Mysterious Island (1961)

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Why don’t we turn this island into a democracy and elect a leader? During the Civil War, a group of soldiers led by Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) escape a Confederate prison siege using an observation balloon, and due to a storm that lasts four days and pitches them off course, are forced to land on a strange island that is full of tropical jungles and volcanoes. They are confronted by giant mutated animals, find two Englishwomen, Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece Elena (Beth Rogan) washed up from a shipwreck, fight marauding pirates and are then confronted by the infamous Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) whose submarine the Nautilus was feared lost off Mexico eight years previously. They need to escape and that volcano is rumbling but will Nemo assist them using his engineering genius? … We lived like primitive men using primitive implements. The followup to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea doesn’t start particularly promisingly – the escape from the Confederate prison isn’t very well handled by director Cy Endfield, not the first name you’d come up with for an effects-laden juvenile fantasy flick taken from Jules Verne’s two-part novel. However when the action kicks in on the island and the Ray Harryhausen effects interplay with the threat of a volcano about to blow and those sheer painted backdrops hint at disaster, well, it finally gets interesting. Everything is punctuated by regular run-ins with those giant creatures who are the result of Nemo’s horticultural physics experiments. The laughs come courtesy of war journo Gideon Spilitt (Gary Merrill) who has an ongoing run of food jokes: I wonder how long this will take to cook in a slow oven, he deadpans about the giant chicken they believe they’ve killed; turns out Nemo shot it. The cast is excellent although Craig doesn’t set the screen alight and it’s great to see Lom doing his Nemo:  he’s a misunderstood guy who just wants to stop the causes of war. Rogan and Michael Callan get to do a bit of romancing before being sealed into a giant honeycomb; while Percy Herbert and Dan Jackson bring up the rear. The whole shebang is carried by Bernard Herrmann’s sonorous score, booming from the screen as surely as those explosives. From a screenplay by Crane Wilbur, Daniel B. Ullman and John Prebble. Shot at Shepperton Studios and on location in Catalonia. A man could write an inspired novel in a place like this

King Kong (1933)

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Every legend has the basis of truth. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) needs to finish his movie and has the perfect location – faraway Skull Island. But he still needs to find a leading lady. This is Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) who’s done a little extra work but has never played a large role. She has a romance aboard Captain Englehorn’s (Frank Reicher) ship the Venture with John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). No one knows what they will encounter on this island but once they reach it they find terrified natives seemingly worshipping a giant and the beast now has Ann in his sights and she is quickly kidnapped. Carl and John have to make their way through the jungle looking for Kong and Ann, whilst avoiding all sorts of prehistoric creatures and once successful they determine to transport Beast back to New York City to publicise their new movie … Women don’t mean to be a bother. Gorgeous, eerie and inventive, with a fairytale theme that resonates through the ages, this is a classic of Pre-Code Hollywood and is so clever in its structure:  before she ever encounters Beast, Ann is filmed rehearsing her potential reaction to a monster, so we are always present in the moviemaking process and the notion of predatory males hangs over the story like a fug. A warning about civilisation, greed and Hollywood itself, this is one of the most brilliant, beautiful and tender films ever made. Directed by Merian C. Cooper (the miniatures) and Ernest B. Schoedsack (the dialogue scenes) although neither is credited; with magical stop-motion effects by Willis O’Brien and an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace, with uncredited rewrites by James Ashmore Creelman who was working on The Most Dangerous Game (also starring Wray) at the time; with a final rewrite by Ruth Rose, who was Schoedsack’s wife.This is notable for the first proper original Hollywood movie score, composed by Max Steiner.  It was beauty killed the beast

The Lost City of Z (2016)

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You’re a long way from Government now. At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is encouraged by his superiors to redeem his family name following his father’s dissolute actions, ruining the Fawcett reputation.  Although married to the supportive Nina (Sienna Miller) with a young son and one on the way, he journeys across the Atlantic to South America to carry out a survey of the Amazon in order to help adjudicate borders and to establish national territories.  On board the ship he encounters Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson)  a man who knows the rainforest. He joins the party which includes aide-de-camp Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and they go into the Amazon, where they experience the surreal pleasures of an opera in the middle of the jungle and discover evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilisation that may have once inhabited the region, triggered by stories told them by their guide. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment back in London when he reports his findings, which contradicts their bias against indigenous populations as savages, the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, Costin and Manley, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. After another set of discoveries he is challenged by biologist James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) who falsely claims they left him for dead so Fawcett leaves the Royal Geographical Society. He is injured on the Somme when he fights in WW1 but in 1925 when his son Jack (Tom Holland) grows up he wants to help his father pursue his obsession and find the City of Z that Nina found out about in a conquistador text at Trinity College Dublin... To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? It comes off a little like Fawcett of Amazonia at first but then this James Gray film establishes its own insistent rhythm with a hallucinatory bent that comes first from obsession and then with repetition. Indeed one is forced into a world recognisably that of David Lean but also Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (quite literally, at the opera) and perhaps Conrad. However the difference is in the doggedness and the feminine element – here Nina plays a crucial part in Percy’s evolving obsession when the document she finds fuels the fire in his belly and ironically leads to increased separation. Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction book, this has some of the usual flaws besetting Gray’s films – a kind of muted incompleteness or psychological lack and a physical darkness – but the facts of the story, the deadly nature of the pursuit and the fascinating history compensate and it has a decent pace. Hunnam grows into the role as the story progresses, caring about slavery and native peoples and expressing proper awe at the sight of sculptures and ancient artefacts; and Miller is fine as the proto-feminist who reads from the letter she wrote when she thought she wouldn’t survive childbirth:  as she tells her husband, “You haven’t even seen it for two minutes,” when he protests the jungle is no place for a woman and takes off yet again leaving her pregnant. It’s an admirable corrective to the standard male-oriented expedition narratives, with an amazing coda. In the end, this is actually spellbinding. There is great irony deployed: Fawcett meets Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Ireland and years later in South America he sees the story about his assassination and is told it will trigger a great war:  his escape across the Atlantic was precisely to avoid conflict and now he is going to be catapulted back into something quite dreadful.  He has a wonderful wife and happy domestic life yet he is truly at home in an utterly alien environment where the natives happily shoot poison arrows. He goes back, again and again, despite ridicule and disputes. He has a higher aim and it becomes something verging on mystical. The cinematography by Darius Khondji and score by Christopher Spelman are quite wondrous at times. Executive produced by Brad Pitt. There is no going back. We are already here

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

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Are you sure I don’t look like a dick?  With their headquarters destroyed by missile strikes launched by power-crazed international drug dealer Poppy (Julianne Moore) and the world held hostage, members of Kingsman find new allies when they discover a spy organization in the United States known as Statesman. They’ve been holding a lepidopterist (Colin Firth returns as Harry) in their Kentucky distillery (a cover) since he got shot in the head a year previously and appears to be suffering from retrograde amnesia. He thinks he’s a butterfly collector and has no recollection whatsoever of being a spy. In an adventure that tests their strength and wits, the elite secret agents from both sides of the pond band together to battle Poppy and save the day, something that’s becoming a bit of a habit for Eggsy (Taron Egerton) … I’ve never considered genocide especially ladylike. With its retro stylings (London gentleman vs. Fifties-obsessed villainness), drink vs drugs, its nod to Michael Caine’s heyday (those spex), cute dogs, a meet-the-parents scenario, bombs and ultra-violence there’s something for everybody in this comic book sequel. Channing Tatum joins in the fun as the cowboy on a mission, with Jeff Bridges heading up the allied US spy gang and Mark Strong back as Merlin accompanying Egerton (with that awful white-Londoner-doing-black-argot shtick that is SO irritating) doing the superspy thang. Then there’s Poppy’s predilection for human burgers and kidnapping celebrity musicians. It’s cheeky, rude and fun. Somewhat. Not to throw rain on the parade, it’s a shame that writers of such creativity as Jane Goldman and (director) Matthew Vaughn don’t do something properly challenging instead of rehashing this nonsense. That’s two and quarter hours of my life gone in an exhausting tribute to special effects and let’s face it, this isn’t Lawrence of Arabia. Sigh. Hey, hey, Elton. Language. Okay, well, as fabulous as your catalogue is, I think I want to hear some Gershwin

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

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We just have to stick together. We do that, we can win. Four high school kids discover an old video game console in detention in their high school basement. Spencer is a nerd beset with allergies, Fridge is a footballer who needs help with his homework, Bethany is a narcissistic beauty addicted to her iPhone and Martha is a friendless brainiac who has no fun. They are sucked into the game’s jungle setting, literally becoming the adult avatars they chose:  Spencer is now explorer and archaeologist Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) who has no weakness (except he’s still shy),  Fridge is zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart) who can’t eat cake,  Martha is curvy martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) who can be killed by venom and Bethany is an overweight male middle-aged cartographer Prof. Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji – you must survive it. To beat the game and return to the real world, they’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives by returning a jewel to a Jaguar mountain shrine, discover what Alan Parrish left 20 years ago, and change the way they think about themselves – or they’ll be stuck in the game forever.  They have to dodge treasure hunter Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), a corrupt archaeologist, and his henchmen, a crew of evil bikers plus a herd of rampaging rhinoceros, They enlist the help of Alex (Nick Jonas) who has one life left and is afraid to lose it and get stuck in here forever:  he thinks he’s been here a few months but he’s the kid from the Freak (Vreeke) House who disappeared in 1996 after getting lost in the original video game. They have to face up to their fears and join together to get out or it will be Game Over ... How can my strength be my weakness? A sequel and a reboot, this followup to the beloved adaptation of Chris van Allsburg’s book is PC, clever and fun, catering for nostalgia freaks harking back to 1930s jungle films, the 90s obsession with video games, and placating the millennial generation that thinks they can change their race and gender because, you know, it’s their human right and they can choose who they want to be and before they grow up and get real! (It’s not just a game… it’s a life lesson).  We no longer have the Jumanji board game that trapped Alan Parrish (Robin Williams, who’s mentioned here in tribute) but we do have all the ins and outs of a protagonist-led adventure where the rules always apply – until they need to be changed. There are a lot of bright moments – Jack Black the former mean girl coaching school swot Karen Gillan to flirt; tiny Kevin Hart realising he’s not the huge killer ball player any more; Johnson morphing into an unbelievably strong 6’5″ hulk from the puny geek with allergies:  his smoldering voice is hilarious and he just cannot get over the size of his arms. There are some fun penis jokes and a lot of throwaway lines that are laugh out loud good. Exceptionally well cast and performed, this is a very pleasant and funny entertainment that moves like the clappers. Written by Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner, from a story by Chris McKenna. Directed by Jake Kasdan.  Zoology, bitch!

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

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My head’s been shrunk! Oh the horror! The horror! Anthropologist Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) believes that the men of his family have been cursed for generations by the native South American tribe he studies. Shortly after his brother, Kenneth (Paul Cavanagh), discovers one of the tribe’s shrunken heads in his house, he’s found murdered and his head goes missing. In pursuit of the tribesman Zutai (Paul Wexler) and a rival scientist (Henry Daniell) who has become a part of the tribe, Drake attempts to end the curse once and for all…  With career best performances by Franz and Daniell, this is a tremendously atmospheric exercise in genre which belies its impoverished production values. Charles Gemora created award-winning shrunken heads in addition to his duties as make-up artist in this parable concerning race relations and the impact of white men on the New World. Written by Orville H. Hampton and directed by the underrated and enigmatic yet prolific B director Edward L. Cahn, this rivals his early collaborations with screenwriter Tom Reed and may well be the best film ever made.

Marathon Man (1976)

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How am I to fathom your mind if you continue to hide it from me?  Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a Columbia graduate student and long-distance runner who has just enrolled in a doctoral seminar with Prof. Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver) where his focus will be the fate of his father a fellow historian driven to suicide in the McCarthy era purely on the grounds of his Judaism.  He is oblivious to the fact that his older brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), is not in fact an oil executive but a government agent chasing down a Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) and who is almost murdered by a blue-eyed Asian hitman in a Paris hotel. Doc visits Babe in NYC and meets his girlfriend the allegedly Swiss Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller) whom he figures out immediately as one of Szell’s couriers. Babe doesn’t believe there’s a bad bone in her body.  Doc is murdered and his colleague Janeway (William Devane) tells Babe the muggers who ambushed him in Central Park are Szell’s henchmen but they won’t come for him tonight – but they do, and Babe is held at the end of Szell’s dentist’s drill constantly being asked Is it safe?  He is caught in the middle of a transaction being expedited by The Division who clean up matters arising from disagreements between Washington and the CIA ...  Director John Schlesinger reunited with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman to make this iconic paranoid thriller adaptation by William Goldman of his 1974 novel which invokes all sorts of historic nightmares not to mention the fear of unnecessary dental surgery. For a liberal pacifist you have some sense of vengeance Doc tells Babe when he realises he still has the gun their father used to blow his brains out. The last time I saw this was in the middle of another sleepless night during a three-month bout of glandular fever and the words Is it safe? made it impossible for me to recover, for, oh, probably another month at that point. There might be plotholes you could drive a truck through that not even Robert Towne’s putative and uncredited rewrite fixed but even fully conscious and in broad daylight it remains a transfixing piece of work whose echoes are still felt. The schematic structure is emblematic of a film whose many well-constructed sequences take place in famous locations – Columbia, Central Park, the diamond district, where Szell is recognised by two of his victims. Szell! Der Weisse Engel! shrieks a camp survivor as the old Nazi is ironically forced to get a price for his diamonds from the very race he tortured and executed with extreme prejudice thirty years earlier. The entire text is replete with such irony, expressed by Janeway in the line Everything we do cuts both ways after he supposedly rescues Babe only to deliver him back to the Nazi. The dialogue is biting and great:  I believe in my country/So did we all. Michael Small’s score is superb with a real feel for the emotive fraternal and familial issues underlying the narrative action whose logic turns on the notion of history itself and the versions of truth which we tell ourselves and in turn are told to keep us happy.  He did much the same job on The Parallax View, another paranoid conspiracy thriller whose similarly allusive style (and on which Towne also did some controversial rewrite work during a writers’ strike) makes it the best political film of its time. It looks incredible, thanks to Conrad Hall. Oh the Seventies really had great films. Nowadays they’d probably give Szell a sympathetic backstory. Not so much in real life for Keller whose father actually was a Nazi. History is all around us in this persistent, resonant film. Pauline Kael called it a Jewish revenge fantasy. Goy veh.

Elephant Walk (1954)

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She is not one of us and her ways are cold and strange. When John Wiley (Peter Finch), an affluent plantation owner, brings his new wife, Ruth (Elizabeth Taylor), to his estate in the jungles of British Ceylon,  she finds she is the only white woman.  She’s overjoyed by the exotic location and luxurious accommodations until it becomes clear her new husband is more interested in palling around with his friends than spending time with her. She is intimidated by houseman Apphuamy (Abraham Sofaer) who is still being bossed by the late Old Man Wiley a rotten individual who has deliberately blocked the elephants from their ancient water source (hence the name). Left alone on the plantation, Ruth strikes up a friendship with American overseer Dick Carver (Dana Andrews), and it isn’t long before a love triangle develops… An old-school colonial romance, the novel by Robert Standish (aka Digby George Gerahty) was adapted by Hollywood vet John Lee Mahin who knew this kind of material from Red Dust two decades earlier. While revelling in the lush jungle landscape and the forbidden desires of Taylor the real story is the haunting of Wiley by his late father whose ghost dominates his life and the plantation. Taylor of course replaced Vivien Leigh who had a nervous breakdown yet whose figure remains in long shots that weren’t repeated and her lover Finch remained in the picture in a role originally intended for Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier. Andrews might not be our idea of a hot extra-marital affair but in a situation like that … It looks rather beautiful courtesy of the marvellous work by cinematographer Loyal Griggs but you might find yourself wanting to see more of the elephants than Taylor such is their pulchritudinous affect. You choose. Directed by William Dieterle.

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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Kong’s a pretty good king. Keeps to himself, mostly. This is his home, we’re just guests. But you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs, unless you’re picking a fight. Scientists, soldiers and adventurers unite to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean. Cut off from everything they know, they venture into the domain of the mighty Kong, igniting the ultimate battle between man and nature. As their mission of discovery soon becomes one of survival, they must fight to escape from a primal world where humanity does not belong. Tom Hiddleston is Conrad, the British Special Forces op (retired!) hired by monster hunter Bill Randa (John Goodman) who’s finagled money for the expedition from a disbelieving Senator. Samuel L. Jackson is Lt. Col. Preston Packard, in charge of a special chopper squadron chomping at the bit for a final military excursion. Brie Larson is Mason Weaver (hmm…..) a photographer and anti-war activist. She’s there for the Pulitzer. This is one last op for Nam vets who ain’t too happy at ‘abandoning’ a losing war. A man who believes in monsters. A Bermuda Triangle-type of island where God didn’t get to finesse His creations. Set in 1973, ie the Vietnam era and just before the 1976 remake starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges of the wonderful 1933 classic, this is a kind of gung-ho Apocalypse Now retread with extra monsters and gore. Yeah, right:  if you thought Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) was a gorilla. And there’s more than that because Marlow is played by John C. Reilly and he’s a soldier who’s been hanging on the island for nearly 30 years waiting to be rescued and he knows that Kong is in fact their only hope in this island that is hollow at the centre – and Kong needs to win the turf war against some incredibly frightening creatures who are even worse to humans than he is! So this plugs into modern myths too – all those Japanese soldiers on Pacific islands not aware WW2 ended long ago. The character of Marlow narrates all of Joseph Conrad’s books, including Heart of Darkness, establishing the framing story. Hmm, now you’re talking. With a horrible, unlikeable cast (what is it these days? Why are actors so yucky?) and a screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly you might think at some point someone would have pulled the plug or cast people empathetic enough for an audience to perhaps care if they survive an encounter with a gorilla minding his own business in his own home. Nope. They had to do it. They went there. But it is saved by the built-in snark (okay, self-awareness) that is a de facto part of all action blockbusters nowadays, reflecting from early exchanges in the dialogue the knowledge that the monster is …. us.  Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist till you’re looking for them.  There’s a very high body count and the romance is at a minimum but it looks dazzling and moves quickly – even with a little jungle stealth and camouflage. This takes no prisoners – it eats them. I blame the parents. Golly! Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Tropic Thunder (2008)

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Everybody knows you never go full retard! Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) is the Aussie Method actor par excellence in blackface giving retrospective advice to Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) the ludicrously vain Hollywood star who made that very mistake in his quest for Oscar. Now they’re in the jungles of Vietnam doing their version of the War years after everyone else has stopped those kinds of movies and causing no end of difficulties for hapless Brit director (Steve Coogan) who is killed in the fray. Back at the studio the vile boss Les Grossman (an unrecognisable Tom Cruise) just sees insurance $$$$ when Speedman gets separated from the crew as they go shooting guerilla style in a self-defeating move – and he’s kidnapped by drugs lords who make him act out Stupid Jack, the only film they have on VHS. Only Tugg’s agent (Matthew McConaughey) cares about his charge. The other actors, who include Fatties franchise star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) decide to rescue Tugg without realising their director is dead and this is not a movie any more … This is a Hollywood satire that also operates as a proper action movie and what a rare feat that is. Just when you think it’s a sketch show that goes on too long, Tugg kills a panda (he’s crusading for their rights on the back of Vanity Fair) and Danny McBride calls Nick Nolte ‘the Milli Vanilli of patriots.’ Gut-bustingly funny when it works, and you know all the movies it’s spoofing, Grossman was apparently all Cruise’s idea and some might say it’s a rather vicious take on Sumner Redstone as revenge for booting him off the Paramount lot when he jumped on Oprah’s couch. From a story by Justin Theroux and Ben Stiller, written by Etan Cohen. Directing by Ben Stiller. Dancing by Les Grossman!