Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

2016 #191
Susanna White | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English, Russian & French | 15 / R

Our Kind of Traitor

Based on a John le Carré novel, Our Kind of Traitor sees a couple of holidaying Brits, Perry and Gail MacKendrick (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris), befriending a Russian chap called Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who it turns out has links to the Mafia and wants our hapless heroes to deliver an information-filled USB stick to British intelligence. As MI6 (primarily represented by Damian Lewis) seek to act on the information, the MacKendricks get drawn into the espionage game thanks to their relationship with Dima.

Some of Traitor’s detractors have a problem with it right from the off, finding the premise to be inherently ridiculous. I disagree. In fact, I think it’s quite a good plan on Dima’s part: to use an unsuspected casual acquaintance to smuggle important documents to the authorities. The way the MacKendricks continue to be involved does wind up stretching credibility, but that’s narrative structure for you — it’d be a real trick to construct a satisfying relay of perspective characters.

If anyone could pull that off it’s probably Le Carré, but this is not his most complicated plot — there are even less twists or double-crosses than you’re probably expecting — but as a tense thriller it satisfies often enough. However, Le Carré as author, plus screenwriter Hossein Amini and director Susanna White, seem to be more interested in the story’s real-world resonances. They’re using a thriller plot to bring up the kind of probably-genuine corruption we get in government today. On the one hand it feels a little obvious, especially to those of certain political leanings, but on the other it’s worth highlighting. An impassioned speech by Damian Lewis to some of his superiors sums it up, probably rather too neatly for some discerning critics.

British intelligence

Lewis is always good value, both in scenes like that and in his tentative partnership with McGregor. Although the MacKendricks are our point-of-view characters, the innocent normal people we should relate to, McGregor’s Perry is ultimately a little flat and Harris is underused. The real star is Skarsgård as the gregarious and foul-mouthed Russian banker, who is by turns unsettlingly dangerous and engagingly likeable. Or perhaps it’s the beautiful cinematography by DP Anthony Dod Mantle — the varied international locations are particularly effective at adding scale to a story that’s really about the personal interactions of four or five people.

Our Kind of Traitor is not the very best Le Carré adaptation, especially given the increasing number we’re being treated to these days, but it’s still a reasonably engrossing thriller with something to say about contemporary geopolitics.

4 out of 5

Review Round-up

Over the last ten-and-a-bit years I’ve prided myself on reviewing every new film I see. Well, at the start it was less pride and more just how I did things (and most of those early ‘reviews’ were only a couple of sentences long), but as I’ve maintained it for so long I’ve come to pride myself on it. However, of late my backlog has reached ridiculous proportions, and is only expanding.

But I’m not giving up just yet, dear reader — hence this round-up. There are some films I just don’t have a great deal to say about, where all I’ve really got are a few notes rather than a fully worked-up review. So as in days of old (i.e. 2007), I’ll quickly dash off my brief thoughts and a score. Hopefully this will become an irregular series that churns through some of my backlog.

In today’s round-up:

  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
  • Under the Shadow (2016)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)
  • Dazed and Confused (1993)


    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
    (1965)

    2016 #167
    Martin Ritt | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | PG

    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

    John le Carré’s famed story of crosses, double crosses, triple crosses… probably quadruple crosses… heck, maybe even quintuple crosses — why not?

    The storytelling is very slow and measured, which I would guess is not to all tastes — obviously not for those who only like their spies with the action and flair of Bond, but even by Le Carré standards it’s somewhat slight. That’s not to say it’s not captivating, but it lacks the sheer volume of plot that can, say, fuel a seven-episode adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Quite how the forthcoming miniseries from the makers of The Night Manager intends to be more than a TV movie… well, we’ll see.

    There’s also some gorgeous black and white photography, with the opening sequence at Check Point Charlie looking particularly glorious.

    5 out of 5

    Under the Shadow
    (2016)

    2017 #12
    Babak Anvari | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / Persian | 15 / PG-13

    Under the Shadow

    Be afraid if your doll is took — it could be the Iranian Babadook.

    Honestly, for all the creepy quality on display in this UK-funded Iran-set psychological horror, I don’t think labelling it as something of a mirror to The Babadook is unfair. It’s about a lone mother (Narges Rashidi) struggling with an awkward child (Avin Manshadi) while a malevolent supernatural entity that may be real or may just be in her head attempts to invade their home. Where the Australian horror movie invented the mythology for its creature afresh, Under the Shadow draws from Persian folklore — so, same difference to us Western viewers. The devil is in the details, then, which are fine enough to keep the film ticking over and regularly scaring you, be it with jumps or general unease.

    The Babadook may have done it better, and certainly did it first, but Under the Shadow remains an effective chiller.

    4 out of 5

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
    Out of the Shadows

    (2016)

    2017 #29
    Dave Green | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Hong Kong, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

    This first (and last? We’ll see) sequel to 2014’s Teenage Mutant Michael Bay Turtles ends with a cover of the theme from the original animated series, just in case you weren’t clear by then that it’s aspiring to be a live-action version of that particular cartoon.

    For one thing, there are appearances by a lot of popular characters who are primarily associated with that iteration of the franchise. For another, parts of the film have a very “rules of Saturday morning cartoons” feel — people thrown from a plane are immediately shown to be opening parachutes; all of the villains survive to fight another day; that kind of thing. They’ve clearly made an effort to make it lighter and funnier than its big-screen predecessor. The downside: they’ve gone a bit too far. The tone of the screenplay is “kids’ movie”, which isn’t a problem in itself, but Out of the Shadows retains the dark and realistic visual aesthetic of the first movie, plus enough violence and swears to get the PG-13 all blockbusters require, which means the overall effect is a little muddled.

    While it’s not a wholly consistent film, it does work to entertain, with funny-ish lines and kinetic CGI-fuelled action scenes. I must confess to ultimately enjoying it a fair bit… but bear in mind I was a big fan of the cartoon when I was five or six, so it did gently tickle my nostalgia soft spot.

    3 out of 5

    Dazed and Confused
    (1993)

    2017 #53
    Richard Linklater | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Dazed and Confused

    Writer-director Richard Linklater has said that with Dazed and Confused he wanted to make an anti John Hughes movie; one that showed teenage life was mundane and uneventful. So here’s a movie about what it’s like to hang out, driving around aimlessly doing nothing. Turns out it’s pretty mundane and uneventful. And most of the characters behave like dicks half the time, which isn’t exactly conducive to a good time.

    Despite that, some people love this movie; it’s often cited as being nostalgic. Well, I can’t say it worked that way for me. Indeed, I’m kinda glad I didn’t know those people in school…

    3 out of 5

  • The Russia House (1990)

    2016 #158
    Fred Schepisi | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Russian | 15 / R

    The Russia House

    Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer are on fine form in this romantic spy thriller adapted from a John le Carré novel.

    Although it takes a little time to warm up, it soon reveals a typically intricate Le Carré narrative, with everyone playing everyone else as the intelligence agencies try to use Connery’s publisher to extract a Russian defector, with Pfeiffer as the go-between he begins to fall for. It all comes to a head with one of those delightful sequences where you’re not sure who’s conning who and how, and an ending that is, shall we say, pleasingly atypical for Le Carré.

    The central performances are superb — I’m not sure Connery, playing against type as a washed-up ageing no-name, has ever been better. There’s a top-notch supporting cast too, including Roy Scheider as a CIA agent, James Fox as Connery’s MI6 handler, plus Michael Kitchen, Klaus Maria Brandauer, David Threlfall, and even Ken Russell. It looks fantastic as well, at least to me, in an unshowy, not over-processed, grainy, very film-y way. Thanks to digital photography, they literally don’t make them like this anymore; heck, thanks to digital grading they haven’t made them like this for about 20 years.

    Is that a manuscript in your pocket or are you pleased to see me?

    The Russia House is a much overlooked film, even within the small (but, recently, exponentially expanding) canon of Le Carré screen adaptations. However, with its engaging, uncommonly humane espionage story, driven by strong performances, I think it merits a degree of rediscovery.

    5 out of 5

    The Russia House placed 16th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

    The Strange Monthly Update for October 2016

    TV dominated my viewing this month, with whole seasons of Luke Cage, Red Dwarf, and Ripper Street released, plus sundry other shows, new and old — so many I’m not even going to list them. And I’m currently most of the way through Stranger Things too (more on that in next month’s TV round-up).

    Despite that, I still found the time to watch a decent number of films — in fact, October isn’t even the lowest-totalling month this year.

    And those films were…


    #158 The Russia House (1990)
    #159 The Quay Brothers in 35mm (2015)
    —#159a In Absentia (2000)
    —#159b Quay (2015)
    —#159c The Comb (From the Museums of Sleep) (1990)
    —#159d Street of Crocodiles (1986)
    #160 A Knight’s Tale (2001)
    #161 The Big Short (2015)
    #162 Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2016)
    #163 Moneyball (2011)
    #164 Raising Arizona (1987)
    #165 The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again (2016)
    #166 The Transporter Refuelled (2015)
    #167 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
    #168 Cover Girl (1944)
    #169 Doctor Strange (2016)
    #170 The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)
    #171 The Witch (2015), aka The VVitch: A New-England Folktale
    The Russia House

    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

    Doctor Strange

    .


    • I watched 14 new films this month, for the 29th consecutive month with 10+ films.
    • No WDYMYHS film this month, the first time I’ve faltered this year. Concerted effort at a double-bill in November, then.
    • 2016 slips behind 2015 for the first time this month: by the end of October last year I’d reached #172, whereas this year it’s only #171. Not a huge difference, but how much more will that gap widen over the next two months? Well, November 2015 was unexceptional, but I’m away for most of this December (more on that this time next month). Time will tell.
    • Two Le Carré adaptations this month, The Russia House and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Later in November, Our Kind of Traitor is coming to Amazon Prime Video; and of course we had The Night Manager earlier this year. I would say I’ll be Le Carré’d out, but his stuff is so darn good.
    • I can’t spend a whole month watching horror movies like some people do — if I spend a week watching one kind of thing I’ll usually get fed up of it. Nonetheless, I had a whole load of horror movies lined up for the last weekend or so of October… but then Stranger Things happened. Well, it happened in July, but I finally got round to it. Anyway, that’s why the extent of my horror viewing became New Moon and The VVitch.



    The 17th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    Quite a few films I liked this month, but only a couple that stand out as worthy of a “favourite” award. The biggest pleasant surprise was Cold War spy thriller The Russia House, an underrated Le Carré adaptation.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    Oh, but this one’s hard! A couple of weaker films are spared this award by a pair of horrors: Fox’s Rocky Horror remake and the second Twilight movie, New Moon. Which was worse? Rocky Horror was insultingly poor, but it did have a couple of enjoyable parts, whereas New Moon was just dull.

    Best Worst Fake Action Movie Title Ever
    Face Punch! Whatever else it does or doesn’t offer, I will always be grateful to the Twilight saga for giving us the scene where they decide to go and see Face Punch.

    The “Oh, Look Who It Is! This Must’ve Been Before He Was Famous” Award
    goes to The Russia House, for featuring an abundance of recognisable British faces in smaller roles, from Martin Clunes as an aide who doesn’t have a single line of dialogue, to David “grandad from Outnumbered” Ryall as Sean Connery’s chum whose face we don’t even see properly because he’s filmed half from behind.

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    Whether or not people wanted to do the Time Warp again I don’t know, but it certainly seems they wanted to read about it: my review of Fox’s dire The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again isn’t just my most-viewed new post of October, it’s already my most-viewed new post of 2016.



    More of the most popular movies of all time in this month’s selection, starring big damn actors, made by big damn directors, and featuring big damn heroes.


    As my 10th year of 100 Films heads into the home straight, I’m not only thinking about what the final tally for 2016 will be, but also my total for the past decade of doing this blog. Exciting times.

    The Past Month on TV #3

    Superheroes, spies and Sherlock in this month’s spoiler-free TV round-up.

    Daredevil (Season 2)
    DaredevilIt’s certainly the summer of good-guy-on-good-guy dust-ups in the superhero subgenre this year, with Batman v Superman lighting up the box office last month and Captain America v Iron Man set to do the same next week (in the UK and 41 other countries, anyway; “next month” everywhere else). First out of the gate, however, was Daredevil v Punisher, in the second season of Netflix’s initial Marvel-derived success. Also throwing love-of-his-life Elektra into the mix, plus some additional plot elements teased in season one, meant Daredevil had more to do this year. However, far from feeling overstuffed (like so many a weak superhero sequel), it rose to the occasion, with a second run that was arguably even better than the first. Charlie Cox continues to be a real star as Matt Murdock, Jon Bernthal gave an excellent rendition of Frank Castle as a genuine human being, and supporting players like Deborah Ann Woll and Rosario Dawson shine too. Also, less widely praised but one of the season’s subtle successes for me, was Geoffrey Cantor stepping ably into the series’ Ben-Urich-shaped hole. And the fights were both plentiful and eye-poppingly choreographed, even more so than the first season’s. Exciting stuff all round.

    Elementary (Season 4 Episodes 14-16)
    ElementaryI’m a little surprised I’m still with this “Sherlock Holmes in modern day America with a female Dr Watson” series, because it was never a particularly good version of Sherlock Holmes and it still isn’t. What it has turned out to be is a decent show in its own right (for a US network procedural, anyway), with sometimes-interesting characters who happen to share the names and the odd characteristic of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed creations. It’s so much its own show that it’s never really bothered adapting the canon, so it was very odd when episode 16, Hounded, didn’t just use a few names from The Hound of the Baskervilles (as the series has in the past), but actually had a passable swing at modernising the entire plot. It doesn’t seem to have gone down too well with critics and viewers, though for my money it did a much better job than Sherlock’s disappointing attempt.

    The Night Manager
    The Night ManagerA lavish, all-star, ultra-hyped John le Carré adaptation that, thank goodness, lives up to its reputation. Although it wrapped up in the UK a couple of weeks ago, it only started in the US last night, and I recommend any America-based readers who enjoy a good thriller to get on board tout suite. The Night Manager doesn’t have a Tinker Tailor-style twisty-turny plot, but fills that gap with tension and suspense. Tom Hiddleston is a likeable hero, dragged in to something that might seem over his head, but which it emerges he has an affinity for. Hugh Laurie is a personably chilling villain, Olivia Colman kicks Whitehall ass, Tom Hollander perfectly judges a part that could’ve been caricature, and Elizabeth Debicki shows a very different side after her ice-cold villainess in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. As for talk of Hiddleston being the next Bond… initially his character here couldn’t seem further away from 007, lending credence to my presumption that everyone declared “he could be Bond!” just because he was in a spy series. But as it goes on, he gets to be suave, cunning, and sleep with pretty much every female character that isn’t his boss. So, yes, he could be Bond. At this point he’s certainly a better pick than too-old-for-it-now Idris Elba.

    Also watched…
  • Gilmore Girls Season 4 Episode 18-Season 6 Episode 9Paul Anka, aww!
  • The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story Season 1 Episodes 3-5 — aka The “22 Years Ago No One Knew Who the Kardashians Were, Isn’t That Funny?” Show.
  • Person of Interest Season 4 Episodes 4-15 — I know I moaned about this last month, but I’m actually rather enjoying this season now. Just as they cancel it. Typical.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The AmericansThis month, I have mostly been missing season four of The Americans, aka the most underrated drama on television. Well, apart from with critics, that is, who’ve given this run 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t know if anyone bothers to air it over here anymore (ITV ditched it after the second season), but I’ve always got it via other means anyhow, so it’s a moot point for me. I also save it all up and binge over a couple of weeks, because it really suits it — in the same way it suits, say, Game of Thrones, but as no one watches The Americans it’s much easier to avoid spoilers. This year, that means I won’t get stuck into it until sometime in June. Can’t wait. Well, I can, because I am. But you know what I mean.

    Next month… Game of F***ing Thrones returns!

  • A Most Wanted Man (2014)

    2015 #186
    Anton Corbijn | 122 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

    John le Carré adaptation starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a German secret intelligence operative who must battle internal politicking while tracking a political refugee who may actually be a terrorist.

    A typically complex plot requires the viewer to keep their attention level high. Some find the story a plod, but (one languorous interrogation sequence aside) I thought it relatively brisk, aided by accent-defying performances from Hoffman, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, and Grigoriy Dobrygin as the refugee. Though beware: its level of realism, with real-life levels of compromise and betrayal, doesn’t make for an ultimately cheery or triumphant conclusion.

    4 out of 5