Thursday, September 27, 2007

Power of "The Kingdom" lies in action

Summary: "The Kingdom" is a butt-kicking hunk of action, but does it make a major statement about terrorism, the Mideast or anything else? The answer: Not really.

"The Kingdom" opens with a suicide bombing at an American installation inside Saudi Arabia. Director Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights") depicts this catastrophe in such alarming detail that you may wonder whether the film really qualifies as entertainment. But even in this riveting prologue, suggestions of intent creep in. We know, for example, that the attack takes aim at cherished American values. Some the folks were playing softball when the bombs went off. In additon, women and children were not exempted from the carnage. Safe to assume that Berg wants us to experience the revulsion that stems from wanton, indiscriminate destruction. (Like we haven't seen enough of that in real life?)

Still, it's quite a start. But the longer "The Kingdom" goes on, the more it seems like one more amped-up addition to the on-going action festival that constitutes a large share of American moviemaking. And, no, I couldn't help myself. From time-to-time, I got caught up in this camera-crazed fantasy that stars Jamie Foxx as a tough FBI agent and tender-hearted father.

Acting isn't exactly the strong suit here. Foxx's closed-off performance is aced by Chris Cooper's turn as an eccentric munitions expert. Perhaps to reach the female part of the audience and to provide eye candy for the men, Jennifer Garner has been recruited as a forensics specialist. Jason Bateman signs on as the team member who's snared in a life-threatening trap.

Look for Jeremy Piven, who plays Hollywood agent Ari Gold on HBO's "Entourage," to bring his aggressively nasty style to the role of a diplomat who wants the FBI guys to go through the motions and head for home. Ashraf Barhom plays a Saudi officer who's assigned to help the Americans and probably to keep on an eye on them, too. The Saudis regard this FBI mission as an intrusion and an affront.

To be fair, Berg has attempted a near-impossible task; he's trying to balance the need for explosive action with the desire to say something relevant about the way in which terror effectively can be battled. Moreover, Berg certainly won't be winning any awards from the Saudi government, which can't be happy about seeing its country portrayed as a haven for terrorists.

But let's be real here: Action trumps any real consideration of politics; the movie's gaze seems to be more fixed on box-office demands than on deeply troubling policy issues. Maybe that's why Berg shoots in the ultra-quick, faux documentary style that seems to be emerging whenever filnmakers want to persuade us that their task is fraught with urgency. The technique, particularly during fighting sequences, seems to be a cross between "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "Blackhawk Down."

If you leave after the movie's prologue -- a brief history of Saudi Arabia in news clips -- you might be able to say you learned something. Otherwise, you'll be sitting on the edge of your seat, trying to follow the tipsy, hand-held camera work, bracing for the next burst of action and marveling at Hollywood's ability to turn tragedy into white-knuckle thrills with occasional displays of emotion, of course. These, too, go off with bomb-like subtlety, showering the movie's calmer moments with the shrapnel of father/son sentiment both in Saudi Arabia and in the U.S.

ALSO ON SCREEN: A grim expose about the sex trade and two forgettable movies.

Based on a New York Times magazine article on the sex slave trade, "Trade" is somber, shocking and purposefully drab. It's definitely ambitious, but the movie pulls you down in the same way that an exploitation picture might. Put another way, it draws attention to a horrible problem, but doesn't tell a story that matches its aspirations.

Cesar Ramos portrays a young Mexican hustler whose young sister (Paulina Gaitan) is abducted and sent to the U.S. where she'll be sold over the Internet. Virgins bring a high price. Ramos' character tracks his sister all the way to New Jersey with help from an American insurance fraud investigator (Kevin Kline). The two make an unlikely duo, and an unusually dour Kline trudges through the movie like a man carrying the weight of many personal defeats.

The movie shows plenty of graphic abuse of young women, with particular emphasis on a Polish woman (Alicja Bachleda-Curus) who traveled to Mexico in pursuit of a better life. Director Marco Kreuzpaintner keeps the atmosphere grim, but the mixture of odd couple cliches (between Kline's character and his Mexican companion), road-movie adventure and expose´ sensationalism doesn't cohere into a work of agonized social conscience.

If you love the movies of director Robert Benton -- who co-wrote "Bonnie and Clyde" and who has made such recent favorites as "Nobody's Fool" and the underrated "Billy Bathgate" -- you may want to avoid "Feast of Love,'' a thoroughly mediocre movie about the love lives of various characters in Portland, Ore. Greg Kinnear plays the clueless owner of a coffee shop who can't hang onto his wife's affection. How could he? His wife (Selma Blair) has fallen for another woman. Kinnear's Bradley later hooks up with a real-estate agent (Radha Mitchell), who can't quite give him her heart, either. Morgan Freeman arrives to play ringmaster and guru to the bed-hopping Oregonians as they make their various ways through infidelities and sincere quests for relationships. Benton is one of the nicest people I've met in movies, but he struck out with "The Human Stain" and sinks further with this lame concoction. "Feast of Love" casts its own heartfelt pall. And while we're on the subject of lame -- or at least lukewarm -- movies, don't expect much from "King of California," which features Michael Douglas as a bearded eccentric who moves in with his teen-age daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) after he's released from a mental institution. Perhaps intended as a bittersweet celebration of eccentricity, "King of California" comes off as bland, a fitfully amusing but generally uninspired attempt at using quirky characters to provide us with uplift. And you thought those troubled folks in mental institutions really were sick? Shame on you.

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