The first time I saw Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (when it first came out) it was lost on me, I felt detached from it, unable to connect and, dare I say, bored. That’s what revisits are for though and the second time I found rich psychological detail, achingly beautiful character relationships, beautifully burnished cinematography and one tantalizing Rubik’s cube of a narrative that, yes, is still tough for me to comprehensively understand but is rich in treasures of emotional depth, poetic tragedy and minuscule splashes of darkest humour amongst the sardonic helpings of dry espionage. Gary Oldman is sly and terrific in a study of low key tenacity as George Smiley, a veteran MI6 bigwig tasked by twitchy Mission Control (John Hurt, brilliant as ever) to find a decades long Soviet mole amidst their ranks. It could be one of a few higher ups, played by the prolific likes of Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, David Dencik and others. It proves to be quite the hurdle as this traitor has burrowed himself so deeply within their ranks that he himself is perhaps confused what side he belongs to anymore. Smiley uses a rookie field operative (Benedict Cumberbatch, excellent) to sniff around and is carefully watched by a regional honcho played by Simon McBurney, a very unsettling little fellow who can turn the simple act of buttering dry toast into a devilish interrogation tactic and is the last dude you want to be ‘carefully watched’ by. The great Mark Strong has a wonderful extended bit as a long burned out former operative with deep ties to MI6 and a haunted past, his arc is very special here. My favourite aspect of the film has to be Tom Hardy as a double agent who falls hard for a mysterious Russian girl (Svetlana Khodvhenkova) he’s surveilling. He’s the perfectly tragic example of a hopeless romantic who discovers he’s gravely in the wrong line of work and wants out before it’s too late. All of these characters move about greyest London and other parts of Europe like chess pieces, and indeed the metaphor becomes literal when Hurt’s Control uses an actual chessboard to illustrate to Smiley just who he’s dealing with and how formidable each potential opponent might just be. The film is grey, drab, washed out, lived in and wearily opaque to evoke a paranoid, sad postwar setting but despite the inherent gloom drenching everything I found the aesthetic to be quite strikingly beautiful. Same goes for the themes and emotional content: these opaque characters hold their emotions close to the chest and as such appear icy, ambiguous and heartless yet it’s beneath that the we see their humanity, not in dialogue or direct action but in glances, quiet moments, slow revelations and half noticed interactions between words. Oldman, Strong, Firth and Hardy are the four standouts in an impossibly well tailored cast of deep cut talents, they’re the four legs of the table to watch for in order to ascertain the strange elixir of this film’s essence and get the most of it. Just don’t expect to absorb everything the first time round, this is a deeply layered, multifaceted, strange beast of a film that likely takes many viewings (this was only my second) to fully settle in. See if you can catch references to everything from John Carpenter’s The Thing to 007 to the Coen Brothers to even the bible while also soaking up the pure class and originality it possesses all its own. Great film.
Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower requires a strong stomach to sit through some of the true life atrocities depicted, but it also begs that one doesn’t look away, or the efforts of one intrepid UN worker (Rachel Weisz) would have gone unheeded, because almost everyone else besides her turned a blind eye when scores of young woman in post war Bosnia were being held captive and brutalized in the illegal sex trade. I can’t think of anyone more adept than Weisz at playing someone this relentlessly compassionate; there’s just something in her warm brown eyes, comforting voice and genuine aura that that camera and dialogue practically melt over. Horror like this almost always follows the fog of war, when the barriers of civilization have taken a hit and the darkness they held at bay roams free for awhile, plus it’s hard to keep track of people after something like that wipes records, destroys towns and fucks up infrastructure. In any case, Weisz’s Kathryn Bolkovac discovers dozens of underground brothels where young girls are held, raped and tortured by mercenaries every day. Her boss at the UN (Liam Cunningham in a chilling portrait of casual indifference) tells her to lay off and they they’re “whores of war, that’s how it works.” Faced with that kind of betrayal from her own people snaps something in Kathryn and she feels deeply compelled to launch her own personal crusade to save the girls, but it proves to be a dangerous task when she realizes that not only do organizations not really care, but some may actively have interests in stopping her. Using contacts in various departments including Monica Bellucci, a kindly Vanessa Redgrave, Benedict Cumberbatch and a fantastic David Strathairn, she gradually gets to the centre of this evil maze, towards truth and freedom for hundreds of innocent girls. The great thing about this film is that it functions as both a superbly exciting political thriller in the vein of Bourne, but really it’s a deeply human, very personal and harrowing study of evil taking root in a region, as the light that Kathryn keeps in her heart wth which to fight it. This is represented in a key relationship between Kathryn and a young Bosnian girl named Raya (Roxana Kondurache, phenomenal) who she takes a special interest in and becomes poster child for these girls. Also, it’s a very carefully researched true story too and that always makes events like this far more affecting onscreen. Just go in with the right mindset and guardrails up because the scenes of sexual abuse and torture are almost unbearable, but necessary to the story arc. A winner in every sense of the word.
Taika Waititi’s Thor Ragnarok has got to be the most fun I’ve ever had watching a Marvel film. Trust Hollywood to make a sterling decision once in a blue moon, and hiring a deftly comic, renegade underdog subversive improv genius like Waititi to take the wheel is a smart, bold move. Now before I sing it’s praises to Valhalla, they don’t quite let him (he’s the Kiwi wunderkind behind the newly minted classics Hunt For The Wilderpeople and What We Do In The Shadows) go completely bonkers, which he clearly wants to do, and although he’s kind of bogged down by a generic villain and a recycled point of conflict in plot, a lot of the time he’s allowed to stage a zany, uncharacteristically weird (for the MCU, anyways) pseudo space opera that is a blast and a half. Thor finds himself, after a brief encounter with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange, carted off to a giant garbage planet surrounded by space portals (one of which is referred to with a straight face as ‘The Devil’s Anus’, which sent me into a fit) and lorded over by a certifiably loony Jeff Goldblum as the Grand Master, a demented despot who holds intergalactic gladiator matches for his own entertainment. There Thor is forced to fight his old buddy the Hulk, and somehow find a way to escape Goldblum’s nefarious yet hilarious clutches. He’s got just south of reliable allies in his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and an exiled Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) with an attitude problem, as well as rock-armoured warrior Korg, voiced hilariously by Waititi himself as the film’s most engaging character. Meanwhile back in Asgard, trouble brews when the equally dangerous and sexy Hela (Cate Blanchett, with enough authoritative, husky smoulder to make me weak at the knees) tries to steal Odin’s throne for herself, with the help of defector Skurge (Karl Urban, who gets a mic drop of an action set piece later on). Here’s the thing about Hela: Blanchett is in top form, a commanding, dark presence… but the role is as blandly written as a number of other MCU villains, and one wonders how they’ve managed to flunk out at creating engaging antagonists a few times over now. She’s stuck in a subplot that we’ve all seen before, one that’s stale and at odds with the fresh, humorous and wonderful storyline between Thor and Banner. Their side of things is like buddy comedy crossed with screwball fare and works charming wonders, especially when they’re blundering about in Goldblum’s cluttered trash metropolis, it’s just inspired stuff. Throw in a great 80’s inspired electro pop score and a cool VHS retro vibe (I’m all about the old school) and you’ve got one of the best MCU movies to date, and most importantly one that *tries something new*, which the genre needs more of, even if it doesn’t ultimately fully commit, this is still a gem we have on our hands.