“TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” (2011) – 4 STARS

Bringing “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” to the big screen was a pretty tough challenge. The movie is adapted from¬†John le Carre’s¬†complex¬†1974 spy novel of the same name. In 1979 it¬†was adapted for television in the form of a seven part mini-series. So trying to condense the story down to two hours while maintaining its tense spy¬†thriller feel was quite an undertaking. But hats off to director Tomas Alfredson¬†and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan for not only pulling it off but for delivering a deep and enthralling picture.

I¬†was first attracted¬†to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” thanks to its stellar¬†cast. The film features a veritable who’s who of british actors. Any movie that features the incredible talents of Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, and Ciaran hinds (who is actually Irish) is automatically off to a good start. Some of my favorite actors are in this bunch and here they really shine. Each perfectly relay the antsy Cold War paranoia that this type of movie calls for. Not one performance is disingenuous or fake. In many ways you can call this an acting clinic.

The film takes place in the early 1970’s. George Smiley (Oldman) is called back to British Intelligence, also known as “The Circus”, to root out a high level “mole” who is believed to be leaking highly classified intelligence to the Russians. One year earlier Smiley¬†along with his boss Control (Hurt) had been forced out after a botched assignment caused the capture of an agent (Strong) in Hungary. Since Control has been removed, the Circus¬†is being run by Percy Alleline¬†(Jones). Working alongside Alleline¬†is Bill Haydon (Firth), Roy Bland (Hinds), and Toby Esterhase¬†(David Dencik). Smiley puts together a team to help find the mole. An important piece of the puzzle is an agent named Ricki Tarr (Hardy). Tarr is the one who made the allegation of a mole and may have even more information that could bring everything to light. Smiley must sift through the¬†misdirections and false leads to find the identity of the mole and the four Circus higher-ups are prime suspects.

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” rewards patience. It’s a story that unfolds through a slow leak of clues and cleverly timed flashbacks. It’s a complex and layered story¬†that requires a lot of attention and that¬†could be what attracts many people to it (myself included). On the flip side I can see where some may¬†be dissuaded after seeing¬†the story as a muddled, convoluted, and almost laborious exercise. I’m not going to lie and say I completely grasped everything I was seeing. It did take a few rewinds¬†and a little research to really put everything together. In some ways that did take away from the experience but on the other hand everything was presented. While it’s deliberate and sometimes dry, O’Connor and Straughan’s script is tight, structured, and clearly intends to make the audience work right alongside of Smiley.

Another thing you will instantly notice is the careful attention to the look and presentation of the movie. Alfredson’s¬†direction is quite good and the mood and tone is just right. The movie is saturated with blues and greys that¬†creates¬†a cold, sullen atmosphere. The steel-faced agents are in a constant state of seriousness to the point that any smile automatically evokes suspicion from the audience. Oldman’s¬†understated¬†performance is pitch-perfect. Smiley is tired and worn but committed and resolved. His weathered poker-face hides his thoughts and intentions from the other characters and from us. Even Tom Hardy’s strange-looking blonde wig seems perfectly in tune with the picture.

This isn’t a spy¬†movie in the same vein as James Bond or Jason Bourne. I’m certainly no expect of being a secret agent¬†but this feels as real and grounded as any spy movie I have seen. It’s slow-moving and sometimes difficult to navigate but it’s also smart and completely engaging. It’s top-tier cast makes things even better and the movie would be worth seeing just for the wealth of acting talent involved. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” isn’t a film for everyone. But I found myself completely invested even if it did take a little work to get the full thrust of the story.

“JOHN CARTER” – 4 STARS

After seeing the mixed reviews for Disney’s $250 million “John Carter”, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s the kind of movie that you automatically expect to¬†receive some unfavorable reviews. It’s a large-scaled¬†science fiction epic and they simply don’t appeal to a certain group of people. I’m a pretty big sci-fi fan but even I had concerns going in to “John Carter”. Being someone completely unfamiliar with the source material, could the movie pull me into its¬†enormous, sprawling world? Could Taylor Kitsch¬†headline such a huge, ambitious project? Let me just say I was thoroughly drawn in right from the start of the film and Kitsch, while certainly not profound,¬†does enough to get the job done.

“John Carter” is based on of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel “A Princess of Mars”, the first¬†book of the 11-volume “Barsoom” series. The movie starts with Edgar Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) arriving in Richmond, Virginia after inheriting the estate of his recently deceased uncle, John Carter (Kitsch). Edgar hasn’t seen his uncle in years but he’s always cherished the wonderful stories he used to tell. Edgar is given a¬†private journal that John Carter said was to only be read by his nephew. It’s through Edgar’s reading of the journal that we’re whisked away on the interplanetary journey that makes up the majority of the story.

In the journal John Carter writes of his time prospecting for gold in the Arizona Territory after the Civil War. He’s taken into custody by a U.S. Calvary officer (Bryan Cranston) who wants to recruit him to join their fight against the Apache. Carter finds himself caught in the middle¬†of a shootout between the Calvary and the Apache. He¬†takes shelter in a cave where he finds not only gold but a mysterious medallion that ends up transporting him to what he later finds out¬†to be¬†Mars. He quickly finds that the planet is inhabited by a race of four-armed aliens called Tharks. Their leader, Tars Tarkas¬†(Willem DaFoe)¬†takes a liking to¬†him and is especially intrigued by Carter’s newfound gravity-manipulating leaping abilities. We also learn that two humanoid cities, Helium and Zodanga, are at war with each other. At the center of the conflict is the beautiful Princess Dejah¬†(Lynn Collins). Her father and Helium leader (Ciaran¬†Hinds)¬†is pressured into giving his daughter in¬†marriage¬†to an evil Zodanga¬†general (Dominic West) in hopes that it will bring peace between the two groups. Dejah wants no part of it and of course John Carter finds himself right in the middle of it.

The movie puts together a solid supporting cast of quality actors. In addition to DaFoe, Hinds, West, and Cranston we also get Mark Strong¬† as the leader of the god-like Holy Therns, a¬†sinister¬†group of shape-shifting eternals¬†who have been manipulating historical events on several planets. Strong is good here and he adds yet another solid “bad guy” performance to his resume. Thomas Haden Church has a lot of fun playing an evil Thark¬†who desperately wants to overthrow Tarkas and gain power over the Alien tribe. But the main focus is on Taylor Kitsch. The first thing you notice is that he has all the physical attributes needed to play John Carter. He’s quite believable and he certainly knows how to handle a sword. The one thing I noticed is that he didn’t have a very wide range of emotions. The character is intended to be cold and reserved. But there are scenes that call for more emotion and Kitsch doesn’t add much to them. He’s not bad, but he doesn’t have a lot of charisma. I did buy into the chemistry between him and the lovely Lynn Collins. While her character is given a few pretty cheesy lines, she’s still pretty good and she shares some really¬†fun scenes with Kitsch.

While Kitsch may not necessarily stand out, the special effects certainly do. “John Carter’s” assortment of creatures look impressive and its alien technologies¬†are a cool cross between futuristic and archaic. I was blown away by the detailed¬†structure of the solar-powered air ships. I also really liked the CGI design of the Thark creatures. Director and co-writer Andrew Stanton, better known for his work at Pixar Animation,¬†creates a planet that’s full of life yet that looks barren and on the verge of death. And while the landscapes do look fitting, they resemble an Arizona desert far more than what you would expect Mars, The Red Planet, to look like.

Stanton’s Mars is also a place of a strained but structured social order. There are a lot of politics at work between the two humanoid cities and we even get a bit of rather corny social commentary along the way. Mars also has its¬†system of theology that ends up¬†helping Carter and Dejah along the way but I would be lying if I said I understood exactly how. But together, the politics and theology of the planet do make it more than just a wasteland full of monsters and little green men. It makes it’s inhabitation feel more structured and complex and I actually bought into it (with a slight bit of suspension of disbelief).

“John Carter” is the first big blockbuster of 2011 and it’s already been viewed as a “flop”. It’s mediocre opening weekend at the box office did little to cover the film’s $250 million price tag. But I have to say that I had a lot of fun with the film. I enjoy good science fiction and I feel this qualifies. “John Carter” isn’t without its faults but it overcomes them by creating a huge new world that I had never experienced. I’ve never read Wright’s books but I think I could, and I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing “John Carter” become the full trilogy it was intended to be. I’m certainly not calling this the best movie of the year. But I’m also not calling it the terrible movie that some are. For me it was a creative and¬†entertaining motion picture experience – the type of thing that makes the movies fun.

“THE WOMAN IN BLACK” – 3.5 STARS

No, this is not ‘Harry Potter Does Horror’. Saying that may be the greatest compliment Daniel Radcliffe could receive. Fresh off of the¬† massive success of the¬† Harry Potter franchise, Radcliffe begins his adult movie career with “The Woman in Black”, and old school horror film based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel. The story has been adapted into a play and a TV movie before finally reaching the big screen. It’s old school in the fact that it doesn’t soak the audience with buckets of blood and guts. Instead it relies on mood and tone and in my opinion that’s much scarier than any amount of gore.

“The Woman in Black” was a good choice for Radcliffe. It’s not a role loaded with heavy dialogue or that requires a wide range. But Radcliffe is more than able to handle what’s asked of him. He plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer and father who is still struggling to cope with the death of wife during the birth of their son. Arthur’s sadness is not only effecting¬†his relationship with his now four-year old son, but also his job performance at the law firm. His boss gives him one more chance to impress the higher-ups by sending him to a remote English village to handle the final affairs of a woman who died there. As you would guess, upon arrival Arthur is greeted with all sorts of odd behavior from villagers that would rather he leave.

One of my favorite actors, Ciaran¬†Hinds plays Sam Daily, one of the few¬†locals that gives Arthur the time of day. Sam warns Arthur of the superstitious nature of the villagers but it’s clear Sam knows more than even he want’s to believe. Arthur arrives at the creepy mansion of the deceased lady to begin his work. He soon finds that the land is haunted by a mysterious woman in black which leads Arthur to discover the gruesome secret the villagers so desperately try to hide.

There are so many vintage horror elements in “The Woman in Black”. We get everything from ghosts to haunted houses but most important is that the majority of it works. “The Woman in Black” really succeeds¬†with the creep factor. With the exception of a few cheap, loud ,volume burst jump scenes, the movie manufactures its terror through slick camera work, dark and dreary locations, and a genuinely spooky ambience. The story turns out to be far more grim than a simple haunted house ghost story which adds to the intensity. Once the mystery begins to unfold, the story comes together nicely and with the exception of Arthur’s rather far-fetched solution, I liked the way things came together.

“The Woman and Black” isn’t a perfect film but it’s head-and-shoulders above many of the horror pictures Hollywood churns out. There are a couple of cheap frights, a few head-scratching moments, and it does revisit the same boo devices more than once. But it also shows a film can be scary without the senseless blood and guts. It’s look and tone perfectly captured the mood for me and I found myself easily wrapped up in the story. This is a good transition for Radcliffe and a nice film in what is usually a¬†poor movie month.