Monthly Archives: February 2002

We Were Soldiers (2002)

Randall Wallace and Gibson last teamed up on Braveheart and came away with a bushel of gold statuettes. Their latest collaboration is a Vietnam war flick called We Were Soldiers based upon the novel by Lt. Col. Hal Moore and photographer Joe Galloway. It details the chaos of the battle at Ia Drang where 400 US soldiers were surrounded in a valley by 2000 North Vietnamese fighters and held their own for three long days.

The opening chunk of We Were Soldiers concerns the domestic side of the soldiers. Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) is a man of great honor and battlefield heroics complete with five kids and a determined and loving wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe). Does anyone have any problems identifying the hero yet? Moore has been commanded to assemble an inexperienced band of soldiers and mold them into the 7th Cavalry division. His men include new father Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), helicopter pilot Maj. Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear) and grizzled veteran Sgt.-Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott). They’ve been called in to be apart of one of the first strikes of the Vietnam War in 1965. Gibson rallies the troops and they head toward the East. What followed could be deemed a suicide mission as the 7th Cavalry and other divisions were surrounded by the advancing Vietcong and fought to the teeth for their survival.

Director Randall Wallace (who last directed and adapted for the screen Man in the Iron Mask) is a director that doesn’t know a thing about subtlety in his mess of patriotism. Wallace just doesn’t hammer his points and views; he’ll bludgeon you to death with them. Gibson ensures his men that he will be the first one into battle and the last to leave. Sure enough, as the helicopter is setting down we see a big close-up of Gibson’s boot hitting the earth and a thunderous echo follows. The point has been made. Wallace also manages to squeeze in a bit where he can skewer the media. A horde of reporters show up at the end of the battle, ducking at any noise they hear, and stick their mics in Gibson’s face asking absurd questions like “How do you feel about the loss of your men?” Oh Wallace, you are such a shrewd satirist.

The violence in the film is incredibly graphic, as with the tradition of most recent war movies like Black Hawk Down. The violence almost reaches a sadistic level where we see slow motion shot after shot of people with a geyser of blood spewing from head wounds. The blood flows freely and often but loses its impact. I would even go as far as saying that much of the violence in ‘We Were Soldiers’ is overkill under Wallace.

The makeup that accompanies some of the battle wounds is surprisingly disappointing (as is a lot in the film). One character, after an accidental blast from napalm, has half his head looking like a burnt marshmallow. The shoddiness of the look inspires more laughs under your breath than gasps.

The battle of Ia Drang shows reactions from both sides of those fighting. Every now and then the film cuts back to the Vietnamese side in their underground lair. The leadership over explains all their strategic movements in large flailing gestures. It’s like a cheap play-by-play for the audience. We Were Soldiers also follows the recent trend of trying to humanize the enemy. But these attempts are easily seen as the hollow politically correct handouts that they are. One scene shows a Vietnamese soldier writing in a book to his honey back home. It’s nice to see clichés transcend ethnicity.

The film succumbs to the usual war movie clichés and Hollywood formula. The problem with making a supposed “emotional” Vietnam movie is that the definitive Vietnam movies concerning the madness of battle (Apocalypse Now and Platoon) and the crippling after-effects (The Deer Hunter and Born on the Fourth of July) have already been made. We Were Soldiers portrays Vietnam before the politics got in the way and concentrates on the courage of the men who dutifully entered into battle at the heed of their country’s call. I can’t help but feel that the men who bled and died in that battle don’t deserve a better movie.

Gibson as Moore gives a stoic performance and adds a level of humor to the figure, but there’s no questioning the mettle of this soldier. Gibson’s character is almost an exaggerated propaganda action figure. Moore’s courage is unquestionable and that’s the way they want it. Madeleine Stowe is a terrific actress but is generally wasted here. Most of the movie she spends her time hugging people while wearing some horrible Cher wig and looking eerily like Hillary Swank in The Gift. Chris Klein looks entirely out of place, as does his wife played by curly-coifed Felicity actress Keri Russell. Greg Kinnear spends the entire movie sitting in a helicopter chair barely seen. They could have saved some money and hired an extra.

We Were Soldiers is an okay film but it should have been much more. Gibson elevates what could have been worse but Wallace isn’t doing the film any justice. Wallace is too heavy-handed with his direction and flag-waving message and seems to have his film begging to be taken seriously. We Were Soldiers can pass the time all right, but there are better things you could do then watch this force-fed old-fashioned narrative.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Crossroads (2002)

When informed that her feature film debut was receiving shrieks of laughter during advanced screenings for critics, Britney Spears said she was glad because she never likes the same films the critics do. Well Ms. Not That Innocent, the truth hurts; you’re not a girl, not yet an actress. Crossroads is really the filmic adventures of Britney Spears and her ever-present navel. The navel should get second billing, but alas, we do not live in a society of equality for navels.

The film opens up with three 10-year-old best friends burying a box of wishes and dreams and promising to be bestest friends forever and ever. They make a pact to come back and dig up the box on the night of their high school graduation. Flash to the present and the word “bestest” isn’t what it used to be. Lucy (Britney Spears) has become the virginal nerd preparing to give her speech as valedictorian. Kit (Zoe Saldana) has become the haughty popular snob, obsessed over getting married ever since she got her first Bridal Barbie. Mimi (Taryn Manning) is pregnant and become the trailer trash girl that everyone sees fit to remind her of. Despite their growth apart they all do come together to reopen their box of dreams. Mimi informs the others that she plans to head to California to audition for a record deal in an open contest. Kit decides to use this opportunity to check up on her boyfriend at UCLA who has been strangely evasive. Lucy complains that by having her nose in a book her entire high school experience she never got to go to a football game or even “hang out.” Somewhere a small violin is playing. She decides to jump at this chance and possibly see her mother in Arizona, who ran out on Lucy and her father (Dan Akroyd) when she was only three. The wheels of their adventure are provided by guitar-playing mystery Ben (Anson Mount). He pilots them on their travels to the Pacific coast, though the girls think he might have killed someone, but oh well. Much girl power ensues.

Crossroads is filled to the brim with every imaginable road trip cliché. The girls “open up” after getting drunk, have a scuffle in a bar, reap in the sights of nature, and perhaps create some sparks of romance with their hunky heartthrob of a driver. The car also inevitably breaks down and the girls have to find a way to scrape some quick cash together. They enter in a karaoke contest and Britney proceeds to sing Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” with her two gal pals providing backup. But no, this isn’t the last time you’ll hear Ms. Brit sing. In an effort to pad as well as become a showcase for its star, Crossroads gives us many scenes of the girls just singing to the radio. Besides Jett, Shania Twain’s “Man I Feel Like a Woman” and Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy” are also on the chopping block. You’ll also be accosted by the movie’s single “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” several times, including one scene where Poet Britney is asked to share her poem and it ends up being the song’s lyrics.

Minus a friendly “ya’ll,” Britney really has only two limited acting styles, either her glazed over stare or her come hither smile. Saldana (Center Stage) is not given much, as the attention is always centered on Britney, so she merely comes off like a token conceited character. Only Taryn Manning (crazy/beautiful) comes away with a little dignity. She gives Mimi a lot more heart than should be there and shows some honest reflections for her character. She also, coincidentally enough, looks like a dead ringer for Joan Jett with her black bangs.

Crossroads is nothing but a star vanity project for Spears, with some not-so-subliminal Pepsi product placement here and there. This was not a script looking for a lead; this was something Britney’s management team suited for her, and Crossroads is perfectly suited for Britney. It allows for many ogling periods of booty shaking. The majority of the film’s drama doesn’t even concern her, and when she does have to act her scenes are cut short to help her when the real drama unfolds. The movie’s true intentions are revealed when Britney is shown in her pink underwear twice in the first 15 minutes.

Crossroads coasts along on gratuitous skin shots of Spears half-naked body every 20 minutes (possibly in an effort to keep the male members of the audience awake) until it reaches its torture chamber of a final act. In this very melodramatic period we get abandonment, date rape, infidelity, and even a miscarriage in one of the film’s most shameless plot devices. Of course none of these horrors matter, especially a psychologically damaging miscarriage, because Britney has to get to her BIG audition in order to perform, yep you guessed it, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” She also has to wear what looks like kitchen drapes while she sings.

You’ll walk out of the theater wondering many things. Why does Britney wear pink in EVERY single scene she’s in? There’s even one scene where she changes from a pink top to another pink top and is FOLDING a third pink top into a suitcase. Are we to believe that Akroyd and Spears share some kind of genetics? In what high school would Britney with her head-to-toe tan, taut stomach and bleached teeth be considered a nerd?

Hopefully Crossroads will be the pop princess’ last foray into film, but I strongly doubt this is the last we’ve seen of Britney Spears. Crossroads is a terrible girl-power trip. Only Spears’ target demographic will enjoy this melodramatic mess. Truly, the two largest groups that will see this film are adolescent girls and creepy older men who fawn after adolescent girls. Crossroads is exactly everything you’d expect.

Nate’s Grade: F

Donnie Darko (2001)

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is your normal malcontent teenager in late 1980s Regan America. He bickers with his older sister, worries over the right moment he’ll kiss his new girlfriend, and tries to ignore the advice of many imprudent adults. Donnie’s your typical teenager, except for his imaginary friend Frank. Frank is a sinister looking six-foot tall rabbit that encourages Donnie into mischief and gives a countdown to the impending apocalypse. And I haven’t even gotten to the time travel yet.

One night as Donnie wanders from his home at the behest of Frank, an airline engine mysteriously crashes through the Darko home and lands directly in Donnie’s room. The airlines are all at a loss for explanation, as it seems no one will take responsibility for the engine or knows where it came from. Donnie becomes a mild celebrity at school and initiates a relationship with a new girl, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). One of his classes consists of watching videos of self-help guru and new age enlightenment pitchman Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). His school has even, under the persistence of self-righteous pain Kitty Farmer, persuaded Cunningham to speak and try to help students conquer their “fears.”

Donnie is also seeing a therapist for his emotional problems and taking medication for borderline schizophrenia. Around this time is when Donnie starts to inquire about a strange old woman, obsess over the possibilities of time travel, as well as see weird phosphorescent pools extend from people’s chests. He also floods his school at the urging of Frank. This is no Harvey type rabbit.

The longer Donnie Darko goes on the more tightly complex and imaginative the story gets. First time writer-director Richard Kelly has forged an excitingly original film that is incredibly engaging with charm and wit. He masterfully mixes themes of alienation, dark comedy, romance, science fiction, and a sublime satire of high school. Donnie Darko is the most unique, head-trip of a movie unleashed on the public since Being John Malkovich. Kelly has a created an astonishing breakthrough for himself and has ensured he is a talent to look out for in the future.

Gyllenhaal (October Sky) is superb as disenchanted Donnie, a Holden Caulfield for middle suburbia. His ghastly stare conveys the darkness of Donnie but his laid-back nature allows the audience to care about what could have merely been another angst-ridden teenager. Swayze is hysterical as the scenery-chewing Cunningham. The rest of the cast is mainly underwritten in their roles, including stars Drew Barrymore (who was executive producer) and ER‘s Noah Wyle, but all perform admirably with the amount they are given. Not every plot thread is exactly tidied up but this can easily be forgiven.

Donnie Darko is a film that demands your intelligence and requires you to stay on your toes, so you can forget any bathroom breaks. The film is one of the best of 2001 but also one of the funniest. You’ll be honestly surprised the amount of times you laugh out loud with this flick. The theater I saw this in erupted every half a minute or so with boisterous laughter.

Donnie Darko is a film of daring skill and great imagination. You don’t see too many of these around anymore.

Nate’s Grade: A

Monster’s Ball (2001)

Monster’s Ball has already garnered two Oscar nominations, including one for the lovely Halle Berry for Best Actress, and received numerous end of the year accolades. Is Monster’s Ball the startling ruminations on race that you’re being told? Well… yes and no.

Set in the South, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) are prison guards at the state penitentiary and preparing for an execution. The man to die is Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) who will be leaving behind an overweight young son and making a widow out of Leticia (Halle Berry). The tension in the Grotowski home escalates especially as Hank has chosen to care for his own ailing father (Peter Boyle), who still finds the time to spout out racist rhetoric through an oxygen mask. One last confrontation leaves a permanent mark of emptiness on the family.

Leticia is struggling to just make ends meet and fight an impending eviction. Her car keeps breaking down on her, she’s been let go from her job as a waitress and she has to raise a son by herself all the while trying to encourage him to lose weight. Leticia is breaking down and her world around her is crumbling. One night Leticia gets into an accident walking home along the roadside and needs assistance badly. The one who pulls the car aside to help is actually Hank. As time goes by he helps Leticia however he can whether its giving her a ride home from the diner or just staying with her so she won’t be alone.

Hank and Leticia come together out of mutual need and grief. They are two people entirely wrong for each other that kindle a passion that seems to transcend race. Leticia needs someone to take care of her, after having a husband on death row and fighting to stay above the poverty line. Hank needs someone to take care of, out of a mixture of compounded loneliness and grief.

Thornton reprises the repressed protagonist of The Man Who Wasn’t There with his portrayal of Hank. His lips are pursed, looking a tad like Mr. Limpet, and he expresses more with a furrowed brow and stare than words could manage. Thornton’s performance is good, and the audience does really end up rooting for Hank, but the performance doesn’t resonate, possibly because of the writing for the character. I guess one could say Monster’s Ball is Halle Berry’s legitimization as an actress. Berry gives the performance of her career and has moments where she’s on the verge of ripping your heart out.

Monster’s Ball is not exactly the scorching portrait of race relations that it has been hyped to be. It’s really more of a story about two characters with race being underscored except for a convenient occasion where it can become the catalyst to a fight.

The film also takes some of its metaphors rather simply. The connection between father and son includes Hank and Sonny using the same prostitute. Hank eats every night in the same diner and always orders a bowl of chocolate ice cream (get it?) and black coffee (get it?).

All the ballyhoo over the explicit sex scene (thank you so much news-fluff) is undeserving. The sex scene is no different than a hundred seen before and many on Showtime during the late hours. The scene serves its purpose thematically in the story for its characters but it really isn’t “hot and steamy” as it’s been dubbed to be. Move along, folks.

Besides the acting Monster’s Ball has some other accomplishments up its sleeve. The cinematography is gorgeous and uses lights and darks to an incredibly effective degree. There are many scenes where you might be paying more attention to how the scene looks than the scene itself. The music is also commendable for the simple task of not becoming intrusive and actually enhancing the story. This is what scores are intended to do.

Monster’s Ball may be the biggest suck-in-air-uncomfortably movie to come out in a long time. I found myself enacting this measure every time someone did something horrible, said something racists or surprisingly died. This may be because I had the entire theater to myself for my own amusement. Monster’s Ball is certainly a well-written and well-acted film. It’s just not up to snuff when it comes to Best Picture speculation.

Nate’s Grade: B

Rollerball (2002)

The year is 2005 and the number one sport, at least in the former Soviet Union for some reason, is a mixture of roller derby, football and some kind of ESPN X-game. The man behind Rollerball is Alexi Petrovich (Jean Reno), who still thirsts for that lucrative cable contract with the U.S. and just might do anything to get it. Play suspicious music here.

Jonathan Cross (Chris Klein) is an NHL draft pick in trouble with the law after a stupid high speed street race. His pal Marcus Ridley (LL Cool J) tells him of a new extreme sport catching on in Central Asia, and Jonathan accepts his offer. The two are enjoying their success in Spandex but start to have reservations when they notice Petrovich including more violence as a ratings booster. Jonathan can’t just look the other way. Because he’s the good guy. So after a botched escape (shot infuriatingly all in what seems like night vision green) he collects his fellow ballers to rebel against Petrovich and whatever. As you can easily see, the story of Rollerball is not exactly its strong point. Not that there is a strong point in Rollerball.

The original Rollerball came out in 1975 and was full of political themes like corporate dictatorships and Orwellian observations on a dominated, passive society where war and nationalism have been replaced with a roller sport. Though the themes of this James Caan vehicle were a bit heavy-handed at times, the action was rather impressive especially as the corporations try their best to squash Caan in a bloody onslaught of an ending. The 1975 Rollerball had a political message and some nice action. What does the 2002 version have? Try banality and plenty of it.

Klein is possibly the blandest action hero since Ralph Macchio tried to wax a car. Klein came to the limelight through movies like American Pie and Election, and if his dimwitted deer-in-headlights look wasn’t doing it for you before then God help you with his performance in Rollerball.

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos plays Klein’s teammate and lover on the Rollerball circuit. He tells her at one point that her face isn’t as bad as she feels (she has a scar over one eye but still looks mighty attractive), proving Klein has indeed seen her blue-nude performance in X-Men. Reno deserves a trophy for even delivering the majority of his lines with a straight face.

Oh how the mighty have fallen John McTiernan. You once directed such great 80s action movies like Die Hard, The Hunt for the Red October, and Predator but now you spend your days remaking old Norman Jewison films. It began with the lukewarm remake of The Thomas Crown Affair and now a boring re-cooking of Rollerball follows it up. Can a remake of F.I.S.T. or Fiddler on the Roof be the only thing we have to look forward to now?

The most jarring problem with Rollerball, and there are so many to choose from, is the hack editing choices made. The way the movie plays one wonders if they threw all their footage in a wood chipper and grabbed whatever pieces they could and glued them into a movie. Scenes exist but appear in no discernible pattern or order. All one sees in their chair is a whirl of colors and you might be wondering if you stepped into Kaleidoscope: The Motion Picture.

The story behind this Rollerball was that it was originally slated to come out August of 2001 but after test screenings that left people howling the studio bumped it to the winter and cut it from an R to a more commercial PG-13. Lost in this cost-cutting maneuver are gore (which you would think would be important for a violent future gladiator sport) and a nude scene involving Romijn-Stamos. Which version would you have rather seen?

Rollerball is a laughably noisy and empty film that will leave your head spinning for all the wrong reasons. It’s likely the worst flick you’ll see for 2002 right now, that is, until the following week when Britney’s near-certain train wreck of a film debut opens. But until that time Rollerball is the true champion – of boredom and stupidity.

Nate’s Grade: D

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