Thursday, September 22, 2005

Rock School / ***½ (R)

Paul Green, C.J. Tywoniak, Will O’Connor, Madi Diaz Svalgard, Tucker Collins, Asa Collins, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Eric Svalgard, Andrea Collins, Chris Lampson, Monique Del Rosario, Brandon King, Lisa Rubens, Lisa Green, Jimmy Carl Black.

Newmarket Films presents a documentary directed by Don Argott. Running Time: 93 min. Rated R (for language).

The opening of the documentary Rock School shows us a twelve year old playing the guitar riffs of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” as if he were the legend himself. The kid plays the famous solo note for note, exactly as we all know it from Santana’s studio recording. We think from this introduction that this will be a film about musical prodigies taking a whack at a pop culture rock movement that we’d all like a taste of. Some might even get the impression from the perfect mimicry that the musical landscape of the child performers will merely be a stale replica of the rock music many of us idolize. Instead Rock School is a testament to the power of music and how wonderfully it can be used as a tool for teaching lessons of life and maturation of self. Even more so it is an amazing character study of Paul Green, the man who founded one of the most popular independent music programs in the country and was the basis for the character portrayed by Jack Black in the movie School of Rock.

We learn that Green was a struggling musician, trying to run the racket of being in a band, getting gigs, getting his kicks doing what he loved, playing rock music. Of course, it wasn’t the life we get to read about and see in the rock magazines. He was poor, struggling and dealing with typical non-success problems like band break ups and even successful band problems like artistic differences. As a kick, he would get together with kids and do sort of tutorial/appreciation session that eventually evolved into his own rock school. The Paul Green School of Rock Music soon had a list of thousands vying to enroll to its rock teachings for 9 to 16 year-olds. There are different programs for different skill levels and each program level gets practical experience by putting on themed concerts. In this film the beginner program puts on an evening of Black Sabbath songs while the All-Star group practices for a Frank Zappa tribute festival held in Germany each year called Zappanale, which serves as the climax to the film.
We start out by meeting several of the school’s students of various levels of accomplishment.

There are the Collins twins, Tucker and Asa, who in Green’s own words “will probably never be any good.” CJ is the twelve year old from the opening, who is already a guitar god and clearly is the school’s biggest success and star. Madi seems to be Green’s favorite in the way his own child might be “favored” in his program. He is clearly harder on her than any one else because he “sees so much potential in her.” He ridicules her at first for wanting to play Sheryl Crow songs, but she ends up soaring in her moments in the Zappa All-Stars. And Will is Green’s personal hard luck case, a kid who was never given a chance in life before Green asked him to attend his school. Although Will is “piss poor” according to Green “and will probably never get any better,” he is the best example of the school’s success and worthiness as an institution that can shape and improve the lives of its students.

The parents also are represented in a few cases. Andrea Collins is a great example of one of those parents who is living her own dream vicariously through her children, which may explain why the twins’ commitment level isn’t quite up to some of the other student’s standards. She describes her self as like a “soccer mom” but with a different twist. It is clear who is really getting something out of the school during a scene in which she is preparing the twins for their Black Sabbath concert as she discusses with them why one of them can have an inverted cross on his head and the other can’t. It has something to do with the particular Ozzy Osborne outfit each is wearing.

Green himself is a character above and beyond anything Jack Black presents in the Hollywood movie with all the cute kids. Sure I could see Black playing this guy as he really is, but then no one would like him anymore. Green is a raving maniac who yells at his students, curses incessantly and is stuck in a time of music that is revered but most certainly past. He admits that he probably couldn’t have made in the rock world today because he is really in love with the rock world of 1972. But it is his passion and devotion to the music that he does love that drives this school and fills so many of his students with a purpose in life.

Green cannot be accused of not caring. There is a scene with his infant son where he is already trying to get the kid to strum a cord. “They are never too young to start… Can you say Jethro Tull?” He preaches rock as a way of life where there are no boundaries and he utilizes no boundaries in his teaching. He tells the nine year olds in his beginner group that the Black Sabbath concert is not about them or the music, “It’s about Satan.” He does not adhere to the current trend in education of never comparing students, but freely tells students, “She is better than you. What are you going to do about it?” He berates students for not understanding that these are classics that must be played in complete reverence. “Realizing you made a mistake isn’t enough! Don’t make mistakes! Not on ‘Rebel Yell’!!!!!”

Perhaps the most moving part of this film is the growth of Will. When Paul met Will, he was a kid whom no one had ever given a chance. It was thought by his family and doctors that he was mentally handicapped until a late age. He had attempted suicide on several occasions and had no friends. Green gives Will no special treatment. He was one of the kids who received the “Rebel Yell” lashing, but Will never speaks ill of Green. Will realizes that Green played an important role in his life and speaks more intelligently than anyone else in the film’s closing moments when he speaks of how he and Green finally parted ways.

I had my own rock mentor during my formative years in my best friend Trevor Walsh. He instilled me with a passion for listening to music, if not actually playing it. Music has meant a great deal to me in my life and Green’s passion for it displayed in this movie perfectly exemplifies how powerful music can be to all it touches. His passion overflows even into those whose don’t share it on the same level. The closing comments offered up by the twins say it all: “Party on,” and “Long live rock.” And the final concert by the Zappa All-Stars carries those seeds of discovery that can draw you into an obsession like music. My obsession continues and I’d like to ask my buddy Trev, “Do you have any suggestions for a good starting place to begin exploring Zappa?”

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

XXX: State of the Union / * (PG-13)

XXX/Darius Stone: Ice Cube
Agent Augustus Gibbons: Samuel L. Jackson
General George Deckert: Willem Defoe
Agent Kyle Steele: Scott Speedman
President James Sanford: Peter Strauss
Agent Toby Shavers: Michael Roof
Zeke: Xzibit
Lola Jackson: Nona Gaye

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Lee Tamahori. Written by Simon Kinberg. Running time: 98 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense action violence and some language).

Hello. My name is Andy Wells, and I am a movie addict. I have been watching movies since I was three years old, but I don’t think I really developed a movie-watching problem until I attended college. I mean I would go on movie binges from time to time before then, and everyone watches a stupid movie or two from time to time. A lot of the time I didn’t even know any better. But lately I fear I have been losing control of my movie watching habits. It was when I started watching movies with full knowledge that they would be harmful to my health that I knew I had to do something about my problem.

My life changing moment came the other night when I rented XXX: State of the Union starring Ice Cube (Are We There Yet?) as Darius Stone, the new XXX. The fact that he was the new XXX was one of the key indicators that my problem had become so severe that I needed to seek out help. You see, this is the second XXX movie, and I didn’t even like the first one starring Vin Diesel. I suppose if he had accepted the offer to star in this sequel his problem would have been an even bigger one than mine.

Another indication that I had lost control of my movie viewing sensibilities was my knowledge that this sequel itself was a bad movie. When XXX: SOTU opened in theaters in April, it received resoundingly negative reviews. It rates a whopping 15% on the Tomatometer at Totally rotten. “Plays less like a sequel to XXX than a parody of it and the whole action genre.” -- Josh Bell, Las Vegas Weekly. “Succumbs to a depth of directorial incompetence not seen since the likes of Megaforce.” -- Erik Childress, And the coup de grace -- “A salt-lick of under-hung jackasses.” -- Walter Chaw, Film Freak Central.

XXX is supposed to be some sort of generation X James Bond, a Bond for the X-Games set, a grittier modern Bond, with all the absurdity and a hip coolness that appeals to the primary movie ticket buying demographic, the twentysomethings. At least that was what the first movie was supposed to be, with the second it has mutated into some sort of Bond in da ‘Hood with a Bond that is not suave and debonair, but moody, reclusive and disagreeable. And it is all directed by Lee Tamahori, who seems to understand the wall-to-wall action and gadgets of Bond (he directed the last Bond outing Die Another Day), but has no understanding whatsoever of the modern black gangsta flick. His use of urban setting like chop shops and a hip-hop soundtrack is a grosser example of exploitation than most films that made up the blacksploitation movement in ‘70’s cinema. Worse still neither his star nor his writer Simon Kinberg (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) has absolutely any intuition of the essential elements of the espionage/action genre. Ice Cube is like a cardboard cut out that makes no effort to draw in the audience or even other characters to achieve the illusion of a character who could accomplish half of what he does here. Kinberg writes in authority figures and political manipulation, impossible escapes and femme fatales, but shows no aptitude for putting them into logical use.

I felt sorry for poor Scott Speedman (Underworld), who by this time should have a contract out on his agent’s life. He walked through his role as the one sensible NSA agent other than the two heroes, played by Cube and Samuel L. Jackson (Coach Carter), as if he was watching his entire career flash before his eyes. And what about Jackson’s presence in this film? I believe loyalty to a role is a sign of an actor with a sense of responsibility to his fan base, the people that made him a star, but there comes a point when a script is bad enough that a good performer’s input just becomes another version of prostitution. And don’t think I’m letting Willem Defoe (Spider-Man) off as the heavy. Shame on you two!

I believe my breakthrough came as I entered the final act of the film and the climactic chase sequence that finds all our heroes and villains hurtling toward nowhere in particular at mach two in a secret Presidential escape train, because train tracks are so easy to keep out of plain sight from the general public, especially if they run along the most traveled interstate highway in the country. Even as the plot approached this abhorrent absurdity, I found my jaw slacking open from the literally mind numbing experience. Like some sort of sedative had been injected into my bloodstream, the extremities of my vision began to blur and drool started flowing unabated out of my mouth. I felt my own braindamage begin to set in.

Luckily, my meltdown was only temporary… this time. I had to think about my family. My reputation. What would people say when they found out I had even held a movie this idiotic in my hands? I imagined many people could tell just by looking at me. Did I look like a stroke victim? Was there a portion of my face that had remained in its retarded revulsion brought by this cinematic idiocy? I couldn’t risk it anymore.

After just the beginning of months -- possibly years -- of therapy, my personal film aficionado physician says I am making progress. It is slow, but I’ll make it as long as I live one film at a time. I’m on step three of my rehabilitation program. I’ve already gone into my Netflix queue and deleted potentially harmful movies like The Pacifier and Transporter 2. Next, I moved important films like Fitzcarraldo and Nashville to the top of my queue. Now, I am confronting my friends and others I may have hurt. I am sorry. I hope you haven’t looked at movies like XXX: SOTU and rented them just because I have. I am ashamed to have seen it; and I hope you can forgive me.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Sahara / *** (PG-13)

Dirk Pitt: Matthew McConaughey
Al Giordino: Steve Zahn
Dr. Eva Rojas: Penelope Cruz
Massarde: Lambert Wilson
Admiral Sandecker: William H. Macy
General Kazim: Lennie James
Rudi Gunn: Rainn Wilson
Carl: Delroy Lindo

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Breck Eisner. Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua C. Richards and James V. Hart. Based on the novel by Clive Cussler. Running time: 127 min. Rated PG-13 (for action-related violence).

In the opening scenes of Sahara, the audience is transported back to the American Civil War in grand Hollywood fashion, with explosions blasting left and right, extras dying in the background, and obviously a great deal of money being spent on an introduction setting that will not be revisited again after the first five minutes of the film have passed into memory. How do we know this Civil War setting will not be returned to? Because the trailers all showed Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn and Penelope Cruz running around the modern desert. As the Civil War introduction to the film closes with an ironclad war ship sailing off into the darkness during the battle, the intelligent audience member knows that much of the plot of the film will hinge upon the fate of this ironclad which mysteriously disappears after this introduction and that this would be a great point to shut off most of the cranial functions so you can just sit back and enjoy some escapist entertainment.

Sahara is an adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones with a taste of James Bond thrown in and it does a pretty good job providing an exciting and humorous action adventure. Plausibility be damned. Dirk Pitt is the dashing hero in this tale. Perhaps his is the worst name ever conjured up by an adventure novelist, although Clive Cussler seemed to provide fairly normal names for pretty much everyone else involved. He comes with standard comic foil in partner Al Giordino and damsel-in-distress/love interest Dr. Eva Rojas. All three are provided with an appropriately overcomplicated plot and moral-free power hungry villains to thwart. It isn’t quite as high class as James Bond or Indiana Jones, but with a bowl of popcorn thrown into the deal there can be no real complaints.

Most of the film’s success is due to the surprisingly effective action comedy team of McConaughey (Reign of Fire) and Zhan (Shattered Glass) as Dirk and Al respectively. The two are part of a marine salvage crew for NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency) under the direction of Admiral Jim Sandecker (William H. Macy, The Cooler). While on a salvage mission off the coast of West Africa, Dirk saves the life of World Health Organization doctor Eva Rojas (Cruz, Head in the Clouds), who is investigating the outbreak of what looks like a highly contagious disease along the lines of the Ebola virus. This eventually leads them into conflict with repressive dictator General Kazim (Lennie James, Snatch) and the French industrialist with whom he has struck a sinister business arrangement, Yves Massarde (Lambert Wilson, Catwoman). Not so surprisingly, dodging bullets, jumping out of exploding boats, chasing down deadly viruses and jumping on to speeding trains eventually leads our heroes to that missing ironclad from so many years ago.

McConaughey is effective as the debonair swashbuckler. He brings his brand of laid back southern charm to the archetype, which in turn allows for a more relaxed atmosphere to the action itself. He turns Bond into a man who doesn’t shave. He works well off Zahn’s comic zeal, offering up more hearty laughs than your average actioner. The two bicker like a married couple at times, yet are able to pull off the effect that they actually are action heroes, former military specialists.

Zahn is particularly surprising in what he brings to the fun. Zahn’s dry wit is intact and threatens to steal the show with his deadpan delivery of sarcasm, as in the final show down when Al returns from fixing something during a hail of artillery and Dirk asks him what took him so long, “I stopped for coffee.” “Did you get a receipt?” “Yeah, I got a receipt!” But he also does a great job selling his military training. He handles guns in this flick like a pro and nabs a typical muscle bound hero gag for himself in a scene where he is asked to drop his weapons and ends up with a large arsenal lying at his feet.

Sahara is nothing cinematically amazing, but it is pure fun. It is McConaughey and Zahn’s picture and the pair bring a charm to it no other pairing of leads could. I laughed a lot and never came anywhere near crying. This is a movie you watch with a smile. You may not remember it a few years down the line, but you’ll enjoy it now.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Oldboy / **** (R)

Oh Dae-su: Choi Min-sik
Lee Woo-jin: Yu Ji-tae
Mi-do: Kang Hye-jeong
No Joo-hwan: Ji Dae-han
Mr. Park: Oh Dal-su
Mr. Han: Kim Byoung-ok

Tartan Films presents a film directed by Park Chan-wook. Written by Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Joon-hyung and Park. Based on the story by Tsuchiya Garon and Minegishi Nobuaki. Running time: 120 min. Rated R (for strong violence including scenes of torture, sexuality and pervasive language).

Asian films have slowly been growing their own subculture amongst cinephiles over the last couple of decades. Anime started infiltrating the American film market in the late eighties with the release of Akira. Jackie Chan got a major foothold with comedic martial arts in the nineties along with the crime drama shootouts of John Woo. The aughts brought the Japanese costume swordplay and mystical arts dramas with the Best Picture Academy Award nominee Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon leading the charge, and introduced the Asian ghost story with a slew of American adaptations of Japanese horror after the surprise success of The Ring. The latest craze in Asian cinema is the stylized and twisted films of Korea. Oldboy was my personal introduction to Korean cinema, and it will be hard for any other films from that nation, or any, to top it.

Oldboy is violent, savage, brutal, beautiful and filmed with great care for the material and the characters. It is easy to see why Quentin Tarantino has been such an outspoken fan of this film. It is a revenge picture that is twisted and dark in a way an American filmmaker would not dare to explore in such an action driven genre. Whereas Tarantino fills his hardass characters with words and speech in lieu of the action, director Park Chan-wook (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) finds balance between the action and the drama, even using the action as the drama without the usual melodramatics of special effects. When his hero, brandishing a hammer, battles a hall full of goons armed with sticks, Chan-wook shows us the entire fight start to finish without cuts, following the slow progression down the hall, with the combatants stopping to get their breath, leaning over themselves to grope their wounds and gasp for air; and it is like no other fight scene before. The necessity of the fight is easier to feel by seeing the effort of it.

We are introduced to our hero Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik, Happy End) as a raving drunk, giving the local police in the station house a harder time than most. This is not the man we come to know throughout the film. Upon his release from the police station, with little thanks to his cousin No Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring), he is kidnapped and kept captive for 15 years. The details and circumstances of his captivity are best left discovered by the viewer and the reasons remain unknown for much of the film, a mystery Dae-su must seek the answer to upon his sudden release. Dae-su vows vengeance against his captors, but he can hardly imagine the cost of that vengeance when everything has played itself out.

One of the most striking elements of the film is how close to Hollywood the production values are. The picture is clean and crisp, not like the grainy 16 mm or digital appearance of so many other foreign films. Chan-wook utilizes the clean picture by creating beautiful imagery throughout the film. Dae-su’s release from his prison takes place in a grassy field on the top of a building. He pops out of an abandoned trunk -- reborn -- no longer a man without control; now a man with a singular purpose, to destroy the lives of the men who took his own away.

Dae-su’s prison itself reminded me of the used hotel look found in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, a dreary place to spend the days that could warp your mind with its blood red walls and cheap outdated d├ęcor. Outside he meets a famous chef, whom he recognizes from television, his only contact with the outside world during his imprisonment. He strikes up a quick relationship with the chef, whom he knows only as Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong, Three… Extremes), and then… Well, lets just say that is where things get kicked up a notch ---BAMM!

As I watched the first third of the movie, it was plain to see this was a skillfully made film; but I wondered what made it really special. As I learned more about Dae-su’s mysterious captor, Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae, Natural City), it became apparent that this really was more than a simple revenge flick. A sort of love triangle forms between the three primaries -- Dae-su, Woo-jin, and Mi-do -- not physically, although Dae-su and Mi-do express their passion for each other, but a dependency on each other is discovered. A theme of loneliness pervades each of their lives. The filmmakers use the characters’ isolation to bind them to each other.

The performances are top notch. I am surprised that Min-sik was not nominated for every acting award in every film festival in which this film competed. The man we are introduced to in the beginning of the film could be a completely different actor and the man who ends the film has endured such anguish, and Min-sik conveys it all as if he lived it all. His expressionistic face is both wonderful and horrifying, as is the beauty and brutality of his journey. Dae-su says he does not like the haircut he is given by his captors, but sometimes the hair makes the man.

I am amazed by Oldboy. I find it hard to express how intoxicating this film can be. It is a drunkenness that only continues to grow after the film has ended. I feel the only way to truly express the passion and pain found within this film is to rant and rave the way Dae-su does to the police during his introduction, or perhaps a more appropriate way to spread the appreciation of this film is to rampage through the halls, taking on hordes of mindless Michael Bay fans, shoving it in their faces, forcing them to see what quality film action actually looks and feels like. And if that doesn’t work maybe I should pull their teeth out with a hammer and bash in their skulls for their poor taste. That may be what Oldboy would do.