ridley pearson

Thursday, September 20, 2007

THE KINGDOM - film review

The Kingdom - film review

BEWARE of statements like "You've never seen anything like it." Because of course you have. With the preponderance of a twenty-four hour news cycle and the internet, there's not much any of us miss. But that said: The Kingdom, a film about three determined FBI agents working to identify and prosecute a terrorist cell inside Saudi Arabia, is going to shake you to your core. I'm going to oversell this film, so please take that into consideration—it may not be for you at all. But I loved it. It took me to places I haven't been in film in a long time: to the core of my soul, trembling like a child.

I've written for film, and television, so I tend to both watch and study what I see. I break it apart into acts. I actually visualize the dialogue as written text as it's being spoken. It's a curse and a blessing. A blessing because I hope it makes me a better writer. A curse because I seldom get so carried away by a film that I'm not in this study phase.

Until The Kingdom. My comment to my wife on the way out of the theater: "I think I held my breath for the last twenty minutes. I don't remember breathing." At the twenty minute mark, nearing the end of the all important first act (of three) my wife leaned over and whispered, "I don't know if I can take this. It's so real." What she meant is it's so "right now." At first you're not sure if you're watching a film or CNN.

The movie opens with a snapshot history of Saudi Arabia's role in the Middle East that is so well laid out I would recommend the film for this alone. Your jaw drops as the narrator walks you through what you already know, or have heard a dozen times. But seeing it all strung together into a collage of missteps, a concise history of the West's bungling, is painful to your chest. Your eyes well. I think this may be where you stop breathing—with only two hours to go.

Jamie Foxx's participation concerned me when I saw the trailer, months ago. Didn't he just do Jarhead? Haven't we seen enough of Jamie in the desert? Nope. Nowhere near enough, as it turns out. The story isn't what I thought it might be given the trailer. It turns out it's an emotionally-charged, adrenaline laden, electrical shock treatment disguised as motion picture. Foxx's performance will put him on the same list as Brad Pitt come February. And Jennifer Garner! Who knew? I was such an Alias fan (on DVD, first season especially), and I reeled with Catch And Release and feared she was succumbing to big dollars for small films, the way many TV actors seem to go. But not Jen! She stands up in this movie, rid of all cliché, despite dialogue and situations that could reek of it, and lathers the screen with a deep remorse for things past, and a devil-may-care bare-it-all attitude toward the future.

But it is also the filmmaking that wows you. This film is as contemporary as Jesse James is antiquated. That they both work, and can go head to head in the same season speaks of Hollywood's diversity and artistic prowess. We are getting treated to directors who know their crafts and studios willing to let them do their best work. It's a great time to be a movie go-er, and if The Kingdom isn't at the top of your list this fall, then you're the poorer for it: You've never seen anything like it.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


(Known here as "Jesse James")

In this moody, somber, biographical indulgence of the life and decline of Jesse James it may be the narrator, Hugh Ross, who gets the Oscar nod.

This is old-time film making, and once I had adjusted the WayBack Machine, I hunkered down and fell in love with it. We grow so accustomed to a dozen images a minute, of seeing a single scene from five different angles, that when a director takes a deep breath and asks us to do so as well, it's mildly disturbing at first. In Jesse James, we get a long shot of a Missouri wheat field in snow, and we hold on that long shot for as long as it takes the rider—Brad Pitt—to arrive. And boy, does Brad Pitt arrive. This is the most mature and well developed performance of his career. The ladies won't swoon; the guys won't grip the arm rests white-knuckled. But he delivers. I predict an Oscar nomination, but that's going out on a limb because I'm not sure the Academy can bring itself to support such a quiet, understated acting job. Pitt is a bi-polar, menacing terror, whose internal machinery is grinding with such friction that we can hear it echo around the theater. He plays it with superb reserve, making the one or two scenes of forced laughter gut-wrenching and nerve-wracking.

But it is, surprisingly, Casey Affleck's film. Who would have thunk? The rich resonance he brings to the Judas character of Robert Ford has you holding your breath. You feel sorry for him. You are surprised by him. You fear him. He is the kid with the pack of matches at the gas pumps, the wild dog busted out of his cage, the simpering girl in pigtails sitting on a dagger. He is gorgeous and horrific all at once. His naive insecurity slowly devolves into an unearned confidence, and that's when you start to look away from the screen.

This is a two hour and forty minute film that gives you jet lag. It feels more like three or four. But that is its hallmark—the poetry of the landscape, the patience of a director and cinematographer who know how to put you into a time long forgotten. The audience experiences that era, we aren't just shown it. This is not a window into another time, this is one's transferal into that time, and its a quite the artistic accomplishment.

We know the end of the story going in—there are no tricks or slight of hand. The narrator jumps right in and tells us (as if we needed to hear it). So the more important element is the why, not the how. There's no math in the telling of the story. No complications to figure out. It's all character—rich, compelling characters—and landscape and texture and truth. Ten years ago it would have been heralded as a masterpiece. Now, sadly, impatient audiences may have no room for it in the Cineplex. And what a shame that is. It's about as boring as a John Singer Sargent. And if you have to Google that, then you won't love this film, as I did.

Monday, September 03, 2007

THE BRAVE ONE - Film Review


Prepare for the unexpected. If, like me, you've never met a revenge picture you like, The Brave One may prove itself the exception. This is because, despite itself, it's not really a revenge picture. It is more an artful character study of a woman's search for meaning in a violent world.

I abhor reviews that walk you through the plot while telling you they won't spoil the picture for you. So I will give you the thumbnail: bad things happen to a normal woman, and in preparing to defend herself she finds a unquiet peace in fighting back.

I'm a big Jodie Foster fan. My one regret is she doesn't make more pictures. I assume that's because she waits for the right property to come along. That's why when I viewed the trailer to The Brave One I panicked: Jodie had made a revenge picture. Could it possibly be? So I viewed the preview based on trust—in her choices—and I wasn't disappointed. It is a marvel to watch her steady decline, emotionally and physically, into the abyss. It is not easy going—this film does not work to make the viewer comfortable. I squirmed through most of it.

The first act—roughly the first third of picture—is the weakest. The early romance is stiff and unconvincing. The director contrasts brutality with love making in elegant counterpoint and juxtaposition, but I found myself reaching for an airplane bag that wasn't there. Relief comes in the form of Terrence Howard, whose performance is one of a gloomy presence, a steadfast determination motivated by his own inability to do what he knows is right. He plays this moral ambiguity with bravado and his wonderful speaking voice transforms his performance. His angst helps him to fill the screen. His sidekick, played by Nicky Katt—of Boston Public--gets the best lines in the picture—and delivers the only laughs, which arrive like air to a drowning man.

Once "Jodi gets her gun," and her courage, the movie takes off. The more a hero, the more a failure, and this is the through-line that intrigues the viewer. It's also what prevents this from being a straight up revenge picture, which, in the end, is what saved it for me. I liked this film, but unlike Silence of The Lambs, I'm unlikely to see it again. It's a film that takes its toll; but that's just the point: The Brave One is a film, not a movie.
The popcorn sits on the floor while watching this one; you must remind yourself to breathe. But when you finally do breathe again, it is a breath of relief, even though the film fails to deliver the correct ending.

There is a sign shown early in the film that reads: Stranger's Gate. I assume this was the working title, for it's thematically pitch perfect. Why The Brave One, I'm not sure—ask the studio executives. But Stranger's Gate says it all. The characters who people this film are strangers to each other, and ultimately strangers to themselves, which is what makes it such an intriguing and interesting—if not disturbing—film to watch.