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.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

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Let me give you some advice. Assume everyone will betray you. And you will never be disappointed. Scrumrat Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is separated from his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) on the planet Corellia and finds adventure when he joins a gang of galactic smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and career criminal Val (Thandie Newton) and including a 196-year-old furry Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Indebted to the gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) with whom Qi’ra has now thrown in her lot as a kept woman,  the crew devises a daring plan to travel to the mining planet Kessel to carry out a heist:  the booty is a batch of valuable coaxium, the kind of hyperfuel that gets the big bucks these days. In need of a fast ship, Solo meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the suave owner of the perfect vessel for the dangerous mission – the Millennium Falcon. As Qi’ra joins them on their mission, can she be trusted while a rebellion gets underway?… Let’s forget for a moment that Disney are all about squeezing the lemon dry.  The Star Wars Anthology Series continues with the most blatant sympathy plea ever:  the origins story behind Han and Chewie teaming up, sci fi’s most delectable meet cute.  In fact, tonally this has a lot in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark but then it was written by Lawrence Kasdan (working here with son Jonathan) who did Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders and The Force Awakens so we’re in good hands:  who knows Han better than this guy?! We find out how Han gets his name, how he and Chewie meet (cheers all round!), where he got the golden dice, how he meets dandyish smuggler Lando Calrissian (a welcome return albeit with Glover, who’s terrific) and in the other most anticipated meet cute – seeing the Millennium Falcon for the first time – and how he becomes its owner. Everything you really wanted to know, basically, is here in this SW primer, never mind the abortive milliennial trilogy. In fact this starts at a clip and mostly keeps it up in its own rackety style, with the literary names getting a payoff in a fight with a kind of sea monster out of Jules Verne: epic!  You’ll never mistake Ehrenreich for Solo (he looks too much like a young Orson Welles) but after a while you’ll take this on its own merits as he reluctantly discovers he’s not a complete rogue but a good guy against the background of a truly evil Empire. Interestingly for the principal female, Qi’ra is far from straightforward which will presumably lead us down some black holes in future outings even if Clarke is not convincing. If someone had never seen a Star Wars film (Heaven forfend) this would actually be a pretty good place to start even if I don’t always love it, neither the way it looks (too dirty and grey a lot of the time) nor the pace which doesn’t always maintain its consistency.  Never mind the box office, feel the wit. Directed (eventually) by Ron Howard.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess. Like you said, Captain, maybe we do that, we all earn the right to go home.  Following the Normandy landings of June 1944 Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) takes his men of the 2nd Ranger battalion behind enemy lines to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) a paratrooper whose three brothers have been killed in combat. Surrounded by the brutal realities of war, while searching for Ryan each man embarks upon a personal journey and discovers their own strength to triumph over an uncertain future with honor, decency and courage… Robert Rodat’s men on a mission script has the classic features of the WW2 combat movie – a selection of guys or types from all walks of life with their own business and point of view and declamatory lines. But the first thirty minutes constitute probably the best fighting scene ever put on film:  a literally visceral evocation of the beach landings with things you’ll wonder any man could have survived.  There are images that are seared on the brain. It’s a wholly immersive set up and utterly shocking, as real as you’ll ever want a war to be.  Then the film cannily shifts in tone, content and performance from sequence to sequence ranging from the subtle to the spectacular both in terms of visuals and narrative as the story hook about the military’s single survivor policy kicks in and has its ripple effect on this battalion of soldiers reluctantly tramping across France who seem like a proper cross-section of society:  Tom Sizemore, Ed Burns, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel.  Spielberg said he wanted the kind of faces he saw in WW2 newsreels … and they work out their individual and collective issues under sniper fire and figure out what matters and try to keep going. The film has been lauded for its accuracy but some don’t like the dramatic coda.  That doesn’t matter. Hanks is brilliant as the heart and soul of the outfit. When he is on the verge of hysteria at the enveloping chaos and confusion we are on the edge of our seats, with him. The horrors of war are never hidden from the audience.  We get different perspectives – religious, personal, intellectual, about the rights and wrongs of bloody and vengeful action. It’s been a day of historical and war movies for me but I started out with Spielberg’s latest (Ready Player One) and I’ve concluded with this, one of the best WW2 films of them all, a stunning and perfectly judged achievement on every level because he is a director who can tell more in one frame than some directors can in entire scenes. Astonishing. MM#1700

Waterloo (1970)

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I am France and France is me! Napoleon Bonaparte (Rod Steiger) is being defeated at every juncture and following an enforced period of exile on the island of Elba he escapes. With the support of Marshal Ney (Dan O’Herlihy) who defects from Louis XVIII (Orson Welles in a colourful cameo) he sees a chance to reclaim his name at Waterloo in Belgium after defeating the Prussians and where he faces the Duke of Wellington (Christopher Plummer) leading the British… The most precious quality in life is loyalty. This is a fabled war epic notable for the problematic performance by Steiger which fails to elicit the empathy that even the most ardent of his supporters (c’est moi!) requires. His competing voiceover with that of Wellington basically asks you to choose between will and grace – because he is the man under pressure and Steiger’s performance doesn’t permit you to digress from that impression. The contrast between the two military leaders is exemplified in the scene when Wellington is found dozing under a newspaper beneath a tree before battle commences on the ground of his choosing while Napoleon is pacing, sweating, dying inside. I did not usurp the crown, I found it in the gutter and picked it up with my sword.  It was the people who put it on my head This is an absolutely beautiful historical work, resplendent in its narrative and aesthetic choices but also rather smart as a quicksilver screenplay. Irish screenwriter H.A.L. Craig’s work has great clarity of construction, synoptic sequences and epigrammatic dialogue, which I can’t get enough of – there’s some brilliant byplay between Wellington and one of his Irish infantrymen, O’Connor (Donal Donnelly) especially when the man is found secreting a squealing piglet on his person:  This fellow knows how to defend a helpless position! Their irregular encounters punctuate the drama, first with humour, then with sorrow.  There’s a rousing, appropriately imperial score by Nino Rota which greatly enhances the philosophy being worked out here:  the utter futility and brutality of war. Even the poor piper gets it. And as for the unfortunate horses … Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, who along with Vittorio Bonicelli and Mario Soldati made additions to the screenplay, and produced by Dino de Laurentiis. It’s wonderfully shot by Armando Nannuzzi whose compositions allow you to see exactly how (not) to engage the enemy. Epic. Wellington. Wellington! Why is it always Wellington?

Battle of Britain (1969)

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The essential arithmetic is that our young men will have to shoot down their young men at the rate of four to one, if we’re to keep pace at all. Britain’s Finest Hour. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (Laurence Olivier) must rally his outnumbered pilots against Hitler’s feared Luftwaffe. Besieged by German bombing runs, the Brits counter with an aggressive air campaign of their own but the argument rages as to whether the Big Wing strategy is helping or hindering. Within months, the Nazis find themselves on the run, thanks to Dowding’s tactical genius and the work of talented squadron leaders (Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer) and other brave patriots… An all-star cast was assembled for this little-screened epic adaptation of Derek Dempster and Derek Wood’s book The Narrow Margin by James Kennaway & Wilfred Greatorex. Director Guy Hamilton (himself a WW2 vet) does a pretty crackerjack job of balancing the politics with the dogfight aerobatics and the toll taken on both sides (Curt Jurgens is Baron von Richter) as the brave young men take to the skies in this do-or-die campaign in which even well-known names are sacrificed for the greater good. If you want a really great written account try Len Deighton’s book but in the interim this will do very well. Fabulous stuff if the dialogue is a tad on the wonky side, with luminous cinematography by Freddie Young and a stirring score courtesy of William Walton.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)

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This is not going to go the way you think. The showdown between the rebels and the First Order led by Snoke (Andy Serkis) is underway. Rey (Daisy Ridley) goes to Ahch-To to find out from Luke (Mark Hamill) what happened between him and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver) and recruit him. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is injured in combat so someone has to take over the bridge and it’s not going to be Poe (Oscar Isaac) because he just ordered a bombing that will cost them too much. Finn (John Boyega) and a new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) figure out they need to get a code to break into the Order’s ability to track the fleet. Luke teaches Rey to tap into her powers but it’s Kylo Ren who gets into her head …How did anyone get the idea to hire Rian Johnson to both write and direct this difficult second album? The guy who made Brick (not as good as Veronica Mars) and Looper (entirely predictable from the tricksy go)? Whoever they are, they deserve a raise. This takes all the series’ tropes, turns them around, gives them a shake and never quits from the get-go which commences at a gallop. Maybe you’ll quibble about the turn to the dark side (and particularly the changes to Luke’s character) but there’s a traditional inevitability about this Freudian epic which Johnson plays on in order to clear the path for new people. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cheer – especially when one ogre dies and an old-timer reappears. Time to let old things go. Wildly exciting. Oh my goodness! When’s the next show?! RIP Princess Carrie.

Lost Command (1966)

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This isn’t vengeance, it’s pointless slaughter. You’ve turned warfare into murder. Following a botched incident in Indochina in which his under-resourced paratroopers are overrun by communists at Dien Bien Phu, Basque Colonel Pierre Raspeguy (Anthony Quinn) is freed from Vietnamese war prison to assist in quelling the resistance to French rule in Algeria being led by Mahidi (George Segal) a former French lieutenant. Raspeguy is helped by Captain Esclavier (Alain Delon) a military historian who has tired of fighting and Captain Boisfeuras (Maurice Ronet) who breathes war. Raspeguy has to shape up an airborne unit to fight the insurgents with the promise of being made General and marriage to a beautiful countess (Michele Morgan) the widow of the man who died helping reinforce Raspeguy’s garrison. Meanwhile Esclavier meets local girl Aicha (Claudia Cardinale) and believes she’s on their side and not the FLN (National Liberation Front). After participating in a murderous ambush in a village Esclavier starts to take a different view of his nation’s activities in the name of war  … The bestselling French novel The Centurions by Jean Larteguy was acquired by producer/director Mark Robson and adapted by Nelson Gidding. It has lots to recommend it – several well-staged action scenes, issues of retribution and redemption and a to-die-for cast, reuniting as it does the beautiful young lovers from The Leopard, Delon and Cardinale, and it gives Quinn an excellent showcase in a vaguely biographical role (that of Marcel Bigeard, the commander in Indochina) as the colonel keen to justify himself after taking the fall. Political subtleties are necessarily worked out in broad characterisation with Cardinale as the stunning woman who plays both ends against the middle. Despite simplifying issues in the narrative this remains a rare English-language attempt to get to grips with a war that still has huge ramifications in France. The last image, with Delon leaving the military and seeing an FLN child activist painting a graffito, is a brilliant conclusion to a complex scenario.

The Great Wall (2016)

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I’ve been a fool, I’m done with it. Two European mercenaries (Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal) searching for black powder become embroiled in the defence of the Great Wall of China against a horde of Tao Tien or monstrous creatures. Matt Damon versus giant lizards. Or, in the immortal words of Jimmy Kimmel on Oscars night, A Chinese Ponytail Movie. Mercifully short at 89 minutes, this is dire in that special way reserved for Asian films translated into English – except this was actually written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy from a story by Max Brooks, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskowitz. Directed by the artist FKA Zhang Yimou. Bananas.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

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It’s sort of weird being honored for the worst day of your life. A young Iraq war combat veteran (Joe Alwyn) and his Bravo Squad comrades are honoured at halftime during a football game home in Texas approaching Thanksgiving in 2004 . Parallel flashbacks (to the incident being honoured;  to a previous homecoming?!) are intercut with the game. The high point of the event is a song performed by Destiny’s Child (in reality some stand-ins shot over the shoulder) and this is intercut with the assault in Iraq in which Billy rescues his hurt commanding officer, the mystically minded Shroom (Vin Diesel). His dad’s in a wheelchair, Mom doesn’t want politics discussed at dinner, his sister (Kristen Stewart) is the reason he volunteered after he injured her boyfriend following a car crash that left her with a scarred face. She wants him to get an honorable discharge because she feels guilty. A film so lacking in dramatic impetus as to be almost entirely inert with a lousy structure that drains the very lifeblood from the narrative. There’s some old faff about the soldiers’ story being put onscreen and the deal is welshed on by team owner Steve Martin who is clearly having a laugh in a straight role. Garrett Hedlund, as the head of the squad, is the only actor to attempt anything resembling a performance. Adapted by Jean-Christophe Castelli from a book by Ben Fountain and shot at pointlessly high speeds by director Ang Lee who probably did it that way to stay awake. Mystifying to the point you’ll feel like you have PTSD afterwards.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

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You can’t unfuck what’s been fucked. Women are always getting in the way. Aren’t they? Berlin 1988. The Cold War. Protesters are gathering to break down the Wall. Super spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed in an MI6 bunker back in London about an impossible mission that’s gone horribly wrong. She relates the sorry saga to her boss Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA honcho Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) as their uber chief observes behind the usual glass wall. She was deployed to retrieve a dossier of double agents following the murder of their man Gascoigne.  Her meeting in Berlin with station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) is put in jeopardy by the KGB in the first sequence which has the most innovative use of stilettos since Rosa Kleb. The comparison is not for nothing. This is a rollicking non-stop who’s-working-for-what-agency action thriller with an astonishing array of gruesome encounters.  The list everyone wants ends up becoming a Hitchcockian McGuffin because the fun is in the execution (quite viscerally).  It wouldn’t be a Cold War thriller without a double cross-cross-cross complete with a twist ending.  You want it? You got it! This is a postmodern delight with tongue firmly embedded in cheek: from the amazing soundtrack (that’s an audacious thing, using Bowie’s Cat People theme over the titles!), Stalker is playing at the cinema on Alexanderplatz, to a KGB villain called Bakhtin (if you’re into cultural theory) and a neat inversion of the Basic Instinct interrogation scenario with the men defused (literally) by Lorraine’s recollection of Lesbian sex with neophyte French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella). There’s a double agent called Merkel (ha!) and there’s even someone called Bela Balazs on the credits (film theorists will appreciate this…). The songs in some scenes are laugh out loud appropriate and the clothes … the clothes! Talk about on the money!  The action is horribly violent but balletic and believable and Theron is super-likeable in what might well be an audition for Jane Blonde. I want to be her when I grow up. Great fun. Adapted by Kurt Johnstad from the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart and directed by David (John Wick) Leitch, who knows a good action sequence and how to use it.