Sunday, February 19, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Grade A


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Benedict Cumberbatch. Director Tomas Alfredson.

Gary Oldman gives a loving homage to Alec Guinness, who played the main character in the 1979 BBC television series based on the John Le Carre novel. I never thought anyone could play that role again after Guinness. But Oldman absolutely nails it, even down to the exact pace of speech.

George Smiley (Oldman) is retired MI6, brought out of retirement by the chief, who is dying, to find a Soviet mole in the spy agency during the Cold War. Smiley learns there are six main suspects the chief had been considering, one of them himself. In only a little over 2 hours of screen time, he finds the traitor.

The original BBC story took 7 hours to tell, so it is a remarkable screenwriting achievement to tell the same story in only 2 hours. But as a consequence, the plot is more impressionistic than detailed. Brief scenes hint at relationships that are important but which cannot be spelled out due to the time constraint. Six suspects, after all, is a lot of suspects for one mystery story. Plus, there is the matter of Smiley’s estranged wife, which figures importantly in the story.

But the screenplay is masterful and does its job. I wondered if anyone not familiar with the book or the BBC series would be able to follow the complicated story, and I worried if the movie would make money because of that. But it is making truckloads of money, so I guess it works.

There are some important changes from the original book and series. Some locations are changed (e.g., Hungary instead of Czechoslovakia), and the ending is new, rushed, and a bit contrived, somewhat anticlimactic for that. But overall the story is faithful in spirit to the original (Le Carre is credited as a producer). The music is beautiful, very restrained, and entirely fitting. Costumes and sets are perfection. Cinematography is careful and not a shot is wasted, so I guess that means the editing is also excellent.

At first I resisted Oldman, because I wanted so badly to see Guinness again. But he’s dead, so get over it, I thought, and very soon I accepted Oldman as George Smiley. If he can win me over, he can convince anybody.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Grade C


Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow. Director Rupert Wyatt

Flowers for Algernon meets The Great Escape. That’s one way to characterize this goofy movie, a sequel in a long line of sequels. A genetic scientist (Franco) surreptitiously takes home a baby chimpanzee, “Caesar,” and raises him as if he were a child, including dressing him in jeans and a tee-shirt (don’t ask about bathroom functions – this is not a realistic movie).

As the chimp grows up in the home, joyously frolicking in the attic rafters, the scientist just happens to meet a Jane Goodall type woman (Pinto), an expert on chimps. She becomes a live-in with the scientist. The scientist tests a new alzheimer’s drug on Caesar and it makes him extremely intelligent, able to understand spoken English completely and express his own complex thinking in sign language. If there were an award for best performance in a monkey suit, Andy Serkis would get it.

But tragedy strikes when Caesar is picked up by San Francisco Animal Control and thrown in the slammer, joining hundreds and hundreds of other primates. Who knew San Francisco had such a problem with stray chimpanzees? It's scandalous!

Caesar tries to organize the other chimps but they are too stupid. So, he goes back to the scientist’s home and steals the wonder drug and gives it to all the animals in the shelter. Then they are smart enough to understand him and he can organize an army to take revenge on the humans for locking them up.

There is a big confrontation with the police on the Golden Gate bridge but the chimps outsmart them by climbing underneath the bridge as if it were “monkey bars,” and then, I’m not sure what happened exactly, it seems like the police were all just scared away. It wasn’t clear.

I thought the chimps would continue their march to Sausalito where there are some very nice restaurants and hotels, but instead, they retreat to Golden Gate Park. At the very end, we learn that Caesar actually can speak English, but just hasn't bothered with it up to this point. Amazing drug! I guess we have to wait for the sequel to the sequel to find out what happens next.

The movie has little to recommend it. The story is laughable, the concept derivative, the acting poor, and the “music” grossly over-engineered. I would give it a much lower grade except for the cinematography and special effects, both of which are superior. When a chimp comes riding toward the barricade on a policeman’s horse, whooping and hollering, I confess, I did not see that coming, and I laughed out loud. It was delightful. There are enough great images like that to raise a dreadful film up to the level of acceptable.

Friday, February 03, 2012

The Ides of March: Grade C


The Ides of March (2011)

Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood, Marissa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright. Co-writer and Director George Clooney.

This movie is a huge disappointment, because I am a sucker for political movies. I should have been prepared when I saw that long list of stars, never a good sign. The biggest failure is the poor writing, and after that, the surprisingly poor acting (with a couple of small exceptions).

First the writing. This is supposed to be a story of ideas, political ideas. We are exposed to the inner workings of a presidential campaign. Governor Morris (Clooney) is the Democratic candidate and his two top campaign administrators are Stephen (Gosling) and Paul (Hoffman). Stephen is actually the main character. He is portrayed as a brilliant, successful campaign organizer, totally loyal, who nevertheless has an affair with one of the campaign interns (Wood).

But the real trouble starts when the campaign chief from the rival camp (Giamatti) invites him to come over to the other side. Stephen agrees to a meeting, rejects the offer, and tells Paul, the campaign strategist about it. Paul fires Stephen on the spot for disoloyalty. Stephen is desperate to maintain his political life and finds a dirty, nasty way back into the inner circle, at cost to his innocence and integrity.

The trouble is, none of those moves is convincing. The Stephen character would never have taken that meeting and would not do any of what he does afterward. The intern Wood would never do what she does, or say what she says, given her circumstances. In the dramatic showdown scene, despite a big display of reasoning, the governor fails to reason correctly and miscalculates. And on and on. If the characters don’t make sense, and the story line doesn’t make sense, then what do you have in a movie of ideas? Not much. I get the strong feeling this story was written by a committee. There is no insight to be had and nothing to be learned from it.

Then there is the acting, uniformly deadly. How is that possible from such great stars? It can only be chalked up to poor directing. There are a few sparkles, as when Giamatti gives a heated speech to Gosling in a smoke-filled back room. But that’s his only moment. Tomei is consistently strong, and even though she has a small role, she acts her heart out. Clooney is unbelievably wooden. Rachel Evan Wood? Ow!

About the only positive thing I could say about the movie is that it presents two meta-stories (not in the movie itself). One is disappointment about American politics. It seems to say, all politics is dirty politics, and even if you have a seemingly “ideal” candidate (like Obama), you learn the reality is the same cynical B.S. as always. The second implicit theme is that the news media control the democratic process, because, ultimately, the voters are stupid. Politicians must direct their every thought and action toward media coverage for that reason.

They should have made either of those movies.

The Sandman: Grade A


The Sandman (2011)

Fabian Krüger, Irene Brügger, Beat Schlatter; Writer-Director Peter Luisi. (Swiss German, subtitled).

This is a strange, original, humorously surreal story about a man whose body gradually turns into sand. The premise is bizarre, reminiscent of a Kafka novel. Benno, a stamp collector (Kruger) works in a shop where the boss is annoyed at finding grains of sand on the counter. Then Benno discovers sand in his bed. He sweeps it away, thinking nothing of it. But then there is sand in his kitchen, in his shoes, everywhere, and he realizes the sand is coming from him.

He confides in the waitress (Brugger)who works in the coffee shop below his room, even though the two of them have an icy relationship because her loud singing practice in the evenings keeps him awake. She spurns him out of hatred, and anyway cannot understand his complaint, “I am losing sand!” He starts dreaming about her every night and is quite annoyed by that. He becomes desperate when he realizes that his body is wasting away as the amount of sand he gives off increases.

It might sound like a wacky one-idea story, but it isn’t. Various twists and turns kept me guessing throughout. At first I thought it was an existential idea, of the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” type, and maybe it is. Then it turns out that he loses more sand when he is being untruthful, so he embarks on a program of absolute honesty, as in the Jim Carrey movie, Liar, Liar. Okay, I thought, so it’s a Pinocchio story. But then another twist: anyone who smells the sand immediately falls asleep. (Some great lines here: “Smell my sand.” “No, I am not going to smell your sand!”) So, a bedtime “Sandman” story? But no, another twist develops, and then another and another. The film is endlessly creative in that way.

The cinematography is wonderful and the pictures are more and more shocking and surreal as the movie progresses. Inevitably, and rightly, Benno and “Sandra,” the girl in the coffee shop, come to a romantic understanding. It is extremely hard to write a non-cliche story with non-stereotyped characters, but this movie is an original.

The Monk: Grade B


The Monk (2011)

Vincent Cassel, Déborah François, Joséphine Japy; Director Dominik Moll. (French, subtitled).

The 1796 novel, by Matthew Lewis, is a classic of gothic fiction. It has all the elements that define the genre, including dank stone medieval buildings, mistaken identity, magic, hidden passages, murky candlelight, mysterious dreams, romance, incest, class distinctions, and a subtle anti-Catholic message.

The story itself is also well-worn. A baby is left on the doorstep of a monastery. The monks take him in. He grows up to become the head monk, a pillar of harsh religious virtue, but racked by satanic obsessions, mainly sexual ones, and finally he “cracks,” giving into his growing madness and committing unspeakable sin.

Even for someone who doesn’t know the genre or the story, this is an enjoyable movie, mainly because of the astonishing acting performance of Vincent Cassel. But in addition, the whole story is told realistically, without melodrama, so the characters seem empathic and approachable. The cinematography is eye-candy, and the medieval sets and costumes are totally convincing. Although there is little dramatic tension, the movie is so well-made that it will keep you glued to the screen.

Haywire: Grade B


Haywire (2011)

Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas; Director Steven Soderbergh.

This derivative spy + martial arts film follows a standard plot we all know well. Covert government operative Mallory Kane (Carano) is on a “job” in Barcelona that goes bad. The operation was betrayed, ultimately we learn, by somebody at headquarters, so there is a mole in the agency. Whoever it is, they are now bent on taking her out too, so she is on the run from government agents even while she must discover the mole and exact revenge. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Nevertheless, there is a comfortable familiarity about it, like hearing a fairy tale you know well. And what raises this version just a tiny bit above average is Carano, who is a genuine, world-ranked martial arts fighter, so performs the fight scenes without wires and without that annoying micro-editing that actually doesn’t let you see anything. So the fights are convincing, surprising and enjoyable. And it doesn’t hurt that she is good-looking.

On the down side, she can’t really act, but you don’t expect fine acting in a genre spy thriller. The big name actors sleepwalk through their performances, so no acting thrills there either.

Also on the plus side though, the chase and action scenes are written and directed with wit and style. More than once, sudden and unexpected action took me by surprise. That’s good directing. The trapped-and-barely-escaping trope is repeated endlessly but the frenetic pace, good cinematography, and originality kept me engaged even though it should have become monotonous. You should expect sequels.

The Invader: Grade A


The Invader (2011).

Isaka Sawadogo, Stefania Rocca, Serge Riaboukine; Co-writer and Director Nicolas Provost. (French, subtitled).

Amadou (Sawadogo) is an illegal immigrant into Belgium from some unspecified country. He works construction jobs for an abusive, exploitative boss. He spies a wealthy woman (Rocca) who has some shady construction contract for his boss, and follows her. Turning on the charm, he gradually persuades her to go out with him, and a hot sex scene follows.

It is just marginally plausible that she would agree to that relationship but Sawadogo carries such on-screen charisma and charm, and Roccia projects a steamy hidden desire and arrogance, so we believe it. But when she discovers he is actually just a common worker, and illegal at that, she wants nothing more to do with him. He, however becomes obsessed with her and stalks her. Finding her social and economic world utterly closed to him, he turns violent. He kills first his boss, then several others.

I don’t actually remember how it ends. Badly, no doubt. But the message I took away was about how frustrating it would be for an immigrant with no resources to get a foothold in a foreign society that wants only his labor but not his humanity. Living cheek to cheek with the mainstream society, there is nevertheless an invisible and impenetrable barrier to realization of the promise and dreams that spur immigration in the first place. That frustration is enough to turn a victim into a enraged killer, at least dramatically.

It takes a bit too long to tell this story and the pace does sag in the middle. But the acting is excellent, the music quite good, and the story line, while not entirely convincing, nevertheless manages to convey a serious social commentary.

Cracks in the Shell: Grade B


Cracks in the Shell (2011)

Stine Fischer Christensen, Ulrich Noethen, Dagmar Manzel, Christina Drechsler; Co-writer and Director Christian Schwochow. (German and Danish, subtitled).

A neurotic drama student (Christensen) is failing at her craft when she is unexpectedly cast in a lead role by an important director (Noethen). The director puts increasing pressure on her to go deeper into herself and let her emotions out. He also talks her into sleeping with him.

Then we learn that acting is really an emotional escape for the student, who is burdened by taking care of her mentally disabled sister (Drechsler – in an amazing performance) and dealing with the contempt of her angry mother. So the movie becomes a dark psychodrama, which is mirrored on the stage of the dark play the director is making. The student pushes herself beyond her natural limits. She wears her on-stage costume into the subway and tries to pick up men, to release her inhibitions even more. She eventually becomes a sort of zombie, inured even to self-destruction, all of which the director applauds as “genuine” acting. The other actors are not so sure.

Similarities to Black Swan are obvious, but this is not a me-too. As a psychodrama, it is very dark, but too confused to illustrate any clear moral lesson. The main attraction of this movie is the tremendous acting. The range of emotions conveyed is amazing. It is also an instructive film about the craft of acting itself. Not an uplifting film by any means, but well worth seeing.

Generation P: Grade B


Generation P (2011)

Vladimir Epifantsev, Mikhail Efremov, Andrey Fomin; Co-writer andDirector Victor Ginzburg. (Russian, subtitled).

This weird, dreamlike, hallucinatory film is nominally about the rise of the advertising industry in modern Russia. The protagonist, Vavilen, is an ex-literature student working in a newspaper kiosk when he gets an opportunity to work for an advertising agency that specializes in Western products. The main thrust of the ads is to identify and tap into the “Russian mentality,” whatever that is. Vavilen takes LSD, magic mushrooms, and plenty of vodka trying to fathom the Russian mind. The resulting ads are bizarre nonsense, usually very funny.

The substory, actually the main one in the end, is that nobody knows who is in charge of the ad agency. Powerful yet shadowy figures control all the money, and competition is routinely handled with murder.

So underneath the silliness of the advertising theme is a dark satire about the collapse of Russian society along with The Wall. The business world is lawless, corrupt, and violent. Vavilen learns that advertising creates not just an alternate reality for products, but also for politicians. There is no difference between news and advertising, between politics and products, between truth and spin. Ultimately then, the film is a scathing satire advertised as a surreal and farcical comedy. If I recall the "P" in the title stands for "Putin." This is a commentary on life under his regime.

The movie does not make a lot of dramatic sense, and some of that could be due to the fact that some of the cultural references are no doubt lost on a foreign audience. Still the translations are good enough to provoke laughter and understanding. The cinematography is excellent and the acting far above average.

Headhunters: Grade B


Headhunters (2011)

Aksel Hennie, Synnøve Macody Lund, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau; Director Morten Tyldum (Norwegian, subtitled).

The main character is Roger (Hennie), a successful corporate executive recruiter (“headhunter”), who is on the edge of financial collapse, living beyond his means to keep a trophy wife (Lund) happy. To supplement his income he steals and fences fine art. He learns that Clas Greve, an executive applicant (Coster-Waldau) has a major painting worth millions, and the plot is on. It turns out however that Greve is actually a hard-as-steel ex mercenary who does not take the theft kindly and pursues Roger, leaving a trail of bodies. The police get on to Roger and now are after him for murder. For the last half of the film, the most fun part, Roger is desperately on the run.

The story has too many logical flaws to be satisfying as a thriller, but as a kinetic action crime drama it is good looking, fast-moving, mostly original, surprising, suspenseful, and with a large dose of humor that ranges from dark and macabre to outright silly. It also has plenty of violence, blood, and gore. For all that, it is above average for the genre.

The Story of Film-An Odyssey: Grade A


The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

Narrator : Mark Cousins; Director : Mark Cousins.

This 15-hour documentary history of innovation in film was a television series in the U.K., and now, apparently is being distributed in cinemas more widely. I saw three hours of it at a recent film festival and was extremely impressed. When it comes out on DVD (presumably it will), I will snap it up immediately, and so should anyone who loves film.

The documentary begins over a hundred years ago with the early development of movies by the Lumiere brothers and others, continues through the silent era, into the modern era, and even projects what the future of movies will be thirty years from now. The whole history includes thousands of clips from movies around the world, while Cousins explains why each movie was important for understanding film as an art form. Viewing it gives you a new appreciation of movies.

What you get however is Mark Cousins’ particular point of view, which is not Hollywood-centric or necessarily oriented toward popular tastes or commercial interests. Nothing wrong with that. However, while he does focus on the artistic and technological aspects of filmmaking, there is something vaguely unsatisfying in the omission of the sociological meaning of movies, how they capture and affect the popular imagination and influence culture.

Furthermore, being an American, I am most interested in Hollywood movies, which Cousins does cover fairly, but not completely enough for my taste. Instead, he spends a great deal of time on movies from around the world, showing clips from really excellent movies I have never even heard of, much less seen. I had no concept of what African films look like in several countries, for example.

That world-film education enlarges my appreciation of the art form, yet such films have limited to zero distribution, negligible influence on modern mainstream filmmaking, and will probably never be seen by me or by most people. That doesn’t mean such films should not be highlighted, only that when choices have to be made, some of Cousins’ are idiosyncratic, to say the least.

On the other hand, his world-film survey does an excellent job noting important and influential films from Iran, China, Russia, India, Mexico, Korea, Japan, and elsewhere, films that have been distributed and seen widely and have been overtly influential, and yet are often overlooked by Western audiences. For that emphasis, Cousins is applauded.
Despite the reservations noted above, this history is so good, when it becomes available it will be a must-see for all film lovers and required viewing in all film schools.