Now in Cinemas: Reviews for April 3, 2008

Reviews: In the Valley of Elah, The Bucket List

Reviews by Jason Pirodsky

A Vietnam vet examines the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of his son in Paul Haggis´ In the Valley of Elah, an investigative drama that doesn´t quite reach the aspirations of its based-on-reality story. Film has many of the strengths and weaknesses of Peter Berg´s The Kingdom; while it works effectively as both a CSI-like police procedural as well as a more esoteric meditation on war and military, the two don´t fully mix in the end. Themes are bluntly hammered home, but Haggis, the director of Crash and writer of Million Dollar Baby, isn´t one known for his subtlety.

In the Valley of Elah
Directed by Paul Haggis. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Barry Corbin, Josh Brolin, Frances Fisher, Wes Chatham, Jake McLaughlin, Mehcad Brooks, Jonathan Tucker, Wayne Duvall. Written by Haggis & Mark Boal.
IMDb link

Tommy Lee Jones stars as Hank Deerfield, a truck driver and military man who receives a call that tells him his son Mike has gone AWOL since returning from Iraq; that doesn´t sound right, so he leaves wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) behind and makes the journey to Fort Rudd to investigate. As neither the military officials nor the local police seem to offer much help or information, Hank begins his own investigation, starting with recovered video from Mike´s cell phone, which features increasingly disturbing images from his tour of duty. Eventually, he receives some help from detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who initially rebuffed him. During the course of the film, we can tangibly feel action sequences and ironic twists that could only come from the pen of a writer, as well as the unfortunate details that must be true. The ending simply doesn´t work in relation to the rest of the film, ignoring the fact that it stays true to the reality of the case. Haggis was directing a pretty good murder-mystery, and had some incisive things to say about the military and war along the way, until real-life, which doesn´t always make sense, overtakes the story and provides an ultimately unsatisfactory ending. And then a mushy Annie Lennox song plays over the end credits, furthering my view that the director had lost control of his film.

Jones is terrific in one of those roles that seems to define his persona; other actors have less to do, though Jason Patric and Josh Brolin make an impact as cogs in the bureaucratic machine. Sarandon is effective in her few scenes but ultimately feels wasted. Outside of Jones’ performance, Roger Deakins´ cinematography is the film’s greatest asset.

Title is derived from the biblical battle between David and Goliath, a story which Hank tells Emily’s young son.


The Bucket List
Directed by Rob Reiner. Starring Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes, Beverly Todd, Rob Morrow, Alfonso Freeman, Rowena King. Written by Justin Zackham.
IMDb link

Neither as oppressively bad as the critical venom leveled against the film would have you believe, nor as good as its powerhouse star duo and box office intake may indicate, Rob Reiner´s The Bucket List falls somewhere in-between as a schmaltzy yet sometimes effective comedy-drama. Director Reiner has fallen a long way since an 8-year run that started with This is Spinal Tap and ended with A Few Good Men.

Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman star as terminally ill cancer patients Edward Cole and Carter Chambers, confined to share the same room at a standard-issue US hospital. Carter is introverted and intelligent (we know this because he barks out the correct answers while watching Jeopardy on TV), while Edward is an arrogant prick (we know this because he´s played by Jack Nicholson). Edward is also the wealthy owner of the hospital, who throws himself at the mercy of his hospital´s staff and conditions for PR reasons and screenwriter´s contrivance. The two men forcibly bond, and develop the titular list of ‘things to do before we die´, which they ought to get to doing, and fast. So with an extended montage that actually takes up most of the running time, the two codgers travel around the world and go skydiving, racecar driving, mountain climbing, etc. Expectedly, things get melodramatic by the end.

As lightweight fluff it really ain´t bad: well acted and moderately amusing, it goes by fast without requiring much thought. Unfortunately, when you a topic like cancer, you might be expected you do so with some dignity and restraint, which, I fear, isn´t on display with Jack´s bare ass and toilet bowl theatrics. Though I cannot imagine how a cancer patient might react to this film (and cannot imagine recommending it to one), to be fair, it doesn´t take itself seriously enough to be considered offensive. Until the end, at least, when the movie finally distanced itself from me with its phony sentimentality. Yet most critics hate the film, for taking the serious subject matter and pandering to mass audiences. But you should know whether you can take this kind of stuff: if skydiving, globetrotting cancer patients living life to the fullest in exotic locales while coming to terms with their terminal illness might leave you retching in bad-taste despair, avoid at all costs.


Also opening: Richard Attenborough´s Closing the Ring (showtimes | IMDb), a past-&-present WWII romance-drama starring Shirley MacLaine, Neve Campbell, Christopher Plummer, Mischa Barton, Brenda Fricker, and Pete Postlethwaite. The Czech Republic appears to be the first country to release the film since a UK opening that garnered mixed reviews.

And: Peter Schřnau Fog´s festival favorite The Art of Crying (showtimes | IMDb), which is screening in Danish with Czech subtitles.

Note: most sources indicate Ben Affleck´s Gone Baby Gone should be officially opening this week; it isn´t, outside of scattered screenings at FebioFest.

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