Whiskey Tango Foxtrot


Live and on location.

Live and on location.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Nicholas Braun, Stephen Peacocke, Sheila Vand, Evan Jonigkeit, Fahim Anwar, Josh Charles, Cherry Jones, Scott Takeda, Eli Goodman, Soledad O’Brien, Thomas Kretschmann, Vic Browder, Ava del Cielo. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

There is a certain glamour in war correspondence. Being close to the front lines, embedded with fighting units, hearing the bullets whine overhead, seeing the results of the carnage…it takes a certain kind of personality to love it.

Kim Baker (Fey) is a copywriter for a cable news network whose career is going nowhere. So, too is her love life as her boyfriend (Charles) is rarely home and when he is he’s not really engaged. When the opportunity to volunteer to cover the war in Afghanistan arises, she seizes at it like a drowning woman clutching a life preserver.

Once in Kabul, her perceptions change. What was a desperate move to save a floundering career and a boring life becomes a lifestyle. Aided by a crusty Marine Crops general (Thornton), a lecherous local public official (Molina) and a gentle but effective local fixer (Abbott), she begins to learn her way about the armed forces and Afghanistan. She is befriended by a blonde and beautiful rival (Robbie) and an irreverent Scottish photographer (Freeman) with whom she shares moments of terror – and drunken revelry as well.

However, modern mass media is a monster with an endless appetite and the sorts of stories that should be getting told aren’t. Kim’s frustration begins to tell, particularly as her star – once on the rise – is definitely on the wane at the network. She needs a big new story to save her and when it finally presents itself, might just end up being a little too close to home.

This is based on the memoirs of an actual war correspondent, Kim Barker (the first “R” is inexplicably left out) who worked for the print media (not cable) and whose life story only slightly resembled what appears in the film. Ah, Hollywood – but then again, nobody ever said this was a documentary anyway. It was also mostly filmed in New Mexico, standing in for Afghanistan.

There has been some controversy regarding the casting, with white actors Molina and Abbott playing Afghan roles and I can see the point. Then again, both of them do very fine work here – which is likely why they were hired. I don’t know that you necessarily have to hire the same ethnic group to play every single role – and there is more scrutiny on Hollywood’s non-white employment record as of late. I’m not insensitive to that. However, it also must be said that the PC press can take that to extremes, so let us be wary of that. There’s inclusive and there’s impractical.

Fey does some of the best work of her career. That said, she is the queen of the smug look; she is also the queen of the cabbage patch which she seems to work in to her every film (stop it, Tina…just…stop it). There are occasions when that is inappropriate in the film and you’re taken out of a serious moment and thrust into an SNL sketch. However, throughout most of the movie, we get to see a greater emotional range than we’re used to from Fey. She still hasn’t shown the kind of range that one needs to be a great dramatic actress but I think it’s within her grasp. She certainly takes a step in the right direction here.

We’ve seen the life of a war correspondent in films like The Year of Living Dangerously and I’ll be honest, in some ways this film is a bit redundant but in other ways it makes a nice companion piece. We get that it is indeed a masculine profession but there are plenty of women who do it now and seeing the experiences of one is certainly welcome and worthy.

The movie isn’t exactly action-packed although it has its moments; there are an awful lot of expository scenes and that might irritate the attention-challenged. Plus one other roadblock is that films about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have traditionally not done well at the box office (with one or two exceptions); perhaps the American public is war-weary but I think it is more that the American public really doesn’t care.

I do like the concept behind Whiskey Tango Foxtrot but I’m a little disappointed about the execution. There is plenty to recommend about it here, but the movie fails to take advantage of some of its potential by going for easy when they should go for deep. Don’t expect a movie that’s going to ultimately give you a ton of insight (when it could have) but at least it will be entertaining while it is not terribly illuminating.

REASONS TO GO: Solid dramatic performance by Fey. Nicely illustrates the allure of a war correspondent’s life.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit on the slow-paced side. A little bit too glib at times.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of profanity, some brutal war images, a little bit of drug use and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fey dedicated the film to her father, who passed away during filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Forbidden Kingdom

Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police


It rocks to be Sting!

It rocks to be Sting!

(2012) Musical Documentary (Cinema Libre) Andy Summers, Sting, Stewart Copeland, Kate Lunken Summers. Directed by Andy Grieves

In the heyday of MTV, the Police were one of the bands that were essentially made for the music video age. Blonde and good looking, sometimes the fact that they made really good music got lost in the image. Melding a variety of musical forms including (but not limited to) New Wave, reggae, jazz, blues with the occasional burst of discordant noise, they were often unfairly characterized as purveyors of disposable lightweight pop. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Behind the easygoing blonde facade were three strong personalities who often clashed. Bassist Sting was never much of a team player and said so; he would get into heated arguments with his band mates over things ranging from chord changes to which singles were released off of albums. The band member’s egos stemmed from the fact that all three were talented musicians and songwriters in their own rights, and recording sessions often became wars of attrition.

Finally, the band called it a day in 2006 which startled the music press and fans alike; their most recent (and it turns out final) album Synchronicity had been a monster success and they were considered by many to be the biggest band in the world. All went their separate ways, however; Sting to a successful solo career, drummer Stewart Copeland to TV and film composition and guitarist Andy Summers to a string of instrumental albums both solo and with other guitarists like Robert Fripp of King Crimson.

In some ways though, the way the band broke up left both the fans and the band itself feeling a lack of closure so in 2007, partly in honor of the 30th anniversary of the release of their first single “Roxanne” the band announced a reunion tour. It would be a one-time event; as Sting put it, “There will be no album. There will be no follow-up tour.” The tour would be the last hurrah for the band, a way of saying goodbye to their fans one final time.

Summers, prior to the reunion, wrote a book on his time with the Police entitled One Train Later and decided to do a documentary. Copeland, who had taken Super 8 movies of the band on tour, had previously released a documentary entitled Everybody Stares: The Police Inside Out back in 2006 but it wasn’t until well after the reunion had concluded that Summers and Grieve, assuming the director’s chair for the first time after establishing himself as a film editor, assembled both from archival footage of the band as well as newer footage from the reunion tour shot by Lauren Lazin.

Here we hear Summers laconically reading from his book over the images and video. Summers, who these days resembles comedian Eric Idle portraying a rumpled professorial sort, is not the most expressive reader ever; most of the voiceover is monotonic which can lull the viewer to sleep, or at least lead them to lose interest. To be sure, however, he’s a good writer and the prose is well-written.

One drawback is that the film is exclusively from Summers’ point of view. That’s a double edged sword; we get a very definitive, consistent viewpoint throughout, but that’s the only viewpoint we receive. While we hear Sting and Copeland in interviews talking about the band, there’s a kind of facade that is practiced by members of any band which is meant to keep the world at large out of the inner sanctum. Only from Summers do we get any kind of emotional resonance and while that is much appreciated, the film could have used more participation from his bandmates as well.

Grieve, with his background in editing, really weaves the footage from the 70s and 80s nicely in with concert footage from the reunion tour. It’s a nice effect although to be honest the songs don’t really change much in arrangement over time for the most part although once in awhile the band messed about with the arrangements to some of their lesser known tunes. We do get a sense that the divides that split the band up remain intact; they seem to be better friends outside of the band than within it.

There are some nice tidbits here; Summers, for example, was briefly a member of Eric Burden and the Animals prior to joining the Police. He was much older than his mates, who teasingly tried to convince an interviewer that the Summers who played in psychedelic bands like Dantalian’s Chariot and blues bands like Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band was actually the Police guitarist’s father. Another anecdote that was interesting was that the band’s first appearance on the influential British music show The Old Grey Whistle Stop nearly didn’t happen when a can of hairspray exploded in Sting’s face, necessitating a hospital visit to save his eye; he was forced to wear oversized sunglasses for the appearance because of it.

Summers does go into more personal aspects of his life, such as how the marriage to his wife Kate developed and then disintegrated due to his constant touring with the band, how he sunk into reckless behaviors after the divorce and how an interest in photography went from being a hobby into being therapy. Happily, the couple reconciled and remarried and have since given birth to twin boys in addition to the daughter they had during his Police days. These are some of the more compelling moments in the film.

In some ways this is an ego project for Summers but I suspect he’s okay with that characterization; this is more “Andy Summers and the Police” than a fair, balanced portrayal of the band and their music. Summers says, with some pride, “We were allowed (to have egos) because we were really good musicians” without any hint of irony, and deservedly so. This is a band that really never got its critical due during their existence and even less so afterwards. They were more than just a trio of pretty boys that grew out of the punk clubs of England and escaped into pop superstardom; they wrote some amazing songs that still sound good today. I just would have wished for a documentary that was a little less one-sided.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice interweaving of archival concert footage with more recent stuff. Informative.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too Summers-centric in a self-aggrandizing way. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some minor swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The comic book character John Constantine (who appeared in a sadly now-defunct NBC series this past season) was based  visually on Sting.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Some of Summers’ photos appear in a photo gallery; there’s also a Q&A session with Summers from the film’s L.A. premiere, a promo piece on his solo album Mysterious Barricades, an interview with Summers and finally a Summers-made trailer for the film (in addition to the official one).
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23,262 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental Only), Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Soul Boys of the Western World
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Hitman: Agent 47

Toast


Helena Bonham Carter's Mad Men audition didn't go as planned.

Helena Bonham Carter’s Mad Men audition didn’t go as planned.

(2010) Biographical Drama (W2 Media) Freddie Highmore, Helena Bonham Carter, Ken Stott, Oscar Kennedy, Victoria Hamilton, Matthew McNulty, Colin Prockter, Frasier Huckle, Kia Pegg, Rielly Newbold, Roger Walker, Rob Jarvis, Amy Marston, Selina Cadell, Louise Mardenborough, Corinne Wicks, Marion Bailey, Tracey Wilkinson, Claire Higgins. Directed by S.J. Clarkson

There is an old saying that says that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Personally, I don’t buy it; the way to a man’s heart is through a place lower in the anatomy, if you get my drift. Still, if you can keep a man well-fed, you have a decent shot at keeping a man once you’ve got him.

For young Nigel Slater (Kennedy), life in the late 50s/early 60s in England is blissful although flavorless. His Dad (Stott) is a factory manager with a grumpy temperament; his mom (Hamilton) sweet as can be although she has one flaw – she can’t cook to save her life. Everything she makes is boiled in a can (a pre-microwave era of making prepared foods) and when the contents of those cans came out overcooked, it would be toast for supper, something Nigel actually looked forward to.

As it turned out, his mum had another flaw – severe asthma and eventually it would take her life. Although Nigel misses her terribly, life continues on pretty much as before with dad being not much better at cooking than his late wife was.

Into their lives comes housekeeper Mrs. Potter (Bonham-Carter) who is in fact a brilliant cook – she seduces the Slaters with heavenly meringues and savory roasts. But the now-teenage Nigel (Highmore) has taken an interest in cooking himself and is jealous of the attention his father is paying Mrs. Potter – and yes, there IS a Mr. Potter. Eventually the Slaters pull up stakes and move out to the country, Mrs. Potter in tow and Nigel competes with Mrs. Potter for Mr. Slater, with Mrs. Potter having the upper hand. Nigel has also discovered his sexuality – and he is very much interested in boys, although he is too shy to approach any. What will his dad make of that?

This was originally made for British television and was a monster hit in the ratings there. Why they chose to release it in the U.S. is something of a mystery; Slater, a well-known food critic in Great Britain, is virtually unknown here across the pond.

That doesn’t mean that this isn’t worth watching. Even if you don’t know who Nigel would become, his story is still interesting and bittersweet. It’s also nice to see Britain in the ’60s, in some ways the apex of modern British culture (some might argue that the 80s were and I wouldn’t disagree) and the filmmakers capture the period beautifully here, even more so than Mad Men.

Bonham-Carter is an underrated actress who often appears in supporting roles in big movies yet almost always steals attention in a good way – see her Harry Potter appearances or Big Fish if you disagree. While I get the sense that the filmmakers aren’t quite sure what they make of the Mrs. Potter character, whether she’s an adulterous manipulative homewrecker or a woman trying her best to please a family that’s been through hell. Nigel is much more clear; he thinks she’s the former and loathes the woman although we can’t always see why. In many ways, we begin to root against the main character which is rather odd because Bonham-Carter isn’t the focus; Nigel is and the more he hates Mrs. Potter, the more we see him as a spoiled officious twit.

The movie is a bit overbearing in places and makes a lot of its points with a sledge hammer when a Q-tip would have done. I could have used some subtitles in places as some of the rural accents were a bit difficult to decipher.

There was some entertainment to be had here and there are some funny moments but by and large I found that the filmmakers didn’t appear to have the courage of their convictions. The real Mrs. Potter’s daughters (Nigel’s stepsisters) have excoriated the movie (and Slater’s autobiography which inspired it) for the portrayal both of Mr. Slater and Mrs. Potter (her name was even changed for the movie) and while they have a bit of an ulterior motive, just the way these portrayals are made in the film tell me that they are a bit skewed by Nigel’s own prejudices in the matter which is only to be expected. We all see things through our own lens of self-interest.

WHY RENT THIS: Bonham-Carter is always fascinating onscreen. Captures period nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t use Bonham-Carter’s character well. A bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, period smoking and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The chef at the Savoy Hotel who appears in the final scene is the real Nigel Slater.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (unavailable), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (unavailable), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Get Hard

Life Itself


Two big thumbs up,

Two big thumbs up,

(2014) Documentary (Magnolia) Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Martin Scorsese, William Nack, Werner Herzog, Stephen Stanton (voice), Errol Morris, Gregory Nava, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Rick Kogan, Marlene Siskel, Thea Flaum, Bruce Elliot, Steve James. Directed by Steve James

It has to be said that for most film critics, it is difficult to be completely impartial when reviewing a documentary about Roger Ebert. His influence on modern film criticism is enormous both directly and indirectly and while he may not have the intellectual cachet of a Pauline Kael (a critic Ebert himself admired tremendously) he certainly was the most populist film critic of his day.

Steve James, whose documentary Hoop Dreams was championed early on by Ebert and his Sneak Previews/At the Movies partner Gene Siskel, originally was tasked with filming a documentary about the film critic’s battle against cancer as a means of telling his story as laid out in his memoirs Life Itself, a book given to me as a Christmas gift in 2012. As it turned out, we would see Ebert facing the final days of his life and we are given almost intimate access – the suctioning out of his throat, the painful physical therapy recovering from a broken hip, seeing how he managed to keep his sense of humor despite losing most of his lower jaw and his voice to thyroid cancer.

James, at Ebert’s insistence, leaves no wart unseen. We hear about Ebert’s womanizing as a younger man, his alcoholism and his occasional control freak-ness. Marlene Siskel, wife of his close friend and rival, recounts how he once stole a cab from her on a rainy night while she was very pregnant.

But we also get a glimpse at his love affair with his wife Chaz, her amazing strength and support even when he is petulant and mulish, and how he adored her family. I do have a bit of a quibble here – James identifies her granddaughter as Roger’s “step-granddaughter” and while the term may be essentially accurate, I get the sense that neither Roger nor any child of Chaz’s previous marriage thinks of their relationship as step-anything. My own son is not my biological child but a product of my wife’s first marriage which ended before he was born. He has never known another father and neither one of us thinks of each other as anything but father and son. I suppose these times may require a redefinition of the term, but I digress.

We get a sense of Ebert’s importance to the art of film criticism through testimony by Richard Corliss (who once wrote that the thumbs up/thumbs down criticism of Siskel and Ebert “dumbed down” film criticism overall), Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and New York Times critic A. O. Scott. We also get a sense of his importance within Chicago through the recollections of his friends writer William Nack, columnist Rick Kogan and tavern owner Bruce Elliot.

It can be said (as RogerEbert.com editor-in-chief Matt Zoller Seitz did) that he had two main loves of his life – Chaz and Gene Siskel. His relationship with Gene was complex. At first, Gene was the enemy – the film critic of the Chicago Tribune whose hoity toity attitude contrasted with the blue collar vigor of the Sun-Times where Ebert worked. The two barely acknowledged each other at first. They grew competitive, each attempting to sway the other through the virtue of their well-thought out opinions. While Ebert was the populist who understood that entertainment value was at least as important as artistic quality, Siskel had more of a cosmopolitan attitude towards cinema. Together the two introduced America to movies they might never have seen otherwise and as home video became popular and movies that rarely played outside of art houses found their way into video stores and eventually, streaming services, people who might not have become movie buffs got the opportunity to explore independent, foreign and alternative films in addition to the studio films they had previously been limited to.

Overall the film is very moving. We see Ebert deal with his illness with a firm sense of humor and great courage. He was in great pain but rarely seemed disposed to complaining about it. Excerpts from Ebert’s books are read by actor Stephen Stanton whose warm timbre is similar to Roger’s and captures his Midwestern cadence nearly perfectly. I must admit that I do miss Ebert’s physical voice much more than I thought I did, hearing him in clips from talk shows, interviews and of course with Siskel and listening to the two bicker and one-up each other is one of my favorite parts of the movie.

There are plenty of talking head interviews and archival footage that make up what documentaries are these days, but the access we have to Roger’s rehabilitation gives us more of an emotional bond with the man.

I cannot say I wouldn’t have become a film critic without Roger Ebert – I had already started down that road before I knew who he was. However, it is accurate to say that he inspired me to be a better film critic. He set standards that while i have no illusions that I meet I can at least aspire to them. He could excoriate a filmmaker and rip a film a new one with the best of them but it was never with malice or viciousness. He didn’t do so with any joy. The joy in his writing came in finding movies that inspired him or provoked empathy. He lived for movies that he could relate to in some way, and his writing in spelling out that relation allowed us to see a bit of his soul. For all his faults he was also a compassionate man whose progressive politics rarely entered his film reviews but whose wisdom and kindness did. His criticisms were usually valid (although he did have difficulty with horror films that he felt denigrated women as well as videogames as an art form) and while I didn’t always agree with his assessments, I usually did. As Scott remarks, he “didn’t condescend, didn’t pander” while his friend Martin Scorsese (who executive produced the movie and who credits Siskel and Ebert with giving him the self-confidence to continue directing during a particularly low point in his career) accurately added “He didn’t get caught up in certain ideologies” that film critics are prone to getting caught up in. The landscape of film criticism is a far bleaker place without him.

This is a movie that leaves me wishing I had known the man personally (the closest I came was sharing a cruise ship with him during one of his Floating Film Festivals several years back). While this movie may resonate more fully with film critics and film buffs than with general audiences, even those who don’t particularly care much about movies may well be moved at the heartfelt admiration the filmmaker has for the man. The title of the movie may sound a bit arrogant at first; movies aren’t life itself, are they? There’s life and then the movies are fantasy. But in a real sense, movies are a reflection of life itself and a good movie and sometimes even a bad movie can give us the opportunity to reflect on life and that’s never a bad thing. Roger Ebert understood that, perhaps better than any critic before or since.

REASONS TO GO: Affecting and moving. Great to hear Ebert’s voice, even artificially. Illustrates his place in popular culture.

REASONS TO STAY: Glosses over some elements of the book.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild foul language, brief sexual images and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the autobiography of the same name that the film is based on, Ebert states that he met his wife Chaz at a restaurant introduced by Ann Landers. In the movie, Chaz reveals that it was at an AA meeting, a fact that she had preferred to keep private which her husband honored.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salinger

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Obvious Child

Being Flynn


Note to self: no more unfunny comedies!

Note to self: no more unfunny comedies!

(2012) Dramedy (Focus) Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, Julianne Moore, Olivia Thirlby, Wes Studi, Lili Taylor, Eddie Rouse, Victor Rasuk, Liam Broggy, Chris Chalk, Thomas Middleditch, Sarah Quinn, Benjamin Foronda, Dale Dickey, Joshua Alscher, Dawn McGee, Billy Wirth, Michael Gibson, Kelly J. McCreary, Deidra O’Connell, Michael Genadry, Katherine Waterston. Directed by Paul Weitz

The relationship between father and son can be tricky. Not everyone who fathers a son can be a father. Often, whether or not we choose to accept it or even acknowledge it, the sins of the father are inherited by the son.

You wouldn’t think there was much of a chance of that in the case of Nick Flynn (Dano). He hasn’t even seen his dear old dad Jonathan (De Niro) in 18 years and has demons of his own to deal with. His mother (Moore) has recently committed suicide and he has continued to sink into a well of addiction, infidelity (his girlfriend has kicked him to the curb for both of these reasons if one wasn’t enough) and depression. He gets work at a homeless shelter, doing the kind of work that most people would shy away from – delousing new residents, bathing them, that sort of thing. Nick is a writer who has lost his muse; this could be a gold mine for him if he chooses to view it that way.

Unfortunately, Nick is too self-involved in a downward spiral of booze and guilt to see the opportunity and that spiral only gains speed when he finds his father taking a bed at the shelter. Jonathan, who is happy to tell you that he is the great American writer you’ve never heard of, has lost his only steady employment as a taxi driver and has been kicked out of his apartment for starting fistfights, is almost certainly suffering from some sort of dementia, growing more aggressive and misanthropic by the day until his antics get him ejected from the home, further straining the bonds between the two men. Both are if not at bottom pretty damn close; can they get past their demons and reclaim their relationship and use it to help each other rise above or are they destined for the same shabby fate?

De Niro has been in the pantheon of America’s greatest actors for decades although as of late he hasn’t had a truly memorable performance, sticking to mainstream comedies, mob roles that are a shadow of his triumphs with Martin Scorsese, and a few maudlin dramas here and there. This is a reminder of why he is De Niro, perhaps his most scintillating role since Casino which coincidentally was the last film he made to date for Scorsese. Jonathan is larger than life, an Irish bard with the edginess of a Holden Caulfield and the cynicism of a film critic. De Niro inhabits the role, giving us a man whose actions are unpredictable and mainly self-aggrandizing but there still remains somewhere buried deep among the bravado and the BS a decent human being.

Dano who has in the last few years begun to emerge as a pretty decent actor after years of playing the same sorts of roles has the thankless job of playing with De Niro but actually manages to hold his own. Nick refuses to acknowledge his own issues and like many addicts doesn’t see the dangerous reefs he is steering directly towards. There are times that his character is heart-rending but others when you just want to give him a good smack across the chops.

Also worthy of note is Moore in a brief but memorable turn as Nick’s mom and Jonathan’s ex. Even in the face of two really excellent performances she manages to stand out in her limited screen time. If I haven’t said it before, Julianne Moore is one of the best actresses in the world today and she deserves more discussion when it comes to that.

Where the production suffers is that Weitz (in all likelihood pressured by the studio) has made a kind of schizophrenic movie and I’m not even talking about the dual narration (we get the POVs of both Jonathan and Nick). What I mean to say is that there are times when the movie is edgy and gritty, but then others when it sinks into cliche. I get that this is based on a true story – yes, there really is a Nick Flynn and he really did run into his dad at a homeless shelter that he worked at – but there are some moments that really don’t ring true here.

This is one of those movies that came and went quickly with little fanfare or attention which is kind of a shame because De Niro’s performance alone is worth checking out. While the movie itself is flawed, there are some pretty good moments in the movie that you might want to give your attention to. If you haven’t already seen it, this is one of those movies worth watching when you’re looking for something different to watch.

WHY RENT THIS: De Niro is in top form here which is all you should really need.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes goes cliche instead of edgy.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of foul language, some sexual situations, some drug usage and alcohol abuse as well as some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled Another Bullshit Night in Suck City which is the same title that the memoir that it is based upon is titled but studio brass balked, feeling that it would alienate its potential audience before they even walked in the door.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $540,152 on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Asylum

The Railway Man


Those who walk along straight tracks are liable to get run down by a train.

Those who walk along straight tracks are liable to get run down by a train.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Irvine, Sam Reid, Tanroh Ishida, Hiroyuki Sanada, Bryan Probets, Michael MacKenzie, Jeffrey Daunton, Tom Stokes, Tom Hobbs, Akos Armont, Keith Fleming, Ben Aldridge, Yukata Izumihara, Masa Yamaguchi, Michael Doonan, Keiichi Enomoto. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky

The number of veterans that come home from war with PTSD is staggering. Nobody comes back from war unscarred, even if they didn’t get a scratch on them in battle. These days, our combat vets have programs through the VA that can help them through it, although getting into those programs these days can be frustrating and time-consuming. Back in the days of the Second World War, PTSD wasn’t even a recognized condition.

Eric Lomax (Irvine) certainly has scars, some which aren’t visible at all. Captured by the Japanese after the Fall of Singapore, he and his fellow soldiers were sent to work on the Burma-Siam Railway which was also called the Death Railway for the number of prisoners of war and Asian civilians who died in its construction. Lomax, a railway enthusiast and an engineer, was spared the forced labor because engineers were needed for other tasks. In secret, he also built a radio receiver which would have devastating consequences for Eric when it was discovered.

Years later, Eric (Firth) has met a nurse named Patti (Kidman) whom he has fallen deeply in love with. The two get married but Patti is troubled by her husband’s frequent night terrors, his violent mood swings and panic attacks. Whatever shell he has built around himself to cope with what he has been through is crumbling. Desperate, she talks to Finlay (Skarsgard), his best friend who at first is reluctant to talk to her about what Eric went through but at last gives in. Eric was brutally tortured, facilitated by a translator named Takeshi Nagase (Ishida).

Not long after, Finlay brings news to that Nagase is still alive. The former translator is now a museum tour guide (Sanada) in the very building the atrocities were committed in. Finlay urges Eric to go to Thailand and confront Nagase. Eric is reluctant to but a dramatic act by Finlay convinces him to go.

This is a true story, based on Lomax’ own autobiography. While a few facts were fudged – the meeting between Nagase and Lomax was portrayed as a complete surprise to Nagase when in fact the former translator had been prepared for his arrival through correspondence, and while Lomax’ motives to go to Thailand were portrayed here as initially a need to take vengeance, his book states clearly that he went to seek closure and confront his former tormentor face to face. It also doesn’t mention that Eric had been previously married and had three children by that marriage who figured in the actual story as well. Other than that (which are major issues it must be admitted) and the time compression of some events, the movie pretty much follows the book closely.

Firth has a difficult role to play. Not only is he a man in deep mental anguish, he also has to play a shy, retiring sort more interested in railroads than people, yet with a good heart. We get every side of Eric Lomax here, from the man in pain to the man bestowing the most divine of human gifts that one can give another, and I’m not talking American Express gift cards here.

Kidman’s role is less complex but she performs it no less satisfactorily. This isn’t a real glamour role for the star but she is still as lustrous as ever. She’s not a background performer here, although her character does take a backseat to Firth’s but then again, it’s not called The Railway Woman.

The message is a powerful one. Lomax not only forgives Nagase, but recognizes that his pain runs deep as well. When Nagase reads those words and collapses in tears, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Sometimes all we need is acknowledgement that we are hurting to make us feel better.

The depictions of torture are pretty graphic. Those who are wondering what waterboarding is will get a good idea of it when watching this movie. It serves as a reminder that our leaders who authorized using it as a means of extracting information failed to learn from history when it comes for the effectiveness of this method in getting reliable intelligence. It had the extra added side effect that it made me even more angry at the CIA, the Bush Administration and our military for allowing it to happen. We are supposed to be better than that and I expect our political and military leaders to be better than that.

To forgive is divine and never is it as divine as when a wrong as heinous as this is committed on a person. Hollywood is quick to make movies about revenge but movies about forgiveness are few and far between. While the filmmakers belabor their point a bit, I still think that if we made more movies emphasizing forgiveness that we as a culture would benefit greatly.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific job by Firth. The theme of forgiveness is powerful and unusual for a Hollywood film.

REASONS TO STAY: Overplays its point.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some disturbing violence against prisoners of war.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Patti Lomax attended the premiere of the film at the Toronto Film Festival last year and received a standing ovation at the conclusion of the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bridge Over the River Kwai

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Transcendence

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom


Welcome to sunny Robben Island.

Welcome to sunny Robben Island.

(2013) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Jamie Bartlett, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto, Fana Mokoena, Simo Mogwaza, Thapelo Mokoena, Gys de Villiers, Robert Hobbs, Carl Beukes, A.J. van der Merwe, Andre Jacobs, Nomfusi Gotyana, Michelle Scott. Directed by Justin Chadwick

One of the most influential and beloved figures of the 20th century would have to be Nelson Mandela. The South African leader was imprisoned for 27 years and became the poster boy for South African oppression under the government of apartheid but also a symbol of hope for the South African people. His recent passing set off a wave of mourning and celebrations of his life not only throughout South Africa but around the world. However despite his notoriety many Americans aren’t all that familiar with the details of his story.

Mandela (Elba) started out as a lawyer who merely wanted to practice law in his native land. He was showing some success at it, unafraid to stand up to white accusers of black innocents. This didn’t endear him to the white establishment but it did catch the attention of the fledgling African National Congress, an organization that looked to lobby for the rights of the black majority in the white-dominated South African government. Mandela wasn’t especially interested in politics, to be honest.

However soon it became clear that the laws of South Africa were becoming more and more repressive as apartheid began to be codified as a way of life. Mandela felt he had no choice but to become involved politically and it turned out that he was a natural leader and orator. This definitely didn’t endear him to the white establishment but it did catch the attention of Winnie Madikizela (Harris) whom he would later marry.

However their time together was short. Not long after they got married, a peaceful protest at the Sharpsville police barracks turned into a massacre as panicked police officers opened fire on a crowd of protesters who wished to turn themselves in for arrest for not carrying the mandatory paperwork all black South Africans were required to carry at all times. Mandela and the other leaders of the ANC, including Walter Sisulu (Kgoroge) and Ahmed Kathrada (Moosa) realized that non-violent tactics weren’t working; they only brought on further repression and worse still, deadly violence.

The ANC went on a relentless bombing campaign, destroying edifices that symbolized the oppression of the white South African government. Their members went underground, chased by the police until at last they were eventually caught and sentenced to hard labor on Robben Island, the most notorious of South African prison complexes. The court could have sentenced them to death but knew that would lead to outright rioting and rebellion, so they were sentenced to life in prison.

From inside prison, the group and particularly Mandela became symbols even as Winnie continued to lead the fight from outside until she herself was arrested and subjected to brutality and torture. After being released, the embittered Winnie became much more radicalized and her vision of the future of South African began to drift away from that of her husband.

International and internal pressure eventually forced Mandela’s release and this forced the South African government in turn to relax apartheid and hold free elections which the ANC participated in as a political party and Mandela himself as a presidential candidate. He would defeat the incumbent President De Klerk (de Villiers) who ironically had negotiated to free Mandela and the rest of the ANC. Mandela was faced by anger and outrage directed at the white South Africans by the blacks – much of it led by his own wife, who came out against his call for reconciliation and forgiveness. Uniting the two races as one strong country might have been the toughest battle Mandela would face.

There’s no doubt that Mandela is a role model and a hero of mine. There is no doubting his courage or his convictions; I can’t imagine most politicians these days willing to be imprisoned for their beliefs can you? Nevertheless, I’m not sure if this film, based on the South African leader’s own autobiography does his legacy justice.

This is essentially a two-person movie; Elba and Harris. Harris has a difficult role to perform; Winnie here is portrayed as an initially supportive and idealistic woman who turns bitter and cynical as the movie progresses; it’s not the kind of change that makes audiences love you. Still, she does a fine job at showing Winnie’s inner strength and fire. However, her performance is sadly being largely overlooked.

That’s not the case for Elba who has been garnering some Oscar buzz for his although given the strong competition this year for Best Actor I’m thinking he has an outside chance at best for a nomination. Still, it’s a pretty incredible performance considering that Elba looks absolutely nothing like Mandela who was always fairly thin and scrawny whereas Elba is a burly, muscular man. They also don’t resemble each other facially. Elba however captures the great man’s mannerisms and speech patterns. When you close your eyes you could swear you were listening to Mandela himself.

Considering the events of his life and that for 27 years of it he spent in prison, there is a sense of compression with the movie as if we’re just settling lately on momentous events and giving them short shrift. In truth, Mandela merits a mini-series at the very least to cover all the things that happened both to him and South Africa in general. Still, you get a good sense of the events that surrounded him and shaped his point of view.

I would have hoped that a movie about Mandela would have been more inspiring than this one does. I get the sense that Chadwick was at a loss as to how to handle the Robben Island sequences. He does show some of the things the guards did but for the most part you don’t get a sense of how hard the imprisonment was on Mandela other than a single sequence in which Mandela gets a telegram that his son was killed in a car crash. He wasn’t given permission to leave the island to attend the funeral and you can feel his despair. Certainly Mandela must have had sleepless nights, self-doubt, despair. We don’t get a sense of that other than that one scene.

This is one of those might-have-been movies. It certainly could have been a triumph but unfortunately it doesn’t really achieve that feeling at any point. You do get a sense of admiration about the man and perhaps it’s unfortunate timing literally opening in limited release a week before the great man passed away and opening wide a few weeks after that has something to do with us not being able to get past that. After all, we’ve been witness to many heartfelt and detailed tributes to the man in recent weeks. This movie doesn’t really measure up to them.

REASONS TO GO: Idris Elba gives a powerful performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks fire. Loses focus during the Robben Island sequences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, some sexuality, some foul language and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: News of Mandela’s death took place just moments before the film’s London premiere. His daughters Zindzi and Zenani were given the option of having the premiere postponed but chose to go ahead as planned. The news was broken to those in attendance at the conclusion of the screening by producer Anant Singh.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winnie Mandela

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: American Hustle