Charlie Wilson's War
Directed by Mike Nichols
Starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Somehow, the film adaptation of George Crile's book Charlie Wilson's War is surfing by on a “mature political drama” wave of reviews. Bullshit. This lazy piece of filmmaking skates by on nothing more than Tom Hanks' patented Hanksiness and a terrific supporting performance from Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Still, neither of them can overcome lackluster direction, clichéd dialogue and a dismal performance from Julia Roberts.
Hanks is Wilson, the Texas congressman who engineered funding for Afghanistan's mujahadeen in their war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. He's a playboy, all drunken and ass-swatting, turned on to the situation in Afghanistan by a wealthy, religious Texan (Roberts) who he also happens to be sleeping with. She's fighting for Christ, and his eyes are opened to the humanitarian reality of the situation after a refugee camp montage on the Afghan/Pakistan border.
Roberts is actually terrible. Wooden. Poor accent. Just fucking awful. And the beltway money games Wilson plays are all afterthoughts. Hoffman, as the CIA operative assigned to help Wilson take down the Russians, is the only guy actually making the movie worth watching, adding real humor to the wretched dialogue that occasionally drops real names like Giuliani and Murtha to remind us that this is a fictionalized version of real events, and articulating the lessons we didn't learn from our first war in Afghanistan. Yes, Hanks is as charming as ever, and that's what keeps you interested, but it truly isn't enough to make this a good film.
And what's most shocking about how badly fought Charlie Wilson's War really is lies in the credits. Aaron Sorkin wrote this? Really? The Aaron Sorkin behind A Few Good Men? Sports Night? The West Wing? Even the terrific play The Farnsworth Invention, which just graced the stage in La Jolla and is now on Broadway? And worst of all is the uninspired direction from Mike Nichols, the dude behind The Graduate. The pacing is so flaccid and uninteresting, and the scenes of Afghanis shooting down Russian helicopters is so forced and phony that it's hard to believe these guys kept their name on the final cut. America might not have much to be proud of when it comes to how it propped up the early days of the Taliban, but neither do the guys who made Charlie Wilson's War.
The Kite Runner
Directed by Marc Forster
Starring Khalid Abdalla, Zekeria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada
A film like The Kite Runner, which has a serious, intense story, solid characters and unimpeachable source material, shouldn't have to revere itself. But as he did in Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland, director Marc Forster can't help making sure the audience knows they are watching a Very Important Movie. The result is a feeling that you're being talked down to by a pretentious asshole. Like Afghanistan upon the protagonist's return, it ain't pretty.
Growing up in Kabul prior to the Soviet invasion, Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) is best friends with his servant, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), who is his protector and supporter in the city's massive kite fights. But after the two boys have a great kite-fighting victory, Hassan is cornered and raped by older boys because of his tribal affiliation, while Amir watches and does nothing. Ashamed of himself, the wealthy boy has his father cast out Hassan and his father and then flees to California when the Soviet tanks roll through the streets. Years later, as an adult and a novelist, he returns to Kabul at the behest of his father's friend to find out what happened to his forsaken friend.
Now, that's serious stuff, serious enough to force the studio that financed the film to relocate the children who played the parts because of the stigma attached to rape in the Afghani culture. But Forster's handling of the film is completely overwrought, as if we can't see for ourselves how high the stakes really are. And when the grown-up Amir finds himself in Kabul, the entire affair turns into a third-rate action escape picture, a trait that doesn't serve the film well, nor the next James Bond installment, which Forster is also helming.
Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins
Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney and Phillip Bosco
You can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family. In writer/director Tamara Jenkins' case, however, she must have been thrilled to successfully pick Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as family for The Savages, a painful drama about two siblings, Jon and Wendy Savage, forced to put their nasty, ailing father (Phillip Bosco) into a nursing home once dementia rears its ugly head.
These are two powerhouse actors, to be sure, and the reason they're both so good is because they play subtle so well. Both characters are in theater—Jon is working on a book on Brecht, while Wendy is an unproduced playwright—so there's plenty of drama, but it mostly comes in their strained relationship while they come to terms with the impending death of their rotten father.
Bosco is terrific as their dad, and Hoffman turns in his best role of the year, which is saying something considering what he did in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Charlie Wilson's War. But Laura Linney is just wonderful as the perpetually screwed-up Wendy, who just cannot get her life together, who's in an unsatisfying relationship with a married man and who just wants to do the right thing but doesn't really know what that actually means. The back and forth between them as they both struggle to keep it together feels real, and the ending is just ambiguous enough to allow each audience member to decide if it's happy or sad. Because that's what family is really all about—no matter how it goes, you're stuck with them.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Starring John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer, Kristen Wiig and Tim Meadows
Considering the recent relegation of the parody flick to F-movie status (Epic Movie, Date Movie and others you didn't see), one longs for the days of Airplane and The Naked Gun, the days when treading the thin line between stupid and hilarious almost ensured a classic comedy. So if your excitement was equaled by skepticism after viewing the preview for Walk Hard, you can hardly be blamed. But thankfully, the movie is a sharp send-up of the recent glut of music biopics, yet another lovable comedy delivered by the hot hand of Judd Apatow, who co-wrote and produced.
John C. Reilly is Dewey Cox, modeled on Johnny Cash, or at least the Walk the Line version of him. Reilly, who got his start in musical theater, is hilarious, his dopey naivety finally given center stage after so many memorable supporting turns. Kristen Wiig and Jenna Fischer are his suitably insane romantic interests, and Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell and Matt Besser are the backing band. Just about everyone in this thing has at least one or two moments to shine, and there are more than a dozen cameos, most of which wouldn't be nearly as amusing if they were revealed here.
Director/co-writer Jake Kasdan and Apatow aren't breaking new ground, but they've created a reasonably fresh version of a comedy sub-genre that has been in the dumps for years. And the songs are particularly great, style-hopping throughout Dewey's career, nearly pitch-perfect in capturing the ridiculousness of pop music formulas, and yet still passable as true pop confections on their own. Yep, Walk Hard works hard, excelling where it easily could've become just another lazy, unfunny parody.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Starring Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner and Marie-Josée Croze
Opens Dec. 25
In 1995, the editor of French Elle, Jean-Dominique Bauby, suffered a stroke at the age of 43, paralyzing everything but his left eye. Somehow, Bauby managed to rise above his disability to tell his gorgeously imagined memoirs and the tortures of being locked-in by blinking his eye, dictating his stories one letter at a time.
It doesn't sound like much of a movie, but the American painter turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel tells Bauby's story with soft, subtle passion. It's a gorgeous film that manages to truly inspire, easily holding the viewer's attention by intensely portraying the psychological trauma Bauby went through.
He is ably assisted by Mathieu Amalric, who delivers a performance that is smart and surprisingly funny. This is a powerful film, intense and lovely to look at, verging on offering up a psychological scarring but eventually reminding us never to take the everyday parts of life for granted.