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MOVIE REVIEW: THE NOVEMBER MAN and LIFE OF CRIME

 

August 25, 2014

Labor Day at the movies kicks it in to high gear with some great films, great fun, great casts and great storytelling. And surprisingly, while I am always hesitant about book-to-screen adaptations, I have to say that both THE NOVEMBER MAN and LIFE OF CRIME are wonderful adaptations that never lose the flavor or fun of the printed page. From Bill Granger's best seller of international crime and intrigue, "There Are No Spies" and from the Elmore Leonard classic, "The Switch", both are now on the big screen as THE NOVEMBER MAN and LIFE OF CRIME, respectively. (And since it's a holiday weekend, you've got time to see the films AND read the books!)

NOVEMBER MAN

Tougher than Steele! Better than Bond. Brains over gadgets. It's Brosnan, Pierce Brosnan, as THE NOVEMBER MAN. At the top of his game, Brosnan engages and entices with a mature intelligent sexiness that will have you begging for a film franchise based on the book series. Bringing a seasoned meld of action and psychological intrigue that only comes with experience and maturity, THE NOVEMBER MAN is a riveting edge of your seat thriller!

It's 2008. Montenegro. CIA operative Peter Devereaux and his trainee David Mason are trying to thwart an assassination attempt.. Hot-headed and not inclined to follow orders, Mason makes a tragic mistake during the operation, a mistake that leaves a child dead. Mason is anything but pleased when reprimanded by Devereaux, while Devereaux himself is shaken to the core over the child's death.

Fast forward five years and we find Devereaux happily retired, living a simple and beautiful life in pastoral Switzerland when called back into the field by his old boss Hanley for a top secret extraction of undercover operative Natalia in Moscow who has uncovered a conspiracy involving the new Russian President, Federov. But something goes terribly wrong with the extraction and Natalia is killed - by Mason (who somehow managed to rise about his prior failures to become the CIA poster child). What Mason doesn't realize is that by killing Natalia, he just became a target for Devereaux who will stop at nothing to avenge Natalia's death.

Off the grid and gone rogue, Devereaux becomes embroiled in a cat and mouse game with Mason as each tries to not only beat the other to learn what Natalia had uncovered, but to kill the other. Mason has been ordered to kill Devereaux while Devereaux seeks revenge. But Mason seems to forget the old adage of mentors - "I may have taught you all you know, but I didn't teach you all that I know."

As secrets emerge, red herrings fuel the intrigue, and a geopolitical nightmare unfolds involving sex trafficking, war refugees and possible US involvement in the first Chechen War, all destined to come crashing down on Federov and/or the unknown player behind the scenes, with everything linked to a woman named Alice Fournier, a woman who is now at Devereaux's side.

Pierce Brosnan was tailor made for Peter Devereaux. Also producing the film, Brosnan recalls, "[A]fter my four outings as James Bond, there seemed to be unfinished business. And the way that the Bond finished in my life and the demise of Bond going off stage left into the night, it seemed like there was a certain void there. . .There was a desire, a want, and a need to make this film, THE NOVEMBER MAN." Enamored from the start by the title finding "it has a sensuality and a mystique to it" it was the writing of Bill Granger that had "a complexity of character and a punch and a grit to it which gave me the opportunity to take the gloves off and be hard as nails and be ambivalent in my moral values as a character. There was a complexity there which was seductive and enticing." And enticing is exactly what Brosnan is, bringing his well known personas of James Bond and Remington Steele together for a seasoned, burnished performance that sizzles with determination, focus and "workman-like attitude" yet grounded with a humanity while still steeped in action (although many of the trickier action sequences were executed by Brosnan's stunt double Mark Mottram).

Luke Bracey, while physically embodying a CIA special ops field guy, and delivering an emotionally detached, rigid and icy performance as Mason, doesn't quite feel like he's comfortable in the role. There's an uneasiness that comes across on screen, like a kid trying on dad's suit that two sizes too big.

Olga Kurylenko is standout as Serbian social worker Alice Fournier. With beauty and brains, Kurylenko adds an earnest softness to the overall film serving as a nice counterpoint to the emotionless Mason and steely Devereaux. Interesting is Will Patton who, as CIA official Weinstein, walks a tightrope as to which side of the fence he's on. As Hanley, Bill Smitrovich has an almost visceral ferocity, something we haven't seen from him before.

Written by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek, THE NOVEMBER MAN is a timely now as it was when Granger wrote "There Are No Spies", book #7 in THE NOVEMBER MAN series back in 1986. Although the "Cold War" themes of the book may seem irrelevant on the surface today, as Brosnan notes, "The serendipitous scenario we find ourselves in now with the geopolitical state of affairs with Russia seems to be a sweet irony for us as filmmakers with THE NOVEMBER MAN" as history, in many respects, is repeating itself. Finch and Gajdusek make appropriate temporal adjustments to accommodate long-buried secrets between the Russians and the CIA and excel with the complexities of the Devereaux-Mason dynamic that go beyond mentor-mentee as well as all the requisite espionage tropes and cliches, and a gorgeous woman to die for. Notable is a thematic element of moral duality within each character which plays into the "whodunit" espionage scenario.

Director Roger Donaldson, reteaming with his "Dante's Peak" star, Brosnan, excels at the interplay of espionage and red herrings, keeping us on our toes with plot points and twists and turns while dazzling with some well-timed action sequences. Key to THE NOVEMBER MAN is that this isn't about all the gadgets and goodies that Brosnan had when playing James Bond, this is about Devereaux using his smarts and whatever was at arm's reach to aid him. Visually appealing is that although Donaldson and cinematographer Romain Lacourbaj shot digitally, they used anamorphic lenses that give the softened cinematic textures of the 70's. Filming on location in Belgrade amidst the local markets and vendors and local residents riding trams, trains and walking on streets, provides a tonal sense of stripped down realism. And yes! Those are real drones not only used in the film, but used for some of the film footage.

It's Brosnan, Pierce Brosnan. He's back in fighting form and better than ever as THE NOVEMBER MAN.

LIFE OF CRIME

Who doesn't love a good Elmore Leonard novel or film adaptation? Certainly writer/director Daniel Schechter does as with LIFE OF CRIME, an adaptation of Leonard's "The Switch", he delivers a film that is not only one of the most, if not the most, faithful to the source material of all the Leonard adaptations, but is true to the stylized dialogue and wit of the novel itself. LIFE OF A CRIME is as witty and wonderful on the big screen as on the page.

Mickey Dawson is the epitome of a trophy wife. Gorgeous and fabulous, her nails and hair are always perfect. Her clothing fashionable for the day, and expensive. Her home, impeccable. Her social manners of being engaging but never upstanding her husband, are flawless. Her husband - a jerk. Abusive, narcissistic, egomaniacal and at times, even cruel, Frank Dawson is the epitome of two-faced with his public persona beloved and his private one, despised yet tolerated by Mickey. A real-estate developer, it seems there's also a bit of crooked larceny going on with Frank, something that attracts the attention of some two-bit low life and slightly bumbling criminals who see him as the Golden Goose.

The plan: Kidnap Mickey and hold her for $1 million ransom.

What goes wrong: Frank is in the Bahamas with his mistress Melanie and is serving Mickey with divorce papers. In other words, he's not paying $1 million to get Mickey back. So, what's a kidnapper and a hostage to do?

The result: Fun and funny thanks to Murphy's Law and top-notch performances.

Tim Robbins is over-the-top hilarious as Frank, playing two sides of the coin as the insecure buffoon who is putty and childlike with an at-a-loss persona (definite mommy complex going on here) in the hands of Isla Fisher's Melanie yet demanding, drunk and offensive when playing the dutiful arrogant show-off husband to Aniston's Mickey. Robbins is delicious.

And speaking of delicious, Jennifer Aniston delivers one of the finest performances of her career as Mickey. Perfectly embracing the 70's period with hair, make-up, clothing and attitude, Aniston adds edges to Mickey that are not only warm, but strong and smart - a strength that we see develop fully thanks to strong chemistry between Mickey and John Hawkes' Louis. Louis' kindness is the trigger that starts the emotional arc for Mickey and I, for one, as I did with the book and now on screen, love the transformation. Aniston owns the role.

When it comes to John Hawkes, kind and pragmatic and actually, honesty, are the watchwords that he brings to Louis. A very soft and affable performance from Hawkes that we haven't really seen before. As co-kidnapper Ordell, Mos Def is his own kind of fun and a great devil-on-the-shoulder foil for Louis' conscience. The only performance that doesn't ring true for me is Will Forte's Marshall. He actually makes Marshall more pervy than Mark Boone's Richard (a third player in the kidnapping) and I was more unsettled watching his advances to Mickey than Richard's. Nice little comedic turn by Clea Lewis as Marshall's whiney wife Tyra.

Writer/director Schechter does a wonderful job of weaving Leonard's double entendre absurdity of dialogue within the script while developing visuals that capture and compliment without turning the film or the characters (but for "Richard" with the whole pervy Nazi obsession which is an absolute hoot) into a caricature or mockery. Schechter keeps the film moving at a fast-paced clip, allowing the performances to breathe while bathed in some wonderful light, bright white lighting by cinematographer Eric Edwards. The entire tonal bandwidth has the essence of wearing a smile with a slight knowing smirk. White natural lighting gives us the idea that everything is out in the open yet, as the story moves forward, we find that even in the light of day, secrets can be found hiding right in front of your face. Delightful!

Although some of the characters are not as fleshed out in backstory on film as in the book, the stellar performances more than provide the visual backstory so a fan of the book will never feel out of place or that "something is missing" when watching the film. The performances are rich, textured, flavorful and beyond fun, all lending to an engaging humorous effect.

One of the great things about LIFE OF A CRIME is that our criminals do have a code, a sense of ethics, a conscience, and a sense of right and wrong, all of which just feed the comedy and propel the red herrings and twists and turns of the story, epitomizing "Murphy's Law" at every turn. But for the buffoonish pervert Richard, you actually feel empathy and sympathy and at various moments, find yourself rooting for the "bad guys". Hell, everyone has a little bit of larceny in them ...... as we see in the ultimate twist final scene, which had me rolling with laughter.

Production values are top notch, starting with Edwards' cinematography. From the Dawson house (which is stunning in its decor and design thanks to production designer Inbal Weinberg) with the use of natural light, ample windows (very metaphoric for Frank wanting the world to see him in all his glory and to show off) give and open airy, easy breezy feel that carries through to the balcony scenes of Fisher's Melanie in Freeport. Lighting and lensing never get heavy or weigh us down. Notable is that even the bathroom scene in Richard's house where Mickey is at the window - bright, white on white, easy breezy. Wonderful contrast to the darker umbered and shadowed hostage bedroom yet even that has a balance with the light pink curlers and crystal perfume bottles. Clean and unfettered lensing lets you focus on the twisty story and the performances.

I would be remiss not to mention Jennifer Aniston in her capacity as Executive Producer. This is her bailiwick. Several years ago when she stepped into the producers chair with a very hands on approach with the movie "Management", I told her then she has a real gift and knack for development and delivery. Again with the comedy "The Switch" (which is why the Leonard adaptation here had to have a different title) her ethics and style were everywhere and now with LIFE OF CRIME, her keen eye is again evident with casting, below the line artisans and the film's overall vision and adherence to theme. Aniston is the kind of producer we hope to be and/or want to have.

Original score by the Newton Brothers is marvelous as are the actual vintage 70's tracks popping up throughout the film. While no "mix tape 1" from "Guardians of the Galaxy", the tracks are still period perfect and fun, adding their own level of tongue-in-cheek cheese to the proceedings!

It would be criminal for folks to not see LIFE OF CRIME!

 

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