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

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.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

The Conjuring (2013) & The Conjuring 2 (2016)

Let me begin by saying that I don’t believe in ghosts or haunted houses. I also don’t believe in vampires, werewolves, zombies, leprechauns, fairies, pixies, trolls, angels, demons, Satan or God. Neither do I believe aliens have ever visited our planet, no matter what Eric Van Daniken or Tom Cruise says. That doesn’t stop me, however, from enjoying films about ghosts, haunted houses, vampires, werewolves, zombies, leprechauns, fairies, pixies, trolls, angels and demons.

Ever since I was a kid, watching those old Universal monster movies starring Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr, Claude Rains and the great Boris Karloff on our old black-and-white tube-driven monster of a telly, I have been fascinated by horror films. My formative years were spent in the 1960s and 70s, going to the cinema to see Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in the marvellously Gothic Hammer Horrors. As much as I enjoyed (and still do enjoy) these films, they did introduce one thing to horror movies that was not present in those earlier Universal efforts – lots of blood and gore. And as the years went on that blood and gore came gushing out of virtually every horror film that was released until it reached its zenith in the Saw and Hostel franchises that revelled in sickening scenes of torture and sadism. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a bit of blood and gore every now and again – zombie films wouldn’t seem right without those two essential elements – but a horror film to me is not about blood and gore but suspense, dread and shock. For years our screens have been filled with gorier and gorier films made by directors who seemed to have forgotten the basic rule of a really good horror movie – and that is: it’s not what you see that frightens you, it’s what you don’t see. Robert Wise knew this when he made The Haunting back in 1961 and James Wan knew this when he made The Conjuring in 2013.
Poster for The Conjuring

The Conjuring is, for me at least, a perfect horror film. It’s what going to see a horror film is all about – one hour and forty minutes of sustained fear and dread, punctuated by a few moments of humour, that is utterly unnerving and terrifying, despite the fact that I don’t believe in ghosts, haunted houses or demons. It starts as it means to go on and hardly lets up for a second and with hardly a drop of blood spilled. It’s supposedly a true story based on real-life ‘demonologists’ Ed and Lorraine Warren’s investigation into the Perron family’s haunted farmhouse in 1971. As these are the same people who investigated the Amityville Horror, now known to be an elaborate and proven hoax, the ‘true story’ declaration has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Saying that, it doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a superior and stylish horror film, with beautiful cinematography that uses unsettling, prowling camerawork to perfectly time moments of genuinely scary shocks. The scene where the mother, blindfolded and playing a game of ‘Clap-Clap’ with her daughter is unbelievably frightening. It also has two terrific central performances from Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson (one of my favourite actors at the moment, who was superb in the second season of Fargo and the fantastic western/horror Bone Tomahawk) as Lorraine and Ed Warren.

I watched this for the first time the other day with my son, who had seen it before and who took great delight in watching me jump out of my skin in fright at scenes which he knew were coming. He asked me to watch it with him because he wanted me to accompany him to the cinema to see The Conjuring 2, based on the ‘true story’ of the Enfield Haunting in 1977.

I was expecting great things from this sequel as it was produced, directed, photographed and written by the same team that brought us its predecessor. But, like most sequels, I was to be severely disappointed. Apart from the loving recreation of 70s England and its shoddy, run-down council estates, this effort didn’t hold a candle to the original. Starting with the Warren’s investigation into the Amityville Horror (a proven hoax, remember) this ‘true story’ didn’t possess anywhere near the sustained terror that the original Conjuring film delivered – in fact I was bored some of the time. It was slow and disjointed and relied too much on its exposition of religious mumbo-jumbo and (as Professor Richard Dawkins describes it) superstitious nonsense. The Warrens travel to England to assist Maurice Grosse (played by the marvellous character actor Simon McBurney) in his investigation into the paranormal activities occurring at the Enfield house. In the course of their investigation they discover that the house is not haunted at all but is the target of the very demon that was responsible for the Amityville Horror.

The two biggest faults of The Conjuring 2, though, was its reliance on CGI effects and the overtly manipulative way it tries to make you care for the Warrens, especially Ed. For example, there is one toe curling scene in which, in the absence of electricity to power the record player, Ed picks up a guitar and sings an Elvis number to make everyone feel better. It’s a blatant attempt to make you like him more because earlier in the film Lorraine had a premonition of his death. You were meant, at this point, to think ‘Ooh, I hope he doesn’t die’.

It didn’t work. I won’t tell you if he dies or not but the fact that he didn’t die until 2006 should give you some indication of the outcome.

In reality, the Warrens only spent one night in company of Peggy Hodgson and her four daughters in their Enfield council house and the ‘haunting’ was actually investigated by ‘paranormal experts’ Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair (the book This House is Haunted was Guy Playfair’s account of their investigation, which was adapted into the three-part mini series The Enfield Haunting with Timothy Spall as Maurice Grosse and Matthew McFadyen as Guy Playfair in 2015). No demons were involved – in fact the Enfield haunting was supposedly the work of a poltergeist (or ‘noisy spirit’), which is believed to be the manifested physical energy from a living person (usually a teenage girl) and therefore, technically, not a ghost at all, which is fair enough, as there is no such thing as ghosts. If there was we would be overwhelmed by them – they would be all around us – and why has no one ever seen a ghost wearing an Eric Clapton is God T-shirt? 

Think about it.

No ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies, leprechauns, fairies, pixies, trolls, angels, aliens, poltergeists or demons were harmed in the writing of this review.