An Acceptable Loss


Tika Sumpter speaks truth to power.

(2018) Thriller (IFC) Tika Sumpter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Tavassoli, Jeff Hephner, Deanna Dunagan, Alex Weisman, Ali Burch, Clarke Peters, David Eisenberg, Alysia Reiner, Rex Linn, Carmen Roman, Henry Godinez, Tim Hopper, Rashaad Hall, Troy West, José Antonio Garcia, Peggy Roeder, Jin You, Patrick Mulvey, Jack Ball, Bella Wholey, Brittany Baker. Directed by Joe Chappelle

 

In this modern age, the government has thorny problems to wrestle with. How to deal with a threat which defies national boundaries but is just as deadly to its citizens as an attack on Pearl Harbor, for example. How does a nation react to terrorism without becoming terrorists themselves?

Libby Lamm (Sumpter) is part of an administration that had to face that question but her boss Vice-President Rachel Burke (Curtis) had no qualms about the answer. It has made Libby a social pariah, as her recommendation to the President (Linn) in her capacity as a security adviser led to a tragedy of 9-11 proportions. Libby is now in the academic sector, teaching an inflammatory political science course amid campus protests and drunken confrontations by self-righteous faculty members demanding to know how many people she killed.

Libby has chosen to write a book on her experiences, a book that the new regime, now led by the former Vice-President, desperately wants to see quashed. Libby, the daughter of a respected newspaper editor (Peters), is feeling a tremendous load of guilt and needs to write this book and have people read it in order to make some sort of emotional catharsis for herself. President Burke has sent oily Chief of Staff Adrian (Hephner), not coincidentally an ex-lover of Libby’s, to reason with her and bring her back into the fold but Libby is having none of it.

In the meantime creepy grad student Martin (Tavassoli) is breaking into Libby’s home and planting cameras in addition to stalking her in a way that says “terrorist” although in one of a series of plot twists we see that he’s much too academic for mere violence. In fact this whole movie is an endless series of plot twists, signifying nothing.

As potboilers go this one has its moments, particularly when Curtis is onscreen. There is an interesting concept in that Sumpter’s character is essentially a young Condoleezza Rice crossed with Jack Ryan which ought to be a delight for conservative moviegoers except that the rest of the film is essentially an indictment of conservative policies in the middle east which will no doubt get some eyes to rolling.

Chappelle and cinematographer Petra Korner seem to have made the conscious decision to overexpose the film, giving everything a nearly colorless, washed-out look. The effect is like watching a movie with your eyes dilated. I’m not so sure what prompted the look but it gets annoying after a while.

For the most part the acting is solid with Curtis setting the bar higher for everyone. She’s truly exceptional here, steely and completely sure of herself. She is confident in her beliefs and is quite frankly willing to do anything to support them and I do mean anything. She’s a cross between Dick Cheyney and…well, Dick Cheyney without the annoying heart condition. Her absolute certainty in her position puts Rachel above any moral concerns; it allows her to sleep at night knowing that anything done in service to her country is intrinsically the right thing to do, regardless of he consequences. It does bother me however that while Libby is considered a pariah as architect of the policy, the chief proponent of it (Burke) was elected President. The two don’t seem to add up logically.

The film suffers from a fairly bland script that utilizes a whole lot of dramatic reveals that don’t deserve the fanfare they’re given. The movie could have gone two ways – it could have been a standard direct-to-home video mindless thriller or it could have been a serious drama about how those in the corridors of power cope with their decisions when their decisions cost lives. Chappelle opts to go both routes which was too bad; the second half of the film which was the standard thriller is almost disappointing compared to the first half, the political drama which had a lot more potential. That’s a movie I really would have liked to see had they continued down that route.

REASONS TO GO: The film is a reasonably well-constructed thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: The colors are washed out throughout, looking like a drab attempt at noir or a bad day at the development lab..
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chappelle also directed Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. Curtis starred in four films in the series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Clear and Present Danger
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Adult Life Skills

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Shepard and Dark


Uneasy riders.

Uneasy riders.

(2013) Documentary (Music Box) Sam Shepard, Johnny Dark, Jessica Lange, O-Lan Jones, Jesse Shepard. Directed by Treva Wurmfeld  

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The beautiful thing about documentaries is that they can get people to reveal something about themselves without them meaning to do it. The camera eye just focuses on them in the act of them being themselves. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about some life-changing subject, although those can be informative and important. Just the focus on a long time friendship can give us insight into our own friendships.

Sam Shepard, the well-known playwright and actor, has been friends with Johnny Dark, a not so well-known author, for about 50 years when this was filmed (the two met in the Village back in1963 when Shepard was just beginning to establish his reputation). They hung out, drank a bit, smoked some weed and partied hard. Shepard eventually would marry actress O-Lan Jones; Dark would marry her mother, Scarlett.

They all lived together with O-Lan and Shepard’s son Jesse. Eventually Scarlett would have a major stroke and lose quite a bit of brain function and long-term memories. Dark would have to almost treat her like a child in many ways, with the kind of patience thee and me couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

Shepard though wasn’t really made for setting down roots and so he left his wife and son for actress Jessica Lange. Dark would have a hand in raising Sam’s son. The two began to correspond regularly and still continued to hang out when Shepard’s increasingly busy schedule allowed.

Dark was almost compulsive about archiving everything and recently when Shepard’s relationship with Lange came to an end, he was left with a lot of time (and it is hinted, a lot of bills) to reflect. When a Texas university expresses interest in archiving the correspondence between the two men with an eye to publishing a book which frankly both men could use – not only is Shepard having some financial issues but also Dark is struggling, working at a grocery deli counter in Deming, New Mexico.

The two decide to get some office space and work on this thing together. Initially their banter is very sibling like with a lot of affectionate (and maybe some not-so-affectionate) teasing. Shepard, notoriously reticent about his private life, opens up somewhat here (and certainly a lot more in his letters), admitting that he regrets some of the mistakes he’s made in the past – and is frustrated that he continue to repeat those same mistakes, even up to now.

This is not an issue kind of documentary. It is more of a relationship documentary as we watch how small little issues can turn into nearly insurmountable barriers. Both men freely admit that they are nothing alike; Shepard has a bit of wanderlust in his soul, preferring a rootless existence while Dark takes great comfort in his home, his books and his cats. Shepard navigates life pretty much by the seat of his pants; Dark is a nearly obsessive organizer.

Some might find it a bit dry given that it’s mostly about human nature. I’d generally be inclined to rate this a bit higher – these sorts of documentaries offer endless insights into my own behaviors and my own relationships but I can see where others might see this as somewhat voyeuristic. Frankly put, this isn’t for everybody but those who are willing to give this a chance will find the opportunity to learn something about human nature.

What I find really admirable is that while there is one person that is famous in this equation (and one that is not), it’s not Shepard’s celebrity that drives this film. While some attention is paid to his fame, that’s not really the focus here and thus Shepard becomes humanized here despite his best efforts to the contrary (he comes off as a bit of a prick in some of the sequences whereas Dark comes off as a bit eccentric in the same vein Hunter S. Thompson was).

It is the one commonality between all of us that we are human. It is our definition of what makes us human that in turn defines ourselves. In watching a film like Shepard and Dark I was struck by this most particularly. These are men who have lived lives I will never lead, made choices I would never make and reap consequences I can’t relate to. And yet we still have so much in common – even in our differences, we have those differences in common as well. Shepard and Dark may not necessarily offer you any great revelations when it comes to your life and friendships, but at the very least it will give you a glimpse into a life and friendship that is different than yours and if you won’t take something from that, well amigo, that’s your choice too but it’s a lost opportunity as well.

REASONS TO GO: Dark and Shepard are both interesting people. The effects of the documentary on their lives is fascinating..

REASONS TO STAY: Not everything here is fascinating to everybody.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some colorful language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winner of the Grand Jury prize at the New York Documentary Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; has been playing the festival circuit but was recently picked up by Music Box for a  release later on in 2013.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Betty and Coretta

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Pieta

The Ghost Writer


The Ghost Writer

A day at the office is no day at the beach for Ewan McGregor.

(2010) Thriller (Summit) Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach, Robert Pugh, Desiree Erasmus, Daniel Sutton, Marianne Graffam, James Belushi, Kate Copeland. Directed by Roman Polanski

Politics make strange bedfellows with just about everything but particularly with art. Although we have an affinity for topical movies, political thrillers are often about as empty and soulless as…as…a politician.

The Ghost (McGregor) – who is never identified by name in the movie nor in the book that it is based on – is a talented and ambitious sort who has been waiting, none too patiently, for a plum job, the one that will get his career in gear. He finally gets it – former British Prime Minister Robert Lang (Brosnan) wants his memoirs ghosted. It seems that the old friend of Lang’s who had previously been working on the assignment had washed up on the beach, a victim of suicide or accidental drowning.

The Ghost ventures out to Martha’s Vineyard to Lang’s bunker-like complex which is in siege mode. Lang has been accused by one of his former ministers of being complicit of allowing prisoners to be tortured during an armed conflict begun during his regime. Obviously this makes the new book even more potentially lucrative and the Ghost is under pressure to finish the manuscript quickly.

Things are a bit strange though in the compound. Lang’s high-strung wife Ruth (Williams) is coming on to the Ghost, fully aware of the long-time affair her husband has been having with his assistant Amelia Bly (Cattrall). The original manuscript the Ghost has been hired to clean up and re-edit is under lock and key and may not be taken out of the office where the Ghost has been assigned to work.

And work he does, diligently. He soon discovers some contradictions and outright falsehoods in the manuscript. As he digs deeper to discover the truth, he finds out the shady dealings between Lang and a company called Hatherton. He also discovers some secrets that some would kill to make sure they remained secret. Now it’s not just a battle to meet a deadline; the Ghost must figure out a way to stay alive altogether.

Polanski is one of the best of his generation and creating an effective thriller. Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby are just two examples of classic Polanski thrillers. This one, completed when Polanski was 76 years old, shows he hasn’t lost his touch. While it isn’t to the level of those just mentioned, it’s as good as any released by more contemporary directors.

Polanski manages to gather a strong cast around him. McGregor is a fine everyman hero, and while he seems far more passive-aggressive than the standard movie hero, he nonetheless is charming enough to carry his end of the water pole. The end carried by Brosnan, however, is much stronger. Brosnan who has mostly done affable and elegant action hero types (a la “Remington Steel”, James Bond and Thomas Crown) delivers one of his better performances ever here. He is both sinister and snake-like, clapping you on the back one moment and stabbing you in it the next. That dichotomy of charm and ruthlessness makes the character as fascinating a political figure as has ever been on the silver screen.

They are surrounded by a strong cast, including Hutton as the Ghost’s hyperactive agent and Wilkinson, an old classmate of Lang’s who knows far more about his chicanery than he lets on. Wilkinson in fact has few scenes but is in definite control of your attention whenever he’s on.

There are some twists and turns here. That is par for the course for a thriller, but few are telegraphed and none stretch the believability quotient. What Polanski does better than most directors is establish a mood, and he does so brilliantly here, making even characters seen in passing seem menacing and up to no good.

The movie didn’t do very well at the box office (see below), mostly due to Polanski’s arrest on a 34-year-old statutory rape charge and his subsequent fight to prevent extradition. I would imagine a number of movie-goers who might have ordinarily flocked to see this stayed away because of an unwillingness to support a rapist. I can understand the sentiment certainly but this isn’t a review of Mr. Polanski’s life but of a single film he created.

Political thrillers are hard to accomplish, particularly when they are as topical as this one is (the characters are extremely similar to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with other characters and entities – such as Hatherton substituting for Halliburton  – also carrying some similarities to people and things in the news). There is always the chance that in a very few years this will seem dated. However the movie is so well-crafted that long after the people and events that inspired it are forgotten, The Ghost Writer will hold up as a well-crafted, well-acted and well-written thriller.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressively tense. Fine performances from most of the cast but particularly from McGregor and Wilkinson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The payoff is a bit anti-climactic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some rough language, a bit of violence, a bit of sexuality and a smidgeon of nudity and a drug reference.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although primarily set in the United States, Polanski was unable to film here due to his legal issues. Most of the movie was filmed in Europe except for a few second unit shots.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.2M on a $45M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Buck

Burn After Reading


Burn After Reading

George Clooney and Frances McDormand find more to laugh about than I did.

(Focus) John Malkovich, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons, David Rasche, Elizabeth Marvel, Olek Krupa. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The only thing in Washington easier to find than a crooked politician is someone else’s secrets. There are few towns in the world with more skeletons in more closets than D.C.

Osborne Cox (Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who is given his walking papers. Judging from his reaction, we can safely assume it was because of his people skills, although actually it was because of his alcohol abuse which led to the erosion of his people skills.

Cox, a self-righteous prig when he’s sober and a mean-tempered bastard when he’s not, decides to write his memoirs, which predictably are completely uninteresting to anybody but Osborne. His wife, Katie (Swinton) who’s the kind of dentist who scars kids for life over tooth hygiene, is thoroughly disgusted. She’s been having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a U.S. marshal who’s never fired his weapon and a wannabe lothario. His marriage to a children’s book author is a thing of boredom, and not only is he sleeping with Kate, he’s using a variety of dating services to fill up his remaining days while she’s on a book tour.

Kate, a true bitch (and maybe the reason Osborne drinks so much), is dead-set on divorcing her husband and taking as much as humanly possible for herself. At the behest of her divorce lawyer, she loads all the financial information for the household onto a CD-ROM which, as it happens, also has the first draft of Osborne’s memoirs on it. She gives this disk to her lawyer’s secretary, who promptly loses it at her gym.

This gym has quite possibly the world’s most knuckleheaded employees at any gym anywhere. Linda Litzke (McDormand) is an administrator who desperately wants surgery to enhance her face and figure; her romantic life has been an utter disaster and she’s tired of being alone. Chad (Pitt) is just a knucklehead who actually looks at the contents of the disk and deduces that it’s “spy shit.” He gives the disk to a friend who is knowledgeable about computers and is able to deduce that the source of the disk is one Osborne Cox.

Linda sees this as an opportunity to make enough money to be able to pay for the surgeries her insurance won’t cover (“Elective? My doctor signed off on it!”) and that her harried but smitten manager (Jenkins) doesn’t think she needs. They call Osborne, hoping that he will be so gratified to get the disk back that he’ll give them a generous reward.

He instead gives Chad a bloody nose and an earful of invective. Linda, by now sleeping with Harry, decides to take the obviously valuable disk to the Russians, where a disinterested functionary (Krupa) promises to look into it. In the meantime, Chad decides to do a little reconnoitering in Osborne’s house, not realizing that Osborne has been tossed out on his ear by Katie. Then, things get really complicated.

The Coen brothers are known for their slightly bent perspective and quirky sense of humor. Usually they keep the quirkiness reined in to a dull roar, but here it overwhelms the story to the point where it becomes annoying. The characters are all so unlikable that you actually don’t care what happens to any of them, not even Linda who is self-centered and a bit stupid.

That’s not to say that this fine cast doesn’t do a fine job. Clooney and McDormand are two of the Coens’ favorites, and they both turn in sterling performances. In fact, most of this cast does. Malkovich is a it over-the-top as only Malkovich can do it, but he plays one of the most disagreeable louts you’ll ever meet covered with a veneer of civility that is a patent falsehood. He may be well-educated and upper-crust but he’s still just another S.O.B. drowning in his own bottle.

There is a lot of swearing in this movie. A whole lot. I’m not usually prudish about such things, but those who are ought to give this a wide berth. Still, it is a Coen Brothers movie, which means it’s well written, well-acted and professionally filmed and always interesting. Still, even their least efforts are better than the best of most other directors. This ain’t no Fargo but it has enough moments to make it worth your while.

WHY RENT THIS: Malkovich is over-the-top in a good way. Uniformly good acting throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unusually for the Coens, the story isn’t very compelling and so daffy that it doesn’t resonate as much.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a ton of “F” bombs dropped here, particularly by Malkovich’s character. There is a graphic murder as well as a rather explicit sex machine that is…well, see for yourself. In any case, this is REALLY rated R.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first Coen Brothers movie without cinematographer Roger Deakins since 1990; he was busy filming Revolutionary Road.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Sunshine Cleaning