Thursday, September 18, 2008

Race and romance, the weekend's movies


I was one of those people who defended Neil LaBute's "In the Company of Men," a 1997 movie that came across as a taken-no-prisoners study of unchecked male aggression. But time hasn't been kind to LaBute, who now turns his attention (heaven help us) to racial tension.

Let's just say that the movie onto suburban "Lakeview Terrace" hasn't softened LaBute's touch. This overstated, hot-button thriller tells the story of a Los Angeles cop (Samuel L. Jackson) who terrorizes an interracial couple (Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson) that moves next door to him.

Leave it to LaBute to tackle racism by turning a black male character into an irrational villain. It seems that Jackson's Abel Turner (no relation to Nat or even Ike) has a thing about white men and black women. He believes that white men see themselves as privileged enough to grab anything they want. See it. Take it. That's the white man's way, particularly if women are involved.

Working from a screenplay by David Loughery and Howard Korder, LaBute offers a late-picture explanation for Turner's bad behavior. It feels like an afterthought -- and a lame one at that.

No one's about to dispute Jackson's skills. He can smile in a way that barely masks a character's rage, and he's also able to change the emotional weather of a scene in an instant. But even Jackson can't redeem the formulaic thinking that leads to the screenplay's predictably explosive conclusion.

Bombastic and graceless, "Lakeview Terrace" seems less interested in exploring the realities of race than in amping up tension. The action, by the way, unfolds as wildfires rage in the background. Can you say "metaphor?"

"Lakeview Terrace" takes a few welcome swipes at yuppie pretensions, but it's really just another trashy thriller that apparently lacks the will and intelligence really to explore a difficult subject. If a movie such as this were going to work, it would have to create a nagging conflict within the audience about all of its characters -- not about the people who made it.


In the new romantic comedy "Ghost Town," Ricky Gervais plays a misanthropic dentist who sees dead people -- and they annoy the hell out of him. Known to TV viewers from the BBC series, "The Office," Gervais appears as Bertram Pincus, a loner who's brought back from the brink of death during a routine colonoscopy.

Bertram's brush with the reaper evidently results in a big change in his perception. Suddenly, he's able to see a variety of ghosts who populate Manhattan along with its living residents, as if the place weren't crowded enough already. One of these ghosts, a former womanizer played by Greg Kinnear needs help; his widow (Tea Leoni) is about to embark on a potentially disastrous second marriage. Kinnear's Frank Herlihy begs Bertram to caution her against impending nuptial doom.

Gervais, who looks like a cross between Jonathan Winters and the Gerber baby, travels a predictable route from misery to fulfillment as he falls for Leoni's Gwen, but the romance still manages to play against expectations, mostly because Gervais hardly qualifies as a typical romantic lead.

Director David Koepp, best known for having written screenplays for "Spider Man" and "Jurassic Park," minimizes the special effects, relying heavily on Gervais, whose brand of low-key comedy may be something of an acquired taste. If you have it or manage to acquire it during the movie, "Ghost Town" should prove sweet enough to overcome objections. As supernatural comedies go, it pretty much keeps its feet on the ground.

No comments: