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The acclaimed play The History Boys (**1/2) won a half-dozen Tony Awards earlier this year, but don't expect similar accolades for this hit-and-miss screen adaptation. Everyone involved with the theater production -- director Nicholas Hytner, writer Alan Bennett and all the principal performers -- is present and accounted for in this celluloid rendition, a development which actually becomes a vice when it's obvious the film will never completely transcend its stage roots. The literate story centers on the relationships between eight smart lads attending a posh school in England during the early 1980s and the three teachers who mold their minds in different ways: the inspirational Hector (Richard Griffiths), whose habit of casually laying his hands on the boys might soon get him into trouble; new professor Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), whose radical approach to education piques the interest of some of the students; and the no-nonsense Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), a caring teacher who's least likely to mince words. Griffiths, Moore and de la Tour are all excellent, and their characters prove to be far more interesting than the young charges whose dilemmas fill up the majority of the screen time. The dialogue in Bennett's script is more riveting than the situational developments, but Hytner's obvious attempts to open up this visually immobile piece yields decidedly mixed results.
Another movie season, another inspirational sports yarn torn from the headlines of history. So in most respects, We Are Marshall (**1/2) traffics in the same kind of predictable underdog uplift championed in The Rookie, Miracle and oh-so-many-others. But real life provided a tragic twist, and that's what makes the otherwise familiar We Are Marshall a cut above the norm. Set in 1970, the picture centers on what transpires in a sports-crazed town in West Virginia after nearly all the members of the Marshall University football team (as well as several coaches and fans) are killed in a place crash. After much hemming and hawing while trying to figure out the right thing to do, it's decided that the sports program will be resurrected from the ashes as a way of honoring the fallen players. Cue the entrance of Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughney), an outsider who arrives in town to serve as the new squad's head coach -- and also to help community members move on with their own lives. Except for Anthony Mackie as the team captain, the actors portraying the players are a nondescript lot, meaning the emphasis is shifted to the adult characters. And it's these seasoned actors (among them David Strathairn and Ian McShane) who best punch across the heavy burden that threatens to crush the spirit of this town. We Are Marshall is never as emotionally draining as this material requires, but it gives it the old college try and comes close to succeeding.
Critics generally haven't been kind to Sylvester Stallone (and after being subjected to mega-bombs like Cobra and Over the Top, who could blame them?), but even the crustiest of reviewers might feel a protective twinge when faced with the spectacle that is Rocky Balboa (**). Stallone's career has been over for years, yet here's the big lug, now 60, returning to the role that made him a star three decades ago. That there's now a sixth Rocky movie, coming 16 years after Rocky V, is perhaps the ultimate in both money-grubbing and star groveling, yet because Stallone so obviously loves this great character he created, it's hard to get worked up in a fury of righteous indignation. My only regret is that Rocky Balboa isn't a better film. It has some nice touches, particularly in the way it draws upon memories of previous installments, and Stallone is never more human as an actor than when he's essaying this role. But the movie spends too much time in idle and not enough in overdrive, and what should be the central storyline -- Rocky comes out of retirement to fight an undefeated champion (Antonio Tarver) half his age -- only takes shape once the picture's nearly over. Through the first three entertaining films in the franchise, Stallone went the distance with the Italian Stallion, but since then, the character's been stuck on an endless treadmill. Get off, already.