Film Review:- Three Days of the Condor (1975)

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Dir:- Sydney Pollack

Starr:- Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Cliff Robertson

 

Not being a huge Robert Redford fan I have tended to veer away from most of his films, however, recently I’ve been doing a slight reappraisal of the man and his work. While still not willing to rate Redford as an acting great, there are certainly some very good pieces of cinema with his name plastered all over them. In fact up until the middle of the 1970’s Redford was on a roll that had begun with The Chase, back in 1966, and culminated in another paranoid conspiracy thriller All the President’s Men, a decade later.

 

Three Days of the Condor was the espionage thriller that immediately preceded the 1976 classic about Woodward and Bernstein’s journalistic expose of Nixon and Watergate. It features a strong central cast of Redford, Dunaway, von Sydow and Robertson (better known to modern audiences as Uncle Ben in the Spiderman movies) and has the unflashy Hollywood stalwart Sydney Pollack behind the camera. In less assured hands it could have very easily been a run-of-the-mill TV movie, but Pollack’s careful marshalling of tension and economical use of plot make the film a blueprint for great 21st Century thrillers, such as Michael Clayton (which Pollack himself featured in) and the AMC TV series Rubicon (the makers of which claimed to base the look of that show on Condor).

 

Redford plays the ‘Condor’ of the title, a CIA intelligence analyst who looks for patterns in various published material from around the world. Working out of the American Literary Historical Society, a government-front organisation, Redford discovers an odd bit of coded information in a foreign publication and forwards it on to his superiors. Skipping out the back entrance to get lunch for his office colleagues, Redford inadvertently evades a ‘hit’. Returning to the office he finds his colleagues dead and thus rings HQ from the relative safety of a nearby phone booth. However, on ringing the situation in, he begins to realise that far from ensuring his safety, The Company may be trying to shore up some loose ends of a conspiracy, in which he now figures prominently.

 

The late-sixties and early seventies saw an explosion in paranoid conspiracy thrillers, from Frankenheimer’s masterwork Seconds, through to Pakula’s The Parallax View and James Bridges’ The China Syndrome (not forgetting the aforementioned Pakula effort All the President’s Men). In many ways it was as if the rapidity with which the optimism of the early hippy movement had given way to bitter and biting cynicism, had contributed to a more politicised form of Hollywood moviemaking. Figures like Heston, Redford, Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda certainly seemed to be freighting much of their own personal politics into the movies they created during this period. Redford’s earnest liberalism informed movies like Brubaker, The Candidate and All the President’s Men. In Three Days of the Condor the political machinations within the CIA remain partly obscured, seemingly being the result of one man’s self-interest. Yet unlike other movies of the time it also suggests the slippage in intelligence gathering, that leads the viewer to conclude that far from the CIA being the all-seeing, all-knowing eye in the sky, it is in fact a divided organisation that isn’t ever quite sure what the right and left hands are doing. The frightening proposition that comes out of the film is that the intelligence agencies know just enough to be dangerous, but not quite enough to be effective.

 

What is crucial to the success of Three Days of the Condor is the inscrutable atmosphere of dread and threat that it establishes. So much of the movie is actively observed from the perspective of a surveillance operation, particularly the opening and closing sequences. Pollack is sophisticated enough to imply the culture of deception and subterfuge in unusual moments that other filmmakers might have shied away from as unnecessary. One of the most intriguing choices the filmmaker decides upon is the inclusion of Faye Dunaway as a blossoming love interest. Despite the fact that Redford appears to be a rather nebbish and bookish individual, he still musters up enough smarts to abduct Dunaway and hideout in her apartment. The weird romance that develops between them, with its undercurrents of violence, intimidation and deliberate restraint is quite unique within the genre. Dunaway’s character is a photographer and in a highly poetic sequence Redford becomes unsettled by the absence of people in the frames of her pictures, suggesting that it reminds him of November. Such understated allusions underpin the explosions of violence, stretching the tension to breaking point and suggesting a whole unexplored universe within these character’s lives.

 

Way ahead of films like The Bourne Identity in the realism it attempts to apply to the fantastical thriller elements of the plot, Pollack is also at pains to show Dunaway’s genuine distress at encountering a dead body in her livingroom (a trick that would resurface with Franke Potente’s vomiting in Bourne). It also manages to utilise the rundown majesty of New York’s mid-seventies urban sprawl to full effect, as well as combining the impressive cityscapes with a chilly, cold, grey and bleak late autumnal atmosphere throughout. As much as Pollack wasn’t really known for his technical ingenuity, there is a lot to be admired in the quick-splice editing of Redford and Dunaway’s love scene, that evokes an emotionless version of the powerful scene from Don’t Look Now, further enhancing the sense of isolation and alienation that swarms around the central character. A final mention must be made of the splendid Mackintosh-clad turn from Max von Sydow, as the businesslike assassin Joubert. Even in the worst of films von Sydow offers a touch of class, but here, his almost silent performance creates some of the most spine-tingling moments in the movie. One of the defining scenes in the film, and perhaps one of the best scenes of its kind, is an elevator sequence in which Redford becomes gradually cognisant of what the audience are already well aware of, namely that von Sydow spells immediate danger. The brutal tension in the full three minutes of this sequence is unremitting and almost uncomfortably out of proportion to the rest of the film.

 

Overall Three Days of the Condor is among the very best movies that Redford has featured in. It has a sharp and clever script, that frequently references the likes of noir writers such as Hammett, as well as delving into the many euphemisms utilised within the ‘intelligence’ community, where so many conversations appear to be about the weather and the delivery of packages. Pollack also shows an engaging fascination with much of the early hi-tech surveillance gadgetry, much like Coppola in The Conversation, although he does fall foul of the unfortunate Hollywood habit of finding an officious Englishman to hang the worst of the plot’s atrocities upon.

Film Review:- Melancholia (2011)

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Dir:- Lars Von Trier

Starr:-  Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt

Lars Von Trier is one of the great cinematic con artists. Having managed to make his latest gloomily entitled movie the toast of the croisette back in May, the audience for this apocalyptic piece of miserabilism swelled to multiplex proportions. Little were most of us to be aware that Melancholia was just another testing instalment in Von Trier’s ongoing practical joke of a directorial career, although perhaps potential viewers should have spent a little more time reflecting on his brazen self-publicity stunts as an indicator of exactly how low he’d allowed the quality level to go. Even in Von Trier’s most flagrantly irritating moments, Dancer in the Dark, Manderlay, The Boss of it All, he has still been able to engage the viewer with lavishly arranged and intriguingly rendered imagery. With Melancholia it appears as if the trier in Von Trier has finally given up. Perhaps the only thing of any merit that can be said about this stultifyingly dull and insipid film is that it offers the mildly novel opportunity to experience being bored to the end of the world.

Clearly Vicodin and Prozac have been the key sources of inspiration in this dirge-like dance of interplanetary death, as that is the only adequate explanation for some of the blandest visuals of the director’s lengthy career. Lars has never been one for structuring an intricate and engaging script, a tendency for abstract and pretentious dialogue often sitting uncomfortably alongside some of the most clichéd of plot arcs this side of Romanticism, however, with Melancholia he seems to divest himself even of the rawness of inspired improvisation. If Dunst mouthed her dreary nihilistic diatribe in your average lobotomised Hollywood blockbuster (Spiderman 3, perhaps) it would rightly be seen as the torpid, lifeless and redundant piece of prose it actually is. Yet my personal fear is that with Von Trier’s art-film by-the-numbers some amongst the audience may mistake this for philosophical or poetic profundity (remember Von Trier has namechecked his Nietzsche).

Why do I keep on returning to Von Trier? I often find myself pondering this question in the aftermath of yet another disappointing cinematic offering. Alas, some filmmakers I excuse their very worst sins (Welles, Scorsese, Herzog, Wenders) because they have created at least one work of such unparalleled and staggering beauty that it is impossible for me to accept such an offering as a fluke. Unlike many a critic I was not easily won over by Breaking the Waves, a movie that seemed almost cut-out in its crude characterisation, succeeding only through the amount of energy Emily Watson invested into her performance in the lead role. The publicity and critical attention the Dogme’95 manifesto attracted was utterly disproportionate to the quality of the movies that adhered to its rather too fluid criteria. Of the movies Von Trier himself directed post-Dogme, only Dogville and The Five Obstructions have been unqualified successes. It is this latter film that I consider to be the director’s finest work, managing to be structurally groundbreaking, whilst training that uncomfortable, or discomfiting, mischievousness that is constantly informing the focus of his lens, first upon his cinematic mentor (Jørgen Leth) and then, more surprisingly, upon himself. For me it stands as one of the finest films about filmmaking ever made, as well as being one of the most intriguing approaches to cinematic autobiography you might expect to see. Part of the movies power undoubtedly stems from Von Trier’s deliberate renunciation of authorial control, something that, when he selects the right restraints, seems to sharpen his filmmaking talents. Unfortunately no such restraints are in evidence in the bloated, ineffectual mess of a movie that is Melancholia.

The plot, as it can barely be considered, revolves around two sisters whose strained familial and sibling relationships come to a head at Justine’s (played by Kirsten Dunst) wedding and then are reconciled under the duress of an impending planetary apocalypse at the older sister Claire’s (another Von Trier turn by Charlotte Gainsbourg) countryside manor house. The wedding is meant to be an unbearable and pompous affair, full of the needling hatreds of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, yet it plays out like a truly tedious mockery of that movie, with a number of wasteful cameo turns from the likes of Skarsgård Senior, Hurt and Rampling (who at least makes her bitterness biting). Dunst’s performance throughout the movie forms a fathomless black hole, that left me wishing for Kiefer Sutherland to promptly transform into Jack Bauer and ‘interrogate’ her out of her somnambulant slitherings. Sutherland, as a typically vague Von Trier rendering of a monied man, was all overbearing logic and golfing arrogance, yet in spite of this his performance was one of the few encouraging points amongst the lead performers. Gainsbourg, who inexplicably continues to return to Von Trier, delivers another delicately dissembling performance, but I longed to see her presented with some dialogue, some material, actually worthy of her considerable talents.

Von Trier appeared to be aiming for grandiosity, a heady brew of arch-Romanticism and decadent misery, replete with ornate renderings of painterly scenes (the ridiculous Dunst blue-bathed nude nymph sequence) and Wagner soundtracked portentous tableaux. Yet, much like Terence Malick’s far more ambitious The Tree of Life, the movies epic scale was somewhat reduced by the myriad failings of dialogue, plot and story. At least with Malick’s work we were left with moments of breathtaking beauty, in amongst the silliness. Von Trier doesn’t even leave his audience with that, with perhaps only the aerial shots of the sisters out horse-riding proving in any way visually stimulating. Splitting the movie into two distinct halves, named after each sister, served no real purpose, particularly as the first section of the movie meanders its way through the most uninteresting sequence of non-events I have ever witnessed anyone try to consign to celluloid. The seeming randomness of such things as a bean-counting game might compel the viewer to think of the ending to Casablanca and the ultimate futility of existence. Once again though such vaunted sentiments would require a little more in the way of aesthetic stimulation to even begin to be properly evoked. By the time Von Trier has dragged his audience into the little house of sticks at the films close, there has already been a strong affinity established between each audience member and Udo Kier’s cameo as a pernickety and melodramatic wedding planner, a desire, nay an impulse, to place a hand in front of one’s eyes shielding oneself from the abject horror of an utterly pointless piece of film. As the rumbling planet Melancholia (how crass) careers into Earth and all sound diminishes, I was sure that I heard the faintly audible sound of Lars Von Trier’s rectum pressing out the air from an over-inflated whoopee cushion.

Film Review:- Drive (2011)

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Dir:- Nicholas Windig Refn

Starr:- Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brookes, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks

With so much excellent dramatic content surfacing on television at the moment cinema is looking an increasingly moribund artistic medium. It is left to geekish stylists like the Danish-American filmmaker Refn to fill the void vacated by the vast majority of ‘independent’ auteurs over the last fifteen years. Rewind to the mid-90’s and it looked as if cinema was in impossibly rude health, with Steve Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino bringing the ‘independent’ sensibilities of Jarmusch, Lynch and Spike Lee into the heart of the mainstream. Much as the late 60’s and early 70’s ‘independent’ American cinema eventually spawned a generation of talent that would make the ‘blockbuster’ a preferred studio vehicle, so the late 70’s and 80’s ‘new-wave’ reaction inspired the calculated cinematic cool of Tarantino and the endless self-referentiality of Soderbergh. Just as ‘indie’ film seemed to be an omnipresent feature of any money-hoovering studio release roster, cinema entered the economic spiral from which it is still struggling to emerge. Around the turn of the century it became increasingly difficult for young filmmakers to find avenues for cinematic expression outside of the hothoused studio conventionalism of Hollywood. More money was being generated, but from fewer pictures, with studios seeming increasingly reluctant to finance anything that didn’t have the requisite ‘pull’ of a big star, or a SFX gimmick, and very few features being made at all outside of the Hollywood/Bollywood film factories. In this environment a director of Refn’s visual prowess may look as visionary as a Tarkovsky, or as stylish and coolly cerebral as a Kubrick.

Whilst nowhere near as powerful as intricate cinematic masterworks like The Mirror or Barry Lyndon, Drive’s synthetic, plastic, retro charms are without a doubt a challenge to the rest of North American and European cinema. Populating his fragmented Los Angeles urban sprawl with notable small-screen performers, such as Cranston (star of the superb Breaking Bad) and Hendricks (one of the many excellent qualities to be found in AMC’s Mad Men), whilst disinterring the likes of Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman from their usual smartmouthed, wise-cracking support turns, Refn has critically insulated his extremely capable star coupling of Gosling and Mulligan, making it almost impossible for their performances to fail. Gosling, in particular, as the laconic unnamed Driver, delivers a performance that channels the very best elements of Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen, reminding us of just how promising a talent he was when he first broke onto the scene in The Believer. Despite intermittent performances of subtlety and craft in the intervening decade (Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl) there has also been a lot of overblown nonsense clogging up his CV (Fracture, Murder by Numbers, The Notebook). Hopefully this movie (which looks set to mark the start of a rewarding period of collaboration with Refn) is the better indicator of which way Gosling’s career is headed, rather than the askew ‘dramedy’ of Crazy, Stupid Love. Likewise, Mulligan, who was simply exceptional in An Education, further reinforced the impression, that alongside Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre, In Treatment), she will be at the vanguard of the Hollywood A-List for decades to come.

The movie seems to be almost timeless, with only a few technological references confirming that events are occurring in present-day LA. Refn enhances this sense of period drift by incorporating a primarily retro-sounding, synth-heavy soundtrack and wrapping the film up in the garish neon titling of mid-80’s works like Miami Vice and Footloose. The magpie aesthetic of modern Hollywood filmmakers is very much in evidence, with Michael Mann, Monte Hellman, Joseph Sargent, Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah all being touchstones for the tone, look and feel of Drive. However, aside from the Mann-like clinical framing and pacing and a Hellmanesque obsessive visual detailing of cars in motion, the movies that it seems to owe the largest debts to are Richard C. Sarafian’s 1971 cult-classic Vanishing Point and the French neo-noir Le Samourai by Jean-Pierre Melville. Whereas Refn’s 2008 feature Bronson, starring Tom Hardy, seemed to revel in the paradox of the central character’s disconcertingly organised (and seemingly ponintless) eruptions of chaos and violence, Drive is a much more restrained, and hybrid, beast.

Gosling’s Driver is a stuntman and a professional getaway driver, who carries out both jobs with a control, meticulousness and precision that belies the risk and danger that they involve. There are reservoirs of rage and violence held deep in check within Gosling, that seep out as if being pressed from an ancient wound that will never heal. A man that requires such perfection and attention to detail in his everyday work has clearly been deprived of necessary structure at some crucial stage in his development. Do not expect Refn to signpost any easy pop-psychology for you though, as the Driver remains as impenetrable as Delon’s hitman, or Eastwood’s more mystic Western roles. During his first encounters with Irene and her son, who live next door to him, Gosling’s wilful, yet benign, silences seem to push certain scenes to the very limit of awkward tension, whilst increasing the enigmatic allure of the central character. Oddly the Driver and Irene never seem to fully consummate their relationship, with Gosling, despite his violent threat, appearing almost asexual and childlike, particularly in his interactions with Irene’s young son.

Bryan Cranston plays Shannon who acts as both father-figure/mentor and exploiter-in-chief toward his sullen young charge. Perhaps the most strongly realised relationship in the movie, alongside Brooks’ and Perlman’s  ‘Odd Couple’ business partnership, Cranston’s nervous energy and eagerness to please complements Gosling’s inward-reaching performance. Brooks and Perlman deserve a mention for inhabiting roles that we seldom see them drift into. Perlman’s doltish Mafioso is all lumbering heft and physical animal threat, whilst Brooks, so good at comically raging against the cosmos, here inhabits the coldly calculating numbers man Bernie Rose so convincingly that it is hard to believe nobody has thought of him for such a role before.

The film, with its pared down and lean narrative structure, barely wastes a scene and yet never seems to be rushed. Refn should be commended for demonstrating, against the current Hollywood trend, that a film need not be stretching to two hours, or more, to rival television in dramatic complexity or narrative power. In fact with its frequently ingenious chase sequences and disarmingly violent action sequences, the movie seems to fulfil Refn’s requirement of blending the sexual and the violent almost seamlessly, so that the two layers of tension are drawn tightly together around the small, fragile lives that are at the heart of the drama. Films like Drive  reawaken the pleasure of the cinematic experience within you. Forget the bovine 3D CGI gimmickry of Avatar, it is for movies like Drive that the cinema is ideally suited. A heist film that turns LA into a claustrophobic purgatory out of which seemingly no-one can escape, Drive is one of the most satisfying films of the year. Refn frequently amps up the hideous, unswerving tension by utilising expressive sound (the creaking leather of the Driver’s gloves, the distinct modulations in engine noise, the deafening sounds of close range gunfire) in a fetishistic fashion that locks the audience into the clearly defined parameters of this seductive, yet uncompromising, narrative world, till it has a velvet-gloved vice-like grip upon your jugular.