Captain Boycott (1947)

Captain Boycott

I simply can’t understand a man like that. In 1880s Ireland Charles Stewart Parnell (Robert Donat) makes a rousing speech against the villainous property thefts by the British in Ireland but urges passive resistance, shunning rather than killing landlords. In a Mayo village, British landowner Captain Charles Boycott (Cecil Parker) dispossesses the townspeople who are being charged extortionate rents as his tenants and uses police and army to evict them, leaving them without hope. But when a passionate farmer Hugh Davin (Stewart Granger) creates an organised and nonviolent rebellion against the oppressor and falls in love with a beautiful newcomer Ann Killain (Kathleen Ryan) he proves that the Irish people are willing to fight for their rights ... You can’t make British soldiers fight for what any fool can see is an unjust cause.  Wolfgang Wilhelm’s screenplay makes light work of the systematic property rout and starving of Irish citizens described in Philip Rooney’s source novel, weaving a skein of complicity, action and politics that rings true. Co-written by director Frank Launder, with additional dialogue by Paul Vincent Carroll and Patrick Campbell,  the location shooting (with Westmeath standing in for Mayo) adding immeasurably to this history lesson about the infamous land agent who entered the lexicon because of the campaign of ostracising that brought him recognition. The cast is a Who’s Who of the British and Irish acting contingent of the era including the genial Noel Purcell playing Daniel McGinty a teacher who is also a crafty agitator, Mervyn Johns as a sneaky property dealer, Alastair Sim as a Catholic priest, Father McKeogh, and Maurice Denham as Lieutenant Colonel Strickland who is inclined to attribute Boycott’s conduct to a kind of personal pig-headed eccentricity rather than Anglo rule. Granger has a good role and is up to the witty and lively construction of this typical Launder and Gilliat production. William Alwyn’s spirited score captures the mood of the rebellion very well. Can you count pain – suffering – hunger – wretchedness?

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

 

 

Father of the Bride (1991)

Father of the Bride 1991

From that moment on I decided to shut my mouth and go with the flow. Los Angeles-based shoe factory proprietor George Banks (Steve Martin) leads the perfect life with his wife Nina (Diane Keaton), beloved twentysomething student architect daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams) and little son Mattie (Kieran Culkin). However, when Annie returns from her semester in Rome with Bryan Mackenzie (George Newbern) her new fiancé in tow, he has a hard time letting go of her. George makes a show of himself when he and Nina meet Bryan’s parents at their palatial Hollywood home; then Nina and Annie plan a grand celebration with bizarre wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer (Martin Short) and the costs escalate wildly to the point where George believes the entire scheme is a conspiracy against him … It’s very nice. We’ll change it all though. Let’s go! This remake and update of the gold-plated classical Hollywood family comedy is much modernised by husband and wife writer/director Charles Shyer and screenwriter Nancy Meyers but retains a good heart. Carried by a marvellous cast with Martin superb in a difficult role – sentimental and farcical in equal measure as he confronts a crisis triggered by the loss of his darling little girl to another man!  – his voiceover narration is perfectly pitched between loss, self-pitying acceptance and mockery. It’s interesting to see Meyers lookalike Keaton back in the camp after Baby Boom (and not for the last time).  The early Nineties era of comedy is well represented with Short side-splitting as the insufferable but indispensable wedding planner with his impenetrable strangulated locutions; and Eugene Levy has a nice bit auditioning as a wedding singer. The ironies abound including the car parking issue forcing George to miss the whole thing; and the first snowfall in Los Angeles in 36 years that means the absurd swans have to be kept warm in a bathtub (if nothing else, a brilliant visual moment). The updating includes giving Annie a career and given the dramatic significance of homes in Meyers’ work it’s apt that she is (albeit briefly) an architect – a homemaker of a different variety. George and Nina’s marriage is a great relationship model without being sickening – a tribute to the spot-on performing by the leads in a scenario that has more than one outright slapstick sequence – meeting the future in-laws at their outrageous mansion is a highlight. Adapted by Meyers & Shyer from the original screenplay written by another husband and wife team, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, which was adapted from Edward Streeter’s novel. The eagle-eyed will spot the filmmakers’ children Hallie and Annie as Williams’ flower girls. Hallie has of course continued in the business and is a now a writer/director herself. Hugely successful, this was followed four years later by an amusing sequel. For more on this you can read my book about Nancy Meyers:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1? dchild=1&keywords=elaine+lennon+pathways+of+desire&qid=1588162542&s=books&sr=1-1. Directed by Charles Shyer. That’s when it hit me like a Mack Truck. Annie was like me and Brian was like Nina. They were a perfect match

Tolkien (2019)

Tolkien

You’ll get your happy ending. Following the death of first his father then his mother, young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien finds love, friendship and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at boarding school who play sports and go to a tearoom each week and regale each other with their interests prior to going to University. Their brotherhood soon strengthens as Tolkien (Harry Gilby/Nicholas Hoult) weathers the storm of a tumultuous courtship with fellow orphan Edith Bratt (Mimi Keen/Lily Collins). From this impoverished childhood and a reliance on the kindness of strangers – Catholic Father Francis (Colm Meaney) who himself was a protegé of Cardinal Newman; and sponsor Mrs Faulkner (Pam Ferris) who takes him in; through the need for a scholarship to Oxford where after being sent down he meets a philologist Professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) who saves his linguistic bacon:  Languages never steal;  and the outbreak of World War I – he finds both his intellectual calling and his writing voice as he tries to find out what has happened to his closest friend, Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle) while the explosions and gunfire rage and play into his hallucinatory thoughts and childhood memories of the stories his mother told him. These early life experiences later inspire the budding author to write the classic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the RingsWe are your brothers through everything. We are an alliance – an invisible alliance.  The early life and influences of the legendary fantasy novelist are explored in this beautiful production which is engagingly staged and beguilingly played by a very sympathetic cast. The trench warfare scenes on the Somme in 1916 which frame the story are well done and transition extremely affectingly back and forth to Tolkien’s upbringing, the links with his novels well established without being laid on with a trowel (Ronald’s batman is called Sam). Rarer still is the fact that the younger incarnations of the protagonists are easily the match for their older namesakes in performing skill. If not now – when? Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford and directed by Dome Karukoski, this was made without the approval of Tolkien’s family yet it has a sensitivity to war and youth and writing that are heartfelt and extremely winning. Things aren’t beautiful because of how they sound. They’re beautiful because of what they mean

The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972)

The Magnificent Seven Ride

Aka The Magnificent Seven 4Seven’s always been my lucky number. Former gunslinger Chris Adams (Lee Van Cleef) has put his rowdy days behind him, settling down with new wife Arrilla (Mariette Hartley) and serving as the sheriff of his town in the Arizona territory. When his old pal Jim Mackay (Ralph Waite) asks for help defending the border town of Magdalena, Mexico, from a marauding bandit named Juan De Toro (Ron Stein) and his 50-strong band of outlaws, Chris refuses. Arrilla persuades him to reluctantly release teenage bankrobber Shelly Donovan (Darrell Larson) but Donovan and his gang kidnap and hang her after they rob another bank and wound Chris in the getaway. He then enlists a cutthroat gang of prisoners led by Mark Skinner (Luke Askew) to help him get revenge, pursuing De Toro into Mexican territory and helping a town of women who’ve been raped by the marauding men, including widowed mother Laurie Gunn (Stefanie Powers), while newspaper reporter Noah Forbes (Michael Callan) accompanies him to document the latest events in his storied career out West as he kidnaps De Toro’s woman (Rita Rogers) setting up a shootout to even the score … There sure has been a lot of killing since I met you. With Lee Van Cleef in the saddle as the redoubtable Chris, you know you’re in good hands. If it never feels exciting, exactly, there’s a decent plot by Arthur Crowe that turns the screws more than once, it has pretty good roles for two of my favourite actresses and it’s all set up well visually by director George McCowan and cinematographer Fred Koenekamp. And there’s still the variation on that legendary score by Elmer Bernstein anchoring the action which is pretty much nonstop. Don’t die just ridin’, that’d be a real anti-climax

Return of the Seven (1966)

Return of the Seven

Aka Return of the Magnificent SevenWe got to stand along side of ’em so that someday they can stand alone. Fifty gunmen force all the men in a small Mexican village to ride off with them into the desert. Among the captured farmers is love-smitten Chico (Julián Mateos), who three years before was one of seven hired gunslingers responsible for ridding the village of the tyrannical bandit, Calvera. Chico’s wife, Petra (Elisa Montés), looks for the only other members of the band to survive: Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Robert Fuller). She begs them to save the village once again. To replace the deceased members of the group, Chris buys the release of a brooding gunman Frank (Claude Akins) and famous bandit Luis (Virgilio Teixeira), held in the local jail, and recruits two more: sharpshooting ladies’ man Colbee (Warren Oates) and young cockfighter Manuel (Jordan Christopher). The men discover that the missing villagers are being used as slave labor to rebuild a desert village and church as a memorial to the dead sons of wealthy and psychotic rancher Francisco Lorca (Emilio Fernándes). In a surprise attack, the six gunmen force Lorca’s men to leave and prepare for a counterattack with Chico. The cowed farmers offer no help but the seven defenders successfully repel Lorca’s initial attack. Lorca then gathers all the men on his land to rout the seven men. The situation seems bleak until Manuel discovers a supply of dynamite which the seven use in a counteroffensive… Sure Chico is a friend of mine. But, hell, I don’t even know his last name. The first sequel to The Magnificent Seven is written by one (future) auteur, Larry Cohen and directed by another, Burt Kennedy, who already had form with a series of superb screenplays starting the previous decade.  This is his fourth film as director and unfortunately he does not marshal the drama in the exciting way you’d hope. Part of the miracle of the legendary first film was the spot-on casting but only Brynner makes the cut here, and despite more or less the same premise and setting, with location shooting in Spain, Fernando Rey as the priest, and a rousing score – a re-recorded version of the original from Elmer Bernstein – this never hits the same notes of of empathy or sheer bravado even with a wealth of decent banter and action. The avengers may have reassembled, but Fuller is no Steve McQueen and Mateos is no substitute for Horst Buchholz.  What they really need is Eli Wallach to return as the consummate bad guy. In all the years I made my way with a gun, I never once shot a man just to see him fall

Mapplethorpe (2018)

Mapplethorpe

The shy pornographer. After he bails on the Pratt Institute, horrifying his conservative family, Robert Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith) leaves for New York City where he lives on the wild side and teams up with another wannabe artist, Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón).  They set up home together at the Chelsea Hotel where they discover their artistic abilities and dream together. However Mapplethorpe is gay and Smith disappears to enjoy a hetero marriage when she is supplanted by curator and collector Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) who takes Mapplethorpe as one of his lovers.  He becomes his benefactor and backer and shows him some nineteenth century photographs that open up Mapplethorpe to the possibilities of the medium, having two exhibitions simultaneously, one high-art, one erotic, showing both sides of his artistry. A symbiotic relationship is born, albeit Mapplethorpe continues to party and sleep around as his success grows. He falls for black model Milton Moore (McKinlay Belcher III) but when Milton finds his diaries he believes he’s being used fetishistically and abandons him. Mapplethorpe’s lifestyle verges on the reckless, between sex and drugs, but he is now famous and celebrated.  His younger brother Edward (Brandon Sklenar) whom he barely knows is training in the technical side of the medium and joins him as his assistant.  When Edward displays his own talent, Mapplethorpe doesn’t want the competition and tells him to stop using the family name. Wagstaff has AIDS but Mapplethorpe refuses to be tested. When he is dying, Patti visits. He gets Edward to take one more photograph of him… I’m an artist. I would have been a painter, but the camera was invented. Luckily for me. Unsurprisingly considering the subject matter and the fact that this was made in co-operation with the Mapplethorpe Foundation, this contains an array of graphic and pornographic images, all by Mapplethorpe himself.  That’s only disconcerting when Matt Smith is in the same scene as Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits. The value here is not intrinsic in the dramatic exposition but in the ideas it espouses and the path it traces as Mapplethorpe finds his medium – from drawing and making jewellery to figuring out that his narcissism offered a view on masculinity previously unexplored (or exposed in public). You’re the Jekyll and Hyde of photography. He’s not an easy character to portray or to like because his essence lies in provocation and attention-seeking and Smith’s performance is not terribly convincing in a role that is better written than it is acted. Nor does the script deal with the essential lesson that this is a man who knew he wouldn’t live long and was prepared to die for his art. Beauty and the Devil are sort of the same thing to me. The relationship with Patti Smith doesn’t quite ring true either.  The film is about how photography evolved as Mapplethorpe’s own high-contrast signature developed – as he repeatedly says, Look at the blacks. It’s the revolution in image-making to replace the affect and emotion of painting that holds the eye. The context in which the drama is produced is a major factor in the narrative and the celebrities of the day become his models but NYC has cleaned up a lot since the filthy Seventies and if the Chelsea Hotel looks grimy enough for anyone and the spectre of AIDS haunts every frame a cleaned-up look still expresses a dispiriting social scene. The chronological approach that dogs biographical film drama doesn’t add a lot here but the punctuation – setting up famous photographs and then showing the real thing – is a useful technique of juxtaposition that adds to the tension of creation:  these pictures still manage to shock, captivate and provoke. Mapplethorpe died thirty-one years ago this week. Directed by Ondi Timoner (on Kodak film) from a screenplay co-written with Mikko Alanne, based on a screenplay by Bruce Goodrich. They call it playing chicken with the avant garde

Everybody Knows (2018)

Everybody Knows

Aka Todos lo saben. It’s for our daughter. Laura (Penélope Cruz) and her two children travel from Argentina to her home town outside Madrid to attend her younger sister’s wedding, an old-style village party. The joyful family reunion soon turns tragic when her impulsive teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) gets kidnapped that night and a ransom is demanded without police involvement in order to guarantee the girl’s safety. Laura’s brother-in-law Fernando (Eduard Fernández) who is married to Laura’s older sister Anna (Elvira Minguez) and whose daughter Rocio (Sara Sálamo) has split from her husband, asks retired police officer Jorge (José Ángel Egido) for advice and he tells Laura she should suspect family members. Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) arrives from Argentina: not only is he not wealthy, he is bankrupt and unemployed, a recovering alcoholic who invokes God all the time. Her former lover Paco (Javier Bardem) who acquired some of her family’s land where he grows vines assists Laura and then she make a request of him which has the ultimate effect of revealing a dark web of hidden secrets that could have triggered the kidnapping in the first place … Why is she telling you now? Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi’s drama winds inexorably tighter until it has the viewer in a vise, quite unexpectedly, in a melodrama driven by suspicion. It starts as a conventional family gathering, devolves into a crime scenario and finally pivots on a revelation that supposedly nobody knew. It is that scintilla of knowledge, a closely guarded secret, which has brought about a reckoning. Real-life husband and wife stars Bardem and Cruz are as committed as you’d expect in an observational narrative which has a different kind of focus from the standard thriller setup – it’s shaped from ongoing family issues, unexpressed bitterness about money and who knows what kinds of resentments that have developed over the years. Only Paco, the outsider, whose roots are deep in the family circle, has the finances to secure Irene’s release but it will destroy him if he gives it up. This is a story that refuses the usual genre stylings and focuses on the familial – scrabbling for money in an impoverished if scenic setting, pushing people to make admissions they’d rather not, ending in a kind of fug of denial despite the crushingly obvious:  all families are built on secrets and lies and it takes just one expertly aimed splinter at the heart to rip them apart and yet people persist in acting as though nothing has happened. There is a sense of paralysis here that makes this frighteningly true to life. Everybody knows

Sister Act (1992)

Sister Act

That is a conspicuous person designed to stick out. A naughty young Catholic school girl grows up to become Las Vegas lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg) who witnesses her no-good married mobster boyfriend Vince LaRocca (Harvey Keitel) murder his limo driver, she’s next on the hit list. Police detective Eddie Souther (     ) puts her in witness protection – in a San Francisco convent headed up by Reverend Mother (Maggie Smith) and it’s dislike at first sight. Now Deloris is presented as Sister Mary Clarence and she befriends the cloistered sisters especially outgoing Sister Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy) and shy Sister Mary Robert  (Wendy Makkena) and takes over the choir giving them a gospel and rock ‘n’ roll makeover. But their social activities in the run-down neighbourhood attract TV attention and a corrupt cop in Vegas gives Vince a lead on Deloris’ whereabouts just as the Pope announces his visit  … I can’t be torn away from My God. Written by Joseph Howard aka Paul Rudnick, who blessed us throughout the Nineties with his scabrous witterings in the pages of Premiere (RIP) as Libby Gelman-Waxner, however it was written with Bette Midler in mind and she turned it down. When Goldberg took the part it had rewrites by Carrie Fisher, Robert Harling and Nancy Meyers – hence Rudnick’s request to be credited under a pseudonym. The result is a fairly fast-moving, feel-good, funny and uplifting story with genuinely sharp lines, many delivered by veteran Mary Wickes as Sister Mary Lazarus. Goldberg as as good as she always is and her charisma shines through the wimpole in this fish out of water story, if you ask me. Music by Marc Shaiman and there are more Sixties hits than you can shake a stick at, leading to a sequel and to its adaptation success on Broadway. Directed by Emile Ardolino.  I have two words for you Vince – Bless You!