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February 6, 2012


Late releases are held back for the coveted holiday movie slot. Then January brings films that have been ignored but received critical acclaim or are being released late in hopes that they will, in that way, remain utmost in the Academy's minds.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le CarrĂ©'s famous spy novel, was based on the Cambridge Five (Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross and Kim Philby), who were exposed as KGB moles employed by Britain's Secret Intelligence Service during WWII and into the 1950s. Tomas Alfredson's cast for this film version of the thriller is brilliant. John Hurt is Control, Toby Jones is Percy Alleline, David Dencik is Toby Esterhase, Ciaran Hinds is Roy Bland, and Colin Firth is Bill Haydon. Some have measurable screen time and dialog, and some have virtually none. For manageable run-time, Alfredson has deftly compressed the story, making it lean and lithe, and that means that, though the narrative has always been Smiley's, it is even moreso in this incarnation. Thus in an impressive constellation of actors, this is nonetheless Gary Oldman's movie, and he does a commanding job of grounding it. I was a bit annoyed by the announcement in front of each subtitle as to which language was being translated into English. (Your ear should pretty much be able to distinguish among Hungarian, Russian and Turkish.) Manohla Dargis observed in the NYT that "Since the 1979 mini-series, [Smiley] has been synonymous with Guinness's performance, as Mr. le CarrĂ© has acknowledged. .... Mr. Oldman...wisely doesn't reinvent Smiley. Rather...he and Mr. Alfredson have opted to build on the original interpretation, using it as a foundational text. (Guinness’s turn is the Torah; Mr. Oldman’s the Talmud.)"

How does Meryl Streep do it? Though she gets a bit of aging make-up, she needs little in the way of prosthetics to BECOME a character. It's not just the accent; it's her entire mien, which never looks contrived, as the main characters in Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar sometimes do. Like J. Edgar, however, Phyllida Lloyd's The Iron Lady, though it ticks off the major political events surrounding Margaret Thatcher's time as Prime Minister, is a film that attempts to plumb the inner person rather than explore the complexity of a political career within the greater context of world events. A. O. Scott criticizes the film for being first and foremost a film about a woman and her fulfillment -- or lack thereof. Still, a wonderful performance.

Carnage is Roman Polanski's film adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s 2006 play God of Carnage. Two couples, Alan annd Nancy (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) and Michael and Penelope (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), cross paths as the result of the former's son having hit the latter's. When the former couple drops by the latter's to resolve the question of how to address the issue, the claustrophobic stage is set for a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? sort of devolution into long held marital resentments and mutual loathing. But whereas Edward Albee's play excavates the profound underside of human relationships and unassuaged grief, Carnage is simply an excercise in watching a room full of immature, narcissistic adults bray at each other. It becomes tiresome quickly. We see no humanity from anyone whatsoever. If this is what our cell phone, Facebook, Twitter-fed 21st century has made us into, we are soulless indeed.

Brandon, the central character in Steve McQueen's Shame, is being swallowed up by sex addiction spiralling out of control. Every other aspect of his life has become subsumed. When his sister Sissy, in a serious bout of depression, reaches out to him, he resentfully lets her stay with him, but she cramps his style. Tensions mount. Both Brandon and Sissy are thoroughly self-absorbed, narcissistic characters. We get no backstory, but must assume that whatever childhood they shared was troubled. Both have armored themselves with such complete numbness that nothing can penetrate, not his liaisons, not her cutting. Nevertheless -- unlike the characters in Carnage who are gratingly annoying -- as played by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, Brandon and Sissy both seem to have some deep core where a humanity worth redeeming is buried.

David Cronenberg’s Dangerous Method is a biopic about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud at the birth of psychoanalysis. When a young Russian woman named Sabina Spielrein arrives at his clinic, she strikes Jung as the perfect analysand on which to experiment with the thus far theoretical "talking method." Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Vincent Cassell as Otto Gross are all superb. Keira Knightley as Spielrein is another matter altogether. Yes, she suffers from, as it was then known, hysteria, but even so, never has an actor so relentlessly chewed the scenery. I had a problem with Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman's repressed ballerina seemed like a throw-back, anti-feminist cliche (and was awarded Best Actress Oscar, which should tell you something if you think we've come a long way, baby). Though I don't agree with some of his conclusions, Terrence Rafferty's overview of the portrayal of women's mental illness in the movies is an excellent companion to the film.

Glenn Close played the title character on stage in Albert Nobbs almost 30 years ago, and tried for years to bring the story to the screen. She co-wrote the script based on George Moore's short story and enlisted Rodrigo Garcia to direct. The film is not so much about gender as it is about a strict heirarchical class society and survival. Orphaned relatively young, a girl takes on the guise of a man so that she may find work. The exterior shots of the hotel where Albert is employed are almost evenly divided between the shabby front entrance through which haughty guests pass and the back yard where linens are laboriously washed and dried, wood chopped, deliveries made. Albert is a meek soul in the margins, almost silent, eyes deferentially downcast. A housepainter, Hubert Page, put up in Albert's room, discovers her secret, then reveals her own. Albert is an innocent, a naif, which Close accentuates with a Chaplinesque carriage. She passionlessly woos one of the hotel's maids with whom she hopes to emulate Hubert's domestic life. In the wake of a cholera outbreak, she returns to Hubert's seaside village to discover that Hubert's wife has succumbed. Albert's childlike response is that she and Hubert move in together and all will be as it was. Close's performance is a tour de force, but Janet McTeer's Hubert rivals any emotion I have seen expressed on screen in years. In her reaction to Albert's thoughtless proposal, she finally stuggles to speak: "You don't understand. Cathleen was my world, she was everything to me." Unfortunately this luminous scene is followed by one that should have found its way to the cutting room floor. That aside every performance in this film of complex emotion is exceptional.

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