By Anne Brodie
Big news this week! The 20th-anniversary 4K restoration release of Ang Lee’s masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The quadruple Oscar-winning landmark film, a departure for Lee whose prior work included Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil, and later Brokeback Mountain, changed the action genre. Lee’s sweeping cinematography, and stupendous, gravity-defying fight choreography, with Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat, and Zhang Ziyi made our jaws drop – and still do. Two women in ancient China, a warrior and a princess, set out to retrieve a fabled sword owned by Yeoh’s love interest and encounter a universe of danger and beauty. Their skills burst forth from the screen in scenes that have never been seen equalled for artistic originality and skill. Lee and his team, choreography by Yuen Wo Ping, cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma, and a closing song by Coco Lee, based on the novel by Wang Du Lu, made enduring magic. See for yourself. In theatres.
A Spy Among Friends on Prime Video, based on the Ben Macintyre bestselling book is an eye-opening look at the greatest traitor in modern times, British MI6 agent Kim Philby. He operated in the UK and the Soviet Union circa WWII through to the Cold War. Guy Pearce plays him as the ultimate picture of cool confidence. He was a top British agent but his heart belonged to Marxism and the Soviet Union, he operated in that dangerous netherworld skillfully evading discovery and winning multiple Russian awards for his service. He disliked the UK and its class system that oppressed workers and dedicated himself to the USSR principles and supremacy. He also wished to strike a blow against Nazi Germany. It’s 1963 and his best friend, longtime British spy Nicholas Elliott (Damien Lewis) is under investigation for allowing Philbin to escape from Beirut to Russia. He defected, choosing USSR over his family after having been responsible, MI6 believed, for hundreds or thousands of deaths in his work for Russia. Elliott under scrutiny by enigmatic hard nut Lilly (Anna Maxwell Martin) comes to realize that his 23-year friendship with Philbin was a lie, that Philbin led a double life. And Elliott is now under suspicion as a double agent. So what happened in Beirut? Fascinating insights into tradecraft, the burden of secrecy, and relationships strained by the work or proximity to it. Philbin’s career takes him around the world and unbelievably, to a prestigious post in Washington. Six episodes educate us about the business that no longer exists in those ways. Technology changed the game. Fascinating, if horrifying.
Liam Neeson’s 100th film Marlowe directed by Neil Jordan, also stars Diane Kruger, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, and Danny Huston. It’s in steamy noir-era Hollywood, 1939. Phillip Marlow is a canny private sleuth working the mean streets when a hard-boiled dame Clare a.k.a. Cavendish (Kruger), daughter of Dorothy a major movie star (played as magnificently frisky and embittered by Jessica Lange) shows up. Seems her lover Nico (François Arnaud) has gone missing. He was reported killed in a hit-and-run seven weeks earlier but she’s not buying it – she has seen him in public. Her mother’s dating the Ambassador to the UK – a tumultuous union that plays out at a palatial club, frequented by Clare, Dorothy and various unsavouries, run by Floyd (Huston) who seems to have it in for Marlow from the get-go. It’s also where Nico allegedly died. Seems he was to enter into a business deal with Clare against her mother’s wishes- she tells Marlowe that Clare is unstable, a Black Horse and isn’t to be trusted. Marlow uncovers murder, depravity, corruption, and danger, pure 30s noir set against the brilliant, steamy, sensual golden hour tones of an idealised southern California. Marlowe’s fun, unusual, Lange’s fabulously outre, Neeson’s snoop whose height and physical presence dominate, but no signature action moves. Kruger’s cool ambition, Huston’s seething rage – it’s all there. Jordan had fun with this. Based on the 2014 novel The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black, it is not one of Raymond Chandler’s original Marlowe works. In theatres.
The Apple Original Film Sharper has teeth, a suspenseful, shocking foray into the minds of elite Manhattan thieves that will leave you gasping. A “sharper” differs from a con artist in that sharper plots elaborate, multi-layered cheats while con artists tend to act randomly. The 1737 Dictionary of Thieving Slang defines a sharper as “A Cheat, One who lives by his wits.” Julianne Moore and her husband Bart Freundlich produced the film which provides her with an all-new character for her actor’s toolbox. The plot is genius, the beat constant, relentless and wow – insights into why savvy folks are so often successfully targeted. Sandra (Briana Middleton) and Tom (Justice Smith) meet in a bookstore and there’s a glimmer of attraction. She impresses him with her literary knowledge and sophistication and they begin an affair when one night a man tries to break into her apartment demanding money. We meet Sandy, an addict whose arrest is stopped by Max (Sebastian Stan) when he bribes her parole officer. He makes her learn literature, society, science, and world news and gives her a fake background including time spent at Vassar and in Italy. He assigns her to meet a certain man and take him to bed within 40 minutes. He takes her to meet his parents (Moore and John Lithgow) and lo and behold, Tom is their son. This whiplash noir challenges and captivates and is full of fun surprises, and a cautionary look at sharpers.
Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Helen Hood Scheer’s documentary Body Parts in select theatres and on TVOD examines the troubling and longstanding realities actors face on film sets shooting sex scenes. The findings -post #TimesUp are disturbing, as actors step forward to reveal harm suffered on sets. See how things were before the advent of “Intimacy Co-Ordinators”, a new SAG code of conduct, and revelations of abuses perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein and others. Advocates Jane Fonda, Joey Soloway, Angela Robinson, Karyn Kusama, Rose McGowan, Rosanna Arquette, Alexandra Billings, Stacy Rukeyser, Emily Meade, David Simon, and Tanya Saracho reveal their experiences as aspiring young actors trying to please everyone, being violated, exploited and lied to. To put things into perspective there’s a history of the “male gaze” in film starting with Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies in 1872 of naked women seen differently than the men he photographed. The ’20s and ’30s were great years for women in film as characters were self-determined, willful, strong, held their own, and experienced sexuality on their terms. But the Hayes Code shut down Hollywood’s egalitarian sexual explorations and held sway for decades. Currently, there are protections for people working in studio films, on paper, but independent and foreign films have none. Actor Sarah Scott details how scene partner Kip Pardue assaulted her twice on the set of Mogulettes and SAG told her not to report him. She did and lays out her story. Rose McGowan’s staunch activism is one of the doc’s greatest takeaways- she and others are fighting the fight. This may curl your hair but sheds light on what you’ve been watching all these years. It’s not pleasant.
The Black Screen Office and CBC host a screening of The Nature of Things: Secret Agents of the Underground Railroad, Thursday night, a terrific documentary, kind of an archeological thriller, about the unearthing of proof of the crucial history of Black resistance 1840- 1863 at Niagara Falls. The Cataract Hotel once stood at Buffalo and Main on the US side of the Falls, where Black wait staff not only served the well-to-do patrons but planned and executed the escape to freedom of the enslaved servants they brought with them. The doc, hosted by Anthony Morgan and featuring Saladin Allah, will be discussed in a post-screening Q&A with director Morgan, Allah, Adrian Callender, and Richard Jean-Baptiste. That’s Feb 23 at 6:30 pm at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Tickets are free but must be reserved at www.hotdocs.ca/whats-on/films/secret-agents.