Friday, December 23, 2011

Movie Review: Carnage

Carnage *** ½
Directed by: Roman Polanski.
Written by: Yasmina Reza & Roman Polanski based on the play by Resa.
Starring: Jodie Foster (Penelope Longstreet), Kate Winslet (Nancy Cowan), Christoph Waltz (Alan Cowan), John C. Reilly (Michael Longstreet).

Roman Polanski’s Carnage is one of the director’s most playful films. This isn’t as serious as much of the director’s work, doesn’t tap into that paranoia that Polanski is able to bring out like few other directors in history. And yet, it is still very much a Roman Polanski film. It is about that thin visage of civility that we all present to the outside world, and how quickly it can fade away when we’re challenged. Everyone has hatred and bile inside of them just waiting for a chance to come to the surface.

Other than brief shots that open and close the movie, everything here happens inside a Brooklyn apartment, where two couples meet to discuss a violent incident between their sons. The boys were in the park, an argument started, and one boy picked up a stick and hit the other one. Now the parents are getting involved to try and talk things through – like civilized adults.

The parents of the “victim” are Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), a middle class, seemingly liberal couple, who don’t want to get lawyers or police involved, but just want to talk things through. The parents of the “aggressor” are Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), who are clearly wealthier than the other couple, she a broker, he a lawyer constantly answering the phone to try and defuse a potential class action lawsuit against one of his big clients – a pharmaceutical company.

It’s clear from the beginning that Alan doesn’t want to be there. He thinks the whole thing has been blown out of proportion, and he doesn’t take it very seriously. Nancy is at least pretending to care, saying all the right things about how sorry she is about what happened. For their part, Michael is just trying to keep the peace between everyone. Penelope on the other hand is trying hard to suppress her rage. Her son has been maimed, and no one seems to care! And yet everyone is polite to each other right up until Nancy vomits up Penelope’s peach and apple cobbler. The accusations start flying, and the whole affair devolves into some sort of chaos. So much for all that civility.

Carnage is not a particularly deep movie. It is a comedy first and foremost, and reminded me of the films of Luis Bunuel – something like The Exterminating Angel about a group of people who come to the rich house for dinner, and then find they cannot leave, the whole thing eventually devolving into people expressing their most basic, basest instincts, desires and bodily functions. Carnage has the same sort of message about how thin the line is between civility and chaos. Polanski seems to be playing around, not just with Bunuel’s film, but his own. I couldn’t help but think of his debut film, Knife in the Water, which was also a film with only one set (a boat) and the competition between the classes. That film was better – deeper, more violent, as the civility breaks down even further. It seemed to me that everyone involved in Carnage were simply doing it for a lark. That’s not a shot at the film at all. After all, it takes immense skill on Polanski’s part to take a short, one stage play (by Yasmina Reza who co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski) and make it into a film that doesn’t just look like a photographed play, but a film. And Polanski – perhaps because he has experience in working with single settings (not just Knife in the Water, but the apartments in Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, and the setting of Death and the Maiden).

And not enough can be said of the performances. Jodie Foster kills it – giving her best performance in years as Penelope, the liberal do-gooder, who finally breaks down and sinks to the level of the rest of them. Kate Winslet starts off a little reserved, but by the end she has gone as nuts as the rest of them. Christoph Waltz is an asshole from the start, and simply becomes more of one, but you cannot help but love it when as he rips into his dialogue. My favorite may well have been John C. Reilly, who seems like such a cheerful guy on the surface, but finds it harder and harder to keep on that cheerful face – especially when he’s called out for his act of hamster murder.

Carnage may well have been made as a lark for all involved, but the result is this well written, directed and acted, it really is hard to complain about it. This is a popcorn movie for intelligent adults.

DVD Review: Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life **
Directed by: Joann Sfar.
Written by: Joann Sfar based on his graphic novel.
Starring: Eric Elmosnino (Serge Gainsbourg), Lucy Gordon (Jane Birkin), Laetitia Casta (Brigitte Bardot), Doug Jones (La Gueule), Anna Mouglalis (Juliette Gréco), Mylène Jampanoï (Bambou), Sara Forestier (France Gall), Kacey Mottet Klein (Lucien Ginsburg), Razvan Vasilescu (Joseph Ginsburg), Dinara Drukarova (Olga Ginsburg).

Serge Gainsbourg was a huge French star in the 1960s, and remained a popular fixture in French culture until he died in 1991. This biopic on his life is eccentric, strange, not altogether successful and way overlong. It was written and directed Joann Sfar, who adapted his own graphic novel for the screen and he tries to recreate some of that comic book stylistics to the screen version. For me, those touches worked at first – but gradually grew tiresome through the course of the movie. For the first hour, I enjoyed the movie, then gradually my enjoyed decreased, as the film starting going through the motions of the musician biopic.

The film’s opening passages are the best – showing Gainsbourg when he was a child named Lucien Ginsburg. This is 1940s, Nazi occupied France, and Ginsburg is Jewish, but he is not ashamed or embarrassed by this. When the Nazis say that all Jews must wear golden stars on their clothes, Ginsburg barges into the police station to get his first. In these opening scenes, Ginsburg is often followed around by a large, huge headed Jewish caricature – kind of like the beginning of Borat – which for many Jews, must have been how they felt being forced to wear these stars – that they were being singled out, and everyone was staring at them.

As the movie progresses, it drops that comic book creation, but creates another – an exaggerated version of Gainsbourg himself, with a huge nose and ears, who often stalks beside him and whispers into his ear – telling him to do bad things. By this point, Gainsbourg is played by Eric Elmosnino, and the resemblance to the real Gainsbourg is uncanny. Apparently, Sfar wanted Gainsbourg’s real life daughter, Charlotte (that fearless actress for Lars von Trier’s two most recent film Antichrist and Melancholia) to play the role, but she thought it would be too difficult for her to portray her father – on an emotional level, not an acting one. If Gainsbourg had played the role, it would have been an event. But Elmosnino does a remarkable job with the role. We see him as he becomes a star, has affairs with some of the beautiful women in the world – including Bridget Bardot (Laetita Casta) and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), who he’ll marry (and father Charlotte).

For much of the running time, Gainsbourg entertained me, or at least amused me. But as it progressed, it started to go through the motions of the biopic that we have seen too often by this point. Gainsbourg drinks and smokes constantly – is self destructive, and drives everyone around him away. Sadder, he never wins them back either.

Perhaps we like biopics about musicians we already know and love when we walk into the theatre. That may explain why I had much more patience with the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line or the Ray Charles biopic Ray. I didn’t know too much about Gainsbourg before watching this film, and while I recognized a surprising amount of the music (because it is in French after all), the film never really moved me the same way. And when it was all over, I was left with a question. What exactly was heroic about Gainsbourg’s life?

DVD Review: Le Quattro Volte

Le Quattro Volte **
Written by: Michelangelo Frammartino.

I have a feeling that Michelangelo Frammartino’s highly acclaimed Le Quattro Volte played better on the big screen than it did for me sitting in my living room watching it on DVD. This is one of those films that, if it works properly, is supposed to put you in a trance. It is a film with no dialogue, no real story and long still takes, as it looks at the circle of life – or at least the four forms of life – human, animal, vegetable and spirit. One of these gives way to another during the course of the film. If you’re in the right frame of mind, a film like this can be a profound experience – it’s slow and meditative pacing allows you time to think and ruminate on what you’re seeing and what it means. Obviously, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I was watching the film – more often than not, it left me bored. But that’s why I think it probably worked better in the theatre – free from all distractions, the movie would have made more a chance to breath and win me over.

The movie takes place in a remote, Italian village, where it seems like nothing much happens. It focuses on an old goat herder, weathered and worn, approaching death. There is an overwhelming sadness to this man, who is holding onto life, when perhaps he should let go. He is surviving, at least in part, because of a powder he takes every day. One day, when he loses his powder, he tries to get more and fails. He dies that night, and we watch his funeral procession, and see him locked away in the darkness of his tomb.

The movie than shocks us back to light, as we see a young goat being born. We see the goat as it grows and changes, but one day, he will lose his herd. He settles down next to a fir tree, and during the long course of the night, he too will die. The “action” then centers on that tree that we see chopped down and turned into charcoal. The charcoal is then delivered to a house in the village, where it is burned, and the plumb of smoke coming out of the chimney is all that’s left.

That’s it – that’s the movie. I cannot think of too many regular film goers who would like this movie. And yet, for the adventuresome, for the people who like this type of meditative cinema, than Le Quattro Volte is for you. Personally, I didn’t much care for it. Yes, the film is strikingly photographed in its long takes, and there are images that will likely haunt you. But for me, the movie never really weaved the spell it wanted to.

Yet again, I return to what seeing this film in a theatre must be like. I can see it winning me over there. But for home viewing, Le Quattro Volte simply didn’t work for me.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Strange Case of Margaret

I have not seen Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret yet, and it's becoming increasingly unlikely that I will get to see it before I have to do my year end top 10 list (which most likely, will be sometime in January, as I still have too many films to see). Margaret has become a critics cause in the past month or so, which is strange considering that when the film opened on September 30th, according to Rotten Tomatoes, it had a 44% positive review total (it has since grown to 66%) and, according to Box Office Mojo, has grossed a total of $46,495 in North America. And yet, the film has become one of the most critically acclaimed of the year. The Indie Wire poll of over 100 critics ranked the film 9th best of 2011, had Anna Paquin's performance as the best lead performance by an actress of the year (third overall) and listed both Jeannie Berlin and J. Cameron Smith in the top 10 for supporting performances (3rd and 10th) and the screenplay the second best of the year. The Village Voice Poll liked it even more - ranking the film 7th overall, Paquin's performance the best of the year for an actress in a leading role, Berlin as the Best Supporting Actress and the Screenplay as the best of the year. How the hell did that happen?

Margaret has had a troubled journey to the screen. Lonergan shot the film in 2005, and then spent a long time in the editing room. There are at least 2 versions of the completed film - a version close to three hours overseen by producer Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker and the two and half hour version that has played in theaters. Lonergan says he approves of the Scorsese cut and hopes one day that it can be seen. Somehow all of this ended up in court, delaying the release even more. When Fox Searchlight finally did release the film, on September 30th, 2011, it did so with almost no fanfare - no real advertising push, no support at all. It was, in essence, dumped. The tepid box office and weak intial reviews didn't help, and it was gone before most people even realized it was released. Apparently it did play in Toronto - where I could have seen the film - but I have no idea where it played or for how long. I was interested in seeing the film, as I admired Lonergan's first film You Can Count on Me, and love Scorsese, but I didn't even know the film was playing here.

But sometimes, these things have a way of taking on a life of its own. Critic Jaime Christley, a fan of the film, urged Fox Searchlight to re-release the film, or at least provide screeners for year end award voters, even going as far as to start a petition. So a movie that was largely ignored when it came out became a critical favorite. The film is in fact going to re-released in New York on Friday.

And what of the rest of us? I guess we're going to have to wait. I almost wish they didn't start this whole Margaret movement and simply voted for it on the Indiewire and Village Voice polls like they did. I saw on one wesbite that the film was expected to be released on DVD in January 2012 - which makes sense as it would be about 3 months after its theatrical release - but now here we are in late December, and there is no DVD release date as of yet. And that sucks. Unless Fox Searchlight is going to put the film out in more theaters - back here in Canada for one - than I would rather they simply release the damn thing on DVD. They have taken quite a beating for their treatment of this film, and a quick DVD release would at least end that.

I for one am very curious to see the film. It sounds interesting - even in the reviews of people who didn't like the film. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if the film has become such a critical hit, at least in part, because of the way Fox Searchlight treated the film and the filmmakers. Do critics really love it THIS much, or are some of them getting so worked up about it to make a point. I really have no idea if this is true or not, and I will have no idea until I get a chance to see the film - whenever the hell that may be.

I'm not going to wait for Margaret to post my top 10 list, and related year end wrap up, unless I know a specific date when I'm going to get a chance to see the film - and it doesn't delay things unreasonably. But when I do the wrap-up, it will have a Margaret sized whole in it - and that's a shame.

DVD Review: Straw Dogs

Straw Dogs *** ½
Directed by: Rod Lurie.
Written by: Rod Lurie based on the screenplay and book.
Starring: James Marsden (David Sumner), Kate Bosworth (Amy Sumner), Alexander Skarsgård (Charlie), James Woods (Tom Heddon), Dominic Purcell (Jeremy Niles), Rhys Coiro (Norman), Billy Lush (Chris), Laz Alonso (John Burke), Willa Holland (Janice Heddon), Walton Goggins (Daniel Niles), Anson Mount (Coach Milkens), Drew Powell (Bic).

Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) is one of his best films. Most of Peckinpah’s films examine violence and masculinity, and that film is no exception. It has an intellectual (Dustin Hoffman) heading to the English countryside with his new wife (Susan George) who is from the area. Right away, Hoffman rubs the locals – in particular George’s ex-boyfriend and roughneck friends – the wrong way, and eventually, he’ll have to stand up and “be a man” to defend his home and his wife. It is one of the most disturbingly violent movies of the 1970s. The surprising thing about Rod Lurie’s remake is how closely he adheres to Peckinpah’s original. The film is still disturbing and violent. He makes some changes – setting in the Southern USA instead of England and turning the intellectual into a screenwriter, but other than that, the two films are very similar – and similarly effective. The difference is – and I think this is key – is that Lurie feels more sympathy with his “hero” than Peckinpah did (hence making him a screenwriter). Both movies have the power to shock and disturb.

This new version casts James Marsden as David Sumner, the screenwriter, who is coming back to his new wife Amy’s (Kate Bosworth) childhood home. Both her parents are dead, and the area was recently hit by a hurricane, leaving the barn in need of a new roof. David thinks that this peaceful hamlet will be the perfect place for him to be able to get some peace and quiet – and to finish the screenplay on Stalingrad he’s been working on. Amy, an actress, is now out of work because the TV show she and David worked on has been cancelled – plus she’s excited to go back home. They should have stayed away.

They are in town for just a few minutes, eating at the local burger joint when Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) comes over to talk to them. Simply by the way he looks at Amy, and calls her “Amycakes”, it’s clear these two have a romantic past – something David confirms when he sees a picture of the two of them on the wall. There is something off putting about Charlie, but David ignores it. When Charlie mentions that he and “his crew” were among the people who placed a bid on fixing the barn, David hires him on the spot. This already uneasy scene becomes downright nasty when “Coach” Tom Heddon (James Woods), who was once the high school football coach, and is now little more than the town drunk, throws a fit when the bartender tries to cut him off. Welcome to Small Town USA! The story follows the original pretty closely – with Charlie and his crew making thinly veiled threats, disguised as “friendly, down home country advice” to David, who continues to try and make excuses for them and avoid conflict, while Amy becomes convinced they’re up to something much more sinister.

There are two key sequences in both versions of Straw Dogs – the disturbing rape scene in the middle of the film, and the violent home invasion climax. This time, Lurie makes the rape sequence a little less ambigious as Peckinpah did. I remember having an argument with a friend of mine after we first saw Straw Dogs where I thought the scene between the wife and her ex-boyfriend constituted rape, and he did not. This time, it’s more definitively rape – as Amy tries to push Charlie away multiple times, and says “No” repeatedly. And yet, Lurie lets at least a little ambiguity sneak in, as it certainly does appear that part way through the rape that Amy stops fighting it – and her body language does not make it clear if she simply gives up, or like my friend thought of Susan George in the original, she welcomes it. There is no ambiguity about what comes after Charlie is done with her however.

The violent home invasion that ends the movie is also handled well. Like the original, it involves Charlie and his friends outside the Sumner’s house trying to get in, and David having to fight them off. They have guns, David does not. But he does have smarts. The disturbingly violent climax involves hot oil, nail guns and a bear trap – just like the original. This is the sequence where David has to “man up” as it were, which Charlie and his friends think he is incapable of. But David is tougher than he looks.

As I mentioned off the top of this review, I think the difference between Lurie’s movie and Peckinpah’s is not in terms of story – they essentially tell the same one – but in terms of how David is portrayed. I think Peckinpah thought David was a weakling and a wimp, and like Charlie and his friends, doesn’t really respect him until he finally stands up for himself at the end. I think Lurie feels the opposite – that David is trying to handle things like an adult, and in doing what he does at the end of the movie, he loses something of himself. The finale isn’t a triumph this time.

I also have to mention the political bent to the film this time around; that I think was absent before. Lurie is a well known “Hollywood Liberal”, who previous films include The Contender, about a woman Vice Presidential candidate having to jump through hoops to be confirmed by Congress, and the underrated Nothing But the Truth, about a journalist who refuses to reveal her sources. By setting Straw Dogs in the heart of “Red State” America, and making his “hero” a definitive “Blue State” American, Lurie is underlining the deep divide in America right now. There is no room for compromise – you either with us or against us. I think that had Straw Dogs been more successful when it came out (it sadly died a quick death at the box office), it would have become a favorite target of Fox News – and not without reason. It certainly doesn’t paint Red State America as a place you’d want to visit.

Overall, I was fascinated by Straw Dogs, and drawn into its tangled moral web, just like I was with Peckinpah’s original. No, it doesn’t quite pack the same punch as Peckinpah’s did – not only did he get there first, but he is also a better director than Lurie, and as good as Marsden and Bosworth are in this film (and they both surprised me by just how good they were), they aren’t at the same level of Hoffman and George. Yet, it’s still a great little film in its own right – and the rare remake that I think is actually enhanced, and not diminished, by knowing the original film.

Movie Review: Arthur Christmas

Arthur Christmas ***
Directed by: Sarah Smith.
Written by: Peter Baynham & Sarah Smith.
Starring: James McAvoy (Arthur),  Hugh Laurie (Steve), Bill Nighy (Grandsanta), Jim Broadbent (Santa), Imelda Staunton (Mrs. Santa), Ashley Jensen (Bryony), Marc Wootton (Peter), Laura Linney (North Pole Computer), Eva Longoria (Chief De Silva), Ramona Marquez (Gwen), Michael Palin (Ernie Clicker).

Arthur Christmas, the character, is so lovable that I couldn’t help but enjoy Arthur Christmas, the movie. I am a sucker for Christmas movies, and this new animated film from Aardman (the creators of Wallace and Gromitt) is a good one. Kids will enjoy it – it is full of action and humour, bright colors and of course Santa. But adults will enjoy it as well. The film has that trademark British wit, and the excellent voice cast does a stellar job with all the verbal wordplay. It isn’t a masterpiece or anything, but for what it is, it is highly enjoyable.

Arthur Christmas is the youngest son of Santa Clause. The tradition is that each Santa does 70 years on the job, before passing it down to his son. The current Santa is about to embark on that 70th run, and the older son Steve cannot wait until he gets to become Santa himself. He has already overhauled their entire system – lots of gadgets and gizmos, replacing the sled with a rocket ship that travels at the speed of light. Anyone can do Santa’s job – his highly trained team of elves take care of most of the details for him. But after he returns from what everyone assumes will be his final time out, he announces that he cannot wait to make his 71st run the following year. Steve is angry and disappointed of course. But there is a bigger problem – a child has been missed. To Arthur, who responds to the millions of letters the children send in, this is unacceptable. He doesn’t want poor Gwen to wake up on Christmas morning and think she is the only child in the world that Santa doesn’t care about. But Steve says the ship cannot make another run, at the risk of damaging it, and so they’ll ship to the present to Gwen. It will not get there on Christmas day, but it will get there in the “Christmas window”. Besides, one child in over 600 million is a statistically insignificant amount. Santa agrees with Steve, and totters off to bed. Arthur is heartbroken – but then Grand Santa comes up with an idea. He’ll break out the old sleigh and reindeer that helped him through his 70 runs, and together, he and Arthur will deliver the last present. Bryony the elf tags along as well.

I enjoyed the visual look of Arthur Christmas, even if I do miss the old school play-doh creations Aardman used to make. I understand that the process is long and cumbersome and doesn’t allow the freedom of computer animation – and I appreciate the fact that Aardman tries hard to retain the look of their play doh characters, but it isn’t quite the same. Still, it’s hard to complain too much, as Arthur Christmas is visually charming, recreating pretty much the entire world, as times have changed since Grand Santa’s day, and of course, he and Arthur get lost repeatedly. I liked the touches that the film provides to every country they come across (a particular favourite, of course, was when they fly through Toronto and Grand Santa remarks “Santa’s always come through Canada – nobody lives here”).

And I adored the voice cast as well. James McAvoy is very good as the bumbling, slightly cowardly Arthur. Yes, he makes mistakes, but he has never lost that childhood wonder of loving Christmas – I loved how much he loved his horrid Christmas slippers. Hugh Laurie is fine as the pompous ass Steve, Jim Broadbent has some good moments as Santa, just realizing now that he is little more than a figure head, Bill Nighy is crotchety and funny as Grand Santa, Ashley Jensen makes a lovable elf and Imelda Staunton sounds just like you would imagine Mrs. Clause to sound – especially when she worries about how Arthur not wearing the proper winter clothes.

I can imagine revisiting Arthur Christmas quite a few times over the years. It is fast paced, well animated, funny and charming. What else do you want an animated Christmas film to be?

DVD Review: Fright Night

Fright Night ** ½
Directed by: Craig Gillespie.
Written by: Marti Noxon based on the film written by Tom Holland.
Starring: Anton Yelchin (Charley Brewster), Colin Farrell (Jerry), Toni Collette (Jane Brewster), David Tennant (Peter Vincent), Imogen Poots (Amy), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Ed).

I have to admit right off the top that I never saw the original Fright Night from 1985. While I love ‘70s horror films, I have found that many of the ones from the ‘80s are cheesy rather than scary, and don’t really do much for me, so right off, I think it’s fair to say I have nothing to compare this new version to.

This Fright Night is a passable horror film – and not much else. I like the idea of casting Anton Yelchin, who has more range than many actors his age do. Perhaps the filmmakers were inspired by what a great job Jesse Eisenberg did in Zombieland, mingling in humor with the horror, and Yelchin tries to bring the same thing to Fright Night (although the screenplay isn’t as good). Yelchin is Charlie, a high school nerd, who has moved up in social standing since landing the gorgeous Amy (Imogen Poots – who I’m still convinces is a Harry Potter character) as his girlfriend. This means he has essentially abandoned his old nerd friends – like Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). But Ed is concerned because his only remaining friend – and one time friend of Charley – has gone missing, along with his whole family. Ed is convinced that Charley’s new neighbour Jerry (Colin Farrell) is a vampire, and even Charley’s convincing argument that Jerry is a “horrible vampire name” doesn’t convince otherwise. But then Ed goes missing too, and Charley is starting to notice strange things about Jerry. Perhaps Ed was right. The only person Charley thinks may be able to help him is a Criss Angel type magician, obsessed with vampires named Peter Vincent (David Tennant) – but of course, his show is just an act. Or is it?

Fright Night is an enjoyable horror movie for the most part. It adds a few laughs to go along with the scares, and I for one am glad that the filmmakers didn’t neuter the film by trying to make it PG-13. This is a bloody, profane little film. Yelchin anchors the movie with his fine performance, and he is ably helped by Toni Collette as his mom, and Poots, who makes Amy not just an average high school beauty. As for Colin Farrell, I found his performance to be uneven. There are times when he seems to be relishing his vampire role – getting off on all the creepy stuff he gets to say, and glorying in looking evil. And then there are times when he seems to be going through the motions. From one scene to the next, I never knew what Farrell I was going to see.

The film was directed with efficiency by Craig Gillespie. He directed the fine indie comedy Lars and the Real Girl, where Ryan Gosling is in love with a blow-up sex doll. That was a surprising sweet film, dodging every trap you would think a movie about a man and a sex doll could possibly fall into. I guess however, we may have to add Gillespie to the list of indie filmmakers who go on to make Hollywood films and never look back. That’s a shame, because while Fright Night is well handled, it could have been directed by nearly anyone with the same results. Few could have made Lars and the Real Girl as well as he did.

I can’t say that Fright Night is a bad movie, because it isn’t. For horror fans, it is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. No, it didn’t really scare me, but few films do. It is well made and for the most part well acted. But like Farrell’s performance, too often it just felt like it was going through the motions.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Films of Steven Spielberg

Without a doubt, Steven Spielberg is the most famous and successful filmmaker in American history. I know some people hate him, but I’m not one of them. When he’s on the top of his game, and he’s on more often than not, he is one of the best filmmakers in the world. He has not one but two films coming out this December – the animated The Adventures of Tintin and the WWI epic War Horse. So, I thought I’d look at his previous work. I should mention right off the top that I miss his early TV movies – Duel (which I have heard great things about, but somehow have never seen) and Something Evil (which I didn’t even know existed), as well as his 1989 film Always, which never held much interest for me. But I’ve seen the other 24. I do hope that one of his two new films is great, because I’m not quite satisfied with my #10 movie – it could be anyone of about five, as none of them are perfect, but all approach greatness at times. Anyway, here they are, from worst to best.

24. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Spielberg was wise enough to walk away from the Jaws series as a director after the first installment, probably knowing he could never top the original, so why try? He should have done the same thing with the Jurassic Park series. Yes, the special effects are amazing. The problem is, that is all there is to this movie. The movie is overstuffed with a plot that lumbers and makes little sense. The human characters are mere cardboard cutouts meant for our amusement – and to become dinosaur food. Perhaps Spielberg’s heart simply wasn’t in this one, because normally he is such a masterful storyteller, and here no thought at all seems to have been given to the plot at all. A huge waste of time and money.

23. Twilight Zone: The Movie: Kick the Can (1983)
Spielberg produced this ill advised endeavor, taking four classic Twilight Zone concepts, and handing each one to a different director to see what the results were. John Landis’ segment, about bigot, is tired and predictable – and sad since we know that people died making it. Joe Dante’s segment is wild and off the wall, and contains some kind of zany brilliance. George Miller’s is predictable, but effective. Surprisingly though, I think Spielberg’s segment is far and away the weakest. It stars Scatman Crothers (playing a version of the “Mystical Black Man”) as a mysterious man who shows up at an old folk’s home and gives them what they want – to be young again. Of course, they soon realize they really didn’t want that, they just thought they did. The film contains the typical dose of Spielberg sentimentality – but this time ratcheted up to the point that’s its almost unbearable. The dark visuals add nothing. No wonder the film was pretty much buried for years – Spielberg’s segment is a stinker.

22. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
I’m not sure who decided that Indiana Jones needed aliens, nuclear explosions, swinging monkey or Shia LaBeof, but whoever was responsible for it, messed up. I wouldn’t go as far as South Park did in saying that the film raped Indiana Jones – if you turn off your brain, the film can even be entertaining in fits and starts – but other than Cate Blanchatt, who rips into her role as a Soviet bad ass with a gusto that is appropriate for the film, nothing here works as well as it should. They named the third film The Last Crusade, and it should have stayed that way.

21. 1941 (1979)
I give Spielberg credit for attempting something as bizarre as this WWII comedy that John Wayne refused to star in because he thought it was unpatriotic (how I would have loved for The Duke’s last movie role to be as the cartoon watching General that Robert Stack eventually played). After all, he was still a young director, and coming off of two HUGE hits in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Does this film work? No, not really. It has some good moments, and it is the type of bad movie that you know was made by extremely talented people. But the whole thing doesn’t add up to much.

20. Hook (1991)
As a kid, I loved Hook. And when I flip through the channels now, and come across it, if it’s a scene with Dustin Hoffman’s wonderful, over the top Captain Hook and Bob Hoskins as his lovable sidekick Smee, I’ll watch for a few minutes, and remember why I liked the movie so much when I was 10. But then, inevitably, Robin Williams comes on the screen as a grown up Peter Pan, who has to venture back to Never Never Land, and learn a lesson, and I quickly lose interest. Spielberg clearly loves the Peter Pan story, and he wanted to do a version with a twist, but I can’t help but think a more straight forward retelling would have worked better.

19. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
The Indiana Jones moves were always a throwback to the serials of the 1930s, but did this film have to recycle all the tired, offensive racial clichés of that time period as well? The film was seen as offensive in India, and rightly so and don’t even get me started on Short Round. Spielberg himself has criticized the film, saying he thinks it is too dark and too violent – and doesn’t contain an ounce of his own personal feeling in it. The special effects are impressive, and there are some wonderful action sequences, and Harrison Ford actually still seems to give a shit. There is much to like about the film, but also much to dislike.

18. Amistad (1997)
Amistad tells an important and powerful story, but somehow never quite lives up to what it should have been. Maybe it’s because it’s a story about slavery that transforms the issue into safe, Hollywood genre – the courtroom drama – where even if the slaves win, it will be little more than a hollow victory, as slavery will continue. It is about a group of slaves who rise up against their captors while be transported, killing all but two of them, who say they’ll take them back to Africa. Instead, they take them to America, where they are put on trial for murder. One of the problems with Amistad is that there are a lot of characters, whose purpose never really seems clear. Matthew McConaghey as the slave’s first lawyer isn’t very well thought out, and I spent the whole movie waited for Morgan Freeman, as a free slave, to do something. And yet, there are moments that work amazingly well. Djimon Hounsou is terrific as Cinque, the leader of the slaves, and when the movie concentrates on him and his sad, tragic story, it is at its best. When he stands up in the courtroom and yells “Give us free”, it may well move you to tears. And Anthony Hopkins is terrific as former President John Quincy Adams, who takes up the slaves cause, and delivers a terrific, transfixing 11 minute speech in defense of them. So yes, Amistad is a decent movie, but it should have been better. Perhaps Spielberg should have found a different story – one that focused more on the slaves themselves, and less on a trial that in the end, didn’t really accomplish all that much.

17. Jurassic Park (1993)
The original Jurassic Park may not be a very original concept – but it is a triumph of special effects, and unlike its sequel, knows how to tell a story. Yes, the story is clichéd – about a rich man’s greed and his eventual comeuppance, about not messing with Mother Nature, etc. And yet, in the hands of Spielberg, the story works to a terrific degree. Spielberg has essentially made an old fashioned monster movie – something that would not have felt out of place in the 1950s, but has added state of the art special effects – which even nearly 20 years later, still look great. It doesn’t quite capture the youthful exuberance or glee that the best of the Spielberg popcorn flicks do – but its close enough.

16. Empire of the Sun (1987)
Spielberg initially came on board as a producer for this film, when David Lean was supposed to direct it. Perhaps Lean, who was better than just about anyone at making these kinds of grand epics, would have made a slightly better film. It’s not that Spielberg’s version is a bad film – it isn’t at all. The filmmaking is quite good, and young Christian Bale gives an impressive performance as a kid who grows up the son of wealthy Brits living in Shanghai, who ends up in a Japanese prison camp during WWII. It’s just that something seems a little bit lacking in the film. It doesn’t hit you as hard as it should emotionally. There are great sequences in the film, and overall, I think it’s an impressive film, but it’s not among Spielberg’s best. The fact that it came out the same year as John Boorman’s great Hope and Glory, which also looked at a child in WWII (based on Boorman himself) makes this one look just a little worse by comparison.

15. The Sugarland Express (1974)
Spielberg’s first theatrical feature has a breezy charm to it. It is about a woman (Goldie Hawn) who breaks her husband out of a Texas work farm and kidnaps a State trooper, and then heads off to get her son back from a foster family. This slow speed chase across the state becomes a media event, and the young couple become celebrities, who garner a lot of sympathy from the people along the way. The head cop chasing them (Ben Johnson) is a good man – and just wants to see things end before they get out of control, and someone gets killed. I have never been much of a fan of Goldie Hawn, but this is her best work – she makes this woman, who has done a stupid thing that she should know will never get her the end result she wants – but she is so full of life and energy, you can’t help but love her. And the movie has many a few nice scenes between the kidnapped cop and the husband, where the two get to know each other, and realize that perhaps they’re not all that different. And as always, Ben Johnson is solid in support. In the end, I can’t say that The Sugarland Express is a great movie, but it shows just how good Spielberg was right from the beginning of his career. He went onto make better films of course, but this rather low-key (especially for Spielberg) is filled with charm. I was surprised by how involved I got with it – and ultimately how moved by it I was.

14. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
As a pure popcorn flick, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is tough to beat. Foregoing the darkness and violence that derailed much of Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade is a hell of lot lighter, and a hell of a lot more fun. Harrison Ford seems rejuvenated in the role, playing opposite Sean Connery as his distant father, who he is still trying to gain approval from. The action sequences – especially the tank chase scene – are masterfully handled. Even the Nazi villains seem to be a little bit less cartoon like than they were in Raiders. No, The Last Crusade is not a great film – and doesn’t come close to reaching the heights of Raiders of the Lost Ark – but I defy you not to be entertained by it.

13. The Color Purple (1985)
To use that favorite word of film critics, The Color Purple is “flawed”. It is too simpleminded in its depictions of African American men, who are all either cruel and vile or else comic caricatures. It is flawed in some of the storytelling, as there are some confused moments in the editing and scenes that undercut their own power. And yet, The Color Purple is still a wonderful cinematic experience. In her first role, Whoopi Goldberg gives the best performance of her career, and makes Celie into one of the most memorable characters in any Spielberg movie. Here is a woman raped by her father, forced to give up her two children, sold to another cruel man (Danny Glover) who treats her as a slave, and somehow, through of all this, comes through and regains her humanity. It is an inspiring story, and Goldberg is absolutely terrific in the role. She is ably supported by Oprah Winfrey, as a woman who will not take crap from anyone, which leads her into trouble, Margaret Avery, as a nightclub singer who slowly, but surely, drags Celie out of her shell, and Danny Glover, who may be a one note character, but it’s a note he plays to great effect. Some people demand perfection from a movie, but I am not one of those people. For all its flaws, The Color Purple is a movie that I will never forget.

12. War of the Worlds (2005)
Take away the seriously flawed ending of this movie, and this easily finds a place in my top 10 list of Spielberg movies. Most of this movie is the most cynical Spielberg has ever been – portraying a post 9/11 America where everyone is simply out for themselves, and do not band together to fight the invading Martians like you expect them to. The film is virtuoso filmmaking – full of terrific sequences (the one on the basement is particularly brilliant), and Tom Cruise uses his movie star talents to full advantage here – and is ably supported by everyone, especially little Dakota Fanning and (not so little) Tim Robbins. Perhaps the reason Spielberg felt the need to tack on that happy, sappy, crappy ending is because he worried the film was too harsh. He shouldn’t have. Had he ended the film the way he should have, this one could have been truly great.

11. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Spielberg had gone kind of dark and series with Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, A.I. and Minority Report, so perhaps that’s why he decided to make this light and breezy crime film. Leonardo DiCaprio is at his charming best as a con man, who passes bad cheques, poses an airline pilot, a lawyer and a doctor (“I concur”), and Tom Hanks is humorous in support as the FBI agent on his trail. Best of all is Christopher Walken as DiCaprio’s dad, who revels in the thrill of his son being an outlaw (for the first time in a long time, Walken isn’t simply being Walken). The film is extremely well made, lightweight and fun. It doesn’t add up to all that much, but with a film this entertaining, do you really care?

10. The Terminal (2004)
I know a lot of people hated The Terminal, but I could not help but be won over by its simplicity. The film stars Tom Hanks as a man from the fictional country of Krakozia that, while he is in the air flying to America, falls in a military coup. As such, his passport and visa become invalid, and yet, America is not about to send him back to a war zone. He is told he can’t leave the airport, which he never does, which is baffling to the head of security (Stanley Tucci), who has to tell him not to leave, but never expects that he’ll actually stay. The film is a homage to the film of Jacques Tati, whose iconic character Mr. Hulot disarms everyone he meets with his sheer simplicity. Tati was silent, and while Hanks is not, the effect is the same. People can’t help but trust him – he seems so open, so sweet, and so guileless. Hanks’s performance feels effortless, as does the movie itself, though you know hitting and maintaining this tone was probably extremely difficult. It is also a triumph of production design – as the whole airport is a giant set, but one so precisely detailed, you’d never know it. Perhaps The Terminal was just too simple for today’s cynical audiences. Perhaps I’m just a big softie. But whatever the reason, I cannot help but love this film.

9. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
A friend of mine once told me that it was Raiders of the Lost Ark, and not Schindler’s List, that was Spielberg’s biggest anti-Nazi movie. Afterall, the Amon Goeth merely gets hanged in Schindler’s List, whereas Arnold Toht has his face melted off in Raiders. Roger Ebert expresses a similar sentiment, saying that while Schlinder’s List a movie by a mature adult about the Holocaust, Raiders of the Lost Ark could well be the fantasies of a Jewish teenage boy, who wants to stick it to the Nazis. Perhaps it’s this buried level that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark better than the rest of the Indiana Jones movies. It is also undeniable that this is one of the most flat out entertaining films ever made with terrific action sequences, as one calamity after another befalls Indiana Jones. I’ve never been a big Harrison Ford fan, but when he wants to be, he can play heroic better than almost anyone – and here he has his most iconic role, and he doesn’t fail to live up to it. In the end, buried meanings or not, Raiders of the Lost Ark is pure, unadulterated fun.

8. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is great movie about man’s place in the world. Yes, it is about aliens coming to earth, but there is no battle, nor War of the Worlds. Instead, it focuses on a normal man (Richard Dreyfus) who sees a flying saucer, and then finds himself obsessing over it. He starts to see images in his head of a mountain – so much so that he starts building replicas of it. He finds others that share his obsession – who claim their loved ones have been taken. The film is not a typical alien invasion movie – but something much deeper, more meaningful than that. Yes, there are scary moments – little Barry standing in that doorway with fire all around him for example. But Close Encounters of the Third Kind retains that childlike wonder that Spielberg can do better than pretty much anyone else.

7. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Some will complain about certain aspects of Saving Private Ryan. Even back in 1998, many felt the bookended scenes in the cemetery were unnecessary and complained that the characters in the movie are types more than fully fleshed out individuals. I never agreed with that – and I still don’t. I don’t necessarily think that the bookend scenes are strictly necessary, and yes, they are manipulative, but they are still effective (Spielberg has the skill to manipulate without making you feel guilty about it). And while the characters start as stock characters, I do believe they are fleshed out as the movie goes along. I’d argue that this very well could be Tom Hanks’ best performance, as he gives his Captain real humanity. Of course, what everyone remembers are the battle scenes that begin and end the film, and to me, they are still among the best ever put on film – visceral, bloody, intense and gut wrenching. Yes, the movie indulges in clichés, but in Spielberg’s hands, they work.

6. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
It takes immense skill to make an audience cry and not have them feel overly manipulated afterwards – even Spielberg has not always been able to do this. But in E.T., he does. I have no idea why I cry when E.T dies – because I know he’s coming back, but every time it happens I do. And then I cry all over again when he meets back up with his family, and says goodbye to Elliot. Spielberg’s film is one of the best ever made about childhood – that confusing time in life that we all have to go through. There is an innocence to it that is refreshing. The movie is much more than a film about a boy and his alien.

5. Minority Report (2002)
I know many people hate the ending of Minority Report, but personally, I think it’s one of the most perfect endings in Spielberg’s career – the only problem is that he was perhaps too subtle with it. I mean, doesn’t that ending seem a little too perfect? That Tom Cruise’s character is able to break out of his cryogenic prison, get revenge, get back together with his wife, get her pregnant and live out an idyllic life in the countryside? It’s not that Spielberg doesn’t tell you the ending (Tim Blake Nelson’s character says it as they put Cruise in jail “They dream of whatever they want to”.) To me, it’s clear that Tom Cruise doesn’t “win” in Minority Report, he loses, and in the end he is just dreaming. Still, that is only one part of what makes this so movie so good. A sci-fi thriller, with healthy doses of Hitchcock, Minority Report is intelligent popcorn filmmaking at its finest. Spielberg uses Cruise effectively, and gets some great work from Samantha Morton and Max von Sydow. The scene in the mall is as well staged as anything Spielberg has done. This is a truly great film.

4. Schindler’s List (1993)
Schindler’s List remains THE Holocaust film for many, and with good reason. What Spielberg did with this film truly is remarkable. It is a dark, three plus hour masterpiece, shot in black and white and unrelentingly bleak. Yes, he tells a story of a few hundred Jews that were saved and not the millions who died, who are in the background, and yet whenever I watch Schindler’s List the whole weight of what was done hits me. This is the film that truly showed that Spielberg could do more than just popcorn movies – he tried earlier, with mixed results, but Schindler’s List is so well made and completely unforgettable. Liam Neeson has never been better than he is as Oskar Schindler, even if they do whitewash him a little bit (his personal flaws aren’t really the point are they?). And even with all the evil Nazis I have seen in films over the year, Ralph Fiennes is still the one that stands out most in my mind. Many “important” films are ones that you see once and never have to again. That isn’t the case with Schindler’s List. It truly is a masterpiece.

3. Munich (2005)
I’m sure many will argue against my putting Munich so high on this list. It got decidedly mixed reviews when it was released in 2005. But for me, out of all of Spielberg’s “important” films, Munich is the one that hits me the hardest – yes, even more so than Schindler’s List. Munich is not a film about righteous vengeance – which I think is what most people thought it was going to be and wanted it to be. Instead, Munich is a film about the cost of violence, even when it’s done in the name of a “good cause”. The Mossad agents at the center of this film are tasked with killing the people responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. They are killing “bad men” in defense of their country. And yet killing, for whatever reason, has its cost and the end result is simply more killing, a non-stop circle of violence that will never end. The violence in the movie is strong – stomach churning in some scenes – and that’s the way it should be. Some have complained about the flashback sequence at the end of the film, but I think it works. Does it matter that Eric Bana was not there in Munich? No, it has haunted him ever since, and driven his every action so much, he might as well have been. The ending of the film, in New York City with the World Trade Center in the background is the best of Spielberg’s career. No false sentiment here. This is the darkest film Spielberg ever made, and once of the best.

2. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
I remember when A.I. came out in 2001, a lot of people spent a lot of time trying to figure out what elements of the movie were Spielberg’s own, and what elements came from Stanley Kubrick – who passed the project onto him before he died. To me, the question is pointless, as since Spielberg wrote the final screenplay, and directed the movie, it is his movie – although it is certainly heavily influenced by Kubrick. The film is about David (Haley Joel Osment) a “mecha” so advanced that he looks like a real boy. He has been programmed to love whoever activates him, and when a married couple, with a son in a coma, buy him, he immediately loves Mommy. At first, she resists, but David is so open, so sweet, that she cannot resist forever. When their son wakes up, they try to make it work, but they can’t. But Mommy still loves David enough that she cannot see him destroyed – so she drives out into the country and leaves David, and his creepy Teddy Bear, in the middle of nowhere. Thus begins David’s journey, alongside Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), whose name tells you what he is programmed to do. David wants to become a real boy, so Mommy will love him again. Of course, David doesn’t really love Mommy, nor does he really want anything. He is simply following his programming. He is programmed to love Mommy, and be loved in return, and since Mommy loves her real son more than David, it is only logical to think that she’ll love David if he is real as well. The sequence at the Flesh Fair is stunning and scary, and Rogue City is one of the distinctive environment ever created in a movie. David continues on his quest to find the Blue Fairy, and he finally does – under water at Coney Island, where he patiently waits for 2,000 years, until he is dethawed by more advanced mechas. They see David as a source of great information – because he actually knew humans. These mechas, apparently created by previous mechas, still have it in their coding to love humans, even though they are extinct. So David, who actually knew humans, is valuable to them. I have no idea what people are talking about when they say that A.I. has a happy ending tacked onto it. Afterall, it ends with the entire human race wiped out, and David apparently destroyed after they download his memories. Yes, he gets to see Mommy again, but that is all in David’s “dream” so the mechas can observe him. I could write on and on and on about A.I., which is a movie that simply gets more complex the more you think about it, but this isn’t the time or place for that. What I do know is that A.I. is a stunning achievement by Spielberg – perhaps his most ambitious film ever. In 2001, many admired its visuals, but thought its story was flawed. Looking back on it now, I don’t see any flaws. I just see a masterpiece.

1. Jaws (1975)
Spielberg has undoubtedly more accomplished films, more complex films, more “important” films in his career than his 1975 breakthrough Jaws. But he has never made a film as perfect as this one. Perhaps it’s because I saw Jaws way too young, and it has forever scarred me – keeping me out of the water for fear of shark attacks, but when I think of Spielberg, Jaws comes to mind first. The opening scene is brilliantly handled, as are all of the shark attack scenes. I don’t care that the reason we didn’t see the shark earlier is because it didn’t work properly – holding back the shark works brilliantly. No film still has the power to shock and scare me quite like this one does. And it also must be noted the three lead performances are just about pitch perfect – Roy Scheider as the police chief scared of the water, Richard Dreyfuss as the intellectual getting real world experience and especially Robert Shaw as Captain Quint. His monologue is one of my all time favorites. Jaws is a perfect film, and a masterpiece of its kind, and will most likely always be my favorite Spielberg movie.

DVD Review: Sarah's Key

Sarah’s Key *
Directed by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner.
Written by: Serge Joncour and Gilles Paquet-Brenner based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay.
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas (Julia Jarmond), Mélusine Mayance (Sarah Starzynski), Niels Arestrup (Jules Dufaure), Frédéric Pierrot (Bertrand Tezac), Michel Duchaussoy (Édouard Tezac), Dominique Frot (Geneviève Dufaure), Natasha Mashkevich (Mme Starzynski), Gisèle Casadesus (Mamé), Aidan Quinn (William Rainsferd), Sarah Ber (Rachel), Arben Bajraktaraj (M. Starzynski).

Sarah’s Key tells an important, little known chapter of French WWII history, yet the film is ruined because it seems far more interested in the story of an upper class American woman digging into the past – and the pain SHE feels – rather than focusing on what should have been the heart of the story. In July 1942, French police rounded up over 13,000 Jewish residents – including many women and children – and shipped them off to a stadium where they stayed for days on end, before being loaded onto trains and shipped to Auschwitz. This wasn’t the Germans doing the rounding up, but the French, and as such, there is little documentation of what actually happened that July. The so called Vel' d'Hiv Roundup is barely mentioned, and few people even know about it, but it remains a shameful moment in French history.

Had Sarah’s Key told the story of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, it could have been an excellent film. But instead, the movie is much more focused on Julia Jarmond (Kristen Scott Thomas), an American journalist living in France with her husband and teenage daughter. She is about to move into her husband’s family flat, as his mother is aging and being put into a home, and she just so happens to be working on a story about the Vel d’Hiv roundup. When she discovers that the family moved into the flat in August 1942, she grows suspicious, and starts to dig around to try and discover who owned the flat before them. In while digging that she discovers the story of Sarah Starzynski, a young girl who was taken with her parents in the roundup. In an effort to protect her younger brother Michel, she locks him in a secret hiding place before they are arrested. She is determined to get back to him – but as the hours grow to days grow to weeks, it doesn’t look good. But Sarah is still determined.

I have two major problems with Sarah’s Key – one for each of the time periods the film depicts. The 1942 story is so shamefully manipulative that what should have you shocked or in tears, comes across as heavy handed. Sarah’s single minded determination to get back to Michel is quite simply not believable – even a child her age has to know that Michel couldn’t possibly survive in a closet for months on end. Her story is never really believable – it plays like, well, a bad movie.

The bigger problem I have is with the segment sent in the present day however. I’m not precisely sure why I am supposed to feel sorry for a character as self involved and self pitying as Julia. As played by Kristen Scott Thomas, Julia is pouty and whiny – seeing everything that happens, or happened to Sarah as the case may be, only as far as it effects herself. I didn’t for a second believe her asshole of a husband would be as big of an asshole as the film depicts him as, and it seems to be that Julia’s whole quest to discover the truth about Sarah isn’t for the altruistic reasons the film would have us believe – but instead simply to prove that she is better than her in-laws. Kristen Scott Thomas is not an actress I have ever really connected to – her screen presence is far too chilly – and this is one of her worst performances.

To me, Sarah’s Key simply does not work. It tries to force an important moment in French history into a story of an American woman who we are supposed to find brave and sympathetic. That the film would use such an important event as the backdrop for such an awful, unbelievable story is unforgivable.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Movie Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ****
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson.
Written by: Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan based on the novel by John le Carré.
Starring: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), John Hurt (Control), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase), Ciarán Hinds (Roy Bland), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Stephen Graham (Jerry Westerby), Simon McBurney (Oliver Lacon), Roger Lloyd-Pack (Mendel), Svetlana Khodchenkova (Irina).

George Smiley is one of the best characters in spy fiction. Described by author John le Carre as “frog like”, he hides behind his absurdly large glasses and doesn’t let anyone in – he doesn’t let anyone know how rattled he is. His exterior is calm stillness. During the course of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy he raises his voice exactly once – near the end of the film. For the rest of the movie he reacts as if everything that happens is what he expected it to be – even if he isn’t. Played by Gary Oldman, George Smiley is one of the most fascinating characters of the year. He even outdoes Alec Guiness, who played Smiley in the 1979 miniseries of the same name (and later in Smiley’s People). As Smiley watches everything around him, you watch Smiley – and you can’t take your eyes off of him.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of at least two spy masterpieces that le Carre ever wrote (the other being The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). Spy work has never seemed quite as mundane as it does here, and that lends it the aura of authenticity. Tomas Alfredson’s film, set in 1973, is about a group of men who look like accountants, with their bad three piece suits, worse haircuts, who move in and out of rooms with the type of horrid wall paper that only people in the 1970s could love (it reminded me of my old dentist’s office). They are playing an intricate game of cat and mouse with a Soviet spy named Karla, and trying to figure out who his mole is inside of The Circus, the British Intelligence Agency. The movie is deliberately paced – so deliberately that you barely notice who tense things end up. This is a movie that sneaks up on you as you are watching it, slowly drawing you in, and than weathering up the suspense level to an almost unbearable degree. I haven’t seen an old school thriller so wonderfully made in years.

Smiley was forced out a year ago when Control (John Hurt), the long-time head of The Circus, sent Jim Prideauz (Mark Strong) on an ill advised mission to Hungary to meet with a General who was supposed to reveal who the mole was. No one else in The Circus even believes there is a mole, but Control has it narrowed down to five suspects – Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), who has suddenly stumbled onto a source he calls Merlin who gives them the best intelligence they ever got on the Soviets, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), a charming playboy who has risen up the ranks at the Circus, Roy Bland (Ciarian Hinds), who is blunt and gruff, Toby Esterhause (David Denick) an Eastern European defector or Smiley himself. The mission goes horribly wrong, Control is forced out, and soon after dies, and Smiley is left with nothing to do – as his wife has “left him again”. Months later though, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) has contacted Smiley again. They have just heard from a former agent, Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) who they thought had defected, who says he has information regarding a mole in The Circus. Not wanting to go inside The Circus, they go to Smiley to try and figure out if Tarr’s story is true – and if it is who the mole is. Aided only by Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley starts to piece together the story bit by bit.

At this point, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a period piece – and on the surface, it seems like a flashback to easier time – where the enemies were known and the stakes clear. And yet, as the movie moves along, it becomes clear that this is a story really without good and evil – a story of moral relativism. As played by Gary Oldman, Smiley becomes a darker character – a man with no illusions and with no ideals really either. He thinks Karla’s weakness is that he is a fanatic – a true believer in his cause. Smiley has no such illusions about the “West”. They are as morally corrupt as the evil empire they are fighting. To others, this is a game with the fate of the world as the outcome. But for Smiley, it’s more personal than that. More than anything else, he fights for himself. Oldman plays this role brilliantly – perhaps in the best performance of his career – and it’s because of him that the movie gains its thematic weight – and movies it beyond a period piece, into a movie with contemporary overtones.

The rest of the cast is universally excellent as well. I could spend a lot of time praising each actor in the movie, but instead I’ll highlight the two supporting players that stood out the most for me. First, there is Tom Hardy’s Ricky Tarr. Hardy brings the same brooding intensity and Brando-esque theatrics that he did earlier this year in Warrior, but he also turns Tarr into almost a lovesick teenager, complaining about his parents at circus because they simply don’t “understand”. Better still is Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam. Hiding behind the worst haircut in the movie (and that’s saying something), his makes Guillam a more emotional creature than he was in the past – with one wordless scene of him that is almost heartbreaking.

Directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the fluid films of the year. The camera seems to stay just far enough away to give the impression that we are eavesdropping on the proceedings (although there is one great sequence where Oldman looks directly into the camera as he recounts his encounter with Karla, which far more effective than a flashback would have been). The story has been cut a little bit, but Alfredson and his screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan does add one thing  - a repeated flashback to a Christmas party which at first plays like a flashback to more innocent times, but gradually takes on a more ominous tone. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is marvellous as a spy thriller – but there’s more to it than just that.