Thursday, September 25, 2008

Lakeview Terrace

In 1989, Spike Lee made “Do The Right Thing,” a frank, witty, yet ultimately sad and shocking portrait of racial tensions in New York City. So masterful was the film that any subsequent depiction of racism has inevitably been compared to it. This may seem unfair, but given how many movies use it as a guideline it’s somewhat appropriate. Such is the case with this initially promising thriller, which steals a number of devices from Lee’s opus but delivers a clunky, stereotypical product.

Starring Samuel L. Jackson and Patrick Wilson, “Lakeview Terrace” pits an interracial couple, Chris and Lisa (played by Wilson and Kerry Washington), against their police officer neighbor, Abel Turner (Jackson). Chris and Lisa move in next door, and Abel wastes no time making them feel unwelcome. Turner is every bit Hollywood’s idea of the non-stereotypical “urban” black man: he prays every morning, hates rap, and ensures that his children use proper grammar. It’s like they ran down a checklist of black stereotypes, and just did the opposite thinking it would make a fleshed-out character. He’s also astonishingly racist - he makes offensive statements at parties and has nothing but disgust on his face when he sees the next-door couple.

Turner makes a nice foil for Chris, the rap loving, easygoing Berkeley grad who must have trouble standing up straight with all the white liberal guilt on his shoulders like a politically correct Atlas. Whenever he tries to confront his new neighbor, he quickly backs down and walks away with his tail between his legs. Even when he says to his wife that black men constantly disapprove of his their relationship, he whispers it as if telling an offensive joke in a crowded restaurant. Eventually he fights back, and the story escalates into from the tense to the ridiculous.

Most of the film’s positive aspects can be attributed to Jackson. He has what physicians refer to as “the crazy eyes.” His facial expressions run the gamut of craziness: he’s insanely happy, insanely angry, insanely contemplative, insanely surprised (often with a tinge of insanely angry), and - this is the best one - insanely crazy. He’s the kind of person you’d never want to hear the words “good night” from because coming from him they give off the strong implication that morning isn’t coming. Even if Chris wasn’t such a spineless wuss I doubt he could possibly stare Abel down.

Neil LaBute, an accomplished writer and playwright renowned for creating stories about misogynistic men who slowly reveal their sadistic tendencies, directed the film, but you’d never know it. Had LaBute written the script, “Lakeview Terrace” might have gently unfolded, gradually mounting tension until you suddenly found yourself in a horrific situation.

For a time, this film is interesting; the first two acts let Chris and Abel’s little turf war escalate as a forest fire inches nearer (a blatant nod to “Do The Right Thing’s” heat wave), but the final 45 minutes are pure B-movie nonsense. Abel’s motivation for his racial hate is absurd and harkens back to a time when racism was socially acceptable rather than the subtler way it still exists. Some of the things he does to mess with the couple are just plain ridiculous; for instance, he mails a video of a clearly-struggling Chris unwittingly receiving a lap dance from a stripper at a bachelor party to Lisa, as if seeing her husband pinned to the ground by three cops and forced to let a stripper dance for him will lead to a divorce or even sow doubt. Once Jackson starts yelling things like “I’m the police! You have to do what I say!” it’s all over.

This film was probably doomed from the start. Even its trailer veered so close to camp I didn’t know when I went in whether I’d get a black comedy or a thriller. After seeing it, I still don’t. The idea of being terrorized by a cop is interesting, as is a study of modern racism. However, the script is constantly at odds with the director; LaBute wants to take his time and let the hatred simmer, while the script thinks it’s adding a twist to race study by making the black person racist instead of the white guy. It strives to be a thriller version of “Do The Right Thing,” but instead has all the heavy-handedness of the last big racial drama, “Crash.” It’s a bad dissection of race relations because everyone conforms to some sort of stereotype, and it’s a bad thriller because all the lines got big laughs from the audience I was in when they should have been gripping their seats.

Monday, September 8, 2008

'College' Flunks

Did you love Superbad? I sure did. Did you love Superbad so much you wanted to see it again without the brilliant writing but with a cast of unfunny characters? If yes, then chin up you little weirdo, 'cause it’s your lucky day. College, brought to you the producers of the passably mediocre Waiting, takes all the funny parts of Superbad, American Pie, Accepted and Animal House and manages to compile them into a completely humorless whole.

First off, there’s the cast. Superbad gave us Michael Cera, the future American Hugh Grant; Jonah Hill, a slightly younger (in age) but much younger-looking foil for comedy giant Seth Rogen; and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, the unlikely breakout star. In the attempt to score the nice guy/mouthy fat friend/nerd trifecta again, we get Kevin Covais, who plays the McLovin part with all the grating, annoying qualities and none of the absurd genius that made that character great; Andrew Caldwell, previously known for making an Armageddon reference in Transformers; and Drake Bell, who got his start on Nickelodeon’s sub-average sketch comedy The Amanda Show. Separate they are uninteresting, but together they form a Voltron of unfunniness.

The trio decides to party at a local university after Bell’s Kevin gets dumped by his girlfriend, played by Alona Tal (Meg Manning in the criminally canceled cult show Veronica Mars). She maintains Kevin is too boring and she wants to go crazy in college, so what better way to win her back than by finding the nearest kegger and making poor choices?

Enter that most dreaded of establishments, the frat house. Carter (Caldwell) has a cousin who’s legacy, so the gang hits up a frat for a place to stay. The house, which has been denied charter renewal, is desperate for pledges, but, as their reactions show, not so desperate that they'll accept these geeks. Despite being handed new pledges out of thin air, that six-month gap separating the boys from being legitimate freshmen is grounds for frothing rage from the entire campus.

Here’s where the film starts to fall apart (which is not a good sign, considering it’s only ten minutes in). The nerd, the annoying fat guy, and the dull nobody become the life of the party thanks to copious amounts of booze that have apparently been spiked with magic, since that’s the only logical explanation for how they gain popularity. Seems like things worked out for them, huh?

But there’s trouble afoot. These boys are too popular, and the frat boys are jealous. The fraternity president, Teague (Nick Zano), is even madder because Bell stole away his girl - who was technically his one-night stand anyway. Never mind that he’s always got a woman or two draped over him, he wants the girl he let get away solely to keep Kevin from getting any. The girl in question alternates between charming and unrelentingly annoying; Kevin of course tells her he’s a freshman so she’ll speak to him (because being a freshman is sooo much better than a high school senior). When the truth finally comes out she acts like he tied her up and murdered her family in front of her. Oh no, he said he was six months older than he really was; he’s not a Holocaust denier or a pedophile, for Christ’s sake.

Like nearly every college film, College can’t decide whether it’s raging against the machine or helping to show kids that college isn’t really that scary. Pick one, all right? I’m sick of this inane back and forth; we know that college isn’t that scary because we’re here. People are who about to go to college probably know it to unless their sole source of information is old raunchy comedies. These three kids are dragged through the mud, sometimes literally, but in the end they had a great time because they got laid? When did sex become a deus ex machina and who do I need to go back in time and kill to prevent it?

If you’ve not had a chance to watch any R-rated high school/comedies made in the last 30 years or you’re emotionally stunted, you might get a few laughs out of this. But honestly, it’s such a broad rip-off of every good adolescent comedy that they might as well have called it Frat Movie and been done with it. It literally looks like some amateur teenagers tried to make a bootleg version of Superbad. Say, wasn’t one of The Amanda Show’s best-known sketches about a family who recorded their own versions of good movies?

'Babylon' A Failure of Biblical Proportions

Have you ever wondered what waterboarding feels like but didn’t want to get your good shirt wet? Might I then suggest this film, which certainly made me feel like I was drowning. More a lame pastiche of nearly every notable piece of cyberpunk and dystopic fiction than an actual film, Babylon A.D. takes every last good idea introduced in science fiction cinema since Blade Runner and grinds it into dust in the span of 90 minutes.

The plot, if it can be so called, centers on Toorop, a mercenary living out his days in Russia after being classified as a terrorist in the United States. His latest mission? Deliver a young teenager and the nun who cares for her to New York City. The catch? The girl, named Aurora, seems to have powers of some sort. So, right off the bat it’s Children of Men mixed with Firefly/Serenity.

Problems arise almost immediately, not least of which is the acting. Vin Diesel has starred in a grand total of two good films, one of which he played little more than a bit character in. He’s one of the worst actors to ever stubbornly cling to the A-list, and his moronic droning leads me to believe a large object fell on his head just before the director yelled “action”. Mélanie Thierry portrays Aurora as a mix between the insane psychic River Tam from Firefly and the shrill, whiny Dawn from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, only without any of the traits that made those characters interesting. Michelle Yeoh is the only one who puts in a decent performance, but her part is so ridiculous it hardly matters. For God’s sake, she’s a peaceful nun, but all of a sudden starts performing martial arts, presumably because the writers got sick of only ripping off science fiction and just happened to be watching Bulletproof Monk.

The greatest tragedy, though, is the film’s haphazard plagiarism of better movies. The near-magical plastic surgery calls to mind Terry Gilliam’s twisted masterpiece Brazil, which presaged the botox craze by decades, while the ability to instantly track anyone in the world is a staple of cyberpunk, with The Matrix and V For Vendetta in particular pushing the Big Brother tone to the max. Russia and Kazakhstan are depicted as crumbling ruins full of refugee camps, with only the odd placing of technological wonders to suggest that this is the future. Then the gang gets to New York, and suddenly it’s the ad-soaked color explosion of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles.

Look, I like Children of Men and Blade Runner too, but you can’t just combine them for the hell of it. They each represent an extreme of futuristic setting; one shows the gradual self-destruction of humanity as all the flashy gizmos prove unable to keep the species going while the other is itself a flashy gizmo. Are the writers seriously suggesting that, in the future, the rest of the world will be a squalid, backwards concentration camp while Americans will still live in booming metropolises? And we wonder why other countries hate us.

If there is a ray of sunshine in all this, it’s that the film will only waste 90 minutes of your life. The dialogue is a constant series of non-sequiturs that confuse and enrage when they should provide exposition. The acting, even from French über-actor Gérard Depardieu, is phoned-in, to the point that everyone sinks to Vin Diesel’s level. Director Mathieu Kassovitz cannot shoot action at all; some scenes look like the man dropped the camera and chased after it like a charmingly inept footballer. Kassovitz gained recognition for disowning this cut of the film, though I cannot imagine any version of this movie being great or even enjoyable.

If you like science fiction but have never seen a film, enjoy action shots where everybody looks the same and the camera jolts as if the director just got hit with a cattle prod, and don’t mind creepy sexual tension with what I assume is a minor, then you may be able to glean some entertainment from this film. Otherwise, stick to the films that this movie copied.