The Review: Ten years ago, Gary Oldman was a different man. One of the best actors of his generation, but famed for disappearing into his roles and for not making easy choices, he had a certain familiarity to popcorn audiences for the likes of Leon and The Fifth Element, but may not have been a household name. Big roles in the Harry Potter and Batman franchises have sorted that out, but he’s always been able to retain the varied qualities that helped him to stand out in his less familiar roles. But it’s those qualities that undoubtedly caused the producers at Working Title to conclude a six month search by landing on his name, and also realising that they couldn’t make the film without him. The most successful remakes are able to make you forget that there was ever a previous incarnation, and Alec Guinness’ boots are some big ones to hide.
The Seventies Smiley story was rightly lauded for the strong cast and the faithfulness of its adaptation, so once the challenge of finding a lead has been overcome the next is to find a way of condensing the material that fed a six hour TV series into a reasonable length. The first surprise is that Tomas Alfredson and his editor have somehow condensed this into two hours; the second is the leisurely pace at which the film seems to start, almost as if it’s not concerned with getting through the material in the prescribed running time. But it’s actually more measured than leisurely, the tone able to shift seamlessly and deliver drama and tension from even the most underplayed scenes.
Having one of the best casts in, frankly, ever also manages to keep your attention through every twist and turn of the plot. There’s a lot of names on the poster, but everyone steps up and delivers top-notch performances. Worthy of particular mention are those outside the Circus’ top tier, and Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch continue what should be upward trends in their career paths. Mark Strong, Toby Jones, John Hurt and Colin Firth also don’t disappoint, and the likes of Stephen Graham and Kathy Burke also shine enough in smaller roles that they should probably be disappointed not to get their names on the poster. Oldman, of course, glides through the middle of it all, giving a masterfully subtle performance that deserves attention when awards start to be handed out.
The actors having set the bar, pretty much every other department steps up to meet it. From the costume and production design to the photography and editing, quality oozes out of every frame, and Alfredson succeeds in glueing your eyes to the screen for every second, and manages to throw in as many indelible images as he did in his stellar vampire effort, Let The Right One In. There’s a surprising sprinkling of humour and a definite helping of passion thrown into the mix, which help to leaven the more serious and studious moments. The music is also well worth a mention, regular Almodovar composer Alberto Iglesias turning in a score which evokes just the right mood and has enough echoes of previous spy scores without feeling too referential or reverential, and the use of music itself not only drives key plot points but also adds dramatic weight to key scenes, especially near the climax.
Ultimately, your overall enjoyment of Tinker… will depend on how much you feel you’re actually following the plot. There are two potentially deciding factors in this: one is the use of flashback to expand on the inital set-up, and while the subtitles are happy to draw the distinction between Russian and Hungarian, for example, the point in the time line of the film isn’t always as obvious. However, the fate of two key characters is laid out early on, and using them as a compass point should allow you to easily work out where the plot’s up to. The other is the use of the characters’ emotions to imply their motivations – sideways glances and background detail are often preferred to dialogue, and this feels more natural but does demand your full and undivided attention for the entire running time. If you’re paying close attention to those emotional beats, the final reveal shouldn’t come as a surprise, even if you haven’t read the book or seen previous adaptations. If you can keep these two things in mind, then this is an outstanding piece of cinema which should leave you needing a second viewing almost immediately.
Why see it at the cinema: The production design and cinematography are as outstanding as everything else, and the close up view and attention to detail demand you see this in a cinema. Also, the post-screening mumbling as you exit will allow you to determine how many people actually followed it.
The Score: 10/10
The Review: Pop quiz, hot shot. Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman were the leads in the original Kung Fu Panda, but there was also a Furious Five made up of other animals. Can you name the actors that portrayed Tigress, Mantis, Monkey, Viper and Crane? No real prizes for Angelina Jolie or Seth Rogen, but give yourself a point if you got Jackie Chan as Monkey or Lucy Liu and frankly, if you managed to identify David Cross as Crane, then you don’t get out much, do you? But this is the way of the Dreamworks animation. The likes of Shrek, Madagascar and Monsters vs Aliens have relied on famous voice casts where the characters are a thin reflection of the voice actors playing them, to the point you could almost believe it was the actors themselves in an animal suit were the characters not so convincingly portrayed by the CGI. So when you pay for Jack Black, he might look black and white and be even tubbier than in real life, but it’s basically still the same Jack Black you’re getting.
Which might make you wonder how it would be possible to spin a sequel out of the material already woven by the original? Kung Fu Panda tread some familiar Dreamworks ground, the consistent moral in their material being that you should be true to yourself, and one that Po the Dragon Warrior had learned quite well by the end of the first film. But there were some obvious seeds planted in the original, not least the fact that Po the panda’s dad is, well, a goose. When Po starts having flashbacks mid-fight, there’s obviously a need for closure, but little does he realise how wrapped up that will be with new enemy Lord Shen (Gary Oldman)?
If there’s one thing that’s been largely absent from most of the Dreamworks animations, then it’s the depth of emotion that their contemporaries such as Pixar manage to work in so effortlessly, and while the Shrek movies have made a few attempts, they’re generally pale imitations. Not any more, though, as Kung Fu Panda 2 succeeds admirably in expanding upon the original story but in the process adds further layers of depth and pathos to the story. Somehow, it also manages to drop in even more famous voices – as well as the major players from the original mentioned above, the likes of Dennis Haysbert, Michelle Yeoh and even Jean Claude Van-Damme all get their moment in the spotlight. Jack Black does well, but once again the weak link is Angelina Jolie; more effective here than in the original, she’s still the most anonymous of the voice cast, but there’s enough good work here that you don’t feel let down and Oldman is especially enjoyable as the petulant peacock bent on world domination.
So a good meaty story, with plenty of feeling, but the other think that made the original Kung Fu panda such a standout was just that – the kung fu. Thankfully, this sequel lives up to the standard set by the original and features scene after scene of top quality family-friendly fighting – enough to get the kids imitating on the playground but not enough to get them taking each other’s heads off. The quality of the animation and the direction is also easily the equal, if not an improvement, on the original, and the flashback sequences are especially well handled and distinct. All in all, this second instalment is easily a match for the first and maintains a high standard, so late scenes potentially setting up a second sequel excite rather than disappointing. Let’s hope the standard maintained by these first two Pandas can be maintained by those that follow.
Why see it at the cinema: There’s a fantastic sense of scale and both the set-pieces and the fights don’t disappoint. This will delight kids of all ages, even those into their mid-to-late thirties, and there’s enough for any age range to ensure they don’t get too fidgety.
Why I didn’t see it in 3D: A scheduling conflict meant that the only way I could squeeze three films into an afternoon was to forego the 3D option for this film and stick to 2D instead. Based on what I know of 3D and its inability to carry darkly lit films with lots of cutting and fast paced action sequences, you have my sympathy if you end up at the 3D version.
The Score: 8/10