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Tag Archive: Zen


Man from UNCLE movie poster 2

For a long dead TV property, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. looks like it might have fallen into the right hands.  Director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) has now released two stylish and compelling trailers–two of the best previews we’ve seen this year–for a late summer movie release that we didn’t think we’d have any reason to be interested in.

If the movie matches the previews, we have another “international man of mystery” story to look forward to–a James Bond with the retro-cinematography feel of the BBC’s TV adaptation of Michael Dibdin’s Zen novels.  Despite the fact that the film features the stars of the failed Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger reboots, we have some hope for this one, so long as it can avoid going the way of Johnny Depp’s Dark Shadows.

Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, and Hugh Grant star in this relook at Robert Vaughn and David McCallum’s classic agents for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (U.N.C.L.E.).  Cavill fills in for Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and Hammer for McCallum as Russian Illya Kuryakin.

Man from UNCLE banner

We now have a new poster for the film and a new trailer.  We previewed the first trailer at borg.com back in February here.  Check out this new trailer:

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Mr Selfridge promo

PBS’s Masterpiece Classic is now playing a period television drama mini-series about Harry Gordon Selfridge and his London department store Selfridge & Co.  It was produced by ITV Studios for ITV and PBS and is much longer than your typical British mini-series, where you’re often lucky to see three episodes (such as the brilliant but too short series Zen).  You’ll see plenty of comparisons to Downton Abbey from reviewers but they are all wrong.  Where Downton is steeped in the dramatic of a restricted age, Mr. Selfridge is a rollercoaster of movement and progress.  Led by Jeremy Piven here totally in his element as a forward-thinking business man with ideas to spare and never enough money to accomplish everything he wants to do, this BBC mini-series is a chronicle of progress in a place everyone knows well–the department store.  Ever wonder why the perfume counter is at the front of Macy’s and JC Penney’s?  Why make-up is sold with perfume but gloves with hats and belts?  Things that now seem trivial once had real meaning because of social mores of a bygone era.

Mr Selfridge Jeremy Piven

Jeremy Piven gets to play a character we love to see him play.  He’s flourishing in a world that seems like the Macy’s of Miracle on 34th Street to modern audiences but his department store goes back decades farther into the past.  Lucky for viewers and Piven, Selfridge was an American, so no need to trip over feigned British accents. Piven gets to be a showman with arms wide open to every customer and every prospective vendor, partner, investor, and even an ambitious show girl.

Piven never disappoints, and shines in the varied roles he takes.  Early in his career that meant a variety of smarmy types, but he’s grown on us, and his trying-too-hard characters often end up endearing instead of loathed.  Piven snuck up on us bit by bit in small roles in Lucas and a pile of John Cusack films: Bob Roberts, Elvis Stories, Floundering, One Crazy Summer, Say Anything…, The Grifters, Grosse Pointe Blank, Serendipity, and Runaway Jury.  But it wasn’t until Judgment Night, where Piven’s smarmy and cocky Ray Cochran tries to use his negotiation skill to save (unsuccessfully) a group of friends who take a wrong turn, that viewers really took note of this actor.  Then the Drake University-trained actor starred in PCU, and got to do his own Animal House film with a twist on Tim Matheson’s Eric Stratton–a classic cult favorite today.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

I was given Michael Dibdin’s series of Aurelio Zen novels as a gift after I was blown away by the short BBC TV series Zen starring Rufus Sewell, my current pick for an ideal future James Bond.  Because of Sewell’s performance I compared his Zen to the original Zen in Dibdin’s first Zen novel Ratking, and found myself comparing James Bond to Aurelio Zen after recently reading Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale.

Certainly there are similarities between Zen and Bond, but for the most part these are very different novels and genres and absolutely different characters.  From a basic level you can easily set up some analogies: Aurelio Zen is from Venice as Bond hails from England–the individuals are very much creations and defined by their origins.  Where Bond leaves London to encounter adventure in cities throughout the world, Zen’s entire world is Italy.  Where Bond has his mixed drinks, Zen has his coffee.  But Bond is a superhero of sorts to his peers and his country, whereas Zen is, by the appearances of his countrymen, flawed, heavily so in fact.  Yet its his flaws, pointed out by his superiors in the police department of Rome and townsfolk of the hill town of Perugia, that makes him endearing and accessible to readers.  He is the put-upon common working cop like Lennie Brisco or Joe Friday, but he just happens to live in Italy.

And Italy is a huge part of the novel and presumably the entire series.  Dibdin writes with such authority of Italy, including political leanings of various towns, factions, and agendas, histories of cities and real people and relationships with Italy and the rest of Europe, carryovers from World War II and Mussolini, etc., that you immediately take his word as your expert travel guide.  Where the BBC series painted a beautiful picture of Italy, however, in Ratking Dibdin shows us Perugia as the seediest of villages, and the citizenry, or at least the wealthy industrial family that is the focus of the story, outright repulsive.  Think of the family in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Dibdin’s Milettis could be interchangeable–no better or worse, just equally creepy and vile.  The ugliness permeates the novel almost to the point of  making the reader want to skip ahead to the next novel in the series where Zen is back working in Rome–but only “almost.”

Zen himself, as Dibdin puts it, carries “one of those annoying little Mona Lisa smiles which makes everyone wonder why you’re so pleased with yourself”.  Sewell nailed this piece of the original character set-up in the TV series, and it is something I expected was more brought by the actor than the story but was pleasantly surprised I was wrong.  Dibdin holds enough back so you do not know what Zen is thinking–Zen is quirky in the most mild-mannered of ways.  He has his own classiness like Bond, but in a boy scout sort of way.

I am familiar with Italy but only the history of Italy of ancient times and I found the people of Dibdin’s Italy as conniving and corrupt as Rome’s founders of several centuries past.  No one can be trusted.  Everyone is out for himself.  It is this realization that Dibdin focuses in on through his story of the grotesque concept of the ratking.  His characters, other than Zen, his mother, and a few friends, are an anti-travelogue for Italy.  In several ways the story is a noir piece akin to John Huston’s noir film Chinatown.  Like Jake Gittes, Aurelio Zen doesn’t have all the answers, and as much as he uses skill to unravel a kidnapping and murder case, he stumbles into and out of answers and danger like Gittes.  In the end instinct and a clear internal code of conduct guides Zen and sets us up for future stories.

Zen is an outsider–a policeman from Venice working in Rome who is shunned by his fellow officers for some past role in working an earlier kidnapping case.  Venetians are looked down upon in Dibdin’s Rome–and the reader gets sucked into stereotypes that at first seem foreign, yet they can easily be replicated in America–how people in one state look down upon another state or region, for example.  The immersion is so deep the reader must stop now and then and ask “am I supposed to know Florencians are aristocratic?”

In Perugia a wealthy patrician calls for help to investigate the kidnapping of a famous friend, a powerful industrialist named Ruggiero Miletti, resulting in a humorous, lengthy passing off of the responsibility until it can land in only one place–our hero’s lap.  The investigation of Miletti’s children becomes the playground for Zen’s sleuthing, despite pressures from every direction to fail at his task, from bosses, government agencies, the family, even the criminals themselves in a nicely strange twist.  The best pacing and action is in the last third of the novel, where Dibdin’s cop is in full stride.  The ending is crafted very well, and includes a jumping off point for future books.

Did Miletti’s own family kidnap him for a ransom to help the family’s failing businesses?   Or did individual family members play some role in this dark web of lies?  … the lavish son Daniele, the ethereal and seductive daughter Cinzia, the perverted son Silvio, the conniving son Pietro…  Is Zen himself just part of the ratking or is that imagery itself flawed?  As Zen forges ahead he learns that his own survival may depend on his ability to adapt and succeed at this single case.  Dibdin’s introduction to Zen in Ratkingreveals a measured character in a very dark world, but a character you will want to see again very soon.

What?  Didn’t they just announce that Daniel Craig just started filming Skyfall, the next James Bond flick?  Sure, but if you haven’t been following along, we mentioned here yesterday that, unlike diamonds, no actor gets to play James Bond forever.  So who would be great as Bond if they swapped out actors today?

Back when Pierce Brosnan was rumored to have been readying to hand over the mantle, there was much speculation as to who would be the next icon of icons in British film, and… there just wasn’t a lot by way of contenders that seemed like the perfect fit.  It’s why many, including this writer, thought Daniel Craig seemed a bizarre choice.  Glad to have been wrong about that!

But this question comes up every time there has been an actor retire from playing Bond, back to the great Sean Connery.  After all, at least from the perspective on this side of the Atlantic, there isn’t anything that stands better for England than James Bond (OK, inching out the Queen, Will Shakespeare, and Doctor Who only slightly, and with perhaps an “attaboy” pat on the head to Harry Potter).

But if you can’t wait until 2013 to see the next James Bond on screen, look no further, as a role that might as well have been written by Ian Fleming for his master spy has already been written, cast, performed, and aired on TV and is now for sale on video.  It is Michael Dibdin’s Zen, re-broadcast this year in the States on public television’s Masterpiece Mystery series.

What is Zen?

Zen is a stylish police drama made by the Brits but filmed in and around Rome, written by Dibdin in a series of novels.  Our James Bond character is Aurelius Zen, played expertly by actor Rufus Sewell, who although British plays a Mediterranean without pause because of his dark features (the tall, dark, etc. variety that the ladies will fall for).  Over the course of the three 90-minute episodes, a slow burning relationship forms with none other than ex-Bond actress Caterina Murino (from Casino Royale), who plays Tania Moretti, the Chief of Police’s assistant, recently separated.  Zen is repeatedly referred to as having an impeccable reputation, yet indications throughout the series question that notion.  He is excused or brushed off and taken for granted because of his Venician heritage, something of an inside joke we don’t need to understand to be able to empathize with him.  But we find, as Bond sidesteps master criminals in his path, Zen sidesteps mafia-esque city politics to save his job and do the right thing, if not for king and country, for the good of the citizenry of Rome.

Further adding to the series in its Masterpiece Mystery presentation are quirky but well done introductions by Alan Cumming, who formerly played Russian IT guy Boris Grishenko in another Bond film, GoldenEye.  Cumming’s intros are fun to watch themselves, as he–a bit overdramatically–describes the incredible stylishness of the forthcoming program.  What he describes of Aurelio Zen might as well be of James Bond.

But back to the production itself.  From the 1960s style, elaborate opening credits it is hard not to compare Zen with Bond.  Where else do you still see so much effort put toward the framing of a film, at least not since the 1960s, in films like Steve McQueen’s Bullitt.   Zen actually shares more a handful of parallels to Bullitt.  Sewell’s Zen radiates an aura of cool, just as McQueen did.  The soundtrack from Zen is so rich, complex, steamy, again: stylish, it skips along and carries us with it, much as the flute and keyboard did accompanying the quick and metered score of Bullitt.  And the obvious, they are both cops, wrapped up in their own survival on the squad, dodging the higher ranks in their division as much as bullets.

But you’re describing an Italian show, you say.  Bond is British.  In fact being British seems to be the only prerequisite to be selected as Bond.  Like many actors in shows through the ages, TV shows, movies, you name it, Sewell plays Aurelio Zen with no attempt at a local, Italian accent.  After all, you don’t need to speak in a British accent to perform Shakespeare, right?  To be sure, Sewell’s British is not cockney or Scot or Welsh, it’s almost American, possibly residue from his short-lived but solid performance in the American series, The Eleventh Hour.   Sewell would voice Bond much as was done by Daniel Craig.  He sells it British because we know he’s British.  That’s good enough for us.

Accent discussions aside, Sewell walks the walk.  That is, he’s got the polished Bond look.  Like perfectly tailored suits that he wears like he doesn’t care what he’s wearing (why should he care? he’s Bond).  And while all the rest of the police department are laying odds and who will bed the new Chief’s assistant (Zen isn’t even in the running in the office pool), Zen pays no mind as the Chief’s assistant has eyes only for Zen.

And the Broccoli family could also not do better than bring on the entire production team from Zen to costume their next film, edit it, film it.  As production values go on television, I challenge anyone to find a TV series with better cinematography and direction.  And the location and setting of the sequences of Zen are exotic in feel as any location from Dr. No forward.  What more could anyone want for James Bond?

So maybe not only should Rufus Sewell play the Bond to follow Daniel Craig, we also have the crew to film that follow-on picture.

By the way, if you think you haven’t seen Sewell before, he’s been around.  He was Fortinbras in Kenneth Branaghs’s Hamlet, the star of 1998’s dystopian Dark City, the evil Count Adhemar in A Knight’s Tale opposite Heath Ledger, Ali Baba in Arabian Knights, Thomas Clarkson in Amazing Grace with Ioan Gruffudd, Alexander Hamilton in the John Adams TV series, the star of Eleventh Hour, Tom Builder in Pillars of the Earth, and is soon to have a leading role in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

So Sewell is my current #1 recommendation to see one day as Bond.  Other contenders?  We’ll have to get to those on another day.

C.J. Bunce

Editor

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