REVIEW: Get Rich or Die Tryin’

This marks 2005’s second big attempt, following “Hustle & Flow,” to try and turn the thugs-to-riches creation mythology of gangsta rap into compelling cinema. It fails FAR more spectacularly than “Hustle” did, but for much the same reason: The hip-hop creation mythology is, at this point, played out to the extreme.

The film basically exists as a 2 hour and 14 minute infomercial for the music of Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. His fans are known to refer to him as “Fiddy,” which is kind of remarkable in that it manages to celebrate idiocy on two levels: The idiocy of refering to a grown man by his teenaged street-thug nickname and the idiocy of intentionally mispronouncing common words in order to “keep it real.”

Just for the record here: Yes, I’m a 25 year-old white man. Yes, I was among that generation of suburban white kids who helped make gangsta rap such a phenomenon back in the early 90s during it’s brief initial brush with actually feeling like the “poetry of the streets” it can now only pretend to be. Yes, I like hip-hop. I’m NOT, however, a fan of Mr. Cent’s work. I’ve found his vocals flat, the beats derrivative and his lyrics trite… how many times can you hear one man praise himself in verse, honestly?

Mr. Cent appears here as Marcus, who leads a life more or less identical to the outline of the ballyhooed 50 Cent origin story. Sing along if you know the words: His mother was a murdered coke dealer. He became a crack dealer and went to jail. He got out and wanted to rap. He rapped about how much tougher he was than other rappers in his circle. He got shot nine times. He got better. He parlayed “I got shot nine times!” into the ultimate badge of street-cred “real”ness and became a star, despite his act never really improving.

“Fiddy” is, putting it mildly, a terrible actor. He mumbles his lines in monotone, has nothing in the way of facial expression and mainly just glowers at the camera. He has no distinct onscreen personality, and if not for providing the film’s narration he would be swallowed up entirely by his own movie.

But the script is a bigger problem. This character (and, apparently by extension, the man playing him) hasn’t really learned anything or gone through any great arc. In a way, “Fiddy’s” success stands more as the ultimate indictment of the rap genre as largely bankrupt, not as a triumph. But “Fiddy” seems convinced that his story is heroic, and so the film turns out scene after scene where the imagery is ordering us to be awed by this man’s journey while I’M stuck wondering why I’m supposed to care.

It’s also stuck with some utterly laughable dialogue. At one point, a drug gang kingpin has a hillariously awful speech about violence begetting more violence, not more money. And later, after Marcus complains that his gunshot wounds have changed his voice, his girlfriend sagely intones: “It’s better… there’s more pain in it.” Give me a break already.

The film jumps the shark full-bore for it’s final act, in which Marcus “beef” with another rapper escalates into a shooting war among the drug gangs he left behind. Villians are revealed and “twists” we’ve seen coming fully unfold, and at one point (I kid you not) we see a scene where the impending performance by Marcus at a concert inspires ghetto children to take to the streets in a candlelight march against crack. Seriously.

Most of the blame for this mess can be laid at the studio and “Fiddy’s” corporate masters, for churning out yet another bad commercial for what boils down to simply the latest “piss off your parents” overhyped music sensation. And some belongs to “Fiddy” himself, for reasons outlined above.

But sadly, a great deal of blame must be laid of Jim Sheridan, the excellent Irish filmmaker who for some reason thought directing this muck would be a good career move. Mr. Sheridan, we know you’re prior movies were good and we hope you’re next ones are again. But sir… you’ve made one hell of a bad movie here, and only SOME of it can be blamed on you’re leading man being unable to ennunciate in English.

FINAL RATING: 1/10

REVIEW: The Weather Man

“The Weather Man” is catching a good deal of flack from audiences and critics for not being what they expected. Or, more accurately, what they felt it was marketed as. They aren’t entirely without a point.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that “The Weather Man” is using completely misleading advertisements, one can certainly be forgiven for expecting a different film. The trailers, through use of clever editing and music, have been selling the film as a “quirky” comedy about a loser putting his life back together. If you’ve seen said trailer, you’re doubtlessly pretty sure that you know the basic idea: Sad-sack local weather man David Spritz (Nicholas Cage) is losing his family and his sanity, but with some hard work, determination and a few pearls of sage wisdom from his wise father (Michael Caine) he’ll be able to set his life comedically back in order. It’ll be an offbeat Fall-style remix about growing up and achieving your dreams.

Yes, thats what most people are probably thinking when they buy tickets for “The Weather Man,” and so I suppose it’s within reason that they be dissapointed when the find it to be something else entirely. But it’s also within reason that others are glad about it, finding it to be something a bit more interesting than they had anticipated. You may gather that I fall into the later camp.

The film is not a quirky comedy about achieving your dreams, but David Spritz seems to think that it is… and thats the problem. He can’t get his act together, he can’t finish anything he starts, he’s the sort of local celebrity who has to frequently weigh whether or not the professional perk of bedding Oktoberfest dancing girls is worth the professional hardship of having fast food thrown at him from moving vehicles, etc.

Also, his famous-author father pities him, he’s divorced and his kids are heading down bad paths… but David is sure that if he shows some gumption, lands that big network job in New York, makes grand territorial gestures against his ex-wife’s new boyfriend and “figures it all out” he can win is family back, his father’s respect and the life he’s always wanted.

If Spritz was writing the movie, he’d probably cast Robin Williams or Jim Carrey as him before Nicholas Cage: He likely sees himself as quirky, but he’s actually closer to just plain pathetic. It’s easy to see why his wife left him, why his children don’t look up to him and why his father doesn’t respect him; he’s a dense and insensitive prick for the most part, he’s unreliable and doesn’t even really respect himself. So there’s you’re movie: It’s not about Spritz achieving all his goals, it’s about his slow realization that his striving for clearly unrealistic aims is hurting him and those around him. The eventual moral isn’t about reaching for the dream, but learning to accept that some dreams just can’t be reached… that life can be worth living even if it’s not turning out exactly the way you want it to. In that respect, the film plays like a much more even, mature variation on “Jersey Girl” from a few years back.

Which isn’t to say that the film is a total downer. On the way to his semi-epiphany are chances for him to set right some of the (relatively few) things wrong in his life that aren’t really his fault: Like turning his not-exactly-slender daughter on to the joys of non-form-fitting clothing, and intervening when his son’s guidance counselor turns out to be a sexual predator. To say that David aquits himself wonderfully in each situation would be pushing it… but he at least shows he’s getting the right idea.

This isn’t the movie I thought it was going to be. I happen to think I got a better one than I expected, you may feel differently. But I’d say it’s worth a look, just to see where you fall.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

REVIEW: Jarhead

I’m going to retreat into humility for a moment and remind myself that this blog is still waaaaaay down on everyone’s list of go-to review sites, and thus begin by presuming that most of you reading are already familiar with that reliable old film school trope that movie violence is usually serving as some kind of sexual metaphor. Jason Vorhees’ machete penetrates flesh of coital teens, thus standing in for the un-filmmable penetration of genitals? Jedi lightsabers buzzing out to their full length at the start of action scenes standing in for phallic erections at the start of “action” of an entirely different sort? Remember? “violence= sex” is one of the “everybody knows” nuggets of film theory, second in frequency only to “Citizen Kane just wanted his lost childhood back.”

Given this, it’s become a standard-issue parlor trick of film buff’s to divine the “sexuality” of action films: “Top Gun,” “Thelma & Louise” and “The Fast and the Furious” are “gay.” “Conan” and “Braveheart” are celebrations of the dominant power of the confident sword/penis. The collective action-filmography of Mel Gibson is, well… masochistic, to put it mildly. “Jarhead” strikes a unique position in this realm by removing all but the barest vestiges of actual copulation from the action/sex metaphor and focusing solely on erection and ejaculation… or lack thereof. It takes awhile, but eventually you come to the realization that what we have here is essentially a long meditation on jerking off, with Gulf War I standing in for the actual act (though we see our share of it anyway.)

The film has been criticized by many for it’s percieved lack of politics, which in most cases has meant it’s unwillingness to blossom into an antiwar parable for the new Gulf War. To my mind, this is an especially silly note of critique… The film, the subject matter nor the memoir by Desert Storm vet Anthony Swofford are in no way “inherently” anti-war/anti-current-war sources at their core, and to offer a nay-vote on this film for a lack of Bush-bashing makes about as much sense as if I were to give it a poor review based on it’s noticeable lack of irradiated giant dinosaurs.

In other words, what I suspect is causing so much consternation among some of my fellow reviewers is that they’d made up their minds that this was going to be one more anti-war parable for the reference pile, and have instead recieved a film that is aggressively hostile to politics and, in fact, approaches with 100% sympathy the “plight” of soldiers robbed of the chance to kill the enemy.

Jake Gyllenhall is Swofford, who heads to the Marines for reasons he outright refuses to share with us and finds himself promoted to the coveted rank of Scout Sniper. Paired with Marine-ethos-incarnate spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, stealing yet another movie’s worth of scenes) under the command of a tough Sergeant (Jamie Foxx,) Swofford and his unit are deployed to the desert as part of Operation Desert Shield’s first wave. They’ve already gone through the “Full Metal Jacket” ride at boot camp, they’re tough, they’re excited, they’re ready and eager for their chance to kill the Iraqi enemy… and then nothing happens.

Nothing happens.

It was the push-button war, remember? The Jarheads are all ready and raring to fight, but they arrive into a war thats being fought by digital targeting systems and precision air strikes. Here, thusly, is why the film seems to be so problematic for some: “Jarhead” isn’t interested in waxing the philosophical about the futility of war, or having the lack of action lead it’s soldiers into realizations on the value of pacifism. It’s grounded completely in the perspective of the Marines themselves, and that perspective is one of impotent rage.

They came to Iraq for the joy and the rush of using their hard-earned skills to blow the brains out of the Iraqis, and that joy… that release is being denied them. There’s no attacks on the army for “making them this way,” or any serious question as to whether or not turning a man into an eager killer is morally right or wrong, or even a single attempt to “humanize” the Iraqi enemy. As far as the characters are concerned, the Iraqi soldiers represent nothing more than targets which should be theirs for the killing but are instead being shelled by the air force… and the film, as it stands, does not seem to find fault in this viewpoint.

And so, while they wait for their hoped-for chance at combat action, Swofford and the others do what all of us do when we’re all fired up and have nowhere to go: They start to go crazy. To describe the manner in which much of it occurs would be to spoil some great surprises and little moments. Take my word for it that, while you’ll find very little “war” in this particular war-movie; action, intesity and scenes of great darkness manage to abound anyway. And just wait until you see the visual knockout of the film’s entire final act, set in the surreal landscape of a desert turned black by the hellfire of burning oil wells on the horizon… and oil actually raining from the sky.

And there it is; a blunt, unashamedly phallicentric metaphor for sexual frustration doing double duty as a straight-faced lament for the soldier who’s not permitted to soldier. It may not be the war movie you were expecting, and it’s definately not the anti-war movie you might have been hoping for, but right now it’s the one you need to see.

FINAL RATING: 9/10