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White House here we come: (l-r) Mac and Rock in Head of State.

The Dark Horse
By Shawn Stone

Head of State
Directed by Chris Rock

In real life, politics are—more often than not—unintentionally hilarious. On screen, the record is considerably more spotty. This might be because the best political art requires a point of view, and a Hollywood filmmaker who takes a point of view is likely to lose at least half of the audience. Critics may have loved Bulworth, but Warren Beatty’s angry, in-your-face convictions didn’t draw crowds. Most political comedies play it safe, and earn neither an audience nor laughs.

Head of State, then, is an interesting choice for Chris Rock’s directorial debut. Rock can’t quite make the most of it; this PG-13 feature contains less mature material than five minutes of one of his HBO specials. Though he can’t do much with the film’s tired plot, Rock doesn’t soften his attitude, which lends the film an honest edge.

Mays Gilliam (Rock) is a Washington, D.C., alderman who is tapped by “the party” (one presumes Democratic party) to run for president. Don’t ask for the details. He also taps his brother Mitch (Bernie Mac) as running mate. Mays is set up to lose, but once his populist message (“That ain’t right”) catches on, he rises in the polls. You can imagine the rest. (Oh, there’s a love interest, too.)

As director, Rock made some of his smartest moves before filming began. His casting is superb: Lynn Whitfield and Dylan Baker as campaign handlers; James Rebhorn as a sleazy senator; and Mac as his bail-bondsman brother. These pros help carry the film through its mechanical moments.

There’s still some edge to Head of State, however. It was reported that one of the reasons Alma Powell did not want her husband, Colin, to run for president was the fear of assassination. Rock confronts this in a brutal running gag that drew a big laugh every time. This is the one of a series of visual gags that are unfailingly funny. Another favorite: When word is leaked on election night that the black candidate is leading, panicked whites are shown running from their suburban California homes to get to the polls before it’s too late.

The sharpest satire is a timely jab at know-nothing isolationism. Mays’ dim, self-righteous opponent (played with oily skill by Nick Searcy) ends all his speeches with the following prayer: “God bless America—and no place else.”

In the film’s most passionate moment, Mays—in an instance when the character and Rock become one—attacks this offensively pat dictum. He asks why no place else: “What about God bless Haiti . . . or any place else in the world?”

At that moment, one almost wishes Chris Rock really were head of state.

From a Hole in the Ground

The Core
Directed by Jon Amiel

The Core, a disaster movie about a catastrophe at the center of the Earth, is both deeply silly and facetiously smart, and until the final stretch, shamelessly entertaining. Directed with whiplash efficiency by Jon Amiel, the film rockets through a mishmash of scientific soundbites, rah-rah heroics, and tasteless pathos to deliver its nifty twists and bang-whiz special effects with the surety of a Fed Ex commercial.

In the tradition of Deep Impact and Armageddon (and plagiarizing from both), The Core is set up with an outbreak of seemingly unrelated “events.” People with pacemakers drop like flies. Flocks of birds go bonkers in Trafalgar Square. A bizarre borealis looms in the atmosphere. Each of these anomalies is related to electromagnetics; the polarized dots are connected by a humble geophysicist, Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart). Josh has been called in by the Pentagon, which fears these unnatural disasters may be the work of “enemies.” With the assistance of suave Dr. Zimsky (Stanley Tucci), a Carl Sagan-size personality, Josh deduces that the Earth’s spinning molten core has stalled, throwing off the planet’s magnetic fields. Doomsday is expected in three months, at which time the Earth will turn into a gigundo microwave—with humans as the cocktail wieners. Fun facts (betcha didn’t know that migrating birds navigate by magnetized ions in their brains) keep the plot somewhat plausible for a remarkable 20 minutes or so—although even the most parboiled of scientific crockery couldn’t explain the climactic relevance of singing killer whales.

The Pentagon puts together a team of “terranauts” willing to risk their lives to jump-start the core with the ever-handy nuclear payload. These clichéd characters are just off-kilter enough to be interesting, and are played with straight-faced levity by a top-notch crew that includes Hilary Swank as NASA’s youngest-ever navigator, Bruce Greenwood as the fatalistic flight commander, and urban heavy Delroy Lindo, cast way against type as a rogue brainiac working secretly in the desert (where else?) on an indestructible material he calls, only half-jokingly, “unobtainium.” Conveniently enough, he’s made a prototype for an underground submarine out of it. The ship resembles a cubed earthworm, but when it plunges through the Earth’s crust, it’s hang-onto-your-cup-holder all the way down. And the above-ground effects are surprisingly convincing, especially the sequence atop the Golden Gate Bridge as it’s zapped into tindersticks. Since the landmark fatalities (a requisite of the genre) succumb to Mother Nature rather than manmade explosions, the carnage is as escapist as the zingy dialogue (it’s noticeable that cowriter John Rogers got his start on Cosby).

The film’s oddball sense of humor is at odds with its self-sacrificing heroics, particularly when terranauts start frying and dying, but without the cartoony banter their increasingly preposterous ordeal would be just as intolerable as Armageddon. As is, it’s more fun than a science fair, especially when Tucci releases his inner Dr. Strangelove and Eckhart gets down to hunky business. For a journey to the bottom of the popcorn bucket, wartime audiences could do worse.

—Ann Morrow

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