Monthly Archives: September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy posterSynopsis

Based on Le Carre’s novel about cold war spying.  It’s about the high-up ‘mole’ in the British spying establishment, which is known as the ‘Circus’ because of it’s proximity to Piccadilly.  Gary Oldman plays ‘Smiley’, the spycatcher brought out of retirement to catch the mole.  One of the British spies, Prideaux, appears to be shot in Budapest as he tries to bring over a defector from Communism but he is tortured by ‘Carla’, Smiley’s most important opponent.  Smiley thought Carla had been executed.  Benedict Cumberbatch and Toby Jones are involved in a rooting out of the mole, as is Ciaran Hinds and Colin Firth.  They are all suspects known as Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  Ricky Tarr is another agent who also tries to bring in a would be Russian defector from Istanbul and something happens to her.  The mole is found but is he the right one ….?


There is an atmospheric feeling here of the sixties and seventies even it does succumb too much to the Life on Mars compulsion to steep that era in Dickensian gloom.  Everything is horrible:  bad haircuts, retro furniture looking greasy and constant smoking, all very seedy and tacky.  Compared to now that era was shabby, but things get rather absurd.  Still, it does evoke the Len Deighton London of red double decker buses and of Michael Cain’s Harry Palmer.  Lots of anonymous people walking around in shabby raincoats and dispirited faces.

Smiley looks at his staff, who are his chief suspects, through the clinical glint of his spectacles, which make him look like he’s interrogating them from behind a malevolent window pane.  Smiley seems super competent, choosing his words with pedantic caution.  He negotiates the treacherous complications of espionage game playing, then acts as a sort of confessor for truth telling.  He is quietly cynical about the ultimate purpose of the spying racket: not so much a conflict about ideology or a way of life but more a cruel probing of weaknesses with a chess player’s urge to be ahead of the prey.  Photos of the chief suspects are stuck onto chess pieces.  I haven’t read the book but the film provides no great insight into the psychology of the spies, their career justifications tend to be more incantatory rather than clarificatory.  The captured mole confesses to an aesthetic preference for supporting communism which makes him seem capricious.  When Smiley talks about Carla, the chief Russian opponent, he tells us Carla is a fanatic and as such will always win, but then he says that the fanatic harbours a secret doubt – which surely undermines what he just said!

This film is a tribute to the spy films of the 60s and 70s.  Watching these films at the time (at the height of the cold war), I often wondered why anyone would bother to be a spy, the whole business seemed inherently futile.  Absurdly, neither side could win because the whole point was to maintain a stalemate, it was the human analogy of all those nuclear weapons pointed at each other, known as MAO (mutually assured destruction).  Spying looked like a chess game with no checkmate, but it was deadly serious, people killed each other.  It’s as if the the danger was spying’s self sustaining dynamic, so it needed no further purpose once the cynically tired excuse of opposing ideologies convinced no one.  However, the spy film propagates the very myth that there were no true believers, yet early in the 80s there were quite a few Russians communists in Afghanistan who thought they were doing good.

The film is certainly a corrective to the infantile tosh of James Bond.  In Tinker, Tailor,Soldier Spy the British skies are gloomy.  In Istanbul the spy looks onto sexual violence through lit windows.  This is the spy as voyeur, the decadent cynic.  It’s a tired male world where grumpy old men (seriously ‘underfucked’ in the words of the film), snap at each other through nicotine fog.  Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth play spies who must hide their gay sexuality.  Smiley goes to Oxford to talk to Cathy Burke’s character, they compare the heroism of the war with the unglamorous and sordid life of espionage.  Mark Strong is a schoolteacher who lives in a caravan, he’s some eccentric recluse as he mentors a unattractive pupil who is a natural outsider.  Their odd relationship reminded me of the TV series Callan where the spy Edward Woodward worked with an unprepossessingly unhygienic tramp called ‘Lonely’.  Mark Strong as Prideaux is not a stick hero, he is more like a dysfunctional bureaucrat than a social misfit.  The Circus throws parties which make self conscious nervous fun of communists as if they acknowledge that the two sides have much more in common than their publics would realize.  The film plays on this skilfully.  Mostly, an excellent film about cold war spying.  Just a couple of caveats.

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Posted by on September 24, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies cover imageSynopsis

The Peter Brook film made in 1963 in black and white about war-evacuated British schoolboys marooned on a desert island and their descent into evil.  They victimize a fat kid they call “Piggy” and then turn on Ralph.  They hunt him down until they are rescued.


It curiously replicates the faults of the book insofar as Golding tends not to go into details of desert island survival.  Things get done as if out of cloth, and it is the same in the film, you only see instant results of actions.  This just makes you think of the unseen film set adult supervision and handiwork, so it’s like being at Summerhill school where the kids are compelled to be themselves  This also reminds me of those adult actors playing children in Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills, of course the dialogue is stilted and the children are awkward and you wonder what they would be like away from Peter Brooks’ supervision and William Golding’s agenda.

The black and white gives the film a contemporary Starbucks style of coffee house primitivism, the coral seems almost to be sculpted into totem heads and the tropical vegetation looks denser than it would be in colour!  It’s as if this primeval anti-Eden had been given a Henry Moore workover in stone, bone, and wood.  Given the very young age of the school children, I wonder how convincingly Golding’s concern about original sin and natural human depravity can be presented by what looks like a school outing gone a bit haywire.  Jack is like Flashman from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, who comes into his own when fiendishly bullying Piggy’s plodding working class decency.  This is well done as Piggy becomes the sacrificial victim of Jack’s venomous class malevolence.  Ralph looks like a C.S.Lewis – Arthur Mee – Enid Blyton jobsworth of baffled Christian forthrightness, which is Brook’s intention.  At times these three look like they’re playing up, as precociously as they can, to what adults expect of them in what looks like arthouse anthropology.  Like the children in High Wind In Jamaica, this film is a corrective to the Swiss Family Robinson wholesomeness of Disney on a tropical island.   It certainly influenced subsequent ‘serpent in paradise’ films like The Beach.

As for Simon, the schoolboy actor can’t be expected to bear the load of moral significance which the book gives him, he can only look like a sulky lad.  As he stares at the pig’s head on a stick, he seems not to be confronting an hallucinatory scary symbol of evil but at a schoolboy prank gone wrong.

An occasionally exiting film (in spite of the arty flute music), but is not totally convincing.


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Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre posterSynopsis

From the Charlotte Bronte novel about a girl who survives a vicious aunt and a bulling school master to become governess in Rochester’s big country house.  Rochester wants to marry her but she finds out at the alter that Rochester already has a wife who is mentally ill.  Jane leaves Rochester and is saved from a stormy moor by Rivers and his sisters.  Jane teaches children and Rivers wants to marry her.  She returns to Rochester’s house to find it mostly burnt down.  She meets up again with Rochester…


This story has been subjected to quite a few film and TV treatments.  We’ve gone from black and white Hollywood films which seem to be written by Daphne du Maurier to low key estuary accented  TV performances.  In spite of the over-familiarity of Jane Eyre, this film draws us in because of the erotic charge between Anna Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Rochester.  Critics have complained that this film is too restrained, but I find it much more powerful than if they’d simply torn each other’s clothes off!  The austerely washed out colours enable you to focus on the dialogue and how much depended on the correctly chosen word and the correct expression.  Cleverness in dialogue was often a fight for survival in ways that maybe are more difficult for us to appreciate now.  For me, this comes out clearly in the film.  The second meeting between Rochester and Jane shows us the wearily familiar advantages of the privileged, how they feel they can exploit the candour seemingly wrongfooted, by giving such defensiveness even more reason to be defensive.  Rochester thinks he never gives anything away but of course we look for signs of the facial hard work that only fitfully camouflages vulnerability.  Jane must be required to impress.  She will have none of being patronized in that facile way, and the actor Mia Wasikovska does this very well.  Her supposedly plain face shows a shrewd and alert intelligence and we all know that Wasikovska herself with her model looks will undoubtledly be advertizing posh perfume.

When Jane is rescued by the Rivers’ household, even if you don’t know the story you know for sure that Rivers’ seemingly saintly constraint is only a front for sexually predatory self regard.  I winced at each scene he was with Jane because although I didn’t previously know anything about this character, I knew he would destroy the delicate membrane of disinterested friendship.  His Christian piety is merely a sanctimonious mask for his vanity as he asks Jane to become his wife and share a missionary’s life with him.  Jamie Bell does a good job of showing his self deceptive rectitude in all its life hating resentment.

Judi Dench plays a character that has become a fixture of costume dramas, the dependable elderly domestic boss with a northern accent that spits trivially status-panicky suspicions borne out of resentful self repression, which will soften under the kindness of the hero/heroine.  Sally Hawkins plays the vicious aunt who goes through a death bed conversion to goodness which is for me somewhat bland, as it takes place in a wealthy room, no blood-spitting consumptive death for her.  Like most 19th century costume dramas I’ve seen, this film avoids the horrors of 19th century disease and ill health (no bad teeth!).  All the actors look ready for the next Jane Austen drama.

With the faded colours comes a lack of spectacle.  Rochester’s guests we tolerate as silly impostors, their snobbery is so facile they seem like a vulgar painting Jane and Rochester want to get rid of.  Fukanaga, the director, could not give this such a radical treatment as Andrea Arnold has done with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but the challenge is all the greater to make this much told story watchable.  This film manages to do that.

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Posted by on September 20, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Kes posterSynopsis

About a northern lad in a poverty- ridden mining area of Barnsley.  He befriends a kestrel and he has problems at home and at school.  The film was made in 1969.


This is Ken Loach and his thing about the ‘working class’.  I remember when this film came out, all the trendies in London loved it.  Of course they would, since it showed a quaint world of picturesque poverty and simple people in the cinematic equivalent of a Lowry painting.  The sixties were infatuated with kitchen sink dramas in their Wednesday plays and so forth.  I love that Monty Python sketch where there is a comical inversion of class roles:  the worker is a successful writer complaining about writer’s cramp and the posh lad is a miner enthusing about coal shovels.  Ken Loach and his leather jacketed squad must have been similarly comically out of place among the ‘real’ people of Barnsley.  Well intentioned it may be, but it cannot avoid being patronizing.  If you can cut these concerns out, then the film is quite poetic.  The boy’s relationship with the kestrel is like T.H. White meeting Ted Hughes in a lost world of rough and self sufficient kids.  The kestrel is a superbly lyrical presence as it soars over the dreary hard world of working class Yorkshire.  I’m sad at the passing of this toughness, although of course in most respects life has got better so there’s no need to be a Monty Python Yorkshireman bragging about the good old days.  The schoolteachers are the insecure cynics beloved of Pink Floyd parody in The Wall.  The observation of school life is funny and cruel, but I felt that the cruelty often wins out at the expense of the humour that’s supposed to balance it out.  Colin Welland is the wise mentor of the boy Billy Casper.  As a teacher you feel that Welland is a disappointed socialist, keen to eke out some potential from his pupils before they end up in an office or a factory.  Casper has story telling ability but this will never be realized as he lives with his thuggish brother.  Casper is routinely bullied so his only outlet is with nature.  For the trendies it must have been like watching some exotic Amazonian tribe, anthropological condescension appears to be an ineluctable aspect of such films.  This reminds me of another Monty Python sketch where a film crew desperately seek out social problems so they can make a documentary, only to find that no-one has any interesting life stories to tell of victimization.

Well meaning, but interesting more as an historical documentary that tell us something about the art of hawking.


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Apollo 18

Apollo 18 poster


Made by the Weinstein brothers who made Matrix.  It’s done in documentary style and speculates what might have happened to the three astronauts of Apollo 18, and why we haven’t returned to the moon.  It seems there are spidery creatures that infect and destroy humans.  The crew were not allowed to return to the earth and died out there although oddly enough it was ok to bring back moon rocks.  Couldn’t they be contaminated?


This film panders to conspiracy theorists about NASA’s moon missions.  There are theories that the moon landings never happened and they are all a cold war stunt.  Conspiracy nerds claim there are too many ‘grassy knoll’ moments but how do you fool the thousands who work for NASA?  For me, it’s best to use Occan’s Razor and believe the simplest option, that we went to the moon.  This film doesn’t deny the moon landing but it states that there is a NASA cover up. Capricorn One did a much better job with the cover up story, it had the merit of being a witty and fictitious account of a failed flight to Mars.  Its cynicism was plausible and gripping.  Apollo 18 has pretensions to being a realistic story insofar as it accuses NASA of actual deception, and effective murder of astronauts, not knowing what awaited them on the moon.

Apollo 18 is undeniably impressive in its details: the claustrophobic chaos of confined humanity, the tactical banality of self control in editing out the possibilities in a terrifying situation.  As these three men are chambered in an unimaginably desolate vacuum, there is a potentially obliterative threat from any shadow and rock.  The astronauts bounce around in their baby suits self censoringly heedless of the minutist glitch that could kill them.  The film skilfully builds on this terror.  There is no mythic fanfare to their flight.  The moon is a torture of greys, blacks and whites, as if any colour would be a distraction from the existential terror in their situation.  They find the Soviet craft looking like a metal alien with oval face and slant eyes.  They find a solitary Soviet cosmonaut with his suit ripped open and blood everywhere.  The astronauts are, of course, angry that they were not told about this.  Here’s another conspiracy theory: the Soviets got to the moon first or at the same time.

This is like most hand held camera fake documentaries, its very deadpan boldness is meant to give some plausibility to its cartoonishly conspiratorial claims.  It’s like Big Brother under the sea as a Twilight Zone episode.

The astronauts are attacked by infectious insects and their contamination renders them unfit for return to earth.  NASA is supposed to have known this all along, so it is consigned to infamy along with the malurs of Hal in 2001.  What could have been ingenious turns out to be about spidery things from outer space.  This is stolen from Alien and the War of the Worlds.  I would like to see some film do full justice to the pioneering grandiosity and terror of the real moonflights.  This is a film which tries to deliver on that, but is let down by the silliness of the plot.

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Posted by on September 13, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Kill List

Kill List stillSynopsis

About two ex-army hitmen.  We see Jay at home being quarrelsome with his wife.  They have two guests, one is the other hitman Cal.  This guest’s wife scratches a symbol on the back of a mirror.  The hitmen are given a list of their victims by a mysterious boss.  They go after a few people guilty of what seems to be sexual crimes:  a priest, a librarian, and an MP.  When they go after the MP they come across his country house and they see a ‘Wickerman’ procession where a woman is killed.  The hitmen shoot the MP and the procession comes after them and one of them is killed.  The procession attacks the hitman’s house and he gets into a knife fight with one of them.  Their employer is the chief ‘black magician’.


This starts out as a pretty nasty film.  The scenes of domestic are like Nil by Mouth.  The hitman Jay quarrels violently with his wife.  When a hitman colleague comes to his dinner party with his wife, the conversation is like a deadpan parody of Big Brother with nouveau riche dinner guests.  These are poorly educated but clever people, like experts in mental cruelty from a soap opera.  The two hitmen speak in flat, deadpan tones, about anything they come across but they lack the wit and style of the two killers in Pulp Fiction.  They behave in a menacingly thuggish way to whatever gets on their nerves.  When they are in a restaurant they find the neighbouring table of Christian people irritating in their smugness so they are predictably sarcastic about them.  Their matter of fact lack of conscience emphasizes the hilarious pedantry of their solemn attention to sordid detail.  Jay assaults his victims with a hammer as well as a gun,  When the victims express their thanks, presumably for being released from their torment, they enrage their executioner all the more because they puzzle him, as he attributes their terminal masochism to another expression of their perversion.  I thought I’d been inured to films like this but I was ready to walk out.

The two thugs come across their latest victim’s house and they see a procession of robed people holding torches and they are wearing straw masks.  This is an obvious imitation of the 1973 film Wickerman.  Whereas that was about a Calvinist policeman out of his depth amongst pagan nature worshippers, Kill List at the end reminded me of that parody of this kind of film: Hot Fuzz.  The village or big house with a secret.  Hot Fuzz is funny, Kill List  is merely derivative like Straw Dogs in an unpleasant episode of East Enders.  This film has nothing to recommend it, it’s an unpleasant re-hash of our interest in violence and death.  It looks at how intentions involved in a network of violence simply breed more evil and violence and how addictive it all is.  This coarse film gives further ammunition to the cinematic satire of Peter Hanke.

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Posted by on September 13, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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The Tree

The Tree posterSynopsis

Starring Charlotte Gainsborough as the wife of a Queensland chap who has a heart attack whilst driving his daughter.  As he dies he crashes his car into the tree next to his house.  The family is of course in bereavement and the daughter thinks her dead father’s spirit lives in the tree.  Gainsborough finds a new romantic interest who offers to cut down the tree after its branches have crashed through the roof of her house.  Gainsborough defends her tree hugging daughter and tells the boyfriend to get lost.  There is a storm and the house is wrecked.  They leave the house.


The director is Julie Bertuccelli who worked with Kieslowski on Three Colours.  This could have been a better film but I haven’t read Judy Pascoe’s book from which it is made.  It could have been like The Wickerman but to be fair if you’ve got young kids in the film then you’re a bit restricted in what you can do.  An only adult film could have had Gainsborough making love with the tree or decorating it with strange totems.  She could have cavorted with the evil in nature like she did in Antichrist.  If this had been made by Mallick it would have been called The Tree Of Life and we would have gone off on a cor blimey cosmic trip.  It could have been like Twin Peaks and the tree would be surrounded by Druids.  It could have gone all mystical like Picnic at Hanging Rock.  It turns out to be an averagely decent film about a family coping with a father’s death but it’s not overly subtle on the subject of grief – in fact, Gainsborough squeaks a lot and gives a performance almost as wooden as the tree.  The boyfriend is the usual macho-man with designer stubble, who turns up to lend a manly hand to the women in trouble.  We’ve seen a lot of this kind of guy since that awfully nice designer bloke in Julia Robert’s Sleeping with the Enemy.

As if to lend a more rebellious profile to the family, the neighbours are uptight snobs.  Oddly, the next door house seems to disappear and re-appear throughout the film.  Perhaps Bertuccelli is more interested in mood than in anything as banal as a realistic place.  Queensland itself looks nice, it could be a good advert for the Queensland tourist board.

The girl is a sulky brat and the boyfriend is required to pass the usual tests.  Gainsborough suddenly turns against him and sides with the brat, the poor chap was only trying to help

We get a storm at the end, which of course is supposed to symbolize their reconciliation with dad’s death in a display of meteorological and emotional grief.  All very cathartic.

The film could have developed the symbolic possibilities of the tree but instead this Moreton Bay fig tree looks like it’s in need of a tree surgeon.  Like the tree, the script and acting could have done with some pruning.

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Posted by on September 12, 2011 in Film Reviews, Independent films


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