Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

I AM LEGEND [dir. Francis Lawrence]

Richard Matheson should have never written his now classic genre novel I Am Legend. Over the four decades since its release, great names in horror (Vincent Price) and mainstream cinema (Charleton Heston) have tried to bring the book to life. In the case of the Italian made The Last Man on Earth, Price had to deal with poor production values and budgetary concerns. And Heston’s Omega Man tried too hard to be faithful to both the creature community as well as standard ‘70s speculation. Now comes Will Smith, Mr. Summer Blockbuster, trying to establish a new seasonal shilling post with his winter waste of an adaptation. Scribbled by that talentless hack Akiva Goldsman and directed with little flair for the epic by Constantine‘s Francis Lawrence, what wants to be a potent post-apocalyptic shocker ends up as bereft of energy as the deserted New York streets depicted.

The year is 2012. A cancer cure based on the measles has mutated, wiping out 90% of the Earth’s population. Those who did not die have turned into blood craving creatures, adverse to sunlight and primal in their brutality. The last supposed survivor is Dr. Robert Neville. Along with his German Sheppard Sam, he’s stayed behind in an abandoned New York City in hopes of finding a cure for the remaining monsters. He spends his days foraging for food and trying to contact anyone else still alive. He spends his nights barricaded in his house, avoiding the horrifying beings outside. One day, he discovers something frightening - the fiends are no longer acting instinctually. Instead, they appear to be thinking, determining the best way to get at Neville - even if it means their own destruction.

I Am Legend is a depressing experience. For everything it gets right, dozens of things go horribly, horribly wrong. About as faithful to Richard Matheson’s novel as I, Robot was to the work of Isaac Asimov, this pointless exercise in production design strives to be the most understated blockbuster in the history of the format. Sadly, it fails to realize that there already is a category for this kind of film - it’s called the ‘lackluster’. Smith’s star power might guarantee tickets and fans in the seats, and he does hold the screen with a desperate charisma that’s hard to challenge. But when you come to a post-apocalyptic thriller, you expect solid sci-fi and considered cinematic chills. Sadly, we are only partially satisfied.

Though it tends to look like a backlot gone to seed, the digital rendering of Manhattan into a gloomy ghost town is very effective. The quarantined buildings, aging shredded plastic drifting in the breeze, look remarkably real, and when Smith interacts with famed facades (Union Station, Times Square) we get a feeling of grandeur and scope. Lawrence does a good job in these moments, making up for times when the script stifles his efforts, and there’s one particular sequence where Neville cases his dog into a horrific hive of evil that exemplifies what I Am Legend could have been. But then the movie shifts over into Cast Away mode, and we’re stuck with another superstar talking to mannequins.

Indeed, the foremost problem with the film is the lack of intrigue. Since we don’t see the actual destruction of New York (flashbacks fill in some blanks, most dealing with how Neville lost his family) or the nature of the monster’s terror, we are left without the necessary context to create suspense. Even worse, the occasional scares are limited to the standard horror film histrionics - the sudden appearance of deer, the trailer highlighted arrival of a lion. For a narrative wanting to work on a much more subtle, slow burn nature of fear, these jolts feel forced and completely calculated.

Even worse, the movie has to manipulate our feelings by sinking to animal endangerment as a means of mining emotion. Since Smith is given little to do except weep and look despondent, it’s up to his sidekick to provide the pathos. Even worse, when a last act twist triples the population, lame ideas about religion, destiny, and faith come crashing into the mix, making the movie even more scattered than it needed to be. With the unexceptional CGI used to render everything outside Neville’s domain (the various wildlife, as well as the creatures, look sloppy and second tier) and the failure to come up with a satisfying finale, I Am Legend plays like 80 minute of set-up in service of 10 minutes of mindless mediocrity.

While fans have often complained about Price and Heston’s efforts, one thing about previous versions of Legend are crystal clear - Matheson’s main themes were mostly respected. Here, Goldsman and fellow scribe Mark Protosevich toss out 90% of the novel, and instead appear to remake 28 Days Later by inserting albino zombies lacking anything resembling a personality or purpose. There is no real interaction between the two sides - Smith does some doctoring stuff on the fiends, but that’s about it. Gone are the confrontations where semi-salient beings discuss their issues with our hero. Instead, we get stupid sequences of Neville ‘renting’ DVDs and mimicking the dopey dialogue of Shrek.

Even worse, we really don’t care about Neville’s plight. Since we are unaware of the danger, unsure of how he’s managed for over three years without a great deal of “only in the movies” luck, and fail to fully experience the devastation that he has witnessed (both literal and personal), we wind up with enigmatic visions that offer nothing but art department air balls. Neville’s methodical daily routine is only interesting once. After that, it becomes an illustrated guide to the amateur survivalist. The backdrop looks great, but it’s never really explored. There are dozens of unanswered scientific questions (why can’t the monsters just wear lots of protective clothing before venturing out? why aren’t deer and lions affected?) as well as issues involving basic human nature (why didn’t Neville simply sail away, or conduct his research somewhere else?)

It all adds up to a movie that’s more puzzling than evocative. Smith can still carry almost any concept, but he has to work overtime to get this mess to gel. Lawrence is even less guilty, since he builds a decent playset out of some horribly hackneyed screenplay parts. What could have been compelling, if done right, ends up looking great but feeling very, very hollow inside. For those hoping that the third time (or if you count off title rip-offs, forth) would be the charm, you’d better be ready for a dire disappoint. The only place this movie is legendary is in its own feeble mindset. 

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Thursday, Dec 6, 2007

Sidney Lumet has made some of the greatest films of the modern era, stellar works with titles like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. He’s also hacked his way through some undeniable garbage including The Morning After, A Stranger Among Us, and the god awful Gloria remake. With his last significant film being the uneven Vin Diesel vehicle Find Me Guilty, many believed his best days were behind him. After all, at 83, the one time master of the TV drama had come a long way from the medium’s Golden Age. Bowing out gracefully was obviously not in the cards—until now. Even if he never makes another film, Lumet has relit his fading limelight with the amazing thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Fragmented and ferocious, it’s one of the best efforts of his often uneven career.

It all begins with a botched robbery. The tiny Mom & Pop Hanson family jewelry store is hit one fateful morning, the thief taking everything he can get his hands on, including the life of loveable co-owner Nanette. Luckily, she plugged the perpetrator before he could get away. The loss of their matron devastates the Hansom clan—or at least, that’s how it seems. Father Charles becomes obsessed with finding out why his store—and wife—were targeted, while siblings Andy, Hank, and Katherine are distraught. What no one knows, however, is that the burglary was masterminded by the two brothers. Andy has been stealing from his job, and using the money to indulge in all manner of perversions. Hank’s failed marriage has landed him in debt, missing child support payments hanging over his head like a dark cloud of guilt. The notion of robbing their parents’ small store seemed like the easy way to solve all their problems. But desperation never leads to flawless execution, and before long, the crime complicates matters in ways no one, not even the conspirators, could imagine. 

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is kinetic. It’s dynamite laced with electricity. It’s a perfectly played puzzle that’s final images make for an astoundingly satisfying statement. It’s about greed and the lack of money, morality and the lack of ethics, love and the lack of commitment. It takes standard human foibles and amplifies them to the stuff of glorified Greek tragedy. With amazing performances, pitch perfect direction, and a story that crackles with flawless mechanical timing, we wind up with another stellar example of that solid suspense subgenre—the dark double cross. In a year that’s seen the equally exceptional Gone Baby Gone and No Country for Old Men, Lumet’s return to glory stands right along side them. It’s depressing and daring, showing that even six decades in, this heralded director is not about to go softly into that good night.

This is a movie about desperation, pure and simple. Andy, the cocksure older brother, is desperate to get his life in order. He’s been stealing from his employer. He’s been blowing the money on drugs and male prostitutes. He’s convinced his wife is onto his numerous excuses about their finances and his free time. If he can talk his younger brother Hank into knocking off their parents pride and joy—a strip mall jewelry store—all his problems will be solved. And he’s picked the right accomplice. Hank’s situation is no better. He owes his ex-wife thousands in child support. He lives in a rundown, dumpy apartment. He’s tired on living in the shadow of his seemingly successful sibling and longs to regain the favor he once had with his father. For him, the cash would settle debts and reestablish his reputation.

Lumet then locks these two (thanks to an excellent script by feature first timer Kelly Masterson) in a dangerous game of trust and trickery, mirroring their frightening flawed nature with the results of their best laid plans. Plot is crucial to enjoying this crackerjack effort, and yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead does something very interesting with the narrative. Instead of playing it out linearly, following the Harmon’s plans from start to finish, the material is mixed-up, Pulp Fiction/Rashamon style. It allows motives to hang over the most innocuous sequences, while consequences cloud the conspiring. It lets us see beneath the surface of Andy and Hank, and once the deed is done, the effect their bungling has on everyone involved.

Lumet lines up some powerful talent to pull this off, and his casting is confident. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose everywhere this awards season (he’s also in The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War), literally bares all as the slimy, scheming Andy. From an opening sex scene with co-star Marisa Tomei to his confrontations with grieving father Albert Finney (who appears to wear a perpetual mask of horror on his aged face), Hoffman is all open sores and conniving deceit. He uses his stocky shape to suggest power, but in his eyes we see nothing but a little boy lost. Equally impressive is Ethan Hawke. An often marginalized actor, he is very good here, turning the hapless Hank into a well intentioned but basically inept adult. He’s the necessary catalyst for Andy’s lofty ambitions. He’s also the mechanism that will drag both of them down.

The ripple effect that occurs post crime is so delicious that to go into further detail would ruin many of Devil‘s delights. Some may see the Coen Brothers in Lumet’s latest, and the comparison is not accidental. Longtime collaborator Carter Burwell supplies the musical score, and his Miller’s Crossing meets Fargo influences are felt throughout. Lumet also loves location, be it a rundown city apartment or an ultra modern rent boy’s penthouse. He explores the space, letting the camera linger on elements that offer insight into the people we are dealing with. In addition, there’s a level of personal juxtaposition here that cannot be ignored. Andy lives in a luxuriant flat, its tastefulness hiding his blackened heart. Hank is practically destitute, his home a jumbled wreck of hand me downs and leftovers. Yet aside from his never-ending money problems, he’s a decent man, undeserving of his eventual fate.

It makes for a volatile combination, one doomed to fail and bound to be painful on the rocky road down. Yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is ultimately about cruelty of karma, of how one man’s simmering evil comes to taint and twist everyone around him. Andy is indeed the corrupting influence, a disconnected child who feels entitlement allows for any transgression, no matter how horrible. He turns his brother into a killer, his father into an obsessive, his wife into an adulteress, and ultimately, he becomes the literal and figurative ender of life. The title here is taken from an old toast, a beer-soaked bragging about beating Satan at his own game. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead may signal a reinvigoration of Sidney Lumet’s standing, but it’s much more than that. It’s filmmaking as art, and endearing entertainment. Its impact will remain with you long after the final frames fade away. 

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Thursday, Dec 6, 2007

It’s a crime how we treat the elderly in America. Disposable, burdensome, and no longer warranting dignity, we warehouse the old in an odd attempt to master our own fleeting mortality. We create buzzword balms like “assisted living”, “retirement community” and “senior hospice”, all in an attempt to avoid the more scandalous label “nursing home”. Adult children caring for their enfeebled parents have become a post-modern social phenomenon, a glorified gut check for often distant siblings and their inadvertently affected families. In her latest film, writer/director Tamara Jenkins explores the effect that infirmary has on The Savages—a brother and sister whose abusive father is slowly succumbing to dementia. Yet instead of investigating only the comic or dramatic possibilities of the story, the filmmaker falls into some often unnecessary quirk, rendering important themes and issues slightly surreal.

When we first meet the deteriorating Lenny Savage, he is scribbling obscenities in feces on his barely coherent girlfriend’s bathroom walls. When she eventually dies, her family wants nothing to do with the degenerating man. A call to his kids on the East Coast sets a series of events in motion. Wendy is a single NYC writer making ends meet as a temp while hoping to land an artist’s grant. Jon is a professor at a local upstate New York college. Together, the duo travel to Arizona, gather up their failing father, and place him in a local Buffalo care facility. Wendy hates it, seeing it as a less than honorable end for her dying dad. Jon couldn’t care less. He just wants the problem solved. Both are bothered by the notion of caring for a man who abandoned them 20 year before, yet his crimes against the family seem insignificant when compared to his present state. Still, for the Savages, this backhanded reunion is bringing the past into perspective—and they really don’t like what they see.

Walking precariously between real world gravitas and the far too isolated and idiosyncratic, The Savages is a wonderful premise undermined by some unnecessary pretense. It stands as a stoic effort, an excellent attempt at getting to the heart of the whole ‘kids caring for their parents’ problem. But with its lack of focus and frequent flights of unnecessary fancy, director Jenkins constantly corrals her ambitions. We can tell that this story strikes a nerve in the filmmaker. She fills the screen with passion, turning a pair of angst-driven artist types confronting the realities of life and death into a manifesto on humanity. But then the narrative drops in too many literary signatures—the sage Nigerian orderly, the world weary Polish girlfriend—and the film gets sidetracked. Perhaps if Jenkins had figured whose story this really is—Lenny’s, Jon’s, or Wendy’s—we’d feel a deeper emotional connection. But their father’s illness is not the catalyst we anticipate it being. Instead, The Savages marks it as part of a three act arc, and then forgets to properly finish it off.

Lenny’s plight is indeed the most intriguing element here, probably because it’s the least self-centered. Both of his children live lives of proscribed isolation, existing within a wounded world of their own creation. Wendy can’t commit, looking for a “Daddy” to substitute for the clichéd father figure she never had. Yet that only partially explains her on again, off again trysts with in-it-for-the-sex middle aged married Larry. In fact, all throughout the film, she seems more interested in one-upping her professor brother than achieving a happy parental medium. Jon is also insular, but at least he appears functional. Sure, he can’t connect, allowing a three year relationship to fizzle because of an expired visa. Yet he’s not the volatile mess the movie hints at (we hear a great deal of innuendo about the physically abusive childhood he had at the hand of his dad). In many ways, The Savages is all set up. We keep waiting for the catharsis, the moment when the old wounds finally open, seep, and then start to heal. It never comes. 

Instead, we keep circling around our characters, convinced they will provide the reveal that the material mandates. From the opening, we know that Lenny has been a distant, inattentive parent, part of a lifelong pattern in the Savage clan. And Phillip Bosco’s amazing performance provides some insight into such a horrifying history. Though his degenerative disease amplifies his anger, this is clearly one bitter, brutal man. His rage mirrors the meekness of his adult children quite well. While it would have been nice to learn of the real life horror show that occurred all those decades ago, Jenkins feels that suggestion speaks louder. It really doesn’t. Since Wendy appears flighty, not clipped, and Jon jaunts around as if this is all a matter of everyday dealings, we never really see the stereotypical signs of a life spent in the presence of a paternalistic ogre. Instead, The Savages wants to broaden the scope. It thinks we’d be more interested in watching Wendy and Jon zone out on stolen Percocet, or moderate the responses of African Americans to Al Jolson’s blackface routine from The Jazz Singer.

Eccentricity can work to lighten a dark and dire narrative, but Jenkins relies a little too openly on the odd juxtaposition to give her film the right authenticity. Jon and Wendy manage to move their father rather easily, and once in the nursing home, he becomes a kind of storytelling stopwatch. Plot points revolve around his increasing illness, and the disposability of his dilemma turns into an anticlimactic epiphany. Most families in the Savages situation have to wait a long, heartwrenching time as their loved one slowly fails and fades away. Here, it’s a Thanksgiving to Christmas cross to bear. In addition, we never really see much interaction between the trio. Jon and Wendy visit their father often, yet we only catch them when Lenny is snoozing or explosive. The siblings never discuss the problem, offering only predetermined responses to keep things settled. The best moment comes when Jon confronts his sister’s senseless desire to move their father to a ‘higher class’ facility. “There’s nothing but death in there” he shrieks, face showing the pain he obviously masks. Everything else, he points out, is just window dressing for the guilt ridden families footing the bill.

Indeed, it’s the performances that save The Savages, giving it far more weight than the script can supply. Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives Jon the requisite quiet side, yet you can feel a real ache within his soul. Though Jenkins tries to thwart his efforts (he has an important moment while strapped into a homemade traction device), he’s the tenderness the rest of the characters lack. Bosco again deserves praise for being both completely fearless and all but archetypal. Who he is as a man is never more important that what he symbolizes as a stigma, but we still find dimension in Lenny. Laura Linney will, perhaps, be the biggest problem for audiences. She’s a totally written wreck, a scattered screenplay invention that feels incredibly phony half the time. Her problems appear menial, a measure of a life lived in the shadow of something devastating. Yet because Jenkins has determined that the facts stay buried in the background, The Savages never opens up. Instead, it uses its earnestness and entertainment value to truck along to a nominal conclusion.

Granted, not every tale centering on the ravages of aging needs to be a grim dramatic tour de force. For ever family facing the prospect of death with clothes renting hysterics, people pass without so much as a considered whimper. Had The Savages shown us Lenny’s limited life before death finally came to call, we might feel shortchanged. We’d wonder about his family, and their apparent lack of caring. Jon’s routine remains relatively unchanged throughout the course of the film, so we gain no additional insight from following his plight. And Wendy—she’s a Woody Allen heroine without the snappy repartee. She’d be a bad story subject if only because she’s too peripheral to all that’s happening. So maybe Tamara Jenkins was right in making her movie a statement about all three. Too bad then that the final assessment is so slight. The material definitely commands something much deeper.

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Thursday, Dec 6, 2007

Have no fear, Tolkien lovers—Phillip Pullman is not about to steal the big screen title from our beloved Lord of the Rings. The greatest trilogy of all time is still safely sitting in first place, having vanquished previous pretenders to the throne such as The Chronicles of Narnia, the awful Eragon, and the recent The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. All hoped to become future franchise epics. All fully failed to achieve said sense of scope. While there will be a second installment of C. S. Lewis’ veiled theological tall tale, the search for the next big flight of fantasy continues. The latest installment comes from New Line, the company that took the risk on Peter Jackson and wound up winning. Sadly, The Golden Compass feels more like an afterthought than a solid cinematic challenger. While it strives to be the all-inspiring spectacle the genre requires, its universe is too self-contained to truly connect with audiences.

In this parallel place (explained as being like Earth, but with a difference) we meet our heroine in training, young Lyra Belacqua. Constantly followed by her shapeshifting ‘daemon’ Pan (nothing more than the physical incarnation of her soul), this spry orphan is the niece of university science superstar Lord Asriel. By studying something called ‘dust’, the professor has stunned the educational community with his conclusions on temporal placement and the existence of additional worlds. He’s also earned the ire of the Magisterium, an all powerful government cabal that longs for the complete control over—and the undying obedience of—the citizenry.

After her uncle heads to the realm of the ice bears, a place where he can continue his work, the mysterious Mrs. Coulter arrives at the school. She promises to take Lyra to the snowy Northern climes as well. But her motives are far more nefarious. See, our petite protagonist is the last person capable of reading the golden compass, which is actually a truth telling device known as an alethiometer. With it, she hopes to uncover the truth about Coulter, the Magisterium, and the whereabouts of her fellow children. Seems someone has been kidnapping them, and as we soon learn, the reasons are horrifying at best.

Like most mistaken attempts at grandeur, The Golden Compass thinks details can substitute for dimension. In Phillip Pullman’s picturesque predicament, lots of erroneous facts try to make up for a vague, vignette oriented narrative. Unlike true classics of the form, there is not a single overriding goal here. Our lead Lyra is not on some magical quest, nor is she leading a fellowship hoping to rid their realm of the ultimate evil. Instead, what we have here is a series of intriguing possibilities that fail to play out in any significant or satisfying manner. If this is part of New Line and director Chris Weitz’s plan, that’s all fine and well, and if all three films in the His Dark Materials series get made, perhaps this film will feel less foundational. But as a stand alone effort, something styled to entertain us now, The Golden Compass is incomplete.

Most of the problems stem from Lyra’s journey. As an audience, we need the inherent curiosity of the goal to keep us interested. We really should feel the same longing as our hero or heroine. Yet when we learn of everything involved in this story—the totalitarian Magisterium, the findings of Lord Asriel, the unique nature of the ice bears, the hideous truth about the kiddie concentration camp Bolvanger, the wicked witchiness of Mrs. Coulter—only one element stands out. In fact, a kingdom dominated by salient wildlife ends up as The Golden Compass‘s single significant reason for being. Without it, the rest of the film would feel like The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T without Theodor Geisel’s gift of satire. In fact, the typical British fascination with child endangerment (Pullman is from the UK) is apparent in every kid stealing subplot here. It often feels like The City of Lost Children without a hint of Caro and Jeanet’s visual grace.

What director Chris Weitz does bring here is a sense of solemnity. He’s not out to cutesy this material, and his lends a nice level of density to some otherwise puffy points. It’s a credit to his approach that a sore thumb moment like Sam Elliot’s arrival onscreen (playing the only Southern drawling sodpounder in all of this mangled multiverse) doesn’t stick out more than it should. Additionally, the filmmaking is so fluid that we don’t even recognize that Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman (as Asriel and Coulter, respectively) disappear from the narrative for huge chunks of time. In fact, it’s safe to say that there is much too much going on in The Golden Compass at any one given moment. Either we’re dealing with Lyra’s learning of the ambiguous alethiometer (there are one too many trips into its dust driven mechanical workings) or watching unnamed villains scheme and conspire like a veiled Vatican 2. Christian and Catholics who complain about this movie better get their targets straight. They should focus less on Pullman’s atheism and more on the lamentable lack of fun involved.

By far, the best sequences surround Ian McKellen (apparently, no fantasy film can go forward without his involvement) as the voice of exiled ice bear Iorek Byrnison. Fully aware of how to bring this kind of material to life, we really get involved in his Shakespearean tale of betrayal, loss, and redemption. From retrieving his stolen armor to regaining his rightful place in the polar community, we root for this animal outsider, and his climatic battle with the bruin that usurped his throne stands as the single best sequence in Compass‘s often overwrought running time. In fact, had Weitz found a way to streamline the story a little (his script tries to incorporate more information than a movie can successfully manage) and focus solely on Iorek, Lyra, and the discovery of Bolvanger, we’d enjoy the journey more. Weitz makes the mistake of frontloading things, trying to explain it all before the subtext and side characters are even necessary. Along with the relatively formulaic facets of the tale (guessing Lyra’s parentage is pretty easy), there’s just too much groundwork and not enough sparkle.

Still, in its limited way, The Golden Compass does engage us. The daemon element that opens the film definitely draws us in, and when we see the unbridled fury of the bigger than life bear fight, we hope the movie has made it over the introductory hump. But then the uninspired ending arrives, a cobbled together collection of happenstance, accidents, and deus ex machine broomsticking. Unlike the battles for Middle Earth, there is no splendor in this confrontation, no feeling of dignity among the defenders and amorality amongst the attackers. No, it’s just a showpiece send off, a way of getting the first part of the plot over with before jumping into the second book’s storyline. When he made The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson took all three books and conceived them as a single entity, taking aspects of each to elevate his overall concept for the films. Here, New Line and Weitz are obviously hedging their bets. The “one at a time” ideal means The Golden Compass has to do a lot of Pullman and Dark Material‘s heavy lifting. Sadly, it can’t handle it all. 

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Thursday, Nov 29, 2007

REDACTED (dir. Brian DePalma)

Yes, we’re still at war. No, the apparently addled Congress, given a midterm mandate to end the military presence in Iraq as soon as possible, has been so far unable to make a single significant stride in that direction. Democracy both here and abroad is failing, lost in a fog of formless opinion, uninspired protest, and a collection of calculated talking points (like ‘fighting them there so we don’t have to here’). And what is Hollywood’s answer to all this acknowledged atrophy? Why, they come up with one lame ‘war is unnecessary Hell’ workout after another. The latest to line up and take its critical lumps is Brian De Palma’s wildly mediocre Redacted. Instead of returning the also-ran auteur to his glory days, this mean-spirited mess is destined to further his already substantial fall from cinematic grace. 

The supposedly based on a true story saga focuses on four soldiers serving at a typical Iraqi checkpoint. Their day is divided up between talking about sex, serving their country, and continued conversations about carnality. One day, a tragic event befalls the troops. On top of it, a standard stop and search goes horribly wrong. Hoping to let off some steam, the frustrated men decide to head over to a previous raid site and rape the 15 year old girl who lives there—kind of payback for all the crap they’ve had to sling through recently. The crime goes haywire, and a massacre results. Threats are made. Dime is dropped. Investigations begin. All the while, we witness this pathetic display of power gone poisonous through the viewfinder of an artistically minded Private, various on site cameras, and the media reaction both local and abroad. Naturally, some if not all of the information is ‘redacted’—censored as a matter of US national security. 

So obvious in its intentions that it screams ‘teenager scamming for the car keys’, Redacted fails to fully embrace the proposed genius of its premise. Trying to be the War on Terror version of The Blair Witch Project, this media savvy screed has platoons full of potential. Like dozens of Iraq documentaries that use the new tech wired perspective of the average grunt, De Palma wants to replace polish with passion. This is one of the most ordinary movies the man has ever made—scads better than the mournful Black Dahlia, but far from the accomplished work that made him one of the ‘70s favored sons. Using his absolute hatred of the Bush policies, and marrying it to the new purview of soldiers as accidental psychos, the results barely reach their target. Instead, the simplistic cause and effect narrative is muddled by pointless sequences of non-erotic male bonding and actor overindulgence. The no-name cast is supposed to reflect the average Joe dynamic of the modern armed forces, every man in it for his own non-altruistic needs. Such an apparent eye-opener is just the first volley in what ends up being one of the more motivationally misguided anti-combat efforts in the rather limited subgenre.

Part of the problem with Redacted, and the myriad of equally ineffectual Iraq War movies released in 2007, is the decision to turn the troops into moustache twirling villains. Whether it’s In the Valley of Elah‘s involuntary serial killers, or this film’s sex and violence minded rapists, it’s rare to see the real bad guy—the Administration—taken to task. Instead, they are excused as bumbling bureaucrats (as in Rendition) or jaded, jingoistic salesman shilling for their own political gain (i.e. Lions for Lambs). But making the military the fall guy for all the incredibly incompetent decisions by this government is like blaming bullets for killing people. Someone is holding the gun—and more importantly, someone authorized the use of that weapon in a now pointless endeavor.

What these lackluster diatribes need is a clearly defined focus away from the men and women in uniform. An All the President’s Men like roasting on the lead up to 9/11 and the decision to milk fear for the fiscal security of future fossil fuels is the real horror still playing out today. That a private goes bonkers and blows up a civilian is causational collateral damage—never excusable, but more readily explainable than the whole UN/WMD presentation.

Still, we have to work with what De Palma gives us, and even then, it can’t match the fire and commitment of his similarly themed Vietnam vitriol, Casualties of War. Lacking real dramatic coherence, the sloppy sequences where future filmmaker Izzy Diaz gets his compatriots to ‘open up’ on camera are so stilted as to be taken from a community college stage play. No one seems normal—instead, they are central casting conceits of the kind of lowered induction standards joked about in the dialogue. Even worse, once we move outside the bonds of the POV material, the faux French documentary (which is stuck doing all the anti-America heavy lifting) and the Al-Jazeera approach are like Bible-thumpers in the back row. Their point is pedantic, unambiguous, and without a lick of legitimizing context. Indeed, another fallacy running through this and other films of its ilk is the lack of applicable perspective. Granted, there is no excuse for this pointless war, but to turn it into the Westernized version of the Al-Qaeda camps (that is, training grounds for prospective mindless murderers) seems to demonize an inappropriate target.

Besides, you never win an argument via extremes. Want to show the toll such mindless military meandering takes on the troops? Give us a post-tour treatise on the myriad of injuries and mental complaints registered in the last six years. Need to confirm that Iraq is destroying the moral of our soldiers? Follow one unit for an entire year, making sure to capture all the highs and lows, the deaths and the diversions that turn modern battle into the sovereignty version of a film shoot (meaning ‘hurry up and wait’). Redacted does have moments that bare this idea out. When we watch the day-to-day struggle to control the populace, maintain checkpoint readiness, prepare for possible IEDs, and basically survive the Middle Eastern environment, this film has purpose. De Palma lets his goaded guard down long enough to allow some authenticity to seep in. But once the boys decide that raping a local gal equals the ultimate test of their mired manhood, the drama dies. Instead, what we wind up with is sensationalized atrocities that never once come across as authentic or real.

In fact, the main sticking point for many will be the flippant way these jackasses extol their crimes. They threaten those in the know in full view of every surveillance camera in the camp, and when they go about their abomination, they leave enough clues behind to instantly warrant investigation (let alone foreign media outrage). Sure, De Palma tries to reshuffle the already stacked deck by showing a terrorist website that exploits children in the course of its insurgent bombing campaign, and our unapologetic fiends seem to get caught and crucified near the end. But then the film folds and asks for a new deal, showing us craven images of actual Iraqi dead that the narrative itself couldn’t be bothered to embrace. The “see, told you so” angle at the end may have some minor power (actual death on camera is cruel and soul sickening), but Redacted hasn’t earned this horror. It’s merely capitalizing on its existence to make a far more self-interested point.

Instead of heading over to the hot sands of Jordan and retrofitting their neighborhoods into simulated Iraq settings, De Palma should have spent his limited budget on a direct documentary on student apathy. Absent a draft—the great equalizer and instigator of any conflict—the ennui expressed by those who’ll wind up paying for this failed policy is staggering. It’s far more shocking than a single image in Redacted.

Redacted - Trailer

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