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.
If Disney had kept the much more alluring title ‘John Carter Of Mars’ instead of hacking off the last bit and just keeping the dude’s name, I feel like Andrew Stanton’s John Carter would have had a better chance in marketing and taken flight, because it’s not even near as bad a film as people would have you believe. In fact, it’s a gorgeous, beautifully told, elaborate retro science fiction dream and a flat out great film. I suppose it’s kind of like Waterworld, where a film tanks so badly that people start to confuse bad numbers with bad quality and a whole negative stigma is whipped up around it. Speaking of Waterworld, another great film, John Carter bears similarities in production design and visual atmosphere, albeit set on Mars for most of the duration. Based on a series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs believed to be some of the earliest works of literary SciFi, Taylor Kitsch plays John Carter, an ex Civil War badass who finds himself whisked away to Mars through a dimensional cave portal out in the desert, propelled on an adventure with warring clans, giant alien yeti beasts, a princess (Lynn Collins), humanoid extraterrestrials led by a green Willem Dafoe, an adorable little dog/toad/road-runner animal and more. This is one of those old school epics that doesn’t just hire a few leads and a gaggle of supporting players but turns a whole casting agency upside down, shakes it and signs any actors that fall out, and as a result we get a jaw dropping lineup that includes Samantha Morton, Polly Walker, Thomas Haden Church, Ciaran Hinds, Jon Favreau, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Mark Strong, Don Stark, Bryan Cranston as a crusty cavalry general and Dominic West in full Shakespeare mode as an evil Martian prince. Oh, Ross from Friends is apparently in there somewhere too but I’ve never been able to spot him, keep your eyes peeled though. The plot at base level is a fish out of water story as John adjusts to the planet (seeing him mess around with the gravitational field is so much fun), bonds with Dafoe and his tribe of Tharks, takes on giant furry Pokémon things in an intergalactic gladiator arena and casts his gaze starward, wondering if he’ll ever see his blue planet again. A few convoluted subplots get in the way including Mark Strong’s weird metaphysical warlock priest dude, but for the most part this a propulsive, rollicking, operatic space adventure with special effects that won’t quit and a real sense of wonder. Why this flopped so bad is anyone’s guess and it’s a shame because when this happens people tend to focus more on the event of its release and that perceived failure more than the film itself, and the legacy gets clouded. Forget the losses a studio with billions in couch change ‘suffered,’ forget any bad press or skewed marketing and just enjoy the film on its own, because it’s one for the ages.
Mindscape, given the less tantalizing title ‘Anna’ upon release, is a thinking person’s thriller, and perhaps a little bit too much so. In the near future, or perhaps some alternate reality, some humans have evolved into pseudo clairvoyants who can enter the memories of other people and interact with their subjects within them. This talent has been trademarked by law enforcement, who employ ‘memory detectives’ to psychologically resolve conflict or retrieve otherwise out of reach information. Mark Strong is one such man, but his talents have dimmed a bit following the deaths of his family and a crippling stroke. Hauled out of retirement by his former boss (Brian Cox, sly as ever), he finds himself tasked with navigating the labyrinthine mind of Anna (Taissa Farmiga) a girl accused of murder and deemed a potential sociopath pending diagnosis. The film is deliberately dense and elliptical, not standard Hollywood fare at all, which is nice to see, but it also trips just a little bit on its own cognitive aspirations, especially in the third act. It’s one of those pieces that’s less like The Cell, and more like Vanilla Sky or Danny Boyle’s Trance (two absolute favourites of mine) where so much of the story wades through muddy mindgames that at a certain point we think to ourselves ‘well who’s to say if any of this is actually real if it’s gotten so complex’, and indeed it’s very difficult to piece together what has transpired here, especially with a conclusion that would require multiple viewings to even get an inkling. It’s stylish as all hell though, given a clinical, steely grey palette punctuated by flourishes of startling red to show the capacity for violence lurking just out of sight within the opaque and enigmatic human psyche. The acting is top tier as well; Strong is reliably committed and intense, Farmiga is deeply disconcerting as the most fascinating and ambiguous character, showing blossoming talent that I look forward to seeing more of, while Cox steals his scenes as per usual. The film trips over itself a few times and like I said, overly convoluted, but it’s one mesmerizing effort for the most part, albeit after a second or third viewing.
Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla was the third British crime comedy caper for the director, and it could have easily been the misstep that signaled him wearing out his welcome. Happily I can tell you that it’s a winner, and although not as cracking as Lock Stock or Snatch, it sinks into its own distinct groove that’s fairly removed from it’s two predecessors. Once again we are treated to the life and times of a bunch of hoods and gangsters in London, but not the grungy, back alley soup kitchen London that we’re used to from Ritchie. No, this is a glistening, prosperous London, filled with real estate money ripe for the taking and developers making underhanded deals with shady businessmen. The climate has definitely changed in Ritchie’s aesthetic, but the characters remain the same, just as witty, eccentric and chock full of piss and vinegar. The story centers around the wild bunch, a cozy little clan of East end petty thieves led by One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba). Their third musketeer is Handsome Bob, played by a hilarious Tom Hardy who has a secret up his sleeve that spills out in what is the most adorable scene Ritchie has ever written. The gang is hired by a mysterious chick (Thandie Newton) to rob some dudes, and that’s where the trouble starts. Elsewhere in town, arch gangster Lenny Cole (a frothing Tom Wilkinson) negotiates a land deal with dangerous russian billionaire Uri (Karel Roden switches up his trademark psychosis for smooth talking menace here) that hinges on a missing painting. Lenny dispatches his right hand bloke Archie (Mark Strong, subtly trolling us) to find it along with his rock star nephew Johnny Quid. Got that? Nevermind, half the fun is the how and not the why of Ritchie’s stories, and I find it best to just let the flow of it wash over you as opposed to thinking out each detail and missing the sideshow. Toby Kebbell is off the hook as Quid, a wiry stick of dynamite and a comic force to be reckoned with, truly the most exciting performance of the film. Ritchie has a knack for bringing out the funny side in actors, even ones that aren’t usually the type to make you laugh. Strong is terrific, with a few carefully timed moments of sheer hilarity that deftly make you forget how dangerous he is. Ludacris and Jeremy Piven are fun, if a bit out of place as two event promoters. Butler and Elba have an easy-peasy rapport that’s light, friendly and believable. Wilkinson dances between alpha assuredness and aging buffoonry nicely, always commanding the scene and oddly reminding me of Mr. Magoo. There’s a playful tone to this one, glitzy and celebratory in places where Snatch was grim and sketchy, and the whole affair feels like a new years party with a bunch of old friends. Watch for cameos from Matt King, Nonzo Anonzie, Jimi Mistry, Mundungus Fletcher and Gemma Arterton. Very fun stuff.
LOW WINTER SUN came and went quickly but it packed a heavy gut punch. It was AMC’s remake of the BBC show of the same name that starred Mark Strong as Detective Frank Agnew. Strong reprises his role for the AMC remake. The show was a conventional, dark cop drama that lasted one season. Strong’s performance as the stoic detective put this show over the top, and Strong was able to show his range as an actor. He wasn’t just another archetypal cop, he was deeply layered. As the show ran its course, we would get glimpses into what made him the man he was.
The storyline was just as layered as Strong’s character. The show starts with his partner (played perfectly by Lennie James), killing a fellow detective, and staging it as a suicide. Agnew was coerced into this by his partner who had told Agnew that the detective they killed, had killed Agnew’s Russian escort of a girlfriend. The first shot we see of the show is a tight closeup on Strong’s face, he is looking into the camera with a tear streaming down his cheek. We can hear his thought: I am not a bad man.
The show progresses with multiple story arcs of police corruption, a young gangster on the rise, and Agnew’s “missing” girlfriend who was presumed dead. The show never overreaches, and all the story arcs are taut and perfectly executed. The build up pays off remarkably in the two part series finale. Strong, who played it calm and cool in the show, spirals out of control so fast, you can’t believe everything you are seeing in the final two episodes.
The first part of the series finale has a remarkable segment. Distraught, Agnew travels to see his ex wife, who we had previously knew nothing about. She’s remarried and has a kid. The latter is as a surprise to Agnew as it is to the audience. This is Agnew’s last stop. He’s lost control of the beast of a situation he helped create. He recounts to his ex wife their previous relationship. He remembering of their marriage is sweet and loving, something he holds very dear. His ex wife corrects him. She tells it like it was, not how Agnew re-remembered it. And there we have it, it’s all out on the screen, it’s the price that Agnew paid for his stoicism.
LOW WINTER SUN ends on a perfect note. While I would have loved to have seen a second season to see where the characters progress onward, the arc is neatly buttoned up, and Agnew’s season long journey has come to a close. This show is a slow burn. It’s brooding and dangerous, and Mark Strong gives the finest performance of his career in an amazing tour de force.