Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Crash / * (R)

Jean: Sandra Bullock
Graham: Don Cheadle
Officer Ryan: Matt Dillon
Officer Hanson: Ryan Phillippe
Ria: Jennifer EspositoRick: Brendan Fraser
Cameron: Terrence HowardChristine: Thandie Newton
Anthony: Chris “Ludacris” Bridges
Peter Waters: Larenz Tate
Daniel: Michael Pena

Lions Gate Films presents a film directed by Paul Haggis. Written by Haggis and Robert Moresco. Running time: 100 min. Rated R (for language, sexual content and some violence).

What ever happened to the race issue? Is Spike Lee the only director allowed to make a film critiquing the Land of the Free on tolerance? No, in fact many other directors make comments here and there, but few are willing to take the modern race problem on in full engagement and Paul Haggis’s film Crash may be evidence as to why. Crash is an overwrought, schmaltzy, embarrassment of an indictment on the American condition of prejudice and racial hatred.

Film critics Roger Ebert and his former counterpart Gene Siskel often said the success of a movie lies not in what it is about, but how it is about.* Haggis’s intentions with this film are no doubt noble in nature. He tries to deal with the subtleties of racism in this country. The things people do without even thinking about it that have serious racist implications. Unfortunately, he fails to present these subtle ideas in a subtle manner. Instead he overstates his case against us inhumane beings with the heavy-handedness of pure dreck.

Haggis borrows director Robert Altman’s modus operandi of telling multiple interweaving character storylines to create a complete universe reflecting, in theory, several points of perspective. Haggis does not, however, impart Altman’s unique sense of reality on events. He imbues his film with an almost other worldly quality, as if it were some sort of fantasy, utilizing angelic voices on the soundtrack and numerous slow motion takes. It is as if he is going for some sort of operatic style, and he succeeds at that, but it seems to be in direct conflict with the material at hand.

Most of the film is presented in flashback. The film opens after a car accident involving two police detectives (Don Cheadle, Oceans Twelve and Jennifer Esposito, Taxi) and an Asian American woman. After we discover that these detectives are already at their crime scene where a young man has been discovered murdered at the edge of the highway, the film jumps back to the previous day and builds to the point at which the audience came in again. Usually a device like this has an importance in the overall picture of the story, but here it seems designed merely to conceal a surprise relationship between two of the film’s characters.

Like most of these character pastiche movies, all of these characters’ lives overlap and interlock. There are the two detectives who are also sleeping with each other, the upper class politician (Brendan Fraser, The Quiet American) and his wife (Sandra Bullock, Miss Congeniality), the wet-behind-the-ears idealist rookie cop (Ryan Phillippe, Gosford Park) and his bigoted veteran partner (Matt Dillon, City of Ghosts), the Hollywood affirmative action/ forced diversity black television director (Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow) and his trophy not-quite-so black country club wife (Thandie Newton, The Truth About Charlie), the two gang banger thieves (Chris Bridges, a.k.a. Ludacris and Larenz Tate, Ray) spouting modern racist pseudo-philosophy, a Persian family of shop owners who are mistaken for Arabs, and a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena, Million Dollar Baby) who has moved his family to a better neighborhood so his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) doesn’t have to grow up with the threat of drive-by shootings. Save for Daniel, the locksmith, every one of these characters is blatantly and rudely racist in almost every situation in which the audience finds them. Raising their voices for all the hear when making some vulgar comment about someone of differing ethnicity or background, these characters seem almost proud of the fact that they can offend and alienate friends, family and strangers alike at any given moment. And all the characters are racist at the same level. There is very little variation of degree to the bigotry presented here.

Writers Haggis and Robert Moresco attempt to inject some humanity into these characters by filling out their lives with the tragedy of life and some sort of backwards morality arc, but this method can hardly compensate for the grossly exaggerated racist caricatures which he establishes for each from the beginning. Dillon’s veteran LAPD bigot is probably the best example of this. His character is the most proud of his racism although the others aspire to his level. First we see him essentially sexually assault the Hollywood TV director’s wife during a racially motivate traffic violation stop, then to punch the point home he berates a black desk jockey at his father’s health insurance provider’s office for the poor coverage, not implying, but outright stating a more qualified white employee would be better suited for the job of assisting clients. Then he becomes the hero cop when he saves a woman from a car accident who ironically is that same Hollywood television director’s wife he molested on the street earlier in the film. Aw! All is forgiven. Not really, but to show that the guy really does have it tough we also get to see him struggling with his father’s failing bodily functions throughout the film.

Phillippe’s pure-minded rookie offers a ray of hope along with the locksmith and his daughter, but it is fleeting and fake hope respectively. My hope is that Phillippe protested and threatened to drop out of the picture if the writers didn’t promise to at least attempt to explain his character’s utterly unmotivated turn from total tolerance to full out racial profiling at the turn of a radio station dial. But that explanation must have been cut from the film without Phillippe’s knowledge. Maybe he’ll sue. And what the filmmakers do with the fate of Daniel’s daughter is outright dramatic exploitation and should be taught in film school as something even lower than a cheap shot at the audience’s heartstrings. It probably is, but not with the negative connotation I infer here.

So often genre pictures, like comedies or horror films, are judged harshly for their exploitative nature. This comedy relies too heavily on fart jokes, or that horror flick just jolts its audience to death without providing any thought provoking terror. But it seems that drama is never as adroitly scrutinized. Yes, there are powerful performances. Yes, Haggis paints some beautiful pictures and establishes a connected universe. Yes, the film carries an important message about tolerance. But the heavy-handed nature of its delivery detracts from its effect. I can’t remember the last time the rotation muscles in my eyes got such a workout. I got dizzy my eyes were rolling around in their sockets so much during this film.

Are we just supposed to accept this bigotry as the way it is and always will be because there is not discrimination as to who is infected by it in this movie? If everyone were as intolerant as the people in this film, the state of race relations in this country would be much worse off than they are today. We might look like a country like Rwanda, where genocide knocks at the door on a daily basis. By the final shot in the film where another car accident brings the movie full circle and we see the health insurance desk jockey jump out of the ruined car spewing racial epithets at the driver who rear ended her, whose racial orientation is really a moot point by this stage in the film, I thought maybe I was supposed to applaud because she was a bigoted jackass too.

* I feel it should be noted, since I invoked his name in my negative review of this film that, Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert felt very differently about this film than I did. You can read his four star review by clicking his link located under my ratings chart.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit / ***½ (G)

Featuring the voices of:
Wallace: Peter Sallis
Lord Victor Quartermaine: Ralph Fiennes
Lady Tottington: Helena Bonham Carter
PC Mackintosh: Peter Kay
Mrs. Mulch: Liz Smith
Rev. Clement Hedges: Nicholas Smith

DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Features present a film directed by Nick Park and Steve Box. Written by Bob Baker, Mark Burton, Box and Park. Running time: 85 min. Rated G.

For some reason stop motion animation seems like one of the most magical of the film arts, which are so often characterized as magical to begin with (at least by film freaks such as myself). Many critics suggest the very nature of its illusion; essentially taking still photographs of clay puppets -- 24 frames for every second of run time -- with just the slightest of adjustment between each shot and putting them all together to form the illusion of movement; makes this animation format so fascinating to audiences. Another reason might be because it is so rarely seen, especially on the big screen. The time involved in creating a feature-length stop-motion animation is so great studios are not keen on the idea of investing in such an endeavor that may not capture an audience. In the characters of Wallace & Gromit, however, Aardman and DreamWorks have a property that has already proven its ability to please the masses with three previous Oscar nominated shorts, two of which won the coveted trophy.

Wallace & Gromit are… wacky absent-minded inventor and his trusty dog who saves his master from his own folly, respectively. In this their first feature-length adventure The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, we find master and dog the proprietors of a successful pest control company, wittily named Anti-Pesto, in a city obsessed with vegetables. A city with such a large obsession with large veggies it is undoubtedly going to have a large rabbit problem, but not until Anti-Pesto is commissioned to solve the problem humanely and Wallace (Peter Sallis) begins to experiment like a mad scientist with ways to psychologically motivate the bunnies off veggies does the town have a problem with a large rabbit. A were-rabbit, that craves veggies on a manic level when the moon is full, a result of Wallace’s inventions in a scene that recalls Victor Frankenstein’s monster creation and countless other schlock scientists from B horror movies.

Like creators Nick Park and Steve Box’s previous claymation feature Chicken Run, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit delights in referencing a pantheon of classic films. While Chicken Run ran the gamut of prisoner of war films, from Stalag 17 to The Great Escape; Were-Rabbit stays mainly within the tamer regions of the horror genre riffing on films like Jaws, The Hound of the Baskervilles, King Kong, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and even legends like Jack the Ripper along with the direct references to Universal Studios classic monsters like Wolf Man. Even more so than making specific film references in the genre of classic monsters, Park and Box succeed in evoking the feel of those classic films in their miniature sets and environments. Every stand-by location, from the mad scientists’ lab and dungeon to the gothic mansion to the church and graveyard, is utilized, bringing back memories from childhood of Saturday afternoon horror marathons on the Boston local stations. The townspeople even form an angry mob by the end of the program with crazy coots calling for someone’s head and people brandishing pitchforks and torches.

One element of the classic horror monster film is a love triangle of sorts. Wallace plays the part of the tortured scientist, who is seen with sympathy by the rich philanthropist, in this case Lady Tottington (Helena Bohnam Carter, Corpse Bride). But of course the good Lady has other suitors, such as the hotheaded, big game hunter Lord Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes, The Constant Gardner), who pretends to be sincere when all he is after is her fortune. The fact that he is not entirely honest is made clear early on when his toupee is sucked up into Wallace’s humane rabbit vacuum. Another great laugh is nabbed when Quartermaine loses his hair a second time near the end of the story. His replacement cap successfully emasculates him.

The strength of the Wallace & Gromit vehicle lies in the mute Gromit. The dog acts as the audience’s eyes, the commentator on the events, and the true brains of the operation. It is Gromit who solves the mystery of the Were-Rabbit and Gromit who provides most of the film’s hard laughs. Gromit himself is caught up in the town’s obsession with veggies and plans to enter his own giant gourd in the annual contest that everyone is anticipating. He treats his prize veg with the care of a parent nursing a sick child, and when he is forced to choose between helping his friend Wallace and possibly sacrificing his gourd, the results are both touching and humorous.

It is often hard to express the joy certain pictures carry with them. I mean just look at the supporting character names: PC Macintosh? That’s just great! Wallace & Gromit capture something that has been lost in films for some time. It is in a format (claymation) from a simpler time in movies. It is a movie that is fun for what it is, not for what it is trying to be and it has a mind for other films made in the same fun nature. Wallace & Gromit themselves are uncomplicated characters that are just a joy to be with. With a solid shot at anther Oscar nod now that the Academy has added an animated feature category, hopefully this will not be the last time this duo finds their way onto the big screen. The animation may actually be a trick, but the results are certainly a treat.