'The Last King of Scotland,' 'The Departed,' and More
The Last King of Scotland
dir. Kevin Macdonald
First and foremost, The Last King of Scotland has very little historic value. Watching it will not improve your knowledge about the actual life of its subject, Idi Amin, or Uganda, the country he dominated for nearly the entire span of the '70s. The real events of Amin's spectacular rise and fall are distorted by the narrative of this movie in much the same way the events of one's life are distorted in one's dreams—or, more comically (and the best elements of this film are comic), the way a body is distorted by funhouse mirrors. Though the film is not really about the historic Idi Amin (in contrast to Downfall, which was about the historic Hitler), it is an entertaining film for a couple of reasons: one, Forest Whitaker, and, two, the fact that the movie was shot in Kampala, Uganda.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald, whose last film, Touching the Void, was about nothing, The Last King of Scotland is about everything—meaning, it is about power, the madness of power, the will to power, the will to excess, to reach the extremes and melt the walls of reality. Forest Whitaker provides the second-greatest portrayal of an African by an African American (the first being Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda, and third being Canada Lee in Cry the Beloved Country). The story, which is the weakest part of the film, is this: A young and rather impetuous Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) moves to Uganda on a whim, is befriended by Amin, enters the dictator's inner circle, and journeys to the heart of darkness—there does not yet exist an African film made by an American or European that is not about, or does not finally arrive at, the gloomy core of Conrad's famous novella.
The young doctor is nothing more than a narrative vehicle. In him, the viewer sits and is transported to the man himself—Whitaker, who gives his role everything his powers as an actor can give. It's a thrill to watch him switch moods with the speed, the suddenness of the insane; one moment he is high on top of the world, the next he is hard at its bottom. Amin is a chief, a peasant, a father, a soldier, an athlete, a global superstar, a murderer. He has no center, just a constant rotation of personalities—some loveable, many horrifying. In Idi Amin, Whitaker reaches his artistic zenith.
The other wonderful thing about The Last King of Scotland is that it was shot in Kampala, Uganda. And so behind the distorted (or surreal) story, there is the real location of historical events. The result is that, possibly for the first time in Hollywood cinema, the local color of African modernity—post-independence, urban Africa—is seen. The funky glasses, the African chic, the James Brown-influenced Afro pop, the futuristic architecture and interiors, the rush toward the cutting edge of culture and technology—the spirit of this moment (which was killed by dictator after dictator in city after city) makes up the background of this movie. Amin is the symbolic father of what Fanon called "the betrayal," but to his credit his volatile personality allowed Whitaker to explode on the screen. CHARLES MUDEDE
dir. Martin Scorsese
A loose remake of the Hong Kong crime epic Infernal Affairs, Martin Scorsese's The Departed casts Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon as deep-cover moles. One is a rising star in boss Frank Costello's (Jack Nicholson) Boston crime family, the other is Costello's counterpunch within the state police department. Both men are little more than useful pawns in a big-city game—cat and mouse, with neither man aware of the other's machinations—and deep down, beneath all their cocksure bluster, they both know it. Once their jobs are complete, they will both be cruelly cast aside; the only question is, who will unearth the other mole first.
Returning at last from the gold statuette wilderness, Scorsese has assembled The Departed with an absolute precision that's been lacking in his work since Goodfellas. The result is a film that's not so much a puzzle as it is a pretzel, overlapping and tying itself up at any given moment, and effectively capturing us within the twisted lives of its two leads. Throughout The Departed, conversations are started and abandoned, then returned to when we least expect it. Lies are unraveled slowly, all necessary information dispensed to us at the last possible moment. And though the story isn't a particularly deep one—scratch the surface and you'll quickly strike bone—Scorsese and lifelong editor Thelma Schoonmaker have crafted the film with such determination, and move it along at such an impressive clip, that you're constantly catching your breath as you watch it unfold. Only near the end does the plot risk wriggling free from their superb grasp, and even then you'll likely find it hard to complain. For 150 minutes The Departed delivers a visceral punch you're unable to dodge. It's the best American crime film since Michael Mann's Heat. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
dir. Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Jesus Camp is here to horrify and titillate the likes of us (or as camp head Becky Fischer, a heavyset children's Pentecostal minister, puts it, "Liberals who look at this should be quaking in their boots"). The filmmakers are more hands off than your average agitdoc director, but their point is unmistakable.
The camp in question is called Kids on Fire, and it draws home-schooled evangelical youngsters from across the country to Devil's Lake, North Dakota. (Is that irony whistling through the trees?) In the opening sermon addressing her young charges, Fischer hauls out a stuffed lion cub. Satan wants to get you when you're young, she explains, and so he makes sin cute and cuddly. But if you feed it, the lion will grow. Her voice becomes menacing. By the end of her fire-and-brimstone threats, the kids are out-and-out bawling.
Jesus Camp doesn't contain enough anthropological context to convince us that the children's distress is just another aspect of their highly performative worship service. It looks like abuse—or at a minimum, a sophisticated indoctrination technique, as Fischer herself brags about creating a children's army of God (she expresses ungrudging admiration for Islamic madrassahs in Pakistan). Where the film works best is during the moments it lets parents and camp leaders damn themselves: One scene, in which the kids are directed to kneel down and pray before a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush, is a real clincher. (A peek at a home-school lesson in creationism at 11-year-old Levi's house is another.) Unfortunately, the directors supplement these moments with a talk-show host from Air America, who stridently defends the peaceable goals of what guileless 9-year-old Rachael calls "dead churches." At least Becky Fischer has charisma. ANNIE WAGNER
Northwest Film Forum
There is so much to see in Northwest Film Forum's ninth Local Sightings Film Festival that it's impossible to squeeze descriptions of even just the best of what I have seen into this limited space. There are in all 60 films, 53 of which are shorts by regional filmmakers, including Lynn Shelton, Joe Shapiro, SJ Chiro, and Serge Gregory; and five feature films, one of which (The French Guy) is by Vancouver filmmaker Anne Marie Fleming, and another of which (Yellow) is by Portland filmmaker Nick Peterson, and one more of which (June & July) is by Seattle filmmaker Brady Hall—a film that was surprisingly rejected by SIFF. Correctly slotted as the festival's opening film, June & July is very low budget and without a single strong performance (thought none is particularly bad), but what it lacks in money and acting it makes up for with a great story and an unexpected twist. Don't walk out on June & July: See it to the end and you will be rewarded. Very few indie American films that are burdened by a family theme and a road trip are as thoughtful as this little local movie. CHARLES MUDEDE
Read David Schmader's interview with the filmmakers at www.thestranger.com.
Love Is the Drug
dir. Elliott Lester
I went to public school, so forgive my ignorance, but how bad can prep school possibly be? Maybe there are more white people there, and they can afford cocaine and $400 sunglasses and have legacy admissions to Brown. And sure, that sounds annoying. But if you believe Love Is the Drug (about a clutch of deeply intoxicated, deeply dissatisfied 18-year-olds), private school just might be... deadly! I kind of doubt that, though.
Jonah (John Patrick Amedori) managed to get through four years at his Encino prep school without making a single friend (impossible, I say!), despite the fact that he looks like your run-of-the-mill adorable emo teen. He spends most of his time being nice to his mom (Daryl Hannah in a Raggedy Ann wig), delivering prescriptions to elderlies, enjoying the poetry of the Beats, and gazing at pretty, popular Sarah (Lizzy Caplan) through his shaggy Prince Valiant bangs. When Jonah's dreams become reality and he falls in with Sarah's bad crowd, it turns out that popularity just might be... DEEEEADLY!!! Sigh.
As a twentysomething person, I think I'm supposed to relate to Love Is the Drug, like how your mom relates to The Big Chill or your older sister to Reality Bites. But I don't remember high school being remotely this corny. A K-Fed look-alike never hollered, "Let's smoke POT!" in my face while we were "hangin' poolside." Never, ever did I discuss anyone's "tiny vaginey," or look at my friend and screech, in unison with her, "bad cokey calls for KARAOKE!" And I'm pretty sure that, after an obligatory OD, an awkward funereal altercation, a sordid night in Tijuana, and a few federal offenses, nobody's life ever devolved into a goofy, melodramatic pile of poop.
But like I said, I went to public school. LINDY WEST
dir. Nick Francis and Marc Francis
The title of this roughly made agitdoc is supposed to be ironic. Commodity coffee prices are the cheapest they've been in decades, so, unlike gold, the raw material has very little value. In one memorable scene, Tadesse Meskela, the star of the film and head of a cooperative union in the Ethiopian region of Oromia, demonstrates to an audience of farmers the capitalist basics: A kilo of their green beans sells for pennies, and a cup of coffee at a cafe abroad sells for dollars. Wealth is only to be had in between.
As title cards in Black Gold demonstrate, the primary culprits in recent years' starvation prices are not so much specialty buyers like Starbucks—which commands a fraction of the market in green beans—but four multinational corporations: Kraft, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, and Sara Lee. But making fun of coupon clippers stocking up on cans of Maxwell House (who, needless to say, don't appear in the movie) isn't nearly as enjoyable as skewering the ditzy manager of the original Starbucks in Pike Place Market (who does). In Black Gold, the satisfaction of liberal guilt generally outweighs the inconvenience of reason.
That said, the documentary's purpose—to convince you to buy fair-trade coffee—is noble. And campaigns to put pressure on Starbucks, which loudly announces its "corporate social responsibility" at every opportunity, make more sense than trying to rally cuppa-joe consumers. Still, around the time the film screened at SIFF, Black Gold was totally outclassed by its star, who proved himself a canny advocate for his farmers—over mere ideology—by accepting an invitation to headline a Starbucks-sponsored "African Coffee Celebration." ANNIE WAGNER
dir. James C. E. Burke
Josh Jackson is Duncan, an aimless 25-year-old still reeling from his father's unexpected and unexplained death 10 years prior. After being fired for the millionth time, he signs up as handyman at a Minneapolis retirement home, where Grandpa Ronald (Donald Sutherland) is wasting away with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Coffee cake is consumed. Life lessons are learned.
"Dunc" is your typical down-and-out movie bachelor: He opens the fridge. It's empty. He sighs. He drinks a beer for dinner. He looks at a stack of bills. He sighs. He plays hockey with his buddies, whom he calls "ladies." He writes "balls" on his college application. He sighs. Etc. That all changes when he falls for Kate (Juliette Lewis, annoyingly), Grandpa's hot nurse, who's happy to join his predictably dysfunctional clan (after Thanksgiving: "I loved it! I loved every minute of it. The family tension, and the sweaters!"). Kate thought Minneapolis would be like a Replacements song. It isn't, so she's considering San Diego, and wants Duncan to go, too. Will he or won't he? I'll give you one guess.
Despite having the corniest tagline ever ("Love is the hardest job to hold. Love. The only job worth holding."), pretty much everything about Aurora Borealis is okay. Josh Jackson? Not bad. His buddies? Medium funny. His midwestern malaise? Didn't hate it. The only thing not okay about Aurora Borealis is Sutherland, who is completely, undeniably great. Painfully aware of his mental deterioration, Ronald is witty and proud. He knows who the president is ("that slick dickweed in the suit"), dances with his wife, and desperately begs Duncan for a shotgun shell to end it all. Their interactions—honest, interesting, and never saccharine—give this movie a reason to exist. LINDY WEST