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Halloween (2007)
100 out of 137 people found the following review useful:
Old tricks, no treats., 10 September 2007

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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 McDowell—the 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.

31 out of 50 people found the following review useful:
Rejected by Satan...and with good reason., 6 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

To say that Rob Zombie's film, "The Devil's Rejects", is not for everyone would be an understatement. In truth, it's for the very few. Those who will find it worth viewing are most likely already devotees of Mr. Zombie and his former metal band, White Zombies.

With a trite scenario and a visual style that hails from the 1970s, including ineffective and outdated freeze frames, "The Devil's Rejects" offers up a mixture of grotesquerie and gore with a hint of sado-sexual depravity, but little else. And despite failed attempts at infusing some comic relief, the film is ultimately, and overwhelmingly, exceedingly violent, and even worse, clichéd. From the outset, it's hard to tell just what, if anything, this film is trying to say. Whether Mr. Zombie is speaking out against violence, glorifying it, or merely pointing out its existence, just isn't clear.

The premise is simple enough. The Rejects, still on the loose after Zombie's last--and even worse--film, "House of 1000 Corpses", are besieged by the police in the opening scene, but, as you might expect, they manage to escape, which sets the stage for the killing sprees to come.

Pretentious and ponderous, the film fails to seriously look at the moral oppositions of right and wrong, good and evil, justice and revenge. While those themes are there, they're superficially played out in a context that's a mile wide and an inch deep. By failing to examine these contrasting forces in any meaningful way, the film becomes little more than a pretext for putting mayhem up on the screen without any solid justification. Hackneyed visual metaphors and hideous looking characters simply aren't enough to sustain the importance of the argument that the film ineffectively proffers as its central topic. Somewhere there has to be a deeper probing into the underlying causes of such evil manifestations as well as some plausible offerings of solutions. "The Devil's Rejects" lacks in those respects. The idea that Sheriff Wydell's (William Forsythe) motivation stems from the fact that the Fireflies killed his fellow police officer brother is hardly new or effective, nor is his skewed sense of morality and justice--both of which take a back seat to blind vengeance and retribution.

Giving him some benefit of doubt, I think that Mr. Zombie believes that he's made a worthy film. But the problem is that beyond the visual viscera and grotesquerie, he doesn't provide much else. This film has no depth and no character. Nor is there any suspense since we know from the start how every scene will ultimately end--with more bodies. What the film lacks is an essential philosophy or set of guiding principles that serve to explain, or at the very least rationalize, such human depravity.

Surprisingly, beyond the base, ignoble and sadistic exterior there are some perceptibly good performances, although they're fettered with head-shakingly shallow dialogue and a pedestrian screenplay which makes them well-nigh impossible to discern. Bill Moseley gives some hints of talent as the heinous cult leader, Otis, though much of it gets lost in the video style editing and far too many close-ups for a cinematic format. And Geoffrey Lewis, a great character actor whose name you may not recognize, but whose face you surely will, is equally short-changed. And short-lived as well.

On the up side, there's a good sound track, even if it does seem a bit out of place, and incapable of redeeming this amateurish film. Blind Willie Johnson, Otis Rush, Joe Walsh, Steely Dan, Muddy Waters, The Allman Brothers…they're all there, as is Lynard Skynard, whose "Freebird" backs up the obligatory scene where the Rejects, in a barrage of gunfire, are finally, and thankfully, blasted into hell.

Somebody say "Amen."

© 2005

6 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Slaughterhouse Film Puts Animal Rights On The Table, 7 June 2006

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.

© 2005

6 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
A well-meaning but watered-down war epic, 6 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The war film, like its cousin, the western, has been a staple of American cinema almost from its beginning. Both genres share common character underpinnings of determination, confidence, and, relatively anyway, moral certainty. Westerns, of course, are generally fictional, as the old west that's depicted in the movies never really existed. War films, on the other hand, while often fictionalized, are generally based on real events.

"The Great Raid" is one such film. Based on the details of an actual rescue, as presented in William Breuer's comprehensive book "The Great Raid on Cabanatuan", and Hampton Sides' "Ghost Soldiers", "The Great Raid" is director John Dahl's portrayal of those events, executed in very broad strokes. While the film was 'inspired' by the true story, as noted in the opening credits, some unnecessary creative license is taken in detailing an event, which on its own, is compelling, and needs no embellishment.

In January, 1945, a battalion of U.S. Army rangers plotted a raid on a POW camp at Cabanatuan in the Philippines. Most of the prisoners there were survivors--and just barely--of the Bataan Death March. The able-bodied had been sent to the work camps in Japan and only the sick and near-dead remained at Cabanatuan. Essentially useless liabilities to the Japanese, the POWs would likely have been killed as had others, so this mission was a desperate, last-ditch effort to save them. With little time and minimal intelligence information, the U.S. Army's 6th Ranger Battalion, led by Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt), planned one of the most audacious and dangerous missions of the war.

Occurring over five days, three intertwined stories tell of the plight of the POWs, the related efforts of the Philippine underground in Manila, and the strategy of the rescue mission. With a cast of mostly 'B' actors, the characterizations are marginally effective, but not particularly strong, with the exception of Connie Neilsen's performance as American nurse Margaret Utinsky. Utinsky, was a key member of the Philippine underground in Manila and was instrumental in the smuggling of medical supplies to the prisoners, which undoubtedly kept many of them alive long enough to be rescued. Unfortunately, the role included a tenuous love connection between POW Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), a composite, fictional character, and Utinsky, who was quite real. It's an unnecessary and gratuitous fabrication. Utinsky's efforts in the underground are notable, well-documented, and worthy of inclusion in their own right. The contrived relationship between them was more distracting than involving, as were a few other things.

After watching the film for about twenty minutes, I had the nagging feeling that something was missing. It was profanity. Hardly a single utterance can I recall. Anyone who's ever sat around a barracks knows how soldiers talk, and it isn't like these guys do. Even the most provincial person, while maybe not approving of such salty slang, knows that it exists, especially in a wartime context. Steven Spielberg, who's certainly not known for being offensive, recognized the need for such realistic, linguistic candor in "Saving Private Ryan." But, heck, there just wasn't any here. Paradoxically, Dahl has no problem showing the graphic brutality of the Japanese who, with frightening indifference, summarily executed prisoners and civilians alike, which undoubtedly accounts for the film's "R" rating.

Considering the flat romantic tie-in, the MPAA-friendly dialogue, and much of its visual style, this film has the look of a production that could have originally been intended for television, but was instead hung on the coattails of current events and put into widespread theatrical distribution, perhaps intended to rally support for a war that the nation seems to be tiring of. But although it lacks a certain verbal grittiness at times, and is often rife with platitudes, "The Great Raid" is a film whose heart, if not its mouth, is in the right place.

© 2005

The Grudge (2004)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A Sentiment You May Hold After Seeing It, 7 June 2006

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".

© 2004

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
...and on good taste, and your sensibilities...., 7 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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.

© 2005

Adaptation Of Thackeray's Novel Is 'Fair', 12 March 2007

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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.

© 2004

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Misses the mark, 7 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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.

© 2005

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A Portrait Of The Revolutionary As A Young Man, 7 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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.

© 2004

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Gilliam's meta-fairytale, It's not Disney...and it's not too good, 6 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

When it comes to serving up something completely different, you can always count on Terry Gilliam. This time his focus is on the Brothers Grimm, Wilhelm (Matt Damon) and Jacob (Heath Ledger), renowned collectors of folklore and fairy tales. In a radical departure from the familiar Disney renditions of their tales, Gilliam creates a meta-fairy tale suggesting that the brothers not only chronicled and documented folk legends, but were a pair of clever mountebanks as well, out to exploit the fear and myths instilled in an unenlightened and gullible society.

Ambling through a Napoleon-conquered, French occupied Germany late in the 19th century, the brothers make their way through the countryside exorcising and expelling mythical demons believed to be living among the innocents. With the help of two assistants, Jake and Will stage elaborate and convincingly effective theatrics that simultaneously rid the towns of their witches and their riches. It's a lucrative enough trade, which goes quite well until they are caught by the French Army and the blustery governor, General Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce). Facing torture and execution, the brothers accept Delatombe's offer to solve the mystery of several missing children in the town of Marbaden.

If you have a strong appreciation for Gilliam's surrealistic/expressionistic visual style, there's a lot to like about this film, but it's achieved at the expense of a cohesive narrative. The acting is a bit uneven, and at times it's as though everyone is reading from a different script. Peter Stomare goes way over the top as Cavaldi, the Italian henchman of General Delatombe, and is more a buffoon than fairy tale villain. And Angelika (Lena Headley), Marbaden's most--maybe only--liberated woman and the object of affection of both brothers, is perhaps a little too twenty-first century, but still one of the strongest characters in the film. With two of her sisters among the missing, Angelika joins forces with the Grimms in a cooperative, if uneasy alliance, and becomes the catalyst who at first polarizes, but in the end unifies the brothers, who like most siblings have their differences. Will is pragmatic and cynical; not prone to believing in anything mystical, unlike Jake, who, although not thoroughly convinced that magic really exists in the world, surely wants to be. Metaphorically, the brothers represent the conflict between a residual ignorance from the middle ages and the intellect of 18th century enlightenment.

Liberally mixing and matching various tales, Gilliam himself becomes a fabulist, weaving a hypothetical and imaginative fantasy that is marginally successful. At times dark and unwelcoming in its style, he often resorts to Monty Python-esquire slapstick humor and absurdity. Each time you settle into an imaginary, mystical past, you're jarred into a brief sitcom present. Anachronistic puns and one-liners interrupt the suspension of disbelief and break the continuity of the magical mood he's trying hard to establish. Though the film does sustain the obligatory moral outcomes inherent in fairy tales--good defeats evil; everyone lives happily ever after--it lacks the synergism that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and adds up to slightly less. Gilliam straddles the line between reality and fantasy without ever squarely deciding just which point of view he wants to convey. He aims high, but his ambitions fall somewhat short as the film never really gets revved up. It's not Terry Gilliam at his best, but there are worse ways to spend a day at the movies.

© 2005

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