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Film, Spies

Film: The Journey

April 24, 2017

Twenty minutes into The Journey (1959), I found myself rather surprised I hadn’t heard of it. With its unique backdrop, excellent performances, and engrossing plot, it’s a stirring, overlooked gem full of intrigue and drama.

Set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the story involves a group of foreigners stranded in Budapest when violence erupts between the Russian military and the Hungarian resistance. Among these travelers is Diana Ashmore (Deborah Kerr), a British woman assisting an ill countryman, Henry Flemyng (Jason Robards), back to London. Or that’s how they’re presenting, anyway…in fact, Flemyng is a wounded Hungarian rebel whom Diana is attempting to rescue after his release from a long and brutal prison term. Unfortunately for Diana, she and Flemyng are put on a bus with an international group which happens to include an acquaintance, Hugh Deverill (Robert Morley). Deverill gradually deduces that Diana is dissembling, which complicates her cover when the party is waylaid by a suspicious Russian major named Surov (Yul Brynner). He sequesters the travelers in a hotel on a bureaucratic pretext, and slowly starts to put the pieces together. But Surov, who initially comes across like an officious, duty-bound servant of the Soviet state, turns out to have a more complex agenda, putting Diana’s play-acting skills to the test.

The Journey benefits from a striking technicolor look, convincing eastern European location work, and a subtle, intriguing plot involving amateur spies facing dire circumstances. But first and foremost it’s a powerful showcase for actors. Kerr is exquisite as the desperate Diana, and there’s quality support from Robards, Morley, E.G. Marshall, and Anne Jackson, among others. But best is Brynner, whose Surov is the focus of the film’s penetrating central character study. Surov’s outward bluster and confidence conceals an inner conflict and torment that Brynner, as the film progresses, performs expertly. While his hidden agenda leads to some squicky moments of gender dynamics between the leads, the relationship between them is ultimately quite poignant, bolstered by the performers’ clear chemistry.

I also appreciated the fraught backdrop of the Hungarian Revolution, an under-explored setting of oppression and resistance that resonates strongly against the world’s current political troubles. In particular, a fiercely delivered monologue from Robards late in the film really got under my skin.

The things you do to weaken us only give us strength to survive, and anger. Yes, anger. Deep, dark anger. Anger that used to be love, until you and your kind made it curdle and turned it into hate. That’s the one thing I’ll never forgive you for: making us hate!

These words, sadly, are as relevant now as when they were written, and their ultimate effect on the plot infuses a dark and tragic tale with an inspiring kernel of hope.


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Film: The Fury

April 11, 2017

Brian De Palma is an enigma; I find his work derivative and clumsy, even as I devour it like popcorn. The Fury (1978) is a textbook example of my reaction to his films: compulsively watchable, campy, all over the map, pretentious, fun, and annoying. In the Middle East, retiring CIA spook Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas) is targeted for murder so that his psychic son Robin (Andrew Stevens) can be abducted, exploited, and weaponized by the government. The assassination attempt fails, however, and Sandza goes rogue, trying to track down his son. His investigation leads him to Chicago and troubled teenager Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving), whose own potential for ESP is so off the charts she injures the people she touches whenever she gets upset. Together, Sandza and Gillian work to track down and save Robin from the clutches of Sandza’s devious colleague Ben Childress (John Cassavetes).

With a camera that pans, zooms, circles, and tracks with abandon, The Fury is a rattletrap contraption that feels stuck halfway been quirky art film and campy horror schlock. Ultimately it doesn’t fully satisfy either way, too ugly for the former and too interesting for the latter…or maybe that’s just 1970s filmmaking. This is De Palma’s follow-up to Carrie, and it seems anxious to capitalize on the Stephen King aspects of its plot. The performances are capably hammy, with some fun support from Charles Durning, Carrie Snodgress, and an obscure early role for Dennis Franz, among others. On the other hand, it’s a structural disaster rife of tonal clashes and an off-putting, macabre sense of humor. In the end, it’s exactly what I expected from early De Palma: an offbeat, mediocre diversion, although its ridiculous, ghastly final shot elevates its memorability considerably.

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Film: Coma

April 11, 2017

I had pretty low expectations for Coma (1978), which is probably why it met them so comfortably. Dr. Susan Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold) is a resident at a prestigious Boston hospital whose chief problems in life are long hours, institutional sexism, and a contentious relationship with her boyfriend, fellow doctor Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas). But her life takes a dark turn when a close friend, during a routine operation, falls inexplicably into a coma. To face up to the tragedy, Susan looks into her friend’s death, and uncovers a troubling pattern of mysterious coma cases at the hospital. As she gradually starts to unearth the connections and get closer to the truth, she lands in more and more jeopardy.

Written and directed by Michael Crichton, Coma is a film very much of its time — or perhaps, derivative of its time, with echoes of Hitchcockian suspense, prurient Brian De Palma camp, and the paranoid conspiracy thriller. If you like all those things, Coma is decent comfort food, dated but fun. Bujold is a capable central presence, and the supporting cast is solid, including a creepy Elizabeth Ashley and the predictably devious Rip Torn and Richard Widmark. Crichton’s direction is fine, although he has occasional Altmanesque pretensions, and he’s probably a little too fond of his own incidental dialogue. (This thing could have used a good edit.) But it’s got some memorable images and moments, and a nice retro thriller style to it. Fun stuff for the right viewer.

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Fantasy, Film, Science Fiction

Film: Spectral

April 2, 2017

Netflix original film Spectral (2016) possesses a veneer of respectability, but ultimately it’s disposable, the kind of movie you only half-watch. Blending science fantasy, horror, and military action, it’s reasonably well produced and professionally acted, but mostly a bland, familiar-feeling melange.

During a future conflict in Moldova, a brilliant DARPA engineer named Clyne (the underrated James Badge Dale) is sent into the warzone to help the military make sense of the strange apparitions being picked up on the vision-enhancing goggles he invented. The locals think it’s the spirits of the dead, haunting the war-torn landscape; CIA officer Fran Madison (Emily Mortimer) thinks it’s a new enemy cloaking technology. Clyne refuses to pick a theory, determined instead to gather scientific evidence and reveal the truth. To that end, he and Madison embed with a military patrol to put themselves in the path of the spectral entitities and figure out what they are — if they can survive.

Spectral certainly looks okay, with reasonably good special effects, geographic verisimilitude, and convincing futuristic tech. Better is the acting, led by the capable Dale and Mortimer, and classed up even further by the likes of Clayne Crawford, Bruce Greenwood, and Stephen Root. But make no mistake, Spectral is a Sy-Fy movie on a Netflix budget. The mediocre action-adventure script is clearly elevated by the performers, especially Dale, who can play the smartest guy in the room with the best of them. Mortimer, meanwhile, possesses an assured presence, not to mention a spotless American accent. Alas, the story is simplistic A-to-B action, and the tone is super-serious, suggesting profundity unwarranted by the material. It’s distractingly unconvincing that Clyne, a civilian, should enter this high-stakes situation and immediately show himself to be more capable, resourceful, and cool under file than the experienced soldiers and intelligence agents in his midst. Not helping matters at all is the fact that for a film set in the future, Spectral is sociopolitically stuck in the past, with only one female character and a homogenously male military. An earnest effort, on some levels, but ultimately it works best as background noise for household chores.

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Film, Spies

Film: The Recruit

March 20, 2017

Flawed but polished, The Recruit (2003) is a confidently executed post-9/11 spy thriller. James Clayton (Colin Farrell) is the ne’er-do-well son of an oil man who died thirteen years earlier under mysterious circumstances. A technical genius without ambition, Clayton’s curiosity is awakened by Walter Burke (Al Pacino), a talent-spotter for the Central Intelligence Agency. Burke charms his way into Clayton’s life, enticing him to apply for the CIA with the unspoken promise of finally learning the truth about his father. But Clayton’s journey through “the Farm,” which involves a flirtatious rivalry with fellow recruit Layla Moore (Bridget Moynihan), winds up being more fraught and challenging than expected. The complex exercises of CIA training soon start to feel all too real, until Clayton can’t tell the difference between the tests and reality.

Thanks to Farrell’s energetic performance, brisk pacing, a meaty script full of thematically loaded dialogue, and an assured, striking tone, The Recruit makes for thoroughly entertaining, highly professional spy fare. While the plot escalates well, there is an inherent structural flaw: once the action starts rolling, it quickly becomes clear there’s only one logical way for the story to play out. Fortunately, some clever late reversals rescue the script’s more problematic early beats. As a past-it spook, Pacino is peculiar casting; his real-life persona looms over the role loudly, somewhat undercutting his persuasiveness as an invisible man behind the scenes. But he’s still great fun, leaning into the affair with his usual conviction, and the dramatic fireworks between him and Farrell help gloss over some of the sketchier technical issues and questionable spy-world details. Viewers less steeped in the genre might find this a decent gateway drug for classic spy tropes, but even an old hand like me found enough to make it worth the watch, despite its issues.

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Film, Spies

Film: The Holcroft Covenant

March 6, 2017

I spent most of The Holcroft Covenant (1985) thinking to myself: “Is this really the same John Frankenheimer who gave us The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Seconds?” The answer is yes, but it’s rather odd to witness how its visual sensibility, which worked so well in the 1960s in black and white, can seem so utterly weird in a synthetic, color 1980s context.

In the dying days of World War II, a trio of repentant Nazis set up a Swiss bank account full of stolen funds from the German war machine. Forty years later, Noel Holcroft (Michael Caine) — a British-born American citizen and a mild-mannered architect living in New York — is lured to Switzerland by a lawyer named Manfredi (Michael Lonsdale). Manfredi’s job is to contact the Nazis’ children, who are to establish and manage a foundation with the stolen money that will make up for their parents’ war crimes. Holcroft wants nothing to do with his father’s legacy, until he learns that the money now amounts to four and half billion dollars, and he imagines all the good he could do with it. But that’s an enormous gift horse to look in the mouth, and sure enough there are strings attached, as Holcroft is drawn into a tangle of intrigue surrounding the money — and his role in the affair turns out to be more precarious than anticipated.

There are certain types of films from around this time that seem stuck between eras, and The Holcroft Covenant is one of them. The film’s stagy, old-fashioned thriller trappings and Nazi fortune storyline seem better suited to the technicolor vibe of the sixties than the artificiality of mid-eighties cinema. Frankenheimer’s inventive, cockeyed camera angles occasionally offer glimpses of the old artistry, but the talky script and painfully synthetic soundtrack frequently step on any potential movie magic. Caine’s talent doesn’t disguise the fact that Noel Holcroft makes for a rather naive hero. The trap he waltzes into is fairly obvious, robbing the story of surprise, while the dramatic tension leans too heavily on an unconvincing, sparkless romance between Holcroft and one of the other Nazi descendants, Helden (Victoria Tennant). A glimmer of spy thriller fun is as far as its gets, alas; by and large, this one is a disappointment.

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Film, Spies

Film: The Cape Town Affair

February 21, 2017

The lure of remaking Samuel Fuller’s noir thriller Pickup on South Street is certainly understandable, but The Cape Town Affair (1967) is an unfortunate result. It’s a shoddy, unimaginative reshoot that relocates the action from Manhattan to South Africa but barely tweaks the script, and executes it flatly.

Candy (Jacqueline Bisset), a courier for communist spies in Cape Town, is being tracked by intelligence officers on her way to an important rendezvous when her purse is looted by pickpocket Skip McCoy (James Brolin). McCoy’s simple act of greed hoses up everyone’s plans, complicating the lives of the communist agents looking to retrieve the microfilm, the South African spies trying to identify and stop them, and a scheming stool pigeon named Sam (Claire Trevor) who gets caught between them all.

With its noir trappings and catchy lingo, Pickup on South Street had a style and ambience that worked for the dark, twisty story. The Cape Town Affair dusts off the script and attempts to give it a glamorous, technicolor veneer in a new locale, with more conventionally attractive leads. But the rough edges of Fuller’s script, which gel nicely with stark black-and-white visuals and Richard Widmark’s snarl, don’t play well with Brolin’s handsome smirks and Cape Town’s sunny climate. A monotonous soundtrack and punchless pacing don’t help matters.  (Nor does the fact that the grubby print I watched looks like it plucked out of a lint trap.) Aside from providing background noise while I folded my laundry, this one really didn’t do anything for me.

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Film, Spies

Film: The Human Factor

February 16, 2017

The Human Factor (1979) has cachet to burn in its creative lineup: Otto Preminger’s last directorial effort is based on a Graham Greene novel, features a Tom Stoppard script, and even boasts a credit sequence from Saul Bass. So, how’s the film? Well, spy fiction afficionados will enjoy it; I certainly did. For others viewers, I suspect mileage will vary wildly.

MI-6 has a leak, and its new security man, Colonel John Daintry (Richard Attenborough), has been assigned to plug it. Based on information passed back from a Moscow agent, it’s suspected that someone on the Africa desk is responsible, but is it mild-mannered bureaucrat Maurice Castle (Nicol Williamson), or his hard-drinking bachelor colleague Arthur Davis (Derek Jacobi)? MI-6’s higher-ups hatch a low-key scheme to catch the traitor out so they can quietly deal with the scandal, but a tangle of circumstances escalates the situation from a quiet matter to a shattering tragedy.

Structurally, The Human Factor is a satisfying espionage puzzle with a complex, devious plot that entangles callous intelligence officers and innocent bystanders alike. The focus is less on action and suspense than on the mundane needs and desires of desk-bound servants whose personal and professional lives get hopelessly tangled. It’s less Bond than Smiley, then; indeed, in terms of style and ambience, le Carré’s  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People adaptations starring Alec Guinness are obvious touchstones. It’s also of a piece with The Sandbaggers, which has a similar focus on the grubby corridors of intelligence world bureacracy. (The appearance of Richard Vernon here, in a role not dissimilar to his Sandbaggers one, further cements this comparison.) Fans of these properties will find plenty to like in The Human Factor.

On the other hand, there’s a certain flatness of affect to the drama. Attenborough, Jacobi, and a gleefully sinister Robert Morley all have their usual spark, but the story relies heavily on a sparkless romance between Castle and his South African wife Sarah (Iman). Williamson is well cast as a good-natured civil servant, but there’s little chemistry. Other key roles are filled by actors who deliver in distancing monotone, and occasional scenes are awkwardly staged, framing actors in conversation who weirdly aren’t looking at each other. Viewers not entranced by the plot will probably find themselves bored.

Nonetheless I enjoyed the movie, which despite its flaws is much better than many of Spy 100 list’s entries. If for no other reasons, its elegant plot and unusual geographic focus render it a memorable, worthy entry in the spy film canon.

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Film: Hysteria

February 13, 2017

What happens when Hammer Films throws its hat into the Hitchcockian thriller ring? The answer, quite literally, is Hysteria (1965), a modest but deliciously executed psychological mystery that layers an infectious mod-sixties vibe over its Twilight Zone look. Robert Webber deploys his considerable charms as “Christopher Smith,” which may or may not be his real name: an amnesia victim, Smith is released from a mental hospital with two clues as to his former life. One is the largesse of an anonymous benefactor who’s financed his medical care and set him up in a posh London penthouse, for reasons unknown. The other is a photograph of a woman he can’t remember, Denise Ryan (Lelia Goldoni). With the aid of a seedy private investigator, Smith attempts to leverage these clues toward uncovering the mystery of his past. His journey of discovery uncovers a tangled skein of crimes, schemes, and psychological disturbances.

With a reasonable budget and unassuming cast, Hysteria is light on spectacle and isn’t liable to attract a massive modern audience, but for fans of twisty, black-and-white mysteries in the vein of Hitchcock or early John Frankenheimer, it delivers just what the doctor ordered. Webber makes for a compelling protagonist, Goldoni an intriguing love interest, and the straightforward filmmaking is classy and effective. Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t quite live up to the build-up, but overall it’s great weekend matinee material for the right kind of film buff.

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Film, Science Fiction

Film: Eva

January 31, 2017

Polished, professional, dull as rocks: that’s my nutshell reaction to Eva (2011), a Spanish science fiction film that layers a futuristic surface over its conventional human drama. Alex Garel (Daniel Brühl) is a robotics genius who returns to his home town to complete a highly advanced project: a robot with human emotions. Which is ironic, since Alex seems to have repressed so many of his own emotions; strained encounters with his brother David (Alberto Ammann) and sister-in-law Lana (Marta Etura) soon reveal why. But David and Lana also have a daughter, Eva (Claudia Vega), a clever, precocious, and unpredictable 10-year-old who Alex quickly comes to believe may be the key to perfecting the emotional software of his creation.

The film boasts some gorgeous mountain scenery, an excellent score, and highly professional performances across the board, especially from the young Vega, a remarkable young actress who pulls off the film’s crucial role with aplomb. The CGI visuals aren’t entirely convincing, but they’re effective enough. What Eva lacks is a compelling narrative: there’s no momentum, no energy, and no real surprise, and because the characters aren’t particularly fleshed out or memorable, the plot’s bittersweet moments and tragic turns lack impact. It’s an earnest and attractive effort on many levels, but ultimately falls short.

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Film: The Swiss Conspiracy

January 29, 2017

The Swiss Conspiracy (1976) has a credit sequence so bad that I almost didn’t keep watching afterwards, but I endured, for some reason — and probably shouldn’t have. This schlocky mystery involves a Swiss bank run by Johann Hurtil (Ray Milland), which learns that five of its important clients are being blackmailed. Hurtil secures the services of former U.S. Justice Department agent David Christopher (David Janssen) to investigate and deal with the problem. This leads to clashes with old rival Robert Hayes (John Saxon), romance with the lovely Denise Abbott (Senta Berger), car chases, gunplay, and other assorted peril.

Looking like it was filmed through a wet newspaper, The Swiss Conspiracy executes a middling mystery plot while managing the trick of making Switzerland look grubby and unappealing. The cheesy, disco-funk soundtrack is almost enough to elevate it into so-bad-its-good territory, but beyond that its only true assets are Janssen’s gruff charisma and Berger’s good looks. The rest is just ugly, uninteresting filmmaking that leads to a comically terrible pseudo-noir ending on a Swiss mountaintop. There’s a reason you haven’t heard of this one; eminently skippable.

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Film: The Last Run

January 17, 2017

To paraphrase Han Solo, movies from the seventies don’t look like much, but they’ve got it where it counts. And if that intro seems incongruous, well, it is but it isn’t. For let’s face it, Star Wars — much as I loved it — is more or less responsible for ushering in the era of movies that look like a lot, but don’t have it where it counts.

The Last Run (1971) is a solid, unassuming European crime thriller that spins its simple story into something memorable. Harry Garmes (George C. Scott), a retired getaway driver living a peaceful life in a Portuguese fishing village, is lured out of retirement to perform one last job: delivering mafia killer Paul Rickard (Tony Musante) to France. But there’s a hitch: Rickard wants to pick up his girlfriend Claudie (Trish Van Devere) along the way. This is the first of many unexpected twists in the journey, which escalates from a milk run into a desperate fight for survival.

Benefiting greatly from rustic European scenery and solid, no-nonsese visual story-telling, The Last Run is a well crafted crime caper bolstered by Scott’s endearingly gruff performance as an aging ex-criminal battling an existential crisis. He could have used a little more help — Musante is merely decent as a loose-cannon killer, while Van Devere is flat as the shifty love interest — but fortunately Scott’s gravitas carries the day. The plot is straight-forward and effective, even if it leads to a rather expected finale. But until then, the story cooks along nicely, like Garmes’ car: not terribly flashy, but it gets the job done. I enjoyed the ride.

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