Dec 28, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This was my most anticipated film of the movie season. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Simon McBurney, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds (I do not much care for the Cumberbatch, sorry): British thespian wet dream central! Plus, it is directed by Tomas Alfredson, who gave us the extraordinary vampire movie Let The Right One In.
I confess: I have never been able to finish John Le Carré's novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (tried twice), I have never read any of his other books and I never saw the adaptations with Alec Guinness. But I can tell you this: I was a little bored. I did not mind the grainy, brackish hues of the cinematography and I loved the cumbersome apparatuses that spies relied on in those days; rotary phones, big ass typewriters in code and enormous recording devices. No cellphones, no email, no internet, no satellites. Spying was a more intimate, dangerous affair. I appreciate Le Carré's doggedly realistic contribution to the genre. James Bond, this ain't. Spying is hard, sometimes bureaucratic, painstaking work; it's not all martinis, bananaphones (as in Maxwell Smart) and chicks, he will have you know. There is something quaint about this nostalgia for the Cold War and the games that the Eastern bloc played with the West. They all seem futile in hindsight, but what do I know.
All that fake seventies hair distracted me. Why is Tom Hardy wearing such a terrible blond wig? Is it because he is a spy on the lam? But something else did not work. As great as Gary Oldman is, his performance is so understated as to feel absent. He seems like a hollow at the center of the movie. Not that he should be Sean Connery, but you don't get from him the piercing intelligence you get just by looking at a photo of Alec Guinness as Smiley.
All that Karla business (Karla is the Russian spymaster), and trying to find who is the Soviet mole among this group of British spies sounds very exciting on paper. But the movie is not as bracing as it could be because most of it is told in flashbacks, which somehow dulls the sense of urgency, and can be a bit confusing. There is a key scene where Smiley recounts his one tete a tete with Karla. It feels central to the film, but all that telling instead of showing makes the film tedious. The movie does get much more exciting towards the end, after all that back and forth, as Smiley gets closer to nailing the mole, even if it is not exactly clear how he got there. This story intimates that something personal is at the root of spying. In the end, it is men or women who burrow into other people's lives, and files.  At the center of the mole business is the hint of a homosexual relationship between Colin Firth and Mark Strong (bring it!), and there is an aura of dulled pain suffusing the whole thing. Smiley broods because his wife has left him; Firth and Strong are the love that dare not speak its name, Hardy is desperate to save a woman he loves. Alas, there too much of a fog around them to make them connect with the audience.
I hope Firth doesn't get typecast as the silent suffering gay, since he makes it work as wonderfully here, and with a lot more panache, as he did in A Single Man. He is a splendid actor. John Hurt is the liveliest of the bunch as Control, the head British spy. He is a lot of fun to watch. The rest of the cast is very solid, but none of the characters get enough screen time to make an impression, except for Strong, and Tom Hardy, who appears briefly but nails his part as a spy who has been left in the cold.

Dec 26, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

No director could be more perfect than David Fincher to helm this second film adaptation of the book by Stieg Larsson. I have never read the books, because as is the case with most movies, and most fast food chains, I don't do franchises. But I did see the original Swedish movie. Fincher's version is superior, and not just because it is way more expensive; his temperament makes the material more tolerable, at least for me. I happen to think the source material is awful. I understand that the book is a pageturner, but I find the story truculent, morbid, exploitative, mostly humorless and rather pointless. The idea that beneath such a perfectly well-behaved liberal society like Sweden there lie horrid problems (racism, Nazism, sexism -- every evil politically incorrect ism under the sun) is interesting, but I could not discern in either of the movies the contrast between the nice Scandinavian veneer and the dark depths of depravity. The story just piles on the depravity, leaving no room for irony: stacking it up just lessens the impact and evil becomes banal, vulgar and boring. I imagine that for Swedes the idea of a depraved welfare official is subversive, but the biggest problem I have with this story is precisely this segment. This man rapes and tortures his ward, Lisbeth Salander. In both films the rape and her subsequent revenge are depicted gruesomely, for titillation. I love revenge as much as anyone, but I don't appreciate when a rape is shown with supposed moral disgust, yet in a titillating manner. I don't buy the self-righteousness. I think Larsson is just getting off on the violence. He thinks women are going to find Salander's revenge satisfying. I find everything repulsive. 
But now the good news: At least Fincher is such an elegant craftsman, he counters the vulgarity with style. The opening credit sequence (by Blur Studios) is, as always in his films, absolutely stunning. Turns out that Fincher is becoming a great director of actors. The cast is perfect and superb. Everyone is understated, no one is histrionic, not even Christopher Plummer, who's always chewing the scenery (this time he nibbles it politely). It's as if the Arctic cold outside managed to frost everyone's hearts a little bit. Daniel Craig is very good as journalist Mikael Blomkvist. He plays the ingenue and he does it charmingly, gracefully and without a trace of self-consciousness. Rooney Mara is excellent too as Lisbeth Salander. I adored the conceptualization of her character; that is, her look: hair, make up, wardrobe are absolutely brilliant. In the first movie, Noomi Rapace looked like an amped-up version of Joan Jett. Just vulgar. But Fincher and Mara go for a much more waifish, elfin look. She is ghostly translucent and looks like a goth spirit from the netherworld. This works better than a butch woman with distracting biceps and spiky hair.  Plus, it's amazing what a pair of bleached eyebrows can do when paired with jet black bangs. This Lisbeth Salander doesn't look good; she looks damaged. Mara's performance is almost silent, all in her gaze and her body language, intense without a hint of hamminess. Inside her tiny, aggressively appointed frame, she harbors vast reserves of suppressed rage. She is totally compelling, and also very brave, with all that aggressive nudity. Another cheer for Fincher: he's probably the only American director to go for it. Yay. I find Hollywood's puritanical avoidance of sex while they are gluttonous for grisly violence very offensive. With Fincher, we get the best of both worlds: his customary grisly tableaux of violence, and nudity. My only wish is that we could see as much of Daniel Craig as we see of Mara. There is always a next time.
The two big villains, Salander's evil guardian (Yorick Van Wageningen, impressive), and Stellan Skarsgard are excellent, relaxed fakers. No mustache twirling here. I was delighted to see the great Steven Berkoff as Christopher Plummer's attorney. Donald Sumpter is great as detective Morell, Joely Richardson is wonderful, everyone is measured and intense and good in this movie.
If only it didn't last almost three hours and was utterly pointless. It is long and meandering (like Zodiac, and Se7en), but one is utterly transfixed by how good it all looks (great work by longtime Fincher cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, less yellow than usual), how like clockwork it all works, by that polished Fincher style that is almost hypnotic in its cool, sharp, detached elegance, in its obsession with investigative detail. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian does the job, although I wonder if there is any way to cut to the chase sooner in this smorgasbord of grotesquerie.
Fincher likes to take his time with procedurals. His pacing is not slow; the plot is long. Still, Fincher stages a short set piece in the subway, where someone tries to steal Salander's bag, (after endless exposition and looking at computer screens) that is totally bracing, beautifully executed, fast, sharp, breathtaking. Also, as he proved with The Social Network, he may be the only guy in the world who can make staring at computers sexy for the audience. The way the images and information appear on the computer screens is beautifully and dynamically presented. This is quite an achievement.
Fincher can also build good moments of tension, two to be precise, and I wished there were more, considering his leisurely stroll in finding the culprit of a crime that happened 40 years ago, that I couldn't care less about. I was entertained by his style, by the fine actors, by everything but the plot.
I used to dislike Fincher's movies because I found them glossy, but hard-hearted and empty. Interestingly, the one movie where he tried his hand at love and feelings, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is his worst failure. He should stick to human nastiness. Ever since The Social Network, I'm warming up to him. He has great control, great craftsmanship, and watching his movies is as richly satisfying an experience as buying some very expensive couture item, or going for a spin in a very expensive, shiny, new sports car (none of which I've ever done). The surfaces are enthralling. 

Dec 24, 2011

Young Adult

Written by Diablo Cody, and directed by Jason Reitman, the team behind Juno, Young Adult gets brownie points for trying to be a very dark comedy, a willful antithesis to all those fluffy, borderline offensive Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson movies about women desperate to get married that always end with the woman getting the guy. But Young Adult does not have the frenzied joie de vivre of Bridesmaids, which is also an antidote to that. This is a strangely toned film, mostly held together by the compelling performance of Charlize Theron as Mavis, an alcoholic ghostwriter of young adult novels, who lives in the big city (Minneapolis) and is obsessed with recovering Buddy, her now happily married old flame (Patrick Wilson), who is still stuck in her old town, with a new baby. On paper, everything is there for a great, sarcastic comedy about selfishness and romantic immaturity, and I give credit to all involved for pushing the material to the most uncomfortable lengths; but something doesn't quite jell. For one, the laughter dies in your throat. I guess you need a subtler hand to make it more mischievous while keeping the darkness alive (Billy Wilder's The Apartment, Fargo, or the early films of Alexander Payne come to mind). Sadly, Reitman and Cody are heavy-handed satirists, while the genre requires a light and killer touch. Reitman needs more finesse as a director to make the horrible ironies of the story resonate. And the conventionality of Cody's by-the-number plot turns completely undermines the bracing contrariness of her script. 
There is a lot of richness in the idea that a woman who writes for young adults is a young adult herself, and of the worst kind. Mavis is bitter, self-pitying, both needy and cold, a bitch on wheels, arrogant and pretty brazenly horrid. Cody employs the voiceover narration of the teen novel Mavis is ghostwriting to provide an ironic echo to what is happening in her life. This is a very clever device to make Mavis tolerable, since it shows a window to her sad fantasies of love and happiness; yet little sticks in the mind, and none of it deepens the pleasure of watching this movie. In fact, watching this movie is not a pleasurable experience. There are a few genuine laughs, mostly because Theron tears through Mavis with great gusto and insight. But Cody overly punishes Mavis for being the Alpha Bitch. You can totally imagine Mavis being a gorgeous, nasty piece of work in high school. Well, now she is 37, still gorgeous (you'd need pounds of prosthetics to make Theron look bad), and her comeuppance is here. In the end, like many other American movies, Young Adult becomes a pat moral tale. Mavis is going to learn her big lesson and both she and the audience are going to be punished for being such selfish Americans. Boo hoo.
I have no problem with an anti-heroine that makes you cringe, but I do have problems with arbitrary, artificial plot points. And there are several important ones. Mavis arrives in town and gets recognized by Matt, the local cripple (Patton Oswalt, miscast and misdirected, in my view), and they almost instantly develop a buddy relationship. I never understood why Matt was so invested in preventing Mavis from reclaiming Buddy. What's it to him? A simple inkling of motive would have made his goodness understandable. Then there is the problem with small town goodness. Except for Mavis, everybody is an angel. Buddy is a sweet and decent guy, his wife is adorable, and Matt bears little traces of hatred or resentment towards the jocks who left him a cripple, thinking he was gay. So I found Matt and Mavis' relationship unconvincing, and Oswalt too much of a teddy bear to be interesting. If someone with a bit more bite, like Zach Galifianakis, were to play this role, Matt and Mavis could have been a killer duo, and much more fun. But, instead of wallowing joyfully in the destruction someone like Mavis can unleash, Cody goes for the confessional, for punishment and atonement: yawn. The piece de resistance, a scene where Mavis exposes herself for all the town to see is ludicrous and forced. The audience can go with everything that happens until then and right after that, but Mavis' self-inflicted debasement to the entire town is a groaner. She regresses to being the petulant high school bitch of yore, but it is not believable that she, of all people, would unravel like that, even after the requisite several shots of whiskey. Why hit the audience over the head with a frying pan when you could use a light, more devastating, touch? Beats me.
There are some further moments of discomfort with Matt and a wonderful exchange with Matt's smitten sister (she's smitten with Mavis), right after the punishment scene, as well as some well observed moments about what it is to be a writer: Mavis stealing overheard conversations; one minute her face and page are blank with dread, and the next they teem with life and words. Theron is particularly good at conveying her writer's thoughts, and she is the best reason to see this movie. She makes Mavis human. Too bad that Cody and Reitman shoehorned her subversive story into a most conventional plot.

Dec 22, 2011

Best And Worst Movies of 2011

(And everything in between). All and all, this was a pretty great year for movies. Some critics justly included gems like Aurora, Poetry, and Tuesday After Christmas in their lists. You can find these movies in my list of 2010, because I saw them at the NYFF. This list is subject to change, as I'm still to see some movies.
But if I absolutely must furnish a:

10 Best List

A Separation
The Artist
The Trip
The Tree Of Life
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Into The Abyss
Corpo Celeste


Cedar Rapids
Presunto Culpable
El Velador
This is Not A Film


The Descendants
Jane Eyre
La Princesse de Montpensier
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 
The Muppets
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The Ides of March

Margin Call
Le Havre
My Week With Marilyn
Midnight in Paris
A Dangerous Method 
Miss Bala
Young Adult
Crazy, Stupid, Love


We Need To Talk About Kevin 
The Debt
Take Shelter
George Harrison: Living in a Material World
Once Upon A Time in Anatolia


The Iron Lady


J. Edgar
The Help
The Skin I Live In
Leap Year

Dec 18, 2011


Roman Polanski has taken a clever but unimpressive play and made it better.
When I saw Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage on Broadway, I was entertained but underwhelmed. It's a neat but rather facile concept -- the veneer of civilization promptly chips away as two sets of parents discuss a fight between their children. The movie, with a screenplay by Reza and Polanski, uses basically the same material but instead of trying too hard for a meaningful message about the human condition, Polanski turns it into a zippy, exciting, mischievous farce. What seemed vulgar and heavy handed on stage, is elegant here.
In theory, adapting this play into a film sounds like a futile enterprise. Why would you want to spend an entire movie watching four people bicker in one living room? Yet in the hands of this master director, you forget you are in one room most of the time. The movie is precisely, elegantly crafted, the camera is perfectly expressive and the nimble, assured pace is bracing. This little chamber piece is a tour de force and master class in directing, with no self-conscious fireworks. (How I wish Polanski had directed We Need To Talk About Kevin). He can teach a thing or two to directors who let style run rampant. With Polanski, style is content; expressive and unobtrusive at the same time.
Polanski's gifts are not only his assured command of the medium; the mise en scene is fantastic and he is a great director of actors. In this version, the characters are more sharply defined. The material benefits from the camera's closeness to the actors' faces. The actors know this and go to town, doing their job with skill and excellence.
The cast is uniformly splendid, topped by John C. Reilly who is absolutely hilarious and pitch perfect as Michael Longstreet, a guy who behind his sweetness hides a good amount of contempt for his high-strung, politically correct wife Penelope, (Jodie Foster); Christoph Waltz as Alan Cowan, a dry, Blackberry wielding corporate lawyer, and Kate Winslet as his composed wife, Nancy. All four work beautifully as an ensemble. I was amazed by the lovely, unflagging flow of their collective energy. Of the four actors, Foster lacks the subtlety of her colleagues, and she seems a little over the top. Yet she is very compelling. She approaches Penelope with a tight, controlling fury and she is believably, valiantly self-righteous. Winslet can make tulips wither with one look, and her transformation from prim and proper corporate wife to drunken mess is flawless. Waltz is drily reptilian as a lawyer from hell, but he is likable because he is blunt. None of the actors condescend to their characters, which is why they are all so winning. It is also worth noting that for such a small film, Polanski recruited the best of the best: the great production designer Dean Tavoularis and costume designer Milena Canonero, the excellent cinematographer Pavel Edelman, and Alexandre Desplat's music is as elegant as the rest of the film. A  tasteful Brooklyn apartment has been created on a set in Paris and the narrow views of Brooklyn from the apartment and shots of Brooklyn Bridge park are done with subtle digital effects, since Polanski cannot set foot in the US.
The only thing that falls a bit flat is the ending, which seems abrupt and inconclusive, but Polanski seems much more in command here than last time around with The Ghost Writer. Carnage is a lot of fun.

Dec 15, 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Mothers are supposed to be endless repositories of unconditional love and patience, but what if they have a hellish child? The premise of a failed relationship between a mother and her newborn baby is very interesting and never before seen, that I know of, in film. Can you think of any other movie about a resentful mother with a very bad kid? What can a mother do when confronted with having to love a succubus who hates her back? According to writer-director Lynne Ramsay, nothing, which is the main reason why this movie is a mess.
Be it far from me to cast aspersions on the great Tilda Swinton, who is as good as she can be in such a wrongheaded movie. It is not her fault that she is miscast as Eva, the mom of the Kevin in question. Swinton has such intelligent charisma and such a powerful personality that it is hard to believe she would be such a passive masochist, particularly in the hands of a rotten toddler. She's not easy to believe as a suburban American mom either. In this film she is an incomprehensible doormat, and doormats, even when played by La Swinton, are a lost cause to the audience.
With a more linear structure, this could have been a disturbing horror movie about a demonic child. Had it been a cheesy horror movie, or something in the vein of Stephen King, it would have been more interesting. Artsy-fartsy as it is, it just doesn't make much sense. In the first part, we see Eva living like a ghost, having flashbacks of a better life and of horrifying events caused by Kevin (Ezra Miller). Ramsay jerks the audience around for a good while until she finally decides to clarify what happened. Even though the movie exerts a visceral pull, especially in its second half, Ramsay's treatment of the topic is so pretentious and elliptical, that little works.
The story takes place somewhere in upstate New York, in what looks like a European's cliched idea of the American suburbs, complete with a supermarket scene with fake cans of tomato soup. In the aftermath of some truly hellish misbehavior by teenage Kevin, Eva, ostracized by the community, finds work at a crummy little travel agency too pathetic to feasibly exist. Although we see that in her former life she enjoyed a big house and fancy clothes, we never understand exactly what it is that her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and her do to lead such an economically robust life, especially since they seem to be eternal hippies.
Missing in this movie about a mother is what is most important to parenting, which is common sense. Scene after scene of a satanic toddler, who then becomes a little boy, who then becomes Ezra Miller, being utterly evil, and there is not one timeout, not one screaming match, not one comeback from a frustrated parent. It never occurs to anyone to send this seriously deviant kid to a child psychologist. The sole time Eva loses it, the boy ends with a broken arm, but even then it looks like he deliberately hurt himself to torture her. Franklin is too naive and unbelieving about Eva's complaints about the kid. The kid, of course, is cherubic when dad is around, yet even when he witnesses some horrendous lip on him, Franklin just shrugs it off as boys will be boys. The casting of Reilly, who is excellent at playing easy-going men-boys, is rather hamhanded. On the other hand, you cannot cast Ezra Miller and be deliberately oblivious to his astonishing otherworldly beauty, which could either be a source of his always getting away with murder, or is not believable at all (aren't all those crazy kids with murderous fantasies usually gangly nerds?) The movie ignores this as it does most of reality. Hence we wait for two hours for Eva to put the kid in his place, but she never fights back. She doesn't even fight back when as a teen, Kevin really harms his sister. This was the last straw for me.
Ramsay doesn't want to spoil her arty movie with the coarse banalities of daily parental drama, so the way characters react in this movie has absolutely nothing to do with reality. There is no outside world to speak of. No teachers, no PTA meetings, no counseling experts. Eva is alone in her belief that this child is out to get her. Again, if this movie was in the hands of someone with creepiness in their mind, this could be bone-chilling. Is Eva imagining the child's malevolence? But Ramsay is more interested in showing the aftermath of destruction in Eva's psyche. She is his mother, but it's hard to understand why she sticks by him. She doesn't even like him. Ramsay punctuates Eva's depression with a very annoying country and pop music soundtrack that further removes the story from real life. Style gets in the way. Still, as flawed as it is, this film manages to create significant disquiet. In a culture that always finds justifications for the worst human behaviors, usually along the lines of an abusive childhood in the past, this movie turns this explanation on its head. It's the kid who abuses the loving parents, without apparent reason. Kevin is just evil to the core. What would you do with a kid like him?

Dec 7, 2011


The first scenes are a bit of a shock as we watch a CNN-like news update about war between Rome and the Volscian nation. I thought for a second that this Ralph Fiennes directed movie (his first as a director) was going to be one of those unfortunate Shakespeare updates that try too hard to win over a modern audience. But as the movie conjures up this barbaric world of war, shot in ugly parts of Romania, it becomes clear that Fiennes and his wonderful adapter John Logan conceived this strange Shakespeare tragedy as a very powerful antiwar movie. What makes men go to war? What are the consequences of the notions of honor and heroism? Who is fit to rule a country? Isn't war primitive? It is not a civilizing force.
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, whom Fiennes met when he worked in The Hurt Locker, uses a frantic hand held camera to capture the messiness of war. The fight scenes are chaotic, the colors are murky and washed out, and the entire aesthetic is brutal. This is not glorified combat. There is none of the stiff, symmetrical pageantry one sees in other films of Shakespeare. Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare's most compelling plays, but Fiennes' update is visceral, thrilling and extremely poignant; it happens to be one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare to the screen. Screenwriter John Logan uses modern newscasts to dispense with all the boring messengers that declaim expository info, and this smart device helps make Coriolanus' tragic flaws even more dramatic. Fiennes plays the title character, Marcus Caius, a renowned soldier whose brutal exploits make him a natural leader of Rome. Problem is, he refuses to pander to the populace, who perceive him as authoritarian, arrogant and aloof (he is). It is a one-note performance of sheer imperious stubbornness. He is a principled but inflexible man, so unwilling to give in to the ass-kissing that is necessary in a democracy, that he rather banish himself away from his family and his country, than court the people's favor. He is borderline insane. I felt that the character could have used a soft spot somewhere, but I'm always impressed with Fiennes' disinterest in being likeable or pandering to the audience. He was surprisingly charming in the Q&A at the screening I saw, but he always plays his characters with utter disregard to his own vanity.
Coriolanus is more than an antiwar pamphlet. There are some interesting notions about authority and democracy in this movie. The "people" come across as rather unsavory and obnoxious activists, who are nevertheless easily swayed by media and political manipulation by two wily tribunes (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson) who conspire to manipulate the masses against Coriolanus, with the curious consequence that you end up rooting for the autocrat. One must remember that in Shakespeare's day Roman democracy must have seemed bizarre, but him being the most modern writer who ever lived, he somehow foresees this tension on who is to have power and how easily it is to manipulate the masses.
There is one absolutely extraordinary performance in this movie, and that is Vanessa Redgrave's as Volumnia, Coriolanus' mother. It's a great character: a mother who wants her son to go to battle. She steals this movie in a way that I haven't seen an actor do in a long time. Her scenes with Fiennes are the best Shakespearean and the best screen acting you will ever see. She brought tears to my eyes a couple of times with her fierce conviction. Brian Cox, playing a trusty family advisor, a garrulous but clever politician, is also excellent. 
Logan and Fiennes interpret this play fittingly to our day and age. One cannot help but think about Bushie and his Mission Accomplished, about the lies we were told about nucular weapons in Iraq, and though the film comes with a bit of delay, (since  the media is not showing us anything anymore that might outrage us) as long as there are soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq, it will be a potent reminder of why we are still waging these destructive wars to this day.