Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey

One Small Step for Intercultural Relations, One Giant Leap
toward Your Dinner Bill
                  
 Review by Ken Burke            The Hundred-Foot Journey
                    
A gourmet-culture-clash occurs when an Indian family moves to the French countryside to open a restaurant right across the road from Helen Mirren’s haughty establishment.

Before we get to this review, first things first!  My once-and-future-writing-partner/theatre critic/talented actor, Pat Craig, and his superb-journalist/creative-craftswoman wife, Kelly Gust, are leaving our Northern California bastion to move even further north, beyond Seattle close to the Canadian border, so I wish them well on the move and in their new home.  It’ll be hard to maintain this blog without Pat’s constant contributions—oh, wait, he hasn’t made any yet—and now it’ll be harder for me to get copy from him because he won’t be close enough to drive it over anymore—oh, yeah, the Internet … which works just as well from Dublin, CA as it does from the wild woods of Washington State—but I still appreciate Pat for being willing to inaugurate this site with me back in December 2011 and hope that if he doesn’t find himself too busy again with promoting the live-theatre-community of the Pacific Northwest that he might someday be able to contribute his opinions on the world of cinema so that you don’t have to just listen to me all of the time.  I look forward (as do we all) to hearing from you, Pat, whenever you can.  (We’re going to keep the Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark name, though, because One Guy in the Dark just sounds a bit too creepy—although it might increase the readership numbers tenfold until they realize what they’re reading about.  OK, now on with the review.)
               
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting (please note that Two Guys critic Ken Burke is a bit odd—in more ways than one—using a 5-star-rating-system but rarely going to the level of 4 ½ or 5 stars, reserving those rankings for films that have been or should be acknowledged as time-honored masterpieces so that a 4 is about the best you can hope for from star-stingy Ken).  But we ask you to be aware that the links we recommend within our many reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.

But one more thing first:  If you’d like to Like us on Facebook you’re welcome to find us on our Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark page by typing that name into their “Search for people, places and things box or just Google https://www.facebook.com/filmreviewsfrom
twoguysinthedark.  We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!]
                
In The Hundred-Foot Journey (Lasse Hallström) we have the simple story of restaurants in conflict, with the cultural-divide that they represent finally patched over by the unstoppable power of love:  romance between both an older and younger couple from the “warring” sides, love of creativity in the kitchen as the necessary ingredient to keep even long-established-successes from going stale, and love for delicious food that will surely encourage you to rush out to either a French or Indian restaurant (or a fusion of such, if you can find it) after the screening; if you need a snack during the movie maybe share a small popcorn so that you don’t come out miserably starving before you’re seated for dinner but don’t indulge with the large-bag-free-refill-size because you certainly won’t want to have spoiled your appetite.  Just like a fine meal in a favorite eatery, you know what to expect when you come into The Hundred-Foot Journey, there are few surprises along the way (just a couple to keep you guessing what the new sauce in the next course will taste like but with consistent reassurances that it will more than meet expectations), and a satisfying sense of closure that’s like an just-indulgent-enough-dessert where the sweetness completes your desires yet is not laid on so thick that it leaves you bloated.  So, this movie is cute, joyful, momentarily serious, and about as predictable as Le Saule Pleureur, the featured restaurant run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) that seemingly hasn’t changed its menu much since the French Revolution.  (To paraphrase her, once the new order is in place, why change it if it’s been working for 200 years? Of course, that may work better with food than the various French governments over the last couple of centuries, but as politics are kept to a minimum in this movie we won’t go into that topic much in the review either.)

Our story is set in motion when the Kadam family finds themselves needing to abandon their family restaurant in Mumbai after it’s burned down as part of some unspecified local political uprising (maybe there’s a Hindu-Muslim-tension implied here or an intra-Hindu-sect-problem, but again this isn’t intended as much of a socio-political story so we just have to accept whatever the problem is and quickly move on).  By the time proud, stubborn Papa (Om Puri) and his large brood first try settling in London, his wife (played in flashbacks by Juhi Chawla) has died but not before passing on her cooking secrets to her talented chef son, Hassan (Manish Dayai).  Tired of the difficulties of attempting to make a living in the rainy climate of their awful location in the Heathrow Airport flight path, Papa decides to head for the south of France to start anew, although he has no particular location in mind nor does Hassan think that the French will abandon their own famed cuisine for the exotic, spicy dishes of India.  However, when their van breaks down, they push it into the nearest town where an abandoned restaurant building properly awaits them so Papa buys it, fully convinced that this will be the start of something big.

However, something big is already there; just 100 feet across the local highway at the edge of this picturesque town is the front door of Madame Mallory’s long-standing-establishment, sporting its prized 1 star from the difficult-to-please-Michelin-restaurant-raters.  She runs a tight ship, is disgusted that anyone would even attempt to offer such close competition for her famed edibles, and certainly has no respect for such attempted alternatives to be from a culinary tradition so markedly different from hers (however, it’s food that fuels her prejudices, not racism, so when one of her chefs takes her distain for the newcomers too aggressively and rounds up some local thugs to deface and firebomb the Maison Mumbai she promptly fires him, then spends the next day herself in the rain scrubbing graffiti off of her new neighbors' front wall).  The peace process takes another turn, though, when Hassan finally convinces her to taste some of his cooking at which point she’s impressed enough with his abilities that she offers him a 6-month-trial under her tutelage as a strategy to finally boost her Michelin rating to an even-better-2-stars (although Hassan has to wait a bit before starting because his hands were burned in the fire attempt on his family’s place; this, however, leads to him directing her in the preparation of the taste-test-omelet that wins her over, showing her that he even knows his business well enough to direct someone else with his recipes, which he’d eventually need to do if he proved to be as potent as she assumes).  Well, as you might expect, his natural ability (enhanced by his mother’s teaching and the appropriate use of the family spice jars given to him by his father to keep his traditions alive even within the context of a new approach to entrées) quickly rises to the top, a Michelin critic is impressed with the innovations, the second star is forthcoming, and Hassan is soon recruited to Paris to expand his talents in a cutting-edge-restaurant where his repertoire grows along with his talent and fame, yet he longs for what he left behind back in the countryside.

The main thing left behind is Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), an up-and-coming-sous chef working for Mme. Mallory who’s both attracted to Hassan (as a fellow gastronomic specialist as well as a potential lover) and angry that his sudden intrusion into “her” kitchen has stalled her own hoped-for-career at Le Saule Pleureur.  Because of his sudden fame, they part on less-than-ideal-terms, after already having had a push-pull-relationship while Hassan was still her co-worker, yet it’s clear that he’s never forgotten her even with the adulation he’s now receiving in the capital, gracing magazine covers and being connected by gossip-columnists to desirable ladies of the metropolis, while the truth is that his off-time is spent in sullen thoughts at local bars, contemplating the central metaphor of the movie that he can’t fully realize the superb truffle recipe that he’s seeking, not because of any lack of talent on his part but because the prized ingredient only exists in the forests of his former location (you can supply your own pun about Marguerite’s “forests”; I'm trying to keep my personal comments on a PG level so that I don't get further hassles from Google).  Even while we’re watching the personal hardships of Hassan, though, the story is kept buoyant by the increasing connection between Papa and Madame Mallory as she comes to accept his family as true neighbors while both of their restaurants continue to thrive as does their interpersonal connection (at least we assume this is true for the Maison Mumbai, where Papa’s other older son has taken over the cooking duties, although we never see any crowds eating there after Hassan’s departure—they were packing into the place once it was discovered by the locals, even before Hassan moved on across the street, another reason for Mme. Mallory’s initial resentment and the brief xenophobia that threatened their first presence in the neighborhood).  All’s well that ends well, though, as Hassan slips back into this provincial town to make an arrangement with Mme. Mallory to take over her restaurant but in a new partnership—both professional and personal—with Marguerite, as they reach for the coveted (highest) third-Michelin-star but now with the further-evolving Le Saule Pleureur.  (I’ve actually eaten at a Michelin 3-star-location, Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, CA for my wife, Nina’s, 60th birthday, a fabulous meal but expensive beyond all comprehension—as best I remember; see, we had a large family group that night so we took a limo for the hour-long-ride into the countryside to get there with champagne and bourbon in the car and then lots of great wine with the meal so the menu we saved showed it to be a fabulous feast but you'd have to ask Sean Penn because he and his unknown date were walking out just as we were coming in [seriously], so beyond that it's just a tasty blur of astounding delicacies for me.)

 The Hundred-Foot Journey is a delightful story—even with its constant predictabilities—constructed with enough romance and mouth-watering-food-scenes to appeal to all of your physical and emotional senses, even if you soon push its memory aside with the more immediate appeal of that delightful actual meal that you finally get to partake in after the screening.  As further time passes, this movie will likely just merge into the stream of other food-feast-cinema that you’ve enjoyed over the years, where the individual stories don’t matter much in retrospect even if they felt delightful while you were watching them.  (I must confess that while I do enjoy a well-prepared-food-movie such as this one I enjoy a well-prepared-meal even more and am more likely to remember what I ate than what I saw as the years roll along [as best I can; see The French Laundry story above]—I started to say that this goes for sex as well, but that would be crass, wouldn’t it? [as well as drifting even further from my PG-context-intentions—but, you know, at times you just have to branch out a bit, if only to honor the memory of Robin Williams].)

However, I must note that it seems the marketing folks at the combination production companies of Amblin Entertainment, DreamWorks Studios, Harpo Films (and 3 others) are focused more on promoting some of their bosses’ connections to this succulent tale as producers (the biggest names being Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, although there are 7 others in the generic “producer” credits, including co-, executive-, and line-) than on the product itself, which is a charming movie but seemingly from a well-used-recipe-book of its own regarding young lovers with a situational difficulty keeping them apart, an older generation that prides itself on its members’ distain for the unfamiliar, and the reliable audience reaction when you offer closeups of exquisitely-cooked-dishes that quickly push popcorn and soda to the back of the line of tempting-taste-treats.  This is all lovely to look at (enhanced by the natural beauty of the Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val French countryside, as was Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight [review in our July 25, 2014 posting], shot in the Côte d’Azur French Riviera area), but when you start looking over the available press materials put forth to promote this cinematic offering and find that of the few photos made available to critics such as me 2 of the 6 of them feature a recipe for and a shot of Beef Bourguinon a la Hassan (actually created by Chef Floyd Cardoz) while another is simply a chummy image of 
Winfrey and Mirren (nothing wrong with such when you’ve given a couple dozen or more to choose from rather than this ONE! from the official website, of Oprah and Helen) while another 2 of those 6 decent-high-resolution-choices that I can get are repetitions of the poster used with the first paragraph of my review, then you have to wonder how much faith these dedicated producers really had in the substance of their product given that I had to explore several other sources to even get 1 useable image of Marguerite, the supposed-inspiration that brings all of the strands of the story back together at the end.  Maybe the folks who churn out more-active-fare such as Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn; review in our August 7, 2014 posting) are just trying to cover up their lack of substance with a lot of pictures that critics and publicists can use to create hype for their films, but at least they offer such tools; the folks in charge of hype-creation for The Hundred-Foot Journey don’t even want to provide much variety in what readers will see when they skim past numerous options for reading reviews of their product, which gets a bit frustrating at my end sometimes.  (But that just goes with being a fly-by-night-critic rather than being on the press lists for the bigger-studio-products, although folks such as Steven and Oprah might want to try to get a little more mileage out of bloggers like me if they want to increase the take for this movie which has made only about $11 million so far in the same 1-week-span for those teenage turtles who grabbed about $65.5 million while 2 weeks in release has netted the Galaxy Guardians about $176.5 million; I certainly don’t claim to be making or breaking anybody’s releases with my “hefty” 7,000 readers per month [the total’s a little higher now that I’m plugging Two Guys on Facebook, and I thank all of you for your continuing interest] but if I could get access to a few more usable promotional items at times I could spare us the sort of grainy images that I had to pull from my Boyhood [Richard Linklater] review [see our July 31, 2014 posting] before I made it public because they were too ugly to look at, as is the borderline case for a couple I've used here.)

As I’m about to take a month-long break from writing these reviews (more on that below, but as you can tell from the pissant griping from the end of the last paragraph it’s probably a good thing for all of us that I get away for a bit) I wanted to leave you with something fairly ridiculous as my chosen Musical Metaphor for The Hundred-Foot Journey so you could have some time to re-evaluate why you even read my comments in the first place; therefore, I present to you “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies (from “their” 1969 Everything’s Archie album).  After seeing all the fabulous food in this movie, prepared so purposefully, delicately, with such well-chosen ingredients and spices, this song came to mind as not so much a metaphor for The … Journey’s story but more of an antithesis, doctoring up bland food with the most taste-buds-overwhelming-additions (short of XXX-level-hot-sauce) you could grab from your kitchen shelf to just subdue your palate in one quick assault; further, I’ve never gotten over my amazement that this silly song (performed by a bunch of studio musicians, not even a real group) from 1969 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9nE2 spOw_o (the original “music video,” if you can really call it that, from the associated Saturday-morning-TV-show) could have become the nation’s #1 hit for that year in the time of psychedelia, social upheaval, and Woodstock, so there’s more than a little snarkiness in using it as well (but consider yourselves lucky; if I had wanted to be a bit more in keeping with the movie, I’d have used the Ohio Express’ 1968 “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy (I’ve Got Love in My Tummy)” but if you’re desperate enough to listen to that you’ve going to have to search for it on your own [you might prefer the version by the 1910 Fruitgum Company, a difficult choice I admit]).  I guess it was just a throwback-type of musical relief from all of the more intense cultural confrontations and “loadie-music” of the time (as my wonderful wife, Nina, calls it, not her favorite from the era compared to the Motown catalogue because she says you couldn’t dance to extended guitar and drum solos, while people at some of the parties she attended were too stoned to dance anyway, she tells me; as a serious university student at the time, I, of course, never had such distractions—besides, in Texas in those days you could get a 99-year-sentence for possession of 1 joint [no exaggeration] so I stuck to the traditional way of appreciating my college years: getting drunk), but ultimately it does connect with the conclusion of The Hundred-Foot Journey where romance blossoms for the 4 principals of the story so maybe Madame and Marguerite would see themselves as “candy girls” after all, while waiting for new stars to shine from the Michelin galaxy.  Anyway, if you can’t afford their haute cuisine maybe you just want a sugar-filled-brownie anyway (but be sure you know what variety of herbs may be in it if you’re not ready yet to dance on the rooftop of a restaurant).

(This photo of the scrumptious-looking-Hassan-beef-dish has nothing to do with this final paragraph, but it’s the only official 1 offered to those of my ilk by the movie’s marketers that I haven’t used yet so I thought I’d stick it in here at the end.  Besides, I want to leave you something substantial to remember me by for awhile, so this probably works better than most of my reviews.)  Finally, let me reassure you that just because Pat’s further disappearing from our enterprise’s cyber-location doesn’t mean that we’re shutting down, but it may seem that way because this is the last time you’ll be hearing from me (Ken Burke) for about a month.  Nina and I are going on a vacation with her sister and brother-in-law into the various Atlantic and Eastern Provinces of Canada so I’ll be purposely, cheerfully out of Internet contact and likely won’t be seeing many films either during this time.  I realize that you may initially suffer some withdrawals from my diversions and ramblings, but if you feel the need for opinions and distractions (along with misinformation) you can always just tune in to Fox News for about 5 minutes and I think your cravings will be satisfied.  See you again in late September as the baseball season is wrapping up, when I hope to find my beloved Oakland Athletics heading for the October playoffs (and maybe beyond just playoffs this year) unless they also suffer a breakdown from not having my constant attention.  I know it’s going to be difficult for the world to keep revolving without my constant input (at least that’s the message I get from political campaigns and petition-requestors on a daily basis); however, you’re welcome to make random comments on this and any of my past posts just to keep Two Guys in the Dark alive in some manner until my overheated keyboard gets rolling again in late September.  ‘Till then, au revoir!
             

If you’d like to know more about The Hundred-Foot Journey here are some suggested links:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVDcJ1EL2JE (4:14 interview with producers Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, with more input than needed from the chatty host)


              
As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our extremely-limited-level of technological control.

Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at https://accounts.google.com/NewAccount if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at kenburke409@gmail.com.  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

      Someone’s Sneakin’ ‘Round a Corner
           
              Review by Ken Burke       A Most Wanted Man

The last film with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role, a tale of espionage in Germany where various agencies fight each other on how to best handle terrorists.
            
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting (please note that Two Guys critic Ken Burke is a bit odd—in more ways than one—using a 5-star-rating-system but rarely going to the level of 4 ½ or 5 stars, reserving those rankings for films that have been or should be acknowledged as time-honored masterpieces so that a 4 is about the best you can hope for from star-stingy Ken).  But we ask you to be aware that the links we recommend within our many reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.

But one more thing first:  If you’d like to Like us on Facebook you’re welcome to find us on our Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark page by typing that name into their “Search for people, places and things” box or just Google https://www.facebook.com/filmreviewsfrom twoguysinthedark.  We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!]
            
When Hollywood loses one of its brightest stars due to (what’s usually called) premature death (although many of us would consider our death premature if we hadn’t clearly resigned ourselves to it yet; when someone dies of a drug-cocktail-overdose, as Philip Seymour Hoffman did in February 2014, you have to wonder if such a resignation wasn’t part of their overall-mindset already, even if the particular deed in question wasn’t an intentional choice—I thank the powers that be, if truly there are any, that I haven’t had suicidal thoughts for many decades now but back when I did I think it would always have been possible that any foolish thing I did might have been at least partially intentional toward ending my life, taking a risk to tempt fate—which is something we’ll never know about Hoffman, but if he was as troubled as reports indicate, even with all of his fame and accomplishments, it’s certainly possible that he was ready to be rid of his demons in one way or another when his tragic loss occurred, maybe more tragic for us than him if he was that tormented to need such heavy-duty-consciousness-relief, but, again, what prompts another person to do anything is not for me to say, as with the equally-tragic-revelation of the death of master-comedian/well-loved-actor Robin Williams, already being called a suicide, even while I was writing this review) there often exists a sort of morbid fascination when we in the mere audience (as Elton John sang after-the-fact to Marilyn Monroe:  “Though I never knew you at all …”; I can’t resist offering the whole song [from the 1973 Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album] at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=kRBHERttdP4) are given a chance to see his or her one last leading performance, as has been the case with such top-flight-departees as James Dean (Giant [George Stevens, 1956], nominated for Best Actor, along with a previous nomination a few months after his death as Best Actor for East of Eden [Elia Kazan, 1955]), Peter Finch (Network [Sidney Lumet, 1976], won the Best Actor Oscar), and Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight [Christopher Nolan, 2008]; true, Ledger won his Oscar as Best Supporting Actor but there’s no doubt that his presence as The Joker was what made that film resonate, even with Christian Bale’s marvelous balance in the official lead as Batman; regarding Robin Williams, for me you’d have to really go back awhile to find his last-best-film-role, which I’d say is in Insomnia [Christopher Nolan, 2002])—like Williams, Ms. Monroe didn’t leave us a death-bed-role-for-the-ages either, given that her last-finished-film, The Misfits (John Huston, 1961), preceded her demise by a year with her last projects left unfinished—which brings us to Hoffman as a German intelligence agent in A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn).  With the additional cachet of being a story adapted from John le Carré’s 2008 novel of the same name, this film carries a lot of possibilities for serious moviegoers, but they may all have already seen it if they were planning to do so because by the time I get this review posted the film will have been out for about a month but with a very small gross of about $10.5 million so far with the income dropping noticeably even as a few more theaters are being added, so if you're interested go now.

Of course, a film about spying maneuvers set mostly in Hamburg (without a single reference to The Beatles’ early-career days there, thank goodness for avoidance of such distraction) which is all chessboard moves rather than Jason Bourne-ish action (if that’s what you want, you’ll get a lot more in Lucy [Luc Besson; review in our July 30, 2014 posting], along with “heady” sci-fi-stuff about human cognitive capacity but if you haven’t seen that one yet either—and I do hope you do because its premise is quite fascinating [even if it is being berated by some for “bad science,” an odd complaint about a fictional story]) probably isn’t going to pull in the masses much when they have choices among such fare as fighting reptiles in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Jonathan Liebesman), fantasy-antihero-superheroes in Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt; quasi-review in our August 7, 2014 posting), and weather-devastation in Into the Storm (Steven Quale), among other available cinematic diversions, but if you’d like to see Hoffman in a finely-acted-serious-role, bringing the curtain down with respect on his career (yes, I know we still have 2 more installments of The Hunger Games to go [Francis Lawrence; 2014, 2015]) with his Plutarch Heavensbee character aiding the rebellion against the Capitol, but I’m sure the emphasis there will be more on Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) so I’m glad that Hoffman gets a more worthy option in a lead role to help us remember what presence and nuance he could bring to a part, rather than just seeing him depart in a Futuristic-Sci-Fi-series where he’s subsumed into an ensemble of standard revolutionaries against an oppressive foe.

In A Most Wanted Man, the situation is about the appearance of an illegally-entered-assumed-terrorist, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), in Hamburg (we’re told at the film’s beginning that this is where the 9/11 hijack-attack-plot was finalized so this international-port-city’s been on high alert ever since with Günther Bachmann’s [Hoffman] off-the-books-spy-unit responsible for the sort of necessary deeds unlawful under German law for more official agencies to carry out), who’s spotted almost as soon as he arrives but then becomes an unknown-pawn in a game of wits between Bachmann’s group and the higher-ranking-spies both from within Germany and our own CIA as to whether he should be snatched up immediately to prevent some sort of unanticipated attack or whether Bachmann should be allowed to do what his unit’s all about, use Karpov as a means of getting to more important terrorists who are causing much greater damage and will continue to do so.  What we find out, though, in following Karpov when his lawyer/legal-aid-helper, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams, who seems to have gotten through the entire filming process with never an encounter with a hairbrush), manages to get him out from under surveillance and into a safe house for a bit, is that this young Chechen Muslim has the necessary tools to claim a huge fortune in safekeeping in a Hamburg bank where prominent banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) is an associate of Karpov’s late father, a Russian military goon whose assets were obtained in various cruel and illegal manners, just as Issa was the result of Karpov Sr.’s rape of his mother when she was 15 (she died as her son was born).  Turns out Issa’s no terrorist at all, just a badly-scarred-refugee from his homeland wanting to get that cash into the hands of some organization that could use it for peaceful purposes to aid other brutalized Muslims around the world (such as the ones in Syria and Iraq coming under the heel of the ISIS “caliphate” for the “sin” of adhering to the “wrong” branch of Islam, although such a topical reference is from your opinionated critic rather than a plot point in the film).  This actually plays very nicely into Bachmann’s plan because he wants to use this huge stash as enticement for overt-humanitarian-but-suspected-terrorist-helper, Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), to take control of the money from Issa, then divert some of it (as he’s assumed to have done before) to a group supplying arms to violent militants.  Once Bachmann has proof of this, his next step is to use Abdullah as the connection to the even-bigger-fish (hence, his minnow-barracuda-shark analogy in the first suggested video link far below) that he works with, in an attempt to bring down the entire network, not just make arrests of these middlemen which is the goal of Bachmann’s superiors and their American counterparts.

Those of us who spend our ongoing lives blissfully unaware of the calculated governmental-maneuverings occurring on our behalf have little idea of how supposed allies can create chaos for each other as each one wants to shine more brightly in their victories against our common enemies (that is, until recently when Edward Snowden-based-NSA-revelations revealed that our government had been spying on German leadership [and many others, including Brazil, which didn’t make for great diplomatic embraces during the recent World Cup soccer games held there], followed by even-more-recent-disclosures that German ministry workers were still acting as CIA spies for us, further contributing to difficult relations between our nations at a time when we can ill-afford such tensions, making this story even more relevant than its plot intended for it to be, given the circumstantial serendipity of these real-world-shenanigans adding further to the context of what’s tense enough already in the fictional setting of A Most Wanted Man), but in this film we’re given good reason to wonder just how safe our individual countries really are when the international espionage community presumably working to “make the world a safer place” (to quote Bachmann, as the rationale behind his methods) creates such grief among its own disciples, as we learn from conversations between Bachmann and U.S. consul-officer/CIA field-agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright, almost unrecognizable to me in this hard-ass-persona), as he attempts to use her influence with his own higher-ups, who finally give him 72 hours to finalize the sting on Abdullah before they take the operation away from him entirely (part of his bargaining position with her is that the U.S. owes him something for previously interfering with an operation he was running in Beirut where our actions compromised his activities, leading to the deaths of some of his agents and a career-reversal for him, landing him in this current position where his unit’s work is essential to the greater goals of the Western-spy-game but whose methods and members are treated almost as negatively by other Western agents as are the terrorists that all of them are trying to identify and defuse).

(Sorry about the terrible quality of the photo here but the publicists don't give
lower-rung-critics like me much variety to work with so I have to use whatever I can find.)
In A Most Wanted Man (a much easier plot to follow for anyone—or maybe just me—who hasn’t read the original novels than was the previous big-screen-adaptation of a le Carré book, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [Tomas Alfredson, 2011; review in our January 6, 2012 posting]), there’s not much trust to go around because almost everyone who seems like they might be in a position of trying to do the right thing is either suspected by someone of not being so innocent (lawyer Richter is trying to help Muslims who’ve been wrongly profiled as terrorists, with a goal of getting asylum in Germany for Issa as he’s truly a fugitive rather than a revolutionary, but she’s bullied into helping Bachmann because her previous efforts have allowed some real terrorists to stay on the loose; Dr. Abdullah [left above] does sincerely preach peace and honestly raises money for nonviolent purposes but his anger at military actions against Muslims by First-World-countries justifies for his internal rationale the siphoning off of some of what he collects to be used for military actions; banker Brue is just trying to find a balance between handing over funds that legitimately belong to Issa while accepting Bachmann’s cooperation-pressure to help set up the sting on Abdullah because his bank is a repository/laundry-service for ill-gotten-gains from various foreign thugs such as Issa’s father; even Abdullah’s son, Jamal [Mehdi Dehbi], is spying on his father for Bachmann, although he’s heartsick about doing such but is bullied like the others by Bachmann’s unrelenting determination to keep his plan in motion) or is a member of the surveillance community with the stain of blood on their hands, even as they claim that their actions are for the greater good (although as Bachmann angrily notes to one of his antagonist “colleagues,” who’s worried that if Issa is allowed to stay on the loose there will be “blood on the streets”: “Have you ever seen blood on the streets? Clown.”).  However, the maneuvers that Bachmann uses against the others noted above come back to haunt him just after the sting goes down in Brue’s bank.  With video evidence secured that Abdullah amended the list of charities set to receive Issa’s money (with him now in possession of a proper passport so as to have the promised asylum in Germany, along with being in attendance with Richter at the transfer of control of the contents of the Karpov account), adding the shipping agency that serves as the cover for terrorist arms deliveries, Bachmann, disguised as a cab driver, awaits Abdullah’s exit onto the street where he plans to whisk him away to his unit’s facilities, then use the evidence against him to compel his cooperation in capturing the more substantial terrorists “fish” that were Bachmann’s target all along.  Suddenly, in the midst of the whisk, the cab is surrounded by the other German operatives (under the watchful eye of U.S. agent Sullivan), who grab both Abdullah and Karpov, violating their previously-agreed-upon-procedure (presumably for the immediate glory of the capture, probably accusing Issa of being a contributor to the financing of terrorism), again leaving Bachmann as the stooge, the dupe of his own supposed-allies, as everything he promised to Richter, Karpov, and Jamal has been undone without his knowledge or cooperation, leaving them all in despair.

In his frustration, Bachmann just drives away from the scene of the double-cross, then parks his car and walks away with the camera still looking out through the windshield onto the street as the film comes to an abrupt halt.  I’ve read some speculation that maybe Hoffman’s scenes hadn’t been completely shot before his tragic demise so that’s why we just lose him so quickly at the end of this story, but I call that unlikely journalism in that he was at the Sundance Film Festival last winter to help promote the film as screened just prior to this death; however, even if some reshoots-before-release had been considered, this conclusion still works very well for me as it shows Bachmann very much out of control of his life (and profession), storming away to an unknown destination (maybe just one of the many bars that he frequents, maybe somewhere related to the various intelligence agencies that have betrayed him) where we have no idea if his inability to act out his intentions will continue, with no indication that he’ll be able to recoup anything of any value for himself or those he’s been forced to leave hanging as the planned strategy is completely yanked out from under him by fellow-workers in his own shadowy field who seem to care nothing about what impact their actions have on Bachmann and his now-lied-to-collaborators, even as they’re all seemingly working toward the same goal of identifying terrorists before foiling Bachmann’s plans before they can be implemented.  A Most Wanted Man is a very effectively-disturbing-film, made all the more so by the ongoing surveillance scandals that imply that no one (not even U.S. Senate staffers) is safe from the actions of various national intelligence agencies who may have their own agenda for how international policies are determined, acted upon, then covered up as needed, so that what we witness here becomes even more chilling than I assume le Carré or Corbijn intended, although I’m sure that neither of them is naïve about how things work in the hidden halls of power.  I’m very sorry that we won’t have any further opportunities to see Hoffman command the flow of a film (along with his Best Actor Oscar win for Capote [Bennett Miller, 2005], I highly encourage a visit to The Master [Thomas Paul Anderson, 2012; review in our September 27, 2012 posting, only 1 of 2 films to which I’ve given 4 ½ of my 5 stars] for a demonstration of what this master thespian was capable of) nor see him interact in new ways with old pros as well-honed as himself (such as Defoe, with his nervous, enforced-willingness as a guy with a lot to lose as his own under-the-table-work stands ready to be revealed).  But, if he had to go, at least Hoffman left us with a fine exit act to remember him by in a performance that might be honored next January when Oscar nominations come out (although it’s way too early to anoint any film or anyone connected to any film just yet, until the whole parade has passed by; further, I just hope that his depressed-smoking-drinking-mumbling-character isn’t somehow interpreted as Hoffman in the throes of suicide-contemplation rather than an appropriately-chosen-acting-style on his part), so if the subject matter intrigues you or you just want to see a well-balanced, talent-suffused cast take command of a tightly-constructed-script I highly encourage your attendance at a screening of A Most Wanted Man, but find it very soon.

As for my usual concluding Musical Metaphor, I’ll offer “A Most Peculiar Man” by Simon and Garfunkel (from the 1966 Sounds of Silence album) at https:// www.youtube.com/ watch?v=3YTgwY1Ld 5s&list=PLS4eJrnsJb0Vj VaXXlyY90GjuVj5lT Mhr (from a site that begins with the original album version but has 62 videos related in some way to this song, including a few live recordings of the duo, some with video from their performances, along with some cover versions by other singers) because it’s more truly a metaphor for this film than some of the more-obvious, not-really-metaphoric-choices that I’ve made for other cinematic subjects I’ve reviewed.  I get the sense at the end of the narrative when he leaves his car that Bachmann could be on the verge of suicide, as was the subject of Simon’s song before he took that final step; further, whether Hoffman intended to die when he did or not, he seems to have been much more of a troubled “peculiar man” than almost any of us knew (in public, he wasn’t the quiet, gruff loner described in the song, but maybe he felt that way “Within a room, within himself”), with the sad result the same for both of them: “all the people said ‘What a shame that he’d dead’” (even though few even knew the victim in Simon’s song).  And—as the music fades—just one more thought before closing the book on my responses to A Most Wanted Man, a question to any of you reading this about actors using accents to indicate that they’re speaking in another language among themselves within their story, even though what they’re offering us is English (I can’t recall seeing this trope used in films that originate in non-English-speaking-countries, but I rather doubt it given the more accepted use of dubbing dialogue or using subtitles when films are produced in those countries primarily for home-country-and-similar-language-locales, so that if a German production is supposed to be set in France, for example, then I’d say the spoken language will likely be French [or dubbed French] rather than German spoken with French accents).  It’s clear that when Bachmann and agent Sullivan have a dialogue that they’re both talking in English (well, she’s an American stationed in London; we can’t expect her, even with her frequent clandestine activity in Europe, to know non-English European languages, now can we?) so it’s reasonable that they have to communicate in a common tongue, with him adding a natural German accent (although given that this events-beaten-down-character doesn’t always enunciate all that clearly it can be a bit hard to understand him, even if we do share the same linguistics), but when the bulk of the film features Germans talking to other Germans, why do we have to have these imposed accents?  Is it for some sort of continuity because of those few scenes where Bachmann does have to actually speak English even though his first language is German?  Does that really help us feel like we’re watching something taking place in Germany?  (The film was shot in Hamburg, which already seems obvious enough in its depictions of the place to seem feasible about the location.)

(The photo quality of this image from Casablanca isn't great either;
thanks Internet.  Can you tell I'm getting tired of having to scrounge
for whatever may be available just because I'm not on the rarified
privileged press lists?  I hate to post anything that looks this crappy.
Maybe I'm just bummed out because of the undercurrent of dead
actors that haunt this review.  If so, I offer my apologies for letting
my emotions get the best of me as I mourn these sad losses.)
  I know this sort of thing has been used for decades in American films, but for some reason it really hit me as artificial this time (and made me think back on other such uses of accented-English-dialogue which led me to Casablanca [Michael Curtiz, 1942] where the Germans do speak their native language with each other but logically have to use accented-English to speak with monolingual Rick [Humphrey Bogart] and others not of German origin [just as it makes some sense that English becomes the common parlance within Rick’s Café Américain for all of the various nationalities, including Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) with his mild, ambiguous Eastern-European-pronunciations], but when Captain Renault [Claude Rains] and other Frenchmen speak among themselves they use English, with Renault sounding a bit British [reflecting Rains' origins] and not much sense of a French accent among his underlings, so based on the “we-Americans-need-to-know-what-language-they’re-speaking-without-having-to-read-subtitles”-rationale, I’m just as confused with the premise in this classic as I am with A Most Wanted Man).  Certainly, this minor curiosity of mine shouldn’t distract you from the many successful elements of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s-forever-linked-curtain-call—in a film where the cinematics successfully support the story with lots of ominous low-key-lighting, closeups within wide-screen-format-compositions to impart a sense of isolation even within a large urban environment where easy movement should be assumed, tension built and maintained all along the way even as the depicted events aren’t all that dynamic as in more action-oriented-spy stories—but if you have a bit of trouble understanding what he’s saying at times you might be more inclined to wonder along with me why this odd bit of distraction is even needed in the first place.  By contrast, another review I’ll post this week, of The Hundred-Foot Journey (Lasse Hallström), takes place in France where native speakers of French and Hindi keep their learned-language among themselves as they collide because of their competing restaurants, using naturally-occurring-accented-English only as a needed-linguistic-parlance but being able to grumble to themselves in a manner that retains some private satisfaction even if an English-speaking-audience has to miss out on a few intra-group-comments from the actors.

I realize that where fiction (and movie marketing) are concerned, we have to allow for a lot of creative license (which allows me to overlook the complaints about the “bad science” in Lucy regarding how much brain capacity humans normally employ compared to that protagonist’s enormous elevation of her cerebral might), but lately I’ve been mulling over that frequent use of accented-English to convey that characters are speaking in another language than our native tongue to each other, wondering how much good it does when the settings, costumes, traditions, etc. should already make it clear enough that these people don’t talk to each other in a manner easily understood by the Anglo-populations of Seattle, Tulsa, or Pittsburgh.  But, then, people such as my parents wouldn’t travel to Europe because they expected everyone there to speak English to them and knew they wouldn’t, so maybe this learned-cinematic-convention didn’t even do much good back in the 1940s and ‘50s, or it was actually some sort of clever reverse-psychology-ploy to encourage American tourists to spend their money in Phoenix or Fort Lauderdale rather than Paris to keep our postwar-economy booming.  More ruminations on this "vital" topic might emerge when I get to The Hundred-Foot Journey in a couple of days, but even if not I sincerely hope that you’ll seek out Hoffman’s final leading-man-bow (German accent and all) either now or later on video.

If you’d like to know more about A Most Wanted Man here are some suggested links:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUyYBrlF_W8 (if you want to fully lose yourself in A Most Wanted Man videos this site has 200 of them, including trailers, clips from the film, reviews, and a good number of offers to stream the entire film [I leave those options to your discretion])

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gO8JgQobLlI (2:53 anatomy of a scene with director Anton Corbijn)

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/a_most_wanted_man/


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P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.