Saturday, March 31, 2012

MAD MEN Partners' Meeting - "A Little Kiss"

Welcome the inaugural installment of a new feature here at LBM, the Mad Men Partners' Meeting -- a roundtable discussion of this week's episode from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

airdate: March 25th, 2012

Jon: Ah, yes... the long-awaited premiere of season 5. Eighteen months have passed since season 4 wrapped up, which you'd think would be plenty of time for things at our favorite Madison Avenue advertising agency to alter radically from where we last left them.

However, much to my surprise, things are basically the same with most of the folk of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as we left them. Business is "stable" at SCDP, aka money isn't a colossal concern but, as Lane reiterates throughout "A Little Kiss," they're not hiring for any new positions at this time. Relationship-wise, Don and Megan are now married and beaming at the outset of the episode, complete with a (I think) pleased Sally fixated on them at every moment; Peggy is still with her activist/journalist boyfriend from last season; Joan's rapey jerk of a hubby has yet to return from Vietnam, but sadly she's still technically with him; poutyface Pete has the audacity to be all pouty with Trudy (who I keep waiting to break scene and laugh with Abed every time she's onscreen), but they too appear stable-ish at the moment; Roger and Jane probably won't last much longer because Roger is Roger, but they're hitched too; Lane has visions of striking up another affair but continues to abide by his wife's nagging; Kenny Cosgrove is still with the grown-up version of the girl who played Alex Mack; Harry remains married and pathetically embarrassing as ever; and, shocker, Stan's still single and rushing off to the bean ballet. Oh, and Bert appears to need nothing more than office space to pace about in his socks. We don't get to see what Betty's been up to this episode, but I'm sure it'll be something to allow us to despise her in new ways.

Meanwhile, most of the differences here at the outset of season 5 are relatively minor but enough to mix up the dynamic at SCDP a bit, namely Joan has given birth to a baby boy and has been on maternity leave for a number of weeks, and Megan has now graduated from her secretary post to a junior copywriter at the firm.

Undoubtedly, this episode belonged to Jessica Pare's Megan Draper, who took an amazing leap from just the intriguing, yet ultimately random girl with the crazy teeth Don decided to propose to rather impulsively at the close of season 4 to a fully rounded character who while revealing her great joys and sorrows allowed us to examine Don's in new ways as well. Which leads me to the crux of the "A Little Kiss" and perhaps some insight to one of the major themes of season 5: is Don Draper a new man?

Following the disastrous meeting with the executives from Heinz where Don failed to save the pitch as we've become accustomed to, a distraught Peggy has this exchange with Stan:
"I don't recognize that man. He's kind. And patient."
"And it galls you."
"No, it concerns me."
Of course, this happy version of Don doesn't last long. But even after his fury over the party subsides, he does seem to possess a sort of peacefulness when he's with Megan that has alluded him for any length of time with Betty and his many conquests we've been privy to. There lies the possibility he's entered a new stage in his life.

So what say you? Am I way off-base with my Don theory? Were you as mesmerized by Megan as I was? Is Pete going bald?

Mark: Jon, I don’t think you’re completely off-base with your Don theory. He certainly seems more at ease with himself this year, and the fact that he is able to be so open with Megan about his past speaks volumes about his emotional development and the overall health of their marriage (at least relative to Don’s marriage to Betty). By the way, how great is this show at trickling out exposition? Megan knowing that Don is actually Dick Whitman is quite a bombshell, but Weiner and the other writers let that information pass breezily in the midst of a conversation. That kind of stuff requires you to do some work as a viewer, but that naturalism makes the Mad Men viewing experience such a treat. Anyway, Don is definitely still closed off in his way, but at least now when he is mortified by his surprise birthday party and the unwanted attention it brings, he is able to stick it out and sulk off to bed at the end of the night. I can see the Don of earlier seasons instead slipping out of the party and disappearing for a week with one of his bohemian conquests, leaving Megan in the lurch.

Don also seems more comfortable and happy around his kids. I’m always thoroughly pleased to see scenes where Sally Draper is at ease, and isn’t being blithely ignored, treated like garbage or forced to endure some other emotional torment from her horrible mother or sometimes-distant father. Sally is intense, and her curiosity about Megan may cross boundaries in an accidentally-creepy kid way in the coming weeks, but Don and Megan’s warmth towards her was nice to see. Happiness is hard to come by in Mad Men, and I will discuss my worries about Don and Megan below, but damn I just hope Sally ends up okay, and maybe Megan could be a good female role model for her. Or maybe not. Oh, Sally, you never had a chance.

Let me tell you why I’m not quite ready to sign off on Mr. and Mrs. Draper, Jon. There are some crazy power games going on between these two. Megan must have known that Don would be uncomfortable with the hilariously square party and her "Zou bisou bisou” routine, but I think she did it to playfully challenge his repression. But after the party, when she and Don had their Dick Whitman discussion, she seemed to be outright using her knowledge as a weapon. Likewise, Don paws at Megan during seemingly every private moment, coolly commanding her to unbutton her shirt for him in one scene, partly out of attraction but maybe also as a way of putting her in her place. They do seem to generally have an open dialogue and emotional honesty with each other that never in a million years existed between Don and Betty, but just as easily they can put up walls or resort to weirdly sexual antagonism like that whole “You can’t have this!” underwear display/wrestling match. Maybe they’re perfect for each other, but there’s a tinge of creepiness for me. Maybe they have so much in common that they are just going to destroy each other.

As a child of acrimoniously divorced parents, this show is not helping me with my fears about marriage. With the utterly miserable and vicious Roger and Jane serving as a possible outcome for Don and Megan’s marriage once the passion cools off, the vibrant and intelligent Joan stuck in her prison cell, and stupid, bored Harry and Lane lusting after various fantasies, it’s getting to be that Pete Campbell is somehow the most well-adjusted of the lot. Whereas Pete once seemed like an alien trying to approximate human behavior (in an intentional and compelling way, that’s not a knock against Vincent Kartheiser’s great performance), he and Trudy seem to be coming into their own as the show’s most successful marital team. Again, relatively-speaking. Who knows when Pete’s complaints about marriage on the train ride to work will start coming from a real place, and won’t just be used to pacify that dipshit he plays cards with.

Pete is very easy to root for in his push against Roger, who for all his supposedly charming and debonair qualities is really just an epic piece of shit. Pete, like Roger, is as blue-blooded as it gets, but he has shown a remarkable ability to engage with the times, and his rise at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and the increasing obsolescence of Roger and Bert (at the company, anyway – Bert is still a bizarrely singular, cockroach-like dude), nicely coincides with the big wave of change that Roger’s old-school-business-dickhead “want ad” is bringing to the company’s door. Mad Men has kind of tip-toed around race so far. I’m looking forward to that being in the forefront this year.

What do you think, Mike? Are Don and Megan a little creepy, or am I an ineffective couples therapist? Am I nuts, or does the whole show really hinge on Sally Draper? What stuck out to you?

Mike: You know what? I think you guys are being a little too sunny, in your not-really-altogether-that-sunny evaluation of this season's iteration of Don Draper. Yeah, he does seem a bit more at ease with his kids, and I'm feeling the heat of Don's lust for his new wife Megan -- but the cracks are showing. Megan's got the entry-level copywriting job that Peggy had to sweat blood for, but she doesn't think her co-workers at SDCP like her (and she doesn't think she likes them, either.) We're not led to believe that she's earned the position through legitimate channels, right? Either way, Don doesn't have much interest in his job anymore except to use it as a platform to make time with his wife. He drops the ball in the meeting with the Heinz people, placating Peggy with words that may be true-ish, but seriously, Don! The look on Peggy's face said it all -- the man has lost his edge. He's come through for her dozens of times before, charming the customer into accepting far weaker copy material. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that this won't end well for Peggy and Don.

Or, Megan and Don. Just watch how easily he falls back into his earlier pattern of stony, ice-cold detachment with Megan as he drunkenly reclines in bed after the disastrous birthday party. His cruelty in that scene, and Megan's burgeoning understanding of exactly the kind of man he can be, were painful to observe. And let's face it, guys: Don gave up a sure thing with Faye, the delightful market researcher who captured all of our hearts last season, for a fling with a sexy young secretary that kind of turned into a permanent gig. If that doesn't come back to bite him then I'd be surprised. (That said, I'm often surprised by "Mad Men.")

So, yes -- from outside appearances, Don may seem to have made some personal progress, but he's just "this" far away from joining the good-ol'-boys' club of the senior SDCP partners. Along that same vein, I found it fascinating how Don and Pete have essentially switched places in their lives. While Don now resides in a hip, fashionable metropolitan apartment and lives the life of a well-to-do city dweller, Pete and Trudy have moved to what appears to be a modest country homestead. (I actually thought, for just a moment at first sight, that Pete's kitchen was Don's old one from his days with Betty and the kids.) The miserable train ride in from the outskirts leaves Pete plenty of time to bitterly lament how he's the only SDCP partner who's still hungry. His frustration is palpable. His pathetic meeting with the other partners about his business needs ended with disinterest and a few grumbled platitudes from the older men.

(But what was it, then, that moved Roger, who still far surpasses Don in his disconnection -- forget about Bert, who's in another league entirely -- to take action and move Pete into Harry's office? I'm not entirely sure.)

Now, young Sally Draper, as Mark alludes to above, is the lynchpin of it all. Well, not really, but I think she is a good thermometer for how the selfishness of both of her parents are going to affect all of the Draper kids -- even little Eugene, who Don admitted in a tragic scene last season was born out of desperation, and thinks that another man is his father. I actually thought that the scene at the beginning with the kids was great, a rare moment of happiness in a show that doesn't often present that kind of thing undiluted by pathos.

And I may be all on my lonesome in "Mad Men" fandom here, but I was a little disappointed that we didn't see much (any) of Betty in this episode. (I understand that January Jones was on a much-needed maternity break at the time.) I'm really hoping to see more of Don and Betty interacting this season, because I for one found their shared scenes in season four to be electric. Ms. Jones gets some bad press as an actress for reasons I won't get into here, and a lot of it deservedly so, but she has been an important part of the series up to this point, and I don't want to see that particular thread dropped.

There's a so much more that I could talk about here: douchey Hollywood Harry, the hilarious way that race politics barges its way into the SDCP reception area, the delightful relationship between Lane and Joan that I must have forgotten about over the long break, Roger throwing money at everything (except for his unacknowledged son) while poor Lane, for his part, seems to be experiencing a bit of a shortfall.

This was a table-setting episode in every sense of the word except, you know, the negative one. I think we needed one, after an almost two-year hiatus, and I absolutely can't wait to see where we go from here. Welcome back, "Mad Men"!

Friday, March 30, 2012

Reel Low: 44 Inch Chest [2009]

Sometimes the opening moments of a movie are so oddly hilarious, it's a challenge trying to decipher whether or not you're actually supposed to be laughing or not. Such is the case with 44 Inch Chest *.

In the opening sequence, we're greeted to the trashed home of our principal character, Colin, complete with him sprawled out on the floor staring unblinking at the ceiling in emotional distress and playing Harry Nilsson's original version of "Without You" on repeat. I mean, even after completing the movie I realize it's probably supposed to be a joke, but like much of the other dark humor throughout the film, the creative team behind it leaves it up to you to decide if this is merely tragic or thoroughly laughable. And since I didn't know much of anything of this movie going in, that's where I was left at and unsure what was coming next.

See, since my quest to remain spoiler-free on things has bled into all aspects of my media consumption (FOX's post-episode teasers for 24 many years ago started giving too much away for my taste), now I don't watch previews for any shows or movies if I can avoid it. It's best decision I ever made for enjoying stories fresh, especially movies and television shows since the promoters of these are the worst offenders. Mostly I just go by word of mouth recommendations and scanning articles from a bevy of trusted sites I have on my feed reader these days. So, I really didn't know much about this movie before hitting the play button aside from a vague remembrance of some website I trusted mentioning it. I can't recall which site that was or even if they actually liked it now, but I decided over a year ago I had to see it. And many moons later, here we are.

What probably kept my interest in 44 Inch Chest high for over a year was probably its who's who of older, standout British actors dominating the cast. The cuckolded Colin is just a sweaty, drunken mess as interpreted by Ray Winstone. Meanwhile, his associates -- all of whom are implied or shown to be engaged in various forms of illegal and/or unsavory behavior amid the London underworld -- decide to help cheer him up by kidnapping his wife's young philanderer in broad daylight in order for Colin to enact his revenge. And when your friends are Tom Wilkinson, Ian McShane, John Hurt and Stephen Dillane, each spouting off some of the most imaginative foul language ever to be uttered in the history of English while boasting with veracity of the violence they intend to administer to the Loverboy. And I can't neglect to mention the small, but key role of the philandering wife played by Joanne Whalley, Val Kilmer's ex-wife who looks a lot better than Val Kilmer does these days (I will take any opportunity I can to make use of that picture).

Regrettably, the story of 44 Inch Chest fails to live up to the pedigree of its cast.

That's not to say there aren't wonderful moments of bombastic vulgarity and black humor that will induce a deep belly laugh from you that come close to redeeming it's missteps. No, the downfall of the film comes when it succumbs to the temptation of explaining away a man's anger over being cuckolded via hallucination and it turns out that those fantastic boasts are nothing more than that, since the final decision regarding the Loverboy was... disappointing, to say the least.

Although the movie was not successful as a whole, I still love each of the five criminals on display here and would absolutely welcome watching their early or further adventures again. Their underworld exploits would put just about anything someone like Guy Ritchie could ever dream up. Not that that idea has a bloody chance in hell of happening, of course.

* - On a grammar nazi note, it is killing me not to slap a hyphen between "44" and "Inch," but that's the official title of the film, as far as I could discern. Sadly, those in charge of it did not feel it was necessary to hyphenate what is, to me, clearly a compound modifier of "Chest." As a student of AP Style, I find this perturbing. Maybe it's a British thing? Regardless, I frown upon it. (Phew! I feel better now that I got that out.)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Reel Low: Martha May Marcy Marlene [2011]

"Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something's a memory or if it's something you dreamed?"

So asks the lead character of her sister in Martha May Marcy Marlene, the highly acclaimed debut film from writer/director Sean Durkin. It's the clearest example of the mish-mash of reality with dreams, illusions and moments of her disturbed past in this confused girl's mind. Intertwined with these traumas are the pull of the memories of an adopted family who manipulated her psyche at every opportunity and the attempts at re-indoctrinating herself with her actual family in the "real" world.

Martha May Marcy Marlene is a cult film. Not of the Russ Meyer or Roger Corman variety, though. No, this is a movie depicting an ACTUAL cult, tucked away on an isolated farm in the mountains of New England. This is immediately apparent as we watch the men of the commune, led by a quietly forceful man named Patrick, eating dinner as the women gather along a nearby staircase, waiting until they finish so they can eat.

Shortly thereafter, we get our first glimpses of Martha on her own - attempting to run away from her second family. In her desperation to escape, she calls her sister, Lucy, who she has not spoken to in two years. While at her luxurious home, we are told some vague morsels of her troubled youth that eventually led Martha to be swept up by the promise of a better life with Patrick and his followers.

Throughout the film, we see what Martha sees. Or, more accurately, what she thinks she sees. The present and past are jumbled for Martha, complete with all the confusing horror the resulting illusions have turned into for her. Durkin weaves the events running through her mind with deft transitions - jumping into the lake behind her sister's home turns into leaping off a cliff into a spring in the woods surrounding the farm, or while apologizing to someone while preparing dinner on the farm turns into exasperation for her sister as she can't figure out who Martha is speaking to as they are cooking a meal. They're small moments, but easing away from her old life to this new reality is a slow process for Marcy after the mental abuse she endured under Patrick's spell.

This is the first appearance of Elizabeth Olsen, and what a debut it is. As Martha, she embodies all the complex nuances of a mentally traumatized girl. It's nearly impossible not to feel sorrow for all the ordeals her character has gone and will continue to go through. All the buzz surrounding her work on this movie is well deserved.

Meanwhile, Sarah Paulson has all her WASPy glory on display here as Martha's elder sister Lucy. Along with her British husband (played by Hugh Dancy) in tow, she is firmly positioned amid the lifestyle of the 1%, and her existence could not be in a more different place than Martha's. Eventually, her attempts at understanding give way to frustration and dismissive aggression towards her troubled sister. Coupled with the fact that Martha refuses to explain her past horrors, Lucy simply cannot comprehend her sister's actions (often, but not always, with good reason). It's a wonderfully written character, one who you are both sympathetic toward and enormously frustrated by.

And then there's John Hawkes, who may have delivered his best performance yet in an already stellar career (highlighted by Deadwood, Winter's Bone and Eastbound & Down). Although subdued and earnest, his take on cult leader Patrick is nothing short of monstrous as he manipulates everyone on his compound, from raping impressionable girls to belittling the young men in his stead and intimidating anyone else in his way.

Martha May Marcy Marlene is simply an excellent movie, and I suspect it'd be just an intriguing even after additional viewings. Had I seen this movie before the end of last year, it would've earned a spot on my Best Films of 2011 list.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Reel Low: Stake Land [2010]

Twilight. True Blood. Let The Right One In. The Fright Night remake. The Underworld series. Being Human. Daybreakers. 30 Days Of Night. Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant Scooby-Doo! and the Legend of the Vampire.

As I'm sure you're well aware, there's been a plethora of vampire movies, shows and books thrust upon us in recent years, of varying levels of quality. Obviously, you're dying to know whether or not you should watch another one.

I know what you're thinking -- and, no, the world certainly didn't need another vampire movie. But Stake Land is a little different from most of the ones we've been getting bombarded with over the past few years, so there is some merit here. While it is unmistakably a vampire picture, it's more evocative of another genre -- the post-apocalyptic band of nomads. And the only thing sparkling in this movie is the reflection of moonlight on the freshly blood-coated fangs of the barbaric vamps pursuing our heroes.

Set in world after a devastating strain of vampirism has swept across society, Stake Land follows teenage Martin and his gruff mentor and expert vampire hunter Mister as they make their way across the shell of what was once the United States. Far to the north from their Southern beginnings is New Eden, the rumored city where a human sanctuary now supposedly lies. Along the way through the back roads and woods of Appalachia, they meet hoards of vampires, nuns in distress, religious zealots and fellow outcasts desperate for a safe-haven.

Admittedly, none of that is strikingly original. However, director Jim Mickle peppers the bleak tone of the film with bits of humor and sweetness, reminding the characters of the lives they once knew and helping the primary ones continue with resolve in this brutal existence. I doubt the film had much of a budget, but they made great use of their limited resources. The vampires look completely vile, the landscape appears pillaged and overgrown, and humanity scarce.

Leading the cast is Nick Damici as the mysterious vampire slayer known merely as Mister. He fills the longstanding cinematic bad-ass role by being light on discussion and heavy on deriving creative ways to kill things. Mister is Martin's mentor, though how or when he came to learn all these useful hunting methods prior to meeting the boy is never divulged. In fact, we don't know much of anything about Mister aside from him being rather legendary for his exploits in the tiny towns they waltz into on their trek north. Early in the film, Martin asks him the name of the woman who's house he spent the night at. Mister responds to the effect of "it didn't occur to me to ask," which is about the extent of the insight we get of the man until the final minutes of the movie.

Connor Paolo's main credit at this point in his career prior to this movie has been Gossip Girl, where he plays a young, gay New York socialite. So maybe he's displaying more range here than I initially suspected. (I liked both Blake Lively in The Town and Penn Badgley in Margin Call, so obviously that young GG cast isn't without talent.) He's effective in his subdued portrayal of a teenage boy who has lost everything and must learn the skills of survival in this new world.

Meanwhile, Kelly McGillis is also solid in her minor role. I have to admit her inclusion in the cast was a bit of a distraction as I watched the movie. She hasn't succumbed to the temptation to have any cosmetic surgery like so many other actresses of her generation have, so she actually looks like a woman in her mid-50s (which she is, btw). Unfortunately all I could think about was how hawt she was back in the day in Top Gun and Witness. (I know, I'm a pig.)

Two other familiar faces also showed up in Stake Land: Michael Cerveris and Danielle Harris. Fans of Fringe might know Cerveris better as September, the Observer we are shown most often on the show. Here he is quite convincing as the menacing leader of a warped sect of Christians our crew gets mixed up with. Then there's Harris, who I could not for the life of me place until my good friend Google helped me out afterwards. If some of your most formative years occurred during the early 90s, you may recall her as Roseanne's mischievous teenage neighbor for a couple of seasons or as Christina Applegate's feisty little sister in Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead. (Unlike McGillis, she looks EXACTLY the same as she did back then; it's uncanny.) Again, like many of the other performances in Stake Land, her character called for a reserved realism, which she was quietly excelled at. (Apparently she also happens to be one of the reigning "scream queens" on the independent horror scene these days.)

Stake Land is one of the latest entries in this post-apocalyptic trend. It seems to me like all those kids in the 80s who were weened on the Mad Max series (and subsequent knock-offs) have simultaneously found ways to produce or publish their own post-apocalyptic tales and get them out into the public consciousness. There's been a slew of them in various mediums over the last decade, including The Hunger Games, Y: The Last ManThe Road, Zombieland, Falling Skies, Book of Eli, and The Walking Dead. Of particular popularity right now seems to be society reduced to a wasteland due to a viral-based epidemic. In the supernatural realm, this was traditionally reserved for zombification, but there's been a significant uptick in recent years with vampirism, as in both I Am Legend and The Strain Trilogy.

I didn't get the sense this film was ripping off  any of these other works by any means, but there were stretches of it that evoked the same wandering-across-a-desolate-America vibe that's inherent in each of them. That these vampires are more of the mindless, zombiesque variety only reinforces those similarities. Although reminiscent of many vampire and post-apocalyptic stories before it, Stake Land is worth checking out.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Reel Low: Abduction [2011]

Sometimes, my love for the city of Pittsburgh petrifies me.

Case and point: I willingly sat through the entirety of Abduction for no other reason than because the movie was set in the City of Champions.

Oh, the trailer pointed to nothing special for most people. It was clearly just a vehicle to squeeze some cash from members of #TeamJacob in withdraw from the most recent Twilight installment. But when I saw that kid in a Roberto Clemente jersey blitzing his merry way around PNC Park, home of my beloved Buccos, in the trailer, I knew I'd have to see it.

At the high end of my expectations, I had hoped Abduction would be a movie so bad it'd be good, ala Sudden Death (a bona fide Pittsburgh classic). Alas, it was nothing of the sort. It was just boring.

There were, of course, some other signs of hope beforehand. The supporting cast is actually quite impressive for a teen action flick released in September. Lautner's parents (I can't recall what his character's name was and don't care to look it up, so deal) are played by Jason Issacs and Maria Bello, Sigourney Weaver is his therapist, and Alfred Molina fills the role of a top CIA official trying to reel him in once he goes on the run. And directing that impressive group of actors is none other than Academy Award nominee John Singleton. That would've meant something 15 years ago, but unfortunately for Abduction, Singleton has been slumming around in Hack City for a solid decade now. But even during the earlier, promise-filled stage of his career, I doubt Singleton could've directed much of anything worthwhile from this snooze-fest of a script.

*** Do yourself a favor and keep on reading so you don't have to subject yourself to this dull excuse of an action flick, but if you care about avoiding SPOILERS, be warned there will be plenty of them from here on out. ***

The plot is flimsy, un-engaging and filled with random occurrences (there's a bomb in the oven!) that do little more than place our hero in a position to punch, kick or evade his pursuers. And as a bonus, we even get such memorable dialogue as, "I just saw my parents get murdered... in front of my eyes." Now, I'm sure that line was intended to convey a great sense of anger, confusion and loss, but with the limited prowess of Lautner's acting abilities, he couldn't even deliver it in a manner which I felt comfortable transcribing it with an exclamation point.

Our boy Taylor shows absolutely zero signs of being a capable actor in his first starring turn. You know how lessor reviewers fall back on the comparison of an awful performance to that of a block of wood? He's so bland, I can't even bother to concoct a creative way to tell you how uninteresting of a job he did here. I hope the kid either takes some acting classes or goes into male modeling full-time because I don't see how he'll have much of a future in Hollywood once that Twilight fame starts to fade. In other words, he probably couldn't out-act a block wood.

In short, Abduction is not worth your time, even if you're as Pittsburgh obsessed as I am.

I suppose my expectations were skewed by some other decent, yet unspectacular movies filmed in my old hometown in recent years, such as Zack & Miri Make A Porno, The Next Three Days, She's Out Of My League and Adventureland. We Yinzers were not so fortunate this time around. Hey, at least we still have a collapsing Heinz Field in The Dark Knight Rises to wipe the memory of Abduction away!

Friday, March 02, 2012

Reel Low: Tinker Tailor Solider Spy [2011]

Late in 2011, director Tomas Alfredson delivered the first film adaptation of John Le Carre's 1974 espionage classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to theaters. As a fan of the novel (I tackled it roughly a year ago), I can attest this is an exquisite interpretation of the source material, revealing the real-world spy culture and honest human emotion depicted in the novel while never foregoing the intricacies of its twisting narrative.

Set in the early 70s in the midst of the Cold War, we are dropped into the middle of the "action" as a British operative is sent to purchase information from a foreign source. The deal is compromised and ends with him lying in the street in a pool of his own blood, and leaving his superiors back in London open to infighting and eventually forcing the premature retirements of Control (the top dog of MI6) and his right-hand man, George Smiley, in an internal upheaval of British Intelligence leadership. Some time later, Smiley is approached to come out of his retirement in order to help his former colleagues discover if there is a mole within the organization based on the allegations of a disgraced agent. From there the story unfolds via a bevy of British spy lingo and a series of of flashbacks as Smiley and his team tries to uncover who the mole in their organization is.

Tinker is not a espionage tale in the vein of James Bond or Jason Bourne. These characters exist in a world very much like our own, with high-octane action sequences replaced by tense dialogue exchanges that increase in ferocity as the film progresses. It's a tale filled with codewords, clandestine meetings, double crosses and damning infidelities.

The story is propelled by an outstanding cast, both in reputation and execution. Leading the way is the always-great Gary Oldman in an appropriately reserved performance of protagonist George Smiley. For much of the film, it appears that Oldman is merely coasting along for an easy payday, but to depict a quiet man of intellectual might, he had to present himself in a reserved, silent manner keeping all his inner workings hidden behind a pair of glasses and set of pursed lips. Only in the third act do we see the reveal of the explosive emotions Smiley desperately attempts to keep in check at all times.

I'll spare you exorbitant praise of each member of this extensive ensemble, as all are at the top of their game, but special attention should be paid to a few of the standouts. To no surprise, Benedict Cumberbatch (that has to be the most British name of all time) is simply magnificent as Smiley's protege Peter Guillam. Between this and Sherlock, few other actors are even in his class at the moment, and we haven't even seen Star Trek 2 or The Hobbit yet. John Hurt is perfect as Control, displaying both decisive cunning and sickening delirium when needed. Rising star Tom Hardy takes on the role of Ricki Tarr, a Harry Lime-esque character with a gut-wrenching story of his own that contains the key to revealing the mole. The only downside to Hardy's performance is the wig they forced on his head, which is a complete distraction. But obviously the film's wig budget all went to Mark Strong's Jim Prideaux, the compromised operative from the start of the movie (an Oscar-worthy wig-job if there ever was one). It was so refreshing to see Strong get an opportunity to not play a villain, and he doesn't waste it. Keep in mind Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and Stephen Graham also appear in Tinker. Stellar cast is an understatement.

But the real star of Tinker is the script. It's frankly stunning how well screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan were able to this adapt this intricate novel. Even the largest fans of the book should appreciate the job they did with it. And for his part, Alfredson filmed it perfectly. Making a handful of men pondering in silence fascinating or sitting around a room doing little more than talking thrilling scene after scene is no small task.

Now for a bit of background. Tinker is the first installment of Le Carre's Karla Trilogy, following the ostensibly meek-mannered George Smiley as he hunts the master Soviet spy Karla during the Cold War. This is the second filmed adaption of the novel, but the first for cinemas. The first was produced for television in 1979 starring Alec Guinness with Patrick Stewart playing the mysterious Karla (yeah, that's right -- Obi-Wan Kenobi does his best to out-wit Jean-Luc Picard for two entire miniseries). That was followed by Smiley's People, the third book of the trilogy, in 1982 when it was brought to the small screen (The Honourable Schoolboy was skipped due to the considerable amount of globetrotting in the story, which was far beyond the budget and abilities of television at the time). Smiley appears in quite a few of Le Carre's other novels, so there's plenty of material for you to mine if your interest in him isn't met by this latest film.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Tinker's plot baffles some of you, to no fault of your own. The novel is wonderfully complex and the script never succumbs to the temptation to dumb it down for a general audience. There's no doubt my exposure to the novel and other reality-based British spy stories (namely Greg Rucka's amazing Queen & Country comics and novels, as well as the early 1980's television show The Sandbaggers) bolstered my enjoyment of the picture, and a second viewing may be in order to fully appreciate how great this adaptation is. Hopefully, this possibility doesn't scare you off, because Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is hardly a film you want to miss out on.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

An Atrocious Undertaking - A Genres & Judgements Mixture

"Then I reflected that everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now."
- Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden Of Forking Paths

These 12 songs were either discovered during the first two months of 2012 (tracks 1-5 and 7), or have been filed away for longer than I can recall  in my "For Future Mixes" folder I've built over the last two years (tracks 6 and 8-12). That folder had gotten obnoxiously large, so I decided to sort the songs by their tonality so I'd have a better chance of clearing it out this year. As a result, I think it's safe to say this mix is a little less schizophrenic than my others have been. For this one, songs I felt were best classified as "atmosphere" music were collected, so they're a little more on the low-key side (although presenting them as low key feels misleading; perhaps you, the listener, can better discern how they should be described). Hope you like.

Track list and streaming links available after the jump.