Saturday, September 29, 2007

Desert Kingdom

The Kingdom
Grade: C

Peter Berg’s The Kingdom avoids the pitfall that usually snags films about the modern threat of terrorism – it keeps from laying it on thick. Rather than the labyrinthine politics of Syriana or the preachy orthodoxy of last week’s In the Valley of Elah, this story of an FBI investigation of a terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia neatly captures our fears and rage while leaving plenty of time and energy for popcorn-friendly gunbarrel catharsis, thank you very much. In the long run, does that make it for the War on Terror what Night of the Living Dead is to the American Civil Rights Movement? As President Bush would say, who knows, we’ll all be dead then. But for today, its tense action ethic makes it not a bad night out.

A Wild West Tale

Into the Wild [R]
Grade: B

After picking it up at an airport bookstand, Sean Penn fell absolutely smitten with Jon Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild.” So it’s lucky, and unlucky, that such a high-powered fan is the one bringing the best-seller to the big screen.

Lucky, because Penn sees clearly the romantic idealism inherent in the story of Christopher McCandless, an untethered college graduate tripping through the American West into oblivion. Unlucky, because Penn can’t see past it.

Lucky, because his affection drives Penn to evoke every painterly drop of the story. Unlucky, because Penn doesn’t always know when to stop.

Of course, not knowing when to stop – a trait seemingly shared by Penn and McCandless (Emile Hirsch in a breakout performance) – is a necessary element of this story. The privileged son of a Faulkner-esque suburban clan, McCandless’ sense of enlightened alienation leads him on a two-year cross-country odyssey. Trying to escape what he views as the trap of empty American conformity, he tumbleweeds across the boundless landscape, calling himself “Alexander Supertramp,” camping in the deserts and forests, and living on the kindness of strangers. His long, strange trip would lead to a rusting bus trapped in a Yukon snowfield, surviving on berries and waiting for the weather to change.

With a naturally dramatic Jack-London survival story, you might expect the film to focus on that snowbound excursion. But Penn is more interested in the road story, the adventures that McCandless takes, the lives crossed and touched. The young man hitchhikes the roads, kayaks the Grand Canyon, befriends wandering hippies (Donald Sutherland and Catherine Keener), and forges a moving bond with a lonely widower (Hal Holbrook, never better). All of this is done while inhaling the majestic natural surroundings, which God must have created with the eventual invention of the motion picture in mind.

Into the Wild bears considerable resemblance to one of the best films of the decade, the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man, about a young man who goes deeper and deeper into the Alaskan bear country until he ends up in a grizzly’s stomach. The difference between the two films, however, is telling. In his role as narrator, Herzog spars with Timothy Treadwell, and treats his view of nature’s liberating force as na├»ve fantasy. In doing so, Herzog transforms a bad bedtime story into a fascinating intellectual crossfire on the nature of nature, and man ‘s place in it.

That tension is missing from Into the Wild. Rather than question some of McCandless’ choices, Penn mostly lays on the sympathy. Penn has trouble admitting the youthful arrogance and blindness at the core of his character’s journey. In doing so, he leaves a certain sense of waste on the table.

While Penn comes up short in understanding the colder realities of McCandless’ journey, he’s nothing short of triumphant in understanding its poetry. With the help of DP-of-the-moment Roger Deakins, he captures the natural beauty of the untamed West – from glacial Yukon mountains to the wheat fields of South Dakota to the spare deserts of Arizona – with Malick-like color and fragility.

But the visual beauty is only part of the accomplishment. What Penn has truly done is create the cinematic equivalent of a Kerouac road novel, finding an America unmoored by its greed, shallowness and addiction to “progress,” yet still large enough to shelter kindness and decency. It’s a movie with all things human in its enormous heart, and that will make you want to hit its road.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

‘Good Luck Chuck’ rhymes with s…..

Good Luck Chuck [R]
Grade: D-

Be a dentist.

As Steve Martin sang in “Little Shop of Horrors,” it’s the profession in which you can enjoy causing other people pain.

“Good Luck Chuck” has plenty of pain to go around, but definitely no enjoyment. The story of the cursed love life of dentist Dane Cook, “Chuck” is a trip to the tip of the drill, like a root canal with the Novocaine wearing off.

“Chuck” combines two of the worrying trends in today’s movies, the R-rated sex comedy and, somehow, that staple of early 21st century cinema – penguins. “Chuck” has not only a potty mouth, but an over-thrusting pelvis. And the tuxedoed critters enter the picture courtesy of Jessica Alba’s love interest, who puts on Sea World-type shows with her Antarctic visitors. You can almost hear the studio executives asking if there’s a way to get those little birds into the film.

If you’re unaware of the plot … well, I don’t believe you, given the way this movie has been pushed. But just in case … Cook has a curse placed on him – the women whose company he enjoys in the Biblical sense will all go on to marry the next man she meets, making him a female good luck charm. It improves his dating life, but leaves him unloved. Alba plays the clumsy, penguin-loving object of his desire.

Is the curse true, and can he resist the urge, in order to find true love?

Is it cute? No. Is it funny? Rarely. (Will it make money? Probably lots.) Cook manages some sympathy for his slightly smarmy character. Alba has more charm than I expected, but not much talent for comedy. But whatever level they can achieve is bolted down by a made-to-order script. And between this and “Balls of Fury,” Dan Fogler, playing a sex-crazed plastic surgeon, is becoming a bad luck charm for moviegoers.

So if you can find a movie theater outfitted in dental chairs, that would be the appropriate place to watch “Good Luck Chuck.” Just let us know if you can feel this.