***/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Rachel McAdams, Cillian Murphy, Brian Cox, Jack Scalia
screenplay by Carl Ellsworth
directed by Wes Craven
*/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese, André 3000, Garrett Hedlund
screenplay by David Elliot & Paul Lovett
directed by John Singleton
by Walter Chaw If it barely registers at under ninety minutes, Wes Craven's high-concept thriller Red-Eye is carried along by a couple of excellent lead performances (from Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams) and a revenge subtext that lends surprising gravity to the lingering sensitivity of a sexual assault victim's scars. Red-Eye plays its 9/11 hand--and what else would you expect from a film about an assassination attempt on the Director of Homeland Security that takes place mostly on an airplane--as a metaphor for rape, because rape, after all, is as good a metaphor as any for a terrorist attack on native soil. Look to the glut of home invasion films (of which this is also one) in 2005 as further clarification of that connection--aliens of an inscrutable nature and purpose (and morality, it goes without saying) have come into the places we thought most sacred and taken what they wanted of our innocence: our once inviolate sense of security. Heady stuff for a film that is essentially Nick of Time on a plane, and indeed it may ultimately be too slight a framework to support the amount of topical sociology I'm tempted to ask it to bear, but there are moments now and again weighted with so much proverbial baggage that Red-Eye, with its melancholy regret, sucks the air right out of the theatre.
Take a closer look at the decision in the picture's first act (as well as its trailer) to position Red-Eye as a run-of-the-mill example of the romantic comedy genre, of which McAdams threatens eternally to become the new queen. She's Lisa, a confident, competent hotel manager schooled in conflict resolution and, as is the convention of romcoms, inexplicably single as the film begins. Lisa meet-cutes fellow traveler Jackson (Murphy) in line at the check-in for the titular red-eye flight that will take her home to Miami and her teddy bear daddy (Brian Cox). They flirt as beautiful people in garbage like Must Love Dogs do, and we almost forget a moment in the airport bathroom where Lisa changes out of a soiled jacket and we see an angry red scar over her breast. She frowns at herself in the mirror: she doesn't like herself, and it's a serious dislike, not a movie starlet dislike. Later it's revealed that she's lied to Jackson about her favourite drink--that she's insulated herself with deception against the possibility of love; the fact that people always ask her if she's sure she's all right might have an animal logic source that's impossible to hide. She gives off the "abused" pheromone--so suddenly the romcom conventions of the piece take a serious beating under the hand of interpersonal reality.
Soon, after Jackson plays coy in explaining what he does for a living ("But I did tell you, I overthrow governments"), their relationship issues become complicated by the fact that Jackson is a hired killer whose job it is to get Lisa to change the room assignment of the Dept. of Homeland Security (Jack Scalia) at her hotel to make him more vulnerable to an attack, the result of which will look a lot like what it looked like when an airplane compacted against the side of a tall building. The price of not cooperating is the murder of her father, so Lisa's resistance seems ridiculous until the key revelation that yes, indeed, Lisa has been the victim of violent crime and there is no allegiance to honour that takes precedent over her need to avenge that indignity. Red-Eye is about a woman wronged who kicks ass, and it doesn't equivocate about that: Lisa is strong from the moment of crisis up to its resolution. (Fascinatingly, Lisa manages to be the kind of creature I believed could only exist or survive in Asian cinema: she's a feminine, beautiful, non-masculinized woman who's tough as nails.) Lisa is a rare beast--and if Jackson becomes a typical slasher bogeyman by the end of the flick, note the way that Lisa's superior knowledge of home turf is used to her advantage in smart, sometimes delightful (a sly reveal of a shelf loaded with field hockey trophies in her childhood bedroom is one of the best moments of the year) ways.
It's a minor film, no question, but it's also one that could exist in no other time with this kind of resonance. It repositions Craven as one of our canniest social commentators of the last four decades (class and generational discomfort in Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes in the '70s, the Reagan fandango in Nightmare on Elm Street in the '80s, the meta TV post-modernism of Scream in the '90s, now the homeland insecurity of Red-Eye), and it re-establishes genre fare as the vital indicator species for a generation's fears and dreams of empowerment. Would that Craven had directed John Singleton's Four Brothers, a ludicrous throwback to the bootstrap operas of the blaxploitation era armed with a lot of hip-hop misanthropy and a gimmick that brings together two white guys (Bobby (Mark Wahlberg) and Jack (Garrett Hedlund)) and two black guys (Angel (Tyrese) and Jeremiah (André 3000)) as brothers, all adopted by a no-nonsense Irish broad (Fionulla Flanagan, channelling Brenda Fricker) gunned down discreetly in the opening sequence by a duo of ski-masked thugs. Another revenge/home invasion flick (though closer as both to Batman Begins than to Red-Eye), Four Brothers discusses race and class obliquely while running through its Sons of Katie Elder claptrap.
Therein lies the problem with Four Brothers: Besides the fact of it and its proximity to other films like it, it isn't actually about anything. There's nothing like subtext to it--the women (mainly proto-bimbo Sofia Vergara) are screeching proto-bitches good for leaving the room when the men need to talk (and for spreading when the men need to fuck), and the police procedural (of which we, marinating in our "Law & Order"/"CSI" stew, are pseudo-experts) is woefully dated. How is it, for example, that the boys are able to review a surveillance tape of their mother's murder; and how do they clean out a hitman's apartment? What is it, exactly, that the police (Terrence Howard and Josh Charles) do in Detroit aside from being the obvious bad guys on the payroll of arch-villain Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor)? (Sweet, incidentally, is the stupidest baddie in many a moon, fond of humiliating his henchmen in emasculating ways that bring Johnny Dangerously to mind.) It's a revenge fantasy through-and-through, complete with remorseless executions administered by our heroes, a leering shot of a compound fracture inflicted by our heroes, and the decision to cast milquetoast, prep-school Charles as a heavy (wearing a Payne Stewart golf hat at one point, no less)--the only thing that could possibly be read as a shot across the racial bow.
What worked when blaxploitation worked (and Singleton never knew: see his remake of Shaft--or, for that matter, see the current Hustle & Flow, which he produced) was a strong sense of social injustice coupled with a kind of artistic protest: a wish-fulfillment that saw black men and women triumphing over the forces of oppression. Not personal outrage, just rage; there's no interest in four thugs avenging the thug-inspired death of their thug-loving mama--that's just formula and unkind caricature. When it's over, there's no possibility to extract the plight of these individuals or the situations that cast them into the role of psycho thrill-killers and no significance found in the literal reason their mother was at the centre of some Rube Goldbergian conspiracy. When it's over, it's forgotten. The car chases are workmanlike, the performances are what they are, and the plot developments fall with the predictable patter of a metronome. Shots of sentimentality mix uneasily with bits of machismo bravado, with the whole of Four Brothers washing out as a combination of Singleton trying to appease the people he portrayed with a degree of artistry in Boyz N the Hood at the same time he sells them out to the idiots who showed up for 2 Fast 2 Furious. As ugly pictures go, Four Brothers sidles up there near the top of the 2005 heap--but it's nothing to get too excited about one way or another. Unable to inspire, it's equally incapable of offending: just another 2005 movie about home invasion avenged bloody eye for bloody eye. Originally published: August 12, 2005.
THE DVD - RED EYE
by Bill Chambers DreamWorks presents Red Eye on DVD in a luxurious 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer.* Despite traces of DVNR, the image is gobsmackingly clear and proves that Rachel McAdams, at least, will have nothing to fear when the planet goes HiDef. The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 audio saves its energy for the numerous take-offs, landings, and simulated turbulence, though Marco Beltrami's cheesy score fills the room and the dialogue has exceptional clarity. Extras include two featurettes that distil the content of the attendant commentary track partnering director Wes Craven with producer Marianne Maddalena and editor Patrick Lussier, late of the Dracula 2000 franchise. Lussier dominates the yakker, which plays a lot like a more palatable version of the Farrelly Brothers' trainspotting sessions, interspersed as it is with backstory on the production and interesting if not earth-shattering observations about such things as the (disappointingly absent) trailer's impact on the pacing of McAdams and Cillian Murphy's early scenes together. In the fairly standard "The Making of Red Eye" (12 mins.), we get a little bit more information on the genesis of the script straight from the horse's mouth (screenwriter Carl Ellsworth), while "Wes Craven: A New Kind of Thriller" (11 mins.) finds Craven simultaneously lamenting his pigeonholing as a horror filmmaker--something he needs to stop doing before he begins to sound like a cast member of "Star Trek"--and boasting that his knack for scares probably intensified the formula set-pieces of Red Eye. Interviewee Brian Cox emerges as an unlikely but vocal champion of the man who gave us Freddy Krueger. An exhausting 6-minute gag reel (uncensored, à la the Serenity DVD's) and startup previews of Just Like Heaven and The Island round out the disc. Originally published: January 11, 2006.
THE DVD - FOUR BROTHERS
by Bill Chambers Paramount presents Four Brothers on DVD in a 2.32:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer.* Peter Menzies's cinematography is surprisingly flat but that's hardly the fault of the disc's authors, who are firing on all cylinders here. Likewise, the A/V geeks in charge honour a similarly perfunctory Dolby Digital 5.1 soundmix that at least gives good bullet-ricochet. (On another track, find director John Singleton contorting himself into a human pretzel to justify the picture's 'gun = fun' attitude in the shadow of his career-defining anti-violence tract Boyz N the Hood--when, that is, he's not spouting commentary clichés like "[X] was a real trooper.") Considering what they had to work with, production house Light Source & Imagery have cooked up a batch of making-of featurettes almost worth watching, starting with "The Look of Four Brothers" (10 mins.), in which Singleton and Menzies emphasize the film's already-belaboured debt to the western genre. What I want to know is why Singleton shuns comparisons of the film to John Ford's The Sons of Katie Elder in his yak-track if he did, in fact, set out to steep Four Brothers in the traditions Ford helped pioneer. Then again, up seems to mean left in Singleton's world: He refers to the film's snowy weather as a "surrogate character," which makes me wonder if he writes speeches for George W. Bush on the side. Production designer Keith Brian Burns emerges from both Four Brothers and this segment unscathed, however (his forced-perspective neighbourhood façade had me thoroughly convinced), while costume designer Ruth Carter defines the punk aesthetic brilliantly, especially for someone without, by her own admission, much foreknowledge of the milieu.
"Crafting Four Brothers" (11 mins.) focuses mainly on the development of the screenplay and to that end interviews co-writers Paul and David at length. They, too, discuss the western influence (spaghetti western, that is) and reveal that the corresponding death of Paul's grandmother lent verisimilitude to the passages of mourning. I agree that certain details (an open novel, for instance) ring true, but the embarrassing Thanksgiving dinner sequence--for which our screenwriters pat themselves on the back--must have played better on the page. "Behind the Brotherhood" (9 mins.) delves into the core quartet of Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, André Benjamin, and Garrett Hedlund. No surprises here: Wahlberg was perceived as Big Bro both on- and off-camera; Singleton protégé Tyrese is a malapropism generator ("He don't have a conscience" is Gibson's attempt to compliment co-star Hedlund on his lack of self-consciousness); Benjamin wants to be taken seriously as an actor; and Hedlund is whiter than Barry Manilow. Last but not least, "Mercer House Shootout" (4 mins.) reviews the titular set-piece, which special effects supervisor Neil Trifnovich laments was originally too elaborate for the time and money they had, though no one will say exactly how it was compromised. Nine deleted scenes, none of them noteworthy (just more gay panic), round out the special features, Four Brothers' trailer plus previews of The Latham Comedy Collection, The Honeymooners, The Bad News Bears, Hustle & Flow, The Weather Man, and Elizabethtown the platter proper. Originally published: February 15, 2006.
*Also available in fullscreen.