The best (in my opinionated view) 100 films of all time - in no particular order.

Thursday 7 September 2017

The Age of Shadows (2016)

Have you ever picked up a DVD on the basis of the rave reviews emblazoned on the cover? I’ve done it many times, enticed by bold statements like “EXTRAORDINARY”, “THE BEST FILM OF THE YEAR”, “AN EXCEPTIONAL FILM”, only to discover that the critical assessments which drew you to the film in the first place bear no resemblance to the film you just watched. The fact is that many of these statements are taken so out of context in order to sell the film that they make the film out to be something that it isn’t. Take the single word “EXTRAORDINARY” for instance. Film distributors are so desperate to get you to part with your cash for a lacklustre production that they will use that single word instead of using it in the sentence that it was originally intended. The original reviewer may have written: “this film is EXTRAORDINARY in its dullness.”

See how it works.

It comes as a surprise, then, when you find a film that does exactly what it says on the tin and then some.  Such is the case for Kim Jee Woon’s exceptional espionage thriller The Age of Shadows. “A BREATHTAKING PIECE OF FILMMAKING”, “MAGNIFICENT”, and “BREATHLESSLY EXCITING” are just three of the superlatives this film has garnered. And they are one hundred percent correct.
OK, before I go on, I need to point out that this is a this is a SOUTH KOREAN film and comes with ENGLISH SUBTITLES, so those of you who have difficulty reading words and watching images at the same time should probably read no further and you may want to wait for the inevitable washed-out, watered down American remake. Spike Lee remade Chanwook Park’s excellent Oldboy and it didn’t work and in the near future we’re going to be subjected to Adam Wingard’s remake of Kim Jee Woon’s I Saw The Devil.

All over East Asia they are producing movies that are far superior to anything the Hollywood money machine can churn out and at a fraction of the cost. City of Life and Death from China, made in black-and-white, about the Japanese invasion of Nanking makes Schindler’s List look like a children’s film. 13 Assassins from Japan is a thrilling take on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai that ends with a bravura 45 minute bloodbath. The Raid from Indonesia is more exciting than all the Die Hard films put together and its sequel, The Raid II, made on a budget of $4 million but looking like it was made for $200 million, has a car chase that’s even better than the one in Ronin. Ong-Bak from Thailand has some of the most spectacular stunts you’ll ever see, all done without CGI, wires and stuntmen. The Host from Korea was what both American versions of Godzilla should have been like. Kung Fu Hustle from Hong Kong is simply one of the freshest, most frenetic and funniest films ever made and I Saw The Devil is possibly the most disturbingly original serial killer movie ever made.

I remember being completely blown away the first time I watched Kim Jee Woon’s I Saw The Devil. It’s a dark and violent tale about a serial killer who murders and mutilates the wrong woman. Her fiancée, you see, is a secret service agent who quickly tracks the killer down, beats the living daylights out of him and then forces a tracker down his throat when he’s semi-conscious. He then begins a game of catch-and-release with him, interrupting him just before he’s about to murder again and causing him extreme physical harm. This in turn fuels his obsession for making the killer suffer for the crime he committed until he can no longer stop himself. Ultimately the film asks the question: When does the person chasing a monster become a monster himself? I Saw The Devil is an uncompromisingly disturbing film for people with broad minds and strong stomachs but it’s helped along by having two of the best actors in Korean cinema on board: Min-sik Choi (Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Lucy) as the killer and Byung-hun Lee (A Bittersweet Life, RED 2, The Magnificent Seven) as the secret service agent.

But there is one thing: it’s subtitled.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand watching foreign films dubbed into English – with the exception of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns – and all I can say to those who refuse to watch a film with subtitles is this: You really don’t know what you’re missing. And out of all the foreign film markets it’s South Korea that’s consistently producing the most uncompromising, exciting and polished thrillers today and Kim Jee Woon’s The Age of Shadows is no exception.

The Age of Shadows Poster

Set in the late 1920s during the Japanese occupation of Korea and based on an actual event, a group of resistance fighters led by the leader’s second-in-command attempt to bring in explosives by train from Shanghai to destroy key Japanese facilities in Seoul. An ex-member of the group, now a high ranking Japanese police officer, assisted by a sadistic Japanese army officer, is tasked to infiltrate the resistance at all costs by befriending an antique dealer who’s involved in the plot but has never been exposed. And so begins a game of cat-and-mouse that’s reminiscent of the cloak-and dagger movies of 1930s and 40s, where the police officer’s loyalty is called into question. The violence is shocking, gruesome and realistic but never gratuitous and the set-pieces are spectacularly well executed. A thirty minute sequence on a train is heart-thumping and almost unbearably tense. It’s positively Hitchcockian in its palm-sweating delivery and, dare I say it, completely exceeds anything the master of suspense ever served up. There’s a scene in the Japanese embassy towards the end where the use of classical music and arse-clenching tension combine perfectly, after which you’ll never listen to Ravel’s Bolero in the same way again.

This is, to say the least, a remarkable film from the writer/director of such diverse genre masterpieces as A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad, the Weird and I Saw the Devil. With The Age of Shadows he’s at the top of his game, tackling yet another genre movie with confidence and throughout its 139 minute running time there is not one single boring second.

Monday 10 October 2016

The Truman Show (1998)

I was sat next to group of four teenagers when I watched The Truman Show in the cinema in Winchester when it was released in 1998. As the film was starting, one of them leaned across to his friends and whispered, “This is a comedy, isn’t it?”

Oh, dear. 

Jim Carrey was no overnight success. He’d been slogging away in minor roles for fourteen years until he hit the big time with the zany but, in my opinion, unfunny antics of Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. His performance in that film did, however, cause critics to compare him to that other rubber-faced clown of the 1950s and 60s, Jerry Lewis. The Mask soon followed, with the Farrelly Brothers’ Dumb and Dumber (with Carrey and Jeff Daniels as probably the best comedy double-act of the 1990s) hot on its heels. The Truman Show did have its fair share of humour but, in his first dramatic role, Jim Carrey gave an emotionally charged performance of surprising depth and sensitivity as Truman Burbank, a man happy in the world he is living until a succession of small events begin to shatter his perfect life and challenge the reality of his own existence. 

It’s an idea that could have come straight from the writings of Philip K. Dick, whose marvellous novels and short stories played with perceptions of reality and what it is to be human. The most obvious comparison, though, can be traced back to Patrick McGoohan’s groundbreaking and hallucinatory TV series The Prisoner, which is still jaw-droppingly brilliant almost fifty years after it was first aired to an unsuspecting public in 1967. Viewers at the time were expecting something akin to Danger Man, McGoohan’s gritty and hugely popular series about a secret agent. But McGoohan and his script editor George Markstein had different ideas and their vision of a man trapped in a village where there is no escape divided the viewing public into those who loved it and those who hated it. Many viewers were confounded by its surreal premise, but at the tender age of 13, I loved it, although I didn’t fully understand what it was getting at and it was only when I watched it again many years later that I came to appreciate what a masterpiece of paranoia and helplessness it was. It’s a series that will be watched by generations to come and is best seen on the beautifully restored Blu-ray edition.

Whilst they are both prisoners, the difference between McGoohan’s No. 6 and Carrey’s Truman Burbank is that No. 6 knows why he is trapped in The Village, whilst Truman is unaware that he has been trapped on Seahaven Island for his entire life. Truman Burbank, you see, believes he is a normal man with a normal job, but he is in fact the star of a global TV phenomenon that has been beaming his life story around the world to billions of viewers since his conception.

Original UK poster

The brainchild and producer of this façade is Christof, played by the ever dependable Ed Harris, who has his base of operations in a fake moon in the Seahaven night sky. Along with a large team of technicians, he controls the daily lives of the residents (all actors) and the events that revolve around the unwitting star. Christof can be seen as a benign version of Orwell’s Big Brother from 1984, only wanting what’s best for his star (usually the best camera angle or emotional reunion), or as a tyrant, controlling the lives of those around him – even willing to let Truman drown at sea rather than allowing him the opportunity to escape to freedom. 

Directed by Peter Weir, who created a huge impact with Australian cinema audiences with Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli, and scripted by Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed the equally excellent Gattaca (1997), The Truman Show is a thoughtful and incise film about the power of media manipulation and product placement and its light touch disguises a darker and more paranoid undertow. It’s also a film that gets better and better with subsequent viewings.

Jim Carrey wasn’t the first comedy actor to move successfully into drama. Jerry Lewis would move effortlessly into dramatic roles as the disgruntled TV host in Martin Scorcese’s brilliant study of the trappings of celebrity, The King of Comedy (1982) and as Oliver Platt’s overbearing father in Peter Chelsolm’s jet black comedy drama Funny Bones (1995). In 1989, Peter Weir also provided Robin Williams with his first dramatic role, as the unconventional English teacher John Keating, in Dead Poets Society. Jim Carrey would go on to give other impressive dramatic performances, most notably in Frank Darabont’s The Majestic (2001) as a blacklisted amnesiac Hollywood film writer in 1951 on the run from HUAC (House Unamerican Activities Committee), and especially as a man trying to retrieve the memories of his girlfriend in Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s mindbendingly awesome Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). He can also be seen in Alexandros Avranas’ upcoming crime thriller True Crimes, written by Kevin MacDonald’s long-time collaborator, Jeremy Brock. 

The Truman Show was, by far, the most original movie of that year, loved by critics and audiences alike, and I was dumbstruck when the Oscars came around to find that it and its director, writer and two stars, Jim Carrey and Ed Harris, did not received a single nomination. But that doesn’t really surprise me about Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock, the man who invented a lot of the modern cinematic techniques we see today, never received an Oscar for best director for any of his films throughout his long and illustrious career. When you consider that Rocky won the Oscar for best picture in 1976, ahead of Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, Sidney Lumet’s Network and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, all vastly superior films, you know that there was something wrong and the voting panel must have all been suffering with some kind of mental illness. Martin Scorsese was shamefully ignored by the Academy for years, as was Steven Spielberg. Then again, American audiences were not ready for many of the films released during the golden age of Hollywood. Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) were all flops at the American box office when they were released, although they were embraced by European audiences who were obviously more intelligent. But thanks to cinema’s nemesis, television, they gained a new, younger audience, through late night screenings who recognised them for the classics they so obviously are and they are now, thankfully, rightly regarded as such. 

Like Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, Peter Weir’s The Truman Show will be watched by generations to come. And rightly so, because it’s a wonderfully constructed, beautifully acted, thoughtful and original cinematic marvel. It’s also Peter Weir’s masterpiece.

Friday 12 August 2016


Rufus Excalibur ffolkes is a bearded, curmudgeonly adventurer and anti-terrorism expert who hates woman, loves cats, drinks neat whisky from the neck of the bottle four hours after breakfast and does petit-point to help him think.  He also has little tolerance for those who possess lesser intellect than himself. When it’s put to him that he “must be one of those fellows who completes the Times crossword puzzle in ten minutes,” ffolkes replies with contempt, “I have never taken ten minutes!”

That this character is played by Roger Moore may come as something of a surprise, but in between The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979), he starred in two highly entertaining action movies in which he showed that he could be much more than just Simon Templar or James Bond. These were The Wild Geese, a thrilling tale of mercenaries betrayed by big business and the high-seas caper North Sea Hijack, released in the US as ffolkes (most probably because American audiences wouldn’t have a clue where the North Sea was) – both directed by Andrew V. McLaglen.

Born in 1920 in Wandsworth, London, Andrew Victor McLaglen upped sticks and moved to America where he cut his teeth directing episodes of Perry Mason, Rawhide, The Virginian, Wagon Train and Gunsmoke as well as directing many films starring James Stewart and John Wayne, among them: McLintock! (1963), Shenandoah (1965), Hellfighters (1968), Bandolero! (1968), The Undefeated (1969), Chisum (1970) and Cahill US Marshall (1973). By the time he made The Wild Geese in 1978 and North Sea Hijack in 1979 he was a well-respected veteran director of solid, unpretentious, no-frills movies that were designed for one thing and one thing only – entertainment.

This is what one reviewer on IMDB amusingly wrote about the The Wild Geese: “Now THIS is what movie-making is all about! Who needs pansy-assed Oscar winning drivel like A Beautiful Mind or overblown space-opera garbage like Star Wars when you can watch Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore blowing stuff up in Africa? I’d rather have my balls dipped into a bucket of scorpions than watch tripe like Lord of the Rings or Million Dollar Baby ever again – but sit me down in front of The Wild Geese with a bottle of scotch and a packet of ciggies and I’m happier than a dog in an offal factory.”

The Wild Geese original poster

Whilst I agree with him that A Beautiful Mind and Star Wars Episodes 1-3 are utter trash and disagree with him about Lord of the Rings and Million Dollar Baby, I absolutely fervently agree with him about The Wild Geese. It’s a fantastic, rip-roaring action movie that can be seen almost as a blueprint for Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables (although it’s infinitely better). A group of ageing mercenaries parachute into an African country to extract an imprisoned leader but are double-crossed and have to fight their way to safety. With a brilliant ensemble cast, including Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore, Hardy Kruger, Jack Watson, Frank Finlay, Stewart Granger and Kenneth Griffith, it grabs hold of your attention from the beginning and never releases its grip for two hours. Stand-out performances are from German actor Hardy Kruger as Pieter Coetzee, a down-and-out Afrikaner who wants the money to buy a farm in his native South Africa, Kenneth Griffith as Arthur Witty, the openly gay medic and the ever-reliable Jack Watson as the tough Sergeant Major, Sandy Young. On top of that there’s Burton, Harris and Moore strutting their stuff with Finlay as a Catholic Missionary and Granger as a hissable villain.

Unlike The Expendables, there are no muscle-bound super-soldiers in The Wild Geese, just a bunch of disaffected and disillusioned ex-soldiers, bored with civilian life and wanting the excitement of a last hurrah and a bundle of cash to set themselves up. When Arthur Witty is offered the job he asks Colonel Faulkner (Burton): “Do I have time to get a divorce?”

“Thirty-six hours,” replies Faulkner.

“Oh, lovely, sir,” says Witty, “I can’t wait to see his face.”

Roger Moore puts in a fine performance as Shawn Fynn, an ex-army Lieutenant, reduced to a life of petty crime before being recruited by Colonel Faulkner. Moore appeared on television as Simon Templar in The Saint, in the title role as Ivanhoe and as James Garner’s brother in Maverick but he will most probably always be remembered as superspy James Bond. Before Bond consumed his career he had already proven his acting skills in a dual role in the dark thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) and later opposite Lee Marvin in Shout at the Devil (1976), as a sympathetic German officer in Escape to Athena (1979) and in the criminally overlooked comedy Bed & Breakfast (1981). Never one to take himself too seriously and always displaying an amiable, self-deprecating wit in interviews, he was knighted in 2003 for his services to UNICEF.

I thought he was great in The Wild Geese and he’s every bit as good as Burton, Harris and Kruger, but his finest performance came a year later when he starred in the marvellous North Sea Hijack as the irascible, eccentric egotist Rufus Excalibur ffolkes, a role that he completely and convincingly inhabits. It’s a wonderful role that any actor would have jumped at the chance of playing and Roger Moore makes it his own. Not for one second do you doubt that he is not the cat-loving misogynist genius you see on the screen. Why on earth he didn’t abandon Bond right there and then and make more films like this is beyond me.

North Sea Hijack original poster

Anthony Perkins is excellent as the villain of the film, the increasingly unstable and paranoid Kramer, who along with a young Michael Parks (years before he became a regular for Quentin Tarantino) and four others hijack a Norwegian cargo freighter called Esther and has it and the two oil rigs, Ruth and Jennifer, it services fitted with booby trapped bombs and demand a ransom of 25 million dollars. Esther, Ruth and Jennifer was the title of Jack Davies’ original novel, from which he adapted the screenplay. Unwilling to negotiate with terrorists the British government calls in ffolkes and his team who specialise in hostage rescues and anti-terrorism intervention. He’s assisted by Admiral Brinsden, played by the great James Mason, who initially distrusts ffolkes but admires his intelligence in knowing how the hijackers think as the film progresses. Jack Watson plays Olafsen, the Norwegian captain of Esther and David Hedison is King, the man in charge of Jennifer.

Most of the action takes place at sea and the tension builds steadily to a terrific, exciting climax, while retaining a strong sense of humour. The scenes with Roger Moore and James Mason are particularly funny, as is ffolkes’s attitude towards King’s secretary, Sarah and her reactions to his blatant misogyny.

The Wild Geese and North Sea Hijack are my two favourite action movies of the 1970s and they still hold up exceedingly well today, much more, in fact, than many films of that genre of the past thirty years. So, when you’re at a loose end on a wet winter Sunday afternoon at the offal factory, you’re fridge is stocked up with beer and you have a plentiful supply of ciggies, why not slam these two movies into your DVD player and watch them back-to-back and see for yourself that they really don’t make them like this anymore.