The Death of Stalin


Stalin has the literal last laugh.

(2017) Comedy/Satire (IFC) Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine, Paul Chahidi, Adrian McLoughlin, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Richard Brake, Dermot Crowley, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Paul Whitehouse, Cara Horgan, Karl Johnson, Diana Quick, Jonathan Aris, Dave Wong, Eva Sayer. Directed by Armando Iannucci

 

While history is often written by the victorious and comes from that point of view, there are some things that transcend opinion. For one, tyrants like Hitler and in this particular case, Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, were homicidal monsters who are to be reviled rather than revered. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good for a laugh or two

Stalin (McLoughlin) barely makes an appearance in the film; he has his life-ending cerebral hemorrhage about 20 minutes into the film, but his presence hangs over the entire proceeding as a power struggle develops between secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (Beale) and the politically canny Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi). The rest of the central committee, including the spine-challenged Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) and the flip-flopping Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin) are busy scrambling to make sure they don’t get caught in the fallout that is sure to come once one of their number assumes control of the Soviet Union.

While the movie compresses a period of about three years into a few days (the final denouement which is shown here to take place shortly after the funeral actually occurred three years after Stalin was laid to rest), the historical facts as we can come by them seem to be pretty accurate. That the movie is based on a French graphic novel makes that a bit astounding but in this era of fake news and bald-faced lies that come from our own politicians, not surprising.

Buscemi has always been something of an underrated comic performer but this might be his best role yet. He plays Khrushchev as paranoid and somewhat high-strung, relating funny stories from the siege of Stalingrad including one of sticking a private’s finger in warm water in order to cause him to wet himself which turns out to be somewhat ironic since Stalin himself would shortly do exactly that (which is historically accurate; the hemorrhage caused him to lose control of his bladder).

Iannucci has created such spot-on satires as the HBO series Veep and the seminal British show The Thick of It but while those tend to be somewhat harder edged than Stalin he manages to concoct a story that is both timely and of a specific time simultaneously. We here in the West understand that being near the top of the political heap in the old Soviet Union was inherently dangerous to life and limb and we pat ourselves on the back to say “it was never like that here” but then we look at the current White House and its revolving door and wonder if it wasn’t a lot more similar than we think.

There are some moments of wonderful nonsense, such as when Beria and Khrushchev (neither one of whom are particularly athletic) racing through the woods of Stalin’ s dacha in order to be the first to greet his daughter Svetlana (Riseborough), or when war hero Grand Marshall Zhukov (Isaacs), then in charge of the Red Army, arrives at the Kremlin dripping with medals and roaring “What does it take for a soldier to get lubricated around here?”

Not everyone will find this funny. The Russians have banned this movie, claiming that it was insulting to Russian history which I suppose it is – if the Russians did a satire on the death of President Kennedy I suppose we wouldn’t be laughing much either. But then again, Putin has a lot more in common with Stalin than Trump has with JFK and I don’t doubt that those who are Trump supporters may find this to be a thinly veiled dig at their hero. I don’t think it is in particular, but parallels can certainly be glimpsed.

Da Queen found the film to be a bit long-winded and she has a point. I also have to point out that I was laughing out loud hysterically the first time I saw it but the second time I saw it with Da Queen it wasn’t quite as funny. That may mean that it won’t lend itself to repeated viewings although comedies rarely do. However, the first viewing really got me into the somewhat anarchic and zany world that Iannucci created and while it may not have been too laugh-inspiring at the time, at least today we can look back on it and see the humor – not so much in the situation but in how we react to it.

REASONS TO GO: Much of it is hysterically funny. Buscemi is at the top of his game. The dialogue is wickedly funny. Those who love Monty Python are going to enjoy this.
REASONS TO STAY: The subject matter may make laughter a somewhat uncomfortable reaction. It’s a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is consistent profanity, adult themes, violence (some of it graphic), sexual references and intimations of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was banned in Russia, two days before it was due to be released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monty Python’s Life of Brian
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
La Familia

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The Belko Experiment


Things are getting a little heated back at the office.

(2016) Horror (BH Tilt/High Top/Orion) John Gallagher Jr., Adria Arjona, Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Owain Yeoman, Sean Gunn, Brent Sexton, Josh Brener, David Dastmalchian, David Del Rio, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, Rusty Schwimmer, Gail Bean, James Earl, Abraham Benrubi, Valentine Miele, Steven Blackehart, Benjamin Byron Davis, Silvia de Dios. Directed by Greg McLean

 

There’s no doubt that the corporate environment in 2017 is as cutthroat as it’s ever been. Ambitious office drones plot their way to promotions that bring them out of the environment of living paycheck to paycheck and into management where they can make some real money; others plot to preserve their place in the pecking order. Either way, the office is no place for the faint of heart.

Belko Corporation is described as a non-profit that helps large companies recruit American workers to South American locations. They have a large tower located outside of Bogota, Colombia – well outside of Bogota. Mike Milch (Gallagher) is a fairly humdrum middle management type who is involved in a clandestine romance with co-worker Leandra Florez (Arjona) as that sort of thing is discouraged by Belko, who somewhat appropriately incorporate the figure of an eye into their corporate logo. It is not stretching things to say that most of the people who work in the building have no clue what they do for the company.

One unremarkable morning Mike drives into work to discover an increased security presence and that all the local Colombian workers are being turned away from work. He thinks nothing of it – until a disembodied voice comes on the PA system to announce that the 80 or so workers remaining in the building must select two among their number to murder – or else double that number would be selected at random. Everyone thinks it’s a practical joke in poor taste – until the heads of four people suddenly explode.

At first believing the carnage to be the work of a random sniper, there is panic as people try to get under cover. That’s when large blowtorch-proof metal doors and shutters encase the building in a steel cocoon. There is no leaving and as the voice informs them that they’ll need to find 20 workers to dispatch to the choir invisible or once again double that number would be random victims.

Quickly the social order begins to devolve. The company’s COO Barry Norris (Goldwyn) tries to preach calm and order until he becomes convinced that the only way to buy time is to do what the voice commands, especially when it becomes apparent that every move they make is being observed (remember the eye?) by the disembodied voice. Joining him are a number of management types who want to maintain control of the situation, including Wendell Dukes (McGinley), the kind of manager nobody ever wants to work under. Mike is trying to keep from having anyone die but his voice is not getting heard in the increasing panic. Before too long things fall completely apart and everyone starts looking out for their own ass if they are to survive the worst workday ever.

The movie was penned by current fan favorite James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) as a bit of a passion project but it has languished on the shelf while Gunn has been shepherding the two Marvel space operas to money-printing status. He left the property however in the capable hands of Aussie director McLean (Wolf Creek) who does a yeoman job bringing the script to life.

Most of the actors are better known by face than by name and while there is a black comedy element to the proceedings it never gets to the point of silliness which often happens with horror comedies. Of course, this is as allegorical as it gets to what corporate culture has become in terms of treating employees as disposable resources in which salary and benefits are necessary evils and when the need for those workers dissipates, so do the workers.

Rooker, who has become one of Gunn’s go-to guys, excels as a building engineer as does Goldwyn as a boss who is friendly and supportive on the outside but loses any semblance of concern for his employees when the rubber hits the road. Gallagher and Arjona are okay in the lead roles but aren’t particularly memorable. James’ brother Sean is memorable as a stoner and Schwimmer as the office mother hen is strong.

There are a lot of heads exploding here (having to do with a tracking chip that American workers receive in countries where kidnappings are common) and many gruesome deaths by axe to the face or stapler to the skull. I might have wished for a little more variety to the murders – I would imagine in an office environment there would be plenty of supplies that could do some real damage. A little more imagination in this department would have been welcome. It also should be said that those sensitive to gore and carnage will likely have a rough time with The Belko Experiment.

The movie loses momentum in the second half which is basically a survivalist epic and the denouement is a bit disappointing although there are some pop culture references of the blink and you’ll miss them variety that add some richness to the last moments of the movie. I was hoping for a little bit more from the film but to be honest it is solidly entertaining and horror fans looking for something a little bit different could do a lot worse than to look in this direction.

REASONS TO GO: The film is clever, particularly in the first half. Some fine actors turn in strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The gore might be a little bit too extreme for some. The film loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: Oh my, there’s plenty of gore and violence, profanity, some drug use and brief sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Gunn was originally set to direct this from his own screenplay but felt that the violence was not what he needed in his life as he was going through a painful divorce, plus he was also hard at work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle Royale
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: New Chefs on the Block

Beasts of No Nation


Clean up your room!

Clean up your room!

(2015) Drama (Netflix/Bleecker Street) Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Ama Abebrese, Richard Pepple, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, Kurt Egyiawan, Jude Akuwudike, Emmanuel Affadzi, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Fred Nii Amugi, Grace Nortey, Ebenezer Annanfo, Zabon Gibson, Randy Aflakpui, Justice Promise Azduey, Annointed Wesseh, Abdul Mumin Mutawaki. Directed by Cary Fukunaga

The things that are done in war are as brutal and inhuman as our species get. In fact, “inhuman” is a bit of a misnomer; in many ways, war defines our species so the things we do, the brutalities we inflict are very human indeed.

Agu (Attah) is a young boy in a village in an unnamed African country that is being torn by civil war. Utilizing an old TV set with most of its innards torn out, he and his friends use this “imagination TV” to entertain villagers by creating television entertainment. The civil war has been far away from then until word comes that the rebel troops are coming.

Knowing that the fighting will soon come to their village, the women and children are set to be taken to a place of safety. His mother (Abebrese) and his baby brother are allowed to go but the drive of the vehicle refuses to allow Agu aboard. Reluctantly, his mother leaves promising to come back as soon as the fighting is over.

But it is the government troops that come into the village and start slaughtering the males who had stayed behind to fight, including Agu’s father (Amissah-Sam) and brother. Rebels find the traumatized Agu hiding in the hills and he is brought to their Commandant (Elba) to be executed but instead the Commandant keeps Agu on as a child soldier and gives him to the mute Strika (Quaye) to train.

The training is brutal and the fighting worse. These young boys (and girls) are made to do terrible, horrible things, unthinkable things. Agu doesn’t do these things out of rage but out of fear; fear that if he refuses, the Commandant will have him butchered. He lives in a constant certainty that he is going to Hell once he dies for the things he has done – his mother was a fervent Christian. And the more he sees and the more he does, the more certain he is that his soul has been tainted.

This isn’t the first movie to depict the plight of child soldiers but it certainly is one of the most powerful. Much of this is because of Attah, the gifted young actor whose dead-eyed fear-wracked expression is much more powerful than any dialogue could convey. Attah has to be both a normal young African child and a ruthless child warrior and he pulls both off effectively. I honestly don’t know if he has plans to continue his acting career but based on the notices he has gotten for his work here that road is definitely open for him.

English actor Idris Elba has been described as a force of nature and he is the polar opposite here to his performance in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. His Commandant is manipulative, sadistic and simply the essence of evil but the Commandant doesn’t see himself that way; rather the character thinks of himself as a great man, doing whatever it takes to make change in his country – however he doesn’t really do this for love of country so much as love of power and when his political position becomes more and more untenable, the dynamic changes until the fear that he once inspired is gone.

The movie was privately financed by Fukunaga who sold the broadcast rights to Netflix. The streaming giant, looking to release movies on their own both on their service and theatrically, offered to give the movie a theatrical run; the larger theatrical chains said no thanks, despite it’s award winning festival run and Oscar buzz. The precedent, went the thinking, of releasing movies simultaneously on Netflix and in theaters would be an end to their business and they may have a point  The Landmark chain, consisting primarily of art houses, however have opted to present it in their theaters so if your town has a Landmark cinema it is likely to be there.

Fukunaga, whose previous project was the massively acclaimed and overwhelmingly popular HBO miniseries True Detective has been working on this project off and on for seven years. He contracted malaria while filming it in Ghana and put up with budget cuts and major difficulties with African officials and law enforcement. There is a great deal of sensitivity in the region about these wars and how they are depicted; there are some American liberals who say that this film plays to the racist element in our society, which is a load of horseshit.

We can’t ignore crimes against humanity because of the color of the skin of those who commit them. Black lives do matter; that’s why it shouldn’t matter the color of the skin of the people who are destroying them and ending them, whether a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri or a black warlord in Somalia. This is a story that should be told and it is a story that here at least has been told extremely well.

REASONS TO GO: Incendiary performances by Elba and Attah. Realistic and intense.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit during the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of violence, some of it disturbing – some of it committed by or against children. Some sexuality and rape, and a lot of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fukunaga intended to cast former child soldiers as extras for the movie but a large number of them were arrested in Ivory Coast on suspicions of being mercenaries and so Fukunaga was forced to go with local extras.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timbuktu
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
NEXT: Hot Sugar’s Cold World

No Escape


Owen Wilson and Lake Bell carry the movie.

Owen Wilson and Lake Bell carry the movie.

(2015) Action (Weinstein) Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Claire Geare, Sterling Jenns, Stacy Chbosky, Tanapol Chuksrida, Jon Goldney, Nophand Boonyai, Thanawut Kasro, Kanaprat Phintiang, Bonnie Jo Hutchison, Danai Tung Thiengtham, Vuthichard Photphurin, Manfred Iig, Bonnie Zellerbach, Karen Gemma Dodgson. Directed by John Erick Dowdle

It is one thing to be in a situation in which you are in mortal danger. It is quite another when your entire family is in that same situation with you. The entire dynamic is changed; you may fight for your own life but when it comes to your family…

Jack Dwyer (Wilson) is an engineer whose business has gone belly up. Forced to take a job to take care of his family, he goes to work for the multinational Cardiff Corporation, going to a Southeastern Asia country to work on cleaning up their water supply. He is going to be there for some time, so he brings his family – wife Annie (Bell), daughters Lucy (Jenns) and Beeze (Geare). The girls are a bit on the spoiled side – Lucy, a pre-teen, acts out constantly while the younger Beeze has a maniacal attachment to a stuffed teddy bear named Bob.

The family befriends scruffy Hammond (Brosnan), a British ex-pat, on the flight over and when the car that Cardiff was supposed to send around to fetch them doesn’t arrive, Hammond and his local buddy Kenny Rogers (Boonthanakit), who runs a taxi service and is freakishly devoted to the singer in question that everyone knows him by that name, offers to give the exhausted family a lift to the hotel. Once there, the phones, television and internet aren’t working. Jack heads down to the concierge (Boonyai) to complain about the situation and ends up spending some time with the womanizing drunken Hammond at the bar.

What Jack doesn’t know is that the country’s prime minister (Photphurin) has been assassinated and a rebel coup has begun. The rebels, easily identified by their red bandannas, are virulently anti-foreigner and what Jack also doesn’t know is that they’re particularly pissed off at his company who have taken over their country’s water supply.

While out to fetch a newspaper the next morning, Jack runs smack into a confrontation between rebels and riot police and is caught in the middle. As he runs back to the hotel, he soon finds to his dismay that the rebels not only have numerical superiority but the upper hand; they are well-armed and are completely overrunning government forces. They are also executing foreigners on sight. Jack, realizing the situation is out of hand, goes to collect his family including the willful Lucy who has gone AWOL to the hotel swimming pool. Once he collects his family, he takes them on the advice of Hammond to the hotel roof, which turns out to be not as safe as he would have thought when a rescue helicopter turns out to be anything but. In order to escape he is forced to throw his screaming reluctant children to the roof of an adjacent office building and hide them there after the inhabitants are butchered by the rebels. They try to head for the American embassy, but even though it is only a few blocks away it might as well be on the moon, considering how dangerous the streets are.

Dowdle, who co-wrote the movie with his brother Drew, has done some fairly high-profile genre work in the past, including Devil, Quarantine and As Above, So Below. This is less a genre film and more of an action thriller, broken down to almost a primal level – a man trying to protect his family, doesn’t get any more primal than that.

Wilson and Bell aren’t the first choices I’d make to cast an action movie, but they do credible jobs here, even if Bell is given little to do but be menaced by rebels and to try and calm down her hysterical children. What I like about the roles is that neither Wilson or Bell are ex-Navy SEALs or kickboxing champions. They are ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation and from time to time they freak out, understandably.

The kids though are another matter. They are whiny, bratty and basically are there to put the entire family in jeopardy at every inopportune moment. I don’t mind that happening from time to time in the movie but it seemed like every ten or fifteen minutes in a kid would cry, disobey their parents or snivel to the point where they got noticed by angry rebels. I know the kids are part of the motivation for Jack but they needed to be less involved in the action.

Some have criticized the film for making the rebels faceless, but that’s an invalid criticism. Of course the rebels are going to be mostly faceless; this is an action movie. At one point, Hammond comments that the rebels are trying to protect his family just as Jack is. The real villain here is the faceless corporation; nobody complained that the executives of Cardiff were faceless. Political correctness, once again taken to ridiculous lengths.

The action sequences are the film’s highlights; Dowdle directs these deftly, making sure the tension is extremely high throughout. Those action fans who love that kind of thing should flock to this movie; Die Hard it isn’t but it does action right, and that’s not nearly as easy as it sounds., The cinematography isn’t bad, although the urban scenes, mostly filmed in Thailand, are a little bit scruffy. It’s the night filming which is when most of the movie takes place that looks more thrilling.

This is nice entertainment, transitioning from the late summer doldrums into the early fall doldrums and let’s face it, is about as good a movie as we’re going to get until November for the most part. There are a few plot points here that are a bit dicey but if you are willing to overlook them, this is a fairly fun action thriller that does exactly what an action thriller is supposed to do.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty harrowing in places. Wilson, Bell and Brosnan are always worth seeing.
REASONS TO STAY: The kids are far too annoying. Here’s to almost.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence (some of it graphic) and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michelle Monahan was originally cast as Annie Dwyer but when production was delayed, she got pregnant and was forced to drop out of the role. Lake Bell took over the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Southern Comfort
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police

Miss Bala


The life of a beauty queen is harder in some places than others.

The life of a beauty queen is harder in some places than others.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Stephanie Sigman, Irene Azuela, Miguel Coururier, Gabriel Heads, Noe Hernandez, James Russo, Jose Yenque, Juan Carlos Galvan, Lakshmi Picazo, Javier Zaragoza, Leonor Vitorica, Hugo Marquez, Eduardo Mendizabal, Sergio Gomez Padilla, Felipe Morales, Sergio Miguel Martinez, Gabriel Chavez, Leticia Huijara Cano. Directed by Gerardo Naranjo

Innocence is a commodity that falls by the wayside in a corrupt society. It is hard not to take sides when absolute power rules with brutality and intimidating force and often the side you take is not one taken of your own free will.

Laura Guerrero (Sigman) is a sweet and unassuming teenager who works selling secondhand clothes with her father (Zaragoza) and little brother (Galvan). On a whim she and her close friend Suzu (Picazo) decide to enter their names for the Miss Baja beauty pageant. That night they decide to go to a local night club and party.

During the evening, a group of thugs shoot up the club. Laura, who was in the bathroom at the time, escaped but witnessed the whole thing, being one of the few survivors. Her ordeal is just beginning; she is kidnapped the very next day and taken to Lino Valdez (Hernandez), the head of the drug cartel. Lino. Rather than executing the witness however, he uses her as a courier to ferry money across the border into the United States, bringing back arms and ammunition.

Lino and his gang use her brother and father to control her, threatening to execute them if she doesn’t do as they say and so she becomes a part of the gang. When they figure she can be useful for them as a pageant winner, they get her into the Miss Baja pageant and bribe the judges into letting her win. Her high profile allows them to use her as a means of seducing the powerful General Salomon Duarte (Couturier) and gaining control over him by that means. However, when she discovers that Suzu had not survived the shooting at the club (they assured her that she had), she realizes that nobody is getting out of this alive and she is left with a big decision to make.

As thrillers go this one is raw and gritty and sometimes not so pretty, even given the beauty pageant background. It displays the effects that intimidation, violence and brutality have on the lives of those caught in the crossfire and does so very effectively. Although it didn’t make the final short list, it was submitted as Mexico’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film for the 2012 Academy Awards.

There’s a gritty realism that shows not only the desperation and poverty of the people who live in Baja but also the arrogance, the brutality and the opulence of those in power. The consequences of our war on drugs have never had such a human face as this.

Sigman is not well known to me as an actress; she has mainly appeared in Mexican films and since this movie was made has had a recurring role on the F/X TV series The Bridge. She certainly has the beauty and the innocent look but there isn’t a lot of emotion that we get from her other than terror which isn’t necessarily a deficiency on her part – the role doesn’t really call for much else and therein lies the main problem with the movie.

We really don’t get to know Laura at all before the massacre and kidnapping. She seems like a fairly sweet kid, a typical Mexican teenager trying to help her family make ends meet. However, the movie gets into the action so quickly (which isn’t normally an issue for me) that by the time we really know what’s happening Laura is already in victim mode, and that’s really the only way we know her throughout the film all the way to its ambiguous ending.

Sometimes the ins and outs of the politics of the movie can be a bit confusing as to who is on who’s side, who is screwing who and who is at war with who. Things do come out of left field seemingly and while that keeps us off-balance a little bit, some further explanation might have been helpful, particularly for us gringos.

Where the movie excels is in its suspense and tension. From the moment the massacre starts most viewers will be on the edge of their seats, and not really sure what’s going to come at them next. Think of it as riding a roller coaster blindfolded and never sure if you’re going to go flying out of your seat. Some might find that an unpleasant experience but for the purposes here that does satisfy the Type A personality in me.

Despite the recent upsurge in quality Mexican films, this one didn’t get a great deal of attention when it was released back in the early months of 2011 which is a bit of a shame. While it isn’t as good as, say, Y tu mama tambien or Amores perros it is as good as any thriller that has come out from Hollywood in recent years.

WHY RENT THIS: Raw and gritty. Raises the thriller bar up a notch..

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Don’t really connect with Laura as much as we should. Occasionally confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of rough language, a goodly amount of sometimes strong and bloody violence as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on Laura Zuniga, the former Miss Sinaloa, beauty queen and model who was arrested on December 22, 2008 for narcotics trafficking.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unavailable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maria, Full of Grace

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Being Flynn

State of Play


State of Play

Russell Crowe sheepishly discovers that this isn't casual Friday, as Helen Mirren scolds him.

(Universal) Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Michael Berresse, Harry Lennix, Barry Shabaka Henley. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

One of the casualties of the Information Age is the newspaper. Once the prime source of information for nearly everybody, it was done in first by the television newscast and finally, by the Internet which could deliver news instantaneously, rather than by the next morning. Oh, the daily newspapers are still around, but their circulation is dwindling, ad revenue shrinking and their role changing from government watchdogs to gossip-mongering rags that are rapidly losing their relevance.

Cal McAffrey (Crowe) is a bit of a dinosaur in that regard. A reporter for the Washington Globe, he is familiar with the intricacies of the federal government and has sources in nearly every office building from the Capital to the D.C. police department. Scruffy and disheveled, he is a man who cares more about the truth than is perhaps fashionable.

He is called to the scenes of what appear to be disparate deaths – a young African American career criminal shot to death in an alleyway (with an unfortunate bicyclist also gunned down for being in the wrong place at the worst time) and a young Congressional assistant who threw herself under a Metro subway train.

The nagging question was whether she fell or was she pushed. Further complicating things is that she worked for Representative Steven Collins (Affleck), McAffrey’s old college roommate who is married to McAffrey’s college lover, Anne (Penn). Collins is a bright light in his party, a possible presidential candidate in the making. He is heading a Congressional investigation into a company called PointCorp, whose service is similar to what Blackwater provides in real life. His assistant was spearheading the research into PointCorp which makes the timing of her demise even more suspicious, but this is overlooked when it is revealed – by the tearful Collins himself – that the congressman was having an affair with his assistant.

This is the kind of juicy scandal that the news media lives for these days and the Globe’s matriarchal editor-in-chief Cameron Lynne (Mirren) wants to leap onto the more salacious aspects of the story. McAffrey, however, sees something more sinister at work and starts to dig deeper and quickly discovers a link between the alleyway murder and the death of the assistant – the victim was carrying a PointCorp briefcase at the time of his murder.

With McAffrey’s objectivity in question, Lynne assigns political blogger Della Frye (McAdams) to the story. McAffrey regards her in probably the same way the Neanderthal regarded Homo sapiens. Still, the further the two of them dig, the bigger the body count becomes. Now, not only are they racing against the clock to get the story, they must find a way to stay alive before it’s published.

Director Kevin Macdonald is developing quite the resume with The Last King of Scotland, Kindertransport and One Day in September to his credit. Here he is given a script that reduces a six hour BBC miniseries on which this movie is based into 127 minutes. That’s a lot of condensing, but it works out very nicely. Macdonald keeps the strings taut and the tension high throughout the movie, interspacing it with shocking acts of violence (the opening sequence depicting the alleyway murders and the subway murder are masterfully done).

Russell Crowe, when given the right material, is ridiculously good, and this is his best role in years. He plays McAffrey with a combination of bulldog determination, a somewhat naïve regard for the truth and a weary cynicism that makes him realistic to most of the print journalists I’ve ever met. His byplay with Mirren are among the movies highlights.

Affleck, once a promising leading man in Hollywood before poor script choices derailed his career, has settled in nicely as a terrific support actor. Here he plays the crusading politician with the right amount of grit tempered with vulnerability. He never overshadows Crowe, but compliments him instead, and makes you wish you could have voted for his character.

The big problem with this movie is its ending. Quite frankly, up until the last 20 minutes of the movie, this is a superb film; then, the wheels come off. The ending is frankly unbelievable and makes you tear your hair out and shout at the screen “Oh come on, do you think we’re STUPID?!” I was quite flabbergasted because everything about this movie was well thought out, brilliantly conceived and superbly planned up until then. It’s the kind of thing that breaks a movie lover’s heart.

The movie does strike an elegiac chord for the daily newspaper; throughout the movie, Mirren’s character laments that nobody reads them anymore and complains about how the new corporate publishers are pushing for lighter, fluffier fare and a colorful, dumbed-down graphics-heavy look of the kind more and more newspapers are adopting in an effort to stave off the desertion of their subscribers. I don’t know how long daily newspapers can last in the current environment; they will probably always exist in an online format, but some of the great newspapers of this land are barely hanging on and whether or not they can survive in the coming years is very much in doubt.

Still, the newspaper-set movie is an exciting one; it yields up images of truth seeking journalists like Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men or the snappy repartee of Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns in His Girl Friday. Perhaps those sorts of movies (and others like Absence of Malice and The Paper) are also destined to become archaic relics of a bygone era; all I know is that a movie set at a newspaper is bound to be more dynamic and exciting than one set at an online blog.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Crowe’s best performances in years. This is a very smart thriller with some wonderfully shot sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is just plain godawful.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, some bad language, some sexuality and some drug references. That’s a lot of “somes” but no “lotses,” so you should feel okay letting most teens see this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McAffrey’s cubicle contains a partially-hidden picture of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Watergate reporters from the Washington Post. Woodward later makes a cameo appearance at Anne Collins’ press conference.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: On the Blu-Ray edition, the U-Control feature’s “Washington DC Locations” feature allows you to see on-screen text and Google Earth graphics to show the government buildings and street locations where the scenes take place (and were frequently shot).

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: A Good Year