Despite the gulfs of place and plot structure, much of the DNA of newest Wes Anderson offering Moonrise Kingdom is shared with Hugo, last year’s awards heavyweight from Martin Scorsese. Both are about boys without families trying to find their way forward, both set their stories in deliberately nostalgic period settings (1930s Paris for Hugo, an 1965 New England for Moonrise), and both are at least as remarkable for their highly detailed, textured production design as for any narrative innovations.
Comedy, in any age, is too often based on fart jokes and the incongruities of sex, enough so that we have an entire genre (the romantic comedy, of course) that’s based on the two. That being so, it’s a refreshing and unusual change to see the standard gags turned to timely and mordant commentary on real issues in the life of the world. And, in the character of a buffoonish dictator, that is precisely what one of our great comedians has done: use laughter to point out the absurdities of a system while also offering a deep humanist plea to his audience. I am referring, of course, to Charles Chaplin, whose 1940 film The Great Dictator lampooned the fascist dictatorships of Germany in Italy before the United States was at war with them and which, despite veering into some unfortunate socialist territory at times, is marked most of all in its optimism about the potential of man’s generosity to man.
Just when and how did Robert De Niro go from being a great actor and bastion of the Method to big-name older star who could be relied on to bring attention to C movies like Meet the Parents, Righteous Kill, and New Year’s Eve? It’s a question that’s been asked over and over since at least 2000, and in the last decade De Niro has become something of a poster child for the once-great actor gone to seed.
Being Flynn seems like it should hold some answers to that question, because – as the movie itself points out – Jonathan Flynn is a character that’s ‘full of personality,’ and watching him descend into a sort of ambiguous madness (is he genuinely crazy, or does he just have an ego that’s too big for his body?) seems like just the sort of meaty role that a younger De Niro would have turned into an epic character study. And De Niro, the actor, is fine – it’s not that we don’t believe him as Flynn. It’s just that it doesn’t feel like he matters.
The movie is about a young man named Nick Flynn (Paul Dano), whose tortured relationships both with his long-absent father Jonathan and with his dead mother (Julianne Moore) have left him a shell-shocked, aimless young man searching for answers. At the urging of his friend-cum-girlfriend Denise (Olivia Thirlby), he takes a job at a local homeless shelter, which becomes the scene of a slow burn of self-destruction when Jonathan moves in as one of those in need of a place to sleep.
I’ve left a lot out of that summary, notably Jonathan’s literary aspirations (his opening monologue declares him to be one of America’s ‘three classic writers’), the overall weakness of the movie’s structure, and the small technical experiments that the film makes, but only because they don’t change the pieces of the story: this is a movie about a son encountering the father that he never knew. We don’t need to know that Jonathan fancies himself a writer to know that he’s delusional.
Or, perhaps, we do, and that’s what’s missing from the long-disinterested De Niro. It isn’t that he’s any less of an actor than he was thirty years ago, it’s that the fire – the need – that made Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, and Neil McCauley such indelible characters is nowhere to be found anymore. The young De Niro was a great actor, yes, but also filled with passionate intensity. If Jonathan Flynn had any of that passionate intensity about his belief in his stature as an artist, it would be far easier to give him credit for being something more meaningful than a drunk with an alienated son.
Not even three months into the new year, and we’re treated to the latest Judd Apatow-produced R-rated comedy. It’s starting to look suspiciously like diminishing returns: The Sitter may not have born his name, but the Apatovian stamp (it looks like an R) was all over it, and that film barely managed to earn back its budget. Now, Wanderlust – an Apatow creation in fact as well as spirit – may do even worse, landing with a thud this weekend to a gross of just $6.5 million, establishing once and for all that, no matter how likeable Paul Rudd may be, he’s never going to be a leading man.
The movie tracks Rudd as George and his wife Linda (the ageless Jennifer Aniston, looking much better than Angelina Jolie did at the Oscars, by the way) from New York to Atlanta to a hippy commune after George gets fired from his job. All kinds of mischief ensue, mostly involving incongruities that probably would have been absurd in 1970, let alone 2012: the residents of the commune include a nudist novelist who charges around wearing a penis-bag, a crotchety co-founder (Alan Alda) who sneaks away to eat meat every Sunday, and a former porn actress with an apparent rage problem. There’s a stab at a conflict with some unscrupulous businessmen trying to break ground on a casino on the commune’s land, but it barely registers, which is true of most of this confection.
That said, it’s funnier than it has any right to be, skipping along at a quick pace, never making too much of its penis jokes or wacky characters before jumping on to its next absurdity. It’s the sort of movie that is impossible to think of in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ simply because it doesn’t have a shadow of ambition. Will George and Linda resolve their marital problems? What does it matter when there’s an excuse to make a placenta joke?
If this movie is about anything, it’s about how troubles make us need to escape to another reality. For George and Linda, that means running away from New York City and George’s certifiably awful brother in Atlanta to experiment with a whole different kind of lifestyle. For us, it’s about escaping a depressing 2012 to a world where people’s problems can be triumphantly resolved via a two-week stay at a hippie commune, where everyone who seems awful actually is, and where plot points can get conveniently settled by a news-show recap.
The truth, though? It’s not about anything.
If nothing else, Steven Soderbergh is probably the most adventurous American director working today. Since entering the cinematic conversation in 1989 with the tawdry, controversial Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he’s demonstrated a willingness to tackle almost any subject on almost any budget. Where most acclaimed directors carve out a niche to focus on particular eras and themes, Soderbergh has moved from historical epic (Che) to brat pack cool (Ocean’s Eleven and co) to abstruse sci-fi (Solaris) seemingly without blinking.
Haywire, his latest, is ostensibly an action thriller, but it’s closer to Soderbergh’s smaller, more experimental genre experiments than it is to his commercial ventures. There is an obvious parallel to 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience, another film for which Soderbergh cast his lead from outside Hollywood: here the star is mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, playing a contractor for a private security force. Where The Girlfriend Experience peeked into the existence of a high-class New York escort, Haywire reads like a bare-bones reduction of the contemporary Hollywood action formula. It’s as if Soderbergh wants to distill the Bourne tradition into its most basic elements: paranoia, secrets, and gritty, bone-crunching physical action.
What’s missing is a compelling story; the plot of Haywire consists of a collection of standard action movie plot points strung together with little explanation or logic. The film’s opening sequence has Carano’s Mallory and her team (including Channing Tatum, as expressionless as ever) tasked with extracting a dissident journalist from his imprisonment under house arrest. When Mallory is then sent to Dublin to meet with an operative called Studer, however, things quickly go awry, and Mallory is forced to go rogue and try to understand how Studer, the journalist, and her employer are all connected.
There’s a lot of running across rooftops, grainy digital cinematography, and opaque telephone calls, but surprisingly little head-bashing: Carano’s flying kicks impress when she gets to do them, but somehow that ends up being not very often. Meanwhile, an impressive troop of actors – Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton, and Ewan McGregor all appear – mug for the (unflattering) camera and say lines like, “The motive is always money” to each other without it being quite clear how they’re all related to the heroine, if at all. It’s as if Soderbergh picked up his camera, called up his favorite boys in Hollywood, and suggested they all go shoot up a quick movie together in Dublin and Barcelona, content be damned.
It’s not bad, for all that: there’s a sinister stillness to the film that satisfies, and a grizzled Antonio Banderas injects some levity into the proceedings. Once you get used to the strangeness of it all – the semi-blurry camerawork, the unstyled, unpolished editing, above all the unsettling quietness of a movie in a genre that usually offers more bangs and explosions than you know what to do with – there’s even something interesting about it. I haven’t quite figured out what it is yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s there.
These days, when we get adaptations of old novels or classic stories, they’re almost always brushed off and shoehorned into modern re-creations – not even Shakespeare is safe. It’s surprising and a little refreshing, then, when a director takes the literal path and maintains the setting of his source material without using any sort of modern anchor point.
Such is the case with Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, based on John le Carré’s 1974 spy novel of the same title and this year’s All-UK All-Stars release. Like another major release of recent weeks, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, TTSS is structured as a mystery but has more global ambitions. Where most spy stories fall into a black-and-white, hero-and-villain nationalist paradigm, Alfredson’s adaptation instead looks inward, examining the masks that men construct and why it is so difficult to see clearly beyond them.
First and foremost, of course, it is a spy story, and one the uncomplicated surface of which hides layers of ambiguity and deception. Control (a decrepit-looking John Hurt), head of ‘the Circus’, believes there to be a mole among his top men, and enlists the aid of agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to find out who. When Prideaux’s mission goes wrong, though, Control and his right-hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman, never better) are put out to pasture. Only when another agent (Tom Hardy) learns of a leak from a second source is Smiley brought back into action to hunt down the mole.
Viewed from the perspective of comprehensibility alone, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an achievement. Alfredson navigates the labyrinth of le Carré’s narrative without ever losing the audience and without having to rely on the sort of heavy exposition that so often reduces films of this genre to dutiful slogs through the literary terrain. A photograph, a gaze out of a window, the defeat on a man’s face: from such simple input Alfredson is able to develop all the information and relationships that power the movie. At just over two hours, it somehow seems uncluttered without being unsatisfying, just as it maintains an atmospheric intimacy even as it moves from London, to Istanbul, to Budapest, and back again.
But there is more, far more, going on here than the vagaries of procedure and investigation. The London that Alfredson envisions is a place of grit and grey, where paranoia hangs in the air as thickly as the fog and murmured meetings between spies take place in tiny shops or shuttered airless rooms; these men are marked not by the glamour of deciding the fates of nations but by the claustrophobia of knowing that their usefulness, and thereby their lives, rest in keeping their secrets and trusting that those around them will do the same. More than anything, Tinker, Tailor understands that the ideological battles of its Cold War – perhaps of all wars – are played out in the relationships between the men who fight them as surely as they are on the proxy battlefields of foreign nations. “It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one,” explains the mole after he has been caught, in one of the film’s most memorable lines, but we understand that this is a smokescreen for a betrayal that is more important to us as a betrayal of trust between colleagues and friends than as a failure of patriotism.
As a procedural, Tinker, Tailor is circumscribed and effective, letting us piece together the pieces along with Smiley in a way that satisfies somewhat more than the corresponding revelation of Dragon Tattoo. Yet Alfredson makes room as well for brief, quiet looks into the lives of his characters, and it is these heartbreaking moments of recognition that elevate his film to another level. The mystery is absorbing – but for Smiley and his allies, and so for us, it also matters.
One thing I noted as central to the success of Mr Smith Goes to Washington was that, though a political movie, it doesn’t actively subscribe to a particular ideology. Instead, it inhabits a sort of undefined place where the actions of individual politicians and how they manipulate constituents and political process is far more important than ideological grandstanding. We never even know what party any of the characters belong to: though they’re split in the aisles, the closest we ever get is people saying things like, “The members of my party won’t stand for this!” and other such deliberately ambiguous pronouncements.
The Ides of March is more concrete in its storytelling. Its candidate, Mike Morris (George Clooney, who also directs), is the Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania. The film self-consciously borrows the iconography of the Obama campaign in designing the look of Morris’s campaign, and Clooney plays Morris to have the same sort of even-handed intellect that was so attractive about Obama’s 2008 run. Despite that, the film stays true to the Capric model, rightfully abstaining from being about issues (though it can’t resist a few moments of proseletyzing during scenes of Morris stumping) and instead focusing on politics as a source of moral decay, one that leaves no one untouched.
The protagonist, Stephen Meyers (the always-impeccable Ryan Gosling, in the midst of a banner year), is the second-in-command on Morris’s campaign during the race for the Democratic nomination, the ‘best media mind in the country’ serving under experienced Campaign Manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Stephen becomes involved with campaign intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) in a short-lived affair which nonetheless becomes the catalyst for a chain of events that will lead to the unraveling of his place in the campaign — and, more importantly, of his belief in what the campaign stands for, a loss that is all the more poignant because Stephen has so thoroughly bought into the campaign as something different from the rest.
The Ides of March should stand on its own as a thoroughly entertaining political thriller, a few contrived twists in the third act notwithstanding. Unfortunately, I suspect that it’s doomed to be seen as a jaded reaction to the disappointment of the first three years of the Obama administration and a tired lament about politics as a corrupting force. To be sure, those criticisms aren’t entirely unfair: the esteemed A.O. Scott argues that the movie ‘makes its points carefully and unimpeachably but does not bring much in the way of insight or risk,’ and, certainly, if you’re looking for blazing new insight into American political process, or into the hearts of charismatic politicians, you’ll be disappointed to find that the movie reaffirms that they are, in fact, just as flawed as we always thought.
Still, I’m not convinced that that’s the important point of the film. When do political thrillers, especially good one, ever really tell us anything about politics? The Ides of March, like Mr Smith Goes to Washington, paints a story of human weakness with the strange alchemical paint of the political anxieties of the day mixed with what people yearn for in response to those anxieties. For Frank Capra, those anxieties were about how the power of political machines and the heightened distance between politicians in Washington and the people back home facilitated corruption; the tonic is the aww-shucks sincerity of Jefferson Smith. The Ides of March takes on a new set of preoccupations and offers a more modern vision of a messiah, and uses them to spin its own tale.
Note to Readers: I’m introducing a new, occasionally weekly feature on the blog, to be published each Wednesday, called ‘The Week In Review’ – inspired, of course, by the venerable New Yorker. It’s a brief collection of thoughts on one of the movies that was released that weekend – around 500 words – and will generally represent a more contemporary take for the blog.
The central filmmaking challenge of The Debt is evident from the opening sequence, a sustained intercutting between past and present that announces its intention to tell two stories in one. That isn’t one with reference to the other (as movies do that take place in the present but need to refer back to events that happened some time in the past), nor one as the recollection of a character (used when producers feel like a movie needs a present-day anchor), but two largely self-contained pieces of action that, taken together, are to present a unified plot. It’s an ambitious structure, and one that, if successful, could well illustrate a type of truth rarely suited to the cinematic form: that our past actions and misdeeds echo forward in time, not only in the simplistic sins-coming-home-to-roost structure that often inhabits films and novels but also in our relationships with people, in our modes of behavior, in the choices that we make.
In this particular case, the actions in question are those of a Mossad team sent to Berlin in 1966 to hunt down and bring to justice a doctor named Dieter Vogel, a Nazi war criminal. Apparently modeled after Josef Mengele, Vogel had been a doctor at a concentration camp during the war; nicknamed the ‘Surgeon of Birkenau,’ he had performed gruesome experiments on many of the Jewish prisoners. The three-person team, including a young woman, named Rachel, on her first mission (Jessica Chastain), is to find the doctor, kidnap him, and transport him back to Israel to stand trial. What transpires echoes down to the present day, as an older Rachel (Helen Mirren) is sent on a new task.
The Debt is a taut, intelligent thriller, and it’s ambitious beyond what one would expect from an end-of-summer entertainment. As such, it’s also a welcome into the fall movie season, when we can finally escape the onslaught of superheroes and talking cars. Unfortunately, the two-stories-in-one structure doesn’t work: ultimately, we’re left feeling like we’ve seen about sixty-five percent of two stories, which doesn’t add up to a hundred percent of one. The movie works best in – and, really, its soul is in – the earlier story, and indeed one suspects that it wasn’t sold purely as an espionage thriller mainly because of the headlining presence of Helen Mirren. When I left the theater, though, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit unfulfilled.
Mirren is great, as always, and the supporting cast, including the venerable Tom Wilkinson and Avatar’s Sam Worthington, is more than competent. The real winner, though, is relative newcomer Jessica Chastain, who has an indefinable but powerful onscreen presence that should put her instantly on the map. Though beautiful, she’s emphatically not a sex symbol, and she exudes a sort of graceful vulnerability that has largely fallen out of our cinematic vocabulary; it recalls, oddly enough, Mirren herself, whose performance in The Queen was rooted in the same sort of charisma.
Keep an eye on Chastain, then; Mirren, meanwhile, is in the most productive stretch of her career, and could well bank another Oscar nomination before she’s done. The movie, meanwhile, isn’t in the realm of must-see, but it’s a worthy two hours of potboiling entertainment for a weekend afternoon.