Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Evoking the murky grit, shadow skulking, and moral vagueries of classic espionage films like Coppola's "The Conversation" and De Palma's "Blow-Out," Tomas Alfredson's take on John le Carre's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a stately and entrancing mindfuck, capable of both brutal violence and an aching yearning. While the narrative approaches near alienating levels of complexity (and how could it not, dealing with spy/counterspy operations at such high levels of national government?) the measured, impeccable performances and Alfredson's gorgeous, haunting mise-en-scene coupled with Alberto Iglesias's Lynchian netherworld jazz score create an aura of suffocating claustrophobia and crumbling allegiances. Depicting the Cold War as seen through a fog of tangled emotions and sickening near hallucinatory setpieces, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a symphony of noir-tinged elegance and aristocratic pomp, with each character struggling to reduce the influence of their own humanity to a narrow point capable of allowing the necessary distance demanded by total national security. Nothing here is sacred, be it egoism or romance, and all are prone to shatter at the hands of adversaries. The corruption runs deep, scarring all involved. The psychological constructs that are erected throughout the film become glass houses and by the end of it all, few escape unscathed by the flaying shards.
1973. The film opens with a botched operation to scoop up a potential Hungarian defector in Budapest who supposedly has the name of a mole in "The Circus," the British intelligence division overseen by the equally enigmatically monikered Control (played masterfully by John Hurt, channeling the spirit of Orwell's "1984" .) Control has long suspected the existence of such a mole; when confirmation comes from field agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), Control dispatches agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to broker the meet. Things spiral out of control: Pirdeaux is shot, and in the aftermath Control and his right hand George Smiley (Gary Oldman, all sophistication and cool understated intelligence) are forced into retirement. Control dies from illness soon after; Smiley settles in to comfortable domesticity.
1974. Smiley is called out of retirement to investigate Tarr's allegations. Smiley assembles his team and undertakes a covert investigation, treading lightly under the auspices of new Circus head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones, an impish delight) and his deputy Bill Haydon (Colin Firth, playing it very straight and very British); Alleline's promotion was based on the strength of his heading up Project Witchcraft, delivering highly sensitive Soviet documents that Alleline trades with American intelligence. Smiley conducts a series of interviews with ousted Circus operatives and employees, gradually putting the pieces into place. When Smiley finds Tarr hiding in his home, the dominoes begin to fall with startling rapidity, unveiling a tangled mess of surveillance, lust, and murder that goes back to Soviet mastermind and spy ringleader Karla.
Anything else would begin to spoil the fun. Suffice to say it all begins to fall apart. Despite the script's "down the rabbit-hole" convolutions, the major thrust of the narrative is easy to grasp. Fully appreciating the level of depth and the film's multiple layers requires multiple viewings; hints and insinuations blossom into full-on revelations, connecting the characters' relationships in subtle and scandalous ways. The interconnectivity is fairly stunning, illustrating the beauty and complexity a film is capable of with such a panoramic cast. The relationship between Prideaux and Haydon, for instance, is handled with a minimalist grace that is reminiscent of Samuel Fuller's treatment of similar subject matter in "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia"; the overwhelming beauty of matching a tear with a bullet hole amplifies the intimacy between the two, as well as the emotional devastation the events they're wrapped in have wrought on both men. A lesser director would have relied on crass dialogue and even crasser action, but Alfredson treats the confrontation with an almost ethereal translucency, the grey area magnified to a blinding sheet of denial. The recurring Christmas party scene also paints a picture of rampant, errant emotion struggling to be kept in check. With minimal expository dialogue and an astounding job of acting by all the players, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" elevates itself to a melodramatic level of tragedy virtually free of contrivance. Looks of yearning and nervous backwards glancing amp up the paranoia to near deafening levels. This is a space full of ruin and sorrow; all of the muted colors and soft focus reflect the growing sense of weariness and loss that everyone involved begins to feel.
Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema does an astounding job with Alfredson's vertigo-inducing color schemes, transforming them into putrid washes of back alley paranoia and sickly swirls of crawling menace. In van Hoytema's hands, the Christmas party becomes a tension fueled nightmare of spy/counterspy and sexual repression while a torturous interrogation turns into a brutal, splattering murder scene in a matter of milliseconds. Alfredson's desire to dwell on the bloodshed isn't quite as elegiacal as it was in "Let the Right One In" (these are intelligence agents rather than vampires) but it is atmospheric, showcasing the director's deft hand in weaving horror film aesthetics into a fairly narrowly formatted genre. The effect and mastery is similar to that displayed by Peter Jackson in his criminally underrated "The Lovely Bones"; horror out of context but gruelingly and squeamishly effective. Alfredson, like Jackson, is more than willing to remind people where his approach truly comes from; van Hoytema allows him the palette and toolbox to achieve it. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" uses violence as something of a moral counterweight, as though to suggest the reality of consequence resulting from what these people are actually involved in. While it's intense, artistic, and disturbing, it's never once exploitative: every drop of blood serves the story.
This film isn't a reinvention so much as an homage. The tropes of the genre and style remain intact, the unrelenting bleakness found at the center of the best Cold War evoking films channeled effectively via double-crosses and selfishness. Alfredson keeps his distance throughout; even the few moments of warmth allowed Smiley vanish in the face of the daunting corruption at hand. Some may accuse the director of coldness or remove, but it's what the film necessitates in order to be as engrossing as it is. Much like Anton Corbijn's "The American," the focus is on the process of the game, the endless manipulations and red herrings as Smiley opens up door after rotted door. The illusory quality of each new twist lends the proceedings a psychedelic edge, George Smiley on the precipice of the Big Nowhere. The soundtrack references the free-willed spirit of the late 1960's while simultaneously burying it under the reflexive repression and private political shame of the 1970's. Like "The Conversation," this is a film burning with deep sexual undertones, the surface gloss of spy vs. spy an involved ruse meant to obfuscate the troubling questions of desire and loyalty. Alfredson isn't holding back-he's just injecting ideology with displaced teenage lust. Smiley is plagued with memories and regrets; the mole becomes a metaphor for Smiley's attempt to grasp his own failures and impotencies.
There's no happy ending here, because there's hardly any ending at all. Every man involved (and they are all men) is torn apart. Even Smiley is forced to confront the gravity of the future, the rapidly changing face of the political landscape and the uncertainty threatening his own little slice of the world. Alfredson's advancing oppression splashes the skies in a deluge of grey; the clouds roll in as the years roll on. By 1974 a storm was building, ballooning itself on a detritus of hubris and the ever-growing tower of splintered egos; self-congratulation would become the echoing testimony to fuck-up after fuck-up. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" may only represent one fleeting, anxious moment in the Cold War timeline, but it captures the boiling antagonism and distrust that defined it better than any film in decades. That it does so in the transposed frameworks of horror and sexploitation, and produces something so elegant out of them, allows it to transcend the tag of mere history and pass into the realm of something far more hallucinatory.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Lifetime Network original films have become a genre onto themselves, much the same way that SyFy original productions have found their unique niche in the cable machine. Both networks churn out a very particular style of product: SyFy an endless parade of genetically crossbred monsters pitted against one another as they rack up (mostly human) collateral damage, Lifetime an endless parade of tearjerker/true crime melodramas usually zeroing in on damaged relationships and spousal abuse. The quality of the films is never high, nor is it expected to be. In that sense, Lifetime's recent production of "Drew Peterson: Untouchable" represents a new level of professional ambition veering ever-so-slightly away from the tawdry; the treatment of something so topical and current demands a more refined approach to narrative and structure. For Lifetime, it wouldn't do to just rehash the facts in a wash of muted colors and tear-stained faces: the audience needs to be hypnotized in order to be properly horrified by the sheer brazenness of Drew Peterson and his bloated narcissism. Who better to inhabit and ultimately realize that moon-sized ego than Rob Lowe?
The film plays out almost exactly as the case itself did. Modern day lothario Drew Peterson became the focus of a police investigation and a national media frenzy after the inexplicable disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Ann Cales (played by Kaley Cuoco of "The Big Bang Theory"), in 2007. A police officer himself, Peterson was long suspected of murdering his third wife, Kathleen Savio, by forcibly drowning her (though the death was initially ruled an accident); Savio's family maintained that Peterson was responsible, and that Savio's death was the terminus point of a destructive relationship laden with psychological torment and abuse. Peterson constructed a bravura persona defined by gross misogyny and a feeling of imperviousness that bordered on the godlike; his second wife Victoria Connolly described him as "a legend in his own mind." Lowe's portrayal certainly makes that the crux of Peterson's personality, imbuing him with a swagger and arrogance difficult to reconcile with his lackluster physical appearance and outdated opinions of women. Lowe's Peterson is pure caricature, the epitome of mindless villainy, the guy you love to hate-not far from the reality.
Told mostly through newscasts and other media appearances shot through a simple narrative of elliptical discovery, "Drew Peterson: Untouchable" looks to do little other than give the audience a straight run-through of the events, barely rising above the level of an episode of "America's Most Wanted." The sheer force of Peterson's bloated self-confidence occupies the screen en-masse at all times; even when coating his obvious insecurities with the threat of violence (such as when he drops in on Stacy and a male friend having lunch and accuses her of adultery) he remains the controlling force. Peterson's world is the world as made by Peterson, defined by his suspicions and allowing for little outside influence. The view is singular to the point of anachronistic, with Peterson inventing his own versions of events and effectively feeding his own delusions. Perhaps most troubling is his attack on Stacy at her sister's funeral, where he confronts her about sleeping with her sister's husband, asking her later to tell him " many times you banged him." Peterson's apparent need to be cuckolded speaks volumes about his actual levels of confidence; the only intimacy available to hi is blind rage. His hostile suspicions more than make the case for him committing violence against his wives (a theory the film wholeheartedly endorses); Stacy's awareness of this violence and her constant relegation to it elevate the inevitable melo-tragic result.
The film hinges on Lowe's performance and little else. I wouldn't have watched this, except i happened to run across a ridiculous scene during some late night channel surfing and was immediately sucked in by the over-the-top charisma in Lowe's performance. Out with buddies who paint Peterson as the ultimate ladykiller ("I'll bet Drew gets more tail than anyone in this place," one toadie blathers), Peterson rises to the challenge and approaches two young ladies at the bar, telling his friends that "Big Daddy's gonna get it done." Lowe, looking like Mike Ditka vacationing in Hawaii, saunters over and immediately seals the deal. I was struck by the absurdity of it and made myself watch the film the next time it aired. While there's little remarkable about the actual film itself (director Mikael Salomon has done serviceable work for television and feature film for years, but nothing mind-blowing), Lowe completely gives himself over to the role, enjoying every minute of portraying this hammy, over-confident blowhard. In scene after scene, Lowe chews it up: emerging from his garage in majesty on his motorcycle, strutting out of his front doors in an American flag bandana and aviator sunglasses while mugging insanely for the camera (looking a little like a patriotic Unabomber), and terrorizing his suspicious neighbor Karen (Katherine Dent, giving her small role more than it deserves) by raising and lowering her garage door (seriously?) as he delivers the film's titular line: "I'm untouchable, bitch." The fun Lowe seems to be having is infectious to the viewer. Peterson is repugnant, but we can't get enough of him. In this sense, the film works masterfully, illustrating the grotesquerie of Peterson's media appeal and our fascination with domestic brutality. Stacy recedes under the weight of Drew; his posturing and performance all but erase her memory, and the community at large begins to lose sight of the fact that she's probaby dead. She's collateral damage in Peterson's personal thrillride. Cuoco's abysmal performance does little to actually give Stacy any depth: she's either a battered and terrified wife or a strong take-no-shit lady. Cuoco can't decide; the scenes where she stands up to Peterson feel like rote line recitals. There's no emotion; Cuoco makes the viewer feel as though nothing is at stake. Even her attempts at assuaging her own guilt over her imagined complicity in Peterson's crime against Savio feels empty. While the real Stacy certainly suffered, Cuoco's portrayal is merely insufferable; Lowe overwhelms her at every turn.
Peterson's odyssey has the feel of phantasmagoria, one unbelievable contrivance after another. His steadfast denial of involvement in either of his wives' disappearances has made him something of a self-styled pariah. Though Peterson has yet to go to trial (he is in prison waiting to face charges of murder against his third wife) Lifetime allows no presumption of innocence: in perhaps the film's penultimate scene, the camera slowly heads up the stairs and pans to Peterson's open bedroom door, where he's seen standing menacingly across from a large blue barrel supposedly containing Stacy's body. The scene is rendered in ghastly, sickening greens and jaundiced yellows; it's ethereal, surreal, and slightly skin-crawling. Peterson and his friend are then seen loading the barrel into the back of Peterson's SUV. Apparently based on a confession from Peterson's body-dumping accomplice, this scene destroys any pretense to objectivity the film may have had; rather than the studied (in theory) portrait of an American crime that "Drew Peterson: Untouchable" could have been, it instead becomes another gas-soaked log on the media fire. Lifetime films are about opportunism in the same way that episodes of "Law and Order" were "ripped from the headlines," but here there's an absence of resolution both laughable and disturbing. Is the film meant to be taken seriously as a meditation on the problem of abuse, or is it mere camp thought up for the sole purpose of seeing Rob Lowe mug it up beneath a bushy moustache? Or does the real purpose lie somewhere in between, giving viewers a vague, blurred comment on the commensurability of tragedy and consumerism?
The answer seems to lie in the film's bizarre final scene in which Peterson is processed at prison. In grueling slow motion, we're treated to Lowe stripping down in a lurid, grinding, mockery of a striptease, laughing to himself as two state police officers look on impassively. The world is watching, and it loves what it sees. To Drew Peterson, it's all a joke; death, sex, and masculinity are all intertwined in a cosmic stew of entitlement and desire. "Drew Peterson: Untouchable" scrapes the muddiest bottom of narrative storytelling while hyping up the most sensationalistic aspects of a bizarre, fragmented series of events. The gargantuan ego at the center of them makes for a fascinating character study, but Lifetime's treatment of the Drew Peterson saga is the equivalent of a lightbulb flickering in a void.

Monday, January 9, 2012


Intricately layered and hypnotically complex, David Cronenberg's brilliant adaptation of Christopher Hampton's stage play "The Talking Cure" (in turn based on John Kerr's book "A Most Dangerous Method") takes on the deep-rooted neuroses associated with want, lust, and desire as exemplified by the destructive and symbiotic relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Eschewing almost every trace of the "body horror" that defined his formative work, and even the radical violence that punctuated his last two films, here Cronenberg burrows in the hidden recesses of psyches and intellects in torment and crafts a piece that explores his interests in indulgence and transformation in greater detail than almost anything he's done. It almost feels like Cronenberg's been working towards this film his entire career: it isn't hard to trace the trajectory from the repression-gnawing parasites of "Shivers" to Jung's embrace of his most primal sexual instincts in "A Most Dangerous Method." Both involve violence and arousal as by-products of the grotesque (or the unexpressed); that Cronenberg is here dealing with something close to an accounted actuality rather than horrific fantasy makes the thematics presented all the more shattering when ultimately realized. There are consequences to pleasure, emotional and potentially deadening.
Opening on a hysterical, near-epileptic Spielrein being carted up to a sanatorium, Cronenberg immediately establishes the fractured, frightening tone of the film. Spielrein's condition is violent and halting, causing her to stutter and contort herself. Given over to the psychiatric care of Jung, he decides to implement Freud's radical "talking cure," a theory that laid out the groundwork for all of modern psychoanalysis. By removing himself both visually and emotionally, Jung gets to the heart of Spielrein's psychosis-her early and continued sexual excitement arising from her father's disciplinary beatings years before. Two years later, cured, Spielrein begins medical studies herself, hoping to become a psychiatrist as well. Jung's successful treatment of Spielrein grants him an audience with the much admired Sigmund Freud, and the two form an antagonistic bond that ultimately tests the beliefs of both men as well as the strength of their individual theories of psychoanalysis. Freud's approach is clinical and rooted in sexuality; Jung opens himself up to the possibility of mysticism and parapsychology, to Freud's growing distaste. When Spielrein confesses a sexual attraction to Jung the idea of it gnaws away at him and he reluctantly acts on it; from there Cronenberg's film becomes a cavernous parade of defeat, humiliation (both sexual and professional) and self-doubt as Jung, Speilrein, and Freud commence an odyssey of interaction that spans years.
The principal actors all turn in exemplary performances here. Fassbender caps off a stellar year with a portrayal of Jung as a man haunted by the realisation of his own desires and his crippling fear of acting on them. Watching his restraint erode away as he desperately tries to keep it in check, and its resultant effect on him, is mesmerizing. Mortenson is all cool, clinical detachment as Freud, playing up the Master's need to exert authority as well his subtly condescending ridicule of any psychological theory not beholden to his own. And Knightley is simply stunning in her depiction of Spielrein, bringing her from the brink of madness to the cool and composed manipulator she becomes at the end of the film (i would be surprised if she didn't receive an Academy nod.) The three entwine themselves beautifully, like an intellectual threeway where the only rule is climax denial.
The deterioration of Freud and Jung's intensely competitive and adversarial relationship allows for an illustration of differing psychological approaches that highlight several of Cronenberg's authorial themes. The film's lush evocation of myriad sexualities, and Jung's growing awareness of his own ravenous sexual appetite, references previous Cronenberg works like "Crash" (where the outre fetish begins to have a strange and hypnotic allure to the film's protagonist); the exploration of sadistic and masochistic tendencies in relationships recalls "Videodrome"'s strange "Samurai Dreams" programs found inbetwixt the white noise of late night television reception. Cronenberg's subtle treatment of the idea of transformation comes into play in "A Dangerous Method" as well, with Jung's shifting ideological alliances and growing personal awareness acting as a less visceral mirror to Seth Brundle's grotesque reawakening in "The Fly." Cronenberg's world is packed with the bizarre; here it's just dressed more politely. Spielrein's initial fits are nothing if not agonized representations of the consequences of repression. So too Jung's state at the end of the film, hollowed and carved out, dreaming of the apocalypse and wondering how it all spiraled out of control, another major concern in this work. Control is constantly switching hands, especially between Spielrein and Jung: when she comes to him asking to begin a sexual relationship, Jung has the power to grant or deny her wish. When he in turn becomes infatuated, the power reverts. Jung weeping into her skirts, begging her to stay, is perhaps the film's most openly vulnerable moment; Jung never allows himself this concession to emotion again. Spielrein late seeks to inflame and dominate Jung by working with Freud. Freud in turn exercises authority over Jung by never conceding to having his own dreams analyzed by his protege. This constant circle of domination is a brilliant illustration of Freud's threepart divided self, with each character variously inhabiting the roles of id, ego, and superego.
Of course sex is at the root of the film, as it is in so many other Cronenberg statements. Jung has difficulty accepting Freud's idea that every human psychological frailty stems from sex, but even more difficulty recognizing the proof of the theory in his own actions. After their initial meeting, Freud sends a troubled colleague, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel, in full on sleazy magnetism mode), to Jung for treatment. Jung cannot process Gross' lustful approach to life, taking the most issue with Gross' nonchalant attitude towards doctors sleeping with patients. Gross believes in pure freedom, shorn of repression and open to all experience; Jung believes in certain ethical standards that he cannot reconcile with his own desires. This conflict inevitably becomes the constant antagonist in Jung's spirit; when he tells Spielrein of his apocalyptic dreams, he's not just filling her head with evocative nightmares-he's telling her that his experiences with her have utterly ruined him and hollowed him, and that he can't heal the wounds their union has inflicted. It's a harrowing scene, given life by Fassbender's crumbling restraint and growing self-doubt. Cronenberg isn't endorsing a full-on de Sadean approach to pleasure at any and all costs, but he is suggesting the harm inherent in self-denial. As there are consequences to pleasure so too are there consequences to repression, whether it's supernatural dwarves born of rage or a lifetime of sadness and regret.
The haunting final shot of Jung sitting alone in his lakeside chair gazing out at the water suggests both the unknowable expanse of human emotion and the fallibility lurking within the idea of self-restraint. The atmosphere is distinctly forlorn, yearning, and wretched, allowing Cronenberg to map out the terminus of desire and the subtle onset of obsessive self-reflection. Jung's twilight years were spent in an increasingly dreamlike state; his work became more artistic and vague and his theories more involved with parapsychology and the notion of the spiritual in the everyday. The pressures and professional antagonisms he was facing from both his colleagues (Freud openly denounced him) and himself (he never seems to have recovered from his experiences with Spielrein) forced him into a life of speculation and a transference of the supernatural as a substitute for fulfillment. For all its intelligence, wit, and sophistication, this is very much a film shot through with an aching, hopeless sadness. The question of possibilities is defeated by reality and the brooding weight of existence. Love is of the moment, to be seized. It cannot be cultivated or hoped for or achieved; Jung's mistake is his failure to act on this truth, made even more punishing because he knows it as a truth. "A Dangerous Method" serves as Cronenberg's multifaceted warning against fallacy, against preconception, against propriety. No one ever gets what they really want. Sometimes other people get hurt.