Monday, May 23, 2005

Mr. 3000 (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

One of the great ironies of baseball is in huge disparity between its filmability and the actual popularity of the sport outside US borders. Baseball has provided and continues to provide basis for many popular and successful Hollywood films, but success of those films is limited because hardly anyone outside US (and few other nations’) border have a clue about baseball and its complicated rules. On the other hand, non-US audiences that couldn’t properly enjoy baseball-themed films might comfort themselves with not being disappointed with MR. 3000, sports comedy directed by Charles Stone III.

The protagonist of the film is Stan Ross (played by Bernie Mac), arrogant and selfish hitter for Milwaukee Brewers. Film begins in 1995 when Ross makes 3000th hit and decides to quit baseball in order to start making lucrative endorsements as “Mr. 3000”. Nine years later it turns out that a statistical error was made and that Ross actually made only 2997 hits. Ross, faced with the prospect of never entering Hall of Fame, decides to rejoin his old team in order to make those three extra hits. However, being out of shape and out of touch with younger team mates makes this task nearly impossible.

The best thing about the film is Bernie Mac who plays the character very familiar to fans of professional sport – an arrogant and selfish star who thinks he is greater than the sport itself. Mac plays Ross very convincingly , but the screenwriters weren’t up to the task. In the second half Hollywood clichés take over and Ross begins predictable but not very credible transformation into gentler, nicer and humbler human being. Somewhat surprising twist at the end makes MR. 3000 interesting, but this happens too late to improve generally disappointing impression of this film.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

Friday, May 13, 2005

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Hollywood is getting increasingly infantile, and one of the manifestations of that phenomenon could be found in a huge hit which happens to deal with sport most people never think about after leaving grammar school. Infantile or not, some of those films can be entertaining, and DODGEBAL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY, 2004 comedy written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber.

The plot begins in Los Angeles where Peter La Fleur (played by Vince Vaughn), owner of run-down gym frequented by colourful misfits, is faced with huge financial problems. The gym is about to be foreclosed and, in most likelihood, sold to White Goodman (played by Ben Stiller), health guru, owner of corporate gym and La Fleur’s archrival. The only way for La Fleur is to prevent this is to organise dodgeball team and win the prize on the dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas. Goodman reacts by setting up his own team against which La Fleur and his friends don’t stand a chance. But things change where La Fleur gets in touch with legendary dodgeball coach Patches O’Houllihan (played by Rip Torn).

Anyone expecting to find something deep and meaningful in DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY should look somewhere else. For the filmmakers, the medium of sports film parody is nothing more than opportunity for the series of gags based on as much toilet humour as PG-13 rating will allow. However, thanks to Thurber’s capable direction and what seems to be a very enthusiastic cast, most of those gags work. Although the script sticks to clichés – including La Fleur’s romantic interest, played by Ben Stiller’s wife Christine Taylor – some of creative decisions were very fortunate. Stiller, who plays his villain over the top, is well matched by very subdued Vaughn in the role of protagonist. Although DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY in many ways looks like the embodiment of many things that are wrong in contemporary Hollywood, there are films more deserving to be evaded by the audience.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Finding Neverland (2004)

“It is that time of the year” is a phrase the author of this review uttered when he saw FINDING NEVERLAND, 2004 biographic drama directed by Marc Forster. It was very clear that this film serves certain purpose – harvesting as many Academy Awards as possible. In the end, despite many critics praising it, FINDING NEVERLAND, faced with much formidable competition in the form of MILLION DOLLAR BABY and THE AVIATOR, failed in its mission and got only Academy Award for Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s music score.

The plot of film, based on the stage play by Allan Knee, deals with Sir James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937), Scottish playwright best known as the creator of PETER PAN. In the beginning of the film Barrie (played by Johnny Depp) is troubled by the failure of his plays. Everything changes after meeting with recently widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (played by Kate Winslet) and four of her young sons. Barrie quickly befriends the boys and spends large amount of time with them, telling and inventing all kinds of adventure stories. Because of that Barrie’s marriage to actress Mary Ansell (played by Radha Mitchell) starts to fall apart, while Sylvia’s mother Emma du Maurier (played by Julie Christie) thinks that Barrie’s presence in her family could harm Sylvia’s marriage prospects and positions in society. All those problems, however, don’t prevent Barrie from taking inspiration from children in order to write his theatrical masterpiece.

A lot of effort was invested in FINDING NEVERLAND. Apart from the usual attention to period details of Edwardian London, production values could be seen in collection of notable acting talents. Johnny Depp plays Barrie very well – his character is enigmatic, but innocent in the same time and when he discards any speculations about real nature of his relationship with boys - in a scene introduced more likely in order to satisfy modern sentiments than for the sake of historic accuracy – the audience believes him. Depp’s acting is well-matched by veterans like Christie and always dependable Winslet. Even actors in minor roles are good, including Kelly MacDonald in the role of Peter Pan.

Unfortunately, FINDING NEVERLAND never puts all those talents to the proper, mostly due to David Magee’s script, which tries to inject some unnecessary drama into already fascinating story. Those efforts only make the story look artificial and clichéd, while the characters come on screen as cold Hollywood stereotypes instead of human beings. The only spark of genuine humanity appears at the very end, but by that time most great opportunities of FINDING NEVERLAND are already lost.

RATING: 4/10 (+)

Monday, May 09, 2005

THX 1138 Director's Cut (2004)

A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Many of the most conservative representatives of establishment used to be radical revolutionaries in their youth. This phenomenon can be observed in many institutions, including Hollywood. Probably the best example is George Lucas whose feature film debut, 1971 science fiction drama THX 1138, represents the very antithesis of everything his current filmography is associated with.

George Lucas based THX 1138 on his student film ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH THX 1138 4EB. The beginning of the film is ironic prologue – small clip of BUCK ROGERS, 1940s movie serial set in 25th Century. What follows is Lucas’ own version how the future will really look like. The plot is set in huge underground city where the society tries to suppress emotions and individuality – people wear the identical clothes, have codes instead of names and are bared from falling in love and having sex. Their urges are controlled through obligatory drug use and visits to automated confessors, but the protagonist THX 1138 (played by Robert Duvall) somehow manages to slip taking pills and talk his female roommate LUH 3417 (played by Maggie McOmie) into doing the same. Two of them fall in love, but are soon arrested and tried for their crimes. THX 1138, with a help of his new roommate SEN 5241 (played by Donald Pleasance) and runaway hologram SRT (played by Don Pedro Colley), manages to escape prison and begins his long journey towards the surface and freedom.

In 1960 serious filmmakers discovered science fiction as the most convenient medium for addressing the important social, cultural and political issues of the day. George Lucas was one of the few who actually knew the power of science fiction firsthand, simply by growing up on B-movie serials of that genre. Like many young men of his generation, Lucas felt alienated from everything – worldview, values, institution – his parents cherished. This alienation can be seen in the dystopian vision of THX 1138. The futuristic underground world is natural progression of everything which was wrong with Western civilisation in 1960s – faceless and bureaucratic state is as oppressive as those behind 1960s Iron Curtain, while the consumerist culture is as tasteless and worthless as in 1960s West. People are supposed to act the same, look the same and think the same, losing not only their individuality, but also their humanity in the process. Film also suggests that this underground society is a result of environmental disaster or nuclear war – while the decaying equipment and non-existent safety standards cause endless accidents, thing are even worse on the radioactive surface where the protagonist wants to escape.

Lucas was not only radical in its criticism of 1960s society, it was radical in the way it threw away Hollywood filmmaking conventions. The protagonists are not only bald but also shot in a way to make them as unattractive as possible. The film lacks conventional villains – the robot policemen (which look conspicuously similar to law enforcement officials encountered by radical students in 1960s California) often look ridiculous in their mechanical inhumanity. Lalo Schiffrin’s depressive soundtrack is accompanied by cacophonic chatter of futuristic world technicians, which adds to the inhumane and disturbing atmosphere of the film. This work of Walter Murch, Lucas’ brilliant sound designer, has set the standards any science fiction film had to meet in next decades. Because of that, THX 1138 is thought-provoking and very powerful film.

When Lucas reissued THX 1138 in 2004 as “director’s cut” with digital makeover, many could see a bit in irony in that. In a way, Lucas became the very embodiment of the establishment he had so thoroughly criticised in THX 1138. His films became the mindless entertainment for the masses in which not a single trace of unconventionality and social criticism could be found. Many saw his “director’s cut” treatment of original STAR WARS trilogy as a way to recreate his radical past to the standards of his conservative present.

In case of THX 1138, he had some valid reasons to put that film to digital makeover – in many scenes the film shows its age and it is difficult to imagine futuristic society being equipped with elements of early 1970s technology. But, on the other hand, the scenes with CGI are visibly different from original 1971 footage and this takes away the magic and the impact of the original film. However, this version is unlikely to be as controversial as new incarnations of STAR WARS – the general bleakness of the film, its themes and the author’s youthful anger could not be erased with digital technology. And, because of that, THX 1138 is as relevant today as it was three and half decades ago.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)