The Prisoner: or, How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair


Yunis Khatayer Abbas awaits arrest in the front yard of his home.

Yunis Khatayer Abbas awaits arrest in the front yard of his home.

(2006) Documentary (Truly Indie/Magnolia) Yunis Khatayer Abbas, Benjamin Thompson. Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

In the miasma that was the U.S. involvement in Iraq, it wasn’t uncommon for overeager American military intelligence to arrest and detain Iraqi citizens who had done nothing wrong. It is not unusual for an occupying force to behave with paranoia; after all, it is actually true that the population is out to get them.

Such was the case of Yunis Khatayer Abbas, a respected journalist who had been imprisoned by the Saddam Hussein regime for expressing views critical of the regime. We see Abbas in an anonymous hotel room, dignified and dapper, his goatee flecked with grey but his eyes much younger than that as he describes (and we see footage of) his arrest at the hands of American military forces. Along with two brothers, Abbas is accused of conspiring to assassinate Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Abbas would be held for over nine months in the notorious Abu Gharib prison. During that time he would undergo a goodly number of inquisitions and some torture both mental and physical. He would also be befriended by Thompson, an American soldier on duty in Abu Gharib who utilized Abbas as a translator – his English is in the main flawless although from time to time he makes the occasional syntax error. Thompson, who gradually comes to believe that Abbas is innocent of the crimes he is accused of, tries unsuccessfully to get Abbas released but as with all things military the wheels grind slowly.

Filmmakers Tucker and Epperlein (who are married in real life) first met Abbas during the filming of their previous documentary Gunner Palace about American troops stationed in the lavish palace of Uday Hussein. They augment their footage with home video footage and cartoon-like animations that are as amusing as they are unsettling.

The story itself is very compelling as we witness a man who supports the United States protest his innocence over and over again as those who provide the faulty intelligence that put him in prison refuse to admit they were wrong even though all the evidence seems to indicate that they are; nonetheless they are forced to cover their ass and hope that Abbas is broken into confessing that he is a terrorist. Abbas however never breaks and by the film’s end you’ll wind up admiring the man’s quiet dignity.

Like many documentaries, there is an inordinate time viewing the interviews with the subject and despite the bells and whistles added here, there just really isn’t a way to make a talking head all that interesting. Overcoming that, the story and the personality of Abbas will stay with you and lead you to once again question our involvement in this country and the methods we used while we were there. It will come to pass that someday down the line it will be a time and events that our descendants will not be proud of.

WHY RENT THIS: Compact and tight. Compelling story with nice cartoon-like visuals.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much talking head footage.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is a bit rough and there are some fairly mature thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The initial arrest, shown here, was filmed during the directors’ last documentary Gunner Palace.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3,103 during its domestic release; overseas numbers and production budget unavailable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Standard Operating Procedure

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Son of No One

John Dies at the End


You don't want to use the soy sauce at THIS Chinese joint.

You don’t want to use the soy sauce at THIS Chinese joint.

(2012) Horror (Magnet) Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck, Fabianne Therese, Jonny Weston, Jimmy Wong, Tai Bennett, Allison Weissman, Angus Scrimm, Prandihi Varshney, Riley Rose Critchlow, Helena Mehalis, Maria Mehalis. Directed by Don Coscarelli

FFF Banner 2012

The world is divided into two kinds of people; those who get John Dies at the End and those who don’t. Those who do appreciate fun for its own sake, and don’t mind a good genre mash-up. They don’t need a conventional narrative structure and are willing to sacrifice plot coherency for a good laugh…or a fiendishly fun gross-out. They are the sorts who read webcomics religiously, are students of pop culture, think Arrested Development just might be the best television show ever made, don’t mind staying up 36 straight hours playing a good videogame or occasionally partake of a little recreational drug use. Or perhaps all of the above.

David Wong (Williamson) – who isn’t Chinese; he just changed his name to make it harder to find him – meets with reporter Arnie Blondestone (Giamatti) – who isn’t blonde – in a Chinese restaurant. David and his partner John (Mayes) are a kind of demonic Ghostbusters if you will. They’re nearly as well known in the community as Dr. Albert Marconi (Brown) and Arnie wants to get their story.

But David’s story is not the usual kind. David and John have been using a drug with the street name of soy sauce because of its appearance. However this is one of those drugs that you don’t choose, it chooses you. Some people ingest it and become…altered. For David and John however, they develop some rudimentary psychic powers like the ability to read minds, see the future, communicate with the dead and more importantly see demonic presences that the ordinary living can’t detect.

Basically, what’s going on is that there is a biological supercomputer in an alternate universe that wants to break into our universe and take over since it already reigns supreme where it lives. I guess even near-omnipotent biological supercomputers get bored too. Anyway it, and the people that it controls, have been trying to break into our dimension for decades without success but now that David and John have actually done it, the computer wants to know how they did it and is willing to do whatever it takes to get that knowledge. For David and John’s part they’d much rather be sleeping.

That’s a very rudimentary outline of the plot and doesn’t really give you too much of a sense of the real lunacy going on. Based on the book by the same name by David Wong (who is the pseudonym of Jason Pargin), the movie has all the genre-bending fun from the novel coupled with the visual sense of Coscarelli who some might remember as the man who gave us the Phantasm movies as well as the cult hit Bubba Ho-Tep. As you can tell from his resume, this kind of thing is right in his wheelhouse.

Some will find a bit of glee in trying to determine which other movies this most resembles. For example, it has the philosophical sci-fi ramblings of a Donnie Darko but also the hip quotient of a Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. There’s the roller coaster gore quotient of Army of Darkness and the trans-dimensional goof of Big Trouble in Little China. I could go on but you get the picture.

Williamson and Mayes make a good team. The chemistry is right there between them, two longtime friends who often speak in their own code (brought to ridiculous levels) but are nonetheless insanely loyal to each other. Their banter is realistic and makes the relationship and bond between them seem more natural and organic.

They get some decent support as well. Turman is good as a philosophical police detective who knows a lot more than he wants to know, while Brown plays a kind of Eurotrash self-help book author who has a beautiful entourage but doesn’t just talk the talk. I was also kind of fond of Weston as a hip-hop talking gangsta who is lily-white and looks and sounds ridiculous but doesn’t know it; you see a lot of those sorts on TV and in real life and it’s nice to see someone acknowledge that it’s moronic even though it’s probably not politically correct to do so. Le sigh.

The effects are mostly practical and a bit old school but they still work. Some of them are pretty nifty, like the police officer’s moustache that abruptly comes to life and starts fluttering about the room like a butterfly, or a freezer full of meat that assembles to become a meat monster (okay, that one was a bit cheesy I’ll grant you).

This one’s a roller coaster ride through current slacker culture and if there’s a complaint to be had, it’s that this is probably not a movie that’s going to age well and will be likely viewed as a product of its time as movies that cater to youth culture inevitably do. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed for what it is in the here and now, nor does it mean that it doesn’t excel at what it is aiming for. This isn’t exactly fun for the whole family – some people are simply not going to get it and truthfully they’re probably never going to get it – but that doesn’t mean that those who do shouldn’t get the pleasure of knowing they’re one of the club.

REASONS TO GO: One hell of a mindf*ck. Psychedelic horror that refuses to take itself seriously. Imaginative visuals and fun throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: May freak one’s freak a little too much. Some may find the story confusing and convoluted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of violence and gore, plenty of bad language,  a scene or two of nudity and plenty of drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the FedEx package that John sends himself at the mall, his full name is John Cheese.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100; the reviews are decidedly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Olympus Has Fallen

The Rum Diary


The Rum Diary

Johnny Depp in a pose sure to get many a woman's heart aflutter.

(2011) Drama (FilmDistrict) Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi, Marshall Bell, Amaury Nolasco, Bill Smitrovich, Karen Austin, Julian Holloway, Bruno Irizarry, Enzo Cilenti. Directed by Bruce Robinson

Hunter S. Thompson remains an iconic figure; not only in the counterculture but also within journalism and I guess among those who admire American eccentrics. One of his close friends was actor Johnny Depp, who famously portrayed the author in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and helped get this novel, based on Thompson’s experiences in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the early 60s, published.

Now Depp has gotten the movie made. He plays Thompson surrogate Paul Kemp, a boozehound journalist who has seen the bright lights and big city of New York but has been exiled to the San Juan Star, an English language newspaper that is on its last legs, edited by Lotterman (Jenkins), a harried frazzled man who is watching his empire crumble around him.

Kemp hooks up with Sala (Rispoli), a once-competent photographer who has fallen into a booze-induced haze of rum and cockfights while he waits to collect the severance pay that is sure to come when the Star folds. The two wind up sharing a room with the mercurial Moberg (Ribisi), whose brain has been filleted by drug use and alcohol abuse. He’s been fired from the Star but still hangs out around the newspaper, avoiding Lotterman and waiting for his paycheck.

Kemp is approached by Sanderson (Eckhart), a shady businessman who brokers quasi-legal land deals that enrich the pockets of his American friends but not so much the people of Puerto Rico. Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault (Heard) takes a shine to Kemp but the combination of rum, debauchery and intrigue prove to be a more alluring combination in many ways.

Robinson made his reputation as a director with Withnail and I, an account of an alcoholic from the point of view of his friend. After the best-left-forgotten Jennifer 8 he has been absent from the director’s chair for 20 years. This isn’t, sadly, an auspicious return to the form of the former; thankfully it isn’t a project sunk to the depths of the latter either.

Much of the movie’s high points – and low ones – come from Depp. Nobody can play drunk like Depp can and although Rispoli and Ribisi do their best (and it’s pretty good) it’s Depp’s show without a doubt. Although he’s pushing 50 and is playing a man who has to be about half that age, he still makes Kemp a believable journalistic Quixote, tilting at the windmills of corruption and arrogance with Rispoli an effective Sancho Panza.

The chemistry between Depp and Heard is a little dicey. Heard is a very good actress but she’s playing a gold-digger who, it seems to me, would be more attracted to the size of a wallet rather than to the kindness of a heart. Why Chenault falls for Kemp is a complete mystery and doesn’t seem to fit with the girl’s character and Heard isn’t able to really offer an explanation either.

The movie is paced like a long languorous Caribbean afternoon, passing in a haze of rum, heat and thunderstorms. It doesn’t have the kind of edginess you’d expect with something that Thompson wrote and it might well be best seen after having quaffed a glass of 400 proof rum. No such thing? Oh, I beg to differ my friends…

REASONS TO GO: Nobody does drunk like Depp.

REASONS TO STAY: Kind of stodgy for a Hunter S. Thompson adaptation.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, enough drinking to drown the Antarctic in rum and a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robinson, who also wrote the screenplay, had been sober for six years before taking on this project. He was hit by a severe case of writer’s block and began drinking, a bottle a day, until the script was completed. He continued to drink during production and quit drinking immediately afterwards.

HOME OR THEATER: While the look of a squalid Puerto Rico is sometimes offset by the gorgeous vistas of beach and jungle, the movie works as well at home as it does in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Dead Girl