Only the Valiant (1951)

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Aka Fort Invincible. Plugged up the pass just like a cork in a bottle.  Following the Civil War in New Mexico when a vital fort guarding a mountain pass is threatened by gathering Apaches, dour West Point Captain Richard Lance (Gregory Peck) picks the most disposable bunch of malcontents and psychos to hold out until reinforcements arrive, whereupon various personal animosities bring them closer to killing him than the enemy as the Apaches cut off the water supply and they turn on each other … It’d be just as easy if the whole patrol committed suicide in there.  This tough frontier story is mainly of interest nowadays perhaps for the presence of Barbara Payton, a cult figure whose short sharp shock of a career was assisted by being involved with this film’s producer William Cagney before she went sex-mad and off the rails. Her role is mostly confined to the opening segments when her putative husband Holloway (Gig Young) rides out to his death, and she wrongly blames Lance. However it’s a really interesting piece of work that’s quite brutal in both theme and execution. Adapted by Edmund H. North and Harry Brown from a novel by Charles Marquis Warren (he would go on to become a director and created Rawhide for TV), the sense of a Fordian world (Fort Apache) is enhanced by the presence of Ward Bond, playing a seriously drunken Irish soldier always cadging people’s canteens. The reason for your presence on this patrol won’t be carried on any record book, Peck declares as he assembles his equivalent of The Dirty Dozen. There’s an amazing fistfight between two warring soldiers in front of their Indian assailants who whoop and jeer as if it’s a cockfight;  there is an explosive start to the final sequence; and the Gatling gun is introduced as a revolutionary way to cut down on soldier numbers when the cavalry finally come calling. More than a cult item after all, and while the mostly studio-bound production is sometimes hampered by odd interactions between the principals, there is striking photography and the ratcheting levels of tension are expertly maintained from the get-go. Even if Peck didn’t like this, he’s outstanding as the commander who eventually gets the respect of his extraordinarily treacherous motley crew. Watching these guys get picked off is quite the thrill. Directed by Gordon Douglas. You who know all things know nothing

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The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

Red Dawn (1984)

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My father turned me in. Oh God, they do things you can’t imagine. When Soviet soldiers invade Calumet, a small Colorado town, sending Nicaraguan and Cuban paratroopers into the local high school football field, brothers Jed (Patrick Swayze) and Matt Eckert (Charlie Sheen) escape with friends (C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton) to the forest where they call themselves Wolverines after their school mascot. With their father Tom (Harry Dean Stanton) a prisoner of the invading army, the children decide to fight against the Soviets. As the country comes under increasing attack and bitter winter closes in, the group teams up with Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner (Powers Boothe) to take back their town but how long can they hold out as they discover they are behind battle lines in occupied America? … West Coast. East Coast. Down here is Mexico. First wave of the attack came in disguised as commercial charter flights same way they did in Afghanistan in ’80. Only they were crack Airborne outfits. Now they took these passes in the Rockies. What a film to watch in the week that Vladimir Putin declared liberalism dead. From a story by Kevin Reynolds, auteur John Milius bootkicks the US into surreality positing a Soviet landgrab when we all know they’d nuke the country to high heaven before that would happen. So far, so ridick, as what was supposed to be a small arty antiwar outing becomes a teenage Rambo with Milius toying with the original material assisted by General Alexander Haig, on MGM’s board of directors at the time, dreaming up a what-if scenario evolving from Mexico’s left wing sympathy splitting the US in half as Hitler’s plan for invasion is reworked.  It starts with a history class in Genghis Khan’s warring tactics and within 5 minutes of explaining his stratagems the Russian helicopters are on the ground.  Soon Alexander Nevsky is playing for free at the local cinema and William Smith is in town marshalling the Russkies (in reality he’d been a Russian Intercept interrogator for the CIA). When the drive-in becomes a re-education centre, it’s a nod to the potential for camp classic status as an ‘ironic’ acknowledgement of its own silliness but also reminds us a lot of WW2. Given that this was the first film to receive a PG-13 rating for its violence, it occupies a certain stratum of cultdom and not merely for an alt history:  here are some of the era’s top teen icons (half of The Outsiders!) shooting the hell out of everything in sight. What joy there is in seeing Lea Thompson manning a sub-machine gun and Swayze romancing Jennifer Grey long before Dirty Dancing. With astounding cinematography by Ric Waite and Frederick Elmes and an operatic score from the great Basil Poledouris, this is a salutary lesson in survivalism and resistance. Milius would describe it as “a Close Encounters with Cold War Russians”. Children did this

Canadian Pacific (1949)

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I’m sorry about your father. I’ve learned, though, that in this country if I draw faster, I keep living. Engineer Tom Andrews (Randolph Scott) is carrying out a survey for the Canadian Pacific Railway and finds a pass through the Rockies that will prove vital for its construction. He tells boss Cornelius Van Horne (Robert Barrat) he is resigning his post to marry Cecile Gautier (Nancy Olson) and it is she who informs him about the problems with fur trader Dirk Rorke (Victor Jory) who wants the railroad stopped because he controls the Indians and trappers and believes their livelihood is now under threat. Tom and demolitions expert Dynamite Dawson (J. Carrol Naish) are almost killed when Rorke uses explosives to sabotage their plans and Tom’s life is saved by construction camp doctor and pacifist Quaker Edith Cabot (Jane Wyatt). Then Rorke incites the local Indians to get involved… I thought you’d changed. But it takes courage not to kill and shed blood. Colourful account of the settling of the North West which doesn’t remotely relate to the truth, but, hey, who’s counting. The Indian attack is quite spectacular. Scott is typically robust and Olson is fine in her film debut while Wyatt has an unusual role, pleading for peaceful resolution amid the chaos. Written by Jack DeWitt and Kenneth Garnet and directed by Edwin Marin with beautiful location photography by Fred Jackman Jr shot in Alberta and British Columbia, at Banff, Lake Louise, Kicking Horse Pass, Morley Indian Reserve and Yoho Valley. There’s a rousing score by Dmitri Tiomkin. Do you want to die?! Then you’re either a fool or a saint!

First Reformed (2018)

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When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy. Forty-six year old Reverend Ernest Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of a small Dutch Reformed church in rural New York stage.  His faith is threatened by the death of his son and he turns to Catholic teachings as well as alcohol. One of his congregation Mary (Amanda Seyfried) appeals for help for her husband, a climate change activist who has become suicidal and who wants her to abort her pregnancy. The historical church struggles in competition with Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) at a nearby megachurch to whom Ernest appeals for help … Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world. Those of us familiar with the oeuvre of writer/director Paul Schrader will know that he had a career as a critic and academic and one of his tomes deals with transcendental style and French auteur Robert Bresson is one of his subjects. And anyone who’s ever seen Diary of a Country Priest (or not) will immediately recognise the thematic reference to a man questioning his capacity and relevance for the spiritual life as he experiences decline, his own physical deterioration a measure for what is occurring in his environment. The modern twist is the monetising of the religious experience (or maybe it’s not that new after all). Schrader’s own life speaks to the background in Dutch Reform Protestantism which is confronted here with modernity while the filmmaking style reflects the austerity of the religion as well as the Bressonian template (with Bergmanesque flourishes). Hawke is brilliant in this intense exploration of man’s purpose with Schrader confidently going for it in all his tormented late life vainglory. Travis Bickle goes mediaeval? Yes, that’s it. Quite splendid.  Even a pastor needs a pastor

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

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Nobody’s asking you to be a hero. In the middle of World War II, an array of American soldiers gets inside information from a drunk German colonel about 16 million dollars worth of gold hidden on enemy soil in occupied France. Kelly (Clint Eastwood), a private with the platoon, devises a plan to sneak past the German officers to steal the loot for his crew. They recruit more men and set their plan into action. Despite several casualties, the men are determined to press forward, even if it means striking a deal with the opposing army… Crazy… I mean like, so many positive waves… maybe we can’t lose, you’re on! With Donald Sutherland as a hippie-inspired Oddball, this owes more to contemporary values than WW2 tropes but that just makes it more of a blast. Its cinematic DNA with its group of misfits and nuts is clearly derived from The Dirty Dozen as it also boasts Telly Savalas from that lineup but it lacks that film’s nihilistic streak and has more of the formal properties of a Bilko workout. Written by the estimable Troy (The Italian Job) Kennedy Martin and directed by Brian G. Hutton, who previously guided the very chilled Eastwood through WW2 shenanigans in Where Eagles Dare, the Lalo Schifrin score (with many spaghetti western nods including jangling spurs) and the Mike Curb theme makes it even more of a bangin’ experience. Good silly fun. Basically, I like any film where they blow the bloody doors off.  Stop calling me Barbara!

 

The Heroes of Telemark (1965)

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Don’t you ever make the mistake of under-rating the Germans. By Easter we will have not merely 10000 pounds of heavy water, but 12000 pounds of heavy water. British Intelligence receives shocking news of significant breakthroughs at a Nazi facility in occupied Norway where they’re developing heavy water stores for nuclear attack in the small town of Rjukan in Telemark county. The British work with Norwegian Resistance head Knut Straud (Richard Harris) and distinguished physicist Dr. Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas) to plan an urgent response even if Pedersen had planned on sitting out the war. As a Norwegian team headed by Straud struggles to blow up the store, a civilian hostage situation erupts with the Nazis keen to disrupt the local Resistance. Meanwhile, Pedersen has to negotiate domestic arrangements with his ex-wife Ann (Ulla Jacobsen) who’s living with her uncle (Michael Redgrave) As far as I remember you spent two years with him, and damn well didn’t get out of bed. If this isn’t as immediately psychologically suspenseful as director Anthony Mann’s rocky mountain Fifties westerns, it’s a terrifically tense thriller. This man on a mission movie benefits from the difficulties between the leading men – particularly when it comes to dealing with a questionable local Resistance leader:  Shoot him, says Douglas. Don’t, says Harris. They take a vote on what to do with this potential Quisling. You choose! Needless to say, there’s a deadly payoff. The location shooting in Norway provides a sensational snowscape in which this anti-Nazi anti-nuclear gang plough their furrow with a cross-country ski chase a particular highlight. Written by Ivan Moffat and Canadian blacklistee Ben Barzman, who get some nice jibes in about sexist behaviour, planting the chance for the traducing ex-husband (Douglas) to obtain redemption of sorts. It’s adapted from the memoir Skis Against the Atom by Norwegian Resistance hero Knut Haukelid and a novel by John Drummond on the same subject, But For These Men. Truly, this is a film about the greater good with stunning widescreen photography by Robert Krasker and a rousing score by Malcolm Arnold. Especially for that World War Two-shaped hole in your post-Christmas comedown. Epic stuff.  Press this little thing here and the bullets come out there

Peter Rabbit (2018)

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You mustn’t be afraid to toss and fluff, toss and fluff! Peter Rabbit (James Corden), his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail and cousin Benjamin Bunny are finally freed of their dastardly rabbit-catching nemesis Mr McGregor (Sam Neill) . But when his prissy nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) is fired from Harrods and inherits the house, they are in for a tough time of it  – until he catches the eye of wannabe artist Bea (Rose Byrne) the rabbit-loving neighbour … I’ve got nothing against the countryside, I just find it disgusting. In which Beatrix Potter’s magical stories are transformed into a contemporary exercise in slapstick  and frat parties with a simpering Gleeson and a grinning Byrne. Corden (the man voted Most Hated by the crew of Into the Woods) leads them all a merry chase but the physical comedy is cut badly and Gleeson’s feet and face are disembodied from what could have been a more Keatonesque performance as the security ratchets up a notch and the rabbits have to become more ingenious in their quest for lettuce. The action becomes inventive then gets merely repetitive and eventually exhausting, the occasional visual treats superseded by an insensitivity that isn’t remotely Potteresque. There are some good recurring jokes – like the cockerel who’s astonished that the sun comes up – every day! Written by director Will Gluck and Rob Lieber. At least Rachel Ward gets to voice Josephine Rabbit and her hubby Bryan Brown is Peter’s dad, parenting from beyond the grave. Small mercies.

Isle of Dogs (2018)

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I used to sleep on a lamb’s wool beanbag next to an electric space heater. That’s my territory, I’m an ‘indoor’ dog.  By executive decree all the canine pets of Megasaki City are exiled to a vast garbage-dump called Trash Island following an outbreak of flu. 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin) sets off alone in a miniature Junior-Turbo Prop and flies across the river in search of his bodyguard-dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). There, with the assistance of a pack of newly-found mongrel friends led by Chief (Bryan Cranston) and including Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), he begins an epic journey that will decide the fate and future of the entire Prefecture…  I wish somebody spoke his language. The films of Wes Anderson have a signature – a look and tone that is unmistakable:  flat, square and symmetrical compositions filled with collectibles adorning an arch and ironic narrative with an amusing bittersweet undertow. The term ‘quirky’ is often used in reviews. His high point has been The Grand Budapest Hotel, a live-action comic drama that used ingenious tropes to express deeply felt ideological and emotional issues: Ralph Fiennes was rightly recognised for his performance in the lead (and should have won the Academy Award); The Royal Tenenbaums has become a definitive NYC movie, often referenced in fashion. He works with a repertory of actors who are now as well known for their association with him over the past two decades as for their other work:  he makes them hip, they lend him gravitas. He alternates these outings with animation/stop-motion effects-led films of which this is one and it’s probably his least appealing – with ineffectual dry humour, a grey palette and fairly expressionless humans (Japanese, and rather blank) turning what should have been a feather-light confection into a dreary one hundred minutes. The wry expressivity of the voice actors is lost in uncompelling characterisations that come off as flat as the drawings. The linguistic jokes are put in an occasional set of (obviously droll) sub-titles so small they are hard to read. It feels like there’s nothing at stake although it’s life and death and there’s a family reunion at hand. A quest narrative needs to have jeopardy but it’s stilted and gives little to the viewer. The best thing about this is the title. Say it a few times and you understand what this is actually about. It’s a shame but, you know, nobody died. Anderson’s screenplay is from a story by himself & Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura. Narrated by Courtney B. Vance.

The Cruel Sea (1953)

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No one murdered them. It’s the war, the whole bloody war. We’ve got to do these things and say our prayers at the end.  Despite his guilt over a recent harrowing sea battle in which many of his men were lost, Lt. Cmdr. George Ericson (Jack Hawkins) is assigned to helm the new H.M.S. Compass Rose with the help of steadfast seaman Lt. Lockhart (Donald Sinden). When the small vessel (a corvette) is sent to escort convoys of ships fighting German U-boats in the North Atlantic, the mettle of the novice crew is tested by the weather, the turbulent sea and enemy attacks in the Battle of the Atlantic, one of which nearly destroys the Compass Rose… Nicholas Monsarrat’s book was hugely meaningful to seafaring folk (like my grandfather) especially if they’d had experiences during WW2. Eric Ambler’s adaptation takes what the author described as ‘a story of one ocean, two ships, and about one hundred and fifty men’ and inscribes more character psychology to make the plot turn. This does not shirk from the terror that invariably affects the men, with Hawkins’ stiff upper lip quivering more than once in the onslaught. The decisions that are made – such as whether to launch depth charges – tear at him. His relationship with Lockhart is the story’s fulcrum: Monsarrat based that character on himself. He had been a journalist before the war and served for four years in the Royal Navy.  Stanley Baker (as cowardly Australian Bennett) and Denholm Elliott (as Sub-Lieutenant Morell) have crucial supporting roles, while Virginia McKenna makes a striking appearance as Julie Hallam, a WRNS officer. There are other well-known faces down the ranks and on land: Liam Redmond, Alec McCowen,  Sam Kydd, Megs Jenkins. The Fifties British war film had a difficult job:  to serve up the realism that the audience deserved while also being mindful of the tricky area of censorship. This is a superb example of a film that does justice to its subject while avoiding some of the book’s elements (sex scenes;  precise details of what happens to bodies split by explosives) that would never make it past the censor’s scissors. Produced by Leslie Norman, Norman Priggen and Michael Balcon and directed by Charles Frend, this is a spirited, harrowing depiction of six years at sea in a war of utter futility that the U-boats were slated to win, a tragic tale of bravery that does not glamorise the combat scenes which end so cruelly for so many. Tremendous.