03 May, 2005

Surfin' Multiplex: Sahara, The Interpreter, Valiant


This shouldn't have been any good at all. An attempt to update Indiana Jones style treasure hunting with a bit of commando and James Bond flash thrown in. On top of that, starring
Matthew McConaughey, the charisma free actor once touted as the next Paul Newman because (get this), he looks a little bit like the young Paul Newman. And with Steve Zahn as his comedy side-kick! Steve Zahn who has made a profession out of being the annoying goofy side-kick. If that weren't enough, the trailer for this film ended with the announcer intoning portentiously, "A Breck Eisner Film!". It's a wonder I went to see this at all.

In my defence, Penelope Cruz turns up as eye-candy/W.H.Org epidemiologist tracking a mysterious and deadly illness in Western Africa, and Delroy Lindo, William H. Macy, and Rainn Wilson pop up in small roles. And being a big silly action film, a lot of the action is big and very silly.

Yet, it works. For all the wrong reasons. The casting so reviled above, is its strongest card. Matthew McConaughey is the bit of a goof, winning by luck and determination, and Steve Zahn's is his quietly more capable sidekick. At last a side-kick who actually does things, fights, etc. instead of being there to feed gag lines to the hero. McConaughey for his part subverts the whole action hero thing with his laid back almost to the point of comatose 'tude. Whether this was intentional or not, I didn't care. I could suspend disbelief on the frankly enjoyably ludicrous action/adventure plot, because I found the relationship between the characters strangely plausible. Also, an action movie which uses real place names (probably inaccurately, but hey), and unlike last year's National Treasure, also MacGuffin'ed around an ostensible American Historic artifact, it doesn't get all self-righteously flag wavin' at the end. For that alone, I forgive it its sins, and was entertained against anyone's better judgment.

The Interpreter

While Sahara was enjoyably stupid. This was just stupid. Maybe I had higher expectations, but as a film ballyhooed as a thriller set with the UN as a back drop (and actually filmed "inside" which I cared about as much as I cared about the crappy "inside" of the flacid Special Edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind), ostensibly helping to promote the purpose of the UN to us isolationist, xenophobic, ignorant pissant filmgoers, I couldn't help wondering if John Bolton had a hand in its cack-handed screenplay.

Nicole Kidman plays the title character a UN General Assembly Interpreter who overhears a possible assassination conspiracy against the soon to be visiting, Mugabe-like dictatator of her original homeland. She reports this, and then spends the rest of the film acting shifty and suspicious and complains about not being believed while not being forthcoming about her own past to her ostensible protectors, one of whom is Sean Penn, who can't just be a depressed cop, but has to have his own elaborate story of loss (supposedly he had the filmmakers beef up his part, bad mistake, less is more for Penn, probably the Mystic River and 21 Grams reviews went to his now tortured with gurning head).

There were many moments of jaw dropping stupidity, the worst involves a scene in which a suspect, known to be making terrorist bombs is allowed to board a crowded bus, whose passengers include Nicole and an opposition politician (either obvious targets, even if you can't guess what side the baddie's on) and is not stopped because "we don't want to blow our cover." Arrest the guy, don't follow him just to see what atrocity he's planning. Normally this sort of thing would make me grind my teeth into powder, but by this time I was nearly dozing off from the overwhelming air of worthiness, which was insufficient to breathe any life into the gaping holes in the plot. A character commits suicide, just because if he were alive he'd conveniently be able to explain what's going on. There's one of those twists near the end that only exists to add another twenty minutes onto the already overlong film. The real twist is that although many critics are lining up to say at last, a big budget film not aimed at teenagers, I'd take Harold and Kumar Get the Munchies over this any day.


I must say that for the first five minutes of this CGI animated British film, I was thinking of sneaking into another screen to watch Be Cool instead. There was nothing that wrong with it, an anthropomorphised tale of carrier pigeons assisting the fight during WWII, and apart from that historic hook, the all too familiar by now puns and jokes about how human they act. One bizarrely shoe-horned in gag was about a mother telling her son he'd always be an egg to her (surely this should have been "chick", imagine telling your kids they'll always be embryos to you (like George W. does), maybe you bonded too much over the sonogram). Also, the way the pigeon design moved their eyes forward to stereo vision, was nothing short of creepy. It did seem old hat, second rate, should have been straight to video, despite the top notch cast of brit vocal talent, including Ewan (hey didn't he just do Robots as well?) McGregor, as the title undersized pigeon sneaking his way into the service of his country.

Yet somehow, once it got rolling (resisted temptation to say "off the ground" ouch, no kicking!), and actually stopped being an animal parody of the good old brit war film, and became a good old brit war film it actually drew me in and went on to be quite enjoyable (it really took off, ouch, quit it!). By the end when we're told that in reality, more than half of the animals awarded commendations for service during the war, were carrier pigeons, I felt a swell of sentimentality right down to my Mrs. Miniver. Mildly recommended then, and take heart, like the Battle of Britain, things looked gloomiest at the beginning.

Of course either Sahara or Valiant could be just complete rubbish, but they looked great next to The Interpreter.


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