Underdogs: Semi-Pro, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Counterfeiters, City of Men

This weekend there’s a coin toss between two Hollywood offerings: a dumb-guy sports comedy with Will Ferrell and a girly melodrama with royal pedigree. My gender notwithstanding, I’d go for The Other Boleyn Girl over Semi-Pro—preferring to watch Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman engage in a lavishly-costumed Harlequin romance of a cat fight, than watch Will Farrell spin more shtick from what’s becoming his own private formula franchise.

The other new releases I’ve seen are foreign language films opening in limited release. I highly recommend The Counterfeiters, which won the Oscar last week for best foreign film. Brazil’s City of Men, a sequel to City of God, is a disappointment.


Another Wednesday night, another Hollywood promo screening. Taking the long escalator ride up the Mayan temple heights of Toronto’s Scotiabank multiplex, towards a giant poster of Will Farrell looming at the top, I was bracing myself for the usual promo nonsense, a tacky trivia contest for free t-shorts handed out by some loudmouth radio jock at the front of the theatre. But when I reached the top of the escalator, I did a double. There was Will Farrell, in the flesh. Talking to TV reporters on a red carpet. I didn’t even know he was in town. I stood there and gawked at him, like a civilian seeing a celebrity in the wild, before remembering I’m supposed to be a blasé professional, immune to that sort of stuff.
Farrell made a brief appearance to introduce the film. Reminded us that Canada is the birthplace of basketball, “even though you guys don’t excel in basketball, still.” Then he thanked a couple of the media sponsors, with one exception. “I don’t want to thank the Toronto Sun—it’s a rag.” That’s the perk of being a movie star; you can insult the local sponsor and get away with it.
And the movie? Well, it’s funny in fits and starts, but mostly succeeds in achieving the mediocrity it sets out to parody. Farrell seems to have settled into a sports comedy niche, recycling his persona as the garrulous idiot with an exaggerated sense of his own prowess.
In Semi-Pro, he plays Jackie Moon, the all-too-inspirational owner/coach/player/promoter of the Flint Tropics, an American Basketball Asssociation team that’s on the verge of extinction in the mid-1970s. With the help of a former NBA benchwarmer named Monnix (Woody Harrelson), Jackie tries to leads his hapless squad into a fourth-place finish, with the hope of finding a place for them in an ABA merger with the NBA.
In the double-jointed satirical style pioneered by SCTV, Semi-Pro parodies at least two things at once. Jackie, the semi-pro with a ‘fro, made his name as a chart-topping soul singer, a one-hit wonder who’s still dining out on his signature song, Love Me Sexy, an overripe bedroom ballad with lines like “lick me” and “suck me” undercutting the heavy-breathing romance.
The white soul stuff is so funny it made me wish I were watching another movie, a funk version of This is Spinal Tap. But despite a few hilarious bits of sketch comedy, Semi-Pro succumbs to the sports comedy formula it’s sending up. There are at least two movies trying to get made here. Ferrell flies over the tops as the gonzo star of a reckless goofball farce in which nothing matters. Harrelson plays his role as straight drama, without a wink of irony, as if he’s a hero in a Oliver Stone movie. I guess that’s supposed to be funny. But Semi-Pro, a first feature directed by Kent Alterman, seems stuck between two styles. The story, which gives Harrelson the most token lip service of a love interest, is half-baked. A lot of the comic devices feel stale, including the local play-by-play broadcast duo, who are right out of vintage SCTV. And as boredom set in, given the setting of Flint, Mich., I found myself looking forward to a Michael Moore cameo, which never materialized.
Semi-Pro is, to put it charitably, semi-good. And I’m sure it will make a load of money.

The Other Boleyn Sister

There was no time to be bored in this breathless period piece about royal misbehavior, although I was often bewildered and confused. Based on the Philippa Gregory bestseller, The Other Boleyn Sister blazes through a great swath of history in well under two hours. As the sisters who become rivals for Henry VIII’s affection, Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman are like the Betty and Veronica of the Tudor court—Scarlett as the sweet blonde good girl and Portman as the devious brunette bitch. Between them is Eric Bana, who almost succeeds in turning Henry VIII into the world’s grooviest wife-killer. All three actors are eminently watchable in this brisk, torrid drama, which I’d be tempted to call a bodice-ripper if it were not so sexually tame. Taking wild fictional license with history—with a feat of compression as efficient as the MacBook Air—The Other Boleyn Sister is a compelling costume drama. But it could be hotter. If you’re going to ride roughshod over history, why not go all the way. Maybe this I’m just a guy looking for perverse kicks in a chick flick, but this movie almost cries out for ménage-a-trois.
For more on The Other Boyleyn Sister, and an interview with it’s author go to my piece in the magazine, TKTKTK.

The Counterfeiters
This is the first Austrian feature to win an Oscar. Although it’s not as strong as some films that failed, inexplicably, to get a nomination (notably Romania’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), it’s strong stuff, a Holocaust drama that that hinges a prisoner’s classic moral dilemma—the choice between survival and resistance. Based on a true story, it’s about Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Kark Markovics), counterfeiting genius who is arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Soon he is transferred to Sachsenhausen, and given country club treatment as he’s drafted into masterminding an operation to counterfeit British and American currency for the Nazi war effort. One of this team, Adolph Burger (August Diehl) works to sabotage the operation as an act of resistance against the fascists. But if the inmate team of counterfeiters don’t produce results, they face execution. Salamon negotiates these impossible strait with a criminal pragmatism that, in the end, salvages nobility from compromise. And the operation’s Nazi commander (Devid Striesow), who’s stuck in his own marriage of convenience with the Nazis, knows what’s going on and brokers the whole situation like an odd mix of humanity and ruthlessness.
What makes this film a must-see is Markovics, who plays Saloman. Not just his performance, but his face—a long, dour, hound-dog face that suggests a cosmic shrug, splitting the difference between resignation and resistance. It’s the kind of face that could have starred in silent movies.

City of Men
This sequel to Brazil’s City of God offers another vivid taste of gang violence in the favelas of Rio, but lacks the raw power and virtuosity of the original, which was directed by Fernando Meirelles. Directed by Meirelles’ longtime collaborator, Paulo Morelli, this film is based on a 19-episode TV series, which ran on Brazil’s TV Globo from 2002-05, drawing some 35 million viewers. It’s a story of fathers and sons anchored in the friendshp of two brothers who are just turning 18: Ace (Naima Silva) and Wallace (Darlan Cunha). Ace is stuck with caring for his young son while his mother goes to work in another city. He never new his father, who who was gunned down when he was a child. Wallace, meanwhile, is obsessed with tracking down his deadbeat dad, who split before he was born. This personal drama takes place against the action of a g
ang war for the high ground in the hills of Rio.
The actors are strong, the sense of location is vividly authentic, but the script is disjointed. The exposition is crudely spelled out, the characters thinly drawn. It does feel like something that’s been distilled from a TV series. I found the hyper-kinetic, shoot-em-up of City of God too lurid for comfort. City of Men is much quieter, more palatable fare, mixing gang warfare with postcared panaromas of Rio. There’s virtually no bloodshed for the first hour. But after a while I was starting to miss the vertigo-like violence of the earlier film.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.