Cinema Psycho

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Archive for April, 2005

Kung Fu Hustle

Posted by CinemaPsycho on April 27, 2005

Directed by Stephen Chow/written by Stephen Chow, Tsang Kan Cheong, Xin Huo, Chan Man Kung/starring Stephen Chow, Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen, Chi Chung Lam/Sony Pictures Classics

A small-time criminal joins up with a gangster who is harassing citizens of lower-class Pig Sty Alley, only to discover the hero within.

I’ll try to put this in the least fanboyish way possible: Stephen Chow is the motherfucking bomb.

This guy is like Quentin Tarantino and Jackie Chan rolled into one freakishly talented human being. If that sounds like a facetious statement, believe me, it’s not meant that way. He’s the next great martial-arts star and the next great auteur filmmaker.

Shaolin Soccer, Chow’s insanely cool and incredibly enjoyable last film, was the first of his to be released in the United States. Unfortunately, it was released by Miramax, who kept it on the shelf forever, then barely gave it a theatrical release before shuffling it off to DVD. The movie deserved a lot better. The lucky few who’ve bothered to see it understand what I’m talking about.

Thankfully, Kung Fu Hustle is being released by Sony Pictures Classics, mere months after its Chinese run began. It’s playing nationwide. You can go see it, right now, at a theater near you. In other words, time to get on the bandwagon now. Don’t wait to discover this on DVD or cable and smack yourself on the head wondering why you didn’t see it on the big screen. This is too much fun to miss out on.

The pleasures of this movie are so great that I really don’t want to spoil them for you by detailing too much of the story. It’s ostensibly about Sing (Chow), a down-on-his-luck small-time hustler who gets along by scamming people into thinking he’s one of the notorious Axe Gang. They’re the big-time crime syndicate who are feared by most of the populace, and for good reason. When Sing attempts to ply his trade to get free stuff in Pig Sty Alley, the local run-down slum, it attracts the attention of the real Axe Gang members, who try to shake down the residents. Let’s just say that the struggling shopkeepers and landlords of Pig Sty Alley are not quite what they seem.

What Kung Fu Hustle is really about, of course, is Chow paying tribute to the martial-arts heroes of his youth, as well as creating a gleefully eccentric kung-fu slapstick comedy. It’s an inspired combination of classic influences, from old “chop-socky” Hong Kong flicks to Road Runner cartoons to early Hollywood screwball comedies. Chow fuses together elements from these disparate sources to create an anarchic hybrid that somehow feels uniquely his own. There are references here to a lot of other movies, but Kung Fu Hustle doesn’t feel like any other movie. Chow didn’t invent the martial-arts comedy any more than Tarantino invented the gangster film, but his loony, off-the-wall sensibilities aren’t quite like any others I can think of.

The cast is full of Hong Kong martial-arts legends of decades past, now much older but still able to deliver on the action scenes. I wish I were knowledgeable enough to be able to cite these actors’ credits chapter and verse, but I’m not. The important thing is that Chow is. He knows how to use these actors to their full potential, enabling them to give great comic performances as well as awesome, kick-ass fight scenes. There are some real (re)discoveries here, particularly Qiu Yuen as the astoundingly grouchy landlady who will become an instant audience favorite. Even if you don’t know who these actors are (and for the most part, I don’t), they’re incredibly enjoyable to watch. If you never thought you would have fun watching old people engage in combat with each other, well, you really need to see this movie. They’re amazing.

Not that the younger actors don’t acquit themselves well. Chow has a great eye for interesting and unique faces, something that is sorely missed in Hollywood these days when every movie seems to have been cast by a modeling agency. I especially liked Chi Chang Lam, who manages to give a certain dignity to the role of “fat sidekick”. Even the tiniest supporting roles seem to be filled in with people who look like they could actually exist in real life.

And yet there’s a certain air of unreality to the whole movie. It often feels like the events are taking place in “movie world”, where literally anything can happen and nothing has to make any sort of logical sense. There are no rules. Normally I hate that kind of thing, because it often seems like if anything can happen, then nothing that happens really matters. In movies like this, however, that’s just part of the fun. You go with it, and enjoy every minute of it. It may be a live-action cartoon, but it’s a great one.

You’ll know pretty early on whether this film is your type of entertainment, when the dancing Axe Gang leader is introduced. It’s not a full-blown musical number (although that would have fit right in), but it’s one of those things you either respond to or you don’t. Like the musical cues on the soundtrack (which sound to me like they came from old ‘60’s spy movies, but I’m probably wrong about that), you don’t necessarily have to get why it’s cool and funny. You just have to get that it is.

That’s just the kind of movie Kung Fu Hustle is. If you want gritty realism, look elsewhere. It’s not deep stuff, and it doesn’t need to be. This is a “movie movie”, made by someone who’s absolutely drunk on cinema and loves to pass it around. This is a major step forward from a great talent who we’re going to be hearing from a lot in the future. That’s not something I say about every actor/writer/director who comes down the pike. I can’t wait for some video company to get wise and pick up the U.S. rights to Chow’s previous films, so we can all catch up. And I hope that success with American audiences won’t spoil his work the way it has with so many other Asian talents. I hope he keeps making his films in Hong Kong, and doing them his way. The guy’s just too good to get watered down.

I only have one question – wouldn’t that lollipop be kinda nasty by now? (I know, this doesn’t make any sense to you now. Just see the movie.)

**** 4/27/05

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Memento Mori (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on April 26, 2005

Directed and written by Tae-Yong Kim, Kyu-Dong Min/starring Min-sum Kim, Yeh-jin Park, Young-jin Lee/Tartan Asia Extreme

The discovery of a secret diary causes turmoil at a Korean all-girls’ school, leading to supernatural occurrences.

If you’re a fan of Asian films at all, you have to respect what Tartan USA is doing with their Asia Extreme DVD line. Rather than focus on the more heavily hyped genre films coming out of Asian countries, they’ve prospered by mostly picking up more obscure cult items and overlooked gems and giving them strong pushes upon their release. Such is the case with this film, a 1999 South Korean psychodrama that only played film festivals in America until its recent DVD release. It’s long overdue.

To be sure, one can easily see why Memento Mori wasn’t an obvious pickup, even with the voracious appetite for Asian horror these last few years. This is hardly your typical “girl ghost gets revenge on her classmates” movie. The filmmakers defy expectations in just about every possible way, and the result is an exceedingly odd but fascinating piece of work.

The story begins when young, naïve schoolgirl Min-ah (Kim), after apparently spending the night sleeping in the forest, discovers a “shared diary” written by two of her classmates, feminine Hyo-shin (Park), and slightly tomboyish Shi-eun (Lee). The diary is mostly full of pictures, drawings and hidden coded messages, but it’s clearly the work of two people deeply in love. When word of this taboo relationship gets around the strict all-girls’ school they attend, the proverbial shit starts to hit the fan, leading to the suicide of one of the girls. After some strange things happen around the school, Min-ah suspects that the girl’s spirit may be haunting the place and she goes all Veronica to find out the truth of their relationship, using the diary as a starting point to investigate what really happened and why.

Rest assured, nothing in Memento Mori is as conventional as that description. Much of the story is told in flashbacks and dream sequences, with Min-ah discovering most of the evidence purely by accident. It’s also close to an hour before anything even vaguely “scary” happens. Until that point, the film works as a vivid, sharply observed teenage drama, focusing on the tenderness and purity of the girls’ love and the cruelty and derision it provokes from their classmates. Not that they were particularly kind to one another before – if this film proves anything, it’s that young girls can be just as harsh and mean-spirited towards each other as teenage boys are. They make the Mean Girls look like Mildly Annoyed Girls.

But to be fair, their casual cruelty seems like their only respite from a regimented, clinical and deadly dull school system that treats them like cattle. These girls seem to literally have nothing more interesting to do than tear each other apart, verbally and physically. While this is never explicitly stated, it seems like much of their behavior, both positive and negative, rises from sheer boredom and desperation. They don’t have anything else to focus on besides each other.

It’s no wonder that they start to collectively freak out when an already tense situation blows up so dramatically. Paranoia runs wild as the girls suspect it may have been murder, not suicide, and single out someone in particular as the potential killer. Various secrets are revealed, including those of Mr. Goh, their teacher and the only male presence in their lives. As Min-ah gets closer to the truth, the intensity starts to gradually ratchet up until practically the whole school is going batshit crazy.

Sadly, it’s actually a little bit disappointing when the ghost finally appears and starts wreaking havoc. Compared to the brutal viciousness of the girls and the coldly numb atmosphere of the school, the haunting stuff seems a bit silly and overstated. It’s kind of an anticlimax really, almost as if the filmmakers suddenly realized that they were supposed to be making a horror movie and threw in everything but the kitchen sink to make up for the lack of scares early on. The problem is, no amount of hokey ghost-story stuff can possibly be more frightening than watching kids inflict pain on each other.

I have to wonder if the story wouldn’t have been more effective if there really was no ghost, and the movie instead ended with the girls attacking each other, panic-stricken over the possibility of a murderer in their midst. Of course that’s not the movie we have, and what we’ve got is sufficiently fascinating if uneven. Even if it’s only a horror movie in the loosest sense of the word, Memento Mori is chilling stuff. This isn’t a movie for gorehounds or body-counters, and those seeking an exploitative treatment of the lesbian relationship will be severely disappointed. Instead, this is a movie that knows where true horror comes from – the things that people do to each other in everyday life. No cheap scares can possibly be more horrific than that.

Thanks to Tartan Asia Extreme for the screener copy.

***1/2   4/26/05

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Heroic Duo (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on April 26, 2005

Directed by Benny Chan/written by Shun Fai Kwan, Alan Yuen/starring Ekin Cheng, Leon Lai/Tartan Asia Extreme

A tough cop teams up with a disgraced psychologist to track down the master hypnotist responsible for a murder.

Not to be confused with The Heroic Trio, this is a 2003 Hong Kong action-thriller from the director of Gen-X Cops and Gen-Y Cops. No Paul Rudd to be found here though. The tag line on the cover reads, “Hard Boiled and Hard Targets!” Besides possibly being a copyright infringement, this seems to subtly infer that if you like John Woo films, you’ll like this too. I guess they needed something to offset the rather generic English title.

Truthfully, if you like HK action flicks, you probably will find a lot to enjoy about Heroic Duo. It doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, but it does throw a few novel elements into the standard “cops, chases, and explosions” formula.

You’ve got your typical emotionally repressed hardass cop (Cheng), who hasn’t gotten over the death of his wife and throws himself completely into his work. Then you’ve got the forced-upon partner, in this case an imprisoned hypnotherapist (Lai), who helps him “open up” and become more sensitive to his current girlfriend. Of course this all happens in the process of chasing a master hypnotist who made another cop destroy police records and commit murder unknowingly. Don’t you hate when that happens?

The hypnotized cop becomes consumed with guilt (there’s a rather disturbing insinuation about something else he might have done under the influence), and the therapist’s wife and kids get kidnapped by the real bad guy. Conveniently enough, the therapist was trained by the criminal mastermind, who’s a big crime boss, so he knows exactly who’s behind it as soon as hypnosis is suspected. How the therapist ended up working for the police after associating with a gangster is left unexplored, unless I missed something completely. I guess things like that just happen in Hong Kong.

I got the feeling that a lot of the plot was lost in translation, because the whole hypnosis thing is just taken for granted – nobody really questions whether or not someone can be hypnotized against their will. It’s a bit reminiscent of that X-Files episode about “The Pusher”, the guy who could just bend people to his will by giving them “suggestions”. There’s some lip service given to the idea that people with truly strong minds cannot be hypnotized, but this seems to vary depending on the needs of the plot. It’s also not really clear exactly why the therapist committed murder, or why the story needed him to be in prison in the first place – he could have just been a police counselor or something who knew hypnosis. It feels a bit needlessly convoluted at times.

Thankfully, Chan keeps the movie fast-paced and compelling enough that you don’t really care about any of this while watching it. Like most HK cop-thriller product, Heroic Duo is slick and professional, if not particularly original. The hypnosis angle provides enough of a twist that it doesn’t feel exactly like every other one of these movies we’ve seen before. And there’s a rather nifty race-against-time element introduced towards the end that helps maintain interest at a point where you might feel like you’ve had your fill of cop-movie conventions. The end result is not exactly mind-blowing stuff like the best of Woo’s HK films, but it’s a watchable and entertaining genre piece that will appeal to fans of this particular type of movie.

The funny thing about movies like Heroic Duo is how they manage to make the hoariest action-thriller clichés seem fresh in spite of the fact that we’ve seen them done about 10 million times already. Given that Hollywood has pretty much given up on making this kind of movie – apparently their screenwriters have completely run out of variations on the buddy-cop genre – it’s actually kind of refreshing to see this stuff done at all, much less done so well. I don’t think it’s just the novelty of seeing it done by a different country and culture either, as we’ve been bombarded by Hong Kong action flicks in our theaters and especially on video for the last dozen years or so. They just seem to have a way of making the formula work, without seeming tired and uninspired. Maybe they’re just damn good at it.

The characters are handled with a remarkable sensitivity that you would rarely find in one of its American counterparts. We’ve all seen these people before many times, but they’re portrayed so vividly that we don’t really mind seeing them again. Cheng and Lai are both charismatic, interesting actors, and they manage to make us care about their characters’ traumas and love lives even when all we want to see is stuff blowing up. Even the nasty villain is given a backstory and a fatal flaw – his Achilles heel is how he’s incapable of falling in love! Dude, you’re a Hong Kong crime boss. You can buy yourself a girlfriend. Or three. Or seventeen.

All in all, Heroic Duo is not a film that will redefine the action genre, but it’s a fun and enjoyable piece of work that’s worth a Saturday-night rental. Just try not to think about it too much.

Thanks to Tartan Asia Extreme for the screener copy.

*** 4/26/05

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The Amityville Horror

Posted by CinemaPsycho on April 20, 2005

Directed by Andrew Douglas/written by Scott Kosar, based on the book by Jay Anson/starring Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George, Rachel Nichols, Phillip Baker Hall/MGM – Dimension Films

Family moves into haunted house in 1975. Bad things happen.

Wow, MGM finally gets their first #1 hit in years – after they’ve been sold to Sony. Nice irony there. But man, talk about going out with a whimper.

This is, of course, the Michael Bay-produced remake of the 1979 horror flick based on the bestselling nonfiction novel based on a story that was revealed to be a complete hoax. Leave it to Hollywood to scam a whole new generation, eh? I only vaguely remember the original, having seen it once on cable several years ago late at night. Mostly I recall the house, and Rod Steiger covered in flies. The sequels were even less memorable. So I didn’t go in completely against the idea of a remake. Except that horror remakes in general tend to, you know, suck.

OK, so let’s take the remake at face value: the movie opens with a rather distasteful (which is not the same as disturbing) sequence in which we see Ronald DeFeo murder his whole family with a shotgun. Thankfully they cut away while he kills his young sister – it’s OK to show the brutal slaughter of adults and teenagers, after all, but not little kids. That would be wrong. I’m not convinced that we actually needed to watch any of this, and any potential hope of subtlety is completely blown right away. Obviously this is not your father’s Amityville Horror – it’s your strange cousin’s Amityville Horror. The one who likes to blow up small animals with firecrackers.

Anyway, cut to a year later and we meet the Lutz family. They’re led by George (Reynolds), a nice guy who married widow Kathy (George) and apparently has adopted her three children. The Lutzes are relatively lower-middle-class, but in searching for a new house they discover one hell of a bargain. The only catch is that it’s the same house where the DeFeo murders took place. Oh well. No big deal, right?

Naturally, once they move in the weird shit starts going down. The young daughter gets a ghostly playmate, letter magnets on the refrigerator get rearranged (oooh, spooky!) and George’s personality starts to change. The local priest (Hall) gets covered in flies (why flies? Who knows?) and warns Kathy to get the family out. But their weirdest thing that happens is the arrival of the most unbelievably bad babysitter (Nichols) in recorded history. She’s scarier than any of the damn ghosts.

The main problem with the remake is that everything happens too quickly. There’s no sense of gradual build-up or even tension. We’re never given enough time to wonder what’s going to happen to the Lutzes or how the house’s demons are going to manifest themselves. As soon as the family moves in, the place starts going apeshit crazy. Then the movie cuts from Day 1 to Day 15 to Day 28, apparently condensing all of the events that happened during their stay in the interest of keeping the running time short. So I guess nothing happened on, say, Day 12 or 23?

A good haunted-house movie needs a strong sense of atmosphere. It should feel like the air is thick with dread and foreboding. Here, the house doesn’t seem to take on any personality or “life” of its own. We’re supposed to think that the house itself is some kind of sentient being, but it never comes across that way. It’s just the house where the ghosts happen to live. Director Douglas spends so much effort on showing us freaky, quick-cut images of the spirits (using effects that were novel when House on Haunted Hill did them – 6 years ago) that the house itself takes a backseat. That’s kind of a shame, because they had a real opportunity here to make a distinctively creepy haunted house, and they blew it.

The remake’s saving grace is the cast, who manage to keep the film grounded even when all the supernatural stuff becomes ludicrous and fairly boring. Reynolds is surprisingly good as both the easygoing George and the angry, paranoid, homicidal dickhead he becomes once possessed. It’s not his fault that there’s no real transition between the two, and that George goes from zero to maniac in what seems like 60 seconds. I’m willing to bet that some of his performance ended up on the cutting room floor. Melissa George is appropriately sympathetic as Kathy, even if she looks way too young (and toned) to be the mother of a teenage child. Phillip Baker Hall is serviceable, if relatively wasted, as the film’s Steiger counterpart, and the child actors are fairly likable and believable. Nichols provides the comic high point of the movie, even if she seems to have been transplanted from an episode of The O.C.

It’s not that this Amityville is a bad film, so much as it seems an unnecessary one. It may have been a bad choice to remake from the beginning, because like the producers’ lackluster Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, there’s really only so much you can do with this material. Since it’s supposedly “based on a true story”, you can’t really change the setting or the time period – it can’t be truly modernized. All they’ve done is essentially made the original movie over again, with updated camera and editing tricks that only serve to make the film less effective and interesting.

I think the best remakes are the ones that take the original concepts and make them relevant to modern times. Carpenter’s The Thing, Cronenberg’s The Fly, both remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – they all took old ideas and made something new and fresh out of them. None of those remakes are stuck in the ‘50’s – they all have something to say about the times in which they were made. Say what you will about it, but the Dawn of the Dead remake was the only recent horror do-over to even attempt this, and that’s why it was such a blast if you were willing to go with it (though it still can’t hold a candle to Romero’s original – did anyone actually think it would?). Whether you liked it or not, at least it felt like a movie about 2004, not a movie about 1979 made in 2004.

The problem with Bay’s remakes is that he and his handpicked directors are simply trying to make the exact same movie again, changing just enough of the details that they can claim they “added something new”. They’re trying to recapture the aesthetic of ‘70’s horror without understanding what made those films work. The great ‘70’s horror flicks came out of a post-Vietnam sensibility that can’t be duplicated in times of political correctness and network-sanitized war. They were made by directors working outside the Hollywood mainstream, with low budgets that forced them to be creative. Guys like Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven didn’t have major studios backing them up and giving them anything they wanted back then. But on the plus side, they didn’t have to play by the standard Hollywood rules either. (Yes, this applies to Amityville as well, because the original was made by noted low-budget schlockmeisters American International Pictures.) You just can’t re-create that sensibility by working within the system, with major studios and big budgets and name actors. It was a movement brought to fruition in a specific time and place, and you can’t just bring it back any more than you can bring back blaxploitation or Italian neorealism by simply buying up the titles and doing them all over again.

The effect of these remakes is that they effectively become to the originals what Lenny Kravitz is to John Lennon. Hey, I like Lenny Kravitz, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes I feel like he’s straining so hard to recapture the past that he’s forgotten that there’s a lot to be said for the present. The original Amityville may not hold up so well now, but it’s a name that still means something to people, because it captured people’s imagination. For whatever reason, it got people talking and thinking about the world they lived in. It became part of pop culture because it struck a nerve somewhere in our collective psyche. The possibilities of the supernatural, and the potential existence of evil were impressed upon us through it and other films like it. This was groundbreaking, frightening stuff at the time. For better or worse, it made an impact.

The new Amityville doesn’t try to make that kind of impact on its modern audience. It merely regurgitates what was scary in 1979, rather than redefine the concept to fit what’s scary now. That’s the elemental problem. Yes, these remakes make money, more out of curiosity and name-brand recognition than anything else. But they feel more like relics than the original films. They’re not ‘70’s horror films – they’re modern horror films about the ‘70’s, done with the requisite convenient 20/20 hindsight. Give the guys sideburns, throw flowery dresses on the women, put up a bunch of KISS posters, and wham, you’ve got the ‘70’s! Wrong. There’s so much about that decade that these new movies miss completely. That’s bad enough. But what’s worse is that these films don’t tell us anything about the world we live in today.

Until Hollywood finally figures out what scares people in 2005, they’ll be stuck churning out pale imitations like this one. They’re weak retreads of something that worked a long time ago, and nothing more than that. They say that everything old eventually becomes new again, and that’s obviously true. But they also say that the past can be a nice place to visit. You just can’t live there.

**   4/20/05

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Saharah

Posted by CinemaPsycho on April 12, 2005

Directed by Breck Eisner/Screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer, John C. Richards, James V. Hart, based on a novel by Clive Cussler/starring Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, Rainn Wilson, Delroy Lindo, William H. Macy/Paramount Pictures – Bristol Bay Productions

Two treasure hunters searching for a lost Civil War ship get mixed up with a doctor trying to help contain an African plague. Fights, chases and explosions ensue.

I was in a pretty good mood the day I saw this, because I found out that a certain favorite TV show of mine had been renewed for a second season (and that’s the last time I bring it up, I swear). So I was practically walking on UPN sunshine and was even willing to kick a few bucks Paramount’s way, even for a film that was directed by Michael Eisner’s son and financed by the head of Regal Cinemas. My review may be slightly charitable, but even with all that goodwill, I can’t fully recommend Sahara.

I really wanted to like this thing too. It’s been awhile since there’s been a really good old-fashioned action-adventure movie like this. And it looks like it’s still going to be awhile.

Sahara is one of those movies that pretty much fade from memory as soon as the closing credits start to roll. As you stroll out of the theater, you remember that a lot of stuff happened, but damn if you can explain it in any kind of coherent form. A lot of things got blown up, there were a few funny lines and several character actors you really liked in other movies appeared in it. You can vaguely recall being mildly entertained by it, but by the time you get home, it’s a struggle to remember any details. Other than the fact that Penelope Cruz looked incredibly hot. That’s a little tough to forget.

Wooderson – I mean, McConaughey plays the unfortunately named Dirk Pitt, a treasure hunter searching for a lost Civil War battleship. Oh, we’ve covered that already. Moving on. Zahn plays his loyal sidekick, the unfortunately named Al Giordino, and pretty much acts like you expect Steve Zahn to act. Plus he looks nothing like an Al Giordino should conceivably look, but I guess those are the names in the novel, so they had to use them. The film will probably outrage the fans of the novel 99 different ways anyway, so I don’t see how it matters, but whatever.

Somehow in the process of searching for this battleship, Dirk and Al get enlisted to take two World Health Organization doctors to Mali (geez, I’m surprised I remembered that much), including Eva Rojas (Cruz), who quickly becomes enlisted as Dirk’s love interest. After all, they’re the two most physically attractive people in the movie, what do you expect? She’s not going to get the hots for William H. Macy, although that might have made for a more interesting movie.

Anyway, it turns out there’s a plague going on that traces back to Mali, and for some reason the crooked government is trying to cover it up. One would think it would be difficult to contain something like that – all somebody has to do is call CNN and it’s all over the news. There I go, using my brain again. Silly me. Naturally, the government’s hired goons don’t want Eva and company to spill the beans, so they try to kill her, and Dirk has to save her, blah blah blah. Then Dirk and Al’s requisite techie-geek sidekick (would he be the Assistant Sidekick?), played by Wilson (Arthur from Six Feet Under), figures out that the plague will eventually spread to North America, so it really has to be stopped. I mean, nothing’s important unless it’s about to happen to us, right? But of course the American Embassy people don’t believe him, because the American Embassy never believes anybody in movies like this. If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that the American Embassy will never be much help to anyone who’s in trouble in a foreign country. I can’t wait until somebody in one of these movies finally says, “don’t bother going to the American Embassy, they’re useless.”

Then there’s a bunch of stuff about toxic waste and solar panels and Delroy Lindo shows up as a CIA guy who tells Macy that the government can’t do anything to help, then of course he does something to help. There’s also a corrupt French businessman who’s in cahoots with the corrupt Mali chieftain, or warlord, or whatever he is. It seems like there’s always a corrupt French businessman, or German or Swedish or Canadian or what have you. This is where my mind started to wander, so forgive me if none of this makes any particular sense. Trust me, it doesn’t in the movie either.

So right at the moment where you start to wonder, “what does all this have to do with a lost Civil War battleship?” wait about half an hour and you’ll finally discover that the source of the plague comes from the same place the battleship is grounded! Go figure. Just when you might have thought that Dirk and Al could discover that there are more important things in the world than running around searching for lost treasure, the movie decides to reward them for aiding the world’s sexiest humanitarian. Because stopping a plague just isn’t worth it unless there’s gold involved, right?

Another curious thing about this flick is how much ‘70’s rock is on the soundtrack, including such overplayed gems as “We’re an American Band”, “Sweet Home Alabama” and of course, “Magic Carpet Ride.” I’m sure if they had time to work in “Slow Ride” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hootchie-Koo”, they would have. I guess this is supposed to add to the movie’s loosey-goosey, good-times vibe, but frankly it just makes the whole enterprise seem like it’s stuck in 1975. Seriously, I grew up on these songs, and it’s time to give them a rest already. Why do they always pick the songs that everyone is sick to death of? Was this movie partially financed by Clear Channel or something? And what the hell do these tunes have to do with anything that happens in this movie? Think about it – they’re in the middle of an exotic African country, and they’re playing “Sweet Home Alabama”? That’s like taking a trip to Paris just to eat dinner at McDonalds. I don’t get it. The soundtrack should be released by K-Tel exclusively on 8-track tapes, under the name Classic Gold. (And if anybody under the age of 35 actually gets that joke, you should be writing for That ‘70’s Show. They need you.)

The real problem with Sahara is its inability to find a consistent tone. The movie keeps trying to juxtapose the jokey Hope-and-Crosby antics of Dirk and Al with the deadly seriousness of Eva’s mission. It’s fun for awhile, then it’s serious for awhile, then – hey, are we supposed to be having fun here or not? I’m sorry, but African plagues, government corruption and toxic waste do not make for rollicking good times. It’s like Beyond Borders rewritten as a Cheech and Chong comedy. I can appreciate that they were trying to add some gravity to the situation, but the result is kinda like putting Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Ethiopia. “Oops – what a predicament we’re in now! When’s dinner time?” This is apparently a movie for those select few who thought Hotel Rwanda would’ve been better with some slapstick and stunts. What were they thinking?

But I’m probably making Sahara sound worse than it actually is. Truthfully, if you can ignore the geopolitical implications of the plot (as the filmmakers apparently did), this isn’t a completely unpleasant way to spend a couple of hours. The filmmakers obviously wish they were making an Indiana Jones movie, that’s plain to see. But while Eisner seems a competent enough director, his action scenes lack the kind of wild inspiration and creativity that the Indy and Bond movies have. Those movies are compulsively rewatchable not just because they’re chock-full of action, but because of the awe-inspiring inventiveness of their action scenes. Eisner seems content to simply recycle set pieces from better movies just to keep things moving along. There’s nothing here that we haven’t seen countless times before, or that doesn’t feel like we’ve seen it countless times before. Honestly, if I see one more movie where the hero is hanging by his fingers off the edge of a tall building, and the villain walks over and steps on them…I will have officially seen that cliché 10 million times. And that’s about 9 million times too many.

Of course the plot is ridiculous – you come to expect that from this kind of movie. The problem is that it’s not particularly compelling. McConaughey and Zahn are likable, talented actors (no, really), and Cruz is extremely watchable. But too often they seem like actors in search of characters in search of a movie. I’ve never read any of the Dirk Pitt novels, but I really can’t imagine that they read the way this movie plays. Dirk and Al have a nice camaraderie going, but they’re a little bit too smirky and in-jokey for the material. At any point you expect McConaughey to break out the bongos and a joint for each of the cast members. They’re enjoyable enough to watch – they just seem like they belong in a completely different movie. Maybe if the script had focused on the treasure-hunting aspects (which is what whoever cut the trailers and TV ads seem to think this thing is about), the movie would have turned out to be the fun, free-spirited lark of an adventure story that these characters merit. I can’t say I would mind seeing Dirk and Al in more adventures – just let them do what they do, and don’t try to make them something they’re not.

It’s not that Sahara isn’t watchable enough, because it is. It just doesn’t add up to much more than that. It’s a shame really, because it seems like they had all the right ingredients for a fun flick here. They just forgot to include the fun.

**1/2 4/12/05

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