Mr Jones (2019)

Mr Jones

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

Appointment in Berlin (1943)

Appointment in Berlin

That’s the whole point of Secret Service – to prevent people suspecting. In 1938 disillusioned and recently disgraced RAF officer Wing Commander Keith Wilson (George Sanders) risks his life in Berlin by broadcasting pro-Nazi propaganda as a cover for counter-espionage. His broadcasts have a military code enabling British manoeuvres. He falls in love with Ilse (Marguerite Chapman) sister of a high-ranking Nazi Rudolph von Preising (Onslow Stevens) and forges links with journalist Greta van Leyden (Gale Sondergaard) who is actually a spy as well and when a message needs to be taken to Holland he’s the only one left standing … If you are going in at the deep end you may as well do it for England. In a rare tragic role, Sanders scores as the officer whose disgust at Britain’s politically neutral stance prior to WW2 leads him to become a pariah – lending him handy cover when England expects. The question of identity hovers over every scene here as Ilse’s transformation is nicely nuanced whereas Sondergaard’s situation is more extreme and her ending is well staged. There’s an amusing double act from a pair of American neutrals whose constant haranguing of supposedly treacherous Wilson adds humour to proceedings – inevitably they assist in his time of need. Nice references to Goebbels and his role in the manufacturing of truth. An interesting propaganda picture of pre-war problems and the reason why cross-border co-operation was required. Michael Hogan and Horace McCoy wrote the screenplay based on B.P. Fineman’s story.  Directed by Alfred E. Green. It’s finally happened

Havana (1990)

Havana theatrical

Now I want a shot. One shot. At a game I could never get in before. Christmas Eve 1958. On the eve of revolution, Navy veteran and professional high-stakes gambler Jack Weil (Robert Redford) arrives in Cuba seeking to win big in poker games. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Bobby (Lena Olin), the wife of a Communist revolutionary Arturo Duràn (an uncredited Raul Julia) and gradually becomes convinced that the anti-Batista campaign is a cause worth fighting for… Nobody should be here. Redford’s seventh collaboration with director Sydney Pollack is their final work together and is a rather uneven experience once it veers away from its inherent genre identity of romantic melodrama. Perhaps the problem is inherent in the premise linked to previous Redford characters and his meta perception as an enigma:  the lack of commitment to a cause which reeks of Casablanca.  In truth it’s a problem with the screenplay which takes too many stances too quickly. This also suffers somewhat in comparison with treatment of broadly related subject matter in The Godfather Part II with Mark Rydell making an appearance here as Meyer Lansky and that film’s outrageous sex show is in another dimension from the tame act Redford brings American tourists Diane (Betsy Brantley) and Patty (Lise Cutter) to see, the foreplay to their inevitable threesome. In fact the role of ‘Rick Blaine’ is actually split between Redford and Alan Arkin who plays Joe Volpi, Lansky’s front guy. Then Arkin gets to essay a variation on Claude Rains in the penultimate scene with Redford adopting a more straightforward heroic stance, not that that was ever in any doubt because of how the story begins. It starts out with an ill-advised voiceover by Redford and gets right into action which involves his going out on a limb for no perceptible reason to help a total stranger escape the attentions of SIM (Batista’s secret police) onboard the Cuba-bound ship, forcing the meet-cute with Olin. Olin’s character is an out of work Swedish actress who was inspired by Garbo – shouldn’t it have been Bergman?! – while her former husband, a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter got her exiled to Mexico and then marriage to Duràn, son of a well-connected Cuban family (we’re non-torturable, he explains). There’s talk about American citizenship. A lot of talk about moving to Miami. There’s a great character – a ‘fake fairy food critic’ called Marion Chigwell (Daniel Davis) and he is – what else – a CIA spook. Somewhere here there’s a great movie but it’s badly organised and the sub-plot with the journalist friend Julio Ramos (Tony Plana) seems under-explained. There are great poker scenes with the military chief Menocal (Tomas Milian) who of course is not what he appears. After Olin’s character loses her naturalistic diffidence in the first two-thirds it shifts into a different and more convincing gear. Even if we never believe Redford is in real trouble. Despite this there is an uncannily evocative atmosphere throughout and some great lines. Pollack was an inveterate messer with scripts, perhaps that explains it. There are major compensations in Owen Roizman’s cinematography (of the Dominican Republic, where this was shot) and the dreamy production design by Terence Marsh is something of a miracle. Written by Judith Rascoe (from her original idea) and Pollack’s usual collaborator, David Rayfiel. A fascinating work for students of Hollywood stardom as Redford edged into his mid-fifties. History is overtaking us

The Longest Day (1962)

The Longest Day theatrical

Tonight. I know it’s tonight. In the days leading up to D-Day, 6th June 1944, concentrating on events on both sides of the English Channel the Allies wait for a break in the poor weather while anticipating the reaction of the Axis forces defending northern France which they plan to invade at Normandy. As Supreme Commander of Supreme Headquarters of Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (Henry Grace) makes the decision to go after reviewing the initial bad weather reports and the reports about the divisions within the German High Command as to where an invasion might happen and what should be their response as the Allies have made fake preparations for Operation Fortitude, to take place in a quite different landing position:  are the Germans fooled? Allied airborne troops land inland.The French Resistance react. British gliders secure Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal. American paratroopers launch counter-attacks at Manche in Normandy. The Resistance carries out sabotage and infiltrate the German ranks. The Wehrmacht responds ….  He’s dead. I’m crippled. You’re lost. Do you suppose it’s always like that? I mean war. Funny, intense, jaw-dropping in scale, this landmark war epic produced by D-Day veteran Darryl F. Zanuck, whose dream project this was, is a 6th June commemoration like no other, a tribute to the armed forces who launched the magnificent amphibian assault. The screenplay is by Cornelius Ryan (who did not get along with DFZ) who was adapting his 1959 non-fiction book, with additional scenes written by novelists Romain Gary and James Jones, and David Pursall & Jack Seddon. DFZ knew the difficulties of such a mammoth undertaking which included eight battle scenes and hired directors from each of the major participating countries/regions: Ken Annakin directed the British and French exteriors, with Gerd Oswald the uncredited director of the Sainte-Marie-Église parachute drop sequence; while the American exteriors were directed by Andrew Marton; and Austria’s Bernhard Wicki shot the German scenes. Zanuck himself shot some pick ups. There are cameos by the major actors of the era, some of whom actually participated in the events depicted: Irish-born Richard Todd plays Major Howard of D Company and he really was at Pegasus Bridge and is wearing his own beret from the event; Leo Genn plays Major-General Hollander of SHAEF; Kenneth More is Acting Captain Colin Maud of the Royal Navy at Juno Beach and is carrying his shillelagh; Rod Steiger plays Lt. Commander Joseph Witherow Jr., Commander of the USS Satterlee; Eddie Albert is Colonel Lloyd Thompson, ADC to General Norman Cota (Robert Mitchum) of the Fighting 29th Infantry Division; Henry Fonda plays Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Assistant Commander of the 4th Infantry Division. The all-star cast also includes John Wayne (replacing Charlton Heston), Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Mel Ferrer, Tom Tryon, Stuart Whitman, George Segal, Jeffrey Hunter (who’s probably got the best role), Sal Mineo, Robert Wagner; Peter Lawford, Richard Burton and Roddy McDowall (who both volunteered to appear for nothing out of boredom on the Cleopatra set in Rome), Sean Connery,  Leslie Phillips, Frank Finlay; Christian Marquand, Georges Wilson (Lambert’s dad), Bourvil, Jean-Louis Barrault, Arletty;  Paul Hartmann, Werner Hinz (as Rommel), Curd Jürgens, Walter Gotell, Peter van Eyck, Gert Fröbe, Dietmar Schönherr. An astonishing lineup in a production which does not shirk the horrors of war, the number of casualties or the overwhelming noise of terror. It’s a stunning achievement, measured and wonderfully realistically staged with the co-operation of all the forces organised by producer Frank McCarthy who worked at the US Department of War during WW2.  The key scene-sequences are the parachute drop into Sainte-Mère-Église; the advance from the Normandy beaches; the U.S. Ranger Assault Group’s assault on the Pointe du Hoc; the attack on the town of Ouistreham by Free French Forces; and the strafing of the beaches by the only two Luftwaffe pilots in the area. The vastness of the project inevitably means there are flaws:  where’s the point of view? Where are the Canadians?! But it is a majestic reconstruction made at the height of the Cold War of one of the biggest events of the twentieth century. Or, as Basil Fawlty said before he was muzzled by the BBC yesterday, Don’t Mention The War. Yeah, right. Or maybe do like Hitler did – take a sleeping pill and pretend it’s not happening. Thank God for common sense, great soldiers and DFZ, come to think of it. Spectacular.  You remember it. Remember every bit of it, ’cause we are on the eve of a day that people are going to talk about long after we are dead and gone

Europa (1991)

Europa theatrical

Aka Zentropa. I thought the war was over. Just after World War II Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American of German descent takes a job on the Zentropa train line in US-occupied Germany to help the country rebuild. He becomes a sleeping-car conductor under the tutelage of his drunken uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård). He falls under the spell of the mysterious Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa) daughter of Zentropa railway magnate Max (Jørgen Reenberg) whose friendship with US Colonel Harris (Eddie Constantine) has raised hackles. Her gay brother Lawrence (Udo Kier) is the family embarrassment because like Leopold he didn’t serve his country. Leopold inadvertently becomes embroiled with a pro-Nazi fascist organisation known as the Werewolves who are conspiring to overthrow the state. Simultaneously being used by the US Army, Leopold finds neutrality an impossible position … I understand unemployment in Germany a lot better now. It costs too much to work here. Danish auteur Lars von Trier made this great train thriller long before he became a trying controversialist down the Dogma 95 rabbit hole. It plugs into that febrile post-war atmosphere which we already know from films of the late 40s like Berlin Express as well as sensational character-driven pre-war comedy thrillers like The Lady Vanishes. It’s the final part of the director’s first trilogy (following The Element of Crime and The Epidemic) and it gained a lot of kudos upon release, particularly for its visual style, principally shot in black and white with rear projections in colour (photographed by Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski and Jean-Paul Meurisse) lending an eerie aspect to what is already an innovative production, shifting tone as surely as it shifts pigments. The hypnotic (literally) narration by Max von Sydow lulls you into submission like the mesmerising shuffle of the carriages along the tracks; while the charm of the leading man on his journey which is physical, emotional and political, all at once, carries you through a sensitive yet experimental scenario.The miraculous editing achievement is by Hervé Schneid. It feels like a new kind of film is being born, reformulating the grammar of the language with its surrealist nods and noir references. A cult item from the casting of Kier and Constantine alone, with Sukowa’s role harking back to her Fassbinder films, this is a classic of modern European cinema. Written by von Trier (who appears as a Jew) & Niels Vørsel with a shooting script by von Trier & Tómas Gislason. You have carried out your orders. Now relax

 

 

’71 (2014)

71 poster

Why aren’t you out there looking for him? Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) a new recruit to the British Army is sent to Belfast in 1971 at the beginning of The Troubles. Under the leadership of the inexperienced Second Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid) his platoon is deployed to a volatile area where Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists and Loyalists live side by side. The unit provides support for the local police force (the Royal Ulster Constabulary) as it inspects homes for firearms, shocking Hook with their rough treatment of civilians. A crowd gathers to protest and provoke the British troops who, though heavily armed, can only respond by trying to hold the crowd back. Abandoned inadvertently by his military unit, Gary has to survive the riot alone and make his way back to the barracks through unknown territory, taken to a pub that’s a front for Loyalists until a bomb being built in a back room by the Army’s counter-insurgency unit explodes. Local IRA factions don’t know it’s a mistake and blame each other while a Catholic father Eamon (Richard Dormer) and his daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy) rescue Gary when they find him injured by shrapnel, contacting the Official IRA’s officer Boyle (David Wilmot) for assistance and he is offered up to the Military Reaction Force led by Captain Sandy Browning (Sean Harris) in exchange for murdering IRA leader James Quinn (Killian Scott) … Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cuntsThat’s the army for you It’s all a lie. A film whose notion of patriot games is ratcheted up a poetic notch by taking its inspiration from the classic Belfast film  Odd Man Out minus its sense of tragic romance (nor is this a symbolic rendering of that troubled locale:  it’s definitely Belfast).  This time the drama of entrapment centres on a wide-eyed British squaddie who is alternately running around the city and hiding wherever he can in a race against time and a contemplation of innocence versus harsh experience. Breathlessly shot and paced, this is the best Northern Irish film since the Carol Reed masterpiece, its genius perhaps deriving in part from the cold eye of strangers in a strange land – Scottish playwright Gregory Burke and French-Algerian director Yann Demange – but also because it cleaves to the rules of the best thrillers as well as loosely recalling the 1970 Falls Curfew, making a complex situation comprehensible by a never-ending series of kinetic events. This is about someone running for his life and he is brilliantly played by O’Connell who quickly learns that there are black ops and bad guys on both sides in this dirty war. Harris is terrifying as the brutally treacherous player Browning. This is no country for young men but there’s an awesome array of them here – Sam Reid, Barry Keoghan, Paul Anderson, Jack Lowden, Martin McCann, among others. It’s a rites of passage movie dialled up to 11 and then some;  politics are almost an afterthought until you remember they’re everything and nobody and nothing is as they appear. Brilliantly controlled and utterly gripping. For God’s sake will you never leaves us alone?

Sirocco (1951)

Sirocco

We want Syria for ourselves.  Damascus, 1925. American Harry Smith (Humphrey Bogart) is selling guns to Emir Hassan (Onslow Stevens), whose Syrian rebels are battling the occupying French troops. Hoping to stem the fighting, French Colonel Feroud (Lee J. Cobb) asks Harry to introduce him to Hassan. Meanwhile, Feroud’s girlfriend, Violette (Märta Torén), is increasingly drawn to Harry. While she wants Harry to ferry her out of the dangerous country on one of his regular trips to Cairo, he stays and tries to make a profit from his dealings with both Hassan and Feroud... Who cares whose guns are firing as long as they’re not shooting at you?  This promisingly Hemingwayesque riff on the premise of Casablanca lacks its diamond-sharp characters and dialogue but boasts a few good performances, particularly from Cobb, even if Toren is no Ingrid Bergman. One of the best scenes is between them when he responds horribly violently to her question,  What kind of man are you? It also supplies the tragic ending but in a very different manner as you might imagine from the war-torn streets of Syria, the Twenties or not because Bogie’s gun-running character (the name is a nod to his role in To Have and Have Not) has a change of heart and he makes a calculated decision in which only he can be the loser when he persists in playing both ends against the middle. Screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides (whose novel The Long Haul was the basis for Bogart’s film They Drive By Night) and Hans Jacoby from Joseph Kessel’s 1936 novel Coup de Grace and directed by Curtis Bernhardt. You’re a man entirely without moral scruples

I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

I Was a Male War Bride theatrical

If the American army says that I CAN be my wife, who am I to dispute them? French Army Captain Henri Rochard (Cary Grant) is assigned to work with American 1st Lieutenant Catherine Gates on a mission to locate a German lens maker Schindler (Martin Miller) in post-war Occupied Germany. Henri and Catherine worked together before and are at daggers drawn. However despite the initial problems between the two, with only Catherine being allowed to drive a motorcycle to Bad Neuheim and Henri forced to sit in a sidecar, it’s not long before their battling turns to romance and they hastily arrange to get married. But a steady stream of bureaucratic red tape ensures the couple cannot be together and with Catherine receiving orders that she’s to be sent home, there is just one option – Henri will have to invoke a War Brides Clause in army regulations and be recognised as Catherine’s bride but to do that he has to disguise himself as a WAC … Oh, no! You mean you and ME? Well, I’d be glad to explain to them. The very idea of any connection is revolting. Shot in the last months of 1948 in post-war Germany, this is resolutely apolitical in the typical manner of producer/director Howard Hawks but it was plagued by problems. Illness meant that the beginning and end of the midpoint sequence – Grant vanishing into a haystack and coming out the other side – were shot several months apart, with Grant 37 pounds lighter from hepatitis when we meet him again. Sheridan was also ill, with pleurisy. Hawks got hives. Even co-writer Charles Lederer got sick and Orson Welles stepped in to write a scene (allegedly). When the production moved to London for the interiors they were subjected to work-to-rule habits of the British unions which prolonged things further. However it’s still fun to watch for its low-key fashion rather than the antic hilarity of Hawks and Grant’s earlier Bringing Up Baby.  Despite its being promoted on the basis of Grant’s cross-dressing, that only takes place in the last 10 minutes and it works because Grant listened to Hawks and didn’t do effeminate, he plays it totally straight, a man dressed in women’s clothes – and it ain’t pretty. This is a whip smart attack on bureaucracy and transatlantic misunderstandings and the whole plot basically revolves around coitus postponus because even when the squabbling couple agree to the three marriages deemed necessary to be legal they still can’t get five minutes together, not even in a haystack (which led to their marriage in the first place). It fits nicely into that crossover between screwball and army farce with the entire construction designed to be an affront to Grant’s dignity and an essay on sexual frustration. That said, it’s slow to set up and a lot of the jokes are sight gags, relying on Grant’s acrobatic background to pull them off, while Sheridan is a great broad in the best sense, fizzing with common sense and sex appeal, the very incarnation of a good sport. Hawks’ very young girlfriend Marion Marshall has a nice role as her colleague who gets to relay verbally what women see in Grant and the whole thing is a very relaxed entertainment, the antithesis of the circumstances in which it was apparently produced. It marked Hawks’ and Grant’s fourth collaboration and Grant always said it was his favourite of his own films while it was the third highest grossing of Hawks’ career. Adapted by Lederer & Leonard Spigelgass and Hagar Wilde from  I Was an Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress, a biographical account of Belgian officer Henri Rochard’s [the pseudonym for Roger Charlier] experience entering the US when he married an American nurse during WW2. My name is Rochard. You’ll think I’m a bride but actually I’m a husband. There’ll be a moment or two of confusion but, if we all keep our heads, everything will be fine

Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger theatrical

I must be dreaming. MI6 agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is holidaying in Miami when his opposite number in the CIA Felix Leiter (Cec Linder) asks him to keep an eye on a fellow hotel guest – so he winds up investigating a gold-smuggling ring run by businessman Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe). As he delves deeper into his activities, he uncovers a sinister plan to attack Fort Knox’s gold reserves to destroy the world’s economy… Do you expect me to talk?/No, Mr Bond. I expect you to die! The third in the series, this is where everything came right – action, humour, thrills, villain, style, ingenious gadgets,  great set design by Ken Adam, doubles entendres, devilish mute Korean hitman Oddjob (Harold Takata), Goldfinger’s persuasive personal pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) with her Flying Circus and the notorious death by gold paint of Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) which still startles today. Adapted by Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn (with suggestions by Wolf Mankowitz) from Ian Fleming’s eponymous seventh novel, the character of Auric Goldfinger is a very specific kind of nemesis, with his psychopathic obsession the Achilles heel of the man: This is gold, Mr. Bond. All my life I’ve been in love with its color… its brilliance, its divine heaviness. That’s what makes him a perfect crazed criminal but also a great pivot into Cold War politics and economic ideas, a kind of double bluff à la Hitchcock. This is a narrative where sex and danger and death are combined symbolically in the iconic title sequence (by graphic artist Robert Brownjohn) with all those dead painted girls providing a backdrop of morbidity and Connery freely imbues his performance with fear particularly when he’s about to get his by an artfully directed laser beam. The chase and action sequences are brilliantly managed with the modified Aston Martin DB5 in a class of its own. Then of course there’s the legendary theme written by composer John Barry with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Tony Newley and performed by Shirley Bassey, creating a siren song of sass. Smartly directed by Guy Hamilton, a colleague of Fleming’s in Britain’s wartime intelligence operations, this is totally thrilling entertainment that provided the blueprint for the films that followed.  Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He’s fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavour… except crime!

The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

The Return of the Pink Panther

Compared to Clouseau, Attila the Hun was a Red Cross volunteer. The famous jewel and national treasure of Lugash, the Pink Panther, is stolen once again in a daring heist with only the trademark glove as evidence. Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) is rehabilitated from his demotion to the street beat by Chief Inspector Dreyfuss (Herbert Lom) of the Sureté and sets off on a mission to nab the notorious thief who is probably Sir Charles Lytton (Christopher Plummer). But when Clouseau carries out surveillance at his house in Nice he encounters his resourceful wife Claudine (Catherine Schell) who leads him on a wild goose chase to Gstaad… There’s something about a wife – even with a beard. Marking the return of both writer/director Blake Edwards (writing with Frank Waldman) and star Sellers to the series following a misguided iteration with Alan Arkin in 1968, this succeeds due to some fabulous slapstick set pieces with all kinds of ordinary things defeating the brainless Inspector – a blind bank robbery lookout with his minky (a scene that is actually gasp-inducing), a telephone, a vacuum cleaner, his own moustache and a fake nose. Great visual gags involving tiny vehicles (á la M. Hulot), an unfortunately located swimming pool, in-house martial artist Cato (Burt Kwouk) and some very funny verbals including Sellers’ horrific mangling of the French language make up for the deadening miscasting of Plummer in the role previously handled effortlessly by David Niven. Sellers is so hilarious as the anarachic disaster-prone idiot he had Schell giggling uncontrollably – and those takes are in the final cut! There’s also the priceless running joke of an increasingly deranged Lom and his gun lighter. If it’s in the first act … well, you know your Chekhov. Seriously funny at times with extraordinary titles designed by Richard Williams. With friends like you, who needs enemies?