Reviews: "Color Me Kubrick" and "Pride"

Dennis Harvey March 20, 2007

“Pride”: When inspirational movies actually inspire.

Poverty, racism, family dysfunction, all the above — or simply an entire team dying in a tragic plane crash — have been among the factors underdogs have had to overcome in recent Inspirational-Uplift Sports Dramas. It’s not that those issues are bogus. The fault lies rather in the way they’ve fossilized into a formula that tends to make eyes glaze over (at least critics’) and blur one movie into another. Really, if I want my emotions manipulated that baldly, I’ll watch some “reality” TV or a “Touched by an Angel” re-run.

This kind of slow-death-by-mediocre-repetition is always unfortunate, because most formulas are born because they work, and still can. Not without its flaws, the new “Pride” is a fine example of why the I.U.S.D. shouldn’t be put out to pasture yet — it’s got conviction, flavor and some stirring performances. Plus it’s the rare non-pandering (in the gangsta-action or stoopid-comedy mode) major studio release starring, celebrating, and targeting African Americans.

“Inspired by true events” (which usually means they took some significant liberties), “Pride” dramatizes the early career of Jim Ellis, who still coaches the Philadelphia swim team he founded in 1971, several of whose members have gone on to the Olympic trials. As played by the terrific Terrence Howard of “Hustle & Flow,” Ellis is first seen as a youth in 1964, one whose participation in a swim meet at a white school is greeted by jeers, strong-arm police, and the refusal of competitors to enter the pool with him. Ten years later he’s got a Mathematics degree and a fine athletic record, but society hasn’t changed much — interviewing at an upscale (i.e. white) Philly high school, he’s smirking told that a person like himself (i.e. African American) probably wouldn’t be able to “communicate” with the students.

Desperate for work, Ellis accepts a low-paying job cleaning out a rec center scheduled for closure in Philly’s poor Nicetown district — to the chagrin of custodian Elston (Bernie Mac), who remembers when it was a vital part of a community now waist-deep in drugs and crime. Finding the otherwise decrepit building’s pool in (somewhat improbably) pristine shape, Ellis is able to get a half-dozen at-risk teens interested in improving their nonexistent swimming chops, then in forming a team to compete in area leagues.

Of course, domestic problems, local thugs and racist attitudes complicate matters for Ellis, his protégés, and their tentative new self-confidence. After the one-hour point, “Pride” does start hitting overly predictable Inspirational Uplift notes — really, there should be a legal limit on how many times characters can express tearful joy in one movie — but by then it’s also built up enough goodwill to work despite some clichéd choices.

A restrained Mac is still a hoot, Howard is subtly excellent, and director Sunu Gonera demonstrates remarkable confidence in his first feature. For every moment when the orchestral score (which unfortunately sometimes sounds like “Lion King” outtakes) lays it on too thick, there’s another when some vintage ’70s soul track boosts the energy level back through the roof — whether “Pride” becomes the sleeper hit it deserves to be or not, the soundtrack will be surely blaring out of car stereos for months to come.

“Color Me Kubrick”: Good on paper …

On paper, “Colour Me Kubrick” seems like it might be a wonderfully reflexive romp in the key of Charlie Kaufman. The credentials are tantalizing: wily John Malkovich plays Alan Conway, an English con-man who passed himself off as director Stanley Kubrick, in this, a film directed by Bryan Cook, who, as it turns out, was himself the assistant director on Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shining,” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” But then, there’s something worrisomely goofy about the film’s subtitle, “A True-ish Story.” It’s too pat, heavy-handed: a successful fact-fiction farce wouldn’t advertise itself so bluntly, and alas, “Colour Me Kubrick”‘s can’t get past its conceit, a ten-minute character sketch dragged into feature length.

Conway, it must be said, was quite a character. The con isn’t so interesting in itself; what is striking is that Conway was able to pull it off with such a slipshod performance. Never actually taking the time to, say, watch Kubrick’s films, he rightly depended on the fact that most people tend to let their brains fall out when met with celebrity (real or perceived): better yet if they think they’re somehow in on a secret. Never mind that Conway looked or sounded nothing like Kubrick, or that the director was a known recluse; Conway needed only to whisper “Stanley” after introducing himself with the famous surname, and soon his prey would surely feel that it was they who were being done a favor by inviting this new acquaintance to dinner, or, failing that, lending him some spare bills for a bottle of vodka. Malkovich’s broad performance is of the so-bad-it’s-good variety; he shuffles through accents and outfits, tripping over words and puffing with pompousness to convey Conway’s absurd ploy. He’s fun to watch, up to a point. But there’s no traction to this story, just the same jig performed again and again. Once those conned discover their foible, they mostly just want to move on, aggrieved but also embarrassed; “Colour Me Kubrick” has this same shallowness, and one is just as glad when the end credits run.