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Denzel Washington plays a high school football coach in 1970s Alexandria, Virginia. Washington is given the head coaching job in the middle of the integration wars. Making matters worse, he replaces Will Patton, the soft-spoken former coach, who responds with a bruised ego but a determination to stay on as an assistant coach for “his boys.” There are racial tensions between Washington and Patton and between the now integrated high school football team.

No worries, though. All those tensions are erased by group sings, group hugs, group showers, the iron-fist of the strict Washington, and the velvet touch of the gentle Patton.


“THIS IS A VALUABLE TEACHING MOMENT, SON.”

The lessons are fired into your brain with the subtlety of a nail gun, and the cliches pile up quicker than you can say After School Special.

The black players can sing and dance, and they soon turn those slow-footed white boys into singers and dancers.

The black defensive captain is angry and he lacks the concept of team, so the white defensive captain shows him what teamwork really means.

Washington is a “My way or the highway” kind of guy, yet Patton shows him that improvising and being receptive to new ideas can make him a better coach.

Patton is too gentle on the black players, a repressed form of condescension, so Washington points this out, and dag gummit, Patton learns to be tough.

Oh, and for the most part, the story is a concoction churned out by the Hollywood folks who gave you the slow clap, “don’t you die on me!” and racial healing via dancing to Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.

As for what one would hope could be a saving grace in a sports picture, the football is laughably inauthentic. Altman filmed better sports footage in M*A*S*H.

If your intelligence isn’t insulted, as the screenwriter might observe, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Lurid, inane, bordering on the sick, Simon West’s picture attempts to tell the story of the murder of a military woman on a Georgia base. She is tied to the ground by tent pegs, spread-eagled, naked, and strangled. West lovingly lingers on the image. Worse, her physical entrapment is connected to a gang rape in similar circumstances years prior. West cruelly enjoys that image as well.

But forget The General’s Daughter as a pseudo snuff film. Even if you can get by that horror, you are left with four insurmountable handicaps.

First, the story is absurd. When a new clue is required to move it along, boom! – it drops out of nowhere. When the investigators (John Travolta and Madeline Stowe) must wrangle information from the daughter’s psychiatrist, they suggest a breach of his medical ethics that is so moronic you can’t believe it has been penned for the screen. If another clue is needed, Travolta just sticks a gun to the head of a character and there you have it -the beans are spilled. When Stowe confronts a suspect in the gang rape seven years earlier, she uses the most obvious technique in the book (the threat of DNA evidence on the daughter’s panties), he succumbs, and voila’ – case solved. Apart from the hackneyed interrogation technique (gasp! – they were just-bought panties, not old panties, and it was all a bluff!), the suspect confesses that he tried to stop the rape, but was unable to do so. Which begs the question: WHY WOULD A BLUFF AS TO HIS DNA ON PANTIES FAZE HIM IN THE SLIGHTEST IF HE WAS NOT ONE OF THE GANG RAPISTS?

Second, the acting is abysmal. Travolta is particularly awful, a condescending bore overly taken with himself. Stowe is useless, and her puffy, mis-shapen face, distorted by collagen and who knows what else, is upsetting, especially when one remembers her in The Last of the Mohicans. With the exception of an interesting weird turn as the daughter’s mentor by James Woods, the rest of the characters are forgettably stock.

Third, the film unintentionally creates a sub-theme of backlash against women in the military. Ostensibly, the film presents women in the military as a good thing, and West clumsily ties the daughter’s gang rape and murder years later to this new phenomenon. Yet, when Travolta and Stowe question a female guard who was on post the night the daughter was murdered, the female solider is a) incompetent; b) blubbering like a brook; and then c) blase’, as she explains to the investigators that people on base often came to the scene of the crime all the time “to fu**.” Add the truly bizarre behavior of the daughter (she essentially sleeps with everyone under her general father’s command), the depiction of military men as almost crazed in their dislike of women in their ranks, the creepy mutual attraction of Woods and the daughter (he is her superior in the chain of command), the fact that Stowe and the daughter – both military women – are made to look sexually enticing (even sporting cherry red lipstick), and an early sexual foxtrot between Travolta and the daughter, and you get the feeling that maybe this film is anti-women in the military. Either that, or West is doing some recruiting. Join Up! The Chicks are Hot!

Finally, if you don’t know who the murderer is in the first 20 minutes, you were probably shocked that the boat sank in Titanic.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels - Wikipedia

A black crime comedy that is full of visual gambits (many hit, many miss), this is a heist film billed as Great Britain’s Pulp Fiction. It has many similarities – the screwing around with sequence, the blase’ attitude to brutality, the quirky characters – but visually, it shares more in common with the Cohen Brothers first film, Blood Simple, though post-MTV in attitude. The director shows you every knife in his drawer, from stop action to slow motion 360 (an entertaining card game gone bad), to interspered music video. The result is a mash of a film, but it is populated by engaging players (a quartet of inept thieves, a trio of crass, drugged out marijuana brokers, a Mr. Big, a fatherly enforcer with a weird concept of family values, an Abbott and Costello) and it moves quickly (sometime, too quickly, because the Cockney is a bitch).

The director, Guy Ritchie, has moved on to the Robert Downey-Jude Law Sherlock Holmes flicks, infusing them with the same action and pace as this picture.

Does it have soul? None. It’s all flash and teeth.

Cruel Intentions: Reese Witherspoon had to come from somewhere, so why not a high school socialite world remake of Dangerous Liaisons, with monied prep school Manhattanites in the roles of French courtesans. It looks chintzier than it should, shot at maybe one estate and at one apartment building, giving it a decidedly cheap feel. It’s neither adept enough to be engaging or camp enough to be funny. It also includes a cringe-inducing courtship between Ryan Phillipe (as Valmont) and Witherspoon. Phillipe, tasked to deflower the chaste Witherspoon (she is the daughter of the headmaster), becomes “totally infatuated” with her. Why? Because she makes him laugh. How? Because during a car ride, she made faces at him by sticking her tongue out and screwing her nose up and using her fingers on the top of her head to simulate the look of a lunatic/horned beast.

The first half of this cynical war comedy is pretty audacious, if derivative. The plot – essentially, Kelly’s Heroes – has four Gulf War servicemen scheming to steal gold previously stolen by Saddam Hussein from the Kuwaitis.  The beginning of the picture is loaded with funny bits reliant on the culture clash of Americans and Iraqis. Coupled with eye-catching camera work and clever forays into fantasy (the recreation of the route of a bullet into the human body is noteworthy), the film hurtles along, and you never really notice the complete lack of plot or character.

The problems ensue when Three Kings moves from the wacky to the message-laden.  Faced with the horrors of war (dead civilians and specifically, the fate of Iraqis who rose against Saddam without U.S. support), our protagonist thieves become changed men. Up until this point, however, they are merely cleverly written cardboard cut-outs, so it is impossible to determine from where or what they have changed.

The film also descends into hackneyed “I have met the enemy and he is me” tripe.  The political moralizing becomes a bit much, and the sweeping feel-good ending is awkward.  Messages delivered — the war was about oil, not the liberation of Kuwait; there is a human cost to civilian deaths; war is indeed hell; and, if we just listen, we can all get along.

Still, the film’s first half is damn near flawless. The quartet – George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jones – are also quite good, as are the people given the thankless, noble Iraqi roles.

I took my daughter and her friends to see this chiller. Daniel Radcliffe graduated from Hogwarts and has attained a position as a turn-of- the-century barrister in England. He’s recently widowed and is tasked with the unenviable assignment of winding up the estate of a recently deceased woman in the English countryside. The moment he gets in to town, he starts seeing creepy things and children start dying.

The plot is thin but serviceable, Radcliffe has some range (his recent stint hosting Saturday Night, Live was very good) and he’s helped by Ciaran Hinds, but most importantly, this movie scared the crap out of me.  There is one creepy and/or jarring visual after another, a constant sense of dread, and many inventive ways to get your skin to crawl.  The Woman in Black is half ghost story, half haunted house ride.   Best of all, no gore porn torture, just good, clean spooky fun.  More of a ride than a film. We had a blast.

While the story draws you in immediately, and the performances are uniformly solid, this film is really two virtuoso battle scenes bookending Steven Spielberg’s obvious story-telling, which is not helped by some leaden dialogue and a platoon of stock characters (sensitive medic, clueless bookworm, Italian tough, Jewish wisecracker, Irish tough, Southern Bible-Belt sharpshooter).

However, some films transcend criticism. Saving Private Ryan’s roundly lauded re-creation of D-Day is jarring and innovative. Spielberg brilliantly changes the vantage point of the viewer, and the speed and unearthly horror of mass battle is depicted in frightening detail. He tracks the advance on the beach, then moves to a hand-held camera, then to the view of a German gun nest, then back to the beach, with such swiftness that you lose your breath at times. The effect of the opening scene leaves you lost for the next ten minutes. In the theater, I was stunned that everyone was hunkered down in their seats.

When you do reorient, the film becomes a more conventional war film/morality play. Spielberg, as usual, has his characters pound away at his message for fear we won’t “get it.” His foreshadowing is also clumsy.

Still, the battle scenes that ensue after the landing remain true to history. The ingenuity of the GI’s – which might otherwise strike a viewer as contrived – is conveyed by Spielberg. The crucial role of firepower, the slap-dash organization of discombobulated soldiers, the treatment of German prisoners, and the heroic level of unit cohesion – all receive effective dramatization in the film.

In the end, however, Saving Private Ryan works as a particularly American film. Neither a rah rah polemic or a cynical anti-war tract, the movie communicates the basic truth that the loyalties of combat soldiers start (and often end) with fellow soldiers. Spielberg’s platoon is cleaved together as a unit, but the unit is not only threatened by the enemy, but by what seems a questionable endeavor – to save one private because all of his brothers have been killed. The grisly reality of slaughter of many for the saving of more, and the slaughter of more for the saving of one, is juxtaposed, creating the crisis for Hanks, the unit leader, and the audience.

Saving Private Ryan works on a different level as well. The movie transports the viewer to a time when the costs of everyday life were greater, and for higher purpose. In this manner, Ryan can be criticized for engaging in too much “greatest generation” nostalgia, but it is useful to compare the film to contemporaries.

The best film from the year before Ryan’s release was the comedy As Good As It Gets. It was about a spoiled, rich romance writer with OCD, which meant he could not refrain from gay-bashing his neighbor. His heroism was in learning to love while simultaneously not being cruel to anyone in proximity. I liked that movie. Nicholson was a crack-up. But I wonder how his character would have fared on Omaha Beach.

Postscript: in the wake of this film, Hanks and Spielberg partnered to produce Band of Brothers for HBO, a beautifully shot and much better written miniseries covering one unit from D-Day to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest.

Image result for The Limey

Terence Stamp plays a just-released British convict who comes to Los Angeles to investigate the death of his estranged daughter.  Stamp is a tough guy, but not Bob Hoskins cockney and bluster, The Long Good Friday tough (thankfully, Stamp is more intelligible). He’s icy and removed, grimly determined to get to the bottom of his daughter’s death. His search opens several leads, the most promising being Peter Fonda, a record executive who made his bones in the 60s, and Barry Newman, Fonda’s dubious associate (Newman was a 70s American television staple as “Petrocelli” the lawyer).

As icons of the 60s, Fonda and Stamp are dinosaurs, two powerful men not quite at ease in the 90s, and Soderbergh uses them to insert a generational disconnect in a taut psychological crime thriller.

Stamp evokes the macho rage of an absent father well. His anger burns, even though his memories are but a few snippets and stories (he was in prison for a great period of her upbringing). His inner demon is not so much what he lost, but what he squandered, and he’s powerful.

Where Stamp is driven, Fonda is resigned. He senses that his time is past, and his desperation is palpable. His weakness is subtle (his conversations with a lover 30 years his junior are wonderfully pained, the scripted equivalent of a middle-aged man in a Porsche, a head mottled by Rogaine, and “The Byrds” on the CD, as he waxes about his past, only to be met with “Oh, I think you’ve told me that story”).

Solid noir.

 

Summer

Summer of Sam. Spike Lee’s disjointed pastiche of the summer of ’77 in NYC fails on just about every level. Still, because of the nature of Lee’s failures (they tend to be interesting and sometimes spectacular failures), there are worse bad films you could go rent.

NYC in the summer of the Son of Sam is a hot, violent, steamy, stupid place, populated by an unfaithful, disco hairdresser (John Leguizamo), his confused and sexually unsatisfied wife (Mira Sorvino), loose trash from the Queens neighborhood that serves as our setting (Jennifer Esposito), an Italian kid getting into the punk scene (Adrian Brody), a mob boss (irascible Ben Gazarra, who just died, RIP), a local cop who came from the streets (Anthony LaPaglia), Leguizamo’s sharp tongued paramour and boss (Bebe Neuwirth), a bunch of Lee’s standard Italian thugs, and of course, David Berkowitz (Daniel Badalucco from TV’s “The Practice”) who is going stark raving mad and taking it out on everyone else by shooting them.

Lee’s first mistake is his attempt to capture the milieu of too many totems of ’77 NYC. So we get the Queens disco, punk haven CBGB, Plato’s Retreat, Studio 54, Yankee Stadium, the looting. It’s all too much, too scattershot, and in trying to depict so many hallmarks of the time, it feels rushed and inauthentic. (Boogie Nights stands in sharp contrast in that it conveyed a convincing feel of late 70s, early 80s LA without having to take you on a Map of the Stars – Burt Reynolds’ backyard pool party was quite enough).

It’s a minor problem, as it turns out, because Lee’s characters – to a person – are uninteresting morons. Leguizamo is a conflicted Lothario with a bad case of the madonna-whore complex – he can nail anything in heels but his wife, with whom he must couple both quickly and without fanfare. That we have to suffer this semi-believable inadequacy in the late swingin’ 70s (repeatedly, as Lee cannot get enough of long, boring arguments between Sorvino and Leguizamo) is unfortunate. That Leguizamo is the main character, and emotes his fu**in’ love for his wife, his fu**in’ confusion, and his fuc**n’ fear of that fu**in’ Son of fu**in’ Sam, is excruciating. Worse, Leguizamo’s character lapses into drug abuse. The actor takes the opportunity to vomit all over his shoes in expressing his confusion and angst.

No one else is much better. Sorvino is dull and whiny as a wife who tries to please her husband and then gets fed up – no, make that fuc**n’ fed up. Brody, who was just another Italian goombah in the neighborhood, now sports a dog collar and spiked hair. He is forgettable, mainly because Lee never gives him a chance to explain why he changed, what about punk rock has transformed him in both spirit and style. He is bisexual, gets cash for having sex with men, dances at a gay strip house and does porno. And if he’s angry, he’ll smash a glass against his own forehead. Why? No real reasons are given for Brody’s anger. It seems that he does these things merely because it is hot in NYC.

Naturally, the Italian toughs – looking to keep the streets safe from Sam – decide that Brody is the killer. And that is the story.

There are cultural false notes as well. For example, Brody digs punk and articulates that The Who are his discovery. Anyone into punk rock in ’77, however, would have found The Who much too radio and establishment. You can tell that Lee just wanted to use the band’s anthems (he does so twice) in the movie, so presto, The Who become a punk icon. Additionally, when Brody’s band plays at CBGB, they are much too polished and pop to be a convincing 1977 punk act. Finally, Lee casts himself as a television reporter, which makes for painful watching (let’s just say Lee’s elocution is closer to Gerry Cooney than Max Robinson – he could not have gotten job announcing winners at a race track, much less being the “man on the street” for a local NYC station).

Other problems: Lee clumsily injects race into the mix in a street interview with black residents of Bed-Sty. Specifically, Lee allows the rant of one woman, who screams that the greatest race war ever would have ensued had the Son of Sam been black. She then chides Lee’s reporter character for acting white. The effect is unintentionally laugh out loud, because no matter the film, you feel Lee’s childish compulsion to sacrifice story for slogan.

In the end, Summer of Sam struck me as oddly subversive. You get the sense that Lee is most sympathetic to Berkowitz, who spends his days screaming at a neighbor to muzzle a barking dog (this same dog was the one who told him to kill, kill, and kill again). But the sum of Lee’s picture is creepy: given all the characters of NYC in that muggy summer of ’77, no wonder Berkowitz started shooting people. You loathe them, and Lee makes you complicit in empathy for Berkowitz (at least, you figure, I can get a break from these dimwits if he gets back to the killer).

So why see it? Lee is a gifted director who is crippled mainly because he has no real feel for story. Of his films, only two stand out – Crooklyn and Clockers – the latter because the reminisces of childhood in Brooklyn lend themselves to film by disconnected vignette, and the former because it was built solidly on the work of Richard Price. Like He Got Game, Summer of Sam is a mess, but interspersed in the carnage (and there is plenty of that, by the way, because Lee chooses to lovingly film almost every grisly shooting) are well-realized visions. Included are a montage of the characters’ summers to The Who’s “Teenage Wasteland” a smart dance scene between Sorvino and Leguizamo, and the recurrent pan shot of a tormented Berkowitz who spells his maniacal rants on his walls, with children’s blocks, and in conversation with a barking dog. Lee captures these, and many other moments, with ingenious motion (his strong suit) and smart editing.

Unfortunately, as usual, his skill cannot overcome an inane script, a corral of overactors and his own excesses.

Hollywood conceits come in many forms. In the Denzel Washington/John Lithgow film Ricochet, the screenwriter presumes he can replicate the idiom of the inner city. There is a scene with Washington, as the good black man who “made it out” and Ice T, as the bad drug lord who is still “in.” Their exchange is gussied up Shaft. The screenwriter even concluded the film with Washington saying “You can kiss my black ass!”

The screenwriter of Ricochet?

Steve

So, Hollywood’s sense of urban culture is lacking. But you’d think it would have a better handle on places closer to its heart, like suburbia. Think again. Hollywood sees the suburbs as a vast wasteland, a place for vacuity and the spawning of disgruntled screenwriters. Hollywood’s grasp on Maple and Main is no more firm than its grasp on “the ‘hood.”

Which brings me to American Beauty, a false film of suburban decay. Kevin Spacey has a midlife crisis, though it really isn’t a true midlife crisis, because he is married to Annette Bening, and she is so cartoonishly gruesome that Spacey’s crisis seems less a subject of introspection than one of survival. Bening approaches her character as Martha Stewart on methampehtamine (and that’s the joke – get it? – because Martha Stewart is so insidious). She is so outlandish that any acting out on the part of her husband and daughter seems ho hum. And then there is the tranquilized housewife neighbor, and the homophobic (or is he?) Marine neighbor, and the disaffected, let-down teens. You’ve seen it all too many times to be touched.

What is good about the film? A few things. It ends tidy. Spacey plays decidedly above the material (though, being the only empathetic character, he is difficult to judge because you beg for his return during every one of his absences).

But what is bad is really quite awful. The characters are abused rather than drawn. The use of Bening as Mothra the Suburban Scene Eating Hydra not only minimizes most character reaction, but it seems cruel.

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Bening is so demonized and dehumanized – all for the illumination of Spacey – that you pity her.