The 39 Steps (1959)

The 39 Steps 1959

If you’re looking for Richard Hannay this is the man you want. Freshly returned to London, British diplomat Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) goes to the aid of a nanny ‘Nannie’ (Faith Brook) in a park only to discover there is no baby in the pram and follows her to a music hall where he watches Mr Memory (James Hayter). She goes back to his flat and reveals that she is a spy working for British intelligence looking for the organisation The Thirty-Nine Steps who are after information on the British ballistic missiles project. When she is murdered in his flat he goes on the run, encountering a bevy of schoolgirls on a train with their teacher Miss Fisher (Taina Elg) who reports him to the police but he jumps off the vehicle on the Forth Bridge and hitches a ride on a truck driven by ex-con Percy Baker (Sidney James) who advises him to stay at The Gallows Inn run by occultist Nellie Lumsden (Brenda De Banzie) and her husband who help him escape during a cycling race.  He approaches Professor Logan (Barry Jones) only to find the man is in fact the leader of the spy ring and he must keep running … I’m not having a Sagittarius in the house tonight! Hitchcock was responsible for the first adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy-chase thriller and this is a more or less straight remake, with the romance-chase narrative lines crisscrossing pleasingly as per the generic template established by The Master. More may be a slightly ridiculous hero but this is played for comic effect and its Hitchcockian homage continues in the casting of De Banzie who essays a knowing spiritualist in her crofting cottage. It has the advantage of location shooting, a winning plot, doubtful romantic interest, a deal of suspense and a collective tongue planted firmly in cheek. Directed by Ralph Thomas, written by Frank Harvey and produced by Betty Box. Keep out of the woods. Especially in August!

You Only Live Twice (1967)

You Only Live Twice

Bad news from outer space. When an American space capsule is supposedly swallowed by a Russian spaceship it’s an international incident. James Bond has apparently been killed in Hong Kong but he is ‘resurrected’ following his own funeral and sent undercover to Japan to find out who is behind the political aggression and the owner of the mysterious spacecraft. However while Russia and the US blame each other and Japan is under suspiion, he discovers with the assistance of his Japanese opposite number Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tanba) that SPECTRE is responsible for this attempt to start World War III and uncovers a trail that leads to the mysterious Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) whose evil empire is run from the centre of a volcano … Now that you’re dead our old friends will perhaps pay a little less attention to you than before. The one where Bond turns Japanese and trains as a ninja. A carnival of implausibilities that has the benefit of some gorgeous Japanese locations, stylish direction by Lewis Gilbert and introducing cat-loving megalomaniac Blofeld in the form of Pleasence, who we only glimpse over his shoulder as he strokes his pussycat before the big reveal. What an amazing villain! And how ripe for parody! Roald Dahl’s screenplay may throw out most of Ian Fleming’s novel (there is ‘additional story material’ by Harold Jack Bloom) but he does something clever – he takes the title seriously and has the second half begin exactly as the first, replacing a US with a Soviet rocket and doing a Screenplay 101 with the differing outcome second time around. The Cold War/space race theme might remind you of a certain Dr Strangelove. There are some good media jibes – If you’re going to force me to watch television I’m going to need a smoke, says James before aiming his cigarette at the enemy; astonishing production design by Ken Adam; and very resourceful sidekicks in Aki (Akika Wakabayashi) and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama); as well as the series’ first German Bond girl, Karin Dor, aka Miss Crime, due to the number of thrillers she starred in. Sadly it doesn’t save her here. This is gorgeously shot by Freddie Young and the restoration is impeccable. The John Barry and Leslie Bricusse theme song is performed by Nancy Sinatra. For a European you are very cultivated! 

First Blood (1982)

First Blood theatrical

Killed for vagrancy in Jerkwater USA. Former ‘Nam vet, Green Beret John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) arrives in a small town in the Pacific North West looking for his former colleague whom he discovers has died from a cancer caused by Agent Orange. Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) doesn’t like the look of him and tells him to get out of his town but Rambo is hungry and comes back because he just wants something to eat. Teasle cites him for vagrancy and hands him to his colleagues to teach him a lesson. Rambo has flashbacks to his torture at the hands of the Viet Cong and beats up his assailants before escaping into the local woods where he is hunted by the police and then Teasle gets unwanted help from Rambo’s senior officer, Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), who declares of the war hero, God didn’t make Rambo – I made him. He contacts Rambo by radio and tries to reason with him, promising him an escape route. But Rambo has a score to settle, escaping from the cave where he has secured a hiding place and confronting the National Guard before he has his revenge on Teasle  … I’m going to pin that Congressional Medal of Honour to his liver. It may lack the irony and subtlety of the original 1972 novel about PTSD by David Morrell but it makes up for it in the pure thrill of pursuit, sustained justifiable violence and its morality narrative about what really separates the men from the boys:  war. Let it go. Let it go! Crenna’s almost paternal pride in his killer progeny is laugh out loud enjoyable, Stallone’s ingenuity at survival is a must-see in these lockdown self-sufficiency days and the overall affect is one of sheer unadorned (but not unmotivated) violence. It’s wonderful when the police realise, He’s hunting us! Gripping and visceral by turn, it’s short, sharp and brilliant with a couple of really smart scenes between the marvellous Crenna and the late great Dennehy, who really doesn’t understand what he’s dealing with. People start fuckin’ around with the law, all hell breaks loose. A young David Caruso has a good role as a policeman disgusted by his co-workers’ attack on Rambo; while if you look quickly you’ll notice Bruce Greenwood as a Guardsman. Stallone rewrote the original screenplay by Michael Kozzoll and William Sackheim to make the protagonist more sympathetic and you truly empathise with this misunderstood soldier. There’s a notable score by Jerry Goldsmith with a theme song that enhances Rambo’s persona as more victim than villain. It’s all directed by Ted Kotcheff. The first of three in the series, this is iconic. Nothing is over. You just don’t turn it off

Enemy Mine (1985)

Enemy Mine

Do you think we really are alone out here? During a late 21st century a war between humans and the reptilian Drac race,Bilateral Terran Alliance (BTA) spaceship pilot Willis E. Davidge (Dennis Quaid) ends up stranded after their dogfight ends up with them both crash landing on alien planet Fyrine IV with enemy soldier Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett Jr.). While both Willis and his Drac counterpart can breathe on the planet, the volcanic environment and its creatures are relatively hostile, forcing the two to trust each other and work together to survive. As time goes by, Willis and Jeriba become unlikely friends, though their unique relationship faces considerable challenges over three years and they save each other’s lives. Davidge dreams of spaceships and then sees human miners scavenging on the planet:  they have to avoided because they use Dracs as slaves. Then Jerry, who like all Dracs is asexual, reveals his pregnancy and dies in childbirth after bearing a baby son Zammis (Bumper Robinson) whom Davidge undertakes to raise and return to the Drac world … Don’t you ever get tired of reading that book?  Edward Khmara’s adaptation of Barry B. Longyear’s novella strains between creature feature and sci fi epic but succeeds on its own terms with a message of intrinsic humanity.  It harks back perhaps to the effects-laden production that was director Wolfgang Petersen’s previous outing, The Neverending Story, especially with Gossett’s lizard-like makeup, but the Why Can’t We All Just Get Along theme is well worked out in the inter-species friendship and Quaid is his typically charismatic self. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find it touching. It looks great and the beautiful score is by Maurice Jarre. That’s why when we walk or when we hunt we always walk in the direction of the rising sun

Catch-22 (1970)

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Help the bombardier. Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) an American pilot stationed in the Mediterranean who flies bombing missions during World War II attempts to cope with the madness of armed conflict. Convinced that everyone is trying to murder him, he decides to try to become certified insane but that is merely proof that he’s fully competent. Surrounded by eccentric military officers, such as the opportunistic 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian has to resort to extreme measures to escape his dire and increasingly absurd situation... All great countries are destroyed, why not yours? Not being a fan of the rather repetitive and circular source novel aids one’s enjoyment of this adaptation by director Mike Nichols who was coasting on the stunning success of his first two movies (also adaptations), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, which was also adapted by Buck HenryThe critical reception for this resisted adulation instead focusing on a flawed construction which really goes back to Joseph Heller’s book and does not conform to the rules of a combat picture as well as contracting the action and removing and substituting characters. But aside from the overall absurdity which is literally cut in an act of stunning violence which shears through one character in shocking fashion, there is dialogue of the machine gun variety which you’d expect from a services satire and there are good jokes about communication, following orders, profiteering and stealing parachutes to sell silk on the black market.  There are interesting visual and auditory ways of conveying Yossarian’s inner life – in the first scene we can’t hear him over the noise of the bombings, because his superiors are literally deaf to what he’s saying, a useful metaphor. The impressionistic approach of Henry’s adaptation is one used consistently, preparing the audience for the culmination of the action in a surreal episode worthy of Fellini. I like it a lot, certainly more than the recent TV adaptation and the cast are just incredible:  Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen and Orson Welles among a large ensemble. Even novelist Philip Roth plays a doctor. It’s shot by David Watkin, edited by Sam O’Steen and the production is designed by Richard Sylbert. Where the hell’s my parachute?

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker.jpg

 These are you final steps, Rey. Rise and take them. The surviving Resistance faces the First Order once more as Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron’s (Oscar Isaac) journey continues led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). They discover that the Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is alive and unwell and living on Exegol where he’s been discovered by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). With the power and knowledge of generations behind them, the final battle commences between good and evil and Rey makes a surprising discovery about her origins that leads to a confrontation that could have devastating consequences for future generations …  Every Jedi who ever lived, lives in you. How to finish a beloved trilogy? Perhaps it’s fitting that the concluding days of a decade that ends a 42-year long saga is one that commenced with James Cameron’s Avatar a film that was purportedly about to change cinema; that film’s impact then became dissipated with the sheer proliferating superheroism of Marvel Comics; so now we have something that seems somehow less tainted than either of those (non-) series. J.J. Abrams may not be the ideal filmmaker to bring things to a conclusion, ending things not being his forte (I give you Lost). The first trilogy is so beloved;  the second so critically reviled (albeit kids love it); so how would it tie up so many apparently disparate loose ends? Well, it does, if rather haphazardly. It brings together the Sith story with the Jedi story and allows the characters of both Rey and Ben/Kylo Ren to assert their position in the pantheon. The original characters play an active role, albeit in unexpected fashion;  a favourite returns;  and there is more than one kind of rebirth. In other words all the Jungian and mythical tropes that inspired George Lucas via Joseph Campbell are invoked. Even the Ewoks (the honours appropriately taken by Warwick Davis and his son) make a very brief appearance, in case anyone would think they’d been overlooked. There is some dreadfully portentous dialogue; there is some bad acting (I’m sorry to say I mean you, Richard E. Grant); there is a brief Lesbian kiss (the Force definitely woke up); there are some deaths and sacrifices. The film that made my entire generation go to the movies ends the 2010s and it’s not a cliffhanger, it’s a proper ending. What else do you want? It all sits, more or less, on the elegant shoulders of Ridley and she’s very good as the feistiest woman since, well, Princess Leia. Happy New Year. Screenplay by Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams from a story by Derek Connolly & Colin Treverrow and Terrio & Abrams. We are not alone

Horrible Histories: Rotten Romans (2019)

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I’m sending you to Britain./Where’s that?/Exactly. It’s 60AD. Brainy Roman teenager Atti (Sebastian Croft) is always coming up with schemes, but one of these upsets Emperor Nero (Craig Roberts), who is constantly at odds with his mother Agrippina the Younger (Kim Cattrall) for control of the Empire. For his punishment, Atti is sent to the stain of the Empire known as Britain where it’s always cold and wet and he is captured by kick-ass young Celt Orla (Emilia Jones) but they eventually come to an understanding.  She is feeling her way towards warriordom much to the frustration of her father Arghus (Nick Frost) and is encouraged by the rise of Queen Boudicca (Kate Nash) who is quickly raising an army to fight the Romans being led by Governor Suetonius Paulinus (Rupert Graves). Atti helps Orla rescue her grandmother from a rival Celtic tribe. They’re always squabbling among themselves, these Celts. To Atti’s horror, when he is back with his regiment, he finds himself pitted against Orla and her tribe at the Battle of Watling Street a bottleneck which inadvertently gives the Romans an advantage because he told them about it and it provides the setting for a mammoth showdown between the natives and their invaders … I am Fartacus!  Adapted from Terry Deary’s books and TV series, this is a funny, quick-witted, mostly innuendo-free Carry On for kids, an inventive and occasionally anachronistic take on the Roman invasion – with songs! Hilarious sequences, lots of broad and actual toilet humour, family values (good and bad) and some very contemporary touches to hit home. Familiar faces abound with Derek Jacobi’s appearance as Claudius making a lot of adults smile. Written by Caroline Norris & Giles Pilbrow with additional material by Kevin Cecil, Andy Riley, Dave Cohen and Jessica Swale. Directed by Dominic Brigstocke. We’ll put an end to bad Romans and make them all go gaga! MM#2450

Aquaman (2018)

Aquaman.jpg

He is living proof our peoples can co-exist. Once home to the most advanced civilisation on Earth, the city of Atlantis is now an underwater kingdom ruled by the power-hungry King Orm Marius/Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson). With a vast army at his disposal, Orm plans to conquer the remaining oceanic people – and then the surface world. Standing in his way is Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Orm’s half-human, half-Atlantean brother, the son of lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temura Morrison) and Atlanna Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman) and the true heir to the kingdom’s throne. With help from royal counsellor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) who advises caution, and Princess Mera (Amber Heard), who urges him to take on his half-brother, Aquaman must retrieve the legendary Trident of Atlan and embrace his destiny as protector of the deep… I solve my problems with my anger and my fists. I’m a blunt instrument and I’m damn good at it. I’ve done nothing but get my ass kicked this whole trip. I’m no leader. Technically, the dog days of summer ended two weeks ago but it seems right now like they’ll never end. So, to matters nutty and comic book, a film that didn’t need to be made, a mashup of every action/superhero trope with ludicrously good visual effects, a plot contrived from many old and new stories and a big surly but charismatic guy obsessed with his mom. So far, so expected. Except that this works on a level that’s practically operatic while also plundering sympathies of Pisceans such as myself for creatures like seahorses, who have their own army, not to mention an octopus with a fondness for percussion. Got me right there. And then some – with frogman David Kane reinventing himself as supervillain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul Mateen II), pirates, messages in bottles, gladiatorial combat, wormholes, the centre of the earth … For those who care about this kinda stuff, Arthur/Aquaman first showed up in Batman Vs. Superman and then materialised in Justice League but here he’s part of a Freudian under the sea show that’s quite batty and compelling. Obviously Dolph Lundgren shows up, as King Nereus. Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, from a story by Geoff Johns, director James Wann and Beall, adapting the Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris story/character. Directed with no-holds-barred gusto by Wan. A total hoot from start to finish about evolution, equality and what lies beneath. Crazy fish people, mostly.  Jules Verne once wrote: “Put two ships in the open sea, without wind or tide… they will come together”. That’s how my parents met: like two ships destined for each other

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!