Battle of the Bulge (1965)

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I did not lose a war to die in the back seat of a car. At the end of 1944 American Lt. Col. Dan Kiley (Henry Fonda), a military intelligence whiz and former police officer, discovers that the Nazis are planning to attack Allied forces near Belgium. Certain that the exhausted enemy can’t muster much force, General Joe Grey (Robert Ryan) isn’t convinced by Kiley’s findings, and his men pay the price when the German tanks begin their offensive in the Ardennes. In the heat of this key World War II battle, Kiley must come up with a plan when it becomes clear that the Nazis are trying to steal fuel from the Allies, there are Germans disguised as American MPs diverting traffic from the new Western Front and an ambitious German Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw) who intends keeping the war going as long as possible no matter how many are sacrificed as he leads the Panzer spearhead of the German counterattack … Having been an inspector of police does not disqualify me from thinking. Written by (formerly blacklisted) Bernard Gordon, producer Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (with contributions by John Melson), this is proper WW2 entertainment about a huge episode that involved a million men and which I once had the temerity to describe to someone as an instance of poor project management on the part of Hitler and his cronies. I love me a good war movie, better still if there are tanks (my dream vehicle, particularly the camo models in Desert Storm. So sue me!) so this is perfect Easter (or Passover!) holiday fare. Criticised for not being 100% accurate and its Spanish locations being a poor imitation of the Ardennes setting, this has a lot going for it, not least the staging and the tremendous cast. There is detail by the yard – and the weather reports are crucial. The way that the strategy and tactics are exposed is a triumph of film storytelling. Shaw is sizzling as one of the nastiest Nazis outside the Bulgarian Waffen SS and it’s a star-making role. Fonda’s doggedness is wonderfully sympathetic, especially when you have the feeling (because you’ve seen him in other movies) that he’s probably right about everything and his bozo superiors find out, soon enough. It’s the perceptive structuring of the narrative from both perspectives that makes this tick along quickly. While not setting out to be a satire (hardly, although WW2 vet Sperling was no fan of warfare) the dialogue is sparkling with zingers – aphoristic and otherwise, particularly punctuating Shaw’s scenes – and there’s one out-and-out comic scene (played straight) when Savalas returns to his business to check how things are doing. Pier Angeli pleads for some promise of marriage because this is what she understands by the term ‘business partnership’ and wants a sign. But he’s rushing back to the front so he just tells her to keep feeding the chickens (they’re looking scrawny). This amusing character sidebar is one part of a dedicated soldier and Savalas plays it to the hilt. There’s a mass execution which won’t surprise you – but someone gets away and the payoff is very satisfying indeed. There are some good map room scenes; a really funny one-word message from US Command to German Command; and a breathtaking POV section with Fonda gliding down in silence over the attack position of the German tanks on the other side of the river:  just listen to the score. Such inventive work by Benjamin Frankel. The final sequence of tank battle is suitably fiery and an injured and vengeful Savalas joins forces with James MacArthur at the fuel depot where they get to blow up more than just the gas supply. Beautifully shot by Jack Hildyard in 70mm and a fine job of direction by Ken Annakin with not a moment to spare in its 163 minutes. Never mind what Ike said – this is simply sensational. When I have a brigade of tanks – that is reality!

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Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

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This isn’t happening. After returning home from the Vietnam War, veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) struggles to maintain his sanity. Plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks, convinced he is in Hell when he travels on the subway, Singer rapidly falls apart as the world and people around him morph and twist into disturbing images. Girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) and ex-wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalember), try to help, but to little avail. Even Singer’s chiropractor friend Louis (Danny Aiello), fails to reach him as he appears to descend into madness… There is no out of here. You’ve been killed, don’t you remember? Bruce Joel (Ghost) Rubin’s impressionistic screenplay about life and death gets a hallucinatory treatment by director Adrian Lyne in an unforgettable psychological portrait that seems to be about PTSD but morphs into something else entirely, a metaphysical enquiry about perception. If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth. Better seen than explained, this leaves its audience in emotional distress, occupying a hellish reality where demons seem to pursue you in the subway. Robbins and the late Peña are wonderful playing out this magnificent fever dream, while Maurice Jarre’s score is a lament for the ages. See. According to this, you’re already dead

That Hamilton Woman (1941)

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Aka Lady Hamilton/The Enchantress.  They told us of your victories but not of the price you paid!  When small-town courtesan Emma Hart (Vivien Leigh) finds herself married off by her indebted uncle to British Ambassador to Naples, elderly widower Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), her world is turned upside down. Just as Emma is finally settling into her new life as Lady Hamilton, she meets British naval hero Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) who vociferously opposes Napoleon’s growing empire and the two fall madly in love. However, their forbidden romance is soon threatened by the ever-growing shadow of the Napoleonic Wars... What a century it’s been: Marlborough rode to war, and Washington crossed the Delaware. Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette. The last of the Stuarts. Peter the Great. Voltaire. Clive of India. Bonaparte. The framing story of this famous propaganda work created by producer/directorAlexander Korda is that of Emma Hamilton ensconced in debtor’s prison in France, regaling her incredulous fellow prisoners with her incredible life story and her grand romance. That this involved once notorious real-life lovers, then married couple, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier (reunited by Korda from Fire Over England), must have been catnip to audiences. Indeed the film’s tagline boasted,  The Year’s Most Exciting Team of Screen Lovers! Its role in attracting the US into a total war nobody wanted is debatable. In fact Korda was accused of espionage, a charge he only escaped because his hearing coincided with Pearl Harbour:  special relationship?! There are always men, who for the sake of their insane ambition, want to destroy what other people build. The screenplay by Walter Reisch and R.C. Sheriff (with two of Nelson’s speeches contributed by Winston Churchill) condenses a lot of historical material and Olivier is perhaps a bit too slow but this is compensated for with the range of emotions Leigh explores to charismatic effect. Shot in the US, it looks gorgeous courtesy of Rudolph Maté’s intricate cinematography and the sumptuous design by Vincent Korda and Lyle Wheeler, with beautiful costuming by René Hubert,  while the romantic score is composed by Miklós Rózsa. There is no ‘then’. There is no ‘after’

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

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Now listen to me you benighted muckers. We’re going to teach you soldiering. The world’s noblest profession. When we’re done with you, you’ll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilised men.  The exploits of Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) and Danny Dravot (Sean Connery), a  pair of English military officers stationed in India in the 1880s. Tired of life as soldiers, the two travel to the isolated land of Kafiristan, barely known since it was conquered by Alexander the Great, where they are ultimately embraced by the people and revered as rulers. After a series of misunderstandings, the natives come to believe that Dravot is a god, but he and Carnehan can’t keep up their deception forever and when Dravot takes a fancy to local beauty Roxanne (Shakira Caine) his god-like demeanour is finally unmasked…  He wants to know if you are gods./Not Gods – Englishmen. The next best thing. This adaptation of a short story by Rudyard Kipling is one of the very best action adventures ever made: characterful, funny, brilliantly staged and performed. Director John Huston had wanted to make it so long that he had hoped to film it with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. Indeed, there are clear connections with this and his The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as well as Gunga Din. The imperialist story is really a parody of the desire for power. This country isn’t big enough for these good-natured overreachers! Their friendship is wittily explored and Christopher Plummer as Kipling is easily a match for the well-cast leads while Saeed Jaffrey makes for a marvellous Billy Fish, the sole Gurkha soldier remaining of a failed British expedition. Deftly told with non-stop action, this is a vivid, spirited and sublime, self-aware entertainment.  Adapted by Huston and his long-time collaborator, Gladys Hill.  Now Peachy, different countries, different ways. Tell Ootah we have vowed not to take a woman until all his enemies are vanquished

From Russia With Love (1963)

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Blood is the best security in this business.  Russians Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and Kronsteen (Vladek Shybal) who are deployed by SMERSH (a crime syndicate to whom key Russian agents have transferred their allegiance) are out to snatch a decoding device known as the Lektor, using the ravishing Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) from the Soviet embassy in Istanbul to lure James Bond into helping them. Bond willingly travels to meet Tatiana in Istanbul, where he must rely on his wits to escape with his life in a series of deadly encounters with the enemy including his stalker Red Grant (Robert Shaw) masquerading as an English gentleman agent called Nash; while his presence in Turkey inflames Anglo-Russian tensions even as he takes his lead from Karim Bey (Pedro Armendariz) She should have kept her mouth shut. The first great Bond film and the second in the series, with a story by Irish screenwriter Johanna Harwood from Ian Fleming’s novel then increasingly loosely adapted by Richard Maibaum (and an uncredited Berkely Mather aka John Ewan Weston-Davies) although it should have been written by Len Deighton but he worked too slowly.  (Harwood worked for producer Harry Saltzman and also wrote on Dr No and would make uncredited contributions to the screenplay adaptation of Deighton’s The Ipcress File). This moves like the clappers taking inspiration from North by Northwest and The Red Beret and has everything you want in a spy thriller: wit, ingenuity, Cold War problems (SMERSH is replaced by SPECTRE so as not to antagonise the Russkies a year after Cuba, but we know that), a revenge plot devised by a chess grand master, a dangerous journey on the Orient Express, a psychotic peroxide assassin (a brilliant Shaw) and a sadistic Lesbian Colonel with killer heels (the unforgettable Lenya). She had her kicks! In many ways it’s the truest to Fleming of all the films. You may know the right wines, but you’re the one on your knees. How does it feel old man? Smart, well-staged and action packed, from the fantastic pre-titles sequence (the first in the series) to the nailbiting climax, this is directed by Terence Young whose own wartime exploits and personal style were intrinsic to coaching Connery in how to present himself. And what about the Lionel Bart title song performed by Matt Monro! This was the first Bond proper with all the distinctive elements intact: the theme song, the gadget, that titles bit, Blofeld (played here by Anthony Dawson) as the ultimate rogue with his lovely white furry pussycat, Desmond Llewelyn appears as Boothroyd from Q branch, and the promise of a return bout (in this case, Goldfinger). The central relationship between Bond and Tatiana has a real humanity that is missing from other Bond girl romances – Bianchi is quite charming in the role. Edited by Peter Hunt, who would direct O.H.M.S.S. Tragically Armendariz was suffering from cancer during production and took his own life afterwards. Don’t leave me. Never leave me

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

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Do you know what good ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like this?  Hard-boiled truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) gets caught in a bizarre conflict within and underneath San Francisco’s Chinatown. An ancient Chinese prince and Chinatown crime lord Lo Pan (James Hong) has kidnapped a beautiful green-eyed woman Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) engaged to marry Jack’s best friend Wang Chi (Denis Dun).  It happens right before their eyes at the airport just as she sets foot on American soil. Jack must help his friend rescue her before the evil Lo Pan uses her to break the ancient curse that keeps him a fleshless and immortal spirit but has to battle old Chinese gangs, a 900-year old sage, an ancient army, sorcery and a monster in a labyrinthOnly a dream can kill a dream. John Carpenter revels in macho self-mockery, dumb heroics and Chinese tropes (or clichés) in this kung fu comedy thriller with Russell gleefully playing hard as the wisecracking bozo trucker who just has to help out his friend especially if it means getting the other girl in the picture, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) who brings to mind Hawksian heroines. W. D. Richter adapted the original 1880s-set western written by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein and turns it into a rambunctious modern genre-bending martial arts fantasy with tongue set firmly in cheek, much in the style of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This doesn’t let up until the final frame – and even that promises more action! Russell is ideally cast in a role which director Carpenter described as a sidekick who thinks he’s the leading man. Great, daft fun. Take what you want and leave the rest – just like a salad bar! 

Mr Winkle Goes to War (1944)

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Mild-mannered middle-aged bank clerk Mr Wilbert G. Winkle (Edward G. Robinson) finally throws in his job to open a repair shop, to the consternation of his status-conscious wife Amy (Ruth Warrick).  Little orphan Barry (Ted Donaldson) is delighted and he’s roped in to work with Winkle. However the US Army comes a calling and before he knows it, Winkle is conscripted and forced to do the book keeping but persuades his CO to let him do some mechanical work instead. Then to everyone’s surprise, he makes it through basic training and even though he’s now too old to see active service, he refuses an honorable discharge. Meanwhile Barry runs away from his orphanage to see him when Winkle’s furlough is cancelled – he’s shipped out to the Pacific where his friend Joe Tinker (Robert Armstrong) seeks revenge for his brother’s death and they’re up close and personal with the Japanese in armed combat … This adaptation of Theodore Pratt’s novel is of interest for the contribution of blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt (as well as George Corey and Louis Solomon) because at the height of WW2 this is something of a pacifist film with a message of friendship. Robinson is quite the sweetheart here, his talent for friendship exemplified in his treatment of little Barry. He shot this between Double Indemnity and The Woman in the Window – reminding us of his performing strengths and variety, bringing a decency to this story of a hen-pecked husband but also a man who believes it is his patriotic duty to serve. The woman making his little life a misery is Mercury Theater alumnus Warrick, best remembered for being the controlling and superior wife to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane before her long soap opera career. As well as the enjoyable sight of Robinson in boot camp there is also the edifying experience of hearing him sing Sweet Genevieve. Directed by Alfred E. Green.

Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)

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You’re the man. You lead. It’s WW2 and famous writer Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) get a distressing telegram. We flash back to the interwar years when a shellshocked Milne, an acclaimed playwright, leaves London for the countryside after experiencing one too many reminders of WW1. Milne’s ever-changing moods affect those around him.  Only his friend Ernest H. Shepherd (Stephen Campbell Moore) empathises as a fellow veteran. Daphne is a somewhat dim and brittle wife, unhappy and traumatised on her own account after a violent childbirth. Their nanny Olive or Nou (Kelly Macdonald) is the chief caregiver to their son, Christopher Robin but known as Billy Moon (Will Tilston). Daphne tires of A.A. and his failure to write anything and leaves for the city, ostensibly to buy wallpaper. But the wardrobes have been emptied. When Olive leaves to look after her dying mother, the males of the family are left to their own devices and start to spin fanciful yarns about Billy’s collection of stuffed animals.  Milne invites Ernest to visit and they start to put together a book with illustrations around Billy Moon’s relationship with his toys and their outings to the Hundred Acre Wood.  Tigger is better than Tiger. It’s more Tigger-ish. These stories form the basis for Winnie-the-Pooh  and The House at Pooh Corner, published respectively in 1926 and 1928. Milne and his family soon become swept up in the instant success of the books, while the enchanting tales bring hope and comfort but his relationship with his young son suffers as the boy is wheeled out in public to play the character of Christopher Robin and even their personal phonecalls are broadcast … If I’m in a book people might think I’m not real. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, Simon Curtis’ film skirts the edges of whimsy and tragedy and finds it hard to balance the demands of both – how do you make a man experiencing PTSD a sympathetic character? He wants the British public to know the reality of combat and the utter waste of the Great War.  I’ve had enough of making people laugh. I need to make them see. Giving the toys a voice isn’t even his idea, it’s his wife’s.  She sends a poem he writes to her into Vanity Fair where it becomes famous, her eye firmly affixed to publicity. The child is chirpy and aggressive. These are real people, the film is telling us, and it’s not all wine and roses creating beloved children’s stories. They make each other interesting and tolerable through the written word in a narrative that expresses the limits of people’s endurance. When Milne tells Daphne he’s going to do a book about the pointlessness of war she is riled and shrieks that he might as well try writing about getting rid of Wednesdays – he might not like them but they always come around. Making this man see what he can do and the imaginative links he forges between his son’s playthings and his own desire for escaping the reality of his past provides the main texture of the work.  It’s very handsomely handled but never comfortable, no matter how often the sun might peep through the Hundred Acre Wood. Gleeson is an actor of narrow range and his performance is paradoxically limited by the writing but it’s an admirable insight into the writer’s life and the perilous attractions of fame. Stop. Look.

 

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

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Close your eyes. Traumatised war veteran Joe Rogers (Joaquin Phoenix) tracks down child traffickers for a living. He lives a small life with his mom (Judith Roberts) in between assignments. When he’s hired to find Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) the kidnapped thirteen-year old daughter of a senator he finds himself engulfed in a violent conspiracy and he vows to get the child back after she’s snatched from their hideout. But can he hold it together long enough to find her?… I want you to hurt them. No synopsis can capture or justify the sonorous strangeness of this film.  Lynne Ramsay’s gimlet eye for observation and composition was present in her first short films twenty years ago. Now her images remind one of Bresson, Kubrick, Melville. But scuzzy Phoenix is not the beautiful Delon – he’s a former soldier traumatised by PTSD and  haunted by the abuse he and his mother suffered at the hands of his father. (It’s not everyone whose safe place is in the closet with a polythene garment bag around their head.)  Nina’s numbed silence matches his flashbacks to terror – as more unspools in front of him. This is a chance for a kind of redemption, especially when the unknown thugs hurt his beloved mother who happens to have been watching Psycho when we first meet her. Some of the action is just avoided – we see Joe exit rooms via close circuit camera. We see what is absolutely necessary to understand his perspective – including snapshots of his life in the war zone which blurt into the action when he’s driving, struggling to stay conscious. It denies us the usual thrill of the chase. Who is Sandy, whose name chain figures largely at the beginning? Where were those other dead girls? His point of view is everything:  it simply propels us forward as the superfluous is jettisoned. We are left to imagine the sexual violence perpetrated:  it’s a refined approach to action which has its own reasoning, contrasting deeply with the beautifully drawn domesticity of Joe’s life with his mom. There are no explanations as to the sex slavery ring run at the higher echelons of public office.  If this doesn’t quite attain the levels of poetic one expects it packs a hell of a wallop. Ramsay adapted the book by Jonathan Ames and it’s shot by Thomas Townend with a score by Jonny Greenwood and despite the many ironic songs used in an inspired auditory experience courtesy of Paul Davies, nobody thought of If I Had a Hammer, Joe’s weapon of choice.  Sparse and sinewy, this tightly wound paean to suffering inhabits the mind. Hey Joe, wake up. Let’s go. It’s a beautiful day

Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

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Gentlemen you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!  U.S. Air Force General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) goes completely insane and sends his bomber wing to destroy the U.S.S.R. He thinks that the communists are conspiring to pollute the ‘precious bodily fluids’ of the American people and takes hostage RAF Commander Mandrake (Peter Sellers) before blowing his brains out when Mandrake wants the code to stop global catastrophe. Meanwhile in the War Room President Muffley (Sellers again) tries to reason with General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and has to make an embarrassed call to the Russian premier while the Russian ambassador tries to sneak photographs on the premises and the creator of the bomb (Sellers – again) reveals it simply cannot be stopped …  Peter George’s serious book about nuclear proliferation, Red Alert, got a blackly comic workout by Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern, producing one of the great films and one that seems to get better and more relevant as the years go by. Sellers’ triple-threat roles were a condition of the financing after his work on Lolita. The spectre of him as the wheelchair-bound Führer-loving kraut by any other name mad scientist failing to control his sieg-heiling arm and utilising an accent familiar to fans of The Goon Show is not quickly forgotten, nor the image of Slim Pickens astride the nuclear bomb, rodeo-style. It’s not just Sellers’ appearances that are brilliant – Hayden is weirdly convincing when talking about depriving women of his essence due to the fluoridation of water;  and Scott’s expressivity is stunning. Apparently it was Spike Milligan’s idea to use Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again over the apocalyptic closing montage in which the nuclear deterrent has deterred absolutely nothing and blown us all to Eternity. The end of the world as we know it. A staggering tour de force.