Bridge of Spies (2015)


When a Soviet agent is arrested in New York City, lawyer James B Donovan is employed to defend him. Then the opportunity arises to swap the spy for an imprisoned American airman…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Mark Rylance won both a Bafta and an Oscar for his quiet, measured, charming performance as Rudolf Able, the Russian charged with espionage. But Tom Hanks probably has the harder job playing insurance lawyer James Donovan. He has much more screentime and a wider variety of scenes to play. It’s an extremely Tom Hanksian character, in fact: a gentle but determined and moral man with a dry sense of humour. He also gets a likeable running gag about having a cold.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The opening is superb: an almost wordless, gripping sequence where Able lives his life, picks up a dead-drop, and is followed by federal agents.

Review: Bridge of Spies is, for its first half, a courtroom drama. Then it evolves into a Cold War spy film, and throughout there’s a spine of JFK-style paranoia and politics. It’s fantastic stuff. Being critical, perhaps the plot calls for people to be reactionary a bit too often, but it is set in the time of Joseph McCarthy. You could also argue that the story lacks any real nastiness. But some lovely detailing in the writing, acting and production design mean that the two hours pass every enjoyably. And the Coen brothers co-wrote the script, which guarantees it never approaches being too earnest. On a technical level, this is immaculate filmmaking. It always is with Spielberg. Right from minute one you know you’re in safe hands. Having watched and reviewed a variable mix lately, this was like sitting through a karaoke and then putting on an ABBA album. It’s just on a more solid, more professional, more accomplished level than most films. For example, there are numerous techniques to make a film buff’s heart soar – motivated camera moves, cute scene transitions, long takes that let the actors breathe, the same imagery repeated in different contexts, handheld camerawork when there’s actually a reason for it… All things that are strangely rare in modern Hollywood movies. But the direction is never showing off or drawing attention to itself. The story is king. Spielberg’s best live-action film since at least Catch Me If You Can.

Nine U2 spy planes out of 10

Dracula (2013/14)


An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: London, 1890. (The show was filmed in Hungary.)

Faithful to the novel? Vaguely… This British/American TV show uses Bram Stoker’s basic elements and character names but rearranges things quite a bit. The vampire Dracula (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) moves to London and poses as an American entrepreneur called Alexander Grayson. In public, he promotes scientific endeavours; in private he seeks revenge on those who have wronged him. In episode one he meets Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw). She’s the reincarnation of his long-dead love, Ilona – a plot device stolen from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) – so Dracula/Grayson works hard to keep Mina close to him without giving the game away. He even takes an interest in her boyfriend, a journalist called Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and helps arrange their wedding. Elsewhere, Mina’s friend Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath) is secretly in love with her, while her university professor is Abraham Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann). However, this Van Helsing is very different from Stoker’s version. For a kick-off, he’s in league with Dracula. The two team up because they both have beef with the Order of the Dragon, the sect that killed Ilona, turned Dracula into a vampire and murdered Van Helsing’s family because he wasn’t loyal to them. While all this is going on, Dracula also has a fling with non-book-character Lady Jayne Wetherby (Victoria Amurfit). She’s connected to the Order of the Dragon, but doesn’t know that Grayson is a vampire. The only other person in on Dracula’s secret is Renfield (Nonso Anozie), here repurposed as a non-insane African-American lawyer-cum-enforcer.

Best performance: The cast is mostly either boring or actually rubbish, so let’s champion the production-design team. Some stunning locations have been used to represent London of the 1890s, while the interiors are regularly gorgeous. There’s a steampunk/Victoriana vibe to everything, while the warm, candle-lit colours are often very pretty too.

Best episode: Episode five, The Devil’s Waltz, is centred on Mina and Jonathan’s engagement party. Several plots bubble to the surface.

Review: This recent television show was axed after just one season of 10 episodes. It did well to last that long, frankly. Cheesy dialogue, poor plotting and a weak cast made it a slog to sit through. As mentioned above, the look of the series is really nice, while Trevor Morris’s incidental music is often fantastic – almost John Carpenter-like. But the superficially similar Penny Dreadful (2014 onwards) beats it on every level.

Five words guaranteed to dispel any manner of mediocrity masquerading as conventional wisdom out of 10

Shadow of the Vampire (2000, E Elias Merhige)


An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Germany and Czechoslovakia, from around July 1921.

Faithful to the novel? Shadow of the Vampire is a fictionalised account of the production of Nosferatu. (Now a classic of silent cinema, Nosferatu was an unauthorised film adaptation of Dracula. I’ve reviewed it elsewhere on this site.) In 1921, German director Friedrich Murnau casts Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok in his new film. Schreck insists on staying in character and grotesque make-up at all times, but this is not method acting: he is *actually a vampire*. In return for Schreck’s gruesome performance, Murnau will allow him to turn the movie’s leading lady once filming is complete… In reality, Max Schreck (1879-1936) was a character actor who was known as a bit of a loner with a strange sense of humour. FW Murnau (1888-1931) made many well-regarded German and American films in the 1920s, some of which are now lost.

Best performance: It’s a strong leading cast. John Malkovich and Willem Defoe are really terrific as Murnau and Schreck respectively. And Catherine McCormack is great value as the feisty, decadent diva Greta Schroeder, who’s playing the Mina equivalent in Nosferatu. In reality, Schroeder (1892-1967) was far from a big star in 1921 but Shadow repurposes her as a successful actress with bags of self-confidence. She repeatedly mentions the theatre and rehearsals: ie, she represents the old order. Murnau, dressed in his scientific white coat and steampunk goggles, represents the future – and that’s why he feels able to sacrifice her for his art. Also worth mentioning is Cary Elwes, who shows up halfway through as Fritz Arno Wagner. Here he’s a Lord Flashheart-like cameraman-cum-dilettante, but in real life Wagner (1889-1958) was a master cinematographer who shot many German Expressionist films as well as Fritz Lang’s classic M (1931). It’s Elwes’s second ‘Dracula’ role: he’d been in Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992.

Best bit: There are some moments of genuine creepiness. When the crew is filming Count Orlok’s first appearance in Nosferatu, he emerges from a darkened tunnel. Not only is it our first sighting of the character but his co-star Gustav von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard) has never clapped eyes on him before and looks genuinely terrified. Von Wangenheim then has to go with the Count into the tunnel. Crucially, *we* never follow them inside it, which makes the shadowy space all the more threatening.

Review: This very interesting and very enjoyable movie is built on layers of subtext. There’s an enormous amount of *stuff* going on. For a start, there’s a parallel being drawn between the fiction of Nosferatu and the events going on behind the scenes. Unlike their real-life counterparts, the crew in Shadow of the Vampire shoot Nosferatu in narrative order. This allows us to follow both stories at the same time: the two strands run alongside each other; events and motivations are mirrored. (Orlok wants the girl in both, for example.) Also evident are similarities between the vampire myth and the moviemaking process. Film can bestow immortality, like a vampire; and at one point, Schreck stares down the lens of a projector, transfixed by its power to contain/recreate ‘life’. Shadow of the Vampire was made in the year 2000 but occasionally mixes in clips from the 1921 shoot for the actual Nosferatu, and this weaving together of footage from a eight-decade stretch again highlights the power of cinema. It can manipulate reality, twist time, control people’s actions – like a vampire. Munrau, meanwhile, is presented as an all-powerful director, browbeating his colleagues and imposing his will. At one point he says, “If it’s not in the frame it doesn’t exist.” This is the director as a dictator or god – a powerful ‘higher being’ with a singular vision. Like a vampire. A more obvious correlation is a visual rhyme going on with drugs and vampirism (ie, needles standing in for teeth), while there’s a nice comment on the text of Dracula when Schreck laments that the saddest part of the novel is when Dracula’s seen preparing his own dinner table. All fascinating stuff. It must be said that the film has blemishes – the *five-minute* title sequence really tests your patience; there’s some heavy-handed dialogue early on; and occasionally the editing can be a bit jarring – but the positives far outweigh the negatives. For example, there’s great fun in the general behind-the-curtain-ness. We get to see Murnau directing actors during takes (a common silent-era technique), men turning hand-cranked cameras, special-effects tricks being revealed, and shots from Nosferatu being carefully restaged. Period-apt intertitles are also used to speed the plot along when necessary. Add a dry line in comedy, brilliant performances, a nicely understated score and some lovely visual storytelling – the compositions, framings and blockings are often fantastic – and you have a fun little film that deserves to be more acclaimed.

Nine scientists engaged in the creation of memory out of 10

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922, FW Murnau)


Aka: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The main character’s hometown has been moved from London to the fictional German city of Wisborg. The film therefore has to ignore the fact that a journey from Transylvania to Germany by sea doesn’t make sense. Oh, and for some reason it’s 1838 rather than the 1890s of the book.

Faithful to the novel? Kind of. It’s an adaptation of the novel, yet the makers neglected to pay for the rights (the book was still in copyright, of course). In a fairly half-arsed attempt to muddy the waters, the characters’ names have all been changed. Bram Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement and the courts ordered that all copies of the film be destroyed. Luckily for us, some survived. It’s still the same essential plot as the book, though things deviate from the source material once Count Orlok (the Dracula equivalent) arrives in the town that Hutter (ie, Harker) comes from. Meanwhile, Van Helsing is rewritten as a minor, bumbling local called Professor Bulwer, and other characters such as Lucy, Seward and Quincey are missing all together. (By the way, Orlok’s arrival comes after two-thirds of the movie; in the book it happens after a fifth of the text.)

Best performance: Max Schreck looks absolutely terrifying as Count Orlok. Bald head, big eyes, sharp teeth, demonic ears, long fingers – it’s a primal, creepy, awful image.

Best bit: The stuff on the ship is the most unsettling, especially a shot of Orlok springing up from his coffin as if by magic.

Review: There’s a lot to admire, there really is. For a start, the adaptation makes some economic trims to the book’s plot: this is Dracula striped down to its core elements. So while we lose subtext and complexity, the story rattles along. And for a movie made almost a century ago, there’s a lot of fun to be had on a technical level. Rather than black-and-white, the film is tinted in different colours to suit each scene. There are innovative uses of double exposures and negative images. The sets are in the style of the then-cutting-edge German Expressionist movement. And we see some fantastic locations – in Berlin, northern Germany, Slovakia and the island of Sylt – which may have been used to save money but give the whole thing a grand scale. It’s dated, of course, like any silent-era movie. The overwrought acting styles take some getting used to, while the characters are bland and shallow. But it’s still easy to see why the film has had such an impact.

Nine Venus flytraps out of 10

Next time: Shadow of the Vampire, a 2000 movie set behind the scenes on Nosferatu…

My 10 favourite James Bond pre-title sequences


After a lengthy consideration (while daydreaming on the tube this morning), here is my list of the 10 best opening sequences in James Bond films… Let me know if I’ve missed out your favourite.

10. Casino Royale. A black-and-white, film-noir-ish prologue is Daniel Craig’s debut as James Bond. He dispassionately executes a rogue station chief, while in flashback we see his first kill: a brutal, scrappy brawl in a gents toilet.

9. The Living Daylights. A new 007 is introduced in a fun action sequence filmed in Gibraltar. There’s skydiving, a terrific chase down the mountain, and the main plot gets kicked into gear.

8. Live and Let Die. A moody, strange opening that doesn’t actually feature Bond (so we have to wait until after Paul McCartney’s song before we see Roger Moore for the first time). Several British agents are bumped off in macabre ways.

7. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Another 007 debut, as George Lazenby is introduced. He’s talked about before we see him, then shot only in extreme close-ups as he drives along a coastal road. After he saves a woman from drowning, we get a proper look at him. But after he’s had a brutal fight with some goons, the woman runs off. Bond jokes that, “This never happened to the other fella…”

6. Tomorrow Never Dies. A muscular action sequence featuring 007 out in the field and M and others monitoring the situation back in Whitehall. David Arnold’s sustained music cue is immense.

5. Spectre. A stunning, elaborate, four-minute take starts the film very stylishly indeed.

4. Goldfinger. The first prologue to feature Bond, this is a cool little self-contained mission. 007 climbs out of a lake in a wetsuit, sneaks into one of production designer Ken Adam’s flamboyant sets, rigs some explosives, takes off his wetsuit to reveal an immaculate white suit, walks into a busy bar where a sexy woman is doing a sexy dance… and doesn’t flinch as the nearby building explodes. You sense that the Bond movies have spent 50 years trying to replicate this level of audacity. And the sequence hasn’t finished: Bond has a chat, a seduction, a fight and a pithy pay-off before Shirley Bassey takes a lungful of air…

3. GoldenEye. Another debut, as Pierce Brosnan plays Bond for the first time. Like in The Living Daylights and On Her Majesty’s, the direction teases us by not revealing his face at first. 007 breaks into a 1980s Soviet power station, a feat that includes an enormous bungee jump down the face of a dam. The movie’s plot is set up and there are moments of humour too. Great stuff.


1. The World is Not Enough. The original plan was for the film’s first scene (Bond meets corrupt banker, has a punch-up, then jumps out of a window) to be the pre-titles sequence. However, the scene scripted to take place directly after the titles was so huge in scale and impact that it was moved to before the song. Bond has to chase a sexy female agent, who’s just assassinated a friend of M’s. He jumps in a gadget-heavy speedboat and pursues her down the Thames. The stunts are witty and impressive; the whole thing is really well edited; and the music is tremendous. It’s also fascinating as a historical document – some of the locations (the Isle of Dogs, Greenwich Peninsula) have changed hugely in the last 17 years.

My 10 favourite TV performances


A while ago, my mate Robert Dick mooted assembling a list of his 10 favourite TV performances. It got me thinking, so here’s mine. What are your favourites?

* Peter Falk (Columbo in Columbo)

* Martin Freeman (Tim Canterbury in The Office)

* Tamsin Greig (Alice Chenery in Love Soup)

* Allison Janney (CJ Cregg in The West Wing)

* David Jason (Del Boy Trotter in Only Fools and Horses)

* Shelley Long (Diane Chambers in Cheers)

* James Marsters (Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

* Bob Peck (Ronald Craven in Edge of Darkness)

* Matthew Perry (Chandler Bing in Friends)

* David Suchet (Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s Poirot)

Narrowing it down to 10 was tough. I didn’t have room for Patrick Stewart (Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation), Bradley Whitford (Danny Tripp in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), John Cleese (Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers), Terry O’Quinn (John Locke in Lost), Kirstie Alley (Rebecca Howe in Cheers), John Thaw (Morse in Inspector Morse), Hugh Fraser (Captain Hastings in Agatha Christie’s Poirot), Jason Alexander (George Costanza in Seinfeld), Dexter Fletcher (Spike Thompson in Press Gang) and others that have slipped my mind.

Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A distant moon is identified as the home of the aliens who seeded life on earth. So, in 2093, the Weyland Corporation sends a ship of explorers and scientists to investigate…

The cast: The best thing in the whole movie is Michael Fassbender’s eerie, creepy yet oddly charming performance as the android David. He’s a fantastic creation; pleasingly, we’re never entirely sure of his motives. (Incidentally, he’s the fourth android in the Alien series, after Ash, Bishop and Call – ie, it’s following an ABCD pattern.) The closest thing to a lead character is Dr Elizabeth Shaw played by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace. Rather than a redhead from Cambridge (I MADE A DOCTOR WHO REFERENCE!), she’s a wishy-washy archaeologist from… Well, to be honest, reading up about this film after rewatching it was the first time I’ve realised she’s meant to be English. Also in the phoney-accent club is Idris Elba playing Janek, the captain of the Prometheus. He at least has a rakish attitude to go with the cod-American drawl. Guy Pearce shows up as Peter Weyland, the boss of the company funding the expedition. He’s a very old man so Pearce has to wear prosthetic make-up. Oddly, he’s never seen young, the reason one would guess a 45-year-old had been cast. (Can we assume Peter Weyland is the son of Alien vs Predator’s Charles Weyland? The dates match, and Charles’s death in that earlier film would explain Peter’s obvious daddy issues.) Other members of the scientific crew include Shaw’s boyfriend, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green); geologist Fifield (Sean Harris with a bonkers hairdo); and biologist Milburn (Rafe Spall, who’s also got an unconvincing American accent). The mission supervisor is Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, doing her best with a bland role).

The best bit: Impregnated by alien DNA, Shaw has to perform an emergency caesarean on herself. In this body-horror sequence the film suddenly feels like an Alien movie: it’s urgent, gross, unsettling, twisted, gripping, and it thrusts a character into a terrifying situation. (Sadly, the tension doesn’t last. She’s soon racing around like nothing’s happened. And takes a strangely long time to put some clothes on.)

Review: Well, expectations were high. A science-fiction movie directed by Ridley Scott? And not just any sci-fi but a prequel to Alien?! Scott had been saying for years that he wanted to see the backstory of the dead ‘space jockey’ creature glimpsed in the original film. Sadly, maybe inevitably, Prometheus can’t match the hype. It’s not a total failure, and is an intensely *interesting* film. But as a piece of entertainment it’s a real dud. For every intriguing idea or nice visual, a muddled character beat or sloppy line of dialogue makes you groan. Let’s start with the positives. Firstly, as mentioned, David is a fascinating character. In a nice contrast to the humans and their idealistic search for answers, he’s someone who already knows everything about his creators… and, frankly, is a bit disappointed. The scenes of him on his own before everyone else wakes up from cryogenic sleep are really nicely done. We see him learning things, playing basketball and watching an old movie – all with childlike wonder. Secondly, the film is tackling some weighty issues, such as the origins and nature of life, while religion keeps cropping up in interesting ways. The characters are, in effect, searching for God and as the ship arrives on the moon it’s Christmas. However, the date is marked only by a tatty fake tree and no one gives it much attention. Shaw’s crucifix necklace, meanwhile, acts as a nice metaphor for her power within the story. (The similarity of ‘Vickers’ and ‘vicar’ is probably a coincidence, though!) And finally, the design work of the ship’s interiors is spectacular. In fact, all the environments – both indoors and out – looked really superb in 3D when I saw this at the cinema in 2012. However… (Deep breath.) The longer the film goes on, the more the problems mount up. Front and centre is the issue of stupidity. To be interested in and care for characters we need to have confidence in them. Prometheus, though, presents some of the most idiotic scientists yet seen in SF cinema. Honestly, there’s some really awful behaviour on show here. Shaw’s character beat about ‘choosing to believe’ in things is laughable enough, but then Holloway sarcastically teases her about being a sceptic. (Surely *every* scientist should be a sceptic?!) The team’s geologist gets lost in some caves, while the biologist shoves his face close to a creature that’s clearly going to bite his head off. Shaw also runs the wrong way when a massive space ship is about to flatten her. Put some comedy music on it and you could be watching a spoof. An even bigger problem is the film’s general lack of oomph. You get no kick to the stomach; feel no dread or tension. The CGI Engineers are bland and uninteresting. The weighty thematic issues rarely lead anywhere. Some of the supporting actors are terrible. Dialogue can be blunt and functional. In short, the big-picture stuff is not bad at all – but everyone knows the devil’s in the detail…

Six clips of Lawrence of Arabia out of 10

Predators (2010, Nimród Antal)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Eight strangers are transported to an alien planet to be the prey in a hunting ritual…

The cast: The characters are all human killers who’ve been kidnapped so the predators can hunt them. Royce, a former special-forces solider, is played by Adrien Brody. It’s an effective bit of casting against type: the usually soft Brody has fun going all gravely voiced and macho. Alice Braga plays the dour Isabelle, an Israeli sniper. Topher Grace gets both comedy and sinister stuff to do as Edwin, who seems to be a coward but is then revealed to be the most fucked-up of them all. Elsewhere, there’s Stans (Walton Goggins), a prisoner who boasts about “raping bitches”; Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), a Russian heavy; Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a mostly mute Yakuza; Mombassa (Mahershalalhasbaz ‘Mahershala’ Ali), a mercenary from Sierra Leone; and Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), a Mexican drug-cartel enforcer. As with Alien vs Predator, Arnold Schwarzenegger was asked to cameo as Dutch from Predator, but it didn’t happen. Presumably because he was Governor of California at the time.

The best bit: There’s a nice twist when Royce comes face to face with a predator. He thinks he’s a goner, but then the creatures removes his mask to reveals he’s actually a human in disguise. Noland (Laurence Fishbourne) has been trapped on the planet for so long that he’s gone a bit loopy. But he’s able to impart some fun exposition before being killed.

Review: Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City) had been touting to make this film since the early 90s, though when it finally got green-lit he moved to a producing role and hired another director. Nimród Antal does a decent job. The script might be a vague retelling of the original Predator story (tough guys in jungle get picked off one-by-one), but there are a few nice twists to the formula and the whole film is suitably atmospheric. We learn about the characters through behaviour as well as dialogue, and there are some flashes of humour. So while they’re stereotypes, they’re still more complex than the people in, say, Alien vs Predator. They’re also very far from being nice, which makes them more interesting and the story more unpredictable. And in terms of the movie’s look, long-lens shots make the jungle – actually in Hawaii – seem otherworldly, dangerous and threatening. On the whole, an enjoyable enough film. Nothing extraordinary, but better than I was expecting.

Seven spinal columns out of 10

Next time: Ridley Scott directs an Alien prequel? What could go wrong?!

Aliens vs Predator: Requiem (2007, The Brothers Strause)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists. Not that it really matters with garbage like this one.

A hybrid of a predator and an alien crash-lands in modern-day America…

The cast: A dreadful collection of wooden, daytime-soap performances. It’s not long before you’re rooting for the monsters. The only notable actor is Reiko Aylesworth (24, Lost, my sexual fantasies). She plays Kelly O’Brien, a soldier who’s really picked the wrong weekend to visit home. There were plans to get Adam Baldwin to reprise his Predator 2 role of army guy Garber, but a new character was created instead.

The best bit: There isn’t one.

Crossover: The previous film had featured the head of Weyland Industries, so this one gives us a coda scene with a character called Miss Yutani. (Weyland-Yutani is the name of the all-powerful conglomerate in the original Alien movies.) At one point a character says, “Get to the chopper!” – a reference to Predator’s most famous line of dialogue.

Alternative version: Turns out, the DVD I watched *is* an alternative version, with seven extra minutes compared to the theatrical cut. Haven’t I suffered enough?!

Review: This staggeringly boring mess mines new depths of storytelling ineptitude. Thankfully it’s so badly lit you often can’t tell what’s happening.

One pizza box out of 10

Next time: The Predator series gets its Aliens…