A Canterbury Tale (1944)

A Canterbury Tale

I was born here and my father was born here. You’re here because there’s a war. On the way to Canterbury, Kent during World War II, American G.I. Bob Johnson (real-life soldier John Sweet) mistakenly gets off the train in Chillingbourne, where he encounters British Army Sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price) and British Land Girl Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), who’s working as a shopkeeper. When they’re confronted with a serial criminal who puts glue in women’s hair, and Alison becomes his newest victim, these twentieth century pilgrims are drawn into a mystery that brings them closer together. During their stay they get to know local landowner and magistrate Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman) who wants to share his local knowledge with the new residents … Sergeant! The glue-man’s out again! This almost indefinable film from the Powell and Pressburger stable is a pastoral account of Englishness, an expressive linking of past and present, city and country, displaced persons and new community. At a time of lockdown Sim’s plaintive cry is resonant:  Why should people who love the country have to live in big cities? The shooting style of German Erwin Hillier lends itself beautifully to an idea of a new Romantic era in England, piercing wartime privations with an almost bucolic sense of possibility and nodding to Chaucer. And yet it’s the story of a man who puts glue in women’s hair and how in solving the mystery of his identity three very different people find their own way to a kind of spirituality and even a miracle in the case of bereaved Sim. Sweet is terribly engaging as the figure who enables a boost in Anglo-American relations. The moment of awe is apposite – when Price plays the organ in Canterbury Cathedral after years of being consigned to movie theatres. The city has been devastated by German bombs but the music soars.  This is the point where Powell and Pressburger engage in a kind of angelic conversation and it is appropriately inspiring. Narrated by Esmond Knight who also plays a soldier and the Village Idiot. You can’t hurry an elm

Lonely are the Brave (1962)

Lonely Are the Brave

The more fences there are, the more he hates it. Roaming ranch hand John W. ‘Jack’ Burns (Kirk Douglas) feels out of place in the modern world. He visits his friend Paul Bondi’s loving wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands) and little son. He deliberately gets into a bar room fight with a one-armed Mexican (Paul Raisch) in order to be imprisoned alongside Paul (Michael Kane) who was arrested for helping illegal aliens and is serving a two-year term in the penitentiary. They decide to let him go but he punches one of them to get re-arrested and jailed. Jack tries to convince Paul to flee with him, but, as a family man, Paul has too much at stake and abandons the plan. Jack escapes after a beating from a sadistic Mexican police deputy Gutierrez (George Kennedy) and heads for the hills. An extensive manhunt breaks out, led by sympathetic Sheriff Johnson (Walter Matthau) who watches helpless as the decorated war vet sharpshooter takes on an Air Force helicopter in his attempt to make it over the border to Mexico … Our cowboy’s just shot down the Air Force. With a wonderful feel for landscape and animal life and juxtaposition of the natural world with the restrictive modernity of technocratic praxis, this beautiful looking monochrome production never seemed so resonant or relevant. Douglas’ sense of what’s right is perfectly communicated in this sympathetic Dalton Trumbo adaptation of environmentalist Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy.  Matthau’s is a more complex character than he first appears, making for a wonderfully exposed twist in the tale. Tautly directed by David Miller and told in four principal movements, this makes good bedfellows with The Misfits, another elegiac presentation of man versus nature. You’re worse than a woman

Hello Down There (1969)

Hello Down There

Aka Sub-a-Dub-Dub. Pretty goldfish, we could have a whale of a time. Marine scientist Fred Miller (Tony Randall) talks his aquaphobic romance novelist wife Vivian (Janet Leigh) into spending thirty days in an experimental home he’s designed for boss T.R. Hollister (Jim Backus) in order to secure funding. But he’s got to take the entire family to live ninety feet under the sea in The Onion and that means their teenage son Tommie (Gary Tigerman) and daughter Lorrie (Kay Cole) who happen to be on the verge of signing a record deal for their pop group led by her boyfriend Harold (Richard Dreyfuss) and his brother Marvin (Lou Wagner). A rival designer, Mel Cheever (Ken Berry) from Undersea Development literally rocks their boat with his sea bed dredging and then a hurricane strikes …  Doctor, I think you’ve been smoking my bananas. An underwater musical? Why not? This blends 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Lost in Space and precedes TV’s The Partridge Family with its band of teenyboppers. Boasting a baby submarine, a seal called Gladys who loves watching the washing machine churn in the ultra mod interior, two helpful dolphins called Duke and Duchess bobbing about the lounge and Roddy McDowall as Nate Ashbury, a wunderkind hepcat music mogul, what more could you possibly want Daddy-o? Oh yes – sharks. And here it is – Dreyfuss’ first encounter with the pesky creatures – who insist on paying the Onion a visit when Leigh mistakenly flushes the trash without first incinerating it. It’s soft-hearted nutty family fun but it’s clearly nodding to Leigh’s fear of water (after Psycho!) and the only person getting their keks off regularly is Randall so whatever floats your boat. Dreyfuss’ songs are sung by composer Jeff Barry and Merv Griffin appears as himself when the kids get to perform on his show from their new abode. Harvey Lembeck appears as a sonar operator on a passing ship which misinterprets the signals from the kids’ songs as enemy activity prompting political anxiety. A real blast from the past. Written by John McGreevey and Frank Telford from a story by Ivan Tors and Art Arthur. Directed by cult sci fi fave Jack Arnold with those marvellous underwater sequences shot by Ricou Browning at Miami’s Seaquarium and in the Bahamas.  One of a unique group of films featuring the point of view of a fish. That’s all we need – more sharks!

FernGully: The Last RainForest (1992)

FernGully The Last RainForest

Our world was much larger then. The forest went on forever. Curious little Crysta (Samantha Mathis) is a fairy who lives in FernGully, a rainforest in eastern Australia and has never seen a human before:  fairies believe the race was made extinct by a malevolent entity called Hexxus (Tim Curry) whom mother-figure fairy Magi (Grace Zabriskie) imprisoned in a tree. But when a logging company comes near the rain forest, Crysta sees that humans do exist and accidentally shrinks one of them to fairy-size: a boy named Zak (Jonathan Ward). Zak sees the damage that the company does and helps Crysta to stop not only them, but Hexxus, back to feed off pollution after Tony (Robert Pastorelli) and Ralph (Geoffrey Blake) cut down the tree where he has spent so long. Zak falls for Crysta, whose friend Pips (Christian Slater) loves her but when the rivers and trees show signs of being poisoned Zak admits why he’s there and Hexxus starts to destroy the forest so it’s time for action and even sacrifice ... There are worlds within worlds. Adapted from Diana Young’s book by Jim Cox, this family-friendly musical has a great ecological message couched in action that while not completely jeopardy-free has a swagger and moves along quickly while also being sweet and funny. There’s a lot of humour provided in his first animation voicing role by Robin Williams, improvising his lines as Batty Koda. Perhaps the supernatural aspects de-claw the radical message at its heart, but that is certainly in the right place and there are some good songs by composer Alan Silvestri with Jimmy Webb, Thomas Dolby and Elton John. That’s Cheech and Chong as beetle brothers Stump and Root! Directed by Bill Kroyer.  All the magic of creation lies within a single tiny seed

Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters

You’re flushing your career down the toilet for a cowhand. Corporate defence lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is approached by his grandmother’s farmer neighbour Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) to investigate the deaths of hundreds of his cattle in Parkersburg, West Virginia, probably due to a poisoning incident by manufacturer DuPont. The company’s lawyer Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) promises to help Robert but stalls so Robert files suit to get discovery and with nothing useful in an Environmental Protection Agency report he finds information about an unregulated chemical called PFOA which turns out to be Teflon – and it’s on and in everything including the water supply, poisoning with a substance the body cannot tolerate or absorb and causing six cancers and facial deformities. It transpires that DuPont carried out tests and did not make the findings public. The case drives Robert’s behaviour to cause his former lawyer wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) to worry for him and he eventually collapses from ill-health as the years wind on, with Wilbur and his wife Sandra (Denise Dal Vera) getting cancer from the infected water they’ve been consuming. They refuse DuPont’s offer of settlement – they want justice. Robert finds that Medical Monitoring is permitted in West Virginia and undertakes a class action lawsuit with the biggest sample of epidemiological data in history but after seven years there are still no results, his marriage is in difficulty and he’s taking yet another paycut  … Better living through chemistry. Adapted by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael  Carnahan from three articles in The New York Times and The Intercept, this is a grimy looking drama about corporate malfeasance that’s paced as slowly and deliberately as Bilott’s lawsuits, with some touches of conventional genre paranoia in one thriller sequence (in a car park, surprise surprise).  It unfurls chronologically, a decade-and-a-half-long story of terrible, destructive deceit – a toxic pollution arrangement covertly blessed by Government agencies, yet another searing indictment of structural inequality and the impunity with which big companies abuse power and kill people, no questions asked. It’s a David and Goliath procedural tale that has global ramifications and despite its desperately dull appearance and some flawed and oddly impersonal directing choices there are some great moments especially for Tim Robbins as Ruffalo’s boss; and Bill Camp, who exudes his usual authenticity beneath some truly eccentric eyebrows. Hathaway’s stay-at-home wife gradually gets a better arc than at first appears; while Ruffalo is shuffling and in pain, dressed in too-big clothes in a whistleblowing role that clearly is a labour of love, a wannabe Hulk gravitationally pulled to earth, feeling the hurt of all his sick, suffering and dying clients as he does his due diligence with dignity and perseverance. Stick with it. Like the Teflon on your frying pan that’s killing you every day. Directed by Todd Haynes. The system is rigged

Tawny Pipit (1944)

Tawny Pipit

This is meat and drink to me. Fighter pilot Jimmy Bancroft (Bernard Miles) is recuperating from injuries sustained during WW2 in a Cotswolds village. He and his nurse Hazel Broome (Rosamund John) come across two rare birds they find nesting in a wheat field and have to stop two evacuated boys from stealing the eggs. Together with Colonel Barton-Barrington (Bernard Miles) and others in the local community they band together to save the area from roads development that would encroach on the nesting place, stopping army tanks from crossing the field and getting a boost from a visiting Soviet sniper Olga Bokalova (Lucie Mannheim) …  Most people have to start from the bottom and work up. We’ll start from the top and work down! Written and directed by star Miles and Charles Saunders, they created a rare propaganda picture of the bucolic home front during World War Two. Not only that, it dares to paint a portrait of deep eccentricity, silly officialdom and a bizarre scene of a female Russian soldier who inspires a moment of flag-waving solidarity between Britain and the Soviet Union. And in the middle of this romance about birds is an affecting narrative about a pilot getting better from his war wounds by saving those feathered creatures while developing a relationship with his nurse. The link between the thriving pipits and his successful mission is encapsulated in the final images of his aeroplane Anthus campestris swooping over the village’s church tower. Barmy and lovely, with beautiful cinematography by Eric Cross and an uplifting score by Noel Mewton-Wood. These eggs are yours and mine and his and his and his … they belong to England!

The Call of the Wild (2020)

The Call of the Wild 2020

He was beaten but he was not broken. It’s the 1890s. Buck is a big-hearted St Bernard/collie mix whose blissful domestic life in Santa Clara, California, at the home of an indulgent small town judge (Bradley Whitford) gets turned upside down when he is suddenly uprooted by a thief and transplanted to the exotic wilds of the Alaskan Yukon during the Gold Rush. As the newest addition to a mail-delivery dog sled team led by Perrault (Omar Sy) and his wife Françoise (Cara Gee), Buck has to learn to toe the line behind alpha male Spitz but then he bests him and becomes leader of the pack, heeding the call of the wild that intervenes to periodically remind him of his canine forebears. When the team is sold with the advent of the telegraph the team is acquired by nasty adventurer Hal (Dan Stevens) who is about to kill Buck when the dog is rescued by grizzled old John Thornton (Harrison Ford). John is drinking heavily to get away from his own family home – he has left his wife following the death of their son and decided to follow the boy’s dream to depart from chartered territory and find his heart’s desire where X marks the spot. Buck and his new master are true friends and battle the natural elements where Buck becomes his true self in the wild until Hal seeks revenge … This is not the south lands. Michael Green’s adaptation of the 1903 Jack London wilderness classic takes some liberties and makes some changes, presumably for reasons of political correctness, ensuring a direct hit on kids’ sensibilities without the fear factor or the race aspect. The shortcuts and alterations minimise the human cruelty, probably a good thing. The first five minutes are hard to watch, as though shot at double speed and played back fractionally slower (Hobbit-like), but then the physicality of the film slows down to set up the story, again a little differently from the book. Tactile Buck may be but his actions were laid down by renowned actor and gymnast Terry Notary and then he was magicked into life by CGI:  in an interview Ford said the scale and scope of the film could not have been achieved otherwise. And who would want any animal put through their paces as these sled dogs are? The titular call is actualised in the image of an ancient black dog who appears ghostlike every so often but it is a clear representation of Buck’s personal growth, a sign that he is becoming his true wild self. And as he does,  John and Buck save each other. The end is of course tragic in part but Buck reaches his destiny, in the wild. It’s a rather brilliant fable and very well told. That lump in your throat is definitely not a special effect. Directed by Chris Sanders.

I Am Paul Walker (2018)

I Am Paul Walker.jpg

He was always known as The Vagrant. The horrific death of actor Paul Walker in a car crash in November 2013 shocked the world. How could this action movie star renowned for his own very careful piloting of vehicles have occurred? A friend was driving the Porsche Carrera and both were burned alive in a car park after crashing into a tree. A really good driver. Conscientious at all times. He was in the middle of filming Fast and Furious 7 at the time. This painful documentary departs from that story until the final sequence and is concerned with interviewing many people in Walker’s life, starting with his tightknit working class Mormon family, drawing on his background in Tujunga, California, and the fierce loyalty to his many friends whom he employed to keep himself sane in the wake of success. A picture emerges of a surfer dude whose mom had taken him to auditions as a young child and who impressed people like Michael Landon with his abilities. He didn’t want to continue acting as an adult and indulged his pleasures for a time. That guy made the best of every single moment. He grew up tall – six three – and liked a gnarly fun lifestyle and his surprise casting in Pleasantville led to an introduction to filmmaker Rob Cohen whose first film with him was not entirely a success but would lead to The Fast and the Furious franchise that made Walker a movie star. Uncomfortable with publicity, he had to deal with an unplanned pregnancy and worked hard to support his girlfriend’s desire to escape to Hawaii with their baby daughter Meadow in order to further her education. His fascination with marine conservation was all-consuming and his happiest times were spent tagging whales yet he had a certain legacy to deal with that informed his approach to life – his maternal grandfather was a WW2 veteran who set a landspeed record using a road car at Bonneville in the Fifties;  his paternal grandfather Paul Walker II was a famous boxer; and his own father (Paul Walker III) was a tough guy who served as a marine in Vietnam and was a crack shot. The picture of masculinity that emerges is powerful and deep-rooted. He liked to do exciting things. He wanted to stop making films but he felt overwhelming financial responsibility to his family members and those friends of his who were part of his entourage on each Fast production: kindness superseded his desire to escape to his off-grid home. Everyone would come to him with their problems, as one of the guys observes. Nobody has a bad word about this astonishingly handsome, nice, thoughtful action man who suffered such a brutal ending. Touching? That barely covers it. Directed by Adrian Buitenhuis using a huge variety of home movies, archive, newsreel and personal interviews but the horror of Walker’s senseless death overshadows the film in a way these words and pictures cannot overcome. Success to me is balance in life

 

Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997)

Smillas Sense of Snow.jpg

Aka Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.  The devil assumes many forms. Copenhagen police say otherwise, but amateur scientist Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond) who studies ice crystals in a university lab thinks her young Inuit neighbour Isaiah (Clipper Miano) was chased by an adult before he fell to his death from the roof of their apartment block. The daughter of an Inuit who spent her childhood in Greenland, Smilla learns that the boy’s father died while working for Dr. Andreas Tork (Richard Harris) in Greenland who heads a mining company and she is directed by former accountant Elsa (Vanessa Redgrave) to get an Expedition Report from the firm’s archive.  She asks her father Moritz (Robert Loggia) for help interpreting the information but has to deal with his young girlfriend who resents her interference in their life. After sharing her murder theory with a mysterious neighbour called The Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne) who never seems to go to work, she pursues her suspicions and her life is endangered as the impact of a meteorite hitting Greenland in 1859 is revealed in a reanimated prehistoric worm which proves toxic to human organs Why does such a nice woman have such a rough mouth? Peter Høeg’s novel was very fashionable in the Nineties and encompasses so many issues – identity, language, snow and ice, ecology and exploitation, friendship and bereavement, medical issues, astronomy, being far away from home, being motherless … that you can quite see how difficult it would be to fillet from this a straightforward thriller which is what the cinema machine demands. Ann (Ray Donovan) Biderman does a good job streamlining the narrative threads which form an orbit around Ormond who has a tremendous role here but director Bille August doesn’t really heighten the tensions  sufficiently quickly that they materialise as proper threats. What works as a literary novel seems rather far-fetched on screen when stripped of all those beautiful words. Nonetheless it’s a fascinating story and it’s a shame Ormond’s feature career never had the momentum it once seemed to possess. Costuming by Marit Allen. The way you have a sense of God I have a sense of snow