“The Gift”–Nothing is Free

The Gift movie

The Gift is a 2015 American-Australian psychological thriller  written, co-produced, and directed by Joel Edgerton (Academy Award nominated for his role in “Loving”). This is his directorial debut, and it is a winner!

Darkly unnerving, The Gift first conveys a vibe of horror, but then the narrative moves in the direction of “Fatal Attraction”, with a deft maneuvering of plot, character, style, and tone. No blood or gore, but a heart-pounding series of scenes without a stewed rabbit.

The film stars Jason Bateman (of “Ozark” and “Arrested Development” fame) and Rebecca Hall (“The Town” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) as an affluent couple intimidated by Gordo, a former high school classmate of Simon’s, played by Edgerton.

Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall) are a forty-something married couple whose life is going mostly as planned, except for the unfulfilled desire to have a baby. When a chance encounter with Gordo happens in a furniture store, their world devolves into a harrowing tailspin. Simon doesn’t remember Gordo at first, leading the viewer to believe a con may be going on. But after a series of devised encounters and mysterious gifts, Simon begins to remember high school with Gordo. A horrifying secret from the past is uncovered after more than 20 years. As Simon’s wife, Robyn, becomes aware of the relationship between Simon and Gordo, she begins to wonder if she really knows her husband. Simon hopes that bygones will be bygones. But Gordo retorts: “You’re done with the past but the past is not done with you.”

Hitchcockian in its buildup to Simon’s past sins, The Gift raises the question: Is it possible to lay ghosts to rest? This is the territory of karma: what impact one’s actions and words have on another may be obliterated from memory by the agent but not by the recipient. The Gift is both eerie and terrifying, speculating about just what happened in Simon and Gordo’s past. This film is a slow burner, but the theme and writing are superbly executed.

The ambiguity in morals of Simon and Gordo keep shifting the viewer’s loyalties as we see past events from both perspectives. Every plot twist and turn is virtually unpredictable and psychologically compelling. Is it really viable to say winners keep on winning because they deserve it and losers keep on losing because they deserve that too? Everyone –Simon, Robyn, and Gordo–is different from who they seem to be in the opening scenes, and even minor characters are surprising. The Gift should be seen!

 

Note: Available to stream on Netflix.

 

“Closed Circuit”—We’re Under Surveillance

Closed Circuit 2

“Closed Circuit” (2013), an adrenaline-pumping political thriller, portrays corrupt government forces who will stop at nothing. It’s an exciting genre. The title “Closed Circuit” is designed to raise the alarm over both the injustice of closed court hearings and the use of surveillance technology. Covert surveillance amplifies the sense that London has become a police state with ubiquitous security cameras. We don’t know who’s watching or how they’re using what they see.

The opening scene provides the hook. After a truck explodes in London’s bustling Borough Market, killling 120 people,   authorities at MI5 swiftly arrest a Muslim immigrant, Farroukh Erdogan based on closed circuit surveillance. The government assigns two separate lawyers to represent the accused, one for public sessions, the other for secret sessions. The government argues the evidence is so sensitive that national security pre-empts due process. (Think Patriot Act). Martin (played by Eric Bana) will try Erdogan’s case in public and Claudia (Rebecca Hall), will present evidence in front of the judge during the closed sessions of the trial, evidence the defendant himself is not allowed to hear. Martin and Claudia, however, are ex-lovers but fail to recuse themselves, since the case is so compelling. Moral questions on all sides begin to proliferate as Martin and Claudia dig deeper.   They soon realize that their client is not who the prosecution is making him out to be.

Closed_Circuit_3

The acts of terrorism depicted in “Closed Circuit” are meant to justify national security agencies’ means and methods of indicting and trying the accused. “Closed Circuit” depicts the injustice of power wielded by MI5 in secret, in contrast to the MI5 that British society permits to bend rules for their citizens’ protection. The overriding theme of “Closed Circuit”–when the powerful makes the rules, all everyone else can do is play along.

This taut film represents a style of conspiratorial “nobody-wins” storytelling seldom seen since the days of “No Way Out” and “Ides of March”.  Here, the Power is represented with chilling smarminess and ruthless insincerity by Jim Broadbent. A New York Times reporter (Julia Stiles), the MI5 administrator (Ann-Marie Duff), and solicitor (Ciaran Hinds) all add to the intrigue, with unexpected plot twists. Everyone’s allegiances are suspect, and surprise betrayals abound.

“Closed Circuit” is definitely worth seeing, if you want something more cerebral and something that will bother you a bit afterwards. This British courtroom thriller challenges the validity of policies that shield key evidence from public scrutiny.

 

“Parade’s End”–An Historian’s Downton Abbey?”

 

The five-part BBC/HBO miniseries “Parade’s End” premiered on HBO last week (February 26) and is also available on video-on-demand.  The playwright Tom Stoppard has adapted  Ford Madox Ford’s monumental 900 page, four-novel series “Parade’s End” for television:  the intellectual’s  Edwardian-era alternative to “Downton Abbey.”   Both series take place in the same time period, beginning with the decade before the First World War.  But the view of the British class system, the end of the Empire, and the attitude towards the war could not be more radically different.

Take the British class system as one example.  The mansion of the main character, Christopher Tietjens, is no less opulent or aristocratic than Downton Abbey but is not populated by kindhearted masters who confide in their servants.  Moreover, unlike “Downton,” which used the trench warfare in France mostly as a heroic experience for its young hero Matthew Crawley,  “Parade’s End” is a scathing indictment of the “Great War.” The massacre of an entire generation of young men on both sides of the front, and the distancing of the entire British elite in their club chairs and literary salons is mercilessly presented.

“Parade’s End” tells the story of a bad marriage, in an inner world tiny and self-contained, in  a privileged highly stratified society. Christopher Tietjens (brilliantly played by Benedict Cumberbatch) believes in a code of conduct as well as high ethical standards no longer upheld by the majority of his peers (if they ever had upheld them).  Most of his social class is solely determined to hold on to their positions in society.   The era appears to be dying, and this is the tragedy.  Tietjens is clear-eyed about some of the impending changes and blindsided by others.

A brilliant statistician and analyst, Tietjens is also an anachronistic English gentleman, righteous to the point of rigidity and loyal to a fault towards Sylvia ( an astonishing Rebecca Hall), a haughty beauty who finds her husband’s punctiliousness and moral standards insufferable.  She will inflict any humiliation to elicit a response from her affectless spouse because he is the only one among her many male admirers not to find her irresistible.  Without Christopher’s desire for her, the other lovers are meaningless.

Tietjens’s morals are tested when he meets a lovely, intellectual young suffragette, Valentine Wannop (a winsome Adelaide Clemens), who returns his affections and his wit. He remains faithful to Sylvia, but the two are disgraced by gossip anyway.  Only Tietjens believes that war in Europe is imminent.  He volunteers to fight with the French, out of a sense of honor and duty, only to see that the war is cruel and futile.

“Parade’s End” is a more focused and darker story than “Downton,” as it gazes into its characters’ twisted souls and their self-destructiveness. The viewer needs to embrace the contradictions in human nature– the way one person can be both insightful and hateful (especially Sylvia).  While you always understand the connections among the characters on “Downton Abbey,” you have to piece them together yourself in “Parade’s End.” Critical elements of the characters often aren’t revealed but must be inferred.

This mini-series is much more subtle and moves slowly, as the early 20th century British aristocratic life did, with everything looking good on the surface but simmering with scandal and sensuality underneath.

Cumberbatch can convey volumes by simply curling his unusual Cupid’s Bow upper lip.  As an emotionally stifled Brit  small facial shifts can seem glacial.  He is a shift-changer: moving from nobility to foolish lover to respectful and generous, to broken and surviving.

“Parade’s End” has a different sort of entertainment value than “Downton Abbey”, but no less a visceral and addicting experience, without a shred of unnecessary dialog or emotion.