Hustle & Flow is mostly jive. Plus, The Island.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
July 20 2005 11:12 AM

Treat or Trick?

Hustle & Flow is mostly jive. Plus, a Bay window on The Island, and Spielberg's 9/11.

The Island: Mind-boggling or mindless? 
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The Island: Mind-boggling or mindless?

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.

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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.

Something's missing in Hustle
Something's missing in Hustle

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.

Sorry—I just don't get that from Hustle & Flow. My sense is that Brewer knows he needs the abrasive material so that audiences will think they're getting unmediated realism instead of the usual rags-to-riches cliches. How else to account for how stupid these women are made to seem, and for how Brewer sticks his camera under Manning's tiny skirt as she sashays into the car of a john? You can hear him say, "That is some mighty fine merchandise. ... But, y'know, it's hard out here for a director ..."

A large part of the legend of Hustle & Flow is its electric Sundance reception and $9 million advance from Paramount and MTV Films: You can picture all those white executives in their furs and parkas pouring out into the frigid Utah night chanting, "Whoop that Trick! Whoop that Trick!" But I think they were responding to something other than the smell of money and the attractive notion that a pimp can also be an artist. (That's gotta resonate in Hollywood.) Brewer gets the hustle and flow into the filmmaking. The camerawork is hand-held and swervy and dangerously in the moment, so you get knotted up as DJay approaches every hurdle. You feel that his very existence is always on the line: He has to hustle like mad for the opportunity to flow.

Hustle & Flow builds to an almost unbearable sequence in which DJay takes a CD of his songs to a hip-hop star known as "Skinny Black" (played by the hip-hop star known as "Ludacris"). Skinny's back in his Memphis hometown for only a night, and DJay has to insinuate himself—to go for broke to make this man understand the depth of his soul and his music. Ludacris makes Skinny Black the most formidable obstacle imaginable, a mixture of entitlement and self-disgust. And, of course, you can't pull your eyes from Terrence Howard.

A musician as well as an actor, Howard is probably best known for his role in the recent Crash as an African-American TV director who downplays his blackness to fit in to white Hollywood. Here, Howard plays black with a vengeance. He has some of Samuel L. Jackson's monomaniacal bug-eyed intensity, but his sound isn't hard or staccato. It's lighter, higher, more caressing. It suggests a world of tension in a man who's fighting to be easy. Howard might be a major actor. His DJay, though, is a major character in search of a major author.

War is serious stuff
War is serious stuff

My colleague Tim Noah weighs in this week on War of the Worlds, and is appalled that Steven Spielberg would use imagery that invokes 9/11 in a "popcorn entertainment." He labels this "pornography," can't believe that Spielberg would "stoop so low," and upbraids all critics except Stephanie Zacharek of Salon for failing to share his outrage.

With respect to Tim (and my pal Stephanie), their very premise is screwy. People might buy popcorn when they see Spielberg's War of the Worlds, but I'm pretty sure it will get stuck in their throats. This is a serious movie. It's a disturbing and depressing movie. It has more in common with Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan than with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. The film does evoke 9/11: in the gray ash that covers the hero after the first attack, the posters of the missing, the incomprehension of the populace, the presence of the ships—reminiscent of sleeper cells—underground. What I don't get is why this elicits outrage. Forgive me: I thought movies—even big-budget summer movies—were supposed to confront national traumas. And I don't find even a whiff of exploitation in Spielberg's treatment.

War of the Worlds begins with a protagonist who is emotionally isolated and estranged from his children, and it focuses on his primal urge to protect them from the horror of an alien invasion. In some ways, his grueling journey is comparable to that of the subjects of the heartbreaking new documentary March of the Penguins: They walk hundreds of miles back and forth in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees below zero to keep their eggs warm and feed their babies. They often don't survive the attempt. They act instinctually and blindly in the manner of Tom Cruise's character. Spielberg made a choice: Apart from the memorable grenade/alien-sphincter scene (the psychosexual implications of which are daunting), its hero does not even think of engaging the enemy. He fights against those who would. Spielberg and the screenwriter David Koepp could have easily made Cruise a scientist or tooled the movie to revolve around the military—as in the ridiculous Independence Day and the 1953 War of the Worlds. But that's not the story they wanted to tell.

Good science fiction—especially alien-invasion narratives—often allude to foreign wars. In the '50s, there was an entire subgenre of Cold War-inspired thrillers: The aliens were either Commies who wanted to turn us into pod people or representatives of advanced, utopian civilizations misguidedly targeted by U.S. hawks. Some used H-bomb tests as a springboard for giant monster movies. I don't know if Tim would consider the original Godzilla "pornography," but a respectable body of critics—myself among them—consider it a haunting depiction, by the Japanese themselves, of the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Farther afield, I can't think of a film that captures the social upheaval—racial and interfamilial—of the middle and late '60s as suggestively as Night of the Living Dead (which War of the World evokes in the cellar scene with Tim Robbins).

If Koepp wants to think of the U.S. as the alien invaders in Iraq, that's his business, but it's not in the movie—unless you're willing to extrapolate. It's not in Return of the Jedi, either, although George Lucas has said that the guerrilla victory of the insufferable Ewoks was inspired by the success of the North Vietnamese against the better-armed Americans. He might also (I'm not sure) have mentioned the American militias against the British—he certainly could have. The larger point, taken from H.G. Wells, is that a superior force can often be undone by a lack of understanding of the foe on a micro level. You could argue that this is happening in Iraq right now: It's a matter of record that three months before the invasion, George W. Bush didn't know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. And no one in the administration was prepared for the culture into which American soldiers were about to plunge.

Is War of the Worlds wholly successful? No. I have problems with the retro image of the pregnant mother waiting in a relatively unshattered Boston, and with the abrupt psychological turn of the eldest son—who becomes too quickly a symbol of those moved to fight, even against hopeless odds. But this is still a great film, and one that fully earns the right to invoke 9/11. It by no means tells the whole story, but in its focus on the ways in which people respond to horrific tragedy, it has much to teach us ... 8:10 a.m. P.T.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.