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Review: The Jacket

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The Jacket tries on a lot of clothes — war-trauma trappings from Jacob’s Ladder, time travel from La Jetée, antic twitchiness from Twelve Monkeys — before it pulls its final bait-and-switch. Ahhh, “genre-bending psychological thriller,” you think, digging into your popcorn, just before the film decelerates into a — love story?

    Director John Maybury’s latest works as well as it does thanks to its cast, particularly Adrien Brody, who recovers nicely from his turn as The Village idiot. Despite being made up to look like more of an Edgar Allan Poe protagonist than usual, Brody conveys genuine warmth and kindness as Jack Starks, a Gulf War vet with a traumatic head injury who finds himself accused of murder and gets bundled off to a mental facility for the criminally insane. There, he’s subjected to gruesome treatments by the resident mad-haired doctor (Kris Kristofferson), who plugs him up with psychotropic drugs, trusses him in a straitjacket and shoves him in a morgue drawer. There, Starks begins to see things — the past, the future, etc., all overexposed flickers and glancing images projected onto his rolling eyeballs.

    The Jacket wants to be a meditation on memory and illusion, a sort of Hollywood Intro to Epistemology 101. But despite its genre hopping, it’s not as daring or self-reflexive as Memento or Donnie Darko. Starks is a more reliable narrator than he should be, and that takes half the fun out of the thriller part of the film, even as it makes him a far superior romantic lead.

    So audiences may be attracted to The Jacket‘s flash, but find themselves caught up in its human elements — the superb Brody, Keira Knightley as Starks’ sozzled love interest, the sizzingly weird Daniel Craig as a patient; Jennifer Jason Leigh conveying volumes by merely tightening her lips. The film ultimately trades indie innovation for Hollywood convention, but at least its actors aren’t bound by its constraints. — Noy Thrupkaew

Review: Gunner Palace
Gunner Palace is laced with hip-hop and heavy-metal song segments of such authenticity, one wonders why no one has recorded and marketed a “soundtrack” to the war and reconstruction in Iraq (to benefit, of course, soldiers’ and veterans’ needs).

    This scattershot but still piercing documentary follows the duties and off-hours of the 2/3 Field Artillery, a.k.a. the “gunners,” whose living quarters are the partially bombed-out pleasure palace of Uday Hussein. Not surprisingly, the visual irony of four hundred grunts and officers living among soaring ceilings and lavish furniture and taking dips in the pool in between dangerous patrols drew the eye of documentarians Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein in the fall of 2003.

    Instead of enforcing a narrative or closely examining a few characters, the filmmakers mainly roll with the soldiers in Baghdad, as they raid suspect houses, talk to mostly friendly kids (while dodging a few rocks), defuse tense gatherings, train Iraqi civil defense forces, and examine suspect lumps in the road. In between, the GIs count down the days, chase rats out of their rooms and bust a few rhymes.

    While the film is loose and unstructured (and not nearly as violent as a recent PBS Frontline), its immediacy and recent vintage make it compelling. One soldier complains that even viewers of this film will forget them quickly unless they have a loved one in Iraq. But chances are you’ll find yourself haunted by some candid moments, or musical interludes, from this snapshot of the ongoing conflict. — Daniel S. Housman
Review: Walk on Water
If the role of an proficient, taciturn secret agent borders on cliché, Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi (seen in 2001’s Late Marriage) here invests it with a compelling charisma. The story of a Mossad agent’s entanglements with the grandchildren of a Nazi war criminal is colorful and engrossing, but some missing pieces and implausible elements drag on its final buoyancy.

    Craving dangerous work to escape his feelings after his wife’s suicide, Eyal (Ashkenazi) is instead grounded with a tame assignment: spy on Pia, a German immigrant to a kibbutz, and her visiting brother Axel. The pair’s grandfather was a notorious Nazi butcher who escaped justice and may still be alive. Posing (not too believably) as a tour guide, Eyal chafes at “babysitting” the sunny, liberal pair. Pia embraces the kibbutz’s outdoor labor, communal dining and weekly folkdancing. Axel, a schoolteacher of immigrant children, wanders into the Sea of Galilee (à la Jesus) and later, at a gay disco, takes an Arab lover.

   Director Eytan Fox (Yossi & Jagger) finds ingenious moments: a naked Eyal and Axel discussing circumcision by the Dead Sea, Axel teaching his bourgeois German family an Israeli folk dance, Eyal defending some Berlin drag queens from neo-Nazi skinheads. But overall, Fox’s economical style undermines the film’s emotional ending, which involves Eyal’s flagging commitment to his questionable mission. Despite its uneven implications, Walk on Water provides a memorable spritz. — Daniel S. Housman
Review: Be Cool
 

Who in Hollywood wasn’t in Be Cool? The film, like prequel Get Shorty, yearns to be the movie lover’s movie, a gangster caper whose endless cameos and inside jokes show that actors, too, have a sense of humor about their business. The opening scene has loan shark-turned-producer Chili Palmer (John Travolta) and small-time record label owner Tommy Athens (Ed Woods) driving down Sunset Boulevard past billboards full of real actors playing fictional ones. What are they discussing? The absurdity of sequels, of course. Right they are, in this case.

    Six seconds or so after Athens is gunned down by the Russian mob, Palmer has inexplicably entered the music business, finding an exploited diva to champion (Christina Milian) and courting Athens’ wife Edie (Uma Thurman).

     Cameos ensue. Aerosmith lends a hand to Milian and saves the day. Palmer’s nemesis (Harvey Keitel) can’t seem to enunciate. Travolta and Thurman’s chemistry evaporates. The film might as well have been called “Be Seen,” though so far as I could tell the half of Hollywood that wasn’t in the movie was the smarter half, with the unlikely exception of Vince Vaughn, whose rendition of a wigger is eerie stuff, and Vaughn’s gay actor/bodyguard The Rock, who gets the only real laughs. They’re guilty ones, unfortunately, as Rock turns out to be a stereotypically effete wimp, and all the other African-American characters are Hummer-driving, glock-brandishing hoods. Shame on director F. Gary Gray, who directed Friday, where stereotypes got us to laugh. Halfway through, the two gay guys sitting beside me in the theater left in disgust. In retrospect, I probably should have followed. — Justin Clark
Review: The Pacifier
Saucy copy editors are cackling with glee this week — what word, they’re thinking, could possibly follow the title of Vin Diesel’s The Pacifier other than “suck?” That indictment isn’t completely unwarranted, true. But it doesn’t account for the goodwill Diesel earns despite the film’s hackneyed Kindergarten Cop conventions. Cast as a Navy SEAL assigned to babysit a brood of five, Diesel puts up with the requisite cacky diapers, the baby-hurl and the performance of a child-lulling dance that was so exquisitely humiliating I had to avert my eyes. Even so, I inexplicably found myself thinking, That Diesel is a good sport.

    Diesel’s thuggy sex appeal seems based on his physical attributes — that magma-man rumble of a voice, those pneumatic pecs — more than his actual persona, which makes him seem a rather nice, pluggishly affable sort, now miscast as a bad-ass dealing with brats. The movie tries to ratchet up the tension, splicing storylines with the demonic energy of a child with ADHD, but how can the already-thin premise fly if its granite giant seems more like a cuddly bear?

    Still, the film provides welcome fantasy for parents who might like a little muscle with their Anne Geddes moments, all that brawn dandling a baby. In the end, Diesel makes out like your kid in a school play — a little clumsy charm goes a long way towards earning an audience’s forgiveness. — Noy Thrupkaew
Date DVD #22: Piccadilly
 
There
are very, very few silent films that you can safely offer up
on a date. But then again, there are very, very few films — sound or no — that are as sexy and scandalous as E. A. Dupont’s 1929 masterpiece Piccadilly.

    The star attraction, of course, is Anna May Wong, who grew up in L.A.’s Chinatown and became an icon in nearby Hollywood studios. Leggy, brassy, and wise to the studio game, she once held her own with ladies like Marlene Dietrich, on and off the screen. She revelled in Chinoiserie photoshoots, played stereotypical dragon queens, then cursed the studios like a natural-born diva and ditched Hollywood for Europe, where she found few films as interesting as this one.

    Dupont’s film is set in London’s electric-lit Piccadilly Circus, where a raucous nightclub thrives. Inside, tuxedoed men serve plates of sloshing scotch and a cocky, blonde diva wows the crowd with her gams and garters. Wong plays a plucky dishwasher who works in the back with the rest of the Chinese — that is, until the dapper boss-man walks in and sees Wong sashaying when she should be scrubbing.

    Next thing you know, Wong is onstage shaking her thing in
slinky, crazy costumes; the spurned diva is plotting her revenge and the owner
is planning his seduction. Racially and otherwise, the plot is many times smarter than you’d
expect, so I won’t give away the twists. Just be advised that the film practically
turns noir by the end, with a sexy, bloody sequence shot in the shadows of Wong’s
bedroom. — Logan Hill



 
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