Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


The world needs Fred Rogers more than ever.

(2017) Documentary (Focus) Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Robert F. Kennedy, Yo-Yo Ma, Chtista McAuliffe, Joe Negri, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Elizabeth Seamans, Jeff Erlinger, Tom Snyder, Margy Whitmer, Kailyn Davis, David Newell, McColm Cephas Jr. John O. Pastore, Betty Aberlin, Koko. Directed by Morgan Neville

Entire generations of kids grew up with Fred Rogers, whose PBS television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a mainstay in many households across the country. Rogers himself was an unlikely TV star; soft-spoken, a little bit corny and prone to using silence on his show to allow kids to digest things, he took the conventions of frenetic-paced kids television of the day (the same conventions that remain today) and turned them upside down and inside out. For this he became a beloved figure. Few celebrities have ever been able to relate as well to children as he.

An ordained minister, he eschewed the cloth to utilize the fairly new medium of television in order to spread his gospel of talking to children as equals rather than talking down to them, to listening to what they have to say instead of dismissing it out of hand. He wanted to teach children the virtues of kindness and generosity. He wanted them to know that every one of them are unique and special.

Of course, in later years Fox News seized on this and blamed Rogers for the entitlement of Millennials. As usual, Fox News got it wrong; what he was getting across was that every child is unique and has something different to offer. Some kids are fast runners, some great singers, others are just good at giving hugs. Everything is valid. Of course, Fox News and their ilk have succeeded in getting across that a person’s value can only be measured in dollars and cents. It’s that ridiculous and heartless idea that only people who are gainfully employed in “serious” jobs are successes in life.

The format of the documentary isn’t particularly earth-shattering; it’s essentially what most modern documentaries do; archival footage, talking head interviews and animated sequences (of Daniel Tiger in this case) mixed together. Neville, an Oscar winner for Twenty Feet from Stardom, mixes the elements together in a roughly chronological order and with a wealth of video from Rogers’ show as well as contemporary and archival interviews with Rogers, his family, his colleagues and noted celebrities like Yo-Yo Ma, bring together a picture of the man – who struggled with feelings of inadequacy his entire life – and of the impact of his show, which was clearly considerable.

Rogers helped teach children to deal with real issues, like divorce and death. His show following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy was perhaps his finest moment as kids learned from Daniel Tiger that it’s okay to be sad and to feel bad about someone being assassinated. While Rogers likely wouldn’t have voted for Kennedy (he was a lifelong Republican), he could at least cross party lines and help heal those hurting following a national tragedy. I wonder if any modern Republicans or Democrats could do that today.

In fact, given the recent news of children at the border being forcibly taken away from their parents, one wonders what Fred Rogers would have thought about that? I can only imagine but I have no doubt in my mind his soft voice would be among the loudest in demanding that the practice be discontinued immediately and that the children separated from their parents be returned to them without delay. His wife Joanne, talking about the political division that exists in this country nowadays, asserts that while Fred would have been disappointed in it, he would be at the same time on the front lines trying to heal those divisions rather than complaining about it. He certainly would not give up hope. To me, that’s why America needed Fred Rogers then and why we need him more than ever no and indeed, the world needs men like him always.

If you’re looking for a documentary that gives you a warm feeling of nostalgia, this one delivers. If you’re looking for one that gives you a sense of hope and well-being, this one delivers. If you’re looking for a film that will make you want to be a better person, this one delivers. I hope that we all continue to learn from Fred Rogers the lessons he taught so gently yet effectively. Every neighborhood would benefit.

REASONS TO GO: This is the rare documentary that makes you feel good exiting the theater. It’s a very informative film about Fred Rogers and his TV show. The life lessons taught here continue to be valid.
REASONS TO STAY: The structure of the documentary isn’t particularly remarkable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is perfectly suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The various puppets used on the show were based on people Rogers knew or in the case of Daniel Tiger, on Rogers himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Big Bird: The Carrol Spinney Story
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Annihilation

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Allied


The name is Pitt, Brad Pitt.

The name is Pitt, Brad Pitt.

(2016) War Drama (Paramount) Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, Simon McBurney, Matthew Goode, Marion Bailey, Ian Batchelor, Ėric Thëobald, Josh Dylan, Camille Cottin, August Diehl, Anton Blake, Fleur Poad, Vincent Latorre, Daniel Betts, Sally Messham, Charlotte Hope, Celeste Dodwell, Maggie O’Brien, Anton Lesser, Angelique Joan. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Espionage is a lonely affair. After all, how can you trust anyone who it is a given that they are at the very least manipulating the truth if not outright lying? Relationships do not survive without trust, after all.

Max Vatan (Pitt) is a Canadian airman/spy who parachutes into North Africa during World War II. His assignment is to make it to Casablanca and there attend a party where he will assassinate the German ambassador (Blake). Assisting him will be Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard), a member of the French resistance who will pose as his wife and get him into the party.

At first, both of them are consummate professionals, maintaining the illusion of a loving marriage while retaining their objectivity but that objectivity begins to crumble. Imminent danger turns feigned affection to the real McCoy. On the eve of the party, they go out to the desert to clear their heads but a sandstorm traps them in their car where they finally smash through their pretensions and give in to what they’ve both been feeling.

After completing their mission, they return to London and marry; shortly thereafter Marianne gives birth to a daughter in the midst of an air raid. They find a quaint cottage in Hampstead while Max is a desk jockey in the British war department. One afternoon on what is supposed to be a weekend off, he is summoned to headquarters and his superior (Harris) and a officious military intelligence officer (McBurney) drop a bombshell of their own; Marianne is in fact a German spy. She’d assumed the identity of the real Marianne Beauséjour after murdering her. They’ve intercepted transmissions of classified material that they have traced to her. Max is given false information to make sure that Marianne can discover. If that information turns up in a new transmission, then all doubt will be removed and Max is ordered to execute her by his own hand in that case. Failure to do so will result in his own execution.

Max, of course, doesn’t believe that the love of his life and the mother of his child could betray him like that. Despite orders to the contrary, he does some sleuthing of his own trying to discover the truth about his wife. Is she, as he believes, falsely accused or has she lied to him all this time and is actually using him?

To Zemeckis’ credit, he doesn’t tip his hand one way or the other. The audience is completely in the dark of Marianne’s innocence or guilt until the very end of the film. Also to his credit we care about both characters enough that we are genuinely rooting for the accusations to be false. It is also a credit to both actors that their relationship is completely believable.

What isn’t believable is the whole trope of that the accused spy, if she is a spy, must die by the hand of her husband. I suppose that the logic there is that it proves the continued loyalty of the Max character and that he isn’t an accomplice to Marianne’s alleged chicanery but it is the kind of thing that doesn’t make sense. It would seem more logical that if Marianne is guilty that anybody but Max execute her. Certainly war can change morality but it doesn’t seem to me that forcing a man to kill his wife would do anything but turn him against the agency making such an order. There are also plenty of ways to get Marianne to receive false information without involving her husband. It would be in fact more efficient to leave him ignorant. Of course that would also remove the tension of the movie’s third act.

Pitt and Cotillard are both legitimate movie stars and with all that implies; Zemeckis is a master at utilizing the abilities of the stars he works with. Pitt and Cotillard have never been as radiant and charismatic as they are here. They both captivate equally and their relationship as lovers makes absolute sense and is believable without question. The movie is essentially a primer for the advantages of star power.

What I liked most about the film was that it is very a movie that puts to lie “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” This is absolutely the way they used to make ‘em like. It is no accident that the first act is set in Casablanca; the iconic Casablanca is not only name-checked but several elements from it are slyly referenced. The costuming is absolutely superb. I don’t often notice the costumes but they are superb here; it wouldn’t surprise me if the film gets an Oscar nomination in that department. Joanna Johnston, the costume designer, certainly deserves one here.

What I didn’t like about the movie is that it runs a little bit too long particularly during the second act. Da Queen, in the interest of full disclosure, actually liked this part of the movie much more than I did; she felt that Max acted the way she thought any good husband would.  In all honesty I can’t dispute that, but again that’s why any intelligence agency would not inform the husband of an accused spy that she’s under investigation, if for no other reason that they would better be able to determine his own complicity if any in that manner.

I have to admit that I liked the movie a few days after seeing it than I did when I left the theater and it’s entirely possible that when I view this a second time (as I certainly will since Da Queen really liked the movie much more than I did) I will find myself liking it even more. That said, it did leave me a bit flat despite everything it had going for it; that could be chalked up to me not feeling well when I saw it. There are definitely some flaws here but for those who love movies the way they used to be you’re bound to find this right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: Pitt and Cotillard are legitimate movie stars who use their star appeal to full potential here. It’s an old-fashioned Hollywood movie in the best sense of the term.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is way too long and drags a whole lot in the middle third. Some of the plot points lack credibility.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some wartime espionage violence, some sexuality, a brief scene of drug use and a slight amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In one scene, a photo of King George VI can be seen behind Jared Harris. He played the monarch in the Netflix series The Crown.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. and Mrs. Jones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Almost Christmas

Anthropoid


Nobody likes a bomb.

Nobody likes a bomb.

(2016) Historical Drama (Bleecker Street) Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Toby Jones, Sean Mahon, Bill Milner, Jan Hájek, Pavel Reznicek, Alena Mihulová, Harry Lloyd, Detlef Bothe, Roman Zach, Mish Boyko, Sam Keeley, Ondrej Maly, Marcin Corocinski, Karel Hermánek Jr., Václav Neuzil, Jiri Simek, Andrej Polak, Anna Gerislová. Directed by Sean Ellis

 

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but there are some true stories that are not strange at all, but point out the best that humanity can be – and the worst. Not all of those sorts of stories stay with us for long and indeed this one remains only relatively well-known in Eastern Europe, but it is a story worth the telling.

After the Berlin Accords gave what was then known as Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany to be used as fuel for the war machine to come, Prague became an occupied city and the entire region was ruled with an iron fist. Holding that fist was Reinhard Heydrich (Bothe), one of the authors of Hitler’s Final Solution and who would become known as The Butcher of Prague.

The Czech government in exile decided to make a statement and sent a team of paratroopers into the countryside outside Prague who had the mission of assassinating Heydrich. Leading the team was Josef Gabcik (Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Dornan), two Czech soldiers. Things went bad from the beginning; Kubis injured his foot while landing and the two resistance fighters who were sent to meet them turned out to be Nazi collaborators. The two soldiers barely escaped with their lives.

They finally found legitimate resistance members in Prague, but the situation there was very chaotic. There was little or no information to be hand; the city was under severe restrictions and people were being rounded up and imprisoned with impunity. There were infiltrators everywhere and knowing whom to trust was no easy task. “Uncle” Hajsky (Jones) was trying to make some sort of organization through all this but most of his men had been arrested. He put up the two paratroopers in the Moravec home whose mother (Mihulová) was a resistance member and their son Ata (Milner) loyal to the cause.

To keep suspicions from being aroused over the new arrivals, girlfriends were supplied; Marie (Le Bon) for Josef and Lenka (Gerislová) for Jan. The deception turned out to be a lot more accurate as the two couples began to actually fall for each other. Wartime can be a great accelerator of romance.

In the repressive atmosphere of Prague, however, getting their mission completed would be no easy task and with little contact with their government and almost no intelligence to go on, the two men had their work cut out for them. What would happen would become one of the greatest instances of heroism to come out of the War and is a source of national pride to the Czechs even to this day.

It is not an easy thing to write a review or a movie that is about actual history; while one doesn’t want to supply spoilers for those who may not be aware of how the story unfolded, at the same time it is difficult to write about the film without giving at least some plot points away. Suffice to say that Ellis and company have given us a movie whose historical accuracy is better than almost any movie I’ve ever seen; that is a double-edged sword however.

The movie does drag in places, particularly in the first half. Once the assassination is attempted, the movie is turbo charged and Ellis delivers some really fine suspense sequences and one of the best shoot-outs since the climax of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Murphy and Dornan are both fine actors and they’re given some exceptional material to work with. Both men are imperfect, neither are superheroes and both have the kinds of doubts and frailties that real heroes must overcome to do extraordinary things.

Those who are aware of the history behind the celluloid are going to view this a lot differently than those who are unfamiliar with the story; even the latter group however may find the sense of things spiraling towards a final conclusion somewhat overwhelming. We all know that the Titanic is going to sink even before we view the movie; how it gets there and who survives is what makes that movie a classic.

As a movie, Anthropoid makes an excellent history lesson. That doesn’t always translate to entertainment however, unless you are entertained by history and fortunately for me, I am. I found the film fascinating and I was moved enough to research the real Operation Anthropoid which is where I discovered that the filmmakers stuck to the facts of the incident quite closely which is something to be admired, although at times they seem to be willing to sacrifice entertainment for accuracy. I think that both could have coexisted better as the last half of the movie clearly shows; had the first half been able to capture the tension of the second this would have been a clear front runner to be one of the best movies of the year. Unfortunately, it is slow in getting underway so this will have to remain a solid, historically accurate war film that is flawed but nevertheless worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Historically accurate and full of gut-wrenching suspense. The performances are strong throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The sense of impending doom is oppressive at times. Slow-moving in the first half of the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence here as well as some fairly disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which Ata Moravec is tortured was filmed in the same place where it actually happened.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Operation: Daybreak
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Don’t Think Twice

The Mermaid (Mei ren yu)


"Ursula? Where?"

“Ursula? Where?”

(2016) Fantasy-Comedy (Sony International) Chao Deng, Jelly Lin, Show Luo, Yuqi Zhang, Pierre Bourdaud, Ivan Kotik, Tsui Hark, Kris Wu, Kai Man Tin, Ke Bai, Yang Neng, Bo Xiaolong, Mei’e Zhang, Lianshun Kong, Zhang Wen. Directed by Stephen Chow

As we continue to wreak havoc on our environment, it only stands to reason that eventually our environment will wreak back. One can only take so much crap before fighting back.

Self-made entrepreneur Liu Xuan (Deng) has purchased the land surrounding the Green Gulf to create his own sanctuary there. However, that darn marine life insists on staying so Liu gets his top scientist (Kotik) to create a device that will send the local marine life fleeing for its life – a kind of a super-sonar that causes fish to explode, their faces to become badly burned and all sorts of other nasty consequences.

There is a colony of mer-folk who live in the Gulf who are none too happy about this turn of events. After legal means of preventing Liu’s deprivations fails spectacularly, their leader – a mer-octopus named Eight (Luo) who also happens to be something of a pop star – decides to kill Liu to save his family. He enlists comely Shan (Lin) to seduce Liu, a notorious lady’s man, and lure him to the mermaid lair in a wrecked ship on the shore of the gulf where the angry octopus will seal the deal.

At first things go badly; the mermaids and mermen have absolutely no concept of human beauty, so Shen comes off looking more deranged than desirable. However, when approached by predatory Ruolan (Zhang), a partner in the Green Gulf project who wants to seal the deal with a physical liaison with Liu, who decides to use Shen as leverage. However, despite the deadly plot, he doesn’t count on falling in love with Shen. Nor does she count on falling in love with him.

So things are now FUBAR in both camps and of course, this being a Stephen Chow movie, the fur is going to fly – or in this case, the scales – and there’s going to be plenty of sushi and human carnage before it’s all over.

This is the highest grossing film in Chinese history, although it was only released a few months ago and was competing with Star Wars: The Force Awakens so it’s a pretty impressive accomplishment assuming its legitimate (there has been some controversy over China’s fast and loose box office numbers). The movie pushes a little bit the boundaries of what is acceptable in Chinese culture, being a little critical of the role that business plays in the despoiling of our planet, something that is seldom talked about openly in China.

Chow, who lately hasn’t been appearing in his own films the way he used to a decade ago, has a very broad style which syncs well with the Chinese sense of humor. Think silent movies; a lot of the humor comes from exaggerated facial expressions and from almost slapstick situations. Some Westerners tend to find this humor unpalatable and do be warned that while there are many genuinely hysterical scenes in the film, not all of them are going to appeal to our cultural humor.

The CGI is a little on the cheesy side as bodies go flying through the air. Be warned that this isn’t up to the standards most Hollywood films adhere to in terms of effects, but nonetheless the movie is still good looking and above all, fun. I was tickled by the irreverence and the broad strokes – there’s a teppanyaki scene that is one of the funniest single scenes I’ve seen in any movie anywhere this year.

This won’t be for everyone and even fans of Asian cinema in general might raise an eyebrow or two at some of the madness that transpires here, but I must have been in the right frame of mind for this because I enjoyed it immensely. Go in and just let the silliness wash over you like a velvet wave. It’s not meant to have too much brain power applied to it, even though there are some serious undertones to the movie’s message, which came to me mostly after the final credits and to be honest never really disturbed me during the course of the movie’s silliness. And what better way to get a point across than through a sneak attack?

REASONS TO GO: Fun is the rule of the day. Some really hilarious moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Moments of cheesiness. Some of the humor may be a little too broad for Western tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and over-the-top gore, although not terribly realistic.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The interiors were shot in a former glass factory in Shenzen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bunny the Killer Thing

No Escape


Owen Wilson and Lake Bell carry the movie.

Owen Wilson and Lake Bell carry the movie.

(2015) Action (Weinstein) Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Claire Geare, Sterling Jenns, Stacy Chbosky, Tanapol Chuksrida, Jon Goldney, Nophand Boonyai, Thanawut Kasro, Kanaprat Phintiang, Bonnie Jo Hutchison, Danai Tung Thiengtham, Vuthichard Photphurin, Manfred Iig, Bonnie Zellerbach, Karen Gemma Dodgson. Directed by John Erick Dowdle

It is one thing to be in a situation in which you are in mortal danger. It is quite another when your entire family is in that same situation with you. The entire dynamic is changed; you may fight for your own life but when it comes to your family…

Jack Dwyer (Wilson) is an engineer whose business has gone belly up. Forced to take a job to take care of his family, he goes to work for the multinational Cardiff Corporation, going to a Southeastern Asia country to work on cleaning up their water supply. He is going to be there for some time, so he brings his family – wife Annie (Bell), daughters Lucy (Jenns) and Beeze (Geare). The girls are a bit on the spoiled side – Lucy, a pre-teen, acts out constantly while the younger Beeze has a maniacal attachment to a stuffed teddy bear named Bob.

The family befriends scruffy Hammond (Brosnan), a British ex-pat, on the flight over and when the car that Cardiff was supposed to send around to fetch them doesn’t arrive, Hammond and his local buddy Kenny Rogers (Boonthanakit), who runs a taxi service and is freakishly devoted to the singer in question that everyone knows him by that name, offers to give the exhausted family a lift to the hotel. Once there, the phones, television and internet aren’t working. Jack heads down to the concierge (Boonyai) to complain about the situation and ends up spending some time with the womanizing drunken Hammond at the bar.

What Jack doesn’t know is that the country’s prime minister (Photphurin) has been assassinated and a rebel coup has begun. The rebels, easily identified by their red bandannas, are virulently anti-foreigner and what Jack also doesn’t know is that they’re particularly pissed off at his company who have taken over their country’s water supply.

While out to fetch a newspaper the next morning, Jack runs smack into a confrontation between rebels and riot police and is caught in the middle. As he runs back to the hotel, he soon finds to his dismay that the rebels not only have numerical superiority but the upper hand; they are well-armed and are completely overrunning government forces. They are also executing foreigners on sight. Jack, realizing the situation is out of hand, goes to collect his family including the willful Lucy who has gone AWOL to the hotel swimming pool. Once he collects his family, he takes them on the advice of Hammond to the hotel roof, which turns out to be not as safe as he would have thought when a rescue helicopter turns out to be anything but. In order to escape he is forced to throw his screaming reluctant children to the roof of an adjacent office building and hide them there after the inhabitants are butchered by the rebels. They try to head for the American embassy, but even though it is only a few blocks away it might as well be on the moon, considering how dangerous the streets are.

Dowdle, who co-wrote the movie with his brother Drew, has done some fairly high-profile genre work in the past, including Devil, Quarantine and As Above, So Below. This is less a genre film and more of an action thriller, broken down to almost a primal level – a man trying to protect his family, doesn’t get any more primal than that.

Wilson and Bell aren’t the first choices I’d make to cast an action movie, but they do credible jobs here, even if Bell is given little to do but be menaced by rebels and to try and calm down her hysterical children. What I like about the roles is that neither Wilson or Bell are ex-Navy SEALs or kickboxing champions. They are ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation and from time to time they freak out, understandably.

The kids though are another matter. They are whiny, bratty and basically are there to put the entire family in jeopardy at every inopportune moment. I don’t mind that happening from time to time in the movie but it seemed like every ten or fifteen minutes in a kid would cry, disobey their parents or snivel to the point where they got noticed by angry rebels. I know the kids are part of the motivation for Jack but they needed to be less involved in the action.

Some have criticized the film for making the rebels faceless, but that’s an invalid criticism. Of course the rebels are going to be mostly faceless; this is an action movie. At one point, Hammond comments that the rebels are trying to protect his family just as Jack is. The real villain here is the faceless corporation; nobody complained that the executives of Cardiff were faceless. Political correctness, once again taken to ridiculous lengths.

The action sequences are the film’s highlights; Dowdle directs these deftly, making sure the tension is extremely high throughout. Those action fans who love that kind of thing should flock to this movie; Die Hard it isn’t but it does action right, and that’s not nearly as easy as it sounds., The cinematography isn’t bad, although the urban scenes, mostly filmed in Thailand, are a little bit scruffy. It’s the night filming which is when most of the movie takes place that looks more thrilling.

This is nice entertainment, transitioning from the late summer doldrums into the early fall doldrums and let’s face it, is about as good a movie as we’re going to get until November for the most part. There are a few plot points here that are a bit dicey but if you are willing to overlook them, this is a fairly fun action thriller that does exactly what an action thriller is supposed to do.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty harrowing in places. Wilson, Bell and Brosnan are always worth seeing.
REASONS TO STAY: The kids are far too annoying. Here’s to almost.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence (some of it graphic) and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michelle Monahan was originally cast as Annie Dwyer but when production was delayed, she got pregnant and was forced to drop out of the role. Lake Bell took over the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Southern Comfort
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police

From Russia, With Love


Much better than a mint on your pillow.

Much better than a mint on your pillow.

(1963) Spy Thriller (United Artists) Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw, Bernard Lee, Eunice Gayson, Walter Gotell, Francis de Wolf, George Pastell, Nadja Regin, Lois Maxwell, Aliza Gur, Martine Beswick, Vladek Sheybal, Anthony Dawson, Lisa “Leila” Guiraut, Hasan Ceylan, Peter Bayliss, Desmond Llewelyn. Directed by Terence Young

While most people remember the first James Bond movie (Dr. No) and the third (Goldfinger) the casual moviegoer probably doesn’t remember the second. It was a box office smash, particularly in Britain where it set a box office record in only 82 days of release. Still, it doesn’t get a lot of the love that other Bond films over the years has attained.

James Bond (Connery), MI-6 agent 007 has irritated SPECTRE, a criminal organization set on world domination led by a mysterious Number One (Dawson) who pets a white cat constantly. Planning mastermind Kronsteen (Sheybal) has come up with a plan to steal a Lekter cryptographic device from the Soviet Union and sell it back to them, while exacting revenge on Bond for killing Dr. No in the previous movie. Number One engages Number Three, Rosa Klebb (Lenya) to run the operation. She in turn utilizes SPECTRE agent Red Grant (Shaw) as her primary field operative.

However, the way to get to Bond is to use a beautiful woman and the way to get to the Lekter is to use Tatiana Romanova (Bianchi) to lure in bond with the promise of a Lekter. Of course M (Lee) and Bond know it’s a trap but if they can get their hands on a Lekter, that would be a considerable coup. Bond goes to Istanbul where station chief Ali Kerim Bey (Armendariz) meets him. Grant follows Bond around, wreaking havoc and pitting the Soviets against the Turks and Brits. Romanova rendezvous with Bond and in keeping with – and adding to – a Bond movie tradition, falls head over heels in love with the British spy.

However, SPECTRE is dogging their every move, keeping Bond alive until he can literally deliver the Lekter into their hands. Romanova, who thought she was acting on behalf of the Soviet’s in-house SMERSH agency, is now ready to defect for real. There’ll be Murder on the Orient Express and a thrilling boat chase and of course face-to-face confrontations with both Klebb and Grant before all is said and done. And I could tell you how the movie ends but you don’t have to be a genius to figure out what it’s going to be.

Young was going for a more realistic atmosphere  this time around. While there are gadgets including a fairly useful briefcase and the Lekter itself, this is mostly straight-up action as opposed to later Bond movies. Connery cemented his stardom as it was very apparent that this was a franchise that was going to have staying power – this even before Goldfinger would make it a cultural phenomenon. He’s in so many ways the ultimate male circa 1963. He’s ruggedly handsome, tough as nails, absolute catnip to women and knowledgeable as well as cultured. We mere mortal males couldn’t possibly compete against all that and there were more than a few wives at the time who, seeing this, eyed their husbands with a critical expression. They’re still doing that today, if Da Queen is any indication.

Bianchi is one of the most physically beautiful of the Bond girls, although the former Miss Italy didn’t really have the charisma of the best of them – Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Ursula Andress and Halle Berry come to mind immediately. She’s usually lumped in with Lois Chiles and Olivia D’Abo as one of the less popular girls of the series. I don’t know that it’s fair but she certainly is easy on the eyes.

Llewellyn makes his first appearance as Q, although the head of Q branch is identified by his character’s real name, Major Boothroyd here. Istanbul makes a lovely and exotic backdrop for most of the movie and of course who can go wrong with the most romantic journey in the world, the Orient Express. The winning formula of exotic locations, jaw-dropping beautiful women and clever gadgets really got its start here.

The movie is extremely dated in a lot of ways, particularly in its attitudes towards women who are mostly portrayed as either besotted creatures whose place is in the bedroom and are in need of a manly slap once in awhile, or femme fatales who are out to emasculate if not outright murder any men who come across their path. Even the wise-cracking Moneypenny (Maxwell) really doesn’t get much respect.

Armendariz, who was terminally ill when he made the movie leading Young to film most of his scenes first, is one of the more charming Bond allies and sets the bar for those that would follow. Lenya, best known as the star of her husband Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera and an Oscar nominee for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a shrill but deadly efficient killer whose fight with Bond is one of the biggest kicks in the movie. Shaw, who went on to greater fame as Captain Quint in Jaws shows off washboard abs and a sardonic wit. Grant is a brilliant agent provocateur that creates a good deal of havoc here and it’s fun watching him work.

Having recently re-watched the movie, I get the sense that while it often gets short shrift among all of the Bond movies, there is reason for it. The movie doesn’t jell as well as most of the Connery Bond films and while Klebb and Grant are fine antagonists, they lack the over-the-top panache of classic Bond villains Goldfinger, Blofeld and Largo.

Those things aside and despite being terribly dated in many ways the movie still remains a terrific piece of entertainment. Certainly those tired of seeing the same three or four Bond films over and over again could do worse than to use this one as a change of pace.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the more reality-based Bonds. Armendariz is charming and Lenya and Shaw both formidable foes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One of the more dated Bond movies.
FAMILY VALUES: Some era-appropriate sensuality and era-appropriate violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daniela Bianchi’s voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford due to Bianchi’s heavily Italian-accented English. This was also the final Bond film that Ian Fleming got to see as he passed away shortly after it was released.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Ultimate Blu-Ray edition is loaded with a plethora of extras that should satisfy most Bond fans, including a gallery of still images, radio and TV promos, featurettes on the late Harry Saltzman, the exotic filming locations (some of which weren’t quite so exotic), a comparison between Fleming and Raymond Chandler and an interview with Fleming by the CBC.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $78.9M on a $2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/streaming), Amazon (streaming only), Vudu (purchase only),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Man Flint
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Top Five

The November Man


One Bond reference too many.

One Bond reference too many.

(2014) Spy Action (Relativity) Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Amila Terzimehic, Lazar Ristovski, Mediha Musliovic, Eliza Taylor, Caterina Scorsone, Akie Kotabe, Will Patton, Patrick Kennedy, Dragan Marinkovic, Ben Willens, Milos Timotijevic, Dragan Dvojakovic, Tara Jervrosimovic, Nina Mrdja, Milutin Milosevic, Lena Milan. Directed by Roger Donaldson

In a recent interview, Liam Neeson, in describing his character from the film A Walk Among the Tombstones, declared that people need a hero who is a bit of a loner; one who has one foot on the side for justice and one foot on the side that is lawless. Our heroes can’t be completely pure, otherwise we have trouble relating to them.

Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) is an operative for the CIA, a veteran and crafty one at that. His partner and protégé is David Mason (Bracey), a brash and arrogant sort who doesn’t always listen to those with years of experience on him. When on a mission to protect an American ambassador targeted for assassination, Mason’s inability to follow orders ends up with an innocent child getting killed in the crossfire. Devereaux takes early retirement soon after that.

He is running a small bar and cafe in Lausanne, Switzerland when his old friend and handler for the CIA Ray Hanley (Smitrovich) turns up, telling him that a double agent buried deep in the employ of Arkady Federov (Ristovski), a war hero from the Chechnyan civil war and favored to become the next Russian president, has discovered something big and needs to be pulled out. However, Peter is the only agent she trusts to get her out of Russia.

So, reluctantly, Devereaux heads to Moscow to pull out the secretary Natalia Ulanova (Musliovic) and get the flash drive with her information on it. However, things go sideways quickly and Russian security is hot on their tails. A CIA higher-up, Perry Weinstein (Patton) gives the order to terminate the asset. The woman is then shot by a company sniper.

Furious, Devereaux gives chase to the assassins and takes out most of the team. When he discovers who the trigger man is, he is momentarily shocked and walks away. The man who killed the asset – David Mason.

Now, Devereaux and the CIA are in a race to find the one connection that can take down Federov – a girl named Mira Filipova (Mrdja). The girl however seems to have completely disappeared off the face of the Earth – the only link to her is Alice Fournier (Kurylenko), the director of a refugee agency. Luckily, Devereaux gets to her first. However, now the race becomes a game of cat and mouse between Devereaux and the CIA. Just who the cat is and who the mouse is in the equation is anyone’s guess.

Based on the seventh in a series of novels by Bill Granger written back in 1979 in this specific case, the movie combines the action of a Bond film, the realistic spycraft of Le Carre and even elements of the Bourne series. That kind of leaves one with a been there-done that feel pretty much throughout.

The saving grace is Brosnan who steps into the shoes of a superspy and finds them a comfortable fit. He is just as suave and sophistication as he was in his heyday as Bond nearly twenty years ago. He dominates the screen and adds a hint of sadness and weariness to the character that was absent from Bond. Brosnan has done some really good acting jobs in films like The Ghost Writer since hanging up his Walther PPK and there is a level of depth here that wasn’t really necessary in the Bond films but adds additional flavor to the role. It might be the best action hero performance of the year. Devereaux is also far more ruthless, willing to slice open the femoral artery on an innocent girl in order to get in the head of Mason.

The action itself is pretty old school with plenty of car chases and Devereaux being chased by dozens of lethal, highly trained agents but getting away with some ease. He has survived as long as he has by always being a step ahead of his quarry or his pursuers and that aspect of the character looms large throughout the film.

The movie seems anachronistic at times, with modern cutting-edge technology on the one hand, but cell phones with flip cases – which have been out of style for almost a decade now – are everywhere. I’m wondering if that is what is new and cutting edge in Belgrade, where this was mostly filmed. I think not however and no mention is ever made of the action taking place in 2005 or thereabouts which it sometimes seems to be.

There are plenty of twists and turns as you’d expect in an espionage thriller, a little too many for my taste. While I understand the need to keep your audience guessing and as off-balance as the filmmakers can make them, the movie seems overly complicated which it really doesn’t need to be. A story like this can be told without quite so many moving parts and still be quite effective.

As action and espionage thriller material goes, well, it’s what you’d expect to find in the dregs of summer. It’s not anything that is going to make you want to run right out to the theater, but it isn’t anything that will make you regret being there either. It is nice to see Brosnan in the type of role that is right in his wheelhouse and I can’t help hope that there are more roles like it in his future, although he is getting on a bit. Still, while the Devereaux series doesn’t seem to be likely to be continuing any further given the anemic box office for this film, the acclaim for Brosnan makes me think that there may be other producers perhaps ready to hand over to Brosnan the types of roles that Neeson has been getting for the past decade now.

REASONS TO GO: Brosnan is an old pro at these sorts of movies. Some fairly nifty old school action scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Seems oddly dated. Plot unnecessarily over-complicated.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence, some of it brutal, as well as a sexual assault. There’s a good deal of foul language, some sexuality, brief nudity and one scene in which drugs are used.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When we glimpse Devereaux’s file, the birthday given for Devereaux is the same as Brosnan’s actual birth date. Also, along with Brosnan, Kurylenko also has Bond experience in Quantum of Solace.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goldeneye
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Life After Beth