Saturday, 17 September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - Dir. Alfredson

Forty-six year old Swedish director Tomas Alfredson came to prominence three years ago when he directed the film adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel 'Let The Right One In'. After the initial success of the vampiric romantic drama, Alfredson became attached to an international adaptation of John le Carre's espionage-novel 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'. Based on aspects of le Carre's (also known as David Cornwell) experiences during his time as a member of the British Intelligence service sectors MI5 and MI6 during the 1950s and 1960s, Alfredson creates a fine, absorbing picture which engrosses from beginning to end.

Control (John Hurt), the leader of an unknown sector of the British Intelligence service, is ousted along with his long-standing companion George Smiley (Gary Oldman) due to a botched operation in Budapest, Hungary which saw the officer Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) murdered in public. Control was under the impression that there was a mole among the top ranking members of the service, referred to as the Circus by the other top ranking members due to its location in Cambridge Circus, London, and Smiley is drawn out of retirement to pinpoint the culpritafter Control passes away. Alongside the young Intelligence officer Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley has four primary candidates to focus his investigation upon; they are the last remaining members of the Circus, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).

Utilizing an all-star, established cast, Alfredson allows the film to unfold at an almost flawless pace. Every sequence contains a small snippet of information which allows the viewer to conduct their own investigation alongside that of Smiley's. While the narrative is also driven along by strong performances from the primarily male cast, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik, Stephen Graham and Kathy Burke all give strong, commanding performances. While the true artists of the piece are Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the young, and somewhat naive intelligent officer assigned to assist Smiley. John Hurt as the aging, instinct-driven leader of the British service, and Tom Hardy, who is Ricki Tarr the dirty cleaner for British intelligence's most fowl operations. Their performances go above and beyond in their supporting roles, and at times eclipse Gary Oldman's subdued portrayal of a man drawn back into the murky world of corruption, betrayal and treasure.

Alongside the narrative and its cast, one of the more surprising aspects of the film, is Alfredson, Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and Editor Dino Jonsater's use of stylistic nuances that further enhance the viewing experience. Lingering close-up shots of seemingly insignificant objects and shallow focus shots constantly evoke the nature of mystery and intrigue which surrounds such clandestine organisations. Alfredson never rushes any moment, instead he allows for the audience to become accustomed to their surroundings and appreciate their beauty. Wide angle shots and long lenses are used for interior and exterior locations, showcasing the breakdowns of their interiors, while close-up shots are used to examine objects and characters in their most frail states. During the opening sequence involving Prideaux's botched secret mission, a simple concoction of jump cuts and lingering static shots concentrating upon various characters within the vicinity creates a sense of the tension, suspense and vulnerability of the situation and this is how Alfredson constantly keeps the audience engrossed. By providing those observing the action on screen with just enough information that they themselves become entwined within Smiley's investigation as he moves forward.

Once the credits and a dedication to the films screenwriter Bridget O'Connor who passed away last year finish, the viewer is left with an overriding sense of satisfaction. Smiley's world is a far cry away from the glitz and glamour that the espionage genre has become accustomed to. There are no martinis in sight, but only reel upon reel of bureaucratic wrangling, childish bickering and greed-induced deal-making, where it seems everybody is working for themselves and their reputation rather than the nation's government that is employing them. Since its premiere at the 68th Venice International Film Festival 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' has been touted as an Oscar contender and it is easy to understand why, Tomas Alfredson has taken a solid source novel, utilized an established cast and infused the final concoction with elements from his own visual repertoire to create a wonderfully crafted film that does the original BBC televised series justice.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Apollo 18 - Dir. Gonzalo López-Gallego

Filmmakers will utilize any appropriate marketing tool to get audiences into cinemas and since the success of the ‘Blair Witch Project’ and most recently ‘Paranormal Activity,’ the found-footage sub-genre has achieved somewhat of a renaissance. They are cheaply made, require no big names to populate the cast and they work upon exploiting a basic human fear; you could be watching reality, therefore this could be happening in a woods/home/factory near you at this very moment in time. ‘Apollo 18,’ directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego and produced by Timur Bekmambetov, is the newest addition to this sub-genre by taking this concept into space and working alongside the well-known conspiracy theories that have surfaced since the first manned mission to the moon in July, 1969. However, where others have recently succeeded, this film fails to even get out of the launch pad. Despite its interesting concept, it is slow, formulaic and not particularly scary.

In 1972, NASA sent the supposed final manned mission to the moon in Apollo 17, or that’s what they wanted you to think. Cancelling the Apollo missions 18, 19, and 20 under the guise of budgetary and scheduling constraints, the Apollo 18 mission actually went ahead under the guidance of the Department of Defence. Astronauts Ben Anderson (Warren Christie), Nate Walker (Lloyd Owen) and John Grey (Ryan Robbins) are sent to the moon to install what they believe to be a missile defence system that will further protect against a surprise Russian attack in the midst of the Cold War. However, after just a few short hours on the moon things start to go wrong, the astronauts begin to notice that something is attempting to disrupt their mission and what follows is the documentation of the disturbances by the three men as they attempt to figure out what is happening and if the ground control team knew of the dangers in the darkened crevices of the moon before they were sent up there.

‘Apollo 18’ fails exponentially in one key area, which continually ruins the film for the proceeding eighty-odd minutes after it has begun. Using the fictional ploy and backstory about a WikiLeaks-esque website publishing eighty-four hours of found footage and then condensing this footage into an eighty-six minute film which reveals all about what really happens on the surface of the moon. The on-screen prologue acknowledges that the footage was released in 2011, but it visually it would be more representative of 1981. Even amateur filmmakers nowadays can become professional editors from the comfort of their own homes due to the boom in video-editing software, but ‘Apollo 18’ instead is disjointed and annoying. Littered with black-outs, film which seems to have aged perfectly and others that seem to barely able to contain an image, and the occasional overt cinematic technique that seems substantially out of place in the grand scheme of the film. Potential tension and suspense is constantly overshadowed with the emphasis on fast and pointless editing showcasing the desolate landscape rather than the creatures that are attacking the team. Alongside the technical aspects of the film, the narrative itself is also guilty of underperforming, with it just dawdling along with very little happening in between short spurts of action and suspense.

The plot opens itself up with various different avenue’s to explore with the inclusion of objects and characters that are found beyond their space shuttle, however the majority of the action is confined to the safe and secure living confines of the astronauts. The great unknown that is the surface of the moon is constantly underused until the characters are forced out of their living quarters, and still then the action is few and far between. One positive acknowledgement however is the performance by Warren Christie, as the lone astronaut who understands initially that something is not right and that he and his colleagues may simply be small, disposable pieces in a larger, conspiracy laden plan. But the solid performance from one character in the grand scheme of the entire project can’t elevate the film from its deflated narrative, mediocre direction and poorly chosen technical compositions. With the conclusion of the film and the projection of the credits there is still no pay-off for the audience, the being(s) which terrorise the astronauts are left unexplored and a few meagre lines of text explain what happened to the three men according to the sacred word of the United States Government. However this does allow for the credits to be exhibited in the same vein as the rest of the feature, as a vastly underwhelming piece.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Kill List - Dir. Ben Wheatley

Routine plagues everybody’s lives, they awake, they rise, they work, they play, but when a British film comes along that not only plays into the mould of the predictability of the crime genre, but also substantially subverts it, it is certainly worth a viewing. ‘Kill List,’ director Ben Wheatley’s second feature length picture, creates a refreshing addition to a genre which has by all accounts become somewhat stale. It draws you in with conflicting characters and beautiful visuals before turning the over-exposed theme of the repentant assassin on its head and sprinkling in a few new and exciting additions that are sure to create discussion and debate between cinema-goers and critics alike.

Jay (Neil Maskell) is a father to the young Sam (Harry Simpson) and a husband to the beautiful Shel (MyAnna Buring), but their familial relationships are less than perfect. After returning from Iraq where he was a part of a security consult he has since taken up the role of local assassin with his best friend Gal (Michael Smiley). They appear professional and act indifferent, to them killing another human being is just another job. Instead of sitting in an office for nine hours, they find financial solace in placing a bullet between another person’s eyes; it’s business. But when a mysterious client (Struan Rodger) offers the men another ‘hit list’ to complete, the contract sets off a chain of events which shatters the lives of everybody involved, subsequently leading to a horrifyingly brutal final act conclusion.

To describe ‘Kill List’ as an outright horror would be doing a massive disservice to the film. It begins as a taught familial drama focusing on the strained marriage between Jay and Shel as financial problems plague the couple, before it slowly descends down the path of British crime thrillers and horror reminiscent of the Hammer films of the sixties and seventies. The constantly transforming narrative is followed by the brilliant performances from Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley, they act like brothers, constantly fighting, arguing and then successfully making up over a beer or two, but when their job is the main order of business, they become cold, calculated and unpredictable. Especially Jay who has an emotional connection to the majority of villains they dispatch through his wife and his child which takes an insurmountable toll on his emotional and physical stability as the days drag on, and the contract killings keep coming.

Stylistically Laurie Rose’s intimate, close-quarters cinematography, Robin Hill’s disjointed editing and Jim Williams unsettling score all work together to represent the sporadic and disturbing portrait of two men who strive to appear as normal human beings in society, but actually reflect the abhorrent horror that many believe can only take place in dingy basements and downtrodden apartments. The graphic acts of violence perpetrated by the two men are lingered upon by the camera as the audience is slowly drawn into their jobs, and their lives beyond family and friends. While the camera most often than not utilizes close-up shots coupled with Williams score bringing the audience to the forefront of the emotional pain involved, Jay after all, first and foremost is a male in the patriarchal role who is struggling to provide for his family.

‘Kill List’ isn’t a nicely packaged film full to the brim with concrete conclusions and flawless narrative developments, but it is a film which provokes thought and discussion over the little things in life. Violence, life, family, money, employment, depravity, Ben Wheatley’s film manages to encapsulate them all whilst also providing a narrative which is guaranteed to captivate.