Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Jarhead


Compelling but Crude Portrayal of One Soldier’s Desert Storm

“Am I ever going to get to kill anyone?”

Sometimes in war, so much happens that it overloads the senses to the point of scarring. Other times nothing happens, and the strain of being far from home in a foreign land with nothing to do, can cause its own kind of damage. Such is the case in Jarhead, the latest drama from director Sam Mendes, who has led us down a dark path before in both American Beauty (1999) and Road to Perdition (2002).

Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a brand new marine, circa 1990. Trained by his gruff drill sergeant (Jamie Foxx), he is ready for combat (also known as “The Suck”), when Iraq invades Kuwait. As part of Operation Desert Shield, ‘Swoff’ and his fellow troops are given little to do in the way of fighting. When Operation Desert Storm finally does commence, it’s over so fast that the marines feel cheated. What’s the point of learning to kill then not being allowed to do it?

Jarhead (the self-imposed nickname of a marine) is less of a war film and more of a character study. In fact, little combat actually takes place. The screenplay is based on the best-selling book by the real Swofford, a memoir of his actual experiences in Kuwait, and it feels authentic. The details are all there: the lingo, the training, “friendly fire”, etc. Gyllenhaal is often heard in voice over, and his thoughts are believable.

Mendes has assembled a good cast of familiar faces. After Gyllenhall, there is Foxx (Ray), doing an understated take on a standard drill sergeant which I liked. The other familiar face is Peter Sarsgaard (Flightplan) who becomes Swoff’s spotter on their scout sniper team. All the performances are fine, but no one really stands out. This helps the movie feel more like an ensemble piece than a star vehicle, so the platoon becomes more of a character than any character does.

Some of the content in this movie is not for the easily offended. Since we’re dealing with marines, the profanity begins in the first scene and continues throughout the entire film. There are a couple brief but graphic sex scenes. There’s nudity. Masturbation is mentioned several times and depicted once. I realize Mendes is going for edgy, but this stuff can be off-putting, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

One thing I really liked about Jarhead was the soundtrack. Mendes juxtaposes music with the images we’re seeing (an old Kubrick trick), so we get Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” played over marines training in boot camp. The score by Thomas Newman is also very effective (kind of a rock/electronica mix), and I wouldn’t mind hearing it again by itself.

I also liked the nods to other war films. The drill sergeant abuse at the beginning bears more than a passing resemblance to the opening of Full Metal Jacket (and we also get the ‘this is my rifle..’ speech). While in training, the troops watch and cheer the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now (also edited by this film’s editor, Walter Murch). One soldier gets a VHS copy of The Deer Hunter sent from home, only to find the film has been replaced by a nasty surprise. Jarhead operates in a much different way from those films, but it’s obvious that these are what create the marine culture in the first place.

My main issue with this movie is that I found the characters hard to relate to, or like. Almost everyone lacks a moral center, with the possible exception of Fergus (Brian Geraghty), who is portrayed as weakling and a moron. These guys are all borderline nuts, which made it hard for me to empathize (I’d probably make a lousy marine). I found myself merely observing, instead of becoming a part of, their experience.

For me, Jarhead was a mixed bag. While the raunchy tone and distant characters were the film’s undoing, it was still an interesting undoing to witness.

Inside Man


Engages the Crook in Us All

Ahh, the heist picture, a venerable Hollywood staple. They are still being made (The Score, Heist, Ocean’s 11 & 12), and typically feature all-star casts. It’s a given you’ll have clever bank robbers, less clever cops, an elaborate plan, and the big twist that saves the likeable crooks from prison. They are usually a lot of fun as well, as we root for the anti-heroes and joy to the techniques and technology they employ to pull off the crime of the century. Inside Man follows this tradition, and while it sticks pretty close to the formula, it’s an easy formula to like.

Dalton Russel (Clive Owen) walks into the Manhattan Trust Bank with a crew of four and promptly takes it over, hostages and all. The police are alerted, and a task force is quickly formed headed by Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington). When one of the bank’s founders, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), learns of this development, he fears a dark secret could come to light and takes action. Case employs Madeline White (Jodie Foster), to work with the police to protect his interests. Frazier figures there is something wrong about this whole setup, on both sides of those locked bank doors.

Inside Man is director Spike Lee’s most mainstream movie to date, and he does a good job with this caper film. The characters are all well drawn, the story is interesting, and things develop and just the right speed as to keep us engaged without boring us. This is not a thriller, but a mystery, and it has good fun toying with our expectations of the genre. It even employs the oft neglected flash-forward! When was the last time you saw that in a movie?

The cast is first rate, and I really enjoyed watching them. Washington (The Manchurian Candidate) is excellent as always. He exudes so much charisma and determination as Detective Frazier, that you know he will solve this crime by sheer willpower. Owen (Derailed) is just as good, and considering he spends much of the running time behind a mask, that’s really saying something. I also liked Jodie Foster (Flightplan), who gets to play a slimy, corporate-type, which I’ve never seen her do (she nails it, of course). Willem DaFoe (xXx: State of the Union) even has a supporting role, but seems wasted. Perhaps he just wanted to work with Lee or Washington. I still liked him, but wished the script gave him more to do.

Since this is Lee’s baby, several of his trademarks permeate the story. It’s set in New York, and there is a very ethnically diverse group of supporting and bit players, which feels very authentic. Racial issues don’t surface, but do poke up their heads now and again. Some things about the way the police operate outside the bank don’t ring true (such as police advancing on the bank’s front doors in every master shot, and snipers who are constantly holding their rifles in firing position), but if Lee makes more and more of these types of films, the details will improve along with the overall effort.

The most fun you can have in a movie like this is watching the proceedings unravel like a well-oiled machine. Inside Man has enough of this cinematic grease to keep it running smoothly and prevent it from seizing. That’s saying something in a done-to-death genre like this.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire


Burns Slow but Steady

I’ll be totally honest. I’m not a Harry Potter fan. I haven’t read any of the books, and my only exposure to this wildly popular universe are the movies based on the stories by J.K Rowling. I saw the first movie, skipped the second one, and liked the third. Fantasy has never been my genre of choice, and the Harry Potter books/movies are no different. This series has millions of fans, however, who virtually guarantee success at the box office. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is indeed critic-proof, but is it any good?

It’s the fourth year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his pals Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) are all becoming teenagers and have to deal with learning about the magic of puberty as well as the regular kind. The big event this year is the Tri-Wizard Tournament, in which champions from three schools of magic (Hogwarts included, of course) face very dangerous challenges in order to claim a flaming trophy and eternal glory. Will Harry be involved in the tournament? Is the sky blue?

Anyone who has seen the previous films or read the books will be in familiar territory here. There are the usual quirky characters and fantastic creatures, and the “magic tech” that Rowling peppers her stories with. The tournament offers some nice action set-pieces (I especially liked the dragon challenge) complete with tough obstacles for our hero to overcome. The main characters are also growing up so we get young love and the “Hogwarts prom” scene. While well done as usual, all of this feels somewhat mundane until the final act, when things get a lot darker and much more interesting. I wish there would have been more of this menacing tone throughout, but no matter. Maybe The Order of the Phoenix will provide that.

The core cast returns, as well as an interesting guest or two. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have made these roles their own over the past three films, and continue that trend here. My only complaint is that the character of Ron Weasley is really starting to get on my nerves. He’s a whiny, pouty sad sack that has never been more annoying. I don’t blame Grint for this, as he is just doing his job (and very well, I might add), but watching his character is a grating experience.

All the adult British actors are wonderful as always. Alan Rickman (who I’ve been a fan of ever since Die Hard) reprises his role as the sinister Severus Snape, and he is a ton of fun to watch. I just wish he had more screen time. Brendan Gleeson (Kingdom of Heaven) also enjoys “eyeballing” the scenery as the crusty ex-dark wizard hunter Alastor ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody. Another excellent turn is Ralph Fiennes (The Constant Gardner) who hides under a ton of makeup, but successfully portrays a very pivotal role in this story.

Many fans will probably give the same old “they left out a lot of things in the book” whine that I see on the news every time a popular book is made into a movie. I am really sick of this. A film should never be a carbon-copy of what is published on the printed page, but take on a life of it’s own. Certain things that work in books don’t work on film and vice versa. Talented people are brought in to trim the fat and create a script that’s filmable. That’s why it’s called an adaptation, not a literal translation. Nothing up on the screen will ever match what you pictured in your mind anyway, so please do us all a favor--let it go!

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a perfectly serviceable entry in the series. I didn’t like it as much as Prisoner of Azkaban, but it should please fans of the book and fantasy alike. I just hope that Weasley kid grows a backbone.

Gridiron Gang


Sunk by The Rock

The ‘Sports Film’ is about as formula as you can get these days. Introduced and perfected by the Sylvester Stallone-penned Rocky (1976), the pattern was clear: take a one-and-a-million shot underdog and root for him to win the big game. Turn the underdog into underdogs (it helps if they’re misfits), add a crotchety coach and you have the next evolutionary step in this genre: Michael Ritchie’s The Bad News Bears (which, ironically, came in the same year, 1976).

Almost every sports movie since then is a derivative of one, or both, of the above mentioned titles. The coach is often the main character, while the lesser characters work out their problems (typically after a crushing first-game loss) and come together as a team, peaking at the ‘big game’ finale, where they win every time (another irony considering the source films).

Teen detention camp probation officer Sean Porter (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), is greatly distressed about the failure of his program to reform kids. Some who are released end up dead, while most go back to jail. It’s then he comes up with a radical idea: form the kids into a football team in an effort to teach discipline, self respect, and teamwork. At first his plan is chaotic, but slowly the players begin to appreciate being a part of something better than their respective gangs and offenses that previously defined who they are. After being integrated into the local high school football schedule, can they really prove they are a team by winning games?

Gridiron Gang sticks very close to the Bad News Bears model, only it wants to be more of a serious commentary (and not a satire) about how literal teamwork can reform a kid, teaching him real values and pride. It’s a great idea for a movie, based on the real Sean Porter.

Like the far superior Hoosiers (1986), or the more recent Miracle (2004), the coach of the story is the main focus, and must draw us in to make us care. Unfortunately, Johnson (Doom) is not Gene Hackman or Kurt Russell. He is an imposing figure, and definitely has screen presence, but his lack of acting chops is painfully obvious and a detriment to the story. He comes across as very wooden (or stone-faced, if you must push me), emoting as if the script was dictating “look intimidating here” or “laugh here” and even “cry now”. It all feels very robotic, and unnatural to the hilt.

Something else that drove me nuts was director Phil Joanou’s (Heaven’s Prisoners) decision to shoot the whole movie in a hyperactive jittery/zoomy “documentary style” which is supposed to add to the “grittiness” of the piece. It’s a very distracting and obnoxious choice that is robbed of any power it may have had due to it’s overuse.

The movie does have some effective scenes that should be mentioned, mostly due to the supporting cast. I liked the bonding between two rival gang members (Jade Yorker and David V. Thomas) who become friends due to their teamwork and desire to become something other than a statistic. I also like the touching scene with inmate Kenny Bates (Trever O'Brien) who says he wants to succeed on the team because “I just want my mom to love me.”

During the end credits we see actual documentary footage of the real Sean Porter coaching his boys. It’s very inspiring, and could have been the source material for a great film. Too bad we got this one instead.

Good Night, and Good Luck


Clooney Chronicles Fascinating Chapter of TV Journalism

It seems almost unbelievable that fifty years ago in America, a modern-day witch-hunt took place that destroyed reputations and ruined lives. When Senator Joseph McCarthy began accusing people of being “card carrying” members of the Communist Party, an ugly chapter in American history was penned, and only undone by those brave enough to question his methods and motives. Pioneering television journalist Edward R. Murrow was one such person who stood up to McCarthy, despite fears of reprisal not only from the tyrannical senator, but also from his own boss and network.

Good Night, and Good Luck is director George Clooney’s telling of this story, a compelling and fascinating look into a period of national fear and paranoia. It is an excellent film, and should be required viewing in every history class.

The year is 1953. TV journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Straitharn) and his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney), decide to run a story investigating Milo Radulovich, a man kicked out of the Air Force for being a Communist sympathizer. Knowing McCarthy would retaliate, Murrow and Friendly decide to directly engage McCarthy, exposing him and his tactics on national television.

Good Night, and Good Luck (Murrow’s trademark sign off) works not only as a time capsule, but as a drama about men who refused to sit still while tremendous injustices were happening all around, and sometimes to, them. Shot in stark black-and-white, the film looks like a newsreel (using a lot of actual news footage from the period, including McCarthy himself), and Clooney adds stylistic touches to make it feel like a TV news broadcast (swish pans, constantly focusing cameras, zooms, etc.).

After appearing in movies for over twenty years, David Straitharn finally gets the role of a lifetime. He completely disappears into Murrow, unearthing an intense performance of determination and courage. I really liked the fact that Murrow isn’t really all that personable, but we admire him anyway. Straitharn more than deserves an Oscar nod for his work here.

The supporting cast is also good (Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels), but there are two performances who match Straitharn in intensity. One is Ray Wise, whose sad portrayal of accused anchorman Don Hollenbeck is downright heartbreaking. The other is Frank Langella, who plays William Paley, Murrow’s boss. At one point the tension is so thick between them, you could cut it with a knife--a credit to both actors.

There is no score in Good Night, and Good Luck, only a few interludes by a jazz singer (Dianne Reeves). This creates an eerie stillness throughout the entire film, and as things get more dangerous for the broadcasters, we are hanging on every word. The only drawback to this technique was that I could hear everything in the theater normally masked by sound (people eating, whispering, etc.). While very effective on film, it enhanced the distractions around me. Weird.

If I had any complaint to voice, it would be the “tip of the iceberg” feel we get at the end. The movie is mostly plot, and we get little insight into Murrow as a person. There are little hints (like he hates doing entertainment fluff pieces), but little else. We know that he is married, but never see his wife. In fact, the focus of the movie rarely leaves the TV station, and never departs from the immediate circle of journalists. It is a small peeve, but I would have enjoyed getting to know these characters more intimately.

Bookending the main story is a Murrow speech in 1958, where he shares his concerns about TV becoming a wasted medium. If he could see what hits the airwaves today, he would probably be appalled. I think he would be proud of this movie, however, as should director Clooney and all those involved.

Monday, December 4, 2006

The Island


Rescue Me

Watch out! Director Michael Bay has decided to direct a “high-concept” movie that tackles actual “issues”. Could it be he actually wants us to think while watching one of his films? What--and ruin his reputation? Bay is very consistent is his movie making, and what he usually gives us is loud, flashy and dumb, complete with pretty actors running away from his pyrotechnics. Is The Island any different from classic Bay fodder such as Bad Boys, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor? The good news--yes! The bad news--it’s much worse!

In the near future, survivors of “the contamination” live together in a quarantined, Orwellian facility, awaiting their chance to win “the lottery”, which will send them to “the island”--the last uncontaminated place on earth. Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan MacGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johanssen) are good friends, obediently preparing for their chance at paradise. Lincoln is the inquisitive type, however, and his questions lead to some dark discoveries about who he is, and what “the island” isn’t.

What we’ve got here is a modern combo remake of two older sci-fi efforts: Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979) and Logan’s Run (1976). Don’t worry if name-dropping those two movies gives you any hints about what’s coming. If you have seen the trailer or any commercials, you are safe in knowing there are no surprises left to anticipate. What a relief!

Bay’s unique spin is to bury everything of interest (characters, relationships, observations about society, etc.) under an immense slab of flashy visuals and ludicrous action. The movie then becomes one long chase scene--repetitive, boring, and totally unbelievable. Sure the effects and stunt work are all good, but who cares?

I like these actors (and supporting actors Sean Bean, Steve Buscemi and the sweaty but miscast Djimon Hounsou), but they are constantly upstaged by Bay’s obnoxious visual machine, and his desperation to drive his “message” down our throats. The actors become effects themselves, at the service of the preposterous script by Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (it took three people to write this crap?).

Watching this film is a moviegoer’s worst nightmare: lure you in with a decent setup, then throw you to the wolves. The last 2/3 of the movie was a waste of my time, and I grew angrier the longer I had to endure it (the running time is 2:18, but it felt a lot longer). I have never been impressed by a Michael Bay film. In that one respect, The Island does not disappoint.

Freedomland


Tackles Issues, but Bores Viewer

Child kidnapping. Race relations. Mental illness. Any one of these topics by themselves could be an excellent source for a gripping drama. Just think of what you could do if all three were incorporated into one movie? Add two lead actors known for their intense portrayals, and you could really stack the deck for excellence. It’s got to be a sure thing, right? Nope. Instead, it’s Freedomland, a mish-mash of attempted drama that tries hard to do it all, but can’t do anything right.

Catatonic mom Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) stumbles into a hospital with blood on her hands. She is interviewed by Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson), a cop in charge of the projects Brenda lives in. She tells him she was carjacked and thrown from the car, while her four-year-old son remained inside. The police react strongly to Brenda’s story, locking down the entire neighboorhood in an attempt to find the child. Tensions run high as the all black neighborhood becomes suffocated by the all white police force. Will things explode before Brenda’s son can be found?

This is an odd movie, and I don’t mean that as a complement. We have tense subject matter with no tension. “Character driven” speeches are not believable and run on too long. The most critical point in the story is so mishandled that we are not sure it just happened or why it just happened (other than “the script said so”). The editor cuts way too fast. The title even makes little sense in relation to the rest of the film.

Julianne Moore (The Forgotten) is a good actress, but this was a real waste of her talent. I’m sure it was a draining experience, as she spends the entire film looking like hell and crying, or looking as if she is about to cry. The problem is that her character has no arc. She doesn’t change. She spends the whole movie playing this weepy, screwed up woman and we wonder why we are watching her, or why we should care. In the end, we don’t.

I’m starting to think Samuel L. Jackson (The Man) is a personality and not an actor, picking scripts with the largest dollar sign attached. The guy plays the same character every time, and it’s wearing thin. Here again, he plays does his tough guy schtick, swearing a lot and offering words of wisdom to those not as wise as he. This would be forgivable in a better movie, but here, it’s just more of the same.

The bottom line is that Freedomland is just not very interesting on any level. The studio may have had the same feeling. Why else dump a big budget drama with name actors in the dead zone known as February? It doesn’t take a police detective to figure this one out.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Flightplan


Stalls, Then Takes Nosedive

Nobody does intensity better than Jodie Foster. Even if you go way back into her career as a child actor, you could always see the wheels turning behind those blue eyes and tomboy face. She would later parlay these talents into two Oscar-winning performances, first as a rape victim in The Accused (1988), then in the horror-classic The Silence of the Lambs (1991), opposite Anthony Hopkins.

So where has Jodie been lately? The last time we saw her was three years ago in David Fincher’s disappointment Panic Room, where she played a mother desperate to protect her daughter from a home invasion. Foster returns in Flightplan, where she plays a mother desperate to protect her daughter from “kidnappers”. So is this Panic Plane?

Jet propulsion engineer Kyle Pratt (Foster) is flying to New York from Europe after the recent death of her husband. Her and her six-year-old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) are transporting his coffin back to the states for a proper burial. When Julia turns up missing, with no one recalling her even being on the plane, Ms. Pratt begins to question the competency of the crew and then her own sanity. If she didn’t imagine her daughter being with her, then where is Julia?

Flightplan starts with an intriguing concept. When the air marshal (Peter Sarsgaard) makes his presence known, he becomes the voice of the audience. He asks Foster’s character things like: Where’s your daughter’s boarding pass? Why is she not on the passenger manifest? Why didn’t any other passenger see her board the plane? Why would someone target you? All these are good questions, and the burden rests on the filmmakers to answer them adequately.

Unfortunately, the movie bites off way more than it can chew. After the moderately creepy setup, the film collapses in the third act, giving us a conventional action movie resolution (complete with plot holes you could fly a plane through). All the head games are dropped so Foster can kick ass. What starts out as a Twilight Zone episode ends up being Fly Hard-- and that’s not a good thing.

As always, Foster is reliable as the freaked-out mom who just wants her daughter back. She carries the movie on her back, but even her acting chops can’t save her from the corner the script paints her into. Her performance dictates that she should be in a better movie, not this bait-and-switch nonsense.

Earlier in the year I reviewed Red Eye, a much better thriller-on-a-plane that set the tone early and followed through. Flightplan veers all over the place then comes in for an unscheduled landing. Next time take the bus, Jodie!

Fantastic Four


Faithful Version of Comic Book Stops Short

Marvel Comics has been a gold mine for movie studios in recent years. Ever since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man broke box office records in 2002, tons of Marvel adaptations have hit the silver screen, with varied success. Now we have Fantastic Four, a movie version of Marvel’s first family. Does this film live up to the bar set by Spidey? Or do we get another Elektra?

In an effort to understand the evolution of human DNA, Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffud), Susan Storm (Jessica Alba), her brother Johnny (Chris Evans), Benjamin Grimm (Michael Chiklis) and Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) venture into earth’s orbit to study a cosmic storm. When it approaches too rapidly, all are exposed to alien radiation, with super-powers being the result (in the real world, they would all just die of cancer, but in any comic universe, any exposure to anything gives you cool powers). Reed becomes Mr. Fantastic with stretching ability, Sue is now Invisible Girl with the ability to project force fields, hothead Johnny is literally The Human Torch and Ben is the super-strong and hard-as-rock Thing. Victor is also changing, but not in a good way…

All the actors do a decent job (and Alba is very easy on the eyes), but the standout is Chiklis as The Thing. He has to act through a ton of prosthetic appliances glued all over his body, and it’s a credit to him that he still manages to create such a sympathetic character (“I’d give anything to be invisible…”). I’m very grateful the filmmakers did not make him computer-generated (like Hulk), but let Chiklis bring him to life.

In the comic book, Dr. Doom is a powerful nemesis for the Four, a raging disfigured psychopath who is truly evil. As played by pretty boy McMahon, he is toned down quite a bit, and loses a lot of his potential menace. Without a great villain, there’s minimal suspense, and little worry for our heroes.

The action is done well, but we have all been exposed to a lot of superhero stuff in recent years, and it is all starting to feel the same. What this movie needed was some standout sequences, which we don’t get. There are some nice moments (as when Sue contains a dangerous explosion in a nifty slo-mo shot, or several emotional moments involving Ben), but I wanted more.

While Fantastic Four does a decent job of bringing the comic book to life, it doesn’t break out. Despite some nice small touches, not much in this film begs to be seen again. Fans of the comic will probably be satisfied (myself included), but there isn’t a lot here that we haven’t seen done better elsewhere.

Elizabethtown


Needs Reconstruction

Writer-director Cameron Crowe is a talented guy. He started writing at age 15 for Rolling Stone magazine, and shortly thereafter penned his first screenplay, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). His directing debut would come with his breakout hit, Say Anything (1989), and he has continued this trend of quality with Jerry Maguire (1996) and Almost Famous (2000). It’s been four years since his last film, Vanilla Sky, a sci-fi effort (actually a remake of the Spanish film, Open Your Eyes) that confused his fans and garnered a lukewarm reception from critics. Crowe returns to familiar ensemble-drama turf with Elizabethtown, which unfortunately doesn’t return him to his former caliber of storytelling.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is coming off of one the biggest fiascoes of his life: his new revolutionary athletic shoe is a monumental flop, costing his former employer almost one billion dollars in losses. On the brink of a very creative suicide, he gets more bad news: his father has just passed away and his family wants him go take care of the funeral arrangements. On his way to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, Drew meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a flight attendant with a heart of gold who seems genuinely (or obsessively) interested in him. Will Drew be able to juggle all this so he can return home to kill himself?

Elizabethtown is what one might call a “blender movie”, where you take many characters, plots and ideas, throw them all together and hit “puree”. There is way too much going on here, and none of it feels focused. What should gel instead feels like separate movies strung together. Crowe is being too ambitious, and his lack of cohesiveness is painfully obvious. As a result, we just don’t care about anybody or anything.

Crowe is known for his good casting, but he stumbles in giving Bloom the lead. He is so under whelming we don’t feel much for him and can’t understand why Dunst does. She comes across much better, despite the fake-feeling zen dialogue Crowe gives her to speak. There are many other actors here who do a good job (most notably Alec Baldwin as Drew’s ex-boss, and Susan Sarandon as Drew’s mom), but they seem short-changed in this story, which gives them so little to do.

The movie also tries for too many poignant moments that it just doesn’t earn. There is a scene toward the end where Sarandon gives a long speech at her husband’s funeral. She is barely in this movie, then pops up at the end trying to make us feel something. If anyone deserves this moment it’s Drew--not his mom. It is he who we’ve been investing in (or are supposed to be investing in) emotionally, and he’s robbed of this payoff. Furthermore, Sarandon finishes her speech with a tap dance (!), which the funeral crowd inexplicably cheers. We in the audience are left with question marks over our heads--more than once.

At 125 minutes, this movie is way too long, and feels padded (plot going nowhere? Add music and montage!). This is especially noticeable in the final fifteen minutes, which not only feels contrived, but totally unnecessary. The same story could have been told in an hour-and-a-half, but this one goes on and on, mercilessly draining every bit of interest from the viewer.

There are some good things about Elizabethtown. I liked the small character of Drew’s brother Jessie (Paul Schnieder) and his rendition of ‘Freebird’ that turns fiery. I liked the scene when Dunst emerges from a hotel elevator to a crowded lobby who knows where she just spend the night. I like Crowe’s ideas, just not his implementation.

Late in the film Bloom reads a magazine article about his failed shoe entitled, “Blueprint of a Mess”. I bet it was also the working title for this movie.

The Dukes of Hazzard


Should be Cuffed and Stuffed

I grew up watching The Dukes of Hazzard, a TV show which ran from 1979-1985 and appeared every Friday night just before Dallas. It concerned a couple of fast-drivin’ “good ol’ boys” and their family who constantly thwarted the local bonehead sheriff and his crooked boss. It was good, dumb fun, with heart, a sense of humor, and a lot of country music. In the new movie version there are similarities, especially the “dumb” part.

Fast-drivin’ “good ol’ boys” Bo and Luke Duke (Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott) have a family business: run their Uncle Jesse’s (Willie Nelson) moonshine. With the help of sexy cousin Daisy (Jessica Simpson), they are constantly on the run from boneheaded Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane (M.C. Gainey), who does the bidding of the crooked Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds). Can the Dukes save Hazzard County before Boss turns it into a strip mine? Can the filmmakers make us care?

There is some bad casting in this movie, most notably Burt Reynolds. He plays Hogg (a role I would have given to Danny DeVito, given his similarities to the late Sorrell Booke) as one of the most non-threatening, lethargic, limp noodles of a villain I have ever seen. He is just awful, mugging his way from scene to scene. M.C. Gainey (Are We There Yet?) doesn’t make a very good Rosco either, but at least he appears to be trying.

Another offender is Willie Nelson. Where Reynolds is weak, Nelson is just plain wooden. He reads his lines (apparently off of a cue card) like a robot, and when he emerges from an outhouse in an cloud of pot smoke (!), you wonder if he is really “acting”.

I liked Seann William Scott’s crazy-eyed version of Luke. He’s got a ton of manic energy, and it’s kind of catchy. Jessica Simpson is basically a stereotype (that’s all the script gives her to do), showing up to use her body as a weapon, then disappearing. I also liked Kevin Heffernan (Sky High) as Sheev , a conspiracy theorist who likes armadillo helmets.

None of the original cast members show up (perhaps they read the script?), and the only real connection to the original show are the names and the General Lee, an orange 1969 Dodge Charger with a confederate flag painted on the roof (not PC to be sure, but it does lead to a funny scene capitalizing on this).

Another problem is tone. This version has taken the source material and mixed it with a considerable amount of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Every young woman is a scantily clad bimbo, marijuana seems to be everyone’s drug of choice and AC/DC even appears on the soundtrack. Any fan of the original series will be put off by all of this, leaving them little reason for a viewing. The movie is left to stand on its own, which proves difficult.

There are a few good moments (like the mispronouncing of Deputy Enos’ name), and a lot of head-scratchers. Consider: could the Duke boys really fool a college lab student into thinking they were Japanese businessmen? Would the governor of Georgia really just “pardon” everyone at the end of the movie, then go smoke dope with Uncle Jesse? Could mechanic Cooter (David Koechner) really restore (and I mean restore!) the bashed-up General Lee in one day, just in time for the big race? I realize its fantasy, but come on…

Of course the movie has its requisite car chases and stunts, which was par for the course in the TV show. The whole affair reminded of one of those cheesy auto demolition “comedies” from the 70’s like Smokey and the Bandit (Reynolds again-bleh!) or Grand Theft Auto. It was a simple formula: wreck a lot of cars in lieu of writing a real script and maybe the audience won’t notice!

Early in the film, Cooter pokes his head into the vandalized General Lee, where a dead raccoon has been left. He lets out a wail of “Weeeooo!” to describe the stench. Great metaphor for not so great a movie.