Monday, February 20, 2012

2012 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts

It's not easy to get a look at Oscar nominated shorts before the awards are handed out. Fortunately, SIFF and Landmark Theaters here in Seattle have been playing most of the documentaries, live action, and animated candidates this past week.

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement

USA, 2/5

An 85 year old black barber recounts cutting Martin Luther King Jr.'s hair. James Armstrong was one of the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, and probably more excited to see Obama elected president than Barack's own mother. An important message about overlooked activists and the long road to a black presidency.

Saving Face

Pakistan/USA, 4/5

A London doctor returns to his home country of Pakistan to surgically reconstruct women's burned and disfigured faces. It's not uncommon for men to throw battery acid on their wives. Meanwhile back in parliament, the congress debates passage of a bill to punish instigators of these crimes with life imprisonment.

Incident in New Baghdad

USA, 3/5

In July of 2007, U.S. attack helicopters shot at and killed a group of Iraqi insurgents. Among the collateral damage were civilians including two journalists from Reuters and some children. Army Specialist Ethan McCord was patrolling on foot that day and one of the first people to reach the aftermath.

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

Japan/USA, 4/5

Humans seem to find comfort and strength in the longevity and resilience of plants. Even after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, devastating tsunami, and nuclear disaster, the Japanese people are a very composed lot. The thousand year old cherry tree and 16th generation caretaker round this film out with a sense of continuity and hope.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The decades long cold war between western and communist worlds was in its waning years. For those of us lucky enough to grow up during that time period, it wasn't just a chapter from a history book. There was the occasional nuclear attack drill, or television movie about dying from radioactive fallout. Aside from the odd coup or miscalculated invasion, this conflict wasn't fought by air or by sea but from behind the locked doors of agencies like the CIA and the Circus.

The year is 1973 and British intelligence has fallen from American favor. After the botched defection of a Czech Army general in Budapest and capture of the operation's MI-6 agent, it's becoming increasingly clear that there's a leak at the highest levels of the Circus. The two men least likely to be double agents, Circus chief 'Control' (John Hurt) and George Smiley (Gary Oldman), are forced to resign over the debacle. Timing could not be worse though. Some of the officers who Control suspects as possible moles are about to begin feeding Langley secrets obtained from a communist informant known as "Witchcraft", an intelligence source that neither Control nor Smiley believe is reliable, but who some at the Circus think will foster a better relationship with the CIA. You would think that a room full of spooks would recognize when something's too good to be true.

Mr. Smiley isn't quite ready for retirement though, so the devout civil servant picks up where his boss and old friend Control left off. The aged master spy sets off to uncover his agency's mole, one of four men he's served with for a very long time. Sometimes casting gives away the identity of a cloaked villain, but not in this case. My suspicions of the mole's identity did prove correct, but only because said actor was afforded more on-screen time than the other suspects. What impresses me most about Gary Oldman (as well as other actors in this film) is his ability to act a scene with little or no dialogue, yet say volumes.

Clandestine terminology is part of what gives espionage stories their charm, but if you're not familiar with John le Carré's 1974 British spy novel, you might want to skim over the Circus Guide at some point. 'Circus' is the in-house name of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and refers to the location of its headquarters at Cambridge Circus, London. On the other hand, Ferrets, Housekeepers, Debs, Scalphunters, Coat Trailers, Shoemakers, Wranglers, Lamplighters and Cousins are all words you'll need to look up on your own, if I tell you I'll have to kill you.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: AMC Pacific Place
Country: France, UK, Germany
Language: English, Russian, Hungarian, French
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Rating: 4/5

Official Site
IMDB