To say Angelina Jolie's directing debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, is getting mixed reviews would be an understatement. Even the Rotten Tomatoes "tomatometer" clocks in at an even 52%. While the film earned Jolie a nod at the Golden Globes for Best Foreign Language Film, and reviewers at the New York Times and USA Today largely agree that it's a solid first effort, other critics have been less than kind. The Village Voice, for instance, described it as a "United Nations extra-credit project about the Bosnian War." Ouch.
I'm in the camp that believes this is a very solid first effort. Jolie definitely deserves credit for tackling an incredibly tough topic for her first stint in the director's chair. And her choice to shoot it in Bosnian (as opposed to English with ridiculous fake accents) was a wise one that adds a certain air of authenticity to the film. Of course, there are moments that aren't perfect -- like the occasional history lessons that sneak into the dialogue, or the ending that leaves much to be desired.
But overall, In the Land of Blood and Honey is nothing Jolie should be ashamed of. She found a unique and compelling way to tell a complicated story by following Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) and Danijel's (Goran Kostic) perspectives. The two meet before the war erupts, as two young singles who find chemistry with one another. After the war breaks out, the two have completely different experiences. As a captured Bosnian woman, Ajla endures the brutal humiliations and sexual violence of the war. Danijel, on the other hand, wields a lot of power as a soldier fighting for the Bosnian Serbs, but he feels conflicted about whether he's doing the right thing or not, particularly when Ajla shows up as a prisoner at his camp.
Now that she has a bit more experience under her belt, I think Angelina could eventually develop into a good director. She certainly coaxed great performances out of Marjanovic and Kostic, and she's proven that she's not afraid to go big by tackling complex issues.
In the Land of Blood and Honey was actually a lot better than I was expecting it to be, which got me thinking about other actors-turned-directors who delivered surprisingly solid first films. Here's a list of the top five who surprised me the most.
1. Ben Affleck. Maybe it's because he tends to play dummies like Chuckie in Good Will Hunting or Dean in Extract. Or maybe it's because the general consensus used to be that Matt Damon was the real brains behind the duo. Whatever it was, I was floored by how good Gone, Baby, Gone was. Affleck proved it wasn't a fluke by following it up with The Town.
2. George Clooney. I think I was skeptical about Clooney's first directorial effort mostly because I thought, hey, nobody can be good at everything, can they? After seeing Good Night and Good Luck, though, I had to admit that Clooney just might be super-human.
3. Jon Favreau. Even though I loved Favreau in Swingers (which he also wrote), I always thought of him more as Vince Vaughn's buddy -- not a star in his own right. After he directed the excellent flick Made, he still didn't register as a power player until 2003, when Elf came out. Then, of course, with Iron Man, Favreau proved that he's way more than just Vaughn's sidekick. Who knows -- Vaughn might even be calling Favreau asking for work now!
4. Zach Braff. I had low expectations for Garden State. After all, how good could the goofy guy from Scrubs be at filmmaking? Well, as it turns out, pretty darn good. Even though he has yet to deliver a solid follow-up, Braff busted out of his goofy nerd stereotype with Garden State, and demonstrated that he's more than just a silly sitcom actor.
5. Billy Bob Thornton. Maybe Angelina thought hey, if my crazy ex Billy Bob can direct, how hard can it be? While it's easy to forget now after all of his goofy antics (see: infamous appearance on Q for evidence), Thornton actually directed a pretty great movie: Sling Blade.