Our Kind of Traitor is Our Kind of Movie

Our Kind of Traitor

In Marrakech, a British couple on the skids looking to reignite their stagnant marriage (an always slightly slimy but marginally honorable Ewan McGregor, the professor, and a delightful Naomie Harris, the barrister) accidentally befriend a bawdy yet charming Russian mobster (a smashingly good Stellan Skarsgard) and his brood of children in peril.  Wouldn’t you know it that Russian guy is looking to have help delivering a secret bank file to MI6 and get safe passage for his family on the eve of a shady financial deal his boss would kill people to cover up.  Once back in London, one British spy (Damien Lewis, nicely against type as the buttoned-up good guy) makes it his mission to use this information to bring down a certain MP (Jeremy Northam) involved in the corruption.

Susanna White’s jazzed up version of a John le Carre film adaptation is far better and more enjoyable than the ho-hum reviews and the movie’s own slickly off-putting first twenty minutes would have you believe.   Continue reading

I Spy in the Sky an Eye on the Moral Ambiguity of Modern Warfare

Eye_in_the_Sky_2015_film_poster

*WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

How quickly can things escalate?  How much bureaucratic red-tape, coordination with allies and “referring-up” (where the political ramifications are cynically weighed with the moral implications) needs to happen before a decision can be made?  What is the human price of preemptive strikes against known terrorists?  These are the questions weighing heavily in the razor-sharp new thriller, Eye in the Sky.

Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren), who commands a drone squad surveying Kenya and other spots in the horn of Africa, wakes up one day to find three of the top ten terrorists on the East African most wanted list have gathered in a suburban home in the middle of a militia occupied neighborhood.  The original orders from higher up (led by a Alan Rickman in one of his final roles) were to survey and capture (one of the terrorists is a British citizen), but that’s too dangerous with the militiamen around.  When a bug-drone confirms they are preparing suicide vests inside, Powell pounds the drums to kill.  But when an innocent girl selling bread in the market area outside the house enters the kill zone, things get even more complicated and everyone (and I mean everyone…at one point the British Foreign Minister is rung-up while he’s on the toilet with food poisoning in Singapore) must weigh in before the strike can be executed. Continue reading

It Takes a Village in Spotlight

Spotlight

At one point in Tom McCarthy’s deftly handled expose on the exhaustive investigative journalism done by the Boston Globe to uncover the labyrinthine and monolithic Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in 2002, a character coldly observes, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one.”  Logically it then follows, that it would also take a village to shine a light on corruption.

There’s another great line uttered by Liev Schreiber (who shrewdly plays the Jewish city-hopping editor who turns the Spotlight team onto the case) at the dawn of the story going public where he says something to the effect of, “When we’re fumbling around in the dark and you finally get to shine a light on something, it’s easy to find blame in your own fumbling.”  The journalists in Spotlight (all former or current Catholics) are riddled with the guilt the Church (and life) drill into you, knowing that something should’ve been done earlier, and the film is filled with these types of keen insights and great lines without ever becoming didactic. Continue reading

Going Back to the Bridge in Selma

Selma

Like two of the other most ballyhooed films from 2014 (Boyhood and Birdman), Selma is a really good film that has been a bit oversold.  I suppose if one is going to overrate a film, it might as well be one as noble as this, but in the slightly paraphrased words of my girlfriend, “I just wish they would’ve gotten the facts straight and given this girl a little more gospel.”  There’s something curiously missing from Ava DuVernay’s intelligently directed and reverent biopic of our nation’s most celebrated reverend and Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., despite many convenient current parallels reminding informed viewers there is still so much work to be done.  That missing piece is the call to action.

Standing tall in the film are DuVernay’s depiction of the most harrowing events (from the bombing of the four little girls in the church and the violent police suppression of the first attempt to march across the bridge out of Selma towards Montgomery, to the quieter but equally disturbing moments showing the casually institutionalized hate-fueled suppression of the right to vote in court houses across the Deep South) and, naturally, David Oyelowo’s commanding performance as MLK.

DuVernay, taking a cue from Spielberg’s Lincoln, does a commendable job showing the slow tension-building behind-the-scenes process of what it takes to organize a meaningful march against injustice and how that can be used as a tool to raise public sentiment for the passing of legislation (in this case, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965).  The tenants of nonviolent protest are on glorious display here, showing how powerfully effective yet dangerous it can be, as it coaxes the irrational radicals out into the open light of day where those watching on the sidelines are suddenly spurred to stand up because they are left with no other option once violence erupts against the peaceful marchers.

Sadly, Paul Webb’s uneven screenplay betrays both DuVernay’s skills and Oyelowo’s passionate portrayal as the writer plays loose with some key facts and insists on fitting King into the archetypal mold of a leader riddled with self-doubt.  Continue reading

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