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Sunday, Mar 9, 2008


Historians hate it when movies take liberties with the archeological truth. From the homoerotic overkill of something like 300, which got blasted for turning Spartans into studly supermodels, to the recent reaming given to The Other Boleyn Girl for Harlequin-ing the reign of Henry VIII, the past gets perverted a great deal of the time. Now, no one is expecting a 100% accurate depiction of events long ago, and the only engaging documentary of the time would be one actually made in said era (Morgan Spurlock presents Renaissance Me!). So in essence, we have to take the good with the bad, the dramatic license with the downright ludicrous (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, anyone?).


Now comes Roland Emmerich’s Neanderthal nonsense 10,000 BC. It mixes and matches its historic perspective in a mishmash of anthropology and inanity. Aside from the fact that several phases of human existence seem to be living within a few days walk of each other, we get beasts and byplay from several significant epochs. Clearly, this pulp popcorn movie is not meant to be an educational trek through time. But one has to wonder what real lessons could be learned from studying the stupidity onscreen. After a weekend of rumination, here are some suggestions for the clear cut instruction it provides. In many cases, the educational elements are more intriguing than the entertainment - or lack thereof:



Great ‘White’ Messiahs Figure Prominently in All Prehistoric Myth


You’d think that only your standard Caucasian clan of the cave bear would worship a bearded, long haired proto-human with magical powers. But back before the actual Christ, almost every wilderness tribe supposedly had a fable focusing on a great white savior. No matter the skin color, tribal make-up, or hunter/gatherer mentality, seems only Anglos can be angels in the prehistoric world.



It Really Was a Territorial Tower of Babel


Language is often called the original prejudice. Even today, it remains a barrier to better understanding and international accord. But back at the dawn of man, people really didn’t communicate with each other, and for good reason - they couldn’t. With broken English the regional standard, few were fluent in either gobbledygook or mumbo jumbo. Some could swing a few words of claptrap. Unintelligible gibberish, on the other hand, remained the true mother tongue.



Reincarnation Rules!


It’s always sad when you lose a loved one. It’s even worse when her death is meant as a symbolic gesture of karmic adjustment and potential narrative melodrama. But there’s no real need to worry - old people’s souls are here! That’s right, as long as the proper cosmic connections are made, and the running time has reached the right point, a dying old coot will supply your dead love with a new infusion of life-giving spirit.



Saber-Toothed Tigers Understand Situational Ethics


So you’re a legendary feline, mouth filled with an impressive pair of torso-tearing incisors. You’re trapped in a hole that is rapidly filling up, flash flood style, with water. You’re about to die when - Eureka! - you’re saved by a waifish caveman. Do you - (a) eat the caveman? (b) eat the caveman? or (c) ignore your eons of instinctual behavior and spare the human, only to later become his benefactor and bodyguard?



Mammoths/ Mastodons Can Really Haul Ass


Wooly and elephantine, few would view these oversized behemoths as Triple Crown contenders. But, apparently, if you get a group of hygienically challenged prairie dwellers with spears made from your relatives chasing after you, it’s Preakness time! That’s right, these two ton terrors are rather fleet of foot when scrawny, hungry Cro-Magnons come calling. Even better, they’ll go Lord of the Rings Mumak on you if given half a chance.



Religious Superstitution = an Empire’s Undoing


So, you’ve mastered engineering, using ancient technology and science to develop complex construction systems. You’re learning is so advanced that you’ve also mastered both land and sea. You even have domain over man and his animal brethren. Yet the minute some gal comes along with a symbolic scar on her hand, you get all gooey. In fact, your false beliefs are so great you instantly find yourself vulnerable to complete destruction. And the value of your faith is what again?



Blue Eyes = Bad Omens


From the most primitive biped to the least Aryan Nazi, Topaz peepers can only mean one thing - troubles a’ brewin’. Though we take it for granted nowadays, and tend to celebrate those who’ve been “blessed” with Cobalt coloration, the indigenous peoples of several eons ago went bonkers upon seeing such an optically gifted individual. Apparently, it has something to do with the rarity of the condition, the startling appearance, and the overall concept of dreaminess.



Oversized Ostrich Buzzards Were the Velociraptros of 10,000 BC


Though they looked like a cornball version of John Dante’s demons from Twilight Zone: The Movie, the gigantic dino-birds of ages part actually resemble their supposed genetic ancestry. They stalk and hunt their prey in high foliage fashion, popping out at predetermined internals to give anyone watching a complimentary jolt. They use their beaks for ripping and shredding. They can climb great heights with little or no predisposition toward same. And they squawk like Hell.



Megalomaniacal Godlike Figures Are Way Too Fashion Conscious


When you’re trying to dictate the direction of your domain’s inhabitants - both natural born and “invited” - it’s imperative that you keep the references to Jean-Paul Gautier and Tarsem to a minimum. You should look like a ruler, a visionary leader of all creatures great and small, not some foreign filmmaker’s fever dream. Covering oneself from head to toe with what looks like a teenage girl’s canopy bed drape is hilarious, not heroic…or haute couture.
 


Sloppy CGI Spectacle Still Fills Seats


Audiences never learn, do they? Even when the reviews indicate that a film will be nothing more than a semi-involving example of cheesy effects and stilted dialogue, they still plunk down their dosh and turn those styles. 10,000 BC raked in over $3,500 per year over the 7 March weekend, taking the number one spot away from position pretenders Raven Simone (College Road Trip) and Jeremy Statham (The Bank Job). Apparently, there’s an equally exponential amount of suckers born every minute.


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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008


For the weekend beginning 7 March, here are the films in focus:


The Bank Job [rating: 7]


(The Bank Job is) efficient without being pedestrian, tweaking the suspense here and there to add the proper amount of intrigue to the elements.


During its heyday, the heist genre was a quick witted assemblage of action and antics. It represented a combination of smarts and savoir faire, breaking and entering tricks matched to jet set cocktail party wits. In recent years, the mechanics have taken over the mirth, turning many of these tales into high tech actioners with low levels of actual fun. Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job doesn’t change that formula. In fact, it frequently embraces the serious side of its material much more than is necessary. But when you’re dealing with a supposedly true story, involving the loftiest levels of British Intelligence and the Royal Family itself, humor is hard to find. read full review…


Sputnik Mania [rating: 7]


...when it plays to our sense of selective memory and fills in the blanks on issues long forgotten, Sputnik Mania is masterful.


No one remembers Vantage. It crashed and burned on the launch pad. A few may recall Explorer, our first legitimate unmanned orbital mission. But mention the name Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that literally shocked the world, and you’ll get all kinds of learned and intransigent responses. In 1957, the US seemed like heaven on earth. Post war prosperity was creating a considerable Middle Class, while an unprecedented military strength suggested a sense of infallibility.


But when Russia launched the 185 lb metal sphere into the ionosphere, it signaled the start of two major international confrontations - the Cold War and the Space Race. According to David Hoffman in his excellent archival documentary Sputnik Mania, no other action would push the globe closer to the brink of nuclear annihilation than this peaceful scientific folly to explore the unknown mysteries of our galaxy.read full review…


10,000 BC [rating: 4]


As a series of set pieces looking for any available fable to keep it afloat, 10,000 BC is really nothing more than computing power and implausibility.


When you see the name Roland Emmerich on a film’s credits, you expect a little cheese. After all, the cheddar-fied flavor of wildly uneven spectacles like Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow mandate such an evaluation. But no one can prepare you for the ungodly Gouda of 10,000 BC. An amalgamation of much better movies, riffing on offerings as diverse as Quest for Fire, Apocalypto, The Ten Commandments, and any number of creaky ancient myths, Emmerich has finally hit the Monterey Jack-pot. This is a film so completely devoid of creative invention that it entertains by rote, using CG-eye candy and narrative familiarity to barely get by.read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief


Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day [rating: 6]


What do you get when you cross the stiff upper lip British perseverance of a pre-WWII London with the classic American screwball comedy? Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day might just be the answer. How two seemingly incongruous elements like the mannered and the madcap fit into the 2008 movie landscape is an issue that Indian filmmaker Bharat Nalluri handles quite well. He takes the tale of a prudish nanny (Frances McDormand) with a tendency toward unemployment, and finds a natural foil in a ditzy Yank actress (Amy Adams) juggling three different gentlemen. Together, the pair serpentines through social faux paxs, personal indiscretions, and soul-searching moments of the heart. Miss Pettigrew - as a persona and a film - is far from perfect. There’s a laid back quality to the narrative that really needs a breakneck pacing to stay potent. And Adams remains Hollywood’s go-to gal for unnatural perkiness. But Nalluri finds a halfway decent balance between his incompatible approaches, resulting in a likeable, if often lumbering, Golden Age piffle.


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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008


When you see the name Roland Emmerich on a film’s credits, you expect a little cheese. After all, the cheddar-fied flavor of wildly uneven spectacles like Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow mandate such an evaluation. But no one can prepare you for the ungodly Gouda of 10,000 BC. An amalgamation of much better movies, riffing on offerings as diverse as Quest for Fire, Apocalypto, The Ten Commandments, and any number of creaky ancient myths, Emmerich has finally hit the Monterey Jack-pot. This is a film so completely devoid of creative invention that it entertains by rote, using CG-eye candy and narrative familiarity to barely get by.


Somewhere in a mixed up pre-history, the father of D’Leh leaves his hunter/gatherer tribe and sets out for unknown territories. This labels him a coward, and his son an outcast. When a blue eyed girl named Evolet shows up, village shaman Old Mother predicts doom. The proposed wooly mammoth hunt will not go well, and even worse, ‘four legged demons’ will arrive and decimate the clan. Sure enough, an invading horde of evildoers arrives and takes all available inhabitants hostage. They will be marched across the empty wilderness and then used as slave labor for a sitting ‘god’ of a legendary domain known as ‘the head of the snake.’ Along with elder Tic-Tic, and a few remaining men, D’Leh builds up his courage and follows the kidnappers, rallying the remaining tribes along the way. He then plans to take on the imposing figure building an empire off the backs of some very unwilling captives, and rescue Evolet.


As a series of set pieces looking for any available fable to keep it afloat, 10,000 BC is really nothing more than computing power and implausibility. It is cinema that strains to be relevant while failing every test of scope or significance. Emmerich, who has made chicken nuggets out of pullet poo in the past (Independence Day remains a relatively guilty but undeniable pleasure) never fully realizes his aims here, instead squandering potential moments of power for ambiguous folklore, prophetic convenience, and a true sense of scattered purpose.


There is very little that makes sense, from the reason our hero can’t carry the sacred white spear, the entire Saber-toothed Tiger sequence (which plays out like a sloppy Aesop version of Hercules and the Lion) to the last act almost reveal of our villain. And then there’s the malarkey of the “magical” ending. In many ways, 10,000 BC feels like a badly constructed parable, the ever-present narrator (Omar Sharif) getting many of the facts wrong and more or less making it up along the way.


The references to other movies are so readily apparent you can practically smell them wafting off the screen. Emmerich must have been moved by Mel Gibson’s Mayan bloodbath. He’s incorporated many of that film’s white hat/black hat simplicity and foreign language oddness. Instead of going all native, however, this director gets mixed linguistics, meaning some characters speak English, while others use their own words with (or without) translation. Nothing inspires drama quicker than waiting for a day player to explain what a supporting hero just said. Sometimes, Emmerich supplies subtitles. At other moments, the words supposedly have no meaning. When it tries for significance, it sinks. When it simply goes along lumbering under bitmap versions of ballyhoo, it’s mildly endearing.


Better casting definitely could have helped this film. 10,000 BC relies far too readily on pretty faces with empty magnetism to power its purpose, with even the more unusual and unknown foreign actors rendered generic by Emmerich’s ham-fisted touch. Our leads could easily be lumped into the “anyone from the OC” category, and we never care about the outcome of our lover’s dilemma. There’s a real sense of situational contrivance here, bad things easily circumvented by plot point coincidence or storyline self-adjustment. You can actually feel the screenwriters reacting, seeing a potential pitfall and then cooking up a clunky way out. Your unconscious viewership shifts so often under the weight of so many unexplained issues and phony motion picture happenstance that you get woozy.


While no one goes into this kind of movie expecting absolute authenticity and scientific accuracy, some of the taken liberties are downright insane. There’s a moment where pissed-off dino-birds go Jurassic Park on our traveling warriors, and the ancient priests who serve the villainous uber God look like rejects from a drag version of 300 by way of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Emmerich pitches everything so high, so vast if clearly vacant, that we get a strange feeling of entertainment vertigo. It’s as if, at any moment, the massive holes in 10,000 BC will open up and swallow us up. Unlike past attempts to revive dead genres - Gladiator and the sword and sandal peplum, Lord of the Rings and the entire fantasy film category - there is no way this movie would resurrect the caveman picture. It’s not engaging or original enough.


In the end, 10,000 BC fails because its unwieldy parts can come together to create an intriguing whole. Emmerich constantly goes for the money shot, making F/X rule where people should actually count. But since he’s gotten away with it before - The Day After Tomorrow is mostly event driven - this is one director who figures that such a strategy will always work. It doesn’t. Unless you like your fromage on the incredibly stinky and stale side, kitsch or camp value overwhelmed by a Limburger level of ludicrousness, then avoid this fossilized flop. Roland Emmerich can make decent disposable entertainment. This is one effort that’s more of a throwaway than a treat.



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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008


No one remembers Vantage. It crashed and burned on the launch pad. A few may recall Explorer, our first legitimate unmanned orbital mission. But mention the name Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that literally shocked the world, and you’ll get all kinds of learned and intransigent responses. In 1957, the US seemed like heaven on earth. Post war prosperity was creating a considerable Middle Class, while an unprecedented military strength suggested a sense of infallibility.


But when Russia launched the 185 lb metal sphere into the ionosphere, it signaled the start of two major international confrontations - the Cold War and the Space Race. According to David Hoffman in his excellent archival documentary Sputnik Mania, no other action would push the globe closer to the brink of nuclear annihilation than this peaceful scientific folly to explore the unknown mysteries of our galaxy.


We begin with the event itself, the launch ‘heard’ all over the planet. On 4 October, the secret project successfully beat the Americans at their own progressive game. Within weeks, President Eisenhower was challenged as to the superpower’s response. In between, the media went wild, frenzied over the event and its significance. Equally insightful was the Russians continued confidence that they would be the leaders in space exploration. But soon, the military began suggesting something far more sinister - Sputnik was merely a decoy, a chance for the USSR to test the effectiveness of its Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (or ICBMs). Previously, the US felt confident that its chief enemy couldn’t reach its borders with an H-bomb. Sputnik’s delivery system instantly changed that perspective.


From this point forward, Hoffman builds a convincing case for outrageous reactions, political subterfuge, and eventual acquiescence by Eisenhower. Before long, he is caving to demands both inside and outside the Oval Office. He greenlights Vantage, only to see it fail. He’s suspicious of Explorer because of its Army connection and the input of ex-Nazi rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun. Success leads to short term elation. But when the Soviets amplify the stakes by putting a dog named Laika into orbit, it appeared the US would never catch up. Luckily, the canine suicide mission, turned into a PR nightmare for the Communist nation.


There are lots of insightful moments like this in Sputnik Mania. While some may find it nothing more than an inflated History Channel special, there is a definite message beneath Hoffman’s fact parade. The key point made by this movie is that, for the most part, the satellite’s launch was wildly misinterpreted. While intelligence suggested a nuclear capability, all signs pointed to a purely scientific design. The other intriguing element is the back and forth beneath both leaders - Eisenhower in the West and Nikita Khrushchev in the East. At a summit near the end of the film, both men discover that the post-Sputnik Arms Race was more of a generals and majors idea than a clear mandate from the Commanders in Chief.


With access to a wealth of stunning stock footage and a talking head approach from those who were on the sidelines during the growing conflict, we get a wonderful overall picture of the times and temperament. The information on Vantage and Explorer is eye opening, as these American attempts at besting the Soviets are frequently forgotten in the situation’s mythos. There is also an Atomic Café style sequence where propaganda films and other media maelstroms are exposed for the short-sighted misinformation they were. Certainly, some of Hoffman’s choices are odd (pro-Communist rants fro Khrushchev’s son, comedian Robert Klein discussing civil defense dog tags) and there are moments of planned overkill (the notion that, in 1958 alone, Russia and the US detonated a nuclear weapon once every three DAYS! ). But there are also revelatory incidents, like the accidental bombing of a South Carolina city (a nuke came loose from an overhead plane and struck the town without exploding).


When it stays in this arena, when it plays to our sense of selective memory and fills in the blanks on issues long forgotten, Sputnik Mania is masterful. But just like the title, which seems a tad twee for the material, Hoffman tends to add unnecessary satire to the mix. Sure, the clips from A-bomb era movies are fun, but they tend to diminish the impact of the actual truth. Also, there are times when a surreal sense of inadvertent hero worship unfurls. When he appears indecisive and ill-prepared to respond to Sputnik, Eisenhower is viewed as a fool. But the minute he makes space a “peaceful” proposition - including the last minute stunt of Project SCORE and the championing of NASA - he’s seen as almost saintly.


It’s a weird juxtaposition, and argues for the difficult balancing act that any director must maintain. On the one hand, there is a desire to view this all as ridiculous, to see the struggle between two mighty nations for some proposed Star Wars scuffle in space to play like Buck Rogers gone potty. Yet some of these confrontations are laughable, legitimate fears exaggerated out of a lack of information and a sense of sudden morality. MAD - or mutual assured destruction - is never mentioned outright, but it is clear that the massive build-up of arms in the year after Sputnik may have actually saved the world from a nuclear holocaust.


Still, there is a lot of chest pounding and hand wringing here, the feigned nobility of the many boy’s rocket clubs that grew out of the era matched against the passionate animal lovers who challenged Russia about purposefully killing their space dog. Yet we buy most of it, if only because we believe so strongly in the storyline. Just like the attacks on 9/11, Sputnik reshaped the American mindset in a single foreign act. Responses, naturally, would be all over the map. Whoever breached the heavens first was more or less destined to determine the fate of mankind - if only for a little while. Sputnik Mania argues that, while the Soviets started the fire, the US clearly fanned the flames. Luckily, both sides came to their senses before it was too late.



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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008


During its heyday, the heist genre was a quick witted assemblage of action and antics. It represented a combination of smarts and savoir faire, breaking and entering tricks matched to jet set cocktail party wits. In recent years, the mechanics have taken over the mirth, turning many of these tales into high tech actioners with low levels of actual fun. Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job doesn’t change that formula. In fact, it frequently embraces the serious side of its material much more than is necessary. But when you’re dealing with a supposedly true story, involving the loftiest levels of British Intelligence and the Royal Family itself, humor is hard to find.


Terry Leather is a scrappy London car dealer, his gambling problems placing both his business and his marriage in deep, deep trouble. When an old flame named Martine Love turns up on his stoop, he’s open to her somewhat surreal suggestion. She wants Terry to put together a crew and rob a bank. She will handle all the details. He just needs to find the manpower. Set up in an adjoining shop, the plan is to tunnel into the vault and rob it. Whatever Terry and the boys get, they can keep. Martine is after a specific safety deposit box. Turns out, a Black Militant group with ties to London’s underground pornography trade has compromising pictures of one of the British royals. Their leader is using the snaps to keep out of jail. But the heist uncovers more than Terry, Martine, and government intelligence want to know. As the main instigator of the crime, even the Crown could be compromised.


As with all ‘based on a true story’ narratives, the events in The Bank Job have to be taken with a small grain of cinematic salt. In essence, what we are getting is a thirty year old account from a supposed participant in this crime, claiming that the highest levels of UK intelligence staged a robbery to protect the image of Princess Margaret. If we are to believe the facts presented, the compromising images of the noblewoman in steamy sexual congress would destroy the Monarchy (proving, once again, that this really is the early ‘70s). Equally suspect is the notion that a street hood like Terry Leather - name changed to protect the ‘guilty’, or so the pre-credits screen card reads - could literally outsmart MI5, powerful mobsters, shady radicals, and his own character issues to make this all work.


Oddly enough, the heist is not the most compelling part of this film. The set up takes a bit to build, since Donaldson clearly wants to establish character and tone here. There is a nice squalid London vibe, a real sense of time and place. And the actors make good with the limited material they are given. Jason Statham is once again the balding British bulldog with an ever present muzzle and a head butting approach to problem solving. Saffron Burroughs is very believable as the aging model turned drug mule, forced into the service of the government thanks to a boyfriend in the Agency and a taste for cocaine. As suave flesh peddler Lew Vogel, David Suchet provides the perfect combination of sleaze and sensibility. And Daniel Mays leaves a large impression as Dave, one of Terry’s accomplices.


But weak links also abound - and not just in the performance pool. Peter De Jersey’s black radical Michael X is nearly comic in his chest-puffing arrogance. The entire subplot involving another secret agent (a hippy-dippy white girl) working within his group seems senseless in both its support of the story and its finale’s brutality. Also odd is the other main narrative - the potential impact of some additional scandalous photos on high placed British officials. It makes sense in the long run, especially when you consider the criminal element the movie is dealing in, but it frequently comes across like a bad joke. It’s like a punchline without a point. Of course, the era defines such reactions. We are so much savvier in our post-modern cynicism. But that doesn’t mean it helps the movie.


Still, Donaldson’s direction guides us through the rough spots. He’s efficient without being pedestrian, tweaking the suspense here and there to add the proper amount of intrigue to the elements. The screenplay also strikes an interesting balance between crime and punishment. We want to see Terry and his blokes succeed, if only because these thieves are the most jovial lot on the screen. But we are constantly reminded that their felonious acts don’t often pay, and on a couple of occasions, a character’s fate seems unduly harsh. Donaldson does tie it all up in the end, and we feel a sense of satisfaction with the way things play out. But The Bank Job tends to remain an epic shorn of its scope. If Martin Scorsese were behind the lens, he’d have us at “allo”. Instead, everything stays a small little bit of relatively unknown British history.


Indeed, before the gag order turned the media labeled “Walkie Talkie Robbery” (a ham radio operator overheard signals being sent between Terry and his outside lookout) into a myth, there was substantial buzz about this incident. Why no one ever attempted a fully fictional adaptation of the facts seems strange - as does the arrival of this so-called ‘insider’ version. In part, the movie works because it’s offering us a previously squelched story dealing with inherently engaging material. But The Bank Job could be so much more. Sadly, Donaldson doesn’t strive for same.


 


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