Waterloo (1970)

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I am France and France is me! Napoleon Bonaparte (Rod Steiger) is being defeated at every juncture and following an enforced period of exile on the island of Elba he escapes. With the support of Marshal Ney (Dan O’Herlihy) who defects from Louis XVIII (Orson Welles in a colourful cameo) he sees a chance to reclaim his name at Waterloo in Belgium after defeating the Prussians and where he faces the Duke of Wellington (Christopher Plummer) leading the British… The most precious quality in life is loyalty. This is a fabled war epic notable for the problematic performance by Steiger which fails to elicit the empathy that even the most ardent of his supporters (c’est moi!) requires. His competing voiceover with that of Wellington basically asks you to choose between will and grace – because he is the man under pressure and Steiger’s performance doesn’t permit you to digress from that impression. The contrast between the two military leaders is exemplified in the scene when Wellington is found dozing under a newspaper beneath a tree before battle commences on the ground of his choosing while Napoleon is pacing, sweating, dying inside. I did not usurp the crown, I found it in the gutter and picked it up with my sword.  It was the people who put it on my head This is an absolutely beautiful historical work, resplendent in its narrative and aesthetic choices but also rather smart as a quicksilver screenplay. Irish screenwriter H.A.L. Craig’s work has great clarity of construction, synoptic sequences and epigrammatic dialogue, which I can’t get enough of – there’s some brilliant byplay between Wellington and one of his Irish infantrymen, O’Connor (Donal Donnelly) especially when the man is found secreting a squealing piglet on his person:  This fellow knows how to defend a helpless position! Their irregular encounters punctuate the drama, first with humour, then with sorrow.  There’s a rousing, appropriately imperial score by Nino Rota which greatly enhances the philosophy being worked out here:  the utter futility and brutality of war. Even the poor piper gets it. And as for the unfortunate horses … Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, who along with Vittorio Bonicelli and Mario Soldati made additions to the screenplay, and produced by Dino de Laurentiis. It’s wonderfully shot by Armando Nannuzzi whose compositions allow you to see exactly how (not) to engage the enemy. Epic. Wellington. Wellington! Why is it always Wellington?


Jane (2017)

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I thought they were like us but nicer than us. I had no idea of the brutality they could show. The true story of Jane Goodall, the English woman who was secretary to biologist Louis Leakey and who went to live among chimpanzees in the Gombe of Tanzania, becoming an expert on the habitat in the world’s longest-running primatological study. I was the Geographic cover girl, she laughs, in a biographical work anchored in her narration and some contemporary interviews but brought to life by the archive footage shot by the man who became her husband, Baron Hugo van Lawick with a typically compelling score by Philip Glass. While she was studying chimp behaviour and learning how to rear their son from her subjects, she was finding that chimps could be as aggressive and war-like as humans and just how distressing the results could be. If you have read her work then you will be familiar with David Greybeard and the colour film of this magnificent animal will be truly heartwarming even if his bitter end is hard to bear. This also offers insights into Goodall’s background, the effect of separation from her husband and the difficulties in bringing up their boy Grub in the Gombe while van Lawick wanted to remain working in the Serengeti. Trips to raise money to keep the eventual research base going are treated with mordant humour. This is a wonderful piece of work with Brett Morgen’s assemblage of von Lawick’s 16mm films (thought lost until 2014) creating a painstaking record of the most important such study we have but also includes much home movie footage which clearly demonstrate van Lawick’s growing infatuation with his other subject – Goodall herself. Adapted from Goodall’s books and notes by director Morgen, who also produced and edited this beautiful film. Utterly captivating.

Battle of Britain (1969)

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The essential arithmetic is that our young men will have to shoot down their young men at the rate of four to one, if we’re to keep pace at all. Britain’s Finest Hour. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (Laurence Olivier) must rally his outnumbered pilots against Hitler’s feared Luftwaffe. Besieged by German bombing runs, the Brits counter with an aggressive air campaign of their own but the argument rages as to whether the Big Wing strategy is helping or hindering. Within months, the Nazis find themselves on the run, thanks to Dowding’s tactical genius and the work of talented squadron leaders (Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer) and other brave patriots… An all-star cast was assembled for this little-screened epic adaptation of Derek Dempster and Derek Wood’s book The Narrow Margin by James Kennaway & Wilfred Greatorex. Director Guy Hamilton (himself a WW2 vet) does a pretty crackerjack job of balancing the politics with the dogfight aerobatics and the toll taken on both sides (Curt Jurgens is Baron von Richter) as the brave young men take to the skies in this do-or-die campaign in which even well-known names are sacrificed for the greater good. If you want a really great written account try Len Deighton’s book but in the interim this will do very well. Fabulous stuff if the dialogue is a tad on the wonky side, with luminous cinematography by Freddie Young and a stirring score courtesy of William Walton.


Stalag 17 (1953)

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How do you expect to win the war with an army of clowns? 1944.  It’s the longest night of the year in a German POW camp housing American airmen.  Two prisoners, Manfredi and Johnson, try to escape the compound using a tunnel but are quickly discovered and shot dead. Among the men remaining in Barracks 4, suspicion grows that one of their own is a spy for the Germans. All eyes fall on cynical Sgt. Sefton (William Holden) who everybody knows frequently makes black market exchanges with the German guards for small luxuries. To protect himself from a mob of his enraged fellow inmates, Sgt. Sefton resolves to find the true traitor within their midst… Director Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum adapted the autobiographical Broadway hit by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trczinski, a canny blend of comedy and drama which asks serious questions of its players yet taints the seriousness with jokes and the high jinks with irony. Holden is superb as the entrepreneur whose go-getting attitude would be admired back home but in a POW camp it’s a different story. The men are stratified by their ethnicity and class. Rob Strauss and Harvey Lembeck repeat their stage roles as Animal and Harry, and are highly entertaining comic relief, with Don Taylor, Neville Brand and Peter Graves making up the principal roles. The Nazis are led by Otto Preminger’s rather hammily amusing Colonel von Scherbach which casts the enemy as something of a Greek chorus to the loyalties being figured out by the Americans under deadly pressure. Sefton is a model for the Scrounger played by James Garner in The Great Escape while the whole provides a template not just for the legendary Sergeant Bilko but Hogan’s Heroes on TV. Holden got a deserved Academy Award:  he stands out, yes, but in the right way. He’s not exactly Bogie in Casablanca but it helps to think of him in that shadow even if he felt he didn’t deserve recognition and many thought he should have had it for his previous work with Wilder – Sunset Blvd. He’s just swell in a film that is shrewd, bittersweet, hilarious, human and true.


To Rome With Love (2012)

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The kid’s a communist, the father’s a mortician. Does the mother run a leper colony?  Four tales unfold in the Eternal City. Architect John (Alec Baldwin) encounters American architecture student Jack (Jess Eisenberg) living in Rome with girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and whose romantic woes remind him of a painful incident from his own youth; retired opera director and classical music recording executive Jerry (Woody Allen) discovers that his daughter Hayley’s (Alison Pill) future father-in-law is a mortician with an amazing voice, and he seizes the opportunity to rejuvenate his own flagging career; a young couple Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi) have separate romantic interludes; a spotlight shines on an ordinary office clerk (Roberto Benigni) who becomes a celebrity overnight, hounded by TV journalists and paparazzi… Another Woody Allen film shot in Yerp that seemed like much less than the sum of its parts at the time but has worn well and is a mature entertainment, modelled on the portmanteau films made by a lot of Italian auteurs in the early Sixties. When I first saw this I thought it took a great deal of imagination to cast puddingy little Ellen Page as the voracious bisexual femme fatale wooing Eisenberg but obviously someone had the inside track. Baldwin is good as the man musing on his own foibles and the integration of his character as Jack’s invisible friend is nicely achieved. Allen is very funny as the man who has to get a shower on stage at the Opera so that the mortician will reach his peak performance and while we might wince at Penelope Cruz being cast as a prostitute entering the wrong hotel room and embarrassing a young man about to meet the in-laws, it’s actually a lot of fun – as is his fiancée’s own pre-marital adventure. Benigni’s overnight fame is a nod to Allen’s earlier Celebrity albeit with more humanity.  It’s nicely played by a really interesting ensemble – the incredible Ornella Muti shows up as famous Italian actress Pia Fusari in Milly’s story! – and like all of Allen’s lighter work it just gets better with each viewing, Darius Khondji’s mellow cinematography bathing us all in Roman light. Allen originally called this Bop Decameron but nobody got it …


Marathon Man (1976)

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


I am a Camera (1955)

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I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.  In the 1950s the writer Christopher Isherwood visits his London club and discovers that he has arrived in the middle of a book launch by a woman called Sally Bowles and regales his friends with stories of their life together just before the Nazis ascend to power in 1930s Berlin. Chris (Laurence Harvey), an aspiring novelist from England and ‘confirmed bachelor’ meets vivacious cabaret entertainer Sally Bowles (Julie Harris) at a nightclub where she’s performing her act and an unusual friendship is born. She moves into his boarding house and their lives become inextricably intertwined as he struggles to write and she tries to make her way with men, a ‘future would-be film star’ as she tells the landlady (Lea Seidl). As Sally feeds her extravagant tastes, Chris goes along for the ride and they are financed by American Clive Mortimer (Ron Randell) until their pal, Fritz (Anton Diffring), encounters trouble after ingratiating himself with Natalia Landauer (Shelley Winters) the daughter of a wealthy department store owner and confesses he himself has been concealing his Judaism. Meanwhile the Nazis bully people on the streets prior to a popular election result … Adapted from the play by John Van Druten, itself based on Goodbye to Berlin, part of the memoirs of writer Christopher Isherwood, this story also served as the inspiration for the later acclaimed musical Cabaret which Bob Fosse turned into a garish and extraordinary fascist-baiting extravaganza. This adaptation by John Collier of Van Druten’s play is of an altogether more modest variety but is entertaining for all that – the charming Harvey (I’m prejudiced, I love him) and the winsomely over the top Harris are wonderful together in their drab bedsits as they try to make their lives fit their pretensions. The treatment got a lot of criticism at the time and you might even be vaguely shocked by what Sally does in the aftermath of her abortion which is characterised as a false pregnancy here. It still ran into censorship problems because there are no moral lessons. Isherwood himself didn’t like it at all and believed Harris to have been ‘mis-directed’ (she had won the Tony for the role on Broadway) but it was his life of course so he could say what he liked. (Me no Leica.) Watch for Patrick McGoohan as a Swedish Water Therapist! Directed by Henry Cornelius.


The Shape of Water (2017)

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I would say take care of your teeth and fuck a lot more. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, isolated woman who works as a cleaning lady in a hidden, high-security top secret government research laboratory in 1962 Baltimore. Her life changes when she discovers the lab’s classified asset – a mysterious, scaled amphibian creature (Doug Jones) from South America that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with her new friend, she soon learns that its fate and very survival lies in the hands of a hostile and violently sadistic government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) and a marine biologist Dimitri (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is actually a Russian spy. With the help of her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her next door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay out of work commercial illustrator, she finds a way to save him and alter her own reality … It all seems so very unlikely – plagiarism suits notwithstanding – Guillermo Del Toro’s homage to his 50s childhood fave, Creature from the Black Lagoon. However this moves like the clappers with just enough time for the very mannered Hawkins to find an appropriate character to suit her mobile features. Tonally it sits somewhere amid the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet with added masturbation and violence, and the creature – except for one appalling scene which as a cat-lover I can’t even bring myself to recall – is remarkably sympathetic. You might call it a politically correct fairytale about interracial sex for the snowflake generation – me, I liked it anywho because it portrays a yearning and an empathy that is very appealing and well played. Co-written with Vanessa Taylor.


The Mummy (2017)

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People don’t realize that London is a giant graveland. A modern city built on centuries of death. Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a soldier of fortune who plunders ancient sites for timeless artifacts and sells them to the highest bidder. When Nick and his partner Chris (Jake Johnson) come under attack in the Middle East, the ensuing battle accidentally unearths Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) a betrayed Egyptian princess who was entombed under the desert for thousands of years. As her powers constantly evolve Morton has tostop the resurrected monster as she embarks on a furious rampage through the streets of London …  Hell hath no fury like an ancient princess scorned! This remake of the old Universe horror movie owes little to its origins (more’s the pity) and much to the contemporary taste for drained grayscale mindless action visuals (whose taste is the question – I want colour! Colour! Colour!) Beyond that there’s a bit of fun. Russell Crowe is the antagonist/expert Dr Henry Jekyll (get the name… this Dark Universe is crossing the protagonists and characters from film to film, literally making a monster mash) joining another heroic franchise (if it comes to pass); and Cruise is paired with another in a long line of terrifically feisty females, Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) this being a welcome staple character in his M: I series – not to mention a screeching harpie villainess who wants to get with him and rule the world. There ain’t a lot of chemistry here but it moves fairly quickly through some shonky sequences so you don’t care too much. This is not entirely the mess some reviews would have you believe but then I’m a sucker for all things archaeological and groovy destructive women!  The universe I’m concerned with is the previous remake  – the wonderful 1999 iteration starring Brendan Fraser which was tonally perfect (the other two, not so much) but like the subject matter here that’s a thing of the past. Screenplay by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman from a story by Jon Spaihts, director Alex Kurtzman & Jenny Lumet.


The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

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Personally I prefer a girlfriend not to have a husband. An Irish-American seaman Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) becomes involved in a complex murder plot when he is hired by renowned criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan) to work on a yacht after rescuing the man’s wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth) from a disturbing attack in Central Park NYC. He soon finds himself implicated in the murder, despite his innocence. The film is best remembered for the climactic hall of mirrors scene with a shoot out amidst shards of shattering glass…. Orson Welles’ adaptation (with uncredited help from William Castle, Charles Lederer and Fletcher Markle) of a novel by Sherwood King was so confusing that Columbia boss Harry Cohn offered a reward to anyone who could make head or tail of it. Somebody please tell me what it’s about! But the plot of this murder mystery pastiche is hardly the point:  it’s a gorgeously shot tongue in cheek meditation on the games men and women play. Sometimes they wind up in murder. The narration is crucial. The hall of mirrors scene is justly famous. Shot by Charles Lawton (and Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker) with the yachting scenes done on Errol Flynn’s Zaca, this is the one where Hayworth’s fiery locks were shorn into a shockingly short blonde bob and Welles sports a cod Oirish accent presumably culled from his days at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Mad, strange and blacker than black, this is all about shadows and deception and imagery and set-pieces. Stunningly edited by Viola Lawrence. I never make my mind up about anything until it’s over and done with.