fab four: (l-r) Benjamin, Hedlund, Wahlberg and Gibson
in Four Brothers.
by John Singleton
Mark Wahlberg. A few years back he was asked to step into
the formidable, fashionable shoes of Cary Grant in the tepid
remake of Charade. Now, director John Singleton has
cast him as the John Wayne character in Four Brothers,
his modern-day update of the 1965 western The Sons of Katie
Elder. Don’t get me wrong; I like Wahlberg, but Grant
he ain’t, and no matter the musculature and attitude, he’s
not exactly the Duke either. That said, the actor delivers
his new assignment with great aplomb and a clear sense of
fun, helping to elevate the solid, if decidedly B picture
into something a little more gutsy.
Wahlberg plays Bobby Mercer, a badass who blows back into
Detroit following the murder of his adopted mother Evelyn
(Fionnula Flanagan). The sainted Evelyn shepherded thousands
of kids through the city’s foster system, but adopted four
lost causes for herself, creating in the process a racially
mixed clan bound by fierce love and loyalty, and blessed by
Mum’s belief in their innate goodness. Joining Bobby first
in grief, and then, as it becomes clear that the murder was
no drive-by but an intentional hit, revenge, are upstanding
union organizer Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin), former Marine and
sometime hustler Angel (Tyrese Gibson), and sensitive punk
rocker Jack (Garrett Hedlund). Gracing the edges of the tale
are good cop Green (Terrence Howard) and criminal kingpin
Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
What Singleton lacks in finesse, he more than makes up for
with a no-frills appreciation of the simple story. As with
the great westerns, landscape is a crucial character in Four
Brothers, only instead of majestic Monument Valley, it’s
the skeletal remains of Detroit’s former prestige. The movie
takes place in that often dreary time just after Thanksgiving,
with swirling snow that looks gray even before it hits the
ground. Even Victor Sweet, the acknowledged power broker of
the neighborhood, lacks the usual Hollywood accoutrements
of wealth; his house is a ’60s raised ranch, his restaurant
is faux Italian rococo and his minions are decidedly working-class.
Shocker: Nobody drives a souped-up SUV or Lexus, and a getaway
car is a mint, forest-green El Camino.
The leads clearly enjoy the chance to play simple vengeance
without getting too caught up in psychological back story.
While the characters are mostly updates of standard types
found in westerns, there is one noticeable difference: Unlike
the classic western hero, who reluctantly left his own isolation,
or retirement, to get the job done, the eldest Mercer is more
than happy to do what needs doing. Nobody needs to coax Bobby
into helping find out who offed Evelyn; indeed, Jeremiah in
particular urges restraint and trust in the police. Benjamin,
better known as André 3000, has a good presence, but little
to do. Hedlund, clearly cast as the wet-behind-the-ears pup,
is likeable, if forgettable. Gibson gets the best chance to
shine, backing up his model good looks with a somber persona
that promises grit, determination and, when necessary, the
ability to ride shotgun.
But it’s clearly Wahlberg’s movie, and he has a ball with
it. The scene in which black-clad Bobby saunters over the
frozen lake to meet Little Victor and his crew is at once
reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and
yet weirdly of its own time and place. Even playing down and
out blue collar, Wahlberg commands attention, and so, to some
extent, does Four Brothers.
by Alice Wu
This old-fashioned romantic comedy arrives in the middle of
a summer season balanced almost evenly between the embarrassingly
light and/or stupid (Bewitched, The Dukes of Hazzard)
and the seriously heavy and/or violent (War of the Worlds,
Batman Begins). Spiced up with same-sexiness, elder
breeding and sly cultural jokes, Saving Face is the
right movie at the right time—for this reviewer, anyway.
Wil—aka Wilhelmina—Pang (Michelle Krusiec) may have become
a hotshot surgeon at a prestigious Manhattan hospital, but
every Friday night she dutifully takes the subway home to
Queens for the weekly dinner-dance at the community center.
Like a nice obedient Chinese daughter, she dances, perfunctorily,
with the men her mother (Joan Chen) picks as good marriage
prospects; she chats with her relatives; and then, wearily,
she heads back home, loaded down with packets of herbs prescribed
to make her more marriageable.
Of course she’s very gay, and this is all pointless, but she
at least gets to make goo-goo eyes at the hot ballet dancer
(Lynn Chen) who is also dragged to the weekly shindig, where
most of the interesting action involves the gossiping of a
platoon of middle-aged “Chinese biddies.”
The fun begins when mom shows up on her doorstep, pregnant.
If mom can’t imagine that her daughter is a lesbian, then
daughter can’t imagine that her long-widowed mom is sexually
active. (The fact that mom is played by drop-dead-gorgeous
Joan Chen just adds to the funny.) What follows is a comedy
of what, at first, seem to be minor misunderstandings, but
prove to be profound (and profoundly funny) misunderstandings.
And the misreadings include the audience, too: Writer-director
Alice Wu plays on our expectations beautifully, giving everyone—gay
and straight, Chinese or other—something to misread. Wu also
makes fun of mainstream “Chinese” movies. When mom goes into
a Manhattan video store and asks for “Chinese movies,” she’s
pointed to a rack of stuff like The Joy Luck Club—and
pornos. She rents a porno.
The cultural details—like the fact that, during their conversations,
Wil always speaks English and her mom never does—are as much
fun as the romantic entanglements. Everything about the movie
seems right, even the kinda wish-fulfillment ending. It’s
OK for things to work out fine, once in a while.
Seen on the Hitler Channel
by John Dahl
John Dahl’s staid dramatization of a daring World War II rescue
mission, The Great Raid, is a bit of a snooze,
although history buffs may find its old-fashioned visuals
and clear logistics to be thoroughly satisfying. Everyone
else may grow impatient with Dahl’s plodding and obvious plot
development, which concerns a battalion of raw recruits who
volunteer to liberate the notorious—and heavily guarded—Cabanatuan
POW camp in the Philippines. There isn’t much in the movie
to match the skillful framing: An opening prologue of newsreel
footage is blended into a horrific reenactment of American
prisoners being burned alive by their Japanese captors. As
the narrator, Capt. Prince (James Franco), explains, the Japanese
policy towards prisoners was total annihilation (unabashedly
a war story, the film doesn’t pull any punches when it comes
to depicting Japanese aggression). At the conclusion, joyful
footage of the surviving prisoners indicates that they were
a much livelier bunch than the bland and clichéd characters
that Dahl imagines.
The raid’s two leaders, who will of course butt heads over
strategy, are Prince and his superior, the enigmatic Lt. Colonel
Mucci (Benjamin Bratt). We know Mucci is supposed to be enigmatic
because when he’s not strutting with pent-up nobility, he’s
puffing on a stogie and staring into an unfathomable distance.
In one example of the film’s canned-nostalgia dialogue, Prince
declares that he just wants to do his part and go home to
his wife. Later, a casualty will be referred to as a “poor
dumb bastard.” There is much talk of faith but no mention
of God—the film isn’t that old-fashioned, though it
does dare to portray a kindly and brave Catholic priest.
Meanwhile the prisoners, who have been incarcerated for three
years, are running out of hope and time. Capt. Gibson (Joseph
Fiennes) is wasting away from malaria while his bonnie comrade
Capt. Redding (Marton Csokas) is going stir-crazy and may
be on the brink of inciting the guards to greater sadism.
The always-stylish Csokas gives the only vivid performance,
with his louche take on Jimmy Stewart. Gibson’s idealized
love object, Margaret (Connie Nielson), risks her life with
the Manila underground to smuggle medicine into the camp.
Though it’s even more predictable than the raid itself, the
clunky inclusion of the Philippine resistance is the film’s
most interesting angle.
Perhaps to pay homage to the real-life raiders, there are
too many characters, or at least, too many with too little
of import to do. The battalion’s interpersonal conflicts are
as tepid as Army tea and the director’s attempts at reproducing
the stirring fatalism of Saving Private Ryan only accentuates
the film’s inferior characterization. Despite Dahl’s sincerity,
“the greatest military escape in U.S. history” is a bust.