Talking Movies

September 6, 2019

From the Archives: Breach

Another trawl thru the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers another puzzler from director Billy Ray, as FBI rookie Eric O’Neal (Ryan Phillipe) is assigned to spy on his new boss, senior analyst Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). O’Neal is shocked to discover, after becoming friends with the older man, that Hanssen is a suspected traitor.

This is not the sort of fare one usually associates with August. The Bourne Identity star Chris Cooper returns to the espionage genre with a far more muted depiction of the world of intelligence than current nerve shredder The Bourne Ultimatum. Melancholy is the key word here. Chris Cooper from the opening credits portrays the real life FBI traitor Robert Hanssen as a man exhausted by his double lives, almost aching to be exposed just so the need for deception will finally end. The tone of the story is reflected in its setting: Washington DC in January and February with snow on the ground, a chill wind in the air, and grey and blue tints in all the Bureau’s offices.

Billy Ray as a director seems to have created his own sub-genre in which he makes intelligent fact-based films drawing out good acting performances from previously disregarded pretty boys. Breach follows his directorial debut Shattered Glass in which he drew an emotionally affecting performance from Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass, a reporter who nearly destroyed the reputation of The New Republic by making up stories. In Breach Ray manages to drag a good performance out of Ryan Phillipe, who convincingly plays that cinematic staple, the undercover agent who starts to sympathise with his prey. As FBI operative Eric O’Neal he spends the opening act of the film being astounded at the ordinariness of a man he has been assigned to spy on for suspected sexual misconduct. Once he penetrates the initial frosty reserve of Hanssen he finds a loyal, highly intelligent and kindly FBI analyst. Hanssen and his wife even invite O’Neal and his East German wife (Caroline Dhavernas) over for Sunday dinner. Following this O’Neal demands to know from his superiors why he is investigating Hanssen and is told by Laura Linney’s senior FBI agent that Hanssen is suspected not of sexual deviancy but of selling secrets. Ray creates scenes of almost unbearable suspense as the FBI try to acquire evidence against an agent who has consistently out-thought all their investigations to find the suspected mole.

Robert Hanssen, like Stephen Glass, remains even now an enigma. The reasons he gives Special Agent Plesac (Dennis Haysbert) for a previous traitor’s actions all seem to apply equally to himself, but while all are semi-plausible none truly convince. Hanssen is brilliantly portrayed by Cooper not just as a double agent but a double personality. He is a strict Catholic who secretly distributes home-made sex tapes, a loyal FBI man who tries to draw attention to implacable threats to American security but is in fact selling secrets to the Russians. The haunting final image powerfully conveys this self-tortured quality in a succinct summary of the subtlety of this film.

3/5

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August 1, 2012

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part V

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

 

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The Enigma of Billy Ray

Some weeks back I made a cryptic reference to the enigma of Billy Ray. Who the hell is Billy Ray you might ask? Well, that’s kind of a hard question to answer actually, as he appears to be two entirely different people; hence the enigma. On the one hand you have the writer/director Billy Ray, and on the other you have the screenwriter for hire Billy Ray. Billy Ray as a screenwriter is someone who writes reasonably big movies, like The Hunger Games or State of Play. This is his stock in trade, films with big names attached or big expectations, but not necessarily huge blockbuster budgets. And quite often they’re riddled with problems, not least with multiple writers getting in each other’s way as in the case of Hart’s War or Suspect Zero. But even when left on his own in the writing room to grind out a screenplay, for something like say Flightplan, Ray is always competent, but rarely inspiring. But as writer/director Billy Ray has made two auteurishly distinctive films, Shattered Glass and Breach. Both films are based on real life events, the former his own original screenplay, and the latter a severe rewrite by him of an existing script which made it feel like his previous directorial outing. Both films are low key dramas that become quite devastating, both feature excellent performances from an impressive ensemble of actors, and both, somehow, feature wonderful lead performances from pretty boy actors that few other directors seem able to coax such subtle turns from, Hayden Christensen and Ryan Phillipe. I once suggested that Robert Rodriguez had a bubbly twin he kept locked in the basement who wrote the Spy Kids movies for him, but with Billy Ray I’m boggled. He is, simply, an enigma.

Sounds like Metric

Two years ago I was blown away by Scott Pilgrim Vs the World and wrote a blog offering 7 reasons to love Edgar Wright’s comic extravaganza. One of those reasons concerned the distinctive sound of The Clash at Demonhead, the band fronted by Scott’s ex-girlfriend Envy Adams, who so blew away all the other bands showcased that Scott’s band-mate was left muttering “That was devastating” after the gig. “I’m not suggesting it’s actually Metric but it’s pleasing that Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich in composing the music for the film gave some variety to the styles of the different bands we hear and noticeably varied their quality even down to having the only song played by Scott’s ex-girlfriend and her successful band be actually kind of awesome…” That was what I wrote then. I recently re-watched Scott Pilgrim for the first time and was overjoyed to find that it stands up as an inventive and hilarious comedy, and slightly embarrassed to find that the reason it sounded like Metric was because it is Metric! Metric with Emily Haines’ vocals replaced by Brie Larson’s to be sure but Metric performing their song ‘Black Sheep’ nonetheless. And they rock, devastatingly…

March 22, 2012

The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence is on imperious form as survivalist heroine Katniss Everdeen but she outshines everything else in this frustrating adaptation of the hit novel.

The Hunger Games opens in a manner uncannily like her breakthrough movie Winter’s Bone with Lawrence again in the American South mothering a younger sibling owing to an absent father and an incapable mother. Katniss lives in District 12 of a futuristic America known as Panem. This is dirt-poor Appalachian coal-mining territory, and she hunts squirrels and game with a home-made bow and arrow to survive. Every year, as a requirement of the Treaty of the Treason which ended the Civil War 74 years before, each of the 12 Districts sends two ‘tributes’, picked at random from their citizens aged between 12 and 18, to the Capitol to take part in a sadistic reality TV show where they fight to the death until only one ‘victor’ remains. Katniss’ 12 year old sister Prim is picked and Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place and pit herself against the Spartans/psychopaths of Districts 1 and 2 who train only for this purpose.

Katniss and her neighbour Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked away to the Capitol by Effie (Elizabeth Banks) for a brief communal training period with the other tributes. They also get a makeover from Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and are advised by gloriously irascible mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former victor, to make themselves as likeable as possible to the television audience to attract sponsors; who can drop vital supplies into the ‘wilderness’ where the games are held. Banks is very funny delivering callous lines but I didn’t recognise her for ages because, like everyone else in the Capitol, she resembles a colour-blind New Romantic who sneezed in the make-up box. Well-to-do weasel Peeta takes Haymitch’s advice and declares his hitherto unsuspected love for Katniss on television to compensate for his lack of survival skills by creating a star-cross’d lovers narrative. Katniss’ reaction should get cheers… A crazily bearded Donald Sutherland is the President of Panem, who rebukes Wes Bentley’s conniving game-maker for allowing Katniss to endanger the purpose of the games with her seditious gestures. The tense games themselves are thrillingly realised, replete with shifting strategic alliances and obliquely brutal murders.

Lawrence is, predictably, a great action heroine. Intriguingly she is so in the Cameron maternal action heroine mould. Like Ripley in Aliens she combines a will of steel with being a surrogate mother. Katniss cares for the very young District 11 tribute Rue with such obvious love that she incites a riot in District 11. The flaws in The Hunger Games lie elsewhere. Director Gary Ross consistently shoots with an inexpertly adopted shaky-cam that true shaky-maestros Abrams or Greengrass would disavow as amateurish. Presumably he thinks he needs it to connect to a teenage audience, but it’s quite annoying. Amazingly though his recurring showily out of focus backgrounds and persistent close-in focus on the faces of his actors mirror the problems in the script he wrote with Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins. This film is infuriatingly lacking in scope. When action erupts we have no map of the environment it’s erupting within. When rebellion is whispered about we have almost no information about the history of Panem or what this society is actually like now.

This is a good film, but given the reputation of the novel any adaptation that’s less than great sends you scurrying to read the book.

3/5

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