Thursday, January 19, 2006

Review: Something New (2006)

Something New
rated PG-13
97 minutes

By Scott Mendelson

Something New isn't. Something New is actually a stock romantic drama, a slight reworking of the romantic drama archetype. Of course, formula isn't always a bad thing. Movie making is often less about what and more about how. A good film can survive unoriginality if it is stylistic or fresh in its approach. Alas, Something New isn't any of those things to the extent to which it can overcome its trappings.

The plot: Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) is a 30-something African American accountant who, along with her friends, mourns the lack of quality African American men in the dating pool. Her friend attempts to help by setting her up on a blind date with Brian (Simon Baker). Alas, Kenya refuses to date white people, so she basically flees in terror. Fate plays a hand as they meet again and she ends up hiring Brian to landscape the yards of her new home. Romantic complications do eventually ensue as Kenya must come to grips with her feelings toward Brian, her prejudicial notions about dating outside of her skin color, and her idealized idea of who she wants to spend her life with.

The film confronts, rather bluntly, the casual racism that can exist in the black community. As Brian enters Kenya's world, he is constantly a target of offhand racial barbs and off-color jokes that would force a public apology were the skin colors reversed. Kenya's family is upfront in their disapproval of her 'skiing the slopes' and her friends initially aren't much nicer about the subject (though they warm up much faster). In fact, it's a bit shocking to see Alfre Woodard, who usually plays the voice of reason and wisdom, portraying such a bigoted and unsupportive mother figure. There is also a token mention of her workaholic lifestyle, though the film refreshingly doesn't have her quit her successful and high-paying job and become a dog walker, unlike the otherwise terrific In Her Shoes. Also refreshing is that Brian's eventual rival for Kenya's affections (Blair Underwood) is not a villain, which makes the drama that much more credible.

As promising as the film is, it falls short in several key areas. First and foremost, the dialogue is often absurdly on-the-nose. Big ideas and themes are explicitly detailed in the dialogue, often in platitudes, instead of flowing naturally. This problem reaches a paramount during a climactic speech by Kenya's boss, which unintentionally comes off as highly condescending (though it is appreciated that her boss is also not villainous). This lack of subtlety also extends to the direction itself, with several shots that highlight Brians' manly' landscaping work to the point of humorous leering.

Speaking of Brian, he is presented as a nearly perfect creature of patience and comfort. Granted, this is not the first romantic drama where a perfect man is consistently and unfairly pushed away from a the selfish and often cruel female lead, only to come back hat in hand to the point of sadomasochism (most Julia Roberts comedies and the later seasons of Friends spring to mind), but it's still annoying. Throughout the film, we learn very little about Brian's life outside his work and his courtship of Kenya. Ironically, there probably was a subplot involving Brian's family, but it was cut out. We know this because John Ratzenberger shows up at the very end in a literally wordless 30-second cameo. Surely he had more scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor.

There is much to like about Something New, which makes the fatal flaws all the more aggravating. The film's eventual message is worth hearing, and it's well acted, but the writing fails it and the whole package just feels too much something old to recommend outright. Still, it's miles better than the usual romantic tripe offered around this season and if a date movie is inescapable, and he or she isn't willing to try Brokeback Mountain, then Something New will probably be an acceptable substitute.

Grade: C+

Monday, January 16, 2006

Review: Annapolis (2006)

rated PG-13
96 minutes

By Scott Mendelson

Annapolis is a stunningly stupid, hilariously inept ode to brainless testosterone. It celebrates the triumph of reckless ego over brotherhood, and brute strength over brains and common sense. Of course, the joke is that this film is set at Annapolis, a very well regarded school for training Navy leaders, and the very last place where selfishness and arrogance should find a home.

The plot: Jake Huard (James Franco, slumming) is a kid from a lower-class shipbuilding neighborhood. But he doesn't want to spend his life building ships. No, he'd much rather go to Annapolis, which can be seen from his neighborhood. But, he has a major chip on his shoulder and things don't start out on the right foot. With the help of a sympathetic lieutenant (Donnie Wahlberg, again proving that hes a far more natural actor than his more famous brother), and a commanding officer that he tried to hit on in civilian life (Jordana Brewster, looking like you CAN be an army leader before you get your drivers license), Jake will try to redeem himself against a brutal and demanding officer (Tyrese Gibson, quite good as the smartest character in the movie) not in the arena of knowledge, nor in the arena of Navy skills, but in a boxing ring.

Yup, that's right folks. The entire last third of this film is focused on the annual boxing tournament that eventually pits Jake against his rival Cole. Apparently, one doesn't need to be smart to be a top-notch Navy leader. Nor does one have to be wise to be a top-notch Navy leader. All one has to do, apparently, is be a top-notch prizefighter. Never mind that James ends the movie with the same terrible attitude and disdain for learning and cooperation that he came in with. Never mind that Cole is often viewed as the bad guy because he wants to push his recruits (he points out that he's been to war, so he knows what it allegedly takes). All James needs to validate his year at Annapolis is a keen right hook in front of his friends, fellow servicemen, and his estranged dad, who of course shows up late to the match at the most dramatic moment possible.

Putting aside the films stupid point of view, Annapolis is awash in the hoariest of cliches. We have the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, who has an attitude and a problem with authority. We have a comic relief overweight sidekick, who needs to prove himself to his hometown. He's played by a surprisingly winning Vicellous Reon Shannon, who tragically just became an orphan on 24. His story arc is actually far more compelling than the lead plot line, perhaps because he's the only one whose dialogue sounds human (he has a terrific monologue comparing Arkansas to Mississippi). We have the requisite hot commanding officer, whose purpose in the story is to... um, well... Brewster does look lovely. We have the straight-laced Asian student who is seemingly a villain because he wants to follow the rules. We have the halfway quit point, where the hero is talked out of quitting by a character from earlier in the story. We even have the cliffhanger moment where Jake's future rests in the hands of his mortal enemy.

All of this would be fine on its own accord. Cliches become cliches because they work. B-movies are a storied tradition in Hollywood and as long as they come in at a price, and they have competency at the core levels (acting, writing, directing), then formula stories are not doomed from inception. This is not the case. The core problem with the story is that Jake never, EVER truly learns to be a better person. He constantly gets his classmates in trouble and often has violent outbursts (a sucker punch delivered in a boxing match mid-movie will remind viewers, not in a good way, of Million Dollar Baby).

Even till the very end, he has a violent temper, a disdain for his colleagues, and a superiority complex. We don't root for him because the film gives us no reason to. Worst yet, the film sidelines a far more sympathetic character purely so Jake can have someone to fight in honor of. The moral of the story seems to be: be a violent, superior, unintelligent punk. As long as you can knock out your commanding officer in a boxing ring, then you're all good to be a top-notch Naval commander.

Grade: D

Friday, January 6, 2006

Review: Darwin's Nightmare (2005)

Darwin's Nightmare
107 minutes
not rated

by Scott Mendelson

Hubert Sauper's documentary Darwin's Nightmare feels like an unfinished product, full of interesting anecdotes and the occasional interesting idea, but never feeling like a complete film. It is a rushed, half-hazard work, seemingly rushed to meet a deadline. The film has no real connecting tissue and, shockingly enough, one of the central ideas is in fact cribbed from a different documentary, which Sauper shows us right in the middle of the film. It is a bad piece of would-be activism that has accidentally captured several moments of terrible potency. The activism for these issues is important, but this film is not.

The film is a 107-minute tour of the rampant poverty and desperation in Mwanza, Tanzania. We see testimonials from prostitutes, security guards, businessmen, and impoverished villagers. They all tell stories of starvation, disease, civil war, and the various kaleidoscopes of problems that pervade parts of Africa.

Eventually, a story presents itself. Some time ago (the film doesn't say but outside research brings up the 1960s) a business or government (the film doesn't say, but outside reading blames Russia) dumped a new breed of carnivorous fish into the Tanzanian waters. This fish provided an expensive and tasty new export from Tanzania to Europe. This fish also literally ate every other species of creature in the waters. This is bad for two reasons. First, these new 'fresh water killers' ate the fish which previously ate the various algae, seaweed, and other now polluting substances.

The bigger problem is that while many of the indigenous people were provided jobs at the new plants that caught, sorted, and prepared the new fish, the new fish were so expensive that no one in the villages could afford to buy them. The Tanzanian waters have been filled the fish that the Europeans love, while the indigenous people starve to death as their primary food source has been devoured by the new Nile Perch. The Africans get fish heads and leftovers, which are abandoned in areas that threaten the safety of those who collect them (one woman has had her eye swollen shut by fumes).

This story isn't actually told until halfway through the movie. Shockingly, it is told not through the lens of Sauper's footage, but through a secondary documentary 'Fresh Water Killer', that is played onscreen at a conference. Sauper doesn't lay this out himself, but rather points his camera at a TV screen and lets someone else tell the story. This is as lazy and unprofessional as a Holocaust documentary that merely pointed a camera at a TV showing Shoah or Night And Fog and hitting 'record'. The well-intentioned film is full of similar shoddy shortcuts. There is a running bit about a prostitute who was forced into the life and would rather study computers. Why her you ask? Because then it will be more poignant when she's murdered by a client toward the end of the film. Either the director filmed dozens of testimonials and picked out the one who got killed so as to add 'emotional impact', or he simply 'lucked out' when the very prostitute that he chose to focus on was the one who ended up dying. Either way, this coincidence is unnerving.

While the film may be not worth a recommendation, there are some interesting bits worth mentioning. It is never out and out stated, but we eventually learn that the planes that arrive to bring the fish back to Europe may in fact be carrying weapons to fuel the various African civil wars. Alas, much of the arms-dealing content is unproven innuendo. Most poignant is the interview of a security guard, who states that civil war may in fact be good for the starving people of Africa, since the best paying and most secure jobs are those found in the army. And, ironically, donations and aid are far less likely to be given during relative peacetime.

Darwin's Nightmare goes out of its way to tell a simple story in a complicated way, withholding information from the viewer for the sake of 'gotcha' moments later in the narrative. While the subject matter is interesting and quite tragic, it's not a very good film. It's the sort of factual documentary where reading other reviews of the documentary or Google-ing topics related to the film will bring one far more information than the film itself. I learned more reading about the subject matter before and after seeing this film then I did during. Those seeking knowledge might be inclined to skip the movie altogether.

Grade: C


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