London calls, in retro heist thriller Flawless and a Joe Strummer doc | Film Review | Indy Week
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Flawless is close to flawless. Parts of Joe Strummer draw into question the possibility of maintaining a serious political stance amid the hot-house distractions of rock stardom.

London calls, in retro heist thriller Flawless and a Joe Strummer doc 

click to enlarge Michael Caine in Flawless - PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES

I'm tempted to write, "Flawless very nearly is." But that would miss the point. One can find flaws in any movie, even the greatest. What counts is the whole and how it affects us, flaws and all. In the case of Michael Radford's deliberate and stylish diamond-heist film, the emotive sum is definitely greater than the parts—at least for this viewer.

I stress the personal here because I sense my great liking for this ostensibly ordinary crime movie is heterodox if not downright heretical. I skim through other reviews and see no pans, but the compliments tend to top out at "clever" and—talk about damning with faint praise—"mildly diverting." The reaction the movie prompted in me, on the other hand, was not a flight of ecstasy but something far more valuable. Call it an aesthetic existential crisis, film-critic style.

The key symptom: I came out of Flawless pondering the unanticipated but undeniable fact that I found it more enjoyable, absorbing, companionable and, in certain ways, cinematic, than I find about 99 percent of fictional films these days, including pretty much everything nominated for Academy Awards, all the big Hollywood summer and year-end spectaculars, plus most Amerindie and foreign auteur films of current renown.

The attentive reader may wonder if I've developed a sudden fetish for British heist movies, since I found another very pleasant (if lesser) surprise earlier this year in Roger Donaldson's The Bank Job. But I don't think the genre or the nationality explains my rapt engagement with either London-set film.

Of the two, Flawless is far simpler in its premise and plotting. Although bounded by a present-day framing story, most of its action takes place in 1960 and centers on two characters. Laura Quinn (Demi Moore) is an Oxford-educated American who has worked her way up the corporate ladder at the London Diamond Corp. to become its only female executive. But her elevation has come at a cost—she's a 40-year-old chain-smoker with no love life or apparent friends—and it's just about to end.

The company's big bosses intend to ditch her, a fact discovered by and of great interest to, of all people, the firm's elderly night janitor. Mild-mannered and obsequiously polite, Mr. Hobbs (Michael Caine, excellent in a role that seems computer-designed for him) shuffles in and out of offices, gathering company secrets unnoticed.

click to enlarge Demi Moore - PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES

He approaches beleaguered Laura with the proposition to team up on a heist. He needs an accomplice who can swipe the combination to the company's giant vault. Hobbs himself will enter the inner sanctum during his nightly rounds and steal all the precious stones that will fit into his thermos—a small portion of the vault's contents, but enough to set up both perps for life.

The scheme faces an immediate difficulty: The vault is guarded by brand-new video surveillance cameras whose cycles allow only very short intervals during which Hobbs can open the door and conceal himself. So Laura will have to find a way to distract one of the guards watching the monitors, and their timing will have to be perfect.

The half of the film chronicling the crime's set-up and execution is a model of carefully modulated suspense-building, made all the more engrossing by the sets' austere decor, the breath-catching pacing and Radford's elegant wide-screen compositions. And what occurs after the crime is completed—which I won't disclose—is one of those great plots twists that propels the story into a whole new dimension of menace and meaning.

No doubt many of the things I like about Flawless have to do not only with the restraint and craftsmanship of the filmmaking, but with the inherent psychological and symbolic appeal of movies focused on people obsessed with achieving a criminal goal. We burrow into these characters' singular perspectives, temporarily losing our own distracted consciousness—and daylight morality—in an intensive identification that borders on the hypnotic. As in the best films of Alfred Hitchcock or Robert Bresson, the crime's unholy trajectory suggests a dark parallel of a religious quest's path through sin and redemption, even as it offers a sly correlative for the "guilty pleasures" of moviegoing itself.

In a strange way, many of these qualities are amplified by the fact that Flawless is set in 1960. I will admit to a peculiar, deep-seated attraction to movies that take place near the juncture of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, a time when everything from the hairstyles and clothes to the architecture and music seemed to announce the arrival of "the modern"—a modernism still fresh and sleek and optimistic, just before the various rude awakenings that war, assassination and civil upheaval would bring.

If this brief era was a pivot point in the history and culture of the last century, it was much the same in cinema: 1960, after all, was the year when Breathless and The 400 Blows swept the world, when the scandalous reception of L'Avventura at Cannes seemed to announce a new cinematic language, when Psycho and Peeping Tom breached old moral constraints in the name of greater psychological honesty.

For film critics, this is the precise moment when the modern conception of cinematic art captured the world stage. Yet in retrospect, the era's enduring fascination has to do not just with the emergence of the new, but with a vital, catalyzing, never-to-be-repeated interplay between new and old, modern and classic. It was the moment when the likes of Hitchcock and John Ford were just beginning to be seen as great artists, as auteurs; most of the world still knew them as great entertainers.

In recent years, the costs of losing this vital interplay have become increasingly evident. Yes, the doctrine of film as art proved victorious as well as salutary in many respects, yet it has also led to a situation where self-conscious artiness is confused with art, and movies as pretentious and flawed as There Will Be Blood are greeted with near-unanimous hosannas. At the same time, movies-as-entertainment increasingly degenerate toward the level of videogames, theme-park rides and TV trivialities.

So if you ask why I found an unexpectedly profound pleasure in Flawless, I would cite not only the appeal of its story and the intelligence of its execution. There's also this: It seemed to transport me back to the split-second before movies gained the brittle self-consciousness of art, a moment when the deep seduction of committing the perfect crime—or rather, imagining that, alone in the dark—somehow seemed to justify our attention.

Hollywood, you will have noticed, long ago lost the knack for mounting such subtly engrossing adult entertainments. That's why encountering one today can be a bit like discovering a long sealed-off secret garden—or indeed, a vault full of unanticipated treasures.

Flawless opens Friday in select theaters.


click to enlarge Joe Strummer: "Let fury have the hour/ Anger can be power." - PHOTO COURTESY OF SHO KIKUCHI
  • Photo courtesy of Sho Kikuchi
  • Joe Strummer: "Let fury have the hour/ Anger can be power."

Back around the time when the lucid earnestness of Jimmy Carter gave way to the sunny pabulum of Ronald Reagan, and the fiery skyrocket known as U.K. punk was reaching its apogee, the Clash was known as "the only band that matters."

Though a fan of the Clash, I didn't wholly endorse the slogan—there were too many other great bands at the time—but I certainly understood it. By any measure, the Clash was the band to whom mattering mattered the most, and it mattered with a furious abandon, wedding an epochally thunderous (yet unfailingly melodic) musical attack to a political conscience as uncompromising as it was determined.

Its heyday marked the point where punk's promise as a revolutionary force seemed almost attainable. It wasn't, of course—at least in not in the sense of transforming political structures rather than individual lives. Yet the collision of politics and punk did have an incandescent power that, in itself, was glorious to behold.

That time is recalled both evocatively and thoughtfully in the terrific documentary Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten by Julien Temple, a punk-era veteran who previously chronicled the Sex Pistols in films, including The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (the Hard Day's Night of punk) and The Filth and the Fury.

Although the cosmopolitan Strummer (nee John Graham Mellor) was more educated and middle-class than the Clash's prole image, or indeed his band mates Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon, his artistic temperament had an incisiveness and an adventurousness that helped the band combine political conviction with some very wide-ranging, eclectic and intelligent musical experimentation. To its credit, the Clash was not only about slogans; it was first of all about songs.

As remembered by friends ranging from Bono to Johnny Depp, Strummer comes across as a sweet guy and restless spirit, more inquisitive than irascible. It almost goes without saying that the film's central sections concerning the Clash evidence the familiar VH1 Behind the Music template of scrappy rise to fame, exalted success, followed by the crash-and-burn of ego and excess. While the latter phase doesn't undercut the Clash's initial sincerity or enduring impact, it does draw into question the possibility of maintaining a serious political stance amid the hot-house distractions of rock stardom.

I first saw Temple's film last year at the same time I encountered another excellent music doc, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, about a musician who managed to keep his politics above the destructive lures of fame and money. I thought at the time the two movies would make an ideal double feature, and I still believe the Seeger film deserves a Triangle play date.

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is now playing in select theaters.

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