Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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Kong’s a pretty good king. Keeps to himself, mostly. This is his home, we’re just guests. But you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs, unless you’re picking a fight. Scientists, soldiers and adventurers unite to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean. Cut off from everything they know, they venture into the domain of the mighty Kong, igniting the ultimate battle between man and nature. As their mission of discovery soon becomes one of survival, they must fight to escape from a primal world where humanity does not belong. Tom Hiddleston is Conrad, the British Special Forces op (retired!) hired by monster hunter Bill Randa (John Goodman) who’s finagled money for the expedition from a disbelieving Senator. Samuel L. Jackson is Lt. Col. Preston Packard, in charge of a special chopper squadron chomping at the bit for a final military excursion. Brie Larson is Mason Weaver (hmm…..) a photographer and anti-war activist. She’s there for the Pulitzer. This is one last op for Nam vets who ain’t too happy at ‘abandoning’ a losing war. A man who believes in monsters. A Bermuda Triangle-type of island where God didn’t get to finesse His creations. Set in 1973, ie the Vietnam era and just before the 1976 remake starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges of the wonderful 1933 classic, this is a kind of gung-ho Apocalypse Now retread with extra monsters and gore. Yeah, right:  if you thought Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) was a gorilla. And there’s more than that because Marlow is played by John C. Reilly and he’s a soldier who’s been hanging on the island for nearly 30 years waiting to be rescued and he knows that Kong is in fact their only hope in this island that is hollow at the centre – and Kong needs to win the turf war against some incredibly frightening creatures who are even worse to humans than he is! So this plugs into modern myths too – all those Japanese soldiers on Pacific islands not aware WW2 ended long ago. The character of Marlow narrates all of Joseph Conrad’s books, including Heart of Darkness, establishing the framing story. Hmm, now you’re talking. With a horrible, unlikeable cast (what is it these days? Why are actors so yucky?) and a screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly you might think at some point someone would have pulled the plug or cast people empathetic enough for an audience to perhaps care if they survive an encounter with a gorilla minding his own business in his own home. Nope. They had to do it. They went there. But it is saved by the built-in snark (okay, self-awareness) that is a de facto part of all action blockbusters nowadays, reflecting from early exchanges in the dialogue the knowledge that the monster is …. us.  Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist till you’re looking for them.  There’s a very high body count and the romance is at a minimum but it looks dazzling and moves quickly – even with a little jungle stealth and camouflage. This takes no prisoners – it eats them. I blame the parents. Golly! Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

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The Ten Commandments (1956)

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It is not by a sword that He will deliver His people but by the staff of a shepherd! When Rameses I of Egypt orders the killing of all firstborn Hebrew babies the baby Moses (Fraser Heston) is put in a basket on the Nile and is found in the bulrushes and taken in by the pharaoh’s daughter. Moses (Charlton Heston) grows up to lead armies, drive slaves and live a life of luxury, falling for the princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter). But when he discovers his Hebrew heritage and God’s expectations of him it brings him into conflict with his ‘brother’ Rameses II (Yul Brynner). He dedicates himself to liberating his people from captivity and – with the aid of plagues and divine intervention – leads them out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. A greater challenge comes in the form of the golden calf idol which drives believers to sin.  It takes a visitation by God on Mount Sinai for Moses’ mission to prevail. Cecil B. DeMille liked this story so much he made it twice, once in the silent era and then again with even more spectacular visual effects three decades later. And what a vision this is: the building of the pyramids,  the burning bush, the Voice of God, the parting of the Red Sea…  Heston is in his element (and some very flattering short skirts) as the man whose amazing physical and spiritual transformation from slave owner to man of God leads the Israelites to their destiny.  Adapted from a number of sources by the rather intimidated scribes Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss and Frederic M. Frank:  Dorothy Clarke Wilson’s Prince of Egypt; Pillar of Fire by J. H. Ingraham; On Eagle’s Wings by A. E. Southon;  and the Book of Exodus. There were many other historical documents sourced for narrative clarity (to fill in those pesky gaps).  With a soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein and cinematography by Loyal Griggs this still holds the attention with its cunning juxtaposition of sex and death, crime and punishment, cruelty and retribution, mothers and sons. Truly a Biblical experience, filmed on location in Egypt and Sinai. DeMille’s final film, this is magnificently hokey and splendidly spectacular. Where the holiday season begins. One of the longest films ever made for the shortest day of the year. Let my people go!

King Kong (1976)

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Off to the ocean wave are we! Setting sail to exploit the untapped oil reserves on an undiscovered island – but lo! What have we here?! A beautiful scantily clad blonde (Jessica Lange) washed up in a dinghy, her life saved by walking out of a bad movie screening and managing to make good her escape from an exploding ship … Anthropologist Jack (Jeff Bridges) is mighty taken with her but when they meet the locals on said Indian Ocean island, a large wall indicates that all is not well. That’s when they meet Kong, the island god. And he’s a rather strapping fellow. But there’s a lovely white woman to offer in ritual sacrifice … Lorenzo Semple Jr (what a fantastic writer he was) adapted the screenplay from the Thirties classic (appropriately, one of my desert island faves, written by James Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace) but manages to make this its own beast, clarifying the tangled updated web of oil interests, (female) exploitation and animal welfare:  there’s no doubt whose side he’s on. The New York scenes are very well executed and the creature work by Carlo Rambaldi and Rick Baker is quite remarkable, a far cry from the CGI-fest of 2005. I’m with Pauline Kael on this one – it’s a comic strip romance that can make you cry. Take that, Tom Hiddleston, who recently stated (unironically uninformed perhaps) that his new remake is “uniquely set in the 1970s.” Bah, humbug, etc. No wonder Kong went on fire. Directed by John Guillermin.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

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Hitchcock returned to the scene of his first international success, radically altered it, and put two of the industry’s biggest stars at its centre, doctor James Stewart (the Everyman of American cinema) and singer Doris Day, who gets to trill Que Sera, Sera to their young son, Christopher Olsen, who will be kidnapped. The VistaVision Technicolor action is transferred from Switzerland to Morocco (where Day was shocked by the state of animal health) and the juxtaposition with the film’s later scenes in London is well achieved. Uniquely among the master’s films this is almost entirely predicated on the notion of pure suspense, augmented by Bernard Herrmann’s innovative scoring and concluding of course in a famous concert sequence. Featuring those two chaps Ambrose Chappell and Albert Hall, this was adapted from the original (Charles Bennett and DB Wyndham Lewis) by Hitch’s regular Fifties collaborator John Michael Hayes, with an uncredited assist from Angus MacPhail, the man who had dreamed up the term MacGuffin for the meaningless Hitchcockian plot lure. Beautifully shot by Robert Burks and edited by George Tomasini, there is a nice opportunity to watch French actor Daniel Gelin at work – he was the father of the late Maria Schneider, whom he never acknowledged. And the improvised scene with the food is great!

The Hurricane (1937)

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Gorgeous, classic entertainment directed by John Ford with an uncredited assist from Stuart Heisler, this is the only adaptation of the Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall novel worth watching. They also wrote Mutiny on the Bounty so you know you’re in good hands. Raymond Massey is the martinet of a French governor whose wife Mary Astor is newly arrived in the Polynesian paradise. Jon Hall [nephew of the novelist] is native Terangi, pursued to prison for an unintentional killing. He escapes, leaving his pregnant wife Dorothy Lamour and spends a long time struggling to survive at sea. He’s eventually rescued by the island’s priest C. Aubrey Smith and then there is an incredible natural disaster with effects that hold up to this day. The tragic story is recounted by Dr Thomas Mitchell on a ship to a fellow passenger …  Jon Hall became something of a cult item for his male pulchritude on frequent display with Maria Montez but this is a proper, kinetic actioner, with a great sense of character in a fast-moving, terrific adapation by Oliver H.P. Garrett which was then written for the screen by Dudley Nichols. Wonderful cinematography by Bert Glennon and a stunning score by Alfred Newman. And those effects! Fabulous.

After the Sunset (2004)

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An enormously charming cast makes this action comedy caper a wholly enjoyable affair. Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek are the diamond thieves tempted by One Last Job on an island paradise prior to their wedding and retirement, though he keeps delaying writing his vows. Woody Harrelson is the FBI agent determined to catch them because they’ve foiled him before. Don Cheadle is the local crime bigwig who spots an opportunity to steal the third of the Napoleon Diamonds on a cruise ship stopping in the vicinity and Brosnan has to face him down – he stole the first two. It becomes a buddy movie and the sight of Brosnan and Harrelson spooning is really something. Naomie Harris pops up with the local police to add to the Bondian references. If you’re going to do this kinda thing, do it on a tropical island with performers who have charisma to burn. There’s a great ending, BTW. Brett Ratner returned to this sub-genre with Tower Heist and they’re probably the only two of his films to feature anything resembling real people, relatively speaking. Screenplay by Paul Zbyszewski and Craig Rosenberg.

Casablanca (1942)

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Round up the usual suspects. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she has to walk into mine. Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  Play it, Sam. We’ll always have Paris. Here’s looking at you, kid. I stick my neck out for nobody. Sometimes you have to go back to the source to remind yourself that there was a time when mainstream cinema produced work with remarkable, quotable dialogue and not every film was a comic book rehashed  for a market where people boil dogs as a pre-prandial treat. Romantic thriller Casablanca is notorious for being rewritten on the set, nobody knew what was going to happen next and certainly nobody concerned thought it would be the embodiment of all that was great about Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart is Rick Blaine, one of the great screen protagonists, an apparently jaded uncommitted man of the world and a dedicated ex-patriate pragmatist who is in fact a passionate, patriotic and loyal friend who sticks his neck out for absolutely everyone. Ingrid Bergman is the woman he loved in Paris, showing up at his cafe in occupied Morocco, unaware that he is there. And we flash back to their coup de foudre and realise she is now the other half of famed Resistance fighter Paul Henreid, who needs to escape the Nazis on his tail. Rick’s friendship with local police chief Claude Rains smooths a lot of issues regarding his backroom business in supplying refugees with Letters of Transit but this new situation is brimming with complications.The writers who adapted and altered the unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s were Howard Koch (maybe), the Epstein brothers (definitely) and Casey Robinson (whose rewrites were uncredited), Michael Curtiz directed a cast made in heaven and the music is just perfection! The character of Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid, was based on a Jewish activist who allegedly fathered Marlene Dietrich’s daughter back in Berlin (her marriage was very happily open.) After WW2 he became persona non grata in exile and was executed by the Czech government with his remains used for surfacing a road. Not a Hollywood ending. The film that he inspired is sublime.

The Black Swan (1942)

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Twentieth Century-Fox knew how to make good plotty films and this rip-roaring swashbuckler is at the top of the entertainment heap. Adapted by Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller (they both wrote Scarface, Miller wrote The Sea Hawk) from Rafael Sabatini’s novel, shot by Leon Shamroy in glorious Technicolor, scored by Alfred Newman and directed by the always reliable Henry King, what more could you want? Oh, there’s Tyrone Power as Jamie Boy, supporter of privateer Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar) who’s just taken the King’s shilling and wants to clean up the Spanish Main and Maureen O’Hara as Lady Margaret, daughter of the Governor he usurps. They’re after Leech (George Sanders, splendid as a brigand in a ginger wig) who’s done a deal with Lady Margaret’s fiance to divest the Prince Consort of a pile of gold and taken off in the titular galleon. Thomas Mitchell provides comic relief and you must sit back and relish the witty banter between the mismatched lovers as Jamie Boy kidnaps the lustrous lady to lure Leech into a trap. Oh my! How wonderful is this!