The Call of the Wild (2020)

The Call of the Wild 2020

He was beaten but he was not broken. It’s the 1890s. Buck is a big-hearted St Bernard/collie mix whose blissful domestic life in Santa Clara, California, at the home of an indulgent small town judge (Bradley Whitford) gets turned upside down when he is suddenly uprooted by a thief and transplanted to the exotic wilds of the Alaskan Yukon during the Gold Rush. As the newest addition to a mail-delivery dog sled team led by Perrault (Omar Sy) and his wife Françoise (Cara Gee), Buck has to learn to toe the line behind alpha male Spitz but then he bests him and becomes leader of the pack, heeding the call of the wild that intervenes to periodically remind him of his canine forebears. When the team is sold with the advent of the telegraph the team is acquired by nasty adventurer Hal (Dan Stevens) who is about to kill Buck when the dog is rescued by grizzled old John Thornton (Harrison Ford). John is drinking heavily to get away from his own family home – he has left his wife following the death of their son and decided to follow the boy’s dream to depart from chartered territory and find his heart’s desire where X marks the spot. Buck and his new master are true friends and battle the natural elements where Buck becomes his true self in the wild until Hal seeks revenge … This is not the south lands. Michael Green’s adaptation of the 1903 Jack London wilderness classic takes some liberties and makes some changes, presumably for reasons of political correctness, ensuring a direct hit on kids’ sensibilities without the fear factor or the race aspect. The shortcuts and alterations minimise the human cruelty, probably a good thing. The first five minutes are hard to watch, as though shot at double speed and played back fractionally slower (Hobbit-like), but then the physicality of the film slows down to set up the story, again a little differently from the book. Tactile Buck may be but his actions were laid down by renowned actor and gymnast Terry Notary and then he was magicked into life by CGI:  in an interview Ford said the scale and scope of the film could not have been achieved otherwise. And who would want any animal put through their paces as these sled dogs are? The titular call is actualised in the image of an ancient black dog who appears ghostlike every so often but it is a clear representation of Buck’s personal growth, a sign that he is becoming his true wild self. And as he does,  John and Buck save each other. The end is of course tragic in part but Buck reaches his destiny, in the wild. It’s a rather brilliant fable and very well told. That lump in your throat is definitely not a special effect. Directed by Chris Sanders.

That Darn Cat! (1965)

That Darn Cat 1965

Do I look like Eliot Ness? Siamese pretty boy Darn Cat aka DC returns to the suburban home he shares with sisters Patti (Hayley Mills) and Ingrid aka Inkie Randall (Dorothy Provine) with a partly-inscribed watch replacing his collar after he follows bank robbers Iggy (Frank Gorshin) and Dan (Neville Brand) to their hideout where they’re hiding their kidnap victim Margaret Miller (Grayson Hall). Patti sees the news story and thinks the watch belongs to the woman and reports the case to the FBI who detail Agent Zeke Kelso (Dean Jones) to the case.  He has a really tough job tailing DC on his nighttime excursions trying to track down the robbers … D.C.’s a cat! He can’t help his instincts. He’s a hunter, just like you are. Only he’s not stupid enough to stand out in the pouring rain all day! Long and funny slapstick cat actioner with Mills utterly charming and Jones perfectly cast as the agent charged with following the titular feline. There are good jokes about surf movies, TV weather and nosy neighbours, with Elsa Lanchester a particular irritant. Roddy McDowall is a hoot as Gregory, the woefully misguided mama’s boy who serves as a brief romantic interest for Ingrid, mainly because he can drive her to work every day. Provine has a marvellous moment looking to camera in one of their scenes. Adapted by Bill Walsh and The Gordons, from their 1963 novel Undercover Cat, this has enough satirical elements to win over a wide audience. Bobby Darin sings the title song, composed by the Sherman brothers. You might recognise one of the two versatile Seal Point Siamese cats who play DC as the co-star of The Incredible Journey. Directed by Robert Stevenson. Sir, a mouse is no more permitted in here, than a man without a car

The Two-Headed Spy (1958)

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A man cannot control the circumstances of his birth but he can make a choice. In 1939 Alex Shottland (Jack Hawkins) has been embedded as a British agent at the highest levels of the German military since WW1 and is tiring of his role but is urged to continue by his fellow agent Cornaz (Felix Aylmer) who is posing as an antiques dealer. They carry on their meetings under cover of Shottland’s purported interest in clocks. The revelatioin of Schottland’s half-British origins raises the eyebrows of the obsessive and creepy Lt. Reinisch (Erik Schumann) who works as his assistant and he alerts Schottland’s superiors about a potentially traitorous connection to the enemy. Schottland falls in love with singer and fellow spy Lili Geyr  (Gia Scala) whose melancholic songs carry coded messages across the airwaves to the Allies.  Reinisch suspects their relationship is a cover just as the Battle of the Bulge is getting underway and Schottland struggles to communicate the plans to his real superiors I’ll come to your place any time you want me to and spend the night. The amazing true-ish story was based on J. Alvin Kugelmass’ book Britain’s Two-Headed Spy and although A.P. Scotland was an adviser on the production it’s not based on his real escapades. The screenplay is notable for being written by not one but two blacklisted writers, Michael Wilson and the uncredited Alfred Lewis Levitt. Hawkins is excellent as the net seems to be closing in and he has to endure Cornaz being tortured to death;  while Scala impresses as the slinky songstress with espionage at her heart. There are some terrific scenes at Berlin’s highest table with Kenneth Griffith emoting unseen as Hitler.  Taut storytelling, excellent characteristation, glossy monochrome cinematography by Ted Scaife and an urgent score by Gerard Schurmann combine to make this an enthralling spy thriller. Look quickly for Michael Caine as a Gestapo agent while Geoffrey (Catweazle) Bayldon is Dietz. Directed by André De Toth. Truth is allegiance

War Paint (1953)

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I once read a lot of books about humanity. All wrong. When we get back I’ll write a new one. With only nine days to deliver a peace treaty to Gray Smoke, the chief of a strong Native American tribe, cavalry Lieutenant Billings (Robert Stack) and his troopers are in a race against time to avoid all-out war. Since time is of the essence, Billings recruits the chief’s son Taslik (Keith Larsen), to guide the men to the settlement. However Billings and his men are unaware that a group of renegades, wary of the suspicious U.S. treaty, seek to kill the messengers before they can complete their mission and they find that the Bureau of Indian Affairs officer Kirby has been killed – by Taslik . Gradually depleted of supplies including mapping equipment, water and horses, they realise Taslik has led them in a circle but are unaware they are being tracked by his sister Wanima (Joan Taylor) who is causing the landslides and is watching and waiting with a rifle … Without water he’s as dead as we are. This western is rich in irony, not least in the casting because Stack’s impassivity is a good physical reflection of the painted features of Larsen. The backstories of each trooper are drawn out smartly:  Charnofsky (John Doucette) is Polish and says he fled the old country because the Tsar wanted to put me in the military! As the men are gradually driven mad by thirst and greed, the infighting worsens, casualties mount and there is a truly compelling account of a death by poison; one man chooses suicide rather than wait for what appears to be inevitable. The original script had a mercy killing which elicited the ire of the Production Code Administration and had to be removed. All in all a convincing narrative, shot in the relentless glare of Death Valley. It’s written by C. Fred Freiberger, William Tunberg and producer Aubrey Schenck, who wrote the original story, while the screenplay credits are to Richard Alan Simmons and Martin Berkeley. The score is by Arthur Lange and Emil Newman and any film that has a song called Elaine can’t be half bad. Directed by Lesley Selander. Kinda lost track here. Only thing that breaks up the time is the wars

Against All Flags (1952)

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I don’t like the cut of your sail!  In 1700 British officer Lt Brian Hawke (Errol Flynn) on the British ship Monsoon infiltrates a group of pirates led by Roc Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn) located on Libertatia on the coast of the island of Madagascar  He poses as a deserter and falls in love with pirate captain ‘Spitfire’ Stevens (Maureen O’Hara). He proves his worth and is aboard Brasiliano’s vessel when they loot a Moghul ship and kidnap a harem of women protected by their chaperone Molvina MacGregor (Mildred Natwick) who hides the identity of Princess Patma (Alice Kelley). Meanwhile, Hawke is gathering information through his romance with Spitfire to attack the pirate base …  You’re a real rooster, aren’t you!  Nobody is who they claim to be here in a movie that’s full of rousing action, furious innuendo and Taming of the Shrew-ishness. O’Sullivan is resplendent as the pirate queen and Flynn gets one of his last good action roles (and his final pirate part in Hollywood) although a life of excess had already taken a toll on his glorious looks. They have great fun knocking sparks off each other, particularly when he’s training her to be a lady and instructing her in etiquette. The moment when O’Hara, all decked out in her piratical duds, outbids Flynn for Kelley at a slave auction and says to Flynn, I think I prefer you as a bachelor is just a preview of coming attractions:  she then pulls back the girl’s veil, sees how beautiful her new possession is and observes to Flynn, Curse me if I can blame you too much! One for a queer film compilation for sure. Written by Aeneas MacKenzie as a vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks Jr. it was then rewritten by Joseph Hoffman, and directed for the most part by George Sherman but when Flynn broke his ankle production was postponed, Sherman moved on and Douglas Sirk took over a further ten days’ filming upon Flynn’s eventual return. It looks stunning thanks to Russell Metty and Hans Salter handles the boisterous score. Lambasted by the critics, this made a shedload of money in its time. When he comes back with blood on his hands then he can hoist his own black flag but not before!

Wild Rose (2018)

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I’m not a criminal though, I’m an outlaw. Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), an aspiring country singer and single mother of two from Glasgow is released from prison after a twelve-month sentence for attempted drug smuggling. She goes to her boyfriend’s council flat and has sex with him before reuniting with her mother Marion (Julie Walters) who’s been taking care of her young daughter Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield) and son Lyle (Adam Mitchell). She learns that she has lost her job in the house band at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry, as a result of her stint away. Marion encourages her to give up her dream of becoming a musician to focus on more practical matters and take responsibility for her family:  Rose-Lynn has never stuck at anything, can’t play an instrument and has never written a song. She takes a job as a cleaner to wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okenedo) who hears her singing and promises to sponsor her to get Rose-Lynn’s hero BBC DJ Bob Harris to listen to her and fulfil her fantasy en route to the real Grand Ole Opry in Nashville … That’s the end of cleaning floors for you.  From a screenplay by Nicole Taylor, this is implausible, irritating and overly generous to its protagonist. In other words, it’s a lot like a country song (not a country and western song, as she has to keep reminding people in her thick Glaswegian accent) and the minutes occasionally drag like hours.  It’s hard to watch a woman be so cruel to small children who she had as a promiscuous teenager and proceeds to ignore even after a year in the slammer. In a film that can’t make up its mind whether it’s a social realist drama (her bed is even shot to look like it’s in a prison cell) or the biopic of a music legend (like all country movies to date) who actually isn’t one, even in her own house, it mints a jawdropping black saviour trope, although Susannah’s streetwise hubby sees through Rose’s act (literally) and hearing some home truths snaps her out of her daydreaming. This feckless girl is such a screwup she even gets pissed on the potentially life-changing train journey to see ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris at the BBC in London and has her bag and money stolen. Perhaps it’s meant to be colouring in her shady character but it’s a damning indictment of people who put themselves ahead of their kids despite the logic. Dramatically and emotionally this is deeply troublesome. Even basketcase Juliet Barnes in TV’s Nashville is better to her daughter. Buckley just looks morose when the script is giving her nothing to play. There are some nice moments towards the end when Walters cracks and a kind of rapprochement is achieved but it’s thin gruel. I blame reality TV:  in an extraordinary admission a few years ago one of these ‘talent’ show’s producers in the UK let slip the astonishing statistic that “80 per cent of our applicants are illegitimate.” Attention-seeking is a way of life for the working classes, innit. Saints preserve us all from delusional aggressive karaoke queens but this has the narrative shape of those bios, which makes the country angle feel tacked on. Herself a reality show graduate, Buckley has an easy charm, a lopsided mouth and can sing the bejesus out of anything but the narrative falls far short of what it should have been and the fantasy ending is built on air, the fish out of water premise turned on its head, back in Glasgow.  She didn’t earn it, actually. Beats mopping floors, I suppose. The score is by Jack Arnold and the songs covered include everyone from Primal Scream, actress/singer Mary Steenburgen and Anna McGarrigle. Directed by Tom Harper who previously directed Buckley in BBC’s adaptation of War and PeaceYou never stick at anything

Under the Silver Lake (2018)

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Everything you ever hoped for, everything you ever dreamed of being a part of, is a fabrication. Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a disenchanted 33-year-old who discovers a mysterious woman, Sarah (Riley Keough) frolicking in his apartment’s swimming pool.  He befriends her little bichon frisé dog Coca Cola. She has a drink with him and they watch How to Marry a Millionaire in the apartment she shares with two other women.  Her disappearance coincides with that of billionaire Jefferson Sevence (Chris Gann) whose body is eventually found with Sarah’s. Sam embarks on a surreal quest across Los Angeles to decode the secret behind her disappearance, leading him into the murkiest depths of mystery, scandal, and conspiracy as he descends to a labyrinth beneath the City of Angels while engaging with Comic Fan (Patrick Fischler) author of Under the Silver Lake a comic book about urban legends who he believes knows what’s behind a series of dog killings and other conspiracy theories who himself is murdered …Something really big is going on. I know it. Written, produced and directed by David Robert Mitchell who made the modern horror masterpiece It Follows, this is another metatext in which strange portents and signs abound. Revelling in Hollywoodiana – Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Gaynor – and noir and death and the afterlife and the songs that dominate your life and who may or may not have written them, this seems to be an exploration of the obsessions of Gen X. It’s an interesting film to have come out in the same year as Tarantino’s Hollywood mythic valentine Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and it covers some of the same tropes that have decorated that auteur’s past narratives with a postmodern approach that is summed up in one line: An entire generation of men obsessed with codes and video games and space aliens. The messages in the fetishised songs and cereal box toys and movies are all pointing to a massive conspiracy in communication diverting people from their own meaninglessness, symbolised in the disappearance of the billionaire which has to do with a different idea of the afterlife available only to the very rich. Sam’s quest (and it is a quest – he’s literally led by an Arthurian type of homeless guy – David Yow from the band The Jesus Lizard – straight out of The Fisher King) is a choose your own adventure affair where he gets led down some blind alleys including prostitution and chess games and even gets sprayed by a skunk which lends his character a very special aroma. The postmodern approach even extends to the sex he has – with Millicent Sevence’s (Callie Hernandez) death being a grotesque parody of the magazine cover that initiated him to masturbation. Sigh. Garfield holds the unfolding cartography together but that’s what actors do – they fill in the missing scenes:  it may not be everyone’s idea of fun to watch Spider Man having graphic sex scenes and doing things to himself but the audience is also being played.  If the objects are diffuse and the message too broad, well, you can make of it what you will. It means whatever you want it to mean (it’s not about burial, it’s about ascension), a spectral fever dream that at the end of the day is a highly sexual story about a guy who wants to make it with the woman across the court yard in his apartment building, no matter how many secret messages or subliminal warnings are in your breakfast or how many Monroe scenes are re-enacted, filmed, photographed or otherwise stored in the minutiae of our obsessive compulsive Nineties brains. So what do you think it all means?

 

Aquaman (2018)

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He is living proof our peoples can co-exist. Once home to the most advanced civilisation on Earth, the city of Atlantis is now an underwater kingdom ruled by the power-hungry King Orm Marius/Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson). With a vast army at his disposal, Orm plans to conquer the remaining oceanic people – and then the surface world. Standing in his way is Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Orm’s half-human, half-Atlantean brother, the son of lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temura Morrison) and Atlanna Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman) and the true heir to the kingdom’s throne. With help from royal counsellor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) who advises caution, and Princess Mera (Amber Heard), who urges him to take on his half-brother, Aquaman must retrieve the legendary Trident of Atlan and embrace his destiny as protector of the deep… I solve my problems with my anger and my fists. I’m a blunt instrument and I’m damn good at it. I’ve done nothing but get my ass kicked this whole trip. I’m no leader. Technically, the dog days of summer ended two weeks ago but it seems right now like they’ll never end. So, to matters nutty and comic book, a film that didn’t need to be made, a mashup of every action/superhero trope with ludicrously good visual effects, a plot contrived from many old and new stories and a big surly but charismatic guy obsessed with his mom. So far, so expected. Except that this works on a level that’s practically operatic while also plundering sympathies of Pisceans such as myself for creatures like seahorses, who have their own army, not to mention an octopus with a fondness for percussion. Got me right there. And then some – with frogman David Kane reinventing himself as supervillain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul Mateen II), pirates, messages in bottles, gladiatorial combat, wormholes, the centre of the earth … For those who care about this kinda stuff, Arthur/Aquaman first showed up in Batman Vs. Superman and then materialised in Justice League but here he’s part of a Freudian under the sea show that’s quite batty and compelling. Obviously Dolph Lundgren shows up, as King Nereus. Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, from a story by Geoff Johns, director James Wann and Beall, adapting the Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris story/character. Directed with no-holds-barred gusto by Wan. A total hoot from start to finish about evolution, equality and what lies beneath. Crazy fish people, mostly.  Jules Verne once wrote: “Put two ships in the open sea, without wind or tide… they will come together”. That’s how my parents met: like two ships destined for each other

Only the Valiant (1951)

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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

The Spy in Black (1939)

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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