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.

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The Biddable Oscars

Oscar statuetteJulie Gray has an interesting entry in her always-interesting blog Just Effing Entertain Me about why she doesn’t watch the Oscars anymore. It kind of stops you in your tracks. Here’s a woman who runs a highly regarded screenwriting contest and who works in the industry. And she doesn’t watch the Oscars? Sacrilege! But I have to say that, after watching this year’s ceremony—every tedious minute from red carpet to good night—I see her point.

The Oscar ceremony has always been an overproduced and under-imagined affair—an extended promo for the industry. And that’s been all right because there were moments that caught you by surprise: Sasheen Littlefeather refusing Brando’s Oscar for The Godfather; the streaker running past David Niven, who opined that the man was showing off “all his shortcomings”; Jack Palance doing those one-armed push-ups; any minute of any of Billy Crystal’s performances as host. Yes, my friends, there was a time when it was still possible to be surprised. But that time has passed.

The most potentially surprising moment in last night’s ceremony was Melissa Leo’s dropping of the f-bomb, but that was neatly censored on the fly. And I have to say that, as much as I admire James Franco and Anne Hathaway, I can’t help thinking that actors were chosen to host this year because they’re more biddable than comedians. They’re trained to hit their marks and say their lines and not embarrass anyone.

My wife (and writing partner) and I sometimes print out ballots and compete to see who can guess the most wins. But this year we didn’t touch them. What’s the point? The winner would just be the person who’s best at identifying the predictable choices of mediocre minds. Am I saying Hollywood minds are mediocre? No, no, no! I mean, yes, yes, yes! But they’re no more mediocre and predictable than the minds of the rest of us. Any time a group of people are polled, you’re going to get the lowest common denominator. What was it Thoreau said? “Any man more right than his neighbor is a majority of one.”

Was The King’s Speech really the best movie of the year? Or is it just one more example of Oscar’s tendency to over-praise all things English? A high-born man overcomes his stutter to deliver an important speech without a hitch. Yes, Colin Firth is great at depicting the pain and embarrassment of such an affliction. But is there enough story there? And best director? Really? I mean, really?

While I enjoyed the performances of the best actor winners, especially Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, didn’t they seem over-the-top, especially Natalie Portman’s performance, which was all high school histrionics. It’s sad that Oscar always goes for the loud and over-determined performance instead of the solid, affecting, quieter, and more real performances of actors like Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right), and Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine).

But there were at least two well-deserved Oscars of the night. The Social Network won for best editing. In case you haven’t seen it, The Social Network is a movie about typing. And here’s the twist: it’s about typing on a computer keyboard! The editors deserve the win for making typing look sexy and exciting. It’s not. The other deserving win came to Inception for best visual effects, a no-brainer. What’s it about? Visual effects. “No, no,” I hear you say, “it’s about dreams and reality and—“ Actually, it’s about visual effects. Period.

Maybe the Oscar ceremony was never more than one long infomercial for the movie industry, but wasn’t it once livelier, funnier, and more unpredictable? I’m with you, Julie. I’ll check the wins the day after. And I’ll watch whatever flubs and surprises are caught on Youtube. But Oscar, you and I are so done.