Only the Valiant (1951)

Only the Valiant.jpg

Aka Fort Invincible. Plugged up the pass just like a cork in a bottle.  Following the Civil War in New Mexico when a vital fort guarding a mountain pass is threatened by gathering Apaches, dour West Point Captain Richard Lance (Gregory Peck) picks the most disposable bunch of malcontents and psychos to hold out until reinforcements arrive, whereupon various personal animosities bring them closer to killing him than the enemy as the Apaches cut off the water supply and they turn on each other … It’d be just as easy if the whole patrol committed suicide in there.  This tough frontier story is mainly of interest nowadays perhaps for the presence of Barbara Payton, a cult figure whose short sharp shock of a career was assisted by being involved with this film’s producer William Cagney before she went sex-mad and off the rails. Her role is mostly confined to the opening segments when her putative husband Holloway (Gig Young) rides out to his death, and she wrongly blames Lance. However it’s a really interesting piece of work that’s quite brutal in both theme and execution. Adapted by Edmund H. North and Harry Brown from a novel by Charles Marquis Warren (he would go on to become a director and created Rawhide for TV), the sense of a Fordian world (Fort Apache) is enhanced by the presence of Ward Bond, playing a seriously drunken Irish soldier always cadging people’s canteens. The reason for your presence on this patrol won’t be carried on any record book, Peck declares as he assembles his equivalent of The Dirty Dozen. There’s an amazing fistfight between two warring soldiers in front of their Indian assailants who whoop and jeer as if it’s a cockfight;  there is an explosive start to the final sequence; and the Gatling gun is introduced as a revolutionary way to cut down on soldier numbers when the cavalry finally come calling. More than a cult item after all, and while the mostly studio-bound production is sometimes hampered by odd interactions between the principals, there is striking photography and the ratcheting levels of tension are expertly maintained from the get-go. Even if Peck didn’t like this, he’s outstanding as the commander who eventually gets the respect of his extraordinarily treacherous motley crew. Watching these guys get picked off is quite the thrill. Directed by Gordon Douglas. You who know all things know nothing

Advertisements

The Spy in Black (1939)

The Spy in Black.png

Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

The Goonies (1985)

The Goonies.jpg

Kids suck.  A band of adventurous kids from the Goon Docks in Astoria Oregon take on the might of a property developing company which plans to destroy their home to build a country club. When the children discover an old pirate map in the attic of Mikey (Sean Astin) and Brandon (Josh Brolin) Walsh, the brothers and their friends Mouth (Corey Feldman), Data (Ke Huy Quan) and Chunk (Josh Cohen) follow it into an underground cavern in search of lost treasure but come up against plenty of dangerous obstacles along the way as a dangerous gang of criminals, the Fratellis, Mama (Anne Ramsay) and her sons (Robert Davi and Joey Pantoliano) have the treasure in their sights You’re in the clouds – we are in a basement.  Steven Spielberg wrote the story and produced, Chris Columbus did the screenplay and Richard (Superman) Donner directed. You want pirates? Treasure? Storytelling? And kids trying to save their home? Here it is. The classic 80s kiddie film gets a re-release and if it has all these great things it also has flaws, principally the screamfest style that irritated me in the first place. Will they ever just … shut up?! There are too many kids too but if there were any fewer we wouldn’t have the girls and no awkward and possibly inappropriate romantic moments. Ramsay is her hatchet-faced best as the crooked mama and there is even a guy who looks like Stephen King (Keith Walker) cast as the father of Brolin and Astin because if there’s something this resembles in an homage assemblage it’s It – but also the Our Gang movies, Ealing comedy and Spielberg’s own oeuvre, particularly the Indiana Jones films (and Quan is a veteran of Temple of Doom) and kids on bikes, single moms and absent dads. The score by the prolific Dave Grusin (whom I more or less just about tolerate by and large) actually manages Steineresque heights in the piratey last sequences (there’s a clip from Captain Blood on the TV) and there is terrific production design by J. Michael Riva, the late grandson of screen goddess Marlene Dietrich. When Astin finally meets One-Eyed Willy – well, it works for me. It’s notable for a performance by NFL star John Matuszak as the Fratelli’s deformed brother who Cohen befriends. All well and good  – but does everyone absolutely positively have to be so loud?! I mean you, Josh Cohen! He’s just like his father

Battle of the Bulge (1965)

Battle of the Bulge.jpg

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!

The Old Man & The Gun (2018)

The Old Man and the Gun.png

You’re never exactly where you’re supposed to be, are you? I mean, ’cause if you are, you’re dead. In 1981 at the age of 70, Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) makes an audacious escape from San Quentin, conducting an unprecedented string of bank heists across the south with his friends Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) that confound authorities and enchant the public because he comports himself so politely and makes friends of the tellers. He’s the classic gentleman thief who never resorts to violence. Embroiled in the pursuit are detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), who becomes captivated with Forrest’s commitment to his craft, and widowed retiree Jewel (Sissy Spacek) who loves him in spite of his chosen profession.  But Dorothy (Elisabeth Moss) the daughter he never knew thinks she can assist the police with their enquiries Ten years from now, where will you be, what’ll you be doing? Now, whenever I close the door, I think: “Oh, is this the last time I’ll ever have a chance to do whatever that thing was?”  Supposedly the last film by Seventies superstar Redford, it sees him reunited with his impressive Pete’s Dragon writer/director David Lowery in a slight but engaging tale of true crime adapted from a story in The New Yorker by David Grann. The pleasures are mostly small ones, with the sense that the parallel police story interwoven with the main narrative is subtracting from the whole rather than enhancing it, particularly with a relatively short running time, even if the relationship between Tucker and Hunt is one of mutually grudging respect. It’s fun to see three old guys on a seemingly harmless crime spree:  the money doesn’t even seem to be the point, it’s more like taking on The Man and there are some witty lines (particularly one diatribe from Waits) in this lightly written piece. It’s shot nicely on grainy 16mm, reminiscent of films made in the era being depicted, a florid landscape contributing to the relaxed tone. Spacek is fine in a rare appearance, amused by this playfully persuasive career criminal but not so much that she will agree to stealing jewellery at a mall.  Redford’s cryptic persona, once described as ‘there’s no there there’ (like LA), is effortlessly distracting and self-satisfied, the film concluding on his enigmatic smile, glinting like that of the Cheshire Cat. As a film wrapping up a star text that includes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting it’s a fitting finale but it’s more a footnote than a lap of honour (that may have been All Is Lost). Redford is a true movie star and the last of a dying breed if the most recent show at the pitiful affirmative action Oscars is anything to go by. Charisma – there’s nothing like it, is there? He’s a guy… who is old… but used to be young… and he just really loves robbing banks

Widows (2018)

Widows

The best thing we have going for us is being who we are… no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.  When Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew of criminals are engulfed in flames during a botched job in Chicago, Harry’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis) finds herself owing hustler-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) a couple of million dollars. Armed only with a notebook in which Harry detailed his past and future plans, Veronica teams up with the gang’s other widows – Linda (Michelle Rodriquez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and single mom Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to mount a robbery her husband was planning that could clear their debt and give them a new start. Meanwhile, an increasingly brutal election battle featuring Irish-American career politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his father Tom (Robert Duvall) emphasises the social problems of Chicago, raising the stakes for this ramshackle group’s first foray into crime…  I’m the only thing standing between you and a bullet in the head. Steve McQueen won the Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave, a relentlessly gruesome account of black American history, an astonishing achievement for a British visual artist never mind a black director. His genre impetus has hardly been on anyone’s radar but he was a fan of Lynda La Plante’s feisty women from the 1983 British TV series (set in London) and brings a lot of artistry to this slick feminist outing concerning itself as much with issues of poverty, domestic abuse and childcare as the unlikeliness of a heist led by women trying to pay back their criminal husbands’ debts following the conflagration that killed the men in a botched heist.  The backdrop which exists in the narrative courtesy of Farrell’s role is given huge expressivity through Sean Bobbitt’s widescreen camerawork, the issues of money and race and class and the sewer of Chicago politicking right there for all to see but of course that deflects from the main story even as it serves to amplify a theme of difficult intergenerational relationships.  This detailed texture is an expansive approach in an established genre which usually has a narrow focus but if ultimately it doesn’t fully engage in the manner which you’d wish, it’s probably due to the underwhelming adaptation by McQueen and Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn which doesn’t give the principals a lot to work with – a shame in the case of Davis, who works at it and has some great scenes with Neeson. Debicki comes off best because she has a character who goes through real development and lots of emotions as the narrative progresses – from abuse by mother and husband, through sugar baby, to independence. Good, but should have been a lot better, especially with that twist 75 minutes in. Criminals and cops are the same. They never bring their shit home

The Lost City of Z (2016)

The_Lost_City_of_Z_(film).png

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

The Train (1965)

The Train.jpg

He won’t leave the train. I’m beginning to know him. In August 1944 art connoisseur German Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is planning to take the great art works from the Jeu de Paume gallery under the curatorship of Rose Vallard (Suzanne Flon) out of Paris before it’s liberated. She approaches officials at the SNCF to stop the train crossing out of France and into Germany with some of the greatest paintings ever produced. Labiche (Burt Lancaster) and his Resistance colleagues (Michel Simon, Albert Rémy, Charles Millot, Jacques Marin) do everything possible to keep train no. 40,0444 running late, diverting it through disguised stations and interfering with the tracks but the Allies have a new plan … Keep your eyes open. Your horizon’s about to be broadened. Decades before Monuments Men came this gripping actioner, directed by francophile thriller maestro John Frankenheimer. Scofield and Lancaster are mesmerising as the men who are protagonist/antagonist to each other, with their unreeling taking very different forms. In this scenario adapted by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis and the blacklisted Walter Bernstein from Rose Vallard’s Le Front de l’art, the political just got personal. There’s a deal of portentous and pretentious verbalising about art and its meaning to the nation, but at base this is a great cat and mouse chase and you’ll learn more than you ever knew was possible about rail yards, tracks, lines and switches. Moreau has a nice two-sequence arc as a hotelier who helps out while there are really fantastic smaller roles for a marvellous lineup that includes Franco-Irish actor Donal O’Brien (as Sergeant Schwartz) who would appear the following year for Frankenheimer in Grand Prix and then enjoy a career in Italian spaghetti westerns, horrors and giallos.  Maurice Jarre’s score is intense. And the ending? Straight out of Sartre. Parfait. No one’s ever hurt. Just dead

Serenity (2019)

Serenity 2019.png

Reel him in.  Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fishing boat captain who leads tours off the tranquil enclave of Plymouth Island in the Florida Keys with assistant Duke (Djimon Hounsou) motivated by eventually catching a big tuna he calls Justice. He enjoys sex for money with Constance (Diane Lane) but his life is disturbed by inexplicable visions that seem to connect him with the son he hasn’t seen since his time in Iraq. His routine is soon shattered when his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) tracks him down. Desperate for help, Karen begs Baker to save her and their son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) from her abusive husband, criminal Frank Zariakas (Jason Clarke). She wants Baker to take the violent brute out for a fishing excursion – then throw him overboard to the sharks. But a late night visit from a mysterious company representative Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong) throws a spanner into the works … A hooker that can’t afford hooks. I like a boat thriller. Something about the infinite dramatic possibilities played out on the finite dimensions of a floating vehicle, all at sea. Like Knife in the Water. Masquerade. Dead Calm. There are enough clues in this gorgeous looking melodrama that things are off – the World’s Greatest Dad mug; the seemingly telepathic connection with Patrick; the inter-cutting with Patrick creating a world in which he is catching fish on his computer; and the frankly hysterical sex scene with McConaughey and Hathaway, a ludicrous interplanetary femme fatale, on a boat lurching in a rainstorm:  she promptly gets up and puts on her trenchcoat and hat and trots off up the pier. Bonkers. McConaughey strips off regularly evoking quite a different take on the inspirational Moby Dick: Mobile Dick, perhaps. Sex with your ex, indeed. Lane out-acts everyone by being discreet; Hounsou mutters incomprehensibly bizarre aphorisms like he’s read them off a matchbook, everyone else speaks in similarly random non sequiturs. I would have laughed out loud but I struggled to hear much of the unintentionally hilarious dialogue.  I get the meta stuff and video games but like I said, I also like a boat thriller. This ain’t it. Bad and utterly irrational, like you would not believe. Written and directed by Steven Knight. If someone invented me, how come I know who I am?

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

The Man Who Would Be King.jpg

Now listen to me you benighted muckers. We’re going to teach you soldiering. The world’s noblest profession. When we’re done with you, you’ll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilised men.  The exploits of Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) and Danny Dravot (Sean Connery), a  pair of English military officers stationed in India in the 1880s. Tired of life as soldiers, the two travel to the isolated land of Kafiristan, barely known since it was conquered by Alexander the Great, where they are ultimately embraced by the people and revered as rulers. After a series of misunderstandings, the natives come to believe that Dravot is a god, but he and Carnehan can’t keep up their deception forever and when Dravot takes a fancy to local beauty Roxanne (Shakira Caine) his god-like demeanour is finally unmasked…  He wants to know if you are gods./Not Gods – Englishmen. The next best thing. This adaptation of a short story by Rudyard Kipling is one of the very best action adventures ever made: characterful, funny, brilliantly staged and performed. Director John Huston had wanted to make it so long that he had hoped to film it with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. Indeed, there are clear connections with this and his The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as well as Gunga Din. The imperialist story is really a parody of the desire for power. This country isn’t big enough for these good-natured overreachers! Their friendship is wittily explored and Christopher Plummer as Kipling is easily a match for the well-cast leads while Saeed Jaffrey makes for a marvellous Billy Fish, the sole Gurkha soldier remaining of a failed British expedition. Deftly told with non-stop action, this is a vivid, spirited and sublime, self-aware entertainment.  Adapted by Huston and his long-time collaborator, Gladys Hill.  Now Peachy, different countries, different ways. Tell Ootah we have vowed not to take a woman until all his enemies are vanquished