Into the Abyss (2011)

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He looked just like a little boy lying on the gurney. Werner Herzog goes to Conroe, Texas to examine the case of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, both convicted of a triple murder in 2001. He interviews the men, both of whom blame the other and proclaim their innocence from behind bars. Perry is 14 days from execution and appears to have made his peace with God. Burkett can look forward to eventually getting out. Hence the film’s subtitle:  A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death.  Burkett has married a prison groupie who somehow became inseminated despite there being no situation in which they could have had intercourse.  Herzog is walked around the crime scene by an investigating police officer and part of the film contains the police video of the aftermath. Widowed nurse Sandra Stolter was shot in her house in an expensive gated community as she baked cookies at Halloween. She was dumped in a lake.  Her 17-year old son (actually her older daughter’s illegitimate son, therefore her grandson) was hunted down and killed along with his friend. All of this was because Perry and Burkett wanted the woman’s red Camaro. They were chased for three days until they were caught. The car is in a pound, having been moved from its previous location where a tree grew through the floor. Herzog remains behind the camera and there is minimal voiceover but his solemn, methodical approach and his choice of interviewees buttresses his view that the death penalty is wrong although the film is so carefully constructed there is no real attempt to figure out what happened and who did what. The film is divided into a prologue and six sections. It begins with the prison chaplain whose job it is to comfort men about to be put to death. We see the cemetery where they are buried in their hundreds without their names, just their prison numbers. The former captain of death row Fred Allen finally gave up his job when he had to put a woman to death (Karla Faye Tucker in 1998) and sacrificed his pension:  he talks about living ‘in the dash’ ie the time between life and death as signified on the grave markers. Burkett’s father is himself serving 40 years and is interviewed behind bars, his fifth time inside. He blames his almost permanent absence from home for his son’s actions:  his testimony at sentencing saved Jason from lethal injection. Stolter’s daughter Lisa attended the execution and lets us know that Perry ‘forgave me.’ She laughs through her tears. On the one hand this is a careful indictment of a system of criminal justice which results in capital punishment. On the other, it’s a terrifying examination of broken families and dysfunction and the effects of drink and drugs. The big question here is why anyone kills in the first place – the individual or the State. But it’s still a small story. It’s an utterly tragic account of many lives destroyed in a small Texas town – all because two nasty teenagers coveted a car.

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Cromwell (1970)

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Put your trust in God – and keep your powder dry! In 1640s England, King Charles I (Alec Guinness) is engaged in a power struggle with Parliament, and civil war seems imminent to House of Commons member Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris), who’s preparing to depart for the American colonies. When he’s asked to stay to fight for the Parliamentary cause, however, Cromwell agrees and proves himself a brilliant leader of the Roundhead army and determines to rid England of its king and install Parliament as the ruler of the people. Soon, it’s up to him to lead his army to victory over the king’s Cavaliers … With Robert Morley as the Earl of Manchester, Guinness as the quietly steely Charles and Harris giving it large as Cromwell, this is a study in contrasting performing styles if nothing else. As an historical drama and despite a plethora of inaccuracies (wrong dates, wrong about the armies and their respective numbers, etc etc) it goes a way to delineate the pernicious Puritanism at its heart (has everyone forgotten that Martin Luther was a vile anti-Semite?!) not to mention the genocidal policies executed in Ireland in a power grab. It’s well staged with some nice touches particularly among the exchanges involving family members and children of both protagonists but it’s tilted in odd ways dramatically speaking. However Harris does well in a typically bombastic creation – tracing the rise of a man who believes himself to be godly but is at heart a destructive, ruthless, hypocritical dictator in waiting. Written and directed by Ken Hughes.

Malta Story (1953)

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They have many more planes. There’s not much to stop them. During World War II, British archaeologist turned photo-reconnaissance pilot Peter Ross (Alec Guinness) discovers that the Italians are planning a secret invasion of Malta, a strategically important island nation critical to keeping the Allied supply lines open. Though they have few resources left, Peter and his commanding officer, Frank (Jack Hawkins), resolve to fight off the enemy and save the island. At the same time, Peter struggles to keep his relationship with a local girl Maria (Muriel Pavlow) from falling apart. Her brother is discovered spying for the Axis powers and their mother (Flora Robson) is desperate to see him in British military prison …  The convoluted origins of this post-war propaganda outing typical of 1950s British studios lay in a book Briefed to Attack by Sir Hugh P. Lloyd and an idea by original director Thorold Dickinson and producer Peter de Sarigny with a story by William Fairchild (the three had a production company) which became a vehicle for the Ministry of Information:  it was a demonstration of the wartime co-operation between the air, military and naval services and the Siege of Malta was an appropriate backdrop. J. Arthur Rank hired Nigel Balchin to rewrite the script and Brian Desmond Hurst to direct. There are some good performances here in what is quite the morality tale – Hawkins in particular has to maintain a stiff upper lip while sending men to their certain death. And all for information about enemy movements. It’s an efficient mix of melodrama and action with romance and espionage, interspersed with very tense newsreel footage and the occasional shock – like the bombing of a local island bus from which some of our protagonists have just disembarked. The spy subplot could have done with more space in the narrative however. It’s nice to at least recognise this vulnerable island, subject as it was to so many Luftwaffe attacks. The final scenes – a death, the emphasis on the decisions required in wartime and the devastation of a loved one lost, are very effective.

The Master of Ballantrae (1953)

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A delightful sanctuary, monsieur. A safe haven for buccaneers! 1745 Scotland. At the Durrisdeer estate Jamie Durie (Errol Flynn), his younger brother Henry (Anthony Steel) and their father Lord Durrisdeer (Felix Aylmer) hear about the Jacobite rising. Their advisor MacKellar (Mervyn Johns) recommends that one son side with the rebels, the other with King George II, thus preserving the estate no matter who wins. Jamie wins to fight in the uprising in a coin toss above the objections of his fiancee Lady Alison (Beatrice Campbell). The rebels are crushed at Culloden and Jamie teams up with Colonel Francis Burke (Roger Livesey) a characterful Irish adventuring type and they manage to get back to Durrisdeer where they intend securing money and passage to France. Jamie’s mistress Jessie (Yvonne Furneaux) betrays him to the British out of jealousy over his relationship with Alison:  he is shot by Major Clarendon (Ralph Truman) and falls into the sea. Henry becomes the heir because Jamie is presumed dead – but instead he’s wounded and takes off with Burke on a ship bound for the West Indies. There they are betrayed by Captain McCauley (Moultrie Kelsall) and captured by pirates led by Captain Arnaud (Jacques Berthier) a man for whom execution is a spectator sport. Jamie goes into partnership with him and when they arrive at Tortugas Bay, they see a rich Spanish galleon captured by fellow buccaneer Captain Mendoza (Charles Goldner). Arnaud agrees to Jamie’s idea that they steal the ship. But then he turns on Jamie who kills him in a duel and takes command. They sail for Scotland and Jamie returns to the family estate with pirate treasure, only to arrive in a middle of a party celebrating Henry’s engagement – to Alison! He confronts his brother, despite the presence of British officers. A fight breaks out, in which Henry tries to aid Jamie. The unequal fight ends with Jamie and Burke condemned to death. Jessie helps them escape, at the cost of her own life. Henry also assists them. Jamie tells his brother of the location of some treasure which Henry can then use to pay off Jamie’s gambling debts. Alison decides to go with Jamie to an uncertain future and she, Burke and Jamie all ride off together. This Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation isn’t a major pirate film or actioner but it has lots of good things about it – even if the wonderfully charismatic and handsome Flynn was clearly showing signs of premature ageing despite Jack Cardiff’s lovely photography. Livesey (of all people!) has the lion’s share of the fun dialogue as the rambunctious Irishman in a movie that has pretty much everything – dancing, swashbuckling, pirates, Indians, politics, romance and betrayal. What more do you want?! Oh, it’s got a tragic sacrifice by a beautiful woman and a wonderfully jaunty score by William Alwyn. And just relish those fabulous pirate scenes shot in Palermo, standing in for the West Indies. Adapted by Herb Meadow and Harold Medford and directed by William Keighley, whose fourth and final film with Flynn this was and in fact it marked his retirement from the movies.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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William Kienzle once wrote that nothing beats religion, sex and murder. This almost-true (ish) story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a literate slave and preacher in antebellum Virginia has all of the above plus a sense of righteousness that along with Twelve Years a Slave risks a new era of blaxploitation with rather different text than in the Seventies.  We are dealing with archetypes rather than real characters despite its biographical origins. Year in year out, another brutal beating, unwatchable torture and horrible violence. From his childhood to his inevitable death by hanging after taking revenge on the supposedly kindly owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who betrays him after persuading him to suppress rebellion through religion we are not remotely surprised by any of the narrative turns. Worthy but not really memorable, from the quadruple threat Parker – who directs and produces as well as co-writing with Jean McGianni Celestin.

Cafe Society (2016)

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Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Hollywood straight outta the Bronx  c.1935 to work with his movie agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and falls for his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Everything looks beautiful, bathed in magic moment sunshine and swoony evening light and people talk about Irene Dunne and Willie Wyler but it turns out Vonnie is Phil’s mistress and he leaves his wife to marry her leaving Bobby brokenhearted and back in his beloved Bronx working front of house for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) in a glamorous nightclub. He marries divorcee Veronica (Blake Lively) whom he promptly rechristens Vonnie. She has a baby and her time is taken up caring for her. Then Phil and Vonnie visit while passing through NYC and a romance of sorts recommences but as Bobby realises, Vonnie (this Vonnie) is now his aunt … This is a film of two halves, which do not mesh.  The leads are in their third film together but Stewart is much too modern to play her role, Eisenberg is quite weird – that hunched-shouldered look doth not a schlub make – and the good performances are in supporting roles:  Jeannie Berlin and particularly Ken Stott as the Dorfman parents, Stoll, who is literally criminally underused and Stephen Kunken as the brother in law who inadvertently causes Bobby’s sister Evelyn to have Ben murder their neighbour. Despite the episodes of violence, the talk about what is reality and what is cinema, and the central idea about marriage and what people do to keep relationships going despite clear incompatibility – and there’s a strange (self-?) reference to a man with a teenaged mistress… – this just doesn’t work. The faraway looks in the leads’ eyes at the unsatisfying and inconclusive climax, a country apart, merely highlight the vacuum at the story’s centre. Minor Allen to be sure. It looks great though, so thank you Vittorio Storaro.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)

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Aka Pirates of the Caribbean:  Dead Men Tell No Tales. Thanks to the Australian government’s tax incentives, that Pirates-shaped gap in my life has finally been plugged with a new instalment in the delayed series. I love these films, and all pirate films, and have had to sate myself with the genius Black Sails in the interim (I have one series to go, so no spoilers please! I’m still not over Charles Vane’s execution!). This is number 5 in the franchise and it operates as a kind of unofficial reboot because it has been (gasp) 14 long years since the first film, Curse of the Black Pearl, was released. And it’s aptly returned to this for most of the bones in terms of story, character and structure, even if this has way more shaggy-dogness about it in an untidy set of plot mechanics. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann vows to find Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to right the wrong on his father who’s abiding in a watery limbo on the Flying Dutchman. He knows that the Trident of Poseidon will break the curse. Death meanwhile lurks on the high seas in the form of Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghostly crew who cannot set foot on dry land – also condemned and cursed by Sparrow’s antics. An astronomer Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelario) is being executed as a witch in St Martin where a bank is being opened – and this is where Captain Jack makes his spectacular reappearance with his unruly and disgruntled crew led by Kevin McNally, with their awful ship in dry dock where they’re all broke. Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is summoned by Henry to help out and he is ironically reunited with a daughter who doesn’t know the provenance of the map she seeks … Colourful, silly, not entirely logical and definitely rehashing plot points from the earlier films particularly the first one, this is handled pretty well by Norwegian directing duo Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg working from a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, with a story by Nathanson and Terry Rossio.  The young lovers story gets a run-through, the Barbossa plot gets a very fitting conclusion, there’s a fascinating flashback (I want one to give me skin like that in real life) and there are homages here and there to make you smile – the zombie sharks being a reference to the original summer blockbuster granddaddy of them all, the ghost crew a nod to the original’s skeleton crew, Depp taking his Robert Newton/Keith impersonation to new heights of pantomime, a great Paul McCartney cameo and a bank robbery like no other. Some of the lines could have done with a rewrite – especially the jokes which are heavy on the misogyny; and there’s no real mad surrealism which has graced previous episodes (is there anything as wild as the hallucination of the ship on dry land and the multiple Jacks?!). While most of the legendary tropes are present bar a real Brit villain the last action sequence is so darned complex I genuinely forgot what it was about. But it’s full of fun and wild adventure and I for one love this series even if number 4 fell far short of expectations. Thwaites and Scodelario make a pretty useful couple to base the next set of films, kicking some new plotlines into touch. What do you want – live action Space Mountain?! Hoist the mainbrace! Wahey me hearties! More!

The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)

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Writer/producer/director George Seaton’s penchant for realism and drama-documentary style gets a full airing here in an adaptation of Alexander Klein’s titular nonfiction book. The great (and prematurely aged – he was 44 and looks 64 at least) William Holden plays the American born oil man Eric Erickson, resident in Sweden and doing his usual cross-border deals – including with Germany – who is blackmailed into espionage for the Allies in the form of the smirking Hugh Griffith. In Germany he becomes involved with a religiously inclined agent Marianne Moellendorf (Lilli Palmer) who ends up being found out in a confessional, and Erickson then struggles to escape Berlin after betrayal by his friend’s son, a member of the Hitler Youth. This morality tale is long and engrossing and Holden gets the opportunity to play a whole range of emotions under Seaton’s careful direction. The camerawork (by Jean Bourgoin) is mostly static in keeping with this realistic mode but there are some great shots of the rubble of Berlin and the encounter in the church confession box is particularly well staged. It’s great to see these post-war cities in colour, another boon to an involving story. And the startling Klaus Kinski is key to the conclusion. If you ever want the dogs that torment you to take a walk on the wild side well away from you, try a combo of blood and cocaine. It’s amazing what tips you pick up in movies. Co-written by Charles Grenzbach.