The Unknown Known


Would you buy a used car from this man?

Would you buy a used car from this man?

(2014) Documentary (Radius) Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris. Directed by Errol Morris

documented

He sits in an immaculate suit that speaks of good taste. He has an almost professorial air about him, discoursing easily on philosophy, language and politics. He has a grandfatherly smile that beams out at the screen, but when you look deeper there’s an almost Machiavellian calculation going on behind his eyes. He is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and there are those who despise him with a passion – and others who hail him as an American hero.

Now in his 80s, he is remarkably spry and articulate. During his tenure in public office which started in Congress in the 1960s, he wrote what he called “snowflakes” – memos that discourse on every subject you can imagine, ranging from dictionary definitions to discussions of military strategy. He has served as Defense Secretary to three different presidents – Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, more than any man in American history. He has presided over the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, starting wars that have not ended to this day, making them the longest armed conflict in American history.

On the other side of the camera is Oscar-winning documentary director Errol Morris, a truth-seeker who has challenged the judicial system as well as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He would be one of those sorts who would tend to despise Rumsfeld. On paper, it would seem to be a volatile mix, but both men are far too polite and professional to allow an emotional response derail their purpose here.

The movie mainly consists of Rumsfeld reading his memos aloud along with his interviews with Morris, mixed with archival footage and some graphic animations. However, it is the interview with Morris that takes center stage. Rumsfeld is smooth, even charming. He sidesteps questions he doesn’t want to answer, obfuscates often when he does and sometimes flat-out contradicts himself. At one point Rumsfeld claims to not have read the report on misconduct at Abu Gharib prison, to which an incredulous Morris inadvertently blurts out “REALLY?!?!?”

Still, his Midwestern grandfatherly demeanor lulls one into underestimating him, a tactic he’s used throughout his political career. That demeanor hides a sharp, analytical mind. As much as I dislike his policies and his philosophies, I can’t help but admire the intelligence, and trust me that’s not something I ever thought I’d say about anyone in the Bush administration.

Danny Elfman’s score nicely enhances the film, although from time to time there’s a bit of false bombast, but overall I noticed the music only in a positive way. Really though, there’s not much to say about this film; it is well-enough made from a technical standpoint, but it is the subject that is the attraction, a contradictory but compelling individual whom history has not yet fully judged and it will be decades before it does.

Still, there is an awful lot of watching Rumsfeld and it might get a little wearing after awhile. For those political junkies looking to try and make sense of the man, I doubt you’ll come away feeling that you know him any better than you did before. Still, as maddening as Rumsfeld is to the left, one can’t help think that we’re all getting played just a little and that truthfully, it is unlikely we’ll ever know the real Donald Rumsfeld.

WHY RENT THIS: Rumsfeld is engaging but elusive. Terrific music.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwhelming amount of talking head time.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Morris interviewed Rumsfeld on eleven separate occasions and shot over 33 hours of film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with Morris where he describes the process of getting Rumsfeld to agree to the interviews. There is also a Georgia Public TV production called Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense in which six former Secretaries of Defense (including Rumsfeld) are interviewed by former Frontline correspondent Hedrick Smith as well as an op-ed piece by Morris for the New York Times.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $301,604 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix , Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fog of War
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Iraqi Odyssey

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Man som hatar kvinnor)


The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo

This is not the girl you want to mess with.

(2009) Thriller (Music Box) Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber, Peter Andersson, Marika Lagercrantz, Ingvar Hirdwall, Bjorn Granath, Ewa Froling, Annika Hallin, Georgi Staykov, Tomas Kohler.  Directed by Niels Arden Oplev

My wife was often heard to say to my son (and she heard this herself often as a child) that the truth will find you out. It usually does, too – although sometimes it can take many years before it finally shows up at your door.

Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist) is the publisher of Millennium, a left wing magazine in Sweden that goes after corporate and government officials mostly of the right wing variety. Blomkvist has just lost a libel trial against a wealthy Swedish industrialist and in six months time, will be sent to jail for it. He has temporarily stepped down from his position because of the scandal.

In the midst of this, he gets an intriguing offer from an aging Swedish industrialist. Henrik Vanger (Taube) is in his 80s, the patriarch of a wealthy Swedish family living in isolation on an island near Stockholm. 40 years previously, his niece Harriet (Froling) disappeared and is presumed dead. Nobody knows what happened to her although everyone assumes she was murdered. Who done it? Well there’s a whole family of suspects.

As it turns out, Mikael isn’t the only one investigating. Lisbeth Salander (Rapace) was hired to investigate Blomkvist and as she checks up on him, gets drawn in to his own investigation. She is one of Sweden’s best hackers and she has no trouble finding information Mikael can’t access. As time goes by, they discover that the Vangers have a couple of not-so-closet Nazis in the family tree. Salander turns out to have some dangerous secrets of her own and as Mikael closes in on the truth, nothing is what it seems – and it seems there may be something rotten in Sweden.

This is from the first book of the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy which is wildly popular in Scandinavia and more recently worldwide. The motion pictures based on the trilogy are among the most popular ever in Sweden and are due to be remade by Hollywood, the first due out at Christmas directed by Oscar winner David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.

So should you see these before seeing the remakes? I say yes. This is a world class movie, right up there with the best of Hitchcock and De Palma. The bleak Swedish winter landscapes create the perfect mood, with just the right number of twists – not too many, not too few.

The leads couldn’t be more different. Nyqvist is understated as Blomkvist. He is capable and intellectual but not what you’d call the typical heroic sort. He is more heroic in his convictions and ideals rather than as a physical purveyor of derring-do. He is a decent man caught in a situation that is way over his head, one he’s not nearly mean enough to handle.

Rapace however delivers a star turn as Salander. Lisbeth is a bundle of contradictory characteristics. Quiet and withdrawn in many ways, she also dresses in outlandish punk hairstyle and leather which inevitably calls attention to herself. There is a rage in her that’s just below the surface, a rage that comes out brutally when she’s raped graphically early in the movie. It’s a brutal scene that’s not for the sensitive and is anything but sexual. There are those who are disturbed by it, but considering the importance of the event in the series, it is a necessary scene.

I like the mood the movie weaves; it is a mood that contains the comfort of Scandinavian homes, the overwhelming fog of uneasy dread, the air of mysteries buried deep in the Swedish soil. While there is an Agatha Christie-like vibe to the first act, this is definitely the work of a mind whose roots are deep in the land of the Northern climes, where winters are deep, bone-chilling and soul-sucking. One can almost hear “Finlandia” playing on the soundtrack.

Even more to the point, these are characters that are real and compelling. Even the evil neo-Nazi bastards aren’t caricatures; there is flesh on all of these bones.  Lisbeth Salander may be one of the most interesting heroines to come along since Ellen Ripley in Alien. She has demons deep within her, most of them barely hinted at. She’s not always an easy character to like, but she’s always an easy character to be fascinated by.

There are people who won’t see this because it’s subtitled. That’s a shame; those who love thrillers will love this one. It’s not the most original plot; it’s just done in an original style. There’s a realism to it that works, as well as an air of melancholy that makes it Swedish. It’s not Hitchcock, but as this style of movie goes, it’s as good as anything that’s come along in the last decade.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted, well-filmed and well-structured – nearly an ideal mystery-thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is not really ground-breaking and the ending is not too hard to figure out.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of violence and some grisly images. There’s also a graphic rape, nudity, some sexual material and a bit of bad language (in Swedish but nonetheless).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Noomi Rapace got her eyebrow and nose pierced for the film. She also learned kickboxing and lost weight. Incidentally, the actress playing her mother in the movie is also her mom in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Vanger family tree that may prove helpful in keeping up with the plot. There’s also an interesting interview with Rapace in which she discusses how she came aboard.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $104.4M on a $13M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Baader Meinhof Complex


The Baader Meinhof Complex

The German police have a little heart-to-heart with a Left Wing protester.

(Vitagraph) Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Nadja Uhl, Stipe Erceg, Niels Bruno Schmidt, Vinzenz Kiefer, Bruno Ganz. Directed by Uli Edel

There is a fine line between commitment to a cause and absolute obsession over it. The committed work hard within the realm of the law; the obsessed seek any means necessary to get their agenda across.

There is a great deal of dissatisfaction among the youth of West Germany in 1967. American imperialism as expressed by its war in Vietnam, German corruption, police brutality – what’s a German Marxist to do (other than move to the other side of the Wall)? The German left wing begins to shift its focus when a peaceful protest is turned into a riot when the police exercise a beat down on the protesters; not long afterwards one of the leaders of the Left Wing is shot and nearly killed by a right winger.

When the going gets tough, the tough get violent. At least, that’s the theory according to Andreas Baader (Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Wokalek). The two lead a radical group called the Red Army Faction who are putting their signboards away and picking up guns and bombs. When a well-known journalist named Ulrike Meinhof (Gedeck) interviews the rock star/political activists, she finds a strange fascination with their cause. After Baader is arrested, she volunteers to help him escape and leaves behind her husband, children and suburban lifestyle.

The film follows the group from its roots, through its notorious early 70s run of terrorist activities and through the capture of the principles and their subsequent trial. Students of the history of that era will know their fate, which wasn’t pretty; suffice to say that the band wasn’t the same without them.

This is a two and a half hour movie that has the you-are-there feel of a documentary tempered with the breathless feel of a thriller. While the moviemakers have prided themselves on their historical accuracy, the story is nonetheless fictionalized in some places for dramatic and time compression purposes.

The main cast of actors for the most part well-known in Germany but not so much here; they do superb jobs. Gedeck in particular has a schizophrenic role to play; in the beginning she is a wife and mom with a fairly bourgeois mindset albeit more left-leaning than her peers; as the movie progresses she becomes more cold-blooded than you might ever imagine.

The movie does little to explain the motivations behind the people. You get the feeling that Baader wanted to be something of a rock star; he is petulant and childish which underscores a thuggish mentality. Wokalek plays Ensslin as a hard-as-nails cast-iron bitch who doesn’t really care about the lives of the innocent; in her somewhat paranoid mindset, everyone who isn’t for the revolution is automatically allied with the government. For someone who is supposedly doing what she does for the good of the people, she sure doesn’t mind killing off her beloved “common people” for the sake of making a point.

Ganz, one of the best actors to emerge from Germany in the last 30 years, plays Horst Herald, the director of the Federal Police Office, is the conscience of the movie. He desperately tries to understand the minds of the leaders of the RAF in order to better capture them, but they wind up as great an enigma to him as they do to us.

The movie is a bit slow in the middle third, but kicks it into overdrive during the final third of the film. As the RAF disintegrates and the leaders are put on trial, we at last see some of the emotion missing from much of the movie. Those who give up on the movie near the middle might miss out on the best parts of it.

The movie suffers from trying to tell too much story. There are so many characters, all of whom are identified once and then left for us to figure out who they are and what their significance is to the story that after awhile we have no idea of who is doing what to whom. I would have much preferred it if the filmmakers had concentrated more on the three charismatic leaders of the group and left their vicious deeds offscreen; I would have been more interested to know why they did what they did rather than just what they did.

To be fair, it is more likely that the filmmakers themselves didn’t know because quite frankly, the world doesn’t know. Why smart, rational people would turn to such violence and brutality to get their point across is beyond me. We live in a world in which terrorism remains a constant threat; any one of us, at any time could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and pay the price for it, so the movie will still strike a chord with modern audiences.

The scenes of the terrorist acts can be sudden and brutal, and those with sensitive souls are well advised to stay clear, as some of these acts are quite disturbing, even by today’s standards. While most Americans remain basically ignorant of the real Baader Meinhof Complex, those who lived in Europe during the 70s will be very familiar with their actions and their consequences. It is well for us to remember that before there was an Al Qaida, there were the Weather Underground, the IRA and Baader Meinhof. Terror does not have a racial profile.

WHY RENT THIS: A terrific recreation of the era and the situation. Some of the scenes of violence are marvelously choreographed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We never get any real insight as to why these people did the things they did.

FAMILY VALUES: This is a disturbing film on many levels, with graphic nudity and sex, extreme violence and carnage and a foul word or two. This is definitely meant for mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Susanne Albrecht, who is portrayed by Hannah Herzsprung in the movie, was roommates with Herzsprung’s mother Barbara in boarding school.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The special edition 2-disc DVD set includes features on the historical authenticity of the film.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The A-Team