Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Gatekeepers (2013)


Intelligence professionals are understandably media shy.  Israel’s Shin Bet stays out of the spotlight more than most.  Other than the organization’s man in charge, all other senior leaders are unknown to the public.  Furthermore, they do not give interviews.  The Gatekeepers is shocking because of who the filmmaker interviews, the six surviving heads of the Shin Bet.

From the 1967 Six-Day war to today’s intractable dilemmas not only with the Palestinians, but also with right-wing extremist Israelis, the Shin Bet chiefs discuss in detail their most significant operations, both successes and failures.  The oldest chief, Avraham Shalom, reveals he expected a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza to form but that idea vanished when the bombings and hijackings began.

Shalom, expressing frustration with indecisive political leadership, a similar theme amongst most of the chiefs, had no roadmap to follow concerning counter-terrorism.  There was no strategy in place to handle the new phenomenon and Shin Bet settled into a reactionary and piecemeal tactical response.  A detailed focus on the hijacking of bus 300 explains Shalom’s downfall.  Two of the four hijackers survived the ordeal only to be throttled near death in Army custody.  Shalom ordered their execution when he guessed they would die anyway or be nursed back to health for a trial he did not want to occur.  A subordinate finished the men off with a rock to the head.

The exploration of the Bus 300 aftermath is a showcase in spectacular visual effects.  The camera lingers on a picture with the bus in the background and then computer-generated effects take the audience inside an all of a sudden three-dimensional picture.  It maneuvers around frozen people, circles cars, and steps inside the bus to show a dead Palestinian slumped on top of the steering wheel behind a bullet-hole ridden windshield.  These effects are so novel; The Gatekeepers would be a lock if there were a Best Documentary Visual Effects award. 

Other examined significant events include the First and Second Intifadas, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, the evolution of targeted assassination of Hamas and Hezbollah’s leadership, and the Oslo Peace Accord process and disappointing downfall.  A surprising conclusion from one chief which appears to be true of them all, they each slide towards the political left when the leave office recommending peace talks, settlement dismantlement, and a two state solution. 

Regardless of the creative methods they use to assassinate terrorist leaders, and there are truly inventive ways, the agreed-upon take away is attacks will occur despite which firebrand mouthpiece you kill.  Filmmaker Dror Moreh most likely learned some lessons watching Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, Robert McNamera’s surprising accounting and apology for his Vietnam War mistakes.  Moreh pulled off a journalistic coup by interviewing not only one Shin Bet chief, but all six currently alive.      

Israeli security services are widely and correctly respected for the amount of secrecy they are able to maintain.  The frequent leaks and internal divisions that routinely impact U.S. spy agencies do not occur in the Shin Bet or the Mossad.  The chiefs’ openness on some of the most controversial events of the past few decades is nothing short of startling.  If you remember the Rabin murder, the Oslo accords, and are versed in the complex history between the Israelis and Palestinians, put The Gatekeepers high on your must-see list. 

The Gatekeepers focuses solely on the Israeli perspective.  By coincidence, a documentary from the Palestinian point of view, 5 Broken Cameras, is also nominated for the Best Documentary Academy Award.  5 Broken Cameras is guerilla filmmaking at the extreme tactical level as opposed to The Gatekeepers, which approaches the issues from the pinnacle of power.  Taken together, they provide fresh outlooks and waypoint signs on disputes that will not be ironed out any time in the near future.     

Friday, February 22, 2013

Snitch (2013)

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Susan Sarandon, Barry
Pepper, Jon Bernthal, Michael Kenneth Williams,
and Benjamin Bratt


On almost all counts, the U.S. war on drugs is a complete failure.  No matter the billions of dollars spent to eradicate the supply, interdict the transport of, or criminalize the use of drugs, the market will quench the overwhelming demand for any and all types of illegal substances.  While Traffic (2000) addressed drugs from all facets including supply, demand, and everything in between, Snitch focuses on the black and white effects of mandatory minimum laws for first time drug offenders.

If you are caught possessing over a defined amount of, in this case, MDMA aka ecstasy, there are punishments federal judges by law are not allowed to ignore.  There are no gray areas and no special circumstances; that is, unless you are willing to snitch to bring down the next unlucky soul.  Jason (Rafi Gavron) is a walking cautionary tale.  His best friend gets him to accept mail delivery of a ridiculous quantity of ecstasy pills and boom – 10 years in federal prison.  Jason is no snitch though; he is going to do his time.  However, Jason’s scruples are unacceptable to his father, John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson).

Through business connections, John runs straight to the federal prosecuting attorney, Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), who is also campaigning for Congress and in no mood to appear soft on crime.  To advance the plot, she accepts a deal where instead of Jason snitching on his fellow high school students, John is going to use his trucking company to transport immense amounts of cocaine. 

Getting into the drug trafficking business is not easy.  John looks up ‘drug cartel’ on Wikipedia and to its credit, Snitch takes its time getting him in the same room with his supplier, Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams).  Working with DEA Agent Cooper (Barry Pepper), John is going to bring down one of St. Louis, Missouri’s most hardcore drug suppliers.  Unfortunately, John is so good at what he does, he catches the eye of the big boys, a Mexican cartel.  The prosecutor is no longer interested in Malik, she wants a cartel Captain and the accompanying media attention.  Poor John, he just wants to spring his son from prison.

On one hand, Snitch shows the drug business as what it is, dirty and dangerous and steers clear of making it look glamorous in any way.  On the other hand, it has an after school special feel to it.  Every time John visits Jason in the slammer, he has more bruises on his face and is scared to death.  Since Snitch is PG-13, Jason only gets punched in the face a lot instead of the more common sexual assault issues he would face as a young and fresh 18 year old in federal prison.  Snitch is a dramatized version of a scared-straight TV reality show at times.  Warning, if you mess around with ecstasy pills, the Nuevo Leon Mexican cartel is going to show up on your doorstep and slaughter your family.  

Unlike some of The Rock’s previous films including Faster (2010) and Doom (2005) and what its previews attempt to make you think, Snitch is not wall-to-wall action.  There is more nuanced suspense and a healthy dose of family drama thrown in.  Dwayne Johnson appears way too physically large to play Jason’s dad, not because they don’t look alike, but because John gets pushed around and beat up way too easily here.  Michael Kenneth Williams as Malik is casting at its finest.  Nobody plays a drug dealer better than Omar from The Wire.  However, Susan Sarandon does not work as the prosecutor and Barry Pepper sports the world’s ugliest and least believable goatees.     

Snitch has a perfunctory message referencing mandatory minimum laws.  It barely scratches the surface of the issue and trades in any real discussion of their pros and cons for more scenes of The Rock promising his son he will get him out of prison.  Hurry dad, get out there and transport some product; Jason is quickly running out visible places to bruise.  

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Beautiful Creatures (2013)


If the Twilight series had dialogue as witty and snappy as Beautiful Creatures, it would not be the target of so many jokes and eye rolls.  Here we have another film with supernatural beings, but this time, we get witches and warlocks instead of vampires or zombies.  There are teenagers involved; therefore, cue the Romeo and Juliet, “They’re in love yet can never be together” motif.  Before you move on though, Beautiful Creatures has something which Twilight lacks, wit.

The movie’s first half is quite intriguing before it degenerates into a spell-casting, plot hole nightmare halfway through.  Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) introduces the audience to Gatlin, South Carolina through a biting narration.  It is in the middle of nowhere, there are more banned books in town than actual books to check out at the library, the high school history teacher teaches The War of Northern Aggression, and there are more churches than any other buildings. 

Ethan is immediately drawn to the new girl in school, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert).  Her reputation precedes her because she lives her uncle, the town’s wealthy recluse, Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons).  The Ravenwoods and all of their kin are considered devil worshippers by the more spiritual townsfolk and Macon does himself no favors by living on an estate which resembles Miss Havisham’s crumbling mansion from Great Expectations on the outside.

Lena is a caster, a more pleasing name to her kind than witch.  Inevitably, Ethan and Lena become boyfriend/girlfriend at the worst possible time.  Lena is approaching her 16th birthday whereby she will either transform into a dark caster or a light caster.  This process is all quite vague and the transformation, mythology, powers, and anything to do with how and why casters are what they are is not explained.  To conclude the plot synopsis, Lena’s uncle wants her to join the light side and Lena’s mom (Emma Thompson), who is more of a body-snatching spirit, and Lena’s cousin, Ridley (Emmy Rossum), want Lena to join the dark side so they can start putting humans, whom they call mortals, in their place.

The casters are all supposedly immortal yet they can die and that is only one of a thousand plot holes.  However, all is not lost here; there is true creativity buried in the muck.  Ethan’s description of life in Gatlin is very amusing.  He sets himself apart by establishing some hipster bona fides by name dropping Vonnegut, singing Dylan, and wearing hipster reading glasses, at least only while reading.  Lena introduces Ethan to Bukowski yet she has not even heard of Vonnegut; hmm… 

As Ethan, who is supposed to be 16, Ehrenreich’s omnipresent 5 o’clock shadow signifies he is way too old for this part but the kid can act; he is very effective.  Englert looks more Lena’s age, 15, but falls in the Kristen Stewart plane of plainness.  Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, would have been a much better choice here, but even she is already too old for the material.  The attraction of an A-list supporting cast should raise some eyebrows.  What are Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, and Viola Davis all doing in a young adult, witchy, supernatural flick? 

Writer/director Richard LaGravenese’s script is decent, but not all the way through.  He wrote quality dialogue before in The Ref (’94), but lately, he is known for wading in safer spheres with Water for Elephants and P.S. I Love YouBeautiful Creatures would be much better without everything which makes it so attractive to the high school crowd, but perhaps it will get them to pick up Bukowski to see what Ethan and Lena were going on about there.

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)


Yippee Ki-Yay Mother Russia.  John McClane (Bruce Willis) is back with another episode of Die Hard.  Forget the script, the plot, the history, or the legacy of a respected action film franchise; the studio wants another couple hundred million dollars in profit.  Resurrect the familiar character, drop him in a foreign city, and have him go through the motions.  A Good Day to Die Hard is God-awful.

John McClane is the Everyman cop.  He’s just a guy, an average Joe who (with the exception of Die Hard With a Vengeance) has the rotten luck to always find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In 1988, the building where his Christmas party was taking place was taken hostage.  In 1990, the airport where he waits for his wife is taken over by terrorists.  In 2007, he prevents a catastrophic Zero Day scenario by running around the New York/Jersey metropolitan area.  Audiences love John McClane.  He is a good guy and he is definitely mortal, but this movie is so bad, it turns John McClane into an a**hole.

A Good Day to Die Hard throws the ‘I just happened to be here’ plot device away and transforms John into a meddling interloper.  John’s ‘connections’ inform him his son, Jack (Jai Courtney), is in a Russian jail about to go on trial for murder.  John dutifully flies to Moscow, which looks suspiciously like Budapest, to check things out.  Bad move John.  Jack is actually a clandestine CIA agent, deep undercover, trying to save the life of a Russian political prisoner.  The prisoner, Komarov (Sebastian Koch), has dirt on Russia’s evil defense minister, Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov).

Acting as a bumbling oaf, John gets in the way of Jack and Komarov mid-escape and torpedoes their ride home.  Now it’s time for the daddy issues.  Jack calls John by his name, not ‘dad’.  Not even automatic rifle firefights and escaping 30mm Gatling gun helicopter fire can stop the father/son accusations and heart-to-hearts.  The only thing that makes it bearable is the dialogue, which is so poorly written and lazy, it gives you the feeling of shocking unbelief which will keep you wide awake.  What the hell happened to Die Hard?  Why throw all the good memories and feelings away for a quick buck? 

Director John Moore, who has left a string of miserable failures behind him with Max Payne, The Omen re-make, and Behind Enemy Lines, and writer Skip Woods, who has such winners as The A-Team and X-Men Origins: Wolverine under his belt, have some money to play around with here.  An armored personnel carrier tears up the streets of Moscow (Budapest) for a good 20 minutes smashing a couple hundred cars, an Mi-24 HIND attack helicopter annihilates the upper floors of a building, and Chernobyl, the infamous nuclear accident no-go area, also gets walloped by a helicopter and a shirtless thug who looks like the poor soul from Raiders of the Lost Ark who ended up in the propeller. 

A Good to Die Hard is chock-full of plot holes too numerous to scribble about here but they took this viewer away from cringing at the dialogue to shaking his head at the impossibilities, the completely absurd, to the how the heck did they just drive all the way into Ukraine from Russia?  There’s a border there and you two definitely do not have passports on your unmistakably broken and bloody bodies.  Every filmmaker and actor in this movie should be ashamed of themselves.  They all have their share of responsibility in destroying what was one of the more well-liked and memorable franchises. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Side Effects (2013)


The pharmaceutical industry is a shady business.  Drug representatives travel to hospitals and conferences with their free pens and pill samples touting the latest wonder drug.  They wine and dine doctors so their good times will be repaid through the prescription pad.  In the matter of Side Effects, anti-depressant drugs are front and center.

The most famous anti-depressant is Prozac.  Now, there is Zoloft, Paxil, Lexapro, Effexor, Celexa, etc…  Where do they come up with these names?  Each of these brands arrives with its own army of attractive reps spreading the wonderful news and promises that you will never be sad again.  Side effects?  Perhaps some nausea and dizziness.

Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is a busy man.  He is a partner in a respectable psychiatric clinic, pulls night shifts in the local ER diagnosing patients as safe to go home or not, and also rakes in some cash in on the side signing up his patients for new drug trials.  After deliberately crashing her car into a cement wall, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), winds up in the ER in the care of Dr. Banks and quickly becomes his most challenging patient. 

Emily suffers from severe depression.  Paxil doesn’t work, Zoloft doesn’t work, but don’t worry, Dr. Banks has no problem throwing pill after pill at the problem and some other pills on top to counteract side effects like sleepwalking.  Why is Emily so sad?  Well, her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is fresh out of a four-year prison stint for insider trading and is attempting to reintegrate himself back into society.

Reintegration is a bit trickier for Martin than the average felon though.  He comes from the upper crust; his arrest occurred at one of the poshest outdoor lunches imaginable in manicured Greenwich, Connecticut.  Emily and Martin lost everything during the trial and now live in a small New York apartment.  Dr. Banks does not take all the time he should to ferret out the intricate mental details that may or may not be impacting Emily’s health.

As Emily spirals further and further down the depression scale, Dr. Banks consults her previous psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose most sound advice is to suggest another drug, Ablixa, and hand Dr. Banks a free Ablixa pen.  It looks like everyone is on the take in one way or another. 

Don’t let the preview fool you though.  Side Effects kicks off as a harsh critique and indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, but it abruptly shifts into a complex psychological thriller.  The first half is Traffic to the second half’s Primal Fear.  Suspicion and mystery engulf Dr. Banks and challenge everything he knows about his situation.  Discovering the truth is much harder than jut throwing pills at the problem.

Morally suspect pharmaceuticals and medical ethics are natural targets for director Stephen Soderbergh.  He took on all stakeholders in the illegal drug business in Traffic, followed small town justice in Erin Brockovich, and is no stranger to murky mysteries such as Haywire and The Good German.  Soderbergh claims Side Effects will be his final film but he has been such an active and creative auteur for the past two decades it is hard to imagine him disappearing completely. 

This is Scott Z. Burns’s third film with Soderbergh after The Informant! and Contagion and shows off some truly brilliant plot skills with a few double and triple crosses.  If you think through the end too hard, you will notice a plot hole or two, but the joy of figuring out who is playing whom is worth it.  If Soderbergh really is walking away from the movie business, Side Effects is a good way to go out.