February 3, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Sundance Film Festival Reviews: “Official Secrets” & “Greener Grass”


OFFICIAL SECRETS (IFC):  Film festivals have a way of creating unintended double features when thematically similar films are seen in close proximity, and it’s hard to watch Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets without thinking about Scott Z Burns’s The Report.  Both are stories of whistleblowers and cover-ups involving the lead-up to the war in Iraq, and the combined picture they present of that recent era is far from comforting.  Official Secrets is the more conventional of the two films, making it less distinctive but perhaps more audience-friendly.  It has an advantage over The Report is being able to center on a single incident and protagonist.  Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a translator of secretly recorded phone conversations for Great Britain’s version of the NSA, was copied on an e-mail calling for Britain’s spy services to cooperate with the US in seeking damaging information that could be used to pressure independent countries in the UN Security Counsel into voting for the US/British resolution authorizing war against Iraq.  Gun leaked the memo, and was prosecuted under Britain’s Official Secrets Act  (In addition, her Muslim husband was threatened with deportation.)  As played by Knightley, Gun is a much more likable character than Adam Driver’s obsessive investigator in The Report, and screenwriters Hood, Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein effectively combine the political and legal details of her story with her personal crisis.  Official Secrets also allows itself a wit that The Report is too high-minded to entertain, and with the usual loaded cast that comes with prestige British dramas (here including Ralph Fiennes as Gun’s barrister, and Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans and Matt Smith as journalists), it moves more swiftly and with sharper emotional stakes.  Official Secrets lacks the austere artistry of The Report, and also the sheer scope of its political vision, trading those for the proven assets of traditional docudrama.

GREENER GRASS (no distrib):  A Sundance WTF movie, located in the Festival’s Midnight section and perhaps better appreciated with chemical assistance.  The writing/directing/starring feature debut of comics Joclyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe is a surreal satire of suburbia that mostly feels weird for the sake of weirdness.  Everyone in its community wears pastels and adult braces, and travels via golf cart.  They’re so genteely polite to one another that when multiple vehicles come to a four-way stop sign, it’s a breach of etiquette for anyone to move.  But things get much stranger than that, starting when one mom hands over her newborn to a friend who complimented the baby, another child spontaneously transforms into a Lab (his father is happy that he’s much better at catch than he used to be), and one character is so entranced by the cleanliness of his swimming pool water that he carries bottles of it around to drink.  Despite a few bright moments (the TV parodies are fun), there’s no easier and more tired subject for satire than American suburbia, and Greener Grass doesn’t seem to have any underlying point.  It’s painfully obvious that the filmmakers expanded the project from a short subject, and what might have been an amusing pre-taped SNL segment feels endlessly elongated to feature length.  (The movie seems to end about 12 times before it actually does.)  DeBoer and Luebbe unwisely take the lead roles themselves, although even such seasoned funny people as Beck Bennett and D’Arcy Carden are able to lift things up only briefly.  Greener Grass exists in that arena of comedy that seems much more fun for its creators than for those who have to sit through it.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."