Archive | February, 2012

The Whistleblower

26 Feb

Director:Larysa Kondracki

Writers:Larysa Kondracki, Eilis Kirwan

Stars:Rachel Weisz, Monica Bellucci and Vanessa Redgrave

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 112 minutes

 

 

Predicting the popularity of a film is a difficult task. The screenwriter William Goldman always stood by his often quoted phrase ‘nobody knows anything’ when discussing the genesis of films good and bad. I returned to this theme on watching The Whistleblower as it is an excellent film, but one that I had not heard of before and missed at the cinema (if indeed it ever got a UK theatrical release). The acting, especially from Rachel Weisz, is powerful and the story moving. It should have gained attention if not box office profit, but somehow appears to have achieved neither.

Weisz plays Kathryn Bolkovac, a US police officer that joins the UN peacekeeping mission in post-war Bosnia in 1999. She is there for the money as one of many security contractors. The country is in a poor state and ethnic divides are still tangible. It is clear that the UN and the various sets of private contractors on the ground have their work cut out to help ‘transition’ Bosnia to a peaceful and democratic endgame. Within the chaos criminality is rampant and Bolkovac starts to piece together a sex-trafficking conspiracy.

This film is based on actual events and that makes the harrowing storyline more impactful. The scale of the trafficking business and the inhumanity on display are hard to stomach. There are some particularly tough scenes, but none of them tip over the edge and sadly the miserable plight of the trafficked women does not seem unrealistic. We know from Iraq and Afghanistan that private contractors in a chaotic country, and with immunity to prosecution, can lose their moral compass and abuse those that they are supposed to protect. This is a low budget film with a big message that it delivers strongly. It is not easy to watch at times, but it deserves a bigger audience that it has obtained thus far.

Project Nim

23 Feb

Director:James Marsh

Stars:Bob Angelini, Nim Chimpsky and Bern Cohen

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 93 minutes

 

 

 

James Marsh, and his team, has delivered another excellent documentary. After the thrilling 2008 Man on Wire comes this fascinating account of the life of chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky. In a story that no doubt inspired last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this documentary charts the life of Nim from birth (1973) to death (2000) and his role in a nature versus nurture experiment to teach a chimpanzee sign language.

Nim’s story and this documentary starts with the experiment as run by Herbert Terrace at Columbia University. Nim is taken at birth from a compound in Oklahoma, transported to New York, and handed over to a family picked by Terrace. The aim is to try to teach Nim sign language and to try to assimilate the chimpanzee into a human family. It is the early 1970’s and such an authority defying experiment seems fitting. However, once Nim gets big and strong at 5 years old the experiment is curtailed. At that point Nim has shown the odd flash of animalistic and dangerous behaviour. What follows is the even more extraordinary and sad story of Nim as he is passed between wildlife parks, research labs and animal sanctuaries.

Nim’s story is fascinating and I was spellbound by it. What it tells us about animal capabilities and how it answers the nature versus nurture argument is not clear. What is clear is the impact that Nim has on the humans that he interacts with. The teachers, handlers and support staff are as much in the spotlight as Nim and each one reveal a range of human traits as Nim and they get older through the documentary. At times the human and animal line is perfectly blurred. This is a splendid piece of documentary film-making.

The Devil’s Double

19 Feb

Director: Lee Tamahori

Writers: Michael Thomas, Latif Yahia (books)

Stars: Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier and Raad Rawi

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 109 minutes

 

 

Of all the many lurid and fantastic tales of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the erratic behaviour of his eldest son Uday capped most for sheer madness. Uday was the son that murdered his father’s personal valet at a party, Uday tortured national athletes that failed to win whilst head of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, and Uday kept a personal zoo including lions and cheetahs. The President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak called Uday Hussein a psychopath and this film, based on the true story of Uday’s body double Latif Yahia, confirms the accuracy of that description.

In this film, set between the start of the Iraq – Iran war in the early ‘80’s and the US retaliation for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in the early ‘90’s, Dominic Cooper plays Uday and Latif. It is a far cry from Cooper’s traditional part in small British dramas (An Education, Tamara Drewe, My Week with Marilyn), but he acquits himself well. He channels Tony Scarface Montana in a lot of his scenes as the debauched Uday and for Latif, the ex Iraqi soldier, he goes a bit Jason Bourne. He certainly tries hard and the many scenes of them together are cleverly assembled.

Apart from Cooper’s valiant effort at the centre of this movie, much of it is poor. There are uneven accents and strange dialogue and the performance of Ludivine Sagnier, as the woman between Uday and Latif, is awful. There are torture scenes, stabbings, rape and other Caligula like horrors, but Uday is never truly menacing and the narrative behind the many shocks is weak. As for Lee Tamahori the director, 1994 and Once Were Warriors seems a very long time ago. Sub-standard all round.

The Debt

13 Feb

Director: John Madden

Writers: Matthew Vaughn (screenplay), Jane Goldman (screenplay), and 3 more credits

Stars: Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Tom Wilkinson

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 113 minutes

 

 

This is based on a 2007 Israeli film called Ha-Hov. I have not seen Ha-Hov, but it seems as though this English language update is very loyal to the source material. Watching The Debt made me wonder if there was a real story and / or a novel behind Ha-Hov, but both films are pure works of fiction (with various nods to modern history).

The story moves between the mid sixties and the late nineties and centres on a secret Mossad mission in East Berlin to capture a WWII Nazi criminal. Three young Mossad agents, Sam Worthington as David, Jessica Chastain as Rachel and Marton Csokas as Stephen, plot to kidnap the ‘surgeon of Birkenau’ and transport him back to Israel to stand trial. The bulk of the film is set in communist Berlin with the undercover agents struggling in their mission. The fallout of the work is revealed in the modern sections with Helen Mirren in the lead role as an aged Rachel (and then Ciaran Hinds as David and Tom Wilkinson as Stephen).

The device of having six different actors to play the three agents works well. I prefer it to using young actors and prosthetic make-up and here it gets six decent actors on to the screen. Of them Chastain and Mirren are very good as Rachel, but Worthington is less than convincing. The story is also good with sixties Berlin captured nicely. A solid amount of thrills, action and drama are delivered, but the ending is weak. Also, the film glosses over two potentially richer narrative threads; firstly how different people learn to live with traumatic pasts and secondly how the semi secret Nazi hunting expeditions of Mossad became so critical to the national psyche of Israel.

Fright Night

7 Feb

Director: Craig Gillespie

Writers: Marti Noxon (screenplay), Tom Holland (story), and 1 more credit

Stars: Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell and David Tennant

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 106 minutes

 

 

I did not see the original, but apparently this is a straight remake of that 1985 film. Back then it was a contemporary of Gremlins and Ghostbusters in the niche that is ‘comedy horror’. Later examples included House and The Lost Boys with all such films mashing up traditional scary stories with smart modern dialogue. Comedy horror remains a niche with unfortunately more misses than hits and Fright Night retains that slightly awkward feel to it.

In this remake it is Colin Farrell that plays creepy Jerry who moves into a desert bound suburb of Las Vegas and almost immediately puts his teenage neighbour Charley (Anton Yelchin) on edge. Encouraged by his geeky friend Ed (Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Charley starts to believe that Jerry is indeed a vampire. And when other neighbours start disappearing, Charley seeks help from acclaimed TV vampire hunter Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall upgraded to David Tennant).

Fright Night 2011 works well in Farrell’s seriously sociopathic performance and in the isolated and other worldly nature of the Vegas suburb setting. There are some decent lines including a nice anti Twilight joke and it is scary at times. However, the jumps back and forth between farce and fright combined with all of the high school angst (think Buffy meets Clueless) make a less than perfect cocktail. Watching David Tennant channel Russell Brand early on is amusing, but even that joke runs a little dry by the end. Not bad, but not great.

Warrior

2 Feb

Director: Gavin O’Connor

Writers: Gavin O’Connor (screenplay), Anthony Tambakis (screenplay), and 3 more credits

Stars: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Joel Edgerton

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 140 minutes

 

 

These are dark recessionary times that we live in. Some have to get in a cage to fight for the money to keep their houses and families. Some are fighting to release deep frustrations. Others seek cheap entertainment in watching the warriors do battle. It is not a coincidence that the popularity of mixed martial arts and cage fighting is growing and that a film such as Warrior is getting made and doing great business at the box office.

The warriors in question are estranged brothers Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton). They come from a dysfunctional working class family where Nick Nolte was the bullying and alcoholic father that broke the family apart 20 years earlier. All 3 characters are thrown back together in Atlantic City for a major cage fighting contest that the brothers have entered for very different reasons. Tommy is the ex marine with numerous demons. Brendan is the family man fighting to stave off bankruptcy. The brothers have not spoken for a long time, but look set to come to blows in the cage as the ‘war on the shore’ tournament plays out.

Whilst Warrior is very much a film for our times, and whilst the Atlantic City brotherly scrap is well signposted from the start, this is neither clichéd ridden nor mechanical. The film has a heart and delivers an emotional punch.  Hardy and Edgerton are well cast and Nolte does his usual red faced growling old guy routine. The fighting scenes are bone crunching at times, too much so for its certificate, and the film is just about the right length. And as a nod to the Rocky films there is a solid training montage, Brendan is an enormous underdog in all of his bouts, and there are ring side commentators in place to increase the hype.

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