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

Cries from Syria


The White Helmets rescue more Syrian children from the rubble of Aleppo.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Helen Mirren (narrator), Abdullah Kurdi, Kholoud Halmi, Hadi Al-Abdullah Abdul Baset Al-Saroot, Riad Al-Asaad, Suzan Malar, President Bashar Al-Asad, Jamil Afesee, Dr. Khalid Alazar, Zaher Al-Saket, Raed El-Saleh, Abu Mohammad Al-Julani, Ghiath Matar, Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb. Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky

 

What is happening in Syria is absolutely unconscionable. Ruled by President Bashar Al-Asad with an iron fist (ironically he trained as a doctor before stepping in as successor to his brutal father), Syria is a country which has fallen into a morass of death and destruction.

Afineevsky, who helmed the excellent Oscar-nominated documentary Winter on Fire about the Ukraine’s fight for freedom from a tyrant allied with Vladimir Putin, has delivered a very orderly and precise account of the events that have led to the situation as it is. There are a lot – a lot – of talking head interviews in the film which is normally a turn-off for me but their stories are all so varied and effective it’s hard to fault the director.

Afineevsky divides the movie into four chapters; the first details the events leading up to the Syrian revolution; how the Arab Spring gave people hope that they would be able to overthrow their own despot. When some schoolboys in the city of Daraa write some graffiti on their schoolyard reading “It’s Your Turn, Doctor” apparently this puts the fear of God into the authorities for the boys are arrested, tortured and many of them are killed.

This leads to outrage on the part of the people of Syria who feel that torturing children is a step too far. They take to the streets in massive demonstrations but Al-Asad orders his army to fire on the peaceful, unarmed demonstrators who carry flowers and bottled water to give to the soldiers. Some of the soldiers, disgusted by these orders, defect from the Syrian army and form the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian Civil War begins.

You get a sense that the Syrian people, confronted by one atrocity, believe that they’ve hit rock bottom and then another one begins. Al-Asad starts by laying siege to towns where anti-government demonstrations had taken place. He forbids any goods and services to come in, and starts bombarding the towns, labeling the inhabitants as terrorists when in reality most of the dead and dying are women and children. His bombers target hospitals and schools.

Then he starts dropping Sarin nerve gas on his own people, following that lovely gesture up with Chlorine gas. Both of these mainly affect the children, already weakened by hunger. When the UN gets wind of this, they send troops to confiscate any biological weapons but there is evidence that Al-Asad still has plenty in his possession.

After that, ISIS starts taking over villages in Eastern Syria which are more rural and imposing their own peculiar brand of Islam on the inhabitants. They seem to be saviors at first but their true colors show as they begin executing and beating the villagers for infractions that are almost nonsensical. However, the presence of ISIS brings in Putin and his air force and the bombing under Al-Asad suddenly goes on steroids. Aleppo, one of the larger cities in Syria, is essentially being obliterated.

We get scenes of the White Helmets, volunteer first responders who go into bombed out buildings and rescue those buried inside. They inject a little humanity into the unending horrors we witness – one can only wonder how the Syrian people can bear it. There are so many tears, so many screams of loss – it all blends together somewhat by movie’s end.

As a primer for what’s happening in Syria, this film succeeds triumphantly although there are those – an admitted minority of trolls – who mark it as propaganda. There’s no doubt that the filmmakers are on the side of the Syrian people and some think that the Syrian people are terrorists. Those that do tend to be ignorant of the facts but then that’s never stopped anyone from trolling, right?

This is not easy to watch – you may need to step away from time to time and give yourself a break, but it is important viewing. In watching it you’ll run the gamut of emotions – heartbreak, outrage, horror, disbelief, admiration, sympathy, sadness and hopefully, a desire to help. There are ways to assist the Syrian people without having to fly to Damascus. Look into them if you can.

Even though the fourth chapter on the Syrian refugee issue doesn’t measure up to the first three chapters, it is incumbent on us to understand what the refugees are fleeing from and why we need to take them in and give them shelter. It’s only the Christian thing to do, or have we forgotten two travelers to Bethlehem who were denied shelter?

REASONS TO GO: A detailed account of how the civil war began and the events afterwards. An absolutely heartbreaking account of what the Syrian people have had to endure. Excellent graphics make the names of the speakers easier to identify.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage is gruesome and might be too disturbing for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brutal wartime violence; definitely not for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cher recorded an original song for the film, “Prayers for This World” which plays over the end credits. The song was written by Diane Warren who also penned her big hit “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The White Helmets
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Afterimage

The Siege of Jadotville


Jamie Dornan leads the charge.

Jamie Dornan leads the charge.

(2016) War Drama (Netflix) Jamie Dornan, Mark Strong, Jason O’Mara, Emmanuelle Seigner, Guillaume Canet, Mikael Persbrandt, Fiona Glascott, Sam Keeley, Michael McElhatton, Conor MacNeill, Roman Raftery, Danny Sapani, Melissa Haiden, Leon Clingman, Conor Quinlan, Mike Noble, Charlie Kelly, Alexander Tops, Fionn O’Shea, Danny Keogh. Directed by Richie Smyth

 

In 1961, shortly after being granted independence from Belgian rule, the Republic of the Congo (today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) suffered internal strife and civil war. Violence broke out almost immediately after independence and Belgium sent in paratroopers to protect white citizens who were fleeing the country, particularly from the Katanga region.

The United Nations, under the leadership of Dag Hammarskjöld (Persbrandt), saw the alarming developments as both the Soviets and NATO began backing rival factions in the Congo. It was decided to deploy a peacekeeping force, the first that the UN had ever done. Composed primarily of Irish troops under the command of Pat Quinlan (Dornan), they reported to the UN Secretary General’s aide Conor Cruise O’Brien (Strong) and were sent to the tiny outpost of Jadotville.

There they found themselves surrounded by rebel forces loyal to Moise Tshombe (Sapani) and under the command of Rene Faulques (Canet), a Belgian mercenary. With no support and in an untenable position, they were ordered to hold Jadotville and for eight days, they did. It was a heroic defense, but it would later be swept under the rug even in Ireland, where the deeds of the soldiers weren’t recognized until 44 years after the events took place.

Dornan is best known for playing Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey but he does a pretty competent job of portraying the resolute but inexperienced Quinlan. The Irish troops refer to themselves as “war virgins” and so they are, most of them having seen no combat in their lives more violent than a Friday night at their local pub. Unlike Grey, Pat Quinlan is a loyal family man with a beautiful wife (Glascott) waiting for him at home and although he has caught the eye of local adviser Madame LaFontagne (Seigner) he remains faithful and if you’ve seen Emmanuelle Seigner before, you’ll understand how difficult a proposition that is.

There are plenty of white actors here that play out the events that were detailed in the book by Declan Power on the siege; however despite the fact that this movie is set in Africa there are virtually no Africans in the cast although Sapani as Tshombe does stand out. Apparently colonialist attitudes are still prevalent in the West.

It has to be said that one sees a war movie for the battle scenes and first-time feature director Smyth does a competent job staging them; there isn’t quite the you-are-there quality of Saving Private Ryan or the horror of Apocalypse Now but nonetheless the scenes are thrilling and suspenseful. Action fans will get their money’s worth.

Still, there is a good deal of chest-thumping and platitude shouting and those items turn this from what could have been an interesting study of an event that history had buried to a standard direct to home video disappointment. It’s not a snoozefest by any stretch of the imagination but I found the movie to be uninspiring and considering what the soldiers went to during the siege and even more to the point after it – events of which are glossed over in an almost criminal fashion. I would have liked to have seen a good movie about the siege and the Congo Crisis but this frankly wasn’t it.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the battle sequences were well-staged. Dornan does a solid job as the lead.
REASONS TO STAY: A slow moving story with too much chest-thumping turns this into movie-of-the-week territory. There are hardly any Africans here to tell this story of events in Africa.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of war violence and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Conor Quinlan, who plays PJ in the movie, is the grandson of the real Pat Quinlan.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Beast
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Accountant

Primeval


Orlando Jones and Brooke Langton were hoping this would be a lot more like Chariots of Fire than it turned out to be.

Orlando Jones and Brooke Langton were hoping this would be a lot more like Chariots of Fire than it turned out to be.

(2007) Horror (Hollywood) Dominic Purcell, Orlando Jones, Brooke Langton, Jurgen Prochnow, Gideon Emery, Gabriel Malema, Dumisani Mbebe, Ernest Ndhlovu, Erica Wessels, Patrick Lyster, Eddy Bekombo, Vivian Moodley, Lika Van Den Bergh, Linda Mpondo, Lehiohonolo Makoko, Chris April, Andrew Whaley, Jacqui Pickering. Directed by Michael Katleman

Man is capable of committing absolute horrors to his fellow man. However, man is also part of a larger natural order of things – survival of the fittest where the strong prey on the weak. And upon occasion, Man isn’t necessarily at the top of the food chain.

The African nation of Burundi is caught up in a terrible civil war that has been ongoing for twelve years. When a mass grave is located in the Northern portion of the country, a United Nations team is sent to investigate the find, led by one of the foremost forensic pathologists (Wessels) in the world. In a shocking turn of events, the woman is attacked and dragged into the waters of the river by a gigantic crocodile known to the locals as “Gustave.”

Tim Manfrey (Purcell), a television news network producer, is riding out a scandal in which he apparently ran a story without adequately checking the facts. The network chief (Lyster) wants to send him to Burundi not only to get the story of the gigantic crocodile, more than 20 feet long, but to capture the beast. He’ll be sent with wildlife reporter Aviva Masters (Langton), Manfrey’s regular cameraman Steven Johnson (Jones) and naturalist Matthew Collins (Emery), who is confident that he has built a contraption capable of capturing the massive reptile.

They are met in Burundi by a political functionary known as Harry (Mbebe) who warns them about a warlord in the bush known as “Little Gustave.” He introduces them to Jakob Krieg (Prochnow), their local guide and an expert on the crocodile whom he has been hunting for years. Krieg wants to kill the creature whereas Collins wants to capture it alive, which leads to some tension between the two.

Once in the village nearest the most recent attack, the news crew is struck by the friendliness of the people as well as by the horrible poverty of the village. They are required to receive a blessing by the local shaman (Ndhlovu) who predicts that they will find what they seek but they will also find death. Meanwhile, Johnson captures on film the brutal execution of a family from the village by a murderous lieutenant (Bekombo) of Little Gustave. Now they are being chased by the warlord’s men and being stalked by the croc. Great, you can end of being dinner or part of a mass grave for some other UN forensic pathologist to examine.

Purcell (TV’s Prison Break) is the lead here and he does a credible albeit colorless job. Unfortunately, his character is written without much for Purcell to work with, leaving him to cling to action hero clichés in order to move things along. Jones provides adequate comic relief in a role in which he is sadly underused, and Prochnow (who deserves better fare than this) handles the Robert Shaw role with as much dignity as he can muster.

The giant croc looks fairly realistic as CGI creations go. Some of the scenes in which the croc is seen below the surface of the water look hastily slapped together by someone with a Commodore VIC-20, but otherwise the monster was scary enough. The cinematographer utilizes the African vistas nicely.

This is based on true events – a naturalist in Burundi did attempt to capture Gustave (who is an actual beast that has been credited with killing more than 300 people along the Ruzizi River and also along the northern shore of Lake Tanganyika. They raise some good points about the situation in Africa; it takes the death of a white UN official to bring an American news crew to Burundi to cover a crocodile who has killed more than 300 Africans. The writing is taut and crisp, and they don’t waste too much time getting to the meat of the story – the stalking of the news crew by Gustave.

The film slyly alludes to Jaws which is a bit of a mistake; there are a lot of similarities to that film, and the comparison isn’t particularly flattering. Too many clichés clog up the writing, and the subplot about the Little Gustave warlord is unnecessary. Had they decided to focus on the hunt for the crocodile, they would have had a much better movie…but then again, it would have been Lake Placid.

The filmmakers were going for a cross between Lake Placid and Hotel Rwanda and instead got a four-legged Jaws. This isn’t a total waste of time – Jones is entertaining and the African vistas are worth seeing. However, it’s probably a bit too graphic for those who would be drawn in by the civil war story, and a bit too preachy for those who are more interested in the horror element. Yet another instance of a movie that can’t decide what it wants to be and so it ends up being nothing.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous African vistas. Jones provides much-needed comic relief.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lackluster acting. Cliches abound. Some of the CGI is laughable.
FAMILY MATTERS: Kids and dogs are eaten, and people are stalked by a terrifying crocodile. There are also some graphic executions and a boatload of corpses, some half-eaten and others murdered by the two-legged monsters in the movie, as well as some foul language if that bothers you at this point.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: A similar team in reality attempted to capture Gustave, using much the same methods but were unsuccessful due to equipment failure, inclement weather and deteriorating political conditions which eventually forced them to leave the country.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The “Crocumentary” featurette focuses on the actual Gustave who inspired the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $15.3M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rogue
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Robot Overlords

What If (2014)


Indie cute OD.

Indie cute OD.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (CBS) Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall, Megan Park, Mackenzie Davis, Lucius Hoyos, Jemima Rooper, Tommie-Amber Pirie, Meghan Heffern, Jonathan Cherry, Rebecca Northan, Jordan Hayes, Oona Chaplin, Adam Fergus, Sam Moses, Ennis Esmer, Mike Wilmot, George Tchortov, Tamara Duarte, Vanessa Matsui. Directed by Michael Dowse

Finding The One is a matter not only of chemistry but of timing. Both of you have to be in the right place to be able to accept someone into that kind of intimacy. Both of you have to be available. It would help a lot if you’re both as attractive, cool and hip as Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan.

Wallace (Radcliffe) is a medical school dropout who has had his heart broken one too many times. He lives in his sister’s (Rooper) attic as a kind of live-in babysitter to her son (Hoyos) and spends a lot of time sitting on the roof of his sister’s house gazing soulfully at the Toronto skyline.

His cynical friend Allan (Driver) gets him to go to a party where he meets Chantry (Kazan). The two hit it off right away and spend much of the evening talking. To Wallace’s surprise (and perhaps disgust) Allan has hooked up with Nicole (Davis) and those two are going at it like sailors on a 24 hour pass in a brothel. Not much chance of that happening with Wallace and Chantry though – she has a boyfriend named Ben (Spall) who is a pretty decent fellow who works for the U.N. Kind of a rough challenge for an unemployed medical school dropout to take on, y’know.

 

Nonetheless Wallace and Chantry become the best of friends and when Ben’s work takes him to Dublin for six months, the opportunity is there although Wallace – something of a wimp – shies away from it even though it is clear to everyone who knows him that he’s hopelessly smitten by the comely young Chantry. And for her part, Chantry’s friends suspect she likes Wallace a lot more than she’s letting on, although she lets her somewhat slutty sister Dalia (Park) take a crack at Wallace which ends up pretty disastrously. However as Chantry begins to question her relationship with Ben and a major opportunity knocks for her which might send her halfway around the world. Wallace has the choice of doing the right thing, or…but what is the right thing in this situation, anyway?

This Canadian-made rom com based on a stage play has the advantage of having some attractive leads but the disadvantage of fairly bland personalities for the both of them. Sure, Chantry is an animator whose scribblings occasionally come to life but this contributes to a cuter-than-thou vibe that over-sweetens this concoction like someone dumping a whole jar of refined sugar into a glass of tea. The animations really add nothing to the movie other than to be a distraction reflecting Chantry’s occasional melancholy. Sure Wallace comes off as cooler than the average bear but with a sweet sensitive side that is apt to get all the indie gals in their vintage dresses and fuchsia hair misty-eyed.

Radcliffe, now a grown-up after we watched him grow up in the Harry Potter movies, is an engaging romantic lead, not conventionally handsome like a Hugh Grant but having the same tripping-over-his-own-feet awkwardness that Grant made into a trademark in the 90s. His character here has little in the way of backbone and tries so hard to do the right thing that he ends up making everybody around him miserable. Sometimes doing the wrong thing is the right thing.

Like a few other critics, I found the relationship between Allan and Nicole far more interesting and would have appreciated much more insight into their relationship, even though they do pull a few dick moves during the movie. Their characters seemed more realistic and more alive than the sometimes walking cliches that are Wallace and Chantry.

That’s not to say that the relationship between the two leads doesn’t have its moments. There’s the slapstick sequence that sends Ben out of a window during a disastrous dinner party but sadly there isn’t enough of that. When late in the movie the two of them “break up” as friends due to an issue that could have been resolved simply with a phone call and seems blown way out of proportion in order to manufacture conflict, I could feel my eyes rolling into the back of my head. This is one of the most egregious of rom-com cliches of the 21st century.

This is basically a movie that has a lot of potential but tries too hard to be charming in a Bohemian way, sort of like Toronto doing the East Village and realizing far too late that they’re far too polite and less pretentious to make that work effectively. I liked Radcliffe and Driver, with a hint of Davis and Spall but after that there is much less to love.

REASONS TO GO: Daniel Radcliffe is awfully engaging.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too cute. A surfeit of indie rom-com cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of sexual references including some brief partial nudity and not an inconsequential amount of profanity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Casey Affleck and Mary Elizabeth Winstead were originally cast as the leads but the producers decided they wanted to go with younger actors instead which is ironic since Zoe Kazan is in fact older than Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: When Harry Met Sally

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Bellflower

World War Z


Flying zombie, disinterested extras.

Flying zombie, disinterested extras.

(2013) Action (Paramount) Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse, Ludi Boeken, Fana Mokoena, Elyes Gabel, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Ruth Negga, Moritz Bleibtreu, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove, Fabrizio Zacharee Guido, David Andrews, Vicky Araico. Directed by Marc Forster

When in the midst of a global pandemic, the sheer magnitude and scope of the carnage can be overwhelming. You can’t wrap your head around it. Instead, everything boils down to the basics – protecting yourself, protecting your family.

Gerry Lane (Pitt) used to work for the United Nations as an investigator into human rights abuses. He was put in harm’s way frequently, going to some of the worst cesspools of humanity that you can imagine. Tired of being away from his family and knowing his marriage wouldn’t survive much more of him being away and in jeopardy, he retires and goes home to Philadelphia to be the dad to his daughters Constance (Jerins) and Rachel (Hargrove), not to mention husband to his wife Karin (Enos).

But all of that turns upside-down after being caught in a traffic jam in which seemingly normal humans turn into super-rabid flesh-eating ghouls, zombies for lack of a better term. He manages to steer them to safety in the apartment of a Hispanic family whose son Tomas (Guido) shows a bond with Gerry’s daughters. Gerry gets a call from his old U.N. boss Thierry Umutoni (Mokoena) who offers to airlift Gerry and his family (which now includes Tomas) to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic. Gerry is in no position to turn it down.

But there’s no such thing as a free ride and Gerry is expected to earn his keep. Umutoni wants Gerry to find the source of the plague so that it might be cured. Gerry doesn’t want to leave his family but the U.N. Military Commander (Dale) essentially blackmails Gerry into it so off he goes with gung-ho U.N. research virologist Dr. Fassbach (Gabel) to find out how to stop this plague which will wipe out civilization in a matter of days if it isn’t stopped.

So begins the roller coaster ride as Gerry and his team go from place to place in a desperate race against time to find the cause of the plague and somehow cure it before civilization collapses entirely, and that collapse is coming almost as fast as the terrifyingly speedy zombies who seem to have the upper hand.

This isn’t a typical zombie movie in which entrails and blood form the main fascination. While there is some leg munching, we rarely see the zombies in close-up except in the last third of the film when Lane is in a World Health Organization research facility in Wales and has a close encounter with a tooth-clicking zombie that is as terrifying as the opening Philadelphia sequence is. If only the middle third was as good as the opening and closing sequences.

There is a lot of carnage but most of it is off-screen. People do get killed but we rarely see it precisely, making it a definite PG-13 kind of movie. There will be those who miss the explicit gore that comes with a zombie movie but I didn’t think it necessary myself here.

Those who loved the Max Brooks book this was based on will miss a lot more than gore. The movie follows the book only in the barest of chalk outlines. While some of the characters from the book appear here, it is often in different contexts. The tone and themes of the book are essentially gone, along with the whole conceit that this is an archival document of a war that had already ended.

Pitt is one of the more appealing actors in Hollywood and he uses that here to make Gerry a character with a bit of a one-track mind – getting back to his family. Da Queen loved that the U.N. Observer was so…observant. Watching him connect the dots was fun, although not as fun as watching the zombies crawl up a stone wall like ants. While the digital zombies lacked character (the way that you get zombie character in such things as The Walking Dead) it is certainly fun watching them swarm. It emphasizes the inhuman portion of them.

This is basically Pitt’s show. He is onscreen nearly every moment and the focus of all our attention. Few of the other characters are developed at all, if any and for the most part even Pitt’s Gerry is kind of one-note. Still, the suspense of walking in dangerous areas with zombies about is impressive and I found myself on the edge of my proverbial seat for much of the movie. Think of it as extra icing on the zombie cake.

REASONS TO GO: I really liked the Brad Pitt character and his performance. Zombies like ants; great visuals!

REASONS TO STAY: Fans of the book will be very disappointed. A little all over the place plot-wise.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of zombie violence, some disturbing images and some intense sequences of suspense.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matthew Fox’s role was originally much larger and was to be set up to be the human villain for the expected sequel. However after multiple re-writes the role was slimmed down to just five lines of dialogue.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100; the film got surprisingly decent reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Darkest Hour

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: White House Down

Desert Flower


You can never get her goat.

You can never get her goat.

(2009) Biodrama (National Geographic) Liya Kebede, Sally Hawkins, Craig Parkinson, Meera Syal, Anthony Mackie, Juliet Stevenson, Timothy Spall, Soraya Omar-Scego, Matt Kaufman, Tim Seyfi, William de Coverly, Mahamed Mohamoud Egueh, Teresa Churcher. Directed by Sherry Horman

Africa has amazing vistas, incredible beauty that can’t be properly appreciated except in person. She also has her share of beautiful women, some who have gone on to international stardom as actresses and models. However, Africa has also had more than its share of shame in regards to how she treats her women.

Waris Dirie (Kebede) is a beautiful Somalian who lives in a nomadic tribe. Hers is a family of goat herders who live a simple lifestyle. However when she is a little girl she suffers a horrible tradition – female genital circumcision, in which her genitalia are cut so that she may not feel pleasure during the sexual act and her labia is then sewn together so that her husband may be assured that his new wife is a virgin until he cuts her cord, so to speak. It is a barbaric custom (not found in the Koran by the way) that certain African tribes adhere to. Many women die from infection and botched cuttings every year.

Waris however survives and is eventually promised in marriage as a third wife to a repulsive old man. Rather than accept this fate, she walks away, literally – traversing the desert to Mogadishu to find her grandmother, who sends her to London with an uncle who happens to be the Somali ambassador to England. When he returns home after the end of his term, she remains. She meets the ditzy shopgirl Marylin (Hawkins) who helps get her a job scrubbing floors at a local MacDonald’s. There she is discovered by fashion photographer Terry Donaldson (Spall).

With the help of a rather grumpy agent named Lucinda (Stevenson) she soon rises to the top of the modeling world. Despite a few pitfalls (including some sexualized shoots which clearly make her uncomfortable), she becomes a superstar, developing a relationship with Harold Jackson (Mackie), a neighbor. However, during an interview when she talks frankly about her circumcision her life is changed forever as she moves from model to activist, becoming the face of female genital circumcision and in the process it’s leading advocate in the fight against it.

This is all very compelling on paper but sadly this movie doesn’t exist on paper but on celluloid and director Horman elects to waste a lot of time with non-essentials, particularly in regards to her pre-model time in London when it seems the story is moving in a certain direction but takes an excruciatingly long time to get there.

Kebede, a Nigerian supermodel herself, does a surprisingly solid turn as Waris. It is fortunate that she resembles her peer facially but she carries herself with a great deal of dignity and grace that African women seem to have in abundance. She also captures her character’s shame and embarrassment at having been mutilated.

Hawkins and Spall do well in their roles, as does Stevenson and Syal as an aunt. The Somalian sequences are beautifully desolate. It’s a pretty good-looking film. It’s just a shame the filmmakers fumbled the ball a bit when it comes to getting the power of their message across. In more capable hands this could have been a terrific film.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling story and Kebede shows great promise in her debut.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unfocused and muddled too often. Wastes time on trivial aspects and seems to relegate the central theme almost to the background at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a sex scene (although not graphic) and some modeling nudity. There’s also a little bit of violence but the theme may be rather rough to discuss with children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Waris Dirie had a small role in the James Bond film The Living Daylights with Timothy Dalton.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with lead actress Liya Kebede that is quite interesting.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.6M on an unknown production budget; I’d guess this was a big hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Skin

FINAL RATING: 4/10

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