Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

26 Feb

At the conclusion of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the first thing I did was ask myself what the eff I had just seen.

A few too many plot intricacies and characters for a clear image to form  for a first-time viewer, especially one who hadn’t read the John le Carré book on which this adaptation is based. I have something of a handicap when it comes to complex plots anyway (YEAH, I LIKE MOODY, ATMOSPHERIC CHARACTER PIECES THAT GO NOWHERE, SO WHAT), so this was always going to be a problem for me. It’s like certain math problems. I know I’m capable of solving them if I just go about them in an orderly fashion. But in an effort to psych myself up and convince myself that I can, indeed, follow along the thread of the narrative and work out what is happening and why, I manage to, well, completely over-psych myself and sometimes I fail to recognize even the most rudimentary of facts. Here, I don’t mean that I couldn’t figure out who the spy is or that I got confused by some deliberate obfuscations — of course you’re not supposed to really know, or if you have an idea there’s still a lot to see in the hows of the unraveling.

No, the questions I ask myself when watching thrillers like this are: “Wait, who is that? Have we seen him before? Didn’t he die? Is this a flashback? Oh, and he died? When did he die? How did he die? What? What was his name? Was that a code name? Have these two characters seen each other before? Does he know that the other guy knows that thing? What was that significant look about? Are the things they are saying right now literally true? What, in the name of all that is holy, is GOING THE HELL ON RIGHT NOW?” And I ask these questions of things that transpired five minutes previously. “KEEP UP NOW, GODDAMN IT, KEEP UP,” I chastise myself harshly, and then I fall even farther behind.

I got the impression from a few blurbs I read that I’m not the only one who had these difficulties with Spy, though, which I found affirming. Also, it doesn’t help that stuffy middle-aged English white men all look alike, and that’s like, 99% of the characters in this movie!!

The plot in a nutshell: George Smiley (Gary Oldman) has recently (and wrongly) been dismissed as intelligence agent at MI6. He’s brought back in secret to investigate a claim that a mole for the Russians has infiltrated British Intelligence and holds a high rank. He interviews recently dismissed members of the agency along with the help of a trusted ally (Benedict Cumberbatch) who has access to the agents in question (including Colin Firth). Doubts are raised as to whether the mole even exists. WHO WILL WIN THIS GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE? AND OTHER MOUSE? AND MANY, MANY OTHER MOUSES BESIDES THE FIRST MOUSE???(????)

But even if it was a bit too complicated, I still thought it <i>was</i> a fun challenge to untangle and incorporate each new layer and revelation into the overall mystery. I read somewhere that channels of communication was supposed to be a big theme in this movie, and certainly figuring out who knows what and who’s been on the horn to whom and even simply deciphering the look on Smiley — our protagonist’s — face as he puzzles this out is a big part of the appeal of this movie. Also well-handled were all the little details, the inner workings of how information flows through parts of MI6 and how it communicates with other parts of the state: there was a very curious tube carrying documents through the floors of the intelligence headquarters; the layers of security and the clever ways they’re breached to gain information; telegrams sent in numeric code; archival footage rewound and scrutinized again and again for clues in the form of simple gestures.

A lot of this movie is the jargon and minutiae of an investigation in the intelligence service, and that itself is engaging, but there are many fascinating moments where we settle down into the private lives of former agents and see how their work has bled into and changed their lives, pretty much always for the worse. Smiley’s sporadically-present wife has left him again, and small scenes of Smiley sitting alone watching TV in their darkish mausoleum of a home inspire sympathy and an increased respect for the buttoned-up way he goes about his business. Then, when the investigation becomes ever more precarious, Guillam, the agent he enlists to help him conduct his investigation, is forced to break things off with his live-in partner who can’t know the reasons behind it. Then there’s the close friendship between two other central players within the intelligence service that is fractured under the weight of all the secrets and betrayals.  These moments are short and sweet but subtle, and add a richer backdrop for the movie’s central action.

But let’s get to the part that I really care about, which is my boy, Gary Oldman. Sign #547 that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t know shit: this is the first movie that my dear Gary ever received an acting nomination for. And you know what! He’s great. When is he ever not great? But as I’m sure was pointed out dozens, DOZENS of times when it was actually irrelevant, it’s just so funny that this was the movie he finally got a nomination for. He’s polished, intelligent, dignified, blah blah.

What the hell do I know about acting and what really stretches an actor? Not a damn thing. But I think it would’ve been great for ole Gaz to get a nod for a role that was maybe more quintessentially Gary or maybe, like, just a little more interesting. Like. Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Dude is funny, poignant, sweet, and a bunch of other things besides. And of course dear Gary has made quite a name for himself playing oddly charming batshit crazy guy in a variety of movies. Virtually everything I’ve ever seen Sir Oldman (has he been knighted? who cares) in has just a little more going for the performance than this movie. I mean, it’s just that type of character and that type of movie. Am I making sense? Have I been appropiately slavish of Gary Oldman?

Why don’t I just include a damn clip of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. You know, because.

In summation, Gary Oldman can do anything. And I give Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy three out of five Crazy Gary Oldmans. Or like 3.4. Whatever, I liked it!


I Married a Witch (1942)

12 Feb

René Clair’s sort-of screwball 1942 comedy I Married a Witch offers up the timeless axiom, “Love is stronger than witchcraft.” As you can no doubt guess from its charmingly straightforward title, the film features a marriage to…a witch! Yes, Veronica Lake plays the 271-year-old Jennifer, who has finally been returned to a corporeal self after being imprisoned within a tree at the site of her execution in Puritanical New England. Vowing revenge on the descendants of the family who accused her of witchcraft, she sets her sights upon Wallace Wooley (Fredric March), a gubernatorial candidate on the eve of his election and marriage. What could possibly go wrong? Could anything possibly go right?!

Jennifer, aided in part by her father (Cecil Kellaway), uses both her witchly and feminine wiles to make Wooley fall in love with her, all in the service of wrecking his relationship and his campaign, which naturally is riding heavily on contributions from his future father-in-law and the heavily PR-underwritten wedding that is to occur the day before the election. But after Jennifer accidentally drinks a love potion intended to expedite the seduction, she finds herself pursuing Wooley out of personal affection instead of revenge. Daddy Witch is most displeased, because fraternizing with the humans never leads anywhere good.

In nearly every way, Witch is a straightforward romantic comedy, but the supernatural aspect dullens the impact of the horrible things that happen in it. For instance, there’s the problem of Wallace’s fiancee; this is a standard-issue obstacle of the genre, and of course he has the standard-issue bitch fiancee so that we, the audience, will sympathize more when his choices lead him away from her and towards Jennifer. Witch goes one step further by simply removing much of Wallace’s choice, making him subject to witchcraft. More remarkable — and amusing — is that he later allows Jennifer to steal the election to prove that she is a witch. (Conjuring a fire from nowhere would presumably not have been enough.) Obviously this is a movie that is not meant to be taken seriously, and the magic only makes it more enjoyably goofy.

Just look at this crazy witch.


Veronica Lake is especially good as the rather impish Jennifer; she makes a delightful appearance somewhat late in the first part of the film when she conjures a fire and first lures Wallace to her. (For the first fifteen or twenty minutes, she and her father are seen and heard only as two disembodied, slightly conspicuous puffs of smoke, who occasionally hide in bottles to escape detection from humans — a rather bizarre but fun touch itself.) Other good comic moments include Wooley’s ill-fated wedding ceremony, Jennifer’s predilection for knocking down portraits of Wooley’s ancestors, and the quippiness that pervades the whole movie. Here’s a one-liner from Jennifer’s father: “Every man who gets married marries the wrong woman.” Hey-ohhhhhhh!

I Married a Witch is trifling, effervescent, and all that good stuff; I give it 4/5 puffs of witchly smoke.

In bloggish news: I changed the title of my blog from “Sarah reads stuff” to “Sarah watches stuff” to more accurately reflect what I do here. I mean, when I do it. I do hope to update more regularly about what I’m watching and yes, even reading. Contrary to appearances, I do support literacy.

Heckler (2007)

31 Jan

Mike Addis’ documentary Heckler is a twenty-minute film about hecklers. The next sixty minutes padding out its running time are a jumbled conflation of hecklers with critics, critics with schmucks with blogs*, and schmucks with blogs with assholes who totally don’t know what they’re talking about and they should just shut up already because they’re hurting Jamie Kennedy’s feelings. Addis’ premise, put another way, is that critics are heckling jerks. (*Like me!)

For the twenty minutes when the movie lives up to its name, it’s a promising glimpse into the backstage world of comedy and how comics deal with the usually delusional, drunken upstarts who try to hijack their act. Then the switcheroo happens with the innocent question posed in a subtitle, “What’s the difference between hecklers and critics?” Not much, the film concludes. But no one in this movie is really interested in talking about criticism beyond the level of quips: that nobody grows up wanting to be a critic. Critics are simply failed artists. You can’t criticize what you haven’t experienced firsthand. And critics thoughtlessly dismiss what others have worked so hard to share with the world.

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Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

22 Jan

I don’t exactly watch a lot of silent movies, so it was a nice surprise to watch a movie that defied all of my well-founded expectations of a movie era about which I know nothing. Actually, it was kind of an interesting experience after thinking about The Artist and Singin’ in the Rain over the last week. In both of those movies, a young aspiring actress criticizes her contemporary actors for perpetuating a “bunch of dumb show”, mugging for the camera. Based on the few silent movies I’ve seen, I expected this same kind of wild-eyed, overly dramatic gesticulating and a style reminiscent of the overall demeanor of a cokehead.

The actress in G. W. Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl, Louise Brooks, is nothing like that. She is very expressive — this is lovingly captured by the movie’s fondness for closeups of her face — but still is restrained, and never once looks like a cackling demon from the third circle in the inferno. She is the standout of the movie by far. I spent a while reading about Lost Girl after the fact, and notably, the vast majority of the praise I read was for her performance, all of which was warranted.

The only thing that disappoints me a little is how few people in their review or remembrance had much to say about the movie itself. Roger Ebert’s review is unabashedly about the actress for about two-thirds of its length before he gets to the movie itself, while Dennis Schwartz at Ozus World Movie Reviews said if it weren’t for Brooks, the movie would’ve been a forgettable soap opera. While more explicit than other reviewers, he voiced a common undercurrent in today’s reception of the movie. I think that’s pretty uncharitable. For the record, the life of Brooks’ character — Thymian — is marred by dramatic setbacks, aptly characterized by timeout.com as “an elegant narrative of moral musical chairs.” But it’s rendered with more care and imbued with more social commentary than virtually any soap opera. First, though, is a spoiler-containing synopsis for this 83-year-old movie:

Thymian is raped and impregnated by her father’s employee. When Thymian refuses to marry the man, her child is sent to a midwife and Thymian to a cruel girls’ reform school. She escapes with one of the girls, Erika, and left with few options she eventually joins Erika as a high-class prostitute. She is never properly reunited with her family. When her father dies, Thymian inherits all of his money but gives it to her newly poor stepmother, so that her young half-siblings won’t turn out like Thymian. This news prompts Thymian’s fiance, a disgraced count, to commit suicide, as he had counted on that money to get back on his feet. The count’s grieving uncle feels guilty about this  and decides to take Thymian in. She’s invited to joins a charitable organization and ends up on the board of the sadistic school she was once sent to. On a visit there she encounters her old friend Erika, who’s been sent back. Thymian must choose whether to reveal her past by helping Erika and simultaneously exposing the school, or let the board pass judgment on Erika and maintain the status quo. She defiantly lashes out at the board and the schoolmaster for all the misery that the school has wrought, and marches out of the room with Erika. The count follows after them, delivering the film’s moral, that “with a little more love in this world, no one would be lost.”

It’s a melodrama, to be sure. But to casually dismiss it as a “forgettable soap opera” is, I think, missing the point of both soap operas and this movie. Soap operas juggle a lot of plots and exist largely to titillate or provide wish fulfillment. (This isn’t highly distinguishable from many movies, actually.) But when someone like Schwartz calls it a soap I assume they’re conflating “a lot of dramatic things happen” with the hackneyed twists of soap plotting. The choices facing Thymian as a rape victim and as a single mother are realistically grim, and while the pile-up of maladies onto her might straddle the line of excess, there’s purpose behind all of it. It’s not subtle, but it’s there to show you the ways Thymian is being failed — by her bourgeois family and her father in particular, by charitable institutions — and how she rises above it regardless. This denunciation of bourgeois hypocrisy is one of the more interesting things the movie does. I was surprised, too, by the frankness with which the movie’s events were depicted. I don’t know whether that’s a function of its being a German movie (those Germans!) or having been produced in a time before movie censorship really took off, or both. Either way, the movie was made with a conscience and a kind of honesty that are enough to make it more memorable than a mere soap.

I really enjoyed this movie, and look forward to watching Brooks’ and Pabst first, more famous collaboration in Pandora’s Box. In the meantime, I give Diary of a Lost Girl four out of five fashionably severe Louise Brooks bobs.



15 Jan

Or rather an all-encompassing list of movies seen. And other stuff.

Bernie (2011)
Brick (2005)
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
(A)sexual (2011)
The Queen of Versailles (2012)
Winter Light (1962)
The Artist (2011)
In the Mood for Love (2001)
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
The Evil Dead (1981)
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Mean Girls (2004)
Heckler (2007)
The Woodmans (2011)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Bill Cunningham New York (2011)
The Silence (1963)
I Married a Witch (1942)

Finished watching all of: 30 Rock, Slings and Arrows
Started watching: Frasier

Books in progress: Lords of the Harvest (Daniel Charles, 2001)
North for the Harvest (Jim Norris, 2009)

All books I read this year must have the word “Harvest” in the title.

Might be recipes in this space to come, too. Things I have tried:
innumerable Indian gravies (more like three or four)
Chana masala
A couple bread recipes

In the Mood for Love (2001)

12 Jan

Well, holy shit. Is “heartbreaking” the right word? It’s kind of like having your chest opened and being punched in the heart several times. In that sense, it’s more akin to your heart being muddled and then stirred into a cocktail of pain.

Let’s see if I can qualify those statements in a moderately spoiler-laden space below.
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The Artist (2011)

12 Jan

The Oscar nominations came out the other day. Yesterday? Technically that was just a few minutes ago in my world, so — the day before yesterday? Eh, who cares. The point is, a) I have my finger on the pulse of American, nay, GLOBAL cinema, and b) in spite of (A) I have managed not to see any of the nominees for Best Picture, but I have decided to correct that. So, just yesterday I watched one of the noms… … …from last year’s Oscars. In fact, it was the one that won the whole shebang. It was Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist.

I don’t have much to say. I liked it? No, I can be more forceful than that. I liked it! Watch out for spoilers below, if you care.

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