Friday, June 22, 2007

Movies opening this week

1408 (John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, dir. Mikael Hafstrom)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
As a dedicated Stephen King fan, I am well-acquainted with all of the awful, awful films based on his work (and that's just among the ones I've seen). Since nearly every one of his novels has already been filmed, some more than once, producers end up at the well of the short stories more and more often, most of which can't sustain a feature film (and some not even a TV episode, as the mediocre Nightmares & Dreamscapes series proved). I never thought 1408 was a particularly memorable story, although it had a few creepy elements, and it certainly never seemed like a candidate for a movie treatment. Re-reading the story before seeing the movie only confirmed this opinion. So I went in not expecting much, and was pleasantly surprised simply in finding a competent, often effective movie, thanks mostly to Cusack. So even though I'd recommend this film to King fans, it's clearly on the lower end of the scale when it comes to King adaptations: better than, say, Children of the Corn or The Mangler, but not nearly in the league of Misery or Carrie. Wide release

Evan Almighty (Steve Carell, Morgan Freeman, Lauren Graham, dir. Tom Shadyac)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It's sad that Steve Carell has already stooped to making mainstream crap like this before really establishing his own presence as the lead in more distinctive fare. He did bring a few laughs to this movie, though, so I suppose that's something. Jonah Hill (who is everywhere these days) also had some nice, understated funny moments, and because I am a fan of stupid puns I liked that Evan's wife was named Joan (of ark, get it?), and also that they resisted the impulse to ever point that out directly to the audience. But seriously, that was probably the best thing about the movie. Wide release

A Mighty Heart (Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi, dir. Michael Winterbottom)
This seems to have become a very polarizing film, although the reviews are positive overall. I've read some really harsh ones from critics I respect, including the Weekly's own Mike D'Angelo, Las Vegas CityLife's Jeannette Catsoulis and Slant's Ed Gonzalez. I understand the criticisms to a point - this is clearly a film about Mariane Pearl rather than Daniel Pearl, and maybe she comes off as a little self-centered to be producing a movie that's basically about how awesome she is. And, yes, Angelina Jolie is a ginormous star and all of those tabloid stories about her adopting orphans and jetting around the globe with Brad Pitt may distract you from appreciating the movie on its own terms. But I don't see how that's the movie's fault. I mean, if Jolie had given a bad or overly showy performance, okay, but she does quite a good job and is almost always understated (save one scene that critics seem to either love or hate), and if you can't get Us Weekly out of your mind while watching the movie then I think that's your problem. When we watch movies from 40, 50 years ago, are we distracted by the gossip and scandals that surrounded famous actors back then? Of course not; most of the time we are not even aware of it. I don't think it's fair to fault Jolie or the filmmakers for a passing fascination that will not last nearly as long as the movie will.

That said, this is not a performance that should catapult Jolie to the Oscars - it's effective within the framework of the film, but it's no better than Panjabi's as Pearl's fellow Wall Street Journal reporter or Irfan Khan's as the dogged Pakistani police officer who leads the investigation into the missing reporter. Winterbottom focuses on the minutiae and turns the film into a procedural rather than a political treatise, which is another thing people have criticized but which I found fascinating. Yes, you know the outcome before the movie starts, but watching how relentlessly the characters pursue the kidnappers in the face of enormous obstacles is both sad and touching. At any rate, it's the same feeling that drove United 93, which nearly every critic loved. This is a much better film than Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo, which was a clumsy mix of documentary and narrative, and fairly heavy-handed. Here he simply presents what happens, and lets the political realities intrude when they are relevant. What happened to Daniel Pearl was the result of all sorts of geopolitical forces, but this movie is about what those forces really mean on a personal level, and at that it is quite effective. Wide release

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