Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation


Tom Cruise is within earshot of Rebecca Ferguson.

Tom Cruise is within earshot of Rebecca Ferguson.

(2015) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Jingchu Zhang, Tom Hollander, Jens Hulten, Alec Baldwin, Mateo Rufino, Fernando Abadie, Alec Utgoff, Hermione Corfield, Nigel Barber, James Weber Brown, America Olivo, Adam Ganne, Eva-Marie Becker. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

When we go to the movies in the summer, it is with a different expectation than when we go in the fall. In the autumn and winter months, we expect something more thoughtful, something challenging. In the summer, we want spectacle. We want things blowing up and car chases and bullets flying but never ever hitting the hero, who is usually a big Hollywood star. We wanted to be wowed.

Well, nobody ever accused the Mission: Impossible franchise of failing to give the people what they want. The IMF finds itself in hot water, but not from some baddie with an axe to grind who wants to take over the world; no, not unless you count the CIA and Congress among that demographic. You see, the head of the CIA (Baldwin) wants to break up the band – shut down the IMF. He feels that they have no oversight, they do essentially what they want, have a ginormous budget and the return on that budget is shall we say chancy. Being that there’s no Secretary to speak up for the IMF, it is up to agent William Brandt (Renner) to carry the torch and he basically has his hands tied. End result: the IMF is history.

It’s a bad time for the IMF to take a header. The Syndicate, an evil organization that is out to sow the seeds of chaos and war around the world (and fans of the original series will remember was often the antagonist to the IMF back in the day), is ready to rear its ugly head and agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has made contact with them – at least, he knows what some of their agents look like. Aided by a British agent named Ilsa Faust (Ferguson) who has a name that would have sounded better on a sexy SS agent, he escapes their clutches and sets out to foil their plans and bring the anti-IMF – which is what the Syndicate is – to its knees, if not on its back in the morgue.

To do so Hunt is going to need old friends Brandt, Benji Dunn (Pegg), an expert on computers and gadgets and Luther Stickell (Rhames), maybe the world’s best hacker. They’ll be going up against Solomon Lane (Harris), the head of the Syndicate and a soft-spoken but wholly deranged former British agent, and his top dawg Janik “The Bone Doctor” Vinter (Hulten) who should sue for a better nickname. They also can’t be sure about Ilsa, who may be a double agent but has some pretty messed up stuff in her past, nor about Atlee (McBurney), the weasel-like head of the British Secret Service who is either a ruthless spy out to protect his country at all counts, or just plain ruthless.

The film begins with a sequence that includes Hunt holding on for dear life to the outside of a cargo plane – which is an actual stunt actually done by Cruise which I’m sure led to some cardiac arrest in the halls of insurance companies worldwide. He also is really driving the car going down the steps and flipping over like something out of NASCAR, and that really is his knee almost touching the asphalt as he drives his high speed motorcycle around a hairpin curve on a mountain road outside of Casablanca.

The action sequences are big and bold and exciting. The sets range from gleaming high tech to dusty ancient cities to the gilded grandeur of the Vienna Opera House. Each location is proclaimed in big graphic letters so we always know where in the world Carmen Sandiego, or at least the IMF team, is. Like the Bond movies which set the formula, we get the team in exotic (and not-so-exotic) locations, we get nifty gadgets and we get amazing stunts and action. We even get beautiful women, although in this case it’s just one woman, but when she emerges from a swimming pool in a bikini, don’t tell me that you more veteran moviegoers weren’t thinking about Ursula Andress.

McQuarrie started out as a writer, penning the excellent script for The Usual Suspects among others, and has lately graduated to directing with solid results (Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow) has graduated to better than that. This has all the ingredients for solid summer entertainment; and likely will dominate the box office (given the anemic early results of Fantastic Four) throughout August.

Like a lot of the M;I films, there are some twists and turns to the plot, most of them involved with Ilsa’s true allegiance, but for the most part they don’t fool anyone and in all honesty, I think the movie could have used a little more vagueness when it came to her true intentions. Well before the final denouement we all knew which side she was buttering her bread as it were.

The main fulcrum that the movie revolves around however is Cruise, and at 53 years old which in action star terms is a bit long in the tooth he still has the boyish good looks that have always been his stock in trade (although he is starting to show his age just a tiny bit). Then again, both Schwarzenegger and Stallone have been doing action films with effectiveness in their 60s. Cruise is still in fine shape and looks like he could do another  three or four of these movies without breaking a sweat and given the satisfying box office numbers here at least one more is almost certain. Cruise is a star through and through and he continues to have maybe the best fundamental understanding of how to remain a star as any in Hollywood.

This is definitely a “grab the popcorn and an ice cold soda” kind of movie, the kind that you can drag the whole family out to, or your entire circle of friends. It doesn’t matter if you’re young, old or in between – this is entertainment for nearly everybody. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

REASONS TO GO: Top notch action sequences. Cruise still has it.
REASONS TO STAY: The twists are a little on the lame side.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and intense action sequences with a scene of brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Each Mission: Impossible film has had a different director: Brian De Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams, Brad Bird and now McQuarrie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Casino Royale (2006)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Nightingale

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Spy


Fish out of water.

Fish out of water.

(2015) Spy Comedy (20th Century Fox) Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Jessica Chaffin, Miranda Hart, Morena Baccarin, Will Yun Lee, Carlos Ponce, Richard Brake, Raad Rawi, Michael McDonald, Peter Serafinowicz, Nargis Fakhri, 50 Cent, Ben Falcone, Katie Dippold, Jamie Denbo. Directed by Paul Feig

We are, as a moviegoing public, fascinated by spies. Of course, there’s the glamour – playing baccarat in Monte Carlo, wearing designer suits and dresses, using sophisticated gadgets that look like ordinary items, only deadly. Who wouldn’t want that kind of life?

Certainly Susan Cooper (McCarthy) does, to the point that she works for the Central Intelligence Agency. She is this close to getting an assignment in the field, but she winds up being a kind of handler/assistant to debonair field agent Bradley Fine (Law). She’s also quite smitten with the devilishly handsome spy, but he won’t give her a second look. In fact, nobody gives her much respect, not even the deputy chief (Janney) who supervises the team.

Unfortunately, while trying to discover the location of a nuclear bomb that is up for sale to the highest terrorist bidder, things go horribly, terribly awry. It turns out that the bomb seller, Reyna Boyanov (Byrne), has somehow identified every one of the CIA field agents. With a nuclear bomb in play and crippled by the fact that every agent she sends up against the bitchy Boyanov is sure to be spotted, the harried deputy chief is forced to send in someone that Reyna doesn’t know – Susan Cooper is finally getting her chance to be a field agent.

She is aided in her quest by gawky fellow basement dweller Nancy (Hart) and over-the-top touchy-feely Italian agent Aldo (Serafinowicz). She’ll also be hindered by egotistical, braggadocios agent Rick Ford (Statham) who, like about everyone else in the CIA, thinks that Susan doesn’t have a chance out in the field and will only mess things up. Susan, however, has a few surprises in store and is determined to complete her first mission. Will it be however, the last thing she does?

I’ve always blown hot and cold about McCarthy; she shows flashes of comic brilliance but Hollywood seems interested in casting her only as a boorish slob or an overbearing bully. One gets the sense that Hollywood can’t see past her weight, which coincidentally is Susan Cooper’s problem. One person who does see more in McCarthy is Feig, who has been at the helm for her three best performances yet – Bridesmaids, The Heat and now this.

McCarthy has always been adept at physical comedy, although it has often been to her detriment (having to do with her size) but here she outdoes herself. That’s not what makes McCarthy’s performance so memorable though; it’s that she portrays Susan as intelligent, capable and dare I say it, pretty. She turns all of our prejudices about overweight women on their ear, and for that alone one should applaud this movie, and Feig and McCarthy specifically.

What holds this movie back is that the story is really kind of generic spy stuff. We’ve seen the plot in movies and on television many times before. However, it is executed very well  here, with some cool high-tech sets in the CIA and lovely exotic (to American eyes anyway) locations. I would also have liked to see the villains be less bitchy and more evil. A spy movie is only as good as its villain and while Byrne is delicious as Reyna, one doesn’t get the kind of threat from her as one might from Auric Goldfinger, Ernst Blofeld or even Siegfried of KAOS.

Still, McCarthy gets to be James Bond and how cool is that for her? You can tell that she’s having the time of her life in this role, and it translates onto the screen and audiences are picking up on that, judging from the box office and audience test scores. It is said that Fox intended this all along to be a new franchise for them and quite likely it will be and I for one can’t wait for a sequel if McCarthy wants to do one.

REASONS TO GO: Statham plays against type and McCarthy is at her best. Some nifty sets and locations.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really explore new territory. Villains not villainous enough.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language, some violence, a little bit of sexual content and a brief scene of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Feig is a huge fan of Jason Statham and wrote the part of Rick Ford specifically for him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Means War
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Departed

22 Jump Street


The ladies are all smiles but for Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum it's strictly business.

The ladies are all smiles but for Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum it’s strictly business.

(2014) Crime Comedy (Columbia) Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Peter Stormare, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Ice Cube, The Lucas Brothers, Nick Offerman, Jimmy Tatro, Caroline Aaron, Craig Roberts, Mark Evan Jackson, Joe Chrest, Eddie J. Fernandez, Rye Rye, Johnny Pemberton, Stanley Wong, Dax Flame, Diplo, Richard Grieco, Dustin Nguyen, Kate Adair. Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

The thing about sequels is that they tend to be bigger, more expensive and more over the top of the original. The trick about them is that the filmmakers need to retain as much of the original film that audiences connected with without remaking the film verbatim, which is a certain kiss of death and franchise killer.

After their successful bust in 21 Jump Street, detectives Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) have moved on to other undercover operations with less success. After a botched operation causes a drug smuggler known only as The Ghost (Stormare) to escape, harried Deputy Chief Hardy (Offerman) busts them back to the Jump Street team. Except that now the Jump Street crew has moved across the street to 22 Jump Street where their success has bought them a near unlimited budget and an impressive headquarters where Captain Dickson (Cube) has an office in the center of the former Vietnamese church in a clear plastic office (which prompts Schmidt to say “His office looks like a cube…of ice!” in one of many, many instances of self-aware gags).

This time, the two detectives are sent to investigate Metro City State University – yes, the cops are going to college even though they look old enough to be professors. They are sent in as freshmen however and while their age is a source of constant japes, they nonetheless infiltrate the school with Jenko getting into a jock fraternity and becoming a football star, developing a bromance with Zook (Russell), the quarterback. This makes Schmidt a little bit jealous.

However Schmidt has made some inroads of his own, hooking up with Maya (Stevens), an art student who was close to a student who had died in a suicide after taking WhyFhy, a new party drug and the reason that Schmidt and Jenko are there. Surveillance footage implicates Zook as the supplier, which Jenko has a hard time believing. The friction between Schmidt and Jenko threatens to split up the two former BFFs, which would be disastrous considering that the unit is counting on them to solve the case (which might mean their careers if they don’t) and the real supplier behind WhyFhy is looking to take these two pesky cops out…permanently.

 

I will give the filmmakers props for making a much different movie than 21 Jump Street. This one is a bit self-referential, constantly referring to the increased budget and how important it is to follow up success by doing the exact same thing. The self-aware stuff is a hoot, but this feels more of a lark than a film. There is a parade of celebrity cameos, including Queen Latifah as Captain Dickson’s wife (who proclaims that she’s “Straight Outta Compton” while her husband is from Northridge, a reference to Ice Cube’s time in NWA) and appearances by Rob Riggle and Dave Franco from the first film although the best parts of that scene are in the trailer.

The chemistry between Hill and Tatum remains stellar; one of the best scenes of the movie has a school counselor mistaking them for a gay couple in his office for a therapy session, to which they are forced to play along to mask the fact that they were searching his office for evidence. However, there is a feeling that the writers have already kind of worn out their welcome. The end credits sequence, in which the trailers of future sequels are shown is maybe worth the price of admission all by itself.

The plot is way too cliche, the gags too hit and miss and the action too underwhelming to recommend this. I know a lot of critics have been kind to this movie but I just don’t see it; I left the theater feeling curiously unfulfilled, like eating a meal and walking away hungry. This movie may be less filling, but it sure doesn’t taste great.

 

REASONS TO GO: There are some funny moments (detailed above). Hill and Tatum have great chemistry. In-jokes up the wazoo.

REASONS TO STAY: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Lots of gags fall flat. Too many cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  You can expect a goodly amount of foul language, some drug content, bit of sexuality and brief nudity and finally some (mostly) comedic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Original Jump Street television actors Richard Grieco and Dustin Nguyen make cameo appearances.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starsky and Hutch

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Purge: Anarchy

Homefront (2013)


When they told Jason Statham he was getting a Mustang for this movie, this wasn't what he was expecting.

When they told Jason Statham he was getting a Mustang for this movie, this wasn’t what he was expecting.

(2013) Action (Open Road) Jason Statham, James Franco, Kate Bosworth, Winona Ryder, Frank Grillo, Izabela Vidovic, Clancy Brown, Marcus Hester, Omar Benson Miller, Rachelle Lefevre, Chuck Zito, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Linda Edwards, Austin Craig, Owen Harn, Stuart Greer, Joe Chrest, Christa Campbell, Billy Slaughter, Nicole Andrews. Directed by Gary Fleder

Small towns have a habit of being different things to different people. For some, they are an escape from city life. For others they are cherished reminders of how life used to be. For still others, they are a place where they can conduct their affairs in relative anonymity.

Phil Broker (Statham) used to be a DEA agent. He specialized in undercover operations and in his last one which was counted successful by the agency, he took down a powerful biker gang leader named Danny T (Zito) but in the process the biker’s psychotic son went down in a hail of bullets. Phil walked away from the Agency and not long afterwards, his wife passed away from an undisclosed illness. He took his precocious daughter Maddy (Vidovic) to Rayville, a small town in the Louisiana bayous not far from where Phil’s wife grew up.

At first things couldn’t be going better. Phil has found a beautiful property on the river and while the house itself is a bit of a fixer upper, there’s enough land to own horses and it’s far enough off the beaten path that he can live his life in relative peace.

Then a bully (Craig) in Maddy’s school picks a fight with her and true to her dad’s training she stands up for herself, bloodying the bully’s nose. This doesn’t sit well with the bully’s mom, the excitable meth-head Cassie (Bosworth) and she screeches at her husband Jimmy (Hester) to do something about it, so he picks a fight with Phil. Bad idea. Phil kicks Jimmy’s butt in front of Cassie and his son, putting the already irritable Cassie in a rage. Seeking revenge, she goes to her brother Gator (Franco).

Gator is the local meth dealer who has a mean streak a country mile wide. He wants to throw a scare into Phil but the plan goes awry once he breaks into Phil’s house and finds, in a kind of basement, boxes and boxes of case files from Phil’s DEA days. Now that just don’t sit right with good ol’ Gator who doesn’t want a retired DEA agent in his neighborhood – why, that will just screw up the property values something wicked but it might put a bit of a kink in his illegal drug manufacturing gig.

However, Gator discovers a way out of the situation that could wind up being enormously lucrative as well. He sees that Phil was the undercover agent on the Danny T case and lo and behold, his girlfriend Sheryl (Ryder) happens to know Danny’s lawyer. Sheryl, herself a drug addict, a prostitute and a cocktail waitress (in this economy one has to have multiple jobs) sets up a meeting with Cyrus (Grillo), Danny’s psychotic right-hand man. You just know things are going to get ugly from that point forward.

Written by Sylvester Stallone and based on a novel by Chuck Logan, Statham’s new action film follows a tried and true formula that fans of the genre will find comforting and familiar. The problem is that there isn’t much here that pushes the boundaries any from the lone highly-trained specialist trying to protect his family to the evil drug-dealing biker gang. For the record most biker gangs don’t engage in any criminal activity although if you watched Hollywood’s versions of them you probably feel uncomfortable every time you see one on the highway next to you.

Statham may well be the most consistent action star in the world. It is truly rare for him to turn in a poor performance. This is essentially his show and his fans won’t be disappointed by this effort and he may add a few more to the growing list. While there is a romantic subplot (with the comely Rachelle Lefevre), very little screen time is devoted to it and you get the sense that Statham’s Phil Broker is pretty awkward with the ladies. It also makes sense that a recent widower may not necessarily be looking for someone to fill his late wife’s pumps. In any case, Statham does well with the child actress who plays his daughter which is not always as easy as it sounds.

Franco is an Oscar nominated actor whom you might think is slumming in a role like this, a Southern-fried drug dealer with a gator tattooed on his arm but like any good actor playing a villain you get a sense he’s having a real good time with it. He also adds several layers to the role; at one point in the final reel in a conversation with Cyrus when he’s told that Cyrus must do something particularly despicable while Ryder’s Sheryl looks shocked and disgusted, Franco affects a blank expression with very haunted eyes – he knows the act is necessary but he doesn’t particularly like doing it. It’s just a little detail that takes about three seconds of screen time but it’s the kind of thing a great actor does to add depth to a part. Franco is becoming just that – a great actor.

Ryder and Bosworth are both playing drug addicted women and in their own ways add some flavors to roles that are badly under-written. Bosworth’s Cassie has to make an about-face from screeching harpy to concerned parent in a way that doesn’t make sense but whatever – she does the best she can with it. Ryder, normally a beautiful woman, allows herself to be skanky in a role that most actresses of her caliber turn their noses up at. It’s interesting to see what she does with it.

There are more than a few plot holes and contrivances here, the worst being that Gator discovers Phil’s DEA identity through finding boxes and boxes of case files  in the cellar of his home. First of all, case files for any law enforcement agency never leave the offices of said agencies and certainly not in the possession of a retired agent. He would have no reason for having them – except to reveal his identity to a drug dealer who will then in turn inform those whom he sent to jail and would like to see him and his daughter dead, preferably with brutal painful torture in the mix. That’s just lazy writing, Sly.

Still, if you can put up with a precocious kid and plot holes, this is a pretty decent action movie and Statham elevates it as he does with most of his action films. This may not be the kind of thing you want to go and see when all these blockbusters and Oscar contenders are in the theaters but if you prefer action to drama and long lines, this isn’t a bad alternative.

REASONS TO GO: Statham is solid and Ryder and Bosworth do some fine supporting work. Some nice action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Far too predictable. Too much precocious kid-ism. Lapses in simple logic.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a lot of violence, some drug use, sensuality and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although based on an unrelated novel, Stallone originally envisioned this as the final Rambo movie and wrote it with John Rambo as the retired dad. However he couldn’t get the movie made and eventually it was rewritten to be closer to the original story and with Statham in mind for the lead role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mechanic

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Delivery Man

2 Guns


Denzel Washington can smile because his name comes first in the credits.

Denzel Washington can smile because his name comes first in the credits.

(2013) Crime Action (Universal) Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Paula Patton, Bill Paxton, Edward James Olmos, James Marsden, Fred Ward, Robert John Burke, Greg Sproles, Patrick Fischler, Edgar Arreola, Derek Solorsano, Kyle Russell Clements, Christopher Matthew Cook, Tim Bell, Tate Fletcher, Azure Parsons. Directed by Baltasar Kormakur

There is room in this world for testosterone-infused crotch-scratching knuckle-dragging action movies. We men need them, as much as we need beer, 24 hour sports networks, grilled meat and babes. They are endemic to our manhood. They make us feel good and get past all the crap we have to take for being men.

Here is a movie that will make your penis swell with pride and put a smile on your manly unshaven face. Two guys – Bobby (Washington), a natty well-dressed guy who “knows people” and Stig (Wahlberg), a skirt-chasing loudmouth who never misses – are planning to rob a bank. Unfortunately, this particular bank is across from a diner that serves the best donuts in three counties and a word to the wise – never rob a bank across from a diner that serves the best donuts in three counties. Easy fix though; they burn the diner to the ground.

It turns out they are robbing this particular bank because Mexican cartel kingpin Papi Greco (Olmos) keeps a goodly load of his cash there, about $3 million worth. It’s not generally a good idea to rob a drug lord but it’s okay – Bobby is DEA and this robbery is a good way to link Papi to tax evasion.

However, when they get to doing the deed it turns out that there’s more like $40 million in the safety deposit boxes. And it’s not Papi’s – it belongs to a corrupt CIA whose sweaty agent Earl (Paxton) wants his money back – payments from Papi and other drug lords who give a small percentage of their profits to the CIA as protection for letting them operate. Whoops.

And it turns out that Stig isn’t a mindless thug after all – he’s Naval Intelligence. But both of them have been set up. Stig and Bobby aren’t exactly a match made in heaven but they are forced to work together to get out of the mess they’re in with the CIA, the U.S. Navy and a vicious drug cartel all chasing them and none of them too particular about due process.

This is the kind of movie that Michael Bay fans are going to love. The chemistry between Washington and Wahlberg is excellent, as good as the Glover-Gibson pairing a couple of decades ago. The two bicker and trade barbs as well as bullets but when the rubber hits the road they have each other’s back. Exactly the kind of relationship men like to see.

There is a whole lot of carnage – lots of bullets flying and rarely do any of them strike the heroes but they sure do strike the flunkies of the bad guys with abandon. I can imagine there was a squib shortage in Hollywood when this baby was shooting.

The script will hold no surprises for veteran action film aficionados. Those you think are probably going to end up as villains do. Those you think are going to get shot do. Twists you think the plot is going to take happen. But that’s not why real men see a movie like this. We see a movie like this to affirm that we’re still men. There’s no exploring their feelings, no tender moments of self-expression, no issues of the day – just bullets flying, fists pumping and things going boom. And when that’s what you need, that really is all you need.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Washington and Wahlberg.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t add anything new to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence, a bit of nudity (briefly) and a fair amount of cussing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one point in the film’s development this was intended to be a vehicle for Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson to team up but they elected to pass.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100; as with many movies this summer the critics can’t make up their minds..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Losers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Star Trek: Insurrection

The East


All signs point to The East.

All signs point to The East.

(2013) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hilary Baack, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Magnussen, Wilbur Fitzgerald, John Neisler, Pamela Roylance, Ryan Grego, Ava Bogle, Nick Fuhrmann, Patricia French. Directed by Zal Batmanglij

How difficult is it to uphold the law when the law protects the strong and harms the weak? Are you doing the right thing then by enforcing the law – or are you part of a system that preys on those who don’t have the cash?

Jane (Marling) is a former FBI agent now working for the private security intelligence firm Hiller Brood, hired by corporate clients to protect their executives from harm. Of late, a radical eco-terrorist group calling itself The East has been targeting bigwigs at Big Oil, flooding the home of an oil company CEO with crude oil after his company flooded the gulf with the same stuff.

Sharon (Clarkson), her steely boss, picks Jane to go undercover and infiltrate The East to discover who their targets are and what they plan to do with them. Adopting the name of Sarah, she goes cross-country hanging out with free spirits and counterculture types, engaging in freeganism (the practice of eating discarded food, what some call dumpster diving). She hops trains with a group of them including one suspect she thinks might have ties to the organization but he turns out to be a red herring. However, a different member of that group – Luca (Fernandez) turns out to be the real deal and after Sarah is injured protecting him from railroad bulls he takes her to the safe house of his group to let Doc (Kebbell) take a look at her.

Doc isn’t what he used to be – an adverse reaction to a drug meant to protect him and his sister, both working for a Doctors Without Borders-like organization, from dysentery has left him prone to seizures and extreme muscle tremors. Despite the suspicions of Izzy (Page), one of the other members, she is accepted into the group and captures the eye of Benji (Skarsgard), the de facto leader of a group which claims to have no leaders – call him the first among equals then.

As the group continues to exact revenge on corporate bigwigs whose crimes have gone unpunished by the justice system, Jane/Sarah begins to become conflicted and questions whether she’s batting for the right team.

I really like the moral ambiguity here. This is a film that asks the question does the ends justify the means when the system is broken? That’s a question that’s deceptively difficult to answer. In a system rigged to prevent justice when the super-wealthy are involved, how does one achieve justice particularly when you’re a part of the system? There are no easy answers.

Kudos to Marling and Batmanglij who don’t give the audience any easy outs. Benji and his brood have their own issues and motivations and they aren’t the “pure-at-heart” anarchists that liberal Hollywood sometimes likes to parade as heroes taking on the evil capitalists, nor do all of the CEOs here come off as money-grubbing monsters who are willing to trade human lives for an extra billion they couldn’t possibly spend. Obviously their hearts lie with the anarchists but some of the actions they take are troubling.

Marling, a cool blonde who 60 years ago would have made a perfect Hitchcock female lead, is rapidly becoming one of the independent scene’s best actresses. She’s smart and takes smart roles. Her character undergoes a metamorphosis – from a Christian rock, prayerful and ambitious security agent to a radical leftist spouting freeganism and anarchy. Now, I’m not saying such a change isn’t possible but it does seem to be a rather extreme conversion. Skarsgard, who has become a heartthrob on True Blood, shows that he will make an easy transition to the big screen when that series ends if he chooses to.

On the minus side, there are some plot holes. For example, considering how secretive the group is, Jane/Sarah finds them awfully quickly. One would think if it were that easy to find them, some law enforcement agency would have located them first. Secondly, if the dysentery inoculation caused such serious side effects for such a great percentage of those who took it, a) someone would have noticed and pulled the drug from the marketplace, b) the company that was marketing it would likely never have put it in the marketplace to begin with fearing the class action lawsuits that would surely have followed and c), the Pentagon wouldn’t have signed a contract to give their soldiers a drug that would have debilitated them to the point where they were not only no longer useful as fighting men and women but also would require extensive care for the rest of their lives.

However, these things aside, the writing is pretty dang smart and keeps the tension level high throughout. Certainly one’s political leanings will color your appreciation of the film; liberal sorts will applaud the idea of those perpetrating injustices upon the environment and people getting a taste of their own medicine while conservatives might see this as a self-righteous throwback hippie Che Guevara-fest from the ’60s. Neither viewpoint is wrong, by the way.

REASONS TO GO: Raises some timely questions. Taut and suspenseful.

REASONS TO STAY: Politically self-righteous. A few plot holes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Most of the themes here are pretty adult in nature. There is some violence, some sexuality, quite a bit of foul language and some partial nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marling and Batmanglij, who co-wrote the screenplay, based it on their experiences in the summer of 2009 practicing freeganism and joining an anarchist collective.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; this one got some pretty solid reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle in Seattle

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: R.I.P.D.

The Gatekeepers


Avraham Shalom is this close to kicking your ass.

Avraham Shalom is this close to kicking your ass.

(2012) Documentary (Sony Classics) Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri, Avraham Shalom, Simon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meier, Yassir Arafat, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. Directed by Dror Moreh

It is hard to watch certain films without one’s political beliefs coloring them and one with a subject as touchy as the Israel/Palestine conflict it’s almost unavoidable. Nearly everyone has a point of view; the Israeli government has attempted to be reasonable in the face of ongoing Palestinian terrorism and refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a nation and therefore they are entitled to protect themselves, or the Israeli government has oppressed a nearly defensive Palestinian minority and occupied their sovereign territory repeatedly attempting to crush their wills through intimidation and murder.

The Shin Bet is Israel’s anti-terrorism defense agency. They are more or less our Homeland Security Agency on steroids; they operate both domestically and internationally and have a broad mandate. What they do is essentially cloak and dagger stuff; ferreting out information through interrogation, infiltration and reputedly, through torture. They are the most shadowy of Israel’s three intelligence agencies; the Mossad (their version of the CIA) and the Aman (military intelligence) being the other two.

It is said that the Shin Bet is not just an enactor of policy but a shaper of it as well and there is no doubt that the heads of the Shin Bet have had the ears of the Israeli prime ministers through the years so it is a pretty big deal when six of the last seven of them (not including current director Yoram Cohen) consented to sit down for extensive interviews for this documentary. The six are Avraham Shalom (1981-1986), Yaakov Peri (1988-1994), Carmi Gillon (1995-1996), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Avi Dichter (2000-2005) and Yuval Diskin (2006-2011).

That these are tough, unsparing men goes without saying. Most of them have a good deal of military background and like many in the military/intelligence community in Israel, they look that they could beat up a grizzly with one hand and tear a great white shark jaw off with the other. Still, there is at least an intellectual curiosity in each of them and a certain amount of wisdom.

Through their eyes we see Israel’s history basically from the Six Days War in 1967 until recently. Several events in Israel’s history are examined, from the Intifada to the hijacking of Bus 300 to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It is the latter event that proves to be a watershed event in the conflict between Israel and the PLO. Rabin had just signed the Oslo Accords and was working to establish a lasting peace in Palestine. Then, as Gillon put it, a punk with a gun decided to change the course of history and in doing so derailed the peace process, which may well have been what conservative elements in Israel wanted all along.

The general consensus of the six directors is that this event forestalled the peace process and might have been the worst failure on the part of the Shin Bet (an operative posing as a radical extremist apparently knew the assassin and of his plans but thought that the plans weren’t serious). There is certainly a pretty good case that the attitudes of the Israeli government towards the peace process changed after that event which is very much what the assassin wanted to accomplish. The directors to a man felt that this put Israel and Palestine in a neverending spiral  of blood and tears which remains to this day.

I was surprised by the attitudes of these men. They are all very similar although they regularly criticize one another for how one thing or another is handled. I found them to be somewhat liberal which you would think would not be the case for the director of an intelligence agency dealing with terrorism; you would expect those sorts of men to be more conservative in timbre and perhaps they were when they first began their jobs.

There is a good deal of talking head kind of stuff here and all of it is in Hebrew so the subtitles flow and that can be static. Moreh breaks it up nicely with the nifty special effect of taking still photographs and digitally making them three dimensional, adding filmed recreations (mostly in black-and-white) giving the viewer more of a “you are there” feel. There is also as you might expect plenty of archival footage.

Some of the images can be pretty disturbing; of blown up busses and buildings and people so do be cognizant of that before heading to the theater. My other criticism is that I would have appreciated more insight into Israeli politics and the role these men had in it. Obviously this was initially meant for an Israeli audience and so there might have been familiarity with the events and processes involved but I felt a little lost in places.

It’s fairly chilling at times; these are men who had life and death decisions on their hands and clearly it affected some of them more than others, or at least more than they are willing to admit. This was one of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees this year and although it lost to Searching for the Sugar Man it deserved to be on the final ballot. I found it to be flawed but fascinating myself; it is certainly worth the effort to check it out and get a little bit more understanding of that conflict between those two parties which seems to be endless with no hope in sight of changing that.

REASONS TO GO: Insight into the inner workings of the Israeli intelligence, military and government agencies. Excellent 3D photographic effects.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit of the talking head variety. May rub conservative Israelis the wrong way.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few images of violence and some disturbing sequences although probably nothing worse than you’d see on a television news magazine program.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The head of the Shin Bet is the only publically known member of the organization.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100; you couldn’t ask for much better.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 5 Broken Cameras

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Core