The Concession Stand II: The Return of Quick Nibble Reviews

 
 “As Good As It Gets” (1997) Starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Shirley Knight, Skeet Ulrich. Written by Mark Andrus & James L. Brooks. Directed by James L. Brooks.  In this James L. Brooks film which is far more relaxed in its sheer entertainment value than its problematic elements have a right to be, the modern updating of movie romantic comedy gets a dousing of Colorful Character Syndrome overkill (When the normally frenetically ebullient Cuba Gooding , Jr. emerges as the sanest person in the room, you know you’re in for a carnival ride.), with the combination of missed matched acclaimed novelist and OCD patient Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson, who at this point in his career needs no additional prodding excuses to wag his eyebrows about the screen like the Tasmanian Devil on steroids) and bitter, lonely hearted waitress with a seriously sickly child, Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt, quite good with the more vulnerable passages of her character, though less convincing during0000asgood2 her more strident outbursts), and the able presence of a neighboring gay artist who was savagely beaten by thieves, Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear, flawless in bringing the full range of internal emotional depth- not merely played flamboyantly on his sleeve as has been the insulting tradition of homosexually uncomfortable Hollywood  -to what, by all rights, should be a secondary character [tantamount to the traditional wisecracking sidekicks of the genre] who nevertheless becomes the focal point around which the other characters are able to draw the courage to advance the tentative expression of their own repressed vulnerabilities), all of whom, by  convenient though improbable circumstance, find themselves on a road trip to Baltimore in order for Simon to get help from his long estranged parents; a situation which involves a lurid history of nude maternal modeling and paternal angst. Through this miasma of neurosis, psychosis, anger, selfishness and recrimination emerges the outline of an interesting story of damaged people who find comfort in the fact that each others submerged strengths are necessary psychic band-aids to their own crippling insecurities. Unfortunately, this is also not the recipe for satisfying romantic entanglement as the various neurotic turns of the narrative, usually necessitated by an unforgivable comment or act of thoughtless cruelty (which is then conveniently shrugged off in the next scene; the film spends an inordinate amount of time with the characters pleading their case for apology to each other) force the creaky construction of the entire film to the surface, eventually making each successive scene more improbable and artificial. (Any film which uses the precious mug of a dog to such shameless excess has to admit to an insecurity in plastering together its stickier moments with a distracting excess of cute.) The polarizing behavior of Melvin toward all about him is hardly modified toward Carol, though it is obvious he has a deeper attachment toward her; yet there is never a point crossed in their relationship in which a credible romantic union might find a genesis. However, such a cathartic development does occur in the relationship between Simon and Melvin as the latter realizes a most convincing and satisfying reconciliation of tempered obsessive behavior (though this too is spoiled by the director’s referencing of Simon’s dog Verdell as am unnecessary emotional visual crutch), with the simple act of inviting him to share his apartment; an act which begins to unravel the compulsions plaguing Melvin as his defenses appear to crumble in short order (mental illness always finding a shortcut to healthful normalcy in the commercial cinema), as for once in the film, a character acts with charity toward another without the burden of ulterior motives, thus ascribing a pleasing sentimentality (a great relief from the burden of unending psychological crises) in the development of the one plot twist in the film which does not reek of sweaty screenwriters calculation. In the end, the finale of the film, the supposed victory of blossoming love, has already be supplanted by the earlier, far more honestly emotional bonding found in a burgeoning friendship-  a genuine “Casablanca” moment  -that is written and acted with such direct emotional integrity, it renders trivial the stuttering contrivance that is the courtship of the two leads.
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“[REC]” (2007) Starring Manuela Velasco, Ferron Terraza, Jorge-Yaman Serrano, Pablo Rosso, David Vert. Written by Luis Berdejo, Juame Balagueró and Paco Plaza. Directed by Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza. Spanish horror film intended as a piece of real-life video documentary. This is hardly a novel device, the premise finding previous exploitation most notably in Ruggero Deodato’s notorious 1980 “Cannibal Holocaust” and the Daniel Myrick/Eduardo Sánchez film “The Blair Witch Project”, but never to a more fully realized advantage. Deodato’s film used footage as a framing device being watched by others, which distanced the immediacy of the experience and telegraphed characters fates far too soon, while the blatant amateurishness of “Blair” was not enhanced (though that was the supposed “hook” of the film) by dismal shaky camerawork of characters endlessly waiting for something- anything- to happen. “[REC]” involves the audience in it’s artifice almost immediately, beginning with several retakes of an introduction to an episode of a television documentary series “While You’re Sleeping”, hosted by Ángela Vidal, played by the appealing  Manuela Velsaco. She portrays the young journalist as a perky but dogged archetype that has almost disappeared from contemporary cinema. The segment she is filming with the assistance of her unseen cameraman Pablo (the movie is viewed through his camera lens) follows a firehouse crew on a nighttime shift until she follows two of the men on what appears to be a routine call with a woman locked in an apartment room- then all Hell breaks loose, literally. With the hand-held, sometimes jarringly annoying camera probing the scene, we are witness to a series of escalating but unexplained events involving the inhabitants (along with Vidal, camera and firemen) sealed into the building under an emergency quarantine while injured members inside the building are undergoing hideous transformations into not-so-shuffling bloodthirsty zombies. The well-traveled subject of the film is immeasurably enhanced by the faux “you are there” spontaneity of the events depicted with a startling sense of off-kilter timing. You always anticipate something terrible about to happen but it  always occurs a beat removed from expectations creating a most unnerving sense of the immediate. The novelty of the mysterious encasement of the tenants who get, in the grand haunted house tradition, eliminated one at a time (only in this case, they reappear as part of the bloodthirsty horde) is intensified by some keen variations on horror traditions. Unlike Romero’s survivors who bunker down in locked basements, Ángela and her companion travel upward as if seeking heavenly salvation from a hellish fate below; a not unmerited view when the truth of the entire affair is revealed toward the end of the film. The film ends in a scene of uncommonly intimate dread, as if the entire world had been whisked away into a dark vortex leaving only the last few to gasp for survival. The only substantial problems occur at the very end of the film: an audio flashback of Ángela’s instructions to Pablo is intended as ironic but is intrusive (and betrays the recorded format in which the entire film was framed) and merely ruins the mood of intense nihilism the film has carefully worked to create, and an unnecessary rock tune over the final credits also reduces the finale’s impact when complete silence would have worked wonders.
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“Barefoot in the Park” (1967) Starring Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Mildred Natwick, Charles Boyer, Herb Edelman. Written by Neil Simon, based on his play. Directed by Gene Saks. Gene Saks’ film of Neil Simon’s Broadway hit retains much of the feel of a stage production as it feels artificial and performed by the two leads in a manner which suggests Proscenium Arch (most of the cast had previously appeared onstage in the play) rather than the greater fluidity of the cinema. Concentrating on a pair of mismatched (is there any other kind of character pairings existent in the Simon universe?) newlyweds- the bride a free spirit, the groom a buttoned down fuddy duddy -the play  follows the first weeks of their marital cohabitation accented by the usual tools of Simon’s jokebook arsenal including an apartment apparently operated under the conditions of Murphy’s Law, a hypochondriacal mother and a slew of exotic neighbors including a particularly randy gentleman in the attic apartment, all of whom work in great earnest to try to divert attention barefootinpark2from the lack of freshness in the one-liners. This last is a continuous problem in the Simon oeuvre, as there is very little actual dialogue but merely a rhythmic procession of set-up line, punchline, set-up line, punchline; a reminder of the author’s sketch comedy roots. It’s a comedic style which depends on the constant feeding of increasingly absurd comic fuel into the situational furnace: situational comedy existing for its own sake. One might very well perceive Neil Simon as the true father of the modern joke-every-six-seconds television sitcom, though for an extended period (such as a feature length film), this incessant punctuation of one-liners can be both wearisome and dispiriting, especially when one can plainly see that the entire scenario exists for this set-up of farcical marital dichotomy and that there will be no material growth within the two lead characters; the groom does engage in some last minute foolishness which lends the play its name, but that is under the influence of both illness and alcohol, surely not a continued state which will allow the couple to act in greater harmony. Both are essentially the same as when first encountered,  which is perfectly logical since, in essence, neither the bride, Corie (Jane Fonda) nor the groom, Paul (Robert Redford) are genuine characters but merely comedic archetypes present solely to deliver the continuous flow of Simon’s jokes. The entire film is at the mercy of the level of humor sustained by these jokes and this is where Simon runs into a bit of difficulty. Not giving himself a developed scenario which might be mined for the progression of  exploitable comic conflicts, the film levels off far too easily into a comfort zone which relays a satisfaction with its own cleverness that is unearned. Since comedy is fueled by surprise, the film finds itself struggling to maintain any substantial degree of success when Simon’s entire premise is supported by the repetition of essentially the same few jokes over and over, ad infinitum. This repetition carries over into the secondary couple of the film, Corie’s mother Ethel (Mildred Natwick) and the attic dwelling neighbor Victor Velasco (Charles Boyer, not a member of the stage alumnus and showing every inch not being dulled by the same hampering theatrical memory of his compatriots), who are behavioral duplicates of Corie and Paul (with genders reversed), though with this pair, once Simon is finished putting Ethel through a tiresome and predictable marathon of indignities (the author’s cartwheeling attitude toward this character is truly insulting, addressing her as both sympathetically patient and a ridiculous dupe depending on the punchline of the moment), both she and Velasco actually reach a sort of harmonious compromise, which makes the basic inflexibility of the younger pair all the more subject to impatience. Much of this may also be attributable to the cast. Robert Redford is a blank mannequin as Paul, emoting a stiffness that may be partly due to the character but far too much with the actor’s inability to find any way to play his role. For the lead man in a comedy he seems especially unfamilar with the concept of being funny, much of the blankness of his performance may be attributable to the poor conception of the character, but much of the blame should be shouldered over Redford’s natural resistance toward opening up on camera; even in the final scenes when he’s supposed to be undergoing a transformation of impetuous spontaneity, he comes across as the same dullard he always was, only inebriated. Fonda has the opposite problem, emerging as a toothsome cheerleader who fails to do or say anything without coming perilously close to caricature; she seems to feel the need to shout out every line over the heads of the audience, an overexcited method of acting that damagingly emphasizes the unmelodious flatness of her speaking voice. Mildred Natick fares substantially better in the thankless stock role of Corie’s long suffering mother. However, it is Charles Boyer’s Victor Velasco who emerges as the true delight of the film; The character is the best written in both the play and film (we’re never quite certain which of his strangely surreal boasts are genuine or fabrication and that’s part of the fun in watching this colorful eccentric in motion), and Boyer plays the role with a giddy effervescence that is both charming and hilarious.
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“Mars Attacks” (1996) Starring Jack Nicholson, Rod Steiger, Glenn Close, Michael J. Fox, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman, Joe Don Baker, Danny DeVito, Sylvia Sidney, Lukas Haas, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Tom Jones, Jack Black, Paul Winfield, Martin Short, Lisa Marie. Screenplay and screen story by Jonathan Gems, based on the Topps Card Series. Directed by Tim Burton. Don’t arrive late for “Mars Attacks” as the most fun to be had with the film is during the opening credits, a thoroughly witty,  jazzy sequence with an armada of spinning saucers skittering through space to the kooky tones of Danny Elfman’s cosmic lounge march. The sequence promisesimprobable heights of retro fun so its a blow to the face when in the very first scene the heavyweight A-list actors make it very apparent they’re not clued in to the jest. While it’s immediately apparent that the film is satirizing milquetoast political liberalism and its inherent inability to deal with crisis situations, the humor wears thin very quickly (actually as soon as, in the initial post-title scene, Martin Short’s Presidential press secretary played as a chipmunk opens his mouth), congratulating itself on the most tepid of comedic targets while offering nothing to nourish the more demanding viewer except for endless reference points to far better, more entertaining, films. (SF enthusiasts deserve better than poking fun at Nancy Reagan’s public reputation for redressing the White House.)  Jack Nicholson’s forte is not broad comedy- he’s become such an eyebrow wagging caricature that any call to further cartoon exaggeration (as in his disastrous behavior in “The Shining”) to his ham-fisted arsenal is anathema to common sense; yet in his role as President “Jimmy” Dale, the actor seems somnambulistic, bringing no sharp edges to an admittedly colorless character, his energies seemingly split by the effort of playing two separate roles without the net of an even halfway conceived role; and would someone explain the thought process behind having Nicholson play dual roles, especially since the entire Art Land subplot could be removed without any effect on the film whatsoever? There is no narrative focus to the film, no story to develop and no genuinely humorous situations to exploit, so all of the supposed box-office marquee talent is encouraged to “act funny” (you expect the cast to continuously break the fourth wall and comment “ain’t I a hoot?”: Martin Short and Sarah Jessica Parker being a particularly embarrassingly desperate campaigners for approval), yet the only chance for the already over-the-top alien material to work is for the actors to play the material straight and create a counterbalance between the traditional banality of square-jawed Earthbound stolidity (as evidenced in countless 1950’s SF features) and the childishly anarchic behavior of the Martians. However, Burton seems incapable of directing any scene unless the gaudiest aspects of behavior are shoved to the forefront (it’s a method which served well in “Ed Wood” and “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”, but was ruinous to the suburban sequences of “Edward Scissorhands” which needed the same kind of temperamental balance) and the film sinks like an anvil with its depiction of American culture as either glitzy excess, mental vapidity or hayseed primitivism. Just what is left, in the film’s view, for Burton’s scurrying Earthlings that is worth defending?  There is a nervous hysteriamartiangirlgif around many of the performances as if they had no material to work with (an astute assumption) and are afraid to getting lost in the noisome special effects clutter (also a legitimate assumption), but this begs the question: did anyone read the script? The limitations of Jonathan Gems’ screenplay cannot be underestimated: its a truly appalling hodgepodge of incidental set pieces- most taken directly from the Topps card series -without the addition of connecting narrative content, nor any consistent contextual point-of-view in which to base the film’s slovenly comedic tone. There are, even in this imaginative desert, a few oases of inventiveness: a marvelous sequence with a gum chewing Martian Girl whose parody of a seductive hip swing looks as if she’s operating with a twin diesel pelvis and rubbery tentacle-like arms: a grand deadpan, hilariously transparent impersonation of womanly seduction run amok, played to perfection by the invaluable Lisa Marie who continuously brings real zing to her appearances in Tim Burton films. Rod Steiger also finds a comfortable, appropriate niche for his signature overacting in the Turgidsen-like portrait of General Decker though this famously hammy actor is himself visibly constricted by the threadbare scripting and its genuine incidence of blatant comic miscalculation in not allowing this raging package of machismo loose to assert his own brand of comeuppance (even if ultimately unsuccessful) on the increasingly tiresome alien brats; the film needs his juice. There are simply too many plots which lead no where and seem written into the film to excuse the casting of a greater number of meaningless “name” actors. Jim Brown and Pam Grier are wasted in extended roles which fail to make use of their energetic blaxploitation images: more needed fire extinguished by Burton’s conviction that stomping cultural sacred cows is hilarious, though does anyone question why Martians would target such institutions as the Boy Scouts or monuments such as Easter Island or Mount Rushmore when they would have no inherent knowledge of such cultural treasures? These illogical scenes are strictly for the audience’s benefit and are opportunities for the director to fling a flaming bag of dog poo on the front porch of our cultural consciousness; not in the service of genuine satiric intention, but to use his mean-spirited mindlessly violent interplanetary felons to disguise his own scorn for conventional cultural iconography. That the yodeling voice of Slim Whitman is used as a curative against the alien onslaught is a clever twist on H.G. Wells’ conclusion to his own War of the Worlds in which the lowly germ undoes the but the foreboding superiority of the invaders, but by this time, the Earthly characters have been depicted as so unrelievedly dull-witted that we’re almost impatient for a shared annihilation.  ________________________________________________________________________________
“Trollhunter” (2010) Starring Otto Jespersen, Glenn Erland Tosterud, Hohanna Mørck, Tomas Alf Larsen. Written and directed by André Ørrendal. The sub-genre of the “found film” mockumentary hit the financial jackpot with the tiresome “The Blair Witch Project”, a film which benefited from a wealth of carefully manipulated anticipation by way of Internet hype, but emerged without an ounce of artistic merit nor entertainment value, though it had the unfortunate aftereffect of encouraging any unimaginative glory seeker with a digital camera to attempt to emulate it’s inexplicable success. After years of creative aridity (with the sole meritorious production emerging being the superior Spanish horror film [Rec]) within this specified realm comes the 2010 Norweigian  horror/fantasy/comedy  thriller Trollhunter”, a film which cleverly avoids the typical pitfalls of most of the preceding examples of the genre- most especially the overuse of attempting pale revisionist twists of already tired horror conventions which only end up being even paler versions of already Troll Hunterexhausted plot points -and finds creative and entertaining use of the regional mythology which has surfaced in a wide swatch of world literature and lore for centuries. Instead of the invention of a “fictional” menace, Orrendal uses the most primal of mythic creatures for his film, building a convincing case for their genuine existence (including a cleverly inserted genuine news clip at the finale which seems to dispel all doubt), by the dispensing of an impressive range of encyclopedic knowledge concerning every aspect of troll physiognomy and society. Initially, three university film students- Johanna, Kalle and Thomas-are attempting to document an incident of bear poaching which according to the film is an act so heinous it commandeers as serious a pursuit in Norway as the Rosenbergs did in America. However, as the trio eventually discovers, the incident is a fraud cloaking an even more sinister purpose involving not the presumed Norwegian Wildlife Board, but a far more sinister (though presumably necessary ) Troll Security Agency. (After all, the film isn’t called “Bearhunter”.) To reveal more would ruin the much of the film’s sly invention, most of which sneaks up on you in surprisingly witty ways.  (An early caution against the students being Christian as the trolls are able to “smell” them leads to a whimsical joke about alternate religious beliefs.) With the exception of a few mercifully brief “comic” performances by a pair of Polish laborers, the performers are universally appealing and convincing, especially Otto Jespersen as the initially mysterious but merely taciturn and sober expert troll hunter, who is attempting to determine why the mythic creatures are suddenly moving away from their remote territories and beginning to mix it up in more populated regions. He is the target of the trio’s investigation and later their mentor  impressively detailed lessons in the ways of the trolls,  ( For instance, if exposed to his UV ray flash gun, the trolls explode or turn to stone.) enhancing the increasing sense of verisimilitude among a species preposterous in the supposition they genuinely exist, and yet , in Ørrendal.s exquisite little gem of a “thriller”, almost anything seems possible; truly the mark of a finely accomplished flight of  film fantasy.
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“The Mountain” (1956) Starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Wagner, E.G. Marshall, Claire Trevor, Richard Arlen, William Demerest, Anna Kashfi. Written by Ranald MacDougall from a novel by Henri Troyar. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. When a passenger plane crashes at the top of a mountain in the Swiss Alps, it sets of a long simmering clash of brother against brother in Dmytyk’s leisurely but effectively suspenseful action  drama. When a mountaineering party is launched, not to find survivors of which there are presumed to be none, but to gather mails and important documents, mountaineering legend Zachary Teller (Tracy) declines the opportunity, simply saying “I don’t climb anymore.” His hot-tempered sibling Christopher (Wagner) has other notions, expressing grave dissatisfaction with his life and with Zachary (“It used to mean something to be your brother,” he hisses contemptuously at Zachary, as if individual accomplishment would be an alien concept to his callow imagination.) and hatching a scheme to climb the mountain to rob the dead of their money and jewels. Much of the first half of the film is spent reemphasizing Zachary’s reticence to climb the mountain- no matter what the circumstance -partially leading to a foolhardy expedition that results in the death of a close friend. Much is made of Zachary’s expertise and of his simple way of life, but in Tracy’s portrayal Zachary gives not only the impression of being a man of simple tastes, but of just being simple. And Wagner spends much of his early footage more conscious of his mane of hair than developing his role. But once the climb begins and the distractions of meaningless subplots (Claire Trevor is saddled with thankless moments as a widow embarrassingly attempting to woo Tracy, who seems far more interested in his livestock than is comfortable) and miscast character actors placed in distractingly prominent roles which suck you right out of the film (Just what is William Demerest doing here anyway?) are put aside, the film settles into an impressively staged man vs. nature adventure with effectively staged (and faked) mountaineering sequences that manage to instill shivers even when someone is dangling before a studio backdrop. The climbing sequences are effective and nerve jangling, and there is always the suspense of the question: just what will happen when they reach the top?  The simplistic development of character, however, topples the possibilities of genuine drama, as the two brothers are delineated in such sketchy terms- both in performance and in the writing -that potent elements of conflicts are casually swept aside leading to a frustrating viewing experience. For instance, there is an important moment on the ascent when Christopher concedes defeat in the climb and pleads with Zachary to return to base, whereas Zachary, all of a sudden buoyed by a change of heart that goes unexplained, insists that they continue. Nothing is made of this, yet is raises questions that go to the very heart of the moral conflict of the film. If Zachary despises the robbery scheme devised by his brother, why not return home at this point and forever put an end to the despoiling of the dead? Or are Zachary’s personal demons for climbing (he feels guilt and responsibility for the death of a man in a previous climb) now absolved by the very act of climbing, and does this cloud his moral judgment over what will happen once the summit is reached? Does this decision not make Zachary equally culpable in Christopher’s plans? Conveniently, there is little time for introspection as they swiftly reach their destination and discover new and complicating conditions, opening new issues of morality and responsibility which, again, go frustratingly unaddressed. One waits through the entire film for Zachary to finally explode and reveal the complexity of his thoughts to both Christopher and to the audience, but the occasion never arises, and even an eleventh hour attempted deception by Zachary which is so half-heartedly delivered it fools no one, (Is this a failure of performance or an example of Zachary’s “goodness” that he cannot deliberately lie? No clue will be found in the film.) and  seemingly designed only to end the film on an abbreviated and anti-climactic “happy” note, never bothering to resolve any of the myriad moral issues raised. As an outline for an adventure film of substance, the ingredients are all at the table, but unfortunately, there was no one on hand to elevate the film beyond it’s most simplistic conceptual level into the rich meditation on life and death that was frustratingly close at hand.
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“This Film is Not Yet Rated” (2006)  Featuring Kimberly Peirce, David Ansen, Becky Altringer, Wayne Kramer, Mary Harron, Atom Egoyan, Michael Tucker, Matt Stone, Jack Valenti, John Waters, Kevin Smith, Maria Bello. Written by Kirby Dick, Eddie Schmidt,Matt Patterson. Directed by Kirby Dick. Lighthearted documentary with a serious subject: the secretive and abusive authority held by the shadowy MPAA and it’s anonymous ratings board over the most important developing art form of the past 100 years and how this untrained, uninformed coterie of “average parents” casually, without benefit of any applicable substantive standards, decides what an artist may or may not depict without getting the dreaded kiss of commercial death NC-17 rating. Several obvious facts are reemphasized such as the MPAA’s curious historic tolerance of extreme violence, especially against women, but assuming an armor of storm-the-castle propriety when it comes to matters sexual. (Including, in one amusing notation, the use of a sexual “thrust count”.) However, among the telling and expectedly disgruntled interviews with a number of concerned writers and  affected directors, filmmaker Kirby Dick along with a colorfully intrepid private investigator Becky Altringer uncover some positively revelatory abuses by this most pious of motion picture institutions including the industry collusion of having major theater chain and studio personnel comprising their Appeals Board, the mysterious internal status of Church officials, and a disturbing and tangible strain of both misogyny and homophobia in the ratings process. While Dick stays focused on the subject at hand, the film is both illuminating and a confirmation concerning many widely held suspicions concerning the MPAA. Unfortunately, there is far too much time taken with  Altringer pretending that penetrating the security of the agency’s building is as complicated as penetrating MI6, when often a simple walk up to the guard’s office and a peek in the window will yield surprisingly valuable fruit. The idiosyncratic cuteness of these scenes is often grating when a further consideration into the damaging artistic consequences concerning the MPAA’s censorial hold on the American film industry would be far more enlightening. There is also far too much emphasis on the independent filmmaker without regard to the same artistic anxieties suffered by directors whose work emerges from a more traditional studio incubation. The film ends with the revealing of the identities of the heretofore unknown persons who actually are employed to rate America’s movies, identities hidden with the unconvincing claim that the MPAA did not want to expose it’s ratings board to undue outside pressures (hardly a valid concern when those same self-interested outside interests are employed within your own organization) which exposes both suspicions as to the members’ individual integrity as well as the dubious value of having people hired without regard to legitimate background or expertise act as the moral and artistic watchdogs  of a nation’s entire art form. Despite it’s wavering tone, and distracting attention to it’s own eccentric personnel, the film is a much needed alarum for a cultural form that is already on the precipice of  corporate induced artistic suffocation.
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“Le Professionel” (1981) Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Robert Hossein, Marie-Christine Descouard, Cyrielle Clair,
Jean Desailly, Michel Beoune, Jean-Louis Richard. Written by Jacques Audiard, Michel Audiard, Georges Lautner, based on a novel by Patrick Alexander. Directed by Georges Lautner. “Le Professionel” confused thriller involving French secret agent Joss Beaumont (Belmondo) who finds himself abandoned, tortured and imprisoned in the fictional African nation of Malagawi after being betrayed by his own people who have second thoughts about his orders to assassinate Njala, the country’s dictator. Naturally Beaumont escapes (otherwise it would be a very short film), returns to France and announces to his former bosses that he intends to assassinate Njala during a visit to France, as part of a not completely coherent scheme to exact revenge on his betrayers. Beaumont’s skills are spoken about at great length by his former cohorts, yet we see very little genuine ingenuity at work aside from a great deal of comic mugging by Belmondo, some sub-Bondian quipping and hiding on window ledges. The film is rife with tonal inconsistencies, veering wildly between extended light sequences of Joss pouring on the Gallic charm with a series of beautiful women, including most improbably, a high-class hooker who is favorite of the Malagawian strongman, and the unsavory, sadistic machinations of Robert Hossein’s Rosen, who is pursuing Beaumont with methods so cold-bloodedly perverse (including an unnecessary lesbian groping that is clearly for the benefit of the audience rather than carrying any substantive investigative weight) it makes Joss’ newly emerged outrage against the Service suspect;  if he’s supposed to be as good an agent as everyone claims, how could he not suspect these very tactics he now seems fully aware of were not in use during his active tenure? And if he did, what was the comparative methodology used by the Malagawi government that was worthy of  an assassination? Beyond the evident charms of Belmondo and some of the ladies (Marie-Christine Descouard is especially appealing in her happily amoral participation as the hooker who will gladly sell out her confederates for a kind word and a pat on the cheek.) whose only real narrative function is to intermittently stop the film cold and provide cosmopolitan eye candy, the lack of sense in the very foundation of the story only exposes the tired narrative turns that are supposed to keep the audience on it’s toes, if we already hadn’t seen them in dozens of better films. Director/co-writer Georges Lautner keeps the film moving briskly even when the story is inert which is often, and that’s a problem. One might expect a massive manhunt fueled by the expert wiles of master covert operators, but instead we get tired incidents of barroom brawling and a car chase that has no value to the plot whatsoever except to show that Belmondo was capable and willing to perform his own stunt work. But to what end? There is no focus or logic to Joss’ plan to execute the Malagawian president except as a pretense for the string of action sequences; each more dislocated from narrative logic than the one before, until finally exhausting the viewer’s patience (A prime example of the absurdity of mixed tones in the film is a climactic duel staged as a mock western showdown between Joss and Rosen that includes the unfortunate participation of a passerby to provide a belch of low humor into what might be otherwise the suspenseful confrontation the entire film has been building toward!) By the time the tepid last few twists are played out, it’s clear the filmmakers have simply callously used  the assassination of a national figure as a pretext to cheap thriller merriment (An attitude that one wonders would be so acceptable were the target not what is clearly regarded as a disposable African?) and nothing more. Commercial thrillers are often made without an artistic point, but this film is  actually soulless.
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“TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY”  (2011) Starring Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberback, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Kathy Burke. Written by Peter Straughan & Bridget O’Connor, based on the novel by John le Carré. Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Vintage le Carré, a restrained, almost meditative spy drama, the antithesis of the Bondian formula, with myriad shades of indistinguishable grays separating the intelligence enemies, as opposed to the more formulaic black and white morality of the blockbuster spy mentality. Gary Oldman portrays George Smiley, a senior member of British intelligence (quaintly referred to as the “Circus”) who along with his superior “Control” (a very fine John Hurt, who expertly portrays a man ravaged by decades of moral decaying from within) are summarily “retired”from service in the aftermath of a botched operation in Hungary, intended to penetrate the identity of a highly placed mole Control suspected was operating within the Circus. Later circumstances lead a civilian Minister overseeing the finances of the intelligence service to secretly recall Smiley to ferret out the identity of this same mole whose existence is now regarded, not as a fanciful affectation of Control’s (who has since died), but a dangerous reality. The miasma in which the film then penetrates in Smiley’s deliberate, calculated and ferociously concentrated search for the enemy is handsomely rendered by director Tomas  Alfredson whose deliberate atmospheric eye is similar to that with which he impressed so mightily with his extraordinary vampire thriller of 2009 “Let the Right One In”; calm, virtually graceful in it’s unhurried rythym, allowing the viewer the opportunity to absorb the minute details of what is going on in the scene. His technique often to cut scene to the center of the bone: eschewing traditional narrative fat in favor of finding the exact moment of a situation which brings about the source of it’s meaning and it’s emotional power. A good example of this is a scene in which agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch)   is forced to break up with his lover over feared future exposure and disassociation by his Circus enemies; (One of the marvelous traits of a Le Carré story is the abundance of evidence that there is far more suspicion engaged against fellow Circus personnel than even against the “other side”) a scene which virtually slaps you with the emotional intensity of it’s brevity and refreshing expository economy. Within the framework of a detective story (which this truly is in the midst of a spy story) this shorthand technique often gives the film the sense of  stream-of-consciousness, with the dislocated elements of Smiley’s investigation whirling about his head and we are there grabbing onto the fractured bits of  information; seemingly random hints of behavior, gestures and character which may reveal the identity of his quarry. There are thrilling moments when we seem to penetrate into the very imagination of Smiley, a man who on the surface seems to live a life of bored placidity but whose mind is revealed to be that of a Machiavellian mechanism of wheel and gears that strip away those minutest bits of human frailty which inevitably betrays his adversary. For Smiley realizes that it is exploiting intimate personal weakness that is the true business of Intelligence in the Cold War, not the boorish public exhibitions of militant strength.  Leading an impeccable cast, Gary Oldman is outstanding as Smiley, a marked return to the type of deep characterization this talented actor is eminently worthy of after a career checkered with gaudy, hyperactive roles in noisy blockbusters (though his quiet, dignified James Gordon is the best reason to see The Dark Knight films). Here he is most interesting when seemingly doing nothing: the daring of a great actor fascinating in a state of contemplative quietude. Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor have judiciously whittled the densely plotted novel down to it’s barest essentials, impressively condensing the myriad plotlines down to a manageable and still completely coherent narrative. What may be necessarily sacrificed in the process is a greater opportunity to learn more about each of the suspected operatives, yet this is where the economy of Alfredson’s filmmaking technique triumphs; important episodes may be imparted by a mere gesture, rich with emotional consequences. (There is a climactic tear on the face of one of the characters, barely visible, that says more than ten pages of exposition in the hands of a typical Hollywood director ever could.) The reoccuring set piece of the film is an ever evolving  flashback to a Circus Christmas party which is both a witty and sad memory that subtly exposes gestures of warmth, camaraderie and friendship as just more moves in an unending dance of  career gamesmanship that isolates from both personal and moral intimacies. This is a smart film about smart people using every facility to outsmart everyone else, and perhaps, in an ironic twist, themselves most of all.
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