The Adventures of Tintin(1/11/2012)

The world of big budget action movies seemed pretty damn bleak in the late 90s.  The world of tent pole blockbuster cinema seemed dominated by a bunch of music video bred brats like Michael Bay, Brett Ratner, and Roland Emmerich who were making soulless effects vehicles aimed at over-caffinated teenagers.  Sure, the OGs like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, and (for better or worse) George Lucas were still making movies, but it was beginning to feel like that wave of near-perfect effects blockbusters would soon be gone for good.  Fortunately a new “chosen one” emerged out of nowhere and his name was Peter Jackson.  The second the world saw the first installment of The Lord of the Rings it became clear that the heir apparent of Steven Spielberg was in our midst.  A year or two after Jackson’s epic was concluded it was announced that the old master (Spielberg) and the young buck (Jackson) would be combine their talents and make a huge project that would be the Miami Heat of cinema, they were going to make an adaptation of The Adventures of Tintin… wait a minute, what the hell is a “Tintin.”

Tintin is a character used by a Belgian writer who went by the Pen-name Hergé in a series of comic books in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.  He’s a journalist who went on a variety of pulpy adventures across the world along with a supporting cast that included his dog Snowy, a sea Capitan named Archibald Haddock, and a pair of bumbling Interpol agents named Thomson and… Thompson.  The comics never really caught on in the United States but they were massively popular in Europe, where the character is as instantly recognizable as Superman, Popeye, or Archie.  So, while this seemed like an odd franchise to put a bunch of hype behind stateside, it was a solid investment from the perspective of worldwide box office and that already seems to have paid off to the tune of $268 million in overseas box office.  As it opens here it seems to have kept a surprisingly low profile given its pedigree.  It’s almost like they’ve decided to declare the overseas success as a win and quit while they’re ahead rather than waste a bunch of money advertising the movie to audiences that don’t care about the character.  Seeing the movie I kind of see what led them to this conclusion, but that doesn’t mean it’s a movie that every American viewer should necessarily skip just because they aren’t already in love with the source material.

As the film begins Tintin (Jamie Bell) is already a seasoned adventurer in spite of his youngish age.  His latest adventure begins when he buys a model ship from a flea market and is quickly warned by a man in a suit (Joe Starr) that this acquisition will put him in great danger.  Moments later a man named Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig) offers him a great deal of money for the model, but Tintin decides to hold onto the item and investigate what it is about the ship that has these people so interested.  Tintin does some research into the model and comes to realize that it was made by a legendary sea captain named Sir Francis Haddock and that the model may be one of many.  He also learns that the model has a strange poem hidden on a small piece of parchment which he decides to keep on his person.  He arrives home to find his model stolen, and shortly thereafter he finds the man who tried to warn him earlier dead at his doorstep and his model stolen.  That isn’t the end of the ordeal either because the people who are after the model’s secrets soon kidnap Tintin in order to find the poem parchment and this marks the beginning of a an adventure that will introduce Tintin to a descendant of Francis Haddock named Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis) and will lead him into a globetrotting race to find the original haddock’s lost treasure.

I feel like part of why this franchise hasn’t really caught on in America is that Tintin himself kind of looks like a dork.  If I were to improve on the character design I’d start by making him a bit older and giving him a more world weary look on his face.  Then I’d get rid of his lame costume, especially the knee-high socks, and give him some cooler attire.  Possibly a leather jacket, those are always cool, right?  Then I’d do something about that lame ginger-cowlick hair-doo, or better yet maybe we could just have him wear a hat, possible a fedora.  I like that he carries a gun, but maybe we could up the ante by also giving him a whip he could use in his adventuring.  See where I’m going with this.  It’s pretty clear that Spielberg has already covered a lot this territory through the Indiana Jones series.  More specifically, with Indiana Jones he was able to update Tintin and make him a cooler adventurer for a new era.

The thing is, I don’t think Spielberg is remotely interested in making Tintin “cool,” in fact he seems to have gone the opposite direction and embraced everything about the character that is old fashioned and in some ways corny.  The whole film has a strange sort of sense of humor filled with strange sense of humor that’s filled with slapstick and general silliness; it’s downright cartoony at times.  The conventional wisdom, when faced with lines like “great snakes!” or “Billions of blistering barnacles!” would be to omit them or at least downplay them, but Spielberg steers right into them unapologetically.  Similarly Spielberg has no problem including a pair of outrageously stupid plainclothes cops named Thompson and Thompson into the film and having them engage in antics that border into Three Stooges territory.  I resisted a lot of this stuff at first but somewhere around the midway point I began to almost respect Spielberg’s dedication to making the film into a strange sort of farce.  Had he tried to tone down the comedy or attempted to modernize the material I suspect the moments where the comedy shone through would have seemed jarring, but the way he made the film they seem like the norm.

These cartoonish elements are also likely the reason that Spielberg decided to use animation as his medium for the first time in his career.  This is the latest example of the controversial performance capture method of animation, which uses live actors as the basis for each character’s motions.  This process has probably been most notably used by Robert Zemeckis to make films like Beowulf and The Polar Express.  Many don’t like this technique because the characters, who look very real but still not quite human, and that can seem a little creepy to some.  I see where these people are coming from, but I’ve never really shared their discomfort.  I’ve always just seen performance capture as a unique style unto itself with pros and cons.  For one thing I think performance capture gives the characters a certain size and weight that makes their movements a lot more relatable.

The use of the technique here is particularly interesting because a lot of the characters don’t look remotely similar to the actors they’re based on.  For example, the credits tell me that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play Thompson and Thompson respectively, but you’d never guess that by showing someone a picture of the characters as they appear in the film.  The only character who really looks much like the actor who plays him is Tintin himself and he is not coincidentally the most “uncanny” aspect of the movie.  Another technical “gimmick” the movie uses is 3D, in fact this is the second 3D movie I’ve seen this year, and that’s a %100 increase over the number of 3D films I saw in 2010.  I doubt that the 3D in this movie will either impress or annoy anyone, it works just fine but there’s not a lot of innovation to it.

The use of animation is something of a double edged sword when it comes to the staging of action scenes in that it makes some really big spectacles possible, but it also sort of lessens their impact.  The film has a lot of set-pieces including a scene where a biplane tries to navigate a thunderstorm, a large scale sword fight, a long and involved chase scene through a North African port city, and a scene where large cranes crash into one another.  There is no way that these scenes could have been economically constructed in a live action film, but it’s hard to really favorably compare them to what gets done in actual live action films because of this.  The film’s comedic tone also lessens the impact of these scenes because there’s no real sense of danger at any point in the film.  Tintin does carry a gun, but he never really shoots anybody with it, and while the villains are theoretically out to kill Tintin the viewer never for a minute thinks they will actually succeed.  The whole film just seems a little to innocent to really be taken seriously as an action film and it suffers because of it.

At the end of the day The Adventures of Tintin is a hard movie to fault because it seems like it’s exactly the movie that Spielberg intended it to be.  The comedy in the film doesn’t really jive with my taste, but I suspect that this is exactly the way that Hergé write these stories and that the people like Spielberg and Jackson who grew up on this stuff will be charmed to no end by these antics.  It’s an unpretentious romp that is in its own way unique from all the other action films being made today and in its uncompromising vision it manages to do things that would generate groans from any other film.  I suspect that if I were ten or eleven I would have loved this movie, and even at my current age I did have a lot fun with it.

*** out of Four

2011 Documentary Round-Up: Part 2

Bill Cunningham New York (12/11/2011)
Before seeing this documentary I’d never so much as heard of Bill Cunningham even in passing, but within certain circle’s he’s extremely well known and respected.  Cunningham is a fashion photographer.  If that’s enough to make you disinterested I don’t blame you, but hear me out.  I have no respect for fashion at all, but the way Cunningham views the topic seems surprisingly intelligent rather than vapid.  Since the early 50s he’s been photographing people on the streets of New York trying to pick up on trends as they emerge from the people.  He’s an interesting guy too with a lot of charming quirks like his insistence on traveling the city by bicycle and the fact that he lives in an incredibly small room in Carnegie Hall surrounded by file cabinets filled with negatives.  The film does descend into hagiography at times and I would have liked more discussion about what exactly separates his work from that of a paparazzo, but for the most part this is a shockingly interesting and well made doc.
*** out of Four

Tabloid (12/23/2011)
Two years ago Errol Morris made an excellent documentary called S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure about the deadly serious issue of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and it opened to a resounding shrug from the film community.  This year he made a documentary about an ultimately inconsequential sex scandal and received much more attention because of it.  Apparently even in the world of highbrow documentaries sex and sensationalism sell better than war journalism.  Still this documentary about the strange case of Joyce McKinney manages to be a very interesting account of a story that hasn’t really been told on this side of the Atlantic.

It is interesting to try to discern what the truth is in regards to what happened between McKinney and Kirk Anderson, but Morris is ultimately more interested in dissecting McKinney and seeing what makes her tick.  On top of all that, Morris is at the top of his stylistic game and has given himself the freedom to run wild with it.  Morris incorporates newspaper clippings and title cards seamlessly with the interview footage in a way that is visually appealing while also revealing a sly sense of humor about all of the proceedings.  The film might lack some of the weight of Morris’ best films, but its every bit as well made and still very interesting to watch.
***1/2 out of Four

Senna (1/7/2011)
I once looked up a list of the best paid athletes in the world expecting to see names like Derek Jeter or Kevin Garnet, instead what I saw was someone named Michael Schumacher, which is a name I’d never heard of in a sport I had no idea was that lucrative: Formula 1 racing.  Though the sport is not followed at all in the United States, the worldwide fanbase is apparently quite huge, so huge that the name “Senna” is a household name in many parts of the world.  Ayrton Senna was in fact a three time world champion on the F1 circuit and a dominant driver throughout the late 80s and early 90s before his career was cut short by a fatal crash in 1994.  The documentary Senna covers the driver’s professional life from his entry in the European circuit, through a bitter rivalry with another driver named Alain Prost, up until that fateful crash that ended his life.

Because Senna was such a public figure there was so much footage available that director Asif Kapadia is largely able to let the public record speak for itself.  We do occasionally get voice over commentary by sports journalists, but we never cut to talking heads and the film also doesn’t use a narrator, instead we see the various events played out in the footage as if this were a dramatic film.  It’s similar to the approach used for the documentary Tupac: Resurection, which also knew the power of simply letting archival footage speak for itself.  By the end of the film we really feel like we’ve witnessed one of the great stories in professional sports play out before our eyes.
***1/2 out of Four

If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front (1/8/2012)
We’ve all heard the stories about “ecco-terrorists” who have set fire to lumber mills and freed test animals, but rarely have we met them.  In this new documentary we do indeed meet one of these so called terrorists named Daniel McGowan, a seemingly friendly and likable young man living in New York.  We watch McGowan over the course of a few months leading up to his eventual imprisonment and then look back at what led him to this point.  We learn about the history of the E.L.F. and what turned them from mainstream activists into arsonists, and how they managed to last as long as they did.  While the filmmaker is clearly sympathetic to McGowan, he does interview both the U.S. Attorney who convicted him, a cop involved in the investigation, and some of the people who lost their property to these fires and allows all of them to tell their side of the story without judgment.  The film itself is efficient, if not overly artistic, it felt like one of the many true crime documentaries that tend to air on MSNBC on weekend afternoons.  That may be for the best given that there’s a lot of information here that needed to be covered, and the evenhandedness by which it is conveyed is commendable.
*** out of Four

Buck (1/11/2012)
Often documentaries will come out and bring attention to stories that seem so interesting that they inspire Hollywood to make a narrative film out of the material.  Here we have an example of the opposite.  Robert Redford made a film loosely based on the horse trainer Buck Brannaman fifteen years ago called The Horse Whisperer and only now are we getting a documentary account of the real man.  Brannaman is an interesting person in that he seems like a “hard” man but he doesn’t have the violent swagger that is often associated with “cowboys.”  In fact he’s the antithesis of the impulsive “cowboy” that George W. Bush claimed to be.  His backstory, which involved a very tough childhood, is also interesting and watching his horse training techniques is also kind of interesting.  The thing is, I’m not sure that I needed a full 88 minutes in order to be interested by all this.  I feel the film may have been better served if it had been a Documentary short subject rather than a feature length film.
**1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: The Guard(1/14/2012)

One of the sleeper hits of the year 2008 was the dark Irish comedy In Bruges from the playwright/director Martin McDonagh.  What made In Bruges so interesting is that it didn’t really play like a comedy; it played like a drama which just happened to be significantly funnier than most dedicated comedies.  It didn’t work perfectly for me initially but it had a lot going for it and it has stuck with me pretty well.  The new Irish film The Guard, stars In Bruges alum Brendan Gleeson and is directed by Martin McDonagh’s brother John Michael McDonagh.  Seeing the movie it is clear that some of Martin’s talent has indeed rubbed off on John Michael, but only some.

Here Brendan Gleeson plays a uniformed police officer named Gerry Boyle in western Ireland who is good at his job but lives a dysfunctional life.  He’s maybe not as self destructive as the cop in Abel Ferrara’s (or Werner Herzog’s) Bad Lieutenant[: Port of Call New Orleans], but he’s close.  He uses drugs that he finds at crime scenes and he frequently uses the services of hookers.  This dysfunctional police officer finds himself in the center of one of the biggest cases of his life when an FBI agent named Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) arrives to coordinate an international drug trafficking bust.  Boyle has some information and insight into the case and can help Everett with the locale, but in typical buddy cop fashion the two are going to have to deal with their personality clashes before they can really work together.

In Bruges was a mix of dark irreverent comedy, gangster film, and redemption drama, but The Guard drops most of the dramatic elements all together and focuses exclusively on being a dark irreverent comedy.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but if you put all your chips on comedy your movie better be really funny, and I can’t say that this film had me laughing as much as it should have.  Most of the film’s humor is based on Gleeson’s character and his irreverent behavior.  Boyle is a man without a filter; whenever a politically incorrect thought comes into his head he says it.  If you challenge anything he says he just gets a confused look on his face and wonders what the big deal is.  The thing is, there seems to be a method to his madness, at one point Everett says that he can’t tell if Boyle is really smart or really stupid.  To me his behavior was interesting, perhaps even amusing, but I wouldn’t really call it “funny.”

It is perhaps odd that John Michael McDonagh chose to make Boyle the main focus of the film rather than Everett.  The more conventional move would have been to tell the story from the perspective of the straight laced and more relatable character and to make the oddball more of a cipher.   Frankly I think the conventional route might have been the better option here.  Boyle is not a very easy person to watch a movie about and it’s pretty easy to lose patience with him. What’s more, the more time we spend with Boyle the more his act starts to wear and lose its ability to shock.  The film also doesn’t work tremendously as a cop movie, with the central investigation being a rather straightforward drug trafficking case that it quickly stopped by a climactic shootout.  Overall, The Guard feels like a very minor effort that only entertained sporadically.

**1/2 out of Four

A Dangerous Method(1/4/2012)

In the forty-two years that David Cronenberg has been making movies he has slowly and surely gone more and more “legit.” Or has he?  Cronenberg started out a a director of horror films like The Brood, Videodrome, and The Fly, but in recent years he’s stripped a lot of the supernatural elements of his earlier films while retaining the disturbing elements at the core of them.  His last few movies like Crash, A History of Violence, and Eastern Promises have lacked the supernatural elements of his early films but they have a horror movie’s audacity when it came to matters of violence and sex.  More importantly, Cronenberg has continued to explore the uncomfortable ideas of those early horror movies, namely the role of sexuality in human behavior and the question of whether or not we’re controlled by our sexual urges.  That’s a concept that goes all the way back to Freud, who is one of the subjects of his latest (and most seemingly “legit”) film A Dangerous Method.

The film focuses on Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who is a rising star in the young field of psychology pre-World War I.  Early in the film Jung takes a highly disturbed and fidgeting woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) as a patient.  Jung eventually determines that her problems are rooted in abuse she received from her father as a child mixed with sadomasochistic impulses that gave her a confused reaction to this abuse.  This breakthrough brings him to the attention of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) who he begins to correspond with on a regular basis.  Having been diagnosed and treated Spielrein begins to study psychology herself.  The rest of the film is about the complicated relationship between these three people; the different philosophies and beliefs that Jung and Freud possess, the unique way that Spielrein admires Freud, and of course the twisted little affair that sprouts between Spielrein and Jung.

A Dangerous Method is based on a play called “The Talking Cure” by Christopher Hampton and adapted for the screen by Hampton himself.  It actually focuses much more closely to the facts of Jung, Freud, and Spielrein’s life much more closely than I expected it too, but this does not feel like a biopic or a costume drama at all.  I think a big part of what make the film work is that it is interested in these people’s work and their personal lives in equal measure rather than focusing on one or the other as most “biopics” do.  Hearing Freud and Jung discuss their field is fascinating, but all the more fascinating because of the various tense issues that influence the way they interact.  The film does not shy away from the societal differences that separated Freud and Jung, specifically the film makes a point of showing that Frued’s Judaism had a major effect on the separation of the two given the historical setting.

All three of the film’s characters are played expertly by actors who are at the top of their game right now.  Michael Fassbender is of course one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood right now and in a sense he’s playing against type here.  He’s playing an older and more intellectual character than he did in films like Shame or X-Men: First Class and he really blends into his role as Carl Jung.  Viggo Mortensen is a lot more recognizable in his role, but I liked how he managed to play Frued without falling back on the caricature of the man that is so present throughout pop culture.  Mortensen turns Freud into a character in a film rather than a real person who must be impersonated for purposes of impressing Oscar voters.  Knightley is especially noteworthy in the film, firstly because she is tackling a more complicated accent (Russian Jewish) and because her character is to some extent mentally disturbed through much of the film.  Knightley is quietly becoming a very impressive character actress after years of awkwardly trying to become a movie star, and this might be her best work to date.

A Dangerous Method never feels stage-bound at all it is a movie that primarily plays out in the dialogue between the three characters.  It is not a visually stunning film but it also doesn’t yearn to be one.  There are some bold moments in the film that will separate the film from more conventional costume dramas of the Masterpiece Theater variety, though I must say it is closer to a straight historical account than I might have expected from Cronenberg.  I sort of expected the movie to make a sharp audacious left turn at some point and it never really did, but I was fascinated by what the film did deliver.  Perhaps I should just be happy that Cronenberg was consistently able to keep the material from ever being dry and consistently kept my interest despite some occasionally esoteric topics to deal with.

***1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: Certified Copy(1/9/2012)

If you’re the kind of person who wants to pop in a movie, sit back, and turn off your brain the films of Abbas Kiarostami are not for you.  That doesn’t merely mean that his movies are more serious than a popcorn flick, they most certainly are, but it goes beyond that.  Kiarostami makes challenging movies that require the viewer to actively engage with them.  He doesn’t do this by being visually avant-garde or by making things intolerably slow, at least not when he’s at his best.  His films could be called “meta,” in that they have a lot of layers to them that need to be analyzed.  This was especially true of his breakthrough 1990 film Close-Up, which was a unique blend documentary and narrative cinema.  Part of what made these films so challenging was that if you weren’t interested in unraveling their various ideas there wasn’t much left of interest to carry the films.  That is not necessarily the case in his newest film, Certified Copy, which also happens to be his first film made in Europe rather than his native Iran.

The film begins with a British author named James Miller (William Shimell) giving a lecture in Italy about his latest book, “Certified Copy,” which argues that a copy of an artwork can be just as valid as the original work.  In the audience at this talk is a French woman (Juliette Binoche) with an eleven year old child, who leaves her number with an associate of Miller’s.  The woman invites Miller to her antiques store and the two begin a drive through Tuscany in which they engage in a long conversation, at first about Miller’s theories, but also about art in general, relationships, and the woman’s son.  As the conversation goes on the couple begin to talk as if they were husband and wife.  Perhaps they are playing roles in these late conversations, getting ideas about marriage and relationships off their chest by acting like they are themselves intimate.  Or maybe it’s the opposite; perhaps they are an estranged husband and wife who only acted as strangers in the beginning so they could talk more freely.

The films that instantly come to mind when considering this film’s basic structure are Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy walk through Vienna and Paris respectively talking about their lives and seemingly fall in love.  Before Sunset in particular, which features older characters and is even sparked by a book tour, seems like it may well have been an inspiration.  The comparison shouldn’t be drawn upon too closely though because, in typical Kiarostami fashion, there’s a meta level to be found here.  It is no coincidence that this question about whether or not a couple is married is being played out in a film that also deals in questions of whether or not a copy is valid.  Are the interactions between these two any more or less valid if they are only pretending to be married?  To add a further question to the discussion one must consider that a film itself is in its own way a copy of life, does that make the pretend relationships between the actors any less valid?

One wonders why Abbas Kiarostami felt the need to travel to Europe to make this film.  Part of it may have been Iran’s censorship restrictions, which are very strict about how relationships between men and women can be depicted, but I think the real reason he made the film where he did is that he wanted to cast Juliette Binoche.  Binoche is amazing here, working in three languages and bringing years of emotional discomfort to the screen throughout the film.  Unfortunately I’m not sure that William Shimell’s performance was able to match Binoche’s.  Shimell is not an experienced film actor, he’s an Opera singer, and given that he should be given credit for being as good in the film as he was.  However, he often comes off as pouty and a bit irrational and I think a lot of that is Shimell’s responsibility.  I feel like the film could have taken that extra step into greatness if both of the actors had been on equal footing.

The thing about this movie is that you don’t really need to care about the central question about the value of reproductions in order to enjoy it.  The fact that Kiarostami is working with a slightly larger budget and that the film has a number of scenes in the English language don’t hurt, but the heart of what makes the film so much more watchable than Kiarostami’s other films is the relatability of the characters.  I’ve struggled a lot with Kiarostami but I didn’t struggle with this movie at all, it was a breath of fresh air.

**** out of Four

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy(12/31/2011)

It’s always exciting, and a bit frightening, when a promising foreign director makes his English language debut.  It’s exciting because it could mean seeing a great talent being given a larger canvas and bringing his skills to the masses, but it’s frightening because all too often the transition just doesn’t work out.  Sometimes we see talented directors like Oliver Hirschbiegel getting attached to Hollywood dreck like The Invasion (because two remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers apparently wasn’t enough) because they think it will be their gateway into the market, but more often we simply see situations where these foreign directors make ambitious projects that just don’t connect like Gavin Hood’s Rendition or Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Tourist.  Still we do occasionally see a successful transition into the English language market, and one of the most prominent examples that comes to mind is that of the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, who followed up the masterful City of God by making the cool and accomplished John le Carré adaptation The Constant Gardener.  Of course Meirelles would go on to disappoint with his next film Blindness, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that he was able to break into the English language market really effectively with his sophomore effort.  Now it looks like the Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (director of the well received vampire film Let the Right One In) is looking to take a page from Meirelles’ book by making his first English language film another Le Carré adaptation, and of one of the author’s much more famous novels to boot.

The year is 1975 and the Cold War is in full swing.  George Smiley (Gary Oldman) has been in retirement for a year after he and his boss, who is known only as Control (John Hurt), were pushed out of MI6 because of a botched operation in Hungary a few years earlier when he’s approached by an agent named Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) and is asked to help him find the mole in the agency who was likely responsible for that botched operation.  To do this, Smiley needs to investigate his old colleagues: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) AKA “Tinker,” Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) AKA “Tailor,” Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) AKA “Soldier,” and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) AKA… “Poorman.”  To find the mole he needs to hunt down and work with the field agent who came up with the mole theory, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who had heard about the mole while investigating a Russian crime boss (Tomasz Kowalski) and his wife (Svetlana Khodchenkova) while in Istambul.  The catch is that MI6 believes (possibly because of the mole) that Tarr is a turncoat, and consequently he’s a wanted man that Smiley needs to find first.

Did you catch all that?  Don’t worthy, neither did I, in fact I’m still trying to piece together a lot of it.  It isn’t easy on the ego to admit that a movie confused you, but that’s pretty much where I stand on this movie and I don’t necessarily think it’s my fault either.  Alfredson does little to explain the various espionage techniques, and I’m still not exactly clear on exactly what they did to find the mole at the end.  complicating matters even further is the way that the films shifts through time, simultaneously telling the main story of Smiley investigating his old team and the story a couple years earlier when the team was all together.  Alfredson doesn’t do much to mark these flashbacks, and because they don’t take place all that far apart in time the décor and the character’s appearance doesn’t change much between the two timelines.  I suspect the root of the problem is that 127 minutes just isn’t enough time to fit Le Carré’s 400 pages of dense spycraft.  Perhaps if we had the five-plus hours that were allowed by the late-70s BBC miniseries adaptation this all would have been better explained and given more room to breathe, but in this short format the audience is given so much information in so little time that I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect them to keep up.

Still, even if the spycraft was all completely clear I still don’t think the film would really work because another element of the material that’s lost here is character development.  I correctly guessed who the mole was shortly into the movie based solely on who was cast to play him and how he acted, but it didn’t really matter because we don’t really get a good enough sense of who these various suspects are beyond their code names and the British character actors chosen to play them.  I know, for example, that Percy Alleline has a higher rank than Toby Esterhase and that Bill Haydon seems to have played a bigger role in Smiley’s life than Roy Bland, but we don’t really have time to know what any of these men do with their free time or what got them into the spy trade.  We do get some idea of the comradery and friendship that the men shared when working as a team, but it’s such a dry and soulless type of friendship that it’s almost completely unrelatable.  I could see how all of this could have been fleshed out properly in a novel or miniseries, but again, 127 minutes just isn’t enough time for all of it and consequently the audience has no real stake in which spy will end up being the traitor.

It would be easy to say that the idea of making a feature length film out of Le Carré’s novel was a bad idea to begin with and that screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan simply couldn’t make it work, but Tomas Alfredson bears some responsibility for this failure as well.  The director does give the film a very cool look and handles the occasional scenes of more traditional field espionage well, but his tendency to restrain rather than enliven his material ultimately hampers the movie.  This same sense of restraint worked wonders for Let the Right One In but there’s a big difference between making a vampire movie (which can easily head deep into the other direction into sensationalism) and a talky Le Carré adaptation which needs to have that extra spark in order to really make the material come alive.

That’s why Fernando Meirelles, whose highly energetic City of God was almost music video like at times, proved to be a much better choice to make a Le Carré adaptation than Alfredson.  While The Constant Gardener was certainly more restrained than City of God it still maintained some of that film’s vibrancy and urgency.  “Vibrant” and “urgent” are hardly the words anyone would use to describe Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which largely consists of old English people sipping tea and speaking in trade jargon.  Granted, The Constant Gardener was probably a much more adaptable and infinitely more relevant work to begin with, but that doesn’t change the fact that it puts Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to shame.  Still, there are moments and elements here and there in TTSS where a more compelling drama is able to shine through.  Perhaps there’s a longer director’s cut in the vault which will work better, and this does have me curious about reading Le Carré’s novel, but as the film stands it’s the biggest disappointment of the holiday movie season.

** out of Four