Waiting for the Barbarians (2020)

One grows to be a part of the place. A fair-minded magistrate (Mark Rylance) at an isolated desert outpost of an unnamed empire reevaluates his loyalty to his nation when police Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) uses cruel tactics to interrogate the locals about a possible uprising. The Magistrate is horrified by his interrogation methods and finds an elderly man bringing his nephew for medicine with his eye gouged out. A beautiful girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan) who has similiarly been tortured – her ankle has been broken, her eyes singed and her back burned – catches the Magistrate’s fancy and he nurses her back to health and is saddened by her desire to return home to her nomadic people. After his journey to the desert with her, where the nomads take his silver as payment for not killing him and his men, he returns to his post to find Joll has gone through his records and lovingly curated library and he is now a suspect in some kind of non-existent insurrection while Joll’s second in command Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson) dreams up outrageous ways to torture the locals and then the Magistrate himself for consorting with them … This is the border. This is nowhere. There is no history here. Adapted by J.M. Coetzee from his novel, this is a scathing – not to say shocking – takedown of imperialism. Rylance is superlative in his best feature role to date – the aggravating vocal mannerisms and tics are a thing of the past (literally) as one senses a real, moving being; while Depp is scarifying as the Colonel in sunglasses, a steampunk monster whose horrifying actions in just one week will take years to fix, if at all. Pattinson is in a race to catch up and does it rather well, revelling in blood lust. The mechanisms of torture are so ingenious as to elicit a kind of horrified wonder. And the Magistrate is silenced into moral awakening by a beautiful blind woman yet he is blind to her real desire – for her home: white saviour complex undone. This narrative about colonialism, conscience and control is non-specific yet universal. Shot lovingly in sequences of astonishing beauty by legendary cinematographer Chris Menges, this is as close to art as cinema can get. And yet it’s a political film and a film about love – of people, romance, culture. And it’s about the horror of what humans do to one another. Happily, the colony strikes back. Directed by Ciro Guerra in his English-language debut. We have no enemy that I know of – unless we ourselves are the enemy

Hollywoodland (2006)

I can see the pieces. How they should fit. How I want them to fit. When Hollywood superstar, TV’s Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck) dies in the bedroom of his home by a single gunshot to his head during a party in June 1959, private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is hired by Reeves’ mother Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith) to investigate his death. He gets caught in a web of lies involving MGM general manager Eddie Mannix’s (Bob Hoskins) and his wife Toni (Diane Lane) with whom Reeves was having an open if adulterous relationship until he took up with younger woman Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) as he is trying to make his own films as a director …. An actor can’t always act – sometimes he has to work. Easily one of the most pleasurable throwback movies made in (relatively) recent times, this is based on one of Tinseltown’s more notorious unsolved crimes. It’s told in classical Hollywood fashion, a romance revealed in parallel with an investigation, the latter of necessity post mortem, the former in flashback, the biography of a rather disappointed self-loathing actor who despises the role responsible for his fame at a time when the film business was in flux. Affleck is superb as the small screen incarnation of the archetypal super hero in what is still his best performance. Lane matches him every step of the way as the ageing starlet cheating on the studio’s most dangerous fixer. Beautifully put together, gorgeously shot by Jonathan Freeman and nicely resolved even if the private eye’s own travails rather detract from the movement of the narrative which posits an alternative ending to that proposed by Kashner and Schoenberger’s book Hollywood Kryptonite. Murderous Mannix is portrayed here by Hoskins whose screen wife Lane was married in real life to Josh Brolin, who played him for the Coen Brothers in Hail, Caesar! and was up for the role of Batman that went to … Affleck! Written by Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter. I hope you’ve discovered the meaning of justice

The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960)

The Wackiest Ship in the Army.

This hulk is commissioned?  As what?! In 1943 at the height of World War 2 Lieutenant Rip Crandall (Jack Lemmon) is conned into taking charge of a broken-down ship with a clueless crew whom he has to train up to learn the most basic elements of seagoing. The only member who knows how to work a ship with sails is eager young Ensign Tommy Hanson (Ricky Nelson) who cost Crandall a yacht race with a mistake before the war. Hanson and Crandall’s former sailing buddy Lieutenant Commander Vandewater (John Lund) wear down his resistance. Then he finds out they have a top secret mission and he has to sneak an Australian spy/coast watcher Patterson (Chips Rafferty) into enemy waters of the Pacific patrolled by the Japanese … This was a period of far-reaching decisions, desperate strategies, and incredibly daring counter-strokes – not the least of which involved two bright young naval officers. A colourful widescreen action adventure that achieves the transition from docks-bound comedy to island warfare so smoothly you won’t even notice. Lemmon is superb as the supposed schmuck who rises to the challenge of educating a bunch of crafty oddballs. Lund more or less reprises his role from A Foreign Affair 15 years earlier as the slick willy officer conniving with Nelson, who has one of his best roles here and even gets to sing while Lemmon jams on a piano. Rafferty adds serious flavour in the final scene sequence when they have to deal with some pesky Japanese soldiers, one of whom speaks English and finds common ground (then water) with Lemmon. Herb Margolis & William Raynor’s screen story was based on a story by Herbert Carlson about the real USS Echo which was requisitioned from New Zealand and the screenplay was by director Richard Murphy. A terrific comedy drama. What, aren’t you going to stay here and die for the ‘Rising Sun’?

Serpent of the Nile (1953)

Serpent of the Nile

A woman of beauty, intellect and charity – this is almost too much to believe! Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in Rome 44 BC, Mark Antony (Raymond Burr) spares the life of Lucilius (William Lundigan), a Roman officer who becomes a friend as he makes his way to Alexandria in Egypt. However, Lucilius has had history with Cleopatra although she chooses to take up with Mark Antony. Eventually Antony loses his grip in a society resentful of a queen living in luxury while they become increasingly impoverished. Lucilius joins Antony’s rival, Octavius (Michael Fox), who arrives to put an end to Antony’s failing expedition since he is clearly being used by Cleopatra to establish dominion in Rome… Are women ever conquered? Adapted from H. Rider Haggard’s Cleopatra by Robert E. Kent, this low-budgeter from producer Sam Katzman was shot on the leftover sets from Salome, the Rita Hayworth film. It was the year for fans of Julius Caesar and the ancients as the successful Brando-starrer proved and despite the rackety origins, this is fun, filled with ripe dialogue and fruity leers. Lundigan has a blast as Burr’s love rival with a secret, having admired Cleo in Caesar’s house for many a long year;  while Fleming is totally alluring as the queen bee. That glorious gilded woman performing a dance of seduction is the great Julie Newmar. With an atmospheric score by Mischa Bakaleinikoff and narration by Fred Sears, this is very entertaining. Directed by William Castle. If you had but loved yourself more and Cleopatra less

Air Force (1943)

Air Force

Don’t talk – shoot! On December 6, 1941 nine B-17 bomber sets off on a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii en route to the Philippines. The Mary Ann is commanded by pilot ‘Irish’ Quincannon (John Ridgely). Bombardier Tommy McMartin (Arthur Kennedy) has a sister living in Hawaii and his co-pilot Bill Williams (Gig Young) is sweet on her. Cynical rear-gunner Joe Winocki (John Garfield) is intent upon leaving the air corps. They arrive at Hickam Field on the morning of December 7, just as the Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor and other military facilities. As Roosevelt announces the US’ entry into the war, all of the men prepare to face the enemy, including Winocki whose bitter attitude changes quickly in the course of combat in the Pacific … What kind of lunatics do I have in this air corps anyhow? Don’t any of you know what’s impossible? With a screenplay by Dudley Nichols (and a deathbed scene written by an uncredited William Faulkner), this Howard Hawks film is an indelible picture of a cross-section of American society at the helm of a bomber, made at the height of WW2 and based around an actual incident when a flight of B-17s journeying to reinforce the defence of the Philippines flew into the attack on Pearl Harbour. The characters are based, more or less, on people Hawks met while consulting with Lt. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, Commander of the Army Air Force, in Washington DC and the production was made in conjunction with approval of the War Dept. Originally scheduled by producer Hal Wallis to be released on Pearl Harbour’s first anniversary, the shoot was repeatedly delayed and WW1 aviator Hawks’ insistence on altering dialogue led to him being temporarily replaced by Vincent Sherman who then remained as assistant when Hawks returned. Garfield’s outsider character is the barometer for everything that occurs as he becomes integrated into the group and he is paid tribute by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction. There are historical inaccuracies but it packs an emotional punch in its vivid, electrifying violence and humour and Jeanine Basinger says it is “perhaps the purest combat film ever about the air service … It is like some hideous wagon train west, with problems of supplies and hostile forces constantly attacking the wagonload of heroes. It fits perfectly with the tradition of American films, and yet it is a unique and original film, not quite like any other.” Shot by James Wong Howe, Elmer Dyer and Charles A. Marshall, this is a bona fide classic. We’re gonna start a war, not a fight!

Captain Boycott (1947)

Captain Boycott

I simply can’t understand a man like that. In 1880s Ireland Charles Stewart Parnell (Robert Donat) makes a rousing speech against the villainous property thefts by the British in Ireland but urges passive resistance, shunning rather than killing landlords. In a Mayo village, British landowner Captain Charles Boycott (Cecil Parker) dispossesses the townspeople who are being charged extortionate rents as his tenants and uses police and army to evict them, leaving them without hope. But when a passionate farmer Hugh Davin (Stewart Granger) creates an organised and nonviolent rebellion against the oppressor and falls in love with a beautiful newcomer Ann Killain (Kathleen Ryan) he proves that the Irish people are willing to fight for their rights ... You can’t make British soldiers fight for what any fool can see is an unjust cause.  Wolfgang Wilhelm’s screenplay makes light work of the systematic property rout and starving of Irish citizens described in Philip Rooney’s source novel, weaving a skein of complicity, action and politics that rings true. Co-written by director Frank Launder, with additional dialogue by Paul Vincent Carroll and Patrick Campbell,  the location shooting (with Westmeath standing in for Mayo) adding immeasurably to this history lesson about the infamous land agent who entered the lexicon because of the campaign of ostracising that brought him recognition. The cast is a Who’s Who of the British and Irish acting contingent of the era including the genial Noel Purcell playing Daniel McGinty a teacher who is also a crafty agitator, Mervyn Johns as a sneaky property dealer, Alastair Sim as a Catholic priest, Father McKeogh, and Maurice Denham as Lieutenant Colonel Strickland who is inclined to attribute Boycott’s conduct to a kind of personal pig-headed eccentricity rather than Anglo rule. Granger has a good role and is up to the witty and lively construction of this typical Launder and Gilliat production. William Alwyn’s spirited score captures the mood of the rebellion very well. Can you count pain – suffering – hunger – wretchedness?

Mr Jones (2019)

Mr Jones

The Soviets have built more in five years than our Government has in ten. In 1933, Gareth Jones (James Norton) is an ambitious young Welsh journalist who has gained renown for his interview with Adolf Hitler. Thanks to his connections to Britain’s former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), he is able to get official permission to travel to the Soviet Union. Jones intends to try and interview Stalin and find out more about the Soviet Union’s economic expansion and its apparently successful five-year development plan. Jones is restricted to Moscow where he encounters Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) a libertine who sticks to the Communist Party line.  He befriends and romances German journalist Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) who reluctantly sees him follow the path of murdered journalist Kleb in pursuit of a story. He jumps his train and travels unofficially to Ukraine to discover evidence of the Holodomor (famine) including empty villages, starving people, cannibalism, and the enforced collection of grain exported out of the region while millions die. He escapes with his life because Duranty bargains for it on condition he report nothing but lies. On his return to the UK he struggles to get the true story taken seriously and is forced to return home to Wales in ignominy … They are killing us. Millions.  Framed by the writing of Animal Farm after a credulous commie-admiring Eric Blair aka George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) expresses disbelief that Stalin is anything but a good guy, this is an oddly diffident telling of a shocking true story that’s art-directed within an inch of its life. Introducing Orwell feels like a disservice to Jones. Norton has a difficult job because the screenplay by Andrea Chalupa is too mannerly and the film’s aesthetic betrays his intent. Director Agnieszka Holland is a fine filmmaker but the colour grading, the great lighting (there’s even a red night sky shot from below as Jones and Brooks walk through Moscow) and the excessive use of handheld shooting to express Jones’ inner turmoil somehow detracts from the original fake news story. It happens three times during food scenes including when he realises he’s eating some kids’ older brother. Shocking but somehow not surprising and amazingly relevant given the present state of totalitarian things, everywhere, in a world where Presidents express the wish to have journalists executed and some of them succeed. Some things never change. Chilling. I have no expectations. I just have questions

Above Suspicion (1943)

Above Suspicion

Her conception of foreign affairs derives directly from Hollywood. In 1939 just prior to WW2 honeymooning couple Oxford professor Richard Myles (Fred MacMurray) and his new bride, undergraduate Frances (Joan Crawford) are recruited to spy on the Nazis for British intelligence. Initially finding the mission fun the trail gets them in real danger as they try to interpret their encounters with contacts.  They then realise a fellow guest Peter Galt (Richard Ainley) at their holiday destination is actually a hitman on a mission of his own and his girlfriend has been murdered at Dachau after the Brits let them take on a job without informing them how bad the Nazis really were … Here we have an iron maiden, also known as the German Statue of Liberty. Crawford may have railed at the preposterous plot in TV’s Feud:  Bette and Joan and it would be her last film at MGM but the fact is Helen MacInnes based her excellent wartime novel on something that actually happened to herself and her husband. Crawford has several good moments – and a ‘bit’ involving what happens her ankle when she’s nervous – including when Conrad Veidt inveigles his way into their museum visit and shows her an instrument of torture which she describes as a totalitarian manicure. It’s a preview of coming attractions. She and MacMurray have chemistry and there are terrifically tense musical moments with some remarks that just skid past innuendo regarding their honeymoon. Fact is, they’ve been dumped in a really dangerous situation and now don’t they know it and the mention of concentration camps proves beyond reasonable doubt the Allies had a pretty good idea what was going on despite post-war claims. There’s an assassination that will only surprise someone who’s never watched a film. A sprightly script by Keith Winter & Melville Baker and Patricia Coleman (with uncredited work by Leonard Lee) keeps things moving quickly in Hollywood’s version of Europe, circa, whenever, and who can’t love a movie that reveals suave Basil Rathbone in Nazi regalia? Directed by Richard Thorpe but it should have been Hitchcock, as Crawford herself stated. Typical tourists – above suspicion

Wings of Desire (1987)

Wings of Desire UK

Aka  Der Himmel Über Berlin / The Heaven Over Berlin / The Sky Over Berlin. Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn’t life under the sun just a dream? Isn’t what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world? Two angels, kindred spirits Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), glide through the streets of Berlin, observing the bustling population, providing invisible rays of hope to the distressed but never interacting with them. They are only visible to children and other people who like them. When Damiel falls in love with wistful lonely trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin) whose circus has closed due to financial problems, he tires of his surveillance job and longs to experience life in the physical world. With words of wisdom from actor Peter Falk (playing himself) performing in a WW2 thriller whose cast and crew the angels are observing – he believes it might be possible for him to take human form and enter history ... We are now the times. Not only the whole town – the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are now more than us two. We incarnate something. We’re representing the people now. And the whole place is full of those who are dreaming the same dream. We are deciding everyone’s game. I am ready. Now it’s your turn. You hold the game in your handThis beautiful benign allegory of the divided city of Berlin is of course clear to anyone familiar with the practices of the Stasi, who deployed one half of the East German population to spy on the other half:  when the Wall came down and the files were opened families and friendships were torn asunder. However a few years before that occurred, director Wim Wenders plugs into the nightmare of watching and being watched and makes it into a surreal dream in this romantic fantasy. I can’t see you but I know you’re here. It’s verging on noir with its portrait of a place riven by war and totalitarian rule, its acknowledging of the Holocaust and the overview of the Wall snaking through a post-war world. You can’t get lost. You always end up at the Wall.  A poetic film that’s so much of its time yet its yearning humanity is palpable, its message one of eternal hope. Shot in stunning monochrome by Henri Alekan, brought out of retirement and for whom the circus is named. I’m taking the plunge. Written by Peter Handke, for all the fallen angels on the outside looking in. Co-written by Wenders with additions by Richard Reitinger, loosely inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems. An exquisite city symphony that insists on the disrupting of image making, bearing witness, choosing life. With Curt Bois as Homer and Crime and the City Solution and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform.  Must I give up now? If I do give up, then mankind will lose its storyteller. And if mankind once loses its storyteller, then it will lose its childhood

The Kitchen (2019)

The Kitchen

You’re way worse than we ever were. Between 8th Avenue and the Hudson River, the Irish mafia runs 20 blocks of a tough New York City neighbourhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. In the 1970s Irish-American gang wives Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss), things are about to take a dramatic and radical turn. When the FBI’s agent Gary Silvers (Common) sends their husbands to prison after a robbery, the three women take business into their own hands by taking the rackets out of the hands of Little Jimmy Quinn (Myk Watford) and taking out the competition. Kathy’s husband Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James) is low on the totem pole but she’s a take charge kind of woman and her own dad Larry (Wayne Duvall) ends up realising she’s Queen of the Micks. For Ruby, a black woman married to Kevin (James Badge Dale) whose mother Helen (Margo Martindale) pulls the strings while he’s away, it’s never going to be easy in an Irish neighbourhood. Claire is downtrodden after years of beatings by her husband. They agree to an alliance with Mob boss Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp) but their diverging ambitions create tensions and when their husbands get out of jail months earlier than anticipated things go off I never felt safe. No woman does. And now I do. I put me first. Writer/directorAndrea Berloff makes a fantastically impressive debut with this atmospheric picture of low-level Irish-American crims in 70s NYC. Each of the women has a personal issue – with Kathy it’s a weak husband; Ruby, who gives new meaning to the term Black Irish, has a secret that is revealed in a satisfying twist three quarters of the way through;  Claire’s victimhood is writ so large even a homeless stranger attacks her when she’s volunteering at the convent. Each goes through a revolution and hers is through ultraviolence via a mentoring relationship with her new boyfriend, psychotic ‘Nam vet Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson) who teaches her not just to kill but to strip corpses and dump them in the right part of the river. Unfairly compared with the sleek slick big screen adaptation of Widows whose broad contours it limns, this is down and dirty and relatable, and there’s a trio of powerhouse performances leading the way, tramping the streets of the city, getting to know everyone and taking their money. Or shooting them on the front stoop when they don’t pay up. You go girls!! Isn’t it nice to see Annabella Sciorra again in the role of Coretti’s kind wife. Based on the DC Vertigo comic series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle. We’re doing good in the community