American Made (2017)

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A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.

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Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) gets along far better with his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than with his parents so when the old man dies, with his eyes missing and a strange creature hiding outside his apartment in the bushes, Jake recalls all the stories he told him about living in a magical place during WW2. After several sessions with therapist Dr Golan (Allison Janney) he convinces his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Wales where he is befriended by some Peculiars, enters a derelict mansion through a portal in a cave and encounters the very much alive Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who lives in this weird time loop with all the weirdly gifted kids whom his grandfather told him about. They have to ward off a powerful enemy who feast on the children’s eyes, led by Samuel L. Jackson who delivers his now customary cod-threatening performance and after taking Miss Peregrine, the children must engage in a final face-off (or eye-off…) in a theatre in modern-day Blackpool. Jake himself has a special power which can save them all … There’s a level of ordinariness to this which is irritating. It’s well set up, with Tim Burton returning to contemporary Florida (remember the achingly wonderful Edward Scissorhands?) and the problematic father-son dynamic that fuels some of his better work. However there’s no real sense of mystery or fabulism that would bring this to a different realm. What is best about it? Probably the Ray Harryhausen-style doll animations. Emotions lie half-buried in the middle of this – about being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, hating your dumb parents and only finding your true family because you possess an understanding of life that other people don’t (seeing invisible monsters is inordinately helpful). Oh well – there’s a good joke about the evil motivations of psychiatrists, though. Adapted by Jane Goldman from the novel by Ransom Riggs, and apparently a lot of changes took place in the writing. Very, very uneven.

Conflict of Wings (1954)

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Aka Fuss Over Feathers and The Norfolk Story.  That great expanse of sky and never a ripple to disturb that ancient garden. A Norfolk bird sanctuary that was the burial ground for children in Roman times is threatened by the Royal Air Force’s plan to use it as a target range for testing their new DeHavilland Vampires with a rocket system. Led by Muriel Pavlow, whose boyfriend John Gregson is an RAF corporal, the community discovers that the land was gifted to the Church by Henry VIII in thanks for assisting quell a rebellion and finds grounds for defending the sanctuary from the rocket tests. The local eel catcher starts squatting on the land, protesting his fishing rights, and everyone forms a human shield around the island to stop a test but they accidentally damage the RAF’s temporary telephone line and the base can’t be told in time to stop a launch just as clouds begin massing and impeding the pilots’ sightlines …  With its story of a community fighting to preserve their historical rights, this has echoes of Passport to Pimlico and can thus be viewed as part of a wider sense of post-war anti-establishment feeling. Nonetheless with the revelation that the squadron will be moving on to Malaya, there’s something of a triumphalist conclusion. Shot in a variety of Norfolk locations – Hickling Broad, Cley-next-the-Sea, Ludham, Wells and West Raynham, which used to have an airfield. Adapted from actor turned screenwriter and director Don Sharp’s debut novel by John Pudney and directed by John Eldridge, there are plenty of familiar faces from the era – Kieron Moore, Niall MacGinnis, Harry Fowler, Guy Middleton – in this small but satisfying drama with its wonderful setting. Planespotters will have a field day. And there’s a charming gull too! Lovely score by Philip Green who was longtime musical director at the Rank Organisation and whose stock music has been used in everything from Ren and Stimpy to Night of the Living Dead. Now that’s versatile. Made under the Group 3 scheme to encourage independent films under the umbrella of the National Film Finance Corporation.

Dunkirk (2017)

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Survival’s not fair. A great disaster. Hundreds of thousands of British and French troops got at from all sides by the Nazis. A young guy Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) running down the streets of Dunkirk shot at from every direction with all his fellow soldiers mown down beside him. Then he gets to the beach and sees what looks like half the British Army waiting … and waiting. And the beach is strafed by German planes. In the clouds Tom Hardy (masked, mostly, like in his last Christopher Nolan outing) is playing cat and mouse in his Spitfire. His fellow pilot is shot down. Back in England Mark Rylance and his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local lad (strange Irish actor Barry Keoghan) take their pleasure cruiser plus dozens of life jackets out with them before the Navy can check them dockside. These stories with their differing timelines (1 week, 1 hour, 1 day) don’t converge until 70 minutes in. In the interim there is a lot of water. – The tide is turning. – How do you know? – The bodies are coming back. Drowning. Suicides. Shootings by the Germans. If you’re afraid of water you will be very queasy. The word for the viewer experience is immersive. Quite literally. The bigger picture is only put in the mouth of Commander Kenneth Branagh in conversation as the safe place for berthing destroyers (the Mole) is being blown asunder when he talks about the war. That’s when we hear about the callout for small vessels to attempt a rescue on the beach. Otherwise we are escaping with Whitehead as he accompanies Harry Styles (in his film debut) and a Frenchie pretending to be English and they have to try to survive in the bottom of a sinking boat being fired upon; Rylance and son and the traumatised man they rescue from the hull of a sunken boat (Cillian Murphy) who tells them to return to Blighty and kills their assistant;  and the pilots – watching one almost drown is quite traumatic.  For all the enormous budget we never get a sense of the enormity or the scale of the enterprise:  far too few soldiers, hardly any boats. The stories are told in convoluted fashion due to the differing timeframes for each of them. So just when you think you’re ahead, you’re catapulted back to an explanation. And then … it’s over. This reminds me of the problem with Inception which it took me a while to work out:  that film is really a video game. This is also that in one significant part – I too have seen those YouTube Battle of Britain videos, Christopher Nolan, and they’re stunning:  I love a good airborne catfight.  And even though we see very little of Hardy, this is the first time I thought he’s a movie star at last. But that’s not it really. This is actually a tone poem. It’s more like a Derek Jarman film than anything I’ve seen since that great visual artist’s death. And that’s an issue presumably for most of the paying audience who like a good yarn. There is some characterisation – there is bravery, cowardice, viciousness, swagger, kindness and terrible suffering. But what little there is cannot make up for the lack of actual dramatic structure and story. And Churchill’s words are said in the most desultory fashion and barely make an impact because of the actor’s speaking voice and the sound mix even if it’s a very canny and surprising move in how it’s delivered.  But mostly there is Hans Zimmer’s astonishing score:  it’s an unforgettable, breathtaking symphony that deserves a better film. There. I’ve said it. Where’s W. H. Auden when you need him? It’s rumoured that Hitler gave the Brits a fighting chance by only allowing the bombing of the beaches instead of launching a full-scale ground attack and invading Britain:  Nolan simply dismissed the vastness of the story and loses its importance in the doing.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

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The second of Guy Hamilton’s outings as director (he did four altogether) this is James Bond verging on self-parody and hugely entertaining it is too. Sean Connery returns looking the worse for middle age. At the heart of it is some strange goings-on in the diamond market leading our favourite spy to Amsterdam (via Hovercraft!) where he encounters the smuggler Tiffany Case (Jill St John, the first American Bond girl). It seems evil criminal mastermind Blofeld (Charles Gray) is up to his old tricks, this time stocking up to use a killer satellite. Touching on real-life themes of nuclear weaponry, strong women (look at those bodyguards! Never mind Lana Wood as Plenty O’Toole!), cloning and plastic surgery, the American obsession with death (pace Jessica Mitford and Evelyn Waugh) leading to some hilarious (kinda – unless you’re keen to be in a coffin) scenes in a mortuary and great use of Las Vegas locations, this is also the one with those fabulously fey henchmen Mr Wint and Mr Kidd ( Bruce Glover  and  Putter Smith) and there’s an ending straight out of Road Runner. As close to a cartoon as Bond would ever get,  you’ll have forgotten that Bond is out to avenge the murder of his wife (in OHMSS) in the first few minutes: this is simply great entertainment. And what about that song! Adapted from Ian Fleming’s 1956 novel by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz.

Wild Things (1998)

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Teenage sexpot Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) is hot for teacher Sam (Matt Dillon), a former lover of her wealthy widowed mother Sandra (Theresa Russell) but he’s not having any. Well, not with her. So she cries Rape and he gets caught up in a very dense web involving loser Suzie (Neve Campbell) who also calls Rape. She was busted for drugs the previous year by Detective Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and suffered 6 months in the clink. When personal injury shyster lawyer Ken (Bill Murray) defends Sam the plot gets as convoluted and murky as a Florida swamp.  The girls admit they made it up because Sam didn’t protect Suzie from prison. Sam celebrates his eventual defamation winnings – by having sex with both girls. They were scamming Sandra for money. And that’s just the start of it. Cross, double cross, murder and betrayal are at the centre of a complex story that opens out like a neverending Russian nesting doll. Twisty Twister McTwisted isn’t in it! Sexy, funny, outrageous and brilliant neo noir. Written by Stephen Peters and directed by John (Henry:  Portrait of a Serial Killer) McNaughton, with a notable score by George Clinton. Super steamy.

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

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Fool’s courage. Operation Market Garden was the code name for the failed attempt to take the bridges around Arnhem in Holland as winter drew in during 1944. The Allies led by Montgomery and Eisenhower had the idea to power through to the damaged German factories on the Ruhr – and a combination of bloody mindedness, poor planning, bad luck and bad weather made it a pretty disastrous sortie and certainly did not end WW2 as anticipated.  The great Irish writer Cornelius Ryan’s stonking blockbuster books about the era yielded this (published in 1974) and Darryl F. Zanuck’s independent production The Longest Day (1962) and his brilliance as a journalist and investigative historian have cleared up a lot of myths about certain WW2 events, this not being the least of them. Both films have an A-Z list of stars in common but Richard Attenborough was the sole helmer here and William Goldman adapted the book, published in 1974.  General Browning (Dirk Bogarde, a real life WW2 soldier) is the man poised to lead Montgomery’s plan but when a doubting Private Wicks (Paul Copley) carries out an extra recce and supplies him with photos of concealed armoured German tanks in the area where the landing is planned he has him put out on sick leave. Bad idea. With seven days’ notice the paratroopers, infantry and air service both US and UK are sent in. It’s well set up with the Dutch underground – a father and son carry out some spying for the Brits on the Nazis assembled in the area – and the putting together of a team of doubting Thomas Allies with Sean Connery in particular being given some great moments as General Urquhart – confessing to air sickness before takeoff;  landing in a forest where the lunatics from the local asylum are literally laughing at him;  and in a lovely touch and a symmetrical moment after the disaster has happened, arriving at Browning’s Dutch HQ being greeted by geese – who are clearly laughing at him too. That’s good writing. Never mind the naysayers, and there have been a lot over the years amongst the critical posse, who probably wish this had had a very different outcome (don’t we all):  this is fiercely exciting, mordantly funny and has memorable moments of sheer bloody minded bravery, not least when James Caan pilots a jeep through a Nazi regiment with the body of a young captain he has promised he wouldn’t let die. If you’re not cheering at this then you’re not breathing, mate. Maximillian Schell is terrific as the German General who applauds his opponents’ courage and hands Anthony Hopkins a bar of chocolate upon capture. After he’s given the order to raze Arnhem. Thrilling, splendid and a history lesson we still need to learn – bad project management, not heeding early warnings and then stopping the Poles from parachuting in because of fog when it was too late to rescue those poor men who were being slaughtered by the thousand. And those bloody radio crystals. Why’d they bring the wrong ones when the drop zone was eight miles from the river? Sheesh. Exciting as hell. And with a bigger body count. Fantastic, with every Seventies star you could wish for, be they given ever so little but with a special mention to little known Paul Maxwell and Erik Van’t Wout. There is an absolutely iconic score by the great John Addison:  hear it and you know exactly where you are. What a shame Ryan didn’t live long enough to see it:  he died two months after the book was published. What a gentleman and scholar he was. His contribution to our knowledge is immense. Just the thing for a rainy summer’s day when you should be watching Wimbledon but they shunted it back by a fortnight. Again.

Julieta (2016)

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The abject maternal has long been a strong component of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s oeuvre and in this striking adaptation of three Alice Munro stories from Runaway he plunders the deep emotional issues that carry through the generations. On a Madrid street widowed Julieta (Emma Suarez) runs into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) who used to be her daughter’s best friend. Bea tells her she met Antia in Switzerland where she’s married with three children.  Julieta enters a spiral of despair – she hasn’t seen Antia since she went on a spiritual retreat 12 years earlier and she now abandons lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) on the eve of their departure for Portugal. She returns to the apartment she lived in with Antia when the girl was an adolescent and hopes to hear from her, the birthday postcards having long ceased. We are transported back to the 1980s when on a snowy train journey to a school in Andalucia Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) resisted the advances of an older man who then committed suicide and she had a one-night stand with Xoan (Daniel Grao). She turns up at his house months later and his housekeeper Marian (the heroically odd Rossy de Palma) tells her his wife has died and he’s spending the night with Ava (Inma Cuesta). Julieta and Xoan resume their sexual relationship and she tells Ava she’s pregnant and is advised to tell Xoan. And so she settles into a seaside lifestyle with him as he fishes and she returns with her young child to visit her parents’ home where her mother is bedridden and her father is carrying on with the help. Years go by and she wants to return to teaching Greek literature, which has its echoes in the storytelling here. The housekeeper hates her and keeps her informed of Xoan’s onoing trysts with Ava;  her daughter is away at camp;  she and Xoan fight and he goes out fishing on a stormy day and doesn’t return alive. This triggers the relationship between Antia and Bea at summer camp which evolves into Lesbianism albeit we only hear about this development latterly, when Bea tells Julieta that once it become an inferno she couldn’t take it any more and Antia departed for the spiritual retreat where she became something of a fanatic.  Julieta’s guilt over the old man’s death, her husband’s suicidal fishing trip and her daughter’s disappearance and estrangement lead her to stop caring for herself – and Lorenzo returns as she allows hope to triumph over miserable experience. There are moments here that recall Old Hollywood and not merely because of the Gothic tributes, the secrets and deceptions and illicit sexual liaisons. The colour coding, with the wonderfully expressive use of red, reminds one that Almodovar continues to be a masterful filmmaker even when not utterly committed to the material;  and if it’s not as passionate as some of his earlier female dramas, it’s held together by an overwhelming depiction of guilt and grief and the sheer unfathomability of relationships, familial and otherwise. Suarez and Ugarte are extremely convincing playing the different phases of Julieta’s experiences – how odd it might have been in its original proposed version, with Meryl Streep in the leading role, at both 25 and 50, and filming in English. I might still prefer his early funny ones but a little Almodovar is better than none at all.

Wonder Woman (2017)

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Diana (Gal Gadot) is the stroppy kid brought up in an Amazonian matriarchy by mom Connie Nielsen and tough as hell trainer aunt Robin Wright. She cannot be told of her godlike origins in this society of strong women. Then WW1 crashes into their ancient Greek Island world in the form of airman Chris Pine, a double agent for the allies, kitted out in German uniform with their army hot on his tail as Diana drags him out of his plane. There’s fighting on the beach of a kind you don’t often see – bows and arrows against German gunfire. And when her aunt dies saving her, it’s up to Wonder Woman to take serious action against the god Aries whom she deems responsible for the global conflict. She heads to London with her newfound companion, there’s some very amusing and sexy byplay, a departure to the Front with an unpromising crew, some displays of camaraderie and great costume changes, excellent combat and truly evil Germans. And Aries is not who you think he is after all…. After years of snarky annoying movies about silly superheroes all shot in greyscale this is actually a colourful and proper good-versus-evil plot about gods and monsters that threatens but never actually tips into full camp (those first scenes gave me the wobbles but right prevailed), the humour is spot-on, the performances tonally perfect and I am pleased to agree with many others that this is really terrific. Well done director Patty (Monster) Jenkins and the screenwriter Allan Heinberg, working from a story by himself, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs. Miraculously it all seems to make sense. Based  – of course – on the comic book by William Moulton Marston. The soundtrack by Rupert Gregson-Williams is fabulous – but what I really wanted to hear was …. you know!!