Pride and Glory

Among the sterotypes that persist in movies is that of the Irish cop, and specifically, the Irish New York cop. Faith and begorrah, we love our true blue detectives Seamus and Sean O'Whoziwhatzis of the NYPD. Pride and Glory, written and directed by Gavin O'Connor, the honest to goodness Irish son of an Irish New York cop, is nothing to write home about, although it might get your Irish up, unless you like ploddingly familiar storylines and cliches. Seriously, this movie ends with fisticuffs between two Irish cops in a pub called Irish Eyes while an Irish reel plays on the jukebox. Not that I have any objections to Irish reels, mind you. The fightin' Irish are also brothers in law -- one good, one bad -- from a long line of Irish cops. Aren't they all?

The hard-drinking patriarch of the Tierney clan is police chieftain Francis Tierney, Sr. (Jon Voight), the sort of bloke who gets sloshed and makes emotional speeches at Christmas dinner. His son Frannie Tierney (Noah Emmerich) is commander of a Washington Heights precinct where there have been some shenanigans of late, perpetrated, unbeknownst to Frannie, by his dear brother in law Jimmy Egan (Colin Farrell). The misdeeds involved an extortion and thuggery racket operated by Jimmy and his fellas, which resulted in four cops being killed during a drug bust gone wrong. Jimmy's about the squirrelliest guy you're ever going to see, so it must have taken some top-notch looking-the-other-way for Frannie not to have noticed what was going on. He was, perhaps, distracted by the fact that his wife (Jennifer Ehle) is dying of cancer, which, I'll admit, is a good excuse.

The cop killings are being investigated by Ray Tierney (Edward Norton), a former detective with history, an angry scar on his cheek, and stuff he doesn't want to talk about, including a marriage that fell apart, apparently because of all the stuff he doesn't want to talk about. Ray lives on a boat -- a leaky boat. And the water's rising. Which is a metaphor for something, I'm sure. Ray doesn't want to investigate the cop killings, but Pop Tierney presses him to do it, which sets up a whole brother vs. brother, family loyalty vs. truth, thin blue line tale of moral conflict and whatnot that leads to that ridiculous donnybrook in the pub.

Mano a mano fistfights are a poor way to solve the problem of endemic police corruption, of course. Jimmy's a particularly bad cop -- in addition to murder and extortion, he threatens a baby with a hot iron. The baby is the child of a vicious drug dealer, but still, that's pretty bad, and warrants more than a punch in the nose. On the other hand, Jimmy loves kids, especially his own, so I guess it all evens out. All he needs is one act of self-sacrifice and redemption and everything will be okay. Luckily, the script provides just such an opportunity. Oh, and there's a race riot, too, because if there's one thing
Pride and Glory won't do, it's leave any stone unturned, if said stone resembles a retro cop movie cliche.

Like I said, I have nothing against Irish reels. I'm even willing to entertain some Irish cop cliches, but this movie's got all the Irish cop cliches, and, for that matter, all the cop movie cliches. There's a lot of shouting, and drinking, and speechifying about protecting the family (broadly defined) and not making waves if you live in boathouses, so to speak, and doing the right thing even if it's the wrong thing. Perps get slammed against walls, guns are drawn, blood spatters, people get punched in the face. It's all pretty well beneath Farrell and Norton to be in this bit of nonsense -- they're both capable and likable actors who can do better than play simplified versions of good cop/bad cop.

The director has a good eye for atmosphere, and the movie makes particularly good visual use of chiaroscuro to impart a vivid sense of the insularity and clannishness of the police force, while also creating a sense of heightened emotional intensity and intimacy that holds the attention even though the rest of the movie doesn't really warrant it. That's about the best and most high-falutin' thing that can be said for
Pride and Glory.


The Duchess

Times were tough for 18th century English ladies. They were essentially chattels. They couldn't inherit property and thereby achieve financial independence or escape the necessity of marriage. They wouldn't get the vote until more than a century later. And, if they were like Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, the fine clothing and palatial homes were little consolation for the indifference and tomcatting of their husbands. Or so we are to think in The Duchess, in which poor little rich girl Georgiana (Keira Knightley) longs for a husband who takes her seriously, and, you know, talks to her once in a while. Instead, the Duke (Ralph Fiennes) is an incurious dullard who can't keep his pantaloons on around the scullery maids, and whose only interest in his teenage wife is in using her for breeding stock. Her unsympathetic mother (Charlotte Rampling) advises her daughter (as Queen Victoria is alleged to have later told her own daughter) to close her eyes and think of England.

Georgiana gives the Duke children, but not the right sort for his particular needs -- he's interested only in producing a male heir, and is getting pretty desperate about the whole thing. Apparently life is demanding for 18th century English gentlemen too, however ungentlemanly they might be. Georgiana's only solace is that she is the toast of the town, a fashion icon, a woman whom other men fawn over, the people's princess. Remind you of any other sad ladies named Spencer?

The Duchess urges us to feel sorry for Georgiana, while at the same time oohing and aahing at all the grand architecture and lovely frocks. The Duke, though a little too sadistic and unpitying himself to be entirely sympathetic, is, as Fiennes portrays him, an arrogant but sad, lonely figure who appears somewhat aware of his own intellectual shortcomings. He knows that his young wife carries a torch for the more interesting, rabblerousing (and Duchess-arousing) politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). It's tough, however, to feel terribly sorry for a guy who installs his wife's best and only friend (Hayley Atwell) in the family mansion as his live-in mistress (and does even worse to his headstrong but utterly dependent wife). Fiennes just happens to be a much better actor than Knightley, so he's able to work some complexity, nuance and subtext into his character, which makes the Duke more pitiable than he probably looks on paper.

The movie is not otherwise exactly bursting with subtlety or interesting ideas.
The Duchess, based on a true story, and more specifically, on Amanda Foreman's biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, conveys some sense of the emotional emptiness and isolation of life at the top. The pitch for this movie was probably something like "It's Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette crossed with Jane Austen, but with more sex, no humor, and fewer beheadings." There are in fact no beheadings in The Duchess, although a few might have livened up the joint a bit. But the French Revolution was years off (and in a different country) as poor Georgiana underwent her many tribulations.

Director Saul Dibb co-wrote the screenplay with Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen.
The Duchess is a very picturesque film, but it's one that doesn't stray far from the obvious in telling Georgiana's story. A moment of great tragedy for the young Duchess is played out on an isolated, windswept, muddy road -- true to history, perhaps, but how much more interesting it would have been if it had taken place on one of those gorgeous, grassy, sunlit lawns where Georgiana spends her carefree, happy moments. Georgiana's story isn't well-served by the pedestrian treatment it gets in The Duchess. The movie emphasizes surface appearance -- Knightley's striking face, her lavish costumes and towering wigs, and the ornate, marble-licious architecture -- without bothering to dig very much below the surface. This makes the proportions of the story far less than tragic. Unhappy, untidy, and occasionally unusual, but nothing to get terribly worked up about.


Body of Lies (2008)

The newly-recharged James Bond, and the indefatigable Jason Bourne have put some sizzle back into the spy genre, but that news seems not to have reached the good people who made Body of Lies, a rote, lackluster spook movie set primarily in the Middle East. Never has the war on terror looked so boring, even with the addition of explosions and car chases. I had a running interior dialogue going throughout the movie. It went something like this: "Oh, something just blew up and all those completely anonymous people were killed. I probably should feel something about that. Nope, the movie's already moved on..." It's not that I don't so-called care about the so-called war on terror -- I just didn't care about the war on terror depicted in Body of Lies, and neither, I suspect, did the filmmakers, including director Ridley Scott, who has made far better, and more interesting movies about US foreign policy.

Body of Lies is one of Russell Crowe's chubby/shlubby movies, in which the actor packs on the pounds, slaps on some grey hair and a southern accent, and galumphs around. His character, a CIA chief named Ed Hoffman, is funny -- he's comfortably ensconced in stateside suburban splendor, attending to filial duties like any good soccer pop, all while chatting into his Bluetooth to the understandably uptight Roger Ferris. This is an amusing idea -- that one of those annoying people always chatting into their earpieces is actually engaged in life and death conversations on which hang the fate of nations. Hoffman, we are to think, is a regular Joe who just happens to be saving the world by pulling the strings on Very Important Overseas Spy Operations. Some of those strings are attached to Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) an Arabic-speaking CIA operative who is thisclose to finding a bin Laden-like figure named Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul). DiCaprio is increasingly hobbled as an actor by his baby face -- he looks like a teenager playing spy games here, rather than a mature adult capable of managing (single-handedly, apparently) American security operations in one of the world's hottest hotspots. Body of Lies follows Ferris as he hops around the globe, getting in and out of sticky situations (such as being chewed up by dogs, tortured, etc.) using diplomacy, cunning, lies, and guns, all to make the world safe.

Or something like that. There is, I suppose, a message to all this routine spy exposition, and it's stated by Hoffman, who reminds his spy guy that no one is innocent, and that the war must be won by any means necessary. Hoffman keeps an eye on Ferris from the comfort of his Langley office, via satellites which can zoom in on the minutiae of Ferris' daily spy exploits. Ferris, being the guy getting his hands dirty (and mangled) in all this, isn't so sure Hoffman is right, although rather than dwell on that potentially interesting moral controversy, the story throws an arbitrary and convenient romance-with-multicultural-complications in Ferris' path. The woman tangentially caught up in the web of intrigue is Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), an Iranian refugee and nurse.

The more interesting relationship is between Ferris and Hani (Mark Strong), the suave director of Jordanian security, who calls Ferris "my dear" and places a premium on truth and loyalty. Hani is one of those iron fist/velvet glove types who embodies the moral conflicts inherent in matters of intelligence and security, and the possibilities such a character presents are intriguing. The Hani-Ferris-Hoffman love-hate triangle is the most interesting thing about
Body of Lies, but it isn't given a chance to develop into much of anything in the film. Instead, Hani's role is, in the end, to be the unseen hand playing all the players who think they're controlling the game. It all makes for a tidy but implausible conclusion. If there's one thing that isn't going to come out of the war on terror, it's a tidy conclusion. Or, as I said to myself in that ever-so-pithy interior dialogue: "Phhbt. Not bloody likely."


Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008)

There's a little something vaguely familiar about the perky, sweet, tuneful teen romance Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. What's cool about the movie, though, is that the vaguely familiar stuff --like the pretty, popular mean girl, and the stock angsty teen torments -- get persistently swept aside to make room for characters that aren't caricatures and kids who are alright, when all is said and done.

What's said and done in
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is said and done in a single, fleeting night, in a city that never sleeps. It's the kind of night you can have when you're young and don't need to sleep, when time both careens forward, and stands still, and a few songs and small epiphanies can change your life. The restless city is Manhattan, where hordes of invading teens from the Jersey 'burbs are in search of fun, love, and an elusive, enigmatic band called Where's Fluffy?, rumored to be playing somewhere in the city. Among the hordes are Norah (Kat Denning) and Caroline (Ari Graynor, a relentless scene stealer). Norah's there for Where's Fluffy?, and to keep an eye on Caroline, who tends to get passing-out drunk when she's out on the town. They run into frenemy Tris (Alexis Dziena), the popular mean girl, at a show where The Jerk Offs, a queercore band, is playing. What a coincidence it is that Nick (Michael Cera) is the Jerk Offs' guitarist, and the only straight member of the band, and the heartbroken shlub that Tris recently dumped. He's also the author of mopey, thematic mix CDs that Tris trashes and Norah adores. Nick and Norah are entirely simpatico in their musical tastes, and in their utter devotion to Fluffy, and thus begins a complicated night of shenanigans, awkward romance, and assorted sortings out of feelings, exes, lifeplans, and other matters of great importance to high school seniors. Much of it is done in an unreliable Yugo.

The Yugo is a lemon -- or maybe a pumpkin -- but it's a fitting carriage for the stop/start, frequently stalled, roll backwards, jump forwards relationship between Nick and Norah. They've got issues, those crazy kids. They're ironic, sarcastic, cool, and dorky hipster geeks with an endless capacity to gab about matters of grave importance (on the relative merits of The Cure, for instance), and about nothing at all. They're also full of adolescent self-doubt, and they're basically decent, sweet people. Norah, whose father is a famous record producer, can get into any nightclub in the city, but she's never sure if anyone likes her for that, or for herself. (Maybe she should stop hanging around with mooching musicians.) Nick isn't over Tris, and Tris is a high maintenance, mixed-signal-sending girlfriend, even when she's an ex-girlfriend. Nick's cutie-pie bandmates act as infinitely patient matchmakers throughout the night for Nick and Norah, the obvious and oblivious soulmates.
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist treats these emotionally charged relationships with the kind of seriousness and sympathy that they rarely get in movies, which tend to view the complex and messed up relationships of adolescence as a passing and ultimately insignificant phase (and a source of puerile humor) rather than as a permanent part of the human condition.

Ah, but the movie's not all serious. There's fun to be had too, and the infinite playground is an enchanted, sparkling version of the city, filled with like-minded, club-hopping kids in an ├╝ber-tolerant, ebony-and-ivory-and-everything-in-between, gay-straight, drunk-sober melting pot in which the secret ingredient is the shared love of music -- the more insidery and alternative, the better. The worst things that can happen to a reckless kid in the big city -- the things that keep the parents of teenagers awake all night -- never do happen, and can't possibly happen, because Nick and Norah's sugar-sprinkled neon city is a fairy tale place open only to teenagers, with their fierce hearts and fearless ability to dance on the border between carefree childhood and careworn adulthood. (Caroline descends into the yuckiest, grungiest depths of the enchanted kingdom -- the Port Authority Bus Terminal -- in a scene that is suitably and hilariously disgusting.) It's a place of infinite possibilities when viewed through the filter of an authentic (but charmed) high school sensibility. Director Peter Sollett avoids teensploitation prurience and moralizing finger-wagging, maintaining a breezy and benign aimlessness that recalls how an all-nighter can feel all-too-brief when you're young and (maybe, kinda, possibly, starting to be) in love.