One of the pervasive themes this year in Toronto was suburban angst—festering, invisible seeds of erosion diminishing the human spirit in an atmosphere of fear, doubt and insecurity. The houses are identical, the neighbors are jealous, the lives are unfulfilled, the children are confused, and the American Dream is six feet under.
Little Children, written and directed by the enormously gifted Todd Field and based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, is one of the most delicately written, sensitively observed and unsettling of these films. Set in a plastic Massachusetts community that looks and feels like the same haunted, soulless suburbia of American Beauty, it has arrived for a regular run following its American premiere at the New York Film Festival, to tell the heartbreaking story of a convicted pedophile who returns to an unidentifiable tree-lined street in a characterless subdivision to live with his loyal, loving and long-suffering mother, hoping for anonymity and praying for a new beginning. It is stunning.
It is also the eagerly awaited follow-up to Todd Field’s acclaimed, prize-winning film, In the Bedroom, which still gives me sleepless nights. This one focuses on the desperate need for communication among people who have lost the talent for talking, touching and caring for and about their fellow human beings. While a committee of “concerned parents” protests the arrival of the paroled sex offender, the focus narrows to a select group of individuals: Sarah (Kate Winslet), a grad-school dropout married to a corporate jerk and forced into the role of stay-at-home mom; Brad (Patrick Wilson), a hunky house-bound dad that the playground gossips have dubbed the Prom King; and his beautiful but preoccupied wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a documentary filmmaker.
Struggling to pass the bar exam and emasculated by a career-driven wife who controls the money and even decides which magazines he can subscribe to, Brad is understandably drawn to the warmth and compassion of the unhappily married Sarah. She joins a pretentious women’s reading club. He joins a time-wasting touch football league that plays at night, a perfect distraction to stay away from law school. But Sarah and Brad slowly gravitate toward each other, and an affair begins that threatens to destroy them all, while an unbalanced cop on Brad’s ball team (Noah Emmerich) takes it upon himself to destroy the poor, mentally challenged sex offender and recluse, Ronald James McGorvey (brilliantly and chillingly played by the versatile Jackie Earle Haley).
For a while, Sarah has the best sex of her life with the best-looking and most misunderstood husband on the block, giving her new feelings of self-importance and forcing her to reorganize priorities that make her heroic in her rebellion. (She even identifies with Madame Bovary, recasting her as a saint—which is not perhaps what Flaubert had in mind.) But tragedy is always just beyond the bedroom door, and nothing turns out as it should, especially for the suddenly orphaned and defenseless neighbor with the shameful past. He’s the one who meets with the most tragedy of them all—and the one who deserves it least.
A film with dark themes and no stars, in which the most sympathetic character is a child molester, has a struggle ahead at the box office. But to miss Little Children would be a shame. It’s a rare and intelligent film for sophisticated audiences who demand more from their films than a slap and a tickle and a box of Milk Duds. The actors eschew flamboyance for honesty. The direction works hard for moment-to-moment realism. The outstanding ensemble work is as honorable as it is simple. The result is a richly detailed view of parenting as a professional sport without rules, and of the growing American paranoia under the dehumanizing blanket of homeland security. From start to finish, it is artistic, viable, wry and wrenching.
A thunderous performance by Forest Whitaker as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin informs and ignites The Last King of Scotland so far beyond its limitations as both a biopic and a political thriller that he becomes the movie itself. It’s the kind of powerhouse portrayal that appears destined for an Oscar nomination. As the awards season nears, you’ll be hearing that kind of blather a lot in the months to come. But trust me on this: Forest Whitaker, in this role, is a real contender.
As a poster boy for African dictatorship, Amin ruled Uganda from 1971 to 1979, promising his people education, public-health plans, civic reforms, civil rights and unconditional freedom. What he gave them was carnage, bloodshed, torture, the eradication of all opponents, the expulsion of the country’s Asian population and the mass murder of nearly half a million people.
This scalding, fast-moving narrative film debut by the acclaimed Glasgow-based documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald attempts to show what Idi Amin did to destroy his people and why, framed by the experiences of an eyewitness, a young Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan (played by the versatile James McAvoy, who played the goat-eared Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia). Though the role itself is fictional, it was based on a composite of several actual Westerners who were close advisors to the African dictator during his reign, including his personal physician, who was Scottish.
As a recent medical-school graduate who is anxious to get away from home and make his own mark in the world, Nicholas is ready for adventure, but he has no idea what he’s getting into when he spins the globe and his finger lands on Uganda. As a hard-working young doctor in a Ugandan clinic whose appealing combination of arrogance, innocence and fearlessness attracts the attention of Amin, Nicholas thinks he’s doing a service for a Third World country by accepting the newly elected president’s invitation to become his personal physician. Ignoring the warning of a doctor (Gillian Armstrong, in an about-face from her television persona), Nicholas falls under the spell of the persuasive, charismatic African leader and becomes Amin’s most trusted friend and advisor—while behind his back, Amin labels Nicholas his new “white monkey.” Nicholas thinks he’s overcoming prejudices, superstitions and witch doctors, but he slowly comes to see that his boss is turning his country’s economy into his own private fortune while his loyal subjects are in mortal danger of extinction. The privileged treatment appeals, the president’s lavish house and grounds delight, but while the genocide grows by leaps and bounds outside, the man who was a willing guest turns into a reluctant hostage—his passport stolen and replaced with a Ugandan passport, his position compromised by the British secret service’s demands that he assassinate Amin.
Plunging himself further in harm’s way, Nicholas unwisely seals his own fate when he gets Amin’s youngest wife pregnant. His escape is a miracle: How he does it, and how he lives to tell the world the truth about Idi Amin, makes for one of the most harrowing stories of the year. Before he fled to Saudi Arabia, where he died in exile in 2003, Idi Amin was accused of the genocide of 300,000 people; the total is now estimated at half a million. Watching the first movie ever filmed in its entirety in Uganda (with the help of the current president and the support of the army), you get the eerie feeling you can see the unmarked graves.
As a monster of epic proportions, Forest Whitaker practically becomes the spiritual embodiment of the fiend he’s playing. In a performance of noise and passion, his smile is warm as hot molasses, but there’s something wrong. It curves to the side in contempt, the grin a mask of unspeakable ruthlessness. Seizing the oversized body and soul of Idi Amin’s savagery with his entire girth, Mr. Whitaker captures all of his subtleties: a mad child obsessed with power and pain, loving to his wives one minute, subjecting them to fits of degradation the next. Loving, pitiful, misunderstood, dangerous, menacing and a totally insane father figure to his country, he literally embraces Uganda in a bloodbath of evil and destruction. Based on Ugandan medical records, it is believed that syphilis drove Amin to this delusion: He really did wear kilts, force his choirs to sing “Loch Lomond” at political rallies and declare himself the last great king of Scotland. For a director who has never made anything but documentaries, The Last King of Scotland is quite an accomplishment.
Formulaic but so well-made that you choke on the thrills in spite of yourself, The Guardian is about a fresh breed of heroes, new to me and the movies: rescue swimmers. These are the brave, unsung underwater U.S. Coast Guard icons whose job is to save the victims of shipwrecks, hurricanes, tidal waves and other disasters at sea from drowning—a job so arduous, risky, physically punishing and stressful that the swimmers who survive look twice their age in half the time.
Kevin Costner, who has been moving securely into riskier and more challenging assignments of his own in movies like Open Range and The Upside of Anger, is perfect as Ben Randall, the traumatized veteran swimmer who suffers serious psychological damage after a particularly grim, near-fatal accident in which he loses his entire helicopter crew and sustains permanent injuries. To make matters worse, his wife (the wonderful, underrated Sela Ward) decides to rescue herself—from a dull social life on a military base with a husband who is never home. Separated, lonely and losing self-confidence, Randall is on the verge of cracking when the Coast Guard cracks down. The ultimatum: He can either become a civilian or sign on as senior instructor of an 18-week class teaching new swimmers the ropes at the Aviation Survival Training Center in Louisiana.
Tough, relentless and uncompromising, Randall flunks half of the class before the first month is out, building tensions between himself and an arrogant rookie named Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher). He’s a gifted student, fast as an electrical current in the water, and with the greatest potential to become as vital a force in the Coast Guard as Randall was. He is also a stubborn, mean-spirited screw-up, determined to get his butt kicked off the base before he can get his Speedo on. Randall can’t crack his case until he unravels the secret that keeps the boy in a constant rage and threatens his career. How the teacher finds renewed hope for his own career, and how the pupil learns to become a team player and use his gifts to help others, is what gives this movie its corny but undeniably touching center. Needless to say, the day arrives at last when both men must face an underwater challenge together, and the results teach them both a lesson for which neither is prepared.
Director Andrew Davis ( Collateral Damage, The Fugitive) has never turned out a movie of any importance, but The Guardian is unexpectedly engaging, with a bit of everything that a movie needs to please any potential audience: great special effects, unbearable suspense, believable relationships, plenty of romance and even a few tears that just sneak up on you without warning. Oddly enough, he also coaxes terrific performances out of two actors who continue to surprise. Despite all of his experience on TV and B movies, Ashton Kutcher has never shown much range, but he’s improving. Unlike Josh Hartnett in The Black Dahlia, who acts with all the emotional depth of a sidewalk, Mr. Kutcher shows signs of becoming more than just another pretty face. And Mr. Costner—mature, focused and charming—just gets better all the time.