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. 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.

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Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

The Missouri Breaks (1976)

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Nicholson and Brando. A legendary pairing. Nicholson is cattle rustler Tom Logan, whose friend has been hanged by David Braxton (John McLiam) so he decides to avenge his death by buying land next to Braxton and he and his gang start stealing his horses. Braxton hires bounty hunter Robert E. Lee Clayton (Brando) to deal with them. Clayton is, to say the least, an eccentric but an efficient and ruthless killer too … Nicholson arrived on the $8 million set to discover that his role had been minimized in his absence, due to Brando’s influencing of director Arthur Penn.  ‘Poor Nicholson was stuck in the center of it all,  cranking the damned thing out,’ Brando said, ‘while I whipped in and out of scenes like greased lightning.’ He also kills while wearing a dress. He dreamed up a handmade weapon for his character, a cross between a harpoon and a mace. It should have been great but it’s disjointed and thematically incoherent. Nicholson thought it could have been saved in the editing, but his opinion was disregarded.  He didn’t like the film, and he told director Penn so.  Penn was offended and stopped speaking to him. Written by Thomas McGuane, Robert Towne was brought in to try and fix the script (like he’d done for Penn and Beatty on Bonnie and Clyde) but it is unclear as to what his contribution might have been. A Seventies oddity with an affecting performance from Brando which in hindsight we might see as an expression of a dying genre.

 

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)

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Time has been kind to this. Or perhaps it’s the fading November light and my depleted brain cells, damaged from an excess of Halloween Pringles and pumpkin soup. I admit I could not make it through the novel by Louis de Bernieres – I’m a quick reader but after two weeks and 13 pages I threw it over. I found it unreadable. The fact that the film was ‘trailed’ by Julia Roberts at the end of Notting Hill, a Working Title film I despised at the time, did not help. Nor did I like this film particularly when it was released. It’s the story of a musical Italian, Antonio (Nicolas Cage) who along with his battery of fellow soldiers (who have never fired a shot) disrupts life for the locals on the Greek island of Cephalonia during WW2 particularly that of Pelagia  (Penelope Cruz) daughter of the local doctor Iannis (John Hurt) and engaged to an illiterate fisherman turned resistance fighter Mandras (Christian Bale). Antonio tries to woo her while training his men to sing as a choir. Then the German pact with Italy falls apart, Mandras returns briefly but disappears to the hills and the Nazis arrive and the most apparently civilised of them, Captain Gunther Webber (Steven Morrissey) tries to befriend his opposite number and date a local girl. That’s before orders come from above … Shawn Slovo adapted the novel with some major episodes softened for cinematic tastes and John Madden directed and it has improved for me over time, even with residual misgivings about casting and accents. No quarrel with the great Irene Papas as Mandras’ mother though. The cinematography by John Toll is exquisite. This is really an epic tale of endurance and a tribute to all those thousands of Italians murdered by the Nazis in September 1943 for the hell of it. And people wonder why the Brits voted for Brexit?! The spectre of an island being overrun by murderous reasonable Germans is just too, too much. Nobody’s memory is that short. People can only take so much totalitarian fascism, nicht wahr?!

Ride Lonesome (1959)

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One of the acclaimed Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher collaborations utilising the amazing writing talent of Burt Kennedy, later to direct some pretty terrific westerns himself. This has Scott as Ben Brigade, a bounty hunter transporting a killer (James Best) but waiting for his brother (Lee van Cleef) to show up to account for an even worse crime. He is stuck at a staging post helping a woman (Karen Steele) whose husband has been killed by Indians and two outlaws help him out. They are played by James Coburn in his debut and Pernell Roberts, who is a very sexy, swaggering, saturnine man – much to my surprise, only knowing him in later years as Trapper John MD but who achieved fame shortly after this by starring in Bonanza on TV. Steele is incredible looking and her assets are a match for the beautiful stark landscape, used as ever by Boetticher to comment on the action, with the burning hanging tree at the conclusion a symbolic form of closure. James Best, the cowardly killer, is immediately recognisable from The Dukes of Hazzard as Sheriff Rosco Coltrane. How cool is that?

The Seventh Victim (1943)

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An empty subway.  A noose hanging over a chair in an unfurnished apartment.  A trembling hand. An atmosphere of dread. A teenage girl goes looking for her older sister and finds her amongst a group of devil-worshippers in wartime Greenwich Village. A masterpiece from the house of Lewton with a screenplay by Charles O’Neal and DeWitt  Bodeen. Not too many films acknowledge John Donne: “I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, And all my pleasures are like yesterday.”Not so much a horror film as a yearning for death, as David Thomson puts it.