Spy 100, #15: The 39 Steps

Probably my favorite of Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood films, The 39 Steps (1935) is a cornerstone work: a brisk, funny “wrong man” spy adventure. Hitchcock would explore this type of film later in the curious Saboteur and the great masterpiece North by Northwest,  but it’s The 39 Steps that paved the way.

Canadian businessman Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is enjoying a show in London when chaos erupts: shots are fired, and the theater evacuated. Hannay finds himself escorting a mysterious woman (Lucie Mannheim) to safety. Turns out she’s a freelance spy, attempting to elude enemy agents and convey an important secret to the British government. Hannay take her in, but when enemy agents assassinate her in his apartment, he becomes the prime suspect. Following her clues, he flees to Scotland to clear his name, with both the police and a network of enemy agents in hot pursuit.

Hitchcock’s early black-and-white films often feel a little sluggish by contemporary standards, but The 39 Steps doesn’t have that problem. It’s quick, breezy, and fun stuff, with Donat an accessible and slightly slick hero: a prototype, perhaps, for Cary Grant’s performance as Roger O. Thornhill. I found his on-the-fly love interest Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) fetching, if a bit slow on the uptake, but they have a decent chemistry. And while it lacks the impressive setpieces Hitchcock would later become known for, it unfolds its story neatly and economically. A shrewdly placed selection on the list, I think, both as a formative Hitchcock film and an influential entry in the spy genre.

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Film: American Hustle

Hopefully this time I have learned my lesson: I don’t like David O. Russell movies. American Hustle (2013), his follow-up to the critically acclaimed Silver Linings Playbook, is a visually rich 1970s period piece full of Oscar-friendly performances from great actors. And I kind of hated it.

Partially based on a true story, American Hustle tells the tale of an unlikely romance between two con artists: the shlubby Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale) and the beautiful Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). They channel their mutual attraction into hustling easy marks, until they get on the radar of FBI man Richie DeMaso (Bradley Cooper) – who uses his leverage over them to employ them in an operation to land bigger fish. Ultimately they go after a good-hearted but shifty mayor in New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).

It’s a promising milieu, and the story is rich with potential: there are twists and complications galore. The subject matter is right up my alley, and oh, the cast. Bale is particularly immersive, but Adams shines, and there’s great support from Renner and Jennifer Lawrence and even Louis C.K. in a small role.  The only problem is, I didn’t really give a shit about what any of them were saying. Russell’s directorial shtick seems to be:  throw great actors in conflict and let them go. It seems to please the Oscar voters, but to me it’s flash at the expense of technique. I actually find the acting – even excellent acting – very distracting in his movies. It’s histrionics at the expense of story. Movies about con artistry require a certain touch, but Russell’s style doesn’t really mesh with the material, and indeed seems one step removed from it except inasmuch as it generates friction for his star-studded cast.

I left this one scratching my head that a film featuring Adams, Lawrence, and Renner about con artists in the 1970s could leave me so cold. Maybe if Martin Scorsese had written and directed it? I guess Russell’s style just doesn’t work for me. Oh well.

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TV: Community (Season 5)

Community’s improbable fifth season was perhaps my most anticipated real-time watch of the year.  Now that it’s wrapped, I can say that it lived up to that billing: not because it was entirely successful – it wasn’t – but because it stopped the bleeding, and restored the show’s unique sensibility for ambitious and unpredictable comedy.

Emerging from the ashes of an awful season four – which the show, in typical fourth-wall-breaking fashion, calls “the gas leak year” – this latest session boasts the return of original showrunner Dan Harmon. It takes a few episodes to shake the rust off, but it quickly becomes clear just how much Harmon’s touch was missed. His first task: to somehow keep all the characters at Greendale for another year. In “Repilot” he accomplishes this by bringing back pivotal figure Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) as a law teacher when his new practice fails. The rest of the gang simply re-enrolls, joining the “Save Greendale” committee: a student-teacher organization formed to keep the struggling campus alive (and, you know, justify the group gathering in the study room every week.)

While Harmon’s singular grasp of Community’s style definitely rights a listing ship in the early stages, the show has other challenges to overcome: specifically, the departure of Donald Glover as loveable dimwit Troy Barnes. His write-off storyline leads to two early memorable episodes: “Cooperative Polygraphy,” in which the group submits to a collective lie-detector test, and “Geothermal Escapism,” the season’s most notable setpiece episode which transforms the campus into a Mad Max-like rendition of the childish “lava game.” The latter is a near-classic.

But it’s also Glover’s sendoff, and once he’s gone, the team chemistry feels a little weird – indeed, even Chevy Chase’s cranky Pierce Hawthorne is missed. Smartly, the writers mine this for story material, particularly with Abed (Danny Pudi), whose co-dependent friendship with Troy was such a huge part of the series’ ascendance. But Abed feels a little lost without Troy, despite Pudi’s game performances (including an inspired Nicholas Cage outburst early on).

The show knows it can’t replace Glover, but it makes a stab at replacing Chase with crusty old criminology professor Hickey (Jonathan Banks).  Banks is fine, but Hickey probably gets too much screentime, as does Ian Duncan (John Oliver) – the characters tapped as faculty members for the committee. The smaller cast probably should have been an opportunity to showcase the underutilized Britta (Gillian Jacobs) and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), but for some reason Hickey gets more play, along with traditional heavy-lifters Jeff, Abed, and Annie (Alison Brie).

Chemistry issues aside, the post-Troy episodes are often interesting in their mining of obscure pop culture. And at least two episodes hold up with the show’s best early material, I think:  “App Development and Condiments,” in which a social media phenomenon transforms the campus into a 1970s filmic dystopia, and the brilliant “G.I. Jeff,” a mostly animated episode that explores the depths of Jeff Winger’s childhood psyche. Episodes like this make it worth sitting through a few iffy failures.

The closing two-parter struck me as an uncertain quasi-finale for the series, and as such, it felt a little unsatisfying. If this is the last season of Community, I’m a little disappointed it wasn’t able to climb consistently back to its previous heights. Then again, a handful of its outings really shined, and it did sufficiently wash the taste of season four out of my mouth. For that alone, it deserves a thumbs-up. And if it does come back, I’ll definitely be on board.

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Film: Mr. Nobody

Usually when a science fiction film isn’t on my radar, there’s a good reason for it. But Mr. Nobody (2009) probably deserves a little more attention than it’s received. It’s a mess, but it’s rather an interesting mess.

In 2092, Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) is the last mortal human in a world where life extension technology has made death obsolete. At 118, he’s on death’s door: a fact that makes him a subject of reality-media scrutiny. When a journalist sneaks into his hospital room for an interview, Nemo – whose memory is spotty, past a mystery – begins to reflect on his earlier days. But there’s a catch: he seems to have more than one history.

At two and a half hours, Mr. Nobody is a rich, visually striking, and ambitious film that uses its SF content as extended metaphor. It’s also rather indulgent and scattered. Nemo’s ruminations ricochet dizzyingly from one possible timeline to the next, as various life choices and decisions create splinter worlds, in each one his fate playing out differently. The alternities tend to focus on his love relationships: there’s volatile Elise (Sarah Polley), quiet fallback Jean (Lihn-Dan Pham), and there’s his one, true love Anna (Diane Kruger). The film builds all three relationships, examining causality, choice, and the random twists and turns of life. These three primary life tracks (and their splinters) make it easier to follow the proceedings, despite the scope of the story. Each female lead is played by three different actresses at different ages, but fortunately the casting is exceptional and the performances impressively match. (Most notable is Juno Temple as the young Anna, whose timeline gets the most weighted attention.)

It’s all fairly coherent, and rather intriguing. But it’s also tonally inconsistent and structurally diffuse. The playful cinematic inventiveness – which reminded me a little of Michel Gondry or Charlie Kaufman, if a bit more self-serious – works well early, but as the proceedings drag on, it loses its allure a bit. One moment it mesmerizes, the next it jars with a crass comic feel; on that score, it calls to mind Cloud Atlas. Belgian writer-director Jaco Van Dormael has both a clear affection for, and an incomplete grasp of, all the vast and varied science fiction tropes he’s wrangling. There’s passion and ambition to burn here, but it’s not one hundred percent convincing.

In the end, I suspect it will enrapture some viewers while boring others to tears. Me, I was on the fence. The film’s reach exceeds its grasp, I think, but there’s also artistry and thought-provoking subject matter on display. It doesn’t quite hit it, but at least it’s shooting for the moon. Interesting stuff.

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Film: Inside Llewyn Davis

Most days, I’ll take a lesser Coen Brothers movie over a better one from another director. But I probably could have skipped Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), a dark, melancholy trip back to the early sixties folk music scene.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a down-on-his-luck solo act in the New York City music scene, sleeping on random couches and trying to scrape together a living. Still recovering from the loss of his performing partner, he’s barely getting by, trying to get his act together and break out. But as he bounces in and out of people’s lives, leaving a trail of emotional destruction in his wake, he can’t quite get a break.

And really, does he deserve one? The Coens have made successful movies about unlikeable protagonists before, but Llewyn just isn’t one of them. He’s irresponsible, coarse, and self-centered in a way that makes it difficult to root for him; and that, perhaps, is part of the film’s point. Maybe some dreams should die. Llewyn is talented, but he’s missing that certain something.  I’m interested in that story, but by making Llewyn so difficult to access, I felt pushed away from it.

It’s jazzed up with occasional, quirky Coen touches, and John Goodman and Carey Mulligan turn up to provide some colorful interactions. It certainly isn’t poorly made. But ultimately the film just kept its distance from me; I found it sad, in a depressing rather than touching way.

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Above World: Horizon!

If you haven’t been following Jenn’s Above World series, now’s a fantastic time to start.  The stirring conclusion to the series, Horizon, is out today, so now you can get the complete trilogy!

This middle-grade science fiction series has it all: action, adventure, diversity, friendship, invention, romance, and most of all heart.  If you have a young reader in your home, or maybe somewhere within yourself, I hope you’ll check the series out. Jenn’s an amazing writer, a wonderful partner, and an all-around awesome person — and it all shines through in this series. I’m so lucky to have her in my life.  Happy book day, Jenn!

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Film: Captain America – The Winter Soldier

The Marvel movie universe continues to evolve in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). I was expecting a big, splashy action flick, and I got it. What I wasn’t expecting was a paranoid political thriller that doubles as a thoughtful, moving character study. This one stirs in more ingredients than your average superhero movie, and the result is gripping.

Following the battle of New York, Captain America (Chris Evans) continues his dutiful service to S.H.I.E.L.D., alongside fellow Avenger Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). But Cap is having trouble coming to grips with the 21st century, and, more specifically, with the ruthlessness of his country’s approach to national defense. His struggle intensifies when the man who best embodies this approach, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), entrusts him with intelligence suggesting that the agency they both serve may be compromised. Initially standing alone against forces he doesn’t understand, Cap soon finds an unlikely ally in Black Widow, and the two of them gradually unravel the nature of a massive government conspiracy.

The first thing that jumped out at me about Captain America: The Winter Soldier: hey, this is a pretty great spy movie! S.H.I.E.L.D. has always struck me as more of a paramilitary force than an intelligence agency, but here the spy backdrop is leveraged full bore, with Fury, Black Widow, and other characters – including shifty espiocrat Alexander Pierce (a shrewdly cast Robert Redford) – contributing to the uncertain, plot-twisty landscape. It’s more Jason Bourne than George Smiley, but even so its neatly escalating plot has all the earmarks of a classic 1970s political shocker. Yes, some of the details of the plot are incredulous comic book silliness. Yes, it’s difficult to buy into the conspiracy thriller formula in an era when high-level corruption hardly merits a turned head from the public. But, disbelief suspended, it gives the film an uncommon resonance, and makes it a film about something beyond its surface pyrotechnics.

The plot and the wider themes tie in perfectly to Captain America’s character, and the time-travelled circumstances of his existence. Cap made his mark in an era when the struggle between good and evil was more of a black-and-white affair; in comparison, the 21st century is a chaotic, dog-eat-dog mess through his eyes, beyond even the moral grays of the Cold War. The film isn’t afraid to shine a light on this contrast, and it makes Cap all the more winning; through it all, he remains upstanding and true, even at the moments when it’s the most difficult. Chris Evans is preternaturally likeable in this role, and he’s helped make Captain America – historically one of Marvel’s blandest heroes – into one of the movie universe’s most relevant and interesting.

In light of that, the film is smart to partner Cap with Black Widow; who more perfectly to encapsulate the chaos and subterfuge of the modern world? Scarlett Johansson further comes into her own in this role, and any doubts that she can carry a solo film should utterly evaporate in the wake of this one. I personally think she was the best thing about The Avengers, despite the blinkered press her character received, and she’s fantastic again here: not just as a perfect foil for Cap, but as a layered and resourceful character in her own right. This may be Captain America 2, but it may also be Black Widow 1.

And you know what, it’s also kind of The Avengers 1.5. Cap’s at his best when he has a team to lead, and unofficially joining the team here is The Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Another area the film explores is friendship, and Cap’s unique predicament in that regard, since he’s lost most of his friends to the passage of time. The film takes care to remember Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), as well as  the people of his era who are still around, such as lost love Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, convincingly aged). But the Falcon, aka Sam Wilson, is Cap’s first new friend, his introduction a perfectly executed “bromance” cute meet.  Bonding over their soldierly ways, Falcon serves as a ray of light for Cap through a dark time; their developing friendship is touchingly rendered, and bookends the film nicely.

The film is not without flaws, alas.  For one thing, a big reveal in the plot involves an enormous, unearned infodump, illogically provided by the villains. These types of issues aren’t uncommon in comic book movies, though, and are easily glossed over. More troubling are the action sequences, which – while thrilling – come with alarmingly high body counts and collateral damage. That’s a trend I’d like to see go away in this context. That said, there’s also considerably more emotional content to the fight scenes than usual, which makes them all the more enthralling.

Despite the drawbacks, it’s a uniquely thought-provoking entry in the canon, and ultimately my favorite of all the Marvel films to date – ranking even higher than The Avengers. If it’s not the best Marvel movie yet, it’s definitely the one that spoke to me the most.

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Collection: Antiquities and Tangibles by Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt’s collection Antiquities and Tangibles & Other Stories (2013) gathers twenty-three stories and a poem, most of them originally published between 2006 and 2012: a mere fraction of his prolific output, in other words. It’s a great sample of his accessible and engaging storytelling.

Pratt’s style is breezy and effortlessly read, and while the stories vary in quality, there are plenty of memorable highlights. My favorites were two literary metafiction pieces: “Unexpected Outcomes,” a thought-provoking SFnal novelette that cleverly questions the nature of post-9/11 reality, and the Sturgeon-nominated “Her Voice in a Bottle,” perhaps the most beautiful piece on offer, about a lost love who may or may not have existed. The strongest core SF tale for me was the funny and inventive “Artifice & Intelligence,” an entertaining riff on the “ghost in the machine” concept about AI gods and an international crimefighting organization. I’m also rather partial to “A Programmatic Approach to Perfect Happiness,” a sharp short about robots, mood-modulation, and airborne pharmaceuticals. (Full disclosure: that one originally appeared at Futurismic, so I may be biased.)

There’s also plenty of contemporary fantasy and dark fiction here, most of it quirky and creative: imagine a modern Twilight Zone anthology series, style ranging from the humorous to the macabre. A couple that stuck with me:  “The Secret Beach,” about an impossible place and a man who resists his “destiny,” and “Right Turns,” about a couple who buy a house with a mysterious labyrinth in the basement. The poem is the beautiful “Scientific Romance,” which may be the ultimate love poem for folks of the science fiction persuasion.

Overall, a rich and rewarding read full of fun stuff – and incidentally, it’s got a great cover by the wonderful and amazing Jenn Reese of Tiger Bright Studios! (Full disclosure: she’s my sweetheart.)

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TV: Dexter (Season 8)

Can the destination ruin the journey? I found myself asking that question frequently during the final season of Dexter, a series that promised great things in its superb early years. Sadly I have a feeling that, like Battlestar Galactica and Lost (both of which captivated me with their early brilliance, but imploded violently upon conclusion), this show may end up in my pop culture remainder bin.

Season seven ends with serial killer Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) and his sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) further entangled in Dexter’s long history of ghastly misdeeds. As the final season opens, Deb is struggling mightily to cope with her complicity: fighting grief and addiction, she’s left the force to take a job with private investigator Jake Elway (Sean Patrick Flannery). Meanwhile Dexter keeps working at Miami Metro Homicide, hoping to make things right with Deb, until more baggage from his past turns up. Psychologist Evelyn Vogel (Charlotte Rampling), who initially enters the picture to consult on a case, turns out to be an intrisic part of the Morgans’ past – and Dexter’s in particular.

The Vogel storyline is easily the show’s worst season arc: a ham-fisted attempt to close off Dexter’s “origin story” and, in an awkward, left-handed way, absolve him of responsibility for his very nature. It wastes Rampling, who is saddled with line after line of unconvining psychobabble, and backs away from confronting the ethical issues earlier seasons wrestled with so interestingly. The writers further attempt to redeem Dexter when shifty fugitive Hannah McKay (Yvonne Strahovski) comes back into his life – with a determined federal marshal, Max Clayton (Kenny Johnson), hot on her heels. Can love – for Hannah, for his son, and of course for Deb – save Dexter from the dark deeds of his past? The way the series resolves this question is a massive disappointment; even when Dexter pays a price, there’s really no justice. Dexter’s police colleagues are stuck in subplots that go nowhere, peripheral to the central mystery, and – most disappointingly – are never really forced to confront the monster in their midst . This in particular strikes me as an egregious cop-out. Everything The Shield does right in its final season, Dexter does wrong.

I expected a lot more. Dexter used to be compelling stuff, spinning complicated webs and keeping its characters dancing in suspenseful, thorny situations. In retrospect, maybe it should have been obvious that the formula would be unsustainable. I still think Hall and Carpenter did some tremendous work throughout the run, but I have a hard time imagining, after this unsatisfying ending, that I’ll ever want to revisit it. An unfortunate end to a once-great series.

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Spy 100, #16.3: The Bourne Ultimatum

The Bourne series concludes – well, sort of – in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), which is basically more of the same. This one kicks off when British journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) publishes an article about Treadstone, the CIA black op assassination program that created super-killer Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). But where did Ross get his information? Bourne wants to find out, but so do his enemy’s successors in the CIA, lead by Noah Vosen (David Straithern). The race is on as Bourne ricochets across the globe, pursuing the clues that can reveal the secrets of his past.

Like the second installment it’s more style than substance, an energetic melangé of action setpieces and tradecraft. The international location work takes us to Moscow, London, Madrid, Tangier, and New York, which gives the film a striking look – when the shaky-cam settles down enough to let you see it. Unfortunately, this segment is even more bereft of character than The Bourne Supremacy, a mechanistic, plot-driven episode with little heart and no sense of humor. The script makes a feeble try at character, by bringing back Bourne’s whipsmart foil in the CIA, Pam Landy (Joan Allen), and former Treadstone officer Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), with whom Bourne has a sparkless romance-under-fire flirtation. But ultimately this one is more about its ingredients – fights, chases, twists, and reveals – than the overall flavor profile.

It does, at least, provide some closure for the series, or at least for Matt Damon’s participation in it. But other than that, it doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

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