Film: The Defector

the-defector-movie-poster-1966-1020209546Notable as Montgomery Clift’s final performance, The Defector (1966) is another obscure espionage relic from the Warner Archive. Clift plays James Bower, a brilliant physicist recruited by a scheming CIA agent named Adams (Roddy McDowall) to venture into East Germany. His mission: to retrieve a microfilm of valuable intelligence from a scientist behind the Iron Curtain whose work Bower translated. Despite initial reluctance, Bower undertakes the assignment, which immediately goes off the rails thanks to a scheming state security officer named Heinzmann (Hardy Krüger). Soon Bower’s focus shifts from the mission to mere survival, with only the assistance of a nurse — and western asset — named Frieda (Macha Méril). Will Bower escape alive?

The Defector is an understated, dry, and cynical puzzler with a distinctly European filmmaking flavor, happy to linger in fraught silences and grimy, muted settings. Its dreary depiction of life behind the Iron Curtain is convincing, helped in no small way by authentic German location work, and there’s a great atmosphere of Cold War paranoia. It’s missing that certain something, alas — a spark of energy, perhaps — and Clift, while interesting, makes for an inscrutable protagonist. The result is a film that’s difficult to get invested in, holding the viewer at a distance. Two similar, far more picturesque films leap to mind as contemporary competitors: Torn Curtain (with which it shares a certain structural similarity) and The Looking Glass War (which has a similarly dire worldview). It’s easy to see, then, why this one might be overlooked, despite its more realistic trappings, and a pair of memorable sequences: one an unsettling, New Wave-y interrogation sequence, the other a suspenseful Great Escape-like flight for the border. In the end, this is yet another film that spy-film aficionados will probably enjoy more than general audiences; it certainly worked for me, despite its flaws.

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Film: The Double Man

double-manAs unexceptional spy films go, The Double Man (1967) is a fun oldie, with gorgeous location scenery and a certain B-movie charm. There are reasons you haven’t heard of it, but you could do worse for a harmless weekend matinee.

When his son dies in a skiing accident, CIA Assistant Director Dan Slater (Yul Brynner) journeys to the Austrian Alps to attend the funeral and claim the body. Once he’s handled this tragic business, he’s supposed to return to Washington straight away — but when he discovers evidence of foul play in his son’s murder, he decides to extend his stay. Clearly an enemy operation is in motion, and he’s the target, but who’s baiting the trap, and why? Perhaps his retired old friend from MI5, Frank Wheatly (Clive Revill), is involved, or it could be innocent-seeming witness Gina (Britt Ekland), who may be part of a Russian honey trap. Suspicious of everyone, Slater defies the orders of his superiors, determined to get to the bottom of the enemy operation, and smash it.

With the look and feel of an old Mission: Impossible episode, The Double Man is an occasionally ponderous affair, thanks largely to the stone-faced Brynner’s rather taciturn performance as a difficult-to-like character. The mystery builds slowly, and the major plot reveal is highly telegraphed. But Slater’s unsympathetic nature does help paint a classic picture of the intelligence business as a place where trust and optimism go to die, serving the film’s reasonably well handled themes. Occasionally cheesy rear-screen projection notwithstanding, the location work is stunningly photographed. So is Ekland, who straddles the line between ingenue and femme fatale effectively, contributing to the intrigue. On points it’s a mediocre film, with a plot that fails to surprise and a less-than-convincing Hollywood ending that misses an opportunity to say something more powerful. But fortunately it’s my kind of mediocre film, a harmless diversion with comfortable genre trappings.

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Non-Fiction: The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carré

Subtitled “Stories from My Life,” John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel isn’t the linear autobiography I was expecting; instead, it’s an alinear anthology of memories, which makes it a perfect complement to Adam Sisman’s official biography. Curiously, reading it reminded me a little of le Carré’s underlooked mosaic novel The Secret Pilgrim, wherein an aging spy looks back on the episodes of his career, prompted by a training class lecture from none other than George Smiley. Perhaps, like Ned in that book, le Carré has entered this time of reflection in his life.

The most surprising thing about The Pigeon Tunnel is how much it makes le Carré appear to be a “write what you know” author — something Sisman’s biography never quite conveyed. Le Carré has always downplayed his intelligence career, but the stories here show that his experiences in that world were legitimately formative and fed directly into his fiction. And, even more interestingly, the author’s rather worldly life after spydom continues to convey a sense of international intrigue. Research trips to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Congo, and elsewhere feel very much like the nerve-wracking adventures of his characters; le Carré doesn’t sensationalize the stories, but the quality of the writing lends them a certain narrative mystique that feels almost as imaginative as the novels. Many chapters introduce us to acquaintainces and friends who would serve as the character models for his novels.

Meanwhile, le Carré’s celebrity led to numerous encounters with world leaders, film directors, actors, and more. Chapters about his friendships with Richard Burton, Martin Ritt, and Alec Guinness are highlights, as is his humorous recollection of several film adaptations that weren’t made. Somehow he makes this jet-setting lifestyle feel, in its way, like part of a secret world.

Needless to say, fans of the author will find much to enjoy in this book, although I’d venture to say that a certain familiarity with his novels and life is a prerequisite. If this is the final book of le Carré’s career — I, for one, am hoping for more! — it makes for a brisk, illuminating coda.

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Film: Sicario

sicario-new-posterThe most powerful spy films, I think, are the ones that wrestle with the ethics of the business. On that score, Sicario (2015) is a great spy film, and it also benefits from suspenseful setpieces, a deftly layered structure, and dynamic lead performances. Refreshingly, it also tackles an under-explored subject: the war on drugs.

Emily Blunt headlines the cast as Kate Macer, an exceptional young FBI agent who specializes in kidnap scenarios. Her most recent assignment clues her in to the ruthlessness of a Mexican drug cartel boss, giving her just the motivation she needs to volunteer for an interagency task force that’s planning to take him down. Lead by cagey good old boy Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and haunted DOD consultant Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), the task force blends shifty high-level scheming with boots-on-the-ground combat swagger, and their missions — to which Kate and her promising partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are only partially briefed — turn out to be nerve-wracking, dangerous operations straddling the U.S.-Mexico border. As the work progresses, the surface pretexts are gradually peeled away, revealing the true motives and dark objectives underneath.

Alas, Sicario doesn’t strive much to buck certain annoying Hollywood trends: namely, Blunt is the only significant female character, and racial stereotypes abound. But if you can get past that, the film is a well oiled machine that builds a chilling early mystique before ramping into a twisty, realistic thriller. Blunt is convincing as a formidable FBI agent whose conscience undergoes the supreme test when she enters a secret world that requires a whole new level of ruthlessness. Brolin and Del Toro are just as good as shifty veterans of that posturing, testosterone-filled world, while effective supporting work comes from Kaluuya, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan, and others. Director Denis Villeneuve leverages the dry, desolate landscapes of the southwest to excellent effect, selling the bleak message of this dispiriting business, and the unforgiving expediency of how it’s carried out. A tense, hard-hitting watch.

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TV: Fortitude (Season 1)

fortitude_sssDark, brilliant mysteries emerge from Scandinavia and the U.K. on a regular basis these days, so it only makes sense those regions would join forces. Even during this era of great TV, Fortitude stand outs from the crowd, a complex and utterly gripping blend of Nordic noir and existential horror that builds fascinating intrigue around an unforgettable backdrop.

Fortitude is a remote Arctic island north of Norway, colonized by a mix of rugged international settlers, most of them British and Norwegian. It’s a peaceful place of magnificent vistas, but it’s also dangerous, thanks to subzero temperatures and predatory wildlife. As Fortitude’s mining industry dies, the governor of the island, Hildur Odegard (Sofie Gråbøl), plans to reorient the economy around tourism by launching a resort hotel project. Meanwhile, local sheriff Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer) runs a tiny police force that keeps the peace…or they would, if there were ever any strife.

Anderssen is about to be tested, though, when the small community experiences its first murder — a brutal attack that leaves a man dead in his living room. Murder is uncharted territory for Fortitude, but not for DCI Eugene Morton (Stanley Tucci), an inspector from the British government who comes out to the island to crack the case. Outwardly Morton is there to solve the murder, but secretly he’s working another angle: investigating the death of a visiting British geologist, allegedly mauled by a polar bear on Fortitude three months earlier. As it turns out, though, Morton’s not the only person on the island with a hidden agenda, as ambitions, conspiracies, and infidelities abound underneath the community’s placid surface. The murder is about to expose them all.

Fortitude does so many things well it’s difficult to know where to start. I think I’ll lead with its stunning cinematography and visual scope. Filmed largely in Iceland, the show takes full advantage of the glorious, unspoiled landscape at its disposal to enhance the scenario’s sense of isolation. Wide, panning shots of mountains and glaciers and bodies of water accentuate the tenuous hold humanity has on such harsh terrain, contributing to a subtly unsettling tone.

Then there’s the stellar cast, an appealing mix of distinctive characters who collectively make up a mysterious and troubled community full of complex, soap opera intricacy. Tucci is a standout, unsurprisingly, but the acting firepower is rampant up and down the roster. There are no throwaway characters; once introduced, each new persona is integrated into the story inextricably, and contributes to the community’s singular mystique, which builds over the first half of the season in a suspenseful, unnerving slow-build.

The ingeniously crafted narrative takes even darker turns in the second half, when the show veers from noir into more horrific territory. I found this stretch slightly less engrossing, if only because it peels away — satisfyingly, I should point out — many of the mysteries that have been built. And yet, by shifting into bloodier, more suspenseful material in its latter half, it still manages a compelling artistic message. As Fortitude is more unraveled by events, it serves more and more effectively as a symbolic representation of Earth itself: an unspoiled, beautiful wilderness ultimately tainted by the plague of humanity on its surface. It’s a bleak message, to be sure, and one it takes considerable fortitude from the viewer to withstand, but it’s also haunting, thought-provoking, and chillingly powerful.

Fans of dark stories about small-town mayhem in the vein of Fargo and Twin Peaks will find much to love in Fortitude, which frankly makes those places look like Mayberry. It is, perhaps, a descendant of those shows, but far superior, a unique masterpiece full of escalating intrigue, terrifying suspense, ambitious themes, and spectacular visuals. I haven’t been this wrapped up in a show in years.

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Lightspeed Review: 12 Monkeys & Mr. Robot

My latest review is live today at Lightspeed! In this installment, I look at 12 Monkeys , a slow-building but effective re-imagination of the memorable Terry Gilliam film, and Mr. Robot, the fiercely political near-future SF series that may be the most artistically risky and impressive show on TV right now. Swing by for a look, and while you’re there, check out all the other great material!

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Film: Eat That Question

eat-that-questionThe complex, unforgettable music of Frank Zappa has long been a formative influence for me, but the documentary Eat That Question (2016) is a reminder that so is Zappa, the person. The film is comprised of numerous interview clips, spanning his storied career from the 1960s to the early 1990s. It’s not entirely sequential, but “conceptual continuity” and careful organization make it feel like a linear narrative, telling the story of Zappa’s life as it reveals his singular personality.

Identifying with Zappa is, on some levels, a troubling thing; at times his attitudes, particularly about women, are questionable at best. But the documentary does a good job of zeroing in on what made Zappa unique, not just as a rock musician, but as a composer, an entertainer, and a thinker. From the very earliest clip — an appearance on The Steve Allen Show, wherein a clean-shaven, shockingly polite Zappa teaches Allen how to play the bicycle — Zappa comes across as someone who sees the world from weird, zany angles. There’s a contrarian streak to his eloquence, and the sense of a celebrity buying into his own bullshit. But he’s also a fiercely intelligent social critic, whose off-the-cuff responses to interview questions are always spirited and entertaining, and sometimes delightfully weird. Both his outlandish humor and deadly serious views on art are the product of a mind that’s sitting off to the side of the world, observing with a mix of baffled amusement and cock-eyed disgust. As the interviews move from his irreverent rock touring days into the 1980s, the humor gets more scathing, particularly during his angry appearances on Crossfire and facing off against the PMRC during Congressional hearings. His concerns about the future effects of right-wing, Reagan Era Republicanism are positively prescient. It culminates in a heartbreaking, late interview, wherein he is clearly losing his battle with cancer — and being defiantly cavalier about it.

Alas, Eat That Question doesn’t always focus on the best of Zappa’s music; the musical segues are sometimes necessarily tied to the interview material, but I could have done with less of the crass mockery of “Dinah-Moe Humm” and “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” and more of Zappa’s intense and fascinating melodic instrumentals. Also, true Zappaphiles will see a lot of material that they’ve seen before from various concert films and videos. But overall it’s a worthwhile compilation of footage, providing insight into the mind of a truly one-of-a-kind artist.

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Film: ARQ

arq-poster-smallNetflix original science fiction film ARQ (2016) lacks a novel premise and doesn’t have much of a budget, but it does have confidence, energy, and subtly integrated SF world-building. Warning: this review will “spoil” its very familiar structural premise, so for those of you who like to go in without expectation: ARQ is inessential but clever and pretty entertaining. For the rest of you, read on!

Ren (Robbie Amell) is an engineer who used to work for a massive worldwide corporation called Torus. He awakens one morning with old flame Hannah (Rachael Taylor) in bed beside him, but the calm tableau doesn’t last: a trio of violent thugs break into his safehouse searching for money and food. In the resulting struggle, Ren “dies” — only to wake up in bed, at the same time, with Hannah again beside him. That’s right, he’s caught in a time loop, and one that seems to be connected with the perpetual motion energy machine in his garage: the “ARQ,” which he developed during his Torus days before fleeing the conflicts of the wider world to his current hideout. Ren faces off against the intruders, cycling through multiple ill-fated iterations trying to outwit them and save himself. But as further layers of intrigue are revealed, the game board keeps changing, and the survival strategies become more fraught and desperate.

Written and directed by Orphan Black veteran Tony Elliott, ARQ feels recycled: it’s yet another variation on the Groundhog Day concept, slotting into the canon alongside Edge of Tomorrow, Time Lapse, the 12 Monkeys episode “Lullaby,” and probably more that I’m missing. Mashing that concept together with a Desperate Hours home invasion makes for a film that inspires more than its share of deja vu…which is fitting, when you think about it. That said, it’s a skillfully executed take on the idea, thanks to a well structured script, convincingly frenetic performances from Amell and Taylor, and best of all, immersive and thoughtful dystopian world-building. As ARQ hurdles through its expected structural obstacles, it also gradually layers in the details of a grim, skiffy backdrop, ultimately painting a vivid picture of a corporate-owned, ecologically collapsing future. It may not be the most original SF film you’ve ever seen, but it’s a diverting dystopian thriller that neatly ties its premise into a theme of hopeful persistence.

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TV: Homeland (Season 4)

homeland4Oh, Homeland, you exasperating motherfucker. Season four of Showtime’s prestige spy drama is a much-needed, overdue reinvention of the series that builds an intriguing new world for its heroes to inhabit. At first, the twisty tale looks skillfully engineered, but everything gradually comes unraveled, and egregious story decisions late in the year may have cost the series my allegiance.

CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) has fled her personal responsibilies at home for a posting in Afghanistan, where she’s made a name for herself as “the Drone Queen,” taking out terrorists remotely from Kabul. Her controlled, dark new life takes a turn for the worse when bad intelligence on a notorious terrorist leads to a drone strike against a mostly innocent wedding party. The fiasco nearly costs Carrie her career, but with typical resourcefulness she lands on her feet as station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan — the origin of the flawed intel. She’s determined to find out what went wrong, and to that end, drags in trusted old friends to help: Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), now an independent contractor, and Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), an operative now desperate to get out of the business. All of them, though, will soon regret their participation in a fraught, tragic operation.

Ever since the beginning of season two, Homeland has felt like a show overstaying its welcome, an unnatural extension of a self-contained miniseries. To its credit, season four finally changes course and moves on. The unnatural romance-slash-rivalry between Carrie and Brody is jettisoned (well, mostly), along with all the associated world-building furniture, establishing a new paradigm. While it starts slowly, I was ready to embrace this new path, especially once Carrie sets up in Pakistan with Quinn and quietly likeable allies Fara (Nazanin Boniadi) and Max (Maury Sterling) to identify security leaks in Islamabad’s CIA station. The new international setting introduces promising new characters — such as jaded, shifty deputy station chief John Redmond (Michael O’Keefe), a character I found quite convincing. Also there are solid new subplots; best among these involves Pakistan intelligence’s recruitment of the U.S. ambassador’s husband, Dennis Boyd (Mark Moses), to spy for them. There’s even a strong thematic strategy to the season. Carrie begins the season almost inhumanly heartless in her mission-first mindset, even going so far as to coldly seduce a young, impressionable asset in pursuit of her goal. Meanwhile Quinn, tortured by his conscience, is so disgusted that he’s ready to quit the business for good. As events unfold, their trajectories reverse: Carrie slowly regains her humanity, while Quinn is inexorably drawn back to the mission. The arc is thoughtful, and emotionally — if not always logically — convincing. Speaking of Quinn, he kind of takes over the show this season, which moreso than earlier years examines the thorny ethics of the spy business. Quinn’s failed struggle to remove himself from the game board is a much more compelling expression of this idea than the clumsy tactical decisions and erratic reactions of Carrie and Saul.

So it’s effective and involving spy fare, on one level. But underneath are logic problems, and too many reminders that the producers cut their teeth on 24. Too often, the decisions that Carrie, Quinn, and Saul make are scriptwriting decisions, not sound strategic ones. They’re deployed to set up reversals and cliffhangers, or to change the emotional stakes, rather than following logically from the circumstances. Almost every time a character makes Decision A, there’s a better argument for Decision B, undermining the credibility of the heroes. Speaking of which, so very many things go wrong for Carrie and Saul this season that by rights their careers would be thoroughly demolished. For a show trying to sell us on how competent and exceptional its heroes are, this is a poor long-term strategy.

And then, of course, there’s the tenth episode of this season. It’s an extremely suspenseful episode, but one in which 24-like shock tactics and wanton casualties overrun the usually more thoughtful tone of the series. Homeland has always struggled to maintain a relevant and likeable supporting cast: those interesting, relatable side characters you quietly root for as they’re tossed around in the heroes’ wake. “13 Hours in Islamabad” may be one of the series’ most exciting episodes, but it also cavalierly disposes of two promising supporting characters who were, I think, subtly improving the wider world of the series. These unnecessary deaths, which have a negligible impact on the heroes, felt egregious and wasteful. It’s not exactly a shark-jumping moment, but for me it came pretty close to being a “shooting-Tara” moment. (Is that a thing?)

So there it is. Homeland, what am I to do with you? I’ve put a lot of energy into trying to like you. And even now, I’m curious about what comes next. But I think I may be done with Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson, whose credibility may have eroded beyond the point of no return. The fact that most of the show’s decisions seem to revolve around propelling them through new travails and tragedies makes me think it’s time to cut my losses.

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New Review in the October Lightspeed

The October issue of Lightspeed went live at midnight! Along with what looks like an incredible lineup of fiction (Karen Joy Fowler, Jeremiah Tolbert, Aliette de Bodard, and more), there’s also a new TV review from little old me.

This month I’m covering the first two seasons of a couple of great science fiction shows: the surprisingly good12 Monkeys, and Mr. Robot, a stunning series which has quickly become one of my all-time favorites. The new issue is available for purchase now; its contents will be available online later in the month. I’ll post a link when my new piece is up, but for now feel free to refresh your memory with my initial review of Mr. Robot’s sensational first season.

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