The Gatekeepers


Avraham Shalom is this close to kicking your ass.

Avraham Shalom is this close to kicking your ass.

(2012) Documentary (Sony Classics) Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri, Avraham Shalom, Simon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meier, Yassir Arafat, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. Directed by Dror Moreh

It is hard to watch certain films without one’s political beliefs coloring them and one with a subject as touchy as the Israel/Palestine conflict it’s almost unavoidable. Nearly everyone has a point of view; the Israeli government has attempted to be reasonable in the face of ongoing Palestinian terrorism and refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a nation and therefore they are entitled to protect themselves, or the Israeli government has oppressed a nearly defensive Palestinian minority and occupied their sovereign territory repeatedly attempting to crush their wills through intimidation and murder.

The Shin Bet is Israel’s anti-terrorism defense agency. They are more or less our Homeland Security Agency on steroids; they operate both domestically and internationally and have a broad mandate. What they do is essentially cloak and dagger stuff; ferreting out information through interrogation, infiltration and reputedly, through torture. They are the most shadowy of Israel’s three intelligence agencies; the Mossad (their version of the CIA) and the Aman (military intelligence) being the other two.

It is said that the Shin Bet is not just an enactor of policy but a shaper of it as well and there is no doubt that the heads of the Shin Bet have had the ears of the Israeli prime ministers through the years so it is a pretty big deal when six of the last seven of them (not including current director Yoram Cohen) consented to sit down for extensive interviews for this documentary. The six are Avraham Shalom (1981-1986), Yaakov Peri (1988-1994), Carmi Gillon (1995-1996), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Avi Dichter (2000-2005) and Yuval Diskin (2006-2011).

That these are tough, unsparing men goes without saying. Most of them have a good deal of military background and like many in the military/intelligence community in Israel, they look that they could beat up a grizzly with one hand and tear a great white shark jaw off with the other. Still, there is at least an intellectual curiosity in each of them and a certain amount of wisdom.

Through their eyes we see Israel’s history basically from the Six Days War in 1967 until recently. Several events in Israel’s history are examined, from the Intifada to the hijacking of Bus 300 to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It is the latter event that proves to be a watershed event in the conflict between Israel and the PLO. Rabin had just signed the Oslo Accords and was working to establish a lasting peace in Palestine. Then, as Gillon put it, a punk with a gun decided to change the course of history and in doing so derailed the peace process, which may well have been what conservative elements in Israel wanted all along.

The general consensus of the six directors is that this event forestalled the peace process and might have been the worst failure on the part of the Shin Bet (an operative posing as a radical extremist apparently knew the assassin and of his plans but thought that the plans weren’t serious). There is certainly a pretty good case that the attitudes of the Israeli government towards the peace process changed after that event which is very much what the assassin wanted to accomplish. The directors to a man felt that this put Israel and Palestine in a neverending spiral  of blood and tears which remains to this day.

I was surprised by the attitudes of these men. They are all very similar although they regularly criticize one another for how one thing or another is handled. I found them to be somewhat liberal which you would think would not be the case for the director of an intelligence agency dealing with terrorism; you would expect those sorts of men to be more conservative in timbre and perhaps they were when they first began their jobs.

There is a good deal of talking head kind of stuff here and all of it is in Hebrew so the subtitles flow and that can be static. Moreh breaks it up nicely with the nifty special effect of taking still photographs and digitally making them three dimensional, adding filmed recreations (mostly in black-and-white) giving the viewer more of a “you are there” feel. There is also as you might expect plenty of archival footage.

Some of the images can be pretty disturbing; of blown up busses and buildings and people so do be cognizant of that before heading to the theater. My other criticism is that I would have appreciated more insight into Israeli politics and the role these men had in it. Obviously this was initially meant for an Israeli audience and so there might have been familiarity with the events and processes involved but I felt a little lost in places.

It’s fairly chilling at times; these are men who had life and death decisions on their hands and clearly it affected some of them more than others, or at least more than they are willing to admit. This was one of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees this year and although it lost to Searching for the Sugar Man it deserved to be on the final ballot. I found it to be flawed but fascinating myself; it is certainly worth the effort to check it out and get a little bit more understanding of that conflict between those two parties which seems to be endless with no hope in sight of changing that.

REASONS TO GO: Insight into the inner workings of the Israeli intelligence, military and government agencies. Excellent 3D photographic effects.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit of the talking head variety. May rub conservative Israelis the wrong way.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few images of violence and some disturbing sequences although probably nothing worse than you’d see on a television news magazine program.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The head of the Shin Bet is the only publically known member of the organization.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100; you couldn’t ask for much better.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 5 Broken Cameras

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Core

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Fair Game (2010)


Fair Game

Sean Penn may look intense but all he hears is "blah, blah, blah."

(2010) True Life Drama (Summit) Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Noah Emmerich, Liraz Charchi, Nicholas Sadler, Tom McCarthy, Ty Burrell, Jessica Hecht, Norbert Leo Butz, Rebecca Rigg, David Andrews, Bruce McGill, Sam Shepard, Polly Holliday. Directed by Doug Liman

 

When the story broke, it was almost something out of a John Le Carre novel. An American spy, outed in a newspaper and get this – orchestrated by her own government who were trying to discredit her husband who had written a report that basically accused that government of going to war over reasons that were false, that the administration knew were false.

Sounds like a novel, but this is what really happened to Valerie Plame (Watts). She was an operative for the CIA with expertise in the Middle East which at the time is where most of our intelligence efforts had shifted to with the fall of the Communist bloc. However to her neighbors, she worked a boring job in DC and was married to Joe Wilson (Penn), the former U.S. Ambassador to Niger.

He is contracted to do a fact-finding mission there to determine if Saddam Hussein is purchasing weapons-grade Uranium from Niger. Wilson checks with his contacts and not only is it not likely that they could be getting the uranium, it’s not physically possible. Satisfied, he returns home and presents his findings to the CIA who are busy amassing intelligence that the White House has ordered in order to justify their impending invasion of Iraq.

His wife Valerie is as well, trying to get hold of Iraqi nuclear scientists to debrief. They’re all telling her the same thing – there is no WMD program, it was dismantled after the first Gulf War. She is putting some of her contacts in danger so she is arranging for them to leave the country.

Then in the State of the Union address, President Bush refers to Uranium that Iraq is buying from Niger for their weapons program. Wilson is at first puzzled and then incensed; and he publishes an op-ed piece in the New York Times disputing the President’s facts.

Shortly thereafter in another newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Robert Novak publishes a piece naming his wife as a covert CIA operative, quoting highly-placed sources in the White House (who allegedly turned out to be Richard Armitage, although Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are all looked at as possible sources as well in the film).

From then on, Plame’s position at the CIA was untenable. She was forced to resign and her contacts were compromised, with a number of them paying for her outing with their lives. Wilson was livid; he wanted to fight the situation, believing that this was a vindictive government functionary getting back at him through his wife (a theory which many hold to be true).

Plame was a little bit more low-key. However the strain was telling, not only in her relationships with her neighbors, friends and family (there’s a great scene with her parents, played by Shepard and Holliday) and her husband. The media scrutiny (which Wilson embraced to a certain extent) threatened to tear their marriage apart.

Liman who directed Mr. and Mrs. Smith about fictional secret agents gets to play with a real one here. This isn’t a spy film though; it’s more of a political thriller and even though we know how it ends up (not a spoiler but we wind up going to war anyway). Liman gives the movie the pacing of a suspense thriller despite it being a biographical drama and that’s definitely the right way to go.

Of course, he benefits from having Penn, one of the best actors in the business and he delivers a typically outstanding performance. Joe is a bit of a hothead and a blowhard with a deep-seated sense of right and wrong; when he sees something that offends that sense he goes after it. He speaks his mind, sometimes at the expense of friendships. He does have some failings – he likes the spotlight a little too much for Valerie’s liking – but his intelligence and passion are undeniable.

Watts has less to work with than Penn does but she proves able with a part that has some subtlety to it missing from the more in-your-face Joe. She is more concerned with holding her family together but that’s hard to do when you’re getting threatening phone calls and neighbors asking about your espionage activities. Plame also has to deal with the country she worked so hard to protect literally betraying her and throwing her to the wolves.

The movie is largely based on the two memoirs written separately by Joe and Valerie and Liman rather than couching the film behind aliases here names names which is to be admired. I’m sure there are people in the previous administration who think this movie is beyond the pale but hey, you reap what you sow after all.

The overall tone is pretty dry to be honest but there is a certain courage of its own convictions. Yes, the movie certainly takes a specific viewpoint and if you disagree with it you probably won’t think much of the film, Sean Penn or no Sean Penn. Also, please understand what you see here isn’t gospel; while the Wilsons vetted the movie and what they understood was happening at the time is what we see. What went on behind the scenes is pure conjecture and while it’s based on educated guesses, chances are we’ll never really know how things went down.

Still, the movie at its best shows the effect of this kind of scandal on a family and that’s when I really enjoyed it. The political discussion while interesting is ultimately just an empty gesture that really won’t contribute much to your understanding of the actual events; perhaps we all see what we want to in these situations.

WHY RENT THIS:  A look at the inside of a scandal most of us barely knew through the news.  Penn and Watts give typically strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the facts from the movie have been disputed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words but not much else to impede family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won the “Freedom of Expression” award from the National Board of Review.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: In a somewhat surprising and welcome move, the audio commentary is provided by Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame – the real ones.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $24.2M on a $22M production budget; the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The General’s Daughter

Limitless


Limitless

Abbie Cornish monitors Bradley Cooper's hand positioning very carefully.

(2011) Science Fiction (Rogue/Relativity) Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, Robert De Niro, Anna Friel, Tomas Arana, Andrew Howard, Johnny Whitworth, Robert John Burke, Darren Goldstein, Ned Eisenberg, T.V. Carpio, Richard Bekins. Directed by Neil Burger

We all are victims of our own limitations. We forget things, often almost as soon as we learn them. Still, that knowledge is there, locked in the recesses of our own minds, waiting for us to access it and use it. What do you think would happen if we did?

Eddie Morra (Cooper) is a writer. Excuse me, a wannabe writer. He’s been given a book contract for which the deadline is fast approaching and he hasn’t written one word. He lives in the ugliest, most slovenly bachelor pad in New York. And his girlfriend Lindy (Cornish) has just given him the boot.

It’s been a bad day for Eddie. However, somewhat serendipitously he runs into his ex brother-in-law Vernon (Whitworth) on the street. Eddie was married to Vernon’s sister Melissa (Friel) right out of college and though the marriage didn’t last, Vernon remains something of a douchebag. He was a drug dealer when Eddie knew him but he’s graduated to a much different kind of drug.

It’s called NZT and it allows you to access 100% of your brain capacity at once, instead of the 20% we normally use. Eddie is skeptical but when he takes one, he suddenly remembers things half-glimpsed and is able to fend off a nagging landlord’s wife (Carpio) and not only help her write her dissertation, but ends up bedding her as well.

He also winds up cleaning his apartment, then sits down and bangs out 40 pages of the book he has been unable to write due to an advanced case of writer’s block or, more likely, a terminal case of nothing in particular to say.

However the pill wears off and he goes to Vernon’s apartment to get one and instead winds up with a stash. Now he finds himself learning new languages, and finishing his book in four days. He has become irresistible to women and sleeps with a bevy of super-attractive Manhattan partiers.

He also has become bored. He wants to make money faster, so he learns the art of day trading and quickly turns a paltry stake into millions in just ten days. This gets him noticed by Carl Van Lune (De Niro), a ruthless energy tycoon who is in the midst of brokering the biggest merger in American history with the company owned by Hank Atwood (Bekins), whose meteoric rise to the top has puzzled a lot of pundits.

Even as Lindy comes back to Eddie, there are cracks appearing in the façade of Eddie’s perfect existence. A Russian mobster (Howard) who accidentally took one of Eddie’s pills has decided he needs Eddie’s stash. Worse yet, the pill is showing signs of having major side effects which unchecked can be deadly. Is Eddie smart enough to think is way out of this one?

In a very real way this is the legitimate heir to Charly (which was, like this, based on a work of literature, in that case Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” and here Alan Glynn’s “The Dark Fields”). Unlike the other which was more of a drama this is more of an action film slash thriller. The ramifications of a drug like this on humanity are only hinted at in the broadest terms and the story often leaves that conversation behind for the murky and sometimes meandering plotlines with the Russian mobster and the Machiavellian industrialist.

That’s too bad, because this could have been so much more compelling. Cooper is a charismatic lead, coming into his own a couple of years after his breakthrough role in The Hangover. He is easygoing and charming, for the most part but the role deceptively calls for more. Cooper makes both the slacker Eddie of the first reel and the brilliant Eddie of the rest of the film mesh together, clearly the same man at heart but wildly different in personalities. This is Cooper’s first real leading role; given the success of the movie so far, I can’t imagine there won’t be more in his very near future.

De Niro is, well, De Niro. Of late he seems to be coasting more and more in parts that are truly beneath him. While Van Lune has the potential of being worthy of a De Niro performance, at the end of the day he’s just another corporate villain, offering no real insight into what drives him or people like him and reminding me – not in a good way – of De Niro’s role as the Senator in Machete and when did you think that De Niro wouldn’t be the strongest acting performance of all the cast in a movie?

Burger uses a lot of interesting tunnel vision-like effects that can be dizzying. The first time he does it, the effect looks cool. By the fourth or fifth time it kind of loses its magic. There are an array of digital effects that represent Eddie’s growing intellect that are well played in the movie however.

The premise is clever; it’s a bit of a disappointment that they didn’t do more with it. Still, as I write this I realize I’m coming off as harsher on the movie than it really deserves and quite frankly, I enjoyed it. The movie hums along at a brisk pace and the story is compelling enough that given the fine work by Cooper in the lead role you have enough for a recommendation from me. However, I kinda wish these pills really existed. Maybe I could take some and start writing great screenplays right?

REASONS TO GO: Cooper is an engaging lead. The cinematography is stylish and the movie is surprisingly clever.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many “Look ma I’m directing” shots.

FAMILY VALUES: There is extensive drug usage (it is a film about a miracle drug after all), violence, some disturbing images and finally, a bit of sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Became the first film from new distributor Relativity Media to be #1 at the box office for the weekend.

HOME OR THEATER: Although some of the digital effects are kinda cool, for the most part this works equally as effectively at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Casino Royale

The Cove


The Cove

A bucolic place for a slaughter.

(Roadside Attractions) Richard O’Barry, Louis Psihoyos, Hayden Panettiere, Dan Goodman, Mandy-Rae Cruikshank, Isabel Lucas, Charles Hambleton, Simon Hutchins, Paul Watson. Directed by Louie Psihoyos

Since the advent of “Flipper,” most people generally look favorably upon dolphins. Research indicates that dolphins are highly intelligent and even self-aware. There are many reported instances of dolphins saving humans from harm in the ocean, and anybody who has seen dolphins in the wild playing and cavorting will know that these are creatures who know what joy is, perhaps better than we do.

Most civilized nations deplore the killing of dolphins and certainly the eating of them. It is in many ways similar to the taboos we have about eating dogs and cats, but there is also a medical reason for it as well – dolphin flesh is highly saturated with mercury, and repeated ingestion of dolphin can lead to mercury poisoning and eventually, death.

There are also those who love dolphins above the affection the general public gives them. Richard O’Barry is one, and he comes by that love honestly. At one time, he was considered the world’s foremost dolphin trainer. When the creators of “Flipper” were looking for someone to be their dolphin guy, Richard O’Barry was that guy. He trained five of the dolphins used in the store, including Kathy, the one among them who was his favorite.

After the show was canceled, the dolphins were sent to places like the Miami Seaquarium where they would perform in shows, captivating large audiences who thrilled at their stunts. The dolphins seemed happy enough – after all, they were always smiling.

That smile, according to O’Barry, is one of nature’s greatest deceptions. Dolphins smile because their facial structure is built that way – it is not a reflection of their emotional state, which is communicated through a body language that O’Barry eventually learned to read. What his dolphins were telling him, said Barry, was that they were stressed and desperately unhappy – to the point where Kathy committed suicide in his arms by deliberately closing her blowhole so she would stop breathing.

From that moment O’Barry would devote the rest of his life to tearing down a business he had helped to build up – the captivity of dolphins. Needless to say, he is not one of Sea World’s favorite people.

But even that has taken a back seat to his most recent focus. Japan is one of the few countries left that condones whaling; whale meat is consumed in Japan and whale by-products are used in various products. Despite a worldwide ban on whaling, Japan continues to do just that and thus television shows like “Whale Wars” depict the ongoing struggle between Japanese whalers and opposing activists from such organizations as Greenpeace and the Cetacean Society.

Even more shocking, however, is the secret in a small town called Taiji. Beautiful, quaint and charming, set into the rocky and hilly slopes leading to a beautiful shoreline, the fishermen of Taiji have every year lured thousands of dolphins into their Bay, where female bottlenose dolphins primarily are selected to be sold to Sea World and other such parks; it’s a lucrative business, with each dolphin netting upwards of $150,000 U.S. from the parks.

While that in itself isn’t a good thing, it’s what happens to the rest of the dolphins who aren’t selected for theme park use that is truly horrible. Whatever it is, it takes place in an isolated cove where the security is tighter than Fort Knox. Angry fishermen protect it with ferocity; the police and the town mayor is in on whatever it is that’s going on. As recently as this past week, O’Barry has received death threats for his activities, forcing him to cancel face-to-face meetings with the leadership in Taiji.

O’Barry knows the secret; the dolphins, instead of being released back into the wild, are slaughtered, and for no good reason. Ostensibly, it’s for their meat but because of its toxicity dolphin meat fetches next to nothing on the Japanese market, so the good citizens of Taiji mislabel it as whale meat and sell it for quite a bit more. Lies upon lies upon lies – it’s like a small child who is trying to hide their stolen cookies. It’s pretty obvious what they’re doing.

However, there’s no real proof, so O’Barry enlists Psihoyos, a National Geographic photographer and co-founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society, a non-profit group that tries to save the ocean and its inhabitants from man’s degradations. Once O’Barry shows him the security in Taiji and Psihoyos has drawn his own conclusions, they decide the world must see what’s going on behind figurative closed doors – in that secret cove, protected by razor wire and guards.

What follows is as tense and entertaining as any Mission: Impossible movie and worthy of the Best Documentary Oscar that it won earlier this year. A team of experts, including world class free divers, adrenaline junkies, technogeeks and audio experts are put together to hatch an insane plan to capture footage of the cove. They enlist some geniuses at Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas’ special effects group, to create cameras that can be disguised as rocks. Special underwater cameras and microphones are brought in.

Planting them won’t be easy. The team, particularly O’Barry, is being watched night and day by the police. When they go out to place their equipment, it is under cover of darkness and they use decoys to throw off the cops.

Although it’s a bit of a spoiler, I have to tell you that they get their footage and when it is revealed onscreen, it is absolutely horrifying. The entire cove turns red with dolphin blood. It is one of the most sickening things you will ever see, and those who are sensitive to such things should probably turn away or even leave the room when the footage begins to show.

However, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t see the movie. It’s an important message and one that will shock and outrage you. The Japanese excuse their behavior as it being a part of their culture. Well, slavery was a part of our culture too and that got stamped out – at great cost, yes, but stamped out nonetheless. That’s something the good people of Japan need to impress upon their leadership and they can do it by refusing to eat whale meat, and refusing to eat anything that comes from Taiji. That’s how you change hearts and minds.

Of course, that’s for the Japanese people. If you’re interested in helping, you can either go to the movie’s website (just click on the picture above) or you can go to Richard O’Barry’s new organization at this website http://www.savejapandolphins.org/ for updates on O’Barry’s crusade.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s an important documentary that tells a shameful story; after seeing it you are certain to be up in arms over the situation. Psihoyos directs this almost as a thriller more than a documentary and it is a wildly successful gambit.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes of dolphin slaughter are very disturbing and go on a bit longer after the point is already made.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some truly disturbing scenes of humans perpetrating dolphin slaughter, as well as some harrowing true-life suspense. The very sensitive little ones, particularly those who love dolphins, should be forewarned that some scenes may be too graphic for them.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This documentary inspired a new Animal Planet series called “Blood Dolphin” starring O’Barry; it made its cable debut on the network in advance of the new series.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an informative piece on the effects of Mercury poisoning, as well as some additional details on the special cameras used in the making of the film.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Extract

Body of Lies


Body of Lies

Russell Crowe and Leonardo di Caprio share a Starbucks moment.

(Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani, Oscar Isaac, Simon McBurney, Ali Suliman, Alon Aboutboul. Directed by Ridley Scott

Living on the front lines of the War on Terror is like sleeping with a time bomb. You never know when, or if, it is going to go off.

Roger Ferris (di Caprio) is an American field operative of the CIA assigned to the Middle East division. He is fluent in Arabic, whip-smart and streetwise. He has been assigned by his boss, Ed Hoffman (Crowe) to apprehend one of the major players in Jihadist terrorism, Al-Saleem (Aboutboul) and he has a golden opportunity to take a step closer to that goal – a suicide bomber wants to defect. The fact that he’s even met with Americans is a death sentence for him and he knows it. The nervous terrorist wants asylum in exchange for his information which concerns a training facility the jihadists use. Ferris offers it to him but Hoffman vetoes it; the information they’d receive from following his inevitable murderers would be far more valuable than the intelligence the man has given them. Thoroughly upset, Ferris turns the man loose and heads up a surveillance team on the man. Predictably, their contact is killed and the terrorists are able to get away.

Angry at the waste of a potential informant, Ferris decides to attack the training facility to see if there’s information he can glean to salvage the debacle. He and his partner get in there and manage to retrieve some documents that the terrorists are in the process of burning, knowing that the Americans likely knew about the training camp and might soon be there. Ferris escapes after a running gun battle with the terrorists chasing his SUV, but his partner dies in the process and Ferris is badly injured.

Recovering from his injuries, Ferris learns that the seized documents yielded the location of a safe house for the terrorist organization in Amman, Jordan. Knowing that Ferris is his best man, Hoffman sends him to the American embassy where the CIA station chief is a bumbling idiot who takes umbrage at being shuffled off to the side in lieu of Ferris. The Jordan station doesn’t have the manpower to keep the safe house under constant surveillance so Ferris knows he’ll have to go to the Jordanian Head of State Security, Hani Salaam (Strong), an urbane and sophisticated man who understands the realities of espionage in the 21st century and senses a kindred spirit in Ferris.

The first day things go straight to hell. On the orders of Hoffman, one of the CIA flunkies spooks one of the terrorist informants, leading to a chase down the back alleys of Amman. The informant gets away and Ferris is bitten by a rabid dog. He is taken to a Jordanian clinic where he is ministered to by a comely nurse named Aisha (Farahani), who strikes up a friendship with Ferris that leads to deeper feelings.

In the meantime, the relationship with Hani is deteriorating as Ferris is constantly having the legs cut out from under him on operations by Hoffman, who is under political pressure to get results. Eventually, things get so bad that the safe house is abandoned and burned and Hani orders Ferris out of the country.

Back in the states, Ferris concocts a plan to set up a fictitious terrorist cell in order to flush out Al-Saleem, using an innocent architect (Suliman) as bait. The trap is set, but will the terrorist take the bait? And can Ferris trust his own superiors not to stab him in the back?

Ridley Scott is an A-list director with Oscar winners and classics to his credit. Here he’s more or less attempting a John Le Carre-style spy thriller modernized and set in the War on Terror. Unfortunately, the spy game has changed a great deal since the Cold War and while Ferris gets beat up an awful lot, we never get a sense that he’s in constant jeopardy. Just about everything comes at him head-on rather from left field.

Di Caprio is also an A-lister and has shown that he has the acting chops to handle anything, but I got a strange sense of detatchment from watching his performance here. He does a lot of yelling and a lot of swearing but he doesn’t seem emotionally involved, at least to me. Crowe – who gained 50 pounds for his role – has less to do but makes his bureaucratic spook more harrowing, someone who is playing a game in which human lives are collateral damage. He is charming, which makes the role all the more chilling.

Surprisingly, Mark Strong gives the most memorable performance for my money. Well-dressed, impeccably mannered and polite, he could have stepped out of a James Bond movie, but rather than making him a caricature, Strong instead imbues him with a certain street smarts that gives him the air of a cobra, biding its time before striking with terrifying speed and ferocity.

The romance between Aisha and Ferris is essentially a vehicle to give Ferris a personal stake in the denouement, but Farahani manages to give her character charm and likability, enough that we want to spend more time with her. Some of the best scenes in the movie explore the cultural difficulties in carrying on a romance with a Westerner for someone in her character’s position in life, but unfortunately those scenes are rare here.

Some of this is standard spy 101, but overall the acting is good enough, the actors charming enough to make this worth seeing, particularly as it’s on cable pretty regularly at the moment. I get the feeling that Scott wanted to illustrate the difficulties of doing fieldwork in the War on Terror when there are political concerns that keep the front line personnel from carrying out their tasks. This isn’t a bad movie, but I think there was a better one in the subtexts.

WHY RENT THIS: Scott is one of the finest directors at setting tension on film today. Di Caprio is solid in the lead and he gets able support from Crowe, Strong and Farahani.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There are some missed opportunities here as the film often takes the easy way out in terms of plot by using standard Hollywood devices.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of violence and bad language, also a fairly graphic scene of torture; add it all up and it means put the kids to bed before putting this on the DVD player.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Manchester and Munich was actually filmed in the United States. The only location filming done on this movie which was set in places throughout the world were the United States and Morocco.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes an interactive track that allows viewers to see behind-the-scenes features concurrently with watching the movie by pressing a button on their remotes; it is much like the New Line Infinifilm feature that used to be on DVDs back when they actually had special features.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Gladiator