Film: More Than Meets the Eye

'Pride' more than just sports movie formula, while 'The Host' transcends its B-movie origins

Magnolia Pictures

Bae Du-na stars in The Host, Korean director Bong Joon-ho's crafty homage to B-level monster movies.

We've been told how hard it is for the pimps out there, but a good street hustle can pave the way for a golden future. Everyone acknowledges that Morgan Freeman's got game now, but back in 1987 when critic Pauline Kael opened her New Yorker review of Street Smart with the following query, "Is Morgan Freeman America's greatest actor?" I doubt many people were as hip to Freeman's game. The claim remains the same for the big-pimping Terrence Howard, who also might be on his way to swiping that "greatest" tag.

Having earned his first and thus far only Oscar nomination for his lead turn in Hustle & Flow, Howard boldly stepped into Freeman's shoes by attempting to capture the ferocity and humanity of a stereotype. The nomination validated his effort to turn a racially charged caricature into a man. It could be argued that Freeman's portrayal had more to overcome — he was probably too old for the street life, but he made age meaningless — yet Howard's anger is more palpable and cannot be denied.

From his standout, scene-stealing work in The Best Man to the his character's intense meltdown in the Oscar-winning Crash, Howard constantly seems on the verge of a volcanic explosion. This trait has less in common with Denzel Washington's righteous fire or Samuel L. Jackson's now cartoonish indignation than the possibly perceived slights Howard must feel as a result of his long climb toward the leading man rung in urban romantic comedies. He certainly has the smoldering good looks, but there is a hardness to his features that speaks of the deep reservoir of his back-story that Hollywood might never be able to bring to the screen.

Pride, Howard's latest film, offers evidence of how ill-prepared studio projects are in terms of crafting the perfect vehicle for this actor.

Yet another "inspired/based on a true story" feature, this uplifting sports drama presents the efforts of Jim Ellis (Howard), a black swimmer who fought discrimination during his collegiate career and took on the task of starting a swim program in the 1970s for underprivileged children through a slated-to-close Philadelphia Department of Recreation (PDR) site.

Ellis subscribed to the tenets of "Pride, Determination and Resilience." You can't help but believe those words mean something to Howard, and by extension each of his characters, including a certain pimp. The game remains the same no matter the player.

Pride never succumbs to the simple inspirational sports formula audiences might expect after similar urban-themed movies like Gridiron Gang or Glory Road. The big-game finale here plays off camera because greatness was waiting elsewhere. Follow Howard — he will lead the way.

Korean director Bong Joon-ho pays homage to another film staple — the B movie — with his mutated creature feature The Host, which offers two distinctly different figures with their own brand of unseemly ease.

Bong's amphibious monster coordinates a host of ill-fitting physical attributes with unusual facility. Thus a fluid swimmer's body, even one the size of a Metro bus, knifes through the water while loose, gangly limbs — a seeming mix of tadpole and monkey legs — grant a gymnast's agility on land. The mutant fish's network of nested mouths create a most efficient digestive machine, albeit not the most pleasant to watch in practice. This creature is truly a marvelous study in contrasts.

Then there is the all-too-human Gang-Du Park (Song Kang-ho), the dimwitted elder brother of the Park siblings who is barely able to work in his family's food station along the Han River or provide a parental figure for his teenage daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-Sung). Their relationship is more buddy-buddy than father-daughter, although not exactly unhealthily so. Gang-Du just can't seem to pull himself together.

That is, of course, until the monster emerges from underneath a bridge spanning the Han River and scoops up Hyun-seo, among a host of others, after Gang-Du fails to hold onto her during a mad dash to safety. Soon Gang-Du is joined by his siblings — the college-educated rebel Nam-il (Park Hae-il); Nam-Joo (Bae Du-na), a tentative national archery competitor; and their father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong) — in a quest to flee from the inept governmental bureaucracy responsible for the mutant in the first place, then to save the ever-resourceful Hyun-seo who has been deposited by the creature in a sewer system for safekeeping.

Typical monster-movie analogies are neatly lined up, then twisted or subverted by Bong. The world watches from afar thanks to the global media presence as a dysfunctional family akin to the VW bus troop in Little Miss Sunshine comes together when the chips are down and defeats a spawn of ecological imbalance right out of An Inconvenient Truth (if Gore had had more than the polar ice caps on his mind). Pride grade: B-; The Host grade: B

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