Monthly Archives: September 2007

Across the Universe (2007)

Julie Taymor is a one-of-a-kind artist. She made her name developing Disney’s The Lion King for the theater with highly elaborate and inventive costuming and staging. She then turned her vision to film and directed two strange yet visually splendid entires, 1999’s Titus and 2002’s Frida. Her latest is Across the Universe, a film constructed around actors singing Beatles songs. Hey, everyone likes the Beatles, so what could go wrong?

It’s the late 1960s and Jude (Jim Sturgess) has traveled from Liverpool (where else?) to Princeton to find his father. He makes friends with troublemaker Max (Joe Anderson) and they elect to travel to New York City and find their voice in these tumultuous times. They get a rather spacious apartment and their landlady, Sadie (Dana Fuchs), is a redheaded rock singer. Joe’s little sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) who just lost her boyfriend in the Vietnam War. JoJo (Martin Luther) and Prudence (T.V. Carpio) find their way to this apartment and into the increasing group of young, music-minded kids in the midst of a social revolution. Lucy fall hard for one another but their relationship is strained because Max has been shipped off to fight in Vietnam and Lucy is joining an increasingly violent radical resistance group.

I can’t decide whether it is clever of simply lazy to structure a whole screenplay around 30-some songs by one band. Many of the tunes are used for pointless reasons like “Dear Prudence” is reduced to coaxing a character out of a closet literally, though she is gay so perhaps there’s a double-meaning there, but it’s still lame. In fact, the entire character of Prudence is pointless and grafted onto the story with no real care or precision. She disappears and then miraculously pops up again, with happy girlfriend in tow, and then that’s it. But what really chafes is that when Taymor uses the Beatles’ songs to tell the bulk of her story that means that little feels authentic. Lucy and Jude spout their love songs so quickly after their first encounter. Their romance doesn’t feel believable and, more importantly, it doesn’t feel worthy of our time and interest.

Across the Universe is dripping with Baby Boomer nostalgia and the film leaves no cliché left unturned in its account of history. This jumbled melting pot of every late 1960s cultural event feels as shallow as a junior high report on the subject. Everything from the Watts riots, to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., to the Columbia protests and LSD activist Ken Kesey and his colorful bus are elbowed into a story that feels empty and crowded at the same time. Across the Universe is a tad overextended and even goes to the trouble of climaxing with a rooftop jam similar to the Beatles’ last public performance together.

Taymor is a talented visionary but sometimes she lets her creative impulses take over her better judgment. The movie ultimately feels like 30-some music videos strung together by a flimsy boy-meets-girl story that will sink or swim depending upon the song-by-song visual follies. Sometimes Taymor excels with the sublimely surreal like some underwater canoodling to “Something,” Uncle Sam reaching out from a recruitment poster to the tune of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and a spectacular rendition of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” where Max and other war vets cope with their trauma while multiple Salma Hayeks tempt them in sexy nurse outfits. But then Taymor gets a little too carried away with her runaway train of an imagination and her visuals can become simplistic (splattering strawberries = blood shed) or just way too funky, like a truly awful animated excursion where the wonderful Eddie Izzard speak-sings “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as a creepy circus ringleader. What does “Come Together” have to do with pimps and prostitutes and Joe Cocker as a bum? The worst moment may be when Taymor decides to visualize the parenthetical of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” by having underwear-clad soldiers hauling the Statue of Liberty over the jungles of Vietnam while they sing, “She’s so heavy.” I’m also uncertain about the flagrant jumps into theatricality like the synchronized acrobatic dancing; it’s a bit jarring at times.

The cast is rather strong from a vocal standpoint and they recorded their performances live instead of within the confines of a recording studio. Wood has a particularly pure voice. Sturgess and his throaty pipes remind me of Ewan McGreggor in Moulin Rouge. Fuchs gives a favorable impression of Janis Joplin. Bono is great in his limited time on screen and hums one dandy version of “I Am the Walrus.” There isn’t a weak singer in the bunch and simply listening to them is one of the highlights of the film, but then I could accomplish this by plugging in the soundtrack. The new arrangements of the Beatles songs are a bit lackluster; they seem too bare and stripped down into vanilla ballads. “Something” sounds exactly note-for-note like how the Elliott Smith version sounded that hauntingly played over the closing credits of American Beauty. I seriously thought that Across the Universe just lifted Smith’s version.

Inherently goofy and occasionally garish, Across the Universe is a misguided trip through the back catalogue of the Beatles. There is a moderate level of fun with the concept and the quirky visuals, but the film plods on and on and eventually the appeal of the gimmick is long exhausted. The singing is strong and the visuals have a sense of whimsy when they work, but in the end the Beatles already had one failed movie constructed entirely from their songs (1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees) and now they have one more for a new generation of fans.

Nate’s Grade: C

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

The Western used to dominate the pop culture landscape. In the 1950s, you had John Ford and Gary Cooper in a different dustup practically every week at the cinema, and the TV lineup was wall-to-wall cowboys, Indians, horses, and damsel retrieval. The Western has become rather inactive since its cultural heyday and now resides on the outskirts of movie land, idly chatting with Screwball Comedy and Busby Berkley Musicals about how good they had it back then (yes, I have just personified genres). With that said, director James Mangold (Walk the Line) has remade the 1957 John Ford film 3:10 to Yuma for a modern movie-going audience. The film has to work extra hard just to overcome the prejudices of a dormant genre, but fortunately 3:10 to Yuma is a rousing drama that could have knocked ’em dead way back when.

Dan (Christian Bale) is a wounded Civil War veteran trying to eek out a living in Arizona. He cannot grow any crops because of drought conditions, is behind on his payments, and his teen son has no respect for dear old one-footed dad. To keep his family financially afloat, Dan agrees to help transport notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to his date with justice.. It’s three days to ride across Arizona and get Wade onto the 3:10 train to Yuma prison, and along the way the posse is beset by unexpected setbacks and Wade’s gang hot on their heels to save their imprisoned leader.

This is no deconstructionist Western or a modern revisionist Western, no this is an old-fashioned Western and Mangold embraces the genre staples instead of steering away from them (runaway stagecoaches, high-noon showdowns, ineffective lawmen, saloon girls). There’s a reverence for the genre and Mangold makes sure the audience soaks up the dusty details of frontier life with lots of revealing close-ups. You can practically taste the earth these men are caked in. The script is filled with plenty of surprises along the way as Ben keeps regaining the upper hand even as he’s outnumbered and in shackles. The story benefits greatly from really opening up and exploring in depth whom Dan and Ben are and what makes them this way. 3:10 to Yuma does not paint in broad strokes and dwells in a lot of grey, which presents opportunities for the actors to work their magic.

At the heart of the film is the moral battle between Ben and Dan, and both actors rise to the occasion. Crowe’s name is all but a guarantee for a quality performance and he shows an array of seemingly contradictory elements to Ben Wade. He has roguish charm and swagger, but then in an instant you can feel the intense glare of hatred in his eyes, and the scary calm in his voice, and you realize that this man is a caged tiger always stalking his prey. He can erupt in sudden and vicious violence and then fall back into a conscienceless laugh. He has moments that seem like empathy and kindness, but then you realize every seemingly kind gesture has a hidden meaning that links back to Ben’s own benefit. Crowe is magnificent and plays around with audience expectations to keep us jumping back and forth between liking the sly brute and fearing him.

Bale is equally as good as a martyr for his moral principles. He sticks to his ethical convictions no matter the hardships and temptations to take an easy way out. The painful lengths Dan goes to protect his family produce several touching exchanges and add substantial meat to a character that very easily could have been drawn as a simplistic do-gooder. Bale sells every moment with commendable authenticity.

The rest of the supporting cast -Gretchen Mol, Alan Tudyk, a near unrecognizable Peter Fonda- add strong contributions to the movie, but none more memorable than Ben Foster. As Ben Wade’s sadistic right hand man, Foster displays a sick brand of hero worship and homicidal insanity. He’s an unpredictable and menacing figure and Foster magnifies these qualities to frightening realization. These excellent actors make 3:10 to Yuma more than throwback; it reminds you how great Westerns can be with the right actors and devotion to characters.

The only marks against 3:10 to Yuma occur during its climax. Things escalate immensely into a wild shoot-out that racks up a massive body count. While exciting, the sequence feels at odds with the intimate moral struggle between these two men. I’m also unsure about whatever prompted some eleventh hour motivational change for one key character. The ending is unnecessarily dark and will surely leave most audiences with a bad taste in their mouth to exit upon. Maybe it’s just the recent bout of films that I’ve been watching, but I’m starting to get tired of movies that are convinced that a pointlessly tragic ending somehow makes their story more meaningful (The Painted Veil, my wife is still upset with you, novel adaptation or not). A happy ending has long been perceived as a trite Hollywood cliché, but now I wonder of the pendulum has swung too far the other way so that conventional thinking says an audience has to be left wanting more or dissatisfied for a movie to attain higher artistic credibility. This is, of course, utter nonsense. A movie ending need only be appropriate for the scope of its story, but then again it doesn’t have to strive for forced wisdom delivered by unnecessary tragedy.

3:10 to Yuma is a hard-charging, stoic, classic American Western of the old guard with a bit more blood and profanity mixed in for a modern public. Despite a small handful of missteps toward the end, this is an engaging and often gripping morality tale catapulted by two strong performances from foreign-born actors showing Americans how the West was done right. Let 3:10 to Yuma stand as proof that any genre, no matter how outdated, can succeed as long as the filmmakers place care with character and treat the audience with a modicum of respect.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Eastern Promises (2007)

Director David Cronenberg is an idiosyncratic director who explores Big Ideas through the context of creepy horror movies where the body is violated. He’s covered everything from evil gnome-like children, ravenous monsters in Marilyn Chambers’ armpit, and Jeff Goldblum’s face unfortunately peeling away. But then Cronenberg struck it big with 2005’s A History of Violence, giving him the highest profile of his long Canadian career. The auteur of ick is now back in a similarly themed tale of the true impacts of bloodshed with Eastern Promises, a gripping and thoughtful work.

Anna (Naomi Watts) is a midwife working in London and come across a young Russian girl who dies in childbirth. She leaves behind a diary that Anna seeks to have translated so that she can find family members to contact about the newborn. This brings her unknowingly to the doorstep of Senyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who runs a restaurant in London’s Russian district. She inquires if Senyon or any of the employees knew the dead girl, and as soon as Senyon hears about the reality of a diary he becomes more concerned. And he should be since he is the head of one of London’s most notorious organized crime families. His loose canon of a son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), has authorized a hit behind his father’s back and repercussions may soon be approaching. Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) serves as the family’s chauffeur but takes an interest in Anna and is willing to assist her as she stumbles into impending danger the more she translates from the diary.

Much like writer Steven Knight’s excellent previous film Dirty Pretty Things, this is a film that shines a light on the underbelly of London and focuses on the immigrant experience and how apt they are to be exploited. Eastern Promises is both a straightforward crime thriller with an intriguing, albeit simple central mystery, but then as it moves along it transforms into something far richer. Through the diary, we uncover the hidden inner workings of the Russian mafia, which is a truly global enterprise. Women are promised with great riches and freedoms in their Slavic homeland, and then once transported will spend the rest of their lives behind the bars of a whorehouse, kept dependent thanks to a drug habit forced upon them. We’re immersed in the culture of this crime family. Eastern Promises takes its noirsh sensibilities and then gives us the foreboding and enigmatic Nikolai, a mysterious figure that the audience, like Anna, is drawn to. He spent time in a Siberian prison and is covered in telling tattoos that serve as a resume for the mafia. Nikolai is such a dominating presence and proves to be more intriguing than the central diary mystery, and it’s here where the film performs a balancing act and transfers our attentions fully to this brooding brute.

Cronenberg subverts his usual irony and weirdness to stay true to his tale, and this may well be, even more so than A History of Violence, the most accessible Cronenberg movie yet. We’re a long way from flesh-eating-monster-in-Marilyn-Chambers’-armpit. He still works with such compact efficiency so that no scene feels wasted, and Eastern Promises is a brisk 1 hour 40 minutes. Where Eastern Promises really succeeds is by layering in strong characters within a relatively genre movie. People are not exactly who they seem and the actors do their best to give remarkable depth to their roles.

Cronenberg seems to have found an actor that shares his artistic sensibilities. Scorsese has Leonardo DiCaprio, Wes Anderson has Bill Murray, Kevin Smith has Ben Affleck, and now Cronenberg has Viggo Mortensen. I never thought much of Mortensen as an actor until Cronenberg unlocked something deep and mesmerizing in their first pairing. With Eastern Promises, Mortensen establishes himself as an extremely capable actor. Nikolai is a complex figure and he Mortensen displays a mastery of understatement; his stony silences and piercing stares speak volumes, but you can practically watch the decision-making of the character pass through the face of Mortensen. He skillfully displays the good inside a man bred for evil.

Watts is an actress with few equals and she dazzles once more in a role that requires her to do a lot of legwork. And yet, there’s a sad, haunting quality to her thanks to the back-story where she lost a child due to miscarriage. Cassel is also impressive in a complicated role that requires a lot of internal languishing. He’s at one an impudent child willing to live high off the power of his family name, and at other times he comes across as a severely wounded man who cannot thrive in his hostile family (both little and big F) environment. There are interesting revelations that make Kirill a much more complex and captivating figure, and Cassel plays the many dimensions very well. Personally, I’m happy to see Armin Mueller-Stahl in another high profile movie. There was a time shortly after his 1996 Oscar nomination for Shine where if you needed an old guy for a movie, you got the Armin. Lately, it seems James Cromwell has taken his place as go-to old guy. In Eastern Promises, he has such a sly menace to him from the moment his ears prick up at the notion of a diary. He insists upon inserting himself into Anna’s life and casually makes remarks like, “You know where I work, now I know where you work,” with just the right amount of finesse to sound intimidating and yet potentially harmless.

One scene I will never forget is when Nikolai is ambushed in a bathhouse by two revenge-hungry thugs. He sits there naked and exposed and these two unhappy gentlemen descend upon him (fully clothed) with knives. Nikolai fights like a wounded animal and manages to successfully take down both men even though he is unarmed and un-clothed. Up to this point the character has been something of a gentle giant, knowing the vicious ways of the Russian mob but seemingly at distance from them for whatever ethical decision. But it’s at this moment that we bare witness, no pun intended, to the cagey survival instincts of a man who must live his life looking over his shoulder. It’s a bravura scene that is played out in agonizing detail. Nikolai is slashed and thrown against tiled walls (much penis-related mayhem is glimpsed), but he keeps coming back and knows precisely when to strike. It really is the actors doing all the hard knocks and brawling, which heightens the tension. Cronenberg stages the violence in his realistic drawn-out style, which horrifies an audience while simultaneously fascinating them. This is by far one of the most indelible film moments of the entire year.

Eastern Promises is an engaging character-based thriller, and yet I wish it finished as strongly as it began. This is the kind of movie where much is implied or said in silence, which works great at respecting the intelligence of an audience as well as staying consistent with a believable reality where everyone in such dangerous positions is not explaining everything aloud. However, one of the drawbacks of a film where much is implied is that when it’s over you may wish that they implied less and showed more. The climax to Eastern Promises is a little weak, especially when it comes shortly after the incredible bathhouse attack. There’s a very hazy sense of a resolution. From an artistic standpoint, I suppose I can appreciate a thriller that doesn’t feel the need to end with a pile of dead bodies and much blood being spilt, but at the same time, from an audience point of view, I was really left wanting for more when the film finally comes to a halt.

Thanks to a smart, twisty script, Cronenberg’s sharp yet quirk-free direction, and some stirring performances, Eastern Promises is a first-rate thriller with the added benefit of strong characterization to add richer depth to this tale of mobsters, retribution, and sex slavery. Mortensen is the real deal when it comes to acting, folks. Cronenberg may have found a true match with Mortensen, and the added cache may give the director greater financial opportunities to tell more intriguing tales that may or may not feature ravenous armpits.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Disturbia (2007)

This Rear Window for the Facebook generation starts off strong with a solid performance by Shia LeBouf, but then quickly unravels once the filmmakers think they’re desperately running out of time. The teasing mystery is set up well and elicits some interest, but then, as if afraid of lulling an audience to sleep with a story that takes its damn time, Disturbia throws everything and the kitchen sink at you in the last 20 minutes. The movie falls on its face (the metaphors are flying today) trying to make up for lost time with jump scares and lame thriller conventions. The end gets a tad absurd as well as Shia discovers his serial killer neighbor isn’t just a murderer, but he’s a home decorator on par with the creature from Jeepers Creepers. By the time Shia falls into an underground water cavern filled with corpses, I wanted to scream myself for such wasted potential to a film that seemed like a formless rip-off on the surface.

Grade: C+

Fracture (2007)

This is a genre movie, pure and simple, but it has a tricky plot and is aided by two exceptionally high caliber performances from Anthony Hopkins, once again personifying evil and confidence, and Ryan Gosling. He imbues such meaty resonance to a character that would have seemed flimsy and altogether stock in another actor’s hands. Gosling and Hopkins have great tit-for-tat moments where each is trying to outwit the other, and their verbal chess match provides the best scenes in this procedural thriller. The disintegrating murder case keeps the audience guessing, but it’s Hopkins and Gosling that elevate the material into delicious crackling Southern-fried entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: B

Away From Her (2007)

Actress Sarah Polley makes a remarkable directorial/screenwriting debut telling the story of a couple going through the late stages of Alzheimer’s. This is a truly adult tale that deals in the heartbreak of losing a loved one gradually and slowly. The film centers on a long-standing marriage that endures the hardships of becoming a victim in your own mind, first forgetting small things and then finally shutting down completely. While plenty of films have articulately dealt with the point of view of the afflicted, I feel Away from Her is one of the better perspectives on seeing the devastating effects of the illness from the spouse. The movie deals with its real world dilemmas in a respectful and realistic manner and Polley has put herself on the map as a thoughtful, mature, and engrossing talent to watch whenever she hops behind the camera.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Breach (2007)

Chris Cooper is masterful in an unnerving and deeply contradictory role as a man of God, country, patriotism, and family. He was a respected FBI expert eventually discovered to be the biggest mole in U.S. intelligence history, directly responsible for the deaths of U.S. spies and interests in Russia during the Cold War. Writer/director Billy Ray infuses the film with the same stoic, controlled calm of his exceptional earlier effort Shattered Glass, and the movie unwinds like a great political thriller from the 1970s. The story is smart and engaging but it is Cooper that turns Breach into one of the best films of 2007. His performance is as varied and complex as the man he is portraying; frightening and intimidating but also empathetic and bound by a sense of honor, Cooper gives a performance that plays upon ambiguity and understatement. Watch the way he even drives people into walls when he walks alongside them in hallways. It’s that kind of intense, highly focused, and morally challenging work that deserves an Oscar nomination.

Nate’s Grade: A

Ghost Rider (2007)

Nicolas Cage’s career has been flaming out, so what better role than a burning skeleton biker who serves as a bounty hunter for the Devil, in this case Peter Fonda. A cliché-riddled script, laughable performances, cheesy effects and dull villains doom any entertainment prospects this movie might have had. Cage, as the titular rider, gets to fight a group of escaped demons who all have one connection to an element; one has the power of fire, another the power of wind, etc., it’s like a hellish Captain Planet squad. But what’s the point when Ghost Rider simply vanquishes them so easily? It’s repetitive and goes nowhere. There’s one moment Sam Elliot “turns” into an older ghost rider/bounty hunter and rides along with Cage to save the day. But then he says, “Well, I could only do that once more, so good luck.” What? You could only turn into a flaming ass kicker one more time and you wasted it on riding a horsey through the desert? Eva Mendes is awful as her role of “girlfriend from past,” and why, if she and Cage grew up as childhood sweethearts, does he look over 15 years older than her in the present? I guess working for Satan can really take a lot out of you.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Kingdom (2007)

Now that summer is but a hazy memory, get ready for a roll out of serious minded movies Hollywood hopes vie for serious award attention. It may be five years into the current war, but the movies are now cranking out Iraq-themed dramas that will dominate the release schedule for the approaching months. Things are about to get heavy and somber. First out of the gate, though, is The Kingdom, a film about the nebulously termed War on Terror set within the confines of an action movie. Actor-turned-director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Rundown) knows how to create a stylized movie that feels organic to its genre, and The Kingdom is another example of his growing cinematic pedigree.

In Saudi Arabia, a housing enclosure of American contractors and their families is brutally attacked by terrorists that have infiltrated the Saudi security. Two hundred American lives are lost and FBI agent Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx) is intent on leading a team of experts (Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman) to the soil of the Saudis, otherwise known as The Kingdom. The State Department refuses to authorize an investigation citing the jurisdiction of the Saudis as well as the danger of violent reprisals if agents are within reach of the perpetrators. Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) is assigned to baby-sit the American agents and keep them stuck in red tape during their five days allotted to them. Fluery refuses to take a subservient role and works with Al Ghaazi to get some answers.

The animated opening credit crash course in Saudi history is fun and informative, however, it really doesn’t relate to The Kingdom even though the damn movie is set in that country. Curiously, the movie only makes cursory statements on the wary relationship between the Saudis and the United States, but otherwise this movie could have been dropped in any nondescript Muslim country in the Middle East. If The Kingdom was relocated to, say, Yemen, I doubt the script would need that much fine-tuning; snip some references to royalty here and there. This is a story about the balance between a moderate Middle East regime and radical elements within the country willing to buck Western influence by any destructive means necessary. I’m measurably disappointed that the movie didn’t tackle more about the unique and tenuous Saudi-U.S. relationship, but then I accepted the fact that The Kingdom wasn’t so much about a country but an ideology that knows no borders.

To that end, The Kingdom is one part CSI: Saudi Arabia, one part political thriller, and one part gung-ho Hollywood action extravaganza, and none of the parts seems to work well together as a whole. The film doesn’t work as a cohesive unit and perhaps tries to do too much. Now, this does not mean that any of those parts are not entertaining. The criminal investigating is rather interesting because of all the cultural barriers between the U.S. agents and the Saudi governing system (a miscast Jeremy Piven, as an ambassador, admonishes Janet, in a very Ari Gold way, to “dial down the boobies”). The central mystery of who is responsible is pretty thin and easy to solve, which may be why the film spends so much time finding obstacles to delay our FBI team from getting their hands on the evidence. The political thriller elements are expressed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and yet they feel like thoughtful counterpoints to any rah-rah jingoism that The Kingdom may instill in an American audience. The climax provides plenty of fist-pumping violence but it also ends on a note about the futility of violence as well as the durability of hate. I even appreciated devoting time to interdepartmental jockeying and watching agency heads seeing who will blink first in a public relations-dominated world. The Kingdom doesn’t have a desire to become Syriana 2: No Blood for Oil, but it does possess a greater deal of intelligence and relevance than most of what big budget Hollywood is spewing out (I refuse to believe the FBI would send an agent, with a personal family tie to Israel, into a Muslim country).

Strict action fans, however, are going to have a lot of downtime on their hands. The Kingdom opens with an action sequence and closes with an action sequence, and there’s a wide gap in between those bookends. The final 20 minutes are devoted to a nail-biting ambush and rescue that transforms our FBI agents into improbable action movie warriors. Berg’s restless camera isn’t as well honed as Paul Greengraas (The Bourne Ultimatum), and sometimes you just wish the jittery cameraman would allow you to see what’s going on. I don’t know if the docu-drama emphasis is fully needed, especially when the movie jumps between shots of just two people having a conversation. Berg is a terrific director and the action sequences hit hard; I just hope he doesn’t become trapped trying to fit himself into one style.

In truth, the most intriguing part of The Kingdom is the relationship between Fleury and Al Ghazi. They begin frustrated and fighting for control, but soon, in true buddy cop genre fashion, a mutual respect forms as they search for the bad guys. The script offers helpful examples of good Movie Arabs and bad Movie Arabs, and the audience is able to easily identify the two sides. The interplay between Fleury and Al Ghazi leads to some humorous exchnages as well as some reflective opportunities, like where the men recount their families and declare they do not care why such dastardly acts were done, they just want to inflict some punishment on the rightful parties.

The acting, like the film, is a bit all over the place. Foxx seems to be on autopilot. Foxx has bunkered into his acting troupes; intense, penetrating stare, whispery dialogue recitations, and a cocksure attitude. Cooper is cranky and incredulous older timer along for the ride. Garner does her best with a character that was written for the sole purpose of concocting culture squabbles over the role of the opposite sex. She does unleash a torrent of anger and power in one very hard-core and frighteningly extreme fight scene. Bateman is playing comic relief and does sarcastic quips with great ease, but his character also gets unexpectedly thrown into a very harrowing experience and Bateman makes you feel every drop of his fear. Barhom (Paradise Now) gives a convincing performance of a man torn apart by his moral compass and the path of his country. He feels a sense of duty to protect the innocent but at the same time he is scoffed at by colleagues for helping “them.”

The Kingdom is an action movie with more on its mind than blowing up the enemy real nice like, though that also plays a key component. The pieces don’t fully add up to a whole and the film’s politics are a little tricky to get a bearing on; is this a red state movie, a blue state movie, or something for both audiences? Berg’s ambition is admirable and his film never drags out a soapbox to preach. The Kingdom is a topical movie aimed at planting seeds of debate among a mainstream audience in between their handfuls of popcorn and gulps of soda.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Brave One (2007)

The Brave One, when distilled to its purest essence, is Jodie’s Foster’s Death Wish, but there isn’t anything necessarily wrong about exploring this scuzzy territory again with a fresh set of eyes. The film chronicles a New York City radio host (Foster) who is the victim of a brutal attack that leaves her boyfriend dead and her in a coma for three weeks. Shattered and hardened, she buys a gun for her own protection and finds herself in situations that require one. The Brave One features a lot of audience-approved ass kicking and an absurd amount of dangerous scenarios that Foster seems to casually find on a nightly basis. But what separates The Brave One from the usual grisly pap of the genre is that it refuses to pander to audience bloodlust. Director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) complicates a simple case of vengeance by making an audience contemplate the true ramifications of violence and whether they are ultimately worth the price. Foster gives a ragged and emotionally raw performance. She discovers how easy killing comes to her and Foster struggles to keep her crumbling sense of humanity, with her last tie to the working world is her friendship with a deeply compassionate cop (Terrence Howard, terrific yet again). The most affecting moments are between Foster and Terrence as they construct a rather moving companionship where each feels out the other and Foster actively tries to avoid getting caught. The end of The Brave One certainly could have followed through with its morally ambiguous deliberations and open-ended questions, but while its climax does pull some punches it doesn’t wrap everything up with a bow either. This is high-end work for a guilty pleasure genre most noted for having its morals face down in the gutter. Now what the hell does the title refer to?

Nate’s Grade: B

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