Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Reviewed: 23 February 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** 1/2 (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Confusing. Still not sure what happened. Loved it.

Full disclosure: I loved director Tomas Alfredson's Scandanavian vampire thriller Let The Right One In, and though I've never read much John LeCarre, I mean to, and I'm in love with spy thrillers from having devoured Ian Fleming's Bond series as a young boy to speeding through the Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish crime thrillers of today. So, the idea of Alfredson focusing on the Cold War chess game between Britain's upper levels of intelligence (aptly nicknamed "The Circus") and the very real threat of the Russians appealed to me before I even stepped into the theater. The cast looks and sounds great in the trailer and the poster.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy invites much speculation, much frustration, and much consternation. Yet, throughout it all, I loved the attention to period detail and technology, a brilliant score by Julio Iglesias that underscores and does not lead you emotionally, as well as a lead performance by a nearly silent Gary Oldman as George Smiley, retired spyman who is brought out of retirement. Oldman is a fantastic actor, and I've loved his work in JFK, Bram Stoker's Dracula, the latter episodes of the Harry Potter series, as well as a marvelous vampy turn in The Fifth Element. Zorg in that film has to be one of my all-time favorite film characters! Gary Oldman can go big, and it is crucial that Alfredson directs him to go small. Tiny gestures, movements of the face and body, one line with voice raised in the entire film all combine into a character that remains a cipher, confusing and morally ambiguous. Even at the end.

Smiley begins the film ousted from the Circus with Control (John Hurt, excellent as always) due to a botched exercise in Budapest which opens the film. As new leadership takes over, British higher-ups contact Smiley about coming out of retirement; seems they believe, as did Control, that there's a mole in the Circus, and Smiley's assigned a secret task force to figure out who it is. The characters swirl around as possible suspects: Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, David Dencik, among others. Smiley himself was even considered a possible suspect by Control who labeled the suspects with the eponymous nicknames, taped to chess pieces. He must infiltrate his former workplace, research backgrounds and possible scenarios, and Smiley does the quietly devastating work of looking at his coworkers under the microscope.

This film works as an unconventional spy thriller because it returns to the roots of spying and the office politics of any government bureaucracy. I love the interplay among the main characters, as well as the shadowy world of the Circus, the central location of the film which is itself depicted in both the routine, mundane office work of spying and also a strange, bacchanal holiday office party, where Smiley observes his wife's behavior.

It seems apt to describe this as chess and other spy films which deal in explosions, inundation with technology, and simple, reductive espionage light types of situations as checkers. Recently, Bond films have focused on Bond the race car driver and Parkour enthusiast, not necessarily Bond the sleuth, the spy who noticed the tiny details and violations of social decorum. In From Russia With Love, Bond noticed that Red Grant (Robert Shaw) ordered red wine with fish at dinner, thus betraying himself as a Russian spy and leading to one of the greatest battles of all time on the Orient Express train. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, George Smiley notices tiny details, and these details register on Oldman's weathered, impassive, mask-like face. He raises his voice once in the film, and I wonder if he says more than 100 words in total, while appearing in nearly every scene. Filmspotting podcast host Adam Kempenaar quoted T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in his interview with the director of this film quite aptly: "We must prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet." And, I think he has touched upon the themes brilliantly. Through clothing, affectation, voice, posture, these spies and bureaucrats are preparing "faces" for each other, and Smiley's face is prepared to encounter anything-his wife's infidelity, Control's death, a botched job in Budapest, a possible deportation and probable death for a main character-with the same tremor of emotion and stillness.

Highlights include the opening scenes in Budapest where Mark Strong feels that something is awry in his mission, as well as a scene involving a deportation and an arriving airplane on a runway, which is a large scale version of the chess game Smiley has been playing. Smiley's recreation is swimming in a river with his head above water, struggling gamely but making progress. London feels dirty, grey, washed-out. The film builds and builds, but it never coalesces into some gigantic out of character action extravaganza or build-up of score. The final confrontations involve the raising of a voice, a confusing violent act, betrayals and scenes without fireworks.

As a result, the final sequence of shots which sum up Smiley's rise to power is both terrifying and exhilarating. I love the color and the background of the Circus's room; I love that we don't see who Smiley is addressing in the room; I love the French version of Bobby Darin's "Beyond The Sea" (sung by Alberto Iglesias) playing in the background. Gary Oldman is a fantastic actor, and though I don't think he will win tonight for Best Actor, I really think that he could win for this film. His work is masterful, Alfredson's film is adult and intense, and we haven't even dug into the well-crafted supporting work from Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Mark Strong especially, but really everyone in this cast is exciting and holds their own. But Oldman rules the roost, and this film is a tribute to his craftsmanship as an actor and his confidence in Alfredson's direction.
In short, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is flat-out brilliant. The best spy thriller in years.

A Separation

Movie Review: A Separation

Director: Ashgar Farhadi

Reviewed: 23 February 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

An uncomfortable classic. A talkative swirling amalgamation of emotions of several families set in modern day Iran, A Separation is a masterpiece that confronts in subtle, sophisticated, simultaneous ways class, religion, divorce, gender, power, as well as education and nationalism.

A family deals with an impending divorce.
A son deals with his father's dementia.
A daughter deals with her parents' fighting and her own education.
A woman hired to take care of the husband's father deals with her own faith crises, her care of her younger daughter, the constraints of working in an unfamiliar man's home, and her marriage.
A wife deals with her desire to flee Iran but not her daughter.
A husband deals with his desire to rule his wife in all things while also confronting his lack of employment and the family's imminent poverty.
A teacher deals with the ramifications of one conversation in passing.
A judge deals with the conflicting stories, the mountain of paperwork, the crush of cases and people, as well as the very real possibility that the law cannot adjudicate every single matter and point of conflict among human beings.

A focused, unrelenting film, Farhadi's sets up most of the film in the tight quarters of the family's apartment, the small car traveling the streets of Tehran, or the bustling chaos of the police station (home of the overworked judge). No one in this film is a stereotype; everything that I thought I knew was wrong. Standouts include Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Maadi) as the married, contentious couple.

Unexpected, emotional, overwhelming, Farhadi's cast leads a brilliant display of intensity and emotion as "way leads on to way," and consequences of actions pile up. However, I should state, this is not a labyrinthian maze of legalistic hodepodge; this is not a mystery or criminal thriller. The actions and consequences are grounded in the very real reality of a grieving family, an unhinged father waiting outside of a school, the veracity of promising on a Quran for a person of faith, the idea that pride is more important than a financial settlement.

Explosive in its own quiet way, A Separation exposed for me my own complete ignorance of modern day Iran. As a well-read person, I still felt floored by the multiplicity of cultures, classes, faith levels in this story. The Iran I thought I knew from the news and debates about policy is light years away from this very human, very tragic, very painful story of the separation within a family, within a community, within a country, within a world?

And the final shot is devastating, artful, and open-ended in the most frustrating and brilliant ways that great art can be.

I cannot recommend this movie more highly. It is a masterpiece, a triumph of acting, writing, directing.

Hugo 3D

Movie Review: Hugo 3D

Director: Martin Scorsese

Reviewed: 23 February 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

A fine movie. A wonderful kids' film. A Martin Scorsese labor of love with his quintessential worship of the beginning of the film industry and his tireless devotion to the intricacies of film preservation. A strong use of 3D technology in an intelligent way. However, I don't think that Hugo holds up for me as much as other Scorsese films or connected with me emotionally. It feels too long, too labored at times. It feels didactic and preachy. It feels like a children's movie, and that's okay.

Hugo (precocious Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living in a Parisian train station, monitoring and winding the clocks and evading the nefarious police officer (hilarious Sacha Baron Cohen). He encounters toymaker Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) and his plucky niece (Chloe Grace-Moretz) and undergoes an adventure leading him to a key that unlocks the automaton left behind by his deceased father (Jude Law) which unlocks an unseen connection to Georges and the birth of the film industry. The two children become friends, chase scenes ensue, secrets are revealed. It maintains a consistent tone throughout, and it always feels workmanlike, craftsmanship-wise. Scorsese is delivering great usage of effects, sound, art direction, and minor characters are richly sketched.

However, it seems rote at times and left me a bit cold and unaffected; Hugo attempts to hit the right marks, tries to reach for an emotional height but doesn't quite reach it. Some of that is because of the limitations of the source material (the amazing Brian Selznick's graphic novel/children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a much better title). Lines like "machines come with the exact number of parts that they need" make easy parallels to Hugo's own life and feelings of inadequacy. It is difficult to see Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, and Jude Law all underused; the film could have used more of them.

I love the early filmmaking history contained in this film; when I read this book, I envisioned many of the scenes, but it was powerful to see the sequences of the train running into the screen and the audience cringing, as well as the way special effects were delivered in a very organic and creative way.

As for the 3D technology, the camera propels through the train station, there's a cool effect in the opening shot where a clock merges into the movement of traffic around the city centre, as well as fantastic turns and twists following young Hugo as he crawls through the underworks of the train station and the clocks. At times, it was breathtaking and used quite well.

Ultimately, Scorsese does not deliver a bad film. He's far too film-literate and cares too much to not deliver. However, I can't say this film has the exhilaration of a Goodfellas, the punch of The Departed, the visceral messiness of a Gangs of New York, the grit of a Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. It feels like Scorsese making a children's movie and doing it well. And that's what he is doing. He's made a film for his daughter, and there are no f-bombs, no Bill the Butcher-type villains meditating on "my violence conquering your violence" a thread through many of Scorsese's pictures as voiced by the warden in Shutter Island, no Rolling Stones' songs kicking in the background, no Robert DeNiro. And that's okay, I guess, but I wanted more.

I'll always want more from Martin Scorsese, the greatest living American director.
(And yes, P.F. Kluge, I spelled his name right in this review! Full disclosure: in 1998, I misspelled Scorsese's name Scorcese in the Kenyon College Collegian, and I've never forgiven myself. Professor Kluge asked me on the path near Cromwell Cottage one morning, "Sheridan, how do you spell Scorsese?" When I told him how, he returned, "Good. You're right. Too bad that's not how you spelled it in the Collegian last week." And, chagrined and chastised, I have never made that mistake again. Thanks, Professor Kluge.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Tuba Atlantic

Movie Review: Tuba Atlantic

Director: Hallvar Witzo

Reviewed: 18 February 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** 1/2 (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Weird. Strange. Unique. Tuba Atlantic concluded the set of the five films nominated for Best Short Films 2012 that I saw in one straight shot at Houston's Sundance Theater, and in many ways, I left with the most love for this film above all else. An unlikeable protagonist, a strained transatlantic sibling relationship, a frigid tuba perched on a windswept shore, machine guns, an actual angel of death, Tuba Atlantic is a hodepodge of quirky elements that come together wonderfully in a brisk 25 minutes. This film is my choice for the 2012 Best Short Film Academy Award.

The opening sustained long shot reveals Oskar (Edvard Haegstad), an older man living alone in Norway, to have cancer; his doctor gives him the countdown of six. "Six months?" Oskar asks. "Six days" his doctor replies. During his last days, the government sends out a young woman Inger (Ingrid Viken) from the Jesus Club to be his angel of death, and she dutifully checks off the Kubler-Ross stages of death as Oskar advances. As he considers his life, Oskar also desires to reconcile with his brother who moved across the water to New Jersey; their childhood was consumed by building the massive tuba that remains covered outside of Oskar's home. A shot of a picture on the wall reveals itself to be only half of the truth, as Oskar has hidden his brother's face from view. The angel of death engages in philosophical discussions with Oskar, and eventually, the tuba comes into play. Wonderfully.

There's great comedy here with Oskar's penchant for machine gunning and dynamiting the seagulls around his home. I really enjoyed the radio conversations that punctuate Oskar's day. The relationship with the angel of death is a humorous one that does not descend into schmaltz or maudlin territory. The ending works pretty well. The detail of Oskar plugging his phone cord in when he finally wants to communicate with his brother was brilliant; I remember my Irish grandfather doing something similar: turning down his hearing aid when he knew he didn't want to hear what his Italian barber had to say. Witzo's film is dealing, very skillfully, with the ways that people hurt and heal, grieve and forgive, reach out and react.

I think this film is enjoyable on multiple levels. It is existential and about facing death. It confronts issues of faith in a straightforward way. The face off in worldview between Oskar and Inger is low key, yet profound.

And for me, in the past three years, I've read Stieg Larsson's Millenium series, 3-5 Jo Nesbo Norwegian detective novels, Henning Mankell and Hakan Nesser's Scandanavian thrillers, as well as starting a series set in Iceland. All deal with horrific violence, abhorrent murderers, damaged heroes raging against the elements and the corruption and the brutality of the world. So, it is just flat out refreshing to see this Norwegian tale of a crabby old man, tuba player, vexed by a thirty year argument with his brother now in New Jersey who yearns to talk to him one last time. And one who rages against his world by machine gunning seagulls. And inspiring others to do the same. Well-done.

Time Freak

Movie Review: Time Freak

Director: Andrew Bowler

Reviewed: 18 February 2012

jamesintexas rating--**1/2 (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

A whimsical look at time travel, Time Freak is nominated for Best Short Film 2012. When I think about time travel, I tend to think big ala Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris or Marty McFly in Back to the Future; however, in Andrew Bowler's film Time Freak, the paradox is that we have learned to travel through time, yet we remain stuck in our immediate lives that there is no time to pursue the bigger questions.

The main character develops a time travel machine, and as a result, he remains trapped in a loop of the immediate reality: replaying an interaction with a dry cleaner, perfecting a meet cute with an ex-girlfriend, fixing a conversation with a friend. On a certain level, Bowler is confronting the existential questions of a film like Groundhog Day with quicker editing and payoffs. Ultimately, I don't think the camerawork or concepts develop as strongly as I would have hoped, and the performances are serviceable, but I think this film is more fun to think about than to watch.

The end joke is clever, but ultimately this film lacks profundity or grace in its construction and editing. It should not win the Academy Award.


Movie Review: Pentecost

Director: Peter McDonald

Reviewed: 18 February 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Peter McDonald's short film (nominated this year for Best Short Film) Pentecost is incredibly brief (eleven minutes) and registers on another level for me because of my experiences as an altar server in my Catholic Church for about six years. The droll, incredibly funny dialogue related to matters of altar serving won me over quickly. A priest speaks to his team of servers before working an important mass with the Arch Bishop; he's a coach in the football locker room, delivering a sermon to his players.

Damian Lynch, a young boy injures a priest in a freak incense accident (and believe me, those things can happen; I once passed out during a service due to too much incense), and as punishment, his dad removes his beloved football pictures from his bedroom walls. In order to redeem himself, Damian is called out of his suspension by the parish to serve one last mass, this time with the Arch Bishop. If he pulls this off, his dad will restore his privileges.

A deeply funny film, touching on serious issues of identity, differences between parents, loyalty and, incredibly, revolution, McDonald delivers a quick punch of a film with incredible control and grace. An insider's look at this world; immediately after watching it, I wanted to show it to my entire family. Ultimately, this film might be seen as too slight by the Academy to take home the award, but it was wonderful. Funnier in eleven minutes than many movies are in ninety.


Movie Review: Raju.

Director: Max Zahle

Reviewed: 18 February 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** 1/2 (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

A nominee and the frontrunner (in my opinion) for the 2012 Best Short Film Oscar, Raju dives into the chaos of Calcutta and its inner workings as he chronicles a loving German couple's decision to adopt a young boy. Sarah and Jan Fischer (Julia Richter and Wotan Wilke Mohring) undertake a sojourn into an orphanage to adopt a young Indian child Raju (Krish Gupta), and by all accounts, they are a loving, dedicated couple. During the several days spent in Kolkata before traveling back to Germany, Raju disappears, the couple are pushed to the breaking point, and the underpinnings of international adoption, poverty, and bureaucracy are all explored.

Things that stuck with me:
Tracking shots of the streets of Kolkata as seen through the cab.
Raju's head dangling out of the window of the cab taking it all in.
Pain registering in Mohring's face as Jan contemplates titanic questions.
The brushing of teeth in a hotel bathroom.
The knockout final shots.

One reviewer noted that this film feels like one third of a greater feature film, and I'm not sure if that is something that should be taken as a criticism. Yes, there is a more structured, narratively dense, and backstory rich story here, but I'm not sure that should be the way to approach it. The length (24 minutes) involves the audience quickly, shows us a shorthand between the couple that speaks volumes, and ultimately filled me with dread because I knew that decisions must be made. And made quickly.

There is a distancing from the couple since the structure of the short film is to keep us light on backstory. Additionally, the score at times feels Babel-like, which is not necessarily a pejorative, but it just feels familiar.

In focusing on this relationship, Zahle opens up questions of identity, poverty, and morality. What is the right thing to do? And, what does doing the right thing mean if you destroy yourself or your loving relationship in the process?

The Shore

Movie Review: The Shore.

Director: Terry George

Reviewed: 18 February 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Terry George has written and directed some of the most striking films of the past twenty years dealing with reconciliation and remorse (Hotel Rwanda, In The Name of the Father, The Boxer), and his latest feature is a thirty minute short film about reconciliation and homecoming. Thematically, and in part due to its stunning Irish setting, I found myself drawing quiet parallels to Joyce's "The Dead" with its focus on the inner worlds of people around us, people that we think we know. The Shore is currently nominated for Best Live Action Short Film.

An understated Ciaran Hinds delivers a solid, respectable performance as Joe, a man who returns to his homeland of Northern Ireland with his adult daughter, confronting a past relationship and a past friendship that has deteriorated. Conleth Hill (unrecognizable from his role in Game of Thrones) delivers an equally solid, lived-in performance as Paddy, the one who stayed behind. There's a woman involved and some winning banter among Paddy and his unemployed friends who spend time at the nearby shore, supplementing their unemployment checks with whatever they can scrounge.

The film feels like a labor of love, and the performances onscreen register as true. The film deftly handles the transition between comedy and drama, and there is a great reversal late in the film. I feel like the Irish landscape has never looked better (Joe states, "I forgot how green it was here!"), and George captures the painful nostalgia of looking at photo albums, confronting regret and pain, articulating hidden stories to family members and friends.

However, George clumsily handles the ending; it seems unsure of itself which contrasts with the assured hand displayed in the rest of the film. The character of Mary (Maggie Cronin) is the linchpin of the cast and the story, yet there seems to be a missing speech from her to tie the strands together. For her character to be so central to the epiphany and to not have screen time to articulate her choice is regrettable; George lessens the power of his conclusion. And the singing conclusion around the fire, though telegraphed really early in the film, does not have the emotional power that I wanted it to have.

Still, The Shore has a quality that I really do not see in film consistently: reflection. It's length and quiet and stillness all build into a well-made short story of a film with a central piece missing, yet it is the kind of film that sticks with you. Hinds does a terrific job, and I would be happy to see Terry George and daughter Oorlagh (a fellow graduate of Kenyon College) on the stage accepting the Academy Award for this film.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Miss Bala

Movie Review: Miss Bala


Reviewed: 4 February 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** 1/2 (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Stephanie Sigman plays Laura Guerrero in the haunting Miss Bala, a film that could stand along with Breaking The Waves, Dancer In The Dark, Osama, and Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles as a shocking, damning indictment of a male-dominated society that objectifies and punishes women, this time against the backdrop of the violent world of the Tijuana-California border. Things go from bad to worse for Laura as she finds herself at a party in the city that turns into a bloody massacre; her care for her missing friend causes her to stumble into the hands of the cartel responsible, and things continue to fall apart.

Overwhelmingly, the film addresses smuggling money across the border, smuggling bullets, the use of cell phones and communication among the cartel, the way anyone and anything can be bought, as well as direct street clashes, home invasion, accepting cash, losing one's soul, and protecting one's family through self-sacrifice. Impressively, I felt that at no point was direct Gerardo Naranjo cramming this film full of issues or events; things spiraled out of control in a logical and devastating way. The violence is scary; the moments of silence between captive and captor, terrifying.

Opening shots obscure Laura's face, and the director intentionally plays with shadow and light, spatial arrangement with items that block characters from view. A central idea that director Gerardo Naranjo addresses is the pageantry and artificiality of both the beauty contest world (Laura, early on, applies to be Miss Baja) and the drug vs. police world (a kingpin strings up a body after filming a DEA agent's last words and running him down with his truck with stolid theatricality; press conferences are staged with an attention to lighting, make-up, and body language). Naranjo is wrestling with big ideas in a very challenging way: Do we expect a certain performance from the players in the drug war, the same way that we expect certain aspects in a beauty pageant? Are both sides playing a part, providing different illusions? In Naranjo's Mexico as it seems to be ripped from the headlines, violence and exploitation are rampant; there is no way for Laura to escape when police are corrupt, family are poor, her beauty seems to be her only commodity. The final shot could be seen as hopeful (sun is rising), yet it is difficult to see how Laura moves on from all that she's been through. At times, the camera movement and proximity to violence reminded me of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men; it held the same apocalyptic, dangerous feel. Miss Bala is a challenging, fierce film from a director that I'd like to see more from.

A few false notes: the title. I didn't know what it meant and had to ask: Miss Bullet, which is another reminder of the juxtaposition of the pageants and the drug wars. Also, the final title card in the film is supposed to jolt the audience with an awareness of the number of dead in the drug wars since 2004. Such a card is superfluous for anyone who has been paying attention to this film. Clearly, the horrors of the past two hours have underscored all that has been lost and continues to be lost due to a rapacious thirst for drugs north of the border and the furious movement south of it to provide them. No card is needed.