Tinker, Dragon, Method, Horse (Weekly Links)

The Knightley-Fassbender Maneuver: A Dangerous Method

Links to reviews I wrote for the Herald this week, and etc.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. “True to le Carré’s world but spellbinding in its own stripped-down fashion.”

A Dangerous Method. (Dead link; review follows)

By Robert Horton

In 1962 director John Huston made “Freud,” starring Montgomery Clift as the father of psychoanalysis. It might not sound like the sexiest material (the studio desperately tried to add spice with a subtitle, “The Secret Passion”), but the fascinating saga of Freud’s early breakthroughs in the study of the subconscious mind turned out to have the gripping suspense of a detective story.

            Some of that appeal is on display in “A Dangerous Method,” a terrific new film about the early days of psychoanalysis. It’s so early that Carl Jung, a promising doctor in Zurich, calls the practice “psych-analysis,” until he is gently corrected by Professor Freud—who correctly observes that, among other things, psychoanalysis simply sounds better than the alternative.

            Jung, played by Michael Fassbender, is the central figure in “A Dangerous Method,” which is scripted by the Oscar-winning writer Christopher Hampton. The film’s Jung is a respectably-married Swiss golden boy, drawn into a challenging case with a disturbed but brilliant young woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Like the other characters, Spielrein is an actual historical figure, and her closeness to Jung is cause for concern back in Vienna, where Jung’s mentor, the eminent Freud (Viggo Mortensen), looks on with cagey interest.

            I’ve heard the movie described as “talky.” If interaction between people who are debating ideas that will define the progress of the 20thcentury is talky, then I guess that’s true—rivetingly true. The conversation is scientific but also personal, as the three people sort out their own issues. For Jung and Spielrein, those issues include sexual attraction. For Freud and Jung, their diverging theories about psychoanalysis create tension, but so do social matters: Jung, as a wealthily-married Aryan, has certain doors open to him that Freud must be very pragmatic about trying to enter.

            David Cronenberg directs this story in a classical style, which provides a fitting counterpart to the violent emotions that are teeming within. He completely gets the material: his movies, whether straight horror (“The Fly”) or drama (“A History of Violence”) deal with the way what’s going on beneath the surface of events inevitably finds its way to the surface, which might be a description of the psychoanalytic understanding of people.

            Viggo Mortensen’s embodiment of Freud, all cigar-smoke wisdom and singsong voice, is one of my favorite performances of the year. The very professional turns by Mortensen and Fassbender make Keira Knightley’s work stand out for its wildness; she’s out of key with the others, but that jibes with her character’s place in the story. She’s equally credible when she’s unhinged or when she’s lucidly debating psychology. Vincent Cassel contributes some brief but powerful scenes as a half-mad analyst, whose philosophy of “repressing nothing” affects Jung’s thinking. This movie might affect your thinking, too; if you think listening to brilliant people walking and talking can be a scintillating movie spectacle, this one’s for you.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (dead link; review follows)

By Robert Horton

The most startling aspects of David Fincher’s new version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” come at the beginning and the end. What comes in the middle is crisp, cold, well-crafted movie.

            The beginning involves a loony credits sequence set to a new version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” played against a montage of mannequins or robots or something (it might be kind of interesting, if you could see what it is). It’s a botch that almost throws the movie off kilter.

            But if there’s anything the director of “Zodiac” and “The Social Network” knows, it’s, uh, kilter. And this adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s mega-selling novel is utterly controlled in its swift-moving progress.

            If you read the novel, or saw the Swedish film version, you know the case begins with an ostracized Stockholm journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), getting hired to investigate a decades-old murder. The patriarch (Christopher Plummer) of a grandly wealthy (and unsavory) family wants to solve the disappearance of his niece, and installs Mikael on the Kennedy-like family compound to play sleuth. The other major player is a computer hacker of near-mystical talents, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), whose hostile attitude comes from a lifetime of bad treatment at the hands of men. We see an example of that, in grueling fashion, as Lisbeth is exploited by her depraved parole officer.

            A variety of plot strands weave together in a skillful way (Stephen Zaillian, the A-list writer who adapted “Moneyball,” did the script), although the actual resolution of the missing-girl story never becomes as urgent as the unfolding of Lisbeth’s personality.

            Actress Rooney Mara, perhaps best known for the electrifying opening scene of “The Social Network,” does beautifully with the role of Lisbeth. She captures the fury of the character, but that’s the easy part; what she conveys in tiny, almost subliminal ways is the wounded vulnerability, too. Craig is relatively colorless next to her, but the film doesn’t give him much of a chance to be anything but occupy its central-observer character. Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, and Joely Richardson (whose resemblance to her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, becomes stronger as she gets older) supply professional work in key supporting roles.

            When you think about David Fincher’s directing style, you might say he’s been waiting for an excuse for work in Scandinavia: all those frosty landscapes and IKEA products were just waiting to be visualized by his cool eye. The overall effect is more impressive than engaging—but having absorbed all three Swedish films based on Larsson’s literary trilogy already, I will confess to some déjà vu on the subject.

            And the ending? If memory serves, a couple of changes have been made to the ultimate explanation of things. That’s a pretty big deal for a cultural phenomenon that has already been absorbed by many—but movies can add new wrinkles to books, so fair enough. I wish Fincher had made the explanation a little clearer, though: two hours and forty minutes of movie, and I’m still not entirely sure what  happened with the poor girl who went missing on that fateful day so many years ago.

War Horse. “A tradition-of-quality kind of title.”

We Bought a Zoo. (dead link; review follows)

By Robert Horton

Cameron Crowe wrote and directed “Say Anything” and “Almost Famous,” so he gets a pass for making a career dud (“Elizabethtown”) and then taking six years to offer another feature film. The new one, “We Bought a Zoo,” is thankfully closer to Crowe’s likable early work than to his flop. “Likable” is about as deep as you can go with this movie, but that’s not a bad mood in which to spend a couple of hours.

            The picture’s based on a memoir by Benjamin Mee, so the outline is based on a true story. Matt Damon plays Benjamin, a widowed dad who walks out on a journalism career and buys a small animal park in California as a place to raise his two kids, unhappy adolescent Dylan (Colin Ford) and spunky tyke Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). He also buys a staff for the zoo, and when we see that his zookeeper is played by Scarlett Johansson, we might assume a bit of Hollywood romance is being engineered. This works out in ways that are not entirely what one might have imagined, an agreeable switch on our expectations.

            Damon balances his Everyman quality with a certain irritability, which works nicely, and if his scenes with older brother Thomas Haden Church are stock, at least they break up the rhythm a little bit. We should also note the performances by a tiger, some ostriches, and a gigantic grizzly bear. A sequence in which the bear escapes into the countryside would’ve played better if it hadn’t been for the real-life instance of wild animals getting loose in Ohio recently, but obviously the filmmakers couldn’t have anticipated that.

            Crowe peppers the film with his trademark dialogue, some of which is winsome, some charming, some made for immediate catchphrase status. There’s a warmth to his movies that keeps you going through their more saccharine passages, and he still has a knack for the running gag—in this case, the father’s advice to his son about how summoning up just 20 seconds of courage can change your life. Nice ending, too—not the climax of the storyline, but the final scene of the film, which offers some emotional resolution to Benjamin and his kids.

            Having had a pleasant time watching “We Bought a Zoo,” I can nevertheless say the movie has its icky-poo moments, many of which lean heavily on how adorable the little girl is. Sheer niceness can only go so far, at least at the movies are concerned. If Cameron Crowe should decide to be a little grouchy the next time out, that might not be a bad thing.

The Adventures of Tintin. “More technology than magic.”

I interviewed Gary Oldman on the subject of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and he had some cool things to say.

By Robert Horton

Gary Oldman has been touted as a top-line actor since his sensational breakthrough in 1986’s “Sid and Nancy,” with a career that has ping-ponged from leading roles to many (perhaps too many) delicious villains. In “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” Oldman gets a renewed professional validation, playing the role of George Smiley, the reserved, fastidious Cold Warrior of John le Carré’s world (a role made famous by Alec Guinness in a 1979 TV version of the novel). Oldman came to the area last week to promote the film, and I interviewed the casual-yet-dapper actor in his hotel room.

Q: I was looking at a note I took during the film, which says, “Gary Oldman eats his Wimpy’s burger with a knife and fork.” There’s no close-up of it, but it’s one of those little character-definers that tells you about Smiley’s life.

Gary Oldman: You’re the first person who has ever mentioned that. Yes, that’s who he is. Very much that school of a certain upbringing, a certain class. Indeed, between bites he would rest the knife, like so, against the plate.

Tomas [Alfredson] is the first director who was there at a props meeting, and went through all the props with me. That’s never happened to me. I’ve been an actor for 33 years, and I’ve never experienced that. We discussed the briefcase, and the watch, and the lighter. All the little notebooks and pens I would have—would Smiley have a tie-pin, would he have cufflinks? Would he have cocktail cuffs? And we decided that he wouldn’t because someone might remember that, and it could give him away.

Q: Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that Alfredson would be the kind of director who would go to a props meeting, because the movie’s about the importance of thinking every detail out.

GO: It’s all worked out. Certain colors that he wanted in the movie, too. He never referenced other films. He likes Hergé, he likes the cartoons of Tintin. He talks in colors, and smells, and he says, “I want the color to capture the smell of damp tweed. If that smell were a color, what would it be?” He’s an original piece, Tomas is. There’s no one quite like him. But you see that [in the film], don’t you? Colin [Firth] saw that. I remember Colin seeing it at an early screening, and he called up, and he said, “It’s a classic. It’s going to become a classic. There’s nothing like it.”

I love the silences. It’s rare that you get that. Movies, they assault you with sound and imagery now. I go home and a pull out the DVD of “The Conversation” [the 1974 Coppola film], and look at how they used to make movies.

Q: The film is considerably condensed from the novel.

GO: Tomas says it’s the fillet of the animal. He felt that it was about betrayal, loyalty, and emotion. He felt it was an emotional film, not necessarily a political movie.

Q: Did your own performance evolve, from the book to the shooting?

GO: Yes, it was a slow evolution. They called and asked me to do it, and I met Tomas, and adored him, and it was love at first sight, really. And I knew the role—everyone knows who Smiley is, it’s like being asked to play Hamlet. And then I dithered for a month, because of the ghost of [Alec] Guinness. Fear, real fear. I thought, “God, how do you do that? How do you fill those shoes?” And plus, there’s such reverence in the U.K. for Guinness and for le Carré. One can’t forget that I was the one who left—I’ve lived in America for 20 years. And they’ve never quite forgot it, you know. “So you’re that actor that lives in Hollywood and you’re going to come back to play George Smiley?”

You know, all these demons, these dragons—you’ve got to slay these dragons in your head. So I dithered around for a month, writing reviews for myself, projecting how they were going to cut me down. But in the end, you know—if you’re going to play Hamlet, you’re going to be measured against all the other Hamlets that came before, you’re always going to be compared to whoever it is, whether it’s to Burton, or Ken Branagh, or Olivier. So I sort of got my act together and said yes. Fear! It keeps you on your toes, you know, I guess it made it all the more challenging.

Q: What about the voice? You have a very specific voice as Smiley.

GO: John le Carré.

Q: Really?

GO: I met him. He has this thing of slightly leaning back when he sits, he’s got ever just slightly off the 90 degrees. And there’s a melody to his voice, and when I met him, I began to think, that’s a good voice for Smiley. Guinness had a bit more Eeyore in his voice [Oldman then imitates Alec Guinness sounding like Eeyore], though he may have pinched a bit of le Carré for himself. I think I started with an impersonation—his granddaughter worked on the movie, and when she saw it she came up to me and said, “there’s little things where you’re doing Grandpa,” and it was our little conspiracy—and then you move away from that and make it your own.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about holiday movies, with help from callers. It’s archived here; the movie talk begins around the 15-minute mark.

Indiewire did their year-end critics survey, which went for The Tree of Life, alas. Winners and critics are listed here; my ballot can be found by clicking on my name (can’t do a separate link, for some reason).

Next week, look for the annual “Critics Wrap” event to be broadcast on the Seattle Channel: December 29 and 30, at 9 p.m.; Dec. 31 at 1 a.m. and 11 p.m. (wow, the Dick Clark slot). It will also go live online soon.

At What a Feeling!, the titles of the week have had a distinctly chilly cast. Catch up with Eighties reviews of Maurizio Nichetti’s The Icicle Thief, Winter Flight (a film in David Puttnam’s “First Love” series), and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Also, Merry Christmas and all that.