Paper Man


Paper Man

Jeff Daniels is tired of seeing Ryan Reynolds demonstrate his superpower – imitating a bunny.

(2009) Comedy (MPI Media) Jeff Daniels, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Lisa Kudrow, Kieran Culkin, Hunter Parrish, Chris Parnell, Arabella Field, Brian Finney, Eric Gilliland, Violet O’Neill, Jill Shackner, Brian Russell, Conrad Wolfe, Louis Rosario. Directed by Kieran and Michelle Maloney

 

Writing can be a tricky road to navigate. Sometimes, the words are a flood and you can barely get them out on paper (or laptop) fast enough, the torrent is so overwhelming. Other times it’s a trickle and it seems like every word is a struggle.

Richard Dunn (Daniels) knows that better than most. It’s hard to call him a successful novelist – he has at least published something – but not many people have bought it. He’s having trouble getting his second novel out. Fortunately for him, his wife Claire (Kudrow) is a successful vascular surgeon in New York which means he really doesn’t have the pressure of making a living, but that doesn’t help the creative juices to flow in this case. He is getting on and childless and knows that there won’t be any kids. He is the last of his line and wants to leave something behind that people will remember him for.

The thing that he might be remembered for is that he has an invisible friend and has had one since he was a boy. His invisible friend is a superhero named Captain Excellent (Reynolds) who follows him around and urges him to get off of his ass. Claire is fully aware of the Captain’s existence and while she tolerates it – in fact, there is much about her marriage that she can merely tolerate – she doesn’t like it much.

Richard needs a change of venue and Claire frankly needs some time away from her husband – call it a trial separation and Claire might wince but she won’t disagree. She packs him off to their summer cottage in Montauk on Long Island where perhaps, in the off-season when it is less crowded, he might be motivated to put pen to paper or in his case, fingers to typewriter keys.

Richard, while riding to town on a young girl’s bike (the only vehicle he owns) spies Abby (Stone), a young girl somewhat lackadaisically committing arson. Fascinated by her boredom, he hires her to babysit, the fact that he is childless notwithstanding. When Abby finds out about this little deception, rather than run away she merely shrugs and accepts. At least it’s something to do.

The two form a friendship that is somewhere between that and a surrogate father-daughter relationship. Things get a little dicey when Abby mistakes that friendship for lust, or when Abby’s thuggish boyfriend (Parrish) objects – nobody gets to abuse Abby but him – and finally when Claire finds Abby and Richard asleep on the sofa after Richard throws a kegger for her friends. Richard has reached a crossroads; his marriage is in jeopardy, his career as a writer is in the toilet and his friendship with Abby is perhaps not the healthiest thing. Can even Captain Excellent save him from himself?

This is the kind of movie that is full of indie angst. Co-directors (and co-writers) Kieran and Michelle Mulroney (the brother and sister-in-law respectively of actor Dermot Mulroney) have concocted a tale that takes a quirky character, sticks him in a kind of a quirky place (off-season Long Island) and throws a few quirky incidents into the mix.

The result is a bit on the precious side. There are times you want to throttle Richard, he’s simply so without direction and without clue. Daniels can do these kinds of characters very well; in fact, he’s noted for them (check out Dumb and Dumber and The Squid and the Whale for further evidence).

Fortunately, he’s paired with Emma Stone whose career was just starting to take off as this was made (The Help hadn’t been released when this was filmed). This might well wind up being most remembered for affording the opportunity to see a huge star in the process of becoming one. She takes a role that could easily have been overbearing and made her relatable and more than that, sympathetic. While the focus is ostensibly on Richard, I found myself wanting to spend more time with Abby and it isn’t because Stone is stealing the movie; our focus just naturally gravitates to her. That’s the mark of a great actress.

While I’m okay with the Captain Excellent conceit (and the bleach-blonde Reynolds is now as adept at playing superheroes as anyone), it was just one of the many quirks in this movie that has too many of them, from Christopher (Culkin), the suicide-obsessed friend of Abby to the incessant talk of soup, there comes a point where it simply overdoes the indie charm. I personally wish more indie movies would rely more on story and less on eccentricity. I get that quirky people are interesting but in the long run people who are relatable to thee and me are of more lasting value – and keep my attention. There was a better film to be had here but that doesn’t mean that it should be avoided – Stone’s performance alone is certainly compelling enough to be worth the rental.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted (particularly by Stone) and clever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lays on the indie quirkiness on a bit thick.

FAMILY VALUES: Mostly a lot of bad language but there’s a bit of sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie received its world premiere at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,514 on an unreported production budget; it is extremely unlikely that the movie made any money whatsoever.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Play It Again, Sam

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Safe

The Answer Man


The Answer Man

Jeff Daniels finds Lauren Graham's resemblence to Shirley MacLaine more noticeable than ever in this scene.

(2009) Romantic Comedy (Magnolia) Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham, Lou Taylor Pucci, Olivia Thirlby, Kat Dennings, Nora Dunn, Tony Hale, Anne Corley, Max Antisell, Thomas Roy, Peter Patrikios. Directed by John Hindman

We all want insight into the way the world works. We muddle through as best we can, but the truth is life doesn’t come with an owner’s manual. We have to make it work with the tools we have, often with imperfect information.

Arlen Faber (Daniels) seems to have the answers. He wrote a bestselling book entitled “Me and God” which in the words of one person, “redefined spirituality for an entire generation.” However, in the words of another person, “He may have written ‘Me and God’ but he did not read it.” Faber has locked himself away in a charming row house in Philadelphia, shying away from the limelight and the millions of people who want more answers from him. He’s a little bit of J.D. Sallinger in that regard, only without the charm.

When he throws his back out, he’s forced to crawl – literally – to the nearest chiropractor which happens to be Elizabeth (Graham) who’s never heard of him. However her receptionist Anne (Thirlby) certainly has and after Elizabeth renders him (temporarily) pain-free, he swears by his new savior. Mainly he just swears.

He also wants to get rid of a library-full of self-help books he’s accumulated over the years and so he decides to unload them at the local used-book store owned by Kris (Pucci) who himself has just returned from rehab to find a dying father and a bookstore that is nearly as dead. Frustrated and in need of answers, Kris agrees to take the unwanted books in exchange for answers which Arlen reluctantly agrees to. In the meantime, a romance begins to blossom between Arlen and Elizabeth, who is highl protective of her son Alex (Antisell), another one of those precocious indie movie children. Arlen, Elizabeth and Kris are all individually wounded in one way or another; could it be that together they can help each other heal, or at least learn to cope better with their wounds?

That’s really about it in terms of plot. Being that this is an indie movie the film is a bit highbrow in a lot of ways, substituting spiritual/philosophical discussion for the usual banter you find in typical rom-com fare. That’s kind of refreshing for starters. The relationship between Elizabeth and Arlen is actually pretty realistic and there’s some actual chemistry there. That’s also kind of refreshing these days.

I like the idea of the movie using the romantic comedy as a forum for exploring bigger questions about existence, our place in the universe and our own self-image but there are times I get the feeling that the writers were grappling with too many of these big ticket issues and wound up doing justice to none of them. Sometimes less is more, particularly when you’re tackling the big picture.

Daniels is certainly an underrated actor. He always seems to turn in a solid performance; it has been quite awhile since he was in a movie that I didn’t think he was compelling in. That streak continues here. He makes the curmudgeonly, socially awkward and extremely lonely Arlen actually a relatable figure which is an achievement in itself. Certainly on paper Arlen is not terribly likable.

There are similarities between this and the James Brooks comedy As Good As It Gets (which has been the touchstone most critics have been using), but they are definitely very different movies. At the end of the day this is a flawed but ultimately interesting movie that while being ostensibly a romantic comedy certainly doesn’t fit in the typical rom-com cliche film that Hollywood churns out these days. While ultimately this is about the redemption of Arlen Faber, it’s also about our own need to find ourselves in a world where many are willing to give us their own answers, but few of them really pan out.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice chemistry between Daniels and Graham. I like the overall themes to the movie. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film overreaches at times, trying to make a bit more out of its spirituality themes than perhaps it should.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of harsh language, I have to admit.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is John Hindman’s directing debut.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26,676 on an unreported production budget; the film was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Boys Are Back

New Releases for the Week of December 3, 2010


December 3, 2010

If you see this guy with this backdrop behind him, that's your clue to turn and run!

 

THE WARRIORS WAY

(Relativity) Dong-gun Jang, Geoffrey Rush, Kate Bosworth, Danny Huston, Tony Cox, Lung Ti, Analin Rudd, Markus Hamilton, Rod Lousich. Directed by Sngmoo Lee

Asian filmmakers have gotten a reputation for fearlessly mashing up genres into sometimes confusing but occasionally delectable new brews and so it is here. An assassin from the East is forced to hide out in a small town in the American badlands of the Old West. As usually happens when taciturn strangers hiding out in small towns in the Old West, his troubles find him there and all Hell literally breaks loose.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Martial Arts Action Western Fantasy Mash-Up

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence)

Cool It

 (Roadside Attractions) Bjorn Lomborg, Freeman Dyson, Richard Lindzen, Paul Reiter. The author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” controversial economist Bjorn Lomborg, is profiled here as he takes on the issue of global warming. Taking the point of view of a realist, he comes up with some different ideas on solutions to the problem while earning the wrath of liberals and what he views to be alarmists everywhere.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG (for thematic elements)

Howl

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) James Franco, Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem “Howl” ignited a firestorm of controversy and led to an obscenity trial that would eventually define the American literary landscape for the years that followed. Franco, who has been receiving Oscar buzz for 127 Hours, is having himself quite a year.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: NR

Salvation Poem (Poema de salvacion) 

(CanZion) Gonzalo Senestrari, Irina Alonso, Fernando Ronsarolli, Gian Franco. A young Argentinean is raised by a distant father who was always working and a mother whose devotion to her faith overrides all. When she rejects his dreams of becoming a heavy metal musician, a rift develops between the two that lead to a whole lot of bad life choices. This story, based on actual events in the life of heavy metal musician Pablo Olivares of the acclaimed group Halogen, is about the healing of that rift and the battle for a young man’s soul.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic material and violent content)

Welcome to the Rileys

 

(Goldwyn) James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo, Kristen Stewart, Ally Sheedy. A happily married couple has seen their marriage slowly begin to spiral into disintegration after the loss of their daughter eight years previously. The mother has become an agoraphobic while the father has become so numb to the world he doesn’t seem to care about anything or anyone. While on a business trip to New Orleans, he meets a teenage runaway and forms a platonic bond with her. What could have been the straw that breaks the camel’s back could turn into the inspiration to save their relationship.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, brief drug use and pervasive language involving a teenager)

New Releases for the Week of July 2, 2010


July 2, 2010

This will get more than a few pre-teen hearts a'twitter.

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE

(Summit) Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Bryce Dallas Howard, Dakota Fanning, Ashley Greene, Kellan Lutz, Peter Facinelli, Nikki Reed. Directed by David Slade

The third installment in the mega-popular supernatural romance series finds Bella being forced to choose between her love for Edward and her more-than-friendship with Jacob as enemies of the Cullen clan gather an army to take over the vampire world. Even the werewolves are forced to choose a side. Early reviews for this one have it as the best one of the series so far.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard and IMAX

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, and some sensuality)

I Hate Luv Storys

(UTV Communications) Sonam Kapoor, Imran Khan, Samir Dattani, Bruna Abdallah. Jay is an assistant director to one of the top directors of romantic movies in India, but Jay doesn’t believe in love. Simran is in love with love stories, so much so that her life has begun to resemble one. After the two meet by chance, Simran’s life begins to show the influence of Jay’s cynicism, while Jay’s strange encounters with Simran begin to work their way into the fiction of the movie that Jay’s working on. Can there be a happy ending for two people who are so different to begin with?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: NR (some sequences of sensuality and smoking)

The Last Airbender

(Paramount) Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Dev Patel, Cliff Curtis. This live action remake of a Nickelodeon fantasy animated series is helmed by none other than the King of Twists M. Night Shyamalan. The plot is simple: the world is divided into nations who are able to control the four elements – earth, fire, water and air. When the Fire Nation declares war on the other three, they will have to unite to stave off the menace of Fire – and find a legendary hero who can control all the elements.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Rating: PG (for fantasy action violence)

Paper Man

(MPI Media Group) Jeff Daniels, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Lisa Kudrow. A middle aged novelist whose life has never measured up to anybody’s expectations finds an unlikely friendship with a teenage girl who is dealing with a family tragedy. He has relied on imaginary friends since childhood, particularly a costumed superhero named Captain Excellent, to help guide his way but his new real friend may be just what he needs to finally grow into the man he was always meant to be.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for language and a scene of sexuality)

State of Play


State of Play

Russell Crowe sheepishly discovers that this isn't casual Friday, as Helen Mirren scolds him.

(Universal) Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Michael Berresse, Harry Lennix, Barry Shabaka Henley. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

One of the casualties of the Information Age is the newspaper. Once the prime source of information for nearly everybody, it was done in first by the television newscast and finally, by the Internet which could deliver news instantaneously, rather than by the next morning. Oh, the daily newspapers are still around, but their circulation is dwindling, ad revenue shrinking and their role changing from government watchdogs to gossip-mongering rags that are rapidly losing their relevance.

Cal McAffrey (Crowe) is a bit of a dinosaur in that regard. A reporter for the Washington Globe, he is familiar with the intricacies of the federal government and has sources in nearly every office building from the Capital to the D.C. police department. Scruffy and disheveled, he is a man who cares more about the truth than is perhaps fashionable.

He is called to the scenes of what appear to be disparate deaths – a young African American career criminal shot to death in an alleyway (with an unfortunate bicyclist also gunned down for being in the wrong place at the worst time) and a young Congressional assistant who threw herself under a Metro subway train.

The nagging question was whether she fell or was she pushed. Further complicating things is that she worked for Representative Steven Collins (Affleck), McAffrey’s old college roommate who is married to McAffrey’s college lover, Anne (Penn). Collins is a bright light in his party, a possible presidential candidate in the making. He is heading a Congressional investigation into a company called PointCorp, whose service is similar to what Blackwater provides in real life. His assistant was spearheading the research into PointCorp which makes the timing of her demise even more suspicious, but this is overlooked when it is revealed – by the tearful Collins himself – that the congressman was having an affair with his assistant.

This is the kind of juicy scandal that the news media lives for these days and the Globe’s matriarchal editor-in-chief Cameron Lynne (Mirren) wants to leap onto the more salacious aspects of the story. McAffrey, however, sees something more sinister at work and starts to dig deeper and quickly discovers a link between the alleyway murder and the death of the assistant – the victim was carrying a PointCorp briefcase at the time of his murder.

With McAffrey’s objectivity in question, Lynne assigns political blogger Della Frye (McAdams) to the story. McAffrey regards her in probably the same way the Neanderthal regarded Homo sapiens. Still, the further the two of them dig, the bigger the body count becomes. Now, not only are they racing against the clock to get the story, they must find a way to stay alive before it’s published.

Director Kevin Macdonald is developing quite the resume with The Last King of Scotland, Kindertransport and One Day in September to his credit. Here he is given a script that reduces a six hour BBC miniseries on which this movie is based into 127 minutes. That’s a lot of condensing, but it works out very nicely. Macdonald keeps the strings taut and the tension high throughout the movie, interspacing it with shocking acts of violence (the opening sequence depicting the alleyway murders and the subway murder are masterfully done).

Russell Crowe, when given the right material, is ridiculously good, and this is his best role in years. He plays McAffrey with a combination of bulldog determination, a somewhat naïve regard for the truth and a weary cynicism that makes him realistic to most of the print journalists I’ve ever met. His byplay with Mirren are among the movies highlights.

Affleck, once a promising leading man in Hollywood before poor script choices derailed his career, has settled in nicely as a terrific support actor. Here he plays the crusading politician with the right amount of grit tempered with vulnerability. He never overshadows Crowe, but compliments him instead, and makes you wish you could have voted for his character.

The big problem with this movie is its ending. Quite frankly, up until the last 20 minutes of the movie, this is a superb film; then, the wheels come off. The ending is frankly unbelievable and makes you tear your hair out and shout at the screen “Oh come on, do you think we’re STUPID?!” I was quite flabbergasted because everything about this movie was well thought out, brilliantly conceived and superbly planned up until then. It’s the kind of thing that breaks a movie lover’s heart.

The movie does strike an elegiac chord for the daily newspaper; throughout the movie, Mirren’s character laments that nobody reads them anymore and complains about how the new corporate publishers are pushing for lighter, fluffier fare and a colorful, dumbed-down graphics-heavy look of the kind more and more newspapers are adopting in an effort to stave off the desertion of their subscribers. I don’t know how long daily newspapers can last in the current environment; they will probably always exist in an online format, but some of the great newspapers of this land are barely hanging on and whether or not they can survive in the coming years is very much in doubt.

Still, the newspaper-set movie is an exciting one; it yields up images of truth seeking journalists like Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men or the snappy repartee of Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns in His Girl Friday. Perhaps those sorts of movies (and others like Absence of Malice and The Paper) are also destined to become archaic relics of a bygone era; all I know is that a movie set at a newspaper is bound to be more dynamic and exciting than one set at an online blog.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Crowe’s best performances in years. This is a very smart thriller with some wonderfully shot sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is just plain godawful.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, some bad language, some sexuality and some drug references. That’s a lot of “somes” but no “lotses,” so you should feel okay letting most teens see this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McAffrey’s cubicle contains a partially-hidden picture of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Watergate reporters from the Washington Post. Woodward later makes a cameo appearance at Anne Collins’ press conference.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: On the Blu-Ray edition, the U-Control feature’s “Washington DC Locations” feature allows you to see on-screen text and Google Earth graphics to show the government buildings and street locations where the scenes take place (and were frequently shot).

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: A Good Year

Away We Go


Away We Go

A young couple face an uncertain future armed only with their love for each other.

(Focus) John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Allison Janney, Chris Messina, Catherine O’Hara, Jim Gaffigan, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Schneider. Directed by Sam Mendes

At some point in all of our lives we are forced to grow up. Usually some sort of life-changing event is the catalyst – a new job, financial difficulties or impending marriage/parenthood. Whatever the cause, we are required to put aside the irresponsibilities of our youth and get serious about our future.

Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Rudolph) are very much in love. They are pleasant, smart people, both with jobs that enable them to work at home wherever that home may be. They live in a ramshackle house that is probably well beneath what they can afford. However, Verona is expecting their first child and that changes everything.

Further complicating things are Burt’s parents Gloria (O’Hara) and Jerry (Daniels) who they were hoping would help with the child-rearing thing. Rather than assisting with their grandchild, Gloria and Jerry are more eager to move to Antwerp. This leads Burt and Verona to the revelation that they are completely free to live anywhere now, but with that freedom comes choice – where to live?

This leads them on a road trip to visit various relatives and friends to examine the relative merits of various locations as places to raise their impending family. First is Arizona, where Verona’s ex-boss Lily (Janney) lives with her husband Lowell (Gaffigan). Lily is a foul-mouthed, borderline alcoholic who actually does her best to convince Verona not to move to Arizona. It’s probably a good thing, too, considering all the dumbass legislation that has been coming out of there lately.

Next on the list is Madison, Wisconsin where lives a childhood friend of Burt’s, LN (Gyllenhaal), who teaches radical feminist bullshit (as far as I can make out) and has adopted a goofy New Age mantra that makes her a loonie of the first order. I’d say she’s a caricature but I’ve met a few sorts who aren’t far off from the views she espouses so we’ll leave it at wacko.

It’s on to Montreal where college chums of the both of them Tom (Messina) and Munch (Lynskey) seem to be living ideal lives and at first it’s very appealing to Burt and Verona but soon the desperate unhappiness simmering beneath the surface for their friends comes boiling through.

Next is Miami where Burt’s brother (Schneider) is struggling with a wife who left him to raise their children alone. This is one of the more poignant of the vignettes, but the experience leaves Burt and Verona a little shaken. After all this, Burt and Verona are faced with their decision, but what are they going to choose?

Director Mendes made this hot on the heels of his last movie, Revolutionary Road which was a totally different animal. Mendes is known for his condemnation of the suburban lifestyle, which he has explored in movies like the aforementioned Revolutionary Road and American Beauty but this is a bit gentler and a bit more quirky than his previous movies.

Krasinski and Rudolph, both TV veterans (from “The Office” and SNL respectively) do very well on the big screen. Their relationship is totally believable and the viewer is left with no doubt that these are two people who love each other very deeply. Yes, they have a certain amount of indie film arrogance about them, but Burt and Verona are genuinely nice people who are a little bit more educated than most and a little bit kinder than most. If that makes them smug and superior to some, well I suppose they have reason to be.

The various location vignettes work with varying degrees. Janney and Gaffigan are a bit out of whack with the overall tone of the film and it is a bit jarring. The Miami and Montreal vignettes are the best, ruthlessly honest and brutally frank.

The script is well-written by novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida who are romantically involved themselves. One gets the impression there’s an awful lot of the two of them in Burt and Verona (even the names are similar), so that may be why the film rings so true. Authenticity is a commodity that serves movies like this very well, and there’s an abundance of it here.

The truth of the matter is that there is always someplace better, but if you want the perfect place, it is almost inevitably the place where you’re at – wherever the one you love is, there is the perfect place to raise a family. Those who complain that there are no good romantic comedies anymore would do well to check out Away We Go – it blows all those formula movies right out of the water.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Krasinski and Rudolph is more than believable, and they both deliver fine performances. Supporting cast does very well.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes a bit too low-key for its own good; the one vignette that is louder is jarring to the film’s overall tone.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality, as well as some foul language. For my taste, some of the humor is adult but mature teens will be able to enjoy this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Toni Collette was originally cast in the Maggie Gyllenhaal role but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature on how the filmmakers tried to make the production eco-friendly with the help of a group called Earthmark.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: State of Play

Traitor


Traitor

Don Cheadle and Jeff Daniels are moving at cross purposes.

(Overture) Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Neal McDonough, Archie Panjabi, Alvy Khan, Said Taghmaoui, Raad Rawi. Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff

Our government uses the term “war on terror” despite the fact that from its outer trappings, its not so much a war as it is a guerilla action. In this fight, boundaries blur and it is not always possible to tell who is innocent and who is not. In the war on terror, the casualties are not always easily apparent.

Samir (Cheadle), as a young boy, saw his father killed in the explosion of a car bomb (who set the bomb and why is never explained in the film). As an adult, we see him in Yemen, attempting to sell plastic explosives to a terrorist group. When that group is captured by the Yemeni police, Samir is thrown in a Yemeni prison along with Omar (Taghmaoui), a high-ranking soldier in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Samir is questioned by Agents Clayton (Pearce) and Archer (McDonough) of the FBI. They’re anxious to make a deal with the soft-spoken, highly intelligent Samir but he demurs. They basically throw up their hands and leave him in prison to rot.

In prison, Samir and Omar develop a bond as Omar witnesses Samir’s devotion to Allah and when the Brotherhood stage an escape for Omar, he takes Samir with him. They flea to Marseilles, where the former army demolition expert Samir helps develop a remote-controlled device to use to detonate a bomb at the U.S. Embassy in Nice. Eight people are killed in the explosion, the news of which apparently disturbs Samir – he had been hoping for a higher body count, he tells Fareed Mansour (Khan), their Pakistani handler.

As it turns out, Samir had been hoping for a certain body count that had been lower – the bodies had been planted at the Embassy by security advisor Carter (Daniels), who was Samir’s real handler. Samir is actually an undercover agent looking to get to Nathir (Rawi), one of the highest ranking terrorists in the world. He is also trying to find out what large-scale operation the Brotherhood has in mind on American soil.

But is Samir really an American operative, or does he have his own agenda? Time is running out; the operation is taking place soon, Samir is wanted by police organizations world wide for his part in the embassy bombing and Clayton and Archer are closing in. Who will protect the innocent when the lines are so very blurred?

Director Nachmanoff has delivered a taut, well-paced thriller that keeps you guessing as to Samir’s loyalties despite the fact that they tell you he is working for Carter early on. The fact that you’re never quite sure whose side he’s working on til near the end is a tribute to Cheadle the actor, and his performance is the primary reason to seek this movie out.

Everything in this movie is about motivation and the fact that the motivation for so much is unclear. What drives Samir – be it the boyhood tragedy we see in the first frames or the prejudice he encountered in America – is never fully explained. The audience is left to draw their own conclusions, mostly from Samir’s actions.

Other than those playing FBI agents, the driving forces behind the characters remain foggy in them as well, particularly the Muslim characters. The exception is Omar, who seems to be simply driven by the convictions of his faith. Omar doesn’t hate the Americans he wants to kill so badly; he is merely a soldier in a jihad doing Allah’s will. If those he follows tell him it is Americans he must kill, then so be it.

The movie travels from location to location with dizzying speed (done on a relatively modest budget so kudos to the producers) and keep you guessing as to what is going to happen next. While the scenes taking place in the Middle East are vivid with color, there is a grainy, washed out aspect to the scenes taking place in Europe and North America I found intriguing. I’m not sure what the filmmakers intention was in terms of message – it could well have been that the weather was bad while they were shooting on location. It is a bit annoying, at least to my sensibilities.

There is an authenticity to the movie – Nachmanoff, who also co-wrote the movie, consulted with several intelligence community professionals to try and get the procedural and political aspects right and this pays off. He also succeeds in humanizing terrorism, putting a face on what we sometimes tend to characterize as mindless fanatics. While there is certainly fanaticism within the radical jihadist movement, these are also human beings with an agenda, a plan to achieve it and the patience to see it through – patience from an unshakable belief that God is on their side.

While there are several twists and turns that I thought a bit too unnecessary (the last one regarding Carter is a particularly hoary cliché and could have been excised from the movie), this is still worth giving a look to. After all, in the war on terror the ultimate casualty has been the truth.

WHY RENT THIS: Cheadle’s performance is rock-solid, as is Guy Pearce’s. A very different look at the war on terror and its (unintended) casualties. A nicely-paced, taut thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Needlessly twisty, plot-wise. Much of the movie looks grainy and washed out, particularly when the setting is in Europe and North America.

FAMILY VALUES: Some very violent imagery and raw language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally going to be made by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, but after a management change there the property was dropped, allowing Cheadle to take it to Overture Films, the big screen subsidiary of the Starz premium cable channel..

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Simpsons Movie