Monday, August 29, 2005

Red Eye

RED EYE (Wes Craven, 2005)

Lisa (Rachel McAdams) and Jackson (Cillian Murphy) meet in line waiting to catch the night's last flight from Dallas to Miami. They engage in some polite small talk and a little flirtation but nothing more. Fortuitously, they end up seated next to one another on the plane. The seating arrangement is no coincidence, though, and RED EYE is not a romance.

Jackson is involved in a plot to kill Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Charles Keefe (Jack Scalia), and Lisa's job as a luxury hotel manager puts her in a position to help him fulfill his duty. All he needs Lisa to do is call her hotel, where Keefe is scheduled to stay, and have his room changed. To persuade her, Jackson has a man ready to kill her father (Brian Cox) if she fails to cooperate.

RED EYE is a nimble thriller that doesn't waste an opportunity to ratchet up the tension. Although not staged in real time, the film's immediacy and confined quarters force the characters to react instinctively rather than having the benefit of contemplation and possible escape. Director Wes Craven has crafted a lean film in which everything seen--even as insignificant as a Dr. Phil self-help book or a novelty pen--has a purpose.

RED EYE doesn't depend on deep characterization, but Carl Ellsworth's screenplay provides just enough clues to who these people are to make their behaviors believable in the situation. The leads do a wonderful job of filling in the blanks, McAdams in particular. She has seemed primed for stardom for awhile, although in actuality her rise to prominence has come in less than the past year and a half. If enough people see RED EYE, this could be the film to put her on the path to the predicted Julia Roberts-type stardom, if she chooses to follow that career track. As in WEDDING CRASHERS and THE NOTEBOOK, here she's the embodiment of The Girl Next Door. Pretty, friendly, down to earth, and able to fend for herself, McAdams is immensely likeable and familiar in a way that's rare for movie stars. (She also has a go-for-broke flair for comedy, which isn't on display in RED EYE but has been witnessed in MEAN GIRLS and, of all places, THE HOT CHICK.) McAdams' performance may be most notable for what it isn't. She's neither an action star nor a damsel in distress but a regular, headstrong woman.

Murphy also underplays his part, as unlikely as that sounds considering he's playing a terrorist with the improbable, malevolent name of Jackson Rippner. His character's motivation is to go unnoticed. Using his devilish charm, Murphy's vaguely dangerous portrayal of Jackson is what he makes him all the more seductive, even to someone like Lisa.

RED EYE is a wind-up machine of elegant simplicity, an increasingly uncommon breed among today's bloated genre films. Craven uses today's fears of domestic terrorism and the frustrations borne of it to make something exciting, heroic, and funny.

Grade: B

The Brothers Grimm

THE BROTHERS GRIMM (Terry Gilliam, 2005)

In THE BROTHERS GRIMM the collectors of German fairy tales are recast as traveling swindlers who exploit villagers’ beliefs in local legends. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, played by Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, put on an elaborate production to convince townsfolk that they have rid their area of curses, enchantments, and all other supernatural afflictions. The Grimms’ bluff gets called, though, when they are sent to Marbaden, where children are disappearing and the forest truly is haunted.

Whether battling with the studio or being defeated by Mother Nature, director Terry Gilliam often faces great difficulty in making films that match his visions. The upside of the turmoil is that the end result is usually a fascinating film. THE BROTHERS GRIMM is fascinating but only in the way that watching a good director misfire this badly can be. Gilliam has never been the tidiest of storytellers, but in working from Ehren Kruger’s screenplay, he wallows into a mess that feels as if significant chunks are missing. Parts of the original Grimm tales are cleverly worked in, frequently with the darker tones that get bowdlerized for the bedtime versions. Although likely restricted in budget, Gilliam’s visual imagination is as unlimited as ever, which is the only aspect of THE BROTHERS GRIMM that makes it remotely watchable. Occasionally some Pythonesque humor slips through, such as in a torture scene, but the tone and plot are so muddled and muddied that the audience is reduced to looking for those rays of light to stay engaged with the film.

Grade: D+

The Cave

THE CAVE (Bruce Hunt, 2005)

Scientists and divers find a nasty surprise on their underground expedition in THE CAVE. Cole Hauser, Morris Chestnut, and Piper Perabo are among those making the fateful trip into the cave network below the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. There they encounter demonic winged creatures that are as dangerous in the water as they are in the air.

Early in THE CAVE there’s a great shot in the ocean of a diver squeezing through a crevice that he wriggles through somehow. It summons the suffocating feeling of claustrophobia, something which the rest of the film should have done but never replicates. While the monsters are the obvious attraction for THE CAVE, the scenario lends itself to concentrating on the terror of being trapped miles below the earth without a foreseeable exit. Emphasizing the natural tension might mitigate the film’s uninteresting elements, like the drab, interchangeable characters, the predictable infighting that starts almost as soon as they set foot in the cave, and the lack of humor. THE CAVE also suffers from a common malady in contemporary films. It’s all noise and motion that blurs the action to the point of incomprehensibility. With nothing invested in the characters and little ability to decipher what we’re seeing, THE CAVE plays out like a dull bombardment of the senses.

Grade: D

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Laura Cantrell in concert

Laura Cantrell

(Sorry for the grind to a halt over the past week. I've been busy with other things, but for the time being, here are some photos and the setlist from Laura Cantrell's concert at the Beachland Ballroom tavern in Cleveland, Ohio on August 16. A more thorough report to follow, hopefully.)

Beachland Ballroom entrance

Laura Cantrell and band

1. What You Said
2. Early Years
3. Poor Ellen Smith
4. California Rose
5. Khaki and Corduroy
6. Letters
7. 14th Street
8. All Blue (Cheri Knight cover)
9. The Old, Old House (George Jones cover)
10. Wishful Thinking
11. Bees
12. Not the Tremblin' Kind
13. All the Same to You

Laura Cantrell and band

14. I'll Remember You (Elvis cover)
15. The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter
16. Yonder Comes a Freight Train

Laura Cantrell and Mark Spencer, with Jeremy Chatzky on bass

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


MURDERBALL (Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, 2005)

Upon learning that MURDERBALL is about quadriplegics who play wheelchair rugby, the first question that comes to mind is “How?” Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s lively documentary clears up the common misconception that quadriplegics don’t have use of their arms and then proceeds to show these athletes ramming themselves into one another in pursuit of victory on the court.

The filmmakers train their cameras on the charismatic individuals of the 2002 U.S. quad rugby team competing in the World Championships and 2004 Paralympic squad. MURDERBALL pays special attention to Mark Zupan, a muscular, tattooed star of the sport, and Joe Soares, a legend for his aggressiveness and nail-hard attitude but also an aging player who’s losing his edge. When Soares is dropped from the team, he takes a job as the captain for archrival Canada, placing the man in direct, heated competition with his former teammates.

MURDERBALL is a thorough examination of how quadriplegics go about their day-to-day lives. Most of it is shot from the perspective of being in a wheelchair, and the co-directors incorporate similar camera moves, such as court-long push-ins that introduce the various quad rugby teams. Rubin and Shapiro’s interviews range from Keith Cavill, a recently injured motocross racer coming to terms with his condition, to Soares, who has been a quadriplegic since childhood. (The degree of the players’ impairment also varies greatly. Players are ranked on a point system from .5, the most impaired, to 3.5, the least impaired. The four-man team on the court must not exceed eight points.)

MURDERBALL drives home how quad rugby gives hope to the participants, many who led active, athletic existences before their injuries and can’t envision a lifetime of sitting still. When Keith tests a wheelchair specially made for quad rugby—much to the concern of those who see him as fragile—he lights up. It’s no wonder. For someone who has spent a lifetime racing bikes—and lost his full mobility from an accident on one—the chance to continue his passion in some form may make a big difference in his recovery.

While it’s an effective sports film—there’s great potential for a terrific narrative feature based on this material—the players and their enormous spirits take precedence over the outcome of the games. MURDERBALL isn’t soaked in cheap sentiment and doesn’t soften the hard edges of the more irascible people profiled. They don’t perceive themselves as victims, and many probably don’t view themselves as role models. Still, one can’t help but be inspired by how these guys have adjusted to their circumstances and live to the fullest.

Like the players, MURDERBALL is funny and brash. It’s a deeply felt film with outsized personalities. Zupan and Soares are a combustible duo and MURDERBALL’S ostensible stars. Their hostility toward one another gives the film a terrific rivalry, but just as powerful as their enmity are the stories of their lives off the court. Zupan reunites with the friend who has never forgiven himself for getting behind the wheel in the accident that led to his injuries. Soares grapples with the fallout of his fierce competitiveness and how to accept his sports-averse son. Uplifting, informative, and energetic, MURDERBALL shreds preconceptions and entertains like few films can.

Grade: A+

(This review originally appeared in different forms in my coverage of the 2005 Cleveland International Film Festival for The Film Journal and in the program for the Deep Focus Film Festival.)

Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo


Let the war against film critics begin, at least if DEUCE BIGALOW: EUROPEAN GIGOLO star Rob Schneider has his way. In February he blasted L.A. Times critic Patrick Goldstein in a full page Variety ad. Prior to the release of the DEUCE BIGALOW sequel, Schneider went on the offensive against Roger Ebert (see the third item here). He has his work cut out for him, though, if he’s planning on going after the people giving his films bad reviews. At the time of going to print, none of the films in which he plays the lead role comes anywhere close to a “fresh” percentage (60% or greater) on the Tomatometer:

THE ANIMAL (2001): 29%
THE HOT CHICK (2002): 22%

Maybe he can take solace that David Manning was in his corner.

Unfortunately critical revulsion and the statute of limitations did not expire after six years on a DEUCE BIGALOW sequel. How tragic. Thus we get DEUCE BIGALOW: EUROPEAN GIGOLO, although in fairness to the EU, Deuce never strays outside the den of imagined iniquity that is Amsterdam.

Male prostitutes are being murdered, so under the guidance of his pimp T.J. (Eddie Griffin) Deuce resumes his gigolo ways to search for the killer. As in the first film, Deuce encounters clients who could be out of a freak show. He also finds a new love interest in the obsessive-compulsive Eva (Hanna Verboom), who is just the person to brighten his mood after months spent mourning his shark-eaten wife.

If the endless repetition of “man-whore” and gender-reversed prostitution and sex lingo (“she-john”, “mangina”) sends you into fits of laughter, then DEUCE BIGALOW: EUROPEAN GIGOLO is the movie for you. For the rest of us, though, it’s anything but a laughing matter. EUROPEAN GIGOLO is essentially a repeat of its unfunny predecessor, with a new setting and stupid murder mystery added. Most of the punchlines are visible from a distance. It’s a lazy, uninspired comedy that wallows in mean-spirited humor toward women and homosexuals. Griffin’s shtick quickly wears thin while Schneider is a non-presence.

This summer has witnessed the reemergence of quality raunchy comedies. The R-rated WEDDING CRASHERS and THE 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and the unrated THE ARISTOCRATS cleverly work blue. DEUCE BIGALOW: EUROPEAN GIGOLO recycles its lowest common denominator dirty joke even though it wasn’t very good the first time. It’s easily one of the year’s worst films.

Grade: F

(A shorter version of this review first aired on the August 16, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

The Great Raid

THE GREAT RAID (John Dahl, 2005)

In THE GREAT RAID it is 1945 and five hundred Allied prisoners of war are barely surviving their third year in a harsh Japanese camp in the Philippines. Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci, played by Benjamin Bratt, decides to lead the Sixth Ranger Battalion on a rescue mission of these men even though the operation has little to no strategic value. Joseph Fiennes is one of the POWs, and Connie Nielsen is a nurse who works with the underground to get needed medicine to the prisoners.

John Dahl’s solemn staging of the rescue mission will likely earn him points from military aficionados, but THE GREAT RAID is terminally dull. The period is lovingly recreated in detail. The battle scenes are well executed. The earnest, old-fashioned performances recall the combat films made during and after the Second World War. Dahl moves the chess pieces according to the rules, but he fails to give THE GREAT RAID a human connection. The three storylines never converge in a satisfying way, and no character garners much interest. Along with his brother Ralph, Joseph Fiennes has had ample opportunities to refine his acting of on-screen suffering. His sickly, stoic POW Major Gibson is what passes for a character of any depth; however, this comes with the huge miscalculation of adding a heaping dose of tragic, long distance romance between Gibson and Nielsen’s nurse. Whether their relationship is based in fact or not, the subplot feels like a cheap ploy to introduce a love story into a film where it is out of place. THE GREAT RAID may do an admirable job of honoring the story’s real men and women, but it’s a less than stimulating film.

Grade: C-

(A shorter version of this review first aired on the August 16, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

The Skeleton Key

THE SKELETON KEY (Iain Softley, 2005)

Hospice nurse Caroline Ellis, played by Kate Hudson, is tiring of what she sees as an uncaring system. In THE SKELETON KEY, Caroline accepts a lucrative opportunity to care for a stroke victim (John Hurt) at his big home in Louisiana swampland. She gets to provide more personal care than she could at the facility and has just an hour’s drive back to her friends and the night life in New Orleans. The patient’s wife, Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), is a little eccentric—she insists that no mirrors hang on the walls—but otherwise the job fits her fine until she finds a hoodoo room in the attic. The lady of the house claims to have never been in the room, which was used by the previous owner’s servants. Caroline’s friend reassures her that hoodoo is a harmless regional custom. Curious nonetheless, Caroline dabbles in hoodoo and begins to suspect something sinister is going on in the Devereaux home.

THE SKELETON KEY conjures a spooky atmosphere steeped in the mystique of folk magic and medicine and suspicion of the deep South. (Scratchy, old records, especially if blues albums or incantation recordings, are also scary!) In the film, hoodoo is explained as being powerless against those who do not believe. Director Iain Softley plays with the idea in fun ways, turning a routine chase into a match of wits with brick dust. In the years since her Oscar-nominated ALMOST FAMOUS role, Hudson has yet to find a character as interesting as Penny Lane. Hudson gives a credible performance in a thankless part as a caregiver who comes to believe she and her patient need protection from the supernatural. Due to a minimal cast of characters, THE SKELETON KEY leaves little room for surprise, save for a final twist that unnecessarily stretches out the conclusion and plays like a screenwriting gimmick. Ultimately, Softley’s deft handling of tone and Hudson’s effective portrayal compensate for THE SKELETON KEY’S less original and expected moments.

Grade: B-

(A shorter version of this review first aired on the August 16, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What Big Brother teaches us

If you must know, yes, I'm ashamed to watch BIG BROTHER, now in its sixth season on CBS. Watching the show can be like eating Pringles. Try as I might to restrain myself, eating a few can lead to downing most or all of a can in short time, which then leads to swearing the things off for awhile. My consumption of the insidious reality show follows the same arc: enjoy the first few episodes, keep watching for no good reason, and then giving up on it or sticking with it but being disgusted.

BIG BROTHER is one of the most mundane of all the reality shows. (It's certainly one of the least visually interesting ones, although the producers have jazzed up the house's interior decoration this season.) The cast's personalities and their interactions are the crux of the show, yet an overwhelming percentage of the time is devoted to uninteresting conversations among increasingly irritable people. It doesn't help that the houseguests tend to have the maturity levels of high schoolers or the stereotypical participants in college Greek life. Still, the train wreck appeal of their scheming and backbiting can be entertaining up to the point when all of the houseguests come off as completely unappealing.

After struggling with the format for a couple seasons, the producers have figured out the basis for each episode. Saturday nights are when two houseguests are nominated for eviction. Tuesday nights feature the competition for the power to veto a nomination. Thursday nights are focused on the eviction. Unlike SURVIVOR and THE AMAZING RACE, BIG BROTHER'S competitions are not very interesting, and the nomination process alone doesn't make for compelling television. Also unlike those other shows, anyone with access to the internet can find out who won the competitions and who has been nominated before the shows air. The television show, as opposed to the live internet feeds, are nearly worthless to the most ardent fans.

If there's one thing that drives me batty about reality shows, it's all of the self-reflexive talk about "the game" that contestants engage in. BIG BROTHER is the worst at this, probably because the houseguests have little else to do but navelgaze about their situation.

I won't even start on Julie Chen, whose irony-free hosting of the show on eviction night makes for some of the most cringe-worthy TV.

If the show has any value, it is in making this sociological observation:

We cannot abide liars.

That seems obvious enough, but what BIG BROTHER illustrates is how hardwired we are to detest lying. More than other shows of its ilk, here's one in which the gameplay is predicated on being untruthful. It doesn't matter if you have any survival skills, physical endurance, or puzzle-solving abilities. You have to be able to persuade others. While persuasion doesn't require lying, the reality of the cutthroat game is that you're going to be forced to make promises you can't keep and to hide your true intentions. Whether to indicate assent or dissent, lies of omission and commission are essential. The houseguests have little else to do but talk, usually about the game, so a strategy of 100% truthtelling is the surest way to be voted out of the house.

All of the houseguests know this--or should--yet each season people get predictably bent out of shape when the others don't tell them the truth. Typically charges of "playing dirty" are levied against the prevaricators. Oftentimes those damning the houseguest in question lie just as much. While some of it may be strategy--to deflect the target onto the accused, for instance--I think the anger and hurt is genuine. People normally react that way when lied to, and it's hard to turn off feelings of betrayal even in the context of a game.

In the case of BIG BROTHER, it may be even harder to accept lies. The confined surroundings and lack of contact with anyone but their housemates--save for questions from the producers and host--breeds an unusually high degree of intimacy mixed with distrust.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Hard-Boiled (Lashou shentan)


HARD-BOILED, director John Woo's last Hong Kong film before heading to the States, delves into the world of ruthless Hong Kong Triads. Chow Yun-Fat is Tequila, a tough, no-nonsense police detective. Crime in the city has reached a fever pitch. The police are using undercover agents to infilitrate gangs, but their lives are in jeopardy as much from their fellow officers, who are unaware of their true identities, as they are from the crime lords.

Tequila encounters Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong), a disrespectful young mob boss, and one of his newest men Tony (Tony Leung). Eventually Tequila will realize that Tony is an undercover agent. Will they be able to work together to win the battle, or will Tony have to turn on Tequila to retain his cover?

John Woo's poetically violent action sequences are his trademark, and HARD-BOILED features three stunning examples. An early scene takes place in a tearoom dotted with birdcages. A fierce gunfight breaks out. Bullets zip through the small space, and it's difficult to know exactly who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Tequila packs heat in both hands and blasts his way through the villains. It's a crackling way to begin the film. Tequila's strength is established, and Woo gives us a taste of what will follow.

The second big action setpiece is set in a warehouse. Johnny Wong's gang raids the opposition's arsenal. They descend upon the warehouse as a vicious pack on motorcycles. Again, the high-octane action is chaotic.

The third major action sequence happens in a hospital and stretches over most of the film's second half. Woo gives his heroes plenty of obstacles to overcome, including hidden chambers in the ingenious production design. Some of the scenes in the hospital are shocking because the violence spills into places we aren't used to seeing it go. Innocent patients are gunned down. A bravura display of action occurs in the baby ward. Woo balances the reprehensible actions of the gang with the protective nature of the police but doesn't let it dip into exploitation or sentimentality.

HARD-BOILED houses an excessive amount of violence, although it is well in keeping with the Hong Kong tradition that extends from the Peking Opera. Since it is stylized violence, it doesn't feel as gratuitous or glorified as it might in an American film, and in fact, the domestic pictures which have mimicked Woo's style often seem coarser and uglier. The difference is the honor and respect that the heroes and some villains have for life. At one point in the hospital Tony faces off with Mad Dog (Philip Kwok). Patients and nurses fill the space between them. Both internally know they should lay their guns down until the innocent can get out of their way. It's an unusual scene for an action picture, as is what soon happens after they put their guns down.

The duality of good and evil is a central theme in Woo's films. HARD-BOILED compares Tequila and Tony instead of juxtaposing one with the villain. Tony is working to uphold the law, but in the process he must commit murderous acts, possibly against other police officers. He's also conflicted because he must destroy the people whose trust he has gained. Tony has a fond relationship with Mr. Pang (Philip Chan), one not unlike the Joe Pistone-Lefty Ruggiero connection in DONNIE BRASCO. One senses that turning in Mr. Pang and his sons would be hard enough, but Tony must commit a far worse betrayal. In order to protect the law, Tony must knowingly kill the guilty and innocent. Tequila, on the other hand, believes he is serving the public and taking out the enemy, but unwittingly he kills those on his side. Amid the many loud action scenes, a quiet conversation between Tequila and Tony captures the core of this struggle.

Grade: B

(This is a revised version of my Criterion DVD review. Follow the link for more information on the quality of and features on the DVD.)

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Rocketeer

THE ROCKETEER (Joe Johnston, 1991)

In 1999 Joe Johnston directed a film about rocket boys (OCTOBER SKY); eight years earlier he made a movie about a rocket man. THE ROCKETEER, based on Dave Stevens’ graphic novel, is an old-fashioned adventure set in 1938 Los Angeles.

A stolen jetpack is stashed at the airfield where pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) and mechanic/engineer/inventor A. “Peevy” Peabody (Alan Arkin) work. Cliff finds the rocket-powered backpack hidden under the seat in an old plane and can’t wait to give it a whirl. Before strapping it on he wisely uses a test dummy of sorts to see how it operates. Peevy works out the pack’s design kinks and constructs a stylish helmet. When disaster threatens to strike at an air show, Cliff dons the pack and helmet to save a fellow pilot. His heroics dazzle the audience and press, and the next thing Cliff knows he’s on the front page of the paper and dubbed “the rocketeer”.

Of course, a jetpack doesn’t appear out of thin air, and soon enough the feds, gangsters, and a giant henchman are all in hot pursuit of Cliff. Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) created the contraption, and Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), the third biggest box office attraction in Hollywood, hired the tough Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) and his men to steal it. The government hoped to employ it as a military weapon in the war against the Nazis. Now they just want to get it back lest it fall into the wrong hands.

Cliff’s voluptuous girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly), an aspiring starlet consigned to non-speaking extra roles, is placed in danger when Neville learns Cliff has the jetpack. Neville charms the porcelain-skinned beauty and then abducts her to force the hero to exchange the rocket-propelled transport for the girl.

THE ROCKETEER is steeped in the 30s serials that also inspired the Indiana Jones films, and it briskly delivers one cliffhanger after another. It isn’t difficult to imagine seeing this in segments spread over several weeks with breaks at key moments, such as when Jenny is taken to Neville’s home or when the climactic battle ensues on a zeppelin. Audiences in 1938 might have greatly anticipated the next episode. Maybe that period specificity was part of its downfall at the box office as 1991 crowds shelled out a mere $46.7 million, not quite the success needed for a blockbuster or franchise starter. THE ROCKETEER isn’t as thrilling as RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or the other two Indy movies, but it possesses a uniquely innocent charm. This is the kind of movie in which someone can exclaim, “Gosh!” without drawing snickers, at least if the viewers aren’t too jaded. Those in search of a good family film would do well to sample THE ROCKETEER.

THE ROCKETEER succeeds as an origination tale even if Campbell makes for too bland of a hero to command the screen. Cliff is a straight arrow with tunnel vision, which essentially drains him of comedic possibilities, but Campbell does have a boyish sincerity that serves him well. If Campbell lacks pizzazz, Dalton makes up for it as the lusty Errol Flynn-like villain. Connelly provides a hint of the sexpot that would emerge in other roles.

The film’s most memorable aspect is its beautiful reconstruction of the period. Cliff and other pilots hang out at the Bulldog CafĂ©, an example of then popular kitsch architecture. Production designer Jim Bissell and art director Christopher Burian-Mohr bring the decade to life with lush art deco sets. (Sadly, the outstanding art deco poster used for THE ROCKETEER'S theatrical release has been replaced on the DVD cover with a conventional montage of film images.)

THE ROCKETEER is a throwback to when movie heroes weren’t burdened by irony or existential angst. Although THE ROCKETEER was an anachronism upon its release, and is probably even more of one fourteen years later, in the dedicated, workmanlike Cliff it presents the great American hero. He does whatever is necessary to protect his loved ones and his country with no regard for personal safety or glory. THE ROCKETEER may not have the coolest or most exciting hero, but the film is worth revisiting to remind us of personal qualities that never go out of style.

Grade: B-

(This is a revised version of my DVD review. Follow the link for more information on the quality of and features on the DVD.)

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Bridges at Toko-Ri

THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI (Mark Robson, 1955)

U.S. Navy reservist Lt. Harry Brubaker (William Holden) is summoned to active duty for a key mission during the Korean War in THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI. Harry struggles with the reality of being pulled from his job, home, and family, but he soldiers on with the knowledge that he has the rare skills necessary to complete a tactical air strike.

Harry’s mission has two equally dangerous components. First he and another pilot must make a reconnaissance flight over the targeted bridges and area. Then they will lead others in a risky attempt to destroy these strategically vital passageways.

Harry’s harrowing return to military duty begins when he must abandon his plane while flying over the ocean. Coming to his rescue are the hotheaded helicopter pilot Mike Forney (Mickey Rooney) and his assistant Nestor Gamidge (Earl Holliman). Rear Admiral George Tarrant (Frederic March) fears for Harry’s safety, especially since he reminds him of a son he lost during the war.

Harry receives a bit of good fortune when his politically connected wife Nancy (Grace Kelly) finagles her way to Japan. She brings their two daughters, and Harry gets to spend some time with his family before the mission commences. While this break raises his spirit, it also weighs heavily upon him as the flights loom.

Based on James A. Michener’s novel, the film tells a story modest in scale but large in impact. THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI effectively depicts the sacrifices and courage of those who went to war. An air of doom lingers over the film, and two of the most powerful scenes acknowledge the coiled despair felt by those involved. Admiral Tarrant speaks to Nancy of his losses in war and what her husband and she will be facing. This sets the stage for a melodramatic bedroom conversation she has with Harry. Kelly, luminous as always, displays the barely concealed fear that any spouse would feel in such a situation.

Holden has a silent, tragic quality that suits him well for the part. Harry recognizes the importance of his task and the inherent danger. He has difficulty reconciling the two, but ultimately he is dedicated to fulfilling what is asked of him.

Harry’s actions are brave and noble, but THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI doesn’t bludgeon us with blustery displays of patriotism or swelling string sections on the soundtrack. Instead it captures the loneliness and fear these courageous men experience. Fairly long stretches are silent except for radio transmissions. A lot of actual footage was obtained with the help of the Naval Air and Surface Forces of the Pacific fleet, and it dramatically underscores the plight of the men. Whether it’s a special mission or a comparatively routine accomplishment, such as landing a plane on an aircraft carrier whose deck may be bucking like a bronco, they must have nerves of steel to succeed and keep themselves alive. The real footage is more impressive than any CGI-created effects could have been.

Grade: B

(This is a revised version of my DVD review. Follow the link for more information on the quality of and features on the DVD.)

Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Rock

THE ROCK (Michael Bay, 1996)

Usually people attempt to break out of prison, not into it. Yet that’s exactly the challenge facing the crack team assembled by the United States government in THE ROCK.

General Francis X. Hummel (Ed Harris) is a decorated military man, but the government’s failure to acknowledge the deaths and compensate the families of some of his soldiers has driven him to desperate measures. General Hummel organizes a squad to steal poisonous gas. Next they take the tourists visiting Alcatraz hostage and set up their base on the site of the old, closed prison. They point several rockets containing the gas toward San Francisco. Hummel informs the government of his demand and intention. He orders the transfer of $100 million, which will be distributed to the families and those helping in the mission, or else he will unleash the efficiently lethal poison on an unsuspecting populace.

FBI agent Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) specializes in chemicals and is called to be part of the unit. Stanley is a straight arrow--a Boy Scout, if you will--who works well under pressure but doesn’t have much practical experience in the field. He’s used to sitting at a desk instead of penetrating a highly guarded base run by domestic terrorists. A team of Navy SEALs will assist in the siege on Alcatraz, but there’s one major problem. No one knows how to find a way around the prison, no one, that is, except for the mysterious John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery).

Mason is a British spy who was forgotten in jail and has been rotting there ever since. He is the only person to escape alive from Alcatraz, so naturally he is brought in to delineate a plan of action for traversing the Rock. The FBI superiors don’t intend for Mason to go with the squad, but as he explains, the only map he had of Alcatraz was in his head. Reluctantly, he is placed on the unit. The team lands on the island under the cover of night, beginning their attack.

THE ROCK director Michael Bay was groomed in the Jerry Bruckheimer-Don Simpson school of action picture filmmaking. (Until this summer's THE ISLAND Bruckheimer served as producer on all of Bay's films.) The kinetic camera work and quick cutting that dominate Bay's style bring a sense of urgency to the wild action scenes dispersed throughout the film.

THE ROCK'S fast pace also sets up the story in a relatively short period of time. We know the identity of the villain, who will try to thwart his efforts, and how they will go about the process. The screenplay, attributed to David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook, and Mark Rosner but honed by several others, does a sneaky thing on the way to Alcatraz. The two heroes are developed, or at least as much as one can expect for a standard action film. The action is diverted to the streets of San Francisco and a first-rate car chase. After an hour into the running time, the focus switches to the site in the movie’s title.

These things are important in that they keep the film from stretching out the time spent on Alcatraz and becoming bloated on unnecessary action scenes. The audience has invested its interest in the heroes and can enjoy the shootouts now that more is on the line.

A distinguishing characteristic of THE ROCK is the shades of gray involved with General Hummel. He could easily have been a moustache-twirling villain concocting his evil scheme and cackling the entire time but he isn’t. Hummel is infinitely more interesting because he is conflicted in his actions but feels he has no other recourse. Harris gives a marvelous performance. His steely eyes and strong cheekbones make him look like a force with which to be reckoned. Hummel is an unyielding man driven by moral certainty, and Harris comports himself in such a way to communicate this strongly.

Cage and Connery have a lot of fun in their roles. Connery gets to play James Bond if he were a politically oppressed prisoner. He has that movie star twinkle in his eyes, which shows he’s having a good time. Cage has good screen rapport with Connery, and their forged relationship is the source of many of the film’s laughs. In addition to the three major actors, THE ROCK has a healthy supporting cast of familiar character actors, including Michael Biehn, William Forsythe, and David Morse, to enliven the film.

A rousing action picture with generous dashes of humor, THE ROCK remains the much-maligned director's best film.

Grade: B+

(This is a revised version of my Criterion DVD review. Follow the link for more information on the quality of and features on the DVD.)

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Hustle & Flow

HUSTLE & FLOW (Craig Brewer, 2005)

Smalltime Memphis pimp DJay dreams of a better life in HUSTLE & FLOW. Living in one of the Dirty South and crunk hot spots, DJay, smoothly played by Terrence Howard, believes his ticket out is cutting a hip hop track. He hooks up with Key (Anthony Anderson), a producer and former classmate, and beat master Shelby (DJ Qualls) to tell of his streetwise experiences. DJay then hopes to get the tape to Skinny Black (Ludacris), a former acquaintance who ascended to rap stardom.

HUSTLE & FLOW writer-director Craig Brewer possesses considerable formal skill and a great ability for capturing location. The grainy film stock soaks up the heat and grime of Memphis. The visual style, down to the title font, references the 70s blaxploitation films that give a gritty vibe to an otherwise conventional showbiz tale. For all of its earthiness, though, it’s a slick and deceptive bit of filmmaking that uses its environmental and movie authenticity—it feels real based on other film portrayals of these character types—to scam audiences into accepting DJay as a good guy.

Credit for DJay’s seductiveness goes to Howard, a gifted actor whose unadorned performance oozes out of him like sweat from the moist southern summer. There’s a natural impulse to hope the best for DJay, not only because he’s the protagonist but also because Howard plays the part with total conviction and urgency.

HUSTLE & FLOW navigates into problematic territory when it swallows DJay’s woeful story as tragedy intended to make him sympathetic. It isn’t fair to expect a film about a pimp to take a feminist perspective. Where Brewer gets himself into trouble isn’t who and what his characters are—pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers—but in how he directs the audience to feel about them. It may be hard out there for a pimp, as the hook of DJay’s single proclaims, but it doesn’t redeem him. The film swoons when DJay and Shug (Taraji P. Henson), one of his pregnant hookers, clinch before he goes out in hopes of convincing Skinny Black to pass his tape to the right industry people. Nevermind that he has treated her with contempt through much of HUSTLE & FLOW and she is portrayed as a simple-minded woman who bends to his commands. Shug is the film’s female ideal, and their embrace is it’s romantic peak. Overlooked in all this is DJay’s casual cruelty in putting the prostitute Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) and her child on the street when she dares to challenge him.

Even more troublesome is how HUSTLE & FLOW presents the producer’s wife, Yevette (Elise Neal). She’s the only woman in the film who isn’t a hooker, yet from the outset she’s viewed as an overbearing nag. (Her first appearance is a dinner scene with Key in which she prattles on and on about work while he ignores her but humorously nods his head in affirmation.) Yevette turns out to be just another obstacle in DJay’s path to success until she does a complete turnaround and brings sandwiches to the pimp’s house during the recording sessions. Coming from a middle class existence, her behavior and blithe acceptance of the circumstances ring deeply false.

In spite of its dubious intent, HUSTLE & FLOW can be quite absorbing. The film works best when showing the intricacies of building tracks. The scenes with DJay, Key, and Shelby in the makeshift recording studio sizzle, and the songs are relentlessly catchy.

Like DJay, Brewer exhibits talent for what he does, but too much of it is in service of hogwash.

Grade: C

(A shorter version of this review first aired on the August 2, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Me and You and Everyone We Know


Miranda July’s comic musings on the search for love are found in ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW. July plays Christine, a sensitive elder cab driver who finds an outlet in performance art. John Hawkes is Richard, a lonely shoe salesman coping with a recent divorce and trying to put on a brave face for his two kids. Christine and Richard’s awkward flirtation is the main story, but ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW also touches upon a few other characters’ tentative attempts to make a connection.

If Todd Solondz were a humanist, he might make something like performance artist Miranda July's winning debut feature film. Instead of observing human foibles and determining that people are diseased creatures, she finds something affirming and hopeful. Dressed in cheerful pastels, ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW is a comic look at how people keep themselves apart, remain confused about sex and love, and desperately want human contact but are afraid or think themselves unworthy of it. The film is neatly summarized in a scene in which Christine writes “me” on her left shoe and “you” on her right shoe. She then videotapes the feet hesitantly approaching and retreating from each other. July displays an excellent visual sense, such as buttonhook transitions from the moon to a mirror’s reflected beam and a tapping penny to the moving sun.

She expertly straddles the line of edgy humor without taking it someplace really twisted. July gently skewers the art world and takes provocative jabs at sexual and emotional hang-ups. Initially ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW’S sketch-like construction may seem facile and too precious, but the slowly emerging through line leads to an emotionally affecting resolution. Similarly, Michael Andrews’ electronic score, akin to the music of The Postal Service and other laptop pop bands, sounds chilly before revealing the deeply rooted passion. Ultimately July is interested in exploring the barriers and freedom offered through technology. The digital age affords the ability to be anyone, witnessed most humorously in the film’s chat room “sex” scene, but July questions if it is worth false or absent intimacy.

Grade: A-

(A shorter version of this review first aired on the August 2, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Must Love Dogs

MUST LOVE DOGS (Gary David Goldberg, 2005)

Sarah’s sister places an online personal ad for her, Jake’s friend answers it for him, and thus the recently divorced singles are introduced in MUST LOVE DOGS. Diane Lane and John Cusack star as the potential couple in a romantic comedy that takes its title from one of the stipulations in Sarah’s ad. (It’s either a brave or foolish choice considering the easy target it gives headline writers and dissatisfied critics.) Sarah is a preschool teacher who struggles with self-worth. John, who has one of those only-in-the-movies jobs building handcrafted teak sculls, has plenty of passion but doubts he can find the right woman.

For better and worse, the pieces comprising MUST LOVE DOGS are borrowed from every other romantic comedy. The film works far too hard, and unconvincingly, to keep Sarah and Jake apart. Is it indicative of the times that in spite of technology’s ability to connect us anywhere and anytime, so many people feel isolated? How many contemporary films in this genre expend more energy separating the lovers than showing them together? One of the things I liked so much about FEVER PITCH with Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore was how the Farrelly brothers concentrated on the couple’s interactions and let the relationship grow naturally. MUST LOVE DOGS believes in instant magic, which is fine for a fantasy but insufficient for a good love story.

Despite too many “colorful” supporting characters, the obligatory montage of absurdly bad blind dates, and the impromptu group sing-a-long, MUST LOVE DOGS works because the two leads are very appealing. Lane, playing a less impulsive variation of her UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN character, makes Sarah’s confusion and desperation charming rather than insufferably cutesy. With great aplomb Cusack does another version of the soulful, intelligent guy that has been his stock in trade for twenty years. He rattles off one funny line after another. More scenes between Sarah and Jake would have improved MUST LOVE DOGS, yet in the film’s sitcom-like approach—no surprise since writer-director Gary David Goldberg created FAMILY TIES and SPIN CITY—Lane and Cusack locate the humanity that has audiences falling for this stuff no matter how familiar it is.

Grade: B-

(A shorter version of this review first aired on the August 2, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Bad News Bears

BAD NEWS BEARS (Richard Linklater, 2005)

Michael Ritchie’s 1976 comedy THE BAD NEWS BEARS, with Walter Matthau as alcoholic coach Morris Buttermaker, loses the determiner for Richard Linklater’s BAD NEWS BEARS remake starring Billy Bob Thornton. The story is essentially the same. Long past his split-second career in the majors, Buttermaker makes a living as an exterminator and decides to rake in some extra bucks coaching a team of misfits that no one else in the league will take. The kids can’t play—some have no interest in playing—and the coach is usually half in the bag during practice and on game day.

Although BAD NEWS BEARS is not a shot-for-shot remake of the original, it is strikingly similar to the point where its existence is hard to defend. Considering all the failed de facto rip-offs (KICKING & SCREAMING, REBOUND) that have softened the hard edges, maybe revisiting the source of inspiration is reason enough. Working from Bill Lancaster’s original screenplay, BAD SANTA screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa update references—Buttermaker takes the kids to Hooters to celebrate, one kid is on the Atkins diet--and tailor the insults, slurs, and swearing to tolerable standards in today’s political environment. Kids saying inappropriate things may not please parents, but nevertheless, it’s funny. Thornton does a PG-13 riff on his BAD SANTA character to hilarious effect. His performance as the gruff, apathetic Buttermaker goes a long way in justifying the remake. As in SCHOOL OF ROCK, Linklater employs non-professional child actors, although he gets diminishing returns in BAD NEWS BEARS. Linklater’s films frequently sympathize with the outsiders and losers, which must have attracted him to this project. The fighting and hazing among the young baseball players recall the actions of the high school students in DAZED AND CONFUSED. They may not grow up to be tomorrow’s leaders, but as Buttermaker discovers with his band of outcasts, the kids are all right.

Grade: B-

(A shorter version of this review first aired on the August 2, 2005 NOW PLAYING)