Category Archives: Now Showing

BARENAKED IN AMERICA

Producer: 
Director: 
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: 

The third entry in Shooting Gallery’s fall series of independent films (for more information, log on to movies.yahoo.com/sgfilmseries) is a reasonably competent but hardly revelatory rockumentary about the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies, concentrating on their recent U.S. tour. Perhaps the thing most people will find intriguing about the picture is that it’s directed by actor Jason Priestley, who’s done some really fine work in recent years (most notably the superb 1997 “Love and Death on Long Island” with John Hurt); but unhappily his contribution, along with that of editor Al Flett, is the weakest element of the piece.

The subjects themselves are engaging, articulate guys who all seem genuinely likable fellows, and the excerpts from their stage performances are very enjoyable indeed. But Priestley and Flett, except for a few moments, haven’t really found a way to juxtapose the concert footage and interview sequences in a way that shows any particular cinematic energy or imagination. The result is a very standard-issue documentary, with brief musical interludes (much too brief, in fact, during the first hour) interspersed with talking-head shots of conversations and not-terribly-revealing episodes filmed during the group’s journeys (as well as an occasional staged moment, as when Priestley himself enters the scene during a Washington stop). There are, to be sure, occasionally clever sequences–a montage showing fans’ (and some non-fans’) reactions to the band’s music is a nifty idea, and the players’ own concerns about a video-in-progress offer a few intriguingly “inside” observations–but apart from a couple of offhanded remarks, the guys’ offstage lives aren’t touched on much. (The one major exception is the illness of Kevin Hearn, the keyboardist, which happily isn’t treated in too maudlin a fashion but still isn’t as effective a wraparound device as the makers clearly intended.) And, quite honestly, the picture’s repeated emphasis on the fact that the band is Canadian, and the contention that U.S. attitudes toward their northern neighbor are at best conflicted, seems overdone.

In the final analysis “Barenaked in America” isn’t innovative or cinematically interesting enough to rate as a significant documentary, and even the committed will probably be disappointed that it isn’t more revealing (and that it isn’t until the last thirty minutes that we’re treated to extended performance excerpts, which are then done so straightforwardly as to be a trifle flat). But the music is pleasant, the band members amusing, and the film an inoffensive time-waster, especially for the already converted. It probably won’t win over many new fans, though.

SHAFT

Producer: 
Director: 
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: 

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.