Friday, February 29, 2008

This week's multiplex diary

Basketball, courtly intrigue and a real-live Miss Piggy

The surprisingly tepid "Semi-Pro," is yet another comedy from Will Ferrell. This supposed look back at the American Basketball Association won't be booed off the court, but it's flatter and lamer than it should have been. The movie misses as either wild comedy or as an exhilarating immersion in the hoops euphoria of the ABA, a league that folded when four of its teams were absorbed into the NBA before the start of the 1976 season.

"Semi-Pro" could have been called "The Will Ferrell Show". Sporting an Afro the size of a rain forest, Ferrell dominates nearly every scene as Jackie Moon, the owner and coach of the Flint Tropics, a misnamed team located in "sunny" Flint, Mich. Moon specializes in dumb promotions (bear wrestling, for example) and fancies himself a '70s stud, having recorded a popular song called "Love Me Sexy," which he pronounces "sex-ay."

Ferrell skillfully does what he usually does (whatever that might be), but the movie can't seem to make up its mind whether to be an unashamedly dumb comedy or a ragtag sports movie about a team whose highest aspiration involves finishing fourth. We get a few laughs, but not enough unifying comic spirit.

Woody Harrelson joins Ferrell in this often-futile quest. Harrelson plays a fading basketball star who's traded to the Tropics and who hopes to make one last run at the kind of glory that would translate as mediocrity for any other team.

Put this one in the debit column: Hollywood still owes us a movie about the ABA. "Semi-Pro" fails to score either with a slam-dunk or a long three-pointer.

The same might be said of "The Other Boleyn Girl," except they probably didn't have basketball in the 16th Century. They probably didn't have a proto-feminist movement either, but that didn't stop the adapters of Philippa Gregory's novel from putting a 21st century spin on this ripe (make that "trashy") bit of historical fiction.

"The Other Boleyn Girl'' mixes bodice-ripping melodrama and courtly intrigue in what amounts to an emotionally garish movie about two sisters who battle each other for the affections of Henry VIII, portrayed here by Eric Bana, an actor who seems to specialize in brooding. The sisters -- Natalie Portman (as Anne) and Scarlett Johansson (as Mary) -- are at the center of a movie in which the costumes probably are heavier than the movie's themes.

Directed by Justin Chadwick and written by Peter Morgan ("The Queen"), "The Other Boleyn Girl" contrasts the two sisters, both of whom are pushed around by their slightly ineffectual but ambitious father (Mark Rylance) and their more conniving uncle (David Morrissey). The men hope one of the girls will win Henry's affections, thereby bringing profit and prestige to the Boleyn family.

At first, it's deemed that Anne will make a fine mistress for Henry, who happens to be married to Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent). But the honor soon falls to Mary, who gives Henry a daughter. The ungrateful monarch reacts to the news indifferently and then relegates Mary to second place. It seems he already has begun to view Anne as the better catch. Meanwhile, the matriarch of the Boleyn clan (Kristen Scott Thomas) looks on with steady disapproval, presumably because she loves her daughters and is sick of living the 16th century version of "It's a Man's World."

As it turns out, Anne has ambitions of her own. She's not shy about chasing what she wants, even it means double-crossing her sister. If you think all of this sounds like a rerun of "Dallas," you're not far off the mark.

The acting isn't quite where it needs to be. Portman lacks the kind fire that might have driven a woman such as Anne. Johansson seems better suited to play the less flamboyant Mary, the more loyal of the sisters. Loyalty, of course, is a relative term in such corrupted environs: Mary had to leave her husband to leap into Henry's royal bed. The most interesting female character, Torrent's surprisingly sympathetic Catherine of Aragon, is pushed aside so that the two young American stars can duke it out. Even Henry knows that he's doing Catherine wrong, but he can't help himself. He's fallen under Anne's spell.

Chadwick doesn't satisfy either prurience or historical curiosity, and "The Other Boleyn Girl" winds up feeling like a drama that was written to make contemporary points about male-dominated power games.

All history, I suppose, must be refracted through a contemporary lens, but the lavish costumes of "The Other Boleyn Girl" can't quite make the characters feel authentic. "The Other Boleyn Girl" should satisfy your craving for courtly conniving, but it's nothing over which to lose your head.

And speaking of heads.... Christina Ricci's is adorned by a pig snout in a fable about a young woman saddled with a family curse: She's born with a pig's nose. Director Mark Palansky's Penelope leaves one shrugging, grateful that it's not worse and sorry that it's not as sharply drawn as it might have been.

Leslie Caveny's screenplay takes place in London, where Penelope's mother (Catherine O'Hara) tries to marry off her daughter. A cynical reporter (Peter Dinklage) hires a young man (James McAvoy) to court Penelope and deliver an exploitative photograph of this supposedly beastly woman. Of course McAvoy's character softens and actually begins to care about Penelope, who eventually becomes a tabloid sensation and London's hottest new celeb.

Ricci sells this character without wallowing in the sty of self-pity, but the movie is a middling affair. Reese Witherspoon, one of the movie's producers, appears briefly as a Vespa-riding young woman who befriends Penelope. All I can say is that I got more pleasure out of watching Witherspoon in the deliciously satirical "Hillary's Inner Tracy Flick," which makes fine use of footage from "Election" to comment on Hillary Clinton's campaign persona. (See it on You Tube.)

Complaint to the filmmakers: Ricci doesn't look shocking enough to inspire the kind of revulsion that her prospective beaus show.

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