Monday, March 05, 2012
2011 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Four
The Artist: Versatile silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is riding high, but the talkies are coming in. He befriends an up-and-comer, confidant chorus girl Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and the sparks fly, but he's married. George is dedicated to the art of the silents, but the public is losing interest, and his star diminishes as Peppy's rises. As many have noted, this is a love letter to Hollywood, especially its early, silent era. Dujardin has the million watt charm and period manner to carry it all, and he and Bejo play off each other beautifully. There's also a great little dog. (No offense to the various Lassies, but it's the best performance by a dog since Umberto D). The supporting cast has a good feel for the material: John Goodman plays a film director, James Cromwell is Valentin's loyal chauffeur, Missi Pyle is his exasperated costar Constance, Penelope Ann Miller is his emotionally distant wife Doris, and Malcolm McDowell appears as a butler. The plot is simple enough, and the entire scenario evokes Singin' in the Rain. The excellent score, which is almost continuous, does borrow the love theme from Vertigo for a climatic sequence. I found this distracting at first, but it works both on its own terms and because of the heavy homage aspect of the film (plus, Bernard Herrmann was heavily inspired by Wagner for that piece). Some may find the film to be a trifle, but I'd say it's a delight, all the more so for film buffs. Silent films are a slightly different art form, and The Artist manages to be both clever and genuinely touching. Check it out if you missed it.
(Here's writer/director Michel Hazanavicius and producer Thomas Langmann on The Business.)
Hugo: Martin Scorsese's first family-friendly film, and first made in 3-D, winds up being one of his most touching. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a Paris station urchin in the 1930s between the wars. His mechanically-oriented father (Jude Law) used to maintain the many train station clocks, but died in freak accident, leaving Hugo an orphan. His alcoholic uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) isn't much help, either, so Hugo maintains the clocks himself and steals what he can to live, carefully avoiding the menacing but comical Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). He runs afoul of a cranky shopkeeper with windup toys (Ben Kingsley), but also befriends the man's granddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Together, Hugo and Isabelle try to uncover the mystery of a mechanical man that Hugo's father was trying to repair, while small and large stories between the other characters play out as well. (The British class accents are jarring at first if one stops to consider that all the characters are in Paris, but I got used to it.) I don't know how this film plays as a mystery for audiences not familiar with one of cinema's first true geniuses, the magician-turned filmmaker Georges Méliès. However, I suspect it will touch a chord with anyone who's ever gotten lost in a book, and even more so anyone who's ever gotten lost in a movie, and even more so anyone enamoured of the early great silents, most of all those by the remarkable, innovative Méliès. The film history material is tailor-made for Scorsese, who sprinkles visual quotations and homages throughout, most notably Harold Lloyd's Safety Last! But Scorsese's love for cinema spills out to suffuse the entire film with a genuine and surprisingly affecting warmth. Young Asa Butterfield has large, blue, expressive eyes (he's going to make a great Ender Wiggin), and as Hugo, he's not always politic and thus a more realistic kid. But we, well, feel his pain, and he becomes an engaging protagonist. Chloë Grace Moretz is charming as the curiosity-filled Isabelle, a girl always up for a good adventure and who delights in using big words, not to show off but out of sheer love for them. Sacha Baron Cohen gives an impressively calibrated performance as the Station Inspector, frequently sinister but often comic at the same time, and oddly touching in a few key moments. (It can be a delicate balancing act, and his instincts are impeccable. He also features in the funniest use of 3-D in the film.) The entire supporting cast is excellent. Michael Stuhlbarg plays René Tabard, a film professor eager to learn more about Méliès, who he met when he was an awestruck young boy. Christopher Lee is touching in a small role as a kindly bookseller. Emily Mortimer as Lisette, Richard Griffiths as Monsieur Frick and Frances de la Tour as Madame Emilie nicely play out their background love stories (apparently, l'amour is irresistible in Paris).
Meanwhile, Helen McCrory gives emotional weight as Mama Jeanne, who loyally shares in the silent suffering of her husband "Papa Georges," played by Kingsley with his usual precision but also a tortured, repressed passion that can spill out as bitterness. ("April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.") This is a world that knows tragedy and deep heartache, but also one where small gestures of genuine kindness mean a great deal, and can in some cases accomplish even more. Scorsese makes it all look easy, and he has a splendid sense of physical space. This is a film aimed primarily for a younger audience, but it works very well for adults, too. At its core, it is a love story – a love for storytelling and sharing stories, but also about finding new loves and reclaiming old passions. It's hard not to be moved by Kingsley as an artist who risked all, succeeded, lost all, but gets a second chance. Some of the final scenes on stage are simply magical.
(Here's interviews with the book's author Brian O. Selznick and screenwriter John Logan. Self-Styled Siren has a lovely piece on the film: "Later, when the bookseller gravely hands a beautiful copy of Robin Hood to Hugo, and tells the boy that the book is meant to be his, that’s the moment that reconnects Hugo to humanity, the thing that prepares him to perform the same service for Méliès.")
Coriolanus: Ralph Fiennes, a consistently exceptional actor, proves to be a formidable director as well. His Coriolanus is the best Shakespeare film since Branagh's 1989 Henry V. That's not to slight other fine films, such as Branagh's other efforts or the excellent 2010 Macbeth directed by Rupert Good and starring Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood. However, as with Branagh's Henry V, Fiennes' Coriolanus is so striking as both a production and adaptation that any serious subsequent production has to contend with it. It doesn't need to make the same choices by any means, but Fiennes has explored and exploded the contours of this flawed but underrated play so boldly it would be folly to ignore his take. Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) is both a general and a soldier's soldier, ferocious in his defense of Rome. This means he has no patience for civil rights and public cries for food during war time, and he despises the common people (who he views as soft) as much as they fear and loathe him in return. Rome's great enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) of the Volces, a foe Martius respects, threatens the city, so Martius goes out to meet him in battle once more. He wins a great victory at Corioles, and is awarded the name Coriolanus in recognition. All would be well, but Coriolanus' mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Senator Menenius (Brian Cox) have great ambitions for him and wish to have him named consul of Rome. This in turn threatens another political faction, led by the Tribunes Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson), who purport to speak for the common people, but of course have their ambitions as well. Coriolanus has no patience for dissembling, and no talent for it, either. He seeks to forego the tradition of showing his battle wounds to the common people, which could earn him much-needed good will, but the whole affair feels dishonorable and boastful to him. Additionally, insults to his impeccable, much-prized honor make him fly into a rage, leaving him open to easy manipulation. He is completely temperamentally unsuited to be a politician. His great tragedy is that those who love him, and value his good qualities, do not also see his considerable flaws and let him remain where he is suited and where he thrives, in the military. His enemies contrive events to make him lose his temper in public, and in short order, he goes from hero of the city to banished. (This rapid reversal is, by the way, the hardest plot point to swallow, and one of the play's biggest flaws, or at least the hardest part to sell.) Coriolanus leaves… but he will have his revenge. He seeks out Aufidius, allowing his respected former foe the opportunity to kill him, but instead, they join forces and march on Rome.
Shakespeare shows sympathy for Coriolanus and the notion of the 'honest, noble soldier,' and the common folk do not come off well in this play. As in Julius Caesar, the mob seems fickle, and swayed by whoever talked to them last. Meanwhile, Coriolanus is a much more flawed protagonist than many of Shakespeare's others, and his defects seem more glaring, especially to a modern audience less inclined to share Coriolanus' class attitudes, and aware (especially in this modernized version) of where such stances can lead. Coriolanus is less ambitious than Macbeth (even though he's similarly pushed to climb by others), but also far less reflective. Whereas Macbeth becomes fatalistic by the end, Coriolanus remains reckless. It's one thing for him to despise politicians and manipulation, but at times, he doesn't seem to even understand the concept. We can sympathize with him in several respects (he is a man 'more sinned against than sinning'), but he's harder to identify with than some of Shakespeare's other heroes and villains. (For instance, most viewers will not want to see him succeed in becoming consul, which seems like a disastrous prospect.)
Fiennes shot most of the film in Serbia on a comparatively small budget. This version of Coriolanus occurs in a time of modern warfare and media saturation. Bombed-out buildings abound, Coriolanus' rants are captured on cell phone cameras, and events are discussed on TV. The adaptation strategy is very clever – many sections are told in shorthand, with a quick montage of TV news coverage conveying the same information as several speeches. (Some reviewers found real-life TV journalist Jon Snow's appearance jarring, but I thought the TV pundit scenes worked surprisingly well overall.) Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan cut large swaths out of the play to keep it lean, and occasionally, these leapt out at me – a particular key speech cut and conveyed with a look instead (Aufidius near the end), a telling exchange that seemed thrown away (Volumnia's "Ay, and burn, too") – but these were rare exceptions. All the major scenes are there, as is the heart of the play. Fiennes really understands and delivers the essence of all the major characters and key relationships. Vanessa Redgrave gives one of her best performances (and that's saying something) as Volumnia, Coriolanus' proud, ambitious and sometimes blinded mother. Similar to the ghost of Hamlet's father telling his son to "Taint not they mind" while also urging revenge, Volumnia can, in the course of a single scene, implore her son to be patient and moderate, yet also cheer his obstinacy and contempt for lesser men. Jessica Chastain is good as his far more gentle and hesitant wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain). Brian Cox is splendid as the experienced political hand, Menenius (one of his best performances as well). I wasn't overwhelmed by Gerard Butler, but he was convincing as a man of war, and his respect, antagonism, and jealousy toward Coriolanus comes through. Overall, the actors handle the language intelligently and fluidly as good Shakespeare productions do – not sing-song in delivery, but not overly casual, apologetic or dead and listless, either. They understand very well what they are saying, and live and speak in a heightened reality, but inhabit it naturally. (Needless to say, some of the dialogue is fantastic.) Because Fiennes' work as a director here is very impressive and he's consistency superb as an actor, it would be easy to take his own performance here for granted and not give it its due. However, Fiennes delivers a ferocious, striking performance as Coriolanus. While Coriolanus is capable of gentleness and civility to those he genuinely respects, he is often frighteningly intense, struggles to control his contempt, and – especially when his ire is roused – he will fight to the death rather than forsake his honor. It's this intensity that forms the core of the play and this film, and helps sell the more problematic plot points. (I'd say the story could almost be "The Tragedy of Volumnia," with shades of Mother Courage, and ultimately, it all comes down to Fiennes and Redgrave.)
Coriolanus was not released wide, and not heavily promoted, leading to its almost complete and criminal omission from awards consideration (unless for some reason it's being submitted in the U.S. as a 2012 film, as discussed in more depth in the Oscars post). The other reason it's been overlooked, I suspect, is that it is a challenging, dark piece, just as Vertigo is a great but unsettling film, and thus not Hitchcock's most popular. Coriolanus does not offer the happy weddings that end Shakespeare's comedies, or the tragic-but-poetic deaths of some of Shakespeare's other tragedies. Tonally, it's probably closest to that cheeriest of Shakespeare plays, King Lear, and Jan Kott's observations about the stark, existential realities of Lear would fit much of Ralph Fiennes' film of Coriolanus. Seeing it was thrilling, and made me want to re-read the play and then watch the film again. While I don't expect Fiennes' Coriolanus to ever receive a huge audience, the smaller core that seek it out will highly prize its many virtues.
(Here's Ralph Fiennes on All Things Considered.)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Swedish director Tomas Alfredson proves to be an inspired pick to helm this remake based on one of John LeCarré's best spy novels. Fans of the original miniseries with Alec Guinness may wonder why bother, but both versions are excellent, and this is the equivalent of letting a new generation of actors perform a classic play. Gary Oldman anchors a truly exceptional cast as George Smiley, a master spy prematurely and involuntarily retired when a scandal forces his boss and friend Control (John Hurt) to step down from the Circus (the nickname for MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service, equivalent to the CIA). There is a mole somewhere in the highest levels of the Circus, and since Smiley is now on the outside, government official Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) thinks he's the perfect man to smoke the mole out. Toby Jones plays Percy Alleline (the new head of the agency), Colin Firth is the dashing Bill Haydon, Ciarán Hinds is the shady Roy Bland and David Dencik the even shadier Toby Esterhase. Each has been assigned a code name: Tinker, Tailor, and so on (based on the children's rhyme) and Smiley must figure out which one is the culprit. But this is a dangerous game, and Smiley and his cohorts and sources (Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam and Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr) are risking exposure and death. LeCarré, who actually was in the service, has always been the novelist for those who want their spy stories realistic, adult, and cerebral, and while there's some action and tons of suspense, don't expect James Bond antics here.
Oldman plays George Smiley with marvelous restraint and understatement, only betraying emotion on a few occasions – for instance, surprise at the start, recounting one of his few failures, and in a key confrontation. Throughout the film, we can tell that within Smiley lay great depths, but Oldman doles this out stingily; this tension makes him captivating to watch. Smiley as played by Oldman is one hell of a poker player, playing his cards very close to the vest, but on those occasions when he makes a move, he is swift, assured and devastating. One of his few weaknesses is his love for his attractive and unfaithful wife Anne. (We never really see her on-screen.) When Smiley had a Russian agent in detention in India who went on to become Moscow's great spymaster, Karla, Anne had left him (as she does periodically), and Smiley found himself revealing more about himself than he intended to the silent, normally chain-smoking Karla – down to leaving behind the engraved lighter Anne gave him. Interestingly, the film chooses to handle this scene not in flashback, but with Smiley recounting the tale to Guillam. It's an amazing, subtle job by Oldman; Smiley may be incorruptible, but he is fallible, and his haunted self-reproachment creeps into his voice.
This is very handsomely filmed, and Alfredson shows an impressive facility for visual storytelling, telling us volumes in brief shots. For instance, when Smiley visits his old friend and colleague, the feisty Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), her face lights up when she turns and sees him, then falls when she realizes why he must be there. It instantly tells that they're close and that Connie is razor sharp. Similarly, there's a shot at a Circus Christmas party (an event the film flashes back to several times) where Bill Haydon is looking lasciviously at a barely-seen woman, then changes his expression to respectfully acknowledge George as Smiley turns to look at him. If there's a fault to this version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it's that it has to hurry too much, and we don't get to know all four suspects well, which hurts the mystery aspect of the central plot. As a character study, though, of Smiley and many of the supporting characters, it remains exceptional. Oldman is the strong center, but Cumberbatch, Hardy, Burke and Firth are unforgettable, too, with Mark Strong is another standout as Jim Prideaux, the agent wounded on the scandalous mission that caused Control's downfall. His haunted eyes convey a great deal. This one is definitely worth checking out.
Now's as good a time as any to compare this film to the 1979 miniseries. The performances in both are excellent. Alec Guinness has more time to work as George Smiley, and it's a treat to hear his wonderful voice (like a cello, as one critic observed). Both he and Oldman are superb, and they don't play the character exactly the same. Similarly, the two Peter Guillams are both very good, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Jayston (who plays him with more of a chip on his shoulder). The main benefit of the miniseries is that it has more time (roughly five hours), and it introduces us to the four main suspects in more depth. It can also allow scenes to play out at length, which particularly helps the scene when Smiley confronts Tony Esterhase – several shifts occur. There's also more detail about what happened to poor Jim Prideaux in Soviet hands. However, some sequences are padded, most notably Ricki Tarr's story, which just doesn't have to go on at such length. Devotees of the original book may prefer the miniseries just because more of the book makes it in, but not all of these little scenes are essential (George being accosted by an old associate, for example). There are also a few changes from the book in Alfredson's version, including making one character homosexual – but I actually thought it worked rather well, accentuating the secrecy and peril inherent in the story. The new film is much better shot (by cinematographer Alberto Iglesias), and director Tomas Alfredson has a much better command of the visual strengths of the medium. That's not to say the '79 series is bad in these respects, even if it isn't as strong. DP Tony Pierce-Roberts actually won a BAFTA award for his work on the miniseries, and the nighttime exteriors are probably his best: effectively moody. (Consider that I, Claudius came out in 1976 and has great acting but horrendous production values.) Similarly, miniseries director John Irvin mainly sticks with conventional coverage of scenes, but has a keen sense for when to go for reaction shots and close-ups. Bernard Hepton as Tony Esterhase, Terence Rigby as Roy Bland and Michael Aldridge as Percy Alleline in the miniseries rate better mainly because they have more screen time, allowing us to better know their characters and assess their machinations. Other than that, I'd say it's a toss-up, or would give a slight edge to Alfredson's film. After seeing the new film, watching the miniseries again, and re-reading part of the book again, I'm looking forward to another look at Alfredson's take. Basically, if you're a fan of LeCarré or this story in particular, there's no reason not to enjoy them both (or all three, counting the book).
(Here's a great interview with Gary Oldman, who breaks down his disparate and astounding vocal work on various roles. Here's screenwriter Peter Straughn. NPR also did pieces on the original book, and two pieces on the original miniseries.)