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+

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Review: World Trade Center (2006)

World Trade Center
126 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

World Trade Center
is a relatively uninvolving story about two policemen who enter a burning building and are trapped in rubble when said building collapses. On it's face, the film isn't terribly moving, the performances are barely adequate, and several key characters are rendered in such broad strokes as to be unsettling or unsympathetic. It's simply a badly made film, but will that matter to audiences distracted by a 'nationalistic obligation' to embrace it?

World Trade Center concerns two policemen who were trapped in one of the World Trade buildings in NYC when those buildings were hit by passenger jets and collapsed on 9-11-01. Officers John McLouglin (Nicolas Cage, doing what he can with very little character depth) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena, shining in the proverbial lead role) make their way to the police station on that fateful Tuesday morning. After receiving word that a plane has hit the World Trade Center, they make their way to the building to assist with rescue efforts. They enter the tower right as it falls and traps them in the rubble.

The first 25 minutes are simply spellbinding and riveting, as we see pieces of the attack from the eyes of unknowing victims (this is the only part that feels like an Oliver Stone film). The sense of futility is stunning. It's obvious that the city was completely unprepared in equipment and technology for this event (the stinging acknowledgment of this is the only thing that comes close to making any political statements, in an otherwise apolitical film). Unfortunately, once John and Will fall into the ground, the film becomes awash in melodramatic clichés.

The film then alternates between scenes of John and Will trying to keep each other awake, scenes of their would-be rescuers, and scenes of their families suffering. The scenes of our two attempted heroes are worthwhile and entertaining. There is a tangible sense of dread, as they both know that random fragments of the building or a random spark could kill them at any moment. Unfortunately, the family grieving scenes frankly reek of Lifetime clichés. Actually, the 90s Lifetime movie about a woman trapped in rubble after the Oklahoma City bombing (Oklahoma City: A Survivor's Story) is actually better than this film.

The wives are underdeveloped and their children alternate between cloy and vile. John's son spends his scenes yelling at his mother for not 'doing something'; behavior that is so naive and cruel that his heartlessness hurts that whole portion of the movie. Meanwhile, Will's pregnant wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has a slow nervous breakdown, but her scenes of strife are nothing we haven't seen before in other, better movies. Weirdly enough, Will's wife's (Caucasian) family is presented as energetic, spirited, and can-do Americans, while Will's (non-Caucasian) family is represented mainly by his mother kneeling on the floor and helplessly weeping. Intentional or not, the symbolism is disturbing.

Speaking of disturbing, the third thread concerns Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a former marine who spearheaded the rescue effort. Presented as a zealot who drove thousands of miles to help, he is played (unintentionally?) as a genuinely scary figure, whose good deeds don't mask the fact that he's quite frightening in his zealotry (he has cold, dead eyes, believes that he is on a holy quest, and speaks like he'll kill you if you disagree with him). Apparently, several humanizing details were cut out of the film; so all were left with is a Christian fanatic (as opposed to a merely devout Christian) who finds his way onto Ground Zero in the dead of night.

Oddly, the film strives so hard to be uplifting and inspiring that it almost forgets to present that day as a monumental tragedy as well (a late, brief scene involving Viola Davis as a grieving mother feels tacked on). Alas, the recent flawed remake of Poseidon presented a more potent look at the tragedy of mass death (the mass drowning of the ballroom passengers, with Andre Braugher hugging Stacy Ferguson as they await doom, is heartbreaking).

So, in the end, we have a mediocre disaster film with undeveloped or unsympathetic characters. We have cliched dialogue and situations along with a boring second act. The film fails the key rule of based on truth film making. If this story were complete fiction, would it still be worth seeing or half as effective? The filmmakers hope that moviegoers will be swept up in the 'oh, but it's about 9/11' glow and ignore the fact that this is really a mediocre motion picture. This is not the great 9/11 epic of our time, and you don't have a patriotic duty to embrace it.

Grade: C-


Related Posts with Thumbnails