Mission: Impossible III

Mission Impossible 3Now that JJ Abrams is knee-deep in the production of Star Wars Episode VII, I thought it would be a nice time to step back and look at some of the films he has directed in order to get a better sense of what he might bring to the table with his take on George Lucas’ beloved franchise.  After cutting his teeth in a several episodes of Felicity and Alias, he brought his signature style of kinetic hyper-realism to the pilot episode of Lost, which is still one of the most harrowing two hours of television I can recall seeing.  With the third installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise on the verge of being lost forever in development hell, producer and star Tom Cruise called Abrams in to save the day and get the film back on track.  And what a track it turned out to be.

Abrams essentially approaches the movie from the standpoint of a 13-year-old boy who wants to see big-screen heroes pull off big-time action.  With rarely a dull moment in its two-hour runtime, the movie focuses on a now-retired Ethan Hunt (Cruise) who is eager to leave the life of a super-spy behind and focus on new pursuits.  Chief among his new responsibilities is his soon-to-be wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) who hasn’t the first clue that her hunky, ripped-to-shreds fiancee is not, in fact, a lowly transportation data analyst.  How the women in these movies are so utterly clueless is beyond me, and in many ways the rest of the film could basically pass for a True Lies sequel.  Or reboot.  Either one works.

Believe it or not, Hunt soon manages to find himself knee-deep in the throes of his former life after his former trainee Lindsey (Keri Russel, taking a cue from Samuel Jackson in Deep Blue Sea by unexpectedly recusing herself from most of the movie) is abducted by a really bad guy named Owen Davian who wants to do really bad things.  To the whole world.  For some reason.  But few people can pull off a barely unhinged psychopath better than Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his turn as the villain almost steals the show from Cruise and company.

Group Photo Time!What ensues is a breathless globetrotting adventure involving all the typical Mission: Impossible tropes we have all come to know and love: car chases, double-crosses, clever masks, insane stunts, nail-biting infiltrations, and wisecracking computer nerd sidekicks.  Abrams runs the gamut here, from the ol’ “loop the security camera footage” trick to having Tom Cruise himself jump off skyscrapers for kicks, all while keeping the action flowing at a brisk pace that walks a fine line between engaging and overpowering.  And that’s the memo that John Woo somehow missed when he made Mission: Impossible II.  People don’t show up to these movies for long, slow buildups and mano-a-mano slow-motion standoffs.  They just want a hero to accomplish amazing things in the face of (wait for it…) impossible odds.  Abrams knows this, and keeps the action building from one setpiece to the next while also crafting believable, if somewhat thin, relationships between all parties involved.  The final showdown between Hunt and Davian is a bit anticlimactic, but the movie as a whole is a thoroughly engaging action romp with just enough lens flares so as to not leave the audience blinded.

Rating:[rating:4/5]

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Runaway Slave

RS posterBy now, everybody and their dog is familiar with the series The Walking Dead on AMC, so you’ve probably seen the part where Rick Grimes rides into Atlanta, only to find it full of dilapidated corpses, shambling to and fro with a glassy-eyed stare, rotted flesh hanging from their faces, seeking only their next kicking, screaming meal. There’s a part of Runaway Slave eerily similar to that scene. Rev. C.L. Bryant, seeking answers to his questions, arrives in Atlanta, former commercial center of slavery and political center of the Confederacy, also the birthplace of MLK and, arguably, the Civil Rights movement. As he begins conducting interviews, he meets many people with the same glassy-eyed, hopeless stares, their bodies bearing tattoos and other scars of a pointless, nihilistic existence of government colonization. But of course, this isn’t some theoretical apocalyptic scenario. This is real life, and these are real Atlantans.

Runaway Slave is a documentary by Bryant, the great, great grandson of slaves in Louisiana who purchased 64 acres from their former masters upon emancipation. He lives on the same 64 acres today, when he’s not speaking at rallies around the country. Earlier in life, Bryant was a loyal member of the NAACP, and was climbing the hierarchy with some success, until he refused to speak at a pro-abortion rally. For his refusal, he was forced to resign from the organization. He was later fired from the church that he pastored for speaking out against big government. He made this film in 2010 and 2011, during the initial outrage that boiled up over Obamacare being rammed

Bryant interviews Alfonzo Rachel on the streets of L.A.

Bryant interviews Alfonzo Rachel on the streets of L.A.

through Congress. At that time he was speaking, among other places, at Tea Party rallies all over the country, and receiving hate mail calling him an Uncle Tom and a house n**ger.

The film opens with footage of the Restoring Honor rally on the Washington Mall the 47th anniversary of MLK’s famous march on Washington, featuring the likes of Glenn Beck and Dr. Alveda King (MLK’s niece). It zips back and forth between this event and Al Sharpton’s Reclaim the Dream rally at the White House, both happening at the same time. (Something that was odd, but cool, to note: At one point at the Beck/King rally, the camera zooms in on an American flag someone is carrying. Just below it on the same poll is a Nebraska Cornhuskers flag. Don’t know how it got there, but I paused the movie and it is definitely a Husker flag. Rex Burkhead would be proud.) Bryant is at the Sharpton rally, and interviews several people there, including Black Panthers. Afterward, he asks why, when the two groups profess to want most of the same things, Sharpton’s flock spews so much bile and seems to have so much hatred for those at the Honor rally.

As Bryant explains early on in the film, he is plagued with questions such as why, in an age when someone’s race doesn’t hold them back from walking into any business, voting, or holding any job, black Americans still believe they are not “free at last,” or why, after the Democrats fought to keep slavery legal, fought to keep schools segregated, sicked dogs on black protesters, and shot history’s greatest black leader, black Americans now vote 95% Democrat. He says “I have to find out if there are other people out there who think the way I do.” (If he’s been speaking at rallies for years, I think he probably knows, but every documentary needs a kickoff.) He then travels the country, interviewing people of different races and different political stripes. He interviews Jesse Jackson, and the aptly named Ben Jealous (he tries to interview Sharpton, who blows him off). However, the largest group that he talks to is black conservatives, such us Star Parker, Alfonzo Rachel and David Webb.

Sowell

Runaway Slave is not just an excuse to plug the books and web sites of people Bryant agrees with. It’s a well-made documentary that takes on some tough questions, generates some good discussion, and leaves room for the audience to do its own thinking. The editing can be a little bit rough. Sometimes, Bryant will be talking to someone, and their lips won’t go with the words, as if we’re looking at an establishing shot, while we’re hearing dialogue from a more central shot. Bryant can come off as just a tad narcissistic as well, as there are some shots were he appears to be interviewing himself. But in fairness, this is because he feels the need to explain why he is making this film. This is a documentary with a view point, but that doesn’t make it any less worth watching. I’d say the most interesting part is about 1 hour in, when Bryant covers the decision by a school board in North Carolina, under the strain of budget limitations, to stop cross-city busing. The reaction of certain people is quite telling. And disturbing.

Runaway Slave is a gusty and in-your-face move, but also carefully done and thoughtfully presented. It’s a movie that everyone should see.

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Wreck-it Ralph

Wreck-It poster

The premise of Wreck-It Ralph is a digital-age version of Toy Story (1995). It all takes place in a happy little arcade, strangely free of graffiti, litter and juvenile delinquents. Every night, when the arcade closes down, the characters in the games are free to wander between consoles, socialize and goof around. Only one catch: if you die outside your own game you don’t regenerate. But I’m sure that won’t become an issue.

We are introduced to this world by Wreck-It Ralph himself (John C. Reilly), the miscast, wheel grinding, time-card punching “bad guy” of the game Fix-It Felix, Jr. He explains how, all day, he has to demolish a building with his comically big hands, so the hero, Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), can save the day. After which, Felix is rewarded with a pie on the roof of the building, and the tenants throw Ralph off the roof, into a mud puddle. Ralph shares his frustration at seeing his contribution to the game go unrecognized while Felix is given pies and medals. Ralph is talking to a villain support group, whose members extol the value of being a villain. As Zangief, from Street Fighter II, says “If Zangeif was good, who would crush man’s head like sparrow’s egg between thighs?” They tell him that it’s a villain’s lot in life to get beat over and over, and watch the hero get the glory, and that his life will be happier if he excepts it.

And I just have to make a comment here. Don’t villains usually win in video games? Especially in arcade games, which are designed to keep you pumping quarters in. Realistically, it would be Felix getting thrown into the mud 99% of the time. Oh, well.

Ralph has his inevitable confrontation with the rest of the game’s cast (Nicelanders, they are called), in which Mayor Gene (Raymond Perci) tells Ralph that bad guys don’t get medals, and if Ralph ever won a medal (since he clearly never will) the Nicelanders would let him live at the top of the building in the penthouse. Ralph calls his bluff, and storms off to do just that. Something that’s amusing to watch here, and in certain other scenes, is the choppy, blocky way in which the characters move. It is, of course, intentional, and it does bring out the feel of a 1980s platform game, which is what this is supposed to be, but I’m sure it also saved Disney several tens of thousands of dollars.

Ralph’s quest for a medal leads him to steal the uniform of a space marine from the game Hero’s Duty, a fictitious game that is exactly like 10,000 real shoot’em up, blow’em up, throw-away first-person shooters that you find in arcades all over the world. Ralph’s misadventure in Hero’s Duty is certainly one of the best, possibly the best scene in the movie, and gives rise to a line every parent in the audience will love: “When did video games become so violent and scary??” It also introduces us to Sgt. Tamora Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the model-proportioned, yet tough-as-nails cliché who leads the marine troop. Calhoun’s spittle-throwing PG version of a potty mouth might just be the most entertaining part of the movie, but “It’s not her fault,” because “she’s programmed with the most tragic back story ever.” I won’t tell you what this back story is. Suffice to say, I laughed enough to shed tears when I saw it, because it’s so over the top, and yet just like what you see in video games today. Calhoun is awesome.

Tri-fold

Eventually, Ralph also lands in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed cart racing game. The landscapes in Sugar Rush are beautifully rendered, although, if you’re a salty snacker like me, you might get a little nauseous after a while. Here, Ralph meets Vanellopy Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a game character who wants to join the races, but is ostracized from the racing community because she is a glitch, the oppressed subculture of the video game world. Ralph is blackmailed by Vanellopy into joining her quest to buy or pry her way into a race so she can become part of the game, and the two start to become friends. Their relationship is similar to that of Sully and Boo in Monsters, Inc., except that Vanellopy talks. And boy does she ever. She could have gotten really annoying in the hands of a lesser director, but Rich Moore (who has directed voice acting for The Simpsons and Futurama) toned her down just enough that she’s lovable, if slightly eccentric. Ralph, Vanellopy, Calhoun and Felix eventually find themselves in a battle to save the arcade from a cataclysmic threat, and from one of the most subtle, surprising and effective villains I have seen in a long time. This leads to a lot of great chemistry between the characters, and a weird, yet strangely plausible romance between the pint-sized Felix and the arm-twisting, nose-breaking Calhoun (classic pick-up line: “Look at the high definition in your face! It’s beautiful.) I will say, I thought the ending was just a little too happy. There’s a point where it looks like victory is going to require a terrible sacrifice, and the movie would have been more powerful if it had. But, in typical Disney fashion, they had to have everything work out a little too perfect. Oh, well.

To help the reader fully appreciate the quality of Wreck-it Ralph, I thought it would be worth putting my encounter with it in context. My wife and I had previously driven 250 miles. We did this because, for the first time ever, we were going to leave our 2 1/2 year old daughter in the care of her grandparents overnight so we could spend a romantic evening together. On said evening, we dressed to the hilt and had a romantic dinner at one of the finer restaurants in town, then spent some time strolling around downtown under the lights. Finally, we checked into a hotel and got ready for bed. We had a bottle of champaign in a bucket of ice when we slid into bed. We were snuggling a little bit, when we decided  a movie wouldn’t hurt, so we charged some extra to our room to see Wreck-it Ralph. At the credits, we realized we could back the movie up in 30-second increments, so I spent about 10 minutes repeatedly pushing the button, and the ice in the bucket melted while we passed the champaign back and forth and watched Wreck-it Ralph a second time.

Yeah. It’s that  good.

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Machine Gun Preacher

This is one film that has already had an impact in the real world, if only because it has suddenly made it cool again for Facebookers to lament the actions of child killer Joseph Kony, and send around anti-Kony Slogans that you are supposed to “like” and “share.” Machine Gun Preacher is a movie laden with violence, swearing and some sensuality, so kids shouldn’t see it, but, to be fair, it’s actually rather mild compared to the way it could have been. It portrays southern Sudan and northern Uganda in a realistic light. It confronts the politically incorrect, but very real fact that African Christians, and other non-muslims, are being persecuted and killed by Muslim jihadis, and have been for a long time.  But it focuses primarily on the menace of Kony, who leads his cult under a weird mix of Islam, Christianity and witchcraft, and kidnaps children, forcing them to kill for his army or be killed by it.

But we get another story first. In Pennsylvania, Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is being released from prison. Childers has spent his life on the street, learning to use, deal, and fight. He has made his living as hired muscle for drug runners, and has hurt and killed more people than the law will ever uncover. Butler was an excellent choice to portray Childers. He’s taller and slimmer than the man he plays, but otherwise looks very similar. He has the build for the action part of the roll, and his acting in this picture is tour-de-force. Incidentally, he did this film for one thirtieth of his normal rate. Childers’ wife, Lynn, (Michelle Monaghan) picks him up and drives him home. Believing that she is still working as a stripper, he asks her what time she has to work that night. She tells him that she has given that up because it “isn’t right in the eyes of God.” He derisively asks “Oh, you found God?” She replies “He found me. And He helped me change.” At first Sam is angry that she’s left a profitable job, but he soon starts to realize that his old habits are coming back with a vengeance, and that he is on a fast track to be back in prison or dead. One day, Lynn catches him in the bathroom, trying to wash blood off of himself. All he can say is “help me.”

From left: Marco, unknown, Childers, Deng.

The following Sunday, Sam goes with Lynn and their daughter Paige to church. This movie was played in theaters all over America. I rejoiced when I saw that, not only was the portrayal of a Christian church fair and respectful, but that the gospel of Jesus Christ was accurately communicated. At the end of the service, Childers answers the pastor’s call to get wet in the baptismal font. A lot of serious Christians have legitimately argued that spur-of-the-moment alter calls such as the one depicted send more people to Hell than they save from it. But history does show us that Childers, at least, was a changed man afterword, and when watching a Hollywood movie, I don’t see any point in getting greedy. So there you have it: a conversion story from Hollywood. A rushed and watered-down conversion story to be sure, but a conversion story nonetheless.

Childers and Butler at the premier.

Childers eventually travels to Uganda as a construction worker, to help a mission. He hears about Kony and the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army,” and sees a woman who’s face has been mutilated by them. Knowing that he can take care of himself, he leaves the beaten path and sees the aftermath of an LRA attack on a village. The last shot is of him howling in grief over a dead child. He returns home and eventually tells his wife God has told him to build two things: the last thing America needs (one more church building) and the first thing the Sudan needs (one more orphanage, only this one will be near Kony’s territory).

In reality, this orphanage is now the largest in Southern Sudan and has fed and housed over 1,000 children. Today, more than 200 children are being raised and educated there. Most of the staff is composed of orphans that grew up there themselves. And while this is never mentioned in the movie, Lynn works closely with Sam on the ministry, and they have a group called Angles of East Africa that they founded together.

The two “rescue vehicles” of Childer’s mission.

The strange thing is, you would usually expect a movie that is based on a true story to sensationalize and make it bigger. From what I’ve read, this movie seems to do the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of action, but the story seems blunted, almost as if the director doesn’t really want us to see Childers as a hero. A lot of things are never explained. For example, we never see how Childers came to be giving orders to the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, but after a few scenes he’s leading a team of five men, including Deng (Souleymane Savane) and

The newly saved Lynn waits for her murderer husband to emerge from prison.

Marco (Mdudzi Mabaso), into life-or-death missions. We’re left to assume he simply inspired a few of them to follow him and do something about Kony. After a while, Childers starts treating his family like dirt. The movie eventually leads up to one of the most abrupt and unsatisfying non-endings I have ever seen. Perhaps worst of all, the last bit of spiritual dialogue we hear in the movie is Childers lashing  out at God for not saving some kids. I didn’t have a problem with it being there. After all, what Christian hasn’t wrestled with feelings like this? But I see no reason to finish the movie on that note, especially when the real Sam Childers doesn’t have that attitude today.

All in all, this movie brings plenty to the table: good visceral action, some hard questions to wrestle with, and a story that remained untold for far too long. Most of the problems it does have can be attributed to trying to tell an absolutely massive story, on two continents, in just over two hours. It’s far from being a perfect movie, or a perfect spiritual message. But it’s a darn good movie, and even as a spiritual message it has something to offer. This is a movie that needed to be made, and that you need to see.

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Courageous

The Kendrick Brothers of Sherwood Bible Church are at it again. No doubt hoping to match their home run of Fireproof of 2008, they’ve shifted their focus from taking on divorce to attacking fatherlessness in America. We’re still in Albany, Georgia, but this time, instead of following the heroics of the Albany Fire Dept.,  we’re on patrol with the Dougherty County Sheriff’s Dept. (Interesting that, Albany being a city of 77,000, it doesn’t seem to have its own police force, but I guess they had to trim the cast somewhere.)

The Kendricks have ramped the action up a notch with this one. Right at the beginning, we see Fireproof’s Ken Bevel, now playing Nathan Hayes, stop for gas, only to have his truck stolen by a dew-rag clad gang-banger (T.C. Stallings, a devoted husband and father in real life). He throws himself half-way through the driver’s window, and we are treated to a fist-fight with Nathan hanging out the window at 30 miles an hour. The movie eventually leads up to a climactic scene with guns blazing. In between is more action, more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, and a heart-felt message about how crucial a father is to a child’s development, and how those without fathers often become dew-rag clad truck thieves.

The story follows Deput. Hayes, a recent transfer to the department, three other Deputies, Adam Mitchell (Alex Kendrick), Shane Fuller (Kevin Downes), and David Thompson (Ben Davies), and Javier Martinez (Robert Amaya), a rarely employed construction worker, and their families. Javier breaks his back to provide for his family and eventually finds employment working on Adam’s house. He then becomes part of the group. David is the rookie of the squad who’s holding in a shameful secret. He has a daughter around three years of age, whom he has never met, and whose support he had not contributed a dime to. (Apparently, the Georgia Division of Child Support Services was vaporized along with the Albany P.D.) Shane struggles to be a dad to his son when he only sees him every other weekend.  Adam dotes on his daughter but refuses to join his son for the father-son 5K. And Nathan and his wife, Kayla (Elenor Brown), struggle to fend off the “saggy-pants boys” interested in their teenage daughter.

A tragedy eventually forces these men to reevaluate what they are doing as fathers. The story dives into Christian kitsch for awhile. Adam comes up with a written resolution and the five families actually hold a ceremony with their pastor in which they dramatically recite it. In a similar vein, we later see Nathan take his daughter to a very expensive restaurant (below), where he, again with great ceremony, presents her with a “promise ring.” Yeah, I know. I chortled at this scene, too, but then I found out my wife had very specific plans for me to do exactly that with our daughter one day.

But for all the kitsch, the film really is trying, and trying to do far more than just entertain. The problems with Courageous mainly serve to highlight the fact that most movies just fill themselves up with explosions and car wrecks and expect you to buy a ticket. Courageous sets the bar much higher, and does come close to clearing it.

There was a time when I would have been unable to enjoy this movie. I can enjoy it now largely because I have a wonderful wife, who makes my life very sweet. That said, there are still some key points of this film I can’t help but take issue with. A lot of the film’s attitude is summed up when Nathan delivers the curmudgeonly line “If fathers just did what they were supposed to, half the junk we see on the street wouldn’t exist.” This seems to be the mantra of conservatives and liberals alike: it’s all men’s fault. But if you look at the history of America over the last 40 years or so, men have not been the only – or even the primary – culprit of the breakdown of the family. History does not tell of a movement of men throwing off their responsibilities to society. We don’t see crowds of men burning their undergarments and demanding the right to kill their children. We do, however, see women doing all these things.

In the U.S. today, more than two thirds of all divorces are initiated by the woman. And why not? The feminist political machine has tilted the legal game board of divorce ridiculously toward the woman’s pockets. (Please note: Every man in Iowa should carefully read chapters 236 and 598 of the Iowa Code before he even thinks about getting emotionally attached to a woman. As for the other states, talk to a lawyer there.) Millions of children in the U.S. grow up without fathers because their mothers want it that way.

My first year out of law school, I worked in a family law firm. I never had a man in my office who didn’t care about his children. Most of my clients were there because they were having to fight just to see their children. The slant in family court is based on more than gender stereotypes.  The judicial community includes many territorial lionesses. A child is power, and they are not about to share it. Conversely, male judges are of the old way of thinking, in which men are expected to take the lumps and bear the weight of the world on our shoulders without complaint. This combination of liberal women and conservative men, not only in court, but also in society, is a frustrating dynamic. While women are exhorted about their rights, men are flagellated with our supposed responsibilities. Lawyers aren’t supposed to get emotionally involved, but I couldn’t help feeling the pain my clients felt. Commanded to be fathers by the right, yet torn from their children by the left; commanded to “be a man,” yet emasculated.

Courageous never addresses any of this, failing to live up to its name. The Kendrick brothers buckle under the pressure of political correctness. Too afraid to take women to task for their desertion, like so many before them, they turn on men.

It’s hard to stay angry at a movie that has this much heart, and is actually trying to make a difference in the world. But while it’s a valiant effort, another Fireproof it is not.  Fireproof met

Actor-director Alex Kendrick takes aim at bad fathers.

people squarely where they were at. There’s no reason 3 billion men couldn’t have connected with Caleb Holt, the fire chief who shows valor in the work place, but doesn’t know how to love his wife. The story eventually shows that, only by first receiving the unconditional love of God can Caleb show unconditional love to the flawed and sinful woman he lives with. It would actually  have been fairly simple for Courageous to do the same thing. Shane Fuller is a character that millions of men would easily connect with, including unbelievers. He is divorced. He wants to be a father to his son, but, as he explains it, he only gets him every other weekend, after his mother has filled his head with her toxic opinions of him. He wants to provide for his son, but almost a third of his paycheck is swallowed by alimony. Shane should have been the lead role of this movie! He could have been the Caleb Holt of Courageous. How can Shane, and other men, be the kind of fathers God wants them to be, despite the obstacles? How can God help them to raise their kids right despite what they have  to deal with? This was a golden opportunity for the Kendricks to win the hearts of their intended audiece. Beating up on men will do nothing to fix the family. Ministering to broken men where they are at will do a lot more.

Sadly, Shane is confined to a small role as the bad cop we’re not supposed to like, and Courageous preaches to the choir. Most of the focus is on Adam, Nathan and Javier, who all have perfect wives, straight out of a Christian fantasy.

Overall, I recommend seeing Courageous. There’s a lot of great moments I didn’t want to spoil here. The fact that I can even disagree with it shows it had more of a brain than most movies. It’s not easy to make a movie that ministers. I still laughed and I was still swept along by the story. It was good to see Christian cinema taking another (mostly) positive step.

Number four at the box office in October of 2011. High-five!

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Hot Chick

Jessica Spencer (Rachel McAdams) is a stuck-up, self-absorbed, cruel little harpie who strings along and breaks the hearts of boys and girls alike (in different ways). She’s exactly the type of girl that makes you think “Boy I hope she wakes up one morning to find that she’s traded bodies with Rob Schneider, and is destined to be chased from her home by her family, maced by her best friend, forced into a fist fight, watch her boyfriend find someone else, and scratch out a living cleaning toilets and mowing yards!” And, just as you’d expect, that’s exactly what happens. Via a ridiculous plot device that I won’t even bother with, Jessica and a male mugger (Schneider) wake up one morning on opposite sides of town, begin their morning urination ritual, and suddenly realize that something is very, very wrong. Hilarity ensues.

No, really, it does. The biggest surprise of The Hot Chick is that it is actually really good. Most of the credit for that has to go to Schneider, as he pulls off one of the toughest acting assignments I’ve ever seen with flying colors. I am not, generally a Schneider fan. I consider his acting sophomoric and distasteful. But it seems he was born to play a teenage girl. No, I mean that as a compliment. Watching Schneider prance, preen, giggle and bat eyes in this movie, you really do forget that he’s acting and he isn’t really a teen chick in the wrong body (at least I … assume he isn’t). I don’t know what Schneider does in his personal time, but he spends a lot of this movie hanging out (so to speak) in tight, pink T-shirts and tight panties, and pillow fighting with Jessica’s BFF’s until it seems almost natural.

Jessica’s best friend (Anna Faris) really wanted to see Jessica’s new … best friend.

Aside from Schneider’s antics, the story is built around Jessica’s quest to get her body back, with the help of a bunch of other girls, once she’s convinced them of her identity, as well as get her boyfriend back. Her boyfriend has been stolen by an equally stuck-up cheerleader from a rival school, and I have to say, there is something very satisfying about watching Schneider head-butt her. There’s something even more satisfying about seeing a rich daddy’s-girl, now stuck in a male body, trying to do manual labour. Probably the funniest scene in the movie is when Jessica (Schneider) enters a men’s room, and finds all the stalls occupied, and has no choice but to use the urinal. She then begins asking other men how to pee standing. (Side note: it’s not like it’s that hard.)

There are a few holes in the plot. It’s interesting that nobody seems to notice Jessica’s missing for a week. Also, her boyfriend, Billy, goes on his own internal journey. This ads some human interest to the plot, but they could have had him turn into a decent guy without having him turn into a total man-gina. All in all though, this is a movie well worth seeing.

 

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Speed

SpeedAdd up all the elements that come together in this movie and it seems destined for failure: A first-time director helming an overblown summer action flick about a bus that can’t slow down or it will blow up, starring the guy who played Ted Logan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the guy who played Harry Dunne from Dumb and Dumber, and a completely unknown actress named Sandra Bullock.  And let’s not forget some of the movies that were competing with Speed for moviegoers’ pocketbooks during the summer of 1994: James Cameron’s True Lies, a little flick from Disney you might have heard of called The Lion King, and let’s not forget a movie about a box of chocolates that blew the doors off the box office.  Yes, it seems Speed was destined for obscurity in the Wal-Mart bargain bin even before it went into production.

And yet, in a feat that defied all expectations, Speed blew into multiplexes with the force of a runaway subway car and took cineplex patrons entirely by surprise.  Jan de Bont’s “Die Hard on a bus” concept is a mix of incredible action setpieces, tight direction, and solid dialog thanks to some script doctoring by Joss Wheedon.  It’s a classic action hero movie we just don’t see anymore, pitting one man against impossible odds and a hilariously insane villain mastermind.  Throw in all kinds of explosions and sassy female lead and you’ve got a recipe for a good old-fashioned summer blockbuster.  And perhaps that’s what makes Speed so darn good: you get exactly what you expect–nothing more, nothing less.

Speed: Sandra Bullock, Keanu Reeves

"Did you get the license plate number of that explosion?" "Whoa."

Things start off exactly as they should: with a tense elevator rescue scene that introduces us to the bad guy Howard Payne (played to the hilt by the late great Dennis Hopper) and the hero Jack Travern (Reeves), and perfectly explains Payne’s bad-guy motivation as clearly as if they were fingerpainted on a piece of posterboard.  Payne wants $3.7 million in cash, and wants it now.  If he doesn’t get it, people will die.  Since the movie poster shows an airborne bus escaping a massive explosion, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the elevator rescue will succeed and the bad guy will continue doing nefarious deeds until he gets his money.  Turns out the very next day, as Reeves is going about his regular-dude business like getting coffee and meeting average friendly LA citizens, Payne sets another plan in motion (har!) involving a busload of passengers that will explode if the bus goes below 50 miles per hour.  And the only one who can save the day?  If I have to tell you, you’re clearly not paying attention.

What follows is a series of increasingly implausible destruction scenes as the bus, driven by regular-chick Annie Porter (Bullock) after the real driver is shot, careens through all manner of urban obstacles like traffic jams, parked cars, road barricades, and even a 50-foot high ramp bridge. Just as crazy as the scenarios are, though, what’s even more amazing is that it all works thanks to Keanu Reeves–it’s like the man genuinely, honestly believes in the character he’s playing. And his utter commitment to this overblown ‘splode-fest actually engages the audience all the more, not to mention the chemistry between him and Bullock, who completely upended the tired stereotype of hapless action movie heroines with her role as the unwitting bus driver.  I don’t know if they got any sort of nomination for best onscreen couple, but they certainly deserved it.

Speed is not to be taken seriously, but it is without a doubt one of the most entertaining popcorn-style action flicks you’ll find.

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Black. White.

From the philanthropist to the aspiring world-conqueror many have written of the value of walking in someone else’s shoes, and with Hollywood makeup, we can come closer than ever before. This fascinating reality show, produced by Ice Cube and R.J. Cutler, debuted in 2006, and never had a second season. I can only assume this is because its ratings weren’t good; a number of critics did pan it, which is too bad. To be sure, Black. White. smacks of being polished, and it’s hard to tell how much of it is true reality caught on film, and how much is staged. It also must be noted that the experiences of six people, forced into a television schedule, don’t exactly qualify as a scientific study. But give Cube and Cutler some credit. This show, unlike many, was an honest attempt to contribute to the public consciousness with a hard look at race relations in America. As you can see by the length of this review, Black. White. succeeds at provoking thought and discussion.

We meet two families of three; a white family, the Wurgels, and a black one, the Sparkses, who have agreed to live in a house together for six weeks. They will probably spend at least three of those weeks in the makeup chair, because for many of their experiences, they will be trading races.  I was genuinely skeptical at first as to whether the makeup would fool people. However, later in the series, our subjects sometimes reveal their identities to people they meet, who are genuinely surprised. It seems the makeup really did do its job. The Wurgel “family” (actually a blended family, containing two professional actors) is composed of step-father Bruno, mother Carman, and daughter Rose. The Sparks family is made up of parents Brian and Renee, who are anxious about their son Nick, who doesn’t show the level of interest in his heritage desired by his parents. One recurring theme of the series is arguments between Nick and Brian about whether racism is something to be concerned about.

Rose Bloomfield/Wurgel

 

Rose in Blackface

A lot of our subjects’ activities in this show are self-directed; they choose what experiences they want to have as the other race, and what experiences they think the other race needs to have. One of the first things Brian does is have Bruno don his black makeup and take him out to walk through a predominantly white neighborhood as two black guys. He tells him to watch for things like people moving to the other side of the street or women grabbing their purses. He adds “you’ll see how it feels when you go someplace and you get slower service and you know it’s ‘cause your black.” Rarely have two men demonstrated more different world views. As they go walking down the street, the dialogue goes something like this:

Brian getting into white makeup.

Brian: Did you see that? Did you see that?

Bruno: What?

Brian: They wouldn’t look at us! Did you see?

Bruno: No, sorry, I didn’t notice

(A minute later) Bruno: Okay, did you see that?

Brian: What?

Bruno: She looked at me! We had, like, three seconds of eye contact.

Brian: No, I didn’t see that.

They enter a store and begin looking at clothes on the racks. Sales people come over to help them. We hear Bruno in a voice-over say “We walked in there and I was helped right away. People were courteous … there was absolutely no difference between the way I’ve been treated as a white man and the way I was treated today as a black man.” We hear Brian in a voice-over say “Bruno thinks the sales people are coming over to help him, but really they’re coming over to size him up.” Remember, however, that this is quite different from what Brian predicted before they went out. He told Bruno “you’ll see how it feels when you go someplace and you get slower service and you know it’s ‘cause your black.” Granted you’re getting a white guy’s perspective from me, but it seems like Brian really wants to see racism on the street and finds a way to do so. If servers serve him quickly, that’s racist, if they take their time, that’s racist; if people look at him, that’s racist, if people don’t look at him, that’s racist; if people get out of his way on the street, that’s racist, if people don’t get out of his way, that’s racist. I find myself wondering if anything could ever happen to Brian that would satisfy him that he wasn’t facing discrimination.

To be fair, Bruno takes Brian on an equally stupid odyssey to a “white” bar as two white guys, at which he attempts to prove to Brian how un-racist white America is. He asks patrons questions like “do you think black people are equal to white people?” and “would you consider marrying a black woman?” getting predictable responses. Having failed to indoctrinate Bruno the way he hoped to, Brian turns his attention to Nick. Nick says that he doesn’t perceive racism.  Brian gives him a series of directives like “Next time you go to the store, just … look around and you might be surprised that your black butt’s being watched.” In six episodes, we never see Brian in white make up after the second episode, except very briefly in episode six. At first, Brian was excited to become white, believing that it would induct him into the privileged class. Later, however, he appears to decide that life is easier as a bitter black man, and focus his efforts on making sure his son grows up as paranoid as he is.

Nick demonstrates the same inclination in his own way. He has to do something for the show most white kids never have to do: suffer through an etiquette class. Let’s face it, there aren’t many facets of main-stream American life that are all white anymore, so Cube and Cutler had to look to the wealthiest of American society to find things for the Sparkses to do. In between sessions, he vents to Rose that he is miserable posing in his white makeup, and that “I just wish I was black right now!” Eventually, Nick tells the class that he is actually black. You can see him relax as soon as people know. Even surrounded by white kids, he’s a lot more comfortable being himself.

Experiences like this serve to not only expose differences in how the races see things, but also differences between the genders. One night, Bruno and Carmen go to a country bar as a black couple. (Let’s face it, that is kind of like poking a hornet’s nest.) Afterward, they report very different experiences. Carmen says she definitely felt like she was viewed with increased suspicion. Bruno says “I was hanging out with the guys at the bar, I was playing pool with them as a black guy … nobody cared.” Perhaps this difference can be explained by what women and men generally want from social interaction. After Rose has spent several days as a black girl, she tells the camera “I’ve managed to pass myself off and be accepted, but I don’t feel like I’ve really connected with any of these black people on a soul level.” This is something no man would ever expect to achieve while disguising himself and pretending to be something he’s not. When a man disguises himself as another race, he’s thinking about pulling off the act so he’s not discovered. If the people he meets treat him with basic courtesy, he’s content. Women go into social settings wanting to form deep relationships (even when they’re lying to everyone about their race), and so they seem to be a lot more aware of racial tension. About two thirds of the way through the series, Carmen, having twice inadvertently offended Renee, breaks down, crying that she “can’t stand having to walk on egg shells all the time. I don’t want any more apologizing for who I am.” Despite the contempt Renee demonstrates for whites throughout the series, in private, she tells the camera about a desire to form a close bond with a white woman. After a couple of episodes, she gives up on Carmen and begins looking elsewhere, eventually forming a friendship with a woman she meets in a scrap-booking club.

Meanwhile, Carmen has given up on Renee and goes into the world looking for a “black friend that can help me connect to the black community.” She eventually meets

Bruno and Carmen at a black church.

talk radio host Deanna. After a few visits, Deanna takes Bruno and Carman around her neighborhood as a mixed couple; Bruno is in his black makeup; Carmen looks white. She takes them through a park where a lot of black guys are hanging around beating on drums. Carmen says in a voice-over that “I definitely had a sense that I was not wanted in that neighborhood, and, gradually emerging, a sense of actual fear for my safety.”

For his part, Bruno says “I’ve felt more tension and perceived more hostility here than I have as a black man anywhere else. That was the most evident display of hate that I’ve experienced.” Deanna explains “That’s because you’re perceived as a black man coming into this black community with a white woman. You’re perceived as a sell out.”

Carmen eventually breaks down crying. Deanna asks her “do you realize this is everyday life for people like me? You can pop in and out in a day, but my skin will never change.” The show seems to be making a point here about how, even in black makeup, white people can’t understand how black people feel, because they can take off the makeup. However, it’s also worth pointing out that, while Carmen looked white, Bruno still looked black. In order to get either of them to feel real racism, Deanna had to take both of them to a black neighborhood. It brings to mind a conversation I once had with a black friend, who was anxious over the fact that his fiancé (now his wife) was white. A bunch of us were hanging out at Village Inn, and he was worried about the crap that his future kids would take from all-black kids if their skin was the wrong shade. In frustration he commented, “Chris Rock is right when he says black people are the most racist people in America. Black people do not like white people, they do not like Asian people, they do not like Native American people … they don’t even like black people that they don’t think are ‘black enough.’”

Black. White. doesn’t exactly generate a lot of optimism for race relations in America. It gets downright painful to watch sometimes, as Bruno, Carmen, Brian and Renee can’t seem to let go of petty offenses. As tempers flare and hatred percolates, one of the surprises is that Rose and Nick become fast friends, even while their parents progress in animosity. I started to wonder if racial problems wouldn’t just disappear if everyone over 20 just left the planet.

The two families actually manage to have some positive interaction in the final episode. As if to apologize for what they’ve put them through, the producers and camera crews back off, and Bruno and Brian begin to shoot hoops in the park. Renee and Carmen go for a nature walk. The tension eases palpably. Brian and Bruno both say that they have reached a mutual respect. Renee says that she has “forgiven” Carmen. Carmen comments “We don’t all have to love each other, but we can respect each other and let each other be.” Maybe that’s the most important lesson of the whole show. Unless and until the races are willing to sacrifice everything that makes them who they are – not entirely desirable – racial consciousness and, therefore, “racism” will probably never just disappear. That’s no reason cross-racial friendships can’t occur (as they often do). But they’re not going to occur through racial reconciliation conferences or lots of “Kumbaya” singing, and certainly not through disguises and shouting matches. They will occur, if at all, the same way all friendships occur: through people simply being themselves and finding things they have in common. Programs like Black. White., even when they have the best of intentions, need to back off and let this happen. It can’t be orchestrated.

In summary, I have to tip my hat to anyone who was involved with Black. White., if only because it could not have been an easy experience to get through, especially for those on camera. It took a lot of guts and patience from our six heroes, and from the makeup department, no doubt. It delivers a powerful, and mostly seemless narrative of a most intruiging (and, as far as I can tell, unprecedented) social experiment. I forced me to spend some time reflecting on things I hadn’t for a while.

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