REVIEW: "Sahara"

Adventuresome NUMA sea-explorer/relic-hunter Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) is chasing down a priceless historical curiosity with his sidekick Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) when they come upon a lovely do-gooder (Penelope Cruz) chasing down evil and corruption on roughly the same road. This turns out to be exceedingly fortunate for her, as Pitt is an explorer in the “Indiana Jones” vein and thus equally proficient with guns, slugfests and other sundry derring-do as he is at treasure-hunting. Much shooting and chasing ensues as secrets are unearthed, bad guys are dispatched and jokes are cracked.

The above not only describes the basic outline of “Sahara” but also the basic outline of nearly every adventure Pitt undertakes in Clive Cussler’s massive series of novels starring the character. Therefore, it’s understood that this film, an adaptation of Cussler’s first Pitt novel, is intended not merely as one movie but as the “pilot” for a hoped-for series of Cussler/Pitt-adaptations. (Don’t think for a minute that the phrases “the next James Bond!!!!!” didn’t cross any lips as this was being greenlit.)

For this first go-round, the Big Shiny drawing Pitt’s attention is a Civil War ironclad that may or may not have floated all the way to Africa and up a river that was eventually absorbed into the Sahara desert. Cruz is on hand as a World Health Organization doctor tracking the outbreak of a mysterious plague in the same region. Lennie James as a vicious African warlord and Lambert Wilson as a leering French industrialist are the bad guys who fight with the zeal of those unaware that Pitt has something like twenty-or-more books ahead of him.

Cussler is, apparently, less-than-thrilled with the film, but it matches the source at least in that it’s entirely a like-it-or-leave-it endeavor: However you usually feel about films in which handsome adventurers dig up treasure and shoot it out with villians in exotic far-flung locales is likely to be how you feel about “Sahara.” Let it be said, then, that McConaughey makes a suitable adventurer if perhaps a touch less refined than his incarantion in the books, and that the film delivers it’s promised action if perhaps a touch over-edited. Penelope Cruz has yet to deliver a single truly noteworthy onscreen performance, and that she continues her streak here is demonstrable of the hype of her being “the Latina Julia Roberts” was absolutely spot-on in all the ways they didn’t want.

Since the film IS, after all, a long (but briskly-paced,) advertisement for MORE Dirk Pitt films, it’s central action falls into a “you like this? wanna see more?” groove and runs with it: Pitt and Giordino get into scrapes, think their way out with (usually) explosive/entertaining results, and meanwhile their gruff but lovable benefactor (William H. Macy) frets about all the equipment their busting up but still shows himself to be a winking co-hero in his own right by shaking down beaurocrats to help the boys out. It’s obvious that the film is pitching all of this as something they’ve got more of if you want it, and that’s okay because it’s at least being honest.

Here’s the bottom line: The audience that’s going to like this is going to like this. You know who you are. You saw the trailer, maybe you were familiar with the books, you saw Pitt riding that sand-sailing rig he builds out of an old wrecked plain, you said “hey, that looks kinda cool!” It is kinda cool, and you won’t be sorry you saw it. The boxoffice will decide if Pitt heads off into a sequel, but for now you could do a lot worse than this one.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

Pope movie?

So…

Now that Pope John Paul II has passed, how long do you think it will be before we start hearing about the movie of his life going into production? I’m guessing within the year.

I mean, it’s not hard to see that this is good fodder for a big oscar-bait epic biopic, no? Growing up in war-torn Poland? Presiding over the massive shift from pre to post-Vatican II Catholicism? Confronting, in his twilight years, the HUGE scandal of child-molesting priests (which may or may not have been the long-simmering “dark secret” occuring during much of his reign?) All the grandiosity and pomp and pagentry that goes along with the Vatican and Catholic imagery in general? This is an easy mark, and some enterprising producer is going to jump on it. You heard it here first.

Having said that, to me the following foue questions become mandatory of any prospective “Pope movie.” They are as follows:

Who will play the Pope? The role of the “aged” Pope would be a big, showy role that would likely draw just about every high-class older actor looking for that swan-song Oscar part… but is that the way to go? If the film plans to cover the earlier life using one actor, perhaps a middle-aged performer in old-age makeup? Either way, for me Ian Holm leaps immediately to mind for some reason, as does perrenial chameleon Gary Oldman. And Anthony Hopkins would of course be on any such list. Longshots, but would be brave and probably brilliant: Wallace Shawn, James Woods, Sir Ian McKellan. (the role of the “young” pre-Pope would, of course, be the place to let a rising young talent show off his stuff in a big debut.) This was also a major world political figure during some pretty major times, and thus any film would be RIFE with big roles. Presuming that this would be a big part of the film, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton, Gorbechav, Castro, Thatcher, Mother Theresa and any number of important Catholic figures are likely to show up and provide great cameo material for actors to chew on. This could be the “Aviator” of church movies.

Who directs? The usual-suspects of high-end historical dramas and oscar bait would definately be clawing over one-another to make this. Ron Howard would toss his hat in the ring, I imagine, and maybe even Mel Gibson. The Miramax/Merchant-Ivory usual suspects, etc. Filmmakers from countries without a strong Catholic/Christian bent might be the best way to go, so that they could bring a freshness and discovery to this story and iconography that everyone knows… imagine the sights of Vatican architecture as seen by Shekar Kapur, or the pagentry of Catholic ceremonies as presented by Zhang Yimou. My dream picks: Oliver Stone or Paul Verhoeven, in that order. But ONLY if they got script-approval.

Real Vatican or Fake Vatican? It’d be a BIG publicity coup (plus a likely budget-buster) for the film to be able to say “shot on location in the real Vatican city.” But any such shoot would be strictly controlled by the church, which considers the city holy ground, and they would likely demand a say over what is allowed to take place in the film which would almost certainly hamper the ability to tell a compelling story (as opposed to the reverent whitewash the Mother Church would undoubtedly prefer.) Thus, constructing the various landmarks and interiors as sets would probably have to be done, which could push the budget so high that it might harm the chances of actually making the film at all.

Controversy? And here’s the big one. There’s no doubt that there’s PLENTY of story points with which to paint an entirely rosy, entirely happy and fawning story of the man and the office he holds: A resistance member in WWII Poland, a “reformer” Pope, a warrior against the Iron Curtain, a humanitarian, an ally of Mother Theresa, etc… But films thrive on conflict and, sadly, the “good parts” aren’t the whole story. The same “reformer” who implemented the radical reforms of Vatican II, brought Catholics and Jews together and issued the landmark pronouncements absolving Galileo and Darwin also became the hardline traditionalist resisting the calls for the Church to evolve in their views on women in the priesthood, birth control and gay rights. And, of course, it is now known that the Church for several DECADES of his reign was engaged in a massive coverup, possibly to VERY high levels, of a sex-abuse scandal of epic proportions. Any film that does not address these issues along with all of the good would be, in my opinion, seriously flawed as works of historical biography go; though the temptation to make such a “whitewash” version will be pretty high with the man now deceased and many feeling that brining up such would be “in bad taste.” So, will whoever makes the film be brave enough to confront the WHOLE story?

Those are my thoughts. I’d like to hear yours.

REVIEW: Sin City

Here is the world of “Sin City”: The law is entirely ineffective. The government is entirely corrupt. The clergy is entirely evil. Prostitutes are warrior-queens, angels and goddesses-incarnate. Thugs, killers and fallen cops are knights in shining armor. The closer a character is to the image a monster, the more likely he is to be a hero. The closer a character is tied to the spectre of organized religion, the more likely he is to be irredeemably villianous.

I love documentaries, don’t you?

Based on Frank Miller’s epic series of noir-style graphic novels and directed by Robert Rodriguez (with an assist from Quentin Tarantino,) is not only like nothing you’ve ever seen before, it’s like nothing thats ever been attempted before. Not satisfied to simply translate the plot and prose from Miller’s work, Rodriguez literally throws a nearly panel-for-panel translation of the material onto the screen. Part digital-trickery, part CGI-animation and part tough-guy ultra-cast, “Sin City” exists as a visual experiment that appears born full-grown; alert, aware and sure of itself. The known world, the familiar personas of famous actors and reality itself are here all molded like primordial clay to be exactly as the omnipotent director imagines them to be, and while Rodriguez has famously abandonned film for high-end digital video, what he does here is filmmaking at it’s purest form.

The film, set in the titular fictional city tracks three storylines, each occuring out of sync with real time but all joined by setting and by a unifying story-arc: Three men, all damaged and cast from society in their own way, all embarked quests of horrifying violence, all in the name of the women they love. In one, A hulking, superhumanly-strong semi-psychotic thug (Mickey Rourke) tears the city limb from limb on a quest to solve and avenge the murder of the hooker (Jamie King) who has made him feel like a man for the first time. In another, A razor-wielding, gunslinging vigilante killer (Clive Owen) joins with the city’s army of saintly, sexy Amazonian prostitutes in their war against the pimps and mobsters who would enslave them and the cops who’d let it happen. And last, a framed cop (Bruce Willis) must protect a stripper who owes him her life (Jessica Alba) from a pedophile psychopath bent on vengeance (Nick Stahl.) At the center of the whirlpool is a ruthless family dyansty woven through the Church and the Government that rules Sin City with an iron fist.

Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is THE movie to beat in 2005. With the coming of “Sin City,” the “bar” for hard action, sizzling romance, jaw-dropping violence and raw visual poetry has been raised another notch, and there’s no turning back. The envelope is not just pushed, the envelope is hacked, shredded and burned into oblivion, it’s ashes scattered to the four winds. Just as the science fiction and fantasy genres find themselves existing in the Post-“Lord of The Rings” era, so now will action/crime movies find themselves feeling the shockwaves of “Sin City” for years to come.

To say that the film is “unrealistic” is to miss the mark entirely… reality is not even an issue here. This is a world born of the movies, now returned to the movies. The real name of the town is “Basin City”, and the name is appropriate: All of the crime, noir and action stories of film eras past have seemingly flowed into a single basin, and from this evolutionary soup a new animal has emerged. Born of a billion myriad influences, from pulp comics to radio dramas to film noir to Dick Tracy to Batman, from Cagney to Mitchum to Eastwood to Bogart, from Lang to Huston to Coppola to Miike, from Spillane to Hammet to, well, to Frank Miller… the only influence “Sin City” requires absolutely NOTHING from is our “reality.”

Instead, the film has it’s own vision of “reality,” it’s own rules of nature, of science and even of morality: The world of Sin City is like the Dark Ages breaking out in the Depression… freed from the need to be “real,” it’s characters become through exaggerated costumes and makeup and even more exaggerated acting and dialogue god-sized archetypes of heroism and villiany in a world where the terms “good” and “evil” are entirely alien. The “law of the street” becomes a machine-age Code of Chivalry, leg-breakers and cops hard enough to scare Dirty Harry himself become Knights Errant and traditional symbols of “good” like Senators, Cardinals and innocent, bible-reading choirboy farmers become demons, ogres and (literal) man-eaters.

This is, immediately, the best new film now playing in this country.

This is the big one.

This is the one that’ll still be worth talking about a year from now.

This is the one we still will be talking about a year from now.

This is the one you can’t afford to miss.

This is the one that you need to see, regardless of how you eventually find it. You may love it. You may despise it. But you must experience it.

FINAL RATING: 10/10