For the most part, Hollywood counterterrorism thrillers have focused primarily on threats to the United States itself. They may feature exotic overseas locations for danger and spice, but when it comes down to the finale, the ultimate target almost always has to be on home turf. Perhaps the assumption is that domestic audiences simply won’t care otherwise. In Peter Berg’s The Kingdom—which takes the jittery, sun-blanched look and thoughtful mien of Syriana and grafts it onto a taut cop-procedural framework—the action is all abroad, with its FBI protagonists under watchful eyes in a suspicious land and nobody under any illusions that anything they do will dramatically change a dangerous world. America feels lonely and faraway here. The astounding credit sequence (the year’s best so far) sounds the alarm early with its ingenious animated condensing of seven decades of Saudi-American history—this isn’t just a thriller where viewers will be left feeling warm and assured at the end.
It opened wide today. You can read the full review at Film Journal International.
In Helvetica, Gary Hustwit’s medium-cool documentary on the most famous—or at least the most recognizable—typeface in the world, the filmmaker encounters that knotty problem faced by many like-minded chroniclers: how to make the utterly mundane interesting, or at the very least relevant. This is an especially pressing issue when one considers the history and affect of the typeface Helvetica, which although only invented about a half-century ago, very quickly attained an almost complete cultural penetration, to the point where it has become practically invisible, even to people who notice things like typefaces. It’s simply everywhere, from corporate logos to album covers to t-shirts to flyers advertising weight-loss cures, a point that Hustwit makes time and time again throughout the film, using interstitial footage of random Helvetica-employing signage in various urban centers—because, after all, it seems quite an urban typeface.
A small, stray mutt with bright eyes and perky ears who looked like a Samoyed-husky mix, Laika — the sole passenger on-board the USSR’s Sputnik II satellite in November 1957 — was the first living Earth creature sent into orbit. Judging from photographs and her treatment in Nick Abadzis’s gloriously humane but comparatively unsentimental new graphic novel, Laika, she was a good first representative, too, being bright, tough and cute as a button: a survivor. Not much is known about her before she was captured and brought into the Soviet space program, not to mention that once scientists closed the hermetically sealed capsule (filled with equipment to monitor her vitals, so they could have an idea how a human would respond), there was no plan to get her out again.
I interviewed Abadzis about Laika (the dog and book) for Publishers Weekly. You can read the Q&A here.
“This is the last winter. Total collapse. Hope dies.” So writes an environmental researcher in a previously untouched part of Alaskan wilderness now being opened up for oil exploration in Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter. Using the doomsaying of climate change prognosticators as an effectively menacing backdrop, more so even than the bleak chill of the Alaskan tundra, Fessenden’s film drops a knot of oil workers into an isolated research station and watches what happens as everyone realizes that something inexplicable is happening all around them. It’s a horror film that sneaks up on you with an effectively unsettling and brooding atmosphere before unleashing an apocalyptic fury.
It opened today in New York City. You can read the full review at filmcritic.com.
Although Paul Haggis’ gut-punch of a story, In the Valley of Elah, is the first truly great narrative film about the Iraq War, it only spends a total of maybe five minutes there. The rest of the time, Elah is back in the U.S., dealing with all the stomach-churning consequences of what the country has sent young men over the sea to do. For this war story, combat — that terrifying adrenaline high that changes many soldiers forever — would be a distraction. The film comes at the war elliptically, immersing viewers in a world of soldiers, veterans, military bases, and civilian hangers-on, where President Bush is always pontificating from a nearby radio or television and everyone gets their check, directly or indirectly, from the Pentagon.
It’s now in a too-limited release. You can read the full review at filmcritic.com.
New on DVD
It’s hard to remember now the whooshing sighs of disappointment from his fans that greeted John Woo in 1996 when, after so many half-steps and mis-starts, he made his big Hollywood debut with the stolen-nuke thriller Broken Arrow. Toning down his trademark mix of ultra-violent flourishes and teary-eyed humanism, Woo concentrated on doing a by-the-book mid-’90s action flick that was generic in the extreme but raked in the money. The next year, though, Woo proved it had all just been an extraordinarily canny maneuver to allow him to make Face/Off, possibly the greatest, and definitely the most exuberant, action film to come out of the studio system in that decade.
Face/Off came out this week in a nice 2-DVD special edition. The full review is at filmcritic.com.
John Turturro’s dream project Romance & Cigarettes is a gutter-style jukebox musical with chutzpah to spare and which doesn’t know when to quit. It’s all here: Singing garbagemen! Catfight in a SoHo lingerie store! Hot-to-trot Kate Winslet as a scorchingly foul-mouthed Irish hussy. Toe-tapping Christopher Walken in full strutting peacock mode, driving an old Detroit beater with a license plate reading “BoDiddley.” A wife screaming at her husband, recently discovered cheating, “I trim your nose hair!” Family, infidelity, and a basketful of pop tunes for everyone to sing along to — Ute Lemper to Connie Francis to Bruce Springsteen to James Brown to Tom Jones to….
It opened this week in New York. The full review is at filmcritic.com.
As the affably larcenous and willing-to-please foil to Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Jeff Garlin has it easier than just about anybody on the show, usually having to do little more than spread his arms and protest with a baffled “Whaaat?!” or “Come ahn!” to get a laugh. David panics, Garlin gripes; it’s a good mix. What works well for a sidekick, of course, is usually night and day from what works for a lead. This issue crops up repeatedly in I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, directed, written by, and starring Garlin, who ambles the streets of Chicago, bouncing from rejection to odd (but funny) scenario to rejection again with the same resigned air. The laughs come, but with hardly anybody able to get a rise out of this guy, they’re more like quiet chuckles when they could be explosive.
You have to wonder if the manuscript for The Uncommon Reader had been just sitting in Alan Bennett’s trunk gathering dust for years, its every attempt at publication rejected by publishers prior to the success of last year’s film The Queen, after which gently entertaining tales about the Queen Mother told from her point of view became much more salable. Whatever the case may be, Bennett’s novella is a charming little diversion that will leave Angolphiles sighing with pleasure and most everyone else grinning, if a touch underwhelmed.