Jack Black has been cracking me up for years, since his early days as a bit player on TVs Mr. Show, followed by his part in the musical powerhouse that is Tenacious D. He had a shining moment in High Fidelity as an obnoxious record store clerk, but his film pedigree suffered afterward. School of Rock changed all that, giving Black a script written especially for him by Michael White, and allowing him to cut loose and, in short, ROCK! As Dewey Finn, an imposter substitute teacher looking to enter his musically incredible grammar school students in a battle of the bands, he doesn't deliver a wrong note. The kids are terrific as actors and musicians, with the final big musical number a rousing moment. It's a shame that the Academy didn't nominate the song "School of Rock," because another chance to see the band perform would've been a blast. The film has garnered comparisons to the likes of The Bad News Bears for its realistic depiction of kids, and that's an accolade that is right on the mark. Supporting performances from Joan Cusack, Sarah Silverman and White are hilarious. Cusack, as the school's tight-assed principal, has a moment disciplining a student that was one of last year's funniest. Of course, it is Black who keeps this film blasting forward, a performance that will stand as one of the best in his career. The success of this one paved the way for a Tenacious D movie, Black's real-ife rock side project with buddy Kyle Gass.
Special Features: Lessons Learned in 'School of Rock' has some great behind-the-scenes footage, including an ultimate slob moment for Black that I won't spoil. The disc has two commentaries, one with the kids, and the other featuring Director Richard Linklater and Black--a great reason to watch the film twice. Getting almost two hours of Black just talking is well worth the price for any fan of the man. A video for "School of Rock" features Black in a terrible wig, because he obviously got his long movie hair shorn before shooting it.
Ron Howard's dark Western features bravura performances from Cate Blanchett and the young Jenna Boyd. What it doesn't feature is a consistent tone. It starts as a marginally realistic depiction of a mother (Blanchett) trying to rescue her kidnapped daughter (Thirteen's Evan Rachel Wood), but it gets all mucked up by a strange supernatural element that disrupts the film. Tommy Lee Jones, sporting a funky, long-haired wig, does well enough as Blanchett's long-lost father. The film, which falters and sputters to its conclusion, isn't good enough to support the decent performances. Howard seems on to something at first, but winds up afraid to get down and dirty with his filmmaking, opting for political correctness over realism. Watch for Boyd (who plays Blanchett's other daughter) and Wood in the future. They are stars on the rise.
Special Features: The packaging boasts The Short Films of Ron Howard, which turn out to be home-movie stuff he made when he was in high school. Getting to see the home movies is actually pretty cool, but it rings of false advertising. There are also some alternate endings and deleted scenes, as well as an outtake reel that features bloopers like Cate Blanchett losing her hat and falling off a horse.
The first two films in director Robert Rodriguez's kid-adventure franchise were a blast, but the third and final installment ended things with a dull thud. Secret Agent Juni (Daryl Sabara) must travel inside a popular video game to rescue his sister (Alexa Vega) being held captive by the evil Toymaker (a spirited Sylvester Stallone). While the first two films were witty and exciting, this one is a slave to the 3-D technology, which often results in flat films (Jaws 3-D, Friday the 13th Part 3: 3-D). Top-billed Antonio Banderas is only in the film for something like five minutes, with Ricardo Montalban getting far more screen time as grandpa. Sabara is the star this time out, with the more-interesting Vega not showing up until far into the film. Rodriguez makes fun movies, but this time, he bit off a little more than he could chew.
Special Features: While the 3-D effects were a pain on the eyes in the theater, they are actually much better on my TV screen. The package comes with four pairs of 3-D glasses, Alexa Vega in concert and Rodriguez's 10 Minute Film School and insightful audio commentary. The features are definitely better than the actual film.