‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”–Not Enough Tinkering for My Taste

This cinematic remake of the landmark mini-TV series from 1980, starring Alec Guiness, is updated with Gary Oldman in the starring role that Guiness made so famous. Based upon the John le Carré espionage thriller,  “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” dramatizes British secret intelligence–nicknamed “The Circus” –during the early 1970s Cold War.

Control (John Hurt), the chief intelligence operative, is forced into retirement because a covert operation failed to identify a double agent or “mole”. Forced into retirement along with Control, Smiley (Gary Oldman) has been ordered back into service to trap the mole, after Control dies. Alongside the young intelligence officer Peter Guillam (the ever-watchable Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley tracks four primary suspects: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).  Information Smiley obtains eventually leads him to Ricki Tarr  (TomHardy), the dirty “cleaner” for British intelligence’s most repugnant operations.

The pacing during the first half of the film–with multiple flashbacks to Budapest, Paris, and Istanbul–forces the viewer to assimilate and track approximately a dozen key characters—most of whom go by at least two names—in very slow tempo, making connecting the dots and characters more difficult than necessary.  Perhaps the director (Tomas Alfredson) thought this would build suspense, but for me the characters became confused and undeveloped.  Motivations were insufficiently revealed.  Private lives were obscured as well as loyalties and betrayals.

While I did not expect the brisk spy action or glitzy glamour of the Bourne series or even BBC’s Masterpiece Mystery, the first half of this remake is so languid I started to get drowsy. Photographed well for where and when it took place, the footage does give a sense of the Cold War in grey, drizzly tones and mood.

The film must be judged on its own merits, with the viewer given enough subtle cues to conduct an investigation along with Smiley.  Characterization wise, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” falls short.  The storyline necessary to keep the audience’s interest faltered, especially for those who are seeing this movie as a stand-alone narrative without reference to any previous work.  However, the much-better second half of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” comprises a more complex, intricately woven plot of tension, cold-war paranoia, and deception.

With a veritable dream team of the finest names in modern British cinema, – Oldman, Firth, Hinds, Cumberbatch, Hardy, Strong and Hurt–the concomitant achievement in cinematic storytelling I expected unfortunately did not happen. All of these extraordinary actors’ supporting roles at times eclipse Gary Oldman’s subdued performance but ultimately are wasted talent in this version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. Without having read the book or seen the 1979 version, it will, most likely, be very difficult to fill gaps in the narrative. Important plot points and clues just aren’t there–a more tailored approach to le Carré’s work was needed, even with le Carré providing supervision of the screenplay!

“The Iron Lady” — Meryl Streep Nails It

 Winner of the best actor 2012 Golden Globe for her stunning performance in “The Iron Lady”, Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher, the iconic Prime Minister second only to Winston Churchill in power and impact on Great Britain. “The Iron Lady” is, at times, an exceptional meditation on old age and it is, once more, a virtuoso performance by the genius that is Meryl Streep.

First and foremost, however, “The Iron Lady” is a portrait of Thatcher as a woman whose tremendous sacrifices to family and identity were viewed, both by her and by her advisors, as necessary in order to become the first woman prime minister of Great Britain. Zooming in on the floor in the House of Parliament, the shot captures it all: a solitary pair of high-heel shoes among rows of Oxford wing-tips.

The opening scene lingers on a very elderly Thatcher (mid-eighties), struggling with dementia, as she talks to her husband Denis (the never-disappointing Jim Broadbent). Denis has been dead for about five years. But the ex-Prime Minister’s husband appears throughout the film as a hallucination in the frail psyche of the aging woman.

Margaret Thatcher’s story is told in flashbacks that take us back to her adolescence and young adulthood (played believably by Alexandra Roach).  In one noteworthy scene, the young Margaret tells her parents with barely contained excitement, that she has been accepted into Oxford University.  The camera cuts away to her mother, who continues to wash dishes in silence.  Much later in the film, the elderly Margaret repeats the same dishwashing in a scene with her own daughter, who yearns for validation from her. Scenes with a plate of butter, which appear several times, also convey an analogy–its importance as a special treat in her youth as a grocer’s daughter, to the accepted presence on the breakfast table at 10 Downing Street. Flashbacks to her own childhood and that of her own parenting underscore the disconnect to her own children, especially her daughter.

Meryl Streep never disappoints in cloning the character she inhabits. She is not merely imitating Thatcher, but rather channeling her physicality– right down to her speech, which is transformed from her natural pitch to a more “masculine” and “authoritative one”. Chameleon-like in facial expression and body language, Streep mesmerizes with the slightest-of-slightest hand and body tremors, the shifts in posture and gait to reflect the passage of time. Extraordinary makeup never distracts, except to astonish by making Streep almost unrecognizable.  Watch the way she moves and, if you remember seeing Margaret Thatcher on television, you’ll swear you’re seeing her as she walks along.  Streep perfects this every time (as many of us remember with her uncanny portrait of Julia Child). Her award-winning performance is achingly honest in its understanding and interpretation of Thatcher’s powerful intellect, motivations, even perhaps her unconscious.

 

“Letting Go”–A short story published in “Blood and Thunder”

In the fall issue 2011 of Blood and Thunder, a literary journal published by the University of Oklahoma Medical School, my short story “Letting Go” appears, exploring the theme of the ill and dying.  Blood and Thunder does not publish issues online and I could not scan the published version for my blog.

Consequently, click on the cover image above and you will be taken to the fourteen-page document published in its entirety in the current issue.  A version of this short story is being included in the final draft of my novel, Unhealed Wound.  I would be very, very interested in receiving your comments!

 

“Butter”– A Soft Pat for the Audience

With the Iowa primary just ending, I was reminded of the movie “Butter” which I saw at the Napa Valley Film Festival in mid-November. “Butter” zooms in on the butter-carving contest made famous at the annual Iowa State fair. Butter sculpting is a very popular and competitive art in places like Iowa (with butter statues of Elvis Presley, Tiger Woods, The Last Supper, Superman, and Harry Potter), 

 and the movie contains some really amazing butter statues including Newt Gingrich. “Butter” will be released on March 16.

“Butter” opens as a quirky political satire with Battle Hymn of the Republic playing in the background of red, white, and blue balloons.  Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner playing against type), the wife of Iowa’s reigning butter-carving champion, is a stickler for her husband’s long run as the annual winner. She has delusions of his butter-carving skills turning into more heavyweight ambitions:  the White House.   Bob is asked to step down so that someone else can have a chance at the title, and he graciously agrees.  Laura, however, is incensed and decides to compete herself.   Bob reacts by taking solace in a strip club with Brooke (Olivia Wilde in a hilarious turn).

Then a child enters the contest. Destiny (the enchanting Yara Shahidi), is a fresh-faced, charming little girl who enters a contest in which there has always been only one winner and never any African American contestants in a community with no African American residents.  A  10-year-old foster child who’s adopted by a middle-class white couple, Destiny discovers that she likes to carve sculptures in butter too. Realizing that Destiny will be a formidable opponent, Laura ruthlessly plots with her high school sweetheart, Boyd (Hugh Jackman), to battle against Destiny.  Garner is hilarious, channeling her inner Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman, with prim and proper dresses and pearls.

There is some sharp and funny satirical dialogue but there are also depressing, cheap shots disguised as jokes uttered by Destiny.  This tastelessness irritated me.  This child actress is so much better than some of the inferior material.  Still, her dialogue with her foster father (Rob Corddry), sitting in the car,  discussing her application to compete is worth the price of a ticket.  His graceful chemistry with Destiny is warm, gentle, and kind but in a subtle, not mawkish way.  Laughs come naturally in the midst of his tenderness as a neophyte father.

There are just enough solid performances and good jokes to keep Butter from being a bad movie, or one where you are embarrassed laughing at dumb jokes. (Don’t miss the outtakes for some hilarious zingers!) “Butter’s” strength lies completely in its lead actresses (Jennifer Garner and Yara Shahidi) and its offbeat back-story of small-town America. It is sometimes raunchy and often over the top, sometimes cliched and going for a cheap laugh.   Overall, the laughs are enough to keep its audience satisfied. Most of all, “Butter” is a story about what it means to win at all costs and against all odds, and what self-deception can do to a person who thinks she is winning when she is losing everything.  That can be a very funny, not to mention poignant, story!

 

Happy New Year! –The Year of the Dragon

Happy New Year, everyone, and may some fire be breathed into your lives with good fortune, excitement, and the acceptance of transition and change!

I always like to look up the feng-shui and Chinese New Year after toasting with champagne a few days earlier.  I found out that 2012 is the first black water dragon year in 60 years.  (The other dragon years were not water dragon years.) The dragon is considered unpredictable and untouchable.  Its mystery is never completely known.  People cannot see its head and tail at the same time.

The dragon is the most powerful, revered symbol in ancient Chinese mythology.  A system of twelve animals not unlike the western zodiac with symbols for each of the twelve months, the Chinese zodiac is organized by the order in which animals (including the mythic dragon) were converted by Buddha.  The first was the rat (not ugly and inauspicious as in European mythology) and the dragon is the fifth among the twelve. It is the preeminent symbol of majesty, power, intelligence and wisdom. (Only the Chinese emperor, Son of Heaven, could wear the robe with the dragon’s five talons.  Sumptuary laws prohibited anyone else from wearing this image.)

Black water dragon year–is the free spirit of the zodiac, the most auspicious as well as the most mystifying. Dragon years are considered especially fortunate for new businesses, marriage and children. Therefore, 2012 will be a year of head-spinning unpredictability, uncertainty, transition, change and energy.

The Water Dragon year, which starts January 23, 2012, ushers in a tumultuous blast of energy. Everything this year, good or bad, will seem bigger than life and larger in magnitude leading to a frenzy of  change for the world, like the epic size and magical powers of the mythical beast!  We all have lots of surprises in this Year of the Dragon–  Happy New Year!