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Wow, What a Washout 

It's hard to get a handle on Oliver Stone's big messy George Bush biopic

click to enlarge Oliver Stone's 'W.'
  • Oliver Stone's 'W.'

Previews

Opening Friday, Oct. 24, just in time for Halloween, is the fifth installment in the beloved (?) torture-porn franchise, Saw V. This go-round finds forensics expert Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) using his cop training to hide his identity as the latest disciple of the demented sicko Jigsaw. Rated R. 88m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek, Minor and Fortuna.

Speaking of cops, in Pride and Glory Edward Norton and Colin Farrell are NYPD brothers with an NYPD dad (Jon Voight). After some other cops get whacked, the ensuing investigation leads one brother to suspect his own family. Rated R. 125m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

On a cheerier note, Disney's High School Musical 3 finds seniors Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) dealing with pre-college separation anxiety by repeatedly breaking into song. Rated G. 112m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

Acerbic comedian Bill Maher turns his scrutiny on religions the world over in the documentary Religulous. Directed by Larry Charles (Borat), the film boasts the tagline, "Do you smell something burning?" Rated R. 101m. At the Broadway.

Disney ushers in the holiday season with its release of Tim Burton's classic The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3-D. Relive the king of Halloween Town's discovery of and subsequent adventures in Christmas Town. Rated PG. 76 m. At Fortuna.

The Eureka Library's Hitchcock month wraps up with the suspense classic Psycho, hosted by film instructor and KIEM creative services director Philip Wright. Tuesday, Oct. 28 at the Main Branch, 6:30 p.m.

Reviews

W. Oliver Stone's better films are lurid tabloid fare, melodramas filled with bombastic bursts of bravado. Often macho and over the top, at times ham-handed, they are usually meant to provoke strong reaction. Lately though, Stone's been adrift -- the ludicrous toga epic Alexander and the stolid World Trade Center were boring big-budget behemoths that could have been directed by anyone, and evidenced little of the director's earlier gonzo energy.

The life and times of George W. Bush would seem to be a natural target for Stone's conspiratorial muckraking agenda, and has the added frisson of being released in the final months of Bush's own presidency. It's a shame then that W. isn't better than it is.

The film switches back and forth between Bush's early days as a ne'er-do-well drunken fratboy at Yale to his improbable rise to power (though strangely the Air National Guard years are elided). As many have noticed, Bush is the ultimate personification of the Peter Principle, and the telling of his rise far above his level of competence can't help but be a parody of a typical fictionalized biography.

Ultimately though, the film suffers from a lack of consistent tone -- Stone can't decide whether the film is a black comedy, a conventional biopic or a political exposé, so he tries to do all three, with mixed results. The more comic scenes are the strongest -- particularly a scene where Bush leads his cabinet on a hike through his Crawford ranch and gets lost. As for the exposé many of the incidents are familiar to those who've paid close attention to the news (or have read the books that Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser used as source material). A scene where Dick Cheney lays out the war for oil scenario plays a little too schematic and baldly preachy. (We get that Cheney is the Prince of Darkness, already.)

Stone centers on the oedipal conflict between the patrician Bush Senior (ably played by James Cromwell) and W., black sheep of the family, as the central dramatic through-line of the story. The father-and-son relationship as portrayed is a little too pat, dramatically, even if it may be literally true.

What really carries the day is the superb cast of actors Stone has assembled. Josh Brolin inhabits W. utterly, capturing his mix of rangy charm, callowness and unwarranted confidence, and even makes him a bit sympathetic, which is some feat. It's a role that could easily slide into the realm of sketch comedy, particularly with Bush's propensity for malapropisms, but he gives it just the right mixture of believability and comic edge. The actors playing the members of his administration are fine, usually avoiding mere impersonation. Richard Dreyfus, in particular, captures the ominous, bullying side of Dick Cheney, as does Jeffrey Wright, conveying Colin Powell's reasoned voice in the wilderness.

W. takes a story that we're still in the middle of and suffers from that lack of distance. Some partisans will decry that Stone's playing fast and loose with the facts, as usual, but actually the film could use a little more of the fast and loose craziness that permeated his earlier work. As in his film Nixon, he goes out of his way to humanize a character that he despises politically, tries to not extrapolate and stick to the written record. In the process some of his creative energy seems to have dissipated. It's disappointingly conventional.

W. is a film carried by its fine actors, but it really doesn't tell us anything about George W. Bush that we didn't know already. At the Broadway.

-- Jay Herzog

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES. While this film is every bit as warm and emotional as it looks, it also sets its story against a turbulent time in American history. And the cast make sure things don't get too sugary.

In 1964 South Carolina, 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) can only barely remember her mother, and doubts that her angry father (Paul Bettany) loves her. So when their housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) is injured in a racial attack, Lily joins her on the run, taking refuge with beekeepers who have some connection to her mother. The house is run by August (Queen Latifah) with her sisters May and June (Sophie Okonedo and Alicia Keys), and as Lily finds a place to belong, she knows she'll also have to confront her past.

There's an autobiographical feel to this film, and director Gina Prince-Blythewood maintains the honeyed glow of nostalgia throughout even the film's darkest passages. She also allows some actors to indulge in over-smiley performances and over-groomed appearances, while every set is over-designed to perfection. Even the weather seems to contribute to the beautiful Hollywood sheen, as beams of sunshine cascade through ethereal woodland settings.

Within this, we're thankfully still able to see the story's raw edges, as events dip into shocking violence and tough introspection. And three of the performances catch this roughness: Fanning is terrific in her first teen role, pouring attitude and emotion into every scene. Hudson beautifully conveys her character's evolution from suppressed minority to a woman with equal rights in the eyes of the law, if not quite in the eyes of the culture. And Bettany is superb as a man who is utterly lost and lashing out at everyone around him.

These three actors bring out the script's darkness with remarkable skill. The rest of the cast is good, but they settle for easier performances that don't look or feel quite as real. This uneven style of acting actually makes the film more interesting, highlighting the story's challenging themes and undercutting the otherwise girly ambience. And in the end, Lily's internal journey is surprisingly moving, as she comes to accept the fact that there are things we can never understand. And that perfect love is very rare indeed. At the Broadway.

-- Rich Cline

Continuing

APPALOOSA. Two men save lawless town from terror inflicted by renegade rancher. Rated R. 116 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA. Pampered dog winds up on the mean streets of Mexico. Rated PG. 91 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

BODY OF LIES. Rated R. 128 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

BURN AFTER READING. CIA agent's memoir lands in hands of unwise gym employees intent on exploiting their find. Rated R. 95 m. At the Minor.

CITY OF EMBER. City's only light source is lamps; lamps start to flicker and teens fight to save the day. Rated PG. 95 m. At The Movies.

THE DUCHESS. Duchess of Devonshire, glam girl and forward thinker, can't seduce her own husband. Rated PG-13. 109 m. At the Broadway.

EAGLE EYE. People forced into dangerous situations while tracked and threatened by mysterious woman. Rated PG-13. 118 m. At The Movies.

HUMBOLDT COUNTY. Straight-laced city guy gets caught up in The Lost Coast's counterculture. Rated R. 97 m. At the Minor and The Movies.

IGOR. Lowly hunchback lab assistant dreams of becoming bonafide scientist. Rated PG. 86 m. At The Movies.

MAX PAYNE. Maverick cop forced to battle unnatural enemies in his quest for revenge. Rated PG-13. 100 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek, the Minor and Fortuna.

NICK AND NORA'S INFINITE PLAYLIST. All-night quest in NYC to find legendary band's secret show turns romantic. Rated PG-13. 90 m. At The Movies.

QUARANTINE. Reporter and cameraman trapped in horrifying CDC quarantine. Rated R. 89 m. At Mill Creek.

SEX DRIVE. Teens roll with their virgin friend across the country to get him laid by chick off the net. Rated R. 109 m. At Mill Creek, the Broadway and Fortuna.

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