Friday, December 22, 2006

Best and Worst of 2006

by Scott Mendelson

Every single year, there are various pundits and critics who claim that this year was the worst for movies in many an age. This time, I’m almost inclined to agree with them. Yes, there are gems, but they were fewer and far between and the amount of surprising failures was stunning and heartbreaking. Due to deadline concerns, there are a few movies that may have made the best of list that I have yet to see (mainly Children Of Men and Letters Of Iwo Jima). Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Hollywood continues its ridiculous practice of cramming every allegedly good movie into theaters in the last three months of the year, often in the last two weeks of the year, which causes many a decent film to go unseen while the previous nine months remain starved for quality. The insane notion that critics and Academy members will remember only films that come out in the fall and holiday season must be addressed. Meanwhile, here is the best and worst of 2006, for better or worse (make note of how many of these did not come out after September).

The worst movies of 2006.
Note: This list may not be purely the biggest pieces and rancid trash, but rather movies that were mystifying and downright painful in their failures. After all, putting Uwe Boll’s Blood Rayne on a worst-of list is almost an act of repetition. And When A Stranger Calls may be terrible, but it was completely entertaining in its confounding stupidity.

The Bridge
: an unintelligent, allegedly introspective documentary about people who commit suicide via the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet in the end, it becomes a parade of foolish, naïve people who just don’t get that depression is a mental illness and that their friends and loved-ones couldn’t have just ‘gotten over it’.

Everyone’s Hero: Easily the worst, most juvenile cartoon since… gosh… I can’t remember when. Filled with overacting celebrities that have no business doing voice over and a painfully dumb screenplay that turns the Boston Red Sox into murderous villains. The film falsely portrays the 1920s New York Yankees as a pitiful team that could only win with Babe Ruth at the plate. And, for a story that’s supposed to be about continuing to try even when the odds are completely stacked against you, where exactly was the far more appropriate Lou Gehrig?

World Trade Center
: A boring, clichéd-filled, disaster would-be TV movie filled with unsympathetic characters that got passes and raves from critics purely because ‘it was about 9/11’. Yet, in its relentless need to make us feel good, it made the survival of its heroes more important than the deaths of 2,800 other equally innocent people.

Thank You For Smoking
: An allegedly intelligent comedy that in fact has the depth and maturity of a sixth-grader who is allowed to use naughty content for the first time. Scene after scene has allegedly smart characters being fooled by grade-school tactics and banal simplistic arguments. This film does not take place in anything resembling the real world, but a fantasy land where people are SHOCKED when a reporter spills ‘off the record’ details, and said reporter is then SHOCKED when the victim then spills the dirt about their sex life. Further more we are supposed to be STUNNED when the hero (a tobacco lobbyist) makes a completely logical and correct comparison between cigarettes and the unhealthy eating choices of most Americans. A film filled with very stupid people who are supposed to be smarter than us.

And the worst movie going experience of the year…

Superman Returns: Easily the most stunning and heartbreaking screw-up of the year. And yet, it fails for the same reason that the vastly-overrated Spider-Man 2 fails: it’s a two-hour plus bore-fest that asks us to sympathize over a guy who moans because the girl he cruelly dumped, and won’t admit his true feelings to, won’t take him back. The other problems are numerous: A hybrid storyline that kinda sorta maybe is a sequel to Richard Donner’s and Richard Lester’s first two Superman movies, surprisingly mediocre special effects, the major set-piece that is stolen almost shot for shot from the pilot episode of Superman: The Animated Series, the casting of very young actors to play people that are supposed to be in their late thirties or forties, Kevin Spacey (now playing Luther as an act of career desperation) never deciding how campy or scary to play Lex, a stunning lack of scenes where Superman actually helps people in peril, and Christian symbolism that takes the subtle, potent Christ-parable of Donner’s original and makes it laughable in its explicitness. But the biggest problem of all is that that story, which basically involves a scary stalker who refuses to leave a girl alone, even though he dumped her in the cruelest, most selfish way imaginable, and yet he is still angry and bitter that she had the gall to move on with her life and find happiness elsewhere. Shame on you Superman. You’re supposed to represent the best of us, not the worst of us.

Ok, now onto the best films of the year. In a year when most indie-films fell by the wayside and didn’t quite work, there were a decent number of genre films that proved that you could work within the system and make quality product.

Over The Hedge: In a year filled with mediocre cartoons about wacky talking animals, the best cartoon of the year is about (gasp) wacky talking animals. The difference is in the details. While the cast has its share of celebrities, they give actual performances with nuance and subtly. Bruce Willis gives his second-best performance since Unbreakable (see below for more on that) and everyone shines in the funny, satirical take on the over consumption of suburbia. It is quiet and focused where other cartoons were loud and confused. It is funny and moving, slowly developing its characters so that the emotional pay-offs have meaning and feel completely earned. It’s terrific family entertainment.

Deliver Us From Evil: The second-best documentary of the year, in a year filled with good ones. It is a sobering, almost objectively clinical examination of one incredibly prolific pedophile priest and the lives he has scarred, as well as those who put their own power above their flock’s safety and allowed him to roam from parish to parish with no warning. It is devastating, but also fascinating.

16 Blocks: The best Bruce Willis performance since Unbreakable, along with director Richard Donner’s devotion to realism and plausibility makes this an uncommonly effective action film. It’s filled with three-dimensional characters, and even David Morse’s villainous rogue cop is somewhat sympathetic. And the film actually has an optimistic worldview, that of redemption and eventual decency. When’s the last time an action film climaxed with a long, moving conversation between the hero and villain? When’s the last time the somewhat happy ending felt so completely earned that it was actually touching? In a year filled with comebacks (again, see below), it was great to see Donner back in top form.

Little Miss Sunshine
and Stranger Than Fiction: Both involve quirky tales starring famous comics playing it straight and somewhat dark. Steve Carell’s top-notch supporting performance got the attention it deserved. Will Ferrell’s equally touching starring work did not. Both films are filled to the brim with quality actors doing their thing. Dustin Hoffman does his best work in years in Stranger Than Fiction and Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette are so naturally good in everything they do that we already take them for granted. Pardon the cliché, but see them both with people you care about.

Clerks II: Don’t laugh, this is some ways was one of the most potent movies of the year. At the end of a summer filled with misfires (DaVinci Code Code, X-Men 3, Lady In The Water, Mission Impossible 3), here was a film that was much, much better than expected. Kevin Smith returns to the world that made him a power player, yet the world is a soberer, more grown-up one. Smith is now an actual adult and his characters are struggling to become adults too, as they take stock in their squandered youth and try to find substance in their 30s that they so carefully avoided in their 20s. In the end, it’s a rallying-cry against the obsessive societal demand that every person live the same kind of life, but rather the life that makes him or her happiest. The climactic dialogue scene between our Dante and Randal is one of the best-written scenes of the year, and could become a staple in acting classes for years to come. Following a minor post-Dogma slump, this is easily Smith’s best film yet.

The Departed: Martin Scorsese makes a return to form, remaking a recent Asian classic and returning to the world of small time gangsters and divided loyalties that marked some of his best work. Featuring terrific acting by terrific actors across the board (for the first time ever, I liked Mark Wahlburg as much as I usually like Donnie), the film is above all a grand tragedy of men forced to be people they are not and being unable to step away even after their duality has outlived its usefulness. While some may carp and say all the critical adulteration was due to Scorsese doing another gangster movie, let me say that this is easily his best film since Bringing Out The Dead (a Nicolas Cage paramedic drama that has nothing to do with gangsters). This is pop entertainment as it should be.

Inside Man: Spike Lee roars back to life with this deliciously clever and completely fun cracker-jack box that leaves behind none of his trademark themes and film making tricks. Featuring one of the most purely entertaining scripts of the year, this hilariously well-written hostage negotiation thriller maintains high suspense because it refuses to become an ultra-violent carnage fest (since the violence is rare, we’re always on our toes). It’s a grown-up thriller in the best sense of the word. It’s smart, fun, well acted by actors having a blast (Jodie Foster comes delightfully close to ham in what is the closest she’s played to a villain) and never forgets to actually be a film of substance and morals. This is what happens when you let a true auteur play around in a mainstream thriller. You get a completely mainstream thriller that is also a serious work of art.

Casino Royale: Martin Campbell does it again, making the very best James Bond film since Goldeneye (directed by, gasp, Martin Campbell). Stripping the franchise down to its bare essentials, the new Bond, icy-cold Daniel Craig, is given the kind of support that equally hard-ass Timothy Dalton never received. Campbell returns to the first 007 novel (which never received a proper adaptation) and crafts a thrilling action adventure vehicle that re-establishes James Bond as the king of the action hill (you can practically hear him telling Jason Bourne to get the hell off of his lawn). Filled with smart characters, a complicated story, subtle villains, and brutal, brilliantly staged action set pieces that are always completely easy to follow and understand (none of that shaky cam, hyper-edit, super close-up crap from Mr. Campbell, thank you much), this is one of the best pure action pictures of the decade. New rule – how about we let Martin Campbell become the new Jon Glenn or Terence Young and have him direct a bunch of these? It’s quite obvious that, pardon the pun, ‘nobody does it better’. By the way, for THE best action picture of the last decade, try 1998’s The Mask Of Zorro (directed by… guess the pattern).

The Prestige: Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to Batman Begins is a dark, deliciously amoral duel between two fledgling magicians in Europe during the dawn of electricity. Your sympathy will switch back and forth between Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as they continuously try to one-up each other in magic and in life. As one of two period-magician movies released last fall, The Prestige is superior to The Illusionist as it makes its slightly smarter, far more complicated story truly about the craft of magic, rather than just using magic as a backdrop for a romantic thriller. Both are good films, but Nolan takes the bunny. It’s the densest, trickiest movie of the year that dares you to embrace its cold heart.

When The Levees Broke: Technically, this is a TV movie, having aired in August on HBO. But, it’s my list, my rules. Spike Lee follows up his first mainstream success with the most important and possibly best work of his storied career. Over four hours, hundreds of interviews, countless heartbreaking moments fill up what will likely be the definitive account of Hurricane Katrina and the most complete disaster in American history thus far in my lifetime. Ruthlessly clinical and letting the survivors and officials speak for themselves, Lee paints a stunning document of governmental incompetence and apathy, alleged greed and possible fraud by insurance companies, and the overwhelming devastation of a hurricane that completely wiped an entire American city off the map, possibly forever. Easily the most important work of art of the year, it is a time capsule to be preserved for all time, in anger and shame.

And, now, the best film of 2006:

Akeelah And The Bee: I missed this Doug Atchison picture in theaters and wrote about it when it arrived on video, and what I said back in September still applies, as it did when I first saw the film in July. This is the best, most wonderful movie I saw all this year. It’s a stunningly good movie about the simplest of stories. It’s a sweet quasi-epic about a young girl from the inner city who, with the help of a former champ turned coach, and her worried mother, and eventually her entire community, competes in the national spelling bee. It’s honest about the struggle to be educated and smart in the inner cities without being smothering or violent. It’s thoughtful about its story and characters, with Atchison not being afraid to use cliché if he can subvert it later. It features wonderful work from Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, and even Curtis Armstrong. It is the rarest of rare, the kind of movie that wrings completely earned emotion out of you, over and over, not by sadness and despair, but by surprise and completely unexpected acts of goodness. It is a movie that demands the acknowledgment that we can, if given the opportunity, be human in the best sense and be capable of acts of great and simple decency.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Review: The Good German (2006)

The Good German
102 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Steven Soderbergh wants to have it both ways. He wants to capture the 'glory days' of post-WWII film noir, while attempting to create a modern picture with allegedly modern sensibilities. Alas, due to both Soderbergh's condescending naiveté towards old movies, as well as his unwillingness to fully commit to his old-school hybrid, the result is a mangled mess of a film.

The plot: Immediately following the Nazi's defeat to the allied powers, Berlin is in shambles and everyone is trying to get a piece of the post-war pie. Enter Captain Jacob 'Jake' Geismer (George Clooney, doing his best but looking nothing what-so-ever like a 1940's tough-guy movie star), an American journalist who is in Berlin to cover the news of the day for the American front. Geismer hasn't been in Berlin since before the war, but he still pines for the stringer that he left behind, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett, looking absolutely like a 1940s glamour queen, but regulated to a role that is actually more passive and victimized than she would have been in a 1940's thriller; score one for progress?). He runs into her almost instantly, as she is apparently using his driver, Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire, stunningly miscast, yet absurdly enjoyable because of it) to get out of Germany. Intrigue quickly occurs, and a search for Brandt's allegedly dead husband sets off a chain of events that threatens to unravel the entire peace process.

The film is shot in black-and-white, but not glorious black and white, as the cinematography feels like what it probably is, a film that was shot in color than altered after the fact, resulting in a muted, ugly image. The music score by Thomas Newman is an attempt at the loud, unsubtle bombastic arrangement that characterizes the pictures of old, but it's a gimmick that grows old by the end of the first act. The production apparently strictly adhered to the old-style, with sound stages, old-fashioned cameras and lenses, and even a 1.66:1 aspect ratio with black bars on the side of the screen (of course, if he wanted to be completely pure to the period, the film would have been a square aspect of 1.33:1 or the aspect ratio of your TV set).

Soderbergh cheats whenever it fits him, resulting in a weird mish-mash that is neither true to the old ways nor sufficiently deconstructive to justify those deviations. The film is rated R, and it's filled with sex, profanity, and violence that would never have been allowed under the production code (the film arbitrarily tosses around the 'f-word' like a college freshman writer who has been allowed to use profanity for the first time). More problematic is the casting. Cate Blanchett surely does look and act like the classic screen dames of the 1940s (that's always been part of her allure, a timeless grown-up beauty to go along with her peerless acting), but no one else fits their part. George Clooney may be a fine actor should be commended for using his star power to get interesting films made, but he does not and will never look like Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart, which is who he is desperately trying to play. Having him get beaten up every ten minutes doesn't sell the act either. At least it's comically entertaining to watch Maguire play a hot-wired, violent punk of a soldier, showing more energy than the rest of his low-key filmography put together.

Then there is the storyline, which is betrayed by our knowledge of history. There is supposed to be mystery and suspense in regards to why people from various countries are searching for Mr. Brandt, but anyone with a cursory knowledge of post-World War II power brokering can correctly guess the only reason that would fit into this morally compromised world. Further more, the only other mystery is the secret that Lena is carrying, some action she took that explains why she's mistreated herself since. Again, under these circumstances, there can be only one secret (hint, it's what you do as an audience member at the climax of a bad production of The Diary Of Anne Frank).

The film, despite allegedly being darker and more complicated than its forefathers, actually presents a simpler and less intriguing story that those movies being aped. Heck, many of the post-war movies (from The Best Years Of Our Lives, to It's A Wonderful Life) deal with the disillusionment of an entire generation, and the entire modern detective genre is rooted in how to be moral and decent when no one else is (quote Raymond Chandler: "Down these mean streets walks a man who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid"). The Good German walks down those same mean streets without seeing the footprints left by history, film history or otherwise.

Grade: C-

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Review: Fast Food Nation (2006)

Fast Food Nation
130 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

In food terms, Fast Food Nation the book is a nutritious and delicious meal, full of nutrients and fresh ingredients, lovingly and carefully prepared by the finest and friendliest staff. Fast Food Nation the movie is a cheap, artery clogging value meal, not naturally tasty and not terribly appetizing; seemingly thrown together by uncaring and underpaid employees. The book is an Allen Brothers fillet mignon. The movie is a McMuffin.

The book in question is Eric Schlosser's 2001 best-selling expose of America's fast food industry and the many parts of life that it directly and indirectly affects. Released to great fanfare and critical acclaim, the book is a sprawling and intricately detailed examination of the various facets of America's fast food enterprises. Along with Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel And Dimed, it is one of the best non-fiction volumes of this decade.

But it is not written as prose, so the likely avenue for adaptation would be a documentary. Director Richard Linklater has chosen to make a fiction film, but it is a misfire of the highest order. The major issue is the choices that Linklater makes in regards to what aspects of the book to use. Much of the most interesting and worthwhile pieces of the original text are ignored in favor of a generic intertwining storyline.

The first (and best) story concerns an executive at the fictional Mickey's burger chain. After tests prove that meat coming out of a major Colorado packing plant contains animal feces, Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear, again proving that he's the finest talk-show host turned actor in the history of the medium) is sent to investigate. This brings him in contact with various people in the town, including an old farmer (Kris Kristofferson) who represents how things 'used to be done', and a slick but realistic representative of the meat factory (Bruce Willis).

Unfortunately, this amusing and entertaining story, which deals in detail with several of the more important ideas from the book, literally disappears for the second half of the film, leaving us with two far lesser narratives, one of which barely touches upon the book. That story concerns a high school girl who works at the local restaurant. Inspired by her uncle (Ethan Hawke) to do something more with her life, she eventually joins up with a group of incompetent animal rights protesters. And that's about it for a third of the film. The conclusion of her arc is mildly amusing, but it feels as if Linklater is apologizing for the progressive left-wing nature of his story by showing those who take action as moronic misguided youth.

The third major narrative concerns several illegal immigrants who sneak into the country and end up working for the offending meat plant. Readers of The Jungle will be displeased to notice that the conditions of meat-plants and their employees has not improved all that much. There, the employees are subject to meager wages, long hours of backbreaking and gruesome labor, constant sexual harassment, and utter and complete disregard for their well-being. While tragic, the film treats this as a new and shocking concept.

Linklater has taken a detailed and intricate study and presented only the most obvious and localized concepts (as if only this small Colorado town is affected). What, you mean fast food isn't made under the best conditions and large corporations have badly hurt the family farm? What, you mean fast food restaurants employ young people and don't pay them all that well, inspiring feelings of uselessness and resentment among said employees? And illegal immigrants are often mistreated on the job and screwed out of their share? And, 'most shocking' of all, Linklater ends the film with a montage of the process of animals being killed and sliced up at the plant, with footage that serves no purpose other than to shock in the most pandering fashion.

Schlosser's book was far smarter, using these obvious points as a jumping point to discuss an entire society addicted to food that they know is terrible for them. Despite being R-rated, Fast Food Nation rarely rises above the level of grade-school discourse. In fact, it is far outclassed by Super Size Me, a 2004 documentary that deals with much of the material in a smarter and more entertaining fashion. That Linklater chose not to make a documentary should not be held against him. His sin was to make a boring and unintelligent fictional film based on such smart material. rarely rises above the level of grade-school discourse.

Grade: C-

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Review: Running With Scissors (2006)

Running With Scissors
116 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Harrison Ford often tells a story about his earliest days in showbiz. Meeting with a producer after a small role, he was told that he didn't have what it took to be a star. The producer told him that when he looked at (I think…) Paul Newman playing a grocery bagger, he would say, "that guy, when I look at him, he looks like a star!" Ford dryly responded, "I thought you should be saying 'gee, that looks like a grocery bagger'?"

It is unfortunate in this day and age that what passes for great acting is often showy and over-the-top while subtle character immersion is often dismissed if not outright criticized. In our film world, over-the-top showboats like Roberto Benigni and Angelina Jolie win Oscars while actors who refuse to be larger than their characters (such as Ford, Keanu Reeves, and Kevin Costner) are constantly attacked as being wooden or un-charismatic.

The reason I bring this up is because most of the press involved with Running With Scissors is focused on Annette Bening's allegedly Oscar-worthy leading role as a mentally ill, fame-seeking, delusional, hysterical mother to the lead character Augusten Burroughs (it is his memoirs upon which this movie is based). Bening is fine (she's rarely been less than fine) in what's actually a supporting role, but most of her many 'big scenes' have the whiff of 'acting' to them, as if the words 'for your consideration' should be burned into the film as a running ticker. Ironically, she is the lone weak point in an otherwise stunningly acted film, with terrific performances compensating for a muddled, disjointed narrative.

The plot… Augustus Burroughs (Joseph Cross, who is in nearly every frame of this film and finally crosses into leading man territory) is born into a most dysfunctional household. His mother is mentally ill and obsessed with being famous to the point of emotional child abuse. Augustus's father (Alec Baldwin, nearly stealing the film with about fifteen subtle, heartbreaking minutes of screen time) has had enough, spending his days teaching then coming home to a wife who inexplicably resents him and a son who takes her side. "I really don't see anything of myself in you," he states to his ten-year-old son, and it rings true not as an insult but as a self-lacerating acknowledgment of his own futility and failure as a father.

As he reaches adolescence, Augustus is puzzlingly sent to live at the home of his mother's equally insane psychologist (Brian Cox, slightly over the top but entertaining as always). In this large, completely unkempt home lives Dr. Finch, his two daughters (the rebellious and emotionally wounded Evan Rachel Wood and the religious and obedient Gwyneth Paltrow), his schizophrenic thirty-four year-old son who lives in the barn (Joseph Fiennes), and the doctor's emotionally shattered wife (Jill Clayburgh).

That's really all the plot one needs, as the film then becomes a character study as all the various freaks and bystanders try to come to grips with their psychoses in an occasionally sitcomish fashion. It is Jill Clayburgh who truly owns the movie with her devastatingly sad portrayal of a normal woman who has resigned herself to an unhappy life as a den mother of uncaring freaks. Bening may win the Oscar (if Helen Mirren doesn't deservedly win for The Queen), but it's Clayburgh who will make you shed tears.

As for the non-acting components, the film is a bit of a mess. While these damaged souls are treated sympathetically, our sympathy is far more tied to the bystanders (Cross, Wood, Baldwin, and Clayburgh), whose chances for a normal and happy life have been sabotaged. The biggest problem is that the film really has no reason for being, nothing to teach or explore beyond the train-wreck factor, along with the relief that your family wasn't this freakish and hurtful. We watch as these insane people do insane and damaging things to each other, merely passive observers to the chaos. There is no clear focus as to whether this is supposed to be comedy or tragedy and there really is no overriding theme to the whole adventure. Also problematic is the entire third act, which has no less than four false endings.

The film is an acting treat, with a quality cast of character actor veterans doing their thing with meaty character parts. Cross is fantastic, as are Clayburgh and Baldwin. Bening, Cox, and the rest all do what they must. They take a muddled and overly pointless movie and make a film that is, in the end, worth seeing.

Grade: B-

Friday, October 6, 2006

Review: The Bridge (2006)

The Bridge
93 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

One of the great tragedies of losing your life in a major and famous event, be it natural or man made, is that your life instantly pales in legacy; overshadowed for all time by the manner in which you died. When someone dies of old age, publicly or privately, it is easier to think of that person in regards to their quality of life and quality of personality. However, for those unlucky enough to die publicly, the stigma is forever. They will always be known in history primarily as 'died in Columbine' or 'perished on Pan Am flight 103' or 'jumped to their death off of the Golden Gate Bridge'. At least those in the last example chose their end.

The Bridge is a relatively hopeless film, both in tone and content, as well as construction and quality. It is, allegedly, a probing documentary about the Golden Gate Bridge and its penchant for being used as a suicide device. Apparently, it is the world's most popular destination for suicide. The film states that in 2005, twenty-four people leaped off the bridge to their demise. Of all the millions of people worldwide who choose to end their own lives, the fact that twenty-four souls chose the same spot is not exactly a revelation.

This film is not about the bridge and its history as a choice of suicide. It does not feature statistics, experts, historians, or anyone with any amount of exceptional knowledge. It is simply an observation of several suicides and those that did or did not try to help them, and the scars that the survivors now keep. The effect eventually becomes one of monotony and annoyance, especially due to the constant ignorance, in regards to depression on display.

Pretty much every person profiled was a sufferer of mental illness, from garden-variety depression to paranoid schizophrenia. What aggravates is that many of the stories basically involve surrender. Surrender to illnesses for which there is quality treatment available, surrender to misconceptions about various kinds of mental illness, and surrender to doing less than what could be done and then decrying the results. One story involves parents who basically allow their young son to commit suicide because they don't think they can stop him and want him to choose his own path. We never even discover whether that child was mentally ill and what steps were taken to help him in the first place. One of the main threads involved a young musician who waited till his mother died of cancer before ending his life. We learn much about his friends, who tried their best to be his family. But the film offers up ridiculous excuses (he was upset because he couldn't find love) and absurd what-ifs (the day he died, he was about to be approved for a job that he wanted), as if these simple events were catalysts or preventions in waiting.

To be fair, it is not the disagreeable attitudes and actions of the characters that makes this film so awkward, but rather that the film really has no focus. The film is not about the bridge, it's not about suicide per se, and it's certainly not about mental illness in any real or accurate way. It is, basically, ninety minutes of survivors discussing their grief over their loved-ones' untimely ends. Yet the overreaching theme seems to be that many of them really did not do much to prevent said tragedies, yet now are upset that their friends dared to end their own lives. Many of my friends suffer from varying degrees of depression and there is plenty of quality treatment available to render their conditions almost invisible. Yet, time after time we see someone bemoaning how his or her friend couldn't just shake it off or get over it. Yes, it is the responsibility of the actual suicides in relation to their actions, but the 'it's all in their heads' attitude about mental illness that most of the interview subjects seem to share says a lot both about them and, perhaps, about the filmmakers.

In the end, The Bridge is a portrait of grief, but without any real reason to hear these stories. Their lives were not defined by the bridge that they lept from, nor even from their final actions. It would seem that their lives were defined by the ignorance of those around them, in regards to the mental illnesses that eventually killed them. In many ways, the film is just as ignorant.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Review: Deliver Us From Evil (2006)

Deliver Us From Evil
100 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Back in my high school days, I fell into reading the non-fiction works of John Douglas and Robert Ressler. Both were pioneering profilers for the FBI back in the 70s and 80s and both had extensive careers tracking and analyzing serial killers, rapists, spree killers, and the like. Although Ressler was the elder statesman of the two (he actually coined the term 'serial killer'), Douglas's work was always far more entertaining. The difference was that of tone. While Ressler often went into rants about how evil, depraved and horrible his subjects were, and how despicable their crimes were, Douglas had none of that. Douglas trusted the readers to realize the levels of sadism often on display and felt no need to point out the obvious.

Deliver Us From Evil is a documentary that, for most of its running time, dares to be clinical and almost objective. There is no narration and while the interviews are obviously edited together, there is a feeling of free-flowing conversation throughout. The subject matter is obviously inflammatory, but director Amy Berg does not sensationalize the events in question, but rather allows victims and victimizers alike to explain their actions in cold, meticulous detail.

The story in question concerns one Father Oliver O'Grady. From 1976 until 1993, he was sent to several different parishes in California, where he would befriend local families and use that trust to rape or molest the children in the household. Some were girls and some were boys, but a true victim count has never been tallied. Throughout this time, he was aided and abetted by the Catholic Church in general, and specifically Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who desperately wanted to become Arch-Bishop. Under Mahoney, more than 550 priests abused children without consequence. This movie centers merely on O'Grady, allegedly the most prolific of the offenders, and several of his victims.

If you followed the headlines in the summer of 2002, the general outline of this is not news. The concept of pedophile priests is not a new one, but the explosive allegations of that summer merely cemented what many always believed: that high ranking church officials (including the current Pope) protected the offending priests from criminal and civil punishment and also sent them from one parish to another.

While the film provides few factual revelations, it is a sobering and powerful character study of victims and their families, as well as the victimizer and his accomplices. Colorfully morbid details are tossed about and the various philosophies of the church are discussed in relation to the scandals that are present. Theories on why there are so many pedophiles in the church are offered and various stereotypes are tackled (there are just as many female victims as male, and most pedophiles are heterosexual in nature). Various histories of church dogma are also discussed in relation to the crimes in question. The film falters in its last act, as it shifts from a personal study to a grand overview of the pedophile priest issue; with the victims traveling to the Vatican to deliver a letter to the Pope. The film is at its best when it acknowledges the mass problem but centers on the few victims that are interviewed. But, at its core, the film is simply a study of a relatively objective serial rapist and the victims he left behind.

Deliver Us From Evil is not sensationalistic and refuses to attempt to shock the audience. So clinical and low-key are its descriptions of child sex crimes, that there is genuine shock when tempers do flare and profanities are actually uttered (subject matter aside, the film is a few 'f-words' away from a PG in terms of actual onscreen content). It is a dark and sobering look at a mass tragedy and shameful legacy, seen through the eyes of a few brave souls who felt it was worth talking about, as well as the main figure in the sorrow. As for why he was so willing to open up, one can only guess. Perhaps he merely wanted to have his say, no matter how damning it is. For now, it is a time capsule for when he leaves this world and, possibly, receives his punishment.

Grade: A-

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Review: Hollywoodland (2006)

120 minutes
Rated R

By Scott Mendelson

There are few things more annoying than a movie that keeps taking us from the story that we care about. We have a fascinating, fictionalized character study of one of the more interesting Hollywood fables, but the film keeps dragging us back into a route, run-of-the-mill film noir mystery. We have a story filled with tragedy, pathos, and potency, but the film seems far more concerned with who-dun-it, even when the culprit is pretty obvious from the get-go.

In 1959, George Reeves, best known for playing Superman on the 1950s television show, apparently shot himself in the head. For a generation of children who knew him only as Superman, this was a traumatic moment. Rumors have long since run rampant, suggesting murder most foul, rather than suicide most tragic. Hollywoodland takes that real life 'mystery' and spins a woefully conventional detective story that spans every bad Spillane cliché. But that murder most boring occasionally takes a backseat to flashbacks to the last several years of Mr. Reeves' life, and those segments provided a moving portrait of a promising actor who came of age at just the wrong time in the film industry.

George Reeves' (Ben Afflick in his best performance since Changing Lanes) career started promisingly with a supporting role in Gone With The Wind. Alas, upon returning home from the war, he found it hard to bounce back. He eventually took a job in a pilot TV show based on the comic book adventures of Superman. The show became a phenomenon and 'serious actor' Reeves was stuck with the fame, but not the fortune,of being beloved hero to children across America.

His eventual demise comes to the attention of a rather low-level private eye, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody, doing what he can to humanize a stock character). Simo's family and career is in shambles, and even his own son is traumatized by the death of the Man Of Steel (his son is devastated that Reeves used a Luger, a Nazi weapon). He hires himself into the services of Reeves' mother, who swears that murder was the cause. From here on in, it's a completely uninvolving investigation route as lovers (Diane Lane, Robin Tunney), friends (Jeffrey DeMunn, pitch perfect as his agent/manager), and duplicitous rich people (Bob Hoskins, boring perhaps for the first time ever as the head of MGM) are suspected in the crime in question. None of this is very compelling, since we all know what probably happened in real life and there is no real flair that separates this from the Reeves segment found on Unsolved Mysteries.

The snippets of the life of George Reeves are fascinating, however. Afflick perfectly captures the tragedy of a career destroyed by the very role that made him a star. One of the earliest victims of television typecasting; Reeves always found it hard to shake off the aura of Superman, a childrens' television role that he may not even have cared for all that much. To an entire generation of television viewers, children and adults alike, there was no line between Superman the character and Reeves the actor (this is demonstrated absolutely in the film's most chilling scene, an event that actually occurred).

Surely Afflick could relate to an actor whose career and credibility was undermined by the public's refusal to separate character from actor, or actor from gossip. Had he been around years earlier, Reeves could have found refuge in the studio system that would have put him in movies at a steady rate. Had he found fame later, he would have found audiences more willing to see their hero in different, more challenging roles. Caught between the two Hollywoods of the 20th century, Reeves never had a chance at breaking out of his world-famous tomb. The final scenes, which go from a sad meeting with manager Arthur Weismann (DeMunn) to the viewing of a key piece of film, are heartbreaking in their subtlety and underscored pathos.

Alas, by presuming that we care about a fictionalized murder mystery over a character study of one of the most famous actors of the last fifty years, Hollywoodland undermines that which makes it unique in the first place. We are stuck with a boring 'mystery' for which the solution is obvious, and thus the conflicts contained unlikely. First time director Allen Coulter should have left the conspiracy theories to the late Robert Stack. Especially when he had a far more fascinating and involving story at his fingertips, waiting to be fully explored.

Grade: C+

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Review: Everyone's Hero (2006)

Everyone's Hero
80 minutes
Rated G

by Scott Mendelson

When I was a kid, back in the 1980s, feature-length cartoons were the epitome of 'uncool'. Aside from the occasional quality Universal cartoon (An American Tail, Land Before Time) pretty much the only studio making them was Disney, and they were nearing the end of their 20-year rut (dating basically from The Jungle Book until The Great Mouse Detective and The Little Mermaid). In general, feature length cartoons were immature, badly animated, poorly written, and condescending to the nth degree. In other words, cartoons were purely for 'babies'.

Everyone's Hero is, alas, a cartoon 'for babies'. It's a cartoon in the worst sense of the term. While, occasional clunkers aside, animated features have vastly improved in the last fifteen years, Everyone's Hero is an unfortunate reminder of the bad old days. The dialogue is overwritten, on the nose, and full of the most obvious clichés. The acting is over-the-top, obnoxiously full volume, and cloying. The plot is full of holes and horribly paced, and the attempt at portraying a very specific time in history backfires by vilifying certain people over others purely for the sake of the story. The film is easily the worst animated feature that I've seen since Shark Tale, and the only reason that it's getting distribution is because it was directed in part by Christopher Reeve.

The plot, in brief… Yankee Irving (Jake T. Austin) is a young boy who loves baseball but is quite terrible at it. More than anything, he admires his dad (a security guard at Yankee stadium) and Babe Ruth, who is currently leading the Yankees to World Series victory against the evil Chicago Cubs (I'm not kidding… the Cubbies are portrayed as downright evil in this film). Alas, the diabolical owner of the Cubs devises a scheme to steal Babe Ruth's bat, a plan that involves the evil pitcher Lefty (William H. Macy, proving to young children that south paws are fiendish bat-stealing, child attacking villains) and results in Yankee's dad (Mandy Patinkin) losing his job. Thus, Yankee sets out to find the bat and take it to Chicago before the series deciding game. Alleged adventure and morals about never giving up ensue. After about 40 minutes of this silliness, which includes a screeching and fatally obnoxious Rob Reiner as a talking baseball and a screeching and annoying Whoopi Goldberg as a talking bat, I gave up.

Just as one can never know how Stanley Kubrick would have improved Eyes Wide Shut had he not died mid-production, one cannot know how much of the blame to foist upon the late Reeve. His 1997 directorial debut, In The Gloaming, was a devastatingly good HBO drama about a young AIDS-stricken son returning home to die. His post-accident acting roles were hit and miss, from a silly, misguided remake of Rear Window, to a delightful guest turn on The Practice (where he obviously had fun playing a paraplegic who is still capable of murder).

We can't say whether he would have approved of Reiner's unforgivable overacting, which demanded that he talk at a constant pace and scream every line at top volume (a common trait of the bad 1980s toons). We can't say whether he would have approved a boring storyline that demonizes the Chicago Cubs and all of their fans, and ignores every single Yankee save for Babe Ruth. Ironically, for a movie about perseverance and personal courage, the film absolutely ignores the one Yankee of that period that symbolized those traits, Lou Gehrig.

We hope that he would have approved of the one solid piece of the film, a small scene that gives the spotlight to the much forgotten Negro League, a part of history that most of the target audience has probably never heard of. The film further spins off the rails by having its young hero ignore the obvious logical option for saving the day, which serves only to prolong the story at several key junctures (the late Chicago native Gene Siskel of course referred to this phenomenon as the Idiot Plot). And the climax blows all credibility by allowing the young hero to achieve the sort of opportunity that no actual child in his situation would ever hope to accomplish, thus undermining what could have been a fable about what a young go-getter could actually do under adversity.

Everyone's Hero is a boring, trite, obnoxious would-be fable about never giving up, yet the filmmakers obviously gave up before finessing this work to the level of adequate entertainment. To quote the would-be catchphrase, the filmmakers and cast surely should have kept on swinging.

Grade: D

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Review: Snakes On A Plane (2006)

Snakes On A Plane
97 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Snakes On A Plane
may be the first strike in a somewhat troubling new concept. For the last six months, there has been a homegrown Internet campaign of excitement based around this film, primarily due to the delightfully blunt title and the idea of Samuel L. Jackson doing his bad-ass shtick in a B-movie popcorn film. This is all fine and good, as its always nice when a film catches heat purely through word of mouth and ground-level excitement. However, this is the first case I can recall of filmmakers doing reshoots and adding in extra material based on the wanting of online fans and geeks who haven't even seen the film. Alas, it is those very additions that undermine an otherwise sleek and worthwhile B-horror thriller. Be careful what you wish for.

Agent Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson, playing it completely straight save for fan-requested bits) is entrusted with a witness (Nathan Phillips) against ruthless mob boss Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). Onboard a flight to the trial, Jackson, his witness, and a whole variety of updated disaster movie clichés (the Paris Hilton-wannabee, the gangsta rapper and his posse, the twins flying alone for the first time, the young mother, the snotty foreigner, the flight attendant who turned down early retirement) discover that they are in the most unusual of disaster scenarios. Kim has smuggled a whole planeload of very poisonous snakes on board, in the hopes of creating enough carnage to crash the plane.

The next two acts become a race to destroy the snakes and land the plane before those who have been bitten succumb. It's almost a remake of Zero Hour, the disaster movie that inspired Airplane!. Many scenes feel like subtle homage to Airplane!. On its face, its a fun, exciting, and relatively entertaining ride. Scenes on the ground, with a levelheaded and amusingly droll snake expert working with the FBI to try to solve the situation, are great fun and the alleged science is convincing enough to be enjoyed. The snakes attack with fury, picking off quite a few passengers (at one point someone claims that 50 people have already died, but that seems a bit high based on what we've seen). As with most disaster movies, some passengers and crew unfairly die and others unfairly live. With a couple exceptions (blame the geeks), the violence is not played for laughs. The acting is as good as it needs to be, and Nathan Phillips provides a worthwhile portrayal of a decent guy trying to do the right thing. His guilt and helplessness at the situation he indirectly caused is surprisingly poignant.

I have just described the movie as it was originally intended. However, thanks to the drumbeats of armchair filmmakers, the film was altered to give it a higher 'cool quotient'. Now, in a relatively serious thriller, we have comic scenes of gratuitous nudity, comic scenes of 'funny' violence (the first two snake attacks were reshot to make the teen boys scream 'cool!'), and lots of gratuitous profanity. The worst example of this is the most famous. At the request of these geeks, we have a scene towards the finale where Sam Jackson, completely out of character, blatantly on a different set, and not looking at anyone, screams that hes "tired of these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!" Aside from the fact that this moment is completely out of character and forced, the obviousness of the insert (think Raymond Burr in Godzilla) completely takes you out of the film. The 'amped-up' film is still not terribly gory or bloody; so don't expect a gore fest (The Descent will provide that, and it will scare the crap out of you too).

What we have is a relatively good thriller, which is harmed by the studio caving in to their worst instincts to appease the lowest denominator of geek. Hopefully this is a one-time deal and not the start of a disturbing trend. Movies should be made by filmmakers and digested by moviegoers. If fans don't like George Lucas changing his own movies in any way he pleases, then they have the right not to buy Star Wars merchandise. This absurd and scary concept of fan ownership can only result in more crass, dumber, sillier film making. Prophets of doom aside, most of Snakes On A Plane is a worthwhile B-movie thriller with fun characters, decent production values, and a worthwhile plot to support its initial concept. It's worth seeing in its present form, but, if given the eventual choice, I'll buy the original PG-13 version.

Grade: B-

Friday, August 11, 2006

Review: Akeelah And The Bee (2006)

Akeelah And The Bee
112 minutes
Rated PG

by Scott Mendelson

About this time every year, the critics and film journalists crow about just how awful the year has thus far been. As they talk up the fall's Oscar contenders, they bemoan the alleged lack of quality summer fare and winter wonders. Alas, for once, I agree with them this year. The film calendar of 2006 has been a vast desert wasteland of near misses (Mission: Impossible 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, Hollywoodland), brain-dead popcorn filler (Da Vinci Code, Everyone's Hero, World Trade Center), and truly heartbreaking screw-ups (Superman Returns and Lady In The Water). Never in my life can I remember a whole year with so few winners, a paucity to the point where good, high-quality, professional entertainments are heralded as masterpieces (The Illusionist, V For Vendetta, Little Miss Sunshine). But there is one honest to goodness masterpiece that was released this year. In all likelihood you didn't see it. It comes out on DVD on September 5th. Don't make the same mistake twice.

The plot: Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer, already showing range with a completely different character from this year's Madea's Family Reunion) is a middle-schooler in a poor, predominantly African-American neighborhood. Living by her mother (Angela Bassett, terrific per norm) following the murder of her father a few years ago, she tries to deal with the various struggles of growing up poor in a school system that can't provide as well as peers who scorn those who dare to use their brain. Through happenstance, she ends up winning her school spelling bee and is encouraged by her principal (Curtis Armstrong, playing it straight) to partake in further levels of competition. Although she has a knack for spelling, she finds she needs tutelage. Enter Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne, back in low-key mentor mode), a former UCLA professor and spelling bee champion who reluctantly agrees to coach her.

That's all you get. The plot alternates between tried and true convention and shocking surprise. Knowing full well the expectations of the genre he is in, writer/director Doug Atchison grounds the film in a mild gritty realism, while being unafraid of high emotions and subtle character shadings. While the film earns its PG, there are undertones of the poor, often unsafe streets that Akeelah lives on. Refreshingly, there isn't the obligatory homicide that often ends the second act in such films, having a random friend/relative get killed to show the down and out hero what he/she is fighting for (Step Up, Coach Carter, Poetic Justice, Gridiron Gang, etc). Despite the snippet of the mean streets, there are no real villains. Even the film's representative for gang culture (Eddie Staples, from My Name Is Earl) gets a charming, redemptive scene of humanity and warmth.

Yes, there are a few clichés here and there, but clichés become such because, when done correctly, or subverted slightly, they work. Yes, Dr. Larabee has his own demons to face down, Akeelah's mother is reluctant to support her at first, and Akeelah's best friend feels left out, but these worn-devices are resolved in unexpected ways (and at different points in the story than you'd expect). Even the climactic spelling bee match has several potent surprises, concluding with easily the most original and classiest ending to a sports film since Tin Cup. On a slightly related note, why is it that allegedly Oscar-worthy underdog stories like Cinderella Man that target 'mature adults' often paint their opposing athletes as simplistic, inhuman monsters, while alleged 'kiddie fare' allows the hero's opponents to be fully fleshed out characters and worthy adversaries?

In the end, Akeelah And The Bee works. The characters are sympathetic and fully dimensional. The story, while slightly familiar, is full of rich plot twists and character development. And the acting is top-notch across the board (perhaps, with this, What's Love Got To Do With It, and the play Fences, Bassett and Fishburne should be required to work together once every few years). In a year of disappointments, Akeelah And The Bee dares to be far better than it has any right to be. It is simply a terrific movie and all-ages entertainment of the best variety. Unfortunately, due to the early theatrical release date and lackluster box-office, its Oscar chances are all but non-existent. Nonetheless, as of this late date in 2006, Akeelah And The Bee is easily the best film of the year.

Grade: A+


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