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:


BIRTHMARKED (2018)

March 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Billed as a comedy, the movie will leave most viewers wondering wherefore art the laughs. Filmmaker Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais and his co-writer Marc Tulin aim high with a grown-up level look at the trials and tribulations of parenting – complicated here by a science experiment gone awry.

Matthew Goode plays Ben, the son of a long line of renowned scientists, and Toni Collette plays Catherine, the daughter of two noted physicists. The two nerds (a term of admiration) meet in graduate school, fall in love, and hatch a plan to conduct a revolutionary sociological scientific experiment. In 1977 they convince an arrogant and glory-seeking rich guy named Gertz (Michael Smiley) to fund an experiment with a premise that boils down to their intention of settling the nature vs. nurture debate once and for all.

Ben and Catherine plan to take their biological son Luke and turn him into an artist, while at the same time raising two adopted kids contrary to their genetic heritage. Maya, born into a family of “nitwits” will be raised as a Brainiac, while Maurice, born into a violent household, will be developed as a pacifist. It’s an interesting set-up that also includes Russian athlete Samsonov (Andreas Apergis) as their live-in caregiver/nanny, and Mrs. Tridek (Fionnula Flanagan) as Gertz’s well-meaning assistant.

The story jumps ahead to 1989 when Gertz arrives for the 12 year check-up and evaluation. When he deems the children to be “average”, Ben and Catherine are devastated. Gertz threatens them with bankruptcy if the experiment isn’t successfully expedited so he can publish the desired results. Mrs. Tridek also functions as the narrator who fills in the gaps with some details that might ordinarily leave us a bit confused.

Predictability rears its ugly head in the final act, and the film slips into more traditional cinematic story-telling and characterizations. Emotions and greed are the natural responses to the deception that has occurred, and while the adults leave us disappointed, it’s at this point where the story finally shifts to the kids and we get to see the winner in the nature vs. nurture battle. Where the film works best is in its look at just how powerful and overwhelming parenting can be, regardless of the brain power and intentions one brings to the situation. Toss in some greed and the power of biology, and the final analysis can’t be shocking, even if the film itself doesn’t quite live up to its premise.

watch the trailer:


ALLIED (2016)

November 22, 2016

allied Greetings again from the darkness. Every writer, director and actor dreams of being part of the next Casablanca … a timeless movie beloved by so many. It’s rare to see such a blatant homage to that classic, but director Robert Zemeckis (Oscar winner for Forrest Gump) and writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) deliver their version with an identical setting, nearly identical costumes, and the re-use of a song (“La Marseillaise”) which played such a crucial role.

Spy movies typically fall into one of three categories: action (Bourne), flashy/stylish (Bond), or detailed and twisty (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). This one has offers a dose of each blended with some romance and a vital “is she or isn’t she” plot. The “she” in that last part is French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour played by Marion Cotillard. Her introduction here is a thing of beauty, as she floats across the room thrilled to be reuniting with her husband Max Vatan. Of course the catch is that Max (Brad Pitt) is really a Canadian Agent and their marriage is a cover for their mission to assassinate a key Nazi. Yes, it’s 1942 in Morocco.

The two agents work well together and it’s no surprise when this escalates to a real romance between two beautiful and secretive people. It seems only natural that after killing Nazi’s and making love in a car during a ferocious sandstorm that the next steps would be marriage, a move to London, and having a kid. It’s at this point where viewers will be divided. Those loving the action-spy approach will find the London segment slows the movie to a crawl. Those who prefer intelligence gathering and intrigue may very well enjoy the second half more.

What if your assignment was to kill your beloved wife if she were deemed to be a double-agent? Max finds himself in this predicament, and since no one ever says what they mean in the community of spies, he isn’t sure if the evidence is legit or if it’s really a game to test his own loyalty. This second half loses sight of the larger picture of war, and narrows the focus on whether Max can prove the innocence of Marianne … of course without letting her know he knows something – or might know something.

Marion Cotillard is stellar in her role. She flashes a warm and beautiful smile that expertly masks her true persona. The nuance and subtlety of her performance is quite impressive. Mr. Pitt does a nice job as the desperate husband hiding his desperation, but his role doesn’t require the intricacies of hers. Supporting work comes via Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, August Diehl, Marion Bailey, Simon McBurney, and Matthew Goode.

The Zemeckis team is all in fine form here: Cinematographer Don Burgess captures the feel of the era, Composer Alan Silvestri never tries to overpower a scene, and Costume Designer Joanna Johnston is likely headed for an Oscar nomination. For a spy movie, the story is actually pretty simple and the tension is never over-bearing like we might expect. While watching the performance of Ms. Cotillard, keep in mind her most telling line of dialogue: “I keep the emotions real.” It’s a strategy that is a bit unusual in her world. How effective it is will be determined by the end of the movie.

watch the trailer:

 


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:

 

 


BELLE (2013, UK)

July 12, 2014

belle Greetings again from the darkness. Always a bit partial to films based on a true story, I would have to label this as a fictionalized historical period piece, and a step above most costume dramas (though the costumes here are quite stunning). While it’s a very attractive movie to look at, I was a bit frustrated at the multi-directional approach that just skimmed many topics.

The movie could have focused on the relationship between cousins Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Or it could have zeroed in on the unusual complexities raised by the illegitimate mixed race Belle being raised in British Aristocracy. Still another option would have been digging into the historical impact of Zong massacre and the subsequent arguments, court trials and appeals. Instead, we get a splash of each … which leaves the viewer wanting more detail on all three.

The cast is very strong and features Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Court … he raises Belle at the request of his nephew (her father). Lord Mansfield’s wife is played well by the always excellent Emily Watson.  Also featured are Miranda Richardson, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton (always entertaining), James Norton, Sam Reid, and Tom Felton – who creates yet another despicable character to go with his Draco from the “Harry Potter” series.

Maybe the best term for this is historical melodrama, as the courtroom decision comes across as anti-climatic, with more third act attention paid to Belle’s love interest (Mr. Reid). Very little is known of the actual Dido Elizabeth Belle, but it seems clear that her role in the Zong trial was dramatically enhanced for the purposes of the film. In fact, more drama may have played out for the film’s writing credit between the director Amma Asante and the WGA. Though the director lost the writing credit, she can be proud enough of the final product.  The two cousins are featured in the famous 1779 painting (see below) that inspired the story.

1779 painting

 

 


A SINGLE MAN (2009)

January 31, 2010

 (1-31-10) Greetings again from the darkness. World famous fashion designer Tom Ford (YSL, Gucci) dives head first into the movie world as writer (screenplay) and director of this one. As expected, the visual details are impeccable – from the “glass house” to the color scheme to the set design to the wardrobe and make-up. All that is missing is a character we care about.

Colin Firth has been nominated for many awards for his performance as George, the grieving professor, who in 1962 lost his partner of 16 years. Not even sure grieving is the correct word. Mostly, George has just given up on life. He gets up every morning and puts on his facade and begins the false-front that is his day.

We see, in flashback/daydream form, Mathew Goode as George’s partner. They seemed to have been very happy together. We also see Julianne Moore as George’s neighbor and long ago shot at a “real” relationship (her words). Ford has a nice touch showing Ms. Moore applying make-up as she puts on her best front for an evening with her grieving friend, George. It’s all a bit pathetic actually.

Anyway, here it is 8 months after his lover’s death and George has apparently decided to end his misery. We are locked in to his preparations, which are every bit as fastidious as his morning routine. My favorite parts were when George gets shocked out of his little world and has to interface, even briefly, with a colleague or neighbor’s kid. The way he maintains his front is the key to what’s ticking.

Overall, it is impossible to argue with the praise being heaped upon Mr. Firth for his fine performance, but this film is really pretty shallow and gives us nothing to ponder. Maybe the Christopher Isherwood novel (source material) is better. Evidently the subject matter clicked with Mr. Ford … too bad he wasn’t successful in sharing his connection.


LEAP YEAR (2010)

January 18, 2010

 (1-9-10) Greetings again from the darkness. Director Anand Tucker has a couple of nice films on his resume – “Shopgirl” and “Hilary and Jackie”. What attracted him to this lame project is beyond me. The best thing I can say about this film is that the preview is actually more complex than the film … it at least left you with small hope that maybe it wouldn’t be as predictable as it appeared.

Amy Adams is a fine actress, actually an excellent actress and usually very likable. She really had no idea what to do with this character and thanks to the assembly-line script, who can even blame her. I won’t go into the details here … mostly because I don’t want to think about it ever again.

The pace of the film is excruciatingly slow. Matthew Goode is miscast. Adam Scott plays a caricature of a stereotype. John Lithgow is in one throw-away scene (I actually felt sorry for him). Don’t worry though, you do get to see Amy Adams walking through cow dung in expensive heels, and riding a mudslide in expensive clothes, and wheeling her expensive luggage down Irish backroads in a hail storm. If that sounds cute and funny to you … then I have been too kind in my description.