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Thank You For Smoking.
Nick Naylor, the lobbyist for Big Tobacco, is as real of a dude as you can find. He has a messy family, a son who he loves and who looks up to him, and he’s juggling every bit of life that the rest of us face. Frankly, it’s hard to hate him, even with the swanky way he runs his mouth. I fancy Naylor; I don’t love him like they want me to, but I’m cool with his character. The movie makes every anti-smoker in the film out to be a dope: a senator unskilled with words, a reporter with low morale and no future, an old sick man who will do anything for money. It’s a mighty wimpy move for a movie that’s trying to be crafty and clever (and periodically succeeds). I didn’t buy that foil for a second. But I do appreciate the end, where Naylor chooses not to return to the Tobacco Company after being fired. Instead, he creates his own business strategy company. Now, just like his meetings with the firearms man and the alcohol lady (these 3 reps compare death tolls over burgers), the company isn’t upstanding or anything – he teaches other company leaders how to talk their way through the ins and outs of business. But the thing I recognize in the movie’s resolution is that everyone has gifts and talents and all this poor guy is trying to do in life is use his! He can reason his way out of a coconut with a spoon and it’s hard to find a valuable place in society for his skill. He knows what he’s good at and he doesn’t want to settle; he wants to use his giftedness. So in the end, he does – and that’s what I respect about him. I guess, if we want to, we can pull anything out of a half-decent movie, though, right?

Based on the book by Ted Dekker, this thriller surprised me from the get-go. The opening scene is intense and it doesn’t really let up from there. My heart was jumping throughout, and I could not have guessed the final twist if I’d had a hundred guesses. A seminary student is targeted by a “Riddle Killer” and partners with an old friend and an off-duty cop who has a personal connection to the killer to try and figure out why he’s being targeted. He has to uncover painful childhood memories to try and get to the bottom of this mess, all the while living in fear of the next attack. This is certainly a movie that you’ll want to watch twice, after you learn the true nature of the Riddle Killer at the end of the story. What a fantastic dialogue about the forces of evil in and around us.

With this film, I start to form a strong feeling that the lead actor in a film can really drive the movie, even if it lacks in plot or craft areas. Keri Russell plays a sweet Southern waitress who bakes expert pies in a rural diner. Frustrating, even infuriating, to any viewer, she stays almost passively in an abusive relationship to a controlling husband. When she finds out that she’s pregnant, she ends up in an affair with her doctor who, of course, treats her the way we want to see her treated. The most fabulous scene in the film is one where the doctor comes over and she teaches him to bake a pie. The scene is overwhelmingly sensuous, obliterating the throw-away sexually bent scenes throughout. The questions of honesty, responsibility, friendship, and self-esteem that the movie raises are powerful. They are cleverly quilted into this unique tapestry on Southern culture, but for me the course that it ran was missing an elusive something to ring true.

This is a puzzle piece movie. To my surprise, Joseph Gordon Levitt (formerly of the classic sitcom, 3rd Rock from the Sun and the wildly popular Shakespeare remake 10 Things I Hate About You) plays a captivating, dominant lead role as a high school senior intensely determined to solve the twisted mystery behind the death of his ex-girlfriend after she calls him in a panic months after their break-up. The beginning was choppy and somewhat confusing. At first, I thought there were too many characters to keep track of, and the girl in question was dead before I was able to figure anything out, so I felt behind. But there was a point early in the film where Levitt’s character, Brendan, meets with his information-rich buddy, Brain, to debrief and plot their course for solving this mystery. In that scene, they catch up the viewer and everyone leaves that scene on the same page. I enjoyed the use of first person camera shots; when Brendan was getting punched, the camera would go black as he hit the pavement and when he opened his eyes the scene would be blurry because he lost his glasses. We couldn’t see clearly until he put his glasses on. Brilliant. Putting the puzzle pieces together throughout the film was intriguing until the very last scene. Each of the character had depth and dishonesty, no one was trustworthy. Just when you think a character was telling the story the way it actually went down, a detail was revealed to prove him a liar. This movie leaves you ripe with speculative conversation as the end credits roll. I love it like that.