British Spy Thriller Scratches the Surface on Endemic Surveillance
Gaping plot holes don’t prevent this nearly current espionage thriller from grabbing its audience and keeping them hooked all the way to its socially volatile ending. As the title hints, England’s CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) method of public [and private] surveillance comes into play during a case involving the terrorist bombing of Burough Market in central London. The trial of a foreign suspect plays out in a secret London court where romantically-linked defense attorneys (played by Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall) struggle to find the truth beneath a thick stack of government-propagated deceptions.
Audiences familiar with the NSA scandal regarding America’s secret FISA court-approved surveillance of every aspect of foreign and domestic communication will be ahead of the film’s curve. Still, it is no less comforting to recognize that the UK is just as much of a police state as the US.
The movie has a lot going for it, not the least of which is Eric Bana’s ever-reliable presence — this time as Martin Rose, a defense attorney called upon to defend the bombing’s accused mastermind Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto) after the “suicide” of the original defense advocate. Bana’s terse masculinity serves the part well. You always have the sense that Bana’s self-possessed character is the kind of man who doesn’t need to carry a gun to defend himself.
Similar to America’s bogus justice system for accused terrorists, the British courts deem the evidence so “sensitive” that the imprisoned defendant is not allowed to know the details of the charges being brought against him. Supposedly unaware of Martin’s romantic past, the court appoints Claudia Simmons-Howe (Hall) to the defense team. Although one of the attorneys should in good conscience recuse himself or herself, Martin and Claudia have too much ambition to let such an opportunity for media exposure pass unexploited. They are willing to risk their careers — all or nothing. Never mind that once either of them receives the evidence, it becomes illegal for them to communicate in any way. This is where the story’s biggest plot hole opens up. Although the screenwriters do their best to fill in the gap for the court’s motivation behind such a problematic pairing, the predominant surveillance element of the plot gets in the way.
Director John Crowley (“Boy A”) keeps the tense dramatic movement tight through quick plot reversals that slingshot the story toward a logical, or illogical conclusion — depending on your perspective. Although the film’s action sequences are limited, punches of gritty encounters strike with lightening bolt efficiency. Crowley’s use of surveillance camera footage heightens the drama, although the director doesn’t utilize the effect with sufficient purpose to serve the storyline.
As with other surveillance-themed movies made recently, screenwriter Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things”) lacked knowledge of the Edward Snowden disclosures that have alerted the world to a depth of US and UK government corruption — some of which is on display here.
As it stands, “Closed Circuit” is a well-executed sketch of an unethical government and judicial system exploiting the public's fear of the unknown in order to manipulate the same terrorist acts it pretends to defend against. You get the sense that the number of surveillance-related espionage is about to get a lot deeper over the course of the next few years.
Rated R. 96mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lynne Ramsay Can’t Commit to Horror
By Cole Smithey
Forced, stultifying, and artificial beyond belief, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is Scottish director Lynne Ramsay's off-key treatment of Lionel Shriver's novel. Ramsay co-wrote the screenplay with brother-in-law Rory Kinnear. The story is about a bad-seed son who terrorizes his mother Eva (Tilda Swinton) from the minute he's born.
Unsure of whether it wants to be a cynical drama or a horror thriller, the poorly paced film inches through Kevin's bad behavior from infant to teenager. The only thing more reprehensible than Kevin’s unwarranted hatred of his mother is his parents’ unwillingness to straighten the kid out even as his behavior spirals out of control.
Kevin plays nice when daddy Franklin (played by a miscast John C. Reilly) is around but he has a knack for methodically pushing his mom's buttons the rest of the time. As an infant, Kevin never stops screaming, except when dad’s around. At six-years-old, Kevin trashes his mom's newly designed home office with a squirt gun filled with paint. Discipline is off the table. Instead, daddy gives Kevin a toy bow-and-arrow set reinforced by readings from Robin Hood--the only book Kevin owns. Later, Kevin will graduate to a high-powered bow, also given as a gift from pops. The teenaged Kevin is bound for disaster. However, when the much foreshadowed crisis moment finally comes, it arrives with all the force of an overflowing bathtub—not the least because it occurs off-screen.
Production designer Judy Becker’s lazy approach relegates the film’s mise en scène to an afterthought. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a text book example of how not to design a film. Everything is bright shiny surfaces without texture or depth. Context is nowhere in sight.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” plays like a narrative negative. What the viewer sees are all the extraneous scenes between what should be shown. It’s as if the editor confused what was on the editing room floor with what should have gone into the projector.
Filmed in stagnate fly-on-the-wall compositions, the film emphasizes Tilda Swinton's inscrutable performance as a woman unable or unwilling to come to grips with her nightmare spawn. In short, Eva is the same brand of idiot as her husband and her diabolical son. There’s no one to empathize with in the story-not even Kevin’s abused younger sister who barely shows up except to be inexplicably blinded in one eye by her hateful sibling.
Some people should never be parents; some children should never be born; some novels don't deserve to be made into films. "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is a minimalist mystery with no hook. Whether there’s more to Shiver’s novel of “maternal ambivalence” is immaterial. The movie sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from a well executed art film like "Melancholia," whose characters take action in a framework of fertile social commentary. Rather, “Kevin” falls into a pejorative category with half-films such as “Martha Marcy May Marlene” or “Shame” where the abstract narrative and underdeveloped themes never connect. It’s not enough to instigate suspense. There has to be a story. Moreover there has to be character development. You won’t find any such luxuries here.
The parents of a psychopathic child don’t even bother to have the conversation the film's title suggests. Perhaps the filmmakers hope their audience will do their verbal articulation for them in circular what-if conversations. Sadly, there isn't much to say about Kevin except that he wasn't properly disciplined as a child and so he went all Columbine without going so far as to take his own life. A year ago Mumblecore was the dumbest film movement around. Now dumb is the province of a minimalist subgenre that has yet to be named. Perhaps we should call it the “Shame on Martha and Kevin” movement. Let’s just hope it stops here. Film audiences should be so lucky.
Rated R. 112 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
International espionage during the Cold War period of the early ‘70s, as practiced by British MI6 double agents, is one very icy dish. Director Tomas Alfredson ("Let ther Right One In") peels back myriad shades of atmospheric gray that contribute thoroughly to his spook characters' consciously modulated mannerisms. The result is a spot-on adaptation of John le Carré's famous 1974 novel. Husband-and-wife screenwriters Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor execute the finest novel-to-film adaptation you could imagine. Crisscross strains of Bertolucci's "The Conformist" flow through cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s stark compositional choices. Composer Alberto Iglesias contributes to the film’s tense mood with musical motifs that push and pull at the seething drama onscreen.
John Hurt delivers a prehensile performance as Control, the head of Britain’s CIA equivalent, before a failed mission costs him his job. Control orders MI6 field spy Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a Black Ops mission to Budapest to arrange for the defection of a Hungarian general with knowledge about the identity of an MI6 mole who has been passing off secrets to the Russians. Skullduggery hangs thick in the Eastern European air. Their quiet meeting at an outdoor café is interrupted by a sickening bit of suspenseful violence that occurs with sloppy fury. Far removed from the glossy action of a James Bond movie, cold blooded death comes as an occupational hazard. No agent is immune regardless of his depth of experience. A mole in the upper echelon of MI6 is surely to blame. Uncovering his identity makes up the narrative meat of the film.
As the mystery unfolds, sharply constructed flashback sequences bring the secret inner lives of each involved spy into focus.
The film’s nursery rhyme-informed title refers to the codenames of the suspected British spies who call their London headquarters by its alternate title, the Circus. Irony drips from the word since nothing about the industrial building with its harsh florescent lights or soundproof conference room displays any sense of humor.
Gary Oldman’s implacable “Beggarman” George Smiley is Control’s former right-hand man called out of retirement to uncover the traitor among the group. The mole has been giving away carefully-guarded secrets for so long that it calls into question the value the entire MI6 agency. Toby Jones plays the “Tinker” Percy Alleline to Colin Firth’s well spoken “Tailor” Bill Haydon. Ciarán Hinds brings his stoic nature to bear as Roy Bland, the “Soldier” of the group. Tom Hardy turns in an emotionally moving portrayal as Ricki Tarr, a love-blinded spy gone rogue. You couldn’t hope for a better ensemble of actors. There’s no such thing as a throwaway scene in the entire film. Here’s a film to sit back and savor every moment.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is more than a character study. It is an examination of a highly skilled occupation that demands such complete and utter commitment that all emotional response must be submerged to a point of permanent poker-faced resolve. No one can be trusted and yet loyalty to the group is mandatory. A company Christmas party where the agents pretend to let their hair down momentarily arrives as a key repeated sequence for what it says about the way British spies of the period interacted. Every jovial smile conceals suspicion and secrets. Tomas Alfredson’s flawless staging provides a fly-on-the-wall view that allows the audience to peek behind the characters’ well-defended shroud of secrecy to discover yet another one that hides beneath. The story is about how loyalty and integrity are enforced in a spy agency where such values add up to much more than a simple matter of life and death. They represent the safety and viability of an entire system of government.
Rated R. 128 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
La Femme Nikita
Before it spawned a cornucopia of television series knock-offs, writer/director Luc Besson's stylized 1990 French crime thriller set a new standard for the girl-with-a-gun movie trope. We meet Anne Parillaud's junkie character Nikita walking with three thugs on their way to rob a pharmacy owned by the father of one of the group. One of the thugs carries a red axe. Dressed butch, Nikita is far from glamorous. The robbery escalates epically out of control when police arrive. Nikita comes away from the bloodbath as the sole survivor (after killing a cop point blank). In court she gets a life sentence without parole for 30 years. In guttural tones wild child Nikita promises to kill everyone in the courtroom. Still, Nikita's wanton disregard for authority and devastating ability to dole out and endure physical punishment earns her a top-secret place in an elite squad of government assassins. Officially, she is registered as deceased subsequent to suicide. Under the tutelage of her personal keeper Bob (Tchéky Karyo) and etiquette maven Amande (Jeanne Moreau), Nikita transforms from a primal punk monster into an elegant femme fatal.
The film scores heavily by sidestepping clichés in favor of ever-refreshing shifts in tone and atmosphere. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast has a field day with Dutch angles and reflective surfaces. Television and computer monitors play a part. Posh hotel rooms segue into florescent-lit industrial kitchens. Eric Serra's infectious techno musical score adds an undercurrent of propulsion to the story. There's a fetishistic look to the film supported by Anne Parillaud's sinewy frame, sexy attitude, and pixie hairdo. The film takes on a pro-working class tenor when Nikita enters into a romantic relationship with a grocery store clerk who dreams of building boats. Naturally, Nikita is called upon to perform her grisly duties during expensive dinners or when she's away on holiday with her boyfriend in Vienna—a gift from “uncle” Bob. The dichotomy between Nikita’s personal life and her covert killing assignments give rise to the film's primary source of dramatic tension.
"La Femme Nikita" paved the way for Besson's 1994 equally groundbreaking crime thriller "Leon: The Professional," which introduced audiences to the young but talented Natalie Portman. “Nikita” also shined a light for a burgeoning brand of hyper-stylized crime thrillers that included Reservoir Dogs (1992), Romeo Is Bleeding (1993), and The Last Seduction (1994). Jean-Luc Godard’s famous quote that, “all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl” may be an oversimplification, but Luc Besson proved the theorem very nicely with “La Femme Nikita.”
Robbing the Elite
Joel Schumacher Presses the Wrong Buttons
By Cole Smithey
Joel Schumacher continues on his career-long habit of hits and misses with a home invasion suspense thriller that signifies yet another dip. Knowing that the filmmaker responsible for such cinematic achievements as "Falling Down" and "Tigerland" also spat out the ill-conceived "8MM," and the truly awful "The Number 23," allows you to set your expectations appropriately. Kyle Miller (Nicolas Cage) is a diamond seller living with his trophy wife Sarah (Nicole Kidman) and their socially active teenage daughter Avery (played by the ever-captivating Liana Liberato) in their gated mansion. This family isn’t just wealthy; they’re filthy rich. Given America's ongoing economic depression, the outrageous affluence on display seems to point toward some degree of social satire. Sadly, no such commentary is available. If anything, the film tips toward a vague ideology of radical right-wing survivalist mentality.
Screenwriter Karl Gajdusek goes so far with his kitchen-sink approach to leveraging suspense with laughable plot devices, fake-outs, and goofy dialogue that the film starts to sag long before its third-act escalation toward a climax that nevertheless holds at least one mild surprise.
Kyle wheels-and-deals on the phone while steering his Porsche into the gate of his remote suburban family home. Cage plays his unattractive character with all the sliminess he can muster. Designed by Sarah, the house is a study in outsized modernist minimalism. It comes equipped with a complex security system manned by a 24-hour company. There’s marital tension between the spouses. Kyle is a secretive guy. Avery is in a rebellious snit about not being allowed to go to a party with her ostensibly slutty best friend. Needless to say, our elitist family doesn’t win much audience empathy sequestered in their mansion bunker.
Avery exerts her right to freedom by sneaking out of her domestic prison and climbing the home’s high surrounding fence. Her friend-of-ill-repute picks Avery up beside the road and promptly nearly kills them on a dangerous curve planted by the screenwriter as a piece of underwhelming foreshadowing. The party proves to be a staging area for its teen-boy host to seduce Avery with copious amounts of cocaine in a walk-in closet packed with ostentatious amounts of cash. Avery is unimpressed. She at least represents the film’s singularly likable character.
For a man obsessed with security, Kyle falls for the ole cop-impersonation ploy pretty easily. Our pack of cash-hungry masked thugs are laden with enough back-story to fill up their own B-movie. Team-leader Elias (Ben Mendelsohn) knows about Kyle’s wall safe. Much time is spent intimidating Kyle to open a box whose contents aren’t exactly what the thieves expected to find. Kyle sweats profusely but keeps a poker face as he stalls for time in circular negotiations that enable flashbacks about the intruders. There’s a possibility that Sarah not only knows one of the crooks, but she may be carrying on an adulterous affair with him.
Casting the ever-artificial Nicolas Cage and the always glacial Nicole Kidman as its protagonists has a distancing effect. There’s a bland disconnect between the band of dim-witted thugs, that naturally include a drugged-out girl, and a rich family whose lifestyle relies on how well they can buffer themselves from the outside world. As a par-for-the-course suspense thriller “Trespass” is a marginal addition to an often hackneyed genre. As an audience you could do worse, but you could also do much better.
Rated . mins. () ( Stars - out of five/no halves)
Soderbergh Gets Sick
Pandemic Isn’t Catching
By Cole Smithey
"Contagion's" PG-13 rating predicts the film's less than horrific nature (following an overpromising opening sequence). Director Steven Soderbergh inflects his beautifully photographed compositions with a slick techno pop score yet can't compensate for a script splintered into too many subplots.
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns ("The Informant!") ignores fundamental rules about providing the audience with a clear protagonist. Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, and Kate Winslet each play intriguing characters who could conceivably lead the story; sadly, all get lost in the shuffle. Kate Winslet's Dr. Erin Mears is excellent. However, her part is cut woefully short. Most damning is the film’s refusal to meditate upon the gruesome reality of a widespread global pandemic that leaves millions of rotting corpses in its wake. Hopscotching between the cities of Chicago, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, the fragmented movie follows the outbreak of a virus called MEV-1 like a felon attempting to avoid the scene of a crime. Jude Law's activist blogger Alan Krumwiede posts a homeopathic cure for the quick-spreading disease on his increasingly busy website. Family man Mitch Emhoff finds that he is immune to the virus after losing two family members to its insidious clutches. Damon's character is perhaps the film's most criminally squandered role, next to a blink-and-you'll-miss-it performance from the enormously talented Elliot Gould. Gould graciously fills a minor role as a research scientist whose subplot gets abandoned more so than every other.
“Contagion” does have its moments, however few and far between they are. An especially dramatic death and subsequent scalp-slicing autopsy bring the movie to a proper pitch of cringe-worthy fear. Another episode involving an infected man coughing and touching handrails on a public bus elicits the level of revulsion mass transit riders experience on a daily basis.
If there’s a stand-out moment in the movie it comes during a televised interview with Laurence Fishburne’s head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Ellis Cheever, and Jude Law’s dentally-challenged blogger. Law’s Krumwiede performs the kind of catty public take-down on Dr. Cheever that Bill O’Reilly gets wet dreams about carrying out against his guests. Irony comes later when Krumwiede’s own missteps catch up with him. Still, the screenwriter draws Law’s blogger character with such cartoonish brushstrokes that he borders on the comical. When Elliot Gould describes blogging as “graffiti with punctuation,” you have to chuckle at the screenwriter’s ham-fisted attempt at editorializing. There’s a certain kitchen-sink thing going on. Witness the stupefying miscasting of comedian Demetri Martin in a supporting role as a lab assistant trusted with handling the MEV-1 virus. Talk about sapping credibility from your movie. Soderbergh did a doozey with this one.
“Contagion” is an odd film for its vast supply of untapped potential. It’s surprising that a seasoned filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh would choose to work with such a poorly realized script. The ensemble performances are strong, and the film’s atmosphere is appropriately glum, but there’s nothing here to make you feel like you’ve had a meaningful cinematic experience. What a waste.
Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)