Monday, February 23, 2009


Review: Gomorrah
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

One of the strongest cornerstones of American cinema is the gangster picture – morally challenging stories of morally depraved men who pursue (and often achieve) the American Dream via corruption, lies and murder. There's a wealth of dramatic allure to these stories, but even more conspicuous are the veritable riches they boast both on and off the screen. From “The Godfather” to “The Sopranos” (yes, I'm including HBO's sensational series in the mafia movie canon), we've seen mobsters gain affluence in their world (money, mansions, cars, casinos), and ours (Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, best-of-all-time lists). “Gomorrah,” a scary and scathing look at at a very real organized crime syndicate, turns this entire scenario on its head. First of all, it's not American, it's Italian, shot in the land and language from which many of the tales we know were born. Secondly, what's depicted and how it's depicted are anything but decadent. And as for off-screen glory*, “Gomorrah” wasn't nominated for any Oscars, didn't win any Golden Globes and isn't eligible for the Emmys, but it deserves a spot on those best-ever lists.

The title is indeed a nod to the biblical city of sin, but it's also a phonetic riff on the Camorra, a powerful underground criminal network in Naples that has its dirty hands in the world's drug trade, fashion industry and, like the Soprano clan, the all-too-appropriate waste management business. The organization's influence is felt worldwide – its revenue has even been legally reinvested into the reconstruction of the Twin Towers – and its history is blood-soaked and devastating. Check out these statistics: the Camorra is responsible for the deaths of roughly 4,000 people in the last 30 years (that's one every three days); its drug sales total approximately 400,000 euro per faction per day; and if the toxic waste barrels it illegally dumps were piled one on top of the other, the height would reach over 47,900 feet. “Gomorrah,” based on the 2006 book by 29-year-old investigative reporter Roberto Saviano (who's now in witness protection), illustrates these atrocities with frightful, no-frills realism. Daring director Matteo Garrone has no interest in high points or happy endings; he pulls us in, pulls the wool from our eyes and pries them open.

At 135 minutes, “Gomorrah” has an epic saga's running time to boot. The first 20-or-so of those minutes are a tad confusing, introducing the various fictional characters that will play out the factual events with a slow, stick-around-for-answers vibe. We're not quite sure how all the players – a money man who's sick of paying the family members of Family Members in prison; a 13-year-old, zit-faced boy who makes deliveries for the mob in his neighborhood; a pair of ambitious young punks whose discovery of an army's worth of weapons isn't the only thing that could get them killed; a tailor who works for a Camorra-owned dress manufacturer but secretly teaches his skills to the Chinese; and a silver-haired business exec who looks legitimate but deals in death, using a massive quarry as a depository for chemical waste that seeps into the ground and gives cancer to nearby residents – will factor into the big game, but Garrone is constantly providing immersive situations while the pieces gradually lock into place. Half the excitement of “Gomorrah” is figuring out where it's going, and I'd take its trickling narrative drip over the forced injection of something like “The International” any day of the week. (The best films hold you spellbound even when you're puzzled.)

Despite – or, I guess, due to – the fine work of a batch of screenwriters including Garrone, none of this feels scripted. There's not an ounce of forced or false dialogue, just the blistering conveyance of ugly truth. Nor does it feel acted; the cast is made up of naturally gifted amateurs and international stars like Italy's Toni Servillo, all of whom come off like documentary subjects. Much of that tone is a result of Garrone's directorial style, a fly-on-the-wall, observationist approach that drops us into the middle of a desolate land where gangsters are at war with each other and everyone is at risk. D.P. Marco Onorato's tirelessly curious hand-held camera peers around this minefield like a photojournalist on location, further implying that “Gomorrah” is a faithful adaptation of its source material. The movie isn't scored; the only music we ever hear is the occasional pop song and the only way we hear it is if it's played within a scene (in a car, in a club, on a stereo). As a final stamp of authenticity, Garrone throws in a slyly effective bit in which the two-timing tailor watches TV and sees Scarlett Johannson wearing his garment on the red carpet.

“Gomorrah” redefines the mob flick because it shows a criminal association not as it might be, but as it is. Still, Garrone isn't above giving a nod to his genre predecessors, namely Brian DePalma and his immortal Pacino vehicle, “Scarface.” The brief opening sequence has a tacky neon opulence reminiscent of the cult classic – even the title logo goes from red to “Vice City” pink – and, later, the delinquent duo play with empty pistols in an empty warehouse and pretend to be Tony Montana. What would Tony say if he saw “Gomorrah?” Fuhgeddaboutit? No way. Not this merciless movie. It sticks with you for days.

*Note: “Gomorrah” has collected a handful of accolades, including five European Film Awards, a Golden Satellite for Best Foreign Language Film and the coveted Grand Prix at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Its omission from this year's Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film is viewed by audiences, critics and insiders alike as a travesty. It opens at the Ritz at the Bourse in Philadelphia on Friday, Feb. 27.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Review: The International
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

“The International” lives up to its name. The title refers to a corrupt bank in Luxembourg that basically runs the world, but the film is a globe-trotting thriller, jumping from Berlin to Milan to Manhattan to Istanbul in a span of two hours. All of these locations are fantastically photographed. To the benefit of the audience, particular attention is paid to the diverse architecture of each metropolis. The camera (overseen by cinematographer Frank Griebe, who shot “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”) homes in on the New York skyline, climbs the towers of a grand Turkish mosque, weaves through Milan's busy streets and painstakingly surveys the bank's headquarters – a staggeringly vast modern fortress of glass and steel. These are the kinds of intriguing, urban/worldly visuals that boost the stakes in a high-stakes cliffhanger, and “The International,” directed by Tom Tykwer (“Perfume,” “Run Lola Run”), certainly looks the part. It's the movie's continuous, self-important, 10-dollar-word chattiness that lowers those stakes considerably and could cause viewers to question their investments.

The first shot is of Clive Owen's face – that super-serious, sandblasted hybrid of Robert Mitchum's ruggedness and Cary Grant's leading-man magnetism. It's a strong, tone-setting opening image because, by now, we know that Owen means business. Whether he's screaming at the top of his lungs at Julia Roberts in “Closer” or navigating an apocalyptic wasteland in “Children of Men,” the UK-born actor does just about everything with fervid, white-knuckled conviction. Here he plays Louis Salinger, an Interpol agent investigating the many criminal activities of the fictitious International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) along with Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), an assistant district attorney from Manhattan. Within the first 10 minutes, one of Salinger's and Whitman's colleagues is assassinated by one of IBBC's cloak-and-dagger mercenaries, but the justice-seeking duo can't prove it. Nor can they prove any of the bank's other shady deals – arming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, supporting African radicals, affiliations with organized crime, etc. – because the institution's influence reaches so high that essentially every major government body in the world has a hand in its operations. Whoever gets too close to IBBC is promptly snuffed out, making it even harder for Salinger and Whitman to uncover and expose The Truth, a lofty ideal that hardly anyone else in the film seems to care about.

Like the “Bourne” trilogy, “International” maintains a rather nimble pace by moving us from map point to map point, and the intermittent action is no holds-barred. There's one incredible, whiz-bang gun battle inside the Guggenheim in New York that's almost reason enough to recommend the movie. Shot on location as well as on a massive scale replica in Berlin, the sequence – in which Salinger and a former IBBC hired hand fend off a small army of gun-toting thugs – is arresting, utilizing an amazing architectural space for an amazing bit of filmmaking. The bullets and bad guys keep on coming, video game style, and the inside of the main rotunda looks like Swiss cheese by the end. “The International” has much to offer in terms of what's on screen. Things go south when newbie screenwriter Eric Singer's script starts describing everything for us.

This is a movie that talks at you – a lot – about character backgrounds, about trying-to-be-timely issues and shadowy schemes, about big, philosophical ideas that sound obvious and out of place. Singer's style is a prime example of how not to write a film: it's too much “tell” and not enough “show,” unduly dependent on preachy, pretentious dialogue to tell its story. Owen sells his lines effectively because his reliable intensity could make the Yellow Pages sound important. But the rest of the cast members are not so fortunate; they're endowed with clunky declarations that undermine their talents and the viewers' intelligence. Watts – who I didn't believe could give a bad performance until now – gets the worst of it and does next to nothing to humanize her poorly written character. Whitman is not a person, not even an archetype, but a sort of automated drone who speaks with the robotic inflections of an MSNBC correspondent. Among other things, she blabs about her intentions when they're already clearly defined and she proclaims to her boss that “The Truth means responsibility!,” a flagrant last-ditch effort to milk that elusive ideal for all its worth.

Speaking of grandiose food for thought, Armin Mueller-Stahl – an asset for filmmakers in need of wise, old men – plays Wilhelm Wexler, a former communist-turned IBBC traitor who moonlights as a philosopher. When toying with the notion of helping Salinger, Wexler gives him and us a string of “duh!” ideologies, like: “the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” Is this really the right venue for all these didactic life lessons? People will tell you it is, just as they'll tell you that the movie's villain, an all-powerful financial institution, is the perfect foe for these shaky times. I didn't feel that; I felt like I was being told to feel that. People will also say that this movie is very smart. It is well-researched, and it's involved, for sure, but involved doesn't necessarily mean clever. The narrative requires that you listen closely to see where it's going and then makes you regret that you did. That's too bad, because “The International” is a pretty excellent film...when no one's talking.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


Review: Push
2 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Dakota Fanning has had a busy week. Without any signs of having broken a sweat, the be-all and end-all of child stars has been popping up all over the place. Her 2008 films “Hounddog” and “The Secret Life of Bees” both just arrived on DVD, and she's been back and forth promoting the simultaneous theatrical releases of “Coraline,” a stop-motion animation project in which she voices the title character, and “Push,” a sci-fi thriller that casts her as a punked-out clairvoyant. I'd argue that Fanning's hard work is most apparent in the latter; she does some seriously heavy lifting here, enough that it's a wonder her twig-like legs don't snap in the process. Her surprisingly nuanced performance is the best – and most believable – thing about “Push,” an incomprehensible mind-bender that's big on style and short on substance.

Fanning plays Cassie, a second-generation “watcher” who sees mental glimpses of the future and draws the images in a chalkboard-like sketchbook. Cassie's mother also has this psychic gift (hence, second-generation), but she's been captured and locked up by The Division, a secret government agency that's been trying to form an army of these “special people” since they were bio-experiment guinea pigs back in WWII. In modern-day Hong Kong, Cassie meets Nick (Chris Evans of “Fantastic Four”), a twenty-something telekinetic, a.k.a. “mover,” who's been hiding out in the densely populated region since The Division murdered his similarly skilled father 10 years ago. Cassie needs Chris to help her find Kira (Camilla Shell, I mean, Belle from “10,000 B.C.”), an extremely powerful “pusher” who can project artificial and potentially fatal thoughts into the minds of others simply by turning her eyeballs shark-black (because the use of strange-colored eyeballs is one of the few ways Hollywood knows how to depict supernatural abilities at work). Kira recently escaped from The Division's headquarters with a briefcase containing a syringe containing a drug that, in certain hands, could throw off the agency's plan of world domination. Now, the bad guys, led by another “pusher,” Carver (two-time Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou, sporting a gray goatee and reaching a career low), are after Kira and the clock is ticking.

I've been trying pretty hard to figure out what exactly the motivations are behind all these characters' actions and I've still got nothing. Everyone wants this briefcase (a la “Pulp Fiction”), but why? It contains a chemical that boosts the powers of the “special people,” but if Kira stole it from The Division's home base, don't they have more in stock? Why is it so special? And why does another group of characters – a Hong Kong gang comprised of glass and eardrum-shattering “screamers” and an even stronger “watcher” – want it? If the drug eventually kills any “special person” injected with it, what are their plans for it? And how does Cassie expect to use it to free her mother? Furthermore, how does Nick, whose only apparent ability is to move objects by will, orchestrate a climactic scheme that could've only been planned by anticipating the unknown? Is he a “watcher” as well? Who knows? There are enough unanswered and unanswerable questions here for 10 splitting headaches, and “Push” has plenty of problems long before one attempts to decipher its cheesecloth plot.

Though they never fully cultivate the concept (or any concept, for that matter), director Paul McGuigan (“Lucky Number Slevin”) and writer David Bourla (the little-seen and critically panned “Larceny”) position Nick as the reluctant, “chosen one”-type hero, like Keanu Reeves's Neo from the “Matrix” films. Neo was surrounded by environments of subterranean gloom and sleek, sterile perfection, making his extraordinary capabilities that much more mind-blowingly conspicuous. Nick is trapped in a land of overly-saturated colors and overly-relied upon Asian influences (the movie is like “Blade Runner” on crack), leaving his uncanny gifts lost in the frenetic mix. Neo was part of a film that used state-of-the-art technology to enhance the actions of its rather complex characters. Nick is part of a film that uses every stylistic enhancement available – jumpy photography, fast edits, skewed angles, fuzzy edges, computer effects – and has little time for character development. Neo was part of a story that, in the first installment, at least, took big, existential ideas and streamlined them into slick, fascinating entertainment. Nick is part of a story that seems to have taken a lot of big ideas, tossed them into a bag, shook them up and plucked them out at random.

And despite Reeve's reputation as a hopelessly one-note performer, he might look like Marlon Brando if he worked alongside Evans, an actor who, despite his good looks and adroit moves, is hopelessly, endlessly boring. Regardless of what else is happening in “Push” (and there's always A LOT happening), it's impossible to care about a lead character with such a leaden personality. Evans is matched by the snooze-inducing Belle, who's way too good at playing a girl who's dead inside. And then there's Fanning, the youngest member of the cast who runs circles around her co-stars and the material. She gets a lot of mileage out of a lousy script and, without any “pushing” abilities, she's the only player who projects the emotions of her character onto her face. The most exciting thing for me was watching Fanning and thinking that she might just make good on those Jodie Foster comparisons, surviving the rollercoaster transition from kiddie prodigy to respectable, grown-up artiste.

Since she already endured a much buzzed-about rape scene in “Hounddog,” it's not that shocking to see Fanning get drunk in “Push” (you read right). Still, one might wonder how the 13-year-old knew how to portray intoxication realistically. Here's my guess: she sat in on the pitch meeting for this movie, which is kind of like what would result if the creators of “The Matrix,” “Blade Runner” and “X-Men” got together, got hammered and then got to work.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Review: He's Just Not That Into You
3.5 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

There's a line exchange in “He's Just Not That Into You,” the new ensemble comedy based on the science-of-romance bestseller by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tucillo, that officially brands it with a born-on date – and the date isn't 2009. Mary, a magazine editor played by Drew Barrymore, confides in her crew of flamboyant friends that her latest crush “MySpaced” her. With a bewildered grimace, one of the friends tells her that “MySpace is the new booty call.” The problem is, in 2009, MySpace isn't really the new anything. By 2019, the social networking platform will inarguably be centuries old in sci-tech years. Behrendt's and Tucillo's book, inspired by an episode of “Sex and the City,” was published in 2004 – right around the time when MySpace exploded. New Line Cinema's movie version, directed by Ken Kwapis (“Licensed to Wed”), finished shooting in 2007 – right around the time when Facebook exploded. Two years later, the dating game hasn't changed much, but the way we talk about it has, and “He's Just Not That Into You,” a movie that tries to be an encyclopedia on modern love, feels a little behind the times. But, man, if it doesn't boast one heck of an all-star cast, capable of charming the pants off of any audience in any era.

Like “Traffic” with dinner dates, the Baltimore-set film consists of a road map of storylines, all of which are not-so-surprisingly interconnected. There's Mary, who's gal pals with yoga instructor Anna (Scarlett Johansson), who's uncontrollably drawn to lawyer Ben (Bradley Cooper), who's married to spice company marketer Janine (Jennifer Connelly), who works with unhappily unmarried Beth (Jennifer Aniston) and hopeless romantic Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin), who gets dating advice from bar owner Alex (Justin Long), who's buddies with serial dater and real estate agent Connor (Kevin Connolly), who's in love with Anna and buys ad space from Mary. There are more connections, and even more characters, like Neil (Ben Affleck), Beth's boyfriend who doesn't believe in marriage. Screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (“Never Been Kissed”) take the book's self-help format and transform it into an engaging narrative, employing that popular small-world concept that's often a great fit for the microcosms movies create. When it's revealed that Ben is also best friends with Neil, or that Anna is also using Connor on the side, we modern moviegoers aren't exactly shocked, but there's still a thrill to be had in those “ah-ha!” moments.

The entire cast is wonderful, and though we relate to some characters more than others, we pretty much root for all of them. As Gigi, Goodwin nabs her first starring role, narrating the movie and using that same lovable naivete she exercises on HBO's “Big Love” to enchant a whole new audience. It's been rumored that Goodwin, all smiles and dimples, avoided reading the source material until after production wrapped. In doing so, the actress turns in an endearing performance that's anything but by the book. Long proves he's far beyond embodying a computer in Apple commercials, displaying a gravitas that surpasses his comedic work. Oscar-winner Connelly brings some reverence and maturity to the table, even though she's playing a woman in need of personal growth. Aniston has never been better on the big screen, finally able to express the thoughts and feelings of her character and not just bounce around the set. The relationship between Beth and Neil is the film's most lived-in and heartwarming, thanks also to Affleck, who toned himself up and down for his role. Even the people we're meant to hate win our affections, such as the two-timing Ben, whom soon-to-be superstar Cooper makes sympathetic despite his wrongdoings.

Where these people go and what they do is easy (and fun) to follow, but the sheer abundance of them causes some stories to feel less urgent and more distracting. Barrymore's bit, specifically, is superfluous to the plot, and seems to pop up just to deliver that dangerously dated techie lingo. The 33-year-old actress – who also served as executive producer – is adorable as usual, and the fate of her character will draw many smiles, but the movie would have been stronger and more succinct if she had stayed behind the camera. Another misstep is the strange and random wasting of respectable talents like Kris Kristofferson and Luis Guzman, who play Beth's ailing father and Janine's contractor, respectively, and are given very few lines. I could move on to grumble about cinematographer John Bailey's semi-sloppy camerawork, which tends to cut actors off at the neck and turn them into talking heads, but that would just be nitpicking.

“He's Just Not That Into You” is a real crowd-pleaser – it's funny, it's sharper than most titles of its kind, it's heartfelt, and it's extremely accessible (watch out for chapter stops in which even more actors break down the book's famous “rules,” confessional style, and basically describe everyone's dating experiences). I, for one, was pleasantly caught off-guard by how much I came to care about most of the inhabitants of the film's vine-ridden jungle of mixed drinks, mixed feelings, and mixed messages. If only the writers had done away with that pesky, time-sensitive, “profile-updating” dialogue – which is good for a laugh and not much else – the movie wouldn't have such a brief and definitive shelf life. Note to filmmakers: if you're going to cook up something that speaks to today's ever-changing culture, you'd best have your fingers on its pulse. Over at, there's a link directing users to the film's Facebook account, not its MySpace profile, proving that a lot of folks are just not that into MySpace anymore. Go figure.