Black ’47 (2018)

Black 47.jpg

Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan. Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) is an Irish Ranger returning to Connemara from the British Empire’s war in Afghanistan to discover his family home destroyed like that of other tenant farmers and everyone dead from starvation, his brother having been hanged for stabbing the bailiff during the family’s eviction. He stays with his brother’s widow Ellie (Sarah Greene) and her children in the property where they’re squatting, making plans for everyone to emigrate to America, until the Anglo-Irish landlord sends in the bailiffs to remove them and Feeney’s nephew is killed.  Feeney is taken away for questioning and burns down the barracks. He returns to find Ellie and her daughter dead from exposure and swears revenge but murderous British Army vet and RIC officer Hannah (Hugo Weaving) is ordered along with Colonel Pope (Freddie Fox) to apprehend him.  Hannah and Feeney served together in Afghanistan and it transpires that Feeney is a deserter but Hannah acknowledges that his former colleague is the best soldier he ever met.  Hannah’s wiles are tested when Feeney goes on the run leaving a trail of grisly destruction behind him and when they encounter Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent) they find they are the ones being chased … The peasants are all the same. No appreciation of beauty.  Described elsewhere as a revenge western, this is a generically apposite form for a story that seeks to describe the psychological wound and schematic genocide caused by the famine enforced by British occupying powers in Ireland 170 years ago as well as delivering a revisionist resistance punch to the oppressors in entertaining fashion. We see the bodies dead from starvation mounting up in corners; food is held under armed guard before being exported to Britain;  we understand that the term ‘taking the soup’ derives from people who really were served broth to convert to Protestantism in a countrywide evangelical drive.  The Famine has featured recently in British TV series Victoria but this is the first time it’s been properly dramatised on the big screen, a strange fate for such a significant disaster that lives as trauma in the folk memory. The title is based on this fact:  in 1847 4,000 ships exported food from Ireland while 400,000 Irish men women and children starved to death during a blight on the potato crop which was their sole food.  The disease affected whole swathes of Europe but Ireland’s position was far worse than that of other countries due to the geographical island location and the British occupation. Taking the action movie approach to this emotive history is smart because it immediately personalises the motivation in an easily digestible narrative that fulfills a kind of empathetic nationalist fantasy about a horrific political crime. While it mostly moves like the clappers in several action sequences, there are almost surreal expressions of violence. There are two rather irksome elements:  the decision to use subtitles that bob about distractingly all over the image; and the failure to engage a major Irish star in the lead. This may seem like cavil but Frecheville’s dour expression isn’t assisted either by a huge ginger beard that wouldn’t look out of place on Santa Claus and camouflages him. And it’s an odd choice in a film that is ultimately speaking an historical truth to power when your protagonist is Australian, no matter how good Frecheville is in the Clint Eastwood role, the ranger turncoat; but Stephen Rea does his usual thing as tracker/guide Conneely, while rising stars Barry Keoghan and Moe Dunford get extremely good supporting parts; and Broadbent is brutally effective as the vicious absentee landlord inspired by an ancestor of the notorious Lord Lucan. Weaving is typically good and the ending at a crossroads is apt for a story rooted in a nation permanently playing both ends against the middle with tragic outcomes. It’s not perfect but it’s gripping and who ever knew there were so many shades of grey before Declan Quinn photographed those Galway skies?! Some compositions could be out of a Paul Henry painting. Adapted by P.J. Dillon and Pierce Ryan from their short film An Ranger with further writing from director Lance Daly and Eugene O’Brien. Everyone’s starving and they’re putting food on boats

Christopher Robin (2017)

Christopher Robin.png

People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.  Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) now a family man living in London receives a surprise visit from his old childhood pal, Winnie-the-Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings). With Christopher’s help, Pooh embarks on a journey to find his friends – Tigger, Eeyore, Owl, Piglet, Rabbit, Kanga and Roo. Christopher Robin is irritated by Pooh’s fear of Heffalumps. Once reunited, the lovable bear and the gang travel to the big city to help Christopher rediscover the joy of life as he tries to save the jobs of his colleagues in the luggage company where he is an efficiency manager… I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been. A film with baggage, quite frankly, as it struggles for at least the first hour to find its feet. The juxtaposition of bustling city with bucolic countryside is initially strained because until the adult Christopher Robin finally becomes at home with his inner child the Hundred Acre Wood is a dark, dank place. McGregor isn’t happy in the role until his character becomes happy. Nor are we, ironically, in a story about someone who has lost the power of imagination. The animatronic animals are wonderful however in a troublesome and sticky piece of work which bears the taint of cynicism and is a case of split cinematic personality. Inspired by A.A. Milne’s stories, although you’d never know from this film that Christopher Robin was his son, this is written by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder from a story by Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson while it was directed by Marc Forster. I’m not the person I used to be

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.png

I’ve seen things I never thought could happen happen. In 1946 London-based writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James) begins exchanging letters with residents on the island of Guernsey, which was German-occupied during WWII after one of them, pig farmer Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) comes into possession of her copy of Essays of Elia. Her new book of humour enables her to buy a decent home but it doesn’t fit her down to earth style and she stays in a bedsit in a boarding house.  Her publisher Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode) is urging her to go on a proper publicity tour but she is restless. Romanced by US Army officer Markham Reynolds (Glen Powell) who fills her home with daily bouquets and dances her around the finest venues in London, the letters from the quaintly named book club pique her curiosity. Feeling compelled to visit the island, she starts to get a picture of what it was like during the occupation but her desire to write an article for The Times elicits opposition, particularly from Amelia (Penelope Wilton) who regarded the mysteriously absent club member Elizabeth (Jessica Browne Findlay) as her daughter yet whose little child is being reared by Dawsey. When things get difficult at the guest house run by Charlotte Stimple (Bronagh Gallagher) Juliet takes refuge with gin-maker Isola (Katharine Parkinson) and Eben the postmaster (Tom Courtenay) is always at hand with support and a telephone line …. The little-acknowledged German occupation of the Channel Islands and its very complex legacy is often the forgotten part of what went on during World War 2 in the British Isles. Mary Ann Shaffer’s novel, inspired by a visit there, was completed posthumously by her niece, Annie Barrows, and the screenplay by Kevin Hood, Don Roos and Tom Bezucha (the latter two substantial directors in their own right) transcends the material, bringing to life an extraordinary episode in fictional form. The story of Elizabeth and her transgression is wrought exponentially not necessarily because anyone wants Juliet to know the story but precisely because their own prejudices and beliefs are called into question, as well as a sense of guilt over the outcome, which is of course the big reveal. Perhaps James and Huisman are not ideally meant in movie star heaven – Powell is a much more obvious fit, a good guy, a sparky romantic lead and a well-meaning operator who helps solve the puzzle of Elizabeth, but in matters of the heart, we never know how other people work and the obvious is not always right.  More than that, this explores the real dilemma that a writer has:  confronting her failure as a serious biographer (The Life of Ann Brontë sold 28 copies – “worldwide,” as her publisher helpfully contributes to a roomful of rapt readers of her Izzy Bickerstaff book). So the frothy crowd-pleasing delights on English foibles she is now expected to produce frustrate her when she is confronted by real emotion after wartime’s effects are truly felt by British victims of the Nazi regime who don’t want fairy stories told about them.  It is the resolution of both story problems that produces the conclusion and that is the real achievement of this melding of fact and the manufacture of fiction. Above all, this is a film about the joy of reading. Beautifully shot on location with great production design and attention to historical detail, this is quite spellbinding. Directed by Mike Newell.

Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)

Oh Mr Porter vhs cover.jpg

Everything on this station is either too old or doesn’t work. And you’re both! Mr Porter (Will Hay) is sent to be the stationmaster of an underused and putatively haunted ramshackle Northern Irish railway station in rural Buggleskelly. His unprofessional colleagues are the elderly deputy master Harbottle (Moore Marriott) and the insolent young Albert (Graham Moffatt) who operate a black market in train tickets for food and tell Porter his predecessors were offed by One-Eyed Joe. He plans to upgrade facilities by organising a trip to Connemara – unaware that some of his customers are gunrunners intending to transport weapons into the Irish Free State …  Filled with confusion, misunderstandings, a run-in with terrorists and a disappearing train, this is a terrifically realised comedy with Hay and his co-stars performing perfectly in roles that would later inspire Dad’s Army. Written by J.O.C. Orton, Marriott Edgar and Val Guest and based on a story by Frank Launder, this was directed by Marcel Varnel and remains Hay’s most acclaimed work.  It’s a minor British genre classic filled with gags galore – there’s even a donnybrook in a pub!

Thunder On The Hill (1951)

Thunder on the Hill Sirk movie poster.jpeg

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.

Stars in My Crown (1950)

Stars in My Crown poster

– Good story. – Don’t rush me. A prime example of Americana, based on Joe David Brown’s novel, Joel McCrea is the preacher determined to bring God to the settlement of Walesburg after the Civil War. He has to take the villagers seriously – at gunpoint, to bring them round. In this episodic narrative told by his adopted nephew Dean Stockwell as an adult (voiced by Marshall Thompson) there is a low key romance with church organist Ellen Drew; the arrival of typhoid fever which threatens not just lives but the respect between him and  young doctor James Mitchell;  McCrea’s struggle when he refuses to accept the school well is the cause of the outbreak; and the repeated threats to black farmer Famous (Juano Hernandez) prove this is far from twee.  Indeed when the KKK bring a burning cross to the patch that he has made home you realise this is a lot more than a story of tough love. McCrea is a solid leading man and he is excellent here as a man whose faith is truly tested.There’s really good work from Alan Hale as the Swedish father of five who never goes to church but is always ready to lend a helping hand and James Arness and Amanda Blake feature years before Gunsmoke. This is far from your average western, a keen mix of humour, commentary and drama. Brown adapted his novel but it was the work of the screenwriter Margaret Fitts that’s interesting. She did several screen adaptations and is one of those women who did such good writing for the western genre, including adapting her own novel, The King and Four Queens, which became the Clark Gable movie. This was directed by Jacques Tourneur, a man many consider in the realm of auteur.

The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

The Secret Life of Pets poster

This isn’t really a 3D animation about the secret life of our companion animals:  it’s a highly derivative rewrite of several other movies starting with The Incredible Journey and winding up in a NYC back alley slinging it out with Lady and the Tramp and Toy Story and … but hey! as a committed aiurophile I’m with it most of the way.  Much to his irritation, comfortable little terrier Max gets a Big Brother dog called Duke, they escape their apartment and get caught up with feral cats, flushed pets and then eat themselves almost to the dog pound in a sausage factory. Before joining forces to survive animal control. The war between humans and animals is one of attrition, after all. The backdrops are superb, the voicework is fine for the most part (Kevin Hart doing Snowball the bunny is … odd) although even at 91 minutes it feels, like all animation features, a tad long. If only all humans and their animal friends had happy endings.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2008)

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People poster.jpg

Or, how British journo Toby Young baited Graydon Carter into employing him at Vanity Fair by parodying him on the cover of Modern Review, back in the day. Sort of. This adaptation of Young’s book  never really hits the scorching masochistic depths of our hero’s desperate quest to get beyond his nose pressing the window of celebland. This is the very inverse of Dale Carnegie, dontcha know. Called ‘Sidney’ here, Young is introduced by nemesis Danny Huston as ‘our very own idiot savant. Without the savant.’ Simon Pegg is the right side of gormless but never truly vicious as our hero so we’re not in John Niven territory here despite the plethora of opportunities he avails of to humiliate himself as publicly as possible. Peter Straughan’s screenplay varies the tale somewhat from the memoir and Robert Weide (an expert in embarrassment from Curb Your Enthusiasm – bliss itself!) handles the material well and it’s fitfully amusing rather than laugh out loud bellyaches all round since the satirical edges have been dulled. The trailer for a Mother Teresa biopic starring Megan Fox is good though. We’re in the male version of The Devil Wears Prada rather than the magazine version of Kill Your Friends. It will come as no surprise to learn that the real Toby Young was banned from the set, so predictably annoying was he to all concerned. (He played himself in a stage adaptation.) Spot all the homages to The Big Lebowski! And dig the pig. And, hey, The Modern Review really was fantastic.