REVIEW: Our Kind of Traitor

27 06 2016

Pop culture seems to be reaching a point of saturation with espionage tales, no doubt due in large part to Daniel Craig making James Bond cool again and Tom Cruise finding some new life in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. It has also led to a revival of appreciation for British spy novelist John le Carré, whose career began in the Cold War and has stretched into the post-9/11 world.

Our Kind of Traitor,” the latest adaptation of the author’s work, comes at the tail end of a big spate from le Carré. 2011 brought the feature-length version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy;” 2014 saw the release of “A Most Wanted Man;” earlier in 2016, his novel “The Night Manager” got the prestige mini-series treatment. Given what else has recently been dredged from his oeuvre, it’s hard not to see this new film as second-shelf le Carré.

For a writer whose strength lies in the grounded nature of his stories, the turn of events in “Our Kind of Traitor” is remarkably improbable. Large, bizarre narrative leaps work fine in a larger-than-life series like James Bond. This level of suspension of disbelief and stretches of plausibility feel odd and out of place in this realistic world.

The film’s protagonist, Ewan McGregor’s Perry Makepeace, just happens to be in the wrong place at the right time when he meets Stellan Skarsgard’s Dima, a Russian money launderer looking to go straight, in Marrakesh. Dima wants to get out of the criminal underworld and takes a gamble on the first Englishman he can find. And of course, the dominos just so happen to fall in a way that involves MI6 and produces a number of intriguing plot points. Susanna White’s film is an intelligence movie with fairly little intelligent craftsmanship, neither reflecting on the state of modern back-room diplomacy nor providing a particularly fun cinematic outing. C+2stars





REVIEW: Cinderella

12 03 2015

Kenneth Branagh’s biggest cinematic production to date has been “Thor,” but he established a reputation far before taking on a hot Marvel property.  Many consider him the Laurence Olivier of our time, perhaps the preeminent modern interpreter of Shakespeare.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he stood at the helm of multiple acclaimed film adaptations of the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon’s plays.

After delivering a dead-on-arrival reboot of the “Jack Ryan” franchise, Branagh turned back toward a source material that he could more faithfully reproduce: Disney’s “Cinderella.”  He approaches the fabled animated classic with the same tender touch he brings to a Shakespeare text, gingerly re-staging the action with careful attention to its original incarnation.  By not shaking anything up, Branagh ensures that his film will not ruffle the feathers of the die-hards.

But the downside of such a rigid reinterpretation is that his “Cinderella” also does not really excite anyone except the die-hards.  If the animated classic, 65 years later, still enchants children everywhere, why bother to remake it with such obliviousness to the many midnights passed?  (“Maleficent,” warts and all, at least took a stab at reimagining the “Sleeping Beauty” mythology.)  The answer seems simple: merchandising opportunities and brand awareness.

Branagh serves less as a director and more as a cookie-cutter, ensuring that all components of his “Cinderella” meet the pre-established mold.  In everything from the opening line of “once upon a time” to the traditional gender roles and ideology, the film adequately measures up.  The only worthwhile addition 2015 makes to the story is some CGI in the Fairy Godmother’s transformation of Cinderella, her escorts, and her carriage – effects that look quite magical.

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REVIEW: The Railway Man

10 08 2014

The Railway Man“War leaves a mark,” states Jonathan Teplitzky’s “The Railway Man,” a film that ironically leaves very little mark on the viewer.  Two hours of events chug along like a train just pulling out of the station, and there’s hardly any rewarding byproduct from enduring it.

Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson’s script moseys through Eric Lomax’s autobiography, cutting back and forth between his time as a young soldier (Jeremy Irvine) trapped in a Japanese POW camp and his life as a haunted older man (Colin Firth) unable to connect with his wife (Nicole Kidman).  The format feels a little clunky, sure, but that fault pales in comparison to how blandly they present the story.  Nothing about “The Railway Man” seems meant to inspire thought about larger ideas, unless that’s what you’re making for dinner after the movie is over.

Firth does a nice job conveying the damage of his traumatic wartime experience; it’s almost as if he’s just doing a more reserved, understated reprise of his Oscar-winning role as Bertie from “The King’s Speech.”  But “The Railway Man” does a better job of conveying that isolation and sense of smallness with its striking, emotionally detached long shots than Firth does with any acting.

Teplitzky clearly knows how to make a film like this by the book, yet as a result, it comes across as rather cold and unfeeling.  I would have loved to have seen it delve more into the psychology of Eric, both when he’s emotionally scarred as a prisoner and when he embarks on a mysterious quest for revenge as a veteran.  Without such insight, “The Railway Man” just feels like a placeholder for a truly hard-hitting World War II flick to really sweep us off our feet.  C+2stars





REVIEWS: Nymphomaniac, Vols. I and II

8 07 2014

Nymphomaniac

There was understandably a lot of talk surrounding the alleged pornographic content of Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac,” a two-part, four hour opus on human sexuality.  It got plenty of coverage online – thank you, always horny Internet users who fall for the first click-bait title about sex – and I honestly was never quite sure if the actors were participating in live acts or not.

But I sat through the entire film (albeit in two sittings) and hardly found the explicit content to be the most off-putting thing about it.

In fact, it rather made sense for a movie like this to show sexuality so openly since it is literally about all the complications and eccentricities of the libido.  That doesn’t make it easy to watch, nor does it make portraying sex acts artistic.  It does, however, give them some sense of place (unlike the rather unnecessarily extended scenes in “Blue is the Warmest Color“).

No, what made “Nymphomaniac” tough to watch and downright insufferable at times is Von Trier’s seemingly never-ending supply of pretentious commentary.  He structures the film as a conversation about the travails of sex addict Joe, played with dogged dedication by Charlotte Gainsbourg, with professor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard).  As they walk through her life, each provides intellectual commentary on the very nature of sexuality.

Von Trier clearly has a lot to say, and his appraisals can be quite enlightening.  Yet he writes the film in such a haughty, overblown tone that it can’t help but get quite aggravating at a certain point.  Von Trier supplies endless metaphors and then unpacks them completely rather than letting us explore them.  The experience of “Nymphomaniac” is akin to locking yourself in a room for four hours with Von Trier, who greets you from his ivory tower mentality with the exhortation, “sit down and let me educate you about sex because I know everything about it!”

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