Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


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No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. Due to his knowledge of the native Bedouin tribes, British Army Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent to Arabia to find Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and serve as liaison between the Arabs and the British in their fight against the Turks. With the aid of the native Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence rebels against the orders of his superior officer and strikes out on a daring camel journey across the harsh desert to attack a well-guarded Turkish port… The greatest film ever made? Probably. One of my more shocking cinematic excursions was to see this at London’s Odeon Marble Arch when it was re-released in a new print:  I hared to the early evening screening, thought I was incredibly late when I got my ticket because the foyer was deserted, ran upstairs two steps at a time and took my seat. And realised I was the only person there. This is one of the most feverishly protagonist-led narratives you will ever see, by which I mean that what you are seeing is the world created by Lawrence, whether or not it is true to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the entire facts of the matter or the man.  Like Psycho, everything in it exists to explain his perspective, his character, his essence. And it starts so shockingly, in a way that horrified me when I first saw it on TV one afternoon when I was probably nine years old:  his death in an English country lane on a summer’s day on a motorcycle. This frames an action adventure rooted in archaeology, espionage, politics, propaganda and the division of the vast desert lands and their warring tribes into convenient nation-states. It’s a narrative that is  free of women but includes issues of homosexuality and torture. It uses the trope of the journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) rewriting history as it is being made. It is filled with imagery that pulses through your brain – the arrival of Ali across the shimmering sands;  the (literal) match cut;  Lawrence shot from below in his white Arabic robes, stalking the hijacked train;  the magical appearance of water. I watch this on a regular basis and get lost in it every time. It’s extraordinary, arresting, brilliant, startling, stunning. O’Toole is utterly luminous as this complex man. Blacklisted Michael Wilson and British screenwriter Robert Bolt did drafts of the script and it may not be entirely historically accurate but it is true. Shot by Freddie Young, scored by Maurice Jarre, directed by David Lean. Magnificent. Happy Birthday to me.


Jane (2017)

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I thought they were like us but nicer than us. I had no idea of the brutality they could show. The true story of Jane Goodall, the English woman who was secretary to biologist Louis Leakey and who went to live among chimpanzees in the Gombe of Tanzania, becoming an expert on the habitat in the world’s longest-running primatological study. I was the Geographic cover girl, she laughs, in a biographical work anchored in her narration and some contemporary interviews but brought to life by the archive footage shot by the man who became her husband, Baron Hugo van Lawick with a typically compelling score by Philip Glass. While she was studying chimp behaviour and learning how to rear their son from her subjects, she was finding that chimps could be as aggressive and war-like as humans and just how distressing the results could be. If you have read her work then you will be familiar with David Greybeard and the colour film of this magnificent animal will be truly heartwarming even if his bitter end is hard to bear. This also offers insights into Goodall’s background, the effect of separation from her husband and the difficulties in bringing up their boy Grub in the Gombe while van Lawick wanted to remain working in the Serengeti. Trips to raise money to keep the eventual research base going are treated with mordant humour. This is a wonderful piece of work with Brett Morgen’s assemblage of von Lawick’s 16mm films (thought lost until 2014) creating a painstaking record of the most important such study we have but also includes much home movie footage which clearly demonstrate van Lawick’s growing infatuation with his other subject – Goodall herself. Adapted from Goodall’s books and notes by director Morgen, who also produced and edited this beautiful film. Utterly captivating.

All the President’s Men (1976)

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Where’s the goddamn story? There’s a break in at the Watergate building and a laidback and very green Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is suspicious when the Cuban-American burglars appear in court with high-level representation. Boss Harry Rosenfeld teams him up with chippy Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to help out  – Bernstein writes better copy. Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) is not convinced that there’s much there but reluctantly gives the go-ahead.  With the help of a mysterious source, code-named Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), the two reporters make a connection between the burglars and a White House staffer. They encounter dirty tricks, ‘rat-fucking’ and an organisation known as CREEP. Follow the money Despite dire warnings about their safety, the duo follows the money all the way to the top… Part conspiracy thriller, part detective story, part newspaper flick, this only errs on the forgivably smug side that you’d expect if you’d been one of the hacks who’d (mistakenly) stumbled on an Oval Office-level conspiracy in the early 1970s. Part of director Alan J. Pakula’s unofficial paranoid trilogy (along with Klute and The Parallax View) this was adapted from Woodward and Bernstein’s book by William Goldman in the first instance – or actually four – before it was rewritten by Bernstein and Nora Ephron and then by Pakula and Redford, albeit those claims have been debunked. It’s a film that shows you the process of how to get and write the story – the sheer drudgery of sitting at desks, making phonecalls, being fobbed off, meeting strange men in car parks, going to libraries to borrow books, boredom, fear, anticipation, surveillance, and typing, typing, typing, the whole kit and caboodle. But when it’s played by two of the world’s biggest film stars at the time and they make calling someone on the phone so unbearably tense, you know you’re in good hands. As Redford’s biographer Michael Feeney Callan clarifies, Redford’s mind was already elsewhere during production despite the project being his and was permanently distracted, yet we are carried on this tidal wave of information that started as a local story and became a national scandal – despite knowing the rather fabled outcome. What a way to make your name. Katharine Graham’s role was excised entirely from the action, to be resurrected in the preceding scandal of the Pentagon Papers dramatised in the recent The Post. Remarkable on every level, with the characters becoming at times functionaries of a cannily authentic production design by George Jenkins and a shooting style by Gordon Willis that emphasises light – its presence and absence, its curtailment and its blazing power – amid an ensemble of brilliant players in roles large and small, thrillingly brought to life. Classic.




Christine (2016)


So, now, in keeping with WZRB policy, presenting the most immediate and complete reports of local “blood and guts”, TV 30 presents what is believed to be a television first. In living color, an exclusive coverage of an attempted suicide. In Sarasota, Florida, circa 1974, an ambitious, 29-year-old reporter Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is relentlessly motivated to succeed. She earwigs on a radio scanner in her teenage bedroom to get ahead on stories. She knows she has talent, but being a driven career woman comes with its own challenges, especially when competition for a promotion, a floor manager Jean (Maria Dizzia) scoops a story on a serial killer in Gainesville (“but that’s not local! I don’t know the rules!”) and a tumultuous home life lead her to succumb to a state of depression which we learn from her mother Peg (J. Smith Cameron) is a regular occurrence. She is also dealing with horrific abdominal pains which are the result of a dodgy ovary and surgery could leave her infertile depriving her of her dream to have a child. She’s an unmarried virgin with no man in the wings. With ratings on the floor, the station manager Michael (Tracy Letts) issues a mandate to deliver juicier and more exploitative stories at odds with her serious brand of issue-based journalism and she wants to get away from fender benders and strawberry festivals contrary to his urging her to make news sensational. When the show’s host George (Michael C. Hall) takes her on a date as a ruse to introduce her to group therapy before breaking the shocker that he’s going to the new outlet in Baltimore with the station owner (John Cullum) and she then discovers that he’s taking the blonde sports moppet with him because they’ve got presenting chemistry, she decides on a truly sensational course … The true-life story of a woman journalist struggling with mental illness and the pressures of local TV ratings is a sad portrait played with devastating accuracy by Hall. Her nasal harshness as a charisma-free broadcaster is coupled with her utterly infantile home life which she shares with an equally immature mother who has decided to shack up with a younger, unsympathetic man. Bad move! This narrative of what is presumably bipolar disorder will ring several bells and whistles for those of us who have had unpleasant dealings with such sufferers – manic, aggressively obnoxious highs and a long, slow descent into a trough of weird behaviour which is usually deflected onto carefully chosen targets in their orbit with a cunning worthy of secret agents (hello Carrie in Homeland! Thankfully Hall is never so inaccurately wild-eyed and ludicrous.) Unfortunately in this case the protagonist directs her violence towards herself in an instance of desperate attention-seeking which according to her lead-in is “an attempted suicide”.  A tad on the long side, it’s hard to know which is actually more depressing – the outcome, or the conditions of the workplace which drove her to it.  As sad as the yellow-tinged cinematography.  Screenplay by Craig Shilowich and directed by Antonio Campas.


Philomena (2013)


It’s  funny isn’t it? All the pieces of paper designed to help you find him have been destroyed, but guess what, the one piece of paper designed to stop you finding him has been lovingly preserved. God and his infinite wisdom decided to spare that from the flames. In 1952 Irish teenager Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) became pregnant out of wedlock and was sent to a convent. When her baby, Anthony, was a toddler, the nuns took Philomena’s child away from her and put him up for adoption in the US. For the next 50 years, she searched tirelessly for her son. When former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) – who’s been fired from the Labour Party in disgrace – learns of her story, he becomes her ally after initial reluctance to take on a human interest story. They travel together to America to find Anthony and become unexpectedly close in the process… Actor and writer Coogan who (with Jeff Pope) adapted Sixsmith’s book about the real life Philomena finds a real niche for emotive comedy in this tragic story of a mother’s search for the son she was forced to give up after an illicit episode of underage sex leading to years spent in the service of the Irish Catholic nuns who took her in.  Dench and Coogan prove a formidable double act, he the reasoned, caring journo, she the guilt-ridden sharp-tongued mother whose legitimate daughter coaxes her to look for her other offspring many years later, when they are put off by the obdurate misinformation emanating from the Christian sisterhood who blithely conceal a terrible secret. Moving, well played and deftly handled. Directed by Stephen Frears.


Cool Runnings (1993)

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Peace be the journey. Four Jamaican bobsledders (Leon, Doug E. Doug, Rawle D. Lewis and Malik Yoba) dream of competing in the Winter Olympics in Calgary despite never having seen snow. With the help of  Irv Blitzer (John Candy) a disgraced former champion desperate to redeem himself, the Jamaicans set out to become worthy of Olympic selection and go all out for glory… The real-life underdogs in the ’88 Games are given a sweetly (fictional) biographical treatment, complete with father-son conflict, rivalry with other teams, a real rackety set-up in an event riven with issues including the late great Candy (an invented character) who has his own past transgression to resolve without damaging his team’s prospects.  As sliding proceedings in Korea come to an end (sob!) this is simply irresistible.  Lynn Siefert & Michael Ritchie wrote the story and the screenplay is credited to Siefert and Tommy Swerdlow & Michael Goldberg. Directed by Jon Turteltaub.  The last time I saw this was when it was released exactly 24 years ago and Candy died just a fortnight later. What a sad loss.


The Greatest Showman (2017)

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Any other critic might call it a celebration of humanity. A young Phineas Barnum and his tailor father Philo are mocked at the home of the wealthy Hallett family but he falls in love with their lovely daughter Charity and they keep in touch by letter when she is sent to school. When he grows up the adult Phineas (Hugh Jackman) marries Charity (Michelle Williams) and moves from job to job while rearing two little girls in poverty until he hits on the idea of a show with nature’s oddities, creating a community of people who are shunned – Tom Thumb, the Bearded Lady, the Irish Giant, et al. He persuades high society playwright Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to join forces to give him respectability and their success brings them fame – even Queen Victoria wants an audience with them. Phineas meets Swedish songbird Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and mortgages everything to bring her all over the USA but she wants him as well – and betrays him, lying to the press, prompting Charity to leave him. When he returns to NYC protesters burn down the circus and Philip runs into the burning building to try to rescue his beloved Anne (Zendaya) an acrobat of colour whom he must battle society to spend his life with …  This moves quickly and expeditiously, daring you to see the cracks – in fact it’s really a stage musical with few concessions to anything you don’t know outside the business of show. It’s got a very inclusive message which is right-on for the current climate. Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and directed by first-timer Michael Gracey, there were reshoots apparently supervised by James Mangold who receives an executive producer credit – he had worked closely with Jackman on Logan.  It all adds up to a very nice night out at the musical theatre – even if it bears little relationship to the reality behind the real-life subject or even the musical Barnum by Cy Coleman, Paul Stewart and Mark Bramble. The songs are by Benj Pasek and Michael Paul and bear no relationship with any music produced in the nineteenth century:  to call the music ersatz would be misleading, it’s very contemporary and could come from any new musical you’ve seen or heard lately. However it’s a great showcase for some heartfelt, showstopping numbers  – particularly Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) leading on This Is Me and Efron and Zendaya’s Rewrite the Stars. There are few dramatic segues so this won’t trouble your brain overly much:  it’s a swaggering, confident piece of work which has little faith in the audience – a criticism constantly made of Barnum himself by the resident journo critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks) who chronicles his highs and his lows but eventually comes round.  He says it there, it comes out here. Praise is due cinematographer Seamus McGarvey for keeping everything looking absolutely splendid.


The Gunfighter (1950)

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If he ain’t so tough, there’s been an awful lot of sudden natural deaths in his vicinity. Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) is a veteran gunslinger known for being quick on the draw, but his talent inevitably leads to trouble, with others constantly out to challenge him to prove they can best a legend. But Ringo is reformed and all he wants is to be reunited with his estranged family, but he has to contend with various foes, including the ambitious young sharpshooter Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier) who wants to make his name. Old friend Marshal Strett (Millard Mitchell) assists him in gaining respite in the saloon. As Ringo attempts to reconcile with his schoolteacher wife, Peggy (Helen Westcott) who wants nothing to do with him and doesn’t want their son to finally meet his father, he finds that he can’t easily shake his violent past…  Loosely based on a cousin of the fabled Younger Brothers, this was written by William Bowers and William Sellers with an uncredited rewrite by producer Nunnally Johnson and developed from a story by Sellers and Andre de Toth (no mean director himself). This chamber piece about violence, myth and retribution, with most of its action confined to the saloon where Ringo is safe, was originally intended for John Wayne at Columbia but he despised studio head Harry Cohn, so when Twentieth Century Fox obtained the rights it was offered to Peck, who would make this his second collaboration with director Henry King after their astonishing work on Twelve O’Clock High. One of the bones of contention for Darryl F. Zanuck and Spyros Skouras was Peck’s homegrown moustache, which they reckoned would cost at the box office (and it did!). It is also distinguished by the hallmarks of that studio’s finest productions:  meticulous, spare storytelling with an exacting narrative thread (DFZ hated the original ending and ordered it changed), careful casting (Richard Jaeckel as Eddie,  Mitchell as the Marshal) and a particularly robust and urgent score by Alfred Newman. A top-drawer work, this is one of a few westerns from 1950 which were psychological works, marking a turning point in the maturing of the genre: I’ve written about it on Offscreen


The Return of Frank James (1940)


I can’t talk without thinking, not being a lawyer. When Jesse James’s murderers the Ford Brothers are set free, his brother Frank (Henry Fonda) who’s been lying low farming, vows revenge and, accompanied by his gang, sets out to track them down. To fund his manhunt, he robs an express office and is subsequently wrongly accused of the clerk’s murder, but an aspiring newspaper reporter Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney) is determined to find out the truth… Sam Hellman wrote a sequel to the earlier Henry King film and it was directed by renowned German director Fritz Lang, his first colour film and his first western. Notable for also being Tierney’s acting debut, she was appalled at her voice and thought she sounded like an angry Mickey Mouse:  she remedied the problem by developing a lifelong smoking habit. She plays nicely opposite Fonda who returns from the earlier film and has several great scenes, including the theatre episode when he’s watching a dramatic ‘re-enactment’ portray his brother’s murder by the Fords while he runs away – the Fords play themselves – and registers his disgust, drawing their attention to him and commencing a chase with Bob Ford (John Carradine). There’s a very funny scene when he and young brother Clem (wonderfully characterised by Jackie Cooper) imprison a nosy Pinkerton detective who’s alerted Stone to their true identities. When justice is finally seen to be done after a trial, Clem steps in to help and the final scene between them is very touching. Wonderfully staged and played, this is a consummate, straightforward revenge western, well told.



Viceroy’s House (2017)

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History is written by the victors. The final Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) arrives with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela (Lily Travers) in 1947 British India where he is tasked with overseeing the transition to independence, but meets with conflict as different sides clash in the face of monumental change. In this vast house, new valet Jeet (Manish Dayal) a former prison officer who left due to his political leanings meets beautiful Alia (Human Qureshi) whom he knew beforehand. She tries to ignore him because he is Hindu and she is Muslim and doesn’t wish to disappoint her invalided father Ali (Om Puri). While Mountbatten tries to balance the arguments about what to do regarding the various parties’ demands – hearing out Jinnah (Denzil Smith), Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) – and Edwina causes consternation among the staff by insisting on diverse meal preparation, Mountbatten realises that Lord Ismay (Michael Gambon) has been carrying out covert work to use partition to create a buffer state between India and the Soviet Union … This was gutted by some commentators and you can see why:  a project that was years in development, culled from several books of differing provenance with a foot in both camps as it were – a heritage romance that deals sharp lessons in politicking culminating in the greatest human migration in history with a million casualties. There are two books credited as the basis for the screenplay and a few writers: the principal source was Narendra Singh Saril’s The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition which was based on secret documents discovered in the British Library;  Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and director Gurinder Chadha are credited as screenwriters. History does not look kindly on Louis Mountbatten, who was, as this film clarifies, something of a stooge for a plan that had been in the London Government’s works for some time. (Maybe). His intentions were good, his overlords’ were anything but, is the arc here. You divided India for oil. Nonetheless the (heavily beautified) portrait of the Mountbatten marriage (no hint of Edwina’s affair with Nehru) with all the attractions of soft power being exercised within and without the household plus the subplot of the below stairs romance which is the only kind of happy ending possible here, is meticulously made. It’s nicely performed, beautifully photographed by Ben Smithard, integrating some great newsreels (real and faux) and sympathetically scored by A.R. Rahman.  Chadha’s personal relationship with the material is clarified in the end credits. As you can see, there are no straight lines in India. MM #1600.