Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #5

Time for another installment of Special Guest Picks! I met Robert Lovenheim of Movie With Me through blogging and we bonded right away. He’s cross-posted some of my reviews at his blog and now he’s giving me a chance to do likewise. His blog is a smorgasbord of international cinema, so let’s visit four different continents:

Priceless (France 2006, 104 min, dir: Pierre Salvadori, cast: Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh)

Audrey Tautou is not Audrey Hepburn. This much we knew in God is Great, I’m Not (2001), and Amelie (2001). But she is fetching, sexy, and appealing enough to float like a peach melba through films like Priceless. So much better than bombing completely in dogs like A Very Long Engagement (2004).

A barman and a female hustler (Audrey) meet on the French Riviera. She’s in pursuit of a rich man who will give her everything; he’s hunting for the same in a woman. Naturally they are not meant for each other, but then again, maybe they are. Director Pierre Salvadori is the “go to” guy in France for date night romance movies, but that doesn’t mean he’s a hack. On the contrary, he’s very good at what he does and in Priceless he struts his stuff. Where he earns his euros is in stoking the jealousy and desire of each character while they go about hustling their own private gravy train between the sheets.

Finally Audrey gives up her dream of money and runs away with her euro-centless (penniless) true love. Audrey is always best as the waif. Here she’s the kind who is so confused by what she thinks she wants that she almost looses her real love when he is right in front of her. It is so much better than watching her trying on all those big hats in Coco Before Chanel (2009). We are happier with Audrey in Priceless. Which is exactly the point. For the price of a movie ticket or a DVD you can have 104 minutes of joy.

Elsa & Fred (Argentina/Spain 2005, 108 min, dir: Marcos Carnevale, cast: Manuel Alexandre, China Zorrilla)

Manuel Alexandre has played roles in more films and TV shows than most small countries ever produce. He’s a serious movie actor. China Zorilla is a stage actor in comedies. Can a love story star a comedienne? Put them together and you have a pretty amazing pair, especially since China didn’t do her first film until age fifty.

78 year-old Fred, a widower, moves in across the hall from Elsa. She tells him about her life but it isn’t true. This woman wraps beautiful lies the way most people wrap Christmas presents. But she’s charming. You could put Elsa in a stalled elevator and she’d make friends with everyone in the car. What she doesn’t have is much time.

She’s suffering from-does it make a difference? It’s her secret. It’s going to kill her soon, so her fling with Fred is the last round. She leads him through adventures only a daring twenty-year old would try. My favorite is ordering a meal at the most expensive restaurant in town and then bolting the check. Who would suspect a grandma and grandpa doing their arthritic walk for the door were actually running for it?

Elsa has one last wish to top them all. She wants to go to Rome and jump in the Trevi fountain, just like Anita Ekberg did in La Dolce Vita (she was likened to Ekberg when she was young). The life force of Elsa’s character makes this movie. When Fred finally meets her ex-husband who she claimed was dead, he asks if he would do it again, given all he went through with her. The husband doesn’t hesitate. He says it was a wonderful ride, and she is an original. So is Elsa & Fred.

Sleep Dealer (Mexico 2008, 90 min. dir: Alex Rivera, cast: Luz Martinez, Jacob Vargas, Luis Fernando Pena

Cheap Mexican labor does the work we won’t, but in this futuristic vision we’ve figured out how to use them without ever letting them across the border. Alex Rivera’s ingenious “what if” movie shows a world that is the inheritor of H.G. Wells, “The Time Machine.” In that famous novel, humanity is divided between carefree people who live on the surface of the earth and busy themselves with frivolities; and the lowly workers who live below in lightless caverns. The Morlocks below, churn out the food and materials that allow the Eloi, above, to be carefree. Only problem: the Morlocks often snuck above at night and ate the Eloi.

Anyone who lives near the Mexican border knows about maquiladores. These are the sweatshop factories built on the other side (the dark side) near border cities. Low-paid Mexicans churn out toasters and table chairs for Wal-Mart. It’s all perfectly legal under the NAFTA treaty. They work for us but we don’t let them in.

Sleep Dealer has gone a step further. Mexicans who want to work are first fitted with metal receptors pierced into their flesh. They can then go to work in giant factories fitted with probes that fit the receptors. Once hooked up and wearing special vision goggles, they find themselves manipulating their arms and legs to control robots up in the US that do anything from baby sitting to picking fruit to working heavy construction.

The perfect solution to immigration! Import only the robots and let the drugged out, sleep deprived Mexicans do the hard labor so they can pay our giant corporations for their water, electricity, and food. Sleep Dealer is a small movie that has a lot to say, and what it says is so condemning that it is amazing so few have seen or listened.

Lemon Tree (Israel 2008, 106, dir: Eran Riklis, cast: Hiam Abbas, Ali Suliman)

If you’ve seen recent Israeli movies, you know Israel has already lost the war. Art usually precedes events. A nation that walls off its enemy while reserving the right to invade at will is blind: even with night vision goggles. Anything said of the Israelis can apply to us. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Viet Nam are not yet finished. At some point our guns will not protect us.

Lemon Tree is a simple tale about a backyard fence erected in the name of security. Nobody dies, nobody goes to prison. But nobody who puts up the fence thinks of the human cost. The human cost is what new Israeli films are about. Waltz with Bashir, also on MovieWithMe.com, is a complex narrative about Israeli sanctioned slaughter. Here as well, the human cost-not only to the enemy but to the Israeli soldiers: is never factored in. Films like these speak to moral fractures that can only widen.

In Lemon Tree, the new Israeli Defense Minister decides to build his dream country house right on the border with West Bank Palestine (a little improbably, but what the hell). His neighbor across the wire is a Palestinian woman who has been tending the lemon grove that was planted by her father. The minister’s security men decide the lemon grove offers potential cover to terrorist encroachment, and must be cut down. They offer to compensate the woman, but she doesn’t want the money, she wants her land and her lemons.

A young Palestinian lawyer takes her case and argues all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. He achieves a partial victory: they will cut down the trees near the border fence, and leave some of the ones farther away. It doesn’t help, and the person who seems to understand her plight, and her powerlessness the most; is the wife of the Defense Minister. They eye each other across the backyard border throughout the movie, yet meet only once, briefly, in court. Their eyes seem to ask: is this the only way we can live, do we actually understand each other better than we know?

In their rush to seal the border against all threats are the Israelis never pausing to see their enemy is also human? Regardless of your feelings on the politics, the performance of the Palestinian woman and her lawyer are so rich and subtle that the film is always engaging and human. Haim Abbas carries the weight of the Palestinian people in her eyes.

Robert Lovenheim is a longtime movie producer turned internet entrepreneur. There's a lot more at Robert's ambitious website, Movie With Me, which has has a ton of cool content in addition to his blog.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #5: The Exception That Proves The Over-Motivation Rule

Before I move on from over-motivation, I wanted to mention a rather humorous example that attempted to break this rule... I mentioned yesterday how they over-motivated the 1989 Batman by having the Joker kill Bruce Wayne’s parents. Well, the 2005 re-boot, Batman Begins, was a much better movie. And one of the things I most admired about it was its determination to restore Batman’s proper motivation.

Early on in that movie, there’s a whole scene devoted to the idea that Bruce Wayne is not seeking revenge. When the crook who killed his parents is about to be released, he waits outside the courthouse with a gun. His district-attorney-love-interest scolds him for the pettiness of that motive: The criminal was driven by poverty, and poverty is driven by corruption. If Bruce wants to stop others from being killed, he must direct his wrath at the socially-connected corruptors who create the conditions that create these criminals. Bruce agrees, throws his gun away, and goes off to become Batman. All right! I was very impressed! Finally a hero motivated by civic values, not just revenge!

But then, an interesting thing happens. It’s not really that bad, but it is pretty funny. Sure enough, that two-thirds point in the movie rolls around… And, sure enough, the producers demanded that obligatory scene where the battle becomes personal…

But how do you do that? It’s already been established that societal collapse killed Bruce’s parents, not any one criminal, right? Well, astoundingly, Bruce’s former mentor turned super-terrorist Liam Neeson comes to town, and makes a shocking admission: His organization specializes in causing societal destruction! Then he comes right out and taunts Bruce about it— (paraphrasing here) “That’s right! We caused the economic collapse that killed your parents!”

Well, at least they tried to fight it... But the producers will not be denied. Two-thirds of the way into every one of these movies, the villain must reveal that they killed the hero’s loved ones. Even if they did it in the most roundabout manner possible!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #4: Over-Motivation Is Just As Bad As Under-Motivation

Under-motivation is never good. It sometimes seems like every modern comedy (especially workplace romantic comedies) is motivated by two characters making a casual bet. I’ll bet you that I can go forty days without sex, or that I can get that guy to dump me in ten dates, or I can transform a bookworm into prom queen, or whatever.

These movies never work, and the problem is obvious from the premise: A bet is a weak motivation. They may stick with it through the early complications, just because they’re up for a challenge, but if things get emotionally dangerous for them, if they have to change themselves in order to succeed, they won’t do it—It was just a bet. So either the story is not going to really change the hero (which is something that always needs to happen), or the hero will go through hell and really change, all for the sake of a casual bet, and that would be totally unbelievable.

But over-motivation is just as bad. When I see over-motivation, I always blame the producer. Producers love a lot of motivation, and too much is never enough.

Why is over-motivation bad? Well, let’s look at some examples from the heyday of over-motivation, the late ’80. In Lethal Weapon, Mel Gibson has a lot of motivation to catch criminals. First and foremost, there’s his civic duty, but that concept was considered pretty laughable in the ‘80s, so let’s skip over that one. Secondly, there’s his paycheck. It is his job, after all. Third, he’s still got a death wish from the death of his wife. Fourth, he’s someone who cares about the victims, damn it! Any of these would be enough reason to go after the crooks. But then, two-thirds of the way through the movie, the villain is taunting him and reveals something that puts all of these other reasons to shame: “Oh, by the way, we’re also the people who killed your wife all those years ago!” Yowza! Way to escalate!

It gets even sillier in the second Lethal Weapon movie. In addition to the usual motivations, the bad guys also happen to be the personification of South African apartheid! But that’s still not enough, because these guys then kill Gibson’s new girlfriend! Then, just to top it all off, one of them is taunting Gibson and suddenly reveals “Oh, by the way, we also were part of that large group that killed your wife all those years ago!” Now that’s a lot of motivation!

Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie was another example. Everybody knows Batman’s motivation. It’s one of the strongest, clearest motivations that any character has ever had. A criminal gunned down his parents. He blames all criminals, so now he hunts them down one by one. His personal pain has become society’s gain. But in the 1989 movie, fighting for society was considered a suckers’ bet, so the Joker accidentally reveals that, by an extraordinary coincidence, he was also the guy who killed Batman’s parents, all those years ago.

So what’s wrong with the hero being super-motivated? The problem is that it makes them less heroic. Saving the city from a criminal was a heroic goal, but now he’s just on a revenge mission, and that’s not heroic at all. He’s over-motivated, so he becomes less interesting.

Likewise, in Training Day, Ethan Hawke finds out two-thirds of the way in that everything that has happened has been done intentionally to frame him for Denzel Washington’s crimes. The movie is no longer about one good cop who stands up to corruption, it’s about a schmuck who has to take Denzel down or go to jail himself. Worse, the hero didn’t bring this fate upon himself with his heroics—Denzel had the whole thing planned out before he even met Ethan!

Ethan isn’t actually much of a hero at all. He’s just some dude who got framed, then was lucky enough to have the bad guy explain everything in time for him to stop it. We thought it was going to be about a dramatic decision: will Ethan go along with Denzel’s corruption, or will he blow the whistle? But once we find out that it was all a trap, there are no decision left to make and thus no drama.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Underrated Movie #55: Bright Young Things

Title: Bright Young Things
Year: 2003
Director: Steven Fry
Writer: Steven Fry, based on the novel “Vile Bodies” by Evelyn Waugh
Stars: Stephen Campbell Moore, Emily Mortimer, James McAvoy, Michael Sheen, David Tennant, Jim Broadbent, Simon Callow, Peter O’Toole

The Story: A young novelist lacks the money to marry his posh sweetheart, so he becomes an anonymous gossip columnist, casting his withering eye on a frivolous world of partying aristocrats.

How it Came to be Underrated: Given that the movie is so unabashedly wed to the time, place and tone of Waugh’s novel, it seems rather strange that they changed the name, which couldn’t have helped with the marketing. And the name change caused people to confuse it with a very different London-set-movie from the same year, Dirty Pretty Things.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Waugh always presented himself as a Catholic moralist, supposedly on the side of the disapproving status quo against the dissolute gadabouts he portrayed, but it was never very convincing. He seemed to enjoy the revelry too much. Oh, his disgust was real enough, but the source of it was his own internal conflict, his irrepressible urge to subvert and debauch the aristocratic world that he’d been raised to revere.
  2. Fry strikes a tricky tone that veers between broad satire and quiet understatement. It’s frothy but ghastly, a world of liberation and shame, envy and desperation, yellow suede shoes and cocaine-fueled madness. But, because it’s Fry, he never fails to find a vein of humor. Emily Mortimer is particularly great at finding the comedy, even in tragic moments. I still hope that she’ll become a bigger star.
  3. Fascism and economic ruin are always lurking around the edges, but Fry finds in Waugh’s story a uncanny presentiment that, against all odds, the moral poison that would actually come to define the coming world was the tyranny of the pleasure principle.
  4. When I saw this movie, it seemed not at all surprising to see these people frivolously partying away the 1930s only to get brought down to earth by the coming of ‘the war.’ Only afterwards did I realize something peculiar—the book was actually written in the early ‘30s. How did Waugh know for sure the war was coming? When I read the book, I discovered that Waugh had just supposed a near-future war. In fact, the soldiers described in the book are using ray guns!

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: This is great, but the ultimate Waugh adaptation will always be the epic 1981 miniseries of Brideshead Revisited.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and on Watch Instantly.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Great Moments in Comics #2: The Phantom Meets the White Princess

After yesterday's Tintin entry, here's another one from the same era that also uses racially offensive iconography in the service of a subversive story. Lee Falk's The Phantom was the first spandex-wearing hero and he's still going strong today. This story (illustrated by Wilson McCoy) shows how Falk could take a basically-racist idea, the white hero who is worshipped by African jungle natives, and pretty much redeem it, by humanizing the tribes and wickedly satirizing the whites who seek to exploit them.

We begin far from the Phantom's jungle, at the desk of an American stenographer...

She quickly discovers that she's become a commodity. Eventually, the newfound source of wealth almost leads to war with another tribe. The Phantom, of course, puts a stop to that, and all's well that ends well...

Ba-bee! My favorite moment is the poor chef's-cap wearing local who can't get over the fact that "She ruined my potato soup."

Friday, March 26, 2010

Great Moments in Comics #1: Tintin REALLY Defeats the Indians

The earliest Tintin books, the ones that they no longer reprint, are fascistic and unpleasant. The later books, which are the most loved, are mostly apolitical. But, for me, there's that sweet spot in between, once creator Herge's personal politics started to improve, but he was still trying to work some satire into the mix. He never stopped working with racist caricatures, of course, but he was using them to try to say some subversive things for a while. This moment is from Tintin in America. Tintin has been trapped under a rock by a stereotypical Native-American-chief. He's been in Indian territory for days at this point, always on the run. What's his solution? Easy: he discovers oil. Within three hours, whites have replaced the prairie with a teeming metropolis.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Storyteller's Rulebook #3: Audiences Don't Want To Be Hurt Again

It’s the bane of any writer’s existence. The perpetual complaint: The main character isn’t lovable enough. This used to shock me. Why can’t audiences just meet the character halfway? Why do they need to be seduced every time? They've paid their money. They’re sitting in a darkened theater with nothing else to do for the next two hours. Why can’t they just choose to like the main character?

But that doesn’t happen. You do have to win an audience over, every time. Why? Because audiences, even though their ticket was non-refundable, are naturally inclined to keep their distance from your main character. They’ve learned that going to a movie is like going on a blind date. It doesn’t matter how much they’ve spent or how high their hopes are or how badly they want to have a good time, they still have to be cautious. They still have to be ready to check out if it’s not going well.

The problem is that audiences, like daters, have been hurt before. When you ask them to care about a character, you’re asking them to make themselves emotionally vulnerable. They’ve fallen in love with fictional characters before, and that was a wonderful feeling, but they’ve also been let down a lot. They know that it’s not worth it to force themselves to care about a character who isn’t worth caring about. And they really don’t want to discover that they care more about what happens to your character more than he cares about himself.

This is why a movie hero almost always needs to be active. A problem solver. No matter how smart or dumb or good or evil they are, they need to pursue a goal-- even if it’s an inane goal or a terrible goal. The audience isn’t going to choose to care until they're certain that the character cares about getting something done.

Please don’t ever watch the Orlando-Bloom-in-the-crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven. But if you do, take note of what happens when creators try to break this rule. See what happens when they say, “Let’s just point the camera at a character who’s passive and dull and doesn’t make any clever decisions until well after the two-hour mark. Let’s just tell the audience that this dud is the hero, and they’ll have to go along, right?” Nope. Audiences will sit there hating hating a movie for four damn hours rather than force themselves to care about Orlando Bloom. They know better.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Underrated Movie #54: Gold Diggers of 1933

Title: Gold Digger of 1933
Year: Guess…
Director: Melvyn LeRoy, musical sequences by Busby Berkeley
Writers: Erwin Gelsey, James Seymour, David Boehm and Ben Markson, based on a play by Avery Hopwood
Stars: Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon

The Story: Three showgirls are thrown out of work by the depression, but with a lot of dreaming and scheming they all get jobs in a toe-tapping show about the plight of the “forgotten man”.

How it Came to be Underrated: Two things gave me the wrong impression about this movie long before I saw it: First of all, it has the type of name that was already being parodied a few years later in Sullivan’s Travels, in which a director refuses to direct a mindless comedy called Ants in Your Pants of 1939. Then you had Blazing Saddles, which used a Busby-Berkeley-type director as shorthand for “dated ‘30s comedy”. Imagine how shocked I was when I actually saw the movie and found out how wild and smart it was.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Film histories can frequently perpetuate the myth that Hollywood movies succeeded during the Depression by pretending that nothing bad was going on. Hardly! This is a light musical comedy, but every single scene honestly confronts the bleak economic reality of its time in a clear-eyed way that current ‘topical’ movies wouldn’t dare replicate.
  2. This was the second of many pair-ups of toe-tappers Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell. Powell would eventually go on to show that he could handle a full range of rolls, not just song-and-dance. Keeler wasn’t so lucky. She specialized in roles about talentless singers and dancers. Guess why she developed that persona? Because she couldn’t sing or dance! And yet, she makes it work! She was the plucky little star who could be you! Hell, she was the star who wasn’t even as good as you!
  3. Partly because of the abstact overhead stills that are often shown to summarize his work, I falsely assumed that Berkley was only interested in bodies for the geometrical compositions they could create. Then I actually saw some of his movies— They’re earthy and sexy! This was before the production code was enforced, and movies had a raunchiness that they wouldn’t find again until the late sixties.

  4. Which brings us to the most deliriously mad musical moment ever: Powell woos Keeler in a number called “Petting in the Park”. She half-heartedly resists his advances, until she finally comes up with the perfect solution: a sheet-metal party dress that will let him pet all he wants without going too far. Or will it? Out of nowhere, a sprightly midget on roller skates arrives to keep the fun going: he’s brought a can opener! Powell and Keeler each get a randy gleam in their eyes as he happily shreds her metal dress! Yowza!

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: This movie was a follow-up to 42nd Street, and the third movie in the trinity was Footlight Parade. It’s three different variations on a theme, all choreographed by Berkeley, and all three are wonderfully watchable.

How Available Is It?: The dvd is chock full of special features. It’s a shame that I didn’t have time to watch any of them!

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Film Fun!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #2: A Movie Is About A Problem, Not A Person

I love The Sixth Sense (which I’ll spoil the ending of, if you haven’t seen it). And one reason I love The Sixth Sense is that it got me. I didn’t see the big twist coming. I later rewatched it, trying to figure out why I didn’t notice that Willis was dead, when suddenly I had a revelation that changed the way I write and even the way I watch movies: A movie is not about a person, it’s about a person’s problem.

Bruce Willis’s character is fighting with his wife. We assume that this is because he works too much. Actually, it’s because he’s an invisible ghost and she has no idea he’s still around. But here’s the crazy thing: they have scenes together throughout the movie. So why don’t we notice how extreme their lack of communication is? Why do we assume that they’re just freezing each other out? Because we’ve been trained to expect very lean storytelling in movies. The first time we watch the movie, we falsely infer that Willis and his wife are still saying a few words to each other every morning and evening, but we’re just not seeing that onscreen. A movie that only shows a couple fighting is not unusual, because a movie isn’t about a person’s whole life, it’s just about a person’s problem.

This is why they say not to begin a story with the hero getting up in the morning. That’s not when their problem started. This is also why they say that you should enter a scene in mid-conversation and leave before it’s done. You’re not following someone throughout their day, you just need to focus on one problem in their life.

This is also why they say that the central conflict has to begin in the very first scene, before we’ve even had a chance to get to know the character. First-time writers balk at this rule. Can’t we get to know the person for a few scenes before we know the problem? Nope. Because the movie isn’t about the person. It’s about the person’s problem.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Storyteller's Rulebook #1: Tell Stories, Show Character

All writers have it drilled into them from day one: “Show, Don’t Tell”. But it's easy to misapply this rule. There’s nothing worse than the film that begins with the slow pan across the hero’s shelf, showing us a photo of them in their hometown, then their med school diploma, then their stethoscope, etc… See, they’re showing, not telling! But they’ve gotten it all wrong.

In movies, as in life, it’s fine to tell your story, but you have to show character. Tell us he’s a doctor. Have him just say “I’m a doctor.” That’s fine. You can also tell us what he's doing there. “I was called in to save the president!” It's much simpler to just tell us the backstory rather than try to show it. But you have to show that he’s a jerk, or a nice guy, or a nice guy that's secretly a jerk, or a jerk that’s secretly a nice guy. That's what people mean when they say “show, don't tell.”

This is very much like real life . If someone tells me, “I’m a doctor,” I’ll probably believe him. If that doctor then tells me “I’m well-known and well-liked and very honorable,” I get suspicious. I don't want them to tell me that. I’m not going to believe them anyway. The only way I’ll believe that is if they show me. It’s the same way with writing. Audiences don’t mind being told what’s going on, but they’re not going to let you just tell them which characters to like or dislike.

In Dr. No, the title character tells us that he’s a doctor, and we believe him, even though we never see his stethoscope and never see him write any prescriptions. But he doesn’t tell us that he’s evil. (Of course, before we meet him, a number of characters tell us that he’s evil, but even then we can’t necessarily believe them. In another James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, the person who we’re told will be the villain turns out to actually be a nice guy.) When we meet Dr. No, he shows us his character. Yup, he’s evil, all right.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Underrated Movie #53: Hopscotch

Title: Hopscotch
Year: 1980
Director: Ronald Neame
Writers: Brian Garfield and Bryan Forbes, based on the novel by Garfield
Stars: Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterson, Ned Beatty

The Story: A laid-back old-school CIA man gets unceremoniously fired by his new neo-con boss. Rather than fade away, he decides to set off a few bombshells, in the form of a tell-all memoir. But does he really want to blow the whistle or is he just jerking their chain? He keeps everybody guessing right until the climax.

How it Came to be Underrated: Ronald Neame (The Horse’s Mouth) was a fine but anonymous director. By consistently letting story take precedence over style, he ensured that his movies would be good but also that his name would be totally forgotten. Even his best-known-for-the-worst-reasons movie, The Poseidon Adventure, is better than its reputation.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Almost all spy movies are super-spy movies. I don’t mind—I love super-spy movies, but all that imaginary derring-do has hidden one fact from the world, that real down-in-the-mud spy work is actually quite fascinating. Very few movies have dared to turn over that rock and get to know the worms squirming underneath, but this movie shows how much fun dirty work can be.
  2. I read a lot of spy non-fiction, but probably my favorite true-life spy story is hidden inside another book: the story of Gust Avrakatos is merely a sub-plot in George Cirile’s masterwork Charlie Wilson’s War (the book, not the terrible movie) but it’s the most brutal and hilarious true confession of a dirty trickster you’re ever likely to read. Avrakatos’s relationship with his boss Clair George wasn’t public knowledge in 1980, but Garfield must have known his stuff, because it’s extremely similar to the relationship shown here between Matthau and Beatty.
  3. The dialogue is as clever and sparkling as you can get while still feeling believable. This movie shows the difference between ‘banter’ and actual smart talk.
  4. Matthau’s infinite charm makes this movie a lot of fun, but what gives it its bite is the underlying horror about the dirty tricks that had recently been revealed by Congress’s Church Committee. Amazingly, every time Matthau mentions a “dirty trick” in his memoir, it’s a real-world accusation—the sorts of things that hadn’t been confirmed at the time but are well-known now, featuring names such as Duvalier and Somoza.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: A darker, even more realistic depiction of spycraft from around this time was the British TV epic The Sandbaggers, newly out on DVD.

How Available is It?: It's on DVD and available to Watch Instantly.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: America's Undercover Ace!