Film reviews: “Honeydripper” isn”t Sayles” best work

Mar 11, 2008 at 7:50 pm

(Starring Danny Glover, Gary Clark Jr., Keb Mo, Ruth Brown and Kel Mitchell. Directed by John Sayles. Rated PG-13; 2:02. LEO Report Card: C+)

In John Sayles’ “Honeydripper,” everything is exactly what it seems, and that is a problem. Nothing that can be stated with a pointed finger is underscored by anything less than a raised fist. With this Southern-fried fable about race, society and the birth of rock ’n’ roll, Sayles has become a sort of Joe Strummer character — heart in the right place but in danger of falling into a fitful formalism.

Sayles’ fans know him to be among the best writers in the film business (he is often called upon as “script doctor”). Still, it is hard to not notice the director’s continued reliance on the site-specific, socio-political morality tale told in diffuse, Altman-esque style. Each film, starting 17 years ago with the great “City of Hope,” has focused on civic breakdown and behind-the-scenes corruption in a certain place in America: Florida for “Sunshine State,” Texas for “Lone Star,” Colorado for “Silver City,” etc.
It’s a formula that works, but it is still a formula. It is feeling stale.

The setting here is a small town in 1950s Alabama. Tyrone (a most solid Danny Glover) is the proprietor of the black folks’ favorite roadhouse on the town’s outskirts. Tyrone will not tolerate guitars in his drinking establishment, just pianos, drums and horns.

The club is shaken by the arrival of the title character,  played by Austin, Texas, whiz kid Gary Clark Jr. He comes toting one of those newfangled electrified guitars. Suddenly there is a flowering of minor characters that fills the film with color, at least temporarily. There is the sexually daring club girl (Davenia McFadden). There is the wise old blind man (Keb’ Mo’) who serves as a sort of cantankerous mentor. The Robert Johnson myth hovers ever nearby. There is the peerless Charles S. Dutton. They make for a cumulatively powerful ensemble, but somehow the whole ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

Every issue of importance to black America is trotted out onto the main stage in Sayles’ pedantic script. If the director’s intention was to imitate the cadences of the minister at the pulpit, well, he succeeds mostly in being preachy, even scolding. Thus we are given brief treatises on the Pullman strike, 40 acres and a mule, the Klan, etc. When the plot wends its way toward the inevitable live concert finale, the obviousness and predictability is such that Sayles seems guilty of what he has studiously avoided throughout his entire career — Hollywood cliché.

Criticizing Sayles doesn’t feel good. He’s always been one of the good guys. His films unfailingly champion the working class and the absolute hypocrisy of government and the ruling elite. It seems, though, that he has drawn from this thematic well a time too often. As William Bell once sang, “You don’t miss your water, ’til your well has run dry.” —Paul Kopasz

‘The Bank Job’ takes on ’tude
(Starring Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows, Stephen Campbell Moore, Daniel Mays and James Faulkner. Directed by Roger Donaldson. Rated R; 1:50. LEO Report Card: B-)

As an action hero, Jason Statham is to Matt Damon as Dolph Lundgren was to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the early ’90s. Statham has the somewhat lucrative “Transporter” franchise; Damon has the blockbuster Jason Bourne franchise. Lundgren had “Red Scorpion,” and Schwarzenegger had “T2.”

Statham’s acting chops mainly comprise glares and head-butts. He’s parlayed his talents for physical action into a low-investment, moderate return at the box office. More important economically, he’s generated ample shelf space at Blockbuster.

Strange, then, that next to the farfetched heist and GQ posturing of last summer’s “Ocean’s 13” cast, Statham dials down the bad-ass ’tude for a manner resembling naturalism in “The Bank Job.” As a down-on-his-luck husband with a used-car business, Statham proves a magnetic presence even without a gun.

The “Based on a True Story” tag actually works here. It enables the movie to justify its pretzel-twist plot convolutions, while most heist films (anything by Guy Ritchie, who launched Statham’s career) just use them as exhausting gimmicks. The movie’s knotty story developments have a tabloid salaciousness that excuses the director Roger Donaldson (“The Recruit” and “No Way Out”) for shoehorning them into the genre box.

The movie centers on a rag-tag crew of shady characters who have been assembled by government officials to rob a bank’s safety deposit boxes. They’re supposed to obtain incriminating photographs of royalty that the pimp and drug-dealer Michael X has used to evade arrest.

It gets more complicated, but Donaldson has a fluid style that keeps things clear without sacrificing the energy of the film, which features rich period detail of London in the early 1970s. “The Bank Job” is as conventional as its title, but at least it’s intelligent enough to recognize its limitations and deliver on its modest promises. —Jamie Peters