I Was Monty’s Double (1958)

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That was bloody close.  Before the planned D-Day landings the British Government is spreading disinformation to distract German attention from the Normandy beaches.  Two intelligence officers, Colonel Logan (Cecil Parker) and Major Harvey (John Mills) are running the operation but they are initially unable to devise such a plan.  One night at the theatre in London Harvey sees an actor do a convincing impression of General Bernard Montgomery. He is M.E. Clifton James, in the army Pay Corps stationed in Leicester and the officers hire him to act as a decoy – playing Montgomery doing a tour of North Africa. After studying him and meeting him, he is dispatched to Gibraltar where the British anticipate that a known German agent Karl Nielson (Marius Goring) posing as a businessman will encounter him and hopefully inform Berlin. ‘Monty’ is accompanied by Harvey who is promoted to Brigadier to act as his aide de camp. When the British learn that the Germans are moving their panzer divisions away from Normandy this ‘Monty’ is sequestered in a North African house until it is safe to return him to his original job but the Germans have other ideas …  Adapted from the autobiography of M.E. Clifton James by Bryan Forbes (who plays a crucial role in the penultimate sequence) this is a spry and suspenseful account of Operation Copperhead.  Told efficiently, with James playing himself – and Monty! – it moves quickly and two scenes in particular are handled very well by director John Guillermin:  when Nielson meets Monty it transpires it’s for the second time – a shocker;  and the inevitable kidnapping.  With a brisk score by John Addison and a good turn by Mills, one of the many in the Fifties that encapsulates his particular brand of British masculinity, this is an entertaining account of yet another Believe It Or Not from WW2: the gift that just keeps on giving, especially when you realise that the man who actually recruited Clifton James was none other than … David Niven! There are good supporting roles for Michael Hordern, Leslie Phillips with James Hayter, Sid James and Sam Kydd down the ensemble.

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The Odyssey (2016)

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Aka L’Odyssée.  A whole world waiting to be discovered. I’m just old enough to remember re-runs of Jacques (-Yves) Cousteau’s TV show – a weekly adventure in the ocean depths with a vast array of colourful marine life on display. He was a superstar who has all but vanished from contemporary iconography: a diver, oceanographer, inventor and TV personality who demonstrated that we only know the surface of the world’s oceans – he brought us what lies beneath. Director Jérôme Salle and co-writer Laurent Turner take memoirs by Cousteau’s chief diver Albert Falco aka Bébert (Vincent Heneine) and his son Jean-Michel (Benjamin Lavernhe) and create a portrait of the life of this man over thirty years, from his days in the French Navy (and an accident preventing his continuing as a pilot) whose passion for diving became a way of life, a journey encompassing family, the co-invention of the aqualung, fame, world travel and the neverending desire to achieve more.  His groundbreaking film The Silent World was the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or. The tensions with his son Philippe (Pierre Niney plays him as an adult) are exacerbated first by boarding school and later at the caricature he feels his father has become.  JYC admits he should never have had children. His wife Simone (Audrey Tautou) is now old and alcoholic, just as she threatened years earlier when she discovered his philandering. When he arrives back at The Calypso (funded by his mother in law’s jewellery) wearing a red beanie, he announces It’s telegenic. Jean-Michel returns after years studying architecture but it’s the other relationships which dominate JYC’s life, principally with his financiers.  I feel like I’ve spent my entire life chasing money. His quest for money dominates his life while Philippe’s spirals in another direction – the environment, triggered when he sees the ship’s cook dumping the trash in the water and his own work as a cinematographer and filmmaker diverges from the family business. On this issue father and son finally come back together but only when JYC’s sponsorship dries up.  Inspired yet again by Jules Verne, they travel on a foolhardy mission to Antarctica and see the true wonder of the world:  from taking money to promote oil exploration, Cousteau starts the Society that bears his name and tries to save the oceans, bringing the attention of the world to the imminent tragedy of pollution. It’s handsomely photographed by Matias Boucard but finally the difficulty reconciling the father and son drama with the story of the ego that brought the wonderful world of the sea to the screen proves as challenging as it was in reality, even with that awesome cast: Wilson is terrific as the marvellously charismatic pioneer whose travels are finally brought to an end by a tragedy. It’s all about him, after all.

Darkest Hour (2017)

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Here’s to not buggering it up.  May 1940. After the Chamberlain debacle Britain must find a new Prime Minister. Within days of becoming the country’s leader, an aged Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) must face one of his most turbulent and defining trials: exploring a negotiated peace treaty with Nazi Germany which Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) demands; or standing firm to fight for the ideals, liberty and freedom of a nation. As the unstoppable Nazi forces roll across Western Europe, troops at Dunkirk are surrounded and the threat of invasion is imminent, with an unprepared public, a sceptical King, and his own party plotting against him, all the while dealing with a new typist Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) who is shocked to tears by the old man’s abruptness at their first meeting – in his bedroom. Supported by steadfast wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Sir Anthony Eden (Samuel West) in Parliament, Churchill must withstand his darkest hour, rally a nation and change the course of world history just as Hitler is jackbooting across the Continent … The right words won’t come. I can’t think of another portrait of Englishness which engages so directly with speech in all its iterations – impeded, strangulated, idiomatic, and ultimately, political. In a supremely ironic scene Churchill deals at one of their weekly meetings with the King (Ben Mendelsohn) – a man with a famous problem speaking – who admits to being wary of him. Everyone has been since Gallipoli, admits Churchill. He discusses his background. His mother was a glamorous woman who loved too widely. His father? Like God – busy elsewhere.  Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is gripping, fleet and witty, understated and wry, bloated and commanding, subtle and aggressive.  It’s also about how people move:  Churchill strides purposefully;  Londoners use the bus and the Tube;  the troops have to be evacuated and the Panzers diverted. Joe Wright’s directing may at times be compensating for the linguistic origins of this film or even trying to disguise its orientation with diverting camerawork and trickery but it doesn’t detract from its mesmerising subject. It may not always be factual but it’s true. And Oldman is superb. He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Entebbe (2018)

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How many Israelis?  How many hijackers?  Where are they going?  In July 1976 an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris is hijacked by Islamic terrorists (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) including two Baader-Meinhof supporting Germans Wilfred Böse aka Boni (Daniel Brühl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike) who find out that Ulrike Meinhof has hanged herself in prison (it is rather more likely that she was murdered) and want to take their anti-fascist beliefs out on some innocent Israelis in exchange for the release of Palestinian terrorists.  They take over the plane in Athens and the Palestinians order the French pilots to land in Entebbe, Uganda, where they believe murderous maniac Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie) will influence negotiations with the Israeli government. In Israel, the tensions between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) and Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan in a hilarious wig) are played out during stalled negotiations (the Israelis do not negotiate with terrorists) while a commando unit prepares for an assault on the African airport … Germans killing Jews. Have you thought how this looks?  Playwright Gregory Burke’s screenplay teases out all the issues with on-the-nose dialogue in this historical reconstruction which perhaps does too many things at once – the dance motif which threads through the narrative because one of the commandos Zeev Hirsch (Ben Schnetzer) has a girlfriend preparing for a difficult performance of Echad Mi Yodea is perhaps a trope too far – and ends up straddled between one too many stools. The Germans are not exactly naive – their ideological struggle against their parents’ generation has itself a rather sickly unironic anti-semitic root (let’s call him Adolf Hitler or Martin Luther, whomsoever you prefer, they call it anti-fascist). However they are out of their depth with the Islamists who quickly put the Jewish hostages in one room and prepare to kill them first. French pilot Jacques Le Moine (Denis Ménochet) is the voice of reason in Boni’s ear – an engineer is worth fifty revolutionaries, he tells him. And what about dignity?  Drinking water gives people dignity, he cautions as he fixes the dirty water supply at the rear end of Entebbe Airport while the regular business goes on at the public end. It is his subtle finger wagging that gets Boni to desist from a genocidal spree. There are nice supporting performances – including Peter Sullivan as Amos Eran, Rabin’s right-hand man – and a real clunker from Pike whose conversation into a dead telephone after she’s run out of uppers gives new meaning to the term phoning it in.  The hostages’ terror is more or less ignored even when one French-Israeli is returned to the group by the Palestinians in a shambolic state after they have tortured him. Everything is defused by cutting back to the dancer girlfriend and her psychological issues with her job (boo bloody hoo). The one man killed in Operation Thunderbolt was Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yonathan (played here by Angel Bonanni) which precipitated the young man’s return from the United States and his elevation to PM for the first time in 1996, as the end credits remind us over another dance performance (why?). Rabin was eventually murdered by a Jewish extremist who didn’t want him to carry on dialogue with the Palestinians. And so it goes on. This was a fabulously daring rescue mission but you wouldn’t know it from watching this film.  It’s loose enough with the truth but one story that isn’t included is a woman hostage who choked on a bone and was sent to hospital. After the raid, Amin had her murdered. Directed by José Padilha. There are three other films on this subject and I’ll bet anything they’re all better than this. Shalom.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

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Maybe Chicago’s got a heart but I ain’t found one.  Young Italian-American Rocky Barbella (Paul Newman) endures abuse from his father (Harold J. Stone) and despite his mother (Eileen Heckart) and her constant efforts to intervene he messes with small-time crime with his streetwise friend Romolo (Sal Mineo).  His consequent run-ins with the law lead him in and out of detention centers and prisons. When it seems he has it together, Rocky is drafted into the wartime Army but can’t stick the regime and goes AWOL. He takes up boxing to earn quick money with coach Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane), but when he discovers he has a natural talent in the ring, he builds the confidence to pursue his love interest, Norma (Pier Angeli), and fulfill his potential as a middleweight fighter. Pressured to take a bribe, his reputation takes a major hit.  He doesn’t know how to redeem himself except by fighting …  Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Rocky Graziano’s autobiography is full of clichés – but they’re good ones because they’re true. Filled with big, dramatic performances and great action which is what you want from a gutsy story of an abused child through his spells in juvie and prison and the Army, this is a wonderful portrait of NYC and its denizens and the final bout is heart-stopping. The right hooks aren’t confined to Rocky, Lehman’s dialogue is ripe with zingers:  The trouble with reading the phonebook is you always know how it’s going to come out.  Gleaming monochrome cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and a song by Perry Como add to a magnificent movie bio experience but one is forced to ask what Paul Newman’s career would have looked like if its intended lead James Dean hadn’t died before this went into production:  his Rebel co-star Mineo (who looks altogether lustrous) bolsters the teen crim story and the beautiful Angeli was engaged to Dean for a while (as well as doing The Silver Chalice with Newman). His ghost is everywhere. Look for Robert Loggia and Dean Jones down the cast list.  Directed by Robert Wise.

Love Means Zero (2017)

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Nick loves the buildup. When things crash or don’t go the way he wants, Nick moves on.  A startling insight into famed – and infamous – tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, whose Florida tennis academy is associated mostly with Andre Agassi, who refused to have anything to do with this film. Interviewed on camera and frequently referring to himself in the third person, Bollettieri created his persona out of necessity, primarily financial, when he needed money for some of his eight wives and families and already in his forties. Intense, volatile, passionate and driven, he managed what seems to have been a mix of juvenile detention centre and luxury hotel, with his favoured students living in the nice bit, the other kids in cramped dorms and doing menial work to earn their keep. It became a kind of feeder for the tennis tour and he did everything to encourage students to attend. Some of them appear in staggeringly revealing interviews. Agassi was part of a Vegas contingent and Jim Courier was a contemporary they despised who worked harder and they eventually faced each other in the 1989 French Open where Bollettieri sided with Agassi which just made Courier determined to win. At the break for rain Bollettieri was doing a TV interview instead of helping his charge. When Courier got the victory, he split with his coach.  The hurt he experienced when Bollettieri was cheering Agassi and staying silent on his own points is clear. When Agassi won at Wimbledon in 1992, Bollettieri split with him after years of using him to gain publicity. Agassi found out in USA Today. He had asked Bollettieri never to coach his rivals but when Boris Becker approached Bollettieri he took him on and Becker faced Agassi at Wimbledon in the 1995 semi-finals and beat him. Bollettieri is remarkably unconscious of his behaviour on camera and claims to remember very little. However Kathy Horvath, a teen prodigy whom he sidelined in favour of pretty Carling Bassett (of the brewing dynasty), remains bitter to this day, while Bassett acknowledges it and suffered herself when her egomaniac father took over from Bollettieri:  she got an eating disorder, which she admits on camera.  Her father died in 1986 and her career disappeared.  She’s been yesterday’s news for a long time and I last read about her after she got pregnant by another player while still a teenager and a story ran that she was cutting coupons for groceries. She believes if she had been allowed to stick with Bollettieri she would have been a great player. Becker maintains that Bollettieri is a life coach whose chosen communication vehicle is tennis:  Nick Bollettieri never won a game of tennis in his life. Courier made his peace with the man years ago. He sold the academy to IMG sports agency and became incredibly wealthy, not that he shared it with his co-workers as they make clear yet they claim they’d do it all over given half a chance. This is a fascinating piece of work, rather like its subject and a very timely screening mid-Wimbledon with wonderful footage and some truly shocking stories of what he inflicted on kids rich and poor alike. Directed by Jason Kohn.

Their Finest (2016)

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Why do you think that people like films? It’s because stories are structured; have a shape, a purpose, a meaning; and when things gone bad they’re still a part of a plan; there’s a point to them. Unlike life. In 1940 London former secretary and comic strip writer Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired by the Ministry of Information to insert more realistic female banter in propaganda films. She’s shacked up with failing war artist Ellis Cole (Jack Huston) who becomes jealous of her job while he can’t get an exhibition of his work. She starts working on a story from the newspapers about identical twin sisters who supposedly rescued soldiers at Dunkirk but discovers it was exaggerated. While she is struggling with the screenplay she falls for screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and rows with self-centred actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) whose career is basically at an end.  All the while the German bombs rain down on London and they’ve got to use an American war hero (Jake Lacy) who’s never acted before , turning journalistic fiction into a movie to entertain the masses and get America into the war … There’s a great idea buried here under a mound of rubble caused by the German bombs. Gaby Chiappe’s adaptation of Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half can’t decide whether it’s a comedy or a drama and at its heart is an issue of research – and the lack of it. There are some good insights into the kind of wartime propaganda inserted into films of the era and nice pastiches but they’re overly obvious. The second (major) death is quite laughable which is presumably not what was intended. Rachael Stirling offers some terrific oppositional feminism as Phyl from the Minstry and Nighy steals every scene as the actor who turns out to be human after all. Jeremy Irons enjoys himself as the Secretary of War.  Another somewhat tentative tragicomic British film from Danish director Lone Scherfig (after An Education and One Day) with Arterton more or less delightful in a performance which attempts depth but drops the Welsh accent PDQ and Nighy gives his best Leslie Howard, sort of.  Harmless and inoffensive irony which I suppose is a kind of propaganda in itself.

Raffles (1939)

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This isn’t the first time I’ve set a thief to catch a thief.  Famous cricketer A.J. Raffles (David Niven) is a man about town welcomed in high society which he uses to his advantage in his secret career as ‘The Amateur Cracksman’, a master burglar and safecracker who is always one step ahead of Scotland Yard teasing homeowners and returning their possessions intact. His old school friend Bunny Manders (Douglas Walton) reintroduces Raffles to his sister Gwen (Olivia de Havilland) with whom Raffles had been infatuated a decade ago. Raffles falls in love with her. When Bunny confides a crushing gambling debt of £1,000 over which he is considering suicide, Raffles assures him the money can be obtained. He accepts a weekend invitation to the country house of Lord and Lady Melrose (Lionel Pape and Dame May Whitty) – Lady Melrose’s famous jewellery can solve Bunny’s problem. But another guest is Inspector MacKenzie of the Yard (Douglas Digges) passing incognito, who clearly suspects Raffles of being the Cracksman. Raffles plots to frame a petty criminal with the jewel theft and keep the jewellery until the policeman seems to get one up on him and Gwen begins to suspect his motivations … E.W. Hornung’s short story collection about the gentleman cat burglar had already been adapted, including nine years earlier by Sidney Howard who gets a posthumous credit here, along with John van Druten (with suspected uncredited work by F. Scott Fitzgerald). It’s a typical classical Hollywood view of upper class Britishness with beautiful production design, pacy direction by Sam Wood (with uncredited work by William Wyler) and lovely characterisation by the leads.  Crisp entertainment from Sam Goldwyn’s company.

A Quiet Place (2018)

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Who are we if we can’t protect them? We have to protect them.  Over three months in 2020, most of the Earth’s human population has been wiped out by sightless creatures with hypersensitive hearing and a seemingly impenetrable armored shell that attack anything that makes noise. The Abbott family — engineer husband Lee (John Krasinski), wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), congenitally deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simonds), and sons Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward) — silently scavenge for supplies in a deserted town. Though skilled in sign language the family must nonetheless be vigilant in case they make accidental noise. Four-year-old Beau is drawn to a battery-operated space shuttle toy, but his father takes it away. Regan returns the toy to Beau, who unbeknownst to her takes the batteries their father removed. Beau activates the shuttle when the family is walking home through the woods, near a bridge. Its noise makes him an instant target for a nearby creature, and he is swiftly killed. A year later Evelyn is pregnant, Regan is plagued with guilt and convinced her father doesn’t love her (despite working on a cochlear implant for her) and he takes Marcus out on survival training just as the creatures are circling the farm and weeks before Evelyn is due to give birth … A canny blend of horror, sci fi and maternal melodrama, the fact that this has a somewhat unclear endpoint doesn’t necessarily ruin its affect. Third-time director and star John Krasinski contributed to the rewriting of the screenplay by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (which had just one line of dialogue) and it’s a testament to the construction that the hook gets a great payoff but still sacrifices a major character. The thrills mount as the tension grinds on, the family treading barefoot everywhere as the slightest noise could bring these aliens swooping down on them.  The elements – air, water, fire – are put to deft use in this clever narrative which tests the audience and not just because a lot of the diegetic atmosphere consists of … silence.  Mercifully short (at 90 minutes) this has all the best elements of 70s horror and a cliffhanger of an ending which means you just know there will be a sequel.

 

Chariots of Fire (1981)

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Run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder.  In the early 1920s, two determined young English runners train for the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a devout Christian born to Scottish missionaries in China, sees running as part of his worship of God’s glory and refuses to train or compete on the Sabbath. Cambridge student Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) overcomes anti-Semitism and class bias, but neglects his beloved sweetheart Sybil (Alice Krige) in his single-minded quest and then there is the opportunity to prove themselves at Olympics where they will encounter the world’s fastest runners, a pair of Americans … Lauded at the time of release, and prompting screenwriter Colin Welland’s famous but empty threat, The British are coming! this now plays like a very staid exercise frozen in aspic despite the lively intellectual drive – reconciling notions of religion, duty, patriotism, obsession, love – and the wonderful cast. This mostly true story has its moments but they are heavily signposted. The title sequence on the beach of the athletes training in slow motion to Vangelis’ outstanding electronic score is justly famous and it’s repeated at the conclusion. In between are conflicts played out both on the track and off it and there’s a Greek chorus of sorts by John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson (of all people!) whereby a streak of prejudice and elitism in the echelons of academia is revealed. The issue of race – both kinds – is repeated in Abrahams’ choice of coach, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) who is half Arab and brings the taint of professionalism into play. Produced by David Puttnam, executive produced by Dodi Fayed and directed (in his feature debut) by adman Hugh Hudson who does his best to dress up a low budget epic. The tragic coda to the film if not the story is that two of its stars, Charleson, and Brad Davis (who plays Jackson Scholz), died of AIDS within 18 months of each other a decade later.