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

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The Painted Veil


The Painted Veil

An idyllic moment amidst disease, chaos, mistrust, infidelity and death - just another day at the office.

(2006) Period Drama Based on Literature (Warner Independent) Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Diana Rigg, Toby Jones, Catherine An, Anthony Wong, Bin Li, Marie-Laure Descoureaux, Juliet Howland, Sally Hawkins, Maggie Steed. Directed by John Curran

Based on the Somerset Maugham novel, this is a story about betrayal and redemption set against the magnificent backdrop of a China in flux. It is also a pretty damn good movie.

Dr. Walter Fane (Norton) is a bacteriologist who finds working with microbes far easier than dealing with human beings. He is closed-off, a little bit cold and awkward. That doesn’t mean, however, that he isn’t passionate. The first time he sees Kitty (Watts), he falls head over heels.

Unfortunately, Kitty doesn’t feel the same way. Still, she’s feeling increasingly trapped in her jazz-age London home, with stifling parents, particularly an overbearing mother (Steed) who has absolutely no confidence in her. Once the impulsive Fane proposes, Kitty is inclined to say no but an overheard conversation prompts Kitty to change her mind, if no other reason than to escape her mother.

Fane can offer that to her. After all, he works for the British government at their laboratory in Shanghai. It is an exotic posting, one with a good deal to distinguish it. Kitty doesn’t see it that way, however. For her, it’s merely trading one hell for another. Walter tries to indulge her in her gossip and games, but he clearly isn’t interested. Kitty quickly becomes bored and lonely.

She meets vice-consul Charlie Townsend (Schreiber), a passionate man who is everything Walter is not – impulsive, sexy, outgoing and charming. The two quickly become involved in a torrid affair. However, Walter finds out about it. While he doesn’t go berserk, he is infuriated and humiliated. Determined to inflict his own pain on his wife, he gives her an ultimatum. She may either accept a divorce, or accompany her husband to a small village in China’s interior that has been stricken by a cholera epidemic, which Walter has volunteered to go in and assist. He does give her a way out – if Charlie agrees to divorce his wife and marry Kitty, Walter will accept a quiet divorce to allow the lovers to be together. However, Walter knows – and Kitty ultimately has her naiveté shattered – that Charlie will do no such thing.

It takes nearly two weeks for the Fanes to arrive in the village, and the situation there is grim. The populace is dropping like flies, the French Catholic orphanage is filled with orphaned children – as well as children dying from the same disease – and already distrustful of foreigners, the people of the village are a powderkeg ready to blow. They are met by a somewhat rumpled civil servant named Waddington (Jones) who proves to be a sympathetic ear for Kitty, while the orphanage’s Mother Superior (Rigg) is something of a mother figure for her. Soon, she begins to see her husband in a whole new light, provoking changes in herself. Will Walter be able to forgive her and see how she has changed, or will the disease or the angry Nationalists cut them down before there’s time?

This is a beautifully shot movie, utilizing gorgeous Chinese backdrops nicely. You really get a terrific sense of the British foreign service in the 1920s, with all the arrogance and tunnel-vision that was present in the day. Director Curran makes what is a fairly dry and dusty novel live and breathe on the screen – Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay also helps see to that.

Norton, who hasn’t had a sub-par performance in a very long time, delivers another noteworthy job as Walter. He is stiff and reserved, his body language reflecting it every step of the way. While his British accent is a little dicey, he nonetheless inhabits the role well, making Walter a bit more sympathetic than he was in the novel, where he came off much more viciously.

Watts was a little overwhelmed by the part, I think. She’s not a bad actress, but I was less entranced with her Kitty. Kitty needs to be a very spoiled, extremely immature young girl who behaves impulsively and rashly, the very antithesis of Walter. Norton and Watts also deliver very little chemistry, which is perhaps the most glaring negative in the movie. They are supposed to come together by the end of the movie, but I don’t get that sense. They seem to merely accept each other more than embrace each other. That makes the final scenes a bit less powerful than they might have been otherwise.

Still, there is a magnificent epic quality to the film that makes me wish I’d seen it on the big screen, but it frankly didn’t get a lot of buzz when it came out and it got lost amongst all the holiday movies and Oscar contenders that were released at around the same time. Still, this is definitely worth seeing. Norton is wonderful, the script and cinematography are breathtaking and the movie captures the period well. If you use movies to transport you to another place and time, one you could not ordinarily be able to get to on your own, then your magic carpet awaits you.

REASONS TO RENT: Another fine Edward Norton performance. Gorgeous cinematography. An intelligent script based on a classic Somerset Maugham novel.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Naomi Watts doesn’t quite nail her role. Chemistry between leads is lacking.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of a village ravaged by disease and civil war, as well as partial nudity and depictions of drug use. Parents might want to think twice about letting their younger children see this, although for older teens it might make a fine introduction to the works of Maugham as well as to colonial-era China.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During filming, Norton injured his back when his horse threw him onto some rocks. He didn’t seek proper medical treatment until shooting concluded and he returned to Hong Kong. It turned out that he had fracutred three vertebrae in his back.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.5M on an unreported production budget. Since the filmmakers received financial assistance from a Chinese production company, it is likely that the studio made money on this venture.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Love and Other Drugs