Two new films coming to the Triangle this week address the isolated and insular nature of American society. Both also contain protagonists orphaned by the centuries-old strife among Muslims, Jews and Christians. But, while one film is steeped in raw realism, the other is a contrived socio-political weeper.
As part of an international relief effort during the second Sudanese civil war between southern, non-Arabs and the northern, Arab-dominated government, more than 3,600 of the large refugee group called the "Lost Boys of Sudan" were resettled throughout dozens of cities across the United States. In God Grew Tired Of Us, director Christopher Quinn chronicles the journey of three Sudanese men—John, Daniel and Panther—from Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp to the streets of Pittsburgh and Syracuse.
Ruminations about starvation and sundry atrocities are crosscut with "fish out of water" vignettes detailing a fascination with luxuries such as light switches, toilets and potato chips. While perhaps essential to the story of their assimilation, this conceit quickly grows wearisome and raises the specter, however unintentional, of traumatized men reduced to being props in a bad sitcom. However, God Grew Tired, which won both the Documentary Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, quickly finds its quiddity once the microscope focuses on the Lost Boys' new home. They marvel at American's secularization of Christmas and prefer the scarce sustenance from their refugee camp over airline food. Moreover, they find America to be an emotionally hollow culture founded upon a heritage of immigrants (both forced and unforced) yet wracked with dysfunction over its multiculturalism.
Indeed, while the Lost Boys end up pining for their homeland, they ultimately remain in the U.S. out of economic necessity. Despite what Americans would like to believe, God Grew Tired reinforces the understandable truth that most people come to the U.S. to siphon our capitalist excesses, not the "rights and freedoms" we like to tout as our beacon to the world.—Neil Morris
In writer-director Mike Binder's Reign Over Me, post-9/11 New York City is the ubiquitous backdrop. One day, Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), an outwardly successful man who lacks a sense of self, spies his ex-dental school roommate prowling the city's streets. This disheveled friend is Charlie (Adam Sandler) who, after losing his wife and children to one of the ill-fated airplanes on Sept. 11, retreated into a life spent piping Bruce Springsteen and The Who through his headphones, remodeling his kitchen and incessantly playing the video game Shadow of the Colossus.
That Alan is drawn to Charlie's awful plight out of concern is understandable; for Alan to somehow envy Charlie's tragedy-fueled independence is absurd. It is specious that the trauma of 9/11 loss is set up as justification for a deranged man-child's selective boorish behavior. However, when Binder suddenly casts Charlie as a metaphor for America's fractured post-9/11 psyche who, after a newsreel recounting the day's terrorist threats, attempts suicide-by-cop at the hands of two NYPD policemen (who were similarly victimized on 9/11), it only adds insult to illogic.
Cheadle's usual superb work almost salvages this grossly overlong film. His scenes with wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith) crackle with authenticity, even if their brand of marital malaise comes across as a rework of The Secret Lives of Dentists. Yet, while Binder's similarly pretentious The Upside of Anger succeeded thanks to spot-on acting and wry wit, his new film is a self-important, tonally incoherent and meandering mess. Even moments of clear-headed levity are disrupted by episodes such as Charlie telling therapist Liv Tyler that he can't stop thinking about her tits. And, where would a clinically depressed woman who threatens Alan with a sexual harassment suit after he rebuffs her advances turn out to be the perfect love match for the emotionally fragile Charlie? Only in America—or at least Hollywood's version of it. —Neil Morris
The Host director/co-writer Joon-ho Bong recently mentioned that a deal had been signed for Universal to do an American remake. Ugh. Forget about it turning into another Dark Water or Pulse; part of what makes The Host such nasty fun is the ruthless satirical subtext about both U.S. and Korean society. There's the very real possibility that the remake could chop all that away to focus on the creepy monster.
But what a monster it is! A large, bizarre cross between a tadpole, a prawn and a Mack truck, the titular creature of The Host is a marvelous creation, an acrobatic, toothy thing covered in extra limbs with a tail that's practically a monster unto itself. It's not terribly realistic, but it's filled with imagination and personality, the two characteristics of a great movie monster—and it's not even the most entertaining thing in here.
The Host tells, in a chilling and hilarious opening scene, how the creature is the result of an American military base in South Korea dumping a lot of formaldehyde into the Han River. Cut to a couple of years later, where we meet the Park family, most notably Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song), a bleach-blond narcoleptic who runs— barely—a snack cart on the banks of the Han.
When the creature shows up, Gang-Du's daughter Hyun-seo (A-sung Ko) is snatched away in the ensuing melee. Literally falling all over themselves with grief, the Park family soon finds proof that Hyun-seo is alive, a fact that the government refuses to hear. They're too busy quarantining anyone who's been touched by the monster, for fear that it's the host for a virus. Oddly, no one seems to be getting sick.
At times, The Host is like Little Miss Sunshine with a giant prawn-monster (prawnster?) instead of a beauty pageant. For a long period of the film, the monster is less and less visible, with the real menace coming from this poor, inept dysfunctional family increasingly on its own trying to save the little girl. There's even a cranky grandpa (Hie-bong Byeon), a disgruntled academic uncle (Hae-il Park) and a chase for a slow-moving van. SARS is name-checked, protests rally against the use of "Agent Yellow" on the monster, and a betrayer trying to turn in the family gets a prompt explanation about possible taxes on the reward money.
The result goes on a little too long, but it's a hilarious, subversive and sometimes genuinely scary horror film with more going on than "who gets eaten next?" Take the opportunity and see it now—before America has a chance to muck it up. —Zack Smith