Covering cinema from the highest of the highbrow to the lowest of the low-grade.
Thursday, October 20, 2016
On DVD/Blu-ray: OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016) and THE GOOD NEIGHBOR (2016)
OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (France/UK - 2016)
Attempting to patch up their ten-year marriage after he has a fling with one of his students, poetry professor Perry (Ewan McGregor) and his barrister wife Gail (Naomie Harris) embark on a holiday in Morocco. When Gail is forced to take a work-related call while they're at a posh restaurant, Perry is offered a drink by Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), a loud and boisterous Russian who seems to be entertaining an entourage. Dima cajoles Perry into accompanying the group to a wild party where the mild-mannered prof snorts some blow and gets involved in a tussle with a tattooed Russian who's forcing himself on a young woman. Dima then confesses to Perry that he works as the chief money launderer for powerful Russian mobster Nicolas Petrov, aka "The Prince" (Grigory Dobrygin). He gives Perry a memory stick with information about The Prince's business activities. He has the names and account numbers of a large group of British politicians, bankers, and other assorted movers-and-shakers who have accepted payments from the Russian mob in exchanging for funneling money through British financial institutions and businesses. Arriving back in London, Perry is questioned at the airport by MI-6 agent Hector (Damian Lewis), and figures his involvement is over, but Dima wants to defect, doesn't trust Hector and will only agree to give over the information if Perry and Gail are present and the safety of his family is guaranteed. Hector is especially interested in what's in Dima's documents since his own off-the-books surveillance operation reveals The Prince is quite chummy with Adrian Longrigg (Jeremy Northam), a former MI-6 official and current rising figure in British politics. Hector knows Longrigg is corrupt but has never been able to prove it, and even after he's ordered to shut down the surveillance, he proceeds anyway, further dragging Perry and Gail into a complex and dangerous web of intrigue and espionage.
Based on a 2010 John le Carre novel, OUR KIND OF TRAITOR is cut from the same cloth as 2011's TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and 2014's A MOST WANTED MAN (which also featured Dobrygin in a supporting role), two superior adaptations that rank alongside 1965's THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD as the finest big-screen takes on le Carre. The author's specialty of old-school espionage in character-driven, dialogue-heavy stories seems better suited today to the TV miniseries format, where the story and its players have time and room to develop their many twists and turns. This was best exhibited by the BBC's landmark duo of 1979's TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and its 1982 sequel SMILEY'S PEOPLE, both with Alec Guinness as aging, weary, and rather ironically-named spy George Smiley. Le Carre's works specialize in the nuts-and-bolts of the spy business, but OUR KIND OF TRAITOR, adapted by veteran screenwriter Hossein Amini (DRIVE), and directed by TV veteran Susanna White, whose credits include BLEAK HOUSE and episodes of BOARDWALK EMPIRE and GENERATION KILL, suffers from a too-familiar feel and seems to be going through the motions. It's not a particularly interesting story, filled with the usual modern-day le Carre standbys like funneled money and safe houses, and with clunky dialogue like "My wife is a successful lawyer," it doesn't feel as if it's working from top-shelf le Carre. Now 85, le Carre stays current with modern technology but there's a rote, stale feeling to the whole thing. How many thrillers centered on the Russian Mafia do we need? And honestly, if you sub in "KGB" for the Russian mob and "microfilms" for the memory stick, it's nothing but another dry spy melodrama with an innocent man in over his head and a Russian bad guy who grows a conscience and wants to defect that could've easily been made and set in the 1960s or 1970s. Skarsgard cuts loose and hams it up, and he does manage to earn your sympathy as the film goes on. Additionally, frequent Danny Boyle and Lars von Trier collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography is a big asset as the story globetrots from Moscow to Marrakesh to London to Paris to Bern and other scenic locations throughout Europe. But in the end, this is about on the level of 1990's THE RUSSIA HOUSE, a perfectly watchable but unremarkable addition to the le Carre canon, nowhere near the heights of SMILEY'S PEOPLE or either adaptation of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, but not hitting the depths of the dreary 1970 misfire THE LOOKING GLASS WAR. (R, 108 mins) THE GOOD NEIGHBOR (US - 2016)
For much of its duration, THE GOOD NEIGHBOR is about what you expect from today's standard-issue, Redbox-ready suspense thrillers. It's not found-footage, but uses a lot of the subgenre's tropes, as two teenagers who wouldn't be friends anywhere other than in a movie--snarky dudebro Ethan (Logan Miller of THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT and SCOUT'S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE) and techie dweeb Sean (Keir Gilchrist of IT FOLLOWS)--embark a documentary they call "The Haunting Project." Using equipment purchased by privileged Sean's wealthy dad, the two set up a surveillance operation in the home of elderly Harold Grainey (James Caan), who lives across the street from Ethan. Known as the neighborhood's "creepy psycho hermit," alcoholic Grainey lives alone, is abrasive to anyone who approaches his property, was apparently abandoned by his battered wife, and is rumored to have poisoned a neighbor's dog years earlier. While Grainey is out for his weekly grocery run, they rig his house with hidden cameras and wi-fi-enabled devices to provoke sonic disturbances and electronic interferences to convince the old man that his house is haunted. Brainy Sean, who's likely headed to MIT, questions the ethics, but is interested in the psychological angle, while Ethan is just happy to see Grainey tormented. While observing Grainey over six weeks--Ethan's distracted single mom (Anne Dudek) is barely a presence and has no idea what's going on in her son's room--they notice that he frequently makes trips to the padlocked basement, which last several hours at a time, leaving them convinced that Grainey is holding someone captive.
Yes, it sounds like a half-assed mash-up of DISTURBIA, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, DON'T BREATHE, and GRAN TORINO, but writers Mark Bianculli and Jeff Richards and director Kasra Farahani, a veteran art director and conceptual artist/illustrator (he worked on films like SPIDER-MAN 3, AVATAR, and STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, among many others) making his directing debut, pull a nifty and surprisingly poignant third-act bait-and-switch that completely changes your perception of everything. There's hints at this throughout in cutaways that may or may not be flashbacks and by the end, you realize that you've been just as manipulated as a certain character. It's hard to discuss the specifics of THE GOOD NEIGHBOR without going into spoiler territory, but it does suffer from an overly familiar first and second act, with a lot of obnoxious behavior from Ethan and Sean and too much time spent on them watching surveillance footage. This puts THE GOOD NEIGHBOR in the found-footage ballpark until it claws its way out and becomes its own film. It also shows its cards too quickly by flash-forwards that show various supporting characters testifying in court, which significantly undermines the suspense. It could also use more Caan, who's got his best role in years here as the angry, scary old guy that's a fixture in almost any long-established neighborhood, the object of all manner of rumors and innuendo. He dominates the third act but up to then, is mainly shown reacting to the faux-paranormal activity going on his house. I don't want to oversell THE GOOD NEIGHBOR--it stumbles at times and is not some under-the-radar classic or anything, but it's got word-of-mouth cult potential as one of the more ambitious straight-to-VOD titles to come down the pike in a while. It does something a lot of films in this genre don't--it tries. It subverts your expectations and it's certainly better than a lot of the paycheck junk that the legendary Caan's been doing for the last several years. (Unrated, 97 mins)