Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

Spies, Inc.

After the international success of Lat den ratte komme in (Let the Right One In, 2008), Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson decided the next step in his career was to put aside vampires in exchange for spies.

And damned if he wasn't right. The twilight realm of vampires isn't quite as eerie as the half-lit realm of international espionage; the undead figures lurking in the margins of the former, their souls irretrievably lost, aren't quite as haunting or perverse as the half-alive figures lurking in the latter, their souls irretrievably corrupted. Werwolves and vampires? Pfft. Try lamplighters, pavement artists, honey traps and wranglers, not to mention the much-feared scalphunters. John Le Carre (pseudonym for David Cornwell) was an officer in both MI5 and MI6; he eventually used variations on the terminology spoken in his workplace to help paint the gray world of his novels.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, published in 1974, is the first third of what is generally considered Le Carre's masterwork, The Karla Trilogy. The novel tells the story of former spymaster George Smiley, dragged out of retirement to root out a possible mole--an 'undercover' or 'deep penetration' agent who has risen in the ranks and now helps run The Circus, Britain's secret service (so named because the services' fictitious headquarters are located at the famous junction). His former boss Control had narrowed the suspects down to five people before he died (of a broken heart, some say), and given them corresponding codenames: “Tinker,” “Tailor,” “Soldier.” Skip “Sailor”--sounds too much like “Tailor;” reject “Rich Man” for being inappropriate and substitute “Poor Man” instead. Smiley himself was (and I'm sure the irony wasn't lost on Control) “Beggarman.”

That's it, really, the entire premise (partially based on the true case of real-life double agent Kim Philby); all the complexity that follows is just Le Carre jumping back and forth in time and space to piece together the narrative, odd bits of knowledge painstakingly collected that, paradoxically, Smiley already knew in one form or another; he just was never able to bring himself to work the puzzle (the novel you might say is one long, jumbled hunt Smiley conducts in the thickets of his memory). The challenge of any adaptation, of course, is to translate this complexity to the small or large screen, transfer it so its greatest trick is preserved: that at the right moment the whole thing falls away to reveal the simplicity, the elegance of the mystery's solution.

The first adaptation of the novel was done for the small screen, directed by John Irvin and starring the late Alec Guinness. It ran for over three hundred minutes; Alfredson's 2011 version runs for a little over a hundred and twenty.

It's easy to beat up the latter with the former--to my mind, still the definitive version. At six hours, the mini-series had room to breathe, to follow Le Carre's vision more faithfully; Guiness in turn had room to carve intricate detailing into his role. He had a beautifully modulated voice (it was as if his larynx was fluted) and he could sound like a weary bureaucrat or relentless schoolmaster, sometimes alternating from one to the other within a line of dialogue--this mix of self-effacement and strength was so influential Le Carre reportedly modeled Smiley more and more on Guinness' performance in the subsequent novels. 

Director Irvin's straightforward approach helps ground the story in an everyday world; when asked what The Circus' offices looked like, Le Carre noted that they resembled the BBC offices--whereupon Irvin filmed some of his interiors there. The result: greater authenticity at (presumably) considerable savings, with a possibly unintended but nevertheless potent point--that intelligence organizations are essentially bureaucracies, are as faceless and joyless and impersonally malevolent as any other government or corporate entity. They are us, basically, only more so.

The length, the look, the feel of it was of a piece--how could a feature improve on this? How could maverick actor Gary Oldman improve on Guinness? Apparently they didn't try; the filmmaker gives the film an entirely new image, magnificent Edwardian-style buildings refitted to serve as offices somehow aestheticized, made to look beautiful--all faded red brick, pitted stone, stained green steel (look carefully and in one shot you can spot an open pit surrounded by railings, the floor below teeming with staff). For the Circus archives Alfredson presents an ant-farm view, layer atop layer of flooring and library shelves in labyrinthine cutaway, full of people scurrying right and left carrying files (Is the image digitally created? Where does he find these amazing locations?). Not, perhaps as grimly realistic as the BBC offices, but ravishingly decrepit.

Against this gorgeous decayed backdrop Alfredson uses a series of motifs. The suspects are represented by chess pieces with tiny photographs taped clumsily to their necks; Control's fall is represented by repeated flashbacks of Budapest, and the shooting and capture of Jim Prideaux (his crooked body lying on the street echoes Control's body lying crookedly on the side of the hospital bed). In the mini-series the Circus' rumpus room, its holy of holies where four of the suspects meet, is an anonymous conference room with antique (or faux antique) wood chairs; on film Alfredson has an entirely different conception--a large space lined with what at first glance looks like a ghastly checkerboard pattern, in that shade of unnatural orange made popular in the '70s. On closer inspection the checkerboard is even more bizarre--orange foam sculpted in corrugated patterns to dampen sound, helping proof the room from all kinds of eavesdropping. The effect is unreal: entering it is like entering another world, where time has stopped and potent spells (or state-of-the-art technology, same difference) have evoked an enchanted cave of sufficient security and quiet (or at least the illusion of security and quiet) to allow one to scheme, and map out a plan of action.

Film theorist David Bordwell in a series of excellent posts compares Guinness and Oldman's Smileys, noting that Guinness is like an old pedagogue explaining each turn and twist of the intricate plot; Oldman's Smiley is a more opaque creature, his mouth hanging absentmindedly open, his glasses obscured by reflected light. He keeps his cards so close to his chest you begin to project your own thoughts and feelings on his tabula rasa of a face. He's a more brusque Smiley, though (possibly because he has less time?); he pressures his bosses and victims till they both crack. He's an angrier version of the character (as angry perhaps (or so Bordwell believes) as Le Carre must have felt towards Philby), but the anger is banked, hidden, so as not to alarm others. We really see that fire only once, when Smiley finally confronts the mole; for the most part it's like a steam engine thudding away relentlessly behind steel plating--you sense it more than you actually see it.

I look at Oldman and despite Bordwell's insistence that it's a variation, I do see a lot of Guinness' Smiley in him; I doubt if Oldman can avoid this (Guiness did help shape Smiley's future incarnations). Oldman's approach basically is to preserve the mystery of Smiley, somehow give us the sense of a man hiding the rage inside him--the rage burning like thermite through the length of a foreshortened story. 

Is it different? Alfredson takes the liberty of having his aged spymaster take the occasional dip in a heated outdoor pool (presumably with other retirees), and it's startling to see Smiley, who one pictures as a shapeless mass of flesh wrapped in thick tweed, paddle his way across the steaming water, his receded chin breaking surface like a ship's prow. Smiley in swim trunks? One shudders.

At one point Smiley confides to his torchbearer Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) about the time he actually met Karla, and here for once the film exceeds the series--where Irvin made the conventional choice and showed the encounter in a flashback, Alfredson stays with Oldman who, using nearly all the text from the equivalent passage in the novel, sketches what happened.

Gradually an image emerges from Oldman's words. Alfredson's camera slowly glides around Oldman, the lenses fixated on him, giving us the sense of someone (Guillam, perhaps) watching--of someone unable to look away; Oldman gazes at no particular point, and as he speaks we realize that he's gazing not at anything before him but rather at something behind him, in the distant past. His gaze becomes so intense you actually feel a third presence in the room with eyes every bit as implacable, a ghost almost (believe it or not, I could feel the hairs on my arms stiffen and rise), a living if insubstantial memory mocking him with its inscrutability. 

That's the moment when I finally bought into Oldman's Smiley, the moment that made me understand: this Smiley held a vendetta of a kind against Karla and was determined to root out the mole. 

Is the film better? Not definitively, no; I'd call this a summarized, stylized version to the mini-series' expansive, more truthful one. I'd call Oldman's Smiley an enigma nursing a relentless (if repressed) bloodlust to Guinness' more empathic mandarin. One takes different pleasures from one, dwells on different flaws from the other. On its own, though, I can say this of the film: excellent interpretation, and one of the best features of last year.

First published in Businessworld, 3.23.12

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Housemaid (Im Sang Soo, 2010)

Domestic amuse 

Im Sang Soo's The Housemaid is a remake of Kim Ki-young's famed 1960 original, considered by many to be the greatest Korean film ever made. Which makes this new film what, exactly...?

Am traditionally suspicious of 'greatest ever' films, but Kim's black and white melodrama is possibly one of the oddest, sexiest, most fun claimant to the title--which makes its argument for the status more persuasive, in my book. The original Housemaid plays like a breathless sex thriller, a comprehensive catalogue of perversions running at flip-book speed, with the occasional pause to allow a moment of horror to sink in. Kim's camera wheels about, hurtles towards and away from its actors, constantly reframing the mis-en-scene as the characters struggle to reframe their predicament to their advantage (basically a housemaid hired to help a pregnant wife who, in falling in love with the husband, finds herself pregnant, and in competition for control of the family).

Kim borrows liberally from Hitchcock--at one point he has the housemaid deliver a deadly glass of water and Kim's camera follows it closely, the way Cary Grant's fatal glass of milk is delivered to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion (1941) (only Kim one-ups Hitchcock by using water instead of milk--nothing purer, more innocuous than water, after all). Kim also uses a massive staircase straight out of Psycho--only what am I talking about? The two came out the same year; the striking similarity in size and framing between staircases can only be a coincidence, or a case of cinematic zeitgeist. Right? Right?

Kim takes his homages only so far, though; he's a true original when it comes to over-the-top acting, to maintaining a tone that teeters between high drama and low comedy (the boundary strung tight with sexual tension), to repeatedly framing the housemaid glowering behind glass doors, a low-angled camera rushing at her, music blaring in hysterical dismay (I keep thinking of Sadako, ancestor of countless long-haired J-horror wraiths, from Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1988); have we found Sadako's own ancestor? One wonders). The film (based on the true-life case of a housemaid that poisoned her employers' child) is a no-holds-barred, no-holes-barred assault on the Korean bourgeoisie, which at this point in time held a precarious position in South Korea.

Basically willed into being by the Park Chung-hee dictatorship, South Koreans were forced-marched into acquiring all the trappings of middle-class: two-story houses, modern appliances, pianos and--significantly--domestic helpers hired straight out of the countryside. The people felt two ways about the situation; on one side modernization is a good thing (Right? Right?); on the other, they have a complete stranger in the house sleeping with them, sharing and preparing their food, taking care of their young--is it any wonder that they would feel anxious about these changes, and that Kim's erotic horror thriller (a critical and commercial hit) should strike such a sensitive nerve?

Im Sang-soo's 2010 remake doesn't emerge from an equally turbulent moment of history, and you can sense that it doesn't share the original's demonic energy, or libido, or glee. Im has rethought the situation to reflect the changing times: instead of a newly-minted middle-class we have a fabulously wealthy upper class; instead of a naïve country girl freshly trucked in from the country side we have a somewhat nebulously conceived innocent who with her employer's first advances finds a sense of giddy freedom that is, truth to tell, fetching, if not downright charming. The camerawork has settled down from hurtling rush to stately glide; the two-story house under construction has blown up into a gigantic state-of-the-art mansion. Gone are the horror-movie shock moments; instead we have more explicit sex scenes which, while not bad, don't quite have the same sense of transgressive heedlessness of the original.

The characters' situations are reversed--the housemaid is more victim than intruder, the family more malignancy than middle-class target. The film's best moments show the family's machinations, how the wife finds out about the maid's infidelities, how she and her mother plan to deal with the maid and her pregnancy. The husband (Lee Jung-jae, a successful fashion model) is a monster of selfishness and conceit; as explained by his wife, he goes after what he wants and never expects to be disappointed. When the maid bends down to fellate him for the first time, he lifts his arms out in ecstatic triumph, as if he were Superman about to receive Lois Lane's orally delivered blessing...

And so it goes. Ultimately and unfortunately the film collapses into another 'revenge of the social classes' melodrama when it promised to be so much more: a stylish black comedy about how the upper classes feed off of each other, with the hapless housemaid as their pawn. Im is conscious of class distinctions, but doesn't seem to want to do more than repeat cliches about said distinctions, instead of pushing implications to their logical limits. The last thirty minutes loses much of the film's stylish, hard-edged wit, and takes on a kind of limp idealism--pretty much a description of one's experience of this picture. Recommended, but only after seeing the yet unequalled original.

First published in Businessworld, 3.16.12

Friday, March 16, 2012

Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)

Take me out to the ball game

Noel Vera

I'd as soon call Bennett Miller's Moneyball (2011) the best sports film I've seen in several years, for what it's not as for what it is. It's not an Underdog-Makes-Good picture (the underdogs don't learn to play like champions, and we don't get the all-important climactic championship victory); it's not a Heroic-Coach picture (Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane who, as we later find out, is anything but heroic); it's not a Misfits-Find-Heart picture (we only get to know enough of the players to sense how small their lives seem to be, how unglamorous). Moneyball putters forward, abandoning and avoiding and even downright ignoring so many sports movie cliches it's almost breathtaking--you feel as if you're seeing all-new techniques, a totally different kind of storytelling (actually you're not; it just radically differs from recent mainstream sports movies). Following Beane you feel what he feels: the terror and triumph of setting the old playbook aside to take a flying leap off of a high diving board, nothing but a soft wind about you and a small planet (with what looks like a pool the size of a playing card) below you

I like Bennett Miller; I've said this before. I liked the freewheeling documentary ambiance of his The Ride (1998); I liked the low-key way he handled Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote (2005); I like the documentary ambiance and low-key handling of actors found in his latest picture. He mixes actual game footage with re-enacted stuff almost seamlessly, and he likes to set his camera down to watch interactions you've rarely seen in sports movies before--player selection, for one. It's a challenge to make the talk of old men sitting around a table seem interesting much less riveting, but Miller manages somehow; the old-school agents describing prospective players' body parts sound horrifying and hilarious both--like teenagers in a shower talking about relative breast size. Likewise the intricate sequence of criss-crossed phone calls Beane dials to acquire the players he wants--bluffing extravagantly on one line, pleading desperately on another, spitting one name after another at his assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill loosely channeling the real-life Paul DePodesta, who helped introduce sabermetrics--a system for analyzing neglected team statistics--to the team) and getting a quick nod or shake of the head. It's a fast and funny scene as written by Steve Zaillian and (more crucially, I suspect) Aaron Sorkin; it shows how cold, calculated numbers have now come into play when choosing a team (as opposed to the old-fashioned “his girl ain't hot, so confident he's not” school of amateur psychoanalytical thinking).

It's not about guts and glory but about numbers, the movie seems to be saying; not heart or heroics as in other sports movies but steady, consistent activity. As Beane puts it, if the big teams have money on their side, smaller teams have no choice but to use smarts in the form of statistics (and not even the obvious statistics, like batting averages) to even the playing field.

Ideally it would have been nice if Miller had taken the time to demonstrate with perhaps a game or two how sabermetrics actually worked--in which case we'd have needed to know the players a little better, know what they're like on the playing field, be able to sense the difference in their playing when Brand's math magic starts taking effect. Would have been nice to know that sabermetrics is more than just on-base percentage, which was Beane's mantra throughout the picture; slugging percentage is at least as important, along with other even more esoteric ratios.

Miller indulges in psychodrama as well--we learn that there is a personal side to Beane's motives, that he felt his potential as a youth was wasted by inflated promises (he rejected a scholarship to Stanford in favor of a (largely disappointing) career in major-league baseball), and that sabermetrics may be the key to his eventual redemption (Brand, when asked what he would have done, opines that he would have taken the Stanford scholarship).

Not a big fan of Pitt as an actor--he was a fresh discovery back when he played sexy-funny roles (the bit part in Thelma and Louise (1991)), was woefully inadequate in larger dramatic roles (the unintentionally hilarious Legends of the Fall (1994)), has engineered career redemption by involving himself in a number of intriguing projects (David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008); Terence Malick's Tree of Life (2011); this). He does better with comedy, I think, and Miller gives him rich meat on which to sink his teeth--explaining the concept of sabermetrics to his coaches and recruiters, for example, or having to negotiate fiercely for a desired player. He does justice to the material, gives it the kind of witty underplaying it needs; as for the psychodrama, he and Miller don't try to oversell it--the material is there for us to accept or reject as we see fit.

On Miller's part, I like it that he to some extent plays fair with the subject. Sabermetrics was successful back then not because it was unknown--people have heard of on-base percentages before--but because it was ignored; Beane (and a lot of others not mentioned) brought it front and center. And it's not a magic bullet; sabermetrics helped improve the Oakland Athletics' chances at winning the championship but couldn't guarantee they would win all games--Miller does provide us this caveat. Is it an accurate and absolutely fair portrayal of what happened to the Athletics in 2002? Not quite, but enough remains to give us notice of the changes made, of how different baseball has become since, giving us in the meantime two hours' worth of entertainment. No small achievement for a movie about statistical analysis.

First published in Businessworld, 3.8.12

Friday, March 09, 2012

War Horse (Steven Spielberg 2011)

Dog food

Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's children's book War Horse is a match made in heaven--almost too much so, I think. As in his best-known film E.T. (1982) a young boy meets a strange but wondrous creature and they form a special bond that eventually redeems them both. Unlike in E.T. the creature in question (a magnificent bay with four white socks and a white star on its forehead) spends most of the middle section of the story on his own, witness to the 'great suffering of war' that writer Morpurgo said he wanted to depict.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, 1991)

Beauty is a beast

Noel Vera

(What if the knights of Guy de Loimbard went to see Disney's 3D version of Beauty and the Beast?)

“Sh--the movie, she is starting.”

“What is the title again?”
“I told you already--Beauty and the Beast--La Belle et la bete.”

“But but--this is in color! This is not Jean Cocteau!”

“We are in a 3-D multiplex, not an art house theatre. One does not ask for canard à la rouennaise in McDonald's.

“What is that onscreen? A cathedral window?”

“It is stained glass--they are trying to tell the story of the prince.”

“They are boring me to death.”

“They are attempting a Gothic look, with colors a la Notre Dame.”

“I have seen better color on a comic book--Jean Giraud, Georges Remi. What is happening now?”

“That is Belle.”

“But--she is singing! I do not remember Josette Day singing in the film!”

“I have told you, this is not Cocteau, this is a Disney film.”

“What is that? A singing suppository?”

“That is a candle. He is named Lumiere. He is voiced by Jerry Orbach.”

“He has a very pleasant voice...but why would a suppository sing?”

“He is not a suppository, he is a candle.”

“I remember Cocteau's chandeliers--they were lovely and not a little frightening.”

“I know.”

“I do not think I can be frightened by a singing suppository.”

“I imagine it would depend on what it is singing.”

“Is that chamberpot singing?”

“That is a teapot.”

“Then why does it look like a chamberpot?”

“That is a teapot.”

“Yes, and you told me earlier the suppository is a candle.”

“It is a candle, you idiot!”

“Who are you calling an idiot? You thought that chamberpot served tea.”

“Will you please be quiet?”
“I would like to see you sip from that cup.”


“You will need more than a lump of sugar to sweeten that brew, monsieur.”


“Why do they sing so much?”

“I think they are supposed to be enchanted.”

“They sound as if they had suppositories stuck up their--”


“Cocteau's film, now that is enchantment. He did not need color, he did not need any damn singing, he used just simple magician's tricks onscreen so there is no cheating--”


“This movie, it tries too hard. Cocteau was a lazy bastard and had no money because he made his film just after the war, but he was smart enough to figure out how to do things on-camera simply and on the cheap--”


“Why is that camera swooping when they dance? What is this with the camera swoop--does it enhance the dancing any? Did the cameraman transform into a chimpanzee and start swinging from the chandeliers?”

“Will you please be quiet?”

“This is La Belle et la bete, no? This is not La Planète des singes.”

“I assure you, I cannot answer for the cameraman.”

“Who is that?”

“That is Gaston, Belle's fiance and the beast's rival.”

“He is funny, a little. If I were her, I would forget that bore of a beast and choose him, instead.”

“He is okay.”

“The beast here is so dreary and sullen, a lump of lifeless fur. At least Jean Marais as the beast in Cocteau's film was magnifique. Even Greta Garbo thought so.”

“I think so.”

“Marais was dressed and made up like a princely medieval Minotaur, with coiffed hair and beard. He was fabulous, a figure from out of The Arabian Nights visiting a story in The Decameron. Half man, half beast; half real, half myth.”

“How poetic.”

“'Give me back my beast!' Garbo said. She did not care for Jean Marais' real face at all.”

“Neither do I.”

“Even if Marais was stunning in real life.”

“I know.”

“They can keep this beastly bore that resembles a castrated bison. Gaston, he at least knows what he wants (the girl) and is amusing. Or give me Cocteau's beast and they can keep all the rest.”


“Give me back my beast!”


“Why are the townfolk carrying torches?”

“I do not know.”

“Do they intend to eat the beast?”

“I do not think so.”

“I think so. All those torches--it looks as if they plan to roast him.”

“I don't know--”

“They are such idiots. Everyone knows that bison is most tender when braised.”

“Yes, but please--”

Boeuf bourguignon--beef braised in burgundy, with mushrooms and root vegetables, perhaps some boiled potatoes, or butter noodles...”

You are making me hungry.”

I am already hungry, just looking at that two-legged beefsteak.”


'Braise the beef!'”


I am just singing along with the people onscreen--”

Will you be quiet?”

Did Gaston just fall from a great height?”

Please be quiet!”

Why do Disney villains always fall from a great height? It is as if the filmmakers do not want to give the hero the responsibility of kicking his arse.”


They would rather drop him out of sight. How convenient.”


So...want to know what I think of the movie?”

You have not stopped telling me what you think of the movie.”

You have not stopped shushing me.”

Because you have not stopped talking, you hind leg of a quadriplegic.”

Who are you to talk to me like that, you waver at others' faces of laughably small charcuterie? In 3-D, no less.”

Savor the scent from my armpits.”

Suck the brie from between my toes, you canted connoisseur.”

May you have an accident in the shape of an umbrella.”

May your testicles be tenderized by a fifty-pound mallet.”

May you sit on a broomstick.”

So did you like the movie?”


You did not like the songs?”

They loosened the wax in my ears.”

But the animation? Did you not find it colorful and amusing?”

Like the daubings in a toilet stall.”

Not even in 3-D?”

Aggravated my astigmatism.”

Then we have no quarrel?”

Not with each other.”

Shall we, then?”

Why not?”

Fetchez la vache!

(With apologies to Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese)

First published in Businessworld 2.23.12