Sunday, 25 September 2011

Gary Oldman Goes Spy Catching in 70's Britain


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tomas (Let the Right One In) Alfredson directs this new adaptation of John le Carre’s famous 1970’s set spy thriller starring Gary Oldman as retired spy catcher George Smiley brought back in to British Intelligence to find a Soviet mole at the very top of the organisation.

I’ve never read le Carre's book and am only vaguely familiar with the old 1970’s BBC adaptation with Alec Guinness as Smiley, so I went to this mainly as a fan of Alfredson and Oldman. And because it has a top notch cast featuring the likes of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Kathy Burke, Mark Strong and John Hurt.

And it didn’t disappoint.

This is a brilliant film with brilliant work by the cast and their director. Oldman deserves an Oscar nom. As Smiley he is quietly compelling and the model of restrained cunning and intelligence though hampered by an emotional weakness around his estranged wife and haunted by some of the things he’s done in his past. Mark Strong is equally as good as a field agent sent out on a mission that goes wrong and who has to then live with the personal consequences. As director, Alfredson paints a suitably drab atmosphere of 70’s Britain – crumbling old buildings, horrible wallpaper and tacky Wimpy Bars (an old British chain for fast food), all beautifully brought to life by spot on art direction and moody cinematography. And the themes he explores are very similar to those in Let the Right One in. Many of the characters here are loners, separate from life. They don’t join in. They watch from the outside. They are all essentially lonely and emotionally damaged people. Also, as with Let the Right One In, Alfredson isolates his characters, often using windows as a barrier. They are seen looking out of them a lot, looking at a world they don’t feel a part of. Then there is the pacing. It is glacial. There is no big action. Instead it is all about conversations, subtle mind games, red herrings and double crosses by oft middle-aged men in bad suits, usually in drab rooms. But it is all utterly absorbing and highly cinematic, showing us a whole new world, the kind we would never normally see; showing us the toll this world takes on these people. This is the true anti-James Bond or Bourne. Only the always good Tom Hardy as field officer Ricky Tarr comes close to a Bond-esque life, working out in Turkey to get secrets from a possible Soviet source, then seducing the guy's wife, thinking that she is the real source. There is no huge climax to the movie either, only Smiley finally working out who the mole is and springing his subtle trap, followed by the sad and grim aftermath.

Tomas Alfrdson's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a beautifully written, acted and directed film with a refreshing adult tone and feel. It requires patience and a certain level of intelligence from its audience. As much as I love my fun/escapist movie entertainment, it is a welcome relief to go see something now and again that is unapolagetically adult and artistically demanding of its audience. 4.5 (5)

Friday, 16 September 2011

Buffy Season 9: Little Slayer in the Big City

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Clickable thumbnail for a page from BtVS: Season 9.1 'Freefall'

She’s back!

The Slayer returns for her ninth official season, though like the last one, in comic book form. Doesn’t matter. Season 9 (as with Season 8 before it) is canon. It is outlined/plotted, exec produced, and partly written by the god who be Joss. And Joss has written this here first issue – a short, funny, scene setting and character-building story called Freefall.

The story starts with Buffy waking up after the night before, a major hangover raging. She can’t remember what she got up to at the big housewarming party she threw the previous night; a party to which she invited all of her friends: Willow and her new squeeze, Xander and Dawn, Spike, Riley, and Andrew. She just knows something happened, that she likely made an ass of herself after ingesting copious amounts of alcohol. As her pained morning progresses, our girl slowly starts to remember in flashback bits and pieces of what went on the night before, until eventually she gets the full picture. It is then that Buffy’s new roomies confront her about what happened, and about her friends who came to the party. Yikes! Is it gonna be eviction time for the Buffster?

Uh uh, no spoilers here.

Freefall is a ton of fun. The story is told through Buffy’s tired, red tinged, alcohol dazed morning after eyes, her flashbacks a great device meaning that the reader is just as in the dark as Buffy about what she got up to, only learning what happened as she does. It’s true that Joss has such a firm grip on these characters that they live and breath on the page. As to be expected his dialogue is witty, snappy and clever, while at the same time the theme behind the story is strong. There is a forced jollity to Buffy here. But behind that jollity hides sadness and guilt. And yes, pain. Always pain. Wouldn’t be Buffy without the pain. Being the master Mr Whedon is, he can layer all of this stuff in to a very funny, perfectly constructed story about a girl suffering a bad hangover, just trying to get through her day.

So just what is the theme here? Because as we know, theme and metaphor is the bread and butter of Buffy.

Well, after the huge mystical, multi dimensional, world altering/shattering events of Season 8 the concept behind Season 9 is, we’re told, back to basics. Season 9 is supposed to bring Buffy and her friends back to dealing with the everyday, back to using the supernatural as metaphor for the kinds of trials and tribulations we all face in life: growing up, growing older, dealing with parents and family, dealing with relationships, taking on responsibility. Basically living life. This time, for Buff at least, the main theme appears to be about finding your place in the world and where you fit in when things around you have changed. It’s about building a life and trying to figure out what it is that defines you. Is it your job? Your family? Your friends? A lot of this has been touched on before in Buffy, but through the lens of adolescence, of growing up. This time it is through the lens of directionless adulthood. What happens when we are cast adrift from our old life? You can look at it perhaps like family break up, divorce, or losing a long-held job. Big adult life changes. To quote a song I know, “Where do we go from here?”

In Freefall, Buffy is in the beginnings of this adult life-adjustment phase. Things have changed. She’s trying to get a handle on her life now that her leader-of-a-slayer-army days are over. The remaining slayers are still around (many not happy about what Buffy did), but the army is disbanded, and no new slayers will ever be called again. Now, war over, former Slayer General Buffy Summers is in San Francisco working as a waitress, living in a shared apartment with some brand new roomies, trying to discover what she wants to do with the rest of her life. But despite her having cut the world off from magic and from all the mystical dimensions, there are still vampires around who need slaying. So most nights Buff keeps up her old habit of secret patrolling, of vamp slayage, but with no Big Bads, no major apocalypse’s to be averted. At least not yet. So with the rest of her life ahead of her, and its path not being dictated by any Watcher’s Council types anymore, what’s a young, free and single slayer to do? I guess that is the big question for Season 9.

All in all, Freefall is a perfect start to what promises to be a fun and intriguing new chapter in the lives of everyone’s favourite Sunnydale refugees. So thanks to Joss. I read. I laughed. I reread. I laughed some more. I got the nuances, the subtleties, and the not so subtleties.

Great stuff!

Long may the Buffster reign.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

An American Slayer in London (and a brooding vamp too)

Gotta love these Jo Chen covers.

Buffy Season 9 starts proper very soon. Yay!

But before it does, Dark Horse have just published issue 1 of Angel & Faith, a separate title under the Season 9 banner that will run concurrently with the main Buffy title.

Angel & Faith sees disgraced and traumatised vampire with a soul Angel living in London with reformed one time psycho slayer Faith. Now, I don’t wanna spoil things too much for those who haven’t read Season 8 yet, but…

Oh what the hell!

Rupert Giles, stalwart and true Watcher and father figure to Buffy Summers, is dead. He was killed at the end of the big Season 8 showdown. And his killer was none other than a certain heavy-browed, brooding bloodsucker, who’d been under the influence of a nasty mystical force amusingly named Twilight. To make things even worse for poor Buff, having witnessed her soul mate murder her ‘father’, in his will Giles then goes and leaves all of his worldly goods to… Faith! For some reason Giles thought Buffy didn’t need any of it, but that Faith did. Faith’s inheritance includes a house in London, all of the remaining Watcher files/records, and an estate somewhere in the country with horses and stuff. Faith, forever in Angel’s debt for having stuck by her and helped her through her own personal darkness, takes the catatonic-with-guilt vampire with her to London in order to help him along what will now be an even harder road to redemption.

As Angel & Faith starts, Angel is out of his catatonic state and is helping Faith carry on Giles’s work. Using the Watcher files, the dynamic duo are battling evil on the streets and in the homes of Great Britain - starting with trying to finish a job Giles had begun months before: fighting to remove a monstrous, tentacled demon from a scared little girl.

Angel & Faith no.1 is great stuff. Highly enjoyable. Both A & F are in character with plenty of brooding from Angel and sexy sarcasm from Faith. It was great to start the story with a flashback to Giles in good old fashioned demon fighting form before cutting to Faith and Angel continuing and then finishing the exact same fight. The plotting is intriguing, seeing the return of Whistler, the demon who was once Angel’s mentor, who first showed him Buffy before she was called as the Slayer, who convinced Angel to come out of the gutter and be someone. Here, now, Whistler seems to be taking on a possible Big Bad role, recruiting a pair of truly nasty demons who used to work for Twilight. Then there’s Nadira, an angry, sexy, two-fisted Brit slayer who is friends with Faith (they seem a lot alike) but who is also out for blood after her slayer squad were all killed by Twilight’s people. Knowing now that Angel was Twilight, Nadira’s determined to find Angel and kill him, unaware that the big guy is actually being looked after by Faith. And then there’s the doozy of a revelation at the end of the issue, about what Angel is planning to do.

The UK setting gives the book a nice atmosphere, though it perhaps has a few too many British-isms wedged in to characters mouths, hammering home that they are indeed British. And I'm not too sure about the Buffy timeline anymore but I'm guessing this takes place 2/3 years after Chosen, making it circa 2006. If so, then Brit characters talking about public spending cuts and austerity measures would be about four years to soon. But, hey, it's no big deal as it's the characters and the story that I care about. And in that respect, A&F shoots and scores. Christos Gage’s script is tight, witty, emotional and very well structured. His new character of Nadira is instantly likeable. The art by Rebekah Isaacs is also very good. She captures the likenesses of the original actors better than Georges Jeanty manages in the main Buffy comic. Don’t get me wrong, Georges stuff is fine, just a bit more cartoony.

All in all, Angel & Faith no.1 is a very promising start to the future adventures of everyone’s favourite brooding vamp and bad girl slayer. Y’know what I really hope for though in this book? I hope that Oz turns up sometime. Cuz then we can have a Joss version of An American Werewolf in London. Heh. Roll on issue 2.

Meanwhile, on a related (and very cool) geek note:

The other day I had a brief twitter chat with Angel & Faith’s writer Christos Gage. I asked him if there was any chance the duo, while living in the UK, would come to my part of the world – to the west country - seeing as how back in Buffy season six Giles said he kept a flat in the city of Bath. Christos said maybe, and asked if there were any country estates with horses around there. Of course, being the huge Buffy geek that I am, I told him yes, there are loads, including the one shown in Buffy episode 7.1 with Giles and Willow in England, which was actually filmed by Joss at Tony Head's real home in Westbury near Bath in summer 2002. Christos then came back to say that Faith’s inherited country estate will now officially be just outside of Bath. And she may well be visiting soon. So...YAY! I may have contributed in a very, very tiny way to the continuing Buffyverse canon.