Magic in the Moonlight


Emma Stone is shocked to discover she's co-starring with an Oscar winner.

Emma Stone is shocked to discover she’s co-starring with an Oscar winner.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Hamish Linklater, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, George Shamos, Erica Leerhsen, Catherine McCormack, Ute Lemper, Didier Muller, Peter Wollasch, Antonia Clarke, Natasha Andrews, Valerie Beaulieu, Lionel Abelanski. Directed by Woody Allen

The world is fairly evenly divided between the romantic and the pragmatic. Pragmatists believe that everything is explainable and that there is little to no mystery left in the world. Romantics believe that there is much more to life than what the senses perceive and that there are things in the world that can only be described as magic.

Stanley (Firth) certainly counts himself among the pragmatic although, perhaps oddly, he makes his living as a magician, masquerading as a Chinese illusionist named Wei Ling Soo. While he would say that he does so to maintain his privacy as well as the illusion of mystery, it seems somewhat hypocritical at the very least and cynical for certain. In 1928, however, this isn’t really an issue.

Stanley is the sort that can alienate the nicest of people in a matter of seconds. Pompous, arrogant and smug, he is completely certain that he is right in all things and the smartest person in the room. The trouble is, he usually is. He is engaged to Olivia (McCormack), a fellow intellectual pragmatic and a fine looking woman as well. They are very well-matched on the surface and Stanley feels a good deal of affection towards his bride-to-be. At the end of his world tour, he intends to vacation in the Galapagos with her.

 

However at the close of his Berlin show he is met by his old friend and fellow illusionist Howard Burkan (McBurney) who comes to him with a challenge. A woman by the name of Sophie Baker (Stone) purporting to be a psychic has attached herself to the Catledge family of Pittsburgh who happen to be friends of his. Their callow son Brice (Linklater) has become smitten with the girl, having already proposed marriage. Mother Grace (Weaver) is obsessed with making contact with her lately departed industrialist husband.

Stanley, a notable debunker of charlatans, leaps at the chance. Burkan drives him to their home in the South of France with a brief stop to lunch with Stanley’s dear Aunt Vanessa (Atkins) who practically raised him and instilled in him the practicality that makes up his personality, although she despairs at his prickliness that makes him something of a social hand grenade.

Nobody knows who Stanley is once they arrive at the Catledge villa; he introduces himself as an importer of Brazilian coffee beans. He meets Sophie and her suspicious mother (Harden) and proceeds to let slip his disbelief in the occult. However at a séance, he is unable to detect how she makes a candle levitate nor does she seem to be the source of the rapping noises that are overheard. The great debunker has to admit he’s perplexed.

 

He grows further so when she seems to know things she couldn’t possibly know – even Aunt Vanessa is taken with the charming young lass. The more he begins to doubt his own convictions, the more alive Stanley feels – and the more he begins to fall for the beautiful young girl. However, he can’t keep that nagging feeling out of his head that there is no such thing as magic. It’s a war in his soul for which it seems there can be no compromise.

Allen has been in a bit of a career renaissance in his 70s with nine films released including two of his most acclaimed and commercially successful – Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris. I will admit that I had fallen out of love with Allen not long after Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo – it seemed to me that most of his movies between then and now were passionless and seemed to be the work of someone who was working to stay busy. However Midnight in Paris did change my mind and I have again begun to look forward to his new movies – not that all of them have been great. Still I had high hopes for this one.

It is charming to be sure, a throwback to an early era – not just the era of the flapper when this is set, but also to the comedies of the ’70s which this is more akin to which were in turn inspired by comedies of the 30s and 40s. Call this a throwback of a throwback if you will.

 

Firth proves himself a phenomenal performer, once again showing that he may be the best male actor of this decade. His Stanley takes the guise of an inscrutable Oriental because Stanley himself is inscrutable; for all his bluster and bravado he is unable to express his emotions any better than those he despises can express their intellect. Stanley is clearly not a likable fellow yet Firth makes us like him in spite of his faults and by the time the movie ends, Stanley has made an organic and believable change. It’s not just good writing that accomplishes this – Firth makes it real.

Most of the rest of the cast does the kind of solid work you’d expect from a cast with this kind of pedigree – not to mention from a Woody Allen movie. Allen has always been able to get good performances from his actors.

I’ll have to admit that the second act seems a bit rushed and that the movie ends up a little bit more neatly tied up in a bow than I might have expected. I supposed when you’re 79 years old and you’re still churning out a movie every year (and sometimes more) without fail, you can be forgiven for taking a few short cuts.

 

Nonetheless this is solidly entertaining and charming. I have to admit that I do love movies set in this era and I love those kind of 70s-era all-star events that made the Agatha Christie movies so entertaining. While not a murder mystery per se, it has some elements you’d find in a movie by the mistress of the murder mystery. If Allen continues to make movies of this quality, I for one won’t be disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Colin Firth is really, really good. Overall charming and recalls not only the Roaring ’20s but also the ’70s as well.

REASONS TO STAY: Ending is rushed a little bit. A few shortcuts are taken.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some innuendo and period smoking (which is apparently a big no-no for the MPAA these days).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the ninth movie made while Woody Allen was in his 70s. Should he release a movie next year, it will be his tenth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Gatsby

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Giver

The Duchess


The Duchess

Burning the candle at both ends.

(2008) Historical Biography (Paramount Vantage) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle, John Shrapnel, Alistair Petrie, Patrick Godfrey, Georgia King, Richard McCabe. Directed by Saul Dibb

 

We are fascinated with the lives of the rich and famous; add royalty to the mix and we have a real hard time looking away. Look at how we reacted to the recent royal wedding, or its predecessor of Charles and Diana – we couldn’t get enough. This isn’t a new phenomenon; it has existed for a very long time, including in the 18th Century when a woman who was a direct ancestor of Princess Diana captivated England.

Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) is a vivacious young girl when she is promised in marriage by her mother (Rampling) to the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana at first is thrilled by the arrangement; she is to be a Duchess! However, things don’t turn out to be quite the fairy tale that she imagined.

For one thing, the Duke is as taciturn and colorless as she is colorful and lively. He could make a rock look like a positively sparkling conversationalist whereas she is witty and opinionated. He is more interested in producing an heir and doesn’t really have any feelings towards her whatsoever; she is naive and a bit starry-eyed. Their lives come into a collision course.

Dissatisfied that she is unable to provide him anything but daughters, he starts seeking other women out. She has flings with politics and politicians (including future Prime Minister Charles Grey) as well as with men and women both. She becomes an icon of fashion (much like her descendent) and a voice in politics but her antics would land her in a good deal of hot water…and cause her much grief and sorrow.

As costume dramas go this is pretty nifty. They have a tendency to be ponderous and slow, and so this one is in places, but Knightley and Fiennes elevate it beyond the average petticoat soap opera. Fiennes goes the understated route and that works very well here. Devonshire is a bit of a jerk, but he is also a product of his times. His priorities lay in preserving his lineage (which Georgiana was eventually able to help him do) and in living a fairly scandal-free life, which as not possible as long as Georgiana was politically active. Their marriage was tumultuous at best; he took up an affair with her best friend and moved her into the house.

Knightley has generally done pretty face roles generally in period dramas or action films but she shows off her potential as an actress here. She has the charisma and charm to pull off a character as complex as the Duchess but she also manages to portray her anguish, her frustration and her doubts. It is a well-rounded performance that puts lie to the reputation that Knightley can’t act – not only can she but she has the potential to be extraordinary.

The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design which it richly deserve and frankly had to have, in order to maintain the real Georgiana’s spectacular fashion sense. It was also nominated for Art Design. In short, this is a beautiful film to look at from the authentic locations, the elaborate costumes to the scenery and the sets.

By all accounts Georgiana Spencer was an incredible woman who has largely been forgotten except by those who study the minutiae of history and by her own family. That’s largely a shame; though her life wasn’t always a happy one, she did nonetheless pave the way for women to become more of a force in politics more than 200 years later. She deserves better than to be a mere footnote in history.

WHY RENT THIS: An interesting look at a figure in history rarely remarked upon in modern times. Knightley does some of her best work ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves ponderously slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexual content and a little bit of nudity. Some of the dialogue and situations might go over the heads of the innocent.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the costumes worn by Knightley in the film were based on dresses seen in actual portraits of Georgiana as well as political cartoons depicting her from the time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with Georgiana Spencer’s biographer who discussed letters written by the real Duchess to her mother that gave her insight into the character of the historical figure..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie more than likely broke even at least, but probably made a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Inside Job

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Believe it or not, George Smiley IS smiling!!!!

(2011) Spy Drama (Focus) Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencik, Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Arthur Nightingale. Directed by Tomas Alfredson

 

Some spies are meant to be shaken and not stirred. Others are more intellectual, preferring to think their way out of a situation by thoroughly researching. For them, the spy game is as complex and as action-packed as a game of chess.

George Smiley (Oldman) couldn’t have been given a worse surname. He rarely smiles, not even for a moment. He is a methodical man, emotionless. He worked as an analyst for MI6, the British counter-intelligence group that was made famous by James Bond. However, his life is much different than that of the dashing Ian Fleming creation. Smiley works for the Circus (it is unclear whether this is a group within MI6 or the directorate of the agency itself) as the right hand man for Control (Hurt). It is 1973 and the Cold War is in full swing.

A disastrous mission to Hungary leads to a purge in the Circus. Control and Smiley are out, and in are a cadre of four men – Percy Alleline (Jones) – the leader, Bill Haydon (Firth), Roy Bland (Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (Dencik).  Control suspected one of them of being a double agent for the Soviets and had nicknamed them Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Poor Man respectively, after a British nursery rhyme. When field agent Rikki Tarr (Hardy) turns up with information about the identity of the mole, minister Oliver Lacon (McBurney) pulls Smiley out of retirement to ferret out the traitor.

Aided by his protégé Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch), Smiley attempts to quietly find the mole while keeping clear of the MI6 brass, any one of whom might be the culprit and all the while dealing with the estrangement from his beloved (but promiscuous) wife Ann.

Alfredson was the director of the excellent Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In. This is his first English-language movie and given the cold exteriors of his previous film is the right choice for this one. The England of 1973 is a dreary looking one, with grey washed out skies, filthy buildings, dingy interiors and in general, just a depressing place to be. Truly a Cold War.

Oldman gives a performance that is surprisingly strong. Much of the movie he is spent repressing his emotions and has to show his feelings with his eyes. There is a great deal of sadness inside the spy; sadness at the failure of his marriage, sadness that among his trusted friends is a betrayer, sadness that he is growing into an uncomfortable middle age. There is a scene near the end of the film where Smiley tells Guillam about his one and only encounter with the Soviet spy Karla, who is behind the ole plot. As Smiley tells Guillam the story, you can see the regret; the emotions that have been repressed for so long are just aching to be let out. It’s one of the best single scenes that any actor has performed this year in any movie and it’s worth seeing the film just for that one scene. It’s so good that if Oldman gets a Best Actor nomination I’d be willing to bet that’s the clip that gets shown at the Oscars.

There is a bevy of fine English actors here to support him, including the aging Hurt (who mostly appears in flashback), the combed over McBurney and Hardy, who knows he has done some bad things and wants to do just one thing right. Still, it is Oldman who carries the movie in the palm of his hand – a tough gig when you have Oscar winner Colin Firth in the line-up and Firth is far from disappointing here.

This is a cerebral spy film, one which is more of a chess game than an action thriller. The pace of the movie is going to drive most Bondphiles absolutely batty. There are no car chases, no high tech gadgets and no henchmen. There are no bon mots delivered after the spy beats some thug up without so much as a hair going out of place;

This is spycraft in the real world circa 1973. This is listening devices with operators recording and then writing down the transcripts of the conversation. This is conferences in soundproof rooms. This is tired old men sending down orders to foolish young men. It’s trying to out-think your opponent, knowing that if you guess wrong that your country could wind up a smoking ruin of irradiated ash.

This is a very different kind of spy movie – it’s been made as a television miniseries back in the day with the late Sir Alec Guiness as Smiley and his performance is still considered the definitive one for the role, although I’m sure in the years to come there will be plenty to take up Oldman’s side on the issue.  Alfredson does a great job of re-creating the era and the screenwriters Bridget O’Connor (who passed away shortly after finishing the script) and Peter Staughan capture the soul of le Carre’s work. The movie does it justice to a certain extent but I only wish the movie wasn’t so damn glacial. I’m all for thoughtful but a little action is nice too.

REASONS TO GO: Very cerebral. A definite throwback to Cold War-era spy stories. Oldman gives an understated but terrific performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks action and inertia; can be very slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a bit of sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oldman based his performance as Smiley on some of the mannerisms that he observed from author John le Carre, who also has a cameo as a somewhat drunken partygoer at the Christmas party.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100. The reviews are extremely good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The American

SWINGING SIXTIES LOVERS: Plenty of smoking, drinking and shagging (by inference) – all things that are politically incorrect these days. What once were habits now are vices.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Hall Pass

Boogie Woogie


Boogie Woogie
But is it Art?

 

 

 

 

(2009) Drama (IFC) Gillian Anderson, Alan Cumming, Heather Graham, Danny Huston, Jack Huston, Christopher Lee, Joanna Lumley, Simon McBurney, Meredith Ostrom, Charlotte Rampling, Amanda Seyfried, Stellan Skarsgard, Jaime Winstone. Directed by Duncan Ward

Art for art’s sake was the motto at the old MGM studio, and that might well be the battle cry for all artists. There is always a sense that art elevates the soul, but too many take that to mean that it elevates themselves as well.

 

Art Spindle (D. Huston) is a London art dealer with a distinct lack of scruples. He is charming to the max, but lethal if you get in between him and what he wants. What he wants at the moment is the Piet Mondrian painting “Boogie Woogie,” which is owned by an elderly gentleman named Alfred Rhinegold (Lee) who is reluctant to part with it, despite the urgings of his wife (Lumley) who knows that they are in dire financial straits.

 

Art’s assistants Beth Freemantle (Graham) and Paige Oppenheimer (Seyfried) are ambitious and have their own agendas. One of them is to service Bob Macclestone (Skarsgard), a wealthy client who has a roving eye not just for art but for the ladies as well (and in particular for Beth), much to the despair of his wife Jean (Anderson).

 

Meanwhile, up and coming performance artist Elaine (Winstone) has been making a name for herself with her tapes of her lesbian sexual encounters, much to the chagrin of Dewey (Cumming), her manager who has a huge crush on Elaine. For Elaine, Dewey is a means to an end and nothing more. Her cold-heartedness leads to tragedy which sends repercussions throughout the London art scene.

 

This is an ensemble piece along the lines of Robert Altman, albeit set in contemporary London. This is also based on a stage play which was set in 1990s New York. The subject for both is the hypocrisy and snobbishness of the art world. That is much like writing a movie about the corruption of politics. It’s not any great revelation after all.

 

Huston does a serviceable job in the type of role he typically excels at – the smarmy snake oil salesman type. He has as foils Graham and Seyfried, two of the most beautiful women in the world. Lumley, who made her career in “Absolutely Fabulous,” has a bittersweet role here, while veterans Rampling and Lee hold their own.

 

Unfortunately, the cast is given mostly one-dimensional portraits of people who are absolutely rotten to the core, so much so that you may smell decay in your soul for weeks afterwards just for having watched them. They’re the kind of people who operate from the same moral compass as Rupert Murdoch does.

 

The movie bounces from vignette to vignette without any discernable rhyme or reason. The flow of the movie is therefore choppy and at times it feels like you’re watching two or three movies spliced together with duct tape. The pace could have used some tweaking too – they could have easily cut 10-15 minutes out of the script and gotten away with it.

This is as talented a cast as you’re likely to assemble. It is also the biggest waste of talent you’re likely to see. It’s unfortunate too; an ensemble like this deserves better material. Sadly, this is a case of a script that doesn’t have too much to say about a subject that doesn’t require much.

 

WHY RENT THIS: There’s a lot of talent here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A waste of talent. The movie feels like a collection of scenes strung together at random at times. Pacing could have used some tightening up.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a very sexual element here; lots of innuendo, graphic nudity and frank sexual discussions. There’s also foul language throughout as well as a smattering of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Graham and Lee voiced the characters of opposing leaders in the videogame “Everquest 2.” Skarsgard and Seyfried also worked together in Mamma Mia!

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47,527 on an unreported production budget; this didn’t even come close to making its money back.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: My Blueberry Nights

Jane Eyre (2011)


Jane Eyre

One thing you won't find much of in adaptations of Jane Eyre is smiles.

(2011) Mystery (Focus) Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, Holliday Grainger, Sally Hawkins, Tamzin Merchant, Imogen Poots, Simon McBurney, Sophie Ward, Romy Settbon Moore, Harry Lloyd. Directed by Cary Fukunaga

Some stories withstand the test of time, striking a chord with readers over different eras with startling similarity. Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” is like that; as a mash-up of Gothic castles, bleak windswept moors, barely restrained eroticism and a Victorian-era morality tale that is surprisingly subversive it has spoken to feminine sensibilities in ways we men cannot comprehend fully. Let’s put it this way – it’s no accident that the brooding angst-y vampire of the Twilight series is named Edward.

There have been 28 different screen versions of the tale, dating back to silent movies and including broad stroked television mini-series to a classic version with Orson Welles as Edward Rochester and Joan Fontaine as the titular heroine. The question then becomes why make a new version at all.

Director Fukunaga, whose Sin Nombre was an acclaimed hit a couple of years ago, wanted to emphasize the Gothic elements of the novel and thus he does, making this less of a Harlequin Romance as some versions have been and much more of a character study. He even chooses to tell the story non-sequentially (the novel was chronologically told), beginning with Jane (Wasikowska) fleeing across the moors only to collapse, exhausted and suffering from exposure, and the door of St. John Rivers (Bell), a kindly pastor with two bubbly sisters (Grainger, Merchant).

From there we see Jane’s story; the cruelty suffered as a child at the hands of her aunt (Hawkins) after her parents pass away, leaving her orphaned. The hardships suffered at a school for girls, particularly at the hands of a sadistic and cruel vicar (McBurney) who runs the establishment. The placing of Jane as a governess of a naïve French child (Moore) at Thornhill, a gloomy mansion on the moors of England, whose household is run by the gossip-mongering Mrs. Fairfax (Dench) and presided by its master, Edward Rochester (Fassbender) whose shadow pervades the castle even in his absence. There Jane, described as a plain and simple girl, falls in love with Rochester and he with her, but dark secrets in Rochester’s past threaten to destroy them both.

I haven’t read the novel in probably thirty years, but it stays with me still. Some guys pooh-pooh it as a “girl’s book” but it is much more than that. Many of the elements that inspire and drive girls into womanhood can be found there. While strong female characters such as Jane might dissuade some boys from paying attention to the book, there is a great deal of insight into the female psyche to be found there. Don’t understand women? Read “Jane Eyre.”

The performances here are solid if unspectacular. Wasikowska, who has shown herself to be a capable actress in such movies as Alice in Wonderland (also playing a strong Victorian heroine from literature) and The Kids Are All Right, has the movie resting squarely on her shoulders and she carries it with surprising strength. I thought her a bit too pretty to play plain Jane, but she manages to look the part with the severe hairstyle of the era and plain clothing.

Fassbender, one of the best actors who you’ve never heard of (see his performances in Hunger and Inglourious Basterds if you don’t believe me), has a difficult role to fill in the enigmatic and brooding Edgar. The part has already had its ultimate portrayal by Welles, but to Fassbender’s credit he doesn’t try to mimic a previous performance and rather goes to accent elements of the character that haven’t been done often (to my knowledge anyway).

The art direction and the cinematography are two of the reasons to see this movie. It is well photographed, particularly the lonely vistas of the storm-swept moors. The interiors are well-appointed in the style of the period and you get a genuine idea of how the people of the time lived. The costumes are spot on, and when the action takes place at night, flickering candlelight appears to be the only illumination.

The movie does move slowly and modern audiences might have difficulty adjusting to the pace. Those who are used to the quick cut no-attention-span theater that is what most teens are used to will really have a lot of problems with losing focus during the movie. However, it is for certain worth checking out, if only for no other reason to acquaint yourself with one of the most brilliant novels of all time and to check out a story that resonates throughout history, influencing so much of literature all the way up to the “Twilight” series.

REASONS TO GO: Lushly photographed and well-acted. It is one of the most iconic novels of all-time and as close as many are ever going to get to reading it.

REASONS TO STAY: As befits a novel of that era, the pacing is majestic, sweeping and slightly overbearing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is the examination of a painting which depicts nudity and there’s also a very teensy bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Charlotte Bronte book was initially published in 1847 under the pen name “Currer Bell.”

HOME OR THEATER: While the bleak vistas of the moors look gorgeous on the big screen, the intimacy of the main story is well-received on the home screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Saint Ralph

The Last King of Scotland


The Last King of Scotland

Forest Whitaker points the direction his career is going after his performance here.

(2006) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Forrest Whitaker, James McEvoy, Gillian Anderson, Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney, Adam Kotz, David Oyelowo, Abby Mukiibi, David Ashton, Barbara Rafferty.  Directed by Kevin McDonald

Most of us are possessed of two faces; the one that we show to the world, and the one that is our true self. Sometimes these faces are very different indeed, and often those are the people who cause the world the most evil.

Nicholas Garrigan (McEvoy) has just graduated from medical school in his native Scotland, but he is in far from a celebratory mood. His overbearing father (Ashton), also a physician, treats his son like he had just won second place in a mediocrity competition and so Garrigan resolves to go anywhere – anywhere! – as long as it is far away from Dad. Therefore he decides to randomly spin his globe and wherever his finger lands, that’s where he’ll go. So he gives the globe a whirl and his finger comes down on…Canada. No good. You see, Nicholas in addition to wanting to get away from Dear Old Dad is also looking for a wee bit of grand adventure, so he spins a second time and this time his finger comes to rest on Uganda. Phew! Much better!

It is the early ’70s and as Garrigan arrives in Uganda to begin work at a remote medical mission in Uganda’s interior, General Idi Amin (Whitaker) has just seized power. This is met with much celebration from the people of that country, who see Amin as a simple man of the people who will restore Uganda to the people of that nation after years of corruption and economic ruin by the greedy parasites who had been running that country.

Garrigan isn’t really interested in politics, and to tell the truth, he isn’t all that interested in medicine either, although he does a fair job assisting the lone doc at the mission, a man named Merrit (Kotz). However, he is interested in bedding the good doctor’s comely wife Sarah (Anderson) who is appalled, but not uninterested herself. When Amin visits the village where the mission is, Garrigan goes to see his speech on a lark, and bullies Sarah into coming with him. On the way back, Garrigan and Sarah are pulled over by soldiers who order the doctor to see to the new president who’s been in a car accident.

The two Britons arrive on the scene to find a bit of surreality. A cow had wandered out into the row and had been hit by the president’s car, which was pretty much a wreck. The cow, in horrible pain, is bleating horribly in agony. Amin is screaming at everyone around him, soldiers are threatening the local farmers with machine guns and Amin’s arm is sprained. Garrigan treats the new president but is distracted by the death agonies of the wretched animal. Unable to make any of the soldiers understand his demands to put the animal out of its misery, he picks up the general’s gun and shoots it dead himself, not a smart move in front of a group of heavily armed soldiers guarding their recently injured leader. Things get tense for a few moments, but the revelation that Garrigan is in fact Scottish puts Amin in a great mood. The leader trades his general’s shirt for a t-shirt with Scotland emblazoned on it that Garrigan is wearing.

A little while later, Amin summons Garrigan to the presidential palace and makes him the extraordinary offer to be his personal physician. Even though Garrigan is desperately needed at the mission, he figures it would be quite fun to be in the inner circle of a world leader, so he accepts.

At first, life is great. Garrigan is treated as a member of Amin’s inner circle and given gifts and showered with all the luxury available in Uganda. Still, things aren’t perfect. Terrorist attacks from the president Amin ousted have come close to succeeding in killing Amin, and he is growing increasingly more paranoid. Then, there’s the matter of Amin’s son McKenzie by his youngest wife Kay (Washington) who has epilepsy; treatable, but his father hides the boy away, fearful that he will be considered weak if his children are not perfect. To make matters worse, the lovely Kay has caught Garrigan’s eye.

Amin is growing increasingly unstable, but Garrigan refuses to see it despite the warnings from the former physician to the president Dr. Junju (Oyelowo) who is now working in a modern hospital in the capital where Garrigan works from time to time. There is also a mysterious English diplomat named Stone (McBurney) who seems to know a whole lot more than he lets on and is eager to utilize the resource of having someone of his country so close to the unpredictable Amin.

At last the evidence becomes so overwhelming that even Garrigan can’t refute it. Disappearances are rampant and bodies are so commonplace that Amin’s lackeys don’t even bother to bury them anymore – they just throw them in the river so that the crocodiles will dispose of them. To top it off, the not-so-bright doc has been bedding Kay, which is sure not to sit well with the increasingly unstable Amin, and the only worse thing than cheesing off a violent African dictator is cheesing off an insane violent African dictator. Getting out of the country is difficult; Amin, who is unaware of the affair, doesn’t want Garrigan to leave. Things are getting out of hand, but a hijacked airplane arriving at Entebbe airport may provide the opportunity Garrigan needs.

This movie begins and ends with Whitaker’s extraordinary performance as Amin. At once charismatic and sinister, Whitaker shows Amin to be both teddy bear and maniacal monster. This is an Oscar-worthy performance (he won the award for Best Actor that year), and all the raves that he received in the press are richly deserved. It’s fair to say that the main reason to seek out this movie is to watch Whitaker’s performance in it.

In some ways, the movie is also cursed. Whitaker is so good that none of the other actors, particularly McEvoy, can hold a candle to him and so you wind up wishing for more Amin and less Garrigan. The fictional character of Garrigan, to the credit of novelist Giles Foden, is not always the most moral or strongest character in the story. He is extremely flawed, and his flaws get him into trouble. The problem is that it wouldn’t take much to get someone in trouble in Idi Amin’s Uganda.

The trouble I have with The Last King of Scotland is its inherent schizophrenia. On the one hand, its a drama about Amin’s disintegration into paranoid madness as witnessed by one of his “inner circle,” and that story is compelling enough. Unfortunately, the last quarter of the movie turns into a by-the-numbers thriller as Garrigan tries to make his way out of Africa. The two movies mix like oil and vinegar, and I found myself losing interest as the movie wore on.

That’s not to say this isn’t a worthwhile investment of your time. McDonald, best known for his Oscar-winning 1999 documentary One Day in September about the Black September raid on the Munich Olympic games of 1972, evokes the Uganda of the early ’70s, from the abject poverty of the rural areas to the luster of the Presidential palace. There are some extraordinary moments, as when Amin has a chorus of African singers render their own interpretation of “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond” while the dictator watches impassively in full kilt.

Ultimately, I can recommend the movie strongly, mainly for the incendiary performance of Forrest Whitaker, although I have a few reservations about the movie overall. I think if it had stuck to the first personality of Amin, the movie would have been better served.

WHY RENT THIS: Whitaker’s Oscar-winning performance as Amin is one of the best acting performances of the 21st century so far; you will rarely see one any better than this.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The schizophrenic nature of the storytelling; Garrigan’s escape from Uganda story that takes up the final reel is less interesting than Amin’s story.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the violence is rather gruesome and there are plenty of disturbing images. The language can be foul and the sexuality intense.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first Western film production to film in Uganda since 1990 (Mississippi Masala); the black Mercedes limousine used in the movie as the presidential limo was the one that Amin actually used.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a terrific featurette, “Capturing Idi Amin,” which blends in historical footage as well as footage from the movie in discussing Amin’s influence on the region.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $48.4M on a $6M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sucker Punch

Robin Hood


Robin Hood

Never tell Russell Crowe that his rugby team sucks.

(Universal)  Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, Mark Strong, Danny Huston, William Hurt, Matthew Macfayden, Oscar Isaac, Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle, Eileen Atkins, Lea Seydoux, Mark Addy, Douglas Hodge, Simon McBurney. Directed by Ridley Scott

The legend of Robin Hood is central to English mythology. The character has made regular appearances on the silver screen and television, from the carefree bandit of Errol Flynn to the Kevin Costner version, with the heavy-on-the-mystical BBC series “Robin of Sherwood” somewhere in between. So how does this Robin rate?

Robin Longstride (Crowe) is an archer finishing ten years of war in the Holy Land alongside Richard the Lion Heart (Huston), the English King beloved by his people. I use the term “alongside” loosely; Richard is King and Robin is a lowly foot soldier. In most circumstances, the King would never interact with a commoner such as Robin.

However, times being what they are for the King, he can’t resist sacking one last castle, this one in the land of England’s ancient enemy, France. The English coffers are nearly bare after having paid for ten years of constant war. One evening, Robin gets into a fight with fellow soldier John Little (Durand) which is witnessed by the King and the King’s good friend Sir Robert Loxley (Hodge). The King is impressed with the honesty and bravery of both men, but Robin can’t resist speaking his mind when the King asks him to. For his honest criticism, Robin, John and Robin’s good friends Will Scarlet (Grimes) and Alan A’Dayle (Doyle) are put in the stockade for future branding and whipping.

Unfortunately during the siege the King takes an arrow through the throat and expires, throwing the ranks of the English into chaos. Robin, recognizing the situation, has a friend free the four of them from the stocks and they hie themselves hence for the coast to find passage to England before Richard’s army gets there and take all the boats for themselves.

In the meantime, the King of France (an actor who, amazingly, has gone uncredited for the role as far as I can see) is scheming with the vicious Godfrey (Strong) to assassinate the King on his way back to the coast. Of course, this is moot at this point but when Godfrey springs his ambush it is Sir Robert that is caught, innocently returning the King’s crown to England. Robin and his merry men come upon the ambush and force the assassins to flee, but not before Robin sends an arrow whistling Godfrey’s way, scarring him on the cheek. Robin comforts the dying Loxley by promising to return his sword to his father, a sword he had taken without asking. The four manage to make it to the coast and brazen their way aboard the King’s flagship by pretending to be Knights (by stealing the armor and cloaks of the dead men at the ambush) and flashing the crown. While sailing across the channel, Robin notices an inscription on the sword: Rise and Rise Again Until Lambs Become Lions.

Meanwhile back in England, Prince John (Isaac) is cavorting with Isabella (Seydoux), niece of King Phillip, irritating his mother Ellen of Aquitaine (Atkins) no end, particularly since he is married to someone else. For most of the women in the audience this was a clear sign that John is an absolute jerk, although most royals of the time dallied pretty regularly – just another reason why, as Mel Brooks once said, it’s good to be the King. However, the party really starts when Robin – now masquerading as Robert Loxley – brings the sad news of the King’s demise, which elevates John onto the throne.

Times are hard in England and about to become harder. Taxes have just about bled the populace dry, even relatively wealthy former Knights like Walter Loxley (van Sydow) who, now well into his 80s, is blind and tended to by his son’s wife Marian (Blanchett). She is on the receiving end of the tender affections of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Macfayden) and is concerned that with all the good men of Nottingham away at war, too old, too young or broken, that the town will not survive the winter. With the new Friar Tuck (Addy) taking over the local church from the ambitious Father Tancred (McBurney) who is departing for York with all the seed grain for the town in his possession, which will make the coming harvest difficult with nothing to plant. Things look bad for Nottingham and they get worse when Robin arrives with the news of Robert’s death. However, Walter seems to recognize the name of Robin and in exchange for the sword he had just brought back, agrees to tell Robin about his past.

In order to keep the crown from seizing their property (because in England at the time only sons could inherit and with Walter’s dead, Marian would lose the farm as it were), Walter asks Robin to masquerade as his son and Marian’s husband in order to maintain the illusion that there was proper succession for the property. Robin agrees, having taken a shine to Marian (who of course doesn’t care much for Robin) and things get idyllic for a little while.

However, John has made the critical mistake of trusting Godfrey with the chancellorship of England, after sending the current chancellor William Marshall (Hurt) back home. Godfrey, who aims to start a civil war by using extreme brutality in the North, takes an army to cause mischief. He does this by importing a small army of Phillip’s men. Once England is in chaos, Phillip will invade and take the divided country with a minimum of fuss. England needs a leader more than ever – and a legend will be born.

This is the most unusual Robin Hood you’re ever likely to see. There is no stealing from the rich to give to the poor and very little of Sherwood Forest. There is no swashbuckling or derring-do; Russell Crowe is not the first name I’d call for actors who do that kind of thing. Crowe is more of a brooder and his Robin of the Hood does a whole lot of that; at least when he’s not perforating, slicing or dicing the French.

However, Blanchett makes a marvelous Marian, full of spunk and steel. She essentially runs the Loxley estate and takes no crap from anyone; if anyone tries to touch her, she’ll emasculate them as she tells Robin (or worse, as one of Godfrey’s men finds out later). She is elegant when she needs to be, rough and tumble when she has to be and feminine throughout.

Von Sydow is terrific in his role as the aging Knight, bringing his career full circle in some respects – you may be reminded that he once played a knight of the crusades who plays chess against death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and while the roles are nothing alike, I was reminded of it somewhat perversely. Regardless, von Sydow is nearing the end of his own career and yet remains as much a force as he has always been.

Strong, for my money, is the best villain working in the business today (although Danny Huston may give him a run for his money). Bald and scarred, he just looks terrifying without saying a word. Ambitious and amoral, his Godfrey would sell his mother if it would get him ahead – not that there’s much of a market for that sort of thing.

There are some very good action sequences, particularly the climactic battle between the French and the English. The movie is well over two hours long but still felt like it was missing some pieces; I got the distinct impression that there were some scenes that might have better explained things in the movie that were left on the cutting room floor, although if there are they will certainly wind up on the “Director’s Cut” edition that is sure to follow on the home video front.

This is more of an origin story than any Robin Hood to date, and more or less sets the tone of the times. There is no Errol Flynn leaping out of a tree, giving a jaunty salute and exclaiming “Welcome to Sherwood” with a twinkle in his eyes. This is a cross between Braveheart and Gladiator with a healthy dose of Kingdom of Heaven; the last two of which, not un-coincidentally, were directed by Scott as well. Like most films of the 21st century, this version of the character wallows in the dark side, brooding like the Renaissance Faire edition of Bruce Wayne. That’s okay by me, even if it’s becoming a little cliché. Still, I can’t fault a filmmaker for trying a new take on a venerable character as long as the essence of who that character is remains intact and I think Ridley Scott succeeds in that regard. This may not be your father’s Robin, or even your grandfather’s but it is Robin Hood nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: A different take on the Robin Hood legend with a bit of political intrigue. Blanchett is magnificent as Marian, and von Sydow is delightful in a supporting role. Mark Strong may be the best villain in the movies at the moment.

REASONS TO STAY: You get the feeling a good deal of exposition hit the cutting room floor. Crowe broods too much at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, particularly of the battlefield variety, as well as some suggestion of sexuality and rape; there’s enough here that I’d think twice about bringing the impressionable sorts but most mature teens should be able to handle it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tune whistled by Godfrey as a pass code to the French soldiers is “Frere Jacques.”  

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly the climactic battle should be seen on the big screen, but much of the movie foregoes the epic scope.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Cinema365 will be on temporary hiatus while I am vacationing in China. We will resume our daily movie reviews, previews and features starting on Friday, June 4th with a review of Soul Men.