Category Archives: Spy vs Spy

Blu-ray reissue: Funeral in Berlin (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 12, 2020)

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Funeral in Berlin – Paramount

While I enjoy the entire series, this is my favorite entry in the film trilogy (preceded by The Ipcress File and followed by The Billion Dollar Brain) that starred Michael Caine as British spy “Harry Palmer” (based on a nameless protagonist created by prolific spy novelist and non-fiction writer Len Deighton).

Caine’s Palmer is a buttoned-down antithesis of James Bond. Oh, he has the trade craft and the cold efficiency, but no flashy clothes, cars or gadgets, no adventures in exotic locales. However, he is not buttoned-down in his attitude. He’s cheeky, cynical, and anti-authoritarian to a fault (e.g. 007 remains attuned that he ultimately serves at Her Majesty’s pleasure, whereas Harry may be more inclined to scoff at aristocracy).

In this installment (directed by Guy Hamilton and adapted from Deighton’s eponymous novel by Evan Jones), Palmer is ostensibly sent to Berlin to bring a Communist defector in from the cold but becomes embroiled in a byzantine web of international intrigue and inter-agency duplicity.

You need to pay close attention, but that’s what makes it fun and keeps you guessing until the end. Similar (but superior) to the Cold War thriller The Defector, which came out the same year and featured Montgomery Clift (in his final performance).

Paramount’s Blu-ray touts a “1080p high-definition” transfer, which leaves room for interpretation as to whether it has been restored. I can only compare it to the PAL-DVD edition I own-to which it displays a marked upgrade in image and sound. No extras, but that appears to be par for the course with Paramount. Still, it’s nice to have it on Blu-ray!

Connery from A to Zed

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 7, 2020)

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I’m posting a belated tribute to Sean Connery, who passed away last week (on Halloween, no less). I already had a post planned for last Saturday, and as you may have heard there was an election thingy going on all this week that I’ve found a bit …distracting.

There’s not much of a revelatory nature I can add to the plethora of tributes that have poured in since, except to acknowledge that being of “a certain age”, Connery was a figure who loomed large in my personal pop culture iconography (I can still remember my excitement when I received a “Goldfinger” board game for Hanukah when I was 10).

He was, and will likely always be, the definitive James Bond of course; but he did tackle a number of other roles during his career well outside the realm of the suave secret agent.

With that in mind, and a nod to Bond’s service number, here are my top 7 Connery films.

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The Anderson Tapes – In Lumet’s gritty 1971 heist caper, Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private. To my knowledge it’s one of the first films to explore the “libertarian’s nightmare” aspect of everyday surveillance technology (in this regard, it is a pre-cursor to Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoiac 1974 conspiracy thriller The Conversation).

Also on board are Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and Quincy Jones provides the score.

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Goldfinger – While you can’t really go wrong adding any of the first four James Bond entries to a “best of Connery” filmography (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, or Thunderball), if I had to choose one as my desert island disc, I’d go with Goldfinger.

This was the first of the four Bond films directed by Guy Hamilton (he also helmed Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, and The Man With the Golden Gun). Paul Dehn’s screenplay (co-adapted by Johanna Harwood from Ian Fleming’s novel) is infinitely quotable (“No, Mr. Bond…I expect you to die!” “I never joke about my work, 007.” “You can turn off the charm. I’m immune.” “Shocking …positively shocking!”).

From its classic opening theme (belted out by Shirley Bassey), memorable villain (played to the hilt by Gert Frobe), iconic henchman (Harold Sakata as Goldfinger’s steel-rimmed bowler tossing bodyguard “Oddjob”) and the best Bond girl ever (Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore) to Q’s tricked-out Aston-Martin (with smoke screen, oil slick, rear bullet shield, revolving license plates, machine guns and my favorite – the passenger ejector seat), this will always be the quintessential 007 adventure for me.

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The Man Who Would Be King – Look in the dictionary under “ripping yarn” and you’ll find this engaging adventure from 1975, co-adapted by director John Huston with Gladys Hill from Rudyard Kipling’s short story. Stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine have great chemistry as a pair of British army veterans who set their sights on plundering an isolated kingdom in the Hindu Kush. At least that’s the plan.

Before all is said and done, one is King of Kafiristan, and the other is covering his friend’s flank while both scheme how they are going pack up the treasure and make a graceful exit without losing their heads in the process.  As it is difficult for a king to un-crown himself, that is going to take one hell of a soft shoe routine. In the realm of “buddy films”, the combined star power of Connery and Caine has seldom been equaled (only Redford and Newman come to mind). Also with Christopher Plummer and Saeed Jaffrey.

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Marnie – I know it’s de rigueur to tout Vertigo as Alfred Hitchcock’s best “psychological thriller”, but my vote goes to this  underrated 1964 film, which I view as a slightly ahead-of-it’s-time precursor to dark, psycho-sexual character studies along the lines of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park.

Tippi Hedren stars as an oddly insular young woman who appears to suffer from kleptomania. Sean Connery is a well-to-do widower who hires Marnie to work for his company, despite his prior knowledge (by pure chance) of her tendency to steal from her employers. Okay, he’s not blind to the fact that she’s a knockout, but he also finds himself drawn to her as a kind of clinical study. His own behaviors slip as he tries to play Marnie’s employer, friend, lover, and armchair psychoanalyst all at once. One of Hitchcock’s most unusual entries, bolstered by Jay Presson Allen’s intelligent screenplay.

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Robin and Marian – Richard Lester’s elegiac take on the Robin Hood legend features one of Connery’s most nuanced performances. The 1976 comedy-adventure boasts a witty and literate screenplay by James Goldman (The Lion in Winter, They Might Be Giants) music by John Barry (whose name is synonymous with Bond films) and a marvelous cast that includes Audrey Hepburn (Maid Marian), Robert Shaw (the Sherriff of Nottingham), Richard Harris, Nicol Williamson, Denholm Elliott, and Ian Holm.

20 years after Robin and his merry band had their initial run-ins with Prince John and his henchman, the Sherriff of Nottingham, our Crusades-weary hero has returned to England accompanied by Little John (Williamson). Eager to reunite with his ladylove Marian, Robin is chagrined to learn that she has gotten herself to a nunnery. This is the first of many hurdles for the middle-aged (and more introspective) swashbuckler; but he is determined to have one last hurrah. Connery and Hepburn are simply wonderful together.

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The Untouchables – Sean Connery delivers one of his last truly great performances in Brian De Palma’s 1987 crime drama. While the film bears little resemblance to the late 50s TV show, it is loosely based on the same real-life memoirs of U.S. Treasury agent Elliot Ness, who helped the government build a case against mobster Al Capone in 1929.

Connery plays Jim Malone, a hard-boiled Chicago cop recruited by Ness (Kevin Costner) to be part of an elite squad of T-men who are tasked with bringing down the various criminal enterprises run by Capone (a scenery-chewing Robert De Niro) by any means necessary. Also on the team: Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia. Patricia Clarkson plays Ness’ wife. Billy Drago is memorable as Capone’s sneering hit man Nitti. Well-paced, sharply written (by David Mamet) and stylishly directed by De Palma (a climactic shootout filmed in Chicago’s Union Station is a mini masterpiece of staging and editing).

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Zardoz – I suspect my inclusion of John Boorman’s 1974 spaced-out oddity as one of Sean Connery’s “best” films will raise an eyebrow or two, but as I’ve admitted on more than one occasion-there’s no accounting for some people’s taste! Once you get past sniggering over Connery’s costume (a red loincloth/diaper accessorized by a double bandolier and thigh-high go-go boots), this is an imaginative fantasy-adventure for adults.

Set in the year 2293 (why not?), Boorman’s story centers on thuggish but natively intelligent Zed (Connery) who roams the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic Earth with his fellow “Brutals” killing and pillaging with impunity. This all-male club worships a “god” named Zardoz, who speaks to them via a large flying stone head, which occasionally touches down so they can fill it with stolen grain. In exchange, Zardoz spews out rifles like a giant Pez dispenser, while intoning his #1 tenet “The gun is good, the penis is evil.”

One day Zed manages to stow away in the head just before takeoff, and when it lands he finds himself in the invisible force-field protected “Vortex”, where the elite “Eternals” live a seemingly idyllic and Utopian life that is purely of the mind. Bemused and fascinated by this “specimen” from the outside world, one of the Eternals  “adopts” Zed is as his Man Friday while his fate is being debated. But who is really studying who?

Boorman’s story takes some inspiration from HG Wells’ The Time Machine, as well as another classic fantasy that becomes apparent in the fullness of the narrative, but it still stands out from the pack for sheer weirdness. There are also parallels to A Boy and His Dog (another film I’ve seen an unhealthy number of times).

In a way the “Eternals”-what with their crystals, pyramids, and hippy-dippy philosophical musings, presage the New Age Movement. Also, they pass judgement on anyone in their collective suspected of having “negative thoughts” with a telepathic vote; if found guilty the accused is “aged”  to drooling dotage and banished from the community (that’s social media in a nutshell!).

Blu-ray reissue: Dietrich and Sternberg in Hollywood [box set] ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 1, 2018)

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Dietrich and Sternberg in Hollywood – Criterion Blu-ray (Box Set)

I picked up this box set with trepidation. Previously, I’d only seen two collaborations between director Josef von Sternberg and leading lady Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel and Shanghai Express). While I found both quite watchable, they struck me as creaky and melodramatic; it seemed “enough” at the time to get the gist of their creative partnership.

After watching all six films in this Criterion set (and being older and wiser this time around), I “get it” now. Viewing them as a unique film cycle reveals that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; this is Dietrich and Sternberg’s idiosyncratic cinematic universe; a romantic, glamorous, adventurous, exotic world-and you’re just soaking in it. Once you have given yourself over to Dietrich’s mesmerizing allure… plots don’t matter.

The films in the set were all made for Paramount in the early to mid-1930s. Included are: the romantic drama Morocco (1930), spy thriller Dishonored (1931), adventure-romance Shanghai Express (1932), romantic drama Blonde Venus (1932), costume drama The Scarlet Empress (1934), and the comedy-drama-romance The Devil is a Woman (1935).

The films have all been restored and boast new scans (some 2K, others 4K), rendering them as clean and sparkly as they can possibly be for 80+ year-old prints. This visual clarity accentuates Sternberg’s flair for composition and visual language. Extras include documentaries, video essays, archival interviews, and an 80-page book. Buffs will love it.

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.