Archive for September, 2011

Drive

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on September 20, 2011 by alexlarman

Nicholas Winding Refn ought to be known to any serious cineaste for his barking mad, but quite brilliant, biopic of Charles Bronson, the eponymous Bronson. A strange, heady combination of Kubrickian poise and coldness with a subversive strain of very British humour, it attracted some disbelievingly bad reviews, but has now been acclaimed as something of a minor classic, kickstarting Tom Hardy’s impressive career in the process. Now, his new film Drive comes heralded with all manner of superlatives, not least the prestigious Best Director award at Cannes. Can (sic) it live up to the hype?

Thankfully, the answer is yes. Winding Refn, screenwriter Hossein Amini and an excellent cast all manage to turn what might have been a disposable B-movie into something weirder and more affecting, creating a netherworld where slightly bruised romanticism and extreme violence co-exist unhappily. The unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) moonlights as both a film stunt driver and a getaway man, giving his passengers exactly five minutes of his time and considerable expertise. A solitary man, with only his manager/cohort Shannon (Bryan Cranston) to offer him friendship, he unexpectedly warms to his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, which sees him getting mixed up with her ex-jailbird husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) and some very, very bad men (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman). Of course, things go awry.

Drive’s 18 certificate was awarded for ‘strong gory violence’, and this isn’t an exaggeration. The sheer level of carnage onscreen is impressively horrific, putting most splatter films to shame. An already legendary scene in a lift features the most violently staged bit of violence to a skull since Irreversible. What’s surprising is that it’s a very long time until the action really kicks in, with Winding Refn apparently content just to observe the still, quiet relationship between Irene and Driver. He’s helped by the excellence of the performances from Mulligan and Gosling, the former impressively vulnerable and delicate, the latter quite perfect in probably his best appearance to date. They’re helped by a superb supporting cast, where everyone has their moment to shine, even if they die horribly shortly afterwards. The stand-out, as is being widely reported, is comedian Albert Brooks’ chilling appearance as mobster Bernie, an apparently reasonable and sane man who is prone to horrendous outbreaks of nastiness when he is called to.

The film’s feel is deliberately retro, with 80s songs and Cliff Martinez’ synth-driven song driving the action in much the same way that an unholy mix of Wagner and the Pet Shop Boys fuelled Bronson. You would also hesitate to describe it as a conventional action film; the sole ‘normal’ car chase halfway through, while impressively mounted, feels almost airless, as if there’s nothing really at stake. But what it does do is to have a uniquely tense atmosphere, at times more like a horror film than a thriller, where the only thing redeeming any of these characters is their ability to love. And so, for all the forks stabbed into faces and moments of extreme brutality in lifts, the overall effect is of a surprising delicacy. Gosling and Winding Refn, who apparently hit it off exceptionally well during the course of the film’s production, are planning on collaborating again imminently, and on this basis it’s very exciting to see what they’re going to come up with next.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , on September 8, 2011 by alexlarman

The career of Gary Oldman – frequently cited as the finest actor working today never to have been nominated for an Oscar – is something of a mystery. In the 1980s, he appeared in British films as disparate as Sid and Nancy, Prick Up Your Ears and The Firm, and rivalled Daniel Day-Lewis for versatility. A move to Hollywood in the early 90s did nothing to stop his curiosity and desire to play a huge range of roles, which included, from 1990 – 1994 Lee Harvey Oswald, Beethoven, Dracula, Rosencrantz and, most wonderfully of all, Norman Stansfield in Luc Besson’s Leon, a linen-suited corrupt cop to end all corrupt cops.

Then, around the mid-90s, something appeared to change. The films became more about the fee and less about the performance. He was still good value as flamboyant villains in the likes of Air Force One and The Fifth Element, and contributed interesting shadings to a Republican senator in The Contender, but an element of vitality was missing. Sit down, if you can, and watch his vivacious, witty, sexy performance in Prick Up Your Ears, and then endure his by-the-numbers Dr Zachary Smith in Lost In Space. It might as well be two different actors.

With the honourable exceptions of his excellent James Gordon in the Batman films, and his noble Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series (movies that he has candidly described as ‘the least amount of work for the most amount of money), his work in the past decade has been negligible. You haven’t heard of most of the films he’s made, because they snuck onto the shelves, straight-to-DVD, as if ashamed. There’s been some lucrative voiceover work, the odd baddie in a low-rent film that wanted a bit of prestige, and little else. Apparently this is due to his desire to raise two young children by himself, as a single father. While personally commendable, the world has been waiting for a performance by Oldman that reminds the world of this fine actor’s immense talent.

Now, at last, we have one. Tomas Alfredson’s brilliant adaptation of John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy novel succeeds on pretty much every level, but the first thing that we must be thankful for is that it rehabilitates one of the greatest British actors of the past quarter century. As George Smiley – the frighteningly controlled, breathtakingly ordinary, middle-aged spy – Oldman underplays as effectively and captivatingly as he hammed it up two decades ago. With silver hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and a brilliant, analytical mind, his Smiley is as much great detective as he is super-spy – a feeling reinforced by the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as his Dr Watson, Peter Guillam, and the unseen presence of Karla, his Russian nemesis and Dr Moriarty. It’s a subtle performance, almost too subtle for those who want moments of Big Acting to win awards, although there are a couple of moments –a  monologue about the sole time that he met Karla, and the electrifying second when he finally loses his temper – that are about as strong as anything you’ll see in a male performance on screen this year.

The complicated plot is actually, in Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s classy and economical adaptation, made relatively straightforward. As civil service bureaucrat Simon McBurney puts it on, ‘there is a mole at the top of the Circus’. After a botched operation in Budapest involving spy Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), the head of the shadowy intelligence service known as the Circus, Control (John Hurt) and his lieutenant Smiley are forced out. However, when it becomes clear that one of the four principal staff of the Circus, ‘Tinker’ (Toby Jones),’Tailor’ (Colin Firth), ‘Soldier’ (Ciaran Hinds) and ‘Spy’ (David Dencik) is a bad apple, Smiley is recruited, secretly, to flush them out. All this is connected with the sweeping evocation of the failed love affair of junior agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) and the wife of a Russian asset. But how?

As you will have gathered from the cast list, this is a very, very classy piece of work. With the odd exception of Hinds, who has very little to do (presumably because most of his scenes were cut), everyone here, often cast against type, rises to the occasion spectacularly. Cumberbatch and Hardy are both deeply affecting as two young men who find their personal and professional lives intersecting to ghastly effect, while Mark Strong proves that there’s a huge amount more to him than baddie-of-the-week as Prideaux. The likes of Jones, Hurt and Firth are all dependably excellent, and a welcome appearance by Kathy Burke produces one of the biggest laughs, when she describes herself as ‘seriously underfucked’.

Alfredson was also very much the right man for the job. Building on the success of his superb vampire film Let The Right One In, he creates a paranoid, anxious milieu in which everyone smokes, nobody can be trusted and where everyone – friends, lovers, colleagues – ends up betraying everyone else, almost as a reflexive action. It’s the polar opposite of a Bond or Bourne film, resembling, if anything, the first Mission Impossible film if that had had the gadgets, explosions and masks stripped away and the Tom Cruise role had been played by Jon Voight. Still, a good spy film has to have some good set-pieces and there are some crackers here, such as the Budapest-set opening, a tension-building infiltration of the Circus and, of course, Smiley’s Karla monologue.

It’s extremely likely that this is going to figure very highly in the awards season next year (though for my money, I see this cleaning up at the BAFTAs rather than at the Oscars). Hopefully it will prove a sterling success, and it’s actually not impossible to hope that le Carre’s follow-up novel, Smiley’s People, is eventually filmed with the same personnel if this is a conspicuous success. But this is a pleasure to watch from start to finish, one of those rare films that you could happily watch for several hours more, so all-encompassing is the milieu created. And, finally, how can you not like any film that uses George Formby’s ‘Mr Wu’s A Window Cleaner Now’ in a key scene?