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.

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Green for Danger (1946)

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‘In view of my failure—correction, comparative failure—I feel that I have no alternative but to offer you, sir, my resignation, in the sincere hope that you will not accept it.’  Full stop. During a German bombing raid on rural southeast England during World War II, a hospital undergoes heavy shelling. Postman Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott) dies on the operating table when a bomb explodes in the operating room. But when Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell) dies after revealing that this is not the first patient of anaesthetist Barney Barnes (Trevor Howard) to die under suspicious circumstances, Scotland Yard’s  Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) is brought in to investigate… Knotty, fast-moving, hilarious and satirical, this is one of the very best British films, a murder mystery (a variant on the country house genre) that thrives on dismantling the very conventions of cinema at that time – if you can tell one of the female characters from the other (Sally Gray, Rosamund John, Campbell… ) you’re a better man than I, which is kinda the point of this! From the team of Launder and Gilliat, with Claude Gurney and Gilliat adapting Christianna Brand’s wartime novel this moves like the clappers and you won’t realise whodunnit until it’s too late – just like the droll Cockrill!  It was the first film to be shot at Pinewood in the aftermath of WW2 and the production design and sense of fear and enclosure works perfectly. The plot is ingenious and even while everyone’s being offed in highly unsentimental fashion you’ll struggle to figure it out despite the structure. Sim is wonderful but he’s matched all the way by Leo Genn as the Harley Street surgeon. And all the while the German doodlebugs (V1 bombs) keep everyone in a state of terror.  Brilliant.

Millions Like Us (1943)

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You can’t cook or sew, I doubt if you can even knit. You know nothing about life, not what I call life. You’re still only a moderate hand on a milling machine and if you had to fend for yourself in the midst of plenty you’d die of starvation. Those are only your bad points. I’m not saying you haven’t got any good ones. At the outbreak of World War II, Celia (Patricia Roc) and her family must join the domestic British war effort. Celia is recruited to work in a munitions factory building aircraft, where her co-workers represent a variety of social classes. She falls in love with Fred Blake (Gordon Jackson), a young pilot, and the two are married. Fred is soon deployed to battle, however, and Celia must face the harsh realities of life as a soldier’s wife, while continuing her crucial work on the home front… Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat’s film is a morale-boosting propaganda effort that still stirs the heart and mind all these years later and even boasts Charters and Caldicott, the auteur’s favourite Brit double act as part of the ensemble. Roc’s performance is winning with the challenge of leaving home for the first time and sharing digs with educated Gwen (Megs Jenkins) and her relationship with Jackson believable while the exchanges on the factory floor hammer home the stratification of social class that was such a feature of film drama at the time. Their relationship is mirrored in that between snobby Jennifer (Anne Crawford) and foreman Charlie (Eric Portman). Part of the film’s ongoing attractions are the famous song South of the Border, composed by Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Carr.

The Lobster (2015)

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Lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much.  In a dystopian society,  single people, according to the laws of The City, are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into an animal of their choice. David (Colin Farrell) is escorted there after his wife has left him for another man. The dog accompanying David is his brother. David chooses to become a lobster, due to their life cycle and his love of the sea. David makes acquaintances with a lisping man Robert (John C. Reilly) and a limping man John (Ben Whishaw) who become his quasi-friends. John explains that he was injured in an attempt to reconnect with his mother, who had been transformed into a wolf. The hotel’s rules and rituals include mandatory sexual stimulation by the maid and viewing propaganda films. David commences a forbidden romance with a Shortsighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) and they try to escape … Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos’ work is an acquired taste – and on Valentine’s Day this satire about our obsession with coupledom is timely but also challenging. Shot in Dublin and County Kerry which provide suitable backdrops for an absurdist and blackly comic exercise, this doesn’t completely fulfill the promise of its premise and works well for probably the first hour after which the plot about the Loners in the woods (led by Léa Seydoux) starts to feel tired. Farrell and the lead cast play very gamely indeed and there are some very amusing moments which are practically out of the midcentury absurdist rulebook – Ionesco, Beckett et al. Written by Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou. You’ll recognise the song in the end credits from Boy on a Dolphin.

Malta Story (1953)

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They have many more planes. There’s not much to stop them. During World War II, British archaeologist turned photo-reconnaissance pilot Peter Ross (Alec Guinness) discovers that the Italians are planning a secret invasion of Malta, a strategically important island nation critical to keeping the Allied supply lines open. Though they have few resources left, Peter and his commanding officer, Frank (Jack Hawkins), resolve to fight off the enemy and save the island. At the same time, Peter struggles to keep his relationship with a local girl Maria (Muriel Pavlow) from falling apart. Her brother is discovered spying for the Axis powers and their mother (Flora Robson) is desperate to see him in British military prison …  The convoluted origins of this post-war propaganda outing typical of 1950s British studios lay in a book Briefed to Attack by Sir Hugh P. Lloyd and an idea by original director Thorold Dickinson and producer Peter de Sarigny with a story by William Fairchild (the three had a production company) which became a vehicle for the Ministry of Information:  it was a demonstration of the wartime co-operation between the air, military and naval services and the Siege of Malta was an appropriate backdrop. J. Arthur Rank hired Nigel Balchin to rewrite the script and Brian Desmond Hurst to direct. There are some good performances here in what is quite the morality tale – Hawkins in particular has to maintain a stiff upper lip while sending men to their certain death. And all for information about enemy movements. It’s an efficient mix of melodrama and action with romance and espionage, interspersed with very tense newsreel footage and the occasional shock – like the bombing of a local island bus from which some of our protagonists have just disembarked. The spy subplot could have done with more space in the narrative however. It’s nice to at least recognise this vulnerable island, subject as it was to so many Luftwaffe attacks. The final scenes – a death, the emphasis on the decisions required in wartime and the devastation of a loved one lost, are very effective.

The Return of Frank James (1940)

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I can’t talk without thinking, not being a lawyer. When Jesse James’s murderers the Ford Brothers are set free, his brother Frank (Henry Fonda) who’s been lying low farming, vows revenge and, accompanied by his gang, sets out to track them down. To fund his manhunt, he robs an express office and is subsequently wrongly accused of the clerk’s murder, but an aspiring newspaper reporter Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney) is determined to find out the truth… Sam Hellman wrote a sequel to the earlier Henry King film and it was directed by renowned German director Fritz Lang, his first colour film and his first western. Notable for also being Tierney’s acting debut, she was appalled at her voice and thought she sounded like an angry Mickey Mouse:  she remedied the problem by developing a lifelong smoking habit. She plays nicely opposite Fonda who returns from the earlier film and has several great scenes, including the theatre episode when he’s watching a dramatic ‘re-enactment’ portray his brother’s murder by the Fords while he runs away – the Fords play themselves – and registers his disgust, drawing their attention to him and commencing a chase with Bob Ford (John Carradine). There’s a very funny scene when he and young brother Clem (wonderfully characterised by Jackie Cooper) imprison a nosy Pinkerton detective who’s alerted Stone to their true identities. When justice is finally seen to be done after a trial, Clem steps in to help and the final scene between them is very touching. Wonderfully staged and played, this is a consummate, straightforward revenge western, well told.

 

Viceroy’s House (2017)

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History is written by the victors. The final Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) arrives with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela (Lily Travers) in 1947 British India where he is tasked with overseeing the transition to independence, but meets with conflict as different sides clash in the face of monumental change. In this vast house, new valet Jeet (Manish Dayal) a former prison officer who left due to his political leanings meets beautiful Alia (Human Qureshi) whom he knew beforehand. She tries to ignore him because he is Hindu and she is Muslim and doesn’t wish to disappoint her invalided father Ali (Om Puri). While Mountbatten tries to balance the arguments about what to do regarding the various parties’ demands – hearing out Jinnah (Denzil Smith), Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) – and Edwina causes consternation among the staff by insisting on diverse meal preparation, Mountbatten realises that Lord Ismay (Michael Gambon) has been carrying out covert work to use partition to create a buffer state between India and the Soviet Union … This was gutted by some commentators and you can see why:  a project that was years in development, culled from several books of differing provenance with a foot in both camps as it were – a heritage romance that deals sharp lessons in politicking culminating in the greatest human migration in history with a million casualties. There are two books credited as the basis for the screenplay and a few writers: the principal source was Narendra Singh Saril’s The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition which was based on secret documents discovered in the British Library;  Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and director Gurinder Chadha are credited as screenwriters. History does not look kindly on Louis Mountbatten, who was, as this film clarifies, something of a stooge for a plan that had been in the London Government’s works for some time. (Maybe). His intentions were good, his overlords’ were anything but, is the arc here. You divided India for oil. Nonetheless the (heavily beautified) portrait of the Mountbatten marriage (no hint of Edwina’s affair with Nehru) with all the attractions of soft power being exercised within and without the household plus the subplot of the below stairs romance which is the only kind of happy ending possible here, is meticulously made. It’s nicely performed, beautifully photographed by Ben Smithard, integrating some great newsreels (real and faux) and sympathetically scored by A.R. Rahman.  Chadha’s personal relationship with the material is clarified in the end credits. As you can see, there are no straight lines in India. MM #1600.

Our Man in Havana (1959)

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Everything’s legal in Havana. Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness) is an English ex-pat living in pre-revolutionary Havana with his vain teenage daughter Milly (Jo Morrow). He owns a vacuum cleaner shop but isn’t very successful and Milly is annoyed he’s unable to fulfill his promise of a horse and country club membership, so he accepts an offer from Hawthorne (Noel Coward) of the British Secret Service to recruit a network of spies in Cuba. Wormold hasn’t got a clue where to start but when his friend Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) suggests that the best secrets are known to no one, he decides to manufacture a list of agents from people he only knows by sight and provides fictional tales for the benefit of his paymasters in London. He is soon seen as the best agent in the Western hemisphere and is particularly happy with his new friend, the beautiful spy Beatrice Severn (Maureen O’Hara) but it all unravels when the local police decode his cables and everything he has invented bizarrely begins to come true when they start rounding up his network and he learns that he is the target of a group out to kill him… This film is, rather like North by Northwest, a taste of things to come:  an irreverent picture of the Cold War, the assumptions of the West and of course a picture of Cuba on the verge of a revolutionary breakdown (it was shot immediately after the Batista regime was overthrown). Graham Greene was reluctant to let anyone film his novels following the near-desecration of The Quiet American but this novel (the last he would term an entertainment and based on his WW2 experiences in Portugal) survives pretty unscathed with its comic tone evident throughout the cast (albeit Greene hated Maureen O’Hara). Who doesn’t love Ernie Kovacs? Or Guinness, for that matter, who perfectly inhabits this hapless effortful beast Wormold. I particularly liked his take on a game of checkers. Beautifully photographed by the great Oswald Morris  – but in black and white – in Havana?! Why?!  Directed, not by Hitchcock, who had tried to acquire the rights from Greene, but by Carol Reed. It was their third collaboration following The Fallen Idol and The Third ManOne never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.

Sahara (1943)

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No dame ever said anything as sweet as this motor’s going to sound to us when she gets rollin’. The Libyan desert, 1942.  A group of American soldiers led by tank commander MS Master Sergeant Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart) become isolated in their M3 Lee during the retreat to El Alamein while behind them Tobruk falls. As they drive across the desert they pick up a group of Allied stragglers:  British medic Captain Jason Halliday (Richard Nugent), who cedes control to Gunn, four Commonwealth soldiers and Free French Corporal Leroux (Louis Mercier). The group comes upon Sudanese Sergeant Major Tambul (Rex Ingram) and his Italian prisoner, Giuseppe (J. Carrol Naish). Tambul volunteers to lead them to a well at Hassan Barani. Gunn insists that the Italian be left behind, but, after driving a few hundred feet, relents and lets him join the others. With their supplies of fuel, food and water running low, they try to reach a desert fortress. A large German detachment is also heading there. En route, Luftwaffe pilot Captain von Schletow (Kurt Kreuger) strafes the tank, seriously wounding Clarkson (Lloyd Bridges), one of the British soldiers. The German fighter aircraft is shot down and von Schletow is captured. Arriving at Hassan Barani, the group finds the well is dry. Clarkson succumbs to his wounds and they bury him there. Tambul guides them to the desert well at Bir Acroma, but it is almost dry, providing only a trickle of water, and the group have to delay their departure until they can collect as much as they can. When German scouts arrive soon afterwards, Gunn sets up an ambush… This is undoubtedly well-crafted propaganda urging international cooperation to fight the Nazis but it’s fiercely exciting, brilliantly played by a deftly chosen cast including Bruce Bennett and Dan Duryea and looks wonderful (it was shot near the Salton Sea in California). Adapted from a story titled Patrol by Philip MacDonald, the screenplay is by John Howard Lawson, James O’Hanlon with uncredited work by Sidney Buchman and directed by Zoltan Korda. Wasser!

Evita (1996)

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Statesmanship is more than entertaining peasants. 1952 Buenos Aires: a film in a cinema is stopped by the newsflash that Eva Peron (Madonna) is dead. Flashback to years earlier: a little girl running into a church and placing flowers on the body of the man who was her father before she is hustled out. 1930s:  Eva Duarte is sleeping with a tango singer Magaldi (Jimmy Nail) before making her name as a radio actress and then befriending a powerful man Colonel Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce) at a fundraiser following an earthquake. She becomes his mistress and encourages and hustles for him as he parlays his way to power, using her broadcasting nous to raise support for him during his imprisonment by political rivals who fear his rise. Throughout this larger than life musical drama (entirely sung through) Che Guevara (Antonio Banderas) is the shapeshifting commentator on the sidelines, positioning us in the narrative, until the final – unthinkable – departure of Evita. This is a robust, admirable adaptation by director Alan Parker and Oliver Stone of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice behemoth that bestrode theatre in the 1970s after its introduction as a concept album – a musical drama that deconstructs the life of the Argentine bastard who became an actress and whore before marrying the dissolute Peron and utilising her powers of demagoguery to help him and his Nazi thugs to Government. All of this is contextualised under the guise of sympathy for the impoverished masses of which she believed she was one because she was the illegitimate offspring of a married middle class man.  The story problem here is the persona of Evita herself – she’s a narcissistic exhibitionist whose principal passion is herself and this presents the issue of empathy for the viewing experience. It’s an epic political pageant but it’s politics as psychodrama:  you can admire the scale but it’s a mirthless spectacle about horrendous people. Madonna does an excellent job with the songs but her limited technical acting abilities aren’t helped by the parameters of the role itself, which is primarily declarative in function. The first opportunity she really gets to properly emote is on her deathbed: everything else is essentially a con job of presentation, inherent to the character herself. Banderas and Pryce are commentators and therefore essential to the interacting of the personal with the political on a broad canvas shot in muted amber tones which is admittedly captivating and occasionally jaw-dropping in ambition. There are some wonderful visual flourishes and pastiche references to classical filmmaking (Parker even makes a cameo appearance). At its heart this is a vengeful journey into fascistic madness framed by two funerals.  It’s certainly interesting to see this again (in any form) in the week in which the Perons’ successors are finally sentencing the pilots who carried out the murders of tens of thousands of dissidents by dropping them in the shark-infested Atlantic 40 years ago rather than wasting time torturing them – so many people had already invested their energies doing that and it was obviously tiring them out. Can you imagine what these toxic avengers would have done if they’d been allowed on the Falklands? Oh what a circus, oh what a show.