A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man

Here’s one of the many reasons why the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman will be so sorely missed:  his mere presence prompted other actors/actresses to up their game.  Case in point here in A Most Wanted Man:  the couldn’t be lovelier but normally vapid Rachel McAdams, shaky German accent and all, manages to actually make you feel for her troubled lawyer accused of being a social worker for terrorists.  What’s even more amazing is that in an adaptation of John Le Carre novel you actually feel anything for anyone!  With the emotional powder keg of The Constant Gardner being the exception to the rule, Le Carre’s spy procedurals are normally colder than an interrogation room metal tabletop.  Yet Anton Corbijn wisely allows his A-list cast to tap into the quiet, bubbling under the surface, heartbreak of this post 9/11 spy-eat-spy world.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Gunther Backmann, a world-weary German intelligence station chief in Hamburg who was burned by the CIA at his last post in Beirut where assets were betrayed and lives lost.  He’s quietly been toiling away, utilizing McAdam’s liberal lawyer to reel in his minnow, a Chechen Muslim who entered Germany under cloak and dagger, that he hopes to dangle in front his barracuda, a renowned Islamic political activist and spiritual leader thought to be secretly funding a shipping company with terrorist ties.  He tries to keep the CIA, represented by a professionally flirtatious Robin Wright, at bay, while aided by his right-hand woman played with subtle skill by the fantastic Nina Hoss.  Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, plays a banker used as a pawn to channel the alleged funds that were left behind in secret by the Chechen’s recently deceased Russian crime lord father. Continue reading

The Art of Style as Substance in Enemy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and 300: Rise of an Empire

Style as Substance Example Number One: Enemy

Enemy Spider over Toronto Skyline Poster

Denis Villeneuve’s Toronto-set artsy psychological thriller, Enemy (based on Jose Saramago’s novel, The Double) is one of those rare films of exacting creeping style that elicits audible gasps from the audience.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays a mild-mannered university history professor who repeatedly lectures about the dangers of losing one’s individuality under totalitarian regimes and muses over the cyclical nature of history and the rise of these totalitarian states - first viewed as tragedy, later as farce.  The man oddly hates films, but he’s urged by a colleague to watch one in particular, and there he spots in a bit role as a bellhop his exact double.  It’s not long before he becomes obsessed with tracking down his doppelgänger.

Enemy Location Shot

The first audible gasp (coupled with nervous laughter) was unique to the location where I saw the film.  Enemy is boxed in by mesmerizing sepia-toned cinematography – grand scanning images of the Toronto skyline (never before used more monotonously menacing in a film).  For those who have never been to Toronto, it’s a blisteringly modern landscape riddled with areas constantly under construction, giant cranes towering in the sky dangling precipitously over highway off-ramps next to skeleton frames of new office or condo highrises.  Villeneuve (Canada’s premier auteur) perfectly captures this along with the city’s cold lakeside white-washed sheen (either by salt and snow in the winter, or heat in the summer – tinged deliberately yellow here by his camera).  I had the luck of seeing the film while working in Mississauga, Ontario – a suburb of Toronto with its own unique skyline (highlighted by the famous Marilyn Monroe Towers, surreal condo highrises with hourglass shapes) also featured in the film.  I experienced it at a Cineplex in downtown Mississauga right down the road from those lovely towers.  When Jake Gyllenhaal’s character discovers the home address of his exact double to be on Rathburn Rd. West (unbeknownst to me prior to this in-film revelation, the very road upon which we sat watching the film!) the laughter and gasp from the small audience was priceless, and I suddenly felt as if I was a part of this unnerving conspiracy as I could see Jake Gyllenhaal’s double’s apartment from the parking lot of the theater! Continue reading

They Were Playing My Jam Until…in The East

Follow the sound of my voice in The East.

Follow the sound of my voice in The East.

Brit Marling has to be one of the strangest young “artists” to emerge from the indie movie scene in the last few years.  She has a classic natural beauty, a deep whisper of a voice and an intriguing upside down smile that make her very watchable on-screen.  She’s also a writer and ideas creator behind the scenes, cooking up thought-provoking roles for herself and her fellow actors  Yet after seeing her in four interesting films (After Earth, Arbitrage, Sound of My Voice and now The East), I’m not entirely convinced of her acting ability.  She has a vacant stare (which works to her advantage depending on the role), an aloof physical presence, and while she knows how to cry predictably emo-style in emotional breakdown scenes, she rarely shows any other emotion.  It’s like she’s wading slowly through water up to her eyes on-screen.

Well, Marling has re-teamed with co-writer and director Zal Batmanglij for the eco-terrorism indie thriller The East.  Whereas in their previous endeavor – the quasi-entrancing Sound of My Voice – Marling played a soft-spoken cult leader claiming to be a time traveler, here in The East she is the corporate operative assigned to infiltrate a clandestine vigilante terrorist co-op which targets corporate polluters and big pharmacy.  The group is lead by the soothingly charismatic Alexander Skarsgard, who we eventually learn is a former trust-fund boy turned terrorist.  Also on board for the well-rounded cast are Patricia Clarkson (excellent as always but underused) as Marling’s cold client-focused boss and Ellen Page (convincingly dedicated to the cause) as a key player in the terrorist group. Continue reading

They’re Coming to Get You, Barbara

Director Christian Petzold has Nina Hoss go "into the woods" in BARBARA.

Director Christian Petzold has Nina Hoss go “into the woods” in BARBARA.

In 1980 in East Germany a Berlin doctor (Nina Hoss in the titular role) is banished to a provincial village in the latest from auteur Christian Petzold, who again uses Hoss as his muse as he did so well in earlier films like Yella and Jerichow.  Barabara plays it cold as ice in her new locale, while her West German lover hatches a plan to get her out by way of the sea and Denmark.  Meanwhile, she can’t help but get sucked into tragic cases involving local teens while a provincial officer subjects her to humiliating and routine searches of her apartment and body.  In a police state, even in a rural paradise, everyone is under suspicion.

In some ways Petzold’s Barbara plays like a pastoral version of The Lives of Others, but it’s more mellow drama than melodrama.  Petzold holds back almost everything, his directorial style perhaps meant to mirror the psyche of those who lived under the Iron Curtain in East Germany and had to watch their every move while being monitored by the State.  Details of Barbara’s past, as well as the pasts of others are sparse.  Petzold mostly shows, rarely tells.  Classical music, a famous Rembrandt painting and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are woven effortlessly into the story to add layers and fill in pieces of character development.  Most things are to be inferred, and he’s blessed with Hoss’s controlled performance where she reveals little outwardly but speaks volumes with her eyes and restrained body language.  Continue reading

The Art of Power and House of Cards

Art of Power - Thomas Jefferson

All too will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind, let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty, and even life itself, are but dreary things. And let us reflect that having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance, as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions…but every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans: we are all federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.  – Thomas Jefferson, 1st inaugural address, 1801

Such measured, unifying, moderate words from the same man who also remarked of his political rivals, the Federalists and Monarchists, “Their leaders are a hospital of incurables and as such are entitled to be protected and taken care of as other insane persons are.”  Sounds like big government socialism to me!  Taking care of the insane, indeed!

These are but a few of the engaging, enlightening, entertaining, astounding words taken straight from Jefferson in Jon Meacham’s masterful biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.

I swear to god by the end of this magnificent tome where Meacham describes Jefferson’s granddaughter in a dreamlike state wandering the vast empty rooms of Monticello following her grandfather’s death, I too was swept up in an all encompassing reverie where Terrence Malick was directing the story of Jefferson’s life and the images from Jefferson’s earliest memory of being lifted upon a pillow to a slave on horseback to his final moments with yet another slave dedicated at his bedside - all of his life - flashed before me in a cacophonous stream-of-consciousness scored by Micheal Nyman.

This biography is that intimate…that transportive…full of excerpts from letters, diaries, reports both second and first hand from those closest to him, from family and friends, from foreign diplomats, from rivals and scoundrels, even from his own slaves.  Continue reading

A Director, an Actor and an Icon Clothed in Immense Power in Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln…in Spielberg’s perfect light.

Steven Spielberg is a director/producer clothed in immense power.  He has carte blanche to do whatever his heart desires in Hollywood after years of pleasing audiences.  Sometimes his whims and faults get the better of him – as lame attempts to resurrect past haunts (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) or return to childhood wonder (The Adventures of Tin Tin) often are rendered mute in artifice and strained sentiment.  Yet, when left to his own devices in pursuit of his most sincere ambitions, once in a blue moon, Spielberg is able to pull a rabbit out of his magician’s hat.  He did it with Schindler’s List.  And he has done it again here with Lincoln – perhaps the crowning achievement of his career and the greatest American film since Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.

Not surprisingly, like There Will Be Blood, Lincoln is anchored by an impossibly great performance by Daniel Day Lewis.  If Lincoln’s political successes (among them the passing of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, a process brought to painstaking and lively light here in the film) teach us anything, it’s that no matter how much power one is clothed in…nobody can do it alone.  There must be compromise, teamwork, and appeals to individual sentiments to achieve the greater good.  Continue reading

The Return of Manic Depression, Terrorism and the American Way in Homeland

Saul and Carrie – mentor and protege – sane and insane?

In the middle of its first season, I successfully turned key players in my family and several coworkers. Homeland was not a show to watch half-heartedly – you had to commit to the cause. I extolled the series’ virtues in the midst of season one when I presented Five Reasons Why You Should Be Watching Homeland. And people, once introduced to its brilliance, were willing to take up the banners in support. The show recently moved from cult status to mainstream success with its bevy of Emmy wins.

And as spectacular as that first season was, I had this feeling in my gut that this could become another Dexter. Like Homeland, Dexter was near genius in its inaugural season, wholly unlike anything else on television at the time, and shockingly entertaining. Yet I knew then eventually someone would catch Dexter Morgan, the serial killer who killed serial killers while working for the Miami PD as a blood-spatter expert. I mean how many serial killers could there be in one city and how dumb could the Miami PD be, right? And now that show is a parody of itself, ridiculous beyond belief, and limping through another ill-advised season far past its prime. Homeland, too, faces a similar conundrum. How long can Brody (Damian Lewis) keep this up? Won’t he eventually get caught? Won’t Carrie eventually remember “Isa!” or won’t someone in the government or someone in his family catch on that he’s working for terrorist mastermind numero uno, Abu Nazir?

But I forgot a key difference between these two shows. Homeland has balls. Continue reading

Vice Presidential Debate Drinking Game 2012

Undecided voters…look into my eyes.

Behold!  A young savior of a party - a truth-deficient, budget-crunching, Tea Party-ing whippersnapper from the cheesy state of Wisconsin.

Regard!  An elder statesman – a hot-headed, gaffe-producing, “crazy uncle” to the incumbent President from the sales tax-free state of Delaware.

And for one night only – October 11th, 2012 – they’re duking it out in the home of the Colonel’s eleven herbs and spices – Kentucky, y’all!

A most delightful addition to Your Debate Drinking Games, don’t you think?

Let the Drinking Games continue!

And may the drinks be forever in your favor. Continue reading

Presidential Debate Drinking Games 2012

Hark, Citizens!

On yonder eve the third of October and subsequent eves henceforth totalling thrice, the electorate will listen and watch with bated breath as…

Sir Willard Mittenton T. Romney IV of the Celestial Kingdom debates…

Lord Barackus T. Hussein Obama Jr. of the Incumbency…

…for the opportunity to serve this great nation in the high office of the Presidency.

And regardless of the victor of these great debates…there is but one truth to illuminate the masses…

IT’S TIME TO GET YOUR DRINK ON!

Consider this, dear compatriots in libations, to be a living document.  Provide at will your best suggestions and most opportune and timely rules to be added to the games in the comments section so that we might all partake in drunken sloppiness and hangovers knowing that in our hearts we played the games to their fullest.

So let the Debate Drinking Games begin!

And may the drinks be forever in your favor. Continue reading

The Spin on Paul Thomas Anderson

A master schooling a master.

In honor of the release of The Master later this month, The Spin is turning its wheels towards Paul Thomas Anderson – writer/director extraordinaire – a true auteur. The great chronicler of Southern California, cancers both physical and metaphorical, dysfunctional makeshift families, deranged father-figures, damaged sons, melancholy and death is arguably the most ambitious American filmmaker working today. But he has only achieved that status through evolution…through finding his voice. Here we will revisit his three most signature works: Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood and track the course of his discovery.

“This is the film I want them to remember me by.” - Jack Horner, Boogie Nights

On its surface, Boogie Nights – the grand piece of nostalgia celebrating a pre-AIDS, pre-video porntopia – would appear as a lark – a jokey, ballsy, “Look, Ma, I’m a Hipster Director!” type feature designed to showcase a young man’s skill behind the camera and his cocky nerve to tell a scandalous tale. When you look deeper, the film is anything but that.

Continue reading