September Tapes (R) (95 min.) - There's something vaguely unsavory about Christian Johnston's film, despite its strengths. Like The Blair Witch Project, the movie blurs the distinction between fiction and documentary filmmaking. But Johnston toys with a serious subject, the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, turning it into a Rambo fantasy.
September Tapes uses the same fictional conceit as The Blair Witch Project: a collection of videotapes supposedly found after the creators disappeared. We're supposed to watch and wonder what happens to filmmaker Don Larson (George Calil) and his crew while they investigate the progress of the search for bin Laden, nearly a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Lars, as he prefers to be called, has a personal stake in the story that ruins it.
The scenes of Afghan life during wartime are always interesting, filmed in locations unsafe for civilian Westerners. We get a strong sense of place and tension: homes, marketplaces and playgrounds where Afghanis maintain their social order, and firefights that threaten it. Lars interviews citizens and hears a variety of impressions about bin Laden and President Bush; the people seem as divided over the issues as Americans are now about Iraq.
Johnston's mistake is misusing such remarkable access for dramatic purposes rather than becoming the documentary filmmaker he's fictionalizing. Knowing that the interviewer is a fake, how can we judge the sincerity of the comments he hears, the opposition he faces and the violence he sees? In effect, September Tapes perjures its testimony so Johnston can appear clever.
As such, Lars must have a hidden agenda, as someone must in Hollywood thrillers. His Afghan guide, Wali (Wali Razaqi), must deliver the necessary exposition and repeatedly remind Lars of his dangerous behavior, as Hollywood thinks moviegoers require. There must be a way to get Lars closer to bin Laden - a bounty hunter he happens to meet fits the bill - because otherwise Johnston wouldn't have a bang-bang finale.
Using the Sept. 11 attacks as a starting point for such pandering cinema is distasteful, no matter how many insights September Tapes provides about the Afghan environment. Wasting such an opportunity to provide either confirmation or contradiction of U.S. policy is irresponsible. Ultimately, this cinematic incursion into Afghanistan is something like the real thing for all the wrong reasons: President Bush hasn't gotten his man, and Johnston doesn't get his movie. Grade: C
- STEVE PERSALL, Times film criticA competent "Criminal'
Criminal (R) (87 min.) - This mildly satisfying con-man drama, adapted from the 2000 Argentine film Nine Queens, is awash in small pleasures. Everything about the movie, the directorial debut of longtime Steven Soderbergh associate Gregory Jacobs, is modest. The performances are admirable, if less than compelling. The pacing is competent. And the payoff is pleasant but slight. It's fun, if instantly forgettable.
Jacobs, whose film was co-produced by Soderbergh and George Clooney (partners on another crime-caper remake, Ocean's Eleven and its forthcoming sequel), opens with a smart scene that crackles with wit and invention. Rodrigo (Diego Luna, Y Tu Mama Tambien), caught attempting to scam a waiter at a casino, is arrested by a cop (John C. Reilly, Chicago) and led outside to a police car. The guy with an L.A.P.D. badge turns out to be Richard, a veteran fleecer looking for a new partner in crime.
Criminal is a buddy movie of sorts: The experienced grifter patiently teaches the art and craft of his work to his new accomplice, and the rookie is a quick study. The two, working in Los Angeles, rapidly stumble onto an opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to sell bogus antique money to a billionaire collector. Family complications, though, threaten the success of the setup: Richard's sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is angling for a bigger piece of the family inheritance. Should the partners trust each other? Probably not. Is a sting afoot? Trust your instincts. Grade: B
- PHILIP BOOTH, Times correspondent