Once again, the Internet and the fans give me a reason to care about Star Wars again. One of those crazy projects that seems completely demented until you see the final product and realise that yes, people actually did this, Star Wars Uncut is a crowd-sourced version of the entire original 1977 film that takes a Be Kind Rewind ‘swedeing’ lo-fi approach to expressing love for the classic SF adventure, and did it by inviting fans to remake the film however they liked. The only rule? Each group of amateur remakers only got to tackle 15 seconds of the original movie. The result is a barking made patchwork-quilt of live-action, animation, glove-puppets and the truly unexpected that all holds together a lot better than you might think. Two hours of sheer Star Wars nuttiness awaits…
Ah, piracy. There are so many ways in which it’s a measurably bad thing, something we’d undoubtedly be better off without – but one thing that the world of copyright infringement is annoyingly good at is catching the things that fall through the cracks. Not everything stays in print, or easily available, and it’s amazing what you can track down if you’re prepared to look. I’d never have gotten another look at the wonderful, wonderful James Burke documentary series ‘The Day the Universe Changed’ if it wasn’t for piracy – and I also wouldn’t have gotten another chance to watch the fantastically atmospheric and spooky BBC childrens drama serial, Moondial.
Broadcast back in 1988, Moondial got a VHS release sometime in the early Nineties, but ever since then it’s almost entirely vanished from view – it’s ridiculously difficult to get hold of, and the one ‘proper’ DVD release it got vanished from the shops almost as soon as it was released (the most recent DVD release was – weirdly – via the Reader’s Digest, and is also now unavailable – it’s this full episodic version that is, at least at the moment, up in full episodic format on Youtube. And just to be clear, I’d buy a commercial DVD release of it in an instant, as would plenty of other similarly aged TV SF/fantasy geeks, I’m sure). Of course, there’s an awful lot of stuff from that era that doesn’t get a release as well, but it’s frustrating in Moondial’s case because it stuck in my memory so strongly from when I first watched it, back when I was fourteen, and the world of Children’s TV was a much weirder, spookier place.
There’s a whole variety of shows that are burnt into my mind from that era – one of them, the ITV anthology series ‘Dramarama: Spooky’, scared the living crap out of me so much that I’ve actually avoided the recent DVD release, simply because I’m not sure I want to find out that my memory cheated and that it wasn’t quite as scary as I’ve remembered. Some haven’t aged brilliantly – The Box of Delights, for example, a much-praised 1984 adaptation that kicked off a whole run of prestigious fantasy adaptations, still has charm but doesn’t quite hold together (mainly because of the completely insane free-form nature of John Masefield’s original story), but while Moondial is absolutely a product of its time and often spectacularly Eighties, it’s also aged better than I expected and pulls off some impressive levels of atmosphere.
Adapted by children’s writer Helen Cresswell from her own novel, it’s the story of Araminta Caine (teen actress Siri Neal), usually known as Minty, who’s packed off to stay in the country with her slightly stand-offish aunt, but barely gets a chance to settle in before her mother is involved in a near-fatal car-crash that puts her into a coma. Traumatised and lonely (especially since her father already died a few years previously), Minty ends up exploring the grounds of the sprawling country house nearby (actually Belton House in Lincolnshire), but soon finds herself involved in the kinds of spooky goings-on that tend to happen around mysterious country houses in children’s stories. In this case, an ancient sundial holds the key to something that’s halfway between a time travel tale and a ghost story, as Minty crosses paths with an ailing kitchen boy called Tom, and a terrified girl who always hides her face – both of them trapped in their respective worlds, and both needing Minty to eventually find their freedom.
Safe to say, this isn’t exactly action-packed. We do get two definite villains – an evil governess, and a hilariously nasty goth ghost-hunter, both played by Jacqueline Pearce in full-on style that’ll bring back happy memories of her days as ferociously camp villainess Servalan in BBC cult space opera Blake’s 7 – but this is in no way an adventure story. Mood is the key word here, and there’s a certain level of weird abstractness to the story that you certainly couldn’t get away with today, but while Moondial is mainly a gently-paced, slow-burning mood piece that’s all about character, it’s often an astonishingly good one.
The late Eighties is a time when the whole look of television started to change and evolve at a pretty dizzying rate, and there are a certain aspects of Moondial that feel very entrenched in the way things used to be – for example, the number of beautifully plummy English accents on display, especially in the adult members of the cast. However, visually there’s a very definite effort to make this look good – fantasy TV is always very director dependant, and it’s pretty clear that the director here (Colin Cant, who only worked on a handful of projects after this according to IMDB) understood that the visuals and the location was going to have to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of generating a sense of enigma and mystery.
The end result of this is that the whole show has a wonderfully spooky edge, one that’s helped by the emotional undercurrent at the heart of the story – that it’s essentially about a girl finding a way of dealing with the possibility that her mother might die. We get a whole selection of sweeping tracking shots and kooky wide-angle lenses, which gives the show a very definite sense of style, and it’s also one of the few examples I can think of where filming day-for-night – throwing special filters onto the camera to acheive the illusion of night, back when cameras weren’t as powerful and night shooting was pricey – actually works. This is thanks to some carefully used filters and video effects, as well as the decision to drain most of the colour out of the image – what you get is something that doesn’t exactly look like night, but it does look dusky, weird and definitively spooky.
What makes it even more surprising is that Moondial is shot on video, and it’s incredibly difficult to make something shot on video look stylish (for an object lesson, go look at the late Nineties Neil Gaiman-written BBC drama Neverwhere, which only occasionally manages to lose the shot-on-video curse). Even the contemporary episodes of Doctor Who shot at the time (Season 25) don’t pull off quite so many moments of pure cinematic style as Moondial does when it’s really working. Matching this is a music soundtrack by David Ferguson that uses a mix of synths and traditional instruments in a way that’s weirdly timeless, adding a major level of darkness and edge to something that really could have come across as whimsical and feather-light.
There’s also the deliberately sinister edge given to the transport through time – I’ve always been fond of shows and movies that try to depict the impossible as real, and Moondial presents its fantasy elements very carefully, in a stylised but very controlled way. The travel through time via the sundial/moondial is acheived really simply – a circling tracking shot that spins around the sundial in question, combined with a funky piece of spinning late 1980s video effects – but combined with some fantastically eerie sound design, it gives a real sense of process. Rather than trying to be magical and charming, time travel in Moondial is weird, unsettling and disorienting, and the whole story feels much more weird (and ever-so-slightly science-fictional) as a result.
Admittedly, while much of Moondial still works astonishingly well, not everything here has aged as effectively. For a start, there’s an earnestness to the story that’s often touching, but occasionally trips over into slightly clumsy storytelling – it’s a very internal story, and unfortunately ends up relying on the ‘central character talks to herself’ device a few too many times. Siri Neal is often very impressive in a demanding role (she’s in virtually every scene), especially the sequences between her and Tom (Tony Sands), but there’s a few awkward moments in the opening episodes – especially a bit of full-on hysteria in episode 1 when she finds out about her mother’s accident – that don’t quite come off. The adult actors are generally divided into those who are really effective, and those who are giving slightly mannered ‘childrens TV’ performances (although Pearce isn’t among these, and gives a wonderful villainess turn that’s cool, chilling and distinctly camp).
The pacing is a bit too slow at times, even by Eighties childrens series standards – it’s a show that works better in 25 minute chunks than taken all in one go, and there does come a point in episode 6 where it’s hard not to think “Oh dear god, not another slow walk along the terrace to the Moondial?” Plus, the style is often very Eighties, even though there are plenty of TV dramas from that era that have aged much, much worse (like a 1986 version of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which now bears an unfortunate resemblence to the music video to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’).
Ultimately, the thing that’s most effective about Moondial is its sheer weirdness, which is what makes it even sadder that there’s hardly anything like it on television anymore. It taps into a very English form of spookiness (from the menace of country houses, to the devilish children dressed in Wicker Man-style animal masks), it’s as gothic (and Goth) as a childrens TV series can probably get away with, and it’s a show that dares to take its time and be deliberately dreamy and surreal. While it’s rough around the edges, and the ending will almost certainly leave you scratching your head and going “Okay, that wasn’t entirely satisfying…”, this is still a trip down memory lane that’s worth taking. Here’s hoping that a proper DVD re-release turns up sooner rather than later…
Blimey. Okay, given that I’m not going to be seeing the prologue for at least the next few days, this is my first proper glimpse of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming third Batman film The Dark Knight Rises, a blockbuster for which the phrase ‘hotly anticipated’ is an insane understatement. Nolan set himself a huge hurdle to leap with The Dark Knight, and it’s perfectly possible that the ludicrous levels of expectation may in some terms end up working against the film – but the trailer has gone live over at Apple (and is available in an embed below, which may or may not get yanked soon…) and what we’re seeing so far looks pretty damn impressive; certainly a massive improvement over the “Oh crap, we’d better throw together a couple of shots along with a sequence of Gary Oldman mumbling incoherently in a bed” teaser trailer we got a few months ago:
From advance reaction to the prologue, it looks like one of the more divisive elements (unless there’s some serious fiddling happening in the next few months) is going to be Bane’s voice – and the one line we get here isn’t exactly the model of intelligibility, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
And while we don’t get a full look at that controversial costume, we do get to see Anne Hathaway in action as Selina Kyle (including an oh-so-appropriate mask), and as I suspected, whatever she may be wearing, it looks like Hathaway is going to be giving a seriously impressive performance as Catwoman. There’s eye-candy here, and spectacle (which promises to be pretty amazing in the IMAX format, especially considering the film will feature almost fifty minutes of IMAX footage) – although, as with the first The Dark Knight trailer, and almost all the publicity for Inception, there’s very few signs of exactly how this all fits together – but what’s really surprising is exactly how political that speech from Selina Kyle feels. It’s one of those moments where art accidentally coincides with real life (after all, the screenplay for The Dark Knight Rises would have been finished long before the Occupy movement got going), but it certainly looks like Nolan isn’t backing away from melding real life issues with superhero action in the same way he did with The Dark Knight. On top of everything, there’s some very interesting hints at how time has moved on for all the characters, and a general sense that whatever happens, even if The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t top The Dark Knight, Nolan is currently at the top of his game and would probably have to really try hard to completely mess this up. Whatever happens, July 2012 feels like a very long time away right now…
(Webcomics are, to be honest, completely awesome. Produced purely out of love (and occasionally going on to acclaim and publication), they’re comics unfettered from the restraints of the commercial market. There’s a massive variety of comics on the web – and so, in the spirit of exploration, I’ll be doing a relatively regular showcase every Wednesday of stuff you should be reading – webcomics that are fun, experimental, adventurous, or just plain insane. And if you have any recommendations of webcomics you’d like to see highlighted, please let me know in the comments below…)
We start off with one of the best out there – The Abominable Charles Christopher. The work of writer/artist Karl Kerschel, this is a weird, sprawling and wonderful epic that’s part magical fantasy, part environmental fable, part tragedy, and part comedy. The closest comparison I can get is if you imagine a cross between a Looney Tunes cartoon and a Hayao Miyazaki film, but even that doesn’t quite capture the mixture of poignancy and playfulness that Kerschel gets away with here. It’s the story of a silent, often confused and yet difficult-to-stop abominable snowman named Charles Christopher, and what happens to him when he wanders into a magical realm full of talking animals – and fans of Jeff Smith’s epic comic book series Bone should absolutely check this out. While there’s a main overarching plot going on throughout The Abominable Charles Christopher, there’s also room for the kind of four-panel charm, oddity and humour that you’d normally find in a really well-crafted newspaper cartoon, but if you do get involved in the story, be prepared to weep bucketloads as well – when this comic goes tragic, it really doesn’t mess around. Running since 2007, Kerschel has done a pretty good job of keeping this updated with a new page every wednesday – there’s a lot of story for you to read, and you can catch up on the wonderfulness of The Abominable Charles Christopher right from the start by clicking here.
Cast: Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Stephen Dorff, Freida Pinto, Luke Evans ~ Writers: Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides ~ Director: Tarsem Singh
Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)
The Low-Down: A ridiculously stylised and deeply demented flipside to last year’s Clash of the Titans, Immortals is a barmy mix of mythology, action and borderline insane costume design that packs in some unexpected pleasures for those willing to go along with such a seriously kooky approach.
What’s it About?: Thousands of years ago in ancient Greece, a conflict took place between two warring groups of immortal beings. The defeated, named the Titans, were imprisoned beneath Mount Tartarus, while the victors, naming themselves ‘Gods’, now rule over the world but are forbidden to interfere in the fate of mankind. However, the Heraclian king Hyperion (Rourke) is on a vengeful quest to bring down the Gods, and the only man able to stop him may be humble peasant Theseus (Cavill)…
The Story: (A brief note – Immortals was shot in native 3-D, but as I’ve recently been having major problems watching 3-D movies (and prefer not to get headaches and eye-strain at the cinema), the 2-D version is the one under review.)
For someone who’s only notched up three directorial credits so far, Tarsem Singh is ending up as a seriously divisive filmmaker. Right from his movie debut, the 2000 serial killer thriller The Cell, he’s showcased a deliberately sumptuous, lush and in-your-face approach to visuals, costume design and filmmaking technique that there’s absolutely no middle ground on – you either get swept along by his almost theatrical approach to visualising fantastic sequences on film, or you find his whole ethos deeply annoying and ludicrous in the extreme. Now, eleven years later (and with his only other movie inbetween being the quirkily weird and beautiful low-budget drama The Fall, which Singh mostly self-financed with his lucrative work in the commercials sector), he’s made a return to big budget filmmaking, and there’s absolutely no sign of him backing away from his idiosyncratic visual stylings – in fact, Immortals takes the lush insanity of the fantasy sequences in The Cell and The Fall and pushes it even further than before.
The result is a mythological actioner that basically functions as a style-over-substance fever dream, a lush and barmy journey into a world where normal rules of cinematic reality don’t apply. Anyone going into Immortals expecting a 300-style tale of throbbing manliness is largely going to be disappointed – while Henry Cavill looks admirably heroic with his shirt off and there are a selection of very well-realised traditional combat sequences, the limb-lopping, bone-crunching violence is more influenced by Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy than Snyder’s testosterone-soaked opus. Added to which, with its approach to mythology, Immortals frequently plays like a creature-free, gory version of a 1960s Ray Harryhausen adventure, tackling its story of gods and men with an admirably po-faced level of seriousness. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a fantasy actioner that’s been this deliberately portentious and stony-faced since John Milius’s Nietzche-influenced take on Conan the Barbarian, and the melange of accents and acting styles, along with the truly bizarre approach to costumes and visuals (with the strongest visual reference being 16th Century painter Caravaggio), all gives the film a wonderfully rich and exotic sense of mythic oddness.
This bizarre blend also includes the approach to the story, and while Singh has an amazing eye for visuals, with Immortals embracing even more than 300 the idea of making greenscreen movies deliberately artificial, the story doesn’t always hang together. Weirdly enough, at various points the movie is both a remix of Greek myth and a ‘realistic interpretation’ – we get intertitles informing us of specific dates and locations, and Theseus’s showdown with the bull-helmeted ‘Beast’ soldier is obviously meant to be the beginning of the legend of the Minotaur, and yet the film also plays the mythology as completely real. This is absolutely a film that’s at least attempting to tackle what it means when Gods mess about with human lives, but it’s only fitfully successful in doing this, while also showing a weird habit of building up strong conflicts only to either abandon or forget about them.
Lysander (Joseph Morgan), the traitorous soldier who sells out Theseus’s village (and is also the victim of one of the more memorable and eye-watering moments of baroque violence) is built up throughout as a relatively important character, only to be abruptly dispatched with little ceremony in the climax, while oracle Phaedra (Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto) is given a potentially major problem – she’ll lose her powers of prophecy if she loses her virginity – but then hops into bed with Theseus halfway through the story and spends the rest of the film as window dressing. The story of Theseus really boils down to a fairly predictable hero’s journey, as he’s maneuvered into place by fate, destiny and the actions of the Gods, and the film never quite comes to grips with one of the biggest features and problems of Greek myths – keeping dramatic tension going when, at any moment, powerful deities can turn up and deliver stunningly realised ultraviolence at the drop of a hat.
Of course, in a film that features more than its fair share of exotic, eccentric and downright insane costume choices (particularly Hyperion’s natty giant lobster-claw hat), the weirdest and probably most divisive choices are kept for the Gods themselves. Presented as fey, ludicrously beautiful fashion models swanning around Mount Olympus in massive gold cloaks and headgear that boggles the mind (especially Apollo and his spiked-mohican helmet), they’re a gigantic distance from the usual portrayal of Greek gods – and yet, it’s almost as if they’re a deliberate litmus test, that Singh is pushing his love of operatic theatricality as far as it will go and challenging the audience to keep up, making the Gods seem exotic, weird and oddly inhuman in a way that doesn’t involve using CG (a device he only really uses to transform landscapes and create insanely over-the-top violence). It’s a stylistic choice that manages to be utterly ridiculous and yet weirdly effective and powerful at the same time, especially in the final battle, where the Gods are finally pitched against the bestial, dog-like Titans, and suddenly those perfect bodies are being subjected to all kinds of blood-soaked gory violence.
Immortals isn’t a film to look to for a traditional, expected version of Greek mythology, and what it tries to say is somewhat muddled by Singh’s sheer determination to make everything subservient to the wonderfully weird visual atmosphere he’s building. The performances vary wildly, with Rourke and Cavill feeling like they’re in different films, although Cavil does acquit himself well – aside from a woeful rousing pre-battle speech – and shows enough screen presence to make him an intriguing choice for the upcoming new Superman film. Rourke’s natural sense of mumbling menace is occasionally effective, although it’s hard not to think Hyperion would have been an even more effective villain with half as many scenes, and his climactic fight with Theseus seems to go on for at least five minutes too long before his absurdly protracted death.
But ultimately, this isn’t an actor’s film – it’s a fantasy romp and a visual feast that’s so deliberately off-the-wall that for some, the emphasis on surreally theatrical eye candy is either going to be too much or boring in the extreme. Once again, there’s no middle ground on Singh’s sword-and-sandals epic, and yet while 300 is undoubtedly more focussed and direct, Immortals is weirder, more textured, less grotesquely right-wing, and ultimately a hell of a lot more interesting. Tarsem Singh may have a genuinely great film in him somewhere (although, from the looks of the recently released trailer, it certainly isn’t his next project, the dreadful-looking fairy tale comedy Mirror, Mirror), or he may be destined to remain a filmmaker who dazzles the eyes while never quite mastering the art of balancing the style with substance. However, for the moment, he’s made a fantasy action adventure that’s nuttier and more visually bizarre than anything else on the market, and with most Hollywood blockbusters going out of their way to be as bland and homogenous as possible, that’s at least something to be applauded.
The Verdict: The best example of visual style balancing out muddy storytelling since Tron: Legacy, Immortals is undoubtedly a brutal, eccentric and frequently ridiculous movie – and yet, there’s something about its single-minded determination to deliver visual weirdness that’s ultimately quite beguilling. A mess, but a visually stunning and weirdly compelling mess all the same.
If you haven’t heard of The Hunger Games yet, treasure that feeling – it’s unlikely to last very long. With the Harry Potter series having come to an end, and the death-rattle of the Twilight Saga already beginning with the release of Part 1 of Breaking Dawn, Hollywood is desperate to generate another hugely popular multi-volume teen franchise. Given the excitement that already exists around teen dystopia series The Hunger Games (and its two sequels), the upcoming movie adaptation isn’t much of a surprise, and anyone following movie news websites for the last twelve months will have been deluged by reports and rumours about casting of the various characters, making it pretty certain that even if The Hunger Games isn’t the next Twilight (in terms of impact), it’s going to be pretty damn close.
Now, the first trailer is out for the movie adaptation, directed by Gary Ross (who hasn’t directed a film for nearly nine years (horseriding drama Seabiscuit in 2003), although he’s had a major reputation as a screenwriter ever since 1986’s Big)… and I’m actually kind of impressed. The story of teenagers chosen by the government to compete in a fight to the death, it’s essentially a teen-centric fusion of The Running Man and Battle Royale, and there’s certainly a healthy dose of kookiness in the costume design and general appearance of The Hunger Games’s future world (especially in the wonderfully eccentric names – with everything from Peeta Mellark to Haymitch Abernathy). The trailer certainly isn’t without its cheesy moments, but the casting looks pretty strong – especially Jennifer Lawrence, who was exceptional in the drama Winter’s Bone and did a wonderful job as a youthful Mystique in this summer’s X-Men: First Class – and the restless, hand-held visual style actually looks like it’s going to give the film a healthy amount of edge. The fact that it’s aiming at the Twilight-related market means there’s going to be a number of people lining up to rip the hell out of The Hunger Games at the first opportunity, but I’m now genuinely interested to see how it turns out. The only question is – do I read the books first to see how it measures up, or leave myself unspoiled? Only time will tell…
Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)
One of the steadiest, quietest comics successes of the last few years was Jonah Hex which – unlike the terrible movie adaptation – was genuinely good, serving up monthly western tales that were largely self-contained, illustrated by a rotating guest list of artists, and all of which starred the titular horribly scarred bounty hunter. Now, in the post DC relaunch world, the Jonah Hex writing team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have been moved over to the slightly more DC-centric All-Star Western, where it looks like Jonah Hex will be directly encountering elements of the DC history in the late 1800s. Here, Hex visits Gotham and ends up investigating a serial killer with the aid of psychologist Amadeus Arkham (eventual founder of the Asylum, and a character from Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s experimental Batman tale Arkham Asylum), and we’re soon neck deep in a gritty investigative thriller that pulls off a healthy number of twists. Palmiotti and Gray are one of the most reliable comics-writing teams out there, and with the distinctive, gorgeous art of Moritat giving the story an extra dose of scratchy elegance and life, this is certainly an intriguing start. I doubt it’ll sell spectacularly, but hopefully the New 52 can continue to support this kind of storytelling.
He’s never been anywhere close to being the coolest superhero on the block (a fact this issue goes out of its way to acknowledge, arguably a little too much), but this debut issue from Geoff Johns turns out to be an engaging introduction to the underwater hero. It’s especially surprising considering Aquaman was one of the least interesting elements of both Blackest Night and its follow-up Brightest Day, but Johns does a typically reliable job here of bringing us up to date with the character’s background, filling in the important mythology, and providing some attention-grabbing setpieces. It’s one of the few slow-burning New 52 debuts that actually gets away with a gentler pace, and it’s helped in this by some characterful work from Ivan Reis and Joe Prado that minimises the heroic posing and gives the central character plenty of nuance. Add some intimidating-looking villains, and you’ve got a traditional setup for a series that looks likely to be an entertaining (if far from revolutionary) superhero adventure.
Less than a year after the last issue 1 of this series, now we’ve got a relaunch of the title that finally limped to 5 issues in August of this year. DC have lined up several collaborators for superstar artist David Finch, as the New 52 is strongly committed to getting the issues in on time, but it doesn’t alter that this is steroid-enhanced, amped up Batman writ large, an absurdly serious and hilariously muscular take on the Caped Crusader. Finch’s art is always capable of hi-jacking the attention, and there’s a thankful minimum of showy single- or double-page splashes in this comic, but in the wake of Scott Snyder’s excellent work on Batman last week, this is in danger of feeling a little irrelevant (especially considering we get another supervillain Arkham breakout here, for the second time in a fortnight), and possibly even downright silly. The appearance of new female villain the White Rabbit would have been enough, but the ending – which has Finch (presumably accidentally) throwing in some Jamaican homophobic slang, calling Batman “Batty Boy” – pushes this into unintentionally hilarious territory. Like an enjoyably bad cult movie, this has its pleasures, but The Dark Knight is a long way from being an exemplary comic.
The Blackhawks – a collection of ace pilots – have been around in one form or another since 1941, and this relaunch essentially dumps all previous continuity except for a few character names. What we get is a traditional action adventure with technologically able pilots flying super-planes as part of a UN-sponsored strike team, and it’s a fun counterpart to the slightly less succesful Men at War. Introducing all the characters briskly, we get some well-played twists and enjoyable characterisation, and it’s a good example of nuts-and-bolts adventure done right. Only a couple of storytelling moments feel off, and the cliffhanger doesn’t have the impact it needs, but otherwise this is a promising title that could grow into something seriously enjoyable.
With many of the DC New 52 having the distinct feeling of being designed at least partly with digital in mind (especially with the heavy emphasis on visuals, and large letterbox-format panels), it’s a real pleasure to see a comic that makes full use of the page, and really looks at its best in print. Artist Francis Manapul does a good job on his first script (co-written with colourist Brian Buccellato), stepping into the shoes of Geoff Johns, and the story is as fun, energetic and colourful as the best Flash comics always are. What sells this is Manapul’s art, which finds ever more creative ways of depicting Barry Allen’s high-speed life, and pulls off some imaginative and beautiful moments. It may not be very deep, but this shows how fun and engaging superhero comics can be when the mix is right.
Sometimes, collaboration is a good thing – and sometimes, you get an ungainly mess like The Fury of Firestorm, a reboot that takes the basic characters from the most recent version of the Firestorm character (jock Ronnie Raymond and science nerd Jason Rusch) and puts them down into a new setting. Gail Simone’s presence seems to have resulted in at least some decent dialogue for the first half, and while the art isn’t outstanding, the story rattles along in some promising directions… until the bad guys attack, the power of Firestorm (or, to be more precise, the Firestorms) is unleashed, and everything gets irretrievably silly. From the terrible dialogue (“What did you DOOOO?”) to the completely bizarre set of powers that Firestorm now has, to the annoying new ‘character’ who debuts on the end page, this is like watching a car crash in slow motion. Simone and Sciver had better be able to improve this mix of earnest melodrama and thunking superheroics pretty fast, or The Fury of Firestorm is going to remain pretty missable…
This is exceptionally bizarre – as a debut issue of the new Green Lantern spin-off, New Guardians 1 is certainly one of the weirder examples of a relaunch. Here, we get a retold version of the origin of Kyle Rayner, our main character and member of the Green Lantern Corps – except, this is the origin that happens in the wake of Emerald Twilight, a story that’s nearly 17 years old that deals with Hal Jordan going off the rails and slaughtering the entire Lantern Corps. Starting a ‘new reader friendly’ series with this is just plain bizarre, especially since we’re not even told specifically that it’s a flashback until a later caption announces “Present Day”. The intro to Kyle is actually fairly well handled, but then we’re hopping around between various locations in space (with various characters being horribly mauled and mutilated, as is normal for a Green Lantern title), and the result is the story feels so disparate that it’s barely gotten started by the time we get to the end of the issue (an ending which, admittedly, does manage to be intriguing). Fans will lap it up, while I suspect everyone else will just continue to be unsurprised that the somewhat over-involved Green Lantern mythology hasn’t broken out into general pop culture.
DC does paranormal romance, and the results are… intriguing. There’s almost no concession to the rest of the DC Universe here (and considering the scale of some of what happens, it’s hard to know if this title isn’t going to be in its own separate timeline), but instead this is a dark spin on the ‘Vampires declare war on Humans’ story, with the love affair between two vampires – one a queen, the other a rebel torn between the two sides – providing the emotional backbone. Some of the storytelling is a little vague (in terms of what timeframe everything is happening on), but the rest of the issue manages to be darkly romantic, hitting the right notes and standing as its own take on vampires (especially since they have Dracula-style transformation powers), rather than the shameless cash-in it could have been. Add some impressive art from Andrea Sorrentino into the mix, and you’ve got one of those left-field titles that could prove to be an extremely interesting read, and will certainly make the DCU a more interesting, varied place.
A slightly disappointing introduction to a very promising idea, this title is essentially at the core of DC’s attempt to re-integrate the weirder, more magical Vertigo characters back into their superhero universe. And, after having said for ages that the DCU needed more weirdness, I’ve got what I asked for… but while this debut issue has its moments, it doesn’t feel like it completely hangs together. It’s another ‘bringing the team together’ tale, and Peter Milligan gives us plenty of strangeness, including a selection of one-panel weird moments that could have come straight out of a Grant Morrison Doom Patrol comic. Ultimately, it’s a mix of the plotting, which is once again very disparate and unfocussed (all the team appear, but hardly any of them together), and the unusual art style. Janin’s work has some very impressive moment, but it also sucks the life out of a selection of scenes, and while I’m completely up for a weird slant on the Justice League, this ends up feeling like a slightly frustrating missed opportunity.
Yes, because the world was screaming out for a Hawkman reboot! And not just Hawkman – Savage Hawkman. Another one of those characters that DC seems determined to believe are cool (despite all the evidence to the contrary), this latest remix for the often-rebooted character features atmospheric but sometimes murky art from Phillip Tan, and a script from Tony Daniel that’s high on the melodrama and low on the explanations. In short, there is nothing in this comic that actually tells me who the hell Hawkman is, or why I should care about him – and by the climax, when we’re getting lines like “I’ll show it my gratitude by whoopin’ some tail” and “I must have your power, Hawkman. Your Nth Metal!”, it becomes pretty obvious that this isn’t going anywhere remotely sensible. There’s a handful of good ideas here, but very few of them are hitting home, and for new readers this is going to be bordering on incomprehensible.
Considering there barely seems to have been a week when the new version Superman hasn’t been turning up in one DC comic or another, it’s something of a surprise to find that it’s taken until now to reach the next official ‘headlining’ Superman title. For those keeping score, Action Comics is telling the new version of Superman’s early days, five years ago, while this title follows Superman’s adventures in the DCU’s present day. Under the guidance of comics veteran George Perez, this is a fun and engaging, if seriously old-fashioned comic that captures some of the spirit of Morrison’s version, even if it does end up feeling a little stiff at times. Most of all, however, Perez is excellent at producing comics that are both thrilling and dense – there’s a lot of content here (with one page managing up to 14 panels), and this does give this first issue a feeling of true size and scale. In terms of plot, we’re strictly in introduction mode – there’s a big fight, but we don’t know why, there’s an alien blowing a massive horn (first seen back in issue 1 of Stormwatch) but we don’t know why, and by the end of the comic all we can be really certain of is that Lois and Clark’s relationship is on a very different footing to where it used to be. Combined with the impressive art (by Jesus Merino, working from Perez layouts), this is a good-looking, thoroughly traditional comic, the equivalent of a summer blockbuster that you don’t feel massively disappointed by. It may not be the most sophisticated comic in the world, but it’s well-produced and likeable, and together with Action Comics, it’s making the Superman comics feel more relevant than they have in a very long time.
The writer of Red Hood and the Outlaws rides again, but thankfully this is much better, and free of the slightly creepy fratboy tone of last week’s issue – in fact, this ties closely in with Lobdell’s other title, Superboy, and sees the initial birth of the supergroup known as the Teen Titans. Lobdell is able to write fun, lively comics and he does a good job here of setting up the Teens vs Adults conflict that’s obviously going to fuel most of the action. Throwing in plenty of setpieces, this is one of the best of the teen-centric titles, managing to feel like a modern slant on this kind of story, while giving us plenty of enjoyable one-liners. There are problems – Red Robin’s new costume, with its Vegas Showgirl-style wings, is very difficult to take seriously, and there’s the sense that we should really have a slightly better idea of what the stakes are in this conflict – especially since, after two issues (this and Superboy 1) we still don’t have the faintest idea what the sinister organisation N.O.W.H.E.R.E. are up to – but Teen Titans still looks likely to evolve into one of DC’s more enjoyable titles.
If last week’s hilarious bout of costume sex and ‘How many times can we get Catwoman to show her bra?” competitions didn’t provide you with enough shameless titillation, here’s the wonders of Voodoo, an ex-Wildstorm character who’s been reborn in the DC Universe because, apparently, there was a severe deficit of comic characters performing lapdances. Essentially this is ‘Species – The Comic’, following a stripper with a very dark secret and monstrous secret who’s soon going to be forced on the run, but it seems like someone was worried that the audience might forget that the main character is a stripper, so they made sure she’s stripping or doing lapdances virtually every time she appears. It’s a pity that the sheer level of ‘shocking’ near-nudity is so ridiculous, as the art itself is very good – slightly reminiscent of Phonogram artist Jamie McKelvie – while there’s also a certain amount of quality in the writing, at least when the story isn’t concentrating on Voodoo’s state of permanent undress. Writer Ron Marz is capable of good things with this kind of material (he is the man who turned the deeply silly T+A comic Witchblade into a pretty respectable read), and Voodoo may eventually be heading in the right kind of direction, but it’d be nice if right now it didn’t feel like quite such a sleazy experience to read, and coming after last week’s female character-related misfires, this is the last thing DC should be doing right now…
Previous DC New 52 Reviews:
The DC New 52, Week 4 – Batman, Birds of Prey, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Catwoman, DC Universe Presents, Green Lantern Corps, Legion of Superheroes, Nightwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Supergirl, Wonder Woman
The DC New 52, Week 3 – Batman and Robin, Batwoman, Deathstroke, Demon Knights, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Green Lantern, Grifter, Legion Lost, Mister Terrific, Red Lanterns, Resurrection Man, Suicide Squad, Superboy
The DC New 52, Week 2: Action Comics, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batwing, Detective Comics, Green Arrow, Hawk and Dove, Justice League International, Men of War, O.M.A.C., Static Shock, Stormwatch, Swamp Thing
Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)
Scott Snyder is turning into one of the major stars of the relaunch – he’s been assigned to two of the highest profile titles, and after the success of Swamp Thing, he’s scored another slam dunk here. Considered as the more ‘superhero’ aimed Batman title (in contrast to the grittier-slanted Detective Comics), Batman issue 1 is a cracking piece of comics storytelling that does everything you’d want from a first issue, bringing the reader up to date with the current status quo while also throwing in some fantastic narrative curveballs. With plenty of ideas on show and a likeable, engaging storytelling style, Snyder has this under control from page 1, utilising exactly the right level of atmosphere, delivering some great dialogue and building everything up to an effective cliffhanger. On top of this, there’s Greg Capullo’s art (with Jonathan Glapion on inks) which pulls of a nice mix of cartoonishness and atmosphere that avoids too many current superhero visual cliches, giving us some great moments (including the gorgeous Batcave double-splash page). Packing in plenty of value, this sets the flagship Batman title off at a brisk run, and looks to be one of the strongest comics in the New DC 52 line up.
Really? Birds of Prey without Oracle, or their long-time writer Gail Simone? The long-running title where Barbara Gordon spent most of her time as info-tech jockey Oracle is relaunched here (only just over a year after the last relaunch), and while Swierczynski packs in some characterful moments and good setpieces, this is a long way from being either distinctive or interesting. Admittedly, it is a women-centric DC comic that isn’t jaw-droppingly exploitative (which, in the week of Catwoman issue 1, is a definite good thing), but while there’s some enjoyable banter it isn’t like we get to know either of our two main characters that well, while Jesus Saiz’s artwork is a little stiff and lifeless at times (especially in a couple of the action sequences). Leading up to a cliffhanger that acts as the working definition of ‘out of nowhere’, Birds of Prey feels like a title that’s in need of a distinctive identity if it isn’t going to end up feeling a little on the mediocre side.
One of the few ‘legacy’ superhero characters who hasn’t ended up killed off so that they can be replaced by their older (supposedly ‘better known’ predecessor), Mexican kid Jaime Reyes has made it into the DC New 52, athough the story of the Blue Beetle gets a fairly big revamp here. Now, the powerful alien scarab that Jaime inherits is a dangerously lethal war machine, and there are some clues that this take on the series is going to be a little harder edged than DC’s previous Blue Beetle offerings. There aren’t many surprises here, but Bedard does a good job of getting everything in place and making Jaime an engaging protagonist, while we also get a couple of intriguing continuity nods (especially the fact that eccentric supervillains The Brain and Monsieur Mallah (a brain in a jar, and a communist talking gorilla with a french accent) are alive and well in the New DC universe. It’s good to see such a likeable and enjoyable teen comic getting another lease of life, and so far Blue Beetle is looking to be one of the better of DC’s sub-family of ‘Young Justice’ comics.
One of the many DC comics that had me thinking “Why would I want to read a comic featuring that character?”, Captain Atom doesn’t really succeed in coming up with any particularly convincing answers to that question. Of course, the thing that’s interesting about Captain Atom is that he’s a character originally published by Charlton Comics, and who was used as the loose basis/inspiration for the god-like Dr Manhattan in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and it looks like the story is certainly heading in a direction that’ll be exploring pushing Captain Atom’s powers in a more deliberately cosmic direction. The art from Freddie Williams II is wild and energetic, especially when it comes to depicting the title character, and there’s several intriguing moments, but the issue doesn’t come together, and there’s several pages that seem to wander into complete bizarreness without any warning whatsoever. There’s a certain amount of ambition on show here, but this needs a bit more focus – and heaven only knows what any brand new readers would make of all this…
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. The issue that essentially set the internet on fire (resulting in articles like this very astute analysis from Comics Alliance’s Laura Hudson) is a working example of how cranking the lever marked ‘Sexy’ up to eleven sometimes isn’t the wisest move. There’s been lots of chatter online recently about superhero comics and their general approach to female characters as well as female writer/artists, and I was never really expecting this first issue of Catwoman to be a particularly progressive example (the cover pretty much tells you exactly what kind of audience they’re going for). Plus, with a writer like Judd Winick and especially an artist like Guillem March, subtlety was definitely off the menu, but even so I wasn’t expecting something quite so leery and exploitative, even for the remarkably broad standards of a Catwoman comic. Somewhere behind the insane number of cleavage and bra shots, there’s the vague potential for a decent attempt at setting up Selina Kyle’s character in the course of one issue, but it’s pretty thin stuff, and the emphasis is so strongly on softcore titilation that the effect is pretty ridiculous. And that’s even before we get to the end of the issue, where (SPOILER WARNING) Catwoman and Batman spend multiple pages engaging in some incredibly ludicrous sex, while still keeping their costumes ‘mostly’ on. Laughable and horribly adolescent, this is the kind of comic that clearly states that yes, female superheroes can be confidant and wildly sexy as long as they flash their bra at least three times an issue – and it’s not even the worst of DC’s female character excesses this week…
What’s planned as a series of stories spotlighting the smaller characters in the world of the DC Universe gets off to a promising start with this look at Boston Brand, aka Deadman, a circus daredevil turned unwilling spirit who now has to help others in the hope of rebalancing his karma. One of the more significant resets in the new DC U (wiping out all the recent shenanigans which involved Brand being resurrected in the pages of Brightest Day), this is an engaging old-school take on Deadman which manages to be characterful and engaging, as well as packing in plenty of material. Giving a nicely supernatural edge to the DC Universe, it’ll be interesting to see how this title evolves, but so far writer Paul Jenkins is aiming in some promising directions.
The Green Lantern franchise juggernaut continues, as the title which up until now has been ‘everyone except Hal Jordan’ gets a relaunch, setting up the new status quo with Lanterns Guy Gardner and Jon Stewart. While there’s a certain level of bewilderment in the level of detail, making this not the most friendly of the issue 1s, this does at least feel like a genuine attempt to bring the audience up to speed, and certainly feels much more like an actual fresh start than last week’s Green Lantern did. Of course, there’s still the usual mix of melodrama, heroics, weird space opera and over-the-top violence, while the end-of-issue cliffhanger is a little clunky, but this is at the least a fine new start for one of DC’s most popular titles.
Last week’s Legion Lost was fun, if a little on the flawed side, and at least managed to be relatively intriguing for someone who knew nothing about the Legion of Super-Heroes. This week’s Legion-related outing is, on the other hand, a borderline incomprehensible mess that makes virtually no concessions to any new readers. Yes, there are captions that introduce the characters, but I lost count by the time we reached what felt like character introduction no. 15, and at no point do we get any idea of what the setup is, what everybody’s relationships are, or even what the Legion of Superheroes actually does. There is action. Things blow up. Lots of things are shouted. There’s a completely bewildering cliffhanger. For regular Legion readers, this probably all makes sense – but the whole point of this relaunch was to welcome in new readers, and this issue 1 is likelier to make them want to hurl the comic across the room.
After his stint as Batman, Dick Grayson is back in the costume as Nightwing – with a new, slightly more Red ensemble – and what we have here is one of DC’s best traditional superhero books so far. Giving us a characterful reintroduction to Nightwing’s world, writer Kyle Higgins does a much better job here than on Deathstroke in giving us a protagonist we actually care about, while giving the dialogue plenty of spark and energy. On the story alone, this would be a fun and engaging start – what lifts it further is the art from Eddie Barrows and J P Mayer, which gives the book a cinematic style and impact, but also uses some imaginative panel layouts to give the story its own distinctive visual identity. This is old-school superhero action, but pulled off with a considerable amount of class and style.
And then, of course, we get to the other point of contention this week. For about 50% of the time, Red Hood and the Outlaws (featuring ex-Robin turned criminal/mercenary Jason Todd, aka the Red Hood) is a dumb but energetic action comic that’s firmly aimed at the audience that laps up similarly dumb action comics like Marvel’s Deadpool, and which also benefits from some attention-grabbing artwork from Kenneth Rocafort. Unfortunately, for the other 50% of the comic we’re dealing with the relaunched version of longtime Teen Titans character Starfire, and while the softcore take on Catwoman is merely misguided and trying way too hard, what they’ve done with Starfire is downright creepy. An alien princess who’s always had a habit of not wearing very much, Starfire’s never exactly been a flagwaver for progressive superheroines, but at the least she was an engaging, warm-hearted character with a broad-minded attitude to sex and a long and complicated love-life. Post relaunch, she’s been transformed into a joyless blank-slate sex doll who (apparently thanks to her previous life as a sex slave) barely even remembers any of her past lovers, spends the whole issue striking porn star poses, and sleeps with new Red Hood sidekick Roy Harper simply because he’s there. The level of exploitative frat-boy ogling in the art (which, amazingly, has actually been slightly toned down – originally, Starfire’s skimpy bikini in the beach sequences was supposed to be slightly see-through) is just downright wrong, and while Lobdell fairly obviously has some plans to explore and expand Starfire’s character, resetting a well-known character (especially thanks to the fun TV cartoon Teen Titans) into nothing but a sex object is a blatant way of pandering to the predominantly male audience, as well as being lazy and retrograde storytelling of the highest order. DC stated upfront before the relaunch that they were mainly chasing an audience of 18-34 males – I just wasn’t expecting them to give the female comic-reading audience quite so many reasons to stop reading…
In a sensible world, we’d have gotten the Power Girl team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, along with Amanda Conner on art duties, and considering how incredibly charming their take on Supergirl was in Wednesday Comics, it’s hard to imagine who would have complained. Of course, we don’t live in a sensible world, so here we get the first appearence of the all-new Supergirl, a character who’s had her fair share of reincarnations and reboots. In this case, she’s a confused Kryptonian who’s just crash-landed in Siberia, and while this title may be going for the teen alienation theme, what it boils down to is an entire issue that’s not much more than Supergirl being bewildered and punching various heavily armoured men. The art from Mahmud Asrar packs in plenty of energy and vigour, but the heavy emphasis on the visuals means this is another DC title that feels dangerously thin. Especially for a comic that’s going to appeal to a female readership, it might have been nice to have a little more characterisation and content – as it is, I’ve gotten to the end of issue 1 and I still have no idea where exactly this is heading, which isn’t the best way of getting new readers to stick around for more…
If there’s one character that was desperately in need of a focussed and straightforward relaunch, it’s Wonder Woman. The last couple of years have seen the ill-advised J. Michael Straczynski-helmed story ‘Odyssey’, which also saw the controversial costume change, as well as the much-discussed and eventually shelved Wonder Woman TV pilot episode, leading to a general feeling that nobody really knows how to handle this character. Getting a writer with the reputation of Brian Azzarello in is a good idea, and artist Cliff Chiang is an interesting collaborator, and the advance reviews led me to believe that this would be exactly the kind of sharp, action-packed adventure WW needs. And yet… what we actually get is nothing short of bewildering. Azzarello goes for the ‘throw us in at the deep end’ method of storytelling, giving us violence, death and horse-murder, and the end result is a comic that basically reads like somebody decided to do an ultra-violent update of Xena: Warrior Princess. The handling of Wonder Woman herself is mostly excellent (although it’s hard to imagine that any other DC superhero would have had their first scene being discovered naked in bed), giving the character lots of impact and showing off her physical skills in a well-executed fight sequence. However, from the bloody horse decapitation on page 5 to the limb-slicing in the combat sequences, this is a graphic book that’s taking a more deliberately horrific angle on the mythology of Wonder Woman, but doesn’t always feel like it’s concerned about taking the audience along with the ride. Too much of this issue 1 is bizarre or inscrutable, and while the setup it delivers is promising, there’s also the sense that the one ingredient that’s lacking is a sense of fun. While this may be exactly what some fans want from Wonder Woman (the lead character kicking arse and killing lots of mythological creatures), as a first issue this is more befuddling than intriguing, and the new version of Wonder Woman is going to need a lot more shape and direction if it’s going to be a true success.
Previous DC New 52 Reviews:
The DC New 52, Week 3 – Batman and Robin, Batwoman, Deathstroke, Demon Knights, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Green Lantern, Grifter, Legion Lost, Mister Terrific, Red Lanterns, Resurrection Man, Suicide Squad, Superboy
The DC New 52, Week 2: Action Comics, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batwing, Detective Comics, Green Arrow, Hawk and Dove, Justice League International, Men of War, O.M.A.C., Static Shock, Stormwatch, Swamp Thing
Cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones ~ Writer: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan ~ Director: Tomas Alfredson
Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)
The Low-Down: Detached, clinical and brooding, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy makes full use of the embarrassing wealth of talent at its disposal to deliver an absorbing, intelligent and admirably restrained espionage thriller.
What’s it About?: During the height of the Cold War, British intelligence veteran George Smiley (Gary Oldman) finds himself shunted out of MI6 after his mentor Control (John Hurt) – suspecting that a Soviet mole has infiltrated the organisation – spearheads a disastrous mission in Budapest. However, Smiley’s retirement ends abruptly when overseas agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) returns to the UK with information: the mole is real, and is operating undercover at the very highest level. It falls to Smiley to investigate and flush out the enemy hiding right under MI6’s nose…
The Story: It’s tempting when regarding a film such as Tinker Tailor Solider Spy to kid yourself that what it accomplishes is easy, or that it’s something you can in some way take for granted. It is, after all, a project which seemed to have everything going for it from the very start; a stellar cast, an acclaimed director and the template of one of Britain’s best-known spy thrillers to work from. Surely all that needs doing from there is to show up on set, flick the cameras on and let the magic happen; job’s a good ‘un, right?
Well, no. Film history is littered with the corpses of would-be prestige pictures – Steven Zaillian’s All the King’s Men and Joe Wright’s The Soloist spring to mind in recent years – which seemed starred for fame and acclaim due to the their lavishly-assembled personnel, only to underwhelm and disappoint when finally arriving in cinemas. So we must give dues, then, to director Tomas Alfredson and his collaborators on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a work that showcases all-star filmmaking at its very best: an overflowing array of hugely talented individuals coming together for a genuine team effort, each willing to share responsibility for delivering a film of near-undeniable quality and class, one that lives up to its pedigree with room to spare.
Given the nature of that pedigree, that’s no mean feat. As noted, the 1974 novel is an established classic of its genre, calling on author John le Carré’s real-life secret service experience to create a tense and brooding potboiler; more pressure still is added by enduring memories of the equally iconic 1979 BBC television adaptation, which saw Sir Alec Guinness turn George Smiley into one of the most closely-associated roles of his illustrious career. Both the book and TV series have the key advantage over the film of not only getting there first, but also having far more time and leeway to explore the languorous intricacies of this most low-octane of spy stories, in which espionage is carried out via mumbled, shifty conversations involving dour men with briefcases, rather than lantern-jawed beefcakes in tuxedos.
As it transpires, the 2011 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy shows very few signs of intimidation about the presumably pitfall-laden adaptation process, aggressively trimming material that covered almost seven hours on TV into a disciplined 127 minutes. What results is a film that moves at a brisk, occasionally disorienting pace through methodical exposition, bubbling tension and undercurrents of character drama. Action junkies will find nothing to sate them here; throughout, the film maintains a languid, stifled atmosphere, with little in the way of flashpoints or adrenaline spikes. But that isn’t to say there’s nothing going on; on the contrary, it’s incredibly fleet of foot in story terms, hopping between different perspectives and frequent flashbacks as it diligently assembles the pieces of le Carré’s narrative puzzle. A side effect of this is that the audience sometimes has to move faster than they might anticipate in order to keep up, but there’s very little here that feels overly unclear, even without in-depth knowledge of the material.
Besides, those who do feel lost during this journey will at least have some high-calibre travelling companions to smooth things over. Again, the pedigree of this cast will lead some to take the quality on offer for granted, but it’s still worth giving credit to the assembled talent for performing so unselfishly in low-key roles that are largely free of fireworks. Typically alpha-male presences like Mark Strong and Tom Hardy show they’re prepared to work hard with slightly more passive and introspective characters; Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch add splashes of rakish colour; Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds, meanwhile, inject much-needed presence into characters who otherwise would have come perilously close to being underwritten, considering their key roles in the overall mystery.
Fittingly, however, it’s the top-billed names from in front of and behind the camera that prove to be Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s greatest assets. As Smiley, Gary Oldman clearly recognises that he’s been handed a potential milestone role in his career, just as it was for Guinness; as a result, it’s hard to recall him ever being better. Oldman’s Smiley is a performance that creeps up on you, a seemingly passive, soft-spoken and unexplosive presence that gradually radiates more power as the film progresses. Observing events quietly through unfashionable bifocals, Oldman slowly seizes control of the film from his illustrious co-stars with piercing gazes and measured delivery, with Smiley’s taciturn single-mindedness bringing to mind some kind of investigative Terminator.
Aiding and abetting Oldman is the work of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, the film’s other main weapon and the secret ingredient in what could have been a rather conventional stew. Making his English-language debut, there was no guarantee that the Let the Right One In helmer’s talents would translate; happily, he acquits himself with distinction, with his drained yet striking palette, ice-cold atmospherics and clinical sense of detachment proving vital in interweaving Smiley’s character with that of his world. Alfredson’s Cold War-era London is a muted and paranoid environment, with the sense of unease only increasing as the threads of le Carré’s story come together and are pulled taut.
In fact, if there’s one overriding disappointment about the film, it’s that this admirable slow-burn tension-building never really gets the payoff it deserves. This is very much a film that’s much more about the journey and the process than the final destination, and there’s plenty to be said for that; still, when Smiley’s carefully laid trap finally closes on the villain, it’s with a gentle creak rather than the sharp snap one might expect, leading to an inescapable sense of slight anticlimax. That’s not to accuse the film of needing anything so crass and sensationalist as a last-minute rug-pull or “gotcha!” moment, but it’s hard to imagine many audience members feeling much sense of surprise at the end of this mystery, even ones who haven’t anticipated the outcome.
Despite this, it seems churlish to suggest that many people are likely to exit Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with feelings of disappointment. Naturally, personal taste and mileage will vary with a genre piece of this kind, but it’s hard to recall another major film released this year with such an indisputable level of craftsmanship, skill, intelligence and sheer quality. With any justice, this film should solidify Alfredson’s place as one of the hottest directorial prospects of the moment and could potentially snare Oldman his first Oscar nomination; indeed, with numerous other le Carré books to work with, it may also herald the start of a potentially exciting new franchise. And if none of that comes to pass, then we’ll at least have this smart, clinical and exceptionally adult thriller as consolation.
The Verdict: Brilliantly constructed, sharp as a tack and featuring a magnetic central performance, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film that’s every bit the sum of its parts. And when the parts are this good, that’s more than enough to qualify as a major triumph.
It’s been a little while since the ‘leaked’ Red Band version of the initial trailer for this upcoming David Fincher adaptation (and the slightly less effective mass-market version), and now we’ve got a surprisingly long look at the new version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo :
At 3 minutes 45 seconds, this is a hell of a lot longer than we normally get (from reports, it seems to be a cut down version of an eight-minute promo reel that’s doing the rounds), and I’d imagine there’ll be a slightly shorter version once it turns up in cinemas. And, so far, I’m still definitely impressed – having seen the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I thought it was good but not outstanding (some of which was down to the pulpiness of the original material), and the idea of letting Fincher loose on that kind of story is certainly interesting. What we’ve got looks as slick and technically accomplished as you’d expect from Fincher, combined with an impressive cast and an occasionally bewildering selection of accents. It’s nice to see Daniel Craig looking a lot more charismatic, engaging and real than his recent stiff turn in Cowboys and Aliens, but of course all eyes are going to be on Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, and it looks like she’s doing a damn fine job of taking on a role that’s already been played well by Noomi Rapace (who’s the best thing about the Swedish originals). She certainly isn’t recognisable from her brief but pivotal role in The Social Network, and it’s going to be very interesting seeing how Fincher handles the material, especially with some of the dark places that Salander’s story goes, and the rather melodramatic nature of the novel’s ending (which has apparently been reworked in the movie). We also get a very nice sample of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s new score, which certainly has me intrigued – there’s barely been a week in the last year when I haven’t listened to The Social Network soundtrack at least once, and this sounds like it’s exploring some new territory while still keeping a lot of the old style. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the few films I’m definitely looking forward to over the winter months, and this trailer certainly hasn’t done anything to change my mind…