The Kingdom(9/28/2007)

 

            The title of The Kingdom refers to the nation of Saudi Arabia, the largest country in the Middle East, a region we have all been slowly learning about.  There are serious things going on in that area, a fact no one needs me to inform them about.  There are many reasons to make movies about nations like Saudi Arabia, the Middle East conflict is the defining issue of our time and there are many positions to take.  But is “no position” an option?  That’s the question that The Kingdom poses without trying to. 

            The film opens with a frightening act of terrorism; two Saudi men enter an area of Riyadh populated by Americans and begin a mass drive by shooting, but this is only a distraction, two bombs eventually go off killing hundreds of Americans including two FBI agents.  Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) upon hearing this manages to persuade the Saudi government (without telling his superiors) to allow his team into the country’s border to investigate the crime.  Also on his team are Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman).  In Saudi Arabia they are escorted by Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) who tries to help them despite some cultural differences. 

            The strong cast does a lot to keep this movie floating.  Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper live up to their award winning status and both are good here, neither are great but they do as much as they need to do with their fairly standard roles.  Newcomer Ashraf Barhom is also quite good here, and Jeremy Piven has a fun turn in a small role.  Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner however, both seem out of place here.  Bateman simply doesn’t feel right for this genre, and Garner is just generally poor.

            Viewers who were offended by the mix of action adventure and real world tragedy in last year’s Blood Diamond should stay even further away from The Kingdom.  The film has no real message in this film, there’s the occasional poignant moment, but there’s certainly no clear thesis in sight.  I was going to say it played out like CSI: Riyadh, but a bunch of other critics beat me to it.  There is a lot of procedural here, but the result of the investigation seems inevitable.  In the last half hour the film devolves into an all out Hollywood action movie. 

            The action scenes are well shot, in a more appropriate environment I’d support them, they are just wrong for this story.  People go to action movies for escapism, something no one gets from a story about Middle East terrorism.  People go to more political “issue-tainment” for smart insights into world affairs, something that’s absent from this action movie.  It’s a movie that tries to have it both ways and ends up pleasing no one. 

            There have been reports that forty minutes were cut from The Kingdom, and this may have been part of the problem.  One can really feel the participation of test audiences in the creation of the movie.  It may be that whatever point the movie was trying to make was lost in this editing.  The movie could also have benefitted from increased character development all around.  

            Peter Berg, director of Friday Night Lights and The Rundown is simply over his head with this material.  He has no idea whether he wants to make a political thriller, procedural, or action film and has no new insight into the Middle East.  It says a lot that The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a film set in 1920’s Ireland, has more to say about the American War on terror than this film set in modern Riyadh.  There are better films about the Middle East and better action movies out there.  The Kingdom is just good enough to hold your attention but ultimately amounts to nothing.  Possibly worth a rental, the action sequence really is shot well, but otherwise quite missable.

** out of Four

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DVD Catch Up: Lucky You(9/21/2007)

 

            When F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were “no second acts in American lives”, he clearly didn’t have the director Curtis Hanson.  Hasnson, a director mainly known for a few populist thrillers, came out of nowhere to make one of the best movies of the late 90’s: L.A. Confidential.  Hanson followed this success up with the also excellent Wonder Boys, then went on to make the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile a good three or four times better than it had any right to be.  No one was quite ready to call him great, but he was definitely a director who could make very good movies. Hanson’s latest film Lucky You was in the unenviable position of opening against Spider-Man 3 after sitting on a shelf for well over half a year.  Hanson’s film certainly deserved a better fate than that embarrassment, but at the same time there was a reason the film was held so long.

            Eric Bana plays Huck Cheever, a Las Vegas poker player with a chip on his shoulder.  Huck’s father L.C. Cheever (Robert Duvall), a major figure in professional poker tournaments, had abandoned Huck’s mother when Huck was still a child.  Whenever Huck plays his father at poker he finds his emotions interfering with his game.  Huck begins trying to save up the ten thousand dollars needed to enter the World Series of Poker when he meets a bar singer named Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore) who he becomes emotionally attracted to. 

            There are a lot of movies set in the world of Las Vegas gambling.  Recent examples of the genre that come to mind are Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler, Richard Kwietniowski’s Owning Mahowny, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight.  But few movies set in this world seem to be so singularly interested in the actual gambling.  There is a love story here and a story about a father and son, but neither of these seem to be as interesting to Hanson as the “sport” of Texas hold ‘em poker. 

            The film does poker in a much more believable and realistic way than most films.  It’s always been a pet peeve of mine to see the poor way that movies like the recent James Bond vehicle Casino Royale handled card games.  Most movie poker games seem to be decided by a royal flush beating a straight flush.  On the very few occasions when I’ve played poker I felt incredibly lucky whenever I got my hands on two pairs.  Lucky You never falls into these traps, many games here are won with small pairs, and the one time an incredible hand occurs it is looked at as an extreme aberration.

            Eric Bana is one of my personal favorite actors around today, he delivered great performances in Munich and Chopper, and when he was in below average movies like Troy and Hulk he usually ended up being the best part of them.  Here he’s giving what I call a “default performance”.  It’s an unchallenging role in a contemporary film that basically works to establish what Bana is like in a normal film so we can appreciate him more when he’s really trying to disappear into a role.  Robert Duvall is also a nice presence, but his is also a very unchallenging role.  The performance of Drew Barrymore, however, is sub-par.  I’ve come to not expect much from Barrymore, and she did not surprise me here.

            Hanson does nothing poorly with the direction, but also nothing special.  It is a fairly straightforward production and ultimately a fairly understated production.  The cinematography works fairly well, and the movie isn’t over-edited.  Hanson wisely chooses not to show any of the player’s hands except for Hucks, and there is a fair amount of suspense in the card games.

            Huck Cheever is a somewhat interesting character, but he doesn’t have much to do here.  The story arc is just too weak to really work. The love story is formulaic and feels like an afterthought, and there’s nothing in the father and son storyline we haven’t seen before. The story is ultimately a catalyst to explore this world of professional gambling.  If this is a world you as the viewer have no interest in, this isn’t the movie for you.  There is however enough interesting things about this world to entertain in a fairly moderate way.  There’s nothing entirely bad about the movie, its success largely just depends on the viewer’s interest in Poker tournaments.  Certainly worth a look if it’s on cable, possibly worth a rent if you have a great interest in Poker.

**1/2 out of four

DVD Catch Up: The Wind That Shakes the Barley(9/14/2007)

 

                Competition at the 2006 Cannes film festival was more fierce than usual.  Many of the movies getting Oscar buzz later that year were in competition.  Among the contenders were Babel, Fast Food Nation, Volver, and Pan’s Labyrinth.  But when the awards were handed out on May 28th the film that walked away with the Palm d’Or was Ken Loach’s drama about the Irish War for Independence The Wind That Shakes the Barley.  Unlike many of the losers at Cannes, The Wind That Shakes the Barley did no get distributed for Oscar consideration in late 2006, instead it got a small blink and you’ll miss it release in March of 2007.  Now, more than a year after it won the prestigious award, I’ve finally gotten a chance to catch Ken Loach’s drama on DVD.

            The film takes place in the early twenties in Ireland, during the War for Independence.  The film opens on a shocking scene where English “Black and Tan” soldiers disrupt a meeting of Irish youth and murder one of them for refusing to tell them his name in English.  Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is a pacifist who finds such acts of martyrdom to be futile and destructive.  But when he witnesses another act of English violence he finds himself drawn to join his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) in the IRA.  At this time the IRA more closely resembles a guerilla army than a terrorist organization.  The film follows the brothers throughout the Irish war of independence and into the Irish Civil War that followed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, a conflict that would place the two brothers on opposite sides of war.

            This film works on one level as a great history lesson.  I must admit a certain level of ignorance about the Anglo-Irish conflict depicted here, I knew conceptually of a group known as the IRA that did a number of bombings throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, but knew nothing of the group’s origins that are shown here.  I found this to be a fascinating exploration of the era.  Loach clearly has negative feelings about the British occupation, but never takes sides as to whether violence is the correct way to deal with the problem.  When the civil war comes one can easily relate to both those who want to cut their losses and live in peace and those who want to continue their fight for complete freedom.  Loach consistently manages to find interesting ways to handle historical exposition throughout, like one scene where we quickly understand the affects of the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 and the people reaction to it by watching an audience react to a newsreel of the event.

            The movie is no dry history lesson however; it also presents a great human drama.  The characters in this film are three dimensional and well developed.  The characters we meet at the beginning are very different by the end.  One is reminded of Steven Spielberg’s excellent 2005 film Munich in that both films must deal with the character’s reactions to violence in terrorist situations and their frustration when violence only starts to beget violence.  The difference here is that it is coming from the point of view of the “terrorists” rather than the army.  When the two brothers find themselves on opposite side the view knows that we’re heading for tragedy.  This is the stuff of Irish folk ballads like “Danny Boy”, in fact it id from one such song that the film gets its name.  

            The film also works on one further level as an allegory for the state of world affairs today.  The parallels between this conflict and the current war in Iraq are uncanny.  Ireland in the film is occupied by a well armed foreign force being fought off by a resistance group which could easily be called an insurgency.  The film also serves as a chilling warning of what happens when a new state government is left to take over a state filled with angry people who are still ready to fight. 

            Loaches camera work is not flashy, this is not what you’d call “bravura filmmaking”, but this in many ways works in the film’s favor.  The film’s deceptive blandness prevents it from artificially glorifying either side of the conflict.  The violence depicted here goes against many modern conventions of screen violence.  The killings are in no way stylized, nor are they artificially “gritty”, they are simply matter of fact.  Loach does not glorify the violence or go out of his way to make it look horrible; there is surprisingly little blood here which is unusual for a film trying to show the “horrors of war.”  The result is a brilliantly un-manipulative affair. 

            I’m not sure if I would have given the Palm d’Or to The Wind That Shakes the Barley given the competition, then again maybe I would.  It is a very well written and intelligently crafted film about a very interesting subject.  The film works on many levels and could inspire a lot of interesting debate.  A great film from a veteran filmmaker.

**** out of four

3:10 to Yuma(9/7/2007)

 

            Oh how the mighty have fallen.  The western genre used to be among the most popular genres; Hollywood would release dozens of westerns a year during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.  But times have changed dramatically.  Since the year 2000 Hollywood has only put out three large budget westerns, an average of less than one every two years.  Two of these three are the recent remake of The Alamo and the Jackie Chan martial arts comedy Shanghi Noon.  The only straightforward western Hollywood put out in the last decade was the underappreciated Kevin Costner film Open Range. 

            Audiences loved westerns all throughout the first half of the century.  “Gunsmoke” was the most popular show on television, dime western novels were a staple of not so literary bookstores, and film audiences were flocking to see the latest cinematic representations of the frontier.  But this all ended some time in the late sixties.  Some say that youth counter-culture avoided westerns because they represented the establishment.  I think however the genre declined because of simple market saturation.  People could only watch the shootout at the O.K. Corral so many times (to date there have been eight representations of that famous gunfight on film). 

            That’s not to say there aren’t occasionally westerns, in fact there have been quite a few since 1970, but they’re no longer a major genre, instead there’s probably about one a year or so.  But this isn’t entirely a bad thing.  The fact that there are only one or two westerns a year lets each one of them be an event of sorts.  I’ve never seen the original 1957 film 3:10 to Yuma simply because it looks no different than any of the other 10-20 westerns that came out that year.  The film is all but forgotten today simply because it got lost in the shuffle of nearly identical westerns.  The new remake of 3:10 to Yuma starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, however, comes out in an era where the genre feels special.
            Christian Bale plays Dan Evans, a down on his luck rancher who’s family is heavy in debt.  By a turn of chance Evans witnesses a robbery on an armored carriage committed by Ben Wade (Russell Crowe).  Wade and his posse return to town, his second in command Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) reports the robbery in order to distract the local law enforcement.  The local police ride out to the scene of the crime where they find Evans aiding the sole survivor of the carriage robbery, Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda).  They return to town where, who waited around too long, is captured.  The Pinkertons decide to escort Wade to the town of Convention where they’ll put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma.  Because the Pinkertons are short handed Evans, who is a civil war veteran, volunteers to ride with them for two hundred dollars.

            Many modern westerns do everything they can to subvert the genre.  This has lead to some great movies like Unforgiven, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and last year’s excellent The Proposition.  3:10 to Yuma ignores this concept entirely.  This is a traditional western told in a very simple way.  The story is nothing new, on paper it sounds like every other western ever made.          The thing that sets this film ahead of other similar movies is simply an excellent execution. 

            The screenplay is quite good.  As I said, the story is hardly revolutionary, but the this simple and somewhat clichéd story is very well told.  The dialogue really sparkles, it sounds real but stylish at the same time.  The characters are well rounded and three dimensional.  Dan Evans has a very noble code of honor, but he’s no Dudley-Do-Right either, he is working for money after all.  Evans also isn’t some kind of perfect gun fighting adventurer either.   Ben Wade is even more interesting.  He’s a violent criminal who’s willing to kill anyone who gets in his way, but one gets the feeling he doesn’t particularly like this about himself.  He seems like a nice guy, he doesn’t act evil at all, but he does evil things anyway.  The script is full of surprises, whenever you think something predictable is being set up it ends up being the opposite.  The film doesn’t glorify the old west, it doesn’t turn away from many of the things that made the old west, not so great, but it never allows the setting to overwhelm the story itself.

            What really puts this movie over the top is the acting.  Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are undeniably two of the greatest actors of their generation, and pairing them made this film particularly exciting. The pairing seems brilliant, but could have been troublesome as well, pairing two method actors like these could have easily lead to lots of yelling and scenery chewing, but the two actors restrain themselves brilliantly and give two solid performances.  Crowe is an actor who seems to have been born to be in westerns, he’s one of the best tough guys working, almost a modern day John Wayne except with a much wider range.  Crowe was in one western before this, Sam Raimi’s strange The Quick and the Dead, which was something of a missed opportunity for Crowe.  Here however Crowe lives up to his western badass potential. 

            Christian Bale is the one who has a bigger challenge in the movie.  He’s not the kind of brawler you’d naturally expect in a western the way Crowe is.  It was essential that Bale worked here; if Russell Crowe’s villain had overshadowed Bale’s hero the film would have been in trouble.  Fortunately Bale rose to the occasion.  He plays a down to earth and believable farmer and gives the character life. 

            Both of the stars give great performances that help the movie immensely, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say either give performances for the ages.  This isn’t the kind of acting you hand out Oscars for or put in top ten lists.  This is great American movie star tough guy acting in the tradition of John Wayne and Lee Marvin, but done with modern sensibilities.

            Crowe and Bale are not, however, the only actors in the movie.  There are many good performances to be found throughout the movie.  Ben Foster very nearly steals the show as the vicious second in command of Wade’s gang, Charlie Prince.  Foster, whose career has floated well under my radar before now, makes himself known here with a vengeance.  Peter Fonda also has a small, but important role here.  His performance isn’t particularly outstanding, but he holds his own around all the talent here and has a great dialogue exchange with Russell Crowe.  Logan Lerman plays Evan’s teenage son William, a role could have been problematic, but he makes it work.

            No one will ever confuse director James Mangold of being a great auteur, but when he’s given good material he consistently puts out very good movies.  He’s probably most famous for his Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, but he also made the thriller Cop Land and the horror/mystery Identity.  The film is shot in a traditional but effective way that doesn’t draw attention to itself.  The violence is fast and well choreographed, this isn’t an action movie per se, but when the bullets start flying the film is just as exiting as anything Hollywood tends to put out. 

            The film has really nice cinematography and excellent sound effects editing.  I’ve said before that this film is very traditionally made, this is not to say that this is some kind of nostalgia work that is actively trying to look like a film from the 50’s, the film manages to feel like what it is, an old film made in contemporary times. 

            3:10 for Yuma is a great yarn.  It’s the best (and only) traditional western since Open Range, and on par with the westerns of the genre’s golden age.  Anyone looking for a great flick for adults should check it out.

***1/2