REVIEW: The Longest Yard (2005)

The original “Longest Yard” is one of those fun 70s comedies pitched sharply at the angry young-male audience which is today somewhat obscure because it was made in the 70s, when angry young-male films still sported the “harsh” vocabularly and visual sensibility OF angry young-males, and thus is now unable to be replayed into classichood on TBS. You may, or may not, remember that the film starred Burt Reynolds as an imprisoned former NFL star roped into assembling a team of fellow convicts to play an exhibition game against the prison guards.

Reynolds, viewed as he was at that point in his career as an icon of the old-fashioned alpha-manhood which was visibly dying out in the popular culture of the time, was perfectly cast at the time, and the film (while imperfect) struck a certain cynical chord: The prison as a microcosm of an increasingly socially-regimented (what would come to be called “politically correct”) modern society, guards as the ultimate image of The Authorities, and prisoners (embodied by Reynolds) as the rugged American individualist of old, struggling against both to retain manhood and the last semblance of honor.

The remake has Adam Sandler in the Reynolds role, and moves the story to the present where a “rugged iconoclast” like ex-Quarterback Paul Crewe would be even MORE out of place and, thusly, the story should probably be even MORE cynical, bleak and harsh about it’s comedy. Especially considering how much more… “dark” our collective view of prison is after “OZ.” But, then, you knew that wasn’t going to happen: Despite the decidedly R-rated “sophistication” and sensibilities of the average 13 to 18 year-old audience that Sandler caters to, they’re barred from R-rated movies.

Thus, we here have a film set in a prison, with a cast that is collective supposed to range from 30 to about 80 years-old, featuring “prison bitches,” billy-club beatings, and a football game featuring steroid-juiced guards versus a gaggle of psychos, arsonists and thugs… thats been forcibly nuetered down to only the most broad implications of it’s real story and events. In other words: Here’s another “PG-13” comedy that’s really only in theaters as an infomercial for it’s own “UNCUT AND UNRATED!!!!” DVD double-dip six months from now.

Drummed out of the NFL for alleged point-shaving, Crewe is jailed after taking out his frustrations on the expensive car of the haughty society gal who’d claimed him as a trophy husband. The warden, (James Cromwell,) wants him to get the cons together as a test-team against his semi-pro Guard squad. At first he’s just going with the flow, but wouldn’t you know that Crewe finds identity and redemption in turning his motely crew into athletes. And would you be surprised if I told you that, at the height of this redemption, Crewe is suddenly faced with a choice that not only mirrors his past indiscretions but might even enable him to atone for them? Didn’t think so.

The biggest issue here is that the filmmakers seem convinced that EVERY sports film automatically must be eventually uplifting and heroic… and thats against the nature of the material here, which is only partially-heroic but mostly belongs in the realm of angry cynicism: The whole edgy appeal of the prison movie genre, the graying of societal structures and concepts of “good” and “evil” in an entire community of criminals, is swallowed up in a structure that wants to be (the teen-boy comedy version of) sentimental and life-affirming. It just doesn’t fit: You can’t make “Saving Private Ryan” out of “M*A*S*H*”.

This isn’t to say that it’s not funny, it is, but completely forgettably so: There’s nothing here that sticks, not even when things start to get all “serious” in the last act. Most of the time, the film is underrcut by the “mandates” of being “an Adam Sandler film” instead of “a film with Adam Sandler”: Fat jokes, gay jokes, genital-slapstick and the obligatory Rob Schneider “you can do it!” cameo all show up to distract and derail. Reynolds is also here, now aging gracefully and playing a character who must be pushing 70 but still looking more like an NFL player than Sandler can manage to, another BIG flaw.

Not bad, not even awful… but just not much at all, sadly.


About cloning, movies and cloning movies…

Been watching the news these last few days? I sure have. Been seeing a lot of John McCain on TV? Me too.

McCain is on the tube these days for two big reasons: Showtime has a movie about him, “Faith of Our Father,” coming out; and he’s the big-brain behind this “fillibuster compromise” business. The big-picture translation of all this television convergence around the media’s favorite Republican not named Schwarzenegger is, of course, that the race for the 2008 GOP presidential nominee is ON in a big way, and McCain wants to be IT.

More power to him, I say. I like McCain. Nice fellow. He’s completely, utterly wrong on the censorship issue, but aside from that I like the guy.

The fillibuster fight has been one of the more unfortunate political spectacles of recent months, as it’s mostly boiled down to the following: The Democrats holding up the vote a smattering of judicial nominees via fillibuster, a somewhat underhanded use of Senate loopholes to get their way. The Republicans responded with the threat of using their own somewhat underhanded use of Senate loopholes to get their way. Just because Democracy works doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant to watch. In any case, McCain got together 7 of his guys and 7 of the other guys, enough votes to lay a smackdown on either side, and hammered out a deal by which the GOP agrees to jettison 7 out of 10 of the contested Bush-nominee judges, and the Dems agree that they can keep using the fillibuster but ONLY in “extraordinary circumstances.”

Naturally, no one in the Senate or media would be crass enough to actually use the word “Abortion” in any of this, but thats exactly what this is ALL about. The whole of Washington is still largely convinced that it was the combined forces of anti-gay and anti-choice “values voters,” (aka “The Religious Right”) that won the day for the 2nd Bush term, and tops on the list of the “values” gang’s wishlist is the dream of Dubya appointing an anti-choice justice to the Supreme Court. Everybody got that? Anyone who tries to tell you that any of the other Conservative got-to issues have got jack to do with this is misinformed or blowing smoke up your tush: Bush (and, by extrapolation, his likely judicial picks) is in terms of economics the equal of any Democrat on government spending, and he stands to the left of Hillary Clinton on illegal immigration. The GOP agenda right now is almost-entirely devoted to pleasing religious “conservatives”. To any of y’all who consider yourself old-school, mainline, small-government conservatives, the GOP does not care much about you right now.

So, then, the judicial fight is all about judges who may or may not bring religious fundamentalism into their decisionmaking, and with the McCain “deal” the anti-choice side basically loses this round big time. Anyone with political saavy or an inside track in this can spell it for you: “extraordinary circumstances” translates nicely to “the moment Bush nominates a ‘pro-life’ judge to the Supreme Court.” I’m not telling anyone how they should feel about this, but me, I’m exhaling a big sigh of relief. If you’ve been reading this site for awhile, you’re not surprised.

Anyhow, that was the start of a really bad week for the so-called “religious right.” Gut-check #2 came today, as the House passed a bill to expand embryonic stem cell research. You remember embryonic stem-cell research, right? It’s the bold new field of medical research that scientists strongly suspect may hold the secret to curing all kinds of massive health problems, currently under severe restriction in the U.S. (thus leading us to fall rapidly behind much of Europe and Asia in terms of this science) because the president and the ideological fundamentalists with which he keeps company believe that life begins at conception. Remember that? Well, the House has voted, largely across party-lines, to strip away much of his restrictive ban. Bush has threatened a veto, which would be his first. CNN has details here:

Now, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that holding back beneficial medical research for everyone in the name of some people’s personal religious beliefs is at all wrong or grotesquely un-American, but to my mind we should really be level and fair about this: If we can hold up medical science because they believe embryos might have souls, where can I fill out a petition to ban all logging and construction in the pacific northwest because the woodlands there might be the home of Bigfoot? (and before you zip on down the “comments” button, yes, I do in fact believe in God. And Bigfoot.)

The terms neither side wants to use in regards to the stem-cell issue is “cloning.” Most of the stem-cell scientists agree that the eventual easiest and cleanest way to get them would be to clone embryonic-stage cells to harvest stem cells en masse, (it’s called “theraputic cloning”) but as this would involve the dreaded “human cloning” notion it’s still under heavy ban because, um… well, because cloning is “spooky” and makes people think of mad-scientists and bad movies. And speaking of bad movies…

…into the cloning fray comes the latest from Michael Bay, a “serious” Science Fiction film called “The Island.” Essentially a complete knockoff of a forgotten 70s scifi-paranoia stinker called “Parts: The Clonus Horror,” here we’ve got a film where an eeeeeevil corporation is keeping copies of the rich and famous on an island so they can chop them up for parts as needed. This is, of course, a Michael Bay film after all and the trailers make it abundantly clear that this is mainly the setup to get a cast full of otherwise-talented actors into car chases, always right around sunset.

But hey, I’m sure that “The Island” will be met by the American people with rationality and calm, and that the country certainly will understand that islands full of xeroxed Ewan McGregors getting vivisected is exactly the opposite of what theraputic cloning entails, and that the opportunistic Religious “Right” will definately not invoke the name of this film whenever they try to hold back the medicines which could one day save MY life, or yours, or your loved ones. Right?

I mean… wherever we fall on this issue, the majority of us are intelligent enough NOT to derive our socio-political beliefs from Michael Bay movies… aren’t we?

Time Magazine’s new Top 100 list

Time Magazine got it’s main film critics, Richard Schickle and Richard Corliss, together to do yet another one of those “Top 100 Films” lists. By this point, these usually aren’t all that interesting, as you’re mostly just going to see the same 95 “mandatory classics” crop up alongside a sampling of 5-or-so “offbeat” picks over and over again. But this time, using their own subjective criteria and eschewing numerical rankings, Schickle and Corliss have come up with one of the better lists I’ve seen in a long while.

Check it out here:

The usual “shocker” with these is what gets left off the list, here the pleasant surprises are what got ON there: “Aguirre,” “Drunken Master II,” “The Fly,” “Lord of The Rings,” “Brazil,” “Once Upon a Time in The West” and “A Touch of Zen” all made the cut, which is pretty darn cool if you were to ask me.

REVIEW: Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of The Sith

Minor SPOILERS follow.

How do you do this?

How do you find SOMETHING new to say about “Star Wars” that no other reviewer, especially on the web, has said before? By now, everything… every experience of every type of fan of every age of every concievable style of “entry” to the series has been stated, crystalized, dismantled and analyzed to the point of pure repetition.

Yes, the original SW was the film that changed everything. It created the modern film world we now occupy, it turned scifi/fantasy into THE blockbuster genre, and so on and so forth. Is there anyone left who doesn’t already realize this? That isn’t already sick of hearing it? The Joseph Campbell connection? The Buddhist influence? Is there really nothing left to say about “Star Wars,” the defining film of my entire generation, other than to simply review the “last” installment and then walk away?

I’m afraid so. The fact is, Star Wars: The Phenomenon had already been picked to the bones of all it’s deeper meanings, ramifications, etc. long before the mid-1990s rolled around and brought with it the lamentable “Special Editions,” in which series creator George Lucas literally hacked the soul out of his creation in what now seems like nothing less than ritual slaughter fortelling the disaster of the Prequels.

And since then, it’s all been downhill. The Prequels have been an unmitigated calamity, Lucas threatens to wreck the originals even more in the future, and now even as Episode III finally arrives to give us the first/last word on Vader, the Universe and everything not even the greatest filmmaking effort of all time (which Ep3 most certainly is not) could not change what now seems to have been the unhappy ending we’ve been on course for since Greedo fired first: What used to be the lynchpin franchise of sf/f filmmaking has toppled from Cinema Olympus and is now limping to an all-to-mortal close. The only thing left to say is goodbye.

So then, we come to Episode III, and it’s my sad duty to report to you that while this is indeed far and away the very best of the Prequel Trilogy, that’s still not to say that it’s “good.” All of the things that were “good” in Eps 1 and 2; the effects, the action scenes, the art design, are all still good. All the stuff that was bad; the dialogue, the pacing, the characters, the script, the plot, the continuity, thats all still bad. Ep3 works better than it’s predecessors for no better reason than that it contains “more” of the good and “less” of the bad by volume. So, while we still have a pretty sorry excuse for a “Star Wars” movie, we also have a good-enough excuse for a summer action entry. At this point, thats all even the most fervent fans can realistically hope for.

What’s most refreshing about Ep3, in comparison to the other prequels, is the enjoyable pace and which it moves: It has a lot of ground to cover, does so with great efficiency, and only gets boring in small spots. In fact, this strength on it’s part probably hurts the whole notion of the Prequel Trilogy more than anything: EVERYTHING major plotwise that has occured over the arduous first and second prequels is either re-capped, re-staged or discarded as unimportant here, and essentially the process renders “Phantom Menace” and “Attack of The Clones” as largely pointless in the long run. Anakin Skywalker’s “fall” happens here based entirely on events that happen within this one film, with the BAREST mention of anything thats come before. The whole “important” arc of his character happens here, and as a result our prior adventures with him now seem to have just been marking time. Death of his mother in 2? Promise to free all slaves in 1? Nope, here it’s a reccuring nightmare about an entirely new tragedy that mainly leads to the Dark Side. Those lingering mysteries about, say, Sifo Dyas? Apparently not worth answering.

What works are the action scenes, the big-scale sequences of laser-rifles and lightsabres. And even these, while impressive, are strictly “pretty good” for the modern action canon: The big scale fantasy battles just can’t clear the bar as raised by the now-completed LOTR films, and the saber-duels, while a lot of fun, are starting to look just this side of “so what?” after “Hero” and even some of the more stylish moments of “Kill Bill.” Often, Lucas has devoted so much time to the dancing details of his elaborate digital backdrops that the action scenes become confusing jumbles of bouncing pixels. The big final duel between Anakin and Ob-Win, set on a planet of boiling lava, packs the expected visual punch thankfully… so long as niether of them are talking.

The dialogue… oh, the dialogue. If you thought Ep2’s romantic dialogue was tin-eared and trite, just get a load of the musings on political theory on display here. Congratulations, “The Interpreter,” you no longer sport the dopiest exchanges over action versus diplomacy in any film this year. It’s expected that this stuff bogs down the senate scenes, but for it to become the base-argument for the big lava-world sabre fight fans have been so eager to see is a bad decision squared.

But, dammit… it’s not all that bad. “Star Wars” is fallen, yes, but that happened waaay back in 1997 with the special editions and it can’t be laid entirely on this film. It all ends with a whimper, not a bang, but it’s worth seeing overall.. and yes, that last shot is pretty killer.


REVIEW: Mindhunters

What would Agatha Christie think if she knew that the “isolated-location/big-cast/unknown-killer” breed of murder mystery she perfected would one day unwitting loose upon the world what is now called the “slasher movie?” Perverse as it may be to think of linking, however broadly, the lineage of Jason Vorhees to that of Hercule Poirot, the proof is inescapable. And now we have “Mindhunters,” which at first resembles a lurid police procedural before revealing itself as yet another variation on the same themes and beats all descending from “Friday the 13th,” which in turn descends from the unbroken line of such stories going all the way back to “Ten Little Indians,” “The Mousetrap” and the like. The only question that really remains, for me, is whether it’s Christie or the genre itself that owes the other the bigger apology.

A mixed bag of an improbably dopey script and a collection of gleefully elaborate (and equally improbable) murder sequences, “Mindhunters” is exactly the sort of project that typicall screams out for the hand of director Renny Harlin. A talented visual technician, Harlin has for a long time excelled in helping bad projects become uneven but frequently entertaining movies (see “Deep Blue Sea.”) This is not to say that “Mindhunters” is good, but that what moments of actual fun and overall competent execution it has are likely Harlin’s doing.

This film has been sitting on the shelf at Dimension for about three years now. You can tell it right away in that it’s cast of main characters, a team of FBI agents-in-training, are all Profilers which, you’ll remember, was the law enforcement branch that most fascinated Hollywood three years ago, before “CSI.” If this was a new film, they’d all be in forensics. Oh, well…

In any case, the premise of the film is that this team of undergrad-agents (roll call: Hot Chick, Smart Chick, Wheelchair Guy, Nice Guy, Cool Guy, Nerdy Guy, Black Guy, Christian Slater, etc.) are all having their big profiling “final exam” under hardass mentor Val Kilmer, and why yes, he IS an agency lone-wolf known for “unorthodox methods.” Go fig, huh? The big test involves the team being dumped overnight on a big model-city on an offshore island, where they will attempt to profile a made-up killer called “Puppetmaster” based on clues staged by Kilmer. But the “game” is over before it begins: One of the team is killed by an elaborate booby-trap, and the writing is on the wall: There’s a killer among us, no way out, and so on and so forth.

You can plot it out from there: Characters argue, make up, accuse, theorize, bond, split up, etc., traps are sprung and kills are made at the usual rate, until there are few enough surviving characters for one of them to be revealed as the baddie at which point the film devolves into A.) a shootout B.) a fistfight C.) yet another reworking of “playing possum D.) all of the above.

If nothing else, the film is honest and upfront about it’s increasingly implausible murder-traps being the stars of the show, and even more honest about how ridiculous such stuff has had to become in order to show us something new: In a rare moment of pure, refined self-honesty on the part of a B-grade thriller, the “inititial”trap is set off by, yes, a row of falling dominos. As the film progresses, characters bite it at the mercy of electrified flooding, spear guns, rigged pistols and even an eye-popping “are you KIDDING!?” moment involving a new-millenium variation on exploding cigars.

It goes without saying, naturally, that you can easily spot the killer by asking yourself which character seems to have the least reason to exist in the film otherwise; and it’s equally true that you might even guess the killer’s motive by asking yourself what the stupidest possible explaination for becoming a serial killer might be. Coincidentally, a movie theater marquee thats part of the fake-town’s decor constantly advertises a showing of “The Third Man,” a reference which never pays off as cleverly as it might have.

Oh, one more thing. Since I heard a lot of people doing the “who’s that!!??” bit over the attractive brunette, for the record: The actress is Patricia Velasquez, whom you might remember as Anak Su-namun from the “Mummy” movies. Yeah, “the one in the dress,” now you remember.


REVIEW: Monster-In-Law

Ladies and gentleman, the dog-race for the very worst movie of 2005 is on and “Monster-In-Law” has left the gate with such a tremendous lead that all the other dogs can see of it is a very, very tiny speck that kinda resembles a very, very awful movie. We’re doubtless to see many more bad films this year, (I’m looking at YOU, latest-Hillary-Duff-vehicle!,) but right now asking me if I can imagine that any of them will be worse than “Monster-In-Law” is going to produce the same reaction as asking a similar question of an immediate survivor of Chernobyl. This film is unfit for human consumption. It’s so bad that I’d worry about bringing copies of it too close to other films for fear that they may begin to suck merely from the exposure. It’s bad at a radioactive level. It belongs in a lead-lined vault buried somewhere near the Mantle, not in a multiplex where poor unsuspecting innocents might accidentally catch a glimpse of it.

What we’ve got here is an unofficial gender-flipped third sequel to “Meet the Parents”, with Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda in the Stiller and DeNiro roles. Lopez is playing Charlotte (“Charlie”,) The Greatest Human Being in The Known Universe: a working-class California gal who solves people’s problems, walks dogs, temps at a doctor’s office, coaches little-league, is a fine artist, a mega-talented designer of clothing, spends quality time with her genre-mandated Gay Best Friend and Snarky Semi-Punk Chick Best Friend and through it all always remains looking exactly like Jennifer Lopez at her music-video best. The prologue, where Charlie’s spaceship from the planet Krypton crashes just outside a small farm in Kansas, must have been cut for time and will hopefully pop up as an extra on the DVD.

15-year screen-absentee (and recent Skoal surprise free-sample recipient) Jane Fonda has the DeNiro role as Viola, the fabulously famous and wealthy veteran television hostess (not at all inspired by Barbara Walters) who just so happens to be both the mother of Kevin, the handsome doctor Charlie has just gotten engaged to, and a world-class harpy. Viola has just been forcibly-retired in favor of a younger model (because, as we all know, daytime television places NO special value on the older female demographic whatsoever. Yup, sure) thus unleashing booze-and-pills-fueled fury which we can only assume must have been there to begin with because, well… because she’s a rich showbiz divorcee’ and thats how rich showbiz divorcee’s “just are” in brainless, cliche-ridden romantic comedies.

Ahem. In any case, Viola despises Charlie immediately for no good reason. Oh, to be sure, there are little scene-to-scene throwaway jokes that suggests she’s too devoted to her son, or has a problem with Charlie’s lower-class status, or is even a bigot. Any of those, especially the bigotry angle, would make for a more interesting movie and maybe even some needed character-complexity, but c’mon… Interesting!? Complexity!!?? I mean, it IS a Jennifer Lopez movie, after all. So basically, Viola hates Charlie because it enables situations where the two actresses can yell at eachother because, apparently, we’ve all been waiting to see Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda have it out. Wait… you mean you haven’t been waiting your whole life to see Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda have it out?? What’s wrong with you!? We’ve all been waiting for this, the studio said so! Didn’t you get the memo?

So there’s your movie: Viola schemes to bust up the wedding the “kill her with kindness” way, and Charlie strikes back only to find that Viola’s ability to fight dirty is kinda considerable. Someone should’ve told her not to pick fights with anyone who’s ever “chilled” with the Viet Cong, lest you find they’ve picked up some combat tips during the stay. Ahem.

This is, without a doubt, just the most impossible-to-invest-interest-in “battle” this side of the Green Party Candidate nomination process. These two characters are vapid, empty ciphers, and the most below-average WWE storyline gives it’s combatants more definitive reasons to fight than this film can muster up. Charlie and Viola aren’t people, they’re “types.” The battle isn’t Charlie versus Viola or even Lopez versus Fonda, it’s Rich Career Woman versus Earthy Confident Latina; when they finally come to blows late in the final act, one half expects the loser’s head to pop off “Rockem-Sockem-Robots”-style.

The only person in the film with less going on than Charlie and Viola is Kevin, who typifies the romantic comedy genre’s complete and utter disdain for men: What does he think about the situation? About anything? We don’t know, because the movie doesn’t care. He’s veiwed entirely as the sum of his two-word character description of “Handsome Doctor,” seems entirely unaware of the raging hatred between the women in his life and entirely powerless to do anything about it. Surely, since Viola is such an obsessively doting mother, a single stern word from him could end the ridiculous “war,” but he’s never once clued-in on any of the shenanigans. It would, you see, be highly un-P.C. to let the husband-to-be have anything to do with resolving the problem as it would deprive us of the chance to revel in the glow of the “strong, self-assured women” in the leads. Oh, it might also actually be funny, too.

And thats the biggest problem: There’s no romance or comedy in this romantic comedy. It’s just weak comebacks and retorts between unlikable leads played by (mostly) unlikable actresses. Most comedies want their audiences to laugh, “Monster-In-Law” merely wants the vile crossection of “humanity” for whom “J-Lo” serves as some kind of role-model to recline back in their seats and spout Pavolian “Mmmmm HM!’s” and “you GO GIRL!’s” whenever she finishes what passes for a line.

“Monster-In-Law” isn’t funny, it isn’t nice to look at, it’s not engaging and has not a single noteworthy moment of decent filmmaking. This is not a movie, this is an open wound on the skin of moviemaking. It’s rotten. It’s diseased. It’s toxic. Avoid this movie like you’d avoid a rabid bear or a paroled serial-rapist. Avoid it like you’d avoid a one-way airline ticket to Iraq. On a Valuejet plane. With the phrase “The Prophet Was A Girlie-Man” painted on it’s wings.


REVIEW: Unleashed

If you’ve seen any major Action film (or any film targeted at a male audience) over the last year or so, you have probably seen the sublimely-cut trailer for “Unleashed.” One of the year’s best, this particular trailer does a fine job of selling the audience on the idea that this will be a big-budget Jet Li actioner also “punctuated” by some dramatic moments that will allow the martial-arts superstar to display some more subtle acting chops.

It’s somewhat surprising, then, to find that the actual film is instead something of the reverse: Here we have Jet Li acting in a film that is overwhelmingly a character-growth drama punctuated by moments of martial-arts action more familiar to his ouvre. The result is a HUGE depature for Li’s semi-spotty English-language output, and also thus-far the most character-driven actioner of the year so far.

Li is Danny, a childlike “man” raised by a psychotic gangster (Bob Hoskins) from boyhood to be a living-weapon “enforcer” for his criminal activities. Danny is “controlled” by a dog-collar that triggers in him a pavlovian response: When it is on he is docile and harmless, when it comes off he becomes a whirling-dervish of fury driven to literally beat his designated targets to death. The arrangement has been lucrative for the gangster, who schemes to make even more money by turning Danny loose in the world of underground pit-fighting competitions, but an unexpected accident seperates the “dog” from the master. Danny finds comfort with a kindly blind pianist (Morgan Freeman) and his stepdaughter, who take him in and slowly help him recover his stolen humanity. Of course, should Danny’s old life or old impulses ever reemerge…

What is first remarkable about the film is Li’s impressive, nearly-silent performance. Always one of the more nuanced performers on the Hong Kong action scene, Li’s prior turns in films of a “serious” nature were occasionally hampered by the uneasy fusion of the HK cinema’s tendency toward chatterbox heroes with his own perpetually-boyish persona and not-exactly-“rough” speaking style. Well-served though it was for the high-melodrama of “My Father Is A Hero” or Tsui Hark’s “Once Upon A Time in China” cycle, a segue into the realm of serious drama (or it’s HK-action equivalent) was somewhat elusive.

Then came the watershed events of the 1997 Hong Kong handover to China, and the tangentially-related migration of the country’s top stars to the U.S. that wound up dramatically altering the film landscape of both nations for the better: HK had to find, and indeed found, an explosive new crop of homegrown stars; and the U.S. action genre has benefitted profoundly from the Eastern influence and the stars (Li, Jackie Chan, etc.,) that came with it. Confronted with the task of acting in American films despite a marked difficulty with speaking English, Li had to act with minimal dialogue, and the challenge has been as transformative (in my estimation) for his acting as was the similar experience of Clint Eastwood when he slipped off to Europe for the spaghetti westerns: Body-language and facial expressions have become another extension Li’s considerable physical skills (a top martial-arts champ since boyhood,) and he’s become a much finer actor as a result.

Li returned to China to deliver his finest native-language performance ever as an enigmatic, silent (and notably Eastwoodian) “man with no name” lead in “Hero,” and now “Unleashed” gives him the opportunity to do the same for the western roles that affected the change: Danny hardly ever speaks, and when he does it’s with the appropriate tersity of a man functioning in a frightening state of induced developmental-impairment. The character is not precisely a “manchild,” nor retarded or even mentally unwell, he’s much more complex. Li creates with his face and body language a creature that is, disturbingly, exactly what the film describes him as: A human being who’s mind has been warped into that of a pit-bull.

No special effects, makeup or any other trickery are employed to achieve the complete-180 transformation that occurs when Danny’s collar is loosed, and yet the difference between Danny The Man and Danny The Dog (which is, by the way, the film’s much more poetic original title) are tremendous and scary. Come the third act, when Danny finds himself able to call on his abilities without the aid of the collar, even this is a totally different physical performance from the earlier two. In a cinematic world of real justice, where genre-bias was nonexistant, this film would earn Jet Li a Best actor nomination at the end of the year. It almost-certainly won’t happen, since action-acting “isn’t real acting” the same way scifi/fantasy drama “isn’t real drama,” but thus far he doesn’t merely deserve to be nominated… he deserves to win.

Live or die by Li’s role though it may, the film offers up a pair of other noteworthy turns: First by Freeman, who here again shines as a man of deep insight but is just a hint more playful and offbeat than the typical imagining of such a role. But it’s Hoskins who provides the ultimate foil for Li’s Danny. This is a villian of such pure inhuman evil that, when his entrances are marked by flashes of thunder and lightning, it feels wholly appropriate; but Hoskins finds a deep vein of perverse humanity within the part and mines it splendidly: Not to make his character at all sympathetic, though, instead it seems only to make him a more complicated form of monster.

The film’s action is fast, harsh and brutal: Choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping is prized for his balletic hyppereal sequences, but the work he creates with Li here doesn’t look like choreographed martial-artistry; it looks painfully real, exactly what it must look like in real life for someone to be beaten to death by a martial-arts expert. Danny’s fighting-style, too, looks like nothing I’ve ever seen in the kung-fu cinema before (and I’ve seen A LOT of kung-fu movies.) This is some kind of infernal fusion of Bruce Lee’s late-period reactive naturalism and the roll-on-the-ground grapplind of Ultimate Fighting. Most Jet Li fight scenes (most martial arts fight scenes, really) make you want to believe it’s possible to do what he does, “Unleashed” only makes you afraid it’s possible: If there’s a living man who can fight like Danny, I don’t want to meet him.

The action is also very restrained in it’s actual screentime: Brutal scenes of violence open and close the film, and pepper the first and third acts, but fights and shootings vanish entirely from the lengthy middle wherein Danny find his peace. In the end, “Unleashed” winds up with an approach to action about the same as any other drama set in a world where violence exists: Like a gangland epic or a boxing story, the characters engage in combat when it comes but the story doesn’t go looking for it. Let’s be very clear: This is a DRAMA about a martial-artist, not a martial-arts film.

That is, I know, bound to fall on a lot of deaf ears. There are some who won’t ever willingly see a single film where someone throws a punch, who despise the whole of the “martial-arts” canon without ever having explored it or who are incapable of believing that Jet Li might deliver a fine dramatic performance. To them I say, if any “needs” to see any movie, they need to see “Unleashed.”

So, for that matter, does anyone hungering for a good unique film right now. This is the best new film to come out in a few weeks, and it’s in a certain amount of peril of being swallowed up along with the rest of the weekend boxoffice by “Monster-In-Law” (review pending.) But this is the sort of filmmaking that action, drama and the movie landscape in general definately NEED more of, and it deserves our support (and at least a veiwing.)

HIGHLY reccomended.


Genre-bias, anyone?

Doug Brunelle maintains one of the better regular columns over at Film Threat, “Excess Hollywood.” I thought I’d point you in the direction of his latest column, wherein he and author Alan Dean Foster have an exchange concerning the hypocrisy of the mainstream film industry’s bias towards science fiction and fantasy as genres:

Money quote from Foster: “Note,” the author observes, “that of the top 12 grossing films (domestic) of 2004, eight were fantasy or science-fiction. Yet these are precisely the genres the average Tinseltown producer does not understand.”

And from Brunell: “Think of all the romantic comedies that fail, yet there are new ones on an almost monthly basis.”


REVIEW: Kingdom of Heaven

An important distinction must be made, when discussing films based on events of history, between a film that is “history,” i.e. one that makes a concerted effort to occupy and visualize a specific period in time not our own; and one that is “historical allegory,” i.e. one that is set in a historical period but is actually designed to offer up a ‘lesson’ for our current time. As you may or may not realize, almost NO films can really qualify as “history,” or even try. Almost all of our historical films are, in fact, historical allegory, and “Kingdom of Heaven” is no different.

It’s especially important, in this case, to keep all that in mind amid all the swirling “controversy” of this film’s portrayal of the Crusades (or more precisely the portrayal of Muslims during the Crusades.) The film indeed recreates more-or-less accurately what we can safely assume the era looked and felt like, it’s not truly concerned with doing a similar job of recreating the additudes, feelings or even actual speaking-styles of the characters in the same way: these aren’t “medieval characters,” rather they are mirror-images for various types of people and veiwpoints in today’s Western/Islamic clash transported to the similar clash of yesterday in order to make points and explore ideas from a safe distance.

I mean this distinction not as a criticism, since for the use of allegory to “invalidate” “Kingdom of Heaven” would mean that almost all other historical films ever produced would be similarly invalidated. It’s merely an observation, made in the interest of helping us all to view this film objectively beyond all the media histrionics over whom it’s more or less “fair” to.

In “Kingdom’s” imagining of this period of the Crusades (the first fall of Jerusalem to Saladdin,) the city of Jerusalem is preserved in tri-religious quasi-truce between Christian, Muslim and Jew by the will of it’s Christian lords King Baldwin the Leper (Edward Norton) and Tiberius (Jeremy Irons.) Muslim king Saladdin seeks to recapture the city (lost to the Christians over 100 years worth of Crusading ago) but seems to favor something resembling diplomacy rather than the open holy war and slaughter of infidels demanded by his soldiers and subjects. On the Christian side, the religious-zealot order of The Knights Templar (led by Brendan Gleeson as Renault de Chatillon) are covertly causing havoc in order to undermine the staunchly-secular Baldwin and provoke the open war on the Muslims which they believe their God has demanded.

In other words, the “thesis” of the film’s setup is that conflicts of states and men would be far less savage and terrible if said conflicts were left to statesmen, and that the weilding of political power instead by zealots of organized religion almost never serves to do anything but make these affairs bloodier, more protracted and more pointless. This is, I think, an astute and admirable position to stake… but it is just every-so-slightly out of place in the larger context of the Crusades. History would tell that the film is both entirely too hard on and entirely not hard enough on all the characters, affording a political and social complexity to an age of mutual barabarism cloaked in varying illusions of chivalry and faith. Again, though, this film isn’t really about the Crusades as they were but instead the Crusades as they can be slightly-reconcieved in order to make a “larger” point.

The hero of the peice is Balin, (Orlando Bloom,) who believes himself a humble blacksmith Crusading in the vein hope of earning absolution for a deceased loved one but finds himself heir to a Knightly legacy that makes him the Baron of a small community of peasants and the eventual protector of Jerusalem itself when the Templars’ troublemaking bears the expected fruit. Balin and his allies are, for the purposes of the story, enlightened secular-humanists striving to help “the people” weather the whims of faith-based warfare: His “community” is a rough serfdom of Christians, Jews and Muslims who are content to live and work in harmony until the religious fundamentalists on both sides ruin everything.

So too it is with Saladdin, here shown as a strong and violent but also intelligent and honorable warrior who seems burdened by the religious aspects of his job. Just as Balin finds heroism in rejecting organized Christianity in favor of a humanistic code of defense of the defenseless, Saladdin is openly annoyed by the insinuation that the Muslim victories are mandated by God (it’s a nice touch in the way of drawing-paralells that when the Muslim characters are “speaking English they translate ‘God’ rather than just saying ‘Allah’,) rather than won by his leadership and his men’s bravery.

It takes a good director to make such occasionally heavy-handed themes work as a film, and Ridely Scott is such a director. The film is beautiful to look at, has wonderful action scenes and is full of fine actors doing top-tier work. On a technical level, the affair is largely flawless if a touch on the routine side: There are no real “whoa!” kills or action beats, and sadly it appears that those who feared that “Return of The King” had put the ultimate cap on seige-of-the-castle scenes were dead right: Much like the similar seige-scenes in “Troy,” there’s a sense of been-there, seen-this in the otherwise finely executed attack and defense motions that form the final act of the film. Bloom, getting his first real shot at a leading-man role here, aquits himself nicely especially when sharing the screen with titans of the genre like Gleeson, Irons and a cameo’d Liam Neeson.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the film has a serious pacing problem. Simply put, this is an EPIC story with big ideas, lots of interconnecting lines of plot and lots of characters, and it needs room to breathe. Two and a half hours just doesn’t cut it, and you can feel the film straining against the running-time. Big scene follows big scene, reveal follows reveal, grand characters and introduced and dispatched, and theres just not enough “down time” in between. This film is as much about character loyalties, politics and procedure as it is about it’s battles, and it needed the slowly-unfolding canvas of “Braveheart” instead of the rapid action-adventure pace that seems to have been forced on it.

The greatest casualty of this is Gleeson, who gives a knockout performance as the Templar leader who is more-or-less the outright “villain” of the peice. (Saladdin is relegated to the role of the enigmatic warrior-king as opposed to a full-on baddie.) It’s a great turn and a great character, and he’s gone too soon leaving a BIG void.

There’s a great film (here’s hoping for a director’s cut DVD) in here, and once the middle of the 2nd act rolls around it really starts to take shape and get cooking… but it’s an almost, not a slam-dunk. When the history of such things is written, “Kingdom of Heaven” will get the necessary credit for being the first film to use The Crusades as a metaphor for exploring the modern post-911 political world, but it may not eventually remain the best.


REVIEW: Crash (2005)

Note: This review of “Crash” is spoiler-free.

This will probably be one of (comparitively) the shortest reviews I’ve ever written for this blog, a fact which I’m hoping doesn’t delight too many of my readers. Upon seeing “Crash” I came to the conclusion about twenty-minutes in that this is not a film that can really be properly “reviewed” in the style I generally employ in this medium (and is generally employed by some 98% of print film critics.) It’s the sort of film which is so densely-contructed and so much “about” it’s own storytelling architecture that it lends itself far better to the process of “analysis” by and for those who’ve already seen it than to the process of “review” by those who’ve seen it for those who may wish to.

It’s really even impossible to describe ANY real details of the plot or the characters occupying it, because writer/director Paul Haggis has here constructed a story that is COMPRISED of a plot instead of being driven by one: Every character is defined by their interactions with every other character, and every plot leads into every other plot, and thus one cannot really say ANY one thing without spoiling another thing and eventually everything. Getting the picture?

It’ll have to suffice to say that this is another in the quirky cinema subgenre of “interlocking-story” films. The best of these, (in my opinion, of course) is Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” while the most overpraised is Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” (which is not the same as saying it’s a BAD film, merely that Altman is probably the most overpraised filmmaker currently working and thus his films often wind up as the most overpraised of their respective genres.) The setting is Los Angeles, the time-period is two days around Christmastime, and the overrarching theme is race. The characters are actors, politicians, cops, houseworkers and blue-collar joes; their races are white, black, latino, asian and middle-eastern; their racial-outlooks run the gamut from false-colorblindness to “racially conscious” to outright racism.

I realize thats VERY little to “go on” if you’re reading this to decide whether or not you wish to see the movie. Let me bottom-line it: You should go see it; it’s a very, very good film.

Now here’s the unfortunate part: Very, very good though it may be, the film very briefly takes a giant leap forward and become great. It becomes so great, in fact, that at the moment greatness occured I was ready, willing and of sound mind to declare “Crash” the instant runaway frontrunner for the title of year’s best film. But then, shortly after, the greatness is not only snatched away but actually voided from existance by the same plot machinations that created it, and the film slumps back to a respectable but never the less smaller stature… in abandoning greatness, it cannot merely retreat back to “very, very good” and instead settles as “so close to great it HURTS.”

The brief jump to “great” occurs in single a sequence, (I will not tell you whom it involves, when it occurs, or what takes place,) which, when I realized what was about to (and did) play out, caused my hand to literally fly to my mouth in shock and amazement, followed immediately by soaring admiration for the sheer GUTS of the filmmaker. The shock, amazement and admiration were then multiplied exponentially by the scene’s “resolution,” which is the precise moment that “Crash” makes the big leap into the upper-atmosphere where only the Film Immortals are allowed to go.

But then, only a few scenes later, a new peice of plot is revealed that not only negates and obliterates the scene that shot the film to greatness (and, thus also negates the greatness itself), but makes it clear that this was the direction of the film all along (as opposed to a strikingly bad post-production alteration.) Thus, “Crash” becomes not merely a very-good film that was almost great, but instead a very-good film that masqueraded as great for a short time. It’s a foul, cheap cheat that actually manages to injure the film-that-is by offering a glimpse of the film-that-could-have-been.

You’ll see what I mean, (and I’m pretty damn sure A LOT of you will disagree with me about the Big Flaw,) when you see the film. Which, despite my palpable dissapointment, I still do strongly reccomend that you do as soon as you can.