Criterion Sunday 137: Notorious (1946)

Top Hitchcockery here from the master of morally-dubious controlling men — and all the men really are very bad people (Cary Grant as government agent Devlin included, handsome a figure though he may be). Ingrid Bergman is lovely even as the daughter of a Nazi enlisted to spy on her father’s friends, and proves you don’t have to have done much to have a reputation. Then again, perhaps it is more than just she who befits the film’s title. She also brushes past all the insinuations with aplomb, at least until she cannot. Plenty of great but unostentatious camerawork and thrills aplenty, especially in an excellent wine cellar scene.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writer Ben Hecht | Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff | Starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains | Length 101 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 December 2016

Jason Bourne (2016)

Paul Greengrass is a good filmmaker and has a stylish command of the visual vocabulary of film — he’s done great work on the two previous instalments of this spy series, not least. It’s just that other pesky vocabulary — which is to say, the words the characters speak, their motivations, that sort of thing — which seems to elude him here somewhat. Coming after a previous non-Damon outing with Jeremy Renner, I never found this latest instalment of the Bourne series boring, but it’s very silly, and the very quality that is supposed to differentiate Bourne, of being recognisably grounded in our world, seems to slip away. Granted we get a few mentions of Edward Snowden, but otherwise characters do the same stupid things they do in countless other spy thrillers, like hacking into networks where covert operations are held in a file folder on the CIA mainframe called “BLACK OPS”, calling out to “ENHANCE!” grainy photos, saying “Let’s use SQL to hack into their system!” Computers do all kinds of whizzy things that just don’t ring true at any level, and character motivations seem flimsy at best, though at least some of the other details of setting have a certain feeling of authenticity, not least the opening sequence at an Athens anti-austerity protest. Moving from this, we get the usual Bourne stuff of whizzing about from location to world location, making deals, stabbing and backstabbing, running and shooting, and all that stuff. It’s all done fine on screen — as I said initially, with plenty of visual flair — it’s just a pity it had to be so stupid.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Paul Greengrass | Writers Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse | Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd | Starring Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles | Length 123 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 27 July 2016

Despite the Falling Snow (2016)

I did want to like this Cold War-era spy romance. It has snowy settings, as the title promises (specifically, Moscow in the late-50s and early-60s), and it has some attractive actors doing their best thespian faces. Chief among these is the Swedish actor Rebecca Ferguson, who, playing glamorous spy Katya, is required to look with steely intensity at both young Sasha (Sam Reid) in the 1960s setting, and then, as Katya’s artist niece Lauren, at older Sasha (Charles Dance) in the 1990s. The snow does indeed fall, and Ferguson puts her role across rather well, but it doesn’t manage to make up for the clunky underwhelming dialogue the actors are lumbered with, plus the 1990s setting doesn’t really seem to work very well, though some of the intercutting between the two is rather neatly done. Aspects of the plot, too, stretch credulity (our government apparatchik hero Sasha is asked to take home super-top-secret documents to read for his boss, whose eyesight is failing) — this feels like an airport novel romance at its core — and so would seem to require a more full-blooded approach to the acting, perhaps even a bit of campness, which the film rarely delivers (much though Anthony Head does his best in his brief scenes). Yet despite all its misfires, it still looks very handsome — that falling snow — and that’s at least something.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Shamim Sarif (based on her novel) | Cinematographer David Johnson | Starring Rebecca Ferguson, Sam Reid, Charles Dance | Length 93 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Saturday 16 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 56: The 39 Steps (1935)

It may not be the equal of some of director Alfred Hitchcock’s later works, but this early espionage thriller has plenty to recommend it in terms of propulsively silly plot dynamics, as Robert Donat’s fairly ordinary (albeit refined and elegant) bloke Richard is drawn into shenanigans at a music hall by bumping into a glamorous spy, who is soon murdered, but not before revealing a plot that he can help in exposing. This leads him into what is essentially an extended chase scene that takes up the rest of the movie as he heads north to Scotland, along the way encountering the even more elegant (and blonde, of course) Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, who believes him about as much as everyone else he meets — which is to say not at all. It’s all good fun, with plenty of hints towards comedy and some surprise plot twists. Good for a rainy afternoon, I suspect, and it may well be more unaffectedly enjoyable than much of Hitchcock’s more revered later output.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writers Charles Bennett and Ian Hay (based on the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan) | Cinematographer Bernard Knowles | Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 10 December 2015

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Spielberg by this point is pretty adept at crafting a solid historical drama with period details and excellent ensemble acting. In this case, his current ‘everyman’ Tom Hanks is in the lead role as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer called on to defend an accused Russian spy in late-1950s New York. Donovan does what he can with an open-and-shut case, ensuring that the accused, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is not executed, an insurance policy which pays off years later (somewhat telescoped by this film) when surveillance pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union and the two men are exchanged by their governments, with Donovan acting as the intermediary. There are, then, essentially two acts, with Hanks stepping up to the courtroom drama with aplomb, the screenplay hitting hard on ‘what it means to be American’ (i.e. follow the guiding light of the Constitution), although at the very least not in a way as facilely patriotic as in some other US films. The real revelation is theatre actor Mark Rylance, whose acting style notably contrasts with Hanks’ familiar good-natured shtick (although the character of Donovan has a hard edge in negotiations — if not in action — that Hanks does bring out well). The second act of the film is set in snowy Berlin, and is almost comedic in its portrayal of the competing bureaucracies of the Soviet Union, East Germany (rather sore at not being a recognised state) and the US, with a foolish university student pulled into the mix. There’s nothing shabby about the production as a whole and it’s put together with all of Spielberg’s well-honed craft, aided by the Coen brothers sharpening up the screenplay. It will probably win awards, and why not, eh?


© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Steven Spielberg | Writers Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen | Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski | Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda | Length 141 minutes || Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Saturday 5 December 2015

1971 (2014)

The rise of the surveillance state has been a fertile area for films in recent years, following Wikileaks revelations and, more potently, the cache of information provided by Edward Snowden. This was most memorably covered in Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, and many of the crew for that (including Poitras as producer) are involved with this documentary looking back at an important historical precedent. Of course, as we’ve seen in plenty of paranoid thrillers of that era, the 1970s — riven particularly by opposition to the unpopular war in Vietnam — was another great time for questioning the liberties taken by the government, and the surveillance that was done back then was similar in certain aspects to intelligence programmes relaunched after 9/11. Perhaps the one with the most lasting fame was COINTELPRO (for Counter-Intelligence Programme), involving the systematic undermining of largely political targets by the FBI in ways that were entirely illegal. As 1971 makes clear, the revelation of this programme was largely due to the break-in to a small FBI office by a group of anti-war protestors in 1971, who for the first time appear on camera to tell their story. What’s affecting about it is that all of those involved are now in their 60s, with respectable jobs and families, who were acting out of disgust at the ways the US government was operating in the 1970s. In these reflective interviews, some of the participants waver in their youthful beliefs, but one couple at the centre of the break-in were very conscious of putting their whole family in jeopardy, and this comes to be the emotional core of the film in a way. At the same time, all the information which they revealed about the FBI’s operations of the time (still an organisation run by the feared J. Edgar Hoover) remains fascinating as an archival glimpse into fairly recent history.


© Big Mouth Productions

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Johanna Hamilton | Writers Johanna Hamilton and Gabriel Rhodes | Cinematographers Andreas Burgess and Kirsten Johnson | Length 80 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 14 June 2015

Spy (2015)

I hated Paul Feig’s last collaboration with Melissa McCarthy, The Heat, so it’s fair to say I wasn’t expecting much out of this return to another well-worn genre (guess which). And though it’s not perfect in every respect, thankfully it’s a lot better — and more sustainedly funny, too. The set-up is that Susan Cooper (McCarthy) plays a shy back-room support role for Jude Law’s suave agent in the field, but when he is taken out of the picture she needs to step up to become a field agent herself. British TV audiences might have difficulty accepting Miranda Hart as a bumbling best friend, or Peter Serafinowicz as a sleazy Italian, but the way these archetypes are framed within the story is certainly done with a lot more intelligence than this year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, another (apparently) comic take on the James Bond ethos. Perhaps best of all — surprisingly — is Jason Statham, as an utterly unironic (and therefore hilarious) spy film superhero, embodying all the worst traits of Bond, and easily confounded by Susan Cooper. The simple twist is handled with aplomb, and McCarthy puts across her best comedy performance yet (especially when she sheds the shy persona to take control), but most importantly, Spy is funny when it needs to be.


© 20th Century Fox

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Paul Feig | Cinematographer Robert Yeoman | Starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Jude Law | Length 120 minutes || Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Saturday 13 June 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 29 January 2015


© 20th Century Fox

For all that I’m trying to watch films with some element of female authorship, this adaptation of a comic book written by Jane Goldman and directed by Matthew Vaughn (the team behind the stylish and misanthropically nasty Kick Ass) doesn’t exactly give me a great deal of hope. It has enough stylishness in its staging, with the kind of set design and gaudy palette that fully justifies its origins, that it has won over plenty of people. It also stars Colin Firth, putting in an impeccable performance as the kind of heightened Englishman he’s so often called to be in films, in a film that itself lovingly curates an overabundance of signifiers of English-ness (my favourite being an underground workshop packed with taxicabs and red London Routemaster buses, amongst other such iconic machines). Which would all be fine, except these signifiers include the mock-Burberry-clad working-class ‘chav’ — whose apparently natural environment is picking fights in pubs (one which is actually a really very pleasant pub, it should be pointed out, should you find yourself down the Lambeth Road anytime soon) — and it does so with a level of subtlety that makes Attack the Block seem the very model of kitchen-sink drama. Then there’s the sickening attitude to violence that would orchestrate a mass killing to a jaunty soundtrack and self-consciously stylish camerawork and then try to exculpate itself by painting the victims as merely bigots, but then this is all of a piece with a film that also finds plentiful humour in some kind of anal-fixated homophobia, not to mention a bit of racism (there’s a quip in relation to Samuel L. Jackson’s bad guy about “colourful megalomaniacs” that’s straight from the Cumberbatch playbook). But, you know, it’s FINE, right, because it’s a SATIRE about spy films, exposing all of this as the seedy underbelly of the genre (albeit one that’s always been pretty clearly on display throughout much of the Bond cycle, to the extent that I was almost thankful that Kingsman‘s cribbing from Skyfall of the value of a 50-year-old whisky wasn’t turned into a cheap gag at the expense of a woman’s death). So, in short, no I didn’t much like it, though the plentiful laughter from the young woman along the row from me at the cinema suggests this might just be one guy’s grumpy opinion. There’s a self-aware refrain that’s repeated a few times that this isn’t “one of those kinds of films”, but it just leaves me wishing that it had been. Instead, if you’re a fan of violently nihilistic misanthropic nastiness clothed in the natty threads of the aristocratic English gentleman, knock yourself out. This is probably your film of the year.


CREDITS || Director Matthew Vaughn | Writers Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons) | Cinematographer George Richmond | Starring Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine | Length 129 minutes

Citizenfour (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 November 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Radius-TWC

The revelations last year by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden made a lot of waves — at least in the kinds of newspapers I read, particularly The Guardian, who were the ones to first report on the story — so it’s fascinating now to see a documentary account of how that came about. The revelations tie in to one of the great stories of our time, which is the way that governments increasingly use their citizens’ reliance on the internet to track them and spy on them, without any safeguards or oversight, so this documentary is not just torn from the headlines but itself a part of them. After all, director Laura Poitras was one of the people whom Snowden first contacted, and it was through her that lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald came into the picture. Of course, all of them now live outside the United States, for reasons that become fairly obvious, given the abuse of state powers to crack down on information that it is the public’s right to know about (Snowden is charged under a 100-year-old espionage law enacted during wartime that gives him no effective legal rebuttal). Poitras’s resulting documentary is largely based around their first meetings in an anonymous Hong Kong hotel room, where the strategy for reporting the story is formed, as she and Greenwald learn about their source. This could be a limitation, but even in this restricted setting (and partially because of it), there’s plenty of nailbiting drama to be had, as mysterious phone calls and fire alarms puncture their discussions. There’s contextualising footage too from various political hearings and activist meetings (not to mention a brief appearance from a certain Australian also on the run from authorities, for rather different reasons), but it’s Snowden and his revelations which are very much at the heart of this story. It makes for a fascinating account of our relationship to our own governments and to our online presence, even if the participants’ clearly idealistic beliefs in the power of an open internet can (I feel) sometimes be tested in practice by some of the opinion on offer out there. Still, even the ill-formed opinion of anonymous internet bullies is as nothing compared to the activities of the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ, and this documentary provides a welcome warning about the dangers of unchecked state aggression, wherever it exists and however it is cloaked.


CREDITS || Director Laura Poitras | Cinematographers Kirsten Johnson, Katy Scoggin and Trevor Paglen | Starring Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald | Length 114 minutes

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Genesis, London, Tuesday 23 September 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Lionsgate

John le Carré’s work was most recently brought to the screen in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), a film set in a world of muted colours, grey men in grey suits, smoking in drab offices. The palette of this new adaptation of a different Le Carré work updates itself to a more recent era, but in many ways there’s still the same sense of back-office drudgery. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final roles, unkemptly shuffles around, trying his best to blend into his urban surroundings, and constantly puffs on a cigarette. For, after all, this is a European thriller, set in the immigrant city of Hamburg, and as a nod to this, all the actors speak in German accents. They all do fine with it, but it’s more distracting than it probably needs to be. It doesn’t help too that the first hour flits around amongst a widening array of minor characters (including a criminally underused Daniel Brühl). All of them feed into the main story, but it takes its time to come together. When it does, it’s all rather anticlimactic, but you get the feeling that this is exactly what the filmmakers wanted, and Hoffman is a great actor for finding the best from this kind of setup. Appropriately for Anton Corbijn, a director who graduated to film via photography, it’s handsomely shot by French DoP Benoît Delhomme, all sleek lines and beautifully crisp, in many ways quite at odds with the characters. It’s no masterpiece perhaps, but it’s put together with care and acted with great resourcefulness, about characters who take their time to watch and observe. In that respect, it passes the time well.


CREDITS || Director Anton Corbijn | Writer Andrew Bovell (based on the novel by John le Carré) | Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme | Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe | Length 121 minutes