The Lost City of Z (2016)

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You’re a long way from Government now. At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is encouraged by his superiors to redeem his family name following his father’s dissolute actions, ruining the Fawcett reputation.  Although married to the supportive Nina (Sienna Miller) with a young son and one on the way, he journeys across the Atlantic to South America to carry out a survey of the Amazon in order to help adjudicate borders and to establish national territories.  On board the ship he encounters Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson)  a man who knows the rainforest. He joins the party which includes aide-de-camp Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and they go into the Amazon, where they experience the surreal pleasures of an opera in the middle of the jungle and discover evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilisation that may have once inhabited the region, triggered by stories told them by their guide. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment back in London when he reports his findings, which contradicts their bias against indigenous populations as savages, the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, Costin and Manley, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. After another set of discoveries he is challenged by biologist James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) who falsely claims they left him for dead so Fawcett leaves the Royal Geographical Society. He is injured on the Somme when he fights in WW1 but in 1925 when his son Jack (Tom Holland) grows up he wants to help his father pursue his obsession and find the City of Z that Nina found out about in a conquistador text at Trinity College Dublin... To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? It comes off a little like Fawcett of Amazonia at first but then this James Gray film establishes its own insistent rhythm with a hallucinatory bent that comes first from obsession and then with repetition. Indeed one is forced into a world recognisably that of David Lean but also Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (quite literally, at the opera) and perhaps Conrad. However the difference is in the doggedness and the feminine element – here Nina plays a crucial part in Percy’s evolving obsession when the document she finds fuels the fire in his belly and ironically leads to increased separation. Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction book, this has some of the usual flaws besetting Gray’s films – a kind of muted incompleteness or psychological lack and a physical darkness – but the facts of the story, the deadly nature of the pursuit and the fascinating history compensate and it has a decent pace. Hunnam grows into the role as the story progresses, caring about slavery and native peoples and expressing proper awe at the sight of sculptures and ancient artefacts; and Miller is fine as the proto-feminist who reads from the letter she wrote when she thought she wouldn’t survive childbirth:  as she tells her husband, “You haven’t even seen it for two minutes,” when he protests the jungle is no place for a woman and takes off yet again leaving her pregnant. It’s an admirable corrective to the standard male-oriented expedition narratives, with an amazing coda. In the end, this is actually spellbinding. There is great irony deployed: Fawcett meets Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Ireland and years later in South America he sees the story about his assassination and is told it will trigger a great war:  his escape across the Atlantic was precisely to avoid conflict and now he is going to be catapulted back into something quite dreadful.  He has a wonderful wife and happy domestic life yet he is truly at home in an utterly alien environment where the natives happily shoot poison arrows. He goes back, again and again, despite ridicule and disputes. He has a higher aim and it becomes something verging on mystical. The cinematography by Darius Khondji and score by Christopher Spelman are quite wondrous at times. Executive produced by Brad Pitt. There is no going back. We are already here

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Adrift (2018)

Adrift 2018

Come sail with me. In 1983 Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) and her new boyfriend Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) couldn’t anticipate that they would be sailing directly into one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history. They have met on Tahiti and he is hired to deliver a yacht to San Diego, her hometown, which she had no desire to see any time soon.  In the aftermath of the late season storm, with the boat pitch poled, Tami awakens to find Richard badly injured and the Hazana in ruins. Everything is broken, smashed and scattered, the cabin half-full of water, the masts broken clear off and the sails waterlogged and floating useless nearby;  the navigation system, and the emergency position-indicating radio device, were broken. With no hope of rescue, Tami must now find the strength and determination to save herself and the only man she has ever loved who is lying on the aft deck, ribs broken, leg shattered, guiding her in calculating their position using a sextant and working out the latitude on the ship’s maps. All the time she is trying to avoid the storm that is tagging them to try and make it to Hawaii despite having drifted north in a potential search area of 1,500 miles – and that’s only if anyone has noticed their disappearance…  Since this is adapted from Oldham’s book Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea we know she survived this appalling experience:  this shows us how, more or less. It’s written by David Branson Smith,  Aaron Kandell and Jordan Kandell and their interpretation may be faithful to the account and what Oldham did to survive although it’s somewhat creative in what actually occurred during the 41-day long ordeal. It starts with a shocking scene following the storm and then cuts back and forth from the aftermath to the couple’s meeting on the Pacific island where they fall in love and eventually (and reluctantly on Oldham’s part) take the job to deliver the yacht on behalf of a London couple who know Richard. He is a decade older than Tami and a failed naval cadet who is living his dream sailing the world alone – until he meets her and proposes marriage. Director Baltasar Kormákur’s handling of the alternating scenes is expert – there’s a good balance between the evolving romance and the disastrous trip as we learn how this woman who Richard describes as ‘wild’ uses her every wile to make it. Woodley is happily convincing as the daredevil 23-year old reluctantly caught up in a terrible dilemma due to her relationship .We’ve been here before (to some extent) with Robert Redford in All is Lost but there is a twist which will either make you throw your popcorn at the screen or sigh with relief that you haven’t had to go through this entirely scarifying experience yourself. And it doesn’t overstay its welcome, always a joy. What’s it like sailing out there on your own?

Duffy (1968)

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That stinking operation of yours gets on my wick. Half-brothers playboy Stefane (James Fox) and useless businessman Antony (John Alderton) despise their father, callous and aggressive millionaire Charles Calvert (James Mason) who appears to have made all of his money off their respective mothers. Because Charles refuses to share his wealth with them they ask hip enigmatic American thrill-seeker the piratical Duffy (James Coburn) to help steal the money they believe is their birthright when Stefane’s girlfriend Segolene (Susannah York) recalls his name during a hairdressing appointment. When Charles decides to move a million pounds of his savings from Morocco to France on one of his ships Duffy has an opportunity to stage a daring burglary at sea but he takes some convincing and then it transpires that indeed all is not as it seems …  A crime caper featuring members of the Swinging London set that permits Coburn to do his shit-eating grin seems like a good idea on paper but director Robert Parrish doesn’t really time things as well as he might despite the superficial attractions of the settings and cast.  With a screenplay by Donald Cammell you would think this might be a deal weirder than it actually is, but that would come in a couple of years when he re-teamed with Fox for the penetrating counterculture examination that was Performance.  For now we have to make do with pretty people scamming their pop with an independent-minded outsider in exotic locales and a loopy soundtrack to underline the hip fun in an outing that seems to herald the end of Mod as events take a tricky turn in that destination of decadence and dilettantism, Morocco. Quirky fun.

Born Free (1966)

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We spent the day in agony like the parents of a teenage girl out on her first date. At a national park in Kenya, English game warden George Adamson (Bill Travers) and his wife, Joy (Virginia McKenna), care for three orphaned lion cubs. After the two larger lions are shipped off to a zoo in the Netherlands, the smallest of the three, Elsa, stays with the couple. When Elsa is blamed for causing an elephant stampede in the nearby village, head warden John Kendall (Geoffrey Keen) demands the young lion either be trained to survive in the wilds of the Serengeti or be sent to a zoo… Joy Adamson’s 1960 book caused a sensation and was part of the beginning of a widespread conservation movement that radically informed westerners about the problems in maintaining wild populations on the continent of Africa. On a more personal level, this is an extremely moving story about her own romance with the wonderful lioness who became part of her life and how hard it was to let her go and live the life she’d been meant to have. Adapted by blacklisted Lester Cole (under the pseudonym Gerald L.C. Copley) this is a wonderfully made, utterly engrossing true story with all the jeopardy you’d expect given the setting which is tantalisingly photographed by Kenneth Talbot.  The co-stars are Girl, Boy, Ugas, Henrietta, Mara and the Cubs and they are completely fabulous. Even my little Graymalkin didn’t evince a shred of jealousy toward her large African cousins and she’s the flyingest supercat around. The soundtrack and theme song by John Barry (with lyrics by Don Black and performed over the end credits by the incomparable Matt Monro) will bring you to tears if the unsentimental drama does not (reader I blubbed all through it, all over again – I do it every time. ) The credits thank Hailie Selassie I among others. Golly. The making of the film transformed the lives of its stars, a real-life married couple who had previously co-starred in The Smallest Show on Earth. They started the Born Free Foundation which you can support here:  http://www.bornfree.org.uk/. The outcome for the Adamsons was rather different:  they were both murdered. By humans. Directed by documentary maker James Hill with uncredited work by Tom McGowan.

Black Narcissus (1946)

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I told you it was no place to put a nunnery! There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated … A group of Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), are sent to a mountain in the Himalayas. The climate in the region is hostile and the nuns are housed in an odd old palace, home to the Sisters of St Faith and previously home to the concubines of the General in the area. They work to establish a school and a hospital, but slowly their focus shifts. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) falls for a government worker, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), and begins to question her vow of celibacy. As Sister Ruth obsesses over Mr. Dean, Sister Clodagh becomes immersed in her own memories of love back in Ireland while their conflicts are put into relief by the forbidden desire between The Young General (Sabu) and Kanchi (Jean Simmons) who is of entirely unsuitable caste.  Sister Ruth’s psychological problems devolve into violent madness … Rumer Godden’s story gets the high-velocity melodrama treatment in this extraordinary interpretation of her story about religion in a colonial outpost. Alfred Junge created the illusion of the exotic in Pinewood (and a Surrey garden) with Jack Cardiff’s magical cinematography enhancing the impression of lushness.  The Renaissance light and shadows highlight the growing atmosphere of hysteria. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted an astonishingly sensual portrait of women in hothouse seclusion, lured to their various fates by a man in their midst as they wrestle with issues of conscience, race, sex and vocation. It has not lost its power to bewitch and Byron’s performance is unforgettable.

Our Man in Marrakesh (1966)

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Aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!  I just came here to build a hotel.  One of six travellers who catch the bus from Casablanca airport to Marrakesh is carrying $2 million to pay a powerful local man Mr Casimir (Herbert Lom) to fix a vote at the United Nations on behalf of an unnamed nation. But not even the powerful man knows which of them it is – and his background checks reveal that at least three of them aren’t who they claim to be. As agents from other nations may be among them, he and his henchmen have to be very careful until the courier chooses to reveal himself – or herself. One of them is Andrew Jessel (Tony Randall) who is in Morocco to finance a hotel but he seems the most likely prospect. On the bus, he encounters the lovely Kyra Stanovy (Senta Berger) who soon appears to be another dubious individual. When Jessel’s briefcase gets mixed up with Casimir’s the chase is on across rooftops and through bazaars and Jessel and Kyra are thrown together when a corpse materialises in his wardrobe – but what is she really up to aside from being a rather too lovable mod femme fatale? … The mid-Sixties spy spoof sub-genre or Eurospy movie continues apace with this picturesque travelogue, boasting some of my fave film faces including Klaus Kinski as the white-suited Jonquil, Casimir’s creepy little henchman, who gets a great entrance in the titles sequence, Grégoire Aslan as Achmed, a Moroccan trucker, Wilfred Hyde-White as Arthur Fairbrother, a likely courier for Red China and of course the indubitable Terry-Thomas as the Oxbridge educated El Caid, a very useful intermediary. There’s even John Le Mesurier as another would-be go-between for the Communists and Burt Kwouk, who has the tiny role of hotel clerk. Margaret Lee appears as the goofy lover of Casimir. Randall is an unlikely love interest and a hapless hero – don’t let the poster fool you – there’s no attempt to portray him as James Bond, he’s much more James Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but this is a lot of fun with a corpse repeatedly turning up at the most inopportune moments. Berger is adorable as the compulsive liar. There’s a colourful score by Malcolm Lockyer. From producer Harry Alan Towers, this was co-written by him with Peter (The Liquidator) Yeldham and directed by Don Sharp.

Elephant Walk (1954)

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She is not one of us and her ways are cold and strange. When John Wiley (Peter Finch), an affluent plantation owner, brings his new wife, Ruth (Elizabeth Taylor), to his estate in the jungles of British Ceylon,  she finds she is the only white woman.  She’s overjoyed by the exotic location and luxurious accommodations until it becomes clear her new husband is more interested in palling around with his friends than spending time with her. She is intimidated by houseman Apphuamy (Abraham Sofaer) who is still being bossed by the late Old Man Wiley a rotten individual who has deliberately blocked the elephants from their ancient water source (hence the name). Left alone on the plantation, Ruth strikes up a friendship with American overseer Dick Carver (Dana Andrews), and it isn’t long before a love triangle develops… An old-school colonial romance, the novel by Robert Standish (aka Digby George Gerahty) was adapted by Hollywood vet John Lee Mahin who knew this kind of material from Red Dust two decades earlier. While revelling in the lush jungle landscape and the forbidden desires of Taylor the real story is the haunting of Wiley by his late father whose ghost dominates his life and the plantation. Taylor of course replaced Vivien Leigh who had a nervous breakdown yet whose figure remains in long shots that weren’t repeated and her lover Finch remained in the picture in a role originally intended for Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier. Andrews might not be our idea of a hot extra-marital affair but in a situation like that … It looks rather beautiful courtesy of the marvellous work by cinematographer Loyal Griggs but you might find yourself wanting to see more of the elephants than Taylor such is their pulchritudinous affect. You choose. Directed by William Dieterle.

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.

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.