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Rock this way: Jack Black (right) with student in The School of Rock.

Selling Out 101
By Ann Morrow

School of Rock
Directed by Richard Linklater

School of Rock is a feel-good foray into fourth-grade rebelliousness. Starring Jack Black, the comedic actor who came to fame in High Fidelity by playing a geeky music-obsessive, the film sanitizes the role of rock music in the lives of misfits. It also commodifies Black, giving him a role (the film was written expressly for him) that is constructed around his gymnastic facial expressions. Oddly enough, this marginally amusing comedy was written by Mike White, the disturbingly original screenwriter responsible for two edgy indie hits, Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl. Playing to School of Rock’s retrograde tameness is director Richard Linklater, who shows only hints of an understanding of youthful alienation and the power of subculture, qualities that made his Slacker and Dazed and Confused required viewing for Generation X. Apparently, all involved were ready to exit the fringe, and decided that playing it safe was the only way to rock the mainstream.

Black is Dewey Finn, a minimally talented guitarist. White is his nebbishy roommate, Ned Schneebly, a substitute teacher whose uptight girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) lays down the law to Dewey: Pay some rent or move out. And then Dewey is fired from his own band and replaced by a ridiculously sexy poseur who is devoid of Dewey’s passionate espousal of rock clichés. (It’s a shame that Dewey is dumped so quickly, since the chubby Black’s turbocharged embodiment of those clichés is by far the funniest element in the movie.) Desperate for cash, Dewey impersonates his roommate and lands a teaching gig at a pricey prep school for the progeny of straitlaced yuppies. Lesson One: Sticking It to the Man. Lesson Two: Christina Aguilera and Puff Daddy Are Not Rock. As the soundtrack makes clear (inserting iconic sound bites is a Linklater specialty), only classic rock from a lifetime ago qualifies as rock.

The film is not only savvy, but somewhat insightful about tapping into the nostalgia of parents who’ve given up their own rocked-out lifestyle, as well as reliving the pre-MTV era when there were whole classrooms of fourth-graders in need of a little anti-
authority prodding. Under the exuberant tutelage of Black’s “Mr. S.,” the kids come into their own as musicians, sound techies, backup singers and assorted hangers-on. A shy diva, an insecure pianist and a depressed guitarist are among the pupils released from a classical-music education in order to discover their inner cool. The class smarty-pants is promoted to manager, and teacher and students bond while preparing for a slot in a battle-of-the-bands contest.

In this sweet-natured tale, even “the Man”—tightly wound Principal Mullins (Joan Cusack)—is regarded with sympathy. It seems that long ago, before intensive
parent-teacher conferences took their toll, Mullins, too, had a wild side, and once tossed her hair in abandon to Stevie Nicks (the inventive Cusack holds her own in the
physical-comedy department). But School’s flashcard is Black. Utterly unselfconscious about his doughboy physique (except when he’s using his flab for some gentle visual humor), and with an irony-free eagerness to please, he’s irresistibly likeable in spite of the nonstop mugging. And as he proved in Shallow Hal, he’s terrific with kids.

But even with Black nearly splitting his prep-school shorts onstage, School of Rock is little more than an Afterschool Special with a bigger budget, and the musical sequences are played heartwarmingly, and boringly, straight (the musical spoofs in the universally dissed Marci X are infinitely more entertaining). By the end of the battle of the bands, many over-12 viewers may be waiting eagerly for a particular Van Halen snippet: “Class dismissssed!”

The Running Man

Out of Time
Directed by Carl Franklin

After 90-plus minutes of film-noirish plot twists, sex and violence, Out of Time comes down to one desperate woman and two men with guns on a derelict steamboat. All are scared and anything can happen. The audience isn’t quite sure whom to root for. It’s a delicious cinematic moment.

No one in this thriller from director Carl Franklin is quite who they seem, and that’s one of the most satisfying aspects of the film. Franklin, who has made a series of less-than-compelling big-budget Hollywood flicks, finally recaptures the unpredictable violence and sense of emotional quicksand that made his indie debut, One False Move, so memorable.

Matt Lee Whitlock (Denzel Washington) is the police chief of a small Florida town within commuting distance of Miami. With no crime to speak of, a big night for the chief is walking down the minuscule main drag checking to see that all the doors are locked.

Andy Griffith he’s not, however. Whitlock is separated from wife Alex (Eva Mendes), a detective with the state police. He is picking up the slack by fooling around with an old girlfriend, sultry Ann (Sanaa Lathan, playing against her usual good-girl image). He thinks nothing of knocking back a few beers and dropping in on Ann for a little sexual role-playing—while on duty. Ann, unfortunately, is married to Chris (Dean Cain), an ex-
football star with a bad attitude and worse temper. Still, the chief seems well-satisfied with his busy, if messy, personal life; he also lucks into a big drug bust that earns him the praise of his town and the media.

Before you can say “Pride goeth before a fall,” it all turns to shit for Whitlock. In trying to play the hero, the chief finds himself in the middle of a money swindle and a murder. As in the 1946 thriller The Big Clock (and its 1987 remake, No Way Out), the hero must try to solve the crime before the rest of the investigators figure out he’s the most likely suspect.

The movie then becomes a split-second game of cat-and-mouse between Whitlock, his ex (who has been assigned to the case), the DEA and a shifty con man the chief only met once. Little of what happens would stand up to intensive scrutiny (or a slower pace), but the director keeps the film moving like a freight train. Much credit must also go to Washington, who shows a vulnerability and humor often missing in his performances. He makes the audience empathize with Whitlock.

The film has plenty of local flavor. The rest of the cast is interesting in quirky ways; the chief’s interactions with a pompous DEA agent are tense and funny. The chief is particularly lucky to have his own wily version of Barney Fife, a nerdy, quick-thinking medical examiner (John Billingsley). This snappy mix of sex and violence doesn’t reinvent the film noir, but makes for an exciting ride to the satisfying ending on that boat.

—Shawn Stone

 


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