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Column Thu Mar 11 2010

Green Zone, She's out of My League, The Red Riding Trilogy, Remember Me, The Art of the Steal, and The Yellow Handkerchief

Green Zone

I feel pretty confident in saying that there is no better director of realistic, complex action sequences working today than Paul Greenglass (United 93, Bloody Sunday, and the most recent two Bourne movies). He also has an uncanny ability of building unbearable levels of suspense and making sure an intelligent audience always knows exactly what is happening and what the specific geography of every sequence is. This may sound bizarre, but one of my biggest complaints about the current crap of action directors is that they simply toss the camera around, set off a shitload of explosions, and rattle off gunfire with very little care if the audience can keep track of where all of the players are and who they are attempting to capture or kill. But with Green Zone, Greengrass' dense and perfect military thriller set in the early weeks of the current war in Iraq, we are always perfectly clear who's after who and why. He almost makes it look easy.

Green Zone is not "Jason Bourne goes to Iraq," despite what some lazy-ass critics might lead you to believe. It's actually something much more dangerous--a studio film with big stars mixing truth with a bit of fiction to expose one version of the Big Lie that got us into Iraq in the first place: that Saddam Hussein had hidden caches of weapons of mass destruction hidden all over the country. The fact that an audience of today already knows no WMDs were found doesn't take away from the drama of watching soldiers (in the form of Roy Miller, played with authority and confidence by Matt Damon), intelligence gatherers (led by Brendan Gleeson's CIA agent Martin Brown, and journalists (Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne, portrayed by Amy Ryan with a perfect mixture of truth seeking vigor and sheer guilt at falling for the original lie) slowly uncover the truth for themselves.

Miller heads a team of men who are tapped to raid various abandoned buildings and other secret locations where WMDs are supposedly hidden. Each time they come up empty handed, despite being told the intel that put them there was solid and coming from a classified, high-ranking source in the Iraqi military. When Miller confronts his superior officers with the idea that maybe the intel is faulty, he's dressed down with some degree of swiftness. When he and his men get a lead from an Iraqi citizen named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla) about a gathering of some of the top men in Saddam's army, he moves in quickly confirms the presence of a high ranking general (Yigal Naor), who then escapes. Those who Miller and his team do capture are quickly snatched from their grasp by another military team (led by Jason Isaacs) and working directly for the administration, in the guise of Greg Kinnear as the devious politician who is more interested in making America look justified in being in Iraq than in getting to the truth. With the help of Martin Brown, Miller sets out to find the missing general and get the truth out of him about where the WMDs are, assuming there are any.

Green Zone never lets up in its nearly two-hour running time. For those of you who aren't fans of the shaky cam, be warned--things get a little shaky, but not to the point where the style and camera movement courtesy of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd take you out of the action. Greengrass is absolutely relentless at either throwing details and information at you or at putting his capable Chief Warrant Officer Miller through the paces. The films ends with a 20-minute foot chase that left me winded just watching, primarily because not everyone doing the running is in great shape. Just as compelling as the action is the drama. Miller confronting the journalist about running her original story about "confirmed" WMDs without checking the facts is a stinging indictment against all journalists that bought these lies. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (basing his adaptation on a book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran) points fingers and names the names of those who let us down. Miller is given such lines as "It always matters why we go to war," when Kinnear tries to convince him the 'Why' doesn't matter anymore since American was already fully engaged in this conflict. Knowing Damon's politics, he's probably screaming right at George W. Bush when he deliver those words.

Greengrass and Damon should always work together, because they make the best non-superhero action movies in town. I guess this film has been on release schedule for a few extra months, and I think I know why. The distributor might have been waiting for The Hurt Locker to win that Best Picture Oscar. At least that way, Green Zone might have a fighting chance at being the one film set during the Iraq War that actually gets people to come see it in the theater in droves. They will not be disappointed. This is a one of those rare birds that refuses to skimp on either the action or the plot. It's a smart film, made by talented filmmakers that also happens to kick all manner of ass. Who knows, this film might actually make you feel a little bit better about being lied to by your government. If not, it may get your angry and charged enough to do something about it.

She's Out of My League

If you believe the poster of Jay Baruchel's perplexed face that is promoting the new romantic sex comedy She's Out of My League, you might think that the still-young star of "Undeclared," Knocked Up, Tropic Thunder, Fanboys, Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist, and the upcoming The Sorcerer's Apprentice, opposite Nicholas Cage, is responsible for holding down the comedic fort. And while Baruchel probably could do just that, he's fortunate enough to have an exceptional supporting cast on this film to take what could have been a simple story about a somewhat nerdy TSA agent capturing the fancy of an impossibly beautiful, successful woman, and turning it into something more meaningful and heartfelt.

Baruchel plays Kirk, who works at a Pittsburgh airport and has been recently dumped by Marnie (Lindsay Sloane), who not only is dating a new guy already, but the happy new couple hang out constantly with Kirk's family. On the job, Kirk ends up finding the lost cell phone of lovely event planner Molly (Alice Eve from Crossing Over and Starter for 10) and he agrees to hold onto it for her until she returns from her trip. As a way of thanking Kirk, Molly takes him out to dinner and she finds herself weirdly attracted to him, possibly because he's safe, but she believes it's because he's a genuinely nice guy of the variety she rarely dates.

Neither of their friends can quite make sense of this pairing, and that's one of the more interesting aspects and strengths to She's Out of My League. While the relationship stuff is charming and funny, it's the way their friends and family gradually chip away at the relationship that is interesting. His people make him believe that eventually she's going to dump him, and he'd better get out before he gets too attached. Meanwhile her best friend, parents, and ex-boyfriend all push her to get over this average-looking schmoe and get back on board with someone more her style. If the film has a message or a strength in its observational powers, it's about just how much stock we tend to put into what those around us say about the people we date or spend time with. Peer pressure is a bitch. And both Molly and Kirk's reaction to this pressure is more believable and painful than I was expecting.

I don't mean to make She's Out of My League seem like some treatise on odd couplings, although when it delves into that arena, it works. The film is also outrageously funny and gross at times, primarily because of the supporting players, especially T.J. Miller, Mike Vogel, and Nate Torrence as Kirk's coworkers. Miller's Stainer has no filter between his genitals and his brain; Vogel is the handsome lady's man; and Torrence's overly sweet Devon might be my favorite character in the whole film as the only married member of the group, who seems a little obsessed with Disney princess characters. What's most funny about his character (you know, the only one with a stable relationship) is that his advice is sound and almost without fail rejected by the other guys as being too sensitive and feminine. Poor Kirk gets it from all sides, especially his absolutely evil family, including brother Dylan (Kyle Bornheimer) and parents (Debra Jo Rupp and Adam LeFevre). On Molly's side of the equation, her best friend Patty (the beyond cute Krysten Ritter, who has starred in so many terrible chick flicks in the last two years that this might as well be her first movie) is dishing out more bad advice.

Loaded with plenty of gross-out humor courtesy of screenwriters Sean Anders and John Morris, She's Out of My League strikes a nice balance between watching the relationship progress and giving us plenty of time to watch Kirk in his two circles of naysayers. There are probably two or three sequences in this movie that will take their place in the gross-out comedy hall of fame (or at least have a healthy-size space in an annex somewhere). But better than even those moments are the conversations between Kirk and his friends, who have no business being friends in the first place. These four guys don't belong together, but listening to them shoot the shit feels like listening in on old friends talking trash and spouting off philosophies about dating and relationships that are utter crap, but they believe them so passionately, you start to wonder if they might be right. First-time feature director Jim Field Smith is wise enough to let his cameras just keep rolling while this buffoons yammer away, and the result is conversational, relaxed, and incredibly funny.

The final act of She's Out of My League plays out a bit predictably, but by that point, I was already on board. Yes, Baruchel is cut from the cloth of Woody Allen, but he has always made me laugh, and he doesn't play Kirk as a complete loser. There is a strength to him, which is taken away not by the love of the beautiful woman but by his douchey friends. There's a certain confidence to his character that is easily shaken by a fear of the unknown, and he's too easily influenced by his friends' stupid theories. But Kirk is smart enough to know that he's easily influenced, and he actively fights against it.

She's Out of My League has a few short stretches that I didn't think worked. And the inclusion Molly's ex-boyfriend who wants her back doesn't really add anything to the story but a villain-like character that this film just doesn't need. But most of this movie alternates between cute, funny, moving, and hysterically gross. That's a combination I can learn to love, and after my first date with She's Out of My League, I'm feeling at least a strong like.

To read my exclusive interview with She's Out of My Hair co-stars Jay Baruchel and Nate Torrence, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Red Riding trilogy

One of the most stirringly ambitious film projects in recent memory (based on the novel by David Peace) is this three-film crime drama from the UK, focusing on the horribly botched investigations surrounding the "Yorkshire Ripper" child murders of the 1970s and '80s. As much an exposé of police and political corruption in the region, the trilogy (with each film helmed by a different director) features many threads and characters that travel between the films, however, the films don't necessarily have to be seen in order, although I'd recommend that you watch them chronologically for maximum impact.

The 1974 segment from director Julian Jarrold (maker of the recent Brideshead Revisited adaptation) centers on a newbie investigative journalist (Andrew Garfield from Lions for Lambs and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) who is the first to spot the connections between the murders and dirty dealings between the police department and a thuggish real estate developer, played by Sean Bean. Some of the UK's great working actors are featured in this segment (many of which go on to be in the other two), including Peter Mullan, David Morrissey, Rebecca Hall, and Eddie Marsan. Needless to say, since there are two more films, the journalist's investigation does not go well.

The 1980 section, directed by Man On Wire's James Marsh, concerns a seasoned detective (Paddy Considine) brought in from Manchester to head up the seemingly unsolvable murders. Needless to say, his work sends him down a similar path that the journalist traveled six years earlier, and his being an outsider doesn't exactly help the situation. Among his theories is that a copycat of the original murderer may be at work in town, a theory that seems sound when a man is arrested in the case. The 1983 segment, from Shopgirl director Armund Tucker, is when all the corruption comes to a head and the truth is revealed. The detective played by Morrissey sees alarmed similarities between a new case and the Yorkshire Ripper cases from 10 years earlier, despite the fact that the now-condemned is in jail. Meanwhile, a local attorney (Mark Addy) takes up the case of the imprisoned, mentally challenged man, and in attempting to clear his client's name, he uncovers a world in which many believe it's better his possibly innocent client stays right where he is rather than have the truth come out.

The Red Riding trilogy is quite simply going to knock your socks off, freak you out more than once, and captivate you. As much as the films center on a deviant killer of children, the stories are really about how the system set up to solve these crimes is rotten from the inside due to greed and a well orchestrated cover up that takes the place of justice. The films will deliver a proper and powerful stomping to your brain as you wrap your head around the many mysteries and implications of this tale (in many ways, you, too, will wish these crimes never get solved because of the damage it will do the community if they are). The films open today at the Music Box Theatre , which is featuring separate admissions for each part, but you can purchase a discount pass for all three. Now that your Oscar-related watching is done, this is an excellent way to dive head first into 2010 (even though these films opened in many countries and played the festival circuit last year).

Remember Me

Okay, sure, everything about the ending of this film misses the mark. The problem isn't poor taste or even worse timing; the problem is pointlessness, as in this film is one grande espresso shot of pointless, and the ending is the foam on top. Remember Me reads more like a check list of scenes, shots, and poses that Twilight star Robert Pattinson has created with director Allen Coulter (Hollywoodland, and numerous episodes of "The Sopranos") to sell him as a dramatic force in the world. Instead, the movie comes across as a moving photo shoot. You can almost hear Pattinson saying, "Oh, here's a good angle of me smoking a cigarette. How do I look in this lighting without my shirt on? Was my voice angsty enough while I was emoting in that scene fighting with Pierce Brosnan?" And the list goes on and on.

I'm not a knee-jerk Pattinson hater. His third-rate, watered-down James Dean impersonation in the Twilight films actually serves that story, regardless of how feather-light it may be. But what he's doing in Remember Me is an audition reel. Here's Rob's Tyler character being charming and romantic as he approaches would-be love interest Ally (Emily de Ravin), and here he is being the supportive big brother to a little sister who is taking on the brunt of their parents' broken marriage and a neglectful lawyer father (Brosnan). He's a rebel, a lover, a guy who isn't afraid to pick a fight with a cop (Chris Cooper) and get his ass beat down for the effort. And I wasn't buying a second of it. Pattinson simply isn't convincing me he's a troubled outcast whose family (including mother Lena Olin) was struck by tragedy a few years earlier.

But here's the thing about Remember Me. It is worse than pointless. I mean that literally--it has no point. Even without the bizarre final moment, the movie isn't about anything. I was craving a stupid rom-com just to spell out it's themes in giant Hollywood-sign letters to fulfill my desire for purpose. Somewhere buried deep in this film is a message about fate and living life with the one you love because it can all be gone without warning. Suicide and violent murder play a part in the pasts of both leads; this is not a spoiler. Probably without meaning to, Tyler comes across as a spoiled rich kid who is rejecting his father's path as a powerful New York lawyer because he can. Of course, he doesn't refuse his dad's bailout money when he gets tossed in the clink. De Ravin is substantially more convincing, but trapped in this intolerably written screenplay, there's not much the film can do to save her. The script doesn't do anyone in this movie any favors, even such fine actors as Brosnan, Olin, and especially Cooper, who looks ashamed to be stuck in this movie.

If you have the same perverse desire I do to see the worst as well as the best films being released into the mainstream today, seeing Remember Me would be considered starting at the bottom. The good news is, there's no where to go but up. And for those who loathe Pattinson and hope he vanishes from movies as soon as the Twilight movies are wrapped, Remember Me is a solid sign that he may do just that. Please don't see this movie; don't even let the thought cross your mind. The regret you'll feel after seeing it may be too much for you to handle. Be strong.

The Art of the Steal

Welcome to the first great documentary of 2010, The Art of the Steal-- a film that will make you loathe the upper crust of Philadelphia society and become a fan of an art collection that you may never have known existed before watching this movie. Outside of the art world, the Barnes Foundation, located five miles outside of the City of Brotherly Love, may not have been that well known. And there was a very good reason for that. Its founder, the late Dr. Albert Barnes, hated with all his might people who treated art like something meant sit in the background of rich people's homes or in institutionalized art museums. Barnes' relatively modest museum housed what is considered by many to be the single great collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern art in the world (the press notes say the museum housed 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis, and 7 Van Goghs, among others), but he displayed it not by artist or movement. Instead he arranged his art and furniture (recently collectively appraised at about $25 billion) to be aesthetically pleasing, and to be of maximum use to his real motive for having such an impressive collection--to be used for art education and not simply for mass public consumption.

Although Barnes' will was quite clear that the collection should never be moved, rented, split up, sold, or be open to the public beyond the building's very limited open hours, when he died in 1951, a slow and agonizing process began to make sure that his wishes were dismantled by the very people he despised more than any. But the people in power in Philadelphia, including those on the board of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (an institution Barnes considered an arch-enemy), politicians, and other members of the cultural elite, conspired over the decades to rip apart Barnes' very explicit instructions and wishes, but not without a fight.

The story of this collection is endlessly fascinating and will pull you in whether you're an art fan or not. The disregard by the courts and others to Barnes' will is brazen and infuriating, and it makes you wonder just how iron-clad any will might be if you have enough people with money opposing its instructions. There is sound evidence of outright conspiracy between the government and the Philadelphia Museum, a fact that didn't seem to matter to any lawmaker. At some point while watching The Art of the Steal, you may ask yourself "Is is really right that all of these great works of art be kept from the public to satisfy the personal hatred one man felt against the establishment?" And more than once, I remember thinking, "I'd like to see that collection, but I wouldn't be able to if Barnes' wishes were adhered to." But neither of those questions is really the point, nor do they matter. What happened (and continues to happen) with the Barnes Foundation goes to the heart of Legacy. Barnes could not have been more clear, and nearly everything that happened to his precious collection after he and those who he personally appointed to look out for it died, the real world crept in like a thief in the night and undid what he'd spent decades building and fortifying. Not only is this the first great doc of 2010, but like many great documentaries, The Art of the Deal will make you angry. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Yellow Handkerchief

Here's an excellent example of great performances overcoming an overwrought, self-important screenplay (by Erin Dignam, loosely based on a short story by Pete Hamill) and heavy-handed direction from the UK's Udayan Prasad (My Son the Fanatic and countless British TV series). The Yellow Handkerchief is proof that I will watch William Hurt and/or Maria Bello is just about anything because I trust that even if the material is overly indulgent junk (this movie is not quite that bad), they will be good, perhaps even exceptional. So the question remains, how badly do you want to see these two fine actors work their magic? Are you willing to endure a whole lot of foolishness and not-so-great acting by the likes of Eddie Redmayne, an actor whose appeal I will never understand? Maybe the answer is Yes, but I'm not making that decision for you.

An interesting offshoot of the success of the Twilight films is that years' old films that Kristen Stewart made before she became the stuff of tween legend. Last year, a little number called The Cake Eaters from 2007 saw the light of day in theaters and now The Yellow Handkerchief, which was made in 2008, is creeping onto a few screens. Set in post-Katrina Louisiana, the film is about Brett Hanson (Hurt)--a recently released convict after six years in for manslaughter. Not exactly sure where he's headed, he hitches a ride with Gordy (Redmayne), and they in turn pick up a sort-of teen runaway Martine (Stewart). Not a whole lot happens in this movie, but the three spend a lot of time talking, primarily about Brett's life before prison and his marriage to the lovely May (Bello). Nearly all of Bello's scenes are part of Brett's flashbacks, during which we see their courtship, marriage, and ugliness as Brett has convinced himself he's not worth loving or sticking around for.

Naturally on this road to nowhere, Gordy and Martine start to develop feelings for each other, which is about as appealing as, well, nothing nice. It probably goes without saying but I'm going to spit it out anyway that the scenes with Hurt and Bello are the strongest the film has to offer, and there aren't nearly enough of them. Why the filmmakers felt they needed to frame this run-of-the-mill story with all of this nonsense about the younger couple is beyond me. Stewart has nothing to be embarrassed about in this film. She's plays a white-trash princess as well as can, I suppose, but there's just nothing for her to say or do that amounts to anything resembling substance, especially when you compared her scenes with Redmayne to the ones with Hurt and Bello. I struggled to find things to enjoy in The Yellow Handkerchief, and after about the halfway point I simply gave up on the youngsters' storyline and counted the moments until the older couple showed those whippersnappers how it's done. You might have an easier time liking this feather-light production, but I felt like it was pushing me away as often as the more dramatic elements were keeping me curious. Not exactly a close call, but still a disappointment.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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