The Young Mr. Pitt (1942)

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Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England, 1783. King George III appoints 24 year old William Pitt (Robert Donat) as prime minister. When members of Parliament refuse to take Pitt seriously, he calls for a general election and wins. He sets to work on a programme of reform, focusing on rebuilding the navy while across the sea in France, Napoleon Bonaparte (Herbert Lom) begins his conquest of Europe. After rejecting an alliance with France, he puts his own mind at ease by selecting Admiral Horatio Nelson (Stephen Haggard) to lead the fleet… Does the Minister propose to defeat Bonaparte by earnest consideration? It’s not the most typical of Carol Reed’s films – you won’t see the visual flourishes for which he would become distinguished even if Freddie Young is responsible for some fine cinematography here. It’s a fairly conventional biography, adapted by Launder and Gilliat from the book by the Viscount Castlerosse, who also contributes to the dialogue (with the parliamentary exchanges based on real speeches in Westminster) and it’s pleasingly busy with sharp lines and buzzing with character, Donat’s face registering as is his wont every injury and sorrow. He ages convincingly, his personal worries – romantic, financial – mirroring Napoleon’s onward march:  Conquerors are invariably upstarts. It’s significant that this was made during World War 2, with a call to arms against such individuals resonant throughout the rise of this iteration of Hitler (rather unfair to Napoleon, I think). This is a lively piece of work, ripe with history, boasting a great ensemble including Robert Morley as Charles Fox, John Mills as William Wilberforce and Phyllis Calvert as Eleanor Eden, with an amusing Albert Lieven playing Talleyrand.  Do not seek fame through war

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 Weaker Sex (1948)

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I wish I didn’t feel so cut off.   Widowed Martha Dacre (Ursula Jeans) tries to keep house and home together for her two serving daughters Helen (Joan Hopkins) who’s involved with radio officer Nigel (Derek Bond) and Lolly (Lana Morris) who’s going out with sailor Roddy (John Stone);  and servicemen billeted on her in Portsmouth, a naval base during WW2. While son Benjie (Digby Wolfe) is away in the Navy she has chosen to stay at home as a housewife, but when she learns that his ship has been damaged during the D Day landings, she regrets not taking a more active role in the war and works in a canteen and as a fire watcher. The family story moves forward from D-Day to VE-Day, the 1945 general election and on to 1948. Martha eventually re-marries to her late husband’s colleague, naval officer Geoffrey (Cecil Parker) who was one of those billeted on her and has become a father-figure to her son and daughters…  Oh dear, who’d be a mother? This British homefront drama was released three years following the conclusion of hostilities so it has the benefit of victorious hindsight as well as expressing the postwar era when everyone was completely obsessed with the lack of food. Adapted from actress Esther McCracken’s 1944 stage play No Medals by Paul Soskin with additional scenes created by Val Valentine to bring it up to the year of shooting, it’s a witty drama filled with resigned Keep Calm and Carry On messages underscored by dissatisfaction at the dreariness of housework and the plight of women whose life is dictated by the unavailability of food which becomes a thoroughly good running joke:  The housewives’ battle cry – the fishmonger’s got fish! cackles housekeeper Mrs Gaye (Thora Hird). Intended as post-war propaganda, a kind of decent British take on Hollywood’s Mrs Miniver (minus the Nazi in the garden) with added politics, it’s smart, unfussy and fair, yet trenchant and involving.  Jeans is terrific as the middle class woman finding herself rather (class) envious of Harriet Lessing (Marian Spencer) living in a serviced flat and volunteering:  there’s humour to be had in a lovely payoff when Harriet gets her public comeuppance after the war as rationing motivates her to head the local Militant Housewives League and she gets caught up in an unholy scrimmage which fetches up on the front page of the papers. Parker is a great casting choice – the guy not ashamed of being seen decked out in his uniform doing the vacuuming who can say unabashed to Jeans, I never had a genuinely platonic friendship with a woman before. Of course we know where that leads. He digs in and gets creative when he’s sick of being starved of regular food – and milks a goat. I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, I woke and found that life is duty. There is a great sense of warmth in the family relationships and a scene of remarkable tension when Helen and Martha play a card game awaiting a phonecall to find out whether Nigel has survived a bombing.  Jeans tells herself when awaiting more bad news, I mustn’t back down. I must try to be of some use. Parker responds, This language of ours is so completely inadequate. They are expressing the weariness of a nation almost done in yet somehow dragging itself up to cope with the inevitability of ongoing loss. There are occasional dips into newsreel montages to bring a context to the experiences as the story commences in the run up to D Day, through VE Day, the 1945 General Election, Hiroshima and after, but the footage is smoothly integrated and doesn’t disrupt the narrative flow. Hugely successful in its day it’s a really rather spiffing reminder of how and why Britain came through the war, the importance of family and sadly that tragic deaths don’t just occur in wartime. Crisply shot by Erwin Hillier amid exquisite sets by Alex Vetchinsky and this raft of wonderful performances are very well directed by Roy [Ward] Baker. Shabby perhaps, but not yet shoddy

Au revoir, les enfants (1987)

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I’m the only one in this school that thinks about death. It’s incredible! In 1943, Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is a student at a French boarding school run by Catholic priests. When three new students arrive, including clever Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), Julien believes they are no different from the other boys. What he doesn’t realise is that they are actually Jews who are being sheltered from capture by the Nazis. Julien doesn’t care for Jean at first but the boys develop a tight bond with grudging admiration of each other – while the head of the school, Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), works to protect the boys from the Holocaust.I understand the anger of those who have nothing when the rich feast so arrogantly. Louis Malle’s autobiographical tale of his time at  school in Fontainebleau is an artful depiction of the country’s great shame – the level of collaboration with the occupying Nazis, some of whom are rather sympathetically portrayed. This is a beautifully composed, sensitively handled and measured portrait of childhood with its petty rivalries and quarrels, preceding an act of revenge, accidental betrayal and a chilling climax in an atmosphere of casual spitefulness, denunciations and anti-semitism. One of the very best films of its era, this is a perfect companion to Malle’s earlier masterpiece, Lacombe, Lucien. Those who should guide us betray us instead

White Boy Rick (2018)

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When I first saw you I knew you were going to be bigger than me. Rick Wershe (Matthew McConaughey) is a single father who dreams of opening a video store and is struggling to raise teenagers Rick Jr. (newcomer Richie Merritt) and Dawn (Bel Powley) during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in 1980s Detroit. Wershe makes gun parts and sells guns illegally to make ends meet but soon attracts attention from the FBI and tips them off with information now and then. Federal agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane) convince Rick Jr. to become an undercover drug informant in exchange for keeping his father out of prison. When young Rick gets in too deep, he finds himself seduced by the lure of easy money and aligns himself with local black drug dealer Johnny Curry (Jonathan Majors) becoming a dealer himself with his father taking decisive action to remedy the situation… At least you never lost your looks – cos you never had ’em!  Remember the Eighties, when your local tabloid was reporting that kids taking crack for the first time just threw themselves off buildings, presumably to counter the highs they were experiencing?! Maybe they thought they could fly. Ah, sweet mysteries of life. Based on Wershe Jr’s memoir, this is adapted by Andy Weiss, Noah Miller and Logan Miller and it’s a lively if dispiriting take on family and true crime, with striking scenes and juxtapositions, well directed by Yann Demange, who made the best film about the Northern Ireland Troubles to date, ’71. This has all the accoutrements of the times, looking and feeling right but the scuzzy criminality and tone-perfect characterisation with vivid performances (notably by Powley, Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as the grandparents and McConaughey’s star turn, especially towards the end) don’t mean you want to be in the company of these people another minute or enter this perfectly grim urban milieu even if McConaughey and Cochrane are back together 25 years after Dazed and Confused. Gritty realism is all very well but sometimes too much is enough. They haul in our ass we do black time so you don’t be reckless around here

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (2019)

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Hey that’s no way to say goodbye. Documentary maker Nick Broomfield charts the story of the enduring love affair between writer and singer Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne Ihlen, a young married woman and mother, who spent time together on the Greek island of Hydra in the Sixties, the era before mass tourism.  They made each other believe they were beautiful and she lived with him and took on the role she had previously performed for her writer husband.  It transpires Broomfield knew them both and also fell in love with Marianne who later pushed him to make his first film back in Wales. Cohen’s career is etched against the backdrop of the relationship and it is echoed in the songs he wrote in Marianne’s honour and memory including Bird on a Wire. I was possessed, obsessive about [sex], the blue movie that I threw myself into [and] blue movies are not romantic. However it’s mostly about Leonard, and even Nick. I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web/ Is fastening my ankle to a stone.  In some ways this is a bad trip in more ways than one as the film makes clear, with alterations in lyrics making over the original conditions in which they were written. Leonard earned the nickname Captain Mandrax thanks to his gargantuan appetite for drugs.  Hydra became a playground for the wealthy, awash with illicit substances and countercultural encounters structure the narrative as much as Leonard’s songs. Various interviewees agree that poets do not make great husbands.  I was always trying to get away. So what did Marianne do that made her such a significant muse, and not just to Leonard? She had a talent for spotting talents and strengths in people.  After eight years together during which Leonard went from being a penniless poet to a nervous stage performer when Judy Collins discovered him and he became a star overnight, Marianne had had enough. He had an obsessive love of sex which he dutifully indulged while she stayed on the island. When she was summoned she joined him but things did not work and her little son suffered. She endured Leonard’s constant infidelities on the road and she was replaced by Suzanne (Elrod) whose relationship with Leonard overlapped with her own, and one day spider woman Suzanne turned up on the doorstep in Hydra with their toddler son Adam, ready to move in.  So Marianne moved on. Leonard had found himself to be a born performer and she no longer had a role, this sensitive woman who didn’t draw or paint or write yet whose value as muse was frequently cited by Leonard in public, on stage, in interviews. Thereafter there were telegrams to her and invites to concerts when she returned to Norway and remarried and settled into a suburban lifestyle and their relationship fizzled into a kind of long-distance friendship which ended poignantly. Broomfield reveals that on one visit to him in Cardiff Marianne had to go away one day to abort Leonard’s baby – one of several she had by him. One friend comments that if anyone were to have had his children it should have been her. Instead it was the universally disliked Elrod. Marianne and Leonard’s relationship wasn’t the only casualty, as Broomfield finds in this picture of the early hippie lifestyle with its bohemian leanings and open marriages. There are accounts of mental illness and suicides including the sad account of the Johnstons, the friends who made his arrival in Greece so happy and easeful. Re-entering the real world following the isolation of this island adrift from the world was anything but happy. This is a complex story with many participants and audio interviews old and new are interspersed with superb archive footage (some by DA Pennebaker), numerous photographs and revealing chats with friends, bystanders and musicians who survive to tell the tale of this mysterious love.  It is about Broomfield’s own loyal friendship with Marianne. Finally, it is about people finding themselves through each other and a story almost mythical in musical history which has so nourished the world’s imagination. So long, Marianne

Hotel Mumbai (2019)

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The whole world is watching. In 2008 terror strikes in the heart of Mumbai, India, as members of the Islamic terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba storm the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, one in a series of 12 coordinated attacks throughout the city by the jihadists. Amid the gunfire and mayhem, a brave chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and Sikh kitchen worker Arjun (Dev Patel) decide to risk their own lives to try and protect the frightened guests in a place where the credo is the guest is god. As the militants continue their assault on the hotel, a British Moslem heiress Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and her American architect husband David (Armie Hammer) and their nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) must do whatever they can to protect their newborn baby, even while circumstances conspire to separate them; while shady Russian businessman Vasili (Jason Isaacs) steps up to see how he can protect himself and others. Meanwhile the under-resourced local police force are completely overwhelmed by the military-grade assault and the terrorists make sporadic appearances, executing more and more guests as they make their way through the building taking orders from Brother Bull ...  From Mumbai to Washington, their screams will be heard. The temptation to describe this as a disaster movie is overwhelming, because that’s how this account of a terror attack is presented and packaged. It’s a technically proficient exercise in docudrama with little time to get to know the real heroes who make incredible sacrifices to save strangers. In reality 174 people were murdered in an act of racial hatred that lasted four long days. This was no sinking ship or fiery skyscraper, it was a meticulously planned carnival of cold-blooded mass murder carried out against supposed infidels by Moslems with some stupid complicity by news media giving away the escapees’ location (something repeated during the factory siege following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris). The conventions of genre are efficiently deployed by debut director Anthony Maras and co-writer John Collee to very discomfiting effect with gruesome brutality. A frankly misjudged piece of work which might lure more terrorists into the fray in the belief that their actions will be dramatised unquestioningly, even with a degree of entirely inappropriate sympathy for gullible subliterate peasants whose first experience of flush toilets this was. Or: it’s a timely warning to western and westernising countries to get a grip and stop permitting Islam to flourish.  If any of you want to back out now, no hard feelings

Death Defying Acts (2007)

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We had a real double act, my mam and me.  It’s 1926. Upon arriving in Edinburgh, Scotland for a series of mind-boggling performances, master illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) offers an impressive cash reward of $10,000 to any supposed psychic who can accurately tell him his beloved late mother’s exact last words. Gorgeous local swindler Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) rises to the challenge and together with her streetwise daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) leads Houdini on in a dangerous flirtation that blurs the line between reality and paranoia –  but she has reckoned without the machinations of his canny manager Sugarman (Timothy Spall) who knows a con when he sees it but has his own reasons to let this Oedipal obsession play out in the world of spiritualists, fake or not … Nothing in this world’s free. It’s an engaging premise and well staged but this drama of who’s-fooling-who sadly won’t hoodwink the audience. Pearce is hardly Houdini although he’s a charmer whether tied up underwater or on the surface, and Jones’ and Ronan’s lively performances as grifters are marvellous but can’t conceal the dramatic deficit at the centre of the narrative. It looks wonderful and is beautifully staged but never really takes off, the mystery of Houdini’s personality is never convincingly exposed and of course as we know it ends in tragedy. Written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, directed by Gillian Armstrong. I used to be a nice man you know. Do you believe me?

 

Horrible Histories: Rotten Romans (2019)

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I’m sending you to Britain./Where’s that?/Exactly. It’s 60AD. Brainy Roman teenager Atti (Sebastian Croft) is always coming up with schemes, but one of these upsets Emperor Nero (Craig Roberts), who is constantly at odds with his mother Agrippina the Younger (Kim Cattrall) for control of the Empire. For his punishment, Atti is sent to the stain of the Empire known as Britain where it’s always cold and wet and he is captured by kick-ass young Celt Orla (Emilia Jones) but they eventually come to an understanding.  She is feeling her way towards warriordom much to the frustration of her father Arghus (Nick Frost) and is encouraged by the rise of Queen Boudicca (Kate Nash) who is quickly raising an army to fight the Romans being led by Governor Suetonius Paulinus (Rupert Graves). Atti helps Orla rescue her grandmother from a rival Celtic tribe. They’re always squabbling among themselves, these Celts. To Atti’s horror, when he is back with his regiment, he finds himself pitted against Orla and her tribe at the Battle of Watling Street a bottleneck which inadvertently gives the Romans an advantage because he told them about it and it provides the setting for a mammoth showdown between the natives and their invaders … I am Fartacus!  Adapted from Terry Deary’s books and TV series, this is a funny, quick-witted, mostly innuendo-free Carry On for kids, an inventive and occasionally anachronistic take on the Roman invasion – with songs! Hilarious sequences, lots of broad and actual toilet humour, family values (good and bad) and some very contemporary touches to hit home. Familiar faces abound with Derek Jacobi’s appearance as Claudius making a lot of adults smile. Written by Caroline Norris & Giles Pilbrow with additional material by Kevin Cecil, Andy Riley, Dave Cohen and Jessica Swale. Directed by Dominic Brigstocke. We’ll put an end to bad Romans and make them all go gaga! MM#2450

The Front Runner (2018)

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Now they know who we are.  It’s 1987. Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) former senator of Colorado and one-time campaign manager for McGovern, becomes the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hart’s intelligence, alleged charisma and idealism make him popular with young voters, leaving a seemingly clear path to the White House with a strong team led by Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons). All that comes crashing down when allegations of an extramarital affair with a woman called Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) surface in the media after he’s goaded journalists to follow him in an interview with Washington Post reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), forcing the candidate to address a scandal that threatens to derail his campaign and personal life: his guarded wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) has stood by him but when the TV cameras fetch up at their house and their daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) is followed there’s some hard talking in public and in private ... I did all the things I was supposed to do to make that men wouldn’t look at me the way you’re looking at me right now. It was a great story and it ran for three weeks way back then. The good looking Democrat with great hair taunted journos to come looking for trouble and they did and they found it and the philandering politico was found on a boat called Monkey Business with a young woman who was then hung out to dry by the very people who said they’d protect her. Sound familiar? The coarsening of politics began right there, in the pages of the tabloids who found the idea of a Presidential contender openly carrying on an adulterous affair irresistible:  these are the kind of guys who sniggered about JFK’s women and let him away with everything – until he was murdered and it was open season on his legacy. Jason Reitman’s film is a serious look at an issue that has just got worse over the years (with rather paradoxical outcomes, considering the state of state surveillance and paparazzi and the interweb as we know) but it’s loud and busy for the first 45 minutes and hard to hear and hard to follow.  Only then does it settle, away from the hubbub of campaign offices and the rustle of burger lunches to focus on the man at the centre of the story who disproves his team’s views about what he should be doing – turns out he’s darn good at ax throwing. Trouble is, he’s not that interesting. Why on earth would he be a good President? He could win it – he’s got the hair. The superficial elements of campaigning are all over this (one advisor suggests that if Dukakis added a K to his name he’d take the South). The philosophical argument here which Hart is given in dialogue is that the public don’t care and he should have his privacy – and the public wouldn’t care if the journalists didn’t and Hart had never thrown down the gauntlet to them. That’s the point. So the story isn’t about a man carrying on behind the back of his wife or how Democrats are always found out in the same tedious way, it’s about grubby low journalistic standards and the free press and the dangers that poses to true political expression:  this in itself is a very conflicted narrative stance (not to Vladimir Putin, of course). Jackman does a very low-key characteristation and that compounds the narrative problems. He is a charm vacuum. We are left asking at the end of this, as Walter Mondale asked Hart (and the clip is included), Where’s the beef? Adapted from Matt Bai’s book All the Truth is Out:  The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Bai, (former Hilary Clinton press secretary) Jay Carson and Reitman, who has left his satirical knives in the drawer on this occasion. Pity.