Seven Problems with Prometheus

I’m a huge fan, so I’ve been waiting impatiently for Prometheus ever since I heard it was in the works. At last Ridley Scott, a guy who knows how to give us an original vision of the frightful future (Alien, Blade Runner, A Good Year), was going to sweep away the pretenders, the imitators, the arrivistes.

Didn’t happen.

Sorry, but Prometheus arrives on screens this week with a squishy and derivative thud.

I mean, I felt as though I were watching a mash-up of Alien and 2001. Yes there are stunning alien vistas and the requisite heavy-duty hardware of space travel and the predictably surly bunch of crew members and of course the alien, or at least a variation of same.

But so much has gone wrong here. In particular, seven things:

1.  First we’re told there are seventeen crew members, so we settle in to see them knocked off à la And Then There Were None. But it’s hard to care when only four or five of them have any real dialogue. The others are just faces that pop up every once in a while to make us wonder who they are.

2.  Then there’s the theme. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say that it’s better suited to a Theology 101 essay.

3.  Then there’s our old friend the exposition mule. Why do our intrepid space-hoppers conclude that, because they find human DNA on a distant planet, it means that the creatures found there must be our creators? Where’s the logic in that? And later the ship’s captain explains who the aliens are and what they’re doing—based on what? Nothing, that’s what. Just the screenwriters’ need to inject information. The movie’s long on mood, thin on plot.

4.  I like all the actors. I just don’t think they’ve been given enough to do. And whose idea was it to give the excellent Idris Elba a southern drawl that makes him sound like the long lost cousin of Slim Pickens? Noomi Rapace, who was excellent in the original Girl movies (. . . with the Dragon Tattoo, . . . Who Played with Fire, . . . Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) plays frightened-woman-running, the role she played in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. She and Jennifer Lawrence are quickly earning the distinction for most-underutilized actor. It’s  a shame. If any actor has the intensity to be a match for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, it’s Rapace, but when all she’s given to do is run away, it’s hard to think of her as heroic. Michael Fassbender is excellent as the robot, a character more nuanced than the any of the others, but too similar (even in his fate) to the character played so well by Ian Holm in the original. Charlize Theron seems to be recycling leftover meanness from Snow White and the Huntsmen. Her performance is all in her menacing glare, which would be fine if she had more to do with driving the story, like the Paul Reiser character in Aliens.

5. The movie’s too long. As writer Wallace Stegner used to say about some stories in fiction workshops, “This story’s got a lonnnggg front porch!” Cutting fifteen or twenty minutes from the first half might have done wonders for the movie. The Sleeper dropped off in the first half, and I gazed on her with envy.

6.  The 3-D is pointless. One of the things—the only thing—that made Avatar interesting is Cameron’s ability to create the illusion of space, especially in the lab scenes. You feel as if you can step into the room and walk to the other end. In Prometheus the characters and objects seem to be layered on different spatial planes, but after your first moment of realization, you kind of take it for granted. Shouldn’t a movie based so heavily on spectacle provide us with, well, you know—spectacle? And has anyone else noticed that the layering of images in 3-D movies actually makes the individual objects and characters on each layer seem more two-dimensional? Yes there’s more depth to the overall image, but the object or character on an individual plane seems about as three-dimensional as a sheet of Mylar.

7.  The movie’s derivative. Everything you see in the movie was done—and done better—in Alien. We’ve been there, done that. Yes, Prometheus has more visual polish, but that isn’t enough to make a movie compelling. Character and story matter more than spectacle. Alien changed the starscape for science-fiction movies forever. Since then, every other moviemaker in the genre has been playing catch-up. And now, instead of breaking new ground, Sir Ridley seems to be playing catch-up with himself.

Just Say Nyet to Chernobyl Diaries

I’m the one. The one person in the movie-going world who didn’t see Paranormal Activity. I didn’t want to respond to the hype. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a movie that seemed to consist of nothing but grainy security-camera footage.

And I was too scared.

Now, from Oren Peli, the writer/producer who brought us Paranormal Activity, comes Chernobyl Diaries. I like the idea of the movie: a group of friends on a European tour decide to do some extreme tourism by visiting Chernobyl, site of the worst nuclear disaster in history. Or more accurately, they visit the bedroom community right next door. Isn’t the radiation still too bad for tourism? Sure, but they’ll be in and out in two hours. What could go wrong?

Only everything.

And it will all go terribly, terribly wrong.

But none of it—absolutely none of it—will scare you. And isn’t that the only point of a horror movie?

The story starts with our band of bright-young-things living it up, visiting all the must-see vacation spots, going to parties, yucking it up. Then they go to Chernobyl, where, one-by-one, they will be dragged kicking and screaming into the darkness. That last part is a lot like how things look around my house every morning when I have to go to work.

A movie like Chernobyl Diaries depends heavily on our imagination. We are often more frightened by what we can’t see than by what we can. This is Moviemaking 101. But you have to show us something. Unfortunately, the blurry glimpses of the irradiated residents of Chernobyl don’t trigger our imaginations. Instead, they make us think the budget must not have allowed for any creature effects.

Isn’t there at least one surprising moment in the movie? I have to admit that, when our intrepid band hear a noise down the hall in an abandoned apartment, the source surprised me, but more the ha-ha-look-at-that kind of surprise than the get-me-outta-here kind of surprise.

And I liked the faded look of the movie, as if the radiation had leached all the color out of the landscape and the very walls of the buildings.

The acting is serviceable, with an improv feel that makes the dialogue sound more spoken than written. But the dialogue in such movies is all pretty much the same:

It’ll be fun!
Where are we?
This is the last time . . .
Who’s there?
Please help us!
[Scream]
Did you see that?
[Whimper]
We got to get out of here!
Oh no!
[Scream] [Scream] [Scream]
Help!
I’m no good to you. You’ll move faster on your own.
[Scream]
We’ll find him!
Take my hand!
[Scream]
Move!
[whimper . . . whimper . . . SCREAM]

By the way, have you noticed the number of movies being shot in eastern Europe? This one looks like it was filmed on the same streets as the more inventive The Darkest Hour. If the camera were to move a few inches, I swear we’d see the other movie’s cast down the street, running from aliens. And we’d wish we were there.

Rampart’s Red Glare

I’m a fan of Oren Moverman’s The Messenger, especially for its standout performances from Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster and for the highly charged material: military men whose duty is to inform relatives that their loved ones have died in service to their country. Each visit to a new house is a new opportunity for drama, and the way the job wears on the characters is nicely reflected in their changing relationship. Structurally, the movie is fairly loose and episodic, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. Each visit to a new house is like a separate story in a collection, all of it held together by the changing relationship between the men and by the romance Ben Foster’s character finds.

Moverman likes the soul’s dark places, and this tendency is admirably reflected in Rampart, which came and went in my town. The film reunites Harrelson and Foster to good effect. Harrelson plays “Date Rape Dave” Brown, a corrupt LAPD cop at the end of the 90’s, and though we’ve seen more than our share of this character (from Bad Lieutenant to The Shield to Training Day and beyond), Harrelson’s performance adds a quality we haven’t seen in many of these efforts. Despite his character’s corruption, Harrelson plays him as wounded. No one gets him. No one understands the kinds of pressures he’s under. Everyone wants to focus on his negative qualities and on none of his virtues. It’s as if every scene ends with him saying, in effect, “What? I’m the bad guy here?”

As always, Foster, too, is excellent, though he has too little to do this time out. And Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche, as Brown’s ex-wives who also happen to be his ex-sisters-in-law, play their parts with a compelling mixture of anger and regret. Robin Wright also gives a strong performance as the mystery woman Brown meets in a bar. And there are surprising cameos from Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Robert Wisdom, and Ned Beatty.

Where the film goes soft, it seems to me, is at the level of story. The episodic quality of The Messenger seems justified by the material. But in Rampart, the disconnected quality of the scenes gives the film the feel of an actors’ showcase, an elaborate reel to show off the actors’ talents.

We know Brown’s marriages have fallen apart, and that his ex-wives are tolerating his bad behavior less and less. We know also that he’s being investigated by the force for his excesses. But these conflicts seem isolated. They don’t build enough. The internal affairs investigator turns out to be only the most minor of characters. Even when he finds the evidence he needs to put Brown away, he inexplicably decides to wait before arresting Brown.

I think I know why Moverman puts plot on the back burner.

I’ll bet he didn’t want to be caught up in a tedium of a police procedural, the kind of thing we see on most TV cop shows, where most of the dialogue is exposition parceled out to two-dimensional characters. Instead, he wanted to focus on the corrupt cop as a tragic hero, giving him room for his rage and shame and self-pity: Lear on the heath . . . with a badge and a Glock. A film that’s too heavily plotted might not have given his actors room to vent. Still, his choice makes for a film that doesn’t build so much as repeat its key points. In other words, it has all the character it needs, but it lacks the proper combination of story, structure, and momentum.

Hard to blame Moverman, when so many Hollywood movies have structures that seem to have come off an assembly line and characters whose back-stories are about as thin as their Lycra body suits. And Rampart is better than most movies out there. Still, I was hoping for more.

October Blabby

ImageI’m not against religious movies. I’m not. I’m for anything that has a good story. But one of the categories of mediocre stories, for me, is the one where thesis is substituted for theme. You know what a thesis is. It’s that thing English teachers talk about day and night: the controlling idea of an essay, the idea to which everything in your essay points. Theme is more subtle; it’s an idea, yes, but one that permeates the story, like morning light revealing the details of a landscape.

October Baby has a thesis, not a theme. And so its effect is more essay-like than story-like. I’ll focus on one scene to illustrate my point.

Hannah, the central character, is a nineteen-year-old woman who’s been feeling dizzy, sick, and moody. Her parents take her to a doctor, but even he is stymied about the cause, until her parents reveal, in a rush right there in the doctor’s office, that not only was Hannah adopted, she was also born after a failed abortion.

If you’re a story cop, now’s the time you’ll want to pop the whirling red light on top of your squad car.

Would any parents, but especially the hyper-religious parents in the movie, be so off-hand and blunt in revealing the circumstances of their adopted daughter’s birth?

“Dad, Mom, I just don’t feel well, and I don’t know why.”

“It’s because not only are you adopted, but your birth mother also tried to abort you.”

OK, no, I’m not quoting directly from the movie, but the bluntness is all there. Real human beings—especially loving—don’t act this way. Someone might hasten to point out that the movie was inspired by a real person’s efforts to come to terms with similar circumstances. Or that real people say and do the craziest things sometimes. But reality is never an excuse for bad character development.

Why are the parents so blunt in the scene and nowhere else in the movie? Because the movie-makers needed to nail down that thesis by any means necessary and at whatever cost to credulity.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t the only eye-rolling moment in the movie.

Unbelievable coincidences abound. And the dialogue is so over-loaded with exposition that characters sometimes seem like a string of exposition mules.

Didn’t I like anything? I thought the performances were mostly solid. First-timer Rachel Hendrix does a good job with a tough role. And Jasmine Guy  has an affecting scene that makes us forget, though only for a moment, the ham-handed story construction. And several of the actors bring believability to their roles.

And anyway, the makers of October Baby have nothing to fear from my little rant. Their production costs came in at around a million. And so far, the movie has made over three-and-a-half million. They’ve got a minor hit on their hands. The movie’s success, and the growing popularity of Christian-themed movies, may be an indication that movie-makers have reached out to a segment of the audience that has been ignored for too long. I’m all for a greater variety of movies. I mean, is anyone else, like me, worried that the spate of superhero movies might trigger a world-wide Lycra shortage?

But seriously, how about a little more subtlety and a keener eye for story and character development?

Dragon Tattoo Redux

ImageIt’s true I haven’t reviewed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and here it is out in DVD and Blu-ray already, but that’s because I didn’t really see the point. A perfectly good film version of Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller had already been produced, a moody Scandinavian scald-fest that honors the novel without replicating all of its tiresome exposition about politics and magazine publishing. I like the trilogy despite its problems with exposition and the fact that the writer (or the translator) seems to write with his knuckles. Still, strong story and a fascinating central character and a powerful sense of scene. More than enough reason to brave the arid parts.

Along comes David Fincher with an American version of the Swedish film that feels too often like a shot-for-shot emulation of the original. Even the lighting seems exactly the same. Fincher says he had never even seen the original before shooting his film, but look at the parade scene in both movies. Even the camera angles are the same.

And why re-film it at all?

The only reason to remake it is American audiences are too lazy or too near-sighted to read subtitles. And it’s such a shame. Fincher’s movie is fine. Daniel Craig was the right choice to play Mikael Blomkvist. And though I had doubts about whether Rooney Mara would make a good Lisbeth Salander, she does a fine job (though Noomi Rapace is still the quintessential Lisbeth).

The problem is the movie just wasn’t unnecessary.

There’s a long history of Hollywood making unnecessary remakes of perfectly good (and sometimes great) European films. The most striking example before Dragon Tattoo was Let Me In, the tamer and more domesticated version of the strange and compelling Let the Right One In.

But hey, I’ll never get my lawn fertilized if I go through the whole list of Hollywood remakes. Most of them end up as sanitized versions of the original (compare The Vanishing to The Vanishing).

The magical thing that happens when you watch a great movie that happens to be subtitled —or even just a pretty good one—is that you forget you’re reading. So next time a subtitled movie comes to town, America, don’t forget to bring your glasses . . . no, not the 3D glasses, your reading glasses . . . right there on your bedside table, next to that novel you’re reading. What? You’re not reading a novel? In fact, you don’t read books at all? How said for you.

John Carter: Of Leapers and Lizard Folk

If you ever wondered how British actors pay their mortgages, they do it by playing mostly bad guys in what used to be called “sword-and-sandal” movies, stories vaguely set in the ancient world with a mish-mash of cultural references. Truck everyone out into the desert, dress your actors in bed sheets and throw rugs, and you’ve got  Hercules, Hercules Unchained, War of the Trojans, etc. But that was so long ago, right? In the 50’s? Nothing like that around anymore. Now we are too sophisticated for that nonsense. Right? Actually, this kind of nonsense is all over the place, except we might want to call the new versions “sword-sandal-and-cgi” movies. Hence John Carter and a cartload of others lookalikes that blend sci-fi, fantasy, and desert epic.

Taylor Kitsch plays Carter, a Confederate soldier who finds himself on Barsoom (Mars, to you and me) after fondling a medallion. (A word of advice to movie heroes: you’d have fewer problems if you’d just avoid all medallions. Just say no to shiny things!) Kitsch, a graduate of the James Franco school of acting, plays Carter as a mumbling introvert. But what made Kitsch a standout on TV’s Friday Night Lights doesn’t work so well in a sci-fi desert epic. Of course, I guess any one of us would be a brooder if we found ourselves suddenly transported to another planet in the middle of a civil war.

Carter first discovers that Martian gravity makes him able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. There’s a funny scene where he gets used to his new-found power. But I have to say that even in the battle scenes, the sight of the character catapulting through the sky is a wee bit comic—a wildly exaggerated version of the leaping attack of Brad Pitt’s Achilles in Troy.

Carter is caught by the Tharks, a barbarian race of warriors who don’t seem to care that the Zodangans, led by evil Sab Thança scenery-chewing Dominic West, are intent on wiping out the city of Helium. But Sab is no more than a puppet for the Therns, who, like all good bullies, perpetuate evil just because they can.

There are two standout actors in the movie. The first is Lynn Collins, who plays the princess-in-jeopardy as a battle-hardened warrior who makes John Carter look like a cappuccino-swilling emo-boy. The second is James Purefoy, who has a small part but who plays it with such wicked glee amidst all the solemn bombast that you wish there were more of him.

Many other fine actors fill out the cast, notably Willem Dafoe, Bryan Cranston, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong, Thomas Haden Church, and Samantha Morton. But they’re wasted on this movie, which is derivative right down to the last 1’s and 0’s of its CGI coding.

It may be true that there is no new thing under the sun, but this movie robs too freely from Star Wars, Star Trek, and Avatar, with a dash of Stargate and a soupçon of The Iliad tossed in for good measure.

In other words, it’s now official: Hollywood no longer makes movies; it makes mash-ups.

Safe as Houses?

Safe House has lots of things going for it: excellent actors, especially Denzel Washington, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Shepard. And Ryan Reynolds does a convincing turn as fairly-innocent-guy-in-over-his-head. Rubén Blades and Joel Kinnaman (the creepy partner from AMC’s The Killing) do excellent work in small roles. Set in the sun-bleached streets of Capetown, South Africa, the movie has a fresh look, too.

But that’s about all it’s got going for it.

I expected the cinematic version of time-release testosterone, but every move is so predictable that The Sleeper had a good long nap. And when she woke up, she hadn’t really missed all that much. Me, I spent much of the movie wishing I were watching a rerun of Sky1’s Strike Back.

Denzel plays a notorious and gifted rogue spy named Tobin Frost (that’s right, Jack’s evil twin). Frost has something all the good guys and bad guys want. What is it? Does it really matter? The most interesting element in the movie is the way he transports it—in a capsule under his skin, suggesting all kinds of interesting scenes that never made it into the movie (“Is it here? Or over here? Or perhaps right . . . here!”). He extracts the capsule so soon after injecting it that you wonder why he bothered in the first place.

Ryan Reynolds is Matt Weston, an over-qualified CIA functionary whose job is to oversee a safe house in case it should ever be needed. Then Denzel’s character is brought in, and all h-e-double-hockey-sticks breaks out.

Tobin Frost is the opposite of George Smiley, the plodder who seems to some of his colleagues to be barely able to keep up with events. Denzel’s character is like a chessmaster who sees thirty moves ahead. He’s amused by it all, even—and maybe especially—when the guns and bombs start going off. At one point, he even says, “I like games.” Denzel’s always fun to watch, and never moreso than in the first half of this movie, where he rearranges the furniture inside Weston’s head. But when the shooting starts, Safe House plays out like a hundred others movies: gun fight, car chase, exposition, gun fight, foot chase, exposition . . .

And oddly, for a movie that’s mostly chase scenes and gun fights, it all feels fairly tame. That’s because it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. But it’s also because of the way it’s filmed. Much of the movie is shot with a narrow depth of field, with lots of close-ups of bloody, sweaty faces against blurred backgrounds. And most of it’s shot in the jitter-cam style. The goal is to ratchet up the tension. But frankly, if you used this style to film two octogenarians having tea, the resulting footage would look just as tense.

The plot—like so many other thrillers of recent vintage—is recycled from Three Days of the Condor. Yes, once again we learn that the most dangerous enemy is within. And once again we see a talented amateur (or quasi-professional) take on a shadowy enemy that may or may not be the very people he works for. And what happens to the macguffin in Safe House exactly reflects what happens to it in the much edgier Condor.

In case there’s any chance we’ll miss the theme, it’s summed up in blunt-object lines like “Everyone betrays everyone” and “You do what you have to do” and “They don’t want the truth anymore. Keeps ’em up at nights.”

Remember that wonderful speech near the end of Condor, when Max Von Sydow’s character gives Robert Redford’s character a warning:

It would happen this way: you may be walking one day, maybe the first sunny day of the spring . . . and a car will slow beside you, and a door will open. And someone you know—perhaps even trust—will get out of the car and he will smile—a becoming smile
 . . .

Now that’s writin’!

Here’s a thought: why not go back to the days when movies were made by writers, directors, and actors instead of by stunt arrangers, armorers, and cgi techs?

P.S. Has anyone else noticed that recent action movies and thrillers have changed the sound effect for handguns? A Glock is essentially made of plastic, but when a movie Glock goes off, you hear the snap-and-clang of what sounds like a 50-caliber machine gun.

The Nathan Way

Today a guest writer gives us an insight into the way Hollywood movies are given the green light.

Dear Movie Fans,

I don’t know how you dudes found me, but yeah, you’re right. When it comes to Hollywood test-screenings, I’m the go-to guy. You think they put together a sample audience for every new movie, but no, it’s just me.

My name is Nathan. I can’t really tell you much more than that. OK, you forced me. I’m fourteen. I own every tech-toy that matters. An X-box and a Playstation, a sixty-inch flat screen TV, an iPhone, an iPad. I will buy—or my folks will buy for me—any i-thing I want. And all this doesn’t count the big computer, the one the suits installed to watch me.

I like girls but haven’t, you know, “gone all the way.” But heck, I haven’t gone all the way to Dubuque, either. Could happen. I think about it. A lot. Going all the way. And not to Dubuque. It’s pretty much all I ever think about. Girls are geography.

No, I don’t eat vegetables. Or fruit. Never touch that poison. I’m a meat and bread man. I drink [INSERT NAME OF SOFT DRINK HERE]. I just love the stuff. I drink it night and day. [PLEASE CALL TO DISCUSS PRODUCT ENDORSEMENT DETAILS. PRINCIPALS ONLY.]

They all come to me. Not girls. I wish! Twentieth Century Fox, Dreamworks, Lionsgate, you name it. They try out their movies on me. I am the ideal audience for the movies that matter—movies that gross more than one hundred million. Usually it happens the same way. Two guys in dark suits pull me out of class, giving the teacher some line about national security, and hustle me into a big black limousine. There’s always a frosty can of [INSERT NAME OF ENERGY DRINK HERE, PENDING ENDORSEMENT DEAL] waiting in the car.

And when I get home, one guy walks me to my room and the other one sets up the snack stand: popcorn (duh!), energy drinks (especially for the marathon screenings), candy, anything you can get at a concession stand. All I have to do is point and the guy brings it to me. He doesn’t like to wear the little paper hat, but I like him to. The other suit loads the screener into my Blu-ray player and then stands in the corner ready to take notes. The screener plays. Mostly the movies are about guys in tights with super powers. And guys who say the f-word a lot. And girls who take their tops off.

I almost never have to say anything. The guy in the corner writes down whenever I smile or yawn or scratch myself or do anything at all. If I take more than one pee-break, he yanks the DVD, thanks me for my time, and they’re gone in like thirty seconds. Once I gagged on a popcorn hull and the guy snapped the DVD in half, thinking I was reacting to the movie. And once, when I had shingles, my scratching wiped out a whole studio. But mostly, they just show and go. Like they were never there.

Sometimes they show up without a movie, just to ask for advice. The first time was the best. “What does a guy like you want to see?” they asked.

I told them every movie had to be about a guy everybody else (except his girlfriend, Megan Fox) thinks is a stupid idiot except he’s not, because of chemicals or a magic spell or aliens or luck and such. And then he like whips everybody’s ass. Awesome, right? They’ve been making and remaking that movie ever since I told them about it. In fact—let’s face it—it’s the only movie they ever make.

No more chick flicks, I tell them, unless the chick is really, really hot and has girlfriends who like to take their tops off. Only not the main chick. Because she’s like too pure to be a porn star, but she totally could if she wanted to. And no old guy actors because what if like they dropped dead or something while you were watching the movie? Not cool. I’m really doing them a favor. Let guys like Shia LaBoeuf go to the retirement home, where he can listen to Lawrence Welch and play pinochle with the other oldsters.

One time they were walking me along the river, one of them asking me questions, the other one following slowly in the limo. They wanted to do a remake of something called Husbands by a dude name Cassa-something-or-other. It was made about a million years ago, BN, Before Nathan. It’s about three guys who share a few secrets and laughs. In other words, boring. When I looked him in the eye, he began to cry a little. “It needs something,” I said. And then it came to me: “Dick jokes.” Boom! That’s right. The Hangover was my idea. Three dudes, I said, who get drunk and break stuff. And then I told them it would be good to make a sequel but to set it in Tie Land, this men’s store at the mall where my big brother works? Like what if the Wolf Pack were all tie salesmen and then, you know, they get drunk and break stuff? But I guess maybe I didn’t explain it right because the movie didn’t come out like that. Well, you can’t win them all. But you can win most of them. The Nathan Way. You’re welcome, Hollywood moguls!

Got to jet. Going to see the results of my latest suggestion to the Hollywood suits—War Whores. It’s about . . . but I don’t want to ruin it for you.

Rock on, Hollywood!
Nathan

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier . . . Oh My!

First you notice the sepia-toned look of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s as if the director borrowed the Steven Soderbergh’s color palette. And next the characteristic camera move, a slow zoom through washed-out streets, down anonymous corridors, over worn-out faces.

Agent George Smiley has been pulled from retirement to investigate the allegation that there’s a mole in The Circus. (For those who don’t speak spy-ish, that’s British Intelligence.) Smiley peers at each of his suspects in order to discover his hidden weakness, his secret truth. And in the end, the revelation of those secrets seems no more important than the peering itself. “I’m innocent, within reason,” one character says, capturing all the ambiguity of the Cold War era that gave birth to so many of the novels of John le Carré. “Innocent within reason” implies guilty within reason, too. What le Carré knows is that great evil comes into our lives not with grand gestures but with baby steps.

Gary Oldman is a worthy successor to Alec Guinness as George Smiley, the imperturbable British functionary who may have more going on behind that blank stare than he lets on. Oldman is the kind of actor who can express a whole range of emotions with no more than a millimeter’s elevation of an eyebrow. In fact, you couldn’t ask for a better cast for a movie, with Colin Firth, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, David Dencik, and a number of other excellent British poker faces. This is not the James-Bond world of evil geniuses going after world domination. It’s the world of petty bureaucrats with cracked principles and battered hearts. The spaces of their world smell of thwarted ambition, tawdry secrets, and cheap compromise. All of which make the movie much more interesting than the cartoonish adventures of Bond, James Bond.

But . . . I have to say . . .can’t help it, really: part of me wanted a little more gunplay, maybe a garroting or two. And maybe a teense more clarity. Is that so wrong?

On the other hand, TTSS is a movie that, like its characters, plays its cards close to the vest, so close that it’s not always clear, even when the cards have been laid down, just who’s holding what hand. Which is probably as clear-sighted a picture of the murky world of true espionage as any we can get.

The Artist: A Frothy Delight

The Artist is a cinematic meringue so insubstantial that, like the best desserts and the best champagne, it seems to disappear almost as soon as you’ve tasted it.

By now everyone knows the basic outline of the story. George Valentin, a highly successful star of silent films, gives a break to Peppy Miller, an attractive young dancer. With the coming of talkies, the star fades as the ingénue ignites. He is a man of principle who insists on making silent films even as the public clamors for sound. Thing get worse for George as they get better for Peppy. But have no fear. In true Hollywood fashion, all will be well (eventually).

In other words, the plot of The Artist is a fairly fragile thing. If it were a three-dimensional object, it would be a house made of toothpicks. One hard look and it would fall apart. For instance, why does our hero think talkies are such a violation of his principles? And why is he so blind to love? These central problems express the moviemaker’s needs, not the character’s. But actually, it isn’t fair to lean so hard on the fragile structure of the movie or its characterization. The Artist’s touch—from director to actors to sets to almost everything else—is so light that the movie is critic-proof.

Jean Dujardin plays Valentin, and Bérénice Bejo plays Peppy. Their large, expressive features seem just right for a silent movie. Emotions strike their faces like lightning. Every thought comes with a double-take. Every wink jacks open the mouth. Every kiss is flung. The Artist puts us in a world where every time you solve a problem, you snap your fingers. Just like . . . that!

It’s a movie that owes much to the movies of Charlie Chaplin and others from the early days of moviemaking, not only because of the lack of sound but because of the innovative and expressive visuals.

Early in the movie, George and Peppy dance together but on either side of a stage flat that allows each to see only the other’s feet. It’s a delightful moment that might have come straight from a Fred Astaire movie (OK, Astaire didn’t make silent movies, but the visual elements are so strong, he could have).

At one point, Peppy expresses all of her unrequited longing for her benefactor by embracing his coat while it hangs on a rack. The moment is touching and funny at the same time and worthy of Chaplin himself.

The Artist isn’t entirely silent. One scene that uses sound is so striking that it makes you feel what some must have felt at the advent of talkies—that adding sound removed the graceful silence from movies and let in grotesque reality.

The one aspect of the movie that disappoints is the music (the score, not the period music). In itself, it’s striking and memorable, but it draws too much attention to itself and overwhelms the simplicity of the story.

The Artist has been nominated for ten Oscars. How many will it win? None of the top ones, I’m afraid (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress). Yes, I loved it, but movies this light rarely win Oscars. They’re the kind of movies Hollywood nominates in order to show that it has broad taste. Then H-town turns around and gives the awards to the usual suspects. Of course, Slumdog Millionaire did all right, winning ten of its eleven nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. But Slumdog Millionaire was a more ambitious and multi-layered movie than The Artist.

The conventional wisdom is that talkies ended many silent movie careers (see Forget the Talkies  for an excellent analysis of the facts and fictions behind this myth). The Artist has me wondering if 3-D will end the careers of some of today’s stars. Think about it. Not every actor can transition to 3-D. What about actors who have no third dimension? Like, for instance, Nicholas Cage and Keanu Reeves and Kristen Stewart and Megan Fox? I swear, if they turned sideways, they’d disappear!

 

P.S. If The Artist has whetted your appetite for silent films, The Sleeper urges you to check out one of the many silent film festivals cropping up all over the world, especially the one at Pordenone in Italy.

Long live cinema muto!