a role-playing game that begins with a personal ad and ends with one character walking away. “Serious Reporter Seeks Aggressive Female.” It’s clever, although it’ll feel tedious if you fight it. The characters eventually reveal details of their lives, with decreasing subtlety and enough repetition that you could probably nod off for a while, miss a couple of the five- to fifteen-minute vignettes, and not fall too far behind. But Tucci and Clarkson are always enjoyable to watch, and, if you’re listening closely enough, the screenplay is dryly, very dryly, witty.

• Mistaking early 90’s pop culture references for wit, trotting them out every five minutes like clockwork, The Wackness is a muddled flick about a recent high-school graduate’s final summer before he goes to college. It’s more likely to appeal to teen agers than adults, I suppose, except that it’s so dull. As the psychiatrist who smokes more weed than the client who supplies him, Ben Kingsley generates a couple of chuckles (the hair alone earns one) by acting like a 17-year-old in a 50-year-old’s body. Kingsley aside, it’s a superficially sexy movie whose picture is bathed in a monotonous green tint that spells quality, like the sepia setting on your digital camera that you switch on for the serious pictures. Lots of drugs, a little sex, and nothing at all to feel or chew on or laugh about as I left the building.

• But The Wackness doesn’t feature as many drugs as Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a vibrant and impassioned biography of the high-living journalist, with interviews ranging from Pat Buchanan to the editors of Rolling Stone and text read by Johnny Depp.

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