(On Cable TV, June 2017) I had reasonably high hopes pure fantasy film Tale of Tales—it’s Italian, based on lesser-known fairy tales rather than familiar stories, and it seems to have a decent-enough budget to do itself justice. Then there was the film’s rating, easily aimed at adult audiences. Before long, we start understanding why: As the film adds up cruel deaths, raw desires, nudity, unpleasant plot developments and a fair heaping of violence, it’s clear that Tale of Tales is not in the comfort business, nor does it particularly care if you’re feeling put-off by the results. But then there are other issues: The three tales don’t appreciably feed off each other, they end without much in terms of denouement and they’re often pointlessly cruel like only classic fairy tales could be. The topline cast is impressive (in-between John C. Reilly, Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel and Toby Jones) but their roles are often repellent or cut short, which stands for the rest of the film in many ways. It really doesn’t help that the film clocks in at more than two hours, far too long for the stories being told. Tale of Tales, in other words, is not just dull and long—it’s mean-spirited, unpleasant and empty of meaning. This is not a good combination, no matter one’s initial expectations.
(On DVD, January 2017) I had convinced myself that I was going to get a talky dull historical drama with The Painted Veil, which explains why its long and dull first act wasn’t much of a surprise. Another estranged couple in colonial times, playing dirty tricks on one another in an effort to win an ongoing argument against a lush south-Asian backdrop. That’s what I was expecting. What I wasn’t expecting was for the movie to become steadily more engrossing from the moment that the couple sets foot in the small village where most of the story will take place. There’ a great “I’d rather infect myself than spend more time with you” scene that’s remarkably funny, but it’s also the spark that rekindled my interest in the film. Things get more dramatic as disease spreads around the village and political problems rise up just as our lead couple learns to love themselves again. Ed Norton and Naomi Watts are both quite good in the lead roles (with Norton having the harder job of making his character impossible and then softening up), with noteworthy supporting presences by Toby Jones and Liev Schreiber. The cinematography is suitably exotic, and there’s a sobering use of “À la Claire Fontaine” in the soundtrack for those who understand French. The Painted Veil amounts to better film that I was expecting—a reasonably entertaining historical drama at a time when I was bracing myself for a dull one.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) The only thing worse than a film that goes nowhere is a film that initially seems to go somewhere, and then doesn’t. To its credit (or, if you’d rather, as a sole reason why you may want to see the movie despite it not going anywhere), Berberian Sound Studio begins with an intriguing half-hour. During the 1970s, a British sound engineer ends up at an Italian recording studio where he is surprised to find out that he’s been hired to work on a horror movie. Strange and off-putting events then occur. And that’s pretty much it as a plot summary, because there is no resolution, no climax, and no point to it all. Beyond the intriguing re-creation of a sound recording process (complete with seventies-era fetishism for knobs, sliders, buttons and magnetic tape), Berberian Sound Studio is all weirdness and no pay-off. Too bad for Toby Jones: his usual nebbish persona fits perfectly as a lonely middle-aged sound engineer thrust completely out of his element. But writer/director Peter Strickland seems to have forgotten to include the last third of the script, and the result is more frustrating than is deserved. What’s infuriating is that there are neat tricks here and there: we never see a frame of the movie they’re working on beyond its credits sequence; there’s nary a violent act to be seen (only heard, often through violent disassembly of vegetables), a few sequences definitely feel off-putting. But the film gets less and less interesting as it goes on, only to end abruptly at the point where most other films would start delivering answers or scares. Cinephiles (especially those with knowledge and fondness for giallo) will like Berberian Sound Studio a lot more than general audiences.
(On Cable TV, January 2013) The example set by Alfred Hitchcock still looms large over the entire suspense genre, but as the years go by the filmmaker seems to be remembered more as a cultural icon than a man. That makes him ripe for a re-interpretation: The Girl uses the director’s troubled relationship with actress Tippi Hedren as a way to explore his weaknesses and the result is damning. Here, Hitchcock is portrayed as an unapologetic harasser, blending unwelcome advances into the power dynamic between director and actress, abusing Hedren under the guise of filmmaking as a way to take revenge against her unwillingness to play along. The Girl is obviously told from Hedren’s point of view –Sienna Miller spent some time with Hedren in preparation for her role, and Toby Jones seems fully committed to presenting an increasingly unlikable portrayal of the director. For a TV (BBC/HBO) film, the film has acceptable production values and decent direction. Both Miller and Jones turn in good performances, and film enthusiasts will appreciate both the recreation of The Birds’ shooting process alongside an unusual look at the dynamic between actor and director. While Hitchcock’s portrayal here is one-sided (numerous other associates of the director have spoken against the film; the competing Hitchcock biopic is said to be more sympathetic), it’s certainly not uninteresting. As such, the film warrants a look even as a dramatized exaggeration of real-life events: we may not know the true story, but the way it’s presented here is enough to make anyone wonder about what went on in 1960s Hollywood.
(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.