Friday, September 20, 2019

'Ad Astra' proves weirdly involving

Brad Pitt travels deep into space -- both inner and outer.

Director James Gray's Ad Astra qualifies as a true oddity, a movie that manages to be both interesting and not entirely successful at the same time. Gray, who has made movies such as The Lost City of Z, Little Odessa and We Own the Night, this time dreams really big, setting his story amid the deep emptiness of space.

As astronaut Roy McBride, Brad Pitt takes a journey to Neptune where he must, roughly in this order, find the father who left him so that he could galavant around the galaxy, stop a powerful electric surge that has sent lethal shock waves to Earth, and, perhaps most importantly, commune with his emotionally wounded inner self so that he might finally be able to connect with someone else.

Pitt provides an offscreen narration in which he reveals Roy's thoughts, which come across as a dissertation on isolation; Roy tells us he's cut off from everyone. He does, however, sometimes confide with an unseen psychologist (an off-screen voice) who conducts a series of psychological evaluations. Roy generally passes -- although you might be tempted to think his answers feel a little too practiced, the speech of someone who's unable to connect his emotions to his thoughts.

The best parts of Ad Astra involve the set pieces that Gray stages with excitement and surprise: These include Roy's free-fall from an antenna that has been constructed at the atmosphere's outer limits, a chase sequence involving rovers on the surface of the moon, and a mission in which Roy and a colleague answer a distress call from a crippled vehicle.

En route to Neptune, Roy makes stops on the moon and on Mars. On Mars, he learns more about his father's fate from Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), the woman who manages the space outpost.

Along the way, Gray offers commentary on the commercialism of humanity's great adventure. The moon, for example, boasts a dreary mall. No wonder Roy's outlook feels mired in futility: He does his duty; he's calm; his pulse never rises above 80 beats per minute; he screws up relationships; he makes mistakes; he's miserable.

Liv Tyler, who I believe never speaks, is used to suggest Roy's failures with women, but she's more like a vapor than a physical presence in the movie.

You should know that Roy's father -- presumed dead for years but possibly still alive on a spacecraft that floats above Neptune -- is played by Tommy Lee Jones, a bit of casting that tells us that Roy's journey to find his rogue dad needs a lalapalooza of a payoff. It's the dynamic Francis Ford Coppola set up in Apocalypse Now when he sent Martin Sheen up a river in search of Captain Kurtz.

It takes guts for a filmmaker to give his film such singular focus; we're being set up to be blown away should Roy and his father ever meet. If we're not ... well ... let's just say, it's not a good thing.

I'm simplifying Roy's story for the sake of brevity, but -- in the end -- it doesn't prove especially complex. The movie's message (it has one) puts an aphoristic gloss on its promise of something vast, cosmic and mysteriously profound. We're set up to expect Kubrick and Gray gives us daddy issues.

Still, I found myself breathing the thin air Gray creates and moving along with a movie that takes us on a trip that's weirdly arresting -- at least most of the time. Hey, as we're always being told; it's not the destination but the journey that matters.

Gray splays Roy's inner voyage across vast spaces, turning his movie into a metaphor with mythic and psychological overtones centering on absentee fathers (take that where you will) and what it means to be a man. You'll have lots of opportunities to study Pitt's face, as Roy burrows deep into his own psyche. Pitt pulls it off.

I can't say too much more without spoilers, but it's possible that Gray may have made a space adventure that can be read as a critique of every other space adventure, as well as of our desire to watch them. This is either brave or a little crazy -- or some mixture of both.

All I can say is that when I emerged from the auditorium where I saw Ad Astra, the lights in the corridor seemed to emit an eerie glow. Ad Astra teeters on the brink of something awe-inspiring without quite falling over. Can a movie be "nearly" visionary?



Thursday, September 19, 2019

Downton Abbey, a royal serving for fans

The popular series results in a big-screen effort that doesn’t make for a great movie but gives fans their money's worth.

In its final going, Downton Abbey —- the big-screen version of a six-season PBS smash-- began to feel like a six-season feature, at least it did for me. I'm saying the movie felt long. But, and it’s a major "but," Downton Abbey wasn't made for me. I'm a series slacker who only recently caught up with the first season in preparation for seeing the new movie. I owe my wife, an avid Downton enthusiast, for filling me in on the major plot points of ensuing seasons.

So, if you have a severe case of Downtonitis — stop here. Go see the movie. You will happily reacquaint yourself with most of the series’ characters and you’ll be able to indulge in the luxuriance of the fabled estate that imposes itself on the Yorkshire countryside.

If you love period-piece pleasures, Downton Abbey provides the season's most reliable overdose.

As you probably know, Downton Abbey also provides a home for bickering, scheming aristocrats who employ a cadre of bickering, scheming servants — almost all of whom are deeply committed to maintaining the estate and everything for which it stands.

Best not to think too deeply about what that estate stands for, notably class division and political stagnation that even the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, can't present without showing a few cracks.

On TV, characters married downward or upward. The movie includes an assassination attempt and a bit of talk about British/Irish tensions. Mostly, though, characters ponder whether it's worth sacrificing personal fulfillment on the altar of propriety. Most vote for the propriety of the prevailing order.

Now because the movie is a mere 122 minutes long, not all the characters are given the kind of attention they received during six seasons. For some, it must have taken longer to don their costumes —- corsets for women, starched fronts for men — than to learn their lines.

Still, it can be rewarding simply to immerse in the carefully appointed aristocratic theme park that director Michael Engler and his production team create and, let’s be honest, celebrate. And, to be even fairer, I’ll say that Downton Abbey arrives on the big screen without too many visible signs of strain for having made the transition.

So what’s new about any of this? Well, there’s an episode in which a slightly more agreeable Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), the gay footman promoted to the post of chief butler, openly and almost disastrously explores his gayness.

A fresh battle over inherited wealth breaks out, allowing cousin Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) and her maid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) to arrive at Downton. Did I mention that the whole business centers on a visit from the King and Queen (Simon Jones and Geraldine James) that throws the entire Crawley household into a tizzy?

The pending arrival of royalty prompts Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to bring retired head butler, a.k.a., Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), back to Downton so that he can enforce the standards to which he has dedicated his life.

The royal visit seems more important to the servants than those who dwell upstairs. They help is gravely offended when told that the royal party travels with its own staff and that the services of the locals will not be required or, worse, desired. What? Miss an opportunity to grovel at the feet of monarchs? Disasters don’t get much bigger, do they?

To heighten the snootiness brought by a team of royal servants, a traveling French chef (Philippe Spall) has been added, much to the dismay of down-to-earth Downton chef (Lesley Nicol).

The royal visit also provides a reason to introduce Princess Mary (Kate Phillips), daughter of the King and Queen. She's having marital difficulties and provides a reason for the story to take a brief side trip.

Written by Fellowes, the movie employs a farcical twist to deal with tensions between dueling groups of servants. It might be said that on-screen, Downton Abbey is more reliant on plot twists than on the kind of character issues the series more freely could explore.

I know. You’ve been waiting for me to say something about Maggie Smith. She's onboard of course as the imperious Violet Crawley, self-described as the old lady who frightens everyone, a role that she relishes. Smith fires a fair number of caustic darts and, in this telling, becomes part of a comic duo in which Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) plays counterpoint by insisting on empathy over insult.

I was a little disappointed that Lady Mary didn’t have more to do, that her sister, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) has lost some of her edginess, having settled into something approximating happiness and that Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), the American-born mistress of the manor, had no crucial scenes.

You'll notice that I've omitted some characters but going any further risks turning this review into a scorecard -- if I haven't done that already.

If you have Downtonitis and you’ve read this far, you’ll be happy to know that I’m nearly finished.

Part reunion and part lovefest, Downton Abbey's reliance on the affection its audience brings to the theater struck me as near-total. I'd guess that Fellowes and his cohorts have done nothing that's likely to diminish the devotion of Downton fans. I wonder, though, whether those who've never seen a Downton episode will feel quite so welcome in the Crawley household -- or whether they'll even feel as if they've been invited.


Bob's Cinema Diary: 9/20/19 -- Fantastic Fungi and Running with the Devil

If you watch a lot of movies, your consciousness often inevitably fragments to the breaking point. It’s possible, in the span of two films, to go from the generally overlooked world of fungi (yes, you read that right) to the massively over-observed (at least in movies) world of cocaine smuggling. I’m talking about Louie Schwartzberg’s documentary Fantastic Fungi and director Jason Cabell’s Running With The Devil, films that have no business being mentioned in the same breath, which is why I couldn't resist putting them together.

Let’s start with the healthy side of the ledger and a confession. What I know about mushrooms (magic or otherwise) is precisely nothing -- and, at the moment, I'm not especially fond of them. Mushrooms have mounted a late-summer invasion of my lawn, and some of them are not pleasing to the eye, protruding from the earth in a form that resembles a rotting phallus.

Of course, I’m not giving mushrooms their due -- as those who spend their time studying them, appreciating them and sometimes eating them would attest.

Narrated by Brie Larson (who occasionally speaks for the usually silent mushrooms), Fantastic Fungi includes commentary from authors such as Michael Pollan and Andrew Weil. It also focuses on the work of Paul Stamets, a mycologist who has made mushrooms his life and who runs a business cultivating, finding and selling all manner of mushrooms, which evidently come in an astonishing variety, 1.5 million species worth. Judging by the movie, it might be wise to think of Stamets as a human ambassador to the fungi world.

The movie is designed to provide information about the essential role that mycelium, part of a fungus, plays in keeping the planet balanced. Mycelium helps the earth digest decaying, carbon-based matter, keeping the earth’s life cycle — birth/decay/death/more birth —- humming.

Schwartzberg offers time-lapse views of mushroom growth and introduces us to the staggering array of mushrooms that grow in the earth’s forests. He also includes commentary from psychologists who suggest that ingesting certain kinds of mushrooms in controlled dosages can play an important role in coping with depression and dealing with other psychiatric issues.

In short, we may not be paying enough attention to the psilocybin mushroom, which can take us on a trip without having to go through airport security. The documentary shows psilocybin being taken in pill form under supervised conditions.

A bit of a commercial for mushrooms, Fantastic Fungi nonetheless should please those who ascribe to the idea, as the film does, that nature is intelligent.

Now, for a different drug:

In the age of opioids, a movie about the cocaine trade immediately and perhaps inevitably feels passe.

Running With the Devil functions as a kind of primer about how cocaine moves from Columbia to the US market, increasing in price with each step of its illicit journey. A strong cast — led by Nicolas Cage and Laurence Fishburne — can’t do much to elevate a by-the-numbers movie steeped in the violence and debauchery surrounding the drug trade.

The characters who populate Running With the Devil all have generic names. Cage, for example, portrays The Cook, a pizza chef who supplements his income in the cocaine trade -- or maybe it's the other way around. Fishburne portrays a character called The Man, an ambitious participant in the trade who’s gotten too deeply involved in sampling the merchandise and cavorting with hookers. Barry Pepper plays The Boss, a character who needs no further explanation. Cole Hauser appears as The Executioner. Can you guess his occupation? I thought you might.

The movie eventually finds Cage and Fishburne hiking through the North American wilderness en route to their final destination.

A mostly male production, Running With the Devil does include one major female character. Leslie Bibb portrays the DEA agent who’s trying to stop the drug trade.

With big money involved betrayals can’t be far behind and the screenplay, also by Cabell, has them.

Hints of Tarantino blow through a story which includes a surprise ending that you should see coming. Looking bookish and scholarly, Cage puts on an all-business front, with traces of madness, of course. His performance contrasts to Fishburne’s display of wanton carelessness.

I can't recall seeing Fishburne play a character such as this, but Running With the Devil stumbles as it laboriously works its way through the familiar piles of white-powder crime.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Hard times in Los Angeles’s Koreatown

Director Justin Chon tackles cultural dislocation in Ms. Purple, the story of Kasie (Tiffany Chu), a young woman trapped in a life that revolves around men, notably her dying, comatose father and the abusive, demanding customers at the karaoke bar where she works. An affluent boyfriend (Tony Kim) -- also a karaoke bar patron -- gives Kasie money but treats her like a pet. Kasie lives a life of desperation in Los Angeles's Koreatown. Her mother long ago left to pursue a more affluent life. Kasie grew up with an immigrant father who called her a princess but did little to prepare her for adulthood in America. Now in a coma, Dad (James Kang) requires so much care that Kasie must call on her wayward brother Carey (Teddy Lee) for help. Flashbacks tell us that Carey's difficult relationship with his father explains, at least partially, why the young man remains shiftless and unemployed. At times, Carey pushes his father's bed -- with dad in it -- through the neighborhood, an act that's both amusing and hostile. Who does that to an unconscious man? Ms. Purple draws us into the multi-cultural environment of LA, sometimes using Mexican music in the background. Chon also introduces an under-developed Mexican-American character (Octavio Pizano). A guy who parks cars for a living, Pizano's character takes a liking to Kasie and invites her to his sister's quinceanera. Perhaps Chu wants to contrast a more rooted part of LA's diverse population with the more unsettled Korean enclave he depicts. Chon gets a lot out of his cast and he deglamorizes life among a segment of LA's Korean population. The story of second-generation alienation and exploitation can seem disjointed, but amid the chaos of Kasie’s life, Chon finds enough heartbreak to make his movie stick with you.


A documentary about Molly Ivins

Columnist Molly Ivins had a big career and a personality to match.

I didn’t know the late Molly Ivins personally, but I met her a couple of times, once in the newsroom of the Rocky Mountain News and once on a hilltop near Taos. At the time, Ivins was covering the West for The New York Times. As was often the case with journalists who landed regional assignments, Ivins occasionally dropped into the News to commandeer a desk, write and talk to reporters.

When Ivins was around the newsroom, you couldn’t miss her. She was big-boned, tall and imposing without being intimidating, what you might call a woman with a major personality.

In 1980, I attended an event called the D.H. Lawrence Festival. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime, irresistible cultural eruptions that any reporter would have killed to cover: An inharmonious blend of experts, celebrities and Lawrence enthusiasts who invaded Santa Fe for several days.

Academics delivered papers, poets read poems and those of us who were privileged to be there were exposed to a range of names that could wear-out a bold-faced font. From literary critic Leslie Fiedler to mega-star Elizabeth Taylor to poet Allen Ginsberg, it seemed everyone showed up. That's not to say that anyone really grasped exactly what the event signified -- other than a chance to mark the 50th anniversary of Lawrence's death and to remember the author in his adopted New Mexican setting.

Ivins, of course, was there, and, on a sunny afternoon, I found myself standing next to her at a ceremonial event that took place at the D.H. Lawrence ranch. It's all a bit fuzzy now, but I remember young women -- clad in white and portraying vestal virgins -- tossing flower petals to each side of a path as they approached the Lawrence Memorial chapel.

We were in the days before reporters traveled with computers. There was no tweeting or bleating taking place as events unfolded. We were expected to watch or, to put it in more high falutin' terms, to observe. In those days, writing kept a respectful distance from reporting until the point when deadlines intruded.

As the strange ceremony unfolded, Ivins — speaking in what I presume was an uncharacteristically low voice — began describing it. She offered a running account and she did it with style, grace, and an enviable amount of humor. I later came to think that she was writing her story out loud as this odd bit of theater unfolded. I'd bet she remembered it when she got back to a typewriter.

Although I can’t recall precisely what Ivins said, I knew I was watching a big-time talent reveal itself.

If you want to know what kind of woman Ivins was — and you should — you’d do well to spend some time with the documentary Raise Hell:: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins. Directed by Janice Engel, Raise Hell moves quickly, offering interviews with Ivins, as well as excerpts from public addresses she gave.

Fellow Texan Dan Rather adds a note of seriousness and other talking heads talk, helping to put Ivins’s personal and journalistic lives into context.

Watching Raising Hell, it's difficult not to wish that Ivins had lived well beyond 2007. She died of cancer at the age of 63, drastically depleting the national supply of irreverence that she sometimes served with a side order of bile.

For much of her life, Ivins was a hard-drinking, pickup-driving woman who, by not taking politicians seriously, managed to write seriously and engagingly about the political scene. Ivins famously referred to Geroge W. Bush — the younger and many would say "lesser" of the two Bush presidents — as “Shrub."

When she returned to Texas, she found her best subject. Ivins and the Texas legislature were made for each other, as were some of the state’s upper-echelon politicians. She was a whip-smart woman with a generous appreciation for elected officials who sometimes said and did things that were dumber than dirt.

She could spit in their eyes and get a chuckle out of them at the same time -- or so goes the mythology. Whether she left politicians laughing or not, Ivins remained an invaluable voice until the end of her life.

As I said, you had to take notice.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Jennifer Lopez dominates ‘Hustlers’

Flashy surfaces and energized performances keep this look at pole dancers on track — but it’s a narrow track.

Jennifer Lopez headlines Hustlers, an inside look at the world of pole dancers — in this case, pole dancers who scam Wall Street hotshots who wantonly spend money on booze, ego-indulgence and lap dances.

Director Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler) includes enough pole dancing and body exposure to keep the movie solidly in R-rated territory as she tells a story that revolves around the developing friendship between Lopez’s Romona and a fledgling dancer who goes by the name Destiny (Constance Wu).

Early on, Romona takes an eager-to-learn Destiny underwing, teaches her the rules of the pole, and offers to partner with her. When two women offer lap dances to drunken finance guys in the private rooms of clubs, the work proves more lucrative (and probably safer) than solo efforts.

Much of the movie consists of energetic sequences that gleefully chronicle the economic ascent of the two women. We also learn a little about each woman. Romona has a daughter. Destiny supports an aging grandmother who doesn’t offer much resistance when presented with thick wads of cash.

Mimicking the rush of a downed shot of vodka and buoyed by the abandon of the big-ticket shopping sprees in which the women indulge, Hustlers wastes no time getting down to business, drama on speed-dial. Written by Scafaria and inspired by a magazine article by Jessica Pressler, the screenplay races across a familiar dramatic arc.

In this case, the intoxications of the movie's early scenes receive sober comeuppance in 2008 when the market collapses. As stocks sink, so do the fortunes of the night clubs and strippers who have become part of the lower Manhattan scene.

After a few unsuccessful attempts to land day jobs, Romana and Destiny strike out on their own, pursuing an activity they call “fishing.”

They lure prosperous businessmen into nights of clubbing, drug their drinks with a combination of Ketamine and MDMA, and pretend to keep pace. The women then proceed to relieve the mark of his credit cards. Said cards get pushed to their limit. Romona and Destiny earn big bucks while ensuring that the clubs and any assistants receive their cuts.

It all seems too good to be true, crime with a safety net. These supposedly savvy sharks aren’t likely to admit they’ve been fleeced out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in their pursuit of a good time.

Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer play strippers who join Romona and Destiny in their felonious enterprise. Neither character is especially well-developed but the movie gives them each comic moments. Reinhart's Annabelle, for example, tends to throw up under stress; i.e., at the worst possible moments.

I’m not sure that it adds much, but the movie employs a framing device. Destiny narrates the story as she’s being interviewed by a journalist (Julia Stiles) who plans to write a magazine article about how the women raked in money, did a fair amount of high living and ultimately got caught. The bond between them eventually eroded.

It’s worth noting that Hustlers adopts the women’s point of view in depicting men, nearly all of whom seem to be class-A jerks who deserve what they get. Many are married men who lord it over the lap dancers, often throwing money at them in a demeaning fashion. Hustlers is a movie about women -- not about the men who think they're entitled to exploit them.

I wasn’t looking at my watch, but my impression was that Wu receives more screen time than Lopez. If so, there's still no question that Lopez is the movie’s star. Her Romona exudes confidence and entrepreneurial savvy. When she teaches Destiny how to pole dance, you can tell that, no matter what anyone thinks, Romona controls her body. Smart enough to use her physicality to dominate any situation, Romona remains unscathed by her line of work. She's a force.

The women are motivated by a simple equation: Economic self-sufficiency equals freedom. So what if what they do is illegal? The whole country’s nothing more than a rigged game anyway. Why shouldn't they get their share?

Although deeply embedded in the fabric of the movie, this simplistically cynical ethos never seems entirely convincing. To paraphrase Romona: Some people have the money; others dance for it. Pole dancing as a metaphor for the way society works? I didn't buy it.

Full of flash and performance verve, Hustlers nonetheless remains a showcase for Lopez -- with entertaining cameo help from rappers Cardi B and Lizzo. I don't what it has to do with anything, but it seems worth noting: Cardi B's Bronx accent is thick enough to strip the pretension off just about anything.

'The Goldfinch': a lengthy letdown

The big-screen adaptation of Donna Tartt's popular novel only intermittently clicks.

Many years ago, Bob Rafelson, the writer-director of movies such as Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens and Blood and Wine, told me something I've never forgotten. In an interview, Rafelson said that the best approach for screenwriters who adapt novels is to concentrate on what he or she most loves about the book and jettison everything else.

As is often the case with sage advice, Rafelson's mostly goes unheeded. If you're looking for evidence, search no further than The Goldfinch, the big-screen adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 novel by Donna Tartt.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins and mounted with a clear respect for nearly all other aspects of cinema craft, The Goldfinch nonetheless connects only intermittently. It's possible that director John Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan had too much respect for the material. Their movie plays like a dutifully illustrated version of Tartt's novel, a two-hour and 29-minute work that has the look of a prestige offering with built-in Oscar glow that the story never really matches.

The movie's pivotal event occurs when young Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley) visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother. As luck would have it, Theodore and his mom happen to be at the museum when it's struck by terrorist bombs. Mom dies, Theodore's odyssey begins, and the source of the story's title is revealed.

Theodore leaves the museum with a small 17th-century painting by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt. The painting depicts a pet goldfinch that has been chained to its perch. Ironically -- with a capital "I" -- Fabritius perished in an explosion.

The painting becomes the movie's McGuffin, a literary conceit that pushes Theodore into a world that's not always kind to him and which some reviewers of the novel aptly called Dickensian.

The movie contains a ton of plot and many characters. These include the Babours (Nicole Kidman and Boyd Gaines), the Park Avenue couple who take the newly motherless Theodore underwing until the boy's wayward father (Luke Wilson) and his trashy girlfriend (Sarah Paulson) turn up. They drag the boy off to Las Vegas.

In Las Vegas, Theodore meets Boris (Finn Wolfhard), an abused wild child who becomes his only friend and who also introduces him to alcohol and drugs.

Flashbacks to the fateful explosion gradually reveal precisely what happened on the day of the attack, but these hazy backward glances begin to feel tiresome. Crowley also alternates scenes of Theodore as a child with scenes in which Theodore has become a young man played by Ansel Elgort. Boris also crops up as an adult, portrayed by Aneurin Barnard.

Two potential love interests for Theodore also are included: Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings) was in the museum on the day the bombs went off and seems his obvious soulmate. In his early adulthood, Theodore becomes engaged to the Barbours' daughter (Willa Fitzgerald).

Jeffrey Wright gives the movie's most memorable performance as Hobie, an antique dealer who becomes Theodore's mentor. Hobie delivers the speech that announces the movie's theme, a reverence for the immortality of art as contrasted with the fragile mortality of those who create, save and respect it -- and, of course, the rejection of anything that might be considered fake.

Not all the performances come into sharp focus: Kidman portrays a decorous, emotionally reserved woman who also seems to have a genuine affection for Theodore. Wolfhard's Boris enters the movie with the force of a tossed grenade; it's as if he has been added to enliven the proceedings. Fegley's young Theodore can be impish, wounded or rebellious.

And Elgort's tormented and guilt-ridden character (he blames himself for his mother's death) isn't as interesting as his childhood version.

So what to make of all this? Good question and one that the movie's arduous length allows ample time to consider, even when the pace picks up in a third act that's overburdened with thriller-like plot developtments revolving around the painting.

Watchable without being compelling, The Goldfinch leaves us to ponder what this movie, at its deepest level, is all about. If you can't answer that question, you may be forced to consider a sobering possibility: Perhaps that deepest level wasn't reached.


A whistleblower tries to stop the Iraq war

The filmmaking isn't flashy, but Official Secrets tells a compelling story.

In 2003, Katherine Gun did her best to stop Britain from entering the Iraq war. As a British intelligence employee with a specialty in translation, Gun violated the country's Secrets Act so that she could reveal a controversial email. The email instructed those working at Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to look for information that could be used to pressure U.N. Security Council members to vote for a resolution authorizing the war.

Although Gun's leaked email was published by The Observer, it obviously didn't stop British participation in a war that was being carefully engineered and for which the "intelligence'' books were being cooked.

Directed by Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky) and starring Keira Knightley, Official Secrets tells Gun's story in straightforward fashion, taking us inside a whistleblower's anxiety-riddled world. Things don't go smoothly for Gun, who eventually was put on trial for violating the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

Knightley and Hood don't add much by way of over-dramatized flourish to the portrayal of Gun, a woman who lived with her Muslim husband (Adam Bakri) in London. After making her momentous decision, Gun tormented herself. Would she get caught? Had she done the right thing?

Written by Sara and Gregory Bernstein, Official Secrets boasts a strong supporting cast. Matt Smith appears as Observer reporter Martin Bright, the journalist who fights to publish the explosive email. Matthew Goode portrays one of Bright's colleagues and Rhys Ifans signs on as the Observer's wild-eyed U.S. correspondent, a reporter who works hard to confirm the authenticity of the email Gun leaked.

Conleth Hill portrays the editor who struggles about publishing a story that could derail a war effort his paper previously supported. Late in the movie, an understated (what else?) Ralph Fiennes shows up as Ben Emmerson, the barrister who defends Katharine.

Official Secrets doesn't always make for rousing cinema but it serves as an important reminder of what can happen to those who realize that secret government objectives sometimes should be subordinated to higher values, one of them being the truth.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 9/13/'19 -- Two views of youth in Mexico

Tigers Are Not Afraid

Director Issa Lopez takes a semi-surreal plunge into the world of Mexico city street kids in Tigers Are Not Afraid. Juxtaposing hard-core realism with revealing fantasies, Lopez gives her film its own special flavor. Lopez sets her story against a drug-riddled backdrop. Early on we're told that 160,000 people have been murdered in Mexico's drug wars and 53,000 are missing. The dangers of rampant lawlessness rule the life of 10-year-old Estrella (Paola Lara), who lives in a world of gunshots and fatalities and must try to survive after her mother goes missing. Much of Lopez's story takes place among kids in similar straits as Estrella. El Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) commands a gang of boys who are striving to kill Caco, one of the villains who helped turn their neighborhood into a war zone. El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), an even bigger thug than Caco, sets out to eliminate these pesky kids. Lopez offers imagery -- the dead congregated in a sewer, for example -- that reflect and magnify the frightful world in which these kids are forced to live. Ambitious to the point of folly, Tigers Are Not Afraid nonetheless stands as a powerful scream of a movie, a harrowing look at the dangers, bonding, and horror that kids face when thrust into environments so violent that no one is safe.

This Is Not Berlin

Director Hari Sama immerses his movie in the life of Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Leon), a 17-year-old who, in 1986, discovers a world of drugs, sex and artistic ambition in Mexico City. The characters in This is Not Berlin eagerly explore a world that sometimes proves too unstable for them to manage, particularly when it comes to sex, drugs and artistic expression. Skilled in electronics, Carlos wangles his way into an artistic subculture that's inhabited by the sister (Ximena Romo) of his best friend (Jose Antonio Toledano). Carlos also discovers the excitement that awaits him at The Aztec, a club where gays, straights and those who wish to experiment find one another. Major partying takes place against the backdrop of AIDS proliferation and failed government policies. Adults do turn up: Carlos's mother (Marina de Tavira) can't seem to get out of bed. She's too depressed. Carlos makes his main connection with the adult world through an uncle (played by Sama), an aging hippie who feels a sense of responsibility for his nephew. A young gay man (Mauro Sanchez Navarro) becomes Carlos's guide in this new world. Throbbing dance scenes can be wearing and the basic story -- libidinous liberation leads to near tragedy -- hardly feels groundbreaking. The movie's instructive title tells us that we're looking at an attempt by young people to invent their own culture in ways that are uniquely Mexican. That's an interesting enough reason to make a movie, but This Is Not Berlin didn't quite convince me that it had captured a pivotal moment. The movie may be more meaningful for Mexican audiences who are familiar with the scene that Sama depicts or for those who came of age in the 1980s elsewhere. Me? I was at work.