The Insider


The Insider

The young tiger and the old lion.

(1999) True Life Drama (Touchstone) Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, Diana Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar, Stephen Tobolowski, Colm Feore, Bruce McGill, Gina Gershon, Michael Gambon, Rip Torn, Lynne Thigpen. Directed by Michael Mann

 

On one level, this movie could be taken as the story of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the corporate whistleblower who braved much external pressure, death threats, the dissolution of his family and the pangs of his own conscience to step forward and point the finger at Big Tobacco, making several lawsuits against them possible.

On another level, this movie could be taken as the story of Lowell Bergman, the courageous producer who brought Wigand’s story to “60 Minutes,” and how he fought to air the story. However, what The Insider is really about is how big corporations whether Big Tobacco or Big Media run our lives in an insidious fashion. They determine what we see on the news, decide what we are allowed to say or not say. It illustrates, in a very subtle manner, how Orwellian our country really has become, and right under our very noses.

Russell Crowe stars in an Oscar-nominated performance as Wigand, a high-ranking scientist and corporate executive at a major tobacco company whose conscience and temper have recently gotten him fired. He has a daughter with a severe asthmatic condition, so medical benefits are paramount to him. His former employer is willing to keep those benefits in place as long as Wigand signs a confidentiality agreement, which Wigand does on two separate occasions (they choose to broaden the scope of the agreement early on in the film).

Bergman (Pacino) is referred to Wigand by a colleague to help him understand some scientific data. Eventually, it becomes clear that Wigand wants to talk and Bergman, realizing the enormity of what he has to say and the evidence in his possession, coaxes him along. Eventually, Wigand testifies in court and does an interview with Mike Wallace (Plummer) on the venerable primetime news program.

Except that CBS corporate doesn’t want to air the story. Nervous about possible litigation running into the billions of dollars at a time when the network is on the auction block, they effectively kill the story with the blessings of 60 Minutes producer Don Hewett (Hall) and Wallace.

It is watching the machinations behind the scenes that is almost as fascinating as Wigand’s own story, which could have made a movie riveting by itself. The tension that Wigand lives through here is palpable, and when you try to put yourself in his shoes, you only marvel at the man’s tenacity. Together, the two stories make for an extremely watchable movie. 

There is some acting here, from Crowe who began a run of incredible performances which would net him an Oscar (although not for this movie) to Pacino who was at his best here. Plummer channeled the late Mike Wallace nicely, even if it wasn’t a very flattering portrait always. Mann doesn’t always get enough credit for it but he seems to have a knack for pulling out superior performances from his actors in nearly all of his movies, going back to his days on the “Miami Vice” television show.

Well after this movie came out we saw just how devastating the lack of corporate conscience is to the economic health of this country, so in many ways this movie was prescient. When short-term greed for bottom line profits overrides common sense and dignity, the results are very much in evidence. Corporate greed is not the sole province of the financial industry; obviously it is prevalent throughout big business, and this was a movie that not only saw that but blew the whistle on it earlier than most. In that sense, it is a chilling precursor to what was to come and a grim warning to what can still occur if we don’t act. The Insider is a jolting reminder that all of us are touched in some way by the corporate culture of profit obsession that has lingered from the days of the robber barons and still is the defining aspect of American big business.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous, Oscar-caliber performances. Subject that is as relevant now as it was then.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language can get a bit harsh in places.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a feature called “Inside a Scene” which allows the viewer to read the director’s notes and script for a scene before viewing how the scene played out. It’s a fascinating concept but isn’t available for a lot of scenes here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.3M on a $90M production budget; the movie lost money in its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Whistleblower

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Battleship

Thor


Thor

Thor is a bit perplexed as Odin extolls the joys of fava beans and a nice Chianti.

(2011) Superhero (Paramount) Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander, Tadanobu Asano. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Part of the maturing process is realizing that, in fact, you don’t know everything. Most parents will tell you that this is a condition that afflicts most teenagers, some worse than others. Of course, if your teenager happens to be a God, that can be a bit overwhelming to deal with.

Thor (Hemsworth) is the God of Thunder and son of Odin (Hopkins), the Highfather of the Norse Gods. Thor isn’t exactly a teenager but he acts like one – reckless, arrogant and foolish. The mortal enemies of the Gods are the Frost Giants, whom Odin defeated a thousand years before and took their most fearsome weapon from them. Now, a trio of them has attempted to steal it back, unsuccessfully which cheeses off Thor big time. Not just because they dared to cross the borders of Asgard itself, which Thor sees as an act of war – but because they did it on the day that Odin named him his heir over his younger brother Loki (Hiddleston).

So Thor decides to pay the Frost Giants a little visit, taking along his good friends the Warriors Three – handsome Fandral (Dallas), taciturn Hogun (Asano) and voluminous Volstagg (Stevenson), as well as Loki  and Sif (Alexander), an intense but loyal female warrior. To get there they must cross Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge which is guarded by the grim Heimdal (Elba), who normally wouldn’t allow Thor to cross on such a fool’s errand – but he is curious as to how the Frost Giants got into Asgard without him knowing, so he allows them to pass.

Of course this turns out to be a very bad idea. The confrontation quickly turns ugly and the Asgardians must fight their way past a kind of gigantic dog-like creature as well as a horde of Frost Giants, necessitating their rescue by Odin himself. He asks Laufey (Feore), the King of the Frost Giants if the incident could be forgotten but Laufey says a brusque no. War, it seems, is coming to Asgard.

Thor continues to be petulant about the whole thing and he and his dad get into a shouting match. Odin, pissed off beyond all measure, exiles Thor to Earth, stripping him of his powers and sending his enchanted hammer Mjolnir after him. When Thor learns some patience and gains the wisdom that is worthy of the hammer, he’ll be allowed to use it once again.

Meanwhile, on earth, a trio of scientists is studying some mysterious radiation surges in the New Mexico desert. Jane Foster (Portman) is extremely dedicated and passionate to her scientific muse. She is mentored by pragmatic Scandinavian Dr. Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) and aided by flighty intern Darcy Lewis (Dennings), who is a bit science challenged (she’s majoring in Political Science but this was the only internship she could get). They are out in the desert when a giant funnel cloud opens up. Of course Jane drives right into it – and smack into a Norse God which she strikes with her car.

As she begins to analyze her scientific data she theorizes that what she encountered was one end of a wormhole, through which the “really cut for a homeless guy,” as Darcy describes him, travelled. At first, he seems a bit demented. He is courtly to near ridiculous levels, freakishly strong, socially awkward by our standards and continually spouts out insane statements about Norse mythology, asserting that he is the God of Thunder and carries an enchanted hammer. Yeah, right.

In the meantime, the government agency SHIELD, led by the somewhat brusque agent Coulson (Gregg) has taken over, throwing a cordon around the hammerfall site and taking all of Jane’s research, including her journal. Thor, finding out where his hammer is, determines to go get it and prove himself worthy to Odin.

Up in Asgard, things have gone from bad to worse. Odin has fallen into a coma, Loki has proven to be treacherous and has taken the throne, threatening to annihilate the Frost Giants once and for all. Thor’s friends Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun and Sif come to Earth in a desperate attempt to retrieve Thor and set things to rights. Loki, discovering their treachery, sends down a Destroyer robot to end the lot of them and give him the throne of Asgard free and clear.

At first glance, Branagh is an unusual choice for directing a superhero comic adaptation. After all, he is best known for his Shakespeare adaptations and somewhat classical approach to film. However, he turns out to be the perfect choice; he immediately saw the epic quality in the story that even the Bard would have appreciated and Branagh wisely approaches the story in a matter befitting Shakespeare.

The result is a visually stunning, well-acted superhero movie painted on a cosmic canvas. Hemsworth, memorable as George Kirk in the Star Trek reboot, proves to be a solid and charismatic lead. He has all the makings of a big star, which bodes well for the Marvel Universe. His Thor, although petulant and impulsive is also easy-going and good-hearted. It’s nice to see a superhero mature onscreen in front of you as opposed to the darker superhero tales which seem to be more in vogue these days.

He gets some pretty good support, particularly from Hopkins who lends every inch of gravitas possible to Odin. Portman makes for a sweet romantic interest, in a PG kind of way. Skarsgard, one of the more reliable character actors around, is flinty and stolid as Dr. Selvig; skeptical and practical but also loyal to Jane, the daughter of an old friend. Dennings provides ample comic relief, which is surprising since in previous roles she didn’t strike me as the sort. I’m pleased to see Dennings show that kind of range – I’ve always liked her as an actress, so having that sort of versatility does make career longevity more of a possibility. Rene Russo also makes a rare and welcome appearance as Thor’s mother (and Odin’s wife) Frigga.

Hiddleston makes a fine Loki – tormented, mischievous and hateful. He is not the pure evil that sometimes he is portrayed in the comics; his origin also diverges from Marvel canon somewhat but in a good way I think. He proves to be a formidable opponent for Thor.

I also liked Elba as Heimdal, lending the kind of gravitas usually associated with James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman and Patrick Stewart. While we’re on the subject of the guardian of the rainbow bridge, the bridge makes one of the more arresting visuals of the movie. It is a combination of magic and science that is colorful (as you’d expect) and in an odd way, sensible. The city of Asgard itself is also gorgeous; certainly a CGI creation but looking almost like a miniature in many ways. It looks very much like a city of Gods.

As you can tell from the plot description, the story is a bit ponderous in places, with lots of characters showing up from the pages of Thor and Norse mythology in general. Fleeting glimpses are made of the Infinity Gauntlet, Hawkeye (of the Avengers) and Stan Lee. Keeping track of everything and everyone can be taxing at times, particularly for those who aren’t as well-versed in the comics.

Still, this is a very good start to the franchise; not quite to the level of Iron Man but surprisingly close. Now that the Marvel moviemaking machine is in full gear, it’s good to see that the quality standards are still high. Hopefully that’s something that will turn out to be as eternal as the Gods themselves.

REASONS TO GO: Asgard is beautifully realized. There’s an epic and Shakespearean quality to the story. Hemsworth acquits himself well as a leading man, with fine supporting performances by Portman, Hiddleston, Hopkins, Skarsgard, Elba and Dennings.

REASONS TO STAY: The story can be a bit confusing in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some science fiction/fantasy/comic book violence and a couple of scary monsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marks the first appearance of Rene Russo in a feature film in six years.

HOME OR THEATER: Most definitely the big screen to maintain the epic quality of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Tropic Thunder

New Releases for the Week of May 6, 2011


May 6, 2011

Thor gets ready to lay the hammer down on a bad guy.

THOR

(Paramount/Marvel) Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Colm Feore, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, Samuel L. Jackson, Ray Stevenson, Jaimie Alexander, Clark Gregg. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Thor, the God of Thunder and son of Odin is a mighty warrior but an arrogant one. His arrogance unwittingly triggers hostilities between the Gods and the Giants who have been in an uneasy peace for centuries. For his actions, Odin banishes his son to live on Earth and to learn a little humility, which isn’t easy for a God living on Earth but there you go.

See the trailer, clips, a featurette, promos and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard. 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence)

I Am

(Paladin) Tom Shadyac, Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn. After a devastating cycling accident left him incapacitated, possibly permanently, director Shadyac (auteur of the Ace Ventura movies among others) re-examines himself and his place in the universe, deciding to make a movie about it which might just make up for Ace Ventura, karma-wise.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

In a Better World

(Sony Classics) Mikael Persbrandt, William Johnk Nielsen, Trine Dyrholm, Markus Rygaard. An idealistic doctor who splits time between his home in Denmark and an African refugee camp must choose between revenge and forgiveness. At home his son is undergoing the same choice, albeit in a far different situation. This was the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for violent and disturbing content some involving preteens, and for language)

Jumping the Broom

(TriStar) Angela Bassett, Paula Patton, Mike Epps, Loretta Devine. It seems like it would be a simple thing; two young people coming together in matrimony, in beautiful Martha’s Vineyard no less. However their families – one well-to-do, the other blue collar – are at each other’s throats. Not exactly the seeds for a happy nuptial, right?

See the trailer, clips, interviews and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content)

POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold

(Sony Classics) Morgan Spurlock, Ben Silverman, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader. Gadfly Spurlock (he of Super Size Me) takes on his own industry this time – and product placement therein as he documents his attempts to have his film entirely financed by product placement. Along the way he gives us a glimpse of how the movie industry works – and how pervasive advertising is in our lives.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG-13 (for some language and sexual material)

Potiche

(Music Box) Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Karin Viard. Set in the 1970s, the trophy wife of a wealthy French industrialist proves to be better at running his company than he is when he is convalescing from a heart attack, setting the stage for this French war between the sexes. I saw this previously at the Florida Film Festival and reviewed it here.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for some sexuality)

Something Borrowed

(Warner Brothers) Ginnifer Goodwin, Kate Hudson, Colin Egglesfield, John Krasinski. Rachel and Darcy are best friends; Rachel is the maid of honor for Darcy, who is about to marry the man that Rachel has had a crush on since law school. When Rachel sleeps with Darcy’s husband-to-be after a night of too much drinking, their little circle of friends are in for a game of “change partners!”

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including dialogue, and some drug material)

Changeling


Changeling

Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, a mother taking on a corrupt system to find her missing son.

(Universal) Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Colm Feore, Amy Ryan, Michael Kelly, Jason Butler Harner, Gatatlin Griffith, Devon Conti, Frank Harris. Directed by Clint Eastwood

As parents, our job is to protect our children. We can’t be with them 24-7 and bad things can happen even when we’re around. The worst thing that can happen to a parent is said to be the death of a child; however, worse still might be not knowing.

Christine Collins (Jolie) is a single mother, something of a rarity in the Los Angeles of 1928. Her husband was incarcerated, but she and her son Walter (Griffith) were getting along just fine. Christine worked as a telephone operator and was sure to be promoted shortly. They lived in a small bungalow on a quiet little street. They went to the movies and had ice cream afterwards. Life was good.

Unfortunately, Christine got called into work one Saturday, forcing her to disappoint her son Walter as they had plans to attend the movies. She kissed him on the head, promised him they would go to Santa Monica Pier the next day and nagged him to stay inside until she got back.

When she got back that evening, Walter was gone. Nobody on the quiet street had seen him go. Frantic, she called the police who assured her he was probably somewhere in the neighborhood and he would surely be back before morning. All that long night she waited, but he never returned. Finally, she went to the police station where Detective Lester Ybarra (Kelly) took her statement and promised to look for the boy. Days turned into weeks and still there was no sign of him.

The case was becoming an embarrassment for the Los Angeles Police Department. Already under fire for corruption and incompetence, pressure was coming from Chief Davis (Feore) on down to Captain J.J. Jones (Donovan) to resolve the case. Finally, several months later, they finally caught a break; a boy in DeKalb, Illinois claimed to be Walter Collins. He was put on a train for Los Angeles, with the press invited to witness the happy reunion.

Except that when Christine Collins laid eyes on the boy claiming to be her son, she knew it wasn’t him. For one thing, he was three inches shorter than Walter was. When she took him to the dentist, his records didn’t match. When she took him to school, none of the classmates or teachers knew him, nor did he know who they were.

When she expressed her misgivings to the Police, they called her insane. The case was closed and the Police wished no further embarrassment. They tried to sweep it under the rug, but Christine Collins wasn’t the sort of woman to go into the night quietly. She railed publically and vocally, with the aid of crusading radio preacher Gustav Briegleb (Malkovich) who had been calling attention to corruption within the LAPD for years and saw this case as the crystallization of everything he had been warning his listeners about.

The lengths Christine Collins would have to go to, the tribulations she would undergo and the facts of the case of Walter Collins became this extraordinary story, all the more remarkable because the events were true. Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, best known for creating the science fiction universe of “Babylon 5,” meticulously crafts a story so richly detailed and gripping that you are on the edge of your seat for the two hours plus running time of the movie.

Eastwood also meticulously recreates the Los Angeles of 1928, and wisely allows the story to unfold simply, without calling attention to technique. He allows the story to be presented organically; you’re barely aware that he’s directing at all, which is to my mind the mark of a great director. Even so, it’s a great looking movie.

Jolie delivers perhaps the best performance of her career. Although she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Girl, Interrupted, she carries this movie on her back. Her desperation and despair show through her civil façade, which cracks the longer the story goes on. At no time do you not believe the emotional strain the character is under. She got nominated for Best Actress for this role, and although she would lose to Kate Winslet, there is certainly an argument that this was the superior performance.

There are some grisly scenes that are going to be disturbing to people who are sensitive to such things. The last portion of the movie does a complete turn, and you would be well-advised to be aware of it. There is a scene where Detective Ybarra questions a young boy who lived at the Wineville Chicken Ranch of Gordon Northcott (Harner) that is as terrifying a scene as you will ever witness. These are the kind of images that induce nightmares.

Eastwood is approaching 80 years old but he seems to be hitting his creative stride, producing one amazing movie after another. It is hard to watch in places, granted, but that is due to the subject matter more than the director. Those who love quality movies should seek this out if they haven’t already seen it and even then, it bears repeated viewings.

WHY RENT THIS: A gripping true-life crime story that has twists and turns so bizarre and so terrible that nobody could possibly make it up. Great performances from Jolie and Malkovich lead a very solid cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes depicting violence to children are very disturbing.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing scenes of children in jeopardy as well as the discovery of their remains; as good as this is, it is definitely NOT for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer J. Michael Straczynski heard about the case of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders from a source at Los Angeles City Hall where the records for the case were about to be destroyed. Instead, Straczynski took the records himself and became so engrossed in the story that he exhaustively researched the case; each event in the film occurs as cited in legal documents referring to the case and dialogue is often verbatim from court transcripts. He wrote the first draft in only eleven days and Eastwood agreed to direct within hours of reading it.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version utilizes Universal’s U-Control interactive features which overlays the photographs of the actual people being portrayed, as well as newspaper events of the actual events and period photographs of the locations utilized in the film. It’s really impressive stuff, especially for a history buff like me.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Ghost Town