The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)

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By the way – I’ve brought you the announcement of your death. South African engineer visiting London, Richard Hannay (Robert Powell) gets caught up in an intricate spy plot when a British secret agent Scudder (John Mills) takes shelter in his apartment after witnessing a political assassination. When the spy is killed by a secret organisation, Hannay becomes its next target, and must flee to Scotland, where he may be able to uncover the mystery by locating a black book lost by Scudder.  He is pursued by the police and the killers and it is only when Chief Superintendent Lomas (Eric Porter, Soames from TV’s The Forsyte Saga) gets bona fides from Hannay’s employers that the Government tries to save him – by using him as lure. Aided by the lovely Alex Mackenzie (Karen Dotrice), Hannay figures out the organisation’s sinister scheme to launch WW1 and attempts to halt it… John Buchan’s classic novel has such good bones that any alteration merely enhanced its reputation, as Hitchcock’s adaptation proved. This, the third version, is a different proposition – more straightforwardly faithful and dramatic, less comedic, and very suspenseful indeed. Michael Robson’s interpretation cleaves to the novel and it’s still an exercise in tension using trains, boats, planes, taxis and bikes in a travelogue that spans from London to the Scottish moors. Hannay is a bit of a cold fish to begin with but defrosts when the bullets start skimming his legs and he meets Alex. It’s tautly told and acted and ironically there is a fantastically Hitchcockian climax on the face of Big Ben concluding a literal race against time. Directed by Hammer veteran Don Sharp, with a very tasteful score by Ed Welch.

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Queen of the Desert (2015)

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Who knows best about tribes? In 1902 Gertrude Bell Nicole Kidman the daughter of wealthy British parents and a recent Oxford graduate. has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions, and a life of privilege bring her only boredom. At one dance a potential suitor actually suggests fornication and alludes to her similarity to his prize herd. Aspiring to some usefulness in her life, Gertrude decides to join her uncle who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. There the young lady not only encounters the Near East but also falls in love with an embassy employee, Henry Cadogan (James Franco) who adores her for her perspicacity and teaches her Farsi. However, their romance does not last long as her parents consider the young man a poor matrimonial choice for their daughter and forbid the marriage. Desperate, Henry commits suicide, failing to reconcile himself to the enforced separation. Gertrude finds out in a letter home following her mother’s death. For the remainder of her long life Gertrude Bell completely devotes herself to exploring and writing about the Near East in the wake of his death. She encounters T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) on an archaeological expedition and turns down a request to become a spy for the British Government. She visits her beloved Bedouin tribes over the Arab lands and earns their trust. Upon going to Damascus she encounters Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) and he confesses his passion for her but he’s married. She is kidnapped by an emir who wants to marry her – she could be his mother.  And when she returns to Syria, she finds World War One has spread … I would give my life for a woman like you.  This extraordinary story, of a pioneering woman traveller, writer, archaeologist and (eventually) a politician whose views shaped the delineation of the borders in the Middle East, following the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, gets a romantic biographical treatment. Kidman brings tremendous feeling to a woman of singular self-possession whose life nonetheless is shaped by the contours of love and death. It’s a rather conventional form for Werner Herzog who wrote and directed it, but there are scenes which communicate seemingly directly with nature, music by Klaus Badelt and Mark Yeager which feeds from desert song.  It’s not the mad epic you think you might get – it’s from Bell’s own writings and from history and it’s a swooning and beautiful interpretation of a woman alone among military men who seem to suffer intolerable repression. For the first time in my life I know who I am.  My heart belongs to the desert

Game Night (2018)

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Any of you fucking pricks move, I’m gonna execute every motherfucking last one of you!  Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are an insanely competitive couple who can’t conceive. Their weekly couples game night gets kicked up a notch when Max’s Wall St venture fund owner brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes to town and  arranges a murder mystery party including fake thugs and federal agents. It certainly beats Scrabble and Pictionary. And his house is amazing! And there’s a Stingray on the line! Annie finally realises where Max’s anxiety originated when they meet. When Brooks gets kidnapped, it’s all supposed to be part of the game but then it gets very real indeed. As the competitors set out to solve the mystery, they start to learn that neither the game nor Brooks are what they seem to be. They soon find themselves in over their heads as each twist leads to another unexpected turn and that’s a real gun that Annie finds herself firing and rich folk really do get poor people to play Fight Club … Mark Perez’ inventive script has a lot of movie references (albeit our thoughts naturally turn to that great, dark film The Game) and gets a highly energetic workout from co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. The alternate couples function as satellites of the central couple who are like a tech-friendly Nick and Nora, solving a mystery they don’t actually know is happening around them. Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris are high school sweethearts but she fesses up to a one-night stand with a famous film star;  Billy Magnussen is the low IQ guy with a thing for idiot blondes but tonight he shows up with his super smart boss, Sharon Horgan, who’s Irish, not British, and no, it’s not the same thing, she keeps insisting; and next door neighbour, cop Jesse Plemons, lives with his dog Bastien since Max and Annie’s friend Debbie divorced him and they never invite him around on his own, cos, well, he’s plain weird. And he’s PO’d at being excluded. Just when the couples – and we – think the game within a game within a game is over, well, it’s not. There’s more. All of this is served up by sharply defined characters so that we believe all the plot turns and the lines are brilliantly delivered.  The action is flagged up by pieces on game boards, the titles are fantastic and the post-credits sequence is a winner too. A zippy and blackly funny entertainment, performed with vim and astonishing comic timing. You’re like a double threat. Brains … and you’re British!

Out of Africa (1985)

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I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. After a failed love affair in Denmark the aristocrat Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) sets out for the white highlands of Kenya where she marries her lover’s brother Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer).  She is intent on dairy farming, Bror instead spends their money on a coffee plantation. After discovering Bror is unfaithful when she contracts syphilis, Karen develops feelings for British hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) but he prefers a simple lifestyle compared to her upper class affectations. She separates from Bror and sets about remaking her home to his taste. The two continue their relationship until a series of events force Karen to choose between her love life and her personal growth as an individual … Like a lot of people, I imagine, I first heard of Isak Dinesen (or Karen Blixen) courtesy of The Catcher in the Rye. If it was good enough for Holden Caulfield, I figured, I’ve got to check it out. And that was my introduction to a great writer whose life is immortalised here in the form of La Streep while the less than glamorous Finch Hatton is personified by Redford. History is rewritten right there! But their chemistry is so right. Streep is wonderful as the woman who finally finds herself, Redford is great as a hunter who simultaneously deplores environmental destruction – these are fantastic star performances.  So the school, the farm, that’s what I am now Director Sydney Pollack later regretted that he didn’t shoot this in widescreen and you can see why. This is a film of big emotions in a breathtaking landscape that dwarfs the concerns of the little people, aristos or not. There are fabulous, memorable scenes:  when Denys shampoos Karen’s hair; when they play Mozart on the gramophone to monkeys and Denys remarks that it’s their first exposure to humans; when he takes her flying; when she begs for land for the Kikuyu. And when she leaves.  If you like me at all, don’t ask me to do this Altering the focus of Dinesen’s writing somewhat to the personalities rather than the issues that actually drove Dinesen and the contradictions within Finch Hatton, it’s a glorious, epic and tragic romance sensitively performed, with a meticulous score by John Barry. Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay was adapted from three sources:  Dinesen’s Out of Africa;  Judith Thurman’s biography Isak Dinesen:  The Life of a Story Teller;  and Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski. He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast

 

The Wild Bunch (1969)

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If they move… kill ’em! In 1913, ageing outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden) prepares to retire after one final botched robbery on the Mexican border. Joined by his gang, including Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) and brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), Bishop discovers the heist is a setup orchestrated in part by his old partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) now a ruthless mercenary. They’ve wound up with washers, not silver. As the remaining gang cross the Rio Grande and take refuge in Mexican territory, Thornton trails them, resulting in their taking on a suicide mission if ever there were one – as they are engaged by double-crossing Mexican General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to hijack a stash of guns from a train while he fights Pancho Villa under the military guidance of a German Commander (Fernando Wagner) on the eve of WW1 … This was going to be my last.  Sublime filmmaking from one of the iconoclasts of American cinema, Sam Peckinpah, who wrote the screenplay with Walon Green, the writer of the original story with Roy N. Sickner.  The titles sequence with scorpions tells us that this will be so much more than your regular western:  it’s a meditation on masculinity, ageing, violence, warfare and revenge.  Like all of Peckinpah’s genre work its focus is on the male in a hostile environment and it abounds in visual style with Peckinpah and cinematographer Lucien Ballard using multiple camera setups and different film speeds to accentuate the conflict between the old and the new, mythology and modernity. They demonstrate that there can be honour among thieves, if it is of a singularly macho variety. There is also friendship, pragmatism, humour and resignation.  The final shootout is glorious. This is one of the crowning achievements in cinema. Walk softly, boys

Week-end (1967)

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I’m here to inform these Modern Times of the Grammatical Era’s end and the beginning of Flamboyance, especially in cinema. Roland Durand (Jean Yanne) and his wife Corinne (Mireille Darc) embark on a weekend getaway to the French countryside determined to murder Corinne’s mother while her father is dying from the poison they’ve been feeding him for five years and collect an inheritance. Each is contemplating adultery as they head for the coast, but end up ensnared in a traffic jam along the way.  The ill-fated couple encounter such colorful characters as the leader of the FLSO (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and Saint-Just (Jean-Pierre Léaud) … What a rotten film, all we meet are crazy people. Jean-Luc Godard turns in a hugely enjoyable, fast-moving absurdist social satire masquerading as a road movie. It has one of the best shots in cinema (much aped, see LA LA Land for proof and Welles for inspiration) when the Parisian couple emerge into a ten-minute track of a traffic jam which proves his point that contemporary life is awash with the pointless clutter of a dying civilisation while the text itself blithely tours through the randomness of car crashes, violence and death. When their car explodes in fire Corinne cries out My Hermès handbag!  This carries on before they encounter anti-consumerist Maoists. No matter your feelings about this anarchic picaresque, you have to see it because it presages a seismic change in cinema (this was released 29th December 1967) and Godard himself was the visionary who summoned it. The shots themselves call attention to the fact that you are watching manufactured reality, an adieu to his own traditional filmmaking, fin de cinéma as the credits inform us. The horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome by more horror

The Odyssey (2016)

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Aka L’Odyssée.  A whole world waiting to be discovered. I’m just old enough to remember re-runs of Jacques (-Yves) Cousteau’s TV show – a weekly adventure in the ocean depths with a vast array of colourful marine life on display. He was a superstar who has all but vanished from contemporary iconography: a diver, oceanographer, inventor and TV personality who demonstrated that we only know the surface of the world’s oceans – he brought us what lies beneath. Director Jérôme Salle and co-writer Laurent Turner take memoirs by Cousteau’s chief diver Albert Falco aka Bébert (Vincent Heneine) and his son Jean-Michel (Benjamin Lavernhe) and create a portrait of the life of this man over thirty years, from his days in the French Navy (and an accident preventing his continuing as a pilot) whose passion for diving became a way of life, a journey encompassing family, the co-invention of the aqualung, fame, world travel and the neverending desire to achieve more.  His groundbreaking film The Silent World was the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or. The tensions with his son Philippe (Pierre Niney plays him as an adult) are exacerbated first by boarding school and later at the caricature he feels his father has become.  JYC admits he should never have had children. His wife Simone (Audrey Tautou) is now old and alcoholic, just as she threatened years earlier when she discovered his philandering. When he arrives back at The Calypso (funded by his mother in law’s jewellery) wearing a red beanie, he announces It’s telegenic. Jean-Michel returns after years studying architecture but it’s the other relationships which dominate JYC’s life, principally with his financiers.  I feel like I’ve spent my entire life chasing money. His quest for money dominates his life while Philippe’s spirals in another direction – the environment, triggered when he sees the ship’s cook dumping the trash in the water and his own work as a cinematographer and filmmaker diverges from the family business. On this issue father and son finally come back together but only when JYC’s sponsorship dries up.  Inspired yet again by Jules Verne, they travel on a foolhardy mission to Antarctica and see the true wonder of the world:  from taking money to promote oil exploration, Cousteau starts the Society that bears his name and tries to save the oceans, bringing the attention of the world to the imminent tragedy of pollution. It’s handsomely photographed by Matias Boucard but finally the difficulty reconciling the father and son drama with the story of the ego that brought the wonderful world of the sea to the screen proves as challenging as it was in reality, even with that awesome cast: Wilson is terrific as the marvellously charismatic pioneer whose travels are finally brought to an end by a tragedy. It’s all about him, after all.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

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You go rogue, he’s been authorized to hunt you down and kill you.  Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the IMF team (Ving Rhames is back as Luther, Simon Pegg returns as Benji) join forces with CIA assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill) to prevent a disaster of epic proportions. Arms dealer John Lark and a group of terrorists known as the Apostles plan to use three plutonium cores for a simultaneous nuclear attack on the Vatican, Jerusalem and Mecca, Saudi Arabia. When the weapons go missing, Ethan and his crew find themselves in a desperate race against time to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands but Ethan finds himself up against his number one enemy weaselly Solomon Kane (Sean Harris) the man who haunts his dreams and threatens everyone in his orbit, with Ethan’s ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) the target.  He is saved (again!) by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own mission, while the CIA believe he has forged the identity of John Lark to go rogue himself and he is literally believed to be his own worst enemy. Meanwhile, the future of half the planet is at stake …  All is well with the world, we are back under Cruise control. Nobody is who they say they are, but these days, that’s normal. Double negatives, two faces, whatever. There’s not one but four brilliant women – Rebecca Ferguson is back as the cooler than thou MI6 agent who gets to save the Cruiser again and join the team, ad hoc; Michelle Monaghan shows up, most unexpectedly, in a plot that has emotional heft but wears it effortlessly;  Angela Bassett is Erica Sloan, head of the CIA. And Vanessa Kirby is a shiny-eyed thrill seeking go-between who looks delighted with herself.  There’s an addition to the team and a heroic sacrifice.  There are two hand-to-hand combat scenes that are up there with the best of them. There are not two but three street chases – two through Paris, some of the most realistic I’ve seen since The French Connection and then – and then! – there’s a helicopter chase in the Himalayas! What’s the opposite of climbing? Falling? There’s some of that too.  Ethan Hunt is a man tormented and moral and the guy who holds it together. The arrangement of Lalo Schifrin’s iconic theme by Lorne Balfe is stunning.  I don’t like some of the photography by Rob Hardy but the use of locations including London and Paris is breathtaking. And there’s the cities that are blown up … or not. It’s all written with tongue firmly in cheek until things get down and dirty and serious. Confused? Feverish? Sweaty palms? Well if you want to stay that way and then some you have got to see this. Simply sensational. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

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I need to get off this planet.  Crown Prince of Asgard Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is imprisoned on the planet Sakaar and he has a race against time on his hands to return to Asgard and stop the destruction of the world (Ragnarok) by the evil goddess of death, Hela (Cate Blanchett) – who turns out to be his sister. It means teaming up with his awful brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who is alive after all but can he be trusted?  Dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is on hand to guide him … Written by Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost, director Taika Waititi responds to the humour in the material and the cast are given their funniest outing yet, with a great joke cameo at the beginning. Jeff Goldblum turns up as a Grandmaster glorying in gladiatorial contests and Bruce Banner aka The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) arrives to join The Revengers – as they call themselves – to help them take on their vicious sister. Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) joins in on this mission as a whole society is at stake with Heimdall (Idris Elba) trying to lead them to safety. There’s a lot of intentionally odd 80s-style effects, self-deprecating humour (Thor’s masculinity is tested with a haircut) and a lot of nicely set up action sequences. Good-natured comic book fun in the second Thor sequel and the seventeenth episode of the Marvel series.

The White Buffalo (1977)

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Aka Hunt to Kill.  The whites have no honor. White man wants death, comes out of season.  In 1874 an ageing Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson) finds his dreams haunted by a rampaging white buffalo.  He decides the only solution is to find and kill the creature. With the help of his old friend One-Eyed Charlie (Jack Warden), he sets out across the snowy plains using the pseudonym James Otis, unaware that he’s not the only one looking for the fabled beast. Sioux Chief Crazy Horse (Will Sampson) has recently lost a daughter to the white buffalo, and he fears the girl’s soul won’t rest until he kills it. Hickok briefly resumes his relationship with lover Poker Jenny (Kim Novak) and takes to the mountains to kill his quarry because he has recurrent experiences of déjà vu and believes it is his destiny … Adapted by Richard Sale from his 1975 novel, this strange western has an unsettling effect. On the one hand it uses known facts about Hickok, on the other it melds elements of Moby Dick (and the recent Jaws) into a western setting to eerie purpose.  There is some nice character work by John Carradine, Shay Duffin, Clint Walker and Stuart Whitman. Bronson is Bronson, reunited with director J. Lee Thompson after St Ives.  Oddly satisfying Freudian outing even if Larry McMurtry said that Sale had impaled himself on the mythical story. Creature work by Carlo Rambaldi.