Official Secrets


The reflection in liberty is sometimes the courage of a single person.

(2019) Biographical Drama (IFC) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Adam Bakri, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Tamsin Grieg, John Heffernan, Clive Francis, Kenneth Cranham, Jack Farthing, Katherine Kelly, Conleth Hill, Hattie Morahan, Shaun Dooley, Monica Dolan, Chris Larkin, Peter Guinness, Jeremy Northam, Hanako Footman Directed by Gavin Hood

 

There is a fundamental question when you hold a position within a government and that is this: do you work for the government, or for the people it represents? Not all of those who toil in government positions understand the distinction.

Katherine Gun (Knightley) works as a Mandarin translator for GCHQ – essentially the British version of the NSA – interpreting diplomatic and military communiques and writing reports. It’s a low-level job requiring high security clearance. At night, she goes home and watches the telly with her Turkish immigrant husband Yasar (Bakri) and shouting at the television as she watches American officials making speeches justifying their intent to go to war with Iraq and knowing that nothing that they’re saying is supported by fact.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back, however, is an NSA memo that is distributed to the GCHQ requesting information on six UN delegates on the UN Security Council who are standing in the way of that body approving the American invasion of Iraq. This is patently illegal by British law, but because this is a classified document, it is protected by the Official Secrets Act of 1989, a Thatcher-era British law that broadens what can and can’t be leaked to the press.

Understanding the ramifications of what she’s doing, Gun gives a copy of the memo to an anti-war activist who in turn forwards it to the offices of the Observer, an English newspaper. The Observer, like much of the conservative British press, had officially supported war (despite the evidence that the overwhelming majority of the UK was against it). While gung-ho activist reporter Ed Vullamy (Ifans),  a seething mass of liberal anger wants to rush this bombshell to press, calmer heads like foreign correspondent Peter Beaumont (Goode) want to first verify that the document  and make sure it’s authentic – you know, do the job the press is actually supposed to do.

That job falls to reporter Martin Bright (Smith) who diligently looks into the authorship of the memo. Eventually, the story goes to press but despite the outrage, the United States invades without a U.N. resolution and nearly 20 years later we’re still there.

Of course, all hell breaks loose at the GCHQ and the various people who work there who had access to the memo are interrogated. Not wanting to see her colleagues subjected to a witch hunt, Gun confesses. She is eventually arrested and after a year, charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act. On the advice of Bright (relayed through their mutual friend), Gun retains Ben Emmerson (Fiennes), founder of the activist legal group Liberty that defends British civil rights (think of a smaller scale ACLU). The government, seeking to make an example of Gun, undertake to harass and in general make her life miserable even before the charges can be filed. In the meantime, she is terrified that her husband will be deported.

This is a story on the level of that of Valerie Plame and Edward Snowden, of those who chose conscience over safety. Gun is most certainly a liberal hero and is treated as such by the film and South African director Gavin Hood, who has made two other films (Redacted and Eye in the Sky) about the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

The film has a crackerjack cast led by Knightley, who has in recent years done a lot of period work. I suppose this is also a bit of a period piece but at least this one is set after the Regency Era. She plays Gun as an impulsive and passionate woman who hadn’t looked to become a spy but became one anyway. When faced with a moral dilemma, she responded with the kind of courage that is rare. Understanding that a prison sentence is inevitable as would be massive personal consequences, would any of us have stood for what we felt was right? As much as I would like to think I would, I suspect that I – like most people – would opt for what is convenient. Knightley gives Gun a kind of vulnerability that makes her relatable as she second-guesses her decision as it becomes terrifyingly clear the ramifications of what she has done to her marriage and standing. Gun is not always heroic here and that makes the movie stronger.

Smith and Ifans, as reporters of opposing demeanors, both do impressive work which again, considering how strong this cast is, can be no easy feat. Hood, who co-wrote the film, tends to get bogged down in legal details during the third act and the nearly two hour movie begins to drag at that point. It is a bit exhausting by that point. Still, in an era where governments seem to be marching ever alarmingly to the right, it behooves us to remember how important it is for people of conscience to stand up and say “this is wrong,” even if it doesn’t make a difference immediately. In the long run, it makes every difference.

REASONS TO SEE: A really top-notch cast with particularly impressive performances by Knightley, Ifans and Smith.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a little bit too long and gets bogged down in legal details.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In real life, Gun’s husband was deported to Turkey where he now lives along with Gun and their young daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All the President’s Men
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Liam Gallagher: As It Was

Youth


Michael Caine conducts himself with dignity.

Michael Caine conducts himself with dignity.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Alex Macqueen, Madalina Ghenea, Mark Kozelek, Nate Dern, Alex Beckett, Mark Gessner, Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Luna Mijovic, Dorji Wangchuk, Ed Stoppard, Robert Seethaler, Paloma Faith, Emilia Jones, Beatrice Walker, Rebecca Calder, Veronika Dash. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

We all age. From the moment we burst out of the womb our bodies are decaying on the way to decrepitude. And for the record, there’s no such thing as aging gracefully; there’s only the appearance of it. When we age, we do so with a distinct absence of grace. We go kicking and screaming, flailing away like an epileptic mule, into that good night.

In a remote spa resort in the Swiss Alps, retired composer/conductor Fred Ballinger is vacationing with his daughter Lena (Weisz) who is also his business assistant, and his best friend Mickey Boyle (Keitel) who is a respected Hollywood screenwriter putting the finishing touches with a team of writers on his latest script, which he considers his “moral testament,” a work that he sees as his enduring legacy.

A representative (Macqueen) of the Queen of England is there to convince Maestro Ballinger to conduct one of his most famous pieces, Simple Songs #3, for Prince Philip’s birthday at which time he would receive his knighthood, but Ballinger adamantly refuses for “personal reasons.” Try as he might to pry it out of him, the rep is stymied. However, the Queen can be mighty persistent.

Boyle is writing a hell of a part for an actress whose career he helped launch, Brenda Morel (Fonda) but her reaction to the role is startling and disappointing. Both men are realizing that their best days are behind them, and that they are slowly leaving the things of their youth behind, even as they see those who worship youth flutter around them like so many broken songbirds.

Sorrentino, who directed the Oscar-winning The Grand Beauty, is clearly influenced by the great Federico Fellini. Like Fellini, he has a fascination for women and like Fellini, he has an appreciation for the surreal dreams. As with most Fellini films, Sorrentino populates Youth with the jaded rich, those who have become so used to being able to afford anything they want that there’s nothing they want that they can afford. The shallow values of these people collide with the gorgeous Alpine scenery.

Ballinger and Boyle (which sounds like either a London barrister or a French champagne) are the exceptions. They are bemused by the couples who sit through dinner silently, the South American superstar so famous nobody need even say his name, the wealthy chasing after lost youth as if they could find it again and even if they could, that they can somehow bathe in it and become young again.

There is a great deal of depth to the movie, and it’s the kind that you have to work for. You have characters passing in and out like the actor (Dano) known for playing a robot studying for a new part – and it’s not one that you’d expect. Then there’s the lonely mountain climbing teacher (Seethaler) who approaches Lena, who herself has been cheated on and tossed aside by her husband – who happens to be Mick’s son – and is rebounding in the arms of a gentler, kinder man.

Still, it is Michael Caine who is magnificent here. An actor as versatile as there has been in the last 50 years, if anyone in Hollywood has aged gracefully, he has. He plays a man who has shut away his emotions to the point that when they do come out, it’s a shock. They are most certainly there, but deep below his calm, upper class demeanor. While he dismisses his work as simplistic, there’s no doubt that they mean something very personal to him and even his daughter, whom he has never been able to express his feelings for, knows it. Caine has some of the best moments in the film, particularly a balcony conversation with Mick near the end of the movie that takes a shocking turn. I will always remember his character conducting the cows in the Tyrolean meadows as well as the birds and the wind, making a beautiful symphony only he – and we – hear.

Fonda also has a bravura moment with Keitel, coming off as perhaps the most Fellini-esque of the characters here, with her shrill demeanor, her dangling cigarette and her laid-on-with-a-trowel makeup that make her look like a party guest in a Fellini film. That leads into another sequence reminiscent of the great Italian director in which Mick’s leading ladies all appear in a meadow, repeating robotically the lines from their films.

When Mick tells Fred in a breaking voice “You say that emotions are overrated, but…emotions are all we’ve got,” he’s speaking for Sorrentino. While there’s a lot here to occupy the mind, this is ultimately a movie of the heart and it speaks directly to that organ more so than the one above the neck.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack, particularly the contributions of Mark Kozelek (vocalist of the Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon). His voice is as calming and soothing as any you’ll ever here; he’s literally human lithium. His version of Yes’ ”Onward” (written by the late great Chris Squire and the best song he ever wrote) is used three times during the film. It’s a beautiful song about love and perfectly underscores the themes of the movie.

Fellini is very much an acquired taste and not everything here is going to appeal to everyone. Sorrentino often flashes images of people or things seemingly at random, or juxtaposes images with dialogue or songs in a way that very much recalls the late director. Not everyone is going to like it but if you like Italian cinema of the 60s, or simply very good movies that appeal to both head and heart, you’re going to find something here to love. Of course if you’re a Fellini fan, so much the better; but those who find his style too pretentious might want to give this one a miss.

REASONS TO GO: There is truly some magic here. Caine’s performance is wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally pretentious and confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic nudity, some sexuality and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ghenea was 26 at the time of filming, which would have tied her for the honor of the oldest Miss Universe ever were she actually the part she plays.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Dolce Vita
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Hateful Eight

Spotlight


Michael Keaton knows he's on a roll.

Michael Keaton knows he’s on a roll.

(2015) True Life Drama (Open RoadMark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian D’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Elena Wohl, Gene Amaroso, Billy Crudup, Jamie Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, Len Cariou, Doug Murray, Sharon McFarlane, Neal Huff, Duane Murray, Brian Chamberlin, Laurie Heineman. Directed by Tom McCarthy

Reporters are sometimes referred to as ink-stained wretches, harkening back to the 19th century when that was literally true. They’ve traded quill and parchment for computers and the Internet, but what remains true today as it was then – few in the general public really have a sense of what goes in to writing and reporting the news.

Spotlight covers the Boston Globe investigative reporting team – also called Spotlight – and their game-changing  2001 investigation of the Roman Catholic Church and the sex abuse scandals that was being covered up by the Church. It’s an important enough story that writers McCarthy and Josh Singer felt that it needed to take precedence over the reporters who reported the story – something that journalism films rarely do. Even All the President’s Men, perhaps the most respected journalism film of all time, elevated reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to heroic proportions.

With a new managing editor now in place, Marty Baron (Schreiber) who comes to the globe by way of the Miami Herald and other papers, Baron suggests that a long-gestating story – about Fr. John Geoghan who had been convicted of multiple counts of child abuse – and the Church’s role in covering up the scandal – get coverage by the Spotlight team.

This was no small matter. Boston was and is a very Catholic town. The Church is very much entwined in a whole lot of secular matters, including politics, business and of course, the news. Baron gets an invitation early on by affable Cardinal Law (Cariou) to meet with him so that Baron is made to understand his place in how things work in Boston. Quite frankly, it’s a chilling moment.

Spotlight editor Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Keaton) and his team of senior reporter Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) and reporter Matt Carroll (James) are turned loose on the story. The bulldog-like Rezendes goes after court documents that lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci), who is representing several survivors against the Church, informs him have been sealed. The softer Pfeiffer interviews survivors, often seeing them dissolve into tears of shame. Robinson works the golf courses and receives troubling and veiled threats to back off.

Eventually the team begins to realize that the cover-up involves more than one priest in Boston…and eventually more than one city around the world. As the scope of what they’ve discovered begins to unfold, the team realizes that they may be in over their heads. They also realize they can’t ignore their own connections to the Church – but can they ignore the suffering of the many victims, who begin to number in the thousands?

The story is, of course, one that we’re all familiar with as the scandal involving the Church became international news a decade ago. Fortunately for us, McCarthy chose not to make the reporters the central aspect of the story. This movie isn’t about them, although they get the most screen time and they are in many ways our own avatars. No, this is about the victims and the story, which required some often tedious work to bring to print. Many journalists who have seen this have said this is the most accurate depiction of journalism in the history of film. Despite the nature of the work which involves a lot of time on the phones and on the web, McCarthy manages to keep the movie from being boring.

Part of the reason for that is because he has a cast to die for. Keaton, so marvelous in Birdman, is on a definite roll. Not only is he turning in Oscar-worthy performances but he’s doing it in Best Picture contenders, as this will surely be. As for Ruffalo, this is his finest performance yet, playing the pugnacious Rezendes like a heavyweight champion daring his sources to take their best shots. He is passionate about his job and as the scandal deepens to global levels, his frustration with the Church he grew up with and his realization that he could never go back to it now is more than memorable; it’s unforgettable.

=As this took place primarily in the fall and winter – with a notable pause to cover the attacks on the World Trade Center, for which several flights originated at Logan Airport – the screen always has a kind of cold and distant quality, ranging from autumnal rain to winter snow. There are rarely sunny days in a movie, befitting the subject. I’m sure the real reporters felt that sunny days might never come again.

This is most definitely one of the best movies of the year and a serious Oscar contender in a number of different categories. While some might recoil from the subject matter, it is handled delicately and respectfully. While some might think that this is a boring procedural, let me reassure them that it’s simply not the case. Simply put, this isn’t the easiest subject matter to tackle – but it’s done so well that you leave the theater knowing you’ve just seen something special. And it is.

REASONS TO GO: Riveting performances and story. Excellent writing. Powerful and emotional. Accurate rendition of how news is reported.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a tiny bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language, adult themes and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Investigative reporter Ben Bradlee Jr. is the son of Benjamin Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein depicted in the film All the President’s Men and who was portrayed by Jason Robards in that film. Keaton used Robards’ performance as a template for his own, mixed in with his own observations of the real Walter Robinson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Absence of Malice
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Good Dinosaur

The Raven (2012)


The Raven

Edgar Allen Poe or John Wilkes Booth? You decide.

(2012) Thriller (Relativity) John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Jimmy Yuill, Michael Shannon, Sam Hazeldine, Pam Ferris, Brendan Coyle, Adrian Rawlins, Aidan Feore, Dave Legeno, John Warnaby. Directed by James McTeigue

 

It is no secret that Edgar Allen Poe was one of the greatest writers in the history of American literature. He was the Stephen King of his day, his interests tending towards the macabre but while King is a superior storyteller, Poe was the better writer (assessments I think both King – and Poe – would have agreed upon).

The death of Edgar Allen Poe is shrouded in mystery. He was discovered raving in the streets of Baltimore (on a park bench according to this film but history doesn’t give us that kind of detail) and died in a Baltimore hospital four days later. To this day the cause of death is unknown. This movie gives us one theory.

As the film opens Poe (Cusack), a raging alcoholic, is flat broke trying to get drink on credit in a bar. Few know who he is; fewer still his accomplishments. His critical essay on Wordsworth’s most recent book has been killed by Henry (McNally), the editor of the Baltimore Patriot. Poe is desperate for the funds; Henry wants something along the lines of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe is well-aware that his best days as a writer are behind him and despite the encouragement of a sympathetic typesetter (Hazeldine), he is unsure he has another great story in him.

In the meantime, Det. Fields (Evans) of the Baltimore Police Department, has stumbled onto a grisly murder. In a locked room, a mother has been found with her throat slit and her daughter stuffed up the chimney having been strangled. There’s no way in or out and the officers entering the room distinctly heard the door lock before they broke in. How did the killer get away? The detective discovers an ingenious latching mechanism on  the window which had appeared to have been nailed shut. Fields recognizes the set-up of the murder, but from where?

After some research, he discovers that it is similar to a story written by one Edgar Allen Poe, from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” He calls Poe in for consultation, and when Poe’s literary nemesis, Rufus Griswold (Warnaby), turns up cut in two – by a blade hanging from a pendulum – he realizes that there is a killer on the loose bent on recreating murder scenes from Poe’s work.

Poe would rather concentrate on wooing Emily Hamilton (Eve), with whom he is deeply in love (and who loves him right back) but her father, the hot-headed Captain Hamilton (Gleeson) would much rather use Poe for target practice with his revolver. Nonetheless, Poe is ready to announce his engagement to his beloved when she is kidnapped by the dastardly fiend who makes his game with Poe far more personal. Poe will have to use clues discovered on the bodies of the victims to find his fiancee before time runs out – and the killer might be closer to him than he realizes.

Keep in mind when watching this that it is meant as pure entertainment. If you’re one of those looking for historical accuracy, you’re in the wrong theater. McTeigue, best-known for V for Vendetta, has concocted a nice little yarn that puts Poe in the position of being Sherlock Holmes but quite frankly, Poe is overshadowed in the detective department by Fields who is more Holmes-like.

It is also no secret that John Cusack is one of my favorite actors and he isn’t disappointing, although he seems a bit more prone to chewing scenery here than he is normally. He bellows like a rampaging bull from time to time and tends to overplay. Still, few actors grasp the nuances of their characters better than Cusack and his regret, frustration and general pessimism bring Poe to life. Cusack’s Poe is a weary man, resentful not that he finds himself unable to write but that he is largely responsible for the mess that he’s in with his drinking and debauchery. The death of his first wife weighs on him heavily and there is a sense that Emily might just be his only way to salvation.

There are some wonderful scenes here, like one where Poe is drinking with the killer and the movements of the two men are literally mirror images of one another. There is also a chase through a misty forest which has a surreal quality that Poe might have approved of. However, for all the good scenes there are a few that don’t work very well, such as the ball scene where Emily is kidnapped. It seemed a bit too formulaic.

Eve is a little bland as Emily; it’s hard to see how Poe would have fallen in love with her. Gleeson gleefully chews scenery and seems to be having a great time. Evans has a thankless job of being the stolid heroic Fields but his heroism must remain second fiddle to Poe’s. I wouldn’t mind seeing a film about Fields somewhere down the line although given the anemic box office of this film that is about as unlikely as finding out the real cause of Poe’s death is.

The movie carries a decent entertainment value which overshadows the unevenness of the structure and the sometimes egregious liberties with history and fact that the writers chose to take. Again, one must remember this wasn’t intended to be a documentary about Edgar Allen Poe but a fanciful tale of what might have been. It doesn’t always work but for those deciding what to see if The Avengers is sold out, this makes a pretty decent alternative.

REASONS TO GO: Keeps you interested from beginning to end. Cusack channels Nicolas Cage a bit here.

REASONS TO STAY: Uneven in quality. Too many anachronisms.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the murders are pretty gruesome and there are some pretty disturbing images from time to time; definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first trailer for the film was released online on the anniversary of Poe’s death (October 7, 1849).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100. The reviews are trending towards the negative side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Hell

EDGAR ALLE POE LOVERS: The character who was murdered via “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Rufus Griswold, was an actual person who actually survived Poe. Griswold had a vendetta against Poe and was inexplicably named as his literary executor, using his position to assassinate the character of Poe after his death, portraying him as a drug-addled, depraved madman, using “letters” purported to have been written by Poe but later proven to have been forgeries as proof.  His murder was more wishful thinking than fact-based in this context.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: FriendsWith Benefits

Vincere


Vincere

This is what obsession looks like.

(2009) Biographical Drama (IFC) Filipo Timi, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Corrado Invernizzi, Fausto Russo Alesi, Michaela Cescon, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Paolo Pierobon, Bruno Cariello, Francesco Picozzo, Simona Nobili, Vanessa Scalera. Directed by Marco Bellochio

 

Benito Mussolini was a dictator and a despot with an ego far greater than the entire country he ruled. His private life was carefully orchestrated so that his image would be pleasing to the predominantly Roman Catholic citizens of Italy as well as to the Church of Rome, with whom he had a political alliance. Having a mistress and a son by that mistress would have been devastating to the way Il Duce was perceived.

But then again, he wasn’t always the jut-jawed figure that his Fascist party spin doctors made him out to be. Once upon a time Mussolini (Timi) was a firebrand, an atheist who advocated the violent overthrow of Italy’s hopelessly corrupt government.

He caught the attention of young Ida Dalser (Mezzogiorno), an idealistic young shopgirl who was initially attracted to Mussolini’s politics and eventually to the young firebrand himself. The two had a passionate and torrid relationship that had Ida giving him her life savings in order to fund a Fascist newspaper which led to financial disaster for her. It also led to her bearing him a son.

However what she didn’t know was that Mussolini was already married, and as his star rose politically, it became expedient for him to cut ties with her. Dalser could have gone quietly into the night and lived a comfortable life as so many women who had gotten involved with charismatic politicians had over the years, but Ida was determined that her son be the heir of Il Duce, so she forced his hand.

She was forcibly committed to an insane asylum where her story that she was married to the Italian leader (a ceremony was performed or so goes the rumor) and had a son by him was met with to say the least skepticism. She continued to try to fight for her son’s place in the Italian hierarchy right up until the very end.

This is a little known story, even in Italy where Dalser’s existence wasn’t even re-discovered (after the Fascist regime essentially buried her from history) until 2005. Veteran Italian director Bellochio (a contemporary of Antonioni, Fellini and Bertolucci, among other great Italian directors of the era) has crafted an interesting biopic that is largely conjecture, based on what little we know about Dalser and extrapolating how things might have happened.

He is fortunate in having Mezzogiorno, one of Italy’s great leading ladies in the pivotal role of Dalser. Mezzogiorno has been compared to Sophia Loren and Marion Cotillard (whom she resembles) and she brings an inner strength that becomes readily apparent. During the first half of the movie, Dalser is almost obsessively in love with Mussolini, submerging all else of her personality and her life for his benefit. During the second, the obsession turns psychotic and you wonder if she really IS insane. Dalser, that is. It’s a bravura performance and one that has been acclaimed all over Europe, but sadly not here where the movie went little-seen.

The movie does take a bit of a tumble during the second half as Mussolini disappears from the film and is seen only in newsreel footage – the real Mussolini, not the actor playing him. While I think that the move to center the movie on Dalser was a logical one, I think it could have used more of the dynamic between the two, even if Mussolini isn’t interacting directly with her. Perhaps that’s what the director was trying to achieve – create an iconic Mussolini who ceases being a man and becomes a demigod which is, at the end of the day, what Il Duce was trying to achieve in life.

This is a mesmerizing movie that ultimately falls short of being great. Mezzogiorno gives a performance that might have been Oscar-worthy in a perfect world, and the assured hand of an experienced director makes the first part riveting material. If only that sure hand hadn’t failed him in the second half.

WHY RENT THIS: Mezzogiorno’s performance is riveting. Interesting use of historical footage

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The end of the movie becomes unfocused. Suffers from disappearance of Mussolini from the narrative.

FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic nudity and sex scenes here, as well as a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was selected as the #2 best film of 2009 by the respect French journal Les Cahiers du Cinema.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.7M on a $13M production budget; the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

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

Gulliver’s Travels (2010)


Gulliver's Travels

You think YOUR day is going badly - Jack Black is getting a wedgie from a Transformer.

(2010) Comic Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, Chris O’Dowd, T.J. Miller, James Corden, Catherine Tate, Emmanuel Quatra, Olly Alexander, Richard Laing. Directed by Rob Letterman

The dreaded updating of a classic usually spells utter disaster. When moving Jonathan Swift’s iconic novel into the 21st century, will the filmmakers retain its essence or go for the cheap laughs?

Score one for the cheap laughs. Lemuel Gulliver (Black) – and I find it unbelievable that not a single joke was made about someone with the unfortunate first name of “Lemuel” – has been working in the mail room of the New York Tribune for ten years; for nearly that long he’s had a crush on the comely travel editor Darcy Silverman (Peet). He’s been content to worship from afar and play Guitar Hero on the job. When he trains a new young buck in the mail room (Miller), he is mortified to discover that his trainee has been promoted to the Mail Room manager, which sucks big time.

Then again, Lemuel is too afraid to even talk to other employees at the paper, let alone approach them about career advice. On the spur of the moment, he picks up an application for the position of travel writer and Darcy urges him to submit some samples. Lemuel spends the entire night trying to write some scintillating prose – only to discover that he has no game. Desperate, he plagiarizes sections from Frommer’s Guide and other travel icons and gets the job. Darcy sends him out to Bermuda to check out a tour into the legendary Bermuda Triangle.

He falls asleep at the wheel of the boat (apparently this tour comes sans guides) and is steered directly into a gigantic waterspout. When he awakens, the boat is wrecked and he has been tied up by lots of tiny little people, led by a tiny little General Edward (O’Dowd) who takes him to the King of Lilliput (Connolly) and his MILF queen (Tate). The giant Lemuel is chained in a cave along with Lilliput’s only other offender, Horatio (Segel) who had the effrontery to glance soulfully at Princess Mary (Blunt) who happens to be Edward’s betrothed.

When the sworn enemies of Lilliput, Blefuscia, attack, it is Gulliver who comes to the rescue. The grateful king pardons Gulliver and makes him “vice-general” of the army which doesn’t sit well with the pompous Edward.  He plots to allow the entire fleet of Blefuscia attack but Gulliver inexplicably saves the day again. Edward defects in disgrace and guilds a giant robot which he defeats Gulliver with. Gulliver reveals himself to be a lowly coward and a liar (having told the Lilliputians outrageous tales of his life) and is exiled to the Island They Dare Not Travel To, which turns out to be inhabited by giants (by Gulliver’s standards – to the Lilliputians everyone’s a giant). However, Darcy has washed up on the shores of Lilliput having set out after Gulliver. Can the disgraced protector find his inner giant?

If you loved the Jonathan Swift novel, keep walking when you get to the box office; other than having a Lemuel Gulliver wash up on the shores of Lilliput and be tied up by its army, there is almost no relationship between the book and the movie. What this is mostly is a Jack Black vehicle, designed to showcase his talents as a comedian and his usual shtick. The jokes are mainly unfunny; playing foosball with Lilliputians, having Lilliputians re-enact scenes from Star Wars and Titanic and claiming that these are moments from his own life; hardy har har har.

While I was a big fan of Black in High Fidelity, I have to admit that he was a bit tiresome here. When you look at comedians who inhabit a certain persona (like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams), they become like one-trick ponies, constantly reprising the same role in movie after movie. It works for the first few films of their career but eventually the audience gets tired of it. Sometimes, as in the case of Williams, they broaden their range and make movies that are more mature but when they don’t, they tend to fall by the wayside much faster.

I have to admit the visuals here are pretty good. Lilliput has a quasi-Victorian feel. In some ways, it’s almost steampunk and that’s not a bad thing – I kind of wish they had pushed in that direction a little bit further.  However, and I must emphasize this, what they have works just fine as it is.

Besides Black, you have the very likable Segel as the second banana and the lovely Blunt and Peet both make fine romantic foils, but this is clearly Black’s show. Even Connolly, one of the most brilliant comedic minds of the past decade, is curiously humorless in his role.

As comedies go this is pretty mediocre stuff. I can’t really recommend it with too much enthusiasm, although I can’t really say “avoid it at all costs” either. It’s just kind of there as an alternative when you want something light and brainless and seeing Tangled for the umpteenth time is not in the cards.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a nice-looking movie and there are some funny moments as well as some heart-warming moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Jumps the shark with the musical number at the end. Too much mugging from Jack Black and not enough real human emotion. The film felt more like a product.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of crude humor (Jack Black is not going to get any points from firefighters) and some mildly bad words but otherwise, pretty much suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Blunt was originally cast as the Black Widow in Iron Man 2 but backed out to do this movie.

HOME OR THEATER: I imagine the scale of the visuals looks better on a big screen than a small one, but hey, they’re little people – on a smaller TV screen they still look little.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: RocknRolla