Thursday, November 6, 2008


STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE (***1/2) is another incendiary documentary from Errol Morris (THE FOG OF WAR, THE THIN BLUE LINE). Exposing the atrocities that went down at the infamous Abu Grahib prison scandal is hardly the stuff of pure entertainment, but Morris, in his usual stylish way has presented the facts in an up-front and unflinching manner and has backed up his information with detailed interviews with most of the key military personnel that were involved. Morris doesn't offer up any easy answers as to why these soldiers acted in the disgraceful manner that they did. Rather, he posits that these various underlings were just following orders and doing what their superiors told them to do. It's a damning portrait of further military incompetence at the hands of Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, and assorted high-ranking military commanders. Morris re-creates some of the psychological torture tactics that were used on the detainees and combined with Danny Elfman's propulsive musical score, he underlines the horrors of what went on in that compound of humiliation. I thought that Alex Gibney's similarly themed (and Oscar winning) documentary TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE was a bit better than STANDARD OPERATING PROCUDURE, but I recommend that you check out both of them. They are hard-hitting pieces of expertly detailed journalistic reporting.

Noam Murro, a much-heralded commercials and music video director, made his feature film debut earlier this year with a small ensemble comedy called SMART PEOPLE (**1/2) and while I enjoyed some of his first effort, it didn't completely win me over. This is another sad-sack story about mostly unlikable characters drifting through their various turmoils. Dennis Quaid is a widowed, disheveled college English professor who gets a chance to score with one of his ex-students, played by the always-smiling Sarah Jessica Parker. Quaid's stoner brother played by Thomas Hayden Church steals all of the scenes he appears in and Ellen Page is also along for the ride as Quaid's sarcastic daughter. Everyone in this movie is a sour-puss of sorts, and Murro's visual style is simple and straight-forward. I just wanted a little more to latch onto as there really is no plot, per se, and what does develop between the various characters is only moderately engaging. Church really nails his stuff and Quaid is his always appealing self. Page is going to get annoying real quick unless she ditches the sarcastic humor routine; it’s getting old quickly. The script has it’s moments but if mostly uneven. It’s sort of funny but not funny enough. When the films goes for dramatics it falls a little flat because nothing ever feels truly at stake. It's not a bad movie, just a bland one.

After making the riveting documentary BUS 174 a few years ago, Brazilian director Jose Padhilla steps up to the feature world in a big way with his explosively violent actioner ELITE SQUAD (***1/2). The film is a companion piece (of sorts) to CITY OF GOD, and while ELITE SQUAD doesn't reach the brilliance of that film, it gets a lot of things right along the way. Set amid the dangerous slums of Rio De Janeiro, ELITE SQUAD centers on a bad-ass cop who works for a SWAT-like task force. The pope is coming to town so he and his fellow officers are tasked with cleaning up the streets and getting rid of as many drug dealers and potential assassins as possible. The film exhibits a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality when it comes to the work of the police. It’s like Dirty Harry on crystal meth. A voice-over narration keeps things moving along at a brisk clip and while some of the film might seem over-heated, I think it just further proves the point that Padhilla is trying to make -- this is one of the scariest, most dangerous places on earth. It’s a rip-roaring action film and Padhilla is turning into a distinct stylist.

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