For spies, access (to people as well as information) is everything. And as the son-in-law of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser who would – following Nasser's heart attack – quickly become the special adviser and Secretary General for Nasser's former Vice President and successor, Anwar Sadat, Ashraf Marwan's access to everything was extraordinary.
Inspired by (as the production notes describe) the "failed chicken farmer" Juan Pujol Garcia who became a British and German double agent to undermine the Nazis in World War II, Marwan initially reaches out to the Israeli intelligence organization, the Mossad when he's a husband, father, and university student in England.
Although he’s blown off at the first, eight months following Nasser's passing – just when he's begun to form a close alliance with Sadat – Marwan is startled when the Mossad follows up, tracking him down from England to Egypt.
Hoping to prevent another war, after Sadat and his advisers begin making plans to take back the land that Israel had claimed when they defeated "the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan" in 1967’s Six Day War, Marwan begins selling secrets to his Israeli handler "Alex" aka Danny.
Fearing for his family's safety as well as his own, although he enlists the help of some friends, including beautiful British actress Diana Ellis to snap a photo or provide cover as a faux mistress, as Sadat's plans and war games escalate, so does the danger for the spy code named "The Angel."
Filled with as much plot and background data as one of Marwan's reports (including an opening voice-over that quickly sums up an entire war), while this approach does unfortunately hold us at an arm's length since we're never able to stop long enough to get a true sense of the people behind the pages handed from one man to the next, it's fascinating stuff regardless.
Anchored by the compelling Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari, who costarred with his Mossad handler played by Toby Kebbell in 2016's
(which undoubtedly helped their chemistry), Kenzari's affecting, multilayered, largely internal portrayal helps add a deeper sense of struggle to the goings on.
Giving us an in depth look at the responsibilities faced by a man who has begun to excel at deception, even for the noblest of reasons,
works as well as it does, in large part because we believe Kenzari – regardless of which role he's playing when and to whom – as a husband, spy, or adviser.
Alluding to a gambling habit, money problems, and trust issues with his wife, Marwan's love of western culture as a student in England seems clear early on. However the film's juxtaposition of his resentment at the way he's treated by Nasser with his subsequent call to Mossad leaves the viewer with more questions about Marwan as well as his initial impulse to pick up the phone.
Although he matures and changes before our eyes, we find ourselves wanting to know more about his thought processes beyond some of the film's key expository lines, penned by
director Ariel Vromen.
Hoping to, as he revealed in the production notes, "try to make it as realistic and visceral as possible" in the way the we see "the journey of one man, where he starts, [and] where he's planning to go," Vromen drew upon Ben Affleck's
While prior to the film I was more familiar with the end of Marwan's story (which is still in need of investigation and has only become timelier and more suspicious over the last ten years),
offers a fast-paced, exciting, well made depiction of everything he'd done decades earlier to lead to roughly forty years of peace.
And needless to say, with results like those, even if we occasionally find ourselves wanting to know more about not only our lead but also the people and places glossed over throughout, in the end – and like most spies – we're grateful to
for the information as well as the access.
Fascinated by the way that "accusations of witchcraft [are] almost always aimed at women," Welsh writer/director Rungano Nyoni returned to her birthplace of Zambia for her years-in-the-making feature filmmaking debut, I Am Not a Witch
A fiery mix of fact and feminist fairy tale, the tragicomic Witch
, which was made using nonprofessional actors and cinematic techniques reminiscent of Von Trier, Fellini, and the Italian neorealists, deftly satirizes the power and gender politics at play in a Zambia witch camp where an eight-year-old unidentified orphan girl (later dubbed Shula) is sent after villagers label her a witch.
In a Kubrickian opening sequence set to the first movement of Vivaldi's "Winter," gawking tourists snap photos of witches posed entirely for their benefit. Each witch connected to a lengthy spool of ribbon to tether them to the camp where they live (or fields where they work for the government and seemingly without pay), the image is a hard one to shake and at the end of its ninety-three minute running time, in a simple yet unforgettable final shot, Nyoni casts those spools in a whole new light.
Chosen as England's official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Academy Awards, Witch
ushers in a vital new voice and visual storyteller whom I predict we’ll be watching for years to come.
Narratively inspired by the French fairy tale Chèvre de Mr Seguin
(aka Mr. Seguin's Goat
), Nyoni stresses throughout the production notes of this Film Movement theatrical release that her work is much closer to fiction than reality.
Yet, the film's powerful, unstudied performances and largely improvised dialogue from a cast of performers who'd never been in front of a movie camera before make it difficult to separate from contemporary neorealism inspired fare including Ponette
, Children of Heaven
, City of God
, or Osama
And this becomes that much harder given both Nyoni's decision to root the work in enough authenticity that it won't fly away like a witch off her spool of ribbon as well as the knockout performance of young lead Maggie Mulubwa (who was photographed by Nyoni's husband during a location scout, later necessitating the crew to go back with the picture to try and track her down).
Centering your film on a child largely alone and suddenly thrust into a situation beyond her control wherein Shula and the camp’s state guardian from the Ministry of Tourism and Traditional Beliefs, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) is exploiting her "powers" for money in exchange for promises of rain in the middle of a drought, for example, immediately brings out the viewer’s inner protector.
Needless to say we want to shield the girl who is forced to declare herself a witch or else be turned into a goat. Helplessly we watch as Shula first enjoys the sense of camaraderie with the other witches as well as the pride of bringing back a basket of gifts for identifying a criminal (essentially through a random guess).
Things change quickly however when she discovers not only the hypocrisy of Banda but also the cruel way she and fellow witches are treated out in public and especially the threats leveled at them, which seem just as (if not more) dangerous than being turned into a goat.
With roughly ninety percent of the film told through the largely silent Shula’s eyes, there are times when we wish that Witch
could’ve provided us with a better developed secondary character to expand Nyoni's fascinating landscape even more and Nyoni attempts that with a female character one would never have guessed had been a witch.
But as Shula's story first and foremost and moreover, as a poetic fairy tale about an Alice or Dorothy sent to a gritty, exploitative, satirical Wonderland or Oz wherein sadly there's no place for them to call home this approach works very well.
Driving home her point in the end with an understated, near dialogue-free, show don't tell sequence, Nyoni casts a captivating spell over viewers who – like the tourists getting off the bus in Witch
's beginning – are sure to be eager to see more from a director at the top of her form.
As harrowing as it is – or more accurately was – to flirt with or ask someone out in person or in a phone call, at least we had the advantage of visual and audible cues of smiles, eye contact, and laughter (or the lack thereof) to encourage or discourage us in the process.
Today, with so much communication occurring via text or direct messaging, there aren't exactly any signs upon which you can gauge another person's reaction, nor are there – in the age of catfishing – any guarantees that the person with whom we think we're conversing is the real McCoy.
But even if we're gutsy enough to go off instinct, there's nothing scarier than the sight of those three dots appearing and vanishing as someone types and/or deletes their response to our message as well as the jump in our heart rate every time we hear the incoming ding informing us that a new text has arrived.
An unwitting catfisher, after Jamey (Noah Centineo), a handsome football player texts brainy marching band member Sierra's (Shannon Purser) phone by mistake and the two hit it off, she finds herself experiencing those exact same nervous butterflies which only intensify after she discovers that the girl with whom he thinks he's been chatting is the one that makes Sierra's life miserable on a daily basis.
Having pulled down the contact information half of one of Sierra's tutoring fliers, it seems that – worried that Jamey's “loser” friends mean he's a loser too – when the West Pasadena High School quarterback crosses a diner to speak to her, East Pasadena High School's pretty, popular cheerleader and Queen Bee, Veronica (Kristine Froseth) gives him Sierra's number in place of her own.
Figuring out a way to keep her text relationship with Jamey going before she'll inevitably have to tell him the truth (or he finds out via FaceTime) after Veronica's college freshman boyfriend decides she isn't smart enough to be with him anymore, Sierra offers to tutor Veronica in exchange for her assistance with Jamey.
More than just a new variation on the classic play Cyrano de Bergerac
, which has been adapted as a big screen romance multiple times before including in Roxanne
and The Truth About Cats and Dogs
screenwriter Lindsey Beer and first time feature filmmaker Ian Samuels cull from a classic decade for teen romcoms as well via the 1980s.
Built from, as the director describes in the Netflix production notes, the classic YA novel archetypes of "the cheerleader, the football player and the band nerd," Samuels' enthusiasm for the era is infectious. Wanting "the movie to lean into that, to feel like a YA fantasy, like a Beverly Cleary book cover, but with a more contemporary point of view," he infuses Sierra Burgess is a Loser
with a sincerity befitting of John Hughes.
And while the relationship between Sierra and Veronica goes from the traditional antagonism of the clique based high school hierarchy to a Pygmalion
, Born Yesterday
, or My Fair Lady
arrangement where Sierra gets to play Henry Higgins to Veronica's Eliza, the film manages to push past not only those boundaries but those of Cyrano
Perhaps taking a cue from The Truth About Cats and Dogs
, Beer opts to make the evolving friendship between the two girls – who thought they had nothing in common only to find common ground – as important, if not more so than the film's love story, which is moreover what Samuels intended, going as far as to call Sierra and Jamey's romance "almost the B plot for me."
Likewise the film's message of understanding as well as the earnest, relatable portrayal of Sierra by Stranger Things
breakout star Shannon Purser as a modern day spin on Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles
makes the release of the film – timed to coincide with the traditional start of a new school year – even timelier.
Of course, the sheer likability of its cast including the internet's new collective boyfriend Noah Centineo aka To All the Boys I've Loved Before
's Peter Kavinsky doesn't hurt. Additionally, look for sharp turns from Froseth who – like Lea Thompson in Some Kind of Wonderful
– transcends what could've easily been a one dimensional role to make Veronica someone we care about too, as well as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
's delightful RJ Cyler as Dan, Sierra's contemporary answer to Pretty in Pink
's Duckie who ensures that above all we're thoroughly entertained.
Celebrating the era that gave us those Hughes penned hits, the film casts not only the ageless, enchanting Thompson but also the always charming Ferris Bueller's Day Off
sidekick Alan Ruck to play Sierra's overachieving parents.
Shot in just twenty days to a limited budget, Samuels admits that some of Beer's subplots were dropped and indeed – similar to Jon Cryer's Duckie in Pretty in Pink
– there's something incomplete with the arc of Dan's character in particular.
Yet even though it's less polished than To All the Boys
, Sierra's heart is just as big as Boys
heroine Lara Jean (Lana Condor) as is her plight to navigate high school, discover more about who she is and what's important to her as well as see if those butterflies on the screen translate to real life in her love life equally relatable to viewers.
And just like Boys
, it's safe to say that Sierra Burgess
will quickly amass a legion of well-deserved fans (not to mention new butterfly inducing Noah Centineo GIFs for you to text).
Fans of Lasse Hallstrom's Chocolat
should flock to Spanish writer/director Isabel Coixet's lovely adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald's novel The Bookshop
, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978 (and which the author won the next year for Offshore
Set in a coastal East England village in 1959, The Bookshop
centers on Emily Mortimer's headstrong bibliophile Florence Green who – just like Penelope Fitzgerald and the underrated Coixet for that matter – is a passionate woman ahead of her time.
Determined to open a bookshop in the village's historic Old House to not only honor her late husband (who loved to read as much as he loved her) but also follow through on a dream she'd had since she learned the trade as a girl, as the film begins, Florence puts her plan in motion.
With her banker and solicitor dragging their heels, Florence butts heads with the community's old guard, especially the village's wealthy Queen bee Violet Gamart (played by Coixet's Elegy
and Learning to Drive
star Patricia Clarkson). Violet, we discover, aspires to turn the Old House into an arts center.
On the surface two like-minded proponents of arts and culture, it isn't hard to imagine that under different circumstances Violet and Florence might've been friends. However, in a subtle commentary on the way that women in a male dominated society are forced to compete with one another and doubly so with the added prejudices of class and status, as soon as she senses that Florence won't bend to her will, Violet vows to block her at every turn.
Refusing to budge, the fiercely patient Florence instead uses Violet's threats to derail her as the fuel she needs to drive home her goal. Settling into the Old House, our unflappable heroine soon gains both a new assistant in hardworking schoolgirl Christine (Honor Kneafsey) as well as a loyal customer in the form of the town's much gossiped about bookworm and hermit, Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), who places orders with Florence by way of written correspondence.
With their burgeoning relationship strengthened by the building blocks of shared experience and taste, Florence finds an unlikely ally in the reserved man, eventually asking him if he believes in Vladimir Nabokov's newly published Lolita
as much as she does to purchase a large quantity of stock for the shop.
Making the most of Nighy's deadpan delivery to drive home the meaning of a few key lines rather than employ him merely for ornamental comedic distraction, when Nighy's Brundish tells Florence he supports her plan for Lolita
and adds "they won't understand it but that's for the best. Understanding makes the mind lazy," it serves once again as a nice metaphor for the town.
A beautifully understated picture with fine performances as well as painterly cinematography (by Jean-Claude Larrieu) so crisp you can almost feel the drops of water from the sea coming through the breeze in the trees, The Bookshop
is a solid if at times slightly pedestrian adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel.
Yet even if the plot arc on its own is a bit static, Coixet's interpretation of it makes things exciting as you can view her Bookshop
as a feminist allegory about "a woman with a vision" (as she wrote in the press notes) who must contend with pushback, obstacles, and condescension while working twice as hard to get half as far.
Additionally touching on issues of censorship while of course, celebrating the love of the written word – especially in print – Coixet's small film is filled with big ideas.
Stressing the importance of legacy while passing on the torch to the next generation or inspiring those her wake, just like Florence argued that nobody feels alone in a bookshop, Coixet knows everyone has a dream. And in her intelligent (if slight) feature, she and the always terrific Mortimer might just encourage you to take Florence's lead and pursue your own passion as well – Violet Gamarts be damned.
More Recent Articles