Category Archives: Spy vs Spy

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!

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.

Chicken chucker, arms dealer, Brit killer: OSS 117:Cairo, Nest of Spies ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 17, 2008)

“I was woken by a guy screaming on a tower. I couldn’t sleep. I had to shut him up.”

 (Shocked tone) “A muezzin? You ‘shut up’ a muezzin?! He was calling for prayer!!”

 (Bemusedly) “Yours is a strange religion. You’ll grow tired of it…it won’t last long.”

 No, that transcript is not excerpted from secret Oval Office tapes; it’s an exchange between the cheerfully sexist, jingoistic, folkway-challenged and generally clueless French secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (alias OSS 117) and his Egyptian liaison, the lovely Larmina El Akmar Betouche. The scene is from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, a gallingly amusing Gallic spy romp from director Michel Hazanavicius.

The director and his screenwriter Jean-Francois Halin adapted the script based on characters from the original “OSS 117” novels by Jean Bruce, which concerned the misadventures of an Ian Fleming-esque French government agent. The books inspired a series of films, produced in France between 1956 and 1970.

This latest installment played the festival circuit two years ago (I wasn’t able to get into the sold-out screening at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival, much to my chagrin) but is only just now receiving American distribution in May of 2008 via limited engagements in select cities.

After a brief b&w prologue depicting agent OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin) handily dispatching a Nazi adversary from a plane (sans parachute) in a wartime escapade, the film flash-forwards to the year 1955. Hubert (as we will refer to him going forward) is sent to Cairo to investigate the mysterious death of a fellow agent. He is assisted by the aforementioned Larmina (Bernice Bejo) and just like an undercover 007, he is given a business front.

In this case, our intrepid agent poses as a chicken exporter; and yes, all of the inherent comic possibilities involving this most ubiquitous species of barnyard fowl are gleefully explored (and the credits assure us that none were harmed during filming).

As the intrigue thickens, Hubert encounters some sexy royalty in the person of La princesse Al Taouk (Aure Atika) as well as the usual Whitman’s assortment of shady informers, sneaky assassins and dirty double dealers that populate exotic spy capers.

In the interim, thanks to his deGaullist stance and blissful cultural ignorance of the Muslim world, Hubert manages to deeply offend nearly every local he comes in contact with. As one Egyptian associate muses to himself: “He is very stupid…or very smart.”

Hazanavicius has concocted a tremendously well-crafted and entertaining spy spoof here that actually gets funnier upon repeat viewings. 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 (e.g. From Russia With Love) you would swear the films were produced the very same year.

I also have to credit the director’s secret weapon, which is leading man DuJardin. 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 (recalling Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau).

One of the running gags has Hubert uttering “deep thought” epiphanies that belabor the obvious. While getting a massage, he announces: “I love being rubbed with oil.” At breakfast, he realizes: “I love buttering my toast.” Stopping to gaze at a public fountain, he wistfully offers: “I love the white noise water makes.” DuJardin delivers these lines with the knowing wisdom of a high lama, imparting a Zen proverb. I tell you, the man is a bloody genius.

The spy who came in from the beltway: Breach ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2007)

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Early in 2001, the FBI capped off its investigation of the most serious national security breach in U.S. history by arresting Robert Hanssen, who had used his access as the Bureau’s top Soviet counter-intelligence expert to sell classified information to the KGB. That case is dramatized in Breach, a superb new film starring Chris Cooper (in an Oscar-caliber performance) as Hanssen and directed by Billy Ray, who previously helmed Shattered Glass (another true tale dealing with deception and betrayal).

The film opens just a few months prior to the arrest. A young, ambitious field agent, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Philippe) is tasked to work in Hanssen’s office as his assistant, while surreptitiously reporting on his boss’s activities (O’Neill has been told that Hanssen is under suspicion of engaging in “sexual perversion” while on the taxpayer’s dime).

The officious, guarded and inherently suspicious Hanssen is a tough nut to crack; when O’Neill introduces himself on his first day of work, Hanssen barks “Your name is Clerk, and my name is Sir” before slamming his office door shut. However, as O’Neill ingratiates himself into his boss’s life, he is surprised to find him admirable in many ways; he appears to be a true patriot, a good Catholic, and a dedicated “family man”. O’Neill can’t seem to dig up any dirt on the increasingly puzzling “perversion” charges.

When he confronts his real boss (Laura Linney) with his doubts, she lets the cat out of the bag and admits that he has been the victim of a ruse to ensure he could gain Hanssen’s trust. Hanssen, she tells him, is actually under investigation for something more ominous; he is suspected of selling information to the Soviets, possibly over a period of 20-odd years. The degree of damage from this breach is so devastating, that “We (the intelligence community) might as well have all stayed home (all those years).”

Some may find the film bereft of nail-biting suspense; but real-life espionage isn’t always as intriguing as a Le Carre novel or exciting like a Bond film. When the credits roll, Hanssen remains a cipher; although we are shown enough to quash any agent 007 comparisons (unbeknownst to his wife, he videotaped their lovemaking and got his jollies mailing copies to cronies-the very antithesis of suave and sophisticated, I’d wager). If Hanssen recalls any fictional character, it would be a protagonist from a Graham Greene novel (typically a bitter, world-weary public servant, mulled in Catholic guilt).

The film abounds with excellent performances; it’s certainly the best work Philippe has done to date. Dennis Haysbert and Gary Cole lend good support, and Bruce Davison (as O’Neill’s father) makes the most of a brief, poignant scene with Philippe.

Gathering sheep and whacking the beard: The Good Shepherd (**1/2) & 638 Ways to Kill Castro (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2007)

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If spending an evening with the CIA is your idea of good times, have I got a double bill for you. (Break out the hoods and the water buckets; we’re in for a bumpy night!)

First up, Robert De Niro takes the director’s chair in his 2006 CIA epic, The Good Shepherd, recently released on DVD. Matt Damon stars as Edward Wilson, whose career as an agency spook begins with his enlistment into the OSS during WW 2 and continues through that organization’s metamorphosis into the CIA.

The film opens in 1961, at the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion. When we are first introduced to Wilson, it is quickly established that he is an officious and dedicated Company man. As the story begins to jump back and forth in time we begin to get a peek at what lies beneath Wilson’s somewhat inscrutable veneer.

We witness a looser and more outgoing Wilson during his college days at Yale in 1939, as he is inducted into the infamous Skull and Bones society. As part of the initiation ritual, he is directed to regale his fellow Bondsmen with the deepest, darkest secret from his past. The club members get more than they bargain for as Wilson relates a harrowing childhood memory of bearing witness to his father’s suicide. Moments before taking his own life, his father hands down a credo about “trust”, which becomes the key to unlocking Wilson’s motivations and inner workings for the remainder of the film.

Therein lays the problem with The Good Shepherd. There is an awful lot of internalizing going on (for 2 hours and 47 minutes). De Niro’s plus as a director (not surprisingly) is his willingness to give his actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters. His minus as a director is his willingness to give his actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters, if you catch my drift. There are some pacing issues with the film. Not that I was expecting car chases and stuff blowing up real good. After all, the reality of espionage does not necessarily lend itself to flash cuts and pop music montage. It’s generally a somewhat somber, mundane and unpleasant business.

Eric Roth’s script has its moments, but gets murky when it comes to the intrigue. It is tough to keep track of who is doing what to whom, and why (and at times, for whose “side”?). Granted, perhaps that is part of the point; torture is torture and murder is murder, no matter how one attempts to rationalize (a point that Steven Spielberg more than sufficiently bludgeoned us over the head with in Munich) but I GET it, already.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the film is Matt Damon’s unconvincing “aging”. There is not much discernible physical transformation between Wilson’s collegiate years and middle age. (Maybe some better prosthetic work could have helped?). At any rate, I just wasn’t buying it, and found it to be a major distraction. Damon is a fine actor, but I think he may have been slightly miscast here. History buffs may still find the film worth a look.

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History buffs (and conspiracy-a-go-go enthusiasts) will definitely want a peek at British director Dolan Cannell’s documentary, 638 Ways to Kill Castro (just out on DVD). Mixing archival footage with some knowledgeable talking heads (including a surprising number of would-be assassins-it’s hard to believe this many lived to tell their tale!), Cannell traces the evolution of Cuban politics via a recap of literally hundreds of attempts by the U.S. government to knock off Fidel over the years.

The number in the title (638) is derived from a list compiled by a couple of former members of Castro’s security team (they are among the interviewees). They even go so far as to crunch the numbers by U.S. presidential administration. In case you’re curious, here’s the breakdown (aren’t you glad I take notes?): Eisenhower-38 attempts. Kennedy-42. Johnson-72. Nixon-184. Carter-64. Reagan-197 (Ding Ding! We have a winner!). Bush (the 1st)-16. Clinton-21. (We assume they haven’t had a chance to tally the latest Bush’s numbers, although Cannell slyly bookends his film with footage of Junior’s smug and condescending “Cuba libre!” proclamation.)

The film begins its timeline in 1959, the year that the CIA received the first official go-ahead to take Castro out. The initial schemes sound like they were hatched by Wile E. Coyote and his Acme Intelligence Agency. The plans ranged from relatively benign subversion (making his beard fall out, spraying a TV station with LSD while Castro was on air, a contingency to accuse Cuba of zapping John Glenn’s space capsule with “magnetic rays,” had Glenn not made it back to Earth) to more ominous (a poisoned diving suit, booby trapping shellfish in Castro’s favorite scuba diving spot with dynamite, and most famously, planting poisoned and/or exploding cigars into his humidor).

Although Cannell initially appears to be playing for yucks (especially with the exploding cigar type shtick) the underlying theme of the documentary soon becomes much more sobering. The most chilling revelation concerns the downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off of Barbados in 1976 (73 people were killed, none with any known direct associations with the Castro regime). One of the alleged masterminds was an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida, named Orlando Bosch, who had participated in numerous CIA-backed actions in the past.

When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80’s, a number of 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…Jeb Bush. Long story short? Then-president George Bush Sr. ended up granting Bosch a pardon in 1990. BTW, Bosch had once been publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General. (Don’t get me started.)

This is a fascinating film; the only criticism I would give it is the director’s “wacky” approach (that kooky CIA and their nutty ideas!)-it doesn’t quite match the subject matter at times. My favorite quote from the doc sums it all up quite nicely-when asked to explain the decades-long obsession about Castro by one administration after another, one pundit cracks “There’s just something about (Castro’s) Cuba that affects these administrations like the full moon affects a werewolf. There’s no real logic at work here.”