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

Dogville (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #25

A quiet little town not far from here.

Full Title: The film “Dogville” as told in nine chapters and a prologue

Country: Denmark, Sweden, UK, France, Germany & the Netherlands
Language: English
Runtime: 178 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 21st May 2003 (Belgium, Switzerland & France)
UK Release: 13th February 2004
First Seen: DVD, c.2005

Stars
Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!, Stoker)
Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind, Priest)
Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep, The Shootist)
Stellan Skarsgård (Insomnia, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
John Hurt (The Tigger Movie, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer)

Director
Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Antichrist)

Screenwriter
Lars Von Trier (The Idiots, Melancholia)

The Story
On the run from the mob, Grace arrives in the remote town of Dogville. Its residents agree to shelter her in order to prove their community values, though in return she must do chores for them. As the search for the missing woman repeatedly visits the town, the people’s demands for recompense for the risk they are taking intensifies…

Our Hero
Grace is a sweet, desperate young woman, happy to work for the good Christian people of Dogville in payment for their kindness. As her good nature is gradually worn down, she becomes enslaved by them — though it may turn out there’s more to her than meets the eye…

Our Villains
Of course there aren’t any villains in the town of Dogville — everyone’s a morally upstanding citizen.

Best Supporting Character
Not technically a character, but the Narrator is a palpable presence in the film. The material Von Trier has written for him is just the right side of verbose, and John Hurt delivers it with inestimable class.

Memorable Quote
“Whether Grace left Dogville, or on the contrary Dogville had left her — and the world in general — is a question of a more artful nature that few would benefit from by asking, and even fewer by providing an answer. And nor indeed will it be answered here.” — Narrator

Memorable Scene
The scenes that stick in the mind from Dogville — aside from the opening shot I shall discuss next — are either harrowing, spoilersome, or both, and so don’t merit discussion in a format potentially perused by neophytes.

Technical Wizardry
The famous bare set — a black soundstage with chalk markings on the floor to represent the houses, and minimal other features or props — was inspired by the theatre of Bertolt Brecht; as was the film’s plot, so it’s rather apt. The set (or lack thereof) seems like a very “art house” idea, and a distancing one for the viewer, but it’s surprising how quickly you forget and accept it.

Making of
The opening bird’s-eye shot of the town: physically impossible, because the studio’s roof wasn’t high enough, so the final result is actually 156 separate shots stitched together.

Next time…
Supposedly the first part of a trilogy called “USA: Land of Opportunities”. The second part, Manderlay, was released in 2005, starring Bryce Dallas Howard in Kidman’s role. The concluding part, Wasington, seems to have fallen out of Von Trier’s interest.

Awards
Nominated for the Palme d’Or.
Won the Palm Dog.

What the Critics Said
“Von Trier’s detractors – and there are many – will argue that this is nothing more than filmed theatre. […] But Anthony Dod Mantle’s digital video camera isn’t simply documenting a performance. It restlessly and fearlessly intrudes into this place and into these lives. Its close-ups – capturing key emotions as they flicker across the characters’ faces – are vital to describing the moral arc of the story. This is something that can only be achieved cinematically, an intensity that’s impossible to render elsewhere, not even from the front row of a playhouse’s stalls.” — Alan Morrison, Empire

Score: 70%

What the American Critics Said
“what most reviews are discussing is the success or failure of the film as a critique on America. There’s a sense of discussion, not of the themes dissected, but more of whether the film deserved consideration as an anti-American film, and whether it was a bad film because of it. Released in an altogether post-9/11 world, attacking America in any way shape or form, cinematic, politically, or philosophically, constituted an echo of the violence of two or three years before. […] now that we’ve learned to accept critique not as an attack, but for exactly what it is, critique, we can get to the real heart of Dogville, and we can stop nitpicking whether or not it was a deserved attack on American culture, or whether it should be written off as an “anti-American” movie” — Karl Pfeiffer
(That piece goes on to be a very interesting analysis of the film, by-the-way, particularly with regards to it being an allegory for Christianity.)

What the Public Say
“Lars, despite his ever intrusive camera, keeps us at a distance from his characters. This is not a criticism nor do I think this is unintentional. I think he does this to make sure we don’t lose sight of the message he is trying to share with us. He wants us to look at ourselves through these people, not get lost in their drama. The message of Dogville is a pessimistic one: At humanity’s core, we are bad people who will turn on our brother to protect ourselves. Altruism does not exist. Americans are smugly self-righteous. And even those of us who deem ourselves most pure are never above revenge.” — Cineaste

Verdict

It’s no surprise that Lars Von Trier would be responsible for such a provocative, difficult, divisive film — indeed, that’s what all his films are, aren’t they? Whether that works or not is often down to the individual, with each of his films being hailed as masterpieces by some and condemned as drivel by others. Dogville is no different. A three-hour movie that takes place in a black-box theatrical-style environment may sound tough, but engrossing performances and a symbolic storyline with a cathartic ending keep it… not enjoyable, exactly, but fascinating.

#26 will be… 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds from the end.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

2015 #35
David Fincher | 158 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Sweden & Norway / English | 18 / R

Stieg Larsson’s much-hyped novel comes to the screen for the second time in David Fincher’s much-hyped English-language re-adaptation. Somewhere between the pre-release build-up (do you remember the fuss over the trailer’s release? And all those magazine covers and articles?) and now, something clearly went awry: its UK TV premiere back in March was buried mid-week on ITV2.

If you’ve read or seen a previous version then you know the story, which hasn’t succumbed to a massive reworking for the American remake — it’s still set in Sweden, even. If you don’t, it sees disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) being invited by the patriarch of the rich Vanger family (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the murder of his beloved niece, which happened 40 years earlier. At the same time, we follow the trials and tribulations of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a troubled twenty-something hacker who must contend with abusive guardians, before eventually teaming up with Mikael to close his investigation. The novel’s original title translates as Men Who Hate Women, and that’s a pretty succinct summary of the grim, violent, nasty places the stories take us.

After an aside into magical character drama and big-business thriller, Fincher has moved back towards more familiar stomping ground here: a boundary-pushing thriller with themes so dark many wouldn’t want to touch it. It also followed hot on the heels of the well-received Swedish screen adaptations of the novels, another reason to stay hands-off; doubly so given that this sticks equally closely to the source novel. The merits of the various versions can be debated ad infinitum, naturally. I’ve not read the novel so can’t compare, but reportedly the Swedish film’s characters are more like those in the book and the plot is even more closely adapted. That said, to a casual viewer, the two films feel very similar in terms of story and character. There are certainly changes, but nothing especially major. For example, the ending has been tweaked — not “completely changed”, as some reports had it, but just streamlined slightly. Some will struggle to even remember the difference if their experience of a previous version was long enough ago. Die hard fans, however, seem to regard it as a massive re-visioning of events. It isn’t.

I could go on with this comparison, but there are plenty enough articles to do that already, and I don’t really want to. Yet it’s quite a hard thing to avoid, purely because the two films materialised so close together. Even distant remakes invite comparison, but when they come out virtually back-to-back it just emphasises the point. So too the fact that the Swedish films were widely and readily available, and that they were acclaimed by both critics and audiences, not cheapo idiomatic versions before the big-budget American one came along. Indeed, though I called it boundary-pushing earlier, few boundaries feel pushed because it’s so close to the Swedish version. Of course, in and of itself — and if you’ve not seen the foreign-language film — there’s a lot of shocking, extreme stuff here. Even for the director who gave us Se7en, this is at times pitch-black material.

And that there is another comparison that dogs the film: Fincher’s previous work. However much of his own touch the director brings to proceedings — and he has produced an incredibly well-made film; in particular, it’s beautifully shot, and there’s a vein of interest to be mined in discussing the fact it was consciously made using a five-act (as opposed to the usual three-act) structure (but not here today, sorry) — it feels unable to innovate or hone the genre in quite the way Se7en or Zodiac did. This is not a movie that will be remembered among the very top-level of his work.

Well, I say that — who knows? Enough films have been reevaluated with time in the history of film that you can’t ever quite be certain. At the moment, the context of comparing it to the Swedish film holds it back, but where that has Noomi Rapace’s performance as Lisbeth in its favour, this has the skill of David Fincher, not to mention a not-half-bad (indeed, Oscar nominated) Lisbeth from Rooney Mara, as well as a quality supporting cast. And the best use of Enya since at least Fellowship of the Ring. Then, from a personal perspective, Se7en and Zodiac are among my most-favourite films, so in that comparison battle Dragon Tattoo almost has a hand tied behind its back. Historical context hasn’t improved since, either, with Fincher’s follow-up being another morally-dark bestselling thriller adaptation, pigeonholing them (for some commentators) as a pair of Fincher-by-numbers placeholders until he comes up with something original again — if he ever does (as naysayers would proclaim).

So my rating may come as a bit of a surprise given the focus of this review, which is primarily my fault for finding it so tough to shrug off all those contexts and comparisons. But hey, that’s something the film itself struggles with in many people’s eyes, too. If the viewer can divorce it from those ties, however, I think it’s still an exceptionally good thriller.

5 out of 5

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is on ITV2 tonight at 11:10pm.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

2014 #125
Gus Van Sant | 126 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Good Will HuntingI’d say Good Will Hunting is famous for two things: one, being written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck when they were young actors after some good roles; and two, Robin Williams’ Oscar-winning supporting actor performance. Such is the power of these two facts that I didn’t even know what it was about until I actually watched it.

Damon is the titular Will Hunting, a 20-year-old from South Boston who works as a janitor at the prestigious MIT, hangs out with his friends (who include Ben Affleck) and sometimes gets into fights for no good reason. He’s also an undiscovered genius, adept at all kinds of maths and philosophy, to a “beating students in arguments in bars” level. Undiscovered, that is, until an MIT professor (Stellan Skarsgård — didn’t even know he was in it) puts a maths problem on a blackboard for his super-intelligent students to solve over the next year, and Will solves it over night.

Williams enters the equation as a therapist, who Will is legally required to meet with. Their initially antagonistic relationship evolves, as the very troubled young man comes to deal with his issues. For all its appearances as a movie about an uncommon maths prodigy, then, Good Will Hunting is really about a messed-up young man trying to deal with his issues — not least intimacy problems that threaten to ruin his relationship with MIT student Skylar (Minnie Driver).

Williams and DamonThe film is perhaps most enjoyable as an acting showcase. Damon and Williams have numerous incredible scenes together; encounters that feel like genuine slowly-evolving therapy, rather than the simplistic and implausible series of repeated revelations and breakthroughs that such treatment is often reduced to on screen. They run the emotional gamut, too, being not just instances of soul-searching but also moments of wider insight, or intense humour — that’s what you get when you have Robin Williams at your disposal, of course. His Oscar is well earnt.

There’s also the relationship between Williams and Skarsgård, college roommates who have fallen out of touch but are now almost the angel and devil atop Will’s shoulders — and, of course, each believes they’re the angel. That’s to simplify it, though, as their relationship is not so straightforwardly antagonistic. These are friends, but friends with a very different view of what’s best for their young charge.

In that role, Damon is equally excellent. It’s rarely a showy part, instead full of understated feelings, buried beneath the surface but keenly felt. Here is a kid with great potential and hope, but who won’t act on any of it for fear of failure — not that he’d admit that, even to himself. Not initially, anyway. It’s a narrative that strikes me as having a great deal of truth about intelligent kids from impoverished backgrounds, brought into sharp relief by this one being not just intelligent but a genuine world-class genius. It’s also affectingly felt through his relationship with Driver, for once appealingly likeable rather than faintly irritating (is that just me?) Driver and DamonTheir promising relationship suffers through inexperience and, to be frank, unwarranted daftness, lending it a melancholic air (or is that just me again?)

Of the leads, it’s Ben Affleck who has the least to show off with — strange, considering he co-wrote it as a chance for some work. That’s not to say he has nothing to contribute, but he’s very much a supporting role — I’ve arrived at him fifth because that’s essentially where he sits in the pecking order of significance. More memorable is his younger brother, Casey, playing another of Will’s friends. Apparently Affleck the Younger frequently improvised lines on set, and there are some great brotherly looks that seem to say, “what the hell are you doing to my screenplay?!”

Affleck the Elder is afforded at least one moment of Proper Acting, though. At one point he tells Will about the best part of his day: when he arrives at Will’s house to pick him up, the ten seconds where he walks up to the door, and there’s the possibility that his friend — who he knows is a genius but hasn’t acted on his potential — has just gone, without word; left for a better life. As the viewer, we know instantly how this is going to pay off later, so when the moment does come (spoiler, sorry), we know what to expect: Affleck will walk up to the door, he’ll knock, there’ll be no answer, he’ll grin like a loon. Except that’s not what happens: Affleck does walk up to the door, he does knock, there is no answer… so he knocks again. Frustrated, he knocks more. He peers through the glass. Now he begins to realise — Will’s gone. Then there’s a long, unbroken shot of his face, as he considers and contemplates. It’s not confused, exactly, but he’s seemingly unsure what to make of it. Affleck and beerThen, slowly, almost imperceptibly, a slight wry grin curls his mouth. Yes, Will has actually done it; and yes, it is what he wanted. It’s all good. Only then does he turn around, and simply announce to his waiting friends that Will isn’t there. It’s a pretty subtle moment, massively over-explained here, but it’s so much more realistic a reaction than the almost-clichéd one we’re expecting to see. In a film full of incredible, powerful performances, speeches and moments, it’s one that stood out to me.

I guess we should also thank director Gus Van Sant for that. This is the man who remade Psycho shot-for-shot “just because”, and made the interminably dull Elephant too. Here, his Artistic predilections are reigned in to just the odd moment — some shots of the friends driving around Boston staring out the car window, that kind of thing. Most of the time, he unfussily shoots the actors doing their thing. For my money, that makes this far and away his most successful movie (that I’ve seen, anyhow).

Apparently some people label Good Will Hunting predictable or implausible, with associated implications of it being twee and sugary. I don’t really think it’s any of those things. Maybe a little, but no more than so many other movies — the vast majority of stories are “predictable” because we all know how narrative works nowadays, for example. There are many worse examples than this.

Damon and mathsBesides, it’s the characters and the performances that shine. It’s no surprise that a pair of actors wrote an “actors’ movie”, but it is an achievement that they wrote one that displays genuine people and genuine emotions, rather than just showy performances. Credit to an exceptional cast — and, this once, an exceptional director — for bringing that so beautifully to life.

5 out of 5

Good Will Hunting is on Film4 tomorrow at 9pm. It’s followed by Good Morning, Vietnam, which I’ll review tomorrow.

Both reviews are part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.