Top Ten of 2011, #9: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson

I’ve been waiting for the past several years to see how director Tomas Alfredson would follow up his phenomenal Let the Right One In, so I was ecstatic when I found out it was to be a cerebral thriller with such a strong British cast.  And Gary Oldman reinterpreting a role made famous by the late Sir Alec Guinness definitely upped the fascination factor.  Luckily, Tinker Tailor completely delivers on the two elements I was most interested curious about– Oldman totally makes the role, something quite different from the parts he’s had over the last decade or two, his own; and Alfredson delivers an extremely intelligent adaptation of le Carre’s novel that never dumbs itself down, but instead constantly makes the audience play catch-up with it, something all too rare in contemporary thrillers that usually pander to a perceived witless, lowest-common denominator audience.

In fact, Tinker plays its cards so close to the vest that often times we’re not sure what’s happening, from the plot to smaller details like the nature of George Smiley’s home life.  But we’re given what we need when we need it, and the rest of the time we’re kept in the dark in much the way most of MI6’s agents constantly are.  It’s refreshing that Alfredson would risk alienating a mainstream audience who needs all of the answers constantly spoon-fed to it the entire running time, and it’s likely the reason Tinker Tailor didn’t scare up larger box office returns.  Instead, it’s the kind of film that benefits from re-watching and will likely find more and more audience favor as time goes by; and yet it still did well enough to merit production of a now-rumored sequel.  With four more le Carre books starring George Smiley, and three additional novels he makes appearances in, there’s certainly room to grow Tinker Tailor into a franchise if the creative team wants to pursue it.

The plot has Oldman’s Smiley retiring from MI6, commonly referred to in-house as “the Circus.”  Shortly thereafter, Control, played by John Hurt, dies of natural causes, leaving behind an investigation of what he believes to be a Soviet mole in their infrastructure.  About the same time, one of their field agents, Jim Prideuax, played by Mark Strong, has a mission compromised, is possibly fatally shot, and disappears.  Smiley begins to secretly take over Control’s investigation with the assistance of a younger agent, Peter Guillam, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, still on the inside of MI6.  There’s a particularly intense and expertly-directed scene where Guillam has to steal some secret documents from the MI6 library and navigate a system where any baggage or briefcases must be checked and put into security.  While all of this is going on, another field agent, Ricki Tarr, played by Tom Hardy, shows up at Smiley’s house after having been branded a traitor, the story of his own compromised mission linked to information that may help reveal the identity of the mole.  The title of both novel and film comes from the code names Control has assigned to the four agents he believes may be the mole, agents played by Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and David Dencik.

Of course the entire cast in fantastic, but some of the more well-known actors like Firth and Hinds don’t get a lot of screen time.  For me the stand-outs were Dencik and Cumberbatch.  Dencik has a great scene filmed on a landing strip with a small airplane that reveals the depths of fear and paranoia going on under the surface.  And Cumberbatch’s Guillam is a nice counterpoint to Smiley while working alongside him.  He’s younger, a bit more green, and more emotionally vulnerable and accessible as a character than Smiley.  He helps ground the film and broaden its scope from what we get with Smiley, who plays his cards so close to his vest.  It’s a shame that neither Dencik or Cumberbatch picked up Oscar nominations this past year; their work certainly deserved it, much more than some of the other nominees, for example Jonah Hill in Moneyball.

Tinker Tailor is the kind of smart, intelligent thriller rarely produced these days, and something I personally have been hungering for.  Since Hollywood has dumbed-down so much of its output over the last decade, hopefully we’ll continue to see some of the excellent foreign directors with growing cache dip their toes into larger-budgeted genre films and produce movies that engage the brain along with the adrenaline glands.  And not only is Tinker Tailor whip-smart, but Alfredson is a very visually gifted director, and the cinematography, framing, and editing all work together to create a sharp, gorgeous package.

9/10

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Top Ten of 2011, #10: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, David Yates

The entire Harry Potter phenomenon is something that has truly deserved all of its successes.  The existence of the books are nothing short of a miracle, considering how J.K. Rowling wrote the first one while on social security and unemployed, a single mother in the throes of clinical depression contemplating suicide.  Unlike most young adult fiction, the Harry Potter books are extremely well-written and intelligent.  They don’t speak down to their readership, but rather invite it to rise and grow with the series.  They portray an enticing, magical world where every child has a place and an extended family at Hogwarts, where children are respected and valued and encouraged to embrace their destiny.  It’s no surprise than an entire generation of children has been given hope by the series, and learned to appreciate the joys of reading.

The films began with director Christopher Columbus, who did an adequate job on the first two creating a sense of magic and the wonders of discovery.  But the director of fare like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire has never been much for subtlety, and one of the signatures of his films appears to be the trite, phony, narcissistic grins of overly-precious Hollywood child stars.  Luckily for the series the three leads were cast so well, and all of them grew with the films into talented young actors.  Things really experienced a shift when Alfonso Cuaron took over for Prisoner of Azkaban and began treating it like something more than a shiny, happy child’s confection.  Then David Yates came on board with the fifth film and stuck through to the end becoming a central, governing voice along with screenwriter Steve Kloves.  Not only did Yates provide a great consistency during the run of the final half of the series, but he began with the adaptation that is easily the worst book in the series, the Order of the Phoenix.  The fifth novel is almost unreadable as Rowling seems to have lost the through-line with this installment, and most of the book is spent scrabbling around trying to find its voice, its purpose, and the ending for the series.  My personal theory is that the success of the film series really hit Rowling while she was working on it, and suddenly she was no longer writing only for herself or even for her enormous and still-growing readership, but for the Hollywood machine, and the pressures of not upsetting it created a lot of anxiety and self-questioning.  Luckily for her, she was back on track with the publication of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but Phoenix is filled with a lot of meandering and stumbling, and reads like a collection of filler material by a writer trying to find her way through a first draft to the end.  Nevertheless, Yates took the material and did something rare– made an adaptation stronger than the source material.

So the weight on Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is enormous.  Not only does it finish up an unprecedented film series, one shot with the same young actors over the course of a decade as they matured, never replacing any of them, and one with a cinematic vision that became more honed and refined as the series continued, but it does justice to a literary phenomenon, and the end of the film series signals the close to a multi-media legacy featuring a who’s who of the British acting community.  The special effects, set design, make-up, and art direction continued to evolve and grow over the course of the series, always representing the best of its time, and by this last film has evolved into something truly special.  And in addition to all of the talent in front of and behind the camera, Deathly Hallows has the unenviable task of wrapping up plot detail after plot detail, of portraying moment after sacred moment in the endgame of a beloved literary benchmark.  Every moment of the film is an opportunity to stumble, but the film never does.  Under Yates’ confident leadership, Deathly Hallows hits every small bit out of the park and brings a satisfying close to an unwieldy eight-film adaptation.

Now, it’s likely that Deathly Hallows can’t really stand on it’s own.  I can’t imagine anyone who’s never read the Harry Potter books or seen the other films sitting in front of this one and having any idea of what’s going on or caring about the characters.  To that point, Deathly Hallows, Part 2 really can’t be appreciated as a stand-alone film.  But the manner it which it closes such a long and successful series is the kind of razor’s edge, miraculous balancing act that deserves acknowledgement and deep respect.  Forget the new “trilogy,” the Harry Potter film series is really the Star Wars of this generation, so powerful that its success has redefined the Hollywood blockbuster franchise, inflicting the irredeemable Twilight films on us with their mimicking marketing strategy right down to splitting the final book into two films, a move that was required to capture the full density of the final Potter book, but one that is nothing more than imitation and a blind money grab on the part of that other franchise’s vapid excrescence.

9/10

March 2012 releases

Over the next few days you’ll be seeing the reviews of my Top Ten of 2011 films.  I’ve tried to catch up on everything released in 2011 that could possibly upset the list, which is why there have been so many recent 2011 reviews.  I won’t be posting reviews for films I saw much earlier in the year upon their release.  However, I will take requests.  So if someone wants to see a review for a 2011 film that isn’t up after the Top Ten of 2011 reaches completion, by all means post something in the comments section and I’ll get a review up for it.  Chances are I’ve already seen it; there were several films in 2011 that I really liked that aren’t on the list and haven’t already received a review from me.

After the Top Ten of 2011, I’ll be putting up reviews for the remaining February releases I intend to review: Safe House, The Secret World of Arrietty, Wanderlust, and Gone.  Those should all be up before the end of the week.  I hope to get to The Perfect Sense once it finally opens in Los Angeles in the next week or two.  The same goes for Tomorrow, When the War Began, which appears to have only opened initially in New York.  I won’t be doing reviews for the new Ghost Rider movie or for Thin Ice.  The former has been so critically lambasted that I’m no longer interested in wasting time watching or reviewing it; I’d hoped it would fall into the so-bad-it’s-fun category of last year’s Drive Angry, but obviously Neveldine and Taylor are just getting more and more incomprehensible, and can’t hit the same kind of over-the-top, ludicrous genre delight of Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier.  Thin Ice, the more I’ve considered it, just looks to be really trite, cliche indie fare, and not something even Billy Crudup can save.  Again, it’s something I’ve lost interest in reviewing and doesn’t seem to be worth the time.  Occasionally, there will be films where this happens.  However, I’m not adverse to reviewing something at the request of vocal fans, so make your voices heard in the comment section!  Also, there will occasionally be instances where I get dragged to something not on my schedule and end up doing a review for it.

After this recent slate of 2011 films and the upcoming Top Ten of 2011, things are going to slow down a bit with probably about 5 reviews posted a week instead of 2-5 a day.  In the future, I may add in special review projects such as reviewing all the films of selected directors.  I’d certainly be willing to take requests for that as well.  I’ve already seen all the films of Kurosawa, Scorsese, and Spielberg.  One director I have in mind for it, because I’m very interested to see the half of his filmography I haven’t yet watched, is Ingmar Bergman.  I’d go so far as to say that Bergman is my favorite director.

But for now here is what you can expect to see from me during the month of March, by release date:

March 2nd
The Lorax
Project X
The Snowtown Murders
Let the Bullets Fly

March 9th
John Carter
Silent House
Friends With Kids
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Footnote

March 16th
Jeff Who Lives at Home
Seeking Justice
Casa de mi Padre
The Kid With a Bike
Detachment

March 23rd
The Hunger Games
The Raid
The Trouble With Bliss
4:44 Last Day on Earth
The Deep Blue Sea

March 30th
Wrath of the Titans
Intruders
Goon

Published in: on February 28, 2012 at 2:51 am  Leave a Comment  

The Interrupters, Steve James (2011)

Steve James directed one of my favorite documentaries of all time, 1994’s Hoop DreamsThe Interrupters is stylistically similar, and James is able to work some kind of magic with his subjects to gain such a deep level of their trust and obtain the footage that he does, completely honest and lacking in self-consciousness.

The Interrupters explores the violence around the streets of Chicago and the work of a group called CeaseFire, founded by Gary Slutkin and currently run by Tio Hardiman.  CeaseFire employs ex-convicts and ex-gang members as “violence interrupters” who try to stop escalating violence through mediation, based on Slutkin’s theory that the current outbreak of urban violence functions and spreads like an infectious disease, and so the most effective treatment is to target the spread of the infection rather than to worry about casting blame.  CeaseFire doesn’t exist to break up gangs or to inform to the police; their sole goal is simply to stop the escalation of violence and the spread of killing, one person at a time.

The Interrupters focuses on three employees working for CeaseFire, Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra.  Ameena Matthews is the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of Chicago’s most infamous gang leaders.  As a teenager, Ameena fell into gang life as well.  But before she was completely swallowed by it, she got out and has subsequently found new purpose in the Muslim faith and her responsibilities to her husband and children.  Cobe Williams, living in the shadows of the murder of his father, served a long prison term following his own involvement with gangs and an attempted murder charge, but wanting to be a responsible father to his young son helped him find his way after his release.  And Eddie Bocanegra, who went to prison for murder, now works for CeaseFire knowing that the only way he can make up for what he did to his victim and his victim’s family is to do it indirectly by helping others.

Throughout the course of The Interrupters, we see Ameena counsel the mother of Derrion Albert through the aftermath of her son’s brutal murder, which made national news after his being beaten to death was videotaped and posted on youtube.  She also befriends a girl still in high school who has been in and out of prison, has a junkie mother, and is struggling to find a purpose and a path forward.  Cobe Williams tries to help reunite a mother with her two sons, assist a boy trying to go straight after serving prison time for the armed robbery of a barber shop, and intervenes in the life of a guy on the brink of retaliation following his brother’s murder.  Eddie Bocanegra, who discovered art and painting in prison, works with several kids’ groups teaching art as a tool for communication about the street violence in their lives, and in the process befriends a girl whose young brother was shot and who died in her arms.  The family still visits his grave daily.

What made Hoop Dreams such an amazing documentary was its honesty and the way it subverted the expectations we bring with us as an audience.  Because this is real life, things never play out the way we might expect them to.  Someone who might seem to have it made could inevitably sabotage their own future out of ego, complacency, or a sense of self-privilege.  And someone else who refuses to give up might find more success than anyone could have thought.  The Interrupters is cut from similar cloth.  Just when you might count someone out, they’ll do something human to surprise us, and prove that all of the patience and time spent with them was worth it after all.  At the same time, this isn’t Hollywood fiction, and sometimes human nature works the opposite way, and try as someone might, there’s simply no way to help someone who’s not ready to be helped or able to help themselves.  In fact, that reality is part of the day-to-day struggles of the violence interrupters, who know that sometimes they’re not going to be able to help people, that their work will be in vain and they have to try to resolve themselves to the frustrations of it all.

The methodology behind CeaseFire is simple: get people who have lived the life, who can come into an escalating conflict and who people will listen to and respect because they’ve already been there.  Let their subjects talk, let them vent; listen to them.  Often what’s most needed at the beginning is for their voices to be heard.  Then sit with them, let them work through their grievances, and keep bringing it back to what they have to live for, their families, and how escalating the violence can only lead to more turmoil and tragedy.

The kind of violence pervading the communities that CeaseFire deals with doesn’t really have anything to do with crime or drug running or gang wars; it’s much simpler than that.  It’s the endless cycle of violence between people boxed into an economic corner with few opportunities available to them, who are already operating from an instinctual place of fight or flight, and who are then physically threatened in some small way.  Many of these altercations are simple and about basic things– someone who owes someone else $5, or the wrong insult hurled; but once the fuse is lit the escalation bounces back and forth until it erupts in physical violence, and then it bounces back and forth some more as the bodies pile up.

The Interrupters is equally about the stories of the violence interrupters themselves, Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie, and the stories of the people and the families they’re trying to assist.  It’s a wide net, but the film benefits far more than it would if it were either only about the interrupters or only about their work in the community.  And the miraculously honest footage James gets makes it consistently fascinating.  The Interrupters is an extremely important film, and it’s a shame that it didn’t get an Academy Award nomination.  Yet, it’s also a frustrating film on some levels, because it does reflect reality and there aren’t always easy answers or resolved story threads.  Some of the stories end with a sense of hope, but some of them end in a middle that we don’t know will ever reach an end.  It makes you want more, makes you want a network to pick something like this up and run it as an ongoing series where it could reach a lot more people and have a much larger positive effect.  Instead we get The Bachelor and Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of Wherever.

9/10

I Saw the Devil, Jee-woon Kim (2011)

I Saw the Devil is the latest from Jee-woon Kim, director of A Tale of Two Sisters and The Good, the Bad, and the Weird.  It starts off as a fairly standard revenge thriller when agent Kim Soo-hyeon’s fiancee is murdered late at night while waiting for a tow truck to come change her flat tire.  The cinematography is gorgeous and evocative, and lead Byung-hun Lee has charisma to spare.  He quickly turns his time off from the police force into a private hunt for the murderer, Kyung-chul, played by Min-sik Choi of Oldboy.  But Devil is darker than most standard genre fare, and soon Soo-hyeon is plumbing the depths as he realizes the only way he can even attempt to inflict proper punishment is to meet Kyung-chul on his own corrupt moral ground.

But Devil isn’t simply the search for the killer; in fact, Soo-hyeon locates him fairly quickly, and then Devil becomes something different– an exploration of how far a seemingly moral person will go in pursuit of vengeance.  Once Soo-hyeon has located Kyung-chul, fought him and mutilated him, he lets him go so that he can continue to hunt him.  Soo-hyeon is a cat toying with its prey, trying to prolong the hunt, and with it the fear and the punishment.  In that sense, there’s a very visceral truth behind Devil.  Yet, it’s also a simplistic one that really only exists in the movies.  As focused and clever as Devil is, this is the narrative logic of cinema at work.  In the real world, there’s a greater amount of moral ambiguity involved and things aren’t always so black and white.  Most people know that you can’t bring back someone already gone, and breaking the law and turning yourself into a criminal to try to exact vengeance is a hollow, pointless pursuit, particularly if in doing so you’re allowing more innocent people to be victimized.

But I suppose this kind of heightened genre storytelling is rarely realistic, and the ultimate aim here is to show how pointless Soo-hyeon’s vengeance is, and how he must transform his own heart into that of a killer’s to be able to defeat Kyung-chul.  And to that end, his thirst for revenge simply takes another victim in the protagonist himself.  As Soo-hyeon continues to hunt and pursue Kyung-chul, he begins to realize that what he ultimately wants is for Kyung-chul to suffer in the same eye-for-an-eye way his fiancee did.  Yet he also begins to realize that because Kyung-chul is a heartless, soul-less, unrepentant murderer, he’ll never get what he wants because Kyung-chul is incapable of suffering in the same way.  If he was, if he had the emotional make-up to be able to experience the same pain, grief, regret, fear, and sorrow as the rest of humanity, he wouldn’t be a serial killer in the first place.  Which means that not only is any sort of revenge ineffectual, but that the amount he’s had to compromise himself to achieve it has all been in vain.

As these types of genre films go, often requiring a certain suspension of belief, Devil probably could have gotten away with all of this if it had simply stopped there.  But while chasing after Kyung-chul, Soo-hyeon follows him to the lair of yet another serial killer, a friend of Kyung-chul’s.  And really this is where Devil goes one step too far into ludicrousness.  For Devil to work, we need to primarily be concerned about the emotional state of Soo-hyeon and whether he has any piece of his soul left.  We need to worry if he’s gone too far and passed some point of no return, or if he can still save whatever shred of his humanity remains.  And for that, Devil needs to have some part of it grounded in reality.  The last thing it needs is to take a side turn and become a cartoonish carnival of serial killers.  Once it goes there, Devil becomes too difficult to take seriously, and the relevance of emotional realities are removed from the table.  Devil has simply become a big, crazy, over-the-top theme park ride, yet too dark and disturbing to be considered entertaining or fun.

It’s still artfully executed, and it’s still likely to have its fan base of young males eager for these kinds of stories.  At it’s best, Devil is very slick genre storytelling, not afraid to push the envelope and go to far darker places than most.  But in taking it as far as it does, Devil loses its own emotional thread and edges into stylish pointlessness, casting aside any aspirations to be something truly hard-hitting and gut-punching, trading maturity for immaturity, and instead pursuing an agenda of superficial, hollow shock tactics.

7.5/10

Published in: on February 28, 2012 at 12:42 am  Leave a Comment  
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London Boulevard, William Monahan (2011)

London Boulevard comes with a high pedigree; it’s the directorial debut of screenwriter William Monahan, the writer behind such films as Kingdom of Heaven, The Departed, Body of Lies, and Edge of Darkness.  And it stars Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone, David Thewlis, Anna Friel, Ben Chaplin, and Eddie Marsan.  That’s a damn fine British cast, with Irish Farrell in his post-prima donna days.  There’s no reason this shouldn’t be a tightly-written and impressive little indie crime movie.  Except that Monahan has decided to make his directing debut with a self-indulgent, Hollywood-obsessed script that splits its aim in two.

On the one hand, Boulevard tells the tale of ex-con Mitchell as he’s released from prison and has to rely somewhat on old friend Billy Norton, played by Chaplin.  Billy is a small-time hood obviously at the beck and call of a much more powerful master, and he sets Mitchell up in a furnished flat.  Mitchell accompanies Billy on a few criminal errands around town, doing his best to remain uninvolved.  But it’s not long before the local crime boss Gant, played by Winstone, catches wind of Mitchell’s reputation and realizes he’s got more going on upstairs than Billy, and would likely make a very good addition to his organization.  Winstone is normally a great actor, but here he decides to underplay much of his role in a way that simply doesn’t work.  It’s an obvious inclination, wanting to play against type and not simply ratchet himself up to 11 as a screaming, psychotic crime boss, but the way he throws away lines and subverts much of the part isn’t any better.  And considering what a sharp writer Monahan usually is, here he’s just going through the motions and giving us a very generic crime storyline.  It seems as though he’s trying for a certain amount of naturalism, showing us Mitchell and his mates going about the day-to-day in working class neighborhoods.  But it’s still a film that stars Colin Farrell, a movie star, and it’s still an arch crime film.  By sanding it down, Monahan’s made it into something not clever enough with not nearly enough going on to keep it interesting, because he’s certainly never going to get it to the place where it’s a natural day-in-the-life.  There’s a theme involving Farrell choosing to be a good, upstanding citizen because he knows if he were to choose to be a gangster he would disappear down the rabbit hole and become a horrible human being that not even a crime boss could trust, but it’s lost amid the shuffle.  And that’s because…

Boulevard also tells the tale of ex-con Mitchell hired by famous actress Charlotte, Keira Knightley, to protect her from the paparazzi as she hides out on her London estate.  Her best friend Jordon, played by David Thewlis, has been keeping her company and obviously has a bit of a crush on her.  Jordan is a burned out actor-himself, and Monahan uses him as a mouthpiece for a lot of self-indulgent witticisms about acting and Hollywood.  Self-referential films about Hollywood rarely work in my opinion, particularly when trying to play it straight.  The last thing I usually want to see is a film about actors and the narcissistic world of Hollywood.  They’re like books about writers.  If an artist doesn’t have anything to say and has to resort to self-indulgent navel-gazing and purposelessness, it’s beyond rare to find a compelling story springing out of that particular garbage heap.  And this layer of phony, constructed story also manages to destroy any level of credible naturalism Monahan is trying to build with the crime storyline.

For all that, there’s a sweet romance with the damaged, Charlotte character, and Monahan uses the vast differences between Charlotte and and Mitchell for them to take a more honest look at their lives.  This could be Notting Hill done as a crime drama instead of as a comedy.  But Monahan can’t decide which story he really wants to tell, and splits his time between them equally, which results in neither getting adequate screen time or development, and both failing.  The romance between Charlotte and Mitchell never builds into enough or truly captures our interest or empathy, and the crime story with Gant just ends up being a by-the-numbers routine with not enough unique details or characteristics to elevate it above the rote.  Chaplin, for all of his effort, just doesn’t have the requisite charisma to make his role as Mitchell’s mate into the kind of morally-adrift, sleazy best friend that actually resonates; likewise Eddie Marsan is wasted as a corrupt police investigator.  Anna Friel registers as Mitchell’s mess of a sister, turning in perhaps the most memorable performance of the film, but it’s a role that gets short shrift and less screen time than the character deserves.

It’s hard to say whether Monahan falls victim to being too in love with Hollywood, too in love with crime films, or too in love with his own writing.  But he fails to make strong directorial choices, one of which needs to be better determining the central focus of the film.  Boulevard has potential, but it’s a potential that goes lost.  Next time out, Monahan would do better to attempt less and give up his wide, scatterscot aim for a narrower scope allowing himself to do more within its defined sights.

5/10

Bullhead, Michael R. Roskam (2012)

Bullhead is up for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars, but wasn’t released stateside until a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a strange anomaly of a film, and one that ultimately has a little too much going on for its own good.

Bullhead is set against the world of an animal-hormone mafia in Belgium, where the cattle farming Vanmarsenilles have turned to illegal hormone injections to increase the size of their cows.  Jacky has taken over the family business, and there’s an interesting parallel to the animals in that he himself takes hormone injections and, as a result, is physically enormous, even resembling a muscular bull.  The film begins as a fairly straight-forward crime drama, but before long Jacky’s criminal involvement has led a friend from childhood back into his life, while a police investigation widens to include a focus on the Vanmarsenilles.  We witness some illuminating flashbacks to Jacky’s childhood and a trauma that informs his adult life, as well as an unnecessary sub-plot involving a stolen car that gets far too much screen time.

Bullhead is part character study and part crime drama, but it also splits time with the ongoing police investigation.  There’s an event that happens about a third of the way through the film, and knowing too much about it going into the film, I was worried it might be the kind of narrative shock-stunt that could overwhelm the rest of the movie.  Happily this is not the case, and Bullhead is strong enough that the story point ultimately serves the characters.  The real problem is that there’s simply one narrative perspective too many at work here.  If it were more of a straight crime film, we really wouldn’t require all of the time spent exploring Jackie’s psyche.  But ultimately this is his story, as the third act spins off to focus primarily on him.  His environment on the cattle farm, his history, and his involvement with some of the criminals are definitely still key, but the amount of time spent on the police investigation is ultimately extraneous and somewhat unnecessary, and that goes double for the sub-plot involving a stolen car and the death of a famous local police officer and animal hormone investigator.  It ultimately takes time away from Jacky, and the climax of the film isn’t as emotionally compelling as it probably could have been.  All of the shifting story threads makes Bullhead less personal, and an ending that might draw comparison to the works of Pedro Almodovar lacks the requisite emotional intimacy and flourishes of brilliance that characterize his work.  Bullhead would have been better off to either cut back on Jacky’s story and focus on the crime angle, in which case it would have lost most of what makes it unique, or to cut some of the unnecessary genre fat and put Jacky more squarely front and center.

The acting here is also a bit problematic.  While Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Jacky, captures much of the character’s turmoil and frustration, there’s an inaccessibility to his work that keeps the viewer at arm’s length.  That’s fine when we’re slowly beginning to explore Jacky’s character and psyche during the first half of the film and there’s an element of mystery to him, and it helps shine some of the light back on the rest of the plot.  But by the end of the film, when it’s important that we’re deeply connected to Jackie, the lack of emotional vulnerability and transparency becomes a liability.  It’s not helped by the fact that Jeroen Perceval, who plays Jacky’s friend Diederik as an adult and anchors much of the unnecessary investigative side of the narrative, is by far a more accessible, nuanced, and talented actor.  Schoenaerts would be better off playing a supporting role where the narrative could help define his character for him; and Perceval is the kind of subtle and compelling actor who keeps drawing interest and empathy and begs to be considered the lead protagonist.  Bullhead focusing on him as much as it does for the police-centric sequences only serves to highlight this discrepancy and undermine the film’s intent.

For all that, Bullhead is still compelling, taking place in a world not really portrayed before on film, and featuring some grueling, tragic character work.  And if it splits focus by one too many threads and is slightly more ambitious than what it can realize, it’s not something that completely invalidates the entire movie.  Bullhead is never an easy film, and its content is often brutal and unsettling, but it’s also a determined workhorse that never stops trudging forward.

7.5/10

Beginners, Mike Mills (2011)

On the surface, Beginners would seem to be the story of Oliver Fields’ father Hal, played by Christopher Plummer.  As it turns out, Hal has been gay his whole life, despite the fact that he was married to Oliver’s mother for 44 years and raised a son.  After Oliver’s mother died, Hal finally decided to come out of the closet and reinvent himself.

I’ve heard writer/director Mike Mills talk about his father on public radio, and this film is a fairly accurate depiction of Mills’ real-life father and their relationship.  Mills has said that it was fascinating and invigorating to watch his father reveal his true nature in the twilight of his life, to finally allow himself to be who he was, and to acquire a new-found zest for life.  As a result, father and son grew closer than ever before.  This relationship is certainly at the heart of Beginners, but it ends up not being the film’s central narrative focus.

More time is spent in the present, after the death of Hal Fields, examining Oliver’s sad life and his latest relationship with French actress Anna, played by Melanie Laurent.  The film is sweet and charming, but also depressing, and Oliver’s sadness permeates the tone of the film as well as the character’s life.  Flashbacks with Oliver’s mother, played by an excellent Mary Page Keller, depict a marriage devoid of passion in which Oliver’s father was largely absent.  Even though Georgia knew that Hal was gay, as was often the case at the time, she thought that if she loved him enough she could “fix” him.  And while it’s obvious that Hal and Georgia did deeply love each other, it wasn’t a romantic love, at least on Hal’s part.  So Georgia led a lonely, depressed life, and that became the prevalent mood in the Fields’ house, try as she might to lighten the mood and keep Oliver from withdrawing inward.  Children have a way of sensing the truth, and while he never knew his father was gay, the lack of passion in the marriage and the resultant melancholy colored everything.  And it informed Oliver’s emotional development and his own state of being.

So it is that Oliver has grown into someone lonely and forever longing for love, affection, and human connection, but inherently distrustful of love and romance.  Arthur dreads a life of detachment and lovelessness, and walks away from or sabotages every relationship he’s ever had.  It’s easier and more empowering to expect and guarantee rejection rather than risk opening one’s heart.  Anna has similar emotional hesitations, and the two of them try their best to resist their natural inclinations to distrust or cut and run.

It’s perhaps the last four year’s of Hal’s life, the four years he lived as an openly gay man, that ultimately serve to give Oliver some hope and a chance at happiness.  For all of his fears about living in a loveless relationship, the real problem is that his childhood was spent in a detached relationship with his mother where there wasn’t a lot of honest communication or expression.  At one point Georgia tells her son that if he needs to express his pain, he should go into his room, shut the door, and scream for two minutes.  What Oliver doesn’t seem to realize is that his adult life has been a continuation of that detached childhood.  But it’s his adult relationship with his father that becomes his key to changing the way he thinks, feels, and lives.  For the first time, he’s able to have an honest and expressive relationship with one of his parents.  And though it takes time for him to change, we can see the seeds planted in those four years with his father as they begin to sprout and bear fruit in the present, in the way he begins to come out of his shell and risk opening himself up to Anna and not running away from the thing he most desires.

Ewan McGregor as Oliver and Christopher Plummer as Hal both have such a wonderful, natural ease to their work that it makes the film.  Goran Visnjic’s as Hal’s younger, almost child-like lover Andy is also excellent.  He seems to embody the injured and emotionally fragile inner child that Hal is trying to reconnect with and Oliver is struggling to allow.  Beginners is a modest film with modest aims, but it’s incredibly personal both in the reflection of Mike Mills’ actual life and in the intimate emotional truths of the performances.  It’s sweet and it’s sad, but it’s also incredibly honest, life-affirming, and heart-warming.

7.5/10

Albert Nobbs, Roderigo Garcia (2011)

Albert Nobbs isn’t a bad film, but it is a strange one, and it’s as problematic as it is successful.  At one point Mia Wasikowska’s character refers to Albert as “a strange little man,” and it’s a description that seems to fit the overall film as well.  Just like Glenn Close doesn’t really pull off being a passable man, neither does the film pull of the strength of its protagonist’s story.

Albert Nobbs, through some dire and heartbreaking circumstances, ended up alone in the world at a young age with nothing and no one to depend on.  Considering the time period and how women were hardly treated as equals, and certainly weren’t employable in the same way as men, she tried and apparently succeeded in disguising herself as a man in pursuit of a job waiting tables.  As time passed and her career continued, she grew into her new identity to the point that her identification of herself as a woman even became somewhat cloudy to her.  Thirty years on, and we find Albert Nobbs as the head waiter at a boarding house, stockpiling her earnings under a floorboard in her bedroom.

Yet for all of her success in maintaining her own independence, Albert Nobbs is lost inside, and doesn’t even seem to be able to decide how she might be able to find happiness.  Enter painter Hubert Page, played by Janet McTeer.  Hubert’s doing some work at the boarding house, and so owner Mrs. Baker decides to put her up in Albert’s bedroom with Albert.  Terrified of being exposed, Albert almost has a seizure while trying to fall asleep sharing a bed with Hubert, and is nevertheless revealed as a woman.  Shortly thereafter, in an effort to put Albert at ease, Hubert rips open her own shirt to reveal substantial breasts and the fact that she, too, is a woman in disguise.  Hubert tells Albert her story, and that in her new identity as a man, she’s even married and has a wife.  It doesn’t take long for Albert to visit Hubert and wife Cathleen to investigate their living arrangements, and to lock onto their lifestyle as the solution to her own happiness, deciding to pursue a wife of her own.

Part of the problem of Albert Nobbs is the fact that neither Close or McTeer are very passable as men.  McTeer lopes around with a permanent scowl on her face and a stiff swagger, but her body type is too obviously female particularly with those large breasts that she doesn’t even attempt to corset in.  It sort of pains me to say this, because I’m a big fan of both actresses, and this is such a long-time passion project of Close’s.  She’s certainly the more passable of the two, playing her role with understatement instead of McTeer’s broad physicality that almost borders on self-parody.  There’s a scene near the end of the film where both women put on dresses for the first time in years, perhaps even decades, and walk out together on the beach.  Ironically, they’re more passable as men in those dresses than they are when dressed up as men.

The second problem of Nobbs is the way that we’re kept at such an emotional distance from Albert, and the way there are so many uncertain elements to her identity.  From what we’re told, it doesn’t seem that Albert is a lesbian or even a transvestite by choice, but that her dressing is a man was a financial necessity of survival for the time.  So why would Albert want to take a wife?  If anything, Albert seems almost asexual.  Perhaps Albert’s desire for a marriage really only represents an attempt at a superficially normal life, as sexual attraction barely seems to enter into the picture.  But there’s so much that begs to be explored here, and so many questions about the nature of Albert’s sexual identity that are simply never even addressed.  It doesn’t even really seem that Albert wants to be loved so much as she wants to be accepted as a person able to make her own living.  Nobbs feels as though we’re only ever skating across the surface of the real story and of Albert Nobbs’ psyche, and for such a fascinating character with so much compelling potential, it’s frustrating that we never break through that surface to more deeply explore the character.

And finally there’s Albert’s courting of Helen, a maid at the boarding house where she works, played by Mia Wasikowska.  Helen has some affection for Albert as an elder and as a strange old creature she barely understands.  But Helen herself has fallen into an affair with new handyman Joe, played by Aaron Johnson.  Joe is a temperamental hothead who still hasn’t gotten over his own abused childhood, his inability to read, or his longing to escape to America.  He entertains himself with Helen, but it’s obvious he doesn’t have the maturity to be capable of actual love, and he even encourages Helen to go out with Albert and swindle him for gifts.  The scenes where Helen does just that, are of course, unsettling.  But what’s more unsettling is simply the fact that Helen obviously has no love for Albert, and Albert doesn’t know Helen enough to really have feelings for her, either.  Not that she even seems to.  Helen appears to be more an accoutrement in the pursuit of Albert’s dream of independence and self-sufficiency and a tobacconist’s shop of her very own.  In fact, being so out of touch with Helen and what she wants or who she is, and seemingly being incapable of actually connecting with her, Albert Nobbs comes off as much as a predator as anything else.  Hubert Page, by comparison, is obviously a lesbian at this point in her life, and in a happy and loving relationship.  But for Albert Nobbs, this potential life with someone she doesn’t even know just seems like a bizarre fantasy disconnected from all reality.

And all of this may be true, and perhaps that’s somewhat intended to be the point.  There’s certainly room for a compelling story with these circumstances.  But again, the problem is that we don’t really get very far inside Albert’s psyche, so it’s hard to have the kind of deep empathy that would be required for the story of such a disconnected and misguided creature for it to have genuine emotional resonance.  It’s obvious how much Glenn Close has put into this project, but it still doesn’t feel like it’s enough.  The period settings and costumes are authentic, and the cast is a solid one.  Brendan Gleeson has a few welcome comic moments as a doctor at the boarding house, and a drunken bit while wearing a stethoscope at a costume party as he quips to Albert Nobbs, “We are both disguised as ourselves,” connects more than most of film’s intended bigger moments.  None of these characters are made intimate enough to the audience to emotionally resonate, including Hubert and Helen, so it’s not simply a problem afflicting the role of Albert.  There’s a conversation near the end of the film between those two that’s obviously supposed to inspire a certain kind of reaction with the audience, but for me it just seemed to continue this unintentional, lurking theme of sexual predator-ship.  Albert Nobbs certainly isn’t a great film, and for all of its odd missteps, it’s perhaps even a near miss at being a good one.

6.5/10

The Flowers of War, Zhang Yimou (2011)

And then there’s the other recent ejection from my Top Ten of 2011 list, The Flowers of War.  It’s hard to say why the film was seemingly thrown to the wolves by its lack of marketing and bypassed by moviegoers.  Yimou does have a bit of international cache after directing such huge hits as Hero, with Jet Li, and House of Flying Daggers.  It’s true that Flowers isn’t chock full of the kind of artful fight sequences as both of those films, but it’s no tedious snoozefest, either.  Perhaps it’s simply due to the fact that the film is about the rape of Nanking, and features prostitutes, invading soldiers, and young girls at a convent, and the tag line “Want a little rape with your Rape?” probably wouldn’t have sold too many tickets.

Flowers also got a lot of flack for its portrayal of the Japanese as two-dimensional monsters, which is unfair.  It’s not like every film about the holocaust should be obligated to have incredibly humanizing portrayals of the Nazis.  The fact of the matter is that these events happened, and they were a horrible tragedy.  Every race, every nation, and every people is capable of great atrocities and evil, and over the course of history no one has been completely innocent.  But ultimately, it’s a constant choice.  The best way to prevent such terrible choices in the future is for us to continue to study history and understand each other and our commonalities until we realize we have more in common than not, and no reason to persecute each other.  But we can’t change the past or the things that have already happened, and there’s no reason that we should forget the extent of what happened in Nanking, that 200,000-300,00 civilian men, women, and children were murdered by soldiers of the Imperialist Japanese Army, and at least 20,000 women were raped, including infants and the elderly.  Or that often times the Japanese searched door-to-door for young women, gang-raped them, and then killed them immediately afterwards.

Flowers has also received a little critical drubbing for placing a white Westerner at the center of the story.  But it’s kind of a silly criticism considering how little of a hero John Miller, played here by Christian Bale, is.  Miller has been sent to a church in Nanking to help with the burial of many of the dead.  But the entire city is in wreckage, and Miller is quickly running for his own life.  When Miller reaches the church, he finds the single priest there dead, leaving behind a group of young female students and one young male assistant, George.  The church has largely been left alone by the invading Japanese, even more so than any local refuges or safety zones.  Miller is a coward through and through, and since he’s made the trip he’s determined to loot the church coffers for his fees before he leaves.  But a group of local prostitutes also make their way to the church to hide from the Japanese, and soon Miller is posing as a priest to protect both groups of women.  Yet he’s never truly made to look heroic, and even when he’s accepted that he must rise out of his alcoholic stupor, he’s mired in guilt and shame and has no qualms about admitting what a wretch he is.

It seems likely that the character of John Miller is based on German businessman John Rabe, who used his credentials as a member of the Nazi party and the existence of the German-Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact to try to appeal to the Japanese forces in his role as President of the Nanking Safety Zone.  He witnessed the soldiers periodically coming into the safety zone to remove hundreds of Chinese civilians at a time to rape and murder them, and ultimately helped save 200,000-250,000 Chinese citizens.  By relocating the character of Miller to an isolated church and focusing more on the two groups of women hiding there, the presence of Miller may give Western audiences an entry point into the story, but his cowardice and his lessened leadership role certainly stop him far short of being the film’s hero.  He’s simply the objective eyes through which the story is told, through which we can feel the full extent of the futile powerlessness of the situation, and recognize the bravery of the Chinese women.

No, the heroes of the film are the prostitutes, led by Ni Nin as Yu Mo, and the small band of ragtag Chinese that keep fighting the Japanese despite the odds.  Major Li and his men hold off the Japanese infantry as long as they can, and the sequence in which Li single-handedly battles a squad of Japanese soldiers with some well placed bombs and a sniper rifle sits squarely at the center of the film as a testament to the heroics of the Chinese army.  It’s gorgeously shot with some incredible cinematography, and helps get the action out of the church’s interiors and open up the scale and scope of the film.

The cast is uniformly excellent and the performances are emotionally powerful and resonant.  While it’s true that some of the movie is difficult to watch, and there are a couple of short, graphic scenes of murder and rape, the historical context really demands it.  The film isn’t going to be able to capture the full horror of what happened without going there, and when it does, it does so briefly.  Much more of the film is spent hiding out in the church, waiting for the Japanese to come, and waiting for them to return.  Yimou as a director is the complete package; he works well with actors, has an incredibly visual sense and flair for color, and a strong sense of physical staging.  All of this comes together in Flowers, and he captures not only the immediate physical atrocities of war, but the larger and more destructive force of a group mass divorced from any sense of personal or moral responsibility and operating without any sense of humanity and hiding behind its bureaucracy.  More importantly, amidst all of this, Yimou captures the true power of the human spirit and the small yet tangible differences an unrelenting resolve can make even in the face of utter defeat and seeming hopelessness.

9/10

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