Archive for April, 2006

The Sentinel

Monday, April 24th, 2006

2005sentinelMovie review by Greg Carlson

A creaky political thriller that plays like a throwback to an earlier era of moviemaking, “The Sentinel” still manages to entertain via mostly brisk pacing and audience goodwill toward the cast’s familiar faces. Michael Douglas, clinging to the alpha-male virility he’s milked for ages, plays a veteran Secret Service agent caught up in a plot to assassinate the president. Dispensing almost entirely with any 9/11 nods to Middle Eastern terrorist cells, “The Sentinel” – based on Gerald Petievich’s 2003 novel – proposes that a threat on the life of the Commander in Chief will come from within the highest ranks of the security detail itself.

Despite the preposterousness of the movie’s premise, director Clark Johnson (who gives himself a nifty little cameo as a doomed agent) makes terrific use of Washington D.C. location photography as well as authentically styled interior sets. Not as much can be said for the development of the film’s key relationships, which regularly take a back seat to the impressive scenery. Douglas’ Pete Garrison, who took a bullet for Ronald Reagan, is fastidious about every aspect of his job with a singular, outrageous exception: he’s having an affair with First Lady Sarah Ballentine (Kim Basinger, struggling through a grossly underwritten role).

Garrison’s indiscretion makes him a perfect target for a frame-up, and before you can shout “Hitchcock!” the wrong man scenario kicks into overdrive. Desperate to clear his name and protect the life of the nation’s leader, Garrison leaves the grid, going on the lam after he’s been misidentified as the mole. Aside from a couple of amusing “MacGyver” moments, the middle section of “The Sentinel” concentrates on a rehash of “The Fugitive,” with the arrival of Kiefer Sutherland’s gravelly David Breckinridge. One time best friends, Breckinridge and Garrison suffered a falling out and the younger agent seems hell bent on brining in his one-time mentor.

Sutherland seems to enjoy playing the perpetually grouchy lawman, but his pairing with Eva Longoria – whose major feature film credits are virtually nonexistent – is as undernourished as Garrison’s infidelity with the president’s wife. Despite television stardom on “Desperate Housewives,” Longoria is untested in big budget waters, and her rookie agent Jill Marin is a largely thankless part. When she’s not suffering the stern criticism of Breckinridge, she’s being ogled and hit-on by other agents, which turns out to be “The Sentinel’s” most unoriginal running gag. Given very little to do, one hopes Longoria will have better luck in the future.

One’s enjoyment of “The Sentinel” will depend largely on a willingness to set aside a rooting interest in character relationships. Johnson’s handling of the action sequences fares a bit better, although the impact of the tense climax at the G8 in Toronto is muted by an earlier, largely unmotivated shootout in a mall. Overall, “The Sentinel” is well crafted and notably efficient in the execution of its plot. Johnson excels at maintaining focus on unraveling the intrigue, even though most audience members will be able to identify the double agent immediately.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/24/06.

Why We Fight

Monday, April 10th, 2006

2006whywefight1Movie review by Greg Carlson

Eugene Jarecki’s sobering documentary will remind many viewers of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but “Why We Fight” trumps Moore’s film on several counts, not the least of which is a steady journalistic style devoid of over-the-top stunt humor. Certainly Jarecki shares a great deal of Moore’s convictions regarding the George W. Bush administration, and “Why We Fight” includes the “War on Terror” among its concerns. “Why We Fight,” however, succeeds by focusing its primary attention on the central thesis that America has become – and will remain – a nation dependent on the business of war.

Adorning the film’s poster and serving as its thematic lodestar, the image of Dwight Eisenhower delivering his farewell address as president in 1961 sets up the film’s haunting refrain. In that speech, as many high school students (ought to) know, Eisenhower introduced the ominous term “military-industrial complex,” guarding future leaders against unchecked armament and weapon fortification. That Jarecki manages to make Ike out to be a sage prophet for peace is certainly one of the movie’s cleverest accomplishments. Once the numbers that describe current defense contracting are rolled out, the viewer is left with the queasy feeling that Eisenhower’s warning was never heeded. Instead, it seems to have been steamrolled.

Jarecki intercuts plenty of tasty archival footage with loads of talking heads. Some argue for the right, and many for the left. A few, including Senator John McCain, who practically jumps out of the interview chair when he’s told Dick Cheney is on the phone, aren’t terribly convincing in either capacity. Along with McCain, Jarecki speaks with Joseph Cirincione, Chalmers Johnson, Richard Perle, William Kristol, Dan Rather, and Gore Vidal, among others. One of the most compelling figures to appear in “Why We Fight,” however, is retired NYC police officer Wilton Sekzer, whose son was killed in the 9/11 attacks.

Sekzer’s earnest, heartfelt outpourings of frustration and rage manifest in his unflagging support of the invasion of Iraq, which he is convinced represents “payback” for 9/11. As soon as Bush began to downplay the link, Sekzer’s response takes a flabbergasted turn. It is too bad Jarecki didn’t use more civilians as case studies in the film, as Sekzer’s screen time is riveting. The director also elicits an emotional response from retired air force colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, but most of the interview subjects stick with their well-practiced soundbites.

Historians often contend – with the benefit of hindsight – that governments lie and cover up in times of war and peace. Even so, the movie’s inclusion of footage of Donald Rumsfeld meeting with Saddam Hussein retraces America’s hapless relationship with Iraq. The current Bush administration – as has been argued in mainstream publications like “Newsweek” and “Time” – is one of the most secretive presidencies in United States history. One of the questions raised, but not answered, by Jarecki’s documentary moves past the movie’s title to inquire why more common folks don’t demand greater accountability from our leadership when the answers that we are given don’t entirely add up.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/10/06.

ATL

Monday, April 3rd, 2006

2005atlMovie review by Greg Carlson

A flashy coming-of-age tale with miles of charm, “ATL” plays largely like a cross between “American Graffiti” and “Boyz N the Hood.” Following the fortunes and misfortunes of a close-knit group of friends about to graduate from high school in Atlanta, “ATL” marks the feature directorial debut of music video wizard Chris Robinson. Despite a slapdash screenplay by Tina Gordon Chism based on a story by Antwone Fisher (who already turned his own life story into the script for the same-named film of 2002), “ATL” coasts by on the charm of its attractive cast, which includes several untested Atlanta-based thespians.

Juggling an array of characters and subplots, “ATL” sticks mainly with Rashad (Tip Harris, a.k.a. T.I.), a sullen young man who has been looking out for younger brother Ant (Evan Ross) since the death of their mother and father. Rashad and Ant live with their irritable uncle George (an engaging Mykelti Williamson), a wise-cracking janitor who spends an unreasonable amount of time trying to keep his sugary cereal hidden from his nephews. Rashad’s best friends include Esquire (Jackie Long), who is just an eyelash away from getting into an Ivy League school, Brooklyn (Albert Daniels), who never lets his pals forget he hails from NYC, and Teddy (Jason Weaver), who appears poised to finally earn his diploma following several attempts.

The quartet hangs out every Sunday evening at the Cascade, an old-school roller rink, where they cruise girls, slurp sodas, and work on their team skate routine in preparation for an annual contest. Robinson initially builds up the roller skating angle, introducing a variety of teams with colorful costumes and nicknames, but unlike the similar “Roll Bounce,” ditches the competition as a major plot point. Instead, the movie sets up a melodramatic sidebar involving Ant’s decision to deal drugs for the frightening Marcus (perfectly embodied by Antwan “Big Boi” Patton of OutKast).

“ATL’s” most successful storyline revolves around Rashad and the beautiful New-New (Lauren London), who keeps a secret that threatens the stability of their budding relationship. New-New is one of the film’s strongest characters, but Robinson waits far too long to address her predicament, which overlaps with Esquire’s own difficulties with local millionaire John Garnett (Keith David). “ATL” hints at more interesting commentary on upward mobility and the challenge of holding on to one’s credibility when traveling between slums and mansions, but Robinson is content to merely keep it on the surface.

Robinson does a credible job of capturing the vibe of Atlanta, and the movie benefits from an excellent soundtrack. Visually, however, the director falls back on too many music video tricks – especially the reliance on a multitude of rapid cuts – which burdens scenes with a busy, distracting quality when calm is required. Robinson also rushes the resolution, which sticks with a comfortable predictability cutting across the numerous story threads that require closure. Defying the odds, however, “ATL” manages to step nimbly around many of its potential pitfalls, and the end result is an entertaining diversion buoyed by fresh performances across the board.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/3/06.