Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
Peter Berg´s The Kingdom is little more than CSI: Riyadh, as it´s been tagged in numerous reviews, though the film works quite nicely as a police procedural with a middle-eastern twist and a couple slam-bang action sequences. Nicely filmed by director Berg, taking a page from the Paul Greengrass school of action flicks; film particularly recalls the last two Bourne movies, with shaky-cam techniques and rapid-fire editing well employed. Those looking for action may be let down by a lengthy investigative midsection, but the film delivers the goods by the end with a heart pounding twenty-minute sequence that begins with a kidnapping and doesn´t let up till the bad guys are dead.
Film opens with one of its better set pieces, as terrorists in Saudi Arabia bomb an American housing compound during the middle of a softball game, leaving a hundred dead. Despite normal protocol, FBI directors negotiate to send a team of agents (Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, and a wisecracking Jason Bateman) to Saudi Arabia to ‘observe´ the investigation. This quickly turns to full-fledged involvement, as the US agents prove to be more skilled and capable of handling the investigation than their Saudi counterparts. Cast is rock-solid, though Cooper feels underused; Bateman and Ashraf Barhom (as Colonel Al Ghazi, head of the investigation on the Saudi side) give eye-opening performances. Jeremy Piven, however, is only a distraction in a smallish role. A good police procedural with some pulsating action scenes, but ultimately, the film lacks depth; though a lot of interesting topics are touched on (US/Saudi relations, Garner´s role as a female authority figure in a Muslim country) few are truly fleshed out. Final scenes, including a you-kill-us-we-kill-you cycle of violence message, feel a bit unnecessary and heavy-handed. Still, an intelligent and realistic action film such as this one is a rare thing and well worth seeing.
Note: some (less than 10%) of the dialogue in the film is Arabic, subtitled in Czech (and not English) on Prague screens; this shouldn´t hamper your enjoyment of the film if you don´t speak either language, however.
Mikael Håfström´s effective if uninspired ghost story 1408 delivers the goods while sidestepping (by its finale) the usual clichés. Writer Mike Enslin (John Cusack) makes a living espousing tales of haunted houses and their supernatural inhabitants; Enslin himself, however, is quite the skeptic. That is, until he checks into room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel, despite numerous forceful warnings from hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson, good but underused). What follows is Cusack in a hotel room for much of the remainder the film, which could have been fascinating without the ghosts, but nevertheless: he´s soon being psychologically tortured by spirits who have a penchant for the Carpenters´ “We’ve Only Just Begun”. And if that wasn´t bad enough, they also get to some touchy personal subjects, including Enslin´s estranged wife and deceased daughter. Bastards. While never truly scary, film is effectively creepy throughout and even has a nice sense of dark humor. Neat twisty ending jerks the viewer around – just when we think we know what´s going on, the film pulls a 180, including nicely trashing an all-too-obvious setup from the very beginning. No great shakes but a rare big-budget ghost story that works; not quite as good as, say, The Others, but leagues ahead of de Bont´s Haunting remake. Based on a short story by Stephen King; lead role of Enslin makes for a nice fill-in for the author.
Nicely produced but rather unimaginative look at a young Jane Austen feels more like a chapter taken from one of the writer´s novels. Anne Hathaway – effective but never quite convincing – stars as the famous writer, 20 years old, who falls madly in love with Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), a poor law student dependant on his rich uncle. Of course, as in any Austen novel – or, as the film would like us to believe, her life – the romance was not meant to be; Austen´s mother (Julie Walters) wants her daughter to marry into wealth, and an apparent suitor has been found by wealthy Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith), whose dull nephew needs a wife. Austen´s sympathetic father (James Cromwell), however, encourages Jane to seek what will make her happy. Will she find true happiness? Hopefully you know nothing about Ms. Austen´s personal life going in, lest the main thrust of the film be revealed to you before you enter the cinema. Those looking for a effective biography of Ms. Austen will be sorely disappointed; fans of films based on her work (particularly the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, which this strongly recalls) should be pleasantly satisfied. Pales in comparison to the similarly themed Miss Potter.
Contrived, sometimes manipulative melodrama with low-key comedic elements attempts to tug at the heartstrings but doesn´t always ring true. Alan Rickman stars as Alex Hughes, introverted man with a troubled past (‘I killed a man,´ he mentions at the beginning, though this is never elaborated on till the end) who gives a lift to young hitchhiker Vivienne (Emily Hampshire, who´s excellent). Tragedy strikes in the form of a fatal car crash, leaving Emily dead and Alex grieving; he tracks down her mother Linda (Sigourney Weaver) in an attempt to share his grief, but instead finds an autistic woman who doesn´t seem to fully comprehend the death of her daughter. Carrie Ann-Moss also enters the mix, as a sympathetic neighbor whom Alex becomes attracted to. Of course, as Alex sticks around to aid Linda during the funeral, she helps to soothe his troubled soul as well. Heartfelt on one hand, saccharine and manipulative on the other; your emotional resistance to this kind of material will be put to the test. Nicely filmed, with some beautiful snow-covered Canadian landscapes. Rickman and Weaver give fine performances, but that´s all they are; the actors never truly disappear into their roles, and we never quite forget who we´re watching on the screen. It´s something like Garden State meets I Am Sam; if you liked either of those films, you´ll probably like this one, too.