OFFICIAL SECRETS (2019)

August 29, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Doing the right thing is usually pretty easy. However a person’s true character is revealed when it’s not so easy. In 2003, doing the right thing became very difficult for Brit Katharine Gun. How difficult? Well, her decision could jeopardize her job. It’s a decision that could get her husband deported. Making the choice could expose two powerful international governments and send her to prison for many years. And if that’s not enough risk, how about a decision that could lead to a huge (possibly illegal) war, costing thousands of lives? So you know what Katharine Gun did?  She did the right thing.

Keira Knightley stars as Katharine Gun. The film opens in 2004 with her facing a British court and the moment of her plea. We then flashback one year to see Katharine working as a staff member of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters). She spends her days translating and compiling intelligence for the British Government. It’s a job that requires the utmost discretion and the contractual obligation to keep work secrets at work. One day she reads a top secret memo making it clear that governments were conspiring to manipulate a United Nations vote required to authorize an invasion of Iraq.

Based on the (lengthy titled) book “The Spy who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion” by Martha Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell, the film is directed by Gavin Hood (the excellent TSOTSI, 2005) who co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein. It’s presented as a moral quandary for Katharine. Say nothing and maintain the status quo in her personal and professional life, or speak up and risk everything noted above. We see Katharine’s impulsive decision-making, and behavior that would rank her among history’s least likely successful spies. It’s actually her naivety that guides her to speak up.

The media side is also addressed here, and although some terrific actors are involved, this segment is the film’s slickest and least realistic. Matt Smith plays political reporter Martin Bright and Rhys Ifans plays Ed Volliamy. The two journalists for “The Observer” worked together to verify the memo leaked by Ms. Gun, and Matthew Goode is Peter Beaumont, the editor who pushed to run the story. Previously, the paper had been an avid supporter of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and took many of their stories directly from information provided by his office. Running the story exposed the paper to scrutiny that it was not accustomed to.

Where the film excels is in exploring Katharine’s personal turmoil. It’s also where it fails us as viewers. As her personal story, the subject matter is a unique and rare look at the wheels of government intelligence. Unfortunately, an inordinate amount of time is spent on the media and reporting, and not enough on what emotional torture the year of waiting must have been for her. Ralph Fiennes plays Ben Emmerson, the lead attorney for Liberty – the legal organization who takes on Katharine’s case. It’s the legal wranglings of this complex case that make for extraordinary drama, and the fallout of her personal choices had the potential for disaster. All of this is covered in a cursory manner, when more detail would have added more heft to a fascinating story. This includes her run-ins with an MI5 agent played superbly by Peter Guiness. The Official Secrets Act of 1989 is mentioned about 10 times, even though we understand pretty quickly that actions against this law likely results in treason. Ms. Gun is a hero for exposing illegal government activity, and a more intimate look at her personal turmoil would have provided more suspense and a better connection for the viewer.

watch the trailer:

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THE AFTERMATH (2019)

March 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1945 on the heels of the Allied forces victory in WWII. British officer Lewis Morgan is charged with overseeing the military’s role in beginning the process of returning a sense of normalcy back to Hamburg (and assisting with hunting Nazi loyalists). He is joined there by his wife Rachel, and they are to occupy a beautiful mansion that has been “requisitioned” from a German architect and his daughter. Captain Morgan makes the unusual offer of having the man and his daughter remain in the house, rather than relocate to one of the dreadful camps, where food and privacy is scarce. Here’s a tip gentlemen: never invite Alexander Skarsgard to live in the same house as your significant other.

Captain Morgan is played by Jason Clarke, and his wife Rachel by Keira Knightley. The aforementioned Skarsgard is Stephen Lubert, and Flora Thieman plays Freda, his rebellious teenage daughter. On her train ride in, Rachel hears a young girl discussing the rule of “no fraternizing” with the German people. Of course, we know (even if Rachel doesn’t know yet) that it’s not the little girl who is going to break this rule. An awkward reunion for Morgan and his wife indicates something is amiss. We soon learn that their young son was killed 4 years prior in a bombing – a hardship they share with Mr. Lubert, whose wife was also killed during the war. Clearly the loss of her son still impacts Rachel to the point that she rarely finds a moment of happiness.

If this was a “Seinfeld” episode, this is where ‘yada, yada, yada’ would be inserted, letting us know that a tryst between Lubert and Rachel occurs while husband Morgan is out on duty, and that romp brings her instantly back to life … with smiles and piano playing. This little lovefest is contrasted with the rubble of Hamburg. The city is literally in ruins. The visuals are impressive, but we never get a feel for the challenge of rebuilding infrastructure and lives. Instead, we get more forbidden love.

Director James Kent is known mostly for his TV work, and the film is based on the novel by Rhidian Brook, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. It would be a mistake to assume, given the outstanding three lead actors, that this is a prestigious WWII drama. An accurate description would be ‘soap opera.’ The set design, costumes, and cast are first rate, but the direction, script, and editing scream soap opera. I believe my final count was 12. That’s 12 shots of someone gazing out of a window … train windows, car windows, house windows, bus windows … every window gets its shot of winsome gazing. It’s best you know going in to expect a soap opera … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS (2018)

November 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Missing: Tchaikovsky and Ballet. OK, not missing entirely, and it seems all we do is beg for creativity and new approaches in movies, so let’s give this one fair treatment. It’s not the traditional “Nutcracker” holiday fare you’ve come to expect on stage, on TV, in the mall, at schools, and just about everywhere. Instead, it’s a version wrung from both the 1816 original short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman and the 1892 ballet by Marius Petipa with music from Tchaikovsky, yet also something quite different. Still, different doesn’t always mean better … sometimes it just means different.

We are treated to a beautiful extended opening shot as an owl swoops through old London. This acts as preparation for the abundance of stunning visuals headed our way throughout. Budding star Mackenzie Foy (INTERSTELLAR, 2014) plays Clara Stahlbaum, a young girl distraught that it’s her first Christmas without her beloved mother Marie, who recently passed away. Clara’s quietly grieving father (Matthew Macfadyen) delivers the presents Marie left for each of the three kids. Mechanically inclined Clara’s gift is an ornate egg that requires a specialty key to unlock the hidden message Clara believes her mother has left.

A lavish Christmas party at her Godfather’s (Oscar winner Morgan Freeman) mansion leads Clara to a parallel universe where her mother Marie was Queen of the four realms. This is a fantastical land that reminds (maybe a bit too much) of Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND and the classic THE WIZARD OF OZ. Clara buddies up with a live Nutcracker soldier Phillip (newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight), who quickly becomes her trusted bodyguard. Land of Snowflakes, Land of Flowers, Land of Sweets, and the blighted Fourth Realm run by a cast-out Mother Ginger (Oscar winner Helen Mirren) make up this world. Keira Knightley stars as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and her devilishly fun performance is responsible for most of the energy, humor and entertainment outside of the visual effects. The two time Oscar nominee seems to relish the voice, the costumes and the chance to play a quirky character.

Disney touches like the animal sidekicks are noted: Phillip’s loyal steed, and the pesky little mouse that flashes more personality than anyone in the film outside of Sugar Plum. Most of the comedic secondary characters (including Richard E Grant and Eugenio Derbez) fall flat with very little do in a screenplay from Ashleigh Powell that gives the impression of multiple hands in the pie. Adding to the disjointed feel and lack of cohesion in the story flow is the fact that two very different directors worked on the project. Lasse Hallstrom (CHOCOLAT) handled principal photography and then Joe Johnston (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER) spent a month on re-shoots with attention to visual effects. The contrasts between these two directors is quite clear in the finished project despite the cinematographer of Oscar winner Linus Sandgren (LA LA LAND).

The mishmash of styles and tone prevents us from ever really connecting with characters or being drawn in by the story, but beyond that, there are some really terrific visuals and special effects. I especially liked the look of the enhanced tin soldiers and the work of two time Oscar winning costume designer Jenny Beavan. Of course, this is a familiar story and many viewers bring certain expectations into the theatre with them. The iconic Tchaikovsky music is played early and throughout the film, though mostly in teases and in blends with new music from James Newton Howard. We do get a glimpse of Maestro Gustavo Dudamel conducting the orchestra, and for those expecting ballet, the fabulous Misty Copeland performs a couple of times, though it’s likely not enough for those hoping for more of a ballet production. The end result is an impressive visual experience that will likely still disappoint those looking for another holiday watching tradition.

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THE IMITATION GAME (2014)

December 26, 2014

Imitation Game Greetings again from the darkness. This year’s holiday movie season has presented us with three very different war-based films – each a potential Oscar contender, and each with its own life lesson.  Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (the excellent Headhunters, 2011) brings Andrew Hodges’ biographical book  to the screen in the form of the remarkable and true story of Alan Turing, the man credited by many (including Winston Churchill) for helping win WWII.

Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician and cryptoanalyst. He was also homosexual. Celebrated for his work in helping Great Britain crack the German’s “Enigma” messages, he was also persecuted (through chemical castration) for his homosexuality. His suicide at age 41 (1954) was the likely result of his “treatment” during an era when such “unacceptable” behavior overshadowed any and all mental genius.

The film utilizes Turing’s 1951 police interrogation by a sympathetic and curious detective (Rory Kinnear) as a framing device for the three significant time periods of his life. We see Turing as a bullied schoolboy (played by Alex Lawther) discovering the early signs of his own brilliance, as well as his first love. Most significantly, we witness Turing’s work with the Hut 8 team at Bletchley Park as they worked on complex code-breaking; and finally we see the remnants of a broken man, bathed in solitude and work, who has no real place in society.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an astounding performance as Alan Turing. We cannot take our eyes off of him, despite his Asperger’s-type social awkwardness. Cumberbatch manages to expertly capture each extreme emotion that befalls Turing, not the least of which is the frustration of the genius, when lesser minds are unable to follow his vision. Some of the best scenes are of Turing’s confrontations with a Royal Navy Commander (perfectly played by Charles Dance), and of course, the critical moments with the other members of his code-breaking team (including Matthew Goode and Keira Knightley).

There are so many aspects to Turing’s story: his impact on ending the war, how society treats true genius, his isolated childhood and final years, the extreme lack of civil rights for homosexuals of the time, and how his work on “Christopher” led to the development of computers. The second half of the film certainly presents the moral quandary, and the performance of Cumberbatch as a tortured genius overpowers any clichés that might creep in. Alexandre Desplat’s piano and strings score is a nice compliment without ever becoming overbearing, and the use of actual war newsreels adds just enough reminder of what the mission was for this group of geeks (today’s terminology).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in how brains, not just brawn, can impact a war OR you want to see one of the best performances of the year by an actor in a lead role

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting WWII battlefield reenactments

Watch the trailer:

 

 


JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2013)

January 18, 2014

jack ryan Greetings again from the darkness. Tom Clancy’s spy novels have produced four prior movies with three different actors appearing as Jack Ryan: Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears. While not based on a specific Clancy novel, this latest is a prequel clearly attempting to re-boot the franchise with Chris Pine as Ryan.

Screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp have come up with an elaborate backstory beginning with Ryan (Chris Pine) as a university student so impacted by the 9/11 events that he enlists in the Marines. His heroic actions in Afghanistan and impressive recovery from serious injuries draw the attention of Kevin Costner’s character who recruits Ryan into the CIA. Ryan is established as a genius analyst quickly rising through the ranks at his Wall Street firm.

That entire set up is well played and quite interesting. A character who is believable as both a Marine-trained combat expert and a world-class financial analyst is borderline superhero stuff, so a fine line must be walked. Oddly enough, the big mission that Ryan falls into is actually reminiscent of the Cold War James Bond films. Foiling a terrorist act and a Russian plot to crash the US economy may be a bit far-fetched, but not if you have Chris Pine and Kevin Costner on your side! The best scene … and most worthy of an espionage thriller … takes place at a fancy Russian restaurant. Dining together are Ryan, his fiancé (Keira Knightley) and the Russian bad guy (played by the film’s director Kenneth Branagh). It reminds somewhat of the poker game between Bond and Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Every glance and every word have dual meanings, and they all know they are being played. Unfortunately, it’s this terrific little dinner that begins the downward spiral for the movie. The action sequences are just plain silly, and the car chases, tricked out surveillance vans, and all-knowing super computer programs are just too familiar and tiresome to be effective.

Kenneth Branagh has had an extremely diverse directing career with films such as Frankenstein (1994), Hamlet (1996) and Thor (2011). It’s understandable that he would jump at the chance to re-ignite this franchise, but the genre is filled with high level competition – especially Bond and Bourne. So while it’s entertaining enough for a January action movie, it’s not at the level of the other franchises.

Perhaps Chris Pine is a bit too ambitious. Already established as the new Captain Kirk in the Star Trek re-boot, he seems somewhat over-matched in the Jack Ryan role. His stunning blue eyes may rival those of Frank Sinatra, but his screen presence falls short of Harrison Ford.

Three favorite pieces in this one are recognition for Manhattan’s long time theatre Film Forum, a two scene cameo from ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the appearance of Peter Andersson as Branagh’s head of security (he was the sleazebag case worker in Sweden’s original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Kevin Costner states this is geopolitics, but I believe it is closer to Hollywood’s desperation to recapture success instead of creating something new.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s January and your button for an Action flick is being pushed after all the Oscar releases in December.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you now expect all action/thriller movies to be at the level of Bond and Bourne.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9KAnx4EvaE

 

 


ANNA KARENINA (2012)

December 9, 2012

anna Greetings again from the darkness. We are all familiar with the phrase “All the World’s a Stage”, and director Joe Wright and writer Tom Stoppard twist the phrase into “All the Stage is the World” in their re-imagining of Leo Tolstoy‘s literary classic. With a bold and ambitious vision, the story plays out mostly within the confines of a theatre … utilizing not just the stage, but the rafters, backstage and all nooks. This is pulled off in a most operatic manner with heavy production, remarkable sets and costumes, and the use of curtains and doors for a change of scene. Additionally, most of the actors move like dancers and, at times, the dialogue delivery borders on musicality.

Tolstoy’s story has been adapted for the screen in more than two dozen versions, including two from screen legend Greta Garbo (1927, 1935). Who better to take on the role of Anna than Keira Knightley, the ultimate period actress of our generation. It’s her anna2third film with Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) and by far, the least traditional in presentation. This version focuses on the affair between Anna and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson from Kick-Ass), and her resolve in tossing aside her standing in Russian high-society … and even giving up her son.

We do gets bits and pieces of the other story lines: Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) provides some comic relief from the start despite his extra-marital wanderings from his wife (Kelly Macdonald); the stoic determination of the bureaucrat Karenin (Jude Law) as he insists on maintaining the proper illusion; and the down-to-earth landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s son) with his pursuit of perfect farming and the beautiful Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Some viewer anna4disappointment creeps in when we realize that Levin’s story is minimized here for the torrid love affair of Anna and Vronsky. Levin’s story is allowed to sneak outside the theatre setting … presumably since he is the only character living in the real world.

Tolstoy’s powerful story is stymied to some degree by the lack of sympathy we feel for Anna … while we certainly understand her lack of connection to the cold Karenin, we never sense more than a physical attraction and unreasonable wish between she and Vronsky. The strength of the story stems from Anna’s knowing willingness to surrender her anna3place in society for the sake of what should interprets as true love. When one of the society ladies states she could forgive Anna for breaking the law, but not for breaking the rules, we fully comprehend what a ridiculous state those in high society exist.

It’s difficult to imagine a wide acceptance of this unique presentation; however, the technical aspects of the film deserve much Oscar consideration – cinematography, set design, costumes, etc are all first rate. And Keira Knightley proves again that costume dramas are where she is at her best.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you thought all possible presentations of literary classics had been explored OR you need further proof that no actress today seems more natural in the unnatural costume dramas than Keira Knightley

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: film interpretations of the elite literary classics leave you with an empty feeling

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPGLRO3fZnQ


SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD (2012)

July 2, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. First time director Lorene Scafaria is best known for her wonderful script for Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. Directing her own script here, we are left wondering if the gaps are in the writing or directing, but it’s clear Ms. Scafaria loves long titles. Matilda, a giant asteroid, is headed towards Earth and life will cease to exist in 3 weeks. Upon hearing this news, Dodge’s wife Linda (played by Steve Carell‘s real-life wife) takes off running away from him and supposedly into the arms of her secret love affair partner.

Dodge (Carell) has little reaction to the bailing of his wife or even to the impending Armageddon. In fact, he strikes us as the guy who has had little reaction to much in life and has no idea who he really is. While he does have some acquaintances and a predictably boring job at an insurance company, Dodge shows no inclination to join in the festivities of excess (drugs, sex, religion, riots) enjoyed by others, and instead offers up a lame, sure-to-fail suicide attempt to go with his droopy demeanor and overall lethargy.

It takes little time for Dodge to be saddled with an abandoned dog named Sorry and a crying neighbor named Penny (Keira Knightley). This part of the film is actually its best feature. We get the forced partnership of this odd couple and a road trip that allows for some interaction with others. The others include standout scenes with William Peterson, Bob Stephenson and TJ Miller (below, left, the host at Friendsy’s, a TGIF themed diner that devolves into a lovefest that neither Dodge nor Penny care to partake.

 The road trip does have the outline of a purpose. Dodge wants to re-connect with his high school sweetheart and Penny wants to get home to England in time to say goodbye to her parents. However, it’s pretty clear that the main reason for the road trip is to allow Dodge and Penny to fall in love. Just another apocalyptic rom-com.

I totally get the “opposites attract” approach, but I found Knightley to be far beyond quirky (John Cale and Leonard Cohen vinyl) and closer to her mentally unstable character in the first hour of A Dangerous Method. As for Dodge, he may be the nice guy that Penny sees, but mostly his life force hovers just above zero, while wearing sweaters that would fit right into Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood. It’s not until he visits his estranged dad (Martin Sheen) that he shows signs of a pulse.  It’s kind of interesting to pay attention to the names in the film.  Dodge is ironic given what’s headed toward Earth.  Penny may or may not be lucky depending on your interpretation.  A survivalist named Speck, who doesn’t get that his preparations make no difference.  And, of course, a dog named Sorry.

2011 brought us two fascinating end-of-the world films in Melancholia and Another Earth.  This one avoids the manic depression of one or the science fiction of the other. While I never really bought into the heightened attraction of these two who miraculously become kindred spirits thanks to the time constraints, their relationship does provide fodder for thought. What would you do if you knew things were ending in 3 weeks? Would your true self finally make an appearance? If so, what are you waiting for? The message really is … our time is limited so don’t waste it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wouldn’t mind a little Herb Alpert with your apocalypse OR you need a primer in the greatness of vinyl records, even if the knowledge won’t help once the asteroid hits

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a hyper, twisted-faced Keira Knightley is not your ideal partner at the end regardless of the pristine condition of her John Cale and Leonard Cohen albums

watch the trailer: