Topkapi (1964)

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I’ve just had a great idea – something I’ve been looking for a long time… a very long time. Beautiful thief Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) and her ex-lover, Swiss criminal genius Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) put together a plan to steal an emerald-encrusted dagger from Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace with the assistance of larger than life Heath Robinson-type mechanical genius Cedric Page (Robert Morley). As part of their amateur acrobatic crew, they hire small-time con-man Anglo-Egyptian Arthur Simpson (Peter Ustinov) as their driver and fall guy. When the Turkish secret police capture Simpson at the border with a dodgy passport, they persuade him to spy on the gang, mistakenly believing that they’re Communist agents plotting an assassination… French-American director Jules Dassin had already perfected the heist movie with Rififi but everything here is played for laughs even if the scenes with the dubiously tranny charms of his wife Mercouri as the jewel-obsessed magpie are a little more on the forced side and overlong. The pitch is different from the Eric Ambler source novel The Light of Day where Simpson’s voice prevails but the heist itself has been enormously influential, viz. Mission:  Impossible and it was one of the top Sixties crime capers. Gilles Segal is terrific as the mute human fly whose super abilities charge the theft and Akim Tamiroff amusing as the cook. At this distance it all looks a little fake, rather like the team itself – and the recording parrot! Ustinov is very good as the stool pigeon whose intelligence notes to the police need decoding. At the end it seems this is all about a squawking bird. Dassin himself appears as the proprietor of the travelling show intended to transport the dagger across the Turkish border at the conclusion and there are some diversionary oily homoerotic wrestling scenes in an arena which should appeal to the Putinesque. Written by Monja Danischewsky.

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The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp (1953)

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A beautiful blonde angel (Diane Cilento) arrives in The Angel, Islington on a goodwill mission to soften the heart of pawnbroker Joshua Webman (Felix Aylmer). To raise money for her earthly mission, she pawns her harp for £20 and declares her love for the shop assistant Len (Philip Guard) who is immediately taken with her. She shows the people she encounters the path down which their happiness lies, whilst winning at the dogs and dodging pickpockets (Alfie Bass and Thomas Gallagher) and tries to improve people’s economic situations (pretty dire at the time) and puts couples together. This is a fairly typical British film of its post-WW2 era, blending elements of sentiment and whimsy with social realism (but you could take issue with the way that Jewish characters are represented). There are some nice visual touches – my favourite occurs when Bass gets planted in a birdcage during a foiled burglary. This was adapted by Charles Terrot from his novel and TV play with Sidney Cole and directed by Alan Bromly. Quite charming, with Cilento immensely impressive as the naive visitor in one of her earliest appearances, really becoming the Angel of Islington. There’s a pleasant score by Antony Hopkins.

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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Kong’s a pretty good king. Keeps to himself, mostly. This is his home, we’re just guests. But you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs, unless you’re picking a fight. Scientists, soldiers and adventurers unite to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean. Cut off from everything they know, they venture into the domain of the mighty Kong, igniting the ultimate battle between man and nature. As their mission of discovery soon becomes one of survival, they must fight to escape from a primal world where humanity does not belong. Tom Hiddleston is Conrad, the British Special Forces op (retired!) hired by monster hunter Bill Randa (John Goodman) who’s finagled money for the expedition from a disbelieving Senator. Samuel L. Jackson is Lt. Col. Preston Packard, in charge of a special chopper squadron chomping at the bit for a final military excursion. Brie Larson is Mason Weaver (hmm…..) a photographer and anti-war activist. She’s there for the Pulitzer. This is one last op for Nam vets who ain’t too happy at ‘abandoning’ a losing war. A man who believes in monsters. A Bermuda Triangle-type of island where God didn’t get to finesse His creations. Set in 1973, ie the Vietnam era and just before the 1976 remake starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges of the wonderful 1933 classic, this is a kind of gung-ho Apocalypse Now retread with extra monsters and gore. Yeah, right:  if you thought Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) was a gorilla. And there’s more than that because Marlow is played by John C. Reilly and he’s a soldier who’s been hanging on the island for nearly 30 years waiting to be rescued and he knows that Kong is in fact their only hope in this island that is hollow at the centre – and Kong needs to win the turf war against some incredibly frightening creatures who are even worse to humans than he is! So this plugs into modern myths too – all those Japanese soldiers on Pacific islands not aware WW2 ended long ago. The character of Marlow narrates all of Joseph Conrad’s books, including Heart of Darkness, establishing the framing story. Hmm, now you’re talking. With a horrible, unlikeable cast (what is it these days? Why are actors so yucky?) and a screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly you might think at some point someone would have pulled the plug or cast people empathetic enough for an audience to perhaps care if they survive an encounter with a gorilla minding his own business in his own home. Nope. They had to do it. They went there. But it is saved by the built-in snark (okay, self-awareness) that is a de facto part of all action blockbusters nowadays, reflecting from early exchanges in the dialogue the knowledge that the monster is …. us.  Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist till you’re looking for them.  There’s a very high body count and the romance is at a minimum but it looks dazzling and moves quickly – even with a little jungle stealth and camouflage. This takes no prisoners – it eats them. I blame the parents. Golly! Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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You sit here and you spin your little web and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Up in Heaven Clarence (Henry Travers) is awaiting his angel’s wings when a case is made to him about George Bailey (James Stewart) who’s thinking about jumping off a bridge and into a wintry river at Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve 1945. Clarence is told George’s story: as a young boy rescuing his brother Harry from an icy pond, to his father’s death just when his own life should have been taking off and he winds up staying in this loathsome little town running the bank and having his honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) ruined when there’s a run on the bank’s funds … and losing himself amid other people’s accidents, deaths and rank stupidity while the town runs afoul of greedy financier Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George is such a great guy with dreams of travel and adventure and the truth is he never leaves home and becomes a martyr to other people. I’ve always found this immensely depressing. What happens to him – the sheer passive aggression directed at him and the loss of all of his ambitions in order to satisfy other people’s banal wishes at the expense of his own life’s desires  – is a complete downer. Reworking A Christmas Carol with added danger it feels like a post-war attempt to make people feel happy with their very limited lot. Which is why I watch this very rarely and with complete reluctance precisely because its petty moralising is achieved so beautifully and rationally … So sue me! Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling and directed by Frank Capra.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

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There are times when I think what a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life. In 1930s England James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) serves as butler to the doltish Lord Darlington (James Fox). Stevens is so dedicated that he forgoes visiting his father (Peter Vaughan) on his deathbed in order to serve a bunch of blackshirts dinner. He overlooks Darlington’s Nazi sympathies and growing anti-Semitism even dispensing with the service of two young Jewish refugees who he knows will be returned to Germany. Twenty years after the disgraced Darlington’s death and in the wake of the Suez Crisis Stevens tries to make contact once again with Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), Darlington’s head housekeeper who married their former colleague Benn (the late and lamented Tim Pigott-Smith). He travels to see her in the West Country and in the course of his trip begins to regret his blind loyalty and servitude to his former master who pursued a libel case to the detriment of his reputation and whose American critic Congressman Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve) now owns Darlington Hall. Stevens now works for him and his life is utterly unfulfilled. He must make up for lost time. The Merchant Ivory team regroup with their Howards End stars and the amazing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prize winning novel ponders class relations, political naivete and the lack of wisdom in relationships at every conceivable level. A friend of mine commented caustically on it at the time of its release, The fireplaces are wonderful. And it’s true, they are, but that is much too reductive of a project which  cannot translate the more subtle nuances of the novel instead transmitting through performance on a sometimes barely perceptible register of glances or a slight movement what mere writing cannot – the affect of loss and its immense impact on the totality of a life. Hopkins has one of the most difficult roles of his career – the stubborn butler who simply cannot accept the limitations of his boss or his father’s revelation. His refusal to admit emotionality is devastating. His humiliation at the pleasure of his lordship’s house guests makes you squirm on his behalf. Thompson is heartbreaking as the woman who loves him but hurts him rather than tell him directly. Their final leavetaking is horrifying in its simplicity and tragedy. There are two other exquisite scenes and they both predominantly feature fingers:  when Stevens finds his father collapsed and must wrench his fingers from a trolley after the old man has had a stroke;  and when Miss Kenton prises with great difficulty a novel from his own hand to declare rather disbelievingly that it is only a sentimental romance. The fear of embarrassment is all over this epic tale of a country’s honour in microcosm. It is an achievement that seems much larger in retrospect than a quarter of a century ago. A stylish, intelligent, immensely moving drama.

Paris When It Sizzles (1964)

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Every day when I get up and I see there’s a whole new other day I go absolutely ape! Richard Benson (William Holden) is holed up in a swish Paris apartment with a great view and he has two days left of his 20-week contract to fulfill a screenwriting assignment commissioned on the basis of the title by a monied producer.  He’s spent all that time travelling around Europe, having an affair with a Greek actress and drinking. Now he’s hired a typist called Gabrielle Simpson (Audrey Hepburn) who’s really a wannabe writer who spent the first six months of her two-year stint in the city living a very louche life. He dictates various opening scenes of The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower and eventually constructs a version which takes off with Gabrielle standing in for the lead actress in a story which mutates into a spy thriller. Her actor boyfriend in the story (Tony Curtis) dumps her (in reality she has a date to keep in two days – Bastille Day) and she gets embroiled with Benson himself as the presumed villain. When Gabrielle takes over the storytelling she turns him into a vampire because of a childhood obsession with Dracula. He rewrites it like the hack he really is and gives it a Hollywood ending – straight out of Casablanca. Real life meshes with reel life and Noel Coward – playing his producer Alexander Myerheim – materialises at a party in the film within a film. Marlene Dietrich has a cameo and Curtis has great fun in his supporting role as a narcissistic Method actor. This postmodern remake of the French film Holiday for Henrietta by Julien Duvivier and Henri Jeanson got a rewrite by George Axelrod and it’s brimming with Hollywood references and a surplus of nods to the films of both stars:  talk about meta! It was put into production by Paramount who exercised their contractual rights over Holden and Hepburn, reunited after Sabrina a decade earlier. They had had a much-fabled affair then and Hepburn allegedly turned down Holden’s offer of marriage due to his vasectomy as she was obsessed with having a child. She was by now married to actor and director Mel Ferrer and Holden turned up to the set in a very bad way, still not over her. His drinking was out of control and he had numerous accidents befall him which ended up scuppering the final scene. It was directed by Richard Quine, who had previously made The World of Suzie Wong with him and that gets a shout out too. Hepburn’s husband Ferrer has a cameo here as a partygoer and Sinatra does some singing duties when Benson announces the titles of the film within a film. There are far more laughs here than the contemporary reviews would give it credit, with some shrewd screenplay analysis and Benson even talks at regular intervals about his planned book The Art of Screenplay Writing which sounds like a useful handbook. Hepburn was outfitted as ever by Hubert de Givenchy who betrays her terrifyingly anorectic frame and he also gets a credit for her perfume despite this not being released in Smell-O-Rama. Hepburn had legendary Claude Renoir (the same) fired as director of photography because she felt he wasn’t flattering her and had him replaced with Charles Lang, who accompanied her to her next film, Charade, which shares a location with this – the Punch and Judy show at the front of the Theatre de Marigny. There’s a sinuous score by Nelson Riddle.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) gets along far better with his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than with his parents so when the old man dies, with his eyes missing and a strange creature hiding outside his apartment in the bushes, Jake recalls all the stories he told him about living in a magical place during WW2. After several sessions with therapist Dr Golan (Allison Janney) he convinces his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Wales where he is befriended by some Peculiars, enters a derelict mansion through a portal in a cave and encounters the very much alive Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who lives in this weird time loop with all the weirdly gifted kids whom his grandfather told him about. They have to ward off a powerful enemy who feast on the children’s eyes, led by Samuel L. Jackson who delivers his now customary cod-threatening performance and after taking Miss Peregrine, the children must engage in a final face-off (or eye-off…) in a theatre in modern-day Blackpool. Jake himself has a special power which can save them all … There’s a level of ordinariness to this which is irritating. It’s well set up, with Tim Burton returning to contemporary Florida (remember the achingly wonderful Edward Scissorhands?) and the problematic father-son dynamic that fuels some of his better work. However there’s no real sense of mystery or fabulism that would bring this to a different realm. What is best about it? Probably the Ray Harryhausen-style doll animations. Emotions lie half-buried in the middle of this – about being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, hating your dumb parents and only finding your true family because you possess an understanding of life that other people don’t (seeing invisible monsters is inordinately helpful). Oh well – there’s a good joke about the evil motivations of psychiatrists, though. Adapted by Jane Goldman from the novel by Ransom Riggs, and apparently a lot of changes took place in the writing. Very, very uneven.

Conflict of Wings (1954)

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Aka Fuss Over Feathers and The Norfolk Story.  That great expanse of sky and never a ripple to disturb that ancient garden. A Norfolk bird sanctuary that was the burial ground for children in Roman times is threatened by the Royal Air Force’s plan to use it as a target range for testing their new DeHavilland Vampires with a rocket system. Led by Muriel Pavlow, whose boyfriend John Gregson is an RAF corporal, the community discovers that the land was gifted to the Church by Henry VIII in thanks for assisting quell a rebellion and finds grounds for defending the sanctuary from the rocket tests. The local eel catcher starts squatting on the land, protesting his fishing rights, and everyone forms a human shield around the island to stop a test but they accidentally damage the RAF’s temporary telephone line and the base can’t be told in time to stop a launch just as clouds begin massing and impeding the pilots’ sightlines …  With its story of a community fighting to preserve their historical rights, this has echoes of Passport to Pimlico and can thus be viewed as part of a wider sense of post-war anti-establishment feeling. Nonetheless with the revelation that the squadron will be moving on to Malaya, there’s something of a triumphalist conclusion. Shot in a variety of Norfolk locations – Hickling Broad, Cley-next-the-Sea, Ludham, Wells and West Raynham, which used to have an airfield. Adapted from actor turned screenwriter and director Don Sharp’s debut novel by John Pudney and directed by John Eldridge, there are plenty of familiar faces from the era – Kieron Moore, Niall MacGinnis, Harry Fowler, Guy Middleton – in this small but satisfying drama with its wonderful setting. Planespotters will have a field day. And there’s a charming gull too! Lovely score by Philip Green who was longtime musical director at the Rank Organisation and whose stock music has been used in everything from Ren and Stimpy to Night of the Living Dead. Now that’s versatile. Made under the Group 3 scheme to encourage independent films under the umbrella of the National Film Finance Corporation.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

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This was released as the voiceover tells us in Robert Stroud’s 53rd year of incarceration. Burt Lancaster plays the man who became a world-renowned ornithologist after being sentenced to death and then solitary confinement – terminally.  He killed a man over a girl when he was 19, protecting her from the bartender who was attacking her;  and then in Leavenworth killed a prison guard in a scuffle when the guard cancelled his mother’s visit.  His mother (Thelma Ritter) pleads for his death by hanging to be commuted but she becomes proprietorial over him and her true narcissistic exhibitionism (it’s all about her, see? Some of us know this syndrome way too well…) emerges when he becomes an expert in bird diseases after tending and raising sparrows and canaries from the yard. His book is smuggled out and becomes a best seller and he befriends and marries a fellow bird lover on the outside (Betty Field) with whom he starts a business in bird medicine.  His mother then relentlessly campaigns against his parole and he is denied every single year thereafter. The warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) hates him because of his individuality and refusal to show remorse.  He will never leave solitary confinement. His friendship with fellow inmate Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas) is sundered when Gomez is removed to Alcatraz where Shoemaker is then promoted. The new warden Albert Comstock (Hugh Marlowe) is literally insane about Stroud’s dedication to his studies behind bars. His parole hearing comes up again. And suddenly one morning he has to leave everything behind – the birds, his studies, his life in the unprecedented two-rooms he’s been allowed and he leaves for Alcatraz with only the clothes he stands up in. Malden goes bananas when Stroud’s history of the penal system doesn’t recognise his contribution to getting men to manufacture belt buckles.  When there’s a mutiny amongst the prisoners it’s Stroud who helps to quell it. And his reward?  A transfer to another prison. There are scenes with the birds and Lancaster’s care for them that will bring tears to your eyes. And Neville Brand’s playing of prison officer Bull Ransom particularly in their parting scene will unsettle you. The setting should render it claustrophobic instead it’s positively breathtaking in its sometimes deliberate focus on detail. This mostly true story of Stroud’s devastating experiences and the utter villainous vengeful viciousness of people is compelling and brilliantly told, with a voiceover by Edmond O’Brien who plays Thomas Gaddis, his biographer, who met him just once on the outside during Stroud’s final prison transfer. Written by Guy Trosper and produced by Lancaster, who delivers an incredibly restrained, unsentimental performance, this was directed by John Frankenheimer after Charles Crichton and Lancaster did not see eye to eye. Stroud died one year after this was released, the day before JFK was assassinated. He never saw life outside prison after the age of 19  in a system of relentless personalised vindictive and pointless punishment. This is what can happen when people decide they dislike you. If you doubt conspiracies exist then watch this. And weep.

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2016)

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Brace for impact. Lean and trim, that’s not just a descriptor for director Clint Eastwood, it also works for Todd Komarnicki’s adaptation of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeffrey Zaslow’s book, Highest Duty, detailing what happened January 15, 2009, when they famously landed US Airways Flight 1549 on NYC’s Hudson River, without a single casualty. The film is structured around the National Transportation Safety Board investigation which started immediately, stranding Sully (Tom Hanks) and Jeff (Aaron Eckhart) at a Marriott without their own clothes and left to ponder if they could indeed have landed the Airbus at alternate airports. We start with a nightmare – Sully’s – one of many all too realistic visions of crashing in uptown Manhattan. For the elephant in the room that this constantly addresses is 9/11 and how clever to do this in the first scene:  it’s what we were all thinking during those first pictures. It’s uppermost in his mind as he is taken to task and tested as a virtual criminal by the NTSB while being hailed as hero on all the talk shows – but he knows Jeff is a funnier interview and compliments him on his jokes to David Letterman. The story is extremely well modulated, waiting quite a long time to show us precisely what happened:  we see bits and pieces, are introduced (slightly) to some passengers and the unfortunate young air traffic controller who thinks he’s been part of an aircraft being downed and are finally prepared for something that we at least have the benefit of knowing ended well, even if in cold choppy waters at the worst time of year. When asked at the public hearing if he could have changed anything, Jeff declares, “it would have happened in July.” One great message here is about trusting human instinct over virtual reality and computer simulations. More humanity is supplied by Sully’s wife Laura Linney, not quite but almost literally phoning in her performance, bringing him back down to earth about their ongoing financial problems, fretting about what could happen if he loses his wings as he might do if found negligent – the airline has a lot riding on the insurance claims being voided. They cave as soon as they hear the inflight recording. But the question remains – how can a flock of geese down a passenger jet? An intrinsic design flaw? I know that I don’t take Airbus flights. There’s a very good joke when Sully goes into an Irish pub and the bartender gives him a Sully – “Grey Goose with a splash of water.” You’ve got to laugh. Kind of! Coming in at a tight 96 minutes, this near-disaster anti-thriller movie is a remarkably calm, paradoxically uplifting story of true heroism and Hanks is typically excellent. Perhaps it would have been too counterintuitive to have cast real-life disaster-prone pilot Harrison Ford?!