At The Movies

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
A first opinion by Malcolm Maclachlan
“Tinker Tailor…” might be the antidote for the shallow, flashy spy movie. Unfortunately, it’s too much of an antidote: it forgot to be entertaining.

I expected more from Tomas Alfredson, the director of the wonderful and subtle Swedish preteen vampire movie “Let the Right One In.” Though you have to give him points for ambition. This film is so understated, and moves at such a slow pace, with such a convoluted plot… well, after a certain point, the complexity was about all that was keeping me engaged, just to see if I was smart enough to keep up with it.

At the center is an actor I could normally watch just read the phone book: Gary Oldman — except that I started to wish he would. As retired superspy George Smiley, he’s as blank as a stick figure. An emotional outburst from him is gripping a chair. It’s an interesting approach, but it would have worked better if there was more going on around him.

Despite all the subterfuge, it almost doesn’t even feel like it’s about spies. Everything is too small, too unsophisticated, the cabal just kind of uninteresting. In the end, the motivations of the villains don’t make sense. When one conspirator talks about making “a mark” and “choosing a side” and it doesn’t matter which one, it just rings hollow. Maybe I misremember the John Le Carre novels I read when I was younger, but this didn’t feel like them.

Finally, there is a major theme here around gay people being in the closet as a metaphor for the Cold War. Three major characters carrying on gay affairs, including Colin Firth basically reprising the same era as “A Single Man” but with a far less likeable character. Yet this somehow also manages to not be particularly interesting, and it also feels a little shoehorned into the material as presented here.

A second opinion by Tony Sheppard
I think it’s fair to say I liked it much more than that. It’s definitely very different from much of what we see these days – with far more intricate storytelling and no inclination to spoon feed the audience.  But I’ve also heard multiple people, including those that normally analyze films very well, complain that it was too convoluted for them.  

I remember the BBC mini-series from when it originally aired in 1979 – an adaptation that is widely held in high regard.  But there’s a key point that sometimes gets missed in the comparison – that version was 290 minutes in length compared to the new film’s 127 minutes. It’s hard to lose that much content without jeopardizing the storytelling.  The mini-series even had room to keep the commas from the book’s title – a book that was one of a long series featuring the same lead character.

It’s also worth mentioning that much of the plot is based on, or at least inspired by, real events and people in the British spy community. Which leads to another observation – that the end of the Cold War was a rocky transition for the world of espionage. These were white men, educated at elite schools, trained and versed in Eastern European and Soviet culture and languages, who could move in and out of that world convincingly. These were the human assets that we didn’t have in place when the “enemy” shifted to different places and different causes. It’s hard to build a personnel base that can infiltrate your opposition when you cast aspersions on everybody who looks the part. And, as a corollary to that, it’s worth noting that had we been such fans of racial profiling during the Cold War, we would have been arresting and locking up all the Caucasians.

Joyful Noise
Written and Directed by Todd Graff
Well, it’s certainly noisy.

But with very little of the joy that infected Todd Graff’s “Camp,” “Joyful Noise” is a muddled mess about a church choir competing in a national gospel music competition. This is a film that manages to have alternating scenes that focus on religiously themed songs and then sex jokes. There’s even a scene in which Dolly Parton’s character encourages the daughter of Queen Latifah’s character to make herself more appealing to a boy by wearing makeup and putting on a skimpy dress – a parable I must have missed in Sunday School. And Kris Kristofferson (who I like) makes one of the worst movie cameos.  If you like these songs and singers, just buy the soundtrack.

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
Another American remake of a foreign film – this time, interestingly, directed by the lead actor of the original Icelandic film “Reykjavic-Rotterdam.”  “Contraband” tells the story of an ex-smuggler who gets dragged back into the old trade in order to save his family. The trailers are likely to make this seem like a very straightforward action film but it’s actually far better than that, helped by a very strong cast of secondary actors (including Ben Foster, Lukas Haas, Kate Beckinsale, Giovanni Ribisi, J.K. Simmons, and Diego Luna) and Mark Wahlberg in the kind of role he does best – the kind that doesn’t require too much subtle emoting. Regardless of the project’s exterior appearance, there’s a good film tucked inside – and smuggled into the theater.

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