Archive for November, 2014

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.

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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?

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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.

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