Harry Altman in SpellboundSPELLBOUND

I have always considered it a personal mission to convince people that documentaries can actually be fun - recently, I enjoyed a hard-won victory when my mother (who, as she is wont to say, "gets enough drama in life") acceded to watch Bowling for Columbine and found herself liking it - and, bless their hearts, the folks at the Brew & View appear to as well.

This past year they've given us Columbine, Comedian, Lost in La Mancha, Capturing the Friedmans, and Winged Migration, and they're currently playing the Oscar-nominated doc Spellbound, which is, hands down, the most fantastically enjoyable movie in local release. Detailing the backgrounds and painstaking preparation of eight young contestants in 1999's National Spelling Bee, Spellbound is an incredibly rich entertainment - buoyantly funny, truly moving, and as nerve-racking as most thrillers would like to be - yet what most surprises is its unforced thematic depth, which raises it above "mere" entertainment into a realm that more closely resembles art.

Director Jeff Blitz has fashioned an ode to the glories of American opportunity in a way that never feels trumped-up or phony; its themes are there for you to find, or not, and your overall enjoyment won't be diluted one bit. Watching these eight remarkably disparate contenders compete - they comprise a near-perfect blend of ethnic, social, and financial differences - is like seeing The American Dream embodied onscreen; in Spellbound, the notion that anyone, from any walk of life, can succeed through patience and hard work has rarely seemed so attainable, or so beguiling (this despite the fact that the youths are correctly spelling words you and I have never heard of). And for those who still bristle at the idea of sitting through a documentary, I can't stress enough just how much fun Spellbound is. The film is peppered with moments of exquisite comedy, be it from a feisty canine who slides into catatonia or a restaurant marquee that proudly misspells "Congradulations!", the kids and their families are given enough screen time to establish themselves as vividly unique individuals, and the nature of the spelling bee itself gives the movie a marvelous hook - your heart breaks and you revel in victory right along with the kids themselves. Spellbound is a tremendous, unmissable experience.


Seann William Scott and The Rock in The RundownTHE RUNDOWN

Where the hell was The Rundown when we were sitting through this summer's spate of witless, excruciating blockbusters? 'Cause here's one that actually gets it right: an action-comedy where the action is legitimately thrilling and the comedy is legitimately funny. How novel! The plot is glorious rubbish: A professional tracker (Dwayne Johnson, better known as wrestling megstar The Rock) travels to Brazil to retrieve a crime lord's son (Seann William Scott) who is attempting to unearth an ancient relic, and this odd couple, joined by a comely revolutionary (Rosario Dawson), must also escape capture by a literal slave-driving gold digger (Christopher Walken). For me, action movies stopped being fun years ago because they stopped being inventive; how many different ways can you possibly film an explosion or a car chase? Yet I think it's safe to say that The Rundown, with direction by Peter Berg, sports a new good idea every five minutes, which adds up to a baker's dozen more than you'll get in nearly any other movie of its ilk. And despite Scott's typically negligible work - you can imagine the comedic possibilities if his role was played by Jack Black - the film is about as well-performed as you could hope for. The Rock finally comes into his own as an enormously likable action star (getting him out of The Scorpion King's period dullness seems to have helped), effortlessly humorous and an enjoyable ass-kicker, and Christopher Walken might just be the most entertaining über-villain an action spectacle has ever landed; for hysterical, full-throttle weirdness, his monologue about The Tooth Fairy couldn't possibly be bettered. Just about everything in The Rundown - the fistfights, the dialogue, the photography - works infinitely better than it needed to in order to be a hit; this delightfully eccentric action-comedy is almost enough to rekindle your faith in Hollywood genre filmmaking.


Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore in DuplexDUPLEX

Danny DeVito is sitcom-nasty. He's spent most of his career playing obnoxious, piggish bastards, yet DeVito himself exudes such jolliness and joie de vivre that you never really take his odious behavior seriously; he's a harmless sonofabitch, too genial to ever be considered a real threat. His directorial efforts have the same feel. Though he strives for black comedy in works like Throw Momma from the Train, Matilda, and Death to Smoochy, and does pull off some impressive scenes of cartoon mayhem (remember Momma's Billy Crystal getting whacked in the head with a frying pan?), DeVito can't quite shake off an inherent cheerfulness, a sense of "Just kidding!" that stops his films from really soaring. (He came closest during Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner's vicious battles in The War of the Roses.) His latest comedy, Duplex, though much better than Smoochy, falls into the same trap. In the movie, Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore play young marrieds who, after purchasing a Brooklyn two-story, get driven crazy by their elderly upstairs neighbor (the terrific Eileen Essell), a sweet-on-the-surface nightmare whom the couple make plans to murder. This should be the stuff of demented farce, but Stiller and Barrymore are so adorable, and Essell so clueless about her hatefulness, that the plot to kill her just comes off as odd; by never establishing whether or not audiences should want her dead, DeVito never creates a proper tone for the film, and Duplex, despite the occasional funny moment, limps along to its inevitably whitewashed finale. Danny DeVito should be commended for his ongoing search for darker laughs, but a loveable black comedy is merely toothless.


Kate Beckinsale in UnderworldUNDERWORLD

Considering that its storyline is the zenith of goofiness - it concerns a war between aristocratic vampires and lower-middle-class werewolves - wouldn't you think there would be room in Underworld for at least a couple of jokes? Alas, this horror thriller fits alongside The Matrix and The Crow and Dark City as a chic, moody tale of the fantastic that staunchly refuses to display a sense of humor. (Apparently, the donning of a long, black leather jacket leads directly to humorlessness.) The film isn't badly made at all; it's gripping, well-shot, and boasts some gratifyingly brutal effects. Yet the dialogue is so florid, and the performances so absurdly high-minded, that you're aching to laugh nonetheless, and the movie never lets you; Underworld's Len Wiseman directs with a nobility of purpose that rivals Spielberg exploring D-Day. Based on the film's impressive early box-office receipts, pretension may be just what the graphic-novel clientele wants from their monster movie, but for the rest of us, it won't be until the ride home, giggling at the film's deadly serious inanity, that we'll actually be enjoying ourselves.

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