Tag Archives: D+

FLYBOYS

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D+

It’s been nearly a half century since the last bad Hollywood movie about the Lafayette Escadrille, the squadron of Americans that joined the infant French air force during World War I; it was director William Wellman’s final film, a 1958 effort titled after the squad, and starred Tab Hunter. So perhaps it’s time for another. “Flyboys,” flaccidly directed by Tony Bill, is like a cinematic time warp, but the time it takes you back to is not so much 1917, the year in which it’s supposedly set, but the forties and fifties: it’s a cornucopia of cliches from movies of that era about military rebels who become heroes, about romance in the midst of war, about initially hostile recruits who develop bonds of camaraderie by watching one another’s backs, even when (as here) it’s while they’re in the air. And about the gruff commanders who learn to respect their troublesome charges and the hardened veteran who does likewise. Though ostensibly based on a true story, it comes across as resolutely false.

The central character is Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a lanky Texan who decides to join the squadron after he loses the family farm and is given a half-hour to get out of town when he assaults the banker responsible for the foreclosure. Rawlings is a mixture of Gary Cooper and James Dean (the later of whom Franco once played): a straight-shooter and crack shot, but roguish and undisciplined, too. He becomes the de facto leader of the bunch of caricature misfits that make up the rookies in the Lafayette Escadrille: the rich boy (Tyler Labine), just kicked out of Harvard, who’s sent by his father to become a man; the black man (Abdul Salis) searching to pay back France for the welcome it showed him when his native land didn’t; the hymn-singing Christian (Michael Jibson); the suspicious fellow who can never seem to shoot down an enemy plane (David Ellison); the gung-ho type (Philip Winchester) who cracks up after a close call. And as if that weren’t enough stereotypes, the script offers us a cynical American veteran (Martin Henderson) whose idealism has been broken by the deaths of his pilot friends and the conviction that the Great War will solve nothing–and who keeps a lion as the quad mascot (allowing for reaction shots of the big cat rather than the customary ones of some dog–the movie obviously thinks on a large scale)–as well as a French captain (Jean Reno) who’s so well disposed to the courageous Americans that he proves quite willing to let the rules slide when necessary.

In the course of “Flyboys,” Rawlings really shows his mettle. He not only becomes the premier flyer in his group, but rescues a comrade after the latter’s plan crashes in the no-man’s zone between the opposing trenches, flies behind enemy lines to save a French girl (Jennifer Decker) he’s fallen in love with (along with her adorable nephews and niece, all of them orphans) from a horde of Germans who have invaded their farm, and eventually takes on the enemy ace, the so-called Black Falcon (Gunnar Winbergh), in a one-on-one dogfight. (The Falcon, whom we see–along with other German pilots–as they attack, is a villainous figure practically out of silent movies. He flies a plane painted black, no less, and in one scene he’s shown machine-gunning an American who’s landed his plane safely after it was damaged. The only thing missing is a shot of him twirling his moustache, Snidely Whiplash style, as he fires.) It’s an impossible role, and Falco, who’s proven a handsome cipher as Harry Osborne in the Spider-Man movies, the male half of the couple in “Tristan & Isolde” and the lower-class plebe in “Annapolis,” tries to aw and shucks his way through it, but without ever demonstrating the charisma it would take to make the fellow remotely plausible, or even very likable. Henderson does the world-weary loner shtick well enough, and Reno tosses a few amiable glances and feints our way, but both have trouble wrestling with the canned material. As for the other members of the squad, they’re all played by young unknowns who are likely to remain in that unhappy position.

On the technical level, “Flyboys” is a would-be epic on a limited budget. The crowd scenes are sadly modest, and there’s so much CGI on display, not only in the numerous air-conflict scenes but on the ground as well, that you’d sometimes swear you were watching an animated fantasy. The dogfight sequences are busy and explosion-filled, but they’re clearly more plastic models and computer trickery than actual aircraft; and they’re further enfeebled by all the hokey heroics they’re required to bear. For more genuine aerial action you still have to go back to “The Blue Max” (1966), though it was no dramatic masterpiece either. And Trevor Rabin should certainly have consulted Jerry Goldsmith’s memorable score for that picture to learn that you can use something other than the usual rah-rah note-spinning to buttress this sort of story.

The cliche-ridden histrionics on display in “Flyboys” were already old-fashioned when Wellman made “Lafayette Escadrille” nearly fifty years ago. Now they seem positively moldy, and all the CGI dexterity in the world can’t enliven them. This movie crashes and burns, but at 139 minutes not quite fast enough.

ACCEPTED

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D+

Justin Long is an amiable young actor–he was the doomed brother in “Jeepers Creepers” and the geeky guy in “Dodgeball,” and co-stars in the latest run of Apple commercials–but he couldn’t salvage the wretched “Waiting,” and he can’t make this ersatz campus comedy, sleepily directed by ex-actor Steve Pink, tolerable. “Accepted” wants to be a new “Animal House,” but it’s more like a rerun of “PCU.”

The idea behind the picture is that Bartleby Gaines (Long) has failed to be get into college, deeply disappointing his parents. (Of course, they must have disappointed him by naming him Bartleby in the first place.) So with the help of his chubby computer-savvy buddy Sherman (Jonah Hill), he invents a fictitious institution, website and all, which he pretends has admitted him. Of course, to pull the con off, he has to create a campus his family can actually visit–so he and his buddies renovate a deserted psychiatric hospital to make it look like a school and hire a derelict, sharp-tongued ex-academic (“Daily Show” comic Lewis Black) to play its dean. Things get complicated when hundreds of kids show up for classes, having enrolled via that website and waving ten-thouand dollar tuition checks. And Bartleby, unable to reject kids who have been turned down too often (as well as their money, one supposes), decides to keep the place open and actually run it as a college where the students “teach” each other in self-constructed “courses” of distinctly unorthodox cast.

That radical, undisciplined approach can’t go unchallenged, of course. Arrogant Dean Van Horne (Anthony Heald) of the prestigious Harmon University that just happens to be adjacent to the new school, learns of Bartleby’s establishment when he sends his most helpful student, the obnoxious Dwayne (Kellan Lutz), to buy up the land it sits on for an imposing new entrance for his August institution. And he tries to shut the place down by dragging Bartleby before Ohio’s accrediting board. This leads to a big, uplifting, and supremely unlikely finale when Gaines and his supportive students appear before the educators to argue their case. The institutional struggle is tied up in a personal one, since Dwayne is also the fraternity president tormenting Sherman, as well as the philandering boyfriend of Monica (Blake Lively), the neighbor Bartleby’s always loved from afar. And there’s a small army of supposedly colorful students to act wild and weird in the intervals between the bursts of plot, among whom Adam Herschman, as a would-be master chef, stands out like a sore thumb even in so large a group of take-no-prisoner actors trying desperately to make themselves noticed. Still, he seems positively restrained beside Heald (the doomed psychiatrist in “The Silence of the Lambs”), whose sneering is tiresome on its first appearance, and Black, whose rants aren’t nearly as funny as the ones he does for Jon Stewart.

“Accepted” was written by a trio of sterling scribes who among them previously gave us “New York Minute” and “The Country Bears.” That should give you some idea of the quality of their script, which could have yielded a sharp academic satire had its central premise been treated with some intelligence. But instead the picture opts for the most obvious sort of goofball farce, leavened with cheap sentiment, David-vs.-Goliath triumphalism, and a pronounced string of scatological gags (Bartleby’s school is called the South Harmon Institute of Technology; just think of the acronym that name naturally leads to, and then imagine the result when its students gleefully refer to themselves similarly to the way in which Packer fans are called Cheeseheads; there’s a lot of, shall we say, verbally excremental humor). It’s an uneasy mixture, mirrored in the character of Bartleby, initially a clumsy non-achiever who’s abruptly transformed into a master entrepreneur and sizzling speaker. Even Long, deft as he is, can’t manage such massive contradictions, and none of his supporting players do much more than coast their way through a variety of indignities, with the unfortunate, though game, Hill forced to endure the most pronounced and numerous humiliations. Visually the picture looks pretty grubby, though it’s difficult to tell whether the blame rests more with DP Matthew Leonetti or production designer Rusty Smith.

One might be tempted to believe that Universal is releasing “Accepted” in August in anticipation of the imminent beginning of the new school year. But the choice was probably dictated less by an academic calendar than by the fact that the month is the traditional dumping-ground for movies studios realize are dogs. Woof.