Tag: Jonathan Pryce

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh take on big media in the fun Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Cast: Pierce Brosnan (James Bond), Jonathan Pryce (Elliot Carver), Michelle Yeoh (Wai Lin), Teri Hatcher (Paris Carver), Joe Don Baker (Jack Wade), Ricky Jay (Henry Gupta), Gotz Otto (Richard Stamper), Vincent Schiavelli (Dr Kaufman), Judi Dench (M), Samantha Bond (Miss Moneypenny), Colin Salmon (Charles Robinson), Geoffrey Palmer (Admiral Roebuck), Julian Fellowes (Minister)

For Pierce Brosnan’s second Bond film, they knew there was life in the old dog yet. GoldenEye’s success meant Tomorrow Never Dies could be all about bangs and fun, a Moore-esque caper with a modern touch. And fun it certainly is – exciting, amusing and with some top gadgets. This doesn’t re-invent the gun barrel, but it gives us a hell of a ride.

A British Navy ship is sunk in Chinese waters (the navy is always so luckless in Bond films!) and a Chinese MiG is shot down. Each side blames the other: but MI6 believe they are both being played against each other by a third party – media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce). There’s 48 hours to find the truth and stop a war. Best send Bond (Pierce Brosnan) to Carver’s HQ to shake things up, not least because he has a past relationship with Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher). Soon partnering with Chinese Intelligence agent Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), the two work to expose Carver’s dastardly schemes to start a war to increase his ratings and secure those lucrative Chinese broadcast rights.

Tomorrow Never Dies sometimes has a by-the-numbers feel to it – probably because the script was written on the go, with only locations and set-pieces decided in advance. Usually that’s a recipe for disaster, but with TND it works. Probably because everyone looks like they are having a whale of a time making it and the tongue is wedged so firmly in the cheek it’s practically touching the ear. And its concept of a mogul using fake news to manipulate the world seems alarmingly prescient today – think how powerful Elliot Carver would be if he ran Twitter (as he surely would today).

You can forgive Tomorrow Never Dies almost anything because it has so many stand-out sequences. The film has a (literally) explosive start, with Bond racing against time to fly some nuclear missiles out of a terrorist trading camp, before a British cruise missile blows the base sky high (and “make Chenoboyl look like a picnic”). Naturally the destruction as Bond lays waste to the camp makes you wonder why they wasted the money on a cruise missile when Bond can destroy the place for free.

Front-and-centre though is the “Bond drives a car through a shoot-out on the back-seat with a remote control” sequence. Which when written down, captures only about 5% of the sequence’s delight. Narrated by an over-cautious sat nav (constantly warning about hazards ahead, while the car is pummelled by bullets), we get all the gadgets we expect (bullet-proof glass, rockets, caltrops, a buzz saw that conveniently rises to the exact height required to cut through a steel wire obstacle) while also watching Bond masterfully steer a car around a multi-storey car-park on his phone from the back seat. Of course, Brosnan knows it’s silly and telegraphs his enjoyment, letting out a chuckle when he reinflates his tyres after driving over his own caltrops (I love this moment).

Tell me he’s not having fun.

There is a cursory sense of mystery, but TND wisely doesn’t have much patience with that. Bond is nominally under-cover at Carver’s HQ as a banker (inevitably using his own name) but, just like his Moore-heyday, Bond’s undercover skills are hilariously bad and his hints clankingly blunt. Fortunately Carver follows Bond villain form, confirming any suspicions by ordering his goons to beat Bond black-and-blue (more fool them, as Bond uses every instrument in a sound proof recording studio to best the baddies).

This was Brosnan in absolutely top form. He’s extremely charming, handles the action very well and gets more than a few grins. He looks like a guy just delighted to be there, living the dream of playing Bond. He’s both self-deprecating and cocksure and manages to be both a believable ruthless killer and a sort of charming little-boy-lost when needed. He loves a pun in a way no other Bond apart from Moore has done (“brushing up on a little Danish” indeed…) and his chemistry with Michelle Yeoh is superb, the two playing off each other like a sort of all-action Morecambe and Wise.

It’s a Bond where comedy is to the fore. An expensive satellite at Carver’s HQ is introduced (“It’s worth $300 million. You break it, you bought it”) solely so Bond can trash it without a second glance. A hitman (hilariously played in a cameo by Vincent Schiavelli) assures Bond he could “shoot him from Stuttgart” and still make it look like a suicide then apologises with embarrassment when he has to delay the hit to ask Bond how to unlock his car (“I don’t know what to say. I feel like an idiot.”). Moneypenny even calls Bond a “cunning linguist” after she interrupts by phone Bond’s tryst with a Danish professor (a joke which I certainly didn’t get when I first watched the film at a young age).

The lighter side of the script works more successfully than some of the attempts at emotion. The script bluntly states Bond had deep feelings for Paris Carver, but this never comes across at all in the performances. Probably because the emotions were torpedoed by the blatantly obvious lack of chemistry between Brosnan and Hatcher (allegedly they couldn’t stand each other). This is made all the more obvious by contrasting it to the delightful chemistry between Brosnan and Yeoh (watch the motorcycle chase with them handcuffed together – brilliant stuff, and Yeoh is excellent in this). When Paris is dispatched early in the film, Bond is cut up about it for literally 10 seconds before he’s having a whale of a time in that car park chase.

“There’s no news…like BAD news!”

Like many Bond films you can see how the franchise had become besotted with the latest “cool thing” in cinema. In this case, the film seems deeply in love with John-Woo-Hong-Kong-action gunplay. Bond probably fires more automatic machine guns in this film than he does in all the rest of the franchise put together, and the film’s finale (the dullest set-piece) is a run-of-the-mill shoot-out on a stealth boat, that feels pretty familiar from the series’ countless “face off in a sub” endings.

Spottiswoode directs with a straightforward lack of flair. Pryce has fun going OTT (and channelling Gus Hedges from Drop the Dead Donkey) as Carver even if the part is a bit under-written. But the main joy is in watching Brosnan have a huge amount of fun running around, blowing things up and shamelessly smirking through some dodgy puns. His Bond may never have been the most complex interpretation, but at his best I’m not sure anyone else was as purely enjoyable. Much like the film.

The Two Popes (2019)

Hopkins and Pryce excel in Fernando Merielles’ witty and thought-provoking The Two Popes

Director: Fernando Meirelles

Cast: Jonathan Pryce (Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio/Pope Francis), Anthony Hopkins (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI)

Hollywood loves a buddy movie. And what buddy movie could be more off the wall than Two Popes: one a German traditionalist with a reputation for rigid interpretation of church law who reads Latin for fun, the other an easy-going Argentinian reformer with a love of football and tango. So that’s what you get with The Two Popes, a surprisingly funny and engaging film about Papal politics, dashed with a pleasingly even-handed perspective on its two central characters.

In 2012, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is planning to hand in his resignation as Archbishop of Buenos Aires to Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins), now in his seventh year of Pope. Bergoglio feels that he has little left to offer the church, and this own reformist ideas are out of step with the current leadership. He feels his best calling would be to return to a simpler, parish priest life. But Benedict XVI summons him to the Vatican to dissuade him – leading to a series of prolonged heart-to-heart conversations between the two that see a thaw in their relationship, heartfelt confessions from both men on their failings, and Benedict’s revelation that he plans to resign from the Pontificate – and wants Bergoglio to succeed him, as Bergoglio can offer the reform to the church that Benedict cannot.

The Two Popes is a terrific adaptation by Anthony McCarten of his own stage play. It shows us Benedict’s conservative, safety-first policies (towards everything from financial scandals to child abuse scandals) and Bergoglio’s more modern, inclusive church, but largely avoids holding one up as wholly superior to the other, or turning the story into a simple good guy/bad guy conflict. Instead it focuses on showing the faults and positives of both men, and how both men felt a calling and need for their service at different times – and how this loss of calling (something both men suffer from at the start of the film) can be reborn through patience, listening and reflection. Meirelles directs this very theatrical piece sharply, with a keen eye for expanding it into film with a combination of intriguing angles, visual style and confident editing.

Unfolding over the course of several increasingly heartfelt conversations – which progress from awkwardly blunt confrontation, through thawing openness, to something near to a confessional – this is a film that uses the Hollywood convention of a mismatched couple to allow an intriguing exploration of the price and value of faith and the difficulty of duty. Sharp commentary is made on the backgrounds of both men – Benedict growing up in Nazi Germany, the sharp criticism of Bergoglio’s perceived lack of action during the Military Junta coup, which led to his dismissal as head of the Jesuit order in Argentina. Both express guilt, regret and even touches of self-loathing – but both also react to those feelings in the other with patience and support.

It also helps that these conversations around church politics and religious intent are told with plenty of fresh and entertaining jokes. There is always a lot of mileage to be had from seeing people like the Pope delightedly watching trashy TV or failing to recognise either ABBA or the Beatles, while Bergoglio’s homespun openness and willingness to talk with anyone about anything (not to mention his passion for football) throw open no end of comic possibilities from seeing this prince of the Church insist on being treated as just a regular joe.

It also gives loads of opportunities for its two stars, arguably Wales’ leading actors (both highly deserving of their Oscar nods). Hopkins, given his best material in years, is brilliant as Benedict: irascible, imposing, morally certain and firm but also playful just below the surface and a man profoundly aware of his own mistakes and failings. Hopkins delivers the lines with just the right touch of twinkle in his eye. 

He also bounces wonderfully off Pryce who is possibly at a career best as Bergoglio. A brilliant physical match for Pope Francis, Pryce’s performance captures perfectly the unaffected humility of the man, but also his intensely sharp personal reflection and the burdens of guilt, as well as the shying away from confrontation that is Bergoglio’s greatest failing. Pryce’s comic timing is impeccable, but he also carries the movie’s heart and soul with affecting skill, pulling off the difficult trick of making a good man a compelling one.

Meirelles’ film is a talky affair – and its construction is a little pat at times, like a very well assembled production line buddy movie and biopic. It never completely escapes the clichés of two-very-different-people-coming-together that is one of its heartbeats, but it does it all so well, with such grace and wit – and two such terrific performances – that it hardly matters. Another big success for Netflix.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer have a love that cannot survive the morals of society in The Age of Innocence

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Newland Archer), Michelle Pfeiffer (Countess Ellen Olenska), Winona Ryder (May Welland), Miriam Margolyes (Mrs Mingott), Geraldine Chaplin (Mrs Welland), Michael Gough (Henry van der Luyden), Richard E. Grant (Larry Lefferts), Mary Beth Hurt (Regina Beaufort), Robert Sean Leonard (Ted Archer), Norman Lloyd (Mr Letterblair), Alec McCowen (Sillerton Jackson), Sian Phillips (Mrs Archer), Jonathan Pryce (Rivière), Alexis Smith (Louisa van der Luyden), Stuart Wilson (Julius Beaufort), Joanne Woodward (Narrator), Carolyn Farina (Janey Archer)

In 1870’s New York, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), is a fastidious connoisseur of the arts, part of the super-rich elite of New York society. He’s engaged to be married to young May Welland (Winona Ryder), but finds his world view and values turned upside down when he meets May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ellen is a scandalous figure, a woman separated from her philandering European husband, trying to make her way in New York society. Newland and Ellen are irresistibly drawn together, but do they have a chance to be together in the oppressive society of the New York upper classes?

That’s one question. The one more people were asking was: how would Scorsese follow up Goodfellas? Probably very few people would have bet on an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. In fact, in 1993, there was more than a little annoyance among some viewers at the idea of the master of gangster movies, the guy who directed Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, turning his hand to the realm of Merchant Ivory. The film bombed at the box office – but did it deserve that reaction? Was Scorsese a director out-of-place?

Well the reaction is slightly unfair, because The Age of Innocence is a marvellously filmed, exact, brilliantly constructed piece of film-making, that so lays on the opulence and wealth of New York society that it turns everything in the film into feeling like a gilded cage. That’s a cage carefully controlled and monitored by the inmates, with their strict, inflexible rules about every single social interaction, unbreakable rules of decorum and etiquette covering everything, with any deviation from these rules met with instant expulsion. Put it like that, and this doesn’t sound a million miles away from the gangster families Scorsese is more associated with.

Inspired by the films of Powell and Pressburger in its intricate construction, and flashes of artifice in filming and editing, as well as its rich colour palette, with touches of everyone from Visconte, Ophüls, Truffaut to name but a few, this is a film-maker’s love letter to cinematic classics. A beautiful sequence of Newland watching Ellen from behind and a distance on a jetty, yearning for her to turn around before a boat passes a lighthouse, using that landmark as the point when he will stop looking and accept something is not to be. The scene is bathed in a Jack Cardiff-ish red, with the objects in the light given a sharp definition in contrast to the colours. It’s a beautiful image, and one of several that run through the film. Inspired by paintings of the era, Scorsese also layers in Viscontish scenes of opulence, with The Leopard very much in mind as every detail of the vast wealth, and huge accumulation of objects in every room of these people’s houses, seems to crush and entrap the people in them. The rooms themselves become metaphors of the oppressive, rule-bound society the characters are trapped in, like the people have been designed to fit into the rooms rather than vice versa. The one exception is Ellen’s rooms, which have a sense of personality to them.

This marvellous construction – with its beautiful photography, inspiring design and costumes – contains a storyline of frustrated love, a love triangle between three people where the man has to make a choice between what he wants and what is expected of him. Newland Archer clearly loves Ellen in a way he can never love May – indeed, he is dismissively cruel in his thoughts towards May, who he clearly considers nothing more than an extension of the mindless gilded objects of beauty around him, a woman he sees as lacking an imagination or daring. In Ellen, he sees far more opportunities for a world of change, of difference, or being something he does not expect. She is far more of a free-spirit, a more bohemian figure, confident in herself and something far more modern than May, who is very much a product of her time and place.

The film, carefully demonstrates the growing unease and unsettlement of Archer as he begins to feel things he has never done before, to start to react and aim for a style of living he would never previously consider. All his life before now is a careful studying and collection of moments, or savouring experiences in the way that a collector would place them in a glass box. From seeing only the moments of plays he wishes to see, to carefully collecting shipments of books from London and reading the choice moments, Archer is a coldly controlling figure who believes he guides and directs his own life. Ellen not only demonstrates to him that in many ways he is as conventional as anyone else, but also that there are other options in his life. Archer struggles to build the emotional language that he needs in order to express these feelings bubbling in him – key moments indeed seem reminiscent of the operas that this New York society spends so much time watching, and it is only late in the film in little, genuine moments of affection can he find something real.

Scorsese’s film artfully and carefully shows this developing affection between the two, a love that the two of them speak of surprisingly early, but fail to find a genuine way of expressing it. The film captures the attempt by New York society at the time to be more British than the British, and the hidebound restrictions this brings. Scorsese uses cinematic tricks to show Archer’s striving to escape. Spotlights zero in on Archer and Ellen in the middle of society, as if to drain out all other moments. Letters from his respective love interests are delivered with the actors addressing the camera, as if speaking to Archer direct. Flashes of screen colour cover key cuts, as if all this colour was just on the edges of his life but he is unable to access them. He is a man who feels himself trapped and committed to one form of life, but who still feels the longing for another.

The Age of Innocence is a beautifully made film, but there is a coldness to it. Perhaps this is why it doesn’t quite capture the heart in the way of other films. So much as Scorsese captured the cold and restrictive world of this society, that it seems to permeate the film and make the whole thing somehow colder and more restrictive. There is such artistry and effort in the film-making, that the film seems a coldly detailed piece of art. Perhaps this is why the use of narration – beautifully spoken by Joanne Woodward – becomes overbearing here in the way it doesn’t in other Scorsese films. It’s another distance from the entire experience, as if the film is keeping the audience at arm’s length as much as society is. 

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is expertly assembled, a masterful, brilliantly observed, intricately detailed masterclass in micro-expression, of layered frustrations and repression. But it’s such a marvellously constructed, detailed and well observed performance that it feels a masterful piece of art to be admired rather than loved. For all the film centres Archer in the story, he is a hard man to care for or invest in. Pfeiffer gives a wonderful performance as the far freer, intelligent and daring Ellen – but there is a slight lack of spark between them, for all the brilliance of both actors the feeling of an overpowering, obsessive love just doesn’t quite come out of the picture.

This coldness of the construction, carries through every frame. It is perhaps an easier film to admire than love, for all its brilliant construction. It is perhaps too successful in establishing the sharp rules of its society, and does not invest enough time in looking at the raw passions that bubble under the surface of its characters. It never quite explores the inner life of its characters, and they remain slightly distant objects from us. To be fair, this works very well in some cases: Winona Ryder as May carefully plays her hand throughout the film, so that it is a shock in the final scenes where she reveals depths of determination, strength of character and manipulation that far dwarf anything Archer is capable of. Where he is a man with a wistful longing for what he wants, but lacks the will to take it, she knows what she wants and is determined to take it.

The film uses its mostly British cast very well, their understanding of period and these sort of society rules crucial to its success. Margolyes, Wilson and McCowen in particular are very impressive as very different types of society bigwigs. Scorsese’s film contains many other things to admire, but it’s such a wonderfully made piece of film-making, so overburdened with intelligent interpretation of the novel that it fails to make a real emotional connection with the viewer. You will respect and enjoy scenes from it, but perhaps find its running time as overbearing as the characters find the society they are in, and eventually find yourself needing to come up for air.

The Wife (2018)

Glenn Close is the supportive but perhaps secretly resentful Wife of novelist Jonathan Pryce

Director: Björn Runge

Cast: Glenn Close (Joan Castleman), Jonathan Pryce (Joseph Castleman), Christian Slater (Nathaniel Bone), Max Irons (David Castleman), Annie Starke (Young Joan Castleman), Harry Lloyd (Young Joseph Castleman), Elizabeth McGovern (Elaine Mozell)

The old cliché used to be: behind every successful man, there’s a woman. The Wife explores just such a woman – and uses this story for a brilliantly structured, tightly written exploration of the tensions and sacrifices that underpin a partnership (and relationship) where the man is the sole public figure. In 1992, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is a hugely successful novelist, being honoured with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Standing beside him at all times is his wife Joan (Glenn Close), silent, supportive, taking care of all her husband’s needs. But as her husband is surrounded by praise and flattery, has her patience finally begun to snap?

Much of the attention for The Wife has focused on Glenn Close’s performance as Joan. And while her performance is superb, there is much more to this film than that. This is a well written, brilliantly acted, carefully shot relationship drama that manages to explore interesting details about how sexism, gender expectations and the patriarchy turn some brilliant, intelligent and gifted women into ciphers who must hide their skills under a bushel. The Wife is an engrossing, small scale drama that leaves you with a lot to think about.

Runge’s camera is slow and subtle, carefully zooming into parts of the scene that don’t seem at first to be central, but are revealed to be so. Many of these moments centre around Joan, a woman quietly at the edge of scenes, ignored by people, responding only when required. She calmly follows her husband’s lead, while quietly tending his needs (reminding him of appointments, making sure he takes his medicine, apologising for his abruptness). 

This sort of framing requires a lot of quiet, “reaction” acting from Close – and she excels at this. Close’s performance is a masterclass in subtlety, her face a mask of micro-reactions that leave the viewer guessing at all times exactly what she is feeling about all of the events she witnesses. No scene covers this better than when she listens in on the line as her husband is informed of his Nobel prize – her face slowly, carefully, unreadably changes from delight and pride to something far more equivocal, her face frozen in a look of – well is it anger, horror, frustration? It’s impossible to tell. After that, the entire film is a study in interpreting the exact feelings this woman has for the behaviour of, and praise for, her husband. What does she feel about this? What does she really think? How far does loyalty to her husband stretch?

Muck-raking, sensationalist would-be Castleman biographer Nathaniel Bone (a wonderfully sleazy Christian Slater) has a good idea that there is a lot of anger there – and gambles in a series of offers and interjections that Joan’s loyalty only stretches so far. How far is she responsible for the literary success of her husband? Flashbacks carefully woven into the film show in the early sixties the young Joan (played very well by Close’s real life daughter Annie Starke) as a promising literary writer who falls under the influence of her charismatic professor, young Joe (Harry Lloyd a slightly awkward fit as the arrogant bohemian writer). In the boorish, Mad Men-ish 60s, Joan feels her chance of being recognised as a writer in her own right is close to zero – indeed she’s told to forget it altogether by a bitter former alumna of her Ivy League college, played archly by Elizabeth McGovern – so decides hitching her star to Joe, a promising potential author, seems the best option.

But how much of that promise can Joe actively achieve? And how much of a literary as well as a personal partnership is this marriage? And has Joe lost all track of this? It’s easy to overlook how essential Jonathan Pryce is to the success of this film, but his Joe is a wonderful creation, a bombastic, larger-than-life, selfish even slightly childish figure, everyone’s idea of the great artist, living the cliché of constant praise and a series of seductions. Pryce’s Joe is a domineeringly unattractive figure who slowly reveals his own emotional fragility wrapped in dependency – and the scenes with him and Close (that take up much of the movie) first hum with unspoken tensions and then later throb with the cathartic release of these feelings. 

Those scenes when they come – and you can tell they’re coming from the start – are fantastic. Close is on the top of her game here, utterly believable as a woman who over the course of a few days slowly begins to question every decision she has ever made in her life. What Close does so brilliantly though is to show the balance, the lack of certainty, the mixed feelings she has – that people who in some way infuriate her, also provoke great love in her. Pryce is just as fabulous as her equally aggrieved husband. There are moments in these late scenes that tip into melodrama and cliché – but the general thrust of the scenes is so strong, you feel it gets away with it.

Runge has directed a marvellous low-key piece of work that feels like it would make an excellent play. It raises questions on the place of women in the 20th century – and the film’s setting is crucial, as a Joan growing up 10 years later might well have had a very different life – and the film has a brilliant eye for the everyday sexism and patronising assumptions made by people about the wives of ‘great men’. Powered with two brilliant central performances, this film deserves to be seen as something much more than just Close’s vehicle to possible (but sadly not to be) Oscar glory.

GI Joe: Retaliation (2013)

Channing Tatum and Dwayne Johnson wonder how they landed in this mess in GI Joe: Retaliation

Director: Jon M. Chu

Cast: Dwayne Johnson (Roadblock), Bruce Willis (General Joe Colton), Channing Tatum (Duke), Jonathan Pryce (President of the US), Adrianne Palicki (Lady Jaye), DJ Controne (Flint), Ray Park (Snake Eyes), Byung-hun Lee (Storm Shadow), Ray Stevenson (Firefly), Arnold Vosloo (Zartan), Walton Goggins (Warden James), RZA (Blind master)

Back in 2009, Hasbro (flushed with success from its Transformers franchise) released GI Joe: a humble, straightforward nonsense actioner (almost exactly the sort of film spoofed by Team America) in which gung-ho American action heroes save the world, destroying major cities on the way. It was harmless, Stephen Sommers-directed fun. Critics hated it. Audiences saw it, but were basically meh. It left us on a cliff-hanger. The cliff-hanger led to this joyless, “by-contractual-obligation” reboot.

The villainous Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) has changed his entire DNA to make him an exact physical match for the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) and taken his place. Using his powers, he orders a surprise attack on the GI Joe force, wiping out their base. All the Joes, including Duke (Channing Tatum) are killed, except for Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (DJ Controne). Now they need to form a team to take revenge, defeat Zartan and prevent the plans of the newly escaped Cobra Commander.

Oh dear God this is an awful film: a truly dire comic book disaster, terribly written and practically incoherent in its plot and storyline, peopled from top to bottom with bored looking actors. It’s barely a sequel at all to the original film. In fact, it disregards most of the plot of GI Joe: Rise of Cobra altogether, barely acknowledging its existence. None of the plot threads of the first film are carried across at all, with the exception of the replacement of the President. On top of that, all the characters the first film spent time establishing as our heroes are unceremoniously dispatched (mostly off-screen) to be replaced with a trio of new heroes, none of whom make any real impact. Is it just me who feels cheated that all the characters the first film tried to build up just get wiped out like so many wasps when a pest controller comes calling?

Was it really necessary to totally dump the previous film? It wasn’t that bad. And if they were going to do that, could they not have come up with a fresher reboot than this? Who on earth thought the way to make the series fresher was to introduce Bruce Willis (at his most breezily, contemptuously disengaged) as a new hero? The film barely has time to introduce its new heroes: Lady Jaye has Daddy issues and is looking for approval (her Daddy, by the way, sounds like a sexist asshole with his “women shouldn’t serve in the military” attitudes and I was waiting for another character to point this out – they don’t of course), while Flint barely has a character beyond being a cheeky-chappie. When even Dwayne Johnson can barely be bothered to bring his C-game to a role, you know you’re in trouble: this film turns the most engaging action star of our age into a dull rent-a-muscle.

Then the plot. Yawn. Oh dear God yawn. Is there a plot? Not really. Events happen. They keep happening. Occasionally characters (like the “Blind Master”) pop up to essentially blurt out a load of plot, in between rushed character introductions. Turgid fight scenes are given extended screentime – but since they usually involve people we don’t really know fighting people we’ve barely been introduced to, it’s pretty hard to get engaged in them. Nothing really links together or carries any meaning. In fact, the film is about so little – and what plot there is, so clumsily and irritatingly spoonfed to the audience while our heroes take a frustratingly long time to catch-up – that you’ll be surprised the run time is as long as it is. I’ve already forgotten most of it and I watched it two days ago.

I say watched it, because I’m not sure “letting it pass before my eyes” on a Saturday morning over breakfast really counts. Certainly the final battle scenes – involving the storming of a bunker, something blowing up in space, world leaders in peril, and embarrassingly trite “personal rivalry” stories coming to a head – are so unimaginatively filmed, so dully predictable in their execution, that I fast forwarded through them. I just wanted the fucking thing to end. In fact I bemoaned the failure of Cobra to knock off all the Joes to start with. Not that the villains are much better themselves.

Pity poor Channing Tatum. Actually on reflection don’t: he’s well out of it. Tatum and Johnson’s double bill is the most likeable thing in the movie, the only thing that feels remotely real. Tatum was called back for reshoots (as he became more famous in between finishing filming and the planned release date, after the success of Magic Mike) and it’s a neat reminder of what an engaging, off-the-cuff performer he can be: when he kicks the bucket, the film’s most likeable, interesting character goes with it. The other actors just seem interested in picking up a cheque.

GI Joe: Retaliation isn’t a reboot. It’s an execution. It’s not even an execution you can get worked up about. In fact, I would have happily knocked off some of its characters myself. Did we create the language of cinema to come up with something as stodgy and insipid as this? Where is the magic and inspiration, where is the fun? What looking glass did we fall through, that anyone thought this pile of crapparoo was the way to restart a franchise?

Ronin (1998)

Robert De Niro takes aim in super cool car-chase classic Ronin

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Robert De Niro (Sam), Jean Reno (Vincent), Natascha McElhone (Dierdre), Stellan Skarsgård (Gregor), Sean Bean (Spence), Skipp Sudduth (Larry), Michael Lonsdale (Jean-Pierre), Jonathan Pryce (Seamus O’Rourke), Jan Triska (Dapper Gent), Féodor Atkine (Mikhi)

Sam (Robert De Niro), Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), Spence (Sean Bean) and Larry (Skipp Sudduth) are ex-intelligence operatives from the Cold War (or “the late unpleasantness”). Now working as mercenaries, they are hired by IRA operative Dierdre (Natascha McElhone) to steal a mysterious case. The operation becomes increasingly complex as trust is betrayed, new competitors emerge, and a stream of gun battles and car chases soon bursts out.

I don’t think there are enough words to say how much I love this film. I have seen it I honestly don’t know how many times. Some films just connect with you, or something about them so completely works for you that you can’t help but enjoy them. Ronin is quite simply one of my favourite ever films – others may poke at it, but to me I think this is a perfectly structured piece of film-making, a 1970s-style thriller produced in the 1990s, the last flourish of old-school, Cold War spy film-making. In fact, I genuinely think the further we move away from the bombastic 90s, the richer this film looks. It’s becoming less and less of a guilty pleasure and more and more of a pleasure.

First and foremost you have to talk about what Ronin is most famous for: its jaw dropping car chases. What’s particularly exciting about these is that everything you are seeing was done for real. There is barely a spot of trickery in this – they simply hired the best stunt men in the world, got hold of some cool looking cars, and let them go to town all over France.

Of course, watching cars going round and round in itself isn’t massively interesting: what makes it compelling in Ronin is the skilled story-telling. Not only do we always know what’s going on, but the characters are kept in the forefront (most of the actors’ terrified faces were real, as they tore round the streets of Paris for real at 90+ miles an hour). In addition to that, the editing and shooting of these scenes is simply superb. The film gets a perfect balance of sound effects and musical cues: the soundtrack of the final car chase is split 50/50 between revving engines and music. A combination of low angles (putting us practically on the front of the car) and medium and long shots keep the visuals of each chase fresh. You’d actually have to be without a pulse to not be gripped by these sequences. These are without a doubt the best car chases ever committed to screen.

But it’s not just about car chases. This is a brilliant mood piece, filmed in a drained out colour palate that makes the whole thing feel like the characters have been transplanted intact from the 1970s. Frankenheimer’s direction is crisp and cool, and he has an eye for an excellent shot. He also allows plenty of subtle character and mood building to counterpoint the action, as in the excellent, almost wordless, opening sequence following De Niro’s arrival at a café. Carefully he cases the joint while the others arrive, putting in place a possible escape route (we later discover) before heading in. Later, the film builds a moment of exquisite tension and excitement about a drawing on a board and the colour of a boat house. We even get a scene where De Niro guides some of the characters through performing surgery on him to remove a rogue bullet.

The whole film is packed full of excellent vignettes like this: I love the moment when De Niro pretends to have lost his nerve and carelessly knocks a coffee cup off a table to see how Skarsgard’s slightly sinister Gregor may respond (he catches it before it hits the ground and then immediately looks sheepish as if he has given something away). The film also sprinkles dark hints throughout of a wider world (“Where do I know you from?” “Vienna” “Of course…” an example of exposition-free dialogue that establishes a back story), while the characters’ backgrounds and their recruitment by “the man in the wheelchair” remain deliberately obscure.

It’s also one of the best Macguffin films you are going to see ever. What’s in the case? Who knows? Who cares? The film’s structure totally understands that it doesn’t matter to us what’s in the thing at all. It’s only important in that it matters to the characters: and that most of them are willing to go to any lengths to secure it (preferably for free).

The other major strength of the film is its cracking dialogue, the work of an uncredited David Mamet (allegedly pissed off that the Writer’s Guild of America declared he had to share billing). The dialogue is endlessly quotable, and deftly sketches out character: for instance, we understand immediately De Niro’s cool confidence and Bean’s blustering faux machismo from exchanges like this: 

Spence: You worried about saving your own skin?
Sam: Yeah I am. It covers my body.

That only scratches the surface of the film’s dialogue, which crackles – this exchange between Vincent and Sam sums up its wit, and lived-in quality:

In fact the film is full of cool lines like this that seem to carry a flavour of working in intelligence, and stick in the imagination (“The map is not the territory” or “Either you’re part of the problem or you’re part of the solution or you’re just part of the landscape”). The best moments sizzle with an effortless cool, with dialogue that you find yourself (or I do anyway) regularly dropping into everyday conversation. It also helps to slowly build relationships within the film, with Sam and Vincent’s dialogue quickly finding itself in sync, a clever little indicator of their building friendship.

The relationship between Sam and Vincent is in many ways the heart of the film – while other characters fall by the wayside, events ruthlessly exposing their weaknesses, it’s these two who form a close bond. Vincent may believe “Everyone’s your brother until the rent comes” but their friendship develops a real warmth and trust – they are the real romantic link in the film (despite a flirtation with Natasha McElhone’s steely IRA gun runner Dierdre).

All this content comes together brilliantly into a tightly contained and carefully paced thriller. It’s also strikingly well-acted in a tight, stripped down manner. This is probably the last engaged, “serious” role De Niro did before his career drifted into decades of self-parody. He gives Sam a brilliant lived-in quality, with a wry sense of humour. Jean Reno is equally well cast as the laconically cool Vincent, while Natasha McElhone is engaging and intriguing as Dierdre. Stellan Skarsgård is a stand-out as the ice-cool Gregor. Of the no-less than three Bond-baddy actors, Michael Lonsdale probably has the best part as a model-building fixer, though Sean Bean does decent work as twitchy poseur. Jonathan Pryce is, I have to say, not completely convincing as an IRA heavy, but does a decent job.

Okay I’ll concede the final reveal and resolution of the film’s plot is not the best moment (a particularly heavy-handed, plumbily voiced BBC radio voiceover explains much of the ending), but that’s a bump in the road of gripping, smart and old-school thriller. It’s accomplished in its filming, and its mood sizzles from the screen. The car chases are edge-of-your-seat gripping, and there is barely a false beat in acting or dialogue. The direction is full of character and has a brilliant eye for little details. Above all else, I really love this film – probably more than is healthy – and I have seen it a crazy number of times. I can’t imagine not enjoying watching it – and I don’t think I ever haven’t, even though I must know it frame-by-frame. Brilliant stuff!

Woman in Gold (2015)

Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds stumble through bland Philomena rip-off Woman in Gold

Director: Simon Curtis

Cast: Helen Mirren (Maria Altmann), Ryan Reynolds (Randy Schoenberg), Daniel Brühl (Hubertus Czernin), Katie Holmes (Pam Schoenberg), Tatiana Maslany (Young Maria), Max Irons (Fritz Altmann), Charles Dance (Sherman), Elizabeth McGovern (Judge Cooper), Jonathan Pryce (Chief Justice Renhquist), Antje Traue (Adele Bloch-Bauer), Allan Corduner (Gustav), Henry Goodman (Ferdinand)

The Nazi regime across Europe was a criminal one in every sense of the word. Along with the hideous acts of murder and warmongering, Woman in Gold uses its story to remind us their leaders were also little better than common thieves.

Maria Altmann was a young Jewish woman from a wealthy family, living in Vienna in the 1930s. She escaped from Austria to the US in 1939 with her husband, but had to leave the rest of her family behind. Their fine possessions, including several paintings by Klimt, were stolen by the Nazis.

Decades later, Maria (Helen Mirren) recruits struggling lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to help her reclaim the paintings, now owned by the Austrian government. The government are predictably dismissive of any claims on their heritage, and are particularly unwilling to give up Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (or Woman in Gold), a portrait of Altmann’s aunt, proudly displayed as a jewel of Austrian culture. So begins a case that will go, via the American supreme court, to the very heart of Austria’s uncomfortable relationship with its past. In parallel, Maria remembers her younger self (Tatiana Maslany) and her escape from Vienna.

I think it’s fair to say Maria is a role Helen Mirren could play standing on her head. It’s a cliché – the feisty, imperious elderly woman who cows all around her, but has a heart of (forgive me) gold. Ryan Reynolds Schoenberg is similarly predictably: a young, naïve, slightly bumbling do-gooder revealed to have hidden depths of strength, and ends up connecting with his own heritage in a “very personal” journey. In fact, every character in the “present day” plotline is a hopeless cliché. Katie Holmes has perhaps the worst role as Schoenberg’s wife – as The Wife always does in these things, she spends the first half of the film asking her husband to drop his time-consuming crusade, but come the second half she’s making the inevitable “you’ve come too far to give up now” speech.

Every bit of the modern day story is predictable, reheated slop from other, much better movies – you literally recognise every beat of every courtroom scene. Most conversations are essentially the actors spooling plot at each other, explaining everything from art history to Austrian mediation procedures. The moments where the dialogue allows the actors to focus on character land with a hamfisted heaviness, with all the subtly of Oscar “for your consideration” scenes.

Periodically the story abandons logical evolution altogether and leaps from A to B without explanation: Maria will never go back to Vienna, less than five minutes of screentime later oh no actually she will (explained by a timely, on-the-nose flashback), no she definitely won’t go back a second time, ta-da there she is. She wants to fight, then she wants to give up, then she wants to fight again. Whether these events were real or not, the film makes them feel like humdrum screenplay hokum.

You keep waiting for this to spring to life and do something fresh, but it never does. Even its odd-couple pairing is essentially Philomena reheated – but without the wit and warmth of that film’s script. It manages to turn what should have been an interesting story into something drier and duller than a documentary would have been.

The film takes wing a little more in the flashbacks to the 1930s. Again, there’s nothing new here, but the performances in are infused with a warmth, emotion and humanity missing from the other storyline – Allan Corduner is particularly good as Maria’s loving father. The sense of peril from the Nazis also gives the film a clear and unequivocal antagonist: the sequence where Maria and her husband flee Vienna is more engaging and tense than anything else in the film.

The weight of these flashbacks, however, only serves to contrast poorly with the strange, odd-couple comedy of the rest of the film. It’s literally two different films sitting uncomfortably together, neither doing either any service.

Woman in Gold is a confused film, that drags down what could have been a fascinating story into a safe, Sunday-afternoon film that never wants to say anything too controversial (even its potshots at the Austrians for overlooking their Nazi past is balanced by “good” Austrians). It reduces its characters to plot-spouting clichés, wrapped in a dry story. Although its flashback scenes carry some emotional heft, they can’t save the main plotline which spirals on and on, never engaging the viewer’s interest. It’s not gold, it’s very base metal.