Thursday, February 22, 2007

Breach (2007)

Starring Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillipe; Directed by Billy Ray

Breach is a fascinating glimpse into the mind and heart of the FBI’s worst traitor, Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillipe) is a young FBI agent-in-training; he’s assigned to be Hanssen’s assistant in order to investigate if the senior agent presents a security risk. Only later is O’Neill told that the FBI has discovered that Hanssen is selling secrets to Russia, and that O’Neill’s new job is to help catch him in the act. Cooper delivers a stunning, multilayered performance as Hanssen, inhabiting the role with authority, energy, and complexity. This movie is based on actual events.

The pleasure of the film is seeing the cat and mouse game between Hanssen and O’Neill. O’Neill at first admires Hanssen, seeing a very smart, intensely religious man. He tells his FBI handler that they might be making a mistake about Hanssen; far from being a security risk, he may be getting punished for being outspoken. Everything changes once he knows Hanssen is a traitor. O’Neill has to distract Hanssen at key moments so that the team tracking Hanssen has time to search for incriminating evidence. It’s tense and dangerous work. Catching Hanssen in the act is also a real challenge: he’s getting suspicious, and may decide to stop his treasonous acts.

Laura Linney is convincing as O’Neill’s handler; Dennis Haysbert (President Palmer on 24) also adds authority and intensity as one of the team tracking Hanssen.

Hanssen is a dominating, menacing man, with a threat of physical violence that has O’Neill almost shaking at times. Further, this undercover job puts a real strain on O’Neill’s marriage; he can’t tell his wife anything about what he’s doing, and she’s very curious. Apparently this is an occupational hazard for FBI agents; they must accept that their real work can seldom be shared with their spouses.

We know the outcome of this movie at its beginning, but Cooper is riveting as the traitor at the center of it all. We get clues as to why Hanssen became a traitor, but they’re not definitive. Some dark secrets of the human heart are forever hidden or can only be suggested. Cooper should get an Oscar for this performance.

Sweet Land (2006)

Starring Elizabeth Reaser, Tom Guinee, Ned Beatty, Alan Cummings, and Lois Smith; Directed by Ali Selim

Sweet Land is a sweet, charming, quiet piece about a young woman (Inge Altenberg, played by Elizabeth Reaser) who emigrates to the U.S. in 1920 to marry a Norwegian farmer in Minnesota, Olaf Torvik (played by Tom Guinee). However, troubles arise, and the marriage doesn’t happen. First a local minister (Paul Heard) refuses to marry the couple, saying she’s an alien from Germany, a country the U.S. just fought a war with. Then the county Justice of the Peace refuses to marry them, insisting that Inge needs documents and papers from her home country to prove she’s not a dangerous seditious agitator.

Olaf’s friend Frandsen (Alan Cummings) and his wife take her in, and she slowly learns English as she lives with the couple and their many children. Cummings shines in this small role; we really like the playful, charming character he creates.

This film has a lyrical soundtrack, gentle and lovely, that meshes with the quiet images and the slow development of the plot. Violin and piano provide perfect accompaniment for the images on the screen. This movie doesn’t rush anything, nor do the young couple forbidden to marry. Guinee imbues his character with dignity and strength. Reaser is engaging as Inge, challenged to overcome one obstacle after another.

Though set in Minnesota, the film could just as easily have been set anywhere in the Midwest. The sky presents an endless vista from horizon to horizon, and the farm is always in need of attention. Though we see tractors and even a steam-powered threshing machine, much of the farm work is done by hand. (At that, not everyone can afford a thresher.)

An opportunistic banker, played with cheerful gusto by Ned Beatty, intrudes. He informs Olaf’s friend Frandsen that he’s foreclosing on his mortgage. Frandsen and his wife and many kids will be forced from their home, and their farm and property will be sold at auction. Some slick city fellows show up at the auction, intent on grabbing a bargain.

This scene reminds us that bankers and farmers have had an uneasy relationship going back generations; farmers need capital to do their farming, but bankers need regular payments, or else. Olaf says to the banker after a telling moment in the film, “Banking and farming don’t mix.”

This is a satisfying movie, engaging but easy-going, of a young couple coming to know and love each other amidst a beautiful unbounded sky and the verdant land. They must find ways to overcome the mistrust of their fellow farmers and of the local minister. Inge begins to earn her place in America by her actions, not her words, ending in a scene of great beauty in which all that is important is suggested, not shown.

This is Ali Selim’s first time as a director; he also produced and wrote the film, based on a short story by Will Weaver. The movie is a beautiful achievement; we can expect great things from Selim going forward.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Over the Hedge (2006)

Animated; Starring the voices of Bruce Willis and Garry Shandling

Over the Hedge is an entertaining animated children’s movie. It features a talented ensemble of actors who bring the story to life. Bruce Willis is a wily raccoon whose love of food gets him into trouble with a nasty, selfish bear (Nick Nolte). Willis destroys Nolte’s food stash, and now has to go out and steal all the food (and other items) needed to replace it.

On the snoop for food, Willis runs into a group of forest animals just coming out a hibernation. They consist of a hyperactive squirrel, a cautious turtle (Garry Shandling), a skunk, a family of porcupines, and a family of possums. There’s some of the flavor of Ice Age, with this unlikely group of animals considering itself a family; they share an old hollow log for their hibernation, and gather food together to prepare for their annual rest.

The animals face a strange new world. While they were sleeping, their forest was transformed. A hedge now surrounds their forest world; an alien landscape awaits them on the other side of this mysterious new precisely manicured object: suburbia. A luxury housing development of uniform mansions now dominates the area that used to be part of the animal’s forest. Willis sees all the food the humans have, and immediately covets it in order to pay off the bear threatening his life. The other animals are (justifiably) nervous about invading this mysterious world.

But Willis uses all his charm to trick the herd into helping his food gathering. There are some entertaining moments as the animals overcome challenges like sprinklers, guard cats, and cars.

Finally, one of the suburban dwellers, the nasty president of the homeowner’s association (Allison Janney), calls in an exterminator (Dwayne the Verminator, amusingly played by Thomas Haden Church) to “terminate with prejudice” all the animals that have invaded her neat manicured world. Willis and the other animals have to use all their tricks and all their skills to survive.

Along the way Willis faces a choice between selfish hedonism and selfless charity. Since this is a children’s film, his choice can be reliably predicted.

This film isn’t the greatest of the animated films released in recent months; I’d give that honor to Ice Age: The Meltdown, which was visually more stunning. But Over the Edge entertains, and has some fun and imaginative action sequences, and some entertaining character interactions. I’d recommend this film for children up through twelve or so.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

Starring Tilda Swinton and Liam Neeson

This movie is a charmer, beautifully filmed, with characters we care about who face moral dilemmas that have real-world consequences. It’s a fantasy movie, but it plays fair: the supernatural can be understood, and it behaves consistently just as in the Harry Potter series.

Some English schoolchildren have been sent to the country to escape the London Blitz during World War II. They explore the old mansion they wind up in, and stumble across an old wardrobe that transports them to an unknown new world called Narnia.

Narnia is a strange, magical land, and before they know it the four Pevensie children are caught up in the war between the White Witch (played with chilling menace by Tilda Swinton) and the mysterious lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson). There are talking animals in this world, and mythical creatures such as fauns and satyrs. The amazing thing is how ordinary it all feels. We’re not trapped in special-effects-land: the overall feeling is surprisingly normal and naturalistic. Moviemakers who feel the impulse to overuse (and abuse) special effects in their movies could learn a lot from this movie.

This is the best rendition of the Narnia books that I’ve yet seen on the screen. Georgie Henley breathes life into her role as Lucie Pevensie, the youngest sister. The other children turn in good performances as well.

There’s treachery, heroism, and loads of allegory in this movie. C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, was a staunch Christian. He imbues the Narnia books with his beliefs, but also tells some very good and entertaining stories along the way. Allegory is a painless way to absorb the ideas that Lewis cares most about; good and evil, honesty, beauty, and sacrifice.

Take The Lead (2006)

Starring Antonio Banderas, Rob Brown and Alfre Woodword; Directed by Liz Friedlander

Take the Lead is a dance movie through and through-it's high-spirited and fun, and draws you in with a mix of classic and popular music. Antonio Banderas is Pierre Dulaine, a smooth, skilled dancer who competes in ballroom dancing competitions, and teaches at a dance studio filled with wealthy patrons.

After witnessing a bit of mean-spirited vandalism by a high school kid, Dulaine goes to the high school and asks to teach ballroom dancing to the students. The skeptical principal, played by Alfre Woodward with toughness masking her caring, almost laughs him out of her office; she then sends him down to the detention hall, which happens to be in a deep basement that resembles a dungeon. It's so close to the boiler room that you can almost hear the hiss of steam and the drip of water.

Banderas is a pleasure to watch through this entire movie. He's courtly, polite, and kind, and meets every obstacle thrown at him with tact and courtesy. His Spanish-tinted English suggests a world of rich Corinthian leather. The kids are intrigued by him; he's like an alien from another world. They can't relate to his music or his dance moves, until he brings in a skilled and beautiful partner who dances an extremely suggestive tango with him. After that, the kids’ resistance is futile.

One of my favorite scenes is a PTA meeting where a smarmy teacher who dislikes the idea that "dance class" is competing with the serious subjects the students should be learning. Dulaine disarms the parents and teachers by demonstrating a little dancing with Alfre Woodward (who is charmed in spite of herself) while telling them why learning to dance is relevant for the kids, and how it will assist their growth to maturity and identity.

There’s a nice sub-plot of a young girl from a wealthy family who decides to join the detention kids at the high school. She's getting ready for her debutante debut at a high-society dance, and feels awkward and shy. She figures that joining this bunch of misfits trying to learn to dance might help her to overcome her fears.

Rob Brown, star of Finding Forester, is one of the hard-case kids. In seeing his life outside of class we understand just what a challenge it is for kids in the inner city to see beyond today's rent and tomorrow's bills. Brown is convincing in the good and bad choices he makes, and in the growth he experiences in the movie.

This movie is based on a true story, which makes it all the more enjoyable. At the end of the movie the kids enter a city-wide ballroom dance competition. There's a live orchestra playing, and the best dancers in the city have arrived to compete. Are the kids good enough? Do they win? See this infectious, toe-tapping movie to find out.

The Celestine Prophecy (2006)

Directed by Armand Mastroianni

The Celestine Prophecy is a spiritual quest movie about a man seeking to learn about some mysterious prophecies that are unearthed in Peru. The prophecies are about an expansion of human consciousness predicted to occur near the end of the 20th Century.

The movie curiously mixes in a sub-plot involving bad guys who menace/chase/attack/imprison the people who are hunting the prophecy and attempting to understand its meaning. It’s based on the book The Celestine Prophecy.

There are some very beautiful parts of the movie—we see gorgeous shots of mountainsides and trees and old ruins. Peru is a country I’d like to visit some day, just based on this movie. There are parts of the quest that are also interesting, while others seem more in the vein of telling rather than showing (seldom a winning formula).

The closest movie The Celestine Prophecy can be compared to is The Da Vinci Code. Again, people search for hidden knowledge while being chased by mysterious opponents. The difference is that Tom Hanks is one of America’s best actors, and they didn’t have Tom Hanks for this movie. The star of the movie didn’t ensnare me into the movie’s world, and I found myself uninvolved in what happened in the plot. They’re chased, they’re captured, they get away, they understand another piece of the prophecy. Next? This is not a bad movie—it has interesting scenes, and some fascinating ideas as well. It just isn’t a great movie.

Great movies possess a unity and magic that encourages us to relax our doubts and overlook their imperfections. Less than great movies, like this one, leave us scratching our heads. Why didn’t it live up to its full potential? Did the director have the wrong touch? Did the screenwriter(s) mess up? Did the actors fail in their performances? This reminds me of the old expression about families; happy ones are all alike, while unhappy families are all unhappy in different ways.

King Kong (2005)

Starring Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, and Jack Black; Directed by Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson’s take on the King Kong story is entertaining, thrilling and surprising. He manages to make a movie that’s entertaining in its own right, and that’s tough when you’re doing a remake of a 1933 classic (that was previously remade in 1976). I worried before seeing this movie that a Kong remake would be a big letdown for Jackson after The Lord of the Rings. But Jackson makes a believer out of me. The movie has charm, beauty, and exciting action sequences, both in Manhattan and on Skull Island.

The movie is set in the Depression, and that time is beautifully evoked in New York City with vintage cars and clothes. This works much better than the 1976 movie with Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges, which was set in the 1970s. (Though to tell the truth, it was pretty cool when Kong jumped from one World Trade Center tower to the other.)

Kong’s relationship with The Girl is the center of this movie, and Jackson takes an hour to let us get to know hard-luck actress Ann Darrow (Watts), penniless playwright Jack Driscoll (Brody) and moviemaker Carl Denham (Black) before we meet the title character.

But the focus of the movie is that big ape Kong. This time around Kong looks like a giant gorilla, naturally hunching over and moving around on all fours most of the time. Andy Serkis (Gollum in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings) is an amazing physical performer, and manages to imbue Kong with a lot of personality. Kong is not just a mad beast, but shows a lot of heart once you get past his gruff exterior (assuming you survive the first encounter). His fights with various prehistoric beasts on Skull Island are amazing.

This movie has a cheerful, breezy B-movie feeling that carries us comfortably through most of the (pretty long) movie, though I had to cover my eyes briefly for scenes featuring prehistoric insect and worms. There’s an amazing action sequence on Skull Island in a deep ravine with a couple of hungry dinosaurs, Kong, The Girl, and a spider web of vines that has to be seen to be believed.

Superman Returns (2006)

Starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, and Kevin Spacey

Superman Returns promises a lot but under delivers. It’s a blockbuster, filled with amazing special effects and heroic actions. But the movie falls down on a psychology-laden screenplay and lackluster directing, and ultimately doesn’t measure up to the superlative work seen in Superman and Superman II starring Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman. If you want some of that old Superman magic, make a point of watching the first two movies again on DVD.

Brandon Routh puts on the cape and tights for this outing. He’s an Iowa boy, and shows a lot of promise playing the alien from Krypton with superhuman powers. At times he reminded me of the young Christopher Reeve. He could have been a great Superman with a better screenplay and better directing; in this film he seems too serious. Perhaps he’ll do better in his next outing, assuming he gets a better script.

Kate Bosworth is moving as Lois Lane, torn between her husband and child and Superman, who has just returned after five years away visiting the remains of Krypton. She is a bright spot in the movie.

Frank Langella tries mightily to be Perry White, but Jackie Cooper pretty well defined the character for us in the original movies.

Kevin Spacey plays Lex Luthor, but is unable to muster the difficult mix of humor and malice that Gene Hackman practically patented in the first two Superman films. Hackman was a genial con man; you enjoyed watching his character even as he tried to destroy California and kill millions of people. Spacey, in contrast, simply comes across as a nasty and vicious criminal.

This film lacks a critical ingredient of the original films: humor. They managed to make fun of the title character, and the people around him, and the challenges he faced while spinning entertaining blockbuster stories. Reeve understood that he had to add lightness and playfulness to his character in order to make him more human. Routh, in contrast, is not given the lines or the directing to allow him similar fun within his role.

The special effects are light-years ahead of the original Superman. But they fail to move us the way those in the original did. I’ll take somewhat cheesy special effects combined with wonderful writing, directing, and acting over superlative special effects combined with so-so writing, uneven directing, and decent performances.

It’s sad to see so much great potential wasted. I wish a director like Peter Jackson (whose King Kong remake shines) had been given a crack at this movie. But it’s too late; the cat is out of the bag and Superman has left the building.

Cars (2006)

Animated; Starring the voices of Paul Newman, Owen Wilson, and Bonnie Hunt; Directed by John Lasseter

Cars is a fun, kinetic, imaginative animated film that is just plain fun to watch. The folks at Pixar Animation (Toy Story, Monsters, Inc) continue to produce a top-quality product. They start with an interesting idea—a world populated not by people but by cars. Then they take that idea and run (or drive) with it. A car race takes on new meaning: the stands are filled with cars instead of people. They do the wave by lifting their hoods (since they don't have hands).

A logical person might ask how the cars were able to build themselves without opposable thumbs, or how they reproduce. Don't go there. This movie is visually stunning, with beautiful panoramas of the western town and surroundings in which most of the story takes place. Paul Newman is wonderful as Doc Hudson, an old car who still has some tricks left in him. Owen Wilson plays a brash young racing car with a lot of lessons to learn about life, love and commitment. Bonnie Hunt brings a lot of soul to her role as a lawyer/sports car who has moved to a small town.

Parts of this movie are pretty predictable, but it's all a delight to watch, and I recommend it for kids and adults alike. It's a nice break from movies that emphasize either violence or romance (or both).

The Departed (2006)

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson; Directed by Martin Scorsese

The Departed is a cinematic tour de force by a director at the height of his game. Scorsese paints an extremely violent and unpleasant portrait of a Boston mob boss (played with great intensity by Jack Nicholson). Circling around Nicholson is pretty much the entire cast of the movie and the entire plot. He is the dark center of it all; he exudes a sensual magnetic attraction that infuses every character and every situation with his lusts, fears, and naked brutality. I think Nicholson deserves an Oscar for this movie, and Scorsese as well.

The Massachusetts State Police want to bring Nicholson down. They send in an undercover policeman (Leonardo DiCaprio, in a stunning performance) to insinuate his way into Nicholson’s gang and send back information in order to catch Nicholson in the act, arrest and convict him.
At the same time, Nicholson sends a spy into the State Police to infiltrate them and send back warning and information about the forces trying to bring him down. Matt Damon is very convincing as the spy, slyly working his way into the trust of the various police officials as he helps keep Nicholson a step ahead of the law.

The movie is a kind of shadow play, as DiCaprio and Damon work in their two venues, feeding their information back to their chiefs while cloaking themselves from suspicion, and constantly looking over their shoulders. DiCaprio has quite the more dangerous task: if Damon is caught, he goes to jail. If DiCaprio is caught, Nicholson’s techniques are brutal, direct, and fatal.

The most interesting part of the movie is how DiCaprio and Damon detect the presence of the other, and try desperately to find who each-other are before they themselves are revealed..

The Departed is a bit like The Godfather, except that it’s a lot more violent. Also, Nicholson plays a monster of a character, with no redeeming features that we can see. He’s violent, greedy, and lustful, and gets pretty much whatever he wants by simply taking it. At least Don Corleone loved his family and tried to protect his people.

The movie takes some unexpected turns as it winds its way to its conclusion. At its heart it’s a gangster film, with a whiff of Al Pacino’s Scarface. It may be that violence contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. But it’s a shame when so many people have to die in this movie in order to reach that point.

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Starring Ryan Phillipe and Adam Beach; Directed by Clint Eastwood

Flags of our Fathers is a wrenching look at a terrible battle in WWII, and also an object lessen in celebrity and hero-creation, and the equally terrible costs therein.

The battle of Iwo Jima was 40 days of close-in combat between 22,000 dug-in Japanese defenders and the 100,000+ Americans attacking the island. Once the island was conquered it served as a forward base for U.S. planes attacking and bombing Japan.

One of the more famous photographs of WWII was taken a few days into the battle, of five Marines and a Navy corpsman (medic) raising an American flag on the top of Mount Suribachi. The picture became famous as a symbol of hope for the U.S.’s eventual victory in the war. So, the U.S. flew the surviving Marines and the Navy corpsman who raised the flag back to the U.S. to go on a tour of the country. As the U.S. Treasury Secretary explains to the soldiers, the U.S. is broke, and can’t afford to continue to pay to fight the war unless it sells people a lot more war bonds. So the soldiers tour the U.S., acclaimed as heroes and lionized by politicians as they talk up war bonds.

But the soldiers hate being called heroes; they had simply been ordered to raise the flag on Mt. Suribachi during a lull in the fighting. It was, in fact, not even the first flag to be raised there. But a photographer was with them, and caught that indelible image of apparent herorism during a horrible battle.

Adam Beach is excellent as an American Indian who’s one of the Marines; he’s tortured by his memories of the battle, and the gap between what he did during the battle and how he’s being treated on the tour. This is a tough role, and Beach does a great job portraying his character’s agony. Beach was a standout in the earlier movie Windtalkers.

Eastwood is a master of his subject; we get a kinetic feel for the hellish experience of the soldiers as they fight on Iwo Jima, as well as for the mood of the public as the war neared its end.

Though filled with violence and sorrow, this is the kind of movie you’d want our leaders and politicians to see (and pay attention to) before deciding whether to send our country’s young men and women into war. The movie portrays all the terrible events of Iwo Jima with a gritty realism that refuses to make war look either fun or rousing. Instead, it’s about soldiers struggling to survive amidst unimaginable terror and chaos. The contrast of the war with the empty bond-selling tour is extremely effective. Eastwood shows us all of this without ever preaching.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Starring Ken Watanabe; Directed by Clint Eastwood

In Letters from Iwo Jima, director Clint Eastwood paints a sad and depressing picture of the futility of war and the losses it causes among those who fight. The movie is a companion piece to Eastwood’s earlier movie on war and heroism and the fleeting touch of fame, Flags of Our Fathers. Both films are focused on the battle for Iwo Jima (February-March 1945). But Flags is seen from the American side, while Letters From Iwo Jima tells the story from the viewpoint of the Japanese defenders. We hear their hopes and fears recorded in some of their letters discovered buried on the island by a modern-day Japanese archeological expedition.

Iwo Jima is a desolate volcanic island. The visuals in the film are stark and largely monochromatic. Eastwood’s sparse economy in filming is perfectly suited for this place and for the battles he portrays.

Ken Watanabe is engaging as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. He’s assigned to lead the defense of Iwo Jima at his own request. He lands and immediately begins touring the island on foot and reorganizing the defenses. He finds poor planning and inadequate preparations. He cares about the men he’s leading, and inspires them with his leadership. He’s also overjoyed to find a friend and fellow officer, Takeichi Nishi, who won an Olympic medal for Japan in an equestrian event. The meeting is bittersweet, though: Kuribayashi has an impossible task.

Kuribayashi comes to realize that he won’t be getting significant support either from the Japanese Navy, Army, or Air Force. Further, other officers on the island disagree with and interfere with his defensive strategy. Kuribayashi decides not to throw his forces into holding the landing beaches. Instead, he fortifies Mount Suribachi (which towers over the rest of the island), and has his forces dig well-hidden tunnels and bunkers from which to attack the American troops once they land.

His strategy was brilliant: it made the conquest of Iwo Jima far harder for the U.S. forces. Yet ironically, his excellence at war arguably resulted in far higher casualties for both the Japanese forces (only about 1,000 survived out of 22,000 defenders) and for the U.S. forces (more than 6,800 were killed and more than 20,000 were wounded among the 100,000+ who invaded the island).

It’s grim arithmetic. We like to glorify brilliant warriors who are geniuses at their craft. The movie Patton starring George C. Scott did just that; Patton could do miracles with tank brigades. Likewise General Kuribayashi performed miracles in the defense of Iwo Jima, holding out far longer than expected against overwhelming force. But he realizes by the end of the film that his accomplishments are fleeting; his men are dying around him, and as a result will not be returning to their families or their country.

The movie has graphic and disturbing images of war, and should be required viewing for politicians who think that war is the only way to solve problems between countries. This picture garnered several Oscar nominations; it may win Best Picture and Best Director. It’s a masterpiece and deserves such recognition.

Friday, February 9, 2007

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Starring Forest Whitaker

The Last King of Scotland is a mesmerizing film; Forest Whitaker gives a riveting performance as the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He pulls us into the dark heart of this disturbing and disturbed man: we see his charm and warmth turned on like a faucet in dealing with people he wants to manipulate. We see his manic/depressive side as he ranges from giddy happiness to frightened paranoia. Through it all is an amazing intensity, best seen in the movie when Whitaker’s face fills the entire screen and we observe one bright, focused, crazed eye contrasted with his other lazy, wandering eye. This movie should net Whitaker an Oscar.

The movie is framed around the story of a young, callow Scots youth (Nicholas Garrigan, played by James McAvoy) who has just gotten his medical degree. Wanting to escape from his father’s influence, he spins a globe, inserts a pin and heads to Uganda to work at a rural health clinic. He seems to take up his duties satisfactorily (though sparks fly between he and the pretty wife of the senior clinic doctor), but a chance meeting on the road wherein he gives medical care to a recently victorious Idi Amin sets him on a tragic path. Amin convinces him to become his personal physician. Garrigan soon finds that he must minister both to the body and mind of the dictator; Amin even treats him as a personal counselor, seeking advice on matters of state.

At first Garrigan seems to be making a difference. He’s excited to help Amin, and even somewhat admires his dynamic, larger-than-life style. The dictator praises his advice on health, architecture and press relations. Garrigan enjoys the attention and accolades he receives for his work, and the material gifts from Amin.

Garrigan is not a particularly sympathetic character. Convenience and comfort outweigh integrity and conviction; he dallies where he shouldn’t, and finds that there are some people you never want to be on the wrong side of. As his urgency to escape increases, so does his realization that his poor decisions have left him without a lot of hope and without many friends to help him. Because actor James McAvoy does so well portraying a clueless, unanchored, and immature person, I found that I really didn’t care as much whether he escaped or not.

This movie is a tour de force for Whitaker; it’s a sad, powerful depiction of a brutal and evil man and of the lives he distorts and destroys in his embrace of virtually unlimited power. It’s tough to watch, and serves as a reminder that there are monsters loose in the world; we must recognize and avoid them lest they devour us.

The Queen (2006)

Starring Helen Mirren

The British royalty has continued virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. In The Queen, Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth II. First she’s breaking in a new, young Prime Minister. Next she has to deal with the tragic death of Princess Diana. Through it all, Mirren displays a cool evenness and ease that can only arise from decades of training and generations of breeding.

Mirren is solid in a role larger than any movie star ever had to play. The Queen does not simply show up for an event and perform; every moment of her day, each of her decisions, and every one of her statement are painstakingly scrutinized by a tabloid press corps (and other equally eager journalists), and broadcast willy-nilly to the world in newspapers and on TV. She’s aware of it all, and labors always to uphold her duties and to do what’s expected of her with grace and reserve.

With little touches, Mirren convinces us she’s the Queen. While scarcely cracking a smile, she receives Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) as he comes in for the obligatory Queen’s blessings before he can become Prime Minister. She gently instructs him on protocol as they move through the ritual.

Later, the royal family is ensconced at the Queen’s summer retreat, Balmoral Castle in Scotland. As depicted it’s a phenomenal place, located on more than 50,000 acres of gorgeous landscape, ranging from woods and fields to dramatic hills and streams. A huge staff of servants minister to the vacationing family.

But the news of Diana’s death filters in. At first, it’s a private tragedy for Prince Charles (Alex Jennings). He rushes to Paris to accompany the body of his former wife back to England, and urges public measures of mourning and respect for Diana. However, other family members, especially the Queen’s husband Prince Philip (a marvelous performance by James Cromwell) oppose doing anything out of the ordinary.

The death of Diana was a huge quandary for the royal family. On one hand, she had divorced Prince Charles; thus, she was no longer royalty, and so her death would not warrant royal or official attention. On the other hand, Diana was enormously popular with the British public; they mourned her loss, and expected a suitable public response from her erstwhile family.

The royals were too isolated at Balmoral Castle. Prince Philip figures that taking Prince Charles’ sons hunting will help get their minds off the loss of their mother. The royal family’s tin ear as to the state of the public and their need for closure on Diana’s death isolate the Queen and even threaten the entire royal institution.

Tony Blair emerges as a sympathetic character, seeking to educate the clueless royals about the political need to respond publicly. He knows what’s needed; they just don’t seem to get it. His role is reversed with the Queen; suddenly he’s telling her what she needs to do.

The dénouement of this movie is very satisfying. Mirren makes us care about what happens to the Queen and to her family, and whether they satisfy the needs of the grieving public. Her performance is utterly convincing and believable: she well deserves an Oscar for it. Amidst the beautiful scenery of Scotland and the hustle and bustle of London, we’re treated to an inside glimpse of a Queen at work in her realm.