Dylan O’Brien plays super-hero in Vince Flynn’s “American Assassin”, and the subject matter is very grave in the world of Trump

On the evening of September 11, 2001 I attended a screening of Michael Cuesta’s “L.I.E. ” (Long Island Expressway) at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis.  I won’t dawdle on the theme right now (a teen’s relationship with an older man played by Brian Cox), but I want to recall that I met Cuesta in a hotel bar after the show – because he couldn’t fly back to New York in the wake of the 9/11 groundings (No, the bar wasn’t the Saloon or the Nineties.)

I met author Vince Flynn at a booksigning party at a Barnes and Noble in Edina, for his self-published “Term Limits” (them it was Cloak and Dagger Press. before Pocket Books gave him a contract), in the fall of 1997, just after I had moved to Minneapolis myself.  We had a discussion about the whole process, which I had just executed with my own first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book.

Vince Flynn beat me to the movies.  He also died in 2013 at age 47 of unusually aggressive prostate cancer.

Flynn’s genre of techno-thrillers, sometimes compared to Tom Clancy,  adapted quickly to the end of the old Cold War and the new world of terrorism and rogue and failed states

Mike Cuesta’s latest film  comes from Flynn’s “American Assassin” (2010) which turns out to be eerily prescient with the concern over a rogue state using nuclear weapons.  This time, the state is Iran, rather than North Korea.

But the movie is also part of the Mitch Rapp series.  This time, Rapp is played by 26-year-old Dylan O’Brien (“Rhe Maze”).  In the opening scene, Mitch is with his fiancée (Charlotte Vega) on a Florida beach when a gruesome radical Islamist terror attack mows down everyone on the beach with automatic weapons.  Mitch loses his love despite surviving himself with minor injuries. He swears personal revenge.  Back in his Rhode Island apartment, having flunked out of college, he finds his calling. He pretends to be a Muslim and gets recruited by ISIS on Twitter (an activity Trump says he wants to shut down despite his own use of the platform) and goes into the Dark Web.  Soon he is in Libya.  But he has already made arrangements with other mercenaries to become a saboteur, even as he fools his ISIS “trainers” at first.

Fast forward and he is being interviewed by the CIA (director played by Sanaa Lathan, convincing in a minority-cast role as sufficiently authoritative) and trained by a former seal (Michael Keaton) in various virtual reality settings.  The “ghost” arms dealer (Taylor Kitsch) hardly looks like one.

The film moves around the world, from London to Poland, to Turkey, Romania, and Italy, as Mitch tracks down a parts of a bomb intended for Tel Aviv.  Yes, an underwater nuke can produce a mushroom cloud and destroy a lot of ships in the area.

The real problem right now is that North Korea has more than one nuke, to be sure.  I wonder if any of Flynn’s novels deal with the EMP threat (E1 and E3 are different parts).

Dylan O’Brien’s performance merits note.  Yes, he rather comes across as superman, verging on a comic book hero.  He usually looks clean cut and boyish, with a little wad of chest hair on the beach that survives.  When he tries to look like an ISIS fighter in disguise, he isn’t convincing. In most scenes, despite all the mayhem, his pretty physicality remains intact, very slender, very muscular, as if prepared not for “Dancing with the Stars” but for a big gay disco with all the dirty dancing.  Milo Yiannopoulos would find him admirable (because “thin” is “in”).  Flynn’s writing manages to keep romance and family as a kind of “afterthought” behind the real super-hero, even given Rapp’s earnestness.  But, didn’t that perspective come from James Bond — what it means to be a man.

The film was shot in Thailand. Istanbul, Rome, Malta, and London.

Name:  “American Assassin”
Director, writer:  Michael Cuesta, Vince Flynn
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, weekday PM, small audience
Length:  105
Rating:  R
Companies:  CBS Films, Lionsgate
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, September 20, 2017 at 11 AM EDT)

“Allied” has the plot of a WWII Hitchcock mystery, and plays on real world identity theft

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Name: Allied
Director, writer:  Robert Zemeckis, Steven Knight
Released:  2016/11/23
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  2016/11/26, Regal Ballston Common, evening, large auditorium, nearly sold out
Length 124
Rating R
Companies: GK, Image Movers, Paramount
Link: official

Allied”, directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Steven Knight (the story seems original), has the plot devices of a 1940s Hitchcock thriller, dealing with spies, deception and stolen identities. The movie could also be called “Casablanca II”.

Brad Pitt plays Max Vatan, an intelligence officer working in occupied North Africa in 1942, and the opening scene of the film reminds one of “Babel”.  Soon he meets apparent French resistance leader Marianne (Marion Cotillard).  They fall in love.  Marion leads him to a party for the German ambassador, complete with swastika, and Max and Marriane stage a violent attack.

Sometime later they are man and wife in London and have a child.  But British intelligence calls him in one day and confronts him with the theory that his wife is a spy with a fake identity.  Max has married and given his body into sexual passion with what seems to be identity theft, pre-Internet. A complicated ruse follows to discover the truth, and it is not guaranteed to end well.

There is an interesting scene where Marianne is challenge to play a particular piece on a piano in a bar they have broken into.  It’s the piece from “Casalanca” and set to hymn by Hector Berlioz.

While the suspense is quite real and recalls the master director, the setting looks a little hokey.

The plot of this movie starts about the time I was conceived.

(Posted: Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016 at 9:45 AM EST)

 

“True Memoirs of an International Assassin”: a novelist is forced to live out his own “true story”

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Name: True Memoirs of an International Assassin
Director, writer:  Jeff Wadlow
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length 98
Rating PG-13
Companies: Netflix Red Envelope
Link: FB

True Memoirs of an International Assassin”(2016), directed by Jeff Wadlow, presents another layered concept where an “esteemed author’s” writings trigger his own musings in real life.

Ordinary looking  Sam Larson (Kevin James) imagines himself as hit man mason Carver behind the scenes in a coup in Venezuela.  The movie opens with his visualizing violent action scenes, with bodies blown up and the like.  Soon we see him as a wannabe novelist with a desk job, getting rejection slips from traditional publishers, for a novel with the same title as this movie.

One day a woman calls him late at night and offers to meet him in a Starbucks.  He signs a contract to have his novel published as a “true story” online only, as fake news.  It goes viral, and he’s famous quickly, interviewed by Katie Couric (where in one scene it looks like he could vomit on morning television).  He is getting set up to become his own character, “The Ghost”.

He does get asked things like, why doesn’t he live his own life instead of writing about other people’s.  (I get asked the inverse, why don’t I write outside my own narrative?)

Then real life catches up him, as he is kidnapped in his own apartment by a home invasion, and taken to Venezuela, where he is expected to act as a real hit man to assassinate the Venezuelan president (Kim Coates) and then counter-hired to get rid of a political opponent El Toro (Andy Garcia).  The CIA and DEA are involved in what becomes a conventional comic caper. Caracus is said to be the most dangerous city in the world.

In the end, he will write a real novel, “A Ghost in Colombia”.

By Superyessicanovahttp://www.flickr.com/photos/superyessicanova/468649543/, CC BY 2.0, Link

Posted Wednesday. Nov. 23, 2016 at 8:45 AM EST

“Jason Bourne”: a recap of Ludlum’s novels, but also hits the cybersecurity issue hard

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Name: Jason Bourne
Director, writer:  Paul Greengrass (Robert Ludlum)
Released:  2016/7
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  2016/8/14, Regal Ballston Common, small auditorium, sold out, Sunday night
Length 123
Rating PG-13
Companies: Universal, Kennedy-Marshall
Link: official site

Jason Bourne”, now simply the title of the latest movie of the franchise, directed by Paul Greengrass and produced in part by Matt Damon (so can he produce my “Epiphany”), is indeed a concoction of all the clichés from Robert Ludlum’s spy novels.

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But it covers the issue territory well.  We learn that CIA director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, of course) can shut down any power grid in any country he chooses with Stuxtnet-like malware any time it suits the government’s purposes.  That already gives a nod to Ted Koppel’s book “Lights Out” (se Aug. 12).  And this time we learn the entire story of how Jason Bourne (Matt Damon, now all of 45 but still “thmooth” when it fulfills enough fantasies to so be) got into Black Ops (particularly “Treadstone”, which was supposed to stop the civilization-ending terror attacks like EMP), and how the government manipulated nis selective amnesia.

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The movie has enough exotic settings – the most realistic looking is Greece, and the film gives a nod to the debt problems and austerity imposed by the EU (the film was shot well before Brexit).   It touches Rome, and especially Berlin, Germany, the central station areas I roamed in 1999.  Finally, the film winds up with the greatest car chase of all time on the strip of Las Vegas, with enough one-way driving crashes to surely build up a huge fatality count. It missed a chance to over poker tournaments or the technique of card-counting (the movie “21”).

Then there is the Silicon Valley startup, “Deep Dream” founded by Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), although before the final car chase scene and mass shooting at a hotel event, there’s a welcoming that calls for a Jesse Eisenberg by “Now You See Me”.  The speech also pays a nod to Edward Snowden’s concern about privacy and surveillance.

Nicky (Julia Stiles) is the bad girl who does a lot of the hacking, and Heather (Alicia Vikaander) discovers the hack, probably not in time to save the world’s power grids forever.

Much of the film’s incidentals were shot in Tenerife.

(Published: Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016 at 11:30 PM EDT)

“Zero Days”: the history of the Stuxnet worm, and how the blowback just could destroy America

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Name: “Zero Days”
Director, writer:  Alex Gibney
Released:  2016
Format:  digital video
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St, 2016/7/8, fair audience 7 PM, had played at AFI Docs
Length 114
Rating PG-13
Companies: Participant Media, Magnolia
Link: Site

Zero Days” (or “World War 3.0”) is Alex Gibney’s latest political documentary, and this one comes with a serious warning.

If the U.S. and allies (especially Israel and the UK or “Little England” now) can hack into hostile countries industrial control systems (even for the laudable process of stopping the development of nuclear weapons) they can do it to us.

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The documentary, with lots of interviews, particularly with a translucent female avatar (Joanne Tucker) playing a combined NSA analyst, establishes the case that the U.S. drove the development of the Stuxnet worm during the Bush administration, in order to compromise nuclear-related centrifuges in Iran.  The worm was so well written that it could completely cover its tracks, and it made many “zero day” exploits that could fire off according to parameters (but the same idea is common in ordinary maware  and even mainframe crime, where elevation integrity has been compromised).

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The code was developed at the NSA, and at corresponding facilities in England and especially Israel. The Pentagon put in a “cyber command” in place at the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade (south of Baltimore) with the authority to deploy the cyber weapon.  The CIA was also involved, especially in bridging the “air gap” and getting the malware delivered (possibly on a thumb drive) by an operative when the system (normally offline of the Internet) was being maintained.

In time, some security companies, especially Symantec and then Kaspersky in Moscow, began to see evidence of the worm, which first showed up in Belarus (a former Soviet republic).

Obama continued the process, but the U.S. “got caught”, and Iran retaliated at least twice, once against Saudi Arabian oil companies and once against several US banks in early 2013. But in the meantime, the US has embarked on an even bigger program against Iran’s infrastructure called “Zeus”.

The film warns that a state-sponsored hack could compromise many US industrial systems.  It showed the May 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia, as a false example (because positive train control wasn’t in place there).  It suggested that if the power grids were overloaded or the Internet went down, the world might be like “humpty dumpty”.

An ordinary hacker serving malware, even ransomware, through phishing or drive-by websites could not accomplish this kind of a hack because of the “air gap” to the internet, but an internal operative could probably install the malware.  (Router hacks might become more destructive in the future, especially given the “smart home.”) The main states capable of such hacks would be Iran, North Korea (as we know from the Sony hack) and Russia, and probably China.   Some of this material was covered in Ted Koppel’s book “Light’s Out” (2015).

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The film had been shown at AFIDocs.  It’s possible that it’s release helped prompt the warning from Sinclair Media  (near Baltimore) about cyber attacks and possibly EMP on the power grid.

Wikipedia attribution link for Natanz nuclear facility in Iran, by Hamed Saber, under CCSA 2.0.

(Published, Friday, July 8, 2016 at 11:15 PM EDT)

“Our Kind of Traitor” is rather stereotyped spy stuff

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Name: Our Kind of Traitor
Director, writer:  Susanna White
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  AMC Shirlington, 2016/7/3, evening, nearly sold out
Length 108
Rating R
Companies: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions, Film4, StudioCanal, Anton
Link: movie, uk;  book

There’s a problem with spy novels and movies, that the scenarios can quickly become outdated or overrun by current events with new atagonists.

Another problem is the premise, that a random event drags an ordinary person into the world of espionage. Maybe that works in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (especially the second film). But does it work with John La Carre’s (a contemporary of Tom Clancy) “Our Kind of Traitor” (2010), in a new “Roadside Attraction” from director Susanna White?

Peter (Ewan McGregor), a literature professor (emphasizing Dante) in London, is on holiday in Marrakech, Morocco with girl friend Gail (Naomie Harris) when he’s sitting in a bar and is approached by a Russian stranger, Dima (Stellan SKarsgaard).  Dima plays a credit card trick and then invites the couple to a tennis game and a wild party.  Soon, Peter finds himself recruited to take a thumb drive back to England and give it to intelligence.

Peter goes along with it, as Gail questions him, without very good reason. It’s all part of a scheme for Dima, a money launderer, to save himself from other Russian mobsters (an execution, filmed in snowy Finland, opens the film as a prologue).  Part of the deal is to expose another scandal in the British government, with politicians being bribed (and this was filmed well before Brexit).

This sounds like falling for a scam to wire people abroad money when you receive spam saying they are in trouble.  Peter seems like a good candidate for the game, with his intellectual interest in moral issues in literature.

The film goes on the road, to Paris, Bern, and eventually the Alps.  But it still seems a bit like a 60s Cold War spy caper.  There is one scene in France in an apartment complex with very bizarre architecture remind one of Tolkien; I don’t recognize the place.

Wikipedia attribution link for Marrakech picture by Acp, under CCSA 3.0

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Wikipedia attribution link for Finnish landscape (summer, opening scene of movie is near her in winter) near the Russian border, an important location in my own book manuscript “Angel’s Brother” and possible future trouble spot, depending on the behavior of Vladimir Putin, public domain, author, “ThePeter”.

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(Published: Monday, July 4, 2016, at 2:30 PM EDT)