Blind Spot: The Elephant Man

Whilst attending a carnival, well-to-do surgeon Mr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) sees John Merrick (John Hurt), a 21-year-old man born with such severe physical disfigurements that he is displayed as “The Elephant Man”. After Merrick receives another in a series of beatings from his “owner” Bytes (Freddie Jones), Treves takes Merrick into the hospital and cares for the man, slowly uncovering the person behind the appearance.
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Kate Winslet: Naturist

Kate Winslet, it seems, is more than just a disembodied pair of breasts that sporadically unveil themselves at inopportune moments in movies. Apparently there is a voice associated with those mammaries (and therefore, one assumes, a mouth, tongue, trachea and who knows how many other body parts too), and it is a voice that has become familiar to the public at large. It was only natural then that the lady in question would use said voice within films, as is the case here with two semi-documentary dramas that focus heavily on nature: The Fox And The Child and Pride. After all, it’s no secret that voice acting is a great deal easier than full-body acting, as there’s no hours of make-up, preparation of scenes and lighting or extravagant costumes to put on (or take off, as the case may be). Unfortunately, the appeal of an easy job can cause a lull in judgement in choosing said work, as is the case with both of these films. Continue reading

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

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Yep, the questionably necessary fourth Indiana Jones instalment is on the List. And if anyone has any problem with that (like me, for example) then the only place to point the finger of blame is at the public, as the List it appears on is the one voted for by Empire readers. Granted, the film came out in 2008, the year the poll was taken, so many readers who may have only ever seen 10 films would have been forced to put it in their top 10. This also explains the inclusion of Transformers and Juno on the same list, and it’s pretty much assured that if the poll were taken again, these films would be unlikely to retain their positions. But the important thing is that the film is on there, and I had to watch it.

When I first saw the film in the cinema, on the weekend it was released, I didn’t actually think it was that terrible. Hell, if anything I enjoyed it, and left the theatre happy and fulfilled. Granted, it was certainly no Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even The Last Crusade, but it was a damn sight more fun than The Temple of Doom. I was somewhat shocked to discover that these feelings were not necessarily shared by the rest of the world, but now, after a couple more viewings, I have realised my mistake.
For me, the film has four main problems, all of which I’m sure have been covered many times before, but not by me. Firstly, the movie seems to be completely devoid of a strong narrative path. It’s more like a bunch of scenes that the writers thought would look cool, all strung together without really flowing into one another. On their own, or within a more cohesive plot, some of them would work fine. Case in point: the opening, in which Indy (Harrison Ford) and his ally Mac (Ray Winstone) are taken to the warehouse at the end of Raiders in search of a sporadically magnetic alien skull, is in itself a pretty entertaining scene, and a great way to start off the film. The use of Indiana’s instantly recognisable profile (when he’s wearing the hat, anyway) is well implemented, and the eventual chase through the warehouse is frenetic and action-packed, even if Ford no longer looks like he’s quite as capable of offing army thugs as he used to be. After this scene, we go straight into the now infamous fridge-nuke catastrophe, a scene which has no place in any film, let alone directly after a really fun, if a little silly, opening action sequence. This problem occurs again later, when some pages from a low-budget 80s B-movie are accidentally stapled in, when out hero finds himself in quicksand, a genre staple that I’m fairly sure has been made illegal.

The second problem, and this is a big one, is Shia LaBoeuf. The man is a scourge to cinema. Every film he touches becomes a travesty. Seriously, look down the guy’s resume and you’ll find some of the worst reviewed films of the past few years: the Transformers sequels, Charlie’s Angels 2, Dumb and Dumberer. If he’s the sidekick or plays only a small part in the film, he’s the worst character or in the worst part (I, Robot, Constantine, Bobby) and yet, he still makes movies. In fact, he’s soon to appear in Lawless, in which I can only imagine Tom Hardy will overshadow him in every way possible as the two play brothers. Honestly, the film is going to put LaBeouf up against Gary Oldman! Though I sincerely hope that Shia’s performance in Lawless blows me away, insomuch as he wins an academy award for it, I highly doubt this will be the case, and it may even ruin that film, that I’m otherwise looking forward to, for me. In Crystal Skull, LaBeouf plays Mutt Williams. If you’re a fan of the Indy franchise, it should come as no surprise that (SPOILER) Mutt is Indy’s son, mainly because Indiana is famously named after his own father’s dog, and Mutt is of course another term for a canine. From his costume, it’s clear LaBeouf is foolishly attempting to emulate Marlon Brando from The Wild One, which he pulls off to absolutely no effect, and if anything it’s a reminder of just how terrible LaBeouf is. The fact that there were rumours suggesting this film would see the handing over of the reigns from Ford to LaBeouf to continue the saga still give me nightmares to this day. I’m almost tempted to announce Mutt as being more annoying than Short Round. Almost.

The Mutt/Indy connection brings me on to my third issue. Crystal Skull tries far too hard to be a member of the Indiana Jones family. I’ve got nothing against a sequel making subtle references to it’s predecessors, offering knowing nods and winks to fans, but here there is far too much time spent to this effect. Whilst Karen Allen, returning as Raiders’ love interest Marion Ravenwood, Mutt’s mother, is a nice touch and offers a believable romance with Indy that you are willing to at times root for, there were all too many moments and scenes that felt like the film-makers were just trying too hard to make it an Indy film. Unfortunately, they only succeeded in making it seem more like the parodies of the Indiana films that filled the gap during it’s 21-year hiatus. This felt far more like National Treasure 3 or The Mummy 4 than an Indy film.
Finally, there’s just too many characters and subplots fighting for screen time. Jim Broadbent filled in for the sadly departed Denholm Elliot as Indy’s fellow university staff member, and John Hurt was a nice inclusion as a crazy old former colleague, but both felt very sidelined, as did Ray Winstone, who should have been pretty integral to the plot. Sadly, they, and Cate Blanchett’s questionably accented Ukrainian skull-hunter were at times almost forgotten in favour of Jones’ relationships with Marion and Mutt.
There were ways that the film could have been fixed. Raiders and Crusade proved that Indy doesn’t need a sidekick, and Temple proved that he shouldn’t have one, so nixing Mutt is pretty much a given. At least 2 scenes should have been cut, as the film feels like it runs at half an hour longer than it’s two hour runtime. I’d suggest the fridge and the diner scene with Mutt. Keep Marion, but make her be in love with John Hurt’s Oxley or Winstone’s Mac, to give Indy a bit of rivalry, and change that goddamn ending. About five minutes before the end of the film, when I first saw it in cinemas I burst out with raucous laughter at how ridiculous the climax was, and this time around it felt even more ludicrous.All that being said, it’s not exactly a horrible film, there are some entertaining sequences – I really enjoyed the jungle-set car chase, up until Mutt starts swinging with the CGI monkeys for no reason whatsoever – and it’s always thrilling to see Harrison Ford wearing a fedora, even if its not the only thing looking a bit dusty these days. I always used to defend the film for being good, just not when compared to the rest of the franchise, but I now know that even if you take it on it’s own, it still really isn’t worth it.

Choose life 5/10

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

Alien

One of my favourite movie subgenres is the limited cast, limited locations films, where, for whatever reason, only a handful of characters are involved, and are confined to a small number, preferably one or two, of areas. This is best seen in 12 Angry Men, as previously discussed, where the principle cast are the 12 jurors on a case, and the principle sets are the jury room and its adjacent restroom. Similarly, Alien sees the seven crew members of the mining spaceship Nostromo largely confined to the ship and a planet it docks at in response to a distress signal. Things take a turn for the worse when, upon docking, the ship picks up an alien lifeform (later known as a Xenomorph), whose main ambition in life seems to be removing it from other creatures.
The film shows an interesting depiction of the future far removed from the more utopian worlds of more classic science fiction. Here, men seem to have retained dominance (shown by the exclusion of women from any decision making), and where class separation is still rife (the two engineers, Parker and Brett, are paid half as much as everyone else on board). The ship’s design is a far cry from the gleaming visuals of, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Nostromo is, after all, a mining craft, so the ship’s functional, mechanical nature is only to be expected, although the overly futuristic sleeping pods do jar with the rest of the ship.
Aside from the infamous ‘chestburster’ scene (of which you can now by lifesize plush toys!), I couldn’t remember most of the film, although in my memory it does tend to blend with the other films from the franchise, as my only previous viewing was in marathon format. That said, there is much that sticks in the mind now, from Hurt’s descent into the alien nest, littered with giant eggs covered in a mysterious fog, or Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) seeing off an 8 ft alien with molecular acid for blood and far too many sets of teeth dressed only in vest and knickers (Ripley’s wearing the knickers, not the alien).
Having seen many survival films, where the cast is slowly whittled down one by one until the final confrontation, I noticed that with Alien it is not immediately obvious who the main character, and therefore the final survivor, is. Most of the characters are given fairly equal screen time, characterisation and dialogue, so it is not until the numbers start to dwindle that it is clear Ripley is the heroine, as earlier in the film she seemed to be the more heartless, professional crewmember, condemning Hurt’s Kane to death by refusing him entry onto the ship without a proper scan. That being said, she does become stupid later on, stopping to put two suffering crewmembers out of their misery minutes before the entire ship, them included, will be blown up (I’ve never understood this, why do ships have self-destruct mechanisms? Were they expecting an alien lifeform to come aboard, and the only way to kill it would be to blow the whole ship up? If so, surely some other defence mechanisms could be implemented instead?), and then she goes back for the cat, kept on board purely to jump out at random moments to scare the bejesus out of anyone in the vicinity.
Choose film 9/10