Category Archives: Film

Film: MI-5 (Spooks: The Greater Good)

mi-5One of TV’s best spy shows returns in MI-5 (aka Spooks: The Greater Good) (2015), a surprisingly effective coda to the series. Generally I’m trepidatious about resurrected franchises, and in light of the original series’ continuity-shattering cast turnover in its waning years, I wasn’t sure how much emotional investment I’d still have for this fictional universe. But it works, thanks to a smart script that deploys a thoughtful theme amidst the requisite adventure and intrigue.

Sir Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), still stubbornly at the helm of MI-5, is supervising the transport of notorious terrorist Adem Qasim (Elyes Gabel) into custody when the operation goes horrible wrong. An agent is killed, Qasim escapes, and Pearce takes the fall. Cut loose from the service, Pearce fakes his own death…a move that alarms MI-5’s remaining leadership. What’s Harry up to? To find him, they enlist decommissioned officer Will Holloway (Game of Thrones’s Kit Harington) to track him down. What they don’t know is that Holloway plays right into Harry’s hidden agenda: preventing a terrorist threat, and saving MI-5.

The Greater Good doesn’t satisfy on the level of MI-5′s best seasons, but for fans of the series who hung around until the end, it makes for a solid epilogue. For those who are wondering, other original cast members return: season ten’s Erin Watts (Lara Pulver) and Callum Reed (Geoffrey Streatfield), and of course good old Malcolm Wynn-Jones (Hugh Simon). But their appearances amount to cameos; in terms of series continuity, the movie leans almost entirely on Pearce. (No offense to  Tim McInnerny, who reprises the scheming Oliver Mace with even more snarl and venom than usual.) Since for me MI-5 was always stronger when it focused on the officers, with Pearce as their inscrutable overseer, I was nervous about the dearth of familiar faces. Fortunately the writers know what they’re doing , and build Pearce’s legacy as a fierce, stubborn survivor into the theme. Meanwhile the physical action is carried by newcomer Harington, whose Will Holloway, a failed Pearce protege, feels nebulous at the start. Ultimately, though, the fact that he’s an unknown quantity in the MI-5 universe works in the film’s favor, and is indeed central to narrative strategy. Other new performers that make a solid impression are Jennifer Ehle, as a steely member of MI‑5’s upper echelon, and Sense8′s Tuppence Middleton, as an ambitious junior officer enlisted by Holloway to help .

The film likely won’t stand alone for the uninitiated, but fans will enjoy The Greater Good’s stew of spy genre elements: fights, chases, dead drops, tradecraft, misdirection, surveillance, mole-hunts, hacks, terrorist threats, and life-and-death decisions. But the build-up is merely good; the film is ultimately elevated by its denouement, which speaks to Pearce’s difficult journey through the series — and the viewers’ journey alongside him.

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Film: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterA long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I cared about the Star Wars franchise. The original trilogy was powerful formative science fiction, and surely a huge influence on my early interest in the field. Much as the youthful me loved it, though, the twenties me was so repulsed by The Phantom Menace that I more or less flounced on the series and never looked back. But now we have Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), easily the most anticipated film of the twenty-first century, and there was just too much buzz; seeing it felt like being officially indoctrinated into the pop-culture zeitgeist.

Decades after the events of Return of the Jedi, a new imperial menace has developed: the First Order, rising from the ashes of Darth Vader’s empire to once again threaten the Republic. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished, and the Resistance feels his Jedi powers may be the key to saving the galaxy. To that end, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has acquired intelligence that could lead to Skywalker’s return. Unfortunately the First Order, led by the vicious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), moves to intercept. Rather than yield the information, Dameron entrusts it to his droid BB-8, who ultimately crosses paths with two unlikely young heroes: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a subsistence scavenger on the desert world of Jakku, and Finn (John Boyega), an AWOL stormtrooper trying to forge a new path. Together they must convey the crucial intelligence into the hands of the Resistance so that the First Order can be defeated.

When news of this franchise’s re-launch came out, I was pretty sure I would see the film, and that I would either love it or hate it. I was wrong: it was neither a home run nor a strike out for me, but rather a solid, stand-up double, successfully conjuring moments of the old magic, but with elements that made me all too aware of the market-driven, blockbuster blueprint it was following.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens resurrects the props and furniture and general world-building of the original movies quite effectively. Glimpsing the old uniforms and weapons and spaceships, not to mention the familiar characters, was a powerful nostalgia trip. So great to see the legendary Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and especially Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) back in action again. But it was the new characters — Finn and Rey and Poe — that really lured me back into the universe, and are the most likely to keep me there. Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac are all fantastic and I’m very excited to see them carry the franchise into the future. Unsurprisingly, the film is a visual feast, from its special effects to its spectacular battle scenes. John Williams’ themes can still raise hackles on the back of my neck, and there are genuinely powerful, emotional moments. I can see why people were blown away.

But I was not. I was held, I was entertained, but I was just one step removed from total immersion. At first I thought it might just be the plot’s lack of originality; The Force Awakens, as has widely been discussed, is a note-for-note cover of A New Hope in many ways. But I don’t think that bothered me nearly as much as the specifics of the plot’s execution: little throwaway lines and moments, cagily calculated to remind us how much we liked those original films. It’s an effective strategy, but, perhaps jaded by the prequels, I wasn’t fully susceptible to being manipulated by its fan-servicey charms. This is a reaction I’ve had to J.J. Abrams’ other shared-world efforts (Mission: Impossible 3, the new Star Trek movies); he’s generally skillful at repurposing legacy properties, but his work always reminds me that he’s doing that, which tends to jar me out of the experience.

On some levels I feel this reaction is a overly Scrooge-y, though. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun ride that successfully resurrects the iconic science fictional language of my youth, while also rinsing the foul taste of the prequels out of my mouth. But hopefully the next episode will make more interesting and unexpected narrative choices, as I’m excited to see Ridley, Boyega, Isaac, and Driver move the franchise in brand new directions.

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Film: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

mission-impossible-rogue-nationThe original Mission: Impossible’s inexorable downward skid coincided with the rise of the villainous “Syndicate,” a vast organized crime outfit that would plague the IMF during its final few seasons. In Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015), the Syndicate rears its ugly head yet again, and is once again symbolic of a franchise on the decline. This isn’t just a terrible Mission: Impossible movie, though; it’s a terrible movie, period.

The indestructible Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has gone rogue, and is chasing down leads on “the Syndicate,” a mythical international crime organization made up of presumed dead and disavowed agents from around the world. Hunt’s search for evidence is complicated by the fact that back in Washington, the Impossible Missions Force, defended by William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), is under fire from political firebrand Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). While Hunley is shuttering the IMF and trying to track down Hunt, Hunt is luring his friend and colleague Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) back into the field to support his vendetta against the Syndicate, an investigation that hinges on the shady cooperation of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a possible deep-cover ally.

Rogue Nation vainly attempts to reconstruct the successful chemistry of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, bringing back familiar team members, and at least trying to retain the team-first vibe established by Brad Bird in the previous episode. Alas, the script lacks Ghost Protocol’s cleverness, possessing just a fraction of the humor and five times the clunky exposition. Indeed, from a dialogue perspective this may be the worst outing in the series, full of explanatory tongue twisters and spy-fi cliches; it is, at times, utterly painful to the ear.

The script also lacks structural finesse. It follows the tried-and-true strategy of escalating, episodic setpieces, but is not nearly as successful at stringing them together. The film is at its best when it shuts up; suspense setpieces in Vienna (a pseudo-Hitchcockian opera house slow-build) and Morocco (a convoluted data heist) benefit from dialogue-free, visual story-telling. Even so, while I liked what was being attempted in these sequences, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the execution.

The best aspect of Rogue Nation is Rebecca Ferguson, easily the most successful of the films’ female agents. She’s far better than her material, and makes for a credible and charismatic super-spy. Alas, the camera needlessly ogles and objectifies her throughout, and her very character calls attention to another central failing of the script: the overlooked fact that Ilsa is Rogue Nation’s natural protagonist, relegated to supporting screen time. Her key role in taking out the Syndicate is ever overshadowed by the unsubtle, one-step-behind interactions of the IMF boys’ club.

Forgiving the unforgiveable sins of the first Mission: Impossible movie has been an impossible mission in itself, but Ghost Protocol at least gave me a glimmer of hope that the franchise might be trending in a good new direction. Alas, Rogue Nation has exploded that good will, leaving me once again eager for Tom Cruise to relinquish his cash-cow stranglehold on the series. Never have I longed more for a property to be rebooted.

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Final Thoughts on The Spy 100 Project

spyIt took me almost six years, but I’ve finally finished reviewing the Spy 100 list. (Well, almost; several of its entries were not available to me, but I’m sure I will catch up on them some day.)

So what did I think of the list? Is it the definitive list of spy filmdom’s best movies? Are they in the perfect order? Do they all deserve to be there?

No, no, and no, in my opinion.

Let’s face it. Best-of lists are rarely the objective end-all, be-all. They’re conversation starters, gathered by critics with conflicting and differing opinions. And anyway it seems clear, from reading this list’s reviews, that American History’s 100 Greatest Spy Movies issue was always more about generating discussion and providing a mix of styles and subject matter, than serving as a true qualitative evaluation of the genre. I watched the films in that spirit, appreciating some rankings while disagreeing strenuously with others.

But I learned a few things looking at all these films and shows, and overall found it a rewarding exercise. I also spent plenty time thinking about my own preferences, and the points I would have argued had I been contributing to the list. So, here are some final thoughts and observations after reviewing most of the films of American History magazine’s 100 Greatest Spy Movies.

Most overrated film on the list:

Goldfinger (#4), hands down. Is it one of the most influential spy films of all time? Fine. But greatest? Uh, no. It doesn’t even make my top 100. But then, I’ve never liked 007 (see below)…

Most underrated film on the list:

Burn After Reading (#92). Many of the spy spoofs on the list are broad, silly, unsubtle, and unfunny. Burn After Reading is smart, silly, clever, and hilarious, and one of those films that improves with every viewing. Belongs far closer to the top of the list.

Other highly underrated entries: The Mackintosh Man [#83], The Guns of Navarone [#79], 5 Fingers [#60], Casablanca [#46], The Conversation [#21].

Alfred Hitchcock? Yes, Please!

Hitchcock’s spy oeuvre makes eight appearances on the list, and I can’t quibble with any of them. North By Northwest is perfectly placed at #2. The most underrated of his films on this list may be Torn Curtain at #48; originally considered a flop, for some reason it lodges in my memory as one of his more enjoyable technicolor espionage capers.

James Bond? No, Thanks!

This project further ossified my stance against James Bond, my least favorite film franchise. There are five Bond films on the list, and some would probably argue that isn’t enough, but the only two I would keep are Daniel Craig’s debut in Casino Royale (#73), and Sean Connery’s From Russia with Love (#39), which one could argue best represents the early days. But in general I remain immune to Bond’s sleazy superhero “charms.”

Cheaters!

I think it’s bogus to create a list of best films, and then add both miniseries and trilogies to it. Do I think the BBC adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (#11) and Smiley’s People (#7) are brilliant? I do, but they don’t belong on this list. What about The Company (#30) or Reilly: Ace of Spies (#22)? I do not, and they also don’t belong on the list. And as for the Bourne trilogy? I could have stopped after the first one. Three films should not share a rank on a best-of list!

If I were to revise the list, I would remove these cheats…even if that meant keeping the brilliant The Honourable Woman out of my top ten.

John le Carré is Golden

There are six le Carré adaptations on the list, and they all belong. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (#3) is of course brilliant; I also greatly admired The Looking Glass War (#33), a more obscure but nearly as effective counterpoint. You could also easily make arguments for the overlooked The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardener, as well as A Most Wanted Man, which was released too late to make the list.

Variety is the spice of life

Much as I disagreed with some of the list’s sillier selections, I can see why they were included. Spy films do have their own language, and when you watch enough of them in a row, you’ll find yourself craving dialects other than murky, cynical, twisty, ingenious, or super-serious. Those happen to be my favorite spy film flavors, but often a shot of patriotic, quirky, cheesy, or slapstick goes a long way to keep your diet interesting. The list’s makers clearly sensed this as they were fleshing out their selections.

One major agreement

When all is said and done, I find it impossible to argue with the list’s #1 pick, The Third Man.

Which five films would I jettison from the list?

I could probably get rid of more, but if I were forced to limit myself to five (not including the aforementioned Bond flicks and cheats), they would be:

Which films would I add to the list?

 Some great spy films were missed, and many more have come out since the list was created. Here a number of solid spy films I enjoyed that I think are worthy of consideration (titles with an asterisk are particularly strong):

In conclusion

Yes, I had a lot of problems with the list, but I also enjoyed the hell out of this project. It introduced me to a lot of films and directors I might not otherwise have discovered, gave me plenty to think about, and did nothing to exhaust my enthusiasm for the genre. Looking forward to watching even more spy films in the future. Any recommendations?

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Film(ish): Parallels

Parallels-posterDon’t be fooled: Parallels (2015) isn’t a movie: it’s a repurposed, half-successful proof of concept for a television series that didn’t get picked up. As such it’s inherently unsatisfying, ending on a reveal that’s obviously meant as a cliffhanger. But for fans of SF TV with an interest in the alternate worlds trope, it’s a diverting glimpse at the early days of a timeline in which the series actually survived. (Okay, I admit it, that was a reach…)

When ne’er-do-well fighter Ronan Carver (Mark Hapka) gets a mysterious phone call from his estranged father, he returns to his home town after years away. Finding his father missing, he’s quickly joined by his sister Beatrix (Jessica Rothe) and neighbor Harold (Eric Jungmann), and together they investigate the disappearance, a search that leads them to an abandoned building. The building sucks them into an alternate universe, which, according to snarky fellow traveler Polly (Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu), is just the first of many; the building randomly jumps dimensions every thirty-six hours. How? Why? Together the group embarks on a quest to find the answers, and some day make their way home.

Parallels is a decent but not great pilot, stumbling out of the gate with a slow, obvious first half. The treatment of the idea is Alternate Worlds 101, the grainy look is subpar, and there’s a distinct whiff of the amateurish. Things turn around in the second half — episode two? — when the actors (especially Jungmann and Wu) develop some comfortable rhythm, back story is revealed, and the rich possibility of the premise is further explored. One could imagine a season full of “world of the week” stories, full of clever plots and multifaceted performances as the heroes bump awkwardly into alternate versions of themselves, while chasing technological lore and solving cosmic mysteries. An obscure elevator pitch might be Otherworld meets The Lost Room. (Does anybody remember those shows?)

Alas, one can see why this wasn’t picked up. Ronan never quite rises above hole-in-the-middle heroism. There’s a villain, Tinker (Michael Monks), who displays fuzzy-logic behavior and handwavey technological genius. The dialogue, especially early, is infodumpy. And I’m not sure this is the right cast for Tatiana Maslany-like acting challenges. Ultimately this one doesn’t rise above “interesting curiosity” status.

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Spy 100, #1: The Third Man

the-third-man-box-cover-posterThe Carol Reed-Graham Greene collaboration that worked so well in Our Man in Havana works even better in The Third Man (1949), a movie that somehow manages to improve every time I see it. A gripping mystery, beautifully shot; it’s an indisputable classic.

When pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to post-World War II Vienna to take a job from his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), he instead gets a shock: Lime is dead. A sympathetic post-funeral drink with Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) reveals that Lime was somehow in the sights of the military police, which piques Holly’s interest, as does the fact a missing “third man” who witnessed the accident has vanished without a trace. Before he knows it, Holly has blundered into a full-blown investigation of his friend’s death, which leads him into the romantic orbit of Lime’s grieving ex Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) — not to mention an eyeful of Vienna’s black market underworld.

With its stark, noir cinematography, rakish camera angles, and striking location work, The Third Man is a beautiful film to behold. The performances from everyone involved, including an iconic turn from Welles, are perfect. But ultimately the movie soars on the strength of its ingenious plot, which leads Martins through a maze that’s bitter, cynical, and treacherous even as it’s laced with zippy, bantering humor. A cheerfully incongruous zither score from Anton Karas soon proves to be an inspired contrast to the grim backdrop and scheming skullduggery that motivates the players. And the mystery’s twists and turns resolve brilliantly in a memorable chase, followed by what may be one of the best final scenes in the history of film.

The Third Man is a film of such quality it could easily place near the top of any best-of list, let alone one dedicated to spy cinema. The Spy 100 list makes many disputable claims, but giving this film the number one spot isn’t one of them.

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Film: Circle

circleFrom the low-budget, bottle-show school of innovative science fiction filmmaking comes Circle (2015), a rather obvious but nonetheless thought-provoking idea piece that leverages an extended, in-your-face metaphor to supsenseful effect. Fifty people awaken standing in a circle in a dark chamber, not knowing how they got there or why. Then, a mysterious device in the center of the room proceeds to strike them down, one by one, on a set schedule. As the body count increases, the survivors quickly learn that they’re voting on who lives or dies, and can therefore control who lives the longest. Without the time to attach meaning to this cruel exercise, they quickly begin strategizing: some merely to extend their own lives, others to determine who rightfully deserves to survive.

The success of Circle hinges on a blatant central metaphor: the circle as microcosm for humanity, fractured and divisive as racial, political, and religious factors motivate the players to leverage the cruel game to either their own advantage, or a greater good. At first it seems destined to grow long in the tooth; who needs ninety minutes of social media arguing in the form of a movie? But in the end the premise is cleverly executed, as each taut round exposes new wrinkles: prejudices revealed, strategies exposed, and twists as to how the “game” works, all of which alter the playing field as the players slowly die off. A largely unknown cast — Julie Benz is the only familiar face, really — does a fine job enacting the unlikely, dialogue-driven scenario, which was evidently inspired by 12 Angry Men. I’m not sure it selected the perfect ending to accentuate its dark message, but overall it slots in nicely above films like Cube and Exam as an idea-driven, filmed stage drama about characters trapped in a baffling, science fictional pressure cooker.

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Film: Dark Places

dark placesAn intriguing central mystery can’t quite elevate Dark Places (2015), a competetent Midwest-set chiller that’s diverting but unremarkable. Libby Day (Charlize Theron) is the lone survivor of the Kansas Prairie Massacre, a horrific outbreak of violence that killed her mother and sisters when she was ten. After years skating by on charitable notoreity, Libby falls out of the spotlight and her financial desperation leads her to accept an invitatation from Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult), earnest young member of a true crime puzzle-solving club full of PIs and amateur sleuths fascinated by unsolved cases. Although the murder of Libby’s family was blamed on Libby’s troubled brother Ben (Corey Stoll), the club doesn’t think that adds up — and lures Libby into helping them uncover the truth about that night.

Based on a Gillian Flynn novel, Dark Places gets its hooks in with an interesting early setup, but ultimately never develops into compelling viewing. Theron has more charisma in one cheekbone than most actors do in their entire bodies, so it’s easy to root for her as she delves into her grimdark past, but unfortunately the mystery unfolds in an awkward combination of in-the-dark, first-person narration and third-person omniscient flashback. This unusual tactic felt like an authorial cheat, leaving the viewer selectively informed as the film doles out clues. The performances are solid, at least, with Christina Hendricks and Chloë Grace Moretz standing out in the flashbacks. But the mystery, while interesting, resolves in a clumsy mix of expositional dialogue and offstage deus ex machina. Overall, a polished but unexceptional crime tale.

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Film: Bad Milo!

bad-milo-posterHave plenty of saltines and ginger ale on hand if you watch Bad Milo! (2013), a shameless horror-comedy that leans heavily into its core scatology. It’s the tragic tale of Duncan (Ken Marino), a down-on-his-luck accountant whose job and family life have his nerves on edge. And oh yeah, he also has a disturbing gastrointestinal issue — a terrifying, deadly creature that lives in his digestive tract, emerging only to brutally kill whatever is stressing Duncan out.

This is an utterly silly and horrible idea for a movie, but Marino’s hilarious performance manages to elevate it: he shines, playing every ludicrous scenario brilliantly straight. Accomplished deadpan support from Gillian Jacobs, Patrick Warburton, Mary Kay Place, Kumail Nanjiani, Toby Huss, and Peter Stormare contributes greatly to what laughs there are — and there are a fair number of them. Still, this Gremlins-esque spoof only clears the bar by holding it so very, very low. Recommended primarily for Marino fans and connoisseurs of lowbrow culture.

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Film: Survivor

survivorNo, not the inexplicably immortal reality series, nor the inflictors of “Eye of the Tiger” — Survivor (2015) is a paint-by-numbers thriller that plays out like watered-down, post-9/11 Hitchcock. In London, ace security office Kate Abbott (Milla Jovovich) is in charge of vetting suspicious visa candidates preparing travel to the United States. Just as she’s sniffing out a suspicious pattern, though, her entire team is killed. By chance she survives the attack, but she’s mistaken for the primary suspect, and targeted both by the terrorists who tried to kill her and the authorities trying to clean up the mess. Only Kate can stop the next phase of the threat, but only if she can avoid her own people, and the chilly mercenary Nash (Pierce Brosnan) whose assassination attempt she survived.

Aside from a reasonably elegant structure and a game performance by the underrated Jovovich, there’s not much to recommend Survivor, a bland wrong-woman thriller with uninspired dialogue and prefab characters. Among the principle performers only Jovovich comes across at all lifelike, but her supposedly top-notch agent doesn’t live up to her billing. The rest of the cast — which includes the usually reliable Angela Bassett, James D’Arcy, and Robert Forster — comes off robotically, saddled with lifeless, cliché-filled dialogue. Ultimately, reasonable execution can’t save a shallow, derivative script.

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