In the Shadow of Iris (Iris)


There are layers of deceit when it comes to sexual fetishes.

(2017) Thriller (Netflix) Romain Duris, Charlotte Le Bon, Jalil Lespert, Camille Cotin, Adel Bencherif, Sophie Verbeck, Héléne Barbry, Jalis Laleg, Violetta Sanchez, Gina Haller, Félix Cohen, Waël Sersoub, Benoit Rabillé, Antoine Bujolli, Mourad Frarema, Vincent Dos Reis, Olivier Galzi, Christian Ameri, Nicolas Grandhomme, Betony Vernon, Alexandra Langlais. Directed by Jalil Lespert

 

Who knows what is in a woman’s mind (or a man’s for that matter but that’s for a different review) behind the façade of civility? All sorts of things percolate; the woman who may seem to be a model wife may have cheating on her mind. The woman who seems proper and prim may indulge in fetishes and perversions that would shock you if you knew.

Iris (Le Bon) is the wife of wealthy Parisian banker Antoine Doirot (Lespert). They are at lunch one afternoon when she excuses herself for a smoke. When she doesn’t return, at first Antoine wonders if she didn’t decide to go shopping without saying goodbye but as the day wears on and there’s no sign of her he begins to worry…but then the call comes in on his smart phone complete with a photo of his wife tied up and gagged in some dark room. The ransom is high but affordable for someone like Antoine.

She is in the possession of auto mechanic Max Lopez (Duris) who not only is in financial trouble and dealing with a divorce, but is about to lose his home due to Antoine’s bank. Yet he is not a suspect right away; though he has a criminal record, nobody thinks he has the skills to pull something like this off. As the police detectives Vasseur (Cotin) and Ziani (Bencherif) look into the matter more deeply, it quickly becomes clear that all is not as it seems – and that nobody is as they seem in this twisted drama.

This French thriller has noir-ish elements as well as being heavy on the erotic. Playing heavily into the plot are bondage and S&M fetishes – one scene includes a dominatrix whipping the hell out of a main character’s back, almost into unconsciousness. There is sex on top of a murder victim by the murderer, and there are all sorts of references to marital infidelity, sexual violence and prostitution. This is most definitely not for family viewing, unless your family hangs out in leather clubs.

I’m not a prude but the eroticism feels a bit gratuitous to me. It doesn’t really make too much of a difference in the plot really but that’s neither here nor there. If you’re into S&M it’s fairly tame stuff compared to what you might find on some of the adult movie sites but more realistic than what you’ll find in the Fifty Shades movies.

The real problem here is that Lespert inserts flashbacks throughout the film to explain some of the things going on, but there’s no real way of telling you’re watching something from a different time until often later in the movie. It’s confusing as hell and the plot, convoluted already, doesn’t need that kind of confusion. Lespert is decent enough with the tension, keeping viewers into the movie but sometimes it’s truly hard to figure out what’s going on. It doesn’t help matters that Lespert and Duris look fairly similar and the only way to tell them apart is when Max is wearing his mechanic coveralls – which he doesn’t always do.

On the plus side the soundtrack is awesome with a lot of great pop and rock songs from France, England and the U.S. I’d go so far as to say that it may have the best soundtrack of any of the Netflix original films I’ve seen thus far. Still, if you’re looking for an erotic thriller, there is a lot going for this one. There’s also a lot going against it, to be fair. I think what it boils down to is whether you can tolerate the film’s flaws, are able to tolerate (or if you have a thing for) bondage and S&M, and if you don’t mind subtitles. If the answer to all of those are positive, definitely have at this one.

REASONS TO GO: Lespert does a fine job of maintaining tension. The soundtrack is excellent.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points are far-fetched. The flashbacks are often confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity, sexual situations, brief language and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a loose remake of the 2000 Hideo Nakata film Chaos. Initially this was going to be an American film but when no studio would finance it, the movie was shopped to other countries with a French production company footing the bill.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Disappearance of Alice Creed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
American Folk

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The Skeleton Twins


Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reminisce about their SNL days.

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reminisce about their SNL days.

(2014) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Joanna Gleason, Paul Castro Jr., Eddie Schweighardt, Sydney Lucas, Ian Hyland, Genevieve Adams, Jennifer Lafleur, Truck Hudson, Cliff Moylan, David Garelik. Directed by Craig Johnson

Nobody is guaranteed an easy life. Between financial troubles, relationship woes, career issues, medical difficulties and scores of other stresses, happiness can be an elusive quality. Some of us have the ability to deal with life’s twists and turns. Others, not so much.

The Skeleton Twins opens with Milo (Hader) attempting suicide. His twin sister Maggie (Wiig) is quite coincidentally, also considering suicide but when she is informed that her brother has been hospitalized she flies out to Los Angeles.

The two haven’t spoken in ten years and it is clear Milo is perfectly happy to extend that streak but Maggie perseveres and gets Milo to move in with her and her happy-go-lucky husband Lance (Wilson). Milo isn’t terribly enthusiastic at first and is a bit stand-offish with his twin but eventually begins to warm up.

He also begins to revert to old habits. He goes and sees Rich (Burrell), his old English teacher with whom he had an affair with when he was just 15, leading to Rich’s dismissal as a teacher when Maggie turned them in. It’s most definitely not a healthy relationship but Milo, as many of us will do, pursues it nevertheless. For Maggie’s part she is stressed by the fact that Lance wants to have kids and although she’s agreed to try is taking birth control behind his back. That, and she’s cheating on him with a parade of adult education instructors she’s been having affairs with, the most recent being her hunky Aussie scuba instructor Billy (Holbrook).

Part of Maggie’s reluctance towards motherhood stems from her own attitude toward her flighty, New Age-y mother (Gleason) who seems to care more about her own self-discovery than in nurturing her kids. While Milo seems to have made at least some peace with her, Maggie still has clearly not forgiven her and her mom’s unexpected appearance sends Maggie on a downward spiral.

Neither twin is coping well with life. Milo, a failed actor whose string of relationships have all ended in disaster, suspects that he peaked in high school, a fate that his father had predicted for the kids that tormented him for his femininity. Maggie has a great husband but still has mommy issues and especially, daddy issues – their father self-checked out when they were both kids – and is afraid of losing what she does have. Both snipe at each other and take out petty vengeance on one another until it appears that they will once again go their own separate ways.

The interesting thing about The Skeleton Twins is that we see glimpses of Milo and Maggie as kids and there isn’t any doubt that the two were very much there for each other and supported each other despite their own differentness. Clearly that bond has been sundered over the years, but it’s still there at the end of the day. Casting SNL veterans Hader and Wiig as the twins was a masterstroke. The two have a long history together and are very comfortable with each other, much in the way of siblings, and it shows. They are totally believable as twins, even though the physical resemblance is marginal at best.

Hader, in particular, shows the kind of layered performance that he just doesn’t get to show in the myriad sketch performances and supporting roles he’s had. Milo’s inner pain is palpable and when he gets drunk, which is often, his self-loathing is even more evident. Still, he keeps putting himself out there which is admirable and even though he is occasionally hateful and snide, he is infinitely relatable. This is if you’ll excuse the pun, his coming-out party as an actor, serving notice that he is more than just a wacky comic actor. He’s got depth.

Wiig also has some terrific moments. I’m less a fan of her work post-SNL but she can be a terrific actress when given the right material and this is certainly the right material. She, like Hader, has to convey a great deal of self-loathing here. Unlike Milo, Maggie is very aware that what she’s doing is destructive and wrong, but ultimately can’t help herself. At some deeper level, Maggie is looking to punish herself and wants Lance to find out about her improprieties. While Wiig isn’t as spectacular a performance as Hader, it is nonetheless solid and commendable.

Water is used as a motif here; most of the really major events have some sort of water element in them, from the opening scene when Milo slashes his wrists in the bathtub to the scuba lessons in a local pool to the goldfish swimming placidly in an aquarium. Water often denotes life in the movies and it does to an extent here but it is also a metaphor for death as goldfish do die (although obviously Milo does not). There is another event involving Maggie late in the film that I don’t want to give specifics about in the interest of not giving away too much but it also takes place in water.

While some of the time it feels like they’re pushing too hard to be funny (i.e. the scene in the dentist’s office where Maggie works) writer/director Johnson strikes a nice balance between humor and pathos throughout the movie, allowing for maximum catharsis. Suicide is definitely not an easy subject to deal with and it hangs over the movie like a Damoclean sword. Johnson leaves a lot of that subject unspoken, preferring to illustrate how the twins are affected by the suicide of their father and their own tendencies towards it visually without resorting to much discussion on the subject. It doesn’t really allow for a great deal of illumination but it does give audiences the opportunity to come to their own conclusions.

In some ways the movie sounds grim but it really isn’t. It’s not all bright and sunny though so if you’re looking for an escape type of movie you’re better off seeking out something a little more brainless. If you don’t mind a little thought along with your laughter, this might be the tonic you’re looking for.

REASONS TO GO: Hader gives a nuanced performance. Good mix of funny and pathos.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries too hard for laughs sometimes.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of foul language, some sexuality and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Farris was originally cast as Maggie but had to drop out due to schedule conflicts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before I Disappear
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dolphin Tale 2

Change of Plans (Le code a change)


When in doubt...flamenco!!!

When in doubt…flamenco!!!

(2009) Dramedy (IFC) Karin Viard, Dany Boon, Marina Fois, Patrick Bruel, Emmanuelle Seigner, Christopher Thompson, Marina Hands, Patrick Chesnais, Bianca Li, Laurent Stocker, Pierre Arditi, Jeanne Raimbault, Isabelle Cagnat, Marc Rioufol, Cyrille Eldin, Michele Brousse, Michel Motu, Guillaume Durand, Zahia Said, Anne Agbadou-Masson. Directed by Daniele Thompson

When I was a kid, my parents used to host dinner parties from time to time – not on a regular basis but at least once or twice a year. When their adult guests would arrive, we’d be ushered off to our rooms which we were frankly happy enough to do – in our view, adults were boring, uncultured sorts who didn’t even have the foggiest idea of the serious intellectual properties of Scooby Doo.

These days, I get the sense that dinner parties are something of a lost art. Four or five couples at a dinner table talking about adult subjects? For one thing, how many of them could stay off of their cell phones for three or four hours? And of course these days opinions on current affairs are mostly excuses for shouting matches unless of course you invite people who agree with you politically and then what sort of fun is that?

The French however have kept this art form alive – and a good dinner party is very much a work of art. ML (Viard), a high-powered attorney, and her husband Piotr (Boon) are hosting such a dinner party and they’ve chosen an auspicious occasion – the celebration of Parisian street music known as Fete de la musique which takes place every 21st of June. Piotr, of Polish descent, will be the chef and has chosen as the main entree a stew called bigos (which in case you’re interested in trying out yourself the recipe is listed during the end credits courtesy of Seigner’s husband, director Roman Polanski).

On the invitation list is Melanie (Fois), a gynecologist who has been carrying on an affair with a jockey and is preparing to leave her husband Alain (Bruel), a kind oncologist who genuinely cares for his patients and who has no idea what is going on behind his back (to be fair, ML is carrying on with the contractor who supervised the remodeling of her kitchen). Lucas (Thompson), an overbearing sort who works for a rival firm and is attempting to get ML to jump ship, as well as Lucas’ wife Sarah (Seigner) who has all the self-confidence of a student driver behind the wheel of their first driver’s education class.

Also on board is Juliette (Hands), ML’s sister who has grown distant from her sibling and who has brought an older gentleman, Erwann (Chesnais) who may or may not be her lover. Arriving late is ML’s flamenco teacher Manuela (Li) who has dreams of opening up her own school as well as Jean-Louis (Stocker), the previously mentioned contractor who is ML’s lover. Arriving unexpectedly is Henri (Arditi), the father of Juliette and ML who has been estranged from his daughters for some time – and strikes up an unsuspecting friendship with Erwann.

Nearly all of the party guests are having an affair, just called off an affair or are thinking of having one. Apparently extramarital sex is much on the mind of the average Parisian and just as apparently most American critics are a bit squeamish about it. Sometimes it is difficult for Americans to look at extramarital sex in the same way that the French do, who are much more pragmatic about it and much less emotional than we Americans are. We tend to use words like “cheating” and “betrayal” in regards to it while the French have looked on it as a natural part of life. It is one of those cultural differences that both sides find the other hard to fathom.

So getting past that can be hard for an American audience, but it isn’t the aspect of the movie that should be dwelled upon. Ms. Thompson uses a flash-forward to illustrate the beginnings of significant changes in the lives of those who attended the dinner party which started as small events at the dinner party, reassembling those who had originally attended the party a year after the fact. It is a bit jarring when the first flash-forward occurs but once one understands that they are viewing two separate parties than it begins to make sense.

This is a very strong cast, with Viard, considered by some to be the French equivalent of Meryl Streep, in strong form as the very much conflicted hostess who is frustrated at being the support of her chronically unemployed husband whom she nevertheless loves. Boon, for his part, is better known as a comic actor but plays it straight nicely, Seigner has a small but juicy role and reaffirms why she is one of my favorite Gallic actresses working today and Bruel also pulls off some decent work.

The drawback to having this many guests is that not all of the stories are as compelling and while they all entwine and enmesh tightly, it does make for a rather ponderous pace as we move from one storyline to the next with the two dinner parties the linking thread. American audiences, used to a different sort of pacing, may grow restless with this. Take your Adderall before you watch it folks.

WHY RENT THIS: What could be more entertaining and stimulating than a French dinner party? Well-acted and well-written.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the storylines are less diverting than others. An occasional excess of fluff.

FAMILY VALUES: There are adult situations and some sexuality and occasionally foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daniele and Christopher Thompson are mother and son; she is the daughter of director Gerard Oury and actress Jacqueline Roman. She also was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar in 1976 for Cousin, Cousine.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a fairly lively interview with actor Dany Boon.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $46,714 domestically on an unknown production budget (the film’s international totals were unavailable).

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mid-August Lunch

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT; H

The Family Tree


It's always the quiet ones...

It’s always the quiet ones…

(2011) Dramedy (EntertainmentOne) Dermot Mulroney, Hope Davis, Chi McBride, Max Thieriot, Britt Robertson, Selma Blair, Keith Carradine, Shad “Bow Wow” Moss, Gabrielle Anwar, Rachel Leigh Cook, Jane Seymour, Christina Hendricks, John Patrick Amedori, Evan Ross, Madeline Zima, Evan Handler, Pamela Shaw, Hannah Hodson, Ally Maki. Directed by Vivi Friedman

When you look at your neighbors, what do you see? Upstanding church-going citizens? Kinky fetishists? Hard-charging workaholics? Bratty snot-nosed teens? Or all of the above?

In the world of Serenity, Ohio, the last answer would be appropriate. Bunnie Burnett (Davis) is an offensive shrew who rules her family through her sharp tongue and sadistic sensibilities. Her husband Jack (Mulroney) seems meek and inoffensive on the outside but years of being browbeaten has worn him down, turning him into a quaking philanderer after years of being refused sex by his wife. She would no doubt emasculate him if she knew but the truth is she’s far too busy engaging in role-playing games with their neighbor Simon Krebs (McBride) to do much investigating.

Her children aren’t much better. 17-year-old daughter Kelly (Robertson) is promiscuous and foul-tempered – she is well along the road of becoming her own mother although if you pointed it out to her you’d probably get kicked in a very sensitive portion of your anatomy. Kelly’s twin brother Eric (Thieriot) has fallen under the sway of pot-smoking gun-toting preacher Reverend Diggs (Carradine) who talks tough on the outside but on the inside…well he’s just an idiot.

During a particularly rough game of home invasion/rape fantasy with Simon, Bunnie is accidentally dealt a particularly severe whack on the head (Simon flees, leaving Bunnie to be discovered by her family) which leaves her with an unusual amnesia in which all her memories after the first year of her marriage have disappeared. Once again, Bunnie is the woman that Jack fell in love with. It’s an opportunity for the whole family to start fresh. The trouble is, the other lunatics in Serenity may not necessarily let them.

This is supposed to be a black comedy. Now, I understand that in such enterprises that a certain amount of cynicism should be expected and even appreciated. HOWEVER, the fact that every…single…character has some sort of dark side or sexual secret gets old really fast. You find yourself having nobody to really hang your hat on – everybody here is basically a douche, although some find at least a measure of redemption by the closing credits. For the most part even Jack who’s perhaps the closest thing to a truly nice character still cheats on his wife – deservedly or not. Not that I’m a prude nor do I need my lead characters to be too good to be true (in fact, some comedies go too far the other way). I just need my characters to act like PEOPLE and not CHARACTERS. How many characters do you run into every day when you walk out the door of your house (and I’m not talking about the ones at the multiplex) – I’m betting none. I can’t find too funny a comedy in which I identify with nobody.

Which is a shame because there are a lot of really talented actors involved as you can read from the cast list. Mulroney, who some might remember from My Best Friend’s Wedding has some decent screen presence and Davis is one of those actresses who has tons of talent but doesn’t get the roles these days that she is worthy of. Most of the rest of the cast – particularly Blair, Seymour, McBride, Carradine and Hendricks are either wasted in scarcely developed roles or appear in little more than a glorified cameo.

I like the concept here of a dysfunctional family given an unexpected second chance to be a family. I just wish they’d tried for a simpler approach and eliminated a lot of the extraneous characters who are just that – characters – that detract from the film overall and turn it from the satirical comedy it could have been into a wooden, leaden blunt instrument without the finesse to really capture my attention – or my laughter.

WHY RENT THIS: A somewhat satirical look at family and community dynamics. Nice opportunity to play “spot the character actor.”

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Muddled and scattered. A little bit too mean-spirited for my taste.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s sex, violence, bad language (a whole lot of it) and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film received its world premiere at the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some on-set home movies.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,035 on an unreported production budget; no way in Hell this made money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Family Time

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Monsters University

Little Fockers


Little Fockers

This stunt kittie is about to find out what happens to cats who pee on Robert De Niro.

(2010) Comedy (Universal) Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Owen Wilson, Jessica Alba, Teri Polo, Blythe Danner, Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, Laura Dern, Harvey Keitel, Kevin Hart, Daisy Tahan, Colin Baiocchi, Tom McCarthy, Olga Fonda. Directed by Paul Weitz

Sometimes when a good movie comes along that makes a good deal of money, the temptation from the studio is to make a sequel which almost inevitably makes good money but is somewhat less high-quality than the first movie. The second movie often does good enough box office to warrant a third and by now the writers are running out of steam and the idea is becoming stale. Some film franchise avoid this trap, but others, particularly comedies, fall hard into it.

Gaylord “Greg” Focker (Stiller) has been married eight years now to his sweetheart Pam (Polo) and he’s risen to head of medical surgical nursing at a prestigious Chicago hospital, developing a reputation that Andi Garcia (Alba), the representative of a pharmaceutical company, has taken notice of and so she approaches him to do some pimping for an erectile dysfunction drug that is safe for heart patients. He’s initially reluctant to get involved, particularly with that sort of product which he – ahem – has no need for himself.

Greg’s father-in-law, Jack Byrnes (De Niro), the ex-CIA operative who has made Greg’s life a bit of a living hell, has been having some heart problems (can you guess who’s going to take the dick medicine for heart patients?) which he swears Greg to secrecy about. He and his wife (Danner) are coming to Chicago to visit the Fockers and celebrate the fifth birthday of their twins Beelzebub and Mephistopheles…err, Samantha (Tahan) and Henry (Baiocchi).

Jack is anxious for Greg to become the head of the Byrnes clan since his first choice, Dr. Bob (McCarthy) has cheated on their other daughter (the one whose wedding from the first movie Greg nearly ruined) and the two are in the midst of a divorce. Financial stability is what it’s all about for Jack, providing for a superior education for the kids and a safe home for the family. Since getting the kids into the prestigious Early Humans Academy presided over by the neurotic hippie-sort Prudence (Dern), as well as renovations on the house that thanks to lackadaisical contractor Randy (Keitel) that are behind schedule, are together prohibitively expensive, Greg decides to accept the extra cash working for the pharmaceutical company would provide.

Rather than doing what most normal human beings would do and say “yes, I’m making a little bit of extra cash to help fund the kids’ schooling,” Greg tries to hide it from Papa Byrnes and so a series of misunderstandings ensue that lead Dear old Dunderhead to believe that Greg is actually cheating on Pam with Andi Garcia which should make for an interesting Oceans 11 reunion.

I am of an opinion not shared by many studio executives that making money is not the best reason to make a movie. A movie should have something to say – if nothing else, “let us entertain you” – or have some reason to be made besides adding to the bottom line. I can’t see a single reason to have made this movie.

Certainly it adds nothing to the franchise. It says nothing new about the characters, and in point of fact seems to insist that they haven’t matured much in the intervening years. Oh, Greg’s a dad now but he seems unwilling or unable to act like a mature, responsible adult, preferring to skulk and posture. The movie’s idea of good parenting seems to be giving the kids frequent hugs and letting them do whatever they please pretty much the rest of the time (Samantha for example refuses to talk to her dad for which I can scarcely blame her).

That’s not to say that this movie is completely valueless. Certainly there are a few good laughs. Alba is easy on the eyes and Stiller although looking decidedly older here is still a compelling comedian. How can anyone completely dismiss a movie that contains talent like that in front of the camera for this one? De Niro, Streisand, Hoffman and Stiller along with Owen Wilson as the super rich new age surfer ex-lover of Pam’s are worth seeing in most cases and it is a treat to see Ms. Streisand who rarely makes screen appearances anymore. However, the De Niro-Stiller conflict which is at the heart of the first two movies lacks sizzle here.

I can’t say I hated this movie but I can’t say I loved it either. It’s simply not the kind of movie you’re going to want to see more than once and having seen it once you aren’t going to be awaiting the sequel Our Four Fockers (which might be a title for a prequel) or whatever it may wind up being called. When you leave a franchise film feeling that way, it’s time to pull the plug.

REASONS TO GO: There are laughs here and there. This is an impressive cast who are worth seeing just for the interaction.

REASONS TO STAY: Decidedly unfunny in stretches. Too many situations of people acting more stupid than real people act.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual humor, some naughty words and a bit of drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio appealed its “R” rating which was given it due to the repeated use of the f bomb which the studio contended was used for speech therapy purposes; unfortunately, the MPAA turned down the appeal.

HOME OR THEATER: If you’re gonna see it you might as well see it in the comfort of your own home.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Fanboys

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