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On Movies: 'The Artist' is a gift; 'Tinker Tailor' is an intricate maze

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 22, 2011 - One of the best movies of the year -- a virtual sure thing for an Oscar nomination as best picture -- is a silent French movie whose most memorable performer is a dog. I've been reviewing movies, off and on, for about 30 years, and I never imagined writing anything remotely resembling that sentence. "The Artist" is a wonderful surprise, a gimmick -- a silent film about silent films -- turned into something approaching art.

"The Artist" is set in Hollywood in the late 1920s and early 1930s, as the silent era was coming to an close, displaced by a new technology: sound. An aging silent-era matinee idol named George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) scoffs at so-called talkies and continues to play the flamboyant action hero in silent melodramas that nobody goes to see.

His cigar-chomping producer (John Goodman) gives up on him, and Valentin tries producing silent films with his own money. Within a few years, he's a washed up, broke, divorced alcoholic, living in a shabby apartment with his loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell) and his smart, acrobatic Jack Russell terrier. (The breed is iconic to that period in entertainment because the trademark of RCA Victor was a Jack Russell listening to a gramophone. This is one of many clever visual touches that add humorous verisimilitude to the film.)

Meanwhile, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a vivacious ingenue who was discovered by Valentin and adores him, is becoming a star. As Valentin sinks further and further into obscurity, poverty, despair and drink, Peppy rises higher and higher in Hollywood fame and fortune. She tries to help him, but is rejected. After Valentin fires the chauffeur, whom he can't afford to pay, his only friend is the dog.

The story unfolds without a word being heard. Much of the action speaks for itself, although crucial bits of dialogue appear in subtitles. Director Michael Hazanavicius beautifully captures the feel of the silent era, using old-fashioned movie devices like iris shots and wipes as well as marvelous piano and orchestral music of the period, and he is not afraid of melodrama -- "the grammar of the movie is to play with cliches, and the cliches protect each other," he told the New Yorker.

In other words, once we surrender to the notion that we are watching a silent film -- it took me about 10 minutes -- we are willing to accept the formulas of the silent era. Thus it is not so much predictable as inevitable that the dog Uggie will save Valentin's life, or that the chauffeur will reappear at important moments as a kind of guardian angel. Although the movie takes the form of a typical riches-to-rags melodrama of the 1920s, to modern audiences it is also a comedy. Within that context, the acting is not so much over-dramatic as dance-like, every move imbued with grace and meaning that make words superfluous.

"The Artist" is beautifully put together, filmed in old Hollywood neighborhoods and on venerable Hollywood sound stages. The cast is wonderful, particular Goodman and the two French stars Bejo and Dujardin (who are wife and husband). They all seem to be having a lot of fun pretending to be their peers from the distant cinematic past, and that sense of fun is communicated to the audience in full measure. And the rousing musical ending is worth cheering about. Don't miss "The Artist."

Opens Friday Dec. 23

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

There is nothing flashy or glamorous about the peerless spy novels of John le Carre, particularly the relatively early ones like "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" that featured the dour, pudgy, middle-age, ironically named George Smiley. Smiley's world of espionage is a sometimes dangerous but essentially drab place, rife with petty jealousies and minor sins, a world dominated more by fearful bureaucrats and dutiful file clerks than by fashionably dressed secret agents who slip like ghosts across borders and into bedrooms.

George Smiley is the anti-007. He's a decent, honorable man in a world where the definitions of decency and honor can very much depend upon individual point of view.

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In"), making his English-language debut with the new movie version of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," remains true to le Carre and his vision of Smiley while telling a very complex story methodically and well.

The main protagonist, Smiley, is played with such glum understatement that at first you can't believe the actor is Gary Oldman, who heretofore never saw a piece of scenery he couldn't chew to smithereens. This may be the best performance of his career, and surely it's the most controlled.

The film is set in the early 1970s, the height of the Cold War, and there's a mole in the upper echelons of British Intelligence, someone who is spilling a lot of valuable secrets to the Soviet Union. Word comes into "the Circus" -- London spy headquarters -- that a certain Hungarian general might be ready to defect and reveal the identity of the mole. A young agent is dispatched to Budapest, but it's a setup; the assignment is blown, and terrible things happen to the agent. As a result, Smiley's boss, "Control" (John Hurt), is shoved into retirement, taking his man Smiley down with him.

Somewhat later, internal politics have shifted, secrets are still being passed on to the Soviets, the Americans are becoming wary of sharing with the Brits, Control is dead, and Smiley is called back from retirement to lead the search for the mole. He narrows his suspicions down to four top espionage officials, all played by fine British actors -- Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik.

Smiley devises an intricate, multi-faceted scheme to trick the mole into revealing himself. Meanwhile, his personal life is falling apart because of a personal betrayal that is not unconnected to the betrayal of country that he is investigating. Smiley perseveres; he's an ordinary man, but also an extraordinary one.

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a good, solid movie that features some fine performances, particularly by Oldman. Visually, it's all grays and browns and claustrophobic windowless rooms, and if you're looking for lots of action, for Tom Cruise leaping off tall buildings or Angelina Jolie kickboxing her way across Europe, you won't find it here. What you will find is something that looks convincingly like real Cold War espionage.

Caution: The film is very well assembled, with lots of trips down blind alleys on the way to finding the mole. But you have to pay attention, or you could get lost.

Opens Friday Dec. 23

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon. 

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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