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10.25.2008

A Treasury of Gems and Zircons

Jeanne and I hit a matinee yesterday of Quarantine. While waiting in line to pay $20.00 (!) for a 4:20 showing (since when did they make 4:00 the cut-off?), I realized I'd seen many of the films on the digital marquee. And that they'd been, for the most part, wholly pedestrian. And also that it had really been some time since I left a theater feeling as though I'd seen something even remotely resonant.

You ever feel that way?

Well, here's a short summary of the stuff I've seen in the last few weeks. Probably more tricks in this bunch than treats.

Quarantine

Grade: B-


John Erick Dowdle's film is a series of hits and misses. He wins points for building the pathos early in the piece. I enjoyed the exposition in the first twenty minutes and the chemistry shared between horror standards Jay Hernandez and Jennifer Carpenter. The hand-held camera lent a layer of authenticity to these scenes and the first act does a fine enough job in both establishing our central protagonists and asking us to care about them at least a little.

The L.A. apartment building itself is rendered well here. I could see this as an attraction down in Orlando in a few years for Universal's Halloween Horror Nights. It's an old building with strange architectural signatures. The rooms are dimly lit and cloaked in shadow, the corners of each dripping with menace. There's a scene where Hernandez's character Jake has to break down a door, and you just don't want him to do it. Pandora's box and all that.

He finds a monster on the other side. An old lady named Mrs. Espinoza who, given her advanced age, should be a docile subject to deal with. But not this one. She's wearing a bib of blood on her nightgown like she just sucked down a baby deer at a New England lobster boil. Lady is seriously messed up, and she's got a set of choppers on her.

The story unravels when all hell breaks loose. In the second act, the piece devolves into a standard "pick-'em-off" fright fest and most of the decisions that are made by the living are questionable, at best. It falls prey to one of my most despised zombie-movie cliches--people standing near windows and thinking they're safe. Come on people!

There are two or three genuinely scary moments in this film. And I applaud our cameraman, Scott, for his use of the tools of his trade. Very innovative approach to zombie control, and I love his compulsive wiping of the lens when he's done.

That said, it end abruptly and with only a few clues (Armageddon Virus--watch out, ya'll!) to the real story at the center of the film. It's an interesting vignette, though, that is worth it on DVD. Which brings us to:
Body of Lies

Grade: C+




Leo DiCaprio can act, and he's pretty good in this film. As Roger Ferris, he runs circles around a dumpy Russell Crowe here, which was more than a little surprising. This film starts off with a bang, and if Ridley Scott had let it play out in the trenches and ditched the loves story, he might have had something special here.

Ferris is the man in the streets for the CIA in Jordan. He's mining his contacts and monitoring the terrorist safe houses. Much of the technology here is neat to look at, but doesn't add a lick to the storytelling. In fact, this piece is at its best when the actors get a chance to emote. Mark Strong steals a few scenes here as Jordanian security czar Hani, and he and DiCaprio share some good moments on screen.

There is a cracker jack car chase and an RPG explosion sequence that are pretty amazing. I don't know how Scott got that footage, but it's a triumph, to be sure. Otherwise, it's a film without a definitive political message. It's a vehicle with too many distractions (the afore-mentioned love story among them) and not enough character development for our bad guys to make us care much in the climax. I mean, Omar Sadiki is a bad guy who earned a graduate degree here, in America. Dude is freaking Tarheel, for heaven's sake! Why not spend more time on him? The pay-off would have been much better.

Oh, and the payoff? (Spoiler alert!) America runs to the rescue at the last minute. Just like in The Kingdom. Just like in every other Hollywood vehicle. But what happens in real life?

People perish, and the footage ends up on the internet. I thought Scott was going to depict that in the conclusion, and the film would have had more credibility (it's sad to say) in that event.

All in all, catch it on DVD for Leo's performance. He's very good here. Which leads me too...

W

Grade: B-




Jeanne didn't like this movie at all. I was slightly more charitable, because I went in understanding that Oliver Stone probably couldn't eat a salad in under two hours. The man's movies are slow--he has a deliberate pace to his films, and he builds toward the pay-off with care.

I was surprised here. Stone was sympathetic toward George W., portraying him as an ambitious dolt with single-minded determination to win Daddy's approval (apparently Jeb is the Golden Boy--sheesh!).

Josh Brolin is so good here. It really makes me want to run out and rent this gem. This, my friends, is a great film. Brolin plays this role with such an uncanny presence. I mean, we've seen George W. on television for eight years. Like him or hate him, we certainly all know him. And Brolin inhabits him. It's eerie.

Stone flogs a Robin Hood and his Merry Men comparison for all it's worth here, and Bush's cronies come off looking bad. Cheney (played impeccably by Richard Dreyfuss) is evil in the flesh. Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) is a dangerous man whose war-room input put America in Iraq. And Thandie Newton is barely recognizable here as Condie Rice. And she does a bad job. I have a hard time believing Rice is such a sycophant. Again, I only see what the spinmasters show us, though.

Over a dozen people got up and left the movie. Most of them left just after the recreation of a 2004 address where Bush said we'd be out of Iraq in the Spring of 2005. In a military city that has seen its share of casualties, many here are sick of the Iraq conflict. I think that clip on the screen might have been too much for them to digest.

That, or it was just too long.

It's worth a look in the theaters and I think I'll probably enjoy it more with age. Oh, and I do appreciate Stone's most obvious metaphor--Bush as a baseball player. He does a masterful job of setting that up, and it makes the conclusion all the more impactful.

Lakewood Terrace

Grade: B
This movie is about obsession, not racial tension. Samuel Jackson is excellent here. He plays a driven father and widower. His wife died in the presence of a white man (her boss), and Jackson's Abel Turner has (despite no other plot clues pointing to this) assumed that the two were having an affair.
His wife was a black woman and her boss was a white man. There's the obsession. Turner postulates that interracial relationships aren't natural and, when white Chris (Patrick Wilson) and black Lisa (Kerry Washington) move in next door, he immediately grows cool toward the couple.
This movie is about conflict, and no one does that better than Jackson. He capers and sneers his way through the scenes here, but underrated director Neil LaBute also gives him a chance to show his good qualities. He is a good father, and he is a good provider. Unfortunately, he's also a sociopath and his law enforcement methods are questionable at best.
Abel and Chris go back and forth, one-upping each other in terms of aggression. Abel has security lights that keep the Mattsons up at night, so Chris installs brighter ones. It goes on and on, and it's uncomfortable to watch.
The plot gets a little convoluted in the third act, but it still is satisfying and, given what we know about Turner, plausible. I liked this one. I think it has a lot to recommend it.
Whew! Done. Sorry about the long post. But all this has done has made me pose the question: Is there anything worth seeing out there?

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