Tag Archives: B

A MIGHTY HEART

Prolific director Michael Winterbottom usually flies under the radar, as it were, making small but challenging pictures that have sometimes turned out terribly (the dreadful “Nine Songs”) but more often have been extraordinarily fine (to look only at his most recent films, the remarkable—though in very different ways—“In This World” and “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story”). “A Mighty Heart” represents his first “mainstream” picture—one bankrolled by a major studio with a big star in the lead.

That doesn’t mean Winterbottom’s sold out, though. He tells the story of the frantic month-long search for Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan in 2002, in the same methodical but intense style he’s previously brought to similarly fact-based material in independent films (“In This World,” for example). It’s not unlike the skill at docudrama that Paul Greengrass applied to “United 93,” and if the result isn’t in the same league, given the pitfalls of the project the director’s achievement is considerable.

In the hands of Winterbottom and John Orloff (who based his script on the book by Pearl’s widow Mariane), “A Mighty Heart” is basically a police procedural set within the context of international politics in the age of post-9/11 terrorism. Pearl (nicely played by Dan Futterman) and Mariane (Angelina Jolie) are in Karachi, where he’s arranged a meeting with a sheik with terrorist connections. When he disappears during the encounter, his wife contacts the home office of the Journal and the American embassy, and soon U.S. security official Randall Bennett (Will Patton, convincingly understated) the Captain (the excellent Irffhan Khan), head of the new Pakistani counter-terrorism unit, and cop Dost Aliani (Adnan Siddiqui) are leading a concerted effort to identify his abductors and find Pearl, an effort that grows increasingly frantic as the kidnappers publicize their action and broadcast images of their victim with threats to kill him. (The chief suspect comes to be a shadowy figure named Omar Saeed Sheikh.) Mariane must try to maintain a semblance of control in the face of mass media coverage, supported by Journal honcho John Bussey (Denis O’Hare), who comes to Karachi, and the Pearls’ close friend Asra (Archie Panjabi).

Orloff and Winterbottom handle the complexities of the investigation with exceptional clarity and precision, offering the necessary explanatory details but not letting the narrative get bogged down in them. The director deserves special praise in this regard: he keeps the story moving in jagged, energized spurts without allowing it to descend into murkiness or obfuscation. (He’s helped enormously by the gritty camerawork of Marcel Zyskind, who, working on digital video in difficult locations, gets almost painfully atmospheric results, and Peter Chistelis’ sharp, edgy editing.) And while the narrative doesn’t flinch from depicting the corner-cutting methods (including torture) employed in tracking down the perpetrators, it neither glorifies them in testosterone-raising “24” fashion nor frames them as a PC-style critique. And despite the fact that we know the tragic conclusion to which the story is headed, the picture generates considerable tension while refusing to sensationalize the horrifying outcome by making it overly explicit.

But as fine as his work—which includes securing strong turns from his supporting cast across the board—is, Winterbottom doesn’t manage entirely to transcend the problems inherent in moving from his usual seat-of-the-pants methods to a bigger, more high-profile production. The difficulty derives mostly from the presence of Jolie. The actress has to be praised (along with significant other Brad Pitt) for championing this project, and she’s actually very good as Mariane, fashioning a woman who’s strong and sharp-tongued as well as deeply concerned and fearful (no milquetoast wife at all)—a performance that proves she’s a real actress, not just a star.

But there are moments when Jolie, as famous as she is, can’t help but be somewhat distracting, despite the attempt of the makeup artists to make her a bit less conspicuous. And one wonders whether, if a lesser name had been cast in the part, Winterbottom would have resorted to so many flashbacks showing Daniel and Mariane in happier days—the kind of thing one would expect in the work of lesser directors as a means of satisfying the audience’s need for some respite from a dark, depressing narrative—or would have included the scene of the widow’s emotional breakdown after learning of her husband’s death in quite so extended a form. (To be sure, he stages the latter discreetly, deliberately understating the histrionics, but they’re still there, and it’s one of the rare times when the film seems overly theatrical.)

Despite the flaws, however, “A Mighty Heart” proves a mostly effective recreation of a terrible event in the post-9/11 world. Like “United 93,” it can be described as a film that people ought to see from a sense of obligation, but like Greengrass’ picture, it makes its point without falling into the Stanley Kramer trap of becoming obvious and smugly didactic about it.

And if it might lead viewers to do some investigating themselves—of the earlier films of Michael Winterbottom, for example—it will have served a useful cinematic purpose, too.

MR. BROOKS

Grade: B-

Everything that can go wrong with a trashy thriller was demonstrated all too well by the recent “Perfect Stranger,” but happily we’re now treated to a slick, silly but clever serial-killer picture that redresses the balance—in part, at least. “Mr. Brooks” is pretty much pulpy junk, but for more than half the time it’s fun trash. As for the rest, well, as in life you have to take the bad with the good, and in this case it’s worth doing so.

The savory center of the movie is the story of the titular character, played by Kevin Costner. Earl Brooks is a successful Portland businessman who’s just been feted as the city’s man of the year. He also has a lovely wife, Emma (Marg Helgenberger, of “CSI”). But he also has a secret. He’s the notorious “Thumbprint Killer” who, up until two years ago, had been responsible for shooting couples and leaving behind their bloody prints as a signature. He’s been able to stifle his murderous urge through attendance at AA meetings, but now, egged on by his evil alter-ego Marshall (William Hurt), he decides to indulge himself one last time. Unfortunately, he’s a bit out of practice, and allows a peeping tom neighbor who calls himself Smith (Dane Cook) not only to spy him doing the deed but to photograph him in the act. Rather than turning him in or asking for cash to keep quiet, though, the thrill-seeking young guy demands something else—for Brooks to take him along on his next kill.

This part of Bruce A. Evans’s picture is a good, creepy B-movie fodder, with Costner putting his own hesitant, not-quite-natural persona to surprisingly good use as the almost obsessively organized guy who’s barely able to keep his murderous impulses at bay. He also builds good camaraderie with Cook, a stand-up comedian who’s bombed in comedies like “Employee of the Month” before now but whose callowness fits this character perfectly. The real key to the winning hand played by this part of the picture, though, is the routine that Costner and Hurt fashion together—a give-and-take in which the former can loosen up and the latter once again play to the rafters in the vein of his turn in “A History of Violence.” Hurt has finally shed the serious-actor attitude he’d long been saddled with and given free rein to his histrionic, Grand Guignol impulses, and as a result he’s far more fun to watch than he used to be—and Costner actually matches him note for note. As a result the contrived “internal conversation” gambit employed by Evans and his co-writer Raynold Gideon, which shouldn’t work at all, not only does, but becomes the chief reason why “Mr. Brooks” is so engaging: it’s a big advance on their previous collaboration, the awful Christian Slater bomb “Kuffs” (1992).

It’s a pity that the other half of the movie—the one on the right side of the law—isn’t nearly as strong. Demi Moore, of all people, plays the tough-as-nails detective on Mr. Brooks’s trail. But her character, Tracy Atwood, is saddled with tons of backstory that’s supposed to be fun but frankly isn’t. One aspect of it has to do with the fact that she’s independently wealthy—hell, a multi-millionaire, no less. (Why she’s a cop, despite all the cash, is revealed at the close, in a bit of sappy psychobabble.) Another has to do with the fact that her hunky trophy husband Jesse Vialo (not, unfortunately, played by Ashton Kutcher—it’s one Jason Lewis) is suing for divorce and, along with his slinky, skanky lawyer (Reiko Aylesworth), demanding a huge settlement. And a third has to do with a vicious killer she put in prison who’s escaped and is now looking for revenge. (She also has to deal with a comic-relief partner named Hawkins, played by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.)

To be sure, all these elements are necessary for the twist-upon-twist climaxes that Evans and Gideon have contrived for the last act, but to be honest they’re pretty boring to watch, as well as leading to sequences that are so rote that one can only hope they’re intended as parody (e.g., a divorce-settlement discussion and a scene in which the cop’s boss, played with a straight face by Lindsay Crouse (which must have been difficult), actually gives her three days to wrap up the case before bringing in the FBI!). It’s worth sitting through them just to get back to Costner, Hurt and Cook, but one can only imagine how much better “Mr. Brooks” would have been had the shamus been as interesting as the villain—or even as nearly so as the lawyer played by Richard Gere was in comparison to his client, played by Edward Norton, in “Primal Fear,” the kind of great trash this movie obviously aspires to emulate.

The picture even blunders in the Brooks section by adding a subplot about the Earl’s daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker, from “Shark”), who returns home pregnant having quit college. One can understand the rationale behind this plot thread—remember “The Bad Seed”?—especially because it allows for yet another big moment in the script’s series of climaxes (though an especially cheesy one, to be honest). But that doesn’t stop it from seeming like padding.

Still, though it’s not as smooth as it might have been and by the close has gotten too clever by half, this trashy thriller delivers the goods more often than not. It boasts a solid production, with evocative cinematography by John Lindley and uniformly fine behind-the-camera work. And the score by Ramin Djawadi is adequate, if hardly extraordinary for this sort of fare—no Herrmann or Desplat he, but a decent craftsman.

But it’s the dance between Costner and Hurt that raises “Mr. Brooks” into the delectably decadent category. They’re no Astaire and Rogers, but their pas de deux is still a treat.