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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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Film, Science Fiction

Film: The Lobster

December 12, 2016

The peculiar, disturbing sensibility of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, in his provocative films Dogtooth and Alps, left me very curious to see how his work would translate into English. I found out in The Lobster (2015), another deeply weird thought experiment that is inventive, amusing, dark, and possibly one of the most cynical movies ever made.

Falsely advertised as near-future science fiction, The Lobster presents a bleak dystopian metaphor in which the world is ruled by the fascistic enforcement of compulsory monogamy. Lose your partner for any reason, and you’re sent to the Hotel, where you have 45 days to find a new match and fall in love…or you’re literally turned into an animal. After losing his wife, David (Colin Farrell) is sent to the Hotel to begin his term, hoping to stave off transformation into a lobster. It’s a desperate situation, so much so that David soon goes to extreme lengths to ensure he finds a new partner — but it’s only when his plans backfire that he finds the love of his life (Rachel Weisz).

Surprisingly, Lanthimos’ uniquely stylized film-making makes a seamless jump into a new language. Particularly in its early stages, The Lobster is a riveting puzzle, presenting a world with intensely strange rules that need learning before the proceedings start to make a certain kind of sense. Ultimately it does becomes clear, though, that the story is a scathing, cynical critique of cliched modern romantic narratives. Lanthimos likes to examine societal norms and turn them on their ears, and by literalizing the metaphorical pressures of socially acceptable monogamous pair-bonding, he does that again here. It’s an extended, brutal commentary on the unrealistic expectations society places on people to find partners, and while Lanthimos’ verdict is unforgiving, his tactics are ingenious.

An exemplary international cast contributes to the success of the experiment by replicating Lanthimos’ preferred mode of dialogue: an affected, no-nonsense deadpan that manages to normalize even the most outrageous of lines. Farrell is particularly good at it, and there’s a terrific supporting cast around him that includes Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Michael Smiley, Ben Whishaw, and Lanthimos veterans Ariane Labed and Angeliki Papoulia. It’s not the most uplifting of messages, but it’s finely crafted, extremely interesting, and, as usual for Lanthimos, jaw-droppingly different.

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Film: The Absent One

December 7, 2016

The second Department Q film adapation is The Absent One (2014). It’s another stirring advertisement for the novel series; indeed, I think I preferred the film to the book in this case, as it — like The Keeper of Lost Causes — renders its heroes more relatable, slightly mitigates the egregious bleakness of the material, and continues to strengthen the core partnership at the heart of the series.

The miraculous success of Department Q’s first major cold case has led to new resources, but also new pressures to work through and close the book on old files. Detective Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), still a brooding shell of man-pain whose only coping mechanism is obsessive workaholism, finds a new motivation when he ignores the pleas of an ex-cop to pursue a particular case: the decades-old murder of a brother and sister. Mørck’s refusal to help leads to the ex-cop’s suicide, and lands a file box full of clues in his lap. Someone confessed to the murder back then, but the ex-cop smelled something fishy, and once Mørck and his partner Assad (Fares Fares) start digging around, they start to agree. A cover-up seems likely, and the key to figuring it out is a missing woman: Kimmie Lassen (played in alternate timelines by Sarah-Sofie Boussnina and Danica Curcic). Mørck is determined to find and debrief her to solve the mystery, but his prodding soon alerts a cadre of wealthy villains who are highly motivated to silence Kimmie — permanently.

The Absent One is compelling Nordic noir that improves the source material by keeping and streamlining the core narrative, while also jettisoning some of the novel’s iffy sociopolitical baggage. Be forewarned, it’s still a trigger-worthy tale full of brutality and violence against women, but the screen translation of Mørck into a more accessible hero lessens some of the book’s problematic undertones. Kaas and Fares continue to build the winning chemistry of the Mørck-Assad partnership, and their new secretary Rose (Johanne Louise Schmidt) adds a nice new dynamic to Department Q, subtly altering the mystique of the quirky department.

I’m excited to move on to the third film in the series — not to mention keep up with the books, all of which are evidently now in film development. Great stuff, likely to appeal to fans of foreign cinema and Scandinavian crime tales.

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Film: Zootopia

December 4, 2016

zootopiaThe world probably needs more movies like Zootopia (2016) right about now; it’s an entertaining animated parable with a much-needed anti-discrimination message. In a harmonious animal fantasy world where prey and predator have finally learned to live together, Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is a young country rabbit with a goal: to become the first ever rabbit police officer. Although she fights her way through the academy and graduates at the top of her class, Judy is in for disappointment when she reports for duty in the dazzling metropolis of Zootopia: her boss, dismissive of rabbits, puts her on parking duty. But Judy’s boss isn’t the only citizen with prejudices to overcome: Judy, who has internalized family prejudice against foxes, is tested when she meets Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox who becomes a key lead in a massive, city-wide missing persons case that Judy decides to pursue.

Zootopia overcomes a slowish start to ramp into an engaging, comedic animated adventure, its best asset eye-popping visual worldbuilding, which is 3D-centric but translates well to the flatscreen. The city of Zootopia, which features neighborhoods tailored to the various climates of the animal kingdom, is a striking cinematic achievement, serving as a great backdrop for the mystery. The sight gags and dialogue make for a pleasant, family-friendly comedy, and one with sure-handed messaging that could come in handy helping children resist the toxic new landscape of Trump Nation. I wish its plot weren’t so timeless, but it couldn’t be more timely.

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Film: Keanu

December 4, 2016

keanuThe zany action parody Keanu (2016) contains numerous hilarious scenes involving an adorable kitten running in slow motion through perilous situations. If that isn’t enough to lure you, I’ll describe the rest of the movie: LA pals Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) and Rell (Jordan Peele) are in different places in life. Married, square Clarence is trying to find himself, while stoner artist Rell has just suffered a depressing breakup. Rell is attempting to recover with the help of a stray kitten he names Keanu, who turns his life around — until his house is robbed and Keanu goes missing. Together, Rell and Clarence set out to find and rescue Keanu, comically embroiling themselves in the affairs of dangerous drug dealers.

Fans of Key and Peele will recognize the sketch comedy feel of Keanu, which stitches together amusing situations and setpieces into an engaging comic narrative that plays with action and crime world tropes. Although the scenarios lean a smidge too heavily into their posturing, sexist cliches at times, both stars are in fine form, and are supported ably by the likes of Anna Faris, Will Forte, Luis Guzman, Tiffany Haddish, Method Man, and others. But the true star of the film, and of its premise, is Keanu — a painfully cute kitten who serves as a particularly inspired, absurdist MacGuffin. If you’re weirdly immune to feline charms and the manic comic energy of Key and Peele, you might skip this one, but I got a kick out of it — it’s hardly high art, but it’s a genuinely funny diversion.

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Film: The Keeper of Lost Causes

November 28, 2016

q1Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series get its first film treatment in The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013), a superbly crafted adaptation that smoothes over the novel’s rougher edges for a broader audience. Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is a Copenhagen police detective returning to the force after a traumatic incident that destroyed his team and shattered his marriage. Mørck is such a pain in the ass, however, that his superiors decide not to return him to his homicide beat; instead, they bury him in the newly formed “Department Q,” a dead-end administrative post where his job is to write reports and close the book on cold cases. But Mørck needs a more meaningful distraction from his miserable life, and seizes upon a particularly interesting case: the mysterious disappearance of Danish politician Myrete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter), who is suspected of having jumped to her death from a ferry even though no body was found. Mørck doesn’t buy it, however, and with the help of his upbeat assistant Assad (Fares Fares), he goes against orders to reopen the case.

I remember the novel as a deftly plotted, darker-than-dark story characterized by intensely detailed police work and difficult-to-read passages of physical and emotional abuse. The film version of The Keeper of Lost Causes stirs a smidge more light into its Nordic noir, keeping the bleak story but softening the grim, gritty detail and squicky brutality. It also softens Mørck, a rather unlikeable protagonist in the book; his filmic incarnation is considerably more sympathetic. He’s also more driven and proactive, less reliant on his hard-working assistant Assad for motivation. Fortunately, the Mørck-Assad partnership similarly earns its reluctant team chemistry, and the taut, explosive climax brings together the plot threads neatly. Overall, an excellent adaptation, and I’m excited to see the subsequent ones — evidently both The Absent One and A Conspiracy of Faith have also been produced, and are currently available on Netflix.

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Fiction, Film, Science Fiction

Film: Arrival

November 23, 2016

new-arrival-movie-poster-615813Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life” is one of science fiction’s most lauded and memorable works, and  Arrival (2016) adapts it beautifully for the big screen. This is a smart, thoughtful, and hopeful science fiction film that couldn’t be more timely.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a brilliant linguist who answers the call when a world-shaking event occurs: twelve alien spaceships appear across the Earth, causing an international crisis. Banks is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join the American first-contact team entrusted with opening communications with the aliens. Along with theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise meets — under disorienting circumstances — the aliens, and undertakes the arduous process of trying to decipher their language, not to mention their entirely alien mindset. The work is only made more difficult by time pressure, as the various governments involved in cracking the language slowly buckle under political pressure, fear, and uncertainty. It’s up to Louise to diffuse the escalating tension, but can they make the necessary breakthroughs in time?

Arrival is an understated, thought-provoking science fiction film that creates an immersive, gripping atmosphere of scientific mystery and simmering political tension. Its thematic focus on communication, cooperation, and understanding otherness in a world that often pits us against each other is a timeless message, but it couldn’t be more relevant to the current political climate. This makes it both an important and a difficult watch, depicting as it does an environment of international, multicultural cooperation in an era that seems to want to slam the door on that kind of endeavor forever. For some, this will make the film an emotionally charged dagger to the heart. I, for one, found its worldview sad but beautiful, an image of a better, fictional world that inaccurately reflects the fractious and hateful state of affairs in our own.

But Arrival also never loses sight of its smaller, human story, which, while playing out quite subtly underneath the broader narrative action, is just as powerful. This angle was, for me, the true source of the film’s hope and optimism: an effectively rendered message of perseverance in the face of perilous personal circumstances. On this score, Amy Adams is the film’s best asset: she delivers a flawless central performance, perfectly nuanced to execute the film’s impressive narrative strategy, which involves a jaw-dropping emotional reveal. The message of her character’s life journey is a powerful one, and one many of us most likely need to hear right about now.

In summary, Arrival is first-rate SF, a fiction that converses powerfully with the truth, delivering sense of wonder, thought-provoking concepts, romance, drama, and hope. Science fiction doesn’t get much better than this.

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Film: Death in Small Doses

November 20, 2016

death-in-small-doses-movie-poster-1957-1020197288Even the B movies of the 1950s have a quiet, modest artistry to them, a compliment that certainly applies to Death in Small Doses (1957), an unspectacular but enjoyable mix of film noir and drug panic PSA. In an early leading role, Peter Graves stars as an Federal Drug Administration agent who goes undercover as a truck driver to bust up an amphetamine ring on the west coast. Preliminary intelligence sends him to an LA boarding house run by Valerie Owens (Mala Powers), the first step in his quest to eradicate a “benny” epidemic plaguing the trucking industry. His subsequent long hauls up and down the coast put him into contact with the web of users and dealers that help him crack the case.

With its modest budget and simple plot, Death in Small Doses is far from dazzling, but its prosaic filmmaking techniques are effective enough to provide a certain charm. Weirdly, it’s based on a Saturday Evening Post article, which adds a rather quaint and old-fashioned addiction alarmism to its potboiler trappings. Graves shows early signs of the leading man charisma that would serve him well through the early years of his career, while Powers makes for a compelling femme fatale. Also along for the ride is Chuck Connors, who turns in an animated performance as “Mink,” a sketchy trucker junkie. Fans of this sort of old-school noir will find it an inessential but pleasant diversion.

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Film: Mascots

November 16, 2016

mascots-movie-posterLet’s say you’ve had a rough week *ahem* and you want to take your mind off the world’s troubles. You could do worse than to watch Christopher Guest’s Netflix comedy Mascots (2016), the latest in his trademark line of semi-improvisational ensemble pieces. Following the model of Best in Show, Mascots focuses on a peculiar niche passion — in this case, sports “mascottery” — and zooms in on a gathering of its goofier practitioners as they gear up for its annual competition.

Folks who have been following Guest’s work stretching all the way back to This is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman will recognize the traditional mockumentary format he helped to pioneer, as well as the usual band of repertory suspects from previous projects, back again to take a ridiculous subject way too seriously. Parker Posey, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, Chris O’Dowd, and more Guest veterans turn up — including Guest, reprising his Guffman role as Corky St. Clair. But it’s the newcomers who steal the show, this time: Zach Woods, Susan Yeagley, and Tom Bennett are among this one’s funnier and more memorable oddballs.

Occasionally there’s a mildly mean-spirited, punching down quality to Guest’s work, poking fun at the simple pleasures of quirky, unsophisticated folk. Mascots has a little of that, marred by a handful of cringeworthy bits, but overall its subject is so ludicrous that it’s easy to turn off the critical filters and enjoy the absurdity, and the often inspired comic buffoonery of the competition sequence that winds down the film. Mascots isn’t quite up to Guest’s classic stuff, but it’s still pretty good, and it turned my brain off for an hour so, which is a high bar to clear these days.

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Film: The Last of Sheila

November 6, 2016

last-of-sheilaFrom the classic screenwriting team of Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim (?) comes The Last of Sheila (1973), which at first glance looks like a grubby B movie but is actually a solid, cleverly plotted whodunit with an A-list cast. The set-up is a travelling bottle show: Hollywood producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) invites six of his closest industry friends to his yacht for a Mediterranean pleasure cruise. The guest list includes struggling screenwriter Tom (Richard Benjamin), his wealthy wife Lee (Joan Hackett), spirited agent Christine (Dyan Cannon), has-been film director Philip (James Mason), starlet Alice (Raquel Welch), and her husband, aspiring producer Anthony (Ian McShane). Greene, an avid gamer, requires everyone to participate in a puzzle-solving contest: he hands out cards that provide each guest with a different “secret identity,” and at each port of call, the goal is to uncover a different person’s identity. It’s all fun and games, at first, but the cheerfully abusive Greene has a hidden agenda, and it most certainly involves the mysterious, long-ago death of his girlfriend Sheila.

The Last of Sheila feels like an old-fashioned Agatha Christie murder mystery, revamped for cynical, 1970s film-making sensibilities, which makes it something of a double relic — in a good way, I think. Alas, it looks like the film stock was run over by a truck, and the cinematography is middling, somehow making its European location work look dirty and unappealing. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining ensemble piece with an engaging puzzle-solving core, and lots of nice, twisty layers to its plot. Both the acting and the editing are fast and chaotic, contributing to a usefully disorienting pace, and the performances are fun, especially from Cannon and Coburn. Its unique brand of “Hollywood ending” is pretty satisfying, too. A fun throwback diversion, especially for fans of such obscurities.

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Film, Spies

Film: Avalanche Express

October 31, 2016

avexPart twisty spy thriller, part ludicrous disaster film, Avalanche Express (1979) is a fun, disposable lark that feels like a movie from three different decades: a smidge of the technicolor 1960s, a pinch of the shaggy, edgy 1970s, and a portion of bonkers 1980s spectacle. And it’s got “Joe Namath as Leroy.” How could I resist?

The adventure begins when a high-ranking, traitorous KGB officer named Marenkov (Robert Shaw) reaches out to the west for exfiltration: after years of providing the U.S. with valuable intelligence, his luck has run out and it’s time to defect. A crack team of agents lead by Colonel Harry Wargrave (Lee Marvin) swoops into Europe to spirit him out of Switzerland, but their successful lift operation is just the beginning. Marenkov has a scheme in mind to simultaneously expose a network of Soviet deep-cover agents in western Europe and lure a rival KGB spymaster named Bunin (Maximillian Schell) to his doom, thereby hobbling a major Soviet plot to unleash biological warfare against the west. The plan: reveal to the enemy his “secret” escape route on the Atlantic Express, a train that will carry him from the Alps to Holland, to bait Bunin and his assets into an attack.

Extensive location shooting makes the opening scenes of Avalanche Express an attractive, broad-canvas international thriller with a focus on slick, dialogue-free action and visual storytelling. At first it looks like classic spy-fi “competence porn,” with Marvin and Shaw heading up a team of supremely confident agents that includes Mike Connors (perfectly cast as a high-level espiocrat) and Linda Evans (merely along for the ride, alas, as an age-inappropriate love interest). But as the film advances, their impossible mission soon reveals itself as little more than an excuse to deploy extensive model work in a lengthy avalanche setpiece — a sequence that springs from the same school of disaster blockbuster film that brought us The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. The slick, cerebral spy thriller it might have been is therefore abandoned, replaced by a brainless, if occasionally diverting and impressive, action spectacle. As such it falls into that weird category of films that age both poorly and well at the same time — silly and quaint from one angle, but classy and charming from another, depending on your tolerance for the film-making proclivities of the era. I got a kick out of it, but I wouldn’t exactly recommend it.

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