Saturday, October 31, 2015

MAN UP

Simon Pegg     Lake Bell     Olivia Williams     Ophelia Lovibond     Henry Lloyd-Hughes     Rory Kinnear


          Man Up, a UK production, is a bit like a British sitcom, in which a youngish single woman half-heartedly looking for her man is mistaken for a man’s blind date at a match-up meeting place, and she impulsively—as is her pattern—goes along with it by taking on the identity of the missing woman whom she had met briefly on the train.  Nancy (Bell) has a sister who is bombarding her with pop psychology aphorisms to encourage the socially awkward Nancy out into the marketplace, which may partly account for her decision to go along with the mistake.
          Nancy has a quirky personality, coming up with humorous pronouncements that tend to be off-putting, and causing the listener to disappear.  She’s also a bit slapstick and clumsy in getting from one place to another.  Nancy been burned in romance, so is feeling cynical about commitment.  Jack (Simon Pegg), her “date” is just as quirky as she is and doesn’t pick up cues that he has met up with the wrong woman.  They end up having a screwball good time fueled by alcohol, though, until she bumps into an old boyfriend, Sean (Rory Kinnear), whose torch still burns for her.  When he discovers what she has done, he threatens to out her unless she does him some favors. 
        As an added complication to the plot, Nancy is supposed give the key toast at her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, but typical of her, this gets put on the back burner, making it questionable whether she will let her family down or not.
         If one goes for the humor in British comedies, Man Up will be great fun.  It’s a little slapstick, touches on common anxieties of contemporary singles, is chockfull of incongruities, and keeps the viewer invested in the outcome.
         Bell, a very talented actress, carries the lead well, although overacting—which may be at the writer’s (Tess Morris) and director’s (Ben Palmer) behest—detracts from a solid performance.  She has adopted a British accent, which is largely successful.  The opening scenes with goofy Bell making faces with a lipstick prop can be hilarious, or over-done, depending on the viewer’s preference.  Pegg bring his considerable comedic skills to bear, and he and Bell sync perfectly when they’re cutting up during the first part of their date.  Likewise, at the resolution of the fiasco, they pull it off beautifully.  Supporting actors (Olivia Williams, Ophelia Lovibond, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, and Rory Kinnear) add depth and interest to the main plot.

For a tasty bite of British humor, this romcom is likely to satisfy.

Grade:  C+                                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, October 30, 2015

SPOTLIGHT

Mark Ruffalo   Rachel McAdams   Michael Keaton     Liev Schreiber   Stanley Tucci   Billy Crudup   John Slattery


          Shining a spotlight on wrongdoing is a big scoop for a newspaper, but it also holds huge risks.  The small team at the Boston Spotlight was charged with investigating the involvement of Catholic priests in the abuse of children in the 1970’s, just when newspapers were beginning to founder and a new editor had come aboard.  And Marty Baron (Schreiber) was an astute editor, insisting on pursuing the story even when the staff was a bit reluctant—except for one, Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), one of the newer reporters. 
        Tom McCarthy, director, and co-writer with Josh Singer, has once again shown his considerable talent in telling an important story with grace, compassion, and thoughtfulness (as in The Station Agent, Win Win, and The Visitor) without indulging in hero worship or lurid descriptions.  That is, he avoided focusing it as a major newspaper scoop, and kept the attention on the (in)humanity of the issue.  Based on a true story, for which the Spotlight received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003, McCarthy’s film is a docudrama about the newspaper’s honorable pursuit of the truth.  In their efforts, they encountered formidable resistance from a shocking number of respected leaders in the Boston community.
         The reluctance of so many to admit culpability—based on a myriad of reasons even as simple as “It just didn’t capture my attention” to “Yes I did it, but it wasn’t wrong”–is entirely understandable in some cases, but reprehensible in others.  The film does a fine job in distinguishing these from one another.  One sign of a story well told is if audience members ask themselves, “What would I have done?” and have to think about it for a while. 
   In addition to the drama, McCarthy knows how to choose musicians and cinematographers who will enhance the drama.  Howard Shore’s music swells or lilts at just the right places to reinforce the drama.  Similarly, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi is skilled in capturing mood and emotion in the drama and employing the camera as a visual guide.
     Now, back to the actors.  Mark Ruffalo gives probably one of his most memorable performances here, although he is noteworthy in many films (e.g., Foxcatcher, The Kids are all Right, The Avengers series, and television’s The Normal Heart).  As Mike in this film, he shows him as a team player, an eager beaver but with values, and more importantly one of the few who really champions and wants to protect children.  (I was dismayed to see how little regard for children so many, even mothers, had, as well as the absence of any impulse to protect younger children coming up.)  Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams are noteworthy as well, especially in their “naturalness” in playing their roles.   He in his cool editor role who resists being regarded above his staff and she in her obviously caring but crack reporter role. 
       Actually, the whole ensemble is outstanding.  Liev Schreiber plays a boss that we would all like to have in his wisdom, listening ear, and smooth direction of the team.  Stanley Tucci delivers another of his nuanced performances (with hair this time!) as an outsider in a community that doesn’t seem to want to pay attention to what he has to say.  Billy Crudup and John Slattery round out an altogether fine cast.
      Obviously, I think Spotlight is one of the better films this year owing to the high level of movie-making production and ethical/moral values it epitomizes.

This is a fine film in just about every way.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, October 29, 2015

BURNT

Bradley Cooper     Sienna Miller     Daniel Brühl     Omar Sy     Emma Thompson     Uma Thurman     Alicia Vikander


          A chef with a sordid past shows up in New Orleans being as obnoxious as he used to be in the kitchen.  However, he has at least shaken the destructive addictions that got him into trouble and has done self prescribed penance by shucking one million oysters.  Now, he is ready to begin again—in London.  When he gets there, Adam Jones (Cooper) gradually meets up with a number of colleagues from the past, but no one is pleased to see him because of the dastardly things he had done to them.    Nevertheless, (the man has grit) he starts to recruit the very people he had wronged.  It won’t be an easy road and he still has things to learn, but his reputation as a chef and his charm (when he turns it on)—and sometimes behind-the-scenes manipulation—will get him the people he wants in a restaurant that needs rescuing.
         Burnt is a good title for the film as a metaphor referring to a mistake in the kitchen, to friends and colleagues feeling burnt by Adam, and burning one’s bridges before an exit.  The film is about the ups and downs of getting the restaurant, “Adam Jones at The Langham”, on its feet and Adam’s try for a third Michelin star.  Unfortunately, he yells at his staff, is rude with everyone, and has temper tantrums when things aren’t perfect, running the risk of losing valuable employees.  (This over-the-top violent interaction reminds me of Director John Wells’ August:  Osage County of last year.)  But Adam sees a therapist (Thompson) and tentatively starts a supportive friendship to get his self on a better, less destructive track. 
        One of the things I find very frustrating in “food” movies is that we don’t really get to look at the gorgeous dishes prepared.  Isn’t that part of the point in seeing a movie about gourmet restaurants?  The editing of this film by Nick Moore is so jerky we never get to admire the artful dishes that someone has slaved over; and the rapid cuts from one scene to the next and zipping back and forth between two characters’ simultaneous actions can have a dizzying effect.  It may be that the filmmakers are interested in showing us what really goes on in high-end restaurants—a lot of yelling and throwing dishes across the room and at people—but I for one can just as well do without that side of reality, if it is indeed a reflection of reality.
        Bradley Cooper does bring his acting skills to the character, but the script makes him so repulsive, it’s hard to warm up to him.  Adam does become more insightful and respectful of others across time and lets go of some perfectionism, but watching that much narcissism unleashed for most of the film is tiresome.  The characters played by Sienna Miller and Daniel Brühl provide good counterbalance to Adam’s abrasiveness, and they are well cast.  Likewise, Uma Thurman and Emma Thompson bring extra sparks to their cameos.  Another cameo by Alicia Vikander is perfect as a woman who appears to be mysterious at first, but whose identity is gratifyingly explained. 
        Somehow, despite all the talent involved in the making of this film, Burnt just doesn’t fill the appetite.

Burnt:  Not a well seared production.

Grade:  C-        By Donna R. Copeland



Wednesday, October 28, 2015

TRUTH

Cate Blanchett   Robert Redford   Topher Grace   Dennis Quaid   Elizabeth Moss   Bruce Greenwood   Stacy Keach


          This Truth does need to be told to remind us of the importance of solid investigative journalism at a time when so much news has become infotainment.  The film is based on a book written by its lead character Mary Mapes (Blanchett) entitled Truth and Duty:  The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.  It gives Mapes’ account of a story she researched and produced on television’s “60 Minutes”, which questions President Bush’s service in the Air National Guard.  The first half of the film shows the painstaking efforts made by the CBS team to fact check their data to assure its veracity.  They sincerely think they are doing the best job they can as journalists.  Little do they realize the power of those who have competing interests in squashing such a newscast.  
          The coincidence of the story being aired during a Presidential election turns out to be meaningful.  Needless to say, it creates a firestorm of controversy.  Dan Rather (Redford), CBS’ news anchor reporting the story, is criticized, but nothing like the vitriolic attacks on Mapes, his producer.  Was it at least partly because she was a woman?  She had a reputation for aggressively going after stories, but initially CBS patted her on the back for this.  The film does a good job in showing that some of the things she is criticized for actually make her a good reporter. 
       But when CBS’ parent company, Viacom, enters the picture and begins to exert a strong arm over CBS—because of a competing interest—the writing is on the wall.  Rather sees it.  He bends to the forces and goes out gracefully.  Rather and Mapes are the best of friends/colleagues, but with very different personalities and backgrounds.  Having been abused by her father and well supported by her husband, she cannot resist a final major defense of the story (against her lawyer’s advice to mollify a committee stacked against her), which is not in her own self-interest.  But that’s a hero for you.
        Blanchett is clearly a star in this production—as she is in so many—by capturing the essence of the Mapes figure and empathically rendering it.  Her co-star Redford—while he does not physically resemble the newscaster—easily conveys the essence of Rather.  The actors’ chemistry onscreen is a valid reproduction of the deep connection between Rather and Mapes. 
        This is a film that will not receive its due primarily for political reasons, I think.  But it is well told even-handedly by writer/director James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spiderman, 2012, 2014; Zodiac) and the actors. 

I am glad this account of Dan Rather’s undoing is being told, although it is a sad story.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS

Sandra Bullock     Billy Bob Thornton     Anthony Mackie     Ann Dowd     
Scoot McNairy     Zoe Kazan     Joaquim de Almeida


          Crisis is the key word here in this picture showing the seamier (realistic?) side of politics.  The setting is Bolivia where a race for president is going on, the screenplay (Peter Straughan) of which is inspired by a documentary (same title) directed by the talented Rachel Boynton (Big Men http://texasartfilm.com/bigmen.html) about a political race for president of Bolivia in 2002.  Candidate Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado hired an American political firm that consulted all over the world to run his campaign:  Greenberg Carville Shrum.  (That’s Carville, as in James Carville.)  Since I haven’t seen the documentary, I don’t know how much the movie reflects events in that work.
          Our Brand is Crisis the movie begins with two political strategists, Nell (Dowd) and Ben (Mackie) driving through the snow to Jane Bodine’s (Bullock) isolated cabin to talk her into joining their team in Bolivia.  Hurt by political machinations in her work as a crack strategist in the past, she has developed new interests and a new life.  Somehow, though, the thrill of a campaign is seductive, and she decides to join them. 
        Unfortunately, after arriving in Bolivia with altitude sickness and feeling rotten in general, she realizes that her prior nemesis Pat Candy (Thornton) is on the scene.  Bad news.  The movie takes a neutral stance about their past, so it is unclear who actually was responsible for the most heinous dirty tricks in previous campaigns, although, I think they want us to believe that it was Candy, who comes across as slimy as the snake in the Garden of Eden. 
        The campaign proceeds and the two teams end up going for the jugular.  It is a fascinating (at least to me) look at how political campaign strategists think and reason.  In Jane’s case, she deftly sizes up the psychology of her candidate Castillo (de Almeida) and figures out how to turn his weaknesses into strengths—clearly going against the advice he is currently receiving from his own consultant and the American team.  In view of this perceptive cogency, the filmmakers’ showing her clumsy and neurotic for comic effect was silly and an unnecessary distraction.  They should have dispensed with the “comedy” altogether and gone for dramatic effect and political illumination.
          Although we learn how the election turns out, the film ends with an ambiguity that I see as a strength.  Beneath Jane’s many “masks” (alternately crazy, tender, calculating, insightful, and—above all—perceptive), she is a thoughtful and sincere woman with convictions who will continually surprise.
       We know Sandra Bullock is a phenomenal actor, and I think she portrayed this character to a T.  Such a talent actor can make the character come alive so forcefully you forget the actor.  She was strongest in this film when Candy is speaking to her in a taunting, seductive, goading manner and she simply stares into space (and you know exactly what she is thinking) or—in contrast—when she forcefully confronts her team or the candidate with hard truths; or at the end when she is mulling over in her mind the comments of the young campaign worker and all that has just transpired.  Billy Bob Thornton is masterful in portraying a truly evil person, all while talking in the most civil and seductive manner.  His idea of coming into the filming looking exactly like James Carville was a brilliant move.
          David Gordon Green does the quiet, personally revolutionary films that I am inevitably drawn to (e.g., Prince Avalanche, George Washington).  I imagine he smiles as he thinks about the issues he has brought up in Our Brand is Crisis that will spark controversy and differences of opinion.  In discussions about this film, I expect many will have strong opinions about political consultants, political processes (particularly elections), and the marketing of candidates.

An insightful look at the underside of political campaigns.

Grade:  B                        By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, October 26, 2015

MERU

Conrad Anker     Jimmy Chin     Renan Oztark     Jon Krakauer


          Meru is just as much about humanity as it is about climbing a formidable peak in the Himalayas, and the photography by two of the climbers (Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk) is awe- inspiring.  Admirably, the film shows brotherhood at its best as well as heroism and brawn.  It opens with a stark scene of a tent clinging to the side of a frosted cliff.  Inside are climbers, some asleep, some awake, listening to a morning toll.  Outside are sheer cliffs covered with ice and the starry blue sky in the background.  We’re a part of a major climb, with Jon Krakauer, a seasoned climber, as guide and commentator; he was a member of an earlier attempt to climb Mount Everest
       The climbers are Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Oztark.  Conrad had Alex Lowe, a legendary climber killed in an avalanche, as his mentor.  Ever since, he is bound and determined to scale Shark’s Fin in Meru, a summit Krakauer describes as the center of the universe where heaven and hell come together.  It’s a 1,500-foot blade of granite 15,000 feet high.  Conrad and Jimmy had made a previous attempt that failed.
Anker, Chin, and Oztark will attempt the climb carrying their own gear (200 pound loads)  without the help of sherpas.  When a storm comes in, they have to stay in a tent fastened to a cliff for four days, which depletes their food supply.  Jimmy and Renan assume that when they get out, they’ll be going back down.  But no, Conrad insists on going on up. 
        However, later, when Renan suffers frostbite and trench foot and they have no food, the trio is forced to turn around.  Three years pass, and Conrad and Jimmy are continuing to plan for another attempt at Meru.  Renan wants to go too, but then he has a ski accident and sustains a severe head injury.  Nevertheless, he still wants to go, and the other two have to make a decision about whether to include him.  It will make it riskier for Conrad and Jimmy, as well as Renan.  The last half of the story is about that journey and whether or not they succeed. 
      Meru is a well-made documentary that sheds light on the kind of people who have burning aspirations to scale great heights, including their backgrounds, which also helps explain who they are and how they came to be.  As much as I admire and appreciate the nobility of their efforts, I have to acknowledge that I don’t really understand the passion for climbing.  Still, I could enjoy it vicariously by watching the film and getting to know these players and the sense of brotherhood that seems to be characteristic of serious mountain climbers.
       Meru is in limited release, but is coming out on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD this November (2015).

Scaling great heights at considerable cost in astonishingly beautiful surroundings.

Grade:  A-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, October 22, 2015

TAXI TEHRAN

Jafar Panahi

           Jafar Panahi (The Circle, Offside, This is not a Film) has a keen sense of humor as he seriously pursues his career as an activist filmmaker in Iran.  In this production, he plants himself in a taxi equipped with a camera so he can film his fares.  Now, this is a movie, not a documentary; so he has written a script for people (actors?) who get into his taxi to discuss the current state of affairs in Iran.  This idea stems from his arrest in 2010 (along with his wife, daughter, and 15 friends), charged with propaganda against the Iranian government.  He spent six years in jail, and was prohibited from filmmaking for twenty years.  Never to be outdone, Panahi then made a film entitled This is not a Film (2011). 
       I delight in this artist’s sense of humor.  In Taxi Tehran, along with the issue of filmmaking (cameras and phones are ubiquitous, I suppose as a commentary on technology being everywhere, even in Iran), Panahi has us consider the issue of thievery.  One passenger argues vociferously with a woman in the back seat about whether someone who steals tires from a car should be put to death.  He thinks they should be hanged; she argues that perhaps there were circumstances that should be taken into account.  An old neighbor of Panahi gets in the car and relates how he was hit with a bat and robbed by a husband and wife.  Turns out, he knows them, but can’t bear to bring charges against them because of their financial circumstances.  The point:  Should thieves’ circumstances be taken into account?
         An extreme case of thievery prevention is a bloody fare and his wife after a bicycle accident needing to go to the hospital.  The man is certain he is dying so insists on a camera to film him giving his last will and testament to prevent his brothers from making a claim on his estate.  As sad as some of these sequences are, we still chuckle.
        Another passenger is Panahi’s niece, Hana, a cheeky little girl he needs to pick up from school.  She is attending a filmmaking class, so her camera is always by her side.  This is one of the most entertaining sequences of the film for me partly because of her sincere sass, partly because of how he relates to her—with respect tinged with indulgence—but also her citing the rules her teacher has outlined for a “distributable” film, which she is trying to make (e.g., Respect the Islami headscarf, avoid violence, avoid “sordid realism”, etc.).                   When her uncle leaves her in the car to run an errand, she films out the car window and sees a boy picking up trash and also pick up some money a wedding groom has dropped on the street.  She talks to the boy and tries to get him to return it—not on the basis of morality, but because she wants to make a “distributable” film!  She argues with him about it, and he seems to be convinced, but then equivocates.  How human!
          Taxi Tehran continues on with the theme of thievery right to the end with the return of a purse left in the taxi and the (for the filmmaker) ultimate theft. 
     One has to admire Jafar Panahi’s creativity in responding to Iranian legislative absurdities.  I see this as filmmaking at its best:  A modern fairy tale with substance.

Grab a taxi and see this film!

Grade:  A By Donna R. Copeland
  

ROOM

Brie Larson     Jacob Tremblay     Joan Allen     William H. Macy


            Room:  A perfectly paced suspenseful thriller that leads the viewer right into the film so you will experience exactly what the characters do.  “Ma” (Larson) and Jack (Tremblay) are seen in their normal daily functions—cooking, eating, sleeping, bathing—with a twist.  Ma keeps Jack’s imagination active by telling him stories and helping him figure out how the world is.  He has a birthday, and they make a cake, which is a bittersweet occasion.  But Ma is strong and Jack ultimately feels supported by her.  He has a sunny disposition—well, they both do—and in some ways it’s happily childlike.
            The pacing of the film directed by Lenny Abrahamson (who also directed the fine quirky film Frank) allows plenty of time for the question to be answered as to why they’re in this enclosed space, and it’s done gradually, so it takes time for the truth to dawn.  They do have a visitor periodically who brings in supplies, but Ma doesn’t appear to be all that pleased with him.  Because Jack obviously does not know much about the outside world Ma has to weave stories and information about it into their daily conversations and games.
            Because of the artistry of the director, the writer (Emma Donaghue), cinematographer (Danny Cohen, known for The King’s Speech and Les Miserables), and musical score (Stephen Rennicks), the film becomes a combination of suspense, horror, mysteriousness, and human drama, all put together in a highly coordinated ensemble.  They give Room psychological depth in the main characters, and as well in authorities and people in general.  Insensitive curiosity, impatience, obtuseness, and testiness abound right along with gentleness, love, and acceptance.  Although this is about tragedy, it’s also a beautifully designed tapestry that fills up the screen with real humanness. 
            Brie Larson has accumulated praises for her work most notably in Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now, Don Jon, and 21 Jump Street, and this is probably her most demanding role because she is on screen for most of the movie.  And she does a heroic job.  Her young co-star, Jacob Tremblay, who already has 13 credits to his name in just three years, shows off considerable talent here.  They sync together in a tight bond that reflects an isolated togetherness of five years.  The experienced Joan Allen and William H. Macy are powerful in their roles as Jack’s grandparents, who appear late in the film, but each has his/her individual differences in dealing with an emotional situation, and help illustrate the jarring adjustment to traumatic situations.
            Room is an unusual (unusual in its “truthiness”) dramatization of events that we hear about today, but don’t really have a way of imagining.  Abrahamson and crew have given us a way to visualize and better understand the challenges and need for empathy of those who manage to get through traumatic situations.

This is a rare treat that combines stark reality with imagination and childhood joy.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

LABYRINTH OF LIES

Alexander Fehling     Andre Szymanski     Friederike Becht     Gert Voss     Johannes Krisch


          Indeed, Labyrinth of Lies contains a complex labyrinth of denial that the protagonist must cut his way through to get to the heart of the matter in the late 1950’s—that of identifying Nazi Party members who were stationed at Auschwitz during WWII.  Johann Radmann (Fehling) is genuinely committed to The Truth, based to a great extent on his father’s admonition to him before coming up missing in the war.  Johann is young enough not to have heard about the concentration camps in Germany, and has to be brought up to speed, partly on his own because few people want to talk about it.  He is a prosecutor, and when the film opens, is bored out of his mind dealing with traffic tickets.  Thomas Gnielka (Szymanski) is a reporter who makes a scene in a law firm, trying to get it to investigate someone who was an officer at Auschwitz and is now a local schoolteacher. Gnielka and Radmann become friends, which is another way Johann becomes more informed about the war.  Later, when he gets a chance to lead the investigation in ferreting out Auschwitz personnel who are still living, he jumps at it.  Little does he realize that this will involve looking up 8,000 employees of the camp.
         Johann is on the pole opposite the deniers and “forgetters” of the Holocaust.  He views the law as dichotomous; either you’re guilty or innocent, and if you’re guilty you must be punished, no matter what the extenuating circumstances are or were.  He goes after identifying and locating the perpetrators with unmatched zeal, heedless of the cautionary advice of those senior to him.  He is so obsessed with the task as he sees it he even shows no mercy to those in his circle whom he loves, when he finds they were members of the Nazi Party.
      This well made film from Germany directed by Giulio Ricciarelli and co-written with Elizabeth Bartel, examines the concepts of punishment, forgiveness, and mercy within a system of justice.  Johann has major battles—wins and losses—in arriving at a place where he is at peace.  I presume his journey is meant to signify the one the German people have had to make.  It’s similar as well to Nelson Mandela’s stance in South Africa after he was released from prison.  His message was that forgiveness and reconciliation should take precedence over punishment; it is the victims and their stories that become essential in this paradigm.
         Alexander Fehling captures the role of the earnest, naïve, ambitious attorney who has a bit of the save-the-world complex; as he learns more, his expression turns to one of pain, puzzlement and doubt, part of the maturing process.  Gert Voss as his Attorney General is strong as well in his role of trying to supervise his charge while giving him freedom to investigate and use his own ideas.  Other supporting actors, Becht, Szymanski, and Krisch help to make this a fine acting ensemble.  The moving score by Sebastian Pille and Niki Reiser and elegant cinematography of Martin Langer and Roman Osin enhances the quality of this fine production that relates the story of historically important events.

A finely crafted film detailing the German zeitgeist following World War II.

Grade:  A-                        By Donna R. Copeland

ROCK THE KASBAH

Bill Murray   Zooey Deschanel   Leem Lubany   Kate Hudson   Bruce Willis


            Rock the Kasbah is billed as a comedy, but it’s really one huge absurdity.  Now, if absurd is always funny to you, then you will enjoy the picture.  A washed-up agent for musicians, Richie (Murray), stumbles on a chance to go on a USO tour in Afghanistan, and takes his young client (Deschanel) who is begging to sing her own songs.  From the plane trip over, it becomes clear that she is not up to the “adventures” that seem to be in store for her, especially when they find Kabul is on lock-down and bombs are going off in the streets.  Needless to say, she doesn’t last long, and Richie has a major dilemma.  Will she return in time for the performance?  Where are his credit cards and money?
            To cope with his grief, Richie visits an ambitious American woman (Hudson), who knows an infinite number of ways to make him feel better.  They become friends and eventually partners in his business.
            As one of the sub-plots, Richie gets involved with some gun/ammunition dealers and winds up in a small village.  In the evening when he goes for a walk, he hears singing that stops him in his tracks.  The singer is so talented he must find her and contract to be her agent.  (It only takes a handshake, mind you; no one needs a contract because his word is good.)  That this is a Muslim country and women are prohibited from singing in public, especially (God forbid!) in English(!), is no deterrent for the supremely confident Richie. 
            Of course, he is able to locate Salima (Lubany) and plans are made to enter her in Afghanistan’s counterpart to our “American Idol.”  She sings once, and is a hit; however, being a loyal and obedient daughter, her ambivalence emerges, and it’s not clear whether she will compete in the second round for her chance to win. 
            Intrigue, challenges, and conflicts abound, and it’s touch-and-go as to whether Richie will even be able to survive, much less finally score a hit.
            Murray is a fine comedian, and does his “stuff” here, but I think it’s the script by Mitch Glazer that lets him down.  We see/hear none of the cleverness that elicits spontaneous chuckles from the audience, as in his role in Moonrise Kingdom and other films.  The same thing happens to Bruce Willis, a proven artist; his character should be hilarious, but it falls flat too. 
            And of course, Barry Levinson is an acclaimed producer/director/writer, but for some reason, his talent doesn’t come across here. 
            In addition to the script, I think that perhaps the problem with the film is the choice of Afghanistan, a Muslim country, as a setting.  So much tragedy and outright horrors of all kinds have taken place there, it’s incongruent and rather insensitive to make it the setting for a comedy.  I also wonder how well received the story will be by Muslims, as they are not shown in a very good light (backward and war-like).  Why was Afghanistan chosen? 

Bottom line:  Avoid this film if you are politically sensitive and look for clever comedy.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland




Thursday, October 15, 2015

(T)ERROR

          (T)ERROR is a troubling documentary about the FBI’s use of paid informants to identify individuals who might be terrorists.  Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe writers and directors, follow an informant during his work with three “persons of interest” (POI).  Lyric had known Saeed (aka “Shariff”) since her childhood, when he suddenly disappeared from her apartment building where he used to live.  But one day he called her in a panic for his safety and informed her of his activities. He called presumably because she was aspiring to be a documentarian and he toyed with the idea of her telling his story, and yet he was clearly ambivalent about being filmed.  Nevertheless, he allowed the project to proceed. 
          Saeed actually had a criminal record, but that didn’t seem to concern the FBI when they asked him to be an informant.  He had been a member of the Pink Panthers in the l960’s when J. Edgar Hoover instructed FBI agents to begin recruiting informers to aid in his investigations.  This practice was intensified after 9/11, and they now had 15,000 informants.  In the 1960’s, Saeed was arrested for his activities with the Pink Panthers (stealing from public organizations to give to “the masses”, impersonation of a transit policeman, and possession of weapons).  He says that he was recruited to be an informant at the time of his arrest, and when he gave information about suspects in the first World Trade Center bombing, his sentence was reduced.
          Over the coming years, he continued to inform for the FBI, and the film covers several of his POI’s.  One ethical question posed by the film has to do with the informants’ getting to know suspects, gaining their trust, and then informing on them.  Sometimes, it seems, they even prod them into doing something wrong.  In one case, the FBI bungled an operation, exposing Saeed who had come to the conclusion that the suspect was not a terrorist.  Nevertheless, the man was convicted and sent to prison.  In protest, he contacted the Project SALAM organization, which offers support and advocacy for Muslims, and a suit against the FBI is in the works.
            The filmmakers avoid taking a position about the issues posed; they want the viewer to make up his/her own mind.  (T)error won the Special Jury Award for Breakout First Feature at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and the story is profiled in a segment on This American Life: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/566/the-land-of-make-believe?act=2#playhttp://www.thisamericanlife.org/radioarchives/episode/566/transcript  
          (T)error is groundbreaking in its being the first film to document an FBI investigation in progress, which also makes it risky for the filmmakers.  So far, the FBI has only responded with a comment about its being “educational” and about the FBI having strict guidelines for undercover operations (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/movies/-t-error-focuses-on-informant-and-piques-fbis-interest.html?_r=0 

A well measured, compelling documentary detailing some FBI undercover work.


Grade:  A-                        By Donna R. Copeland