JFK

On November 22nd, 1963, President John F Kennedy was killed, supposedly by lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, who himself was killed by a man named Jack Ruby before the case could go to trial. Despite several other theories, the case was dropped for three years, until Jim Garrison, the District Attorney of New Orleans, picked it up again after noticing some discrepancies within the Warren Report, written to document the details of the assassination. Garrison and his team re-launch the investigation, certain that there is more to it than simply one man and his gun.
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Bram Stoker’s Dracula

In London, real estate agent Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent to Transylvania to handle the transactions of Count Dracula (Gary Oldman), leaving behind his young fiancée Mina (Winona Ryder). Jonathan gets held up at the Count’s castle, and Mina longs for the man she loves, whilst her friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) picks between three suitors, the gallant Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), the dashing American Quincey P. Morris (Billy Campbell) and the sweet-but-awkward Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant). Oh, and Dracula is a vampire.
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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Seeing as the cover of the next edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die has been announced (the book is due to be released next month), I thought it’d be a good time to review the film on said cover, as it’s a certainty to become a member of the hallowed list in the imminent future. So, without further ado, I present Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a film that I was very surprised to see on the cover, as personally I don’t think I’d have included it in the book at all, giving the cover space instead to probably The Artist, even if the Tinker Tailor poster is better.


It’s only fitting that such a muddled up film should have a relatively incoherent review, so I’m going to jump in randomly and start with the cast. It’s pretty goddamn incredible that such a stellar cast, comprising of some of the best British actors from varying generations working today, could be assembled for one film. You’ve got the likes of John Hurt amongst the more senior players, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Ciarin Hinds and Kathy Burke as the seasoned actors as well as up-and-comers like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, not to mention bit roles for Stephen Graham, Roger Lloyd-Pack and Christian McKay. And, of course, Gary Oldman. It just goes to show the strength of the source material that such a great cast, and director Tomas Alfredson, straight from his similarly bravura Let The Right One In, would flock to it. Even Colin Firth was willing to take what is essentially a tangential role after just having won a Best Acting Oscar for The King’s Speech.

It takes a brilliant actor to not only attempt to replace the likes of Alec Guinness, James Mason and Dunholm Elliot – all of whom have played the character of George Smiley before – but to in fact outshine them as arguably the definitive screen version of Smiley. Oldman is magnificent in a pared down, stripped back performance almost entirely devoid of movement, yet the cogs behind his eyes are just about audibly whirring away as he sits and watched, drinking everything in and analysing the situation. Smiley rarely utters a word or makes an extraneous movement – his first utterance is a good 16 minutes in, after having appeared in several scenes already. He shines even beneath the massive glasses and dour overcoat that would envelop a lesser actor.

Remarkably, Tinker Tailor marks Oldman’s first ever Oscar nomination, for Best Actor, naturally, which he justifiably lost to Jean Dujardin for the aforementioned The Artist, but I believe Oldman came a close second. I myself was shocked to find he’s never even be nominated, but when you look back through his body of work there aren’t many roles that you could argue he should have been awarded for. Perhaps Sid and Nancy, but that wasn’t terribly well received I think, and doesn’t really fit in with the kinds of films that the Oscar board tend to take notice of, and in everything else he’s either been the bad guy – rarely awarded by the academy (at least until The Dark Knight) – or performs well in a small role, lost amongst an ensemble cast of similar abilities to himself – see True Romance, Harry Potter and Batman. You’ve also got to take into account some of the more questionable roles in his career – playing a dwarf in Tiptoes anyone? So it’s nice to think that, with so many outlandish, extravagant roles under his belt – The Fifth Element, Leon – it is Oldman’s most quiet, restrained and subdued performance that earned him the Oscar nod.

 I’m not even going to try and explain the plot of this film as, after having watched it and read John Le Carre’s book upon which it is rigidly based I could still only pin point the major issues. Basically, Smiley has been brought back into The Circus – the nickname for the British Intelligence – to try and find a mole from within a small group of higher ups – a group that used to contain him. His boss is/was John Hurt’s Control, and the suspects are the shifty Toby Estergase (David Dencik, a Swedish actor I’ve not come across before, but who played different roles in the two versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and is suitably engaging here), the suave, womanising Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), “poison dwarf” head honcho Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and his right-hand man Roy Bland (Ciarin Hinds). We are also shown, in parallel, the story of field agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong, in a rare and disorientating non-bad-guy role), whose shooting on assignment may have caused the suspicion back at headquarters. Assisting Smiley is Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), a trustworthy up-and-comer with a way with the ladies, and Tom Hardy plays Ricki Tarr, the unreliable young firebrand whom Smiley introduced to the industry, and who may hold the key to the mystery.

Everyone is perfectly cast, and there isn’t a weak link amongst them. Similarly, the mood of the film is spot-on, and there is never so much as a red or a green on screen at any point, everything is in varying shades of grey, brown and taupe, from the sky to the clothes, the walls to the cars. The entire thing may as well have been shot in sepia, as it’s apparently been set in a time before colour was invented. The many conversations throughout mostly take places in dusty, dingy rooms yellowing with tobacco. It’s unusual for a film that some of the flashback sequences are actually more vibrant and brightly lit than those set in the film’s present, which could be read as an indication that perhaps those sunnier days were better for everyone involved, with less conspiracies and deception. Or at least, less in the current direction.

So, why did I have such a problem with this film? Well, mainly it’s because it’s so damn confusing. I understand that that’s entirely the point, and that some elements of the plot – when which bits are set in relation to others – are only roughly clarified towards the end to aide this sense of confuddlement, but even having read the book I still couldn’t tell what everyone was doing and why. This could also be because I didn’t really care. None of the characters are particularly likable, with the possible exception of Guillam and Prideaux at times, and even knowing who the final reveals didn’t help me very much. That’s something to praise, I suppose, that knowing the ending doesn’t lessen my appreciation for the film, but that’s a little bit of damning with faint praise if you ask me.

The most fun thing I found about this film is playing ‘Spot the Harry Potter Actor’ during it (Can anyone beat my six?). Though the performances are all impeccable and the atmosphere is both what was aimed for and what it should be, I cannot recommend this film on the basis that I didn’t enjoy it, and I’m still not sure what it was about – yet I don’t really mind.

Choose life 8/10

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2

I’m a strange breed of muggle. I’ve seen all the Harry Potter films, most in the cinema. I’ve read all the books. Hell, I own them. Double hell, I was first in line queueing up outside Morrison’s on the morning book 7 was released. But I wouldn’t call myself a Harry Potter fan. So why have I kept with it? I read the first book in school, and found the wizarding world to be quite wonderful, a dream of a place to escape to. Granted, by the time the much darker later books came along I became much happier that this world of dictatorial terrorists with almighty magical powers didn’t actually exist (or so I’m led to believe) but back then it was nothing short of fun, and the fact that I was of a similar age to the protagonist when the books were released made it all the more so.
The books were perfect for film adaptations, and the stylistic choices throughout the series have been close to faultless. Most of the negative aspects, other than the questionable acting abilities of the children early on in the franchise, can be blamed on the books being too labyrinthine to be condensed down into a 150-minute movie, and there are arguments to make as to whether each book would have been better off as a TV series, but it’s doubtful they’d have received such a hefty budget or impressive cast, or made nearly as much money.
Of the films, part 3, Prisoner of Azkaban, is widely regarded as the best, with director Alfonso Cuaron unleashing the franchise’s dark potential, redirecting away from Chris Columbus’ more child-friendly first parts, but personally I prefer part 4, Goblet of Fire, because it’s easily the most fun and structured, following the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and it has dragons in it, which are awesome. Parts 5 and 6 are, in my opinion, the weakest, with my reasoning being that I can barely remember anything that happens in them other than some character deaths and casting decisions, but the final films really kick things into gear.
Many have questioned the decision to split the final book into two halves, citing financial gain as being the true reason, but having seen the results I approve of the choice. Whilst the earlier books could stand to lose some of the lesser plot points without the plot suffering, the amount of closure given in the finale could not have been achieved with a similar level of editing. Whilst the total runtime for the final two films could have been a little shorter than the 4½ hours achieved here, getting it down to a length the core Potter audience would be willing to sit through without complaining would have resulted in almost catastrophic levels of cutting.
The most impressive aspect of the film franchise has always been the cast. Whilst the three leads, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, were never expected to be incredible actors (and, for the most part, lived up to this promise) the film studios ensured this wouldn’t be a problem by surrounding their stars with almost every British actor working today, with more added every film. To list them all would be senseless, but the fact that, Richard Harris’ untimely demise notwithstanding, every actor returned to their roles for every subsequent film shows that the films must have been great to work on too.The Deathly Hallows alone saw the inclusion of Bill Nighy, David O’Hara, Rhys Ifans, Ciarin Hinds and Nick Moran into a cast already including the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs and Maggie Smith, and the fact that so many notable actors returned for such minuscule roles is incredible. Jim Broadbent, John Hurt and Emma Thompson are barely on screen, but the fact is they are.
Part 7 is the only one of all eight films not to feature Hogwarts, the wizarding school where our young heroes are taught, and therefore doesn’t feel like part of the Potter pantheon. Freed from the structure of lessons, Quidditch matches and Harry being picked on by Slytherin, the film feels a little meandering, as Harry, Ron and Hermione scour the country looking for a series of magical Maguffins, horcruxes, that for one reason or another must be destroyed to help bring down the evil Lord Voldemort. The film opens strongly, with Harry’s escape from his home assisted by his wizarding friends transformed to be replicas of him, but it’s not until a later infiltration of the Ministry of Magic that any more excitement is had. There’s an awful lot of tension and relationship issues, exacerbated by a locket that builds negative feelings in whoever wears it (so… put it in a bag rather than wear it?) and a particularly cringeworthy scene wear Harry attempts to alleviate some tension by dancing with Hermione in a tent, but it feels empty without the action-balance provided by the second film. The brief animation, depicting the origins of the Deathly Hallows that grant the owner power over death, is easily the highlight of the series in total.
If watched as one long film, the two halves join together to form a perfectly balanced picture, with the final hour-long battle a rewarding epic culmination after a mammoth build-up, so if watching make sure to set aside the best part of an afternoon, however just watching part 8 alone is also acceptable. The infiltration of Bellatrix Lestrange’s Gringott’s vault, with Helena Bonham Carter gleefully impersonating Emma Watson, is tremendous fun (there’s another dragon!) and now they’ve got all the teenage angst and worrying out of the way it’s time for good and evil to get scrapping. The finale is equal parts devastating and spellbinding, as the regular cast is treated with a sporadic survival rate, literally anyone is up for the chop, up to and including Hogwarts itself, as various sets we’ve grown to feel at home in are burned to the ground. Some aspects of the battle feel crowbarred in – Mrs. Weasley’s showdown against Lestrange, Ron and Hermione’s inevitable kiss – but for the most part it’s a cinematic marvel that doesn’t disappoint.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1: Choose life: 6/10
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 : Choose film 7/10
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 & 2: Choose film 8/10

The Dark Knight

What can I say about the Dark Knight that a thousand others before me haven’t? Of all modern films, this seems to be the one pored over most closely and often, heralded as the saviour of the summer blockbuster, superhero movie and crime thriller, all rolled up in the tightest of scripts. So, to take a fresh perspective, I sought out some people who didn’t like the film (thank the lord for the Internet, it makes people who don’t like something so easy to find) and found myself furious after reading just one and a half 1/10 reviews on IMDb. The sheer level of nitpicking and miniscule plot-hole unravelling proves just how far people are willing to go to disagree with the masses and stand out from the crowd, even when the crowd is so undeniably correct.
Not that this is a perfect film. There are flaws, including the Joker’s plan being at times a tad too pre-emptive, some ominous camera angles and music cues hinting unsubtly a character’s true motives earlier than should have been done, and the bit with the cellphones, which is a bit silly, but is that really enough to warrant a 1-star rating? The fact that these reviewers (I won’t give them the satisfaction of names or links, only seek them out to feel the rage bubble inside you) fail to note even one positive point in a movie overflowing with brilliance negates any opinion they deem worthy of sharing. I personally find it impossible to find nothing good in a movie – The Adventures of Pluto Nash is an abomination unto film, yet Randy Quaid is a delight as Nash’s robotic assistant; Big Trouble in Little China is easily one of the worst films I’ve reviewed from the list so far, but it has imaginative (if insane) monsters and mythology, some dialogue that surpasses cheesy to being inspired, and features Kim Cattrall back when she was attractive. Therefore, with such damning reviews as these ‘people’ have offered, they are in fact unwittingly proving how good a film it is.
Leaping from the tantalising springboard ending of BatmanBegins – Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon showing Batman a playing card left as the mark of a new criminal, calling himself The Joker, we dive headlong into a wonderfully executed bank heist, as six masked goons effortlessly separate mob money from the vaults it was stored in. Director Chris Nolan has made no secret that Heat, Michael Mann’s superb DeNiro/Pacino cat and mouse crime epic, was a huge influence on the Dark Knight, and it shows, from a William Fichtner cameo to a central meeting of the hero and villain, even mentioning a cup of coffee.
Nolan wisely improved upon some mild mis-steps made in Batman Begins here, replacing Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhall as love interest Rachel Dawes, giving Batman’s mask a cowl so he can turn his head, and giving Batman himself (Christian Bale, good but no Adam West) a little less screen time, allowing alter ego Bruce Wayne and his various accomplices and nemeses some breathing room. Aaron Eckhart is spot-on as Harvey Dent, Gotham’s shining hope against the mob, and Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine remain on hand to add a touch of old school class and grandeur as Wayne’s dependable CEO nad curmudgeonly butler/moral compass, but justifiably most of the praise has been directed at the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. A creation for the ages, his layered performance of a truly maniacal genius reveals more with each viewing, and it is unfortunate that the role showcased the true acting abilities of a man previously thought of merely as a rom-com heartthrob only after he had passed. Plus, it gave us all another Hallowe’en costume to use.
Unusually for Nolan, the film is actually quite funny. It’s not exactly laugh-a-minute (there’s certainly less than 152 jokes here), the script is still a lot more humorous than you might remember. There’s also absolutely no filler, with every strand being integral to the plot; a true achievement when you consider just how engaging the story is, even when new elements are being added right up until the last few scenes.
As always with Nolan’s films, there’s a couple of cinematography moments that I’d have tried differently (see Inception), most notably the scene where the Joker leaves a hospital, which could have looked truly tremendous had it been one unbroken shot, without needlessly cutting away to some pedestrians nearby, but this is a small matter that is more of a personal niggle than a criticism.
Anyway, for those wondering if they should watch the film again before the upcoming trilogy closer The Dark Knight Risesthis summer, the answer is a resounding yes. Even if you don’t intend to see part 3 (I assume you’re planning on gouging out your own eyeballs, just in case it isn’t any good, there’s no other reason not to see it) you should watch The Dark Knight again, just because it’s probably the best film to have been released in the last 5 years, if not more.
Choose film 9/10

Batman Begins

As the title suggests, this predominantly covers Batman’s origin story, from the death of his parents after he becomes scared at the theatre, through his training by Liam Neeson’s Ducard, his development of a crime-fighting persona and his confrontation with his former mentor in a city ridden with toxin-crazed criminals and madmen. This is arguably the most realistic, or at least vaguely plausible comic book movie ever made, with the only real superpowers on display being a gas that makes people insane and a ridiculously vast fortune to funs Bruce Wayne’s double lifestyle. Granted, the secret passage in Wayne Manor is operated by hitting a coded sequence of piano keys, but this can be forgiven, and is at least a variation from the classic sliding of a secret book on a shelf.
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Leon

After the murder of her uncaring parents and innocent four year old brother at the hands of a pill-popping, Beethoven loving Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman’s 12-year old Matilda is taken in by her stoic, lonesome ’cleaner’ (a hitman to you and I) Leon. Leon’s skills as a contract killer are evidently impressive, shown early on by his one-man takedown of a drug dealer and his crew, disappearing into the shadows like the breath of a ninja, yet his skills as a human being and fully functioning member of society are less so, eking out a solitary existence with his milk laden fridge and beloved yucca plant. The introduction of Matilda into his life changes everything, as she requests training to avenge her brother’s death, in exchange becoming Leon’s assistant and tutor in reading and writing. Director Luc Besson shows a style and directorial flair seen previously in Nikita (where Jean Reno’s character first briefly appeared) as more recently in the decidedly more Hollywood-ised the Fifth Element (again featuring an intense, cackling turn from Oldman in villainous form).
Choose film 6/10