Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Review: The Producers (2005)

The Producers
2005
135 minutes
Rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

The Producers, the 1968 Oscar-winning debut of Mel Brooks, is one of the funniest movies ever made. It’s a complete original; sharp, witty, charming, and utterly shocking in an innocent way. The acting by Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel is top notch, the writing is spot on, and it is and will be a classic for generations to come. The Producers, the 2005 musical remake, is based on the hit Broadway adaptation. I wish I could just cut and paste the above paragraph and substitute Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane for Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. You have no idea how much I wish I could say that this new version honors and celebrates all that was good about Mel Brooks and his comedy classic. I wish it were so, but it isn’t…

The Producers 2.0 is a travesty, a cataclysmic flop, and a stunning miscalculation on every level. It is the worst musicals in ages, and one of the worst films of the year. It is a film so terrible that it devalues the original in a way that no remake ever has before. Gene Siskel once said that no good movie is truly depressing while every bad movie is. In a season of alleged downers such as Brokeback Mountain, Munich, The Family Stone, Rent, King Kong, and Syriana, no movie saddened me more than The Producers.

A token amount of plot - After discovering a scheme that would allow more profits from a flop show than from a hit show, rock-bottom Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane, badly aiming for the back rows even in close up) and cowardly accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick, also seemingly forgetting how to act for the camera after all these years on Broadway) go on a hunt for the worst play imaginable so that they can produce an instant-flop.

For starters, each and every song is nearly ten minutes long and none of them advance the plot or deepens a character. Every song is monotonous, repetitive, and useless. They repeat information we already know, after the characters have spoken said information prior and during a given song. A climactic number even spends five minutes recounting the entire story for no particular reason. Worst of all, the lyrics are witless and as banal as can be. It is rare that one watches a musical and dreads the songs. As a musical, The Producers stands proudly alongside its betters such as Grease 2 and At Long Last Love.

The original film was 85 minutes. This version runs 130 minutes and the padding shows. The biggest casualty of story expansion is Leo Bloom. Bloom was originally a cowardly loser who wanted to get rich by doing something daring and bold. In this version, Bloom sings at length about his secret dream to be a successful Broadway producer. So then why is he aligning with Bialystock who plans to produce an instant flop and end both of their careers? And the extra three new endings don’t help either.

The film also butchers much of the original’s charm. The initial office meeting between Leo and Max is one of the funniest scenes in film history, yet here it goes on and on, without a drop of comic timing to be found, just two people yelling at each other when they should be whispering. Every scene, every song, and nearly every line is completely over the top, which not only makes for an annoying cinematic experience, but kills the humor when we finally see the show that Max and Leo have been producing. In the original, the musical number in question is the punch line to an hour-long setup, and an explosive orgy of comic inappropriateness and gleeful naughtiness. Now, it’s merely another over the top song and thus is no longer special.

In the original, the play was funny because the lead actor was an atrociously bad actor and intentionally miscast. Now, the lead actor is merely ‘funny cause he’s gay’. Much of the new humor comes from ‘queenie humor’, which is shocking coming from someone as enlightened as Mel Brooks. Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (co-written by the recently deceased Richard Pryor) is still the funniest and one of the smartest films ever made about racism. In this film, producer Brooks and director Susan Stroman are laughing at gay people, not with them.

We have terrible, boring, pointless songs. We have bad writing, unfunny new jokes and botched old jokes. We have insanely over-the-top acting that completely kills any sense of human interaction. Please, rent or re-watch the 1968 classic instead.

Grade: D

Monday, December 12, 2005

Review: King Kong (2005)

King Kong
2005
188 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a complete joy; a ripping yarn that refuses to let the audience settle for less, both in technical and artistic achievements. At its best, it has the showmanship to remind you of how you felt while watching your favorite adventure film from childhood. It’s not perfect, but its flaws are ones born out of risk, imagination, and the willingness to swing for the fences in an age when all too many filmmakers settle for a ground rule double.



Thursday, December 8, 2005

Review: The Family Stone (2005)

The Family Stone
2005
102 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

The Family Stone is an odd duck, as it is undermined by its own cleverness, even while that cleverness earns points for moxy. It is subtle in its characters, yet overly broad in its plot mechanics. One word of warning though- do not be fooled by the light and fluffy advertising materials for this film, which make it look like a reverse-formed Meet The Parents. While the skeletal outline merits such comparison (instead of a wacky male going to meet his girlfriend's uptight, rigid family, it's a rigid, uptight female going to meet her boyfriend's wacky family), it is a far more dramatic and far darker story that really never tries to be funny in the traditional sense.

The plot, to wit... Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a workaholic nervous wreck, nervous because she is spending Christmas with the family of her longtime boyfriend Everett (Dermot Mulroney). Her fears turn out to be well founded as she is more or less ambushed
by the Stone family, using her uptight nature and overly formal manner as weapons against her in their slightly frumpier, jollier household. Desperate for backup, Meredith calls on her sister, Julie (Claire Danes), which only makes matters worse as the family seems to like Julie far more than Meredith. As the weekend progresses, lines are drawn, confessions are made, and the reasons for the Stone's behavior are made potently clear. If the previews resemble Meet The Parents, then the synopsis above will likely remind viewers of You Can't Take It With You, without the element of class warfare.

But, while the plot spins off in often-wild digressions and often- forced directions, the acting and the character development keep it grounded. Every single character is played by an esteemed and well-liked actor, and they are all in top form. Diane Keaton plays the matriarch, aptly named Sybil, as she has several sides to her, using soothing, maternal cliches to dish out brutal truths and accusations. Craig T. Nelson shines in a rare lead role as a sympathetic patriarch who tries to remain uninvolved by the character assassination until it crosses the line. Dermot Mulroney wins points by not being the usual blank slate the occupies the role of the 'prize child' (think Teri Polo's thinly written role in the Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers), and actually having a backbone as he stands up to his siblings and his mother. Luke Wilson also shines in a subtle performance as the oldest brother of the family, a proverbial black sheep who immediately sympathizes with Meredith's plight. Finally Rachel McAdams revels in the chance to play a normal, grouchy little brat of a sister, after playing several versions of 'the ideal woman' in the last couple years. Here she is vain, petty, and often the instigator, and she obviously loves every minute of it.

At the very least, The Family Stone is a triumph as an acting treat, and on that level alone it is worth seeing. From a story and plot point of view, however, it flounders. I won't reveal the overly complicated storyline, except to state that it becomes tripped up in its own would-be cleverness. When the film sticks to emotional truths and character, it succeeds. The tangled web of conflicting story lines is merely a burden, a burden that the film cannot overcome. Bonus points are nonetheless earned by the subtly of certain plot developments and that fact that crucial information is delivered visually rather than through expository rants.

In the end, The Family Stone is worth seeing for what it attempts, regardless of whether it always succeeds. It attempts to be a different sort of family dramedy. It attempts to be a different kind of holiday movie. It attempts to be a romance of a most unusual sort. The effort is appreciated and the characters are far richer and deeper than is the norm for this sort of film. And the quality character work is backed up by strong acting by a strong ensemble. Thus, despite my misgivings about how the story works itself out, the film is worth seeing for the strong acting, and several worthwhile emotional beats that arise out of character and honest feeling. The Family Stone is a big, messy movie about complicated, messy people and their messy lives.

Grade: B

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Review: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Brokeback Mountain
2005
135 minutes
Rated R

By Scott Mendelson

Based on E. Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain has been allotted plenty of industry attention due to the obvious fact that it is one of the first big-studio homosexual romantic dramas. Yes, in this film, you do see Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal engaging in sexual activities, kissing, hugging, etc. Now that that’s out of the way, one must view this film not on its noted status as the first such film, but its quality if it were merely the 50th such film. And, in fact, Brokeback Mountain does feel like the 50th such film, as it’s not really about being gay at all. Like all of Ang Lee’s previous movies, it is about regret, missed opportunities, and the crippling nature of social expectations and very real responsibilities. And, by that standard, it’s quite compelling.

Ennis (Ledger) and Jack (Gyllenhaal) are young cowboys in 1963 Middle America. They meet and spend a summer working as sheepherders in a place called Brokeback Mountain. They eventually engage in a torrid romance that ends as August arrives. Four years later, they meet up again, as they will for the next sixteen years, every few months, for a brief respite from their own very different lives. While Ledger and Gyllenhaal share top billing, this is clearly Ennis’s story, as we see far more of his life then Jack’s. Aside from romantic yearnings for Ennis, Jack’s life seems content. He is seemingly happily married to Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of a wealthy salesman, and he has most of the comforts of a financially stable household.

Ennis, however, is the model of lower-class tragedy. As the summer of 1963 ends, he immediately marries Alma (an Oscar-worthy Michelle Williams) and, within four years, he has two children, a one-sided marriage, and bills that keep him and his wife working non-stop in menial, psychically demanding jobs to support their bare minimum lifestyle. For Ennis, Jack is an escape from this impoverished and joyless life. Alma has no such outlet for her burdens, and her pain becomes the most devastating aspect of the film. She quickly discovers the nature of Ennis and Jack’s relationship and heart-breakingly realizes that she has based her future with a man who can barely support her, does not love her, and eventually cannot be passionate with her.

For twenty years, Jack and Ennis meet for occasional ‘fishing trips’ and for twenty years, even when seemingly able, they do not take their relationship beyond romantic getaways. Jack wishes this, while Ennis refuses, blaming social intolerance. But Ennis is really afraid of being truly destitute, of abandoning his children, and afraid of the possibility that he cannot open up emotionally to anyone at all. Alas, Jack and Ennis’s relationship is not a great love affair, but a fantasy, based on idealized memories of their first encounter. Jack and Ennis are wildly different people, and their lust would likely not have been enough to sustain their differences in a normal relationship. Of course, had they tried and failed early in life, they both could have moved on. The tragedy is that their yearning is both what sustains them and what renders them unable to rebound from their respective problems.

Like most of Ang Lee’s previous work, Brokeback Mountain is a good, emotionally potent film about lives unfulfilled due to fear and the excuses we make to stop ourselves from pursuing what we really want. Bruce Banner runs from Betty Ross’s nurturing love because he fears that his inner rage will hurt her. Master Li uses his potentially final breaths to confess his love for Yu Shu Lien, now that possible death has freed him from the social constrictions that have rendered him silent. And Ennis uses social intolerance and family responsibilities to disguise his fear of being incapable of baring his soul to another person. In the end they all lose, they all end up wasting their lives.

As the film winds down, Ennis must come to grips with the life he has made for himself as he undertakes a journey that will vaguely remind people of screenwriter Larry McMurtry’s masterpiece, Lonesome Dove (the mini-series adaptation of which is perhaps the finest western ever made). But in the end, there is a glimmer of hope, and a potential first step. Perhaps all of these lives we see connected through Brokeback Mountain will not be in vain.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Review: Streets Of Legend (2005)

Streets Of Legend
2005
85 minutes
rated R

By Scott Mendelson

Streets of Legend is a rare breed of movie. It is special in ways that one rarely encounters. It is bad in so many ways it’s criminal. In fact, it IS criminal in one very obvious way. The press materials loudly trumpet that this very low budget tale of love and street racing was shot using hidden camera footage of actual street races. Yes, this epic tale consists of real footage of actual highly illegal street races, as stupid, insecure, or highly bored young males speed down (hopefully) deserted stretches of road at speeds topping 200 miles per hour. I say hopefully as that’s not always the case. I have a friend whose father’s best friend was killed by a collision with one of these idiots back in June, 2003. So to make this artistically vacant film, they in fact facilitated illegal street races putting you and I in greater peril. And the best part is, the film is so incomprehensibly shot and edited, that the footage looks completely fake. Putting aside my disdain for the featured sport, the question becomes, to paraphrase Rent, what’s the apropos way to review a movie, that’s also a crime?

The legality and morality of street racing aside, the film fails on every other conceivable level. The film is filled with first-time actors, and on the basis of this picture, they will still be ‘first time actors’ on their next film. The shot choices and editing resembles a poor freshman student film, with pointless shots of alleged symbolism. The film was shot on the very lowest quality digital video, so it looks like a snuff film shot on Betamax. The press materials boast that this is a 'character-driven' film, but each and every character is unlikable, paper-thin, and dumber than two boxes of rocks stuck together with silly putty. To wit, we have the lead character, Chato, a mean, possessive punk who yells at his mother, abuses his girlfriend, and cheats on said girlfriend with her best friend. Next we have Noza, the girl in contention. She loves Chato, but is furious when he gets caught cheating and gets sent back to jail for failing a drug test.

Derek is the main street racer in the cast, first seen getting upset after he gets a ticket for doing 140 on the highway. Derek’s best moment is his tearful lashing out at the unknown reckless driver who killed his mother. This speech comes after he nearly gets himself and Noza into a wreck because they were um… recklessly driving. The lovebirds first meet as she joins her friends to watch a street race, and they are immediately taken with each other. This might be romantic if, acting and writing aside, Noza didn’t look like she was 12 years old.

But trouble looms when Chato breaks out of the maximum-security prison. Does he break out using a complicated scheme involving full body tattoos of prison blueprints, deals made with the top mobster at the joint, years of architecture training, and a cunning scheme involving digging a tunnel in the old shed with the help of a guy who might be DB Cooper? Nope, but Prison Break's Michael Scofield will punch himself if he sees this film and realizes that all he had to do was kick a soccer ball into the forest, run after it and hop a small fence to glorious freedom. The end involves Chato returning to reclaim Noza, with Derek fighting for his new girlfriend. It is here that the film crosses the line from insulting and ridiculous to morally foul and offensive. It is not the actions per se, but one character’s reactions to said events that cause the film to stop being funny in its incompetence and leave a sour, bitter taste with its alleged worldview.

If it needs to be further said, this film is truly ghastly. It has no real production values, no acting skill, nothing worth looking at on the screen. It also has the added component of being achieved through wanton criminality, and having a vile and contemptuous worldview toward the underclass and toward women in particular. That this film was shown at Sundance is a mockery of quality underground film making. That it’s getting a theatrical release is a sick joke. This film is a blight on the art of film making and should be avoided at all costs.

Grade: F

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Review: Match Point (2005)

Match Point
2005
125 minutes
rated R

By Scott Mendelson

Match Point is being widely heralded as Woody Allen's best effort in many years, and that much is probably true. This critic is not the world's foremost expert on Allen, having seen only a dozen or so of his films. But, Allen's legacy aside, Match Point is a potent romantic drama, which eventually evolves into a brutally quiet thriller. Whether one is an Allen fan or not, Match Point is a terrific film.

The plot, to wit: Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). is a British tennis pro, formally a major contender, who takes a job teaching at an exclusive tennis club. He almost immediately hits it off with fellow opera-buff Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode), who provides the gateway to a better financial and social status. With this new life come the attentions of Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), the paternal devotion of father Alec Hewitt (the always welcome Brian Cox), and the
temptation of Tom's fiancee, Nola (Scarlett Johansson). Complications ensue.

That's all the plot one needs, as the film works best with less known about its outcome. The picture slowly envelops you in the life of Mr. Wilton just as surely as Wilton is ensnared in the new life of luxury, privilege and business success. The film ultimately comes down to a belief in luck versus skill, chance versus fate, and comfort and security vs. dangerous, unpredictable happiness.

As stated above, the film eventually develops into a terribly tense thriller of sorts. But it is not a conventional thriller of action, violence, and jolts, but a tense, low-key armrest grabber in the
Claude Chabrol vein, where sympathetic characters make questionable decisions and are constantly caught by their own foolishness. Whether any of this tension is relieved and in what manner will not be revealed here, but it should be noted that there are more moments of sympathetic edge-of-seat tension in this film than in any film released this year. Who would have thought that, between the two major Brian Cox films released this year, the Woody Allen drama would out-suspense Wes Craven's terrific Red Eye? And who would have thought that the normally sinister or methodical Brian Cox would play two completely virtuous and sympathetic fathers in a row?

It's merit as an unlikely suspense film aside; the picture is a visual and acting triumph. The London locations are obviously a new venue for Mr. Allen, and it provides an interesting view into modern British social privilege. Every actor involved is in peak form, and every major character gets several shadings to his or her persona. The two female leads are completely desirable in completely different ways, allowing viewers to sympathize over Chris's dilemma. Sure, Chloe is a bit needy and not terribly sensual, but she's sweet, intelligent, and occasionally playful. Oh, and she's played by Emily Mortimer, which means she's cute as can be, although the English accent is probably more of a draw for a Yank like me then for someone living in London in the first place. As the requisite femme-not so-fatale, Johansson plays Nola in a manner similar to a Daisy Buchanan. Her highly seductive opening scene is never matched, and there is a sense that she never really was that person from that moment, no matter how much others want her to be.

Of course, at the center of the drama is Chris Wilton, a burned out tennis pro who seemingly lives only for new challenges. While he is not a thrill seeker per se, his pursuit of challenge provides constant difficulty as he quickly loses interest in any goal achieved. For him, life is a continuous tennis match against a top seed, with only a little luck deciding the victor.

In this case, the victor is surely Woody Allen. By moving away from his comfortable New York locations, and trading in his quirky off-the-cuff comedy for almost Shakespearian black comedy, Mr. Allen has sacrificed none of his trademark themes and motives, and he has reaffirmed himself as one of the premiere filmmakers of this generation, last generation, and the generation to follow. Match Point is one of the very best films of the year.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Review: Elizabethtown (2005)

Elizabethtown
2005
R
120 minutes

by Scott Mendelson

Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous has a place in my all-time top 20 list and serves as a taste barometer for friends and lovers. One doesn't have to love Batman, Airplane, or Field of Dreams, but if they don't like Almost Famous or The Mask Of Zorro, it just isn't going to work. I wish I could say that Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown was another triumph in the same vein as Almost Famous, or at least Jerry Maguire. That it is in fact a near complete catastrophe is heartbreaking. Elizabethtown is a stunning failure, plain and simple.

The plot: Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) has been fired, having lost his shoe company $972 million over a poor selling shoe that he designed. Just as he is about to kill himself, he gets a call that his father has died and that he must fly to Kentucky to retrieve the body so that dad can be buried in Portland, where his mother and sister (Susan Sarandon and Judy Greer) live. On the flight to Kentucky, Drew is bothered and hassled by one of the flight attendants (Kirsten Dunst). The rest of the film concerns Drew dealing his dad's small town relatives (all of whom are 'we southerners are REAL Americans' stereotypes), and then eventually dealing with his father's memorial service and his own 'spiritual' journey.

None of these characters are fully fleshed out, and the film lacks a simple flow, seemingly bouncing, half-haphazardly, from one overacted and choppily edited moment to the next with no connecting tissue. Especially during the truly dreadful first half, the film is not a story but a collection of scenes that aren't truly connected. Poor Orlando Bloom is forced to deliver some of the worst written and overwrought voice over imaginable, and forced to deliver countless trite, hackneyed monologues, to himself no less. Not even Morgan Freeman could have sold this voice over and not even Gene Hackman could have survived these monologues. In terms of dialogue with Drew speaking to another person, Bloom has fewer lines than a Charles Bronson character.

The flight attendant, Claire Colburn, is the sort of attractive, completely supportive, and conveniently wise dream girl that only exists in the movies (in real life, she'd either lose interest in a week or show her true, frighteningly clingy and needy nature). Unlike past idealized Crowe females, there is no real human being underneath Claire, and the romance takes the shape of two people who don't get along that well, but stay together because they read the script. Aside from the thin lead characters (and the fact that none of the peripheral characters, save Susan Sarandon, have any real moments), the very logistics of the plot defy reason, to the point where they hamper the enjoyment of this would-be fable. The shoe failure subplot is unrealistic and absurd, which undermines the entire story that follows, since much of Drew's journey involves dealing with his own sense of complete failure. Why was there no research or regional product testing of this billion-dollar shoe?

And, how does someone make a 3-dozen CD collection of mixed music, along with detailed instructions, all properly labeled and narrated, in three days? It apparently also takes only three days to become a talented tap dancer. These are details that are missed in a novice script, or a script intended for young or unthinking audiences, not in a script by the man who wrote Jerry Maguire. Because the audience will be rolling their eyes in disbelief or annoyance, even the two or three set pieces that almost work emotionally will be undermined by these logic gaps. Even the patented oldies soundtrack harms the movie, as the film is truly suffocated by musical cuts and musical montages that not only overwhelm everything else, but also are often poorly placed and incorrectly chosen. Elton John's 'My Father's Gun' and Tom Petty's 'Learning To Fly' are used so well in the trailers, but are placed in the film seemingly at random with no real context for their use.

In the end, Elizabethtown has all the hallmarks of a Cameron Crowe movie, but none of the poetry, potent artistry, and, stunningly, none of the simple professional competence of his earlier work. Elizabethtown is not the worst film released this year (there are two or three scenes that do work well enough to escape that distinction), but it is easily the year's most shocking slip up and most heartbreaking failure.

Grade: D+

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Review: Protocols Of Zion (2005)

Protocols Of Zion
documentary
2005
100 minutes

by Scott Mendelson

In the four years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there have been moderate increases in anti-Semitism around the globe. This is partially due to a rumor that the Jews were warned ahead of time and all stayed home that day, resulting in a Jewish causality rate of 0.00%. Oh, and modern anti-Semitism stems from a Russian book written in 1905 detailing a non-existent meeting of imaginary Jews as they discussed a scheme to eventually take over the world. This book, entitled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has experienced an upsurge in popularity due to various factions blaming the Jews for 9/11 and other geo-political ills.

Protocols Of Zion offers no more knowledge than stated in the above paragraph. It is a rambling, repetitive, contradictory and intellectually insulting movie that absolutely should not get a pass from critics and audiences on account of its subject matter. Director Marc Levin claims the film is his personal journey into the heart of this new anti-Semitism. It is nothing more than Marc Levin's narcissistic speechifying, where he draws broad conclusions, makes false statements, quotes out of context, and plays a version of Jay Leno's "Jay-Walking", finding the most inflammatory, brain-dead, and simplistic representations from a given community to represent various creeds, classes, and ethnicities.

The rare strong points of the film are the purely factual aspects, where Levin interviews various scholars about the history of anti- Jewish bias and discusses various stereotypes that have pervaded the Jewish existence for thousands of years. The Protocols themselves are amusingly general enough to be applied to any fascist regime in history.

But Levin is the sort of man who sees anti-Semitism in honest discourse, not just from the white supremacy groups in America or various anti-Jew factions in the Middle East. According to Levin's world, criticizing Israeli government policies makes one anti-Jew. Much screen time is given to the aftermath in the Palestinian community to the July 2002 assassination of a Sheikh Salah Shehadeh, without mentioning the fact that the Israeli army fired a missile into a residential building and city street, blowing up seven children and four other civilians in their wake. The only non-Palestinian in opposition to any Israeli government policies is a man who believes that Sharon wasn't being tough enough and should have started cleansing the ethnics.

Levin spends an obscene amount of time covering the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ. Levin interviews the same Jewish leaders who stupidly turned the would-be art house experiment into a pop-culture event by taking to the airwaves to protest the film sight unseen, thus causing Christians to join together in support of the film as a matter of religious conviction. Gibson is quoted out of context during an interview, and the rantings of his truly anti-Semitic father are used against him (so disparaging someone because of someone else's comments or actions is ok... sometimes?). Levin travels to church meetings and scorns them for having specifically Christian beliefs (I hope I'm not going to hell for not accepting Jesus, but that IS their religious belief, not a bias toward any one group). Not mentioned in the film is that not a single act of anti-Semitic violence occurred in this country because of the film, and polls showed that the belief in the 'blood libel' actually decreased after the film's release.

Levin can't seem to grasp the idea that people hate and blame because it's easier than either accepting their own responsibility, or it is easier than blaming random chance. Some people hate out of stupidity or anger, or sadness. Sometimes, people hate to excuse their own deplorable behavior (the language and ideas of modern racism were in fact invented as an excuse for slavery, a justification for how moral, God-fearing people could condone the kidnapping and selling of fellow human beings). Levin seems shocked by the very principle that people hate other people for no good reason.

Levin finds no answers and asks no real questions. The film has little value as an educational tool, since it practices the same sort of closed-minded thinking that it attempts to debunk. By neither ascribing this anti-Jew attitude towards various ingrained prejudicial outlets or detailing the very real conditions in the world that bring about fear mongering nor finger pointing, Levin has created a documentary that will enlighten no one.

For a better, smarter look at anti-Semitism, look for The Believer, a fine drama about a Jewish youth who becomes a skinhead leader in his community.

Grade: D+

Friday, September 2, 2005

Review: Three... Extremes (2005)


Three... Extremes
2005
R
125 minutes

By Scott Mendelson

Three... Extremes is a two-hour anthology with three 40-45 minute short films by three of Asia's most celebrated horror filmmakers. Unfortunately, all three of these shorts defy easy, non-spoiler descriptions, so this might not be the longest review ever written. The film's greatest strength as a whole is that each of the three pieces represents a completely different sort of horror film.

To wit... The opening segment, entitled 'Dumplings', involves a seemingly miraculous de-aging product and its mysterious origins. This curtain raiser is a pitch-black comedy that eventually deals with this critic's very favorite comic subject (and, as a side-note, shares certain similarities with my favorite dirty joke, involving tomatoes in a brothel). Director Fruit Chan wisely reveals the 'twist' early on, so that the majority of the film allows the audience to revel in the astounding horror of the situation at hand. Of course, much of the comedy eventually comes from just how much the director is actually showing us, much of it the sort of thing that a more straightforward film would keep off screen. Yes, one should note that the piece deals with the ever-increasing mania to stay young and look younger, no matter how immodest the proposal, and it succeeds just such a social satire. But the important thing is that 'Dumplings' is a terrifically shocking black comedy about one of the funniest things that a person can joke about.

The second segment, Park Chan-Wook's 'Cut' is the purest example of unmitigated human horror of the three segments. In short, the story begins when renowned comedy director Ryu Ji-Ho walks into his house to find a rather angry stranger, a tied-up little girl, and his wife tied to their piano and in great peril. What follows in a long game of wits, with the angry stranger taunting the director, daring him to be a flawed man, angered that he is in fact a decent man, since rich people aren't supposed to be decent too. This is easily the most visually frantic and viscerally jolting film of the set, as well as the most blatantly violent and gruesome. 'Dumplings' has a matter of fact visual presentation of its more shocking subject matter, but 'Cut' has more pure violence and gore. At its heart, it's about how one allegedly good man is consistently forced to choose between two terrible, immoral choices, while trying to bare his soul to the intruder in a desperate stab at sympathy.

If 'Dumplings' is the black comedy, and 'Cut' is the visceral terror show, then 'Box' is the subtler, more elegant tone poem of the set. Directed with subtlety and patience by Takashi Miike, the story concerns a woman torn over the memory of the death of her twin sister, and the consequences of her accepting an invitation to revisit the place where she died many years ago. 'Cut' moves very slowly at first, daring to be almost dull in order to build a mood and sense of silent dread and mystery. The film depends purely on silence, and it uses that silence to surprise the audience on at least two occasions, when that calmness and introverted quiet is shattered without warning. 'Cut' may not be the one that everyone talks about when they leave the theater, but it is perhaps the most successful in terms of building tension and suspense.

Three... Extremes
(no, that's not a typo, the title really is written as such) is a delicious and macabre experiment, the sort of which we should see more of from directors both American and abroad. For an older, campier anthology, try Creepshow (made in 1982, it contains at least one classic segment starring, of all people, Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen). Horror by nature often works best in small, potent doses, and the short film format allows directors to experiment in a way that they might not be willing to with a full-length feature. And, of course, this film truly does feature three extremely different kinds of horror stories, so the title is apt. Three... Extremes is a wonderful idea, well executed, and (most importantly), very very creepy.

Grade: B

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Review: The Constant Gardener (2005)

The Constant Gardener
2005
125 minutes
Rated R

By Scott Mendelson

One thing that The Constant Gardener gets right, something that many other thrillers and social message movies get wrong, is that the very worst sort of evil is not born out of lust, greed, or thirst for power, but rather laziness. Whether it's not replacing a series of safety caps that would have cost less than $1000 and thus prevented the 1996 crash of Value Jet 592, or ignoring problems with the side engine GM cars that caused several slight-impact crashes in their 1970s models (cost ratio: $8.59 to fix each car vs. eventual $4.9 BILLION lawsuit settlement), it is apathy and laziness that causes so much suffering at the hands of those allegedly evil, faceless corporations.

The Constant Gardener is a classical old fashioned political thriller in which a well meaning, but naive person is awakened to the evil or corruption that exists around them in their idealized environment after a loved one is killed and/or their own life is turned upside down (think most films by Costa-Gavras, who popularized the genre). The clueless do-gooder is low ranking British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes and yes, his character likes to plant and tend to gardens), who discovers in the opening scene that his social crusader wife Theresa (Rachel Weisz) has been murdered while the two of them were residing in Africa.

For the first forty minutes or so, we flashback to their tumultuous but loving relationship which details his attempts to balance his own diplomatic responsibilities with his wife?s more direct approach at dealing with African AIDS drug policies. When we are brought back to the present, we focus on Quayle's guilt-ridden quest to discover just why his wife was murdered. Needless to say, this was not a robbery gone wrong, but a desperate attempt to silence a vocal critic with strong evidence of damaging information about a major pharmaceutical company. What that information is, who is involved, and what the consequences are, I'll leave you to discover.

That the film goes into details on the moral dilemmas and outright immoral actions of major drug companies is a given, but the core mystery and personal story never gets lost amid the politics and skulduggery (the alleged horrors of such companies' policies regarding poor African nations and even our own broken health care system can be found via a simple Google search, so I won't list them here). The film is also full of small character details. Pete Postlethwaite shines in a third act role as a doctor with much to atone for.

I'm fond of the opening moments, where Theresa confronts her husband-to-be with a ridiculously overwrought and marble-mouthed anti-Iraq-war rant that is so poorly delivered that one wonders if it was merely a ploy to empty the room so she can hit on this handsome guest lecturer (Rachel Weisz is quickly becoming one of the better actresses of her generation, giving credibility to popcorn movies like The Mummy or Constantine). And several characters state or imply, with a frightening effectiveness, that it may be less than immoral to use African AIDS sufferers as pawns, since they are just about dead anyway (1996's Extreme Measures with Hugh Grant and Gene Hackman, was a terrific medical thriller that dealt with similar issues on American soil). At the core, the film is about a man who is shattered to discover that his wife loved him far more than he thought she did, and that her love prevented her from taking the steps that might have saved her life. And the mystery being uncovered eventually leads to a trail of normal men who did just a little bit of evil, because doing the right thing would have taken more time and more energy.

The film only stumbles at the very end, with a 'big speech' by a peripheral character that is ruined by a montage of African children playing happily and smiling at the camera, in case the audience just didn't get what was at stake before. For just that moment, this very smart movie assumes that we are very dumb. Of course, it's ironic that such a well-made thriller trips itself by lazily explaining the moral of the story, a story in which great sins are committed out of that same laziness. On a digressive note, for a little seen gem also starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, track down Sunshine. Released in 2000, this story of three generations of a German Jewish family is the rare movie to deal with Jewish persecution in genuine shades of gray.

Grade: A-

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Review: Valiant (2005)

Valiant
2005
75 minutes
Rated G

By Scott Mendelson

In all likelihood, you've already seen Disney's Valiant. Have you ever seen a film about a young, plucky outsider who really wants to succeed in a heroic task that no one thinks that he can do? And what about when that outsider makes his mark, earns the respect of his peers, and is the only one who can save the day at a crucial point in a very important mission (usually because he's small and is the only one who can fit in a small entrance way)? From Rudolf The Red Nose Reindeer to Mulan, children's films have often told this story, with varying degrees of success. The best of this quasi-genre is still Babe, the 1995 masterpiece about a pig who learns to be a sheep-herding swine (10 years later, this Oscar nominated epic, to use sophisticated critical language, still owns you, me, and all of our lesser, pathetic souls in its iron grip of superiority! Baa-ram-ewe indeed!).

Of course, Valiant is no Babe, and you already know how it goes. It concerns Valiant (Ewan McGregor, using his natural accent), a small but plucky go-getter who wants to join other heroic pigeons in the Great Britain's Royal Air Force Homing Pigeon Service during World War II. As the film points out, the allied forces really did use animals during the war, and pigeons were vital in carrying top-secret messages. In fact, by the war's end, pigeons had been awarded 31 medals for bravery. This is 31 more than were awarded to Native American wind talkers, and the pigeons didn't have to worry about being shot if they were about to be captured. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that Valiant eventually wins the respect of his comrades and is among those sent on the most important of missions. And I'm sure I don't have to tell you that Valiant fails in his mission, all of his friends are killed, the message falls into Nazi hands, and Germany wins World War II, plunging the world into an Orwell-ion future resembling a cross between Robert Harris's 'Fatherland' and Philip Roth's 'The Plot Against America'.

Obviously, the film has zero surprises on the storytelling front, so what does it offer? Well, first off, it has an all-star cast of well-respected British thespians in all the major voices. Hugh Laurie (of House MD) gets to use his natural accent as the heroic leader of the RAFHP. Tim Curry hams it up as the evil falcon nemesis, Ricky Gervais (The Office) plays the requisite best friend torn between duty and self-preservation, and John Hurt again proves that he's still alive in a small supporting role. While the voices are fun, it can be distracting to constantly be playing 'spot the celebrity', and it is a shame that once again the top-level voice over talents (think Jeff Bennett or Frank Welker) are denied prime roles in their field over stars in a genre where the key young audience wouldn't know the difference.

What makes the film worth seeing is the matter of fact nature of the screenplay. The humor is low-key and the film opens with two pigeons dying in battle; immediately establishing the very real dramatic stakes. The requisite tearful parting of mother and son before battle is subtle and genuinely moving. Best of all, the obligatory romance (Olivia Williams plays a nurse) is handled with a minimum of condescension. And I'm curious as to whether an early reference to the Geneva Convention preventing torturous interrogation will be viewed as a partisan political statement.

Simply put, Valiant is a perfectly acceptable cartoon with charming characters, and an attempt at actual dramatic tension. But it's also painfully derivative of countless other films. It is not a bad film, and it is certainly worth dragging the family along with you for a quick matinee. But, there are other, far better cartoons out there (The Iron Giant, Spirited Away, The Emperor's New Groove) that should be further up on your 'must see' list.

Grade: B-

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Review: Reel Paradise (2005)

Reel Paradise
documentary
2005
110 minutes
Rated R

By Scott Mendelson

Reel Paradise
concerns the last month in a year (2003-ish) spent in Fiji by an independent film guru and his family. Eleven months ago, independent film producer John Pierson moved his family to Fiji for a year for the express purpose of using the sole movie theatre in the poverty stricken community to run a yearlong film festival, free of charge.

The best thing about Steve James' Reel Paradise is what it's not about. It's not about how movies have the awesome power to remake a community and change millions of lives forever. It's not about how a white family comes into a Fiji village and imparts the 'noble savages' with valuable life lessons, nor is it about how the indigenous natives make the Pierson family better people. No, Reel Paradise is about how the Pierson family moves to Fiji and shows free movies to the locals. Period. That's it. Yes, there are other issues that come into play, but the film makes a point to keep the focus purely on the Pierson family and their low-key, complete plausible experiences in this last month. This is quite simply a slice of life.

We are quickly introduced to the family, which includes John Pierson, his wife Janet, and their two children, Wyatt (13) and Georgia (16). We are then introduced the screening philosophy of John Pierson. He screens all kinds of movies, from X-Men 2 to vintage Buster Keaton. While art films are worthwhile, people want fun movies so there's about two or three Hot Chicks for every Apocalypse Now's.

The film unfolds at a leisurely pace, with occasional bumps along the way. Toward the end of the first third, there is a break-in; the second in a year, and the reaction of the landlord has to be seen to be believed. The family struggles with their own problems, save for Wyatt, who seems to enjoy being a junior-league film buff who argues with his father about which films to play. John deals with his nasty temper and his need for absolute understanding and perfection of those who work for him. Georgia tests her mother's patience with her free-spirited and flirtatious ways (Georgia doesn't come off terribly well in the footage we see, but just remember that she's probably not that different from many teenage girls at that stage of life). And Janet fears that one of her friends or someone she knows was behind the break-ins, and she is disturbed at the idea that she doesn't know what the right decisions are in relation to caring for her children.

The main community conflict comes from the local religious groups. First off, John insists on starting the films at 7:30pm, which conflicts with the evening service. The main bone of contention I leave you to discover, but it's not about the content of the films and the situation brings about a compelling dialogue about differing philosophies.

And that's really all that needs to be stated about the film's storyline. It's a fun, quirky movie, with an honest look at four Americans trying to fit in and enjoy life in Fiji, and the impact, both good and bad, that both cultures have on each other. The film allows the Piersons to be generally good, but flawed and occasionally naive people (Janet makes the usual comment that poverty doesn't matter because everyone looks so darned happy). It does not condemn them nor praise them. It is simply a slice of life, and that is at it should be. It is fun, it is entertaining, and it is slightly wiser than you'd expect. But it is not a groundbreaking work of art. The Piersons lives were unquestionably changed by their year in Fiji. But Real Paradise will not change your life.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Review: The Skeleton Key (2005)

The Skeleton Key
2005
PG-13
105 minutes


By Scott Mendelson

If what you crave is a near masterpiece of a horror film with incredibly rich, vibrant characters, sympathetic leads, realistic environments, top-notch writing, stellar acting from an all-star cast, and a complete sense of dread created not by cheap scare effects, but by your deep and sympathetic concern for the major characters and the real world they inhabit, well, too bad, because Dark Water probably isn't playing at your local theater anymore. However, if what you crave is a flawed, but potent scare fest, full of brutal shocks, horrific violence, and the understanding that ghastly special effects aren't quite as scary as watching the real-life horrors of a sympathetic family coming unhinged? Well, The Amityville Horror arrives on video October 4th. But what if you crave a less overwhelming experience? How about a goofy popcorn thriller, with a veteran master of terror at the top of his game, with a delightfully heinous villain, sympathetic heroes in peril, and exciting set pieces that will have you yelling at the screen or giggling and squirming in your seat? Wes Craven's Red Eye comes out next weekend. Alas, the film we're discussing today is The Skeleton Key.

The plot, as much as I'm going to reveal: Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson, completely acceptable in her first purely dramatic role) is a 25 year old hospice worker who is turned off by the cold, clinical manner in which forgotten seniors are hustled off to death's door, forgotten and alone. Still guilt-ridden over not being there when her father died prematurely from disease, she decides to accept a full time position as a live-in nurse in the middle of the Louisiana swamp. There lives Ben (John Hurt), crippled by a stroke and months away from death, and his wife, Violet (Gina Rowlands, having fun with the cliches of southern gothic horror). For $1,000 a week, Caroline will attend to Ben's medical needs and make sure he's comfortable in the final days of his life. But something is amiss. What is in that room in the attic that the master key won't open? What is the history of this mysterious house? Why is Ben seemingly afraid of Violet? And what does it all have to do with the locals' Hoodoo rituals?

I won't reveal the answers to those questions, but really, the whole film is a build up 'the big answers'. And, since there is little to take up our time while we wait (a subplot or more eccentric locals would be nice), we simply sit there, not quite bored, but not fully involved, and certainly not scared (it is telling that the most disturbing visual elicited not a single gasp from a packed audience). The problem is that it's obvious that the picture is attempting to cash in on the popularity of The Ring (but, one presumes, not its sequel, written by the same writer of this film, which baldly ripped off Wes Craven's New Nightmare, without the good parts), but fails to truly stand on it's own.

And as a film about solving mysteries, one minor mystery is ruined by the wrongheaded casting of a major character actor/actress - who has mannerisms that render them as likely to be evil as the late JT Walsh or Alan Rickman - in a seemingly superfluous role. Of course, the Law of Unnecessary Characters dictates that actors are too expensive to have unneeded characters in a big budget movie. This is a common problem in mystery films, as well as procedural TV shows. 'Gee, our suspects are 'random plumber', 'random lawyer', and distinguished character actor Dylan Baker as the doctor. Quick, Monk, who's the killer?' Then we have the legendary John Hurt, in a role that literally requires him to be mute, bedridden, and wheelchair bound for 9/10 of the picture. I suppose that makes sense, since who would possibly want to take advantage of John Hurt's lush and unique vocal styling?

If it seems I'm digressing, it's because there isn't much to say about the film. I won't reveal the big plot details other than to say that they are both contrived (ask yourself at the end how much 'person A' had to do of their own accord to allow the story to unfold as it does), and inconsistent with the film's underlying themes (growing old, the neglect of the elderly, the difficulty of accepting the eventual death of a loved one). The picture looks authentic, it's well acted by all involved, and it's opening 10 minutes are downright terrific, as Caroline reads a story to a dying patient and is frustrated at the lack of attention being paid. But, there are far better horror/suspense pictures out right now, and whether you wait for video on Dark Water and Amityville Horror, or you see Red Eye next weekend, or even track down a little seen golden oldie like Candyman, Copycat, or Frailty (easily the best horror film of this decade), there is no real reason to see The Skeleton Key this weekend unless you're a fan of the low-key PG-13 suspense genre who desperately needs their fix.

The Skeleton Key is not a terrible movie, and in some ways it's completely acceptable. But in the end, it depends too much on contrivance, and it's just not accomplished enough or scary enough or moving enough to make it worthwhile. Do yourself a favor and see if the obscenely good Dark Water is playing at any second run theatres in your area. The Skeleton Key is little more than skin and bones. Grade: C

Monday, August 8, 2005

Review: Four Brothers (2005)

Four Brothers
2005
100 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Four Brothers is another in the continuous round of the 'either/or' career of John Singleton. Ever since getting burned by the critical and box office disappointment of Rosewood back in 1997 (8 years? God, I'm getting old!), Singleton has smartly interchanged mainstream genre pictures (Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious) with more personal, cheaper, artier films (Baby Boy, Hustle N' Flow, which Singleton produced). Since Hustle N' Flow just came out and we have another Singleton picture, of course this means Four Brothers must be the commercial venture.

The plot? Well, this one's easy. Four foster brothers reunite in Detroit after years apart when the saintly woman who raised them is murdered during an apparent convenience store robbery. Vengeance is eventually theirs. As for our brothers, we have Bobby (Mark Wahlberg, overacting and proving that his brother Danny really is the superior thespian), the hot head who pulls his gun at every possible moment and sometimes forgets to ask questions after shooting. We have Angel (Tyrese Gibson), a low-key lothario who accidentally gets himself into a committed relationship with Sofi (Sofia Vergara, overplaying the 'oh no you didn't' Latina stereotype that's been spoofed on Scrubs far too often to take seriously anymore). We have Jack (Gerrett Hedlund), the youngest and most naive of the group who might be gay but is definitely a washed out third-rate rock star (that the character is probably gay without displaying a single gay stereotype is refreshing). Finally we have Jeremy (Andre Benjamin), the family man who stayed in the neighborhood.

As for the victim, Evelyn (Fionnula Flanagan) gets only one scene in the present tense, but that scene is so good and so definitive that the ghostly flashbacks are redundant (not to mention poorly staged and trite). Her establishing scene sets her up as an uncommonly positive, good, nurturing person, and a firm believer in the quality of others. Which is why she'd be the last person to approve of the vigilantism that gets carried out in her name, and that's the movie's biggest problem. Of course, her murder (and the murder of the store employee who is never mentioned again) wasn't just a hold-up, but a hit; otherwise it'd be a very short movie. This makes the brothers even angrier, and thus they amp up their levels of violence. Why her being the victim of a scheme makes her death worse than her being a victim of random chance and petty cruelty is a valid question. I have to say, if I'm ever the victim of violent death, I'd much prefer to be the victim of a diabolical plot, rather than the victim of walking into the wrong convenience store, but that's me.

The brothers (at least three of them, the film wisely leaves Jeremy out of most of the violent episodes, as he has a family to look after) immediately embark on a vicious, violent, and genuinely cruel quest to find out who killed their foster mother and why. On their quest for vengeance, they don't just rough up the obvious bad guys, they terrorize public places (even a high school basketball game), viciously beat incidental figures, and eventually execute two thugs even before they know for sure that they were guilty of anything in the first place. That scene elicits sorrowful music and a shocked reaction by the littlest brother, which led me to believe that the film was going to eventually come out against these vicious tactics. But, just in time for the climax, the film gets back on the 'payback is swell' bandwagon, and the audience was cheering along with our 'heroes'. And please explain to me how they get away with their actions at the end, as the film doesn't.

Overall issues of morality and plot logic aside, I must acknowledge that John Singleton can stage a shootout better than any American director working today. As in Shaft (which had far richer characters and better acting), he waits over an hour to stage this major action sequence, peppering the first hour with character development, brief bits of action, and plot revelations (which is how action films used to be: small bits of action with only one or two major set pieces). The second act climactic street level shoot out in Shaft was one of the all time classics, and this one is almost as good, for the same reasons. The geography is clearly established, and the shots are wide and expansive. The violence is quick, brutal, and scary, and real people on both sides are terrified and in real jeopardy. His car chases need work, as they are shot too tightly (the cars sliding on snow is a nice touch though), but Singleton can stage a gun battle to make John Woo proud.

I've never been a fan of murderous vigilantism, so I'm not prone to completely enjoy a film that seems to advocate it on any level beyond fantasy wish fulfillment. It is telling that most of the information discovered by our heroes is also discovered, soon afterward, by police officers using normal investigative techniques. This is not a world where justice needs to be served on the streets. The police have the matter well in hand, so there is no need for outside punishment. In fact, their actions seem to bring about only more suffering and violence, a fact again forgotten by the film's action climax.

Singleton could have made an empty-headed gung-ho 1980's Death Wish 3-type action thriller. Or he could have made a thoughtful probing thriller about four brothers whose reckless quest to avenge their mother turns them into the very same type of punks that killed her in the first place, shaming her good name in the process. That Singleton doesn't know which film he wants to make renders the film confused and uneven. His attempts to make the film somewhat resemble the second, more challenging idea is noble. But, a noble failure is still a failure. The audience may cheer when the bad guys get what's coming to them, but you know Evelyn is weeping.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Review: The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)

The Dukes Of Hazzard
2005
100 minutes
Rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

It must be noted first off, that I am not even a casual fan of the original Dukes Of Hazzard television show, which lasted for 6 seasons starting in 1979. I vaguely remember snippets of the show, and I remember wondering just how someone could jump into a car through an open window with such ease, as it seemed rather tough in real life (I'm proud to say I never tried; I found other, non-media inspired ways to hurt myself back in the day). Thus, I can judge this new movie adaptation with an open mind. And what be thy judgment? Well, with all the talk about how it represents the glorification of ineptitude, the worship of fast cars and easy women, and how its success will somehow be a sign of the creeping conservative movement at play in the last several years, it must be said that the film is quite fun. It may in fact commit all of the crimes above, but it does so with a certain knowing panache, it winks at several genre conventions, and in the end, the moral of the story is actually one that the core 'red state' audience would do well to hear. It's not nearly as stupid as you'd think, and it's just smart enough to be almost subversive.

The plot, for those who care: Luke Duke and Bo Duke (a deadpan Johnny Knoxville and an overacting Sean William Scott) run moonshine shipments for their uncle Jesse (Willy Nelson, with absolutely nothing to do), with the occasional aid of cousin Daisy Duke (Jessica Simpson, seemingly challenged by her 20 lines and embarrassed by the obvious exploitation of her breasts and legs). Alas, fiendish schemes are afoot, threatening to tear their fragile existence asunder! The evil Boss Jefferson Davis Hogg (Burt Reynolds, looking trim and having fun) has used his influence and power to make a land grab of several large farms in the area, including the Duke House. What could Hogg's evil scheme be? What is its connection to the upcoming annual Hazzard stock car race? Will our Duke boys unravel the odious scheme and bring peace and tranquility to the Hazzard county, or will Hogg triumph, covering the land in darkness and despair?

First things first, the car chases, and there are a few, are quite exceptional and they all feel real, with a minimum of special effects assistance (there are some amusing chase outtakes over the end credits, reminding one of a Jackie Chan film, but with a car). About 40% of the jokes work, with an edge going to the pure comedy bits, as opposed to the gentle acknowledgment of 'hillbilly' cliches. One exception is the matter of the giant confederate flag that eventually adorns the General Lee. It is actually used for a very funny gag, but is ruined by an additional nasty joke that ends too soon to defuse or play on the racial discomfort that develops.

The oddest thing about the film is that, while it indulges in certain less than esteemed bits of southern folklore, it has something trickier up its sleeve. The film seems to revel in the usual liberal-bashing stereotypes. The good guys are dumb, poor, not bathed, and scornful of authority. The bad guys are smart, well dressed, clean, intelligent, and usually members of authority. So, it would seem that this is a usual 'Us vs. Them' saga, a battle between rich, educated city folks, and poor, bored, uneducated 'real Americans'. Yet, in the end, the film could easily be read as a metaphor for the whole absurdity of that idea. The main villain, Boss Hogg, masquerades as one of the 'real people', but secretly plots to steal their homes purely out of greed. Remember that stock car race I mentioned? Well, that's organized by Boss Hogg as a giant diversion so he can subvert the law to get his evil plan rubber-stamped.

So, basically, we have a movie aimed at the 'red state' demographic which involves a rich, cooperate bad guy who pretends to be 'one of them real folk' and uses the bread and circuses of a stock car race as a diversion so he can screw those 'real Americans' out of their property. And, in the end, it is big government and law and order that saves the day once the evil scheme is exposed. Readers of What's The Matter With Kansas? might be amused.

Whether this can be taken as a symbolic representation of 'god, gays, and guns' (the three 'moral issues' that are used as a distraction to get people to vote for the very politicians that will help insure that their children starve to death or go uneducated) can be debated, but the fact that this film seems to have such an important point -pay attention and don't fall for the distractions around you- is a bit of a shock.

On a slightly related note, this comes days after Jessica Simpson openly complained about ABC censoring and softening the real living conditions of the US troops that she and her husband went to entertain in Iraq for a TV special. With all the talk about how Simpson's popularity is a reflection of people wanting a boring, safe, squeaky clean sex symbol, it's worth noting that more 'daring' sex symbols like Brittany Spears never had the guts to make such statements, or even really think for themselves. She may be a lousy actress, but Simpson has moxy.

Obviously, one need not read this much into The Dukes Of Hazzard. On purely surface levels, it's a quick, light, squeaky-clean 'thrillbilly' comedy that is slightly funnier and slightly more exciting than most people expected it to be. Whether or not the mass, unthinking consumption of this film will cause it to be the very sort of distraction that it seemingly rallies against is a valid question. But the very fact that this seemingly assembly line product actually raises such a question makes it just that much closer to being art.

Grade: B

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Review: The Island (2005)

The Island
2005
130 minutes
Rated PG-13

By Scott Mendelson

In this summer of remakes and sequels (to be fair, most of them thus far, like Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins, and the upcoming The Bad News Bears, are quite good), Michael Bay's The Island attempts to stand out as an original. It sells itself as an original and mysterious sci-fi fable about beautiful people in a strange place, with mysterious happenings, and the mysterious connection to 'the island'.

Of course, as fetching as the ad campaign has been, there's just one problem. The film is a blatant rip-off or un-credited remake of 1979's The Clonus Horror. I won't go into the details, as it would spoil most of the surprises of this rip-off/remake/unintentional homage. To be fair, I have not seen The Clonus Horror, and apparently it's good enough to have been featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. So, thus, let us judge this version on its own merits. And on its own merits, it can be judged very simply. The Island has a terrific first 70 minutes, followed by a monotonous, plodding final 60 minutes.

The plot, as much as I'm willing to reveal (less than the later trailers)... Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor, going through the motions save for one bit I won't reveal) lives in what is apparently one of the last two safe places on earth. According to those that run this safety zone, the rest of the earth has been poisoned by an unknown catastrophe. These survivors are educated, fed, clothed, and kept in absolutely perfect shape, under the idea that they will eventually be selected via lottery to be sent to... (Drum roll...) the island, the world's last outdoor safe zone, where they will slowly repopulate the species. Lincoln, however, wants more out of his sterile, preschool like existence (male/female touching is prohibited, much like the social lives for many in the target demographic for this film), and he starts to question the basic foundations of his life. After his best buddy, Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson, not since Eight Legged Freaks has she been so regulated to pure eye candy) gets selected to go to The Island, Lincoln gets suspicious and discovers something... something so shocking that it will scrape your nerves screamingly raw! (That's my 1950s type bid for quote whoredom).

As stated above, the first 70 minutes of The Island are terrific. The setting is fascinating, the minute details of the enclave are rich and interesting, and the eventual revelations are completely logical and utterly plausible. While McGregor and Johansson are basically action figure stand-ins (not unintentionally, it should be stated), Sean Bean, as a scientist and the big boss of the containment unit, walks away with the picture simply by being Sean Bean and adding instant credibility (he is on the level of Gene Hackman or Morgan Freeman; he is incapable of giving a bad performance, no matter how good or bad the movie). Steve Buscemi, as an employee at the containment center and an alley of our heroes, chews scenery in his first major role in a few years (remember, back in the late 90s, when he was in every independent movie released?). Djimon Hounsou, as a private mercenary/bounty hunter, gets a big paycheck, though he is underused, and in context, his final meaningful staring glance seems to suggest less 'gee I guess this is how it ends' and more 'gee, I'm by far the sexiest man in this picture, so how come I don't end up with Johansson?'

What happens after those initial 70 minutes? Well, most of the plot is explained, and the film pretty much becomes non-stop action, with several major chase set pieces taking up the majority of the next 60 minutes. These action scenes are exquisitely constructed, fast paced and creative, and quite simply as boring as unbuttered toast. Since we don't really care about the fate of our two leads, and they really aren't real three-dimensional characters (again, can't be too specific here), it basically becomes 'chase of the stick figures'.

Still, even after the film tragically remembers that it's supposed to be a brainless Michael Bay action picture, there are several minutes sprinkled afterward that do remember that Michael Bay was trying to stretch. The film deals head on with the murky moral issues that it dabbles in, without offering any real answers. That the film's politics eventually lean a bit to the right doesn't win it any points, but previous Michael Bay films show him to be more Red State than Blue State (particularly Bad Boys 2, which flaunted the use of the Patriot Act and climaxed with the massacre of innocent Cuban civilians to facilitate an illegal police action in a sovereign nation by our alleged heroes). Again, I don't agree with some of the film's symbolic imagery, but that's not a deal breaker (I loathe the anti due-process and anti fair trial message behind The Devil's Advocate, but I find the film quite entertaining regardless). And the film does leave much to discuss for coffee or ice cream afterward.

In the end, The Island is another sci-fi parable that wrestles with the eternal question of what science can do versus what science should do. That the film doesn't come up with iron clad answers is commendable, that the film eventually dissolves into a brainless chase picture with boring leads is less commendable. So, see The Island. See Ewan and Scarlett run for their lives. See Sean Bean and know that he is one of the very best character actors around. See Steve Buscemi do the shtick you used to take for granted back in the 1990s. See Djimon Hounsou and feel inadequate. See a movie that is quite literally halfway decent.

And, whatever you do, when you see The Island, do NOT see, hear or be in the presence of the new trailer for the upcoming Red Eye. I've seen Red Eye, it's quite entertaining, but the new trailer literally gives away the entire film. You've been warned.

first 70 minutes: A-
last 60 minutes: C-
average: B-

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