A Most Wanted Man

Lawyer, Banker, Drifter, Spy

wantedAnton Corbijn has taken on the task of adapting another John le Carré spy novel, the most recent being Tomas Alfredson’s admirable go at Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  As with that film (not to mention most of le Carré’s work), A Most Wanted Man feels like a fragment.  Spy narrative, complete with slow burn, introspective protagonists, and sometimes impenetrable politics, constitutes such a deep and complex culture and experience that AMWM (even at its two-hour runtime) still feels like the middle of a story once it ends.  That’s in part a compliment to the filmmaker and actors, who never allow us to disengage from the tension, but also a comment on the painful realism of these stories: Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) does not want the story to end yet, but as we realize after our post-ending tantrum, the ending this film gets is the only ending possible.

Bachmann, a German espionage agent, runs an intelligence outfit in Hamburg.  When Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen refugee, illegally enters the country and is confirmed by Russian intelligence to be a terrorist threat, Bachmann puts out feelers, as Karpov’s intention to collect an inheritance from his dishonorable father’s account may have some connection to something Bachmann’s team (which includes Nina Hoss, Vicky Krieps, and Mehdi Dehbi) have been interested in for some time: Doctor Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a Muslim philanthropist, is believed to be funding terrorist activities.  Bachmann needs proof.  Unfortunately, two other parties are interested in these issues: Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), an American diplomat, and German security official Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), who works with the Americans.  To put it lightly, gentle Bachmann and the gung-ho others differ on how to handle the Karpov situation, and are left to pursue things in their own way after Bachmann refers to Mohr as a “clown.”  They basically let Bachmann go about his business, but we get the sense that the Americans are almost too invisible as operations go forward.

The film’s deuteragonist is Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an immigration lawyer who wants to give Karpov a chance.  She puts him in touch with Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a banker whose father had shady relations (money laundering) with Karpov’s father.  Karpov wants to give the money away, but is ultimately a young man trying to find himself, and has no real plan – a fact that may prove as frustrating to some viewers as it does to the film’s various spies and agents.  But it makes complete sense; in fact, if a homeless torture victim turned out to have a meticulously thought-out strategy for dealing with millions of euros, there wouldn’t be much of a case for the film’s realism.  Annabel truly feels for the young refugee, and goes as far as hiding him in a relative’s soon-to-be-renovated apartment when she thinks Bachmann’s group might have dastardly intentions for him.  What Bachmann really wants to do is convince Karpov to donate the money to Abdullah’s organization in order to prove that the latter is funneling money to Seven Friends, a shipping company that is actually a front for Al Qaeda.  The obvious choice is to simultaneously turn Annabel and Tommy, one by kidnapping and one by highbrow, gentlemanly schmoozing.  Guess which.

The other story thread involves several sparsely placed meetings between Bachmann and Sullivan, who try to work out a mutually beneficial method for dealing with Karpov.  Nothing works, yet the film refrains from outwardly vilifying Sullivan, whose genuine charm (that of the Princess Bride herself) actually convinces us that she’s being kind, and not jerky, by giving Bachmann various ultimatums, all of which seem fair if he can actually do his job.  She even gets him a meeting with the interior minister, who gives him the green light.

A Most Wanted Man is more genuinely characterized than Tinker, Tailor, which more or less amounts to a whodunnit wherein lots of middle-aged white men tirelessly dogmatize about what it all means.  The identity of the mole is everything.  Here, there are more pieces, and the pieces are people who are actually worth caring about, not to mention that every character’s motivation and reasons for acting the way they do are very well laid out (except for Karpov, who doesn’t know himself, which makes him even more of a wildcard).  The film opens with a nice, long shot of Bachmann’s entire team, giving an audience time to take in what each of them looks like, so that we recognize them as they stalk Richter and Karpov on the subway or pretend to be a target’s old acquaintance.  A long, father-son-style scene between Bachmann and his spy underling Jamal seems out of place, but provides a vital payoff later.  Best of all, Bachmann’s team includes almost as many women as it does men, with Vicky Krieps and Nina Hoss (as Niki and Erna respectively) convincingly portraying characters who have been doing this work with Bachmann for a long time.  Never do we get the sense that this is a group of cool, quirky movie spies with flashy skills.  Everything about them seems real, especially the fatigue.

Annabel, though, represents the heart of the film.  She cares about what she does.  She’s confident and brave, unafraid of Tommy, Bachmann, or the government, but able to be convinced when a good point is made.  Notably, she’s the only one who acts out of sympathy, whereas Bachmann and Sullivan facetiously refer to their motivations with the quip, “To make the world a safer place.  Isn’t that enough?”

Karpov, of course, is the film’s titular wanted man, but sadly, another man is “wanted” after the film ends.  This is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead role, and even though I’ll be able to gush about him twice more in the upcoming Hunger Games sequels, the final shot of this film – an extended, single-shot car ride through Hamburg with Hoffman’s eyes in the rearview mirror, as though he’s chauffeuring us to a staged performance of the Kinks’ “Celluloid Heroes,” before he gets out and walks away with the audience still in the car – is truly hollowing.

A Most Wanted Man (2014); based upon the novel by John le Carré; screenplay by Andrew Bovell; directed by Anton Corbijn, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, and Grigoriy Dobrygin. 

 

Lawless

Year of the Southern

Lawless, based upon Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World, is violent to the degree that it makes something like The Expendables look like The Wizard of Oz.  This isn’t due to gratuity, mind you; the various malicious acts in Lawless occur due to some unspoken code of violence upheld by its characters, and while there’s a lot of blood, violent scenes are effective not because of spectacle, but because of what is happening to whom, and the degree to which the event itself frustrates or discomforts the viewer – I’ve always said one of the most most violent scenes in film was Sonny’s death in The Godfather.

The film follows the historical Bondurant brothers, Virginia moonshine bootleggers in Prohibition-era Franklin County.  Forrest (Tom Hardy) is effectively the boss, and is feared for being legendarily invincible.  Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the youngest, who feels he has something to prove to Forrest, who often treats him like a child.  Howard (Jason Clark) is apelike and unpredictable.  Together, they are a local treasure, and along with the lovable Cricket (Dane Dehaan), they make and jar the best moonshine available, supplying everyone from local yokels to fearsome gangsters, including Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who seems at the outset like he might become the villain, but despite his tendency to walk into the street and casually mow down groups of people with a Thompson submachine gun, Banner is actually quite agreeable.

Jessica Chastain, who created the greatest female performances of 2011 (and, to be honest, maybe some of the best film performances ever) in Take Shelter and The Tree of Life, appears as the enigmatic Maggie, who wanders into town and snags a job in the Bondurants’ restaurant in order to escape the Chicago city life.  This role is not the stuff of her characters from last year – in fact, she is given criminally little to do – but her limitless dedication to every one of her characters produces the film’s best dramatic scene when she finally reveals to the mumbling Forrest (at this point her romantic partner) that she’s tired of him going out and sustaining near-fatal injuries every single day.

Mia Wasikowska, who also had one of the most moving performances of last year in Jane Eyre, appears as Bertha, playing opposite LaBeouf’s character, who goes so far as infiltrating a church meeting in order to steal a smile from her.  Her performance is great, but I get the feeling she’s acting around a group of Hollywooders indulging so deeply in their own project that they don’t realize she’s secretly a leading actress, and one of the better ones we have right now.

The trouble reaches new levels when Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) ventures into Franklin County, ordered by corrupt feds to seize the Bondurants’ operation: first, he offers a deal, but his foppish nature and condescending personality illicit a belligerent response from Forrest, and we soon have a turf war on our hands.  If he can’t have a share of the Bondurants’ profits, he must destroy them, and he succeeds on most levels: razing their still with explosives, brutalizing Jack, murdering innocent parties, harassing (and later unspeakably harming) Maggie, and sending multiple goons to get rid of Forrest while framing Banner for it.  The brothers aren’t duped, however, and before you know it, one of the most intense firefights since The Guard takes place at an otherwise gorgeous covered bridge.

The film features one of Hardy’s best performances in the unbelievably tough and lovably soft-spoken Forrest, and LaBeouf’s character is surprisingly sympathetic, proving he can do things other than yell and fidget in big-budget shlock about giant robots.  Even his accent seems authentic (it should be noted, however, that I’m a Northerner).  My one major regret about this film is that Jessica and Mia, two of the best actresses working today, are relegated to supporting cast and never have a single scene together (at the end, we see them in the same room together, but they never share so much as a glance).  I suppose, at heart, this is a movie about dudes shooting each other, and I understand the concept of focus as well as anyone, but it still seems a waste, as these two could carry a film with no other actors at all, if it came down to it.  Pearce, accustomed to playing irredeemably evil characters, basically plays the Devil here.  “You know, I don’t much like you,” he is told by a local lawman forced to work with him.  “Yeah?” he responds, unshaken.  “Not many do.”  It would have been interesting to see him clash with Oldman’s Banner, but the film doesn’t lend time for it.

Lawless is reaching for an Oscar, but its plot is actually a carbon copy of John Nichols’ novel The Milagro Beanfield War (also adapted into a film featuring Christopher Walken), a story about regionalism and also featuring a showdown between simple country folks and federal law enforcement.  The main difference is that in Nichols’ story, the main character is defending a beanfield instead of a distillery, and the women are tougher and better respected.  Lawless deals with (most of) its own characters well, though, and being one of those derivative-yet-supposedly-true stories this country knows and loves, it may yet bag the glory its American underdogs feel they so duly deserve.

Lawless (2012); written by Nick Cave; based upon the novel by Matt Bondurant; directed by John Hillcoat; starring Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, and Mia Wasikowska.

The Dark Knight Rises

Death by exile

Since this may be my last chance, I’d like to examine just a few of the logical missteps in Batman’s modus operandi, many of which were suggested to me by a friend during the car ride to see The Dark Knight Rises: Batman and other masked vigilantes cannot legally arrest anyone.  Without admissible evidence, any villain kidnapped by Batman and left on the stoop of the police department is free to get up and catch a cab home.  Adding the fact that vigilantism is largely illegal, “the Batman” (i.e. a nocturnal maniac in an elaborate costume who beats the tar out of people unprovoked) cannot present himself as a witness without revealing his identity.  The absolute only way Batman would be able to stop crime would be to murder every criminal he came across, curbing his “no killing” rule.  Even if Bruce Wayne were to come forth as witness to a crime or offer open help to the police, he has an endless assemblage of illegal tech in and below his house (including military-grade tanks).  If Christopher Nolan’s Gotham were a real place, rest assured, Batman would be spending plenty more time in his cave than anywhere else.

The final film in the Batman Begins series is an effective ending to the trilogy and the most character-centric film Nolan has done, albeit with more than a few failures.  On the upside, Batman himself appears for maybe ten minutes of total screen time, while his alter ego, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) deals with some personal trials after an eight year absence from crime-fighting.  The film focuses on these trials along with the exploits of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who arranges to steal Wayne’s fingerprints in exchange for the elimination of her criminal record.  The film’s deuteragonist, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) climbs the ladder of the Gotham police force and takes on a role very similar to that of Robin, the sidekick of Batman, a non-coincidence that provides some good payoff in one of the film’s final scenes.  The other major players are Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist with a cult-like following bent on purifying Gotham through its destruction, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a determined businesswoman with lots of money and a nebulous agenda.

I’ve discussed Christopher Nolan’s writing problems in the past (see Inception), and although The Dark Knight Rises possesses a more emotional foothold than its predecessors, plenty of fundamental issues are still present, namely when it comes to female characters.  Women get a better deal here (which isn’t saying much, considering Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fate in The Dark Knight): Hathaway’s character gets plenty to do in the way of action, and more importantly, has some personal motivation for getting involved in Gotham’s criminal underbelly.  Cotillard’s character is an important business mogul with serious ideas for a billion-dollar company, but once the action starts, she becomes a damsel in distress, and later, when her true identity is revealed, she satisfies that Generation Nolan film convention in which women with goals must use sex to achieve them and/or be deceptive and snakelike (see also George Clooney’s The Ides of March).  Both women harbor romantic feelings for Wayne, and like Nolan’s two female characters in Inception, these two serve as disparate romance options for the male lead.  They revolve around the guy, and if he didn’t need them, they wouldn’t exist.  Additionally, while Hathaway tries to play against type and be a self-motivated character, these contrived feelings for Batman (not to mention the sexy catsuit and high heels she’s required to prance around in) subvert what is otherwise a valiant effort.  Selina gets a sidekick, Holly Robinson (Juno Temple), commonly known as one of the first openly gay characters in comic books, but Temple is criminally underused while time is wasted on individual male cops and criminals who have no real bearing on the story’s events, including Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, who has appeared in all three films), in a mock courtroom side-story that is never actually resolved.

There are also some interesting “buzz word” moments that I think are worth examining.  Bane’s takeover of Gotham is described by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) as an “occupation,” and Bane proceeds to dismantle the power structures of the city (which includes driving the entire police force into hiding) while claiming that he’s placing the power in the hands of the people; the word people is spoken very deliberately, like a taunt.  The city’s single court room is now run by a mob of cretins, and pyramids of books and papers are scattered and piled everywhere.  Every defendant is killed in a barbaric, Hun-like manner, regardless of guilt.  It seems that when the “people” obtain power and there are no billionaires or police to save us from ourselves, the system falls apart and the doors to the Dark Ages are reopened.  Nolan has already responded to this commentary, claiming that the film is “obviously not” a criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but if it was obvious, viewers would not be making these claims based upon evidence gathered from the film.  You cannot create a story with the intent of having it interpreted; no matter what “side” you’re on, Nolan’s film glorifies the police and reinforces the necessity of the wealthy while trodding on free will and treating ordinary people like commoners.  Wayne’s ascent from a gargantuan (and apparently unsupervised) prison tower among the burbling chants of other prisoners (who all happen to be trained baritones) evokes a sort of religious vibe, satisfying the Rises part of the title while making one wonder what Batman himself thinks of the people – he’s a wealthy man who unconditionally aids the police, but he’s adamant about ensuring that Gotham’s savior “could be anyone.”

Among the leaps in logic is Bane’s (and his boss’s) ultimate plan: destroy Gotham as per the wishes of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), who was defeated in the first film.  Considering how petty their goals are (right up there with Hans Gruber), why are Bane’s thugs so devoted and ready to die for the cause?  The film’s opening brings on this question when a henchman happily goes down with a doomed aircraft simply because Bane asks him to (this scene also features Aiden Gillen as a cocky CIA agent with a pompadour haircut, illustrating the underuse of great TV actors in films).  How do the thugs plant bombs of incredible power beneath massive suspension bridges without anyone (particularly boaters) noticing?  What’s the point of isolating Gotham into a medieval city-state if you’re going to blow it up anyway?  How many movies are going to make use of the trigger-button MacGuffin before filmmakers realize it no longer provides any real tension or drama?

The film effectively book-ends the Batman saga despite the numerous hair-pulling moments, and the statuses of the film’s main characters (not to mention the Batcave) make for a surprisingly pleasing conclusion (with no cliffhangers or silly post-credits scenes).  For full enjoyment, however, please blacken your third eye.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012); written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, and Tom Hardy.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

No, it’s not Men in Black III

As the Oscars continue to push me toward my inevitable aneurysm, great films continue to release on the tail end of awards season.  2012 doesn’t (so far) look like it will be quite the year for film as 2011 was, but there are glimmers of hope here and there.  I’m currently playing tag with the final films of 2011, many of which are still available to see.

Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a quiet spy film in the tradition of Three Days of the Condor and The Good Shepherd.  Based upon a complex spy novel by John le Carré and perhaps inspired by the seven-part TV series from many years ago, the film features a prize collection of male actors, including Oscar-nominated Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Stephen Graham, Colin Firth, Simon McBurney, Tom Hardy, and Ciarán Hinds.  The story follows a few characters, centering around George Smiley (Oldman), whom, after being forced into retirement from the Circus (the British secret service), is tasked with uncovering the identity of a mole.  From the beginning, we know that the mole is sitting at the table, but the filmmakers don’t so much invite us to decode the mystery for ourselves as they do urge us to tag along with Smiley.

What follows is essentially a two-hour series of interviews, through which Smiley and his sidekick, Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch) ingeniously smoke the mole out.  Contrary to the usual, I won’t go into detail about the plot, as its movement doesn’t lend itself well to this type of piece.  However, the film contains inspired performances, convincingly suspenseful situations (at the expense of obligatory gunfights, which the less experienced spy-film-viewer may expect here), and some great use of image patterning (keep track of every shot of dripping liquid, if you can).

To the film’s detriment, perhaps, is the uniformly consistent direction by Alfredson.  The cinematography is always solid, but rarely surprising.  In addition, the underuse of music throughout and explosive overuse of “La Mer” at the end is a bit jarring.  Only one female character shows up in the film (Irina, played by Svetlana Khodchenkova), and once Ricki Tarr (Hardy) gets involved with her, there’s not much hope that she’ll last until the denouement.  Perhaps most striking is the lack of characterization for Smiley.  Rather than receiving character-deepening scenes (apart from one, during which he relates a story about meeting Karla, an enemy of Britain), Smiley acts as the linchpin for the movie’s forward action, and the story’s ancillary characters orbit him without ever allowing us to be too curious about him.  We’re not even allowed to see the face of his estranged wife, Ann, who cheats on him with Haydon (Firth) in one of the film’s important subplots.  The film’s other major draw is Mark Strong, who plays Jim Prideaux, a British spy-turned-schoolteacher who has a good relationship with children and a hell of an aim with a .22.  It’s a nice change from his usual villain roles.

Spy movies like this only come out every so often, and it’s just as well, since their quiet nature turns the average American filmgoer’s brain into pudding.  It’s refreshing, however, when a film of this type not only turns out well, but gets a bit of recognition.  Oldman’s Best Actor is coming.  Not this year nor for this film, but soon.

 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011); written by Bridget O’Connor (adapted from John le Carré’s novel); directed by Tomas Alfredson; starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong.