Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Movie Review - Pride and Glory

Like movies about CIA espionage in the Middle East, stories about corrupt cops seem to be everywhere. It's unfortunate when these genres become so prevalent because it dilutes their effectiveness and becomes a challenge for anything new to be brought to the table. "Pride and Glory", starring Edward Norton and Colin Farrell, is the latest entry in this ever growing litany. Once again, we have a multi-generational family of New York cops mixed up in nefarious dealings with drug runners, shake-downs for money and even the murders of other cops. Norton plays Ray Tierney, who is assigned by his father (Jon Voight) to the task force investigating the slaughter of 4 policemen. Though Ray is reluctant to take on the assignment, he digs in with determination and intelligence only to uncover an increasingly disturbing trail of corruption that may lead to a member of his own family. Ray's brother Francis (Noah Emmerich), who is in charge of the unit in which the murdered police officers worked, and his brother-in-law Jimmy (Colin Farrell), also a police officer, are just two of the pieces in this complicated puzzle. Also figuring into the action are a multitude of various out of control cops-on-the-take (John Ortiz is a stand-out) and Francis' cancer stricken wife (Jennifer Ehle). As Ray moves closer to exposing the truth, loyalties to family clash with duty and honor on the job, making for an explosive finale.

It took me a little while to sort out the players and figure out exactly what was involved with the scenario of the murdered cops, especially since much of the action is fast and brutal. In fact, here's a warning: This movie contains several intensely violent scenes, so those who are bothered by such things (I am not) might want to avoid seeing it, or at least be forewarned. It's always a pleasure to see such a stellar cast turn in their usual excellent work, even if the storyline doesn't really offer anything too fresh. Along with some truly disturbing scenes and situations there are also a few too many shoot-outs and beatings that don't add anything vital. Perhaps I wouldn't have such a mixed reaction to this movie if it didn't involve such an overused premise. While it's certainly worth seeing, it lacks the spark that makes other films in this genre (such as "L.A. Confidential", "Prince of the City", "Serpico") classics.

Things to love about this movie: Terrific performances from everyone; good use of sound effects (the rumbling of the overhead trains never seemed so ominous as here)
Things to hate about this movie: One too many catastrophic problems (does Francis' wife need to by dying of cancer on top of everything else he has to deal with?)
Pleasant surprises: There is an explanation given for the nasty scar on Ray's face; Francis' tender scenes with his wife
Unpleasant surprises: An unforgettable scene featuring Jimmy, a baby and a hot iron (though unpleasant, it was highly effective)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Movie Review - The Secret Life of Bees

A house painted pink and a bevy of beautiful, talented actresses still can't make this movie fly for me. Despite its good intentions and marvelous cast, I couldn't get past the unfortunate fact that the story revolves around a brat of a main character who seems to be poison to everyone whose path she crosses. Yes, I'm referring to Dakota Fanning as Lily. I have to admit that this actress has always annoyed me, so perhaps I'm not objective enough to rate any performance she gives, but in this case it's also the character who bugs. Lily is the victim of a horrifying family situation and is obviously set up for our sympathy. At 4 years old she accidentally shoots and kills her own mother. Then life with her angry, redneck father (an almost unrecognizable Paul Bettany) becomes wretched, with dear old dad shoving, shouting and forcing the girl to kneel in a pile of grits as punishment. At 14 Lily runs away, accompanied by the family housekeeper Rosaleen (the wonderful Jennifer Hudson), who has been beaten by one of the locals. After recognizing a label on a jar of honey as one of her mother's keepsakes, Lily heads for a place called Tiburon where the honey is made. Here she and Rosaleen encounter a house full of sisters: August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo). These cultured, supportive women provide a safe haven as Lily learns beekeeping along with parts of her mother's secret past.

There are certainly many things to like in this movie, particularly the strong performances by Jennifer Hudson and Sophie Okonedo, but an overload of nobility weighs down the character of August despite Queen Latifah's obvious talent. Alicia Keys does an excellent job switching gears from singer to actress, and there's good chemistry between her and Nate Parker as her boyfriend Neil. Paul Bettany chews the scenery as Lily's nasty father, but there's not much he can do with this one dimensional character. The injustices of the times (1964) are well represented as they impact the every day lives of the characters, an aspect I wish had been further explored in place of Lily's relentless perils.

Things to love about this movie: The wailing wall May has set up in the yard; a light hearted scene of singing and dancing in the kitchen; the black Mary statue from which the women gain strength and courage
Things to hate about this movie: The perpetually whining and clueless Lily involves herself in situations that prove dangerous to others when she should know better
Pleasant surprises: Delightful performance by young actor Tristan Wilds playing what could have been a throwaway character
Unpleasant surprises: A capitulation to tradition that seems out of character for one of the sisters; Jennifer Hudson should have been given more screen time and Dakota Fanning less

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Movie Review - Rachel Getting Married

Longing to attend a dysfunctional wedding? If so, "Rachel Getting Married" may be right up your alley. The new film from director Jonathan Demme uses a documentary style to give us the story of a recovering drug addict returning home for the nuptials of her sister. The prodigal daughter Kym (a beautiful performance by Anne Hathaway) is checked out of rehab to attend the event where her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) will marry the wonderful Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) while surrounded by loving members of both families. There's merry making, music, toasts, silly games, family meals, inclement weather, bridesmaids' outfits, heart-to-heart talks. In short, all the usual stuff that wedding celebrations are made of. And then there's Kym. She's a walking, smoking nightmare as she proceeds to create awkward moments and angry clashes, especially with her sister Rachel. It's clear from the outset that old wounds have never healed on the part of wayward Kym or her family members, including a desperately ingratiating father (Bill Irwin) and a somewhat distant mother (Debra Winger). The plot turns on a devastating family event from the past in which Kym and her drug addiction played a major role.

Writer Jenny Lumet has a good ear for dialogue, especially in the 12-step meetings which Kym attends and the numerous arguments between the two sisters. We're given a true sense of this family with all its conflicts and tragedies, although Kym remains the central focus and most interesting character for me. Hathaway rips up the screen with an amazing portrayal of a chronically debilitated young woman who's part drama queen, part little lost lamb. DeWitt also turns in an excellent performance, along with Mather Zickel as a wedding attendee who happens to show up in Kym's 12-step group as well. The movie meanders a bit with a few too many shouting matches, but it's an impressive first screenplay that stays with you after leaving the theater.

Things to love about this movie: Anne Hathaways' extraordinary performance; the day-by-day struggle of a former addict to cope with problems is handled with unusual subtlety; no sentimentality and only a little melodrama in dealing with the family tragedy
Things to hate about this movie: The perpetually playing band that serenades too many scenes and becomes thoroughly annoying
Pleasant surprises: Although Rachel is marrying a black man, there's little made of the racial divide with members of both families seamlessly joining forces; a strikingly brutal confrontation between Kym and her mother; a beautiful blue elephant wedding cake
Unpleasant surprises: Sidney is a marvelous character who isn't given nearly enough screen time

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Movie Review - W.

Oliver Stone continues his political biopic tradition with "W.", a surprisingly even handed presentation of the life and times of George W. Bush featuring a bravura performance by Josh Brolin in the title role and Stone's biting commentary about our current president. It must have been tempting for Stone to merely poke fun at our easily spoofed leader, but he takes the more complicated, and ultimately effective, path of dissecting the life of a good ole Texas boy who became one of the most powerful people in the world with disastrous consequences for all. We pick up the W. story with his early days at Yale where his hard drinking, mediocre academic results and responsibility shirking ways put him into increasing conflict with his father. W. hops from one job to another, racks up a DUI arrest, impreganates his girlfriend while his father manages to take care of the multiple screw-ups. There's minimal coverage of W.'s marriage to Laura and his election to Governor of Texas with a little more screen time devoted to his recovery from alcoholism as a born again Christian.

An excellent cast (James Cromwell as the senior Bush, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld) offers completely believable characterizations of these well known individuals that go beyond mere imitation. There's excellent use of music with such songs as "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and "What a Wonderful World" highlighting scenes of destruction and the especially appropriate Bob Dylan song "With God On Our Side" playing over the ending credits. The movie goes on a little too long and doesn't really catch fire like some of Stone's movies can do, but there's much to admire about this attempt to capture a man who is ultimately unfathomable.

Things to love about this movie: Josh Brolin's amazing portrayal of W.; a horrifying strategy session on the invasion of Iraq that conjures images of "Dr. Strangelove"
Things to hate about this movie: Stone over uses the baseball metaphor for W.'s longing to be admired and applauded as well as over emphasizing W.'s conflicts with his father
Pleasant surprises: The humor in the movie was of a deeper, angrier sort than the trailer led me to assume; not nearly as bombastic as some of Stone's other movies
Unpleasant surprises: Not much new material surfaces; Stone cuts W. a little too much slack for my taste

Monday, October 13, 2008

Movie Review - Body of Lies

As thrillers involving complicated events in the Middle East seem to be proliferating, it becomes more and more confusing to keep up with the convoluted plots of these movies and "Body of Lies" is no exception. I spent the first half hour wondering what was going on, but as things progressed I began to figure out some of the story and enjoy its intricate action. With a dynamic duo like Russell Crowe and Leonardo Dicaprio leading the way, even the CIA becomes more exciting than it should be. Crowe plays Ed Hoffman and Dicaprio is Roger Ferris, both CIA partners involved in a risky operation attempting to apprehend a terrorist cell based in Jordan. Hoffman gives orders to Ferris from Langley while dropping his kids off at school or watching his daughter's soccer game. Ferris has the dangerous task of operating covertly on the streets of Jordan and working with the Chief of Jordanian intelligence, Hani Salaam (a riveting performance by the debonair Mark Strong) who may or may not be trustworthy. Ferris chooses to adopt the approach of the locals when it comes to investigating terrorists, but Hoffman continually forges ahead with plans that thwart Ferris' efforts and set up multiple disasters.

It's always a joy to watch such outstanding actors as Crowe and Dicaprio, even if they are only sharing the screen a couple of times during the movie. There were some interesting comments on the fumbling way in which the CIA attempts to infiltrate covert terrorist operations without understanding the culture or political climate of the countries in which they're operating. There's also an effective romance between Dicaprio and a local nurse (Golshifteh Farahani). Perhaps I'm becoming a bit weary of these terrorist/CIA intrigues, because I wasn't able to become completely involved in this movie despite its many good qualities and excellent cast. It's missing some of the usual Ridley Scott punch, although the ambiguous ending and intense character dynamics make up for a less than ideal script.

Things to love about this movie: Good performances; a terrific cultural conflict scene at the dinner table when Dicaprio is introduced to Farahani's sister
Things to hate about this movie: Very confusing beginning set-up with a hard to follow plot; too many standard scenes typical of this genre (torture, bombings, etc.)
Pleasant surprises: Dicaprio is down and dirty in a fully adult role; some truly surprising plot developments
Unpleasant surprises: Crowe and Dicaprio have very few scenes together; Crowe isn't given much screen time or enough of a character to play; William Monahan's script is not up to his usual high standard

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Movie Review - Appaloosa

This mix of old school/new school western features many of the staples of the genre while spicing it up with dashes of modern humor and even a bit of social comment. Stars Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen make a delightful team as Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, two friends hired to take control of the town of Appaloosa from renegade rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). Bragg and his men have overrun the town, killing the marshall and a couple of deputies in cold blood, taking what they want from the saloon and shops without paying and generally making life terrifying for the locals. When Virgil becomes the new de facto marshall with Everett as his deputy, an increasingly dangerous stand-off develops between Bragg and the clean-up team. Complicating matters is the arrival of widow Allison French (Renee Zellweger) who immediately forms an attachment to Virgil but may have a hidden agenda.

There are some standard elements of the classic western here which somehow never get tired: a shoot-out in the street, a train hold-up (with a twist), a confrontation in a saloon, men on horseback tracking outlaws through gorgeous, scrub brush countryside. Director/co-writer Harris has added some refreshing new features including two main characters who are truly men of few words yet many ideas (which they occasionally discuss in their own succinct way), some comments on the difficult position of women in the old west and an exchange between white man and Indian warrior that is quietly but effectively nontraditional. Mortensen in particular creates a wonderful character in Everett Hitch -- I'd love to see him in another movie and learn more about him. Irons makes an excellent, slimy villain but Zellweger doesn't bring enough to the pivotal role of the widow. The movie was a bit slow in places, although its leisurely pace suited its equally laid back setting and there was still enough action to keep things moving.

Things to love about this movie: The wry and complicated relationship between Virgil and Everett; understated humor; great chemistry between Harris and Mortensen; I just fell in love with Everett's darling pack mule (yes, it's a fetish of mine, I love mules)
Things to hate about this movie: During a surprise raid by a group of local natives, a pack horse is casually shot to prevent escape and theft (I say shoot the people!)
Pleasant surprises: Cowboys actually traveling at a reasonable pace through brush and streams instead of running full tilt in every scene
Unpleasant surprise: Although the town is named Appaloosa, there's not an appaloosa horse to be found anywhere