ESPN should stick to what they do best - broadcasting sporting events, and talking about sporting events. Their attempts to enter into the field of drama have yet to produce anything that even rises to the level of mediocre. [i]Playmakers[/i], for all its popularity, was aggressively terrible, and the promos suggest that the upcoming [i]Tilt[/i] will be no better and possibly even worse. The most recent entry into this canon of crap, [i]3[/i], tells the story of Dale Earnhardt, a man millions of racing fans adored, without ever giving the audience a single reason why Earnhardt was ever popular - or for that matter, why racing is popular.
Reductive in the worst possible way, [i]3[/i] attempts to suggest what made Earnhardt a legend on the NASCAR circuit, but never gets off the ground. Instead, it does an excellent job in painting Earnhardt and the racing community in general as stubborn bastards responsible for their own short lives. Characters pay lip service to the thrill of racing, but mostly seem concerned with not dying; Earnhardt keeps waking up in cold sweats with nightmares of crashes, all of which serve as heavy-handed foreshadowing of the film's penultimate scene, Earnhardt's fatal crash at the 2001 Daytona 500.
There's no real point or place in the film's flow (such as it is) to these scenes, which seem only to be inserted to be ominous. The film has no problem making the five minutes before Earnhardt's crash into a gallery of ominous scenes that make it even clearer what's going to happen as though we didn't already know; this after utterly glossing over the death of Earnhardt's friend in a practice run shortly before the Daytona 500 he actually wins.
Glossing over is what the film does best. Earnhardt's dad is alive, and then he's dead, and then we move on. The entire decade of the 1980s is pretty much skipped over without a second thought. In one scene Dale's girlfriend is apparently on the verge of leaving him, and we cut from her walking away in tears to... the happy couple in the honeymoon suite! Terrific.
But the greatest sin is the way the film feigns lionization of Earnhardt and racing while doing neither. Racers in the film are portrayed as hard-headed good ol' boys who get themselves killed because they don't know when to quit. This may or may not be true, but it's not exactly a flattering portrait, now is it? A movie whose credits sequence runs like the kind of montages we saw when Princess Diana died should probably make its subject seem a little more worthy of canonization. There's never even the sense that Earnhardt is a great racer except that it's worked into the dialogue constantly that he is - and even then, he goes from "loose cannon" to "best racer ever" seemingly overnight.
It's a bad sports movie and it's a bad movie overall. Barry Pepper does a good enough job with what he's given (which isn't much, besides "bad prosthetics"), but that's about all there is to praise. Just stop already, ESPN.
Every now and then, a film comes along that challenges our views on the society we live in. [i]Hotel Rwanda[/i] was such a film, questioning how the West could let the Rwandan genocide go on, but 20 years before that, a film was released that called America's attention to the terrible problem of racial injustice in this country. That film was [i]Breakin'[/i].
The most amazing thing about [i]Breakin'[/i] is its subtlety. Despite the racially-charged nature of the subject material, it is never actually mentioned that the reason Ozone and Turbo are disdained by the white dance teacher Franco is that they are black - instead, it is claimed by Franco that they are "amateurs" and their "street" moves wouldn't fit in on a professional stage.
Such comments are patently allegorical, however. Ozone and Turbo are perceived as a threat because of their African descent, and claims that they are amateurs are merely attempts to distract from the larger racial issue. Franco, and white society as a whole, also feel a competition with Ozone for the attention of Kelly, the white dance prodigy who takes up breakdancing. The fears of miscegenation held by white society come to the forefront as Franco attempts to disdain Kelly's new partnership.
In true [i]Wizard of Oz[/i] fashion, the characters are representations of political figures. Ozone and Turbo represent the two halves of the civil rights movement. Turbo is Martin Luther King Jr., well-mannered and polite and thus appealing to white liberals, while Ozone represents Malcolm X, the brooding radical who refuses to cater to white society to gain equality. In a poignant moment at the final dance competition, however, Ozone gives in long enough to perform along with Turbo and Kelly, though he remains defiant in the face of his white challengers. Still, this moment is symbolic of the decline of radical groups like the Black Panthers, and a reminder that overall, the civil rights movement did not achieve its goals due to overt radicalism.
A fascinating exploration of culture clash and filled with breathtaking choreography, [i]Breakin'[/i] is a true masterpiece of film. If not for its reminder of this country's ability to come together, we might still be living in a time where blacks were considered second-class citizens. It just goes to show you the power film can have.
(Yeah, just kidding.) [url="http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=5192&reviewer=385"]http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=5192&reviewer=385[/url]
In [i]The Darjeeling Limited[/i], Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman play brothers, the three sons of a father who died a year previous after being hit by a car. The brothers haven?t spoken since, until they are abruptly reunited for a train trip through India that eldest brother Francis (Wilson) promises will be a spiritual journey. It is, although perhaps not in the way he intends.
Anderson has, for most of his career, been a master craftsman with emotions. Even as his directorial eccentricities are dismissed as pretentious or simply too precious, Anderson the writer/director has shaped characters propelled by strong human emotions, from love and loss, to guilt, grief and anger. He does all this while understanding the existence and value of humor in such situations, giving the best of his work a healthy mix of emotions from both ends of the spectrum, making it feel achingly real even as his backdrops are often odd or extraordinary.
[i]The Darjeeling Limited[/i] sees Anderson returning to form after stumbling with [i]The Life Aquatic[/i], a film that bore the superficial marks of an Anderson work but seemed to be faking the heart. [i]Darjeeling[/i] is in the mold of Anderson?s triumphs - [i]Rushmore[/i] and [i]The Royal Tenenbaums[/i] - in the way it gathers a cast of rather disparate individuals (here as in [i]Tenenbaums[/i], a fragmented family) and makes the audience care about all of them, in spite of their various flaws. [i]Darjeeling[/i] is not as good at this as Anderson has been, but it gathers strength as it goes along and ultimately makes for an appealing ride.
When I saw the film it was preceded by [i]Hotel Chevalier[/i], Anderson?s short-film companion piece which adds little to the proceedings aside from giving [i]Star Wars[/i] fans everywhere a long-awaited glimpse of Natalie Portman?s nude body. As [i]Darjeeling[/i] goes along, there are a few things that are fleshed out having seen [i]Chevalier[/i] first, but mostly it feels like another culmination of Anderson?s worst impulses - cute little touches here and there, but no emotional bedrock. Fortunately, [i]Darjeeling[/i] is another matter. The relationships between the film?s lead triumvirate ride an emotional roller coaster; first the brothers seem jarred to be in one another?s presence again, and then things deteriorate - even as they try to trust each other, they end up doing it less and less, leading to a big fight that gets them kicked off the titular train.
It?s here that the movie kicks into another gear entirely. Anderson?s films have always been fairly dialogue-heavy, but [i]Darjeeling[/i] is often at its best in quieter moments. The three brothers have clearly spent much of their lives talking past each other, as they do for the first 30 or 45 minutes of the film. Once off the train, Francis? planned itinerary goes out the window, and the film begins to draw out its characters? emotions in long spells of quiet, where faces and movements are more telling than the words that filled the movie?s first half. Anderson?s casting of Brody pays off particularly well here; a Best Actor winner for a film, [i]The Pianist[/i], in which his character spends much of his time alone and silent, Brody is especially well-suited for this kind of work, and he adds gravitas to the proceedings while still being able to maintain Anderson?s traditional tightrope act between comedy and drama.
All this probably sounds like I loved the film. I did like it - it?s emotionally solid and India provides a colorful backdrop that virtually serves as its own character. With that said, it?s far from perfect. For one thing, it feels rushed; perhaps this is connected to the strong interplay between the characters in the second half, but it seemed to wrap up awfully quickly. For another, while the film has solid character arcs, the narrative itself seems a bit awkward, lurching from plot point to plot point in the second half as if far too eager to reveal what happens next. Given the beauty of the quiet moments, I found myself wishing they could have lingered a bit more, but perhaps Anderson was wrestling with his impulses on this one and just found it too difficult not to move to the next conversation.
It may be a bit scattershot, but The [i]Darjeeling Limited[/i] combines strong character work with an interesting setting well enough to give Wes Anderson another winning film. When one of the worst things you can say about a film is that it ended too soon, it?s certainly a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half.
In many ways, the Coen Brothers as filmmakers have always placed style on a pedestal well above substance. If anything, the style of their films sometimes serves [i]as[/i] the substance; take [i]The Big Lebowski[/i], for example, a fairly straightforward yarn once you dig past the layers of zany characters and crackling dialogue. Their latest, the modern Western [i]No Country for Old Men[/i], is not about to break this mold; the problem is that neither the style nor the substance seem up to the task of carrying a two-hour film.
The basic plot of [i]No Country[/i] follows Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who comes across the remains of a drug deal gone bad while out hunting. Moss makes off with a satchel containing two million dollars, but makes the mistake of returning to the scene later that night with a jug of water for a dying man. The man is now quite dead, and Moss has alerted those looking for the money to his presence at the scene. He soon finds himself in a grim chase, fleeing before the hired killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem).
The Coens? slow pace and lack of music for most of the film make much of [i]No Country[/i] a severe drag, although these factors both contribute to ratcheting up the tension. We, the audience, know what manner of a man is after Moss long before he realizes it himself, and we fear for him. At the same time, the Coens implicitly ask us whether we [i]should[/i] be fearing for him ? Moss, after all, is basically a thief, and while that doesn?t place him as far out on the continuum of sin as the murderous Chigurh, it certainly doesn?t make him the hero of the film. Chigurh himself appears to operate using a very warped sense of morality, though certain scenes in which he apparently kills out of sheer convenience suggest otherwise.
The film?s true hero, assuming there can be said to be one, is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who in curiously ironic fashion is always one step behind the actual action. The film opens with narration from Jones, discussing how many of the sheriffs he knew as a young man didn?t even wear guns; this is subsequently contrasted with the violence Bell comes across throughout the film. But if the film is Bell?s story ? and it opens and closes on him, suggesting as much ? he is an oddly passive observer for much of it. [i]No Country[/i]?s moral lessons ? in particular the idea that a punishable offense is a punishable offense, even if it seems odd that someone less moral is doing the punishing ? come from the Moss/Chigurh plot, though the irony is that Moss might have gotten away clean if not for the fact that his morals got the best of him. The film?s ideas get a bit muddled as a result. What, exactly, is it saying about morality if the real moral seems to be that evil triumphs and no good deed goes unpunished?
It?s the character of Chigurh that provides the stickiest subject. How he fits into the plot to begin with is frustratingly unclear, and his motivations are correspondingly hazy. For example, after being hired to track Moss, he kills the two men who hire him. Why, we don?t know. My guess would be that Chigurh ? who rolls through the film like a force of nature more than a character ? acts almost as a kind of avenging spirit, punishing everyone who is in any way guilty. However, our first encounters with him feature him murdering a deputy who had the temerity to arrest him and then a motorist for no other reason than, I assume, that Chigurh does not want to be seen driving a police car. These muddy the character?s waters, and even if he is placed into the film as a sort of avenger, it?s not clear how that connects to Bell?s story, nor how the vaguely supernatural nature of that angle would mesh with what otherwise seems to be an attempt at a realistic portrayal of place and time on the part of the Coens.
The Coens leave us a lot to chew on, but unfortunately they don?t present it in the most appealing package. While the deliberate pace and lack of music add to the tension, they also ? particularly in places where the tension is not as high, such as the opening hunting scene, which takes place long before the chase begins ? create a plodding, shift-in-your-seat, check-your-watch experience that ranks up there with the most restless I?ve ever felt in a theater. I don?t inherently have a problem with slow pacing, but many scenes felt like they could have been told in half the time, if not less, without sacrificing anything in meaning. I found this to be more distracting than anything; rather than encouraging me to search for hidden themes, the slow movement simply began to drain my enthusiasm for watching the film at all.
The Coen Brothers have made good films, and they?ve made great films, but with [i]No Country for Old Men[/i] I?m not willing to make a case that they?ve done either. It?s a morally complex work, to be sure, but it creeps along so slowly with a wisp of a plot that the depth becomes difficult to parse ? and even beyond that, the Chigurh character is so slippery that he casts doubt on any argument you?d care to make for the film?s sense of morality. [i]No Country[/i] may be an evocative portrait of a place and time, but what kind of meaning that setting offers regarding morals and humanity is anyone?s guess.
[i]The Simpsons[/i] hasn't been a truly great TV series in more than a decade, so fans of the show's golden age could be forgiven their skepticism when plans to release the long-discussed movie adaptation were announced a couple years ago. Eleven writers, culled from the show's two decades' worth, put their names on the screenplay, but perhaps the two most important were, alphabetically, the first two: James L. Brooks and Matt Groening. Groening and Brooks rarely had much to do with the literal writing of the show, but they deserve much of the credit for the underlying decency of the early episodes, back when [i]Simpsons[/i] characters were allowed to have real human emotions, back when the show was more of a sitcom and less of a cartoon. That hasn't been true for years, but [i]The Simpsons Movie[/i] may be as close as we'll ever come again.
When the film begins, it seems like more of the same thing spooned out by the show on a weekly basis - an uninspiring guest appearance (courtesy of Green Day), brutal slapstick (which has really crossed the line into cruel on the show in the last few years), and a main character in Homer who shifts between aggressively unpleasant and almost willfully idiotic. The Homer of the first six seasons or so was more of a well-meaning blunderer; starting with episodes like "Homer Goes to College," most of his humanity was slowly stripped away to reveal an obnoxious boor with a penchant for getting hit on the head and being fine in the next scene. And it's that Homer who appears for the first part of the film.
Credit the writing staff for turning back the clock, in what might be knowing fashion. This may not be "Lisa's Pony" - the third-season episode in which a contrite Homer struggles to work two jobs so he can pay for the pony he bought Lisa after disappointing her yet again - but the show reverts to its classic arcs. Homer's selfishness leads to marital problems with Marge, and he must prove his worth to her; Homer fails to understand the needs of his children and is cast out by Bart in favor of a better surrogate (in this case, Ned Flanders). It's not the single most original thing the movie could have done, using two of the show's most enduring tropes, but it makes sense - wouldn't you expect a big-screen version of a television series to try and encapsulate everything that series is about? [i]The Simpsons Movie[/i] uses its plot - Springfield gets sealed inside a dome after Homer dumps a silo of pig manure into the lake, irreversibly polluting it - to up the ante, rather than trying to make grand character shifts; it's the smartest way [i]The Simpsons[/i] could have transitioned to the big screen.
Don't get me wrong: [i]The Simpsons Movie[/i] is far from perfect, and aside from the strong job it does with the emotional notes, it's not going to have anyone thinking they're watching an episode from Season Four. The humor is fairly consistent; it's rarely uproarious - though even in its best years, [i]The Simpsons[/i] was really not that kind of show - but it thankfully lacks the actively unfunny scenes that too often characterize episodes of the last ten years. For that alone, it should probably be commended; fans had every right to expect the worst, and it's to the film's credit that it manages to sidestep most of the land mines. The writing is a little more scattershot, as the plot yo-yos the family to Alaska and back as though it had been a rejected idea for broadcast; while many of the emotional scenes do work, they're built on a plot involving Homer doing something so stupid it's almost hard to believe he's even allowed a chance at redemption.
[i]The Simpsons Movie[/i] won't be confused for a classic episode - even in 22 minutes, shows from the early years gave more depth to character arcs than the writers do here, as if paying lip service to the old themes is more important than truly doing them justice. Given what we might have gotten, though - for example, a full-length movie version of an episode from the largely dreadful most recent season - it's hard to complain about a movie that carries a few good laughs, no groans, and a surprising amount of heart. After all these years, [i]The Simpsons Movie[/i] ends up being better late than never.