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.