Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Interview

Eddie Fleming: Just goes to show you how the mind works, doesn't it? 

Det. John Steele: I don't know Mr. Fleming. How does the mind work? 

I've always found the term 'cat and mouse thriller' to be somewhat misleading when it's applied to films (ex: The Usual Suspects, Sleuth, The Prestige and others of that ilk). Outside of certain cartoons, the relationship between a cat and a mouse has always been rather one-sided--there's the hunter and then there's the hunted. While a mouse here or there might escape to live another day scrabbling in our walls, feasting on crumbs and insulation, there's never any doubt that at the end of the day, the cat will inevitably come out on top. However, in thrillers like these, that's not always the case. Sometimes the 'mouse' wins the day; sometimes the 'mouse' bites back.

The 1998 Australian film The Interview begins simply enough with a rather unassuming, middle-aged man named Eddie Fleming (Hugo Weaving) being rousted from sleep by the police and roughly taken from his modest apartment under the pretense of being a chief suspect in the theft of a car. As is quickly made clear to both the audience and Eddie, this is merely a ruse for inquiries of a much more sinister, almost Kafka-esque nature. And as rapidly becomes apparent to the the Detectives John Steele (Tony Martin) and Wayne Prior (Aaron Jeffrey), there is far more to the quaking Eddie Fleming--whom at first they bully and humiliate quite easily--than initially meets the eye. While the interrogation drags on, and the stakes are made clearer to both detectives and suspect, each side begins to feel the pressure: Fleming from the detectives (whose techniques are often less than savory, bordering on illegal) and Steele/Prior from their superiors--who impatiently demand results and may well have insidious agendas of their own. To reveal more would be to spoil the experience, as the film wastes no time diving headlong into its contorting plot.

With The Interview, writer/director Craig Monahan strips this misnamed genre bare. About 80 percent of the film consists of nothing more than a conversation between the two detectives (with Det. John Steele taking lead) and the ever more enigmatic Mr. Fleming. Whether due to budget constraints or by choice, these lengthy scenes in the interrogation room--where the single-camera stalks back and forth between the principals like an impatient, predatory beast--feel decidedly claustrophobic. Monahan and his cinematographer craft a quite uncomfortable and stifling atmosphere where we too begin to squirm under the scrutiny of the detectives and at Mr. Fleming's ever evolving demeanor. Most of the empty space in this film is cloaked in shadow, leaving one to wonder what ugly truths lurk just outside of view. This ambiance causes us to question, along with the characters, just who is pulling the strings and why. A lion's share of the credit also belongs to the script, which, heavy on ambiguity and light on answers, obscures the truth to the very last frame... and perhaps even beyond.

Even with all the technical competence and gripping, twirling story, the film's success lays largely with its cast, with only three real parts to speak of. The young Det. Wayne Prior is a hothead, played with all the brutish physicality that entails. Aaron Jeffrey plays the part with relish and enthusiasm and all the necessary violence that the 'bad cop' role demands. Tony Martin, as the older and more experienced of the pair, leavens his performance with the proper restraint. After a while, it becomes clear he's the heart of this otherwise cold and dingy film. His character walks a delicate line, caught between his own thirst for the truth (often causing him to turn a blind eye to his partner's more questionable tactics) and the skeletons of his past, which rise up inconveniently to threaten not just his investigation, but also his career.

Both of these admittedly solid performances pale in comparison to Hugo Weaving, who is in all likelihood the finest Australian actor of his generation (anyone who knows him only as Mr. Smith/Elrond would do well to check out his work from his home country). The character of Eddie Fleming calls for an actor capable of astonishing nuance--and requires them to run through a wide range of emotions in short order. Fleming is a bewildered innocent one minute, a master manipulator the next. Weaving manages both roles effortlessly while also hitting every note in between just as well. In a career littered with diverse, competent performances, Weaving's Eddie Fleming is easily his most accomplished work.

Comparisons between this film and The Usual Suspects are easy to make, they have similar set-ups (two cops, a suspect and an interrogation room), a similar dark style and are both chock-full of unexpected twists. But whereas The Usual Suspects ties up all its loose-ends with one well-edited finale. The Interview deigns to leave most of its questions dangling loose in uncertain winds. Who or what we choose to believe is ultimately left up to us.

Monahan clearly enjoys toying with his audience, playing on our on expectations and prejudices against the overreaching arms of law-enforcement before pulling the chair out from under us, upending all our assumptions and leaving us to question what had before seemed obvious. In less competent hands, this might make for a frustrating experience, but in the hands of Monahan, Weaving, Martin, et al, we're left with a mesmerizing thriller which works its hooks into you and then mercilessly leaves you begging for more. Craig Monahan, unlike his detectives, is clearly a filmmaker intimately familiar with how the mind works.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Goddess (1934)

Please tell [my son] that his mother died long ago, so that he will never know he had a mother like me.
The Goddess (Ruan Lingyu) laments her various misfortunes.
Until her all-too untimely death by suicide at the tender age of 25, the actress Ruan Lingyu was perhaps the most famous movie star in China. Given the Japanese occupation starting in 1937, not much Chinese cinema survives from this era so her work and impact has largely been forgotten, but at the time her death sent shockwaves through mainland China (at her funeral procession, three women comitted suicide). With a fierce emotional integrity--largely unmatched by her peers both locally and around the globe--she captured the imaginations of an entire nation time and time again with her portrayals of women downtrodden and abused by the men in their lives, and the circumstances of their world at large. Nowadays she is most famously known for her penultimate film, The Goddess. Directed by first-time director Wu Yonggang (who was inspired to a film career specifically by the plight of prostitutes), the silent film The Goddess is a deceptively modern take on one of the oldest tales in the world: a woman, born into a man's world, desperately struggling to improve the lot of her family.

We begin with Ruan Lingyu, the unnamed titular Goddess, caring for her infant son in the squalor of her Shanghai apartment. The only hint of her unsavory profession are the two ornamental dresses hanging on the wall, which belie their impoverished surroundings. Intertitles tell us that while by night she's just a lowly prostitute, during the day she's as devoted and loving a mother as anyone could hope for. At night, she hesitantly leaves her infant son behind to walk the streets, a false smile plastered on her face, desperately hoping to make enough money to one day send her child to school.

These street-walking scenes are handled with a requisite restraint, as the director clearly didn't want to sully our image of the troubled protagonist. Yonggang discreetly conveys her indiscretions from afar. The camera always watches Lingyu walk the streets with a long shot, or from a high angle. Her johns are all picked up by implication and insinuation. In one scene, all we see are the character's feet: one pair of feet joins hers and they walk to a nearby doorway. A fade to her resignedly leaving in the morning is the only hint of what transpired the night before.

Complicating matters is the ruthless, violent gangster and gambler who shelters her from the police one night. In return for that act of seeming kindness, he brusquely insinuates himself into her life as her pimp, drinking and gambling away all her hard earned money. This lech threatens to take away her son if she doesn't comply to his sordid whims. She can't escape him despite her best efforts, and must resort to hiding a little bit of her money away each night.

The leering pimp looms over the mother and child he holds captive.
As the years pass, she eventually saves up enough money to send her son to the local school, where he is bullied mercilessly because of his mother's unsavory profession. In one particularly effective scene, Lingyu goes to the school to see her son perform in a talent show, but all she can focus on are the gossiping parents around her. The school board, scandalized by her presence, demand that the princpal expel her son before his attendance casts shameful aspersions on the school's reputation. However, won over by her selfless devotion to her child, he instead chooses to resign so as not to be a party to the expulsion.

Moreso even than the gangster/gambler/pimp who comes to run her life, The Goddess blames the city of Shanghai itself for its protagonist's struggles. Seen only briefly during the night, the city exists only as impersonal lights against complete darkness. With no human element to comfort or sympathize with our resilient hero, the darkness threatens to swallow her. In one scene, where Lingyu is cradling her baby and cursing her lot in life, the film immediately cuts to a shot of the city of lights... implicitly blaming the city itself (and the society within) for her inability to improve her station.

Ruan Lingyu walks the streets of Shanghai with a smile she does not truly feel.

Wisely, Yonggang places the film squarely on his young starlet's shoulders, and Lingyu proves equal to the task. Each scene is flooded with countless close-ups (heavily reminiscent of Carl Dreyer's own examination of a self-sacrificing young woman in The Passion of Joan of Arc). Lingyu's tortured face effortlessly transitions from the joy of holding her son, to the hopeless resignation of one who must reluctantly accept the most fetid circumstances. Make no mistake, this is no typical "hooker with a heart of gold", when near the end of the film her frightening pimp discovers, and gambles away, her hard-earned savings, Ling-yu shows how far her character is willing to go to protect the future of her only remaining family. In the film's final shot, after the principal--won over by her devotion to her son--promises to adopt and care for her child, Lingyu conveys such a wide spread of emotions in an instant: anguish at her own bleak circumstances; elation for her son's now bright future; sorrow at the isolation and loneliness she faces. Lingyu's tragic suicide clearly robbed Chinese cinema of decades of fearless, unforgettable performances.

That this film is silent adds to her performance's impact. Without any diagetic noise to distract from her greatest asset--her malleable face--the viewer is confronted with the full brunt of the actress's emotive power (which, given her suicide a year after the film's release, was perhaps entirely due to her acting).

Even though The Goddess is a Chinese silent film from the 1930s, its themes and Lingyu's daring performance, are basically as relevant and impactful today. Especially in a nation where attacks on the rights of women seem once again to be in vogue... and those in power seemed determined to once again have their voices silenced. In this modern context, where men running for office trip over themselves in a race to see who can embrace the most anachronistic values, I'm reminded of the ill-fated Ruan Lingyu and her poor goddess: silenced and forgotten and left alone in the darkness.

Anyone wishing to experience The Goddess for themselves can find it on Youtube. If the accompanying score is too Orientalist for you, it's also available with a piano accompaniment here.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

People aren't like numbers. They're more like letters... and those letters want to become stories... and Dad said that stories need to be shared. -- Oskar Schell

In anticipation of the Academy Awards this Sunday, I'm watching the two Best Picture nominees I haven't seen yet this week (War Horse + EL & IC). First on the docket is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which, to be honest, I was not at all interested in watching. As such, given my low expectations, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was a pleasant surprise in many ways, but was unable to wholly overcome several massive flaws.

At the center of this sentimental tale is the borderline autistic (tests were inconclusive, he tells his apartment's security guard) Oskar Schell: a prodigious, but isolated, young boy. He and his mother--a grieving Sandra Bullock--are reeling from the recent death of his father, Thomas Schell, who was a victim of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Thomas Schell, played by Tom Hanks comfortably ensconced in his Mr. Nice Guy routine, is shown in flashback to be the one person who could draw Oskar out of his shell, challenging his outsized intellect and his non-existent social skills by sending him to complete various puzzles throughout the city. These puzzles would force him to interact with a variety of people he wouldn't dare approach otherwise. From these memories and from the pronounced difference created by his passing, it's clear that Thomas was the foundation that this family stood upon.
Flash-forward to a year later and Oskar has retreated within himself once again, listening over and over to the six final voice-mail messages his father left from the WTC before his death--messages he withheld from his mother all this time. Oskar is frightened that his connection with his father will fade with time and angry at his mom for not being able to explain why terrorists wanted to kill his dad, once telling her that he wishes she had died instead of his father (to which she softly replies "So do I"). Despite her many attempts to reach out to her only surviving family, he spurns her repeatedly, not seeing how deeply his words wound her. One day, while looking through his father's things, he finds a key sealed in an envelope with only "Black" written on it. Convinced that this might be the literal key to a secret of his dad's or perhaps one final mission from him, he contrives to search New York for all the hundreds of "Blacks" in the phonebook, hoping to find the elusive lock that the key fits.

This search sends him crashing obliviously into the turmoil of other people's lives, most of whom we don't really have time to get to know. Featured most prominently is the fitfully married couple Abby and William Black (subtle and impactful performances from Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright) who, in Oskar's first visit to their home, are in the midst of a domestic dispute. Lacking the social graces to realize this, Schell rather brashly pursues his own agenda and even takes a snapshot of the tear-stained Abby to remember her by. In each visit to each "Black", what would normally seem a rude interruption turns out to be a welcome interruption from the turmoil of people's day to day lives. Oskar wanders bewildered from the midst of a prayer circle, to the house of a cross-dresser and through the affections of a young girl who teaches him horseback riding (he returns her furtive kiss with only a perplexed stare).

Eventually, Oskar meets a mute, ancient man, known to him only as The Renter--played by acting legend Max von Sydow--who moved in with his grandmother soon after his father's death. The Renter begins to accompany Oskar on his journey and, despite only being able to communicate through written notes, makes for a well-matched, gregarious companion. As the search for the key plods on, and Schell becomes simultaneously more and more obsessed with the search and less and less confident in his eventual success, The Renter tries to show him that perhaps the search itself is more important than the answer to this particular riddle.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this movie's largest flaw is its approach to the main character Oskar, played by the precocious Thomas Horn.  No disrespect to Horn, most famously a Jeopardy! Kids champion before this film, who seems like a nice enough kid and is clearly trying hard here. But he was obviously chosen for how closely he resembles Oskar in real life, moreso than for any great acting talent and was overmatched at times by this challenging role. Schell is not an innately likeable character. He withholds his father's last words from his mother, blames her for events far out of her control and always generally seems more interested in pursuing his own goals than listening to anyone else's problems and while Horn is far from terrible (he performs well in a majority of his scenes with Sandra Bullock and von Sydow, and handles his sententious lines with surprising daring for one so young), we never really see events from his perspective. To an audience filled largely with people without autism, his irresponsible actions seem more like those of a cold-hearted, inconsiderate brat rather than those of a troubled, emotionally distant child. His character is annoying, as he should be, but never as sympathetic as he needs to be.

This is not so much Horn's fault as it is the director's--Stephen Daldry. Daldry's meticulous character studies filmed with crisp, if uninspired, professionalism have have all been huge hits with the Academy (this is his first movie to receive fewer than three Oscar nominations). And while it's easy to see why he was drawn to this project (his previous two films have dealt with the light-hearted issues of AIDS and homosexuality, and the Holocaust) Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is quite the unconventional story for such a stolidly conventional filmmaker, and while Daldry never totally puts a foot wrong tonally (this film often just barely avoids veering into unbearably saccharine moments), one wonders what might have been possible in the hands of a director blessed with greater vision. Most scenes are presented straight-forwardly, though a couple of sequences (when Horn first steps outside of the apartment and must confront his various phobias, and when he first tells his story to the renter) approach embracing the flair this story desperately needed. Daldry is also most guilty for the films most absurdly dramatic moments, the repeated slow motion shot of a breaking vase the most egregious offender. Also culpable here is the screen-writer Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) who specializes in stories where interesting things happen to uninteresting people.

However, it's thanks to Daldry's other strengths that this movie remains a pleasurable experience. The ensemble, outside of Horn, is uniformly exceptional. Tom Hanks as the affable and approachable father will keep you grinning for much of his screentime. Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright both excel in their brief roles, each conveying their own stories with pregnant silence, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps around Schell's ignorance. Max von Sydow as the mute renter proves why he's been working at the top of this industry for nearly seven decades with this effortlessly expressive performance. Without ever needing to speak, it's clear at each moment what he's thinking and yet von Sydow retains the necessary mystery of his performance... he keeps you guessing at his motives for aiding this difficult child.

The indisputable champion of the supporting cast is the haunted Sandra Bullock, a woman nearly destroyed by her loss. She captures the desperation, sadness and listlessness of someone whose life was ripped away from her. Considering how easy it is to lose yourself over-the-top with such an emotional performance, Bullock performs with a restraint I did not realize her to be capable of, while also nailing every necessarily histrionic moment. Ultimately though, these fascinating performances all emphasize the movie's central flaw... why focus on Oskar when there are all these far more interesting stories to be told--stories that we are only given oblique access to? 

In the end, this movie is far more entertaining to watch than to think about. Several scenes do manage to carry an individual emotional impact, due largely to the talented, veteran cast of actors assembled. Unfortunately, as a film, it simply doesn't hold up well under close scrutiny due to the ambition, or lack thereof, of the people involved. Perhaps I'm less inclined to give this film lee-way because of the necessary weight it adopts by using the 9/11 tragedy as its launching pad (I seriously doubt it's a coincidence this movie came out the year of the 10-year anniversary) and while this movie isn't nearly as embarrassing as 2010's Remember Me, it never wholly overcomes the inconsistencies in its lead performance or the standard, by-the-numbers approach of its director and crew. Maybe I'm being wrong-headed about this, but if a movie must exploit a national tragedy in pursuit of box office and awards glory, is it too much to ask that it be great?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


The affair between Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) and Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) forces them both to examine what they value.
At first tedious and then violently, passionately, tragic, Ang Lee's Lust/Caution, an erotic romance masquerading as a slow-boiling, WW2 era spy thrilller has a distinctly Chinese flavor to it. In exploring the muddied waters between love and lust, self-deception and devotion, Lee's frank examination of one woman's struggle to balance her sense of duty and identity in the face of her overpowering obsession with a frightening and powerful man contains an explicit sexual intensity few American productions would dare match. This film--based on a short story by Chinese author Eileen Chang--details the emotional transformation of a young woman, Wong Chia Chi, as she slowly becomes involved in a dangerous assassination plot for the underground Chinese resistance.

Lust/Caution opens briefly in Shanghai in 1942. Here, we see Wong Chia Chi (operating under the alias "Mrs. Mak") playing Mahjong with the wife of Mr. Yee, the head of the secret police, and other members of the Chinese upper-class. After an encounter with the imposing Mr. Yee, where it's clear that the two share a certain secret intimacy, Mrs. Mak excuses herself and slips away to a café. There she signals to her fellow resistance fighters that the time to strike is at hand.

With the promise of intrigue fresh in our minds, the film flashes backwards four years, right as China's army is crumbling in the face of aggressive Japanese conquest. Our heroine (played with fraught intensity by newcomer Tang Wei) is an aspiring actress attending college in Hong Kong. Despite the realities of the war around her, she remains hopeful that her father--who had moved to London years earlier--will eventually send for her to join him. While there, she meets a young man, Kuang Yu Min, a charismatic idealist who recruits her for his propagandist plays supporting the Chinese resistance and lamenting the hefty toll the war exacts on countless innocent families.

Soon, drawn by his fervor, Wong joins Kuang's amateur assassination plot against Mr. Yee. Wong finds herself acting an entirely different kind of role--that of the entrapping temptress. Catching his attention is no simple feat, though Wong is intelligent, clever and proves to be a competent actress. After a long period of waiting, making progress in haphazard fits and starts, they finally attract Mr. Yee's interest. But just as they near a chance to achieve their goal, Mr. Yee is suddenly recalled to Shanghai and the group must disband, their scheme unrealized.

Several years later, Wong again encounters Kuang, who now works for the organized Chinese resistance. Once more, he recruits her for the spy effort. Having already gained the trust of Mr. Yee and his household, Wong is uniquely poised to coordinate a synchronized strike against Mr. Yee, who in the passing years has been promoted to chief of the secret police. After re-insinuating herself into his life with surprising ease, Wong and Yee are soon entwined in a torrid, intemperate affair. As the weeks and months pass, and a plan of action begins to develop (centered around a jewelry store where Mr. Yee has an exorbitant ring crafted for Wong), Wong begins to fall in love with Mr. Yee, or rather, she begins to feel possessed by his callous dominance and questions whether, when the moment comes, she is truly prepared to destroy him.

Ang Lee came to this picture fresh off his Oscar success for the glacial "gay-cowboy" drama Brokeback Moutain, and there are a few notable similarities between the two. The characters at the center engage in an illicit--and quite graphic--affair, the nature of which would be sure to destroy both their lives if discovered. Both movies are slow, often self-indulgent efforts that develop their somber themes at a torpid pace. Both focus heavily on their atmosphere, Lust, Caution's one of paranoia and fear, uncertainty and salaciousness. Ang Lee is a master of manipulating the mood for his films. Through the use of deft and dark photography--which captures the sense of an era bristling with unspoken anxieties and unsure loyalties-- and through the simplistic, but emotionally resonant music--which evokes the overwhelming loneliness of these two lovers--this world is thoroughly and painstakingly developed.

In fact, Ang Lee is devoted to the atmosphere to a fault. One can only withstand so many endless Mahjong games, so many glances laden with two or three different meanings before wishing Lee would just get on with the story... as it really is a gripping one. As such, the difference of pace  between the two halves is noticeably jarring. The first is lazily, languidly balanced. Never in a hurry, Lee is satisfied to let the camera linger on seemingly inconsequential moments. This can be haunting and lyrical in spots, but thoroughly un-engaging in many, many others. The relationship between the idealistic Kuang and the naive Wong both benefits and suffers from this approach, as while the fact of their mutually unrequited affections is so obvious to the audience that their inept, quickly strangled courtship may strain the audience's patience, it also sets the foundation for one of the latter half's most gut-wrenching moments.

Once the second half gets rolling, and the passions held back in the first half are finally unleashed, this film really begins to smolder. Central to this shift are the several sex scenes which, contrary to many mainstream American productions, serve as far more than mere window-dressing displaying the attractive co-leads. They instead serve to explore the characters of Mr. Yee and Wong as well as to develop their unique, carnal relationship. Tony Leung, who cut his acting chops on moody romances under the ethereal  direction of Wong Kar Wai, wields sex like a weapon, using it to bludgeon his partner into submission. His bloodlust for torturing and executing prisoners is only alluded to, but in the couplings between these two, his perverse hungers are made perfectly clear. Mr. Yee is unlike the quietly alienated protagonists of Leung's past. In his soul is rage, a seething, frothing maw of malcontent that can only be satisfied by dishing out his anger to others. He is forced to momentarily re-examine his cruelty when confronted by someone who takes the punishment he recklessly discharges, and yet remains.

Tang Wei, at first an unwilling recipient of his amorous abuse, finds herself compelled to seek his embrace again and again. Having been repeatedly discarded or denied by the people around her, who seemed to only want to use her for some sordid ploy or have no interest at all--her father remarrying and never saving her from her hellish destiny in the war-torn China seems to have cut the deepest wound--the attentions of Mr. Yee, though terrifying, are also shockingly enticing, even intoxicating. Wei's portrayal of a young woman, wise beyond her years, who nonetheless finds herself out of her depth emotionally is an abasing triumph. These two characters, long isolated and drawn towards each other by circumstances and impulses that neither of them fully understand or acknowledge, foster a connection that can only be described as love, or at the very least a deeply unsettling devotion.

Ang Lee deserves credit for not backing down from the MPAA's NC-17 rating, as this film is made by these sex scenes, which lay the characters not only physically but emotionally bare and bruised. Be warned, as the first encounter between Mr. Yee and Wong can only be described as rape. Understandably, this is not something everyone will stomach watching. But Ang Lee's meticulous attention to little details serves him well in these scenes. As we see Wong slowly begin to lose herself more and more in Mr. Yee's unslaking tumescent force, as she begins to yield to him and he to her, we know that they are beginning to possess one another at a level deeper than either is cognizant of.

In the end, it's unfortunate that Lee suffers from the need to make all his films at least 140 minutes long. Despite the epic backdrop of war and intrigue, the focus of this story is more intimate. And with such chemistry immediately apparent between the two leads, Lee's overbearing cinematic trappings are ill-judged and saddles the film with unnecessary lulls when it takes all too long for the poignant, unconventional romance to begin. Regardless, while the film remains a bit of an albatross--large and majestic looking from afar while perhaps being too ungainly for the real world--Lee's commitment to keeping the emotional integrity of his character's intact is something to be applauded.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

We are not so very different, you and I. We've both spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another's systems... Don’t you think it’s time to recognize there’s as little of worth on your side as there is on mine?  -- George Smiley

George Smiley (Gary Oldman) sits at the center of this slow boiling spy thriller.
With a pitch-perfect British cast, a cold-foreboding atmosphere and the Cold War as its backdrop, Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy recalls the frigid spy films from the late 60s and 70s. If not for the specific actors involved, it would be nearly impossible to distinguish this from the classic thrillers of that era: The Day of the Jackal, Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, etc. Alfredson, previously best known for the Swedish horror/fantasy Let the Right One In, crafts a cold, claustrophobic ambiance which reflects what it must have been like to be a spy in the dog days of the Cold War... a time when there was so much blood on everyone's hands, many men no longer knew or cared if they still worked for the "right side". Every detail, from the dark subdued colors, to the score serves to drown the audience in the characters' doubt and paranoia.

George Smiley (played by an austere Gary Oldman, evenly embodying the film's tone)--an agent forced to retire after his paranoid boss Control (John Hurt) botches an unauthorized operation--finds himself suddenly recalled back to the fold when a mole is discovered at the top of the "Circus" (codename for the British Intelligence Agency). No longer playing the spy game himself, Smiley is perfectly suited to using his own clandestine methods to methodically hunt down the mole. The suspects are the new Circus chief, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and his direct subordinates Bill Hayden (Colin Firth), Toby Esterhaus (David Dencik) and Roy Bland (Cirian Hinds).

Smiley is the perfect spy. Quiet, unassuming, detached and appearing entirely non-threatening, Tinker Tailor's Smiley directly belies what we've come to expect from modern-day spy movies: the death-defying maneuvers of Jason Bourne or the suave confidence (and constant explosions) of James Bond. Oldman, who finally received his first Oscar nomination for this role, easily inhabits the skin of Smiley... a man whose entire career is predicated on his ability to watch without being noticed, to see clearly and understand what has been obfuscated by others. Considering that Oldman is still best known for his roles as scenery chewing villains and/or more loudly tortured souls, the still, contemplative Smiley provides a refreshing contrast and proves that Oldman remains one of the most versatile actors working. Given the low-key nature of his performance, each rare instance of emotion which ripples through his calm veneer carries extra impact and adds greater depth to his disarmingly complex character. 

Unlike Alec Guinness's interpretation in the 1979 miniseries, Oldman's Smiley has a harder edge to him, and Oldman lacks Guiness's natural sense of warmth and amiability. His wintry approach fits with Alfredson's overall vision for the film (which is closer to the clinical tone of the book) and works all the better because for it. Alfredson smartly recognizes the resource he has in Oldman's measured performance, and for much of his screentime the camera wisely centers around his perfectly judged movements. In what is perhaps his best scene, Alfredson indulges in a full-on close-up when Oldman lets the mask fall away slightly as he describes his one encounter with his Russian rival, the mysterious Karla. 

The rest of the cast (a who's who of talented British character actors) complement this film's morose and paranoid atmosphere. Mark Strong, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch are the particular stand-outs (unsurprising since, aside from Oldman, they have the meatiest roles). Firth's Bill Hayden relies heavily on a roguish smile, which serves as an effective facade for his complex motives and machinations. Mark Strong plays Jim Prideaux, a washed up agent whose shooting at the beginning of the film serves as a catalyst for the twisted plot that follows. And with all the cool deception and weary acceptance of the aged players in this film, Cumberbatch as Peter Guillem (Oldman's right hand man in the investigation for the mole) provides a much needed injection of youthful energy. Guillam, shown to be bewildered and often out of his depth, is finally learning all he will have to sacrifice in order to flourish in such a clandestine business. 

The rest of the cast generally fits together well though some (most notably Cirian Hinds) are given nothing to do. Dencik knocks his one major scene out of the park. Jones as Percy Alleline is appropriately duplicitous and seedy and John Hurt's considerable screen-presence, as the recently departed Control, lurks over this movie like a fearful, paranoid specter. In a series of flashbacks throughout the film, which return to a Christmas party from before Control's downfall, we see these characters engaged in seemingly benign interactions. But as the film progresses, and we learn more about the histories of these spies and bureaucrats, the events acquire a decidedly more sinister and sordid air. 

Screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan (a husband/wife team) skillfully condensed John le Carré's lengthy and labyrinthine novel into a tight two hour package. Necessarily, many of the supporting characters and their corresponding subplots were clipped if not removed entirely, but for the attentive viewer  should still be able to follow the story. That's not to say this film is obvious, however, this film spoon-feeds very few revelations to the audience. In order fully appreciate the considerable subtext this script still manages to effectively convey, the viewer must watch closely. 

One unfortunate effect of the abridging is that the revelation of the mole's identity hardly makes the dramatic impact that it should, which mutes the overall effectiveness of the film's ending. But the tragic arcs for certain characters helps to make up for the plot generally ending with a whimper, instead of a metaphorical bang. Regardless of this minor flaw, anyone who pines for the long-lost art of compelling, densely plotted thrillers, and who doesn't mind doing a little thinking with their movie-watching, should find Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy consistently holds their interest from beginning to end. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Southland Tales

What does that represent? There was never any question in plastic art, in poetry, in music, of representing anything. It is a matter of making something beautiful, moving, or dramatic - this is by no means the same thing. -- Fernand Léger
Don't look so scared, Mr. Santaros. The future is just like you imagined. -- Serpentine

The Rock, like the audience, has no idea what's going on.
When Richard Kelly's Southland Tales first premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, the response was, to put it kindly, mixed. One reviewer called it "the biggest, ugliest mess I've ever seen"* while another claimed that "[Southland Tales] may be one of the worst films ever presented in [Cannes] competition." After some serious re-editing (cutting nearly 20 minutes), frenzied rearranging and after refinishing some of the effects shots, Kelly's alternative catastrophic vision of present-day America was released to little acclaim and less notice in a few scattered theaters before fading quietly and quickly into obscurity. As senseless as it is messy and as ambitious as it is just plain wacky, it's easy to see how this convoluted picture never caught on with critics or audiences.

To describe the plot is almost so futile as to be pointless, but the general thrust of the story is this: In 2005, a pair of nuclear bombs are detonated in Abilene and El Paso, Texas, unspeakable tragedies which usher the United States into World War III--a series of entanglements with numerous Middle Eastern countries + North Korea--and also enable the Republican dominated Congress (let it never be said that this movie is subtle) to extend the authority of the Patriot Act. This allows the newly authoritarian government to create an agency called US-IDent, which oversees access to and actively censors the content of the Internet.

Sound familiar?
Oil is scarce and peace is scarcer. A mysterious and potentially underhanded German family has discovered how to harness the perpetual motion of the ocean to create a seemingly limitless energy source (resulting in a substance called Fluid Karma).This allows them to wield considerable, undue influence within the upper echelons of the American government. The disaffected and indifferent litter the Southern Californian landscape, a vacuous hell-hole where Southland Tales is set. Movie stars serve as politicians whilst porn stars double as newscasters and, all the while, leftist, "Neo-Marxist" extremists plot the downfall of the new American police state. And so, with this as its background, the film Southland Tales begins circa 2008 on the eve of a presidential election. Boxer Santaros (yes, that is his real name), played by master thespian Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, is a famous action movie star/son-in-law to the Republican vice-presidential candidate. While his family believes he has been kidnapped by Neo-Marxists, Boxer is struggling with a bout of amnesia while shacked up on the beach with famous porn-star/talk show host Krysta "Krysta Now" Kapowski (Sarah Michelle Gellar)--yes, that is her real name too--who is helping him co-author a screenplay about the end of the world. Little do they know it, but their outlandish screenplay is about to start coming true.

Meanwhile, Roland Taverner (a bedraggled Seann William Scott), a Hermosa Beach police officer (or a twin posing as his brother Ronald Taverner who is a police officer, or... something), is working with the Neo-Marxists on a scheme of blackmail and murder which is meant to entrap Boxer and destroy the Republican's hopes for the Presidency. 

All the while, the actions of the various characters who navigate this surreal landscape are watched over and narrated by the apparently omniscient Pilot Abilene--I think you get the idea about the names by now--played by Justin Timberlake. Pilot's an injured veteran of the war in Iraq who is stationed at a gun turret watching over the Santa Monica beach. He injects himself regularly with Fluid Karma (which serves as a drug as well as a limitless energy source), hallucinates musical sequences and reads from the Book of Revelations. 

You know.... just like the real Justin Timberlake
Kelly assembles such an odd myriad of characters that Southland Tales is reminiscent of an Altman film on acid. There are the various Neo-Marxists (their numbers include Cheri Oteri, Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler and Jon Lovitz in some sort of bizarro SNL reunion) who each seem to have their own ideology and agenda. There's the toad-like Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) and his merry band of mad scientists who are the insidious brain trust behind Fluid Karma--the life saving, and perhaps world ending, energy source. Christopher Lambert swaggers his way through a couple of scenes as a weapons-dealer who hawks his goods from an ice-cream truck. Even Kevin Smith makes a brief appearance as the Baron's bewigged computer expert. 

However, to keep describing the rabbit hole which serves as Southland Tales' plot and the mental patients who are its characters would only exhaust me and further confuse you dear readers. Honestly the only way to truly understand this movie and what it's "about" is to watch it. Even then, this film is bound to confuse and perhaps even frustrate its viewers, because really, this movie tries to be about nothing and everything at the same time. 

So why is it--given that I've acknowledged that this film is a total mess, seeing how respected critics like Richard Roeper claim it's "one of the most confusing, ridiculous, pretentious and disastrous cinematic train wrecks I've ever seen*" (which would make for one hell of a poster tagline) and considering the cast (which includes Mandy Moore, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Justin Timberlake and Seann William Scott) looks more like the guest list at the Teen Choice Awards than an all-star cast--that I give this movie 4 stars out of five? 

In spite of all it's flaws, which are many and despite the fact that the performances range from being merely inoffensive (Wallace Shawn has built a career on saying ridiculous lines, so he looks right at home here) to being outright terrible (I'm looking at you, "The Rock"), I can't help but admire Richard Kelly's ambition and be seduced by his vision. Anyone who saw his debut film Donnie Darko already knows how Kelly loves playing with the perceptions of reality and time while having little regard for the integrity of his characters. Southland Tales merely amplifies that many times over. 

Not shown: fashion sense, self-respect
But then, this movie is less about the plot or its characters than it is about the three-dimensional world Kelly creates. It's one that's absurd in many ways, but in several others it eerily mirrors our own. With Congress now passing laws that accord the military the right to detain any American citizen indefinitely and attempting to pass laws that would allow the government to turn the internet into its own cyber fiefdom, how can Kelly's America where marines police our beaches with machine turrets and where people can only vote or access the internet with a thumb print (one scene shows the Neo-Marxists collecting thumbs in order to alter the course of an election) remain so laughably implausible? Is this film a mess? Absolutely... but perhaps messy times require messy allegories.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Kelly's America is the fate of the media. Throughout the course of the film we are treated to the smorgasbord of sex, ultra-violence and shameless consumerism that it has become (again... is news in the real world so different?). One scene shows a snippet of Krysta "Now"'s talk show, where she and other great feminist minds of the age (among them are young blondes with names like Shoshanna Cox and Deena Gee) discuss "penetrating issues" like, and I'm not making this up, "abortion, terrorism, crime, poverty, social reform, quantum teleportation, teen horniness and war". Mainly though, they trade stories about their sordid pasts in porn... apparently 'teen horniness' was the one issue really worth discussing. This obsession with sex, definitely a trait of the real American media as well, is taken to a different sort of extreme in a car commercial, which hardly seems out of place in a world so blown out of proportion:

The quote at the top of the review comes from Fernand Léger--an avant garde full time painter and part-time film-maker from the 1910s and 20s. After seeing an abstract work by early director Abel Gance he opined on the importance of a narrative within a film... something that today we take as a given. It has become natural for us to ask of every movie "What does that represent?", i.e, what's the plot, what's going on, how will this all resolve? For Southland Tales, these seems to be secondary concerns to creating an atmophere that is alternately beautiful, moving and dramatic and, when this film is at its zenith, one that effortlessly encapsulates all three. Indeed, no matter what you think of the first two hours, the final 15 minutes of this movie are quite breathtaking.

So, while the movie's many contrivances, the characters' banal pseudo-philosophical musings and the countless unresolved subplots may frustrate many viewers, Kelly's infectious child-in-a-sandbox-like energy can't help but entertain. It's rare that a director with such an eclectic and unique vision is given complete control over a film and--from the script, to the cast, to the atmospheric score by Moby--this is Richard Kelly's brainchild, unfiltered and uncut. For better or for worse, that fact alone makes this a film worth cherishing... or at least watching just once. Chances are you're not going to see anything like it ever again.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ordinary People

 A little advice about feelings kiddo; don't expect it always to tickle. -- Dr. Tyrone Berger

In honor of the fact that today would have been my Mom's 60th birthday, I'm reviewing Robert Redford's directorial debut Ordinary People, which was one of her favorite films. This striking family drama, winner of 4 Oscars in 1980, centers around the Jarretts, an affluent suburban family living in Northern Illinois. Still reeling from the loss of their oldest son Buck (who drowned after a sailboat carrying him and his brother capsized in a storm on Lake Michigan), the remaining survivors must come to terms with how his death, and the youngest son Conrad's subsequent suicide attempt, has deeply affected and changed them all. The film, and the novel it's based on, deals with the vast gulfs created amidst each family member by recent events and how they succeed, or fail, to bridge the new separations that exist between them. 

Ordinary People's main focus is the youngest son, Conrad (odd that Timothy Hutton won a supporting Oscar for what could well be considered the sole lead role in the film). A month after being released from the mental hospital he was committed to after his suicide attempt, Conrad is still traumatized by the storm and boating accident which took his older brother's life. Memories of that day haunt his every waking moment and when he sleeps, these visions are fodder for his nightmares. Like his older brother, he's on the swim team, but every time Conrad nears the water or hangs out with mutual friends he and his brother shared, he's transported back to that fateful night on the water when he watched his brother let go and sink out of view for the last time. 

Beth Jarrett, the mother, has become a bitter, controlling woman, all while hiding it under a veneer of blissful, suburban perfection. An ideal housewife and socialite, "Everyone loves Beth". What's less clear is if Beth herself can love anyone. Her capacity to love seems to have drowned along with Buck. Conrad, the son who lived, becomes a particular target of her ire. Though she would never admit it to anyone, not even herself, it's clear to the viewer and to Conrad that she wishes it was he who died in that storm. 

The father, Calvin Jarrett, is a well-meaning tax attorney who senses the gulf in his family but not the reason. Desperate to bring everyone back together again, his wife's newfound coldness forces him to examine how the loss has changed him and whether the man he has become can love the woman his wife now is (or perhaps always was). He spend much of the movie caught helplessly between two storms--the frigid winds of his perfectly presented wife who harangues Conrad whenever he puts the simplest step out of place and the furious flurries of anger from Conrad who, when not directing his loathing inward, lashes out at those who try to help him, seeing only his guilt reflected in their well-meaning entreaties. 

Eventually, through sessions with the kind-hearted psychiatrist Dr. Tryone Berger, who provides the movie with its few moments of humor as well as its catharsis, Conrad begins to come to terms with his responsibility, or lack thereof, for his brother's passing. In order to wrestle with such deep-seated depression, one must recognize it for what it is. And as Conrad begins a romantic relationship with a young girl in his school choir, he begins to see the fruits of these sessions, and of his father's tireless support. When describing how he felt on the eve of his suicide attempt to his new girlfriend, he compares it to "falling into a hole and it keeps getting bigger and bigger and you can't get out... all of a sudden, it's inside, and you're the hole and you're trapped." A succinct, accurate depiction of the depression many face, what a terror it must be to feel trapped inside your own head. 

Despite the fact that this is Redford's first stab at directing, it's rare to see a film this accomplished and polished. Considering that the script is laden with the potential for over-wrought drama, only a confident director could pull this off with such ease. His style is staid and conservative, almost to the point of non-existence as he wisely allows this powerful story to unfold with little stylistic interruption.  The only music in this film are a series of variations on Pachelbel's Canon, wisely Redford avoids adding an unnecessarily dramatic score. This film has enough of it's own fire that it needs little embellishment. As it is, it only barely avoids the often unavoidable plague of melodrama that many films of this ilk unadvisedly embrace. 

Redford must also be credited for how well he handled his actors. He proves his intimate knowledge of the story, by restraining the actors from indulging from too many florid, over-the-top "Oscar" moments. This allows the moments of truly overflowing emotions to retain their impact. In these, each of the main cast performs flawlessly. 

The star of the show is newcomer Timothy Hutton, who justly won an Oscar for his performance--even if it was in the wrong category. Conrad Jarrett is the one most profoundly damaged by his brother's death, as he was the only one there to witness it. Much like his mother, who Calvin wisely observes is the parent he is most similar to, he tries to mask his grief, anger and self-loathing. Unlike his mother, he is far less successful doing so. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise, as it forces him to face his feelings in a manner she isn't capable of. In the film's greatest moment of catharsis, Dr. Berger (played with an almost unbelievable saintliness by Judd Hirsch) Hutton weaves his conflicting emotions together with such engrossing and seamless conviction (the relevant section begins at around 2:25, if anyone knows who to embed these things with a specific time stamp I'd be much obliged):

Conrad Jarrett: [Berger is pretending to be Buck, Con's older brother] Bucky, I didn't mean it! Bucky, I didn't meant it! 
Dr. Berger: What? 
Conrad Jarrett: I said put the sail down, but you said keep it starboard, and then we go over! And you say "Hang on, Hang on!", but then you let go! Why'd you let go? 
Dr. Berger: Because I was tired! 
Conrad Jarrett: Oh yeah? Well screw you, you jerk! 
Dr. Berger: [Back in reality] It hurts to be mad at him, doesn't it? 
Conrad Jarrett: God, I loved him. It's not fair. You just do one wrong thing. 
Dr. Berger: And what was the one wrong thing you did? 
Conrad Jarrett: I hung on. I stayed with the boat.  
As this passage shows, often the most difficult part of grief is the confusing anger you feel towards the departed. How can you blame your brother for drowning, or your wife for suffering a coma in a boating accident, or your mother for dying of cancer? It's hardly their faults, yet the anger exists, and until it's dealt with, it simmers in you only further contributing to your senseless guilt. Hutton, though he was just 20 at the time of the movie's release, nails the complex mores of grief with the poise of a far more experienced thespian.

Mary Tyler Moore, as the cool aloof mother, uses the easy charm she perfected on television with The Mary Tyler Moore Show to hide the fathomless depths of her sadness. The gulf between her and her family is the widest of anyone's as she desperately, ruthlessly pursues the normalcy of her life before Buck's accident and Conrad's suicide attempt. She complains often in the film that she just wants things to go back to normal and believes that pretending like nothing has changed is the best way to achieve that. Therefore, when anyone else in the family suggests that she confront the reality of their altered situation, she reacts by clamming up or lashing out against them or accusing them of being weak and manipulated by their own guilt. 

In spite of her own obvious weaknesses, Redford wisely does not villify her... how many mothers are equipped to handle the loss of their favorite son? With an easy smile that rarely touches her cold, frightened eyes, Moore indelibly illustrates a woman helplessly drowning in her own grief who, with her stubbornness, threatens to bring the rest of the family down with her. In a series of scenes that will break your heart, she repeatedly ignores Conrad's attempts to reach out to her, and rejects his silent pleas of forgiveness with blithe criticism. In one moment when it's clear he's about to open up to her, she deflects it by pointing our how messy his closet is and then flees to answer the phone. Also, the brief glimpse we're given of her mother strongly hints where her personal failings may have come from. She is not to be blamed, or hated, but merely pitied. 

Donald Sutherland, one of the most criminally underrated actors of his era, leavens the film's acidity with his compassion. He struggles to understand the rest of his family, which seems to be spiraling out of control around him. Reluctant to believe either Beth's or Conrad's constant accusations against one another, Calvin Jarrett fruitlessly hopes to bring them back together. Like Beth, he is undone at times by the grief he feels for his lost son, often losing himself in his memories of happier times (the only glimpses we get of Buck are through these brief flashbacks, which wisely highlight the profound loss his absence creates). Unlike Beth, and Conrad for that matter, he does not blame his living son, instead choosing to clutch tightly to the family he has left. Sutherland's patient bewilderment fits this unassuming character like a glove.

In the end, though any movie that deals with the effect the loss of a loved one has on a family will inevitably be bleak, this film offers up a measure of hope for some of its characters. Much like The Descendants, which I reviewed yesterday, the characters in Ordinary People must cling together while stuck in their cool, stolid suburban world. They must find within themselves, and within one another, the capacity for forgiveness, because, as Redford deftly reveals, only after one forgives oneself or one's family for their wrongs--be they real or imagined--can one really begin to heal. The only other option, as this movie also cleverly explains, is to flee into the depths of your ignorance, which will allow grief to consume you completely. That, it must be said, sounds like no life worth living.