TV: Casual (Season 2)

casual-season-2-posterTo a degree, there’s an element of schadenfreude to the appeal of Hulu’s Casual: the romantic and emotional struggles of an effortlessly rich family in Southern California, whose behavior is often self-serving and awful, and almost always backfires? It is kind of a cringe-a-thon. Fortunately, characters we might otherwise want to keep at an arm’s length draw us in a bit closer thanks to fine performances, making this bleak, subdued comedy more accessible.

Season two continues to the explore the weird and uncomfortable sibling relationship of Valerie (Michaela Watkins) and Alex (Tommy Dewey), whose free-spirited parents scarred them for life — and left them in an awkward, symbiotic emotional relationship. This season shines more light on Alex, whose emotional death spiral in the wake of losing a love of his life is complicated further by the arrival of a new, venture capital business partner (Vincent Kartheiser) and the unexpected return of an old flame (Britt Lower). Valerie, meanwhile, works to rebuild her social life through a new office neighbor, Jennifer (Katie Aselton), which leads to new romantic possibilities. Meanwhile, the influence of the chronically confused guardians in her life trickles down to Valerie’s daughter Laura (Tara Lynn Barr), who enters into misguided and commitment-phobic relationships of her own.

Casual is a quiet and quirky character study, with an open mind but a world-weary eye, its heroes floundering in their psychological issues. The story-telling is patient and understated, even as it pushes into edgy comedic places, leaving the viewer squinting and wincing at each awkward turn. But Watkins, Dewey, and Barr make it highly watchable, as does the cast’s unsung hero Leon (Nyasha Hatendi), a soft-spoken, deadpan composer who frequently allows himself to be inconvenienced by his unlikely friendship with this dysfunctional family.  I wouldn’t expect everyone to enjoy living vicariously through these people’s problems, but I like it, primarily for its uniquely flawed characters and unconventional style.

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Novel: Infomocracy by Malka Older

There’s a certain flavor of idea-rich, eyeball-kicky near-future science fiction that risks burying its storytelling momentum underneath dense world-building and bleeding-edge detail. I kept expecting that to happen in Malka Older’s vivid debut, Infomocracy (2016), but I’m happy to report it doesn’t: this one has a graceful, compelling narrative propelling its thought-experiment core.

In the mid-twenty-first century, a megapowerful search engine company called Information has created a new, post-national world where microdemocracy rules. The Earth is split into “centenals” of 100,000 people, and its citizens can vote for one of any number of worldwide governing parties to dictate policy on the local level. The new system has proceeded peacefully for two decades, through two 10-year election cycles, during which the powerful Heritage party has wielded the supermajority. But as the new election ramps up, something treacherous may be afoot. Ken, an idealistic campaigner for the up-and-coming Policy1st party, and Mishima, an agent of Information, gradually uncover evidence of a possible conspiracy that could alter the fate of the election, and change the world forever.

The thought experiment here is rigorous, interesting, and engrossing, for all that it lacks a firm logistical plausibility. In a world as geopolitically intractable as ours, could such a revolutionary system ever take root? I doubt it…but I also don’t care, because it’s really fun to read about, and Older does a great job realizing her vision, which is refreshingly diverse and global in scope. The scenario is populated with neat futuristic details, the characters are appealing, and the thriller plot clicks along swiftly with just the right mix of intrigue, romance, action, and drama. An impressive and noteworthy debut that should put Older on the map alongside similar new authors like Madeline Ashby and Ramez Naam.

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Film: Kubo and the Two Strings

kuboThe opening of Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) is so moving and magical, and the film so full of visual wonder throughout, that I was surprised by my overall impression: I was underwhelmed. An animated feature drawing heavily on Japanese mythology, the film revolves around Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a young boy who lives a simple, hardscrabble existence, caring for his ill mother and supporting them as the village storyteller. Kubo is a lively and imaginative boy who possesses a magical power: the ability to animate and control his origami creations. But he also has a troubled origin: he and his mother fled their mean-spirited extended family in the wake of violent conflict, which is about to be reignited. When Kubo’s evil aunts come to collect him, Kubo is forced to flee with Monkey (Charlize Theron), a statue come to life to serve as his guardian. Together they undertake a quest to recover three powerful artifacts that will protect Kubo from his horrible grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

The first twenty minutes of Kubo and the Two Strings are utterly beautiful, bursting with powerful visual story-telling and splendorous imagery. And I was more or less onboard for the duration, enjoying its engaging action setpieces and amusing dialogue. In many ways it’s a refreshing change of pace from the increasingly familiar beats and tropes of big-budget animated cinema. But there’s something missing, or many somethings: a logical basis for the item-gathering plot, a coherent thematic focus, an assured handle on its messaging. There are many elements and ideas at play, but the script struggles to pick and choose how and when to deploy them, and they don’t work in perfect harmony. That doesn’t detract from the journey’s many great moments, but there are also distancing lulls, and a muddled climax.

In the end, I’m disappointed, largely because the film doesn’t deliver on its early promise. Those beautiful early passages create such an evocative, immersive mood, and it was a shame to watch that fall away. Even so, it’s a beautifully made and charmingly different film; I’m happy to have seen it, all the same.

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Film: Spy

spy_-_movie_-_2015Since I loved Bridesmaids and disliked Ghostbusters, I was curious about another Melissa McCarthy-starring, Paul Feig-directed film that was released in between: Spy (2015). (And let’s face it, I might just have a little interest in the subject matter.) The result falls somewhere in between those two comedies: more uneven than Bridesmaids, more assured than Ghostbusters, it’s an enjoyable send-up of the Bondian spy adventure, through a feminist lens.

McCarthy is Susan Cooper, a CIA intelligence analyst who serves as the headquarters support agent for superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a handsome, cocky man of action completely oblivious to Susan’s worship of him. Their partnership meets its end at the hands of the treacherous Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who takes out Fine while Susan watches helplessly from his eyeball cameras. Boyanov makes it clear she knows all of the CIA’s top agents, so Susan — a trained field agent who, years ago, meekly allowed her operational ambitions to be diverted — convinces her boss Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) that, with her spotless cover, she might be the best option to go after Boyanov. Crocker bites on the idea, sending Susan to Europe to track down the dangerous Boyanov and prevent her from auctioning off a nuclear bomb to terrorists.

Spy isn’t about to climb onto the Spy 100 list, but it’s pretty good comedy, thanks largely to McCarthy’s natural comedic presence, solid support, and a decent supply of funny dialogue and sight gags. The script does have some unfortunate tendencies, overly leaning on material that plays off McCarthy’s looks; some of this is hilarious (her tech briefing with a clearly misogynistic “Q” is classic, and her frumpy cover personas are great), while others grow tedious (her fashion sparring with Boyanov, the way cliched Italian men dismiss her on the streets of Rome). Another repeating joke that does work is Jason Statham’s furious tough-guy act as gruff, rogue agent Rick Ford; Statham has a great time taking the piss out of himself, becoming a great rival to Cooper. He’s also a solid source of material supporting one of Spy‘s greater missions: satirizing the absurd testosterone levels of the spy genre, which could certainly use a comedic feminist counterpoint. Spy, an entertaining romp, fits that bill reasonably well.

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TV: BoJack Horseman (Season 3)

Bojack-Horseman-season-3-trailerDark comedy doesn’t get much darker than BoJack Horseman. Netflix’s animated gem continues this trend in season three, which is once again addictive, hilarious, and surprisingly heartfelt. Horse actor BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) is back in the spotlight after a lengthy career nadir: his role in award-bait film Secretariat has him in contention for an Oscar, which his new publicist Ana Spanikopita (Angela Bassett) is determined to win for him at any cost. But BoJack’s Oscar campaign stokes his every neuroses and self-destructive behavior, engendering a philosophical crisis that may destroy him, if not everyone he cares about.

If that doesn’t sound like a laugh-riot to you…well, it somehow is, even as pitch-black tone bubbles along beneath the surface of its witty banter and frantic sight gags. Speaking of which, season three really takes it up a notch in terms of fast-paced eyeball kicks, visual jokes, and hilarious background text. It also steps up experimental metahumor, to mixed effect. I watched this season on full throttle, but I’m pretty sure a second viewing would add several new layers of laughs, from the silly to the cringeworthy to the shocking. But be forewarned: the humor is a set-up, raising your spirits only to dash them with tragic plot turns…but in the best possible way? BoJack may be an addict and a narcissist, self-absorbed and stubborn, and his ambition and need for validation is almost appalling. But he has just enough moments of relatable doubt and self-awareness to make him accessible, and his distinctly American success story, full of chaos and greed and confusion, serves as a brutal, unforgiving critique of celebrity culture. At the same time it’s also a thoughtful, existential exploration, capable of hauntingly beautiful moments of insight into the human (er, horse) condition.

Season three has a few weak hours late in the run, and despite a strong finish, it’s not quite as powerful as the earlier seasons taken as a whole. But a number of episodes — especially the magnificent “Fish Out of Water,” a visual story-telling masterpiece — are as edgy and superb as anything the show’s ever done. In the era of peak TV, it’s hard to put a finger on what shows will be worthy of rewatching down the road, but I’m putting my money on BoJack. If you haven’t checked this out yet, I strongly encourage you to get on it.

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TV: Mannix (Seasons 4-8)

MannixWell, the great Mannix marathon is over. I’ve powered through all 194 episodes of this unsung private eye show, and while the modern TV viewer in me found it dated and repetitive, the comfort-food-seeking, old-school TV viewer in me enjoyed every minute of it.

Mannix chronicles the exploits of Joe Mannix (Mike Connors), a private detective in Los Angeles. Mannix is an old-fashioned hero: a former Korean war hero and college football star, a man of action and integrity who doesn’t care about money, runs toward danger, and lights up at the sight of a beautiful woman. And while he’s his own boss, he more or less works as an extended arm of the police force, constantly staying one step ahead of the lieutenants that form his extended social network. Indeed, outside of Mannix’s loyal, ultra-competent secretary Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher), Mannix’s recurring police contacts provide the only real world-building continuity across eight seasons. Most frequent among his cop friends is Lieutenant Art Malcolm (Ward Wood), a no-nonsense old-timer with a skeptical eye and a foghorn voice, but the best is Lieutenant Adam Tobias (Robert Reed). Appearing periodically whenever he could escape his Brady Bunch duties, Reed played his argumentative interactions with Mannix as a cranky cynic, even as his respect and friendship shined through; his rapport with Connors is effortless, and his appearances are always a treat.

After an awkward first season, Mannix stepped up its game in season two with the addition of Gail Fisher, and really hit its stride with the season 3 episode “The Sound of Darkness,” a showcase episode for Connors and a breakout moment for Mannix as a vulnerable, relatable hero. Alas, the remaining seasons don’t deliver another episode quite as outstanding as that one, although there are still some highlights. Season 4’s “The Mouse That Died” has a nifty premise: Mannix stumbles across an enemy espionage outfit, who try to subtly take him out with a slow-acting poison; his subsequent illness and hallucinations make for  suspenseful ticking clock, not to mention some wonderfully weird, Prisoneresque visuals. I also liked “The Inside Man,” wherein Mannix goes on a long-term, deep-cover assignment to infiltrate a New Orleans mafia oufit. If that one feels like a held-over Mission: Impossible episode, the two-part “Race Against Time” in season 7 may well be retooled Mission script: Mannix’s task is to smuggle a doctor into a Latin American dictatorship in order to save the life of a rebel leader; here, Mannix really gets his Rollin Hand on. Alas, while I’m sure other favorites would jump out at me on a second run-through, setpiece episodes like “The Sound of Darkness” and “End Game” are rarities; Mannix is more about Joe Mannix than his cases, and the episodes tend to bleed into each other in the memory, filled with recurring actors in new parts, a consistent stable of directors and writers, and in at least two cases, scripts that were obviously re-used from earlier seasons.

The repetitiveness of Mannix is disappointing, but also kind of endearing. The show almost always delivers it signature elements: good-natured banter with Peggy, skeptical exchanges with the police, vicious villainy, untrustworthy clients. After 15 seasons of Mannix and Mission: Impossible combined, I could probably draw a map of the Paramount studio backlot, but somehow recognizing the exteriors never ruined the moment — nor did the re-used soundstage interiors, which included a frequently made-over Brady Bunch living room. It’s all part of the cozy. And of course there’s the action: for its era, Mannix was violent stuff, full of fistfights and shootouts and car chases. The show occasionally contrived some almost comical action sequences: Mannix, full cast on one foot, waddling for his life with a tractor trying to run him down; Mannix, bouncing uncomfortably over bumpy terrain in a dune buggy; Mannix, taking on a room full of thugs while in a straight jacket, thundering around like an out-of-control rhinoceros. It’s a rare episode in which Mannix doesn’t get hit over the head and knocked unconscious; I used to think Jim Rockford got clobbered a lot, but Mannix must be several cases of post-concussion syndrome beyond that. The fact that Connors is a rugged, physical actor who does many of his own stunts makes it easier to buy his toughness, not to mention get invested in his struggle. But the outcome, of course, is never in doubt.

mannix-splshAlas, the show never entirely cashes in on the potential of the terrific Gail Fisher, whose Peggy Fair is too often little more than a supportive background presence. Clearly, most of the writers didn’t quite know how to write for Peggy, who isn’t given much to do beyond serve coffee, share hunches, and raise her eyebrows at Mannix’s rash behavior or questionable decisions. The infrequent episodes that showcased Peggy usually placed her in some kind of peril to motivate Joe. An exception is “The World Between,” in which Peggy is wounded in the course of her duties and stumbles into a mystery while recovering in the hospital. In another unlikely episode, season 6’s “Out of the Night,” Peggy — a professional, single mother — goes undercover as a prostitute to help Mannix bust a drug ring, and pulls off her role brilliantly. This episode is frustrating, because it shows Fisher’s range, but is hopelessly out of character; the experiment isn’t repeated. Too often, she doesn’t appear at all. It does make those episodes wherein the Mannix-Peggy teamwork is on full display all the more worth savoring, and Connors and Fisher play the friendship so naturally and winningly that it lifts those hours up with heart and camaraderie.

Anyway it’s hard not to see why the show focused so centrally on Connors, whose effortless charisma carries the series even through its weaker episodes. He’s a classic TV star, and clearly a consummate professional; it’s hard to imagine how rigorous those 24-episode seasons must have been for an actor appearing in nearly every scene. Mannix starts cocky and perhaps too perfect, but evolves into something more: an emblem of the regular joe trying to do the right thing, for his own reasons, despite the cost. It’s a kind of hero that might not play believably in modern TV, but nowadays that makes it refreshing, and gives it nostalgic charm.  The world could use a little more Joe Mannix right about now.

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Novel: A Hero of France by Alan Furst

Alan Furst’s more recent releases are less standalone novels than collected episodes from the greater metanovel that is his entire body of work since Night Soldiers: a sprawling, now 14-volume chronicle of World War II as seen through the eyes of its many secret soldiers. This seems especially true of A Hero of France (2016), the latest, slim novel in the series which, like its predecessors, is vividly realized, impressive in its historical detail, and in complex dialogue with its series-mates. Unfortunately, once again the author has fallen back on strict formula, and seems to be running light on fresh ideas; there are glimpses of the old magic, but this is undoubtedly a lesser entry, and probably the first of the series to truly disappoint me.

Furst clearly loves Paris, so much so that he has contrived to set at least one scene per book there. This time he goes whole hog on this obsession, focusing his narrative on a Paris-based leader of the French Resistance, Mathieu (last name unknown). Mathieu is, unsurprisingly, a fortyish romantic with a fierce sense of a duty, an uncommon bravery, and a fine hand with the ladies. He’s also got a knack for staying one step ahead of the French and German authorities who want to shut down the escape lines he’s esablished across France to smuggle downed Allied airmen back to England. As the war rages and the challenges of the secret life intensify, Mathieu and his tight-knit network of colleagues feel the noose tightening in their defiance of the Third Reich, and face hard decisions along the way.

A Hero of France bears a superficial resemblance to Furst’s best work in its rolling, thoughtful prose, its effortless mastery of the era, and the exciting action setpieces. And there’s a certain intrigue to layering this volume down over Furst’s vaster mosaic, as characters from previous books flash into and out of the picture. One imagines a spectacular spreadsheet somewhere tracking fourteen novels’ worth of characters across time and space in Furst’s greater  metanarrative. By and large, it slots in adequately in the greater scheme of his achievement.

But there’s a certain something missing, and not just the disappointingly familiar protagonist and the clear reliance on the tried-and-true. As usual the book is broken up into episodes, but only one of them — “The Secret Agent,” in which Mathieu undertakes a mission to smuggle Allied saboteurs from a secret beach landing in Normandy back to Paris — truly stands out. Meanwhile, the closing segment, where the most jeopardy exists, is somehow the least suspenseful, and peters out in a sequence of summarized fates for Mathieu’s network. The result is a book that delivers the expected experience for the expected audience, without stretching at all from its comfort zone. In the past, this consistency never bothered me because it was so well done, but A Hero of France left me wondering if perhaps it’s time for Furst to finally try a new direction.

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TV: Stranger Things (Season 1)

strangerthingsposterStranger Things is a pitch perfect homage to eighties horror filmmaking: take The Goonies, drop them into the Twilight Zone, and let Stephen King terrify them for eight episodes, all in the retro style of Reagan-era cinema. You get the idea, and it makes you wonder why nobody did it sooner. But, as well executed as it is, I knew right away I was going to have problems with it, and not just because it fervently embraces nostalgia for an era I was desperate, at the time, to escape. Nonetheless, I watched open-mindedly while hoping for it develop into something more than its slick surface, and perhaps to subvert its admittedly nifty premise. In the end, I was disappointed.

In small-town Indiana in 1983, a young boy named Will (Noah Schnapp) mysteriously goes missing after a D&D session with his buddies Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). Their efforts to locate Will introduce them to Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a strange young girl who seems to have super powers. As the town, led by Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and a run-down sherriff named Hopper (David Harbour), investigates the disappearance, it quickly becomes apparent that something bizarre is going on, and that it has something to do with a nearby Department of Energy facility run by the sinister Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine). As everyone, including Will’s outcast brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Mike’s teen rebel sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and Nancy’s skeezy boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), gets sucked into the mystery, the suspense and danger builds toward an explosive confrontation between mundane and supernatural forces.

Stranger Things achieves precisely what it was aiming for: it’s an authentic love letter to eighties horror films that have kid protagonists. And yes, there’s a certain kitschy fun to its retro stylings, its deliberately dated credit sequence, its calculated mimicry of Spielberg and King, and its cagey update of kid-centered adventure in the style of The Goonies and Stand By Me. All in all, it pushes nostalgia buttons brilliantly, and makes for a tight and entertaining ride. Viewers who grew up with a love for that era are likely going to adore much of what makes Stranger Things successful.

Unfortunately, I’m at a disadvantage in that regard: despite its formative influence, the eighties leave me cold, particularly as a decade of film. So on some level, the hackle-raising magic some folks might feel from its well realized production, engaging story, nostalgic detail, and fine performances…that’s all lost on me. More detrimentally, I found it a shallow examination of its concept. Stranger Things conjures the eighties, without even remotely interrogating the eighties. Its characters are right out of a popular 1985ish chiller — right down to its conventional gender roles and ugly social status quo. Men are active and heroic, women are protectors, girlfriends, or mysterious catalysts. Sleazy jocks like Steve get to redeem themselves with side-plot character arcs, while the much more crucial Eleven is a chess piece, for some reason selectively communicative, even as her friends argue about her while she’s right in the room. There’s bullying, there’s date-rapey partying, there are friends mean-spiritedly making fun of each other, and other ickyisms, none of them sociologically examined. Is this what made the eighties great? Stranger Things has an opportunity to comment on these familiar dynamics and tropes, turn them on their head, subvert them, perhaps even in the manner of period pieces like The Americans or Mad Men — two shows that recognize that the “good old days” were actually bad old days. Not only doesn’t Stranger Things take up that challenge, it seems oblivious that the challenge even exists. It’s all surface.

Even so, it’s an attractive surface, and the show, while highly derivative, is perfectly entertaining. Viewers more invested in the horror genre will most likely really love it. But ultimately it struck me as a formal exercise: skillfully rendered, but lacking depth, and the extra level of critique that might have made it truly great.

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Film: Ghostbusters

ghostbusters_ver6The Ghostbusters (2016) reboot has stirred plenty of controversy, but ultimately for me it raised one question: is it possible to make a movie starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones that isn’t funny? The answer, amazingly, is yes, you can…but also, it totally isn’t their fault.

Chock full of nods and winks to its 1984 source material, Ghostbusters introduces us to its world via Erin Gilbert (Wiig), a tenure-pursuing scientist whose past as a believer in the supernatural is revealed when her former partner Abby Yates (McCarthy) puts their co-authored book on Amazon. It costs Erin her job and reintroduces her to Abby, who is still pursuing ghost science with peculiar engineer Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon). Soon Erin finds herself in business with them, and one of their first clients, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), leads them to evidence that spectral phenomena are real — and that someone is working to bring ghosts back to the material world, overrunning the city. In the face of an incompetent government cover-up, it’s up to the Ghostbusters to save the day.

While I have fond memories of the original Ghostbusters as a formative blockbuster moviegoing experience, I’m not particularly invested in the franchise, and frankly the misogynistic internet hate against it is deeply, deeply stupid. Indeed, I was enthusiastic about giving these female stars, Wiig and McCarthy in particular, a turn in the action-comedy spotlight. They’ve earned it, and it’s long past time. The stars make the most of it, or at least, the most of what they’re given. McKinnon and Jones, meanwhile, deliver breakout comedic performances that should put them on the Hollywood map.

But oh dear. This is not a very good movie. The primary reason, I think, is simple: the script. It fails to fully exploit the premise, and it fails to deliver funny dialogue consistently. When it does manage a good line, it steps on it, or mishandles it, or buries it in the action. More problematic for me is the annoying, elbow-in-the-ribs way it constantly reminds the viewer of the source material. It artlessly cribs catch-phrases and buzzwords and logos from the original, and clutters the plot with needless cameos; the overall effect is to remind the viewer that they’re watching a movie, instead of actually just being a movie. It’s all very calculated, but poorly so, trying so hard to be something else that it doesn’t end up being itself, whatever that might have been. (And indeed, it increased my appreciation for J.J. Abrams’ abilities to work in other universes — with him, those winking callbacks are still annoying, but at least they’re clever.)

I could go on, about the overuse of Chris Hemsworth in a one-note joke, or the miserable, disbelief-shattering special effects, or the way the film fails to leverage its editing to comedic effect. Its problems are legion. But mostly I’m just disappointed that so much talent produced something so mediocre. I really wanted to like this.

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Film: Our Kind of Traitor

our-kind-of-traitor-poster1John le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor is one of his later, perhaps lesser books, but it’s one that really spoke to me, so I was eager to see it adapted to the screen. The result is certainly compelling and attractive, but somehow off; it makes an odd decision here, takes an unfortunate liberty there, and never quite captures the novel’s heart, ultimately doing it partial justice.

Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) is an English professor, on vacation in Marrakech with his lawyer girlfriend Gail (Naomie Harris), attempting to save their troubled relationship. The holiday takes an unexpected turn when Perry’s path crosses with Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), a boisterous Russian who cheerfully maneuvers himself into Perry and Gail’s holiday plans. In fact, it’s a recruitment: Dima is a money man for the Russian mafia, and he knows his superiors are getting ready to kill him off for knowing too much. In desperation, Dima asks Perry to take a message back to MI-6, hoping the British will help him and his family defect. Perry agrees to deliver the message, but this simple involvement evolves into something far more entangling, as both he and Gail become emotionally invested in the plight of their Russian acquaintance and his family.

Our Kind of Traitor, the novel, boasts all the furious political anger of le Carré’s later work, but mitigates the inherent darkness of its worldview by presenting an unlikely created family, which comes together in inspiring defiance of it. It’s perhaps the film’s biggest failure, to me, that director Susanna White and screenwriter Hossein Amini downplay this most winning aspect of the book, in favor of more a streamlined Hollywood structure and symbology. Our Kind of Traitor, the film, is very much Perry’s story, making this a Ewan MacGregor vehicle rather than the ensemble piece I was craving. Skarsgård’s turn as the blustering, profane Dima is award-worthy stuff, and Damian Lewis is entertainingly venomous as espiocrat Hector Meredith, but the supporting cast, many of them important viewpoint characters in the novel, is largely relegated to the sidelines. Most egregious is the wasting of Naomie Harris; I recall, in the source material, Gail being every bit an equally invested partner in the adventure, but her character is retooled to generate marital strife and her heroism is incidental to Perry’s manly coming-of-age journey. What makes this all the more disappointing is that le  Carré is an author not known for particularly well done female characters. He actually does better than usual  in Our Kind of Traitor, only to see the adaptation render the women nominal to the action, if not downright mute. Not exactly a feather in Hollywood’s cap.

Granted, much of my dissatisfaction is borne of my enthusiasm for the source material, so it likely won’t bother the casual viewer with a fondness for slick, spy fare. There’s plenty to enjoy in the film’s gripping plot and gorgeous international scenery. Skarsgård alone is worth the price of admission, and the Dima-Perry friendship is charming and exceptionally realized. I found some screenwriting choices problematic, but the structural bones are sound, and the changes to the ending introduce some hope to an otherwise bleak scenario. But ultimately I can’t help but feel a little bit let down: Our Kind of Traitor looks very much like the film I wanted it to be, but shaped by creatives with a much different take on the story and what makes it worth telling. In the end, for me, this make it diverting but inessential.

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