Secret in Their Eyes


The eyes have it.

The eyes have it.

(2015) Mystery (STX) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, Dean Norris, Joe Cole, Michael Kelly, Zoe Graham, Patrick Davis, Eileen Fogarty, Lyndon Smith, Kim Yarbrough, Mark Famiglietti, Amir Malaklou, Niko Nicotera, David Israel, Dennis Keiffer, Don Harvey, Glenn Davis, Walter Tabayoyong, Michael Tennant, Ho Sung Pak, Saige Donaldson. Directed by Billy Ray

 

The line between justice and vengeance is often a fine one. There are those that say that you can have one or the other but never both; there are others that say they go hand in hand. Either way, both are exceedingly hard to attain and in the pursuit of one, often one has to settle for the other. When what attains is vengeance, we often have to kill a little piece of ourselves in order to find it.

In the aftermath of 9-11, an elite counter-terrorism task force has been established in Los Angeles by multiple law enforcement agencies. District Attorney Martin Morales (Molina) heads up the team, and among his agents are partners Ray (Ejiofor) from the FBI and Jess (Roberts) from the L.A. District Attorney’s investigative team. In their crosshairs is a downtown mosque which is said to harbor a cleric who had intentions of taking the jihadist fight to the City of Angels.

When a body is found in a dumpster next to the mosque, red flags are sent up and Ray and Jess are sent to investigate. However, the grisly discovery is of Jess’ 18-year-old daughter Carolyn (Graham), a vivacious soul who had been getting ready to go to college in the fall. The discovery devastates the team. New assistant D.A. Claire (Kidman) is assigned the case and a suspect is quickly located. However, dead end upon dead end frustrates the team and eventually Ray figures out who really did it – an informant within the mosque itself (Cole). But he is being protected by powerful forces and is set free, only to disappear.

Thirteen years later, Ray – now working as a security consultant for the New York Mets – comes to Claire – now the District Attorney – with the startling news that Ray has located the long-missing suspect. Claire and Jess (who still works for the office) are reluctant to reopen old wounds but Ray is particularly obsessed with the case and in bringing the man who killed Jess’ daughter in to pay for his crime. But even now, there are obstacles in the way of finding peace for Ray, Jess – and Claire.

This is based on the 2009 Oscar-winning film The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentine film that won Best Foreign Language Film that year. While the plots are identical, some of the details have been changed which changes the dynamics of the newer film somewhat. Also you have three Oscar-caliber actors, all of whom who have won or at least been nominated, in the main parts.

Ejiofor is the central character and as he did in 12 Years a Slave he carries the movie on his broad shoulders. The scene in which he discovers the identity of the body in the dumpster is an incredible piece of work, although it is sadly unduplicated throughout the rest of the film. No, all three of the actors in the front deliver good, solid performances with moments of excellence. Roberts in particular has a haunted look that is most unlike any of her previous performances.

The problem here is that the low-key aspect of the film drains the energy from the audience. The pacing is extraordinarily slow and there were a number of scenes that I thought could have been trimmed if not excised. Ray also jumps in time between 2002 and 2015 and often the only way to tell what time period you’re observing is by the amount of gray in Ray’s hair. I occasionally found it confusing and hard to follow.

The overall atmosphere has a bit of a noir edge to it, just as the original did albeit with a Latin flavor. Transplanting the movie to Los Angeles robs it of that and indeed gives the movie an oddly generic quality – so many thrillers have been set in L.A. that there’s a been there-done that patina. That’s kind of disturbing and not in a good way.

While the ending is cathartic if a bit preposterous, it doesn’t save the audience from feeling that this is something they’ve seen before, even if you haven’t seen the original movie this is based on. Considering the abilities of the director and the talent of the cast, this is an extremely disappointing project that on paper should have been much better than it turned out to be. While it is still entertaining and I can recommend it solely on that basis, this is a movie that is haunted by the specter of what could have been.

REASONS TO GO: All three leads are fine actors. Cathartic. Noir-esque.
REASONS TO STAY: Surprisingly lethargic. Could have used some judicious editing. Time jumping can be confusing (keep an eye on the actors’ hair for clues).
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing violence and sexual content, rape and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All three of the leads – Ejiofor, Kidman and Roberts – are left-handed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zodiac
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Second Mother

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 Core (2003)


Hillary Swank suddenly realizes  there will be no Oscar nominations for this one.

Hillary Swank suddenly realizes there will be no Oscar nominations for this one.

(2003) Sci-Fi Adventure (Paramount) Aaron Eckhart, Hillary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Delroy Lindo, DJ Qualls, Bruce Greenwood, Richard Jenkins, Tcheky Karyo, Alfre Woodard, Glenn Morshower, Christopher Shyer, Ray Galletti, Eileen Pedde, Rekha Sharma, Anthony Harrison, Nicole Leroux. Directed by Jon Amiel

As far as Hollywood is concerned, the world is in constant need of saving. If it’s not alien invasions, it’s natural disasters or incoming asteroids. Sometimes it’s even the wrath of God. But how do you save the planet from itself?

Weird things are happening all over the world. People drop dead suddenly with no explanation until it’s discovered that all of them wore pacemakers that caused arrhythmia due to electromagnetic interference. The space shuttle’s navigational equipment malfunctions, forcing a crash landing by heroic co-pilot Rebecca Childs (Swank); the culprit – an electromagnetic glitch. Birds start to slam into buildings and into the ground, their sense of direction confused by – you guessed it – electromagnetic interference.

One scientist has figured it out. Dr. Josh Keyes (Eckhart) has come to the horrifying conclusion that the molten core of the planet has stopped rotating, causing the planet’s electromagnetic shield to start to fail. He warns Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Tucci), the Presidential science advisor who at first pooh-poohs his conclusions but then comes to the horrifying realization that he’s right. As he warns the President’s cabinet, in three months human civilization will have returned to the stone age. In a year, all life on the planet will have fried.

There’s nothing to be done but to jump start the planet, but how do you get to the Earth’s core when the deepest hole ever dug is only seven miles? And once there, how can anything withstand the extreme temperatures? No fears there – an eccentric scientist, Dr. Ed “Braz” Brazzleton (Lindo) has developed a craft whose hull is made of the rare (so rare it’s non-existent) metal Unobtanium and uses sophisticated lasers to tunnel through rock like…well, a mole.

Also on the team is Serge (Karyo), a French weapons specialist whose nuclear device will be used to get the core moving, and commanding the mission is Robert Iverson (Greenwood) with Maj. Childs along as co-pilot. Of course, information control will be a key since if word got out there’d be panic the likes of which the world has never seen so expert hacker “Rat” Finch (Qualls) monitors the Internet. In mission control is General Thomas Purcell (Jenkins) on the military side and presidential advisor Stickley (Woodard) for the science.

But there will be many obstacles both known and unforeseen before they reach the Core and once they get there, a secret that explains why the rotation stopped will be revealed. With the life of every living thing on Earth hanging in the balance, this small team literally carries the weight of the world on their shoulders.

This is a surprisingly (although it shouldn’t be considering the cast) well-acted movie for the disaster genre. The premise is kind of intriguing. the science behind it not so much. In fact, most scientists point to this movie as having the most egregious scientific gaffes of any movie ever made. The laws of physics are constantly violated both in plot and execution.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s no entertainment value here. As with any good disaster movie there’s plenty of spectacle as iconic monuments the world over go bye-bye, including the Golden Gate Bridge and the Roman Coliseum. And, as I said, the cast is more stellar than most with Eckhart and Swank turning in solid lead performances, with Tucci, Lindo, Qualls and Karyo getting in some quality support for them, Tucci in particular getting props for his cross between Carl Sagan and Tim Gunn.

So kids don’t see this and expect to be a physics whiz. Real physics whizzes are going to watch this (if they haven’t already) and either tear their hair out and curse Hollywood roundly, or laugh and laugh and laugh until their pocket protectors explode. Disaster film junkies though will probably find this a cut above more recent Roland Emmerich end-of-the-world fare however.

WHY RENT THIS: An entertaining and thrilling popcorn flick surprisingly well-acted. Decent effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the situations they encounter are a tad ludicrous and the science behind the film is really, really faulty.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of swearing and some scenes that are gruesome by implication although nothing horrible is shown.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Dr. Keyes uses a peach as an example to show the Earth, none of the fruit that the producers brought to the set were suitable so an apple was brought in, painted to resemble a peach and a peach stone inserted in the middle.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $73.5M on a $60M production budget; the movie lost money during its theatrical run although turned a profit once home video and cable sales are factored in.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Snitch

Alex Cross


Alex Cross

Matthew Fox wishes he was still “Lost.”

(2012) Suspense (Summit) Tyler Perry, Matthew Fox, Edward Burns, Rachel Nichols, Jean Reno, Giancarlo Esposito, Carmen Ejogo, John C. McGinley, Cicely Tyson, Chad Lindberg, Yara Shahidi, Stephanie Jacobsen, Warner Daehn, Bonnie Bentley, Ingo Rademacher. Directed by Rob Cohen

 

America loves mystery franchises. There are dozens of them from talented writers like Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, Robert Parker, Jonathan Kellerman – and James Patterson. Patterson is the creator of Alex Cross, an African-American forensic psychologist who has already made two appearances in film – Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. He was portrayed by Morgan Freeman in both films.

Now he’s back and this time instead of a federal agent he’s a Detroit cop (this takes place much earlier in his career). Cross (Perry) is the head of a crack team of detectives who are routinely given Detroit’s nastiest crimes to solve. His childhood best friend Tommy Kane (Burns) is his right hand man, along with Monica Ashe (Nichols) who has a relationship with Tommy on the QT – if it got out the two were romantically involved, they could lose their jobs.

But things are going pretty well for Tyler. His pretty wife Maria (Ejogo) is pregnant and his grandma – henceforth referred to as Nana Mama (Tyson) watches the kids and growls folksy disapproval at her son and his ideal children Janelle (Shahidi) and Damon (played by Shahidi’s brother Sayeed).

One night, Alex gets a call that there has been a particularly grisly “four roses” murder. The victim, Fan Yau (Jacobsen) who happens to be the CFO of a multi-billion dollar global corporation, was brutally tortured before being executed. Although a number of bodyguards were also killed, Alex divines that this was the work of one man and indeed it is – a man the cops will soon call Picasso (Fox) for the Cubist drawings he leaves at the scene.

After an attack on Erich Nunemacher (Daehn), the next highest person on the executive ladder of the same corporation that Fan Yau worked for is thwarted by Cross and his team, Cross realizes that the real target is Leon Mercier (Reno), the CEO of the company. But Picasso has other plans for now – Cross has made this personal and before things are all played out there are going to be casualties and perhaps in the form of losing someone that Cross may be unable to bear.

This is a far different tone and type of film than the first two Alex Cross movies were – those were a bit more cerebral and much less action oriented. To the good, Cohen – whose got the Fast and the Furious franchise under his belt among other things – knows his way around an action sequence and there are some pretty nice ones in Alex Cross. Also to the good, the bi-play between Alex and Tommy is pretty natural and yields some of the best moments of the film, much of it due to Burns’ comedic timing and the wisecracking nature of Tommy.

Perry, best known for his Madea series as well as having become something of a brand name for urban comedies and romances, tries on strictly acting for size (until this film, the only movie he has appeared in that he didn’t direct himself was a brief cameo appearance in Star Trek). He has a future as an action star, being ruggedly handsome and athletic, although chances are for the time being he will stick to his extremely profitable directing gig. Unfortunately, he didn’t convince me as Cross, partially due to the short shrift the script gives his character. He’s supposed to be brilliant, a sort of Sherlock Holms of Detroit with keen observational skills and a talent for getting in the heads of criminals.

Those things are there but those aspects are written lazily, showing Cross’ talents as more or less big dumb luck rather than the result of intellectual reasoning and because we’re not shown that side of Cross, he loses much of the vitality that his character has in the books. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that this film’s primary flaw is the writing. The dialogue is, simply put, embarrassing. The characters say things actual people would never say and there’s no way even the talented actors in this movie can pull it off although Fox comes close.

Fox, who caught the national fancy as Jack in the “Lost” series not that long ago, is absolutely the highlight here. He is a charismatic villain, one of the best performances in a villainous role so far this year (take that Tom Hiddleston and Tom Hardy!) His shaven-headed gaunt Picasso looks twisted and sadistic and although Fox occasionally takes it over the top, Picasso is perhaps the most memorable aspect of the movie.

The endgame revelation is going to be painfully obvious to anyone who has even a lick of cinematic sense. Although I’m giving it a pretty generous rating, that’s mainly for the action sequences and not the script. Alex Cross is a pretty smart guy but Alex Cross isn’t a smart film and in a crowded release schedule it could have used some smarts.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Perry and Burns. Fox is a demented villain.

REASONS TO STAY: Perry is unconvincing.  End twist is a yawner. Dialogue borderline incompetent.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a whole lot of bad language. Some of the images are pretty gory and even gruesome. There are some drug references, a bit of sexuality and an even smaller bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Idris Elba was initially cast to replace Morgan Freeman as Cross but had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts and was replaced by Perry who is starring for the first time in a film he didn’t direct. Ironically, Elba starred in Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 30/100. The critics have pretty much given it a beating.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bone Collector

MMA LOVERS: There’s a scene in which the Matthew Fox character participates in an underground MMA match. Fox shows some pretty impressive moves.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Edge of Heaven

An Unreasonable Man


 

An Unreasonable Man

Ralph Nader: An American original.

(2006) Documentary (IFC) Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn, Pat Buchanan, Phil Donohue, Joan Claybrook, David Bollier, Mark Green, Andrew Egendorf, Laura Nader, Claire Nader, Richard Grossman, Lawrence O’Donnell, William Greider, James Ridgeway, Gene Karpinski. Directed by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan

 

Ralph Nader may go down in history as one of the most polarizing figures of the 20th century (and of the 21st as well). In the early stages of his career, he was a tireless advocate for consumers. He took on corporate entities and governmental agencies alike on such crusades as automobile safety, clean air and water, and airline safety. The corporate right hate him like poison and had he stuck to advocacy as he did in the 70s and 80s, he might well be remembered as the greatest consumer advocate of all time.

However, unsatisfied with affecting change from without and feeling betrayed by the Carter administration, he made the decision to attempt to make change from within. Feeling the two major political parties were virtually indistinguishable from one another, he took a different road, finally settling on the Green Party (a political party which got its start in Europe where it remains far more popular than it is here) as his platform of choice. So in 2000, he ran as an independent candidate against Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.

The rest, as they say, was history. Gore lost by a narrow margin and we wound up with a president who gave us the Iraq War and the economic meltdown of 2008. There are many pundits of the left who believe that the story would have been entirely different if the votes that Nader received had gone to Gore instead.

Which quite frankly is sour grapes. Gore lost the election at least as much for his failure to effectively establish himself as legitimate presidential material; I remember all the late night talk show jokes likening the former Vice-President as wooden, stiff and humorless. People had trouble relating to him and his campaign failed to motivate younger voters to come out and vote as Obama did in 2008. I myself didn’t vote for Gore, mainly because of his wife Tipper’s involvement with the Parental Music Resource Committee which seemed hell-bent on the censorship of rock and roll and be damned with the constitution. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that distrust.

This documentary covers his career, essentially dividing it up into his advocacy years and his political years. The look is unflinching; while his achievements are praised, Nader himself is portrayed as an inflexible sort who is self-assured that he is right, no matter what. He finds compromise to be an anathema and prefers shaping the world to his point of view – which is where the title of the film comes from, a quote from George Bernard Shaw which reads “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Nader certainly defines this.

Over and over again we see instances where Nader sees things in terms of black and white. There are no shades of grey in his world view. People are either with him or against him; he obviously takes very personally the defection of some of the young advocates who were part of the group he assembled that were affectionately known as “Nader’s Raiders” to government service, which at the time he felt was an ineffective means of forcing change. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that he eventually concluded to take this course himself.

Nader is by all accounts a brilliant man, albeit occasionally infuriating. He has a legacy of legislation that any lawmaker could envy. He also is, perhaps unfairly, blamed for the ascension of Dubya to the White House. That the latter is what may wind up being his more enduring legacy may be one of the most myopic turns by the left ever. The documentary does address that, but at a shade over two hours in length may have people hitting the fast forward button or ejecting the disc more than they will be riveted by the content of the film.

WHY RENT THIS: Remarkably even-handed and fair look at an American icon who often raises very extreme reactions in both followers and critics. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags in places and might have been too long.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Co-director Henriette Mantel was a former protégé of Nader’s.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a number of bonus featurettes that have to do more with the discussion of the political issues that have accompanied Nader’s career, from how third parties have affected American politics to why the right is better organized than the left. For an indie documentary this is an unusually sumptuous presentation.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $176,647 on an unreported production budget; this may have broken even or even made a little bit of cash.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Watch

Casino Jack


Casino Jack

Even though Kevin Spacey is calling to verify, Barry Pepper looks skeptical that he’s got 250 pounds in that weight.

(2010) Biodrama (ATO) Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz, Conrad Pla, Christian Campbell, Yannick Bisson, Spencer Garrett, Hannah Endicott-Douglas, David Fraser, Graham Greene, Maury Chaykin, Stephen Chambers, Rachelle Lefevre. Directed by George Hickenlooper

We grew up thinking that American politics were relatively corruption-free, compared to other countries. That politicians would vote their conscience and while not necessarily paragons of virtue, were at least not for sale. How wrong we were.

Jack Abramoff (Spacey) was one o the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. He had some of the most powerful men in the world on speed dial; he could get men elected or doom their campaigns. His alliance with Native American casinos helped liberalize the laws that allowed them to flourish. An orthodox Jew, he helped fund Jewish community centers and education facilities and was a pillar of his community.

Jack and his partner Michael Scanlon (Pepper) lived high on the hog, funneling the money from Indian casinos into the pockets of politicians, with a certain amount remaining for themselves in fees. But the two men get greedy, deciding to hire seedy Virginia businessman Adam Kidan (Lovitz) who has ties to mobster Big Tony (Chaykin) to further skim off the top.

When Scanlon’s girlfriend Emily Miller (Lefevre) discovers he’s cheating on her, she starts talking to investigators about the wrongdoing that she’s fully aware of – things that the savvy Abramoff had warned him not to discuss with anyone. Big Tony becomes uneasy and orders a hit on Kidan which fails. Kidan also begins to talk – and the empire around Abramoff begins to crumble.

Director George Hickenlooper was best known for his documentaries – including the acclaimed Heart of Darkness which looked at the troubled production of Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.  He tells his tale here with admirable tautness, taking the brevity of the documentary form and mixing it with the richness of a narrative. Sadly, he passed away less than two months before the film opened in the United States.

This is very much Spacey’s film. For a time after American Beauty, he was perhaps the best actor in Hollywood  with a string of performances that were as good as any body of work for a comparable amount of time in the history of movies. Strong hyperbole I know but you can certainly make an argument for it. However after his Bobby Darin movie, he seemed to move away from the limelight deliberately, opting to spend more time on the stage and mostly confining himself to supporting roles over the past decade or so. This is his best performance in years, taking Abramoff – a very complex human being – and humanizing him. We see his manic, compulsive side and his tender, giving side sometimes within moments of one another. Kelly Preston plays his wife and the two have a pretty decent chemistry going.

One of the things that I really liked about this movie is that you really see how lobbying works in the political system. I also admire the courage of the filmmakers in naming names and pointing fingers. There are no punches pulled; those that were involved with Abramoff are portrayed here, either with actors or in documentary footage of the Senate hearing which is weaved in masterfully with the re-created footage. Spacey has a moment where he harangues the Senators passing judgment on him, reminding them that most of them took money from him for their campaigns. This all occurs in his head, of course – in reality Abramoff has been relatively charitable towards his accusers.

This makes a fine companion piece to the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money which portrays Abramoff in a less sympathetic light, preferring to opine that he was symptomatic of the corruption and arrogance in the Republican party. Hickenlooper doesn’t make such indications, pointing out that this is a political problem that doesn’t belong to a single party (which of course it doesn’t). The real Jack Abramoff actually is leading the fight against lobbying following his release from his prison sentence. Perhaps to atone for his own actions, he remains a zealot dedicated to changing how politics work.

This was characterized as the worst political scandal since Watergate and yet it passed through the American consciousness like a Kardashian sex tape. In fact, it would be fair to say the Kardashians got more notice than the Abramoff trial. It involved some of the top figures in the George W. Bush White House, resulted in the indictment and conviction of a U.S. Congressman (Bob Ney) and in Abramoff’s fall from grace. What it should have done was prompt a re-examination of the role of lobbyists in the political structure but it is business as usual in Washington. That’s perhaps the most tragic aspect of this whole sordid affair.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Spacey’s best performances in the last five years. A sobering look at how lobbyists are subverting the political process.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The foul language is pretty much non-stop. There is a bit of sexuality involved as well as a little nudity, and some brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed with the digital Red One Camera in Canada utilizing blue screen technology with characters filmed in Canada projected onto backgrounds filmed in Washington and Miami.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a gag reel but not much else.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $12M production budget; this wasn’t a box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: True Colors

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT:More of the American Experience

The American Experience


It is the time of year when we celebrate, here in the United States, the founding of our nation – not from our final victory in the Revolutionary War, but from the day that the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming to our people, to England and to the world that we would no longer be a colony but a new nation, self-governing and with a democracy unlike any seen in the world since ancient Greece.

We have made our share of mistakes, but we have also accomplished some amazing things. Earlier this year Cinema365 conducted a mini-festival of films from around the world to showcase the quality of movies that originate in countries other than the United States. Today, and through Wednesday, we’ll be looking at movies that examine aspects of American culture and what it means to be an American, to live in America. We’ll spotlight three films; one concentrating on the modern political process and it’s abuses; the second looking at the everyman through the last half of the 20th century and finally the third which will go back to the very beginnings of our nation and reminding us of the sacrifices our founding fathers made to create this nation.

So in the midst of getting ready for backyard barbecues, fireworks, block parties, concerts, and plates of hot dogs, hamburgers, corn on the cob, ice cold watermelon, potato salad and your beverages of choice – not to mention the apple pie – Cinema365 wishes all of our American readers a very happy and safe Fourth as we celebrate our nation’s birthday.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Axe not what your country can do for you…

(2012) Horror Action (20th Century Fox) Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Jimmi Simpson, Robin McLeavy, Alan Tudyk, Marton Csokas, Joseph Mawle, Erin Wasson, John Rothman, Cameron M. Brown, Frank Brennan, Jaqueline Fleming. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

 

Our nation’s 16th president is widely beloved, considered our most courageous and visionary president and for good reason. He led our nation through its darkest hour, freed the slaves and in general kept the nation together even as it was coming apart. He also rid the country of vampires. Yeah, that was him.

Of course, you might not be familiar with that last part but don’t worry. This isn’t a history lesson. It’s rip-roaring bloodsucking entertainment from the man who directed Night Shift and the man who wrote the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Abraham Lincoln (Walker) watches as his mother (McLeavy) is murdered by Jack Barts (Csokas), whom Abe’s father (Mawle) crossed when he protected his impetuous son from stopping Barts from whipping an African-American boy. Young Abraham wants revenge but his more level-headed dad makes him swear not to do anything foolish which Honest Abe does…until his father passes away.

Going to a bar to gather some liquid courage, Abe runs into Henry Sturgess (Cooper). Eventually, Abe discovers that Barts is a vampire and his guns are ineffective against him. Lincoln is saved by the intervention of Henry, but not before permanently scarring Barts by leaving the ball of his pistol in his eye.

Sturgess heals Abe’s wounds and tells him that the vampires have mostly been hiding out in the South as plantation owners, using the slaves as a food supply. Abe, studying for the law, is also trained by Henry in the fine (or not-so-fine) art of vampire hunting – and not a Scooby in sight (obligatory Buffy reference considering the subject matter). Having had a bad experience with guns, Abe prefers the silver-coated axe as his weapon of choice.

Sturgess sends the newly martial arts-trained Abe to Springfield to practice law. There he meets shopkeeper Joshua Speed (Simpson), who hires the young man and allows him to stay in a room above the store. The two become fast friends but coming back into Abe’s life is Will Johnson (Mackie), the young boy Abe saved from whipping years ago. Also in his life; Mary Todd (Winstead), the fiancée of rising political star Stephen Douglas (Tudyk).

By night, Abe kills local vampires and chafes for the chance to get his hands on Barts. Finally, when Sturgess finds out that Abe has been making friends and fallen in love, he warns him that he’s making a horrible mistake – these people will be endangered by the things Abe does at night. And that’s just what happens. Once Abe finally gets his hands on Jack Barts, people – okay, vampires – take notice. In particular, Adam (Sewell) who is the leader of the vampires here in the States, a creature who has lived since the days of the pharaohs and who is eager to establish a nation of his own for his kind – the Confederate States of America, for one.

He and his sister/enforcer Vadoma (Wasson) hatch a plan to bring Lincoln to them, kidnapping Will and bringing him to their New Orleans plantation. Abe and Speed rescue him by the skin of their teeth, but Abe determines to fight Adam in a less direct way – through politics. Abe’s determination and vision leads him to the White House.

However, Adam has been busy as well, allying with Jefferson Davis (Rothman) to supply vampiric troops to overcome the numeric superiority of the North as well as their armament. With unkillable soldiers, Adam and the Southern generals decide to put an end to the war by invading, leading to a place called Gettysburg. Realizing that the only hope of defeating the army of the undead is to arm his own troops with silver ordinance, Abe, Will and Joshua set out on a desperate train ride from Washington to Pennsylvania. The entire nation’s future hangs in the balance but Adam knows he’s coming.

This is an idea that does tend to stretch one’s tolerance for fantasy. That it has been largely unsuccessful at the box office speaks more about the imagination of the moviegoing public than that of the specific filmmakers here. The movie is certainly filmed in dark tones with bright moonlight. There is certainly a gothic feel to the film but with more of an action sensibility than, say, Dark Shadows.

The special effects are okay, though not ground-breaking in most senses. However, there are a couple of scenes which are done rather badly – the scene where Lincoln chases Barts through stampeding horses – where the horses look like something out of a computer game, complete with a dun-colored sky. It looks fake and pulls the audience right out of the reality of the film.

I have no problems with fudging with history to suit the needs of the story, although here some of it was, I thought, unnecessary. Making Will Johnson a lifelong friend instead of someone he met in Springfield (which is, as I understand it, what actually happened) or having Joshua Speed as part of Lincoln’s inner circle in Washington (in reality he declined to leave Springfield and sent his brother James whom Lincoln liked less in his stead) doesn’t really make the story any easier – it’s just simpler to write it that way.

Mackie is a fine actor who brings some gravitas to the role of Johnson. Simpson as well, who is channeling Christian Slater to my mind, gives Joshua Speed a fairly ambiguous role which aids the story nicely in the last reel. Winstead is an underrated actress who has done admirably well in a bunch of movies that haven’t been as good as her performances. It’s no different here; hopefully she’ll be cast in a movie that’s worthy of her talents soon.

The main problem here is Walker. He might be a fine, capable actor but this is a part that is almost impossible to pull off to begin with – Abe Lincoln as an action hero? Doing Matrix-like moves while wielding an axe like something out of a Tsui Hark movie? Uhhhhh…it’s kind of entertaining, I have to admit, while you’re watching it. Thinking about it now, reading it on paper…sounds kind of dumb. The other issue is that Walker has moments where he really carries the essence of the Great Emancipator. At others though, he seems to be floundering, not quite sure how to capture Lincoln’s natural self-effacing demeanor and homespun humor.

This is entertainment, pure and simple. There is no moral message, and if you take this as a history lesson you’re clearly insane. This is meant to keep you on the edge of your seat for a couple of hours. Nothing more, nothing less. The movie isn’t always successful at it but it succeeds more than it fails. If you’re willing to give the concept a shot and throw logic and history out the door for two hours while you’re in the air-conditioned cinema, then you might actually be surprised at how good this is.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of action and some nifty effects. Mackie, Cooper and Winstead are all solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Walker’s performance is a bit inconsistent. Too many liberties with history and facts. Some of the CGI is surprisingly poor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of violence as well as a hint of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man in the film’s final scene who is approached in a similar manner as Abe was recruited was played by book and screenplay author Seth Grahame-Smith.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews were mostly bad.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Near Dark
GETTYSBURG ADDRESS LOVERS: Walker recites the speech here in a re-creation of the address.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The American Experience series begins

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen


Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Ewan McGregor dips his toes in the water while Emily Blunt tries to warn him about the sharks.

(2011) Romance (CBS) Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amr Waked, Tom Mison, Rachael Stirling, Catharine Steadman, Conleth Hill, Hugh Simon, Tom Beard, Jill Baker, Waleed Akhtar, Peter Wight, Nayef Rashed, Clive Wood. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

 

There are things that we use for metaphors for the unlikely; screen doors on submarines, Hell freezing over and so on. But what could be more unlikely in real life than going salmon fishing, a sport for northern climates, in the middle of a desert?

Well, nothing if you’re a fisheries specialist and that’s just what Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor) is. He works for the British Environmental Agency (their fishing and aquaculture department, to be exact) and is called Dr. Jones so often that you half-expect an archaeologist in a fedora carrying a whip to tear around the corner and punch out a Nazi.

Then you meet Dr. Jones and realize that he’s a pretty milquetoast kind of guy. He is married to the shrill but caring Mary (Stirling) who is more and more putting her career ahead of her marriage. He designs famous flies for fly fishermen and talks to the Koi in his pond in the back of his Chelsea home. So when he gets the e-mail from Harriet Chetwode-Tolbert (Blunt) who works at a large English financial company that she has a client interested in a project that would bring salmon fishing to the Yemen, he responds with incredulity and essentially, some condescending rudeness.

But the times they are a’changin’. A muck-up in Afghanistan which resulted in British troops destroying a mosque gets their Press Secretary (and spin doctor) Patricia Maxwell (Scott Thomas) scrambling to find a feel-good story in the Mideast puts the spotlight on this potential project. Dr. Jones’ somewhat harried boss Bernard Sugden (Hill) nudges the reluctant Doctor to meet with Harriet and while the meeting is inauspicious, Dr. Jones is soon made to understand that this project needs to happen. Forthwith.

He comes up with a plan that’s theoretically possible and is taken to meet Harriet’s client, Sheikh Muhammed (Waked) who turns out to be very different than the pragmatic Dr. Jones expected. As does Harriet who as the project continues gets closer to Dr. Jones. There are obstacles of course; he’s married and she’s engaged to a Captain in the British Army (Mison) but when Mison goes missing and Mary leaves for an extended business trip to Geneva things get a little bit complicated.

Some movies just grab you with the amount of heart they show at their center and this is certainly one of those. Halstrom has a lot of those on his resume – The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News and Chocolat among them. This is certainly the sort of movie that would work for those who love those other films.

Part of the reason the film works is that this is so well-cast. Blunt and McGregor are both very appealing leads and the chemistry between them is genuine. McGregor gets to be full-on Scottish and that works nicely for the character. He is a bit of a prig but not so much that you get irritated. He is actually quite charming in his own way, although his sense of humor is a bit lacking.

Blunt is rapidly becoming one of the go-to women for romance movies. She’s smart and beautiful and sweet, all characteristics that serve her character well. She’s also a hell of an actress, as she proves during the scenes where she must deal with her boyfriend’s situation. There is some real pathos there and she doesn’t overplay it, making her grief real and accessible.

Kristin Scott Thomas is also an adept actress, able to do comedy, mystery, drama, in fact whatever is asked of her. She is mostly comic relief here (some of the film’s funniest moments come during IM conversations between her and the prime minister) and she gives the role just enough stiff upper lip in order to make the character a bit more funny.

The ending is a bit too smarmy and a bit too pat. I always have trouble with people who are in established relationships getting out of them to be with the “right one” even though you’re rooting for them to. It always makes me wonder how (in this case) Mary and Robert (Harriet’s Army boy) are feeling, even though the movie tells you it’s pretty much rotten. I’m not a big fan of two people to be miserable so two people have a shot at a different relationship (and generally those sorts of relationships don’t work in real life anyway – too much guilt).

Then again, I’m being a bit of a pragmatist here and the movie really isn’t meant for that sort of thinking. It’s meant to be enjoyed, experienced with your heart more than with your head. It’s not sugary sweet and yet it makes you feel enveloped with a warm blanket, sipping a nice hot cup of chocolate. This is a hug-from-your-grandmother kind of movie, the kind that makes you feel better coming out than you did going in. You can’t give a much better recommendation than that.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet and full of heart. Not so quirky that it gets irritating. Blunt and McGregor make attractive leads.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit too Hollywood for me.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of violence, a smattering of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Yemen-set portion of the movie was filmed in Morocco.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100. The reviews are very good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Holiday

FISH LOVERS: You will learn more about salmon and their breeding habits than perhaps you ever wanted to know.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Dog Soldiers

Big Miracle


Big Miracle

Drew Barrymore is not so sure about her big kissing scene with her latest co-star.

(2012) Family (Universal) Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Danson, Stephen Root, John Pingayak, Ahmaogak Sweeney, Kathy Baker, Vinessa Shaw, Andrew Daly, John Michael Higgins, Gregory Jbara, James LeGros, Rob Riggle, Sarah Palin. Directed by Ken Kwapis

 

Americans sometimes overly admire self-reliance. There’s nothing we love more than a lone wolf taking care of business on his/her own. Situations arise in life however where help is needed. Generally we as a nation despise asking for assistance although there are instances where reaching out is the only way.

Adam Carlson (Krasinski) is a reporter for an Anchorage television station whose current assignment in the winter of 1988 is to go to small towns on the fringes of the 49th State and file reports about life on the last frontier. He has amassed quite a following in the small town of Port Barrow, Alaska where he is finishing up his most recent assignment, particularly from Nathan (Sweeney), a young Inuit lad who is a bit star-struck and looks to be fleeing tiny Barrow for bigger and better things.

Filing one last story, Adam notices something rather peculiar – water spouts coming from a small hole in the ice five miles from the nearest ocean. Upon further investigation, it is discovered that three California Gray Whales are trapped there, cut off from the ocean where their fellows have begun their Southerly migration. In a short time, the hole will freeze over and the whales will drown, having no means of getting air.

The filing of this story causes quite a ripple effect. Greenpeace activist (and Adam’s ex-girlfriend) Rachel Kramer (Barrymore) charges in, guns blazing, in an effort to rescue the whales and alienate the humans who might not necessarily agree with her points of view. One of those is oilman J.W. McGraw (Danson) who has a towable ice hover barge that is only a few miles away; it can break up the ice and carve a path to the ocean for the whales but Rachel and J.W. have had run-ins before over oil drilling rights in Wilderness Preserves.

The national guard has to be mobilized in order to get the helicopters to tow the barge to Barrow, which requires the co-operation of the Governor (Root) who isn’t giving it, until Kelly Meyers (Shaw), one of Reagan’s press coordinators in the White House recognizes an opportunity to improve her boss’s environmental record and give a boost to the Bush campaign (the first George, not the second) and puts pressure on the Governor to co-operate.

Colonel Scott Boyer (Mulroney) is assigned to lead the helicopter team to move the huge barges but it is a dicey proposition at best. Meanwhile, the media is descending on tiny little Barrow to cover what has become an international sensation, including L.A. reporter Jill Jerard (Bell) who like Adam yearns for the big time.

In the meantime, the situation for the whales – dubbed Fred, Wilma and Bam-Bam – is getting more desperate by the hour and it doesn’t appear as if help is going to arrive in time. There is something closer that may well be the only chance for the whales. The trouble is, that it’s a Soviet icebreaker and to allow them to save the day might not be possible in that political climate.

These are based on actual events (Kwapis skillfully intercuts actual footage from the incident) although the plot has been condensed and made Hollywood-friendly. On paper it seems like it could be one of those treacly family movies that just reeks of cliché – dumbed down to kid levels. There is a kid here but unlike most family movies he doesn’t save the day – instead Nathan is taught the beauty of his heritage and learns to value his ethnic background. Otherwise, this is a movie that the whole family can appreciate.

The cast is well-assembled. Krasinski in particular is one of the most likable leads working in Hollywood today and the more movie work he gets, the more likely it is that the small screen is not going to be able to afford him shortly. Personally I think he’s one or two roles from being a huge star.

Barrymore is likewise a reliable lead, albeit further up the wattage ladder than Krasinski. She usually plays ditzy – and there’s a hint of that in Rachel – but she takes the committed environmentalist with tunnel vision cliché (she won’t wear make-up because so much of it is animal tested for example) and rather than make the character a caricature gives her flesh and blood instead. It’s a nice portrayal and illustrates why she’s one of Hollywood’s finest.

Danson, Nelson (as a state wildlife expert) and Baker are all fine actors who never disappoint; Danson is as close to a villain as the movie gets but he’s just so dang likable you wind up kind of wanting him to do the right thing – and not to be much of a spoiler but he does.

In fact, nearly everybody does the right thing here. It’s one of those movies where there are no real villains other than the elements and the conviction and commitment of the people of Barrow and those whom the story touches becomes the real focal point. That’s where the warmth is in the story, despite the chilly setting (which was filmed in British Columbia rather than Alaska).

The whales are portrayed both animatronically (well done) and by CGI (not so well done) and remain more or less on the periphery. Yes, everyone loves them and wants to save them but the people are the focus of the story. It becomes a family film that actually doesn’t pander to the kids at the expense of the adults, but rather treats kids intelligently and expects them to understand what’s happening without drawing in crayon.

I found myself liking this more than I expected to. Originally sentenced to the doldrums of the first release week in January, Universal moved it up into February, perhaps because the movie turned out better than they expected it to. This is good solid family entertainment that doesn’t disappoint the kids or the adults and hopefully, not the studio accountants either. Movies like this are to be encouraged.

REASONS TO GO: An engaging story. Krasinski is rapidly becoming one of the most compelling leads in Hollywood. Doesn’t talk down to its family audience, at least not much.

REASONS TO STAY: CGI whales aren’t always authentic looking.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stephen Root’s Governor Haskell is a fictional character; the governor of Alaska t the time this actually took place was Steve Cowper who was fairly supportive of the rescue efforts.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dolphin Tale

INUIT LOVERS: Offers a rare and intimate look at Inuit culture in modern society, specifically in regard to their view about whales and how they use them for food and as a spiritual touchstone as well.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Journey 2: Mysterious Island