A tentative respect: (l-r) Barhom and Foxx
in The Kingdom.
By Ann Morrow
Directed by Peter Berg
Kingdom is a hard-hitting actioner dealing with Islamic
terrorism in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Though it’s fairly
straightforward compared to Syriana, the espionage
thriller about American hegemony in the Middle East, The
Kingdom is in some ways the more provocative film, because
its métier is realpolitik. It concerns “the worst crime in
the kingdom’s history,” a car bomb attack on an American compound
that kills over a hundred men, women, and children. The victims
are American and Arab, and the sequence is an unnerving dramatization
of the horror of religious extremism. The FBI sends in an
elite force to apprehend the murderers, and the film deftly
balances their high- pressure investigation with a culture
clash that is as explosive as the terrifically choreographed
(and decidedly non-gratuitous) violence.
The FBI task force is dominated by Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx),
and Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), the two most macho members,
and the ones who have the most contentious encounters with
their Arab contacts. Fleury has to plow through the Saudi
resistance to having Americans investigating a crime on their
soil; the team is given only a week, and even getting permission
to land on the Saudi prince’s airstrip requires a bare-knuckle
negotiation. “We’re good at this,” Mayes assures the Saudi
police, and they reluctantly accede to FBI tactics. However,
they do not make any concessions about Mayes being a woman;
she is forbidden from touching a Muslim victim’s body during
an autopsy and has to use a hands-on translator to extract
the bullets for her.
The team’s Arab liaison is Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (a superb
Ashraf Barhom), a solemn, dedicated professional who develops
a tense but emphatic relationship with Fleury that is the
film’s most compelling aspect. While trying to interview the
shell-shocked husband of one of the victims, Ghazi, who lost
friends in the attack, respectfully keeps his distance without
any apparent offense as the man vents an anti-Muslim diatribe.
The investigation centers on terrorist bomb-makers and becomes
more gripping as evidence leads to Saudi perpetrators and
the possibility of an international crisis. (Jeremy Piven
is in the thankless but necessary role of unctuous diplomatic
flack). Slowed-down flashbacks to the attack and dialogue
in subtitled Arabic add to the immediacy of the FBI “infiltration,”
but Berg occasionally slackens the suspense with video-style
montages of the team during downtime, and his use of comic
relief, though spare, is in poor taste—such as Fleury’s cutesy
quip after a less experienced team member narrowly escapes
Even so, this is an impressive effort from Berg, who is primarily
an actor, and tyro screenwriter Michael Carnahan. The Kingdom
is more coherent than Steven Spielberg’s Munich, and
its final lines of dialogue just might be the most memorable
conversation in the movies this year.
Feast of Love
Directed by Robert Benton
With its ensemble cast, quirky ironies and stranger-than-fiction
coincidences—not to mention more nudity than in all the movies
I’ve seen in the last few years—Feast of Love is served
up like a veritable smorgasbord for filmgoers.
But Feast of Love, like one of those carb-free cookies,
turns out to be largely empty of anything fulfilling or sustaining.
It’s not even the celluloid equivalent of a devilishly good
but entirely bad-for-you midnight snack. It’s just vanilla.
Based on a novel by Charles Baxter, Feast of Love revolves
around a debate: Based on the existence of love and romance,
does God (or do the gods) love us or hate us?
Obviously, the answer to that question rests in the particular
character’s life circumstances. Also obviously, said character
will find both answers to be equally true. So, when Bradley
(Greg Kinnear) declares to wife Kathryn (Selma Blair) that
this is the best day ever, we know it’s just a matter of seconds
before she drops the bombshell that she’s leaving him for
her lover Jenny (Stana Katic). Later, Bradley declares that
love is everything to his new wife Diana (Radha Mitchell),
who of course secretly harbors intense longings for her married
lover David (Billy Burke).
Throughout Feast, one can’t help but remember the lyrics
to the J. Geils Band song “Love Stinks,” an infinitely more
enjoyable (and wiser) bit of pop culture than director Robert
Benton’s movie. Bradley is supposed to be a big-hearted guy
with a knack for falling for women who end up dumping him;
Kinnear’s good at this kind of role, but as scripted by Allison
Burnett, it’s stale, even unlikable. Bradley pours his troubles
out to Harry (Morgan Freeman), who, because he’s played by
Morgan Freeman, is like, well, God. Harry has his own secret
guilt, and his wife Esther (Jane Alexander) tries in vain
to console him; meanwhile nubile waif Chloe (Alexa Davalos)
wants him to adopt her and her former junkie boyfriend Oscar
Marriages come and go, pregnancies are announced, dogs are
adopted, lives are threatened, fate intervenes—never has the
whole process of life been so damn dull. The main problem
with Feast of Love is its makers’ fervent desire to
turn every possible thing, from a cup of coffee to a roll
in the hay, into something of seismic significance.
There are moments in Feast that are arresting in the
way that they draw us into a very personal situation, and
by that, I do not mean Benton’s really icky fascination with
showing his actresses mount and gyrate upon their onscreen
love interests. One of the more obvious examples is when Diana,
married, purposely dons one of her former lover’s old shirts.
The viewer can’t help but feel privy to something intensely
personal as we watch her first make the decision to put it
on, and enjoy the feel and effect of the shirt as she gazes
at her reflection; we then realize with some horror the undeniable
statement she has made.
I would willingly, gladly, watch a movie about a few of the
duos in Feast of Love, as opposed to this oleo. In
each of the story’s threads is something approaching reality,
the kind that we don’t see hardly at all on the big screen—the
kind that the director’s classic Kramer vs. Kramer
gave us oh so many years ago. The kind of film that Benton
doesn’t seem interested enough to deliver here.