Agnes (Ashley Judd) is bored with her life--and she's sworn off men. She's a bit fearful of her abusive ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) who just got paroled and works at an all-girl bar with her lesbian friend R.C. (Lynn Collins). When R.C. finds a handsome stranger Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) wandering through town she tries setting him up with lonely Agnes. She doesn’t really click with him but feels sorry for him and lets him spend the night in her rundown motel room. Then the bugs begin to bite. According to Peter they're not just bedbugs but aphids—and Peter thinks the bugs are part of a government conspiracy. To off-set the bug bites fend off the persistent helicopters flying around outside and avoid the mysterious Dr. Sweet (Brian F. O'Byrne) Peter and Agnes cover their hotel room in tin foil hole up from the rest of the world—and spiral down into a world of madness. It's a strange role for Judd. She's not glamorous at all but successfully pushes the edge as a white-trash waitress looking for something more out of life. Judd transforms believably from a strong hard woman to a fragile fearful female on the edge of sanity. She gets naked with a stranger she kisses her best girlfriend--and then she starts believing bugs are biting into her skin. Shannon is alternately a handsome handyman type who is also very uneasy and creepy to be around. "I make people uncomfortable " is his grand understatement. At one moment he is someone who Judd willingly decides to sleep with and in the next moment he's a psychotic wild-eyed madman that she should be running away from. Either way he is compelling. Connick Jr. however plays his bully ex-con role in a characteristic one-dimensional one-note depiction that isn't as interesting nor as threatening as Peter. Director William Friedkin who gave us Exorcist and The French Connection expertly helms this relatively narrow-focused screenplay by playwright Tracy Letts. Since it is an adaptation of a play the actors are sometimes limited in their actions and the setting is almost too claustrophobic. As the camera swoops down overhead to an isolated motel in the middle of the desert from unseen helicopters the drab hotel room transforms into a sparkling foil-covered eerie set with a blue tint courtesy of the talented production designer Franco Carbone (of the Hostel movies fame). Tightly winding up this conspiracy thriller--in which theories about Tim McVeigh the Unibomber and the Bilderberg Group abound—Friedkin allows the paranoia to wash over you in wave after agonizing wave. And nothing is more unnerving than Peter pulling what he thinks is an insect egg out of his tooth. Shiver.
Pride is “inspired” by true events. Unlike movies “based” on true events those that are “inspired” can take the bare bones of a true story and build exponentially upon them. It focuses on swim coach Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard)—not by the way to be confused with the great boxer Jimmie Ellis—who inspired in a group of inner-city kids “pride determination and resilience” when he was assigned to monitor a rundown Philadelphia recreation center in the early 1970s. As one would expect in a film of this sort Coach Ellis instills in his kids a will to struggle and fight--and to paddle their way to glory. Along the way they contend with the hazards of urban life (drugs crime) and the ugliness of racism. The kids learn teamwork and respect and the coach learns a thing or two about himself too. Terrence Howard who’s in such a beautiful groove as an actor that he can almost do no wrong brings his trademark intensity and passion to the role of swim coach Jim Ellis. He’s tough but tender forceful yet contemplative--and everything a big-screen coach should be. He also has great chemistry with the kids and particularly with Bernie Mac whose custodian of the rec center becomes a great sounding board for Coach Ellis and the swimmers. If Howard is a great screen coach--and he is--than Mac is a great assistant coach. It would be nice to see them paired up again. Kimberly Elise is very pretty and very good in another stock role that of a city councilwoman eventually won over by Howard leading to a potential (and predictable) romance. Even Tom Arnold cast as an antagonistic and racist rival swim coach manages a good turn. This is the first feature from director Sunu Gonera and he brings an enthusiastic approach to absolutely formula material. The swimming scenes are exciting and even better the scenes that focus on the characters are just as stimulating. Besides any director who can get a good performance out of Tom Arnold surely has something. Films of this sort can be done well and they can be done badly--and we’ve all seen countless examples of the latter. Pride is clearly a feel-good movie from the first frame to the last. And guess what? It all works. Every second of it. Pride’s corniness quotient which should be off the scale is instead supplanted (refreshingly so) by a good old-fashioned sense of storytelling and heart. It gets its message across without being heavy and that is tantamount to a victory in itself.