A Most Wanted Man: Capturing the Hopelessness of Espionage

When we lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, we lost a man who knew how to be human in front of a camera. A man who knew exactly how to give a complete and detailed account of the human condition. His characters never dared to fall into the trap of clichés, never felt diminished by a bad script or a mediocre finished product. Hoffman always rose to the occasion and treated each film as if it was his last shot at redemption. This is perhaps most evident in his penultimate screen appearance in Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, a film adaptation of John le Carré’s novel about espionage in the 21st century. The film is one of the most pessimistic works to come out in recent years and captures brilliantly what I would call the hopelessness of espionage, a running theme in le Carré’s body of work. The character played by Seymour Hoffman, Günther Bachmann, a spy for the German government, is a tragic reminder of what men become when they’re at sea for too long.

Günther Bachmann and his team of German spies.

The story is simple and like with most le Carré stories it serves the plot only to emphasize the wrong-doings of the system this story is set in. For le Carré there is no such thing as countries. There’s only systems, and more often than not, they’re broken down, corrupt. And the people living in these systems aren’t as much as living as they’re functioning within the boundaries set by these systems. For le Carré, our gravest tendency is we like to get complacent. Complacency, in turn, allows these systems to thrive and grow in power. A Most Wanted Man works under that assumption. It examines the psyche of a man who is convinced he is doing something good, something right. However, he is doing these things for the benefit of a system.
The story begins with a political refugee from Chechenia named Issa Karpov illegally entering the city of Hamburg, Germany, Europe’s biggest harbor and the epicenter of terrorist cells following 9/11. Günther Bachmann’s job following the attacks is to identify and recruit as informants individuals with potential ties to Islamic terrorist organizations. Thus, the game of cat and mouse begins, as Bachmann is set on using Karpov to connect him to Chechen terrorists in order to prevent another 9/11 (the plans for those attacks were conceived in Hamburg without any sort of discovery or interference on the part of intelligence services). As a result, the whole film is fueled by this sense of paranoia, this endless need to uncover a conspiracy, to unmask the boogey-man and come out triumphantly holding the enemy’s severed head.

Bachmann is a master manipulator.

The cold, steely look given by the director, Corbijn (who started out as a photographer), and cinematographer Delhomme helps capture not only Hamburg’s modern architecture but also the tone of Bachmann’s calculated profession. It is a job that entails a cold and indifferent attitude, requiring of you to consider people as nothing but leverage, pawns to be moved around a chess board. Bachmann’s whole shtick is to use people as bait for more dangerous fish. The people he uses often do not realize the situation they’re truly in as Bachmann consoles them, hugs them, even kisses them. He gives them a reason to believe in what they do, he convinces them of things that simply do not exist. Promises them such foolish things as freedom, love, independence. Because the job demands it, because the job is everything. Is it not?
Bachmann is a master manipulator, however this ‘skill’ comes at a price, namely he walks through life without savoring it. The metallic look of the film suggests just that: here we have a man who in principle works for our safety, but this means he cannot look at something and not consider it a possible danger to society. To Bachmann, bars are places where people conspire, a man hugging a woman certainly hints at an exchange of precious information, a man walking his dog down the street is nothing but an actor playing his part, every phone call is dialed with the intent of blowing up a bomb somewhere. This one-dimensional, grim outlook on life makes of Seymour Hoffman’s character a fascinating protagonist as we ultimately don’t know what he truly believes in. In a scene where Bachmann presents his mission to his superiors and members of German security and American diplomats, the American (played by Robin Wright) asks him: “What’s the objective?”, to which Bachmann answers “To make the world a safer place.” He follows this up by giving it a shrug, shaking his head as if to say, Yeah, I know. How crazy is that?

As we learn, espionage for the most part takes place in conference rooms.

Indeed, the film works as an adaptation because at the end of the day it captures the soul and attitude of le Carré’s writing. The writing of a man disillusioned with the world he’s living in, with the job he once carried out as a young man with ambitions to do something great, something truly right. After all, le Carré’s best adaptations were in fact films that knew how to capture the author’s sense of weariness: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) starring Richard Burton as boozy secret agent Alec Leamas who can’t make any sense of what’s right and wrong in the early stages of the Cold War; The Constant Gardener (2005) with the story of a small-time British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) coming to terms with his country’s role in Africa’s devastation; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) with its universe of endless back-stabbings between people who should be working for the same cause. What makes these film adaptations work is precisely the deep understanding of le Carré’s tired, disillusioned voice.
A Most Wanted Man wrestles back and forth between Bachmann’s professional devotion, his sense of duty, and his complete misunderstanding of basic human emotions. His spy craft turns everything into an image or a soundbite to be studied, played around, manipulated. Everything can be recorded, cut, released. As the movie progresses and one of the central characters, a refugee lawyer (Rachel McAdams) tries to help out Issa Karpov providing him with food and shelter, Bachmann sees this not as an act of humanity but as a way-in for him to intervene and use the lawyer to his advantage. The chase that compels him, that makes him get up in the middle of the night and roam the streets of Hamburg looking for informants is the only thing that prevents him from becoming insane. Bachmann is, in other words, a man destined to live out the rest of his days in a hamster wheel. This constant motion is the only thing keeping him alive.

Those who want to do good, get punished.

Over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate A Most Wanted Man. It is by no means an easy watch as it asks the viewer to leave any pre-conceived notions out by the door. Just like the characters in it, the movie operates under guidelines established by the system in charge. No explanations are given. Characters, even those like Bachmann who think they have a say in the matter, must know when to walk away when the situation demands it. For Bachmann, walking away equals defeat. Walking away is the betrayal of his own being. But it is also the name of the game. All of le Carré’s characters must know when to walk away if they want to survive. The question is, survive and do what? Survive for what? For a system? For a world where giving a man food and shelter is seen as an act of conspiracy?
Philip Seymour Hoffman may have walked away from this world, but his ability to be deeply human whenever the director said Action! will, unlike Bachmann’s profession, echo in eternity.

Hoffman’s penultimate screen appearance is one for the ages.

Midnight Run: The Art of Buddy Comedy

What happens when you get an award-winning method actor in De Niro, a timid comedian in Charles Grodin, a young up-and-coming director in Martin Brest and tell them, Go out there and make a really good comedy about a bounty hunter going through a mid-life crisis while chasing a white collar criminal? Well, what happens is you get one of the most entertaining, bombastic and heartfelt buddy comedies to come out of the 1980s, an era known for fueling the concept of buddy comedy with movies like 48 Hrs., Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Twins leading the way. Midnight Run has grown to become a cult classic of the genre and looking back on it, the film has stood the test of time beautifully.
If there ever was a recipe for the perfect buddy comedy – Midnight Run would be it. So today, I want to talk about what makes Brest’s collaboration with De Niro and Grodin stand out in a decade packed with similar efforts and what this film teaches us about buddy comedy in general, a genre that has more or less faded away in recent years with movies like The Nice Guys failing at box office, and thus further discouraging Hollywood from committing to such screwball ideas.

Meet Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) and his dirtbag bail bondsman (Joe Pantoliano).

The first thing that we notice about a lot of buddy comedies is that they can come off as vanity or vacation projects, with big time actors cashing in easy paychecks and in exchange, giving their minimum effort. After all, if the movie isn’t serious and the subject isn’t too heavy then why should you bust your balls from 9 to 5 if you’re an Academy Award Winner? Midnight Run never takes itself seriously, but it also never dismisses the importance of emotional beats and the overarching themes of its story.
On the surface, this surely could have been another easy cash grab for De Niro, especially coming off a run of incredible yet creatively exhausting movies that included Once Upon a Time in America and The Mission. The latter especially saw De Niro put himself through enormous physical and psychological strain. It would have been only reasonable of him to accept making Midnight Run just to see him sleepwalk through the entire runtime. And yet… no sir. One of the first things that you immediately notice about Midnight Run is the commitment of everyone involved. This seemingly simple screwball comedy sees major actors like De Niro, Farina and Kotto work their asses to deliver something truly fresh and passionate, while never losing sight of the ultimate objective – fun. The movie is pure, unfiltered fun.

De Niro’s bounty hunter must track down and deliver Grodin’s white collar criminal to LA before others get to him.

Buddy comedy always works best when it’s about two polar opposites having to get along. Whether it’s the broad-shouldered, street-smart cop played by Nick Nolte having to collaborate with small-time crook played by Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs., or the physically towering yet innocent and good-hearted Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to reconcile with his long-lost twin brother Danny DeVito in Twins, buddy comedy is at its best when the main protagonists have conflicting personalities and interests. Midnight Run, however, does not make this distinction too apparent. Indeed, De Niro is the more impatient, more violent of the two, and wears his emotions on his sleeve, while Grodin’s poker-faced accountant for the mafia goes about life as if it was one big walk in the park. Yet, underneath these glaring differences there is something much more subtle: a burning pain of some kind, whether it is lodged in the past or present, both men have hurt themselves and others around them. Both share the desire to start from scratch, and try to recapture the same thirst for life they felt when they were young.
De Niro’s former Chicago policeman turned bounty hunter dreams of owning a coffeeshop. Perhaps it’s only a dream, but his character shows all the signs of a man who’s come to realize that all this running around, chasing criminals, with or without a badge, has got in the way of real, palpable happiness. Same goes for Grodin’s white collar criminal, whose act of stealing and giving mafia money away to charities is in itself a cry for help, a last shot at redemption for a man who’s walked through life by helping the rich grow richer. One could argue that this movie is about men going through a mid-life crisis, and there is truth to that. De Niro and Grodin are only now starting to realize that there is more to life than just fun, money and a career. But only through this sentimental, dramatic lens does Midnight Run‘s humor become all the more effective. Without these backstories, the punchlines wouldn’t land the same.

The two eventually learn about each other through thick and thin.

And it’s here that the importance of a strong, committed supporting cast becomes most apparent. Movies nowadays seem to have forgotten what it means to have recognizable non-movie star faces to help the story move along. Character actors, upon of the sight of whom you go, That guy! I know him! I’ve seen him before! Well, Midnight Run is full of them and knows the extent to which it can rely on their personas.
You have a pre-Sopranos Joe Pantoliano who plays the double-crossing bail bondsman trying to screw De Niro out of a well-earned pay-day. You have Dennis Farina playing the explosive mafia boss with the ever-stoic veteran actor Philip Baker Hall as his loyal consigliere. Add to that list the late Yaphet Kotto as the ominous yet always-too-late-on-the-scene FBI agent Alonzo Mosley, and John Ashton as De Niro’s hilarious bounty-hunting rival and you got yourself a cast of perfectly lived-in characters that, when called upon, offer their very best.
The world of buddy comedies like Midnight Run navigate in always risks of becoming a caricature, a cartoon filled with cliché’s something that The Naked Gun would go on to spoof that same year and later on in 90s with its over-the-top sequels. However, Martin Brest’s film never goes to that extent. The motivations of the supporting characters are just as real as the motivations of the two protagonists, whether it’s the FBI agent’s undying pride and call of duty, or the mafia boss’ palpable fear of having his dirty secrets exposed to the world, Midnight Run never loses sight of the qualities of these characters while pumping the story with thrilling action sequences.

The great late Yaphet Kotto as the intimidating FBI agent Mosley.

Let’s face it: this wouldn’t be an 80s movie if De Niro’s character didn’t get into a shoot-out with a helicopter in a canyon, or if the mafia’s botched hit on Grodin’s character didn’t turn into a full-on, guns-blazing shoot-out between cops and gangsters in the middle of broad daylight. 80s action was always over the top, but it was up to filmmakers to capture the ridiculousness of typical Hollywood action and make it an element of the story, like James Cameron did with True Lies.
Midnight Run is never action-oriented as it focuses more on character study, but that’s why the action sequences that occur in the movie never feel out of place. The repetitive outbursts of violence become part of the story, with De Niro repeatedly telling Ashton to look the other way, ”Marvin, look out!” and knocking him out with a punch to the face, until the one time that he really means it in the climatic finale and Marvin doesn’t buy it anymore. Or when Grodin baits De Niro into believing he’s afraid of flying, to later on maneuver a plane on his own with De Niro hanging onto the wing, screaming his heart out. It’s all so wonderfully over the top, yet it never feels borrowed from another movie. It all falls into the same melting pot, and the outcome is a delicious character study mixed with ridiculous bits of action.

The exact moment when De Niro finds out Grodin is indeed not afraid of flying.

Finally, I want to point out the one scene that best explains why Midnight Run is the perfect buddy comedy.
Halfway through the film, after having been identified by the FBI and ratted out by his own bail bondsman, De Niro’s character takes Grodin’s to where he used to live back when he was a policeman in Chicago, as he intends to borrow some money from his ex-wife. Grodin and De Niro are just starting to get to know each other, and De Niro’s character hasn’t yet revealed the full truth regarding his past, neither to us nor Grodin. In-between light sequences filled with jokes and witty dialogue, Martin Brest stages this very emotional scene, with De Niro confronting the woman he loved, but lost to another man. With his hot-temper, De Niro doesn’t take too much time to get into it with wife, and as a result, the two start bickering, with Grodin, hand-cuffed, standing on the side trying to mediate this heated exchange.
All of a sudden, a little girl emerges. It turns out it’s De Niro’s daughter. As soon as she enters the frame, the bickering stops and De Niro freezes. He hasn’t seen this child in nine years, and now she’s all grown up. He can barely say, ”What grade are you in now?” and when she replies that she is in eighth grade, all he can blurt out is, ”Eighth grade, huh…” Grodin smiles at the sight of this, and the two actors beautifully capture the fragility of this scene. In the midst of a storm, there is a sudden glimmer of light and calm. This little girl, De Niro’s daughter, stands with her eyes doing all the talking for her. You used to be part of my life, she thinks. How come you’re not anymore?
What’s disarming and so brutally honest about the way this scene unfolds is that De Niro can’t bring himself to say anything more. He timidly hugs her, tries to savor her smell, and imagine all the things they could have experienced together as a father and daughter over the course of the last nine years. In a world of bounty hunters, gangsters and cops this little ray of sunlight in the form of a blond-haired child is a tragic reminder of what we can miss out on in life. Yet, despite these two people being practically strangers to each other, the daughter never expresses any resentment. She just hopes to see him again.

What could have been.
But never was.

Dirty Harry: The Doomed Protagonist

In 1971 a young Clint Eastwood and veteran director Don Siegel collaborated on three occasions, including Play Misty for Me – Eastwood’s directorial debut (featuring a brief and rare acting cameo by Siegel) – The Beguiled – a Southern gothic thriller set in the American Civil War – and Dirty Harry – the story of detective Harry Callahan and his quest to stop the notorious serial killer Scorpio. All three titles are worth mentioning in their own right. Play Misty for Me launched the directing career of Eastwood, who would go on to direct forty more projects, including Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River and Gran Torino. The Beguiled, on the other hand, helped the young star in adding a new element to his on-screen persona – a sense of imminent threat and perversion. Finally, and most importantly, Dirty Harry was Eastwood’s first encounter with fame, after years and years of odd jobs on American TV (most notably, Rawhide) and Italian Spaghetti Westerns (the Dollars trilogy), and Siegel’s biggest box office hit in a career that spanned over three decades with little to no recognition. After that, the two would reunite almost a decade later on the set of Escape from Alcatraz, a sentimental, old-fashioned prison film. However, today I want to specifically look at the first entry in the Dirty Harry franchise, and what made the film gain an iconic status despite its controversial nature and how it fits into the context of 70s New Hollywood.

A new kind of evil threatens San Francisco.

New Hollywood was, in a way, all about fresh faces. Faces that communicated the willingness to start from scratch. Faces untouched by studios, contracts and reputations. These faces included the likes of Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie, among many others. Following the collapse of the studio system, American cinema was finally on its way to break taboos and throw conventions out the window. Critics and fans like to pinpoint the exact time this happened. Some argue that Bonnie and Clyde was the first movie to do so. Others like to mention Midnight Cowboy and The French Connection.
Personally, I think the definite breaking point is marked by Harry Callahan’s entrance on the crime scene of one of Scorpio’s victims on a poolside roof terrace in San Francisco. Eastwood’s pretty boy features here are hard, lean and mean. His blonde hair rough and uncombed. The dark sun-glasses the only recognizable item protecting him from the world he so passionately hates. He scans the site where the murder took place just hours ago and we immediately notice his cold, impassive attitude. Just another day on the job. Just another victim of a system that specializes in protecting the murderer.
Bruce Surtees’ luscious cinematography makes all the more evident the clash between the spectacularly rich and colorful city of San Francisco used a backdrop for all the violence and terror and our grounded, mean protagonist who is as much of an alien to his environment as the criminal he’s supposed to chase.

Harry is not your typical clean-cut hero.

What stands out about this seemingly run-off-mill cop thriller is in fact how straightforward and predictable it may seem at first glance. Like a lot of noir films from the 40s and 50s, we watch a handsome vigilante do anything he can in order to stop the evil that is threatening innocent by-standers. Hell, one of the first scenes involves Harry taking matters into his own hands as a robbery is underway across the street from his favorite burger joint. He lazily picks up his Magnum .44 and walks out to meet the gun-toting robbers. He shoots the driver and the guy in the passenger seat. He then proceeds to blow the arm off the man wielding a shotgun. So far, so good. But once he approaches the wounded criminal who is visibly trying to reach for his gun, Harry engages in the by-now famous monologue about the power of his Magnum .44 (”the most powerful handgun in the world”) and the consequences of a close-distance shot in the face. He concludes his monologue by looking straight into the camera and saying, ”You’ve gotta ask yourself a question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya… punk?”
At the time of its release, this was a line that had never been suggested and articulated in such a brutally honest manner. Our movie’s hero, instead of making a regular arrest or having an open conversation with the wounded perp – something a Humphrey Bogart or a Henry Fonda would have typically done – directly threatens the man in front of him and, more importantly, the audience watching the movie.
Siegel stages this confrontation without pulling any punches: one camera focuses on the robber’s arm, slowly reaching for his weapon, and another camera is set on Eastwood’s face as he looks directly at us. Simple, but effective. This initial stand-off acts as a checkpoint for whatever is to come in the movie’s remaining runtime. As an audience, we must nod our heads and admit that this is indeed the kind of movie we signed up for. This new Hollywood violence can be the stuff of nightmares. To make the point even clearer, the initial draft of the movie had the scene end with Harry placing his gun to his own temple and laughing at the perp. Talk about making a statement.

Violence, in Harry’s mind, is an inevitable remedy to evil.

This kind of straightforward, graphic violence was nothing new in other regions of the world and in other dimensions of American cinema, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) being the prime example. However, nothing had really been done on such a massive commercial scale. Dirty Harry was supposed to be the new hero we could all get behind and cheer for, and yet, both Siegel and Eastwood were determined to keep fans at a distance. This guy was hateful, violent and broken inside. His only purpose was to play dirty on the behalf of the police department and the mayor’s office. A gun-for-hire, so to speak. How could he be the face of a franchise?
The commercial up-to-date stylization of characters and plot points we had already seen before (the strict, by-the-numbers police captain, Harry not getting along with his new partner, a failed attempt at catching the villain, etc) served as a reflection of the needs of modern day audiences. It’s not surprising that Roger Ebert, the famous movie critic, was shocked when confronted with the movie’s direct, vicious and as Ebert himself said it, ”fascist attitude,” but accepted it as an inevitable consequence of the pent up anger boiling inside our protagonist. Because on the one hand, Harry is angry and hateful – most of the time he is indifferent to the daily horror show surrounding him, similarly to Taxi Drivers Travis Bickle, he roams around the streets to his beloved city shaken by crime and waits for judgement day to come. On the other hand, he still believes that despite the odds being against him, he can still try and do the right thing.
What we get is not a black or white character, but a grey one. A character riddled with doubts and frustrations but motivated to act on his own terms out of a sense of duty. Dirty Harry ends as a mirror to a society responsible for creating and enabling men like Harry Callahan, men who feel like they’re above the law just because they can toss their badge away from time to time. Men who walk with a gun in their hand like it’s the Old Wild West.

Harry brutally interrogates Scorpio in an empty football stadium.

New Hollywood was all about characters like Callahan, just as it was about characters like Scorpio: ruthless villains (in this case, based on the real-life Zodiac killer) troubled by a traumatic past (it is hinted that Scorpio served in the military), bound to their twisted obsessions. Movies were not meant to please, satisfy and calm audiences. Quite the contrary. You had to be shocked. Movies like Dirty Harry refused to entertain for the sake of critical success. Both Siegel and Eastwood had a picture in mind and went about doing it the way they had envisioned it.
The hopeless task that Harry performs as he runs from telephone booth to telephone booth in search of the place where presumably Scorpio left a girl to die of suffocation is a perfect depiction of the unapologetically harsh way New Hollywood went about telling stories. You know the girl is dead. Hell, even Harry knows. But it’s the only thing he can do. Run around in circles in the name of the law. The futility of the violence he carries with him is what is bound to torment him for the rest of his days.
It does not matter whether the badge will still be strapped to his jacket or not. It’s something he simply cannot get rid of.

Was it really worth it?

The Man Who Dared to Be King: Remembering Sean Connery

It’s always unfortunate when an actor’s career, in the wake of their death, gets narrowed down to their singular, most popular role. With the passing of Sir Sean Connery, it was inevitable that the world would be busy bidding farewell to the one and only 007, aka James Bond. After all, he was the first star to embody the world’s greatest spy, the first major star to utter the words, ”The name’s Bond. James Bond.” And yet, today I want to explore the Connery that I know from anything but the James Bond franchise. I want to go beyond the years of fame celebrated as the deadliest secret agent, and explore the numerous years he spent trying to escape the Hollywood trap of typecasting. I want to look at Sean Connery as the artist who wouldn’t go down without a fight.

After the enormous success of Dr No, the first ever Bond entry, it’s fascinating to see where Connery decided to go. At a time when more lead actors began taking on more complex and transgressive roles, including the likes of Paul Newman with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Connery was smart enough to decide not to stick to the script, and try his hand at something a little less conventional than smoking cigarettes, sleeping with very attractive women and killing bad guys. By starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie, he showed that his good looks can skillfully mask whatever bubbles inside of him. In this psychological thriller, Connery plays Mark, an elegant, respectful gentleman who eventually turns out to be a violent rapist, taking advantage of Tippi Hedren’s Marnie both physically as well as psychologically. The initial charm fades away and is replaced by an ominous air of threat. To viewers of the time, who were used to the likes of Rock Hudson, Gregory Peck or Cary Grant, familiar faces known for playing predictable, well intentioned characters, such a sudden, terrifying revelation came as a shock. The film resulted in mixed reviews. The violent sexual relationship between Mark and Marnie seemed to be too much for both audiences and critics, but the message Connery’s performance had conveyed was loud and clear: I will not be just another victim of the studio system. I will be my own master.

Marnie introduced a new dimension to Connery’s on-screen persona.

And so it was. After completing his spell as James Bond, and passing on the torch over to George Lazenby and Roger Moore, Connery was desperate to bite into meatier roles and wipe the slate clean. His work with Sidney Lumet is perhaps the most interesting chapter of Connery’s sprawling career and proof of what a great talent he was. Having collaborated with the likes of Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and eventually, Al Pacino, Lumet had a reputation of being the best actor’s director. His focus on rehearsals and precise, almost ritualistic on-set direction was the key to granting Connery the freedom he needed to truly express his range as an actor. And perhaps that is what comes off as most evident and remarkable in Connery as an on-screen presence: his range. Utilizing his good looks to seduce the audience is one thing, but turning the tables around through humor that often resulted in outbursts of rage, indignation and shame is what, to me, put Sir Sean on the pedestal among the very best actors of his generation. Look no further than Lumet’s The Hill (1965) and The Offence (1973).

Connery’s excellent turn in Sindey Lumet’s convinct movie, The Hill.

Both films deal with the strength, and simultaneously, the fragility of the human spirit. The Hill, set in some godforsaken desert hole during WWII, tells the story of military prisoners struggling to stay alive due to the grueling and brutal drills carried out by a blood thirsty Sergeant. Connery plays one of the more rebellious prisoners, former sergeant major Roberts, who continues to stand up to the cruelty inflicted upon his fellow detainees. Yet our favorite Scotsman never tries to play the role with a holier-than-thou attitude. He plays him like a convict: a man scarred by his past, uncertain about his future, incapable of taming his violent instincts, yet unwilling to back down even in the face of the worst kinds of pain. Far from Steve McQueen’s idealistic version of a prisoner in The Great Escape, Connery once again knew what needed to be done to push aside the audience’s expectations and throw any preconceived labels or judgements out the window.

In The Offence, Connery gives arguably his best performance.

Two of his greatest anti-hero roles came in the troubled, nihilistic cinema of the 70s. His most remarkable collaboration with Lumet, The Offence is a deep dive into the twisted nature of violence, as Connery plays a police detective set on getting the truth out a suspect by any means necessary. The policeman, blinded by shock and trauma experienced after years and years of collecting dead bodies off the street, channels Connery’s own much talked about inner violent, brutish character. Although he presumably stands for what is morally good and right, his methods of interrogation are far from such ideals. After beating the suspect to a pulp, the detective realizes he’s become the very individual he spent his whole life chasing: his life thus is meaningless, torn apart by the appeal of violence, a statement that rings particularly true in the time and setting this movie was produced, and that without a doubt reveals some dark truths about what we, as viewers, consider to be entertainment and glamour.

The seductive nature of power in The Man Who Would Be King.

In The Man That Would Be King (1975), directed by John Huston and based on a Rudyard Kipling novella, we get a glimpse of the corruptible force of power as Connery plays a British Army officer set on becoming the king of an unexplored Oriental land. His initial fascination with adventure and his friendship with a fellow officer (played by Connery’s dear friend in real life, Sir Michael Caine) disappear once Connery’s protagonist discovers what power, in the form of a kingdom of devoted followers that see him as a divine figure meant to bring them salvation, truly tastes like. Connery once again plays this role with a mix of boyish humor and intimidating physicality that makes him hard to dislike, but equally hard to root for as he blindly heads for the inevitable fall from grace. Similarly to his character in the story, Connery walks a fine line between charm and terror, fun and cruelty, cunning instinct and blind ignorance. The eventual downfall is a tragic one, but Connery’s character walks toward it with the reassured step of a man who’s seen enough in life and knows that his time has come.

As Malone in The Untouchables.

Looking back on the career of a man who appeared in over one hundred films, we see what life is really made of: change. Connery’s skill in adapting to the times he lived in is a sight to behold. He knew how to respond to the sexual revolution of the 60s by acting on his sex appeal and his masculine features, the same way he knew how to meet the demands of the audiences of the 70s by playing characters that questioned the morality and ideals of the society these audiences belonged to. In the 80s and 90s, the age of blockbusters and action films, Connery continued his successful run by capitalizing on his larger-than-life persona and appearing in films like The Untouchables, Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, The Rock and Entrapment. He went from learning the craft from the likes of Hitchcock and Lumet to mentoring up-and-coming stars in Kevin Costner, Alec Baldwin and Catherine Zeta-Jones. And despite often falling victim to his own celebrity status, it is undeniable that Sir Sean Connery was one of the last members of a dying breed, one the likes of which we will sadly never see again.

So Long, Friend.

Interaction between actors is key in order to fully enjoy a movie, isn’t it? There have been countless movies, even ambitious ones, with interesting concepts, fine directors, but when the interaction between actors isn’t there everything comes crashing down.  There has to be some sort of understanding between the characters, a feeling of acknowledgment because sometimes actors carry huge egos with them and this can become a problem on screen.

That is why people like to praise chemistry. Chemistry is what we see in Hot FuzzThe Birdcage, Chungking Express, A Bronx Tale or Some Like it Hot. Sometimes movies like to rely on characters rather than plots, and that’s when characters played by actors need some content. They need to have that raw feeling of existence.

Here are my top five movie duos of all time;

  1.  WALTER MATTHAU / JACK LEMMON

    – It’s almost impossible to set these two apart. Nowadays, when people think of comedy they think of Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Steve Carell or Jonah Hill but they also tend to forget an old breed of actors that will never fade away from our screens. Sure, once you had Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis and all those old school faces. However, my personal favorite, a duo of such talented actors that it didn’t matter if it was comedy or drama – they always delivered – has got to be the Matthau / Lemmon engine. They added warmth and genuineness to their relationship on screen. Surely, the fact that they treated each other like brothers off screen played a big role.  When they faced off nobody could stop the laughs. They were that good. They were the real deal.
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2.  SOPHIA LOREN / MARCELLO MASTROIANNI          in  A Special Day

–  They have worked on countless projects together but I need to make the distinction for this one.  Loren and Mastroianni were the giants of Italian cinema for decades. Loren had won an Oscar, while Mastroianni had been nominated 3 times by the time they teamed up for this film. For those of you who haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend it  because a movie like this one doesn’t come around so often.  Lost among countless movies that deal with the same subject matter – fascist rule and oppression – A Special Day shines there where others miss as it keeps the entire drama within an apartment building in Rome and lets the actors do their job. Believe me, it works to perfection. Mastroianni plays a lonely man, clearly afraid of something or someone, while Loren is the mother of four and the wife of a cheating husband. He is on the run, she stays at home and takes care of the family mess. They are cut off from reality and at the same time they are the victims of it. What the two actors achieve in terms of chemistry is untouchable: they share the pain, they share the moments of pure silence, they share laughs and they know when too far is too far. They don’t fall into melodrama. They stay afloat. Together, they represent a cry for freedom.

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3.  HEATH LEDGER / JAKE GYLLENHAAL         in Brokeback Mountain

– If you want to talk about heartbreak, here it is. It’s difficult to pull of a good comedy as a couple but it’s perhaps harder to pull off a good drama as a gay couple.  Ledger and Gyllenhaal immortalized two very different roles in the most memorable way possible.  The story is incredibly important when it comes to Brokeback Mountain, but the performances are even more so. Thank God Ang Lee casted these two magnificent actors because I doubt anyone can think of a better acting duo for this kind of job. It’s the quiet moments that count in Ang Lee’s movie, when the two cowboys feel timid and ashamed of their sexuality.  It’s the moments of hesitation that follow the first kiss between the two. Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist is the boyish cowboy of the two.  He is the one who believes in dreams, who thinks anything is possible if taken care of properly. Meanwhile, Ledger plays the quieter one, the tough guy on the exterior. He pulls off one of the best performances by an actor I think we’ll ever see. When these two confront each other, the movie becomes alive because of how well they understand the importance of their roles and their forbidden relationship. The feeling between the two men is palpable and at the end, we want to touch it, bathe in it, but it’s not there anymore. It’s been cut in half.

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4.  JOHN WAYNE  /  WALTER BRENNAN         in Rio Bravo

– The most iconic duo in cinema? Well, for me it’s the pairing of two of the biggest stars of the 40s and 50s. Wayne and Brennan are the essence of the Wild West. If you want to dive into the Western genre, pick any of their movies. My number one choice goes to their pairing in Rio Bravo, a classic movie that in so many ways talks about things that still matter to this day.  John Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, a lawman of the dying breed who wants end injustice on the streets of a small town, while Walter Brennan is Stumpy, the devoted long-time deputy of the Sheriff. The two actors, after having worked on a few projects prior to this movie (the most important of all, Red River), have a similar comedic chemistry to Matthau and Lemmon’s, meaning they know how to play off of one another. Stumpy is the grumpy character while Wayne is the man who tries to act stern and serious and ends up smiling anyway. The two work miracles with a script that could have easily been just another classic Western shoot-the-bad-guys-crack-a-few-jokes kind of movie. Brennan and Wayne clearly know how to have fun while acting and make the most out of so many glorious scenes, especially the last stand-off. They don’t make them like this anymore.

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5.  MAGGIE CHEUNG / TONY LEUNG  CHIU-WAI          in In The Mood For Love

– This one is a more discrete choice for a top acting duo. Wong Kar-Wai’s love story is a complex study of physiological pain and loneliness which follows two characters, Mrs. Chan and Chow Mo-wan, as they discover that their respective partners are cheating on them.  This unconventional love story turns into a game of chess, because as they dive into their loneliness, both characters get closer to each other. The two leads  have the task to deliver an emotional impact on the viewer while trying to keep up with the director’s experimental instructions. Wong Kar-Wai is one of the finest, ‘weirdest’ directors out there and his filmmaking style focuses much more on the directing part of the job than the part that consists of instructing the actors on what to do.  The two leads have to invent themselves and then again, re-invent themselves as the plot shifts and ends in a very gentle, subtle and elegant manner. A movie so perfectly crafted and yet so powerful can only be achieved with two great performances by actors that know what to do and when.

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And the Oscar goes to…

Today’s topic: this year’s Oscar nominations. Many people tend to ignore the Oscars, simply considering it a celebrity event, and even more people don’t care about Oscar status as a whole. Rightly so. However, it is important to remember that being nominated for or even winning the prestigious golden boy often leads to more possibilities for the ones involved, salary raise, better connections and more responsibilities. It’s a chance for small, indie films that normally would end up going under the radar, to shine and prove the world wrong. It’s a chance for disadvantaged contenders, such as minorities, to become an example for the rest of the industry. Well guess what. The Oscars like to forget about that. Every once in a while they remind themselves like that time when they took a chance at wonder boy screenwriter Quentin Tarantino back in 1995. Or that time they awarded in both acting categories two black actors: Denzel Washington and Halle Berry in 2002.  Or even that time they finally recognized Martin Scorsese for his lifelong career handing him the way overdue Oscar in 2007 for The Departed. And sometimes, Oscars manage to reach the unreachable level of stupidity, like last year… and this year.

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After 40 years in the business and countless nominations…

The concept of women winning or even being nominated in a male dominated category is quite rare to say the least in the film industry. After Kathryn Bigelow won best picture and best director for the Hurt Locker in 2010, the Oscar voters decided to take a step back and let the big change fall flat again. Last year, they ignored the talent of Ava DuVernay who directed the mediocre but in directing terms roaring Selma, the story of Martin Luther King and the impact his politics had on the streets in the US. That day they also decided to ignore Oyelowo’s performance as MLK, a convincing and powerful portrayal of a man who found himself cornered by his own decisions and policies. Why? Because in 2014, 12 Years a Slave won best picture. It had to. It sure wasn’t the best picture of that year but Oscar voters couldn’t turn away and ignore it because its message was too powerful. And that was it. No more diversity for the next two years and counting.

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A forgotten duo, DuVernay and Oyelowo.

Have you people heard of Beasts of No Nation? Probably not, since it only came out via Netflix and in a few theaters in the US back in October, but let me tell you: the story of a child soldier, Agu, in an African country who kills in the name of his beloved commander is one of the best films of this year. Under the direction of Cary Fukunaga, the man behind the acclaimed first season of True Detective, this film is one of the most brutally honest portrayals of war I’ve ever seen and yet the Academy decides not to give it a chance because of its online distribution. Shouldn’t movies be about change? About modernization? About heading forward? About exploration? Well, for the voters the answer is NO. Idris Elba, star of the British TV drama Luther, gives a terrifying performance as the black leader who numbs the African youth and manipulates them into thinking he is, in fact, a true god, someone who’ll lead them to glory and make them forget about the past. His mannerisms, his voice, the thick African accent he applies to his own speech, these are all signs of a great actor giving a great performance. Yet it’s not enough for the Academy to recognize him as a possible candidate for Best Supporting Actor. Shame.

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A performance for the ages. Make it justice and watch it.

You’d think then, if the Academy goes white,  it does it in proper style. Not even close. This year’s choices have been cruel. Let Jennifer Lawrence, star of the empty Joy, get her fourth nomination while you ignore Charlize Theron for her incredible performance as Furiosa in Mad Max Fury Road. Why is Lawrence there? Not only was Joy one of this year’s worst films, following every worn-out form of narrative we’ve all seen countless times under David O. Russel’s underwhelming direction, it was also a big office flop. It’s unusual because the Academy tends to go for the big hits. This time it’s the name that counts. Jennifer Lawrence. Enough of her already. After the tough performance she gave in the truly deserving Winter’s Bone, the Academy handed her one for Silver Linings Playbook and nominated her in another head scratching movie, David O. Russel’s American Hustle, making out of a simple twenty year old actress a true Hollywood diva, the highest paid actor in all of the industry with a salary of $26 mln (ironically she speaks out about pay inequality towards women). This celebrity status makes it easier for the Academy because this way they nominate the same famous name all the time and they don’t have to worry about other performances going under the radar. Simple as that, right? Yes, Theron was better. Theron gave in my opinion the best female performance of the year, playing a beautiful character (George Miller’s invention) in a not so beautiful post apocalyptic world. Her shaved head, her robotic arm, her fiery eyes turned what could have been another action blockbuster into an intimate portrayal of human strength and more precisely, women’s strength. However, Oscars like to miss the small stuff, and like to focus on the big stuff: in this case, explosions, real life stunts and roaring action sequences. Well, damn. Shame.

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A real queen.

Okay, now if you like to ignore small stuff why don’t you go for Benicio Del Toro’s career best role as Alejandro in Sicario? Not only did they  choose to ignore the movie as a possible best picture/ best director/ best original screenplay contender; the voters also decided to ignore what is to me and to many reviewers, one of the best revenge driven characters in recent film history. Del Toro went all in, a silent, deadly man who’s suffered too much to tell. A man who’s seen hell and back and doesn’t want to show it. A man who’s set himself an objective. And he’s fighting for it. That too, to the Academy means – nada. No nomination for you, Benicio. It wasn’t fancy enough. Your name hasn’t been so relevant since you played Che Guevara in 2008′ Che, the four hour long biopic of the most revolutionary leader of the twentieth century. These are the brakes, says the Academy. Luckily let’s hope this performance leads Del Toro to take on many more of these complex, tough as hell roles, because he nailed it. That’s that. Shame.

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Next time, Benicio, next time.

Of course, after so many fans and critics felt irritated after The Dark Knight was snubbed for best picture back in 2009,  the Academy decided to make ten slots for best picture nominees instead of five. That way independent movies and even blockbusters like The Dark Knight itself could have the chance to be nominated in that hard fought category with the best of the best. Yeah, not really. Although I have to hand it to the Oscars for giving Mad Max Fury Road and Room a chance to prove the world wrong, the Academy decided to leave two slots empty, nominating only eight movies instead of ten. Was it so hard to decide? Carol, a work of art by acclaimed director Todd Haynes with great performances given by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, a story of a forbidden love in a forbidden age, one of the movies that was considered sure Oscar material has been totally forgotten. Haynes’ direction as well, sadly. Okay, well you’d think they’d go with someone they know and trust. Like Tarantino and his three hour long epic – The Hateful Eight. Guess what, too much violence. Too much blood. Too much profanity. And it all takes place in a stage-like environment. Not too attractive for the voters. They decided to ignore Quentin’s passion for the Western genre, they ignored the artistry in his Sergio Leone inspired close-ups and oddly enough, they decided to ignore his screenplay – a tribute to a whole world that only Quentin knows so much about, and that is the world of movies. The Hateful Eight is a mix of the macho characters of the forties and fifties played by tough guys like Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen. It’s a mix of Western TV series like Bonanza and Rawhide. It’s his final say to his endless love for The Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West. The Academy doesn’t see it. Well, shame.

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They want Quentin to be more conventional. That’s not going to happen, is it?

Honestly, this year was bad, but there were also tiny bright spots – youngster Brie Larson nominated in the best actress category and old timer Charlotte Rampling nominated in the same one as well. Rachel McAdams, usually considered a sex symbol with movies like The Notebook, Mean Girls and About Time under her belt, was given a chance to prove she can act her heart out with her performance in this year’s Spotlight. The incredible determination in Tom Hardy’s amazing performance as John Fitzgerald in The Revenant was finally recognized by an award show other than the usually reliable BAFTA. That’s good.

Let’s keep in mind. These award shows, like DiCaprio said, are not the reason movies are made. An award is an award, it’s film that stays forever.

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The Revenant sure will stay forever. It’s gold.

 

The Charming Cop

Today’s topic: LA Confidential, and more precisely the character of Jack Vincennes. The superb noir drama, Oscar winning picture that came out in 1997, gives me the chills every time I give it a watch. For those of you who are not familiar with the title I just mentioned, I’ll say this: find it and enjoy. What a ride it is to dive into the 1950’s Los Angeles and its world of corruption and greed; always a pleasure.

However, every time I give this film a shot and every time I try to grasp every second of this cinematic landmark, I focus nearly all of my attention on Jack Vincennes, the “showman” cop played superbly by the one and only, Kevin Spacey. Spacey was having the best years of his career, having already won an Oscar for “The Usual Suspects” in spring 1996, he was on a roll when the screenplay for LA Confidential got to him. Under the direction of Curtis Hanson (8 Mile), Spacey created a character so layered and so profoundly human (also based on Dean Martin, the iconic singer) that audiences and critics were stunned when the Academy passed on this role. His charm and wit take over the screen, I can tell you that.

Jack Vincennes is a good man. He is. However, he is also the wrong man at the right place. Why? Well, he dresses very elegantly, is handsome and knows how to handle hot situations. The world of show business attracts him not because of the pay or the glamour of the red carpet, but because he wants to feel right, he wants to put his foot down and let the world take notice of his input. What can a cop bring into a world where gangsters rule Hollywood, drugs keep getting into the poor neighbourhoods of LA and prostitutes try to look like movie stars? There is nothing out there that a simple policeman can do. He pulls out a badge and that’s it, file a report, then report back to your superior, go home and have a drink before heading off to bed. Does the Medal of Merit save you from this ugly world? No. You just need to know the right people and you need to know how to slip some money under the counter. That’s it. That’s when you profited in those days and still do now.

Vincennes is a man who’s always tried to pass above that. Sure, he’d snatch a little weed for himself, pay off the watchman and make a couple of headlines but he always did it while aiming higher. Higher than the grey skies of Los Angeles, ironically The City of Angels, “Where dreams come true, hush-hush”.  And since everyone needs a key to success, Jack has the “Badge of Honor” hit TV show; an opportunity to teach someone about how a cop really feels and acts when hurt, when happy, when drunk. Vincennes’ a mentor, a guru for aspiring actors and is also the ladies’ man at the parties.

At the end of the movie, when things go really bad, that’s when Jack forces himself to show the LA underworld his true colours, to prove to himself that he isn’t just about the money and fame. He goes and tries to make things right, and more specifically he tries to save a young man who he put into deep trouble for his own dirty $50 and a chance to get back at a pretentious superior. That’s when Jack realizes that he’s been battling these kind of situations his whole life. He’s been trying to get out his real self his whole damn, corrupt life and now he has the chance to make it right. And he does. He pays the bill.

That’s who Jack Vincennes is or at least who I think he is or represents. I think Jack Vincennes sleeps inside all of us and is waiting for us to wake him up, and that’ll happen when duty will call. Rest assured.

Hush-hush.

Trying to make things right always requires sacrifices.
Trying to make things right always requires sacrifices. Jack knows best.