Treat or Trick?
Hustle & Flow is mostly jive. Plus, a Bay window on The Island, and Spielberg's 9/11.
The director Michael Bay is widely regarded as the embodiment of all that is unholy in Hollywood. This morning on NPR, Ken Turan reviewed Bay's The Island (DreamWorks) as if he'd found maggots in his popcorn. Even the creators of South Park were moved, in Team America: World Police, to pen an ode to Bay's suckitude.
I don't get it. He's not that bad. Let me burn my boats and take a bold critical stand: He's pretty good. Sometimes. His chief problem is that he can't leave bad enough alone. He'll follow one egregious car chase with two more, and throw in a helicopter wreck. And he hasn't learned to go into the crash-and-burn song-and-dance without losing the pulse of the drama. That's what happens when you're mentored by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer instead of, say, Steven Spielberg.
The Island has some big moments, before and after the crashes start. It's about humans in identical stretchy white suits living in a high-gloss, high-tech, highly monitored tranquillity bubble. Told that they are the only survivors of a catastrophic infection that has wiped out all life on the planet, they are fed the dullest kind of institutional food and forbidden to touch one another inappropriately. (Strangely, they obey.) Their lone hope of leaving this stifling environment is to be chosen, by lottery, to journey to the last free, natural, uninfected place on earth: the island. Now, one resident, Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan MacGregor), is asking questions of the facility's director, Merrick (Sean Bean)—questions that begin with, "Why?" He is about to discover that the island is … made out of people!!!!
Oh, sorry. Wrong dystopian thriller.
The island is … I won't say, even though you probably know from the previews. The important thing is that this isn't another mindless summer blockbuster. Well, parts of it are mindless, but the subject is mind-boggling. The movie seems dead-on in suggesting that, as we inch toward a new world of genetic engineering, there will be a new class of genetic haves and have-nots. New forms of life will arise, with new tests to determine what is and is not a sentient being. Money will feed the science and fuel the breakthroughs; morality will play a losing game of catch-up. Everything here is intelligently extrapolated (the story is credited to the dauntingly named Caspian Tredwell-Owen) from our current ethical debate over stem-cell research and cloning.
To my knowledge, Scarlett Johansson is not genetically engineered, although I've come to think that every home should have one. Every movie, certainly. Something about her ether is freakily intelligent. In her light, MacGregor seems less inspired than ever, although he has a few nice scenes toward the end of the movie when he gets to use a Scottish accent (presumably his own). Steve Buscemi is, once again, the most agreeable thing in a Michael Bay movie, even though his part—an enlightened grunt with a penchant for pin-ups—doesn't make a lot of sense.
Our new world at the moment is one of computer-generated effects, and in The Island they work handsomely. Nigel Phelps has designed a witty environment of glass and concrete bathed in reflections of blue, rippling water. It looks like a place that would, indeed, be designed by someone named Nigel. The score by Steve Jablonsky starts with stirring choirs that are obviously ironic—good stuff. It's too bad they come back in a less ironic context. There is nothing wrong with the action sequences beyond their sheer length and number. They're in the Road Warrior mode: hyper-fast and vicious. There's an especially great one involving giant dumbbells (or what looks like them) tossed off the back of a truck onto police cars.
The most haunting moment in The Island, though, is human: the kindly expression on the face of a female doctor as she regards a happy, exhausted mother who has just given birth. It's tender, it's loving, and then it's something too terrible even to contemplate. The scene should be shown to doctors in need of a crash course in empathy.
The indie sensation Hustle & Flow (Paramount Classics), written and directed by Craig Brewer, tells the gritty yet uplifting story of an abusive Memphis pimp, DJay (Terrence Howard), who has a mid-life crisis and decides to turn himself around by realizing his long-buried dream of making music. The pimp stuff is his hustle, but the music is his flow. He even has a good subject for his songs: how "it's hard out there for a pimp." One number is called "Whoop That Trick"—he settles on the title after rejecting "Beat That Bitch" and one or two other possibilities for being less refined. Another song begins with a plaint about rent hassles when his hookers aren't bringing in enough cash. DJay needs a female vocalist, and, as luck would have it, his main lady, Shug (Taraji P. Henson), has a gorgeous voice and—being in her last trimester of pregnancy—isn't generating any income. She gives him a great performance without even having to be whooped very hard. Later, Shug tells DJay, tearfully, that making that recording ("Y'know it's hard out there for a pimp ... ") has made her life worthwhile.
Is Hustle & Flow purposeful in its irony? You'd think so, wouldn't you? I mean: Would a Sundance Film Festival premiere audience have leapt to its feet for a movie that is as opportunistic and misogynistic as its pimp hero? Brewer is a puzzle. He doesn't sweeten DJay or make the way the pimp roughs up his women more palatable. He chose to write a scene in which DJay visits an audio store for a better microphone and ends up offering the skinny blond Nola (Tamryn Manning) as a supplement when he doesn't have enough cash. (Nola has no evident problem with being a hooker, but she's sickened by what DJay forces her to do when she hadn't come with him to turn tricks.) What's missing in this self-proclaimed story of redemption, though, is something other than a fairy-tale finale. It's the sense that the filmmaker understands the consequences of exploiting women even if his protagonist doesn't.
Photograph of Steven Spielberg by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images. Stills from: The Island by Merrick Morton/Dreamworks; Hustle & Flow by Alan Spearman/Paramount Classics. All rights reserved.