Monday, January 30, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


The time is the early 1970s, and deep inside the paranoid cocoon of Britain’s Cold War-era Secret Intelligence Service, the news of a mole inside the upper echelons of the agency is slowly corroding all sense of what is real and what is not. It’s a strong hook, and good thing, too—the first half-hour of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will likely appear incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the John Le Carre novel from which the film is adapted. This would be a dense narrative under any circumstances, but the early establishing scenes have a clipped feeling, as if the filmmakers had resolved to adapt every second chapter of the book and then hoped the details would somehow sort themselves out. Thankfully, they do, and Le Carre novices (like myself) will find themselves eventually forging the connections neglected by the filmmakers. Indeed, everything flows together gracefully enough that one begins to wonder if the early awkwardness was really due to clumsiness or was actually meant to evoke a sense of disorientation befitting this duplicitous world (a little of both, I suspect).

It helps to have such a deep lineup of talent on the cast—led by the esteemed Gary Oldman and his glasses—with fine character actors penetrating into even the smallest roles. This might seem like a strange compliment, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy possesses one of the most homely casts I’ve seen in a mainstream film in recent memory, even with Colin Firth screwing up the bell curve. So many wizened, weary men, their worry lines slicing through their age lines, and then seemingly rubbed in an extra layer of dust and sadness—every face is a desiccated monument to a life of hard choices. The whole film echoes that sense of drabness, right down to the perpetually overcast skies and each dowdy detail of the production design (were the 1970s really this brown?). Director Tomas Alfredson could easily be accused of overindulging in the retro-chic, except that the style seems at least as important to the film’s purposes as its spy-counterspy machinations. As the mole notes, his betrayal “was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one.” A glib characterization of the Cold War, perhaps, but the film makes a case for it. The decaying western world is safeguarded by the moral compromises of its decaying protectors, and whatever you may call this sad sight, "pretty" is not likely a term that comes to mind. How else to rationalize the image of a balding, pasty middle-aged man dancing in paisley and ruffles? The loyal soldier commits many crimes in the name of war—against fashion, as much as anything else.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Artist


Armed with the score from Vertigo and the dog from The Thin Man, The Artist prods its audience with a thousand different pilfered pleasures. It’s a charm offensive wielding a crowbar—not necessarily to pry a smile out of you, but rather to open coffins while out on its grave-robbing expedition. Example: Is the gag about the extra that plays Napoleon and thinks he’s actually Napoleon a muddled reference to Josef Von Sternberg’s The Last Command? And does it even matter when the bit is so weak anyway? Writer-director Michael Hazanavicius is on his strongest footing when he relies on the real chemistry between his stars, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo (an impromptu dancing duel, a series of botched takes). But there isn’t enough vaseline in the world to make me buy into the film’s half-remembered nostalgia, which reduces film history into some sort of mawkish twaddle about how the medium moves forward by paying fealty to its forebears—an idea repudiated by The Artist’s very own unimaginative appropriations and distorted notions of silent film. Just compare this to the work of Guy Maddin, a movie obsessive who has internalized the grammar of the silents and learned to speak it fluently. Hazanavicius, on the other hand, memorizes a few phrases and tries to bluff his way through a conversation.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Armadillo


At its best, Janus Metz’s documentary Armadillo captures war in all its terror and tedium. Following a group of Danish soldiers on a tour of duty at a frontline base in Afghanistan (the titular Armadillo), the film contrasts the mind-numbing boredom of soldiers killing time with the brain-scrambling adrenalin buzz of killing the Taliban. Metz has been given remarkable access to the soldiers and he takes full advantage, following them on patrols and diving for cover alongside the young men when bullets start flying from parts unknown. It’s a stiff cure for boredom, but when you see the dreariness of life on the front without action, you begin to sympathize with the men’s professed desire for a bit of gunfire once in a while. This isn’t macho posturing—they just want something to do.

But as the film progresses it becomes difficult to trust Metz’s relentless stylizing of the material. At times, the film feels almost like fiction, scrupulously avoiding anything that might suggest its documentary roots—the soldiers never speak to or even acknowledge the camera, and only reveal themselves through conversations with other soldiers or family. Indeed, Metz appears to be treating the men less as subjects and more as characters, if such a fine distinction can be made. This misplaced desire is the source of one of the film’s most dubious tactics: an oft-repeated setup where a lone soldier stares blankly into space (or in one case, shuts his eyes while at home in the shower—oh, such dedication to documentary truth). Obviously, the intention is to suggest a level of melancholy reflection not otherwise borne out in any of the men’s actions and words. No one would be na├»ve enough to suggest a documentary is unvarnished truth, but the material should ideally dictate its terms to the director, not the reverse.

Such qualms are minor next to the queasy discomfort of the verite moneyshot of this borderline war porn. A patrol is ambushed by a group of Taliban fighters, leading to a frenetic, disorienting battle that concludes in the deaths of five enemy combatants (the Danish squad suffers a couple of injuries, but no fatalities). As the soldiers pull the Taliban men out into the open, Metz blurs the faces of the dead—a curious decision that begs the question of who exactly is being protected here. The dead men’s families? Or the audience itself, who are now free to appreciate the vicarious thrill of combat without having to recognize the dead opponents as anything other than faceless corpses? Armadillo seems ill prepared for the moral questions of filming war, which explains its retreat into the security of aesthetic distance. Shamed and horrified by these images, the film’s only refuge is to finally compromise their reality.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cold Weather


Aaron Katz established his talent with a pair of low-key efforts about youths adrift in a sea of suburban anonymity: the charmingly simple love story Quiet City and the more troubled Dance Party USA, which is perhaps what a Michael Haneke movie would look like if it were performed by a high school drama class. Cold Weather, Katz’s third feature film, ingeniously extends his world without compromising it. The same drifting, dislocated youths are in evidence here, only this time they seem to have drifted their way into a Raymond Chandler novel.

However, in the place of a hardboiled hero we must make do with a doughy slacker. Doug lives on his sister Gail’s couch after dropping out of college, giving up the study of forensic science to spend his days shuffling bags of ice around in an ice factory. Unable or unwilling to commit to the drudgery of a career, he discovers the drudgery of a livelihood instead. He’s the perfect example of an aimless twenty-something unable to decide what to do with himself—the film makes a running gag out of him goading on his friends and sister to ditch work, much as he often does.

Early scenes focus on Doug and his slim social circle goofing off and hanging around. Indeed, the film may be unique in dedicating a montage sequence to a board game party (rather appropriately, it ends with the characters trying to decipher the instructions). But the story soon takes a sharp left turn into thriller territory, as Doug’s ex-girlfriend blows off a date with a mutual friend and seemingly disappears. Egged on by his friend Carlos to tackle the mystery—“You know about these kind of things,” Carlos explains—Doug indulges his love of Sherlock Holmes and puts his unfinished detective courses to use. From there, the usual hardboiled details begin to crop up, including pornographers, secret codes, and the requisite briefcase full of money.

Katz is clearly having fun riffing on detective stories here, but the film can’t be so easily pigeonholed as some genre parody or mishmash of mumblecore mannerisms with thriller tropes. Self-conscious films like this typically display their artificiality, not their naturalism. Yet Katz ignores stylized gestures, rather hewing to his well-established mode of quiet urban contemplation and small, personal moments. Even the relationships between the characters have an easygoing realism that doesn’t appear normally in hardboiled dramas. A stylish drama devoid of style and drama, the film becomes something far stranger and more rewarding: a collection of offhand character observations, delivered with warmth and intelligence.

One sees this especially in the relationship between Gail and Doug, a beautiful slice of sibling interaction. There are no long-buried hatreds and jealousies, no recriminations and shouting and hugging and sobbing and all that sticky nonsense. Instead, there are simply fond jokes, flashes of shared memory, and the staple of any sibling bond, embarrassment. The best—and perhaps most representative—moment in the film comes when Doug buys a porn magazine, explaining to Gail that it might contain clues. Her response? A simple, withering, “Oh.” There’s an entire conversation in that one word, with all the bantering and teasing of their years together boiled down to a single, deadpan syllable.

The fact that the primary male-female relationship in the film is not sexual, but rather familial, colours the proceedings in striking ways. We’re never really drawn into a sordid underbelly of crime and depravity, even when shady pornographers start popping up. Instead, Katz discovers a childhood game buried inside the sometimes-dreary lives of these young adults. The film feels like a group of kids playing dress-up in their backyard. Like a child imitating the grownups, Doug buys a pipe, just so he can sit around smoking and thinking as Sherlock Holmes would. Even Gail dresses up in a disguise at one point, although, apropos for this ramshackle adventure, it’s one cribbed from a lost and found.

All of this probably sounds terribly slight, even if one can’t underrate the film’s affectless charm. But Katz understands something crucial about genre that is often missed by other referential filmmakers mining familiar territory for fool’s gold. As a director who has cultivated his own filmmaking family over just a few projects, Katz is attuned to the pleasure in simply watching a group of friends create their own story together. The interactions of the characters always take precedent over the rehashed genre plot. So it should come as no surprise that the mystery of Cold Weather falls away in the last moments, leaving us once again with nothing other than the sibling bond we began with. Rather than resolution, Katz settles for a little flicker of insight into Doug and Gail’s relationship. As with a mix tape shared between friends, the quality of the song is secondary to the moments and memories conjured up by the familiar tune.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Melancholia


Film is typically better served by motion, not inertia, which means depression is hardly the most cinematic state. But finer films have been hewed from lesser materials than this, and Lars von Trier actually has the chops to pull off Melancholia’s morose metaphysical wonder show. The director begins his film with a stunning, dreamy prologue filled with slo-mo visions of key events to come, including such incidental plot points as the destruction of all life as we know it (spoiler alert!). Thus assured everyone will die a horrible death—after all, this is a Lars von Trier film—the audience is now free to enjoy everything that follows. The rest of the film is divided between a tense wedding party where the bride breaks down and urinates on a golf course and an apocalyptic chamber drama in which a giant metaphorical construct—excuse me, I mean planet—is on a collision course with Earth. However, the real focus is the relationship between two sisters, depressed Justine and nurturing Claire (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, respectively, in a powerful pair of performances). Happiness seems both a burden and a threat to suffering Justine, who struggles half-heartedly through her wedding before succumbing to all-consuming despair and moving in with her sister. Indeed, her depression is so voracious it decimates all around her, in a brutal process captured with an empathy uncommon to von Trier’s work. This may well be the tenderest violence of his career. By the film’s final, fiery moments, Melancholia seems not so much a symbol of depression as a merciful relief from it.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Tabloid


Errol Morris plays the highbrow muckraker in Tabloid, a stomach-churning documentary about Joyce McKinney, the loopy southern belle notorious in the 1970s for kidnapping a young Mormon missionary, chaining him to a bed and then making sweet love to him (her story) or raping him repeatedly (his story). Mix in a sensational trial, revelations of McKinney’s secret life as a call girl specializing in bondage, and her attempt to skip bail disguised as a deaf-mute, and you have a tale straight from the wettest dreams of the gutter press. It’s juicy stuff, and Morris makes the most of it, conscripting two tabloid reporters to provide some colour commentary and flesh out the lurid details. Even decades after the fact, one of the men still can’t help but titter with glee at the mere presence of such salacious—and saleable—words as “spreadeagle” and “chains” (or, to use the exclamatory style of the film itself, “Chains!”).

The director himself is all too happy to climb down into the gutter, and the film mirrors the crisp snarl of a British tabloid at times. Glib animations and sarcastic film quotations illustrate key events, while Morris pokes holes in McKinney’s story whenever it occurs to him. (A notable early example comes when the woman’s dreamy vision of her Prince Charming is countered by the scoffing of one reporter, who recalls the Mormon weighed three hundred pounds and walked with a sad shuffle.) But for better or worse, the film is dominated by McKinney’s voice, which is by turns narcissistic, nakedly dishonest, and downright delusional. I doubt there’s much to be gained from confronting her—it’s never wise to wake a sleepwalker—but there’s not much of worth to be gained from just letting her ramble either. Morris is little better than the reporters giggling over the naughty bits, and he allows this disturbed woman’s self-deceptions to ride roughshod over the film. Indeed, this may be the film’s greatest success. If nothing else, I understand what it feels like to be Joyce McKinney’s hostage.