Monday, December 26, 2011

Recent Movie Roundup 15

A bumper crop of films as the year draws to its close--this write-up doesn't even include The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which I watched only a few weeks ago and already can't remember a thing about.  And there's more to come--the next month sees The Artist, Margin Call, Hugo, and We Need to Talk About Kevin opening in Israeli theaters.  My thoughts at this interim point:
  1. Moneyball (2011) - For brief moments in this tedious, inert film one gets a sense of the very interesting work it might have been, a darkly cynical anti-sports movie.  The film, which follows baseball manager Billy Beane (a typically good Brad Pitt in a run of the mill performance whose Oscar buzz is utterly baffling) as he tries to use statistics to get out from under the huge budget disparity between his team and the league leaders by identifying cheap but under-appreciated players, works to undermine the romanticism of the form.  Gone are the homilies about teamwork--Beane horse-trades his players with barely a thought spared for their fate or feelings--or about the power of heart or the magic of the game, replaced by pages upon pages of incomprehensible numbers and inscrutable acronyms.  This could have made for an interesting story, one that acknowledged that big sports is a business where money wins championships, and where a new business model can (temporarily) rock the boat.  But Moneyball, on top of being rather slack and taking too long to tell what is ultimately a rather thin story, doesn't quite have the guts to follow its premise to its logical conclusion.  It tries to be soulful and triumphant as it charts the "revolution" that Beane is leading in baseball and hints at the way that that revolution would go on to leave him behind--once the effectiveness of Beane's methods had been demonstrated, the bigger, richer teams adopted them and the same inequality that had relegated his team to the bottom of the league reasserted itself.  Which means that the film fails to acknowledge what is obvious even to someone who doesn't care a bit about baseball--that what Beane is doing is ripping the soul out of the game, prioritizing cautious, defensive point-scoring over athleticism.  The suggestion that this is all that baseball ever was--a mass of statistics and meaningless trivia, like the record for most consecutive wins that Beane's team breaks during the season charted by the film--is, like so many other Moneyball's interesting ideas, something that is hinted at, but quickly discarded.

  2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) - For several years now I've been meaning to read something by John Le Carré, and the release of a star-studded and critically-hailed adaptation of one of his best-known novels seemed like the perfect excuse.  I liked the book well enough (though I can't help but wonder if it relies too much for its effect on associations with Empire and with the Cold War that I just don't possess), but reading it shortly before seeing the film turned out to have been a mistake.  As well made as the new Tinker Tailor is, and as stuffed with fine actors whom I like and who give good account of themselves, it is undeniably shoddy as an adpatation, not simply because there just isn't enough room in even a long film to do justice to the novel's twisty yet episodic plot, which is here alternately absurd and incomprehensible (and that as a result a large portion of the cast, including Colin Firth and Ciaran Hinds, are wasted), but for the less forgivable sin of filing away a lot of the novel's cynicism and despair.  So Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), the young MI6 agent who is recruited to help disgraced senior agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) ferret out a mole in the organization, is a callow youth instead of an older man gracelessly crossing into middle age and perhaps losing his edge, and Ricky Tarr's (Tom Hardy) recruitment of a Soviet spy is romantic rather than exploitative.  The disconnect between the film and novel's tones comes to a head in the former's ending, in which the discovery of the mole--in the novel a necessary but ultimately hollow victory that only reinforces the moral bankruptcy and exhaustion of the main characters--is a cheerful triumph.

    I was so disappointed in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the film, that I searched out Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the 1979 miniseries which has become the stuff of legend.  It addresses many of my complaints about the film, largely because the broader canvas gives the writers the chance to address the novel's complexity and its ambivalence towards the intelligence war between MI6 and Moscow Center--Ricky's romance with Irina the soviet spy, for example, is here given an episode to itself, which allows us to see the way that his initially mercenary pursuit of her grows into romance, and how that romance is nevertheless tinged with his fundamental selfishness and immaturity.  The miniseries also preserves the novel's episodic structure, with Smiley tracking down former agents who witnessed the events that got him chucked out of the service--events which, he is now convinced, were orchestrated by the mole--and listening to their narratives.  The film tries to rejigger these narratives into a standard three-act structure and makes a mess of them, and the miniseries is much more coherent (though oddly both the film and the miniseries move the failed overseas mission that sets the story's events in motion to their prologue, which makes for an exciting opening but undercuts the character of Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong in the film, Ian Bannen in the miniseries) when he turns up near the end of the story to tell his part in it and has little left to say).  Another interesting--and amusing--difference between the two adaptations is that the film is trying so consciously to be historical that it overshoots its period--set in 1974, its settings, interiors, and even costumes look more suited to the 1950s.  The miniseries, filmed only a few years after the book's events take place, feels freer to show us 1970s fashions--the billboards and neon lights of central London, or the horribly moddish decor of Smiley's living room.

    The one point that I will grant the film over the miniseries is that I much prefer Gary Oldman's Smiley to Alec Guiness's.  Guiness's performance is supposed to be iconic, and he's certainly very good, but I find his Smiley too cold and cerebral.  Oldman's Smiley is a man in the grips of depression, having lost the job that defined him and the wife he's never been able to hold on to, and the film is a chronicle of his slow escape from that depression as he rediscovers his purpose in life.  It's a more human performance than Guinness's (without being any less intelligent) and it gives the film around it, incoherent as it is, meaning and heft.

  3. Drive (2011) - In its opening act, Drive seems like little more than a well-made, slightly off-beat variant on a familiar theme.  Stunt driver by day, wheelman by night Ryan Gosling (whose character remains unnamed throughout the film and is referred to as Driver in the credits) forms an intense connection with his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her young son.  When her husband is released from prison, Driver agrees to help him pull once last job to pay off his former associates, and things naturally go very wrong from there.  The film's early scenes, which mostly revolve around Gosling and Mulligan gazing at one another with barely suppressed yearning, work hard to suggest the canonical form of this type of story, in which the criminal character is just dangerous enough to be appealing, but really a softie deep down.  As Driver's predicament deepens, however, it quickly becomes clear that far from being a rogue with a heart of gold, he is actually an angel-faced psychopath, whose sweet infatuation with a pretty girl and her cute son does nothing to diminish (and perhaps even intensifies) the violent impulses that lead to some truly gruesome and horrifying scenes of violence in which he works his way up the totem pole to the people responsible for the bungled robbery.  But Drive doesn't aim for full-on realism.  It plugs this increasingly scary character into a fairly standard action movie plot (underpinned by a healthy dollop of Western), in which Driver is the vector for several tense, thrilling, and impeccably shot action and chase sequences, as well as the only person trying to protect Mulligan and her son.  By the end of the film, it's hard to know whether to root for Driver or recoil from him, whether to wish for his happy ending with Mulligan, or his death.  The result is a film that manages to burn through many of the callouses I've developed where action movies are concerned, to deliver genuine thrills and make me feel truly anxious about its characters' ultimate fate.

  4. The Muppets (2011) - From the very first days of The Muppet Show there's been a level of metafiction to the Muppet concept, in which the show within a show, an old-fashioned variety show with celebrity guests, is created by the characters, who play themselves as Hollywood insiders.  The movies extended that gag by pretending that the Muppets were show business newcomers trying to get their big break by staging a Muppet Show-style variety show, and achieving fame and fortune.  In all the discussion surrounding Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller's revival of the Muppet franchise and whether it would capture the "essence" of the characters and show, I've found myself wondering whether the people involved hadn't fallen for that metafictional gag a little too hard.  How else to explain the pedestal on which they place the Muppets, which not even the original series and movies could probably reach?  In its first half hour, The Muppets seems to have fallen into the same trap.  It tries too hard to charm, and spends too much time telling us that the Muppets--who are here forgotten superstars trying to make a comeback--are awesome rather than showing us that they are.  A lot of this is down to the new Muppet character Walter, whose Muppet-mania sparks the events of the film but who comes off as annoyingly, even selfishly needy rather than sweet.  As Walter is the audience identification character and strongly positioned as Kermit's potential heir, this is a problem, and one can't help but wish that the film had focused instead of Segel's Gary and Amy Adams's Mary as its main characters.  But then, around the time that the old Muppet gang turns up and starts cranking the familiar Muppet movie "let's put on a show" plot, the magic happens, and what was a film trying too hard to tug at our heartstrings becomes genuinely heart-tugging, funny, and lovable.  There are some very good jokes (a sequence parodying The Devil Wears Prada, with Miss Piggy in the Anna Wintour role and Emily Blunt reprising her role from that film, is sheer brilliance), and some good songs (though all are slightly outshined by the reprise of "Rainbow Connection" from the first Muppet movie).  The Muppets will probably not make the Muppets into superstars again, but then that's never what they were.  It may or may not introduce them to a new generation of kids, but then that's not really what I'm interested in.  What it does is capture the sweetness and charm of the original characters and show, and do so for an entertaining, heartwarming 90 minutes.  Plus, Chris Cooper raps.  What more could you possibly ask for?

  5. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) - The latest installment in this intermittently fun but consistently soulless series gets the first half of the equation gratifyingly right.  It's less a movie than a sequence of ingenious, outrageous, impeccably staged action sequences strung together with some very flimsy connective tissue masquerading as plot.  Someone in the writers' room even bothered to look at the title this time around, so the crisis in this film is quite a bit more than the characters can handle, and the set pieces are enlivened, and made extremely tense, by failures of planning, equipment, or just a lot of crap landing on our heroes' heads.  For all that, the fun does wear a bit thin about halfway into the film--how many times can you watch these people skate just out of harm's way at the very last minute before it becomes tedious?--and with Tom Cruise's charisma-suck of a character, Ethan Hunt, still at the center of the film, and encouraging this installment's Designated Girl, Paula Patton, to embark on tandem flights of emo over the deaths of their respective partners, there hardly seems to be anyone worth investing in.  Happily, the franchise brings in Jeremy Renner, a live wire where Cruise is inert, to play a character much more interesting and more amusingly human--he spends much of the film freaking out over just how close to the wire the team flies.  (Simon Pegg, as the team's tech, is also fun but doesn't get a lot to do.)  If I knew that the Mission: Impossible films were being handed over to Renner, I'd be excited about the next one developing a soul to go along with the fun action.  Judging by the end of Ghost Protocol, however, Cruise is staying in the lead, so I guess the series will continue to live and die by its directors and stunt coordinators.

  6. Melancholia (2011) - Lars von Trier's latest film is made up of two distinct segments that, seemingly quite deliberately, mesh with each other only haltingly and partially.  In the first and shorter of the two, new bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) arrives at her sister's enormous estate for a lavish and expensive wedding celebration.  Though she initially seems radiantly happy, Justine's mood soon sours--which is partly due to the influence of her awful, awful family, but mainly because she is coming back under the sway of a depression that, it is strongly implied, has dogged her for her entire life.  Try as she might, and strongly exhorted as she is, to feel happy, Justine eventually can't fake it anymore, and the evening collapses into a disaster.  The second half of the film takes place some unspecified time later and concentrates on Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as a nearly prostrate Justine is brought back to the estate to be cared for.  Claire is also fretting about a rogue planet, Melancholia, which scientists say is going to pass by the Earth, but which Claire fears, and Justine insists, is going to hit it.  You could try to read the second half of the film, and the approach of the doomsday planet, as a metaphor for depression--inescapable, undeniable, crushing--but this doesn't quite fit (for one thing, Justine, who turns out to be far more capable than her "normal" relatives of dealing with her impending death, actually snaps out of her depression towards the end of the film and helps them to cope).  You could, on the other hand, take Melancholia as a literal-minded film about the end of the world, but this too is a creaky reading--who, for example, would name a planet Melancholia?

    The film is thus suspended between these two interpretations, at one end a story about depression, at the other a story about the end of the world, which both do and do not fit together.  The film works as well as it does because of this tension and slight disconnect, but--and I am probably showing my colors here--I prefer its second half.  Dunst is very good as Justine (and she can join Homeland's Claire Danes on the list of actresses who portray mental illness in all its offputting, exhausting glory without obscuring the real person whom the illness afflicts--trying as she is, Justine is smarter and more forthright than most of her family, and probably better company even when she's losing her grip on sanity), but unhappy families, in this case, turn out to be all alike, and the implosion of the wedding party is alternately too familiar and over the top.  The second half of the film is, for all its understated concerns and familiar beats--at one point, Claire tries to escape the estate to the nearby village, as though this will make any difference--something new, and its version of apocalypse is one of the most stunning, because so bleak and merciless, that I have ever seen.  (For this reason, I'm a bit baffled by the fact that Dunst is being talked about quite seriously for an Oscar nomination while Gainsbourg--who arguably has a tougher job as a normal person faced with abnormal circumstances, while Justine spends the second half of the film as a superior cipher who "just knows" that the end of the world is coming--has not been.)  Melancholia is worth watching no matter what reading protocol you apply to it, but I for one would be happy to see it on this year's Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo ballot.

4 comments:

Alexander said...

Regarding Melancholia, it's interesting the lack of consensus by critics as to which half they preferred. I found it a pretty strong film overall, I'd been wary of von Trier by reputation but I'm glad I took the plunge this time, it's a beautiful, effectively perverse film. I wonder if having Sutherland cast as he was was intended as a meta-fictional take, given his best known part of Bauer as an alpha-male that constantly fought against catastrophe, it adds something to have him prominent on screen and then commit suicide once the imminence of danger becomes clear.

Regarding Tinker, Tailor and more broadly Le Carre:
[[[i]I liked the book well enough (though I can't help but wonder if it relies too much for its effect on associations with Empire and with the Cold War that I just don't possess)[/i]]]--
I've generally thought that Le Carre's prose works even beyond the groundworks of the specific political context, at least to my own reading. Perhaps less so Tinker Tailor, since it depends on Smiley's position and the institutional history, but things like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold work (I *think*) as a story of pragmatism and cold political context beyond the national and historical context of the early cold war. Alternatively it would be interesting to see if a more recent Le Carre worked for you, where the geo-political context is the War on Terror security state. The Tailor of Panama and Absolute Friends I'd particularly recommend.

Haven't seen any of the other films you mentioned. I will be interested to see your reaction to Margin Call, foreshadowed here. I loved that movie, a surprisingly smart and low-key approach to the meltdown of finances and morality that was late 2008.

Ken said...

Athleticism? Wait, this is baseball we’re talking about, right? :-)

People don’t resist the application of new statistics to baseball analysis because it makes the game less fun to watch. For the casual fan, the impact on the game is no worse than neutral. For example, most fans would probably regret the decreases in steal attempts and hit-and-run attempts that come with the new strategies but welcome the decreases in sacrifice bunts and intentional walks. Walks are less dramatic than hits or outs, but each walk leads to a new at-bat, with a bigger chance of scoring more runs, and raising the stakes while deferring the dramatic resolution is a classic means of generating suspense. Baseball thrives on suspense (it's not exactly known for its non-stop action).

People who dislike the new statistics are pretty clear about why they dislike them. They dislike them because they were created by geeks.

Erin said...

"I've found myself wondering whether the people involved hadn't fallen for that metafictional gag a little too hard. How else to explain the pedestal on which they place the Muppets, which not even the original series and movies could probably reach?"

I haven't seen the movie, so I may be way off, but I imagine that simple nostalgia would account for the pedestal. I've read a few interviews with Jason Segel, and he's talked a lot about how much he loved the Muppets as a child. Also, you noted that the movie talks a lot about how awesome the Muppets are, too, instead of simply showing it -- nostalgia could account for that, too.

Although I haven't seen Melancholia, either, here's a thought on why there's more talk of an Oscar nod for Kirsten Dunst than for Charlotte Gainsbourg: Perhaps it's simply because Dunst so far exceeds expectations in the movie? It seems to me that the fact that an Oscar nod is a possibility is a huge leap forward for her. Granted, I've missed a lot of her movies, so perhaps there was an Oscar-worthy performance that I didn't see, but I was certainly surprised at the talk of an Oscar nomination for her work in Melancholia, and if others were also surprised (whether at the talk, her performance, or both), that alone could improve her Oscar chances -- and definitely increase how much those chances are discussed.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Ken:

As I said, I'm pretty ignorant about baseball, so you may very well be right about the nature of the changes Beane made to the game. But several other people - all of whom, admittedly, were as clueless about baseball as I am - have expressed to me that same distaste for what he does in Moneyball. Maybe that means the film just wasn't for us, but I still wonder whether a film that had been willing to dig deeper and talk about what baseball is wouldn't have been more successful.

Erin:

Dunst was nominated for an Oscar for her very first major role in Interview With a Vampire, when she was just a kid. So there may very well be an element of Hollywood patting itself on the back for getting it right with her all those years ago, rather than the more familiar story of a child actor who is made much of for a season, then chewed up and spat out by the Hollywood machine, never to be seen again (Haley Joel Osment, anyone?).

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