Sunday, October 26, 2008


Review: Pride and Glory
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Police dramas are a dime a dozen. Whether scrolling through the channel guide or standing in the ticket line, for every award-worthy “Shield” and “Departed,” there's a horde of second-rate “Cold Case”s and “Righteous Kill”s. “Pride and Glory,” an occasionally gripping but overly complicated potboiler about a corrupt pack of New York's finest, ranks somewhere in the middle of this crowded hierarchy, leaning precariously toward the lesser end of it. It's a good thing director and co-writer Gavin O'Connor called in reinforcements.

The movie stars gritty-cop-film-school valedictorians Edward Norton and Colin Farrell as brothers-in-law Ray Tierney and Jimmy Egan, two boys in blue who operate on different ends of the moral spectrum. Ray, living off the grid on a docked boat after an ambiguous tragedy left a scar on his face and his reputation, takes after his father, Chief of Manhattan Detectives Francis Tierney, Sr. (Jon Voight), and swears by the code. Jimmy, living off lousy wages and making up for it with shady deals, serves under Ray's brother, Francis Tierney, Jr. (Noah Emmerich), and hovers above the law. The world of this badge-wielding brood is thrown into an upheaval when four of their fellow officers are slain in a drug bust gone awry. Lured out of hiding and put on the case, Ray smells an in-house rat and all signs point to Jimmy (and, perhaps, Francis, Jr.). In what snowballs into one seriously messy game of good cop/bad cop, Ray must ultimately choose between family ties and professional responsibilities (if only the title, “Justice and Loyalty,” sounded as cool). This is a pedestrian plot that's pretty cut-and-dry once it loops around itself. Getting to that point, though, is quite a bumpy ride.

I certainly don't need – or want – things spelled out for me but “Pride and Glory” had me scrambling for a user's manual. Needlessly gnarled and arbitrary in structure, it breaks its own back with strained attempts at cleverness. Without warning or viewer regard, it throws around names after barely introducing them, builds up urgent scenes then casually breezes through them, hints at dark pasts but takes forever to clarify them – and dares you to keep up. (It wasn't until about halfway through that I realized one main character's sister is another main character's wife.) Watching this movie is like being the stranger at a cliquey social event; everyone's in on the good dish but you. Soon enough, it becomes less an intriguing mystery to solve and more a laborious task to sit through.

To the rescue is a strong-as-steel cast led by Norton, an actor who seems forever cursed to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. Film after film, role after role, Norton continuously plays characters who are stricken with demons, regrets, or, at the very least, deep thoughts. That niche of emotional and mental baggage is what the thinking-viewer's-favorite plays well; watching him, you can almost hear the gears grinding behind that stern, troubled face. Farrell, who nailed a Norton-type part earlier this year in Martin McDonagh's masterstroke, “In Bruges,” does a complete 180 as Jimmy, a remorseless, money-hungry villain. The notoriously reckless Irishman plays Jimmy scarily well, perhaps tapping into the bad boy that he's finally managed to curb in real life. Farrell does things here that you've never seen him – or, quite possibly, anyone – do on screen before, and the alarm of such heated moments temporarily revives the film.

“Pride and Glory” has bursts of intensity that grab you by the throat. If O'Connor (“Miracle”) and his writing partner, Joe Carnahan (the very similar, “Narc”), had dispersed that energy more evenly, clearly, and carefully, they could have generated a distinctly strong cop picture. Instead, they try to toughen up their material in two-bit ways, such as giving their actors lines that are overflowing with expletives. This movie has enough f-bombs in its first 15 minutes for an entire episode of “The Sopranos,” maybe two (and that's saying a lot). I'm sure O'Connor, who was raised by a New York cop and “grew up in that world,” would argue that this is the way these men really talk. Maybe so, but I believe “NYPD Blue” – arguably the preeminent dramatic depiction of the modern New York police force – made it through 12 seasons without a single utterance of the four-letter-word. Profanity for emphasis of feeling is good. Here, it's used to an extent that's gratuitous and distracting, not to mention silly.

I read a review of “W.” last week in which a critic predicted that Oliver Stone's Bush biopic would be “forgotten in a flash.” I disagree. “Pride and Glory” is much more the type of flick with a one-way ticket to oblivion, forever to be lost in a sea of like-minded fare. Its premium talent (Voight and Emmerich also impress, considerably) and few hard-hitting scenes place it well above some of its brethren, but it's still a movie that's barely worth watching, let alone remembering.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Review: W.
3.5 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The best thing to be said about the Bush biopic, “W.,” is that it's a sign of a return to form for director Oliver Stone. One of the real original mavericks, Stone was crafting smart, hot-button political dramas (“Born on the Fourth of July,” “JFK,” “Nixon”) long before he was applying cheesy Hollywood conventions to historic tragedies (“World Trade Center”) and everything but the kitchen sink to sagas about historic conquerors (“Alexander”). With its omnipresent bounciness and decidedly fair depiction(s), “W.” nibbles when it should bite, but its tremendous ability to both fascinate and entertain graciously suggests that, somewhere in there, Stone still has the chops and the nerve to make great movies.

“W.” is not a great movie but it comes pretty close. As absorbing as any political thriller, there's hardly a single dull moment in its 131 minute span. The script (by Stone's “Wall Street” scribe Stanley Weiser) uses criss-crossing chronology to illustrate Bush's rise to power. Jumping back and forth from the uncertain time between 9/11 and the Iraq War to the booze-soaked formative years in Texas, it offers executive decisions alongside frat boy pranks. Along the way, we also take in backyard barbecues, odd jobs, domestic disputes, car accidents, father-son fights, AA meetings, campaigns, debates, speeches, and prayers, all leading up to our president's eventual fall from grace. The film reads like a rock star's legacy played out on Capitol Hill and it's Stone's best work in years. What's surprising – and a bit disappointing – about the director's approach is how much he's chosen to file down his teeth. While far from being bi-partisan, “W.” isn't nearly as left-leaning or jabbing as one would expect, especially from someone as famously controversial as Stone. Instead, it paints Bush as a rather tragic sad clown, full of frailty and daddy issues. The aw-shucks courtesy of such a sympathetic take is dignified but it clashes with the movie's intrigue.

From a technical standpoint, Stone deserves nothing less than applause. Title notwithstanding, the director sees to it that we remember precisely who this film is about at all times. Often in close-up or extreme close-up, he keeps his camera fixed on Bush, regardless if he's running his 3-mile morning jog or running for Congress. Sometimes from low, imperial angles, we see this troubled man of power succeed, suffer, and sweat. Never one to skimp on aesthetics, Stone knows the weight of his material and finds a look to match it.

As the big man himself, Josh Brolin touches brilliance. He's on dangerous ground, playing someone who's been parodied to death, but he thankfully sidesteps “Saturday Night Live”-style sketch comedy by finding the perfect balance of caricature and honest portrayal. The magnetism of the subject matter lends a mighty hand, but Brolin deserves much of the credit for convincing us that what we're watching is more than just a movie. His performance is brave, immersive, and well-rounded and it's one of the best of the year. Fittingly, Brolin has a massive amount of support, chiefly from Elizabeth Banks, who glows in her biggest role yet as Laura Bush. Not far behind are Toby Jones as Karl Rove, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, and James Cromwell as Bush Sr., all of whom dig deep into their real-life counterparts in equally human and humorous ways. The sole cartoonish player in this game is Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice. Exaggerating the Secretary of State's twitches and grimaces to the umteenth degree, Newton's amateurish imitation is “W.”'s only forced joke.

The rest of the film's comedy (and horror) seems to manifest simply from our acute awareness of its source. Nothing that's “revealed” to us about Dubya's private life holds a candle to what he's done publicly, which Stone recreates in seamless 35 mm and mock archival footage. In an all-too-memorable press conference, when Bush is asked by a reporter to reveal his biggest presidential regret, his stuttering admittance to having “confidently made mistakes” is as painfully funny as ever. During speeches, the oblivious use of words like “nucular” has a priceless ring that no screenplay could top. In other words, you just can't write this stuff. Like Michael Moore's “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Stone's film proves once and for all that, no matter what directorial stance is taken or what editorial techniques are employed, a character as naturally buffoonish as Bush can do bad all by himself.

The worst thing to be said here is that “W.” could be terribly ill-timed. Amidst this crazy election, which is arguably just as entertaining, is anyone even thinking about Bush? Does anyone even care? As unprecedented as Stone's push for a 2008 release may be (find me another film that's directly devoted to skewering a sitting president), the director faces a very real danger of the public's fatigue of the current Commander in Chief winning out over its curiosity. Undeniably important in spite of it weaknesses, “W.” seems primed to have the lasting power of Stone's better projects. More immediate success will be determined by whether or not today's moviegoers have any interest at all in approving this message.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


Review: Happy-Go-Lucky
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

There's a fleeting moment in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” the aptly-titled and altogether delightful new film from Mike Leigh (“Secrets & Lies,” “Vera Drake”), when sprightly heroine Poppy (Sally Hawkins) gazes out the window of her North London flat and comments on how beautiful the sky looks. Cut to what she sees: a grayish-blue horizon covered with big, puffy clouds. It's hardly a remarkable sight and, in fact, rather ordinary; just another day in the UK. But Poppy is someone who finds splendor and joy in just about everything. She's blissfully content in her modest little life and this film is essentially a spirited frolic through a slice of it.

Poppy is 30 years old, single, and a teacher at an elementary school. She lives with Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), her best friend from college who teaches in the classroom next door. Poppy's dress matches her demeanor; she's literally colorful from head to toe, like Cyndi Lauper outfitted by Patricia Field. On weekends, she hits the clubs with Zoe and the gals and drinks and dances the night away. She's open-minded, unbiased, and greets everything and everyone with a smile. When we first meet her, she's just had her bicycle stolen, and her reaction is: “I didn't even get to say goodbye. Oh well.” The movie explores the ways in which the people whom Poppy encounters react to her impossibly upbeat attitude. Those who have a similar approach to life, like Zoe, adore her company. Those who accept but don't quite understand her, like school principal Heather (Sylvestra Le Touzel), see her behavior as childlike and nonsensical. And those who take life way too seriously, like Poppy's pregnant an unhappily married sister, Helen (Caroline Martin), find her downright threatening.

It's understandable why some folks would run in the other direction if they saw Poppy coming down the street. Imposing her glee upon others – “Stay happy!” she says, often – she's the kind of person most world-weary adults find exasperating. Her biggest challenge comes in the form of Scott (Eddie Marsan), a somber driving instructor she hires soon after she's rendered bike-less. A repressed loner who's unhealthily consumed by his existence-defining job, Scott is Poppy's polar opposite. Their exchanges, which take place during lessons every Saturday for weeks, create an interesting dichotomy and the story's central conflict. Poppy is faced with other challenges (a bully at school, a back injury, a new romance, a moody instructor at her and Heather's Flamenco dance class) but none so daunting as Scott. The two repeatedly test each other's patience, sometimes humorously, sometimes coarsely, and their relationship eventually reaches a climax that's a powerhouse for both actors, especially Marsan.

As is the case with most of Leigh's films, the performances in “Happy-Go-Lucky” are sublime. Hawkins, who was previously seen in “Vera Drake” and John Curran's “The Painted Veil,” won the Silver Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival for her role as Poppy and may just ride that momentum all the way to Oscar. In what will surely be remembered as her breakthrough, she's a natural, bringing to life a character who's blithe and bubbly but devoted where it counts. Zegerman, who makes her film debut, is just as lovable as Zoe, a tough yet silently sensitive sidekick who we're glad to know is in Poppy's corner.

Leigh's script deserves equal praise. Bright, honest, and lightning-paced, its dialogue surpasses the oft-overworked zingers in “Juno,” many of which seemed too hipster even for angsty Ellen Page. Clearly aided by unbridled actor improv, the conversations truck along with a rapid and believable familiarity among the characters. Even though we aren't immediately aware of the nature of Poppy and Zoe's friendship, the film entrusts that we'll stick around to find out, and we trust it right back. Its words are often light but not superficial, airy but not air-headed, and, when necessary, reach for profundity. During one of their lessons, Scott, infuriated with Poppy, insists that she “act like an adult.” Poppy, looking at the strange and miserable “grown-up” next to her, replies, “What, like you?”

Which brings me back to the view from the window. It's one of the few scenes in which we're given the opportunity to see the world directly from Poppy's eternally optimistic perspective. Am I wrong in calling her vista “ordinary” and “unremarkable?” Do her disappointment-resistant eyes see something mine don't? Am I just another cynic who sees the sky as half gray instead of half blue? Perhaps. With “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Leigh's message is clear: if one is to attain true happiness in life, carefree is the best policy. That may seem like a difficult task in these difficult times but Poppy sure does make it look easy. The film leaves us with some unresolved plot elements (and I'm risking mild spoilers here): we never learn whether or not Poppy finally gets her driver's license, nor do we find out if her Flamenco classes amount to more than just an after-school activity. The outcomes matter little to us and even less, I'd imagine, to Poppy.

Friday, October 3, 2008


Review: Appaloosa
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

In an interview promoting “Appaloosa,” Ed Harris, the film's director, co-writer, and lead star, observed the near-death of the Western in modern cinema, saying he could count the recent successful examples “on one hand – or maybe half a hand.” Thanks to his own efforts, Harris can now proudly extend another finger. His classic, no-frills picture, an adaptation of Robert Parker's 2005 buddy-cop-on-the-range novel, is a fine addition to the endangered genre. However, if you're looking for shoot 'em up thrills, you're drinking at the wrong saloon. This intimate character study is more “Brokeback Mountain” than “Rio Bravo.”

Don't get it twisted, brohams – this is no gay affair, but its primary focus and flowing undercurrent is the relationship between two gunslinging cowboys (played with top-notch chemistry by Harris and Viggo Mortensen), nestled in a story with hardly any gunslinging at all. When marshall-for-hire Virgil Cole (Harris) and his right-hand deputy, Everett Hitch (Mortensen), roll into Appaloosa, a one-horse town in 1882 New Mexico, they certainly come armed for battle. Hired by the town's politicians to restore order in the shadow of formidable outlaw Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his pack of goons, Cole and Hitch act quickly, killing some peace disturbers right off the bat and laying down their own form of martial law. After that, they quiet down, and so does the film, shifting its attention to the dynamics of the duo's playful, personal bond. The threat of Bragg still looms, and the occasional standoff ensues, but “Appaloosa” draws its fire from less obvious sources.

Cole and Hitch's alliance is tested – as is our patience – with the arrival of Allison French, an increasingly toxic tramp-in-distress played by the increasingly horrific Renee Zellweger. I don't know what's become of the natural, spunky girl-next-door from “Jerry Maguire,” but she's never been more far away or missed than here, an abysmal low point in the actress' career. Squinty-eyed, rosacea-cheeked, and perpetually pucker-faced, Zellweger doesn't just make French appropriately detestable, she mucks up Harris' otherwise strong show. As mentioned, Harris and Mortensen have a killer rapport – it's lived-in, it's funny, and it's delicately underplayed. Harris gives Cole a coiled-up, authoritative coolness and Mortensen matches it with a knowing aplomb. The only good thing that can be said about Zellweger is that she is one with her character. French is the wedge threatening to divide the film's core companionship – she latches onto both men, especially Cole – and Zellweger is the virus threatening to infect the film itself. Thankfully, her presence is only mildly malignant.

For all its narrative subtleties, “Appaloosa” soldiers ahead with surprisingly brute force. Save Cole, who notes the length of he and Hitch's partnership and reveals a sordid past of trysts with hookers, nary a single character is given any back story. From the first frame, the film dives right into the story at hand. That the story lacks many bullets may bore certain viewers, but I found the minimalistic approach quite interesting. Harris, whose only other directorial credit is 2000's Oscar-nominated biopic, “Pollock,” uses that same approach in designing his sophomore effort. His take on the Western is restrained and traditional. Clearly an admirer of the work of John Ford and Sergio Leone, he gives us all the trappings of the genre, usually in carefully framed shots: wide open desert spaces, big blue skies, winding railroads overseen by chop-licking mountain lions, a town that looks like it's right out of a 1950s back lot, and even scalp-hunting American Indians. (I kept waiting for a tumbleweed to blow by.) Die-hard Western fans will revel in Harris' adherence to this style.

During my screening, a woman behind me observed that Harris' craggy, square-jawed face “looks like the mountains.” She was right. Looking at the focused four-time Oscar nominee, in the wake of Paul Newman's death, it's clear that he's in the top tier of our cherished, seasoned leading men. He finds a kindred spirit in Mortensen, a slightly younger star with a similar countenance, whom he previously worked with in 2005's “A History of Violence” (which reportedly planted the seed for this new collaboration). If they'd been working in the era when Westerns were all the rage, we could easily imagine this pair starring side-by-side in a slew of them. Their strong visual and visceral match-up is crippled only by Zellweger, whose awkward mug weighs down a movie that's notable for, but deeper than, its face values.