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‘A Most Wanted Man’: An unworthy farewell to a great actor

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER 
For 21st Century Media

“A Most Wanted Man” offers the latest adaptation of a John le Carré spy novel.
Gunter Bachmann (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is the head of an elite German anti-terrorism squad. Operating in surreptitious fashion, this Hamburg-based unit does whatever the German constitution precludes the government from doing officially. In the aftermath of 9/11, the crew infiltrates the local Muslim community.
Since this film is derived from a le Carré tome, you can forget about the protagonist being a dashing permutation of James Bond. Dispense with any expectations that the film will feature newfangled gadgetry, sophisticated ju-jitsu maneuvers, dramatic shoot-outs, or super-speedy customized cars. There is no voluptuous femme fatale bearing a double entendre moniker like Honey Ryder, emerging from the sea in a skimpy bikini.
Instead of being a hunky sex symbol, Bachmann is a plodding bureaucrat. He recognizes that low-level terrorists are of nugatory consequence. If arrested, they can be readily replaced by their supervisors. So, he tries to identify these small players and allow them to act unimpeded, but monitor them closely. All this is inspired by the hope that they will eventually lead him to those at the apex of the terrorist hierarchy.
Gunter’s modus operandi puts him at odds with a local policeman, Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock). Whereas Gunter favors a slow, systematic approach, Dieter wants to lock up every suspected Muslim terrorist. An intense personal and professional rivalry has emerged between the two men. At one juncture, Mohr snidely refers to a botched operation in Beirut, which he attributes to Gunter’s supposed failure to timely intervene.
Bear in mind that Mohammed Atta and his cohorts planned the 9/11 attacks right in Hamburg. Much of the success of the attack on the World Trade Center is ascribed to the lack of coordination between various counter-terrorist entities.
Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is a half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim immigrant who turns up in Hamburg. He has been severely tortured by Russian officials, who extract a confession from Karpov. Does this confession have any basis in reality or is it the product of coercion?
Based on his forced confession, Karpov has been classified as an escaped militant jihadist. In his effort to obtain asylum, Karpov seeks the help of Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a committed human rights attorney.
Bachmann believes that Karpov will eventually lead him to Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi). Dr. Abdullah maintains a public image as an academic, who runs philanthropies. However, Bachmann is convinced that the widely-respected Dr. Abdullah is actually funding terrorist operations.
Writing under a literary cognomen, the works of John le Carré are informed by his personal experience as a member of Britain’s MI-5 and later MI-6. Among his assignments, he posed as a political consul in Hamburg. When Kim Philby betrayed the covers of various British agents to the KGB, le Carré’s career as an intelligence agent came to an abrupt end.
The spy novels of le Carré are marked by their moral ambiguity and often feature unflattering portrayals of Western espionage functionaries. Rather than being dominated by physical action, he presents nuanced psychological thrillers, which focus on the minutia of spycraft. The tone, pacing, and perspective of his books are the antithesis of those that pervade the writing of Ian Fleming’s spy novels.
It should therefore come as no surprise that Fleming’s novels had great inherent cinematicity and were readily adapted into the action-filled James Bond series. By contrast, le Carré’s novels have been adapted into thoughtful, character-driven works. These include a six-hour BBC mini-series, “Smiley’s People,” as well as films like “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “The Constant Gardener.”
The book, “A Most Wanted Man,” is a carefully-observed critique of the U.S. policy of extraordinary rendition, the participation of international banks in money laundering, and other repugnant practices. The narrative complexity and moral uncertainty of le Carré’s long-form novel is compelling. However, when compressed into the format of a two-hour film, it proves challenging to follow the film’s intricate plotting and the muted iconography. The slow pacing of the narrative eventually becomes tedious.
“A Most Wanted Man” represents the last screen appearance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He was prolific as an actor both on stage and screen, appearing in numerous plays and more than 50 films. Most notably, his lead performance in “Capote” was recognized with an Oscar, Golden Globe, Screen Actor’s Guild Award, and a BAFTA. Hoffman was a husky man with a somewhat gruff natural manner from upstate New York. In uncanny fashion, Hoffman channeled Truman Hoffman, a diminutive, effeminate Southerner. Watching Hoffman in action and capture Capote’s fey, mincing manner that he affected, you immediately forgot just how starkly he differed from the subject. The actor was nominated for three other films, a disarmingly candid C.I.A. operative in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” as a parish priest suspected of pederasty in “Doubt,” and as the demagogic leader of a cult, loosely based on Scientology in “The Master.” The diversity of his characterizations was stunning.
Hoffman struggled with drug addiction in his early adulthood. He had seemingly conquered his demons and had been sober for decades. His unexpected death at 46 from a mixed drug overdose serves as a cautionary tale.
“A Most Wanted Man” isn’t a bad film. Unfortunately, it ends up being far from a great film. A superb actor by any measure, it is a shame that Hoffman’s last film wasn’t better.

“A Most Wanted Man”
**1/2 R (for language) 122 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

 

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‘The Purge: Anarchy’ contains surprising subtext

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media

When “The Purge” came out last summer, it had all the earmarks of a one-off genre film. It became a surprise hit and begat “The Purge: Anarchy.” While the film springboards off the name of its predecessor, it is a much more ambitious and better executed vehicle.
The original film introduced the underlying premise of a government-sanctioned annual, 12-hour event. During it, people have total impunity to engage in nihilistic, anti-social behavior, even including homicide. That film was focused on a single family and was little more than a home invasion flick.
The sequel is set 10 years in the future. The film provides a societal overview and depicts the evolving relationship between a bunch of strangers. It also adopts a more jaundiced view on the motives of the government in allowing the yearly purge.
Most of the purgers seem to be committing random acts of violence and wrecking havoc just for the hell of it. By contrast, police sergeant, Leo (Frank Grillo, the assassin in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) is a man on a mission. Since Leo is out of uniform, we know that he must be off-duty. Indeed, during the Purge, the police stand down and allow violence and mayhem to prevail. Apparently, Leo is just exploiting the dispensation of the annual Purge to achieve an exquisitely specific personal agenda. He sets out in an armor-plated car and is toting some serious weaponry.
Eva (Carmen Ejogo) is a waitress, who works in a local diner. She is raising an outspoken 16-year old daughter, Cali (Zoe Soul). In addition, Eva is also trying to care for her ailing father, Papa Rico (John Beasley). He suffers from numerous ailments and requires costly medications. Where is Obamacare when you need it?
As zero hour for the Purge approaches, the Sanchez family hunkers down in their inner city apartment. Awaiting dinner, they watch television. Somehow, control of the airwaves is seized. An iconoclastic figure, Carmelo (Michael K. Williams of The Wire), appears on screen. He sports a beret, black turtleneck, black leather jacket, and dark glasses. It is evocative of the distinctive outfit favored by the Black Panthers of a bygone era. Carmelo warns that the Purge is actually part of an ominous government scheme by the so-called New Founders of America. He advocates that people rise up in armed resistance to it.
Then, there is a squabbling married couple, Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez). En route to their car, they pass through a parking lot. A gang of mask-wearing hooligans hover a nearby and watch them menacingly. Eager to avoid the impeding Purge, they jump in their car and head home. Their incessant bickering is interrupted by their car stalling out. The couple gets out to inspect it. They discover that it has been sabotaged by the thugs in the parking lot and has been rendered inoperative. Now aware that they have become proverbial sitting ducks for the purgers, the couple is gripped with panic.
Through a series of plot twists, Leo rescues the mother and daughter Latina duo, Eva and Cali. He then meets the contentious couple, Shane and Liz. Begrudgingly, Leo agrees to help them. However, he makes clear that his help is only temporary. After all, Leo has a self-appointed mission to discharge. It must be completed while the dispensation of the Purge remains in effect.
“The Purge: Anarchy” offers a scathing analysis of class warfare. We have explicit scenes of the privileged class savoring the opportunity to indulge in social Darwinism during the Purge. For them, the Purge has become a cherished social ritual, which is a much akin to Thanksgiving. Only instead of carving up a turkey carcass, they enjoy the spectacle of dispatching members of societal underclass. The scenes depicting this dynamic are thoroughly chilling.
The acting is surprisingly good for this genre of film. While there are no big names here, some of the cast members deliver compelling performances. As the most central character, Frank Grillo presents an interesting blend of a world-weariness and steely resolve. Throughout the film, his laconic figure is racked with an ongoing moral dilemma. In a circumscribed role, John Beasley captures an unmistakable dignity. As the mother and daughter, Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul provide strong performances as loving family members, whose relationship is challenged by adversity. Michael K. Williams is spot-on in his role as the charismatic head of a ragtag band of revolutionaries. He injects an anti-establishment fervor into the proceedings. Down with the man!
James DeMonaco, who wrote and directed “The Purge” is back again. He has upped his game here, providing some well-crafted scenes and adroitly maintaining the pacing of the narrative. DeMonaco, who had also scripted the remake of “Assault on Precinct 13” has a definite feel for depicting a world run amuck and consumed by a maelstrom of chaotic violence. The cinematography by Jacques Jouffret is impressive. Look for a vivid vignette of a fire-engulfed bus, careening wildly out of control. The electronic score by Nathan Whitehead helps create just the right mood for this haunting film. Veteran mixer, Willie Burton, augments the score with just the right amount of complementary background sounds.
“The Purge: Anarchy” is a totally uneven film, but one that is not without its redeeming merits. While it often devolves into a hyper-violent gorefest, it is redeemed by clever sociopolitical commentary and strong production values.

“The Purge: Anarchy” *** R (for strong disturbing violence, and for language) 103 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

 

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