Based on the Amazing Kreskin, known for his appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, “The Great Buck Howard” tells the story of a mentalist (not a magician!) with a similar Carson track record (“Johnny Carson, not that nitwit who’s on there now!”).
Buck has long since faded from the A-list of talk show talent and now tours the country, performing his never-changing act in never-filled venues.
Soon to be put-upon road manager Troy drops out of law school, which was more his father’s dream than his own, and stumbles into working with Buck Howard as a day job in support of his desire to be a writer. It soon becomes apparent that while Buck has faded in the public eye, his own mind’s eye view of himself seems as clear and star-spangled as ever, and he still exhibits diva-like behavior and expectations. Meanwhile, he continues to consistently entertain, especially with regard to his signature trick.
The most noteworthy aspect of the movie is the cast, including John Malkovich as Buck Howard, Colin Hanks as Troy, Tom Hanks as Troy’s father (type cast!), and Emily Blunt (who may become this year’s most-seen actress, with as many as six movies slated for release) as a PR coordinator retained to publicize Buck’s attempt at a comeback. Malkovich in particular is wonderful in the role of the faded celebrity. Colin Hanks has his father’s talent for the natural “everyman” performance. Additional self-referential cameo appearances include Conan O’Brian, Martha Stewart, Jon Stewart, Tom Arnold, Gary Coleman, and George Takei.
Unfortunately, the story itself is little unfulfilling and bland in its resolution. This despite being amusing and engaging in the first half, with such neat touches as look-alike theater owners and Buck’s propensity to assume somebody is about to walk the other way despite his alleged mentalist abilities. On balance, “The Great Buck Howard” is probably worthwhile for fans of Malkovich or either Hanks, for those who enjoy anything pertaining to magic, and for anybody who appreciates insider jokes about the nature of celebrity and/or the logistics and experiences of touring acts. But even they may feel that it somewhat ironically fades in the third act, failing to maintain its earlier gloss. (Opens March 20)
The Class ("Entre les murs")
Directed by Laurent Cantent
Set in a Paris, "The Class" follows a year in the life of teacher Francois Marin as he tackles assorted challenges with students in his inner city high school. "Entre les murs" which is also the title of the adapted book, translates as "between the walls" and this may have been a better English title for the film also, as it conveys a better sense of the film being about a place and a dynamic as much as people that inhabit it. Much of the film takes place in one classroom. The director has described his approach to the film's style in part like that of a tennis match, with the majority of the perspective being from the side as the volleys of conversation are fired back and forth.
This is a multi-cultural classroom of diverse experiences, where Francois is teacher, referee, diplomat, sparring partner, and occasionally as much of an inadvertent instigator as his students are, as the ambiguity of language is examined. At one point, for example, he is accused by the students of being culturally insensitive by always using "whitey" names in his vocabulary examples. As is often the case, the faculty is significantly less diverse than the student body.
While many stories set in schools initially focus on a new student entering the school and encountering new classmates and situations, "The Class" starts with a scene in which the old and new faculty introduce themselves to each other and compare class assignments. The result is an almost Altman-esque film that has more to do with characters than plot, in a bureaucratic setting where faculty discussions of punishment and perceived impunity devolve into complaints about the price of coffee in the vending machine because the topic is less divisive.
Interestingly, Francois is played by Francois Bégaudeau, a teacher who wrote the book on which the film is based. The characters in the film are almost all played by their real-life counterparts: teachers play teachers, students play students, and film parents are played by the real parents. Much of the dialog was improvised on set to fit the constructed situations. Given this approach, it is especially noteworthy to point out that the film won the best adapted screenplay at the César Awards, along with four other César nominations, a best foreign language Academy Award nomination, and a win in that category at the Independent Spirit Awards.
"The Class" is compelling filmmaking, working as both the story of the classroom experience as well as a microcosm of a diverse society. Although set in Paris, this is a story that could take in any urban center. The themes translate better than the title. (Opens March 20)