The Two-Headed Spy (1958)

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A man cannot control the circumstances of his birth but he can make a choice. In 1939 Alex Shottland (Jack Hawkins) has been embedded as a British agent at the highest levels of the German military since WW1 and is tiring of his role but is urged to continue by his fellow agent Cornaz (Felix Aylmer) who is posing as an antiques dealer. They carry on their meetings under cover of Shottland’s purported interest in clocks. The revelatioin of Schottland’s half-British origins raises the eyebrows of the obsessive and creepy Lt. Reinisch (Erik Schumann) who works as his assistant and he alerts Schottland’s superiors about a potentially traitorous connection to the enemy. Schottland falls in love with singer and fellow spy Lili Geyr  (Gia Scala) whose melancholic songs carry coded messages across the airwaves to the Allies.  Reinisch suspects their relationship is a cover just as the Battle of the Bulge is getting underway and Schottland struggles to communicate the plans to his real superiors I’ll come to your place any time you want me to and spend the night. The amazing true-ish story was based on J. Alvin Kugelmass’ book Britain’s Two-Headed Spy and although A.P. Scotland was an adviser on the production it’s not based on his real escapades. The screenplay is notable for being written by not one but two blacklisted writers, Michael Wilson and the uncredited Alfred Lewis Levitt. Hawkins is excellent as the net seems to be closing in and he has to endure Cornaz being tortured to death;  while Scala impresses as the slinky songstress with espionage at her heart. There are some terrific scenes at Berlin’s highest table with Kenneth Griffith emoting unseen as Hitler.  Taut storytelling, excellent characteristation, glossy monochrome cinematography by Ted Scaife and an urgent score by Gerard Schurmann combine to make this an enthralling spy thriller. Look quickly for Michael Caine as a Gestapo agent while Geoffrey (Catweazle) Bayldon is Dietz. Directed by André De Toth. Truth is allegiance

Metal Heart (2018)

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Just because you’re miserable doesn’t make you interesting. The summer they finish school fraternal twins and rivals Goth muso Emma (Jordanne Jones) and social media maven Chantal (Leah McNamara) are left to themselves when their parents (Dylan Moran and Yasmine Akram) go on a six-week trip to the jungle. Chantal immediately starts having loud sex sessions in her bedroom with her dumb supertanned boyfriend Alan (Aaron Heffernan) while Emma wants to start a band called Yeast Infections with her best friend Gary (Sean Doyle) who’s secretly in love with her but bullied by his overachiever dad Steve (Jason O’Mara). When a mysterious man called Dan (Moe Dunford) shows up to look after the sick old woman next door it transpires he’s her son and the former member of a cult band.  Both girls fall for him, setting a financial disaster in motion after Chantal gets injured in a minor car prang and suddenly Emma is the popular one … A pie chart is not written in stone! Written by that lauded chronicler of suburban Dublin angst, Paul (Skippy Dies) Murray, this takes the American high school/coming of age template and gives it an Irish re-fit (graduation means picking up your results and getting langered), with zingers aplenty, some great side-eye and caustic lessons in relationships. It’s lightly satirical about South Dublin, beautifully captured by cinematographer Eoin McLoughlin – we’re far from the brutal grey skies that typically blight Irish films and into the leafy cosy middle class neighbourhoods where colours pop amid the tasteful midcentury furnishings (kudos to Neill Treacy for the production design). Similarly, the blackly comic elements are balanced with rites of passage/romcom tropes, giving each sister just the right amount of sympathy and mockery in this well-evoked portrait of those last weeks of experience on the cusp of college and adulthood, dramatising how even in a world where you can monetise your makeup tips on social media or conjure Spiders & Cream treats at the ice cream parlour in the local mall, you still crave the approval of the nearest inappropriate adult who’s really after your stash of cash. Warm, witty and attractively performed in a tale which underneath all the comic fuzz and deceptive charm is a sinister story of a twentysomething man grooming kids for underage sex while robbing them blind, this never hits the wrong notes which makes it a kind of miracle of filmmaking. Think:  Home Alone meets Clueless. Directed by actor Hugh O’Conor, who has a gift for making the most of moments in his first feature. I was never going to be her but I would always be her sister

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Night of the Big Heat (1967)

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Aka Island of the Burning Damned/Island of the Burning Doomed. We must avoid injecting fear into an already dangerous situation. Novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson) run a pub called The Swan on the island of Fara, on the English coast.  Jeff hires former lover Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow) as his secretary and she arrives in the middle of an unseasonal and stifling heatwave – it’s winter, yet unusual things are occurring with cars stalling and TVs blowing up and sheep are dying inexplicably. Scientist Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee) arrives and rents a room at The Swan, setting up motion sensor cameras and taking soil samples and Jeff confronts him about what might really be happening and discovers that extra-terrestrials are in their midst so it’s time to get local doctor Vernon Stone (Peter Cushing to lend assistance as the temperatures rise and everyone seems to be losing their mind and what on earth is down in the gravel pit? … If the heat goes on like this it could very likely drive us insane!  Adapted by Ronald Liles from John Lymington’s novel, this had previously been adapted for broadcast by ITV in their Play of the Week slot in 1960 and Doctor Who husband and wife screenwriting team Pip and Jane Baker were hired to do this rewrite. This Hammer Films iteration has the key players in the studio and is all the better for it: that alien protoplasm ain’t got nothing on these guys, living in a pressure cooker of sex and fear. It’s nice to see Patrick Allen – that terrifying voice that so dominates my childhood memories is actually quite the thesp:  hark at him explain to his wife what the deal is with the smouldering minx Angela:  I wanted her! I wanted her body! It was completely physical, I promise you! while Lee is his usual earnest self as the de rigeur scientist, completely rational for a change, with Cushing, as ever, battling evil.  Merrow is marvellous as the vamp, going crazy, like everyone, in the sweltering heat. Satisfying sci fi very well handled by Terence Fisher. He’s a peculiar chap – but he’s got guts

 

Old Boys (2018)

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Model yourself on me and you won’t go wrong. Awkward but imaginative scholarship boy (Alex Lawther) helps the handsome but spectacularly dim school head boy and hero of their boarding school Henry Winchester aka The Mighty Winch (Jonah Hauer-King) pursue the fiery French Agnès (Pauline Étienne), daughter of a visiting teacher Babinot (Denis Ménochet) who is struggling for the past 18 years to produce his second novel … I’ll blast her with my charm bazooka! This Eighties-set comic drama starts with a very witty titles sequence, the typically upper class British schoolboys on a supposedly unique sports tradition which is really an outward bound torture session tramping through the mud, an experience likened to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in a low angle shot of the institution (resembling my own frightening alma mater), a piece of stripey uniform caught on the barbed wire demarcating it from the rest of civilisation (which appears to be Norfolk). I’m just not good at all this word shit, declares The Mighty Winch, a nice but thick joker who can do no wrong in the eyes of the school or indeed himself, so the truly smitten Amberson gets him to pose as a romantic à la Cyrano de Bergerac in a film which wears its French influences very happily with several songs dispersed on the soundtrack. This is about proving you are more than a labrador in trousers. That’s a line that could come from the mouth of comedian/actor Jack Whitehall which is interesting given that this is co-written by Freddy Syborn, his co-writer on TV show Bounty Hunters following their collaboration on Bad Education:  this guy has a recognisable writing voice combining tender observation with sleight of hand comments on the class system as well as a fondness for slapstick. The story gets emotional heft not just from Amberson’s helpless infatuation and his desire to make Agnès happy; but also from the to-and-fro of the French father-daughter as the novelist manqué depends on her to approve of his narrative choices (something that culminates in a bad romantic scene with Papa’s non-French speaking romantic interest). Let me show you what Planet Earth looks like. As for Agnès, she’s not just a romantic but a pragmatic wannabe set designer and knows that Berlin is where it’s happening (another amusing European narrative strand nodding to WW2, juxtaposed with a school screening of The Dambusters) which gives rise to a series of beautiful mini-theatres and greeting cards being unfolded to push the story further as the romantic correspondence and deception is pursued. So if this is as lightweight as those delicate messages’ construction it gains trenchancy from the ideas of multi-lingual co-operation. Someone, somewhere, behind these theatrical scenes is trying to tell us something. The screenplay is by Syborn and Luke Ponte; while it’s well directed by Toby MacDonald. They teach you all the ways you can die but only you can learn how to live

Josephine and Men (1955)

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She had a weakness for the weakness in men! Suave bachelor Charles Luton (Jack Buchanan) tells Henry the Barman (Victor Maddern) the story of his niece Josephine’s (Glynis Johns) romantic escapades. She rejects her wealthy fiancé Alan (Donald Sinden) in favour of his friend David (Peter Finch), an unsuccessful playwright. But when their situations are reversed, Josephine’s interest in David starts to wane because she can’t help but be drawn to underdogs and the police are on Alan’s tail when he turns up at their rural idyll while David struggles to write a new play and Charles is overnighting… As a child she was alarmingly soft-hearted. You might imagine from the poster that this is a British answer to Moulin Rouge but relatively low-powered as this is in narrative impetus it manages to coast on a battery of real charm and a surprising element of jeopardy. Johns is as usual a bewitching delight and Finch enjoys himself immensely. Strangest of all is perhaps the screenwriting team behind this drawing room comedy:  thriller writer Nigel Balchin, Frank Harvey (who would go on to write the brilliant satire It’s All Right Jack) and the director, Roy Boulting. It’s a welcome opportunity to see the great Buchanan and it’s also wonderful to see William (Doctor Who) Hartnell, Sam Kydd and Wally Patch in the supporting ensemble. Gilbert Taylor shoots in colour in a lovely variety of interiors while John Addison provides his typically witty score. A Boulting Brothers production. There is no deadlier creature on earth than a one-woman Salvation Army

Downton Abbey (2019)

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It’s like living in a factory. It’s 1927. Excitement is high at Downton Abbey when the Crawley family headed by Robert, Earl Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) learn that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are coming to visit. Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) is perturbed that Maud, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) Queen Mary’s lady-in-waiting, is included in the tour. Maud is Robert’s cousin and her closest relative. The two families have fallen out over who should inherit Maud’s estate, Robert or Maud’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton). Tom Branson (Allen Leech) makes nice with a stranger known only as Major Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore) who he believes is keeping him under surveillance for his Irish Republican sympathies. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) scrambles to get the household ready but butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is proving inadequate to the task and Carson (Jim Carter) is quickly summoned out of retirement. But trouble arises when the cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), Daisy (Sophie McShera), housekeeper Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and the rest of the servants learn that the king and queen travel with their own chefs and attendants – so when the Royal Page of the Backstairs (David Haig) arrives with the entourage the stage is set for a showdown below stairs Secrets always muddle things. Julian Fellowes returns to the big screen with a country house tale nearly two decades after Gosford Park which inspired the hugely successful Downton Abbey TV show in the first place. There’s less plot than one of those episodes and it picks up approximately 18 months after the last one but the characters are so barely skimmed over and it all looks so pretty you’ll hardly notice – the only possible controversy is with an attempted royal assassination, trouble with the monarch’s daughter Princess Mary’s (Kate Phillips) marriage, Barrow’s trip to the Twenties equivalent of a gay rave, Lady Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) mysterious retreat from independence into the world of ladies who lunch (which she only addresses late in the story) and a lightly trailed retirement of the world’s favourite pantomime Dame Maggie who lands all of the best lines. Well she would, wouldn’t she. Even Isis the dog makes a return albeit she isn’t called. Nary a hint of revolution save a mention of the General Strike which leads the Dowager Countess to observe that she noticed her maid was rather curt to her. Featherweight entertainment, as light and fluffy and non-calorific as one of Mrs Patmore’s soufflés. Directed by Michael Engler.  I know I’m going to forget my lines

 

Otley (1968)

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If they are the cowboys we’re supposed to be the Indians. Gerald Arthur Otley (Tom Courtenay) is a petty crook and wannabe antique dealer mistaken for a British secret agent when he sleeps on a couch belonging to his friend Eric Lambert (Edward Hardwicke) who’s really a suspected influence pedlar and document smuggler and who is found murdered while Otley wakes up two days on the runway at Gatwick. Otley trails double agents and double martinis at a posh cocktail party before discovering the villains have the cooperation of top government officials. He’s pegged to pose as a possible defector to oust the criminal mastermind who plans to sell stolen documents vital to national security to any enemy agent with the most money. British secret agent Imogen (Romy Schneider) first has Otley beaten up by her thugs before combining forces to go after the real villains …  I was last year’s winner of the Duke of Edinburgh Award for Lethargy. Directed by Dick Clement and co-written with his regular collaborator Ian La Frenais, this adaptation of a novel by Northern Irish author Martin Waddell is funny and characterful, laced with real wit and a bright British cast including James Bolam (from Clement and La Frenais’ The Likely Lads), Alan Badel as MI5 overlord Hadrian, James Villiers as the resurrecting spy Hendrickson, Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson’s mum and you can see the shared mannerisms), Geoffrey Bayldon as a police superintendent, Freddie Jones as an epicene gallerist, the dulcet tones of radio DJs Pete Murray and Jimmy Young, and Leonard Rossiter – as a hitman! Great mileage is got out of the mistaken identity scenario, everyone changing sides constantly, with Courtenay wonderfully charismatic as the feckless cheeky chappie protagonist street trader in way over his head between teams of rival spies who believe everyone has a price, while Schneider has fun as the perky intelligence agent. With fantastic location shooting (by Austin Dempster), the action scenes are atypical of the spy genre although the golf course sequence will remind you of a certain Bond movie, a titles sequence in Portobello Road market shows uncooperative shoppers staring into the camera as it tracks back from Courtenay strolling among the stalls and shops, there’s a rumble among the houseboats at Cheyne Walk, a sequence at the Playboy Club and a disastrous driving test that turns into a nutty car chase. This comic approach to the wrong man spy thriller is uniquely entertaining. Damian Harris, Robin Askwith and Kenneth Cranham play kids and the music and theme song are by Stanley Myers. I’m Gerard Arthur Otley and I’ve had enough

All Is True (2018)

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I’ve just bought a pension. I can’t die for at least 10 years or I’ll be ruined. It’s 1613, and Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground and he decides he will never write again. Devastated, he returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Haunted by the death 17 years earlier of his only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis) he struggles to mend the broken relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and daughters, Hamnet’s twin sister, spirited spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and unhappy Susanna (Lydia Wilson) who is married to a noxiously stern Puritan, John Hall (Hadley Fraser). He is forced to examine his failings as an absent husband and father when 28-year old Judith finally gets involved with a suitor alleged to have impregnated another woman and Susanna is accused of adultery … A garden ain’t a play. Screenwriter Ben Elton has been wowing on the small screen with his very clever parody of Shakespeare in Upstart Crow but this is only occasionally in the same pantomimic vein albeit its nod/wink title (the original title for The Life of Henry VIII) toys with the idea that this is anything other than a confection of falsehoods and assumptions.  And it is a bit of a joke to start with – an old conqueror finally comes home and gets in the way of his wife and has the temerity to mess up the garden she has so carefully cultivated for the last 20 years. And then there are all those long country evenings when all you have is a candle for company. Irony is writ large here. At its heart a melancholy meditation on age, family and what you leave behind, Shakespeare is confronted with the long-hidden truth of his young son’s death, a boy whom he believed to have been greatly talented but who had actually been presenting the work of his twin, who was left unable to read and write, being but a girl. The discovery is poignant indeed. There’s a sonnet-off  (# 29) when Will is confronted with another truth – that the now elderly object of his affection Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) is not interested in him but appreciates his art. How wonderfully odd that two of the great contemporary exponents of the Bard are quoting him at each other. Anne’s feelings are nothing – when the poems were published (illegally, without Will’s consent), he never thought about her reputation or what people might say. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The bedrock of his entire life it seems has been other people and what they say – what was said of his father, what was said of him, and now, what is said about his daughters, both caught up in scandals of their own. He is a man for whom all truth is literally relative. Retirement is not easy and revelations about what happened at home when he was enjoying fame and adulation come as a shock to someone for whom all the world’s a stage and now his daughters are ruining the name he literally wrote out of disgrace to redeem his father’s blackguarding. Branagh is very good, prosthetics and all, capable of being hurt and amusing and rueful. The motifs are striking in a beautifully shot production – two fires dominate the visuals: the opening conflagration at the Globe caused by a misfiring cannon in a production co-written with John Fletcher; and the smaller one in the grate when Judith attempts to destroy what Hamnet transcribed – because Will needs to believe it was his dead son who wrote the poetry and she is guilty at being a gifted woman because he has such a low opinion of her. And Will loves the word on the page – when he sees his son’s name written in the funeral record in the local church his face comes to life. Anne chides him that when Hamnet died he was busy writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dench is wise and moving in the role of the much older wife protecting him from terrible knowledge. However the slow pace and ruminative setting, autumnal and somewhat bucolic, hide the sad drama within. It’s stunningly shot by Zac Nicholson, not just allowing us to see the wide open spaces juxtaposed with interestingly shot and lit interiors – so many dimpled with pure candlelight as the sole source – but telling us that there is always a bigger story and hinting where to look. There are funny scenes with the ridiculously ingratiating local MP Sir Thomas Lucey (Alex Macqueen) and some wild put-downs. There’s even a jibe about authorship and how it was that a man who owns up to having lived such a little life could have ended up knowing everything. Lest we forget, Elton is the best Elizabethan historian we have, when you think about Blackadder. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is very lovely. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Nothing is ever true

You, Me & Him (2017)

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A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, and all that. Forty year old lawyer Olivia (Lucy Punch) is in a relationship with younger lazy pot-smoking artist Alex (Faye Marsay) and she desperately wants to have a baby so has fertility treatment and undergoes artificial insemination without consulting Alex, who really doesn’t want children. Then Alex gets mad drunk at party held by their freshly divorced womanising next door neighbour John (David Tennant) and has sex with him.  When Olivia does a pregnancy test Alex finds she is pregnant too. John wants to play a role in the baby’s life and their lives become incredibly complicated … You have just put my entire life into a salad spinner of fuck! This is a pot pourri of British acting talent. Actress Daisy Aitkens makes her directing debut with her own screenplay, produced by Georgia Moffett (Mrs Tennant) who appears briefly in a horrifying birthing class conducted by Sally Phillips, while another Doctor Who, Moffett’s father Peter Davison, plays a small role as a teacher trainer and her mother Sandra Dickinson appears as part of a jury. Familiar faces pop up everywhere – Sarah Parish is Alex’s friend, Simon Bird is Olivia’s brother while David Warner and Gemma Jones are her parents.  There are some truly squirmy moments as Olivia’s experience of pregnancy evinces all the worst problems – in public. Comedy lurches into tragedy 70 minutes into the running time and there is no signposting. The return to comic drama is slow but not completely unhappy, with a few scenes necessary to recalibrate the shrunken family relationship. Punch is fantastic – she’s such a fine comedienne and she gets more to play here, even if she and Marsay appear to be from very different even incompatible worlds while Tennant raises the stakes of every exchange, trying to figure out how to be the hipster daddy in a couple that has no place for him. Pain is being fisted by a 300lb rich white guy because you haven’t enough money to pay the rent

The MacKintosh Man (1973)

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Put a bag over my head. I’ve been in prison for 15 months! Secret agent Joseph Rearden (Paul Newman) poses as an Australian jewel thief and is quickly convicted of stealing £140,000 of diamonds and imprisoned in order to infiltrate an organisation headed by Home Secretary Sir George Wheeler (James Mason) who organises Rearden’s escape along with that of MI6 intelligence officer Slade (Ian Bannen) who was gaoled as a Soviet mole … I don’t know about you, Slade; I’m not ready for death. The rest I’ll drink to. Adapted by Walter Hill (along with director John Huston and William Fairchild) from Desmond Bagley’s The Freedom Trap, this starts out quietly and continues that way for some time – tricking the susceptible viewer into believing that Rearden himself has been tricked by MI6 into taking the fall for a jewel heist and for more than a half hour it’s a prison movie. However the sleight of hand is revealed as it becomes clear Rearden has gone into deep cover to smoke out a dangerous organisation in this Cold War tale. Of course you will recognise the contours of the real-life story of George Blake, whose daring prison escape is the stuff of legend. For an action film and spy thriller this is a work of smooth surfaces and understated performances, especially by Newman, enhanced by the cinematography of the great Oswald Morris and a beautiful score by Maurice Jarre. The locations around Galway – Oranmore and Roundstone – were local to director Huston who spent much of the Fifties onwards at his house St Cleran’s. The palpable anger and keen sense of duty comes in fits and starts, usually at the conclusion of realistically staged action sequences, including a chase across an Irish bog and using banged up cars rather than Aston Martins. There are also some small gems of supporting appearances – Leo Genn as prosecuting counsel, Jenny Runacre as Gerda the nurse, Noel Purcell and Donal McCann in the Irish scenes. There are also scenes of misogyny and violence (even against a dog) that might shock in this more politically even-handed climate. The strangest character Mrs Smith, played by Une femme douce herself Dominique Sanda, gets an incredible payoff.  You might even say she has the last word. The cool, straightforward approach to treachery, duplicity in the modern state and something of a twist ending just raises more questions, making this a palpable pleasure, a film which tells one simple truth – trust nobody. Produced by John Foreman who had a company first with Newman and then made a cycle of films with Huston. Our deaths would mean little or nothing to anyone, anywhere – only to ourselves