Saturday, December 31, 2011


There are six of them. They meet in a soundproof room and discuss whatever small pieces of information they have about the enemy. They are Control (John Hurt), Alleline (Toby Jones) Haydon (Collin Firth), Bland (Ciaran Hinds), Esterhouse (David Dencik) and George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Together they are the braintrust of early 70's era British Intelligence, known as "The Circus." Once of them is a mole.

Someone once told me that by the end of a John Le Carré novel, you are likely to know the characters better than some members of your immediate family. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of Tomas Alferdson's new thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on Le Carré's 1974 novel, is realizing how complex the plot has become despite seeming so simple. Here is a spy movie that is neither a slamb-bang action spectacle, nor a talky gabfest. Most importantly, this is a film that understands the mindset of espionage. It's hero, George Smiley, doesn't shoot anyone, he barely talks to anyone. He's turned being inconspicuous into a life pursuit.

As the film begins, there is a screw-up in Hungary. An agent is killed while trying to convince a general to defect. It seems that the whole thing was a Russian trap. The consequences of the debacle shake up the Circus. Control and Smiley are forced out, and the egotistical Alleline takes the top chair. A year later Control is dead. His untimely death came before he was able to find the mole. The investigation falls to the retired Smiley, who accepts with something approaching mild annoyance.

There are many, many details to the plot. Many involve Smiley interviewing several operatives, including a disgraced courier Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), and the still active supervisor Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch). The interviews play out almost like therapy sessions. Smiley doesn't say much, he points in the direction he wants with open-ended questions (more frequently, open-ended nods), and lets them talk. As a result, we learn a lot about what makes these people tick, particularly Tarr, but nothing is extraneous. There is tragedy and pathos but emotion is not overplayed. In fact, it's often very, very repressed. This is after all, a British film.

Aferson, who made a splash with the Swedish vampire movie Let The Right One In, has made a film for people who are paying attention, and a film to watch more than once, of small details. Aferson isn't concerned with flash, but still demonstrates one of the best visual eyes on the planet. The performances are, across the board, fantastic. There isn't one weak link to be found. Oldman is excellent with his minimalist performance. The rest of the ensemble is uniformly great, particularly Tom Hardy (Bronson, Warrior) and Mark Strong (Kick-Ass, Sherlock Holmes) who has a small, but pivotal role. This is a clean, efficient film. See it. Ruminate on it, then see it again.

Grade: A

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is currently in limited release, it expands to more theaters January 6th.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


The Tintin comics are kinda like soccer, popular everywhere except America. It's a real shame too, because if Steven Spielberg's new film adaptation is any indication, we've been missing out on some great  adventures. For the uninitiated, Tintin was created by Belgian artist Hergé in the late 20's. The comics are notable for their innovative artwork and also being fun and whimsical.

This film is primarily based on the 11th book of the series The Secret of the Unicorn and bits and pieces from other entries. But all you really need to know is that Tintin (Jamie Bell) is basically Indiana Jones as a kid. Instead of being an archeologist, he's a boy reporter. He travels the world with his dog Snowy solving mysteries and getting into trouble.

We find the intrepid newskid at an outdoor market buying a model ship named the Unicorn. He has no particular interest in the ship beyond his love of history. But several parities have a much more immediate interest, particularly the villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig) who's more than willing to kill to get his grubby hands on the model. As Tintin works to solve the case, he teams up with the comically inebriated Captain Haddock (a fantastic performance by Andy Serkis). Haddock knows a lot about the model, but only when he's sober—a very rare occurrence!

Spielberg has been trying to make this film, in one form or another, for about 30 years. The passion that he and producer Peter Jackson have for this character is positively infectious. There is a level of visual inventiveness here that is not often displayed in cinema. In one sequence we see two galleons. Both ships are being rocked back and forth by tremendous waves. They become entangled at the mast. The bigger ship tips back upright pulling the smaller ship out of the water entirely. The smaller ship dangles from the sails as pirates leap down from one ship to the other! In another scene two characters fight in an elaborate duel but instead of swords, the combatants stand behind the controls of giant cranes. Every time it seems the film cannot possibly have another great sequence, Spielberg pulls another great gag out of his bag of tricks!

pictured: excitement!
In a way, this is a return to a Spielberg we haven't seen since the 80's. But another way, this is a new Spielberg. The motion-caption techniques gives the film an improvisational feeling while still being animated. The style has all the creativity of animation, the gravity of live-action but never stumbles into the uncanny-valley as Robert Zemeckis has while using similar techniques. This film has freed Spielberg, it's a filmmakers imagination transcribed directly onto the screen. He can go anywhere, do anything. This film, this character has empowered him in a way I've never seen.

If the film is successful in America (it's already done gangbusters overseas), the sequel will be directed by Peter Jackson after he finishes The Hobbit. It's a shame that we're going to have to wait that long.

Grade: A

For those wishing to read the comics but don't know which of Tintin's 24 adventures to start with, the AVclub has recently published a very nice guide which you can find here. I've only read bits and pieces of comics, but I'm gonna run out and buy them at the earliest opportunity  

Monday, December 26, 2011


The Mission: Impossible films have never been very substantive. So much so that the third film shocked some by having a coherent plot. Even the Bond films are deeper than these. What the series is good at is providing a playground for great stunts. An action movie test lab if you will. In that sense Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a rousing success.

The plot is cut and dried. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his I.M.F. team (I.M.F. stands for "Impossible Mission Force"- love that!) are disavowed after a failed recon mission leaves the Kremlin in ruins. They must clear their name and stop a terrorist from destroying the world itself!

It's a more coherent film than most of the series with extra attention paid to Hunt's team. From the previous film we have the over-eager technician Benji (Simon Pegg), and new additions like the slightly worn out Jane (Paula Patton), and the mysterious analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner). The team has great chemistry and unlike many ensemble action films, no one feels extra. It's still Tom Cruise's show, but it's more balanced and everyone has plenty to do (particularly Pegg). The story may be light but the character relationships have an intricate feeling to them.

Outside of a young Jackie Chan, is there a living actor as committed to extreme stunt-work than Tom Cruise? In one nail-biting sequence Ethan must run around the outside of Dubai's Burj Kahlifa hotel, the tallest building in the world. Another actor would have done the done close ups against bluescreen, used a stunt double, etc. But not Cuise, that is the actual Tom Cruise running and jumping roughly 2,000 feet above the ground without a safety net! It's a great stunt, but more importantly, it's a well constructed sequence. The closest that any of these sequels have come to equaling the suspense the Langley break-in from the original.

The danger of having such a spellbinding stunt so early in the film is that nothing can top it. But that doesn't mater as even the more artificial action scenes are great fun. Such as a sequence where Hunt must pursue a target through a giant sandstorm, a prison break based around a Dean Martin song or a climactic fight inside an automated parking garage (it works like a giant vending machine and as ridiculous as it looks apparently such things do exist).

If there's another thing that these films do is provide a great template for directors. Each film has had a different director and each film has unique stylistic thumbprint. Ghost Protocol is no different. It is particularly notable for being the live-action debut of Simpsons and Pixar vet Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille). This is an extremely fun and triumphant debut full of Birds trademark humor. If he chooses to, Bird can very easily become one of the worlds best action-directors. This is not as personal as his earlier films, buy hey, it's Mission: Impossible.

Grade: A-

I saw the film in IMAX. If you can afford it, I recommend it. Roughly 30 minutes of the film was shot using the format and the results are breathtaking. Bird engulfs the audience with the 9 story screen. The dust of the desert. The vertigo of climbing the building. It's all much more real and immediate thanks to the large format film stock.

Picture this 9 stories tall!

Saturday, December 24, 2011


For several decades, Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger has received in the mail, a frame of pressed flowers for his birthday. Until 1966 they where from Harriet, his niece; afterwords they where from her killer. So opens David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a stylish and confident new thriller.

To help solve the case, Henrik hires Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), an ambitious magazine editor who was recently convicted of libel after trusting the wrong source. After 40 years of investigating the case himself, all Henrik knows is that the killer is someone in the family.

As Mikael begins his work, we also follow Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a mentally disturbed computer hacker who's being sexually abused by her new guardian. After getting some very bloody revenge, she's hired by Blomkvist as a research assistant and the movie proper starts.

This film deals with some weighty material: rape, fascism, corruption, obsession, and more rape. There is a political undercurrent that's hard to ignore, but it's never preachy, and Fincher gives it to us with all the trademark style he's shown in Se7en, Fight Club, The Game and The Social Network. Beautifully under-lit with echo-chamber sound. Not that this film is as good as those, but it's just as stylish.

With all apologies to the late Stieg Larsson, the plot is the films biggest problem. The structure is not well suited to film. As lurid as it is, the film is a bit dull at first. It takes too long to get going and overall it lacks the transcendent resonance that would put into the very top tier of thrillers. That said, it's better than the Swedish version from a few years ago. It's better put together, lacks the overly sappy ending and isn't as dependent on it's lead performance. Rooney Mara is fantastic as Lisbeth Salander. She won't make you forget about Noomi Rapace (who originated the role to great acclaim), but she's not trying to. The performance is playing a very different note here. Daniel Craig does a lot with his lumpy character, Christopher Plummber is fantastic as Henrik and Stellan Skarsgard has an unforgettable scene near the end I must leave to you to discover.

The main draw of the story is Salander. She is still one of the most fascinating characters in fiction right now. She is tough as nails yet there's something fragile about her. She give no heed to the roles society wants her to play. The world is against her and she is against the world. As interesting as the mystery about Harriet is. The material dealing directly with Salander's world is the most interesting and it's a little irritating that she's sidelined just as the film finds it's footing.

This is a very good film, not as good as should be, but about as good as the material can be without radical surgery to the script. But something about the complexity of the film tells me that I'll like this more on repeat viewings.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Some people grow up too soon. Mavis Gary never grew up at all.

The 30 year old Mavis (Charlize Theron) spends her time writing, drinking, watching VH1 reality shows and, occasionally she gets around to her job. She writes-ghostwrites-a series of young adult books about a high-school girl who "was never taken seriously because she was too pretty."

One day Mavis decides too go back to her hometown and reconnect with her high-school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). It's worth knowing that she undertakes this quest knowing full well that Buddy is married and has just had a child. Along the way she strikes up an unlikely friendship with an old classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt) who does his best to tell her that she's insane. Mavis is condescending enough to Matt that he, up to a point, enjoys watching her fail miserably.

And fail miserably she does. When she meets Buddy again, she misreads every social cue that should tell her that he is not just married, he is extremely married. For instance: Buddy describes himself as being a zombie, in reference to being a new father. Not having spent much time around infants, Mavis thinks he's referring to his marriage.

The film is a reunion for screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, who both made Juno together, but comparing this project to that one would be completely wrong. Cody has dialed-back her stylized dialogue lending this film a more real-world feel. A lot of people criticized the protagonist in Juno as sounding as if she where from another planet, while Mavis just feels trapped on another planet. There's a fair bit of harsh satire going on here, but Reitman is able to warm up the material considerably. On paper Mavis is a bit of a cliché, with the toy dog in her purse, her wigs and "Hello Kitty" T-shirts, but Reitman and Theron work to find a deeper truth to this woman. As misguided as her quest is, she is trying to to pull herself together, it's not just 'the bitch from high-school being mean,' she's trying to pull herself out of a deep depression. Trying to live that fantasy life that only exists in her books.

Grade: B+


The new Errol Morris film Tabloid is the most lurid, off-the-wall documentary to come along in a long time. It tells the story of Wyoming PHD beauty queen, Joyce McKinney who, in the late 70's, fell in love with a flabby Mormon named Kirk Anderson. Joyce claims that his family brainwashed him into not loving her and then sent him off to London to forget about her. From there Joyce went to London, kidnapped him with chloroform and a fake gun. Drove him to a small cottage in Devon and deprogrammed him using, um... bondage sex.

From there things just get odd. After Joyce's arrest for rape and kidnapping, she becomes a media sensation meeting movie stars and rock-gods. She starts writing a book telling her story, stating that she was just an innocent girl who was trying to rescue the love of her life. She quickly enters into a rivalry with London tabloid The Daily Mirror, who disputes her "pure as the driven snow" narrative by revealing the nature of the "modeling" work she used to finance the caper, and claiming to have a plethora of nude photos as evidence.

We hear most of this story from McKinney herself. We also hear a good portion from Daily Mirror reporter Kent Gavin. McKinney claims that the stories about the time she spent in California are flat lies and that the photos are fake. Kent claims that he's seen the negatives that prove they aren't but can't produce them. Joyce also claims to have had material that would prove that they are fake. But sadly, or suspiciously, all the evidence was stolen.

It's clear that Anderson and McKinney had some sort of romantic relationship prior to all the weirdness, but it's unclear to what extent. It's unclear to what extent Anderson did or did not enjoy the "deprogramming," "You can't put a marshmellow into a parking meter," Joyce claims. It is clear that he denounced her after, perhaps out of guilt, perhaps not. The only thing that is certain is that they are not together now.

Morris weaves this tale into an extremely entertaining documentary. McKinney is a prime example of the unreliable narrator. Even if everything she said was true, she'd still come off as a self-serving obsessive at best. But Morris never demonizes her or even criticizes her, instead he sympathizes with her on a deep and real level. It's not as hard as it may seem. Joyce has not lived an easy life since the trial. For years she was hounded by paparazzi. Home videos reveal her to be extremely lonely, perhaps even clinically depressed. She never married and her only companions seem to be her dogs. It's been over 30 years since she kidnapped Kirk Anderson with the chloroform and the fake gun.  She's still working on that book.

Grade: A


For a film about a the worlds greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows doesn’t seem interested in showing us much actual detective work. In fact by the time the film starts Sherlock (Robert Downey Jr.) has already solved 80% of the case. Leaving him to stumble through 125 minutes of over-gimmicked action, punctuated by long stretches of inane chatter while he tidies up tieing arch nemesis Moriarty (Jared Harris) to a series of bombings. Of course Holmes is not alone on this country-hopping trek. He’s joined by faithful-ish companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law) and sometimes by a gypsy played by the wonderful  but underused Noomi Rapace (the original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). To further explain the plot would be over-dignifying the plot.

This is a silly film. I tried to takes notes on all the silly or dumb scenes but I lost count, here are the highlights:

  • Moriarty blows up a building to cover the simultaneous shooting of one of it’s occupants. "No one will look for a bullet after that explosion!"
  • Sherlock's series of Clouseau-level disguises that include a very insensitive “chinaman.”  
  • Sherlock throws Watson's wife from a train speeding over a bridge. But don't worry- He "timed it right."
  • More stuff on the train. We are shown that Holmes infiltrated the bad guys cabin as a woman (see above) and replaced two specific bullets with lipstick tins that will cause the guns to backfire. Now, we are asked to believe that Holmes worked out the timing so that the fight would last X number of seconds and that the bullet that misfires would be the one pointed at his head at the end of the fight. How did he know that? What if one of his combatants had attacked in the wrong order so that the gun pointed at his head was the wrong one? How did he know the exact moment when they where going to attack with the machine gun?
  • Why is Holmes’s brother Mycroft a nudist?
  • How impractical is Holmes's "urban camouflage" which only works if he's standing still and in a specific spot? 
There are many, many more dumb logic-defying moments. If I told you my favorite it would spoil the film, which may not be the worst thing in the world.

I don’t mind a jazzed up Sherlock Holmes. I quite enjoyed director Guy Ritchie's previous outing. But that film actually understood Holmes even if it wasn't being orthodox, it had some restraint. But this film, from the same creative team, just doesn't have a clue. Holmes doesn’t come off as a brilliant detective as much as a conspiracy-nut who happens to be right.  The action scenes are so ridiculously hypercharched and self-indulgent that one just overloads. To make matters worse, everything that isn’t an action scene feels like padding. There are some effective scenes in the final third, most include Harris’s Moriarty, but by that point it's a hopeless cause. I will give the film some credit for knowing that Watson served in the British Army and referencing Reichenbach Falls, but on the whole, this is a dumb, irritating film with no respect or basic understanding of it's source material.

About midway through the film, an exacerbated Watson tells Holmes that "This is the last time we join forces." I'm not one to talk at the movies, but I couldn't help groaning "God I hope so!"

Grade: D

Note: If you're looking for a good take on Sherlock Holmes, I recommend Billy Wilder's 1970 film "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" or the recent, wonderful BBC series "Sherlock." The later is currently streaming on Netflix instant.

Friday, December 16, 2011


At it's best, Beginners is a film about misfiring synapses. How our memories don't flow in a straight line, and how things get jumbled up and messy. It's also a little too humorless for it's own good. The story is essentially that of director Mike Mills. Oliver (Ewan McGregger) is a graphic designer. In the first of several timelines, Oliver's mother has just died and his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out as gay. Hal start over again as a gay man at 75. A brave and difficult thing to attempt if ever there was one. His son however is a different story.

In a further off timeline Hal is dead of lung cancer and Oliver has to deal with it. He's as closed off and private as his father was when he was in the closet. Oliver doesn't do well with women and is afraid to even try. Being morose is better for the art than it is for the artist. But he finds some company in an equally distant French actress played in a charming enough performance by Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds).

Their romance want's to be the backbone of the film, but it's just not as interesting as Hal's story which is positive and life affirming beyond it's LGBT dimensions. It's nice to think that a person can make such a radical life change so late in life and be successful. The film spends much time on Oliver trying to deal with Hal's coming out and death, but Oliver is too vague of a character, painted with slightly too broad of a brush to be of equal interest. His musings on life are amusing and mostly insightful, but they just don't add up to much. Laurent's character is even more problematic. She's not a real person as much as she's an archetypal abstraction of a woman. A lonely screenwriters projection.

What makes up for most of this is the style. The film floats back and forth between Oliver's various memories from four different points in his life. but it's not a mental workout figuring out where you are. The film drifts to whenever it feels it needs to-just the way that memory does. One of the films pleasures is how director Mills illustrates Olivers thoughts for us. When his father is told that he has a tumor the size of a quarter, Mills shows us a quarter against black. Then he shows us all the different combinations of coins that add up to 25 cents. It's always interesting how we think of such mundane things when we get bad news.

Hal's character aside, little of this story feels new but that's appropriate. People have been living variations of stories like this since the beginning of time and will continue to do so. Oliver likes to list what the Sun looked like in 1955 and 2003. What the stars looked like and the cars and the president. Beginners is what the mid-age, auto-biographical, emotionally adrift film looks like in 2011.

Grade: B-

Saturday, December 10, 2011


It's interesting that a story about the birth of film, that deals so much with the loss of film negatives was shot digitally. It's kind of a charming notion, a statement to the nostalgics out there that the old ways will live on. It helps that Hugo was directed by one of cinema's greatest filmbuffs, Martin Scorsese, and adapted from award winning children's book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The film is a Dickensian fairytale about a young orphan named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who winds the clocks and lives in the walls of the Gare Montparnasse Pairs train station in the early 30's. Hugo must hide from Gustav (Sacha Baron Choen), who wants to send him to an orphanage. He also deals with a grumpy toy shop owner who is secretly film pioneer Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) who might know the secret to an old automaton that Hugo and his father (Jude Law) where repairing before his untimely death.

It's all a little muddled, a little bloated at times, I suspect it worked a bit better in the book, which ran over 500 pages. It doesn't help that this film is way outside Scorsese comfort range. He tries to turn the station into a living, breathing place but doesn't quite succeed. I was reminded of the airport that Tom Hanks had to live in in Steven Spielberg's under seen film The Terminal, and how well that airport worked as a living space that characters inhabited. Scorsese isn't able to sell his Gare Montparnasse as effectively as Spielberg sold his terminal but he tries. There are a lot of vignettes going on, including a sweat little romance involving a jealous dog. Sometimes these asides are more welcome than others. Choen's performance, in particular, gets old fast. His character is supposed to be off, but his off-ness is off. Which wouldn't matter if he wasn't such a major presence in the film. Hugo is very much a film of two halves. The first sags; but the second shines.

The second half of the film is more about cinema. The birth of cinema and the great tragedies that sometimes befall great artists. There is a montage near the end detailing the history of early film that is simply astonishing. Perhaps one of the best things that Scorsese and his long time editor Thelma Schoonmaker have ever done. We don't just see recreations of silent films, we get to see the real thing. Some of the archival footage has even been lovingly converted into 3D. According to legend, when the Lumiére brothers showed The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station audiences where scared that the train might actually hit them. Now, we get to re-experience that in 3D. For film buffs, that alone makes up for some of the films overall lumpiness.

in 3D!

The film is a technical marvel; I've never seen 3D this good before. It's better than what James Cameron achieved in Avatar by leaps and bounds. Cameron may be a bigger tech-head, but Scorsese has a better eye for composition. It's also what Scorsese does with the technology. He allows the camera to just sit and look at his subject. We get to just sit and observe Ben Kingsley's jutting nose. Choen's charactered features suit the format as well. We also get lots of spinning gears and clockwork that looks fantastic in 3D. One doesn't feel as if Scorsese is inventing a new film language, but that he's reinvigorating what already exists.

It's very appropriate that the film is in 3D. As a filmmaker, the real Méliès was a pioneer of visual effects (we actually get to watch him invent special effects and editing), it makes sense that a film about his legacy be made with the latest gimmicks. But ultimately, the films many flaws mean the film is only an adequate tribute. It lakes the warmth and light of Méliès films. Scorsese is one of cinemas greatest practitioners, but whimsy is not something he's good at. One wonders what other filmmakers might have done with the project. It's a good film, but Steven Spielberg, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Michel Gondry and Wes Anderson all could have made this film better.

Grade: B-