Post-Cold War. Movies reviewed: Salt, I Am Love, Countdown to Zero

About 20 years ago, something impossible happened. The Berlin Wall came down, the Eastern Bloc crumbled, the iron curtain was lifted, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Almost half a century of mutually assured destruction, of the never-ending threat of nuclear war, was somehow… finished, and the world let out a collective sigh so enormous, satellite photos show it moved a sand dune in the gobi desert.

The lingering anxiety at the back of everyone’s mind — that some nut in the White House or the Kremlin, in a fit of pique or a moment of panic would press a red button and turn the world to dust, and repeat the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a global scale – that anxiety seemed to disappear. The world was safe again!

So for almost everybody, things seemed to be looking up. Except…except for the movies! How can you make spy movies without the ready-made “us and them” of the cold war, the constant thrust and parry of the two sides in the never ending intrigue of their battle for ideological dominance? Subterfuge, espionage, the arms race, and always, always the threat of nuclear destruction gave cold war movies this background that made them serious and real and scary. Now everyone’s spy movies were for nought. What to do?

This week I’m looking at three movies, each with a very different take on Russia and the post cold war period.

Salt

Dir: Phillip Noyce

“alt is an action/thriller about a CIA agent, Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie), who is accused of being a double agent. A Russian spy walks into the CIA and, just like in the cold war days, says he wants to defect. He claims there was a secret school in the Soviet era, that kidnapped and trained from birth, special sleeper agents who would blend in with the Americans until the moment they are activated. And Salt was one of these agents, old-guard cold-war communist out to assassinate leaders foment nuclear warfare again, to bring things back to the bad old days. The Soviet Union will rise again!

Evelyn denies it, but she knows she has to take the law into her own hands and escape. She says three things to set up the plot:

I didn’t do it! (or did she?)

I’ve been set up! (or was she?)

I have to find my husband.

Her husband is a milquetoast German arachnologist (spider collector), and that part the plot is for sure — she has to find him. Why? I don’t really know, and I just saw the movie. I guess because she loves him.

Meanwhile she’s being pursued by two CIA agents, one, Peabody (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor – the great black British actor from”Kinky Boots” and “Inside Man“) who doesn’t trust her; the other, Ted (played by Liev Schreiber) who does, but still has to bring her in. Toss in a bunch of unsavoury Russians hanging out on the waterfront, a great cathedral scene, some impossible car chases, rooftop jumps and lots of bloody machine-gun shoot outs, and there you have it.

Is she or isn’t she? Not gonna give it away, but suffice it to say, LOTS of holes in the ridiculous plot which doesn’t really hold together. Like her English starts drifting into a Russian accent somewhere in the middle of the movie for no known reason. But never mind. It’s a cold-war redux action movie, lots of fun, but stupid.

(BTW, this movie couldn’t have picked a better time to be released, just a few weeks after that group of undercover Russian spies were discovered to be living and raising families in the States.)

“I am Love”

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

The movie starts with a banquet to honour Edoardo, the patriarch of the immensely wealthy Recchi family, a Milan industrialist who founded his fortune on wartime profits for his textile mills. He’s passing on the business to his heirs. The Trecchi women, all from outside the clan, are also prominent figures, but feel their existence is slightly more precarious. Emma, (wonderfully played Tilda Swinton) the wife of the second generation, flutters around nervously – she’s with the family, but not of the family. She’s actually from the former Soviet Union. Her handsome son, Edoardo, wants to carry on the family’s tradition, while her husband, Tancredo, would rather move it into a post-industrial Italy. And Emma herself feels adrift, with a new name, language, heritage, culture, family. One day, her life changes when, on a trip to San Remo, her eyes catch some Onion domes at a Kremlin-like Russian Orthodox church – and who does she see but her son’s friend, the chef Antonio. Her heart flutters as she takes a step to reclaim her real self, and her real desires.

This is terrific movie to watch. It shows the cold, sterile, but magnificent industrial Milan, the wonderful, fecund countryside nearby. The clothes, the food, the family members and the servants and the shifting relationships, power and identity of all of them. Emma and her sublimated Russian past, the rivalry between father and son for her affections, her daughter cutting herself loose, the longtime friendships with the maid, the Recchi women of three geerations… Wow! So much to take in.

And it’s so amazing looking, with lots of fooling around with camera, recreating the look of early 1970’s Italian movies, with their lush sumptuousness, the slightly smudgy camera-lens, the soft glow of light… along with tons of visual refernces to Japanese films – rain dropping on a pond, insects on a twig… And lots of nice shifts to Emma’s subconscious memories, thoughts and fantasies, but always done visually, not with echo-y voiceovers. Lots of what’s said is off camera, over heard, in the background, or never mentioned – you have to put it together.

“I Am Love” is a simple story, but told so well with great emotional heft. This is a really good movie.

“Countdown to Zero”

Dir: Lucy Walker

is a new documentary on a topic – nuclear warfare — that used to be at the front of everyone’s mnd, but is now nearly forgotten. This movie says: “uh, uh, it’s still very much there, and if you don’t do something about it, we’re all going to die!” And it does its best to scare the bejeezus out of you showing how.

The movie shows some startling old footage of atomic testing, and traces the history of nuclear proliferation. With the Cold War, mutually assured destruction meant that neither side could go ahead with it – any bomb flies, the other side sends there’s off too. But now, the movie says, things are even more precarious. More countries have the bomb, more want it, and with the former Soviet Union in disarray, there all those rich yellowcake ready to be nabbed. There’s a great prison interview with a Russian dude who wanted a Lamboghini or a DeLuxe Buick, and that’s why he was selling uranium to a potential baddy. Luclily he was caught, but all the ones who were caught were caught by chance.

Countdown to zero shows how a bomb is made, who’s after it, how it could be launched – due to stupidity, miscaculation, or madness — and what would happen if it were.

This is a very informative and interesting to watch, especially if you don’t know much about this – lot’s of surprising near misses and near disasters most people ever hear about. But the film is extremely manipulative using repeated images of terrorist attacks followed by similar shots of everyday life in a city – will the terrorists get YOU?? Basically, this is a sheep in wolf’s clothing: a sombre, PBS-style documentary dressed in a Fox News fright wig: Iran! Al Qaeda! P-P-P-Pakistan!!!. The title, Countdown to Zero, sounds like an episode of 24, but what they’re really saying is let’s countdown the number of nuclear warheads to zero instead.

This well made and well-researched documentary is made mainly of archival footage, and the biggest political talking heads there are – Gorbachev, Valery Plame, Oppenheimer, MacNamara, Tony Blair – along with some good animated scenes and a couple amazing new interviews. The thing is – I didn’t walk out of the movie scared of a nuclear holocaust. Disarmament is still a very important issue, I just wished they hadn’t used American fear and paranoia of terrorism as the main reason to support an important cause.

Sorry, Charley. Movies reviewed: She’s Out of my League, The Ghost Writer, The Messenger

Today I ponder whether, in the words of Charley the Tuna, people should look for movies with good taste or movies that taste good.

How do you choose what movie to see, anyway? If you’re like a lot of people, you go because of the actor, the director, the title, or the genre, not because of the movie itself. So it’s:

“Oh – Maggie Gyllenhall is in it. She’s so funny!”

“Hey Scorsese directed this one… Scor-SE-se…!”

“Well, like, I really liked Nightmare on Elm Street, so if Nightmare was good, Nightmare XII must be twelve times better…”

This isn’t irrational behaviour, it actually makes sense to keep choosing something you liked last time, rather than gamble on something new that may not be good.

That’s why we keep getting endless sequels, franchises, movie brands. Those are the McDonald’s movies that taste good… or if not actually good, at least you know what it’s going to be, no surprises. But who wants to spend all their life sucking super-sized pablum through a plastic straw – and miss out on all the hidden old diners, the suburban strip mall roti shops, the Greek bakeries… mmmm… Ok I’ve mangled the food metaphor enough. I‘m hungry. But do you get my point? I’m encouraging movie goers to be a bit more adventurous in their movie choices.

A warning: watch out for the good-taste ones, the “Oscar-bound” unwatchable, PBS-style dreck, where they think the mere hint of an English accent, period costumes, or a tedious biopic plot “based on a true story” is enough to rescue a dull movie. If I have to waste an hour and a half at a crappy movie, I’d rather it’s one that tastes good, not one with good taste.

Out of My League

Dir: Jim Field Smith

First, some junk food: “Out of my League”. I wanted to see this movie because it seemed funny and I like Canadian actor Jay Baruchel. It is directed by a young British comedy guy named Jim Field Smith, and written by the team who will bring us the upcoming dubious comedy “Hot Tub Time Machine”.

Kirk is a meek and nerdy, but nice, guy who works at the airport in Pittsburg with his three high school buddies. He still lives with his parents and pines for his ex-girl friend who dumped him years ago. His friends –Jack a handsome mechanic, Nate, who is married but loves Disney romances, and Stainer (a little like Stiffler from American Pie, but unsuccessful with women) who plays in a Hall and Oates tribute band – his friends like hockey – the Penguins – bowling, and kibitzing, trading barbs with one other. They tell Kirk he’s a moodle – a man-poodle without any self-esteem.

When he meets Molly, a beautiful, rich and successful lawyer-turned-event planner, Kirk can’t believe it when a “ten” like her falls for a five like him. Neither can his family or friends, and they make sure to tell them so. Can this relationship work?

The story’s a bit weak; it’s more of an excuse to say clever things and show funny embarrassing situations. This is a pretty funny movie with lots of good lines and gags. For example, Kirk’s ex-girlfriend doesn’t use air quotation marks, she uses what looks like an air semi-colon. Jay Baruchel is good as Kirk, and TJ Miller as Stainer and Krysten Ritter as Patty, Molly’s cruel side-kick, are both really good. This is a rare comedy in that there are funny female characters, not just guys. The movie’s uneven though — sometimes it’s hilarious, sometimes it’s deadly for long stretches – but it works as a light romantic comedy, with more emphasis on the comedy than the romance.

The Ghost Writer

Dir: Roman Polanski

I chose to see Roman Polanski’s new movie, the Ghost Writer, in the hope that it would be one of his good movies not one of his bad ones.

Tom, played by Ewen McGregor, is a scruffy London writer, who’s single, with no living relative, and no interest in politics. He’s hired to rewrite the memoirs of a past British Prime Minister, a telegenic Tony Blair-type, because the previous ghost writer washed up dead on the beach, and they need someone to fix up the book.

They offer him a very high wage, but it requires him to move to the US, where the ex-PM is living in self-imposed exile on a windy, deserted Atlantic island. Tom enters this fenced-in, high security world as a gormless, naïve hack, but, gradually becomes enmeshed in the strange political morass and shifting alliances of the Prime Minister’s entourage. A possible war scandal surfaces about the Prime Minister’s role in torture and espionage, and with the scandal comes protestors and aggressive reporters. The plot thickens. Tom uncovers some evidence from his employer’s past – but evidence of what? – and transforms himself from a writer into a sort of a detective who’s trying to figure out who’s who and whodunit.

The movie is stark, barren, overcast and spooky, the characters are suspicious liars, afraid of exposure. There are lots of people whispering behind doors, seen through windows, and breaking into rooms to riffle through papers. Security forces and mass-media compete for dominance. In one scene the characters are all glued to a TV screen in the beach house to find out about themselves, when they suddenly see themselves on the screen watching TV, they look up and there’s a news helicopter hovering right outside the picture window! Classic Polanski.

I liked the movie, it isn’t great or perfect – things like the inappropriate plinky glockenspiely music threw me off – but it’s generally beautifully, spookily shot, and well acted, by McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, and Olivia Williams. Even the small roles in the movie are well played, with people like Eli Wallach, Timothy Hutton, and Tom Wilkinson popping up at appropriate moments.

The Messenger

Dir: Oren Moverman

I saw this partly because Woody Harrelson was in it and he usually chooses good movies. This one turned out to be a great movie, but not because of it’s simple story. A plot isn’t enough to carry a movie.

Compare it to “Up in the Air”. That one’s about a man whose job is to tell strangers something they don’t want to hear – in this case, that they’re fired or laid-off. He grudgingly takes a newbie, a much younger woman, under his wing to show her the rules and sensitivities of this odd, alienating and difficult profession, and is forced to deal with the outcomes of what he does, and how it affects his own life.

“The Messenger” is very similar. It’s about a military captain, Woody Harrelson, who’s job is tell strangers something they don’t want to hear – in this case, that their next of kin, a soldier, had just died. He grudgingly takes a newbie, a decorated, injured young officer, played by Ben Foster, under his wing to show him the rules and sensitivities of this odd, alienating and difficult profession, they are forced to deal with the outcomes of what they do, and how it affects their own lives.

So why did “The Messenger” turn out to be such a terrific movie, why did it affect me so strongly, while “Up in the Air”, essentially the same picture, sucked and left me cold?

I think it because “The Messenger” really cared for the story and the characters – they weren’t jokey bit parts shown in quick succession like in “Up in the Air”. They were real people; it took these scenes at a slower pace, and really explored their lives and emotions as encapsulated in moment they realize they’re hearing about death.

There were two or three devastating instances of next-of-kin reactions to the two soldiers’ revelations. The pathos of this movie really hits you hard.

It also follows the relationship of the young soldier and a new widow, Olivia, played by Samantha Morton. She’s the real surprise: Morton’s a British actress, but she is perfect as the young, plain American army wife. With the exception of a bad wedding scene, “The Messenger” is told subtly, without gushing violins, people running to catch a train, or walking hand in hand on a beach sunset.

Good taste, and tastes good.

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