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Old tricks, no treats.
In the taxonomy of redeeming values, one could include social, scientific, artistic, political, comedic, moral, etc. And it's nearly impossible to find any creative work that can't be defended or justified under one of these categories. That is, until now. Rob Zombie's "Halloween" is devoid of any redeeming value. It not only plumbs the depths of deprivation, it sets a new low-water mark for tasteless dreck.
This has nothing to do with prudishness, squeamishness, or easily offended sensibilities. It has to do with poor scripting, bad (read "no") character development, predictability, gratuitous gore and ultimately, just plain meaninglessness. Even the most abstract, non-narrative, experimental genres of film have a point that can be ascertained, albeit with some difficulty in some cases. But "Halloween" has no point. In the end, it is merely a series of unmotivated, contrived, gruesome vignettes that, cumulatively, add up to nothing. The film uses every cliché known to bad cinema: Doors that don't open, guns that don't fire, victims who fall and crawl when they can ill-afford to do so, under lit scenes that attempt to falsely create a sense of impending mayhem, some horrific, vile and pandering dialogue and the monster who just won't die. Mr. Zombie uses them all. It's hard to escape the notion that there is nothing intended or achieved beyond fundamental shock value.
Billed as a 'retelling' of John Carpenter's original, a somewhat, if only marginally better version, this edition of "Halloween" supposedly provides an explanation of the causes of Michael Myers' homicidal psychosis, to wit, his excessively foul-mouthed and dysfunctional parents, who, as characters are as creek-shallow as the rest of the cast. The only one I felt sorry for was Malcolm McDowellthe actor--not Dr. Loomis, his character. How he, the quintessential, ultra-violent Alex de Large of Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" and the multi-faceted Mick Travises of Lindsay Anderson's "If" and "O Lucky Man" and the H. G. Wells of "Time After Time," got roped into such an awful piece of cinema is a mystery.
Thematically and cinematically, "Halloween" is virtually identical to Mr. Zombie's two previous films, "House Of 1000 Corpses" and "The Devil's Rejects." In fact, except for the titles, the three films are nearly indistinguishable from one another as they all suffer from being stuck in the same stylistic rut. While Mr. Zombie does push the envelope of bad taste, there's no evidence that he pushes his own development as a filmmaker, and shows no directorial growth in his progression of films. What he overlooks in his bloodlust is the idea that showing less can be more effective than showing more, as in the "Psycho" shower scene when the knife is never seen striking the victim. Leaving nothing to the viewer's imagination and, instead, hammering home the obvious, can be the undoing of a film, which sums up the problem with "Halloween." Slasher films may well be the cinematic equivalents of bottom-feeders, but it doesn't necessarily follow that they have to be abhorrently distasteful and bad, or that they can't strive to achieve some measure of redeeming value.
Where Rob Zombie will go from here seems painfully apparent. Having painted himself into a corner from which it may be hard to escape, he may be his own next victim.
Vanity Fair (2004)
Adaptation Of Thackeray's Novel Is 'Fair'
Good fences may make good neighbors, but great novels don't always make great films. So it is with the most recent adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair." Adapted for the screen by Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet, the film is not without merit, but like previous versions (anywhere from five to nine--depending on whether you include TV miniseries and alternate titles), it falls short of capturing the depth and breadth of the sprawling Victorian novel. It's a worthy film, but one whose narrative reach exceeds its cinematic grasp.
Set against a background of the impending, and later occurring, Napoleonic Wars, "Vanity Fair" follows Rebecca Sharp's (Reese Witherspoon) 30-plus year odyssey from finishing school to Europe and beyond, as she uses her charm and grace to ascend 19th century London's social ladder, while hiding, or at least camouflaging, her unimpressive roots. Born of working-class parents-her father a painter; her mother an 'opera' singer--Becky sets her sights on gaining acceptance by the upper class, her obvious recognition of its inherent vanity and rampant hypocrisy notwithstanding. They are, in fact, attributes she willingly embraces.
The story chronicles the good fortune (mostly) of the perceptive, quick-witted Becky, and the misfortunes (mostly) of her longtime friend Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai). Becky, is amoral, scheming, determined; an opportunistic survivor, who shows that hypocrisy and social grace can be acquired skills. Amelia, on the other hand, despite her more privileged background, is guileless, naïve, and too trusting-- traits that Becky would regard as vulnerabilities.
Ms. Witherspoon gives a high-energy performance as the alluring, deceitful, charming Becky, and she exudes more than enough sensuality to be effectively convincing. The film also features performances by Jim Broadbent as Mr. Osborn; Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as his son, George, an army officer and egotistical lout; James Purefoy as Rawdon Crawley, the spurned husband of Becky; Gabriel Byrne as Lord Steyne, who never forgets about an unpaid debt--especially one that's owed him by Becky; and the always dependable Bob Hoskins, as crusty Sir Pitt the Elder.
Director Mira Nair, as in some of her earlier films ("Monsoon Wedding," "Mississippi Masala"), again examines issues of class and social structure, no doubt influenced by her cultural roots in class-conscious India. With fine cinematography by Declan Quinn, lavish costuming by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor and stylish production design by Maria Djurkovic, Ms. Nair offers a visually well-presented work. Her use of warm, saturated colors evokes the elegance and opulence of the privileged class, and is contrasted against the muted and cooler tones used in the street scenes of the hoi polloi, who through intimidation, indifference or inadvertence do their part to maintain the status quo.
Arguably, tackling Thackeray's work is an ambitious undertaking, to be sure. In the end, maybe too ambitious. In fairness, adaptations, by their very nature, cannot be completely representative of any original work, and difficult directorial choices must be made. However, given the marginal successes of earlier attempts, the choice of doing another film version of "Vanity Fair" may not have been the most prudent one, despite its attractive subject matter. Still, Ms. Nair successfully captures some of the cynicism, irony and satire of the book, though to have captured it all would have required much more than the film's 2-1/4 hours running time. Consequently, events unfold too quickly, and most characters are delineated too thinly. Through both default and necessity, they become abbreviated versions of themselves, lacking some dimensional depth and much of the time seeming to operate within the same, limited emotional register. The result is a "Vanity Fair" that offers more superficial glimpses than profound insights; a film that skims more than it probes. Nevertheless, its high production value does make it an entertaining, if not a compelling work.
Peaceable Kingdom (2004)
Slaughterhouse Film Puts Animal Rights On The Table
Following the publication of Upton Sinclair's hard-hitting, 1906 novel "The Jungle", which detailed the grim realities of the Chicago meat packing industry, he commented, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." Now, one hundred years later, a documentary about the inhumane conditions that still exist in that industry again aims for the heart, but this time, squarely hits its target.
"Peaceable Kingdom", a sensitive and sensible film, centers on the Farm Sanctuary, a collective in Watkins Glen, New York, whose mission is rescuing 'factory farm' animals, particularly sick and injured ones, from the slaughterhouse. It's a daunting task--and a sad one. Graphic footage of thousands of live-but-useless baby chicks being poured into dumpsters by front-end loaders, and of 'downed' cattle being dragged to their deaths by tractors and fork lifts, is alarming and disturbing, regardless of where one dines on the culinary continuum . To be fair, this is not always the case, but neither is it the rare exception.
On one level, "Peaceable Kingdom" is an unabashed and overt appeal to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle--a tall order, and one that even Farm Collective members would probably agree will fall on many deaf ears given our culture's inveterate meat and dairy based diet. But on a second, and perhaps, higher level, it's a plea to provide, at the very least, a humane system within which food source animals are protected from abuse and neglect. Although the film is not a judgmental indictment of meat eaters, it will undoubtedly have its carnivorous critics. But even the most dedicated Burger King and McDonald's diners will get the point here. It's not just about what we eat, but the way we go about supplying that need.
In industrialized nations where food production and food consumption rarely interface, it's easy for consumers to be insulated from the process by which dinner gets on the table. And it's likely that many have never seen the living versions of the animals that have become dietary staples. This isn't solely due to a more urbanized society, but also because of less visible food farming practices. Unlike dairy and cattle farms of the past, where outdoor grazing was the norm, today's factory farms have become indoor operations confining animals to cramped, unlit, mechanized environments designed to produce higher yields using less labor, facilitated by the use of tons of chemical additives, gallons of antibiotics and millions of cubic feet of aerosol pesticides, all of which inevitably find their way into the food chain and our kitchens.
Produced by Tribe Of Heart co-founders James LaVeck and Jenny Stein, "Peaceable Kingdom" avoids attempts to be slick, flashy or confrontational. Its straightforward production value, though not quite professional, is far from inexperienced. It's articulate, not preachy; thought provoking, not disapproving; suggestive, not critical. And decidedly opinionated, which any good documentary should be. It's only drawback is its failure to identify any of its on-camera interviewees.
Ultimately, determining whether humans are, by nature, carnivores, herbivores or omnivores is an anthropological question. But the conditions to which animal food sources are subjected in the name efficiency or expediency--and profit--is a social one, and maybe one worth more consideration than most are willing to give it. "Peaceable Kingdom" puts that question on the table.
Get Rich or Die Tryin' (2005)
Misses the mark
The idea of making a movie star out of a musical performer is certainly not a new one, but there does seem to be more of it than there used to be, though the success of such ventures isn't any greater despite the number of attempts. The latest is Jim Sheridan's "Get Rich Or Die Trying" a bio pic (a term that I've come to dislike) about hip hop artist 50 Cent, with the title taken from his first CD.
The film's opening scene is an ominous one of a heist gone bad resulting in Cent being shot nine times, a factual element in his life from which he still bears the scars, and carries a bullet's fragment. Flashing back, the details of his life are laid out: At the age of eight, his mother, a hustling drug dealer in New York, is murdered; by age twelve, he's a dime-bag hustler on the streets, living in poverty. Though sidetracked by the allure of easy money in the drug trade, despite its unavoidable violence, its betrayals and its deaths, the young 50 Cent is intent on becoming a rap star, and the film lays out the path that ultimately got him to that status. But somewhere in the telling, the line between the truth and the fiction becomes indistinct giving the impression that 'wanting' is somehow synonymous with 'getting', and the details of the difficulty of the journey tend to get lost. While the film speaks to the level of violence that exists in today's urban, hip-hop culture, it tends to address it more matter of factly than tragically. When scenes of shootings and beatings, regardless of who's giving or receiving them, meet with an indifferent, or worse, an approving audience, something is terribly wrong with what's being said.
A film like this seemed to be an odd choice for director Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot", "In America") best known for his films about the struggles of the disenfranchised, working-class Irish. But Sheridan grew up in a tough area of Dublin amidst drug dealers, thugs and musicians, and perhaps he saw similarities between his own experiences and those of 50 Cent. In fact, when he met Cent, he commented that it was like meeting someone from his own neighborhood. So in a way, the film straddles the line between a biography of 50 Cent and an autobiography of Sheridan himself. Given that, you might think that with such a personal, first-hand identification with that life, Sheridan would have infused a lot of drama and meaning into the film, but he doesn't.
The film's trailer tagline "I'd rather die like a man than live like a coward", while seeming to speak volumes about courage and purpose, is little more than a platitude guilty of using the propaganda technique of 'thinking with the excluded middle.' Certainly, there are other possible ways to approach, and to live one's life that include neither dying nor cowardice. It's a bleak pair of alternatives from which to choose. Unlike more inspirational films like "Ray" or "Boyz n The Hood", "Get Rich Or Die Trying'" doesn't measure up as a 'bildungsroman'--a coming of age story characterized by the psychological and moral development of a character. Instead, it offers a more superficial (though arguably necessary, perhaps) shift to the street smart ways of staying alive in a violent world, manifested by Cent's wearing of what is now his trademark bullet-proof vest, which seems to contradict the film's statement of 'dying like a man' philosophy.
Anyone who follows hip hop won't find any surprises in this film, nor will anyone who doesn't follow it, for that matter. There is a noticeable lack of real impact, and the unfortunate sense that there is a glamour in all of this, which there isn't. For both Sheridan and 50 Cent, this was an opportunity missed.
Diarios de motocicleta (2004)
A Portrait Of The Revolutionary As A Young Man
It's doubtful that there's anyone, especially anyone who would go to see "The Motorcycle Diaries", who hasn't heard of Che Guevara. As one of the architects of the Cuban Revolution, he's been praised and pilloried, and his face has been emblazoned across T-shirts and posters throughout the world. But much, if not all, that is generally known about him pertains to his image as a revolutionary, and little else is popularly known about his life, at least in this part of the world. "The Motorcycle Diaries", based on Guevara's journal of a South Ameircan cross-continent trek, offers some, if narrowly limited, insights into this enigmatic man.
In 1952, Ernesto Che Guevara, (Gael García Bernal), with one semester still to go in medical school, along with his friend, biochemist Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna), embarked on an 8,000 mile journey of planned-for fun, and unexpected self-discovery. Riding together on an overloaded, underpowered, oil-spewing 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle, their goal was to see as much of the South American countryside as they could (much of which was on foot, after the motorcycle--despite their best efforts at providing mechanical life support--died.) What they found, however, was more than just scenery, as their trek's carefree beginnings gave way to more serious and life-changing events.
In "The Motorcycle Diaries", director Walter Salles presents us with a view of Che Guevara which bears little resemblance to the popularly perceived, infamous revolutionary. Instead, we are shown a Guevara who is characterized as a man of principle and ethics; a thinker and devotee of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda; an asthmatic who shook hands with lepers; a man who acted on his convictions. Young and idealistic, he was struck by the world's injustices that were heaped on the poor, not unlike many others who are empathetic to the plight of the economic and social underclass, and who, too, offer their aid and assistance in all manner of ways. But few have made the emotional, physical and irreversible leap that Guevara did.
Certainly, the film may can regarded as a bit of a propaganda piece, and one with a decidedly southern hemisphere spin, as if it were affected by the Coriolus Force. But it's understandable what Mr. Salles is trying to do here. However, were it not for the fact that this diary was that of Che Guevara the film would be little more than a buddy/road film: a South American "Easy Rider", or "The Wild One" without Johnny's rebellious "Whaddya got?" attitude. It's only because of what we know about Che's later life that the film gives any meaningful context to his early years, and without which, the film would be far less interesting.
As an early biographical look at Che Guevara, the film does sufficiently well, but it fails to offer a truly complete look at the whole person as it maintains safe distance from the man who is still steeped in controversy. So while the film is purposely and narrowly confined to the events recorded in the diary, it presents a difficult problem for the viewer, who will, I think, try to discover some nugget of information as to what motivated the radical change in Guevara's life. Some of that may be inferred through the stark imagery and haunting faces in a scene of itinerant mine workers waiting--hoping--to be picked for a daily crew despite the known dangers they will face, but the question, though intentionally unanswered by the film, will likely persist.
As a stand-alone work, "The Motorcycle Diaries" does offer a rich, visual travelogue of South America; its mountains...its cities...Macchu Pichu; and a wonderfully lyrical musical score as well. And an added bonus is the inclusion of some original photographs of the pair's excursion, shown during the closing credits, and worth staying for.
The Forgotten (2004)
Out Of Sight, But Not Out Of Mind
If psychological/political intrigue is your thing, you may want to see "The Forgotten", a film that takes a look at memory, and its potential for exploitation. The same theme was also the subject of the recent films "The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind", "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Memento", each with its own approach, be it neurological or nefarious.
In "The Forgotten", Julianna Moore is Telly Paretta, a young woman whose nine year old son, Sam, was killed in a plane crash. Unable to accept the loss and let go, she revisits the son's room periodically, only to find that, over time, pictures, or the images in them, and other things mysteriously vanish. On occasion, her car isn't where she thought she left it parked; a trip to the library yields no old newspaper stories of a plane crash in which her son died. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Munce (Gary Sinese), and her husband, Jim (Anthony Edwards), see this as more than just a small problem, as they try to tell her that, in fact, she never had a son. Her delusion would appear to be total were it not for a chance meeting with a former pro hockey player named Ash Correll, played by Domenic West, who turns in the best performance in the film. Convinced that she previously met both him and his daughter, Lauren-a daughter Ash says he never had--Telly sets out to prove that she did have a son and that Ash did have a daughter. But who would want to make her forget her son? And why? Enter The National Security Agency, the NYPD and one cyborg, and it's a clear sign that things aren't what they seem. Chase scenes follow, clues are revealed, and a few folks are inexplicably blasted into the sky. Some of the connections are a bit tenuous, and there may have been some benefit for the viewer if some explanations were given, but given the film's dramatic focus, they have minor significance.
Director Joseph Ruben ("Sleeping With The Enemy", "Return To Paradise") offers a lot for the viewer to consider. What is memory, anyway? Is it a true reflection of our experiences? A compilation of unfulfilled desires? Or is it whatever we can be made to accept? Can it be altered, implanted or erased? How does one determine the truth in a conflict between the certainty of inner beliefs and memories with what appears to be equally certain, external facts? The concept can make for interesting drama, but in order for it to really work it has to be placed into some believable context, and overall, "The Forgotten" does that pretty well. Mr. Ruben gives the viewer enough on both sides of the issue to suggest that either case could be possible, while clearly indicating that only one actually is .
Ultimately, we do find out about Telly's psychological mindset, though helpful explanations about some of the events we've witnessed are left as loose ends that viewer must to tie together. Still, if you enjoy the set-up and outcome, and don't care too much about the fine details, you'll likely find "The Forgotten" to be an involving and engrossing film.
The Grudge (2004)
A Sentiment You May Hold After Seeing It
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about "The Grudge" is that this kind of film is still being made at all. In what amounts to a knockoff of a remake of any already too rehashed idea, "The Grudge" offers nothing that's new or refreshing in a genre that for all practical purposes has seen better days--at least in this structure.
Karen (Sarah Michelle Geller) is a student living in Tokyo with her boyfriend Doug (Jason Behr), and both give equally limited performances in their roles, though it should be said that there isn't much to work with for either character, and both roles amount to little more than catalysts designed to set the stage for the supernatural events in which they become entangled.
In a nutshell (which is more than large enough to contain this overly simplistic plot), Karen, in need of some credits in social service, is sent to the home of Emma, an invalid who suffers from some form of dementia, after the regularly assigned worker fails to show up (we know why, since we're privy to her dispatch during the opening credits.) Karen soon discovers an evil presence in the house, all related to a double murder/suicide which occurred several years earlier. And, as we are also to learn, in Japan, once such evil befalls a house, it never leaves--which I believe also holds true in Transylvania and several other places, too. Anyway, everyone who would ever live in this place would be subjected to the wrath--or more precisely, 'the grudge', held by those who were killed there. Episodically, and through some flashbacks that contribute more to a level of confusion than clarity, details of the murders unfold, and we are increasingly given more visual information of the not-very-dead-but-very-evil-spirits. Suggestions, allusions and intimations abound, but nothing of any real consequence ever actually happens to these characters, nor to any of the other myriad of characters.
"The Grudge", directed by Takashi Shimizu, a reworking of his original Japanese "Ju On" concept designed to include American actors and English for obvious box office appeal, isn't really a bad film, but it's extremely mediocre and predictable. But if you can look beyond the obvious and clichéd devices, you'll see that it has some notable cinematography by Hideo Yamamoto, and an effective, muted lighting design that are both worthy of a much better and more serious effort. Mostly though, it relies on an overworked, and too often, unimaginative plot, and it fails to incorporate any traits of humanism in the mostly unseen, evil beings. What made characters like Dracula, Quasimodo, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man--even King Kong--so frightful, was their embodiment of human traits and the inner conflict between their humanity and their monstrosity. More than just making viewers afraid of its horror character, a film should also impart to the viewer the fear, however unlikely one may deem it, that becoming such a fearsome monster--whether by accident of nature, science, or psychology--is, perhaps, just a misstep away. That's what's scary. Cutting quickly to close ups of fleeting, ephemeral images, reinforced by loud audio crescendos for punctuation, may provide shocks of involuntary startle responses, but it doesn't really create--or worse--doesn't sustain any real suspense or tension. There is a decided lack of any cumulative effect to all of these sounds and images in "The Grudge", and no subsequent lingering doubts as to whether such evils could really exist in the world. A good horror film should at least raise that remote possibility, even to the most ardent doubters of such phenomena. And if you don't think that can happen, watch "The Exorcist".
Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)
...and on good taste, and your sensibilities....
My cinematic crystal ball tells me that "Assault On Precinct 13" will probably be a box office smash--but it just doesn't tell me why. This is a film where clichés are worked harder than rented mules, fine talent is squandered, and dialogue is dumbed down to the level of a bad sitcom. If there's a point to this film, it's cleverly concealed beneath a veneer of blood encrusted snow. And despite a plot twist that I shan't reveal, nothing can save this film from its own undoing. Replete with weapons that are too big, body counts that are too high, scenarios that are too contrived, and violence that's more than gratuitous, it's an exercise in overkill of the senses and sensibilities. There comes a time, even in Hollywood, when excess can be excessive, when violence can be simply vile, and when overindulgence can be...well...just over the top. That time just might be now, with the release of "Assault On Precinct 13".
A remake of John Carpenter's 1976 movie of the same name, in which Mr. Carpenter borrowed from the premise of Howard Hawks' 1959 western, "Rio Bravo", this version is set in Detroit rather than Los Angeles, and makes cosmetic changes which defuse--or just plain avoid--the social issues and racial tension that informed and validated the original work. This time around, relatively unknown director Jean-François Richet has opted to offer up some pretty standard fare, dodging any potentially controversial topics, and play it safe by sticking to pure action.
It's New Year's Eve. A time for revelry and good cheer. But things quickly take a turn for the worse when a snowstorm forces the temporary detention of a group of disparate, rag-tag, petty criminals at the soon to be closed Precinct 13 station. Did I say 'petty criminals'? Well, all but one--one Marion Bishop (Lawrence Fishburne) who is the reason for all the mayhem that will occur. Bishop is a big-time mobster who knows too much, and if he gets to trial and sings, a lot of people will go down. To prevent that, an army of well armed, well armored and faceless commandos, lays siege to the hapless Precinct 13. And it's a lopsided affair at that, with only four people to defend the station: Two cops, Sgt. Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), Jasper O'Shea (Brian Dennehy), the secretary, Iris (Drea de Matteo), and Jake's therapist, Alex (Maria Bello), who's there to have a session in his office to help him deal with his guilt and fear after a bust-gone-bad eight months earlier when several other officers were killed because of his misjudgment. When the assailants strike, Jake makes the decision to arm the detainees to help defend the station, over the objections of the soon to retire O'Shea. Now the idea of enemies uniting for common survival can make for great drama, as it did in "Rio Bravo". But not here. There's an old movie-making maxim that says, "A pie in the face is still funny--if you do it right", which, of course, doesn't just apply to pies in faces, or being funny, for that matter. And that's the problem with "Assault On Precinct 13"--it just doesn't 'do it right'.
That's not to suggest or even imply that violence should be a taboo subject in film. Neither violence, nor anything else should be off limits. But taste, purpose and presentation are always considerations that should be weighed. Throughout film history, there have been many films that have been known for their graphic depictions of violence: Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch"; Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange"; Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan". But none of these films glorified it (although others certainly have--"Precinct 13" isn't unique in that regard). Instead, it was used to make a statement about its absurdity, futility and consequences, and never as the ultimate and singular point of the film, as it is here. In this film, no one is safe from the assault, not even the viewer.
The Aviator (2004)
Goes For Style; Misses Substance
Sometimes, more is less. Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" is a case in point. Not satisfied with merely reiterating a factual accounting of the life of eccentric billionaire, obsessive/compulsive, filmmaker and aeronautical engineering genius, Howard Hughes, Mr. Scorsese wanted more. Specifically, he wanted to recreate the emotional feel of films from those early years, and the visual look of the film stocks from that era of movie-making that was inherent in the primitive Technicolor and Cinecolor processes. In his quest for more, Mr. Scorsese, not unlike his subject, went to great lengths, artistically, technically and financially. Artistically, with the attention to detail in his color rendition afforded by the existing stock of the 1920s and 1930s; technically, with his first foray into the world of digital image enhancement; and financially with a $112 million budget. Yet, despite its extravagance and applied technology, "The Aviator" is a mediocre film, and after 2 hours and 46 minutes, one is left with a kind of 'so what?' feeling. Oddly, whereas a film of that length can begin to drag for the last half hour, "The Aviator" dragged for the first half hour. By the end of the film, highlighted by the successful flight of the Spruce Goose, we want more, but we're left with the image of a man who is in his final descent into hell. This film offers no explanations for Hughes' eccentric behavior, save the opening scene of his mother cleansing him, perhaps too attentively, but it does show how his eccentricity and his mental disorder drove him in his quest to be the best at whatever he attempted. Not that he was always successful, at least in the eyes of others. But Hughes was little concerned with what anyone else thought, and maintained a fierce independence and, some would say arrogance, throughout his life.
Despite its mediocrity and unevenness, the film is laced with some fine performances. Leonardo DiCaprio, as the young, flamboyant Hughes, initially seems miscast and unconvincing, but as the film progresses, he becomes much more effective. The opposite is true with Cate Blanchett's depiction of Katharine Hepburn, one of Hughes' early paramours. When first introduced, Ms. Blanchett's speech and mannerisms of Ms. Hepburn are amusingly accurate. But the imitation goes on far too long, through too many unnecessary scenes, and well after we get the point. Also delivering are John C. Reilly as the restrained Noah Dietrich, right-hand man of Hughes who dutifully and sometimes reluctantly carried out the capricious and financially risky wishes of Hughes; Kate Beckinsale as the no nonsense, headstrong Ava Gardner, and in some of the film's most compelling scenes, Alan Alda, as Hughes' congressional nemesis, Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster.
Taken separately, the ingredients in this film would appear to add up to greatness, but they don't. Ultimately, the 'wow' effect just never quite hits, and the reason it doesn't is because the film attempts to get that effect through means that audiences are unlikely to notice since there aren't many who have ever seen a film that was shot on old, pre-1950, nitrate stock, since most of those films, given the unstable nature of that medium, have disintegrated into dust, and their subtle qualities of color and tone must be seen to be understood and appreciated. To his credit, Mr. Scorsese regards form as equally important as content--and that is not a bad thing. In fact it's what most often separates a great film from a mediocre one. But few films, will survive at the box office on style alone. (Francis Ford Coppola's "One From The Heart" is an example.) Perhaps paralleling some of Howard Hughes' undertakings, "The Aviator's" technological achievement is great, but its practicality too little. And like the Spruce Goose, which, technically, did get off the ground and fly--however briefly--"The Aviator" does, too. But the plane never flew again and was relegated to becoming a museum conversation piece. Similarly, "The Aviator" seems destined to have only a brief moment in history's limelight before it too fades away as a worthy, but impractical endeavor.
A zany ride through a colorful and nonsensical universe
There are two possible reactions to "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy": 'Bravo!' and 'Huh?' Not having been a Douglas Adams devotee myself, I guess I fall into the 'Huh?' group.
"The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy," or "H2G2" in production shorthand, was based on, and by all reports quite faithfully so, Douglas Adams' original 1978 BBC radio comedy, his later 1979 book, and his later still TV series. Did I mention a stage play? Now, to make it into a film seems more of an exercise in inevitability. After all it's the only medium that it hadn't been converted to, and the idea of its manifest destiny as a film seems to be much, if not all, of the point. But it could be that the idea is about 25 years too late.
Directed by feature first-timer Garth Jennings, "H2G2" is not at all a bad film. It's zany, off the wall, irreverent and unconventional, and it has all the elements a film needs to be engaging. Still, it ultimately has an inescapable flatness to it that only the most ardent aficionados of Mr. Adams' work will get beyond. The film is laden with insider jokes--surely funny to those in the loop--that will be missed by the larger and less informed film going audience. Also, the raw material here hearkens from a time when stoned-out humor was much more in vogue...Monty Python...The Firesign Theater, et al., and had this film been made then, its contemporaneousness would have given it much more audience appeal. But now with the passage of time, it may have missed its ride, so to speak.
So, what's a guy to do when he wakes up to find that his house is being readied for demolition to make way for a highway bypass? And that his good friend is really an alien? And that the Earth will be destroyed in 12 minutes? This isn't just a bad hair day for Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), it's the end of the world as he knows it--literally.
Hitching a ride on a Vogan space ship, Arthur and his alien pal, Ford Prefect (Mos Def) head off on a madcap, whimsical, and at times hard to understand journey. They bounce around from one part of the universe to another rather randomly and without much apparent purpose--which is precisely the purpose, apparently. And therein lies what is most problematic. There's never a sense that when they get to wherever it is they may be going, there is any significance to it. Events are connected mostly by their similar off the wall humor more so than by any plot curve, and consequently the film becomes a loose series of encounters with odd space denizens, surreal space environs, and spaced-out absurdities.
The film relies heavily on the visual eccentricities of its characters: The large and slow-moving, Vogons, known chiefly for their bureaucratic officiousness and exceedingly bad poetry; the outlandish, glam-rock style of the two-headed Zaphod (Sam Rockwell) and the mechanically multi-legged Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) a sort of missionary on the Dali-like planet of Viltvodle, home of the Jatravartids. Toss in a chronically depressed robot, Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman), who is marginally amusing in his human-like characteristics, and the inexplicable, out of place Questular Rontok (Anna Chancellor), a powerful (but with no indication as to why) human character among the Vogans, and you wind up with a collection of rather hard to remember names, and situations that generate no drama or enthusiasm. The only semblance of continuity springs from the romantic sub-plot between Arthur and Tricia--later, Trillian (Zooey Daschanel)--and it's not too well-developed at that. That the film eventually takes on the appearance of a climax is nearly as much a function of random chance as the events that precede it.
"The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" isn't a 'love it or hate it' kind of film. It's more like a 'love it or ignore it' one. It will certainly find a niche audience of enthusiasts, and, perhaps by intent, has all the earmarks of being labeled a 'cult classic'. But maybe we should wait another 25 years before conferring that status on it.