Hustle & Flow
(Paramount, 2005), D: Craig Brewer, w/ Terrence Howard, Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning. Rating: NNNNN
In an industry whose first rule is "Never use your own money to finance a film," producer John Singleton (Boyz N The Hood) went into his own pocket so writer-director Craig Brewer could make this electrifying portrait of a low-level Memphis pimp and hustler who wants to leave the life for a career as a rapper. Veteran character actor Terrence Howard - at 35 he has dozens of credits ranging from class (Crash, Ray) to crass (Glitter, Big Mama's House) - was handed the role of a lifetime.
Brewer has an astonishing eye for sociological detail and a love of the process of music-making. The film's centrepieces are the magnificent sequences that show DJay and his producer (Anthony Anderson in a non-comic role) creating his demo tracks in a makeshift studio. Brewer understands this material, and loads the soundtrack with music and raps by Memphis artists.
There are tremendous performances by Taryn Manning (8 Mile), Taraji Henson (Baby Boy), DJ Qualls (The Core) and rapper Ludacris. This is a terrifically constructed DVD, with a solid transfer and informative extras.
EXTRAS Director commentary, half-hour making-of, three featurettes, six promotional clips.
The Syrian Bride
(Mongrel Media, 2004) D: Eran Riklis, w/ Hiam Abbass, Makram J. Khoury, Clara Khoury. Rating: NNNN
This is a good week for sociocultural oddities. The great shock in the extras of Hustle & Flow is the realization that the guy who wrote and directed that portrait of black life in Memphis is white. The Syrian Bride, a sympathetic portrait of a conflicted Syrian Druze family living in the Golan Heights, was co-written and directed by an Israeli Jew.
Dramatically compact, the action of The Syrian Bride takes place over the course of a single day: Mona (Clara Khoury) will marry a Syrian television actor she has never met and leave the Golan, never to return to her family. The Israelis don't let Syrians into the Golan unless they're living there.
Tensions, both personal and political, build as Mona's estranged brother returns with his Russian wife and son, and her father, a former political prisoner, decides to defy the Israelis' ban on his going anywhere near the demilitarized zone along the Syrian border.
Director Eran Riklis presents a situation in which everyone has his or her reasons, and all the reasons are reasonable, only anything that anyone does sets someone else off. It's family life as a minefield where all the explosions are emotional.
EXTRAS Excellent and revealing interview commentary with director Riklis and New York Times cultural reporter Karen Durbin, half-hour making of, theatrical trailer. Arabic, English, French soundtracks. English, French subtitles.
The Constant Gardener
(Focus/Alliance Atlantis, 2005) D: Fernando Meirelles, w/ Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston. Rating: NNNN
This is also a week when two of my top 10 films of 2005 turn up on DVD, and since a couple of people have asked, here's the list: 1 and 2. Munich/War Of The Worlds, 3. Layer Cake, 4. A History Of Violence, 5. Capote, 6. Sin City, 7. King Kong, 8. Hustle & Flow, 9. The Squid And The Whale, and 10. The Constant Gardener.
Of the year's big contemporary political thrillers - Syriana, Lord Of War and The Constant Gardner - the last is by far the most successful, because it's not theoretical. It's a tragic love story wrapped around a political thriller, or vice versa.
Ralph Fiennes plays an English diplomatic functionary transformed when his activist wife (the stunning and Oscar-deserving Rachel Weisz) fails to come home from a field trip investigating medical research abuse in Kenya.
John Le Carré's novel had a distinctly Northern perspective that Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City Of God) twists to give the narrative a more Southern point of view: the African characters register more strongly on film than they did on the page, and the realities of life in Kenya are far less abstract. Meirelles also offers a splintered time scheme (you must pay attention to follow the story) and a colour palette so disorienting that when I first saw The Constant Gardener on a hotel pay-per-view I thought something was wrong with the TV.
Tremendous work by all concerned. The rating's not a five only because the DVD extras aren't great and there's no commentary.
EXTRAS Four interesting deleted scenes, three making-of featurettes. English, French soundtracks. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
(DreamWorks, 2005), D: Wes Craven, w/ Rachel McAdams, Cillian Murphy, Brian Cox. Rating: NNN
If you like to watch the making-of featurettes on a DVD before the main feature, don't do it with Red Eye, because they're full of spoilers. This is important because the trailer for Red Eye shifted in the middle, suggesting the film was one thing. Then the film itself turned in another direction, though it was still about a nice young woman (Rachel McAdams) trapped on a plane next to an apparently charming but ultimately lethal young man (Cillian Murphy).
Red Eye is a crackerjack little thriller with a tight three-act structure, two dynamic leading performers and a very clever way of working the fact that for the middle 40 minutes of the 85-minute film we're stuck in a single claustrophobic location.
You may be tired of hearing about McAdams by now, but, yes, she is that good, and Murphy, previously seen as the survivor in 28 Days Later, is an actor of tremendous range. Compare and contrast this performance with his work in Neil Jordan's Breakfast On Pluto. Special mention for Jayma Mays as McAdams's trainee stuck dealing with crises at work. Red Eye isn't deep, but it is fun.
EXTRAS Run-of-the-mill commentary by director Wes Craven, producer Marianne Maddalena, editor Patrick Lussier, two making-of featurettes, gag reel. English, French soundtracks. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, January 17
Lord Of War (Lions Gate, 2005)
Nicolas Cage as an illegal arms merchant, from the creator of Gattaca.
The Bad Sleep Well (Criterion/ Paradox, 1960)
If you think Akira Kurosawa + Toshiro Mifune = Samurai Classic, you’re in for a shock. In this thriller, a reined-in Mifune plays a salaryman in a big corporation who’s out for revenge.
Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room(Alliance Atlantis, 2005)
Compelling documentary about creative accounting. No, really.
Asylum (Paramount, 2004)
From the pen of Patrick McGrath (Spider), a tale of erotic obsession starring Natasha Richardson. Works for me.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb