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Column Fri Feb 22 2013

Snitch, The Gatekeepers, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga & Future Weather



I'm not going to lie: I happen to be a committed fan of Dwayne Johnson as an actor, whether he's doing action work, comedy, or even a somewhat serious drama. Believe me, I know the man has starred in some true stinkers, but if one of his movies tanks, it's not because he isn't trying. More importantly, I'm impressed at the way he's managed to career and role choices. Lately, he seems to have the attitude that he'll do one for his fans that have been loyal to him since his wrestling days as The Rock, and one to help round him out as a performer. The improvements in his acting have been noticeable, and he's even done a couple of films where he's able to combine somewhat serious dramatic work with a bit of action thrown in.

A couple of years ago, Johnson did a really interesting revenge b-movie called Faster (which also starred Billy Bob Thornton and Maggie Grace), and I loved that film for the way Johnson played his character with a quiet rage. There was a lot more acting going on than the marketing would have led you to believe, and now Johnson has another film, Snitch, that features just a couple of action-oriented sequences and a whole lot of impressive inner torment from Johnson as John Matthews, owner of a fairly successful construction materials company in Missouri whose son Jason (from his first marriage to Melina Kanakaredes) has been arrested for dealing drugs after a friend of his mailed him a package loaded with pills.

John and Jason (Rafi Gavron) don't talk much, but John wants to make things right by getting his kid out of jail. A representative (Susan Sarandon) from the US Attorney's office says that the kid gets a mandatory minimum of 10 years, unless he rats out and sets up his friends, in which case his sentence will be reduced. Jason won't do it, but John (using his pull in the community as a wealthy business owner) makes a deal to find a local drug dealer if it means getting his son free sooner. I can't imagine a scenario where this would be allowed, but apparently it happened since a title card at the beginning of the film alerts us that this story is "based on true events."

Since John sometime hires ex-cons to work for his shipping business, he goes through the files of his employees and finds Daniel (Jon Bernthal, formerly of "The Walking Dead"), a two-striker who was in prison for narcotics and approaches him about introducing John to a drug connection named Malik (Michael K. Williams of "The Wire" and "Boardwalk Empire"). Malik agrees to let John transport drugs for him in one of his company's semis as a test run. If he completes the job, more drugs and bigger payouts will come.

Thankfully, the DEA (led by Barry Pepper's Agent Cooper, whose scraggly beard would make him perfect for any number of redneck reality shows) is watching and listening, but when he hears Malik mention that the drug supplier (a man known as El Topo, played by Benjamin Bratt) wants to meet John, Agent Cooper decides not to bust Malik and instead wait for the bigger fish.

Now, up to this point in the story, there has been exactly one sort-of action sequence involving a brief shootout where John is meant to pick up the supply, and you've probably guessed that Snitch is fairly story heavy. That's actually a very good thing. It gives Johnson a chance to play the concerned parent, loving husband (to his new wife, played by Flight's Nadine Velazquez), and out-of-his-element drug mule. What's even more surprising is that the film is directed by former stunt coordinator Ric Roman Waugh, who has directed a couple of smaller features, but is smart enough not to force the action into this somewhat interesting narrative. There's a fairly insane and expertly staged car chase sequence in the film's final act, but action certainly doesn't dominate the work.

The film only barely crosses into "no way did that happen" territory once or twice, as it would appear the filmmakers wanted to make Snitch feel mostly plausible, and they succeed for the most part. Johnson is actually more interesting here when he's holding back, letting the drug dealers think they own him and are running the show. His endgame is getting his son out of prison (where he is being brutalized, we're told), and he's willing to take a few punches and be humiliated to make that happen. I was also really thrilled to see Bernthal get such a sizable role in this film; he's a terrific actor, and his character has even more to lose than John since he's an ex-con.

One of the biggest surprises is the film's PG-13 rating. I thought for sure the film had earned a soft R rating, but I guess all the bloodshed, drug usage and language get a pass because there's no nudity. Snitch is a moderately complex, usually smart, certainly well-acted, tense piece that is worthy of a few eye rolls but still manages to stay interesting and entertaining because it knows the value of dialing things back a few notches. It's a surprisingly strong entry for Oscar weekend, especially considering the studios save their absolute worst for this point on the release schedule. I know that sounds like faint praise, but it's actually sincere.

The Gatekeepers

Absolutely critical viewing for insight into the tumultuous situation in Israel, the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers feels less like homework and more like a rare peak behind the scenes of some of the regions most important and devastating moments in the last 50 years, events that not only shape the two-state area but the rest of the free world. Director Dror Moreh (Sharon) was somehow able to get the five previous heads of the Isreali secret service, Shin Bet, as well as the then-current head of the intelligence and security organization to discuss quite openly what the nation's war on terror — both from external and internal forces — and how various prime ministers conducted themselves in these circumstances.

In addition to the surprisingly unanimous call for peace talks with the Palestinians, these men show an especially emotional side to themselves when discussing their worst failures on the job, including when leaders they are sworn to protect are assassinated. Hearing these incredibly smart men reveal their complex thoughts reminds us that they are only human, and as prone to mistakes as the rest of us.

Director Moreh, who conducted all of the interviews, seems more than willing to paint a less than flattering face on a portion of the Jewish population of his homeland and assign equal blame for the conflict to both sides. He lets none of his subjects off the hook for shortcomings, bad decisions and outright acts of brutality, most memorably the Bus 300 affair, which resulted in two suspected terrorists being executed on the spot by order of the Shin Bet chief Avraham Shalom, who talks for the first time about the incident. It's a harrowing, deeply confessional moment that's tough to shake.

The great news about this year's Best Documentary Oscar nominees is that they're all superb films, but a couple of them — How To Survive A Plague, The Invisible War and The Gatekeepers — are also significant pieces of filmmaking whose importance and legacy will last well beyond awards season. But The Gatekeepers is almost as much an historical event as the events portrayed (and sometimes recreated using archival photo and films) in it. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with The Gatekeepers director Dror Moreh.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

For about the last 15 years, director Werner Herzog has given us an embarrassment of riches when it comes to documentaries. Beginning with Little Dieter Needs to Fly and continuing with My Best Fiend, The White Diamond, Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, Into the Abyss, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, up to his latest work Happy People, Herzog has covered a variety of subject, yet somehow all of his docs seem to have a common theme of people living under extreme conditions. As with Happy People and Encounters at the End of the World, sometimes the extremes have to do with climate.

Along with his co-director Dmitry Vasyukov, Herzog introduces us to a small village of Bakhtia in Siberia, a place filled with woodsmen, fur trappers and the support system to keep such a lifestyle possible. This is a place that spends a great deal of the year frozen over with snow on top of that, and yet every day of the year is spent preparing for the next hunting season (mostly for sables for fur coats). Herzog and Vasyukov (who I'm guessing speaks Russian) spend an entire year with these self-sufficient folks who must build everything they use and stock up for the harsh winters when no supplies are available. They stockpile wood, smoked fish and other food and supplies that they'll need, while the hunters spend the off season building new traps, canoes, and series of huts in the woods where they store supplies for their hunting rounds.

The only modern conveniences they allow themselves are chainsaws and snowmobiles. But so much of what they do is done by hand. If you think your work is tough, try what these people do for about 10 minutes. Along the journey of a year, we learn about what these hunters do from going stir crazy from isolation (all of them have at least one companion dog) and we learn about a life with almost no modern conveniences or government. There's something deeply inspiring and a bit terrifying about watching these villagers learn the patterns of nature, from the currents, flood patterns, migration of various animals, when ice begins to form on the waterways. They also work with tools whose design dates back hundreds of years.

Like all of his other docs, Happy People is narrated by Herzog, whose droll German accent reminds us of a wise old philosopher asking the deeper questions associated with the images he's providing us. (Herzog's musing about a suicidal penguin in Encounters was the perfect counterpoint to the then-popular March of the Penguins.) In this film, he is clearly in awe of these craftsmen who can build a small, well-insulated structure in a couple of hours just using a single axe and the trees and growth in the surrounding few yards.

Herzog never misses the opportunity to notice the absurd either, such as a politician visiting the community as a campaign stop, and even putting on a song-and-dance show for the locals, who couldn't care less. Less weighty than some of his recent work, Happy People nevertheless profiles a culture and its traditions that are slowly dying. No one really says this, but the signs are all there. But rather than mourn openly, Herzog and his subjects honor the awe-inspiring life on display. As much as I love Herzog's feature film work, I genuinely look forward to see what his next subject will be for each new documentary (apparently it will be about hate crimes in America), and this is another fine one from him. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Future Weather

There's a strange phenomenon that happens to some teenagers as they get older. They come to the terrifying realization that there's a world surrounding them full of problems that are so much bigger than them that they start to feel overwhelmed and desperate to do something to help some small portion of the ills that plague us. So while many of their friends concern themselves with trivial, selfish pursuits, these kids often grow depressed at the scope of the feelings they have about a world in peril.

I have rarely seen this condition so accurately portrayed than it is in first-time feature writer-director Jenny Deller's Future Weather, about 13-year-old girl Lauduree (or Ree, played with a delicate, fragile sensibility by newcomer Perla Haney-Jardine), who becomes obsessed with global warming. The film is about controlling one's environment, and while Ree seems to be rapidly losing control of her personal surroundings — her ridiculous mother (Marin Ireland) abandons her in their trailer in Southern Illinois to pursue her dream of being a Hollywood make-up artist — she is intent on running science experiments about how to improve air quality.

With $50 to her name, Ree tries to live alone in secret, but it doesn't take long for her alcoholic grandmother Greta (the great Amy Madigan) to figure out what's going on, and she brings the girl into her home nearby. Greta has an abundance of her own issues to deal with, including a long-distance boyfriend (William Sadler) scared of commitment but who has no problem stopping by every few weeks or months for some precious fooling-around time. Greta is considering uprooting her life to move to Florida to be closer to the boyfriend, but it seems more like desperation than a sound life plan.

Ree's only role model is Ms. Markovi (Lili Taylor), a supportive teacher that Ree sees as a mother figure. She even has a misguided idea that the woman might let her move in with her and her husband, since she has no kids. Haney-Jardine is a remarkable find, on par with seeing Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone and immediately knowing that, if she stays away from the typical film roles designated for young actors, she'll have a bright future in acting.

Director Deller isn't trying to make a movie about a teenager making global warming her big cause. There aren't big lectures about the environment, just a few choice statements by Ree that occasionally make her sound more like a raving conspiracy theorist. Her interest in global warming is meant to be a positive influence in her life, but when it turns into an obsession which, along with her abandonment issues, causes her to talk in her sleep, I'm pretty sure we're supposed to see that in a negative light. Ree is a girl who feels things too much, and while there are far too few people like that in the world, at her age, it can be a unsettling existence. Future Weather is a strong, confident debut effort from both Deller and her young lead. I believe the greatest compliment you can pay a filmmaker or actor is by wanting to see what they do next, and that's exactly my sentiment after watching this solid work.

Future Weather director Jenny Deller will be present at all screenings of the film's weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, joined by a different group of experts and colleagues at each screening, to explore some of the film's key themes. A conversation with Deller and producer Kristin Fairweather at the films first showing on Friday at 6pm will be moderated by myself. For a complete list of the other guests during of the run, as well as screening showtimes, go to the Siskel Film Center's Future Weather site.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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