Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights

Dirty Dancing: Havana NightsThe year is 1958 and Cuba is a Latin paradise just out the backdoor from America. Ford Motors executive Bert Vendetto, his wife, Jeanie (Sela Ward) and their two daughters relocate to Havana to oversee the auto manufacturing concern in this island nation.

Katey (Romola Garai), the elder and bookworm daughter, has her eyes set on college. Her sister, Polly, falls into the crowd of local spoiled kids who dabble in country club balls and other swell goings on. As luck would have it, Katey befriends a Cuban poolside servant, Xavier Perez (Diego Luna). The world of rich Americans and poor locals is not supposed to clash, so her attention costs Xavier his job and makes for tension at Katey’s home. She is intoxicated by the freedom of the Cuban/ Latin style of dance, but has the stiff background of American ballroom dancing. Xavier is a limber and fiery master of the dance floor. Katey urges Xavier to enter a Latin dance contest with her, and win enough money to save his family. As the two practice, they find themselves falling in love. But this is Cuba, and in the jungles, revolution is fomenting. Amidst this, can a rich white American girl and a poor Cuban boy find love?

Dirty Dancing: Havana Nightas has its highs and lows. The dancing is good, but many shots crop the dancers at the ankles. The lead actors (Garai and Luna) are shadows of their predecessors (Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey). Their romance is on autopilot for a PG-rated culmination, with the two traversing the requisite choppy waters that come from his family, her family and the people who don’t like the rich and the poor mingling. The actions of Katey’s parents seem, for once, realistic – they’re supportive but not approving; loving of their daughter and tolerant of her dance partner. While the movie’s dancing is great, cardboard cut-outs could have performed equally well off the dance floor. The acting is okay, but the script gives the characters nothing more to contend with than social criticism and unemployment. Castro’s revolution serves to complicate a dance contest and cause the Vendettos to pack up their bags. (Too bad that wasn’t the full impact of the revolution on politics and global stability in the Americas).

One large criticism: Patrick Swayze. He was thawed out to appear in this movie. From so many standpoints, that was a mistake. The humour isn’t lost that his character has come to Cuba to teach American hotel guests how to dance in the Latin style. But, two big things are wrong: first, 1987’s heartthrob looks plastic in 2004. And second, this movie is actually a prequel, set five years before the original Dirty Dancing. Did Swayze’s character, Johnny Castle, stop by Ponce De Leon’s Florida fountain of youth after escaping Cuba so he could turn back the clock on his aging by a couple of decades? It’s nice to have Swayze there for continuity from the first movie, but those who remember the 1987 original will not enjoy this watered down work. Those who don’t know Swayze will wonder why this guy is in the movie in the first place.

Its lack of punch and its simmering sexuality make Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights ideal for the pre-teen girl squad set; it’s lightweight fare even by musical standards.

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HatchetTo criticize a slasher movie for being exploitative is roughly the equivalent of criticizing the ocean for being wet. Yep, itis that. But some horror movies have a little bit of style in their exploitation. Not Hatchet. Laughably awful, this movie does us the favour of starting out in New Orleans during its annual Mardi Gras celebration (so we get to see a whole bunch of female breasts during its opening scenes). And then they provide us with a doomed tour group that includes a lowbrow porn movie maker and his two starlets (yup, a bunch more breasts on display). Oh, and a tour operator who starts off with a put-on Louisiana accent, then reverts to an undetermined Asian accent (heis from Detroit, after all), only to drop that about three quarters of an hour in.

In any event, a boatload of tourists departs on a night-time bayou ghost tour n we start out with the goofy and incompetent tour guide, a pair of always-state-the-obvious bumpkin tourists, the porno trio, a slightly mysterious and totally anti-social young woman (Tamara Feldman), and our hero, the lovesick Ben (Joel Moore) and his buddy Marcus (Deon Richmond).

We already know that thereis something killing people in the swamps n and the inevitable starts happening early on, courtesy of Kane Hodder, back for his millionth mass murderer role. Heads are ripped off, blood spurts (in what looks like the same shot thatis inserted several times, showing a torrent of blood hitting a tree), power tools (presumably cordless, given that weire out in the bayou) are used indiscriminately, and a mythic n supposedly ghostly n swamp killer proceeds to tear the tourists to shreds at an alarming rate.

Pretty close to qualifying under the eso bad itis goodi category, Hatchet is a movie that youive likely seen about 32 times before, although this one is more gory and more obnoxious than most, and it does exhibit the unusual quality of having a female character as the strongest person among the potential victims. It mixes rarely successful attempts at comedy with super explicit, super cheap-looking murder and gore scenes. Itis amateurish and not terribly well put together n the monster guy pops up out of the blue regularly, including when the victims-to-be are standing together in a clearing n poof, there he is.

Even goofier is the dialogue, as the poor lost souls debate what to do next. There is, of course, endless discussion of whether to go this direction or that, whether theyire retracing their steps in the dark, or dare go back into ethati house. But they also discuss the need to kill the bad guy, almost at the same breath as they discuss the apparent fact that heis a ghost. They neglect to talk about how one kills someone whois already dead.

Made with enthusiasm, if not a whole lot of skill, Hatchet is one long string of ridiculously goofy monster killer scenes, topped off by a ridiculously overwrought pulled-from-a-can music score thatis even more derivative n and just as awful n as the rest of the movie. There are n of course n starts and false endings galore, and n to its credit n the filmmakers arenit shy about allowing any and every character to be ripped to shreds.

Hatchet is the sort of movie perfectly suited to large groups of 18-year-olds looking for something to hoot and laugh at, chat all the way through, and forget about even before the closing credits have finished rolling. Itis spirited, totally exploitative, entirely forgettable high body count slasher movie fun, and it sure ainit pretending to be quality cinema.

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Darwin Awards, The

Darwin Awards, TheInserting a phoney documentary filmmaker into a comedic movie is a device thatis been used many times in recent decades, often to provide an excuse for characters to tell their stories directly to the camera, and sometimes to involve the documentarian in the movieis storyline. In The Darwin Awards, writer/ director Finn Taylor does it for both reasons, but I can assure you that the result is no This is Spinal Tap, thatis for sure.

This is a movie that starts with a potentially hilarious n in a dark way n idea: build a film around the tongue in cheek awards that were create to draw attention to the awful, and sometimes awfully funny, ways some ding-dongs unintentionally kill themselves. The Darwin tie-in, in case you arenit familiar, comes from the idea that these dullards offing themselves as they do contributes to human evolution by taking them out of the gene pool. Of course, thatis a bit foolish, as whois to say they havenit already reproduced before they nail themselves in the head, blow themselves up, or otherwise end their time on the planet? But never mind. Itis still a funny concept, especially since the Darwin Awards folks have collected information on so many outrageous causes of death.

Tayloris problem is not the idea of re-enacting some of these foolish peopleis deaths, and itis not the cast that he gathered together to do it (featuring Joseph Fiennes and Winona Ryder and including cameos by a whole range of interesting actors, from Tim Blake Nelson and Juliette Lewis to David Arquette and Nora Dunn). Tayloris problem is that he wrote a painfully weak script, mostly wasting both the acting talents and the funny stories in the process.

The story (what there is of one) revolves around Michael Burrows (Fiennes), an uptight and obsessive San Francisco forensic detective who is reduced to looking for work after his fear of blood ruins a potentially successful police career. When he talks an insurance company executive into giving him a shot at predicting which insurance applicants are at risk of offing themselves prematurely, Michael is paired up with Siri (Ryder) a cynical insurance investigator who checks out the legitimacy of claims. This gives Taylor a starting point for examining strange deaths n the fellow who strapped a jet engine on the rear of his car, the guy who got his arm jammed into a vending machine, eventually tipping it onto himself, the guy who blew his own car through a frozen lake surface, and so on. For some inexplicable reason n as in the last case n these arenit all investigations into Darwin Award deaths.

Taylor rightly realized as he wrote this script that it just wouldnit work to trot out one example after another without linking them together. Hence the Michael and Siri characters. Unfortunately, though, he didnit make these characters very interesting, and what he gives them to do is little more than a half-baked frame for the vignettes on stupid people doing themselves in. Fiennes is a capable actor, but heis just a bit too one-note twitchy to entertain us here. And Ryder may be a foul mouthed cynic in real life, but she sure doesnit convey it very well onscreen. Itis not clear whether Taylor intended for there to be romantic chemistry between the two, but that doesnit matter; there is none.

Worst of all, the filmis use of a phoney documentarian is irritating, and the scenes in which he plays a significant role are silly but not funny. Given that this is the basis for the whole movie, the result is a well intentioned mess.

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Extreme Heist

Okay, time to come clean, people. Which one of you has been letting the kids play with the Handicam again? Thatis an expensive piece of equipment, you know n itis not a toy. Sure, itis all fun and games until some poor reviewer actually has to watch it.

Now thereis nothing inherently wrong with independent filmmaking. Some of the hundred million dollar crap that Hollywood turns out is far worse than many independent, $300,000 films. But, man, before you go turning on the camera learn a little something about lighting, at least. Keep in mind that when you cut to another view of the exact same shot, the lighting should not go from midnight dark to blazing fluorescent light. That kind of sloppiness is unwatchable. But these guys just donit care. Extreme Heist is all about cramming as many action sequences into an hour and a half as possible. The first ten minutes contains a martial arts fight, an extended episode of snowboard-skydiving and a wicked car chase. Itis a shame they didnit manage to squeeze some acting into the rest of it.

Irrepressible goofs and petty criminals Billy Ray (Johnny Yong Bosch) and Guile (Jason Narvy) accidentally stumble upon a high tech bank robbery scheme and steal a book of account codes from a gang of slightly less petty criminals. Truthfully, though, the only thing convincingly criminal about any of these dorks is their acting. Billy Ray and Guile team up with FBI agent Kim, who spends a lot of time talking to her FBI boss on her circa 1984 cell phone. That thing is huge, man. Itis, like, the size of a cheese grater. Anyway, then some other things happen, and at about the twenty minute mark youill start begging them all to stop talking and do some more stunts.

Extreme Heist is a co-operative effort by a Japanese production company and half of the cast from televisionis Power Rangers. Thatis right, if youire a male under the age of about 28, you might remember Bosch and Narvy respectively as Green Power Ranger and Eugene iSkulli Skullovitch from that lamest of all Saturday morning childrenis programs. The quality of acting has not improved since the old Power Ranger days, and FBI agent Kimis delivery is distracting and annoying. Iive heard Speak-N-Spells emote more convincingly. Plus, the women are supposed to look cute in action movies. Next time, how about hiring someone to fix her hair after she gets caught in the rainstorm, boys?

Clearly, there was no money for hair and makeup, though. The filmis entire budget seems to have been spent on the skydiving scenes that bookend the sloppy mess in the middle. The fights are well-choreographed but there are plot holes and technical glitches galore. The free-fall fight scenes continue for too long to be realistic but, unfortunately for us, result in very few actor/ground encounters. Extreme Heist might be of some interest to extreme sports aficionados and those who frequent Power Rangers-themed internet discussion groups, but everyone else ought to steer well clear. Apparently, any old schmuck with a video camera can make a movie these days. Hey, by the way, can any of you guys act? Because Iive got this great idea for a movie about kung-fu piratesO

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RayRay, much like Gandhi, is a bio-pic that suffers from a rather flattering, yet frustrating, problem – the film is out-shone by an amazing lead performance. In Gandhi, Ben Kingsley utterly inhabits the title role, and is so impressive that we almost forget that the movie he’s acting in is exceedingly well made. With Ray, we see the same thing – a performance so breathtaking that the rest of Taylor Hackford’s film is vulnerable to being sold short. The actor is Jamie Foxx; the character is famed music star Ray Charles.

The film concentrates on Charles’ life between the end of the 1940s and the mid-1960s, although it also flashes back to his childhood in the 1930s and forward (briefly) to some of the accolades Charles received in his later years. This is the story of Charles’ music career – not just soul, but also jazz, country and pop – but, more importantly, it’s the remarkable story of Charles’ personal struggles in the face of incredible obstacles – racism, blindness, drug addiction and more. And from start to finish, Foxx captivates us by conveying the complexity of Ray Charles, his strength, tenacity, likeability, intelligence, weaknesses and dangerous habits.

Ray begins unsteadily, with a somewhat cumbersome set of flashbacks from the late 1940s to Charles’ childhood and to the mid-1940s. Foxx quickly wins us over with a convincing portrayal of the young blind piano player, but it takes a while for the movie to pick up steam and similarly impress us. Thankfully, this does take place, and we are treated to a highly entertaining blend of music, compelling storytelling and acting by Foxx, who receives solid support by a strong cast. Hackford does a good job of balancing Charles’ skill and charm with his foibles. While this is clearly a sympathetic and loving picture of Charles, it doesn’t shy away from telling the story of his heroin addiction as well as his womanizing.

For Foxx, this role was a dream opportunity, and he takes full advantage. In addition to delivering a spot-on impersonation of the distinctive Charles, Foxx shows great emotional range, impressive subtlety, and enough skill at the keyboard to look as much like Charles when he’s playing the piano as he does the rest of the time. Foxx is far and away the movie’s greatest strength, but he’s not the only one. This is a smart, stylish film, with an interesting look and a range of strong performances.

Hackford has taken a straightforward showbiz success story, and thrown in a few twists – particularly Charles’ struggles over the childhood death of his brother, and flashbacks to experiences with his mother. His attempts at turning a standard bio-pic into a deeper odyssey isn’t entirely successful, as most of the flashbacks and other attempts at symbolism seem a bit contrived, but they at least break up the chronological flow of what would otherwise be a more straightforward but less interesting film.

Charles’ story is most interesting, and Hackford has delivered it skilfully. But, really, this is Jamie Foxx’s film. If you didn’t know coming in that Foxx originally became known as a comedian on television, you would think that this man was always a serious actor. Matching this performance up with his other top-notch 2004 role in Collateral shows you something special; it’s no surprise that Foxx received Academy Award nominations for both performances.

Ray is a very good film, regardless of whether or not you love Ray Charles’ music. And even if it was a lesser film, Foxx’s performance would have made it worth watching, reminiscent of Jessica Lange’s great performance in the disappointing Frances.

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Shallow Hal

Shallow HalEither the Farrelly brothers are going soft, or they’ve realized that the gross-out humour upon which they initially built their filmmaking reputations isn’t going to sustain them forever. Shallow Hal, a movie with a concept packed with potential for crudity, is more witty – yes, witty – than gross, often skipping chances to be nasty in favour of milder humour and even sentimentality. Don’t get me wrong – there are mean and crude moments – just not nearly as many as you’d expect, given Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s track record. As a result, those who’ve had their fill of bathroom humour will be pleasantly surprised, while those looking for a Farrelly gross-fest will undoubtedly find this one particularly lame.

Our hero is Hal (Jack Black), a likeable loser who’s obsessed with finding a woman (well, as a co-worker points out, he’s looking for a ‘girl,’ not a woman) who has model-like looks. And nothing else really matters. You see, Hal is a nice guy, but he’s shallow. And he possesses neither the looks nor the personality to attract the sort of girl he’s seeking. Short and round, Hal is searching for his opposite, and he’s getting nowhere. Until he gets stuck in an elevator with television self-improvement pitchman Tony Robbins, that is. Distressed by Hal’s shallowness, Robbins carries out a sort of new age exorcism on Hal, telling him that he’ll now see only the inner beauty of those he meets. With the movie’s gimmick set-up, Hal proceeds to meet several young women – who appear to others (especially Hal’s obnoxious and even shallower friend, Mauricio (Jason Alexander), as homely or overweight – but strike Hal as gorgeous.

The main storyline follows Hal’s romance with Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), who turns out to be the boss’ daughter. To Mauricio’s horror, Hal is in heaven, and Rosemary is thrilled to finally be in a really good relationship with someone who thinks she’s beautiful. Naturally, Hal’s skewed (or is it really?) view of the world can’t last forever, so trouble’s inevitable.

Splitting its time between fat jokes and sentimental ‘beauty’s in the eye of the beholder’ truisms, Shallow Hal has its humorous moments, but is rarely – okay, never – laugh-out-loud funny. Alexander gets to deliver most of the punch lines (for example, Hal asks Mauricio about the just-introduced Rosemary, “Doesn’t she take the cake?” and Mauricio glances again at the 300-pound young woman before replying, “Yah. The whole bakery.”).

The script here is surprisingly smart, but uneven, with plenty of dry spells that are neither funny nor sweet. But you’ve got to give the Farrelly’s credit for substituting wit for gross-out gags, at least most of the time. The performances are similarly inconsistent; Black is wonderfully charismatic, but it’s surprising that he’d be so tied down and controlled in a Farrelly film. Paltrow is capable in her reasonably undemanding role, but Alexander delivers nothing more than his usual obnoxious loser shtick.

Even more perplexing is the film’s portrayal of the ‘beautiful’ versus the ‘ugly.’ While it argues that inner beauty is what really matters, Shallow Hal consistently portrays the skinny models sympathetically, and the ‘homely’ women as socially inept klutzes. It makes you wonder whether or not they really believe their own theme.

Passing judgement on Shallow Hal is a troublesome proposition; one is inclined to dwell on the fact that it’s plainly uninspired, but it’s hard to say how much such a view is just a reaction to the surprisingly less-then-manic pace and the absence of non-stop outrageousness. Add to that the movie’s mixed message, and we’re left with the quintessential take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

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In Like Flint

In Like FlintAustin Powers and its sequels werenit the first to spoof James Bond, nor will they likely be the last, if the ridiculous nature of XXX is any indication n even if the spoofing is unintentional. Sean Connery was still sipping martinis onscreen when a secret agent named Flint (James Coburn) came along to yuck things up in Our Man Flint. Yuck is an appropriate reaction for its sequel, In Like Flint, a clumsy, bland and far too subtle satire of the spy genre.

With the U.S. President kidnapped and a group of female beauty salon owners vying to take over the world, the suave Flint is sent in to save the day. Going undercover like only a Hollywood super spy can, Flint hides himself under such guises as a ballet dancer and a Cuban militant to unravel the mystery. Okay, watching Coburn prance about doing ballet is funny. Iill give director Gordon Douglas that much, but little else. Maybe itis the fact that In Like Flint was made way back in the 1960s, but the jokes n if there are any n didnit have me laughing. Perhaps theyire dated or they just flew right over me, but then the whole argument of subtlety would come into play. Whatis a joke if nobody gets it? Besides being a bad joke, the answer is much like the saying about trees falling in an empty forest and what sound it makes. Both insinuate a lack of reaction, and thatis no fun.

Watching Coburn makes me wish heid opted instead for a monster role in a B-horror flick. Heid make a great Frankenstein, not only because of his chiselled smirk and strong face, but also by the way he stumbles through as Flint. Thereis little playfulness in his shtick and heis too smart to play the ignorant nincompoop. Stuck in a nightmarish in-between, he works as neither a suave ladyis man, nor a bumbling spy, the two ends required to make a spoof such as this work.

There are points during this movie where I want to laugh, but Iim not at all sure I was supposed to do so. Most of this unintentional hilarity comes from the twisted 1960s ideology behind women trying to take over the world. Some of the menis speeches are rather scary if taken in the context of decades later. Itis overtly male chauvinist to the degree that I was laughing at their stupidity. It is so stupid, in fact, that I was hoping that it was all part of the satire, and to a degree I think it is. But the actions that back up the words also support the notion that the filmmakers might have been moderately serious.

I canit say what I might have thought about In Like Flint if Iid been around to see it upon its original release, but today itis plain old out of whack. The jokes donit work anymore, except for those that are timeless n such as a Frankenstein-like man trying to get information on a case while pirouetting and prancing about before an audience. Thatis the sort of cheap and pointless laughs I was hoping for with In Like Flint, but alas there are far too few to matter.

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Eye of the Dolphin

Eye of the DolphinWhile it’s not going to be winning any awards for its predictable storyline or the uninspired way in which it plods across the screen, Eye of the Dolphin has something that’s lacking in far too many films, especially ones aimed at a family audience. It’s got authentic heart.

Carly Schroeder – an impressive young actor most certainly to be watched in coming years – plays Alyssa, a girl who’s in trouble at school and very much lost in the wake of her mother’s death a year earlier. Her grandmother (Katharine Ross, in one of just a handful of big screen appearances over the previous quarter century) is fatigued with handling the young hellion, so lets Alyssa in on an old secret – the father she never met is alive and well, lives in the Bahamas, and doesn’t even know that she exists. That news out of the bag, we head off to the Caribbean, where Alyssa has a bumpy time with her dad, Dr. James Hawk (Adrian Dunbar), who himself is facing trouble in the form of a revolt of his partners against his management of a dolphin research project.

Alyssa and her father struggle to bond, and in the process she does just that with the dolphins, both the pair living with Hawk in captivity and a wild dolphin she befriends over his protests. As his research dream begins to come unravelled, Alyssa takes action to protect the dolphins and ultimately rescue her dad, too.

There are many problems with the storyline, not the least of which being how it was that Allysa’s grandmother didn’t get around to telling her that she has a living father until a year after her mother died. Also, the way Alyssa helps rescue both the dolphins and her father from demise at the hands of a tourism scheme doesn’t hold together particularly well at all. In addition, much of the acting here is wooden, and not just by the inexperienced supporting players. Ross has never looked especially comfortable in front of the camera, and Dunbar’s performance is uneven at best.

However, there are aspects of Eye of the Dolphin that work so well that the movie is very much redeemed. First, there’s Schroeder, who has awesome charisma and seems natural whether she’s playing an angry over-made-up city girl or frolicking with the dolphins in the Caribbean. She buys this movie all sorts of credibility, a remarkable accomplishment for someone who had just barely turned 16 by the time the movie premiered in the Bahamas.

Additionally, perhaps in part due to the use of locals to play all of the small roles in this film set in the Bahamas, it’s got a feeling of authenticity that has little to do with it’s ‘talk with the dolphins’ storyline and everything to do with the sense we get that these are real folks and these are characters worth caring about. This basic genuineness more than compensates for the ‘after school special’-style script and production values, making this a pleasant, even uplifting film to watch.

While this is a family film, it’s not one that’s particularly well suited to young children. Many people use the term ‘family film’ as a euphemism for ‘babysitter film’ for young kids. And this is not one of those. The story concerns a 14-year-old girl who’s struggling – and consuming drugs and alcohol in the process. It’s about difficult issues between a young teen and her father. It’s a movie for parents and their older kids to watch together and discuss. In short – this is a true family film.

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Guadalcanal Diary

Guadalcanal DiaryiAnybody who says he ainit scared is a fool or a liar.i

That single line of dialogue sums up the sentiments of Guadalcanal Diary better than any other. The film follows a platoon of U.S. marines as they battle to maintain control of a key airfield in the Second World War battlefront of the South Pacific.

Guadalcanal Diary is poignant because it focuses on individual characters and the diversity they share. The best scenes are the ones in which the marines are sitting around sharing where they came from, or their allegiances to particular sporting teams. They are men with wives, mothers, children and pets, yet they are in the midst of a bloody war where they or the person in the next shallow foxhole might not live through the next day. Nobody is an invincible Superman who can dodge bullets or fend off an entire Japanese battalion. These men have real fears, even in battle.

The film is based on a book by Richard Tregaskis. Since it is borrowing from the literary world, itis appropriate that Guadalcanal Diary is narrated by an omniscient soldier who is telling the story of South Pacific battles based on how he saw them. He speaks as though he is a part of the action, yet the narrator is neither seen nor mentioned by the other characters. His voice is polished like the iComing soon to a theatre near youi guy who is heard in nearly every commercial. The role of the narrator is usually to directly address the audience, making them an active part of the filmis world. But because this narrator is not an active part of the filmis world, the narration doesnit draw the audience in.

Made in the midst of the Second World War, this movie features noticeably anti-Japanese sentiments. In the context the period, this might have been acceptable, but this many decades later, it is difficult to tolerate the filmis blatant racism and stereotyping of an entire nation. Although the film shows Americans treating Japanese prisoners fairly, it also shows several of the U.S. soldiers mocking the Japanese, and teasing them with respect to their appearance and cultural beliefs.

In order to give the movie an authentic appearance, many of the battle scenes are spiced up with actual newsreel footage. While it does add a certain level of realism, the two donit exactly mix seamlessly. Since the newsreel shots are not intended to stand out from the rest of the film, itis unfortunate that they show a coarser grain, different lighting and inconsistent continuity. In addition, very few of the weapons that we see in the newsreel footage also appear onscreen outside of battle, so they n and all the tacked-on footage n feel like theyive come out of nowhere.

Guadalcanal Diary works because the characters come across as being real. The plotting is kept to a minimum and that was the whole point. John Wayne might have been fearless in his Second World War epics, but the soldiers in this film are real. Like the man said, those who donit feel fear in this sort of circumstance are fools.

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Mean Machine

Mean MachineIf director Barry Skolnick and cinematographer Alex Barber mixed blue and yellow, they would probably charter the idea that the colour red was created. These two gentlemen fiercely remain under the impression that Mean Machine, as a result of a supposedly perfect blend, is a film that carries the dualistic essence of soccer (football in Britain), while reflecting on the endurance of the human spirit. In fact, only a rough-draft sketch of such issues is presented – a confounding shortfall, considering that these two men are impassioned by the game, and wanted to make the quintessential movie about it (Skolnick was handpicked by Producer Matthew Vaughn for his love of the sport and hyper kinetic visual flare, while Barber was recruited for his edgy visual sense).

Mean Machine is a reworking of the 1971 football classic, The Longest Yard – the Burt Reynolds, “macho-film” prototype, in which he creates a winning football team out of a disaffected group of prison inmates. Vinnie Jones, fleshes out the Reynolds role wonderfully, with a knack for playing the mercurial, hard-nosed “everyman-convict” – building on his surly typecast, established in the Guy Ritchie cult favourites, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Snatch.

While Mean Machine borrows from the Longest Yard concept, it injects a unique British signature – one from a darker, grittier, and more harrowing vantage point. This film is billed as a comedy, and while the comedic elements are in place (British in-jokes, sight-gags, quips, and so on), the use of rigorous dramatic elements in the depiction of jail-life, and the cursory examination of a collective self-esteem that’s been violated, render the film thematically multifaceted – although confused. The confusion is set by the surface characterizations, and unmanageable plot. It’s unmanageable because the movie plays like a series of vignettes – clips of a film that are still looking for a common through-line.

Danny Meehan’s (Jones) introduction is concise but solid. In a scene that echoes the self-reflexive quality of cinema, Danny is watching his own commercial ad on television… one that throws in his face his tough and rebellious, but questionable character. Once his assault of two police officers is complete, Danny’s short-term fate is a one to three year sentence at a rough-and-tumble British prison.

Barber and Skolnick do a great job of creating an austere and cold prison environment, with the use of well-captured visuals of dank cells, uninviting shower-rooms, the palpable sense of the sterile grates of prison fences that seem ubiquitous, inside and outside the facility. With a muted colour palate that accentuates the sombre emotions associated with steel blue-greens, and cigarette-ash grays, one could easily feel as depressed and desperate as any of the inmates. A key emotive scene comes when Danny exits the high-pressure atmosphere of the locker room, to enter the higher-pressure atmosphere of the soccer field, and we see a prison guard dog nearly choke himself, trying to attack Danny – perfectly envisioned by a camera that has increased it’s shutter-speed to slow the action to a point where nothing is missed, but subtly understood.

Exiting the theatre, you may feel a strong, visceral sense of isolation induced by the confines of prison, but it doesn’t outshine the shadows cast by a ruptured story line, bubblegum characters, and familiar situations that have substance in other films. Nonetheless, the film has sections that carry resonance, as well as a Jones’ performance that’s fun to watch, and a soundtrack that effectively underscores the nature of each scene.

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