20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

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Got a whale of a tale to tell ya lads! It’s 1868.  Professor Pierre M. Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) are stuck in San Francisco because of a disruption in the Pacific’s shipping lanes. The US invites them to join an expedition to prove it’s due to a sea monster. On board with them is the whaler Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) and they find that the creature is actually a submarine, the Nautilus, piloted by the rather eccentric Captain Nemo (James Mason). The three get thrown overboard and end up joining Nemo, who brings them to the island of Rura Penthe, a penal colony, where he and his crew were held prisoner. When they are stranded off New Guinea the men are allowed ashore where Ned almost gets caught by cannibals. When a warship finds them the Nautilus plunges underwater and there’s an amazing battle with a giant squid. Then Ned entertains us by playing music to a sea lion. Nemo says he wants to make peace but tries planting a bomb at the ships’ base … Wildly exciting, funny, dramatic adventure adapted by Earl Felton from Jules Verne’s novel and Richard Fleischer directed for Disney and stages it brilliantly. Marvellous and gripping pre-steampunk stuff!

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When Marnie Was There (2014)

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The final Studio Ghibli production is another adaptation, this time of the eponymous children’s novel by Joan G. Robinson. Transposed from its original Norfolk setting to Sapporo, it’s the story of fostered child Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) whose asthma attacks prompt her government-paid carers to send her to the seaside where she is drawn to an abandoned mansion across a salt marsh where she becomes faint.  There she sees the blonde-haired Marnie (voiced by Kiernan Shipka) who has blue eyes like her and they form a close bond through their experience of adversity:  Anna’s parents died years ago, Marnie’s ignore her and throw parties, leaving her in the hands of nasty household staff. Marnie wants Anna to keep everything a secret. The mansion seems abandoned still but only comes to life when Anna visits. When Anna meets an artist, Hisako, the woman looks at Anna’s sketches of Marnie and remarks that the likeness resembles a girl she knew when she was young herself … There are revelations of long-buried stories and the teary ending will have you hugging whatever comes in handy as Anna comes to terms with the reality of her real parents’ lives and her origins.  A proper, old-fashioned romance. Adapted by Masashi Ando, Keiko Niwa and Hiromasa Yonebayashi the director, who previously made Arrietty.

The Odessa File (1974)

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The faction novel by Frederick Forsyth has a special place in my heart because it was the first book I borrowed when I finally got a ticket to join the Adult section of my local public library after I turned 12. And it stunned me when I discovered that Forsyth was merely fictionalising in very approximate fashion the story of the Butcher of Riga, Eduard Roschman (Maximilian Schell) who is protected by the Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehoerigen (Former SS Members) in winter 1963. Journalist Peter Milller (Jon Voight) happens upon the story by simple expedient of pulling over in a Hamburg street to hear that President Kennedy has died and then literally chases an ambulance to an apartment building where an elderly Holocaust survivor has gassed himself. A policeman friend hands him the man’s diary and he uncovers the story behind the suicide of Salomon Tauber which contains one gleaming detail:  the murder by Roschmann at Riga port of a colleague who won a very rare German military medal. After meeting many unhelpful people in authority in a Germany still clearly run by the Nazis (there were 12 million of them after all, and they all just returned to civilian life and kept their pensions) he goes to Vienna where he visits Simon Wiesenthal who tells him about the ODESSA. He is beaten up, his dancer girlfriend (Mary Tamm) is threatened by some ex-Nazis and then ‘befriended’ by a policewoman when Miller goes off grid. He’s kidnapped by Mossad agents who want to know who he is and why he’s after Roschmann, supposedly dead almost two decades ago.  Then he dons a disguise … There are a few alterations to the source by Kenneth Ross and George (The Prisoner) Markstein and this is a fairly conventional procedural but still satisfying considering the strength of the subject matter (a topic plundered years later by novelist Sam Bourne aka Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland.) Voight is very good in what could be a difficult part and he gets a superb twist ending – when we learn the deeply personal reason for his search in addition to the quest for a great story. In a nice touch Maria Schell plays Voight’s mother, making this the only time she and Maximilian acted in the same film. The lovely Mary Tamm would later become a notable assistant to BBC’s Doctor Who and would have a good role as Blanche Ingram in TV’s Jane Eyre opposite Timothy Dalton. She died too soon.  There is an interesting score by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a special mention for Perry Como’s rendition of Christmas Dream and some superb cinematography by the great Oswald Morris and scene-setting by production designer Rolf Zehetbauer in this Anglo-German production – which might just account for the somewhat cleaned-up account of post-war Nazism. As it’s directed by multi-hyphenate Ronald Neame you wouldn’t expect anything less than a great-looking movie.  In another pleasing twist to the narrative, this prompted the tracking down of the real Roschmann to South America. But you’ll have to consult the history books to find out what happened next …

Sleeping Car to Trieste (1948)

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A potentially controversial diary is stolen from an embassy in post-WW2 Paris and a train trip across the continent becomes a hotbed of intrigue as everyone on board is concealing some kind of secret … This remake of Rome Express is so confusing I almost forgot the premise as I was watching it but the cast is so absorbing and some of the dialogue so barbed the plot didn’t matter after a while and Benjamin Frankel’s score rocks those tracks. Jean Kent (late, lamented) and Albert Lieven are the thieving espionage agents who make off with the politically incendiary diary and they are double crossed by Alan Wheatley who takes the Orient Express where he is being pursued by a police inspector. There’s a married man having an affair (Derrick de Marney and Rona Anderson);  an irascible writer (Finlay Currie) with his unhappy assistant;  an amorous American soldier (Bonar Colleano); a moronic stockbroker (a very young David Tomlinson);  an irritating birdwatcher; two French girls with a penchant for hats and the New Look; and the train’s chef (Coco Aslan) who’s plagued by an Englishman proud of his hotpot and roly poly recipes (yes, there’s a recipe for train movies too.) It gets a bit violent and there’s a horrible death (remember Shadow of a Doubt? It’s like that.)  Directed by John Paddy Carstairs from a script by Allan McKinnon, adapted from Clifford Grey’s story. PS Never go to Trieste. Worst people I have ever encountered  – no wonder it was the region where Mussolini had his biggest following. Just saying.

Cruel Intentions (1999)

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Back in the day this contemporary uptown teen reworking of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses (of course made into the great Dangerous Liaisons after Christopher Hampton’s acclaimed English-language stage adaptation) seemed pretty rad. Turning Sarah Michelle Gellar into a high school version of Madame Merteuil in a quasi-incestuous relationship with stepbrother Ryan Phillippe as Sebastian Valmont was, uh, even creepy. What happened to us? bleats the coke-addled one when she sees he’s fallen for the virtuous Annette (Reese Witherspoon) and their bet has gone hopelessly wrong. A Lesbo kiss between Gellar and the horny Cecile (Selma Blair), interracial sex they both have with Sean Patrick Thomas, and a great backup adult cast of Swoosie Kurtz, Christine Baranski and Louise Fletcher, with some more gay antics between Joshua Jackson and Eric Mabius, make this a viciously corrupt and sexy walk on the wild side of Central Park West, paving the way for the much-missed Gossip Girl. XOXO! Written and directed by Roger Kumble.

Notes on Blindness (2016)

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Hemingway wrote that people go bankrupt gradually then suddenly. Turns out people go blind the same way. I know a few blind people and they are distinguished by their stentorian, commanding, aggressive voices and compulsive need to dominate a conversation and be the centre of attention. Perhaps they are trained to this level of domination in the only way possible for them. The voice of former Birmingham University religion professor John Hull is different – quiet, considered, soft. Australian.  For it is his recorded diaries that form the voiceover narration and re-enacted conversations here, in the bodies but not the voices (they are lipsyncing) of actors  Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby. Hull lost his sight in 1983 just before his son was born. His illness was progressive and there are very unpleasant close ups of bloody eyeballs and some quite surreal patterns of blood to illustrate the effects on him psychologically as the visuals attempt to provide a correlative to his dimmed experiences, including losing the gallery of images of his family. He never regained a visual memory of Marilyn, his wife. His acceptance of his fate and his wife’s incredibly pragmatic approach to the situation are laid bare by descriptions of the lack of facilities for the visually impaired – to his astonishment, the only audiobooks available at that time were romance and detective fiction. He assembled an army of people to record serious books in order for him to carry out his work. His project was to keep working as an academic despite the dying of the light. The sad irony of the subject’s final question – not why he had been given this gift, rather what he should do with it – is compounded by the filmmakers’ (James Spinney and Peter Middleton) odd decision to add some written information in dark grey on a white background so tiny as to render it unreadable. Now I sort of know how Hull felt. He died in 2015. They also serve who only stand and tape.

Mamma Mia! (2008)

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Producer Judy Craymer had a brilliant idea for a theatre musical:  use the songs of Abba for a jukebox production, wrapped into a story written by Catherine Johnson. And then she hired Phyllida Lloyd to direct it and it became a huge global hit – and then Lloyd got to do the film version too. Amanda Seyfried is Sophie, the twenty-year old daughter of hippie single mom Meryl Streep who’s brought her up in splendid desolation  on a Greek island in a rundown hotel. She’s engaged to be married to Sky (Dominic Cooper) and when she finds her mother’s diary realises her father could be one of three men – Planned Parenthood not being a priority round these parts. So she invites all three candidates to the nuptials without telling Meryl, who’s bringing her own besties, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski:  the potential dads are Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard. The Rule of Three is used a lot in this film of Greek choruses. Sophie figures she’ll know her father when she sees him. She doesn’t. There’s intrigue, slapstick, group choreographed singalongs and then everyone begins to twig what Sophie has done.There’s a showdown in front of the Irish priest at the wedding. Everybody sings, the men are notably terrible. It’s awfully badly made. It’s camp as a caravan site and tasteless in the extreme. It’s a truly, truly terrible film. It’s also one of the most enjoyable you’ll ever experience and definitely the best karaoke session you’ll ever have. And you ain’t seen nothin’ till you see some of the finest actors on the planet disgrace themselves discoing during the end credits sequence. Inexplicable.

The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

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Robert James Waller’s book was a phenomenon. They happen, these books, sometimes several times in a reader’s lifetime but usually just once in the writer’s. And how big was this? The story of a National Geographic photographer travelling cross-country in the Sixties through the Iowa countryside photographing covered bridges and having a brief but life-changing affair with an Italian ex-pat housewife whose farmer husband and young family are away at the Illinois State Fair. Richard LaGravenese did the adaptation while Clint Eastwood directed and stars as Robert Kincaid, the man who falls for the radiant Meryl Streep. They are simply stunning in the finely judged roles. You might quibble with the framing story but if you don’t find the last few minutes of this intensely moving, with those windscreen wipers washing away the raindrops and the light signalling … gulp. Reader, I blubbed.