Category Archives: Film

Spy 100, #8: Pickup on South Street

Much as I enjoyed Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953), I think it’s rated too highly on the list. The distinct visual style and rhythmic crime lingo of noir characterizes this cleverly plotted yarn, which is really only a spy film on its edges. It has the feel of classic cinema, but also a host of problematic, era-specific issues.

When a pickpocket named Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) lifts the wallet of an attractive woman named Candy (Jean Peters) on a New York City subway, it’s a simple crime that turns out to have wickedly complicated consequences. Why? Because Candy is a courier, who was delivering a top secret package for her shady boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). On top of that, she was also under surveillance by federal agents, who were following her to determine the package’s recipient. A chain of events ensues, entangling several conflicting motives. The feds recruit a notorious local stool pigeon, Moe (Thelma Ritter), to try to identify the pickpocket. Joey strong-arms Candy into retrieving what she lost. And the cavalier Skip ultimately learns the unexpected value of his asset, and works to leverage it to the fullest advantage.

It’s a wonderfully complex skein of shady criminal behavior, and I watched the first half-hour or so with pure delight. Peters makes for an interesting, fast-talking femme fatale, and Ritter is both a hoot and a heartbreaker as the ever-angling stoolie. And from a subtle, quiet start full of terrific visual story-telling, a beautifully shifty plot emerges, full of switchbacks and double-crosses and hidden agendas.

Alas, the nihilistic noir trappings and gross gender politics of the era do eventually assert themselves, ultimately spoiling the soup. Evidently Widmark’s arrogant bad boy snarl is supposed to be charming, but it doesn’t play – in fact, he’s almost entirely irredeemable, which renders a crucial flash-romance between Skip and Candy decidedly unconvincing. Too much of the relationship relies on Candy’s poor judgment, and it’s undercut even further by the casual, explosive physical abuse she receives from Skip – and later, more seriously, from Joey. This is standard noir misogyny at work, I suspect, cavalierly handled in a manner that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. And for all the clever build-up of its nifty plot, it resolves awkwardly: the climactic fight scene fades out oddly, followed by a weirdly Hollywood ending that Skip certainly doesn’t deserve, and that I wish Candy hadn’t wanted.

It’s a shame, because there is so much to like here. Fuller’s directorial eye is in fine form, the scenario is full of intrigue and suspense, and oh, the glorious patter of slick dialogue. It’s even, amazingly, a Bechdel pass, with female leads who totally outshine their male counterparts. But in the end it’s a number of awkward missteps short of brilliant.

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Film: Pleasantville

When Pleasantville (1998) turned up on TV over the holiday weekend, I realized I’d never seen it. It’s a well put together, if problematic, high-concept Hollywood portal fantasy. It’s about a sulky teenager named David (Tobey Maguire) who, in order to escape the imperfections of real life, regularly loses himself in the white, suburban fantasy of an old TV sitcom called Pleasantville. When David’s television breaks, a peculiar TV repairman (Don Knotts) shows up to fix it – and magically propels David into the show. The catch? His sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) ends up coming along for the ride, bringing her sexually experienced, non-goody-two-shoes attitude along with her. Jennifer doesn’t know the protocols of Pleasantville’s unchanging, surfacey 1950s landscape – nor does she care. It doesn’t take long before they both becomes flys in the ointment, upsetting the town’s comfortable stasis to show its citizens – and, of course, themselves – a new way to live.

Pleasantville is a nicely assembled film, with some funny early moments as it explores its premise. It also has a striking look, with a clever visual conceit: the bland, black-and-white fifties backdrop gradually falls away as David and Jennifer’s contemporary influence gets the citizens of Pleasantville thinking outside the idiot box for once, a process that magically injects color into the world. It’s a well rendered “enlightenment” metaphor, especially early. There’s also effective casting: Maguire and Witherspoon are perfect for their parts, as are Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, and William H. Macy as cardboard sitcom characters forced to see beyond the confines of their traditional roles.

Alas, something doesn’t sit right with me about this film. The structure’s too formulaic, the thematic destination too predictable. While it’s clever, it also manages to be obvious and simplistic. Most troubling, there’s something tone deaf about the way it leverages discrimination language as the black-and-white citizens become “colored.” This may be the whitest film ever made, and obviously it’s deliberate, practically built into the premise…but, yeah, it probably shouldn’t have gone there. There’s also premise fatigue late in the film, particularly in the climactic courtroom scene near the end.

A mixed reaction, then: I can understand how it did well, and there are aspects of its craft worth appreciating, but it also left a weird taste in my mouth. An interesting watch.

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Spy 100, #9: The Lives of Others

In my view, the quietly devastating The Lives of Others (2006) is right up there with other classic films investigating the emotional perils of surveillance and voyeurism: The Conversation and Rear Window come immediately to mind. Indeed this may be one of the Spy 100 list’s most powerful entries, underrated even at #9.

In early eighties East Germany, secret policeman Captain Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is given a simple assignment: investigate squeaky clean, party-approved writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). A party idealist to the core, Wiesler dutifully sets about his task, establishing a listening post in the attic of Dreyman’s building. But his job, rather straightforward on the surface, turns out to be a more complicated tangle: a personal vendetta involving a politically powerful rival for the affections of Dreyman’s girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). This kind of abuse of power isn’t part of Wiesler’s job description, but then neither is his slowly mounting empathy for the artists he’s been tasked with destroying – an unexpected development that leads him to subtly start pulling strings to manipulate their fate.

Impeccably produced, The Lives of Others is a moving, intense examination of life in a corrupt, communist surveillance state. Its bleak depiction of the stultifying day-to-day conditions of life during that time is truly eye-opening. But it’s also a heartbreakingly beautiful film, full of emotional power, thanks to outstanding performances in the key roles. Koch and Gedeck are superb, selling the troubled central relationship convincingly, but it’s Mühe who breaks my heart in this one. His subtle, gradual transformation – from stern, unquestioning agent of the state, to a quietly empathetic guardian angel for the artists whose love he vicariously lives through – is the core of a perfectly structured story. It all culminates in a wrenchingly beautiful final moment. A sad, quiet, slow-building masterpiece.

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Film: Hipsters

You know, I just can’t get enough of Russian musicals. Er, wait, no. Actually, Hipsters (2008) is the only Russian musical I’ve ever seen. Alas, despite a promising idea and an arresting look, this one didn’t exactly captivate me.

But it’s certainly interesting. Set in 1950s Soviet Russia, it’s a love story about Mels (Anton Shagin), a wavering member of a communist youth organization, who, following a raid on an underground jazz club, falls for a young woman named Polly (Oksana Akinshina). Mels’ infatuation with Polly quickly causes him to lose his grip on proper, drab Soviet behavior, and he crosses over into a politically risky, colorful subculture of jazz afficionados – the “hipsters.” These non-conforming free spirits, with their loud clothes and wild parties, transform Mels into the Americanized “Mel,” making him an outcast in his own country – but also a part of something else.

Hipsters was a mixed bag, for me. It has a rich, visually striking look and an infectious energy to it, but unfortunately it loses steam as it goes along – the structural polish isn’t quite there, nor is the pacing. The musical numbers are okay, but failed to charm me consistently – and the weird lyrical translations made it difficult to fit the music into the story. Indeed, I suspect much of the film’s theme and message just didn’t quite translate cleanly enough. It’s attractively produced, and culturally and politically intriguing, but ultimately Hipsters just didn’t flip my switch.

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Film: The Grand Budapest Hotel

For sheer visual artistry and comedic whimsy, there really isn’t a better director working today than Wes Anderson, whose latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), is another clever and wholly unique entertainment. It’s a story within a story within a story: a writer (Tom Wilkinson) recalls an encounter his younger self (Jude Law) has with a wealthy hotel owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who himself recounts the adventures of his younger self (Tony Revolori) as a young lobby boy at the Grand Budapest Hotel. For all that convoluted set-up, the narrative is really about how Mr. Moustafa became the owner of the grand, mountaintop resort, through his friendship with M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s suave, civilized concierge. Gustave’s upper-crust pose, and his numerous romantic entanglements with wealthy, older women, lead to complications when an elderly dowager countess (Tilda Swinton) dies just as the First World War is breaking out. This entangles him in a madcap inheritance drama, pitting him against the countess’ ruthless family.

Anyone familiar with Anderson’s earlier films will immediately recognize the distinctive visual style: The Grand Budapest Hotel has it in spades, each shot a colorful, carefully composed canvas, all spliced together with humor and panache. The cast is basically a Wes Anderson Repertory Company, all the usual suspects: Swinton,  Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson, as well as a newcomer who fits in with the quirky style perfectly: Saoirse Ronan. But it’s Fiennes who owns the film, a comically sophisticated Old World fellow to whom Revolori plays straight man throughout their escapades. It’s his most interesting and fun role in years, and goes a long way to selling the complex tangle of a plot, which involves murder, mayhem, war, romance, prison breaks, and even the odd, ludicrous action setpieces, all against a stylish, rich historical backdrop. It’s another assured and visually engrossing triumph from a director that’s truly one-of-a-kind.

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Film: The Zero Theorem

The Zero Theorem (2013) is easily Terry Gilliam’s most accomplished film since 12 Monkeys, and it’s probably my favorite since Brazil – a film with which it bears a certain stylistic resemblance. The screen is busy with cockamamie, googly-eyed effects and set design, the usual visionary antics for which Gilliam has become famous, as fun to watch as ever…and this time, not at the expense of coherent narrative. Despite all these strengths, though, it’s still a qualified success, sadly disfigured by its unsophisticated gender politics.

Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is a number-crunching cog in the machine of Mancom, a nebulous megacorporation with a nebulous mission in a nebulous quasi-future. Qohen is, basically, an existential crisis in human form, a reclusive man who’s spent decades waiting for a mysterious phone call to give his life purpose. Qohen’s work-from-home request is finally granted when Management (Matt Damon) decides to assign him to solving the Zero Theorem, his job being to find incontrovertible proof of human existence’s meaninglessness. Qohen agrees to take the job, provided the company promises to help him receive his fateful Call. But in the course of working through the problem, he finds meaning in entirely unexpected ways.

While I’ve seen this film described as futuristic SF, I disagree that it’s even set in the future. Like Brazil, The Zero Theorem is a story out of time, pure metaphor; in fact I see it as something of a companion-piece to Brazil, its twenty-first century counterpart. Like much of Gilliam’s work there’s a lot of meta going on, the director inscribing his artistic dilemma into the fabric of his narrative. But for all the existential, if not nihilistic, philosophy underlying its core allegory, there are kernels of hope embedded in the tale, particulary through the human interaction. That’s what gives the film its crucial heart, and what makes the story cohere. Quite deliberately, Waltz is a central cipher, a stand-in for Gilliam and perhaps for the viewer. His personal journey is full of bleak revelations, but just enough hope is subtly encoded in his relationships to make the struggle bearable. Chiefly, there’s his awkward friendship with supervisor Joby (David Thewlis, enacting a role that Michael Palin probably would have played in the old days); a young hotshot computer hacker named Bob (Lucas Hedges); and a beautiful, somewhat over-friendly young woman named Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), with whom he embarks on a quirky relationship.

It’s in this relationship – and in its gender politics generally – that the film falls on its face. Bainsley is pretty much the quintessentially problematic female character: a token feminine presence, treated with immature male-gazey lust, who serves as a catalyst for, and is inexplicably interested in, a blasé leading man who never earns that interest. Fortunately Waltz and Thierry are both good enough to sell it, but even well played it’s glaring. The characters’ childish ogling of women, played for comic relief, is a marring problem in any case, but particularly in this kind of film, which tailors its elements to be vague and “universal” stand-ins for its philosophical discussion. By objectifying and marginalizing the tiny female portion of the cast, it conveys the impression that Qohen’s deep, intense, artistic struggle Does Not Apply to the female subset of humanity – it’s an Important Male Thing . Whether this is a failure of Gilliam the director or Pat Rushin the screenwriter isn’t entirely clear. But it makes for an uncomfortable stain on an otherwise fascinating and visually arresting film, and Gilliam’s most assured and interesting work in a long time.

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Spy 100, #10: Notorious

The top ten countdown begins with Alfred Hitchcock’s noir romance Notorious (1946), a dark and smoldering affair produced and set in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The title refers to the seedy reputation of Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), a Miami party girl with a penchant for too much drink and too many men. Alicia’s father is a German-American war criminal with connections to certain at-large Nazis in South America – a connection not lost on American intelligence. Enter Agent Devlin (Cary Grant), sent by his superiors to recruit Alicia as an undercover agent. Smeared by her father’s treachery and her own sordid past, Alicia lights up when Devlin shows faith in her patriotism, and agrees to the work for them – not knowing that the mission involves seducing an old family friend, Alexander Sebastien (Claude Rains). By the time the nature of the mission comes to light, alas, Alicia and Devlin have fallen in love, but he’s too buttoned-down and pig-headed to dissuade her from taking the assignment, and she’s too scarred by her past to walk away. Their tragic miscommunication plays out in a high-stakes love triangle, when Alicia goes above and beyond the call of duty to infiltrate Sebastien’s nefarious organization.

Notorious is an elegantly structured, low-key espionage caper that banks – smartly – on instant chemistry between the luminous Bergman and Grant. Indeed, the instant romance feels a little forced: Alicia is an emotional wreck, and Devlin is a perfect shit, and the icky gender politics of their early encounters don’t exactly grease the wheels of their attraction. In the end, though, sheer, charismatic star power sells it, and everything falls into place thereafter. Hardly a high-octane thriller, it positively boils with subtle tension and suspense, and while it lacks flashy setpieces it makes up for it with plenty of Hitchcock’s trademark visual story-telling. Beyond that, it lets Ben Hecht’s loaded dialogue do the heavy lifting. The fraught emotional baggage within the love triangle – which renders the dastardly Sebastien at least as sympathetic as his enemies – contrasts chillingly with the smiling, backpatting coldness of the intelligence officials overseeing the operation. Bergman is at her vulnerable best, here. Dated in places, but definitely a classic.

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Film: How I Live Now

“When you’re a teenager, falling in love feels like the end of the world…” Or so I imagine the pitch session for How I Live Now, a British indie that blends post-apocalyptic SF with fairly conventional YA romance. Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a bratty American kid, obsessed with the surface trivia of teenaged life, when she’s sent – against her will – to spend a summer with extended family in England. She’s determined not to enjoy her stay, but gradually she begins to find her new life charming – thanks to her fun-loving cousins Piper (Harley Bird), Isaac (Tom Holland), and especially Eddie (George MacKay), with whom she begins an intoxicating, forbidden romance. Her newfound happiness is short-lived, however, when terrorists detonate a nuclear device in London, triggering World War III. Left to their own devices, the kids hole up to survive the ensuing chaos, but when martial law is declared, the war soon encroaches on their peaceful corner of the universe – and separates the young lovers.

It’s a confidently made, perfectly watchable film thanks to high production values and Ronan’s impressive presence; she does have uncommon gravitas for an actor so young. Alas, Ronan’s charisma must make up for the character’s innate unlikeability – not a fatal flaw, since a coming-of-age transformation is part of her journey, but definitely a barrier. More problematic are the genre elements of the story, specifically the romance and the SF. The Daisy-Eddie relationship, so crucial to the plot, is rather rushed and ultimately sparkless. Similarly unconvincing is the apocalyptic war scenario, a vague and hand-wavy conflict that doesn’t ring authentic. Without being able to buy into either the romance or the SFnal world-building, all that’s left to carry the film are its pretty surfaces and, more importantly, its survival story aspects. Those go some distance to making the viewing moderately worthwhile…but not nearly far enough to warrant a more enthusiastic recommendation.

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Film: Seven Days in May

John Frankenheimer’s conspiracy thriller Seven Days in May (1964) is considered the middle chapter in his “paranoia trilogy,” a thematically linked sequence that begins with The Manchurian Candidate and ends with Seconds. The former is more famous, the latter perhaps more accomplished, but Seven Days in May is also a worthy, politically charged affair. The specific subject here is nuclear proliferation, and the apocalyptic dread it engendered at the height of the Cold War. While aspects of its political dialogue about the military-industrial complex are dated, the gist is still quite relevant.

It’s a male-dominated ensemble film with multiple viewpoint characters, but the pivotal one is Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), a principled Marines Corps colonel who works at the Pentagon. Casey is a hawk who opposes a recent nuclear disarmament treaty advocated by left wing president Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) – but he’s also a firm believer in the Constitution and the democratic process that made that treaty a political reality. The intrigue escalates when he pieces together that his superior, General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), isn’t nearly as respectful of American institutions. Scott is a charistmatic right-wing firebrand who believes the Russians won’t hold up their end of the bargain…and much to Casey’s shock and concern, Scott seems willing to go to treasonous extremes to make sure the disarmament treaty doesn’t take effect, even if it means a forcible military coup.

Penned by none other than Rod Serling, who flavors the proceedings with his distinctive voice and memorable turns of phrase, Seven Days in May is probably the least visually arresting of the films in this thematic trilogy. Serling’s deliberate writing favors dialogue to visual story-telling, and Frankenheimer follows the script’s lead. It’s still a compelling film, cleverly and patiently structured, building the drama and intrigue in a manner that doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence. If the message is a bit politically strident, it’s also – much like Seconds – chillingly prescient. The cast is terrific across the board, bolstered by the likes of Martin Balsam, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien in key supporting roles. It might be too deliberate and talky by contemporary standards, but I found it a rewarding, historically interesting watch.

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Film: Carve Her Name with Pride

Netflix spent months convincing me I should watch Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), so I finally obliged…and indeed, it is my kind of movie. Hardly among the top rank of World War II spy thrillers, it’s nonetheless an effective and occasionally moving one, rendered noteworthy as an unusual early action vehicle for a female star.

At the height of World War II, Violette Szabo (Virginia McKenna) falls in love with a dashing soldier of the French foreign legion, only to lose him to the war shortly after their marriage. A child of a British father and a French mother, Violette – fluent in French, athletic, fearless, and uncommonly motivated – is given a unique opportunity to aid the war effort. Despite having a young child by her short-lived marriage, she agrees to become a spy, jumping behind enemy lines to aid the French resistance.

Based on true events, this film is almost identical structurally to another one I watched recently, Decision Before Dawn, showing the origin, the training, and finally the missions of an unlikely spy. Carve Her Name with Pride isn’t nearly as accomplished, however, at least partially because it’s a much more modest production. While it is a vehicle for a female action hero, the feminist subtext is dated: Violette isn’t characterized much beyond her gender, and her story skews toward the home front, family, and marriage. But McKenna is an accessible lead, and the action scenes late in the film, when the going gets tough, are bracing – with Violette right in the thick of it. Carve Her Name with Pride is an uneven and occasionally slow wartime drama, but for me it was a diverting weekend matinee, quietly rewarding.

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