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3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John Le Carré's 1974 novel became a seven-part BBC miniseries five years later, with Alec Guinness radiantly gray as George Smiley, the cashiered SIS agent recalled to duty to unearth a mole for the Soviets at the highest level of command. Now Gary Oldman takes the role of the misnamed Smiley; if this stolid operative were to crack a grin, his face would surely shatter. Among the vaunted actors playing the chief suspects are Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds and, demoted from King's Speech monarch to amiable, weasely philanderer, Colin Firth.
At two hours, the film version is a third the miniseries' length, requiring severe compression by screenwriters Peter Straughan (The Debt) and Bridget O'Connor, which they've accomplished smartly. Director Tomas Alfredson, who made the exemplary Swedish vampire story Let the Right One In, lets a few actors show some verve: John Hurt as the Circus' bombastic ringmaster, Mark Strong as a field agent caught in the crossfire and Tom Hardy (Warrior) as Le Carré's closest realistic equivalent to James Bond. But these colorful characters are anomalies in a film so determined to act as an antidote to spy capers that it fairly shrieks its subtlety. Here, the old British stiff-upper-lip slowly forms a rictus. R.C.
4. Wilde Salome
"It's gonna look like I don't know what I'm doin'." Al Pacino tells his producers. "Because I don't." He's trying to make a film that incorporates Oscar Wilde's drama Salome (which the star has staged three times in a quarter century), a bio-sketch of the author and Pacino's own battle to shoot a film version in a few days. His 1996 Looking for Richard, which brought similarly lofty ambitions to Shakespeare's Richard III, took four years to complete, and so did this fascinatingly wacky expression of a street actor's passion for a work that seems far from his interests or aptitude. In the play excerpts, shot in Los Angeles in 2007, Pacino is Herod "Crazy emperors sort of work for me," he acknowledges and Jessica Chastain (in her first film role) is his stepdaughter Salome, who willfully demands that he bring her the head of John the Baptist.
Wilde's climactic scene, as Salome does her veil dance and Herod tries to coax her out of her murderous whim, has a surprisingly vivid kick; but that's just part of the fun. Pacino makes pilgrimages to Wilde haunts in Dublin and London; chats up Tom Stoppard, Gore Vidal, Tony Kushner, and Bono for insights into the gay Irishman's genius and tragic end; and, in a few scenes shot in the desert, impersonates Herod in a caftan and burnoose, as if in a screen test to play Gaddafi. At the official premiere in the Festival's Sala Grande, the star wowed his audience with a charming monologue, some of it in Italian. He really should take this show on the road. R.C.
Many directors believe they suffer for their love of cinema, but few take as fierce a bruising as Shoji (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the budding cineaste in this long parable of pain. His brother has been killed by a yakuza boss for debts incurred in financing Shoji's fledgling film obsessions. To settle accounts Shoji rents himself out as a punching bag for the yakuza's goons; while they pulverize him for cash, he tries to dream away his agony by thinking of favorite old movies.
The new film from world-traveling director Amir Naderi a prime voice in early Iranian cinema and later an American indie auteur whose bleakly minimalist Vegas: Based on a True Story was a highlight of Venice 2008 is a fond tribute to classic Japanese cinema (Shoji visits the graves of old masters Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi) and to the delirium of movie love. But at two hours plus, and with little variation in its sadomasochistic tone, this arthouse fanboy's Fight Club is also a punishment to viewers, who may wish they could barge into the editing room and yell. "Cut!" M.C.