Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 22, 2013

Openings

The Gatekeepers

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(Palo Alto Square) The "other" Oscar-nominated feature about a war on terror, Dror Moreh's documentary "The Gatekeepers" proves more intellectually engaging than Hollywood's "Zero Dark Thirty," and at least as unsettling.

Inspired by the work of Errol Morris — most specifically, "The Fog of War," with its confessional interview of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara — Moreh pursued the participation of former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel's secret service. Remarkably, six of these men agreed, for the first time, to explain their actions, discuss their successes and air their regrets.

Obviously men who have run the Shin Bet will be both canny enough and skilled enough to say just what they want, no more or less. Essentially the sole criticism of Moreh's film (not coincidentally the same criticism leveled against "The Fog of War") is that it gives the men a venue to couch their past actions in the best possible light and to polish their legacies by explaining how they have, in hindsight, turned certain political corners.

While that's true, part of the surprise of "The Gatekeepers" is that these men don't always dodge criticism. But even if all of them tried, Moreh wins simply by putting them in close-up and walking them through events, whether these be "successful" targeted assassinations, or failures to prevent the same (including the 1995 slaying of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) or other acts of terror.

It's not hard to read between the lines of the comments here, when they're not plainly damning to begin with. (The eldest statesman, Avraham Shalom, comes off the worst, with political criticisms that also serve as attempted self-defenses: "In the war against terror, there is no morality.") It's also not hard to understand the horrifying, damning responsibilities — and the ultimately Sisyphean futility — of heading up an Israeli intelligence agency.

These intelligence operatives all have plenty of blood on their hands (Shalom, for example, struggles to contextualize the scandalous summary execution, on his orders, of two terrorists). But today they express a basically uniform point of view that decades of security policy have been misbegotten, the only satisfactory answer being concessions leading to a two-state solution. Absent such a commitment, both Palestinian and Jewish terrorists will control the conversation as, in a way, they do here.

Reportedly, "The Gatekeepers" consists of only 2 percent of the interview footage Moreh shot, which speaks to his rigorous approach to getting the goods. The sometimes-slick visual approach, incorporating recreations of satellite surveillance and an animated photographer's-eye view of the 1984 debacle, can at times feel like overkill, but they also help to put what's otherwise a series of talking heads in the game with other eye-catching top docs.

Rated PG-13 for violent content including disturbing images. One hour, 41 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

Snitch

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(Century 16, Century 20) What do Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and PBS have in common? The new drama/action thriller "Snitch," which is "inspired by true events" or, in other words, on a 1999 "Frontline" documentary also called "Snitch."

That account of the wages of politicized drug laws — including mandatory minimums in sentencing — included the case study of 18-year-old Joey Settembrino, a first-time offender who landed a 10-year prison sentence after being entrapped by a friend in a drug sting. On the theory that one good "snitch" deserves another, federal agents enlisted Joey's desperate father to try to entrap bigger fish so his son would be released.

"Snitch" fictionalizes Settembrino's case, adding spoonfuls of action sugar to make the social message go down. Johnson plays the father, John Matthews, whose son Jason (Rafi Gavron) makes one bad call and winds up in the Big House. This worst-case scenario of a predominately innocent teen suddenly watching his life go down the drain may be a somewhat disingenuous conversation-starter about misbegotten American drug policy, but it's clearly an effective way to turn the screws on urban and suburban theatergoers.

As the owner of a big-rig freight-shipping outfit, John's in a "good" position to offer drug traffickers an enticing proposition. Entrapping one of his employees, Daniel Cruz (Jon Bernthal of "The Walking Dead"), John gets a meet with dealer Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams of "The Wire"), who in turn connects John with Mexican drug cartel head Juan Carlos (Benjamin Bratt).

And so the plot passes through two eye-rolling promises: the doubly in-over-his-head upper-middle-class dad telling his son he'll get him out of his prison and telling his employee, "There is no way I'm going to let either side dictate our fates" (cut to John in a gun shop).

"Snitch" points out the social overlaps amongst the lesser players in this drug plot: Both Malik and Daniel are "two-strikers" unwittingly risking their lives for that teen in prison, while Daniel and John both have sons who motivate them to act. Though the film is co-produced by socially progressive Participant Media, "Snitch" is, above all, an age-old archetype of parental sacrifice born of limitless love.

Stunt coordinator-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh shows his sure hand with the impressive, if overblown, driving stunts, which constitute most of the limited action in what's otherwise an indie-flavored thriller. Waugh shares co-screenwriting credit with Justin Haythe, who recently adapted "Revolutionary Road" for the screen. Haythe's background as a novelist (his "The Honeymoon" was nominated for the Man Booker Prize) may account for why "Snitch," despite being seriously far-fetched in its details, remains surprisingly, consistently absorbing.

The cast helps. For a man of not unlimited acting talent, Johnson shows he has a good understanding of his range and a firm handle on his career, this role being just the sort he ought to be playing (when not anchoring goofy family comedies, of course). That said, he'd be nowhere without his supporting cast, which also includes the stalwart Barry Pepper as a DEA agent and Susan Sarandon as a slippery U.S. Attorney.

In its modern way, "Snitch" is almost Dickensian in its intent, missing no opportunity for melodramatic confrontation as it puts a (baby) face on a social ill.

Rated PG-13 for drug content and sequences of violence. One hour, 52 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

Bless Me, Ultima

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(Century 20) It's a tricky thing adapting a beloved novel, and Rudolfo Anaya's "Bless Me, Ultima," now hitting theaters, certainly qualifies. Long a favorite of middle school and high school literature curricula, the 1972 Bildungsroman follows the classic construction Joseph Campbell called the "monomyth" in telling the story of soul-searching first grader Antonio Marez.

The task of adaptation has fallen to writer-director Carl Franklin (best known for "One False Move" and "Devil in a Blue Dress"). Franklin shows a clear understanding of and respect for the material, and yet his curiously flat film comes off as too polite, too bland. To some degree, this is the problem of a mostly passive, reactive hero, but Franklin is so busy trying not to get the book wrong that he forgets to go for the gusto in getting it right.

The story opens in 1944 New Mexico, where growing-boy Tony (9-year-old Luke Ganalon) feels a gentle but insistent tug-of-war for his identity between his father (Benito Martinez of "The Shield"), a vaquero; and his mother (Dolores Heredia), a staunch Catholic from a family of farmers. Enter Ultima (Miriam Colon), a respected elder of the community invited to stay with the Marezes. The "ultimate" in earth mothers, the old woman nicknamed "La Grande" is a curandera, a healer feared by some as a bruja, or witch.

The wide-eyed Tony gulps in lessons from pagan Ultima, his Christian school and church, and both sides of his family as he strives to locate his true life path, perhaps the "middle way." Franklin dutifully hits the novel's episodic and thematic highlights, judiciously editing out redundancies (like pagan business involving a "golden carp") while incorporating bits of narration lifted out of the book (sometimes clunky, they're read by an uncredited Alfred Molina).

At times, the requisite streamlining leads Franklin to bobble what should be deeply felt or at least an evocative incident (an ordeal of illness that spans days in the novel takes seconds in the film). And despite ably providing the essential imagery of the book (Ultima's owl familiar, a threshold-marking bridge, the moon, the llano, the river), only in Tony's dreams does Franklin achieve, very briefly, anything like a startling effect. Even more damagingly, while there are plenty of serviceable performances in the movie, there's not a single exceptional one.

The film accumulates some weight as the story goes along, especially in its refusal to gloss over the novel's religious doubt (a key character is Tony's atheist orphan friend) and hard stares into the existential abyss. After the death of one sympathetic character, adult Antonio narrates, "In time, nobody remembered anything good about (him)."

While a main throughline of the magical-realist plot involves a community struggle between good and evil, Anaya offers a broader perspective from Tony's father, who identifies so-called "evil" as simply that which "we don't understand."

Still, the material calls out for a more expressive cinematographic treatment. Had the film been less antiseptic and more bold in its visuals and the emotional depths of its performances, it could have been a classic; instead, it's a rather ordinary indie.

Rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual references. One hour, 46 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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