Friday, October 18, 2013


Opening this weekend:

The Fifth Estate—The British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, recently impressive as the villain in Star Trek: Into Darkness, does a striking impersonation of Julian Assange in this chronicle of the WikiLeaks saga. Like 2010’s The Social Network, it’s the story of a virtual-world revolutionary, based on a book by a disgruntled former second-banana—Zuckerberg pal Eduardo Saverin in the case of the Facebook movie, and WikiLeaks crony Daniel Domscheit-Berg (sympathetically played by Daniel Bruhl) in the case of The Fifth Estate.

Surprise, surprise, in both the sidekicks are depicted as decent and long-suffering, and the central figures as socially awkward, paranoid, narcissistic ingrates.

The director is Bill Condon of Chicago, and as in that film he shows some ingenuity in creating psychological landscapes, and his illustrations of the real-world impact of Assange’s online activities are cleverly handled as well. But there’s something slack and artificial about the attempts to generate conventional political-thriller suspense from the release of the Afghan War Logs or the Diplomatic Cables. The performances are sharp and witty—Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney have fun as a couple of jaded State Department stooges—and so is much of the dialogue, but somehow the movie doesn’t feel urgent.

Maybe that’s because it’s off-center. I don’t mean to suggest that Assange’s psychology, at least as it relates to the ethics of his leaks, is an unimportant subject. I just don’t think it’s as important as most of what, rightly or wrongly, he leaked.

Most people would probably agree that at least some state secrecy is necessary for a nation’s security; most people would probably even more strongly agree that this shouldn’t be used as a catch-all excuse to cover up brutality or illegality, or even avoid embarrassment. Yet this is clearly much of what WikiLeaks exposed. The focus on Assange’s admittedly questionable character has kept this material from being as widely discussed as it should be, and it’s hard to believe that isn’t at least partly by design.

A.C.O.D.—The title stands for Adult Children of Divorce, and the central character, Carter (Adam Scott), is a prime specimen of such. His younger brother (Clark Duke) is getting married, and it falls to Carter to negotiate the brief truce between his long-divorced, still-enraged parents (Richard Jenkins and Catherine O’Hara) necessary for the occasion. None of the wackiness which ensues is especially revelatory—the direction, by Stu Zicherman, and the script, by Zicherman and Ben Karlin, are on about the level of an above-average sitcom.

But the great O’Hara and the great Jenkins bring this material to life without breaking a sweat. The supporting players, including Jane Lynch, very funny as an opportunistic therapist, Ken Howard, Amy Poehler, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jessica Alba, are all proficient. Scott, from Parks and Recreation, is agreeable as the straight man at the center of it all.

The climactic attempt to resolve the various family conflicts with a single stroke of the plot is on the clumsy side, but then, at the very end, Jenkins is given a simple, poignant monologue. He hits it out of the park, of course, and for aficionados of fine acting the movie would be worth seeing just for this.

Now in theatres:

Machete Kills—The title here is, at least, truth in advertising. Scary-looking, likable Danny Trejo returns to his role from the 2010 action parody, a Federale-turned-avenger who slaughters both Cartel goons south of the border and nativist goons north of it. Director Robert Rodriguez, with the help of a cast which includes everybody from Sofia Vergara to Mel Gibson to Lady Gaga to Charlie Sheen, here billed (accurately) as “Carlos Estevez,” as the President of the United States, makes this one even more cartoonishly gory and raunchy than the original, and for my money, more enjoyable (for adults, that is). We’re told at the end that the character will return in Machete Kills Again…In Space. I, for one, hope so.

A couple of RIPs: First, to the fine character actor Ed Lauter, passed on at 74—I just watched him the other night in Hitchcock’s Family Plot, but he was in dozens of movies and TV shows ranging from the original Longest Yard to The Artist.

RIP also to the great Stanley Kauffman, longtime movie critic at The New Republic, passed on at 97. Though I often—maybe even usually—disagreed with his cranky conservative judgments, Kauffman’s impeccable style and wit always made him a terrific read. At the age of 18—years before I discovered Pauline Kael—I was given Kauffman’s 1980 review collection Before My Eyes by a bookstore-owning family friend as a high school graduation present. It was endlessly rereading this book that made me want to get serious about being a film reviewer.

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