Neely Recommends

“Our Kind of Traitor,” Hossein Amini’s brilliant adaptation of John LeCarré’s novel directed by Susanna White, is breathtaking in every sense of the word from first moment to last.

Opening on a dancer in mid-aerial pirouette, impossibly muscled, impossibly athletic, impossibly daring, White establishes her plot and characters immediately with this metaphoric solo.

While wives and children enjoy the performance, the male hierarchy of a sophisticated corporation are conducting their own balancing act in a private room at the Moscow Ballet to witness the transfer of assets from one member to the leader who presents a family heirloom, a pearl handled gun, to the loyal employee. Later that evening, returning from Moscow with his wife and daughter, the loyal employee will be executed and the gun returned to its owner. This is but the beginning of a betrayal that will set in motion actions that will eventually resonate all the way to the highest offices in Great Britain.

In Marrakesh, Perry, a London University poetry professor, and his stunning wife Gail, a successful barrister, are attempting, somewhat unsuccessfully, to rekindle their romance. Distracted and simultaneously amused and annoyed by the raucous party of Russians at a nearby table, they argue and Gail abruptly leaves. Dima, the loudest and most outrageous of the group spontaneously asks Perry to join them. Intrigued, the rather withdrawn Perry uncharacteristically agrees and is instantly drawn into a white night of Chateau Petrus, beautiful women, and Russian Mafiosi. Witnessing an assault, Perry courageously, albeit foolishly, throws himself against the gigantic tattooed rapist. Coming to his rescue is Dima who, having reassessed the milquetoast Perry, begs a favor. He is the self-proclaimed biggest money launderer in the world; the “accountant” for the Russian Mafia run by a man known as the Prince Nicolas Petrov and he is willing to turn over all the information he has so he can gain asylum for himself and his family. The Prince, with assistance from corrupt British politicians will soon be opening a branch of his international bank in London thereby increasing his money laundering resources enormously. In the next several weeks he will be asked to sign over all the accounts he holds to the Prince and, Dima knows, it is his death warrant just as it was for his predecessor. He hands Perry a memory stick and asks him to get it to MI-6.

The normally cautious Perry agrees, shielding Gail from this information. But protecting Gail was for naught as they both end up being caught in a net by Hector, an upper level MI-6 section leader. Soon Perry and the resentful Gail are immersed in a web of intrigue, vengeance, petty politics and murder that takes them from London to Paris to Bern and hidden locations in the Alps. Civilian operatives recruited by Hector, they are unaware that he is running an unsanctioned operation that has more than a whiff of personal agenda. The former head of his section, Aubry Longrigg, successfully eluded corruption charges brought by Hector and in return made sure that Hector suffered a personal tragedy. It is Longrigg who is suspected of fronting the Prince’s operation in London. Betrayal and danger is around every corner but Perry and eventually Gail will do all they can against unwinnable odds to save the outrageously endearing Dima and his family.

This is classic LeCarré territory and Amini has adapted a book that many believed to have been one of the writer’s finest since the end of the Cold War. What makes Amini’s work so extraordinary is that he has been able to make it so cinematic, one in which the settings become characters whether it is the Moscow Ballet or the Swiss Alps, they all are part of the interaction between events and the pawns acting out the chess game in progress, for in LeCarré, everyone is a pawn hopelessly trudging to the inevitable fall of the edge of the board.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this film is how the construction is rooted in films of the 1930s and 40s. Consider, for example, “The Ministry of Fear” and “The Third Man,” films based on Graham Greene’s novels where the previously non-committal, ordinary everyman is thrown into a nefarious plot of intrigue and must rise to the occasion to save mankind, or at least something to that extent. The classic Hitchcock films “Foreign Correspondent,” “The Man Who Knew too Much” “The Lady Vanishes” and “The 39 Steps” are but a few among his many that follow that basic plot line. Do it well and it is something new to be discovered again and Susanna White and Hossein Amini have done “Our Kind of Traitor” very very well.

Attention must be paid to Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography. An Academy Award winner for “Slumdog Millionaire,” Mantle’s camera captures the heat and decadent beauty of Marrakesh, the punctiliousness of ministerial London, and the terror of the night and cold beauty of the day in Switzerland, all important background players in this tale of conspiracy and collusion. 

In equal importance to the brilliant direction and writing of “Our Kind of Traitor” is the impeccable casting of the film. White has masterfully put together a group who are as effective with silence as they are with dialogue. Leading the ensemble, whose whole ends up being actually greater than the marvelous parts, is Ewan McGregor adding another believable everyman to his already deep reserve that includes memorable parts in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” and “Ghost Writer.” McGregor makes you ache for his flaws and pull for his small victories. Playing opposite him is the beautiful Naomie Harris as Gail whose counterpoint sharpness to McGregor’s softness makes her gradual melting all the more believable. That White relied on seamless colorblind casting for this role increased the depth of the performance.

The always interesting Damian Lewis rides the razor sharp edge of villain and hero very effectively. Jeremy Northam in the small but pivotal role of the corrupt politician communicates his upper class supercilious superiority and invincibility with a minimum of dialogue. Everyone else is marvelous but sharing the lead with McGregor is the wonderful Stellan Skarsgaard as the over-the-top Dima. Skarsgaard becomes one with the scenery-chewing, larger than life, too much of everything Dima and brings John LeCarré’s character to life and then some. Whatever your feelings about Skarsgaard’s interpretation of this role, it will be impossible not to embrace him.

Go see this film as an antidote to the adolescent tentpoles arriving at the multiplexes; go see this film because of the intrigue, thrills, and exciting performances, but go see this excellent film.

Opening Friday July 1 at the Landmark 12, Burbank Town Center 8, Town Center 5 in Encino and the Playhouse 7 Cinemas in Pasadena

“Phoenix,” Christian Petzold’s allegorical story set in post-war Germany, is almost indescribably deep, layered and complex. Adapted from the poorly regarded French novel Le Retour des Cendres (Return from the Ashes), Petzold, writing with Harun Farocki has constructed a metaphor for Germany and the German people as they struggled to deal with their post-war guilt and complicity in the extermination of the Jews.

Shot and left for dead as the Nazis were retreating from the concentration camps, Nelly returns to Berlin under the care of her best friend Lene. The plastic surgeon assigned to her, echoing the unspoken thoughts of too many German citizens of the time, pointedly asks, “You’re a Jewess. Why did you come back?” Nelly is genuinely perplexed by that question as she never self-identified as a Jew, making the tragedy that befell her in the camps all the more difficult for her to grasp.

Shot, scarred and horribly disfigured under the bloody bandages adorning her head, the doctor gives her a choice of faces for her re-creation. Nelly will have none of it; she wants her old face back. If she doesn’t look like herself, how will her beloved husband Johnny recognize her? Lene, whose job is to locate survivors and tally the dead from catalogues left behind by the Nazis, is distressed. Johnny is not who Nelly believes him to be. It was actually he who betrayed her. He is, as she tries to explain to an obtuse Nelly, a traitor. It’s 1946 and Lene believes they should focus only on the future and that future lies in what is now Palestine but will soon be Israel. Nelly’s money, for she has inherited vast wealth from all the relatives who perished in the Holocaust, would help build a new life in the new Jewish state. It would be a fresh start, one needed as badly by Lene as it should be by Nelly for Lene suffers from survivor’s guilt having spent the entire war in England, safe from the horrors of Germany. But Nelly, still living in the past, does not believe her friend and sets out to find Johnny, convinced her husband truly loves her as she loves him.

Nelly, a singer in her pre-war life, locates him in a night club, the Phoenix, where, no longer a pianist, he performs menial tasks. Tellingly, he is now known by the more Germanic name Johannes and he doesn’t recognize Nelly as his former wife, devastating her. But he recognizes a vague resemblance and proposes a scheme to her that will net both of them a great deal of money. His wife, he explains, perished in the camps and her fortune lays unclaimed. She looks enough like his former wife to fool the authorities if he tutors her in her manners and teaches her to forge Nelly’s handwriting. Once he is satisfied with her progress, he will stage her return as a survivor of the camps, using mutual friends as his witnesses. He and she will split the money and go their separate ways. Still besotted, she goes along with the scheme believing that his motives born of desperation will eventually give way to the love they had. With each reconstruction of a part of Nelly’s past from Johnny’s point of view, she finds herself being reborn as herself, a self that was lost in the camps and that is intimately tied to her past with Johnny,  

This is no “Random Harvest,” a romantic film of the 1940s where a man suffers a blow that results in amnesia and his frantic wife sets about recreating episodes of their past life to reawaken him. Johnny needs no reawakening because both his past and present actions are not those of a man in love. For whatever reason he chose to betray Nelly in the past, his present betrayal is as profound. This is film noir in both subject matter and cinematography. Nelly is almost always seen in shadow, in darkness despite the light around her. Her life is that darkness and try as she will, she cannot seem to get the cloud to lift. Her optimism about her future is on a collision course with her past and Petzold’s pacing and style propel this story forward like a thriller told with the accompaniment of Nelly’s favorite song, “Speak Low,” whose lyrics mirror the path her love story will take - “Love is a spark, lost in the dark.”  

More importantly, though, Petzold has used the story of Nelly and her continued betrayal by Johnny as a metaphor for Germany’s inability to see the future consequences of past bad acts. The war is over; we lost; we’ll pay monetary reparations; what else do you want? Philosophically for decades to come, the wartime generation refused to acknowledge complicity with the Nazis. The return of the few remaining Jews was an embarrassment, a tangible reminder of a time they would prefer to forget. Johnny’s survival, like that of post-war Germany, was based on denial and inuring himself to the truth. Like the question facing Nelly at the beginning, is the fate of the country in re-creating itself or reconstructing what it was? For too many years, reconstruction was the goal. It was not until the presidency of Richard von Weizacker (1984-1994) that a collective clear-eyed position began to be expressed. As he said, “He who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the future.” Von Weizacker, under whose presidency the reunification of the two Germanys occurred, also said, “All of us, whether guilty or not, whether old or young, must accept the past. It is not a case of coming to terms with the past. That is not possible. It cannot be subsequently modified or undone… There cannot be any reconciliation without remembrance.” This is the story that Petzold tells through Nelly, Lene and Johnny.

Superbly acted, there are basically no weaknesses. Nina Hoss as Nelly is haunting, desperate and obtuse, until she is no longer. Nina Kunzendorf as Lene tragically imparts the difficulty of remaining stalwart while suffering the irremediable guilt of living. And Ronald Zehrfeld as Johnny bears the largest burden because he represents the psyche of an entire country, showing occasional signs of remorse and awareness that he successfully covers with denial and the continued need to survive on the entrails of victims. “Phoenix” is an ironic title for the film for no one, as it turns out, rises from these ashes; they instead only create more. Like the country, it will be a long time before any of them will be able to face those ashes and accept them before rising again.

The cinematography is light and shadow, mirroring the story being told. The production design evokes the broken Berlin of 1946, battered, bombed and treacherous. The score by Stefan Will is evocatively melancholy and the choice of songs, all by German exile Kurt Weil, reflect the tragic course of the story.

But it is the direction and writing that make this as perfect a film as may be possible to make. For as surely as the story was marching to what may have seemed like an inevitable end, the final shot is perhaps the most devastating punctuation mark ever.

Do not miss this film. I saw it twice and will, in all likelihood, view it again.

Find it on Netflix. In German with English subtitles.

"Supremacy" - A game of chess played out in black and white. Deon Taylor’s surprisingly resonant and deceptively deep film Supremacy comes at you with a hammer and ends up filleting you with a scalpel. Taylor, working with Eric J. Adams’ excellent  script, comes out of left field, or more precisely, the low budget horror genre,  to tell the allegedly true tale of Garrett Tully (a cursory internet search turned up no results for a criminal of that name). Tully, a card carrying member of the Aryan Brotherhood has been picked up outside the prison walls following his release after serving 15 years.  Doreen, the groupie girlfriend of Tully’s mentor, the incarcerated Aryan Brotherhood kingpin Sobecki, has instructions to take him to Bakersfield where Tully will do Sobecki’s bidding. It was Tully’s understanding that funds would be forthcoming. This is news to Doreen who claims to have enough to get them gas and dinner. Enraged, Tully robs the first store they come to and together he and Doreen proceed on their trip. And therein lays the hitch. Soon after, they are stopped by an African American cop.  Tully whose sense of justice and inviolability is offended by the mere existence of African Americans, let alone cops, lets fly with invectives before emptying his gun into the police officer.

Without support, alone on back roads and now hunted by every agency in the surrounding region, they target a house and invade.  It is a mutual worst nightmare as the home is occupied by the extended African American family of a woman, teenage son, her daughter, two grandchildren and her companion, the taciturn Mr. Walker. Tully and Doreen, spewing hate and the direct threat of violence, are in complete command of the situation as they contemplate their next move. This move will be complicated by the house to house search being conducted by the police, one of whom is the estranged son of Mr. Walker. 

The plot, whether factual or not, is interesting enough but the psychological aspects explored between hunter and hunted are what keeps the viewer riveted. Taylor very effectively explores the themes of hate, race, isolation and fear in what could have been a cliché of the psychological crime drama. There are no wasted moments as layers of veneer are peeled off the primary characters of Tully, Doreen and the mysterious Mr. Walker who shares more in common with Tully than just time in prison. 

Danny Glover, an actor of the first tier who always brings more to his roles than is usually on the page, gives a superb performance. Walker is a man whose bitterness and failures have constructed a wall to shield himself from any human emotion, something noted and resented by his companion’s children.   Quietly angry as Mr. Walker, Glover’s character gradually progresses from a taciturn figure in the corner to the overwhelming presence who will not allow his adversary to diminish him or those around him.

Dawn Olivieri as Doreen was a major surprise. Although a recurring character on “House of Lies” this season, her credits, and they are many, rarely ever reached the level of supporting. In some cases, good looks without headliner status are often a negative. Certainly there is nothing in Olivieri’s career to indicate that she had the kind of depth she exhibits in this film. Taylor effectively uses her extraordinary  beauty as a juxtaposition to the character’s ugly beliefs and behavior.

The other supporting actors are, for the most part, quite good. Among them Lela Rochon, a stunner in her youth who has not been seen on film as often as she deserved. As the companion of Mr. Walker and fierce matriarch of the family she is the glue coming undone; Evan Ross as her eldest son positively exhales the testosterone and anger of a post-adolescent without prospects; and Anson Mount in a short scene as Sobecki in charge of the Aryan Brotherhood is a commanding presence. Derek Luke, usually exceptional, plays the estranged son and local police officer. He is, unfortunately, trapped in a role that is perfunctorily written. 

But it is on the shoulders of Joe Anderson as Tully that this film succeeds or fails. He is brilliant in the kind of role at which he has previously excelled.  A standout in another excellent independent film A Single Shot, Anderson played Obadiah who, as described in my review of that film, was “as nasty, creepy and revolting a villain as one could ask for. Just watching him on screen makes you want to bathe in disinfectant.” But in Supremacy Anderson is given the chance to exhibit nuance, growth and the self-awareness of a pathetic individual who discovers that a pot of piss doesn’t turn into gold even if the color is yellow. 

 Don’t miss it on VOD, now playing on a television near you. 

“Blancanieves,” the new fairy tale-based film written and directed by Pablo Berger is a little bit of a lot of things, but in the end, not enough; much like the Diana Krall song “I know a little bit about a lot of things, but I don’t know a lot about you.” There is a wicked stepmother, Encarna, played deliciously over-the-top by Maribel Verdú; a sweetly bland Snow White, Sofía Oria as Carmencita; and of course there are dwarves, although only 6 rather than 7.

Curiously produced as a silent film (with title cards) in glorious black and white, Berger’s choice of style is neither as original nor as compelling as Hazanavicius’s time and topic-specific use of black and white silence in “The Artist.” Berger’s retrospective use of the silent film perhaps serves to emphasize the Grand Guignol aspects of his story, but it doesn’t seem to be an as fundamentally necessary use of the medium as “The Artist” was. All that aside, however, the lack of sound does underscore the dramatic moments and visual impact with the lushness of music written by Alfonso de Vilallonga.

Set in a time specific era in Seville, this is a once-upon-a-time tale of a dashing bullfighter named Antonio (the handsome and soulful Daniel Giménez Cacho) who was the toast of the town with his wife, the famous dancer known far and wide as Carmen (a briefly seen Macarena Garcia). Tragedy compounds tragedy when the handsome bullfighter suffers a near fatal goring that puts him a wheelchair. Witnessing the event, a pregnant Carmen goes into a premature labor and dies giving birth to their daughter Carmencita. Grieving the death of his beloved wife, Antonio cannot bear to see the child he blames for her death and banishes her to the care of her grandmother. In his weakened and suffering state, he falls prey to the beautiful and scheming nurse, Encarna, who wants nothing more than hi wealth and standing; she will stop at nothing to get it.

When the beloved grandmother of Carmencita dies, she is sent to her father’s estate to live under the thumb of Encarna who assigns her Cinderella-like tasks, all the while forbidding visits between father and daughter. But such forbidden visits only intrigue the child further and are easily circumvented as Encarna is busy carrying on an affair with her chauffeur. Discovering their betrayal, Encarna dispatches with her inconvenient husband sending him careening down the stairs, channeling Tommy Udo in “Kiss of Death.” She sends Carmencita off with the chauffeur, a stand-in for the huntsman, who bungles the job of killing her and leaves her to be discovered by a roving band of dwarves who ply their comedic trade as distractions in the 3rd rate bullrings found in the hinterlands. What they soon discover about their amnesiac ward is that she has inherited her mother’s grace and her father’s talent in the corrida de toros. With their beautiful ward in hand, now billed as Blancanieves, they storm the countryside. A collision of good and evil is sure to result.

Berger freely takes elements of the fairy tale and twists and turns them to attempt a surreal mash-up of the seven deadly sins that both beauty and evil. In wanting “Blancanieves” to be his everything, a silent film with Almodovar-style twists, Dali’s chaos and Buñuel’s ambiguity, he has ended up with none of the above. Part of the fault may lie in the overly slow pacing that lingered too long on Carmencita’s early life or the deliberate lack of character development accorded Encarna, an only occasionally effective comic relief, turning a lusty evil mistress of the dark into a cartoon playing in a different field than everyone else and lessening the dramatic impact of actions that should be fraught.

Despite my many admonishments, however, this is not a bad film; it’s just not a very good one. There are so many “almosts” that Berger’s inability to excel in any of them is particularly frustrating. The cinematography (Kiko de la Rica) is often stunning but its brightness and lack of shading and shadowing seems to indicate that “Blancanieves” was filmed in color and then taken to black and white in the studio. And certainly the attempt to translate the fairy tale into a modern day morality play of heightened emotion does occasionally work, but it is the sporadic nature of this success that ultimately leads the viewer perplexed and frustrated.

Opening Friday March 29 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and in New York at the Angelika.

Quote

"Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision."

- Salvador Dali

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