The Two-Headed Spy (1958)

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A man cannot control the circumstances of his birth but he can make a choice. In 1939 Alex Shottland (Jack Hawkins) has been embedded as a British agent at the highest levels of the German military since WW1 and is tiring of his role but is urged to continue by his fellow agent Cornaz (Felix Aylmer) who is posing as an antiques dealer. They carry on their meetings under cover of Shottland’s purported interest in clocks. The revelatioin of Schottland’s half-British origins raises the eyebrows of the obsessive and creepy Lt. Reinisch (Erik Schumann) who works as his assistant and he alerts Schottland’s superiors about a potentially traitorous connection to the enemy. Schottland falls in love with singer and fellow spy Lili Geyr  (Gia Scala) whose melancholic songs carry coded messages across the airwaves to the Allies.  Reinisch suspects their relationship is a cover just as the Battle of the Bulge is getting underway and Schottland struggles to communicate the plans to his real superiors I’ll come to your place any time you want me to and spend the night. The amazing true-ish story was based on J. Alvin Kugelmass’ book Britain’s Two-Headed Spy and although A.P. Scotland was an adviser on the production it’s not based on his real escapades. The screenplay is notable for being written by not one but two blacklisted writers, Michael Wilson and the uncredited Alfred Lewis Levitt. Hawkins is excellent as the net seems to be closing in and he has to endure Cornaz being tortured to death;  while Scala impresses as the slinky songstress with espionage at her heart. There are some terrific scenes at Berlin’s highest table with Kenneth Griffith emoting unseen as Hitler.  Taut storytelling, excellent characteristation, glossy monochrome cinematography by Ted Scaife and an urgent score by Gerard Schurmann combine to make this an enthralling spy thriller. Look quickly for Michael Caine as a Gestapo agent while Geoffrey (Catweazle) Bayldon is Dietz. Directed by André De Toth. Truth is allegiance

The Vikings (1958)

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What would be the worst thing for a Viking? Viking Prince Einar (Kirk Douglas) doesn’t know it but his worst enemy, the slave Erik (Tony Curtis), is actually his half brother and their father King Ragnar’s (Ernest Borgnine) legitimate heir. Their feud only intensifies when Einar kidnaps Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh), on her way to be the intended bride of the brutal Northumbrian King Aella (Frank Thring). Einar intends to make her his own. However Morgana has eyes only for Erik – leading to the capture of  Ragnar and a terrible final attempt to win her heart ...  Let’s not question flesh for wanting to remain flesh. Good looking, well put together and great fun, and that’s just the cast, in this spectacular historical epic, an action adventure produced by Kirk Douglas that capitalises on his muscular masculinity opposite husband and wife team Curtis and Leigh who get to seriously smoulder for the cameras in their love scenes:  it was the third of their onscreen pairings. With some very fruity language, mistaken identity, axe-throwing, pillaging, actual bodice-ripping, walking the plank for fun, unconscious sibling rivalry, brawny sailors, death by wolf pit, romance and swashbuckling, this has everything going for it except horned helmets. It might well be about eighth or ninth century Viking lord Ragnar Lodbrok and the probably-real Northumbrian king Aella (who died 867) but it’s really about Kirk and Tony and Janet. Jack Cardiff shoots the expansive Technicolor images, and director Richard Fleischer lets every character have their moment in this fast-paced entertainment. The beautiful tapestry-style animated titles are voiced by Orson Welles and the incredible score is by (paradoxically unsung) soundtrack hero Mario Naschimbene who brings both vigour and mystery to this good-humoured story of war and violence: you will believe that those voices in the sky are coming from the heavens. Adapted by Dale Wasserman from the 1951 novel The Viking by Edison Marshall, with a screenplay by Calder Willingham, this is one of the very best action-adventure films of all time with some great editing by Elmo Williams who also helmed the second unit and made the TV series inspired by it, Tales of the Vikings, also produced by Douglas’  Bryna Productions. Within a few short years Douglas would cement his legend as a Hollywood liberal with the cry, I am Spartacus! but for now it’s Odin!

The Company You Keep (2012)

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We all died. Some of us came back. Decades after an ill-fated robbery in which an innocent man was killed, a former member of the Weather Underground Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is on her way to turn herself in to authorities when the FBI arrest her at a gas station after her phone is tapped. While covering the story and digging around, reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) discovers that recently widowed human rights lawyer Jim Grant (Robert Redford) was also a member of that particular group and is really a man called Nick Sloan since the real Jim Grant died in 1979. Sloan slips by the FBI led by Cornelius (Terrence Howard) who are following him when he goes on the run, from Albany through the Midwest and beyond, hoping to track down his former lover, Mimi (Julie Christie), who’s still underground and fighting for the cause. He leaves his young daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho) with his doctor brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) and his wife. Meanwhile, Ben encounters a police officer Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson) who knew Nick back in the day and meets his his adult daughter Rebecca (Britt Marling) who is a lot older than she initially seems and Ben figures she is somehow connected to Mimi and Nick ... Everybody knew somebody who was going over or somebody who wasn’t coming back.  Adapted by Lem Dobbs from the titular 2003 novel by Neil Gordon, Robert Redford directed and produced this film which of course nods to that period in his own life when he was politically attuned and making films which spoke to the zeitgeist. Partly it’s about the state of journalism and Ben’s role of the ambitious journo who isn’t looking beyond the headlines, as Nick/Jim declares to him, Well that pretty much sums up why journalism is dead. It’s a pivotal statement because this is all about ethics – Sharon’s self-justifying, his hiding away, the times in which people live and endure their families being destroyed by violence, homegrown or otherwise (and millennial corruption is everywhere evident as Ben gets information with the passing of greenbacks to everyone he encounters). LaBeouf is good as the questing young writer – and looking at his screen career perhaps it’s the company he keeps that improves his impact because he’s surrounded by a great ensemble doing very fine work, including Nick Nolte who shows up as another member of the group. This is a serious work about a complex time which clarifies why historical crimes demand more than cursory payback and jail time. It’s well-paced, a drama of conscience, guilt and retribution. Now that’s context. They did unforgivable things but you’ve got to admire the commitment.

 

 

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

Battle of the Bulge (1965)

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I did not lose a war to die in the back seat of a car. At the end of 1944 American Lt. Col. Dan Kiley (Henry Fonda), a military intelligence whiz and former police officer, discovers that the Nazis are planning to attack Allied forces near Belgium. Certain that the exhausted enemy can’t muster much force, General Joe Grey (Robert Ryan) isn’t convinced by Kiley’s findings, and his men pay the price when the German tanks begin their offensive in the Ardennes. In the heat of this key World War II battle, Kiley must come up with a plan when it becomes clear that the Nazis are trying to steal fuel from the Allies, there are Germans disguised as American MPs diverting traffic from the new Western Front and an ambitious German Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw) who intends keeping the war going as long as possible no matter how many are sacrificed as he leads the Panzer spearhead of the German counterattack … Having been an inspector of police does not disqualify me from thinking. Written by (formerly blacklisted) Bernard Gordon, producer Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (with contributions by John Melson), this is proper WW2 entertainment about a huge episode that involved a million men and which I once had the temerity to describe to someone as an instance of poor project management on the part of Hitler and his cronies. I love me a good war movie, better still if there are tanks (my dream vehicle, particularly the camo models in Desert Storm. So sue me!) so this is perfect Easter (or Passover!) holiday fare. Criticised for not being 100% accurate and its Spanish locations being a poor imitation of the Ardennes setting, this has a lot going for it, not least the staging and the tremendous cast. There is detail by the yard – and the weather reports are crucial. The way that the strategy and tactics are exposed is a triumph of film storytelling. Shaw is sizzling as one of the nastiest Nazis outside the Bulgarian Waffen SS and it’s a star-making role. Fonda’s doggedness is wonderfully sympathetic, especially when you have the feeling (because you’ve seen him in other movies) that he’s probably right about everything and his bozo superiors find out, soon enough. It’s the perceptive structuring of the narrative from both perspectives that makes this tick along quickly. While not setting out to be a satire (hardly, although WW2 vet Sperling was no fan of warfare) the dialogue is sparkling with zingers – aphoristic and otherwise, particularly punctuating Shaw’s scenes – and there’s one out-and-out comic scene (played straight) when Savalas returns to his business to check how things are doing. Pier Angeli pleads for some promise of marriage because this is what she understands by the term ‘business partnership’ and wants a sign. But he’s rushing back to the front so he just tells her to keep feeding the chickens (they’re looking scrawny). This amusing character sidebar is one part of a dedicated soldier and Savalas plays it to the hilt. There’s a mass execution which won’t surprise you – but someone gets away and the payoff is very satisfying indeed. There are some good map room scenes; a really funny one-word message from US Command to German Command; and a breathtaking POV section with Fonda gliding down in silence over the attack position of the German tanks on the other side of the river:  just listen to the score. Such inventive work by Benjamin Frankel. The final sequence of tank battle is suitably fiery and an injured and vengeful Savalas joins forces with James MacArthur at the fuel depot where they get to blow up more than just the gas supply. Beautifully shot by Jack Hildyard in 70mm and a fine job of direction by Ken Annakin with not a moment to spare in its 163 minutes. Never mind what Ike said – this is simply sensational. When I have a brigade of tanks – that is reality!

Labyrinth (1986)

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You remind me of the babe.  Bratty 16-year old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) must find her young brother Toby (Toby Froud) whose crying is driving her crazy and whom she has wished away to the Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), a character in the play she’s rehearsing. To find him she has to enter a maze and has just 13 hours to do so or have her baby brother transformed into a goblin at midnight. With the help of a two-faced dwarf called Hoggle she negotiates all the tests and obstacles including a talking worm, creatures called Fireys who try to remove her head, and a goblin army on the march…  I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave. Nutty enchantment in a musical fantasy collaboration between puppetmaster Jim Henson and illustrator Brian Froud with Monty Python’s Terry Jones providing the screenplay (although other writers were involved:  George Lucas, Laura Phillips, Dennis Lee, Elaine May… and it owes a deal to both Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak) which got a roasting upon release but has proven its credentials with the passing of time and is now a determined cult and kids’ classic. Beautifully imagined and executed with a wicked stepmother, a baby in peril and toys that come to magical life in an ancient labyrinth and wicked creatures in the woods, this is just a perfect film fairytale, a story enabling a child to do battle with the grown ups in her life, a darkly romantic and dangerous outside world never far from her door. Bowie’s performance is of course something of legend, while Connelly and the puppets are the mainstay of the ensemble. Do you dare to eat the peach in this phallic kingdom of the subconscious?! Puppetry:  puberty. Discuss. Quite wonderful. You have no power over me!

The Favourite (2018)

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Or, Carry On Up the Queen. People are shitting in the streets. It’s what passes for political commentary. In 1708 England is at war with the French. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne at Hampton Court, and her close friend, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), governs the country in her stead, the real power behind the throne, while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When Sarah’s down on her luck cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives Sarah employs her as a servant but the young woman’s charm endears her to the Queen and she espies an opportunity to return to her aristocratic roots. A game of oneupmanship between the cousins commences, just as the Government requires the Queen’s advice on continuing the war in France led by Sarah’s husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) and the leader of the opposition (Nicholas Hoult) tries to get secrets from the royal household out of Abigail …  You look like a badger. Let’s talk about camerawork. Low angles to be precise. Constantly. And the odd fisheye lens. And you know what? Tom Hooper isn’t misdirecting. Is there a reason then? Perhaps to detract from the hollow sound that empty laughter produces. That, and the foghorn-like score which drove me demented: you’ll think you have Tourette’s. This is overtly ‘satirical’ without however the political consciousness to raise the puerile humour into something attaining relevance. Pointless, in other words. The lauded performance by Colman is a series of tics rather than a complete characterisation;  while the one moment of authentic feeling arrives forty-five minutes into the running time and happens to involve bunny rabbits – the Queen has one for each child she lost in childbirth. That’s a lot of cute rabbits. With nary a care for consistency, a hefty use of the ‘c’ word (I don’t care) and some Lesbian antics there’s probably a case to be made for this as an extended TV sketch of the type that French and Saunders did thirty years ago. They mercifully concluded, contained by content and common sense. This just goes on and on and on to no particular end (there isn’t one, in fact). Tedious. Stone and Weisz have one note to play and do it repetitively. As does everybody else. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what now passes for an art film – sound and fury etc. Another two hours of my life have evaporated as the lessons of Monty Python go unheeded by the Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos and writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. A dismal farce that fails as biography. That din in my head. Will it ever go away?! There’s always the rabbits. And Horatio, the Fastest Duck in the City. Let’s shoot something

La Belle et la Bete (1946)

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Children believe what we tell them.  Jean Cocteau’s masterful interpretation of the classic fairytale proved hugely influential on a certain Walt Disney – this is a film of actual moving parts with arms holding candelabra, illuminating and grasping. The tale of thwarted masculinity transformed by the love of a young woman finding her own way as she searches for her father starts out as a story of the quotidian but magic lies beneath:  the crystallising of the term magic realism. A truly beguiling fantasy, beautifully staged and intriguingly performed by Jean Marais as the monster/prince and Josette Day as Belle, this is a shimmering post-war dream of ornamentation and desire, a sensual miracle of cinema, a poetic exegesis on the liberating power of love. Co-directed by René Clément. How will I find my way home? I got lost in the forest

Daddy’s Home 2 (2017)

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You know, I’m just getting the feeling maybe you guys would like some privacy. Father Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) and stepfather Brad (Will Ferrell) join forces to make Christmas perfect for the children. Their newfound tolerant partnership soon gets put to the test when Dusty’s old-school, macho dad Kurt (Mel Gibson) and Brad’s gentle father Don (John Lithgow) arrive to turn the holiday upside down. After a sudden change in plans, the four men decide to take the kids to a luxury resort for a fun-filled getaway that turns into a hilariously chaotic adventure with Kurt’s competitiveness creating domestic chaos and Don concealing a terrible secret that unravels everyone’s idea of him … His total lack of masculinity, I mean his weak chin and soft underbelly bothers you not a bit? Written by director Sean Anders and John Morris from characters by Brian Burns, this sequel is an advert for toxic masculinity, shoplifting and avoiding the in-laws. Kurt’s enthusiasm for hunting inadvertently turns little Megan into a demon shot while Brad’s wife’s (Linda Cardellini) paranoia about Dusty’s wife’s (Alessandra Ambrosio) books is leavened by learning about her penchant for shoplifting. A funny sequence is a film-within-a-film starring Liam Neeson, sending himself up rather neatly (albeit he’s done it on every chat show he’s been on since the first Taken movie). This sequel has two wonderful actors (Gibson and Lithgow) and a modern day fool (Ferrell) and they do rather well with pretty thin gruel. I blame the parents.

Deliverance (1972)

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Now you get to play the game. Four Atlanta-dwelling friends Ed Gentry (Jon Voight), Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds), Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty) and Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox) decide to get away from their jobs, wives and kids for a week of canoeing in rural Georgia, going whitewater rafting down the Cahulawassee river before the area is flooded for the construction of a dam. When the men arrive, they are not welcomed by the backwoods locals, who stalk the vacationers and savagely attack them, raping one of the party. Reeling from the ambush, the friends attempt to return home but are surrounded by dangerous rapids and pursued by an armed madman. Soon, their canoe trip turns into a fight for survival… You don’t beat it. You don’t beat the river. Notorious for the male rape and praised for the Duelling Banjos scene that happens in the first scene-sequence, this film went into production without insurance and with the cast doing most of their own dangerous stunts. Reynolds is simply great as Lewis the alpha male daredevil with the shit-eating grin and a way with a bow and arrow.  This is a role that transformed his screen presence into box office. His sheer beauty affirms the audience’s faith in male potential:  when he has an accident we are devastated. What will happen now to the clueless bunch being hunted by the inbred hillbilly loons?  Insurance? I’ve never been insured in my life. I don’t believe in insurance. There’s no risk. Voight is the straight guy Ed who has to pick up the action baton, Bobby dithers and Drew may have been shot – or not. Author James Dickey adapted his own novel with director John Boorman and appears in the concluding scenes as the Sheriff. Like most of Boorman’s work there are narrative problems – mostly resting in a kind of empty sensationalism that however disturbing never truly penetrates, with visuals substituting for the environmental story.  This gives a whole new meaning to the term psychogeography. Squeal like a pig! The cast are perfection, with Beatty and Cox making their screen debuts having been discovered doing regional theatre. Finally, Voight’s character is haunted, the experience converted into a horror trope in the penultimate shots.  The power rests in the juxtaposing of man and nature, modernity versus the frontier, conjoined with the spectre of primitive redneck violence and its consequences on hapless male camaraderie where survival is the only option once civilisation is firmly out of reach. Danger is only a boat ride away.  A gauntlet to weekend warriors everywhere, it’s quite unforgettable.  Sometimes you have to lose yourself ‘fore you can find anything

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