Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy  is one of those films that comes along every few years and makes you question the majority of films you watch.

To sit through two hours of this highly detailed, intelligent and rewarding thriller only serves to highlight the dumbing down of 95% of the films out there. You won’t find any simple exposition monologues to get you through the narrative, but if you are watching carefully, you’ll find it’s not nearly as complicated as people have made out. It simply asks you to pay attention, which is a refreshing change from Ten-Things-That-Will-Make-You-Lose-A-Guy- If-He’s-Not-That- In-To-You.

You won’t get a Bourne car chase or any romantic trysts (though some may be implied) but you’ll get a leather briefcase full of intense drama and the complicated machinations of a host of fascinating characters, which leads you inexorably to an ending you might know is coming, but will keep you on the edge of your seat regardless. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s without doubt the best le Carre adaptation to date and in terms of directorial skill, Tomas Alfredson has even surpassed his incredible work on Let The Right One In.

Tinker is the story of 1970’s spymasters- all paranoid, all uncertain; all convinced there is a mole within their tight-knit group of Oxbridge educated paunches. John Hurt, who plays Control, the head of this group of spies, is convinced there is a mole in his ranks, and so sets in motion a series of events that lead to increased paranoia, double crossing, doubt, violence, and, ultimately, revelation. And while this is an ensemble cast, it’s success rests on the shoulders of our national treasure, Gary Oldman, who plays George Smiley, Control’s right hand man. It is his quiet intelligence which draws you in to the film. With a movement of his eyes or a touch of his glasses, he suggests so much that he almost needn’t talk at all. But when he does, you know it will be authoritative and insightful and will spur the plot forward. Smiley, with his right hand man, Guillam (an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch) sets out to get to the bottom of the rumours and determine if there really is a mole in ‘The Circus.’

Tomas Alfredson was the perfect choice of director for this film. His cool and fluid camera work fits perfectly with the gritty, beige 1970’s look, with delicate use of close up, intelligent cut-aways and some genius touches that keep some important figures faceless and enigmatic as the film progresses. One speech to camera by Oldman is Oscar worthy, as he recounts his meeting with his nemesis, Karla, (his Russian counterpart) by re-enacting the conversation as though Karla were seated opposite him. It’s an acting masterclass. But it’s a performance you only realise is genius once the film has finished – there are no Christian Bale histrionics scenery chewing here. This is an actor at the very top of his game. The cast of supporting spies is uniformly excellent, each bringing their own shifting eyes and hidden agendas to the roles (Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds).  But Oldman still steals the show. His portrayal of a man beleaguered, tired and lonely, yet with a razor sharp intellect and gentle demeanour is one of the year’s best. It is impossible to tear your eyes from him when he is on screen, as you find yourself looking for a flick of the eyebrow or a twitch that might give away what he is thinking.

It’s riveting, it’s thrilling, its hypnotic. It’s brilliant. You might not get a car chase; you’ll find much of the action comes from a group of middle aged men talking to each other, but your adrenaline levels will be high as any blockbuster.

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Sanctum

This film is the story of a caving expedition that went to explore uncharted underground caves and, as you might expect, falls foul of the elements. It’s presented by James Cameron, so  expectation was high that this could have been The Abyss 2. But alas, it is more shoddy TV dramatisation than effective film.

If you like your films wet and panicky, then this is for you. For me, it was the film equivalent of being stuck in a big black bin liner and having it filled with water. You can see very little, you care very little, and when you do, it is only in the hope that you will glimpse something other than darkness.

Much like any standard slasher film, you know who’s going to die and in what order.  But the problem is, you really don’t care. And the script is so bad it was probably written in the dark. The effects (the water) are impressive in places, but mostly it just feels like a bad set, which is ironic considering a lot of it was shot on location. But it isn’t a slasher film, more’s the pity. It’s a true story (groan), which is rarely as exciting as fiction.

I’ve got a lot of time for Richard Roxburgh. He’s a great actor, and he does what he can with the meagre character he is given, but everyone else, including Ioan Grufford, is bland, bland, bland.

It’s exhausting, frustrating viewing. Maybe James Cameron was riding such a high after Avatar he felt he could take a weird risk and put his name to this one (executive producer credit only) but it’s not worthy of his name. Have a bath, then watch The Abyss if you want a proper underwater film. Or maybe Big Blue. Or Waterworld, even. Just not this.

Here’s the trailer:

Limitless

For a film about increased intelligence, it’s ironic that Limitless does nothing to help yours while you watch it. However, you don’t always (or if you’re me, very rarely) go to the cinema to be made cleverer-er, so why don’t you just sit back and enjoy Limitless for what it is – a fast, fun, dream fulfilment that whips you along, get faster still, dips in to some fun ‘what if’s’ (though not all are explored as well as they could have been)  and cements Bradley Cooper as a great leading man.

The plot follows a lowly, down on his luck writer who is struggling to string a sentence together, struggling to succeed in life. In a roundabout way, he is offered the chance to take a drug which allows every single one of his faltering synapses to trigger, allowing him full use of his brain. And yup, you’ve guessed it, he become a frickin’ genius.

The palette of the film changes, he becomes smarter dressed, he climbs the ladder of the corporate banking world, he sees equations everywhere. He remembers everything he ever did….Then he starts to have black outs, begins  to rely on the drug to do anything.  as you’d expect, with great power comes great comeuppance. He gets embroiled with some particularly dodgy people and the film tracks his rise, panic and realisation that all is not as it seems with visual flair and a good dose of fun and tension.

With such a canvas to play with, he doesn’t do quite as much as I’d like. There are some very satisfying moments though.  he writes a novel  in a night, talks or remembers people in to the sack, but if he can remember everything he ever did, where’s his flashback to childbirth? And would that suddenly destroy his libido? I jest, but more detail of his mental state would have been interesting.

But, as I said earlier:  don’t think, just watch. This is great fun. Yes, there may be some major plot holes (murders are simply forgotten.) Yes, Abbie Cornish does nothing in this film. Yes, De Niro is totally under used and doesn’t have much of an arc. And yes, it is loopy escapist fun. But it’s a great ride.

And if you’re not convinced, watch this clip of the excellent effects in the film that brilliantly represents his drug addled brain:

Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman

It is 1888 and Queen Victoria has remarried, taking as her new consort the Wallachian Prince infamously known as Count Dracula. His polluted bloodline spreads through London as its citizens increasingly choose to be vampires.

In the grim backstreets of Whitechapel, a killer known as ‘Silver Knife’ is cutting down vampire girls. The eternally young Genevieve Dieudonne and Charles Beauregard of the Diogenes Club are drawn together as they both hunt the sadistic killer, bringing them ever closer to England’s most bloodthirsty ruler yet.

Kim Newman is an Empire Magazine hero, single handedly guarding the dungeon at Empire HQ and watching those straight to DVD films, separating the wheat (not much) from the chaff (lots).

He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of horror, having written books, both factual and fictional, as well as radio plays, even directing a film. He’s a jack of all, and annoyingly, a master too. So it is no surprise that his novel, Anno Dracula is also, well, masterful.

The book was actually written in 1992, so the re-release only highlights how far ahead of the curve Newman was. Think of the films that have appeared in the interim;  Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Interview with the Vampire;  the Blades, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; Van Helsing; Twilight; Daybreakers… Some good, some bad, but all feel as though they could have been directly influenced by Newman’s amazingly realised vampire novel.

The year is 1888. The Prince of Darkness, Dracula has married Queen Victoria and now vampires and humans live alongside each other, tussling for power, in a violent, foggy, Victorian London. Our protagonist, Charles Beauregard is a member of the Diogenes Club, a cabal of the utmost secrecy, for which he is a spy. Charles has been tasked with hunting down the Silver Blade

Throw in to this story a list of iconic characters, from John Merrick, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Jekyll, Dr Moreau, Bram Stoker and Jack the Ripper, to name just a few. This novel is a melting pot of cleverly intermingling characters- some from history, some from fiction, all brought to vivid life by Newman’s writing.

You don’t have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of vampire lore to enjoy this book.  It pulls you along with the force of the narrative; it’s thrilling. I can only hope the re-issue has happened because it has finally got the green light in Hollywood. This is insistently filmic and seeing it on the screen is a tantalising prospect.

As for the book, it’s a political-horror-vampire-action-period-thriller and you should read it. Not because vampires have become fashionable, but because this is a bloody good read.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Take a young British Director, Rupert Wyatt, fresh from a great debut (The Escapist); add one ailing franchise in need of a reboot; sprinkle a cutting edge effects team and a specialist, expert actor; wait 2 years; and then… Bang! One of the best films of the summer is born, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

But it hasn’t been a Bang really. This film has had something of the Bourne Effect. Word of mouth has spread, and fast. And while Fox surely hoped for good things at the box office, I’m sure they were pleasantly surprised that it made $20 million more than was expected, suggesting this sleeper hit is going to be one of the most profitable of the summer. (In the first six days it has already covered its production costs; have a look on Box Office Mojo for more details)

While comic books and superheroes have dominated multiplexes, what is clear from Rise’s growing box office is that it is an antidote to the Marvel/ DC saturation; to the ill conceived, bloated budgets that have led to so much disappointment this season. Because, while this film harks back to the original Planet of the Apes films in so many ways (some lines are used verbatim, albeit in different contexts) this is an original story, and one which is tense, action-packed and gripping from the opening scene.

One of the most memorable shots in Rise of the Planet of the Apes sees a massive troop of Chimpanzees swinging through trees, scattering leaves as they push forward towards their goal, the forest. Leaves fall, landing on the residents of San Francisco suburbia, who look up in awe at the huge line of apes swinging past them. The juxtaposition of the cosy, familiar human residents with these wild, animal interlopers allows the viewer to imagine, if just for a moment, how frightening and surreal it could be.  It is this sensitivity that ensures the film’s success.

It begins in the jungle, with human hunters capturing a chimpanzee and shipping the ape back to America. There, a doctor, Will Rodman (James Franco), uses the ape to test a possible cure for Alzheimer’s, driven by his father’s affliction of the degenerative disease. The drug increases brain activity and is set for human trials, but, after an accident closes the research lab, Franco find himself looking after a baby monkey, the offspring of his genetically engineered  experiment.

It is at this point we meet the real star of the film. Andy Serkis is probably going to be overlooked for an Oscar nomination, (he is not even mentioned in the main cast on IMDB!) but he has done an incredible job creating the character of Caesar- the ape Franco adopts and brings in to his family. It quickly becomes clear that Caesar is one clever primate, with his IQ increasing at a daily rate.  But this intelligence also causes him to question his treatment and the treatment of his fellow apes, eventually leading to The Rise.

Caesar is treated like a pet by Franco, and though Franco is by no means a cruel or neglectful character, he is misguided, making it easy to sympathise with Caesar as he becomes more aware, more angry. Aware that he is the product of an experiment,  that he is not human. Serkis communicates so much emotion through movements and gestures, and WETA have done what is quite possibly the best CGI I have ever seen, making Caesar and the rest of the apes, for the most part, totally convincing.

Caesar’s home life is edged with tension. It is inevitable that his intelligence and restlessness will lead to trouble, and when it does, he is sent to a secure pen, where he is locked away with other apes. It is here the film focuses on Caesar’s incredible journey from outsider to leader of his fellow apes, spurred on by the cruel handling from Tom Felton, and Brian Cox as the creepy pen owner.

There were moment when the CGI was a little flat, specifically when Caesar is a baby, but these are minor incidents. Overall it is breathtakingly good. The main issue is not the effects, but  getting used to watching apes acting with such human behaviour. But as soon as you get used to it, you are completely immersed.

There were also some problems with characterisation. The relationship between Caesar and Franco’s Will Rodman is understandable- they are close, they have a quasi- father/son relationship- but this needed more attention. It wasn’t quite enough to see a montage of Caesar growing up. I wanted to see them interact, and not just when the plot hinged on it.  Franco does surprisingly well. (I say surprisingly – I recently watched Your Highness) His natural charm gets you over a lot of the dubious things his character does, and he convinces as the doctor driven by love.

Freida Pinto is pretty much a pointless character- though incredibly pretty- and does little except tell Franco what he already knows, so the blatant signposting, such as:  ‘it’s healthy to fear chimpanzees’ and  he’s going to get bigger. What will you do then?’ are moot.

Tom Felton essentially recreates Draco Malfoy, but with a US twang. This pivotal role could have been far more sinister, and he does an okay job, but much of the fault for this can be laid at the feet of the screenwriters, who have not fleshed out the minor characters enough. Although Brian Cox  manages to exude creepiness with every sly smile, he is under-used.

So yes, it has its faults. The storyline may be relatively simple and the script is not always as good as the film deserves, but these are minor issues when compared to the overall success of the film. The last 40 minutes is more exciting and full of more Blockbuster Bangs than any other film I have seen this summer, probably this year.

In a summer where mediocrity has been the trend, it is great to finally watch a film that takes some risks, and strikes out to be different.  Bring on the sequel!

Top Twenty Horror Films

It took a while, but I think this is the list. Top lists are tricky, but my criteria is pretty simple: it has to be a classic, it has to enjoy repeated viewings and it has to be bloody scary (obviously.)

Alien didn’t cut it for me, because I never found it that scary (sorry), but at the same time, I’ve not included A Serbian Film or Martyrs because they do not hold up to repeated viewing (because I couldn’t stomach it), nor are they classics. I also wanted to include Jaws but given the blockbuster feel of that one, I couldn’t bring myself top, despite it scaring the crap out of me. You see, if I’d pulled at that thread, it would have had to include Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Jungle Book (I was always scared of Shere Khan) So, this is a first iteration. I’m sure i’ll add/remove as I think more about it but what do you think? Have I missed something obvious? Quite possibly….

The Shining

Don’t Look Now

Let The Right One In

The Exorcist

Evil Dead II

The Fly

The Devil’s Backbone

The Thing

Carrie

Near Dark

The Company of Wolves

The Addiction

The Mothman Prophecies

The Frighteners

The Hitcher

Cube

Cronos

Scanners

Silence of the lambs

An American Werewolf in London