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The Island a solid effort

By Lady Liberty
web posted July 25, 2005

Bad News Bears

* 1/2 out of ****

Bad News BearsI haven't seen the 1979 original, and wouldn't have seen the 2005 remake, either, if it weren't for the fact that Billy Bob Thornton is the star. I'm not a big fan of kids' movies, but I do like Billy Bob Thornton quite a bit. The good news for the Bad News Bears is that it does have Thornton. Without him, most of the rest would be bad news, indeed.

Morris Buttermaker (Billy Bob Thornton) is a drunken exterminator with a big chip on his shoulder. His one threadbare claim to fame is the fact that he once pitched — briefly — in the Major Leagues. Despite some expertise in the game, it's unclear how it is that Buttermaker becomes a coach unless it's that straight-laced lawyer Liz Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden) couldn't find anybody else to handle a team of complete misfits.

Whitewood, whose son Toby (Ridge Canipe) wants to play baseball, has sued the local league when some poor players including her son aren't allowed to play. That means that the kids nobody else will have are placed on a team everybody is forced to accept, and that that team is coached by a man who is almost certainly the last choice for the job. For his part, Buttermaker will put forth some minimal effort to earn the check he clearly needs, but the team is far beyond even the most heroic of work ethics.

Toby has the will, but little talent. Tanner Boyle (Timmy Deters) has drive in spades, but he's physically small and carrying a big bad attitude. Mike Engleberg (Brandon Craggs) isn't otherwise hopeless, but he is fat and out of shape and he knows it. Timmy Lupus (Tyler Patrick Jones) actually is hopeless. Prem Lahiri (Aman Johal) just wants a stint in summer baseball to show up on his future college résumé. Garo Daragebrigadian (Jeffrey Tedmani) wants desperately to be like other American kids, but is having a tough time both with his own skill level and his disapproving Armenian father. And Matthew Hooper (Troy Gentile) is a wheelchair-bound paraplegic!

Somehow, Buttermaker is expected to coach his team of misfits into facing teams consisting of better and more experienced players. Chief among the rivals is the Yankees, a team coached by an egotistical car salesman by the name of Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear). The Yankees as a whole delight in creaming the opposition, and the Bears are completely humiliated in their first time out. Buttermaker has a few tricks up his sleeve, however, not the least of which happens to Amanda Whurlitzer (Sammi Kane Kraft), the daughter of a woman he once dated and a talented pitcher. When local juvenile delinquent Kelly Leak (Jeffrey Davies) starts hanging out near the baseball field, Coach Bullock sees nothing but trouble. Buttermaker, however, sees something different.

Despite his bad qualities — and there are many — Buttermaker has a knack with kids who are also suffering in life. Maybe it's is predilection to tell them the unvarnished truth. Or it could be that it's his never-say-die attitude. Either way, and despite himself, Buttermaker does manage to teach the kids something before the season is over. And it's possible the kids teach him a few things, too.

Billy Bob Thornton is just terrific in Bad News Bears. In fact, if the language were stronger, he could almost be Bad Santa with a baseball bat. But this movie, though written by the same team as that which scripted the very funny Bad Santa, isn't as entertaining. Perhaps that's because they held back to avoid an R rating. Whatever the reason, the film suffers from an embarrassing lack of real laughs. That flaw lies not in Thornton's performance but in the lackluster lines he has to say. The acting as a whole is, in fact, largely good or better. But good performances can't raise the level of such a mediocre script much beyond mediocrity.

In fairness to the film and to baseball lovers, there are a few real game highlights, however. Sammi Kane Kraft is making her movie debut here, and it's easy to see why she was selected to play Amanda: Sammi is a champion pitcher in real life. Kelly Davies, too, is a gifted ball player. To watch them play is, even for a non-fan like me, impressive as all get-out. If you don't care about that, though, and Billy Bob Thornton isn't enough of a reason for you to see an otherwise sub par movie, I'd sit this one out.

POLITICAL NOTES: In some ways, Bad News Bears is a paean to political correctness and the current "self-esteem is everything" attitude so prevalent in schools across the country. Even kids in wheelchairs should be able to play whatever sport they want; even kids without any talent whatsoever should be treated as valued team members. The fact that things turn out largely okay in this movie likely bolsters those who believe that everybody should be able to participate in anything and everything they like. What people need to remember is that anything is possible in the movies, and that real life often bears little resemblance to the silver screen. In fact, I feel strongly enough about this very issue that I recently wrote an entire column about it. In summary, let's just say that I don't believe for a minute that everybody ought to be able to do everything — no matter how much they want to — if they can't, or if everybody else has to suffer so that they can. If we teach our children anything, it ought to be that everybody has their limitations.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Bad News Bears is rated PG-13 for "rude behavior, language throughout, some sexuality, and thematic elements." Unless you want your eight year-old to begin spouting a whole lot of words you'd prefer he not be saying, I'd suggest you buy him a ticket to see something else. The film depicts fairly young kids using fairly rough language, as well as engaging in some rough physical behavior, and it treats it all as a joke. That's fine for older kids who know better, but not so good for the younger set. On the whole, I'd say the PG-13 rating is just about right.

The Island

*** out of ****

The IslandOkay, I confess: I'm a science fiction geek. If it's science fiction, I'll watch it. If it's good, there's nothing better; if it's bad, it's better than nothing. Regardless of some early reviews indicating The Island was flawed, I was undeterred. Besides, since when have so-called "mainstream" critics — with a very few notable exceptions — really understood or appreciated science fiction anyway?

The Island of the title references an unspoiled paradise on earth. Every one of those few humans still left alive hope for the day they'll be permitted to go to the island where they'll join in an attempt to repopulate an earth devastated by some unspecified contamination. Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) is one of those surviving humans who, like everybody else he knows, hopes to win a trip to the island in one of the regularly scheduled lottery drawings. His hopes are only buoyed by the obvious joy of a previous winner (Michael Clarke Duncan) who can't believe his good fortune.

The only real problem in Lincoln's world involves the nightmares that have plagued him. His dreams have become so disturbing that he's sent to see Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean) to discuss them and perhaps determine their cause or give them some meaning. Merrick reassures Lincoln, and he orders some tests be done to determine if there's anything really wrong. Meanwhile, Lincoln goes on with his life where he works at a job he finds dull and seeks diversion in some unusual friendships.

One of Lincoln's relationships is with a maintenance worker named McCord (Steve Buscemi). Whenever he finds the occasion to slip into the maintenance areas of the facility in which he's housed, Lincoln heads for some conversation and an illicit drink or two with his friend. On one of his trips, though, he discovers something that rocks the foundations of everything he believes to be true.

Meanwhile, another of Lincoln's friendships pairs him with the beautiful Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson). Though friendships that become too close are frowned upon, Lincoln and Jordan manage to innocently interact regularly. When the night comes that Jordan wins the lottery, both are sad that they'll have to separate, but Jordan is delighted at her luck. Lincoln is sure he'll eventually win, too, and that he'll someday join her on the island. Accordingly, the two bid each other a hopeful good-bye.

While Jordan sleeps through the night before her departure, Lincoln's unsettling dreams and an overwhelming curiosity combine to get the better of him. He quietly leaves his bed and decides to explore. What he subsequently discovers both horrifies and terrifies him, and he races to Jordan's room to share what he's learned. Dr. Merrick, however, has been monitoring Lincoln since learning of his dreams, and he's determined that Lincoln won't learn anything else — nor will he be permitted to share what he does know with anyone.

To that end, Merrick hires Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou) to capture Lincoln and Jordan before they can escape or tell anybody else what they both now know. But the pair are desperate, and there's nothing they won't risk to survive long enough to spread the truth far and wide.

Ewan McGregor is an award-winning actor, and his performance here lives up to his considerable capabilities. Though his character is largely innocent, he learns quickly and McGregor makes both the innocence and the disillusionment of Lincoln believable. Scarlett Johansson, though young, has tremendous talent herself, and she and McGregor make a good pair onscreen. Sean Bean is appropriately cold and menacing, though that gives him little emotion with which to play; Steve Buscemi is rapidly becoming one of the very best character actors in the business, and he puts his talent to good use here. Michael Clarke Duncan, in a small but pivotal role, does well; Djimon Hounsou is also good. But sharing equal billing with the stars is a really terrific story idea and a script that very nearly lives up to the idea's potential.

The sets are futuristic as is appropriate, but still close enough for us to recognize much of them; the chase scenes involve superlative special effects that contribute to rather than replace the suspense of such non-stop action. The outside world is also quite recognizable, though with some very nice touches that show us we're just a bit ahead of ourselves in time.Watch, too, for some interactions between Lincoln and, well, himself that are computer-combined scenes rendered virtually without flaw.

As a whole, The Island is well crafted both in its settings and in its script. Director Michael Bay does a good job, though there are some edits at the beginning of the film that are confusing at best (despite their later relevance, they might have been better handled). As far as science fiction goes, this isn't really a new story, even insofar as its twists and turns are concerned. But it's well done and it's relevant as can be, and that counts for plenty. "Mainstream" critics be damned; both I and the friend I saw the movie with liked The Island. In fact, we liked it a lot.

POLITICAL NOTES: The Island is horrifying not just in its own story, but for the all but throwaway technology it exhibits. Cameras are everywhere both within and without the facility; facial recognition software is in routine use. Thumbprint and retina scans are used in place of locks and keys, and the results of such scans are immediately sent to centralized police databases. The same is true of credit card usage. Chips embedded in bracelets enable people to be tracked from afar. And each and every one of these technologies is in use today if not as widespread — yet — as depicted by the movie.

Analyses of sleep patterns and urine are conducted by sensors in beds and in urinals; both of those technologies, as futuristic as they may seem, have already been invented and are currently being refined. There's no stretch of the imagination required whatsoever to see in the movie the probable progression in the real world of such medical results being sent to our doctors or kitchens, and our diets forcibly restricted accordingly. And that's just the most benign of probable uses! What if we're regularly and inescapably scanned for drugs — including legal over the counter medications or herbal medicines — we've not been prescribed? What punishments or restrictions might we face if it's discovered we ate or drank something we're not supposed to eat or drink? What happens when such things are tied to our livelihoods or to other "privileges?"

The good news is that, in The Island, these technologies are shown as being very bad things for the good guys. At best, they're depicted as uncomfortable and unwarranted invasions of privacy and freedom of choice; at worst, they're actively leading to the demise of our nominal heroes. Anything that plants seeds of doubts in the mind of the general public concerning the inevitable misuse of these technologies is, as far as I'm concerned, of great value. So, too, is the overriding message of The Island: freedom.

A final note: Pro-lifers are going to love this movie.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Island is rated PG-13 for "intense sequences of violence and action, [and] some sexuality and language." As far as content is concerned, the PG-13 rating is probably just about right. The storyline and concept, however, is more complicated than that. While a clever 13 year-old will be just fine, the average 13 year-old won't grasp everything that The Island entails, and thus won't get the full impact of the movie. For him or her, The Island will be only be okay (except for the action sequences which, whatever your age, really are pretty cool). But for older moviegoers who are mature enough to understand — and smart enough to take their understanding to the logical next steps — The Island will prove not only suspenseful, but interesting, informative, and scarier than many horror movies.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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