Ivan’s Childhood

I hadn’t heard of director Andrei Tarkovsky before. Nor had I ever heard of actor Nikolay Burlyaev. I haven’t seen many Russian films and I wasn’t particularly looking for a difficult film but something about Tarkovsky’s WWII film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) grabbed me though it took a while.

Around 12 years old, Ivan dreams of his idyllic childhood playing at the beach, chatting with his young mother, running freely. Then he wakes up. He’s in a dark, war-torn, God-forsaken landscape. He trudges through a murky river (which looks like a marsh, but it’s a degenerated river and a symbol the effects of war) before he’s captured by Russian soldiers. Back at the soldiers’ post, Ivan is fierce and orders the soldiers about. He orders the soldiers to call “Number 51 at HQ.” They try to put him in his place, but you’ve never seen a fiercer 12 year old. Played by Nikolay Burlyaev, Ivan is like no character you’ve ever seen. In the dream sequences he’s pure and innocence; once he’s orphaned and becomes an army scout Ivan’s transformed to a force of nature on par with a hurricane.

Ivan prevails in convincing his comrades in arms that he should continue his reconnaissance work and not get shipped off to the much safer military school. Viewing the film, I knew that the soldiers should not have agreed, but that’s where the suspense comes in.

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Tarkovsky gives us amazing images like none I’ve ever seen. He believed in using the environment like the murky river, a bombed peasant farm house and a white birch forest speak volumes. I’ll never forget the dream sequence when Ivan and a little girl are riding in a pick up truck filled with apples. The sky and trees are shown in the negative, which was mind-blowing.

There’s a lot of intense emotion. One example is a scene with an officer flirting with a female junior officer who’s very tentative. He wants her; it’s not clear what she wants. Without graphic nudity or direct language Tarkovsky gives us a powerful scene of cat and mouse in the birch forest that goes on forever.

The Criterion Collection DVD comes with fascinating extras including an interview with the now grown (i.e. middle aged) Nickolay Burlyaev, who recalls how hard Tarkovsky made him work to get the part and then how kind and sensitive the director was during the filming of this emotionally intense story.

I found the film challenging to watch. It’s no day at the beach, which is fitting for a war film. Yet Ivan’s Childhood is well worth watching.

 

 

Hopscotch

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Starring Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterson and Ned Beatty, Hopscotch (1980) entertains with wry, sometimes corny humor and a clever cat and mouse plot. Matthau plays Kendig, a top CIA operative who bugs the big boss and plays by his own rules. Beatty plays the big boss who intends to place Kendig in a desk job till he retires. Kendig won’t have it. He shreds his personnel file and goes on the run. His first stop is to meet Isobel, his lover from way back when. There’s plenty of witty repartee between them. Isobel often plays the mother to Kendig’s naughty boy, but underneath her stern façade Isobel thoroughly enjoys Kendig’s antics.

Beatty plays Myerson, the consummate manager, who has no imagination and follows everything by the book. He’s certainly a stereotype, but as the movie hops along and a good clip, I didn’t mind. The film’s aim is to entertain, nothing more.

Sam Waterson plays Cutter, a fan of Kendig, who’ll take his mentor’s job and who’s sent to track down Kendig. Cutter admires Kendig and doesn’t feel Kendig deserves a desk, but he follows orders and hops around Europe and the U.S. trying to catch Kendig.

The ending provides a nice surprise, and though some of the dialog now seems stilted. It’s a shock that a few decades ago Hopscotch got an R rating. Now you’d hear the few profanities and see the little love scenes on TV during what was the “Family Hour.”

I liked how Kendig represented the experienced, skilled older professional who’s value is undervalued.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

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Based on John le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold stars Richard Burton as a jaded, used, alcoholic spy, who’s seemingly put out to pasture then pulled back in when the blue bloods running MI-6 need him. It’s a trip back to the cold war. Michael Sragow’s essay for the Criterion Collection aptly captures the essence of the film:

Martin Ritt’s 1965 movie of John le Carré’s first great novel (and first best seller), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, declares “a plague on all your houses” to capitalists, Communists, and ruthless intelligence operatives. It’s one espionage movie that neither comes on like gangbusters nor sneaks up on you like a cat burglar. Instead, it creates an atmosphere of anguish, fear, and rage that intensifies each pause in the action and gesture of the actors, leaving viewers hanging on every word of the sometimes cryptic, sometimes eloquent dialogue.

Alec Leamas (Burton) is a middle-aged, run down spy. His boss called “Control” offers him a desk job, which he refuses leading to a scheme whereby Leamas is to take a boring, low paying clerk job at a library, where he meets the fetching Nan Perry (Claire Bloom, who at one time was romantically linked to Burton). The romance redeems Leamas, but that doesn’t matter to MI-6. They propose that Leamas return to the service posing as a double agent with East Germany.

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He goes along with the plan to be taken by the East Germans and cosy up to Fiedler, an East German Jewish intelligence officer who seeks to convict Mundt, a double agent who’s leaked secrets to the west. The counterpoint of the tender relationship with Nan and the sordid world of espionage add a compelling tension.  The plot twists and turns while engaging in incisive repartee. The unexpected ending chills to the bone.

The Criterion Collection extras include a candid interview with le Carré, who while he didn’t hate the film, didn’t think it was that great and a short documentary on le Carré’s biography focussing on the influence his duplicitous father had on his joining MI-6, illuminate the film.

The 39 Steps

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This week’s old movie was Hitchcock’s 39 Steps (1935), which reminded me a lot of Ministry of Fear and North by Northwest, another Hitchcock film. Still 39 Steps is compelling and moves quickly as it shows a man who mistakenly gets caught up in spy intrigue and is innocent of a murder for which the police suspect him. I’d never seen the leading man, Robert Donat, but liked him in the role of Mr. Hanney. Dona’s charming and attractive, but not an Adonis so he can come off as an everyman.

After a strange, beautiful woman asks to go back with him to his apartment. Once inside she hides in the shadows, fearful of being seen. Men are following her. She claims to be a spy who must protect military secrets. She’s a mercenary and her tale is hard to believe. Hanney really doesn’t put much faith into her story, but he doesn’t kick her out either. When she comes to him in the middle of the night with a map and a knife stuck in her back, Hanney’s convinced. Knowing he’ll be suspected of murder he flees all the while having to elude the men who killed the beautiful spy.

Like many Hitchcock films it’s the tale of an innocent man, wrongly accused. Roger Ebert told a film class I took with him that as a boy, Hitchcock’s father wrongly suspected the young genius of some childish misdemeanor and punished him by sending him to the local police where an officer locked him up saying, “This is what we do with naughty boys.” Hitchcock believed he was 4 or 5 at the time.

The 39 Steps moves briskly in part to keep the audience from pondering unexplained questions like how did the killers get into Hanney’s apartment so quietly and why didn’t they do something to Hanney since they saw the pair enter the building.  The film delights with wit and light comedy sprinkled in with the suspense and danger.

As usual, the Criterion Collection offers a trenchant essay on the film. Well worth reading.

Catching Up: Mr Selfridge Episode 8

Harry returns, the press descends

Harry’s back!

May 4th Americans saw Harry Selfridge return to chaos at home. Loxley has framed him for a scandal with the military procurement committee so it looks like he profited by getting the Brits shoddy boots for their soldiers. Not a word of truth in that, but no one will believe him and only The Times prints his side of the story. On top of that, Henri LeClair is being held at the American Embassy since he’s suspected of embezzlement.

Harry bravely enters his store through the front past the vultures or journalists await. He’s determined to face things head on. The store’s dead. Few customers want to shop in a store with this black cloud hanging over it and raving protesters outside accosting all who enter.

Till now I hadn’t realized how many fresh flowers there were in the store. How lovely! I grow more nostalgic each week.

Lady Mae is at a posh hotel with her maid, who informs her that her bank draft was refused and the hotel wants its money. Mae plans to sell the jewels she stored in the safe deposit box. Married to Lord Loxley, she should have store more and loads of cash for years in banks all over the city if possible.

Snake in the grass, Delphine, who I think is worse that Mr Thackeray, visits Rose to get the scoop on Harry’s return and to offer to cheer Harry up with “stardust,” i.e. a dash of Hollywood. Rose handles her perfectly. She’s friendly, but skeptical in a way that’s not rude, but sincerely shows that Delphine’s help with Harry isn’t needed. Rose isn’t going to stop Delphine’s plan, which shows confidence in Harry and in herself.

With friends like these, Rose . . .

Harry debriefs Bill Summertime apprising him of how met with a German manufacturer who’ll help the Brits and mentioning how the Germans questioned him for hours and ransacked his room. Bill offers little appreciation and no help whatsoever with the problem with the boot scandal.

Harry does speak to his staff assuring them that Frank wrote a pack of lies and that he’d get to the bottom of this. Neither Frank nor Rose have had great luck with friends in London.

Continue reading “Catching Up: Mr Selfridge Episode 8”

mr selfridge, recap & comments

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The opening this Mr. Selfridge episode with the removal of all German products was a great way to show the patriotism and anti-German sentiment of the day.

Poor Franco, Victor’s dashing brother, got rejected when the brown-haired girl at the cosmetics counter wouldn’t go out with him because her father forbids her to date “foreign” men. Mind you Franco was born in Britain. Seems she could have been more diplomatic.

The weasel-y Thackery spies outside the store to see what Henri’s up to. He disapproves of Henri’s hat, a Hamburg, though we learn that during the war they were renamed. Agnes was still upset with Henri, who does owe her an apology for being so abrupt and rude the day before.

At home Harry finishes an early morning interview with his reporter friend Frank. Harry makes it clear that he disapproves of the U.S. profiting from war by selling to both the Germans and British. I do agree and didn’t realize we did that. We also learn from Rose that Americans are hurrying home to the U.S.

Gordon, who’s now promoted to the tea department, is getting friendly with Miss Calthorpe, the young lady who’s training him. They do make a good couple and he’s gallant enough to buy her sister a beautiful doll after remembering something she mentioned in passing.

In a department meeting Kitty manages to take a compliment and turn it around to put down all the other department heads. I enjoy her lack of self-knowledge and her usually harmless egotistical quips that just make her look silly in spite of herself. Miss Mardle’s heavy sigh said it all. I love how the shows humor surfaces from Kitty, Mr. Crabb and sometimes Mr. Grove’s little blunders. Harry shares a nice moment with Miss Mardle encouraging her to enjoy her money. Yes, live a little, Miss Mardle. “Your brother would have wanted it.”

At the Loxley house, Lord L slinked into Lady L’s room while she’s preparing her toilette. He’s discovered signs she has a lover and tsk-tsks her in his cold-blooded fashion. He certainly is part reptile. You realize he minimally cares about her. No passion, no anger. It’s all about control. He’s somehow gotten the key to her door. God knows why she let that out of her sight. She’s missed a beat and that’s not like her. She’s quite sad and I think rather fearful that this abusive man has taken her key. I would say she should get another lock tout suite.

Next Bill Summertime (yes, that’s his name) barges in on Harry at work and proposes he help the war effort by spying for the secret service. Harry’s non-committal but will think it over. This could get very interesting and does.

Kitty secures a dinner invitation from Frank who breezes into the store to show Harry his article. Talk about a quick turn around. Seems the interview was before work. When Miss Mardle kindly advises Kitty to be wary of Frank, the known philanderer, Kitty again puts her in her place with a snide personal jibe. If you only knew, Kitty. Miss Mardle has enjoyed a man’s company, just the wrong man’s company –or way too long up till 5 years ago more or less. She knows whereof she speaks.

Thackery throws some barbs Henri’s way. He brings up his Hamburg and notes that his shoes are also made in Germany. Talk about obsessed. Henri brushes off both comments and tells Thackery to dress the mannequins properly. Yes, Thackery, keep your mind on your work. Your department’s slipping. I do wish we could see some of Thackery’s underlings. I imagine many would aim for transfers or quit with regularity.

Harry tells Frank that he’s not at all interested in the procurement committee and that he doesn’t trust Loxley in the least. (Note this for next week, folks.)

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Delphine receives a huge shipment of liquor from Harry, which she takes as a sign. The cogs in her head go full throttle and we can tell she’s got Harry in her sights. Poor, Rose. Who needs such “friends”? I’m guessing Harry is just generous. There’s no sign (yet) that he’s got an interest in Delphine, who fancies herself an expert in men and believes the lie that “I understand him so much better than his wife.” Moreover, she’s distancing herself from Rose, reflecting her invitations with feeble excuses. Yes, it’s easier to seduce a man’s husband if you aren’t friends with her. Though it seemed that Jim was sweet on Delphine and wise enough to suggest that perhaps Delphine doesn’t understand Harry. He was just way too subtle for Delphine.

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Mr. Thackery slithered into Mr. Grove’s office insinuating that Msgr. LeClair is a spy because he looked unkempt and seems secretive. It’s clear that Mr. Groves is just annoyed, but now has to speak with Henri.

Speaking of Henri, in a memorable scene outside the store he is with Agnes, who wears a lovely embroidered jacket. A discussion of whether Agnes could do better than the honest, hardworking Victor leads to her asking him about his secrets. Henri behaves very French-ly (Frenchesque?) and reflects her questions and rebuffs her. She’s saved by Victor’s entrance and he escorts her off to a night of fun at a variety show.

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The show was fun and Miss Mardle and Florian, the Belgian border join Victor and Agnes. (Odd that Victor didn’t mention the male boarder at the store where the news could travel. Was he sworn to secrecy? How does he feel about the “arrangement”?) Back stage Mae asks Richard Chapman, the singer to perform at the Selfridge patriotic concert. She remembers her days on the stage as a popular entertainer when men would lie at her feet in swarms apparently. Richard’s an old friend and Mae soon shares that she’s made a terrible decision, that staying with Lord Loxley is hell. She’s funny, honest, vulnerable and wise.

Gordon surprises Miss Calthorpe with the gift of a doll for her sister, who has few toys. So sweet.

As Henri goes up to see Mr. Groves about Thackery’s troublesome speculations, Agnes hangs up his coat in a way that suggests she’s not over him. I wanted her to go through his pockets in search of clues about his secret. How terrible of me.

Rather than tell Mr. Groves what he’s been up to Henri announces he’s going to hand in his notice. At first it seems like another rash decision just like the end of season 1, but perhaps he is wise. He’s hiding something and did warn Harry that his return to the store wouldn’t be good for anyone. Such cloak and dagger stuff, Henri. What are you up to? I believe and hope there’s a perfectly reasonable, even honorable explanation.

(Grégory Fitoussi’s characters land in jail a lot. Poor Pierre from Spiral, a.k.a. Engrenage was in a terrible fix. Check it out on Netflix. Warning – that French police show is gritty, violent, but the acting is superb.)

After getting a bank loan to reopen his uncle’s restaurant, Victor proposes to Agnes. He thinks it’d be great for them to marry and run the restaurant together. Well, Agnes accepts, so I suppose she is done with Mr. LeClair, but run a restaurant? When you could continue with your career at Selfridges? Agnes, really?

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The show ends with a riveting sequence of scenes cutting between the concert, where Richard brings Mae on stage much to Lord Loxley’s extreme displeasure, to Henri’s search for Harry, who’s been whisked off to Germany to spy, to Henri’s arrest for espionage. The action and cuts from each scene to the next were powerful, some of the best television has offered.

Viewers were left stunned, waiting for more and the next episode is sure to deliver. Do not miss it.

Drama like this is rare and I hope the Mr Selfridge writer is wise enough to stick with WWI for more than one season.

The Exam

The Exam

A Hungarian film, that’s won some festival awards, The Exam (A Visgva in Hungarian) is a terrific thriller that’s hard to find. I saw it on my flight home from China. It’s not on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. However, it’s captivating and well worth seeing.

Directed by Péter Bergendy and written by Hungary’s prolific, accomplished Norbert Köbli, The Exam is a spy thriller that shows the secret police spying on themselves, testing agent’s loyalty in 1957.

As Christmas approaches, Jung, an exemplary spy who interviews citizens from all walks of life to ferret out the counter revolutionaries, doesn’t realize that his mentor Marko is spying on him, recording his every move as part of a program to spy on the spies.

The film recreates Communist Hungary and all the distrust and suspicion inherent in that regime. It’s tense and keeps the audience guessing, much like The Lives of Others did. The acting is masterful and the plot keeps viewers riveted.  The juxtaposition of Christmas images, the tree, ornaments, and an angel with spy tools, tape recorders and guns in the opening credits captivates. I wish this “must-see” wasn’t so hard to find.