The Monuments Men


The Monuments Men amidst the monuments.

The Monuments Men amidst the monuments.


(2014) War Dramedy (Columbia) George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, Justus von Dohnanyi, Holger Handtke, Michael Holland, Zachary Baharov, Michael Brandner, Sam Hazeldine, Miles Jupp, Alexandre Desplat, Diarmaid Murtagh, Grant Heslov, Audrey Marnay. Directed by George Clooney

World War II wasn’t just a fight for freedom; it was also a fight for the soul of Europe. Some of the greatest achievements of mankind were put at risk. There was a small cadre of men who devoted their lives to saving these works of art and architecture near the end of the war – this is their (fictionalized) story.

Frank Stokes (Clooney) is an art historian and the curator of the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. He is aware that the Nazis have stolen art from Jewish collectors and museums throughout the territories they conquered in Europe. Most of it is meant for a museum that Hitler is building in his own honor in Austria, although some is being destroyed outright – Hitler, not a fan of modern art, burned hundreds of Picassos, Dalis and other modern artists as kind of the ultimate art critic.

Given the go-ahead by FDR to protect these artists and significant buildings and also to retrieve them and restore them to their rightful owners, Stokes puts together an eclectic collection of middle-aged men who are far from fit for the most part; Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Murray), art restoration expert James Granger (Damon), sculptor Walter Garfield (Goodman), a British museum director looking for a second chance Donald Jeffries (Bonneville), theatrical impresario Preston Savitz (Balaban), and Jean-Claude Clermont (Dujardin) a former French painting instructor.

They undergo rigorous physical training that really underscores how out-of-shape they are and head off to France shortly after the invasion of Normandy to begin to track down the stolen art. Claire Simone (Blanchett), a curator at the Louvre in occupied Paris, had watched helplessly as SS officer Viktor Stahl (von Dohnanyi) appropriated pieces for Hermann Goering and for the Hitler museum. She is devastated when he takes everything as the Allies close in on Paris and becomes suspicious of Granger, thinking that the Americans are no better than the Nazis, wanting these priceless works of art only for themselves.

In the meantime, one of the Monuments Men gets to the cathedral at Bruges to protect the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo (the only work of his that left Italy during the great artist’s lifetime) only to die in the attempt. As we might say now, poop gets real, cuz.

Eventually they get wind that the Nazis stored most of the works in castles and mine shafts throughout Germany but an order has gone out signed by Hitler himself that should the Fuehrer die or Germany fall, everything is to be destroyed. Not only that but a Russian contingent is out to find the stolen art also but not to return to its rightful owners, but to keep as war reparations. The nearly impossible task just got a timer put on it.

Clooney takes the many hats of producer, director, co-writer and star and it may be one too many hats. The movie, based largely on Robert M. Edsel’s non-fiction book of the same name, has essentially Hollywoodized the story of the Monuments Men, fictionalizing their characters and some of the events (although much of what happens story-wise is what happened reality-wise but not all). I’m one of those guys who prefers watching a true account of what really happened rather than seeing something that is jazzed up, romanticized and a gloss thrown over it. I guess I’m into history more than mythology.

That said, the entertainment quality is pretty high. When he was the wiseacre from SNL doing comedies like Stripes and Meatballs, who’d have thought that Bill Murray would become one of the best dramatic actors in America? He has done just that however, and he damn near steals the movie, his expressive face showing puzzlement, sorrow and pain when informed of the intended fate of the art. He also has a scene where he gets a Christmas message from his wife and granddaughter that Preston plays over the camp’s Public Address system in which you watch his loneliness and pain come bleeding out – without him changing his expression hardly at all. It’s masterful work.

Sadly, most of the rest of the cast gets little in the way of any sort of background and they seem a little cookie-cutter to me, although the impressive cast does their best to breathe life into them. Blanchett is a great actress but perhaps there could have been a great French actress – a Julie Delpy, a Marion Cotillard, a Juliette Binoche or a Ludivine Sagnier – cast instead. At least we wouldn’t have been as distracted by a French accent that seems more Looney Tunes than authentic.

The film raises the question as to what the importance of art is to a society and of course the answer is “essential.” Art is the soul of any civilization; should that soul be destroyed, so too is the civilization and that was the evil of Hitler; he didn’t only want to wipe the Jews from the face of the Earth, he wanted to wipe European civilization out as well and substitute his own warped version of it. Not everyone in the film agrees with Frank Stokes’ assessment of the importance of the mission of the Monuments Men (heck you might even disagree) but even if you do, the movie is surprisingly entertaining although in the interest of fair and truthful reporting, I slept through about 15 minutes of it early on.

This is the kind of movie they used to make when the War itself was either in full force or had just ended. While it lacks the snappy moxie that directors like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges imbued in their films, it captures much of the same spirit nonetheless.  It’s kind of refreshing to be able to say in this instance, “they do make ‘em like that anymore!”

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Murray is amazing here and Goodman and Dujardin not far behind.

REASONS TO STAY: Can’t decide whether to be a drama or a comedy and misses the mark for both.  

FAMILY VALUES:  Some war violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing an older Frank Stokes after the war visiting an important piece rescued by the Monuments Men is in fact George Clooney’s dad Nick. Producer Grant Heslov and composer Alexandre Desplat also make cameos.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Private Ryan

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Winter’s Tale

New Releases for the Week of February 7, 2014


The Monuments MenTHE MONUMENTS MEN

(Columbia) George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville. Directed by George Clooney

In the waning days of World War II, it became evident that the Nazis weren’t just planning on a final solution regarding Jewish lives but also the culture of Europe as well. Thousands of piece of art, stolen by the Nazis, were going to be destroyed and in the retaking of Europe, thousands of buildings with historical and architectural significance were going to be reduced to rubble. To prevent this from happening, FDR tasked a group of museum curators, artists and architects to saving what they could as time ticked down to the last gasp of the Third Reich. This true story shows that these men, hardly soldiers at all, became soldiers for the saving of humanity’s finest achievements.

See the trailer, featurettes, a promo and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: War

Rating: PG-13 (for some images of war violence and historical smoking)

A Fantastic Fear of Everything

(Cinedigm) Simon Pegg, Amara Karan, Clare Higgins, Alan Drake. An author of children’s books decides to make a career change into a crime novelist. While doing research into Victorian-era serial killers for his latest book, his already fragile psyche takes a turn for the worse especially when a Hollywood executive, sniffing out a potential blockbuster, gets involved.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language)

Gloria

(Roadside Attractions) Paulina Garcia, Sergio Hernandez, Diego Fontecilla, Fabiola Zamora. A woman approaching middle age still feels young. She hangs out at the social dance clubs of Chile and while she’s lonely, she makes the best of things. Then she meets Rodolfo, a passionate lover who turns her life inside out. The trouble is Rodolfo is a bit of a roller coaster ride, and she must call upon emotional reserves she never knew she had to gather her inner strength to stand up for herself and for the things that will ultimately lead to her own happiness and fulfillment.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for sexual content, some graphic nudity, drug use and language)

Hasee Toh Phasee

(Reliance) Sidharth Malhotra, Parineeti Chopra, Adah Sharma, Manoj Joshi. A prospective groom is given seven days to prove himself to a suspicious father of the bride and given the task of installing the mischievous sister of the bride in a hotel. To save money, he installs her in the flat above his own home, putting her in contact with his quirky family. This being Bollywood, they become closer than they intended, fall in love and several musical numbers ensue.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

The LEGO Movie

(Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman. Emmet, a perfectly ordinary LEGO minifigure is mistaken for a kind of savior and drafted into an epic quest to stop an evil would-be dictator, a task for which he is hopefully and woefully unprepared.

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for mild action and rude humor)

Nurse 3D

(Lionsgate) Paz de la Huerta, Katrina Bowden, Corbin Bleu, Boris Kodjoe. A sadistic nurse who spends her nights luring married men into dangerous liaisons forms a friendship with a young and naive student nurse. But when she spurns her more intimate attentions, the sadistic nurse goes on a bloody rampage.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for bloody violence, strong sexual content, language and some graphic nudity)

The Vampire Academy

(Weinstein) Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, Gabriel Byrne, Joely Richardson. Two best friends – a princess of the mortal vampires and her half-human, half-vampire protector, must navigate the pitfalls of high school while the half-human must protect her charge from those who would exploit her from within vampire society and the evil immortal vampires who want her dead. From the bestselling young adult book series.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Teen Horror Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for violent bloody images, sexual content and language)

The Wolf of Wall Street


Leonardo di Caprio knows he's getting an Oscar nomination.

Leonardo di Caprio knows he’s getting an Oscar nomination.

(2013) True Life Drama (Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Kenneth Choi, PJ Byrne, Jon Bernthal, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Miloti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee, MacKenzie Meehan. Directed by Martin Scorsese

We are all aware that there is something broken on Wall Street; it is often depicted as a kind of testosterone-infused drug-fueled locker room in which over-stimulated men essentially rob America blind. While there are plenty of honest stockbrokers, there is some truth to the notion that the culture of greed exists.

Jordan Belfort (di Caprio) is the poster boy for that culture. He starts off as an ambitious stockbroker, taken under the wing of a successful broker (McConaughey) who initiates him in the cult of screw you – making the customer money is not the first order of business. Getting his fees are. And keeping those fees coming in even if that means selling some poor schmuck stocks he can’t afford or worse, stocks the broker knows are going to lose money.

Belfort quickly realizes that the real money is to be made in owning his own firm and that selling penny stocks were a vastly underserved market in which the brokers can make a huge amount of money in a short amount of time. With partner Donny Azoff (Hill) Belfort founds Stratton Oakmont, a literal boiler room where brokers make high-pressure sales of penny stocks.

Belfort found that defrauding his clientele was far more profitable for him personally than actually working for it and soon finds himself with more money than he knows what to do with. Of course, men with more money than they know what to do with usually find things to do with it – drugs, prostitutes, a luxury yacht, a trophy wife. In Belfort’s case, the latter turns out to be Naomi (Robbie), a Jersey shore princess and model.

As Belfort’s shenanigans grow more egregious he and his firm attracts the attention of the FBI in the person of dogged agent Patrick Denham (Chandler). Constantly in a drugged haze of cocaine and Quaaludes, Belfort and Azoff decide to launder their money and use drug dealer Brad (Bernthal) and a loathsome Swiss banker (Dujardin) to do it. But as those who ride too high will tell you, the fall is inevitable and not very pretty when it comes.

Scorsese has delivered another masterpiece in his storied career. Frequent collaborator (this is the fifth movie they’ve done together) di Caprio is at his best. His manic portrayal of Belfort is almost certain to get an Oscar nomination later this month and is at the moment the odds on favorite to win the gold.

He is mesmerizing every moment he’s on the screen and this with a character that is basically a douchebag. He basically thumbs his nose at everything decent and does everything to the point where you could charitably call him evil and yet di Caprio is so good that we can’t turn away. Belfort is a train wreck of a human being and di Caprio keeps our eyes glued on him.

Hill also delivers what might be a superior performance to his Oscar-nominated turn in Moneyball. His Azoff is smarmy, smart but not as smart as Belfort and a bit cowardly. He is the kind of guy who wants to live the high life but doesn’t have the brains or the charisma to get it himself so he rides on Belfort’s coattails. At the end of the day, Hill makes this guy less of a rat and more of a flawed human being whose mantra of every man for himself informs his every decision.

I’ve noticed that conservative viewers tend to look at this movie as a liberal Hollywood hatchet job on Wall Street so those who tend to get their information from Fox News might want to give this one a skip. While the excesses here seem over-the-top, they are all documented – by the real Jordan Belfort himself. I must also add that while Belfort bilked his customers out of more than a billion dollars, he did go to jail for it. Some of the Wall Street bigwigs from established firms stole far more from their clients and damn near bankrupted our economy yet none of them are in jail. I guess it’s all in who you know.

Part of the downfall for Belfort is his drug use and that is depicted pretty graphically here. If the sight of di Caprio snorting a line off of a naked woman’s breasts is uncomfortable for you, if the idea of seeing the results of Quaalude intoxication makes you queasy, this might not be the movie for you. I must admit that a scene late in the movie in which Belfort and Azoff take some powerful Quaaludes that don’t have a reaction in the normal amount of time turns into one of the funniest scenes of the year. I have to admit I felt a little guilty about laughing at it; watching a drug addict having a seizure after an overdose sounds cruel but I suppose if you can’t laugh at someone who has to roll their way down a staircase and only able to communicate in a kind of hooting grunt, who can you laugh at?

Like some of Scorsese’s best films, there’s a hint of controversy involved and the movie definitely isn’t for conservative Wall Street apologists. However for everyone else, there is something to be said for watching someone playing so fast and so loose without a care for the consequences of his actions get his which leads to my next point; if I have one gripe about the movie it’s that there isn’t anything about the very real human consequences to Belfort’s clients. That aspect might illustrate the real tragedy of the Jordan Belfort story in that the people who paid for his crimes and continue to do so never really get a face.

REASONS TO GO: Di Caprio and Scorsese hit another one out of the park. Hysterically funny in places, heartbreaking in others.

REASONS TO STAY: Belfort is such a scumbag it’s really hard to identify with him let alone root for him.

FAMILY VALUES:  More drug use than you thought humanly possible, graphic nudity and sex, enough profanity to make Lenny Bruce blush and even a little violence for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Footage of the actual beach party in the Hamptons depicted here with the real Jordan Belfort can be found on YouTube.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boiler Room

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Punk Singer

The Artist


The Artist

Ta-da!!!!!!!!!!

(2011) Romance (Weinstein) Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller, Beth Grant, Ed Lauter, Bitsie Tulloch, Joel Murray, Ken Davitian, Basil Hoffman. Directed by Michael Hazanavicius

 

Some movies try to re-invent the wheel. On occasion they are successful and create something new and exciting. Strangely, sometimes going back to the beginning can in itself become something new.

George Valentin (Dujardin) is at the top of the world in 1927. He is a movie star, beloved by women and admired by men. His movies are smash hits, the studio loves him and he is married to a beautiful woman (Miller). There are clouds on the horizon however; the talkies are coming and George has a thick French accent.

But that is still on the horizon. For now, George has another fabulous premiere of another big hit to attend. Outside, while mugging for reporters, a female fan named Peppy Miller (Bejo) accidentally bumps into him; the two mug for the cameras and Peppy bestows upon George a kiss which makes all the industry papers.

George, a generous soul, gets her a bit part in a movie and thus begins the inevitable decline of the big star and the rise of a fresh face. George, refusing to do talkies, gambles everything on a big budget silent that nobody wants to see. Peppy, on the other hand, is just as her name describes her; energetic, smart, sly and full of moxie, see? She is the embodiment of the new Hollywood; stars that not only are beautiful but have something to say.

George’s fortune is lost in the crash. His wife leaves him. The studio boss (Goodman) fires him. As time passes, he is unable to afford his faithful valet (Cromwell) and fires him. All that is left is his dog – and Peppy, who is hopelessly in love with him but George’s pride won’t let him accept her aid. Pride goeth before the fall and George has an awful long way to go before he hits bottom.

Who would have thought that one of the best movies of 2011 would be a silent movie (not completely silent – there is a musical soundtrack, some sound effects during a dream sequence and a few lines of dialogue near the end of the movie). Hazanavicius has skillfully re-created not only the era but the style of the films. He went after a melodramatic look and it pays off; even though there are elements of the screwball comedy as well as the swashbuckler.

Valentin is a cross between John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks – dashing, handsome and with a crooked grin that is endearing, he is both masculine and charming. Dujardin plays him with a bit of a wink but as Valentin’s fortunes fall, the French star adds an element of pathos that really gives the movie a complete emotional gamut; it’s part of why the movie is so wonderful. At various times in this movie you’ll laugh and cry and Dujardin is a big reason why.

Bejo who is the daughter of an Argentine filmmaker but grew up in France is also the director’s wife; formerly best-known for her role as Christiana in A Knight’s Tale (2001) she is almost a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination (she already has a Golden Globe nomination among others). She brings a liveliness and joie de vivre to Peppy that adds a great energy to the picture. In fact, there is a great joyfulness to the movie that separates it from much of the dark, depressing fare that comes out of Hollywood these days.

There are some terrific supporting performances, particularly from Cromwell as the loyal valet but the performance most people are going to remember is the dog. Jack puts Lassie to shame. Jack gives the movie one rating point all by himself.

Needless to say, the critics are falling all over themselves to praise the movie and with good reason. Rarely does a movie come along that has as much heart and soul as this one. It has become quite literally the must-see movie of the holiday season.

REASONS TO GO: One of the best movies of the year. Charming and funny and heartbreaking all at once.

REASONS TO STAY: Some may find the silent film to be gimmicky.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s one disturbing scene and an obscene gesture but otherwise fit for most families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog Jack was actually played by three separate Jack Russell terriers and each one was colored to resemble the other dogs so that they matched onscreen.

HOME OR THEATER: Best viewed in an old movie theater, preferably one more than 70 years old if you can find one around.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Final Destination

New Releases for the Week of December 23, 2011


December 23, 2011

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL

(Paramount) Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Josh Holloway, Michael Nyqvist, Michelle Monaghan, Lea Seadoux, Anil Kapoor, Tom Wilkinson, Ving Rhames. Directed by Brad Bird

Although this has been out since last week it’s only been available in the IMAX format and is just now being released to regular theaters. In the fourth installment in the franchise, the IMF is faced with its darkest crisis ever – the agency has been implicated in a global terrorist bombing plot and the entire agency has been disavowed. It is up to Ethan Hunt and his team to discover who’s really behind the threat and clear the IMF from blame, or else be captured and tried as terrorists.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, a promo and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Spy Action

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense action and violence)

The Adventures of Tintin

(Paramount) Jamie Bell, Simon Pegg, Daniel Craig, Andy Serkis. One of the most beloved comic characters in Europe gets a motion capture film of his own directed by none other than Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson. In this, the first of a projected franchise, the intrepid boy reported Tintin chases after the mysterious cargo of the legendary shipwreck the S.S. Unicorn which may yield untold power but also hunting for the wreck is the nefarious Red Rackham (NOTE: This movie opened today and is now playing in theaters everywhere).

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Family Adventure

Rating: PG (for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking)

The Artist

(Weinstein) Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, Malcolm McDowell, John Goodman.  As the silent movie era begins to fade away with the advent of the talkies, a silent movie star sees his stardom slip away from him. Even as he does, a young ingénue he discovered sees her own star rise into the heavens. Their destinies intersect in this charming, bittersweet and ultimately triumphant love story that has earned all sorts of critical awards and may have the loudest Oscar buzz of any film out there.

See the trailer, a clip and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for a disturbing image and a crude gesture)

The Darkest Hour

(Summit) Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor. Five young people visiting Moscow find themselves trapped there when the city is attacked by aliens invisible to the human eye who destroy people using a deadly electrical current. Their situation is further compromised when they find out that Moscow isn’t the only city under attack and they must find a way to survive the superior technology of the invaders. This is the latest from Timur Bekmambetov who brought us Wanted (NOTE: This movie is opening on Sunday, December 25).

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Science Fiction Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence and some language)

Don 2

(Reliance Big Picture) Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Boman Irani, Lara Dutta. An Indian crime boss having taken over most of the Asian crime syndicates sets his sights on Europe. Known for his ruthlessness and cunning, he sets out to beat out his European counterparts at their own game.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Thriller

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

(Columbia) Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard. A disgraced Swedish journalist is hired to investigate a 40-year-old murder by a reclusive old industrialist whose family includes Nazis and sadists. He is assisted by a brilliant young hacker who has been the victim of sexual and physical abuse. This is the remake of a Swedish film that is based on an international best seller; many folks were concerned that the Americanization of the film might ruin the source material, but it appears those fears were needless; the movie is being touted as one of the best of the year and a likely Oscar contender (NOTE: This movie opened on Tuesday and is currently playing in theaters everywhere).

See the trailer, promos and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity and language)

War Horse

(DreamWorks) Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irvine. The journey of a horse from bucolic English countryside to the trenches of the First World War is chronicled by master storyteller Steven Spielberg in one of two movies from the director to open this week. Based on a book by Michael Morpurgo (which was also adapted into a stage play), the movie is geared strongly towards family audiences but word has it that older audiences will appreciate it too (NOTE: This movie is opening on Sunday, December 25).

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: War Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of war violence)

We Bought a Zoo

(20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning. A family, reeling from a tragedy, buy a dilapidated zoo in an effort to make a fresh start. With the help of an eccentric staff, a lot of elbow grease and a willingness to make mistakes, they plough through a series of misadventures that aren’t always learning opportunities.  Their goal is to make the zoo an exciting, fresh place once again but is it possible they have bitten off way more than they can chew?

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG (for language and some thematic elements)

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d’espions)


OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of spies

Jean Dujardin is stirred, not shaken.

(2006) Period Spy Spoof (Music Box) Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, Aure Atika, Philippe Lefebvre, Constantin Alexandrov, Said Amadis, Laurent Bateau, Claude Brosset, Francois Damiens, Youssef Hamid, Khalid Maadour, Arsene Mosca. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius

You may wonder what spy novels looked like before Ian Fleming set pen to paper and came up with James Bond. If you have such thoughts, best check out the novel of agent OSS 117 by Jean Bruce; he wrote his first adventure featuring debonair spy Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath in 1949, predating Fleming’s “Casino Royale” by three years. Although I don’t know for certain if Fleming read the Bruce novels, certainly the similarities between 007 and 117 can’t be overlooked.

Cairo, 1955 – a crack agent of the OSS (the French version of MI-6 and the CIA) named Jack Jefferson (Lefebvre) has been murdered. The French government opts to send their best agent and Jefferson’s close friend Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, a.k.a. agent 117, to “make the Middle East safe” and solve his friend’s murder.

He is given the cover of a chicken importer and Jack’s former secretary Larmina El Akmar Betouche (Bejo) to assist him, as he wades through American and Soviet spies, Nazi splinter cells, the supersexy Egyptian Princess Al Tarouk (Atika) and ghosts from his own past in order to get to the truth. In the meantime, he will demonstrate the French colonialist attitudes of the time, not to mention sexism on an epic scale. The joke is, of course, that those attitudes were standard at the time but looking back now, they are completely cringe-worthy.

Dujardin gets the look and mannerisms of Sean Connery-era Bond just right in this strange mixture of Clousseau, Bond and Austin Powers. Although the novels that Bruce wrote were straight-forward spy thrillers, this film is far from that ethos; instead, it makes merry fun of the genre, taking every cliché from the Bond series and throwing it back without mocking it so much. It is Hubert who is the most ridiculous, displaying an abysmal ignorance of local culture and customs but he is just so dang charming you don’t really resent him for it. One of the film’s funniest sequences is when a sleeping Hubert is awakened by a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, he yells at him to “shut the **** up” and eventually climbs the minaret and pounds him into silence. It sounds horrible on paper and I’m sure many Muslims might take offense as written but it made me chuckle nonetheless.

The overall mood is enhanced by Hazanavicius’s use of period camera and optical techniques (such as rear projection during scenes in which the actors are in cars driving in the streets of Cairo, or the use of Technicolor that brings out the colors while giving the whole movie a kind of faded quality), as well as opening titles that recall the great Saul Bass.

Some of the jokes fell a little flat to me – that might have been a case of the humor losing something in the translation. Although the movie was only an hour and a half long, it felt like it had been stretched a bit. The movie’s climax also seemed a bit drawn out. However, if you like your spoofs over-the-top and Airplane-like, this might well be a hidden gem for you. Be aware this isn’t a Bond with all the gadgets and the Q Division; this is the Bond that was a suave, charming lady-killer one moment and a ruthless, rough killer the next. This is the Bond of From Russia with Love more than the Bond of Goldfinger. Well, technically, this isn’t Bond at all.

Yes, Bond and Hubert share the same pedigree in many ways but they are different animals. Hubert has a Gallic joie de vivre that no British actor could ever hope to duplicate. Part of me wonders how the movie would have fared if they had played it straight and cut out the outrageous aspects. Is the world ready for a truly international spy? We will have to wait for the answer.

WHY RENT THIS: Very reminiscent of the spy films of the 60s, with a Gallic twist. Some of the humor here is over the top and universal.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Feels too much like something else at times. I wonder how much better it would have been as a film if it had been played straight.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence, a bit of sexuality, a few bad words and a whole lot of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of OSS 117 appeared in 265 novels and seven feature films in France between 1956 and 1970.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel but everything else is pretty generic.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Cars 2