FlixChatter Review: OFFICIAL SECRETS (2019)

I’m glad I got to see this film on National Whistleblower Day last July. It was a very early screening to coincide with that day, which I think is appropriate as many whistleblowers are unsung heroes in my opinion, and they risked a lot to do what they do.

As did Katharine Gun, a British translator working for GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) in which this film is about. The film’s storyline is based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion (a mouthful and very descriptive title!) In 2003, she leaked a secret memo to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to push the UN Security Council into sanctioning the invasion of Iraq. Some of the illegal activities involve US National Security Agency eavesdropping on diplomats from countries (the ‘swing nations’ as it were) tasked with passing a crucial UN resolution in favor of the invasion.

The film begins with Katharine leading an ordinary day, cuddling romantically with her husband in bed, watching TV, etc. Filmmaker Gavin Hood (who directed Eye in the Sky, an effective drone warfare thriller) made a point that Katharine vehemently opposed the Iraq invasion—she commented about Tony Blair while watching him on TV. As you recall, he was deeply unpopular when he backed George W. Bush’s foreign policy at the time. Then came the day Katharine stumbled upon that secret memo, and the film shows how she was outraged by that email. There is quite a bit of political jargon and national security info that get over my head a little, but most of the film focuses on Katharine’s journey… how she wrestles with the idea of leaking the confidential memo, thus breaking the Official Secrets Act 1989.

This film could easily be one of those humdrum BOATS (based on a true story) film, but I’m glad to say it’s pretty intriguing. There are some slow parts, and some scenes were overly dramatized, but overall I was invested in Katharine’s story. She sees the Iraq invasion as illegal, and she’s a headstrong woman that she maintains her ground, and her innocence throughout the whole ordeal. She acted to prevent imminent loss of life in a war that she deemed unlawful. There are a few suspenseful scenes, notably the time Katharine was interrogated when GCHQ got wind of the ‘leaked memo’ and another one involving her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) who’s from Turkey. The fact that he’s an immigrant is being exploited by the UK authorities to get Katharine to yield. I have to admit that deportation scene is highly resonant to what’s going today and it sends a chill to my heart.

The film boasts a terrific British cast. I thought Keira Knightley, who looks nothing like the blond Katharine (they didn’t even make Keira’s hair lighter in the film) delivers a pretty convincing and affecting portrayal. It’s perhaps a less flashy role, yet one of her most nuanced performances I’ve seen so far. It’s quite a nice break to see her being rather deglamorized here. As for the all-star supporting cast, there are Ralph Fiennes as Katharine’s human-rights attorney, Matthew Goode (wish there were more scenes of him) and Matt Smith as journalists for The Observer, and Rhys Ifans as another British journalist. Though they each play a small role, I think they all provide a memorable turn as the people Katharine came in contact with. I find the whole correspondents between the supporting cast quite entertaining, perhaps because I have such a penchant for these fine British thespians!

Some say the Katharine Gun story as a morality tale of the 21st century, as her legal battle ends up exposing the highest level of government in both UK and US. Katharine was asked if she was ‘anti-war’ and she replied ‘no.’ She said some wars serve a purpose, and in hindsight, we know that the Iraq invasion shouldn’t have taken place. I for one am not a political person nor am I into overly political movies that are one-sided, but that’s not what Official Secrets is about. This thought-provoking film certainly made me ponder what I would do if I were in Katharine’s shoes, would I dare to stand up for what I believe in when it really mattered, risking everything I hold dear when the easiest to do would just to keep quiet.

I’m glad I saw this film as I didn’t really remember the actual events. As far as films about whistleblower goes, this one isn’t quite as gripping as say, The Insider (one of my fave from Michael Mann boasting an Oscar-worthy turn from Russell Crowe). Nonetheless it’s still a pretty solid drama in which the cast made it well worth a watch. I appreciate that they show the real Katharine Gun at the end of the film. I know people don’t usually go to the movies to see smaller dramas like this one, but I highly recommend it and I think you’d be pleasantly surprised.


Have you seen OFFICIAL SECRETS? I’d love to hear what you think!

…british

Rental Pick: PIRATE RADIO (2009)

PIRATE RADIO

A period comedy about an illegal radio station in the North Sea in the 1960s.

PirateRadioPosterSo I guess not all *pirates* are bad. This Richard Curtis‘ comedy is [loosely] based on a true story in the 60s era Britain when the then-traditionalist British government deemed it illegal for radio stations to play rock music. I didn’t even know that this actually went on in England, but clearly, making something illegal would only make something even more popular. Kids and adults alike secretly flock to the radio, whether on their own or in a group, hanging on every broadcast and songs played by these pirate radios. The term pirate radio not only refer to the illegal nature of their broadcasts, but there were apparently pirate off-shore radio transmissions in those days. In fact, the original title of this movie was The Boat That Rocked, which I think is a better title.

I had wanted to see this for a while but given that it’s got Philip Seymour Hoffman in it made me want to see it more. He once again displayed his incredible versatility and keen ability to embody a role like no other. Hoffman played the lone American D.J. ‘The Count’ in a group of all-British staff on the Radio Rock station anchored in the North Sea, ran by Quentin (Bill Nighy). It’s quite a rambunctious but lovable bunch, and the arrival of Quentin’s godson Carl (Tom Sturridge) made for an even more interesting dynamic. He’s sent by his mother to spend time on the boat due to his problems at school, as if she thought he’d learn to be a good boy on THIS boat, ahah. The term sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll is really not far from the truth, surprise, surprise.

The arch nemesis of the group is Sir Alistair Dormandy (played with mustache-twirling kind of villain-y by Sir Kenneth Branagh) whose the quintessential hoity toity persona who thinks everyone beneath him has low morals. Branagh is pretty much chewing the scenery here as he instructs his subordinate, appropriately named Twatt (Jack Davenport), to find a way to somehow shut down Radio Rock.

PirateRadio_StillsWhilst continuing to dodge Alistair’s ruthless advances, the boat has its own shares of drama amongst its crews. The arrival of popular D.J. Gavin (Rhys Ifans) increases tension given the rivalry between him and The Count, not to mention his massive celebrity status also cost fellow DJ Simon (Chris O’Dowd) his new bride. January Jones pretty much just strutted around here, I never really liked her as an actress and her role here didn’t exactly change my mind. All the chaos are done in the spirit of fun however, it’s refreshingly not mean-spirited. And for a British film about rock ‘n roll, it’s not as foul-mouthed as one would expect, which is a pleasant surprise for me. It may appear that the filmmaker is demonizing the British government but really the focus is more on the ridiculousness of Alistair’s holier-than-thou attitude even towards his own cabinet members! There is a subplot about Carl finding about his real father that doesn’t get explored as well as it could, but his unabashed naïveté is pretty endearing to watch. His relationship with Nick Frost‘ character is hilarious but also quite moving.

As for the finale, it’s truly the kind of ending that made you want to get up and cheer! Yes, a little mawkish perhaps, but not devoid of wit and charm. The music here well, rocks, which is what one would expect. The who’s who of rock music in the 60s are on display here, from The Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, The Hollies, Jimmy Hendrix, Buddy Holly, etc. add to the feel-good fun vibe of the movie. There’s also no real protagonist in terms of one specific actor dominating the screen, I think the entire boat is the star and you could say even say the rock music is the protagonist. Though the narrative is far from being perfect, it’s still quite heartfelt and entertaining that I’d recommend this for a rental. It’s another fun one from Richard Curtis‘ filmography.


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Have you seen this movie, well what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: The Amazing Spiderman

Is this film necessary? It’s an inescapable question that plagues this reboot from the start, as it’s only a decade ago the first Spider-man film came to the big screen. When the reboot was announced a couple of years ago, the last film of the Sam Raimi Spidey trilogy was only three years old! Yet I was immediately sold on this movie at Comic-con’s SONY panel, almost exactly a year ago today, when Andrew Garfield suddenly showed up wearing a cheap Spiderman costume, professing his love to his beloved character mere inches away from where my hubby and I were sitting [you can see me screaming behind me in some of the videos, ehm]

In any case, though the question I posted above is a valid one, I feel that once I enter the theater to see THIS particular film, I should judge it on its own merit.

So on that note, did Marc Webb and his team of writers delivered?

The relentless marketing promised us the *untold story* of our web slinger, so naturally it started with Peter Parker as a young boy, playing hide and seek with his scientist dad. But the mood quickly turns from playful to suspense as young Peter discovers his father’s study has been broken into. Richard Parker quickly gathers his documents and whisk his son away to Aunt May and Uncle Ben’s residence to leave him at their care.

Fast forward over a decade later, his parents have long been reported dead in a plane crash, Peter is now in high school and being a smart, geeky kid, naturally he’s an outcast whose only friend is his skateboard. The journey from regular guy to superhero treads familiar grounds. Peter discovers dad’s mysterious papers which leads him to Oscorp to find his dad’s colleague, the one-armed Dr. Curt Connors. Disguised as one of the high school interns [which happens to be where Gwen works at], he sneaks into a lab where a ‘biocable’ is constructed from genetically modified spiders. Of course one of them ends up biting him, and the rest is history. That life-changing moment inevitably brings all kinds of complications to the boy. As if maneuvering through his first romance isn’t tricky enough, an incident at school has the domino effect that cost the lives of his beloved uncle.

The GOOD

The casting of Garfield and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy is a clear winner right from the start. Despite being about 10 years older than the character, the 28-year-old Garfield is effortlessly believable, he imbues the role with a certain teenage angst and an appropriate dose of recklessness. Unlike the previous installments where Peter was shown as being a complete loser, in this one he’s far less pitiable. In fact, when the school bully Flash was tormenting another boy, Peter actually stands up to him, which then catches the eye of the beautiful Gwen Stacy. I also like the fact that this film particularly shows him as a science genius. Akin to Tony Stark, there’s a bunch of scenes of him tinkering with his dad’s formula and crafting a mechanical web shooter instead of an organic one.

There’s quite a lot of amusing scenes as Peter’s spider-like ability manifests itself almost immediately. Garfield’s wide-eyed mannerism and comic timing is put to good use here, particularly on the subway ride home and the morning after scene where he practically destroys his bathroom in a matter of seconds! His new-found powers discombobulate as well as delight Peter, and we see a great deal of scenes of Peter gleefully testing his gravity-defying abilities before he becomes the titular hero. As Spidey, Garfield also brings more of that sarcastic playfulness that’s fun to watch.

Thanks to their palpable chemistry and Marc Webb’s gift for creating an authentic relationship drama (as he did in 500 Days of Summer), the romance between Peter and Gwen feels genuinely affecting and real, it even makes you forget for a bit that you’re watching a Summer superhero blockbuster. Emma also has this likable presence and warmth about her, plus she is no damsel in distress, so it’s nice to see far less shrieking women that’s so prevalent in Raimi’s versions.

Rhys Ifans brings a surprising credibility in the role of the villain, I’ve only seen him in comedic roles like his scene-stealing role in Notting Hill but he’s quite a versatile actor. I always like a story where the villain has a close ties with the hero, and has a personal motivation that drives him instead of just an arbitrary desire for creating chaos. Connors is more of a tragic character because he’s naturally a good guy, and his humanistic identity doesn’t become lost beneath the freaky Lizard shape once he’s transformed.

What’s nice about this movie is the compelling humanity of our superhero, it’s as much a movie about Peter Parker the human as it is about the hero in spandex. Yet it also offers the cool visuals that we’ve come to expect from a superhero movie. The technical wizardry of Spidey’s web-slinging stunts is marvelously-crafted, and there’s plenty of beautiful aerial shots of the Big Apple at night that I think makes the 3D price worthwhile. The ‘cranes’ scene packs an emotional punch in the bombastic climactic battle between Spidey and the Lizard. That sense of ‘community’ evokes memories of the awesome train scene in Spider-man 2.

The Not-So-Good

Now, what drags this movie down to me is the pacing. At 2 hours and 16 minutes, the film does feel quite tedious at times, especially in the first half as the scenes of Peter discovering what he’s capable of feels repetitive. The editing could’ve been a whole lot tighter, especially considering that supposed “untold story” of what really happened to Peter’s parents is not being explored that well. The famous line “with great powers comes great responsibility” is also missing from the film, and the writers tries to replace it with something similar but it just doesn’t have as big of an impact.

I think that’s my general sentiment about the supporting characters, they’re just not memorable. Aside from the two main leads, everyone else’s performances are just serviceable to me with nothing worth writing home about. For one, the relationship between Peter and his aunt/uncle (Martin Sheen and Sally Field) aren’t as touching, they’re good mind you, but I just don’t feel a real connection between them and Peter. Then there’s the stereotypical, cheesy school jock Flash, whose transformation from bully to buddy is entirely unconvincing. Even Dennis Leary as Gwen’s dad feels one-dimensional even though there are some memorable scenes between him and Peter.

Another major disappointment is the score by James Horner. I’m actually surprised he’s the composer as the music is so forgettable, it adds nothing to the experience at all.

Final Thoughts:

Overall it’s an entertaining reboot and despite it being inherently predictable, Webb manages to ingest something fresh to the table, starting with the main cast. However, the main beef I have with the movie lies in the significant gap between what’s promised n what’s being delivered. What “untold story??” The only thing that was not told in the Raimi’s versions is that bit about his father and his “decay rate algorithm” that Dr. Connors has been searching for. But apart from that, it’s the same old story just told slightly differently.

Given that there are quite a lot of missing scenes from the trailers [whatever happens to Rajit Ratha who keeps pressuring Connor to hurry up on human trials of his experiment??], perhaps it’s a last minute decision on the studio’s part to save that “untold story’ for the sequels. Fortunately for SONY, Webb has spun [pardon the pun] something that has enough going for it to make me want to stick around and find out what happens next.

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So what do you think of this movie, folks? What do you like/dislike about it?