Avengers Assemble – something to Marvel at

As someone who has long adored comics, the huge upswing in the number of superhero movies over the last decade or so has evoked conflicting emotions in me. On the one hand, it’s amazing to see heroes spring to life when they’re done well, but on the other there’s a lingering disappointment if they fail to do justice to the legacy of the  source material. For every Batman Begins there seems to be an Iron Man 2 to counterbalance it, for every Superman Returns (which I maintain is incredible) there’s a Spider-Man 3.

Thus when the announcement of the Avengers film was made, I was a touch unnerved. How on earth would it work? The Avengers are a collective of individually developed chatacters with decades of backstory; which characters would be included, and who would take on the colossal task of piecing them together? Marvel has been ramping up to this moment for several years, releasing as they have several individual films for each Avenger. Thor was fantastic fun, Iron Man was delightfully amoral and witty, but how would these heroes mesh on screen with the Hulk, who has yet to find success on celluloid?

The answer to all the above is two words: Joss Whedon. As writer-director of Marvel Avengers Assemble, to give the movie its proper title, he has pulled off a miraculous feat, and made one of the finest blockbusters of the last decade.

The plot itself ties together strands from a few of the aforementioned individual flicks; Thor’s brother Loki (a reptilian Tom Hiddleston) is still alive despite being forcibly removed from Asgard in Thor, and has formed an uneasy alliance with the spacefaring, violent Chitauri race: Loki will dominate his brother’s beloved Earth by recovering the Tesseract (as seen in the Thor and Captain America films) – a power source of seemingly unlimited potential – and letting the Chitauri attack Earth to subjugate and enslave the human race. Eyepatched S.H.I.E.L.D. chief Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) witnesses Loki’s destructive recovery of the Tesseract, as well as the apparent hypnosis of top S.H.I.E.L.D. assassin Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (Jeremy Renner) by Thor’s brother, turning Barton from friend to foe. Seeing no alternative, Fury seeks to reignite the stunted Avengers initiative, and with the aid of Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) looks to assemble Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (TM) to fight the incoming menace and recover the Tesseract: Tony Stark’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Steve Rogers, better known as Captain America (Chris Evans).

So far, so MacGuffin. It’s true that there is a straightforward device driving the plot of Avengers, backed up by the usual combination of human-endeavour-gone-awry and hokey science which has been a staple of comics since the immortal Stan Lee was in his 20s (which quite possibly may have been in the 20s).

Yet the biggest strength of Joss Whedon’s film is that it quickly adorns this central – frankly quite ropey – idea with a smattering of intelligent subplots and character arcs. Black Widow and Hawkeye, who as skilled but normal human beings represent the least awe-inspiring heroes on paper, hint at a stilted relationship several years past; Banner is trying to atone for his rage-induced destruction by curing diseases in developing nations; Captain America is trying to unpack a world that makes no sense to him; Stark is reaping the benefits and curses of his narcissism; Fury is chasing a dream which has already died once.

Whedon’s experience with character-driven TV shows – Buffy, the wondrous Firefly – is telling in this approach. Not only is he able to juggle several complex ideas at once, but his gilded pen means everyone has distinct, loveable traits, whether it’s Captain America wearing his trousers around his bellybutton and speaking in outmoded maxims or Ruffalo’s Banner shuffling about his lab like a newborn calf, seemingly disorientated by the rage that bubbles within him.

Clearly, Whedon has a preposterously talented group of actors to work with, but he is the star of the piece. His script is superb, rattling through plot without lengthy exposition, dropping in some truly inspired gags alongside the gravity of the situation. From Hawkeye to Banner and back, all of our heroes get their moments, and Whedon spends as much time analysing their individual and collective weaknesses as their strengths: we know that the last 40 minutes of this film will be a spectacular set-piece, but it’s the journey which makes the payoff worthwhile.

As for the fighting itself, the visual effects are terrific – as you’d expect from a $220 million dollar blockbuster really – and there’s some Marvel-esque creativity in the action itself: Captain America using his shield to enhance the power of Iron Man’s hand-mounted repulsor rays (yes I’m a nerd but that is what they’re actually called), Hulk bouncing off foes as he leaps city blocks in one bound. This is more than bog-standard super-fisticuffs, it’s epic warfare augmented by inventive concoctions and moments of levity.

In essence, all Whedon has done is take a hugely beloved comics franchise, imbue all its leads with humanity and character, create some of the most memorable action scenes of the last 5 years and make a 2-hour-10-minute masterpiece that plays to comic newbies and hardened Marvel-ites alike, injecting the whole film through with his own distinctive voice to raise the bar for blockbusters far above where it currently stands.

Nothing major, then.

Verdict: A genuinely miraculous piece of work. Whether you want to be amused by one-liners, engrossed by character development or just watch a large green superman batter aliens about the head, Avengers Assemble can provide what you need. This cements Joss Whedon as one of the best and most creative minds Hollywood has to offer: he’s made a film of the year candidate out of a potentially horribly franchised, filmmaking-by-committee, corporate, self-referential shipwreck. For the Herculean effort he’s made, maybe he should don a jumpsuit for the next one: in film terms, he’s one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Waltz With Bashir – commit this to memory

As everyone who reads the papers, watches the news or is even vaguely awake to the global political landscape will know, the Middle East poses a policy problem which governments neither foreign nor domestic have yet been able to solve. Conflicts dating back centuries still bubble and fester, from human rights abuses to conflicts in religious doctrine to warring factions within individual countries. Israel, as the only Jewish nation in this blisteringly hot corner of the world, often finds itself embroiled in disputes, and wars, with its Muslim neighbours.

To try and unpick the intertwined complexities of the Middle East would take more brainpower and time than your author has – and I would be foolish to try and do so – but while watching Ari Folman’s 2008 animation/documentary Waltz With Bashir, I was compelled to recall that outside of the political, military and socio-economic battles which constantly rage in the region, there are human beings trying to eke out an existence in a perpetual warzone.

Folman’s film is autobiographical in nature, based on his remembered experiences of the First Lebanon War in 1982. It’s 2006 now, and Folman, a former infantryman, realizes that he cannot remember any details from his service, despite being told he was present at the abhorrent Sabra and Shatila Massacre, one of the most infamous episodes of the year-long conflict. Meeting with ex-servicemen – some of whom he served with and some he didn’t – Folman tries to piece together what he did in Lebanon, and how involved he was in the horrors that occurred.

Entirely animated, aside from a short clip of archive news, Waltz With Bashir is balancing on a thin wire: showing war through animation mandates additional care, so as not to show violence as trivial or cartoonish, and Folman’s personal experience means this could easily be a chest-thumpingly pro- or anti-Israel political piece. Thankfully, neither of these potential issues really raises its head. First and foremost, this is about humanity – and a lack thereof – in war.

The chilling opening, in which Folman dreams of being chased by rabid attack dogs, immediately ensures that this is not to be classed as purely ‘animation’. The sequence is visceral, the unique animated style stressing shadow over light, and injecting the setting with streaked orange afterglow as the relentless creatures barrel down a busy road. It’s the first in what will be many memorable scenes, and the craftsmanship on display is astonishing.

Vividness, indeed, is one of the defining features of Folman’s movie. The personal nature of the stories being told – not just Ari’s own but those of the ex-servicemen he meets – ensures that they’re packed with honesty and detail; a soldier recounts his tank unit being attacked, then escaping by swimming out to sea at night only to wash up, alive but exhausted, at the beach to which his platoon had retreated. It’s a rare moment of good luck in a story playing out under the abominable events it chronicles.

Folman himself comes across as a repentant, honest man whose amnesia is both blessing and curse. His nightmarish recurring dream haunts him, and his waking hours are spent in pursuit of a truth he may eventually wish he never learned. As the film’s tone darkens further and further, leading up to the final reel detailing the events of Sabra and Shatila, its protagonist remains stoically unpartisan, despite the film’s major scenes striking a potent anti-war note.

Gripping for its entire duration, and combining an ingenious animation style with a story full of tragedy and revelation, Waltz With Bashir calls to mind the sensational graphic novels of American writer-artist-journalist Joe Sacco, who was named as an inspiration by Folman and his team. Like Sacco, Folman uses art to peer behind the horrible, sheer curtain of warfare, and reveals the human tales behind it, often in painfully frank detail. (For those interested, read Sacco’s miraculous Palestine and equally brilliant Safe Area Goražde, they are superb.) Both artists use the prism of animation to look at suffering in wartime, and although animation – both static and moving – may seem an ideal tool to look at war’s cartoonish absurdities, both men masterfully harness it to unveil stories outside of statistics, people outside of parables.

Comparing Folman’s work to Sacco is perhaps the finest compliment one can give to Waltz With Bashir. Its clarity of purpose and singularly brilliant execution make it an achievement to be lauded, watched and studied. Far beyond a cartoon, and timelessly inventive, it’s an essential piece of cinema.

Verdict: a pulsating study of war, and the duration and damage of its after-effects, Waltz With Bashir is a coruscating movie, shot through with a streak of artistic flair as bold and memorable as any animated film in recent memory. Volatile and vital, it’s a must-watch by any standard, and one of the best films of the last 5 years.

The Artist – it’s all so quiet

It is not difficult to approach Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist with trepidation. Fresh off multiple Oscar victories, the humble film about the dawn of the ‘talkie’ era of cinema is best known for being silent.

The biggest fear is that this lack of dialogue is a cheap gimmick. The second is that the film will fail to hold your interest and be full of mawkish gurning by all concerned. The third is that, when a film is so lauded by critics and cineastes worldwide, it might well be a smug exercise in self-referentiality.

The fact that none of the above is true would be the biggest testament to the quality of Hazanavicius’ film, if there wasn’t so much else to love about it.

Tracking the story of silent film icon George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a box-office staple in the Golden Age of late 1920s Hollywood, The Artist is first and foremost a study of its protagonist. He’s stuck in a drab marriage, but he hits it off with aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bojo) just as the talkie era is beginning, and just as his popularity is on the wane. And just as Valentin begins to lose the limelight, Miller steps into it.

If this storyline doesn’t inspire much excitement, it’s understandable: this is well-trodden cinematic fare, strikingly similar to one of cinema’s best-loved classics, the immortal Singin’ In The Rain. This comparison may initially seem unfair, but narratively Hazanvicius’ film owes a great deal to Gene Kelly’s opus, and in Dujardin possesses a leading man who may not equal Kelly (who could), but who is harnessing all the 1920s charisma his athletic frame can emit. He wears it well.

As Valentin, Dujardin is nothing short of spellbinding. He has the old-school good looks, the strong features, the dancer’s grace and emotional oomph to carry the film without uttering a sentence. What’s most impressive about this deservedly Oscar-winning performance is the subtlety and depth of it; in the film-within-a-film sequences, or in front of the hordes of flashbulb-wielding press, we see Valentin grinning manically, raising his eyebrows alarmingly high and sweeping through shots – he is overplaying it at every turn.

Yet off-screen, Dujardin’s star is a complex, layered creation. With a crease of the forehead or purse of the lips, he radiates humanity as the façade of stardom cracks and crumbles; one scene in particular – as Valentin is forced to confront the ashes of his once perfect life – is spine-tinglingly well-played. Dujardin’s is a dual role, and whether channelling the charm of screen legends or seething with embittered, desperate rage, his is a performance for the ages.

Alongside Dujardin, Berenice Bojo is also terrific, and the screen is aglow every time she enters it. Peppy Miller is a slight caricature, sure – the small-town girl with big-city dreams – but Bojo, like Dujardin, crafts a human being rather than a character, full of sparky life at the film’s outset before falling prey to the trappings of stardom as she wins audiences over.

Add to this a superb supporting cast – James Cromwell and John Goodman both excel – and the best performance by an animal since I-don’t-know-when (Uggie the dog, we salute you), and you realise the depth and variety of talent on show is marvellous.

Yet for all its magic, the greatest quality The Artist possesses is an understanding of silence, and a love of the medium which seems to flow from the director’s mind out through his crisp lenswork.

Within fifteen minutes, you’ve already forgotten that dialogue is a part of movies, and begin to understand the emotions and stories being conveyed without ever needing to hear a word. Ludovic Bource’s sublime score, the myriad stunning performances and Hazanaivicius’ astute, sparing use of intertitles mean that silence never strays into self-satire: this is simply the best way the French-Lithuanian director thought to tell his tale, and it’s devastatingly effective.

If it seems strange to preach caution at the outset of a review, then to gush wholeheartedly throughout, that’s because, well, it is. Yet there’s a dreamlike beauty, an intangible charm, a pure cinematic joy about Hazanavicius’ film which few movies are able to imbue in their audiences. The most deserving Best Picture winner in years, and a film that generations past, present and future should cherish.

Verdict: The defining film of 2012? Almost certainly. You will struggle, this year or any other, to find a piece of filmmaking as enrapturing, as magical, as simply uplifting as Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. This is a picture worth more than a thousand words.

Shame – the lust crusade

Before getting underway, a brief apology for the lengthy gap between posts; between starting a new job, Christmas and a few other things I’ve not really had time to sit down and blog in quite some time, so for those devoted readers (both of you) I apologise for the unaccounted for leave of absence. I return to the keyboard refreshed and eager to write again, albeit probably slightly less frequently than previously. With that said, and without further ado, a review.

Willpower is a trait which seems to fascinate British writer-director Steve McQueen. His début feature, the morbidly compelling Hunger, focused on an abundance of the stuff, detailing the ultimately fatal hunger strike of IRA supporter Bobby Sands in 1981. McQueen’s second feature, the similarly simply-titled Shame, casts its lens upon a fictional creation: Brandon Sullivan, a man whose willpower has been helplessly overrun by an addiction to lust so strong as to disable his ability to act rationally – the id to Sands’ ego, to put it in Freudian terms.

The similarities between the two films extend beyond that – both star Michael Fassbender in the lead role, on both occasions essaying a man of terrifying charisma, both feature sparse dialogue, both create unflinching portraits of their subjects, and both are underscored with McQueen’s directorial signature.

For much in the same way that Hunger is more about unwavering dedication than malnutrition, Shame is about uncontrollable addiction rather than sex.

Fassbender’s Brandon is undeniably addicted to carnal pleasures: a successful career as a young executive in an unspecified – but implicitly hip – firm, he possesses a ruthlessly effective ability to pick up attractive women (enhanced by the Irish-German actor’s almost equine handsomeness) which he deploys frequently. His ardour is Patrick Bateman-esque in its unquenchableness; when overwhelmed by his need, Brandon will call a prostitute or look at porn websites to satisfy his limitless libido.

When his flighty sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) needs a place to crash, she calls upon her well-to-do brother to help, and he reluctantly lets her crash at his minimalist, tacitly expensive bachelor pad. She’s his opposite in every department – a musician with garish dress-sense, she wears her eccentricity on her sleeve while her brother lets his true colours wash away on the exterior, fastidiously dressing in faded browns and greys while his blood courses hot and red and full of barely-concealed lust.

Character-wise, these two are the only central roles, supported well by James Badge Dale as Brandon’s lecherous boss who relies on Brandon as a wingman and thus overlooks the contents of his work computer’s hard drive, and Nicole Beharie as Brandon’s comely coworker Marianne, with whom he becomes increasingly intrigued.

Indeed, McQueen’s film really doesn’t concern itself with plot. Much like Hunger, it’s a character analysis as much as a film; Fassbender is nothing short of sensational, his piercing gaze and silently boiling desire practically scorching the edges of the screen in an awards-worthy performance (though, given the film’s subject and style, it’s unlikely to get one). Mulligan adds telling tics to Sissy, suggesting not only a murky past history between herself and Brandon, but also a depressive streak which she struggles to keep in check; it’s a classy, subtle display, perfectly meshing with McQueen’s auteurish style.

So what is the film actually like, you wonder? Genuinely, it’s difficult to sum up. Cyclic in its portrayal of a man overcome by desire, McQueen’s movie firstly ensures that no holds are barred in his depiction of the act which so mesmerises Brandon. However, his camera is observant rather than voyeuristic, catching shadows across writhing figures and silently capturing flurries of sexual activity, highlighting the primal nature of the act itself. There’s a nascent fury in Brandon’s sexual appetite, shown not only through Fassbender’s impressively unflinching performance but in the nature of the sex itself: it’s a release, a means to an end rather than the smooth, soft-edged intercourse of Hollywood movies.

That said, there is an awful lot of sex in Shame. This isn’t surprising, given that Brandon’s entire life is spent in pursuit of it, but suffice to say this isn’t a film to see with your mum. As his need becomes increasingly feral, Brandon becomes more brazen, and less interested in how he attains that which he desires.

Shame is unquestionably a brave film. Yet, unlike Hunger, this feels more like a visual essay than a motion picture. McQueen’s directorial style – frequently using minute-or-more length single shots, focusing on the grubby corners of the world and displaying a portrait painter’s eye for capturing faces – is commanding at times, but here it sometimes dances too freely. A sequence wherein Mulligan sings a haunting, haunted version of ‘New York, New York’ seems to strive too hard for the virtuoso, and begins to grate a little. The writer-director again draws magnificent performances from his leads, and he has a knack for finding filmic faces, but there’s a limit to how much posturing and subtext anyone can absorb.

For Shame‘s greatest weakness is also one of its strengths, if you’ll forgive the paradoxical statement. Its intellectualness is insightful at times, implying vast amounts of detail in simple, long shots, but also weighs on the film at times, almost dragging the movie into self-importance. The damagingly circular nature of Brandon’s life, interrupted as it is by Sissy’s intrusion, is mightily intriguing and offers a genuine, unvarnished look into sex addiction – a term tellingly tacit in the film itself – but at times falters under its own weightiness.

Is it worth seeking out? Absolutely. Does it deliver moments of breathtakingly fluid filmmaking? Certainly. Yet Shame also sometimes suffers from that most arthouse of problems – being too damn clever for its own good. A film that feels like a terrific subject for an analytical essay, but surrenders too much celluloid to exhibition over exposition.

Verdict: McQueen’s sophomore film is too strong to be called a slump, but sags too often to reach Hunger‘s heights. It definitely merits a trip to the cinema and its lack of leeriness is commendable given its subject matter, but ultimately, Shame, like its protagonist, could do with a little more heartbeat under its magnificently sculpted skin.

Film to get excited about: The Ides Of March

How does you go about making politics exciting? The stacks of paperwork, the tangled legal protocols, the lengthy meetings between dignitaries, the endless handshakes: it doesn’t initially seem like an environment well-suited to the silver screen.

Yet it’s endured. Politics has been made entertaining, whether by making it funny (In The Loop) or by basing it on history (Thirteen Days, All The President’s Men) or by analysing one of its key figures (JFK, Charlie Wilson’s War).

The last decade has caused a resurgence in such filmmaking, the likes of Frost/Nixon and Good Night, And Good Luck attracting rave reviews. The latter of these two was George Clooney’s second feature film as a director. The Ides of March is his fourth.

Telling the story of a fictional presidential run, that of Clooney’s Governor Mike Morris, it posits itself as a think-piece handling the mechanics of democracy, both the noble and the shady. Told from the viewpoint of Ryan Gosling’s Stephen Myers, an idealistic young Morris staffer, The Ides of March looks to peel away the layers of subterfuge and posturing which often act as a smokescreen in election campaigns, focusing instead on the dodgy dealings going on outside the public eye.

Clooney, so awash with natural charisma it’s amazing he’s not actually running for president, seems perfect for such a film, which should look to exploit both his charm and his slyness as the situation requires. How Clooney handles his camera should also prove intriguing, especially given that his cast is so stellar.

Alongside Gosling (who seems to be in everything at the moment) are Philip Seymour Hoffman as grizzled political veteran Paul Zara, Evan Rachel Wood as intern Molly Stearns, Paul Giamatti as rival campaign manager Tom Duffy and Marisa Tomei as reporter Ida Horowicz.

With such a group of acting heavyweights involved, and Clooney looking to further his young directorial career, The Ides of March looks not only to be a fascinating proposition, but perhaps also an Oscar contender. The proof will be in the politicking.

The Ides of March is released on October 7th in the USA and October 28th in the UK.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – let sleeping dogs spy

The release of Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s spy novel was one of the highlights of the film calendar for all cineastes, a possible classic in the making worthy of huge excitement, as this preview of it would indicate.

Many would have wondered how the Swedish director’s style, so visible in his masterpiece Let The Right One In, would translate to the spy genre. After all, this is a world we’re used to seeing through a glossy lens, full of beautiful women, fast cars and layer upon layer of subterfuge, usually captured in a series of exotic locations.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy does fulfil some of the above criteria, but not in a manner we’ve really seen before. Tracing the hunt for a mole in the British Intelligence service – ‘The Circus’ as it’s dubbed here – in the 1970s, Alfredson’s film has more hidden twists and turns than an unlit country lane at night. Gary Oldman’s spy George Smiley – recalled by the government after being forced out along with old boss Control (John Hurt) – must root out and rout the Russian spy lurking in the upper echelons of the Circus. The suspects are the top brass of the organisation: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth); Percy Alleline (Toby Jones); Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). The problem: How do you spot a spy amongst spies?

Alfredson makes it as difficult as possible. Bringing the same grim flair which made Right One In so enthralling to this very English affair, he offers no linear plot developments, every stolen glance and unexplained meeting playing out against the granite-faced impassivity of Oldman’s Smiley. How nice it is, too, to see a director with a noticeable celluloid signature in an age of studio hacks and CGI addicts.

What helps foster this sense of total uncertainty is the stellar cast, all more than adroit at shielding their characters’ true intentions under sheaths of enigma, seldom revealing the meaning behind any action or conversation. Oldman, who along with the superb Benedict Cumberbatch (as his partner Peter Guillam) carries the bulk of the exposition, is magnificent: his Smiley must remain something of a blank canvas onto which action is projected, but Oldman fills the master spy with a telling humanity, revealed in fragments. His stony exterior never completely cracks, but we see it fracture as he uncovers his wife’s infidelity or vividly relives a conversation from years past. Cumberbatch’s Guillam provides a spry foil to Oldman’s gravitas, an idealistic young man with a firm belief in truth and a far more heart-on-the-sleeve approach to espionage.

Of our suspects, Firth and Dencik stand out. The former, unsurprisingly, is perfect for his role: his clipped aristocratic voice and swagger making Haydon at once the most likeable and most odious of the bunch. Firth also underplays masterfully, forming a rigid façade into which not we, nor anyone else, can delve. Dencik, quiet for much of the film, has a brilliant third-act scene with Smiley which offers the one of the only hints of humanity behind the hubris of The Circus’ bigwigs, and pitches it wonderfully, deftly staying the right side that fine line between overwhelming emotion and melodrama.

Incredibly, there are still two major cast members who find time to turn in magnificent performances. Mark Strong, so wonderful in The Guard, is magnetic as one MIA agent, Jim Prideaux, and Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr – the other AWOL Circus operative – is a riveting creation, full of conflict and misplaced courage. To reveal much else about either’s performance would be a spoiler.

Indeed, it’s tough to find the right way to describe TTSS without giving tidbits away. Alfredson’s movie, from Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor’s screenplay, is a finely balanced highwire act, forcing you to focus on the road just ahead while simultaneously daring you to peek over the side. For those who don’t yet know the finale from one of the earlier adaptations or the book itself – I didn’t – it’s nearly impossible to predict from scene to scene, and able to grip despite showing remarkably little action for a film of its type.

Just as the cast masterfully underplay the drama, so too Alfredson can mine tension from the most minuscule, mundane events (has a sequence of someone looking through archives ever been this riveting?) and enhances the incidental sounds of footsteps or mechanical clicking to heighten our senses at every turn, a technique fans of Right One In will already know well. The outbursts of violence, when they come, are brutal and painfully realistic, and made all the more shocking by their suddenness; this is a film where death comes quickly, and is not pored over with voyeuristic glee or dismissed with glib remarks.

The most striking visual weapons in Alfredson’s arsenal are his colour palette and long single-shots. Every shade and hue is muted here, all deep blues and faded browns, an environment of shadow and almost unsettling normality in which Istanbul, London and Budapest are permanently overcast and the only splashes of colour are blood or glowing cigarette tips. The latter technique is beautifully utilised, Alfredson’s lens lingering on faces or in moments for a few beats longer than you expect, letting his talented cast reveal tiny nuances of character through the delicate movements his crisp cameras detect so well.

Credit the director and screenwriters, too, with creating an intriguing, but never frustrating storyline. We’re constantly dared to second-guess events, but as we continually fail to predict them, the brilliance of Smiley is further highlighted, and the skill of his suspects made even more apparent. The plot’s twists – of which there are more than a few – aren’t contrived or awkward partly due to the marvellous acting on display, but also because they are so well captured and written. The more you think back over the film, the more tiny details you notice, and the more you appreciate the depth of effort put into this superb movie.

Verdict: Bled of colour but not of vividness, stripped of answers but not of questions, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a tremendous piece of cinema. The aesthetic, sound, direction and script are all beautifully crafted, and you won’t see a better ensemble performance than this for quite some time. Superior filmmaking on nearly every level, and utterly brilliant.

The Guard – Eire’ll be there for you

A sweary, violent, effusive black comedy starring Brendan Gleeson as a gruff Irishman with little tolerance for rules and directed by someone named McDonagh. No, you are not watching In Bruges, but The Guard, the new film by screenwriter/director John Michael McDonagh. Of course, the comparisons are easy to come by and largely a product of lazy writing (ahem), but it would take a special kind of selective blindess not to notice them.

Both films combine elements of buddy comedy with fish-out-of-water-tales, violent criminals on the run and jokes involving taking drugs and sleeping with prostitutes. Both feature more swears-per-minute than a George Carlin stand-up set. Both star Brendan Gleeson and embrace his unique screen presence. Yet despite their patent similarities, the McDonagh brothers’ films (John’s brother Martin directed and wrote In Bruges) are simply comparable, rather than symmetrical.

Gleeson stars as Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a member of the Garda (the Irish police force) with a laissez-faire attitude toward crime itself. Sitting idly in his patrol car in the film’s opening sequence, a group of drunk youths speed past, only the sound of their car smashing into a wall awakening Boyle from his daydreaming. Walking up to the wreck, he finds an acid tab in the pocket of one of the dead teens. “I don’t think yer mammy’d be too proud’a that, now” he says, putting the tab in his mouth, looking out into the grey sea: “it’s a fockin’ bee-ootiful day”. This, you feel, is as perfect a summation of Boyle’s personality as it’s possible to make.

Thus when straight-laced FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) arrives to investigate a huge drug shipment making its way to Boyle’s sleepy backwater, and Boyle is roped in to help with the case, you sense there will be, shall we say, a conflict of interest.

Although not equipped with the most original plot ever conceived, The Guard is an unfettered joy from start to finish. Gleeson and Cheadle, as physically and professionally disparate as it’s possible for two men to be, are each magnificent, supported by a rock-solid cast including the always-brilliant Mark Strong as a professional but somewhat disillusioned drug smuggler and Fionnula Finnegan as Boyle’s terminally ill, but whimsical, mother Eileen.

McDonagh’s gift for snappy, inventive dialogue and accomplished storytelling, not to mention a directorial eye which casts longing looks over a relentlessly overcast Galway, is also hugely impressive. Crafting an accessible comedy without resorting to dull sight gags or gross-out humour, his script is not only peppered with profanity, but emits emotional heft too. The jokes, though, when they come, are incredible, Gerry combining an outrageous, yet charming, disregard for politically correct norms with a linguistic gift for swearing so eloquent it borders on poetic.

Gleeson is the ideal man to bring this dialogue to life. His hangdog features, thick Irish drawl and constant twinkle in the eye mean that even in Gerry’s most scandalous moments, we never think of abandoning him. Cheadle’s Everett is a natural sounding board, lamenting Boyle’s penchant for overstatement while also developing a kind of begrudging respect for the man beneath the mischief. Cheadle is more than game for the brand of uniquely offensive humour which pours out of every pore of McDonagh’s crackling screenplay. Cheadle’s features communicate utter disbelief brilliantly, and much to the American actor’s credit he doesn’t spend the film trying to outdo Gleeson’s magical performance, instead turning a series of reaction shots into miniature masterclasses in mining humour without manic overacting.

This central pair dominate the screen, their almost-camaraderie growing at once stronger and more bizarre as the film continues. McDonagh plays their experiences off each other brilliantly: watch on with joy as Boyle spends his day off cavorting in a hotel room with a pair of impossibly good-looking call girls while Everett mopes about in the Galway rain canvassing for witnesses, all of whom either don’t feel like helping or only speak Gaelic – which he, unsurprisingly, does not. At a slim 96 minutes, The Guard is mercifully free from frippery, zipping along at a beautifully weighted pace as crisp as the wind off the Irish Sea.

In fact, The Guard is a film which excels in getting the most out of every single component: from the actors to the dialogue to the cinematography, not a millimetre of film feels gratuitous, and in doing more with less, John Michael McDonagh has made a brilliantly funny, original movie which could scarcely be improved upon.

Verdict: A superb piece of filmmaking, featuring a stunningly relentless and hysterical turn from Brendan Gleeson in the role of a career, The Guard is one of very few films which doesn’t outstay its welcome, and one of fewer still which makes you laugh the whole way through. A delight.