When Sin City was released way back in 2005 its mode of address was so striking – retro, aesthetically unique, violent – it got instant attention. Even with the same assets on show, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For barely garnered the same sort of notice. Even with the star-studded cast (adding Eva Green, Josh Brolin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to the Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson and Bruce Willis stock) and a bigger budget, there is little there to make the sequel/prequel any more fanciful.
The stand out aspect is the titular Dame, played with corrosive charm by Eva Green. Gorgeous and commanding, Green takes control over her chapter in the film, shadowing the rest of the cast, giving Josh Brolin only a slight chance to shine. Physicality in Sin City is continually fascinating (from Mickey Rourke’s square-shaped Marv, to the fluid dancing of Jessica Alba) with Green’s voluptuous body on show, making every rough-edged man weak from the sight of her. The noir element to Sin City is best on show with Green’s femme fatale story (the eponymous Dame to Kill For part of this film), so heavily harking back to the likes of Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck.
The issue with Sin City for film fans opposed to movie fans is the narrative only lends itself to violence, not story. Most action and reaction is based around someone getting their face smashed in (and this happens mind-numbingly often). The first film worked more effectively because the graphic nature was fast and spread out across the plot. Moments of shock would come in the first outing, somewhat levelled in the aesthetic; here it is all shameless. Remember that lingering notion of attack in Elijah Wood’s Kevin segment in number one? Well, Dame to Kill For relies on Powers Boothe for that and the terror is never felt. Nearly every chapter is a quest for blood – a boring basis for entertainment. There is only so much you want to focus your attention on, and as a moth to Rodriguez and Millar’s cool-looking flame, you are soon blinded by it all.
The fact that Robert Rodriguez directs, composes and edits the film earns him a lot of kudos. Respect must be given, first and foremost however, to his cinematography. The reason Sin City worked, and A Dame to Kill For was made, can be attributed to the way it looks. There are very few films using the same style as brandished here, and Rodriguez is a talented fellow for bringing the graphic novel to such life.
If you are a fan of the first and want to see more, this will certainly please. Those merely interested in seeing the progression of the story and style will also enjoy. Nevertheless, there is no direct call to watch A Dame to Kill For; it is a fan-boy appendage for the most part.
Posted in USA | Tagged Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Frank Miller, Jessica Alba, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin, Mickey Rourke, Robert Rodriguez, Rosario Dawson, Sin City, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For |
The second trailer for Blackhat by Hollywood thriller veteran Michael Mann has arrived. The film, starring Chris Hemsworth, tackles the timely topic of cyber crime and it’s visceral relationship with the real world. The film appears to retain Mann’s taste for glorious panoramas and gritty vérité style action, with events primarily unfolding in Chicago and Hong Kong.
Like Mann’s recent films, Collateral (2004), Miami Vice (2006) and Public Enemies (2009), Blackhat has an immersive feel with the camera close to, or almost inside the action. This approach recalls much of Mann’s best known work, in which his particular sense of cool meets his documentary training.
How the film will rate within the director’s filmography is yet to be seen, but the film carries a certain weight of expectation, owing to a six year break from features and a superlative, multi-decade spanning filmography that includes Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004).
Posted in USA | Tagged Blackhat, Chicago, Chris Hemsworth, collateral, Heat, Hong Kong, Manhunter, Miami Vice, Michael Mann, Public Enemies, Thief | Leave a Comment »
Life’s cruel deck is stacked against poor Thymian Henning from the off. After finding her father’s housekeeper – and mistress – has committed suicide, Thymian is herself taken advantage of by a pharmacy clerk, subsequently victim-shamed according to the conventional moral norms of the day, and cast out from her family to join a convent for disorderly young girls. Dark stuff then, though Louise Brooks, in her final pairing with director G.W. Pabst, infuses the character of Thymian with a will to persist; a vitality amidst the darkness. In her first appearance, Brooks appears framed in an interior archway, clad in a radiant white that bursts apart the film’s heretofore sundry shades of grey. She may a ‘lost girl’, but she’s the film’s guiding light.
Pabst navigates the reform school with simple tracking shots along ordered objects like identical bedheads, or figures spooning porridge into their mouths, each of these flourishes a subtle indictment at rigid strictures that hamper both consideration of the human spirit and liberating artistic potential. Select instances of camera movement are matched by efficiency of montage, such as when the sadistic headmistress of the reform school has the girls work out to the bang of her gong, therefore commanding the film’s editing rhythm and satiating her altogether suspect desires. The material here works to her ends.
However, to focus on the headmistress is to fatally sidestep the clear patriarchy at play in all its various guises. The sins of man here range, perhaps intentionally, from the subtle to the outwardly cruel. There’s the aforementioned opportunistic clerk, played like a snake by Fritz Rasp. There’s the headmistress’ sadistic bald assistant, who thrives on the girls’ oppression – and suffers under their inevitable revolt. Then there’s Doctor Vitalis, visitor at the brothel where Thymian is eventually forced to find work, said to ‘always want to save us, but in the end he joins us’, emblematic of a certain kind of solidarity posturing that swiftly gives way in the heat of the moment. And last but not least, there’s dear old Count Osdorff (Andre Roanne), Thymian’s young male acquaintance, unemployed as well, therefore possessing no qualms in pocketing one or two of his friend’s sex trade-earnings for himself. In fact, although an absolute prerequisite for survival, money is no apparent object to Thymian, and when she drops a note it’s almost always somebody else’s hand that picks it up.
In arguably the film’s finest and most defining scene, Thymian is spotted by her father in a gentleman’s club, thirty years on from the initial separation forced by his hand. Pabst’s continual framing of Thymian’s face, dead-centre in close-up, eyes appealing to the viewer, has led to this crucial moment. Thymian’s father watches on helplessly as a gaggle of grotesque grown men close in on his daughter, fawning and chomping at the bit to be in her presence; in seeing this, her father recognises his own transgressions, and in situating both him and Thymian central to the chaotic figures surrounding them in the composition, Pabst has honed in on that cutting moment of revelation, the identification of one’s self in another’s body. The fourth wall gaze implicates us to that effect. Events may sign off on a simplistic plea for peace – “A little more love and no one would be lost in this world” – but the larger takeaway is a rallying call for considered empathy as key to resolving our differences. The medium of cinema, as both a window and mirror, is unique in working toward these aims.
Eureka’s Masters of Cinema dual-format restoration features a piano score by Javier Perez de Aspeitia, and comes complete with a brand new video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns, as well as 40-page booklet with writing from Louise Brooks, Lotte Eisner, Louelle Interim, Craig Keller and R. Dixon Smith.
Posted in Germany | Tagged Andre Roanne, Craig Keller, David Cairns, Fritz Rasp, G.W. Pabst, Javier Perez de Aspeitia, Lotte Eisner, Louelle Interim, Louise Brooks, R. Dixon Smith, Thymian Henning |
In just the first sixty seconds of Fritz Lang’s silent spy thriller Spione (Spies), the following occurs: a safe is ransacked of its contents, a high-ranking Minister is assassinated in a drive-by shooting, and all-out panic ensues as news of the aforementioned events spreads along telephone wires like wildfire. Who is responsible for these heinous crimes? “Ich,” declares criminal mastermind Haghi (Rudolf-Klein-Rogge, titular lead in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse diptych), revealed to us instantaneously and in full close-up – a devilish goatee accentuating his sinister air – revoking his anonymity for the sole benefit of the viewer. His foes in the Secret Service are, unlike us, none-the-wiser as to his identity; they flail around like headless chickens, in stark contrast to the composed, prepared Haghi, sitting calmly behind his densely populated albeit organised desk as if waiting for nothing less than another successive confirmation of a mission gone entirely to plan.
The modern spy thriller traditionally establishes its heroic protagonist first and foremost, before steadily unravelling a web of conspiracy whose buck stops at an omniscient villain – usually someone we hadn’t guessed. Here, the villain has been introduced from the off, so that the viewer is almost complicit in looking over his shoulder at the ensuing chaos. As the plot circles around a MacGuffin and a tangle of myriad international figures – from honourable Japanese minister Dr Masimoto (Lupu Pick) to the traitorous Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp) – it becomes apparent that what Haghi actually wants besides domination is unclear and not necessarily important, thereby placing the focus squarely on the adventurous, romantic qualities of the narrative. Nevertheless, one could feasibly draw on theorist Sigfried Kracauer, supposing that the character of Haghi anticipates a duplicitous authoritarian leader in the vein of Hitler.
Haghi’s unwilling accomplice is Sonja Baranilkowa, whom he charges with the task of fending off his adversary – and her love interest – Agent 326 (Willy Frisch). The latter spy is a far cry from the suave, hardened action heroes of the modern era; he smothers his lady with puppy kisses and sobs over a stiff drink when he fears to have lost her forever. There’s a boyish vulnerability and cluelessness to this man (Sonja always knows more than 326 at any given moment) that seems to have been bled out of the modern action genre in favour of rough or ravishing male leads and meaningless female sidekicks to match. That’s certainly true of the James Bond series, for which Spione is otherwise a clear heavy influence, from the ballroom masquerade, to the spy identified by a three-digit number, to even Haghi himself, an obvious forerunner to Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Despite Sonja appearing as an ostensible ‘captive princess’ to Haghi, it’s curious to note that the upper hand in Spione is almost always secured by its women. Colonel Jellusic allows his libido to get the better of him, with fatal consequences; Agent 326 is gamed by Sonja until he rather desperately chases her down the street; even Mitsamuto, equally as prepared as the all-seeing Haghi, has his last-ditch plans outsmarted at the eleventh hour by a new lady-friend. As for Haghi, his formerly fool-proof machinations never appear on such shaky ground as when Sonja begins to assert her free will.
All this human manoeuvring builds a steady momentum that culminates in a train crash, a high-speed car chase, and a bank siege waged against both the clock and an onset of poisonous gas. The script by Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou, based on her original novel, feeds just enough dialogue and leaves the rest to these images of vehicular carnage and visually distinctive character designs. It’s a remarkable feat, considering the odds against a silent film in a genre since known for its convoluted plotting, but then for audiences in 1928 this would all have seemed as fresh as anything. At two-and-a-half hours, Lang’s penultimate silent feature is a brisk ride through the origin points of beloved spy thriller tropes.
Fritz Arno Wagner’s photography has been restored from a process begun in 2003 by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung working from various nitrate copies, the basis of which came courtesy of Národní Filmový Archive in Prague. Eureka’s Masters of Cinema dual-format set comes packaged with a 69-minute documentary on the film, and a 40-page booklet containing writing by Murielle Joudet and Jonatham Rosenbaum.
Posted in Germany | Tagged Dr. Mabuse, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Eureka, Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, Fritz Arno Wagner, Fritz Lang, Fritz Rasp, James Bond, Jonatham Rosenbaum, Lupu Pick, Masters of Cinema, Murielle Joudet, Národní Filmový Archive, Rudolf-Klein-Rogge, Spies, Spione, Willy Frisch |
For lovers of music, seeing a great tune put to an image can be an incredible joy. It also works wonders to see a fondness for music really shining through in something. For instance, John Carney’s Once, where a street busker writes and rehearses songs, with an jubilant tone, found a large audience both during its cinematic run, home entertainment release, and then its stage adaptation. Carney made such an impression with Once that to see him return to a musical focus made perfect sense. He writes and directs Begin Again (originally called Can a Song Save Your Life – a more fitting title), a story of a disgraced music producer who finds a great talent in a young singer-songwriter during an open mic-night.
Going from the naturalistic style of Once, with unknown actors, to the Hollywood-produced, huge star ensemble of Begin Again, thinking of Carney selling out could initially be accepted. Almost instantly, however, Begin Again shows that the nuanced sensibilities found in his 2006 feature are still intact. There are some big set-pieces, and luxurious scenes related to the moneyed side of the music industry, but are so obviously highlighted, that they are made to feel out of place alongside the grounded focus. Mark Ruffalo as the lead is an excellent choice to present this ideology – an actor who eases into his roles and always feels like the “everyman”. Keira Knightley regularly falls outside of this spectrum, so glamorous and chic in the media. In this, she loosens up and shines as the blossoming talent that Ruffalo’s Dan discovers. Reconsidering how they present their stars is not the only fascinating aspect of Begin Again, the regular rom-com formula is eschewed whereby love and heartbreak are dealt with entirely realistically.
Balancing a domestic situation between Dan, and his estranged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife (Catherine Keener), a break-up between Knightley’s Gretta and singer Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), and a production of a live street-recorded album, Begin Again is a compound narrative. Carney never struggles with this, with only minor moments feeling dull or forced. Carney simply has a very measured take on plot and focus, able to cross between arcs without anything seeming inharmonious. And his spotlight on musical creation is always marvellous – the core of this film, and what everything pivots around. The soundtrack is the pulse of the film – with earbugs that will stay with you long after – full of life, keeping you entertained all the way through. It shows the progression of an album with tact, educating on the process and showing you the ebullient time that people must have creating music they love and believe in.
Some may find that Begin Again feels too kitsch in parts, and it never tries to recreate the matter-of-fact aesthetic of Once, leaving it as a polished yet practical film. Performances and music are warm and heartfelt, making it a certain crowd-pleaser. One scene explaining how one song can illuminate the most banal happening is a precious Carney observation, and a sublime, brief piece of cinema. And to leave you with one thought, who could have imagined the star of Lesbian Vampire Killers, James Corden, could steal so many moments away from famed Hollywood actors?
Posted in USA | Tagged Adam Levine, Begin Again, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, John Carney, Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Once |
The non-professional actors, verité style and political undertones would already qualify The Golden Dream for Ken Loach comparisons. This claim is complete, however, knowing that director Diego Quemada-Díez was once a cameraman for the British social-realist director. An obvious passion for the life-affirming, straight-talking aspects of Loach, Quemada-Díez brings the story of three Guatemalan immigrants journeying to the US to life with paradoxical raw tenderness.
Moving through the treacherous landscapes of Southern America, The Golden Dream’s best asset is highlighting the dangers of poverty-stricken countries. Viewing that from a teenage perspective adds to the intensity of the mood, where Juan (Brandon López), Samuel (Carlos Chajon) and Sara (Karen Martínez) are in a state of limbo regarding their maturity – they have not yet reached adulthood, yet they have passed the point of needing guidance.
As well as magnifying the “big bad world” fears that the three have whilst travelling, their age also buttresses a notion of innocence and delight. Seeing a large part of the world for the first time – whether it includes dangers or not – is a beautiful experience. Having been a camera operator for Loach and even Alejandro González Iñárritu, Quemada-Díez has a fantastic eye, adorning his film with lush colours and excellent framing.
Beyond the art of the film, the performances capture the spirit of “Viva la…” perfectly, too.As much as the film focuses on turmoil, it also relies on zest for life, of which the main actors reflect. Brandon López is the stand-out performer, showing no signs of being a novice. He is steady and candid in his approach to the journey. Without him the film would lose some of its power, so kudos must be given to casting agent Natalia Beristáin.
Perhaps not a film you could watch too often – it is a movie in the moment – The Golden Dream impacts strongly upon viewing. There is no sheltering element to the story, with very few moments you can latch on to for comfort; this is never something to criticise, instead it is a smart depiction of immigration. Whatever Diego Quemada-Díez goes on to direct next should be significant, having made a great name for himself here.
Posted in Guatemala, Mexico, Spain | Tagged Alejandro González Iñárritu, Brandon López, Carlos Chajon, Diego Quemada-Díez, Karen Martínez, Ken Loach, La jaula de oro, Natalia Beristáin, The Golden Dream |
Traditionally a horror film maker, Jim Mickle takes on Joe R. Lansdale’s Texas set crime noir Cold In July in a sweaty, gore-soaked, testosterone-fuelled thriller. Mickle assembles a vintage cast including Sam Shepard (Black Hawk Down) and Don Johnson (Miami Vice, Nash Bridges) along with Michael C. Hall (Dexter, Six Feet Under) in a straight-to-video b-movie exploitation film, that is part True Detective and No Country for Old Men, but without the charm or philosophy.
Set in 1989 we are treated to some retrograde nostalgia where men were (still just about) men, VHS’s ruled the technology roost and synth-filled hair metal ruled the airwaves. While to some that sounds like hell, these factors are used smartly to tell a story and re-create a world that’s not so far away, as the “home movie” become an important plot point and the John Carpenter-esque soundtrack creates a welcome, creepy mood.
The film has some intriguing narrative pieces, initially with home invasion, mistaken identity, normal-guy-turned-local hero tropes, which turn on their head after the first act when Richard (Hall) saves Ben (Shepard)’s life after he has been terrorising his family for believing that Richard killed his son in self-defence. Unfortunately for those who like definable plots though, this more or less renders the first act of the film largely pointless, as the corrupt police chief who put Ben in danger in the first place is entirely forgotten about.
And so the “plot” plods on forgetting details along the way until it reaches it’s inevitable, silly, corner-written-in shoot-out climax. There are plenty of questionable morals in the film, sometimes for the best – the film briefly questions masculinity and the role of men taking danger and risk in a post-war/baby boomer generation world – but also for the worst, as it largely forgets these more interesting ideas for the sake of mindless, heroic action.
While that sort of macho-action thriller has a place, it is frustrating to watch a film that looks like it may do a decent job of questioning those questionable ultra-masculine themes only to succumb to them. Hall as the lead, Richard, doesn’t quite convey enough sympathy (or anything really) to make Richard a particularly engaging character, not helped by how similar his character looks to Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss in the aforementioned Coen Brothers’ pic.
Meanwhile Johnson is fairly ridiculous as the over-reaching detective Jim Bob, but Shepard does a decent job with the troubled father, even if we sort of forget he is an ex-convict after his initially terrifying turn as De Niro from Cape Fear. While the film has some brilliantly tense moments, it fails to really engage, or backup its ideas into anything tangible. By the time of the credits roll, we feel short changed with how much of the spotty narrative has been forgotten about, rather than left intentionally vague.
Posted in USA | Tagged Cold In July, Don Johnson, Jim Mickle, Joe R. Lansdale, Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard | Leave a Comment »
There is something brilliantly magnetic and potent about seeing photographic stills on the cinema screen. For those brief few moments, time seems to stand still as we take in the details of the scene – almost, perhaps, more powerful than examining a photograph in real life. The new documentary Finding Vivian Maier is an excellent testament to the alluring power of the still image. Directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel hone their lens in on the elusive Vivian Maier, a New York nanny in the 60’s and 70’s who left a hidden world of photographs behind, only to be unearthed recently.
Co-director Maloof was the lucky recipient of those photographs. An avid antique lot goer, he chanced upon an unidentified trunk of negatives and duly purchased them, only to find that this lot was not so ordinary. Meticulously scouring through the negatives, he discovered images of great beauty; monochrome street photography that captured life in all its variety. The photographer had an acute eye for composition, a sense of playfulness and an ability to capture their subjects vivacity. The images feel at once timeless and completely alive. Ladies of leisure are juxtaposed against homeless cripples stranded on the pavements, children battling against their mothers.
But what about the person behind the camera? Maloof discovers someone clearly set apart from the art world, a woman who renounced attention and fame for the freedom that anonymity offers. Vivian Maier worked as a nanny for a number of different well-to-do families around New York and Chicago. Through a series of talking heads we learn about the mothers of those families and their now grown up offspring. They tell a story of an intensely private, eccentric person who would take her camera almost everywhere. That she took jaw dropping photos is a huge surprise to them. While not really the focus of the film, it is quite incredible how people can be so close to someone and not really know them at all.
While the photos interspersed throughout the documentary are indeed striking, Maier is no less of an interesting subject. That she became a nanny makes complete sense; an occupation where you are observing, perhaps even intruding, on other people’s lives while retaining a distance, an occupation that allowed discretion and encouraged the freedom to go outside, which Maier clearly thrived on. For much of the film, Maier comes across as fairly harmless, an extroverted introvert finding the world through her camera lens. However, the documentary takes a darker turn when there are hints of Maier’s darker, more sadistic side. What we are left is an impression of a distinctly complex character, who doesn’t conform to any easy characterisation.
There are a few minor flaws in the film; the restless, sub- Glass score is overbearing and typical of some of the brasher, less refined US documentaries. Maloof has also come in for criticism in some parts, his eager, nerdy presence on screen irking some viewers who feel he detracts from the focus on Maier. Personally, I found Maloof’s story made the film richer as a whole as it mirrored the audiences excitement at the discovery. There is also a danger of the film becoming a little too dry and worthy, painting Maier as an important artist. One question does arise from the documentary: what would Vivian herself, who was so keen to hide herself away, make of a film that exposed her to the whole world? And does it matter?
I’m glad to have seen the film and come to know both Maier and her photographs, even if we will never know the full story. There is a perhaps an enjoyable romance in a great artist never revealing their gifts, but in this case, romance can go to hell.
Posted in USA | Tagged Charlie Siskel, Finding Vivian Maier, John Maloof, Vivian Maier | Leave a Comment »
Polish born, Paris/London based director Paweł Pawlikowski’s (My Summer of Love, Last Resort) new film Ida is the first of his to be shot and set in his native Poland. This seems a crucial decision, for Ida is a film about looking into the past, be it the characters, director or an entire nation. Set in 1962 and filmed in monochromatic, “Academy” ratio (traditionally used for silent movies) we find Poland on the precipice: the haunting ghosts of World War II still linger over the perpetually foggy countryside, a place that no doubt looks the same as it did in the middle ages, with the modernism of Jazz music and technological advances heralded by the Soviets just around the corner.
We join Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young, sheltered, novitiate nun in her convent, who is ordered by her mother superior to visit her one surviving relative before she takes her vows. Said relative is her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) who is Anna’s complete opposite; a steely willed, loose talking, heavy drinking former judge of Stalin’s regime, who coolly delivers the news that they are in fact a Jewish family, the rest of which perished during the war and that Anna’s real name is Ida Bernstein. Consequently, Anna/Ida wishes to find out what happened to her family while attempting to retain her Catholic upbringing and while Wanda offers to help, questions “What if you go and find there is no God?”
The film’s narrative is driven by the past, discovering what happened to these people, both real and imagined, in post war Poland as they go hurtling into the future. What’s fairly astonishing about Ida is how it manages to do with this without any particular rhetoric and avoids nostalgia or sentimentalism. Here, the war has thrown these varying peoples and the previous order they knew, be they Jewish or Catholic, into the air and those who have been left behind are scrambling around for answers as they move into a brave new world. This is perhaps the modernist bent a film set 50 years prior provides, but it is refreshing nonetheless to find a film with so much socio-political dressings be entirely human and relatable.
None of Ida would really be so affecting if it wasn’t for the chemistry of it’s terrific cast. Both Trzebuchowska (her debut) and Kulesza are excellent as the central leads. The former brings all the initial restraint and naivety of a girl on the cusp of adulthood, who slowly realises the currency of her religious sisterhood and her beauty coaxed by her world-weary aunt into burgeoning modernity. Wanda’s own deeply traumatised scars begin to show, over time, her maternal opposition with Ida driving much of the narrative. Meanwhile the hitch-hiking jazz musician Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) sparkles while on screen with Ida; their youthful exuberance daring to break the form of the film, introducing her to Jazz which both contextualises and affects due to the film’s mostly diegetic soundtrack. Between him and Wanda, they show Ida an alternative to her current being, often just through a series of exchanged glances.
While the film has many dark notes, highlighted by it’s use of shade and focus, in what seems like every single beautifully composed frame the cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski throw at us, there is a lot of light in Ida‘s script too. Co-written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, it allows for much humour and cynicism in a film about holocaust survivors. While there are plenty of emotional moments, especially in the uncovering of barely dug graves, Ida still manages to keep a playful tone where necessary, especially through Kulesza’s firey “Red” Wanda. Therefore, it really is not surprising to learn that Ida has already won the highest accolades at both the Toronto and London Film Festivals. A film this perfectly balanced does not come around very often.
Posted in Poland | Tagged Ida, Paweł Pawlikowski, Poland | Leave a Comment »
‘Not with a bang but a whimper’.
The words of Dolly Parton, or perhaps TS Eliot, I can’t remember which, come to mind when we watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final screen performance. A Most Wanted Man is by no means a bad film, in fact there is much to recommend it, yet Hoffman’s career is littered with so many jewels that you can’t help but compare. He was a great actor who saw a great screenplay lurking in the corner of a crowded room and went about seducing it until it was his. Hoffman had the ability to morph from weak and pathetic characters to ones full of an almost sociopathic confidence, domineering and charismatic. He was willing to debase himself in order to portray the uglier side of life, all the while humanising characters that often might repulse you.
A Most Wanted Man follows hot on the heels of the last big John Le Carre adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. While that film delved into the murky waters of the Cold War era, this adaptation is a contemporary post 9/11 spy thriller. A young Chechen immigrant named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg and seeks help from a local human rights lawyer, Annabel (Rachel McAdams) to avoid the authorities. The secretive German intelligence unit, led by Gunther (Hoffman) gets wind of Issa’s arrival and suspect he is trying to broker a deal with bank owner Brue (Willem Dafoe) in order to fund a terrorist group. In order to ascertain Issa’s intentions, Gunther’s band of spies must keep the elusive subject under constant surveillance.
The film is a slow-burner, steadily pulling the audience in. In fact, there is not one single shot fired in the film. Anton Corbijn, who directed the Ian Curtis biopic Control and the George Clooney vehicle The American, keeps his camera at a distance. There are some cute shots betraying Corbijn’s previous career as a photographer; an angular tower block lit only by a single light where a moody spy awaits. The edting by Claire Simpson is snappy and concise, and the film moves at a fair pace. The performances are all pretty solid; Hoffman is fine but unstretched by the grumpy, jaded Gunther, while Dafoe and McAdams are fairly convincing.
One thing that took me by surprise, though, was that Hoffman, Dafoe and McAdams are all actually German. Yes, they spoke a weird, broken language of Germanican. Who would have known! Seriously though, there is a question of why we still need to see these weird hybrids on screen. Sure, Hoffman and co. bring in the commercial clout, but as a piece of serious, ‘authentic’ film making, it looks and sounds ridiculous. It would have been nice to have seen the film performed in German, but then we would have to use subtitles, and who the fuck reads anything now anyway? While we are the on the subject of authenticity, the film also fell down in a few plot holes that for a John Le Carre adaptation felt strangely simplistic.
To reiterate, A Most Wanted Man is not a bad film, just a slightly disappointing one, and an unremarkable end to a remarkable career. The film ticks all the requisite boxes for a spy thriller: there is a hefty amount of atmosphere and suspense, and the audience is never left bored, yet there is something missing. For a director who has made his name for visuals rather than anything else, the film is oddly bland. There is no edge to the colour schemes. The story is intriguing rather than punchy, and you get the feeling that Le Carre has written better work. Finally, while the characters were solid and served the plot sufficiently, there was not enough invention or nuance to make them more than just cut out cliches.
Posted in Britain, Germany, USA | Tagged A Most Wanted Man, Anton Corbijn, John Le Carre, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe | Leave a Comment »