Category Archives: Current Releases

Is Snowpiercer the Best Action Movie of the Year?

There has been hum of anticipation preceding the U.S. release of Snowpiercer Joon-ho Bong’s first (mostly) English language film that, ironically, found distribution abroad before finally being released in the good old US of A. Harvey Weinstein apparently wanted to cut something like 20 minutes out of the film for us stupid Americans. Too much talky-talky, I suppose. Reports say the edited version tested poorly and, voila, we here in the Land of the Free get to see what the rest of the world saw.

Chris Evans isn't Captain American anymore.

Chris Evans isn’t Captain American anymore.

I’m not exactly sure what Mr. Weinstein wanted to cut. There are extended scenes of dialogue where Chris Evans or John Hurt or Tilda Swinton go on about order or revolution, but none of it struck me as unnecessarily dense or confused. In fact the entire premise is almost absurdly simple, its points obvious, its metaphors almost labored. Still, while Snowpiercer isn’t as strong as some of Mr. Bong’s past efforts (Memories of Murder and Mother immediately come to mind), he manages to overcome the scripts shortcomings and spins a compelling and entertaining post-apocalyptic, dystopian adventure story.

We are some 18 years after the world’s end. In an effort to curb global warming, the nations of the world banded together and dispersed a chemical into the atmosphere that would have, they thought, cooled temperatures enough the maintain our polar ice caps and salvage beach front property values around the world. But the chemical worked too well and froze everything and everyone. Earth is now a giant block of ice. Whoops.

That's one way to fix global warming.

That’s one way to fix global warming.

The only survivors (that we know of) are packed on a giant, high-speed train that circles the globe, built by a billionaire, the mysterious and never seen Wilford, who always dreamed of living on a train. Well, the world froze and those holding tickets didn’t have a choice about where they could live. Here’s your compartment, welcome to the rest of your life.

While everything is more or less cozy for the first class passengers, those who elbowed their ways on without tickets are confined to the rear of the train, in the grimy filth and dark decay of poverty and repression. They are rationed blocks of gelatinous protein bars, but otherwise are left to their own devices in the rear of the train.

You'll find John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Chris Evans among those in the back of the train.

You’ll find John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Chris Evans among those in the back of the train.

After 18 years of scraping and exploitation, after 18 years of watching armed guards take away their children for who knows what ends, they decide to fight back, to band together and move forward. Using the security expert who designed the train’s system (Kang-ho Song), they override the barriers and slowly move forward, car by car, discovering more about the world they’ve been barred from than they ever wanted to know.

A new world that hasn't run out of soap.

A new world that hasn’t run out of soap.

As entertaining as the movie is, we can’t ignore the fact that Bong is making a serious point about the responsibility of power and the senselessness of exploitation. Tilda Swinton’s Minister Mason, the henchwoman for Wilford, tells them they all have a preordained place and they must know and keep that place, the same words used by those at the top of all exploitative systems since the dawn of time. Feudalism, slavery, unregulated capitalism all rely on extracting as much value from those below us without regard to their well being. And while there is a long scene at the end of the film in which we are almost convinced that this is the way things need to be, we are reminded that exploitation, while profitable for a while, is not sustainable. Those being stomped on will stop being grateful just for being saved and being alive; they want the opportunity to live well like everyone else.

There’s nothing terribly subtle about the way Bong explores these issues. Not that subtlety has much of a place in a picture like Snowpiercer. Absurdity and horror go hand in hand on this train. As ferocious as Mason is, Swinton laces her performance with a gleeful gusto and gets the movie’s biggest laughs. She’s something like a demonic mixture of Margaret Thatcher, Nurse Ratchet, and Joanna Lumley’s Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. If you see this movie for no other reason, see it for Tilda Swinton.

Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason.

Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason.

Swinton’s performance is part of Bong’s acknowledgement of the absurdity of not only the premise of the movie (the perpetual motion engine of the train and its closed ecosystem would likely wither under careful scientific scrutiny), but the way we hold constructed social structures as sacrosanct. Just as nobles told serfs that God put them where they were and they should keep their place, Minister Mason tells the passengers in the back of the train the same. Much as factory owners said (and continue to say) working hard will be rewarded (when and with what they usually fail to specify), Snowpiercer’s third class passengers are told just the fact that Wilford allows them to continue living is their reward.

But life isn’t enough. Social structures that demand repression are dangerously shortsighted. There is nothing sacred about any social structure: they can be upended and, if things are bad enough, they usually are violently disturbed. Just have a chat with Louis XVI about that. And these violent uprisings threaten not just those sitting comfortably at the top, but everyone. If we want a functioning, healthy society, we have to include all voices, give everyone opportunities to flourish (rather than just live), and, above all, we need to respect one another.

Snowpiercer7

Snowpiercer takes on these issues less elegantly than I would have liked, nearly battering us with its point, but it’s still far preferable to most of the action/adventure films out there. It also lacks any major surprises. I’m not talking about twists, but the entire trajectory of the movie essentially followed the path I assumed it would take. There was nothing there that I didn’t expect to see in some form with, that is, the exception of Tilda Swinton’s performance.

But these reservations shouldn’t hold anyone back from seeing Snowpiercer. When the movie ended I thought, “Well, that was fun, but I don’t need to see it again.” But as the days have passed I have been tempted to rewatch it, remembering moments I want to re-experience, like Alison Pill’s demented schoolteacher. It’s certainly one of the more memorable movies you’ll see this year. The anticipation has not been squandered.

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It’s Not All Lost When Movies Like This Still Get Made

It might sound like an exaggeration to say All Is Lost is very nearly a perfect movie, but I’m going to go ahead, throw caution to the wind, and venture into this unlikely territory. All Is Lost is the best movie I’ve seen this year though, admittedly, I haven’t gone to the movies as much as I have in past years. But the movie overcomes so many hurdles that it’s hard not to get excited about it; hurdles, not incidentally, that were purposely constructed and laid out and are exhilaratingly shattered. In lesser hands these constrictions would have left us with a snoozer.

Robert Redford as our unnamed protagonist.

Robert Redford as our unnamed protagonist.

A snoozer is sort of what I was expecting. A man stranded in the middle of the ocean, struggling to survive can go very wrong. And I’ve never been a huge fan of Robert Redford. But Redford holds his own (if he doesn’t dazzle) in this smart film full of suspense and surprises unburdened by unilluminating and unnecessary backstory. Director J.C. Chandor (who helmed the exceptionally good Margin Call from a couple years back) executes those risks by showing us (not telling) the story of an unnamed man fighting for his life after his sailboat is crippled somewhere in the Indian Ocean. We suppose he’s one of those gentleman sailors who, once retired, takes up the challenge of a lone trip around the world.

We suppose because Chandor doesn’t give us a hint of anything that came before in this man’s life. A brief voice over in the first few minutes of the film (during which my heart sank, fearful that this was a taste of what was to come) gives way to a sparse, objective view of the events. Chandor discards the florid dialogue in favor of a gritty, naturalized narrative. We aren’t subjected to by-the-number explanations of everything Redford’s character is doing; Chandor assumes we’re smart enough to figure it out, eventually. And it’s refreshing to experience a movie that doesn’t spoon feed it’s plot to us.

The disaster starts off when Redford awakens from a hole punctured in the boat, water sloshing in. He finds a stray cargo container lodged into the side of his boat. (We wonder if he considers the irony: The very globalism that made his trip possible also could prove disastrous.) So he sets out to patch the hole and find his way to a port. But the water soaked his radio and laptop. No communication, no navigational tools. Back to the stars for navigation.

One mishap after another makes for an almost comically disastrous trip, but Redford faces them with a stoic resolve. He maneuvers and manipulates the materials at his disposal with a resolve that suggests a man who has spent a lifetime solving problems, though the stakes have never been higher.

I’ve heard complaints that we don’t know anything about Redford’s character. There’s no backstory, they say. It’s true. Chandor doesn’t give us anything about this character other than what we see on the screen – and the choice is glorious. All we need to know about this man is right there on the screen. His reactions, his resourcefulness, and that weathered face that tell us more than a goofy voice over ever could. It’s all there. The experiences of a lifetime distilled into several desperate days. We walk out of the theater knowing this man without knowing the details of his life. We fill that in for ourselves, and probably better than the film could have. The mawkish flashbacks, the son he regrets neglecting as a child, the wife he drove away with his alcoholism are all happily absent. These troubled pasts have become hackneyed. Once filmmakers used them to humanize their characters, but now they just feel like cheap plot points, bought and paid for at screenwriter school.

Chandor has enough faith in the audience to put those pieces together for themselves, a bold calculation in an era of dumbed-down entertainment. It was a gamble, but he pulls it off magnificently and has made a remarkably good film. Movies like this continue to give me hope, they remind me why I slog through all the terrible and mediocre ones. I just wish screenwriters and directors would pay attention, try something new, something edgy instead of churning out the same dreck year after year. Keep it up Mr. Chandor. I’m looking forward to your next film.

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“I Hate History”: 12 Years a Slave for Modern Audiences

Coming out of the theater I heard a man say, “I hate history.” Now he could have been lamenting the prospect of attending a history class the next day, but I suspect he was responding to the violence in the film we just saw, a remarkably good movie about slavery in the U.S. south. No matter how worthy the film 12 Years a Slave isn’t the definitive movie about U.S. slavery, a subject people who don’t really know what they’re talking about think has been absent from U.S. culture (Roots, Amistad, Beloved, Nightjohn, even the schlocky Mandingo have already treaded these waters). But let’s not mistake precedence for worth. This is a movie well worth watching, but too many are mistaking 12 Years a Slave as the first, as U.S. slavery’s Schindler’s List, as though Schindler’s List was the first and only movie about the Holocaust.

12 Years a Slave

But 12 Years a Slave isn’t as harrowing as Schindler’s List – nor is it as traumatic as so many are billing it. Whereas Schindler’s List chronicled the horrors of Nazi death camps and traumatized audiences, 12 Years a Slave is a more discreet journey through the horrors of slavery marked by an emotional objectivity Spielberg is probably incapable of. So let’s place this movie in its rightful place: a personal testimony of one man’s experience of slavery, an institution that dwarfs the horrors of the Holocaust. The Nazis perpetuated the Holocaust over a relatively short period of time, but U.S. slavery extended over centuries. It evolved and adapted over time and to the demands of specific regions. It was even practiced in the supposedly slave-free North; something like 20% of New York City’s population was a slave of African descent around 1700.

So it isn’t possible to make the definitive movie about slavery, but that isn’t stopping people from tagging this movie as just that. I don’t think that’s fair, not only to the absurdly high expectations it places on the film, but also for ignoring the complexity and nuance of the subject. Slavery in 1853 was different from slavery in 1750. And Maryland practiced it much differently than Alabama. Slaves on cotton plantations had vastly different experiences from slaves who lived in cities or worked on rice or indigo plantations. Some places it fazed out (New York), other places it exploded, especially after the invention of the cotton gin. So no one can make a definitive movie about this subject.

Critics have latched onto the objectivity as callousness or pretentious art-house pandering. Stephanie Zacherek has called it antiseptic, “history made safe by art.” She’s not wrong in that assessment; there is an emotional disconnect that most of its supporters are ignoring. Armond White, always a safe bet to have an interesting idea supported by twisted logic and indefinite critiques, has called it dishonest and slammed director Steve McQueen as fraudulent. White does not specify exactly what he finds fraudulent, except for McQueen’s artistic choices, which he sneeringly and passive aggressively drapes in quotation marks. He labels it as ahistorical, though again he never specifies where it blunders, historically that is. McQueen, according to White, is using the violence of slavery as a safe tool to pacify the guilt of white audiences, “to feel good about feeling bad.”

This is where Armond White stumbles onto a legitimate point. There are many who are walking theaters whose approval of the film is predetermined. The hype is telling people it’s the best movie of the year, that it’s about slavery and we haven’t really grappled with slavery in film yet (see above). It is an easy picture to get behind. No one is on the other side of this issue, no one is cheering Michael Fassbender’s “slave breaking” plantation owner or nodding in approval at the decisions of bitterly cold and insecure wife (played by Sarah Paulson).

But none of this takes away from the raw power of the film. Director Steve McQueen uses the story of Solomon Northrup, a free New Yorker who is kidnapped from his family and sold into slavery. The real Solomon Northrup wrote about his experiences after being liberated, 12 years after his enslavement and it is this book that screenwriter John Ridley and directory McQueen base their story. While questions about Northrup’s veracity have popped up over the years, no one doubts the evils of the system under which he suffered. And McQueen captures those evils with uncompromisingly graphic imagery, including an extended beating with a wooden paddle (that shatters under the force of the blows) and an attempted lynching that goes on and on and on and on and on.

Zacherek is right. There is an emotional disconnect, but it’s a calculated disconnect. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northrup as a man who, in response to the life he’s been thrown into, turns off his emotions. He shuts everyone out, even us. The pain he’s experiencing, torn away from his family, beaten into submission, stripped of his identity, is a liability. Play dumb and keep quiet, a slave tells him on the ship south. He only learns this the hard way.

 

Chiwetel Ejiofor continues his excellent career as Solomon Northrup.

Chiwetel Ejiofor continues his excellent career as Solomon Northrup.

Once he does learn though, he becomes our guide, the lens through which we not only see, but experience slavery, albeit a narrow experience uninformed by a larger social and historical perspective. But that’s not necessarily bad. He understood he wasn’t alone; he understood the slaves he lived with for 12 years weren’t alone either. Millions suffered, some less and some worse than him. So his betrayal and injustice may be great, but is it really any greater than someone born into slavery? When he’s first kidnapped, his protestations are heart-wrenchingly ironic. “I don’t belong here,” he says, but then who really does belong there?

Northrup was painfully aware of this irony when he wrote his book and his witness to the injustice around him is a more compelling story than his alone. How could he privilege his experiences and elevate the trauma of separation from his family when there is enough pain and suffering to go around? Like Frederick Douglass, he had a voice because he escaped, but he doesn’t waste it belaboring his own injustice. He uses it for a greater purpose.

One might wonder at the brutality, how exaggerated it may have been. Did Solomon Northrup represent his experiences without embellishing? I suspect the narrative isn’t one hundred percent accurate, but who cares? Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel The Jungle was criticized for exaggerating the horrors facing of immigrant life in a turn of the twentieth century Chicago meatpacking plant. Sinclair stood by what he wrote, all of it he said having happened – maybe not all of the terrors occurring in the same family, but that doesn’t diminish the book’s power. The fact that any of these things could have happened is a crime. And the fact that everything Northrup wrote about could have happened (if in fact they didn’t) is also the point. Biographical accuracy isn’t required when exposing the brutality of slavery to a country that, at the time (1853), wasn’t keen on facing its realities.

When I was leaving the theater I overheard another man talking to his wife, wondered what he had just seen. Torture porn, he called it. Two hours of beating and psychological torture to what end? My first though was someone read Armond White’s review. My second thought was a concern for the man: Who wanders around crowded theaters loudly and proudly proclaiming they missed the entire point of the picture we just saw?

I suppose he though thought it was an anti-slavery movie and vaguely remembered something from school about the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution already settling the issue. Well it did settle the issue and we probably don’t need an anti-slavery movie in 2013. But this movie isn’t that narrow. Institutionalized injustice is the point here. Wherever of for whomever we let it flourish, no one is truly free. If rights and freedom can be denied arbitrarily for one, the effects can seep over and affect us all, no matter how secure one may feel. Be it slavery. Be it Jim Crow Laws. But those are in the past. What about a complaisant criminal justice system that regularly sends innocent men and women to prison based on coerced confessions or testimony coaxed by promises of lighter sentences or dropped charges? What about exploited labor and unsafe working conditions? What about supposed war criminals rotting away in Guantanamo even years after they’ve been cleared? What about drone strikes blindly killing the innocent as well as the guilty?  What about a financial system rigged to make the rich richer at the expense of the rest of us? The list can go on and on.

12 Years a Slave is not a perfect movie. McQueen almost comically idealizes Northrup’s pre-slavery life. No friction, no stress, perfect wife and children. Maybe this is how Northrup would have experienced his previous life in his memories late at night in the slave quarters, but it smacks of falseness, as a gimmick intended to inspire outrage rather than understanding.

Also, we never really get a sense of what life was like for Northrup and his fellow slaves at the cotton plantation of Edwin Epps (Fassbender). Like actual human memory, we experience the most traumatic of events, losing the minutiae of daily living. But I wanted to glimpse how they fashioned a sense of community, no matter how fragile. Or if they weren’t able to cobble together a community, I wanted to see why. What was the element that drove them apart? Mostly what we see is victimization and the hopelessness it engendered. But could it all have been hopelessness? Weren’t there moments of happiness or love? The closest we get is a fleeting sexual experience between Northrup and another woman, but once satisfaction is achieved, she turned away, perhaps more bitter and alone than before.

I’m not proposing that McQueen should have made another movie, but it wouldn’t have undercut the message of the film to show even the most powerless staking out a sense of identity and community. I’m not talking about anything major like rising up against the overseer. Fighting back is a fantasy modern viewers impose on the narrative. When Northrup does turn the whip on the brutal overseer played by Paul Dano (who has perfected the ignorant poor white character), I surely didn’t cheer. There was no place good that was going to end up. (And it didn’t.) But there must have been moments of quiet resistance like, say, sabotage. Even bonding with the other slaves would have been a statement.

But, as McQueen tells the story, there was no bonding, except for maybe with one woman particularly brutalized by Epps and his wife: him because he loves her and is jealous, and his wife because she’s jealous that he loves her. Everyone else on the plantation stays in the background, meek, silent. Of course this may have been exactly the way it was on Epps’ plantation. The absence of what we would like to see or what we know happened in other places doesn’t make it ahistorical. Just slightly unsatisfying.

Still 12 Years a Slave is a movie worth watching. Don’t be scared by the violence: It isn’t nearly as bad as people have been building it up. The real violence is psychological, an entire people terrorized into fearful acquiescence. Go see the movie to understand how slavery marred our history, how it continues to affect how blacks and whites interact, how we have yet to truly come to terms with its legacy.

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Searching for Sugar Man — New Movie Review

A photo of Rodriguez from the cover of one of his two albums.

If you’re like me, you’re like the majority of people in this world and you’ve never heard of Rodriguez, a Detroit songwriter of the early 1970s who strummed his guitar with wicked dexterity and sung his lyrics with a hauntingly resonant voice. All I knew about him is what this movie told me: He recorded two albums that didn’t sell in the U.S. and he ended his career by committed suicide on stage. What he apparently did not know is his albums managed to gather a huge following in South Africa among white liberals. Though huge in South Africa, no one there knew anything much about him; they weren’t even clear on how he killed himself. (Stories ranged from shooting himself to self-immolation.) The movie follows two South African investigators who, working independently, set out to find the truth about “Sugar Man” Rodriguez, where he came from, who he was, and how he died. So I settled into my seat in the theater prepared for a somber story of a frustrated artist who finds redemption after death as people seemingly a world away find meaning in his work. Instead I got something much richer and uplifting as the movie takes a turn that I (and, judging from the gasps of surprise, most of the people in the theater) weren’t expecting. Of course now that some time has gone by the so-called secret of the movie is less guarded and obscure, which makes the whole structure of the movie feel a bit gimmicky, but I was still moved by the story. Even without the impact of the twist, the unfolding of the story is still remarkable.

At the outset the film explores two questions. First, why wasn’t Rodriguez successful in the U.S.? Forget successful. Why didn’t he garner any kind of cult following here? The movie gives us no clear answer; in interviews his producers wring their hands and shrug. The music is great (and it stands the test of time), the lyrics are creative and thoughtful, and his voice can be gut wrenching. Phil Ochs has been characterized as the anti-Bob Dylan (and heaven knows we need someone to knock Dylan off his undeservedly high pedestal), but as much as I love Phil Ochs, his lyrics and music are sometimes too playful, weighted down by irony and wit to truly rivaled Dylan. Rodriguez on the other hand had neither the time nor the inclination for those lyrical tricks. He looked at the world around him and saw little to cheer about – or get angry about for that matter. He cut to the bone – no, he cut to the emotional marrow of modern life. And if it comes off as somewhat lugubrious, well, what’s so great about modern life anyway?

 

A rare photo of Rodriguez in Detroit.

The second question the film tries to answer is why did he catch on in, of all places, South Africa? According to South African music writers interviewed in the film Rodriguez’s deep pathos and anti-establishment lyrics caught on amongst white liberal Afrikaners because it spoke to their discontent with a repressive government and stirred up feelings the heavily censored media sought to prevent. It is suggested that his music introduced the idea of anti-establishmentism in what was an authoritarian military state that ruthlessly stamped out any hint of opposition to the state or its apartheid policies. I don’t know if this endows Rodriguez with more influence than he really had or not, but it’s certainly fascinating that a quiet guy from Detroit can sing some songs, disappear, and change the lives of millions of people without even knowing it.

If you haven’t already read about the surprise of the movie do yourself a favor: see this movie cold. Avoid the temptation to read up on Rodriguez or what we now know about his remarkable life. I know it’s hard, but trust me you’ll enjoy the movie more, a movie that manages to juggle several disparate themes expertly. We come away thinking about the power of art over repression, the ability of one man to touch many (in almost Capraesque fashion), the power of myth and the insidiousness of rumor, the importance of living your life and doing what you love with integrity and passion, and, the laughably predictable corruption of the music industry.

Going back to the question of why Rodriguez didn’t catch on in the United States, I would like to pose a potential answer now that I’ve had a chance to listen to both of his albums. It seems Rodriguez came a little late. Maybe if he showed up six, seven, eight years earlier when people were open to being challenged by music, he would have been huge. By 1970, after years of strife, Americans were ready for something tamer, hence we get The Carpenters (whom, by the way, I also love). Add to the bad timing the fact that Rodriguez’s music isn’t ready made to be a hit; there are no catchy hooks, no easy refrains cleverly engineered to invade the collective consciousness of young Americans (like Call Me Maybe). They are mournful, introspective pieces of music exploring life as it is, not as we wish it could be. There is no promise of better times, there’s nothing blowing in the wind, there isn’t a bridge over those troubled waters, and he never alludes to any mythical past paradise that allegedly had to be torn down to put up a parking lot. All he sees is wind, troubled waters, and parking lots. His music was too challenging, too thoughtful for America in the early 1970s burned out by years of social strife and violent discord. This explanation is probably too simplistic to fully explain Rodriguez’s inability to make a mark, however small, in the U.S., but I think it’s at least part of it. In the meantime, go see Searching for Sugar Man and find out for yourself.

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When an Incomprehensible Title Meets a Dopey Script: The Intouchables

Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy in The Intouchables

The Intouchables is a movie that’s so overly genial and perky that it’s easy to miss just how offensive it is – not to mention extraordinarily banal. This is another in a long line of movies in which we are introduced to a free-spirited minority who turns the world of an uptight, white household on its head. A wealthy quadriplegic hires Driss, a Senegalese immigrant, as his caregiver. Driss’ only qualification is that he doesn’t have any qualifications except for being, as our quadriplegic Philip says, merciless. Of course we don’t see much evidence of Driss being merciless or tough except we’re told he has a criminal record and we briefly see him living a bad neighborhood. He’s always good natured and non-threatening, never a man that feels dangerous in any way – except, naturally, that he’s black. Oh, and he’s willing to break rules to make Philip more comfortable or have more have fun. Never mind the lives that are being threatened as they speed down the road, away from the police – Philip wants to go fast!

This is another example of what Spike Lee has termed the Magical Negro character in U.S. fiction, now apparently not limited to U.S. movies. Driss’ irrepressible joie de vivre and exotic blackness are his “magical-ness” and they are enough to spark a new interest in life for Philip and his entire household, from his personal assistant to his housekeeper to his daughter, all of whom are stricken with problematic, but curable cases of uneasy whiteness.

While Omar Sy is wonderful as Driss (and is receiving just accolades and, thankfully, more work), his effort is wasted. We spend a couple hours watching Driss and Philip bond, share, laugh, and cry, but we don’t learn much of anything about what day to day life might be like for a quadriplegic. (Though I have heard from some handicapped friends that, unfortunately, the movie gets the horrid indifference of trained caregivers absolutely right.) And we end up knowing less than nothing about what life is like for Paris’ immigrants, the neighborhoods in which they live, and the issues they face.

Yeah…. this actually happens.

And I think this lack of substance is why the movie has been so successful, especially in France, a country that has had tenuous relationships with their African and Arab immigrant communities. It’s a feel good story that doesn’t challenge its audiences or stir up nasty memories of race riots that rocked Paris several years back. It’s saccharine and empty-headed with nothing relevant to say about race relations, class, friendship, or disability. No wonder it’s grossed over $200 million.

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You Can Lead a Horse to War… : Spielberg’s War Horse.

Jeremy Irvine in War Horse

Beautiful photography and some moving performances can’t mask the phoniness of Spielberg’s latest submission. I know this is well regarded, even loved, in certain circles (Sam I’m looking in your direction), but I couldn’t get past its blustering optimism in the face of horror. What starts out as a relatively engaging story of  the relationship between a boy and his horse turns into a groan-worthy retread of Red Violin. Only this time it isn’t a musical instrument being passed from owner to owner by a miraculous horse. The miracle horse survives the worst ravishes of the First World War, even if his human companions don’t. And of course we are waiting for the inevitable reunion between the boy and the horse. We never really feel threatened by the mustard gas, barbed wire, stray explosives, or cruel men because we know Spielberg has preordained a happy ending. Spielberg has succeeded with emotionally manipulative fare before (think E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind), but where those managed to touch on some kind of truth through sometimes masterful manipulation, War Horse peddles a lot of clichés that reveal nothing more than the emptiness of the picture. All you have to do is believe in yourself (or your horse) and try and you will succeed! That’s it. You’ll never fail. I’ve never understood why there isn’t as much honor and satisfaction in trying and failing. But Spielberg continues to force-feed his audience feel good triumphalism that aren’t credible. There is no way half of the things the horse does and survives could have happened.  If a movie ever called for an Old Yeller-type ending, it’s this one. It would have meant more than the fantasies we’re served up in War Horse, but then theater-goers wouldn’t leave the theater feeling great. (Never mind how many people died, the boy and his horse are together again!) Spielberg can be a great director, but he’s trying too hard to make a movie audiences will love, instead of making something real. The result is a mediocrity. It’s a shame because I really loved the horse. (Rating **)

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“She told me she had a secret, the mother of all secrets…” — Tinker Tailor Solider Spy

Gary Oldman and John Hurt play spy

The conference room of British intelligence’s top official in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is visually deceptive. The walls of the room are coated with acoustic soundproofing foam which, at first glace, looks like a brown and orange checkered design, a sort of perverse nod to the ghastly design aesthetic of the 1970s. Closer inspection, however, reveals it to be the alternately raised and depressed foam casting shadows, giving the illusion of a checkerboard design. That is how the film unfolds. Characters think they are one a checkerboard, but find they are on something else entirely. Nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted. It’s great touch that, unfortunately, isn’t as well supported by the construction of the film itself.

When juggling as much information, clues, innuendo, history, office politics, and sexual shenanigans as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does, a firm, coherent director in harmony with a stellar editor, is crucial to making a good picture. As it stands this, the newest incarnation of the John le Carré story, is competent without being remarkable. It gets bogged down by the intricacy, often sacrificing coherence for pushing the plot forward, but still bungling crucial scenes and exchanges. Everything is blurted out too fast and little time is spent acquainting us with the unfamiliar world and lexicon of le Carré’s spy world. Of course those of us who have read the book and seen the much superior BBC miniseries (which at more than six hours had to time to linger on detail we miss here) will have no trouble following the plot. Others will not be so lucky.

There's a traitor amongst us... and it doesn't help that they all look so darn guilty

The plot, though, is delicious. Sometime during the 1970s, it is discovered that someone at the top of British intelligence, known as the Circus, is a Soviet spy, a mole planted in the service to both spy on the British and feed them fake intelligence. It is believed that it can only be one of four men at top of the service, each one instrumental in helping to establish the legitimacy of a secret Soviet contact that has been feeding them with information the rest of the government considers gold. But is it? And what have they been giving in return?

Through reasons that aren’t entirely clear until much too late, the Minister who oversees the Circus begins to take these allegations seriously and enlists George Smiley to help smoke the mole out. Smiley, once a high ranking officer who was forced out after a botched mission in Budapest, takes the suspicions seriously, finally beginning to understand why things went as they did in Budapest and why he was forced out. He realizes, in short, that he was dangerous to the Soviet mole and had to be discredited. Now, however, he is the perfect person to secretly investigate his past co-workers. He’s a former intelligence man, outside the loop, and, most importantly, forgotten.

The rest of the picture is a high-tension foray into office politics, most of the players not even aware that they are suspected and being investigated for treason. Smiley visits one former Circus member after another, each one having been forced out shortly after he left. The thing they all have in common is they raised red flags about the Soviet source valued so highly and, as a result, had to be discredited.

It is these individual scenes that work so well, watching Smiley unravel the mystery through these discussions. Unfortunately they are ordered so haphazardly that the audience rarely gets a chance to get their footing. For instance, more than one person says they doubted the former director’s suspicions about a mole, but why do the same people suddenly believe it? What has happened to suddenly warrant the investigation?

Of course in the book and miniseries we know why. We are treated to the story of rogue agent Ricky Tarr right up front and, from his story, we know why they are taking these charges seriously now. In this version, he doesn’t emerge until much later, after the investigation is well under way. But it seemed crucial for us to know his story so we understand why high ranking officials would investigate their own intelligence officials.

Thw crucial meeting that comes too late.. Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr

This isn’t a fatal flaw. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) still manages to put together a somewhat successful spy thriller. And, let’s face it, it’s nice to see a grown up thriller that assumes its audience has some smarts. He is ably supported by strong performances all around from the likes of Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Ciarán Hinds.

Gary Oldman is especially impressive, since he has to reinvent a character first fleshed out by Alec Guinness. Not an easy task. Guinness’ Smiley was devilishly clever, observant, shrewd, but broken. Years of back-stabbing office politics and devotion to an unfaithful wife have crushed the already emotionally-reserved man’s spirits. But there is a reserve of strength bubbling beneath that apparently battered surface. His soft-spoken Smiley comes alive during this investigation, rarely raising his voice, never coming undone. He comes alive inside. His brain is working overtime to catch the traitor and, not incidentally, the man who disgraced him. Oldman does not copy Guinness’ interpretation, but does a variation on it.

Oldman’s Smiley is less the broken man, more the emotionally stunted man. There was nothing to break here; he was always stunted. His only strength was in his work. Take it away and there was little left. This investigation brings back his life. Oldman successfully humbles his natural screen presence, emotionally stooping down if you will, to overcome the massive characters he has embodied in the past. (Think Dracula, Joe Orton, Sid Vicious, even Beethoven.) He suppresses all of Smiley emotions, expertly communicating them to us only through his eyes. Rarely is there a gesture or expression that helps us to put our fingers on what he is feeling. It’s all in his eyes. Norma Desmond would be proud.

While Gary Oldman delivers a masterfully subtle performance, we are left feeling let down by the rest. This isn’t a bad movie, not by a long shot. But it has big shoes to fill. Individual scenes and some of the performances spark our admiration, but the whole reminds us that it’s falling short of its potential and not doing the story justice.

Rating ***1/2

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