Movie Review ~ The Courier

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Cold War spy Greville Wynne and his Russian source try to put an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Iva Šindelková, Željko Ivanek

Director: Dominic Cooke

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: At first glance, you may be wondering why an espionage drama with an accent on the drama was opening in theatrical release during a pandemic the same weekend a major superhero movie was debuting on a streaming service at home.  Wouldn’t most audiences be otherwise engaged devouring the much-anticipated arrival of the four-hour epic that is Zack Snyder’s Justice League, especially after the reviews were deservedly glowing?  Ah…but let’s not forget the art of counterprogramming because I think Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, the studio and distributor behind The Courier, was going for everyone else who weren’t comic book inclined and up for something a little less gargantuan.  It’s a smart move to match a surprisingly smart film, one that is far better than its staid title and dusty looking premise would otherwise imply.

I’ll be upfront and say that these murky spy thrillers are becoming slightly old hat to me, especially after seeing them done so well in stalwarts like any of the early James Bond films, 1973’s The MacKintosh Man, or even in homegrown films such as Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View.  Heck, even Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of The Courier, has had his run at the spy game before in 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or in his 2014 Oscar Nominated role as Alan Turing in the WWII tale The Imitation Game.  Last year’s A Call to Spy was dismally dull and I half expected The Courier to turn out in much the same way: dry and demanding of your rapt attention with not a lot to show for it all when the lights come up.

So it was refreshing to find almost from the start there is a palpable current of energy running through the film.  It’s subtle, and the movie couldn’t ever be classified as suspense-driven or even ramped up enough to get your pulse racing (unless you get all a flutter seeing Cumberbatch’s bare backside), but it’s there and it separates The Courier from the rest of the pack.  That’s what also elevates the story of English businessman Greville Wynne’s involvement with MI6 during the early days of the Cuban Missile Crisis from coming off as a forgotten footnote during an important historical incident.  Screenwriter Tom O’Connor and Dominic Cooke aim to inform but don’t forget the entertainment part of moviemaking at the same time.

When USSR military intelligence agent Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) reaches out to the American embassy via a covert coded message with news that current leader Nikita Khrushchev is fast-tracking nuclear plans that would lead to war, MI6 and the CIA step in.  Their goal: find a way to pass information back and forth with Penkovsky to obtain precise information that will prevent Europe and the US from entering a high stakes battle with the Soviet Union.  Recognizing they need someone the Russians wouldn’t suspect but who could also handle the assignment, Wynne’s name is floated due to his business dealings throughout Europe.  At first, the upstanding Brit needs some convincing, but when reminded of the whole Queen and country pledge, he agrees and begins traveling back and forth to meet with Penkovsky.  Keeping both of their wives unaware of their dealings, the men strike up a friendship over time, and this personal relationship begins to threaten their overall mission, alliances, and allegiance when Khrushchev’s secret police get a whiff that a mole has burrowed its way in.

After a not-so-great showing in The Mauritanian back in February, Cumberbatch is back in the groove, nicely tuning into Wynne’s businessman persona at the outset of the film and letting the weight of the deception start to chip away at him over time.  The lies he tells his wife (an underused but still powerful Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) threaten to destroy the peaceful life he had previously held at home.  While he serves his country gladly, the aftereffects and extraordinary price Wynne will pay may be too great to come back from.  On the other side of the border, Ninidze is a strong counterpart to Cumberbatch as a father and husband with his own set of secrets to hide.  Struggling with similar fears that spring from seeing traitors executed in front of his eyes, he knows what’s in store for him if he’s caught.  The film largely belongs to the two men, but aside from Buckley there’s a very Mrs. Maisel-y performance from Rachel Brosnahan (I’m Your Woman) as a CIA handler and an always welcome appearance from Željko Ivanek (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as Brosnahan’s superior.

What a pleasant surprise to find this nifty little package being delivered with some confident finesse during an extended awards season that’s seen all types of overly earnest films sputter out.  Originally seen at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival under the title Ironbark (a much better title taken from a code name that’s used by one of the operatives), it was filmed in 2018 and finally seeing a release now.   Though it’s not eligible for anything and definitely isn’t going to be on the radar for next year’s haul, it’s a strong showing for everyone involved and a worthy way to spend two hours.  I can’t quite recommend running out to theaters to catch The Courier but when it arrives for home viewing I would encourage you to give this one a spin.  Wynne’s involvement in the civilian spy business is fascinating to learn about and is carried off well by a cast and production team that funnels their energy and resources in the right direction – and it makes all the difference for an audience to understand the subtleties between a story that is told once and one that bears retelling in the future.

Movie Review ~ I’m Your Woman

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman is forced to go on the run with her baby after her husband betrays his partners in crime.

Stars: Rachel Brosnahan, Arinzé Kene, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Bill Heck, Frankie Faison, Marceline Hugot, James McMenamin

Director: Julia Hart

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Not that you’d have much sympathy for their luxe paychecks and high profile lifestyles, but it must be difficult for an actor to go from having a respectably decent career to becoming a sizable star nearly overnight.  We see it happen all the time now with the advent of streaming shows that release entire seasons of shows at once, often with casts of fresh faces that start a Friday as an unknown and come in Monday morning as the hottest topic over the company water cooler.  Even though actress Rachel Brosnahan had already amassed a nice tenure of television appearances under her belt, working with the likes of David Fincher (House of Cards) and Woody Allen (A Crisis in Six Scenes), it must have felt like a whirlwind when the tweed tornado that became The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel swept her up.

Originally premiering in early 2017 as part of Amazon’s old model of showing a handful of pilots, letting the consumers dictate which ones they liked, and then giving full series orders to the most popular choices, I remember watching this quirky show and appreciating it’s tommy-gun dialogue and loving its handsomely recreated period production design.  Other viewers did too, evidently, because by the end of that year the first of the three produced seasons had premiered to critical and audience acclaim.  The show was a hit and so was the cast, rocketing Brosnahan to multiple award wins and keeping her quite busy for the ensuing years.  Both a blessing and a curse, she’s now closely associated with her do-it-all, know-it-all character from Mrs. Maisel and in I’m Your Woman, her first true solo-led feature since her star-making role on the streaming screen, she’s playing another wife in a different decade…but one in a situation far more dire than her television alter ego.

The backyard of a modest home in Pittsburgh in the 1970s is where we first see Jean (Brosnahan) sunbathing in the middle of the day.  A housewife that can barely keep house or cook, her husband Eddie (Bill Heck) doesn’t seem to mind much, mostly because he’s preoccupied with shady business dealings that Jean is mostly oblivious to but occasionally just pleads ignorance on.  Despite multiple attempts to get pregnant, Jean can’t carry a child to term and she’s only just resigned herself to not being a mother when Eddie walks in the door with a baby boy that is now theirs.  Too happy to ask the kind of questions she should in this situation, Jean welcomes the baby with open arms and begins the motherly tasks she thinks she should perform, making breakfast for her child and husband (even though she can’t cook), and taking the baby to the playground (even though he’s still an infant).

A knock in the middle of the night changes Jean’s suburban peace forever.  Eddie has disappeared and his business partners can’t find him.  For her own safety, she needs to leave town under the escort of Cal (Arinzé Kene, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) another friend of her husband’s who seems to be one of the only ones that doesn’t want to harm her for information on his whereabouts.  Trusting him to keep her safe, she sets off and it’s the beginning of a journey for Jean, her baby, and eventually Cal’s family in the bonds of loyalty and security during a time when America was at war and crime was running rampant in many large cities.  While we never know what exactly Eddie was neck deep in, it’s clearly bad stuff because based on the lengths we see certain parties go to get to Jean, they feel that pressing her will elicit the necessary response from him.

Directed by Julia Hart from a script she co-wrote with her husband, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz (remember him? He’s the guy that announced “There’s a mistake, Moonlight, you won best picture” on the Oscar telecast), this is a full-bodied crime drama that will remind anyone worth their salt of the kind of picture John Cassavetes would have lensed back in the day.  You can easily see some ‘70s star taking her performance of Jean right to an Oscar nomination and not for nothing, Brosnahan’s performance is top-notch throughout.  Watching her change from a reserved kept wife to a more assertive mum on the run is a rich endeavor and she never forecasts what’s coming next.  Watching the fear rise in her eyes when trying to locate an unresponsive visitor in her house is chillingly real.

It’s not just Brosnahan that’s memorable in I’m Your Woman, which is why the performance feels slightly off-kilter at times comparead to others.  Showing up rather far into the movie, I’m not going to tell you who Marsha Stephanie Blake (Luce) is playing, not because it’s a huge spoiler (it’s not, really) but because her arrival bears some significance in Jean’s personal growth into a stronger individual.  Blake is an actress that continues to gain solid traction in the Hollywood machine and I couldn’t be happier.  Again in this film she demonstrates how to convey a range of deep emotions through the smallest of adjustments in voice or facial expression.  That’s the theater training she’s had right there on display.  As Jean’s watchman, Kene is equally impressive as someone that gives as good as he gets.  You get the sense he doesn’t care for Eddie and before he met Jean made up his mind he didn’t like her either…so it takes a while for him to divest his image he originally had of her from the woman she actually is.  As usual, the gregarious Frankie Faison (The Silence of the Lambs) is a warm presence and he nabs a fine scene with Brosnahan and a gun that has a nifty little punch to it.

Hart manages to instill fine moments of suspense throughout the film, a surprising amount actually.  I had thought the movie would be less crime and more drama but it’s actually the opposite.  The performances are first rate and it’s clear Brosnahan is made for more than a world that revolves only around Maisel.  What’s also on display in I’m Your Woman is a calling card of sorts for the writer/director, one that shows an attention to knowing the difference between homage and mere replication and creation of a charged atmosphere when necessary without altering the overall temperature of the film in the process.  Hart also has a knack with finding the right cast as well, from the leads to the supporting characters; it’s pretty perfect all around.  If there’s one thing I’d give you some advice on, try not to watch this with headphones on.  Jean’s baby is a fussy one and cries for much of the film and the wails started to get to me after listening to them through the headphones I have connected to my TV for late night watches.  Aside from the noise complaint, I’d keep your eye on (and out!) for this one.