The Morning After: Dec. 5, 2011

Welcome to The Morning After, where I share with you what I’ve seen over the past week either in film or television. On the film side, if I have written a full length review already, I will post a link to that review. Otherwise, I’ll give a brief snippet of my thoughts on the film with a full review to follow at some point later. For television shows, seasons and what not, I’ll post individual comments here about each of them as I see fit.

So, here is what I watched this past week:

Martha Marcy May Marlene


There’s something completely unsettling about Martha Marcy May Marleneb. Long silences and frightening mental collapses leave the audience attempting to grasp reality along with its lead actor. Elizabeth Olsen stars as Martha, Marcy May and Marlene, a fractured woman who seeks wholeness and discovers a cult compound where she learns to embrace the simple, uncomplicated life dictated by patriarch Patrick (John Hawkes).

The mental control takes time and as Martha becomes Marcy May, the collective’s new identity for her, she begins to cherish the closeness and familiarity this new life leads. She has no independence, yet believe she is entirely free. Much of her time with the cult is revealed through flashback as we are given clues to how the transformation began. She has returned to her sister who has missed her terribly. There she bunks in with Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her fiancé Ted (Hugh Dancy). Lucy suspects something strange happened to her sister, but as her bizarre behavior, including swimming nude in the lake, assisting with house chores when not asked and invading the bedroom of the happy couple, lead her to believe something more diabolical as at work. Although she never discovers the cult association, it doesn’t stop her from trying to reach her sister in a way that brings her back from the bring of what ever psychological issue has plagued her.

Olsen’s performance is stunning. She has very few lines of dialogue in the film, conveying most of her angst, frustration, fear and joy through complex facial expressions. It’s subtle work that more experienced actors have yet to master. Hawkes isn’t exactly an attractive man, yet his charisma is perfectly attuned to convincing Marcy May that not only does she belong but that he is the father figure she never had. Paulson is satisfying in her performance while Dancy gives a fine turn. Sean Durkin’s debut film has the strength of an independent film without falling into the same, predictable relationship mold so often employed by financially strapped directors. Martha Marcy May Marlene could have used any number of gimmicky narrative devices to control its audience, but he opts for simple grace and a frighteningly complex story that makes you question whether Martha will ever be able to fully relinquish the control under which she has been placed.

A terrified young woman, attempting to find safety while not losing the emotional bond she had with her extended “family”. I haven’t seen a lot of films that deal with the dangerous methodology of cults, but this film does a superb job exploring the psychological damage inflicted on innocent men and women. The film could probably have used some tighter editing as it feels a bit lengthy even if the uncomfortable silences add tension.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


Cold War thrillers most often come wrapped in intense violence or vast amounts of action. The James Bond films have put into the minds of viewers that to tell a good spy yarn, you need lots of hot women, lots of fun action and a devil may care lead. Even modern spy films have followed similar trajectories like the Jason Bourne films. But sometimes, a subtle, evenly paced film about dangerous endeavors in dangerous times is more rewarding than unnecessary explosions going off every fifteen minutes.

Based on the popular John le Carré novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy stars Gary Oldman as an aging secret agent forced into early retirement when his mentor Control (John Hurt) is pushed out. It all surrounds a suspicious new spy plan concocted by a band of four lead spy masters, one of whom is a double agent. Brought in to investigate after the sudden death of Control, Oldman’s George Smiley begins unraveling the complex plot involving the Soviets, Hungarians and Americans, each trying to uncover secrets the others hold.

Oldman’s performance is the very definition of subtle. While I’ve preferred him in many of his other great roles, here he’s in a different class than almost anyone else in the film. Smiley’s not ready to retire and being forced to swim in a large pool, sit on park benches and wile the time anyway he can, leaves him frustrated and bored. Oldman takes these moments and convinces the audience that he may not survive the lack of activity. When he’s presented with the chance to unravel a case that even he was a suspect in, his eyes light up a little and his brain begins working. The cast is impeccable and were it not for John Hurt’s wonderful, but short-lived performance, I would be hard-pressed to put a finger on who did best. Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, David Dencik and Ciaran Hinds are all fascinating with the less stellar, but not embarrassing Mark Strong and Colin Firth backing them up.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy isn’t a quick paced film, getting to the end takes a great deal of time and the journey is filled with long bouts of silence, contemplative moments and an assured pacing that could only be delivered in the hands of Swedish auteur Tomas Alfredson whose brilliant Let the Right One In took the same care with its subject. He doesn’t mind a long shot with virtually no dialogue, which only strengthens the few moments we’re treated to it.

Beginners


This unassuming relationship drama has a lot in common with (500) Days of Summer in that our handsome protagonist, in this case played by Ewan McGregor. The film follows his reminiscences about the origin of sadness, influenced heavily by two events which have scarred him emotionally. The first is the death of his recently outed father played by the delightful Christopher Plummer and the collapse of his relationship with the perfect woman played by Mélanie Laurent.

The film has conventional elements to it, but the fractured narrative structure lends it a bit of weight. In the beginning, it’s hard to figure out which timeline you’re witnessing, but after it gets going, the constant flashes back to a handful of points in McGregor’s personal history become as natural as breathing. McGregor’s narration is a fascinating plot device that keeps the film fresh even when it seems overly fond of itself. And unlike a lot of such techniques, this one flows through the entire film, something that helped (500) Days of Summer excel.

While we are enamored with the beautiful relationship between McGregor and Laurent and the friendship between McGregor and his best friend (Kai Lennox), there is a fascinating interplay between a young Oliver (McGregor’s character) and his mother (Mary Page Keller). Yet, it’s when Oliver and his father are interacting as he struggles with a terminal form of cancer form the anchor of the film. A defiant Plummer shows what we’ve always appreciated about his effortless style. The rest of the cast may not be up to Plummer’s estimable standards, they are a fine ensemble with Keller the secondary stand out.

The Muppets


It’s too often true that nostalgia is best left in the past. Although The Muppets has a lot of great nostalgic moments in it, gone are the days of Jim Henson’s Muppets. The film focuses on the attempts of three small town folk, one a puppet, who arrive in Los Angeles to celebrate the human couple’s (Jason Segal and Amy Adams) 10 year anniversary. On a tour of the dilapidated Muppets Studio, puppet Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) overhears the plot of a wealthy Texas oil man (Chris Cooper) waiting for the deed on the Muppet Studios lot to revert to his control so he can bulldoze the place and dig for oil.

The Muppets, having not performed together in years, are brought back together to perform a benefit concert that will raise the $10 million that will save the theater and revive their forgotten careers. Peppered with a suitable number of musical productions, the film doesn’t create any new classic songs, yet it does bring back one of my personal favorite, a event in the film which brought me to tears…I’m not ashamed of them, but it did remind me of how sloppy the rest of the film seemed. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of joy in a movie like this, but if you’ve seen any of the original films, it’s hard not to find some measure of disappointment in this reboot.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the film is that the legendary Frank Oz, who provided several voices in the original, including Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Animal. Why, if he’s still active as a voice actor, did they not bring him back for this movie. Listening to Fozzie and Miss Piggy along with the frequently off-sounding Kermit the Frog, nostalgia begins turning rusty as those old voices are still ingrained in my mind and listening to new actors in the voices creates a bit of sadness. And don’t get me started on the ultimately lame selection of guest stars who pop in on the film. With the exception of Mickey Rooney, most of them eschew the glamour of the original television show on which a lot of this film was based.

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