Monthly Archives: September 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: something’s rotten in the state of bakelite

It’s a risky enterprise, condensing as knotty a book as John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy down into a two hour film, particularly given the existence of the universally admired BBC adaptation from thirty years ago, in which Alec Guinness made an indelible impression as the urbane intelligence agent George Smiley, but Tomas Alfredson’s new version would appear on first viewing to be a minor miracle: it’s uncompromisingly intelligent, confident in its use of the elisions and flashbacks necessary to compress the material into the required time-frame, startlingly convincing in its recreation of its drab 1970s setting and best of all quiet, measured and restrained for most of its running time. Don’t turn up to this spy film expecting Bond or Bourne style action sequences, chases and adrenaline-pumping fights – many of the scenes here involve shabby-looking men discussing arcane points of intelligence protocol in brown rooms while sipping on unappetising looking cups of tea. The technology on display is decidedly unflashy, and is mainly fashioned from bakelite, and James Bond wouldn’t be seen dead in some of the pootling little cars these agents use to get about in. Nevertheless, if you’re prepared to pay attention this is in places as gripping a thriller as I’ve seen in a long time.

I’m not sure I’m up to the job of precising Le Carré’s labyrinthine plot, but in very general terms Tinker Tailor is about the attempts by George Smiley to uncover a mole who has been compromising British security by feeding intelligence to the Russians. The spymaster Control (John Hurt, whose haggard features and booze-addled cunning fit the scenario a treat) has narrowed the identity of the double agent down to one of five men at the highest level of the security services, and Smiley is unofficially brought out of retirement to catch the mole. Gary Oldman gets what might be seen as the futile task of following Alec Guinness in the part of Smiley, but it must be said that he’s pretty successful, largely because he’s able to exploit the reined-in and ever calculating nature of the character. I swear Oldman doesn’t actually utter more than half a dozen lines of dialogue in the whole first half of the film, but you feel his presence throughout and when he starts making his moves his controlled and decisive acts of bravery ring true. Smiley’s far from an emotionless automaton however, and we see just enough of his backstory and personal failures to be able to generate considerable empathy with him.

This unusually subtle and considered characterisation also extends to the many supporting roles in the film. Nobody here comes off as a cartoon or a cliché, and while there are occasional verbal and physical outbursts they’re always earned and laid-in carefully. The cast of this film is actually pretty extraordinary – Colin Firth can presumably pick any part he wants these days, but here he settles for a smallish role as the caddish Bill Hayden, and you also get top turns from Toby Jones, Tom Hardy and Kathy Burke. Other than Oldman, the two actors that really stand out for me are Benedict Cumberbatch as the nervy Peter Guillam (the scene where he’s sent to retrieve a confidential file is nail-bitingly tense) and Mark Strong as the loyal and fearless Jim Prideaux, who is put through a harrowing ordeal in the line of duty, and comes through it with dignity and humanity intact.

Tinker Tailor will probably be in line for a whole bunch of awards come the new year, and will probably deserve to snag a few. This is the kind of thoughtful, complex thriller they used to make in the 70s and it’s bound to repay repeat viewings with interest. Go and see it, but don’t be munching your popcorn too loudly.

Late September: darkest days

Here’s a demonstration of how it’s perfectly possible to create an enthralling and resonant drama on a microscopic budget, provided your cast and crew are sufficiently talented and dedicated. Late September, directed by Jon Sanders, is a small-scale piece taking place over the birthday weekend of 65 year old Ken, played by Richard Vanstone. Ken and his wife of 30 years Gillian (Anna Mottram) have invited a few guests over to their delightful old house (the film doesn’t specify the location, but it feels pretty rural and we get to see a lake), but it seems that it’s not going to be enough to save their failing marriage – Gillian is uptight, needy and controlling and constantly provoking the rage of her otherwise docile and avuncular husband. All the party guests seem to have brought their own issues to the gathering as well, and unresolved resentments are constantly threatening to derail the celebrations. A particular catalyst for stirring up raw emotions is Ken’s old friend Jim (a brilliant turn by Bob Goody), whose insouciant charm masks deep wells of discontent.

The subject matter, setting and improvised dialogue of Late September immediately bring to mind the films of Mike Leigh, but the comparison is maybe not as snug as it may appear on the surface. Leigh’s films are not short on raw moments of revelation and venting of repressed emotion but there’s usually something there to keep you slightly at arm’s length, whether it’s the slightly cartoonish and exaggerated characters that sometimes crop up or the music cues that remind you that you’re watching a carefully assembled entertainment. Sanders simply didn’t have the money available to apply any emoliating varnish to his film (one estimate I’ve seen of the budget for this film is £15,000, which would barely pay for Tom Cruise’s bottled water on your average blockbuster), and it’s all the better for it: it’s shot in what looks like untreated digital video, with a minimum of cutting and distracting camera moves and this suits the character’s various emotional states just fine. I should also say that despite the general permeating air of melancholy the film does contain several highly amusing moments (it’s a comedy of manners as much as it’s anything) and one really very beautiful sequence involving a puppeteer and a pianist. Well worth seeking out.

Above Us Only Sky: grief encounter

A woman’s struggle to cope with the aftermath of a tragedy and the associated secrets that start to come into the open form the basis of Above Us Only Sky, directed and written by Jan Schomburg. Sandra Hüller plays Martha, the wife of a successful academic who has just been awarded a placement in a distant city, and their life together seems on the surface to be untroubled and rewarding. One day however Martha receives an unexpected visit from the police and her comfortable existence is turned upside down. After a testing period punctuated by some traumatic revelations she attempts to rebuild her connections with the world by forging a perumptory new relationship, but the chances of this leading to happiness and stability don’t appear to be too great.

Above Us Only Sky is shot in a chiefly naturalistic style, though there are a few directorial flourishes apparent, both in the dreamy, gauze-like filtering effect that’s occasionally used and in the manipulation of the soundtrack, which often drops away at key moments, to be replaced by a haunting score. The first half of the film is highly effective at conveying the sudden and complete dislocation that the main character is put through, but personally I found that the later sections dealing with the new character Alexander considerably less compelling (though to be fair, this may be because I found myself taking violent exception to the actor’s facial hair. I am nothing if not objective) and I ended up with my considerable sympathy for Martha pretty much dissipated. This may well have been the director’s intention, but it felt like a real letdown. Still, the film is undoubtedly well-made, and very affecting for much of its running time. There are certainly worse ways I can imagine of spending 88 minutes.

Trollhunter: something stirs deep in the woods

There have been quite a few faux-documentary horror films coming down the river since The Blair Witch Project emerged in 1999 to terrify some punters and annoy others with its cinema verité handheld camera work, non-professional actors and improvised dialogue. My favourite in this sub-genre remains J.J.Abrams’ New York-crunching Cloverfield, but Trollhunter, directed and co-written by André Øvredal, is a very worthy entry in the field.

Trollhunter is purportedly assembled from found footage shot by a hapless and naive camera crew who become interested in a mysterious ranger who seems to be involved in a series of inexplicable bear killings in a remote part of Norway. They start to follow him in the hope of bagging an exclusive, and eventually find themselves on the trail of something rather more exotic and dangerous than a bear. The film evolves into a series of setpiece encounters with massive, and rather impressively rendered, folktale inspired monsters and if you came here for panicked running around and a rough shaky motion-sickness inducing camera style then you’re not going to be disappointed.

The film stands out from its antecedents mainly through its dour, deadpan humour which remains present even during its occasional moments of high tension. The trollhunter of the title turns out to be a reasonable man who’s become jaded through the unreasonable demands put on him by a shady government department, and one of the nice touches here is the inclusion of scenes showing him wearily filling in standard issue troll-slaying forms. The film is never really that scary (although the sequence in the wood leading up to the first troll sighting is pretty suspenseful) and it’s probably more successful as a cult comedy than as a horror movie. If anything, the trolls are too well-realised and used too frequently – one has a suspicion that the film would be more effective if the director had reined it in and relied more on sound effects and secondary evidence of the creatures. Still, it holds one’s attention throughout and stays true to its conceit and some of the Norwegian scenery is stunning.

Tomboy: girls will be boys

Céline Sciamma’s new film Tomboy presents a potentially queasy situation with sensitivity and taste. A family moves into an apartment in the suburbs of Paris during the Summer holidays and the two children are given a chance to acclimatise themselves and get to know their surroundings and neighbours. The older child, who is about ten, quickly falls in with the local kids and establishes an identity as Mikhael, an up-for-it lad who’s always willing to join in with the rough and tumble and even embark on a tentative relationship with a girl called Lisa, who lives nearby. It is however not too much of a spoiler given the title of the film to say that Mikhael is revealed by the director fairly early on to actually be a girl called Laure, whose short haircut and masculine choice of clothes strikes a sharp contrast with her conventionally feminine younger sister Jeanne. The fallout from Mikhael’s decision to invent a persona forms the central drama of the piece.

This is a sparely made, reined-in and unflashy film that allows its characters to breathe and unfolds its scenario with the minimum of contrived conflict and histrionics. The young actress Zoé Héran is incredibly effective in the lead role, a very challenging assignment given that she’s on screen for pretty much the whole of the 84 minute running time – she’s rarely required to be overtly demonstrative, but you can see the character watching and thinking and making decisions that are not articulated via dialogue. She’s entirely convincing as a young boy, and you can really buy into the whole neighbourhood being fooled. The film is an excellent depiction of the games and rituals of children – it’s actually all very sweet and innocent, which throws Mikhael’s deception into sharper relief than had there been any sinister or deviant undercurrents. A very well-observed and gracefully assembled film that neatly avoids many possible pitfalls and deserves to be shown widely.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: don’t underestimate the primate

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an above-average special effects driven blockbuster that’s a considerably more successful attempt to re-boot this venerated franchise than Tim Burton’s bizarrely terrible effort from a decade ago. As the title suggests this is an origins story, and it’s interesting and well-made enough to more than compensate for one or two unconvincing plot conveniences and generally clunky and functional dialogue.

James Franco takes the nominal lead role as a young and passionate geneticist who’s on the verge of trialling a breakthrough Alzheimer’s treatment after some startling results on laboratory chimpanzees. He has a personal stake: his father is succumbing to the condition. Unfortunate circumstances mean that his research is suddenly curtailed, but at the same time he becomes custodian to a new-born chimp who has been exposed to the drug via its mother and subsequently develops human levels of reasoning, and a close bond is formed between scientist and animal. As you might expect however the path to a possible new relationship between species becomes blocked by a number of capricious twists of fate, and the ape’s destiny starts to look darker.

Franco does alright with his role, although he seems too, well, handsome, to be convincing as a white-coat, but like the other human beings in the film, he’s ultimately fairly irrelevant. The real star of the show is the computer generated ape Caesar, a remarkable creation whose facial expressions convey all manner of states of mind, both subtle and strident. He’s the best CGI character I’ve seen since Gollum from The Lord of the Rings movies, and it’s probably not a coincidence that the movements driving the animation of both were supplied by the same actor, the insanely dedicated Andy Serkis. Caesar is far from the only computer-generated attraction here – there are literally dozens of apes of various types in this film, all carefully rendered to be distinguishable and given individual physical traits and body language. The integration with the real life environments is pretty seamless, but if I was nit-picking I’d say that everything seemed a bit hyper-real and pin-sharp. I’m looking forward to the day they can drop some CGI into Super 8 footage and make it seem convincing.

Even so, impressive visual effects are ten-a-penny in movies these days. What makes Rise stand out are the underlying ideas it presents about the consequences of societies mistreating their weaker members and its care in establishing its scenario and not forcing the pace. The events in this film could easily have been telescoped into the first act of a more overtly spectacular and less thoughtful production, with the balance of the running time taken up with tedious chases and battles and unbelievable and overwrought extensions to the basic premise. Here, things move slowly and deliberately enough that when you get to a key turning points you really buy into them. The setpiece finale action sequence is earned, genuinely thrilling and not over-extended, and for once one’s left a bit shocked and wanting more when the screen fades to black and the director’s credit comes up. That’s got to be a good thing, no? Rise also contains a couple of witty nods to the original Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes film and leaves itself poised for a sequel, which I’d certainly be interested in. Not at all bad.