Category Archives: Archived Movies

BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS

Producer: Lars Knudsen, Nikolaje Vibe Michelsen, Daniel Bekerman and Malene Blenkov
Director: Per Fly
Writer: Per Fly and Daniel Pyne
Stars: Theo James, Ben Kingsley, Belcim Bilgin, Jacqueline Bisset, Rossif Sutherland, Rachel Wilson and Brian Markinson
Studio: A24 Films and DirecTV

C

An actual financial scandal at the United Nations becomes a rather tame cinematic thriller in Per Fly’s adaptation of Michael Soussan’s memoir. “Backstabbing for Beginners” adds elements of romance and danger to Soussan’s more staid account of how he was instrumental in revealing the transformation of the UN Oil for Food program, established to provide Iraqis with the basic necessities of life during the time the country was living under heavy sanctions after the First Gulf War, into a mechanism of graft and corruption that benefited Saddam Hussein as well as scores of private companies and some UN officials.

The narrative liberties taken by Fly and Daniel Pyne are undoubtedly the reason why in this telling Soussan has become Michael Sullivan (a bland Theo James), the principled but naïve son of a martyred American diplomat who wants to do good in the world. He is hired as the assistant to the undersecretary in charge of the Oil for Food program (Ben Kingsley), a Cypriot referred to only by the nickname Pasha (which was, in fact, the nickname of Benon Sevan, the real-life undersecretary), who had once crossed paths with Michael’s father and admired him.

Sullivan is immediately thrown into the thick of things, advised by Pasha not to be too vocal about monies that are being siphoned off from the program and whisked off to Baghdad with his boss for a meeting with Iraq-based program director Christine du Pre (Jacqueline Bisset), who believes that the whole operation is infected with fraud and mismanagement and needs to be shut down after a recent reassessment. Pasha strongly disagrees, admitting that there are flaws but insisting that without the program, ordinary Iraqis wouldn’t get the aid they desperately need.

During this bureaucratic contretemps, Sullivan is approached by his beautiful translator Nashim (Belçim Bilgin), who has an agenda of her own. She wants to reveal to the world Saddam’s manipulation of the aid program to keep supplies from his bitterest rivals, the Kurds, telling Michael that it was an investigation of the matter that led to the murder of his predecessor as Pasha’s assistant. Sullivan’s involvement with her—which soon takes a romantic turn—puts both of them in the crosshairs of the country’s most ruthless enforcer, a fellow named Rasnetsov (Brian Markinson). (It should be noted that many of the entities that profited from all the shenanigans were Russian.) Things prove dangerous even when the couple make their way back to the States, leading to an ending that recalls the one from Robert Redford’s “Three Days of the Condor.”

That 1975 movie was pure fiction, but it was far more exciting than “Backstabbing for Beginners.” That’s not merely the result of the fact that everyone knows how things turned out, but because as scripted by Fly and Pyne, directed by Fly and edited by Susan Shipton, Morton Giese and Janus Billeskov Jansen, the story is told in plodding style, mostly through long dialogue sequences that lack tension—especially since James proves such a dull protagonist, and Bilgrin a beautiful but opaque love interest for him.

There is, however, some compensation in the cunningly extravagant turn delivered by Kingsley. He’s no less histrionic than he was in the recent “An Ordinary Man,” but in that instance his highly theatrical approach merely accentuated the film’s crudely didactic purposes. Here he seems simply to be having fun, tossing out knowing bits of bureaucratic chicanery for the benefit of his supposed disciple with impish glee and spewing colorful invective in an accent that might not be identifiable but is nevertheless amusing. He’s hamming it up, but it’s a tasty meal.

On the visual side the picture is fine, with Brendan Steacy’s camerawork achieving a degree of elegance in both the U.S. and Middle Eastern sequences (shot, of course, in Morocco, standing in for Iraq). Given that North African locale, however, it’s more than a bit ironic that, at one point in his reams of narration, Sullivan notes that Baghdad was like his Casablanca. Winking obliquely in the directio0n of a classic movie it tries to emulate but doesn’t come close to matching is only one of the mistakes made by this highly embellished but pallid account of a real-life scandal.

THE RIDER

Producer: Chloe Zhao, Bert Hamelinck, Sacha Ben Harroche and Mollye Asher
Director: Chloe Zhao
Writer: Chloe Zhao
Stars: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott, Cat Clifford, Terri Dawn Pouriere, Tanner Langdeau, James Calhoun and Derrick Janis
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

B

Art directly imitates life in Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider,” an elegiac, ruminative modern western about a young South Dakota rodeo rider who must decide what choices to make after suffering a serious head injury that threatens to end his career on horseback. Straddling the line between fiction and documentary, the film offers a portrait of Brady Blackburn, who is played by Brady Jandreau, a twenty-year old of Sioux background living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation whose love of riding has, in fact, been endangered by a fall. And his father Tim and Asperger-afflicted sister Lilly are portrayed by his real dad and younger sibling.

There’s isn’t much plot to “The Rider.” Brady bickers with his father, whom he considers a failure for having wasted money on gambling. He has sweet moments with Lilly. He visits a friend (Lane Scott) who was permanently disabled in a riding accident and now lives in a rehab facility. He takes a temp job as a clerk in a drug store. He goes out with his rodeo pals, who encourage him not to let the accident deter him from getting in the saddle again and engaging in those moments of dangerous action they all so love.

This result is an incisive cinematic portraiture of a young man at a critical crossroads in his life. What narrative there is arises from Brady’s efforts to get back into shape to compete, even though his physical impairment—he can barely control his right hand—is obvious. A natural horse whisperer, he’s asked by a local rancher to break some of his stock that have resisted all the efforts of others to bring them to heel, and manages to succeed with patience and kindness. And eventually, with his father’s help, he purchases a troubled horse than he believes, with work, can be trained and ridden. Eventually he goes back to the rodeo, intending to ride, even though a single fall could put him in the same condition as Lane and his father says that he’ll just be killing himself. What will he ultimately decide?

That decision is, in the end, the central issue of the entire film; every aspect of the story that Zhao—who reportedly met Jandreau before his accident and crafted her script afterward—contributes to it. During an employment interview, for example, we learn that Brady does not have a high-school diploma; to what extent does that limit his choices? It’s obvious that he feels an obligation to care for Lilly; what would become of her if he were in Lane’s condition? Is there a middle road that he might take, one that wouldn’t involve rodeo riding but could allow him to work with horses in some other capacity? The film raises all these matters, but in an indirect, subtle fashion.

In support of that approach, Zhao’s method is quiet and undemonstrative. The film luxuriates in the South Dakotan spaces, with Joshua James Richards’ widescreen camerawork careful to take advantage of the beautiful, but desolate locations. Alex O’Flinn’s editing contributes to the unrushed mood, as does a lovely, spare score by Nathan Halpern.

But the key to the film’s impact is the lead performance. Jandreau occasionally seems uncomfortable, as one would expect of a non-professional playing a version of his own life, but he projects a committed, convincing image of the sort of broodingly uncommunicative figure we can visualize as coming from this impoverished, hardscrabble milieu. It’s painful at times to watch Brady, but at the same time he makes you admire his grit and determination. The supporting cast, most of them non-professions too, add to the sense of authenticity.

“The Rider” moseys rather than galloping, and it takes patience to appreciate its virtues. But it’s worth letting Zhao’s vision work its magic on you.