Seven years ago a film-school student named Kristopher Belman had the foresight to start documenting a sports phenomenon in his home town of Akron, Ohio—a spectacularly successful high-school basketball team led by a youngster named LeBron James. He filmed the team in action, and pulled together an assortment of home videos and photographs dating back to the players' junior-high-school days, when they played as close friends at a gym in a poor Akron neighborhood. The resulting documentary feature, "More Than a Game," is fascinating not only for its portrait of an emergent—and endearing—superstar, but for the evolution of three teammates the young LeBron came to love, and the hard-driving coach who evolved with them. Sometimes the narrative suffers from a surfeit of hindsight—earnest sermonizing on the importance of friendship, family and dedication in the boys' development. The sermons are worthy ones, though, and Mr. Belman's film dramatizes what it preaches.
In the opening sequence the coach, Dru Joyce II, recites his personal catechism: "Basketball is a vehicle. It isn't a be all and end all, it's a vehicle to get you from point A to point B." More than anything else, "More Than a Game" is about how Coach Joyce, and then his players, redefined the meaning of A and B.
In the early days of the neighborhood team, which quickly came to be seen as an unstoppable band of pint-sized prodigies, A simply meant losing and B meant winning. The coach drove his kids accordingly, and never more mercilessly than with his own son and point guard, Dru Joyce III, who, in those days, stood 4'11", yet ran and shot rings around his competitors. ("He wasn't the biggest, he wasn't the fastest, he wasn't even the cutest," LeBron James recalls of young Dru, "but he was tough as nails.")
Winning remained the only agenda item for coach and team alike as they gained national attention in high school. But their fortunes changed inexorably. On the court, the core group of four inseparable friends—LeBron, Dru, Willie McGee and Sian Cotton—was joined by Romeo Travis, an angry transfer student from a troubled family whose lone-wolf ways upset the team's balance. Off the court, LeBron's personal celebrity was becoming outlandish (his mother bought him a $55,000 Hummer for his birthday) and disruptive (he was disqualified from amateur status, albeit briefly, for accepting a couple of jerseys as gifts).
The movie, which the director wrote with Brad Hogan, doesn't explain how Romeo was finally brought—or brought himself—into the fold. But it does tell us, mostly in Coach Joyce's now-practiced words, how the coach was forced by crucial losses—of a big game, of LeBron's composure and of the team's cohesiveness—to redefine point A as youth, point B as maturity and the journey between them as the process of becoming a man. "More Than a Game" charts the journey movingly, even when it's insisting overmuch on its own significance. In the process, it shows how LeBron James, a lonely boy with a once troubled but devoted mother, came to be the remarkable man he is. And at the very end of the end-title updates on what the players have been doing with their lives, the film announces, pithily: "LeBron decided not to go to college. He found seasonal work in Cleveland."
"Zombieland" teems, as advertised, with wild-eyed chewers and spewers. They're only lurid wallpaper, though, in an improbably delicious comedy about a quartet of human survivors crossing an America that's been taken over by ravenous hordes. (There's even a Charlie Chaplin zombie working Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Chinese Theater.)
At the outset, Jesse Eisenberg does a quirky variation on the theme of sole survivor. Instead of the deadly serious military virologist in Will Smith's zombie-infested "I Am Legend," he's a wistful but tenacious neurotic who wonders, voice-over, "Why am I alive when everyone around me has turned to meat?" In fact, his misery soon finds screwball company in Woody Harrelson's tight-jawed, gun-slinging Tallahassee, in Emma Stone's larcenous Wichita, and in Wichita's kid sister, Little Rock, who's played, somewhat tentatively, by Abigail Breslin. (They take their names from the towns they're trying to reach, although Tallahassee's search is mainly for a Hostess Twinkie. Mr. Eisenberg's character, hoping to find his family in Ohio, calls himself Columbus.)
This isn't the first zombie comedy, a subgenre most recently graced by the 2004 "Shaun of the Dead," and it's far from a flawless work of slobber art. Lacking dramatic shape, let alone an arc, it bounces along, taking several detours, as a mismatched-buddy saga harnessed to a potholed-road movie. That's perfectly OK, since the filmmakers sustain an impressively high level of silliness—Ruben Fleischer directed from a sharp-witted script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick—while the cast sinks its teeth into juicy material with steadfast zest. Don't expect anything more from "Zombieland" than entertainment, but don't expect less.
'A Serious Man'
"A Serious Man," written and directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, asks the most serious of questions—what does God want of us? I would add a question that isn't so serious, though it isn't frivolous either. What do the Coen brothers want of us? More specifically, what do they want us to think of the repellent people in this pitilessly bleak movie?
The time is the mid-1960s, the place is an unnamed suburb in the Midwest, where the brothers grew up, and the milieu, like the one that nurtured them, is middle-class Jewish. The hero, a high-school physics teacher named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), fills his blackboard with calculations that could pass for explications of Kabbalah. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, he declares, "means we can never know what's going on."
Larry has a sinking sense of what's going on. His wife despises him, and plans to leave him for an odious—though supposedly serious—man named Sy; someone has maligned him in anonymous messages to his school's tenure committee; the family of a student who tried to bribe him is taking him to court for defamation; and his own kids are driving him crazy. What he doesn't know, and what the film posits as unknowable, is why he, like a latter-day Job, is so sorely tried, and how he might become a genuinely serious man in God's eyes. (A wonderfully strange preface, set in a Polish shtetl and played in subtitled Yiddish, addresses the difficulty of knowing what to do when a dybbuk crosses your path.)
All of this is mysterious, provocative and, occasionally, very funny—several shaggy-rabbi sequences lead to a memorable scene involving a cryptic sage, played by Alan Mandell, and the wisdom of Jefferson Airplane. But the mystery that prompted my question is posed by the movie's dominant tone.
As in so many of their earlier films, the Coen brothers create comic caricatures with broad performances, grotesque traits—Larry's brother has a sebaceous cyst that never stops draining—and leering, wide-angle shots that invade their characters' personal space. (I've often felt they're invading my space too.) This time, though, there are differences. Their movie is strongly, if not literally, autobiographical, and their caricatures range from dislikable through despicable, with not a smidgeon of humanity to redeem them. Are we meant to loathe these people too, or did the filmmakers fall victim to their customary technique? If the latter, what a miscalculation. If the former—if "A Serious Man" reflects the brothers' feelings about their roots as well as their god—then some of those earlier films may have been more misanthropic than we knew.
'The Invention of Lying'
Nobody doesn't like Ricky Gervais, and his new comedy, set in a world where everyone tells the truth, soars for a while on the wings of a sprightly premise. In the spirit of that world, I cannot tell a lie: "The Invention of Lying," which the English comedian both directed and wrote with Matthew Robinson, soon loses altitude and eventually falls flat.
Mr. Gervais is Mark Bellison, a staff writer at the aptly titled Lecture Films. Since there's no such thing as deceit in this world, there's no such thing as fiction: Mark has been plugging away at a didactic documentary about the Black Plague in the 13th century. There's also no such thing as untruth in advertising (a roadside sign proclaims "A cheap motel for intercourse with a near stranger") or in everyday, and everynight, social intercourse (a glamorous woman, played deftly by Jennifer Garner, tells Mark with casual candor that she's out of his league).
So far so funny, though also remarkably condescending toward the hapless characters. Then Mark, as you may know from the movie's strenuous marketing campaign, invents something so revolutionary that he has no single word to describe it—a way to not tell the truth. The eureka moment, at a bank, is marginally funny, and so is some of what follows. But the movie morphs, without conviction, into a leaden satire of religion—Mark's newly minted gift for mendacity turns him into a blanded-out Elmer Gantry—and Mr. Gervais's long-established gift for small-screen comedy goes terribly slack, leaving him likable, as always, but, on the big screen, looking lost.
'Hoop Dreams' (1994)
This magnificent documentary, directed by Steve James and written by him and Frederick Marx, takes 170 minutes to run its course. The time really does run by, though, as in superlative drama. Instead of Akron the locale is Chicago, where two young basketball prodigies from the projects, William Gates and Arthur Agee, dream of superstardom in the NBA—the same dream being lived, against stupendous odds, by LeBron James. "Hoop Dreams" illustrates the grim reasons for those odds; in addition to being a top-notch sports film, it's a sobering study of race, class and life in the inner city.
'28 Days Later'(2002)
Danny Boyle's shocker doesn't flirt for one grisly minute with comedy. It simply scares us out of our wits, then gets us to apply those wits to an uncommonly intelligent and suspenseful zombie flick. Rarely has so scary a film been so well made, and never has digital video been put to grittier use. The movie was shot by the English cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who performed similar wonders for Mr. Boyle in "Slumdog Millionaire." Alex Garland wrote the script, and the excellent cast includes Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston.
'Liar Liar' (1997)
Short, broad, messy and sporadically dazzling, this studio comedy stands in inverse relationship to "The Invention of Lying": Jim Carrey's mendacious, unscrupulous lawyer, Fletcher Reede, is magically compelled to tell the truth for 24 hours. If the premise is genuinely comic, it's also derivative, having been the basis of a 1941 movie, "Nothing but the Truth" (Bob Hope as a stockbroker), and at least two Hollywood features before that. Among the members of a gifted cast are Maura Tierney, Justin Cooper, Jennifer Tilly and Swoosie Kurtz. Tom Shadyac directed from a script by Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur.Joe Morgenstern