The Amateur 1981 ****

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Reputed to be in development as a reboot for Hugh Jackman for a good few years now, Charles Jarrott’s The Amateur is a tense, effective revenge thriller than makes the best of its mix of cold-blooded espionage and hot-blooded anger. A sense of righteous grievance is harnessed by a shocking opening as a terrorist gang storm the American embassy in West Germany and execute an American (Sarah Kaplan) while being filmed by live-tv crews. Widower Charles Heller (John Savage) is no secret agent, his speciality is mathematics and decoding messages, but when the CIA intelligence forces that he works for don’t respond for political reasons, Heller takes things into his own hands by infiltrating Eastern Bloc spy-networks in the hope of finding who killed his wife. This is all rather more plausaible that usual, Heller uses his ability to hack into the CIA files to find declassified information and force the CIA to offer him some grudging support by blackmailing them; The Amateur makes a virtue of its savvy view of dirty black ops. Christopher Plummer, Marthe Keller and Arthur Hill are all names familiar to genre fans, and Robert Littell’s screenplay ducks many of the clichés expected. The Amateur seems to have been taken out of the system for some reason; just for fun, below is included a link to purchase a DVD for a cool $100 plus. Why that should be so high is an interesting question; The Amateur does a violent but professional wet job that should have left more of a cultural imprint than it did.

https://www.amazon.com/Amateur-John-Savage/dp/B0007WQGW2/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=the+amateur&qid=1564310377&s=gateway&sr=8-3

https://trakt.tv/movies/the-amateur-1981

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The White Crow 2019 ***

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Ralph Fiennes clearly digs Rudolph Nureyev; for his third film as director, he’s attempted to capture the story of one of the world’s greatest dancers, which some success. Fiennes’ previous efforts (Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman) were real duffers, but with a leading man who looks the part in Oleg Ivenko, The White Crow is more than passable. The title refers to the Russian notion of otherness, of an individual who is separate from the pack; a black sheep in our parlance. Flashing back and forward to key moments in Nureyev’s life as he ponders defecting during a tour to Paris, the attempts to get under the waxen skin of the individual are fairly shallow; Nureyev rages at a toy-shop owner whose range of toy trains bore him, or glowers as his patient tutor (Fiennes) refuses to acknowledge his genius. But things pick up in the final stretch when Nureyev faces a choice to defect to the West or return to his family in Russia; the facts are compelling in these final scenes, and the choice is presented with some gravity. Anyone with a feeling for dance, and Nureyev in particular will be interested in this, and Fiennes doesn’t short-change us with the ballet scenes, which looks authentic and feel right. But much of the presentation is dull, the photography of Russia and Paris is so grim and deliberately out of focus that it’s hard to watch, and Hare’s script is dry and lack insight. But a bit like the Queen biopic, a film about this subject only needs to be halfway good to be watchable; the legend of Nureyev carries the film.

Madame Sin 1972 ***

sinProduced by Robert Wagner, this nutty spy caper takes place largely on the rather lovely and certainly picturesque Scottish island of Mull, and the tiny town of Tobermory, recognisable from the children’s tv show Balamory. Released in 1972, David Greene’s feature reflects a growing problem in Scotland; the creation of Thought Factories by criminal geniuses like Madame Sin (Bette Davis), where sound waves can be used to cleave the unwitting into two like apples, and thoughts can be implanted into unwary Polaris submarine commanders like the one played by Gordon Jackson here. For a tv movie, released to cinemas when no execs bought into the daftness on show, Madame Sin is pretty lavish stuff, with classy support from Dudley Sutton, Denholm Elliot and Space 1999’s shape-shifter Catherine Schell, and the story, while on the brisk side, is reasonably fresh, But Davis is the highlight here, clearly having fun as a Fu Manchu-style super-villainess and spitting out truly outlandish dialogue like “How would you like your submarine, gentlemen, gift wrapped?’

https://www.amazon.com/Madame-Sin-Bette-Davis/dp/B07JMM8888/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=madame+sin&qid=1562234022&s=gateway&sr=8-1

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The Looking Glass War 1970 ***

Something of a curiosity in the John le Carre stakes, this 1970 thriller gets quite a few elements right, notably the personnel at The Circus; George Smiley is dropped from the original book, but Anthony Hopkins, Sir Ralph Richardson and Paul Rogers all fit the bill as the crumpled espionage handlers with the power and life and death in their hands. The film’s centre is Leiser (Christopher Jones) a Polish defector who becaomes a pawn in international espionage games when he’s recruited to spy on East German missile sites. The first half of the film does well to suggest how and why Leiser accepts the offer, but things get a little simplistic once the mission begins, and a final bookend doesn’t quite work. Hopkins seems to have been none too impressed by Jones and his James Dean mannerisms, but it kind of works for the film that Leiser is so much of a fish out of water. The Looking Glass War feels like a compromised efffort, but with a script by le Carre himself, it springs to life whenever Hopkins and Richardson are on screeen, and Frank Pierson, director of the 1976 A Star Is Born, creates some striking compositions.

Bridge of Spies 2016 ***

bridgespies1044A well-upholstered thriller from Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies deals with a real-life Cold War drama as James B Donovan (Tom Hanks) gets lured into the murky business of spy exchanges. After a successful courtroom defence of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), Donovan tries to broker a deal in East Germany to exchange the enigmatic Abel for two other spies. Bridge of Spies is packed with absorbing details, and the atmosphere of East Germany is well caught. But it’s the acting that elevates the material; Rylance is electric in a showy role, but Hanks’ contribution should not be overlooked; he brings an everyman quality to his well-spoken lawyer, and provides a happy and empathetic centre even when the diplomatic and espionage twists get very complex indeed.

The Night Manager 2016 ***

night-managerThere’s an illustrious history of John le Carre’ adaptations, and this six hour BBC entry in the cycle has the blessing of the spy-master himself, who even provides a cameo for the writer. The first hour is all slow burn as Tom Hiddletone’s hotel manager Jonathan Pine gets a whiff of the danger posed by Hugh Laurie’s billionaire Richard Roper and his entourage. But a stunning plot-jump moves the action on at great pace, as Pine suddenly becomes part of Roper’s gang after rescuing his son, and works his way deep into the businessman’s empire, encouraged by UK intelligence in the form of Olivia Coleman. If the recent film of le Carre’s Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy felt like a crash course in espionage, The Night Manager offers a careful, granular approach to detail that matches the original prose. The Night Manager is intense, sexy and compelling tv that’s just as good as any recent cinema spy-game.

Our Man Flint 1966 ****

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It’s a shame that the Derek Flint superspy series only amounted to two entries; James Coburn was such a charismatic and personable actor that there was still clearly plenty of juice in the tank. Whether sporting white slacks and a coloured panel sweater or immaculate in eveningwear, Flint is the consummate action man, ‘as at home in the kasbah as he is in the boudoir’ as the trailer puts it. He’s sent on a mission by his boss Cramden (Lee J Cobb) to investigate into weather control, leading him to Galaxy Island to uncover a world domination plot. The template for the Austin Powers films, which reference the Flint films specifically by having the same ring-tone on his phone, Our Man Flint is campier than Bond, but a good old-fashioned romp with gadgets and girls galore. The sequel, In Like Flint, doesn’t have the same cheerful energy and is for completists only.