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Hey kids, rock 'n' roll ...

Two excellent Hollywood movies reinvigorate the conventions

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I'm not given to opening reviews with superlatives, but Richard Linklater's The School of Rock deserves every word of praise the world is about to heap on it. It's the funniest comedy of the year, the most superbly made Hollywood film in recent memory and, overall, the best major-studio production we may see in 2003. Add to that the fact that it will transform its leading man, Jack Black, from a cult hero into a major star, and you have an uncommonly welcome piece of cinematic news.

Those who know of this reviewer's long connection with the rock music world might suspect a bit of personal bias behind that evaluation. I admit I went into the film suspecting the same. As School of Rock opens, the camera snakes through a rock club of the archetypal sort--dingy and graffiti-besmirched--with waitresses hauling pitchers of beer through the motley crowd as a generic hard-rock quartet roars on stage. Considering how much of my life has been spent in such settings, I wondered, am I bound to react to the movie based on a legion of personal associations? And, conversely, would people with little or no affection for rock respond in the opposite way?

Two hours later, after listening to a large and highly diverse audience respond as one to the movie's delights, I realized that personal associations, or the lack thereof, have almost nothing do with it. Rock music, after all, is no longer anyone's subculture. It's part of the landscape, a language as widely spoken and as taken for granted as English. And in School of Rock, it's not so much the subject as it is the pretext for an enormously engaging display of filmmaking smarts.

Nevertheless, rock 'n' roll's contribution to the movie's premise is, well, rock solid. Jack Black plays Dewey Finn, a guitarist in the generic hard-rock band glimpsed in the first scene. A wild man, a complete fanatic in the service of rock, he's determined that his combo will take the upcoming Battle of the Bands seriously for once. Instead, they kick him out of the band. Stunned and at loose ends financially, he picks up the phone one day and hears a voice offer a substitute teaching job to his roommate.

Taking the job under his roomie's name, Dewey finds himself minding a class of prim, well-groomed fifth-graders at a posh private school. Initially bored by his charges, he's determined to coast through the job by telling them that all day every day is "recess." But hearing them in music class one day gives him a diabolical idea: transform them into the rock band that will back him up at the Battle of the Bands.

Though the kids' notion of pop music doesn't extend much beyond Christina Aguilera, they are intrigued, and then hooked by Dewey's fervency. Avoiding the eye of the school's uptight principal (Joan Cusack), he hauls instruments out of his beat-up van and thus introduces the students to the wonders of "Iron Man" and "Smoke on the Water" and other canonical anthems. The kids who aren't playing instruments are recruited as roadies, backup singers and support staff. One fey lad, a Liza Minnelli fan who later takes to wearing an ascot, offers himself as the band's stylist.

Dewey, of course, is not just teaching chords. With the zeal of a missionary facing faithless heathens, he's out to convert the benighted by conveying rock's spirit, its myths and rituals. So the kids are inducted into the worship of Led Zep, and schooled on videos of Keith Moon and Hendrix wailing on their instruments. Above all, Dewey counsels, rock is not mere hedonism; it's about rebellion, "sticking it to the Man."

In outline, the film admittedly has much in common with scores of Hollywood high-concept comedies. And it does nothing to violate or overhaul the narrative givens of such movies; you know from the first exactly where its dramatic arc will take you. The difference here lies entirely in the moment-to-moment brilliance of the execution. In a way that's little short of amazing, the movie manages to deliver perfectly one tuned comic moment after another, like pearls on a string.

Which is why it deserves to be recognized as the best Hollywood movie of the year to date. Though Richard Linklater (who last scored a double coup with the 2001 releases of the extraordinary Waking Life and Tape) is a bona fide auteur, one of our best, School of Rock isn't really an auteur film. It's more like an old-fashioned studio picture in that its success comes from topflight and seamlessly meshed contributions from all its main creators, especially producer, director, writer and star.

The producer is Scott Rudin, himself a legendary wild man but one who is known for taking on innovative projects (his last was the 2002 prize winner The Hours) and for pushing for excellence in all departments. In School of Rock, Rudin presumably deserves the credit for assembling the ingredients that give the film its special alchemy.

Chief among those are the almost uncanny symbiosis achieved by screenwriter Mike White (who also plays Dewey's roomie) and star Jack Black. The script is so perfect for Black, and he for it, that you can't help but wonder how it evolved. Did Black improvise lots of it on set, or is White a clairvoyant?

The answer begins to emerge when you learn that White and Black--I'm not making these names up, folks--lived next door to each other for three years. They're friends, and White (who gained fame by writing and starring in the wacky indie hit Chuck & Buck) wrote the film specifically for Black, who, not incidentally, fronts his own band, Tenacious D. Additionally, White and Black wrote various of the movie's songs.

From the sturdy launching pad of White's wonderfully droll and inventive script, Black hurls himself into Dewey's universe like a rocket ship afire. Clearly, the guy has a rock and roll id himself, but what's really striking is how on the actor is--his antic mind pulsing nonstop, his face exploding in expressive extremity, his roly-poly form veering from schlub to rock god and back in a flash--in every frame. The performance is a wonder to behold, a hurricane of hilarity that rivals John Belushi at his samurai best.

Linklater obviously had lots to do with fine-tuning the consistency of Black's all-stops-out work, as well as with the topnotch acting throughout. Joan Cusack, arguably the best supporting comedienne in American movies, gives another wickedly funny turn here. And then there are the kids. Chosen through a nationwide talent search, they are wonderfully apt both as typical fifth-graders and as foils for Dewey's mania. (Incidentally, all the musician kids are actual musicians--some classically trained--who learned to play as a band while making the movie. Reportedly, two of them, guitarist Joey Gaydos Jr. and drummer Kevin Clark, were performing together in clubs by the shoot's end.)

In preaching the gospel of rock, Dewey ends up converting himself, tempering his angry "stick it to the Man" credo through the discovery that he, too, can be a disciplinarian when his brood needs it. If that's one indication that the movie has heart and common sense as well as a huge funny bone, it's also an indirect acknowledgement that rock and its rebellious origins now belong to history. The most recent rock god Dewey mentions is Kurt Cobain, whose suicide a decade ago now seems to mark an era's end.

Kids no longer grow up with rock as a generational language. Computers, vid-games and bland corporate pop have done away with all that. But if younger fans yearn to know what the old rock spirit feels like, Linklater's funny valentine to the faded faith is a great place to start. It's sure to inspire more than a few choruses of "rock is dead...long live rock."

Someone check the Book of Revelation to make sure this isn't a sign of the Apocalypse, but here's a week in which I actually like not one but two Hollywood movies. The other cause for celebration marks the reunion of two of the most formidable African-American talents in current cinema.

Alone among top black directors, Carl Franklin has built much of his reputation on intelligent, sharply mounted crime films, beginning with the startlingly impressive One False Move (1992). He subsequently teamed with actor Denzel Washington for Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), a smoky, intricate period piece (from a Walter Mosley novel) that was distinctive enough to be hailed as a black Chinatown.

Franklin's gift for noir-ish stories told in evocative, flavorfully imagined settings is again evident in the engrossing mystery thriller Out of Time. This time out, Denzel plays the police chief of a small Florida Keys town who's unhappily separated from his police-detective wife (Eva Mendes) and carrying on a desultory affair with a beautiful former girlfriend (Sanaa Lathan), who herself is married to an abusive bully (Dean Cain).

One day when the bully's away, the chief accompanies his girlfriend to a doctor's appointment and is shocked to hear her told that she has an inoperable cancer that will end her life within months. The only hope, perhaps, is an experimental treatment in Switzerland. But where to get the money? The girl has a desperate plan that involves a life insurance policy. Denzel, meanwhile, begins pondering the half million bucks of evidence money in his office safe. Soon enough, though, it's all moot: After two very inopportune murders, the chief finds himself running for his own life, trying to elude pursuers who include his endlessly suspicious wife.

Out of Time boasts a tremendously appealing cast led by Washington, and energetic direction by Franklin that puts us firmly inside the main character's head while ratcheting the suspense screws ever more tightly (Dave Collard's script has a Body Heat-like adroitness with both noir atmosphere and plot mechanics). Like School of Rock, it doesn't think outside the box of genre, but in its expert realization, it reminds us that such boxes postmarked "Hollywood" can still contain pleasant surprises. EndBlock

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