Video Vault: Akeelah and The Rest

After a few weeks of suffering through lean weeks for new to video product, Vault is happy to bring you some bones this week.

The Lord of the Rings limited edition DVDs are out this week, and we’ll begin later this week with a fresh consideration of those wonderful trips into fantasy-land.

There’s decent chick-flick fare with a new Jennifer Aniston picture. Calling a movie (“Friends With Money”) that co-stars the great Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack and Catherine Keener a “Jennifer Aniston picture” feels really incorrect to Vault, but there you have it. It might well be worth your time.

For action lovers, Michael Douglas stars with Kiefer Sutherland, Eva Longoria and Kim Basinger as a White House special agent who endeavors to foil a conspiracy to assassinate the president in “The Sentinel.” Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, but Stephen Holden of the New York Times gave it middling marks.

“Lonesome Jim” got mixed reviews, but for those who are big on Steve Buscemi, you might like to check out his work as a director. Jim (Casey Affleck) fails to make it on his own and moves home. It co-stars Liv Tyler as the hometown saving angel, so the film is worth looking at at the very least.

For Carol, who is one of the mistresses who slave away in the Vault, there is a new Antonio Banderas (“He makes my socks go up and down!”) film. For other women with unstable socks, “Take the Lead,” is the story of a dance teacher who believes in the talent of a group of problem children.

Stop me if I’m wrong, but the dance film seems to have got some fresh footing in Hollywood of late. I think this trend follows on the success of the joyous documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” which centers on an NYC grade school dance competition …

… Which brings us to this week’s best bet.

Akeelah and the Bee

2006: Doug Atchison

PG – 112 minutes

Vault Rating: 7.5

As “Mad Hot Ballroom,” which is available at Adventure/Silver Screen if you haven’t yet had the lively pleasure, is to dance, so is the charming documentary, “Spellbound,” (also available and equally as memorable) to the scholastic competition movie.

“Spellbound” was the 2002 documentary that followed eight children from around the United States in their quest to win the 1999 Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee.

In 2004 came the more odd documentary, “Word Wars,” which focused on the oddly obsessive world of scrabble champions.

The way being thus paved, today’s feature, “Akeelah and the Bee,” is a fine dramatization of a gifted girl who rises to the national spelling bee’s challenge against the odds of her South Central L.A. upbringing.

Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) is a smart girl who gets dragged into her school’s spelling bee more or less against her will by a principal desperate for any sign of life in a crumbling inner city school.

Palmer effortlessly matches the fine performances of her screen mom, Angela Bassett, and a spelling coach, Dr. Larabee, portrayed by Laurence Fishburne, (“How do you like Ike now?!”) and gives the film a real heart beyond the normal sports film.

And don’t think the spelling bee doesn’t qualify as a sports film. Here you have a decided underdog from a disadvantaged background fighting against all odds toward a chance at the championship. These kinds of films never seem to fail, whether they take to the diamond, as in “The Bad News Bears,” or the boxing ring, as in “Rocky,” or whether they take to the gridiron; see “Friday Night Lights,” “Rudy,” or the latest in theatric release, “Invincible.”

Here, the sports metaphor is internalized and made sweeter without giving up the farm. Let’s face it, movies of this type tend to be even more predictable than a Julia Roberts romance (see happy date movie rule: “Girl gets guy in the end”). One just knows the protagonist will put forth the superhuman effort, nearly fail, and finally win out, right? Well, we can’t really be sure about our young Akeelah, whose internal story supersedes the overt plot.

I think the film gets away with this, or is better than the standard form, because the leads are so easy to watch. Bassett and Fishburne are terrific on screen, and little Ms. Palmer just seems to tick right along, setting the pace for everybody else.She is so easy and so charming that the entire piece is lifted along on her breeziness. Palmer is a young actress who is bound to go far.


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Hey! You’re welcome. And so are your comments. Video Vault just loves to hear from readers, so if you’d like to put your two (or three) cents in, just drop us a line at videovault@gantdaily.com and we’ll print your ramblings right along with mine in the Vault Mail. And until I can figure out the suffixes “ant” or “ent,” … enjoy!

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