In the Loop


In the Loop

Peter Capaldi uses some language that would surprise even Tony Soprano.

(IFC) Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Steve Coogan, Anna Chlumsky, Chris Addison, Paul Higgins, Gina McKee, Mimi Kennedy. Directed by Armando Iannucci

Words can be crucial things. We assign meaning to them, sometimes a meaning unintended by the person who uttered the words. Those meanings can often take on a life of their own.

Simon Foster (Hollander) is a mid-level British government flunky who has a talent for being absolutely thick in the head. During a radio interview, he casually mentions that an invasion by the U.S. (although it’s never explicitly mentioned in the film, we assume it to be Iraq) is “unforeseeable.” Sounds harmless, but it ignites a firestorm of political maneuvering on both sides of the Atlantic, both from those opposed to war, like State Department Assistant Secretary Karen Clark (Kennedy) and those supporting it like career politician Linton Barwick (the always terrific David Rasche).

In the meantime, foul-mouthed British spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (Capaldi) has had to step in and take charge of the situation which is rapidly spiraling out of control. As Foster backpedals, giving ammunition to the hawks, generally dove-ish General George Miller (Gandolfini) who once had an affair with Clark, is caught in the middle and astutely refuses to take sides. And a report written by one of Clark’s aides (Chlumsky), dubbed “career Kryptonite” by a snarky fellow aide – further exacerbates the mess.

If it all sounds confusing, well, it kind of is, but that’s politics for you. This is actually an extension of a British television series called “The Thick of It” which hasn’t been seen much on this side of the pond, but I’m assured that over in the UK it’s gotten rave reviews. In fact, the filmmakers got unprecedented access to 10 Downing Street because the staffers there were so enamored of the show, which is a little like a “West Wing” movie filming in the actual West Wing.

The movie is extraordinarily well-written (and in fact got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay), with the kind of humor that comes at you from all sides without pause. One zinger after another follows, which probably doesn’t work as well with American audiences who generally need to be told when to laugh and prefer their humor…paced. The humor here is bone-dry, which again is not what most Americans are used to.

Some of the best British comic actors are working on this, including Capaldi, who reprises the same role he played on the TV show. I’m not sure what the censorship laws are in the UK, but if his verbiage is anything like it is here, it must have melted its share of television speakers. There is a good deal of profanity here, folks, and those sensitive to that kind of language would be well-advised to steer clear of this movie. To its credit, it has some of the most imaginative swearing I’ve ever heard in a movie.

Gandolfini, after his long run as Tony Soprano, is well on his way to being one of the better character actors in the business. He plays a career military man who has risen through the ranks, developing an acute political sense in the process. While he doesn’t believe a war is a good idea, he’s savvy enough to go with the flow, even if he thinks the flow is headed the wrong way. General Miller is very different than the mobster Gandolfini is associated with, which might blow a few minds expecting the character to whack a few feckless Brits himself.

Towards the end, the movie loses its steam and the final resolution is a bit weak. Still, this is an entertaining – if vulgar – movie that is as clever or smart a comedy as you’re likely to see. The beauty of watching it at home is that you can rewind it again and again until you figure out what’s going on. It kind of worked for me, I’m not ashamed to admit.

WHY RENT THIS: Extraordinarily well written with a mind-blowing ensemble cast of some of the best comic actors in both Britain and the United States.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie loses steam in the final reel, leaving the viewer with a curiously unsatisfied feeling.

FAMILY VALUES: This has some of the foulest language you will ever see in a movie. It’s fine for your kids to watch – only if you stuff duct tape into their ears.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After 30 days of filming, the shooting script was 237 pages. The first cut was over four and a half hours long. It took four months to complete the final edit of the version that made it to the screen.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Yonkers Joe

The Class (Entre les murs)


The Class (Entre les murs)

"I'm not going to tell you again, my name is NOT Mr. Chips!"

(Sony Classics) Francois Begaudeau, Franck Keita, Boubacar Toure, Henriette Kasaruhanda, Eva Paradiso, Laura Baquela, Rachel Regulier, Nassim Amrabt. Directed by Laurent Cantet

Education isn’t what it used to be. Teachers have little control over their students, administrators have little control over their teachers and everybody is pointing fingers at everybody else. How do teachers stand a chance with students, having to compete with iPods, cell phones, video games and the Internet?

Francois Marin (Begaudeau) is a new teacher at a school in the 20th arrondissment of Paris, a multi-ethnic neighborhood. He teaches grammar and literature to what would be the equivalent of high school students. The students are ambivalent at best about the prospects of learning a language they already think they know. What good, they question, is this education going to do them?

A valid point, indeed. Marin is fairly hip as teachers go, treating his students with respect although he is only human; he gets exasperated when they push the limits, as teenagers will do. At times he resorts to the tried and true axiom of “because I said so” when questioned. Still, he’s fairly easy-going and makes a real effort to communicate to his students.

Many of them are the children of immigrants, such as Souleymane (Keita), a troubled young man with a bad temper and Khoumba (Regulier), who believes M. Marin has it in for her. These aren’t always the easiest kids in the world to get to know

Still he does try, and seems to be making a connection when he gets them to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and then assigns them each an essay to write about themselves. In some of the cases, he gets a glimpse of understanding something much deeper although with most it’s just a skim across petty surface likes and dislikes.

However, when two classroom representatives at a teachers meeting blabs to the class that M. Marin said something unflattering about one of the students, tensions threaten to derail the fragile bond that ha been forged among the members of the class.

Director Laurent takes a bold innovative step in disposing of a script for the actors playing the students and instead gets them to improvise, with three cameras covering the classroom and only Begaudeau getting the outline of the action that is meant to occur. This leads to honest, natural performances with the students essentially playing themselves in a classroom setting and reacting as they would to incidents occurring in their own classrooms.

Begaudeau is himself a teacher and wrote the book on which this is ostensibly based. He co-wrote the “script” along with Cantet and Robin Campillo and is the heart and soul of the movie. He is one of those teachers who genuinely want to see his students thrive but is frustrated by their lack of motivation to care about their own futures. He wants to get through to them, but at the same time he’s only human and not only makes mistakes, but does not treat them all equally.

I did have problems with the subplot of the classroom representatives. I grant you I’m not an expert on the French educational system, but it seems to me that having students attending meetings in which confidential information about their fellow students is being discussed is an unlikely scenario at best. Here in the States, that’s the kind of thing that would lead to lawsuits. While there might be classroom representatives at teacher meetings, I can’t imagine that those teachers wouldn’t be aware that anything discussed at those meetings, particularly if it were something the teachers didn’t want getting out, would be blabbed to their fellow students the next day. I mean, these are TEENAGERS for chrissake – passing on inappropriate information is what they do.

Still, this is a marvelous movie that, while it shares a certain pedigree with classroom dramas like To Sir with Love, The Blackboard Jungle, Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, is much more authentic particularly in the way that the students are depicted. We don’t have a Mr. Chips sort here who inspires by reading from Dylan Thomas; instead we have a beleaguered teacher doing the best he can to inspire kids who aren’t looking for inspiration (at least from school). It is also a wake-up call to our global society that the education system needs to be reformed as the needs of the students are changing.

WHY RENT THIS: A realistic look at the challenges facing educators today. Organic, unforced performances mostly by first-time actors or non-actors makes for a natural setting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The whole sub-plot about having two classroom representatives at a meeting in which confidential information about students is being discussed is far-fetched to say the least.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of rough language and a little bit of sexuality, but otherwise suitable for teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first French film to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival since 1987.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is intriguing footage of some of the improvisational sessions that set the tone for filming, as well as the young actors reading essays they’d written about themselves, some of which were incorporated into the final film.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

Winter’s Bone

Note: While I saw this at the Florida Film Festival, it isn’t scheduled for release until June 18th. A full review will be posted then. In the meantime, here is a short mini-review.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) has a tough life in the Missouri Ozarks. Taking care of her two young siblings and her mentally ill mom is taxing enough for a 17-year-old girl but to find out she needs to find her absent meth cooker dad or lose their house (which he used as collateral on his bail bond) with no help from the insular mountain community is almost too much for her to bear. This outstanding performance is matched by veteran character actor John Hawkes turn as her Uncle Teardrop, the wiry man who nobody wants to mess with. This is a moving, harrowing movie that will keep you squirming in your seat. Highly recommended.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Secret of Kells