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Review: Hustle & Flow

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Unapologetically formulaic and shamelessly entertaining, Hustle & Flow had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where several major critics seemed to take its presence in the competition lineup as a personal affront. These people should chill. Yes, the storyline — soulful pimp at moral crossroads decides to pursue long-held dream of hip-hop stardom — is risible at best. No, writer-director Craig Brewer isn’t the next Todd Haynes or Wes Anderson. But then, Hustle & Flow doesn’t aspire to be an art film. Perhaps no movie you’ll see this year is as hell-bent on giving you a raucous good time, and it succeeds, by and large, thanks to the most precious commodity a commercial movie can possess: sheer conviction. Brewer and his remarkable cast chug down the road more traveled as if they were cutting through the underbrush with machetes en route to Shangri-la. Every cliché vibrates.

    Granted, Hustle & Flow isn’t wall-to-wall retread. DJay, the pimp-turned-rapper, may be a stock character — Mickey Rooney with a bitch-slap, basically — but Terrence Howard, in a star-making performance, invests this familiar figure with a spiky individuality, the barely controlled desperation of a man who knows he’s on the verge of obsolescence. Brewer makes the most of his seedy Memphis locations, grounding even the most implausible moments in superificial verisimilitude. But the pleasure of watching Hustle & Flow rests almost entirely in expectations expertly fulfilled. Much of the second act — and this film does indeed have three instantly discernible Syd Field acts, plus an Inciting Incident and all that other crap they try to teach you — is devoted to various homemade recording sessions, with our hero recruiting a makeshift family of outcasts (including a couple of his hos) to help him lay down tracks. If you can make it through this stuff without a big goofy grin on your face, you’re in dire need of a course in remedial fun. What’s more, the music itself is maddeningly catchy — I saw the film just once, almost six months ago, and yet I can still sing the hook from its ludicrous signature number, "It’s Hard for a Pimp." Brewer bungles the ending, straining for significance, but otherwise watching this movie is a lot like being greeted at the door by the world’s biggest, friendliest collie. Don’t bother to resist. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: Bad News Bears
Give Richard Linklater credit: When he sets out to make a mainstream studio comedy, he damn well makes a mainstream studio comedy. Not for him the stylistic curlicues Steven Soderbergh judiciously employed in Erin Brockovich, much less the bold, potentially off-putting experimentation of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, which transformed our most infantile movie star into a shiny blue objet d’art. Give this dude a real budget and some corporate overlords and he speedily mothballs any hint of formal bravado. Like the amiably lightweight School of Rock, but to an even greater degree, Bad News Bears revels in punchy, machine-tooled anonymity, content to hit its narrative marks and score its mildly subversive laughs. Judged by the standards of Hollywood comedy, it’s well above average; viewed in the context of Linklater’s formidable filmography, it’s little more than a quizzical footnote.

    Apparently having decided that the 1976 original wasn’t broke, Bad Santa scribes Glenn Ficarra and John Requa ain’t fixed it. Scene by scene, the films are nearly identical, though substituting Billy Bob Thornton for Walter Matthau inevitably means that alcoholic coach Morris Butterworth is now more hopped-up than hangdog; Matthau’s world-weary performance felt fully lived-in, whereas Thornton’s, while always amusing, is more of a conceptual stunt. (Ficarra and Requa do give him some priceless one-liners, including a soon-to-be-classic non sequitur that compares playing baseball with dating a German chick.) Intriguing, too, to see which envelopes different eras are inclined to push: The remake ratchets up the raunch factor to PG-13’s breaking point, sending the team on a field trip to Hooters and providing them with a jiggly cheerleading section, but jettisons the avalanche of ethnic slurs that gave the ’76 version its bite. As an excuse to escape the summer heat for a couple of hours, Bad News Bears will suffice. But Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, due next year, is the one worth getting excited about. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: The Devil’s Rejects
If nothing else, the second film from musician-turned-director Rob Zombie proves one thing: Zombie loves his wife’s ass. In fact, Sheri Moon Zombie’s backside gets so much screen time it practically deserves its own credit. Other than her shaking tailfeather, however, the film has very little to offer. What starts out promisingly enough — as a grisly portrait of a band of sadistic serial killers — quickly degenerates into a clichéd and tired revenge story that tries, and fails, to be shocking. In this case, the man on the quest for vengeance is Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), a religious fanatic whose brother was killed by the Devil’s Rejects posse. When he invades the Rejects’ hideout, he forces them to go on the run and begin a subsequent killing spree that borrows heavily from Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, but without the romance or media satire which made Stone’s film so interesting. Even the violence is unsatisfying and recycled. At one point the stringy-haired Otis (Bill Moseley) cuts off someone’s face and wears it as a mask. Where are those fava beans and Chianti when you need them, huh? — Nic Sheff
Review: The Ballad of Greenwich Village
Well, at least Norman Mailer admits it was all about getting laid. Karen Kramer’s documentary portrays Greenwich Village as a haven for the bohemian artists and outcasts who helped define American culture: jazz musicians, beat poets, abstract expressionists, etc. etc. Which all begs the question: Is there anybody out there who doesn’t know that Greenwich Village is ground zero for the boho creed? While it’s always nice to have your strongly-held beliefs reaffirmed by the likes of Maya Angelou, Tim Robbins, and Woody Allen, one yearns for Mailer’s abovementioned frankness, who, recalling his teenage years in Brooklyn dreaming of the carnal possibilities of the Village’s "loose women", suggests the neighborhood’s allure was as much about Booze and Booty as it was about Truth and Beauty. Kramer’s film flits through numerous topics, never settling on one long enough to make a case for it. The Village has a serious history of political activism — not just the half-baked "power to the people, man" stuff of today’s hipsters, but heavy-duty Marxist stuff from the likes of Upton Sinclair and John Reed. Unfortunately, Kramer pays it just enough lip service to leave us dangling before moving on to her next topic, resulting in a kind of frustrating sketchiness. Yes, it’s really bad that the Village is being gentrified by Evil Yuppies With Money™, but surely someone better than Millionaire Movie Star Tim Robbins can relay this message to us. And amid all the NYU-bashing (the school has been steadily buying up Village property) you’d think someone might point out that NYU has brought vast numbers of creative people here over the years, too. As a result, what might have been an in-depth look at one of the vital centers of world culture winds up as a missed opportunity. — Bilge Ebiri
Date DVD #42: Constantine
How to understand the sexual appeal of Keanu Reeves? He of the inscrutable pronouncements, purposely flat delivery, and messianic hair? Cinematic seducer of Ashley Judd, Charlize Theron, and Sandra Bullock? Superhunk of cyberpunk?

In Constantine, now out on DVD, Keanu — dressed in a black overcoat, maned by such rich thick hair as to make balding men weep — is nearly and strangely invincible. In this over-the-top Catholic fantasy, he slays demons with the workaday demeanor of a bad accountant. Yes, he delivers those same blank, practically comatose expressions and muted-yet-singsong delivery, his whole body enlivened only by his two faithful sidekicks: The Hair and The Overcoat. But even while coughing up his cancer-riddled lungs as an asshole exorcist, he still delivers. I think his shtick works because he’s so flat. With no obvious acting talent — and yet no lack of it, either — he gives us that blank screen upon which we can project our movie dreams. It’s as if the Keanu we see is some virtual avatar for some thoughtful puppetmaster (in which case, it makes sense why he’s such a perfect videogame hero). In every movie, Keanu gives at least one nod to his persona (think: "I know kung-fu"). And Constantine catches the self-aware doofus, the bud who doesn’t mind playing around in comic-book plots for the rest of his life. Ridiculously, he flips the devil the bird in one of the film’s last scenes, and it’s truly funny. It’s as if he’s flipping off his critics too, who always want him to give them more, when he’s always been so certain that what’s best, is less. — Logan Hill



 
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