Released last fall to mostly negative reviews and dismissed by paying audiences as most current Iraq war movies have been, Robert Redford's LIONS FOR LAMBS (***1/2) was much better than I was lead to expect. My only thought at this point is that most of our nation's film critics are die-hard Republicans who aren't able to view a political film with an objective, balanced mindset. Crisply written by hot-shot scribe Matthew Michael Carnahan (last year's action flick THE KINGDOM and next year's political thriller STATE OF PLAY) and directed with casual elegance by Redford, the film tells three simultaneous stories of how America is dealing with the current war on terror. Tom Cruise is an idealistic Senator with an eye on the White House who is giving an interview to a political journalist played by Meryl Streep. Redford stars as a California college professor who wants to get more out of one of his bright but apathetic students (Andrew Garfield); the two debate what it means to be patriotic and realistic in today's political climate. The third plot line centers on two soldiers (Derek Luke and Michael Pena) who are stranded on a snowy mountaintop in Afghanistan after being shot out of their helicopter. Actor/director Peter Berg shows up as their military commander and gets some choice, brutish lines of dialogue. The film is equal parts cynical and passionate, and the acting is top-notch across the board. Cruise is especially effective; he has the look, feel, and cadence of a slimy, smart politician down perfectly, and his scenes with Streep crackle with intensity. The action scenes, obviously shot on a budget, aren't particularly memorable, but this is a film more interested in ideas and words than it is in explosions. Anti-war but pro-America, LIONS FOR LAMBS is a quick (90 minutes) and engaging political thriller.
It took me a while to catch up with KISSING JESSICA STEIN (***1/2), a delightful romantic comedy that was released back in 2001. Energetically directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (who went on to make the vapid LEGALLY BLONDE 2 two years later), KISSING JESSICA STEIN is a cute, sharply observed New York rom-com about a Jewish sweet-heart named Jessica (the adorable Jennifer Westfeldt) trying to find "Mr. Right." After a series of embarrassing dates and less-than-cool suitors, she impulsively answers a singles ad which happens to be written by another woman named Helen (the enticing Heather Juergensen). They meet, form a quick friendship, and before you know it, they are getting hot-and-heavy. This twist on the standard rom-com trajectory is what sets this film out from the pack. There is an honesty to the humor and in the dialogue, and some of the more cliched genre elements that you expect to happen actually don't. And it doesn't hurt to have two beautiful women locking lips as frequently as these two do during the course of the film. I loved the pitch-perfect ending and all of the performances. I should have seen this film sooner; if you haven't seen it yet give it a shot. It's a lot of fun.
Austin Chick's dry, sexy, and edgy romantic drama XX/XY (***) came out in 2002 but somehow I missed it. Being a big fan of the film's star Mark Ruffalo, I finally caught up with it. Well done in many areas, it's a darkly funny look at sexual entanglements that begin in college and which end in early adulthood. Ruffalo is Coles, a rugged charmer who enjoys his life as a college ladies man. One night at a party, he gets it on with two alluring women, Sam (Maya Strange), and Thea (Kathleen Robertson). Coles and Sam then develop a relationship, with Thea lurking in the background; she's on the sidelines but not entirely out of the picture. Feelings are hurt and people say some nasty shit to one another. Cut to 5 or 6 years later, and Coles is living in New York City with a buttoned-up blond named Claire (the effective Petra Wright). Coles randomly bumps into Sam in the street, passions are re-ignited, and choices get made. Coles isn't a very likable character yet Ruffalo brings a distinct level of humanity to him; Ruffalo's ability to elicit sympathy from a character like this is a testament to his estimable talent. All of the women are spunky and Austin Chick's carefully worded screenplay isn't overly talky or too on-the-nose. It's a subtle, indie-flavored drama that features solid acting and an engaging story.