Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Debt (2010)

Release Date: 
31 Aug 2011 (USA)
(viewed SA 17 Mar 2012)
John Madden
Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan (screenplay), Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum (film “Ha-Hov”)
Helen Mirren
Tom Wilkinson
Ciaran Hinds
Jessica Chastain
Marton Csokas
Sam Worthington
Jesper Christensen

IMDb link and rating:

Plot Synopsis:
(From IMDB) 1965, three Mossad agents cross into East Berlin to apprehend a notorious Nazi war criminal. Thirty years later, the secrets the agents share come back to haunt them.


This was the best film I have seen in recent memory. It was gripping from start to finish, brilliantly conceived, and executed with virtuosity in acting, directing, and editing.

The story follows a trio of Israeli agents from their original mission in 1965 (where the young agents are played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington) to the aftermath thirty years later (where they are played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and CiarĂ¡n Hinds). We see the mission unfold at the beginning—a plan to trap and retrieve a notorious Nazi “doctor” from East Germany—but simultaneously sense that something is not quite right. And that’s all I’ll say about that: anything more would sabotage the relatively simple but ingenious plot.

There are some moments in the film that will make your blood run cold—particularly, those scenes in which Ms. Chastain’s character, Rachel Singer, is alone with the Nazi monster, Dieter Vogel (a remorseless devil played unforgettably by Jesper Christensen). In a couple of harrowing scenes, young Rachel goes undercover posing as a patient of the evil doctor, who has changed his name since the war and resurfaced as a gynecologist in East Berlin. She must endure his examination, reclining prone on his table, legs spread in the air and feet bare on cold metal, her nakedness covered by one of those sterile, ill-fitting patient gowns that hospitals use, which served only to make stark Rachel’s vulnerability by reminding her that her clothes are piled in a heap across the room, beyond her reach. Meanwhile, the doctor selects from an array of ghastly-looking instruments (evoking images of Jeremy Irons unveiling his tools in Dead Ringers) and patiently brings his head down between her legs, close enough, we presume, for his foul breath to invade Rachel’s most private chambers.

The effectiveness of these scenes is the achievement of the filmmakers and Chastain’s acting: We, the audience, know Rachel is a trained agent—brave, disciplined, and determined—and indeed, she adequately answers the doctor’s questions during the examinations and even manages to surreptitiously snap a few photos using a miniature spy camera. But we have no assurance whatsoever that all will go as planned. Does the doctor see through her cover? Is Rachel hunting the monster, or is she his prey? It is unnerving, and we wonder how Rachel can endure it. (Perhaps she wonders that herself.) In these scenes we feel, in merciless detail, every nuance of Rachel’s fear; we can almost smell it, and the doctor, I’m sure, had the satisfaction of feeling her tremble.

The larger point, of course, is that this invasion of Rachel’s body is a metaphor for the utter dehumanization of an entire people, the literal and figurative stripping of men, women, and children down to their emaciated flesh and broken souls. We see, in this monster known as the “surgeon of Birkenau,” the limitless brutality of the National Socialists—a scourge upon civilization made all the more horrible by its sober, orderly, implacable administration. Irrationality kills men, but irrationality masquerading as science, reason, and logic murders mankind itself; the first stops a man’s heart from beating, which kills him, but the second stops his mind from functioning also, which enslaves him before he is killed. Unreason, posturing in Reason’s cloak, is a fiend committing murder in a policeman’s uniform—a double crime. To confront a beast in the form of a beast is to scream; to face a beast wearing the scientist’s white lab coat is to be struck dumb—one does not understand what one sees. The mind, disoriented and uncomprehending, freezes, and perhaps it is this, more than a want of courage, that accounts for the seeming impossibility of thousands of humans being herded to the death chambers at the points of only three or four bayonets.

“So, we were all insane? Is that the answer?” taunts the Nazi doctor in captivity, and this is a shrewd question. I think most people today, being unwilling or unable to confront the real underpinnings of the Nazis, are content to dismiss it all as incomprehensible madness—and that is a grave danger. As long as Hollywood and other outlets of popular culture condemn only the National Socialists (the Nazis) while giving the Soviet Socialists (the communists) a free pass, we may confidently say we have learned nothing from the 20th century. (For a terrific video lecture on this topic, see “Socialism’s Legacy,” by Alan Charles Kors.)

The Nazi’s evil did not begin and end with their pogrom against the Jews. The Nazis rose to power as all socialists do: on a moral principle. You have heard this principle principle before—in fact, you were brought up to believe it: that a man must live his life for the sake of others. Get a population to accept that a “greater good” than themselves exists and the rest will follow. Implicit in every politician’s appeal for personal sacrifice is the license to forcibly dispose of some individuals for the benefit of others.

The systematic murder and enslavement of hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century was not insanity, but an illustration of the fact that ideas matter. Atrocities roll in not on tanks but upon ideas; the tanks are a side issue: those impressions of caterpillar tracks that they leave in the mud, within which the blood of innocents pools, indicate that a certain moral imperative passed this way. Nazis and communists did not achieve popularity by promising to kill Jews and kulaks, but by promising to provide jobs and health care to their people. If this sounds familiar, dear reader, I ask that you do not tell yourself, “No, it couldn’t be so, it must not be so,” but accept the responsibility of thinking before it is too late.

At the end of the The Debt, the Israeli agent Stefan says, in justification of his well-meant actions, “Truth is a luxury. Country, family, children come first.” He did not seem to realize—and perhaps the filmmakers themselves did not even understand—that this fine-sounding phrase “country above truth” is precisely the formula that made the Nazis possible.


This was a well done gritty spy/thriller. Jumping from the past to the present, the movie executed the sins of the past revisiting the lives of the present flawlessly. The carefully planned actions of the younger characters were as fascinating to watch as the unfolding of their earlier decisions upon their older selves were engaging to discover. It poked at the evil of Nazi human experimentation coupled with the necessary methods for bringing the perpetrators of that inhumanity to justice until actions appeared gray; It left the viewer to tease out the black and white morality of justice.

Although Ciaran Hinds’ face was wonderfully downturned as the older version of the tortured agent, David, I think that he and Tom Wilkinson would have been more convincing physically if they had switched their roles.

Knowing Jessica Chastain only as one of the lights in The Help, I was surprised and delighted to see her excellent dramatic work in this movie. She’s one to watch. Sam Worthington, whom I had previously seen only in Avatar, was likewise, good to see in a dramatic role.

Action Items: Watch Man on a Ledge, Clash of the Titans. They were on my list anyway, but I’ll move them up now. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Osterman Weekend

Release Date: 
14 Oct 1983 (USA)
(viewed SA 10 Mar 2012)
Sam Peckinpah
Robert Ludlum (novel) Ian Masters (adaptation)
Rutger Hauer
John Hurt
Craig T. Nelson
Burt Lancaster
Dennis Hopper
Chris Sarandon
Meg Foster

IMDb link and rating:
Plot Synopsis:


I like spy movies and enjoyed this film for the things I expect from this genre: some genuine suspense, the cat-and-mouse maneuvering of competing intellects, and a couple of interesting twists that managed to catch me by surprise. There aren’t any really likable heroes in the film, apart from the innocent and surprisingly resourceful wife played by Meg Foster, but the antagonists are plentiful and varied in their levels of villainy and sinister intentions, and the roles are played by a first rate cast. The sole moment of comic relief--a preposterous scene in which otherwise ultra-sophisticated, all-powerful CIA surveillance equipment suffers from the failure of a simple on-off switch, thereby forcing an undercover agent, caught with his face on the television screen, to ad lib an extended weather report to preserve his cover--reinforces the seriousness and heaviness of the rest of the film. 

In her review, Lynne mentioned the dated feel to the film and I agree with that observation. Of course, I am not criticizing things like the movie technology (a film cannot be blamed for not using techniques that had not been invented) or the setting (the Cold War might seem out of date now, but is a perfectly good topic for fiction). Still, though, I think the film seems frozen in time--I would have said the ’70’s, but actually the film was released in 1983--probably mostly because of the music, which an Amazon editorial review called a “jazzy approach” that imbued the film with a “sensual, dangerous ambience.” In art, the price of being hip in your day is being irrelevant later.

The performances of the male actors were matched by very good performances by the women, which is not always the case in movies that seem to hold as a primary qualification for the female roles the willingness to remove one’s shirt on the big screen. Of course, I’m never one to complain about the liberal exposure of women’s breasts, but the frequent baring of chests in a decidedly unromantic, squalid, and sometimes disturbing style did strike me as merely gratuitous (and the only aspect that really warranted the R rating).

On second thought, however, maybe the gratuitous flaunting of bare breasts was the point. It conveys the theme of the film: that we are all watchers and are watched ourselves, and we don’t look away even when we might have done so. (Recall the sole comic moment I described above; the failure was, significantly, that the television wouldn’t turn off.) The film ends with a challenge: “What you’ve just witnessed is, in many ways, a life-sized video game. You saw a liar talk to a killer and you couldn’t tell them apart. Buy hey, it’s only television. As you may know, television programs are just the filler between attempts to steal your money. So if you want to save some, turn me off. It’s a simple movement, done with the hand and what is left of your free will. The moment is now. My bet is you can’t do it. But go ahead and try.”


Despite its strong late 70s fashion-feel (hair, clothes, make-up, drug culture, over use of titillating bedroom scenes), The Osterman Weekend holds up well enough in its portrayal of the art of psychological manipulation and its action sequences.  I was able to suspend my general distaste for those cultural vestiges and concentrate on the story it tried to tell.  But on that score alone, I have to admit I was confused between the spy, traitor, double-agent motivations set-up between the CIA director (Burt Lancaster) and the murine-faced CIA agent (John Hurt). Due to the coupling of incredible abilities with unbelievable incompetence, I began to suspect the underlying plotline early on: Don’t kill a man’s wife—especially when he can’t understand how he got so lucky in the first place—and expect him to roll over.

As to the ostensibly civilian characters, I disliked them to a man. One woman, the one the studio executives wisely chose to place on the movie poster, was a kick-ass, but sadly minor, player. Among the other men, Rutger Hauer and Craig T. Nelson had some moments of believable buddy banter during the flight for their lives, but it relieved none of their more awkward moments throughout the movie. Worth mentioning, the R-rated movie also showed a smooth collie in peril and implied moments of extremely bad parenting.   

I gave it a 5.5 because it kept me awake (automatic 5 on a Friday night, 4 on a Saturday) wondering how it would all turn out and because it starred Rutger Hauer and Craig T. Nelson who – even with the rat growing under his nose – is a terrific, possibly under-rated actor.

If you want the sheer discomfort of watching dysfunctional couples I recommend Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? If you love the psychological thrill that comes from spies, traitors, and not knowing who to trust, I recommend Seven Days in May or No Way Out. Finally, if you crave a match between man and a woman that strains the bounds of credulity, I recommend Funny Face.  If you want all three  compressed within the loose trappings of the late 70s, served up on video, The Osterman Weekend is the way to go. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

True Grit (2010)

Release Date: 
22 Dec 2010 (USA)
(viewed SA 26 Feb 2012)
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen based on a novel by Charles Portis
Jeff Bridges
Hailie Steinfeld
Matt Damon

IMDb link and rating:

Plot Synopsis:
A young woman, determined to see her father’s killer brought to justice, enlists the aid of an unlikely hero.


Having watched this 2010 remake of True Grit just twenty-four hours after watching the 1969 original, I can scarcely avoid comparing the two. And in most of the head-to-head matchups of characters and details, the new film falls slightly short. It’s not that it’s bad--I enjoyed the movie--but there were a few differences that were conspicuous to me only because of the direct comparison.

The biggest of these was probably the script, which was considerably inferior in this remake. Paradoxically, it was the suprising fidelity to the original script throughout much of the film (whole stretches of dialogue seemed to be reproduced word for word) that made the missing details stand out in relief. It seemed like the Coen brothers had gone out of their way to remove details that were, if not exactly essential, at least important in fleshing out the characters. Lynne gave several examples of this below, all of which I agree with. One of the most important changes, which Lynne didn’t write but had pointed out to me while watching the film, was the fact that the remake presented revenge as Mattie’s motive--or at least treated revenge and justice interchangeably, blurred the distinction between the two--while the original made it clear that Mattie was interested only in justice.

I liked Hailee Steinfeld’s performance as Mattie Ross, though her interpretation was significantly different than Kim Darby’s in the original. Miss Steinfeld’s Mattie was serious and sullen. Darby’s character was serious, too, but not sullen. Both conveyed Mattie’s courage and intensity very well, but in Darby’s character we suspect that under the layers there is a burning desire to live, while Steinfeld’s character suggests stoic resignation. (This is reinforced by the dreadful ending.)

One thing I liked better about this version of the film is Matt Damon’s portrayal of La Boeuf, compared to Glen Campbell’s in the original. He’s a little more mysterious and a little less foolish.

The film ended on a completely different chord than the original did--and that chord, frankly, was senselessly dissonant where the original was uplifting. Maybe that is simply the Hollywood formula nowadays: End on a bitter note to inject a bit of “realism,” lest the film be accused of melodrama or naive optimism. To me, that is just poor writing reflecting poor thinking.


It is much more difficult to rate this film on its own merit given that I watched and enjoyed the original so much more the night before.  Plainly, while the script and action veered only slightly from the original, I felt that in all but one minor case, those diversions detracted from the character of Mattie Ross.

Mattie2.0 was certainly as spirited and directed as the original Mattie; however, in giving us no clue as to her relationship with her father, the writers gave us no hint that her coldness in finding him dead is not a quirk of her personality. When she negotiates with the horse dealer, she comes back with documentation regarding the final agreed upon price rather than enter the negotiations all prepared. The original presentation of that scene shows not only her tremendous knowledge of horse dealing, but also her confidence in her abilities to reach that price.

The introduction to Cogburn’s Chinese store-owning friend is as the man who shows Mattie where Cogburn is sleeping in the back room rather than by Cogburn as his “family” as was in the original. Mattie’s meeting with the Texas Ranger, played well by Matt Damon, is much more threatening in this version, taking place in the bedroom, than funny as it was in the original. Mattie talks more of avenging her father’s death, than of justice.

Rooster Cogburn is still a drunkard and mean bounty hunter, but he leaves the dead thieves at the cabin rather than bringing them to the nearest outpost for burial as he did in the original. I think this detracts from his character.  While still an ancillary player, the Texas Ranger was a better developed character in this one and I appreciated his altered fate.

But the worst blow in this movie was the ending. Rather than left as steadfast, practical, and loving, Mattie is shown many years later as a bitter old woman. I found that to be an inexcusable betrayal of the indefatigable, plucky character I began to love in the original movie. 

Action Items:
Read the novel by Charles Portis. It may be that the 2010 version of the movie is closer to the author's story and the 1969 version is more to its director's liking. (L)

Supplementary Details: 
There was a noticeable increase in biblical references in this newer version and a noticeable absence of Mattie’s ruling philosophy. (L)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

True Grit (1969)

Release Date:
11 June 1969 (USA)
(viewed SA 25 Feb 2012)
Henry Hathaway
Marguerite Roberts based on a novel by Charles Portis
John Wayne
Kim Darby
Glen Campbell
IMDb link and rating:

Plot Synopsis:
A young woman, determined to see her father’s killer brought to justice, enlists the aid of an unlikely hero.

As strange as it may seem, I have not seen any John Wayne movies--or if I have, I have no memory of it--so my expectations of the legend were just a bit higher than what Mr. Wayne actually achieved in this film. I don’t mean he performed poorly. On the contrary, I liked his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, the rough-around-the-edges lawman who “loved to pull a cork” as often, or at least as freely, as he pulled a trigger. He exhibited just the right combination of humor and justice; his was a wisdom evidently accumulated over a lifetime of hardtack and long, lonely trails, punctuated by encounters with the bad guys. Rooster was a man of moral clarity (“You can’t serve papers on a rat; you gotta’ kill ‘im or let ‘im be”), tainted only mildly by one instance of a . . . shall we say nuanced view of stealing. My problem--and I fully admit it may be my problem--is that I expected John Wayne to have a somewhat larger presence on the screen, an intensity of a Humphrey Bogart, Orson Wells, or Joseph Cotton. In this film, at least, Wayne was overshadowed by a teenage girl.
Mattie Ross, played by Kim Darby, was resourceful, courageous, and delightful, almost masculine in her single-minded pursuit of justice, but feminine enough to stoke the concerns due damsels in distress. She was bright and bold--a Hermione Granger of the American west--savvy in financial negotiations, intrepid even when caught in the grips of overpowering scoundrels. (Not to mention the grips of a good guy: the Texas Ranger La Boeuf. This character, played by Glen Campbell, in one scene issued a sustained parental spanking upon the bottom of the writhing Mattie, an action that prompts puzzling and somewhat uncomfortable questions about the motives and possible fetishes of this La Boeuf, considering that he had previously flirted with her and, somewhat darkly, threatened both to kiss and spank her. To this threat, Mattie responded with her typical dignified courage: “One would be as unwelcome as the other.”)
On the face of things, of course, Rooster is the character with “grit,” the single quality that Mattie seeks out in him because she is convinced it is the human trait that will deliver justice in her circumstances. She’s right, though in the end, we observe that true grit is in the greatest supply in Mattie herself.

How have I gotten this old and never seen this movie? 

Mattie Ross is a revelation!  As a clearly serious and directed young woman, she is intently focused on catching her father’s killer and bringing him to justice one way or the other.  She looks law men and outlaws in the eyes and asks her questions without apology or allowing a brush off. She is both demanding and unafraid of the actions her demands might place on herself.  We see her acting with tremendous thought and practicality, putting aside her emotions for a time when she can deal with them properly.

Specifically, when she enlists the help of the “meanest” US Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, played by an older John Wayne, Mattie doggedly pursues Cogburn not only to take the job, but further to meet his end of the contract she forced him to sign for payment.  She is intolerant of his drinking, but never a scold. Deep in commerce with a killer bounty hunter, she never loses her perspective; exposed to brutality and murder, she never loses her humanity.

Perhaps due to the short haircut and the fact that I just finished “The Maid” by Kimberley Cutter, I could not help but think of Joan of Arc.  No, Mattie Ross did not lead the French to victory over the English based on voices in her head. Much more importantly, Mattie Ross’s victory over injustice was based solely on her ability to think and reason. She, like Joan, was fearless in the face of her convictions. 

Finally, regarding Mattie’s character, I was also reminder of most of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, but particularly the opening lines:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating, 
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise: 

Mattie did this in spades and was the one with True Grit.

On John Wayne and the other actors in the movie – I’ve loved John Wayne since seeing The Cowboys (1972), but I didn’t so much enjoy watching him as the drunkard Rooster Cogburn.  He seemed really, really old to me which is weird given that The Cowboys was released three years later, and the movie, Rooster Cogburn, with Katharine Hepburn,  three years after that. Also worth noting is a very young Dennis Hopper as the hapless thief, Moon, and a young – not Boo Radley young, but youthful – Robert Duvall as the unrepentant Ned Pepper.  Glen Campell  finely played a secondary character but in a ostensibly primary role.  The made-for-tv western movie music was simply a distraction.

Action Items:
Watch True Grit 2010 and compare.  Watch old John Wayne movies: Island in the Sky, The Sea Chase, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, among others.

Supplementary Details: