All the Old Knives

Release: Friday, April 8, 2022 (limited)

👀 Amazon Prime

Written by: Olen Steinhauer 

Directed by: Janus Metz

Starring: Chris Pine; Thandiwe Newton; Laurence Fishburne; Jonathan Pryce; David Dawson; Corey Johnson

Distributor: Amazon Studios

 

 

 

***/*****

All the Old Knives finds stars Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton locked into one of the longest dinner scenes ever put to film. You can imagine the importance of the conversation when it requires the entire length of the movie for it to transpire. Indeed the stakes are higher than your average dinner date, and it’s this back-and-forth from which director Janus Metz manages to build out a familiar but consistently engaging spy thriller, one in which profession and passion blur together in dangerous ways.

The two respectively play Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison, a pair of CIA agents and ex-lovers brought back together at a luxurious restaurant where not even the spectacular Californian sunset can distract from the unpleasant business at hand. An old case, a 2012 hijacking of a Turkish Alliance passenger plane which ended in tragedy, has been reopened after new information comes to light there was a mole inside the Vienna station where Henry and Celia worked. Eight years later and Henry has been sent by station chief Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne) to sniff out the leak — a task that will require Henry to face his ex for the first time since she abruptly cut ties with him and the agency following the disaster.

All the Old Knives is a talky espionage thriller that feels more like a mystery with the way it plays with perspective and strategically slips in red herrings between the rounds of red wine. Set within a world more apropos of John le Carré than Ian Fleming, the story, written by Olen Steinhauer who adapts the material from his own novel, eschews foot chases and big shoot-outs and leans more into the cerebral. Avoiding the trap of creating a stagy and static experience, Metz opens up his single-room setting with a flashback-heavy structure, peeling the layers of the onion to get to the core truth (which may or may not wow you depending on your aptitude for guessing twists).

Celia’s recollection does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of set-up, placing us amidst the chaotic scene at the Vienna branch. Yet as time progresses it becomes increasingly obvious we’re not getting the full picture. A group of four armed militants, led by Ilyas Shushani (Orli Shuka) whose backstory becomes a vital piece of the puzzle, has taken over a plane on the runway at Vienna International and is demanding the release of several of their allies from prison. Ahmed, a CIA courier, happens to be on board and feeds the team information, such as the fact the men have mounted a camera on the undercarriage of the plane and have begun using children as human shields.

Amid this walk down nightmare lane, another set of scenes fleshes out Henry’s point of view and what’s at stake for him personally and professionally. His itinerary takes him from Vienna to California by way of London where, at a pub, he corners a nervous and fidgety Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce), a senior agent who served as a mentor to Celia. Henry has reason to believe someone inside the team leaked information to the terrorists on board which prevented a successful rescue attempt from being carried out. And there’s some suspect circumstances surrounding Bill’s office phone that compels Henry to dig his claws in.

For all the well-trodden ground found in its exploration of trauma, loyalty and betrayal, All the Old Knives has a way of keeping you invested. A lot of that comes down to the performances, with the likes of Fishburne and Pryce elevating smaller parts with their considerable gravitas. However, most of the good stuff rides on the interplay between Pine and Newton, who frequently command the screen as each successive return to the table finds their Poker faces slowly morphing into something more pained. They make the guessing game entertaining as the perceived power dynamic shifts like water sloshing in a jug. 

However there are some things good acting and palpable tension can’t cover up, like the superfluous inclusion of a so-called supporting character — not exactly a deal-breaker, but an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise taut and efficient production. Taken all together, All the Old Knives may feature a number of tricks you’ve seen before, but Metz never allows the interest to wane or the layered storytelling to become convoluted. The Danish director braids together the complicated affairs of the heart and geopolitics in a way that makes for a constantly forward-ticking narrative even when the approach is decidedly slow burn.

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Moral of the Story: Despite popular misconception, this is not, in fact, a sequel to the 2019 whodunnit Knives Out. (That is actually going to be a movie called Glass Onion. Go figure.) This is a throwback thriller that moves at a deliberate pace and keeps the drama at street-level. A well-chosen cast makes the familiar elements more enticing and helps bring real humanity to slightly underwritten parts. All the Old Knives is the second feature-length film from Janus Metz. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “We cannot afford the embarrassment of a prosecution. I need to know the man I send can do what’s necessary.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.indiewire.com 

A Most Wanted Man

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Release: Friday, July 25, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

As all good things must, even A Most Wanted Man comes to an end.

And it’s going to take everything in my power to remain on the conservative side here, what with a possible capstone performance to mark the end of a career as towering as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. Trust me when I say experiencing the final moments of this film is no easy task; that is, if you hold any empathy for the troubled man at all. That’s not to say we won’t be seeing him around in other things, of course. He’ll reprise his role for The Mockingjay: Part 1 this November, and he’s also turned up in the lesser-known 2014 drama God’s Pocket.

But in A Most Wanted Man, here’s where we are obliged to bid adieu to that more significant part of a once-in-a-generation performer. The celluloid here acts as a time capsule, in which Hoffman seems permanently encased. Selfish for us to try, sure, but it’s such a great performance there’s no way we can let this be over. Eventually we’ll have to.

In a somewhat befittingly stressful turn as Günter Bachmann, the leader of a secretive intelligence operation based out of Hamburg, Germany, Hoffman becomes involved in the (mis)handling of a young half-Chechen, half-Russian illegal immigrant named Issa Karpov (an incredible Grigoriy Dobrygin) who’s fleeing from torture and persecution in both his home countries. Bachmann’s methods are not attuned to those maintained by his peers, particularly the snaky Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock) and his office’s roughneck tactics, and Bachmann holds a particular disdain for the Americans given a situation in the recent past. Pale, disheveled and with a cigarette permanently glued to his lips, Günter is the perfect enigma for Hoffman to decipher.

That the film does not become a sideshow to the real-life tragedy involving one of its cast members is almost miraculous. This will be the last of Hoffman’s lead roles, and while proximate his death, his work still remains relatively unaffected. He does, however, look physically exhausted in a number of scenes. But rather than directly confronting us with his sickly appearance, the film uses it for context, making great use of Hoffman’s tired expressions and measured delivery to express an epic character. His physique immediately conjures a lifetime of struggles.

In Anton Corbijn’s film, perspective taints objective reality. We spend our time with this rag-tag group of German intelligence operatives (whose casting includes the likes of Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss) but does this mean this is the right side of the tracks to be on? Who really ought to be dealing with this suspected terrorist? Is that precisely what Issa is, a terrorist? What could have become an overwhelmingly complex and dense narrative instead is surprisingly simplified without cutting out critical details — the scarring on Issa’s back is very telling of a dark history and helps cement his nightmarish reality.

Highly compelling material adapted from the novel by John le Carré is distributed evenly and effectively across the film’s myriad talented stars. Willem Dafoe steps in as Tommy Brue, the head of a German bank which may contain funds to be inherited by Issa from his father, a man he claims to have raped his mother in front of him when he was much younger, and when Mother was a mere 15 years old. (Again, despite the crowd-pleasing flavor of the thrill, one thing A Most Wanted Man can’t be accused of is glossing over pertinent stuff.) Robin Wright matches her intensity in House of Cards and continues to affirm her spot in the upper echelons of great thespians with a spectacular performance as CIA Agent Martha Sullivan, who comes to Günter’s assistance when he needs it least. Or so he has determined.

A Wanted Man is a fiercely accurate rendering of real-world events unfolding in a period as hectic as the last ten years have been, both in the Middle East and on a global scale. A fictitious account of one man’s journey through bureaucracy in a desperate investigation into what his real identity is — is he terrorist blood or an innocent civilian trying to escape oppression? — here’s a story that at least demands an open mind.

While we revere this strange German’s effectiveness at his duties, it is safe to say we revere the man behind the man more. If all good things have to come to an end, Hoffman’s story has come to a very good ending indeed. He is hands-down the reason to watch this film, and in a masterpiece such as this, that’s relatively high praise.

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4-0Recommendation: One of the very best films of the year, not just as a genre film or from a performance-standpoint, A Most Wanted Man is an excellent way to spend $10. For the Philip Seymour Hoffman fans (of which I believe there are at least one or two), for the Robin Wright fans, for fans of excellent adaptations of books (supposedly. . .I would now like to read this book). For anyone wanting relevance to the ongoing ideological struggles amongst the myriad countries ensnared in violent turmoil in the Middle East currently, and between them and a United States government that insists on making everything its business, you are compelled. . .nay, required to watch this film. It is that good.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “We find them. When they’re ours, we direct them at bigger targets. It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Casino Royale (2006)

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. . .as if it was going to be anything else! Or maybe the choice isn’t as obvious as I think it is. Despite the fact that 2006 doesn’t seem like much of a ‘throwback,’ per se, and that I just sent in a Guest List for the 007 Best Moments in this very film to The Cinema Monster, this still feels like one of the ultimate James Bond films.  . . a natural and perfect way to cap off a month of James Bond Throwbacks. Disagree? Well then you can do what the Puritans did: get the eff out! 😀 😀

In the spirit of getting out, indeed that is what happens today: out with the old and in with the new; a brand-spanking new style and tone to a franchise long since in decay with the advent of simply over-the-top technological devices and crummier and crummier stories. Much as I don’t want to call Brosnan one of the worst, he certainly had the unfortunate luck of being surrounded by some of the poorest material to date. 

Today’s food for thought: Casino Royale

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Status Active: November 17, 2006

[Theater]

Mission Briefing: Fresh off an assignment in which he must eliminate two targets in order to achieve double-0 status, Bond is now faced with the prospect of tracking down Le Chiffre, a cunning and merciless terrorist financier whose grip on the black market grows more powerful with each passing second. A high-stakes poker game set up in Montenegro will be Bond’s best chance of outwitting the dangerous man.

Mission Support: 

  • Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) — fiercely intelligent and every bit as poetically disdainful as the young, trigger-happy 007; represents the British treasury and keeps a watchful eye over Bond in the poker game; a close friend of 007 but whose true identity may not be entirely trusted
  • René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) — 007’s Montenegro contact and a shady fellow, also not to be entirely trusted; approach with caution
  • Solange (Caterina Murino) — girlfriend of Le Chiffre henchman Alex Dimitrios; possible distraction who could be in possession of some useful information; interrogate using any means necessary
  • Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) — American agent on behalf of the CIA
  • Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) — sinister second-tier threat to operations leaders, but is a known associate of Le Chiffre; approach with extreme prejudice
  • Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) — financier to several of the world’s most dangerous terrorists and a mathematical genius who likes to prove it playing his hand at cards; cold and emotionless, he is an excellent calculator of human behavior and persistent at getting what he wants; must be stopped at all costs
  • Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) — liaison for third-party organization whose identity is not yet identified; at this time MI6 holds Le Chiffre in higher priority than Mr. White, but he is nonetheless a figure of significance; approach with extreme prejudice

Q Branch: [ERROR – file missing]

Performance Evaluation: As if to give the Bond of old a mercy kill with this necessary re-booting of Britain’s most dangerous spy, director Martin Campbell set his sights on recapturing the cold steely pain of James Bond, bastard child and loyal protector of England. His selection of Daniel Craig and decision to dispense with much of the cheese that was beginning to bog the films down, were key in distinguishing Casino Royale as a truly compelling recounting of how Bond was born.

Not only does he wear the single-breasted Brioni dinner jacket — as noted by a certain perceptive British treasurer — with a level of disdain we aren’t used to witnessing before, but Craig’s willingness to sacrifice his body effects determination and aggression more in line with what readers of the beloved novels have consistently expected and even more consistently been denied. Not to mention, screenwriters smartly take advantage of contemporary issues such as post-September 11 paranoias and use them to champion relevance and gravitas that’s more convincing than Bond’s previous scuffles with the Soviets.

As Bond takes it upon himself to insert himself into the Bahamas and other exotic locales in an effort to track down MI6’s latest target, the man known as Le Chiffre, a brilliant and determined banker who earns his riches by funding global terrorism. Because he’s fresh on the job, M (played by Judi Dench in one of the film’s more frustrating yet ultimately understandable moves) finds herself with her hands full as she attempts to keep tabs on her fledgling 00 agent. Packed with spectacular action sequences — the opening parkour scene is particularly memorable — perhaps never more exotic locations, and possessing a refreshing level of vitality for both the character and the franchise, Casino Royale has managed to overcome the wave of skepticism initially facing it by delivering one of the sexiest and most thrilling installments yet.

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5-0Recommendation: It’s funny thinking back on the controversy surrounding the casting of Daniel Craig now, as he has continued to make the role his own ever since, following up this solid performance with equally convincing turns in Quantum of Solace and of course, most recently in Skyfall. He may not be everyone’s cup of tea; he’s certainly more callous than Brosnan and more physical and possibly more brutal than Connery, but it’s difficult to imagine the series persisting had it not been for Craig’s introduction. This first outing for him finds the spy at his most vulnerable. Anyone a fan of the books is sure to find great enjoyment in watching him develop here. Not to mention, this film suits fans of solid action films. They don’t get much better than this.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 144 mins.

Quoted:  “All right. . .by the cut of your suit, you went to Oxford or wherever. Naturally you think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain, my guess is you didn’t come from money, and your school friends never let you forget it. Which means that you were at that school by the grace of someone else’s charity: hence that chip on your shoulder. And since your first thought about me ran to orphan, that’s what I’d say you are. Oh, you are? I like this poker thing. And that makes perfect sense! Since MI6 looks for maladjusted young men, who give little thought to sacrificing others in order to protect queen and country. You know. . .former SAS types with easy smiles and expensive watches.”

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