A Most Wanted Man


R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman.

R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman.

(2014) Spy Thriller (Roadside Attractions) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Daniel Bruhl, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Homayoun Ershadi, Mehdi Dehbi, Nina Hoss, Neil Malik Abdullah, Vicky Krieps, Kostja Ullmann, Franz Hartwig, Martin Wuttke, Rainer Bock, Derya Alabora, Tamer Yigit, Herbert Gronemeyer, Ursina Lardi Directed by Anton Corbijn

 

It is a tricky world out there, complicated and dangerous. These days, being a spy is a lot more than playing baccarat and sipping a superbly made martini and spies aren’t urbane, elegant men in formal wear. They’re more often than not rumpled, middle aged bureaucrat sorts who wouldn’t make an impression on anyone at first glance.

 

Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) is such a spy. He chain smokes, drinks too much and has a pot belly not well-disguised by his ill-fitting suit. He looks like middle management for some automobile manufacturer – in fact, he is middle management but in a far different vocation. He is part of an anti-terrorist group, a small but dedicated group who monitor potential terrorist activities in Hamburg, a port city in Germany from which Mohammed Atta once organized the events of 9-11.

 

Since then, German intelligence has kept a close eye on what’s going on in the city as have their counterparts in the CIA. While Gunther’s group operates in a quasi-legal state, able to break German law with a certain amount of impunity, Dieter Mohr (Bock), the local station chief, is more of a by-the-book sort who has a bureaucrat’s soul and  the keen political sense of a born game player. Naturally he and Gunther clash repeatedly, Dieter disdaining the cowboy tactics of Gunther and Gunther less than forgiving of Dieter’s lack of field experience and political gamesmanship.

 

Into this highly volatile environment comes Issa Karpov (Dobrygin), a half-Russian half-Chechen man who has escaped Russian prison and entered Germany illegally. The Russians have branded him a terrorist, but Gunther sees him as a means to an end. He could be just what the Russians say he is, or the innocent victim of overzealous Russian hatred for Chechens in general. Gunther really doesn’t care which. He sees him as an opportunity to get to bigger fish in the pond, particularly Dr. Abdullah (Ershadi), a spokesman for Arabic charities who may actually be raising money for terrorist organizations while decrying terrorist activities publicly.

 

Karpov contacts Annabel Richter (McAdams), a lawyer who specializes in immigration issues. He needs to get in touch with banker Tommy Brue (Dafoe) for reasons that are his own. Gunther, a manipulative and sometimes cruel man, knows that he needs to make Annabel and Tommy his operatives and he will stop at nothing to do it, be it blackmail, kidnapping and intimidation, or even death threats. Whatever it takes.

But there are games within games, with a U.S. Embassy official (Wright) who may or may not be a CIA operative and who may or may not be Gunther’s ally. Gunther and his team are walking a fine line and with Mohr breathing down his neck he may not make it out of this one unscathed.

 

This is based on a recent John Le Carre novel (the acclaimed author is also a producer on the project) and like most Le Carre works, this is more of a gritty look at the world of espionage rather than the gloss and glamour of the James Bond series. Anton Corbijn, whose last film was The American which is similarly themed, is the perfect choice to sit in the director’s chair. Like the work of Le Carre, that film is complex and tense with characters whose motivations are maddeningly unclear. In other words, probably a more realistic look at the intelligence business.

This is the last leading role that Hoffman would complete before his untimely passing earlier this year and thankfully, it’s a good one. Gunther is world-weary, tired of the constant betrayal and backstabbing which on occasion has cost him the lives of his colleagues. The only people he truly trusts are on his team and one suspects, he isn’t 100% certain about them either. He is a master manipulator but he can also have his own buttons pushed. Near the end, you hear Hoffman wheezing as he breathes – whether that was an indication of the actor’s ill health or if he was capturing the out of shape frustration and passion of Gunther as things come to a head we’ll probably ever know.

McAdams is a good actress in her own right, but she is hidden behind a German accent whose authenticity varies. Dafoe and Bruhl are also fine actors but neither has a whole lot to do. Wright makes a fine foil for Hoffman, cool and terribly overbearing who clearly has little respect for Gunther and European intelligence in general.

 

In fact, this has a much more European outlook on modern espionage and intelligence. Le Carre generally had a fairly cynical outlook towards the benevolence of the CIA and often made them either incompetent or villainous in his books. There is often a moral complexity to his work which requires a lot more patience than American audiences tend to be comfortable with.

And therein lies the rub. American audiences are not tailor made for the kind of pacing and complexity that comes with the best of Le Carre’s work. There is no easy way to put it – we Americans tend to have a very finite attention span and we require stimulation nearly non-stop. That’s what years of video games will do to you.

Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme does a great job of making Hamburg a character in the movie. She’s dingy, gritty and a little bit disreputable here – we see the seedy underbelly of a town that already has a rough reputation to begin with. We get that palpable sense of danger and dissatisfaction.

I found this movie to work on a lot of levels, particularly in regards to Hoffman’s performance which has an outside shot of netting him a posthumous Oscar. Roadside Attractions, the art house arm of Lionsgate, has a few Oscar nominations to its credit so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. I found the middle of the movie to be a bit tough sledding, but nevertheless this is a fitting send off to one of the best actors of his generation who left us too soon.

REASONS TO GO: Stand-out performance  by Hoffman. Nice tension. Hamburg used as a character in the film.

REASONS TO STAY: Le Carre likes a lot of twists and turns which some moviegoers may not appreciate. Stately pacing.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the last completed film of Philip Seymour Hoffman (he also appears in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay parts one and two but his filming hadn’t been completed when he passed away).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Boyhood

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Believe it or not, George Smiley IS smiling!!!!

(2011) Spy Drama (Focus) Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencik, Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Arthur Nightingale. Directed by Tomas Alfredson

 

Some spies are meant to be shaken and not stirred. Others are more intellectual, preferring to think their way out of a situation by thoroughly researching. For them, the spy game is as complex and as action-packed as a game of chess.

George Smiley (Oldman) couldn’t have been given a worse surname. He rarely smiles, not even for a moment. He is a methodical man, emotionless. He worked as an analyst for MI6, the British counter-intelligence group that was made famous by James Bond. However, his life is much different than that of the dashing Ian Fleming creation. Smiley works for the Circus (it is unclear whether this is a group within MI6 or the directorate of the agency itself) as the right hand man for Control (Hurt). It is 1973 and the Cold War is in full swing.

A disastrous mission to Hungary leads to a purge in the Circus. Control and Smiley are out, and in are a cadre of four men – Percy Alleline (Jones) – the leader, Bill Haydon (Firth), Roy Bland (Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (Dencik).  Control suspected one of them of being a double agent for the Soviets and had nicknamed them Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Poor Man respectively, after a British nursery rhyme. When field agent Rikki Tarr (Hardy) turns up with information about the identity of the mole, minister Oliver Lacon (McBurney) pulls Smiley out of retirement to ferret out the traitor.

Aided by his protégé Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch), Smiley attempts to quietly find the mole while keeping clear of the MI6 brass, any one of whom might be the culprit and all the while dealing with the estrangement from his beloved (but promiscuous) wife Ann.

Alfredson was the director of the excellent Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In. This is his first English-language movie and given the cold exteriors of his previous film is the right choice for this one. The England of 1973 is a dreary looking one, with grey washed out skies, filthy buildings, dingy interiors and in general, just a depressing place to be. Truly a Cold War.

Oldman gives a performance that is surprisingly strong. Much of the movie he is spent repressing his emotions and has to show his feelings with his eyes. There is a great deal of sadness inside the spy; sadness at the failure of his marriage, sadness that among his trusted friends is a betrayer, sadness that he is growing into an uncomfortable middle age. There is a scene near the end of the film where Smiley tells Guillam about his one and only encounter with the Soviet spy Karla, who is behind the ole plot. As Smiley tells Guillam the story, you can see the regret; the emotions that have been repressed for so long are just aching to be let out. It’s one of the best single scenes that any actor has performed this year in any movie and it’s worth seeing the film just for that one scene. It’s so good that if Oldman gets a Best Actor nomination I’d be willing to bet that’s the clip that gets shown at the Oscars.

There is a bevy of fine English actors here to support him, including the aging Hurt (who mostly appears in flashback), the combed over McBurney and Hardy, who knows he has done some bad things and wants to do just one thing right. Still, it is Oldman who carries the movie in the palm of his hand – a tough gig when you have Oscar winner Colin Firth in the line-up and Firth is far from disappointing here.

This is a cerebral spy film, one which is more of a chess game than an action thriller. The pace of the movie is going to drive most Bondphiles absolutely batty. There are no car chases, no high tech gadgets and no henchmen. There are no bon mots delivered after the spy beats some thug up without so much as a hair going out of place;

This is spycraft in the real world circa 1973. This is listening devices with operators recording and then writing down the transcripts of the conversation. This is conferences in soundproof rooms. This is tired old men sending down orders to foolish young men. It’s trying to out-think your opponent, knowing that if you guess wrong that your country could wind up a smoking ruin of irradiated ash.

This is a very different kind of spy movie – it’s been made as a television miniseries back in the day with the late Sir Alec Guiness as Smiley and his performance is still considered the definitive one for the role, although I’m sure in the years to come there will be plenty to take up Oldman’s side on the issue.  Alfredson does a great job of re-creating the era and the screenwriters Bridget O’Connor (who passed away shortly after finishing the script) and Peter Staughan capture the soul of le Carre’s work. The movie does it justice to a certain extent but I only wish the movie wasn’t so damn glacial. I’m all for thoughtful but a little action is nice too.

REASONS TO GO: Very cerebral. A definite throwback to Cold War-era spy stories. Oldman gives an understated but terrific performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks action and inertia; can be very slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a bit of sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oldman based his performance as Smiley on some of the mannerisms that he observed from author John le Carre, who also has a cameo as a somewhat drunken partygoer at the Christmas party.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100. The reviews are extremely good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The American

SWINGING SIXTIES LOVERS: Plenty of smoking, drinking and shagging (by inference) – all things that are politically incorrect these days. What once were habits now are vices.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Hall Pass

The Bourne Ultimatum


The Bourne Ultimatum

Matt Damon ponders how much cooler he would have looked if the production had sprung for a Harley.

(Universal) Matt Damon, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Julia Stiles, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, Paddy Considine, Edgar Ramirez, Trevor St John, Daniel Bruhl, Joey Anash, Tom Gallop, Corey Johnson, Colin Stinton . Directed by Paul Greengrass

The most recent installment of the hit film series based on the John Le Carre spy novels, The Bourne Ultimatum picks up pretty much where the last film, The Bourne Supremacy left off, in Moscow. We pick up with memory-challenged superspy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) being chased by the Moscow police through the back alleys of Moscow. An injured Bourne finally makes his way into a closed for the night medical clinic where he tries to effect crude repairs, but he is interrupted by a pair of clever cops. They aren’t quite clever enough and he escapes once again, disappearing from the CIA grid.

Back in the States, CIA director Ezra Kramer (Glenn) is very eager for Bourne to be caught. Deputy Director Noah Vosen (Strathairn) believes Bourne is a major threat to the agency, whereas Deputy Director Pamela Landy (Allen) thinks Bourne is not necessarily out to take down the agency, but instead to get answers. Landy is put in charge of the hunt for Jason Bourne.

In Turin, a newspaper columnist (Considine) meets with a CIA section chief (Stinton) who gives the columnist information about Blackbriar, the successor to the Treadstone program that created Bourne (and that Bourne essentially destroyed). The CIA, apparently monitoring every cell phone call on the planet, picks up a call from the columnist to his editor that contains the word “Blackbriar” and immediately he is put under surveillance. Bourne by chance reads the man’s column (apparently he’s a big fan of the Guardian newspaper, since he reads it in another country) and realizes that the columnist may have information that Bourne needs. Of course, this sets off all sorts of mayhem, including a chance meeting between Bourne and Nikki Parsons (Stiles), the Treadstone agent who helped Bourne previously. Chased by the CIA, Interpol and quite probably some irate Girl Scouts, Bourne makes his way to New York City with the intention of discovering the truth about himself and possibly bringing an end to the game he no longer wants to play.

In a terse spy thriller like this one, you have to take a few things on faith, and suspend disbelief to a certain extent. It’s hard to believe that an agency with the technical ability to pick out a single word in a phone conversation involving two men not under suspicion for anything are unable to suss out a man entering their country undisguised under a passport they themselves issued. I mean, don’t they have computers at the airport?

Plot holes aside, you come to a Bourne movie for the action sequences, and here the movie doesn’t disappoint. Chased by assassins (and chasing them), evading detection by legions of agents and police, director Greengrass sets up a massive body count (not to mention an auto body count, as the film might just be worse for automobiles than for stuntmen) and extended action sequences which, while breaking no new ground, do cover old ground expertly. He keeps the suspense ratcheted up to 11 throughout most of the movie, with very little breathing room and manages to move the plot along with expository sequences without breaking momentum created by the action scenes – the one in Tangiers, by the way, might be one of the best you’ll ever see. However, be warned many sequences appear to be filmed by hand-held cameras. While this delivers a kind of you-are-there feel to these sequences, in my opinion it’s used a little overly much and gives the movie a kind of jerky quality that I found jarring.

Damon continues to do the part of Jason Bourne with extraordinary aplomb, rarely displaying much emotion but allowing the feelings bubbling below the surface to see the light of day from time to time. Strathairn plays a worthy adversary who picks up after Chris Cooper and Brian Cox from the first two movies and acquits himself nicely. Stiles does some of her best work in the Bourne movies and as the only other actor besides Damon to appear in all three movies, providing some nice continuity.

The movie takes place in several European cities, including Moscow, Turin, Madrid and in Tangiers, Morocco as well as New York City. The movie uses actual locations to add a further air of realism, a nice touch (which created some difficulties for the filmmakers – if you look closely during the train station scene, there are people who notice the cameras and point to them). While many of the secrets of Jason Bourne are explained (including his actual identity), there is certainly enough room left at the end for a sequel if the filmmakers and actors choose to go there which for awhile, it appeared they did until Greengrass recently withdrew from the proposed fourth Bourne film, leaving the status of the movie very much up in the air – Damon’s participation without Greengrass is certainly less likely.

Like most of the third movies, this one is pretty flawed but you can take some solace in the fact that while it doesn’t arise above its own ambitions, the movie nevertheless fulfills those ambitions nicely. In other words, you get exactly what you came to see.

WHY RENT THIS: Awesome action sequences as have become synonymous with this franchise. Exotic locations that bring to mind the cold war spy thrillers that the source material was contemporaneous with. The tension is unrelenting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot holes are hard to ignore. Too much hand-held camerawork which was cliche even before this was made.

FAMILY VALUES: While the action sequences are terrific, they may be a bit overwhelming for some, as the sudden and sometimes realistic violence will be.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Among the pictures of terminated agents that Landy faxes near the film’s conclusion are producer Frank Marshall and actor Richard Chamberlin, who portrayed Bourne in a 1988 TV mini-series.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: Nothing listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince