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

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.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

I first came across Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy through Arthur Hopcraft’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s labyrinthine Cold War thriller in 1979 when the BBC aired the seven-part mini-series directed by John Irvin and starring the impeccable Alec Guinness as the weary, forcibly retired and emotionally detached spymaster George Smiley. At the time it was an unprecedented coup for the BBC to secure the services of such a huge star as Alec Guinness – television was still seen as the cinema’s poor relation back then – and his casting was probably the initial reason why so many viewers tuned in to watch it. But George Smiley was no James Bond – there were no gadgets, no fast cars, no exotic locations, no beautiful women and no action. Instead, this was a world of jaded, disillusioned spies who inhabited dreary offices in a dreary building, where corruption, betrayal and arbitrary dismissal infested its beige corridors.

Alec Guinness may have been the primary reason why viewers tuned in, but it was the story – George Smiley’s secret hunt for a mole (double agent) at the very heart of ‘the Circus’ (the codename for the British secret service) – that kept them watching week after week. It was about the flow of information that leads Smiley inexorably towards his quarry – the viewer only found out something when Smiley found out, and such was Le Carré’s brilliantly devilish plotting (and Arthur Hopcraft’s elegant adaptation) that – even with only four suspects – there was no way on earth the viewer would be able to discover who the mole was until it was revealed in the final episode. But the hunt for the mole was not the only subject of this superb production – it also dealt with misguided loyalty, loneliness and the devastating and destructive effect on the lives of those who were involved in the dirty business of spying on others when events spiralled out of control.

Boasting a terrific supporting cast – including Bernard Hepton, Hywel Bennett, Sian Phillips, Patrick Stewart, Beryl Reid and the marvellous Ian Richardson (who was so memorable as the devious Sir Francis Urquhart in the BBCs House of Cards a few years later) – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was nominated for several Emmy Awards and BAFTAs. Tony Pierce-Roberts won for his atmospheric camerawork and Alec Guinness won Best Actor.

Alec Guinness had been a stalwart of British films for years appearing in such classics as Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, Our Man in Havana, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia to name but a few. He was actually too old for the part of Smiley – he was much younger in the book – but such was his commanding performance that when reading the subsequent sequels– The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People – in what is now known as the Karla Trilogy, I found it nigh on impossible to separate Guinness from Smiley. He created an indelible impression and Smiley is perhaps now his most fondly remembered role (along with Obi-Wan Kenobi, of course), and so when it was announced that a film version of the book was being made I naturally thought that no one would be able to follow in his footsteps. They were big shoes to fill and any actor who was brave enough to tackle the role would have the spectre of Alec Guinness hanging over him throughout the production.

Fortunately the man who took on the role was Gary Oldman, an actor of consummate skill who can bury himself into any role and make it believable. He is one of the best British actors of his generation and you only have to watch him in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula or Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy to see how his mere presence dominates the screen. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy can now be added to the list of films where he absolutely nailed the character he was playing.

Flawlessly directed by Tomas Alfredson, who gave us the excellent Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In in 2008 (remade surprisingly well by Matt Reeves two years later for the American market as Let Me In, presumably because Hollywood seems to think that its audiences are incapable of watching images and reading words at the same time), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a moody, atmospheric slow-burner of spy film. It is definitely not for lovers of high-octane thrillers that feature guns, car chases, rapid cutting and CGI enhanced action sequences that defy the laws of physics. Like its highly revered seven-hour predecessor, this intricately structured adaptation by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan is intelligent, grown-up drama that demands your complete and undivided attention. There’s no nipping out for a crafty fag or having a quick snog with your loved one on the couch during this one – miss just a few seconds of it and you’ll end up confused, disoriented and totally lost.

The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is exquisite, perfectly capturing the smoke-filled, sepia-toned world of the 1970s. Van Hoytema also provided the startling cinematography for Christopher Nolan’s outstanding science-fiction epic Interstellar. And if that wasn’t enough, Alfredson assembled a dream cast of British acting talent – alongside Gary Oldman there’s Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Simon McBurney, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Mark Strong and Tom Hardy as well as Swedish actor David Dencik.

The critics loved this film and for once I agreed with them, but many people with short attention spans and who had been brought up on high-budget films that were low on plot and character development in which fight scenes or explosions or gunplay occurred every two minutes felt that the trailer had misled them into thinking it was an action thriller and complained that it was boring, confusing and that nothing happened in it. Well, let me tell you, this film is not boring or confusing and there is always something happening in it. All you have to do is pay attention.

I’ve seen this film many times now and with each subsequent viewing it gets better and better because I pick up subtleties in the screenplay that I had missed on previous screenings. There’s a scene early on where Smiley is in the back seat of a car being driven to a meeting with the Undersecretary of State. There’s a fly in the car. The driver and front seat passenger are wildly flailing their arms as it buzzes around them, but when it flies into the back of the car Smiley quietly and calmly winds the window down and lets it out. The scene lasts for maybe twenty seconds but it tells you, without a single word of exposition being spoken, everything you need to know about how Smiley’s logical brain works – he’s a man who thinks things through before acting and he misses nothing

The supporting cast are uniformly excellent, especially Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s right hand man, Peter Guillam, Tom Hardy as the betrayed spy Ricky Tarr, Toby Jones as the odious Percy Allaline and Roger Lloyd-Pack (in his final film performance) in the small but effective role as the ex-Special Branch man Mendel.

But this is Gary Oldman’s film all the way and he’s every bit as good as Alec Guinness was and – dare I say it – I think this film is better than the TV series. I know that may sound like blasphemy to some but, hey, get over it.