In Theaters: October 17, 2008

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    Josh Brolin and Oliver Stone lampoon the Decider in Chief in W.; Mark Wahlberg is a major pain in Max Payne; and Queen Latifah teaches Dakota Fanning about life, love and honey in The Secret Life of Bees.

    W.
    Directed by Oliver Stone
    Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton.
    **1/2

    There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Oliver Stone’s pre-Election Day biopic of current White House resident George W. Bush is a mess.  But here’s the good news—W. is actually a fascinating mess that offers tantalizing glimpses of the movie it might have been.  The film also benefits from a live-wire star turn from Josh Brolin, who captures George W. Bush’s voice and mannerisms so perfectly, I honestly thought I was
    watching the real deal at times.

    The central problem with W. is that Stone and his screenwriter Stanley Weiser are making two different films at the same time.  One is a straightforward biopic about the screw-up son of a prominent politician, who repeatedly fails upwards until he ends up in the highest office in the land.  The other is an absurdist comedy that depicts how this black sheep and his crack squad of cronies led the country they publicly claim to love into an ugly war on foreign soil.  Guess which one is more entertaining?  (Hint: it’s the one that doesn’t play like Johnny Cash Walks the Line to the White House.)

    I have to admit that it’s fun at first to see Dubya’s wayward years as a frat boy, failed oil tycoon and all-around drunken slob dramatized onscreen.  But it quickly becomes clear that Stone’s only psychological insight into this period in his life is that Bush suffered from major daddy issues.  Again and again, we watch Junior seethe while Poppa Bush (played by James Cromwell) lavish affection on his other children, reserving only modest praise for his eldest.  While this may in fact be the “Rosebud” that explains Bush’s personality, it doesn’t change the fact that Stone and Weiser rely on it too heavily as a dramatic crutch to prop up the directionless narrative.

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    W. is on firmer ground when it moves the action to the White House’s war room during the days leading up to America’s invasion of Iraq.  Instead of going for a tense inside-the-Oval-Office recreation a la 13 Days, Stone makes the brilliant decision to mine this territory for laughs by incorporating now-famous catchphrases (“Axis of Evil,” “I’m the decider” and so forth) into the cabinet’s private conversations and using hindsight to poke fun at just how wrongheaded their initial predictions were.  Is it a bit like shooting fish in a barrel?  Sure, but given the administration’s continued arrogance about their mistakes and missteps in the run-up to the war, it’s hard to feel guilty for seeing their incompetence played as broad comedy.  The White House sequences are so funny and timely, it’s a shame that Stone didn’t make them the focal point of the movie.  Is it possible that the once-notorious firebrand behind Natural Born Killers and The Doors is softening in his middle age?

    Even if the overall film is deeply uneven, Brolin’s terrific performance is reason enough to check out W. He’s able to pull off the tricky task of depicting Bush’s numerous foibles while also humanizing the guy so that he doesn’t come across as a walking parody.  Brolin is backed by a strong supporting cast that includes Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Toby Jones as Karl Rove, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell and, best of all, Thandie Newton whose impersonation of Condoleezza Rice is almost as good as Brolin’s Bush or Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin.  (Funnily enough, Brolin is on deck to host Saturday Night Live this weekend.  Here’s hoping the writers over at Studio 8H were smart enough to rope in Newton and Fey for surprise in-character cameos.)  It’s just a shame that Stone isn’t working on the same level as his cast.  If he were, W. may have achieved the greatness that continues to elude the real-life W.

    Verdict: See It

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    Max Payne
    Directed by John Moore
    Starring Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges.
    *

    “Enough of this shit,” a random dude with a gun shouts somewhere the middle of Max Payne, a big-screen version of the popular PC action game.  All I can say is: right on random dude!  Even by the low standards set by such awful video game based movies as Doom, Silent Hill and Street Fighter, Max Payne is a turd of epic proportions.

    The film casts Mark Wahlberg as the title character, a New York City cop still haunted by the violent deaths of his wife and infant child.  And that’s pretty much the only part of the film’s nonsensical plot that I understand well enough to recap.  The bulk of the picture consists of a pissed-off Payne wandering around the snow covered streets of Toronto (doubling for Manhattan) in pursuit of various bad guys as well as a deadly drug that gives its users enhanced strength and bizarre hallucinations of otherworldly demons.  He sometimes fights in two-player mode alongside former That ’70s Show star Mila Kunis, playing a Russian mob queen out to avenge her recently murdered sister.

    Obviously, the story is never the main attraction in a movie like Max Payne, but the movie also fails as a mindless action flick.  Simply put, the director John Moore has no conception of how to choreograph and shoot the movie’s big set-pieces, instead relying on tired Matrix-esque slow-motion shots and lots of random bursts of gunfire to do the heavy lifting for him.  Don’t look to the movie’s star to save the day either.  As bad as Wahlberg was in The Happening earlier this year, he’s even worse here, forcing his mouth into a perpetual scowl and squinting constantly in a desperate effort to come across like a badass.  Or maybe he’s just pissed off that he let his entourage talk him into appearing in this dud.  Even Vincent Chase was smart enough to turn down Matterhorn.  What’s Wahlberg’s excuse?

    Verdict: Skip It

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    The Secret Life of Bees
    Directed by Gina-Prince Bythewood
    Starring Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys.
    **

    I never read Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel The Secret Life of Bees, so I can’t vouch for how faithful writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s big-screen adaptation is.  But I can say that if the book is as sickly sweet as the movie version, I’m not going to be adding it to my Amazon shopping cart anytime soon.  Former child actress turned awkward 14-year-old Dakota Fanning stars as Lily, a young girl living with her cruel father (Paul Bettany) in the rural South in the early 1960s.  Ever since her mother’s death many years ago, Lily has struggled to find someone to replace the woman she never got the chance to know.  The person she turns to for comfort most often is her maid Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson).  But when Rosaleen is beaten for daring to register to vote, Lily decides it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge.  The duo hit the road and eventually find their way to a Pepto-Bismol colored house inhabited by the honey-making Boatwright sisters.  The eldest August (Queen Latifah) runs the family business and spends much of her time amongst the many beehives in the backyard.  Middle child June (Alicia Keys) teaches music, but her main profession seems to be turning down marriage proposals from her long-suffering boyfriend Neil (Nate Parker).  Meanwhile, the youngest Boatwright, May (Sophie Okonedo) continues to mourn the long-ago loss of her twin sister by running outside to build a miniature version of Jerusalem’s famed wailing wall.

    Look, there’s little doubt in my mind that everyone involved in The Secret Life of Bees set out to make an uplifting, inoffensive three-hankie weepie in the tradition of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Steel Magnolias.  But I wonder if any of them realize that, at the end of the day, this is yet another movie where a white character is emotionally and spiritually healed thanks to the timely intervention of a Magical Negro (or, in this case, three Magical Negros).  I assumed that outdated stereotype had been put to rest after the awful Will Smith/Matt Damon snoozefest The Legend of Baggar Vance, but The Secret Life of Bees unfortunately pulls it out of mothballs one more time.  The cast does the best they can with the material they’ve been given (except for Keys, who seems to think she’s still acting in Smokin’ Aces), but they’re fighting an uphill battle against a narrative with no real dramatic tension and a director who can’t figure out how to make the story relevant to contemporary audiences.  The movie just lies there onscreen, drowning in its own sticky syrup.

    Verdict: Skip It

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    Also Opening in Limited Release

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    What Just Happened
    Directed by Barry Levinson
    Starring Robert De Niro, Robin Wright Penn, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Kristen Stewart.
    **1/2

    The majority of moviegoers have shown a profound disinterest in forking over good money to watch Hollywood poke fun at itself.  Still, there is a segment of the viewing public (myself included) that shows up for any inside-baseball skewering of the film industry, whether it’s good stuff like Entourage or The Player or crap like Burn Hollywood Burn.  Those same folks will probably feel obligated to check out What Just Happened, a moderately funny, but largely forgettable adaptation of movie producer Art Linson’s bestselling tell-all about his years in La-La Land.  Robert De Niro plays Linson’s fictional stand-in Ben, a big-time money man currently overseeing two troubled productions.  The first is an existential action film starring Sean Penn (who plays himself) that’s being directed by a bad boy European filmmaker and the other is a big-budget blockbuster starring Bruce Willis (also playing himself) who shows up for work overweight and sporting a ridiculous beard.  As if that’s not enough, Ben is also trying to mend fences with his second ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) as well as his rebellious teenage daughter from his first marriage (Kristin Stewart).  Shooting the action with a shaky handheld camera, director Barry Levinson tries to give the movie a sense of urgency, but can’t hide the fact that he’s re-treading ground that has already been covered in other, much funnier Hollywood satires.  Interestingly though, What Just Happened does feature De Niro’s most engaging star turn in quite some time.  I had written the guy off after the one-two punch of Stardust and Righteous Kill, but this film proves he’s still capable of more than perfunctory, phoned-in performances.  Maybe next time his effort will be in service of a better movie. Verdict: Rent It

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    Good Dick
    Directed by Marianna Palka
    Starring Marianna Palka, Jason Ritter, Martin Starr.
    *1/2

    All of the most annoying elements of independent cinema are on full display in Good Dick, a painfully awkward attempt at…well, I’m not sure what exactly.  Writer/director/actress Marianna Palka seems to think she’s making an offbeat comedy in the vein of Harold and Maude, but doesn’t even come close to hitting the mark.  As in that ’70s classic, Good Dick depicts an unlikely romance between two eccentric oddballs, a socially awkward video store clerk  (Jason Ritter) and a reclusive shut-in (Palka) with a serious porn addiction.  Even though she spurns his advances at first, Ritter refuses to take the hint and bullies his way into her life.  Instead of calling the cops and getting his ass tossed in jail, Palka inexplicably strikes up a friendship with Ritter that may or may not flower into something like love.  Hilarity and emotional healing is supposed to ensue, but the movie only gets more unbelievable as it goes along, climaxing in an out-of-left-field revelation about Palka’s childhood that completely upends the film’s serio-comic tone.  After a half-hour spent in the company of these annoying, unlikable characters, I almost wished that Max Payne would show up and put them out of their misery. Verdict: Skip It

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