OSCARS: Seven of Nine

4 March, 2018 at 8:05 pm (film)

Oscars 2018: Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards...

Well, it’s been ten years since I weighed in on the Oscars Best Picture race, and nine years before that since I went back to my alma mater to hammer out a post-grad defense in the student newspaper of Shakespeare in Love having taken home the old Golden Boy. In general, I find the exercise of handicapping the proceedings to be less revelatory than the amount of weight of commentary might otherwise indicate. I feel that my prior comment on the nature of What Is Best lends itself to no particular new insight, so I’ll let my early ham-handed postings remain for anyone who couldn’t deduce my point of view with their own fifteen seconds of introspection. The only thing I’ll add is that wiser word-processors than mine have already looked at the fact that the victors are often less Best picture and more Trendiest Picture, representing a particular cultural windsock more than any larger zeitgeist.

In 2008, I really did feel that any of the winners would have been worthy. That it was a banner year for taste amongst the selection, and that even the slightest entry of the five still had yards of appeal. And in the post-The Dark Knight explosion of Best Picture nominees, allowing up to ten possible candidates, that the entries have never been as lean and incisive again.

This year is a particular exception. Read the rest of this entry »

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GALLERY: Business Cards in Television

26 February, 2018 at 3:09 pm (television)

Jessica Jones, Alias Invesigations

Alicia Florrick, Esq. of Florrick, Agos, & Lockhart

Angel Investigations

Detective Arthur Bell in Orhpan Black

Phryne Fisher, the Honourable Miss Fisher, Lady Detective Read the rest of this entry »

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Yesterday in Charade: The Annotated Regina

13 June, 2017 at 10:47 pm (charade)

Midway through the day, The A.V. Club cheerfully chirped up about the opportunity to bid on a copy of Audrey Hepburn’s personal copy of the script for Breakfast at Tiffany’s should one “have unlimited means“. Aside from the traditionally Blake Edwards’ party sequence, Tiffany’s has never particularly warmed the cockles of my heart, but I was interested to see what else might be for sale in late September when Christie’s holds its London auction. Because, while I do own a couple of supposedly genuine screen-intended props from the remake of Charade, the opportunity to own something actually used in the original 1963 film has never availed itself to me. (A minor exception: I could own a severed swatch of fabric apparently from Hepburn’s screenworn faux-leopard fur hat, but that feels like a predatorily ghoulish way to collect “memorabilia”.)

Promotional still of Hepburn in Charade on display in Christie's promotional video
The auction house’s accompanying promotional video for the upcoming event doesn’t display much Charadiana, surprising no one, but near the bottom of the press release a very small amount of “film memorabilia” is mentioned. It’s difficult to tell if one should infer from this delayed placement that Christie’s, while enjoying the borrowed splendor of the late actress, would prefer to not sully itself with such things as movie props and other pop cultural ephemera. This is where one finds the item that The A.V. Club flagged up so prominently, Hepburn’s copy of the Tiffany’s screenplay, as well as the estimate of its anticipated value, between sixty thousand and eighty thousand pounds. And, no, that variance is not due to the soft market value of the pound sterling after last week’s special election failed to cement Theresa May’s or even the Tories’ mandate as leading parliamentary party.

But tucked in next to that leading treasure is that Hepburn’s copy of Charade will also be for sale, expecting to rake in the comparatively paltry median amount of £20,000. Read the rest of this entry »

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LE CARRÉ DIEM: Our Kind of Traitor

8 July, 2016 at 11:41 pm (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: I watched every feature film adaption of a John le Carré novel in preparation for the U.S. theatrical release of this film, in order to write about them each in sequence.

US theatrical release poster for Our Kind of TraitorCURRENTLY: Well, let’s get down to it. Is this the apex of the Carré Canon? Obviously not, as some of the earlier efforts are considered stone-cold classics and are not going to be re-evaluated in comparison to the strengths of a film that has received a thorough critical meh in the UK upon release. It’s difficult to know exactly what the critics were hoping for, as I’ve been avoiding their write-ups for the past few weeks in order to go into my own viewing as untrammeled as possible. Now having watched the movie and weighed it, I plan on writing about it in a more free-form manner than my previous reviews, all of which were able to be planned and sourced by years if not decades of critical response, by DVD release and multiple viewings. Sure, I’d never seen Deadly Affair or Looking Glass War before, but their very absence was part of the shadow that they cast in a minor film nerd’s hunt-and-pecking through the feed trough of cinema history. I have seen this once — in a mostly empty screening populated by three elderly couples, one of whom felt like they were obligated to share their confusion with the plot and their lives with the rest of the audience &mdsah; and won’t be able to review the materiel with quite the same ease as the other titles in this series. So I plan on rambling for a bit, reacting to the reviews and any press materials that seem germane, and then putting this little experiment in using WordPress’ post-dating ability to rest. Won’t you join me for this final installment of Putting Le Carré Before Le Source?

We begin with a reasonable amount of Russians speaking Russian, mostly with subtitles, sometimes without, depending upon whether director Susanna White (Bleak House, Generation Kill) wants us to be given information or to be given tone. Her decision to have the characters talk on cell phones or murmur to each other without transition attempts to force the audience to pick up on what’s going on by watching the characters’ intent, their eyes, and by listening to the susurrus of ordinary vocal timbre. Obviously, this requires the sort of audience that is going to try and find meaning when obvious information is not provided, that is going to search for clues and not instead fold into a sulk of alienation. Bit of a risky proposition, I feel, having ridden many polyglottal subways and seen passengers threatened and worried by the indecipherable multicultural human interactions around them. I mention again the aged couple that sat a few rows behind me, mumbling through each ambiguity in a sour hunt for step-by-step plotting and motivation.

Not that this film was completely devoid of signposting, it just occasionally gave us the conflict first and the reasons a little later. Read the rest of this entry »

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LE CARRÉ DIEM: A Most Wanted Man

30 June, 2016 at 6:41 pm (batman, film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: Commissioner Gordon ultimately takes over MI6 after discovering the Kingsman mole in his midst. Remember: everything is in continuity.

CURRENTLY: I first saw this film in the cinema, where the experience of watching it was weighed down with the knowledge of the death of its star, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman died of an overdose of heroin between the film’s premiere at Sundance in January of 2014 and it’s wide release in September of that year, and reports and remembrances in the interim painted a picture of a man who was intense in his work and seemingly unable to leave that intensity at work. So while watching his portrayal of a man bent under pressure to stop the next global terrorist act, it was difficult not to imagine him carrying that intensity around with him, and looking to chemical relief. It made it hard to watch, and made me feel complicit in his demise, because this was the kind of intense emotional work that I wanted him to labour under, to provide for me. I’m not sure I wholly understand the message that Haneke was going for in Funny Games, especially as I have no desire to ever watch it, but it has filtered through to me that the film is about villains’ agency to fulfill the audience’s desire to watch terrible things happen, that their motivation is not as characters but as avatars for our collective desire for bloodlust masquerade. We are supposed to feel guilty for what happens to the characters. Similarly, I felt a twinge of responsibility, however accurate, for providing a marketplace for Hoffman’s lack of catharsis.

the Viking paperback edition of A Most Wanted Man by John le CarréBecause I spent my initial screening of A Most Wanted Man watching Hoffman’s onscreen pain, and projecting his apparent real life pain onto that performance, there were some aspects of the film that I missed the first time ’round. In particular, I missed entirely that this film was post-9/11 storytelling and filmmaking. I certainly didn’t catch or remember the introductory text mentioning that the planners of the Sept. 11th attacks planned their assault from Frankfurt, and the multicultural port city continued to actively search for future terrorist activity that might originate with their Muslim populations. It isn’t given undue mention subsequently, but in his notes on still photos he took during the production, director Anton Corbijn makes an explicit reference to what is the background to everyone’s actions and motivations. While narrating images from scenes where the Muslim Chechen at the center of the story spends his time holed up in an abandoned apartment, tossing paper airplanes around the space, Corbijn says that Issa tossing the paper distractions at the plastic construction sheeting in the apartment is “Obviously… a reference to 9/11” (p.106).

I was astonished by this claim, and if it had been made by anyone other than the film’s director, I would have dismissed it as the worst kind of symbolic and interpretive overreach. However, when I noticed that the first British editions of both the hardcover and paperback print runs of A Most Wanted Man had also seized upon that image, I began to feel like I was the fool who hadn’t notice the glaringly obvious visual miming. However, when Corbijn later uses that same plastic sheeting as a metaphor that allows Issa “visually [to] go from a ‘terrorist’ to a ‘martyr'” (p. 109), I returned again to my comfortable stance that this imagery was more than a little abstruse, and that it’s injected meanings might be falling well short of the viewer.

Read the rest of this entry »

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LE CARRÉ DIEM: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

24 June, 2016 at 3:28 pm (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: Ralph Fiennes does his African version of Sporloos, not in order to learn the truth about what happened to his wife, but to try and equal her in moral conviction.

CURRENTLY: It’s been four years since I worked on this project, but I’m planning on canceling Netflix in two days, so I figured that I better take a lazy Sunday and rewatch it and figure out if I can actually string some thoughts together on this project while I still have access to the film. So while this will still be dated as a post from 24 June (although my last draft was saved a year later on 18 July, 2017), it’s being written in a very different world of summer 2020, and I can already tell my preoccupations and references are going to be very different than the posts surrounding it.

One of the major influences in my current time-out-of-joint lifestyle is that while this project was started as a knock-off/homage of film blogger The Incredible Suit, the long-form themed film marathons in which I’m currently enmeshed mostly come via the dedicated service of Hashtag The Two Friends, Griffin Newman and David Sims of the Blank Check podcast. They are, as of this writing, analyzing the films of Nora Ephron and the Mission: Impossible series in their main podcast and their fan-supported side project respectively. But this morning I was listening to their guest appearance on Newcomers, a podcast by Nicole Byer and Lauren Lapkus journaling their first reactions delving into fan-favorite franchises to which they have no previous exposure. I had finally, after much haranguing by a section of my social circle, sat down and watched Jon Favreau’s extended riff on Sergio Leone, The Mandalorian. This, in turn, allowed me to listen to the Newcomers episode about the series, which I had previously skipped to avoid any major spoilers that had not already been lanced at me by Vulture‘s breathless coverage during its release.

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy promo character poster of Gary Oldman as George SmileyMany of the five-star reviews of Newcomers on Apple Podcasts are from Star Wars agnostics who enjoy the way in which Lapkus and Byer take the air out of the series’ self-seriousness. While I also enjoy their blithe responses, I do find myself bristling at some of their confusion as to the action, events, and characters in the media they have supposedly watched. Byers talks enough in her commentary about being on her phone during viewings that I have formed an unflattering assumption that part of the reason they don’t understand what’s going on is simply that they don’t really pay attention. If a given film trades more in impressionistic storytelling than spoon-fed narration, or isn’t made with a constant barrage of quick-cut montage, it seems that their attentions wander. What their guests have repeatedly told them is that part of the appeal of Star Wars has been a sense that the world is huge and complicated and details are alluded to without being fully explained. Filling in those gaps is why action figures and cosplay and videogames and fan-fiction from that brand have thrived so thoroughly: people have been engaged and frustrated enough by the unanswered questions to want to fill them in with their own creativity.

Re-watching Tinker, Tailor today after having listened to some mild Newcomers complaint about the pacing and long silences in Favreau’s Western pastiches (and mildly wondering about how badly they’d do at watching The Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven if they had a hard time watching a 29-minute adaptation, as neither “original” is particularly hurried storytelling), I could imagine their hypothetical frustrated confusion with it. The filmmaking is deliberately oblique for much of Tinker, Tailor. Read the rest of this entry »

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LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Tailor of Panama

10 June, 2016 at 10:48 pm (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: I’m so enamored of Michelle Pfeiffer that I forget to mention the 28-year age difference between her and her co-star, one of the emerging themes of this commentary. It’s almost certainly because in this case I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to hurdle that particular distance, in fiction or in real life.

CURRENTLY: The sequel to The Tinker of Panama (we’re still waiting for the third and fourth in the series) begins with Pierce Brosnan getting reassigned from his post in Spain, where he later tells us he had an affair with the ambassador’s mistress, to instead be located in Panama, where British interests are worried about the stability of local control of the canal. We are told about its return to the Panamanians in 1999 in a leaden infodump which accompanies an incredibly fake-looking CGI airliner and a ham-handedly stilted introduction to Geoffrey Rush’s eponymous character. Brosnan is blunt, crude, and specifically presented in contrast to the thin slice of suave that he’d carved out in the Bond franchise for the previous seven years. Brosnan didn’t play just Bond during his tenure, he didn’t rest on his laurels and let people think of him as nothing but 007, appearing in nine other films between Goldeneye and The World is not Enough. While only one of those nine movies seemingly traded off his Bond-based slickness — the Thomas Crown remake paints him with the same wry, uber-competence that he brought to his interpretation of Bond — and one could easily assume therefore that the audience would know him for other reasons and with other ranges, Tailor of Panama seems to be aggressively stepping forward to let us know, Ey, e’s not Bond, alright? Alright, squire? Got it? Not Bond, right? Right? A cursory Google full-text search of the original book seems to indicate that the character of Andy Oxnard never utilized the C-word in casual conversation (and lest you think that this is Google being wary of prurience, similar searches for shit and fuck come up gangbusters — 11 and 38 respectively), whereas director John Boorman has Brosnan drop it twice.

Pierce Brosnan in The Tailor of Panama
The opening sequence is oddly garish. It’s not just the aforementioned implausible exposition, which not only uses stock footage and voice-over narration that wouldn’t be out of place in a terrible travelogue (and which, incongruously, is never used again in the film), but also incorporates a terrible stock font. I don’t remember which wag of a graphic designer I saw efficiently take down James Cameron’s use of Papyrus in Avatar, but only because I had been struck the same way: no multi-million dollar film should be introduced by graphics readily available in Microsoft Word. A quick online font analysis tells me that the above titles are a variant on another Microsoft classic, Dom Casual, which Wikipedia informs me was also used on Bewitched and Barney Miller. That is not the kind of tone I expect from Le Carré. I don’t care if you’re trying to be arch in your not-Bond satire, swinging all the way to evoking sit-coms is a pendulum too far.

Read the rest of this entry »

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LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Russia House

3 June, 2016 at 6:36 pm (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: Rep actress Diane Keaton is recruited to act as a honeypot double-agent and seduce a Palestinian bomber who listens to faux-Kraftwerk and looks weirdly like a young Lord John Marbury. Trauma ensues.

Penguin Modern Classics Edition of 'The Russia House'CURRENTLY: This was the start of my serious relationship with Le Carré. Hot off of “discovering” Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, I went to my local video store, which had shelves dedicated to specific actors of note, and did a deep dive into the back catalogue of Ms. Pfeiffer, trying to figure out whether she was just a luminous pair of eyes that beamed directly into my adolescent heart, or if there were real acting chops there. My friends at the time said it was the former. They pointed at her stilted line delivery and her slightly lopsided duckface and they dismissed my film crush. And yes, perhaps if I had stopped at the haughty artificiality of The Age of Innocence and the choppy garishness of Married to the Mob, or if I had first been exposed to her during the warbling commercialism of Grease 2, I would have written her off. But it’s a mistake to confuse the limitations of casting directors with the limits of a performer’s range. And while Pfeiffer may have been assigned to a number of roles characterized by a kind of brittleness, she brought and brings human subtlety and curious languor to her parts as well. The showstopper for me was and is Dangerous Liaisons, but Russia House lags not far behind. Really, it’s a matter of mood. While it may come as some surprise at this point in this series of write-ups to say that any other film could be more cynical than the works of Le Carré, director Schepisi instead brings a lush romanticism to Russia House, transforming treason into an act of nobility that is, paradoxically, deserving of a sentence of life instead of death. Liaisons, on the other hand casts love, true love, as the incentive for death. Romance has rarely been bleaker (although I also saw Damage at about that same time, and that’d give Liaisons‘ bleakness a run for its proverbial money).

But I digress before I begin. Russia House‘s sweeping romanticism appealed to my desired teenaged achetypes, and so I had the advance teaser poster hanging on my wall, and the soundtrack on regular repeat on the dashboard cassette deck on my way to and from school and work. I listened to the abridged audiobook on tape, focusing on Le Carré reading his own words to try and get additional insight into the subtext and the choices underlying the performances. And with a deep crush on Ms. Pfeiffer, I found delight and clarity in passages like:

'Photographs don't lie but they don't tell the truth either, Barley was thinking...' (p.126)
which allowed me to bask in the memories of her face on the screen. The book fed my memories of the adaptation, and clips of key quotations from the film recorded to audiotape made the recollection of accompanying images remain strong. It all swirled together, the celebrity and the heroine, the idealism of the civilian characters and the cynicism of the author’s espionage proxies.

And oh how many proxies there are. Read the rest of this entry »

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LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Little Drummer Girl

27 May, 2016 at 6:55 pm (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: The previous three Le Carré film adaptations came out in a clutch, within four years of each other. Then the paradigm shifted, and adaptations moved to television. Perhaps the most famous and well-regarded Le Carré adaptations are still the Guinness Smiley series, the first of which was released a full decade after The Looking Glass War.

CURRENTLY: Five years after that, we come to the eighties, and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. The first thing that happens is that Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, a year before being romanced by Chevy Chase in Fletch, makes her apparent film debut by blowing up the residence of an Israeli ambassador with glee and with complete lack of concern about executing the small child who lives there. We later meet the leader of a Palestinian training camp who decries such sangfroid, and such actions, but such denunciations don’t prevent him from continuing to use them as tools for the greater end. Similarly, we have Diane Keaton, an American performer with a theatre company in Nottingham, recruited by Israeli intelligence because they believe her faith in the righteousness of a Palestinian state along with her skills as actress will allow her to convincingly pose as a terrorist recruiter’s girlfriend.

blog_1606_lecarre_drummer_01Viewed from a current perspective, there’s a dalliance with the idea of radicalization of Westerners that could either give a viewer pause or reassure us that our current fear of Arabic fifth columnists in our backyard is not particularly new. But it’s not the ultimate focus of the material, which is more interested in trauma and dehumanization. In fact, Drummer Girl stakes out both moral and exploitative territory that Spielberg will eventually cover in Munich almost twenty years later. The material and its presentation try to be even-handed. The best representation of this is a scene between Keaton’s character of Charlie and Yorgo Voyagis’ Israeli agent, who she calls “Joseph”. The Israelis have captured a terrorist with whom they want Charlie to pretend to have had a brief, intense romantic relationship. They can fabricate evidence of the affair, but they also want Charlie’s testimony to stand up to scrutiny. So they are leading her through experiences so that she can recall the sense memory of the places and conversations as an actress, and believably recount them under questioning. “Joseph” is performing as the stand-in for Michel, the captured man, but Charlie can’t commit to the “reality” of this false-front romance, and wants to flirt with Joseph.

Joseph tells the story of Michel’s father and grandfather facing down the Israeli tanks that reclaimed territory by force. He tells it convincingly, with fervor and belief in the Palestinian perspective, as Michel would have. Charlie looks at him doubtfully, knowing this is not his story. She asks where he was during these events, and Joseph reveals he was in the tanks that drove out and killed Michel’s family and those like him. The cognitive dissonance of listening to a man tell — convincingly, empathetically — the story of his enemy is an extraordinary technique for making the audience weigh both sides and come out with no clear answer. The methods of the Israelis are brutal, but they are deployed against equally inhumane practices. Everyone acts from a position of righteous justification, and everyone still emerges tainted.

The exception being Charlie. Spoilers after the cut.  Read the rest of this entry »

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LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Looking Glass War

20 May, 2016 at 10:53 pm (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: Spoiler Alert: Humbert Humbert kills a guy with his broken arm. Humbert’s arm, not the other guys’. His arms are both fine, except for being, y’know, dead. And all.

CURRENTLY: In last week’s teaser for this entry, I supposed, based on the character names in IMDB, that the women in The Looking Glass War were likely to receive short shrift in the story. I was, at the time, a little annoyed at Le Carré’s sidelining of women after writing about George Smiley’s beleaguered relationship with his wife. While Ann appears somewhat regularly in Affair, she is mostly a ghost in the later Smiley novels, inspiring him in her absence, in the echoes of his perception of her betrayals, and in how she was used as a lever to shift and destabilize him. Because the seeming primary female characters in Looking Glass were given credits as “The Girl”, “The Girl in London”, “Avery’s Wife”, and “Mrs. King”, it was difficult not to assume that they would have little interesting agency of their own, but would be defined only by their relationships to the strutting espionage menfolk of the picture.

Penguin Modern Classics edition of 'The Looking Glass War'

And while the second point is hard to argue against, the first was luckily slightly mitigated. Looking Glass focuses on Leiser, a Polish man discovered in prison by British Intelligence and trained to be sent into East Germany to identify what looks like a missile transport. Leiser is motivated initially by his desire to stay with his English girlfriend, whom he has gotten pregnant. And as he schemes to see her one last time before his exfiltration, we see the tension between his trainer, played by Anthony Hopkins, whose wife’s family feels his counter-intelligence work is beneath his dignity and their respect. Hopkins, in a completely unsurprising continuation of the Le Carré Protagonist Trope, feels controlled and limited by his wife; she appears briefly trying to bridge the gap between her husband’s mores and propriety, and afterward is felt only as a judgement on Hopkins’ actions and decisions. Leiser cares still less for his girlfriend, but he cares a great deal about his future child, and if one has to love a teenager in a second-floor bedsit to make that come to fruition, then he seems gleeful and glad to do so. Upon learning she has aborted the child, he strikes her and sullenly proceeds to the Eastern Bloc anyway, now without motivation to keep him strictly on task and without a burning passion to survive.

Note also that “The Girl in London” is who he leaves behind, and not “The Girl”. The modifier renders her lesser, qualified instead of absolute. Read the rest of this entry »

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