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Volume 2, Number 47

This Week's Reviews:  Unbreakable, Requiem for a Dream, Men of Honor.

This Week's Omissions:  102 Dalmatians, Solomon & Gaenor, Waiting for Guffman, The Yards.



Unbreakable

(Dir: M. Night Shyamalan, Starring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Elizabeth Lawrence, and Joey Perillo)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Do you feel like you need to help people? Have you ever felt an evil entity in the air? Have you ever been sick or harmed? All these questions haunt mild mannered security guard David Dunn (Willis), a Philadelphia resident that comes out of a train wreck as the sole survivor -- and unscathed to boot.

His inquisitor is Elijah Price (Jackson), a man with such fragile bones that he has sustained over 50 broken limbs in a mere 39 years of life. Price lives in a seclution that has made him an expert in the world of comic books, where he would often lose himself as a child sitting in a hospital. In his mind, there must be an opposite to him -- a near superhuman that could be the hero of one of his first edition comics.

Dunn serves as his theory -- the one person that has been born strong, heroic, and undefeatable. Price puts it all into perspective late in the film, a discretion that could make or break the film for viewers, and really makes it all make sense in its own little way.

Dunn is a real human being, not the magnificent superhero that Price yearns for him to be, but it is an intellectual superiority that seems to cause everything to make sense. Dunn has a past, a troubled marriage, and a self-loathing that makes him seem like an impossible Superman. But the audience can believe in Dunn with Price because he is the smarter one, the genius in a shattered body.

Last year saw the release of one of the most overrated films of my lifetime. That film was M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, which not only conquered the box office but also received as Academy Award nomination for Best Picture of the year. That film had more problems than I can count in a single review and was merely saved by a fine tuned ending.

Now here comes Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s follow up film also starring Bruce Willis. The two films are sure to be compared, though their connections are very few (save from the director and star, they only share a common eerie mood), and it is a comparison that will surely hurt Unbreakable due to its uncharacteristic plodding and the high respect for the elder film.

I fear that people will turn this film down due its difference. That’s a shame, Unbreakable is three times the film that The Sixth Sense is and does not attempt to balance everything on a shock ending. The Sixth Sense may have some compassion and heart, but the real pleasure is in Unbreakable, where you really feel that Shyamalan has had the chance to throw out restraints and create a purely personal film within a story that couldn’t seem more impersonal.

I was struck watching this film, thinking of what had to have been running through the mind of Shyamalan when he created this story and hw he would have never been able to get it off the ground if not for The Sixth Sense. I have no doubt that he was a huge fan of comic books in his youth and yearned to create a film that could successfully present that feeling. I was not a child of the comics but I can appreciate a film that seems so close to the director without creating a film that only works to those in the inner-circle (i.e. Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday).

Shyamalan has much to be desired as a director and a screenwriter, both of which he makes near tragic mistakes in. His real use is in the field of scenario, which he can create like a madman (his first film, the ‘inspirational’ family film Wide Awake, was a terrific story lost in a mess of camera set-up and dialogue), but he really needs some work in the other fields. There are many parts early in the film that rely on reflections as the setting, but no one seemed to mention to him that scenes like such only look right when they do not look like a young director trying to be catchy. The first offence is not horrible, but the fifth time he does it gets really old.

The cinematographer on this film, Eduardo Serra (What Dreams May Come), actually does a fine job in the shoes of The Sixth Sense’s Tak Fujimoto. Serra captures some scenes in a beautiful dark palette that makes everything moody and disturbing. His handheld work is questionable, especially in one of the film’s earlier scenes (though I would not be surprised if that decision was one made by Shyamalan), but he deserved utmost attention for his capturing of outdoor scenes in the daylight, which actually brought to mind Owen Roizman's Georgetown in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. That’s quite a compliment.

For what it’s worth, there’s much for me to agree with in Unbreakable, which seems destined to be on a road to nowhere early on but pays off three-fold. I was interested in the film in its early moments and ready for it to take me on a ride I had not been on before. When it looks to be at a precipice of originality, it comes in with something new and does not let down for the rest of the film.

What Unbreakable strives to do, and in many succeeds in doing, is create a lifelike supernatural world. These are real people with real problems looking in the face of some of the most questionable circumstances. The last act of the film comes from left field and is, in its own way, astonishingly believable. For a film to surround comic books like this film does and perfectly represent them without going into what might be considered kitschy territory is testament to Shyamalan’s abilities as a storyteller.

The ending of this film fails at first glance. In fact, I sat for a few seconds thinking of how it had just blown itself out of the water, but, by the time retrospect kicks in, the finale becomes convincing and even scarier than another choice might have been. This film will either haunt you in its pleasure or incite you with its proud divisiveness.

Is Unbreakable a great film? No not really -- it is so flawed that some things are incredibly hard to get beyond. But I liked it in its own little way. It got under my skin and still haunts me now -- something I could never say about The Sixth Sense.


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Requiem for a Dream

(Dir: Darren Aronofsky, Starring Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, Christopher McDonald, Louise Lasser, Sean Gullette, Keith David, Ben Shenkman, and Dylan Baker)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Darren Aronofsky came onto the film scene two years ago with Pi, a high-end Lynchian opus on mathematical repetition and the deconstruction of the human mind.  That film used visual squibs to create a whole different world for the mentally anguished and it turned out to be one of the finest films of the year.

With his second film, Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky does to the sophomore slump what Quentin Tarantino did with the release of Pulp Fiction -- blowing it out of the water.  Not only is Requiem for a Dream a great film, it is better than Pi and even better than any other film this year.

Where Pi was deranged look at madness, Requiem does everything in a realistic sense.  Every step is one meant to look like a believable occurrence of the characters that it has to work with.  While not everyone may know what it is like to be a junkie awaiting the next hit, there is no doubt in anyone's mind that Aronofsky is presenting it in as close a form as celluloid can give.   It never pulls back when things seem to harsh and never fails to leave the viewer gasping for air -- it is a basket of visual scenery meant to scare people straight and has no intention of looking at the niceties of a life gone sour.

The film's four protagonists each have an addiction, and each one finds solace in these addictions.  But what they don't know is how deep they are, and how far down they can go.  Tyrone (Wayans) and Harry (Leto) each yearn for drugs in their desolate lives, having nothing else to turn to.  Harry's girlfriend Marion (Connelly) becomes an addict by association and soon wants it more than the other two.  When it becomes nearly impossible to get heroin on the streets, she's the one that makes Harry go out and fight to find it.  His addiction to her has brought him no choice but to go looking for it, even if it means going as far out of Breighton Beach as he and Tyrone can get.

But everything is not always so bad for these three.   In hopes of bringing Marion her dream of a clothing store, Harry and Tyrone begin selling on the streets.  If they can do a fine enough job, they will be able to get the big chunk to sell.  The only catch is that they have to keep from turning to that money for more personal drugs.

But they only make three of the four stories, admittedly the lesser three.  The other major character is Harry's mother Sara (Burstyn), who suffers the life of a lonely widow secluded in her apartment.  We first meet her as Harry steals her television to sell for some drug money, but soon we find that she is much more than a long suffering mother of a junkie.  For she is the ultimate addict, a glutton of the highest sense.  She constantly sits in her room watching her favorite infomercial/game show and eats.  When she learns that she will appear on this show, she develops an obsession to clean herself up, leading to an attempt to lose weight through pills.

Burstyn gives a striking performance, arguably the finest of her incredible career.  Sara Goldfarb is harrowing to watch thanks to a beautiful subtlety from Burstyn.  When Sara's addiction to the diet pills gets out of hand, it is the timing of Burstyn that keeps it from turning into a farce.  In the hands of someone like Anne Bancroft, Sara would have been over the top and cloying, Burstyn makes her striking and believable.  Many will think of their own mothers as they sit watching her.

Each of the four actors hold their own, especially the two females.  As Burstyn plays things straight, Jennifer Connelly creates her character as a fine human being lost in her own world.  She is playful, coy, and deceptive -- she could be a self-destructive time bomb waiting to take out herself and everyone around her.  I noted Connelly to myself a couple years ago with Dark City, but I never would have expected such a fine performance from her here.  It takes much to hold your own beside Ellen Burstyn, and Connelly seamlessly does it.

Two real surprises in the cast here with Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans proving that there's much more to them as actors than I would have ever given them credit.  I remember stating that the only good thing about Leto appearing in The Thin Red Line is that he is dead within thirty seconds -- and that's one of the kinder things I have said about him. With the exception of Girl, Interrupted, I have liked every film from Leto since 1998's The Thin Red Line, but have always disliked him in each turn.  Black and White and Fight Club both used him as an interchangeable character with no importance and American Psycho pitted him as the worthless scum of the planet.  Here he is likable and thought provoking.  Did he go to acting school recently or something, because I cannot believe this is the same guy from Urban Legend.

And Marlon Wayans?  Well, I really do consider myself to be one of the more critical people on that Wayans brother, even panning him in the otherwise enjoyable Scary Movie.  His hijinx are never funny and I really don't think he knows how desperate for laughs he seems.  Taking this completely dramatic role is genius on his part because he can pull it off.  There is no scene in which he can tarnish the film with a pratfall, in fact I cannot think of any moment in which he is left open to joke.  It is refreshing to see such a fine dramatic performance from him, but I am also filled with trepidation that he will not continue on this path.

The camera work on this film is incredible.   Aronofsky and his cinematographer-editor team of Matthew Libatique and Jay Rabinowitz (both of whom worked on Pi) pull no stops.  Every scene is an incredible piece of art.  You could pause the screen, frame it, put it on your wall, and have a breathtaking piece of professional photography.  Many directors have attempted this subject matter before, using some of the same devices (I was especially reminded of Jesus' Son by the split screen early in the film and the delusional game show appearance that is also found in Trainspotting), but Aronofsky et al. do it better than ever before.

The film is based on a novel by Herbert Selby, Jr., who adapted it with Aronofsky.  The lyrical prose of the novel comes across in the film, which causes the words to come alive.  I recently read Jeffrey Eugendes' The Virgin Suicides after seeing the Sofia Coppola adaptation and was surprised at how close the two pieces were in mood.  Aronofsky's use of the story is just as hard on the senses as Selby's novel and even more terrifying.

There is no doubt in my mind that this film could serve as a scared straight viewing for the youth of America.  Like Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, I believe that incoming high school students should be sent to watch this film.   Though it is very heavy in gruesome visuals, sexual ongoings, and drug use, it never does it in a glorified way once it gets on its course to destruction.  I cannot see the today's youths see drugs as such a simple choice after viewing the outcome that can be found in drug use.  The film's initial NC-17 rating (Artisan is releasing the film unrated) is merited in the actions found inside the film, but the message is one that should not be censored by a rating.

I was even a little jarred by this film's depiction of drug gone awry.  I had a bit of cold when I saw the film and had been on a stiff schedule of taking Sudafed for my ailment.  When the film ended it was time for the next dosage.  Needless to say, I thought twice before I swallowed the next pill.


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Men of Honor

(Dir: George Tillman, Jr., Starring Cuba Gooding, Jr., Robert DeNiro, Aunjenue Ellis, Charlize Theron, David Conrad, Hal Holbrook, Michael Rapaport, Holt McCallany, Dennis Troutman, Joshua Feinman, Theo Nicholas Pagones, Ryan Honey, Joshua Leonard, Carl Lumbly, Lonette McKee, Powers Booth, and David Keith)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Carl Brashear stood in the face of racism and succeeded as the first African American US Navy diver.  Then, when life dealt him what seemed like a losing hand, he turned it into another first in Navy history.  Brashear has done much in his life that should be remembered and celebrated, but the old idiom "a great life would make a great movie" is not true for him.  Cinematically speaking, Brashear could very easily make for an inspirational drama of human effort overcoming every obstacle, but it does not work in the form that director George Tillman, Jr. goes for.

In the world that Tillman creates for Men of Honor, imperfect people are bad and the tough can handle anything brought to them.  I was struck at how one-sided this film could be.  Every racist here is meant to be the epitome of bigot and not a real person.  For example, every bit of this film is built around hating everyone that is mean to Brashear because of his race.  They are never real people, just the simple bad guys that the film needs.

David Conrad is brought in to be the bureaucrat racist.   Holt McCallany stands as the training camp racist.  Hal Holbrook gets to look bad as the military general racist.  The only person that utters a racist word that the audience is made to like is Robert De Niro's Billy Sunday, who is only likable because, as an audience member said, "he's so funny."

This is all said and good when you want to make the lead character look good, but when you want a convincing human drama it just looks over the top.  These characters might work if this were a James Bond film, but as a true life struggle it looks more like audience manipulation.

Look at the character played by Hal Holbrook, sitting up in a watch tower and hoping that an African American will never succeed on his base.   They portray him as a crazy old man that never leaves the tower.  By the third scene with him, I was ready for an F-Troop-esque cannonball knocking the tower over for laughs.  Holbrook is a fine actor, but has nothing to do here but babble on about how the military is changing and how he hates blacks.  Please, George Tillman, Jr., I know your agenda and that is not what this film should stand for.  It is about standing in the face of anguish and proving himself.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. does everything he can to give a great performance, one that might give him a second Oscar nomination.  It looks to me like he's been on a diet of Denzel Washington films, because every little acting nuance that he throws out seems to be straight from The Hurricane and Malcolm X.  This is not to say that Gooding does a poor job, but merely inadequate.  He seems almost sedated half the time and less believable.

And this is not to say that good old Robert De Niro is believable, he's about as high above reality as you can get.  He's good at it, don't get me wrong, but he also makes the audience weary with his unabashedly in-your-face performance.  I can only wonder how he came to this after giving such a different performance in Meet the Parents.  In that film he was like Dean Martin, here is more a dramatic Jerry Lewis.

There are many more things in this film that fail cinematically (including a completely unneeded wife to De Niro played unimpressively by Charlize Theron [though, to her credit, there was very little to do with the character]), but the underlying fact is that Brashear lived a life that should be remembered.  A better director could have taken this in a different (and better) direction.  Or it could have played as a documentary, the only medium that could do justice to this man without looking like an overcooked stance on racism in the military.


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Reviews by:
David Perry
2000, Cinema-Scene.com

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