Beirut


It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad in the desert.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Jonny Coyne, Leila Bekhti, Kate Fleetwood, Alon Aboutboul, Larry Pine, Sonia Okacha, Mohamed Zouaoui, Ben Affran, Ian Porter, Idir Chender, Nora Garrett, Mohamed Attougui, Anton Obeid, Jay Potter, Brahim Rachiki, Max Kleinveld. Directed by Brad Anderson

 

Lebanon has a history of being a cosmopolitan, beautiful country. Beirut was once described as the Paris of the Middle East. There were sizable Christian and Muslim communities but in the 1970s with an influx of Palestinian refugees Beirut became a powderkeg that exploded into Civil War that by the 1980s left Beirut the usual analogy for dangerous, hostile places.

Mason Skiles (Hamm) in 1972 was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. A disciple of Henry Kissinger, he was the fair-haired boy in the State Department, on his way to an ambassadorship of his own and at the very least becoming a major player in the diplomatic corps. Then, a terrible tragedy leaves his career in tatters and Skiles personally broken.

Fast-forward ahead ten years and Skiles works as an arbitrator in labor negotiations and not a very good one at that. Maybe it’s due to the fact that Skiles has fallen into the bottle and shows no signs of emerging. However, he is summoned to Beirut – the last place on Earth he wants to go – ostensibly to lecture at the American University there but in reality he is savvy enough to know that’s only a cover.

In fact, his good friend Cal (Pellegrino) has been kidnapped by a PLO splinter group and they will only negotiate with Cal for reasons that will become readily apparent. The problem is that Cal, who works for the CIA, knows enough to make life uncomfortable for the agency in the Middle East. Mason soon discovers that everyone in the American embassy seems to have an agenda of their own; nobody is trustworthy, not even the assistant/handler Sandy (Pike) who has been assigned to Mason. Getting Cal back alive will be no easy matter, not will it be easy for Mason to stay that way as well.

Veteran movie fans will note that Tony Gilroy wrote the script and won’t be surprised at the often convoluted plot – nor will it be surprising that the story is interesting throughout. Anderson is a strong director who keeps the pace brisk without going too fast and glossing over things. Despite having a plot that requires some concentration to follow, this is nonetheless an easy movie to watch.

.Hamm has been on my radar ever since he starred in Mad Men and I’ve always thought that he was going to one day be a big movie star; he’s just one good role away. This is the closest he’s come to that role; despite his character being deeply flawed, Hamm makes him sympathetic. He shows a great deal of charisma and onscreen charm from start to finish. In short, he’s the best thing about the movie which is saying something in a movie with Rosamund Pike in it.

The dialogue can be a bit noir-ish (which can be a bad thing) and the flashbacks can be jarring. Most negatively, there are sequences in which handheld cameras are used that are literally jarring. Those are all minuses to be sure but the pluses just edge them out enough to make this worth a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Hamm continues to show off star quality. The pacing is very crisp.
REASONS TO STAY: There are some unnecessary handheld camera sequences. The ending is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and a brief image of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hodge and Hamm have appeared on the Netflix series Black Mirror.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Feels

The Promotion


The Promotion

Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly have a competition to see which one can look the stiffest.

(2008) Comedy (Dimension) John C Reilly, Seann William Scott, Jenna Fischer, Lily Taylor, Fred Armisen, Gil Bellows, Bobby Cannavale, Rick Gonzalez, Chris Conrad, Nathan Geist, Adrian Martinez, Masi Oka, Angel Guzman, Joshua Eber, Mario Larraza. Directed by Steve Conrad

 

Ambition is a fine thing sometimes. We all want to improve our circumstances, to provide better for ourselves and our families. Generally speaking we do this through getting new jobs or promotions through the companies we work for. Getting these, however, is much easier said than done.

Doug Stauber (Scott) is a mild-mannered assistant manager at a Chicago-area grocery store. He’s extremely good at it, although he isn’t what you’d call a forceful personality. When the chain he works for announces that they’ll soon be opening a new store in the area, he figures he’s a shoo-in for the job to the point where he sinks all of the savings of himself and his wife Jen (Fischer) into a down payment for a house that they can only afford if he gets the job which he’s sure he will.

But not so fast there Sparky. Also in the running is Richard Wehlner (Reilly), who has just moved his family to Chicago from Quebec. He is a recovering alcoholic and at one time ran with a biker gang who has turned his life around.  Getting this position would really help solidify his standing and help he and his wife Lori (Taylor), a hot-headed Scot, finally get over the hump.

Now if this sounds like we’re going to see 90 minutes of two men trying to sabotage one another, think again. Mostly the two guys sabotage themselves. This is not a Judd Apatow comedy by any stretch of the imagination, although the key elements for it might be there. Had Apatow gotten hold of this, it would have been a very different movie.

The thing is that both Doug and Richard are essentially nice guys. You’re not really sure who to root for (although Doug, who also does the voice-over narration, seems to be the surrogate for the audience) since there’s no real bad guy, although occasionally the two both make weak attempts to undercut the other.

Scott, best known as Stifler in the American Pie movies (and upcoming American Reunion) usually plays characters that are much more over-the-top than this one. Really, I found this to be the kind of character usually played by Paul Rudd – nice, mostly mellow with just a hint of wild man in him. Reilly, on the other hand, has that wild man in his past big time. Still he’s much more of a hangdog now, like a dog who’s been to obedience school and been neutered in the process. Few do that kind of role better than Reilly and he does it well here.

Taylor is a very talented actress more known for her indie films but she shines in her brief on-screen appearances here, stealing scenes effortlessly with her charm and comic timing. Fischer is sometimes underrated because of her beauty and sexuality but she does a fine job as the unsuspecting wife of Doug, unaware that the job he said was in the bag really isn’t.

There are some nice bits here (like an apology to community leaders after the company determines was a racially-motivated incident that turns horribly, horribly wrong) and director Conrad, one of the finest writers in Hollywood who you’ve probably never heard of tackles his first feature directing job with a surprisingly sure hand.

The whole movie is pretty low key which can be a double edged sword. A lot of comedies will “tell” viewers when to laugh, either using visual cues, sound effects or cues from the score. You don’t really get that here; Conrad trusts in the intelligence of his audience to know what’s funny. Of course, that generally means they don’t always do.

I give the film big props for trying something new but there isn’t enough tension here to keep the viewer’s interest, nor are there enough laughs to overcome that. This goes down as a good idea with good intentions that didn’t quite translate to a good movie.

WHY RENT THIS: A competitive comedy where both the leads are actually decent guys – a very innovative set-up.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: So low-key in places that you wonder if you’re supposed to laugh.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of foul language, a good deal of it sexual. There’s also a scene of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally scheduled for release in May 2007 but was delayed for a full year, mainly to add the cameo appearance of Oka who at the time was starring in “Heroes.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel but other than that the usual suspects. 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $424,030 on an unreported production budget; I think it likely that the movie lost money, probably quite a bit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Handsome Harry

Bruce Almighty


Bruce Almighty

Walking on water is no big deal to these guys but STANDING on water, now that's a feat!

(2003) Drama (Universal) Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Aniston, Phillip Baker Hall, Catherine Bell, Lisa Ann Walter, Steve Carell, Nora Dunn, Eddie Jemison, Paul Satterfield, Mark Kiely, Sally Kirkland, Tony Bennett. Directed by Tom Shadyac

Not being the biggest fan of Jim Carrey in the world, I came into this movie fully expecting to, at best, just tolerate my two hours in his company. Then, something funny happened on the way to my expectations; I actually found myself laughing. I was enjoying America’s favorite rubberface.

Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, an on-camera reporter for a Buffalo television channel who dreams of being an anchor, of being respected and admired by the community. He is known for doing the “lighter” news and for being taken less seriously, both by his colleagues and the community. Just when he thinks he’s getting somewhere, a smarmy colleague (Carell) goes behind his back and nabs the anchor job Bruce wanted. When Bruce finds out (in the middle of a live feed from Niagara Falls), he loses it and consequently, gets canned.

His long-suffering girlfriend Grace (Anniston) waits patiently for Bruce to commit, but he is way too absorbed in his own career to notice. And as things begin to go wrong, Bruce looks to God for answers. The answers that come, however, aren’t much to Bruce’s liking, and the newscaster launches into a tirade against the Almighty, blaming Him for all of Bruce’s troubles.

Of course, this being Hollywood, God hears Bruce and God responds with an invitation to visit Him in His office. And God looks uncannily like Morgan Freeman, which is pretty much how I imagined Him too … well, OK, more in a George Burns kind of way, but close enough.

Since Bruce thinks he can do a better job than the Big Guy, God invests Bruce with His powers and invites him to take over the job (which works out, since Bruce is between positions at the time). Now, Bruce happens to be a broadcast journalist, which is to say, completely self-absorbed, so naturally he uses his powers to resurrect his stalled career, utilizing a few “scoops” (conveniently “discovering” the body of Jimmy Hoffa in a police training ground, and “happening” to be around when a meteor hits. And when it comes time to answer prayers, Bruce just grants them … with devastating effect.

Of course, the consequences of these events are more far-reaching than Bruce realizes and things go from bad to worse in the world. And, as Bruce gets everything he wants, he realizes that everything he wants isn’t necessarily what is important to him. And what is really important to him is drifting away.

I like the movie for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s not an over-the-top Jim Carrey-fest, which I feared it would be. If the Ace Ventura movies were your speed, you may be disappointed with how subdued Carrey is here. Aniston is wonderful; at this point in her career she was catching up with Meg Ryan as the queen of romantic comedy, a title which has sadly eluded her since.

This is a movie that is not so much about faith as it is about values. Bruce is unhappy mainly because he confuses his own needs with his value system. The things that he is chasing with nearly obsessive focus are transitory and in the scheme of things, only self-defining at the surface. The deeper, intrinsic things that define us are the things we tend to push aside in favor of career and acclaim. Faith merely helps us see what is already there.

The sight gags and effects are pretty nifty, and there’s a really awesome sequence wherein Bruce sabotages the backstabbing anchor using his powers to – well, make him speak in tongues.

I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. There is a certain sweetness to it, and the leads are well-cast and lovable, and the message is a bit deeper than the average summer comedy. Any movie that can make me cry and laugh in the same two hours is doing something right.

WHY RENT THIS: Carrey is at his most appealing and Aniston shows why she is one of the best comediennes today. Appealing, warm-hearted and doesn’t beat you in the face with a message of faith. Freeman makes an awesome God!

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little more schtick than there needed to be.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the humor is a little crude, and there is a bit of foul language and sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The riot scene was filmed in the Universal backlot set made famous as the town square of Hill Valley. The clock tower can clearly be seen.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are some outtakes and bloopers, but that’s it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $484.6M on an $84M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Contagion