(Cable TV, July 2012) I’m not betraying any big trade secret when I reveal that SF nerds love to slice-and-dice SF movies to find out whether they are true examples of True and Good Science-Fiction rather than cheap sci-fi knockoffs made for the rubes. Films like Real Steel are good fodder for such conversations, because while it unarguably depends on a science-fiction premise (Boxing Robots! How much more SF can you get? Plus, it’s adapted from a short story by real SF writer Richard Matheson), it’s somewhat lazy in working out the second-order implications of such a premise on the rest of the world. Real Steel is a kid’s film, mind you, and it’s far more interested in showing father and son bonding over rock’em-sock’em robot fighting than in offering a convincing portrait of the near future. While SF nerds will be disappointed to point out the flaws in the film’s chronology (which posits vast institutions build around boxing robots by 2020, which seems like a ridiculously short time) and the lack of robots in non-boxing roles, most of the film’s audience will be satisfied by the father-son drama, the fights and the superb rural scenery. (I don’t recall ever seeing that many farms and two-lane roads in a SF film.) This nostalgic attachment to a quasi-mythical Americana extends to the safe thematic concerns of the script, which blends fatherhood, populism, scraping by and punching things into a crowd-pleasing mix. It seems all very calculated, but Real Steel is successful because it’s very good at what it attempts to do: the cinematography is luminous, the soundtrack is peppy, the plot is cleanly delivered, the special effects are impressive, Hugh Jackman is charming as a hustling ex-fighter learning how to care for his son and director Shawn Levey keeps the film moving at a good pace. Only the abrupt ending, missing an epilogue, seems to miss a beat. Still, the film is all about pleasing audiences, and there’s a lesson or two to be learned here in how a movie can humanize a technological gimmick into something that even the broadest crowds can love.
(On-demand video, August 2012) There’s a comforting familiarity to genre exercises that makes it easy to forgive them for, well, being genre exercises. Man on a Ledge may benefit from an unusual premise (man goes on a ledge as a diversion for a heist), but it quickly becomes just another thriller with the usual palette of elements: clever virtuous thieves, corrupt cops, framed hero, rapacious journalists, and so on. To its credit, Man on a Ledge plays its thriller cards well, especially in the first act of the film while all of the plot strands are being set up. It’s the second third that hits a bit of a lull as the same situation is re-threaded for about 15 minutes: thrillers live or die on narrative energy, and there’s a sense, as the thieves goof around their target, that time is being wasted. At least the last act of the film speeds up again, leading up to a nice appropriate moment of stunt-work. Some dynamic camera work helps keep up interest throughout, but some thanks must be given to the good cast assembled here for the film: Sam Worthington as a scruffy protagonist, Ed Harris as a rail-thin villain, up-comer Anthony Mackie as a partner working at cross-purposes, Elizabeth Banks as a damaged police officer and Genesis Rodriguez as a wise-cracking rogue. It plays reasonably well as a genre thriller, and that’s fine if that’ all you really want to see. Where it falters is in comparison with other better movies of this kind –specifically Inside Man, Spike Lee’s far-better “New York crime thriller” entry which felt as if it had some connections to contemporary reality rather than just being a somewhat showy thriller. The far-fetched nature of Man on a Ledge’s plot could have used a bit more grounding (so to speak, ahem) and that’s probably when genre exercises can go astray, by being more focused on their own plot convolutions rather than spending just a bit more time on making it feel even more credible.
(On-demand video, July 2012) As the Cold War recedes from popular consciousness, it’s slowly taking on a nice historical patina. Judging from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the color palette of that patina is going to be made of dull browns with the occasional flash of garish orange foam. Well-adapted from John le Carré’s classic novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole within the British spy establishment, it faithfully sticks to the author’s portrayal of English spies as dull grey bureaucrats fighting for the realm from little drab offices. It’s a refreshing antidote to the overblown portrayal of spies as action heroes, but it does require a willingness from viewers to adjust their entertainment expectations. This is a slow film, and it doesn’t have much in terms of conventional thrills: The biggest suspense sequences of the film (sneaking documents from the archives, waiting for the mole to show up) are moments that would have been glossed-over in an action film. So it’s no surprise if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy works best as an atmospheric period piece, featuring two handfuls of capable actors and a mature view of the reality of the intelligence game that is far closer to reality than most other films. Information here is far more important than bullets. Gary Oldman is mesmerizing as George Smiley, a spy who does his best work by interviewing people and then thinking really hard about what he has learned. The surrounding cast is very strong, from Mark Strong’s atypical performance as a wounded ex-spy to Colin Firth’s unrepentant seducer to Toby Jones’s slimy ladder-climber. The adaptation from the novel is skillful, as it seems to completely re-structure the chronology of the story while keeping much of the plot points intact. The result may not be up to everyone’s favored speed, but it’s a skillful film, and one that does wonder in terms of pure atmosphere. It works much like the novel does, as a counter-point to espionage fantasies.
Penguin, 2012 movie tie-in reprint of 1974 original, 381 pages, C$15.90 hc, ISBN 978-0143120933
I’m hardly the first one to note the fact, but as I age, I understand that some books are best read by older readers. Tastes change, our knowledge of the world evolves and we come to appreciate atypical takes on standard material.
I first read John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in my early twenties, and it may be better to say that I tried to read it. I was on a thriller binge at the time, and had to sample le Carré’s fiction. Alas, I still vividly remember being so disappointed by the conclusion of A Small Town in Germany, and not quite knowing what to make of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s dull and dense accumulation of details in non-linear chronology.
Flash forward twenty years, and some things have changed in the meantime. By 2004, I was able to give a lukewarm review to The Russia House. By 2007, I was positively enthusiastic about The Constant Gardener, helped along by great memories of the film adaptation. When I watched the 2011 big-screen version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I knew I had to give another chance to the novel. (I have no shame in leveraging movie adaptation in order to improve my reading experiences. With time, by brain has learned how to use visuals in order to make the reading experience even more enjoyable.)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy certainly feels a lot more interesting than it did two decades ago. I’m no longer necessarily opposed to le Carré’s meandering style, or his dedication to presenting a view of the intelligence establishment that favors analysis and reflection over over-the-top action heroics. My own years within a bureaucracy make it easier to appreciate the inner working of the British intelligence service as described in the novel, and the emphasis on adult themes seem to resonate more strongly now than they did before. At last, I’m at a point in my life where reading about a humble public servant uncovering a Soviet spy through conversations and deductions fits my definition of a cozy thriller.
The story is archetypical spy stuff: There’s a Soviet agent working within the British Intelligence Service, and it’s up to disgraced/retired intelligence analyst George Smiley to uncover him. A predecessor has narrowed down the possibilities to four people, all of whom have suspiciously ascended to the top of the national spy establishment. But it’s up to Smiley to work outside the system and assemble the pieces of the puzzle: gently interrogating witnesses, poring over documents, reminiscing about the past with past colleagues and thinking really hard about what he has learned are the tools of his trade. le Carré makes it clear that Smiley is a gifted interrogator, able to tease secrets out of his interlocutor without them even realizing it. When comes the time to take action, Smiley’s methods are as subtle as they are efficient, leading to a terribly British climax in which he sits in a chair and waits for the arrival of the unknown traitor.
Stylistically, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a dense accumulation of details about its characters, chronology-hopping subplots, personal issues and trade jargon. Le Carré’s literary style is low-key to the point of downplaying even important events, something that may unsettle readers with higher expectations of action. (Again; see the movie first, and only read the book if you liked the film.) Every conversation is described in subtle nuances, the narration barely tipping its hand when something important has happened. Readers sometimes have access to Smiley’s inner monologues, but usually not: the voice of the novel floats around the plot without getting involved at all times.
The result can feel detached, cold, lengthy or meandering; all valid charges against this kind of procedural, reality-based spying suspense novel. On the other hand, it succeeds at what it tries to do. The result is interesting in its own right, and the fact that the novel was published in 1974 now tends to give it a nice patina of historical charm: it has aged well by remaining a reflection of its time. Ultimately, what works best about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the change of pace is presents from much of the spy fiction genre: it’s still, nearly forty years later, a fairly unusual novel in this regard, and readers who have seen everything in the thriller genre may come to this novel (or, indeed, much of le Carré’s fiction) seeking something different. While the novel won’t please all readers, it remains a quasi-definitive Cold War thriller, plunging us even today in a different time and place. Is it any coincidence if it took me until my late thirties to appreciate that intention?
(On-demand video, July 2012) Straight-to-video genre movies seem on an upward quality swing lately, and Transit seems to be a perfectly good example of the form as it exists now: Reportedly shot with a paltry five-million-dollar budget, the film looks relatively good and progresses quickly, featuring a few action sequences along the way. Jim Caviezel stars as an ex-con father whose family car is unwittingly used as a mule by thieves. The opportunity for the family to reconnect through a camping trip is tested once the criminals come back to claim their stash: Mayhem ensues. This isn’t more than a straightforward B-movie thriller, but recent advances in digital filmmaking lend a visual polish to the film that earlier examples of the form couldn’t match. While the cinematography is far too saturated to be called beautiful, it is a striking example what is now possible on a modest budget. The plot is just interesting enough to keep viewer’s attention, although a number of plot holes will strike the attentive viewer as distracting. (It sort-of-helps that the contrivances are the kind that keep plots moving.) Transit is not, to be clear, a good film. But it’s entertaining enough given the modest expectations that come in tackling a film that has never played widely in North-American theaters.
Scholastic, 2010, 400 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-439-02351-1
Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy wraps up to a close with Mockingjay, a final entry that abandons the previous novels’ structure (which was admittedly wearing thin in Catching Fire) in favor of an outright story of rebellion against the established order of Panem.
After the events of the story so far, series narrator/heroine Katniss Everdeen shows up in Mockingjay even more damaged than she has ever been. Forced to abandon the ruined remnants of her home district, coerced in acting as the Rebellion’s “Mockingjay” spokesperson, Katniss certainly isn’t an enthusiastic rebel. It doesn’t take a long time for her to realize that the rebels aren’t necessarily morally superior to the regime they’re fighting against. The book doesn’t end with another bout of the Hunger Games, but sends Katniss deep in enemy territory in the hope of ending the war.
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Mockingjay is the depiction of the heroine as a traumatized survivor. Katniss’ heroics have only bought her most pain and suffering. As the book progresses, she sees her ambiguous paramour Peeta brainwashed by opposing forces to the point that he tries to kill her. A lot of people die around her, more poignantly toward the end of the novel. Her thirst for vengeance isn’t noble or admirable, but twisted and self-destructive. War isn’t glorified, but shown as an atrocity, and she can’t even be sure that the rebel leaders will be any better than the established order, which is the kind of thing that tempers any kind of enthusiasm. Readers are brought along cringing and fearing the next plot point, especially when characters openly start discussing what is real and what isn’t. (One can argue that the epilogue is just a hallucination, but that’s being a bit too mean.)
Fortunately, this increasing grimness isn’t a jarring evolution in the series. The Hunger Games was noteworthy for its blood-thirstiness even in today’s unsentimental Young Adult marketplace, and Katniss’ gradual deterioration well in-line with her character’s arc through Catching Fire. Given that she narrates the events, however, it does become a bit tedious to live in her head. The announcement that Mockingjay would be adapted on-screen as two separate movies raises a few interesting questions regarding the re-structuring of the novel, especially given how much action takes place away from Katniss and thus far removed from her narration. There are a few plot cheats in order to give her essential information, but it’s going to be interesting to see how the novel makes the leap from first-person to third-person narration. More explosions are likely, but what’s going to be more interesting is in seeing whether the rather loose plotting of the book will be further diffused by spreading it over more than three hours, or if the filmmakers will be able to tighten up the story. (Given the first film’s clunky third-person exposition, it doesn’t bode well.)
Otherwise, it does bring the series to a conclusion, even though some plot threads are cut short in the rush to complete the ending. Katniss, damaged as she is, is still a likable protagonist, and the characters surrounding her all have a role to play in the unfolding of the story. Anyone who makes it to the third volume is likely to be satisfied, even though this novel is substantially different in structure from its predecessor. While the trilogy may not be entirely believable nor all that pleasant to experience, it’s a well-told story with a strong heroine, and the bittersweet conclusion decently wraps it up.
(On-demand video, July 2012) This mostly-innocuous mainstream Hollywood comedy may feel familiar, but it’s in the service of a decent film. Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star as a couple forced to leave New York after professional setbacks. On their way to relatives in Atlanta, they discover a commune and are seduced in staying. Of course, the reality of living in a commune doesn’t match their first impression… and there lie the laughs. The rest may use (as is the norm with Judd Apatow-produced comedies) pervasive bad language and a few edgier moments, but let’s not fool ourselves: This is a classically-structured comedy, with the expected plot beats, character quirks and familiar humor that we’d expect from this kind of film. Rudd and Aniston are fine (Rudd may be developing as the more dependable straight-man in comedies: it helps that he’s so effortlessly likable), but the laughs belong to the large number of quirky supporting characters. Not every joke works (the film is marred by an overextended dirty-talk scene, flat references to outdated technology and an inability to cut away scenes on high notes) but much of the film is just good-natured enough not to mind. While Wanderlust could have been better, faster and a bit less predictable, the end result is quite enjoyable, and will whittle away a nice evening as long as you have some tolerance for profanity and brief naturalistic nudity.
(On-demand video, July 2012) I’m (still) not a big fan of found-footage films, but Chronicle knows how to use the conventions of that sub-genre in order to make the familiar feel fresh. The story of three high-school students discovering telekinetic powers, Chronicle could have been just another dull superhero-origins-story rethread if it had been executed with more mainstream sensibilities. Here, though, it takes on a harder, almost horror-centered approach and filters it through the unpolished lenses of consumer-grade cameras. The result feels a great deal more visceral than objective filmmaking, exactly what found-footage is meant to achieve at its best. The slow ramping-up of the film’s SF content is handled well, and leads to an impressive climax that manages to tell a superhero-sized story through limited technical means. Writer/director Max Landis and Josh Trank do much with a low budget, and the result is an impressive calling card heralding promising creative talents. The tone of the story, filled with impulsive self-destructive acts and casual violence, is miles away from the usual heroic tone of similar films, and the result feels much more involving as a result. The teenage cast does a fine job at delivering the material, but the real star here is the way Chronicle is told, transforming a generic experience into something far more interesting. It all amount to a small triumph of form over content, but an enjoyable experience nonetheless. Despite my own misgivings about found-footage films, I welcome it as a pleasant surprise.
(On-demand video, July 2012) I really did not expect this movie take on 21 Jump Street to be any good: Eighties nostalgia leaves me cold, I’m still dubious about Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum never struck me as a comedy lead. But the film’s reviews were generally positive and I was in the mood for some silly stuff… So it is that, surprises of surprises, 21 Jump Street proves to be a clever and hilarious action-comedy, perhaps the most satisfying take on the 21 Jump Street concept possible given today’s movie-comedy zeitgeist. Crucially, this movie version acknowledges the shortcomings of the original’s concept and then proceeds to maneuver away from it by taking on a quasi-parody of high-school movies and inverting traditional archetypes. So it is that the jock discovers that the nerds have taken over, that the nerd is forced in a jock role, and the old rules don’t apply. The screenwriters clearly have fun with the source material, going as far as casting Ice Cube as a police sergeant, put together a hilariously un-heroic car chase, and killing off characters from the TV show. Mind you, the comedy isn’t all hilarious: in keeping with today’s current R-rating comedy shtick, profanity is pervasive and a significant fraction of the film’s gags revolve around male genitalia. Still, there’s enough humor delivered at such a fast pace that a good joke will almost always follow a lame one, and the snappy direction accounts for much of the film’s fun and forward momentum. Channing Tatum proves himself to be a charming straight man, while Jonah Hill gets one of his least-annoying roles to date here. The rapid-fire end credit sequence suggests a number of cut subplots, but the result on-screen is more than fun enough… even for people with no affection or knowledge of the original series. A surprise comedy hit, 21 Jump Street is a bit more than just a nostalgic re-hash of a familiar concept: It succeeds best once it becomes its own comedy vehicle.
(On-demand video, July 2012) The Artist’s success at the 2012 Oscars may, at first, have seemed like a fluke: A silent film featuring French lead actors and director? What would be the odds? But it doesn’t take a long look at the actual movie to understand why Hollywood would embrace the film so enthusiastically. It is, after all, a celebration of one of cinema’s golden age, a painstaking recreation of a time best remembered through a haze of nostalgia. Set during the last years of silent film, The Artist really doesn’t trouble itself with a complicated plot: It’s a straight fall-from-grace tragedy for the protagonist, mirrored by the rise of another type of performer. The subplots and plot beats are all familiar, but they’re not the reason to see the film. Jean Dujardin makes for an exceptionally capable lead (with Bérénice Bejo as a capable foil) , but The Artist’s greatest asset is the way director Michel Hazanavicius apes and recreates the style of silent cinema in all of its jittery glory, occasional dialogue cards making intelligible what the over-acting can’t establish. By going back to the old, The Artist feels like something new, or at least something sufficiently different from routine that it’s hard not to be charmed. It has a few lengths (especially in the dog-days of the protagonist’s fall on hard times) but it’s a crowd-charmer throughout, and it ends as it should –on a very high note. No wonder that Hollywood propelled it to the top of the Academy Awards—along with Hugo, which also featured a mixture of French exoticism and early movie-making nostalgia. The Artist is that kind of film-for-film-lovers, designed to reward cinephiles for doing nothing more than watching a lot of movies. It’s a curio, but a pleasant one.