Friday, September 26, 2008


Review: Miracle at St. Anna
2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

“Miracle at St. Anna,” about (at its buried core) a group of wrongly forgotten black American soldiers trapped in Tuscany, Italy during WWII, feels like a story that needs to be told. Spike Lee, ever the brilliant puppeteer of probing controversies and racial tensions, seems like the right person to tell it. A funny thing must have happened on the way to the set because this convoluted genre milkshake – a pseudo-satirical religious fantasy swirled up inside a grisly war epic – is, dizzyingly, just about everything but a comfortable fit.

Working from a script by James McBride (who adapted his novel of the same name), Lee gives us a strange cluster of many different films, all crammed into one. We begin in Harlem in 1983, where an aged postal worker has just inexplicably shot a man with a German Luger in broad daylight. When the cops search the perp.'s apartment, they find out he's a decorated war veteran and also discover the head of a 450-year-old Italian statue in his closet. A rookie reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets access to the man's prison cell and starts questioning him in an attempt to connect the dots. So, it's a mystery/thriller? Not really.

We flash back to 1944, where members of the US Army's 92nd Buffalo Soldier Division trudge through a swampy battlefield in Italy. They exchange familiar jokes. They're taunted, via radio, by the voice of a cunning German woman who tells them of America's disdain for blacks and offers them fried chicken and grits in exchange for their surrender. Suddenly, bullets and missiles start flying, people start dying, and there are numerous gratuitous shots of detached limbs and bloody bodies. So, it's an intentionally funny B-picture? Not so fast.

Four of the soldiers end up behind enemy lines. There's Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy – who gives the film's best performance), Cpl. Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), and Pvt. Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), who carries the statue head from the beginning in a sack on his hip and rubs it for luck. The crew holes up in a rebel village, but not before rescuing an orphaned, 8-year-old child named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi) who bonds with Train and, apparently, has magical powers ordained by God. There's also a group of Italian freedom fighters, a pack of Germans who are introduced like James Bond villains (thanks to Terence Blanchard's ludicrous score), and enough eventual bloodshed to paint the whole town red. So, it's a war movie after all? Not exactly.

Throughout his career, Lee has shown an uncanny ability to make his viewers profoundly uncomfortable, causing them to confront and reflect upon issues they may not often think about. (I can vividly remember my first screening of his 2000 satire, “Bamboozled,” in film school: me, a somewhat ignorant white kid in a room full of mostly black students, on the verge of tears after the film's climactic barrage of potent images.) Here, the discomfort created is not provocative but utterly perplexing. The story is surprisingly easy to follow, and Lee ties up its many loose ends, but the multiple tonal shifts overshadow any shot at clarity. After most scenes, it's hard to know whether to laugh, cry, or even care about what just happened.

I counted only three instances in which I took this film seriously and, through which, I saw the Spike Lee I know shine. The first is a flashback within the flashback (there are a few of those), when the group recalls an incident at a Louisiana diner that caused them to defend themselves against prejudice. The second is a simultaneous prayer sequence voiced by three separate parties that employs Lee's trademark direct address. The third is the infamous massacre at Sant'Anna di Stazzema (the place of the title), which Lee unabashedly depicts in devastating detail, right down to the last slaughtered child.

It's in such affecting moments that the director's admirable intention of unearthing lost truths comes to light. Too bad his execution pulls us in so many directions that, by the end, we feel like rubber. “St. Anna” is constructed with such a dumbfounding, scatter-brained inconsistency that, had it been directed by a first-time filmmaker, I'd be tempted to label that person as either a genius or a psycho. Well, I've seen enough of Lee's work to know that he's close to genius – the man also teaches film at NYU and Columbia – but too much of his latest project borders on crazy. The only miracle is that I got through the whole thing with my sanity intact.

Friday, September 19, 2008


Review: Ghost Town
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

By the end of “Ghost Town,” the new spectral comedy from screenwriter-turned-director David Koepp (“Secret Window”), I was stuck on the fence. Here is a movie that is markedly mediocre, highly predictable, and almost instantly forgettable. At the same time, it boasts a very funny lead performance and a surprisingly heartwarming third act, leaving my opinions in limbo. My hope is that, by the end of this review, I'll have crossed over to one side or the other.

If Ebeneezer Scrooge had a great-great-grandson who moved across the pond to Manhattan, he'd probably be something like Bertram Pincus, an antisocial dentist who hates everyone and chose his profession, mainly, because he can shut people up with cotton and Novocaine whenever they get too chatty. On his day off, Bertram undergoes a colonoscopy (the easy explanation for which is potty-joke potential) and, after an adverse reaction to anesthesia, is declared dead – for seven minutes. When he wakes up, he realizes he's been gifted with a sixth sense: he can see (and hear) dead people. But for someone like Bertram, who avoids strangers on the street like thorn bushes, this is no gift at all. His worst nightmare has come true: the needy souls of deceased New Yorkers, from construction workers, to cops, to little old ladies, have gotten wind of his ability and won't leave him alone. One of them is Frank Herlihy, a fast-talking opportunist who's killed off in the first scene by a speeding bus. Frank tells Bertram that he'll back off (and, somehow, get the others to as well) if Bertram agrees to help foil the forthcoming marriage of Frank's widow, Gwen, a curator of sorts, working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bertram is played by brash Brit Ricky Gervais, the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning star of the UK version of the TV series “The Office,” and the movie is definitely his star vehicle. Gervais is excellent here, delivering every line and insult with that acerbic, English-style matter-of-factness. That he was cast in the role does wonders for the film. Frank is played by Greg Kinnear, a fine actor who's made indispensable contributions to dramedies like “As Good as it Gets” (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and “Little Miss Sunshine.” In “Ghost Town,” he doesn't do much to put a stamp on his character, and we can easily envision many other actors filling Frank's shifty shoes. Gwen is played by Tea Leoni, a gifted and underrated actress whose natural beauty, stern focus, and contralto-like voice usually combine to create intelligent, emotionally complex characters (see: “Deep Impact” and “The Family Man”). She displays those same qualities here, giving Gwen, who still can't quite let go of Frank after 14 months, just the right balance of fragility and strength.

As a writer, Koepp has penned his fair share of thrills and spooks for directors like Steven Spielberg (“Jurassic Park,” “War of the Worlds”) and David Fincher (“Panic Room”). As director and writer, he crafted another film about a man who sees ghosts, the 1999 shocker “Stir of Echoes.” “Ghost Town” marks Koepp's first foray into supernatural comedy since 1992 when he scripted the eternal youth-gone-awry giggler, “Death Becomes Her,” for Robert Zemeckis. The gap seems to have left him a little dry for fresh ideas. His new offering unfolds like a Top 40 pop song: familiar hook, familiar lyrics, familiar beat (it has annoying, repetitive elements, too, like characters who insist on interrupting one another -- a joke that's meant to inspire laughs but, from me, elicited groans). The film is built like a catchy tune, but don't expect it to stick in your head.

Any moviegoer worth his or her salt can anticipate the turns of this plot. As one would expect, Bertram (somewhat) fulfills Frank's request and then regrets it. As one would expect, Bertram and Gwen entertain a romance that could only occur in the movies. As one would expect, Gwen finds out that there's more to Bertram's story, resulting in the inevitable, all-is-lost betrayal scene. As one would expect, Bertram's journey through the film helps him to rejoin the human race, thanks (in large part) to those who are no longer a part of it. Just like Scrooge, he's a hopeless grump until some insightful spirits show him the error of his ways. And then, the unexpected happens: the film takes a big tug on your heartstrings and doesn't let go. Once Bertram sees those errors and commits to fixing them, “Ghost Town” goes tender, with at least one tear-jerking surprise, and ends its last verse on a warm high note.

You can see my dilemma. And where do I stand now that all is said and done? Ultimately, I'd feel guilty advising readers against this ultimately – for lack of a better word – 'nice' movie. And it does have moments of true hilarity, specifically when the other actors seem genuinely entertained by the sporadic improv of Gervais, a genuine comedic talent. So, go ahead, have a night out on the “Ghost Town” (sorry, I couldn't resist), just be fully aware of the film's certain afterlife: the DVD clearance rack.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Review: Burn After Reading
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The Coen Brothers are a curious pair. As a filmmaking team (with Joel often directing, Ethan producing, and both of them dreaming up their inventive scripts), their combined sense of humor is some the driest in the business and, lately, their movies tend to be highly nihilistic in tone. And yet, with their superior storytelling and technical skills, they repeatedly manage to tap directly into whichever viewer emotions befit their current project. Last year, the Coens took home Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars for the inhumane but indelible “No Country for Old Men,” a thriller that hits you like a punch to the gut. And how do they follow that up? By rallying a selection of Hollywood's finest to play out their random and raucous spy comedy, “Burn After Reading.” Whereas “No Country” had no resolution, “Burn” has no purpose – except to make you crack up through most of its 96 minutes.

Where to begin with describing this film? The plot meanders down such zany roads that even two characters have to periodically clarify it for one another, resulting in some of the movie's funniest scenes (but, more on that later). First, we've got Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), an embittered and unhinged “alcoholic” who recently quit his job with the CIA after an unjust demotion. Osbourne's wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), a tightly-wound career woman, is sleeping with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a federal marshal who's also married and has a few other “activities” on the side. Then there's Linda Litske (Frances McDormand) a wifty serial dater who's seeking to transform herself via numerous cosmetic surgeries that she can't afford. Linda works at the D.C. gym Hardbodies with Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a blissfully ignorant trainer who's too busy pounding away on treadmills and jamming to his iPod to care about properly forming a sentence. A CD-ROM containing Osbourne's memoirs lands in the inept hands of Linda and Chad, who hold it for ransom when they think it's encoded with government secrets and will stop at nothing to get paid.

“Burn” harks back to another dark Coen comedy, the 10-year-old cult hit, “The Big Lebowski.” In that film, slacking stoner Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) gets in way over his head when he stubbornly seeks undeserved compensation from people way out of his league. The same scenario unfolds here. Linda, sweet and well-meaning as she may be, thinks she's entitled to her elective procedures and sees Osbourne's so-called “information” as her free ticket to beauty. With the help of go-getter Brad (who's too dumb to know the difference between right and wrong), she sparks a hilariously unnecessary chain of events that affects every character and reaches as high as the CIA and the Russian embassy. Normal people can sense when they've crossed the line with their selfishness, but for those like Lebowski and Linda, personal interest seems to trump all logic. Nearly everyone else in “Burn” is just as foolish and all of them are just as egocentric, a combination that usually leads to big, big laughs.

Now, let's talk about this killer cast, sure to be one of 2008's strongest. As Osbourne, Malkovich is hysterically volatile, ready to spout a curse or swing a weapon without a hint of forethought. McDormand goes places we've never seen her go before, ditching her usual, witty quirkiness for a ditzy blonde and overacting to comic perfection. Clooney gets the tone of the material just right, conveying an intermittent shock and surprise that's equally felt by the audience. Pitt hasn't had this much fun on camera in years, playing his highlighted and high-spirited character like a cross between Ryan Seacrest and Jake Steinfeld. And Swinton, as the cold-as-ice Katie, dusts off her witch from 'The Chronicles of Narnia” and chews through her scenes (she's also gifted the film's most ironic revelation, of which there are many). The principal performances are dead-on, all of them fearless and uproarious, but the supporting players are the unsung heroes of this picture. As Katie's gold-digging divorce lawyer, J.R. Horne (The Coens' “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) had me rolling. As Hardbodies' pushover of a manager, the great Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”) pulls off pathetic and sympathetic simultaneously. And as two CIA superiors who must decipher and clean up this story's mess, David Rasche (TV's “All My Children”) and J.K. Simmons (“Juno”) are a deadpan dream team.

For all its haphazardness, this needlessly paranoid paranoid thriller (even Carter Burwell's score creates nonexistent suspense) is surprisingly succinct. We literally drop in on this crazy caper, then just as soon pull right back out. “Burn” does feel like an in-between, pet project for the Coens; however, it's still better than what many directors serve up as their main course. Besides, it's completely aware of itself as throwaway fare, featuring an in-text disclaimer that practically renders it critic-proof. Not that many critics would disagree: “Burn After Reading” is one of the funniest films of the year.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


Review: The Women (2008)
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Just when you thought the big screen treatment of “Sex and the City” was the girls'-night-out movie event of the year, here comes “The Women,” writer/director/producer Diane English's catty update of George Cukor's 1939 film of the same name, to snatch that title with a well-manicured claw. It's taken nearly 15 years for English, who won three Emmys as the creator of the hit TV series, “Murphy Brown,” to get her version of Cukor's classic (which starred Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Crawford) to the screen, with various studios, directors, and actresses (including Julia Roberts) attached in various capacities along the way. Finally and, perhaps, fortuitously, her finished product is revealed, the same year that “SATC” broke box office records to become the biggest-selling female-driven hit of all time. Without the built-in fan base that its estrogen-fueled counterpart had going for it, “The Women” likely won't top those sales, but it's still the (slightly) better film. It's just as fun, just as funny, and it succeeds where “SATC” fell short.

Apart from release dates and demographics, 2008's all-girl features have much more in common – so much that it's impossible not to compare the two. They're built from the same blueprint: four Manhattan women balance work, love, and their checkbooks and three of them eventually corral around the one in the biggest relationship crisis. Even the characters are interchangeable: Carrie is replaced by Mary (Meg Ryan, who's been on board with English from the beginning), a selfless part-time fashion designer whose husband's infidelity is the central plot; Samantha is swapped out for Sylvie (Annette Bening, on point), a high-powered magazine editor with that same fiery independence and societal influence; Charlotte becomes Edie (Debra Messing, goofy as ever), the hopeful, conservative mommy of the group; and Miranda is replaced by Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith, underused), a headstrong, lesbian author with Ms. Hobbes' same dry disposition. It's as if we left the first quartet and were transported across town to hang with their (slightly) older and (slightly) wiser friends. The trip was worth it.

I haven't seen Cukor's original but I do know that English stayed true to it in at least one way: not a single man appears on screen throughout the entire film. That's right, even all the extras are female – not a suit in sight. Well, not of the three-piece variety, anyway. Pantsuits do abound, as English fills her sparkling frames with superwomen of the 21st century. Early on, at a posh luncheon held at Mary's swanky Connecticut mansion, we meet dozens of her high-society friends, who fan out like living lawn ornaments across her gorgeous estate, gossiping as they go. Edie is pregnant yet again. Alex is still working on the follow-up to her last New York Times bestseller, while her starving supermodel girlfriend drags her to anger management classes. Sylvie's Blackberry is practically an extension of her arm, her thumb scrolling emails while her eyes scroll the scene from behind her Gucci sunglasses. She's harboring the biggest secret of them all: while getting her nails done at Saks Fifth Avenue (the setting for many critical and comical scenes in the film), Sylvie learns from her manicurist that Mary's husband, Steven, a Wall Street bigwig, is sleeping with Crystal (Eva Mendes), the sexy “spritzer girl” behind the perfume counter. Sylvie's afraid to tell Mary the dirt, unaware that she's been dished the same pile – from the same manicurist.

That first luncheon never really ends, for we bounce around from one luxe location to the next (high-end boutiques, five-star restaurants, high-rise offices), all of them populated by gals and their gossip. Look left, look right, all we see are the bright colors of designer duds. Yet English doesn't over-fluff her ruffles and stuff the fashion in our faces, a fault of “SATC” that left me – a fan of the show – distracted and displeased. Here, rather than upstaging it, the styles simply compliment the substance. “SATC” featured a needless runway show sequence at Bryant Park, thrown in, presumably, just to throw more labels at the audience. “The Women” has such a sequence but it serves the story and the development of a lead character. “SATC” also tacked on a pregnancy, but the element lost the weight it deserved, overshadowed by the film's more prominent storylines. “The Women” has a pregnancy and a birth scene which, albeit a little ridiculous, finds a perfect place in the script. Both films attempt to juggle a lot of characters, inevitably leaving some with little to do. Pinkett Smith's Alex, whose presence really only fills a cultural quota, is sidelined nearly out of memory. Apart from her va-va-voom entrance, Mendes' character is more discussed than shown. Bette Midler shows up to revisit “The First Wives Club” and add a name to the bill but she and her scene could be lifted entirely without any damage to the finished product. Candice Bergen, on the other hand, is utilized perfectly and, as Mary's mother and Carrie's former boss, she embodies the link between the two films.

English's script is crammed with commonplace chick flick-isms and yet, I didn't mind. It all seemed right at home in this world, where girls rule and boys - presumably, since we don't see any - drool (over them). I was intrigued and impressed by English's empowering adherence to keeping men out entirely. Besides, who needs 'em? The cast, oversized or not, is superb and a welcome addition to a growing line of strong female characters. Bening delivers her usual knockout punches as a smart woman juggling loyalty and success (think “The Devil Wears Prada”'s Miranda Priestly with a conscience). Cloris Leachman is a laugh riot as Mary's trusty housekeeper, who represents a whole new tier of scandalous scuttlebutt. And, I'm just gonna go ahead and say it: is this the return of Meg Ryan? Bright and youthful (if you can get past that lip surgery), her performance, featuring a much-needed character makeover, feels like the rebirth of an actress who once all but dominated Hollywood. Whether or not “The Women” puts her back on the map, it'll likely pave the way for more Meg Ryans, or, at the very least, get people talking.