House here we come: (l-r) Mac and Rock in Head of
By Shawn Stone
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.
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
a Hole in the Ground
Directed by Jon Amiel
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.