Extremely Wicked (2019)

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I’m not a bad guy. Law student Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) is in prison receiving a visit from long time girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) but she leaves upset. We flash back to how they met, set up home together with her baby daughter Molly and how news reports of the assaults and murders of young women across swathes of the United States result in his being apprehended as his photo fit is widely published. But Liz appears not to believe that Ted is capable of such evil.  Police Detective Mike Fisher (Terry Kinney) crosses state lines to leave an envelope of horrifying information at their house to try to persuade her that they have the right guy but she doesn’t open it for years. In the meantime, Ted starts to defend himself before Judge Edward Cowart (John Malkovich) in Florida, the first such trial to be televised … You know this didn’t start with a Stop sign. This biographical drama could have gone badly wrong but it’s far from a hagiography and a lot is left to the grisly imagination. Joe Berlinger’s feature follows from his documentary series on the subject, adapted from the book The Phantom Prince:  My Life With Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall.  It’s cannily structured, starting with that flashback meeting cute with Liz so that the entire narrative feels like a seduction of sorts, giving Efron an opportunity to create a complete personality. We feel the impact of that fatal charisma and because he establishes a home life including as stepfather to Liz’s young daughter Molly, the disconnect is all the more alarming, especially interspersed with reports of serial murders from those locations where we know him to have been and shots of him with girls in bars. When we see Ted and Liz together we are imagining how he would kill her – those hands around her little neck suggest so much of what is not shown about his murderous spree. Collins doesn’t have a lot to do but the final scene between them has a big reveal – they both have something to confess. How much did she know? What did he do, exactly? Efron is utterly compelling as this beacon of toxic masculinity:  it’s all about him, as with all narcissistic serial killers. We don’t know any more, even the extent of his slaughter. You know the rest. When I feel his love I feel on top of the world, when I don’t I feel nothing

 

 

The Victors (1963)

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The whole world is full of love. A group of American soldiers manages to survive over the course of World War II, from the Battle of Britain, moving up through Sicily and France and Germany to the fall of the Third Reich and a station in occupied Berlin in the war’s aftermath. Along the way, a number of unfortunate incidents occur:  white soldiers violently abuse fellow black soldiers, a deserter is executed on New Year’s Eve and a sergeant takes advantage of a shell-shocked French woman. War is hell for the winners and the losers in this episodic meditation on the horrors that exist on and off the field of battle… Have a good time tonight? Find someone to rape? Irony is writ large in this film – starting with the title. These guys victors? God help us all. What they do to a little dog following Peter Fonda as he leaves camp doesn’t bear a second viewing. They are racist, vicious, narcissistic thugs. But hey, they’re ours! That’s really the point of this anti-war anti-blockbuster from auteur Carl Foreman, the formerly blacklisted screenwriter who gave us the joyous Guns of Navarone. So we see Vince Edwards make nice with young Italian mother Rosanna Schiaffino, Eli Wallach generously gives widowed Jeanne Moreau a break from the bombs in exchange for food, George Hamilton falls for the duplicitous musician Romy Schneider and George Peppard has an unpleasant encounter with Melina Mercouri. There is a bitter conclusion in the post-war experience as drunken Russian soldier Albert Finney in a very showy role exercises the ultimate droit de seigneur of the fatal variety. Interspersed with newsreels and taking us through the entire WW2 as a series of personal vignettes, we are oddly removed from any kind of empathy because these really are not nice guys. We get it:  nobody’s a winner. The snow field execution while Sinatra croons Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is duly horrifying. Adapted by Foreman from the novel The Human Kind by Alexander Baron who himself served in Sicily, Normandy and Belgium through D-Day.  Directed by Carl Foreman and shot by the great Christopher Challis.  I don’t think I can ever be frightened again

 

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

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Should you murder me, remember you murder your sister… and you murder your queen!  Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Catholic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne with the aim of also taking the English throne which is her birthright, guided by her adviser Bothwell (Martin Compston). However, Scotland and England fall under the rule of her cousin, the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Each young Queen beholds her ‘sister’ in fear and fascination. Mary has to deal with the ambitions of her bastard half-brother James Murray (James McArdle) and succumbs to the charms of the bisexual Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) in order to become a mother but his father (Brendan Coyle) has designs on power. Her reign attracts the hatred of Protestant reformer John Knox (David Tennant) who stirs up the natives against their tolerant Catholic ruler and calls her a whore. Elizabeth’s adviser Henry Cecil (Guy Pearce) carries out her bid to assist in driving a civil war designed to remove Mary from the throne… Do not play into their hands. Our hatred is precisely what they hope for. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you. Adapted from John Guy’s biography by Beau Willimon, it may seem hasty to declare that despite its raft of historical inaccuracies this still has a lot to recommend it, even if its PC multiverse of many races and choose-your-own-perversion plays into the right-on millennial world rather than the well documented dour backdrop of sixteenth-century Scotland (things are ever thus there…). Willimon is of course responsible for Netflix’s House of Cards and knows his way around politics and other games of thrones so the focus on the women struggling against the counsel of conniving men drives the drama forward while the plotting literally gallops apace. With Tennant doing Knox as the Comical Ali of fundamentalist Protestantism the odds of us supporting the bastard English Queen are low to zero, despite the crosscutting suggesting links both emotional and physical between these young rivals. The Virgin Queen is in fact more in touch with the reality of both of their situations, surrounded by controlling men, as the fabricated meeting between them (a liberty also taken in the 1971 version) clarifies: she recognises that Mary’s beauty, bravery and motherhood are both her greatest assets and her deepest flaws and have led to her downfall. She herself is more man than woman, she declares – her reign has made her thus. Ronan plays Mary as a variation on Joan of Arc – a sharp military mind with a conscience as transparent as her pallor and bright blue eyes (albeit Willimon writes her as a feckless Marie Antoinette a lot of the time), while Robbie’s Queen is the one beset with the miseries of the pox and a devious court craven by her power. They are both tremendous but this is really Ronan’s show, as the title suggests. Pearce, Lowden and Compston are particularly good in their treacherous sideshows. Nonetheless it’s wonderful to see two of the best young actresses in the world leading a film of such affecting performances.  The final contrasting shots of Mary’s meeting with destiny and Elizabeth’s costumes and cosmetics literally solidifying into a stony inhuman edifice linger in the mind.  Directed by Josie Rourke. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you

Nurse Edith Cavell (1939)

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How can we stop? British nurse Edith Cavell (Anna Neagle) is stationed at a private hospital in Brussels during World War I. When the son of a former patient escapes from a German prisoner-of-war camp, she helps him escape to Holland. Outraged at the number of soldiers detained in the camps, Edith, along with a group of sympathisers, devises a plan to help the prisoners escape, assisting hundreds of men. As the group works to free the soldiers, Edith must keep her activities secret from the Germans but the investigation closes in… The law which is good enough for Germans is good enough for these people.  Adapted by Michael Hogan from Dawn by Reginald Berkeley, this is straightforwardly filmed but no less affecting for that. The true story of a nurse tried by secret German military tribunal, refused legal counsel and condemned to death on the word of a child is another instance of German treachery in wartime. A key film in the career of Anna Neagle, she is directed here by future husband Herbert Wilcox (who had previously directed a version of this starring Sybil Thorndike) alongside George Sanders as Captain Heinrichs, Edna May Oliver as local noblewoman Madame Rappard and Zasu Pitts as Madame Moulin.  An impressive production, nicely photographed by Freddie Young. I have seen death so often it is no longer strange or fearful to me

Alone in Berlin (2016)

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We are all alone now. 1940 Berlin. Otto Quangel (Brendan Gleeson) is a factory foreman so devastated by his only son Hans’ death fighting in France that he starts composing postcards dedicated to resisting Nazism and Hitler and dropping them (small grains of sand in Hitler’s machine) in public places all over the city, a capital crime. His wife Anna (Emma Thompson) is an otherwise quiet woman, and their strained marriage now seems intractably gone, but she continues her work with the Nazi’s women league, so vehemently in the case of a senior Nazi official’s decadent wife whom she urges to get out and do something, that her colleagues have to apologise on her behalf, believing it to be due to her grief. However she joins in Otto’s campaign despite the danger and it spices up their life. Police detective Escherich (Daniel Brühl) is ordered to find the culprit as the cards multiply into over two hundred and the postwoman’s dim bulb ex-husband is fingered and let go when the cards continue after his death and the net tightens around the Quangels …  They hang women too.  Hans Fallada’s posthumously published 1947 novel Every Man Dies Alone was inspired by a real-life example of bravery by a Berlin couple whose simple act of resistance earned them the wrath of the city’s police force and the Nazis. Actor Vincent Pérez makes his third feature as director and he doesn’t take chances in his leads – Gleeson and Thompson are reliably confident, bringing a quiet dignity to these ordinary unassuming characters whose rebellion is clamped down upon by the fascistic thought police (led by Brühl who gets his own violent comeuppance by virtue of the SS jackboot). Pérez adapted Fallada’s book with Achim von Borries and Bettine von Borries, a tribute to small-scale heroism derived from the Nazi’s files after the war.  It’s a small, slow film, gathering its tension from different sources – Gleeson’s inarticulate bull-headedness, Thompson’s supportive steadfastness, Brühl’s pursuit, the betrayals, the informers all bringing the criminal bravery to its evitable conclusion. Escherich’s investigation, partly conducted in admiration of his quarry, then in fear of the S.S. Officer Prall (Mikael Pesbranddt) beating him to a pulp, maps Quangel’s leafletting campaign of dissent in a manner that takes on the contours of the film M. This is a modest film about modest people who are pushed too far, too indecently to sit back and do nothing. With their son’s pointless death they have nothing left to them but the truth and memories of a happier time. Advanced in middle age they may be, but their act demonstrates that it’s never too late to become the person you were truly meant to be and become a heroic voice of dissent, social pressures notwithstanding. Meticulously shot by Christophe Beaucarne and scored by Alexandre Desplat, it takes its time (and perhaps a slightly underwhelming budget) to wind our characters inexorably toward an unavoidable fate. It’s hard to reconcile perhaps but 12 million Germans were active Nazis and only a few hundred of them were ever executed.  Now they run Europe and we’re all running after them like lemmings toward the cliff edge as this generation’s Fourth Reich assumes its creeping shape under cover of diversionary uncontrolled immigration in every direction. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Mothers, Hitler will kill your son, too

 

 

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.

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.