In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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Green Zone is a story we’ve already heard shot in a manner we’ve already seen and starring Matt Damon in a role he’s already played. Remember those WMDs that were never found in Iraq and later exposed to be the invention of a dubious and poorly-vetted informant? Remember the misguided and hideously botched attempt at establishing democracy after the fall of Saddam and the violent prolonged insurgency that ensued? If you’ve been away from the television for the past hour and somehow managed to forget any of these details Green Zone is here to remind you.
Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller an Army weapons inspector whose frustration over repeatedly coming up empty in his search for Iraqi WMDs leads him on a quest to track down and expose the people responsible for leading him (and us) down that infamously bogus path. Though his hand-to-hand skills are a notch below Jason Bourne’s Miller’s single-mindedness moral certainty and permanent expression of square-jawed defiance — always threatening another “How do you like them apples?” rebuke — in the face of an insidious multi-level government conspiracy are essentially equivalent to those of Damon’s Bourne trilogy soulmate.
And like Bourne his most dangerous adversary isn’t found on the battlefront but rather within the government he once served so proudly. As Miller delves ever deeper into the Case of the Faulty WMD Intelligence Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) the duplicitous arrogant Defense Department bureaucrat in charge of U.S. operations in Iraq summarily relieves him of his post. (Hint: the better dressed a Green Zone character is the more sinister his ambitions.) But Miller remains undeterred and he goes rogue to locate the CIA informant “Magellan ” a formerly high-ranking Iraqi official whose supposed confirmation of Saddam’s nuclear ambitions served as the basis for U.S. invasion.
We know how the story ends. Green Zone’s pervasive overarching sense of deja vu is accentuated by director — and veteran Bourne helmer — Paul Greengrass who employs the trademark hand-held super-shakycam style which was so fresh and inventive in 2004 but now feels stale and predictable. (Admittedly my aversion to Greengrass’ approach was no doubt heightened by a previous night’s viewing of Roman Polanski’s excellent The Ghost Writer a political thriller as subtle and precise and finely tuned as Green Zone is ham-fisted and haphazard — and which also uses the phantom WMD controversy to far greater narrative effect.)
Green Zone culminates in essentially a violent footrace between Miller and the Army Special Forces as they scour a heavily-armed insurgent stronghold to find Magellan with Miller hoping to secure his potentially damning testimony before the Army can silence him for good. The climactic sequence for all I could tell was either shot in Damon’s backyard culled from Bourne trilogy deleted scenes or assembled from scattered YouTube clips. This punishingly chaotic often incoherent and ultimately exhausting approach to storytelling isn’t cinema verite; it’s dementia pugilistica.
Jeopardy! whiz ends 74-game streak
Jeopardy! whiz Ken Jennings' 74-game winning streak came to an end in an anti-climactic episode televised Tuesday on ABC, but the computer software engineer from Salt Lake City has something to write home about: $2,520,700 in winnings. Rumors of Jennings' loss circulated on the Internet yesterday after video clips of the episode, which was taped in September, were leaked. Jennings' downfall started when he blew two Daily Double questions and then got stumped in the Final Jeopardy round. The answer in the Business & Industry category was: Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year. Contestant Nancy Zerg, a California real estate agent, had the correct reply: "What is H&R Block?" But Jennings guessed Federal Express as a shocked audience gasped in unison. The final score was Jennings $8,799 to Zerg's $14,001. But Jennings, who gave more than 2,700 correct responses during his stint on Jeopardy!, said getting use to the post game show life has been difficult. "I miss it quite a bit," Jennings told The Associated Press. "It didn't really hit me that that was going to be the hard part. I thought the hard part would be the loss." During his Jeopardy! reign, Jennings' average daily haul was $34,063.51, but the show benefited, too. Ratings were up 22 percent over the same period last season.
Sheryl Crow stalker acquitted
After deliberating for about three hours Tuesday, a jury found 38-year-old Ambrose Kappos not guilty of stalking singer Sheryl Crow for 15 months, the AP reports. Kappos was accused of stalking Crow from July 2002 until his Oct. 6, 2003, arrest at a concert hall in New York City where the singer was appearing. During that time, he also visited the singer's sister in Tennessee and her father in Missouri. Kappos told reporters outside the court he was "delusional" when he thought he was communicating telepathically with Crow and blamed two unhappy marriages, an infatuation with the singer and other emotional difficulties for creating the "perfect storm" psychologically.
CBS takes November sweeps
With one day to go, CBS claimed a November sweeps victory among viewers aged 18 to 49, while ABC and NBC were fighting for second. November is one of the four sweeps month where Nielsen Media Research ratings are used to set local advertising rates. According to Nielsen, CBS won the week, averaging 13.9 million viewers, followed by ABC with 11.1 million, NBC with 10 million, Fox with 7.5 million, the WB with 3.9 million, and UPN with 3.4 million. For the week of Nov. 22-28, the top 5 shows, their networks and viewerships: Desperate Housewives, ABC, 27.2 million; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Thanksgiving Special, CBS, 24.4 million; CSI: Miami, CBS, 22.1 million; Without a Trace Thanksgiving Special, CBS, 19.8 million; and Two and a Half Men, CBS, 18.9 million.
Bill Maher fights ex-girlfriend's lawsuit
HBO's Real Time host Bill Maher is asking for the dismissal of a $9 million palimony lawsuit against him, claiming he never promised to marry and support his ex-girlfriend Nancy "Coco" Johnsen, the AP reports. "He never supported her financially, and he never promised to support her or to purchase any house for her," said the filing, calling Maher "a confirmed bachelor, and a very public one at that." In her lawsuit, the former model and flight attendant claimed Maher, who began his relationship with Johnsen in 2003, convinced her to quit her job and promised marriage, children and a house but became "verbally abusive" once she did. The relationship ended in May.
Sundance unveils film premieres
The Sundance Film Festival has announced dozens of films that will premiere in January at what has become the leading U.S. showcase for independent movies. This year's festival will feature 120 films with 87 world premieres and 19 U.S. premieres, including: Happy Endings, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Arnold and Lisa Kudrow; The Matador, featuring Pierce Brosnan; Loverboy starring Sandra Bullock; Upside of Anger with Kevin Costner; The Jacket with Adrien Brody and Keira Knightley; Game 6 with Michael Keaton and Bebe Neuwirth; and The Ballad of Jack and Rose, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. The festival, backed by actor Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, kicks off for 10 days on Jan. 20.
Drake sweeps British indie awards
Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, a moving portrayal of a back-street abortionist in 1950s London, cleaned up at the British Independent Film Awards Tuesday, taking six awards, including best film and best director, Reuters reports. Drake's stars Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis also took the top prizes in the acting categories. This makes the second win for the indie film this year, after snagging the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival in September.
Soap actor David Bailey dies
Soap star David Bailey, who played the ruthless Alistair Crane on NBC's Passions, died in an accidental drowning at the age of 71, the AP reports. Bailey was spotted submerged in his apartment pool in Los Angeles on Nov. 25. According to an investigator's report, Bailey swam almost daily. An autopsy performed Sunday determined drowning was the cause of death. Bailey joined the Passions cast in September, finally giving a face to Alistair Crane, who had only been heard via speaker phone since the program debuted in 1999. He also portrayed Russ Matthews on Another World as well as Alan Spaulding on Guiding Light, Ben Forrest on As The World Turns and Teddy Malcolm on Ryan's Hope.
Opera singer Pavarotti to retire
Opera legend Luciano Pavarotti said he plans on retiring after he completes a 40-city tour. In an interview with Reuters, the tenor, known as "The king of the high C's," said he will bring down the curtain on a 43-year career with an international tour taking him from the Balkans to Buenos Aires via London, Paris and New York. "The tour is long but I never perform like a rock star night after night. I shall do a maximum of two or three concerts a month," he said of his global finale. When pressed, Pavarotti could not put a date on when the tour will end or where. "I don't know. When they are finished, I am finished."
Lucas donates cash to California university
Star Wars creator George Lucas has donated $100,000 to California State University, Long Beach, for film department scholarships as well as repairing equipment damaged in a heavy rain storm, the AP reports. Although Lucas attended the University of Southern California, close friend director Steven Spielberg is a Cal State Long Beach alum.
Kit Bowen contributed to this report.