Monthly Archives: November 2005

Sky High (2005)

The film is pleasant, the acting overall is even pretty good, the humor is really peppy, but it’s not enough to overcome such a formulaic plot. Sky High feels exactly like a Disney afternoon movie; everything is there just fill in the blanks, Mad Libs style. Disney cranks these out like processed hamburgers. This time people have super powers and the budget is slightly bigger. There are some things I’ve seen so many times in teen movies. People still learn big lessons, people still go through social awkwardness, there’s another big house part where everyone is invited and someone has a misunderstanding, the best friend since childhood obviously has a crush on the lead that he cannot see, and the person the moves up the ranks of popularity becomes a self-centered jerk and shuns his true friends from the beginning. The best aspect is its comedic support cast including two members of Kids in the Hall, Bruce Campbell as a gym coach, Kevin Hefferman from the Broken Lizard troupe. This supporting cast should really be the focus of the story. A super hero high school is interesting but the staff of a super hero high school is even more interesting. Still, it has a nice sense of humor and is pleasant enough.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Ice Harvest (2005)

Imagine my surprise when I found out that a small crime novel I read years ago was getting the big Hollywood treatment. I read Scott Phillips’ The Ice Storm in one sitting back in 2003 during a plane trip from Ohio to San Diego. It was deliciously dark down to the very last page and I loved it, but then I am a sucker for a good crime story (check out Jason Starr’s Tough Luck and Hard Feelings if you are the same). The movie looked to be on the right track with names like John Cusack to star and Harold Ramis to direct. Ramis is responsible for starring, writing, or acting in or directing some of the most beloved comedies of the last 25 years including Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Stripes, and National Lampoon’s Vacation. That’s one illustrious comedic pedigree. So how could the movie go wrong?

It’s Christmas Eve and Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) is a self-loathing attorney that works for some of the shadiest folks in Wichita, Kansas. One of those bad customers is mob boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid) whom Charlie and his partner Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) have just swindled over $2 million from. Unfortunately for them, Wichita is hit by an ice storm that makes the roads haphazard to travel. The two will wait until the morning thaw and then hit the road with their booty. Vic reassures Charlie to just, “act normal.” This means many ventures to some of Wichita’s finest strip clubs with alluring names like Sweet Cage and Tease-O-Rama. Charlie has a sweet spot for Renatta (Connie Nielsen), a bombshell and the operator of the Sweet Cage. He’ll also have to drive his plastered friend Phil (Oliver Platt) around, who is regretting having married Charlie’s cold ex-wife. Charlie would love to sail off into the sunset with Renatta by his side but first he’ll have to survive the night and a mob enforcer (Mike Starr) is already on his trail.

The Ice Harvest feels like an episodic collection of ideas, too many of which have too little significance. The titular ice storm seems all but forgotten, only serving as a cheap plot device to keep our characters bottled up in the city. It has no bearing elsewhere on the plot. The reoccurring “As Wichita falls” passage has no payoff. The nosy police officer plotline looks like it might be building to something important but then is quickly disposed of. The Christmas setting has little impact except for giving the strippers something to complain about. The Ice Harvest wants to benefit from the juxtaposition of Christmas cheer with all these tawdry, violent asides and it just seems small and shallow. The movie also shifts the story’s time from 1979 to modern day one suspects just for the cheap out of cell phones.

Credit goes to Cusack for making his character as likable as he is. His character is a mob lawyer, a deadbeat dad, an increasingly drunk driver, and a man with his nose in whole lot of sleazy ventures, and yet you still pull for him to somehow succeed. Cusack, forever youthful, seems overly numb to all the horror around him and downplays the danger to a negative degree. Charlie seems like he’s in the wrong movie. Thornton plays yet another hedonistic louse and is quite good though not at his Bad Santa apex. He seems the most at ease with the physical comedy. Nielsen plays your typical femme fatale with a Veronica Lake haircut and breezy voice, which should both be instant red flags for students of film noir. The two men that steal the show are Platt and Quaid. Platt gives a brilliant uninhibited performance as quite possibly the drunkest man in movie history. Quaid is an honest surprise as a menacing mobster ruing the day he chose a criminal enterprise in Kansas. He chomps scenery with a violent exasperation that truly seems larger than life. This is a bad guy to fear and Quaid makes the most of his very limited screen time.

Ramis is out of his league here. The man cannot competently direct tension or action. Ramis doesn’t let the audience build suspicion because he’d much rather have characters just point-blank say, “Don’t trust this person” instead. He doesn’t give us time to piece clues of betrayal together so instead characters just keep running forward until they get smacked in the face by something made obvious. Ramis’ mishandling of tone really sinks the movie. The Ice Harvest doesn’t know whether it wants to be a thriller of a dark comedy and therefore just really sputters at both. The comedic elements and the thriller elements butt heads; because of the comedy the character never feel in danger, and because of the thriller/noir elements the characters and their situations never really seem funny. The Ice Harvest turns into some kind of two-headed beast that snaps at itself. I think maybe Ramis was watching Blood Simple and taking notes and then he accidentally taped over it with a Charles in Charge marathon and was at a loss.

Part of this problem is that the screenwriters don’t fully commit to the nastiness. Phillips’ novel is unrelentingly dark, cynical, and unsentimental and doesn’t give a damn if you like its characters. The movie, on the other hand, wants to get its hands dirty but is more interested in playing it safe. The film seriously reminded me of last year’s Surviving Christmas, another movie that wanted to be sweet and nasty and wound up just being really bad. You can feel The Ice Harvest reeling back several times to set up Charlie as a likable lad in over his head, going so far as a slightly contrived yet predictable finale. At least Bad Santa had the gusto to approach a happy ending on its own crude, unsentimental terms. Ramis needs to stick to broad comedies and leave the bleak neo-noir humor to the Coen brothers.

There are some plot elements from the book that just don?t work with this half-hearted adaptation. (Spoilers to follow for paragraph) At the very end of the movie Charlie has left the city with all the money and stops along the road to help a stalled camper. In the book, the camper backs up over him and kills him, thus ending with the ringing endorsement that crime doesn’t pay. It made sense, especially for a book that was dark to the very end. In the movie, the camper backs up and knocks him to the ground but doesn’t run him over. Charlie dusts himself off and that’s that. The scene feels pointless without fulfilling the end of the book. It doesn’t provide any last-second tension. Charlie just hops back in his car, dear hung over Phil pops up, and the two are set for one most excellent adventure. Unearned and misplaced happy ending? No thank you.

The Ice Harvest is only a mere 88 minutes long and yet the film still feels padded and draggy. The drunken Oliver Platt-heavy middle is a generously paced muddle, and though it’s rather funny it’s also rather extraneous. The Ice Harvest is really a handful of great moments that don?t add up to a satisfying whole. The movie is really episodic and too many of those episodes have little bearing on the plot. Character betrayals are spelled out to us and Ramis seems to lose interest in his own film as it slides further and further into dangerous territory. The Ice Harvest can’t commit to whatever it wants to be and the audience is the one to suffer. Read the book instead. It’s only 224 pages.

Nate’s Grade: C

Rent (2005)

Rent is one of Broadway’s biggest sensations in the last decade and has become a cultural cornerstone for many. Jonathan Larson updated Puchini’s famous opera La Boheme, transplanting the setting to East Village New York, swapping TB for AIDS, and turning his characters into struggling bohemians fighting for their voices to be heard and love to be kindled. The musical also has an added sense of tragedy. Larson suddenly died on an aneurysm during the final dress rehearsal, sadly never getting to see his finished creation. Rent went on to win Tonys (including Best Musical), a Pulitzer Prize, and damn near the heart of every girl I went to college with. To say it’s been a smash is an understatement. And where ever there’s money and an insatiable audience, there will be Hollywood’s eyes. Now comes time for the Hollywood gloss with director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Stepmom) and when Rent ditches the intimate confines of theater and hits the big screen, it’s much harder to hide its flaws.

The story takes place within the span of one year (or 525,600 minutes as you’ll be told repeatedly in song), covering Christmases from 1989 to 1990. Mark (Anthony Rapp, Dazed and Confused) and Roger (Adam Pascal) are roommates trying to keep warm during the winter in their giant New York loft. They’re flat broke and their former friend and current landlord Benny (Taye Diggs) expects a full year’s rent to be paid pronto. Roger is racking his brain trying to write that one perfect song; he’s also HIV positive, the unfortunate side effect of a relationship with a junkie. Mark is an aspiring filmmaker and has also recently been dumped by the impetuous performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel) for … another woman, Joanne (Tracie Thoms), a black lawyer. It must be noted that all three of these characters do not have HIV/AIDS; they’re in the minority. Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin, Law and Order), a gay school teacher, is visiting Mark and Roger when he gets mugged in an alleyway. Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a drag queen with a heart of gold comes to his rescue. Both men have HIV but won’t let their shortened time stop them from falling in love with one another. Mimi (Rosario Dawson) lives below Roger and Mark and works as an exotic dancer down the street. She too has HIV from a nasty smack habit. She also has her heart set on Roger but he needs a little motivation. For a year these characters will interact and live, love, die, and sing a whole lot.

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The villain of the piece seems to be Benny by default (unless you count AIDS, poverty, and ignorance). Our unemployed band of heroes is upset because dear Benny expects them to, gasp, pay their rent. The scoundrel! Here’s what I don’t get; clearly Benny has a dream for a business and the other artists denounce this artistic dream because it involves money exchanging hands. Benny’s passionate about his dream and actually does something productive like make friends and influences with the business establishment, people with capital to bankroll an entrepreneur’s dream. It’s like everyone’s mad at Benny because he put a suit and tie on and got a job. The scoundrel! Rent even manufactures a mea culpa from Benny that feels exactly that, manufactured and inorganic to the story. I suppose he’d be a better person if he were a vagrant like every one else.

Besides, there is something inherently pretentious about Rent’s anthems of sticking it to the man and brash commercialism. Guess what, after 9 years Rent is a franchise. You can get Rent T-shirts, coffee cups, soundtracks, and practically anything that can be merchandized and marketed to the disenfranchised youth with disposable incomes. A musical about the soullessness of commercialism is itself a cash cow, so it rings a little hollow when the deadbeats thumb their noses at the evils of capitalism. Seriously, Mark just about gets hives at the thought of being a cameraman for a TV news show (he calls it “selling out”). In the end he quits his job so he can make his masterpiece … cobbling together home movie footage. It took him a friggin’ year of artistic turmoil to edit a lame home movie? Selling out never looked so good.

Speaking of vagrancy, the film version of Rent is populated with 6/8 of the original Broadway cast (Dawson and Thoms are the only fresh faces). This is a well-intention move by Columbus but it backfires. It’s one thing to listen to 20-something bohemians fight for their artistic integrity and worry about food, shelter, rent. It’s quite another thing when the majority of your cast is in their late 30s. You’ve gone from a bohemian to a potential bum. I’m not condemning the pursuit of your artistic ideals and making your name in the world, but not at the price of food and shelter. I’m reminded of a line from The Big Lewbowski: “Your revolution is over! The bums lost. The bums will always lose!”

photo190ysIt’s hard to feel for some of these characters, who come across as whiny, slutty, pretentious, or just plain misguided. Maureen has a wild side that includes flirting with everything on legs, and eventually this leads to a song called “Take Me for What I Am.” Maureen is irritated that her life partner is upset that she was flirting during their engagement party. I mean, really, what’s to get upset about? It’s pretty bad when Rent kills off one of its main characters in a musical montage. A MONTAGE! Afterwards all the characters eulogize what made this person so great. Hey, all that character stuff would have been handier before the death, and then I would have felt something. Larson’s story really does a poor job of building these characters and making them likable.

Some of these same problems exist with the original stage version, but Rent the movie, and especially Columbus as director, make some bad additions. The original stage version of Rent took place in modern day when it opened. Here, Columbus has dialed back the timeframe and set his story from 1989-1990 (someone forgot that a song references Thelma and Louise, which came out in 1991, but oh well). What makes this time jump shaky is that the film also adds a scene of the happy families championing each other over their racially mixed lesbian daughters’ engagement. They moved time backwards but people’s tolerance was moved forward. What’s the point of changing the timeline if it causes all these anachronistic headaches? That’s not all. It’s bad enough that Roger has a Bon Jovi haircut for the entire film, but then Columbus adds scenes of his escape to New Mexico and we, the audience, are treated to Roger belting his heart out to nature on top of a desert gorge … just like in Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” music video. Maybe this finally explains why they transported the film to the 1980s.

Where the musical does strain credibility is its fear of fulfilling the dark end of Puccini’s opera. Moulin Rouge is also based on Puccini’s tragedy and it had the guts and the ambition to end on a tragic note. I‘ve cried at the end of Moulin Rouge, but I didn’t feel like misting up once during Rent, probably because these faux-bohemians kept me at a distance. (Spoilers) It’s rather terrible that Mimi can be brought back from the dead by the power of a cheesy rock ballad, and if this holds true, then Bon Jovi is wanted to the ER, stat! The cheap fake-out ending for Rent is just the nail in the coffin. Everyone has AIDS and thus on borrowed time and yet we can’t have an adult ending dealing with tragedy. That would break this romanticized fairy tale.

With all this in mind, some things in Rent really do work. The songs are catchy, somewhat fun, and the splashy lyrics follow suit. The cast collectively are entertaining and sing well, though Dawson can get a bit monotone at times. Some of the dance numbers are exciting and amusing, like the “Maureen: Tango” between Joanne and Mark chatting about the spotty behavior of their former and current lover. At one point we flash to them in full classic dress buffeted by a chorus line of fellow tango-ers. “La vie Boheme” is the sassiest and most electric song, finally piecing Larson’s sardonic, witty pop culture lyrics with a lively image. This is a musical that’s got clever lyrics, good singing, and catchy pop rock songs.

For many, especially the Rent heads, a movie version of their favorite musical will be bulletproof. They’ll be thrilled to enjoy an afternoon with their best friends on the silver screen singing their favorite harmonies. I’m sure fans of Rent and fans of broad musical theater will be pleased. For me, the movie falls apart when you pay attention to the story, the characters, the drama, and then the choices in adapting it to film. I just didn’t care for most of the characters and found the story dated, silly, naïve, pretentious, and overly romantic, even if the majority of the characters do have HIV and/or AIDS. Columbus’ weak direction and poor decision making turn Larson’s rock-opera into a movie that wants points for being different when everything about it has practically become marketable and cliché. I’d recommend buying the soundtrack instead of seeing the movie, because at least then you can turn it off when you reach your breaking point.

Nate’s Grade: C

Zathura (2005)

I’m kind of perturbed at how Zathura is being dismissed by the movie going public as, “Jumanji in space.” Seriously folks, does Jumanji hold that big of a place in our collective hearts as a nation? The only thing the two films have in common is that they’re both based on books by noted children’s author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg (The Polar Express) and that they both involve board games coming to life. That?s it. Do we say that Titanic is ?Romeo and Juliet on a boat” because they both involve doomed lovers? Do we say that Jaws is “Moby Dick with a shark?” Or that Blade: Trinity is “The Hunger minus lesbians”? Or that The Island is “Parts: The Clonus Wars with a budget?” Okay, maybe the last one is accurate, but Zathura is a fabulous family film that has little comparison.

Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson) are brothers that have little in common. Ten-year-old Walter loves sports and isn’t too interested in the “kiddy”  things his six-year-old brother likes. Danny himself is battling his own fears and feels left out by his older brother. Their big sister (Kristen Stewart) just wants both of them out of her hair. The family is visiting their dad’s (Tim Robbins) new house. While dad’s out to get some work done, Danny and Walter are antagonizing each other. Walter sends his little brother to the scary basement where Danny finds an old, dusty board game called Zathura. He sets up the tin game board beside his brother and starts playing. Small rockets on poles lurch across the board according to a spinning number. Then a card pops out and says, “Meteor showers,” and sure enough their living room is deluged with fiery meteors (Danny yells to take “erasive action”). Walter is shocked to open the front door and discover their house isn’t parked neatly in the neighborhood but orbiting through the vastness of space. To get back home the squabbling brothers must complete the game, and along the way they’ll encounter giant robots, a lost astronaut (Dax Shepard), and the Zorgons, a race of aliens hungry for some warmth and some fresh meat.

The child acting is rather outstanding. The interaction between Bobo and Hutcherson (Kicking & Screaming) is great. Each really defines and shapes their character well, from Bobo’s whiny insecurity to Hutcherson’s disinterested anger and overt competitiveness. Stewart (Panic Room) leaves a very sizable impression as the agitated older sister. She has the looks and talent to explode in Hollywood in a few years, a la Rachel McAdams. Dax Shepard (Without a Paddle) is the biggest acting surprise. He gives a weighty and endearing performance as a father figure in the film, and he’s totally on the same wavelength with the movie’s tone.

Yes, Zathura gets a bit more conventional with its story as it draws toward the conclusion (trials of courage, learning from past mistakes, reconciliation), but there’s really only one kind of ending for this film. What did you expect from a 30-something page children’s book, half of which are drawings? Zathura may be predictable but it’s got a loose energy, a comedic zest, and a sense of wonder that elevate the familiar.

Smart family films are about as rare as they come. Zathura breaks the template of what “family film” means nowadays; it doesn’t go for cheap, tasteless jokes, it doesn’t hurl scattershot pop-culture references (seriously Shark Tale, are children going to be amused by a Scarface reference?). Refreshingly, the movie doesn’t have a single joke revolving around flatulence or someone getting hit in the nuts. This is a smart, good-natured family film that will thrill adults and children alike. John Favreau (Elf) is carving a really nice niche for himself directing these high quality family films that are in short supply. His direction is focused and his decisions are right on the money. He doesn’t overwhelm the film with an orgy of special effects. He gets the tone of this movie and never panders to his audience, but he keeps the pace bouncy and the tension racked. I was rapt in suspense during the Zorgon docking sequence, and yet Favreau can also illuminate the tensions of our childhood fears, like a dark basement. Favreau is proving himself to be a dynamite artist behind a lens.

Isolating the action inside the house definitely helps build the film’s drama. Instead of unleashing the crazy world of the jungle and watching it wreck havoc, Zathura keeps everything bottled up. This decision does wonders for the film’s suspense by giving a claustrophobic overtone. This is a movie more concerned with storytelling than loud special effects. In short, Zathura is light years beyond Jumanji.

The family dynamic feels exceptionally realistic, and the film has a terrific sense of humor. Siblings do behave this way, and Zathura captures their everyday conflicts in a meaningful way. The dialogue has a real zest to it but never feels trite or inauthentic. Mark my words, “Get me a juice box, biyatch,” will be the best movie line you hear all year. Zathura really soars because of its rib-tickling sense of humor. This isn’t Man Drops Banana Peel followed by Man Falls Down. No I?m talking about a consistent tone that’s sly and whimsical, complete with comedic payoffs for even inanimate objects. The various story elements really come together nicely. Zathura is a blast that will hard to beat this holiday season and beyond.

Favreau has directed yet another family film destined to become a classic. The thrills are thrilling, the comedy is whimsical and smart, the storytelling is careful and focused, the special effects are great, the acting is superb, and even the score really soars. This is just a delightful movie of all stripes and should please adventure-seekers of all ages. I was laughing and cheering from beginning to end and so was my theater. It’s a family film that proudly and refreshingly reminds us the possibilities of family films. Zathura is tremendous fun and one adventure that will suck you in instead of just sucking.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Derailed (2005)

The Chicago train company featured in Derailed is regretting their involvement. It seems that this year a Metro train did in fact derail and a number of people died and scores more were injured. I suppose this would be akin to Enron being featured in a movie called Big Fat Lying Energy Thieves. Then again, maybe one of the company’s execs took a look at the script.

Charles (Clive Owen) is an ad ex who feels crushed by his life. His marriage is deteriorating, his adolescent daughter has a severe case of diabetes and is in need of a new kidney, and he’s been booted from a project at work. All he needs now is the film favorite car to drive in front of him and splash water. On a train ride to work, he’s helped by Lucinda (Jennifer Aniston), a dark beauty Charles can’t seem to resist. They share pictures of their kids, accounts of their spouses, and their saliva with some open-mouthed kissing. Both are conflicted about following through with an affair, but finally decide to act. They get a room at a motel, roll around on the bed, but are interrupted by a French intruder named Laroce (Vincent Cassel). He robs them, beats Charles into submission, and rapes Lucinda. She doesn’t want to go the cops and just wants the nightmare to end. If her husband ever finds out about the almost-affair she’ll never see her kid again. Charles adjusts but is now getting threatening phone calls, asking for increasingly large sums of money or else his wife will know the truth.

This is your prototypical thriller that survives due to the stupidity of its characters. Only in your rote thriller would characters ever dare to go about their infidelity in a seedy motel, leave the door unlocked, and then after being beaten, robbed, and raped, not go to the police. Only in your by-the-book thriller would the assailant return to implausibly blackmail our leads for money under the threat of exposing their affair. Only in your standard thriller would a character actually say, “It’s all over now. We’re safe. Everything’s fine,” without a hint of irony. It’s like these people had never seen a movie before. The villains are not exempt either. They repeat their scam at the exact same locations in the exact same manner, meaning anyone with a decent memory could trip up this criminal masterwork. (Spoilers follow) Like the preposterous Flightplan, this elaborate scheme to make money hinges on some pretty big assumptions: 1) that Charles will never go to the police at any turn, even when the other option involves draining $100,000 out of his own kid’s kidney fund, and 2) that Charles would never drop by Lucinda’s work and talk to anyone who remotely knew her. I just thought of another one: 3) that Charles would never question why they’re only blackmailing him for money when Lucinda has a higher paying job and much more at stake to lose (end spoilers). Derailed is too true of a title when it comes to the movie’s process of logic. Then again, thrillers typically spit in the face of logic and this is no different.

Derailed would like to strike the same vein that Fatal Attraction hit so well; in fact, there’s a scene in the middle that’s a direct rip-off where Charles rushes home to find his wife chatting with his antagonist. The first half-hour of Derailed is well done and pretty interesting, but the film really goes off the tracks when the blackmail plot starts mounting ridiculous, implausible plot turns. This film would have been so much better as a straightforward drama than a dime-a-dozen thriller. As a drama we’d witness Charles wrestle with guilt, the decision of whether not to tell his wife, and the moral quandary of wondering if their attack was somehow justified as a punishment (no, rape is NEVER justified). It could be a really strong character study. Derailed goes the far more conventional route and brings in an outside force of antagonism and some foreseeable twists.

Clive Owen is wasted in a role that mostly requires that he get his ass handed to him. He’s a fantastic actor, a natural badass, and he just smolders with charisma, menace, and intensity. He was one of the highlights of a stellar cast in Sin City and was my top candidate for the new James Bond. That’s why it’s so frustrating to see him beaten and bullied for almost the entire duration of the movie. For crying out loud, even a cop bullies him into paying a hooker he had nothing to do with. It reminds me of 2002’s Enough where Jennifer Lopez was beaten and antagonized for so long that the audience was practically feasting for blood. This might explain Derailed‘s tacked-on epilogue. Owen still gives a credible performance even though his accent slips from time to time.

Despite what the marketing folks may have you believe, Jennifer Aniston is really a minor character in the film. I’m not that particularly taken with Aniston as an actress; I thought 2002’s The Good Girl could have been The Great Girl, or at least The Better Girl with a stronger lead. In Derailed you can tell she’s playing against type because her hair is darker. Aniston is effective at turns in Derailed, but really “at turns” is all she’s given to work with. This is Clive Owen’s movie.

Casell (Ocean’s Twelve) really relishes his creepy villain and can make your hair stand on edge. Xzibit pimps no rides but also does little to pimp his role, becoming nothing more than a gruff thug. Fellow rapper RZA (is it possible to spell that wrong?), in comparison, imbues Winston with a stronger personality than the meager role deserved. It’s also very convenient for a bourgeoisie white male to have a black mail room friend (with a criminal record, of course Hollywood) to fall back on when trouble strikes. Fans of TV’s Alias will recognize Owen’s wife played by Melissa George and instantly hate her. I should know, I watched Derailed with an Alias fan and she still hasn’t forgiven George for coming between Sydney and Vaughn.

It’s not that Derailed is particularly terrible, it’s just rather ordinary, predictable, and at turns lurid and trashy. Owen is wasted as a wimpy man with a guilty conscience that gets beaten and bullied for ¾ of a movie. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon at the movies and fans of the thriller genre should be relatively satisfied. Derailed isn’t a movie you’ll hate yourself in the morning over seeing, but then again it’s nothing too special. You could probably turn on TV right now and catch 3 or 4 thrillers with the same plot and similar twists. You could also watch Friends. Just go watch TV instead of seeing Derailed. Something’s got to be on. In a couple years it’ll be Derailed.

Nate’s Grade: C

Jarhead (2005)

The controversy surrounding Jarhead, a hotly anticipated movie dealing with the 1991 Gulf War, seems rather misplaced. Some argued it would be anti-American, anti-war, anti-Marines, and on the other side of the coin, some even argued that it would be pro-war and pro-aggression. Now the movie seems to be taking flak for not being too political. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) is interested in crafting a movie about the soldiers, a true first-person war. I was actually very pleased, and somewhat relieved, that Jarhead didn’t try to bend over backwards and make any forced parallels to our current Gulf War conundrum. When you’re arguing about whether a movie leans right or left then perhaps the movie stands tall on its own, and Jarhead stands very tall indeed.

Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a “jarhead” the nickname for Marines because of what their heads resemble after their sheering, but it’s also indicative of a vessel, ready to be filled with knowledge. Swofford says he entered the corps because he “got lost on the way to college.” He’s humiliated, beaten, and looking for a way out when Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) offers (more like orders him) to try out for the elite position of Marine snipers. It’s during this new training regiment that Swofford becomes “hooked” on being all he can be. He’s partnered with his barrack buddy Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), who serves as Swofford’s moral anchor. The boys get their hopes up when they catch the news that Iraq has invaded Kuwait. They’re shipped out to the action and are finally going to get a taste of combat … or so they think. They spend months in the Saudi desert amongst 114 degree heat and interminable boredom. They drink water, they play football in their gas suits for the cameras, they goof off, but mostly they wait. And wait. And wait. When the war does finally come into being, any action is short-lived: “Four days, four hours, one minute. That was my war.” Swofford, Troy, and his fellow Marines are aching for some kind of combat, any kind of violence that they’re physically and mentally breaking down in the monotony.

Even the safety nets in previous war films, like the chickadee at home waiting for you, are ripped away in Jarhead. Usually the life at home is a source of release for movie soldiers, but in Jarhead it’s just one more source of mounting anxiety. The men have a Wall of Shame with pictures of ex-wives and girlfriends who have left them or cheated on them.

The acting on display is tremendous. Gyllenhaal (The Day After Tomorrow[) gives a sensational performance that should turn him into a bona fide, A-list leading man. All at once he can display fraternal bravado, closeted fear, confusion, and dulled horror. His show stopping moment is when he’s amidst a mental breakdown and turns a rifle on a comrade and then on himself, pleading that a shot be taken. The scene is a powder keg of intensity and Gyllenhaal is utterly captivating, startling, and horrifying with every teeth-grinding second. What?’ even better is that his performance doesn’t stop when the camera isn’t centered on his beautiful baby-eyes. He draws stronger performances out of those around him, and he does it quietly with confidence. He masks his fear and does so in fascinating, layered ways. Performances like this are what Oscars are for. And for any Jake fans out there, yes he does show a good bit of flesh in the film.

Foxx (Ray) breathes fiery life into what otherwise could have been a stock character, the tough love drill sergeant. He’s given much more screen time than I had ever thought and makes the most of it. Sarsgaard (Garden State) is a steely, dependable shoulder of support in the film, and his own big breakdown scene is amazing to witness. He?s so close to a kill but is overruled by the military brass, and Sarsgaard just lets everything go. It’s incredible. Chris Cooper (Adaptation) and even Dennis Haysbert, 24‘s president Palmer himself, have brief but very memorable small turns.

The cinematography by Roger Deakins (replacing Mendes previous Oscar-winning collaborator, the late great Conrad Hall) is gorgeous and uses light and shadow in remarkable ways to convey the turmoil of the soldiers and the other-worldliness of the desert. There are scenes amongst the lit oil fields that look like some alien world. It’s a perfect visual representation of how alone these men are and how ill-equipped they are for that scenario. The camerawork beautifully echoes the emptiness of their surroundings. Jarhead should easily score a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Deakins (House of Sand and Fog).

Jarhead is really an analysis of the psychology of what it takes to go to war. There is a transformation process, where young boys get stripped down and turned into killing machines. Jarhead poses a central question: what happens when you create the ultimate killing machine and give it nothing to do? Essentially, these men are breaking down in the tedium and many will be broken for the rest of their lives. A very poignant scene comes late in the film during their triumphant bus ride home. A Vietnam vet hops on to cheer his fellow Marines and in his hazy jingoism, you see how haunted and broken this man is from his own war experiences decades past. The future is staring them right in the face. Swofford opens and closes the film with narration explaining that once a man holds a rifle in combat, no matter what else he does in his life his hands will feel that rifle. These are men trained for war and adjusting to everyday life where the only war resides inside. Jarhead is a monstrously powerful study on the lasting effects of turning young men into monsters of combat.

Jarhead‘s inherently anticlimactic nature works against it, which will cause some level of disconnect with an audience. This is a very loosely structured flick about delayed gratification with no payoff. That’s not exactly a recipe for success. Jarhead is essentially the Waiting for Godot of war movies. The film is about monotony, about inaction, and the movie achieves a surprising yet palpable tension simply from drawing the viewer along for so far. In lesser hands a movie about boredom would still be boring, but Mendes brings an unprecedented art to it. Mendes has a confidant vision and the technical skill to bring out the drama of boredom. Jarhead has a deadpan sense of humor and some very sobering moments, like when Swofford comes across the remains of a traffic jam caught in napalm. These killing machines are getting rusty and will come back home without ever getting to pull a trigger, and what does that do to a man? These are important questions and Mendes is interested in answering them at a pace that still serves his characters. I love that Mendes has directed three films that are wildly different from one another. In my view, this guy is three-for-three.

Jarhead is no Full Metal Jacket and yet Mendes gives passing nods to Vietnam and how our culture has shaped its history. The Marines watch Apocalypse Now and cheer as helicopters mow down villages set to a thundering soundtrack by Wagner. They’ve completely missed the point of one of the most anti-war films ever, transforming it into a bloodlust ritual. When Mendes reaches the desert then Jarhead becomes a war movie unlike any other. It’s a war movie without a war, sort of. All wee see are the results, both external and internal.

In a way, Jarhead is all about transformations and transitions, one of which is the Gulf War itself. This was arguably the first made-for-TV war and viewers were amazed at the green-tinted images of explosions and military might. War had been brought into the video game age where what once took months on the ground could be accomplished by pushing a button. Jarhead shows you the side of the Desert Shield/Storm that never made it to the cameras. The movie also presents some of the more obscured details of the war, like the care for and disposal of human waste from outhouses. That stuff never made CNN. Jarhead shows, very quietly and somberly, that sometimes the soldiers who return home have still been left behind.

Jarhead is an intense, sobering, evocative, and deeply contemplative film about the psychology of turning young men into killers and then leaving them with nothing to do. The inherent anticlimactic nature will likely push some audiences away while others will simply find it tedious. Mendes’ direction is strong and confidant and able to squeeze drama and tension from inaction, crafting an existential war movie that feels relevant and profound. Gyllenhaal is amazing and utterly captivating; you can’t take your eyes off him and, for many out there, a certain strategically located Santa hat. This movie isn’t anti-America, anti-troops, or even anti-war for that matter. Jarhead tells us that all wars are different and all wars are the same. We know war is hell, but for some, the absence of war is an even greater hell.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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