This adaptation of John Le Carre’s espionage novel is one of my favorite films from last year and one of the few I actually want to watch again. (There are not that many. 2011 was such a meh year for movies.) Director Tomas Alfredson and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema have made an exceptionally well-crafted film. And then there is Gary Oldman; his performance as George Smiley is quietly powerful and those are the best kind of performances. These are a few thoughts about what stood out to me about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the second time around.
I watched The Town last night. It was the first time I watched this Ben Affleck-directed crime film since I saw it in theaters last October and my thoughts are essentially the same. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote at the time:
What The Town demonstrates is Affleck’s exceptional ability as a director to tackle large-scale productions such as this. Affleck could not have executed the brilliantly crafted chase sequence set in Boston’s congested North End more perfectly. But one good chase sequence that has you jumping in your seat explosion after explosion cannot and does make a movie.
I don’t know or how but I also apparently enjoyed Blake Lively’s performance back then. Go figure. (To be fair, my hatred against Lively has only grown in the last year.)
When a film you did not particularly enjoy wins a critics award, it dredges up a series of thoughts and questions. This happened to me when Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno received the National Society of Film Critics Award for best actress. Mezzogiorno was rewarded for her portrayal of Ida Dalser, Benito Mussolini’s alleged first wife, in Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere. I saw most of Vincere at the Cannes Film Festival and from what I remembered, it was not my favorite film.
Vincere, however, is another story. I walked out after an hour and a half. The biopic tells the story of Mussolini’s first wife, Ida Dalser, played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno. Dalser married Mussolini in 1914 but the Italian dictator denied their marriage. She spent much of her life confined in asylums. The film does not do this compelling story justice. It is poorly constructed with too much emphasis on found footage. It does not concretely establish the foundation of the relationship, making Ida an unsympathetic character. All in all, not worth the 30 minute wait in the rush line.
I admit that I didn’t give Vincere a fair chance. Of course I have many excuses for why I walked out. It was the middle of the festival and I was exhausted. I had just seen Pedro Almodovar’s Los Abrazos Rotos that morning… and I was exhausted. I had to be at my internship at 1 p.m. and the movie started at around 11:30. After the wait in the rush line and a first hour that I found less than enjoyable, leaving early made sense.
Then I forgot about Vincere. It barely made a dent in my memories of Cannes.
After learning that Mezzogiorno was named the best actress over favorites like Natalie Portman and Annette Bening, I realized that maybe I should give Vincere my full attention.
After watching Vincere in its entirety, some of my opinions are the same. It is a compelling story but the interpretation was scattered. The found footage can be jarring and off-putting. Ida Dalser is a character who teeters on the edge of sympathetic, crazy, and irritating.
What struck me more profoundly is how Vincere is all about seduction. The opening sequence is of Mussolini, played by Filippo Timi, delivering an emphatic challenge to God to strike him down if God does exist. In the audience is Ida Dalser watching Mussolini with a piercing stare as she becomes seduced by his charisma, energy, and rhetoric. This is followed by the first use of found footage and Carlo Crivelli’s operatic score. The word, Vincere, is flashed over phallic imagery of smokestacks that can easily be interpreted as weaponry. The footage segues into images of industry, trains, cathedrals, and fashion models – images that are representative of Milan. The found footage and newsreels provides the historical context for Mussolini’s rise to power and it shows how Mussolini seduced the Italian people. It is fascinating how Mussolini’s sexual seduction of Dalser is equated with his rise to political power.
Dalser holds no power over Mussolini, yet he controls every aspect of her life. Mezzogiorno’s performance as this scorned woman resigned to living in asylums takes center stage. I’m still not crazy about Vincere but it is Mezzogiorno’s mesmerizing performance that carries this film.
“Vincere” means “to win” which is an ironic title because no one – not Dalser, the Italians, and certainly not Mussolini – wins at the film’s conclusion. Except, maybe, the audience. I see that now.
Some movies should be seen twice. With Black Swan, which I saw for the second time last night, not seeing just the plot, the shocking moments, or even having the “Hey, Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman are having sex” moment enriches the viewing experience. The second time around it is more captivating, frightening, and even more poignant.
Briefly, here is what struck me as more profound after the second viewing.
Nina’s development from a childlike and naive character to a self-aware woman with a freedom of expression is wondrous. The color scheme – white, pink, gray, black – used in her bedroom, her attire and how it transforms is a symbolic development in her character. This monochromatic color scheme is also why the use of red – Beth’s lipstick, blood, and the overwhelming saturation of red in the club scene – stands out.
The costuming in Black Swan is conceptually wonderful and drenched in symbolism. How feathers and other dance costumes are carried out into the real world. When Nina wears pink, when she wears black. It all matters.
Much of Natalie Portman’s performance revolves around the physical performance – her expressions and dancing – and not her dialogue. In the film’s first moments, Nina has little spoken dialogue. She says a few meek sentences to her mother, the other dancers. She’s soft-spoken, trapped, and controlled. When Nina meets with Thomas in his office, this is the first instance in the film when she has significant dialogue and the ability to assert herself. Her conversation with Thomas is strained. She doesn’t know how to fight for what she wants and she only gets it when forced.
Barbara Hershey’s Erica clearly struggles with manic depression and other mental illnesses. I didn’t know how to process this character after the first viewing as anything other than mentally ill. Yet there is genius behind Hershey’s performance. This is a woman who never had the career that Nina has and she has molded her daughter into the dancer she dreamed of being. There is also something to be said about Erica in comparison to Ellen Burstyn’s Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream.
Throughout the film, Lily and Nina discuss Thomas’ expression “My Little Princess” that he uses to show affection for Beth. Is it sweet? Is it creepy? Nina has no problem with it. Because her mother already has a pet name for her, “my sweet girl”. Of these two expressions, her mother’s is creepy, even frightening.
The best shot of the entire film occurs after Nina and Lily return to the apartment after their night out. Standing side by side, their images are joined and split by a mirror. In a movie all about doubling, reflections, and split personalities, this shot encompasses the entire film’s artistic conception perfectly.
After Nina performs as the Black Swan in the finale, she stands off stage. Her breathing, a motif throughout the film, is harder and louder than ever. In a way, she is essentially having an orgasm and it is not like the orgasm she experienced during her romp with Lily. It’s more real and passionate because it comes after Nina gets what she wants most: a perfect performance.
Through its heavy symbolism and cinematography, I found Black Swan to overwhelmingly driving at one idea. (It’s more noticeable the second time.) Everyone is controlled by two sides: the innocent and the dark. Only some people are recognize that. The realization leads to sexual satisfaction, even personal happiness.
I saw Milk for the second time tonight and it is much better the second time around.
I’ll be the first person to admit that when a movie is receiving Oscar buzz, I almost always have to see it twice. After the first viewing, I’m iffy about the film – I like it and can see why others think it’s great but I’m just not as likely to jump on the Slumdog Millionaire party express. A second viewing really enables me to put aside everything I’ve heard and just watch. This is exactly what I had to do with Milk.
While I noted the use of archival footage to tell Milk’s story, it did not stand out to me as an exceptional element of the film. Now I see that the archival footage is a crucial part of the story because it tells the history of both San Francisco and the gay rights in a way that just Harvey Milk’s story could not.
James Franco’s performance as Milk’s supportive but unhappy partner stands out more than Josh Brolin’s destructive villian.
I finally understand why Milkhas received so much buzz. Visually, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is stunning but it does not have same passion and insight as Milk. With the Oscar nominations being announced in just THREE days, I certainly hope this fantastic movie fares better with the Academy voters than it did with the HFPA.