Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thoughts on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

There’s very little movement in Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Or perhaps I should say there’s lots of very little movements: a woman steps through a doorway, two people catch each others’ eye across a party, someone sights down a rifle, a car window opens a few inches, a man pulls a trigger. Wait - do we see the trigger being pulled or just hear the shot that results? I can’t remember, exactly, but throughout the movie it seems as if we’re always arriving on the scene too late: we see the aftermath, but not the event itself; we see the reaction, but the action is always just out of reach. This is a movie with many ripples and few stones.

The cast is filled with great actors, yet they’re very rarely allowed to act against each other in extended scenes. The relationships between the characters don’t open up in front of us, and that’s true of everything else in the complicated, expansive plot. The movie condenses Le Carré’s novel into moments and gestures. A shot of someone looking at a photograph stands in for years of personal history. The set pieces are often over before they’ve even seemed to have begun, and, though I know the story well, having read the novel twice and seen the miniseries once, there’s a density to the filmmaking here that made me feel always a step behind.

The centerpiece scene stands out as the movie’s most theatrical sequence by a wide margin. Gary Oldman’s George Smiley recounts his one face-to-face meeting with his opposite number, the Soviet masterspy Karla. The encounter was a victory for Karla: Smiley revealing more about himself than he learns about his enemy. Alfredson seems to have taken this as a kind of guiding principle. The movie puts us in the same position as Karla: we come to understand our hero in the brief moments he lets his guard down.

The plot, though expertly handled, is really just material here. The heart of the movie is its look (it’s appropriate that it’s made by a man who directed a movie called Four Shades of Brown), its mood, its brilliant character sketches, and, for lack of a better phrase, it’s world view. Alfredson’s outsider’s perspective is key, I think. There’s no sense of “They’re monsters, but they’re our monsters, dammit” that we get from The Sandbaggers. There’s no camaraderie among the intelligence agents on display here, as there is in John Irvin and Arthur Hopcraft’s 1979 miniseries. This is not a movie about “The Great Game”, not even about it in order to subvert it as in Fred Schepisi and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Le Carré’s The Russia House. At the risk of simplifying things, it does seem like a Swede would have a different perspective on the Cold War than a Brit: witnessing the action from afar, but, perhaps, perilously close to any potential consequences. What is emphasized is the urgency, the seriousness of the characters and their actions, but also their isolation and alienation from each other and the world. This is Le Carré’s great theme: that the isolating act of spying warps the spy by making him alien to himself, suspicious of his own feelings. And Alfredson makes something dreadful out of the knowledge that it’s these men, so cut off from knowledge of themselves, whispering intently to each other in smoke-filled rooms, who are pulling the strings.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Colombiana (Megaton, 2011)

Colombiana is a good action movie, but, looking over some of the reviews for it, I think David Edelstein - who doesn't like the movie - does a better job of describing it than most of the critics who did like it. For instance, Christy Lemire gave it a positive review and called it "sexy and silly": Zoe Saldana is sexy in the movie, but I don't think anything about the movie is silly (which is not to say that everything is presented with a completely straight face). This seems to me to be a distancing move of some sort on Lemire's part: a way to praise something while at the same time signalling she knows it's beneath her. Edelstein, on the other hand, called the movie "abstract and passionless" and wrote about Zoe Saldana's character being "too listless and strung-out and weirdly disembodied to make you feel much empathy" for her. I think Edelstein is mostly right - although I'd say "distanced" instead of "passionless" - but, for me, those are features, not bugs. By preventing the movie from working as simple escapism, they make the movie much more enjoyable: they make the movie something to engage with and not merely something to consume. It's a much more interesting experience than watching a straightforward action movie like Salt. (Edelstein is, at least, consistent in his preference for the conventional: he gave Salt a positive review.)

However, though I like Colombiana and think it's not really (or merely) a "fun", "simple" movie, I wouldn't call it "complex", either. The movie's structure, situation, and character are all fairly stock: what makes the movie distinctive is its texture - transitions where it zigs instead of zags or moments where an unexpected tone keeps me off balance. Two examples that stick out: the start of the first action sequence, when we realize that this little girl isn't going to be a victim (zigging instead of zagging) and a shot during the penultimate fight where Saldana, wielding dual submachine guns, wears a blank, hollow look (unexpected tone). There are similar moments in Besson and Kamen's Taken: the shock of Liam Neeson shooting his friend's wife and the narrowness of moral vision shown by his lack of concern for any of the other girls who have been kidnapped.

So, if complicated is the wrong word, what is the right one? "Textured" sounds too academic. "Rough" - as in, these are movies don't work smoothly, like "good" product should - is more descriptive, but might also imply that the technique of these movies is less than professional, which isn't the case. I'm open to suggestions. Other movies that are more "textured"/"rough" than they are complex: Larry Cohen's, Stallone's Rambo, Mario Bava's, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and - raised to the level of world historical art - Sam Fuller's.

I think that's its worthwhile trying to theorize out this concept, if only because the language critics have to talk about these movies seems to hem them in. If I like movies like Colombiana or Taken, I might want to argue that they aren't just dumb, simple movies (as their critics might), so I reach for the opposite concept: for example, I might praise their complexity for the way they critique standard action movie tropes. But really, that's a bit of an overreach, as these movies don't so much offer a complicated critique those conventions as they put a spin on them that forces me to stay on my toes while I'm watching.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Some thoughts on the code...

Some thoughts after seeing several "pre-code" movies at the Film Forum over the last few weeks:

The freedom I see in these movies isn't just in terms of content: their narrative form is freer than that of the movies that came after, as Hollywood's storytelling and genre conventions are still in flux. The two kinds of freedom are intimately related: as the code becomes more strongly enforced, filmmakers respond through a stylization that gestures without showing. The filmmakers who best make it out of the early 1930s are the ones who, like John Ford and Howard Hawks, are able to come to terms with this cinema of gesture, convention, and abstraction. On the other hand, a filmmaker like William Wellman - at home making movies that deal directly, frankly, and sometimes crudely with the richness and messiness of life - seems at sea once the freedom to show is no longer available.

I think Hollywood filmmakers at their best (a dangerous generalization, I admit) were able to exploit the freedom of the "pre-code" years fairly well. The movies of William Wellman and Raoul Walsh from the early 1930s are worthy American cousins to the kinds of films being made by Jean Renoir in France at the same time. I think Hollywood filmmakers at their best reacted to the enforcement of the code with a great deal of imagination and artistry, making a virtue of the necessary stylization by incorporating it into personal visions of the world. I'd add that this incorporation was often an agonistic process - as it was with Hawks! But I think the enforcement of the code had a more lasting and damaging effect on the work of Hollywood filmmakers who started making movies after the code was no longer being enforced. Even though filmmakers could show more, it seems as if the underlying logic behind the code had been internalized, so that the freedom of movies in the 1960s and beyond was superficial.

Take Barbara Stanwyck's character in Wellman's So Big: she's a woman who matter-of-factly uses her sexuality (along with her smarts) to get what she wants and the movie never condemns her or suggests that in doing so she's giving up a chance at some more fulfilling life. Even though in terms of what could be shown, the "post-code" movies could be more explicit, the clear-eyed, no fuss view of sexuality that we see in the Wellman movie did not return. The anxiety surrounding sexuality and relationships in Hollywood movies seemed to get even more oppressive after the code. The traits of those characters that Stanwyck played that were treated as no big deal in pre-code movies are turned into issues that the post-code movie needs to address. One of the reasons the so-called "American New Wave" is more superficial than the New Wave in France, is that the characters of the New Hollywood are still warped, constricted, and stunted by their authors' commitment to the spirit of the code, if no longer its letter.

There are a few exceptions: Jonathan Demme's Something Wild feels like a "pre-code" movie both in the way it presents its characters and in the way its tone isn't determined by committment to a given genre a priori, but rather shifts as the story demands.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Two Australian Crime Movies

Two Australian crime movies, both available on Netflix Watch Instant, both worth seeing. Interesting to watch them together because one is good and the other is excellent, and the reasons for that difference in quality are instructive.

ANIMAL KINGDOM (David Michod, 2010) is a solid, serious movie. It's made in what I'd consider to be the contemporary conventional mode for this kind of material: short scenes centered around a single impression or idea, acting done mostly in close-up, music cues over slow motion tracking shots to punctuate the big thematic moments, a dramatic arc organized around the central character's movement through a criminal milieu. I'd call it "domesticated Scorsese". And as far as it goes, it's a decent example of this kind of film: it explores a premise about familial duty, the actors are expressive, the music on the soundtrack is well-chosen. It's main fault, though, is that even though it's based on a real life Melbourne crime family, except for a few details it feels like it could take place anywhere. And that "could take place anywhere" feeling exists on both a macro level - it could be set in L.A. or Hong Kong without changing much of anything - and the micro level - there's nothing particularly interesting done with any of the locations in the movie: you could mix up the houses the different characters live in and it'd be the same movie.

In some ways, THE SQUARE (Nash Edgerton, 2008) is more conventional: it has a plot right out of a 40's film noir (adulterous couple plot to steal money from the cheating woman's shady husband) and it plays out following all the rules of traditional Hollywood storytelling. But in today's context, that traditionalism seems, if not radical, than at least strikingly unconventional. At this point, it's probably meaningless to praise a movie for its great use of space or its sense of geography - at least it's meaningless without going into the details of how it uses space or what gives it such a good sense of geography. In the case of THE SQUARE, it's that all the scenes are worked out in ways depend on the specifics of the places they're set in. There's a sequence that takes place at a community picnic that involves the adulterers trying to signal to each other across a crowd without their spouses catching on: the staging and cutting emphasizes the attempt to have a private communication in a public space. The layout of the houses and apartments the characters live in plays a part in the unfolding of the action (i.e., the scene where the stash of money is discovered). On a larger scale, the geography matters, too: there's a river that runs through the town that plays a logistical role in the plot and a thematic role in the story. Ultimately, it was that kind of attention to detail that made the experience of watching THE SQUARE so interesting on a moment-to-moment level. Instead of each shot equaling one idea (as in ANIMAL KINGDOM), the complexities and nuances of THE SQUARE emerge detail-by-detail as the action unfolds. It's the difference between having a story told to you and watching a movie.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Three Movies

Three movies that got bad reviews that I more or less liked: The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry, 2011), The Dilemma (Ron Howard, 2011), and (especially) How Do You Know (James L. Brooks, 2010):

THE GREEN HORNET: Aside from not having Robert Downey it (granted, a big aside from) this is superior to Iron Man in just about every way. Clever action sequences, good chemistry between Rogen and Jay Chou, imaginative visual touches, great 'scope framing throughout, good twists on both the bad guy character and the girl Friday character are the positives. Main negative is the clumsy (lazy?) plotting, but, to be fair, I can't think of many super-hero movies that have really sharp plotting.

THE DILEMMA: Not a great movie, but interesting and engaging for how far it follows its premise into darker territory than expected (not unlike The Break-Up in that sense). The cast is good (esp. liked Channing Tatum: endearingly dopey). Ultimately suffers from clumsy plotting, too: there's a whole B plot (will they get the deal with Chrysler?) that's just there to put the A plot (the stuff about Vince Vaughn not knowing whether to tell Kevin James about his cheating wife) under some pressure, and I could have done without it. It seems like it's there because it's the kind of thing screenplays are supposed to need (per Robert McKee or whomever) rather than something that grows out of the characters/situation. In general, there's a struggle between the way the movie wants to/tries to deal with issues of honesty and betrayal and the narrative conventions of the 21st Century Hollywood comedy that requires certain kinds of closure and certain kinds of characters. The struggle is not resolved satisfactorily.

Which brings me to:

HOW DO YOU KNOW: Again, I could quibble with some plot stuff, but I won't because (a) overall I liked this and (b) I think Brooks is trying to (and mostly succeeds at) making a kind of movie that for the most part doesn't exist anymore. Back in the Hollywood comedies of the 1930s there was a unity of narrative convention, character, genre convention, and acting style that went hand in hand with these movie's unity of space. That is, even if the situations were exaggerated and the plots were more elaborate than what we'd see in real life, the characters and the places they lived in/moved through were recognizable. But that unity was chipped away at by stuff like Mad Magazine, the genre revisionism of the 60s/70s, the rise of irony, etc. Actually, this applies to all genres, probably, not just comedies, but it seems to me that comedies were particularly hard hit. That is, the Hollywood comedy, aimed at a mass audience of adults was particularly hard hit. But I think HOW DO YOU KNOW is that kind of "old fashioned" comedy, that still manages to speak to contemporary audiences, without dealing in irony and without feeling like its struggling against its narrative conventions: rather, it seems to unfold naturally.

I'm not sure why these movies got drubbed by the critics, but I do suspect it has to do with the movie critic herd mind deciding what the "story" of these movies was going to be before many people had actually seen these movies.