Thursday, August 18, 2005

Review: The Constant Gardener (2005)

The Constant Gardener
125 minutes
Rated R

By Scott Mendelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Review: Valiant (2005)

75 minutes
Rated G

By Scott Mendelson

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Review: Reel Paradise (2005)

Reel Paradise
110 minutes
Rated R

By Scott Mendelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Review: The Skeleton Key (2005)

The Skeleton Key
105 minutes

By Scott Mendelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 8, 2005

Review: Four Brothers (2005)

Four Brothers
100 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C-

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Review: The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)

The Dukes Of Hazzard
100 minutes
Rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B


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