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Archive for the ‘SPY SUSPENSE’ Category

Eye In The Sky

01 May

Eye In The Sky – directed by Gavin Hood. Thriller. 102 minutes Color 2016

★★★★

The Story: A little girl selling bread near an important drone target is the focus of the tension between the commander of the drone operation and the young man trained to pull the trigger on the target.

~

The story approaches absurdity as one higher-up after another is called upon to okay the pulling of the trigger. It skips over The Queen and would have landed on the crowded desk of God if things had gone on any further.

Why the heck are the Brits in command of a target upon which an American soldier must open fire? This curious distortion of the film holds one subconsciously in check as one watches. Its unposed question seals us in suspense as the surface difficulties regarding the little girl weave the protagonists in a cats cradle of difficulties.

Around the conference table pace and halt Alan Rickman, Jeremy Northam, and ranks of cellphones pulled tight as red-tape strangles everyone.

What makes the film work is the charm of the child on the one hand, which we get in following her day, her family, her tasks. And set against these, two people who never get to know her as we get to know her.

These two are Helen Mirren who, in a parallel line to her Detective-inspector Jane Tennison from Prime Suspect, runs the operation from a War Room and urges the immolation of the child at every turn – every turn turned-down.

The effectiveness of the entire film, however, depends upon the casting of the actor whose job it is to aim the drone and fire it. The film would not work at all without the presence of the particular actor the producers have hired.

Aaron Paul eyes possess the rare capacity to register an internal moral certainty being deeply questioned by the authority of external information coming at him. This was the quality that sustained Breaking Bad throughout its six seasons.

Paul’s ability to do this as an actor places the entire story in our shoes. His presence, the presence of those eyes, is a narrative necessity. And his strength, which the story requires, to sustain this balance, this question, this quandary, and to act upon it is the real story that supplants all the rest.

 

A Most Wanted Man

10 Aug

A Most Wanted Man – directed by Anton Corbjin. Spy Thriller. 122 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: Working against the clock, a team of rogue spies attempt to corner a terrorist funding operation.

~

Why do we think of Philip Seymour Hoffman as a great actor?

What is the source of our satisfaction with him?

What does he bring to us that other actors cannot or do not wish to bring? And why do we not care to ask him to bring what other actors bring?

Why do we sit back and wonder at him?

One thing he brings is extremes we would not wish to show to anyone.

By extremes I mean a extremes on either side of the human psychological and emotional range. In this case, a dull doggedness and on the other hand a scathing rage.

And another thing that he brings is a separate person up there.

For surely as I sit back and look at his customary unruly beauty, I see a German functionary working his task of high level espionage. I have seen Hoffman before looking just like that, but now and once again playing a character I recognize as never seen before.

There is an actual person up there on the screen.

There are very few actors in the world who can do that.

Certain criticisms about the story of this film have been made. Before I talk about them, let me say that it is brilliantly filmed, directed, and acted. On the one side, we have extreme actors Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright and on the other a cast of international actors of the first water. The difficulty lies in the story not making clear that Hoffman is an obsessive. Obsessives differ in that they have no outcome in mind. Obsessives just want to complete the cycle of the obsession.The one thing we know about Hitler is that he had no purpose beyond the next obsessive act. So if Hoffman’s character is an obsessive, that is to say a pure executant, we need to know it all along and every other important character needs to discover it to us in scenes. I haven’t read the John Le Carré novel; I don’t know if the scenes are there. But here, while the tension is keenly entertaining, there is a defect to us in the writing of a film otherwise superb.

In the tracts of Zeami (1363-14440), the Shakespeare of the Noh theatre, he writes, “If the actor sees old men walking hobbled by ague, with bent knees, bent back, and shrunken frames, and he simply imitates these characteristics, he may achieve an appearance of decrepitude, but it will be at the expense of the ‘flower.’ And if the ‘flower’ be lacking, there will be no beauty in the impersonation. The ‘flower’ consists in forcing upon an audience an emotion which they do not expect.”

Over and over again, Philip Seymour Hoffman has brought forth for us those ‘flowers’. Honor him.

Here he is finally, after all. This will be the last chance to see him up there before you on the big screen. It is a place where he belonged. He’s big like a Rubens is big. Witness him there. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Grand Canyon is one street over. Quit dawdling. Get off your barstool and go.

 

Mata Hari

25 Jan

Mata Hari – directed by George Fitzmaurice. Turgid Melodrama. 89 minutes Black and White 1931.

★★★★★

The Story: A beautiful spy sleeps with and plans to run off with the enemy.

It’s quite stupid. The writing is scenically dead. But no scene in which Garbo ever appeared is dead. Each scene is perfervidly alive. She is 24 yet she is older and wiser than anyone else in the neighborhood, which includes, as usual, Lewis Stone, who is quite inert, as he often was playing opposite her. Stone has the George-Brent-foible of imagining that to come alive opposite a female star would be to pull the rug out from under her, not realizing that great female stars depend on the surprising and advantageous occasion slipping rugs provide. His woodenness is at one with the balsa of the script.

So here we have her already in power as the fatal woman who drives men wild and who  murmurs to their adavances, “Later.” Lionel Barrymore is one such dumbstruck dumb cluck, and sweet Ramon Navarro is the antidote to him. He’s a Russian pilot carrying messages back and forth to Moscow. She is a spy intent on intercepting them. Barrymore is the military go-between betraying his nation. It all takes place in Paris, and Garbo dances, or, one should say, prances about in skin-tight, gold, toreador pants. Indeed she is never without weird far-Eastern rigs and odd chapeaux. To see them is not to believe them. She is more manly than any of the men. Which is maybe why they throw themselves at her glittering boots. From whose vicinity she nudges them humorously aside.

Mata Hari, in the film (although not in real life, for she was married and the mother of two and over forty) was a woman alone, as was Garbo, and Garbo frequently played such women, women getting by through superior intelligence, daring strategies, consummate allure. Whatever tools that come to hand to promote their survival, her characters seize upon with the ready address of a hardened feminist. Garbo almost never plays a mother. Is almost never actually married, and never happily. In her roles she sleeps her way to the top or has done so. In the enneagram Garbo, a high Virgo, would be not a sexual or social, but a survival type. And perhaps her screenwriters were helpless not to conspire with her vaunted solitude and yet, in blind addiction made role after role of that solitude, a corset that limited her to the range of the isolate. MGM kept her playing these fallen women, fallen, though somehow still unavailable.

This sort of part, Mata Hari, was crazy for Garbo to do, but maybe she felt it would be a change of pace. After all, she was the top actress, the top moneymaker at the top studio. Adrian was doing the things, Douglas Shearer was recording it, Cedric Gibbons was to design it. The director had a reputation for taste and being good with women – yet Mata Hari is not well directed, and the continuity is lousy. But, of course, that is not the point, for it was extremely well filmed – by William Daniels, whose great lighting created her, for herself and for us. This is the period when Garbo does not let anyone on the set, including the crew. The scene is surrounded by black screens. Occasionally Thalberg alone stood far off in the shadows. He watched in admiration, amazement and respect, as we do to this day. Yes, the story is preposterous. But watch it and see how Garbo conjures something out of nothing. Into this grotesque shell of a production, this pearl.

 

Torn Curtain

30 Aug

Torn Curtain  – directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Suspense. An American scientist defects to East Germany followed by his girl-friend/Friday, and both must extricate themselves before ITTL (It Is Too Late). 128 minutes Color 1966.

★★★★

After To Catch A Thief I stopped seeing Hitchcock films as they came out, and I know why. The sets look fraudulent.

Why? What aid does this give to the tension of the stories?

Does this come about because Hitchcock story-boarded everything and was only interested in the mock-ups, not in the actual making of the picture itself?

Did the people responsible take it for granted that he liked fake sets

I felt and feel the suspense undermined by the want of reality of the settings in which the perils occurred. Here, for instance, we have an extended murder sequence beautifully shot, but taking place in a little country farmhouse which from the outside looks papier-maché.

Aside from this difficulty, I have no real difficulty with the piece. Of course, the problem with script is well known as having none of the droll Hitchcock gallows humor, which Cary Grant could carry so well, provided the lines provided it. And even if it had the lines, actually we have two actors devoid of the sense of humor that would have required, Paul Newman, who is such a “serious” actor, and Julie Andrews who has pep but no sense of humor at all. And since they are surrounded by spies and scientists and police who are all German, one cannot expect humor from that quarter.

Of course, from the dramatic point of view, Julie Andrews is excellent in the role. You care about her, you wonder about her, you understand her. Newman is excellent for the same reasons. He plays the formula-revelation scene brilliantly and the slaying of the guard brilliantly: he doesn’t want to, but he has to. But both of them lose power in the final scenes, which disappear their characters in a welter of escape-action sequences, and they become lax. They are also left hanging by Hitchcock’s treatment of them. And you never believe Andrews babushka disguise for a minute – her fancy frosted hair shows. But they are both excellent fun in the sex scene with which the film starts, the tone of which is, alas, never followed through.

If Hitchcock’s films of this period disappoint, it is because Hitchcock himself loses power. He devises suspense sequences he cannot execute well, such as the bus trip, and the police entering the theatre at the end, and ditching the guard in the museum.

On the other hand, we have a priceless performance by Ludwig Donath as the key nuclear scientist., who sweeps everything before him with his excitement and authority. And we have a price-of-admission performance by Lila Kedrova as a displaced Polish countess seeking asylum in the United States. She devours the screen. You want her to go on forever, and Hitchcock almost lets her, as he close-ups her while she renders this half-mad character for us. Don’t miss her. And, if you like Hitchcock, don’t miss the film either. Why, you can see both at one and the very same time.

 

Lust, Caution

28 May

Lust, Caution – directed by Ang Lee. Spy Drama. In the Japanese occupation of Japan a group of students become resistance workers determined to assassinate a high ranking collaborator. 157 minutes Color 2007.
★★★★★
After making Brokeback Mountain, the angel director Ang Lee returned to China to film this account of the late 30s occupation of Hong Kong and Shanghai. He avows it was to honor the history of the period, which was his parents’ time, and which would he feared be lost if some record of it was not made. But the movie is far more than ancestor worship.

As with all his films (The Life of Pi, et al.), it is an exposure of human nature under huge pressure, danger, and duress. I am loath to recount even the beginning of this story, because each episode is precious and unusual.

Rather let me speak for a minute about the cast, which, along with Joan Chen, boasts the highest ranking Chinese actors of our day.

Wang Leehom, the international Asian singer superstar, plays the young leader of the troupe. A beautiful young man, he captures the intensity of the boy, including his fatal lack of humor linked to a sexual restraint such as to make of them a plot device in and of themselves.

The great Chinese superstar Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays the collaborationist magistrate who is the target of the troupe. You would suppose you would respond to him as a villain. But the intensity, pain, love, perspicacity, fear, cruelty, and desire he evinces forbids any such condemnation as the full human being arises before our eyes.

The power and delicacy and sensuality of his playing take the story to excruciations of lust and fear – to a point almost inhuman where neither of them obtain. And with him rides Wei Tang as the femme fatale of the troupe, out to seduce and betray him. She is an entrancing female, subtle, lovely to behold, true, believable, and interesting in and of herself.

I say no more. I have said too much.

It is beautifully filmed by Rodrigo Prieto and has an infallible sense of period.

I saw it on DVD, which offers an uncensored version, It seems to me that the film would make no sense without the full bore sex scenes. Or at least insufficient sense. After all, the film is not a candy apple.

Highly recommended for grown-up viewing.

 

Skyfall

15 Dec

Skyfall – directed by Sam Mendes. Action/Adventure/Spy. James Bond XXIII must protect the home office, M16, which is under attack by one of its own. 143 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★
Yes, the 23rd James Bond Movie, and over what forgotten cliff did the others drop? Here Bond is again in the person of the sour-faced Daniel Craig, whom I have a very difficult time looking at, or paying attention to, since my ineradicable loyalty is to Sean Connery’s Bond, with his insouciance, humor, easy virility, mischievousness, and lookable looks, none of which qualities does Craig possesses to any degree. He doesn’t even have a hairy chest.

In fact he seems to have no variety of expression whatsoever, nor any particular physical presence that would make him outstanding, save a fine figure, which he has to strip down to reveal to my bored gaze – and action/adventure films are not played in the nude.

This leaves us not with an actor but a role. That is to say, a cutout figure who can gesture through the complexities of the material – material which then has an extra burden placed upon it, since, without a human hero, it can only exist in and of itself and not in relation to the leading actor playing a part in it. A film with this load to carry can turn heavy pretty fast, and it must move with a grace and wit all its own.

This it succeeds in doing, at least at the start, when we are treated to a spectacular opening motorcycle chase. But the problem then arises as to how to best that sequence in the finale. This the film fails to do, for its closing is heavy and witless and long.

But as the film goes along it is saved by various added ingredients that offer brisk entertainment until they exhaust themselves, and the film has to bring on a different freak to delude us into being entertained. Lacking a smart story or vivid leading actor, we are given [a] exotic settings, [b] new characters late in the day [c] the stalling effect of slow, skilled seductions. The film therefore takes us to various settings in Southeast Asia, Macau and Singapore. It brings on Javier Barden late in the day and Albert Finney even later. And it treats us to delicious females in the persons of the talented Naomie Harris, who will continue in the series, and Bérénice Mariohoe a ravishing Cambodian beauty as the Madame Unmentionable Sin who leads Bond to his nemesis. What a dish, what a debut!

These are saving graces, as is the principal savior, Roger Deakins who filmed it so beautifully you are given the relishing impression of never in your life having seen a picture so glorious to look at.

The main problem is the story because it presents as the focal character to be saved from danger an actor so completely unsympathetic, miscast, and technically unqualified that we wish, rather than ending with it, the film had begun with her death – and that is the dreadful Judi Dench. All she can bring to the part is dour righteousness. It’s her default position as an actor, and it stinks. She is mercifully slain and replaced, as M, head of the British Secret Service, by Ralph Fiennes, who may bring some imagination to this role and some wit to XXIV of the series. I didn’t believe in that dagger for a minute, did you?

 

The Formula

25 Jun

The Formula – directed by John G. Avildsen. International Espionage. An L.A. cop sets out to find who murdered his friend and his search leads him to higher echelons of European big money.117 minutes Color 1980.

★★★★

James Crabe was nominated for an Oscar for his beautiful filming of it, a skill which bring coherence and life and meaning to the entire piece. The director and particularly Steve Shagan, who also wrote it and produced it, talk well about it as it goes along, praising the minor actors handsomely and Crabe particularly, but also leaving us enlightened as to the behavior of George C. Scott while it was in production. I leave it to you to dive into the special features for those tasty anecdotes. They hired Marlon Brando because he was perhaps the only actor who could stand up to Scott, and so he does by making his character a sort of lolling baby – this, mind you playing a man who is one of the most merciless oilmen alive. It’s a daring and imaginative choice and Brando is choice in the role. He does something with his lower lip that is so odd and right. He is in his late fifties here and willing to take on character leads. The story involves a mysterious murder which Scott sets himself to solve. The murder seems to revolve around a secret formula for turning coal into fuel oil, which the Germans managed to do for the duration of World War II. It is a telling account of the international oil trade, as apposite today as when it was shot. My daughter went to the same school as Nancy Marchand’s children, many years before The Sopranos. She was an actor I liked a lot. One day, walking down the inside stairs I passed her and asked if she had seen George C. Scott’s TV performance the night before. “No, “ she said, “I don’t think he’s going to show me anything new.” Nor is what he does here new. I first saw him on the Broadway stage in The Andersonville Trial, playing a lawyer. He was very exciting in the emphaticness of his growl, and he was the best Shylock I have ever seen. He was brand new in those days. Later I saw him on stage in Uncle Vanya. He was no longer new. In him what we are faced with, unlike Edward G. Robinson, is a perpetual ire. He is always a sten gun about to go off. And so, seen-one-seen-them-all. The public tired of him. It’s a shame, for here he is quite good, and looking at his work now, piecemeal and years later, it does not weary one as, in its repetition, it did at the time. Indeed it impresses one with its force and intensity. He has tremendous reserves of insult and intention, great timing, the ability to focus and be still, the ability to not show his hand, and the ability to deliver his stuff full force and absolutely mean what he says. He can charm and be dangerous on a dime. You might say he plays everything the same way, but it does not matter so much here, since the story convolutions are what gather our attention in. Marthe Keller is just grand as the partisan love interest he falls in with, and John Gielgud gives great value as a dying chemistry professor, and Richard Lynch deserved an Oscar for his German general. There are three racetrack scenes, one with female jockeys and one racing on ice, and the final one played out between Brando and Scott in Brando’s office in front of Degas’ jockey scene, all of them captivatingly captured by Crabe, whose filming is a lesson in point on the art of lighting, color agreement, exposure, and how to shoot people walking while talking, of which this film has many examples. The film is a classic instance of how a cameraman alone can make a story cohere. In this case there are other coherences to count on. And of course, the presence of the greatest acting genius of the 20th Century.

 

 

 
 
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