Three Shades of Fiasco: Solemn, Foreign, Poppy
By Fernando F. Croce

Julianne Moore, silently distraught, wanders the night streets of New Jersey over the opening credits of Freedomland, culminating with bloodied hands at the hospital and a terrifying title -- "directed by Joe Roth." The Christmas with the Kranks auteur handling one of Richard Price's novelistic moans about urban wounds? Moore speaks (or blurts, rather, as has been her wont in her recent bereft maternal roles) of her car, with sleeping son in the back, being jacked by a black stranger, and even before you can say "Susan Smith," the tenements around the scene of the crime, mostly black-populated, are being barricaded by the police. Protest erupts: black kids are often disappearing in the area, but the authorities only show up en masse for the missing white child. Detective Samuel L. Jackson is assigned to watch over Moore, absorb her scrunched-faced weeping and shouting, and try to keep a lid on the volcanic racial tensions constantly about to topple into riots; a weary soul, asthmatic and hard-nosed, whose work "makes it very hard to believe in humanity." "But I do believe in God," Jackson adds, and because it's Price speaking through him, a bow is to be tied at the end of the speech: "The more we try to know, the more mysterious life gets." Roth's too busy making the camera lugubriously jagged to lend his personal "Amen," although it is hardly necessary when the whole dreary production drips of mock-compassion.

Spike Lee already adapted Price in Clockers, but the author can only dream of reaching the soulfully anguished New York caldrons of Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead and Ferrara's R 'Xmas. "There is no God! I am God" screams Ron Eldard as Moore's brother, a bellicose Gannon cop, allowing Freedomland to forge ahead with its ridiculous intimations of hellfire, mainly centered upon the titular shut-down children's asylum which seems to contain the souls of abused and abandoned kids amid the rubble. Moore, who by this time has spun her Magnolia hysteria enough to leave audiences red-eyed, is left alone in one of the dilapidated rooms, sort of sneaky shock-therapy to draw the truth from her, clinched then by haunted Edie Falco's single-take monologue about her own missing son. Spoiler? The film is spoiled from the start. Taken out of the hash-pile of America's Sweethearts and parachuted into Social Relevance grounds, Roth trips over the project's self-importance and falls nose first into February-release cow shit, taking the actors with him. Jackson's character is given an expanding paunch and a son locked away in the slammer, yet it remains as unmodulated a bellow-'n'-simmer job as the quick paychecks of Basic and S.W.A.T. Pale as a napkin, Moore gives herself a hernia whipping up torment, a dedicated cyclone simply squandered on Roth's camera. The search parties poking the bushes with sticks are looking for a good film. Keep looking.

*

Night Watch is Russia's Lord of the Rings, I've been told, though it manages to outdo even Peter Jackson's disposable behemoth for degraded mythology. The opening chapter of a promised trilogy (oh boy), it's a convoluted FX smear where the subtitles display more animation than the images; a video-game of a cartoon, or vice-versa if you prefer, and unadulterated crap in any order. The opener is a medieval battle halted mid-rumble so the forces of Light and Darkness can work out a shaky truce, the Light guys patrolling the night to make sure the Dark fellas don't get out of line. (Stay tuned for Day Watch, kids. Or not.) Its 1992 Moscow prologue conducts a long-distance miscarriage through black magic, introducing Konstantin Khabensky as the hero, Anton, a human who, amid the sped-up tumult of people morphing into panthers, finds the ability to look into the future. An "Other," but "only a light Other, one of the Night Watch." There are also Seers, a Prophecy, the Gloom, vampires and the Vortex from Ghostbusters, though the vampire-hunting flash hints at a rejected Blade installment. A boy (Dima Martynov) hears the siren call of hungry bloodsuckers, swirls of animated ravens crowd the Russian skies, and a subway rider may be the incarnation of a cursed Virgin who, demonstrated through flipbook animation, helplessly brings death everywhere she goes. And my head hurts.

Armageddon nowadays looks like an MTV belch, even in Russia. The inclusion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Martynov's home might say more than the picture really wanted about cultural colonization, yet Night Watch was from the beginning made with eyes set on the international market that swallowed The Matrix whole and burped for the sequels. Timur Bekmambetov, the director, rolls the movie as a clip reel of visual effects, and the retina soon grows weary -- no occasion is too insignificant to send the camera spinning into walls or through the pumping pistons of a carburetor, bluish filters spiked with a soupcon of pucked blood. Could there be post-Soviet Union political subtext to the frazzled-rave pace, or dozens of specifically Russian cultural details etched onto trucks turning cartwheels on the freeway and nightcrawlers crumbling to dust when hit by flashlights? All lost on this ignorant dope? Or could it be that Bekmambetov, flooring the digital-scuzz pedal, has just remade Underworld (or Constantine, or Van Helsing) with the grubby bravado of a spastic hack happily humming "Hollywood, Here I Come"? The biggest box-office hit in Russian history, not that we have the right to make fun when Titanic tops our; no wonder Sokurov shows his work abroad, but I digress. Two more chapters ahead? May the Light protect us.

*

It takes a depressing week indeed to make death the life of the party, yet the Grim Reaper in Final Destination 3 seems to bring out the heartiest yucks out of audiences. Why is the series still around? A paper could be written on how these happy-go-gory flicks try to temper the mortality anxiety of their adolescent targets with giddy set-pieces of slapsticky carnage, but ink would be better used in separating David Ellis from James Wong. The former helmed the previous Destination installment with some genuine flair for morbid farce; the latter came up with the original concept of delayed death and daisy-chain slaughter, and, returning for episode three, proves to be the most vulgar purveyor of corrupt shocks since Herschell Gordon Lewis. Here's the drill -- a gang of teenagers manage to dodge death (here, appropriately enough, a disastrous thrill-ride) only for unknown forces to come a-knockin', picking off the survivors one by one via elaborately gruesome gaggery, the nuttier the better (tanning salons, a fast-food drive-through and weight-lifting gyms figure in). A looming demonic statue chortles from above the fatidic rollercoaster ride, yet Wong's soulless panoply of decapitations, eviscerations, and scorchings operates less on any sense of spiritual retribution or cosmic determinism than on a hipster's opportunistic sense of the high of butchery, scrubbed off catharsis and wolfed down like candy by viewers. Even Hostel showed more respect for the dead.


Reviewed March 2, 2006.

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