Desert Flower


You can never get her goat.

You can never get her goat.

(2009) Biodrama (National Geographic) Liya Kebede, Sally Hawkins, Craig Parkinson, Meera Syal, Anthony Mackie, Juliet Stevenson, Timothy Spall, Soraya Omar-Scego, Matt Kaufman, Tim Seyfi, William de Coverly, Mahamed Mohamoud Egueh, Teresa Churcher. Directed by Sherry Horman

Africa has amazing vistas, incredible beauty that can’t be properly appreciated except in person. She also has her share of beautiful women, some who have gone on to international stardom as actresses and models. However, Africa has also had more than its share of shame in regards to how she treats her women.

Waris Dirie (Kebede) is a beautiful Somalian who lives in a nomadic tribe. Hers is a family of goat herders who live a simple lifestyle. However when she is a little girl she suffers a horrible tradition – female genital circumcision, in which her genitalia are cut so that she may not feel pleasure during the sexual act and her labia is then sewn together so that her husband may be assured that his new wife is a virgin until he cuts her cord, so to speak. It is a barbaric custom (not found in the Koran by the way) that certain African tribes adhere to. Many women die from infection and botched cuttings every year.

Waris however survives and is eventually promised in marriage as a third wife to a repulsive old man. Rather than accept this fate, she walks away, literally – traversing the desert to Mogadishu to find her grandmother, who sends her to London with an uncle who happens to be the Somali ambassador to England. When he returns home after the end of his term, she remains. She meets the ditzy shopgirl Marylin (Hawkins) who helps get her a job scrubbing floors at a local MacDonald’s. There she is discovered by fashion photographer Terry Donaldson (Spall).

With the help of a rather grumpy agent named Lucinda (Stevenson) she soon rises to the top of the modeling world. Despite a few pitfalls (including some sexualized shoots which clearly make her uncomfortable), she becomes a superstar, developing a relationship with Harold Jackson (Mackie), a neighbor. However, during an interview when she talks frankly about her circumcision her life is changed forever as she moves from model to activist, becoming the face of female genital circumcision and in the process it’s leading advocate in the fight against it.

This is all very compelling on paper but sadly this movie doesn’t exist on paper but on celluloid and director Horman elects to waste a lot of time with non-essentials, particularly in regards to her pre-model time in London when it seems the story is moving in a certain direction but takes an excruciatingly long time to get there.

Kebede, a Nigerian supermodel herself, does a surprisingly solid turn as Waris. It is fortunate that she resembles her peer facially but she carries herself with a great deal of dignity and grace that African women seem to have in abundance. She also captures her character’s shame and embarrassment at having been mutilated.

Hawkins and Spall do well in their roles, as does Stevenson and Syal as an aunt. The Somalian sequences are beautifully desolate. It’s a pretty good-looking film. It’s just a shame the filmmakers fumbled the ball a bit when it comes to getting the power of their message across. In more capable hands this could have been a terrific film.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling story and Kebede shows great promise in her debut.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unfocused and muddled too often. Wastes time on trivial aspects and seems to relegate the central theme almost to the background at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a sex scene (although not graphic) and some modeling nudity. There’s also a little bit of violence but the theme may be rather rough to discuss with children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Waris Dirie had a small role in the James Bond film The Living Daylights with Timothy Dalton.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with lead actress Liya Kebede that is quite interesting.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.6M on an unknown production budget; I’d guess this was a big hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Skin

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Django Unchained

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The Iron Lady


 

The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep suddenly notices that Jim Broadbent’s deoderant isn’t what it could be.

(2011) Biodrama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Farrell, Roger Allam, Anthony Head, Richard E. Grant, Susan Brown, Julian Wadham, Pip Torrens, Nick Dunning, David Westhead, Amanda Root. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

 

Few political figures of the late 20th century are as polarizing as Margaret Thatcher. Conservatives revere her for her fiscal frugality and willingness to go to war to protect British soil; liberals despise her for…well, pretty much the same things. By all accounts her personality was forceful and charismatic; she had a will of steel that bent to nothing and nobody, and when she set her sights on something, she inevitably would achieve it.

Her biopic starts with Thatcher (Streep) long retired from politics, wandering into a corner grocer for a pint of milk. She goes unrecognized by the other patrons of the shop; she grouses about the price of milk as any other consumer might. When she gets home, there is consternation; apparently she wasn’t supposed to wander off by herself and nobody knew where she was.

It turns out that Mrs. Thatcher has a touch of dementia. For one thing, she’s speaking with her husband Denis (Broadbent) – even though he’s been dead and gone for five years. Her daughter Carol (Colman) is urging her mother to clean out her father’s things from the closet. It’s long overdue for her to say goodbye. So she begins the heart-wrenching task of going through her late husband’s things, some of which send her on trips down memory lane – what we film  freaks like to call “flashbacks.”

We meet Margaret (Roach) as a young woman, a grocer’s daughter as London is enduring the Blitz. She’s plucky (some might say foolish) enough to run upstairs during a bombing to cover the butter. She idolizes her father who has some ultimately unfulfilled political aspirations. She develops some of her own, although getting into the male-dominated Tory party and winning a seat in the House of Commons proves challenging. She also meets young businessman Denis Thatcher (Lloyd) who proposes marriage which she accepts.

She eventually wins through and earns the respect of some of her peers for her strength of character and intelligence. She is mentored by Airey Neave (Fellows), a savvy politician who is later assassinated by the IRA. This is partially responsible for her lifelong hatred of terrorism and her refusal to give into it. She continues to rise in the party until she arrives as Prime Minister, a position she will be elected to for three terms and the only female to date elected to the position.

But the movie doesn’t really focus on her political career, although it is necessarily a part of her story. Nor does it take a position pro or con regarding her politics. Director Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan take great pains to remain neutral; somehow I suspect that they admired the woman but not her policies.

The attraction here is Streep. She deservedly won the Oscar earlier this year for her performance which is quite frankly one of the finest of her illustrious career. She captures the nuances of Thatcher’s mannerisms, yes – but so could any mimic. What she does that makes her performance scintillating is capture the essence of her character, from the force of nature presence as a world leader to a confused and sometimes frustrated old woman who no longer commands power or respect.

It is the latter aspect that conservatives have railed against this film for. Thatcher has largely stayed out of the public eye for the past 25 years since her somewhat painful ouster which apparently angered her greatly. There has been some speculation that she, like her good friend Ronald Reagan, might be the victim of Alzheimer’s Disease – which quite frankly is just that. I personally think it takes just as much courage to take on the ravages of old age as it does a hostile Labour party.

The movie overall doesn’t match Streep’s performance, sadly. Although Broadbent does a good job in his role, most of the other performances are lost and quite frankly I had a difficult time telling the players apart. There is a lot of archival footage to help tell Thatcher’s tale but at the end of the day it is Streep who’s remarkable Oscar-winning performance elevates this movie above a Biography channel piece and gives life to Thatcher, something that the rest of the movie failed to do.

WHY RENT THIS: Streep’s justifiable Oscar-winning performance. Interesting story-telling style.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks insight into her political decisions and glosses over her more controversial policies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some images of violence as well as brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won both of the Oscars it was nominated for (the other being Best Make-Up), a rare feat that had previously been accomplished by Ed Wood.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While mostly the standard promotional stuff, there is a pretty decent featurette on the role the real Denis Thatcher played in her life.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $114.9M on an unreported production budget; the movie was likely a box office hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nixon

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Multiple Sarcasms

Kill the Irishman


 

Kill the Irishman

Don’t get Ray Stevenson angry – he can fart flames!

(2008) Biodrama (Anchor Bay) Ray Stevenson, Christopher Walken, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Vinnie Jones, Paul Sorvino, Fionnula Flanagan, Laura Ramsey, Steve Schirripa, Linda Cardellini, Bob Gunton, Jason Butler Harner, Robert Davi. Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh

 

Here, at last, is a movie for which the Irish lament “Danny Boy” is quite literally appropriate for – and the filmmakers showing restraint unheard-of in Hollywood actually don’t use it. That’s at least worth some respect.

Danny Greene (Stevenson) was an enforcer for the Cleveland Irish mob. In his heyday in the 70s, he and his partner John Nardi (D’Onofrio) fought a war against the Italian mob that was epic in its viciousness. In 1976 alone, 36 bombs exploded in the city as a direct result of the mob war.

He started off as a longshoreman rising up in the union. He eventually took over the leadership of the union (Merke) and would later be convicted of skimming funds from the membership. Once out of jail, he turned to crime as a full-time operation, working with Shondor Birns (Walken) but things go south. Greene requests a $75,000 loan to build a semi-legal drinking establishment; Birns entrusts the money to a runner who then proceeds to buy drugs with it, and is promptly caught by the police. Because Greene never received the cash, he refused to pay back the loan which had been paid for by the Gambino family, putting immense pressure on Birns.

Greene breaks away from the Italian mafia forming his own group mainly comprised of young guys of Irish descent, with Nardi as (kind of) their legitimizer. Greene is bombarded with several attempts on his life, including one where his home was hit by a bomb while he and his girlfriend were asleep. The house collapsed but Greene and his girlfriend survived, shielded by rubble.

Greene would attain legendary status in Cleveland. He often took care of those in need of cash in Cleveland’s Irish community and came out of every assassination attempt more or less unscathed. He became a darling in the Cleveland media and the bane of the Cleveland mafia’s existence. He also became an informant to the FBI.

This is based on a non-fiction book – loosely based I might add – that was written by a Cleveland police officer familiar with the case and with Greene (the fictionalized character based on the author is played by Val Kilmer in the film). That book was also turned into a documentary I haven’t seen yet, but the filmmakers here do a pretty credible job with it.

The cast is pretty spectacular for an indie, including Walken – curiously restrained as the racketeer who first came into conflict with Greene, and veterans Schirripa and Sorvino who have made careers out of playing Mafiosi doing stand-up jobs.

Stevenson, best known for his work on the HBO series “Rome” and for playing The Punisher in Punisher: War Zone (and doing both well) proves once again he is much more than an impressive physique. He catches both the larger than life aspect of Greene as well as his clever and sinister side. Greene was a complicated man as you can probably tell from the synopsis; he was equal parts folk hero, bullshit artist, criminal and killer. The movie tends to gloss over the killer part to focus on his folk hero standing; he is portrayed as a basically decent guy who just happened to kill people for a living.

This is an excellent cast top to bottom. Cardellini plays Greene’s wife and the mother of his kids in a role that could easily have been thankless but is given some sparkle by her performance, while Flanagan plays an old Irish woman who reminds Greene of his roots and isn’t afraid to stand up to the tough guy, to his amusement.

This takes a larger than life character and tries to compress him down into a two hour time frame which has its pros and cons. One of the cons is definitely that we really don’t see why Greene, who was so obviously bright and charismatic, went down the road of organized crime. It just kind of happens in the film and without any explanation. One scene depicting how he fell into it – or a montage if necessary – could have made for a bit more continuity.

Still, this is well worth watching. America has a fascination with criminals, from Jesse James to John Dillinger and Danny Greene could well end up having the same kind of cultural impact over time. He had a lot of blarney and a dark side as well, a combination that’s like catnip to our violence-obsessed culture. Although Greene considered himself as Irish first and foremost, he may well have been the perfect American anti-hero – living life on his own terms and by his own rules and the devil take the cost.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly stellar cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Glosses over some of the motivations as to why Greene got into crime.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, quite a bit of bad language and a helping heaping of nudity and sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production shot at Tiger Stadium (Navin Field) in Detroit shortly before it was demolished.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an hour-long documentary on the real Danny Greene.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget. The movie probably finished just a bit below breaking even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wiseguys

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Savages

Casino Jack


Casino Jack

Even though Kevin Spacey is calling to verify, Barry Pepper looks skeptical that he’s got 250 pounds in that weight.

(2010) Biodrama (ATO) Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz, Conrad Pla, Christian Campbell, Yannick Bisson, Spencer Garrett, Hannah Endicott-Douglas, David Fraser, Graham Greene, Maury Chaykin, Stephen Chambers, Rachelle Lefevre. Directed by George Hickenlooper

We grew up thinking that American politics were relatively corruption-free, compared to other countries. That politicians would vote their conscience and while not necessarily paragons of virtue, were at least not for sale. How wrong we were.

Jack Abramoff (Spacey) was one o the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. He had some of the most powerful men in the world on speed dial; he could get men elected or doom their campaigns. His alliance with Native American casinos helped liberalize the laws that allowed them to flourish. An orthodox Jew, he helped fund Jewish community centers and education facilities and was a pillar of his community.

Jack and his partner Michael Scanlon (Pepper) lived high on the hog, funneling the money from Indian casinos into the pockets of politicians, with a certain amount remaining for themselves in fees. But the two men get greedy, deciding to hire seedy Virginia businessman Adam Kidan (Lovitz) who has ties to mobster Big Tony (Chaykin) to further skim off the top.

When Scanlon’s girlfriend Emily Miller (Lefevre) discovers he’s cheating on her, she starts talking to investigators about the wrongdoing that she’s fully aware of – things that the savvy Abramoff had warned him not to discuss with anyone. Big Tony becomes uneasy and orders a hit on Kidan which fails. Kidan also begins to talk – and the empire around Abramoff begins to crumble.

Director George Hickenlooper was best known for his documentaries – including the acclaimed Heart of Darkness which looked at the troubled production of Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.  He tells his tale here with admirable tautness, taking the brevity of the documentary form and mixing it with the richness of a narrative. Sadly, he passed away less than two months before the film opened in the United States.

This is very much Spacey’s film. For a time after American Beauty, he was perhaps the best actor in Hollywood  with a string of performances that were as good as any body of work for a comparable amount of time in the history of movies. Strong hyperbole I know but you can certainly make an argument for it. However after his Bobby Darin movie, he seemed to move away from the limelight deliberately, opting to spend more time on the stage and mostly confining himself to supporting roles over the past decade or so. This is his best performance in years, taking Abramoff – a very complex human being – and humanizing him. We see his manic, compulsive side and his tender, giving side sometimes within moments of one another. Kelly Preston plays his wife and the two have a pretty decent chemistry going.

One of the things that I really liked about this movie is that you really see how lobbying works in the political system. I also admire the courage of the filmmakers in naming names and pointing fingers. There are no punches pulled; those that were involved with Abramoff are portrayed here, either with actors or in documentary footage of the Senate hearing which is weaved in masterfully with the re-created footage. Spacey has a moment where he harangues the Senators passing judgment on him, reminding them that most of them took money from him for their campaigns. This all occurs in his head, of course – in reality Abramoff has been relatively charitable towards his accusers.

This makes a fine companion piece to the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money which portrays Abramoff in a less sympathetic light, preferring to opine that he was symptomatic of the corruption and arrogance in the Republican party. Hickenlooper doesn’t make such indications, pointing out that this is a political problem that doesn’t belong to a single party (which of course it doesn’t). The real Jack Abramoff actually is leading the fight against lobbying following his release from his prison sentence. Perhaps to atone for his own actions, he remains a zealot dedicated to changing how politics work.

This was characterized as the worst political scandal since Watergate and yet it passed through the American consciousness like a Kardashian sex tape. In fact, it would be fair to say the Kardashians got more notice than the Abramoff trial. It involved some of the top figures in the George W. Bush White House, resulted in the indictment and conviction of a U.S. Congressman (Bob Ney) and in Abramoff’s fall from grace. What it should have done was prompt a re-examination of the role of lobbyists in the political structure but it is business as usual in Washington. That’s perhaps the most tragic aspect of this whole sordid affair.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Spacey’s best performances in the last five years. A sobering look at how lobbyists are subverting the political process.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The foul language is pretty much non-stop. There is a bit of sexuality involved as well as a little nudity, and some brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed with the digital Red One Camera in Canada utilizing blue screen technology with characters filmed in Canada projected onto backgrounds filmed in Washington and Miami.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a gag reel but not much else.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $12M production budget; this wasn’t a box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: True Colors

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT:More of the American Experience

The Lady (2011)


The Lady

Michelle Yeoh is living in the golden age.

(2011) Biographical Drama (Cohen Media Group) Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis, Jonathan Raggett, Jonathan Woodhouse, Susan Wooldridge, Benedict Wong, Flint Bangkok, William Hope, Victoria Sanvalli, Danny Toeng, Nay Myo Thant. Directed by Luc Besson

 

One of the most compelling political figures in the world today is largely unknown in the United States, yet she has won the Nobel Peace Prize and is iconic in Asia and Europe for her courageous stand against the repressive military junta which rules Burma (or Myanmar as they like to call it) with an iron fist. Her name is Aung San Suu Kyi and her story has been one waiting to be told.

Her father, Aung San had been a leader in the fight for Burmese independence from the English and had been moving to take the country into democracy when he was assassinated in 1947. He was and still is revered in Burma and his daughter Suu Kyi (Yeoh) lived in exile, in England where she had since married a bookish professor at Oxford, Michael Aris (Thewlis). They had two children together; Kim (Raggett) and Alexander (Woodhouse).

In 1988, Suu Kyi’s mother got seriously ill following a stroke so she journeyed back to Burma to be with her mom. At the time, the country was smack dab in the middle of the 8888 Uprising which was being brutally repressed by the government. Suu Kyi saw soldiers shooting unarmed students and doctors and was horrified by the carnage. In the meantime, students and professors at the local university, heavily involved in the uprising, saw Suu Kyi as a symbol of her father and for democracy and were eager to get her involved. Reluctantly at first, she began to take part in the protests.

Her one or two week trip would stretch out as the Uprising went on. Suu Kyi became the symbol the students hoped she would be and the people began to rally around her. Finally, when the government allowed the elections Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy demanded, they were shocked to discover that the NLD had won 392 seats in Parliament against only 5 for the reigning government, with Suu Kyi the new Prime Minister of Burma. That could not be allowed and the government voided the election.

The detestable Sein Lwin, the head of the military dictatorship, knew he couldn’t kill her outright; her father was a martyr and he was trouble enough. Killing Suu Kyi and making a martyr out of her as well might be too much for even his well-armed soldiers to control. He needed to break her spirit and make her a non-factor.

That job is charged to Win Thein (Thant), an ambitious and fiendishly clever Colonel. He placed the erstwhile Prime Minister under house arrest, confining her to the lovely lakeside home where she’d grown up, where she had last seen her father alive and where her mother eventually passed away. Most of her colleagues in the NLD were imprisoned or disappeared entirely.

She endured the loneliness of her imprisonment, surrounded by trigger-happy guards who’d like nothing better than to see her dead. Michael, knowing how precarious her safety was, initiated a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize for his wife, which she won in 1991. Unable to attend, her son Alexander gave a moving speech in her absence which she heard over a battery-operated radio despite attempts of her guards to prevent her from hearing it.

However, in 1998 her husband Michael discovered that he had terminal prostate cancer. Suu Kyi was now presented with a horrible choice; return to Oxford to be at her husband’s side and never be allowed to return to Burma (effectively negating the work and suffering they’d done for democracy in Burma over all those years) or remain under house arrest, knowing she would never see her husband again.

Suu Kyi is one of the most courageous people of our time and her story is one that has needed to be told. It has, in fact appeared onscreen in John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon as well as the recent documentary They Call It Myanmar. However, this might be the most ambitious film about her yet. French filmmaker Besson, mostly known for the action movies he’s produced (including The Fifth Element, Taken and the recent Lockout) goes out of his comfort zone here.

The result is spectacular. Using his long-time cinematographer Thierry Arbogast he captures some beautiful images of the countryside (some of which was filmed illicitly by Besson himself during a visit to Myanmar) as well as of the people. Many of the extras were Burmese and during segments in which Suu Kyi was giving speeches, filming had to be stopped because the extras were crying.

Much of that is due to the performance of Yeoh. This was a role she was born to play and she gives Oscar-caliber work here. It is in my opinion the best performance of her career and that’s saying something about an actress who is one of the finest ever produced in Asia. She captures Suu Kyi’s inner strength and grace, as well as her fierce resolve. It doesn’t hurt that Yeoh has a very strong resemblance to the real Suu Kyi.

Thewlis who has done some fine work of his own, is never better than he is here. His Michael Aris is an academic with a heart of gold; well-read and as committed to the cause of democracy in Burma as his wife is. His sacrifice is as almost as great as hers, although he at least had the succor of family around him. Thewlis gives him a bit of a stiff upper lip but never fails to keep the man’s inner warmth close to the surface.

This is a powerful movie and the testament to it was the expressions of the people who had seen it on the way out of the theater – these were the expressions of people who had been deeply moved and many faces were streaked by tears. While there were times I felt the focus was too much on Michael and the boys, the end result is that this movie is about a portrait in courage Kennedy would have approved.

For some reason, critics have been giving this film a shellacking, including some that I have respected over the years. One went so far as to call the film “fawning” and compared it unfavorably to They Call It Myanmar which I haven’t seen yet and I’m sure is a fine film on its own, but they are different fruit entirely. This is one in which I say don’t listen to the critics and go and experience it for yourself. It’s a powerful, moving cinematic experience that shouldn’t be missed.

REASONS TO GO: Yeoh gives a bravura performance, quite possibly the best of her stellar career. Authentic and powerful.

REASONS TO STAY: Could have focused less attention on Michael and more on Suu Kyi.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a few disturbingly bloody images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Besson constructed the set of Suu Kyi’s home to near-perfection, using photographs and satellite images for accuracy. He even set the home so that the sun rises through the same windows as they do in Suu Kyi’s actual home.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100. The movie inexplicably has received poor reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burma VJ

BURMA LOVERS: While much of the movie was filmed in Thailand (particularly the scenes set in Rangoon), some of the footage was taken in Burma as well.  

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Lockout