American Dreamz

Stupid people shouldn’t attempt satire.
American Dreamz is so far over its head that it’s natural to want to toss it a life preserver, especially if you’re a leftist. After all, we’ve been beaten up by bullies – had sand kicked in our face at the beach – and we’re the party of big hearts, baby.
We don’t mind dumb people on the left anymore. We’ve learned to value blowhards like Michael Moore BECAUSE they’re slobs. We now see the wisdom of creating coloring book realities for our constituents, just like the right does, and don’t shy away from simplification. 
Unfortunately, American Dreamz isn’t even a dumbed down version of Wag the Dog; it’s just dumb. As ridiculous and phony as the subjects it attempts to critique, this is a film even a liberal can’t really love.
The day after he wins a landslide election, President Staton (Dennis Quaid) begins reading newspapers. This intellectual reawakening leaves him stunned and confused, and the public begins to suspect that he’s had a breakdown when he doesn’t show his face for weeks. 
Staton embodies liberal fantasies about George Bush. A puppet who is literally given his cues from a remote-control earpiece, this is the Bush delusional leftwingers saw wearing a wired box in the second Kerry debate.    
The film’s political hyperbole is funny, but only because it’s taking a very wide swing at the barn door. The movie becomes squeamish when it gets close to something real. Happy to show how entertainment bleeds into the battlefield, where terrorist and soldier share a love of American trash television, American Dreamz never faces the reality about how the Staton’s stupidity translates to dead bodies.
Staton doesn’t seem to wrestle with his choices, even after he shakes off the control of a chief of staff who resembles –you guessed it – Dick Cheney. *yawn*
American Dreamz couples its analysis of presidential power with a jab at reality television, particularly shows like American Idol. Stalking the authentic, reality television has paradoxically made us more fake and phony.
In order to be real, you have to be so outlandish and loud that you seem like a character from a sitcom. The film’s stale post-modern critique of media is about eight years behind the times. Can anyone doubt that reality got KOed in the steel-caged match against reality TV? The machine swallowed the horrors of 9/11 and the war in Iraq and beamed back more mirages, more Survivors and American Idols. Is this news?
The contestants on American Dreamz’ are anything but real. Sally Kendoo (Moore) is a small-town girl with big dreams of stardom. Born in a hyper-real age, Sally accepts that her life is simply a role. She rehearses this role in preparation for the contest, scripting a faux proposal with her young soldier boyfriend to drum up support and singing songs that reinforce the idea that she’s white trash. 
Reality breaks through in this supercilious film only when Sally talks about her childhood as a fat girl. Sally weighed 200 pounds when she was 10. She felt out of place in her school, but after she lost the weight she became popular. The lesson: Americans are superficial, and this superficiality breeds justified contempt.
This personal and real story sticks while the slimy hyper-real criticism slips away, becoming part of the very thing it’s attacking.
American Dreamz shows us a country seduced by images and reliant on entertainment, but it’s too shallow to pose a serious threat to the machine. We don’t need another critique of mass culture dumbed down so even the common folks can understand it. We don’t need liberals speaking like conservatives, because this is a spiritual – not political – problem. 
What we need is a Gong Show moment that wakes us up from this dream once and for all.


Ice Age: The Meltdown

There’s a law in the world of film sequels – call it the Ewok principal – that posits that if one yeti is fun, three would be a blast and 10,000 is bound to be a riot.
Characters subdivide like Star Trek Tribbles in sequels like Ice Age: The Meltdown, mostly because filmmakers don’t trust that we actually like the original personalities they create. Sure, we think talking mammoths are funny, but we don’t really care for Manny (Ray Romano), who returns for Ice Age part two.
The original Ice Age showed that there could be a soul in the special effects CGI engine. Relying on strong characters, a believable (and scientifically valid) plot, and a good mixture of smart and scatological humor, Ice Age is still the strongest computer-generated animated film to date. It was so good, in fact, that the special effects receded in importance and disappeared into the background where they belong.
The story of three unlikely friends in a hostile world, Ice Age made us care about its characters – a morose mammoth, an emotionally conflicted saber-toothed tiger, and a politically correct weasel-creature.
Meltdown introduces Manny, Diego the tiger (Denis Leary), and Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo) to Ellie (Queen Latifah) and her two possum step-brothers, Crash and Eddie (Seann William Scott and Josh Peck). As in the first Ice Age, the plot is a prehistoric road movie following this unlikely herd as it tries to get to safety before the melting polar caps flood everything in sight.
Ellie and Manny may be the last two mammoths on Earth, so Sid tries to play cupid to his friend. Too bad for him that Ellie thinks she’s a possum and her two step brothers seem pretty happy to have a mammoth protector. During their long trek the two eventually do fall in love, of course, but there’s precious little chemistry between them.     
Which pretty much goes for the whole film: It just doesn’t feel real. This may be an odd criticism of a computer-generated story of talking animals, but it’s undeniably true. The first Ice Age felt authentic in the right ways, and you cared about the complex interactions between its characters.
Meltdown, on the other hand, feels like a cheap imitation. Those of us who grew up with Jim Henson’s Muppet Show could hear the false ring in Kermit the Frog’s voice when he first started selling crap on TV. We were all grown adults, true, but every one of us thought to ourselves, “That’s not really Kermit.”
Meltdown elicits the same weird experience. You know that none of the characters are real, but that doesn’t mean you don’t care when they appear false. Adding Ellie and the possums to the story provides an uninteresting shell game for those trying to figure out why Meltdown seems so mechanical, so without heart.
Ice Age grappled with difficult issues and implications, suggested adult themes, while Meltdown sweeps these concerns under the evolutionary carpet. I cared whether or not Manny would survive when I first met him, but I really don’t believe in this new mammoth.
In some ways extinction would be better than imitation.

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