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by Bill Gibron

30 Aug 2009


If we are to believe the ecologists and global warming doomsayers, Planet Earth is living on very borrowed time indeed. It seems like, every other day, a new portent of possible Armageddon comes screeching down the mass media pipeline. While there’s no doubt we live in perilous times, our selfish sense of entitlement resulting in the systematic destruction of our natural resources, the opposition argues that nature is resilient. With lumbering heart attack logic, they figure what doesn’t kill it will only make it stronger. Sadly, that’s just not the case, as the brilliant BBC documentary on the subject clearly demonstrated. Repackaged by Disneynature into a dazzling 90 minute motion picture microcosm, the images argue for what’s at stake, and why we’re foolish to believe it can fend for itself.

Earth attempts to give narrative structure to what was, originally, a sprawling epic adventure. It takes the story of a mother polar bear and her two cubs, a pack of elephants, and a baby humpback whale and her parent, and places them with a setting of substantial wildlife wonder. There are sequences here that will shock you with their beauty. There are also moments that will move you with their blatantly manipulative tug. This is not to say that Earth purposely plays on our sympathies to gain our attention, but there’s no denying the impact of seeing an animal suffer, or watching as a predator picks out and takes down its prey. Some of the images are burned into out collective memory, a cheetah chasing a gazelle part of any natural order lexicon. But thanks to the usual approaches taken by the BBC photographers, what could have been rote becomes undeniable brilliant.

Up front, it has to be said that “streamlining” the storylines here to serve a March with the Penguins like purpose feels a bit disingenuous, but Disneynature definitely knows how to tap into an audience’s inner guilt. With James Earl Jones intoning the narratives often dire consequences (he replaced Patrick Stewart who gave the UK version its gravitas) we instantly sympathize with the various everyday events that occur as part of basic animal instinct. Thanks to the awe-inspiring visuals, including aerial footage unmatched in the history of the genre, we get God’s own point of view on the proceeds, a presence lording over the landscape while creation does its difficult, often deadly dance.

The mere scope of Earth is without measure - and it was purposefully planned that way. In the interesting extras that come with the new Blu-ray release, we learn that this was a mammoth undertaking. It was more than four years in the filming with literally hundreds of cameramen and videographers roaming every continent on the planet. As the extent to which some shots were achieved - swimming in whale-filled waters, circling packs of caribou in a two person hot air balloon - is explained and illustrated, we recognize the magnitude of such an endeavor. Indeed, even in this truncated form, Earth offers a sensational summary of our interstellar home that ridiculous in its rarity and refinement. As a result, the cloying sense to some of the storytelling is all but forgiven.

In a work with dozens of defining moments, a few still stand out - the bears making their way, semi-successfully, across a quickly thawing ice field, flocks of birds blanketing the sky with their immense numbers, lions attacking a big bull elephant, monkeys making their way through a shallow rain forest bayou. Indeed, at every turn, Earth finds a way to stun you with the ways of wildlife. Sure, there are some horrific sights as well, especially when a group of sea lions are set upon by a pack of ravenous sharks, but with the help of Jones and a relatively blood free framework, our well founded fears are calmed.

If Earth has a downside, and it rarely does from a feature standpoint, its size. No, not the immensity of the enterprise or the breadth of material covered. When you come to learn that this is merely the cinematic tip of the iceberg, and hour and a half of a more than a dozen hours of material, you yearn for what’s missing. You wonder what other elements directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield had in store and which one’s Disneynature sought to exploit. As for the company’s continuing concern in the area, Earth Day 2010 will see them release Oceans, a similarly styled effort about the bodies that take up over 75% of the planet’s surface. Helmed by French filmmakers Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud it promises to open our eyes to the unseen world sitting just below the water’s welcoming surface.

Borrowed or not, contrived or completely organic, Earth still manages to inspire. It takes the standard visuals that have defined our view of Mother Nature and reinvigorates them with new technology and fresh perspectives. The Blu-ray is absolutely jaw-dropping, the 1080p 1.78:1 high definition transfer capturing the flawlessly executed pictures perfectly. In fact, it looks so faultless that you have to remind yourself you’re watching a movie, and not just gazing out of some celestial window, watching the world go by.

Though it may be much for little kids and will give parents pause over the amount of “realism” involved, Earth remains a powerful, highly recommended experience. As entertaining as it is alarming, this defining documentary will have you wondering about the fate of this complex third rock from the sun. It would be a shame to lose something as undeniable special as this.

by Bill Gibron

30 Aug 2009


Clichés work. Granted, they are stock, trite, and cheap, but if they didn’t provide the kind of guaranteed instantaneous success a writer or filmmaker is looking for, they wouldn’t be considered a narrative chestnut, now would they? These stereotypes often contain a nugget of truth but approach such revelations in the most shorthanded, shortsighted way possible. Using them can be lazy or legitimate, depending on the outcome.  All of which highlights the pros - and obvious cons - of Bring It On: Fight to the Finish. Representing the fifth (that’s right FIFTH) effort in this loosely linked franchise, there’s nothing but formula and forced archetypes here. Along with what seems like a never-ending supply of ‘dope’ dance sequences, what we wind up with is something pat and predictable, but fairly fun anyway.

Her royal chica-ness, Lina Cruz, is all discombobulated. Her waitress mom has just remarried, landing a very rich Malibu hubby, and she’s about to leave her East LA hood. Naturally, the mama-sitas that make up her main cheer crew - Gloria and Treyvonetta - are muy p.o.‘ed. Before she knows it, she’s a snarky self-important fish in a pond filled with arrogant Caucasian witches. While stepsister Skyler tries to teach her the ropes of her new exclusive high school, Lina just wants to pout and hook back up with her homies. Not even the interested eye of basketball jock Evan can turn her haughty head. Under duress, she agrees to join the sorry school cheerleading squad, where she remains mostly unmotivated until she runs into Avery - reigning queen bee and Spirit Competition champion. Desperate to beat the biz-nitch, she calls on her old friends to bring her new team to life, with the hope of being good enough to enter the upcoming cheerleading contest.

Funny, fresh, and incredibly forced, Bring It On: Fight to the Finish should make many a daydreaming tween/teen happy. While parents will be perturbed by the suggestion that school is merely a conduit for excessive amounts of rump shaking, adolescents will probably adore this contrived combination of wish fulfillment, upward mobility, and pure punk’d retribution. Yes, everything builds to a final dance off with the good guys giving the over the top baddies a run for their routines. Yes, the whole “suddenly rich” angle reeks of dishonesty and race-based class struggling. Certainly actress Christina Milan was hired because she’s got snake-like hips and a likeable street cred cuteness. But none of this makes the movie inventive or exciting. You simply have to go with its mechanical flow and hope that the makers don’t muck things up. 

Luckily, director Bille Woodruff puts his music video training to good use as he swings the camera around the otherwise uninspired choreography. Unlike the real cheerleading squads who offer nothing but precision, presence, and perfect synchronization, the cast here can’t quite “bring it” all together. If you look closely in the crowd, you’ll see dance literate extras who clearly graduated sometime in the Clinton Administration. They help the leads look good, if not completely competent. Equally decent is the script from Elana Song (Bring It On: In It to Win It) and Alyson Fouse (both In It to Win It and Bring It On: All or Nothing). They understand this material and pepper the dialogue with lots of clever cut downs. There is a tad too much ham-fisted hookiness, and the cheesy “cheer” lingo gets old quickly, but at least they keep things moving.

Of course, Bring It On: Fight to the Finish is not the kind of movie you come looking to for logic. After all, Lina gets her across the tracks pals into the Malibu school so easily that you’re certain it will come back to bite the babe (it does). Similarly, the last act “revelation” that anybody can be a member of an All Star team makes the middle section histrionics all the more pointless. Perhaps the biggest flaw in the film is wicked washout Avery. She is the very definition of one dimensional, never given more to her mean girl personality than a squint and a finger snap. Actress Rachele Brooke Smith tries to bring something deeper to the role, but it never arrives. At least she could relish being odious. Instead, you imagine a single well placed criticism would have her caving like a member of the chess club.

Still, you have to appreciate the attempted energy. For a film that runs a whopping 103 minutes (did we really need the street party, the Rodeo Drive dance, AND the Boys/Girls Club music montage???) there is never a truly dull moment. Granted, we never buy the Lina-Evan hook-up, especially since Cody Longo has little chemistry with Ms. Milian and that makes their snuggle scenes a tad tiring and the wannabe “wigger” jokes are offensive. As long as Woodruff works his magic and keeps the music slammin’, something about this otherwise routine film finds a way to work (the DVD dishes some backstage dirt and a few deleted scenes, but nothing mandatory).

Since there is no need to connect each sequel to each other, or to the original film from nine years ago, the Bring It On series can continue on ad infinitum. Hollywood is always churning out the attempted teen idol type, doe-eyed talent failing to realize their revolving door flash in the pan status. As long as said machine keeps cranking out the film fodder, agreeable attempts like Bring It On: Fight to the Finish will discover a direct to DVD lifeline. And while it may seem like they’ve uncovered every last one of those hoary old tried and true axioms Bring It On needn’t worry. There are certainly hundreds of clichés and racial/social stereotypes left to explore - and here’s guessing they’ll try to tap into each and every one of them.

by Bill Gibron

29 Aug 2009


Frank Frazetta and Ralph Bakshi were two highly influential icons from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The former, through his paintings and cover illustrations, literally redefined the look and feel of the fantasy genre. The latter, both beloved and controversial, took cartooning in a more complex and adult direction, formulating such cult classics as Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Wizards. As the ‘80s began, the popularity of the sword and sorcery pulp category was at an all time high, and Bakshi wanted to continue exploring the realm. While his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings had proven problematic, bringing Frazetta’s beef and cheesecake conceits to life seemed like a perfect post-American Pop challenge. Oddly enough, it would be the last film the animator would director for nearly a decade.

At its core, Fire and Ice is really nothing more than a battle between elemental good and evil, hot and cold representing each dramatic conceit, respectively. In the allegorical tale, evil Queen Juliana has raised her son Nekron to be a master of the dark arts. Through pure manipulation of will, he can control a massive glacier, sending it roaring across the fertile lands of this unnamed world. Destroying everything in his path, our villain uses an army of Neanderthal like “dogs” to do the rest of his unholy bidding. In the volcanic region of Firekeep, King Jarol is worried. Unless some manner of peace treaty can be reached with the advancing forces, his dominion is doomed. Nekron demands absolute subservience, and when Jarol refuses, the wicked warlord kidnaps his daughter, Princess Teegra. It is up to a drifter named Larn and his partner/protector Darkwolf to step in and save the day.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way right up front - those who hoped that Blue Underground would release both Fire and Ice and the previous two disc DVD bonus feature, the brilliant Frazetta documentary Painting with Fire, as part of this otherwise fantastic format upgrade will be gravely disappointed. True, the main feature is still offered here in all its uncut glory, and the Blu-ray version looks amazing. It’s colorful, detailed, and showcases Bakshi’s unique approach to animation brilliantly. But that 2003 in-depth exploration at the life and work of the storyline’s source and artistic inspiration (Frazetta did collaborate on the project helping with character and costume design) is no longer part of the packaging. Sadly, it turns a previous must-own into something of a casual curiosity.

Indeed, there will be many who take one look at Fire and Ice, compare it to the current crop of computer-aided animated films, and wonder why anyone would champion such a visually awkward approach. At this point in his career, Bakshi was exploring the possibilities of rotoscoping, an old process by which live action footage was “drawn over” to create a more realistic sense of cartoon movement. Having embraced the technique in full for his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous trilogy (that film covers about the first book and a half), he would literally hire actors, put them through their paces on film, and then turn said material over the animators. Painstaking and problematic, rotoscoping produced what Bakshi called “painting in motion.” In retrospect, it was a perfect match with Frazetta’s epic illustrations.

Yet there is also something clunky and incomplete about the look, a lack of fluidity and finesse that will leave some fans feeling cold. Bakshi does everything he can to liven up the proceedings, giving characters like Nekron the full blown psycho bad guy treatment. There is also a heavy undercurrent of sexuality and machismo present, the characters truly connected to their physicality and form. The one thing you can definitely say about Fire and Ice is that Bakshi and his illustrators really emphasize the functionality of form, putting all aspects of the human (and other) body to expert use.

In addition, the narrative does contain enough twists and turns to keep us engaged. Certainly there are times when Larn’s lack of skill and Teegra’s tendency toward always being recaptured grows old. We like a little variety in our plotting, to see our characters grow, learn, and improve. Here, without Darkwolf’s constant interference, we’d have nothing more than happenstance and failure. Toward the end, when Nekron lets the full force of his evil come alive, Fire and Ice definitely finds its footing. The stand-off is handled very well indeed and the acting really emphasizes what’s at stake. While lacking any known names, the voice work here is strong overall, Bakshi getting the best out of everyone involved.

Still, Fire and Ice will feel like a slight disappointment, a blood and bodice filled misfire that occasionally looks like a corrupted episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Indeed, rotoscoping limits what can be done within the narrative. If Bakshi didn’t film it, it couldn’t be illustrated, and while rare hand drawn elements like the Dragonhawks provide a moment of artistic freedom, everything else is truly locked into the approach. Indeed, one of the reasons Bakshi remains a well-regarded if marginalized figure within the world of animation is his rebellious desire to do things in ways both inventive and aggravating. He’s been accused of being a racist and a revolutionary. Luckily, he’s on hand here to guide a fairly informative commentary track, as well as a Q&A on working with Frazetta. There’s also an old Making-of featurette which explains the rotoscoping process more fully.

Newcomers to Bakshi’s world will probably be less than impressed with what goes on here. Yet in some ways, Fire and Ice and the way in which the film was made highlights the growing changes in animation throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. It many ways, it can be seen as a precursor to the mainstream acceptance of anime, the Japanese conceit that combines detailed realism with visionary ambition to accentuate the plotting and character performance. While Frazetta is a minor player here (made even more so by the Blu-ray’s lack of Painting with Fire), his imprint remains strong within Bakshi’s bravado turns.

While Fire and Ice is less of a classic and more of a oddity, it definitely delivers what it promises. Sadly, it would signal the last full length animated feature the filmmaker would ever produce. Bakshi would go on to make the Gabriel Byrne/Brad Pitt/Kim Basinger live action combo Cool World, but he has yet to return to the artform that made him famous. Like Frazetta, he seems locked into a time when FM radio provided a potent backdrop for misspent youth and adolescent angst. No matter how serious the connection to speculative fiction or fantasy, both men will be remembered for the nature of their artistry. Fire and Ice is a perfect example of why. 

by Bill Gibron

26 Aug 2009


The Simpsons was never a solo effort, no matter the recognition and raves creator Matt Groening has earned from the animated sitcom’s phenomenal success. The venerable Sunday night favorite, a Fox fixture since the days of The Cosby Show, Reaganomics, and the laser disc, is really the combined result of dozens of talented individuals. If one element underperforms - writing, directing, voice acting, drawing - everything suffers. It’s one of the reasons that the show’s continued creativity (and commercial appeal) is such an amazing thing. Every week, these funny business facets must be in place, properly calibrated via collaboration, or America’s favorite family becomes nothing more than a bunch of bozos.

While it would be nice if the studio stepped up the DVD release schedule and gave us more Simpsons more often (at this rate, any Blu-ray release schedule will more than likely outlast the format), it’s safe to say that no other digital presentation is this concerned about giving each aesthetic cog in their multifaceted machine a chance to be heard. The Season 12 set, just released on 18 August, continues in the tradition. Each of the brilliant 21 episodes offered is peppered with commentary tracks, outtakes, deleted scenes, animatics, and other added content that really explains the entire Simpsons process. From who pitches what idea to how some sequences get completely rewritten, the men and women as part of the process are more than happy to share their experience. Clearly, they love what they are working on.

And so do we. Sure, the naysayers love to argue about which portions of the Simpsons’ protracted popularity are better than others, but said grousing is never really a question of quality. It’s more like nostalgia wrapped in a need to play contrarian to the current cultural whims (call it “Armond White Syndrome”). If The Simpsons: Season 12 were representative of any other series, the messageboards would be lighting up with unqualified praise. It’s just impossible for any TV show to maintain such a high level of hilarity - and yet, surreal or not, stepping outside the typical suburban family dynamic the show started with, this ‘version’ is still a satiric gem. It even acknowledges the constant criticism by giving the show’s leading cynic, Comic Book Guy, his own love story themed installment…and calling it “Worst Episode Ever”. 

Elsewhere, Season 12 sees the family visiting Kenya (“Simpson Safari”), helping neighbor Ned Flanders build a religious-based theme park in honor of his dead wife (“We’re Going to Praiseland”) and picking up the ‘sport of kings’ (“Tennis the Menace”). Family patriarch Homer is up to his ‘everything old is new again’ tricks, starting a gossip website (“The Computer Wore Menace Shoes), a day care center (“Children of a Lesser Clod”) and a hunger strike to keep the local baseball team from moving (“Hungry, Hungry Homer”). He also becomes a ‘prank monkey’ for Mr. Burns (“Homer vs. Dignity”) and learns why he’s so stupid (“HomЯ”) while wife Marge vouches for a prisoner with a penchant for art (“Pokey Mom”). Lisa takes local ecological matters into her own eight year old hands (“Lisa the Treehugger”) while uncovering the secret to bullies (“Bye, Bye Nerdie”), Bart learns the art of grifting from his grandfather (“The Great Money Caper:”) and joins a boy band (“New Kids on the Blecch”).

In between, Krusty becomes an accidental dad (“Insane Clown Poppy”), the students of Springfield Elementary get trapped inside the school during a blizzard (“Skinner’s Sense of Snow”), the city splits over differing area codes (“A Tale of Two Springfields”) and Sideshow Bob returns to wreck even more havoc on the tiny town (“Day of the Jackanapes”). There is also the traditional Halloween show, offering a spectral Homer, evil fairy tale characters, and killer dolphins, as a take on traditional folklore offering Tall Tales revolving around Paul Bunyon, Johnny Appleseed, and Mark Twain’s Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer. The gaggle of guest stars include rock band The Who, comedian Kathy Griffin, Drew Barrymore, Stephen King, Patrick McGoohan, Tom Savini, Venus and Serena Williams, and mega-music stars (at least, at the time) N’Sync.

As a nearly eight hour experience straight through (473 commercial free minutes, to be exact) The Simpsons’ 12th Season is stunning. It is loaded with classic lines (“more mouth-watering monkeys”) and moments that rank right up there with the series’ best. Certainly, some of the storylines go off on tangents that are purposeful middle fingers to the audience (Grandpa’s early funeral arrangements turns into a new tennis court for the back yard???) and unless Al Jean’s working on the story, the simplistic days of pure familial interaction are long gone. Some could successfully argue that at this stage in the show’s popularity, the minds behind the mayhem thought they could get away with pretty much anything. The commentary tracks included here argue for concept taken to bizarre extremes, while others were purposefully forgotten and tossed aside as being way too “out there”.

It’s also interesting to hear the creators revisit these shows some eight years after they were made. They all pre-date 9/11, which leads to some interesting insights, and every time a butt crack is show, everyone explains how Fox has since mandated no more nudity. The Simpsons Movie is mentioned, as are the graduates of the Springfield School of Animation Hard Knocks who have gone on to work at places like Pixar. In many ways, this DVD set is more than just a keepsake of a classic comedy. It’s a document of a specific time and place, as well as a history lesson surrounded by inside jokes and personal jabs. Certain no-shows - Nancy Cartwright, Harry Shearer, longtime writer John Schwartzwelder - always spike curiosity. One can definitely support their desire to stay silent. But with everyone (and in some cases, their droll 14 year old son) joining it, their absence seems odd.

Even with the MIA members of the Simpsons’ camp, the DVD of Season 12 is sensational, loaded with laughs, insights, unexpected treats and much, much more. Of the installments offered, more than a couple stand out. “Tale of Two Springfields” does a great job of illustrating the show’s hidden class subtext, while “Homer vs. Dignity” is a delicious take on the classic comic novel The Magic Christian. “Skinner’s Sense of Snow” is loaded with memorable moments (“Di di Mao, Seymour, di di mao!) while “New Kids” has some of the best fake pop songs ever conceived for a TV show. In between hobo sponge baths and dancing Texans, there is something here for everyone. And the best thing about The Simpsons - as long as they maintain the group effort in all they do, they can go on as long as they want. Even halfway through their unplanned legacy, the show is still great.

by Bill Gibron

23 Aug 2009


Two years ago, films about the War in Iraq were all the rage - almost literally. Somewhere along the long creative line between idea and greenlight, filmmakers and their supporting studios decided to turn our dedicated men and women in uniform into sad psychological freaks, their post-traumatic time in the Middle East a catalyst for everything from self-destruction and mental illness to out and out serial murder. Turning soldiers into villains may work when it’s the Nazis, or the Viet Cong, but few members of the Red, White, and Blue fraternity want to see their armed forces armed and dangerous - outside of a combat zone, that is. You can see the turn in this year’s celebrated The Hurt Locker. There, cockiness and commitment are channeled in ways that result in more suspenseful heroics and less blood-splattering horrors.

It’s the same with a smaller entry from the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, American Son. Starring Nick Cannon as a 19 year old Marine on 96 hours of leave before heading overseas, this is another examination of the war’s effect that’s reflective, not reactive. Instead of turning this small, simple attempt at individual import into a grand, grating political statement, writer Eric Schmid and director Neil Abramson keep things closed and personal - and for the most part, it works. Sure, there are characters that we don’t quite connect with, and the core love story seems pat and poorly defined, but at least we aren’t witnessing another jarhead on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Indeed, American Son is one of the few modern takes on the material that never once apologizes for its warrior-in-waiting.

When Mike Holland gets the bad news - his company is shipping out to Iraq almost immediately - he hops a bus and heads back home to Bakersfield. He has 96 hours of R&R before he is deployed and he wants to make the most of it. During the trip, he runs into recent high school graduate Cristina. She is taken by his swagger and his strength. He instantly falls for her innocence and sweetness. Once back in his old neighborhood, Mike realizes that little has changed. His father is still struggling, his Mom working way too hard to care for his sister and new non-committal step-dad. Even worse, his older brother is lost in a world of drugs, a deadly domain that also seems to be sucking in best buddy Jake. As he attempts to connect with Cristina, the upcoming journey into battle hangs over his head. Mike enlisted to challenge himself. He didn’t know the war would be fought both at home and abroad.

American Son is a calm, contemplative movie, an attempt to use little moments and revelations to suggest bigger, more meaningful issues. It’s not out to wave the flag and force feed us jaded patriotic jingoism, nor is it a bleeding heart denouncement of the young people taking up the mantle for an otherwise ungrateful nation. Instead, Mike’s inner journey, his hatred of his home life and the possibility of purity with Cristina take center stage - sometimes, to the film’s detriment. It’s almost as if Schmid and Abramson are afraid of the family and ethnic dynamic at work. Race is never mentioned, even with Tom Sizemore as a deadbeat step-father and Matt O’Leary as a cliché-ridden suburban ‘gansta’. It’s refreshing not to hear the black/white issues rehashed, even if Cristina’s family has their own inferred black/brown one. 

But it would have been nice for the film to explore what’s actually going on in Mike’s life, especially since it’s the foundation for why he joined up in the first place. Chi McBride shows up for a few scenes, playing the absentee biological father who no longer seems connected to his kids. When he takes Mike out to look for his doped up older sibling, we sense a wealth of unspoken issues between the two. Yet said history is reduced to a single garage scene set-up with our hero proclaiming “I’m not you” in standard son rebellion mode. Similarly, Mike appeared to be the only kid of color in a group of hard-partying, rap-loving white boys. While it’s obvious the Marines have changed him (“Semper Fi” and all), why he hung out with this bunch of inebriated losers in the first place is almost unfathomable.

Indeed, Mike is so noble, so seemingly centered with his eye on the prize that very little that goes on around him seems to have an effect. Cannon, whose crafty smile appears too casual to be hiding any real angst, gets a couple of emotion breakdowns, but without any conversational follow-up, we’re not sure what he’s worried about. There is a scene with Jay Hernandez as a recently returned vet with a missing leg, but for the most part, the possibility of dying 5000 miles away in some desert Hell hole barely gets a mention. Of course, it’s all part of Abramson’s plan to avoid the epic to focus on the smaller details. But American Son is almost too languid to make this stylistic choice work. We need to feel the film building to something, not just spinning its cinematic wheels as time ticks down.

Then there is the core relationship between Mike and Cristina. It’s hard to see an attraction beyond the physical, and when the two get together, it’s the usual sexual stand-offs and maneuvers. We can understand why she might be willing to jeopardize her future and fall for this boy - he’s confident, polite, and easy going. But beyond the curves and coy innocence, Cristina herself is a cipher. All we really know about her is that she has a strict Hispanic family and that she wants to go to college. That’s not a lot to hang your major plot points on. While Cannon and actress Melonie Diaz have a decent chemistry, the automatic affection is one of the film’s weaker elements. Even with Abramson and his producers on hand for a detailed DVD audio commentary, we get little insight into this couple.

The rest of the digital package is equally oblique. The Making-of material is more behind the scenes shenanigans and struggles than perspective, and the deleted scenes suggest a different, more direct kind of movie. In fact, what one takes away from American Son is a sense of caution. Instead of getting into the sadness and psychological trauma Mike might feel, it’s all about stoicism and inner strength - and in some ways, that’s invigorating. Sure, the movie ends on an ambiguous note, some situations resolved, others left raw and unhealed, but for the most part, Abramson plays it safe. When compared to other Iraq-themed stories of late, that’s a welcome change of pace. For the particular characters and circumstances here, however, a little more complexity would have turned something good into something great. 

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