Saturday, July 9, 2016

June 2016


     While spy novelist John le Carré has long been a favorite of filmmakers—over 15 movies and TV series since 1965—the last few years have been particularly rich for fans of the British writer.
     The new film, based on his 2010 book, comes on the heels of the superb AMC miniseries “The Night Manager” and two excellent feature films “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011) and “A Most Wanted Man” (2014).
    The traitor of the title is Dima (a perfectly cast Stellan Skarsgard), an accountant in the Russian mob who is reluctantly helping legitimize the criminal organization’s move into international banking. But he knows his value is decreasing, putting his life and his family’s in jeopardy.
    So he befriends Perry (Ewan McGregor), a young British professor, while on vacation in Morocco, asking him to pass along a flashdrive of inside information to British intelligence.
    But that was the easy part. Now Perry and his reluctant wife, Gail (Naomie Harris, an excellent actress deserving of better roles), must met up with Dima and his family again to help bring them in from the cold. Doing his best to facilitate all this is Hector (the underrated Damian Lewis), a mid-level agent who must fight unconvinced, and/or compromised, superiors (a staple of le Carré’s plots going back to the Cold War novels).
     What makes this film better than your average spy yarn is the relationship le Carré (and screenwriter Hossein Amini) weave between this profane, boisterous mobster and a mild-mannered, rather boring poetry teacher. I’m not much of a fan of the jittery acting of McGregor, but he does well in capturing this accidental hero, an “honorable man,” to use le Carré’s most precious compliment.
      Director Susanna White, a veteran of British television, struggles with the film’s pacing at the beginning, but once the story picks back up in Paris and then moves for the finale in Bern, she finds the right mix of thriller urgency and character-driven sentimentality.
     Keane, so good in everything he’s done, mostly on TV (including “Homeland,” “Wolf Hall” and “Billions”) over the past 15 years, fits perfectly into the British intelligence world; in one crucial scene he wears a George Smiley-like 1960s raincoat. But it’s hard to take one’s eyes off Skarsgard’s Dima, crazed and brilliant all at once.
     The actor fully embraces this larger than life character, one of le Carré most intriguing in recent years.  Though a star of stage and film in Sweden for years, the actor didn’t become known to American audiences until his mid-40s when he played a paralyzed oil worker in “Breaking the Waves” (1996). He’s had dozens of memorable performances since then, notably as Bootstrap Bill in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films and a very frighten businessman in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” but “Our Kind of Traitor” is the highlight of his English-language screen work.
     A breakout performance is also at the center of the mini-series “The “Night Manager.” Tom Hiddleston, best known as the unstoppably evil Loki in “Thor” and “The Avengers,” is cool personified as Jonathan Pine, a Brit working as a hotel manager in Egypt when he ends up in the middle of some ugly business.
     This globe-hopping, Bond-like thriller, one of the most impressive productions I’ve ever seen on television, follows the revenge-based mission of Jonathan (he actually goes by many different names) after he finagles his way into the inner-circle of international arms dealers Roger Roper (an equally impressive Hugh Laurie).
      Pine is unofficially working for a rogue branch of British intelligence, led by Angela Burr (Olivia Colman, recently in “The Lobster”), a whip-smart pregnant woman who refuses to hear the word “no,” even when it comes from 10 Downing Street.  
     The 1993 novel is one of le Carré more literary works (and his first post-Cold War tale), with its non-professional protagonist and his non-political motives to bring down the bad guys. There’s a hint of a Graham Greene character in Pine, a repressed, damaged drifter who finds meaning in his new-found role as a British spy. Hiddleston could end up being the next Bond, but seems destined for more serious fare. He has both a strong cinematic presence and the acting chops honed on the British stage.
     Director Susanne Bier, the Danish filmmaker best known for her Oscar-nominated “After the Wedding” and “In a Better World,” which won the 2010 foreign film Oscar, maintains an intense, edge-of-your-seat mood throughout the six-part series, even as it globetrots from Egypt to Switzerland to  Spain and Morocco (all stunningly shot by Michael Snyman).
     The supporting cast is just as impressive as the scenery, with Elizabeth Debicki as Roger’s seek, blonde companion, who, of course, falls for Pine and Tom Hollander as Roger’s bulldog right-hand man who, from the start, is both jealous and suspicious of Pine.
     Of course, this being television, the ending gives the viewers a greater sense of justice than the author, who knows that the bad guys almost always get away with it, ever would in his novel. But that doesn’t diminish the cat-and-mouse games and father-and-son like relationship between Pine and Roper that kept me glued to the screen for more than six hours.   

GENIUS (2016)
    There’s probably a great film to be made about the American literary scene of the 1920s and ‘30s, but until then, this will do. Instead of focusing on the era’s stars—Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald (they play supporting roles in “Genius”)—the film fleshes out the relationship between legendary book editor Max Perkins and the nearly forgotten, comet-like novelist Thomas Wolfe.
    Perkins (played by Colin Firth as a circumspect workaholic) served as the principle editor at Scribner’s, guiding the early novels of the great writers of the time and then spotting the potential in Wolfe’s epic, unwieldy first novel after others had rejected it.
    Wolfe (Jude Law, at 43, more than a decade too old for the role) goes from excitable and eccentric to overbearing and egotistical, especially after “Look Homeward, Angel,” his autobiographical debut novel, is hailed by critics and readers. Yet somehow, Perkins takes to him (while they cut nearly 100,000 words from his draft) and Wolfe becomes an unlikely family friend, a constant amusement to Perkins’ five daughters.
    Even if you know nothing of Wolfe, the screenplay by three-time Oscar nominee John Logan leaves little doubt that this brilliant yet tormented writer has but a short time to shine, destined for a downfall. I guess no one wants to see a film about a relatively stable person who happens to also be a great writer.
     I wish director Michael Grandage, making his film debut after great success as a British stage director, could have toned down the performance of Law by a level or two. The performance might have worked on stage, but on the big screen it comes off a way too broad.
    The director isn’t afraid of spending screen time showing the editing process; in fact, Perkins and Wolfe culling the first novel and its follow-up “Of Time and the River” are the best parts of the film.
    Otherwise, there isn’t much to this mismatched pair, with too much time spent on the men’s domestic situations (both put work ahead of family). Most curious is the role of Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s married mistress, who fluctuates between shrew and victim. Strange indeed, is seeing Kidman, who just a few years ago was the most acclaimed Hollywood actress, playing a supporting role.
    Maybe it was the topic; it seems as though the pre-war literary world is a favorite topic of hers. Before “Genius,” she won an Oscar for her performance as Virginia Woolf in “The Hours” (2002) and played Hemingway’s mistress in an HBO film in 2012.
     Based on A. Scot Berg’s well-received 1978 biography of Perkins, “Genius” shines a light on a writer who more should be aware of and the complex relationship between editor and writer—at one point, Perkins worries that he’ll be accused of gutting a genius’ work. Despite its excesses and clichés, I’ll take a film like “Genius” over another movie about a preposterous superhero.

PURPLE RAIN (1984) and THE HUNGER (1983)
     This year, the music world has lost two of its most creative and influential artists, both of whom having left their mark on the cinema as well.
    With its mix of live performance and melodrama, Prince’s “Purple Rain” was the perfect film for the MTV ‘80s, as shallow and as addictive as the best of music videos. The film, and the album of the same name, confirmed the Minneapolis rocker as the most ambitious and innovative pop musician of his generation and the only person on Earth who could be taken seriously while wearing purple Louis XIV garb.
    The movie never gets any better than its scorching eight-minute opening performance of “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince (here “The Kid”) and the Revolution on stage at Minneapolis nightclub, First Avenue, the actually venue he first performed at. The song typifies the best of Prince, as it combines the heavy beats and soaring vocals of R&B, the guitar-jamming of classic rock, 80s synthesizer and the songwriter’s uncensored thoughts on romance.
      Cutting back and forth from the stage, filmmaker Albert Magnoli sets up the film, showing the arrival of wannabe singer Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero) and introducing The Kid’s musical rival, the comically egotistical Morris Day (another Minneapolis musician, playing himself).   
    A recent viewing of the film reveals, not surprisingly, that Prince’s musical performances are as dynamic as they were when the film premiered more than 30 years ago, capturing, as movies rarely do, the emotional sweep of a live show. In sharp contrast, the plot and dialogue of “Purple Rain” are so clogged with cob webs that they can’t be taken seriously. I’ve seen silent films that are less dated than this story of dysfunctional family, showbiz double-dealing and musical jealousy.
     Smartly, Prince speaks as little as possible but generally comes off as sincere, sounding like a knighted actor compared to Apollonia, a hopelessly unprepared last-minute substitute for Vanity (who had a pretty good career as a femme fatale in the 1980s and 90s). And the comic interplay between Day and his sidekick Jerome is slightly amusing—they do a clever rift on “Who’s on First.”
    But it’s the music that drives the film, with Prince simply soaring on “The Beautiful Ones,” “When Doves Cry” and the title track.  
    Unfortunately, Prince starred in two more films, “Under the Cherry Moon” (1986) and “Graffiti Bridge” (1990), both unwatchable blemishes on this great artist’s legacy.
    David Bowie never starred in a film like “Purple Rain”—imagine a cinematic version of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”—but he had one of the better movie careers among rock ‘n’ roll stars. In fact, the only pop artists of the post-Elvis era who can compare on film are Barbra Streisand, Cher, Jennifer Lopez and singers-turned-actors (really a different category) Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube.
     His debut, “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” plays off Bowie’s otherworldly looks. He’s an alien who takes the shape of a human, calling himself Thomas Jerome Newton, who becomes a multi-millionaire businessman. But the rest of the plot, involving a college professor played by Rip Torn, is almost incomprehensible. The ambiguous film, directed by Nicolas Roeg in his usual time-and-space challenged rhythms, has not aged well.
    “The Hunger,” the debut feature film by director Tony Scott (who went on to do “Top Gun” and “Enemy of the State”) has actually improved with age, or at least my appreciation of it has.
   Bowie plays John Blaylock, the companion of Miriam, an ageless vampire (played with a regal perfection by Catherine Deneuve), who wakes up after a night of devouring a couple (picked up at a disco) to find himself rapidly aging.
   Despite no background information about him or how he fell under Miriam’s spell, (the film seductively offers more questions than answers), his Blaylock seems to anticipate the AIDS crisis that was just beginning to become known to the public in 1983. He is especially compelling as an ancient-looking man, just days after looking like he was in his 30s, though one assumes he is, in fact, hundreds of years old.
   Susan Sarandon plays a clinical scientist studying aging in baboons who, at first, ignores Blaylock’s complaints about aging and then tries to seek him out, instead falling into the alluring clutches of Miriam.
    While it’s easy to dismiss “The Hunger” as nothing more than a stylish vampire flick, the performances of Bowie, Deneuve and Sarandon elevate the film.   
     That was really the start of the cinema side of Bowie’s career. That same year he played a British officer held prisoner in Japan in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983) and then, three years later, he was the non-Muppet wizard in the popular sci-fi film “Labyrinth.”
     Over the years, he’s mostly had small  but high profile roles such as Pontius Pilate in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Andy Warhol in “Basquiat,” Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige” and an oddball character in “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” Surprisingly, he had the lead role in a screwy 1991 comedy, “The Linguini Incident.”
      While what Bowie or Prince did on screen can’t compare to their musical artistry, they both recognized the cinema as another way to express themselves and, in Bowie case, sustain a profile after music popularity has faded.

HARPER (1966)
     This private eye picture wasn’t in the running for the best film of 1966; that honor would fall to “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” the adaptation of Edward Albee’s explosive stage play; “Alfie,” the chronicle of a London playboy that made Michael Caine a star; or “A Man for All Seasons,” the Henry VIII-Thomas More historical pageant. But this Paul Newman vehicle remains an entertaining, well-acted entry in the crime-mystery genre, worthy of revisiting 50 years after its release.
       Maybe the finest practitioner of the PI novel of the post-Chandler era was Ross Macdonald, whose detective, Lew Archer, usually sought missing persons up and down the California coast, finding corruption and discontent not far from the pristine beaches along the Pacific. For this film, based on his novel “Moving Target,” the protagonist’s name was changed to Harper, supposedly at the insistence of Newman, who had already had hits with “The Hustler” and “Hud.” I never quite believed that story, but crazy demands have always been a hallmark of stars.
      Under whatever name, this detective is a worthy successor to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe with Newman capturing the laconic, sarcastic and highly efficient manner of Harper.
      After rolling out of his pull-out couch bed—he lives out of his office as he goes through a divorce—Harper drives up the coast to investigate the disappearance of a multi-millionaire, meeting the barely interested wife (Lauren Bacall), his laid-back driver (Robert Wagner) and his flirty daughter (Pamela Tiffin). As the case progresses, Harper deals with a washed up movie star (Shelley Winters), her tough-guy husband (Robert Webber), a drug-addict pianist (Julie Harris), a loony religious leader (Strother Martin) and the missing man’s lawyer (Arthur Hiller), who lusts after the much-younger daughter. And just in case he’s not diverted enough, Harper keeps trying to win back his estranged wife (Janet Leigh).
       This all-star cast of supporting players, along with the crisp Macdonald dialogue (as transferred to the screen by William Goldman) makes up for the sometimes clunky plot turns. Jack Smight, by 1966 one of the most respected directors in television but just starting to work on the big screen, is hardly a stylist but he makes good use of the half-dozen or so bars and restaurants where most of the action takes place. The great cinematographer Conrad Hall brings a noirish tint to the California locales.
     Newman’s gum-chewing, evasive Harper seems happiest when he’s creating characters and doing accents on the spot to elicit information from unwitting sources. He certainly amuses himself, if no one else. I can imagine a very different film had the actor originally cast—Frank Sinatra—taken the role.  
      Newman revisited the character almost a decade later in the equally entertaining “The Drowning Pool” (1975) and then returned to the genre when he was 73, playing a retired detective taking on one last case in “Twilight” (1998).
       Needless to say, Newman was both a great star and a great actor, who combined realistic Method style of acting with the likable presence of a classic Hollywood leading man throughout his long, interesting acting career.

    As regular readers of this post know well, I’m a sucker for movies about anything to do with the film industry. While I’m usually disappointed, I don’t think I’ve seen any “movie” movie quite as ridiculous and pointless as this slice of the pioneering Russian filmmaker’s life.
      British director Peter Greenaway, best known for “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Love” (1989), doesn’t show any interest in depicting Sergei Eisenstein’s attempt, in the early 1930s, to make a film in Mexico, instead focusing on the director’s affair with the Mexican guide assigned to aid him during the shoot. I don’t have a clue if Eisenstein was gay or if this part of the story is true (and I don’t really care), but I am interested in the film he tried but failed to make and what went on during filming.
     Greenaway doesn’t show a single frame of any filmmaking, instead filling the picture with long, indecipherable rants by the wild-haired Russian. He’s played by Finnish actor Elmer Bäck, who reminded me of a less-thoughtful Larry Fine (of  Three Stooges fame), though I doubt Larry would have played so many scenes without his pants.
    Just as foolish is Greenaway’s use of split screen; when Eisenstein name drops (nearly every other sentence), a photo of the famous person is shown (James Joyce, Albert Einstein, Upton Sinclair, Charlie Chaplin, among many others). Is Greenaway giving us a social history lesson of the early Twentieth Century? Maybe I’m naïve, but I think most moviegoers know what Einsten and Chaplin looked like.
     There are plenty of clips of Eisenstein’s pro-revolution films—“Battleship Potemkin,” “Ten Days That Shook the World,” “Strike”—which kept teasing me into thinking I was going to see something (anything!) of the legendary, unfinished Mexican project. Nada.

    The reputation of Max Ophüls as one of the finest filmmakers of the first half of the Twentieth Century rests almost solely on his output in the last 10 years of his life. Starting in 1948, first in Hollywood and then back in Paris, this German-born, France-based director made six films examining romantic complications and compromises with a clear-eyed honest that was new to the cinema.
     In America, he made “Letter from an Unknown Woman” (with Joan Fontaine), “Caught” (with Barbara Bel Geddes) and “The Reckless Moment” (Joan Bennett), three of the best films about women made in the era.
    “Le Plaisir” is the least known of the final four films he made in France before dying of heart disease at age 54, with “La Ronde,” “The Earrings of Madame de...” and “Lola Montés” all acclaimed as masterpieces of a type. While these three florid, women-centered extravaganzas are all admirable, the more down-to-earth “Le Plaisir” (shown recently on TCM under the coarser English title “House of Pleasure”) tops them for pure entertainment and filmmaking acumen.
    The film consists of three unrelated stories (from Nineteenth Century French writer Guy de Maupassant), all of which beautifully dissect the unfathomable desires of the human heart and the inevitable pain that follows passion.  
      The opening segment, “Le Masque,” begins with Ophüls’ usual directorial flourishes, as the camera takes us inside a crowded, opulently decorated Nineteenth Century French nightclub, moving from groups of partiers to the dance floor where a strange-looking man joins the can-can girls. After a few minutes of wild gyrations, Senior Ambrose (Jean Galland, an Ophüls regular) collapses to the floor. 
     The management acts quickly, finding a doctor among the attendees to care for the club regular. The camera work and direction in this seemingly simple sequence—Ambrose entering the club, dancing, collapsing, the doctor summoned and then taking the unconscious man to an upstairs room—is breathtaking, filled with asides, chaos, overlapping dialogue, offbeat angles and uncut movement back and forth across the club’s walkways. It unravels with an energy rarely seen outside an Orson Welles production.
    The segment ends with a poignant discussion between the doctor and Ambrose’s put-upon wife about the struggles we all face in accepting the realities of aging. Standing alone, I would rank “Le Masque” as one of the most affecting short films I’ve ever seen.
    The middle story, “La Maison Tellier,” which takes up the most of the film’s 97 minutes, follows a weekend visit by a group of prostitutes to the country, where the confirmation of a niece of one of the women is being celebrated. But first Ophüls establishes the central role the women and the house of ill repute where they work play in the life of many of the town’s men. (When they are out of town, the men are forced to talk to one another, creating nothing but disputes.)
    The filmmaker, playing both peeping Tom and discrete outsider, shoots the brothel from the outside, through windows and open doors as the women flirt with the patrons and the madam (legendary French actress Danielle Darrieux) runs the operation. Ophüls is a filmmaker who always manages to find a different, more interesting way to tell a story.
    Ironically, the sophistication of the prostitutes trumps their scandalous profession, making them welcome visitors to the farming village
    In the finale segment, “Le Modéle,” a painter (Daniel Gélin) falls for a model (Simone Simon, star of the horror classic “Cat People”) but soon tires of her, after she has become devoted to him. The story’s ironic conclusion is rife with the layers of love and hate that mark relationships, summarized by a bystander’s observation: “But, my friend, there’s no joy in happiness.”