Category Archives: Film

Film: Decision Before Dawn

In light of how soon it was produced after World War II, Decision Before Dawn (1951) has a surprising central conceit: its hero, Corporal Karl Maurer (Oskar Werner), is a German soldier. In the latter days of World War II, Maurer is captured by a US intelligence officer, Lieutenant Rennick (Richard Basehart). A medic and an idealist, Maurer was caught up in the German war machine and did what he had to do…but when his fellow German prisoners murder his friend for speaking up cynically about his country’s chances, he volunteers to work for Rennick as a spy. It’s a new US initiative to send German POWs behind enemy lines to gather intelligence, and Maurer is given an important assignment: identifying the HQ of a panzer division that is sure to be deployed against an upcoming Allied assault. He parachutes behind enemy lines, and goes about his dangerous assignment – his resolve challenged at every turn as he confronts his countrymen. Maurer is determined to save his country by betraying it, but in the end he’ll be asked to risk everything for his ideals.

With an unusually nuanced glimpse into Germany’s war-time psyche, Decision Before Dawn is an occasionally clinical, but often powerful film. Especially compared to other wartime films of its era, it shies away from moral black-and-whites to paint the enemy in much more realistic terms. It’s helped immeasurably by Werner’s principled central performance and effective visual story-telling. Most importantly, perhaps, it has unparalleled geographic verisimilitude; filmed almost entirely on location, in the European rubble of a war just concluded, it feels uncommonly real compared to the usual soundstage fare. Some of the explosive action sequences are impressive even by modern standards.

Oh, there are old-fashioned elements here and there, and especially in the early-going – when the film is more in the American POV – the film is a bit stiff and conventional. But once the focus shifts to Maurer, it becomes quite a bit more. An excellent film…and another glaring omission from the Spy 100 list!

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Film: Nada

Prolific French director Claude Chabrol’s Nada (1974) is an odd piece, a cynical, politically charged crime caper that screams its era. As such it’s interesting, if not exactly enthralling. Based on my admittedly odd sampling, so far, Chabrol hasn’t exactly lived up to his reputation as the “French Hitchcock.”

A leftist anarchist group called the Nada Gang, led by hunky hippie Buenaventura Diaz (Fabio Testi), have a major political stunt in the works:  kidnapping and ransoming an American ambassador. But they need help, and recruit old hand André Épaulard (Maurice Garrel) onto their team. The team pulls off the job, lifting the ambassador from a brothel, but soon a sadistic, authoritarian policeman named Goemond (Michel Aumont) is on the case, trying to track them down – an investigation that leads to an explosive confrontation.

This combination of French New Wave production values, crime caper tropes, hippie fashions, and European politics is one of those movies that never quite transcends its era. I suspect there are elements of its politics and dark humor that simply aren’t translating, although its cynical message about colliding extremist ideologies comes through loud and clear. As a cautionary tale about how intentions leads to actions lead to consequences, I suppose it’s reasonably effective, and the final showdown is exciting, in a noirish, nihilistic way. But overall I struggled with this one, failing to find much artistry in its lengthy build-up.

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Film: The To-Do List

As film genres go, the teen sex comedy is mostly a toxic wasteland, but I enjoyed The To-Do List (2013), a messy but earnest indie film that tweaks the usual scenario in unexpected directions. In early nineties Boise, Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) is the class valedictorian and a straight-laced know-it-all, but she’s clueless about one subject: sex. Encouraged by her best friends Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), Brandy turns her final summer at home into an extended session of sexual homework, determined to cross as many experiences off her list as possible before heading off to college – culminating in losing her virginity to sexy lifeguard Rusty Waters (Scott Porter).

The To-Do List is a wildly uneven film. Considering its premise, it feels a bit structurally aimless, misdirecting its energies at too many relationship arcs (most egregiously, Bill Hader’s slacker lifeguard Willy). It felt like an extended, unmitigated director’s cut; a ruthless edit might have improved the comic pacing. The humor varies from genuinely funny to predictable. Its early 1990s period piece jokes, while occasionally inspired – Andy Samberg’s cameo in a Nirvana knock-off band, for example – are also overplayed.

But the film does get a lot right, starting with its cast. I’m a sucker for Plaza, who never quite shakes her April Ludgate delivery, but has fun inverting her usual disaffected apathy into hyper-engaged smart girl. I liked Porter’s hammy hot dude, and Johnny Simmons, practically spewing Gen X sensitivity as Brandy’s friend/love interest Cameron. Connie Britton and Clark Gregg are terrific as Brandy’s over-sharing mother and uptight father, and Donald Glover delivers the usual brilliant timing in a small role. There’s also something refreshingly honest about the way the film engages with teen sexuality in the pre-Internet era – how confused posturing and inaccurate word of mouth drive uninformed behavior. In some ways Brandy’s frontal assault on the subject is unrealistic, but the world and its people felt true, and the message – while often inelegant – is positive.

An imperfect and overlong film, then, but also well meaning, genuinely funny, with a great cast and a nice energy. On points, I’ll give it a thumbs up.

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Spy 100, #13: The Ipcress File

Setting the tone for the series, The Ipcress File (1965) introduces Michael Caine as the cheeky, insubordinate Harry Palmer, the genre’s unglamorous anti-Bond. Like the other films in the trilogy, it’s an oddball production with an intriguing plot, a dark gritty look, a restrained pace, and elements of comic book camp that undercut the realism.

As the film opens, Palmer gets promoted to a new divison. That’s the good news; the bad news is he’s replacing a man who was shot and killed during the abduction of an important scientist. Palmer’s old boss Ross (Guy Doleman) has a theory that the British have been targeted by the enemy for “brain drain” – scientists are disappearing, relocating, or defecting.  He assigns Palmer’s new boss Dalby (Nigel Green) to locate the missing scientist. In a slightly rash and scattershot matter, Palmer leaps into this new task , and while his unorthodox methods make more headway than his collegues, they also land him in hot water when the bodies start to fall.

Quirkily directed by Sidney J. Furie, The Ipcress File splashes noir techniques all over its spy trappings. The cockeyed angles and harsh lights give its London setting a bleak look, and the film doesn’t shy away from the job’s mundane aspects: meetings and patience and paperwork.  Yes, especially in light of its era, this is no glamorous Hollywood spy film. Caine is likeably unlikeable as the myopic, skirt-chasing troublemaker in the lead, stumbling clumsily but resourcefully into his new job and through the nifty maze of the plot. In many ways, I can see why this is considered a genre classic.

But I also found obstacles to my enjoyment. With the exception of a cheerful Gordon Jackson as Palmer’s co-worker Carswell, the cast has a subdued, stony air — which suits the underworld storyline, but drains the action of energy. At the heart of the mystery is a cartoonish MacGuffin. And I occasionally grew impatient with the measured pace. Furie’s direction creates an unforgettable look , but also draws undue attention to itself, and favors cool shots at the expense of storytelling. In the end, I still enjoyed it , but I think I was expecting to like it a lot more than I did.

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Film – X-Men: Days of Future Past

The Xavier-Magneto bromance continues in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Bryan Singer’s second reboot in the franchise. The first, X-Men: First Class – although marred by painfully sexist execution – at least brought a playful sense of fun to its period piece origin story. This sequel is a massive disappointment, misusing its huge, shockingly talented cast on a muddled, time-jumping storyline that shows off nobody to the best advantage. It’s a promising premise with a tantalizing hook: fusing the casts of the two series’ incarnations. But the promise is woefully mismanaged.

The film begins in the future. A war has been raging between the mutants and the Sentinels — ruthless mutant-hunting machines who have rendered the Earth an embattled dystopia that would make even Fringe fans tremble. Mentored by reunited old friends Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), the mutants are on the verge of extinction – and so, in desperation, they hatch a plot to send an emissary back in time to prevent the war before it even starts. Using the (wait, what?) time travel powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), they send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973. His mission: prevent wayward mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the man who pioneered the Sentinels, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Of course he can’t do it alone: he’ll need to convince the younger versions of Xavier and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) to help him. Which he does, although things go far from according to plan.

So: what works in the film?  Well, there are some impressive visual effects and fight sequences in the future track – as well as an intriguing roster of future X-Men that includes hangers-on from the first franchise (Xavier, Magneto, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, Storm) and some new ones (Bishop, Warpath, Blink, Sunspot). The actors deliver solid performances when given the material, especially Lawrence, who makes the most of her problematic role as a divisive love interest who destroys the future. And there’s a particularly clever and amusing scene involving a young Quicksilver (Evan Peters), the super-fast mutant who helps the team break Magneto out of the Pentagon.

But that’s where the plaudits end. For all its issues, X-Men: First Class at least engaged me throughout. I found X-Men: Days of Future Past a ponderous affair that misdirected its energy toward the wrong storyline and the wrong characters. We spend the majority of the film in the mid-1970s, following Wolverine as he gathers young Xavier, Magneto, Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and briefly Quicksilver in his quest to prevent Trask’s assassination. This group (comprised of all white men, incidentally) does not remotely feel like the X-Men. There’s no teamwork and little camaraderie amongst them, and none of them shine; Beast, a personal favorite for me, is deployed in particularly disappointing fashion. No, this thread is largely about Xavier’s man-pain, and his rivalry with Magneto. You wouldn’t know that they’re trying to save the future; they’re too busy posturing and hurting each other’s feelings. Mystique, meanwhile, is an unfortunate tool of the plot, whose one redeeming moment is bestowed upon her by Xavier. Yes, the sexism of the first film is alive and well here in the 1970s track – both onscreen, and behind the scenes. (I did not learn this until afterward, but in the comic version it’s Kitty Pryde who travels back in time, not Wolverine. No offense to Hugh Jackman, but how much more interesting and different is this film with Ellen Page in the lead?) Finally, this primary storyline lacks artistry and excitement. The fight scenes are muddy and truncated. The costumes and makeup are slapdash.There’s little momentum to the proceedings, despite the ticking clock. And oh, the time travel mechanics? They make no sense.

That diverse, cooperating, badass team in the future track? I want to see that movie. But they exist primarily as a threatened abstraction, leveraged for pathos, something for the white male heroes to save. They also felt, strangely, like a thrown bone for critics of the first film’s gender and racial politics: look at all these kickass women and people of color!  Except, you know, that they’re not given dialogue, or depth, or agency. Did I mention that Halle Berry was in this movie? You almost wouldn’t know it; I can’t even recall if Storm had any lines.

I’ve always felt one step removed from the X-Men franchise: it’s often engaged, without enthralling, and it’s never gotten its hooks into me the way other Marvel properties (The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier in particular) have. But X-Men: Days of Future Past marks the first time I’ve ever felt pushed away from the franchise. In light of the rich roster of characters it draws from, and the great actors it gets to play them all, I find it rather astonishing to come away so roundly disappointed.

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Film: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

What a fascinatingly terrible movie. I’m not sure why the dial stopped on The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013), but once I started watching, I couldn’t look away. It’s like rubbernecking at a horrific accident.

It’s the story of lifelong friends Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carrell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), two friends who channel their shared passion for magic into successful careers on the Las Vegas strip. But times change, and sense of wonder fades, and just as Burt and Anton’s career starts to fade, a new star ascends: Steve Gray (Jim Carrey, channeling Ben Stiller), an extreme “stunt magician” who brings Johnny Knoxville recklessness to his magic on the reality show Brain Rapist. The struggle to save their act tears apart their friendship, and sends Burt’s career into a tailspin. But with the help of his beautiful assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) and inspiring mentor Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), Burt throws off his dickish, sexist old ways and rekindles his sense of wonder.

This is one stilted, peculiar, and unfunny comedy. Its screenplay is recognizably formulaic, in a haphazard way that reeks of out of control script-doctoring. To its credit, the cast is game for anything, and really throws itself whole-heartedly into the bizarre material, but for all the comedic firepower, there are precious few laughs: an understated delivery from Olivia Wilde here, a cheesy casino commercial from James Gandolfini there. It’s an utterly weird watch: the bits should be funny, you can see how they might track as funny on paper, but the execution is just way off the mark. If you’re laughing at all, it’s for the wrong reasons.

I can’t believe I watched this horrible film. There must have been something in the air last night.

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Film: The Great Escape

There are some films you’ve seen so many times you can’t possibly review them objectively. John Sturges’ World War II epic The Great Escape (1963) is one of those films for me, and yes, it is unassailably awesome. (See?)

Based loosely on actual events, the film is set in a prisoner of war camp in Germany – but this isn’t just any camp. As the Kommandant (Hannes Messemer) explains to SBO Ramsey (James Donald), the Germans are putting “all their rotten eggs in one basket.” The Allies’ most rebellious, daring troublemakers – all with multiple escape attempts on their records – have been collected in one place for special scrutiny. “Very wise,” Ramsey comments with undisguised irony. The Kommandant wants the prisoners to sit out the war obediently, but once mastermind Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) shows up, it’s only a matter of time before the opposite happens: a spectacular mass breakout. Under the noses of the Germans, with meticulous planning, ingenius deception, and relentless determination, the “X” organization leverages every resource at its disposal to pull off an outrageous, risky, and heroic escape.

Featuring a stirring score by Elmer Bernstein, gorgeous European location work, and a massive, likeable rogue’s gallery of characters, The Great Escape is an inspiring entertainment. Its early stretches set the stage: on day one, the prisoners start probing the camp’s security, looking for weaknesses. Escape appears to be impossible, until Bartlett arrives to coordinate a precise effort of teamwork. The first half of the film details the almost absurd lengths to which the group goes to engineer a way out, building eventually to the tense and exciting escape itself – which simultaneously goes very well (thanks to clockwork planning) and disastrously wrong (thanks to random chance). Once the troops are scattered all over Germany, they use  every last ounce of guile, wit, and guts to try to elude capture and make it to the border and freedom.

I love this movie beyond all reason, and I’m not sure which aspect of it connects with me most. It may be the film’s clockwork, Mission: Impossible-like build-up as they prepare the escape, with sharp visual story-telling driving the plan’s momentum. It could be the plucky humor, the inspiring bravery, the sense of an unlikely, international created family coming together under trying circumstances. Or perhaps it’s the characters – from the ruthless Bartlett, to claustrophobic tunneler Danny (Charles Bronson), to fast-talking scrounger Henley (James Garner), to his subdued British bunkmate Blythe (Donald Pleasance), there are plenty of likeable folks to rally around. And, of course, there’s perhaps the coolest film character of all time, Hilts (Steve McQueen). Reckless, sarcastic, maybe even a little dense, Hilts is an inspiring nut job, his main role in the proceedings to make repeated escape attempts so that the Germans won’t think the prisoners have stopped trying to get out. The image of Hilts, bouncing his baseball in the solitary confinement cell, has become something of a mind’s eye rallying cry for me – an iconic image of never giving up, no matter the odds.

And that may be, to me, the thematic core of this film, and why it stays with me – and why, when I popped in my new Blu-ray copy recently for the first viewing in a while, the very notes of the opening music choked me up a little. The Great Escape, while it takes some liberties with fact and in some ways is surely a sanitized version of the war, symbolizes for me the resilience of human experience – to respond to failure with more effort, to face defeat with dignity, and to keep trying no matter what. Now that I’ve got that message lodged in my heart, it won’t go away; I walk away from every rewatch feeling positively lifted. Love this movie.

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Spy 100, #14: Three Days of the Condor

One of the reasons Robert Redford struck me as such good casting in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was that I remembered him in Three Days of the Condor (1975) – surely one of the movies that influenced that recent Marvel work. This is a terrific film, perhaps the classic paranoid 1970s spy thriller.

Redford plays Joe Turner, the proverbial “smartest guy in the room,” who works for a clandestine CIA research office in Manhattan called the “American Literary Historical Society.” Turner’s job is to read everything – novels, magazines, newspapers, journals, anything in print – and analyze it for patterns, clues, and ideas for his agency superiors in Washington. It’s just another day at the office for Turner until he goes out to pick up the crew’s lunch. When he returns, he walks into a nightmare: someone has murdered his entire team, and it quickly becomes clear that he’s next. But when he calls the agency for help, things just get worse. In desperation he coerces a reluctant civilian, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), to hide him out while he uses his encyclopedic knowledge to puzzle together just who is trying to kill him, and why.

Once you get past the dated credit sequence, the rest of the film is pretty spectacular. Redford makes for an accessible brainiac, whose lack of field experience makes him an unpredictable and convincingly panicked protagonist. In support, Dunaway is terrific, and while there are problematic aspects to their romance-under-fire subplot, the script at least acknowledges them with barbed dialogue.  The early stretches of the film are easily the strongest, as Turner stumbles into a horrifying situation and struggles to process it. But the plot unfolds smartly thereafter, with intelligent turns, tense action, and lots of well executed suspense sequences. In a fairly standard supporting group, Max von Sydow stands out as a cool, machine-like assassin. And while the final reveal is less shocking now than it would have been then, it still holds up as a cynical MacGuffin, nicely accented by terrific monologues from von Sydow and Cliff Robertson’s CIA officer Higgins. These late revelations, combined with its New York setting and several shots of the World Trade Center, make the film feel positively prescient, and it’s easy to see how it went on to inspire future spy fare over the decades – most directly, perhaps, the sadly short-lived AMC series Rubicon. Highly recommended.

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Film: Sound of Noise

Occasionally a movie will come along simply made for you. That’s Sound of Noise (2010), an absurdist Swedish comedy about those terrorists of the music world, percussionists. Imagine if Monty Python were musicians, and got ahold of the idea for Stomp! Need I say more?

Well, I will anyway. Amadeus Warnebring (Bengt Nilsson) is the product of a musical family, with two accomplished classical musicians for parents, and a brother, Oscar (Sven Ahlström), who is a famous up-and-coming symphony conductor. But Amadeus is tone deaf, and completely incapable of appreciating his family’s lifeblood. Instead, he becomes a cop – and his peculiar condition makes him the perfect man for the job when an ensemble of guerilla percussionists, led by Sanna (Sanna Persson) and Magnus (Magnus Börjeson), start terrorizing the city with their avant-garde performance art series, “Music for One City and Six Drummers.”

I found this film pretty delightful, highlighted by its clever musical numbers, and solidly executing its hilarious central conceit: that drummers are anarchic terrorists who simply must be stopped. Much of the scripted humor is music-centric, so I think the dialogue will work better for people familiar with both the classical music world and the idiosyncracies of drummers. For those who aren’t, though, there are the inherently funny musical numbers, which structure the film neatly into “movements.”

Aside from a handful of laggy moments in the narrative, I couldn’t find much to complain about in this amusing Scandinavian contraption. If you want a particularly effective “proof of concept,” check out the short film below:

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Film: Night Train to Munich

A glaring omission from the Spy 100 list, Night Train to Munich (1940) is a budget-conscious but compelling tale of wartime espionage from director Carol Reed of The Third Man fame.  Set during the run-up to World War II, it’s about a Czech scientist named Bomasch (James Harcourt) who becomes the target of a cat-and-mouse game between the Nazis and the British. When Bomasch flees the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) is left behind and imprisoned. She thinks her problems are over when dashing Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid) rescues her and helps her escape to England – but it turns out he’s a spy, using her to find her father. When Marsen’s plan succeeds and the Bomasches are spirited off to Germany, British agent Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison) – motivated at least partially by his interest in Anna – enacts a daring one-man rescue mission, just days before Germany’s invasion of Poland.

Night Train to Munich at times looks like it was made on the cheap; stock footage and artful-but-unconvincing model work mars the verisimilitude from time to time. But the film more than makes up for this with other assets, chief among them its nifty, switchbacking plot, which propels the heroes all over Europe during a time of real crisis. Its breezy, spirited tone belies the seriousness of the stakes; in light of the time it was made, I suspect it was a morale-booster. Harrison and Lockwood have fun, combative chemistry, and Henreid of course makes for a terrific villain. It’s also got Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as “Charters and Caldicott,” a pair of bumbling English businessmen who, with inspiring British pluck, insert themselves clumsily (and often hilariously) into the rescue mission. (Interestingly, Charters and Caldicott – created by screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat back in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes – appear together in numerous, otherwise unrelated movies during the 1940s. It’s easy to see why they became so popular.)

With its international sweep, accessible characters, subversive anti-Nazi humor and epic wartime backdrop, Night Train to Munich is a terrific entertainment. 

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