Category Archives: Spy vs Spy

Better poke him to make sure: Revisiting Cuba on film

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 26, 2016)

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Time, he’s waiting in the wings

He speaks of senseless things

His script is you and me, boys

-from “Time” by David Bowie

So the dictator who once inspired a documentary entitled 638 Ways to Kill Castro was finally taken out by time-honored method #639: Patience. Whether you are happy, sad or ambivalent regarding the passing of Fidel Castro, it’s inarguable that it’s been a long, strange trip for U.S.-Cuban relations since the Teflon strongman seized power in 1959.

In light of this development, I’m re-running a post that was originally inspired by Secretary of State John Kerry’s historic visit to the island-nation in October of last year:

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There’s just something about (Castro’s) Cuba that affects (U.S. presidential) administrations like the full moon affects a werewolf. There’s no real logic at work here.

-an interviewee from the documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro

The Obama administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this President…

from Gov. Jeb Bush’s official Facebook statement, December 2014

Pardon me for interrupting, Jeb. October of 1962 just called…it wants its zeitgeist back.

the author of this post

 Although you wouldn’t guess it from the odd perfunctory mention that managed to squeeze in edgewise through the ongoing 24/7 Donald Trump coverage dominating the MSM, that flag raising at the American embassy in Cuba yesterday, coinciding with the first official visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in 70 (seventy) years was kind of a big deal.

Wasn’t it?

Maybe it’s just me (silly old peacenik that I am). Anyway, in honor of this auspicious occasion, here are my picks for the top 10 films with a Cuban theme. Alphabetically:

Bananas– Yes, I know. This 1971 Woody Allen film takes place in the fictional banana republic of “San Marcos”, but the mise en scene is an obvious stand-in for Cuba. There are also numerous allusions to the Cuban revolution, not the least of which is the ridiculously fake beard donned at one point by hapless New Yawker Fielding Mellish (Allen) after he finds himself swept up in Third World revolutionary politics. Naturally, it all starts with Allen’s moon-eyed desire for a woman completely out of his league, an attractive activist (Louise Lasser). The whole setup is utterly absurd…and an absolute riot. This is pure comic genius at work. Howard Cosell’s (straight-faced) contribution is priceless. Allen co-wrote with his Take the Money and Run collaborator, Mickey Rose.

Buena Vista Social Club- This engaging 1999 music documentary was the brainchild of musician Ry Cooder, director Wim Wenders, and the film’s music producer Nick Gold. Guitarist/world music aficionado Cooder coaxes a number of venerable Cuban players out of retirement (most of whom had their careers rudely interrupted by the Revolution and its aftermath) to cut a collaborative album, and Wenders is there to capture what ensues (as well as ever-cinematic Havana) in his inimitable style. He weaves in footage of some of the artists as they make their belated return to the stage, playing to enthusiastic fans in Europe and the U.S. It’s a tad over-praised, but well worth your time.

Che– Let’s get this out of the way. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no martyr. By the time he was captured and executed by CIA-directed Bolivian Special Forces in 1967, he had put his own fair share of people up against the wall in the name of the Revolution. Some historians have called him “Castro’s brain”.

That said, there is no denying that he was a complex, undeniably charismatic and fascinating individual. By no means your average revolutionary guerrilla leader, he was well-educated, a physician, a prolific writer (from speeches and essays on politics and social theory to articles, books and poetry), a shrewd diplomat and had a formidable intellect. He was also a brilliant military tactician.

Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriters (Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen) adapted their 4 ½ hour opus from Guevara’s autobiographical accounts. Whereas Part 1 (aka The Argentine) is a fairly straightforward biopic, Part 2 (aka Guerilla) reminded me of two fictional films with an existential bent, both  also set in torpid South American locales-Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Like the doomed protagonists in those films, Guevara is fully committed to his journey into the heart of darkness, and has no choice but to cast his fate to the wind and let it all play out. Star Benicio del Toro shines.

The Godfather, Part II– While Cuba may not be the primary setting for Francis Ford Coppola’s superb 1974 sequel to The Godfather, it is the location for a key section of the narrative where powerful mob boss Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) travels to pre-Castro Havana to consider a possible business investment. He has second thoughts after witnessing a disturbing incident involving an anti-Batista rebel. And don’t forget that the infamous “kiss of death” scene takes place at Batista’s opulent New Year’s Eve party…just as the guests learn Castro and his merry band of revolutionaries have reached the outskirts of the city and are duly informed by their host…that they are on their own! And remember, if you want to order a banana daiquiri in Spanish, it’s “banana daiquiri”.

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay– Picking up where they left off in their surprise stoner comedy hit Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, roomies Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) excitedly pack their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board.

When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic appearance, catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up his homemade contraption in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by a jingoistic government spook and issued orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster.

Through circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they break out of Cuba, and hitch a boat ride to Florida. This sets off a series of cross-country misadventures. As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top their predicament, the funnier it gets. It’s crass, even vulgar; but it’s somehow good-naturedly crass and vulgar, in a South Park kind of way (i.e. the goofiness is embedded with sharp political barbs).

I Am Cuba– There is a knee-jerk tendency in some quarters to dismiss this 1964 film about the Cuban revolution out of hand as pure Communist propaganda, and little else. Granted, it was produced with the full blessing of Castro’s regime, who partnered with the Soviet government to provide the funding for Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov’s sprawling epic.

Despite the dubious backing, the director was given a surprising amount of artistic leeway; what resulted was, yes, from one perspective a propagandist polemic, but also a visually intoxicating cinematic masterpiece that remains (accolades from cineastes and critics aside) curiously unheralded. The narrative is divided into a quartet of one-act dramas about Cuba’s salt of the earth; exploited workers, dirt-poor farmers, student activists, and rebel guerrilla fighters. However, the real stars here are the director and his technical crew, who leave you pondering how in the hell they produced some of those jaw-dropping set pieces.

The Mambo Kings– Look in the dictionary under “pulsating”, and you will likely see the poster for Arme Glimcher’s underrated 1992 melodrama about two musician brothers (Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas) who flee Cuba in the mid-1950s to seek fame and fortune in America. Hugely entertaining, with fiery performances by the two leads, great support from Cathy Moriarty and Maruschka Detmers, topped off by a fabulous soundtrack. Tito Puente gives a rousing cameo performance, and in a bit of stunt casting Desi Arnaz, Jr. is on hand to play (wait for it) Desi Arnaz, Sr. (who helps the brothers get their career going). Cynthia Cidre adapted her screenplay from Oscar Hijuelos’ novel.

Our Man in Havana– A decade after their collaboration on the 1949 classic, The Third Man, director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene reunited for this wonderfully droll 1960 screen adaptation of Greene’s seriocomic novel. Alec Guinness gives one of his more memorable performances as an English vacuum cleaner shop owner living in pre-revolutionary Havana. Strapped for cash, he accepts an offer from Her Majesty’s government to do a little moonlighting for the British Secret Service. Finding himself with nothing to report, he starts making things up so he can stay on the payroll. Naturally, this gets him into a pickle as he keeps digging himself into a deeper hole. Reed filmed on location, which gives us an interesting snapshot of Havana on the cusp of the Castro era.

Scarface– Make way for the bad guy. Bad guy comin’ through. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is a bad, bad, bad, bad man, a Cuban immigrant who comes to America as part of the 1980 Mariel boat lift. A self-proclaimed “political refugee”, Tony, like the millions of immigrants before him who made this country great, aims to secure his piece of the American Dream. However, he’s a bit impatient. He espies a lucrative shortcut via Miami’s thriving cocaine trade, which he proves very adept at (because he’s very ruthless). Everything about this film is waaay over the top; Pacino’s performance, Brian De Palma’s direction, Oliver Stone’s screenplay, the mountains of coke and the piles of bodies. Yet, it remains a guilty pleasure; I know I’m not alone in this (c’mon, admit it!).

638 Ways to Kill Castro- History buffs (and conspiracy-a-go-go enthusiasts) will definitely want a peek at British director Dolan Cannell’s documentary. Mixing archival footage with talking heads (including a surprising number of would-be assassins), Cannell highlights some of the attempts by the U.S. government to knock off Fidel over the years. The number (638) of “ways” is derived from a list compiled by former members of Castro’s security team.

Although Cannell initially plays for laughs (many of the schemes sound like they were hatched by Wile E. Coyote) the tone becomes more sobering. The most chilling revelation concerns the 1976 downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off Barbados (73 people killed). One of the alleged masterminds was Orlando Bosch, an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida (he had participated in CIA-backed actions in the past).

When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80s, many Republicans rallied to have him pardoned, including Florida congresswoman Ileana Ross, who used her involvement with the “Free Orlando Bosch” campaign as part of her running platform. Her campaign manager was a young up and coming politician named (wait for it) Jeb! Long story short? Jeb’s Pappy then-president George Bush Sr. granted Bosch a pardon in 1990. Oh, what a tangled web, Jeb! BTW, Bosch was once publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General.

UPDATE [11-28-16]  #

I’m not the only one with Fidel on the brain…I received a flurry of emails from readers, who offer these excellent recommendations:

h/t to Michael I., Douglas W., Michael H., Carl C.,  & Timothy S.

Spy vs. acronym: Spectre **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 7, 2015)

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In my review of Sam Mendes’ 2012 James Bond adventure, Skyfall, I wrote:

I’m sure you’ve heard the old chestnut about cockroaches and Cher surviving the Apocalypse? As the James Bond movie franchise celebrates its 50th year […] you might as well add “007” to that short list of indestructible life forms. […] Love him or hate him, it’s a fact of life that as long as he continues to lay those gold-painted eggs for the studio execs, agent 007 is here to stay.

Mendes set the bar pretty high with his first stab at the venerable legacy; in fact I was impressed enough with his Bond installment to include it in my top 10 films of 2012 list. Unfortunately, as it turns out, Mendes may have set the bar too high; or perhaps by saying “yes” to Spectre (Bond #24, if you’re counting) he baited the sophomore curse. Whatever the reason, I found 007’s new outing to be a bit shaky, and not quite so stirring.

Unless you live in a cave, I’m sure you’re aware that Daniel Craig is back on board, as are Skyfall screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, joined this time out by Jez Butterworth, who co-scripted the 2010 political thriller Fair Game (my review).

The story picks up with Bond still grieving the loss of his mentor, M (Judi Dench). As foreshadowed in the previous installment, 007 now answers to a freshly anointed “M” (Ray Fiennes), with whom he is already at loggerheads (as we know, he’s a great agent in the field, but has “issues” with authority figures). An enigmatic “last request” from the late M sends Bond gallivanting off to Mexico City for an unauthorized hit job. This sets up the traditional jaw-dropping action sequence opener, which doesn’t disappoint (…yet).

The plot gets a little murky from here; Bond next heads for Rome, long enough to, erm, pump the lovely widow (Monica Bellucci) of a nefarious hit man for information regarding a shadowy international cabal of assassins, spies, terrorists, extortionists, gypsies, tramps and thieves who generally engage in Very Bad Things, and crash one of their board meetings…where he is recognized and called out by its CEO (Christoph Waltz) and subsequently run out of town and dogged all over Europe and North Africa by a hulking henchman named Hinx (Dave Bautista). He is soon joined on his escapade by the lovely daughter (Lea Seydoux) of yet another recently departed nefarious hit man.

Back in London, M is embroiled in an inter-agency scuffle with (to my recollection) a new character in the Bond canon, “C” (Andrew Scott). “C” is the type that our friends across the pond might refer to as a “smug git”. He views M and his agents as anachronisms; much too “analog” in an age where there are so many high-tech surveillance/operational alternatives (you get the impression that this guy would feel right at home with the NSA).

One of the main problems with the film is that it never quite gels for either of these two distinct narratives; when Bond’s exploits in the field and M’s political woes back at the home office do finally converge, it feels tricksy and false in a curiously rushed third act.

It frequently seems as if this film wasn’t being directed by a “person”, but rather by an evenly divided focus group of Bond fans; half of them the adrenaline junkies who really dig the gadgets and the babes and the chase scenes and the shit blowing up, and the other half (like yours truly) who have applauded Bond 2.0’s sense of grittiness, intrigue, and character development that (arguably) flirts more with John Le Carre than Ian Fleming.

But by trying too hard to please everyone, you end up with both sides getting short shrift. The action fans will probably start looking at their watches every time the story moves back to HQ (I couldn’t help noticing that many people at the full house promo screening I attended chose those moments to take their restroom breaks), and those longing for a bit more complexity may view the action pieces as distracting and perfunctory this time out.

Ultimately, Spectre plays more like a “greatest hits” collection than a brand new album.

Speaking of which…Sam Smith is obviously a talented fellow and has some great pipes, but “Writing’s on the Wall” has got to be, hands down, the most ponderous and overwrought Bond theme of all time. It goes on longer than the Old Testament. Seriously:

If you managed to make it through that entire video, please accept my condolences. You deserve a palette cleanser now, so here are my picks for the Top 5 Bond movie themes:

“A View to a Kill”performed by Duran Duran

“For Your Eyes Only”performed by Sheena Easton

“Goldfinger”performed by Shirley Bassey

“Live and Let Die”performed by Paul McCartney

“You Only Live Twice”performed by Nancy Sinatra

Cockroaches, Cher, and 007: Skyfall ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 10, 2012)

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Anderson Cooper interviews Rip Taylor in Skyfall.

I’m sure you’ve heard the old chestnut about cockroaches and Cher surviving the Apocalypse? As the James Bond movie franchise celebrates its 50th year with the release of Skyfall, you might as well add “007” to that short list of indestructible life forms. Many of us have literally grown up watching six actors battle a gaggle of “Bond villains”, bed a bevy of “Bond girls”…and generally facilitate the audience’s expectation to see lots of cool shit blow up real good by the end of the film. We could argue all day about who was the best Bond (Sean Connery) Bond villain (Gert Frobe), or best Bond girl (Diana Rigg!), but that’s purely subjective. Love him or hate him, it’s a fact of life that as long as he continues to lay those gold-painted eggs for the studio execs, agent 007 is here to stay.

It might surprise you to learn that not only is the franchise still very much alive and well, but that I would rank Skyfall among the very best in the series. Assembled with great intelligence and verve by American Beauty director Sam Mendes, this tough, spare and relatively gadget-free Bond caper harkens back to the gritty, straightforward approach of From Russia with Love (the best of the early films). That being said, Mendes hasn’t forgotten his obligation to fulfill the franchise’s tradition of delivering a slam-bang, pull out all the stops opening sequence, which I daresay outdoes all previous. Interestingly, the film’s narrative owes more to Howard Hawks than it does to Ian Fleming; I gleaned a healthy infusion of Rio Bravo in Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan’s screenplay.

In this outing, Bond (Daniel Craig) has gone into self-imposed exile and crawled inside of a bottle (not unlike Dean Martin’s drunken and dispirited lawman in Hawks’ film) after uncharacteristically blowing a mission and suffering a near-death experience. However, when a diabolical cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem) with a very personal grudge against M (Dame Judi Dench) begins wreaking havoc directly on the MI6 HQ, the presumed-dead and barely fit for duty 007 reluctantly comes out of hiding to offer his help. Still, M doesn’t exactly greet the prodigal son with open arms; he must first prove that he can get his mojo back (the subtext of rebirth serves as a device for rebooting the mythology of a couple significant franchise characters, including a passing of the torch).

Craig has finally settled comfortably into the character; his Bond feels a little more “lived in” than in the previous installments, where he was a little stiff and unsure about where he should be at times.  I was glad to see one element return to 007’s personality: a mordant sense of humor. Bardem is a great Bond villain; his characterization mixes the cool intelligence and creepy charm of Hannibal Lecter with the nihilism and disconcerting cruelty of The Joker (topped off with a blonde fright wig). Ralph Fiennes is in fine form as a government overseer, and it’s always a treat to have the great Albert Finney on board. Naiome Harris is excellent as an MI6 agent.

This is one of the most beautifully photographed Bond films in recent memory, thanks to DP Roger Deakins (one particularly memorable fight scene, staged in a darkened high rise suite and silhouetted against the backdrop of Shanghai’s neon nightscape, approaches high art). I think the Bond geeks will be pleased; and anyone up for pure popcorn escapism will not be disappointed. Any way you look at it, this is a terrific entertainment.

Blu-ray reissue: The 39 Steps ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2012)

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The 39 Steps – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Along with The Lady Vanishes,  this 1935 gem represents the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood period. In fact, many of the tropes that would come to be known as “Hitchcockian” are already fomenting in this early entry: an icy blonde love interest, a meticulously constructed, edge-of-your-seat finale, and most notably, Hitchcock’s oft-repeated  “wrong man” scenario.

Robert Donat stars as a Canadian tourist in London who is approached by a jittery woman after a music hall show. She begs refuge in his flat for the night, but won’t tell him why. Intrigued, he offers her his hospitality. He awakens the next morning, just in time to watch her collapse on the floor, with a knife in her back and a mysterious map in her hand. Before he knows it, he’s on the run from the police and embroiled with shady assassins, foreign spies and people who are not who they seem to be. Fate and circumstance throw him in with a reluctant female “accomplice” (Madeleine Carroll). A suspenseful, funny, and rapid-paced entertainment.

Criterion’s new Blu-ray transfer is as good as a 77 year-old film is ever going to look. The biggest improvement is in the audio quality, which has been problematic in previous DVD versions. A highlight among the extras is a 1966 TV interview, wherein the ever-wry Hitchcock shares amusing backstage tales about his early career.

SIFF 2012 – Eliminate: Archie Cookson **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2012)

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy meets Burn After Reading in a sardonic espionage thriller from the UK called Eliminate: Archie Cookson. Archie (Paul Rhys) is a British Intelligence analyst, specializing in Russian translation. His glory days are long over; his workday is divided between clock watching and guzzling wine when he thinks no one is looking. His estranged wife and precociously droll young son are rarely happy to see him. Archie shrugs and drinks some more wine. Suffice it to say, he is not your suave, self-confident 007 type.

When he unknowingly falls into possession of incriminating tapes that could sink the careers of two MI6 bigwigs, he becomes a “loose end” and soon finds himself playing cat and mouse with an old work acquaintance, a former CIA agent now turned freelance hit man. At first resigned to his fate, Archie’s survival instincts rekindle, and he begins to crawl out of his existential malaise, deciding to not only turn the tables on his corrupt superiors, but to win back the love and respect of his wife and son as well. While there are pacing issues, filmmaker Robin Holder has made an impressive debut, displaying a dry wit as a screenwriter and an assured hand as a director.

The mole from the ministry: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 24, 2011)

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It is always the quiet ones that you need to watch out for. I’m sure you’ve viewed enough nature documentaries on the National Geographic Channel to figure that one out. Lions will sit patiently for hours, waiting for the right moment to pounce. As casual and disinterested as they may seem at times, they never lose their focus. They are studying your every move, all the while visualizing how nicely you will fit on today’s fresh sheet.

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s new film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (adapted from John le Carre’s classic espionage potboiler by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan) is chockablock with such animals. However, these are not creatures of the four-legged, furry variety that you will find in the sun-drenched African Savanna, lurking about in tall grasses. These are creatures of the bipedal, D-deficient variety that you will find in the fog-shrouded British Isles, usually lurking in musty offices with nicotine-stained ceilings.

The story is set in 1973, against a Cold War backdrop. Our unlikely hero is not so much a leonine, but rather an owlish sort of fellow. His name is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), and despite the fact that he would look more at home behind a library check out desk than behind the wheel of, let’s say, an Aston Martin, he is a seasoned intelligence agent for MI6. Actually, Smiley’s long-standing career with a branch known as “The Circus” is not going so well. When his boss, known simply as Control (John Hurt), gets booted out for a botched operation in Hungary, Smiley finds himself out of a job as well (more as a scapegoat). It seems that the office politics of the Circus are nearly indistinguishable from the acrimonious and paranoia-fueled spy games played in the field with “enemy” agents.

Smiley’s forced retirement is short-lived. He is summoned to a meet with a government under-secretary (Simon McBurney), where he is asked to surreptitiously come back to work. There are suspicions that there is a double agent among higher echelons of the Circus, who has been feeding intelligence to the Soviets. Smiley’s mission, should he decide to accept it, is to smoke out the mole.

Interestingly, it was Smiley’s ex-boss, Control (now dead), who  intuited this possibility, narrowing the field of suspects down to five men in the department. Given that he didn’t have much going on outside of his job (apart from brooding about his estranged wife), Smiley jumps at the chance to get back in the game. And as movies have taught us, the Crusty yet Benign (city editor, lawyer, police inspector, seasoned beat cop, or in this case, Master Spy) needs an Ambitious Young Apprentice to watch his back (Benedict Cumberbatch).

What ensues  is too byzantine and multi-layered for me to summarize here. And when I say “byzantine and multi-layered”, I mean that in the most positive possible context, thanks in no small part to that rarest of animals found at the multiplex these days: The Intelligent Script (#1 on the endangered species list). Not only do Alfredson, his writers and actors refuse to insult our intelligence, but they aren’t afraid to make us do something that we haven’t done in a while: lean forward in our theater seat to catch every nuance of plot and character (it’s been so long that I think I pulled something).

That is not to say that this is a static and somber affair. There’s “action” here and there, but it’s not calculated and choreographed; Dr. No’s island doesn’t blow up at the end. When violence does occur, it’s ugly, ungraceful and anything but cinematic (as in real life). Most of the “thrills” are drawn from the arsenal of the skilled actor; a sideways glance or a subtle voice inflection that can ratchet up the tension as effectively as someone holding a gun to your head.

This is Oldman’s best performance in years. It’s nice to see him take a break from playing cartoon villains and getting back to where he once belonged (his bespectacled, enigmatic characterization hearkens back to another Cold War film spy hero, Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer). Rounding off a top-notch cast are Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong (a standout) and the wonderful Kathy Burke (who nails 2011’s best movie line: “I don’t know about you, George, but I’m feeling seriously under-fucked.”).

DP Hoyte Van Hoytema (who also photographed the director’s moody 2008 vampire tale, Let the Right One In) deserves a mention. He sustains a bleak, wintry atmosphere that could be pulling double duty as a visual metaphor for the Cold War itself; or for the arctic desolation of the alarmingly pale souls who populate this tale. Not unlike vampires, they are twilight creatures who stalk their prey under cloak of darkness, and live in mortal fear of illumination and discovery. As I said…always watch out for the quiet ones.

All the world war’s a stage: Garbo the Spy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo in 2010)

WW2 espionage buffs won’t want to miss Garbo the Spy, an absorbing documentary about a Spanish double agent who arguably changed the course of the war in one brilliant play. In 1944, he managed to convince the Germans (who thought he was working for them) that the D-Day landings were merely a diversionary exercise (the Nazis may have otherwise thrown even more weight behind the defense of their crucial Normandy beachheads).

It’s a fascinating tale of an enigmatic and unlikely hero, who one interviewee calls “one of the greatest actors” who ever lived (at one point, he had 22 “operatives” working for him-all creations of his own imagination, and juggled so masterfully and convincingly that his German employers truly believed that they were an actual consortium of intelligence gatherers). Director Edmon Roch uses a clever device, weaving in footage from classic WW2 espionage thrillers to put events in context. One bit of footage (from the 80s) showing a choked-up “Garbo” visiting the U.S. cemetery in Normandy, is a moving tribute to the great sacrifices made on those beaches.

SIFF 2009: OSS 117: Lost in Rio ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2009)

SIFF’s Closing Night Gala selection this year is OSS 117: Lost in Rio, which is the sequel to OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which was a huge hit at the festival back in 2006. Who is this “OSS 117” of which I speak, you may ask? He is the cheerfully sexist, jingoistic, folkway-challenged, and generally clueless French secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, who is played once again to comic perfection by Jean Dujardin. In my review of the first film, I described why I thought Dujardin was a real discovery:

He has a marvelous way of underplaying his comedic chops that borders on genius. He portrays his well-tailored agent with the same blend of arrogance and elegance that defined Sean Connery’s 007, but tempers it with an undercurrent of obliviously graceless social bumbling that matches Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.

After viewing the second entry in this series, I have to stand by my assertion that Dujardin is a bloody genius. In this outing (which moves the time line ahead about 10 years or so to the Summer of Love) Hubert is assigned to assist a trio of Israeli Mossad agents as they hunt down the son of a Nazi war criminal in South America. As in the first film, the plot is really moot here; it’s all about the killer combo of Dujardin’s riotous characterization and director Michel Hazanavicius’ knack for distilling the very quintessence of those classic 60s spy capers. As I noted in my review of the first film:

Unlike the Austin Powers films, which utilizes the spy spoof motif primarily as an excuse for Mike Meyers to string together an assortment of glorified SNL sketches and (over) indulge in certain scatological obsessions, this film remains  true and even respectful to the genre and era that it aspires to parody. The acting tics, production design, costuming, music, use of rear-screen projection, even the choreography of the action scenes are so pitch-perfect that if you were to screen the film side by side with one of the early Bond entries…you would swear the films were produced the very same year.

I will say that some of the novelty of the character has worn off (that’s the sophomore curse that any sequel has to weather) but this is still a thoroughly entertaining film, and I hope that Hazanavicius and Dujardin have some more projects on the horizon. I’m there.

Ay, cabron! The Men Who Stare at Goats ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 7, 2009)

These are not the droids you are looking for.

So what do you get when you cross Ishtar with Catch-22? Perhaps something along the lines of The Men Who Stare at Goats, the first genuine goofball farce that anyone has managed to squeeze out utilizing the generally unfunny Iraq War, Mark II as a backdrop. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is a matter of personal taste.

The film is directed by Grant Heslove (Clooney’s partner in their Smokehouse Pictures production company) and written by Peter Straughn, who adapted from Jon Ronson’s “non-fiction” book .

Ewan McGregor stars as Bob Wilton, a recently cuckolded Michigan newspaper reporter who decides on a whim to become a freelancing Iraq War journalist (circa 2003). As he tarries in Kuwait City, uncertain about how to actually go about getting himself into Iraq he crosses paths with a mysterious, intriguing fellow named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) who “happens” to be heading that way. Initially playing it coy and denying that he is any kind of spook (in spite of veritably oozing Eau de Black Ops), Cassady does a 360 and opens up to Wilton, spinning him quite a wild narrative.

Before he knows it, the reporter is tagging along with Cassady on his nebulous “mission”, too gob smacked by tales of top-secret U.S. military programs involving the development of “psychic warriors” who liken themselves to Jedi knights, devoted to honing their mastery of various psychokinetic arts, to realize that he could be heading into the middle of the Iraqi desert with a man who is completely delusional and dangerously unhinged (it’s sort of a Hope and Crosby “on the road” flick-except with insurgents and IEDs).

As Cassady recounts the history of his personal involvement with these experiments, we are introduced to two significant characters in his past via flashback sequences (throughout which Clooney, sporting shoulder-length hair and mustache, bears an uncanny resemblance to a White Album-era George Harrison).

One is Cassady’s mentor, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam vet who has written a bible of sorts, from which springs the concept of the “New Earth Army”…comprised of the aforementioned psychic warriors, with a litany of tenets co-opted from the Human Potential Movement to help guide them; think of it as a kind of a “hug thy enemy” approach-like if Wavy Gravy was the Secretary of Defense).

The other character is Cassady’s nemesis, Larry Hooper (the perennially hammy Kevin Spacey) a former brother-in-arms who has turned to the Dark Side (Okay, I’ll just say what everyone is thinking right about now-Bridges is Obi-Wan, and Spacey is Darth Vader…happy?). And now, it seems Luke Skywalker, oops, I mean, Lyn Cassady is on a “mission” to get the band back together.

The fact that Ewan McGregor was the young Obi-Wan in the Star Wars prequels is not lost on the filmmakers, who provide him with opportunity for self-referential spoofing reminiscent of Ryan O’Neal’s classic deadpan in What’s Up, Doc? (when he responds to Barbara Streisand’s Love Story quote, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” with “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard”).

There is some unevenness of tone, but with a dream cast, who are all obviously having such a great time, it’s easy to enjoy the ride. In fact, the film is a throwback to a certain kind of quirky, unfettered, freewheeling satire that pervaded the mid-to-late 60s; totally-blown fare like The Magic Christian, Skidoo, Candy and The Loved One.

A warning: There are two songs you will not be able to get out of your head for days: Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”, and the theme from Barney the Dinosaur’s TV show. You have been warned!

I’m just sayin’

Counter-intelligent: Burn After Reading ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 20, 2008)

Attention, K Street choppers.

In an inspired bit of dialog from the new Coen brothers film, Burn After Reading that will surely become oft-quoted, ex-CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) goes into an exasperated, paranoiac rant about the “league of morons” in America who have continually conspired to make his life hell. While I was laughing along with everyone else in the audience, part of me was thinking “Well, yeah…I know exactly how you feel.”

 It’s sad. “Stupidity” has become the buzzword in any examination of contemporary American cultural anthropology. It insidiously pervades all aspects of our lives-home life, work life, school life. Television celebrates it-American Idol, America’s Got Talent, American Gladiator, Fox “News”. Preachers and politicians bank on it. As Madge would say, we’re soaking in it. Besides-why crack open a book, when you have text messages to read?

Thank god for the Coen brothers. Perhaps more than any other American filmmakers, they have provided an on-going movie therapy service for those of us who are chronically depressed about the chuckle-headed state of our union. Through films like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Fargo, the Coens have milked many a sardonic guffaw from the axiom “stupid is as stupid does”. Those films also serve as reminders that if you are dumb enough to believe that you can find a shortcut to achieving your American Dream at the expense of destroying somebody else’s dreams…without karmic payback, then you are even dumber than originally advertised. Whether or not karmic payback exists outside of a movie universe is up for debate, but the possibility makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Burn After Reading signals a welcome return to the type of dark, absurdist cringe comedy that the Coens truly excel at. The story revolves around the aforementioned Osborne Cox, a CIA analyst who decides to “write his memoirs” after quitting his job in an acrimonious huff. The arrogant, misanthropic Cox is a paper tiger bureaucrat who pompously fancies himself more akin to a Robert Ludlum hero. He is certainly less than a hero to his fed-up, no-nonsense physician wife (Tilda Swinton) who is having a torrid affair with a married, sex-addicted treasury agent (George Clooney).

Following the advice of a divorce attorney, Mrs. Cox surreptitiously downloads information from her husband’s hard drive onto a disc, which ends up (through a typically Coen-esque comedy of errors) in the hands of a pair of dim bulb fitness club employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt). Mistaking Cox’s memoir notes as some type of coded high-level state secrets, the would-be criminal masterminds cook up a lame-brained scheme that starts as a simple garden-variety blackmail attempt, but somehow morphs into a grand clusterfuck involving the Russian Embassy and nearly every branch of the Beltway’s clandestine community.

The cougar and the slow man.

If that sounds High Concept…it is. But leave it to the Coens to mash up the elements of screwball comedy, door-slamming bedroom farce, spy spoof, political satire, social commentary and self-parody into a perfect cinematic cocktail. The breezy script (penned by the brothers) is tighter than a one-act play, and capped off with a great zinger. It’s a rarity in film these days: an expedient, highly satisfying denouement. In other words, the film neither overstays its welcome nor feels rushed; it wraps up just when it needs to. Setup. Story. Punchline. Callback. You’ve been a great crowd!

Malkovich is in top form; he is a master of the slow burn that builds into manic apoplexy. He manages to make these fits of rage both extremely menacing and screamingly funny at the same time; it’s an acting tic that rings of vintage Gene Wilder. It’s a cakewalk for McDormand; it goes without saying that her husband and brother-in-law know more than anyone else on the planet how to best utilize her unique instrument. She and Pitt make a great comedic tag team, and it’s easily Pitt’s funniest performance since Snatch.

This is the third outing with the Coens for Clooney, and he appears to have their quirky rhythms down to a science. Swinton seems to have the most thankless role (she’s mostly required to just glower and fume) but it is interesting to see her reunited with her Michael Clayton co-star. Veteran character actors J.K. Simmons and Richard Jenkins round off the fine ensemble cast quite nicely. As a follow-up to last year’s No Country for Old Men, which was a much more somber and thoughtful piece, Burn After Reading may feel like a relatively superfluous toss-off, but it’s a perfect salve for election season weltschmerz. So as your fake physician, I prescribe that you buy two tickets, and call me in the morning.