Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Flick of The Day: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

John Le Carre has long been the master of the kind of realistic portrayal of espionage that so lends itself to modern cinema. Le Carre's spies are far removed from the world of Fleming's James Bond. There is no glamour at the top of his portrayal of British Intelligence, no gadgets less girls. More liver spots, stomach ailments and a dark and oppressing guilt. Perhaps his best creation is George Smiley, the weary career spy with a thirst for the truth. Alec Guinness made this role his own in the excellent 1979 BBC television mini-series and it is a delight then to report that  the big screen version is a triumph. Today's flick of the day is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The head of MI6, an aged John Hurt, codename Control sees threats everywhere but he also believes there is a mole at the top of the service, known as the Circus. He launches an operation to find the mole which ends in disaster and he is drummed out of the Circus along with his trusted Lieutenant, George Smiley, played by a mesmeric Gary Oldman. After a period in the wilderness, George is brought out of retirement by the government to investigate the mole after a rogue agent comes forward with information. There are 5 suspects named by Control according to a children's rhyme including Smiley himself as Beggarman. Tinker, Percy Alleline, a scheming Toby Jones. Tailor, Bill Haydon, a suave and charming Colin Firth. Soldier, Roy Bland, a brooding Ciaran Hinds and finally Poorman, the quiet emigre played by David Dencik. Smiley must tease through the facts to find the shocking truth about the mole with the help of reserved foot soldier Peter Guillam, played by a very strong Benedict Cumberbatch.
Directed by Swede Tomas Alfredson, who hit the big time with his 2008 film Let The Right One In, the film has the kind of depressed air so reminiscent of one of those Swedish detective novels with a grey sheen on every surface. It is the perfect portrayal of Britain in the 1970's, a time that is perhaps the darkest for the country in the modern era when unemployment soared and the country was bailed out by the IMF. This depressed air pervades the film and the Circus it portrays. Each of the leads seems to be carrying a great weight on their shoulders, none more so then the quiet and thoughtful Smiley. Oldman has largely created his own Smiley though there are times when it feels very similar to the great Alec Guinness performance. He is of course joined by a fantastic cast, perhaps the best male cast assembled since Glengarry Glen Ross.
Perhaps the best performance comes from Mark Strong, a fine actor most recently seen in The Guard. Here he portrays the betrayed and abused Jim Prideaux, a spy who gets left behind the iron curtain. A small enough role in terms of screen time, he creates a memorable character of the damaged Jim that will stay with you as the credits roll.
All in all, an enjoyable film that is if anything too short in its just over two hour running time. It doesn't leave enough time to develop characters in the same manner as the classic BBC series. That said, it's production values are so much higher then that series and it looks stunning at times. A very fine ending set to the tune of Julio Inglesias closes all the loops. A very fine effort indeed.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Flick of The Day: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

The life of the screenwriter is often lamented as being the bottom rung on the Hollywood ladder, with numerous anecdotes down through the years of how they have had their work destroyed by the studios and incompetent executives. This is perhaps overplayed though and as the industry has developed they have become as much a part of the system as anything else. Perhaps the career of Shane Black is an example of this, writing his first script in six weeks aged 23, his agent would sell Lethal Weapon in 3 days for $250,000. Black would go on to write some of the biggest action pictures of the era such as The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight for ever increasing sums. Then he seemed to disappear off the radar for a few years before returning with today's flick of the day which he wrote and directed, the wonderful post modern noir Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.
Robert Downey Jr is Harry Lockhart a down on his luck thief in New York City who while attempting to escape from the police, happens upon an open audition for a Hollywood film. Impressing the producer with his, "old school method" acting he is soon whisked out to Los Angeles for a screen test. Acting as an inconsistent and at time satirical narrator of his own story, Downey Jr is excellent as Harry. The film opens as Harry arrives at a party in the Hollywood hills, we are soon introduced to an old flame from his youth and aspiring actress Harmony, played by the beautiful Michelle Monaghan and Private Eye Gay Perry who is to give Harry detective lessons. Val Kilmer thoroughly enjoys his role as the tough homosexual Perry. Together they stumble across a plot to murder an heiress and frame Harry for it. 
The real strength of Black's directorial d├ębut is the concentration on characterisation with strong turns from Downey Jr and a great ensemble cast. This is combined with a strong mystery story that steals from some of the greats of the genre like Chandler and Hammet. The plotting never feels too dense and is compelling until the final scene. It helps of course that the script is at times quite funny and self referential. Downey's Harry is a narrator who is forever mocking the different conventions of the genre while finding fun in the least obvious places. At one point, Harry says

                  "Don't worry, I saw Lord of the Rings. I'm not going to end this 17 times"

There are some great quotable lines, many of which are for Val Kilmer as the flamboyant Gay Perry who combines his role as the (non) straight guy with a dry wit.
While it is slick and very aware of its place as a genre film, it is still and entertaining piece of action comedy. So much of the current releases are so terribly po faced and this is a refreshing change.

Perry: You don't get it, do you? This isn't "good cop, bad cop." This is fag and New Yorker. You're in a lot of trouble.

While Robert Downey Jr has since gone on to be as big a star as he ever was, it is worth remembering that this was one of the first tentative steps back on to the big screen after his much publicised addictions. It showed how good an actor he could be, which should never have been in doubt.
All in all, a fine film which makes the best of the talents at its disposal. Downey Jr would go on to be one of the biggest stars in the world at the moment and Kilmer would enjoy a revival as a character actor. While Shane Black has largely directed music videos since this, he has recently been signed on to direct the third instalment of the Iron Man franchise, starring of course Robert Downey Jr. Well worth your time.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Skin I Live In / La Piel Que Habito

Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has long been one of the most avant garde and visually stunning film-makers out there. His work has always challenged the viewers perceptions and played with reality with films like Talk to Her, Bad Education and the brilliant Volver. His latest film and today's flick of the day, The Skin I Live in, is perhaps his most bizarre creation, an adaptation of a very dark tale by Thierry Jonquet. 
Set in the year 2012 in the city of Toledo, the story focuses on the revolutionary work of skin specialist Robert Ledgard, played by a one time Almodovar regular cast member Antonio Banderas. Robert has developed a revolutionary new form of skin, that cannot burn claiming to have tested only on mice. Meanwhile at his country estate which also serves as his testing ground, he is keeping a beautiful young woman played by Elena Anaya in captivity having tested on her. In a roundabout fashion, it becomes apparent that Robert's motivation is losing his wife in a fiery wreck. In flashbacks, we learn of how he saved her after the accident despite her horrific burns however she ultimately commits suicide. Meanwhile their young daughter Norma, having witnessed this becomes mentally unstable and has to be committed. Years later and a teenage Norma having regained a little of herself is at a large family party on Robert's estate when she is taken advantage of and raped by a local boy. A vengeful Robert tracks down the rapist and abducts him to exact a terrible revenge. To say any more would be to give the game away.
It has to be said, this is a truly odd film. At times, it feels like the kind of run of the mill mad scientist torture porn that has polluted the multiplex for the last few years. Yet as Almodovar has noted, this is a horror film "without screams or frights". He is right in that sense but it is no less scary because of it, for this is as shocking and ending as one could imagine.
Banderas is excellent as the chillingly driven Robert, reminding us of how good an actor he can be given a meaty role, something not seen for many years. Like all of Almodovar's work, the film is predictably pretty with Robert seeming to live an almost idyllic life.
While this would be a departure from his usual work genre wise, it explore many of the same themes that have long been a feature of his work. Questions of identity and of what it means to be human, of sexual identity, of loneliness, betrayal and ultimately death. If there is a problem it is that this sits unevenly on the mad scientist plot. There is an almost laughable level of seriousness  to some of the scenes and when the twist in the tale is revealed, I for one could not stifle a giggle. It's just an Oh Christ moment.
That said, there is enough film making ability on show to make this worth your while. Almodovar is one of the greats of European cinema of the last twenty years and even something as out there as this is worth a look.
All in all, while nowhere near his best work, it includes a fine performance from Banderas and if nothing else will leave you with food for thought.

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