REVIEW: “Enough Said”

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“Enough Said” is an interesting romantic comedy/drama from writer and director Nicole Holofcener. It’s one of those films that has magically latched onto critics who were giving it rave reviews. It has one of the highest aggregate scores on Rotten Tomatoes and it has found its way on numerous Top 10 lists from well respected critics. But what is it about this movie that has earned such high praise? Here are a few things that come to mind: charm, wit, an intelligent script, and two very strong lead performances.

The true magic of “Enough Said” starts with two fine leads. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva, a divorced single mother and self-employed masseuse. Her life is in a repetitive rut at least until she meets Albert played by James Galdolfini in the first of his final two roles before his death. He two is divorced with a young daughter. The two decide to go on a date which launches a very unlikely relationship. In some ways the two couldn’t be more different. She is a fit and attractive middle-aged woman while he is an overweight middle-aged regular Joe. The film points out these physical differences on numerous occasions and I feel it’s for a specific reason. At first Eva may be desperate to fill a void in her life but soon she sees beyond physical appearances to what really anchors a relationship.

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“Enough Said” develops one of the purest depictions of an adult relationship you’ll see on screen. For years Hollywood has been fixated on divorcees when it comes to depicting relationships. That has fascinated and at times frustrated me. But here it is very pertinent to the story and more importantly to the characters themselves. Dreyfus and Gandolfini are fantastic and have a remarkable chemistry. You do root for them to make it and overcome their faults and past mistakes. Dreyfus has always had this infectious wit that I’ve been attracted to, and Gandolfini shows a brilliant range that many of us didn’t realize he had.

Holofcener’s script is smart and authentic but I have a few quibbles with it. There are a handful of subplots that are vaguely introduced but never really explored. A couple of them do reflect on our two main characters but others feel tacked on and unnecessary. There is also a twist with a character named Marianne (played by Catherine Keener). She and Eva become friends and they have some good moments together, but I couldn’t really buy into the overall idea behind the twist. I can see where it would work in a film a little more focused on straight comedy. But here it felt like a stretch.

Still, “Enough Said” is an intelligent and refreshing alternative to the bulk of what passes for romantic comedies these days. It’s mature in the sense of its middle-aged focus and it’s grounded in its portrayal of fallible and believable characters. But the biggest treat is watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini effortlessly embody these two characters. Both are fantastic and they are the real heart of the film. And for me, it’s their performances that are the biggest draw.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“Zero Dark Thirty” – 4.5 STARS

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Kathryn Bigelow may be the boldest and gutsiest director in the business. One things for certain, she’s not scared to jump head first into a part of the film industry sandbox normally dominated by male directors. I think that’s the main reason I like her so much. Bigelow doesn’t allow others to define what type of director she is or what type of movies she’s going to make. She makes the movies she wants to make and lately they just happen to be gritty and realistic military pictures. But what’s really cool is that she does it better than almost anyone else. She doesn’t bow to gender trends, political positions, or industry traditions. She tells powerful and mesmerizing stories and does it her own way.

Bigelow’s latest film is “Zero Dark Thirty” and it didn’t take long for the cries of controversy to begin. This is also a movie that’s received a lot of praise even garnering several Oscar nominations including Best Picture. But Bigelow herself received what I think is the biggest snub of the Oscars when she was passed over for a best director nomination. This has brought speculations of gender bias from some while others believe it’s Academy backlash for what they perceive as bad politics from Bigelow. I don’t know about any of that but it’s an inexplicable snub. Bigelow has crafted a dense and thrilling film that surpasses her previous movie, the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker”.

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“Zero Dark Thirty” is an edge-of-your-seat procedural that follows the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. This isn’t a paper-thin conventional Hollywood action picture. This movie follows the CIA’s taxing search through evidence, information, and leads in order to find the terrorist mastermind. It’s an arduous and toll-taking mission that weeds through enhanced interrogations, misdirections, and loss of life. Bigelow manages to condense this decade’s worth of investigation into a gripping and concise 2 1/2 hours. She stops at critical points during the manhunt, some where we made important progress and others that were disastrous.

Bigelow once again teams up with writer Mark Boal and, as with “The Hurt Locker”, they aren’t out to make political points or deliver a heavy-handed statement. Regardless of the “pro-torture” accusations from the left and the “inaccuracy” claims from the right, Bigelow and Boal throw out a lot of information and allow the audience to sort through it, process it, and come up with our own conclusions. I like that. Unlike so many Hollywood productions of this kind, I wasn’t beaten over the head with a political slant. Instead I was allowed to view the events through my eyes and interpret them accordingly. That’s one of the reasons there has been such a range of reactions and I think it’s a sign of brilliant filmmaking.

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Before I move on let me address the “pro-torture” debate that surrounds this film. I think “pro-torture” is a self-serving term that doesn’t do the film justice. Yes the movie shows several scenes of enhanced interrogations and it does say bits of important information were gathered through them. But it also shows the heavy personal and emotional toll it takes and it asks the question ‘Was it worth it?’ Bigelow doesn’t gloss over the harsh and disturbing nature of the torture and it’s impossible to view those scenes in a “pro-torture” light. On the flipside, just when you’re questioning the at-all-cost approach to the search for Bin Laden, Bigelow injects a scene of savage terrorist violence that reminds you of the barbarism at the heart of the enemy. These scenes, along with the brief but sobering opening featuring 911 calls from the 9/11 attacks, really hit home with me and reminded me of the ruthless reality of terrorism. But I had to decide if the ends justified the means and the film makes that decision a challenge.

2012 has been the year of ensemble casts and “Zero Dark Thirty” may have the best of them. It’s a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of actors that I love. It all starts with Jessica Chastain. She plays Maya, a brash and determined CIA operative whose entire career has been devoted to finding Osama bin Laden. Early on she is assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan where she grows tired of the political wrangling and red tape. She may at times look like a supermodel but she’s really a firebrand who will stir things up to get results. Maya is devoted to her mission and at times she seems like the only one interested in succeeding. But as the movie progresses we see the physical and emotional toll the manhunt is taking on her. Chastain is simply phenomenal. There’s not one disingenuous moment in her entire performance and while 2011 was a great year for her, this was superstar making work.

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And speaking more of that ensemble cast, there are several other standout supporting performances. Jason Clarke is fantastic as a tough and slightly unhinged CIA interrogator. Kyle Chandler is wonderful as Maya’s CIA boss in Pakistan. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are perfect as members of the Navy SEAL team tasked with pulling off the final mission. I loved Edgar Ramirez as a skilled CIA ground operative. The great Mark Strong plays a CIA head caught in the middle of Washington politics and the mission at hand. James Gandolfini is a lot of fun as a heftier Leon Panetta. I also enjoyed Jennifer Ehle as Maya’s co-worker who starts as a rival but ends up a good friend. This is just an enormously strong cast from top to bottom.

Everyone knows how “Zero Dark Thirty” ends but that doesn’t keep it from being an intense edge-of-your-seat thriller. The story starts with the frustration of bad leads and dead ends but the intensity is ratcheted up to crazy levels once the first big break comes through. I was absorbed in what I was seeing. And then there is the finale, possibly the best 20 minutes of military action ever put on screen. Bigelow never Hollywoodizes the sequence. She makes it as grounded in reality as possible. But when it comes down to it Kathryn Bigelow likes to make movies about people. This is a movie about women and men who sacrificed their skills, their lives, and some may argue their humanity to accomplish a greater good. It’s a movie that’s not afraid of asking tough questions or of challenging popular sentiments. It’s also a movie made with impeccable filmmaking  style and skill which all comes back to Bigelow. So Academy, you’ve got explaining to do!

REVIEW: “The Taking of Pelham 123” (2009)

I bet these guys didn’t expect their day to go like this? That seems to be a reoccurring question in Tony Scott’s “The Taking of Pelham 123”, a stylish but sometimes preposterous remake of the 1974 film. At its core this is a pretty formulaic, run-of-the-mill action thriller that takes no chances but also never wastes a moment. It moves at a quick and fluid pace which makes overlooking it’s shortcomings a little easier but not impossible.

“The Taking of Pelham 123” has all the bells and whistles of a Tony Scott production. The quick camera jerks, clever angles, and showy pyrotechnics work well to create an intense environment. In fact often times his camera adds more tension than the screenplay can muster. Scott has a recognizable style and can sometimes be called self-indulgent. He flirts with that label here but as a whole his high-tech machinations work just fine. It often times overcomes the story which is pretty basic material.

The movie starts with four heavily armed men walking into a New York subway station and taking control the Pelham 123 train. The film won’t do anything to enhance your view of post-911 security. There’s no elaborate well executed plan at work. The hijackers simply walk in and take the passenger-filled train. The leader is a man we come to know as “Ryder” played by John Travolta. Sporting a crew cut and fake neck tattoo, Travolta is clearly having fun with the role even though he goes a little over the top sometimes. “Ryder” soon contacts the Subway Control Center and connects with dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a middle-aged husband and father of two who ends up completely out of his element. Washington has played some rough and tough roles but he also has a wonderful knack for playing these “everyday man” characters. Here he’s subtle yet expressive and I loved watching how he handles the role. John Turturro is good as a head hostage negotiator and James Gandolfini is fine as the mayor even though his character is pretty poorly written.

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While the story is fast paced and it does have its moments of tension, sometimes it’s just plain silly. For example we get a key scene involving an accidental sniper rifle discharge due to a rat bite and there’s a head-scratching sequence involving the cops transporting ransom money through the city. It’s beautifully filmed but utterly ridiculous. The story is also fairly conventionally and predictable. But the movie is also let down by a really flat and lifeless ending. It seems hurried and it packs absolutely no punch whatsoever.

In spite of the movie’s flaws, Tony Scott manages to pack some entertainment into this linear, straightforward action thriller. Washington and Travolta’s CB radio chemistry is compelling even if they aren’t saying much and Scott’s cinematic style gives the story energy and drives the tension in the scenes that do work. But the sub par material is too much to overcome. I especially hate to see such a strong Denzel performance go to waste but in reality there just isn’t enough here to make this anything more than an average movie.

VERDICT 2.5 STARS