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

Love, Wedding, Marriage


Love, Wedding, Marriage

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (IFC) Mandy Moore, Kellan Lutz, James Brolin, Jane Seymour, Jessica Szohr, Michael Weston, Marta Zmuda Trzebiatowska, Richard Reid, Christopher Lloyd, Alexis Denisof, Alyson Hannigan, Colleen Camp, Andrew Keegan, Joe Chrest. Directed by Dermot Mulroney

There is a Biblical quotation that before you take the mote out of someone else’s eye, first remove the beam out of your own. In other words, before you start fixing someone else’s problem, be sure your own house is in order. Wise words that aren’t always followed.

Ava (Moore) is newly married to Charlie (Lutz), a vintner and a successful one. She herself is a marriage counselor newly minted with a PhD from Berkeley. She is busy planning her parents’ 30th wedding anniversary celebration and she is content with the way her life is going.

That is, until her parents Betty (Seymour) and Bradley (Brolin) storm into her office. Apparently Betty has discovered that her husband cheated on her 25 years ago (the statute of limitations for cheating being indefinite) while they were separated and she wants him gone. Ava offers to avail them of her services but they decline; she has all of six weeks of marital experience and they need an expert.

Ava refers them to a colleague but decides that her help is going to be needed nonetheless behind the scenes. She becomes more and more obsessive with preventing that divorce, going to great lengths. She is also ignoring her own marriage and marital bed, frustrating her husband on every count. She invites her father to live with them without consulting Charlie (a big no-no) and allows Bradley to act out around the house (an even bigger no-no).

Ava goes to all sorts of lengths to manipulate her parents back together again but soon it becomes clear her efforts are not only failing, they are driving her parents further apart. Not only that, but her own marriage is in jeopardy as Charlie begins to wonder why she married him in the first place.

Actor Dermot Mulroney, the veteran of quite a few rom-coms, goes behind the cameras for this one and his inexperience shows. The direction is a bit flat and static; the camera rarely moves much and it makes the movie feel more like a stage play or a sitcom. I wish he’d gotten a little more mentoring before attempting to direct; to be honest, I admire him as an actor but I haven’t seen any sort of inventiveness in him as a director thus far. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any in him, though.

The writing here…well, let’s just say that I’m surprised in a negative way. The logic behind the movie just doesn’t work. Here we have an ostensibly bright and learned woman (they don’t just give out PhDs in cereal boxes at Berkeley, despite what Stanford grads would have you think) who is trained as a marriage counselor violating nearly every tenet of her own profession – not only in dealing with her parents but in her own marriage as well.

Now, I get that smart people sometimes do dumb things and that people can be hypocritical – and that emotional involvement can sometimes lead to us doing things we wouldn’t ordinarily do. That doesn’t mean that smart people act like buffoons, or that our parents’ divorce turns us into lunatics. There are things that Ava does that are actually painful to watch.

Brolin and Seymour, seasoned pros as they are, actually give it a good go. Sometimes Seymour is a bit shrill with her character (who is undergoing some sort of mid-life crisis that is causing her to give in to hysteria) and Brolin’s character shows signs of some sort of way-out dementia that has caused him to become ultra-Jewish (which is apparently something new, as Ava asserts that she isn’t Jewish) and something of a putz. He is apparently easily manipulated, which makes him less interesting of a character.

The sad thing here is that there are the prospects of a good movie deep in the DNA of this film which, unfortunately, aren’t allowed to develop. If the writers had given a little more thought to this movie instead of trying to produce a big screen sitcom rom-com this might have turned out a lot better. While I like the idea of a marriage counselor trying to save her parents’ marriage at the expense of her own, I would have liked a little bit less pratfalls and broad humor and a little more subtlety.

WHY RENT THIS: Brolin and Seymour have some nice chemistry together. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ava’s obsessive behavior strains credibility

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual material and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of Ava’s therapist whom Ava only speaks to on the phone is supplied by Julia Roberts.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Hurricane

Stone


Stone

Milla Jovovich gets steamy with Robert De Niro in hopes it might win her an Oscar.

(2010) Thriller (Overture) Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy, Rachel Loiselle, Peter Lewis, Sandra Love Aldridge, Enver Gjokaj, Pepper Binkley, Sarab Kamoo, Dave Hendricks, Rory Mallon. Directed by John Curran

Some of us go through life as blunt objects. We’re cudgels, beating people over the head until they realize what we’re trying to get across. Others of us are sharp objects. We’re scalpels, sliding in unnoticed and making changes in the minds of others sometimes without them even knowing it.

Jack Mabrey (De Niro) is a cudgel. He is a parole officer at a Michigan prison, close to retirement and welcoming not having to deal with the lowlifes and scumbags that he is forced to release back into society. Then again, Jack is no saint either; when his wife threatened to leave him some years back, he counter-threatened her by dangling their baby out the window and promising to drop it three stories onto the pavement. Mrs. Mabrey (Conroy) decided to stay, finding solace in religion which Jack seems to accept; he listens to religious programming on the radio.

His last case is to be Gerald Creeson (Norton) who goes by the nickname of Stone. All corn rows and badass talk, Stone wants to be paroled in the worst way. He’s quite a manipulator, not above using his very hot and sexy schoolteacher wife Lucetta (Jovovich) to seduce Jack. And Jack, for all his Christian values and professional ethics, isn’t above being seduced.

The questions become who is playing who in this scenario. How far is Lucetta willing to go to get her husband out of prison? Is Stone aware of what she’s doing or she the one pulling the strings? Is Jack more aware of what’s happening than he lets on?

This is not your typical drama – it’s not a procedural on the parole system, for one. It’s almost Southern gothic despite its Michigan setting and it’s a script that doesn’t assume the people who are watching the movie are drooling idiots. No wonder it bombed at the box office.

In fact, sometimes the movie is a bit too smart for its own good; you’re constantly left wondering who’s doing what to who and what’s really going on and at some point after all that build-up you want an answer to those questions that will be impressive – and when you don’t get one, you kind of feel let down.

You won’t be let down by the acting here. De Niro is a powerful presence and while this isn’t Jake La Motta or Vito Corleone, he imbues Mabry with a kind of brutal gravitas. It’s the kind of work only De Niro can do, and when he is on his game as he is here, you can see why he’s one of the best that ever was.

Norton is also one of the best actors out there and he has an entirely different role, one which shows his versatility. He is white ghetto trash; a rap-listening corn-rowed trickster who gets off on making people dance to his tune. It’s a powerful performance, as different as night and day as De Niro’s but equally as impressive.

What is surprising is Jovovich who isn’t ordinarily thought of as the same caliber of actress as the two male leads but she holds her own. Her character is vivacious, charming, calculating, cunning, sweet, sexy and devious all at once. It’s a marvelous character which makes you look at your local schoolmarm with different eyes.

Where the film falls down is surprisingly on one of its strengths; it’s intelligence. You are given so many scenarios and so many questions that your head can’t really wrap around them all. While repeated viewings might solve this problem, this really isn’t a movie I’d want to see repeatedly. Also, I had trouble with the relationship between Stone and Lucetta; it needed to be spelled out a bit better.

Usually I don’t have an issue with smart films, but you can’t be smart for no other reason than to be smart. There has to be some rhyme and reason and if it isn’t there, you’re going to give your audience a headache. You don’t want your viewers first impulse to be to grab the Excedrin; that’s a bad thing. Still, there are some elements that are gripping and seeing De Niro and Norton at their best is surely worth considering.

WHY RENT THIS: De Niro, Norton and Jovovich all contribute strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cerebral plot overthinks things. Some of the characterizations don’t ring true.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexuality, a little violence and a whole lot of cussing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filming location for the prison scenes, the Prison of Southern Michigan, was once the largest walled prison in the world.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.5M on a $22M production budget; the movie was a financial failure.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Cell