OFFICIAL SECRETS (2019)

August 29, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Doing the right thing is usually pretty easy. However a person’s true character is revealed when it’s not so easy. In 2003, doing the right thing became very difficult for Brit Katharine Gun. How difficult? Well, her decision could jeopardize her job. It’s a decision that could get her husband deported. Making the choice could expose two powerful international governments and send her to prison for many years. And if that’s not enough risk, how about a decision that could lead to a huge (possibly illegal) war, costing thousands of lives? So you know what Katharine Gun did?  She did the right thing.

Keira Knightley stars as Katharine Gun. The film opens in 2004 with her facing a British court and the moment of her plea. We then flashback one year to see Katharine working as a staff member of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters). She spends her days translating and compiling intelligence for the British Government. It’s a job that requires the utmost discretion and the contractual obligation to keep work secrets at work. One day she reads a top secret memo making it clear that governments were conspiring to manipulate a United Nations vote required to authorize an invasion of Iraq.

Based on the (lengthy titled) book “The Spy who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion” by Martha Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell, the film is directed by Gavin Hood (the excellent TSOTSI, 2005) who co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein. It’s presented as a moral quandary for Katharine. Say nothing and maintain the status quo in her personal and professional life, or speak up and risk everything noted above. We see Katharine’s impulsive decision-making, and behavior that would rank her among history’s least likely successful spies. It’s actually her naivety that guides her to speak up.

The media side is also addressed here, and although some terrific actors are involved, this segment is the film’s slickest and least realistic. Matt Smith plays political reporter Martin Bright and Rhys Ifans plays Ed Volliamy. The two journalists for “The Observer” worked together to verify the memo leaked by Ms. Gun, and Matthew Goode is Peter Beaumont, the editor who pushed to run the story. Previously, the paper had been an avid supporter of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and took many of their stories directly from information provided by his office. Running the story exposed the paper to scrutiny that it was not accustomed to.

Where the film excels is in exploring Katharine’s personal turmoil. It’s also where it fails us as viewers. As her personal story, the subject matter is a unique and rare look at the wheels of government intelligence. Unfortunately, an inordinate amount of time is spent on the media and reporting, and not enough on what emotional torture the year of waiting must have been for her. Ralph Fiennes plays Ben Emmerson, the lead attorney for Liberty – the legal organization who takes on Katharine’s case. It’s the legal wranglings of this complex case that make for extraordinary drama, and the fallout of her personal choices had the potential for disaster. All of this is covered in a cursory manner, when more detail would have added more heft to a fascinating story. This includes her run-ins with an MI5 agent played superbly by Peter Guiness. The Official Secrets Act of 1989 is mentioned about 10 times, even though we understand pretty quickly that actions against this law likely results in treason. Ms. Gun is a hero for exposing illegal government activity, and a more intimate look at her personal turmoil would have provided more suspense and a better connection for the viewer.

watch the trailer:

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THE WHITE CROW (2019)

May 9, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Nijinsky. Nureyev. Bruhn. Baryshnikov. The legends of male ballet dancers starts with that list, and possibly include a handful of others. Ralph Fiennes directs a screenplay from David Hare that brings us the story of how one of these, Rudolph Nureyev, defected from Russia to the west in 1961.

Opening with Nureyev’s teacher Alexander Pushkin being interrogated (“Why did he defect?”) by a Russian official immediately after the defection, the film ping pongs between 3 time frames in an attempt to better explain Nureyev’s reasons … or at least the background that created such a headstrong and talented young man. We flashback to 1938 where his mother famously gave birth to him in the confines of a moving train (traveling and trains remained important to him). We then flash forward to 1961 when Nureyev arrives in Paris with the Kirov Ballet, and then back to 1955 as he’s first admitted at the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet (established 1738) – a prestigious dance school.

It’s actually this hopping from one time frame to another that is the film’s weakness. The script is ambitious but ultimately flawed, as it attempts to tackle too much rather than concentrating on what’s most important and interesting. We didn’t need so many childhood flashbacks to grasp that Nureyev was a different kind of kid who grew up in poverty in Siberia, raised with his sisters by a mother whose husband was away at war. Julie Kavanagh’s book “Rudolph Nureyev: The Life” inspired Mr. Hare’s screenplay, but the multiple timelines can be more fully explored in book form.

Ralph Fiennes plays the aforementioned Pushkin, a soft-spoken man who was a father figure to Nureyev, as well as a technical instructor. He also shared his philosophy of dance (and his wife – maybe he knew, maybe he didn’t) with his star pupil, and it’s easy to see how this elevated Nureyev’s ability. Combining that with his interest in classic art, a theme of turning ugliness into beauty was something Nureyev latched on to.

Oleg Ivenko stars as Rudolph Nureyev. Ivenko is a marvelous dancer and bears enough resemblance to the legend that we are quickly taken in. Ivenko is not a trained film actor, but as a dancer, he is accustomed to the spotlight and never wavers in his portrayal of a dancer he likely admired. He captures the emotional turmoil of a man enticed by the artistic and social freedoms of the west, while also remaining loyal to his homeland – loyal at least until he felt threatened (both physically and artistically). A tortured genius typically struggles with those in positions of authority and that’s on full display here.

This is the third directorial outing for 2-time Oscar nominee (for acting) Ralph Fiennes. His previous projects were THE INVISIBLE WOMAN in 2013 which no one saw, and CORIOLANUS in 2011 which almost no one saw. It’s likely his latest won’t draw a huge audience either, but Ivenko’s dancing is quite something to behold, and the climax at Le Bourget Airport in France is a suspenseful highlight. Nureyev was 23 at the time, and the defection decision is made almost spontaneously with a little help from his socialite friend Clara Saint (Adele Exarchapoulos, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR) and French dancer Pierre Lacotte (Raphael Personnaz). Rudolph Nureyev died of complications from AIDS in 1993, but he truly was a “white crow” – something extraordinary, and one who stands out.

watch the trailer:


A BIGGER SPLASH (2016)

June 5, 2016

a bigger splash Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve said before that she is such a fascinating actress that I would probably buy a ticket to watch Tilda Swinton just stand on stage. In her latest collaboration with director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, 2009), Ms. Swinton’s character remains mostly silent, save a few well placed whispers and one uncontrollable outburst, and she is certainly worth the price of that ticket.

Adding to the movie fun here is a script by David Kajganich adapted from Alain Paige’s story that was the basis for the 1969 film La Piscine. Ms. Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a glam rock singer (think 60’s-70’s David Bowie) who has gone on holiday to recover from throat surgery. She is accompanied by her photographer/filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), and the couple has sought seclusion and serenity on the picturesque Italian island of Pantalleria in the Strait of Siciliy. They spend their time sunbathing (European style) and enjoying intimacy in the swimming pool at the stunning compound they have rented.

Of course it wouldn’t be much of a movie if things went according to plan. Blowing into town like the upcoming sirocco winds is Marianne’s former lover and former music producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), along with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Showing up uninvited adds to the palpable underlying tension – which only gets thicker as the layers are peeled back. In addition to the former relationship of Marianne and Harry, it turns out Harry and Paul were once close friends, and it’s only been in the last year that Harry found out Penelope is his daughter (and there’s even some doubt on this).

Fiennes’ Harry is the kind of annoying blow-hard we want to punch after about 5 minutes. He is unrelenting with his energy and motor-mouth approach to most every moment in life. In that same 5 minute span, we also figure out his not-so-subtle desire to win back Marianne. His Lolita-type daughter may or may not be part of his plan, but she surely has her own sights set on Paul. Over food, wine and swimming, we learn more and more backstory on each character, and it’s pretty obvious the beautiful bodies and faces are masking mountains of vulnerabilities and insecurities.

Ms. Swinton, despite her minimal dialogue, makes Marianne a captivating character – balancing the entitlement of a rock star with a desperate attempt to be normal. Mr. Schoenaerts brings his usual physicality and simmering emotional quiet to the role of Paul – a guy much less “together” than he would have us believe. Penelope is a good fit for Ms. Johnson, as she mostly lounges around the pool leering lustfully at Paul. But it’s Mr. Fiennes who rules the roost here with his appendage-flapping portrayal of the vulgar and vulnerable Harry – complete with Monty Python references, Mick Jagger dancing and au natural pool diving. It’s a different kind of role for Fiennes and one he clearly relishes.

It’s a film filled with lush visuals and fans (like me) of Francois Ozon’s 2003 Swimming Pool will recognize the stylings of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. Beauty abounds: the setting, the water, the clothes, and the house. Things do get a bit clunky in the third act with a minor sub-plot involving Tunisian refugees. Fortunately that doesn’t negate the many good things here … including a terrific and creative soundtrack featuring a couple of deep cuts from the Rolling Stones, Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire”, St. Vincent’s cover of “Emotional Rescue”, and even Robert Mitchum’s “Beauty is only Skin Deep”. It’s a stylish, ultra slow-burn emotional thriller that has a swimming pool shot somewhat reminiscent of the iconic one from Sunset Boulevard. If all of that is still not enough reason to buy that ticket … don’t forget about Ms. Swinton!

watch the trailer:

 

 


HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

February 6, 2016

hail caesar Greetings again from the darkness. Homage or Spoof or outright Farce? Though the Coen Brothers motivation may be cloudy, their inspiration certainly is not. The Golden Age of Hollywood is skewered by the filmmaking brothers who previously applied their caustic commentary to the movie business in Barton Fink (1991). However, this latest seems to borrow more from the unrelated universes of their films A Serious Man (2009) and Burn After Reading (2008) in that it alternates tone by focusing first on one man’s attempt to make sense of things, and then with a near slapstick approach to “urgent” situations.

The film seems to be made for Hollywood geeks. Perhaps this can also be worded as … the film seems to be made for the Coen brothers themselves. Rather than an intricate plot and subtle character development used in their classic No Country for Old Men (2007), this is more a collection of scenes loosely tied together thanks to their connection to Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures “fixer”. Josh Brolin plays straight-laced Mannix, a twist on the real Eddie Mannix, notorious for his behind the scenes work at MGM in controlling the media, protecting the stars and studio, and protecting movie stars from their own idiotic actions. He was a real life Ray Donovan. It’s Mannix’s job that creates the hamster wheel to keep this story moving (complimented by narration from Michael Gambon).

We witness a typical day for Mannix as he confesses to the Priest that he had a couple of cigarettes after promising his wife he would quit, negotiates with communists who have kidnapped the studios biggest movie star, deftly handles the studio head’s greedy desire to shift a western movie star into a genre for which he is ill-prepared, plans a cover-up for the starlet having a baby out of wedlock, and juggles the demands of the competing twin gossip columnists searching for scandal. Mannix keeps his cool through all of this while mulling a lucrative job offer from Lockheed that would put him right in the midst of the nuclear war scare.

With an exacting attention to period and industry detail, the Coen’s remind us of the popular genres and circumstances of the era. George Clooney plays mega star Baird Whitlock, working on the studios biggest picture of the year – a biblical epic entitled “Hail, Caesar!” (think Ben-Hur, The Robe, etc). Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of communist writers (not yet blacklisted) who are striking out against a capitalistic studio that doesn’t share the rewards with the creative folks. It’s a different look than what Trumbo offered last year. In a tribute to Roy Rogers and famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, there is a segment on popular westerns featuring Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures, 2013) as Hobie Doyle, a popular actor whose an artist with a rope and horse and guitar, but not so smooth on his transition to the parlor dramas being filmed by demanding director Laurence Laurentz (a terrific Ralph Fiennes). In boosting Doyle’s public perception, the studio sets him up on a date with a Carmen Miranda-type played by Veronica Osorio. Her character is named Carlotta Valdez in a nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Another sequence features Scarlett Johansson as DeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams type (with a behind the scenes nod to Loretta Young) in a Busby Berkeley-esque production number featuring the synchronized swimming so prominent in the era. One of the film’s best segments comes courtesy of Channing Tatum in a take on films like On the Town, where sailors would sing and dance while on leave.

Tilda Swinton (whose appearance improves any movie) appears as the competing twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thackery. Her hats and costumes are sublime and pay worthy tribute to Hedda Hopper (who also balked at being termed a gossip columnist). Jonah Hill’s only scene is from the trailer, and it could be misleading to any of his fan’s coming to see his performance; and the same could be said for Frances McDormand (a very funny scene as a throwback editor). And so as not to disappoint their many critics, the Coen’s have a terrific scene featuring four men of various religious sects who are asked their opinion of the script – so as not to offend any viewers. The pettiness is palpable.

Roger Deakins is, as always, in fine form as the cinematographer. The water and western productions are the most eye-catching, but he does some of his best camera work in the shots of individual actors or scenes-within-a-scene. We have come to depend on Joel and Ethan Coen for taking us out of our movie comfort zone, while providing the highest level of production – music, costumes, sets, camera and acting. While this latest will leave many scratching their heads, the few in the target audience will be applauding fiercely.

watch the trailer:

 


SPECTRE (2015)

November 8, 2015

spectre Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t come to me looking for objective judgment on Bond. By the time we hear that familiar opening trumpet blast of Marty Norman’s Bond theme, I’ve already been swept away into the land of MI6 enchantment – gadgets, cars, women, over-the-top stunts, globe-trotting, global villains and quintessential coolness. And it doesn’t help that this time director Sam Mendes treats this 24th (official) Bond film as an homage to those that came before. At times it plays like a tribute – and maybe even a closing chapter (for Mendes and Daniel Craig?).

A long tracking shot drops us into the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, complete with skeleton masks and giant parade props. We follow a masked couple as they maneuver through the crowd and into their hotel room, where 007 quickly leaps out the window and makes his way across roof tops towards his mission. It’s one of the more visually stimulating and explosive openings in franchise history.

The story combines the personal back-story of Bond’s childhood with his relentless pursuit of the evil empire known as Spectre … the crime syndicate that has been part of the Bond universe for many years and films. The tie-in to the iconic Bond nemesis Blofeld, this new mastermind Franz Oberhauser, and Bond’s adoptive family make for an interesting chain of custody. However, as is customary, it’s the characters and action sequences that deliver the entertainment bang.

Oberhauser is played by Christoph Waltz (understated given his track record), and the two Bond “ladies” are played by Lea Seydoux (the daughter of Mr. White, and the key to finding Spectre), and Monica Bellucci (the widow of Bond’s Mexico victim). Mr. Waltz takes advantage of his limited screen time, while Ms. Bellucci is limited to a few lines and a chance to model some lingerie. Reprising their roles are Rory Kinnear as Tanner, Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Jesper Christensen as Mr. White. New to the mix is Dave Bautista as Hinx (in the mode of Oddjob and Jaws), and Andrew Scott as C … the latest of those trying to shut down the “00” program. Whishaw brings a nice element to his role, while Bautista’s Hinx gets to participate in both a car chase and train fight … while uttering only a single word of dialogue.

The evil doers have gotten more intellectual over the years, and Oberhauser and Spectre have the goal of global surveillance and controlling information and data. It’s a modern theme for a Bond film that also seems intent on reminiscing. There are nods to most (if not every) previous Bond film via (among other things) Nehru jackets, cats, scars, and a white dinner jacket. And it’s nice to see the gun barrel sequence back in the opening credits where it belongs. As for the new song, Sam Smith has a very nice voice, but his Bond song lacks the punch of the best.

In terms of globe-trotting, we get Mexico, Rome, Tangier (Morocco), London and Austria. The (prolonged) car chase occurs on the deserted streets (and steps) of Rome and features two stunning cars – Aston Martin DB10 and Jaguar C-X75. In addition to the cars and previously mentioned train, it’s helicopters that earned a couple of worthy action sequences.

It’s Daniel Craig’s fourth turn as Bond, James Bond. He brings his own brand of emotion and cheekiness, while also possessing a physicality that allows the action sequences to work. He has made the role his, much like Christian Bale took ownership of Batman. For those who refuse to accept the new generation, director Mendes delivers enough nostalgia that even the old-timers should be entertained.

R.I.P. Derek Watkins

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

March 16, 2014

grand budapest Greetings again from the darkness. Some of the finer things in life are an acquired taste. The exception to that is the film canon of writer/director Wes Anderson. You either “get” it or you don’t. Which side of the line you fall is much more a matter of style and taste than intellect.

This latest from Anderson may be his most visually distinct and stylistic presentation yet. He even tosses in a bit of a plot so that we have more reason to follow the outlandish antics of master concierge (and murder suspect) M Gustave – played with comic verve by Ralph Fiennes. Yes, the Ralph Fiennes known for such comedy classics as Schindler’s List, The English Patient and The Hurt Locker. Admit it, when you need a laugh, you fire up the Ralph Fiennes stand-up routine. OK, so he did have a role in the terrific dark comedy In Bruges, but nothing has prepared us for seeing him in this witty, fast-talking role at the center of Anderson’s wildest ride yet.

As any follower of Anderson films will tell you, there is always fun to be had in picking out the members of his supporting cast. Assisting Mr. Fiennes with this one are Edward Norton, Jude Law, F Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton (oddly cast after Angela Lansbury dropped out), Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson, Saoirse Ronan, Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson. Of course, there is also Bill Murray, in his seventh collaboration with Anderson. The most impressive new face is that of Tony Revolori, who plays the teenage Lobby Boy in-training … a role that turns vital when he is befriended by Gustave, and is invaluable in the telling of the story.

None of that really matters though, as the best description I give this is “spectacle”. It’s a whimsical romp with nostalgic tributes throughout. It’s a movie for movie lovers from a true movie lover. You will notice the three distinct aspect ratios used to depict the different time periods, and the music is perfect … from Vivaldi’s Concerto for Lute and Plucked Strings to Alexandre Desplat’s fantastic composition over the closing credits. If you are up for some hyper-stylistic eye candy, this one is tough to beat (especially this time of year).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: colorful costumes and wild set design combined with oddly humorous deadpan dialogue delivery from the mind of Wes Anderson is something you “get” OR you never miss a Ralph Fiennes comedy!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: traditional story telling is your preference for movies

Below you will find two links … one for the trailer and one for the Desplat’s closing credit song.

the closing credit song:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skpyDiCrMZs

the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Fg5iWmQjwk

 

 

 


SKYFALL (2012)

November 11, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Celebrating 50 years on film for Ian Fleming‘s creation, we get the 23rd official James Bond movie. Many critics are hailing it as the best Bond film yet, though having seen all in the series, it is difficult to understand a proper form of comparison. The Sean Connery run varies significantly from the Roger Moore period, and though Pierce Brosnan brought a touch of seriousness back to the role, it wasn’t until Daniel Craig that the character and series took on an ultra-intense structure. Clear influences are seen in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, as well as the “Bourne” series.

This latest entry has some distinct advantages. Most importantly, Sam Mendes in the director’s chair brings a love and understanding of the Bond template, and the skills to deliver both top notch action sequences as well as realistic human drama. His background includes such fine films as American Beauty and Road To Perdition (also with Daniel Craig). Mendes brought on famed Director of Photography Roger Deakins (9 Oscar nominations) who delivers a look and feel superior to any previous Bond film. Also, the villain plays a key role in determining the strength of all Bond films. Here, Javier Bardem offers up a megalomaniac bent on revenge, and his unusual approach immediately vaults his Silva into one of the top 5 all time Bond villains.

 Of course, none of that matters without a strong Bond, and it is quite clear that Daniel Craig has made the role his own. This particular script from series vets Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan demands some real acting as Bond faces his mortality as well as his childhood roots. These issues combined with the physical demands of the action and the ability to toss in a few zingers, make Mr. Craig a nice fit for the tailored suits … and the classic Aston Martin.

It wouldn’t be Bond without the Bond “women”, and while there isn’t much familiarity of Berenice Marlohe, her Severine is interesting enough to capture our attention … even with Komodo Dragons hovering nearby. We also get Naomie Harris as Field Agent Eve, and the argument can be made that she is weakest link in the film. Surprisingly, the Bond woman central to this story  is M, played once again by the great Judi Dench. Much of the story revolves around her and there is quite a bit of ageism involved. Experience does matter … unless you are speaking of the new Q, played with fascinating geekery by Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas).  The museum scene with Q and Bond is one for the ages.

The usual global jet-setting is on full display with Istanbul, London, Macau, Shanghai and the Scottish Highlands. The traditional opening action sequence finds Bond racing across Turkish rooftops on a motorcycle, while wearing a beautifully tailored suit. These are the same rooftops on display in Taken 2, but it’s much more fun here. Then, as if motorcycles on the roof and through the Grand Bazaar of Turkey aren’t enough, we find Bond fighting atop a fast moving train … well, until M makes a business decision that quickly changes the arc of the story. By the way, the guy Bond is chasing on rooftops and fighting on the train is played by Ola Rapace, husband of Noomi from the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy (Daniel Craig starred in the English remake).

 When Bond finally meets Silva (Bardem), it is on the deserted Hashima Island. We quickly learn that Silva is no ordinary criminal and definitely not one to just sit and chat. His quest for revenge adds a personal touch. His personality and demeanor and background add elements previously missing from Bond films. It’s no surprise that the film’s best sequence involves Bond and Silva together and the tradition of the villain explaining what’s ruffled his feathers.

The climax of the film occurs on the hardscape of Scotland and forces Bond to come to terms with his past. There are also plenty of parental issues thanks to M and the caretaker played by Albert Finney. The personal forces at work in the script are more developed than in other Bond films, but we definitely don’t get cheated on explosions, gun play and hand-to-hand combat.

As always, music plays a vital role. Adele sings the opening title track and it plays over an unusual opening credits graphical sequence – somewhat bleaker than we are accustomed to, but no less dramatic. Also, Thomas Newman’s score is excellent and incorporates Monty Norman’s iconic Bond theme (though not often enough for my tastes).

This latest Bond film is a fine bounce back after the disappointing Quantum of Solace, and it may be the best made of all films. The idea of cyber-terrorism is very timely and a reminder that not all bad guys are trying to take over the world. Some just need revenge. Determining if it is the “best” Bond ever will be your call.

Just for old times’ sake:

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to judge for yourself if it’s the best Bond ever OR you want to see a blonde Javier Bardem as a creep, frightening villain.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have never bought into the James Bond mystique OR you can’t take a blonde Bond and a blonde Bond villain

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kw1UVovByw