All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

SHAFT

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B

John Shaft might have first appeared on screen nearly thirty
years ago, but he’s still one cool dude. Actually the hero of
John Singleton’s smart, sassy reinvigoration of the 1970s
series isn’t the original Shaft at all, but his nephew, a New
York City cop of all things, who chucks his badge in revulsion
at a judicial system that lets a racist killer off the hook
and becomes a lone wolf vigilante, as his uncle had been. But
the spirit and style of the new flick is very much one with
that of the earlier three pictures based on Ernest Tidyman’s
character, and the result is not just a successful bit of
nostalgia but a vibrant, classy sample of American pulp
entertainment in its own right. It’s also a triumphant
reassertion of the promise that John Singleton showed in his
first film, the powerful “Boyz N the Hood” (1991); the young
director stumbled badly in his sophomore feature, the dreary,
pretentious “Poetic Justice” (1993), and his third effort,
“Rosewood” (1997), didn’t get the approbation it deserved
(despite some flaws, it was a intriguingly mythic tale), but
here he shows himself in fine command again.

Singleton’s helped, of course, by a tight, exciting script
marked by Richard Price’s flair at capturing the gritty
atmosphere of urban life and streetwise patois while providing
spurts of macabre humor and stylish violence; working together
beautifilly, Price and Singleton (along with co-writer
Shane Salerno) nail the tone that a twenty-first century
“Shaft” should have, in the form of a happily convoluted plot
involving not only the hero’s crusade to get his man but also
elements dealing with a damsel in distress, police corruption,
the power of wealth in the judicial system and drug gangs.
What’s remarkable is that although the narrative is quite
complex, the writers and director manage to keep it clear and
crisp; only rarely will a viewer ponder why something’s
happening. And Isaac Hayes’ familiar throbbing score keeps
things moving splendidly.

The cast excels, too. Samuel L. Jackson brings his patented
blend of offhanded charm and underlying menace to the title
character, achieving a sense of street nobility that’s just
perfect for the character. He’s seconded in a few scenes by
Richard Roundtree, smooth and suave as the uncle who’s still
in the mix and still in shape. The younger Shaft also has
some amusing assistants, most notably a wild-eyed, jive-spouting
driver played by Busta Rhymes, who gets a good many chuckles
even if at times he seems an updated version of Antonio “Huggy
Bear” Fargas from “Starsky and Hutch.” There’s also a nice
turn, for a change, from Vanessa Williams, as a tough female
cop who’s obviously sweet on Shaft.

But it’s the pair of villains that gives the picture its final,
most important lift. Christian Bale, fresh from his amazingly
controlled turn as Bateman in “American Psycho,” uncoils nicely
in this followup, bringing intensity and fearsomeness to the
rich, spoiled racist Walter Wade whom Shaft pursues. Even more
impressive is Jeffrey Wright (the star of “Basquiat”), who
mixes humor and viciousness in flawless proportions as
“Peoples” Hernandez, a local drug lord who links up with Wade
to off a potential witness against him and build up his own
business in the process. Wright gives a witty, impishly evil
spin to the character (and a great accent to boot); the screen
hasn’t seen anything to match it since Benicio Del Toro nearly
stole the show in “The Usual Suspects.”

There are, of course, some flaws here. The members of the
Hernandez gang are presented in the cliched Keystone Crooks
fashion; they fire interminable rounds of ammunition at our
hero, but never manage to hit a thing. (Are there any worse
marksmen in the world than action-movie heavies?) The pace
of the picture occasionally goes a bit flat. The “police
corruption” angle isn’t handled as smoothly as it might be (and
one character’s “return from the dead” isn’t properly explained).
The final confrontation between Shaft and “Peoples” isn’t
nearly as exuberantly staged as one might have expected. And
the last twist seems like something lifted from an old “Law
and Order” episode.

These are relatively minor problems, however. Recent years have
seen a plethora of bad remakes of old films and dismal
bigscreen versions of beloved television shows, but this time,
they’ve gotten things just about right. “Shaft” offers an even
better time that its seventies predecessors; despite its
occasional lapses, it’s great fun, easily the best example of
pure popcorn escapism that the summer season’s offered so far.

TITAN A.E.

John
Ann
Robert
Mary, Mark, John

If you’ve always wondered what the original “Star Wars” would
have been like if it had starred Jonny Quest instead of Mark
Hamill, Don Bluth provides the answer in his latest animated
feature. To be fair, “Titan A.E.” isn’t just a recycling of
George Lucas’ 1977 phenomenon; it folds elements of many other
past projects into the mix, too. There’s a good deal of
“Battlestar Galactica” added, though the focus has been shifted
from a ragtag bunch of humanoids from another destroyed planet
seeking earth to a similarly ragtag bunch of earthlings trying
to survive, and ultimately to regroup as a species, after old
terra firma has, shall we say, bitten the dust at the hand of a
nasty, nefarious alien race. There are echoes of the first
“Superman” flick, too, when the young hero is visited by the
holographic image of his deceased, Jorel-like father to aid in
his recovery of a long-hidden terrestrial spaceship which might
save the remnants of humanity, as well as innumerable other
pictures, ranging from “Star Trek” and old westerns to “Bats”
and Stephen Spielberg’s WB miniseries, “Invasion America.”
Narratively, therefore, the movie is a virtual compendium
of cliches of the sci-fi adventure genre, with dialogue that
(despite a few witticisms probably provided by Joss Whedon) is
hackneyed enough to generate a few derisive laughs.

Still, “Titan A.E.” is an improvement on most of Bluth’s
previous efforts simply because it’s technically superior to
them and manages to create a few outer-space sequences that,
especially in the wide-screen format (it’ll be gone on video),
have some visual elegance; one involves shimmering creatures
that follow the heroes’ ship balletically through space
like ghostly dolphins, another shows a dangerous pursuit
through a ring of ice surrounding a distant planet, and a third
depicts a breathless chase over a water-covered world shrouded
by luminous yellow balls of explosive hydrogen. The work of
the artists during these moments is very impressive, even if
a good deal of the effect was undoubtedly accomplished by
state-of-the-art computer technology.

Otherwise, however, the picture lacks precisely the sort of
“limitless imagination” that the narrator refers to in his
opening remarks about thirty-first-century mankind. Little
seems to have changed in human culture in the thousand years
supposedly separating that world from our own; the lifestyle
and language are depicted as being on a lamentably lowbrow
2000 level, and the score in particular suggests that if man’s
musical tastes have progressed so little over the centuries,
perhaps he deserved extinction (the songs sung under a few
of the sequences are especially pathetic). One would think
that, freed from the constraints of live-action filming, Bluth
and his cohorts might have come up with something more
consistently different and exotic; but, apart from the
isolated episodes noted above, “Titan A.E.” doesn’t even
exhibit the visual verve evident in the “Star Wars” universe,
although it’s nicely edited and moves along at a good clip.

The nature of the beast doesn’t allow for much in the way of
acting, of course, but on the whole the voice talent does a
decent enough job. Matt Damon provides enthusiasm and manages
an occasional wry touch as the young hero Cale, and Drew
Barrymore lends some edge to his cohort and eventual partner
Akima. Bill Pullman, on the other hand, doesn’t bring much
to Korso, the captain who’s originally presented as a Han
Solo sort of guy but undergoes a radical shift (or several
of them) in the last reel. Nathan Lane and Janeane Garofalo
are okay as two members of Korso’s alien crew, but it’s John
Leguizamo, as a navigator-scientist with more than a hint of
Yoda to him, who makes the deepest impression.

Youngsters accustomed to cartoon action on TV will probably
be the viewers most drawn to “Titan A.E.”–they’ll find it
familiar but watchable stuff. Toddlers should be kept away,
though; the violence will undoubtedly frighten them, and the
rest of the plot will bore them to tears. As for adults, it
depends on how willing you are to tolerate a story that offers
little novelty and gruesomely leaden dialogue for the sake of
some pleasing animation.