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“Kodachrome”: Celluloid Deserves Better Than This

Netflix’s Kodachrome is good fall-asleep-with-the-TV-on fare, and I mean you should snooze out immediately unless you want to be subjected to a criminally mediocre family drama. It’s about a last-minute reconciliation involving a dying father (Ed Harris) and his estranged adult son (Jason Sudeikis) after a bonding road trip in which sparks fly between the son and his dad’s attractive young nurse (Elizabeth Olsen). There’s not a single surprising turn in the Mark Raso–directed film (penned by Jonathan Tropper). Though Sudeikis’s Matt Ryder has built up years’ worth of resentment against Ben (Harris), the father who abandoned him, we know immediately they’ll find common ground. Both live archaically: Ben is a photographer who initiates the road trip in order to develop his film at the old-timey Kodachrome photo center in Kansas before it closes; Matt is a record label exec who does things the old-fashioned way — he cares about the authenticity of the music. Just as Ben had been absent from his family’s life, Matt, too, had issues with his ex: “She said I had a tendency of living in the past instead of embracing the present.”

In a suspiciously breezy series of events, Matt is offered a sit-down with a coveted band if he agrees to join his dad on this road trip. There’s definitely a scene where Ben’s nurse Zooey (Olsen) gives Matt a whole spiel about how “you’re scared to open yourself up” to Ben. And while Matt initially laughs it off, he, well, ends up opening himself up to his father. The Matt-Zooey romance is also trite and predictable. In between are long stretches of road scenes set to a Garden State–lite soundtrack.

Kodachrome
Directed by Mark Raso
Netflix
Opens April 20, Landmark 57
Premieres on Netflix April 20

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

David Rabe Puts a Town on the Couch in “Good for Otto”

Madness is red meat for playwrights. In the disjointed ravings of Ophelia, Lear, and Edgar-as-Poor-Tom, Shakespeare gives himself permission to go avant-garde amid the iambs. Tennessee Williams built a career on erotic neurotics, and, more recently, Quiara Alegría Hudes mapped the path from trauma to healing in Water by the Spoonful. What would dramatists do without the certifiable or merely eccentric? David Rabe takes a gentler, humane — but still poetical — approach in his community mosaic Good for Otto. Casting a benevolent eye over disturbed townspeople in the Berkshires and the doctors trying to help them, the play delivers multiple perspectives on damage as the human condition.

Somewhat like in the advice-column weepie Tiny Beautiful Things (at the Public Theater just over a year ago), Rabe gives voice to ordinary people buckling under hideous levels of stress, grief, and repressed emotion. The action is focused, ostensibly, on a mental health clinic in the fictional Connecticut town of Harrington, but we’re also peeking inside the crowded head of Dr. Robert Michaels (Ed Harris), the stoic shrink who serves as our (fairly) reliable narrator. (The play was inspired by Undoing Depression, a book by Connecticut therapist Richard O’Connor.) Spotlit center stage, the trim Harris, face chiseled and careworn, describes the civic features of the town and himself lying in bed pre-dawn, unable to sleep with patients’ voices gabbing at him. “Autism. O.C.D. Alcohol and drug abuse. Sexual abuse,” he muses. “Being young. Getting old. It all sits hidden in our little world of bright skies, bright lakes, and tall trees.”

In the three hours that follow, Rabe adopts a loose-jointed, unabashedly shaggy approach, gliding from monologue to fantasy to therapy session and even sing-along by the actors, who are seated in and among a section of audience on the stage itself. Scott Elliott’s fluid, transparent direction gives the affair an agreeably psychiatric Our Town vibe. The drably generic turquoise tiling and mismatched chairs of Derek McLane’s institutional set acquires instant warmth from an eclectic but lovable ensemble who wanders in and out of frame.

What prevents Otto from becoming a predictable parade of case studies or medical-show clichés is, first, Rabe’s vivid, punchy prose, but also the New Group production’s outstanding cast. The deliciously wry Amy Madigan plays Evangeline, a slightly cold-blooded colleague of Dr. Michaels, who likes to end her sessions with a banal “To be continued.” The expression tends to irritate depressive septuagenarian Barnard (F. Murray Abraham), a retired businessman and autodidact who spends weeks refusing to get out of bed. Barnard is staring into the abyss of death and has unfinished business that goes back to infancy. Evangeline also treats Timothy (Mark Linn-Baker), a middle-aged man on the autism spectrum, whose ailing hamster, Otto, gives the play its title.

One of Dr. Michaels’s most harrowing cases is that of twelve-year-old Frannie (Rileigh McDonald), an abused girl in foster care who cuts herself and speaks darkly about storms inside her head. Then there’s Alex (Maulik Pancholy), a painfully self-conscious gay man who spins romantic delusions about total strangers. On the (relatively) lighter side, there’s obsessive-compulsive Jerome (Kenny Mellman), who can’t break away from his domineering mother (Laura Esterman). At the terminal end of psychic phenomena is Jimmy (Michael Rabe), a young motorcycle enthusiast who delivers a chillingly matter-of-fact monologue about his suicide.

As if this cornucopia of misery weren’t enough, Good for Otto turns out to be three plays rolled into one. First, it’s a suite of patient portraits, as detailed above. It’s also “physician, heal thyself,” psychodrama, in the parts when Dr. Michaels confronts the jeering, toxic ghost of his dead mother (Charlotte Hope), who flits around the edges of the action, belittling her son’s ability to help anyone. Lastly, it’s a study of how insurance companies, with their inhuman cost-cutting and Kafkaesque case workers, may actually undo the healing process. Unfortunately, those last two genres — the dead-mom story and the institutional-critique angle — are the weakest strands of the script. The former may result from the casting of an actress who looks too young and doesn’t have the heft to play a truly demonic matriarch. The latter is simply too easy (and large) a target — that insurance companies screw over the vulnerable is news to no one. But then, Rabe has always pursued a maximalist agenda, from the trippy Vietnam family shocker Sticks and Bones (revived by the New Group in 2014) to the endless absurdist banter of Goose and Tomtom and the coked-up Hollywood blowhards of Hurlyburly.

So, the script could use a few cuts, and a crucial role is miscast. However, the cumulative force of Rabe’s deep, searching empathy, combined with the sheer variety of human experience on view, is impressive. Elliott coaxes a dozen fine-grained performances from the ensemble. Pancholy runs a shockingly convincing gamut from bubbly ingénue to embittered loner. Linn-Baker’s Asperger affectations are honestly funny yet dignified. Madigan and Harris combine grit, frustration, and spunky altruism. Mellman’s slightly flat, nasal delivery is perfect — and his work on the piano’s not shabby, either (what would you expect from Herb of Kiki & Herb?). And then there’s F. Murray Abraham: Can any other actor make his text sound as if it were custom-written for him? Does anyone else have his speed, pressure, musicality — that lightly devastating way of tossing off the telling detail? I’d pay to see him read the DSM-5.

Good for Otto
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
212-279-4200
thenewgroup.org
Through April 15

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Frontera Mines the Border Crisis

Some movies seem to be put on this Earth just for actors. You look at the synopsis of a picture, and you think, “Well, it could be OK,” but then you notice who’s in it — maybe a performer you like but haven’t seen in a while, or someone you never liked at all, but the casting piques your curiosity — and you suddenly think it might be something you’d like to see. Michael Berry’s debut feature, Frontera, is very much like a movie that might have been made 25 or 30 years ago, in the good way: A drama about an illegal Mexican immigrant (Michael Peña) who becomes a suspect in the death of the wife of a former Arizona sheriff (Ed Harris), it’s actually about something greater than its mere mechanics. Chiefly, though, Frontera is a showcase for actors: Harris, in particular, does something we’ve seen him do dozens of times before — his character is the laconic man of principle — but he’s so good at it, you warm right up to his rhythms. He’s like a fire you want to get close to. That’s the kind of thing a casually wonderful actor like Harris can do.

Harris plays Roy, a grouchy retiree who now devotes his life to poking around his ranch and, probably, driving his wife, Livy (Amy Madigan, also Harris’s wife in real life), a little crazy. In an early scene, he says good-bye as she takes off to ride her horse along the trails that wind through the property. One trail is particularly appealing, which means everyone seems to like it, especially, as Roy notes, those “damn Mexicans.” Earlier, we’ve seen young husband and father Miguel (Peña) leaving his pregnant wife, Paulina (Eva Longoria), and young daughter in Mexico for at least the second time: He’s headed back to the States, illegally — he’s already been deported once, but he can’t help trying again. His father-in-law has persuaded him to take along a ne’er-do-well friend of the family, Jose (Michael Ray Escamilla). At the beginning of the long trip through the desert, Jose greedily drains his water bottle and demands that Miguel refill it from his own supply. There’s no doubt this guy spells trouble.

But not as much trouble as stupid white guys: A bunch of bad-apple teenagers persuade their possibly more principled friend Sean (Seth Adkins) to grab his rifle and head off to a local ridge. They assure him they’re not going to do boring stuff like shoot at cactus. The less-than-innocent fun they get up to launches a chain of events that ruins lives, and, of course, there’s always a way to prove that “damn Mexicans” are to blame.

Frontera riffs on a number of contemporary political realities: The distrust and condescension Americans feel toward our neighbors south of the border, the prevalence of vile coyotes who prey upon Mexican citizens desperate to cross over, and the all-too-common tendency of law enforcement to see itself as being above the law. Berry, who co-wrote the script with Louis Moulinet, isn’t afraid to use melodrama as a tool to highlight injustice. The movie’s structure and approach are so straightforward you might be tempted to call them simplistic, and there are places where Berry stretches plausibility. But the very un-flashiness of Frontera makes it effective. This is, unapologetically, a modern western, an updating of the same kind of veiled social statements that Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher made in the 1950s with movies like The Naked Spur and The Tall T, movies that used codes of the old west to reflect new states of confusion and unrest. As in those pictures, the landscape of Frontera is its own world of beauty and ruthlessness: Cinematographer Joel Ransom captures the seeming paradox of skies that stretch on forever and countries that are, along some stretches, divided by little more than a flimsy fence — though even these fences can be nearly insurmountable for outsiders. In one chilling, beautiful shot, Miguel and Jose pick their way along a trail littered with discarded clothes and empty water bottles, the detritus of weary, dejected travelers, everything bleached by the sun to a state of despair.

The actors live up to the landscape. Peña comes off as a human being, not just a Symbol of Struggle. He’s especially good in a late scene with Longoria (who gives a delicately calibrated performance), one in which he shrugs off the stereotype of the macho Mexican with a simple, touching gesture. And it’s wonderful to see Madigan and Harris sparring and scowling, their characters showing for one another the gruff affection of many longtime married couples. They have just one brief scene together, but it sets the groundwork for everything else in Harris’s performance. As Roy, he’s thoughtful, reticent, a little bit tortured beneath that all-American, deep-blue-eyed façade. This is a man who wants to do the right thing and comes around to it slowly but definitively, the way a horse takes an amble around the paddock before realizing that what he really needs to do is run.

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Bening and Harris Have Excellent Chemistry in The Face of Love

Arie Posin’s romantic drama tips its hand when we see that protagonist Nikki (Annette Bening), a widowed interior decorator, has chosen posters for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo for the house she’s currently sprucing up. This is moments before she first sees Tom (Ed Harris), a dead ringer for Nikki’s late husband, Garrett (also Harris).

The Face of Love is also a few color gels away from being this decade’s remake of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, as Nikki embarks on a relationship with Tom that doesn’t defy contemporary taboos about age or ethnicity but instead is borderline necrophilic, while she lies to Tom about her past and tries to hide him from her adult daughter, Summer (Jess Weixler), and Nikki’s lovesick, perpetually friend-zoned neighbor, Roger (Robin Williams).

Bening and Harris have excellent chemistry, and the deeply objectified Tom gets an interior life, particularly in his touching relationship with his own, still-alive former spouse (Amy Brenneman).

Wisely shrugging off the question of how Garrett and Tom can be identical, The Face of Love becomes a study of a woman gradually losing her grip on reality, thanks to the universe playing a seriously dirty trick on her.

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Ed Harris Stars in Phantom, “Inspired” by “Actual” “Events”

Submarine movies are made out of claustrophobia, silent crewmen listening for enemy pings, and usually a bad guy whose personality is way too big for the boat. The conventions are so fixed that you’d expect Variety‘s clubby slanguage glossary to provide an obnoxious term for the genre. Ping opera? Sonario? To put it in that rag’s clipped, annoying parlance, Todd Robinson helms sub melodrama Phantom, toplined by Ed Harris as Soviet navy captain Demi (sorry). Demi is abruptly transferred from his nuclear sub to command a classified mission aboard an aging diesel vessel. The film nixes Russian accents in favor of aud rapport (dude, sorry), and Robinson’s screenplay (“inspired” by “actual” “events”) is informed by Cold War conspiracy theories. Rogue KGB agent Bruni (David Duchovny) has forged orders to test a top-secret device called Phantom that disguises the submarine’s sonar signature as that of any other kind of ship. He intends to seize the sub’s nuclear missile and fire it at Midway while impersonating a Chinese sub, provoking a war that would eliminate Russia’s largest rivals. “The only nuclear war we can win—one we don’t fight,” Demi observes. Locked in the sub’s nose, Demi plots with loyal crewmen to sabotage the nuke and retake control. Dicks nix clique’s trick (sorry, sorry, sorry), brutally killing several crewmen, and the ensuing suspense story is a pastiche of familiar tropes—effectively paced, but without originality. And what is up with combinations of Ed Harris, water, and unbelievably hokey endings? Phantom easily out-bromides The Abyss with its eye-rolling final two minutes.

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Virginia

Dustin Lance Black, scribe of J. Edgar and Milk, gets behind the camera for Virginia, a bonkers tragicomedy that blandly mocks the red-state family-values charade. The title character (a blond, drawling Jennifer Connelly) is a schizophrenic single mother who ignores the doctor’s warning that “whatever’s in your lungs is growing.” Instead of facing the music, she pretends she’s pregnant—by the town’s married Mormon sheriff, Dick Tipton (Ed Harris), with whom she has carried on a kinky long-term affair. “I support your decision not to have this baby,” responds the top cop, who distances himself from Virginia as his campaign for the state senate kicks into gear. Tipton more or less gets what he has coming, as Virginia’s son, Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson, also the narrator), and the sheriff’s daughter, Jessie (Emma Roberts), fall deeply in love. The rest is a bottleneck of half-comic escapades: The out-of-touch Virginia tries to fund her escape to bohemian San Francisco by sticking up a bank in a gorilla-mask disguise; the other characters, including the cross-dressing operator of the Southern town’s seaside amusement park (Toby Jones), hatch several schemes besides. Tonal stability is not the hallmark of this out-of-time fantasia, which premiered at Toronto in 2010 under the title What’s Wrong With Virginia. The variously eccentric characters and their flat Americana-kitsch backdrop never really feel like they’re part of the same movie, either.

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A Leap Into the Familiar: Wrong-Man Thriller Man on a Ledge Goes Thud

The hero of the red-herring heist flick Man on a Ledge draws two reactions from the Manhattan throng beneath his 21st-floor perch on a midtown hotel. The first, of course, is the predictable “just get it over with” impatience of New Yorkers impeded by police barricades. The second is unlikely populist solidarity, a stick-it-to-the-rich resentment among the 99-percenters whom Republicans would accuse of class warfare. Man on a Ledge is, then, essentially an accidental remake of the recent Tower Heist, with yet another band of blue-collar heroes trying to claw back the ill-gotten gains of an arrogant penthouse villain who only pays 15 percent on his taxes.

Unfortunately, this film doesn’t realize it’s a comedy. Instead of, say, Leslie Nielsen in the central role, we have a brand of Australian wall paint known as Sam Worthington. His Nick Cassidy is soon revealed in flashbacks not to be a suicidal leaper but a wrongfully imprisoned NYC cop who just busted out of Sing Sing. The poor schmuck was set up by corrupt millionaire David Englander (a bald, gaunt Ed Harris), who owns both the hotel and a treasure vault across the street. By threatening to jump, Nick serves as a diversion for his brother Joey (Brit Jamie Bell, credibly American) to crack the safe that will presumably disgorge both diamonds and exoneration.

It’s not a bad setup, and the script (by Pablo F. Fenjves) allows for much suspenseful intercutting between leaper and burglar. On the ledge, stalling for time, Nick demands that disgraced NYPD negotiator Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks) be the one to try to coax him down. In the building across the street, connected to Nick via radio, Joey gets busy crawling through ducts, dangling down elevator shafts, and using his iPhone to otherwise defeat a high-tech security system. (Aiding him is girlfriend Angie, played by a Wonderbra wrapped around model/telenovela actress Genesis Rodriguez.) Rififi it’s not, but Man on a Ledge at least provides the pleasure of hearing someone yell “Cut the red wire!” as if for the first time.

Director-for-hire Asger Leth (Ghosts of Cité Soleil) does what he can with the pedestrian material, pushing the camera out the hotel-room window behind Nick to vertiginous effect. The first time he slips—or pretends to slip—you gasp, but his banter with Lydia soon becomes as predictable as his footwork and pleas to the crowd below. (“I’m an innocent man!”) When, in yet another ruse, he tosses handfuls of cash down to the street, the ensuing scramble hardly feels desperate—not a riot in a Haitian slum, but tired extras stamping their feet to keep warm. Man on a Ledge seeks to be somewhat topical, positioning Nick as populist hero opposite the venal Englander (who, we’re told, “lost $30 million to Lehman Brothers” during the crash). There are also nods to Occupy Wall Street and Dog Day Afternoon, but the whole thing plays like random outtakes from Law & Order. You keep waiting for Chris Noth to wander onto the scene.

With his pickled shark’s smile, Harris is a welcome presence left with regrettably little to do. Down on the sidewalk, Kyra Sedgwick chews into her role as a cynical TV reporter, hitting the R in her name—Suzie Morales—like the pull-cord on a lawn mower. Her part is also too small to matter, but she and Edward Burns—as Lydia’s don’t-give-a-shit NYPD superior—are clearly aware that the material should be played for laughs. Worthington wouldn’t know how to behave if the film were a comedy; and poor Banks, after a promising, Young Adult–style introduction, isn’t allowed to goose the script or push beyond the glass ceiling of her character.

“You and I have a lot in common,” says Nick to Lydia at one point in the negotiation. He means that both are in need of redemption, but what they really share is the burden of playing characters who—like the movie—are essentially self-parodic. In other words, they’re meant for each other. We look forward to the sequel: Couple on a Parapet.

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Identical Twins Noah and Logan Miller’s Touching Home

Touching Home‘s identical twin screenwriters, Noah and Logan Miller, direct themselves, frequently shirtless, as identical twin jocks Clint and Lane (one of them has a missing tooth, which only helps distinguish them apart marginally). Long floating on the almost-maybe-next-year periphery of pro baseball, the boys, after yet another cut, retreat to lick their wounds in their rural Northern California hometown, where their estranged Dad (Ed Harris) is the local drunk who left the raising of his sons to Robert Forster’s Sheriff/Little League coach. There are a few things done right here: Baseball stuff and off-season quarry work are nicely shot, and there’s a real feeling for the precariousness of life on the lower rungs. But Touching Home, which eventually devotes itself to saving Dad from Demon Rum, has a nasty habit of cutting away right where a good scene would start, or introducing a character for no purpose. (Why even write a love interest — Ishiah Benben — if you’re going to give her positively nothing to do? Or introduce Brad Dourif as a retarded uncle?) Incidentally, the film has an Inspirational True Story (and tie-in book) behind it, which comes across not at all in the rather formulaic stuff that’s actually onscreen.

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Ed Harris Plays It Straight with Appaloosa

‘Course he’s willing to die. You think we do this kinda work ’cause we scared to die?” So speaks Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) about his sidekick Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), as the two stare down a posse of bad guys in Appaloosa, New Mexico, circa 1882. Cole and Hitch, who are good at killing but try to ply that skill for the right side of the law, are the new marshal and deputy, and that posse’s determined to spring their boss, Randall Bragg, from jail. A rancher with no cattle but nefarious plans for taking over the town, Bragg (Jeremy Irons, king of suave menace) is also an itchy-fingered killer, having shot the last town marshal right off his horse. He’ll surely hang, but only if Cole and Hitch can hold onto him until the trial—and we all know what slowpokes those traveling judges can be.

While they wait, Cole will fall hard for Allie (Renée Zellweger), a widow who wears her hair in a schoolmarm’s bun but is about as faithful as a dance-hall working girl. She even puts the moves on Hitch, who kisses her back (as any cowboy would) and then pushes her away, declaring: “I’m with Virgil. And so are you.”

If most of the dialogue in the pleasantly old-fashioned Appaloosa has a zingy precision, that’s because Harris, who directs from a screenplay he co-authored, is smart enough to quote—almost scene by scene and word by word—from Robert B. Parker’s 2005 novel (to which a sequel, Resolution, has just been published). It could be said that Harris and his co-writer, Robert Knott, haven’t done a whole lot of writing, but as Cole himself might say, there’s no need to get all fancy with what’s plain and true.

Appaloosa has the shifting boundaries of friendship and love on its mind, but this isn’t a movie likely to raise comparisons to the tortured revisionism of Unforgiven, or even to last year’s hyperactive shoot-’em-up, 3:10 to Yuma—and that’s surely fine by Harris. He and his collaborators are playing it straight with a timeless male fantasy—horse, hat, six-shooter—a traditional approach that will please moviegoers like my dad and yours: men who walked out of No Country for Old Men puzzled, feeling like they’d been cheated out of a climactic gun battle between lawman and villain.

Harris keeps the shootouts coming—there’s even a run-in with some canny Indians—but in this efficient western, there are no close-ups of shifting eyes and nervous trigger-fingers—just sudden, over-in-a-blink violence. Truth be told, it probably wouldn’t have killed the director to belabor the tension a little more, but hey, real men don’t drag things out.

A four-time Oscar nominee—including a Best Actor nod for Pollock, which he also directed—Harris specializes in portraying men whose excess machismo hasn’t turned them mean, who watch and carefully measure the world before making their move. So Virgil Cole, who is slow and deliberate and also the fastest draw in the West, should be the perfect role for him, and yet, oddly, Harris often appears to be not quite centered, as if Harris the director hadn’t found a way to help Harris the actor be as focused as Cole needs to be.

Holding one’s body still in front of a movie camera while also giving the sense of a mind in motion is a specialized art, one with few masters. Paul Newman comes to mind, notably in his later career, as does Robert Duvall, a perennial movie cowboy who will surely wish that Appaloosa had come his way. And now, it would seem, there is Mortensen, who steals this film by doing nothing much more than lean against doorways and bar counters. Like Harris, Mortensen is a great listener, and good listeners—in life and in movies—barely move. That quality is just right for the role of Hitch, whose life hangs on Cole’s next word and slightest gesture. It’s an old truth, and not just about westerns: When the talking stops, the dying begins.

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National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Oscar winner in hideous haircut? Check. Love interest with foreign accent? Yup, that too. Insanely convoluted treasure hunt involving multiple ancient clues to solve historical mystery? You know it. But this ain’t The Da Vinci Code, folks, and how can we tell? National Treasure: Book of Secrets is actually quite entertaining. Perhaps not so much if you still think of Nicolas Cage as a serious method actor, but if you’ve learned to enjoy his current incarnation of shticks and tics—bugging out his eyes, smiling creepily at inappropriate moments, and RANDOMLY SHOUTING certain words for NO APPARENT REASON—Jon Turteltaub’s movie is for you. Cage’s Benjamin Gates is so insanely patriotic that when his ancestor is smeared as a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination, he sets out to prove otherwise by kidnapping the president and striding into the top secret areas of pretty much every major national landmark, which is doubly preposterous when you think about how conspicuous he is with all the yelling and wildly demonstrative hand gestures. If you can put all sense of realism on hold, however, you’ll be rewarded with a moderately pleasing diversion, featuring Justin Bartha as the amusing wiseass sidekick, and Ed Harris doing a charmingly awful Old South accent. Also Helen Mirren’s here, as Cage’s inexplicably English mother—Oscars apparently just don’t pay the bills.