Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)

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The meek shall NOT inherit the earth. They can’t be trusted with it.  British archaeologist Professor Julian Fuchs (Andrew Keir) and his team bring the preserved mummy of Egyptian royal Queen Tera (with a severed hand) back from their latest expedition. Fuchs’ rival Corbeck (James Villiers) persuades the archaeologist’s daughter Margaret (Valerie Leon) to get the expedition members to hand over missing relics but each time one is handed over the person holding it dies because Margaret is possessed by Tera’s evil spirit since her father gave her a bejewelled ring from the tomb.  Her nightmares about the expedition seem have now come to life … The late great Chris Wicking adapted (more, or less) Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of the Seven Stars but was banned from the set by producer Howard Brandy and continued working with director Seth Holt in the evenings. Peter Cushing was supposed to play Fuchs but dropped out when his wife became seriously ill. Five weeks into shooting Holt died in the arms of a cast member. He was replaced by Hammer boss Michael Carreras who found that Holt’s work didn’t cut together. This extraordinary backstory (the mummy’s real revenge?!) to one of the best of that studio’s late films is incidental to what is a canny interpretation of Stoker making this modern story seem entirely plausible because of the realistic and sometimes ironic approach. Bond girl Leon is fantastic in the dual role of Margaret and the tragic Queen who turned to evil – both are sexy, of course and Keir does very well as her father. The atmosphere of dread is well sustained while there is some genuinely gruesome action. More than a curio and not quite the mother of all mummy movies but pretty close.

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Against All Odds (1984)

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Guys are crippling themselves for you, lady. I could give a shit what you believe. Having been cut from his professional football team the Los Angeles Outlaws after sustaining a shoulder injury, ageing down-and-out athlete Terry Brogan (Jeff Bridges) is in desperate need of money. Crooked nightclub owner and bookie Jake Wise (James Woods) offers Terry a hefty sum to go to Mexico and find his girlfriend, Jessie Wyler (Rachel Ward) the daughter of team owner Mrs Wyler (Jane Greer). Terry is broke and cannot turn the offer down. When he finds Jessie on an island off Mexico, the two fall in love and he reveals to her his guilt over his points-shaving scam with Jake. Terry reports that he failed to find Jessie but Jake sends someone else – the team trainer Hank Sully (Alex Karras) who reveals that he had identified Terry and other debt-laden players to Jake to make them work for him. When a gun falls into Jessie’s hands during a struggle the twists of the plot start being revealed to Terry, the patsy of all time … You got problems now, Terry. You want trouble too? One of the great Eighties thrillers, this remake of Out of the Past (adapted from Daniel Mainwaring’s novel Build My Gallows High, its alternative title) written by Eric Hughes, this is dangerous, surprising, gorgeous to look at (shot by Donald E. Thorin) and literally drenched in sex (one scene is frequently cut from TV broadcast). The central relationship between Terry and Jessie is one of the most cunningly constructed of all movie pairings, a brilliant homage to Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, the original amoral noir girl nicely cast here in the role of Jessie’s powerful mother. Key roles are played by Saul Rubinek and Richard Widmark. The action is superb – what about that chickie race down Sunset! The plotting becomes convoluted, its neo-noir narrative nodding to Chinatown with a property/environment conspiracy backdrop but it’s the twists and turns between this sexy couple that’ll have you panting for more. A sensational film that gets better by the year with a performance by Kid Creole and the Coconuts, one of the many acts on a soundtrack distinguished by the famous title song, by Phil Collins. Directed by Taylor Hackford.  Don’t leave without saying goodbye

Army of Darkness (1992)

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If I get the book, you send me back.  After that, I’m history.  Ash (Bruce Campbell) is transported back to medieval days, where he is captured by the dreaded Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) and enslaved with Duke Henry the Red (Richard Grove) and some of his men. Aided by the deadly chainsaw that has become his only friend, he is recognised by Wiseman (Derek Abercrombie) as the saviour who’s dropped from the sky.  So he is sent on a perilous mission to recover the Necronomicon or Book of the Dead, a powerful tome that gives its owner the power to summon an army of ghouls. Wiseman advises that he must say the words Klaatu Barada Nikto to safely get the book. However, Ash forgets the last word and an army of the dead resurrects to attack Arthur fortress and recover the Necronomicon. … My name is Ash and I am a slave. Close as I can figure, the year is thirteen hundred A.D and I’m being dragged to my death. It wasn’t always like this, I had a real life, once. A job. The third installment of the parodic Evil Dead series, this can be summed up as a cross between A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Jason and the Argonauts. Our reluctant hero Campbell is as compulsively watchable as always in a script by director Sam Raimi and his brother, Ivan Raimi.  Aided and abetted by the wondrous Sheila (Embeth Davitz) who is rendered undead Bride of Frankenstein-style following their romantic interlude, he battles live and skeletal alike assisted by his trusty saw, earning his enemy’s respect by killing monsters in a pit and rising to the challenge of this kinetic military onslaught.  Daft and funny, this is agreeable stuff with an ending straight out of Planet of the Apes. As you were.

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.

Underwater! (1955)

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Excitement’s like getting drunk. It hits you before you know it. And I was being hit. Scuba divers Johnny Gray (Richard Egan) and Dominic Queseda (Gilbert Roland) are a pair of treasure hunters in the Caribbean who discover a sunken 17th century galleon containing a gold-encrusted Madonna. But it’s in treacherous waters. Is it worth the risk? Johnny’s sharp-talking wife Theresa (Jane Russell) thinks it’s just another one of their crazy schemes and besides, they need financing. Mercenary Dominic meets Gloria (Lori Nelson) who has a yacht left to her by an ex so they can use that. Father Cannon (Robert Keith) is a university professor and archaeologist with knowledge of these old ships who may be able to help out. Shark hunters and scavengers Rico Herrera (Joseph Calleia) and  Miguel Vega (Eugene Iglesias) become suspicious that the team are doing more than searching for rocks and the four also have to deal with the wreck’s location – on the edge of a 300 foot cliff not to mention the circling sharks … Not one out of a hundred turns out to be worth salvaging. With an ensemble of attractive characters and a plethora of smart lines, you’d bet this was a Walter Brown Newman script (rewriting from a story by Hugh King and Robert B. Bailey and unknown work by Niven Busch) and you’d be right. Despite their fruitful working relationship he would fall out with director John Sturges over future collaborations – and two of everyone’s favourite movies – The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, due to alterations to his work. Here, however, they conform to the action-adventure template and they’re in their element with stunning marine photography by Harry J. Wild complementing the above-water antics. Calleia and Iglesias make amusing villains while Russell is great as the sceptical missus. This must have been really something on the big screen never mind the premiere at the bottom of a small lake in Florida! It’s still a lot of fun. The film’s instrumental theme Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White was a big hit for Pérez ‘Prez’ Prado with words by Mack David.

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

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We just have to stick together. We do that, we can win. Four high school kids discover an old video game console in detention in their high school basement. Spencer is a nerd beset with allergies, Fridge is a footballer who needs help with his homework, Bethany is a narcissistic beauty addicted to her iPhone and Martha is a friendless brainiac who has no fun. They are sucked into the game’s jungle setting, literally becoming the adult avatars they chose:  Spencer is now explorer and archaeologist Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) who has no weakness (except he’s still shy),  Fridge is zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart) who can’t eat cake,  Martha is curvy martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) who can be killed by venom and Bethany is an overweight male middle-aged cartographer Prof. Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji – you must survive it. To beat the game and return to the real world, they’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives by returning a jewel to a Jaguar mountain shrine, discover what Alan Parrish left 20 years ago, and change the way they think about themselves – or they’ll be stuck in the game forever.  They have to dodge treasure hunter Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), a corrupt archaeologist, and his henchmen, a crew of evil bikers plus a herd of rampaging rhinoceros, They enlist the help of Alex (Nick Jonas) who has one life left and is afraid to lose it and get stuck in here forever:  he thinks he’s been here a few months but he’s the kid from the Freak (Vreeke) House who disappeared in 1996 after getting lost in the original video game. They have to face up to their fears and join together to get out or it will be Game Over ... How can my strength be my weakness? A sequel and a reboot, this followup to the beloved adaptation of Chris van Allsburg’s book is PC, clever and fun, catering for nostalgia freaks harking back to 1930s jungle films, the 90s obsession with video games, and placating the millennial generation that thinks they can change their race and gender because, you know, it’s their human right and they can choose who they want to be and before they grow up and get real! (It’s not just a game… it’s a life lesson).  We no longer have the Jumanji board game that trapped Alan Parrish (Robin Williams, who’s mentioned here in tribute) but we do have all the ins and outs of a protagonist-led adventure where the rules always apply – until they need to be changed. There are a lot of bright moments – Jack Black the former mean girl coaching school swot Karen Gillan to flirt; tiny Kevin Hart realising he’s not the huge killer ball player any more; Johnson morphing into an unbelievably strong 6’5″ hulk from the puny geek with allergies:  his smoldering voice is hilarious and he just cannot get over the size of his arms. There are some fun penis jokes and a lot of throwaway lines that are laugh out loud good. Exceptionally well cast and performed, this is a very pleasant and funny entertainment that moves like the clappers. Written by Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner, from a story by Chris McKenna. Directed by Jake Kasdan.  Zoology, bitch!

Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures (2004) (TVM)

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In 1962 an elderly Agatha Christie (Anna Massey) is attending a party at the theatre for a decade of The Mousetrap. Questions from journalists spur memories of 25 years ago when as a younger woman (Olivia Williams) attending a psychiatrist (Stephen Boxer) she is hypnotised into recalling why she disappeared four months earlier triggering a police search … Richard Curson Smith’s docudrama is based on the intriguing real-life case of the famous author’s apparent fugue state when she was located at a spa in Harrogate, having signed in under the name of the mother of her husband’s mistress. The title alludes to the means by which the doctor engages with Christie to start the story: as a young girl (Bonnie Wright) whose father’s death changes the family dynamic, particularly when her older sister marries. She has been haunted for years by a mysterious character whom she calls The Gunman and many men of her acquaintance transform into this figure when she is under stress. Her marriage to soldier Archie Christie (Raymond Coulthard) is met with disapproval by her mother, who encourages her to write. Her time nursing wounded soldiers introduces her to Belgian refugees, one of whom inspires Hercule Poirot and her first novel. She has few memories of times when she is happy, the catalysts for unhappiness make her focus on what may have occurred to prompt her flight – her discovery of her husband’s adultery with Nancy Neele, a secretary … The use of photos, pastiche photographic studios and fake home movies and newsreels gives this a patina of realism which is visually impressive. This is territory previously explored by the film Agatha and Kathleen Tynan’s book, and more recently in a faction novel by Andrew Wilson. Williams gets the lion’s share of the scenes, as a morose young woman who must confront her husband’s extra-marital liaison and his wish to end their union. Even her little daughter says it’s her mother that’s the problem. The older Christie is wiser and happier following a long marriage to a younger man, archaeologist Max Mallowan (Bertie Carvel) whose work on sites in Syria and Iraq literally takes Christie out of herself and England and also inspires some of her best books which she then produces annually. There’s a terrific scene when she comes up with the idea for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which is the book that made her know she was good. There are some technical issues with the sound mixing (you can hardly hear Massey, and some dialogue is drowned out with incidental music) but it’s a thorough and thoughtful account of an episode that’s as mysterious as any of Christie’s novels, supplying psychology to the central character in a way that the Queen of Crime disdained.

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

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

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Just remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt.  In the summer of 1983 precocious piano prodigy, American-Jewish-Italian 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is spending the days with his archaeologist father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and translator mother (Amira Casar) at their 17th-century villa in Lombardy, Italy.  Oliver (Armie Hammer) is a handsome American doctoral student who’s working as a research assistant for Elio’s father and living with them for the holiday to help him with his academic papers. Amid the sun-drenched splendour, while Elio pursues relationships with local girls, he and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire that will alter their lives…  Adapted by the venerable filmmaker James Ivory from André Aciman’s 2007 debut novel, this is a uniquely atmospheric work by director Luca Guadagnino which attempts successfully to convey how people really think and feel about each other while consumed with desire. Most of the acting nominations were for Chalamet but Hammer is stunning in a role he was born to play. There are moments that take the breath away – shot choices that focus on his face, shifting lens length and emphasis and particularity to indicate his conflicted thoughts about instigating a relationship with a mere boy.  We understand how his mind works. When the older gay couple visiting the Perlman home stand listening to Elio play an affecting piano piece, Hammer hovers very briefly in the background in the doorway and his effect on people is such that the younger of the men looks over his shoulder, as though the very plates had shifted beneath him, even with a passing glimpse of this astonishingly attractive guy. Such is Oliver’s power. His beauty is tactile. He eats up life with the same enthusiasm he gobbles food. He folds in his imposing height to avoid intimidating people. But his touching of Elio’s shoulder during a volleyball game signals his intentions. It’s such a physically demanding characterisation. He is wooing us all. The puppyish Elio has no hope. Hammer projects his position as lust object with immense sympathy. His introduction to the family involves Perlman’s customary intellectual test which he passes with flying colours in an audition that might telegraph social embarrassment but lends the drama its comic and humane undertow. It also skewers the viewer’s fear that this is a film about pretentious people:  we soon realise these are instead people of passions. There is a coyness of course to the exposition of the sex – we see Elio having intercourse with his young girlfriend but we never witness the act between him and Oliver. Instead, when they finally achieve total freedom and intimacy away from the family home, in the mountains outside Bergamo, the correlative for this is a waterfall:  it’s somehow overstated yet understated at the same time, perfect for young men going wild in the country, figuratively sharing an orgasm in public. The brief flashback sequence is done in tinted negative, another decent aesthetic choice. Mirrors are used sparingly to convey psychological turmoil and brief parental distance. And if T.S. Eliot encouraged you to dare eat a peach you might think twice before doing it after watching this:  masturbation played ultimately for endearingly awkward laughs, more Philip Roth than American Pie. What a marvellously thoughtful and beautifully judged piece of cinema, one that lingers in the mind long after viewing for its grace and beauty and generosity and its remarkable sensuality. Richard Butler must be thrilled.

 

Life of the Party (2018)

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Once a dighead, always a dighead. When her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) suddenly dumps her, longtime and dedicated housewife Deanna Miles (Melissa McCarthy) turns regret into reset by going back to college. Unfortunately, Deanna winds up at the same college as her less-than-thrilled daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon). Plunging headlong into the campus experience, the outspoken new student soon begins a journey of self-discovery while fully embracing all of the fun, freedom and frat boys that she can handle. She shocks and delights best friend Christine (Maya Rudolph) with updates on her conquest of Jack (Luke Benward) who’s less than half her age but the chickens come home to roost when Dan announces he’s to marry his realtor Marcie (Julie Bowen) and Deanna and her strange ensemble of girls decide it’s time to make their presence felt … Melissa McCarthy is so nice. And this is nice. It’s not nasty and vengeful and gross which is what you might expect from a woman going through a midlife crisis when her husband cheats on her – I mean even she and her co-writer and director (and husband) Ben Falcone surely saw Back to School, never mind Animal House. It’s illogical and silly and for a comic performer of McCarthy’s ability that’s a staggering fail. She was in class with her archaeology professor and they don’t have a single conversation outside the lecture hall. She’s loud and proud yet can’t speak in public and falls over sweating in class. She embarrasses her daughter but it’s… fine? They simultaneously do the walk of shame and she doesn’t comment on her daughter’s sexual activity? Neither mother nor daughter’s reactions ring remotely true. (If this were a properly Freudian piss take they’d have slept with the same guy).  She was cool back in the day but now she wears hair clips and sparkly letter sweaters? Nonsense. And all those girls are so odd. As though every phobia and weirdly concocted affectation of millennials was assembled into some seriously strange students.  And of course Deanna seeks to reassure them. So far so snowflake.  And Christine and her husband have what is frankly an unbelievable marriage. The worst crime? It’s nice! McCarthy was brilliant in Spy – one of the best sendups I’ve ever seen which knew her value and her capacity for sharp delivery and hilarious slapstick and put it into a screamingly funny genre workout. Now? She’s just a Mom. I don’t get it.