MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Green Zone, Remember Me, She’s Out of My League, and Our Family Wedding

Green Zone (Three Stars)
U.S.; Paul Greengrass, 2010

Green Zone is a sometimes hellishly exciting political war thriller about the conning of America during and after the Iraqi War. It’s about the mess on the field after Bush and Cheney sold the war to Congress and the American public, and although it’s flawed, it’s also often a stunner. My main complaint with taking that official screw-up as a subject is that it comes seven years late.

But better late than never. Savvily written by Brian Helgeland (L. A. Confidential), and smashingly directed by Paul Greengrass (the last two Bourne movies and United 93), Green Zone, is about how P.R. trumped intelligence (of both kinds), after the Bush administration used inaccurate spy reports to sell the Iraqi War to Congress and the American public . That was the very war the neo-conservatives had always wanted, from the moment they followed Bush into power — and they stubbornly stuck to their guns, even when the search for the War’s main justification, the all important “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (or WMDs), kept coming up empty.

Though “inspired” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s reportage in the book Imperial life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, it’s a fictional story, a drama done in Greengrass’s best pseudo-documentary style (the kind Kathryn Bigelow also used in The Hurt Locker) with made-up or disguised characters and a hero who gradually discovers the real-life events and consequences that many of us (except die-hard neo-cons still screaming that the Iraqi WMDs exist somewhere) already know.

The setting is Baghdad, after the war, mostly in and just outside the “Green Zone” or safe area for Americans away from the still turbulent streets. The central character, the guy who guides us through the maze of lies, is Chief Warrant officer Roy Miller (played by Matt Damon), a no-nonsense soldier hunting for WMDs, and increasingly frustrated because the targeted hiding places, all vetted by an anonymous U. S. intelligence source known (but not yet to Roy) as ”Magellan,” contain no MVDs — and because his complaints keep getting squelched by superiors and by a new all-powerful, super-slick U.S. official (modeled on Paul Bremer?) named Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear).

Miller is the sturdy, incorruptible all-American guy, the “good soldier” kind of role Paul Newman, Robert Redford or Harrison Ford might once have played, and Damon does him as an ultra-serious, trustworthy, super-competent guy who never cracks a joke or ducks a battle. (Actually, Roy, and the movie, could have used a few jokes, and I wish Helgeland had supplied them.)

Acting on a tip from a one-legged, avidly English-speaking Iraqi driver and eventual translator named “Freddy” (very well played by Khalid Abdallah), Roy and his men stumble on a secret meeting of Iraqi military bigwigs, including a scowling Igal Nadr as Gen. Al Rawi (the Jack of Clubs in this movie‘s “most wanted” deck of cards). After arresting one hapless attendee, while the others scatter, Roy winds up with a notebook listing local Ba‘athist safe houses — a discovery that immediately puts him on the bad side of Poundstone‘s Special Forces clean-up guy Briggs (Jason Isaacs), and eventually on the good side of shaggy, disaffected CIA agent Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), a Middle east expert who also believes the “Magellan” intel may be bogus.

Miller also gets contacted by a well-connected Wall Street Journal reporter, Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan, maybe channeling ex-New York Times gal Judith Miller), to whom Poundstone is anonymously leaking the Magellan stuff. All that’s enough to send him, his men and Freddy, off on a hunt for Al Rawi, and the truth. They find it.

Two things. First of all, this is a movie which, whatever its nods, script wise, to formula movie melodramatics and big-audience come-ons, is written with some feeling, and realized with stunning immediacy, full-throttle pace and sometimes eviscerating impact. It may hurt The Green Zone a little that it comes right on the heels of the Oscar triumph of The Hurt Locker — a better movie, shot in much the same, hand-held, jiggly-setup, hectic-cutting, pseudo-doc style as Locker by the same cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd. (It’s also possible that Bigelow was influenced herself by Greengrass and Ackroyd’s work in United 31). But, if we’re going to praise and enjoy likable but preposterous thrillers like the Bourne movies (with the same star, Damon), because they’re done so well, we shouldn‘t carp at thrillers done just as well, that have more than a grain of truth in them.

Here, Damon plays another perpetual motion guy racing through danger. The central focus is on his never-say-die warrior Roy, on Kinnear‘s smug, but nervous-looking Poundstone, and Abdallah’s frazzled but gutsy Freddy — who, perhaps unfortunately, is given the ultimate “author‘s message“ line. They’re all good, as are the rest of the cast, including the rather improbably accented Irish actor Gleeson. The movie is a bit of a thesis picture. It argues not just that we were conned by the neo-cons, but that it was stupid to summarily disband and thereby alienate and drive into revolt the Iraqi military, eliminating them as a potentially stabilizing force. But movies, like people, are entitled to their opinions. And this one has action to back up its attitudes. A lot of shows don’t have either.

Secondly: Kudos to this picture for having the guts to speak its mind, to say clearly that the Iraqi WMD story was a sham or a scam — and even for using that as its prime plot-spring. I can remember very well watching George W. Bush talking on TV before the war about the supposedly “authenticated” WMDs our intel experts had discovered, and his grim-faced warning of the mushroom cloud Saddam was ready to spring — and, as I watched the way his face got stiff, and his eyes rolled a little, I remember thinking “This is malarkey.”

There are still neo-cons and neo-con fan boys who may go their graves clutching imaginary WMDs to their bosom like teddy bears, and media observers who exhort us to be fair and balanced and think it’s premature to condemn anybody for any accidental falsehoods, or even to point them out. And they will not be happy with The Green Zone for being so disrespectful of official untruth. (After all, they might argue, everybody lies to get what they want, especially the movies. Why handicap our president, and take away an effective PR tool, when he’s fighting the good fight?) They’ll be especially unhappy at this movie‘s speculation that fictions were told deliberately (as opposed to stupidly) and that the movie’s official Bush administration rep, Poundstone, is such a smarmy, squirmy, brutal little creep, played with such relentless lack of sympathy by Kinnear. Actually I do think that someone is owed an apology here: comedienne Paula Poundstone.

Other than that, my main problems with The Green Zone are the movie’s lack of even dark humor (Kinnear could have been a terrific straight man for Roy’s, or somebody’s, missing zingers), the more obvious payoffs and simplified characterizations, and the way that the ending

SPOILER ALERT

implies that Roy will get the word out, and that the newspapers and media outlets will solve everything. The movie’s ending smacks of the Woodward-Bernstein era, not what actually, belatedly, happened here. And Roy Miller, unhappily, is the movie‘s most fictional character — not as a good soldier, but as an actual whistle-blower. Perhaps The Green Zone might have worked better, as drama and politics, if it ended with more obvious darkness, with something more “Z”-like.

END OF SPOILER

But I don’t think it’s fair to praise Greengrass for indulging in the pumped-up excitement of obviousmelodrama (in the Bourne movies) and docudrama (in United 31, some of which was imagined) and then to blast him and Helgeland for mixing melodrama and real-life politics here — or to imply, as some normally rational critics have, that it’s way too early and even irresponsible, to make dramatic speculations about this particular slice of history (which kind of puts the kibosh on The Hurt Locker too.)

Too early? After eight years? How much longer should we wait? Eight more years? Sixteen? Not until the next century? Or the next millennium? Maybe that would give us the proper distance and perspective, fairness and balance. And maybe those WMDs will finally show up.

But, by that line of reasoning, or something close to it, Z was premature in attacking the Greek Colonels, and Apocalypse Now, Platoon and that disguised Korean War comedy M*A*S*H should have mulled over Vietnam a while longer. Also, All the President‘s Men jumped the gun on Nixon; Casablanca and even Confessions of a Nazi Spy, were way too early in attacking the Nazis; and Oliver Stone’s Salvador should be coming out right about now.

Caution, diplomacy, judicious filmmaking? Give me a break. Movie political thrillers — great ones like Casablanca and All the President’s Men or good ones like The Green Zone — are better when they’re on top of things.

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Remember Me (Two and a Half Stars):
U. S.; Allen Coulter, 2010

It’s the summer of 2001 in New York City. Stanley Kubrick got it all wrong, even though we‘d probably rather be in his world than this one. Something awful is about to happen. But to who?

Well, Robert Pattinson is rebellious rich boy Tyler, son of the wealthy and selfish rich guy Hawkins (Pierce Brosnan), and divorced and remarried mom Diane (Lena Olin). Emilie de Ravin is Ally Craig, whose dad is bitter policeman Sgt. Neil (Chris Cooper) and whose mom was killed long ago, in the movie’s intro, in a subway assault by thugs.

One night, Tyler — who drinks too much, shaves too little and has a tendency to brood and stare out of windows — gets into a drunken brawl, and gets arrested, very physically, by Sgt. Craig. Bad move. Tyler’s funny, nasty buddy Aidan (Tate Ellington), suggests that, for revenge, Tyler seduce Ally. Uh. Oh. I smell the ten millionth dramatic variation on “Romeo and Juliet!” But where are those subway thugs? And doesn’t writer Will Fettersi have something more cosmic in mind?

A lot of people have been comparing Pattinson in this movie to James Dean. But I’ll believe that when I see Pattinson in a red leather jacket, screaming “you’re tearing me apart!” or in a t-shirt yelling “I’ve got the bullets!” or pulling out a cracked mirror and telling some new Natalie Wood “Hey, Judy, wanna see a monkey?“ or steering his car toward some cliff or other. For imaginative Dean mimicry, I preferred Brad Pitt in Johnny Suede.

By the way, though the tone of my review may suggest otherwise, I think Allen Coulter (Hollywoodland) actually did a bang-up job of directing this movie, and that the actors were all good — including Pattinson, who proves better at channeling Dean than he was at channeling Salvador Dali. But that script…

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She’s Out of My League (Two Stars)
U.S.; Jim Field Smith, 2010

Here’s a movie for every geeky guy who wanted to make love to a beautiful blonde “Ten,” even though he was only a “Five” or below.

She’s Out of My League is — you guessed it — a teen-sex romantic comedy about a Five who snags a Ten. The movie’s geeky, gangly but utterly lovable Five (or V), is an airport security guy named Kirk (played by Jay Baruchel, that fine actor who lost the fight in Million Dollar Baby and dorked it up in Knocked Up). Kirk is a geek who, at the airport, meets and charms a Hard Ten (Hard X?) named Molly (Alice Eve, the knockout from Starter for Ten), and starts dating her, to the amazement of everybody, including his awful ex-girlfriend, a definite Three named Marnie (Lindsay Sloane); his obnoxious family, and his three hang-loose “Hangover”-Lite buddies, Stainer the rowdy Eight (T.J. Miller), Jack the helpful Ten (Mike Vogel) and sweet Devon (Nate Torrence), who’s married and therefore doesn’t need a number.

Stainer got his name, we’re told, because he once stained his pants, something the writers seem to understand thoroughly, and that Kirk also duplicates later in the movie, with an untimely ejaculation. Good guy Devon is involved in League’s most unfortunately memorable scene, when he shaves off Kirk‘s pubic hair in the bathroom, to make him more suitable for a prospective Ten. It’s a scene that I‘m very glad the Farrelly brothers didn’t get to first, though they certainly inspired it.

Now, Molly is as nice to Kirk as a Ten, in this movie-ized world, can possibly be to a Five or below. But the poor schmo can’t believe his luck. And neither can Molly’s chum — an Eight, I think — named Patty (Krysten Ritter, who looks like a cross between scream queen Barbara Steele and Wynona Ryder). But Kirk is wrong to be worried. After all, he’s the star of this movie, which is worth five more numbers at least. And there are plenty of Fives who go out with Tens, especially in Hollywood — and not just because like Kirk, they’re nice guys. (Nice Guys sometime finish first, which Kirk proves in that ejaculation scene.) Either these lucky Fives have lots of money, which throws the Ten scale completely off. Or they’re funny and talented (like Baruchel). As my old friend Max Jacobson used to say, they‘re “singing for their supper.“

This movie, written by Sean Anders and John Morris (Sex Drive) and directed by Jim Field Smith, is I’m afraid, a Hard Two. It‘s pretty much of a horny mess. But at least it comes out strongly against Looksism and Numberism. High time. We‘re trapped now, it seems, in a media world gone looks-loony and Ten-mad, a horrible empty-headed bigoted unbrave new world, a telegenic dictatorship where everyone seems to be judged on face and physique before anything. (Wouldn’t it matter if Kirk, like Baruchel in real life, spoke fluent French? Probably not).

You can see this “Ten” prejudice in its purest form on TV. Endlessly. Take cable news. Almost every expert on anything who appears on TV’s “The O’Reilly Factor” (except Greg Gutfeld and Alan Colmes) is a blonde in something tight, though not all of them, Megyn Kelly excepted, are real Tens. Myself, I’d call Laura Ingraham a Hard Five. Very hard. (Though for attitude, not for looks.)

Actually, I hate all this rating-people crap baloney and the ways it both trivializes people and corrupts media and society — and I think only mental Threes and below engage in it. To me, all my girlfriends were Tens, and all the ladies who turned me down for dates were Ones. My mother was a double Ten, though she once said to me sadly, “I wasn’t pretty; I was smart.” Wrong on the pretty; right on the smart.

I know you’re all dying to find out what my number is. Well, decades ago, in college, I walked past the Pub, a student bar in Madison, Wisconsin, heard three girls yelling at me, and turned to see one of them in the window seat holding out a card that said “Eight.” It made my day, and I‘ve been too scared to ever get an update. (Like almost everybody else, I was always sure I was a Five or below.) But tell that to the geniuses of TV, whose idea of a Hard Ten movie critic is Ben Lyons. Hey you Twos, just try looking in a mirror!

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Our Family Wedding (Two Stars)
U.S.; Rick Famuyiwa, 2010

One of my favorite movie sub-genres is the wedding ensemble picture. Some of the great examples are Robert Altman‘s A Wedding, Krzysztof Zanussi‘s Contract and Mira Nair‘s Monsoon Wedding, which — along with Tracy and Hepburn in Guess Who‘s Coming to Dinner, may have been one of the inspirations for Rick Famuyiwa‘s Our Family Wedding. (A more likely suspect: My Big Fat Greek Wedding.)

But Our Family Wedding isn’t up to any of those models. It‘s a howling embarrassment. Strange, because the idea seems good. An affluent black family, The Boyds, including hot-tempered L. A. deejay dad Brad (Forest Whitaker) is united to a middle class Latino family, the Ramirezes, including hot-tempered city tow-away man Miguel (Carlos Mencia, a good actor who kept reminding me of Chazz Palminteri). The reason? Smitten Columbia med student Marcus Boyd (Lance Gross) has decided to tie the knot with lovesick ex-Columbia law student Lucia Ramirez (America Ferrera). Good cast. Bad movie.

The happy couple have been hiding their happy coupling from their parents, and on the very day Marcus and Lucia announce their nuptials, the fun — to use the term loosely — starts. Brad’s meter runs out, and when Brad comes to unpark his car, he finds Miguel towing it away. They scream at each other. Later that day — that very same day — their kids announce their wedding plans, and the papas meet again and scream some more. And Lucia’s grandma takes one look at the groom and faints.

It’s supposed to be a comedy, so we keep meeting people who make funny faces at each other and act silly. The couple breaks up, then reunites. There are many rancorous debates about what kind of wedding to have, salsa or soul, traditional or modern — and many, many food fights involving wedding cakes. In fact the mere sight of a wedding cake seems to be a cue for somebody to grab a gob off of one and heave it in somebody’s face. The dads keep screaming. And guess who’s really coming to dinner? Somebody brings in a live goat to slaughter and eat, in traditional big fat wedding style. But the goat escapes, runs to the bathroom, eats the contents of a spilled Viagra bottle, and then tries to rape one of the dads, who screams some more.

You want funny? I’ll show you funny. This movie makes Judd Apatow seem like Noel Coward, and the Farrelly brothers seem like the Brothers Karamazov. (Or the Marx Brothers.)

SPOILER ALERT

Finally the kids are hitched. Columbia’s reputation is saved. Everybody dances. A little salsa, a little soul. Forest Whitaker and Carlos Mencia stop screaming and become the best of friends. Somebody actually eats a piece of wedding cake, instead of shoving it down somebody else’s pants.

END OF SPOILER

What’s the moral of all this? You got me. Maybe it’s that people are just people, that weddings are beautiful, and you should try to love your neighbor as yourself, unless he won’t stop screaming and trying to dump a wedding cake on your head. Or: Even if you hire Forest Whitaker and America Ferrera it’s no guarantee you won’t get a stinker of a movie. Or, for God’s sake, keep your goat out of the Viagra.

The Red Riding Trilogy (Four Stars)
U.K.; Julian Jarrold/James Marsh/Anand Tucker, 2009

Ridicule can extract a heavy price. After spending all this time making mean-spirited fun of three perfectly well-intentioned movies, made by unoffending craftsmen and artists who had no greater desire than to spread some happiness, romance and humor in our troubled world, I find myself unable to switch into a more serious mode and give all due praise to what is easily one of the most ambitious and best films of the year so far: writer Tony Grisoni‘s three part adaptation of David Pearce’s Red Riding novels.

This is noir times three, with the three films spanning a decade from 1974 to 1983, following a series of hideous Yorkshire murders and crimes of corruption. The trilogy begins in chaos with a series of sex murders and a young reporter’s (Andrew Garfield) doomed investigation (Red Riding 1974, directed by Julian Jarrold). It continues with Red Riding 1980 (James Marsh), as the corruption deepens, a good cop (Paddy Considine) searches for truth, and the police seem even more involved. And it ends with Red Riding 1983, where all mysteries seem solved, a strange Bunuelian cleric (Peter Mullan) comes forth and a bit of uplift finally pierces the Yorkshire brutalism and gloom.

Tony Grisoni (the writer of Terry Gilliam’s sadly underrated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) adapted all of these, and though the directorial style changes, the voice (Grisoni’s and Pearce’s) remains strong. This is a great film, an epic of evil and madness, and another example of the high cinematic and dramatic literacy of the best British TV.

– Michael Wilmington
March 11, 2010

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