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

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Babel


 

Babel

The desolation of the Moroccan landscape is reflected in Cate Blanchett's eyes.

(2006) Ensemble Drama (Paramount Vantage) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, .Rinko Kikuchi, Adrianna Barraza, Michael Pena, Koji Yakusho, Elle Fanning, Clifton Collins Jr., Mohammed Akhzam, Boubker Ait El Caid, Said Tarchani, Mustapha Rachidi, Nathan Gamble, Satoshi Nikaido. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

In our multi-cultural society, conversation has become almost white noise as we try to make some sense out of what is being said. It is not by accident that “Babel” and “Babble” are homonyms.

Two young goatherds (Caid, Tarchani) in Morocco are testing their new rifle to see if the claims that it could shoot a bullet three kilometers is true by firing it at moving vehicles on a nearby road. Instead, they hit a tour bus and wind up shooting Susan, an American tourist (Blanchett). The wound is serious, and it forces the tour bus to divert to the village of the tour guide (Akhzam) which is where the nearest doctor is (the nearest hospital is far enough away that she might bleed to death before they get there). This causes an international incident when the United States government blames the act on terrorists. Her husband Richard (Pitt) is more concerned with getting her to a proper hospital but they are stuck in a small village in the interior of Morocco with no doctor, no medicine and a wound from which her lifeblood is slowly seeping away. The governments posture and issue press statements while the anxious passengers wonder if they aren’t vulnerable to another terrorist attack. Their desire to leave is met with Richard’s insistence that they stay until help arrives.

That’s not all. Her children (Fanning and Gamble) whom she thought were safe at home, were taken by their housekeeper/nanny Amelia (Barraza) and her unreliable nephew Santiago (Bernal) to the wedding of her son in Mexico, necessitated when she cannot find anyone to watch her charges while she’s gone. When they return home in the wee hours of the morning, an overzealous border guard (Collins) causes the inebriated Santiago to panic and run the border. Chased by the Border Patrol, he leaves the children and his aunt stranded in the desert, promising to lose the patrol and come back for them. Dawn comes and they are still alone in the heat of the desert with no water and little shade.

Meanwhile in Japan, Chieko, a young deaf-mute girl (Kikuchi) struggles to cope with the suicide of her mother and her own budding sexuality. She wanders around the crowded, pulsating streets of Tokyo, flirting with guys in J-Pop clubs, and gossiping with her teammates on the volleyball team. She shuts out her father (Yakusho) who is puzzled at his daughter’s hostility towards him. When a handsome detective (Nikaido) comes to their apartment while her father is at work, Chieko sees an opportunity. All of these stories are related in one way or another, and the effects of a single bullet will have repercussions in every one of their lives.

Like last year’s Oscar-winner Crash, the four main stories are told simultaneously with one another with characters from each story running like threads through the others. The stories aren’t told chronologically, so there is some overlap and information from one storyline is received in another, even though those events haven’t happened in the first storyline yet. That serves to lessen the dramatic tension some (for instance, a very important aspect of Susan’s medical condition is revealed very early on in the Mexican portion of the film, even though in the Moroccan portion she hasn’t been shot yet). While I admire Inarritu’s boldness in altering the paradigm of storytelling, it just isn’t executed as well as it could have been. 

There are some excellent acting performances here, particularly from Pitt who turns in the most complete performance of his career to date. As the anguished husband who is already having marital problems with his wife (they go to Morocco ostensibly to work out their problems alone, but as she acidly points out, they are with a tour group and consequently are almost never alone), Pitt displays frustration, despair and fear with much more emotional openness than we’re used to seeing from him. He looks much older in the movie than what he usually plays, which I think makes the role a bit more believable. 

Kikuchi also does a really fine job in a role in which she has no dialogue except for grunts and moans. She has to spend much of her performance naked and displaying her sexuality in ways that many actresses might find uncomfortable (although fans of Basic Instinct might find the performance intriguing). Inarritu has a tendency to use non-actors in some his movies (as he does here particularly in the Moroccan sequence) and they come through nicely.

I like the look into the various cultures that Inarritu provides, particularly the Moroccan and Japanese aspects (which are less familiar to those of us in the States, where the Mexican culture is much more prevalent). I was fascinated particularly by the desolation of Morocco and the North American desert; both are desolate and empty, which contrasts nicely with the lively crowds in Tokyo.

The problem here is that there is too much storyline going on. The Japanese sequence is not really necessary to the movie and quite frankly, the Mexican sequence probably isn’t either. The movie runs at 2 1/2 hours long and is a good half hour too long for my taste. This could have been trimmed without diluting the message or the power of the performance overly much. 

Inarritu is a real talent (he already has Amores Perros and 21 Grams under his belt) and will undoubtedly turn out movies that are going to be classics in the very near future. This, unfortunately, isn’t one of them, although it is good enough to recommend unreservedly. I can recommend it on the basis of some of the performances, and because of the glimpses into different cultures. However, if you’re going to do a movie based on how our lack of communication as a species leads to terrible problems, the least you can do is not keep talking so long that the listener tunes you out.

WHY RENT THIS: Well directed and beautifully filmed. Pitt turns in his finest performance to date. Blanchett and Kikuchi are also solid.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A good half hour too long, could have done without the Japanese and Mexican segments of the film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violent content, graphic nudity and sexuality and a little bit of drug use. Definitely not for the kids.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: Nothing listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $135.3M on an unreported production budget; undoubtedly the movie was a blockbuster!

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Lincoln Lawyer