Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Kingdom

Saudi Arabia: Not an American vacation destination

The Kingdom, in every sense, begins with a bang. A very loud and bloody bang. For those who have been living off the radar for the last 80 or so years, you might not be aware of the fact that there are people in certain Islamic countries who don't so much appreciate American presence on their soil, and this resentment is normally expressed in the form of powerful explosives. In The Kingdom, we are shown a very powerful attack on an American housing compound in Saudi Arabia. As someone who has never given more than a cursory glance into the machinations of this country, I had no idea such establishments existed. Inside the walls of these compounds, one would see a microcosm of American society. The women roam free and uncovered. There are plenty of Chevys and Fords. There are cookouts featuring lots of pork products. There are baseball games, and those with a high vantage point outside those walls can grab their binoculars and get a glimpse of how the West lives. Imagine if those peeping toms were terrorists.

Jamie Foxx plays Special Agent Robert Fleury who is tasked to investigate the brutal bombing of this compound, and he is accompanied by a small team of other experts that include the most laid-back bomb expert I've ever seen named Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), a young, sarcastic techie guy named Adam, (Jason Bateman), and Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) who has the distinct honor of being not only the lone female in the FBI team, but also one of the few females in the film showing more than an inch of skin above her ankles. Their arrival in the country is not initially welcome. The Saudis and the United States agree that since the bombing was perpetuated by American presence on their soil, the addition of American investigators would only exacerbate the problem. But Agent Fleury manages to convince the Saudi Ambassador (through a meager amount of blackmail) to make the deal happen, and the team is on the first plane to Prince Sultan Air Base.

But don't get the idea that this is a by-the-numbers procedural drama. There is also the element of a buddy film here, and it is between two unlikely characters. The Saudi police officer in charge of accompanying the Americans in their investigation, Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) starts off as a very strict and guarded officer, tasked with ensuring the safety of the team, even if it completely halts the gathering of evidence. As the film wears on, and after the team is granted permission by one of the Saudi princes to devote a full effort into solving the crime, a friendship begins to form between Agent Fleury and the Colonel, in spite of their vast cultural differences. There was a very clear attempt made by the makers of this film to balance pro-American and anti-Muslim views, and this makes The Kingdom have a thoughtfulness that you might not expect in a film of this genre. While one could spend an afternoon trying to dissect the core message from The Kingdom, it eventually becomes clear: the forces of good, no matter how diverse, can unite from across vast oceans and deserts to defeat evil.

A quick mention must also be made of The Kingdom's technical achievements. Although this was directed by the very competent Peter Berg (The Rundown, Friday Night Lights), the great Michael Mann was also a producer, and his signature, sharply frenetic camera work is all over this picture. The acting here was also superb all around, with Jamie Foxx as skilled as ever, and Chris Cooper managing to prevail in even a pared-down role such as this. The scene-stealer award, however, must be handed to the little-known Ashraf Barhom, whose Colonel Al Ghazi gave this movie the heart it so desperately needed.

A movie like The Kingdom invariably welcomes an opportunity to grandstand or pontificate on the repercussions of mixing Western and Muslim cultures. After all, this is the sort of plot material that demands your emotions get involved. The scenarios depicted here are all too possible, and they hit very close to home. In today's climate of fear and anti-Muslim sentiments, one might even question whether a film like this is even appropriate. But I'm not here to make those judgments. I'm here to review the film, and on the basis of plot, acting, and technical achievement, The Kingdom more than exceeded my already high expectations. At the risk of sounding a tad too on the nose, I was blown away by this film.

Gouda's Final Grade -- A

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Shoot 'Em Up

Eh... What's up, Doc?

Ladies and Gentleman, meet Clive Owen: dashing Oscar nominated film star of such great films as Closer and Children of Men. In Shoot 'Em Up, he brings his steely visage to the big screen as none other than a modern-day Bugs Bunny, foiling the plans of a modern-day Yosemite Sam, also known as Paul Giamatti.

Why, do you ask, is Shoot 'Em Up being likened to a Loony Tunes cartoon? Let me count the ways.

1. Mr. Smith (Owen's character) is undeniably resourceful and clever, like our favorite animated Wascally Wabbit. He also lives in what could be described as a hole, at least in the figurative sense.

2. Hertz (Giamatti) has a very nasty temper and really likes firing a big gun.

3. Mr. Smith has an insatiable appetite for raw carrots.

Of course, there are some deviations from the classic cartoon formula. For instance, Bugs Bunny never impaled people in the throat or the eye with said carrots. Bugs also never used carrots to discharge firearms. Bugs also didn't appear to have a taste for lactating Italian hookers. Nor did he get mixed up in a complex plot that involved a Senator with leukemia, who is harvesting babies in order to get matching bone marrow, and who is the target of a deadly gun lobby who wants to kill the Senator before he can pass a gun-control bill in Congress.

Yes, that is (more or less, anyway) the plot of Shoot 'Em Up. Not even I could make this stuff up.

Let me first say that this film in many ways is appalling, particularly if you are a parent. In no other movie have I seen a one-day old infant being jostled around so much, being wrapped in a flak jacket for protection, whose diapers were made of newspaper, and who was being fed pureed baby food almost immediately out of the womb. As a mother, I didn't want to think about the possibility of the baby going deaf from being subjected to the likes of constantly thundering gunfire and heavy metal music, or having its eye taken out by flying shards of glass.

But that's just the mother half of me that was appalled. As an action movie fan, I was enthralled in spite of myself. This is one of the most preposterous, over-the-top films I have seen in quite some time, but it was sold 100% due to the strength of the acting on the part of Owen and Giamatti, who made their characters entertaining and compelling. I also couldn't help but notice that under the construct of this utterly INSANE (yes, insane in CAPS) plot lurked a wink of satire about, of all things, gun control.

This will be a polarizing film, and I debated whether or not I should recommend it. Certainly, there will be people who will absolutely loathe it from top to bottom. I was not one of those people. I actually felt myself kind of loving it, and I admit wholeheartedly I was a little ashamed of this fact. This is, plain and simple, unabashed action for the true action lover. But it is well-acted action, and although most of the stunts are stupendously stupefying, I think that was the intent. Simply put, it is hard not to admire Shoot 'Em Up's sheer audacity.

Gouda's Final Grade -- B+

3:10 to Yuma

A western hasn't looked this good in years...

The western film has been with us since the inception of cinema. It appeals to the heart of American values, which in great part stem from the gritty lawlessness on which this country was settled. The appeal of the genre has faded over several decades, however, but occasionally a great one is pulled out of the dusty cowboy hat that briefly reignites the flame in the heart of true American culture. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven was one of them, and although 3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the 1957 film of the same name, I think it is safe to say that director James Mangold has successfully returned cinema to the frontier, making one of the best films of 2007.

Most westerns work as parables told on horseback, and this one is no different. Christian Bale plays Dan Evans, a wounded Civil War veteran turned horse rancher who is down on his luck and has become something of an embarrassment to his wife and eldest son. Their land is on the brink of being seized by a local businessman to whom Evans is indebted. An opportunity to make money and regain some credibility in the eyes of his loved ones all but falls into his lap when ruthless robber and outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is captured in his town following a bloody stagecoach robbery. Evans is among a small assembly of men, who include among them a bounty hunter (played by a very grizzled looking Peter Fonda) and the banker whose money was stolen, who volunteer to escort Wade to the town of Contention where a train will carry the outlaw to Yuma prison and his eventual death. Ben Wade's gang is still on the loose, however, and they are determined to get their boss back.

That is the plot in a nutshell, but the plot is not what 3:10 to Yuma is actually about. It merely sets the stage for a fascinating character study. Ben Wade is a cold-blooded killer, but he's not simplistic. Russell Crowe plays him with an intelligence that makes him all the more dangerous and unpredictable. He is very comfortable in the lifestyle of a villain, and gives the air of a man who looked conscience in the face long ago and shot it point blank. He runs with a gang of cold-blooded lunatics who follow him with an unerring loyalty, and his right-hand man Charlie (Ben Foster) almost appears to be in love with him. There is a also an unmistakable sort of honor about Wade. He carries a certain measure of respect for his worst enemies and lets them live until they deliver a brutal insult to his dignity.

This is where the dynamic between him and Bale's character becomes incredibly magnetic. We get the sense that the two men admire one another in spite of their vast differences. Dan Evans is a failed man in many ways, but he is honest and true, and he never deviates from his mission to deliver Ben Wade to the train to Yuma. He has a respect for Wade nonetheless. He sees in him a confidence and strength that he has rarely been able to muster for himself. More surprising, however, is Wade's development throughout the film. He might not feel in himself the capacity for morality and humanity as Evans, but he sees it in the other man and he performs acts that are surprising not only to the audience, but apparently to himself. Without giving too much more of the film's plot away, the final act of the film is one of the most gripping 30 minutes of cinema I've experienced this year.

It is without question that westerns are movies that we can turn to when we as a country feel disconnected from the values and confidence that once made this nation swagger. One would think that a western that features two male leads who respectively come from England and Australia would be kind of ironic if not ill-fitting, but when you think about it, that in itself is also very much American.

Gouda's Final Grade -- A+