DVD Reviews – ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,’ ‘Drive’

Smiley reflects on events in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy didn’t make much of an impression on me at the cinema. Watching Tomas Alfredson’s film on DVD proved to be a much more rewarding experience. The attention to detail is astonishing. Not just in terms of set design (loved the Wimpy bar) but also in terms of how subtle Alfredson’s approach to the material is. There are little touches that passed me by first time around, such as seeing a Hungarian police officer carrying a baby in the background of a scene. Earlier we saw the child’s mother get caught in the crossfire as Jim Prideux’s (Mark Strong) operation went badly wrong.  I misjudged the film thinking it cold and indifferent. There is plenty of humanity here, it’s just everybody keeps their feelings hidden. Letting your guard down in this world can prove costly as Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) finds out when he inadvertently blows his cover and puts the woman he loves in danger not to mention his own colleagues.

Le Carre experienced the paranoia of the post-Kim Philby era first hand and Alfredson captures this unease perfectly. Often he places the camera up high or at unusual angles so it seems like the viewer is also complicit, another pair of eyes watching as these people scheme and machinate. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) too is an observer, rarely speaking, taking everything in. It’s a great performance by Oldman, easily his best since the 1980’s when he did his most exciting work in films like Sid and Nancy (1986, Alex Cox) and The Firm (1987, Alan Clarke). I’ve watched the film twice since getting the DVD and it gets better each time.

Special Features

There is a fantastic interview with John le Carre in which he discusses his novel, his own time in the Intelligence service, the differences between Gary Oldman and the TV version’s leading man Alec Guinness. The only other extras are deleted scenes and a laid back commentary from Alfredson and Oldman.

Driver and Irene Share a Moment in Drive
With its retro vibe and synthesiser-heavy soundtrack Drive is a throwback to 80’s action thrillers like Thief (Michael Mann 1981), and To Live and Die in LA (William Freidkin 1985). Taciturn loner (Gosling) comes to the aid of his pretty neighbour (Carey Mulligan) when Mobsters force her ex-con husband to take part in a heist. Refn mixes restraint in the emotional scenes with over the top violence as heads are destroyed and arteries are opened. 

The Driver lives the customary solitary existence expected of existential loner types in the movies ever since Alain Delon starred in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967). We know nothing about him, except he drives; for the movies as a stunt driver and at night as a getaway driver for hire. Maybe there is nothing else to know. During the day he works at a garage run by Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who dreams of competing in stock car races with Driver at the wheel. Irene (Mulligan) awakens something in Driver though, and he begins to spend time with her and her young son. These early scenes are achingly romantic and made up of meaningful stares and sparse dialogue. 

This mixture of yearning and savagery sums up the movie. Is the Driver a hero or a psychopath? Is he Shane or is he Travis Bickle? The biggest surprise in Drive is comedian Albert Brooks menacing performance as a blade-wielding gangster, performing the same function as the genial but ruthless drug lord Milo in ‘Pusher.’ Refn likes violent protagonists, the most notable exception being Miss Marple (Refn directed a couple of episodes of the TV series), and putting themselves in situations where they must struggle to extricate themselves within a short period of time. 

There have been churlish complaints about Drive being nothing more than an exercise in style, but these are wide of the mark. The story, based on a novel by James Sallis and adapted by screenwriter Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove), may be a cliche, but Refn’s direction, his use of long takes, slow motion, lighting, and music are mesmerising. The style gives the film substance. Drive may also be a pastiche of earlier films, like the game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City it conjures up a world made from movies that has little to do with reality. Yet Refn invests Drive with a poeticism rarely found in action/thrillers and like the best genre films it transcends itself. 

Special Features

Not many. There is a blinding Q & A session post-BFI screening hosted by film critic Robbie Collin. Apart from that there is a trailer and a TV spot. Nice menu though. 

The Tin Drum – DVD Review

Volker Schlöndorff’s adaptation of Gunter Grass’s novel ‘The Tin Drum’ is almost unbearable. It turns the rise of Nazism into a grotesque farce and suggests those involved were mentally aberrant rather than willing participants in the horror. That the film offers such a childish view of the world should not be a surprise given we see the world through the eyes of little Oskar (David Bennent).  Oskar is three years old and decides to stop growing when he receives a tin drum for his birthday. As a citizen of Danzig, the ‘free city’ claimed by Poland and Germany he is at the heart of the chaos that will engulf the world. 
In the novel the narrator is unreliable and probably insane. Schlöndorff makes Oskar a heroic figure performing his own mini-rebellion against an ideology which promotes physical strength. As an allegory it does not work because Oskar’s decision not to engage with the adult world makes him as guilty as they are. Schlöndorff takes the magical realist elements of the novel literally and despite his regular collaborator Igor Luthor using the kind of bright garish colours you associate with a Hollywood musical The Tin Drum never has the otherwordly fairytale feel you suspect Schlöndorff was aiming for.  
Yet The Tin Drum is undeniably an important film. When the film premiered in 1979 West Germany was undergoing an identity crisis with the younger generation seeking to confront their parents over their involvement with Nazi Germany. Schlöndorff was part of a movement critics christened the New German Cinema though none of the directors had much stylistically in common with each other than being from the same country and challenging the old order. Gunter Grass too challenged the complacency of the FDR with his irreverent and often provocative novels. The film became an international hit managing to be one of the few films to pick up the Palme D’Or at Cannes and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture. 
Special Features
Arrow Academy continues their impressive series of classic European films with this dual format DVD release of The Tin Drum. Both the original theatrical cut and restored version of the Director’s Cut are here. Schlöndorff provides an audio commentary and there two interviews with him, the first given at Cannes in 2001, and the second concerning the new version. Where Arrow Academy often excels is in the written work accompanying a film. The Tin Drum has essays by George Lellis and Hans-Bernard Moeller, authors of ‘Volker Schlöndorff’s Cinema: Adaptation, Politics and the Movie-appropriate,’ as well as extracts from the director’s diary, and pieces by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, and Gunter Grass. 

Le Silence de la Mer (1949, Jean-Pierre Melville) – Classic

Le Silence de la Mer will surprise those who only know Jean-Pierre Melville for directing thrillers like Le Samourai (1967) or Le Cercle Rouge (1971). Melville’s debut feature is a wartime drama about a German officer Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) who moves into the home of an elderly man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stephane) in occupied France.
The only form of resistance available to them is silence, so they refuse to speak to their guest. Respecting their patriotism, von Ebrennac does all the talking instead. He describes his upbringing in Germany and his lifelong affection for France. Von Ebrennac reveals himself to be a cultured, civilised man with a love for French literature.
Von Ebrennac also believes the war will bring France and Germany closer together though his idealism is eventually shattered by his colleagues in Paris. The old man and his niece agree he seems decent, though they acknowledge they cannot ever talk to him out of loyalty to France. Melville’s derives tension from little moments, a clock ticking for example, or a facial expression, rather than conventional dramatic means.
Though an early representation of the ‘good German’ may have seemed insensitive coming only four years after the Occupation Melville opens the film with a statement condemning Nazi barbarity and the complicity of the German people.
While Le Silence de la Mer is notably different to Melville’s later Americanised genre films, his use of stillness and silence would be recurrent throughout his career. Von Ebrennac may be unusually loquacious for a Melville protagonist, but he shares the bruised romanticism and the existential despair common in his later movies.
Howard Vernon is remarkable as von Ebrennac. Tall and striking-looking, Vernon is first seen arriving in the doorway and entering out of the darkness like the monster in a Universal horror film. In Vercors novel, von Ebrennac is a handsome, blonde Teutonic figure, while Vernon with his sharp, haunted features is much more unconventional.
Based on a famous novel by the Resistance writer Vercors, Le Silence de la Mer is a milestone in French cinema. Melville hired Henri Decae, a young photographer with no experience of working in film to act as director of photography. Melville and Decae take a minimalist approach using unusual camera angles and close-ups to convey meaning.
This approach was revolutionary and created a new language for film. Melville directed Le Silence de la Mer without any formal training or industry connections. The use of voiceover, location shooting, and Melville’s refusal to play by the rules influenced the Nouvelle Vague. Robert Bresson’s minimalistic filmmaking style clearly owes a debt to Le Silence de la Mer.

X: Night of Vengeance – Review

Is it me or is there some kind of subtle agenda hidden in Australian films these days? A warning for anybody contemplating moving to Australia to think again. Maybe Australia’s cities are overpopulated and this is their way of keeping the numbers down. There has always been an underlying violence in Australian cinema but they are really going for it now with works like Underbelly (TV), Animal Kingdom (David Michôd), and Snowtown (Justin Kurzel). Bloody hell Snowtown, try getting Snowtown out of your head once you’ve seen it. Now here’s director Jon Hewitt with another film about how dangerous Australians are. X: Night of Vengeance is a stylish thriller in which a high-class prostitute spends her last night as a working girl trying to stay alive after she witnesses a corrupt cop killing a drug dealer.
Holly (Viva Bianca) dreams of escaping to Parisbut has one more night to pull tricks before leaving Sydney forever. Holly’s last gig is a threesome with drug dealer Willie (Hazem Shammas), but her colleague finds herself indisposed. So Holly quickly replaces her partner with 17-year old runaway Shay (Hannah Mangan-Lawrence). Shay has only recently arrived in Sydney and is hopelessly out of her depth. Their evening goes well enough until Bennett (Stephen Philips) arrives and shoots their client in the head three times. Holly and Shay escape but find themselves hunted by Bennett throughout the Cross, a neon-lit area filled with sex clubs viewers of Underbelly: The Golden Mile will recognise but for the uninitiated feels like Soho twinned with Hell.
Ignore the clumsy title, X: Night of Vengeances is a slick genre movie with a compelling performance from Spartacus beauty Viva Bianca. Now that’s a fabulous name, Viva Bianca. Do not mistake this for a serious film about the sex industry. This is an urban fairytale with Shay as the girl who wanders from the path into the forest where the monsters live. It is a place filled with broken dreams. Everybody Shay meets is looking for a way out, hustling for money, prostituting themselves, or using other people for their own gain. Even the kindly young taxi driver (Eamon Farren) who forms a bond with Shay, and is noticeable for being the only sympathetic male character in the film, is working the night shift so he can earn enough money to fulfill his own dreams of escape. 
Filmed on location in Sydneydirector of photography Mark Pugh makes great use of colour and there’s a tawdry cheap and nasty feel that recalls Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (1984). The screenplay by Hewitt and Belinda McClory is occasionally portentous and relies too much on coincidence but Hewitt keeps the action moving and with a length of 85 minutes X: Night of Vengeance never outstays its welcome. 

Top Ten Films 2011

Here’s my top ten list for 2011. As with all lists it is a matter of personal taste.


“We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” 

Its final descent into a hellish sexual underworld with sex-addict Brandon (Michael Fassbender) on an odyssey to penetrate anything with an orifice is ridiculous but for the most part Shame is a haunting study of urban loneliness. The heart of the film is the fractious relationship between Brandon and his equally damaged sister Irene (Carey Mulligan). Fassbender has been getting most of the acclaim but Mulligan matches him. There is clearly some traumatic incident in their past they can’t get over and though there are subtle hints screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Steve McQueen avoid offering any easy explanations. Shame is exactly how I like my movies, ambiguous, voyeuristic, and full of yearning. And when it comes to singing ‘New York New York’ Carey Mulligan kicks Frank Sinatra’s ass.


” (Silence)”

Director Michel Hazanavicius proved himself to be a dab hand at pastiche with his OSS 117 movies. This charming tale of a silent era movie star (Jean Dujardin) having to deal with the advent of sound and repressing his feelings for Hollywood’s new It Girl (Berenice Bejo) captures the style of those early movies perfectly. Both actors seem like they belong in the 1920’s. Dujardin channels Douglas Fairbanks and his permanently amused screen presence. Bejo’s comic timing is exceptional.  Oddly enough for a film made in black and white The Artist reminded me a lot of Stanley Donen’s Technicolor masterpiece Singin’ in the Rain (1952). It too is about a silent star trying to deal with the advent of sound. The approach the two directors make to their stories may be different but their final coda is the same; “Gotta Dance!”


“Everything is transient. Follow Heaven’s Mandate”

Lush epic murder-mystery from genre specialist Tsui Hark. Andy Lau’s world-weary detective is freed from prison to investigate a series of murders linked to the construction of a giant Buddha statue. Featuring spontaneous combustion, talking fawns, and kung fu fights with puppets on a string, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame has everything you could want from a wuxia. Sammo Hung choreographed the fight sequences. There’s great support from Carina Lau as China’s only female Empress, Li Bingbing as her right hand woman, and Chao Deng as an enigmatic albino warrior. 

“Life is only on Earth, and not for long.”

A welcome return to the stylised form of film-making Lars von Trier rejected for the strictures of Dogme, Melancholia is the director’s best work since the TV series The Kingdom (1994). As social satire and as sci-fi the film flounders, but as an insight into a depressive state of mind Melancholia is outstanding. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) destroys her own wedding without really meaning to as a happy event turns into a precursor for the end of the world. In the second part of the film Justine is a near catatonic wreck until a planet hurtles towards Earth on a collision course. Then she comes alive. ecstatic even, bathing nude in the moonlight and coming to terms with oblivion far more capably than her well adjusted sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It’s a comforting thought for those who view life through a glass darkly. Especially as von Trier suggests those of a cheerier disposition are fucked. 

“Then he sighed and his body relaxed and that was the moment…”

Asif Kapadia’s sensitively handled documentary about the great Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna had me in tears. The bitter rivalry between Senna and his nemesis Alain Prost is fascinating. A clash between two opposing forces, Senna the romantic who always raced to win, and Prost the pragmatist who planned out his races beforehand. Kapadia compiled Senna using archive footage never cutting away from events to look back on them meaning we stay in the moment watching Senna as he goes on with his career. It makes the final part of the film focusing on the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix which also cost the life of Roland Ratzenberger even more powerful. 

“Are you in therapy too?”

Almodovar’s last three films are lifeless and showed a worrying tendency towards good taste. The critics still fawned over them which made me hate the films even more, but The Skin I Live In  is an outrageous return to form. Though essentially a horror film Almodovar still directs in his lush melodramatic style. The narrative unfolds through flashbacks as we begin to find out just why a troubled surgeon (Antonio Banderas) has a beautiful woman locked in his house. I’ll say no more because The Skin I Live In is best seen without knowing too much about it. And with Hollywood having nothing to offer Banderas but voicing cats and cameos in Spy Kids movies it is so good to see him back with his mentor for the first time since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990).
This is the story of my life. Now that I’m dead I finally meet a nice guy.”

An offbeat murder mystery with the quirky tragicomic tone of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1989-91) Gérald Hustache-Mathieu’s film functions as an unofficial biopic of Marilyn Monroe. Fragile beauty Candice (Sophie Quinton) is the much loved celebrity whose death shocks a small town. World-weary crime novelist Rousseau (Jean-Paul Rouve) is not convinced by the verdict of suicide and starts his own investigation. A facsimile for all the film buffs who obsess over Marilyn’s Rousseau’s initial journalistic impulses give way to romantic longing. Hustache-Mathieu finds inventive ways to incorporate events from Marilyn’s life into his narrative and Nobody Else But You is a far more fitting tribute than the film adapted from the dubious memoirs of Colin Clark My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis 2011).

Copyright Focus Features

“Tell her the darkness is about to drown us”

This is 2011. This is what movies look like. Mike Mills beautifully observed drama flits between the past and the present as Oliver (Ewan McGregor) recalls his complex relationship with his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) and grieves for him after his death. Hal came out as a gay man in his 70’s leading Oliver to reflect on his parents marriage and his own romantic failures as he begins a tentative relationship with a French actress (Melanie Laurent). Mills deals with big themes; mortality, loss, homosexuality from the 50’s onwards, but does so with a lightness of touch and Beginners never feels pretentious or heavy going.   
“All of my bones are broken”

Novelist Julia Leigh makes her directorial debut with this baffling, haunting, perverse, oddity which plays like a deadpan version of a 70’s softcore flick. Emily Browning is Lucy, a student sleepwalking through her life submitting herself to the desires of others. Only a tender friendship with a socially withdrawn drunken literary type suggests Lucy can feel anything at all. She gets a job working as a lingerie-wearing waitress at elaborate dinner parties organised by an attractive older woman (Rachael Blake) then allows herself to be drugged and put to sleep for melancholy old men to peruse. The acting is stylised rather than realistic, the dialogue artfully constructed especially when Leigh decides to break the fourth wall during a conversation by switching from a reverse shot to having one of the characters directly address the camera and deliver a lengthy monologue on how weary he is with life. What’s the film all about? Is it a parable about the objectification of female beauty? Maybe it’s a mad parody about the exploitation of those working in the food service industry.Or maybe Lucy is dreaming for at one point we see her going to sleep and the screen goes dark. I’m not sure Leigh wants us to know and Sleeping Beauty is all the better for this ambiguity. 

Credit – Richard Foreman

 “There’s something about you boy”

There has been a fair old backlash against Nicolas Winding Refn’s sleek and stylish existential crime thriller. The arthouse crowd resent an exploitative B-movie getting critical acclaim while curiously enough the artier aspects of Refn’s direction alienated those who like their action films to be a bit more fast and furious. Drive is derivative but genre films always are. Its influences are many; Melville, Michael Mann, Shane (George Stevens 1950), Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964), and pretty much the whole of the 1980’s. However Refn brings his own sensibility to the film. Refn’s devotion to violent protagonists has been in evidence since his debut film Pusher (1997) and once again he takes a morally non-committed approach to his storytelling. It is entirely up to the audience whether they see the Ryan Gosling’s Driver as a hero or a head-stomping psycho. The early scenes with Driver growing close to Carey Mulligan’s single mom have a tenderness rarely present in Refn’s work. Only the awkward courtship between social misfits Lenny and Lea in the otherwise macho Bleeder (1999) hinted Refn has a romantic side. One day Refn might actually get around to making a great drama about real human beings rather than films about movie archetypes but till then I’m happy to watch him move from genre to genre. Next up a martial arts film with Ryan Gosling. Looking forward to it already.