Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy  is one of those films that comes along every few years and makes you question the majority of films you watch.

To sit through two hours of this highly detailed, intelligent and rewarding thriller only serves to highlight the dumbing down of 95% of the films out there. You won’t find any simple exposition monologues to get you through the narrative, but if you are watching carefully, you’ll find it’s not nearly as complicated as people have made out. It simply asks you to pay attention, which is a refreshing change from Ten-Things-That-Will-Make-You-Lose-A-Guy- If-He’s-Not-That- In-To-You.

You won’t get a Bourne car chase or any romantic trysts (though some may be implied) but you’ll get a leather briefcase full of intense drama and the complicated machinations of a host of fascinating characters, which leads you inexorably to an ending you might know is coming, but will keep you on the edge of your seat regardless. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s without doubt the best le Carre adaptation to date and in terms of directorial skill, Tomas Alfredson has even surpassed his incredible work on Let The Right One In.

Tinker is the story of 1970’s spymasters- all paranoid, all uncertain; all convinced there is a mole within their tight-knit group of Oxbridge educated paunches. John Hurt, who plays Control, the head of this group of spies, is convinced there is a mole in his ranks, and so sets in motion a series of events that lead to increased paranoia, double crossing, doubt, violence, and, ultimately, revelation. And while this is an ensemble cast, it’s success rests on the shoulders of our national treasure, Gary Oldman, who plays George Smiley, Control’s right hand man. It is his quiet intelligence which draws you in to the film. With a movement of his eyes or a touch of his glasses, he suggests so much that he almost needn’t talk at all. But when he does, you know it will be authoritative and insightful and will spur the plot forward. Smiley, with his right hand man, Guillam (an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch) sets out to get to the bottom of the rumours and determine if there really is a mole in ‘The Circus.’

Tomas Alfredson was the perfect choice of director for this film. His cool and fluid camera work fits perfectly with the gritty, beige 1970’s look, with delicate use of close up, intelligent cut-aways and some genius touches that keep some important figures faceless and enigmatic as the film progresses. One speech to camera by Oldman is Oscar worthy, as he recounts his meeting with his nemesis, Karla, (his Russian counterpart) by re-enacting the conversation as though Karla were seated opposite him. It’s an acting masterclass. But it’s a performance you only realise is genius once the film has finished – there are no Christian Bale histrionics scenery chewing here. This is an actor at the very top of his game. The cast of supporting spies is uniformly excellent, each bringing their own shifting eyes and hidden agendas to the roles (Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds).  But Oldman still steals the show. His portrayal of a man beleaguered, tired and lonely, yet with a razor sharp intellect and gentle demeanour is one of the year’s best. It is impossible to tear your eyes from him when he is on screen, as you find yourself looking for a flick of the eyebrow or a twitch that might give away what he is thinking.

It’s riveting, it’s thrilling, its hypnotic. It’s brilliant. You might not get a car chase; you’ll find much of the action comes from a group of middle aged men talking to each other, but your adrenaline levels will be high as any blockbuster.

Fair Game

Doug Liman is responsible for reigniting quite a few careers in Hollywood over the last few years. There’s Go, which helped Timothy Olyphant and William Fichtner reach a wider audience; there was Swingers- launching the careers of Jon Favreaux and Vince Vaughn; and of course there was the Bourne Identity, bringing Matt Damon to the superstar table while at the same time totally re-inventing the Spy thriller genre.

Of course, I’m conveniently ignoring the woeful Mr and Mrs Smith, because every good director has their off day ( Spielberg- 1941, Coppola- Jack, The Rainmaker; De Palma- everything since Scarface) but Liman is an excellent director.  I don’t even have a bad word to say about Jumper- I loved that little sci-fi film, silly as it was.

He always brings excitement, interesting camera work and vitality to his films. The cinema verite style, shot through with a Hollywood budget, has been a winning formula up till now, but this trademark has been diluted by the swathe of neo-Bond movies and a whole host of young directors wanting to cut their teeth on spy/action thrillers.

And while his back catalogue is patchy in parts, his latest film expresses everything that is great about his work.

Fair Game is a well paced, intelligent spy thriller, which looks at the fascinating story of Valerie Plame, the ousted CIA agent who delved too deeply, and too high up, while investigating the origin of WMD’s before the invasion of Iraq.

Liman has crafted a far more adult affair this time round, ignoring the Bourne stylistic tics that are now hackneyed and familiar, instead creating a film more akin to All The President’s Men in tone and sophistication.

Naomi Watts brings integrity and realism to the role of a covert CIA operative who totally convinces as an undercover agent trying to infiltrate middle eastern arms dealers, and as a mother and wife. Sean Penn plays her husband, a consultant who is hired to find evidence of uranium buying in Africa to prove that WMDs exist. When he reports that there is no evidence, the smear campaign begins, ousting Plame, positioning Penn as a traitor and threatening to ruin their marriage and their livelihoods.

The machinations of dodgy White House officials is what is so compelling here – and the film is quick to point out that this wasn’t just a war based on poor information, but the whole debacle was fabricated convincingly enough to persuade the rest of the country it was the right thing to do.  There have been many films lamenting the illegality of the war, but this film does it through real events, based on the recollections of Plame herself, making it all the more compelling.

The film doesn’t wax lyrical about the Bush administration, nor does it aim to witch hunt, but tells a shocking story truthfully, never lingering on the issues but allowing the audience to gradually reach a level of disgust with how the White House operated.

It never loses pace and the two central performances are superb. Watts brings integity, and Penn powerfully portrays a man trying to live up to his ideals, while at the same time, trying to protect his family.

Doug Liman has surpassed the Bourne Identity with this one. Now that the pretenders have aped his style- almost to death- he has had to evolve his spy thriller to great effect, eschewing the car chases for political intrigue. This is Liman all grown up; understated rather than balls-to-the-wall-action. It is the film to watch if you are interested in the WMD debate, certainly. But it’s a riveting spy thriller even if you’re not.

Sit back and enjoy it, and when the credits roll, you’ll be jolted back to reality (you’ll see), wondering how the hell the White House managed to get away with it. It’s the best spy thriller I have seen in years, check out the trailer:

Monsters

There have been so many alien invasion films lately, that I wouldn’t blame you for rolling you’re eyes when I tell you that Monsters is a film about what happens to a country when aliens land and make Earth their home.

But wait.

Monsters, a film directed, produced, edited -and a few other things, by Gareth Edwards is not concerned with big explosions and bloodthirsty aliens. This is a film where the aliens are only glimpsed until the final shot, where the focus of the story isn’t the battle against the aliens, but how life carries on under such extraordinary circumstances.

But above all, it’s a love story, set in some of the most beautiful South American locations. This isn’t Godzilla thankfully, but more a tense and thoughtfully paced, character driven road movie. If you want big bangs and empty thrills, then perhaps you should check out  Battle: Los Angeles or Skyline. This is a film with intelligence to match the stunning locations, two hugely likeable main characters and a narrative that makes the whole scenario seem totally real.

The introduction tells us that a NASA probe went up in to space six years ago, collecting spores from an extra-terrestrial species, before crash-landing in Mexico. For the last six years, the aliens species has been living in the South American jungles, turning the whole country into a quarantine zone. A photographer is tasked by his American magazine employer to take photographs of the devastation, but is then forced by the owner of the magazine to escort his daughter back to safer shores, before she is stuck in the quarantine zone for six months. Thus begins a journey for the two characters, as they witness existence in the face of adversity, communities trying to survive against the odds, and they both come to understand the isolation that ignorance has created.

There is a real political bent to the narrative, akin to the apartheid commentary of District 9; but here it isn’t so on-the-nose. Poverty stricken Mexico has been ravaged, but it is clear that it is not the aliens who are to blame, but paranoid governments (American) intent on protecting their borders. Isolationism is the theme here and Gareth Edwards has some damning things to say about it.

Edwards has crafted a totally unique film. It references some of the classics (Close Encounters, Apocalypse Now) but stands on its own two feet as one of the best sci-fi films made in the last ten years. It’s that good. Edwards is helped immensely by his cast; Whitney Able  as Samantha and Scoot McNairy as Andrew have great chemistry on screen (they are married in real life) and their developing relationship is delicately and patiently developed.

But what makes this film stand out from any other film I’ve seen in a long, long time is the locations and the visuals. I’ve never seen South America portrayed in such a vital, human way, nor with such beautiful photography.  These incredible landscapes serve to highlight the destruction that men have caused in the pursuit of ‘safety’, and underlines the alienation of the two main characters as they try to travel across such unfamiliar territory.

And then we have the aliens themselves. They are totally unique but somehow, familiar. Edwards has done wonders to create these truly amazing visuals with such a limited budget. ($500,000 apparently). When you compare this to the bloated Godzilla Emmerich produced, you wonder what the hell they were doing with their $100 million.

By the end, you’ll be wondering who the real ‘Monsters’ are in this story.  It gives you issues to really think about after the credits roll – and it’s not very often a film about aliens can do that.

This is not a Monster Movie. It’s a road movie. It’s a love story. It’s a love letter to South America. It’s bloody brilliant.

Have a look at Gareth Edward’s first short film, Factory Farmed. It’s amazing.

The Fighter

Before sitting down to watch The Fighter, I’d been having a discussion with a friend about whether Christian Bale is a Great British Thespian Export, or an overrated actor that gets by on scowling and weight loss.

It started because I’ve always had the same problem watching him on screen, ever since American Psycho – I’m always aware that I’m watching Christian Bale, whether he is parading around in latex (Dark Knight), escaping a POW camp (Rescue Dawn), or being confused, aimless and hungry (The Machinist), his acting is so LOUD and INTENSE that I could never get over the Bale-ness of the performance and focus on the character. You can see him acting his chiselled chops off but it always looks so forced.

And for that very reason I was uncertain of what to expect from The Fighter.

The film follows a pretty traditional path in many ways; the local-boy-works-hard-and-fights-his-way-out-of-a-small-town story that is well worn and could easily have been Rocky with Crack (Crocky?), were it not for David O. Russell’s brilliant direction, casting and writing. With films like Spanking the Monkey, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees under his belt, this was probably never going to run the traditional course of a ‘sports movie.’ (Though he is signed up to direct  a video game adaptation, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, so maybe age is mellowing his indy spirit.) But this isn’t a sports film, it’s a family saga. The boxing frames the story of the Eckland/Ward family, in the small backwater town of Lowell, with a host of brilliantly drawn characters fighting their own battles and struggling to succeed.

Mark Wahlberg’s understated performance sees his character, Mickey Ward, constantly trying to juggle his commitments to his family and his desire to succeed professionally; Christian Bale, as his brother Dickie, is fighting his own battle with crack addiction, gradually destroying his reputation as the prize fighter and ‘Pride of Lowell’, descending in to a fantasy world where he still relives his one Sugar-Ray Leonard knock down. Their mother Alice, played brilliantly by Melissa Leo, is constantly battling to keep a tight grip on her family, unaware of the damage she is doing to her family.

All of their struggles could have been rendered bleak and depressing, but thankfully, the whole film is shot through with a good hit of humour. Whether it is Bale launching himself from a 2nd story window to escape his mother, or Amy Adam’s unexpected but excellent tirade of expletives on the phone, the humour helps elevate the film from mawkish, gritty drama to something uplifting and positive. Coming from the man that managed to bring a few laughs to the Gulf War, you would expect nothing less from a director like Russell.

And it is Russell’s direction that really makes it stand out. The camera jumps, skits and tracks unpredictably so you’re never sure what could happen: tragedy is always waiting just off camera. He knows when to pull away and let his characters interact, or when to zone in on their world weary faces. But more than anything, he lets the cast shine. And not one character feels poorly drawn or two dimensional. Every one of these people feel real (it doesn’t necessarily help that they are based on real life characters, see Blind Side), bringing this story to life in a way that none of the other Oscar contenders’ managed to do.

And so back to Bale. Does he deserve all the praise? Well, yes. As the drug addled Dickie, he brings humour, emotion and tenderness to the role, constantly getting himself in to trouble with the law, his mother, and particularly Mickey but  still managing to make you like him and care about him- a first for me in a Bale film (I’m not including Empire of The Sun.)

But unlike many of his performances, there is no ‘Bale the Ac-tor’ here; he chews scenery certainly, his range of emotions is vast, sometimes squeezed in to a single scene, but this is a raw, honest and committed performance that is so good, he absolutely deserved the Oscar. But not only is it an amazing performance, it’s generous too, never overshadowing Wahlberg’s brilliantly restrained turn as his patient younger brother.

All in all, a brilliant film. So good, that Russell should have won Best Director and Wahlberg should have been nominated for Best Actor. The most surprising thing about this film is that it took Hollywood ten years to realise this was worth financing- but better late than never.