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Pearl Harbor (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released May 25, 2001:

It turns out we went to war in 1941 not because of Japanese aggression, Hitler’s dominance in Europe, or the protection of freedom and democracy. Sorry kids. The real reason we went to war was to complicate and then clear up Kate Beckinsale’s love life. At least that’s what director Michael Bay and screenwriter Randall Wallace would tell you with their indulgent epic Pearl Harbor.

We open in Tennessee in the 20s with two boys who dream of being pilots. Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) grow into strapping young lads who flash their hot dog flyin’ skills at basic training, which brings them chagrin from superiors but admiration from peers. Rafe falls in love with a young nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), who goes against ARMY rule and passes Rafe in his eye exam portion when he has a slight case of dyslexia. But he’s just so cuuuute. The romance builds but Rafe feels like he’s grounded when all he wants to do is fly, and volunteers to fight in the RAF over in Europe. He promises he’ll be back to see his lovely Evelyn. Of course he gets into an accident and everyone assumes that poor dyslexic Rafe is fertilizing a lawn somewhere with his remains. Hence Danny slowly but surely develops something for Evelyn in their periods of mourning, and the two consummate their puppy love with a tango in parachute sheets.

All seems well until Rafe returns back from the dead throwing a wrench into Evelyn’s second date parachute plans. Thus the Hollywood favorite of the love triangle endures until the end when the two fly boys enlist in the Doolittle attack against Japan, months after the ferocious attack on Pearl Harbor. The real purpose of the Doolittle attack was not militarily but merely for morale. The real purpose it serves in the movie is to shave off an end on our love triangle.

Pearl Harbor allows us to follow a group of youthful and innocent starry-eyed kids from training to combat. Each seems pretty much exactly the same to each other. It’s near impossible to distinguish which character is which. It’s like the screenwriter didn’t even have the gall to resort to cliche supporting character roles, and he just made one character and duplicated it. The only one who was noticeable for me was the character of Red (Ewen Bremner, julien donkey boy himself), but that was simply because the man had a speech impediment. We also have our handful of young nurses alongside Beckinsale, and I had an easier time distinguishing between them; everyone had different hair colors.

If you look in the pic, or the credits, you’ll see that two of the nurses would turn out to be Jennifer Garner (Alias) and Sara Rue (Less than Perfect), both stars of ABC shows, and ABC is owned by, yep, Disney. Coincidence? Probably. When they ran this on TV they actually advertised Jennifer Garner above Kate Beckinsale. That reminded me of when Seven ran on TV shortly after Kevin Spacey had won his well-deserved 1999 Best Actor Oscar for American Beauty, and they gave him second-billing in the advertisement over Morgan Freeman, the movie’s true main character.

Affleck has a hayseed Southern twang, but seems to mysteriously disappear for long stretches. Hartnett seems to talk with a deep creak, like a door desperately trying to be pushed open. Beckinsale manages to do okay with her material, but more magnificently manages to never smear a drop of that lipstick of hers during the entire war. We could learn a lot from her smear-defying efforts. Gooding Jr. is pretty much given nothing to work with. I’m just eternally grateful he didn’t go into a usual Cuba frenzy when he shot down a Zero.

Michael Bay has brought us the ADD screenings that are the past, loud hits of The Rock and Armageddon. Teamed up with his overactive man-child producer Jerry Bruckheimer once more, Pearl Harbor is less Bay restrained to work on narrative film as it is Bay free-wheeling. His camera is loose and zig-zagging once more to a thousand edits and explosions. Bay is a child at heart that just loves to see things explode. When he should show patience and restraint he decides to just go for the gusto and make everything as pretty or explosive as possible. This is not a mature filmmaker.

Despite the sledge hammer of bad reviews, Pearl Harbor is not as bad as it has been made out to be. The love story is inept and the acting is sleep-inducing, unless when it’s just funny. It doesn’t start off too badly, but twenty minutes in the movie begins sinking. The centerpiece of the film is the actual Pearl Harbor bombing that clocks in after ninety minutes of the movie. The forty-minute attack sequence is something to behold. The pacing is good and the action is exciting with some fantastic special effects. The movie is bloated with a running time a small bit over three hours total. Maybe, if they left the first twenty minutes in, then gave us the forty minute attack sequence, followed by a subsequent five minute ending to clear up our love triangle’s loose ends… why we’d have an 80 minute blockbuster!

Pearl Harbor doesn’t demonize the Japanese, but it feels rather false with their open-minded attempts to show both sides as fair minded. It gets to the point where they keep pushing the Japanese further into less of a bad light that it feels incredibly manipulative and just insulting. It seems like the producers really didn’t want to offend any potential Pacific ticket buyers so the picture bends backwards to not be insulting. The only people who could be offended by Pearl Harbor are those who enjoy good stories. Oh yeah, and war veterans too.

The cast of Pearl Harbor almost reads like another Hollywood 40s war movie where all the big stars had small roles throughout, kind of like The Longest Day for the Pepsi generation. Alec Baldwin plays General Doolittle and is given the worst lines in the film to say. Tom Sizemore shows up as a sergeant ready to train the men entering Pearl Harbor. He has five minutes of screen time but does manage to kill people in that short window. Dan Akroyd is in this for some reason or other, likely because Blues Brothers 3000 has yet to be green lighted. John Voight is easily the most entertaining actor to watch in the entire film. He gives a very authentic portrayal of President Roosevelt. I still find trouble believing it was Voight under the makeup.

The blueprint for Pearl Harbor is so transparent. They took the Titanic formula of setting a fictional romance against a disaster, with the first half establishing characters and our love story, and then relegating the second half to dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. It worked in Titanic (yes, I liked the film for the most part), but it doesn’t work here. Pearl Harbor is a passable film, but the mediocre acting, inept romance, square writing, and slack pacing stop it from being anything more. Fans of war epics might find more to enjoy, especially if they don’t regularly have quibbles over things like “characters” and “plot.” To paraphrase that know-it-all Shakespeare: “Pearl Harbor is a tale told by an idiot. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Nate’s Grade: C

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Believe it or not, there was a point in time where people actually considered the possibility of Michael Bay making an Oscar contender. It seems mostly absurd now but at the time there was a benign sense of hope with the production of Pearl Harbor, the most expensive movie greenlit at the time ($140 million) and whose ultimate costs would exceed $200 million. The blueprint for the movie is easy to spot, borrowed heavily from the success of another risky and very expensive movie about sinking ships, James Cameron’s Oscar-winning blockbuster Titanic. If you’re looking for a movie to follow, you could certainly do worse than the highest grossing movie ever (at the time). There was great speculation and buzz about the movie, for its immense production scope, for the reported ambitions, for the prospect of Bay trying to make a serious movie, albeit a serious movie that still included a healthy helping of his usual explosions. There were similar rumors of disaster courting Titanic, then the first production to go over $200 million, and that turned out fine. Well, as should be obvious especially twenty years after its initial release, Michael Bay is no James Cameron in the realm of filmmaking and action storytelling.

Upon its release Memorial Day weekend in 2001, Pearl Harbor opened to a critical drubbing and general audience indifference. It failed to live up to whatever hype or hope had been attached, though it did snag a Guinness World record for most explosions if you value that honor. Bay has never since attempted a “prestige picture” again, resorting to the comfort of doing what he knows he can do well, showcasing large robots punching each other in between pretty explosions. I don’t know what the real legacy of the Pearl Harbor movie should be but I think, twenty years later, it’s a mediocre attempt to recapture something of a past, whether that was the movies of the 1940s or a very very specific movie from 1997 that rhymes with Smitanic. It’s too bad Pearl Harbor is still a three-hour shrug of a movie.

A full 90 minutes is devoted to setting up the nascent characters and history before that fateful attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and that’s the first major misstep for the film. Much of the emotional involvement is built upon a romance that simply does not work in any capacity. Ben Affleck plays Rafe, a dyslexic pilot who charms Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a nurse who decides to help him cheat his medical exams. The first 45 minutes demonstrates their abbreviated courtship and romance through a series of cute moments that fail to coalesce into something more meaningful. And if you think that was rushed and abbreviated, after Rafe is believed to be dead, it’s about ten minutes before his best friend and fellow fighter pilot Danny (Josh Hartnett) is starting to fall in love with her and impregnating Evelyn in no time at all. Then Rafe returns, shocker, and everyone is upset with each other and confused, which is exactly what the Japanese military was waiting for, now knowing this is the ultimate time to strike its big assault.

I read that Bay rebuffed some of the more persistent criticism about the fetid romance, saying he and screenwriter Randall Wallace (Braveheart, We Were Soldiers) were aiming to replicate the romances of 1940s movies. To me this sounds like an inartful dodge. The romance in Pearl Harbor is not a throwback to a decade of movies that brought us Casablanca and The Shop Around the Corner and The Lady Eve, classic romances that knew how to pull your heartstrings and still register emotions to this day regardless of being over 70 years old. I think when Bay says he intended the romance to be older, nostalgic, he means simpler, and that’s just an insult to modern audiences as well as film audiences from the 1940s. This romance is just poorly written, not simple. Part of it relates to the chemistry between the three actors, which seems waterlogged, but most of the failure falls upon the shoddy character interactions. This is a movie devoted to having characters exclaim and explain things on screen rather than show you. Instead of watching characters fall in love over time, loosening and relaxing, flirting and deliberating, we just have characters declare feelings over the course of a few months of time. We’re supposed to feel conflicted when Evelyn finds comfort with Danny, but why should anyone care? Was anyone deeply invested in the relationship she had with Rafe? The other problem is that Danny is never even given a chance. His courtship is ridiculously short on time, and in fact his character drops out of the movie for what feels like twenty minutes before coming back to mourn Rafe’s loss. One of the guys says about Evelyn, “She’s got to be with someone, so it might as well be you.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement there, and also that’s pretty misogynistic thinking, my man.

So much hinges on the romance and yet so little of it seems to carry as soon as the explosions kick in. Once the Japanese aerial assault begins, it’s all chaos until it’s over, and then it becomes about getting some measure of retaliation with the Doolittle raid for Act Three. The romance is, for all intents and purposes, put on hold for over half of the movie. It’s like the movie cannot make up its mind so it leaves it to the Japanese to clarify who Evelyn should end up with. When the entire emotional investment of the movie is predicated on a romantic triangle, and you don’t feel any semblance of human emotions for any combination, you might as well scorch the whole thing and have every participant make the ultimate sacrifice for God and country. This is why Pearl Harbor staggers because its love story does not put in the necessary work. I felt no more tension for Rafe or Evelyn in the bombing than any other nameless extra running for their lives.

As far as spectacle, Pearl Harbor can keep you entertained. Bay still knows intimately well how to stage scenes of multitudinous violence and chaos (his real lifelong romantic partner). The Pearl Harbor bombing is the absolute highlight of the movie and impressive in its scale. The shot of the bombing of the six American warships took six months of coordination to merely rig the 700 sticks of dynamite and cord for a shot that lasts all of 12 seconds. The production built the world’s largest gimble to simulate the top of the U.S.S. Oklahoma capsizing. The scale and scope of the attack is impressively massive and gives a real sense of how overwhelming this surprise attack was on the isolationist American military. The chaos that normally follows a Michael Bay action scene, where geography and mini-goals are lost, can actually be a virtue when communicating the surprise attack. You can get lost in all the noise and smoke. There are some moments that are just strictly movie silly, like a squadron of Zeroes chasing after individual people to shoot, or Tom Sizemore firing a shotgun while fighter planes zoom overhead. It’s little reminders that you’re watching a big screen entertainment of war rather than a realistic and jarring portrayal of the horror of combat. Bay only has one viewpoint when it comes to the military, to sacrifice, and to masculinity, so the tragedy of lives lost is only ever served upon the altar of a jingoistic reverence for military power. I would have preferred an entire half of the movie following the plight of the nurses trying to triage all the wounded and save who they could with dwindling supplies and even less time. That movie doesn’t get made by Bay. There aren’t enough explosions in that kind of movie and too much emphasis on realistic human suffering.

I’m also confused about the movie’s political apprehension. It bends over backwards to portray the Japanese generals as honorable and morally conflicted, which is better than mustache-twirling stereotypes, but this is still the aggressor country that had already invaded and occupied China. All of the good intentions of being more even-handed with the Japanese, perhaps to fight against anti-Asian demagoguery or even solely from money reasons, get supremely muddled when Bay decides to make the Pearl Harbor bombing even worse than it was in reality. The Japanese took great offense that in the movie their planes are seen attacking hospitals and civilian targets, something that never happened according to history and witnesses on both sides. Bay reportedly included the extra attacks because he wanted the attack to seem more “barbaric.” What is the point of better trying to represent a group of people and make up extra barbarism?

Looking back at my original review from 2001, I believe this was a watershed review for me. I wrote over 1200 words and it’s more in keeping with my current reviews than my early reviews. I find the analysis to be more critical than my early reviews where I was more likely to settle for puns and scant broadsides. This review has a few of those, but I also found myself nodding along with much of it even twenty years later. There are some marvelous turns of phrases, like “A Longest Day for the Pepsi generation” and Harnett’s voice sounding like a stubborn door refusing to stay open. There’s a punchiness to the writing that I recognize and admire, and it’s like I can see myself developing and finding my critical voice at this early juncture, which was almost two years into my beginnings as a fledgling film critic in Ohio. This one feels like a step above. I couldn’t end this analysis better than I did back in 2001, so I’ll quote my then 19-year-old self to close out both reviews: “To paraphrase that know-it-all Shakespeare: ‘Pearl Harbor is a tale told by an idiot. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’”

Re-View Grade: C

Wrath of Man (2021)

Wrath of Man is the least Guy Ritchie movie of Guy Ritchie’s career. It’s a crime movie, yes, and based upon a 2004 French film, but it’s absent his trademark big colorful Cockney personalities, ironic coincidences and upheavals, and broad slapstick violence. It has some narrative shuffling on board, as you can’t have a Ritchie heist movie where he’s not cross cutting between characters explaining the steps of the heist and enact it simultaneously, but Wrath of Man has far more in common with a lean, stripped down crime thriller like Heat than Snatch or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Even a fun caper like 2015’s Man from U.N.C.L.E. felt like a clear distillation of his signature style into a new mod studio setting. This movie doesn’t feel like a Guy Ritchie movie. There is style, sure, but it’s far more gritty and less self-consciously flashy. It’s a solid vengeance tale, a pulpy though confusingly structured B-movie, a crime story with a message about anticlimax, and a sign that Ritchie can restrain himself when his film project calls for it.

In an opening scene, we watch an armored truck robbed and both drivers are executed. The repercussions of this will echo throughout the story. H (Jason Statham, reuniting with Ritchie for the first time since 2005’s Revolver) is a new hire for that same armored truck company, escorting large sums of money. He and his partner, Bullet (Holt McCallany), are held hostage by armed thieves and H methodically dispatches them, killing them all. Who is this man? He’s someone trying to find the culprits behind the opening robbery for his own personal reasons of vengeance, and that means setting up tantalizing traps for would-be robbers and working his way across Los Angeles to determine who is going to feel his manly wrath.

This is a darker and more somber vengeance movie where the violence has more weight to it. Everything feels heavier in Wrath of God. Even though this is strict B-movie territory, Ritchie does a commendable job of making the violence feel real and dangerous. It’s not cartoonish. There are recognizable genre moments, like too-cool interrogations, but this feels closer to a version of our own world where violence isn’t cool but awful. That may sound like the opposite of a recommendation, and I can hear someone say, “Why would I want THAT in my Jason Statham thriller?” Fair point, but the visceral nature of this depiction of crime makes the thrills feel more earned and less fleeting. The musical score by Christopher Benstead (The Gentlemen) is heavy dread personified for the entire two-hour running time. I was surprised how involved I found myself getting as the movie progressed, and during a climactic shootout I was feeling palpable nervous tension. I didn’t know who was exactly going to make it out alive, but I also wanted the “bad guys” to be taken down, but I was uncertain whether any of this would happen. Wrath of Man is an efficiently calibrated thriller when the action heats up. It doesn’t do anything special but what it does is build its moments with compounding dread. You’re waiting for bad things to happen, and you should expect bad things to happen, but you don’t quite know if they’ll happen to characters you like or don’t like, and that pumps up suspense. I was honestly surprised how invested I was during that shootout despite the limitations of characters as genre placeholders. The action and confrontations are chilly and ruthlessly efficient.

It’s the structure that’s the real villain here. I’m exaggerating a bit but there are significant structural curve balls that attempt to make Wrath of Man more unpredictable and I think take away from its overall impact and coherency. We see the opening robbery from three eventual perspectives, the drivers inside the truck, the perpetrators, and the bystander victims. We’re also shifting perspectives from chapter to chapter, but I’m not certain that all this fancy narrative shuffling is actually worth the strained effort. I’ll agree it keeps things unpredictable, but any movie where beginnings and middles are rearranged would achieve that same effect. Our first segment presents a mystery, but then it’s answered immediately in the next segment. The third segment answers another mystery, and it’s here where I started feeling like these answers weren’t quite worth the efforts to get there. There’s a notable anticlimactic design to much of the reveals, and while I believe it has ripe thematic purpose (more on that later), it also removes degrees of satisfaction that you can take from the movie. When you find out who H really is, you’ll be like, “Oh. Okay.” And from there he seems like an unkillable superhero. And when you find out who is responsible for the opening robbery, you’ll likely be like, “Oh. Okay.”

The problem is that these answers aren’t nearly as satisfying because the people are so one-dimensional. The gang involved in the robbery, and responsible for H’s tragedy, are just one-note dudes and with a super obvious liability they keep on their team that takes away from their so-called professionalism. By taking characters in and out for long portions of the movie, we can lose track of meaningful supporting characters but also it limits the dramatic appeal. If we knew who hit that robbery early, and how they’re reacting, we might feel more conflict when they come head-to-head again with H in the climax. Or we might be better off simply not knowing them at all for as much time as they are given. Getting such shrift characterization, and with an obvious psychopath on board, feels like a half-hearted shrug. Likewise, knowing H’s tragic back-story later into the movie doesn’t really produce much more than had the movie opened with that information. It feels like Ritchie and company have recognized the limitations of their mystery and rearranged the pieces just to provide some extra questions for an audience to grapple with longer. I enjoyed early on discovering just how capable H was, and I enjoyed how the movie doesn’t pretend the obvious isn’t apparent (“Your shooting was… unambiguously precise”). However, this is Jason Statham, so we already know he’s going to be more than capable on the job.

I wanted to talk about the emptiness of the movie, and I don’t mean this as a pejorative assessment but in the themes. It’s about greed and pride and vengeance and, ultimately, it’s about how little any of these motivating factors add up. This is a gloomy movie about bad people, each with a reported reason for doing the bad things that they do. There’s been a million “crime doesn’t pay” messages in movies, but this is one of the few where I felt the futility of it all. By the conclusion, as innocent people are being killed by not-so-innocent people, and then they are just as easily dispatched by even less innocent people, I kept thinking of Marge Gunderson’s inability to reconcile criminal behavior during the end of the brilliant movie Fargo: “And all for a little bit of money? There’s more to life than money, ya know?” I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that H does get his vengeance at long last in the movie’s resolution, but by that point I felt like it didn’t even matter. Sure I still wanted the antagonist to be toppled, but after such mayhem and such loss of life, and all for a little bit of money, the anticlimactic nature of the ending felt purposely designed. The movie has been leading up to this moment and yet when it comes, it’s not quite what we would have hoped. That intentional emptiness is meant to convey the hollow nature of vengeance as well as a nihilistic approach to crime movies. It kind of works but also it works because the movie didn’t do much work making this antagonist memorable or multi-dimensional so that I could relish his eventual smiting. It feels, in some ways, like the grimy B-movie equivalent of Matt Damon getting clipped at the end of The Departed (spoilers?).

Wrath of Man is a solid vengeance thriller with some heavier themes and some weightier violence, but it’s still a movie where Jason Statham cleans shop. It’s still going to scratch those very basic demands but I applaud it for trying to be a little something more. It succeeds in some areas, like tone and theme and thrills, and doesn’t so much in others, like the non-linear narrative and too many one-dimensional characters. Ritchie demonstrates some artistic growth taking just a few fateful steps outside his cocksure and gaudy signature style. I would welcome more Ritchie signature movies akin to Snatch, but I would also welcome more well-oiled thrillers where Ritchie sublimates his style for the good of the story and mood. Either way, I’d just be happier with more good Guy Ritchie movies (and a sequel to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., please).

Nate’s Grade: B

The Black Dahlia (2006)

Hey, I got an idea. How about we make a Black Dahlia movie and hardly involve anything having to do with the notorious Black Dahlia murder? I’ve got an even better idea; let’s center the action around a love triangle involving cops who are, say it with me, too close to the case. And then we’ll have a wacked out rich family where the mother (Fiona Shaw, God bless her) gives a performance that isn’t three-sheets-to-the-wind drunk, she is staggering, cataclysmically, powerfully, off-the-wall drunk. Watching her sway and sneer and hiccup is like watching Daffy Duck in this Brian DePalma mess. The central actors feel too young for their parts (the best actor is Mia Kirshner, seen briefly in an audition reel as the soon to be eviscerated Elizabeth Short), and the ending is an insipid caper to an ongoing, unsolved murder mystery. The Black Dahlia is appallingly boring and yet also appallingly dimwitted, but it does occasionally look good thanks to the technical proficiency of its director. DePalma has had a very up and down career. Consider this one of his valleys.

Nate’s Grade: D

Lucky Number Slevin (2006)

Probably too clever by half, this Tarantino knockoff is gloriously twisty and far more twisted than you may have thought from the surface. It’s a puzzle piece that winds up being vastly entertaining. Josh Hartnett does the best work of his career in an effervescent comedic performance, playing Slevin, a nobody mistaken for a somebody who owes different mobsters large sums of money. There are a lot of balls to keep juggling, but Lucky Number Slevin finds a way to keep the headstrong momentum constantly going. The neo-noir art direction is fabulous and eye-catching. Things get really dark in the last act, perhaps too dark for some, but for me, this was a crime caper that left me captivated by clever storytelling and flashy camerawork. Definitely for fans of the noir genre and for those with hard stomachs for violence.

Nate’s Grade: B

Sin City (2005)

Like film noir on steroids. Director Robert Rodriguez has made the most faithful comics adaptation ever; giving life to Frank Miller’s striking black and white art. The visuals are sumptuous but the storytelling is just as involving, a perfect mix of noir/detective elements and subversive, highly memorable characters. Sin City may be the most violent studio film … ever, but the over-the-top tone keeps the proceedings from becoming too nauseating, even after limbs are lost, heads roll (and talk), and dogs pick away at living bodies. This is a very ball-unfriendly movie; lots of castrations. The blood even looks like fluorescent bird crap. The stories become somewhat repetitious (anti-hero saves distressed woman), but Miller and Rodriguez keep their tales tight, pulpy, comic, and unpredictable. My girlfriend turned to me after it was done and said, “That was a great movie.” I could not argue.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Black Hawk Down (2001)

In the fall of 1993 Somalia was a nation being torn by civil war with feuding warlords and slowly being crippled by rampant hunger. The UN intervened to try feeding the starving nation but warlords like Mohamed Farrah Aidid cut off many of its shipments of food. The United States had plans to capture two top lieutenants of Aidid’s in the capital of Mogadishu. Over 100 Delta units and Army Rangers were sent into the heart of the Mogadishu market to execute the operation.

Things didn’t go well from the start as casualties began to pile up and first one, then two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down from ground fire. Medical vans and Humvees were continually blocked access to help the stranded soldiers by civilian roadblocks consisting of smoldering debris. It wasn’t supposed to take longer than 45 minutes. It ended up lasting over 15 hours. In the end 18 American lives were lost, over 70 were wounded, and over a 1000 Somalian lives were lost. What’s truly amazing is the courage the men displayed, and the fact that being surrounded by a sea of armed Somalians that more lives weren’t lost.

Black Hawk Down is essentially a two-hour action sequence. The emphasis of the film is on the stark recreation of the Somalia skirmish and it is indeed an achievement in grueling realism. You truly feel like you have been thrown into the middle of this firefight. With all the gunfire and chaos it leaves little time for getting to know characters. This is probably why they have names written on their helmets so the audience can attempt some semblance of who’s who.

The film is by no means for the faint of heart. Saving Private Ryan had some intense violence, but it was mainly condensed for the opening and closing 20 minutes. Black Hawk Down, on the other hand, is two straight hours of non-stop blood and gore. The violence and the intense realism are not gratuitous but indicative of the horror these men faced. If you can’t stomach a soldier plunging his entire forearm into the chest cavity of another to cut off a bullet wound – stay at home and read a good book.

Ridley Scott is on an ultra-violent hot streak after directing big name Hollywood tokens like Hannibal and Gladiator. His handling of Black Hawk Down is masterful, just for the simple fact of keeping the audience free from confusion. Throughout the duration we know who is where, where they want to go, and the general geography of the hot spot. The staging of the entire battle is beautifully filmed and the recreation of the Mogadishu market place is amazing in its fine detail. Some criticism has been projected at the film for portraying the Somalians as basically black people with guns. This is entirely true, but one must remember that the film is told from the American point of view.

The acting, as expected in a war film, takes a back seat to the heroic histrionics and the fireworks. Josh Hartnett is sullen in his duty as Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann but always a comfortable figure to see on screen amidst the chaos. Ewan McGregor plays a soldier promoted to action instead of desk work and adds some touches of humor to the fray. Tom Sizemore is the most recognizable person as the often-frustrated Lt. Colonel Danny McKnight who fearlessly strolls across the battlefield while bullets whiz by.

Black Hawk Down for some will be the right movie at the right time, though it was never intended to be. The riveting action is more than entertaining and worth admission price, but you might leave pondering on the sacrifice few know the full details. Just make sure to go to the bathroom before the film starts.

Nate’s Grade: A-

O (2001)

“I did what I did and that is all you know. From here on out I say nothing.”

The story behind O has become more infamous than the film itself. The film has had twelve different release dates and was actually finished in 1999. It had the dubious nature of having the themes of jealousy and violence set in high school around the time Columbine had polarized the nation. Miramax subsequently kept pushing the film back until it finally jettisoned it over to Lions Gate films, the same people who rescued ‘Dogma’ when Miramax felt it was too hot to handle for corporate parent Disney. Finally now O is getting the release it has waited for.

O is the modern update of Othello but is by no means in the same brethren of the bubbly Shakespeare ripped teen comedies proliferating the screen big and small. O is a serious tale told with earnestness in its portrayal, and with its conviction and refusal for exploitation, executes the best modern day transition of Shakespeare to date. What better setting for lust, jealousy, love, betrayal, murder and tragedy than a high school? It is almost chilling how well the tale translates to the high school setting, particularly with the notices of race and jealousy.

Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) is the only black student at an all white prep school in Charleston, South Carolina. Odin is the senior leader of the school’s basketball team and an all-star in the making. Odin, or “O” as the crowd chants at games, is dating Desi (Julia Stiles), the daughter of the dean. She’s a spitfire but they love one another with great intensity. Everything seems to be going well for Odin with school, his relationship, and his team entering into the state playoffs. His coach (Martin Sheen) proclaims his love for Odin like a son at a pep rally with the denizens in the stands cheering along. Everyone appears to be cheering for their popular hero, except for Hugo (Josh Hartnett).

Hugo is the coach’s son and perennially looked over on the basketball team. He looks at Odin and is fueled with jealousy for the admiration and love his father would rather bestow on him than his own son. Dinner at home is a more a cold silence than a family activity. Hugo is jealous of all the things Odin has that he cannot have and some that he will never have. So he sets forth in motion a plan to bring the downfall of the popular kids he despises. Hugo enlists the aid of gullible Roger (Elden Henson) who’s picked on heavily from the same people Hugo wishes to topple. Hugo coaxes Mike (Andrew Keegan), ousted form the basketball team after a staged fight with Roger, that the best way to regain the good will of Odin and his father is to cozy up to Desi and convince her. He then plants the seeds of doubt in Odin with Desi. He draws Desi’s roommate Emily (Rain Phoenix) into the scheme by seducing her into stealing a rare handkerchief that Odin had given Desi as a show of love and commitment.

With every pawn somehow moving in the directions Hugo wishes the jealousy boils, love turns to heartbreak, and the game ultimately ends violently. It isn’t called “tragedy” for nothing folks.

Othello is, at its heart, the tale of a villain and his masterminding. The center figure is not on our hapless Moor or his lovely Desdemona, but on the treacherous Iago as he plots the tragedy of those around him with woeful precision. Shakespeare’s Othello has quite possibly the greatest villain in all of literature with Iago. He is a man who positions an elaborate staging of jealousy, insecurity, mistrust, and ultimately murder – and all this time he is given center stage to propel his masterwork. And it’s exciting, giving genuine evil a face, a name, and more importantly than anything else, a vicious intelligence to play out. This is why Othello transcends its problems in story staging and character turning points, because it is a tale told from the hands of its most essential leg: the villain.

Hartnett takes the reigns of the picture and gallops with them with great care. Though shot and filmed years before many of his latest pictures, O shows Hartnett in his most methodical and enticing acting turn. He portrays Hugo smoothly giving equal shades of bitterness and envy with his sullen performance. Harnett is so invigorating as the villain that one almost sides with him, but that is the attraction of evil. O decides to pump more motivation for its villain than Shakespeare had included, and it works in a startlingly believable way. A student plotting the demise of a more popular and athletic student and seeking the love of an inattentive father – maybe this is why Miramax shelved it for two years. The motivation in this setting is totally believable to a chilling point.

Phifer is a charming presence and reflects the descent of Odin with good emotion. One can feel the rage just resonating from him during a slam dunk contest which he brings down the backboard and sternly glares at Desi in the stands. His final declaration with all the chaos that has swarmed around him is almost heart breaking. Stiles, on the other hand, is not given too much to work with but seems to make decent use out of her part. Sheen blusters about like the spawn of Bobby Knight, but shows a more frightening side in his ambivalent relationship to his son.

O is deftly directed by Tim Blake Nelson who might be more well known as the “other” chain gang member in O Brother where Art Thou? Nelson periodically adds little touches of great artistic exchanges that elevate O into something more than another teen film. It even achieves a certain level of poignancy and power as Hartnett is led away and speaking reflective about his deeds to the audience. The script from debut screenwriter Brad Kaaya drops Shakespeare’s prose but for the best. The film has a greater sense of realism and authenticity when the main characters aren’t talking in iambic pentameter.

The film isn’t perfect by certain means. Hugo’s plot seems a tad too elaborate and easily achieved, and Odin seems to fall for some questionable pieces of doubt. I mean, what else will an old hanky be used for in a modern film? But these faults can be blamed on Shakespeare as much as the principals involved behind the film. Despite these minor stumbles O is indeed a great film that deserves to be seen and thought over afterwards.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Pearl Harbor (2001)

It turns out we went to war in 1941 not because of Japanese aggression, Hitler’s dominance in Europe, or the protection of freedom and democracy. Sorry kids. The real reason we went to war was to complicate and then clear up Kate Beckinsale’s love life. At least that’s what director Michael Bay and screenwriter Randall Wallace would tell you with their indulgent epic Pearl Harbor.

We open in Tennessee in the 20s with two boys who dream of being pilots. Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) grow into strapping young lads who flash their hot dog flyin’ skills at basic training, which brings them chagrin from superiors but admiration from peers. Rafe falls in love with a young nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), who goes against ARMY rule and passes Rafe in his eye exam portion when he has a slight case of dyslexia. But he’s just so cuuuute. The romance builds but Rafe feels like he’s grounded when all he wants to do is fly, and volunteers to fight in the RAF over in Europe. He promises he’ll be back to see his lovely Evelyn. Of course he gets into an accident and everyone assumes that poor dyslexic Rafe is fertilizing a lawn somewhere with his remains. Hence Danny slowly but surely develops something for Evelyn in their periods of mourning, and the two consummate their puppy love with a tango in parachute sheets.

All seems well until Rafe returns back from the dead throwing a wrench into Evelyn’s second date parachute plans. Thus the Hollywood favorite of the love triangle endures until the end when the two fly boys enlist in the Doolittle attack against Japan, months after the ferocious attack on Pearl Harbor. The real purpose of the Doolittle attack was not militarily, but merely for morale. The real purpose it serves in the movie is to shave off an end on our love triangle.

Pearl Harbor allows us to follow a group of youthful and innocent starry-eyed kids from training to combat. Each seems pretty much exactly the same to each other. It’s near impossible to distinguish which character is which. It’s like the screenwriter didn’t even have the gall to resort to cliche supporting character roles, and he just made one character and duplicated it. The only one who was noticeable for me was the character of Red (Ewen Bremner, julien donkey boy himself), but that was simply because the man had a speech impediment. We also have our handful of young nurses alongside Beckinsale, and I had an easier time distinguishing between them; everyone had different hair colors.

]If you look in the pic, or the credits, you’ll see that two of the nurses would turn out to be Jennifer Garner (Alias) and Sara Rue (Less than Perfect), both stars of ABC shows, and ABC is owned by, yep, Disney. Coincidence? Probably. When they ran this on TV they actually advertised Jennifer Garner above Kate Beckinsale. That reminded me of when Seven ran on TV shortly after Kevin Spacey had won his well-deserved 1999 Best Actor Oscar for American Beauty, and they gave him second-billing in the advertisement over Morgan Freeman, the movie’s true main character.

Affleck has a hayseed Southern twang, but seems to mysteriously disappear for long stretches. Hartnett seems to talk with a deep creak, like a door desperately trying to be pushed open. Beckinsale manages to do okay with her material, but more magnificently manages to never smear a drop of that lipstick of hers during the entire war. We could learn a lot from her smear-defying efforts. Gooding Jr. is pretty much given nothing to work with. I’m just eternally grateful he didn’t go into a usual Cuba frenzy when he shot down a Zero.

Michael Bay has brought us the ADD screenings that are the past, loud hits of The Rock and Armageddon. Teamed up with his overactive man-child producer Jerry Bruckheimer once more, Pearl Harbor is less Bay restrained to work on narrative film as it is Bay free-wheeling. His camera is loose and zig-zagging once more to a thousand edits and explosions. Bay is a child at heart that just loves to see things explode. When he should show patience and restraint he decides to just go for the gusto and make everything as pretty or explosive as possible. This is not a mature filmmaker.

Despite the sledge hammer of bad reviews, Pearl Harbor is not as bad as it has been made out to be. The love story is inept and the acting is sleep-inducing, unless when it’s just funny. It doesn’t start off too badly, but twenty minutes in the movie begins sinking. The centerpiece of the film is the actual Pearl Harbor bombing that clocks in after ninety minutes of the movie. The forty-minute attack sequence is something to behold. The pacing is good and the action is exciting with some fantastic special effects. The movie is bloated with a running time a small bit over three hours total. Maybe, if they left the first twenty minutes in, then gave us the forty minute attack sequence, followed by a subsequent five minute ending to clear up our love triangle’s loose ends… why we’d have an 80 minute blockbuster!

Pearl Harbor doesn’t demonize the Japanese, but it feels rather false with their open-minded attempts to show both sides as fair minded. It gets to the point where they keep pushing the Japanese further into less of a bad light that it feels incredibly manipulative and just insulting. It seems like the producers really didn’t want to offend any potential Pacific ticket buyers so the picture bends backwards to not be insulting. The only people who could be offended by Pearl Harbor are those who enjoy good stories. Oh yeah, and war veterans too.

The cast of Pearl Harbor almost reads like another Hollywood 40s war movie where all the big stars had small roles throughout, kind of like The Longest Day for the Pepsi generation. Alec Baldwin plays General Doolittle and is given the worst lines in the film to say. Tom Sizemore shows up as a sergeant ready to train the men entering Pearl Harbor. He has five minutes of screen time but does manage to kill people in that short window. Dan Akroyd is in this for some reason or other, likely because Blues Brothers 3000 has yet to be green lighted. John Voight is easily the most entertaining actor to watch in the entire film. He gives a very authentic portrayal of President Roosevelt. I still find trouble believing it was Voight under the makeup.

The blueprint for Pearl Harbor is so transparent. They took the Titanic formula of setting a fictional romance against a disaster, with the first half establishing characters and our love story, and then relegating the second half to dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. It worked in Titanic (yes, I liked the film for the most part), but it doesn’t work here. Pearl Harbor is a passable film, but the mediocre acting, inept romance, square writing, and slack pacing stop it from being anything more. Fans of war epics might find more to enjoy, especially if they don’t regularly have quibbles over things like “characters” and “plot.” To paraphrase that know-it-all Shakespeare: “Pearl Harbor is a tale told by an idiot. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Nate’s Grade: C

Reviewed 20 years later as part of the “Reviews Re-View: 2001” article.

Here on Earth (2000)

The story is nothing groundbreaking: new guy arrives in town, sweeps girl off her feet because he’s “different” than the rest, earns ire from mean boyfriend, and eventually gets the girl. It’s been the plot from everything from Lady and the Tramp to Edward Scissorhands. But even though the theme is based in predictability, the creators of ‘Here on Earth’ seem to have lazily put forth an execution.

The movie and its screenwriter have their logic completely reversed. The girl’s boyfriend is supposed to be the wife-beating snotty jerk, and the new kid is supposed to be the nice sensitive “different” guy. But in Earth, Klein is the snotty Richy Rich whose colors never change, and Josh Hartnett is the dependable and established nice guy boyfriend. The structure of this tragic tale is no way to build drama, only contempt for the female lead.

Whatever high-minded message Earth is hopelessly aiming for is destroyed by dialogue so cheesy that it could be considered a side dish at a local Taco Bell. By the time Klein starts naming Leelee’s breasts after different states in the Union the movie loses what little credibility it had or thought it did (“Massachusetts welcomes you”). It’s a wonder most of these young actors can even say what they do with a straight face.

Spoilers follow as I make fun of this movie. Just when you’re wondering why the hell Leelee is doing the things she does and it looks as if we may reach a conclusion or insight – BAM! – she has cancer and dies. This ranks up with “it was all just a dream” as one of the cheapest ways to sneak out of an uncomfortable or unexplained position. It turns out our Joan of Arc bumped her knee and somehow that has exploded into unstoppable cancer. The doctor tells the distraught family members that they always suspected this could happen. Like hell! Every time I stub my damn toe it never crosses my mind I’ve contracted cancer.

Here on Earth is supposed to be the tearjerker for the teen audience out there; the Love Story for the under twenty. But the only thing wringing from this formulaic clunker of a sob story is a healthy outpouring of sap, moral high ground, and a warning to always wear knee pads.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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