Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Ingredients for anticipated success: take a director, John Favreau, with a couple of smash hits and proven way of contouring good actors into flashy blockbuster fare to his credit; two generations of major league male movie star, represented by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford; one fairly talented, drop-dead yowza starlet as required, here in the shape of Olivia Wilde; a battery of excellent character actors including Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, and Sam Rockwell; and a story that crossbreeds western and science-fiction tropes into a bizarre hootenanny of a steampunk action flick. What do you have? A wild, dizzying swashbuckler that mashes up some hugely divergent brands of pulp with a strong dose of Hollywood glam and provides a suitably ridiculous thrill-ride to rake in the dough? Well, no, not exactly. One of the year’s bigger disappointments both financially and aesthetically, Cowboys & Aliens isn’t exactly bad, but isn’t anywhere near as fun and inventive as it ought to be. Not terribly surprisingly, the film works best when sticking to the western side of the ledger, offering initially a free-range mash-up of Leone, Ford, Last Train From Gun Hill, Rio Bravo, Broken Lance, and a half-dozen others. It’s hard to get away from the feeling that the people who had to actually make the film, as opposed to the guys in suits who thought Cowboys & Aliens sounded cool, might have preferred to do the cowboy thing and let the aliens alone.

Craig plays a Man with No Memory, awakening in the middle of nowhere with a bleeding hole in his side and a strange metal gauntlet on one hand, with no recollection of how he got these, or even who he is. When a trio of obnoxious horsemen come upon him and immediately decide that he must be an escaped convict whom they can probably claim a reward for, the nameless stranger kicks their asses with silent, stunning aplomb, and moves on. He reaches a small town, which is only sustained by the trade of local cattle king Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), who has an obnoxious, trigger-happy bully of a son, Percy (Dano), causing havoc in the vicinity, persecuting the milquetoast bartender Doc (Rockwell) in particular. The stranger, who is soon identified thanks to wanted posters as Jake Lonergan, a famous outlaw, receives aid from the religiose Meacham (Clancy Brown), and then kicks Percy in the scrotum to teach him manners. Percy, enraged, accidentally shoots and wounds a deputy, bringing down the wrath of the Sheriff, Taggart (Carradine). Dolarhyde, already in a rage after some of his cattle and ranch hands are mysteriously incinerated by fire from the sky, and first glimpsed about to draw and quarter the confused, drunk lone survivor, steams into town to demand his son back. A confrontation is however forestalled when strange flying machines descend on the town and snatch away locals, including Taggart, Percy, and Doc’s wife (Ana de la Reguera), and Jake’s strange bracelet comes to life, proving to be an energy weapon that fires in response to mental impulse. He picked it up sometime when he too was an alien captive, but how and when, and whether the story he may have killed a woman is true, remain mysteries to be slowly uncovered.

The film’s dusty, muted, brown and ochre-hued cinematography, by Matthew Libatique, evokes less the high Technicolor of ‘50s Westerns than the mud-and-blood style of the post-‘60s variety, but Cowboys & Aliens clearly reveals a working knowledge of genre classics. This isn’t the first time someone’s tried to mate the Western with sci-fi – my mind drifts back pleasantly to not just Back to the Future III (1990), but also to the charmingly nutty 1987 flick Timestalkers, in which Klaus Kinski was a futuristic assassin trying to pervert the future by posing as a gunslinger. Cowboys & Aliens doesn't wield anything like the same charm, and that’s because it never really allows itself the luxury of being properly nutty. Rather, it simply, lazily transfers some already simple, lazy sci-fi fare, like restaging the least convincing “revolt against the alien overlords” scenes in movie history, as provided by the likes of Stargate (1994). In the long final tussle, mysteriously, the alien invaders seem to have only brought one ray gun with them, and they prove resistant to bullets in some scenes, but in others can be brought down by spears and knives. Such dazzling, rampant ignorance of any realistic sense of physical danger and strategic craft in battle would have made guys like Raoul Walsh and John Ford curl up on the floor and cry with a bottle of JTS Brown. Tension between the various characters and their disparate world views are first shouted and then elided, and the finale sees reunions that ignore what we’ve given to understand about the way these people have related and behaved. Milking pathos out Dolarhyde losing “real” son  Colorado (Adam Beach)  and then being reunited with his biological brat Percy, who’s temporarily amnesiac and therefore momentarily tolerable, Favreau and his scriptwriters seem to have lost sight of any actual point other than hurried, contrived catharsis.

 The trouble is an inability to tell the difference between quoting classic storylines and doing so with any wit. The story was technically based on a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, but, rumour has it, actually only inspired by its cover. The screenplay proper is credited to no less than five writers, with notorious franchise hacks Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman amongst them. Whereas J.J. Abrams mostly transcended the limitations of the Orci-Kurtzman template with his 2009 Star Trek reboot, thanks to his solid grasp of story essentials, Favreau falls entirely prey to their usual derivative, relentlessly pubescent exposition. The first half-hour or so of the film retains sufficient integrity to be engaging in evoking the Western panoply. Craig has been waiting his whole life to play a leathery bad-ass gunslinger, whether he knows it or not, and perhaps so too has Ford, whose Dolarhyde clearly channels such figures as Charles Bickford’s Henry Terrill from The Big Country (1958). That initial integrity is however misleading, as the screenplay doesn’t actually set out to tell a story, but piles up plot elements and hopes they’ll cohere into a story at some point. We have Jake’s amnesiac distress and his eventual recollection of an awkward attempt to leave behind his outlaw past with lady love Alice (Abigail Spencer), doomed when they were captured by the aliens and Alice was killed in an experiment by an alien Josef Mengele. We’ve got Dolarhyde trailing not only Civil War trauma but anti-Indian feeling and filial problems, not only relating to the disgraceful Percy, but also to the young Native American lad Nat, whom he raised and who is now his foreman, patronised, alienated, yet still yearning to be seen as Dolarhyde's loyal progeny.

Later, as the posse of alien hunters forms, including Doc, who of course can’t shoot a gun but who will later deliver a crack bullet when needed, and Taggart’s grandson Emmett (Noah Ringer) as well as the more weathered hands, they encounter Jake’s ornery band of outlaws, now led by the blowhard Dolan (David O’Hara), and an Apache tribe, led by the gimlet-eyed Black Knife (Raoul Trujillo), who spends the requisite amount of time swapping impolite glances with Dolarhyde. And we’ve got Wilde as the mysterious Ella Swenson, first seen lurking in the backdrop, amusingly clad in bright floral skirt with black sidearm dangling like a cancerous polyp at her hip. Much like her apparel, Ella remains, in spite of Wilde’s fair tilt at making her work, a confused and ungainly hybrid, posed as tough-gal love-interest for Jake, but who also harbours a peculiar secret, which comes out after some flagrantly clumsy story twists, in which she proves to be an alien herself, albeit one of a different variety to the brutish invaders. She's looking to get even after they wiped out her race as well as help the humans, so she’s appropriated a local body. Unfortunately, the film not only never explains how she got here, how she ended up in the body she has, and why she doesn’t have any kind of technical or even particularly helpful tactical know-how to lend to the fight against the attackers. It’s hard to get away from a feeling that the writers decided to make her an alien so they wouldn’t have to try and write a love scene for her and Craig, because, you know, girls and kissing are icky. I'm not sure if the sight of Ella crawling out of a river with make-up still perfect is a deliberate touch designed to hint at her false guise or an old-fashioned bit of Hollywood glossy artificiality.

One of the film’s basic conceits is to offer, in the aliens, villains who are merely more fearsome, strange versions of the usual Western bad guys: they’re rustlers, except they’re lassoing humans and not cattle, and they’re evil prospectors after gold at all costs, because for them it’s just as scarce and attractive as to us, for reasons not at all investigated. It’s not such a bad idea if one wanted to play Cowboys & Aliens as a bit of a shaggy dog joke, but rather it plays out with a dismayingly straight face even when offering tired clich├ęs and lumbering action scenes. The aliens in look and demeanor call to mind the shrimp-like extra-terrestrial proles of District 9 (2009), and like them seem less sophisticated than one might initially assume about outer space adventurers. This similarity however simply underlines the film’s basic lack of imagination. Nor can the film extract substance out of the confluence of alien and the atavistic when Ella is reborn from the fires of the Apache camp, although Favreau stages it with flashes of colour and strangeness (although he’s busier playing games in trying to keep a family audience whilst teasing with the chance of seeing Wilde’s backside), and the subsequent sequence in which she helps restore Jake’s memory with Indian mysticism and peyote. One image harkens to what a more inspired tilt at the same material might have achieved, that of a paddle steamer dumped unceremoniously in the middle of a vast prairie, and with the posse bunking down for the night within its broken fineries. Still, for all its laziness, Cowboys & Aliens holds the attention because of the unshakeable professionalism of the cast and crew. The film works well enough on a basic, pulp programmer level, and the notion of alien Ella providing an interlocutor in open range race war, whilst trying avenge one that happened beyond the stars, doesn't entirely waste the potential substance of this theme. The climactic moments, like Jake and Dolarhyde doing battle with the evil alien surgeon, and Ella cradling the explosive that will obliterate the alien ship like a precious child - mirroring the image of Dolarhyde holding Nat as a grieving father with her image as an exterminating mother - as she blissfully reaches her own extinction and that of her enemy, therefore retain a charge of bellicose intensity blended with measured emotional impact. Craig’s performance holds up under difficult circumstances, as does, surprisingly enough, Ford’s, giving a little credence to hopes sparked by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that he might be finding his late-career wind, although he still can’t rise to anything like the level he might have if he had played Jake, circa 1984.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Here there be spoilers

As a proclaimed aficionado of both John le Carre’s 1972 novel and the original mini-series adaptation, I approached this new film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with both a genuine enthusiasm and a dose of salts. I knew very well that many of the things I singularly love about John Irvin’s 1979 TV version would probably not make the cut for a feature film version, and tried to prepare myself for that, and hope for a good, hard nugget of drizzle-cloaked spy suspense. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was no small challenge to turn into a feature film with its dense web of motives and jargon underlying an already knotty, dark, surprisingly tragic portrait of Cold War espionage. And the fact that, whilst it’s certainly a spy thriller, it’s also a deeply eccentric one, a study in situational dynamics, political decay, and most intimately, of character expressed through a prism of entangled bureaucracy and physical, emotional, and moral danger. And yet I was still completely unprepared for this barely competent, eviscerated, essentially factotum adaptation of a well-proven hit, which has been drawing obscenely good reviews from all quarters recently. I suppose most of that can be laid at the door of the innate intelligence of Le Carre’s original tale, which Alfredson’s version does its best to leech away but still occasionally shines through, the endless array of high-class Brit actors in the cast, and lingering affection for Alfredson’s overrated, sluggish, but interesting Let the Right One In (2008). But almost every single aesthetic decision here, from Alfredson’s endlessly, although virtually never effectively, mobile camera, to Alberto Yglesias’ godawful pseudo-jazz music score, made me finally want to throttle the creative team of this film. 

The story essentials are the same: sometime in the mid ‘70s, aging spymaster George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is called in, one year after getting the boot from MI6’s central command, dubbed “The Circus”, to investigate when supposedly rogue agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) makes contact with The Circus’ bureaucrat overlord Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney). When Tarr raises the spectre of there being possibly a Soviet mole in the ranks, Smiley studies the circumstances of Tarr’s forced exile, and the events which originally resulted in his own sacking, along with The Circus’ old boss Control (John Hurt), who subsequently died. Control had dispatched one of his most trusted men, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), on a mission to Hungary in a hopeful attempt to get information on the mole that turned into a disaster. Now Smiley has to dig into this past whilst not alerting The Circus’ new regime, headed by Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and backed up by a cadre including glib gay-blade Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), shifty Hungarian Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), and bland Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), who have become extremely defensive about their new source of information deep in Soviet circles. Smiley begins to realise that this source is actually a carefully constructed plot of his Soviet opposite dubbed Karla, having manoeuvred incompetents into high positions in The Circus around his own double agent.

The first twenty-odd minutes are the worst, as Alfredson rushes to condense incidents that don’t even take place in the book, but which rather form background events, into a bite-sized whirl of exposition. The new version of the incident that sees Prideaux shot and captured in Eastern Europe, has been changed from rural Czechoslovakia to Hungary, apparently to get in some scenes in a nicely tourist board-friendly corner of Budapest, and is not one-fifteenth as eerie as the sequence in Irvin’s. Alfredson traipses in with the first of many pieces of violent hype he’ll employ, having a woman with a baby get accidentally shot as the commie agents try to capture Prideaux, in trying to sex up a tale that was originally distinguished by its thorough refusal to indulge the usual spy thriller tropes and stunts. Much of the problem lies in the adaptation, which perversely tries to leave as much of the original’s dense story intact as possible, whilst hacking away the things that count on the human level. For some reason, Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan shift the significant meeting Smiley has with Tarr from the outset, where Tarr’s personal testimony and recounted experience forces Lacon into action, to the middle, so that the reason why Smiley’s investigation is given the go-ahead is rendered bewilderingly obscure. Alfredson handles the first glimpses Tarr has of Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), the Russian agent and wife to a blowhard Soviet bigwig whom Tarr investigated in Istanbul and who first alerted him to the mole’s presence, with an initial adroitness. He plays on his capacity, as displayed in Let The Right One In, to evoke a voyeur’s vantage of forbidden insight, as Tarr, doing surveillance on the Russians, sees Irina being abused by her husband after she finds him screwing another woman, from the privileged distance of his lookout. But Alfredson then fumbles the glimpses of their affair so badly, including an excruciatingly badly shot sex scene and hollowed-out characterisations, that I began to wonder if I would make it to the end of the film at all. Tarr here is allowed to retain his faintly romantic dignity as a low-rent James Bond, a privilege Le Carre originally denied him in making it clear Tarr was a self-deluding bigamist. Irina’s repressed religious urges are likewise sidestepped: here she’s just a standard issue femme fatale. 

Tarr and Irina aren’t the only characters left stripped of the bitterly realistic inner lives Le Carre tried to give them, as Oldman’s Smiley here has no depth left at all, stalking through the proceedings as a dried-up remnant trailing his sexual betrayal by his wife Ann (here not seen except as a shadowy symbolic figure, itself a preciously stupid touch) and a low-key disillusion which only shows through when he narrates the story of his meeting with Karla. That scene subtly distorts the equivalent in the book and series, as Alfredson, Oldman, and the screenwriters strain to make it their commentary on the story, loading the line “We’ve both spent our lives studying the flaw’s in each-other’s systems” with a macrocosmic meaning, as if to make up for excising just about all the rest of the story’s political commentary (much of which was inevitably dated and yet might still have been tweaked for our own time when so many of us are again angry at our political and economic systems). Alfredson avoids a flashback here, substituting instead the directorial equivalent of putting his finger to his lips and whispering, “Shhh, everybody, Gary’s finally going to act now,” as Oldman begins to address the chair opposite him as if it's filled by the shade of his nemesis. Another interesting thing is that although the film, and this scene specifically, evokes Le Carre's fearful point that there was hardly any difference between West and East anymore, throughout the film all of the malevolent ultra-violence is being committed by safely anonymous villains from the Other Side. This isn’t even to touch on how denuded and shallow the film’s portrait of Haydon, eventually revealed as mole and traitor, is: gone is his beautiful prison cell crack-up and his barely choate political mumblings, instead substituting merely the line, “I’ve made my mark,” reducing him to a one-dimensional egotist and nicely excusing the audience from having to think about his reasons for disloyalty. The film rather crassly makes Smiley’s Man Friday Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) gay, seen stowing away his live-in lover for the duration of investigations, a touch that doesn’t loan the film anything except the air of a phony grasp at relevance. Especially considering how it sticks with only hinting at the real tragic gay aspect of Le Carre’s book – the long-ago relationship of Prideaux and Haydon that turned into a famous professional partnership, underlying the rage of betrayal that drives Prideaux to finally track down and kill Haydon. 

The alterations to the story for the sake of bringing in the usual violent hype also suck away much of the inner sense of the plot. Maybe I could buy the Russians making it look like Tarr had killed his Istanbul liaison Thesinger (Philip Martin Brown) to bolster the appearance he’d become a traitor, but the act of massacring their own Istanbul team is so senseless as to beggar description: it would be nigh impossible for the Soviets to hide such a slaughter, it would be impossible to blame on Tarr, and the whole event as portrayed here would have set the nerves of every security and police service in a 10,000 mile radius vibrating with interest as to what went down. The worst is still to come: when Smiley interviews Prideaux, he tells of seeing Irina gunned down before him by one of Karla’s goons whilst he was interrogation, with the spoke message, “Tell Alleline what you saw!” Now, given that all of the story’s intricate mechanics demand that Alleline in no way be alerted to the wheels within wheels of Karla’s plot, this scene makes no sense whatsoever: it’s there simply so Alfredson can sneak a bit of shocking gore in there. The violence isn't just poorly thought-through and opportunistic, though: it actually spoils the neo-Kafkaesque qualities of the world Le Carre created, where people could disappear into the maws of totalitarianism and other global village sinkholes, to be heard from again only as fragments of information, hoping one day some bureaucratic pencil-pusher might write your epitaph. The film is simultaneously weirdly unspecific about that actual cost of the mole’s actions and the personal stakes in catching him – for instance, the fact Guillam had a whole team of men killed thanks to him. Most of the film’s better moments come in flashbacks, where Alfredson finds some looseness, but some inventions, like the Circus Christmas party he keeps returning to for vignettes revealing aspects of the crew’s former camaraderie, seem contrived and, especially in the case of Hurt’s Control, badly distorting, as Control is supposed to be a deeply intellectual, natural recluse who wouldn’t have had anything to do with such a wingding.

All of these aggravations might not have be bothered me so much if Alfredson’s direction had not begun to get on my nerves right from the start. Alfredson peppers his scenes with tracking shots and oblique framings that refuse to congeal into a genuine sense of paranoid style or poetic alienation, and a lack of a clear editing rhythm to give the film drive. Little is given any time to sink in and gain weight. The film’s production team has clearly put a hell of lot of effort and detail into recreating the grime and seaminess of aspects of the ‘70s English setting, and yet even there the film feels weirdly clumsy and anonymous, avoiding some of the non-germane yet grounding casual detail in portraying a London where snotty clubs and bookstores that knew your address exist alongside seamy hotels and crummy repair shops. This Tinker Tailor is in love with its own pseudo-grittiness painted over in lovingly textured terms by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, so precious compared to the no-nonsense realism and sodden atmospherics of Martin Ritt’s version of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1964). Almost all of the dry quips and asides have been surgically removed, leaving the film determinedly humourless, and if you do, like me, know the story well, there’s little left in the film to derive any pleasure from. Performances do help, although the cast isn’t used very well, good British actors all in a row like this is the upmarket equivalent of a Harry Potter film; Hurt, Cumberbatch, and Hardy are all at the top of their game, working wonders with little, Strong invests Prideaux with an intelligent pathos, and Kathy Burke has a splendid few minutes as Connie Sachs, the former Circus archivist with a dash of sexual perversity to leaven her deeply geeky brilliance. But such good work couldn’t make up for the film’s lack of focus and pandering reflexes. Finally I was so bored and frustrated by this version that whilst the miniseries is six hours long, this one felt twice as long. Still, whilst my artistic quarrels with Alfredson and the film in general are not minor, nonetheless in part I’m willing to concede that for neophytes there’s enough of the story left intact to weave a spell. But what I love about the material is almost entirely missing and the integrity and individuality of the story and its meaning are badly corroded.