Tag: Christopher Plummer

12 Monkeys (1995)

12 Monkeys (1995)

A world-ending-virus can only be cured through the power of time-travel in Gilliam’s twisty, paradox time loop

Director: Terry Gilliam

Cast: Bruce Willis (James Cole), Madeleine Stowe (Dr Kathryn Railly), Brad Pitt (Jeffrey Goines), Christopher Plummer (Dr Leland Goines), David Morse (Dr Peters), Jon Seda (Jose), Christopher Meloni (Lt Halperin), Frank Gorshin (Dr Fletcher), Bob Adrian (Geologist), Simon Jones (Zoologist), Carol Florence (Astrophysicist), Bill Raymon (Microbiologist)

2035 and the world is a plastic-coated hell, where what remains of mankind huddle below the Earth in rudimentary, environmentally controlled, airtight refuges. The surface is a dream, now home to a deadly virus that wiped out 99% of the population. That virus was unleashed in Philadelphia in 1996: nothing can stop that. But time travel can help the scientists of 2035 gain a sample of the original pre-mutation virus. They believe it was unleashed by an organisation called “The 12 Monkeys”. Track the organisation in the past and find an original sample of the virus. Easy right?

Wrong. Time travel messes with your mind, making it hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. The travellers are penal “volunteers”. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is selected as he has a photographic memory and a strong memory from 1996 of witnessing a Philadelphia airport shooting, that will help send him back. However, he’s flung back to 1990 and thrown into an asylum, treated by Dr Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and sharing a room with environmentalist Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Rescued and correctly sent to 1996, can Cole convince Railly he’s telling the truth and track Goines who has become the leader of the 12 Monkeys?

12 Monkeys is one of the most intriguing time-travel films ever made – and its future, ripped apart with plague, seems chillingly closer today. It puts a vulnerable, scared person at its centre – and makes him a dangerous, inarticulate Cassandra who reacts with violence when no-one listens him (which they never do). It repeatedly tells us things cannot end well, but still gets us hoping they might anyway. It presents puzzles that provoke debate and stretch the imagination.

Gilliam’s most main-stream film is an eccentric, unsettling, tricksy film that juggles time travel and paradoxes, as well as mental health and the nature of reality. Shot with a Dutch-angle infused oddness – reflecting its hero’s mental unbalance – and scored with a French-inflected whirly-gig musical theme that is reminiscent of the demented street people that pepper the film (and may, or may not, be other unbalanced time travellers), it constantly puts you on edge and unsettles.

This extends to its casting, which takes two Hollywood superstars – Willis and Pitt – and deglamorises them to a shocking degree. As Cole, Willis is shambling, vulnerable, scared and struggling to distinguish between reality and fantasy. An 8-year-old boy when the virus destroyed the world, in a way he’s never grown up. He looks around the world of the past with a wide-eyed wonder (he adores the sun and the feel of the soil beneath his feet) but has the stroppy impulsiveness of a maladjusted teenager. He’s so twitchy and insecure, you start wondering if he is the mentally disturbed man who imagines he’s from the future, that his doctors think he is. It’s Willis’ least-Willis performance ever and one of his finest.

Similarly, Pitt pushes himself as the disturbed, aggressive Goines. Prone to obsessive rambling, that stretches Pitt’s languorous vocal register (he trained for months to improve his vocal range), Pitt’s performance is wide-eyed, unpredictable and unsettlingly dangerous. With a single eye swollen and askew, it’s a performance that plays with being OTT but manages to work because he mostly avoids actorly showing off. Madeline Stowe, by contrast, has the most difficult role as the ‘normal person’, a sceptical psychiatrist becoming more and more convinced Cole is telling the truth.

Of course, despite the film’s efforts to play with reality, the audience are always pretty certain he isn’t wrong about the future. But, with the sight of fellow deranged time travellers, not to mention Willis’ vulnerable performance, that Cole could still be crazy. Even if you are right, doesn’t mean you are sane.

Gilliam’s surrealist future helps with this. Every time Cole is pulled back to 2035, the world becomes ever more deranged. Is his grip on reality eroding, as he is feared it is. Design wise the future is a triumph – but it also seems eerily similar to the 1990 asylum Cole is in. Has the building, and the things in it, been repurposed in 2035? Or, as the scientists of 2035 become ever more surreal (including serenading Cole at one point in a Dennis-Potteresque fantasy), questioning Cole via a circular floating series of TV screens while he sits in a suspended chair, is Cole’s grip on reality gone?

It keeps the tension up in the ‘past’ plotline, even as the things Cole has seen in the future – strange messages on walls, photos, voicemail messages – accumulate. 12 Monkeys is a fascinating time-travel movie, that establishes from the very first moment it is impossible to change the past (something the audience, like the characters, get sucked into forgetting). After all, if the plague was stopped, then time travel would never be invented in the first place. All Cole, and the other travellers, can do is collect information.

But that doesn’t stop the future influencing the past. Goines decides to form the 12 Monkeys based on a conversation with Cole in 1990. Dr Railly becomes fascinated with apocalyptic predictions – writing a book that will influence the man planning viral annihilation in 1996 – only because she meets Cole. And, above all, 2035 Cole’s presence in 1996 leads to that strong childhood memory happening in the first placce. The final reveal of the meaning behind Cole’s recurring memory-dream is the perfect example of a time-loop closing (so much so the scientists in the future bend over backwards, giving Cole a doomed mission, to ensure it happens).

It also explains why he is drawn towards Stowe’s Railly, who resembles (with the exception of her lack of Hitchcock Blonde hair) the woman in his dream. The relationship between Cole and Railly develops into a slightly forced romance (it feels like a script requirement, for all Gilliam’s taking the characters to watch Vertigo to hammer home the obvious contrasts). But when it focuses on two people drawn together for reasons they can’t quite understand (and there are hints of predestination) it just about works. That and the commitment of both actors to the roles.

12 Monkeys is about 15 minutes too long (it’s 1990 section outstays its welcome), especially as the audience is never in doubt that the plague is real (after all this is a movie). But Gilliam keeps us on our toes with how confident we feel in Cole: we’re repeatedly shown he’s violent, inarticulate and impulsive. The final half of the film, where the origins behind events we have been shown or heard in the first half, is fascinating. The tragic turns of the film’s paradoxical temporal loop is brilliantly executed and haunting. Gilliam’s film is quirky, unsettling and a design triumph: but it also tells a fascinating story. It’s his most accessible and crowd-pleasing film.

Murder by Decree (1979)

Murder by Decree (1979)

Sherlock Holmes investigates Jack the Ripper in this overlong but enjoyable Doyle pastiche

Director: Bob Clark

Cast: Christopher Plummer (Sherlock Holmes), James Mason (Dr John Watson), David Hemmings (Inspector Foxborough), Susan Clark (Mark Kelly), Frank Finlay (Inspector Lestrade), Anthony Quayle (Sir Charles Warren), Donald Sutherland (Robert Lees), Geneviève Bujold (Annie Crook), John Gielgud (Lord Salisbury)

In the world of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, it’s a popular sub-genre: Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper. How would Holmes have taken on the murderer who has baffled generations since those brutal Whitechapel killings in 1889? Murder by Decree explores the idea, mixing Conan Doyle with a deep dive into (at the time) the most popular theory in Ripperology, the Royal Killings (Murder by Decree indeed!).

It’s all pulled together into a decent, if over-long, film, shot with sepia-toned stolid earnestness by Bob Clark. With its fog-ridden Whitechapel sets (carefully built but always strangely empty), heavy-duty actors sporting large sideburns, wavy-screen flashbacks and carefully unimaginative framing, there is something very old-fashioned about Murder by Decree. That also extends to its Ripper theory, steeped in a very 70s class-conscious conspiracy. The film pads out its two-hour run time with many a POV shot of the Ripper prowling the streets, which bring to mind Jaws and slasher horror films of the time.

Where Murder by Decree does stand out is in its imaginative characterisation of Holmes and Watson. They are presented as affectionate friends – Mason’s older Watson has a sweet indulgent elder-brother feeling to him, giving Plummer’s sparkly Holmes plenty to tease and bounce off. They split the casework between them – Watson is an equal partner, even if Holmes does the brainwork – and use their strengths to complement each other (notably, Watson frequently distracts people so Holmes can interrogate a witness more closely). They genuinely feel like long-term friends (there is a delightful sequence where Holmes is so distracted by Watson’s attempt to fork a pea, that he squashes it onto the fork – to be met with a forlorn “you’ve squashed my pea” from Watson, who likes the peas intact so they “pop in my mouth”).

They are dropped into the middle of a very much of-its-time Ripper theory. Murder by Decree centres on the theory that the murders were ordered (the film reluctantly suggests tacitly) by the establishment to cover up the secret marriage of Prince Edward, Duke of Clarence to a Whitechapel woman, Annie Crook. This alleged marriage produced a baby, and a royal doctor, sheltered by a Masonic conspiracy, sets about eliminating everyone who knows the truth. Of course, it’s almost certainly bollocks – but with its mix of secret societies, Royals, a lost heir and the rest, it’s an attractive story.

It gains a lot from the performances of the two actors. James Mason flew in the face of then popular perception by presenting a quick-witted, assured Watson, more than capable of looking after himself (he bests a blackmailing pimp in a street fight and is very comfortable with guns – far more than the reticent Holmes). He’s still the classic gentlemen, who loves King and Country, but also shrewd, brave, loyal, able to win people’s trust and look at a situation with clear eyes.

With Christopher Plummer, Murder by Decree has one of the all-time great Sherlock Holmes. Plummer’s Holmes is refreshingly un-sombre, twinkly with a ready wit, who loves teasing Watson (cleaning his pipe with Watson’s hypodermic needles) and delights in his own cleverness. But Plummer takes Holmes to places no other film Holmes goes. The case as a devastating effect on him: he weeps at the fate of Annie Crook (consigned by conspirators to a slow death in an asylum) and furiously attacks her doctor. When the conspiracy is unmasked, he emotionally confronts the Prime Minister and berates himself for his failures. There is a depth and humanity to Plummer’s Holmes unseen in other versions, a living, breathing and surprisingly well-adjusted man, unafraid of emotion.

Sadly, the film takes a little too long to spool its conspiracy out. Rather too much time is given to an extended cameo by Donald Sutherland as a pale-faced psychic who may or may not have stumbled upon the killer. There are a lot of unfocused shots of that killer, all swollen black eyes and panting perversion. It relies a little too much on a Poirot-like speech from Holmes at the end explaining everything we’ve seen. But there are strong moments, best of all Geneviève Bujold’s emotional cameo as the near-catatonic Annie Crook, cradling in her arms a memory of her stolen child.

There are many decent touches. The film is open in its depiction of the filth and squalor of life in Whitechapel – a pub is an absolute dive, and the women pretty much all look haggard and strung out. It has a refreshingly sympathetic eye to the victims, with Holmes denouncing the attitudes of both Government and radicals (looking to make political hay from the killings) who see them as lives without intrinsic worth. Holmes places no blame or judgment on them, or the choices life has forced on them, which in a way puts him (and the film) quite in line with modern scholarship (even if there is the odd slasher-style shot of mangled corpses).

The main issue is the film never quite manages to come to life. It’s a little too uninspired, a bit too careful and solid where it could have been daring and challenging. There are good supporting roles: Finlay is a fine low-key Lestrade (at one point persistently raising his hand to ask his superior permission to speak) while Gielgud sells the imperious Lord Salisbury. There is enough here for you to wish the film just had a bit more of spark to lift it above its B-movie roots. But in Plummer and Mason it has a Holmes and Watson to treasure – and for that alone it’s worth your time.

The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music (1965)

It’s the classic, feel-good film that seems to divide people than few others

Director: Robert Wise

Cast: Julie Andrews (Maria von Trapp), Christopher Plummer (Captain van Trapp), Eleanor Parker (Baroness Elsa von Schraeder), Richard Haydn (Max Detweiler), Peggy Wood (Mother Abbess), Charmian Carr (Liesl), Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich), Heather Menzies (Louisa), Duane Chase (Kurt), Angela Cartwright (Brigitta), Debbie Turner (Marta), Kym Karath (Gretl), Daniel Truhitte (Rolfe)

Has there been any film in history that has aroused feelings as strong as this one? Busloads of tourists conduct pilgrimages to Salzburg to follow in its footsteps – it’s a bigger draw than Mozart. Sing-along performances are attended by people in costume who know every nuance of Do-Re-Mi. On the other side, those who loath this musical, do so with the burning heat of a thousand suns, practically cheering the Nazis on or choking back vomit at the opening note of Edelweiss. It was ever thus: The Sound of Music was slaughtered by critics – Pauline Kael called it “the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat” – but became a box-office phenomenon, one of the most popular films ever and gilded with Oscars aplenty.

It’s loosely based on the real-life experiences of the von Trapp family. Maria (Julie Andrews), a young novice, arrives at the home of the widowed Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) to serve as nurse for his seven (count em!) children. Von Trapp runs his house (literally) with military precision, but Maria introduces some fun into the children’s life. And, to his surprise, the Captain’s life as he finds himself drawn towards the wholesome and sweet Maria instead of his initial intended, the Baroness von Schraeder (Eleanor Parker). Marriage is inevitable – but then the family finds itself in a terrible position as the Anschluss weds Austria to Germany and the Captain is ordered to take up office in the Nazi navy. Will he do so – or will the family escape over those hills?

You would probably be fair to call The Sound of Music one of the most manipulative films of all time. But then aren’t films supposed to be about manipulating our emotions for effect? On that score you could possibly call it the greatest film ever made. I won’t, but there is a sentimental, feel-good charm to The Sound of Music that – in small doses (and some people watch this multiple times a year – once every few years is surely enough!) – can really hit the spot in the way few other films can. Sure, it tugs on your heart strings with never a trace of subtlety, but basically it’s heart is very much in the right place. It’s a kind, gentle music that, for all its treacle, is a tribute to warmth, love and family. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so embraced by so many.

Even the cast were aware it could all tip over the edge into outright sentimentality. Julie Andrews was worried it might be a little too similar to Mary Poppins (she was right in a way – Poppins is a darker film, but the success of this cemented Andrews in people’s mind as the World’s nanny). Most famously Christopher Plummer overcame huge uncertainty to star, partly to practise his singing for a Broadway musical (as it happened he got dubbed), partly on the promise he could add a tougher edge (no sign that happened). Plummer’s hate-tolerate relationship with the film is famous (he called it The Sound of Mucus) and at several points in it he is all too obviously only just avoiding sinking his head into his hands, but he even he eventually acknowledged any film that moved people as much as this, must have done something very right indeed.

It’s that emotional investment people make in this film that lifts it eventually above criticism. It’s a long film, with a slender plot. But it mines this plot for every single touch of emotional investment. It’s the ultimate triumph of one of Hollywood’s most reliable middle-brow directors, Robert Wise. Taking over from William Wyler (who just couldn’t get interested and left to make the almost diametrically opposite The Collector), Wise successfully keeps the momentum flowing and shoots the film in an economical way that lets the songs do their work. He still finds room for classic shots: that helicopter shot sweeping into Julie Andrews running up the hills is just about perfect (Andrews was literally blown over every time by the helicopter, explaining the sudden jump cut edit for her famous twirl and burst into song). Wise’s editing skills really come into play with Do-Re-Mi that cuts the song across several locations and he makes excellent use of a number of Salzburg locations (for which the tourist board thanks him).

A major part of the film’s success though must surely be directly connected to Julie Andrews. This is a career – perhaps even a life – defining performance. And even the most cynical watcher can’t help but admit Andrews is a superb, gifted performer. Her singing is beautiful, and very, very few performers could have managed to make Maria charming, sweet and someone who want to hug, rather than twee or slappable. Andrews makes you really invest in every single event in the film: she’s hugely endearing (from singing in those hills, to her little stumble of excitement as she runs from the Abbey to take up a job at the von Trapps), she’s completely unaffected and when she’s hurt (by her seemingly hopeless love for the Captain) you just want to give her a hug.

No wonder the children love her. Who wouldn’t? Sure, the film’s weakest beat might well be its romance between Andrews and Plummer (for which Plummer is mostly to blame), but it captures a wonderful sense of family loyalty and protection. Everyone, at some point, is a sucker for stories where sad and lonely children are introduced to a life where they can mess around and have fun – and get that emotional investment the Captain has (accidentally) denied them. After spending the first two hours of the film getting to know this family and seeing it come together, we feel even more intently their fear and panic at being forced into goose-stepping line with Hitler’s war machine.

The film’s final sequence around the Abbey is also surprisingly tense: the family sheltering behind tombs and trusting in the half-truths of the Nuns and the wavering loyalties of wannabe SA officer Rolfe to make their escape. Wise’s films successfully communicates the stakes. It also mixes in some comedy even here: the final lines going to the Nuns confessing their sins of sabotaging those Nazi cars. All this before we go back to where we started – Maria walking the hills, full of music, this time accompanied by a beloved new family.

It’s that desire to be part of a loving family that perhaps explains why The Sound of Music has been so popular – and why so many people turn to it for comfort time and again. With its heart-warming songs and themes, it’s a warm comfort blanket that makes people feel part of its loving family. You can’t argue against it being manipulative – but that’s the nature of films, and manipulation as effective and good-natured as this is a sort-of triumph of film-making art.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Russell Crowe struggles with reality as Math’s genius John Nash in A Beautiful Mind

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Russell Crowe (John Nash), Ed Harris (William Parcher), Jennifer Connelly (Alicia Nash), Christopher Plummer (Dr Rosen), Paul Bettany (Charles Herman), Adam Goldberg (Richard Sol), Josh Lucas (Martin Hansen), Anthony Rapp (Bender), Judd Hirsch (Professor Helinger)

There is nothing Hollywood likes more than a man overcoming adversity. Make him a troubled genius and that’s even better. Throw in a supportive wife who bends over backwards to help him and you’ve got the dream Hollywood scenario. You can bet Oscars will follow – and they certainly did for Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, which hoovered up Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (it probably would have also nabbed Best Actor if Russell Crowe’s personal behaviour hadn’t turned him from idol to Hollywood’s most unpopular actor).

The film is a romantically repackaged biography of John Nash (Russell Crowe), a pioneering mathematician whose life was turned upside down by his diagnosis with schizophrenia in the 1960s. Even before then, Nash had become increasingly preoccupied by delusions and fantasies, many of them revolving around “secret government code-breaking work” for a bullying CIA Agent (Ed Harris). Slowly coming to terms with his diagnosis, with the help of his loving wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), Nash must learn to put aside the things he knows he are not real, while trying to rebuild his life.

Ron Howard’s film is assembled with his usual assured professionalism. It is never anything less than effective, what it never quite manages to be is inspired. Perhaps because it’s a very standard Hollywood biopic. It effectively presents the life of its troubled genius as something very easily digestible, hitting all the beats of suffering, determination and eventual triumph you could expect when the film starts.

This makes for exactly the sort of middle-brow filmmaking made with absolute professionalism that, if you turn your head and squint a bit, can be made to look like Oscar-winning art. That seems incredibly harsh on the film: but there is really nothing particularly “new” about anything here: in many ways, it could have been made almost exactly the same in the 1940s (and it would probably have won an Oscar then as well).

That’s not to say it’s a bad film. Howard’s direction is sharp and exact, and he stages the film very well, drawing very good performances out of the cast. The film is good at immersing us in Nash’s delusions, particularly in the first hour of the film (it’s not until the hour mark that anyone overtly states there is anything wrong with Nash beyond eccentricity and social awkwardness). Howard shoots the fantasies totally straight: in fact if you had managed to avoid knowing what the film is about, you can totally imagine being tricked into thinking it’s a genuine spy thriller.

With that though, the film gives you just enough hints. Take a beat and look at Nash’s CIA actions and they don’t make much sense. A secret code that involves him tearing pages out of thousands of magazines and pinning them up around his office connected with bits of string (standard filmic language for the obsessive nutter)? The CIA injecting a number implant into his arm? A dead drop at a posh house which requires letters to be sealed with wax? The film gives us the hints that Nash is more troubled than just awkward around people, but doesn’t lay it on too thick. And at least one plot reveal that something we have seen was in fact a Nash-delusion the whole time is so skilfully presented that it surprised me (and I know surprised several other people).

The film is also strong on schizophrenia and delusion. Reworking Nash’s real-life auditory hallucinations into visual fantasies (including imagined buildings and people) works really effectively for film. It also really opens up for us the horror of how difficult living with something like this might be. How would you feel if you could never trust the world you saw around you? What if you discovered things that were central to your life turned out to be fantasies? That people you had built relationships with were not real? That’s a traumatic emotional burden, and the film is very strong at building your empathy with Nash.

It’s also helped by Crowe’s very effective performance in the lead. Shy, buttoned-up, physically awkward, his eyes always cast down, body slouched and voice an embarrassed mumble, Crowe brilliantly embodies a nervous outsider whose problems fitting in only magnify his growing dependence on fantasies that place him at the centre of the world. There is a touching vulnerability about Crowe here that so rarely gets seen. A big part of the film’s success is due to his performance.

Jennifer Connelly also makes a great deal of her very traditional role as the supportive wife, bringing just the right level of assurance, spark and warmth to the role. Connelly carefully shifts the character from flirtatious confidence to heartbroken but supportive wife. But she doesn’t lose track of Alicia’s own frustrations at living with a medicated, unresponsive husband – even if, of course, any regrets she may have about the way her life turned out are overcome swiftly.

Which of course is completely different from real life where, for all her support, the couple divorced. Nash also had a baby (which he didn’t acknowledge) with a nurse he had an affair with. But these are real life complexities that have no place in a crowd-pleasing biopic like this. Similarly gone are Nash’s possible flirtations with bisexuality, his experiments with drugs or his flashes of violence. Added in are an entirely invented “pen gifting” Princeton ceremony and Nash’s Nobel prize acceptance speech where he gives thanks to his loving wife (in real life no such speech happened and the couple were separated). But that’s not the story this film wants to tell, so truth can go hang.

Perhaps these, post-diagnosis, difficulties are why the final third of the story – which sees Nash casting aside the invasive treatments to overcome the power his delusions have over him through willpower alone – is the least involving part. After all, they had to drop most of the actual real-life events that happened (see above). But there simply isn’t as much drama in watching someone quietly adjust to rebuilding a career in maths as there is in seeing them struggle.

Perhaps as well, because maths is a pretty difficult to bring to the screen. The film falls back into many accepted visual tropes – you’ll see a lot of writing on windows – and explains Nash’s theory of co-operative dynamics with a bar-and-booze based conversation around pulling girls in bars. That’s about as far as engagement with maths and understanding his theories goes – but we take it as read that Nash is a genius because he acts like one, people tells he is and he writes lots of big equations on boards.

A Beautiful Mind offers few real surprises (except for one) and presents a story that Hollywood has basically been making for decades. Things from real-life that don’t fit the story have been cut out, to make this as conventional a film as possible: the troubled genius and the loving wife behind him. It’s very well played (as well as Crowe and Connelly, Paul Bettany is brilliantly charismatic as Nash’s eccentric college roommate) and directed with a professional skill. But it’s also a very safe and even conservative film that has skill but not inspiration.

Waterloo (1970)

Rod Steiger chews the scenery as Napoleon in this epic restaging of Waterloo

Director: Sergei Bondarchuk

Cast: Rod Steiger (Napoleon Bonaparte), Christopher Plummer (Duke of Wellington), Orson Welles (Louis XVIII), Jack Hawkins (Lt-General Thomas Picton), Virginia McKenna (Duchess of Richmond), Dan O’Herlihy (Marshal Michel Ney), Rupert Davies (Colonel Gordon), Philippe Forquet (Brigadier-General Bédoyère), Ian Ogilvy (Colonel De Lancey)

In 1970 there was no CGI. Want to stage a battle scene? Well you’re going to have to use real people, rather than populating your screen with pixel soldiers. I’ve always had a fondness for epic films of this era, where you look at the screen and know everything is real. And one of the best examples of this battle-heavy genre is this 1970’s chronicle of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Because in 1970 the only way to recapture the battle on camera was effectively to re-fight it with a cast of tens of thousands of extras and horses, across a film set the size of the original battlefield. Can you imagine anyone attempting that today?

An international co-production, the film throws together an eccentric hodgepodge of actors. No more than you would expect of a film co-financed by Italy and the Soviet Union, shot in English, directed by a Ukrainian (with a team of four translators) with a lead actor from New York and the cast stuffed with dubbed actors from across Europe. In fact the slight air of Euro-tackiness about the film is one of the things I sort of love about it.

Rod Steiger as Napoleon delivers the sort of OTT performance he loved to give, capturing the self-aggrandising, larger-than-life nature of the Emperor while frequently chewing the scenery and oscillating between whispers and shouting. It’s perhaps no more than you would expect when playing a man whose entire life was a stage-managed performance of dangerous charisma. It does though make a nice contrast with Christopher Plummer who, perhaps aware of who he was working with, goes for an archly low-key, even wry touch, as the more austere Wellington.

The film covers the time period of Napoleon’s Hundred Days, from his arrival from Elba to the final defeat at Waterloo (with a neat prologue showing an exhausted Napoleon accepting he must abdicate and head into exile in 1814). Much of the first half hour is a showpiece for Steiger’s bombastic Napoleon. Few other characters get a look in (Welles cashes another of his cheques for one-scene cameos, as a bloated Louis XVIII fleeing into exile). To be honest, much of the first half of the film is a slightly stodgy (more-or-less) faithful trot through historical events leading to the battle.

But this is really to set the table for the film’s central appeal, which is that astonishing recreation of the battle itself. Shot in the Ukraine, the Soviet Union (as their part of the deal) effectively recreated the landscape of Waterloo, bulldozing hills, planting thousands of trees, sowing fields and laying over six miles of drainage to help create the muddy fields. On top of which, the USSR threw in 17,000 troops to serve as extras (insanely impressive, even considering it’s only a fraction of the nearly 191,000 troops involved at various stages in the battle).

Marshalling all this was Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk. Used to commanding film sets like this – he had previously directed a four-part version of War and Peace, where similar number of Soviet troops had recreated Austerlitz and Borodino – Bondarchuk certainly knows how to show the money is all on screen. Aerial shots and long tracking shots take in regiments of soldiers taking up position. Cavalry charges of hundreds of horses are brilliantly shot. The French cavalry charge against the British infantry squares is stunning in its scale and size. Everywhere you look, wide-angled shots demonstrate the depth of extras, the vast scope of the battle and the huge numbers of soldiers marching across screen. If nothing else it’s a superb marshalling of resources.

Bondarchuk brings a number of stylistic flourishes from his War and Peace to the film here. Sadly many of these choices have dated badly – and even at the time, looked a little silly. Interior monologues are demonstrated with close-ups and the sound of actors whispering over the soundtrack (although Bondarchuk also mixes this up with a prowling Napoleon addressing the camera directly). The film loves crash-zooms and fast wipes – one crash zoom generates giggles as it zooms in on Napoleon as he turns fast to face the camera after particularly bad news. Bondarchuk at times drains out the noise of the battle to focus on small details, most notably in the British cavalry charge. It gives moments of the film an odd dreamy film, particularly striking because most of it is so baked in realism.

To be honest the film is workmanlike, rather than inspired, with all the focus on marshalling the thousands of extras. There are moments of character for both Napoleon and Wellington – flashes of doubt, insecurity, fear are mixed in with supreme confidence. The film also hits a neat line in the horrors of war. The camera tracks along the mangled bodies after the battle, while at the peak of the clash a British soldier has a mental collapse, breaking from his square to bemoan “Why are we killing each other?” Not exactly subtle, but it works.

But the film’s main appeal is that scope – and its breath taking. The film itself is more to look at than think about, but with the detail of its recreation of the battle makes it a must for any Napoleonic history buff. Peter Jackson has said his own cavalry charges in Lord of the Rings were inspired by this film – the difference being Jackson’s horses were CGI, while Bondarchuk literally charged hundreds of horses direct at the camera. And you won’t see scope like that anywhere else.

And that’s partly because the film was a bomb, putting an end to such huge scale films as this and also leading to Stanley Kubrick’s plans for a Napoleon biopic being cancelled. Perhaps the worst part of its legacy.

Knives Out (2019)

Daniel Craig investigates in Rian Johnson’s amusing Christie-pastiche Knives Out

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daniel Craig (Benoit Blanc), Chris Evans (Random Drysdale), Ana de Armas (Marta Cabrera), Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda Drysdale), Michael Shannon (Walt Thrombey), Don Johnson (Richard Drysdale), Toni Collette (Joni Thrombrey), Lakeith Stanfield (Lt. Elliot), Katherine Langford (Meg Thrombey), Jaeden Martell (Jacob Thrombey), Christopher Plummer (Harlan Thrombey), Noah Segan (Trooper Wagner), Frank Oz (Alan Stevens)

Rian Johnson’s film CV is full of interesting (and affectionate) twists on assorted genre films. While many will be most familiar with his controversial and iconoclastic Star Wars film The Last Jedi, Knives Outfits more neatly in with his imaginative twist on time-travel Looper and, most tellingly, his film-noir high-school thriller Brick. Knives Out plays into Johnson’s love of old-school, all-star, Agatha Christie style murder-mysteries. Johnson even pops up before screenings of the film to beg viewers – like Alfred Hitchcock in his prime – to not give away the twist endings. So I won’t do it here. Rian Johnson’s way too sweet to disappoint.

The murder that leads to the mystery is Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer), the film opening a week after his apparent suicide (or was it!?). If everything is so straight forward, then who has anonymously hired “last of the gentlemen sleuths” Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the death? There seems to be no shortage of motives either: in his last day, Thrombey threatened to expose his son-in-law Richard’s (Don Johnson) affair, cut-off his daughter-in-law Joni’s (Ton Collette) allowance due to theft, fired his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) as head of his publishing company and cut Richard and his daughter Linda’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) playboy son Random (Chris Evans) out of his will. On top of that, his live-in-nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) may have secrets of her own. Will Blanc be able to unpick this web?

Going too far into detail around Knives Out would be to spoil the general sense of fun that Johnson’s film manages to create. The film is not a spoof or parody in any way, but a very intelligent reworking of genre tropes and Agatha Christie style plot twists (a distant house, a mysterious killing, a host of suspects, a barrage of motivations, a house crammed with bolt holes, blackmail, muddy footprints, medicine and acting all get a look in), all governed by an eccentric detective bubbling with his own unique methods for solving a case. It’s all told with a brilliant affection, a wonderful twinkle and a great deal of invention and intelligence from Johnson. 

It’s also a film with a brilliantly assembled plot – and a neat reminder of what a strong writer Johnson is, as well as an inspired stylist. The film creates a host of superb characters for the audience to enjoy and puzzle over – each of them of course attracting a wonderful company of actors, a perfect mix of the skilled and wildcard choices, all of whom pay off. It’s also a structurally daring film: it reveals what it leads many to think is its full hand very early in the film, before subtly revealing that there are multiple mysteries wrapped up within the main mystery (“a doughnut within a doughnut” as Blanc puts it in his own unique way).

And interestingly the film more and more revolves around Marta, its seeming Captain Hastings-figure (or Watson as the film prefers to quote). Played with a charming guilelessness and honesty by Ana de Armas (in more ways than one, since all lies cause Marta to vomit, a joke that sounds crass but is executed perfectly throughout), Marta is the eyes we follow the film’s plot through, meaning we discover events as she does. Marta’s decency and honesty also work as a wonderful device to flag up the increasing hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness of Thrombey’s family. 

The Thrombey clan are an extraordinary group of self-obsessed, greedy and selfishly entitled so-and-sos, who seem to be lacking all expected principles. From Jamie Lee Curtis’ domineering elder daughter, who believes she is a self-made-woman but quickly resorts to bullying when she wants something, to Michael Shannon’s softly spoken but bitterly two-faced Walt, to Toni Collette’s seemingly liberal lady of the people Joni, who is actually as lazy and entitled as all the rest. It’s a host of delightful performances, not forgetting Don Johnson who is a revelation as Curtis’ conniving husband and Chris Evans (having a whale of a time) as the waspishly intelligent, smirking playboy.

Each of the family is as convinced of their own virtue as they are indifferent to those around them. Is it any wonder Thrombey wants to be shot of all of them? Even with the good-natured Marta, none of the family seem to have a clue of anything about her (much as they protest she is part of the family), each of them seemingly naming at random some South American country she hails from and each member in turn telling her confidingly that they would have loved to have had her at the funeral, but they were outvoted by the rest. It makes for a perfect collection of suspects for our detective.

Benoit Blanc himself is a fascinating collection of mannerisms and little touches. The name brings to mind the idea of Hercule Poirot, and Blanc has touches of the man’s arrogance and humanity. Craig has a whale of a time with the part, lacing it with a Southern charm and an eccentric swagger. It’s a part though that actually is a bit of a homage to Columbo, with Blanc also encouraging people to underestimate him and not take him seriously, only to suddenly reveal his insight (including in a last act revelation that is so pure Christie that super-fan Trooper Wagner can barely contain his glee). Blanc is in any case a brilliantly deployed near decoy protagonist, one who Johnson is encouraging us to underestimate as much as most of the characters do.

Thrombey’s murder – and Thrombey has a slight air of Agatha Christie to him, not least the fact that he has written the same number of best-selling books as Christie – is the key to it, and hinges on the overcomplex mind of the great murder writer himself. Johnson’s script is superbly playful, brilliantly written and a delight for murder mystery fans, full of wit and invention and also a very genuinely constructed and intelligent murder mystery. A terrific, playful and witty little treat.

Malcolm X (1992)

Denzel Washington dominates in Spike Lee’s masterpiece Malcolm X

Director: Spike Lee

Cast: Denzel Washington (Malcolm X), Angela Bassett (Betty Shabazz), Albert Hall (Brother Baines), Al Freeman Jnr (Elijah Muhammad), Delroy Lindo (West Indian Archie), Spike Lee (Shorty), Roger Guenveur Smith (Rudy), Theresa Randal (Laura), Kate Vernon (Sophia), Lonette McKee (Louise Little), Tommy Hollis (Earl Little), James McDaniel (Brother Earl), Steve White (Brother Johnson), Ernest Lee Thomas (Sidney), Christopher Plummer (Prison Chaplin Gill), Peter Boyle (NYPD Captain Green)

In the early 1990s, Norman Jewison was attached to direct a biopic of Malcolm X, the powerful African-American activist, tragically assassinated in 1965. It was the project of Spike Lee’s dreams – and Jewison conceded he did not have the vision for the film that Lee clearly had. Lee stepped in – and thank goodness, as this is perhaps a film only he could have made. It splices together Lee’s customary political savvy and (accurate) sense of the injustice Black Americans have faced with a surprisingly adept use of the cinematic language of David Lean and other sweeping epics. In bringing these together, he created a superb biography, a great piece of epic cinema and a vital piece of American film-making.

The film covers the life of Malcolm X in three clear stages. Firstly his young days as a tearaway in Harlem, with drug addiction and crime, all with best friend Shorty (Spike Lee), a local gangster whom he admires (Delroy Lindo) and white girlfriend Sophia (Kate Vernon). The second act is his conversion to Islam under the guidance of (fictional) Brother Baines (Albert Hall) and his rise as an incendiary speaker with the Nation of Islam under the influence of its leader Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jnr). The final act covers his disillusionment and departure from that organisation after a host of scandals and political disagreements, his pilgrimage to Mecca and his return looking to work with other civil rights movements before his assassination by former members of the Nation of Islam.

It’s hard to know whose film to call this, because Spike Lee and Denzel Washington both invest this film with so much passion, director and actor working in perfect synchronicity, that it’s impossible to imagine the film without one or other of them. Washington’s performance is quite simply extraordinary. He spent over a year of focused preparation on the film, and every pore of his body seems to have soaked in the mood, manners and attitudes of Malcolm X. It’s a transformative performance of purest emotional commitment: impassioned, empowering and enthralling, charismatic in the extreme. He never shies away from the anger and the faults of Malcolm X, but so engrossingly human is his work that he brings to life in a way few people had before Malcolm’s humanity, his generosity, his love, his decency. It’s a performance that seems to have transformed the actor into the man and the film works so well because Washington completely involves you in his story. 

Washington should have won the Oscar that year – it went instead to Al Pacino – and Malcolm X also should have been nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, far more so than Scent of a Woman nominated in both categories. It’s a film that builds its audience’s empathy so successfully with its lead character, and so clearly understands what Malcolm was trying to do, that you come away from it full of respect and admiration for the man. Even when the film was made, many people saw Malcolm X as a divisive, even dangerous figure – but watching the film you forget that and invest in him as a man.

It’s also inarguable – as n-words and racial bias from many whites in the film litter the screen – that it opened the eyes of many people as to exactly how harsh living in America was at the time if you were black. Put simply, it was a country labouring constantly under injustice, persecution and suffering where a black life was worth less than a white one. It’s a theme that Lee has returned to time and again in his work – and quite rightly – and it’s the sort of masterclass of simmering political anger that powers the best of his work. Would any other director under the sun have chosen to open this film with footage of the Rodney King beating? Would anyone else have thought of ending it with a coda in South Africa, as Nelson Mandela (yes the real Nelson Mandela) addresses a classroom full of children about the importance and power of Malcolm’s vision of black people taking pride in themselves and their heritage – a pride beaten out of them still today, as Lee’s Rodney King footage shows.

Lee’s direction is quite simply superb, a wonderful fusion of his own styles with a classical sweep of David Lean, spiced with the textual play of Oliver Stone. The photography from Ernest Dickerson is wonderful, the film is beautifully cut and assembled and the recreation of period detail from set to costume is remarkable. Lee’s style is sublime, from a riotously fun Harlem song and dance routine (really impressive) with Malcolm others dancing a superb Lindy Hop, to the harshness of prison, through to the intelligent and acute analysis of growing divisions in the Nation of Islam (Al Freeman Jnr is fabulous as Elijah Muhammed) and Malcolm’s developing political stance.

Lee’s film is even-handed on the whole – Malcolm’s real opponents are ideological disagreements, the film dramatizes a moment Malcolm considered a great regret where he rudely brushed aside a white college student keen to help his cause, and the film makes a lot of play over his controversial opinions on Kennedy’s assassination (essentially that he deserved it). But it also builds a superb sense of Malcolm’s personal life alongside, and the film is crammed with moments of quiet intimacy and a wonderfully developed performance of supportive love from Angela Bassett as Betty.

But the Lee touch is in that sense of anger. The politics and fury of Malcolm’s speeches and his message to black people today to save themselves and find pride in themselves carry through the whole film. Lee was sick and tired of the “white saviour” film and he triumphantly made here a film that was by black people, about black people but had something for all to hear. Malcolm X is a superb piece of biography cinema that leaves you with justifiable admiration for a man it’s easy to misjudge, engrosses you in a complex and disturbing era, angers you at racism and its impact, and also leaves you entertained. In many ways the most classical of Lee’s films – but a reminder that he is a unique and compelling voice. He thought he was the only one that could tell this story. He was right.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig investigate unspeakable evil in David Fincher’s superb The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Daniel Craig (Mikael Blomkvist), Rooney Mara (Lisbeth Slander), Christopher Plummer (Henrik Vanger), Stellan Skarsgård (Martin Vanger), Steven Berkoff (Dirch Frode), Robin Wright (Erika Berger), Yorick van Wageningen (Nils Bjurman), Joely Richardson (Anita Vanger), Goran Višnjić (Dragan Armansky), Donald Sumpter (Detective Morell), Ulf Friberg (Hans-Erik Wennerström), Geraldine James (Cecilia Vanger), Embeth Davidtz (Annik Giannini), Julian Sands (Young Henrik Vanger), David Dencik (Young Morell), Tony Way (Plague), Alan Dale (Detective Isaksson)

At the time of its release, there was a slightly cool reaction to David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Most reviewers were already familiar with the story twice over, firstly as the best-selling thriller then as the Swedish film starring Noomi Rapace. Perhaps fans were similarly slightly indifferent, while newbies had already declined the first two options, as the film struggled to crawl its way to breakeven. However, rewatching it, I feel this intriguingly well-made film deserves to be mentioned in the same discussion as another adaptation of a pulp thriller made 20 years earlier: The Silence of the Lambs.

Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) is a crusading financial journalist and co-owner of Millenniummagazine, whose career is in ruins after his article about the CEO of a major company leads to him losing a costly legal battle for libel. He is approached by retired businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who asks him to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of his niece Harriet Vanger, who vanished on their privately owned island estate. Blomqvist is hired after an exhaustive investigation into his personal life by emotionally challenged hacker and private investigator Lisbeth Slander (Rooney Mara), who is facing her own problems of gaining her independence from her position as a ward of the state, represented by her vile guardian Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen). As Blomqvist investigates, eventually with the help of Lisbeth, the trail takes a very dark turn suggesting a sinister hand behind the disappearance not only of Harriet but also of a number of other women around Sweden.

Fincher’s crisply made, icily cold movie embraces the coldness not only of wintery Sweden, but also the film’s chilling subject matter. There are very rarely – if ever – flashes of colour or light, with the world taking on an oppressive blackness and grey or windswept bleakness. It’s a perfect metaphor for the horror of what people do to each other. It’s brilliantly assembled, as you would expect from Fincher, and made with such consummate skill and excellence that its professional chill becomes almost oppressively unsettling, much like the plot itself.

Re-watching it I was put very much in mind of The Silence of the Lambs. That too was a masterfully made adaptation of a pulp novel that found a poetry and depth in the book, framing it around a series of unconventional relationships, with a female lead pushed into a role that sharply defies expectations. Both have at their centre a dangerous figure whose interests align with the other characters. Brilliantly, here the role of dangerously unpredictable genius and unexpected female role are both taken by Lisbeth Slander. (In fact Lisbeth is like a fusing of Clarice and Lector into one character). 

Like Lambs, which tapped into the 1990s obsession with the power of psychiatry and self-analysis and used it as the key to uncovering and defeating criminals, this takes our fascination with computers and the internet and uses that as silver bullet for finding criminals. Just as in the 1990s psychiatrists seemed to have access to some sort of mystical alchemy no one else could understand, so the film shows Lisbeth’s hacker skills as some sort of super power that can blow down secrets and accomplish things no one else can do. 

The film also echoes Lambs in its fascinating look at the place of women in the world. The film revolves around historical violence against women – when we finally have the killer unveiled he confirms women have only ever been his targets – and the film is heavy (in often wordlessly narrated flashbacks) with ominous feelings of danger from a domineering male culture. The world clearly hasn’t changed that much either. The killer continues to operate, everyone in a position of influence we see is an ageing man, Lisbeth’s ward is a vile sexual abuser. But, in this milieu of threat to women, Lisbeth becomes a sort of icon of a woman living life on her terms and taking control of her own life.

Impressively embodied by an Oscar-nominated Rooney Mara, Lisbeth is the sort of character you would normally expect to be a man: surly, anti-social, difficult, prone to violence, sexually indiscriminate, determined to always be in control and decisive in her relationships. She quickly takes the lead in her relationship with Mikael, professionally and later sexually (right down to her telling him where to put his hands during their passionate but also functional sex scenes). Mikael meanwhile takes far more the traditional “female” role: dedicated, hard-working, maternal, competent but better placed as the assistant to a true genius. Daniel Craig gives him a slightly rumpled middle-age quality, combined with a feckless recklessness that lands him in trouble.

The film is Lisbeth’s though, and Fincher brilliantly uses early scenes to establish her defiant, independent character. From snatching her bag back (brutally) from a would-be mugger on the underground, to a surly, blunt lack of respect she shows to a client, she’s painted clearly as a person who will respond how she wants, regardless of any “rules”. But Fincher also makes time to show her vulnerability. Lonely and insecure, she has worked hard to kill any vulnerability in her and protect herself from emotional pain. To see the small notes of tenderness she allows out – from her reaction to a former guardian suffering a stroke to her increasing emotional investment in Mikael – is strikingly engaging.

And we definitely see her suffering. If we had any doubts about one of the themes of this film being about how powerful men abuse and control women, the sub-plot of Lisbeth’s abusive warden (played with the pathetic, creepy relish of the small man enjoying what control he has by Yorick van Wageningen) hammers it home. The four key scenes between these characters cover a mini-arc in themselves from abuse of power, assault, revenge and power shift. Lisbeth may suffer terribly – more than she expects, much to her shock – but the sequence not only shows her ability to survive but also to turn the tables to her advantage. You could argue that this sort of rape-revenge fantasy might trivialise the impact rape has on real people – but it’s crucial for the theme of the film that there is hope that the sort of scum that abuse their positions can be stopped and that victims can survive and thrive. 

And you’ll need this as the film expands both into the past and the present day into a series of increasingly grim cases of historical abuse and murder. Fincher presents all this with the same brilliant, non-exploitative control that Jonathan Demme managed in Lambs. Despite the horrors of the themes, there is no lingering on anything graphic. Instead Fincher uses the tension of slowness, of steady camera work, of careful pacing to let tension and unease build up as we feel something is horribly wrong but never can be quite sure what. The final confrontation with the killer is not only deeply unsettling for it being one of the most brightly lit sequences of the film, but also for the middle-class banality of the villain’s taste (you’ll never listen to Orinoco Flow in the same way again) and the fascinatingly business-like approach he brings to his deeds of slaughter. 

The Girl with the Dragan Tattoo is such a well-made film that perhaps that’s its greatest weakness. It’s a little too easy to see a lack of personality in it, a professionalism, a clean perfection, a master craftsman quality, that you feel you are watching a studio picture made by a great director. And maybe you are: but then you could say the same about many of Hitchcock’s film, a director Fincher consciously echoes here. Superbly acted not just by the leads but by the whole cast (Plummer, Skarsgård and Wright are excellent while even Berkoff gives a restrained performance) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the sort of film that will surely only be considered in a warmer and warmer light as time goes by.

Syriana (2005)

George Clooney gets crushed by the corruption of major oil companies in Syriana

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Cast: George Clooney (Bob Barnes), Matt Damon (Bryan Woodman), Jeffrey Wright (Bennett Holiday), Christopher Plummer (Dean Whiting), Nicky Henson (Sydney Hewitt), David Clennon (Donald Farish III), Amanda Peet (Julie Woodman), Peter Gerety (Leland Janus), Chris Cooper (Jimmy Pope), Tim Blake Nelson (Danny Dalton), William Hurt (Stan Goff), Mark Strong (Mussawi), Alexander Siddig (Prince Nasir Al-Subaai), Mazhar Munir (Wasim Ahmed Khan), Nadim Sawalha (Emir Hamed Al-Subaai), Akbar Kurtha (Prince Meshal Al-Subaai)

The more I think about Syriana the more I think Stephen Gaghan was unlucky. If he had made this story today, you can be sure this would have become a ten episode series on HBO or Netflix. Instead, Gaghan made it into a film in the early 2000s. This means the bloated, over expanded plot gets crammed into two short hours at the cost of much of the emotional and political complexity it needs. Without this Syriana is an angry lecture, something that throws some interesting observations at the viewer, but basically resorts more often to shouting at them about how shit the world is. With its interlinking storylines and “serious” content it looks like intelligent filmmaking, but it’s more like a misguided opportunity.

Gaghan’s film follows four plotlines. Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a CIA field agent, and expert on the Middle East, coming to end of his effectiveness as a field agent, struggling to get his superiors in Washington to understand the complexities of Middle Eastern oil politics. He is ordered to arrange the assassination of the eldest son of the Emir of a Persian Oil Kingdom Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig). Nasir is suspected of the States of harbouring terrorist sympathies. In fact he is a passionate reformer, desperate to modernise his country. Nasir is working with Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) a representative of an American energy company, whose son is tragically killed by an electrical fault at one of the Emir’s estates during a business trip. The Kingdom is also being courted by a newly merged US oil company Connex-Killen for exclusive drilling rights – with attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) tasked to ensure that nothing stands in the way of the merger and the riches that will follow. As these three storylines of political and economic oil matters interweave, migrant oil worker Wasim (Mazhar Munir) struggles to find work in the kingdom, and is slowly wooed by extremists.

Gaghan directs his own script and that might be his first mistake, as he is not a confident or imaginative enough director to craft something truly dramatic and engaging out of this highly researched, technical script. Instead, the script – or rather the research behind the script – drives events at every turn and leads to scenes that feel like they should be intelligent but tend to be actors reciting reams of dialogue and stats at each other. Combined with that, the film has a slightly smug preachy tone to it, desperate to let us know how shady and corrupt the world is and how trapped we are on a continual downward spiral of greed and corruption preventing us from improving and changing the world. It doesn’t always make for compelling viewing.

On top of that the complexity of the narrative is often mistaken for smartness, but often feels rather more like rushed and sudden execution of a story that doesn’t really have time to breath. Frankly the story that Gaghan wants to tell needed 8-10 hours of screen time and he doesn’t get it. Instead he throws everything and the kitchen sink into this sprawling study of oil based corruption. From Washington, to private oil firms, to intelligence agencies, to the cash rich families sitting on top of these oil geysers everyone gets a kicking as part of the same sordid mess that has led to the world being dominated by the rich and the regular guys of the middle east being left adrift and easy picking for extremists.

It feels like it should carry real weight, but it never really does because it’s hard for us to get a handle on what is going on half the time and even less harder to care once you realise the film has sacrificed character and motivation for the drive of putting together its polemical view of the world. The film is stuffed with actors, but its striking how few of the characters they play make an impression. Every part is played by a star – except of course for the inexplicable casting of jobbing 1980s Brit TV actor Nicky Henson as an arrogant oil exec, a casting so outlandishly out of place for an actor you are more likely to see in One Foot in the Grave that I kind of love the film for it – but none of the roles is really much more than a cipher.

That’s not to say there isn’t decent work. Christopher Plummer brings great heft and menace to a law firm Washington bigwig. Jeffrey Wright nailed so well playing this sort of on-the-surface meek functionary who quietly learns (albeit reluctantly) to play the game as well as the loudmouths that he has played the same role several times afterwards. Alexander Siddig owes much of his post DS9 career to his exceptional thoughtful and sympathetic performance as an Arab Prince whose forward-thinking is a disaster for the governments who want to keep using his state as an ATM. 

George Clooney won a generous Oscar (it was surely partly a compensation for not winning anything for Good Night, and Good Luck that year) but gets the meatiest role as Bob Barnes, the tired and cynical CIA agent who slowly begins to question the orders he is given and the world he has been working to build for his masters. His story contains the most actual drama, possibly why it stands out – poor George gets a rough ride here, tortured, arrested, bruised and blooded. It’s pretty straight forward stuff for an actor of his quality (Clooney plays it with a world weary outrage) but it’s also the most memorable storyline of a film straining at every moment to be important. 

It’s quite telling actually that the film’s most memorable speech is put into the mouth of Tim Blake Nelson’s oil executive (“Corruption is why we win!”) a character so lightly sketched out he barely appears other than making that speech. It’s a sign of the weakness of the film: characters serve purposes to the narrative and then disappear. These lightly sketched characters act out a lecture on world politics and economic-energy-driven corruption. Syriana needed room to breath in order to become a drama rather than a lecture. Instead it’s a decent workmanlike movie with ideas that it never manages to really express in a way that will make you care. When it tells you rich businessmen love money and powerful politicians love power you’re likely to basically say “yeah. I know. Tell me something new…”

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Kirk has to overcome a lifelong prejudice against Klingons in the marvellous, best-in-series film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Director: Nicholas Meyer

Cast: William Shatner (Captain James T Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Captain Spock), DeForest Kelley (Dr Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy), James Doohan (Scotty), Walter Koenig (Commander Pavel Chekov), Nichelle Nichols (Commander Uhuru), George Takei (Captain Hikaru Sulu), Christopher Plummer (General Chang), Mark Lenard (Ambassador Sarek), David Warner (Chancellor Gorkon), Kim Cattrell (Lt Valeris), Rosana DeSoto (Azetbur), Kurtwood Smith (Federation President), Brock Peters (Admiral Cartwright), Michael Dorn (Colonel Worf), John Shuck (Klingon Ambassador), Iman (Martia)

This will sound ridiculous, but there are few films that have had such an impact on me as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. How bizarre is that? But not only can I trace my love of all things Trek to this film, but it was also my basic introduction to Shakespeare, whose plays in various shapes and forms have been a big part of my life ever since. Throw into the mix that it sparked an interest in the Cold War and you’ve got quite a coup for this sixth film in (I’ll be honest!) a hit-and-miss franchise.

This film follows the final mission of Kirk (William Shatner) and company. There has been a disaster on the Klingon moon Praxis, which has devastated the Klingon economy and left them with no choice but to enter peace negotiation with the Federation, to try and end the Cold War that has existed for generations between the two powers. Sound familiar? While Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has been one of the leading negotiators with Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner), Kirk is reluctantly roped in to provide an escort for the Klingons to a peace conference. Kirk, and many of his crew, are weighed down with decades of prejudice and suspicion of Klingons (attitudes that erupt in a tense dinner between the Enterprisecrew and many of the equally suspicious Klingons). Kirk and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) however find themselves in trouble when Gorkon is assassinated and the two men are arrested and put on trial by the Klingons. Will Spock save them? Can they save the peace talks? Time for one last adventure.

Star Trek VI very nearly didn’t happen. The previous film, written and directed by Shatner, was a disaster, a messy, strange, flat-footed, cheap-looking adventure that was a huge flop, won several Razzies and nearly killed the series off. So it’s great that the cast got a chance to have one final swan-song in their parts – and that this basically turned into the most intelligent film they had made since Star Trek II. No surprise that Nicholas Meyer, an articulate, literate and intelligent novelist turned film-maker, was the common link between them. Not weighed down by Star Trek lore, nor the breezy “I’m above this” contempt that other directors in the series have had, Meyer understands what makes good Trek – a strong story, compelling character arcs, intelligent writing and a good balance between adventure and themes that resound with contemporary depth.

Star Trek VI was written as the Berlin Wall fell, and it’s a neat commentary on the sort of attitudes you would have seen in America and Russia at the time. Gorkon’s name even echoed Gorbachev (and Lincoln as well). But this isn’t just a historical parallel with the modern world. Instead Meyer also uses this to explore the attitudes of his characters. Like Star Trek II, this works into a neat deconstruction of Kirk’s persona. Kirk has to confront not age here (as in that film) but instead his own out-of-step anger, prejudices and refusal to change. At the same time, the film also explores Kirk as a man who can overcome his instinctive hostility, to make himself a better man. It’s such rich complexity that it’s no wonder I got sucked into a life-long love for Star Trek.

All this makes a fabulous framework for the strongest, most high-stakes entry in the franchise. Meyer’s direction is spot on: simmering with tension in the first half, investing every scene with a creeping intensity and rumbling sense of disagreement. He also works brilliantly with the regular cast, who turn in some of their best performances in this film: Shatner in particular reins in (mostly) the ham for a thoughtful and intelligence performance, while Kelley mixes deadpan snarks with a world-weary resignation. Nimoy also goes further than he has for a long time with Spock, who struggles under the surface with a host of emotions, from hope, pride, guilt and fury all bubbling away under that cool Vulcan façade. The rest of the cast also get moments to shine. 

This is a film that barely puts a foot wrong in its entire first act. From the opening explosion of Praxis – with a hugely exciting sense of danger as Sulu’s Excelsior starship gets caught up in the shockwave – through to the trial of Kirk and Bones, this film is tonally spot on. We understand completely the hostility and distrust Kirk feels towards the Klingons, just as we appreciate on a deeper level his desire to make the peace talks work. The awkward encounters with the Klingons simmer with an unspoken racism from the Federation characters (many of the cast reported being uncomfortable with the imperialist and superior tone their characters had to take), and a hostile resentment from the Klingons. The eventual assassination attempt has a grim inevitability about it, but is expertly shot and edited (a zero-gravity assault by two assassins on Gorkon’s disabled ship). The show-trial itself is like a nightmare of injustice. It’s scintillating and compelling stuff.

While the pace does slacken slightly when Kirk and McCoy find themselves in a Klingon prison camp – we are, by the way, introduced to the prison camp via a speech from the commandant eerily reminiscent of the greetings handed out in Bridge on the River Kwai – it never loses the audience’s attention. And it powers back up for a brilliant all-action, at first totally one-sided, fight between the Enterprise and a Klingon ship en route to the peace conference. A large measure of the film’s atmospheric success should also be given to the extraordinary score by Cliff Eidelman, a brilliant combination of familiar themes and fast-paced orchestral work, one of my favourite film scores.

And Shakespeare? Where does he come into it? Largely through Christopher Plummer, playing General Chang, the man who emerges as principal antagonist. Plummer’s exuberant performance is perfect for this larger-than-life warrior – a man who loves nothing more than reading Shakespeare “in the original Klingon” (one of many examples of the film’s wit). Plummer lets rip throughout the film, quoting endlessly from virtually every Shakespeare play you could imagine, just this side of ham. Plummer is also, for my money, the best villain this series had. But how could you not love a film where the villain rotates round in his command chair shrieking gleefully “Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war!” Or says farewell to Kirk early on with a cheeky “we have heard the chimes at midnight…”. It’s possibly the best introduction to how great Shakespeare is that you can have.

But then that’s just part of Meyer’s witty, literate script, which throws in quotes from Conan Doyle and JM Barrie to Adlai Stevenson and Neville Chamberlain, and has Spock tells Kirk he’s the perfect choice for a mission to the Klingons as “there is an old Vulcan saying: only Nixon can go to China”. With stuff like that how can you not enjoy the film? It also understands the warmth between the main cast, their sense of character. The whole film combines an elegiac tone with a triumphant final mission, the passing of an era – with the final moments of the film capturing this, from its Peter Pan quote (“First star to the left and straight on until morning”), to the signatures of the cast appearing on the screen, literally signing off on their Star Trek careers.

The whole film is perfectly pitched like this. Every moment works from the off, and the action and adventure is balanced by some wonderful comic moments and beats of high tension and drama. The film’s use of the Cold War in Space as a backdrop works really well, and sheds a new light on attitudes in the franchise that have never really been touched before. It’s well acted, directed with flair and skill (the final space battle is brilliantly assembled), and the score is fantastic. There is a reason why I inflicted this film on my best man and ushers the morning before my wedding: it’s got a special place in my heart and it always will.