Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

No, it’s not Men in Black III

As the Oscars continue to push me toward my inevitable aneurysm, great films continue to release on the tail end of awards season.  2012 doesn’t (so far) look like it will be quite the year for film as 2011 was, but there are glimmers of hope here and there.  I’m currently playing tag with the final films of 2011, many of which are still available to see.

Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a quiet spy film in the tradition of Three Days of the Condor and The Good Shepherd.  Based upon a complex spy novel by John le Carré and perhaps inspired by the seven-part TV series from many years ago, the film features a prize collection of male actors, including Oscar-nominated Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Stephen Graham, Colin Firth, Simon McBurney, Tom Hardy, and Ciarán Hinds.  The story follows a few characters, centering around George Smiley (Oldman), whom, after being forced into retirement from the Circus (the British secret service), is tasked with uncovering the identity of a mole.  From the beginning, we know that the mole is sitting at the table, but the filmmakers don’t so much invite us to decode the mystery for ourselves as they do urge us to tag along with Smiley.

What follows is essentially a two-hour series of interviews, through which Smiley and his sidekick, Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch) ingeniously smoke the mole out.  Contrary to the usual, I won’t go into detail about the plot, as its movement doesn’t lend itself well to this type of piece.  However, the film contains inspired performances, convincingly suspenseful situations (at the expense of obligatory gunfights, which the less experienced spy-film-viewer may expect here), and some great use of image patterning (keep track of every shot of dripping liquid, if you can).

To the film’s detriment, perhaps, is the uniformly consistent direction by Alfredson.  The cinematography is always solid, but rarely surprising.  In addition, the underuse of music throughout and explosive overuse of “La Mer” at the end is a bit jarring.  Only one female character shows up in the film (Irina, played by Svetlana Khodchenkova), and once Ricki Tarr (Hardy) gets involved with her, there’s not much hope that she’ll last until the denouement.  Perhaps most striking is the lack of characterization for Smiley.  Rather than receiving character-deepening scenes (apart from one, during which he relates a story about meeting Karla, an enemy of Britain), Smiley acts as the linchpin for the movie’s forward action, and the story’s ancillary characters orbit him without ever allowing us to be too curious about him.  We’re not even allowed to see the face of his estranged wife, Ann, who cheats on him with Haydon (Firth) in one of the film’s important subplots.  The film’s other major draw is Mark Strong, who plays Jim Prideaux, a British spy-turned-schoolteacher who has a good relationship with children and a hell of an aim with a .22.  It’s a nice change from his usual villain roles.

Spy movies like this only come out every so often, and it’s just as well, since their quiet nature turns the average American filmgoer’s brain into pudding.  It’s refreshing, however, when a film of this type not only turns out well, but gets a bit of recognition.  Oldman’s Best Actor is coming.  Not this year nor for this film, but soon.

 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011); written by Bridget O’Connor (adapted from John le Carré’s novel); directed by Tomas Alfredson; starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong.

2012 Oscars

The yearly finger-wagging

The theme of the award shows this year seems to be nostalgia.  Topping the Academy’s ladder for Best Picture are Hugo and The Artist, two films about transitions in the world of cinema.  Also nominated is The Descendants, a better film than either, as well as The Tree of Life, a masterpiece from earlier in the year.  I’d like to see Kaui Hemmings’ novel-to-film take home the Oscar, but I expect the winner will be one of the top two.  More so, it would have been nice if Mike Cahill and Brit Marling’s Another Earth was nominated, but I suspect its modest budget and lesser-known performers caused the Academy to shy away.  Also unfortunately omitted was My Week With Marilyn.

While we’re on that topic, Michelle Williams deserves the Best Actress award, if our only choices are the nominees.  However, I’m guessing Glenn Close or Meryl Streep will win, because if you’re the Academy, you’re thinking that Michelle Williams will have plenty of occasion to be nominated later, while the roles of Albert Nobbs and Margaret Thatcher may very well be the crown jewels in the careers of Close and Streep.  Williams won the Golden Globe, however, so no sour grapes, although it is an absolute crime that Mia Wasikowska was not nominated for her heartbreakingly wonderful performance in Jane Eyre.

Also regarding crimes, Michael Fassbender received no nod for Shame, although he won a good amount of other awards for his excellent run as sex-addict Brandon Sullivan.  Similarly, Michael Shannon is nowhere to be seen for Take Shelter.  George Clooney rightfully receives a nomination for his role as Matt King in The Descendants (although, shamefully, Shailene Woodley was left out of Best Supporting Actress contention), and Gary Oldman receives a surprise nomination for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  If patterns are to be trusted, the winner will be Jean Dujardin for his role as George Valentin in the brilliant silent film The Artist.

Here are my most current fundamental issues with this year’s awards (apart from the hackneyed formula by which the Academy chooses nominees, which you can read more about from Roger Ebert if you care):  a “best” award, leastways for an actor, should be based upon that actor’s volume of work for the entire year, if they’re receiving an award which represents that entire year.  For example, take a look at Jessica Chastain’s 2011 track record.  The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Debt, Wilde Salome, Texas Killing Fields, Coriolanus – mostly leading roles, and an astounding collection of characters.  She’s receiving a nod for Best Supporting Actress in The Help, but I imagine this award will go to her co-star, Octavia Spencer, and it perhaps should go to Bérénice Bejo for her brilliant performance as Peppy Miller in The Artist.  Therein lies the issue: we’re comparing one character from one film to one other character from one other film, which may or may not even be the same kind of film (a problem the Golden Globes avoids by splitting their “bests” into the categories of Drama and Musical/Comedy), and not on the work from the entire year.  Jessica Chastain is only slated for two films so far this year, one of which is animated, so it may unfortunately be awhile before we see her at the podium.

There are other things I could go on about, but suffice it to say that I think there’s one sweeping solution: understand that the Golden Globes, an international show, is more prestigious, and that there are plenty of other award ceremonies throughout the end of the year that equally (and quite often more truly) highlight the year’s bests.  The Oscars, being the one strictly American ceremony (notice A Separation is nominated only for Best Foreign Language Film and not Best Picture), has always sought to be the “best” source, perhaps because Americans are obsessed with referring to others to find out what the most appropriate behavior is, but at the same time do not want to check multiple sources.  Don’t be fooled.  I enjoy the Oscars every year, but it’s only one measuring stick in the proverbial plastic bin.

 

The Artist

Count me a Peppy Miller groupie

I want to be brief this time, because I want you to experience The Artist with a clear mind.  In fact, do me a favor and see it before you read this.

Michel Hazanavicius’ film is a silent, black-and-white labor of love featuring French actors Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, who play a silent film star and a rising Hollywood actress, respectively.  The story follows George Valentin (Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bejo), with the former’s career in steep decline after the “talkies” become popular in the late 1920’s.  Peppy, however, goes from being a Valentin groupie to an even bigger film star than he, albeit with a bit of his guidance.

Dujardin has been nominated for and won plenty of awards for his role as Valentin, but to be honest, it’s Bejo who steals the show here.  Watch her dance, examine the subtle ways in which Peppy’s character changes between when she’s acting in the films-within-films and when she’s being herself, experience her knowing eyes.  She’s a star.  In many ways, Peppy is also the rags-to-riches hero of the film, taking care of Valentin when no one else cares, and earning everything she gets, despite the fact that much of her story is “montage-y”.  Thankfully, Bejo has also been nominated for plenty of awards, and with any luck, she’ll soon be known for more than A Knight’s Tale.  Dujardin, while deserving every award he receives, keeps Valentin hammy throughout the film, and while you can chalk it up to Valentin becoming so self-absorbed that his film characters have melted into his personality, it becomes a bit distracting, almost as though we’re watching a parody of a silent film, at times (it’s also hard to ignore when you’re watching a silent film whose story revolves around silent films).

The film begins to stumble when it tries to complicate its characters.  For instance, why did Valentin have to be married in the beginning of the film?  His mistreatment of his wife and eventual divorce set up plenty of dramatic conflict, but virtually no payback comes from this later.  The only conflict it creates is whether to root for Valentin or not – Dujardin plays him sympathetically, but is the character himself really a good guy?  Going after younger girls when he’s already married, becoming the embodiment of vanity – sure, the idea is that he gets over himself later, but this would have been more effective had he been a bachelor.

John Goodman appears in the film as Al Zimmer, the boss of Kinograph Studios, and his broad facial expressions lend themselves well to the silent film.  James Cromwell plays Clifton, Valentin’s valet, and Malcolm McDowell has a walk-on role as a character simply known as the Butler.  It’s a great cast in a wildly ambitious project, and perhaps the saddest thing about the film is that there likely won’t ever be another like it: The Artist is a period piece imitating an art form that no longer exists.

A note on the period piece, in part brought to my attention by my filmgoing partner over dinner: the film is incredibly true to the time period, but it was a time period when all of the attention was on white men (not to say that most of it isn’t still).  Peppy comes a long way in the film, and so on, but Valentin is the central figure.  My argument was that the film is aware of its setting and gender/race roles, and that watching it in 2011, we watch it through a certain lens: this is how it was, not how it is, and this knowledge enables innocent enjoyment of a fun, smile-laden, musical romp like The Artist.  But are we all so self-aware?  Does the remaking of period pieces like this perpetuate the gender/race problems of former eras, and continue to make them “okay” simply because we think we may, as a culture, have grown past them?  Something to consider.

To end it on a lighter note, The Artist is a wonderful film, and will most likely win Best Picture at the Oscars.  While not the best film of the year, it’s one of the most historically significant and certainly the most ambitious overall (tightly squeezing past My Week With Marilyn).  May the careers of these new silent film actors continue to flourish even when they once again appear in the talkies.

The Artist (2011); written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius; starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo

Haywire

It begins and ends with the same word

“It’s always about the money,” says Ewan McGregor to Michael Fassbender, as we in the audience wait to be surprised.  Instead of a surprise, though, we get the feeling that what Ewan (or Kenneth, as his character is so named in the film) says refers to something broader than the events within the film.  Just look at the films Steven Soderbergh has done.  Now look at this one.  Now look at this one’s cast.  It’s either the director’s charisma and substantial resume, or an equally substantial paycheck that brought this group of fellows together.

You want a real surprise?  Okay, here goes: Haywire isn’t a bad movie.  There’s a literary form called Paraprosdokian, which occurs when the second half of a sentence or phrase is so surprising to the reader that it changes the reader’s interpretation of the first half.  Can you think of any films that effectively apply this technique to a visual medium?  If you answered yes, were any of those films released after 1990?  Countless movies of this generation attempt the “shocking” narrative twist, but they omit that special moment when, after hearing a clever turn of phrase, you take that split-second breath before saying, “Ohh, I get it.”  That breath is what makes getting it satisfying.  This generation’s thrillers do one of two things: hold your hand and ease you into the twist so slowly that nothing could possibly shock you, or lead you down one path before violently shoving you down another.  Haywire falls victim to the former (want an example of the latter?  Check out my review of Unknown).  Fortunately, Soderbergh’s thriller has a little bit of cushion.

A fair warning: if you don’t fall for Gina Carano’s character of Mallory Kane when she’s gently sipping tea in an upstate New York cafe’ in the opening scene, then you never will.  The film follows Mallory’s retelling of her betrayal at the hands of a private military company.  The fact that most of the film is told through flashbacks eliminates a lot of potential tension, but not inherently: Carano’s straight-laced delivery perishes any though of Mallory being an unreliable narrator (unlike last year’s The Debt, a similar narrative in which a detail left out by Jessica Chastain’s character changes the entire plot).  The company, which may or may not be run by Kenneth (McGregor), has murky dealings with contacts in Barcelona and Dublin, where Mallory is sent to do a couple of jobs.  The company also involves Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) and Aaron (Channing Tatum), whose positions are unclear.  While doing a job with Paul (Michael Fassbender), an MI6 agent, Mallory is sold out and becomes the object of an international womanhunt.  While attempting to figure out who’s pulling Kenneth’s strings, she systematically takes down her hunters, simultaneously protecting the innocent people involved – namely a diner named Scott (Michael Angarano) and her father, John (Bill Paxton).  Michael Douglas even appears as a guy who does something for the U.S. government.

What struck me about the film is how quiet it is.  Not sound-wise, mind you; the gunshots are thunderous enough.  But there are long shots of Mallory running, walking, and driving – shots that I admire.  A scene in which Mallory backs up a car shows us not what’s behind her (all elements of danger: angry cops, wild deer, rugged road conditions), but just her face and what’s moving away from her in the safe distance.  Carano does all of her own stunts and fight work, which is refreshingly easy to follow, as it’s well-cut (i.e. not edited much) and makes no obvious use of wires or CG.  The music is equal parts calming and vein-pumping when it should be.

I’m still not certain, however, whether the “big reveal” is supposed to be a genuine surprise.  We had no reason to believe it wasn’t this person.  Furthermore, due to the fact that the male characters (with the possible exception of Paxton’s sympathetic dad) have as much personality and as many distinguishing features as a six-pack of toothpaste tubes, Haywire becomes a film in which it’s pointless to try to solve the mystery yourself.  You know it’s all going to be spelled out in an hour anyway.  The ending also leaves one begging for another five seconds with the characters (and not in the incredible way Another Earth did).  “That’s a hell of a way to end a movie,” a film-goer said to me as we exited the theatre.  “It’s like they were setting up a sequel.”

Mallory’s most revealing scenes happen when she’s sipping tea or walking through her apartment in a bathrobe.  There’s not much growth for her character – there almost is, when her father, unbeknownst to her, spies her killing an attacker, and we know it’s the first time he’s seen this happen – but we’re allowed to feel for her.  She has sympathy for the innocent, and has a life – or wants one – outside of killing bad people.  We did, however, need that extra five seconds.  The film’s best scene is a terrific one-shot conversation between Mallory and Michael Douglas’ character, who appear almost as silhouettes, in a garage at the end of an airport runway.  It’s tenser than any of the fight scenes, and the potential consequences are much greater (because, let’s be honest, are we ever afraid Mallory is going to lose a fight?).

Gina Carano is a good actress, though I’m afraid that if her career skyrockets, she will be pigeonholed into this exact same role again and again.  But at least it’s a leading role.

Haywire (2012); written by Lem Dobbs; directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor and Antonio Banderas.