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

New Releases for the Week of September 13, 2019


HUSTLERS

(STX) Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Mette Towley, Keke Palmer, Mercedes Ruehl, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, Usher, Frank Whaley, Dov Davidoff. Directed by Lorene Scafaria

A group of strippers, appalled at the behavior of their high-end Wall Street clientele, decide to turn the tables and take their portion of the American dream for themselves. This is getting some big Oscar buzz for Jennifer Lopez.

See the trailer, video featurettes and clips here
For more on the movie this is the website
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity)

Aquarela

(Sony Classics) Viktor Kossakovsky. This documentary explores the effect of water in all its forms – ice, liquid, steam, storm – on the planet and how we ultimately must learn to conserve and protect it if our species is to survive.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG (for some thematic elements)

Dream Girl

(Zee) Ayushman Khurana, Nusrat Barucha, Annu Kapoor, Vijay Raaz. A young man who has had little success in life finally finds a job he’s completely suited for – as a female friendship caller on an Indian love line. But when his beautiful voice inspires feelings of romance, things get a little bit out of control.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks
Rating: NR

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

(Roadside Attractions) Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sheldon Harnick, Hal Prince, Austin Pendleton. One of Broadway’s most beloved musicals of all time, Fiddler on the Roof grew from a particularly bleak series of short stories by iconic Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem and grew into a major hit at a time when race relations, gender roles, sexuality and the role of religion were all evolving.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square
Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements/disturbing images)

Freaks

(Well Go USA) Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Grace Park, Amanda Crew. A 7-year-old girl grows up her entire life restricted to the inside of her house, believing that the world is inhabited by dangerous Abnormals. When a mysterious stranger arrives, she learns that the truth isn’t so simple – but the danger is very real.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs
Rating: R (for violence and some language)

The Goldfinch

(Warner Brothers) Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Finn Wolfhard, Ashleigh Cummings.  A young man whose mother died tragically struggles to get past the grief and loss. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller.

See the trailer, a clip and a video featurette here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for drug use and language)

Official Secrets

(IFC) Keira Knightey, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans. The true story of Katherine Gun, a young woman who worked for British Intelligence who discovered a damaging NSA memo in the weeks prior to the American invasion of Iraq. Disturbed by what she sees, she chooses to leak it and is eventually discovered and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Cobb Daytona, Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square
Rating: R (for language)

Section 375

(Reliance) Akshaye Khanna, Richa Chadha, Meera Chopra, Rahul Bhat. A young woman accuses a famous and wealthy director of rape and sees him convicted. His wife hires a high-priced lawyer who appeals the case, arguing that the incident didn’t meet the standards of rape in Section 375 of the Indian penal code.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Courtroom Drama
Now Playing: Touchstar Southchase
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content throughout, some language and nudity)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

3 Days with Dad
D-Day
Depraved
Gang Leader
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
Night Hunter
Pailwaan
Super-Size Me 2: Holy Chicken
The Weekend

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE/KEY WEST:

Gang Leader
Give Me Liberty
Haunt
High Heels
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool
Pailwaan

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG/SARASOTA:

Can You Keep a Secret?
D-Day
Gang Leader
The Weekend

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Gang Leader
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Depraved
The Goldfinch
Hustlers
Official Secrets

Snowden


Edward Snowden in the military.

Edward Snowden in the military.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Open Road) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Shailene Woodley, Nicolas Cage, Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Ben Chaplin, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Nicholas Rowe, Bhasker Patel, Patrick Joseph Bymes, Christy Meyer, Robert Firth, Edward Snowden. Directed by Oliver Stone

 

Edward Snowden remains one of the most controversial figures of our time. There are those who label him a hero while others loathe him as a traitor. He polarizes opinion like nobody else and there are those on both sides of the political aisle that would like to see him answer for his crimes of revealing the NSA’s program of secret surveillance of the American people.

The movie has had a bit of a checkered history; it has been delayed at least twice, once to complete some of the special effects and the other to avoid competition from the major blockbusters. Once the film was released, it got almost zero support from its distributor and came and went from the theaters with little fanfare. Did it deserve that kind of fate?

Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) is an idealistic young man whose ideals are somewhat conservative. He joins the military, wanting to serve his country but a badly broken leg puts an end to his military service. Instead, he’s recruited by the CIA to write code and serve his country in a different way. His mentor at the CIA, Corbin O’Brien (Ifans) takes a healthy interest in the young man’s career.

He also meets Lindsay Mills (Woodley), a free-spirited college student who supports herself through exotic dancing. The unlikely couple form a close bond and soon have a budding relationship, even though she’s as liberal as they come and he’s a staunch rock-ribbed conservative. He ends up writing programs that help root out terrorists and keep America safe.

Then, as he switches to the more lucrative consulting position at the NSA, he begins to discover some disturbing things. For example, the phone surveillance program he wrote is now targeting everybody and is gathering so much data the NSA has to build huge facilities to store it all. So despite having a beautiful home in Hawaii, a lucrative job and a bright future, he decides to blow the whistle on all this patently illegal material.

He sets up a meet with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) in Hong Kong. He is clearly paranoid, expecting to be grabbed by NSA agents or the local police at any moment. But once Poitras and Greenwald have a chance to examine the documents, they realize they have the story of the century on their hands. It is just a matter of convincing their editors to allow them to tell it.

How you’re going to receive this film is going to depend an awful lot on how you view Edward Snowden. If you see him as a vile traitor giving state secrets to the media, then you’ll hate this movie. If you think he’s a heroic whistleblower who tried to put the brakes on what was clearly a morally heinous policy, you’re more likely to like this movie. Know going in that Stone is clearly in the latter camp and really doesn’t offer any sort of alternative viewpoint. It seemed to me that most reviews followed the political line; conservative movie critics tended to give it lower scores, more liberal critics higher ones.

So I’m trying to be as objective as I can, but it is difficult to filter out one’s own precepts. Gordon-Levitt I think does a very credible job as Snowden, capturing the cadences of his speech nicely although in a much deeper register than the real Snowden speaks in. Snowden is in many ways not the most charismatic of men so it’s hard to fault Gordon-Levitt for being a bit dry here, but he does seem to capture Snowden’s essential personality.

The rest of the cast is pretty strong – Ifans is virtually unrecognizable – but a lot of the big names are in for what are essentially cameos. Most of the film revolves around Snowden, Lindsey and the journalists. Basically, that’s enough to keep my interest.

I can understand some questioning that the movie makes Snowden to be something of a saint. I don’t think he is and I don’t think that he himself is above questioning by the filmmaker. Poitras, whose documentary on the events here CITIZENFOUR won an Oscar, painted a much more balanced picture of Snowden and in the process, made him more relatable. The Snowden here is a little bit less so because of that and I think it does the film a disservice to go that route.

There are some pretty good moments throughout the movie – Snowden’s initial meeting with the journalists, the events of his smuggling the data out of the NSA facility (a conjectural scene since Snowden has yet to and probably never will reveal how he actually did it) and the end scene when Snowden speaks to the TED conference via satellite – and Gordon-Levitt morphs into the real Edward Snowden, who gets the last word in the film fittingly enough.

It’s a well-made film – you would imagine Stone would at least produce that – but it’s more than just that. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on the state of things, whether the price of security is too high or whether liberty trumps that price. We’ve got a lot to think about as a society, much to demand from our leaders. Snowden reminds us that sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t doing the right thing.

REASONS TO GO: Gordon-Levitt really captures the cadences of Snowden’s speech. It has the taut atmosphere of a spy thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks any counter-argument to make it seem more fair-minded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gordon-Levitt’s second straight film based on an Oscar-winning documentary; the first was The Walk which was the dramatic account of the documentary Man on Wire.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CITIZENFOUR
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Alice Through the Looking Glass


The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

(2016) Fantasy (Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill, Geraldine James, Andrew Scott, Richard Armitage, Ed Speleers, Alan Rickman (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Paul Whitehouse (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Barbara Windsor (voice). Directed by James Bobin

 

Like most normal movie fans, I don’t mind some eye candy now and again – and I’m not talking about the good looking member of the opposite sex. I mean special effects that transport you to strange exotic places, create unusual and astonishing creatures and in essence bring awe, magic and wonder to the movies. However, like most movie critics, I’m not thrilled with special effects for their own sake.

Tim Burton’s 2010 Disney fantasy Alice in Wonderland was a surprise hit – not a surprise that it was a hit so much but how big a hit it became. Grossing over a billion dollars worldwide, it was natural that the studio was eager for a remake but considering the A-list nature of some of the stars and Burton’s own reluctance to make a sequel (James Bobin of The Muppets Most Wanted eventually got the job) has delayed this to the point where some have forgotten how good the first one was.

And it was rather good. I thought it was one of Burton’s best ever, which has gotten me a lot of razzing in the film buff community I hang out in, but I stick to my assessment – it’s imaginative and fun with less of Burton’s neuroses to make it too dark. I’m guessing that the experience Burton had with Disney didn’t stick too well with him, because he has chosen not to direct the sequel and it suffers from his absence.

Alice (Wasikowska) is now a young woman and not just any young woman, but the captain of a sea ship, the Wonder which was once her late father’s ship. Attacked by pirates, she takes an incredible chance against them and (of course) escapes with a daring maneuver. Point for Alice.

However her former fiancé Lord Hamish (Bill) in a fit of pique has taken over her father’s old company and has ordered the Wonder taken away from Alice and that she be reduced to a clerk in the organization. He sneeringly threatens to take away her mother’s home which he coincidentally owns the mortgage on if she doesn’t accept his terms. Turns out he’s not just a twit but a spiteful one as well.

Searching his office for a clue as to how to get out of the situation, Alice is overheard and with nowhere to escape, discovers that the mirror may provide a useful means of egress. She goes through and ends back up in Underland, the world she fell into years ago and saved when she slew the Jabberwocky (which appears in a flashback here but sans dialogue since the voice of the original was the late Christopher Lee). It seems that a calamity has occurred.

The Mad Hatter (Depp) is in a deep depression. He believes he’s found evidence that his family whom he once thought slain by the Red Queen (Carter) is still alive but nobody will believe him – including Alice. However, she determines that the only way to save the Hatter is to save his family from death and the only way to do that is to go back in time.

However, it turns out that Time is a person (Cohen) who doesn’t much appreciate people meddling with the events of the past. However, Alice steals an orb that will allow her to go back in time and warn the Hatters’ family about their impending demise, but what she doesn’t realize is that the Orb powers the Great Clock which is what regulates Time itself and without it, everything will cease to be.

The plot goes on from there and if you want to find out more, see the bloody movie but let me just say that the problem with this movie is the problem that all time travel movies have – they are generally confusing, contradictory and make the viewer’s head ache if they think about it too much. Given that this is a family film, the wee ones will probably be able to just accept the situation and keep going from there – kids are remarkable that way – but their parents will end up scratching their heads and wondering why they didn’t stay home and paint that spare room.

That’s not to say that this movie is less interesting than watching paint dry, far from it. Once again, some of the images are fantastic, such as Time contemplating an eternity of watches, each representing a human being who is still alive. When their watch stops, so do they and Time collects the stopped watches. Time is a bit of a melancholy fellow.

And Cohen plays Time with great depth and many layers. While I’m not sure why he had to give him a Yiddish/German accent other than that Cohen always plays with accents, nonetheless this is one of Cohen’s less strict comedic parts. There are moments when Cohen gets to cut loose as a comic but he tempers those with moments that really touch the heart.

Wasikowska is plucky not only in character but as an actress; the role, as written, is pretty colorless and she does what she can with it but I would have liked to have seen more depth to her. When her mother’s situation becomes apparent to her, we see her determination to save the day, but nothing of the emotions behind them. Alice is as two-dimensional here as the paper the original story was written on.

And again, this has little to do with the book Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll wrote, so purists beware. Not that the plot matters overly much; Bobin clearly exists more time and energy in the special effects than he does on character development and plot (perhaps writer Linda Woolverton, who wrote the first Alice might bear some responsibility for this) which frankly is a mistake. As undiscerning as American audiences are, give them characters they care about in an environment that makes them slack-jawed with wonder and they’ll return again and again to see your movie. It really isn’t a very difficult concept to follow.

I was sorely disappointed in this sequel as I loved the first movie so much. This is more or less mediocre, not the crash and burn some critics made it out to be but certainly not a home run either. Audiences have reacted accordingly, with a resounding “not interested.” It will likely recoup its budget and maybe make a little bit more after its home video run, but this Alice isn’t as inviting for a return trip to Wonderland as the last.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly amazing images. Cohen gives his best performance ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-emphasis on effects over plot. Time travel is confusing and contradictory.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild rude language and plenty of fantasy action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Sacha Baron Cohen’s first appearance in a film distributed by Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snow White and the Huntsman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Captain America: Civil War

Mr. Nice


Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

(2009) Biography (MPI) Rhys Ifans, Chloe Sevigny, David Thewlis, Luis Tosar, Crispin Glover, Omid Djalili, Christian McKay, Elsa Pataky, Jack Huston, Jamie Harris, Sara Sugarman, William Thomas, Andrew Tiernan, Kinsey Packard, Ania Sowinski, James Jagger, Howell Evans, Ken Russell, Ferdy Roberts, Nathalie Cox, Olivia Grant. Directed by Bernard Rose

The 60s and 70s were the era when drug culture became widespread and suddenly there was a worldwide demand for narcotics. It took all kinds to make sure the supply kept up with the demand – and some drug dealers were the most unlikely souls indeed.

Howard Marx (Ifans) was an honest and well-adjusted boy from Wales who managed to earn himself an education at Oxford. He’s studying alone in his room one night when exchange student Ilze Kadegis (Pataky) bursts into his room looking for a secret passageway. When she finds it, a curious Howard follows her to an old storage room where Graham Plinson (Huston), the university’s biggest dope dealer, hides his stash. Ilze seduces Howard and introduces Howard to the joys of cannabis. From that point on, Howard is hooked and becomes one of Graham’s best customers with his academics suffering predictably as a result.

When Plinson and Howard’s friends start experimenting with harder drugs, tragedy ensues and Howard vows not to touch the serious stuff ever again and rededicates himself to his studies, passing by the skin of his teeth (and with a bit of underhanded chicanery). He marries Ilze and takes a job as a teaching assistant (what they called a teacher training position back then) at the University of London. By now, the swinging ’60s were in full flower and Carnaby Street was the bloom on the rose. Howard was fully into the scene, prompting a reprimand for long hair and flashy suits.

When Plinson gets arrested after plans to transport a shipment of hashish from Germany to England go awry, Howard – his marriage on the ropes, his job rapidly going down the toilet – figures he has nothing to lose and steps in to help. Because he’s not a known drug dealer, he sails through the customs checkpoints without so much as a second glance. Howard finds that the adrenaline rush of smuggling drugs appeals to him and he decides to take it up as a vocation  He eventually becomes one of the world’s largest marijuana traffickers – at one point controlling a fairly large percentage of the world’s supply.

However, the problem with this kind of lifestyle is that eventually people start gunning for what you have, and soon Howard finds himself playing a dangerous game. It’s one that will get him arrested and dropped into one of the nastiest prisons in the United States.

This is based on the autobiography of  Howard Marks (uh huh, this is a true story) and Marks served as a consultant on the film, proclaiming it as accurate even though there were some differences between his book and the movie. One gets the sense that there are a few brain cells not functioning quite up to optimum for ol’ Howard these days.

The same might be said of the filmmakers. The movie often feels like it was written by one stoned, and directed while the same. Plenty of stoner clichés – half-naked chicks rolling around on a bed full of cash, slow-mo shots of the arrest and so on – mar the film. While I liked that the first part of the movie was shot in black and white, switching to color when Howard takes his first psychedelic, at times one gets the sense that the film is stuck in neutral waiting for the GPS to kick in and send it somewhere.

Ifans is an engaging actor and as he did in Notting Hill he does a good job of playing the stoner. Although the Nice of the title refers to the city in France, it is also apt to the demeanor of Marks as portrayed by Ifans. I’m pretty sure the intent here was to portray Marks as a counterculture Robin Hood-sort, fighting the battle of worldwide weed, but I keep getting the sense that we’re seeing very much a self-promotion more than an accurate portrayal.  While honestly I have nothing against Marks, I wonder if I wouldn’t have appreciated the movie more if he had a few more warts here.

The rest of the cast is pretty decent, although Sevigny has a truly terrible English accent. She’s a fine actress but I found the accent distracting and thought the film would have been better served if she hadn’t attempted it, or if they’d hired a British actress instead.

The era is captured nicely and we get a sense of the wide-open era that was the ’60s and ’70s. This is more of a throwback to films of that era in many ways – the drug dealer is the hero and unlike the modern version of heroic Hollywood drug dealers these days, he doesn’t have automatic rifles, machine pistols or military training. Howard is no Rambo by any stretch of the imagination.

Those who dislike movies about drugs and drug dealers should give this a wide berth. You’ll only give yourself an aneurysm. Stoners will find this to be excellent entertainment with a hero they can get behind. As for the rest of us, this doesn’t really distinguish itself much – but it doesn’t disgrace itself overly much either. A lot of how you’ll find this movie will depend on your attitudes towards cannabis to begin with. Me, I’m allergic to the stuff so that should give you some insight to where I’m coming from.

WHY RENT THIS: Pretty decent performance by Ifans. Nicely immersed in the era it’s set.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of runs together and loses cohesion. Sevigny’s accent is atrocious.

FAMILY VALUES: A ton of drug use and foul language as well as some sexuality and violence (and a bit of nudity).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Marks’ autobiography on which the film is based, he claimed to have been betrayed to the American authorities by Lord Moynihan but that isn’t brought up in the film here for legal reasons.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Savages

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Notting Hill


A dear in the headlights.

A dear in the headlights.

(1999) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Richard McCabe, Rhys Ifans, James Dreyfus, Dylan Moran, Roger Frost, Mischa Barton, Tim McInnerny, Gina McKee, Emma Chambers, Hugh Bonneville, Emily Mortimer, Alec Baldwin, Omid Djalili, Lorelei King. Directed by Roger Michell

The world of the rich and famous can be fascinating for the rest of us, who live vicariously through the tabloids, glimpsing a lifestyle we will never lead. The romantic in all of us pines for a chance encounter with a charming prince or beautiful princess who sweeps us off our feet and into a life of wealth and privilege. Of course, this rarely happens in reality, but the tale is as old as our collective imaginations and Notting Hill tells it smartly.

Anna Scott (Roberts) is the world’s most famous and glamorous actress (now, that’s a stretch) who for reasons that are never explained, finds herself in the Notting Hill bookshop of William Thacker (Grant). The two don’t hit it off immediately; guarded and wary at first, they gradually grow warm and even affectionate as their feelings begin to manifest.

Their attempts to sort out their feelings face nearly insurmountable odds. Scott is surrounded by a phalanx of publicists and agents that make it difficult for the two to meet. Thacker is surrounded by a coterie of quirky but supportive friends and family who are warm-hearted all, which of course bends reality to the breaking point, right?

Circumstances continue to conspire against the couple. Scott’s boyfriend (Baldwin in an uncredited turn) unexpectedly shows up, ruining what could have been an intimate encounter. When they finally do get together, loose lips alert the media, which turns the whole thing into a circus and kills the relationship before it starts.

This being a Hollywood love story, we know how it’s going to end, but even though we do, we still enjoy the ride. Grant, perhaps the greatest stammering aw-shucks romantic lead since Jimmy Stewart, is completely endearing as the ordinary Joe. Roberts pokes a lot of fun at her own image, while employing her own charisma to her advantage. Is there a more likable actress in Hollywood?

Notting Hill is the real star of the movie. One of the most charming neighborhoods in London, it reminds me of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, only with a British endurance. It feels solid and eternal while showing a homey, quirky face to the world. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that real estate agents in Notting Hill got a lot of business off of Notting Hill.

Usually with these kinds of movies, Da Queen is my barometer of success. If she is tearful in the right places and ends up in a sentimentally romantic mood, it’s a winner. With Notting Hill, she wouldn’t let go of me for at least five minutes after the closing credits. Likable leads with real chemistry, a sense of charm and English accents plus a plot that is pure fairy tale … who could ask for anything more? As chick flicks go, this is pure gold and a perfect choice for a date night at home on the couch with microwave popcorn and someone to share it with.

WHY RENT THIS: Grant and Roberts make a charming couple but the real charmer is Notting Hill itself. Perfect date night movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very chicky as chick flicks go. Stretches believability a bit thin at times.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some sexual content and a bit of pretty strong language briefly.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The blue door to the house William lives in was auctioned off and the replacement door painted black so that the owners of the home didn’t have to deal with tourists; however the home and the door, at the time of filling, actually were in Notting Hill; writer Richard Curtis used to live there.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a cute little comedic bit as Hugh Grant explains how actors should properly behave on set. There’s also the ability to jump directly to scenes in which particular songs are playing on the soundtrack (nine in all). There is also a travel book which points out the actual locations that filming took place at, for those wishing to visit Notting Hill themselves. The Ultimate edition adds a couple of music videos and a featurette on how the four seasons walk down Portobello Road was done.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $363.9M on a $42M production budget; the movie was another blockbuster for Roberts and Grant.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Four Weddings and a Funeral

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Impossible

The Amazing Spider-Man


 

The Amazing Spider-Man

There’s just no way to look dignified in this costume and in this pose.

(2012) Superhero (Columbia) Andrew Garfield, Rhys Ifans, Emma Stone, Denis Leary, Sally Field, Martin Sheen, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan, Embeth Davidtz, Chris Zylka, C. Thomas Howell, Jake  Ryan Keiffer, Kari Coleman, Stan Lee, Tom Waite. Directed by Marc Webb

 

Most of us have something missing in our lives. Whether it be something emotional – a feeling of being loved or needed – or something physical, like one’s parents or a new Ferrari, we all have something we lack and would do quite literally anything to get back.

Peter Parker (Garfield) is by all accounts a fairly normal kid, but a little on the dark side; his parents left him with his Uncle Ben (Sheen) and Aunt May (Fields) one rainy night after their house was broken into. They were later killed in a plane crash according to newspaper accounts. He misses them and yearns to know why they left but they are shadows and smoke to him. Peter is a science nerd with a good deal of brilliance inherited from his geneticist father (Scott). He has goo-goo eyes for Gwen Stacy (Stone), the beautiful blonde daughter of Capt. George Stacy (Leary) of the NYPD. However, she seems to have the attention of Flash Thompson (Zylka), a jock who loves to pick on Peter.

When Peter finds an old briefcase that belonged to his father, he discovers some papers in a hidden compartment containing something called a decay rate algorithm. He also discovers that his father worked at Oscorp, a large biogen firm in Midtown Manhattan, along with Dr. Curt Connors (Ifans), a one-armed scientist who is trying research combining animal DNA with human to transfer the traits of that animal (in Connors’ case, the regenerative power of reptiles) to the human. While nosing about the lab on his own, Peter finds a room where mutant spiders spin a biocable of incredible tensile strength and adhesive qualities. While in there, he picks up a hitchhiker who bites him and burrows into his skin. He also discovers that Gwen is Dr. Connors’ intern.

Within hours Peter develops these odd powers – the ability to stick to smooth surfaces, extreme strength and the ability to sense danger moments before it occurs. He finally meets Dr. Connors, introducing himself as the son of his former colleague. He also draws up the algorithm, having committed it to memory. The two begin working together to figure out the right formula to create a regenerative solution.

In the meantime Peter uses his new powers to humiliate Flash, who had beaten the snot out of him earlier. Ben is forced to switch shifts in order to deal with his nephew, admonishing him to pick up his aunt at work since he now had to work a later shift. Unfortunately, Peter is late coming home, having forgotten his responsibilities while working with Dr. Connors. He and Ben get into an argument with Peter storming out into the night. Ben goes out after him but this ends up in tragedy.

Peter decides to go looking for the author of his pain and winds up donning a luchador-like mask and spandex suit to conceal his identity, leaving those criminals tied up in a web of the biocable which he has developed a shooter for. He also begins to develop a romantic relationship with Gwen.

Unfortunately, under pressure from the powers that be at Oscorp to begin human testing on the formula, Dr. Connors injects himself with the formula. It works all too well, not only regenerating his arm but turning him into a 9-foot tall lizard, with tail and scales and murderous rage, yet combined with the good Doctor’s intelligence and cunning. Peter finds himself needing to stop the Lizard, whom he partially created but the cops are after him, the Lizard has a sinister agenda and is out to keep Peter Parker from stopping him and trying to hide his identity from his girlfriend’s dad who wants to put him in jail. And I thought chem finals were bad.

Webb, who previously directed the incredible (500) Days of Summer, is saddled with a kind of a double whammy. Not only does he have to measure up against Sam Raimi’s filmed trilogy whose numbers helped usher in the Marvel film renaissance but also against the comic books that Raimi did so well in translating to the screen.

For some odd reason the studio decided to reboot the series with another origin tale – because it’s been ten years since the first one so I’m sure nobody remembers it by now. *snerkle* That’s sarcasm, in case you were wondering.

Garfield is a find. Most will remember him from The Social Network but he has established himself here as a leading man for the next 20 years. He is charismatic, brooding, likable and able to do serious and funny, a rare trait. It is not often when opportunities to take the next step in your career evolution come along and Garfield makes the most of his. This is in every sense a star-making performance.

Stone has been on a winning streak of late but she is curiously flat here. Her Gwen Stacy lacks the spunk and fire of her previous performances and while far from a typical damsel in distress role, she doesn’t show much of the personality I know she has. I think a little less courtesy and a lot more personality would have only benefitted the film.

Sheen is so reliable; every role he takes is full of compassion and gravitas. He resonates with both as Uncle Ben, although Ben has a bit of a temper on him that was absent from Cliff Robertson’s version from the Raimi films. Fields plays May a little younger than previous editions, but with all of the maternal love and wisdom that she is known for – well, both Fields and Aunt May in this case.

Ifans is a fine actor in his own right but as the villain here he has a tough time. Part of the problem is that he isn’t strictly speaking a villain; he is overzealous, yes, and has a mistake born of hubris that nearly proves fatal, but for the meddling of Spider-Man! That doesn’t really make him a bad bad guy, just a vulnerable one. In fact there really isn’t anything evil here and that might be what stops me from really getting into this version; none of even the most villainous characters is without redeeming qualities. That may work for Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and other artists and writers, but it simply doesn’t work here. Basically Spider-Man is fighting a less powerful Hulk (i.e. Mr. Hyde) whom he doesn’t have the heart to take out.

Still, this is entertaining enough although I still wonder why another origin was necessary. If you want to reboot with a young high school-age Peter Parker, that’s fine (although why cast a 28-year-old man to play a 16-year-old boy?) but why not simply assume we all know that the guy was bitten by a radioactive (or in this case genetically enhanced) spider and move on from there? I understand that Columbia is planning at least three Amazing Spider-Man movies, all of which deal with the missing parents in some fashion as Parker tries to unravel the tangled threads of his past. That’s all good. Rehashing a story unnecessarily costs the movie points and that blame goes directly to the studio heads who thought it was necessary. Otherwise, Webb shows that he can direct a blockbuster as well as a small-budget indie romance and do both with charm, inventiveness and deftness.

REASONS TO GO: Garfield is a terrific Peter Parker. Follows comic book mythology a little more closely.

REASONS TO STAY: Action sequences were moving too fast to follow easily at times. Not quite up to the best moments of the first trilogy.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of comic book violence and action.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anne Hathaway was originally cast as Felicia Hardy – a.k.a. the Black Cat –  but her character was eventually written out and she went on to do the similarly natured Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100. The reviews are definitely good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man

STAN LEE LOVERS: Plays an oblivious librarian listening to classical music on the headphones while the Lizard and Spider-Man engage in a raging battle behind him

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The High Cost of Living

New Releases for the Week of July 6, 2012


July 6, 2012

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

(Columbia) Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Embeth Davidtz, C. Thomas Howell. Directed by Marc Webb

Peter Parker, a brilliant but somewhat outcast high school student, was abandoned by his parents as a child, leaving him to be raised by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. When he finds a mysterious briefcase that his father left behind, he’s sent on a journey to Oscorp, the somewhat unbalanced one-armed scientist Curt Connors and a rendezvous with a radioactive spider.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Superhero

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of action and violence)

Bol Bachchan

(Fox Star) Ajay Devgn, Abhishek Bachchan, Asin Thottumkal, Prachi Desai. A Muslim breaks the lock on a Hindu temple to save a trapped child but through a series of misunderstandings is believed to be a Hindu. In order to preserve the lie, he is forced to tell more and more outrageous tales until he is trapped by his own falsehoods.

See the trailer  here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: PG (for sequences of action violence, thematic elements and brief mild language)

Katy Perry: Part of Me

(Paramount/InSurge) Katy Perry, Glen Ballard, Shannon Woodward, Rachael Markarian. A chronicle of Perry’s California Dreams Tour of 2011, during which her marriage with Russell Brand came to an end. How she coped with that loss, her relationship with her fans and the story of her perseverance in becoming a pop diva is told through interviews and archival footage. There is also, as you can imagine, plenty of concert footage from the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Musical Documentary

Rating: PG (for some suggestive content, language, thematic elements and brief smoking)

Savages

(Universal) Taylor Kitsch, John Travolta, Blair Lively, Salma Hayek. Two Southern California friends share a thriving Marijuana business and a girlfriend. When a particularly vicious Mexican drug cartel moves into their territory and demands that they work with them, the two friends decline, leading to a cycle of escalating violence and high stakes. Oliver Stone directs.

See the trailer and promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout)

To Rome With Love

(Sony Classics) Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg. Woody Allen’s latest takes him to the Eternal City for the first time, following a group of people – some local, others that are visitors – who fall in love, or fall out of love…or get into some pretty odd predicaments because of love.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some crude sexual remarks and brief drug references)

The Five-Year Engagement


The Five-Year Engagement

Emily Blunt thinks Jason Segel’s pointy head is cute.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Rhys Ifans, Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Mimi Kennedy, David Paymer, Lauren Weedman, Jacki Weaver, Jim Piddock, Dakota Johnson, Brian Posehn, Mindi Kaling, Randall Park, Kevin Hart, Molly Shannon, Tracee Chimo. Directed by Nicholas Stoller

 

Planning a wedding is a tricky thing. Making it work requires organization, patience and sometimes, a lot of time. Even small weddings can require some juggling skills, particularly when you have to find the right venue, a date that’s  available and make sure it works within everybody’s schedule, at least the main participants. A good sense of humor is a must.

Tom Solomon (Segel) is a sous chef at a fine San Francisco restaurant working for a frenetic and uptight chef Sally (Weedman).  His closest friend is Alex (Pratt), a fellow sous chef who is a cheerfully gross womanizer.

He is dating Violet Barnes (Blunt), a doctoral student in behavioral psychology. Since the moment he laid eyes on her at a New Year’s Eve costume party he knew she was The One, and she knew likewise. He also knows it’s time to propose and although the proposal doesn’t go exactly as planned (why is it that marriage proposals have had to become such production numbers, both in real life and in the movies – are men so insecure that they think that a woman who wants to marry them will change their minds if the proposal isn’t staged elaborately enough?) she still says yes.

They get to planning but Violet is awfully distracted; she’s applied for a position at UC Berkeley that would advance her career greatly but it’s fallen through. When she gets accepted at the University of Michigan for a similar position, the two arrive at a crossroads. Tom decides to give up his position in the prestigious kitchen to follow his fiancée to Ann Arbor and become a chef there. Of course, he finds out only after giving his notice that Sally was planning on making him head chef at her new restaurant. Instead, that job goes to Alex. Things are looking pretty rosy for Alex, who had sex with Violet’s sister Sue (Brie) at the engagement party, knocked her up and is now married to her.

When Tom moves up to Michigan he’s in for quite a culture shock. There’s snow everywhere; on the cars, on the streets, and hiding fire hydrants when he wants to jump into an inviting drift. There’s also no work; some restaurant chefs just laugh at him for giving up a job in San Francisco and he’s forced to get a job at a sandwich shop run by the blunt and profane Tarquin (Posehn).

In the meantime, Violet is taking to her new position like a duck to water. Her charismatic boss Dr. Winton Childs (Ifans) and his lunatic crew of the masturbation-obsessed Doug (Hart), the bitchy Vaneetha (Kaling) and the whack job Ming (Park) have become close friends and a support group. Her career is taking off and her two year contract has become five. The wedding plans are on hold because the pressure is getting to Tom, who has grown Chester Arthur mutton chops and has taken to hunting with a sweater-wearing househusband, while Alex has grown to be a great success in his new restaurant.

What I really like about this movie is that the couple in question don’t face contrived situations based entirely on mis-communication like most of Hollywood’s recent rom-coms. Things happen but because things happen in real life; frustrations that take effect because of situations that could and do happen to anyone.

The chemistry between Blunt and Segel is crucial to making this film work. Their relationship, their love is central to the movie; if you don’t believe in the relationship that is at the crux of the film, you are not going to be sucked in by the story at all. Fortunately, that’s not a problem here.

Segel is one of the most naturally likable guys in Hollywood. He’s easygoing, sweet-natured and perfect for this role. He’s not as over-the-top as say Seth Rogen but he’s still plenty funny. Here he runs the gamut of emotions; he can be giddy, sexy and frustrated. At times his character loses his temper but never in a threatening or obnoxious way. Segel makes Tom a likable guy – and frankly I’d love to have some of his tacos.

Blunt is rapidly becoming one of Hollywood’s busiest actresses. She’s done yeoman work on a number of pictures in the last couple of years, most recently Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. She’s sexy as well as funny but projects a sense of decency. Violet takes some missteps which people make; she’s not perfect but there’s no doubt that Violet loves Tom very much and Blunt makes that very apparent. It’s hard to realistically portray a deep, lasting relationship onscreen but Segel and Blunt do just that. The chemistry between them is undeniable.

They aren’t the only impressive actors here. Pratt, last seen as a relief pitcher in Moneyball, tears it up here. He steals nearly every scene that he’s in. and he has a terrific chemistry with Brie. The two of them prove themselves able in this film and I foresee big things ahead for both of them, particularly Pratt.

Yeah, there are a few moments that made me wince; unfortunately, that seems to be part and parcel with Hollywood romantic comedies. Still, while this is a Judd Apatow-produced  film and thus has its share of raunchiness it is as sweet-natured as any rom-com you’re gonna see from America. I was pleasantly surprised by it in that sense; I was expecting something rather formulaic and instead got something that felt like we were watching a real relationship. And that, my friends, is priceless.

REASONS TO GO: Really good chemistry between Segel and Blunt. Sweet to the core.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit contrived in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexual content as well as plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Segel and Blunt have appeared together in two other movies; Gulliver’s Travels and The Muppets. This is the first time they’ve appeared as romantic partners however.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The film has gotten some pretty solid reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knocked Up

WOLVERINE LOVERS: Much of the film is set at the University of Michigan and there are plenty of U of M accoutrements and a couple of jokes at Ohio State’s expense. Michigan fans will be in heaven.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Blue Valentine

New Releases for the Week of April 27, 2012


April 27, 2012

THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS

(Columbia) Starring the voices of Hugh Grant, Salma Hayek, Imelda Staunton, Martin Freeman, Jeremy Piven, David Tennant, Brian Blessed, Anton Yelchin, Brendan Gleeson. Directed by Peter Lord

The twisted minds at Aardman Animation, purveyors of the Wallace and Gromit cartoons as well as such features as Arthur Christmas, Chicken Run and Flushed Away take to the high seas for their latest feature. Here, a somewhat inept but enthusiastic Pirate Captain yearns the one prize that has eluded him over his career – the Pirate of the Year award. He must battle fierce rivals such as Black Bellamy and Cutlass Liz but also Queen Victoria who wants to eradicate all pirates – forever! What’s a scurvy dog to do?

See the trailer, a featurette and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for mild action, rude humor and some language)

The Five-Year Engagement

(Universal) Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Alison Brie, Rhys Ifans. When a young couple gets engaged, the plans for their wedding take up all of their attention. So when she gets a job out of town, they decide to postpone, setting off a chain of events that keep their wedding being put off and put off until their relationship is threatened.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for sexual content and language throughout)  

Footnote

(Sony Classics) Shlomo Bar Aba, Lior Ashkenazi, Alisa Rosen, Alma Zak. A respected Talmudic scholar whose father is bitter at being cast in his son’s shadow and for having his own research passed over for years finally wins the Israel Award, one of the highest honors in the Israeli academic world. However the son discovers that the award was meant for him and not for his father but can’t bring himself to correct the mistake. So he plays along, discovering things about both his father and himself he’d never have guessed at.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, brief nudity, language and smoking)  

The Raven

(Relativity) John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson.  A literate young Baltimore detective discovers that a series of murders seem to have been inspired by the works of an up-and-coming young author – Edgar Allan Poe. The detective enlists the writer to try and get inside the mind of the killer but this only escalates the stakes as Poe’s love is deemed to be the killer’s next target.

See the trailer, interviews, promos, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for bloody violence and grisly images)

Safe

(Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Anson Mount, Chris Sarandon, Catherine Chan. A disgraced detective whose meddling into the affairs of the Russian mob got his family killed and a stigma placed on him – that anyone he knows will be murdered by the mob – spies a young Asian girl being threatened by the mob and is moved to intervene. He discovers that the girl has a talent for memorizing long numbers and holds in her mind a number that not only the Russian mob but also the Chinese mob and the police want very badly. It will be up to protect her from the multitude of crooks and crooked cops out to get the two of them and achieve some kind of redemption.

See the trailer and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong violence throughout, and for language)

Tezz

(Eros Entertainment) Anil Kapoor, Ajay Devgn, Borman Irani, Phillip Martin Brown. A counter-terrorism expert and a desperate man are pitted against each other on a high speed train rocketing from Glasgow to London. Only one will succeed in their objectives and hundreds of lives hang in the balance.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: NR