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A tentative respect: (l-r) Barhom and Foxx in The Kingdom.

Hunting the Evildoers

 

By Ann Morrow

The Kingdom

Directed by Peter Berg

The 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 beheading.

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.

Still Hungry

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. Artificial 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 (Toby Hemingway).

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.

—Laura Leon


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