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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

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

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

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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Film, Science Fiction

Film: The Coming Days

January 3, 2017

Interesting German science fiction drama The Coming Days* (2010) starts promisingly, but fizzles out down the home stretch. In the near future, Europe is in crisis thanks to energy woes, immigration problems, and unstable political conditions in neighboring regions. Against this backdrop, two sisters of a wealthy family find themselves on different paths: responsible Laura (Bernadette Heerwagen) wants to pursue a degree, get married, and have a child, while Cecilia (Johanna Wokalek) is lured into a political movement by her edgy boyfriend Konstantin (August Diehl). While Laura is busy trying to build a conventional, happy life with retired, bookish lawyer Hans (Daniel Brühl), Cecilia’s involvement with the extremist Black Storm group escalates into a radical, full-blown attempt to save the Earth — by dismantling civilization.

The Coming Days is an intriguing watch, and attempts some ambitious worldbuilding in its decade-long depiction of the collapse of the European Union. Its futuristic furniture is minimal, but effectively deployed, and it deftly uses science fictional themes to examine existential questions. The narrative strategy is also clever, as we follow one character living towards a future society that another is actively trying to destroy. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really pay off structurally, sputtering out in an ugly finale that doesn’t integrate the science fictional content and the human drama as well as the rest of the film. I suspect the messy ending is part of the point, but that doesn’t make it any more satisfying. Unfortunate, because it’s an attractive, ambitious film that’s well performed, with Heerwagen standing out in something of a proxy role for the average viewer. A stronger ending might have elevated it to greatness; as it is, it’s still worth watching, but with a disappointing aftertaste.

* The title on Netflix is The Days to Come, but I decided to switch to the IMDB translation.

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Film

Film: The Five-Man Army

January 1, 2017

The Five-Man ArmyOne of the advantages of watching old, obscure films with no expectations is that occasionally one will surprise you. Such was my experience with The Five-Man Army (1969), a picturesque spaghetti western that doubles as a clockwork heist movie. It stars Peter Graves as “the Dutchman” — basically the Jim Phelps of the wild west — who enlists a small team of misfit crooks to execute a perilous train robbery in Mexico. His team: past-his-prime demolitions expert Augustus (James Daly), violent muscle-man Mesito (Bud Spencer), expert knife-thrower Samurai (Tetsurô Tanba), and unscrupulous acrobat Luis (Nino Castelnuovo). Using intelligence gathered from Mexican revolutionaries, the group sets into motion an elaborate, dangerous plan to steal half a million dollars in gold from under the noses of the Mexican Army.

By no means is it high art, but The Five-Man Army is a well oiled machine for its type, blending a familiar western rogue’s gallery (à la The Magnificent Seven) with the low-dialogue, visual story-telling of filmic heists (like Rififi or Topkapi). The performances are good, the scenery is eye-catching, and the team’s impossible mission deploys a balanced blend of timely execution and unexpected glitches. But the film’s strongest element is a sweeping soundtrack from the legendary Ennio Morricone. The music is practically a character, and one theme in particular, planted early, recurs at strategic moments to elevate a good script into a rousing, uncommonly satisfying film. All I wanted was a casual, background matinee, but this one ended up getting its hooks in more than I was expecting.

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Film, History, World War II

Film: Operation Daybreak

January 1, 2017

Based on a true story, Operation Daybreak (1975) has its dated aspects but is an otherwise effective World War II historical. Free Czech soldiers Jan Kubiš (Timothy Bottoms), Jozef Gabčík (Anthony Andrews), and Karel Čurda (Martin Shaw) are flown back to their homeland on a high-stakes mission: the assassination of Hitler’s trusted right-hand man, Reinhard Heydrich (Anton Diffring). Nothing goes as expected, but the agents persist in the attempt, which comes at extreme cost.

Viewers seeking a bleak, deglamorized film about resistance to tyranny could do worse than to watch Operation Daybreak, which benefits from extensive location work and good production values. Daybreak is an ironic name for this operation (the real codename was “Anthropoid”); it’s a messy, less-than-clockwork operation, to say the least. The performances are merely decent, and the soundtrack is weakened by third-rate synthesizers, but overall the story feels authentic, and the frantic action sequences in the final act are memorable.

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Film, Science Fiction

Film: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

December 30, 2016

Last year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens underwhelmed me with its formulaic approach and sly, winking nostalgia for the franchise’s past. This year, I went into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) with genuine enthusiasm, excited to see a standalone story less beholden to fan service and character continuity. Alas, I slammed into a wall of flat characterization, hollow spectacle, and an execution that felt soulless.

Bridging the gap between the prequels and the original trilogy, Rogue One tells the story of the brave rebel group that stole the Death Star blueprints which would enable Luke, Leia, Han, and company to score a massive blow against the Empire at the end of A New Hope. The key figure in this effort is Jyn (Felicity Jones), daughter of the Death Star’s reluctant architect Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Coerced into completing the Death Star, Galen has been secretly resisting the Empire from within, and his end game is to deliver to the Rebels the means of the Death Star’s undoing — a mission that relies on Jyn’s reluctant participation. A ragtag crew forms around Jyn, including ruthless rebel agent Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), blind martial artist Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his hard-nosed companion Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), and defected Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). This group forms the core of a rogue faction that inspires the Rebellion to stand up against the Empire.

Rogue One is generally entertaining, and not without its strengths; it’s certainly the franchise’s most mature, least cartoonish entry, with more rough edges and gray areas. At times it embraces its secret roots as a war film, reminiscent of The Dirty Dozen or The Guns of Navarone, with its roster of misfits and scoundrels pulling off a highly dangerous, unlikely operation. And the first major action setpiece — an ambush orchestrated by the forces of Forest Whitaker’s rebel-within-the-Rebellion character, Saw Gerrera — is a gripping sequence of guerilla insurgency.

Unfortunately, the film has a debilitating flaw: uninspired characters. Jones and Luna are convincing enough soldiers, but aren’t particularly interesting, both poorly defined by the script and rather lifeless in the execution. They’re overshadowed by the underused Yen and Jiang, and to a degree by Tudyk’s robotic comic relief. But none of the heroes have enough presence to carry the day, or, for that matter, to match the expected but capable villainy of Ben Mendelsohn as Imperial officer Orson Krennic. The absence of a truly rallying team undermines what might otherwise have been a epic adventure.

Another major disappointment is that Jones is very nearly the token female character in the film; both the Rebellion and the Empire are shockingly male-dominated, even moreso than previous Star Wars films. (There are barely even any female extras in the background shots.) It doesn’t help that the film is structurally incoherent (especially early), and that there is creepy, jarring CGI stunt-casting, and that the universe’s technological rules vary randomly at the whims of the plot, or that the music doesn’t quite match John Williams’ usual memorable standard. But none of those issues would be as noticeable had the film given us a hero to rival Daisy Ridley’s Rey or John Boyega’s Finn. Instead, an unmemorable band of anonymous characters deliver a flashy but disposable spectacle.

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Film

Film: Inside Out (1975)

December 26, 2016

Inside Out (1975), not to be confused with the brilliant animated film, is a dated, third-rate caper flick that aspires to, but fails to achieve, ingenious intricacy. Angling con man Harry Morgan (Telly Savalas), looking to dig out of massive debt, needs a big score, and gets his wish when he’s approached by former German Army prison chief Ernst Furben (James Mason). Furben has learned that millions of dollars worth of stolen Nazi gold may be ripe for the taking. The problem: its secret location is trapped in the head of former Nazi official Reinhardt Holtz (Wolfgang Lukschy), who’s locked up at a maximum security prison under constant guard. Morgan enlists war buddy Sly Wells (Robert Culp) to help him execute an elaborate plan to liberate Holtz from prison, break him, and put him back before anyone notices, so that they can recover the gold.

Shot on location in London, Amsterdam, and Berlin, Inside Out is an upbeat, campy relic derivative of earlier, better material. It tries and fails to mimic the comic tone of the classic heist flick Topkapi, and the complex spectacle of certain Mission: Impossible episodes, but it’s a pale imitation of both, possessing the requisite elements but none of the magic. Savalas and Culp do their level best to have fun with it, but ultimately it’s a forgettable, inferior effort.

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Film, Spies

Film: The Sell-Out

December 18, 2016

Searching for obscure spy movie gems is one of my favorite hobbies; sometimes I’ll unearth an overlooked classic, more often a mediocre dud. The Sell-Out (1976) is a rare find: an acutely awful film. It almost, but not quite, makes it into the So Bad It’s Good Category (Spy Movie Division).

Set during the height of the Cold War, The Sell-Out imagines an amicable assassination exchange program between cynical U.S. and Russian intelligence officers. The latest target of their horse trading is Gabriel Lee (Oliver Reed), a traitorous CIA operative who defected to the Soviets. Lee is such a loose cannon he’s gotten on everyone’s bad side, including his former mentor, Sam Lucas (Richard Widmark), now retired and running an antique shop in Jerusalem. When Lee narrowly eludes a bomb plot while vacationing in Israel, he seeks out Lucas to help save him from the assassins. Lucas is reluctant but can’t turn away his old protege in a time of need, much to the dismay of his lover Deborah (Gayle Hunnicutt) — who also happens to be Lee’s old flame. This fraught love triangle is soon tangling with the CIA, the KGB, and Mossad, leading to collateral damage and tragic revelations.

It doesn’t sound too horrible. And really it’s not without assets. Widmark makes a credible old-hand-coming-out-of-retirement type, and extensive location work in Israel lends geographic credibility to the affair. The core set-up has dramatic promise. But in the end The Sell-Out is an ugly, incoherent mess. Oh, the plot is a muddle, the dialogue meh, and the acting wildly uneven; while Widmark is solid, the rest of the cast can’t match his presence, although Hunnicutt has some nice moments. Reed, meanwhile, feels weirdly cast as a roguish American bad boy. The cinematography is grubby and the editing is quirky and random, suggesting unwarranted artistic pretensions, kind of a third-rate French New Wave feel, but without the necessary mystique. Similarly, the story action reaches for dark thematic resonance in the mode of le Carré, but the glaring lack of artistry severely undercuts that ambition.

What makes The Sell-Out fun — well, sort of — is a tone that is spectacularly wrong. A number of factors contribute to that weird ambience: stilted performances in key supporting roles, muddy sound, the clash of lofty artistic ambitions with clunky craft. But chiefly responsible is some awful, awful music: the soundtrack exemplifies the worst of the seventies, from insipid, flowery jazz to incongruous, string-filled disco-funk during the action sequences. Indeed, the music is just so totally, fatally wrong that I think it actually calls attention to flaws that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.

So there’s very little to like about this one, unless you happen to be in the mood for something a little trashy and sloppy. I must have been in that kind of mood, because for some reason I sort of enjoyed it. But would I recommend it? Uh, no.

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