Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (2019)

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He would craft mythical tales into voyages of the mind. Filmmaker Werner Herzog and author Bruce Chatwin became fast friends when they encountered one another in Australia in 1983. Herzog was researching Where the Green Ants Dream, Chatwin his book Songlines. They talked nonstop, bonding over their shared love of the sacrament of walking which they both believed had therapeutic even mystical qualities. Herzog narrates the story of their friendship and Chatwin’s travels and books over the course of eight chapters, commencing with The Skin of the Brontosaurus, an object in the family’s cabinet of curiosities that was really skin and fur from a sloth but which was one of the many pieces inspiring Chatwin to travel – or walk – the world, emblems of places he wanted to visit, or as Herzog says, points of a compass. Using some voice recordings of Chatwin reading from his work, archive footage and excerpts from Herzog’s own films, and interviews, he traces their interweaving stories across the continents from the neolithic structures at Avebury in Wiltshire to Australia and South America and West Africa, to the Priory in Wales that was his sanctuary, and demonstrates how their journeys and interests intersected:  Herzog famously walked to see Lotte Eisner in Paris and used Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Uidah as the basis of Cobra Verde, a film set in another deranged landscape starring Klaus (Fitzcarraldo) Kinski who biographer Nicholas Shakespeare says might best represent Chatwin as an older man, had he lived. Herzog never saw Chatwin’s annotated copy of the screenplay and Shakespeare reads out what the author thought of Herzog:  a compendium of contradictions;  remote and alone. Chatwin had led a highly promiscuous life as a bisexual and was dying of AIDS when Herzog showed him Herdsmen of the Sun, the last images he saw.  Chatwin told Herzog he was dying and Herzog reports that he responded, I can see that. As he lay dying he gifted Herzog his leather rucksack, a totem and talisman in this film about people finding their tribes – it not only played a role in Herzog’s Scream of Stone, it may have helped save Herzog’s life when he could sit on it during a particularly dangerous ice storm. Herzog defuses the myth. Chatwin asked Herzog to help him end his life and Herzog offered to either bash his head in with a baseball bat or shoot him. In fact Chatwin didn’t want his friend to see him die and was lapsing in and out of consciousness and he watched the film when he came to every so often and died shortly afterwards. As Herzog reads extracts from Chatwin one senses the echoes of his own autobiography:  One of the essential locations where he would find his inner balance.  Chatwin had liked Herzog’s film Signs of Life because, Herzog says, he was searching for strangeness.  The myth continues until the final chapter The Book is Closed when Herzog reads Chatwin’s last handwritten words, Christ wore a seamless robe. Talking with academics, correspondents, climbers and Chatwin’s widow Elizabeth, Herzog shapes the contours of an adventurous nomadic life that vibrates to this day, traced along the planet’s navigational lines and proving its very pulse. He was the internet

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Dumbo (2019)

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You should listen to your kids more. Struggling travelling circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists a former equestrian star, WW1 amputee Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and son Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for Dumbo, a baby elephant born with oversized ears to Mrs Jumbo. When the family discovers that the animal can fly, it soon becomes the main attraction — bringing in huge audiences and revitalizing the run-down circus. His mother is separated from him leaving him distraught then his magical ability draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life entertainment venture Dreamland where he intends his spirited  Parisian trapeze artiste Colette Marchant (Eva Green) will use the little fellow in her act…  You have something very rare. You have wonder. You have mystique. You have magic. In this latest pointless live-action remake of Disney’s brilliant animated features, Ehren Kruger’s screenplay (welcome back to the big leagues) has to tread a fine line between the exigencies of the House of Mouse with its unadulterated classic sentiment and the Gothic flourishes and flawed excesses of director Tim Burton who reassembles some of his usual actors (DeVito, Green, Keaton) alongside Disney’s latest humanoid fave, Farrell. Dumbo is the greatest animation ever made and a personal favourite, an utterly beguiling story of grave majesty and emotionality. This is never going to reach those heights no matter how many high wire acts, freakshows and armless motherless humans are dramatised as reactive tropes, how many of the circus’ darkest inclinations are exhibited, how many cartoon baddies (with Afrikaaner accents) are on standby, how good Keaton (as the anti-Walt Disney!) and DeVito are, how sweet the family message. The Art Deco interiors and production design are splendid, there is real jeopardy and the CGI elephants are beautiful, but you don’t need elephants to save your blank-eyed expressionless soul (Parker has no acting ability whatsoever) which is this film’s message. It expands on the original adaptation of Helen Alberson’s book and it’s not the anticipated travesty that  the horrific Alice in Wonderland was for the same auteur pairing but that’s not saying much.  If you really want to do something for the plight of their species stop all those vile African natives and American trophy hunters from brutally killing them and ensuring their imminent extinction. Back to the drawing board. Fly, Dumbo … fly

 

Fata Morgana (1971)

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It’s not Morgan le Fay but it could be witchcraft or sorcery of sorts. In the sense explored in Werner Herzog’s film it’s a mirage or optical phenomenon that’s observable just over the horizon with objects variously stretching or compressing. This mysterious swirling film consists of pictures of the Sahara accompanied by a narration (which is occasionally frankly nutty) spoken by critic and curator Lotte Eisner, Wolfgang Büchler and Manfred Eigendorf and songs by Leonard Cohen, Blind Faith and the Third Ear Band plus music by Handel, Mozart and Couperin. Divided into three sections – Creation, Paradise, The Golden Age (which breaks into the surreal) – it becomes rapidly apparent that this is a highly ironic disquisition on the future of mankind. If you think this good earth is Paradise – and this was shot 50 years ago mostly from a VW camper van – then you’re clearly being misled as Part III demonstrates. Herzog has said of the film that it takes place “on the planet Uxmal, which is discovered by creatures from the Andromeda nebula, who make a film report about it.” So it’s an exploration of our dying world from the perspective of science fiction. Extraordinary, visionary work from one of the great filmmakers with cinematography by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. The mythic wellspring of the Herzogian universe. Invisible is the face of the earth

Rampage (2018)

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What are you, some kind of international man of mystery? Primatologist Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson) a man who keeps people at a distance but shares an unshakable bond with George, the extraordinarily intelligent, incredibly rare albino silverback gorilla who has been in his care since he rescued the young orphan from poachers in Africa. They joke in sign language. A rogue genetic experiment gone awry in outer space with the deadly pathogen falling into wildlife parks in California and Florida and mutate this gentle ape into a raging creature of enormous size. There are other similarly altered animals – starting with a grey wolf who takes out the soldiers sent to kill him. As these newly created alpha predators tear across North America, communicating via sonar and destroying everything in their path, Okoye teams with discredited geneticist Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) to secure an antidote, fighting his way through an ever-changing battlefield to halt imminent catastrophe commencing among the skyscrapers of Chicago.  Luckily his training in Special Forces gives him the ability to confront the dangers they face but he must also save the now fearsome creature that was once his friend….. Of course – a wolf that can fly!  Or, gorilla goes ape, in this interspecies mutant/hybrid cross between King Kong and Godzilla only it’s neither as serious nor as silly as those classics. The third collaboration between Johnson and director Brad Peyton (which presumably qualifies as a kind of auteurist effort) this starts in a space station with a giant rat, an explosive scene sequence which used up a lot of the FX budget and shards of an exploded rocket with this dangerous pathogen wind up all over the shop, as you do. Hence the shonky CGI mayhem. Jeffrey Dean Morgan turns up as a good ol’ boy Other Government Agent (I always knew they existed) and after their plane is wrecked by a growing George, he and the big friendly giant (The Rock) and Harris go after the brother and sister gene manipulator team (Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy) responsible for this lunatic experiment. Adapted from an Eighties video game, by Ryan Engle and Carlton Cuse & Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel, this is never quite as fun as it should be but you might just shed a tear from that rheumy worldweary eye at the fight to the death. If animals hate you they eat you. You always know where you stand

Golden Salamander (1950)

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You defeat evil not by ignoring it but by going to meet it. English archaeologist David Redfern (Trevor Howard) is sent to Tunisia to recover artifacts from a shipwreck. He arrives during a storm and encounters a landslide which stops his hire car in its tracks, witnessing a transaction involving gunrunners that include Rankl (Herbert Lom). While romancing the lovely Anna (Anouk Aimée) whom he meets in the hotel where he’s staying he runs afoul of what amounts to a criminal conspiracy led by Serafis (Walter Rilla) and Rankl knows he saw what happened in the landslide. Torn between minding his own business and completing his job, and the opportunity to overthrow the criminals who are terrorising the locals, Redfern takes on the near-impossible task of bringing the gun runners to justice when young Max (Jacques Sernas) is murdered … Victor Canning’s novel gets a poorly paced adaptation but still manages to work because of the plot and the performances – Aimée is impossibly young to be Howard’s love interest and she’s ridiculously striking compared with his relative ordinariness. The action in unexpectedly florid African settings and on treacherous cliff faces compensates for shortcomings in the structure and there’s Wilfrid Hyde-White trying to do Hoagy Carmichael in the Casablanca-knock off bar scenes. Rilla makes a great impression as the villain – in real life he wrote a very good manual on screenwriting. What a shame this rare British film shot on African locations wasn’t made in colour! Directed by Ronald Neame who co-wrote the screenplay with Canning and Leslie Storm.

Shark (1969)

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Aka Man-Eater. Some of my best friends are Americans. Caine (Burt Reynolds) is an arms dealer who finds himself stranded in a Sudanese port after seeing his latest stash of weaponry blown to smithereens during an unfortunate encounter on a dangerous mountain road. He gets hired to help Professor Dan Mallare (Barry Sullivan) and his assistant and daughter Anna (Silvia Pinal) to hunt for some treasure lying somewhere onboard a sunken vessel and sees a way to recoup his losses but they’re not telling him the entire truth about their project … Can you handle a witch?/Honey, I was delivered by one. With some smart lines, great underwater photography and Burt Reynolds in a film directed by Sam Fuller, what’s not to like? Fuller wanted his name taken off this Victor Canning adaptation (by John T. Dugan and an uncredited Ken Hughes) because the producers exploited the terrible on-set death of a stuntman (he was attacked by a white shark). The film was taken off his hands but his name was left under the title. It’s nice to see Sullivan reunited with his director from Forty Guns and Reynolds is more than adequate in an underwritten role as the guy who literally gets out of his depth. Burt and Sylvia get to recreate Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s romance in a beach scene straight out of From Here to Eternity and Arthur Kennedy drinks his way to the acting honours as the alkie doctor who has to perform surgery in the middle of a bad case of the DTs. That boy dies, you’ve caught your last fish There are some underdeveloped plot threads (like Caine’s friendship with the kid, played by Charles Berriochoa) in this hijacked film, with melodrama corrupting the intended cynicism and iconoclasm but there are good bits with Enrique Lucero as Barok, a crooked cop. It turns into a shaggy dog story with sharks and treasure and Burt in one great chase at the start and some mesmerising marine scenes. You ain’t seen nothin’ until you see Burt wrestle a shark. It was shot in Mexico in 1968 (and it’s good to see Pinal in an American film) but mostly withheld for years until it was briefly released on a double bill with a biker movie. An interesting glimpse into maverick Fuller’s clashes with producers, one is left to ponder what might have been especially with the changed ending but there is still wit, style and machismo. You can dive any time you feel like it and as far as I’m concerned you can stay down there

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

 

I Was Monty’s Double (1958)

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That was bloody close.  Before the planned D-Day landings the British Government is spreading disinformation to distract German attention from the Normandy beaches.  Two intelligence officers, Colonel Logan (Cecil Parker) and Major Harvey (John Mills) are running the operation but they are initially unable to devise such a plan.  One night at the theatre in London Harvey sees an actor do a convincing impression of General Bernard Montgomery. He is M.E. Clifton James, in the army Pay Corps stationed in Leicester and the officers hire him to act as a decoy – playing Montgomery doing a tour of North Africa. After studying him and meeting him, he is dispatched to Gibraltar where the British anticipate that a known German agent Karl Nielson (Marius Goring) posing as a businessman will encounter him and hopefully inform Berlin. ‘Monty’ is accompanied by Harvey who is promoted to Brigadier to act as his aide de camp. When the British learn that the Germans are moving their panzer divisions away from Normandy this ‘Monty’ is sequestered in a North African house until it is safe to return him to his original job but the Germans have other ideas …  Adapted from the autobiography of M.E. Clifton James by Bryan Forbes (who plays a crucial role in the penultimate sequence) this is a spry and suspenseful account of Operation Copperhead.  Told efficiently, with James playing himself – and Monty! – it moves quickly and two scenes in particular are handled very well by director John Guillermin:  when Nielson meets Monty it transpires it’s for the second time – a shocker;  and the inevitable kidnapping.  With a brisk score by John Addison and a good turn by Mills, one of the many in the Fifties that encapsulates his particular brand of British masculinity, this is an entertaining account of yet another Believe It Or Not from WW2: the gift that just keeps on giving, especially when you realise that the man who actually recruited Clifton James was none other than … David Niven! There are good supporting roles for Michael Hordern, Leslie Phillips with James Hayter, Sid James and Sam Kydd down the ensemble.

The Constant Gardener (2005)

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This is one we can save.  Assigned to a new post, reserved British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) relocates to Kenya with his new wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an activist for social justice. She is engaged on a hunt for the people behind a Big Pharma test of a dangerous AIDS drug being conducted on expendable local TB sufferers.  Her own child is born dead in an African hospital and a young girl in a neighbouring bed dies after taking the drug. When Tessa is found murdered out in the wilderness, circumstances point to her friend, Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), who has been agitating for the truth with her, but it is soon clear that he’s not the killer. Grief-stricken and angry, Justin sets out to uncover who is responsible for Tessa’s murder and in the process, he unearths some disturbing revelations – including that some of his cohorts in Government might be behind it. He also really discovers the woman he married … John le Carré is a remarkable novelist:  for five decades he has been writing books that point the finger through the prism of genre and in the Noughties he decided to take aim at the self-appointed God-like pharmaceutical companies that dominate so much of contemporary existence – and survival – and the countries whose internecine deals allow them to kill their own at will. Jeffrey Caine does a great job at filleting the story so it’s clear who the bad guys are – there are degrees of grotesquery here and it’s certainly not kind on African savagery either. A horrifying tale of corruption that, knowing its author, is all too true. Terrifically performed by the leads with good support from Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Huston. Directed by Fernando Meirelles. No drug company does something for nothing.

Sicario 2: Soldado (2018)

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I could throw a stick across the river and hit fifty grieving fathers.  Following an Isis suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket FBI agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls on undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) as Mexican drug cartels are starting to smuggle terrorists across the U.S. border. The war escalates when Matt and Alejandro kidnap a drug kingpin’s thirteen-year old daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) to deliberately increase the tensions. When the young girl is seen as collateral damage, the two men will determine her fate as they question everything that they are fighting for, with Alejandro and the girl left on the wrong side of the border when the corrupt Mexican police upset the staged return of Isabel.  At the same time a teenaged Mexican in Texas Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is recruited to move people illegally and the Government drop Alejandro in it  … Sicario was my top film of 2015 and I was pretty surprised that it would become a victim of sequelitis. This is  a far more conventional action outing but steadily winds itself around you with a vise-like grip even if it entirely lacks the deep pulsating strangeness of the original and its fabulously formal widescreen compositions by director Denis Villeneuve and DoP Roger Deakins and the amazing, visceral score of the late great Jóhann Jóhansson, to whom this is dedicated. Crucially it also lacks Emily Blunt’s character, something of a passive protagonist who also functioned as moral compass. What an unusual setup that was! It punched you in the solar plexus, kicked you in the abdomen and grabbed you by the throat. And all the time you wondered who everyone really was in that rather Homeric setup. The formerly silent and mysterious Alejandro has achieved his revenge so why does this even exist? Better ask Taylor Sheridan, who is revisiting the border territory he seems to have made his own, writing some of the best screenplays of recent years. There has been a lot of guff about the timing of this and the fact that there’s a girl ‘separated’ from her (lovely!) family here but this is a film that shows us exactly why the US or the POTUS at least wants a wall:  it’s a portrait of ruthless people trafficking poor people with the resultant evolution of drug lords, gangs and murderers. (You can leave the pity party at the door especially when you look at the murder rates in Mexico last year alone. Chaos streams from that part of the world, lest we forget. And the answer is a slew of dirty tricks and disavowed ops.)  Alejandro is almost forced to question his actions, with Isabel figuring out his relationship with her father:  he’s the attorney whose wife and kids Daddy had murdered. Moner is fantastic, a real find. She is extraordinarily self-possessed as the narco whore! administering beatings in the school yard where the principal is shit-scared of expelling her for fear of reprisals. Brolin returns to the fray dealing out fear in Somalia trying to trace the Isis loonies but back on US soil he’s dealing with the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) and his immediate superior Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) who wants everything off the books when two dozen Mexican cops are killed (they unleash the firepower first) and the Oval Office can no longer be officially seen to sanction any cross-border activities. The clever aspect is parallel teenage stories – the Tex-Mex boy killer and the kingpin’s girl even if they are rather replete with clichés, no matter the shock value. The conclusion has been set up to deliver another movie with del Toro – a long way from the money laundering (literally!) in Licence to Kill – still in the druggie violent territory to which he so frequently returns. Directed by Stefano Sollima.