An Inconvenient Truth


An Inconvenient Truth
“As a matter of fact, I DID invent the Internet and I’m very nearly as tall as the planet.”

(2006) Documentary (Paramount Classics) Al Gore. Directed by Davis Guggenheim

I have to admit not being the biggest Al Gore fan in the world. In all honesty, I was put off by him because of the actions of his wife Tipper in the heyday of the PRMC. Her heart might have been in the right place (as a parent, I don’t object to labeling material that might be offensive to some – parents have a right to know what their kids are listening to) but it seemed to me that she seemed more intent on effectively driving the edgier material out of the marketplace than in providing a needed service to parents. I found her methods heavy-handed, and in some ways, I probably migrated my dislike of her over to her husband. I was truly happy when George W. took the oath of office. Given my 20/20 hindsight, I might not have been had I known then what I know now.

Nowadays, he is the poster boy for climate change and in the process, he’s re-invented himself. Once ridiculed for his somewhat stiff manner, he seems a lot less stiff these days stumping for the planet. The documentary An Inconvenient Truth has won the Oscar, but is it really about global warming?

Yes and no. In some ways, it is about the former Veep and how he came to be so passionate about the subject. Quite frankly, this is a film with an agenda and if it doesn’t apologize for it, it doesn’t attempt to hide it either and it has at least the courage of its own convictions. That climate change  is a reality is incontrovertible; as to the more current debate on whether it is a natural occurrence or not I won’t take sides. I don’t pretend to be expert enough to do that. Let me just say that I have my own opinions and leave it at that.

This is a movie that essentially preaches to the choir; if you were a Gore-hound in 2000 or are an eco-warrior at all now, you won’t be introduced to anything new. If you were a Bush-head in 2000 or are an economic warrior now, you probably won’t be watching this movie. I will say it does make compelling viewing, particularly when Gore is onstage delivering his slideshow (which is enhanced here by additional footage you won’t see in a live Gore presentation).

Still in all, it has an impact that is hard to argue with. While there are those who say that this is less about saving the Earth than it is about saving Al Gore’s career, there is no doubt that the movie is still as relevant five years later as it was when it first debuted – maybe even more so, given the climatological effects we’ve been seeing of late – brutal winters, weather-related disasters and vicious summers. There is no doubt that our planet is undergoing a profound change and that we are either going to have to change our habits now or learn to live with the consequences later. It seems likely that the planet and weather patterns we know now are going to be drastically different for our grandchildren.

I sure hope that a few centuries from now, our descendents – what few remain – aren’t cursing us. I hope they aren’t in despair in some cave, knowing that we had the ability to make some changes and chose not to do so. I hope we are a much wiser race than it appears we are. I hope we have the smarts to listen and the will to make a difference. Otherwise our species will be as thriving as Al Gore’s presidential aspirations.

 WHY RENT THIS: The slide show is impressive. The information here is vital.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Al Gore is a less-than-compelling speaker. A case could be made that the goal here is less to promote ecological awareness than to reinvent Al Gore.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the thematic material here might be a bit adult for smaller kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first (and so far only) documentary film to win two Academy Awards.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The DVD also offers additional tips on how to reduce your own carbon emissions and help with the climate crisis on a local level. Whether you like Gore or don’t like him, this is a problem that isn’t going to go away. We need to act and act now, and the filmmakers provide a service in giving you ideas and motivation to do precisely that. There is also a Melissa Etheridge music video as well as an update on what’s transpired since the film was released.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $49.8M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Boogie Woogie

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The Last King of Scotland


The Last King of Scotland

Forest Whitaker points the direction his career is going after his performance here.

(2006) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Forrest Whitaker, James McEvoy, Gillian Anderson, Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney, Adam Kotz, David Oyelowo, Abby Mukiibi, David Ashton, Barbara Rafferty.  Directed by Kevin McDonald

Most of us are possessed of two faces; the one that we show to the world, and the one that is our true self. Sometimes these faces are very different indeed, and often those are the people who cause the world the most evil.

Nicholas Garrigan (McEvoy) has just graduated from medical school in his native Scotland, but he is in far from a celebratory mood. His overbearing father (Ashton), also a physician, treats his son like he had just won second place in a mediocrity competition and so Garrigan resolves to go anywhere – anywhere! – as long as it is far away from Dad. Therefore he decides to randomly spin his globe and wherever his finger lands, that’s where he’ll go. So he gives the globe a whirl and his finger comes down on…Canada. No good. You see, Nicholas in addition to wanting to get away from Dear Old Dad is also looking for a wee bit of grand adventure, so he spins a second time and this time his finger comes to rest on Uganda. Phew! Much better!

It is the early ’70s and as Garrigan arrives in Uganda to begin work at a remote medical mission in Uganda’s interior, General Idi Amin (Whitaker) has just seized power. This is met with much celebration from the people of that country, who see Amin as a simple man of the people who will restore Uganda to the people of that nation after years of corruption and economic ruin by the greedy parasites who had been running that country.

Garrigan isn’t really interested in politics, and to tell the truth, he isn’t all that interested in medicine either, although he does a fair job assisting the lone doc at the mission, a man named Merrit (Kotz). However, he is interested in bedding the good doctor’s comely wife Sarah (Anderson) who is appalled, but not uninterested herself. When Amin visits the village where the mission is, Garrigan goes to see his speech on a lark, and bullies Sarah into coming with him. On the way back, Garrigan and Sarah are pulled over by soldiers who order the doctor to see to the new president who’s been in a car accident.

The two Britons arrive on the scene to find a bit of surreality. A cow had wandered out into the row and had been hit by the president’s car, which was pretty much a wreck. The cow, in horrible pain, is bleating horribly in agony. Amin is screaming at everyone around him, soldiers are threatening the local farmers with machine guns and Amin’s arm is sprained. Garrigan treats the new president but is distracted by the death agonies of the wretched animal. Unable to make any of the soldiers understand his demands to put the animal out of its misery, he picks up the general’s gun and shoots it dead himself, not a smart move in front of a group of heavily armed soldiers guarding their recently injured leader. Things get tense for a few moments, but the revelation that Garrigan is in fact Scottish puts Amin in a great mood. The leader trades his general’s shirt for a t-shirt with Scotland emblazoned on it that Garrigan is wearing.

A little while later, Amin summons Garrigan to the presidential palace and makes him the extraordinary offer to be his personal physician. Even though Garrigan is desperately needed at the mission, he figures it would be quite fun to be in the inner circle of a world leader, so he accepts.

At first, life is great. Garrigan is treated as a member of Amin’s inner circle and given gifts and showered with all the luxury available in Uganda. Still, things aren’t perfect. Terrorist attacks from the president Amin ousted have come close to succeeding in killing Amin, and he is growing increasingly more paranoid. Then, there’s the matter of Amin’s son McKenzie by his youngest wife Kay (Washington) who has epilepsy; treatable, but his father hides the boy away, fearful that he will be considered weak if his children are not perfect. To make matters worse, the lovely Kay has caught Garrigan’s eye.

Amin is growing increasingly unstable, but Garrigan refuses to see it despite the warnings from the former physician to the president Dr. Junju (Oyelowo) who is now working in a modern hospital in the capital where Garrigan works from time to time. There is also a mysterious English diplomat named Stone (McBurney) who seems to know a whole lot more than he lets on and is eager to utilize the resource of having someone of his country so close to the unpredictable Amin.

At last the evidence becomes so overwhelming that even Garrigan can’t refute it. Disappearances are rampant and bodies are so commonplace that Amin’s lackeys don’t even bother to bury them anymore – they just throw them in the river so that the crocodiles will dispose of them. To top it off, the not-so-bright doc has been bedding Kay, which is sure not to sit well with the increasingly unstable Amin, and the only worse thing than cheesing off a violent African dictator is cheesing off an insane violent African dictator. Getting out of the country is difficult; Amin, who is unaware of the affair, doesn’t want Garrigan to leave. Things are getting out of hand, but a hijacked airplane arriving at Entebbe airport may provide the opportunity Garrigan needs.

This movie begins and ends with Whitaker’s extraordinary performance as Amin. At once charismatic and sinister, Whitaker shows Amin to be both teddy bear and maniacal monster. This is an Oscar-worthy performance (he won the award for Best Actor that year), and all the raves that he received in the press are richly deserved. It’s fair to say that the main reason to seek out this movie is to watch Whitaker’s performance in it.

In some ways, the movie is also cursed. Whitaker is so good that none of the other actors, particularly McEvoy, can hold a candle to him and so you wind up wishing for more Amin and less Garrigan. The fictional character of Garrigan, to the credit of novelist Giles Foden, is not always the most moral or strongest character in the story. He is extremely flawed, and his flaws get him into trouble. The problem is that it wouldn’t take much to get someone in trouble in Idi Amin’s Uganda.

The trouble I have with The Last King of Scotland is its inherent schizophrenia. On the one hand, its a drama about Amin’s disintegration into paranoid madness as witnessed by one of his “inner circle,” and that story is compelling enough. Unfortunately, the last quarter of the movie turns into a by-the-numbers thriller as Garrigan tries to make his way out of Africa. The two movies mix like oil and vinegar, and I found myself losing interest as the movie wore on.

That’s not to say this isn’t a worthwhile investment of your time. McDonald, best known for his Oscar-winning 1999 documentary One Day in September about the Black September raid on the Munich Olympic games of 1972, evokes the Uganda of the early ’70s, from the abject poverty of the rural areas to the luster of the Presidential palace. There are some extraordinary moments, as when Amin has a chorus of African singers render their own interpretation of “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond” while the dictator watches impassively in full kilt.

Ultimately, I can recommend the movie strongly, mainly for the incendiary performance of Forrest Whitaker, although I have a few reservations about the movie overall. I think if it had stuck to the first personality of Amin, the movie would have been better served.

WHY RENT THIS: Whitaker’s Oscar-winning performance as Amin is one of the best acting performances of the 21st century so far; you will rarely see one any better than this.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The schizophrenic nature of the storytelling; Garrigan’s escape from Uganda story that takes up the final reel is less interesting than Amin’s story.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the violence is rather gruesome and there are plenty of disturbing images. The language can be foul and the sexuality intense.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first Western film production to film in Uganda since 1990 (Mississippi Masala); the black Mercedes limousine used in the movie as the presidential limo was the one that Amin actually used.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a terrific featurette, “Capturing Idi Amin,” which blends in historical footage as well as footage from the movie in discussing Amin’s influence on the region.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $48.4M on a $6M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sucker Punch

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)


The Lives of Others

Careful what you say - you never know who may be listening.

(Sony Classics) Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, Volkmar Kleinert. Directed by Florian Henckel von Dommersmarck

Knowledge is power. In a repressive state, the more knowledge that the state has of its people, the more power it has over them.

In the communist government of East Germany in 1991, the secret police – known as the Stasi – have absolute control over the people of East Berlin. With an army of informants and strategically placed listening devices, the hallmark is that the knowledge of the lives of others protects the state and makes it stronger. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Muhe), one of the most skilled interrogators of the Stasi, believes this implicitly.

While attending a play with his ambitious superior Grubitz (Tukur), they run into Minister Hempf (Thieme). He remarks that the playwright, Georg Dreyman (Koch) may not be as loyal to the GDR as was first assumed and that a full-scale surveillance operation might not be frowned upon. Grubitz pounces on the opportunity and assigns the operation to the personal control of Wiesler, one of his most trusted men.

Dreyman lives with the celebrated actress Christa-Marie Sieland (Gedeck) and as such are something of the Brad and Angelina of East Germany. They have never fallen under the scrutiny of the state before and at first, it is apparent why. While most of their peers are critical of the GDR, Dreyman is not. Even when he assumes that he is in the privacy of his own home, he utters not a word against the government. However, Dreyman’s loyalty wavers when he discovers that his girlfriend has been pressured into a sexual relationship with Minister Hempf. It is further eroded when Dreyman’s friend and mentor, Albert Jerska (Kleinert) commits suicide after having been effectively blacklisted by the GDR for seven years.

No longer content to be silent against the GDR’s repressive policies, Dreyman is determined to inform the outside world about the high rate of suicide in the GDR which its government has covered up. He authors an article in Der Spiegel, the West German magazine, about the subject. Published anonymously, the article creates an uproar in the corridors of power. The Stasi becomes determined to find out who published the offending article.

Wiesler has been observing all this. He alone knows who authored the article, and that information could be advantageous to his own career advancement, as well as that of Grubitz. However, Wiesler himself has doubts. Having seen first-hand the corruption of the government and its effect on the people, he wonders if he is working on the right side. Enchanted by the freedom – however repressed it may be – of the artistic couple, he is drawn into events that will change not only his life, but the lives of those he has been charged to spy on.

Director von Dommersmarck has created an amazing movie, all the more so because of its miniscule budget (roughly $2 million American, which on most Hollywood productions would barely cover the catering). He manages to create a great deal of tension, and in many ways this reminds me of the classic Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation. There, as in here, the act of surveillance changes those who are doing the listening.

Most of the actors lived in East Germany during the era portrayed here (although von Dommersmarck claimed that was unintentional) and so they bring a certain amount of personal experience into the movie. This has all the elements of a great thriller, one that would do Hitchcock proud, but it isn’t a thriller precisely. There are equal amounts of drama and character study as well.

Muhe does a magnificent job of playing the quiet, emotionless Wiesler. His face registers nothing, no anger nor joy; he is a faceless bureaucrat doing a job. And yet there is sadness in his eyes, almost as if deep down he realizes what he is doing is wrong. This contradiction is at the crux of The Lives of Others and is one of two things that make it so compelling.

The other thing is a little more esoteric and a bit more political. The question that this movie raises is not just about the communist dictatorship of the GDR, but about our own system. Given the advancements in computer tracking and listening devices, our own privacy has been severely compromised. How much of our lives does our own government keep tabs on – and is the security that it supposedly affords worth the potential for abuse? Do we have an expectation of privacy anymore? Does big business have the ethics to keep our information private? Certainly this movie provides an answer to these very important questions, although on the last one you may have to draw your own conclusions.

While the movie runs a bit on the long side, I was never bored. Because the thriller elements keep the tension level high, the viewer is left on the edge of their seat for much of the movie. This won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar back in 2008, and could easily have been the Best Picture overall. This is one of the best movies of the decade and you should see it if you have a chance.

WHY RENT THIS: This affords a look at life in the kind of environment that Americans may not have a good deal of experience with, even if we are rapidly becoming a similar environment.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At two hours and 17 minutes, the movie runs a bit long.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity and a good deal of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This movie received more Lola nominations (the German equivalent of the Oscars) than any in history.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While most DVD and Blu-Ray releases contain some sort of commentary track, this one is noteworthy in that it is all director von Dommersmarck and it is one of the most extensive and informative tracks I’ve ever heard.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Day Night Day Night