Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Laina At the Movies

By Laina Farhat-Holzman
August 2015

Mission Impossible

It is impossible to believe that Tom Cruise is as old as he is yet looks as young  as he does! My goodness, in this action film, he goes through so many narrow scrapes with death, gets beatings from goons who loom over him by at least a foot, barely gets his body turned into road kill in motorcycle chases, and survives a car chase in Morocco (of all places), careening in a car down Kasbah stairs mysteriously empty of goats, chickens, and people (must be siesta time) and even with his car flipping over many times, emerges with hair and teeth intact. Wow.

This has to be the best of the Mission Impossible series, a two-hour-plus romp through Washington, London, Paris, and somewhere in Morocco. His special agency has been dumped by the CIA and is now an outlaw, pursued by both the Cartel (bad guys), the CIA itself, and an ambiguous and beautiful British agent who helps Cruise---and yet appears to be working for the Cartel. What is she up to?

Like all such spy capers, this is a vicarious travel movie filled with dangers and fantasies for audiences that I would hope would not do such things! But what fun.

Man From U.N.C.L.E

How many of you remember the old 1960s  Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV program with Robert Vaughn playing Napoleon Solo and David McCallum (who today plays “Ducky” on NCIS) playing Illya Kuryakin? The two men were secret agents who, even though from opposite sides of the then Cold War, were working together to fight enemies of both under an ambiguous agency called United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (UNCLE). Nice idea, but quite impossible for such paranoid times. But it struck a chord with many who wished there could be such cooperation.

The current movie gives us two new actors playing Solo and Kuryakin: Henry Cavill as Solo and Armie Hammer as Kuryakin. Both are splendid specimens of male muscle and Cavill is as much of an Esquire man as James Bond. Hugh Grant plays a British senior agent who compels the two to work together. One other agent comes their way: Alicia Vikander (she of Ex Machina), Gaby. Is she an enemy or an agent of one other country? She is an Austrian, daughter of a missing (defected) nuclear physicist who may have gone rogue.

The three are pitted against a neo-Nazi group developing Nukes for sale to rogues (the film is set in the 1960s). Those Nazis never give up.

What is interesting about these three agents is that not a single one of them is devoted to his or her own country. Napoleon Solo was a jewel thief so adept in breaking in to any place that the CIA recruited him from prison. It was a deal he was not free to refuse.

Illya Kuryakin, the Russian, was not a happy agent either. His father had been executed for treason and his Soviet bosses held it over him. (I think he ran away with this film! Hunky!)

And Gaby, the Austrian beauty, was as competent as either of the men---sometimes even besting them---but it was difficult to determine whose side she was on. Her loyalties were ambiguous. And, of course, it is always difficult to determine whose side the British were on! Hugh Grant's Waverly is charmingly coldhearted.

This is a bit different from the usual spy thrillers in which at least our side has agents of unquestioned loyalty. But then again, this is a summer spy movie: lots of action, a bit of potential romance (Kuryakin is protective of Gaby), and enough chases and excitement through overseas locales to keep a summer audience happy.

I cannot imagine why the critics carped so much.  I thought the film was fun.

Jimmy's Hall

This Anglo-Irish gem of a movie presents the two side of the Irish soul: the joyful, joking nature of Irish good humor and the terribly destructive side that has plagued Ireland since the 16th century. These otherwise joyous people live in a dark place---a self-destructive culture of civil discord.

Jimmy Gralton (played by Barry Ward), returns to Ireland in 1933, after 10 years of enforced exile. Ireland had just come out of their deadly Civil War, a war of liberation from British control. A new government is in power, and people hope for a return to a peaceful life.

The antagonists in this movie (and in Ireland) were the Catholic Church, one of the more conservative branches of that religion in the Europe of the day, the land owners with their historic power, and the Revolutionary Workers' Group, with which Jimmy had been connected before his exile.

In 1933, any sort of progressive or liberal movement was tainted by the fear of Communism, which was unfortunate but not without cause. Stalin's Soviet Union was actively sowing seeds of revolution and infiltrating movements that might otherwise be relatively benign.

Jimmy's return to his village to help his aging mother farm their land is greeted with a deluge of young people, eager to have him reopen the community center that he ran 10 years before. It was a hall that would house young people dancing, classes during the daytime (literature and handicrafts) and a place for people to just meet and have discussions.

To the local priest and the landowners, this reopening smacked of everything that they feared: discussion groups that could hamper their control (such as the practice of evicting poor tenant farmers). The priest feared the corruption of Irish culture (traditional) with the introduction of the dancing and new music, jazz recordings from New York, representing to the priest the passions of “darkest Africa.”

The movie juxtaposes the joyousness of the center with the anger and fear of the powers that be. Unfortunately, the Communist threat hung over more than just Ireland in that day. This sort of reaction from the establishment was not exclusive to Ireland. We had our own Red Scare during the 1920s.

The dancing in the film is marvelous. All the Irish actors look like real people, real Irish people, not actors. The community center is presented as a breath of fresh air, an innocent place, not the den of iniquity as seen by the landowners and Church.  But once more, Jimmy (a real person, by the way), will face exile. It is very difficult for an American audience to see what sin he committed to become so demonized by the powers that be. But it did happen.

Lovely film! Worth your time to see it.

No Escape

This was, unfortunately, just another Summer movie, although it could have been better. The story follows an American family, husband (Owen Wilson), wife, and two young daughters, arriving in an (unnamed) South Asian country that we learn later borders on Vietnam.  The husband has a new job with a large water treatment company. On the plane, they meet a British man (played by Pierce Brosnan, who seems to know his way around. As they are staying in the same hotel, Brosnan offers them a ride.

On the first night they are there, Wilson goes out to buy a newspaper and finds himself in the midst of what looks like a coup d'etat. The rebel mob is looking for Americans to kill.

A scenario like this is not that far fetched! We are indeed living in dangerous times and running into crazed mobs (or killers with agendas) is not that rare any more. One need only recall Mumbai a couple of years ago and the Arab Spring countries which turned ugly quickly.

So---the rest of the film is about the family trying to escape the slaughter----and the country, and the Brosnan character turning up every so often to lend aid.

Two things in this film particularly annoyed me. The first was trying to make Owen Wilson seem like a competent action figure (he looked rightly frightened through much of the film) and a bit of left-wing nonsense spouted by Brosnan that the writers seemed to think necessary.

In the face of rabble killers slaughtering people, raping, and even resorting to torture (trying to force a little girl to shoot her own father), Brosnan offers an explanation.  These are people who have been exploited by your government and mine, he says, indicating that projects such as the water purification company are just trying to get the host country in debt so that western colonizers can take over.

Talk about ingratitude!  We travel the world with projects to help Third World countries have better lives----and someone thinks this is exploitation? Rotten movie, rotten ideas! Save your money.

After seeing the wretched No Escape, I had hopes of seeing a good art movie: Phoenix, a German film with a promising premise. This film follows a German Jewish woman in 1946, Nellie Lenz, a survivor from a concentration camp. She is recovering from extensive plastic surgery to repair her disfigured face after having survived being shot. Her caregiver is another survivor, Lene, who is intent on convincing Nellie to leave Germany and start a new life in Israel.

Nellie, a former cabaret singer, is focused on finding her German husband, the love of her life, and resuming their life together. Her husband, “Johnny,” was her pianist partner in the cabaret. As she recovers (still with black eyes from the surgery), she haunts Berlin looking for her husband, whom she finds working in a sleazy cabaret in the American sector of the city.

The story is supposed to be about “identity.” Nellie has a new face. Will anybody recognize her? Will her husband know her?

She tracks him down and he does not know her, despite all sorts of clues. He realizes that this woman sort of resembles his dead wife and he knows that she would be entitled to an inheritance and (we guess) recompense from the German government. He proposes that she stay with him and he will train her to impersonate Nellie; they will then collect the money and split it.

My trouble with this movie was disbelief.  I could not believe that Nellie could be so stupid that despite evidence provided by Lene that Johnny betrayed her to the Gestapo to save his own hide, she could make excuses for this and still love him.

I also could not believe that Johnny could be so obtuse that he did not see that this was his wife! As the movie unfolds, the holes in the story get more difficult to ignore.

What should have been a gratifying revenge story was instead a half-baked exploration of “identity.” I didn't buy any of it.

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