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

Take Shelter

There’s a storm comin’

2011_take_shelter_003Take care when choosing what company to bring along for Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, the writer/director’s first film since 2007’s Shotgun Stories, which also featured Michael Shannon.  This is not to say the film should be avoided by anyone – after all, it’s nonviolent, passionately delivered, expertly directed, and has respect for its characters – but folks who scare easily may be burying their faces when the lightning strikes.

I don’t think I took a single breath during this film.  Billed as a “thriller,” Take Shelter casually swats any attempts at genre pigeonholing.  The story centers around Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) and his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), a couple living on the outskirts of a small Ohio town.  They are the parents of a hearing-impaired child, Hannah (Tova Stewart), planning a cochlear implant operation, which will require the aid of Curtis’ health insurance policy.  Curtis has a good job in construction, where he not only enjoys excellent benefits, but works with his best friend, Dewart (Shea Whigham).  As the film begins, Curtis begins having terrible dreams.  The dreams begin with a storm, and then chaos ensues.  Rain becomes motor oil.  Tornadoes rip his house from its foundation.  Black birds swarm overhead.  Hannah is taken from him.  His dog attacks him, and the pain lingers throughout the day.  Curtis fears that these may not be just dreams (he describes them as “feelings”), and begins to prepare for the worst.

The tension in the film lies in the fact that Curtis does not give Samantha the chance to understand what he’s feeling: he hides it from her, even when he takes out a risky bank loan to pay for an addition to his storm shelter.  Still, he isn’t arrogant or self-important enough (as male movie protagonists often are) to consider himself a prophet: he knows his family has a history of mental illness, so he visits his mother (Kathy Baker), who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was Curtis’s age.  Curtis takes books on the subject from the library, sees a counselor at a free clinic, tries a prescription medication for sleep, and (illegally) borrows equipment from work to dig his shelter.  Dewart, concerned but a friend first, helps however he can.  Eventually, Curtis must reveal what he’s seen to Samantha, and the real tests of faith begin.

Michael Shannon gives one of the strongest performances of the year.  What a step away from his other current role (that of Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire).  His voice sparks with power, and even in his possible madness, he deserves the highest degree of sympathy.  Jessica Chastain, an actress I cannot say enough about, shines in her seventh major role this year.  The story of Take Shelter is just as much about Samantha dealing with Curtis’s problems as it is about Curtis dealing with it himself, and Jessica stifles absolutely no emotion.  She, more than anyone, makes the viewer want everything to work out in the end.  What an amazing collection of characters she is assembling.

Nichols exercises a subtle, yet absolute, mastery over his domain.  As I mentioned earlier, he has an undying respect for his characters, and this comes through in every scene (e.g. no one is killed by zombies or turned into a child-napping maniac, regardless of what Curtis’s dreams may suggest).  There are no abrupt genre exercises or contrived “twists.”  The family feels like a family.  There are long, hovering shots that seem to challenge the viewer to find something wrong, something off, something that should not be there (as Curtis is).  A scene in which Curtis loses all sense of reticence at a community benefit and throws a histrionic fit feels obligatory, but his pontificating is so genuine, so desperate, that it’s not only acceptable, but necessary.  The lens stays expertly focused on Curtis while we wait to see the most important shot: Samantha’s face.  Can she continue to deal with this?

It should also be noted that Samantha, not Curtis, is given the responsibility of making economic decisions for the family after Curtis’s situation jeopardizes his job.  “I’ve made a decision,” she says.  Eventually, a real storm starts.  Without spoiling anything, what follows is a scene scorched with drama, the most genuine display of trust between film characters I’ve seen all year (and after Another Earth, that’s saying something).

Take Shelter (2011); written and directed by Jeff Nichols; starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

Another Earth

Forgive

Sometimes you have to wait to read a book or see a movie, because you need to be in a “certain place” first.  I’m still not sure what place I had to be in to go see Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, but having been interested in this fascinating piece of art since its announcement, I waited a good amount of time to get there.  So long, in fact, that I caught the final showing in the entire district, at Albany’s Spectrum 8 Theatre, about five minutes from where I was born.

The story begins with Rhoda Williams (writer and actress Brit Marling), an MIT-bound high school graduate.  At a party, she has too many drinks, and drives home to the sounds of a local hip-hop radio station.  The DJ mentions in passing that a new planet has been discovered, and according to scientists, it’s capable of supporting life.  Tonight, it will appear as a blue spot somewhere close to the moon.  Peering out her window and spotting the blue spot in the sky, Rhoda speeds through an intersection and smashes into an SUV, killing the wife and young child of John Burroughs (William Mapother), whom we later learn is a respected composer and college professor.  He is rendered comatose in the accident.

Four years later, John comes out of his coma and Rhoda is released from prison.  Her family (parents and obnoxious younger brother) pick her up as casually as if they were picking her up from school.  We are spared any of Rhoda’s prison experiences, and no specifics are hinted at, but it’s clear that her drunken accident and jail time have thoroughly recolored her personality.  Once an ambitious, talkative, social young woman, Rhoda now sleeps in the attic, owns nothing, hardly bathes, and doesn’t talk.  The very act of existing seems an unfair burden.  Interactions with her family are awkward.  She sees a job counselor, and after the latter comments on her impressive intellectual aptitude, refuses to do a job that requires thinking or talking to people.  She settles for a maintenance job at a local high school, where she works alongside elderly janitor Purdeep (Kumar Pallana) and barely looks a year older than the students who graffiti the bathrooms.

Content to scrub her days away (a well-achieved analogy for a deeper figurative “cleaning”), Rhoda decides to apologize to John for her mistake.  Discovering him in a house not unlike a pig’s wallow, she loses her nerve and claims she is from a cleaning service.  He “hires” her to fix up his disaster of a home, and through one thing and another, they become friends, with Rhoda never revealing who she is.  According to the rules of narrative (especially in film), she must reveal it eventually, and the scenes leading up to this conversation are unbearably tense.

The new about Earth 2 is always progressing, but wisely kept in the background until it becomes relevant to a choice Rhoda must make.  Astronomers and physicists are brought in to attempt first contact when the planet moves visibly closer to Earth.  After various tries, contact is finally achieved, only to reveal that this planet is an exact mirror of Earth, with all of the same people, who have followed the exact same life paths up to this point.

Here is a film that could have broken the rules of narrative we all accept and expect.  Rhoda’s depressions are spot-on accurate and heartbreaking.  She drags herself through work, punishing herself with a job she’s not suited for.  One night, she wanders out into a field, strips completely naked, and lies down in the snow until she passes out.  She awakens in the hospital with her family, who appear as though they almost prefer she’d died.  The only thing that doesn’t seem to have changed is her predilection for outer space.  She pays close attention to the news stories (the only reason we get to see/hear them), and when a billionaire entrepreneur holds an essay contest (500 words or less) with a grand prize of traveling to Earth 2, Rhoda enters.  Eventually, a theory comes out stating Earth and Earth 2 were identical in every way until the very moment we made contact.  After that exact moment, lives changed, different decisions could have been made, and all bets are off.  What if the version of Rhoda on Earth 2 didn’t kill John’s family?  What if they’re still alive and she’s an MIT student?

Cahill’s cutting, his use of the handheld camera, and his joint decisions with Marling (co-writer of the script) about what is said and what is shown, are astounding for a film of this age.  We understand the connection between Rhoda and Purdeep even when nothing is said.  They’re both lost souls, punishing themselves for past sins.  They understand each other and speak their own language, and we understand it without having it fed to us.  Their final scene together (after Purdeep has blinded and deafened himself because he can no longer “stand to see himself everywhere”) displays a mastery of visual storytelling thus far unmatched this year.  There are also tiny details which could have been ruined with fat blocks of dialogue – on a few occasions, John offers alcoholic drinks to Rhoda.  She apprehensively lets the liquid touch her lips, but never really drinks it.  She never says to John (and by extension, the audience), “I don’t drink because [insert lie for strained tension].”  We know why.  The tension is increased tenfold because she does this without John even noticing.  Despite the temptation to expand the background sci-fi into a full-blown mythology, the film wisely keeps us with the characters, namely Rhoda, and we’re barely allowed to care about anything she doesn’t care about.

On the verge of a romantic relationship with John (likely twice her age), Rhoda wins the essay contest and decides to go to Earth 2.  Yes, she reveals her true identity to John and yes, unfortunately, he reacts how you’d expect him to.  Thankfully, this revelation doesn’t solve anything; quite the contrary.  The conflict we had at the beginning of the story now resurfaces and needs to be resolved, and a certain character’s actions provide a solution so pure, so wholeheartedly selfless, that we’re simultaneously satisfied and pining for a different way.  This action doesn’t go unrewarded, however.  The final scene of the film is something I cannot spoil.  I’m willing to wait until you see the film to talk about it.  Suffice it to say it’s a stinger and a surprise without being a twist or a sequel hook, it’s a massive payoff without being contrived, and it fits the movie’s fictional science without providing a be-all-end-all solution to the complex issues of an entire planet (much less two).  I suspect lesser filmmakers would have gone for something much, much different.

The background story of Another Earth is more the stuff of science than the stuff of fiction.  At least, it’s based on a long-standing (but generally debunked) theory that a mirror Earth exists directly opposite us in orbit, and because it’s an exact mirror, the sun is always blocking us from seeing the other planet.  The way this information is conveyed in the narrative (non-glamorized news and narration by real-life scientist Richard Berendzen) is much stronger than the overwritten mumble-science of a film like Primer.

One of this story’s frequently asked questions is, “What would you say if you could meet yourself?”  John’s answer (“Hey, you up for a video game?”) and Rhoda’s answer (“Better luck next time.”) are so rigidly different and the performances of Marling and Mapother are so honest that after this film, even with such a seemingly preposterous background, I had to think about my answer.  Whatever that “place” was, I was there.  It was a long ride home.

Another Earth (2011); written by Mike Cahill and Brit Marling; directed by Mike Cahill; starring Brit Marling and William Mapother.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Don’t be yourself: good advice for most Hollywood directors

Crazy, Stupid, Love is Ficarra/Requa’s new feature-length RomCom concerning the romantic escapades of several good people.  Kevin Bacon’s in it, too.

The film is the big debut of Steve Carell after his dramatic exeunt from The Office, and as usual, he plays a likable, hapless man with zero luck and the best intentions.  Carell’s character, Cal Weaver, leaps out of a moving car after his wife, Emily (the lovely-as-ever Julianne Moore) declares her desire to get divorced.  Simultaneously, Cal’s son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), thirteen years old, declares his love for his babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), four years his senior, who rejects Robbie’s advances in surprise and disgust.  Cal begins spending time at a local bar – which looks more like a high-end casino than any bar I’ve ever seen – and has a chance meeting with Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling), a wealthy, well-dressed womanizer who promises to teach Cal the tricks of the trade in order to help win Emily back.  The only woman Jacob hasn’t been able to rustle is Hannah (Emma Stone), who can’t stand his pickup lines, doesn’t find him attractive, and already has a boyfriend (Josh Groban).  With one thing and another, these respective parties inevitably cross paths in several hysterical, clever, and sometimes downright touching ways.

I have to respect the writer/director(s) for just that: having respect for the audience.  In a day and age where filmmakers feel they need to spoon-feed every thread of story information to the iPhone-obsessed ADD public, here’s a film which introduces several characters, apparently not connected in any way, right at the outset of the story, and leaves it to the viewer to remember who each character is without constantly repeating information and retreading tired plot points.  I wish this method of telling a story as though telling it to someone older than five wasn’t such a lost art form in films these days.

The performances are solid through and through.  The actors avoid playing characters who are expecting a clean-cut happy ending.  The film even features appearances from Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon, the latter of whom plays David Lindhagen, the many-times-named accountant who steals Emily from Cal, and he does a good job of playing the character as a real person and not a generic sleazeball whose only mission is to spite the protagonist (the Spiteful Sleaze, as seen in so many easy plot formulas for this type of film).

The character growth is genuine, albeit achieved through preposterous circumstances which could only occur in film.  Conversations are interrupted at near-miraculous times, but they’re always finished later.  In addition, the film’s single plot twist is well-executed and unexpected (yet inevitable when you think about it in retrospect, which to me is the best kind of twist, if we need one at all).  The filmmakers shoot for an uplifting ending (because it’s a date movie) and achieve much more, because their respect for their audience never wanes.  Not everyone gets the girl (or guy), there’s no moral lesson, and the dynamics of a somewhat dysfunctional family are left fully intact even when optimism wins out.

Go figure.  A RomCom which achieves both parts of its name, as well as being an engaging family drama.  Characters are made to say difficult things to the people they care about, the title is never blurted out, and there’s barely an ounce of the crude humor that seems so par-for-the-course with any type of comedy nowadays.

There’s also a great big editing error featuring Emma Stone’s legs.  Happy hunting.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.; written by Dan Fogelman; directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; starring Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. 

 

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