Sunday, January 29, 2012

Where Things Actually Are — The Descendants

"We are not immune to life," says Matt King, referring to people who live in the seeming care-free tropical world of Hawaii. 

DEPTH: 3.5
OVERALL: Recommended

So describes the Hawaiian tone poem of The Descendants. "Tone poem" is literal — by it I refer to both the soundtrack that is a special highlight of the film, and the location-specific environment that feels organic and realistic, capturing a moment much like impressionistic painting or Debussey tone-poems.

King (Clooney) is the wealthy and genuine but relationship-starved man who must come to terms with where things actually are on the ground with his two daughters, now that his wife is hospitalized with a coma.  

The way he must fine-tune his approach to his prickly daughters and ultimately make a decision about what kind of "descendants" they are going to be, is the contribution this film makes to understanding the human condition. He also confronts his own family ancestry, especially the assumptions they have about money and family land, in a really interesting character development of his own role as a descendant.

But by far the best thing about this film is—Shailene Woodley! As Alexandra King, she is pitch-perfect with the complex and mature adolescent emotions associated with her mother's affair and impending death. Ms. Woodley deserves recognition for her supporting role. Honorable mention to Nick Krause as the hilarious Sid. The levity he provides is a much-needed counterbalance to Clooney.

Oh, and George Clooney is pretty good too, though not half as convincing as a few dozen other actors could have been in the role. He blends the comic and tragic well, especially with his clumsy gait as he frantically runs to the neighbors. His depressed self-serious investigation of his wife's affair has the air of the pitifully ridiculous.
Solid story, but no Oscar here from Deeper Film. The story is a bit too average in its approach to the affair and the oh-so-typical contours of the expected fallout. But the way it deals with being more open to one's children as being capable mentally and emotionally of dealing with life, even at its most tragic and painful, is enriching and worth seeing.

Take a mini-vacation to Hawaii by seeing this film, and you'll certainly come out more edified as a person in the bargain, and you might even see your own descendants in a new light.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

OSCAR PICK — Best Actor — Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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When Gary Oldman sits down at the head of the table, we had all better sit up a little straighter. His performance is Oscar worthy, and Deeper Film gives him Best Actor.

Depth: 4
Acting: 5
Plot: 4
Originality: 5
Entertainment: 3

Demand on Viewer: High/Difficult
Overall: Recommended

I've never seen anyone able so thoroughly to portray a character as Gary Oldman. This film, if nothing else, is a showcase for his talent, at long last. It helps that he is surrounded by a fine supporting cast a mile long, and that the directorial decisions in the film are atmospheric and finely tuned.

The strength of this film lies in its oblique indirectness. It feels very European in that way, and appropriately so, as it is set in Britain during the cold war. The panelled, dark rooms, mundane offices, and crisp overcoats speak of military-industrial complexes and back-room espionage. But for American filmgoers the oblique storytelling may be a bit much: very demanding on the viewer to ascertain what is happening in each scene and why, as well as how it relates to the rest of the plot.

Like a russian doll, stories inside of stories are revealed, told by this character and now that, until one begins to lose track of what might be real and what might be fabricated. This is a thoroughly postmodern device and a rather surprising one to have been employed by a novel written in 1977.

(Incidentally, John Le Carre is a pen name for a man who observed much of the spy-content in real life. I'll leave that interesting sideline for other bloggers. )

Tinker Tailor sustains a literary ambiguity usually only found in books. The ambiguity strikes at the heart of every scene, every dialogue, every action. One is constantly wondering whether there is a double-entendre being played. To be able to see well through such double-lenses is the  talent of the spy, but rather than being adventurous, it is one we see here depicted as hidden behind patience and a dry tick-tock sense of life's passing.

Through his seasoned self-control, Oldman's character Smiley catches a mole. However, there is no glamour to Smiley's achievement: a throne in a padded cell inside a trailer, inside a dreary industrial building, inside a dull and paranoid institution. Smiley is been shown to be ruthless when he needs to be: one has to wonder just how much he was aiming at the top post from the beginning. 

And he is preoccupied with the question, "Did they say anything about me?"  Perhaps this was simply lack of confidence, but the tone of the film is so amoral that one questions whether Smiley's motives were pure. Did the foreigners have a reason to ask about Smiley, say, because he was also a mole? Just how much of what transpired did so at Smiley's behest? The film only hints at possibilities here.

Smiley's self-image had been shattered by the behavior of his wife. Britain itself is on the dock for a crisis of self-image, as the real impetus for the Soviet Union's actions was to lure the United States. The mole says, in explanation of his actions, "I have made my mark." That is the psychological worry of Britain (at least in the film): are they only second fiddle to the U.S.? 

There are many more aspects of this rich film, by turns intriguing, confusing, and puzzling. It is worth seeing at least twice, not least for its visual poetry and pairing of sound with vision. Some of the most difficult scenes toward the end are paired with the lightest fare musically, a strange juxtaposition that further increases the sense of distance and ambiguity between the viewer and the characters.

It seems to me that the psychological need to be heard, recognized, and loved is the film's deepest aspect. (Colin Firth and Mark Strong bring this out marvellously.) In pursuit of those things we may be led into dingy, gritty places. We may even spy. 

Or, we may be forced to do like Gary Oldman does so terribly well—stare blankly ahead while our minds calculate and our emotions boil. In all, a demanding film worth the extra attention span needed to follow it, and here's hoping for the Oscar.