Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Coda and Spoilers: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I guess it must be a great movie, because I am still thinking about it. And the point I want to make--if I didn't make it before, or make it clearly enough--is that the story of the mole is not the real story of the  film. "Who is the mole?" is the plot, and it engages the mind and pulls the viewer through, but the real story is located in the few moments that edge that plot.

The real story, the story underneath the mechanics of who the suspects are, how to locate them, what has been compromised, is that political ideology has no reality. Humans work to uphold political ideals, but those ideals don't make anyone's life any better. It's the dispiriting realization that all the members of the Circus work to keep Britain safe from the Soviets, but that their lives as lived are no better for it.

The emotional cosh comes in some off-hand moments, especially at the end. [SPOILERS!!]

Gary Oldman, as George Smiley, goes to "The Cottage," a small cabin in a wood, fenced in and topped with barbed wire, where the captured mole is being held until he can be returned to the Russians in some unexplained diplomatic exchange. The mole here is Colin Firth, standing a bit awkwardly in this rustic location--he was "Tailor" and his urbanity is at odds with the natural surroundings.  This is a man for cities, not trees and falling leaves. As he smokes casually, he unburdens himself to Smiley. I don't even remember if Smiley asks him any questions, even, but it is obvious what he wants to ask--Why?

"It was as much an aesthetic choice as anything," Firth says, blowing out cigarette smoke. "Britain had become so ugly." And that was the revelation, at least for me.

My experience of the Cold War was most vivid during the Reagan years, when those Bad Soviets drove so much of Reagan's world view and foreign policy. And at that time, we were deep into the 1980s aesthetic, where big hair and asymmetric clothes and neon colors signaled an era of excess. Greed was good, fortunes were being made in mergers and acquisitions, luxury goods were trickling down into department stores and within the reach of more and more people.

Oh, sure, it looks silly now, but at the time it was such a breath of fresh air after the drab Earth-shoe earnestness and ugliness of the 1970s. The Soviet Union, in contrast, remained stuck in the aesthetic of concrete construction and bland clothing. The popular image was of ugly people in drab clothing waiting in long lines to just buy bread.

Well, isn't it obvious how much better Western freedoms are? Sure it is! That's why the Soviet Union collapsed--Mikhail Gorbachev let his lovely wife Raisa go shopping in America, and it was all over!

What is apparent in every detail of the production design of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is that life in Britain of the 1970s wasn't much different than life in the Soviet Bloc. The work done by the Circus was no more noble or enriching than the machinations of their opposites of the USSR. That Colin Firth could stand on English soil and believe that Russian life was more aesthetically pleasing felt accurate after the two hours of living in the recreated world of the movie. Britain was ugly, and was about to get uglier as Thatcher policies inflamed class resentments. The thing about this mole--he was a traitor to the country, but he wasn't wrong.

The movie ends with brief vignettes of the lives of the characters we have been seeing, including Smiley walking into his home and approaching his faithless wife. She betrayed him with Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), herself a victim of Haydon's deliberate campaign to seduce her. He was under orders to do so, because the Soviet Spy (Karla) believed that this would exploit Smiley's weakness and make it harder for Smiley to see Haydon accurately and allow him to continue operating as a mole. And it worked--to a point.

So the future relationship between Smiley and his wife is now compromised--she was unfaithful, but she was targeted because of Smiley. How much is he to blame? And equally important, what else does he have to keep him tethered to life without her? She is far from perfect--is she better than nothing? What other options does he have, given who he is and what he does?

So much of this movie is told through the production design--the changing world signaled by the passing of the Old Guard and their short hair; the rise of the New Generation with their longer hair and casual shoes; the spare ugliness of the buildings and materials that surround the Circus; the ugly cars and grubby streets. Even the use of color is so restrained--some of the only bright spots are Benedict Cumberbatch's matching tie and handkerchief, which are themselves coded to convey his character's homosexuality.

Finally, the reality of the British spy game is so demoralizing because the whole point of Karla's putting a mole into The Circus was not because he had any interest in British intelligence--Britain was virtually useless and marginalized, a tiny island of no value. Karla was trying to hook the Americans, and using The Circus as bait for the big fish. All this human cost, all this pain, all these lives sacrificed and destroyed, and they were only the pawns of a larger game.

Smiley is no James Bond, and spy work is not glamorous, rewarding, or even useful, and the more clearly you see the work of espionage, the less you can see the difference between one side and the other. That's the real story LeCarre was telling, and that's the real story of the movie.


Monday, January 09, 2012

Young Adult--A Review

It is apprarently fashionable to hate Diablo Cody--especially to hate her breakout movie Juno. I am not going to get on that band wagon, since I thought Juno did exactly what it had to do--it had to announce that Diablo Cody knew what she was doing. Plus it was enjoyable as hell while telling a story that could otherwise have fallen into the hole of A Very Special Episode of The Facts of Life. Teen pregnancy, blended families, divorce, inappropriate relations between a high school teacher and student, the strains on a marriage of infertility and then parenthood--all were encompassed in the story which still managed to be funny, hopeful and open-hearted.

Young Adult is not another Juno, and I have no idea if Juno-haters will like this one better. I liked it, and the evidence of this blog is that I hate everything, so make of that what you will. Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, living alone in a high rise apartment overlooking the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, struggling to write the last installment of a high school novel series call "Waverly High." Despite her glamorous job title, docile purse dog and big city life, Mavis's life isn't what she thought it would be. Her apartment, for example--the view is great, the furniture is crap. She is a published author of a crap serial that is being remaindered even as she writes the last title. She's Charlize Theron for crap's sake, but much of her beauty is revealed to be a show as we watch her elaborate preparations for a date.

The movie shows us all of this, without feeling the need to spell it out explicitly for us. The dog, for example. It's a Pomeranian and she's bought a special travel case to cart him around in, but she does only the minimum of daily care for him. She never walks him, instead shoving him onto the tiny balcony of her apartment where she's placed a tiny square of artificial grass and (IIRC) a plastic fire hydrant. When she goes back to her small town hometown, she leaves him in the hotel room with a pee pad. This is a woman who gives the barest minimum effort and seems to resent even that much. She is a toxic mess on a mission of disaster.

What plot there is involves her receiving an email from her old high school boyfriend, announcing the birth of his first daughter. Mavis decides this is a cry for help, and she packs up and drives home in order to rescue Buddy from his marriage and baby. In a sharply observed juxtaposition, Mavis calls him from a bar, where she is downing drinks while dressed for serious clubbing. He answers the phone and we never even see his face, just his hands as he empties the milk from a pair of breast pumps into sealable bags which he labels and freezes. Of course, Mavis doesn't see this either--it is a phone call after all--but even if she were in the room with him, she wouldn't see what this means to him. She would only see it as disgusting evidence of his trapped status.

The movie proceeds to show us Mavis doing all she can to recapture the glory days of high school while avoiding the mess of her life. Out withe her dog, she is obviously being followed by a car--which turns out to be her mother, who she has obviously been avoiding. Back in her parents' house, she finds a large framed wedding photo still on the wall. When she asks her mother to take it down, Mom doesn't have any sympathy or understanding why it might be objectionable. "We are divorced, Mom." "Well, I thought it was a happy memory." "Of my failed marriage?" "The wedding wasn't a failure--remember the tirimisu?"

Added to the mix is Matt Freehauf, played by Patton Oswalt. Their lockers were next to each other all through high school, but she doesn't recognize him at all until she makes the connection to him as "the hate crime guy." He had been beaten savagely by some high school athletes who thought he was gay. It caused some attention until it turned out that he wasn't even gay and then even that attention dried up. Mavis uses him as a drinking buddy and a sounding board for her plans to escape with Buddy. Matt sees this as the delusional plan that it is, but he is obviously lonely and again--this attention is better than none. So he drinks with Mavis, listens to her reminiscences and tries to make her see what reality looks like.

The film cycles through her various attempts to fascinate and connect with Buddy, and his gentle Minnesota refusal to engage or to call her on her bullshit. The climax comes at a baby naming ceremony and reception at Buddy's house. Mavis embarrasses herself in front of the entire population of people she knows, and she runs from the scene to Matt, who offers her some sympathy and (more importantly) alcohol and sex to soothe the blow to her self-esteem. Even so, she is beginning to question herself when she meets Matt's younger sister the morning after. Sandra obviously idolized Mavis in high school and has continued to do so even now. As Mavis voices her self-doubt, Sandra quickly reassures her. "You are so much better than the people here" she says, and Mavis swallows this KoolAid. The "learning moment" was presented, and she resolutely refused it. More damning, Mavis so thoroughly returns to her self-centered ways that she destroys whatever relationships she might have built with Matt and Sandra--she slips out of town before Matt wakes up, and when Sandra asks "take me with you to Minneapolis" Mavis refuses. "You are good here" she says, which is brutal after Sandra has just explained how pathetic the people of Mercury actually are. It's like she not only bites the hand that feeds her, but she rubs salt in the wound as well.

The movie ends with a sly parody of the young adult genre. As Mavis drives back to Minneapolis, we hear her voice-over reading the last paragraph of her "Waverly High" book, intoning platitudes about how she was ready to leave the past (and high school) behind and face the real world. Which would be a cliche, except it is painfully clear that Mavis Gary has not made that leap herself.

Definitely worth the two hours of time to watch, and likely to be a regular repeat on a number of cable channels in the near future. Check it out.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy--A Review

No, I haven't read the John LeCarre novel and I never saw the miniseries starring Alec Guinness. I don't even usually see spy movies or read spy novels. But how can you resist the cast list?

Gary Oldman
Colin Firth
John Hurt
Toby Jones
Mark Strong

And two of the 2011 Edition Pretty Boys: Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

With a cast like that, and a strong story (I mean! The book was written almost 40 years ago and it's still famous!) you know that there was going to be some Major Acting going on. And yes--these boys acted the hell out of this story.

If you've seen the trailer, you know the basics of the plot. At the height of the Cold War (this is 1973 after all) British Intelligence has a mole at the highest levels. John Hurt wants to find out who it is, but his suspicions threaten an intelligence source, and he and Gary Oldman get forced into retirement. Then John Hurt is killed, and Gary Oldman is persuaded that the mole is real and he's the right guy to figure out who it is. It's one of the top four men in the service, given code names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Poorman.

Now, if you are Britain and you believe your entire intelligence operation has been compromised, would you turn to this guy to keep you safe?

Um--NO. He's even a Russian Terrorist--this guy would be the mole and would simply mow down everyone who got in his way while demanding the Crown Jewels. At least!

Okay, what about this guy?

I don't think you even have to answer that one. Do you suppose he wears the plastic head thing to cover brain surgery and ECT scars?

No. Just---no.

Wow. Britain really is in trouble. A little heroin, and Russia has a new patsy.

And I see the gleam of psychotic break in his eyes.

No, if this is the man who is going to be the last defense against Soviet infiltrations, we should just start learning how to drink vodka and write in Cyrillic. This guy is going to kill everyone and then turn double agent himself and. . .

And. . .

And wait a second. What about THIS guy?

That level gaze! That firm set of the mouth! That almost but not quite beige hair and skin and raincoat that amounts to near total self-effacement! This is the kind of guy who is smart, who is going to play his hand close to his vest, who is never going to be corrupted in any way! Yes! We'll take him and England will be saved!

Which is to say that Gary Oldman does an amazing job as George Smiley. He is so restrained and so uncharismatic, and yet he is implacable and you just know that once he has been set to solve the problem, shit is going to get solved!

Which it does, but there is no triumph in it. The damage has been done and the human toll is paid. The movie ends with a series of glimpses of the people left after the mole is discovered and all of them carry visible emotional scars. George Smiley and his wife are distant from each other; Mark Strong has lost his closest emotional connection and his belief in the value of what he does; people who were forced out of their jobs remain marginalized and useless despite their talents and devotion; the heads of The Circus (what LeCarre calls the intelligence service) have all been broken, exposed, and destroyed; and yet the Cold War grinds on and the work continues regardless of the human lives eaten up because to stop would be even worse.

The look of the film is exquisite--muted sepia-flavored light, not quite nostalgia-inducing, but clearly signaling a time in the past. The cars are ugly 1970s freaks of British automaking, and George Smiley is driven around in something that looks remarkably like a cockroach. The Circus works in barely converted warehouse space, with ugly desks and walls, clearly stock scavanged and possibly dating back to WWII salvage. The generations are signaled quietly, with the Old Guard (most clearly lead by John Hurt) sporting crisp hair cut close to the neck, while the New Generation (notably Mark Strong and Colin Firth) letting their hair grow down to their collars.

The underlings are played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, each sporting a weird blonde dye job that marks their connection despite the differences in their roles signaled by every other thing about them--Hardy is a mess in denims and tennis shoes, often unshaven, smoking compulsively and completely emotionally rattled. Cumberbatch is smooth-faced, tightly controlled, deferential and cool, invariably in a buttoned up three piece suit with matching tie and handkerchief and hard soled Oxford shoes. Not preternatually Sherlock-style cool, but when put in obvious fear for his life he remains collected and his panic is obvious in his widened eyes and slightly faster walk. And somebody couldn't resist the temptation--his suits are tailored just a hair too wonderfully for his character's position. As a movie-goer, I appreciated the visual treat.

It's a great movie, but the plot is a little too Byzantine for the two-hour running time. I think I followed it (LeCarre virgin that I am) but the emotional moments didn't have the impact they probably should have. The identity of the mole made no emotional impression on me--I didn't care about who the suspects were, so I didn't care if they were (or weren't) guilty. The effect on our hero Smiley was non-existent as well, since he had already been thoroughly betrayed by The Circus at the beginning of the story. Nor had the relationships between the characters been well enough established for us to experience any of their pain--in fact, the whole cast were kind of like scorpions sealed in a bottle, and they were busy stinging each other to death for one reason or another, many of them petty. In some lights, being a Russian mole was arguably a more noble motive for betrayal than mere career advancement.

Having said that, the pure intellectualism of the story-telling is satisfying. You couldn't do this work and feel unalloyed patriotism--it's clear that Smiley at least does the work because he believes it has to be done, and he intellectually accepts the price he has to pay to do so. It's an elegant and intellectual film and definitely worth seeing. It's a crisp, tart contrast to the wallowing Oscar-bait movies swamping the theaters.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

We Saw ALL the Movies!

The past month has been Movie Madness Chez Evil, and I saw more movies in four weeks than I have seen in the preceding twelve months. At least, if my math is right. I need to make a quick list of them all, or I will forget.

Even more amazing is how many of them were actually movies that I saw in actual movie theaters, not just rentals on my laptop. In order to remember which ones I should review, I will make a quick list here and then post actual reviews separately.

Thus, in no particular order except of how I remember them, the movies of December and January:

The Muppet Movie
Young Adult
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
The Artist
Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows
We Bought A Zoo

Extra Bonus Movies (not seen in theaters)
The House of Flying Daggers
Citizen Kane
St. Trinian's
X-Men:First Class

Not a bad collection, and I didn't hate any of them--this is quite an endorsement, coming from me!

I will attempt to post one review per day of the theatrically viewed movies--the other ones, well, we'll see.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Confusion in College Football.

Back in the day when I was an undergraduate, I lived in a dorm that housed and fed the football team. So I was privy to the utter ridiculousness of Big 10 football and the oxymoron that was the "student-athlete." A neighbor of mine was seduced by the supposed glamor of these man-boys, and she did their homework in return for the scraps of attention they gave her in dropping off and picking up the papers she wrote for them.

It is necessary in this transaction for all the parties to be not terribly bright--she was (willfully?) oblivious of the degree to which she was being crassly taken advantage of, and they weren't getting very good papers in return because she wasn't that great of a scholar herself. At least one regular customer of hers showed up after a game in which he was removed from the field due to a concussion--and there was really no way to see any difference in him.

So, I am rather jaded about collegiate football generally, and am not a fan of the game anyway. So I never kept up with the changes

So, this year, I heard that the "Doritos Fiesta Bowl" takes place in the "University of Phoenix Stadium."

Dudes--the University of Phoenix is an on-line university. The questions arise:

Does even a non-existent university need to have a football stadium? Has collegiate athletics gotten THAT corrupt?

Why would a college football championship be played in an imaginary university's stadium? More to the point, since "University of Phoenix" is a for-profit institution, does that just make the hypocrisy of college athletics obvious?

Yeah--send your hate mail to me, and feel free to explain what I have failed to understand, but football just does not make any sense to me. I am willing to be educated, but I can hold out little hope of your success.