Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) (R)

I'll admit something: I absolutely hated John le Carré's book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. That being said, I read it after I saw the movie because apparently Carré is invaluable to the espionage novel; but what I found was that I had no idea what anything was or why I should care about anything. It's a muddled mess of a book (all personal opinions of course) and I really can't understand how or why I managed to dredge my way through it.
My point being that I have no love for the novel so nothing to compare the movie to, it exists in its own world for me. With all that in mind, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is probably the lest exciting espionage movie you will ever see because we have become accustomed to movies like "Mission: Impossible" or "Salt" as our "spy"movies, when, in reality, it might look a little more like Carré's version.
The movie is set in Cold War era England where a kingpin in British security is being forced out of his position. As he leaves and right before his death he sets up a trail of dominoes for one of his friends and cohorts with the intelligence to set off. This man is George Smiley (Gary Oldman) who will have to trace down a mole within MI6 and help save the Western world from the tyranny of the Soviet Union.
Two things are immediately apparent within this movie: everything is transparent and the enemy is never visible. For a movie so entrenched in the idea of war and borders, we hardly ever see an actual villain, instead just observing the results of their interactions and the carnage they leave behind. While this may be unsatisfying to some viewers, I actually like it, because it presents everything through Smiley's context.
Even in its set design, the movie is transparent and we get the idea that everyone is a spy and taking note of everyone else's movements. The glass walls are spied through, smoke hangs and blurs everything but not beyond distinction, and the reflections of characters are noted and paused upon. It's clever and effective.
All that in praise of the movie, unfortunately, it's not very watchable. It's pretty dry and dull for a movie which features so much off-screen violence. And maybe that's the distinction of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy": the violence is often discovered and never viewed (of course there are exceptions).
Not wishing to spoil anything, I'll just say that the acting here is brilliant. An all-star cast pumps out career performances (a personal best for Benedict Cumberbatch who hits his high-water mark here and has yet to reach it again) and Gary Oldman who never ceases to amaze even in such a quiet and complex character.
But unfortunately, like the book, it gets muddled and too busy. Scenes serve no purpose and characters are barely introduced hold such power over the film's narrative. This is also my complaint about Doyle's writings; but that's for another day. There is a very very easy way to solve the mystery of the mole, but it doesn't involve the complexities or intrigues of the movie's plot...I won't elaborate.
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a beautiful movie. It's style is wonderfully bleak and dark; but, unlike the popcorn show we've come to expect, it lets down...and maybe that's not a fault of its own. There are thrills in its final thirty minutes; but me personally, the final scene could have come thirty minutes earlier.

Score: ★★★

Religulous (2008) (R)

I was raised in the Christian church. So was Bill Maher. He was raised Catholic though his mother was Jewish—his family didn't speak of the differences in their religions and his mother never attended church. For me, I was in the church for many more years that Bill Maher and it was never such a large part of his life as it was in mine. I think we both came to the same conclusion about religion through hugely different ways; but that's not really the point.The point is that both Bill is perhaps more interesting than religion itself. Sure the stories the Old and New Testament tell are hugely entertaining, existing on a spectrum of disturbing, and can be gleaned for moralistic purposes; but Larry Charles (the director of "Borat") makes a very wise decision: he focuses on Bill Maher rather than the institution itself.
Because a documentary about religion itself wouldn't be half as spicy, offensive, or fun as "Religulous" is. The nuances to the doctrine and the dogma have little over Bill Maher talking about Christianity to a man dressed up as Jesus in an amusement park meant to mirror Israel.
The movie opens in the spot of the supposed Armageddon and Bill is there in the middle explaining how this is going to be a movie exploring the "why's" or religion. In his standup, Maher often targeted religion but never really questioned god him or herself. So that's what this movie is supposed to do: stare God right in the face and ask "what the hell, man?" or so Maher would have us believe.
I suppose you could understand right now that much of "Religulous" is fairly sacrilegious and many interviewees gasp at Maher's gall. To be perfectly honest, he's really not that offensive and manages to maintain a fairly civil head when discussing religions with people.
This is the point of the movie: religion will turn your brain into mush and make babbling fools out of you. It's not exactly subtle that way. Maher finds a way to cut right through all the crap and ask the difficult questions like "you do know this doesn't make historical sense, how do you explain that?"
Most of the time we watch the movie through the lens of Maher and his predispositions to be rude, the devil's advocate if you will. As such, if you're a religious person, you'll probably hate "Religulous" because you find it insulting and more than a little irreverent.
But here's where I have to stop you.
You should watch the movie, not because it's any spectacular feat of movie-making or hilarious brother to "Borat" but simply because it will open your eyes to questions that you may not have had. Consider Bill Maher (who more than once promotes himself to Messiah levels) as the doubt that you need to have in your life. A religion untested is assumed as fact. This movie will either sharpen your own thoughts or help destroy them, I think either one is a good thing.
"Religulous" works best as an exercise of doubt and questioning, the kind of movie that exists just to be the thorn in someone's flesh. Is that pretty? No. Does that make it essential viewing? Yes.
Back to the movie:
Maher bites off way more than he can chew and obviously Christianity and Catholicism are his main targets, thus most of the movie deals with them. However, he does try to work in as many religions as possible and Islam is the next on his list as well as Judaism and even the religion and utilizes marijuana. He tackles each one with the some ferocity as the last, but his knowledge of Christianity is so expansive that it does not compare to the rest...thus, we feel shortchanged by the time spent on other religions.
This is a matter of debunking, or attempted debunking at least, and we really don't get a comprehensive argument on anything but Christianity. Thus, we fall short and then the movie changes its tone.
Larry Charles spends most of the movie focusing on Bill and how Bill deals with situations; but near the end, the apocalyptic takes over and Maher tells his audience that religion must be abolished completely or else we'll all destroy ourselves
The turn for the preachy doesn't work and we're left with a sour taste in our mouths.
It's just kind of a cop-out. Nuance turns into something a little less fun: preaching...ironic, isn't it?


Super Size Me (2004) (PG)

"Super Size Me" is not exactly an easy movie to watch, and I'm fairly positive it's not something that could be made today. Morgan Spurlock's style reminds one immediately of a masochistic Michael Moore yet the antics of the documentary itself seem to mock not only the specific company it bases its entire premise on, but on obese people in general. 
Recently Nicole Arbour got in a heap of trouble for making an now infamous YouTube video called "Dear Fat People"..."Super Size Me" at times feels like the predecessor for that video. Without delving into my own opinions on the matter, I think it is very safe to say that "Super Size Me" would need a lot of edits if it were to be aired today, considering the movement pushing towards body positive thinking.
Yet the movie begins with Queen's "Fat Bottom Girls" playing the background as the camera ogles the butts of fat people while Spurlock spits out the same message that Arbour claimed her video was about: obesity is a problem.
Spurlock became interested in fast food when two girls sued McDonald's. The judge of the case claimed that they would need to prove that the fast food joint intended for all people to eat every meal at their establishment and that it would dramatically harm an individual's health. 
So, like any other rational person in his place, Spurlock decides that he is going to eat nothing else but McDonald's food for an entire month under the supervision of three doctors, nutritionists, and his own vegan chef girlfriend.
The first time he eats an entire super sized meal he vomits out the side of the car and the camera follows every thing he does with painstaking attention. It becomes clear that this is a do or die situation for Spurlock and he is dead set on proving a point...one that gets muddled with all the personal drama of the situation.
As the documentary continues, something really fascinating happens: you start to care about Morgan Spurlock as a person. This arises out of interviews with his girlfriend and her comments on his rapidly deteriorating condition. As we see his health plummet (for there is no other word for it), we begin to actually become concerned for him and that's where the movie is the strongest.
As a documentary that is aimed to take down McDonald's there is less time spent on what actually goes into the processing of the foods themselves (the infamous Big Mac, for example never gets this scrutiny) and more time on the effect that they have on Spurlock. For this, the documentary is very focused and shouldn't be taken as the broad coup de gras against fast food that Spurlock was intending. However, we can't write off his experiences entirely because we watch him gain almost 25 pounds in a month and we see his vitals and bloodwork go haywire as a result of this and the analogy the doctors keep using is binge drinking. Spurlock's liver looks like he is an alcoholic.
"Super Size Me" is not easy to watch and often frustrating. It's the kind of movie that will make me probably never have a McDonald's meal again but also think twice about watching Morgan Spurlock movies. The man isn't funny or enjoyable to watch and he doesn't have the charisma of other documentarians. Still, he makes a solid movie which is watchable the whole way through.
I wouldn't recommend it before lunch time, though.

Score: ★★★

His Girl Friday (1940)

There's nothing terribly original or fascinating about "His Girl Friday" much like today's romantic comedies don't feel like wonderful innovations of cinema, but that's not their intention. The movie is a tried and true 'age of golden cinema' cliche factory and if anything it's a marvelous success at pumping out great acting and watchable moments.
What is most curious about the movie is how it delightfully skips from one feeling to the next so quickly that you're not quite sure what you're watching. It seems like a stereotypical romantic comedy about a man who connives his way back into the heart of his ex (who, like most female characters in this era, wanted it anyway) then it moves to a politically charged thriller, and resolves with a commentary of the press as an entity. But maybe that's too much for one movie, after all, the title card does line this up as a fairy tale, letting the viewer know that this takes place in the decades when to be a journalist meant doing anything for a story and never could ever be representative of the press of today. It's comments seem insincere and, frankly, just lies.
But anyway...
Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell)  is leaving the press. She's met a man in insurance and she has "fallen in love" and is coming back for one more confrontation with her ex Walter Burns (Cary Grant) who coincidentally is also her boss and runs a democratic newspaper of some prestige. It's not just that Walter still has feelings about Hildy, she's also one of his best reporters and he doesn't want to see her go. So the scheming begins, and to trick her into staying he attempts to sabotage her relationship. One character jokes that to keep the train from leaving they could dynamite and it seems that in Walter's world, this might be a possibility. Remember, this is clearly not an accurate representation of the press...right.
In a stroke of evoking empathy and ingenuity, Walter references a current hot story going around town about a man who shot a black police officer. The mayor has sentenced the man to hang, but the governor seems to disagree with this decision and a political tsunami ensues. It floods so many issues, considering also that the election is a few days away.
So with all this consideration, it's likely that at some point the shit will hit the fan. And it does. But it's fun to watch.
If I could be a little politically correct for a moment (and it's my blog so I can) I think an interesting way to watch the movie is within its commentary on gender. Hildy wants to move on because her new lover treats her like "a woman" where as Walter sees her as a "newspaper man". It's curious to watch how Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) is treated as a set piece who comes and goes and the movie would be completely different should it be his story.
As the movie reaches its climax, it actually holds a lot of intrigue and surprise. It's not as enjoyable as something like "Bringing up Baby"; but it's certainly remained in the canon for a reason. Russell is charming, Grant is smarmy, and the movie is filled with easy jokes and quick-witted writing.

Score: ★★★½

Waking Life (2001) (R)

This review contains SPOILERS!
Have you ever had a conversation with someone that was so electrifying you couldn't think of anything else all day? Or maybe it was a movie...or maybe, as is the case most commonly with me, it was a joke. When you retell it, it loses all of its wonder and you find yourself wondering what it was about that initial moment that struck you so much. Ever had that? Yeah, I'm betting Richard Linklater has too.
Much of "Waking Life" feels like the balancing act between explaining in nuanced and excruciating detail, the present circumstances, and taking a step back to marvel at it without ever allowing for genuine expressionism. That's the nerdy way of saying, it's a little pretentious, like yours truly
The movie has no character names and feels like it belongs in the middle of Linklater's career, high-fiving his other movies with nods to the protagonists of the "Before" trilogy and feeling very similar in its narrative to "Slacker". Anyway, that being said, the movie is a meditation on dreams and reality, a kind of visual representation of what it must be like to be stuck in perpetual dreams.
The main character wanders from a train station and is picked up by a man driving a car/boat on the road. He sits in the back with a man who resembles Linklater while the driver informs them that all people have been given an amount of "crayons" to manage life with, and what they do with those crayons, the pictures they make, is all left up to them. A different character makes similar comments later when he muses on why humans don't reach their fullest potentials. After this comment, the lead boy is dropped off and he walks down the street, bending down to pick up a piece of paper which predicts his fate--he is struck by a car and wakes up in bed.
So begins the vicious cycle of the movie. Waking, plunging further into the dream, and contemplating the nature of dreams themselves. It's like you're walking on a college campus with a wristwatch and you stop inside a hallway of professors' offices and you enter each one and ask them to tell you their specialty in three minutes. They ramble and use the jargon flows over your head but you follow, then you move to the next door and so and a so forth until you make it through to the end of the hallway. Well, that was interesting. But what was the point?
Of course, you could make that argument about any movie ever but this movie, more so than others, feels inaccessible for its prestige and conversation. Linklater strays from his usual commentary and narrative of "ordinary humans" which usually looks like 'suburbia white people' and instead, ponders on the making of the movie itself. Just when the film couldn't stretch any further, it develops a broader narrative and effectively collapses.
"Waking Life" is not pleasant to watch because it isn't entertaining. The animation of the movie is pretty amazing at moments, and very experimental at others, for all its intricacies, it suits the movie well.
What the film lacks is a sense of motivation to finish it. It's tiring to watch the lead plot through another set of intellectual hypotheses any to gently shrug and behave in such a fashion as we expect from Linklater's characters: nonchalant. Yet the movie could have been so many other things from more experimental to even more like a horror film. But there is a reason that Linklater chose to do things the way he did, I'll just think it was the wrong decision.
As the movie nears the end, the discourse surrounding dreams and death comes to a point and, like the movie itself, without any place to go or any sense of conclusion, it floats away and vanishes from sight

Score: ★★½

Mulholland Dr. (2001) (R)

David Lynch is not one of my favorite directors and just in fairness, if you say that he is one of yours, I will file you away into the "super-film-snob/pretentious-hipster" category in my brain. Why this strong of a reaction? Well, because his films serve no larger narrative purpose. "Blue Velvet" is just about being creepy and the horrors of suburbia, "Eraserhead" makes absolutely no sense and just seems like the tortured moments of a mind gone out of control and "Mulholland Dr." is less about the narrative tricks and stunts that the movie can pull of—in time jumps and shifting characters—and more about the emotions conveyed.
So Lynch is like Malick...well, I disagree. Malick tends to actually have a narrative, the breathy voice-over and beautiful cinematography add to his emotions but there is always a narrative that pays off, even in "The Tree of Life". Lynch on the other hand injects noir into "Mulholland Dr." and makes a mystery, one that will never be unlocked though your brain tries its hardest to.
And even though that's unfair and that, in interviews, Lynch himself seems more interested in the concept of the stories a road might have than what his movie is actually about, I found myself not caring about the payoff. Because the movie does payoff, and it latches onto your mind like a tick. Not a pleasant analogy but one that is very apt, it festers in your brain, not letting go, like much of the movie.
Lynch's surrealism lends its hand to the film which began as a spin-off of "Twin Peaks", destined for the small screen but when production cut it off and it shifted hands, it became one of the more critically famous movies of the 21st century.
And the question becomes: why?
Well, hell if I know.
Because that's the feeling you get when you're watching it, no doubt (as I was) noting the differences in how Naomi Watts presents herself. How she goes from a sunshine/happiness version of the good girl gone west to catch her dream, into something far more odious as Lynch's madness takes over. He could be a horror director, because everything eventually unwinds and the viewer is left literally with pieces, attempting to piece them together. Can you think of anything more cruel than being denied understanding to something so fascinating?
Yet it's a hell of a ride.
The movie opens to a car crash, a beautiful woman (Laura Elena Harring) stumbles out of the wreckage and teeters towards the city underneath her. She seems terrified and finds that her memory has disappeared. Then she bumps into Betty (Watts) who is staying at her aunt's place and pursuing her dreams of becoming and actress. Those dreams may become a little sidetracked as the movie plows, steadily and very controlled, towards a conclusion no one can predict because, let's face it, exactly what the hell happens in the movie?
Maybe I shouldn't try to summarize the plot, because that seems like an exercise in futility. The film is dark, haunting, even hypnotic the way it takes you, with our lead heroines, to a place of mental exhaustion trying to linearly and logically explain everything.
The problem is that "Mulholland Dr.", even as the unfulfilling and complex mess that it is, could work better as a TV series, or a longer movie. There are certain story lines that are brought up and discarded only to be briefly mentioned at the end when it seems like time is running short and an ending must be forced.
With all that, like, you should definitely watch this movie. If only to understand what the fuss is about. I'm sure there are many great college essays waiting to be written on it, or maybe they already have been.

Score: ★★★½