"Carnage," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (take 2), and "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"
Carnage - 2011 was not a particularly strong year for comedy so thankfully one of the last great movies to be released in it turned out to be pure comic gold. Black gold really.
The Cowans, Nancy and Alan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) are visiting the New York City apartment of the Longstreets, Penelope and Michael (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly). These couples are not however, old friends. A few days earlier their children had gotten into an argument which led to Zachary Cowan hitting Ethan Longstreet in the face with a tree branch, costing Ethan two teeth. The intention is to discuss the situation as civil adults and decide how best to move forward for the sake of their kids. Things do not go as planned.
Directed by Roman Polanski (who co-wrote the screenplay with Yasmina Reza who wrote the original play), "Carnage" spends all of its 79 minutes in the Longstreet home (with a moment or two out in the hallway). It examines the systematic breakdown of civility and how these four seemingly intelligent and evolved adults devolve into behavior more childish than that of their own children. Reza and Polanski examine all of this in the funniest way imaginable.
All four performances are stellar and it's wonderful fun to watch the shifts in mood and alliance. Two characters at each others throats one moment bond the next at the drop of a hat. Reilly and Waltz are particularly funny, Reilly as the character who seems to change the most over the course of the film, while Waltz's Alan seems to have been the most honest from the beginning.
"Carnage" is sharp as a razor and often howlingly funny. It's one of the best films of the year and sadly the most overlooked, critically and commercially. 9/10.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - I don't know if I've ever written two separate reviews of a movie before but with this film I felt it necessary.
This British spy film set during the height of the Cold War follows the brilliant ice cold intelligence veteran George Smiley (Gary Oldman) and his search for a mole in MI-6. In my initial review I declared that while I liked the film it was, "incredibly difficult to follow" and "a little too subtle even for me." The movie stuck with me for a couple of weeks though and I was convinced if I saw it again that I'd have an easier time following it and I hoped that by extension I would come to love it.
As it happened I understood for the most part how all of the pieces fit this time around but I came to love the film for reasons other than that. The world the film (directed by Tomas Alfredson of "Let the Right One In") places you in is incredibly absorbing. Being set in 1974 allows us to see a fascinating time in the intelligence community. The old guard who has been at the forefront of the Cold War since it began (including Smiley and John Hurt's Control) is being pushed aside by younger officers who think they know better (played by Toby Jones, Ciarin Hinds, and Colin Firth), causing an internal pettiness that only further muddies the already murky waters.
With a career best performance by Oldman, "Tinker" also has an excellent supporting cast. Firth, Hurt, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong are all pitch perfect. Alfredson's direction and the screenplay by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor make the Cold War spy game come alive and the challenge of following the film ultimately makes it more rewarding. I look forward to watching it a third time and understanding even more.
I can't quite put the stamp of perfection on it but such as it is, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is very high on my list of the best films of 2011. 9/10.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - If you saw Guy Ritchie's first "Sherlock Holmes" in 2009 then you know what to expect from this sequel which re-teams Sherlock (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his dear friend, Dr. Watson (Jude Law).
When Watson's honeymoon is rudely interrupted by Holmes's nemesis, Professor Moriarty ("Mad Men's" Jared Harris), Watson reluctantly agrees to join Holmes on one final case. There's more plot than this but why bother trying to explain it? Ritchie's "Holmes" movies are about fun and he delivers it well this time. While not as fresh as its predecessor, it doesn't suffer from the "kitchen sink" syndrome that so many action oriented sequels suffer from. Yes, there are a lot of frenetic action set pieces here but none more than in the first movie. Noomi Rapace (the original "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") and Stephen Fry as Sherlock's brother Mycroft add to the fun as well.
It's not award winning stuff but it's quite entertaining and that's all I wanted. 7/10.