September 28, 2006

The Guardian

The Guardian is really three movies. The first has the makings of a great film, full of drama and suspense and a first-person perspective of a dangerous and heroic job many of us — until Katrina at least — had never really thought about. The second is a fun if formulaic coming of age film, part buddy comedy and part sports drama. The third covers pretty much the same territory as the first, only from the outside looking in. All three star Kevin Coster, and the sum of the respective parts feels much longer than the 136 minute running time.
If this movie proves anything, it's that Kevin Costner still has what it takes to lead a movie. He gets equal billing with Ashton Kutcher, but this is his movie through and through. If anything, age has only made him more fascinating to watch onscreen. And he's kept in good enough shape that I never once doubted that his character could do what he was shown as doing. For his part, Ashton Kutcher held his own better than could be expected.
The movie begins with narration, and ends with narration. They might as well have been the same narration, since the opening narration tells you in so many words exactly what's going to happen at the end. The journey in between was interesting and consistently involving, but never really truly inspiring. The people they portray, the Coast Guard rescue divers, are truly inspiring. The times when the movie is actually about rescue diving are the times when the movie hits its truest notes. Staring out the side of a helicopter as the ocean churns twenty feet below is a powerful moment to capture. A story that spends the bulk of its time passing the mantle from one generation of actors to the next is far less so. At the end of the film I still liked Kevin Costner's character a lot more than I liked Ashton Kutcher's. For whatever reason, the baton never got passed on.
Sela Ward, for her part, tackles Costner's character like she tackles Laurie's on "House." Kutcher's love interest gets a good introduction but largely left me wanting more of Sela Ward. The motley crew of Coast Guard recruits were bearable (a few even enjoyable). I found the ending unnecessary, but otherwise nothing stuck out as being less than competent. There really isn't anything, though, that we haven't seen before. ()


September 09, 2006

Akeelah and the Bee

Akeelah and the Bee is one of the most important films I've ever seen. That word gets thrown around fairly often: i-m-p-o-r-t-a-n-t. Of much or great significance or consequence. How many pretentious costume dramas or political dramas are really important? The things that are truly significant are rarely political. Akeelah and the Bee is about inspiration overcoming desperation. It's about finding in oneself enough value to counter outside adversity. In a popular culture which focuses on sex and violence with increasingly idolatry, it's important to find an urban movie that values dedication, hard work, and individual achievement.
I grew up in a household where my parents always asked nothing more or less than the best that I could do. They gave me the best head start they could and then trusted me to do the best I could from there. Though the film never introduces us to Akeelah's father, I get the very strong impression that he did the same thing for her. Unlike Akeelah, I still have my father today. And unlike Akeelah, I was educated in an upper-middle-class culture where achievement and success are valued and praised — perhaps to excess. Akeelah's education was entrenched in a low-income culture of desperation and disappointment. Any individual's success in a culture like that is threatening, because raising the bar for one means throwing the spotlight on everybody else's failure. It's rude.
Akeelah is languishing in a school that offers her nothing. She is also a sensitive and perceptive child, who appreciates the value in others who probably don't appreciate the value in themselves. Her father was a word enthusiast, and spelling became the last link she had left to him. Too polite and too intimidated to make an anomaly of herself at school, internet Scrabble serves initially as the only outlet for her particular gift.
When first her teacher and then her principal goads her into taking part in the school's first spelling bee, it's therefore no surprise that she wins it. After her victory, the principal's associate Dr. Joshua Larabee starts firing much harder words at her. She goes for quite a while before he tries a zinger on her and she breaks. The room, with her through all her increasingly improbably successes, turns instantly against her and she flees. As she defied the odds, they supported her because her success was their success. But nobody in that room needed to be a part of any more failure. Drained of her own confidence and filled back up with their desperation, she cries out to her principal in the stairwell, betrayed that he would force her to succeed and so allow her to visibly fail. "Mr. Welch, I told you I did not want to do this! They're laughin' at me!" Dr. Larabee's unsympathetic response, delivered authoritatively from a dozen steps above, is full of dire truth: "They laugh because you intimidate them. But if you'd stood your ground you might have earned their respect." If this film is about anything, it's certainly not spelling. It's about the process by which Akeelah grows to live that advice.
By the time she'd matured enough to accept Dr. Larabee's tutelage, she already had dreams of the national spelling bee firmly rooted. She wanted it bad enough to let not family, community, nor herself get in the way. Dr. Larabee teaches her vocabulary and etymology, yes, but he is careful to imbue the words with real meaning. Akeelah expands not only her vocabulary, but also the power of these words and their purpose. Larabee draws from Douglass, DuBois, King, among others. With their essays and their ideas, Larabee aims to counter a lifetime of negative cultural self-image. As the bond between tutor and pupil softens, they each increasingly look to the other — in spite of their own best efforts — to fill the major holes in their lives. Not all tragedies can be blamed on society; Akeelah Anderson and Dr. Joshua Larabee have wounds that are deep, and personal.
Some moments in the beginning are excessively dewy-eyed, and some plot threads get lost along the way that I'd have liked to see resolved. But these complaints are immaterial compared to the momentum and honesty of the journey. When I mentored at a Boston charter school for a college debate class, I was first introduced to the anti-achievement mentality that is at the heart of the crisis in America's inter-city schools. One of the girls in my assigned group was all too eager to help, and was mocked relentlessly by her classmates for it. Another contributed quietly and discreetly, lest the others notice. She was screaming with intelligence and potential in spite of her best efforts to be just another face in the crowd. Keke Palmer's performance as Akeelah started as a dead ringer for this second girl, and progressed to what she could have been. I expected strong performances from Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett; they're marquee names. But Palmer, the eleven-year-old this whole venture is built upon, goes toe-to-toe with both of them. There are innumerable influences, emotions, and expectations swirling around Akeelah, and Palmer internalizes all of them.
Akeelah and the Bee is a reminder that talent is everywhere, and proof that ability and success are both measured in the love that fosters them. It celebrates love — of self, from family, for family, from community, for community. Akeelah isn't extraordinary because she can spell, but because in a world of hatred and fear, she is brave enough to love. ()


September 05, 2006


Crank is not a film that can be judged by normal standards. It meets barely any of the objective qualities I normally look for in a film. It abandons any attempt to appease the normal laws of physics or medicine and indeed has a hit-or-miss record in staying consistent with what lip service it pays to each early on. The only thing this movie has going for it is Jason Statham. Fortunately, Statham's enough.
The movie begins with Statham's character, Chev Chelios, regaining consciousness on the floor of a dismal room. He soon discovers that the triads have laced his blood with chemicals that block the release of adrenaline. His only hope is to keep his heart rate pumping and his adrenaline flowing, or so his doctor tells him. What follows is nothing more or less than a greatest hits list of "Grand Theft Auto" scenarios played out over virtually the rest of the running time. Cars go through buildings. Cars trash other cars. Motorcycles send passengers flying. There's sex in cars. There's sex out of cars. There's a dumb blond, a Cuban gang, and a severed hand. If you expect story or viable characters you will be cruelly disappointed. If you expect the most casual and relentless violence in recent memory coupled with sophomoric, homophobic taunting and the occasional racial stereotype you will get more than your money's worth. In fact, iff the projector broke twenty minutes in, you'd have your money's worth.
Stimulants are snorted, chugged, sniffed, and injected. Chelios destroys half the city and kills probably one out of every two human beings that appear on screen. People are drowned, stabbed, shot, sucked off, screwed, and cut into pieces. Oh, and the occasional neck gets snapped. The film builds and builds, until it finally reaches it crescendo, hundreds if not thousands of feet above the city outside a helicopter. Throughout it all, Chelios keeps things practical and to the point. He doesn't really savour the violence; he does what he has to and moves on. And what he has to do is kill people. Frequently.
I can't really recommend this as a movie. It was a pretty great thrill ride, though. ()