Monday, September 20, 2010

THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD (2008)

Starring: John Malkovich, Colin Hanks & Emily Blunt
Director: Sean McGinly

This is a very agreeable "feel good" movie and, as such, should find favor with a great many of those who view it. The story, which is in the tradition of other "behind the scenes with a difficult talent" films as My Favorite Year, concerns an aging mentalist -- do not call him a magician, please -- named Buck Howard (Malkovich), who was once at the top of the heap but is now reduced to playing to small, if appreciative, audiences far from the big time. His new road manager, Troy (Hanks), has joined Buck because he is floating aimlessly after dropping out of law school and is trying to "find himself." Working with Buck is an education in itself, as he has taken self-delusion to an extreme, is entirely self-involved, and more than a bit temperamental. But there's something about Buck that draws Troy in and ultimately teaches him a lesson about being true to himself.

Buck is a very audience-friendly film, provided that viewers are willing to let themselves be taken along for a fairly manipulative ride. Director-writer McGinly has created a well-crafted screenplay that hits all the right buttons in terms of eliciting the desired response. Where he has fallen down a bit is in not adding real depth to the story or keeping it as tightly focused as it might have been. Troy's dilemma is a bit too superficial, as is the setup with his disapproving father (well-played by the actor's real-life papa, Tom Hanks). The part of the plot which deals with Troy's dalliance with a young P.R. agent feels incomplete, perhaps because Blunt's dynamic, eye-catching performance makes the viewer want to learn more about her character and see more confrontations between the agent and Buck. However, neither of these flaws (nor McGinly's tendency to overwrite and overuse the narration) is fatal by any means and they're more than made up for by some wonderful comic moments and McGinly's trenchant yet amiable way of dissecting the whole concept of celebrity. Most importantly, Buck has Malkovich operating at the top of his not inconsiderable form. The actor clearly relishes this character, and it is a joy to watch him inhabit Buck's skin and bring him to beautiful life. Malkovich finds the humanity beneath the caricature without letting the caricature slip away; Buck's trademark "I love this town" is funny because it is simultaneously cheesy and heartfelt. As Troy, Hanks isn't able to hold his own against Malkovich -- or Blunt -- but he does the best he can as the "straight" man in the movie. The supporting cast, especially Steve Zahn's and Debra Monk's on-target "hayseeds," are aces. McGinly's direction is smooth, if a bit too concerned with getting its points across, and Tak Fujimoto's cinematography is both glossy and warm. (87 mins.)

My Rating: ***

LA STRADA (1954)

Starring: Anthony Quinn, Giuletta Masina & Richard Basehart
Director: Federico Fellini

La Strada is often considered one of the masterpieces of 20th century filmmaking, a sad and poignant remembrance of innocence lost and of the roads that each of us must choose. As with much of the work of director Fellini, man is viewed as suspended between the heavens and the earth, adroitly symbolized here by Il Matto/The Fool (Basehart), a high-wire circus performer. Fellini's motifs are among the most influential of all post-WWII filmmakers, and you'll find clever Fellini and La Strada references in such unlikely films as Blues Brothers 2000. Giuletta massina's Chaplin-like Gelsomina is among the screen's most poignant and tragic performances, and she, like the entire film, is aided by Nino Rota's evocative score. Fellini had few production values to work with, but here he doesn't need them. La Strada is among the most studied films of late Italian Neo-Realism and a classic of the first rank. (115 mins.)

My Rating: ****

THE SOLOIST (2008)

Starring: Robert Downey, Jr. & Jamie Foxx
Director: Joe Wright

When the Soloist was originally intended to be a 2008 Oscar hopeful, the initial advertising campaign made it look like a cross between Shine and A Beautiful Mind. And the setup certainly smacks of Oscar bait: Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Downey), recovering from an especially nasty bike accident, meets the homeless Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Foxx) during a walk through the park. Because Nathaniel plays a violin with just two strings -- and plays it rather well -- he catches Steve's eye, and Steve, always on the lookout for a story, strikes up a conversation. When the obviously mentally ill Nathaniel mentions that he went to Juilliard, Steve decides to investigate the man's life, and discovers that the onetime cello prodigy suffered a schizophrenic breakdown while he was at the school, leading to a life on the street. Steve proceeds to write a column about Nathaniel, and the overwhelmingly positive response to the story prompts the gift of a cello from a reader. After delivering the present to Nathaniel, Steve slowly finds himself, almost against his nature, trying to make life better for the man.

This kind of movie quickly falls apart if the actors overplay the inherent sadness of the situation, and thankfully the stellar cast never makes that mistake. Although he's become more famous for performances in blockbusters like Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, Downey hasn't lost an ounce of his dramatic chops. He makes Steve selfish and prickly, but also so charming and funny that you understand why his subjects trust him with their life stories. You can also see why his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), who is now his boss, stays close to him even though she left their marriage. Steve begins asking himself why he cares so much about what happens to Nathaniel, questioning his own motivations -- is it really an ongoing act of selfless goodness, or is he just doing it for his career? Steve doesn't find a satisfying answer, until realizing that this new friendship offers the chance for him to become a better person.

As the catalyst for Steve's change, foxx pulls off a disciplined, subtle performance. Foxx isn't interested in earning our pity -- a choice that undermines so many actors playing mentally ill characters. You never question the debilitating nature of Nathaniel's disorder, but you also never question that he's able to take care of himself to the best of his ability, surviving -- however miserably -- in L.A.'s large homeless community. Both he and Downey avoid obvious melodramatic choices, and in doing so they create unfailingly honest portraits of complicated people.
(109 mins.)

My Rating: **1/2

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

CROSSROADS (1986)

Starring: Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca & Jami Gertz
Director: Walter Hill

A superb blues score by guitarist Ry Cooder highlights this enjoyable fantasy about an ambitious young bluesman (Macchio) who "goes down to the crossroads," in the words of Robert Johnson, to make a deal with the devil for fame and fortune. Most viewers will enjoy the performances, the story, and the music in this all-too-rare-big-screen celebration of the blues and its mythology.

This misbegotten fantasy seems like a revamp of The Karate Kid, with a crotchety old musician replacing the wise karate master who guided macchio's coming-of-age. Halfway through, it becomes a Faustian morality play in which Macchio has yo play a mean guitar to save his mentor's soul. (100 mins.)

My Rating: ***

PANDORA'S BOX (1929)

Starring: Louise Brooks
Director: G. W. Pabst

Pabst's most famous film featured his first, star-making collaboration with American actress Brooks in a complex exploration of sexual psychology and Weimar Germany's social decadence. Working from Frank Wedekind's play in Pabst's trademark realist style, Pabst and Brooks transformed the character of Lulu from an evil temptress into a hedonistic innocent at ease with her sexuality. Pursued by men and women alike, Lulu is prey as much to social repression as to her own insatiable desires, as she winds up blamed for the troubles that others have brought on themselves through their own sexual hypocrisy. The appearance of Jack the Ripper at the conclusion is a sign less of sensationalist melodrama than of Lulu's internalized victimization. Brooks's subtle, nuanced performance and Pabst's fluid editing style infuse Pandora's Box with a sensuality that remains undiminished to this day. Critically panned on its release, Pandora's Box has since come to be seen as a hypnotic masterwork, remarkable for its frank treatment of sexuality and the sympathetic, inscrutable, fascinating presence of Brooks, who became a Jazz Age flapper icon. (131 mins.)

My Rating: ***1/2

ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)

Starring: Bette Davis, Ann Baxter, George Sanders & Celeste
Holm
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Mankiewicz's jaundiced look at the show biz battle zone better known as Broadway is probably the summit of Hollywood movie-making; it's as finely crafted an entertainment as we're likely to see. Eve, a female Uriah Heep, insinuates herself into the good graces of some theater folk whose generosity does not prepare them for this cunning steamroller out to eliminate years of hard knocks at their expense. What gives this cynical high comedy its emotional resonance and depth, however, is poignance with thick Davis plays Margo Channing, the just-turned-forty actress who's a living monument to enormous talent and volcanic temperament.

Witty dialogue to spare, especially great when spoken by Sanders and Thelma Ritter. 6 Oscars include Best Picture, director, screenplay, and Supporting Actor (Sanders). Later musicalized on Broadway as Applause. (138 mins.)

My Rating; ****


DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952)

Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Richard Widmark, Anne Bancroft &
Elisha Cook
Director: Roy Ward Baker

Those who consider Monroe an actress of limited range should take a look at Don't Bother To Knock, in which the sex symbol is cast in a most un-Monroe-like part and turns in a quite impressive performance. Monroe's talent was considerable, and while she shown in the lighter roles that emphasized her obvious sexual allure, she was quite capable of handling meatier roles. Knock is also interesting to watch because Monroe's part is a surprising one for a star to take -- a psychotic who is not especially sympathetic. Knock has lots to recommend it aside form Monroe, include a script that, while it often stretches credulity, is nonetheless tightly structured and features some great dialogue, as well as an across-the-courtyard-through-the-windows scene that is engrossingly voyeuristic. A very young Bancroft turns in a solid performance, as do Cook and Widmark is less solid; he's fine, but he doesn't seem to be totally engaged in his part and thus can't fill out some of its more two-dimensional qualities. Knock could have been a truly top-notch little thriller had director Baker given it a bit more sizzle. Unfortunately, he's a bit cautious, and so Knock doesn't build up the head of steam and the tense suspense that it needs to. Nevertheless, it's well worth a look, especially for Monroe fans. (76 mins.)

My Rating: ***

GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST (2009)

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner & Michael
Douglas
Director: Mark S. Waters

There are only so many ways to spice up the traditional romantic comedy formula, which is probably why many of them are so dull and familiar. Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past stars McConaughey as über-famous womanizing photographer Connor Mead, a single man so entrenched in his love 'em and leave 'em lifestyle he'll use a video conference to break up with three girls simultaneously. He takes time out of his busy playboy schedule to attend his brother's wedding, where he comes face to face with Jenny Perotti (Garner), the only girl who ever truly captured his heart. Because the two have known each other since childhood, Jenny seems to be the only one who can call Connor out on his emotionally empty life and bad-boy behavior. After the rehearsal dinner -- where Connor, who hates all weddings, delivers a drunken speech about how love isn't real -- he's visited by the ghost of his uncle Wayne (Douglas), a Hefner-esque horndog who taught Connor everything he knows about picking up chicks. Wayne tells Connor that three more ghosts will visit Connor that night. They proceed to show him his romantic past, present, and future, in an attempt for him to get over himself and recognize his true feelings for Jenny.

Mark S. Waters is the kind of filmmaker who won't screw up a good script (Mean Girls), but he's not talented enough to make subpar material tolerable (Just Like Heaven). Because this script is so paint-by-numbers, Ghosts shows off Waters' best and worst qualities as a director. On the plus side, he trusts his actors when the material is good, allowing them to get laughs when the dialogue is genuinely funny. On the minus side, he encourages over-the-top performances in order to disguise the flat jokes and lame slapstick set pieces -- something that makes many of the characters more annoying than endearing.

But when the jokes are good -- or even just not awful -- the actors deliver. Sure McConaughey has been typecast in this role for years, but that's because he's good at it. The man knows how to mix his trademark laid-back attitude with a hint of vulnerability that makes him appealing to both men and women who want to see this kind of movie. But it's Douglas who walks off with the movie because he's got most of the best lines -- his robe-clad, highball-swigging swinger gives the movie what little fresh energy it has.

But "freshness" isn't even the point. After all, the people who want to see this movie will want it to be exactly what they expect. It's the movie equivalent of fast food -- nobody needs this to be good, just adequate. And Ghosts is nothing if not thoroughly adequate. (100 mins.)

My Rating: **

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971)

Starring: Clint Eastwood
Director: Clint Eastwood

Well-done shocker of late night radio DJ stalked by a homicidal ex-fan. Eastwood's first film as a director, Don Siegel plays Murphy the bartender.

Eastwood made a promising directorial debut with this mystery about a sexy disc jockey on a California radio station, and his involvement with a psychotic. Jessica Walter is first-rate playing the dangerous listener who takes charge of Eastwood's life when he makes the mistake of entering into what he thinks is a casual affair.
(102 mins.)

My Rating: ***

Monday, September 6, 2010

PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (1981)

Starring: Lance Henriksen
Director: James Cameron

This poorly scripted horror film about miniature, finny "jaws" details the mating rituals of the fictional "grunion" fish (falsely introduced as "piranhas" for more box-office recognition) and their need to attack and kill humans -- either inside or outside the water. These saber-toothed wonders have been hatched from a canister of eggs on a sunken ship in front of a posh Club Med resort, which features the mating rituals of humans who at times need to attack and kill fish. The product of a series of secret genetic engineering experiments, the toothy fish are to be tracked down by an undercover biochemist (Steve Marachuk), who is soon joined by the resident scuba diver at the resort (tricia O'Neill). With believable gore but second-rate special effects, this film in no way presages the coming success of its debut director, James Cameron.

A flying-piranhas movie helmed by Cameron should by all means be better than this bland horror sequel -- proving that the picture's behind-the-scenes story is ultimately more involving than movie itself. As a film study, the picture shows nothing of Cameron's talent, which could possibly be because of his rumored noninvolvement in most of it. Shut out from most of the production, the special effects technician-turned-stand-in director obviously wasn't involved with most of the final product, as evidenced in its watery take on such an outrageous premise. Airborne deadly fish should be comedy gold -- ironic or not -- but the sly humor of the the original Piranha film, written by John Sayles, is sorely missing from the proceedings. Instead, the flick plays out in a fairly straightforward tone that kills the entire flick. Though it is interesting to see Henriksen and Cameron together at even this early of a stage in their careers, Piranha II is devoid of any other cinematic merit -- other than being the first film to open with an underwater sex scene involving scuba divers. (94 mins.)

My Rating: **

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE (2010)

Starring; John Cusack
Director: Steve Pink

The story starts with old friends Adam (Cusack) and Nick (Craig Robinson), who are both pretty mopey. Adam's girlfriend just left him, and Nick is feeling kind of emasculated about his failed music career. But they put their thirtysomething angst aside when the third member of their old clique, the tequila-soaked basket case Lou (Rob Corddry), is hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning after jamming too hard to some rock in his Trans Am. They're not sure whether or not their hard-partying buddy was actually trying to kill himself, but just to be safe, they try to cheer him up with a trip back to Kodiak Valley, the ski lodge they frequented in their youth. After talking it up to Adam's nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) in the car on the way there, they realize that the resort, much like them, has become a spent shadow of what it once was. But, lucky for everyone, the hot tub attached to their room transports them back in time to 1986, where they re-inhabit their 20-year-old bodies, party at the lodge in its heyday, and try not to do anything to prevent Jacob (who for occasional milliseconds starts to flicker out of existence) from being born.

What follows is a fairly solid sex/stoner/gross-out comedy with a predilection toward '80s jokes. That's all well and good, but it can be a little disappointing when you think about what could have been. You've got a fun sense of smirking self-awareness surrounding the unabashedly silly premise, you've got a pointlessly evil rich-kid villain named Blaine, and you've got Cusack playing a guy who is transported back to the '80s -- to a ski lodge, no less. You'd think there would be a lot of room for cleverness and self-parody, but aside from an extra making a "two dollars" reference near the beginning, none of the humor really ties together in a cool way -- it's mostly just big hair and leg warmer jokes. William Zabka even shows up and makes a cameo (the bad guy from the Karate Kid!), but you might not even recognize him. He's hiding under an admittedly awesome mustache, but he certainly doesn't challenge anyone to a ludicrously climactic ski competition. Of course, that might not matter to most viewers, because the movie is still funny, and if nothing else, it delivers on the title. (100 mins.)

My Rating: **1/2

THE WHITE RIBBON (2009)

Starring: Christian Friedel
Director: Michael Haneke

When university film students are studying the career of Michael Haneke in 50 years (and they will be), it seems likely that The White Ribbon will be seen as the crest of his impressive career. However, the film represents a pinnacle in terms of reception, rather than execution. Certainly, it will be difficult for Haneke to duplicate this film in terms of hardware, having already garnered the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the trifecta of Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenwriter at the European Film Awards, with Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Foreign Film promising the possibility of more accolades in the near future. This film is easy to praise, with its gripping and thoughtful examination of the foundations of fascism in a German village just before World War I, delivered through the lush austerity of Christian Berger's striking black-and-white cinematography. With time, however, the impetuous consensus which has agreed to herald Haneke as the cinematic master of this moment in film history will dissipate, revealing that The White Ribbon is frayed and blemished, though Haneke himself would likely agree that such defects can only increase the film's ability to intrigue.

The film opens with the voice of a narrator, who warns that the story he's about to tell may not be entirely true, an assessment which is manifested by the fact that the majority of the action happens behind the groaning doors and sturdy shutters of the village, meaning that no single character has access to all of the relevant events. An unknown perpetrator strikes at the moral heart of the Protestant village with a series of vicious pranks and brutal assaults, until the villagers' trust of one another is gradually eclipsed by suspicion. Having no other outlet for their fear and frustration, many of the villagers, particularly the town pastor, flex their authority by tightening the vice of discipline on their children, who in turn become the carriers of their parents' parasitic malice.

Haneke employs some ham-handed devices to reinforce his theme, including a prominent biblical quote and the metaphor of the film's title, which is nakedly explained in a central speech. At times, he resorts to scenes of benign banality which seem better suited to a television sitcom, as one young boy adopts a wounded bird while another innocently queries his older sister about the nature of death. It is unthinkable that Haneke intended to single-handedly decipher something as seminal as the rise of German fascism, but one of his central assertions is that people will often forego moral struggle in favor of simple reproach, and it seems likely that audiences will do the same as they digest and interpret The White Ribbon. In life, "this" never quite blossoms into "thus" -- the causes of complex events can never be truly elucidated, only endlessly examined. Haneke has made a noble effort in this direction, but in the end his attempt at lucidity inevitably draws us further from the essential nature of fascism, rather than nearer to it. (144 mins.)

My Rating: ***

SURROGATES (2009)

Starring: Bruce Willis
Director: Jonathan Mostow

Anybody who likes a solid sci-fi action film probably loves Bruce Willis, and anybody who loves Bruce Willis would probably be willing to give his futuristic thriller Surrogates a chance. But, sadly, this movie doesn't deliver for fans of the genre, for lovers of old Bruno, or for soulless robotic avatars populating society in place of real humans.

That's basically the premise of Surrogates. Human beings no longer walk around in the real world, and instead stay at home hooked into a super-advanced sensory replication program through which they control lifelike robots that leave the house in their place -- the titular "surrogates." People love that their surrogates are stronger, faster, and better-looking than their "meatbag" selves, but there's also a quasi-hippie collective living on a reservation outside of mainstream society whose members don't believe in using surrogates. When the son of the inventor behind the android innovation becomes the victim of a mysterious murder in which not only the surrogate is destroyed, but the boy at home controlling it is killed as well -- all signs point to the anti-robot enclave, and their vaguely Rastafarian charismatic leader, The Prophet (Ving Rhames).

So now FBI agent Greer (Willis) -- who is clearly disillusioned with surrogate society following an obligatory tragedy in his past (a lonely-looking baseball glove lovingly inscribed with "Robbie" in a child's writing tells us just about as much of that backstory as we ever hear, or need to) -- has to investigate the crime, and get to the bottom of a possible conspiracy behind it to end surrogacy altogether. The way that the mystery unfolds, like the rest of the movie, is pretty flimsy and boring.

For a story mounted on a hardcore Asimovian prologue -- detailed, long-form imaginings about the introduction of technology into the human evolutionary play -- everything in Surrogates besides the special-effects budget feels downright chintzy. The script fails to grab you in even a one-liners-and-explosions kind of way, and even Willis can't sell the crappy dialogue well enough to get you on board with anything that happens in the story. It does look pretty cool, but not cool enough to make it interesting -- even for a summer action movie starring a seasoned pro. (89 mins.)

My Rating: *1/2

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU (2009)

Starring: Jennifer Connely, Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Scarlett Johansson, Ginnifer Goodwin, Ben Affleck, Justin Long & Bradley Cooper
Director: Ken Kwapis

You can reasonably expect that a romantic comedy based on a self-help book, which was itself based on a single line from an episode of Sex And the City, might not have anything new to say about the battle of the sexes -- especially when the title is as sickeningly hip as He's Just Not That Into You. And while Kwapis" movie certainly comes weighed down with observations and insights recycled from thousands of other romantic comedies, he at least manages to shape them into something entertaining, if not in any way essential.

If you know you're dealing with overly familiar dialogue, then you'd better put it in the mouths of actors who, through sheer personality, can do something unique with it, and hiring Goodwin as your ingenue starts you off on the right foot. As Gigi, a naïve twentysomething single girl unable to read the signs that the men she's interested in just aren't interested in her, Goodwin exudes positivity without being cloying, and sadness without being pitiful. The scenes charting her slow courtship with emotionally detached bar manager Alex (Long) are the best in the movie because the two have genuine chemistry -- they are easily the standouts of a large cast. That's not to say that any of the other actors embarrass themselves: Affleck shows off his laid-back charm; Cooper impresses as a cheating husband who stays likable even when he knows he's screwing up; and Johansson offers up another subtle variation on the carnal goddess archetype she's already perfected.

Kwapis" skill as a television director serves him well with this material -- he knows how to keep the multiple storylines moving, without sacrificing quality screen time for any of the performers. The movie hums along like a solidly built clock, but there's just nothing surprising or new -- anybody who gets ill at the prospect of sitting through a chick flick should avoid it at all costs. That said, there is something so thoroughly adequate about the whole project, it's hard to deny that it "works." There's tons of professionalism in this movie, but it lacks passion -- they should have called it "Like, Actually." (129 mins.)

My Rating: **

AIRPORT (1970)

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy & Maureen Stapleton
Director: George Seaton

Airport was widely lambasted by critics for its tried-and-true technique of showcasing a raft of Grand Hotel-style big-name box-office stars in a melodramatic thriller; a critic called it "the best film of 1944." But no one could argue with its success or its influence. Director/screenwriter George Seaton displayed a masterful old hand's touch for showcasing stock characters in a soap opera format, adapting Arthur Halley's blockbuster novel with Martin as the pilot and a cast top-heavy with stars. Airport won huge audiences and six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, with veteran Hayes, one of the first Oscar winners in 1932, winning a supporting award. The crowd-pleasing behemoth spawned almost a decade's worth of big-budget disaster films, including three inferior sequels, and then another round of disaster spoofs, beginning with 1980's Airplane! (137 mins.)

My Rating: ++1/2

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

THE UNBORN (2009)

Starring: Odette Yustman
Director: David S. Goyer

From the second we first see Casey Beldon (Yustman), it's obvious that something is terribly amiss. Jogging along a lonely park path, she has a bizarre encounter that chills her to the very core. Casey is being haunted by a dybbuk, a malevolent entity of Jewish folklore that has passed from this plane of existence, yet hasn't been allowed entry into the afterlife. Its sole mission is to gain reentry into our world by inhabiting human bodies. Less powerful dybbuks have the ability to possess the dead, but the stronger they become, the more likely they are to possess the living as well. When Casey's left eye starts changing color, a doctor informs her that such occurrences aren't uncommon in twins, and she begins looking into her past in an attempt to discover the truth about her origins. That investigation leads her all the way back to the mental hospital where her mother died, and into contact with a Holocaust survivor who may hold the key to unlocking the mystery that began in an operating room in Auschwitz. Enlisting the aid of the skeptical Rabbi Sendak (Gary Oldman) in order to comprehend the true powers of the dybbuk, Casey attempts to protect her friends from the murderous ghost while figuring out a way to defeat it. But the closer Casey comes to understanding the dybbuk's power, the more powerful -- and threatening -- the malevolent spirit becomes.

It is populated by a fairly talented cast that includes the likes of Oldman, Jane Alexander, and Carla Gugino, but none of them are given much to do since the true star of the film is the special effects. The surrealistic imagery is deeply unsettling from the opening scene, and only gets more intense as the movie gains momentum. And while the film isn't graphic in traditional cinematic terms, it bombards us with a steady stream of deeply horrific images that seem to be birthed from the darkest depths of the imagination. From ghostly kids to knife-wielding youngsters, skittering creepy-crawlies, and contorted monstrosities that seem inspired by John Carpenter's The Thing, we're witness to any number of unsettling creatures and concepts over the course of the film's short running time. As a result, it never feels compromised despite its more audience-friendly rating. And what more could a horror fan ask for than a spook-fest that feels pure in its intentions while taking full advantage of every opportunity to scare us silly? (86 mins.)

My Rating: *1/2

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (2009)

Starring: Denzel Washington & John Travolta
Director: Tony Scott

Surprisingly, in a summer full of action-packed blockbusters, this cracking remake may be the movie to beat for sheer popcorn-chomping thrills. New York City subway system dispatcher Walter Garber (Washington), recently demoted due to charges of bribery, is observing his control screen when he notices an anomaly -- the Pelham 123 has come to a standstill between stops, and the driver is unresponsive. The train has been hijacked by a trigger-happy gang of criminals -- or is that terrorists? -- led by Ryder (Travolta), who's just as quick to crack a joke as he is to execute a hostage with a hasty bullet between the eyes. Ryder wants ten million dollars in one hour, and for every minute the city doesn't deliver, he'll kill another hostage.

The visuals here are vintage Scott, and though the hyper-stylized opening shots of a neck-tattooed Travolta and company getting into place for the big event to the tune of Jay-Z's "99 Problems" (replete with shots of Luis Guzman looking like the long-lost fourth member of Run-DMC) may lead us to suspect that Scott is bordering on self-parody, once the action gets under way about 30 seconds later, there's no mistaking that we're in the hands of a true master. But Scott and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler's deliciously garish visuals aren't the only factors that make this movie a compulsively satisfying bit of summer pulp; Brian Helgeland's screenplay is about as tight as it could get without being written in shorthand, and unexpectedly subdued performances by Washington and Travolta ensure that the not-so-subtle nuances of the characters they portray don't derail the film by shifting our focus away from the rising tensions underground. Of course, anyone who's seen Travolta chew scenery as a bad guy knows he has a penchant for going over the top and another mile up, but while he's certainly having a blast as the F-bomb-dropping, stock-ticker-obsessed Ryder, he still feels dialed back from the cartoonish criminal excess of Swordfish and Face/Off. His wild-eyed antics give the film some of its funniest, and most terrifying, moments. Likewise, Washington's restrained performance as the disgraced Garber allows us to forget we're watching an Oscar-winning Hollywood heavyweight and simply identify with the character -- a crucial factor in keeping us actively involved in the story.

From the cast to the crew, everyone involved seems to be firing on all cylinders, though it's Helgeland whose contributions make this retread an unmitigated success. Considering what New York City has been through since Godey's original novel came out in the early '70s, the central concept of the movie may be even more relevant now than it was 30 years ago. By taking some well-placed jabs at the media, and pondering the difference between terrorism and unrepentant crime-for-profit, Helgeland innovates within a familiar framework and turns it into something fresh, vital, and timely. (106 mins.)

My Rating: **1/2

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

BROCKA'S "STARDOOM" (1971)

BROCKA'S "WANTED PERFECT MOTHER" (1970)- 1 of 2 Film Clip

BROCKA'S "TUBOG SA GINTO" (1971)

PX (1982)

Mahinhin Vs. Mahinhin (1981)

Pito Ang Asawa Ko (1974)

Patayin Mo Sa Sindak Si Barbara (1974)

Tanikala (1980)

MA.ISABEL LOPEZ in MGA NAKAW NA SANDALI

LAMPEL COJUANGCO in ALINDOG

GEORGE ESTREGAN in THE KILLER AIDS,the movie

Monday, August 2, 2010

NOBEL SON (2007)

Starring: Alan Rickman, Mary Steenburgen, Danny DeVito, Bill Pullman & Eliza Dushku
Director: Randall Miller

Perhaps one of the greatest things about being a movie lover is running across one of those rare, undiscovered gems -- the twisting thriller with the audacity to demand that you actually use your brain to solve the mystery, or the outrageous comedy that was just a bit ahead of its time and didn't find an audience until it was long gone from theaters. Nobel Son is none of those things.

Philandering chemistry professor and recent Nobel prize winner Eli Michaelson (Rickman) is in Stockholm to collect his award when he and his wife, Sarah (Steenburgen), receive word that their son, Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) -- a Game Boy-obsessed college student writing his Ph.D. thesis on cannibalism -- has been kidnapped. If they ever hope to see Barkley alive again, Eli and Sarah are to drop two million dollars in unmarked bills in the trunk of a display car at a local shopping mall. Later, after the drop has been made, it quickly becomes apparent that this isn't your typical kidnapping. As the mystery deepens and spacey detective Max Mariner (Pullman) struggles to pinpoint a suspect, the fact that Eli was hated by nearly everyone he ever met leads the detective to suspect everyone from the prickly professor's own son to a flaky local artist who goes by the name City Hall (Dushku).

Directed like the coked-up, sopping wet fever dream of an ADHD film student who flushed all of his Ritalin, Nobel Son is hands-down one of the most obnoxious movies in recent memory. In the opening minutes, Paul oakenfold's throbbing, energetic techno score seems like exactly the kind of movie glue that might just hold this mess together and keep it moving. Then the realization sets in that it never goes away -- even in the dialogue scenes -- at which point it becomes not just distracting, but grotesquely overbearing. As if an entire movie set to 120 bpm wasn't annoying enough (perhaps, like being handed special glasses when you purchase a ticket to a 3-D film, audiences going to see Nobel Son should be given a pacifier and a glow stick before entering the theater), the fact that a talented cast is given little to do as the camera whooshes, swooshes, and cranes around them makes the entire experience truly frustrating. Of all of these actors, Rickman is given the most to do as the cruel, pompous laureate whose "genius side of the brain is so big that it swallowed up the civilized side," and while Steenburgen and Pullman have one or two fun character beats, the rest of the cast seems to pop in for their quirky cameos before vanishing almost as quickly as they appeared.

If a thriller is going to be "clever," it pays for the filmmakers to exercise a little restraint so the audience can have some room to reflect on the story as it twists and turns to a satisfying conclusion. Nobel Son does the exact opposite, straining to force cleverness where there is none, and then attempting to dazzle by resorting to the sort of cinematic tricks that even a coked-up, hyperactive film student would recognize as cliché. (110 mins.)

My Rating: *1/2

THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S (1945)

Starring: Bing Crosby & Ingrid Bergman
director: Leo McCarey

Amiable if meandering sequel to GOING MY WAY, with Father O'Malley assigned to a run-down parish where Bergman is the Sister Superior. Bing introduces the sing "Aren't You Glad You're You?"

Also directed by Leo McCarey, this film has Bing Crosby returning as the modern-minded priest once again up against a headstrong opponent, Mother Superior (played by Bergman). while not as memorable as his encounter with hard-headed older priest Barry Fitzgerald in the first film, this relationship---and the movie as a whole---does have its viewing rewards. (126 mins.)

My Rating: ***

NIGHT AND DAY (1946)

Starring: Cary Grant
Director: Michael Curtiz

A life of Cole Porter, told without truth or wit. there are, however, a lot of songs, including Mary Martin singing "My Heart Belongs To Daddy." Grant also sings, with considerable talent. Directed way off the beam by Michael Curtiz.

There was no way Hollywood could make an accurate biography of Cole Porter in those days---it had to play footsie with his ruthless social lionizing and sexual proclivities---but the film stands out as a remarkable document of the performers and performances available to the cameras at the time. Where else can you see Martin doing "My Heart Belongs To Daddy" and Monty Wholley declaiming "Miss Otis Regrets"?

Music only worthy aspect of this fabricated biography-drama, stiffly played by Grant, who even sings "You're The Top." (128 mins.)

My Rating: **1/2

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

STIGMATA (1999)

Starring; Patricia Arquette & Gabriel Byrne
Director: Rupert Wainwright

Lights flash, water drips, doves flutter, statues cry blood, and one by one Arquette is inflicted by the wounds of Christ. That's about all anyone needs to know about Stigmata, yet another attempt to spook audiences by exposing them to eerie images of religious anomaly, with the fate of humanity ambiguously in the balance. What better actor to navigate this dark landscape than Byrne, who seems to lurk in the shadows of one spiritually skewed flick after another. Byrne plays the investigator-priest sent all over the planet to debunk Virgin Mary sightings and other claims that henpeck the Catholic Church, here corruptly embodied by Jonathan Pryce's power-hungry Cardinal Houseman. Watching him scurry to squelch evidence of Christ's true gospel, among the many absurdities the lazy script asks viewers to swallow, one wonders why Pryce agreed to play such a caricature in piffle like this. It may provide a cool, cheap thrill to hear a guttural male voice speaking Italian from Arquette's lips, and it may be superficially chilling to see her scrawl chapter and verse in an ancient language her goth Pittsburgh hairstylist couldn't possibly understand. But for a genuinely disquieting experience, it's probably better to stick to the inspiration for Stigmata and a dozen other such knockoffs: 1973's The Exorcist. (102 mins.)

My Rating; *1/2

A SINGLE MAN (2009)

Starring: Colin Firth
Director: Tom Ford

George Falconer (Firth) feels lost. Not only is he still grieving the death of his longtime companion, Jim (Matthew Goode), but he's also a Brit teaching English at a California college. He's so distraught with heartbreak that he's decided to kill himself, and proceeds to get all his affairs in order while carrying on with what otherwise would be a normal day. He gives an unusually forceful lecture to his class, revealing enough that a perceptive student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), senses something is wrong with the professor; collects his important financial papers from his bank; buys bullets for a handgun he owns; and makes a visit to his best friend (Julianne Moore). But throughout these methodical preparations, George keeps running into people -- a colleague's daughter, a attractive gay hustler, and the sympathetic Kenny -- who offer him glimpses of why he should stay alive.

Ford -- with co-screenwriter David Scearce -- has fashioned a remarkably good screenplay from Christopher Isherwood's novel. George is the kind of man who's very comfortable with himself, but very uncomfortable at how others will react to him -- he has an understanding that some people will never accept him because of his sexuality. His inherent Britishness makes it easy for him to hide his pain from his associates, and Firth inhabits the role with formidable grace and ease. It's pretty much impossible to believably play a clinically depressed character and make him charismatic at the same time, but Firth does it. Our hero isn't charismatic in the regular sense, but Firth expresses his intensity, intelligence, and deeply felt love for Jim with such naked honesty that it's impossible not to care for George -- to genuinely fear that he will choose death over life.

Firth dominates the film, but he's far from the only actor who gets to shine. Moore has what amounts to an extended cameo, but her typical excellence shines through as Charley -- George's boozy best friend and onetime lover. Jon Kortajarena impresses as Carlos, a young hottie George flirts with while buying gin, and with a minimum of screen time, Goode makes us understand why George would be so devoted to Jim.

Ford deserves much credit for the script, but his directorial instincts, while ambitious, don't necessarily serve the material. He overdirects, occasionally fading from color to black-and-white and back again during a single shot, and using vastly different lighting on characters that are in the same scene with each other. He's obviously good with the actors -- or, at the very least, smart enough to hire exceptionally talented performers and get out of their way -- but he pushes too hard on the visuals, something that afflicts many first-time directors, and something all the good ones outgrow.

A Single Man offers evidence that ford has a career in movies if he wants it, but it's most memorable for giving the criminally underappreciated Firth the chance to reassert himself as one of the most talented actors of his generation. (99 mins.)

My Rating: ***

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

CRAZY HEART (2009)

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall & Colin Farrell
Director: Scott Cooper

At one point in the movie, 57-year-old alcoholic, down-on-his-luck country singer/songwriter Bad Blake (Bridges) explains that the great songs sound like you've already heard them. There's much truth in that statement, and it's an apt description of the movie's charm as well.

A onetime country star who wrote a number of popular tunes, Bad's career is currently in the dumps. He's on a tour traveling hundreds of miles a day in his trusty, beat-up truck in order to play in bowling alleys and bars with a different set of local musicians every night. His diet consists primarily of whiskey and the easily seduced members of his aging fan base. However, things change when he sits down for an interview with struggling young music writer and single mom Jean (Gyllenhaal). The two begin a tentative affair, and not long after that, Bad's manager calls with an offer to have him open a big show for Tommy Sweet (Farrell), a onetime member of Bad's backup band who's now a new-country superstar.

There isn't much pressing drama in Crazy Heart, but that's fine because the key to the film's success is Bridges. Looking and sounding a great deal like Kris Kristopherson, Bridges exudes a lived-in weariness. We see in equal measure how four bad marriages and a long time without a hit have turned him into an alcoholic mess, but we also see the talent and the inner fire that keeps him going even when it looks like his body may be too rundown to continue. On top of everything else, he does his own singing, and his voice has a gravelly authenticity.

The original songs he sings, composed by a number of pro songwriters -- including one of the film's producers, T-Bone Burnett -- sure sound like country standards. All the tunes are catchy and quotable -- most especially Bad's biggest hit, "Falling and Flying"; this is a rare case where the soundtrack alone will work just as well as the movie.

With its tale of an alcoholic faded country star looking for redemption, it's impossible to watch Crazy Heart and not think of Tender Mercies, a fact Cooper is quite aware of. Instead of running from the comparisons, he bravely embraces them by casting that movie's Oscar-winning star, Robert Duvall, as Bad's oldest friend, and it's yet another testament to Crazy Heart that it can stand on its own alongside that classic. Duvall -- who also is credited as a producer on the movie -- gets a pair of scenes to play with Bridges, and their low-key naturalism together is not only affecting for us, but should serve as a lesson for any young actor on the skills required to maintain a decades-long career. There are no histrionics, just two fictional people made flesh and blood before our eyes.

Crazy Heart is certainly familiar. It doesn't surprise with its story, but it surprises with the details in Bridges exquisite performance, and in the honest, plain-spoken way it touches on familiar themes like friendship, redemption, and love. (111 mins.)

My Rating: ***

UP IN THE AIR (2009)

Starring: George Clooney
Director: Jason Reitman

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) makes his living personally handing out pink slips -- he's the top hatchet man at a company that other companies hire when they are downsizing. And since business is booming, his job keeps him on the go constantly. He flies all across the country, staying in a series of nice hotels. And although this itinerant lifestyle prevents him from having any kind of stable, regular life, this doesn't bother him in the slightest -- he's thrilled to be a boy in a traveling bubble. During one particular layover, he strikes up a conversation with Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow savvy traveler. They bond over the ins and outs of various airlines and hotels, and quickly fall into bed. By morning, they are figuring out when their schedules will allow them to meet up again, even though they both make it clear that there are no strings attached.

When Ryan arrives back in the home office, he meets no-nonsense career-oriented twentysomething Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a fast-rising up-and-comer who wants to change the company's practices and save millions by having the staff fire people remotely via webcams. Furious at the thought of losing a lifestyle he's grown quite comfortable with, he convinces his boss (Jason Bateman) to let him take Natalie on a few trips so that she can learn what it's really like to fire someone.

She learns the ins and outs of dealing with people who've been given the worst news of their lives -- how to handle them firmly but calmly, while serving up a few inspirational platitudes. Clooney brings to these sequences a maturity we haven't seen in his other work -- honestly, if you had to be fired you would want Ryan to do it. But it's precisely the character's ability to comfortably cut ties that makes him a loner in his private life. He conveys Ryan's lone wolf persona not as a defense against life -- a mask to cover up some hidden pain -- but simply as just the way the guy is. That makes his slow transformation -- his realization that Alex might be something more than just another friend with benefits -- all the more realistic.

For its first half, Up In The Air combines the workplace comedy with the road movie, and it's an engaging, entertaining melding of those two durable genres. But where the film surprises is by changing gears halfway through into a bittersweet family comedy. Ryan's sister (Melanie Lynskey) is getting married, and, for possibly the first time in his life, he wants to make a real connection with his siblings. This follows through on yet another plot strand -- Ryan's attempt to make a living as a self-help guru. He has a side gig lecturing about how to manage your life, and he stresses that the weight of relationships in our lives slows us down when life is all about moving forward. Up In The Air is about Ryan learning what's true and what isn't about this speech he's been giving for years.

Reitman's film is so ambitious you can't shake the feeling he's trying to create "The Great American Movie," a summation of where we are right now at the close of the 21st century's first decade. Up In The Air is so truthful, poignant, and entertaining, so assured with its adherence to classical Hollywood structure, that he just might have pulled it off. (109 mins.)

My Rating: ***

PARIS, TEXAS (1983)

Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell & Nastassja Kinski
Director: Wim Wenders

Paris, Texas is a haunting vision of personal pain and universal suffering, with Harry Dean Stanton impeccable as the weary wanderer who returns after four years to reclaim his son (Hunter Carson) and search for his wife (Nastassja Kinski). It is the kind of motion picture we rarely see, one that attempts to say something about America and its people - and succeeds.

Oblique, self-satisfied, and slow, like all of Sam
Shepard's writing, but distinguished by fine performances and rich Southwestern atmosphere by director Wenders and cinematograher Robby Miller. this won raves from many critics, so it may be a matter of personal taste.

An often involving, sprawling odyssey against sun-baked landscapes that's another journey to writer Shepard's male-female sexual war zone. A man, missing for several years, is reunited with his brother's family (Stockwell), who've been raising the son he abandoned when his wife ran off. The film's most touching when it creates how the careworn man re-established a relationship with his son. (150 mins.)

My Rating: ***

STATE OF PLAY (2009)

Starring: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams & Helen Mirren
Director: Kevin Macdonald

Director Macdonald successfully revives the 1970s-style paranoid thriller with State Of Play, a taut and assured reworking of the 2003 BBC series of the same name. Paring down the original six-hour series to a lean 127 minutes, Macdonald and screenwriters Carnahan, Gilroy and Ray barely give the audience a moment to breathe as a veteran reporter and a doe-eyed blogger race through the streets of Washington, D.C., to uncover an ominous political conspiracy.

The story gets under way with two seemingly unrelated incidents: the morning after a low-level drug dealer and a pizza deliveryman are gunned down in a dark alley, a congressman's aide is pushed in front of a moving subway train. When the latter is reported as a suicide by the media, speculations of foul play begin to emerge after the aide's boss, rising U.S. congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck), tearfully announces her death on live television. Collins' old college roommate is Cal McAffrey (Crowe), a reporter for the Washington Globe, who openly resents the preferential treatment given to inexperienced underlings likeWashington Globe Capitol Hill blogger Della Frye (McAdams). As the chairman of a committee overseeing defense spending, Congressman Collins is currently on a campaign against rogue government contractors profiting from the "Muslim terror gold rush" abroad. Beholden to no one, these contractors seem increasingly poised to make their presence known in the U.S., where they are gradually gaining a foothold. When McAffrey discovers that the deceased aide was in fact Congressman Collins' primary researcher in the case against the government contractors, suspicions of conspiracy lead him on a treacherous investigation pointing to corruption at the highest levels of government.

State Of Play is the kind of thriller that starts with a bang and throws in enough twists to tie your brain in knots as the layers of deception are stripped away to pose some genuinely frightening questions: Are we already at the point where independent defense contractors can gun down American citizens within the U.S. without fear of repercussion? If so, how could this have happened while U.S. citizens remain fatally unaware? And what could entice soldiers who once defended their country abroad to now set their crosshairs on innocent Americans? Is it really all about the money?

While the primary players are all in top form, it's supporting performances by Mirren, Penn and Bateman that make State Of Play compulsively watchable. Bateman in particular injects the film with a healthy dose of humor and energy in the third act, when he appears in the role of a pill-head PR agent who could hold the key to blowing the entire investigation wide open. A rare treat for cinema lovers starved for the days when scruffy newspaper reporters fearlessly sniffed out corruption, State Of Play delivers the kind of conspiratorial thrills that would have made Pakula proud. (127 mins.)

My Rating: ***1/2


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

THE CAPTURE (1950)

Starring: Lew Ayres & Teresa Wright
Director: John Sturges

Virtually ignored at the time of its release, this film has built up a small but enthusiastic following since its lapse into public domain. American oil man (Ayres) kills a coworker whom he suspects of robbery. Thinking it over, he wonders whether or not the man was innocent. He seeks out his victim's widow, played by Teresa Wright. They fall in love and marry, which does nothing to soothe Ayres' guilty conscience. When he discovers who was actually behind the robbery, he goes after the real culprit, who is accidentally killed before justice can be done. Falsely accused of murder, he now fully understands the untenable position of the man he'd killed so long before. The Capture was produced by Niven Busch, the then-husband of Wright.

The Capture is a treat for viewers looking for an intriguing drama that they haven't seen time and time again. Relatively obscure, thanks to its financial failure when first released, it is a lean, crisply directed thriller that plays with interesting questions or morality, innocence and guilt. Playing at times like a Western, at other times like a mystery, and at others like a romance, it perhaps tries a little too hard to be all three types and thus becomes slightly unfocused; but most viewers will be adequately rewarded by its assets and forgive it for being perhaps a little overly ambitious in trying to bridge these genres. Certainly there will be no complaints about its cast, with an appropriately guilty Ayres and a typically luminous Wright leading the way and a dependable supporting cast. Busch's screenplay is well constructed, setting up its situations with a sure hand, utilizing the flashback structure most effectively, and raising moral issues in a manner than both supports the story and adds depth to the characters. Sturges' direction is spot-on, and there's fine cinematography from Edward J. Conjager that adds to the atmosphere and tension. Thos seeking something a little off the beaten path should keep an eye out for the Capture. (67 mins.)

My Rating: ***

THE INTERNATIONAL (2009)

Starring: Clive Owen & Naomi Watts
Director: Tom Tykwer

This taut political thriller has a lot going for it: an elaborate, ripped-from-the-headlines plot about political intrigue and corporate hegemony; intense performances by the very concerned-looking Owen and Watts; and a perfectly orchestrated, impossibly awesome shoot-out staged in the Guggenheim. You'd think that all this would be enough to give any movie a solid thumbs-up, but despite all the points it gains for furrowed brows and kick-ass gunfights, the film loses quite a few for being dry as burnt toast.

The rather complex story centers on Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Owen) and New York Assistant DA Eleanor Whitman (Watts), who stumble upon a corporate-backed geopolitical conspiracy stemming from an institution called the International Bank of Business and Credit. The two embark on an investigation into the IBBC, only to find it jacked into governments and corporations all over the world, with the idea of bringing the powerful entity to justice growing less and less realistic as their quest lands them in New York, Milan, Istanbul, and Berlin. Before the credits roll, the two have dealt with just about everything in the conspiracy thriller playbook, including money laundering, former Soviet loyalists, club-legged hitmen, the Italian mob, Middle Eastern war profiteering, and an old-school, shot-at-the-podium political assassination.

Weaving all that (and much, much more) into a coherent story was probably a difficult task, and while it's possible that it makes sense on paper -- with all the dots connected and the plot holes closed -- that doesn't mean it's enjoyable on film. There's such a massive assortment of characters, locations, loyalties, and interests at play, the narrative continually loses cohesion, as viewers inevitably lose interest. Probably more important, though, is that even the coolest web of seditious, above-the-law power brokering would seem flat without compelling characters, and no matter how much we know they're capable of, the stars just aren't given the chance here to make us care. (118 mins.)

My Rating: ***

Thursday, April 8, 2010

BODY OF LIES (2008)

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio & Russell Crowe
Director: Ridley Scott

Scott's Body Of Lies follows the increasingly complex machinations of CIA agent Roger Ferris (DiCaprio), who begins the film as a field agent in the Middle East attempting to secure information that would stop upcoming terrorist attacks. Ferris maintains regular phone contact with his boss Ed Hoffman (Crowe), a CIA bigwig -- forever on his cell phone -- dispensing directives while attending to domestic duties like kiddie soccer games. After a promotion, Ferris becomes the Agency's number one man in Jordan, quickly earning the trust of Jordanian intelligence official Hani (Mark Strong in a scene-stealing performance) -- a relationship that Hoffman compromises in an attempt to catch one of the world's most feared terrorists.

All of these characters come to life thanks to William Monahan's airtight adaptation of David Ignatious' novel, and the uniformly excellent performances. In addition to serving up some deliciously funny one-liners, Monahan employs a simple step-by-step construction in order to tell this remarkably complicated espionage tale -- a story chock-full of divided loyalties and paranoia. The audience always knows exactly as much as Ferris does, a fact that keeps his motivations -- and therefore the entire plot -- clear. As for the actors, DiCaprio is, in no uncertain terms, a movie star; and this is a star turn. He's certainly credible as an action hero, but he also communicates intelligence, fear, and an inherent morality in the scenes between the big explosions. This accomplishment makes the chases and gunfights all the more entertaining because we actually care about the person whose life is constantly at risk. Crowe complements DiCaprio as the Aussie's strong physical presence plays off DiCaprio's inherent softness (no matter how much time he spends in the weight room, he will always be a baby face).

Scott's movies have always betrayed his formative years in advertising; his films always offer loads of surface pleasure, but they rarely have strong ideas. The crisply photographed and edited Body of Lies reveals some ambition, for while it certainly works as pure entertainment, this tale of a good man trying to extract himself from an impossible situation offers some commentary on America's feelings about being in Iraq. Fortunately, Scott never hammers this point home, and the result isn't a lecture about American foreign policy, but a smartly updated old-fashioned espionage thriller. (129 mins.)

My Rating; **1/2