Thursday, March 22, 2012

SHORT TAKES---

Damn it has been a while. Here are some capsule thoughts on some things:

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

"Well, dammit, what were you then?"

The Cold War was never colder than in the novels of John le Carre, and this latest film adaptation of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (a famed BBC version with Alec Guinness as master spy George Smiley was made in the 1980s) manages to lower the temperature to near freezing levels, keeping the action slow and the talk hushed. This is a a daring move in these days of full out in your face action thrillers, but this is no James Bond/Tom Cruise Mission Impossible adventure. In le Carre’s shadow world of intrigue and betrayal and counter betrayal and assassinations both physical and emotional, a wise person keeps himself under wraps, giving away as little as possible, and, as Smiley, Gary Oldman delivers an astonishing display of the power of underplaying, using only the smallest of gestures and the quietest of voice levels; in one scene a shift of his head a fraction of an inch to the right speaks volumes. The basic plot couldn’t be simpler -- Smiley is re-called from a forced retirement to hunt down a highly placed traitor in British Intelligence. A deceptively simple storyline, stated that way, but there’s nothing simple about le Carre’s novel or this film. Keep your eyes and your ears open, and you’ll have a great time. For my money, the best film I saw in 2011.

THE ARTIST

"Wizz pleasure!"

Was I dreading this. A latter-day silent film, winner of multiple awards, about the effect of the advent of sound on the career of a popular actor? Oy. I dragged my feet going in, and found to my delight that THE ARTIST is that rarest of rare things -- a feel-good movie that actually made me feel good. The story of George Valentin, a silent movie star (a combination of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert) whose career falters with the advent of sound, and of Peppy, a young actress whose career takes off with the advent of sound. It sounds familiar, of course, and part of the joy of THE ARTIST is the way it manages to breathe life and energy and basic good cheer into its rather familiar storyline. Jean Dujardin's lauded performance as George is simply magical, he's one of the most appealing leading men in recent memory, with an intoxicating blend of virility and silliness I found irresistible. I gave in at one moment in particular, when George happily bounces downstairs before heading out to work, only to briefly pause at the front door to get an admiring look at a life-size portrait of himself in all his grinning glory -- never has self-regard been made so charming and so appealing, and the miracle is that Dujardin never once crosses the line into obnoxious egotism, and even more miraculously, neither does the film he's starring in.

Well, almost never. There's one ghastly mis-step where director Michel Hazanavicius over-reaches, using a track of Bernard Herrmann's score from VERTIGO that is wildly inappropriate, but it doesn't last long. Overall, THE ARTIST is a treat. It manages to embody the Magic Of The Movies in ways that Scorsese's HUGO could only lecture me about.

GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

"I'm crazy."

David Fincher's film of the wildly popular Stieg Larson novel, with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced magazine publisher, is offered the chance to redeem himself in the public eye if he aids an older tycoon in the search for the tycoon's missing relative. Blomkvist is aided in his search by Lizbeth Salander, the title character, a computer hacker with some serious emotional baggage. The best parts of the film, and the novel, are the opening sections centering on Blomkvist and Salander and their respective lives and growing relationship. And while the investigation into the disappearance is done with some good energy, all of David Fincher's most energetic filmmaking and marvelous set pieces and unexpected touches (one in particular involving a mass murderer's taste in music is probably the comic highpoint of Fincher's career) and an excellent performance from Craig and a better than excellent performance from Mara can't cover up the fact that we're dealing with what is really just another serial killer movie. A real shame -- I wish Larsson had come up with something more interesting for these characters to spend our time doing. There's less than meets the eye here. I doubt I'll bother with the inevitable sequels.

THE DESCENDANTS

"Your money won't buy you out of this."

A solid bore. Rich white guy Matt King, played by George Clooney, is having a rough time: his wife won't be emerging from the coma she's fallen into following a boating accident, and it soon becomes clear that King's life is in danger of coming apart at the seams, and there's some stuff involving the sale of some important real estate that has been in the family for generations, and you might be moved to care but I just plain never was, try as I might. Only Shailene Woodley, as King's elder daughter, made me even remotely interested in the proceedings, as her character moves from open contempt for her father to a solid affection and respect for him. I hadn't expected the film to be such a bore, it just meant NOTHING to me at all, and it is hard to figure out what the problem is, as the same director made SIDEWAYS into such an interesting and energetic film. But of course SIDEWAYS had the great Paul Giamatti who is always interesting to watch, while THE DESCENDANTS has George Clooney, an actor I've never been able to warm up to beyond his considerable physical charms. There's a reserve, a distance, a sense that he's the smartest/best looking/best person in the room and that he knows it, that I always find off-putting when it comes to generating any real sympathy for any plight his characters might be in. Yeah, I know, Matt King is supposed to be distant and a little lost and a little smug even, but there's something about Clooney's performance, and the film that contains it, that prevented me from giving a basic goddamn about him and what he was going through.

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