Occasionally, I find old movies difficult to get invested in, but director Michael Powell’s The Spy in Black (1939) won me over with its nifty plot, timely commentary, and dark irony. Set during World War I, it’s about an espionage mission assigned to a German U-boat commander, Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt), who is dispatched to the Orkney Islands on a mission against the British. There he meets his contact, “Anne Burnett” (Valerie Hobson) – a German impostor who has replaced an innocent schoolmistress. “Anne” lays out the details: the Germans have turned a disgraced British naval officer, Commander Ashington (Sebastian Shaw), against his own people. Ashington will provide exact details of an upcoming fleet maneuver, so that German U-boats can intercept and sink the lot of them. From the deprivations of Germany to the relative luxury of the British Isles, Hardt’s mission has him over the moon…enhanced by his attraction to his fellow spy. But unfortunately for him, the British have other plans.
The Spy in Black is difficult to follow at first, as the players are introduced and the stage is set, but soon enough Hardt’s mission is underway and the clever plot kicks into gear. Following the point of view of the enemy is a refreshing switch, and the film is unusually sympathetic to its German agents, even as it ruthlessly, pointedly turns the tables on them. Taken in light of the era in which it was made – with World War II imminent – the film’s quick-witted, shifty, and nuanced message reads as an eloquent rejoinder to Hitler’s “stabbed in the back” rhetoric. This is the kind of unusual gem I was hoping for I started reviewing the Spy 100 list. Recommended, especially for history buffs.
While it pales in comparison to some of the other spy films of its era, The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) is still worthy, classic Hollywood intrigue, especially for genre buffs. Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre), a writer of crime fiction visiting Istanbul, encounters a general who piques his interest in the story of Dimitrios Makropolous (Zachary Scott) – an international con artist whose body has just washed up on the shore of the Bosphorous. Always on the lookout for good material, Leyden sets off across Europe to investigate the details of Makropolous’ past. His innocent curiosity, however, embroils him with the cunning Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet), a scoundrel in his own right who is looking to exploit Leyden’s information in a mysterious scheme.
The turns of its flashback-ridden plot aren’t terribly enthralling – indeed, one major plot twist isn’t even remotely surprising – but The Mask of Dimitrios is an agreeable mystery that coasts on the virtue of its noir ambience, clever dialogue, and the quirky charisma of Greenstreet and Lorre. Their jousting interactions are peppered with slick humor and catchy turns of phrase, making this a must-watch for fans of the actors. If you enjoy the cinematic style of this era and genre, you could do much worse than to check this one out.
From its promising core conceit to its incoherent conclusion, The Congress (2014) is an interesting but unsatisfying SFnal riff on art, drugs, escapism, and free will – or the lack thereof. Robin Wright stars as, well, herself more or less…an actress in middle life whose career is nearing its end. Wright’s agent (Harvey Keitel) may have one last contract for her, though: she can scan her very essence into a computer and sign away her identity to Hollywood, but only if she agrees never to act again. The very idea of it rankles her, but she agrees to do it, a decision that proves to be just the first step in the bizarre evolution of the movie business’s future.
The story starts promisingly with a surreal atmosphere, glimpses of interesting near-futurism, and eloquent performances from Wright, Keitel, Danny Huston, and Paul Giamatti. At first there’s the sense that it might develop into a thoughtful meditation on the evolution of the entertainment industry, with an eye for intellectual property issues, artistic expression, and the human costs of talent commodification. But The Congress has other plans: messier, weirder plans that are possibly more interesting, but aren’t satisfying. After time-jumping twenty years into the future, the narrative takes a visually intriguing but stilted and muddled left-turn into sociopolitical comment about media as opiate to the masses. The way the film lurches from live action to animation strains suspension of disbelief, and the pacing in the lengthy middle stage lags. There is an interesting artistry to it all, but once the narrative momentum dies, the creative message becomes difficult to parse or care about. Overall The Congress is an interesting experiment with some worthwhile moments, but ultimately it struck me as ponderous and pretentious.
An affected, carefully engineered extended music video of macabre weirdness, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013) is Belgian arthouse horror that’s trying very hard to look like it was made in Italy in the 1970s. It’s your standard apartment-complex-full-of-ghastly-mysteries scenario, wherein a man (Klaus Tange) returns from a business trip to find his wife has vanished. His investigation leads him from floor to floor in his building, encountering all manner of odd, bleak horrors, that might in fact add up to something…I’m not sure, because I stopped caring about halfway through.
This is a loving homage to dark arthouse creepfests of the past; its groovy soundtrack and sensibility conjures the Italian technicolor horror movies of the 1970s, but run through a more sophisticated filter of derivative David Lynchisms. Audio-visual experimentation abounds. The film and sound editing is rapid-fire and unsettling. There are artsy closeups of eyeballs and mouths and lit cigarettes and hair follicles. Sinister sound effects, shocking cuts, surprising violence, arbitrary nudity, and confusing, half-coherent scene-building are abundant. In other words, it contains scads of tasty arthouse horror ingredients, if you’re into that kind of thing. Unfortunately, the ingredients aren’t particularly well blended…the occasional bite has a pleasant flavor, but the dish is ultimately bland.
It’s quite possible this one has an ingenius shape to its random-feeling construction, that upon careful scrutiny its affected, careful cinematography might be deconstructed to reveal some brilliant endgame. But, if that’s the case, I couldn’t tell you what it is; I lost patience with the film long before that conclusion could be reached.
Argentinian director Damián Szifrón’s scathing anthology film Wild Tales (2014) is a collection of nerve-wracking, blackly comic short stories about people coming undone in high-pressure situations. A teaser segment on an airplane sets the darkly madcap tone, before the film jump-cuts frantically to tales of spontaneous revenge, extreme road rage, civic corruption, accidents spiraling out of control, and nuptials run amok.
To summarize any of its chapters would be to rob them of their crucial shock value and twisted humor, but suffice it to say it’s a remarkable film, unpredictable and ferocious. If pressed to compare it with something, I would mention Black Mirror, in the way that its high-strung, violent, and absurd scenarios comment mercilessly on the pressures of modern life. But really it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, an ambitious and occasionally overwrought project that’s full of inventive scenarios involving ordinarary people going postal in jaw-dropping ways. While some of its segments are much more effective than others, overall I found it an original and riveting cinematic concoction…probably not for everyone, but definitely for arthouse fans with strong stomachs.
It’s hard not to look at Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight (2013) as a warmup for her series Transparent. Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is a profoundly bored mother in Los Angeles whose marriage to breadwinner husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) has lost its spark. Rachel’s search for meaning leads her to a strip club, where Jeff buys her a lapdance from young stripper McKenna (Juno Temple). Fascinated by McKenna’s life, Rachel befriends her outside of work, and eventually invites her to live in her spare room – a move calculated to shake up, or perhaps blow up, her life.
Afternoon Delight is stylistically similar to Transparent in its frankness, its mix of comedic talent with dark subject matter, and its semi-improvisational scene-building. It’s also focused on characters ensconced in comfortable, expected, wealthy lives who are searching for meaning. Its story, alas, isn’t nearly as compelling as Transparent’s; Rachel’s journey feels more predictable than that of the Pfeffermans. I found my attention drifting occasionally. But Hahn is terrific in a rare starring turn, and she’s surrounded with convincing support from Radnor, Michaela Watkins, Jane Lynch, and others. Certainly not a must-watch, for me, but not without its strengths.
What a pleasant surprise to discover Wreck-It Ralph (2012), an animated gem that leverages decades of video game lore to funny, quirky effect. Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the destructive villain of an old-school arcade game called Fix-It Felix, doomed to forever be the bad guy in a hopelessly programmed existence while his nemesis Felix (Jack McBrayer) reaps all the accolades. Ralph wants more out of life, and to that end he infiltrates another game in order to win a medal and become a hero. But Ralph’s quest for respectability has unexpected consequences when it takes a random turn into the racing game Sugar Rush. There his goals become entangled with those of Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman)…and, in a complicated chain of events, threatens to destroy the game-o-sphere.
Wreck-It Ralph does so many things right, and not just in the expected ways: the gorgeous animation, the sight gags, the perfect voice casting (especially from Reilly, Silverman, McBrayer, and Jane Lynch), the sense of humor, and the zany sensibility that welcomes newcomers even as it rewards seasoned, older gamers with amusing easter eggs. Even the product placement is clever. But most impressive to me was the surprising complexity of the story, which is rife with intricate subplotting and multiple resonating themes. The characters are winning, and their interactions are both fraught and affecting. Centrally, the friendship between Ralph and Vanellope is epic. And look, Mom, no sexism!
Somehow this film skated right past my radar when it came out, but it’s well worth watching: inventive, involved, funny, and surprisingly moving.
Now this is the stuff. From writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed – the same winning team of The Third Man – comes Our Man in Havana (1959), an irresistable blend of classic filmmaking, spy intrigue, and dark comedy. The titular character is Jim Wormold (the great Alec Guinness), just a run of the mill British expatriate vacuum cleaner salesman living in Cuba before the communist revolution. Much to his amusement, Wormold is approached by a British spook named Hawthorne (Noel Coward), who recruits Wormold into his new Caribbean network. Wormold is no spy, and can’t imagine how he can be of any use, but Hawthorne won’t take no for an answer…and Wormold, whose frivolous daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) has expensive tastes, changes his tune once he sees the color of the British government’s money. The only problem: he possesses no intelligence. So, playfully, he begins making it up: inventing agents, fabricating reports, even generating his own top secret blueprints. It’s all harmless fun until one of his lies lands too close to the truth, a turn that spins his lark of a career in dark directions.
Can a movie be number five on a best-of list and still be underrated? Our Man In Havana is a wonderful film, an amusing comedy of errors that takes a dark turn into scathing critique of intelligence-world meddling. Guinness is delightful in an energetic, playful role, morphing convincingly from a cynically light-hearted opportunist into a repentant, actual player in the spy world’s dark alleys, working to engineer a valid endgame to the mess he’s made. Greene’s script is tight, funny, and doesn’t pander, while Reed builds the world with gritty black-and-white artistry. This one’s got everything I love in a good spy movie, with the added bonus of an incisive, whip-smart sense of humor. Very highly recommended.
For much of its run, In Your Eyes (2014) is a premise in search of a story. A fantasy romance from an early script by Joss Whedon, it’s about star-crossed lovers who share a mysterious psychic link that enables them to see through each other’s eyes and share emotional experiences. In small-town New Hampshire is Rebecca (Zoe Kazan), the troubled wife of a doctor, while Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) is an intelligent ne’er-do-well in rural New Mexico with a criminal past . Neither of their lives is going well, when their link suddenly comes into sharp relief, giving them each an instantly reachable confidant with whom to interact. Their obsessive connection creates problems in their separate lives, but also inexorably brings them together.
An earnest, indie production, In Your Eyes is, alas, not a particularly good film. It spends a considerable percentage of its running time establishing its fantastical premise, but fails to realize that premise with any visual gusto; the one time it attempts to depict the characters seeing through each others’ eyes, the effect is weak, and the rest of the time their conversations basically play out like phone calls. The premise also handcuffs the stars with the challenging task of interacting, and falling in love, without actually being in the same place. Stahl-David manages this trick better than Kazan, but neither truly shines.
Eventually the couple’s rapport achieves some depth, and conflict enters the picture, and a story develops; the film is not completely without interest. But overall it’s an unimpressive slog, definitely a disappointment by Whedon’s usual standard.
My initial reaction upon hearing about The Lego Movie (2014) was that it sounds like Product Placement: The Movie. And it sort of is, but the video games are a little like that too, and I’ve enjoyed those, so why not? As it happens the movie is a clever, cute contraption that is much weirder than I was expecting it to be, if perhaps not quite as weird as I would have liked.
In the clockwork Lego city of Bricksburg, Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt) is a run-of-the-mill construction worker – a cog in the machine of society, happy with his simple, conformist lot in life. Then he stumbles across Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), and accidentally lands himself in the middle of a cosmic struggle for the fate of the Lego universe. It seems that Professor Business (Will Ferrell) is planning to unleash a secret weapon called the KRAGLE on the universe, freezing everyone into their rightful positions and thus “perfecting” everything. Up against him are a ragtag band of “master builders” who thrive on the fluidity of the Lego world as it is, using the very landscape to express their inventive natures. Emmet doesn’t have a creative bone in his body, but a prophecy has deemed him “the Special,” and suddenly he finds himself responsible for the fate of everything.
It’s an inventive, visually arresting comedy-adventure, more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, and I enjoyed its unpredictable narrative – and finally catching the subversive undertones of “Everything is Awesome.” The voicework, which also features Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, and others, is well done, and the animation is frenetic and eye-catching. The conformity-vs.-nonconformity vibe gives the film unexpected thematic intrigue, and the ending gets into some weird meta territory. Unfortunately that same ending also kind of brought home the project’s overarching product placement-y nature: look how good Legos are for creative play! I wanted a little less family-friendly sap in those final moments, but I suppose it is a movie for kids – and for kids at heart – so I’ll give it up a thumbs up as a lively and clever diversion.