The Vikings (1958)

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What would be the worst thing for a Viking? Viking Prince Einar (Kirk Douglas) doesn’t know it but his worst enemy, the slave Erik (Tony Curtis), is actually his half brother and their father King Ragnar’s (Ernest Borgnine) legitimate heir. Their feud only intensifies when Einar kidnaps Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh), on her way to be the intended bride of the brutal Northumbrian King Aella (Frank Thring). Einar intends to make her his own. However Morgana has eyes only for Erik – leading to the capture of  Ragnar and a terrible final attempt to win her heart ...  Let’s not question flesh for wanting to remain flesh. Good looking, well put together and great fun, and that’s just the cast, in this spectacular historical epic, an action adventure produced by Kirk Douglas that capitalises on his muscular masculinity opposite husband and wife team Curtis and Leigh who get to seriously smoulder for the cameras in their love scenes:  it was the third of their onscreen pairings. With some very fruity language, mistaken identity, axe-throwing, pillaging, actual bodice-ripping, walking the plank for fun, unconscious sibling rivalry, brawny sailors, death by wolf pit, romance and swashbuckling, this has everything going for it except horned helmets. It might well be about eighth or ninth century Viking lord Ragnar Lodbrok and the probably-real Northumbrian king Aella (who died 867) but it’s really about Kirk and Tony and Janet. Jack Cardiff shoots the expansive Technicolor images, and director Richard Fleischer lets every character have their moment in this fast-paced entertainment. The beautiful tapestry-style animated titles are voiced by Orson Welles and the incredible score is by (paradoxically unsung) soundtrack hero Mario Naschimbene who brings both vigour and mystery to this good-humoured story of war and violence: you will believe that those voices in the sky are coming from the heavens. Adapted by Dale Wasserman from the 1951 novel The Viking by Edison Marshall, with a screenplay by Calder Willingham, this is one of the very best action-adventure films of all time with some great editing by Elmo Williams who also helmed the second unit and made the TV series inspired by it, Tales of the Vikings, also produced by Douglas’  Bryna Productions. Within a few short years Douglas would cement his legend as a Hollywood liberal with the cry, I am Spartacus! but for now it’s Odin!

Planet of the Apes (1968)

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You know what they say – human see, human do.  Three astronauts (Charlton Heston, Robert Gunner and Jeff Burton) come out of hibernation to find themselves marooned on a futuristic planet following a crash landing. Apes rule and humans are slaves, two thousand and thirty-one years away from Earth. The stunned trio discovers that these highly intellectual simians can both walk upright and talk. They have even established a class system and a political structure. The astronauts suddenly find themselves part of a devalued species, trapped and imprisoned by the apes, enslaved and treated like objects of derision and work value. However they become subjects of medical interest for archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) but Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) finds out and wants Taylor (Heston) castrated. When Taylor tries to escape he doesn’t  reckon on what he finds … Landmark science fiction, this was probably the first of the genre I ever saw (on TV) as a small child and it certainly was a great introduction to a kind of storytelling that is weirdly current and prescient, good on race relations and inhumanity as well as future shock. Pierre Boulle’s novel was originally adapted by Rod Serling but got a rewrite from formerly blacklisted Michael Wilson, who had done uncredited work on the screenplay for Boulle’s Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s a wildly exciting and unexpected story that retains its powerful examination of human behaviour. The final shot is jaw-dropping:  is it the greatest movie ending of them all? The original of the species. Directed by Franklin Schaffner, who was recommended by Heston, who himself would make a couple more terrific sci fis. Get your damn paws off me, you stinking apes!

The Robe (1953)

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You crucified him. You, my master. Yet you freed me. I’ll never serve you again, you Roman pig. Masters of the world, you call yourselves. Thieves! Murderers! Jungle animals! A curse on you! A curse on your empire!  Drunk and disillusioned Roman centurion Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), wins Jesus’ robe in a dice game after the crucifixion. Marcellus has never been a man of faith like his slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), but when Demetrius escapes with the robe, Marcellus experiences disturbing visions and feels guilty for his actions. Convinced that destroying the robe will cure him, Marcellus sets out to find Demetrius and discovers his Christian faith along the way… This widescreen epic was adapted from Lloyd C. Douglas’ 1942 novel by Gina Kaus, Albert Maltz and Philip Dunne and it has a sense of enormity and place as it is set over 6 years in Rome, Judea – inaccurately called Palestine here – Capri and Galilee, with the might of the Empire amplified by Alfred Newman’s classical score. At its best this is a film of conscience and faith and the origins of Christianity;  at its most entertaining it’s a marvellous sword and sandals outing, among the very best of its era. Directed by Henry Koster, this was the first film made in CinemaScope.

Mansfield Park (1999)

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It could have all turned out differently I suppose. But it didn’t. Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) is born into a poor family with far too many children so she is sent away to live with wealthy uncle Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter), his wife Aunt Norris (Lindsay Duncan) and their four children, where she’ll be brought up for a proper introduction to society. She is treated unfavorably by her relatives, except for her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), whom she grows fond of. However her life is thrown into disarray with the arrival of worldly Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz) and her brother Henry (Alessandro Nivola). The path of true love never runs smoothly and then there are matters of money. Matches are made and Fanny rejects Henry which sends everyone into a spin and certain romantic fancies turn to actual sex … Well what a palaver – a Jane Austen adaptation that puts sex and politics and money front and centre in the most obvious way. Patricia (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing) Rozema’s adaptation plays with the form and breaks the fourth wall and even introduces some very out-there drawings which take Uncle Harold Pinter down a moral peg or three:  he’s made his money in slavery and his son Tom’s return from the West Indies with a terrible illness makes him produce some very realistic impressions of his father’s predilections and the depredations of the slave trade. Austen was the hottest screenwriter in the world in the 1990s (not that she knew a thing about it) and survives even this quite postmodern dip into adaptation by the Canadian filmmaker with some delightful performances, particularly by O’Connor who is given lines from Austen’s own private correspondence in her addresses to camera. But sex? In Austen? Tut tut! Charming, in its own perversely witty fashion.

The Ten Commandments (1956)

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It is not by a sword that He will deliver His people but by the staff of a shepherd! When Rameses I of Egypt orders the killing of all firstborn Hebrew babies the baby Moses (Fraser Heston) is put in a basket on the Nile and is found in the bulrushes and taken in by the pharaoh’s daughter. Moses (Charlton Heston) grows up to lead armies, drive slaves and live a life of luxury, falling for the princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter). But when he discovers his Hebrew heritage and God’s expectations of him it brings him into conflict with his ‘brother’ Rameses II (Yul Brynner). He dedicates himself to liberating his people from captivity and – with the aid of plagues and divine intervention – leads them out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. A greater challenge comes in the form of the golden calf idol which drives believers to sin.  It takes a visitation by God on Mount Sinai for Moses’ mission to prevail. Cecil B. DeMille liked this story so much he made it twice, once in the silent era and then again with even more spectacular visual effects three decades later. And what a vision this is: the building of the pyramids,  the burning bush, the Voice of God, the parting of the Red Sea…  Heston is in his element (and some very flattering short skirts) as the man whose amazing physical and spiritual transformation from slave owner to man of God leads the Israelites to their destiny.  Adapted from a number of sources by the rather intimidated scribes Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss and Frederic M. Frank:  Dorothy Clarke Wilson’s Prince of Egypt; Pillar of Fire by J. H. Ingraham; On Eagle’s Wings by A. E. Southon;  and the Book of Exodus. There were many other historical documents sourced for narrative clarity (to fill in those pesky gaps).  With a soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein and cinematography by Loyal Griggs this still holds the attention with its cunning juxtaposition of sex and death, crime and punishment, cruelty and retribution, mothers and sons. Truly a Biblical experience, filmed on location in Egypt and Sinai. DeMille’s final film, this is magnificently hokey and splendidly spectacular. Where the holiday season begins. One of the longest films ever made for the shortest day of the year. Let my people go!

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)

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This is not going to go the way you think. The showdown between the rebels and the First Order led by Snoke (Andy Serkis) is underway. Rey (Daisy Ridley) goes to Ahch-To to find out from Luke (Mark Hamill) what happened between him and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver) and recruit him. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is injured in combat so someone has to take over the bridge and it’s not going to be Poe (Oscar Isaac) because he just ordered a bombing that will cost them too much. Finn (John Boyega) and a new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) figure out they need to get a code to break into the Order’s ability to track the fleet. Luke teaches Rey to tap into her powers but it’s Kylo Ren who gets into her head …How did anyone get the idea to hire Rian Johnson to both write and direct this difficult second album? The guy who made Brick (not as good as Veronica Mars) and Looper (entirely predictable from the tricksy go)? Whoever they are, they deserve a raise. This takes all the series’ tropes, turns them around, gives them a shake and never quits from the get-go which commences at a gallop. Maybe you’ll quibble about the turn to the dark side (and particularly the changes to Luke’s character) but there’s a traditional inevitability about this Freudian epic which Johnson plays on in order to clear the path for new people. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cheer – especially when one ogre dies and an old-timer reappears. Time to let old things go. Wildly exciting. Oh my goodness! When’s the next show?! RIP Princess Carrie.

Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)

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Why is it rich girls are always flat chested? Millie (Julie Andrews) arrives straight off the bus in 1920s NYC and determines to immediately transform her chance of winning a rich husband by becoming a flapper and taking an office job and determining to marry her handsome boss Trevor Graydon (John Gavin). She befriends innocent new arrival orphaned Miss Dorothy (Mary Tyler Moore) at the rooming house run by Mrs Meers (Beatrice Lillie) who is very busy with her Chinese staff running back and forth to a laundry. Paperclip salesman Jimmy Smith (James Fox) meets Millie at a friendship dance and is immediately besotted. But Millie wants money and only has eyes for Trevor. When Jimmy takes her and Dorothy to a rich friend’s house on Long Island where they meet the eccentric widow Muzzy (Carol Channing) Millie believes she’s falling for him – and then sees him in what appears to be a rendez vous with Dorothy. Meanwhile, Mrs Meers is plotting to kidnap Dorothy and sell her into white slavery – the latest in a series of such orphans that go missing … How can this be 50 years old already?! It moves and looks as clean as a whistle. Adapted by Richard Morris from 1956 British musical Chrysanthemum, this exercise in nostalgia is a great showcase for Lillie and Channing in particular. It’s a splendidly cheery and eccentric excursion into The Boy Friend territory which revels in very un-PC swipes at the Chinese, avaricious women and the vanities of the rich while singing them up a storm. Director George Roy Hill has fun with silent movie tropes including a Harold Lloyd-like skyscraper sequence and makes great use of amusing intertitles explaining Andrews’ thoughts with new songs from Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn alongside 20s numbers which greatly embellish this story of disguised identity and screwball romance. It’s much too long but is tremendously enlivened by the unique talents of Channing whose Academy Award-winning performance includes the showstopper Jazz Baby. Yeah!

At the Earth’s Core (1976)

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You cannot mesmerise me! I’m British! Nineteenth century scientist Dr Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) tries out his giant iron mole machine and burrows into an underground labyrinth where he and his travelling companion and financier David Innes (Doug McClure) encounter giant telepathic birds and prehistoric cavemen. They may be sub-human but they’re the master race! Adapted by exploitation producer Milton Subotsky from the story by Edgar Rice Burroughts, this was the second of three cheapo sci-fi fantasies to star TV’s beloved Virginian star Trampas, who was on those re-runs throughout my childhood. McClure had been that show’s leading man for its entire 9 years and then had a peripatetic film career despite a prolific TV history. These films were beloved of many a child but the budget Seventies production wouldn’t pass muster nowadays however it’s great fun and for cult fans there’s always the attraction of Caroline Munro as the gorgeous slave girl Princess Dia. Romance! Mind control! Pure silliness! I particularly like when Cushing tells McClure, I have a firm grip on your trousers, David. Directed by Kevin Connor.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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William Kienzle once wrote that nothing beats religion, sex and murder. This almost-true (ish) story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a literate slave and preacher in antebellum Virginia has all of the above plus a sense of righteousness that along with Twelve Years a Slave risks a new era of blaxploitation with rather different text than in the Seventies.  We are dealing with archetypes rather than real characters despite its biographical origins. Year in year out, another brutal beating, unwatchable torture and horrible violence. From his childhood to his inevitable death by hanging after taking revenge on the supposedly kindly owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who betrays him after persuading him to suppress rebellion through religion we are not remotely surprised by any of the narrative turns. Worthy but not really memorable, from the quadruple threat Parker – who directs and produces as well as co-writing with Jean McGianni Celestin.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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In the face of the fabulous new your thought is to kill it?  Los Angeles 2049. K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner for Wallace, the new incarnation of the Tyrell Corporation led by blind Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) whose right hand woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is enchanted by K’s story that a replicant may have had a child. He is ordered by LAPD (in the guise of Robin Wright) to get rid of any evidence that a replicant could have given birth in order to see off a war between replicants and humans. He returns to the site of a dead tree and finds something that makes him think he can remember something from his own childhood and it leads him into a spiral of discovery that involves tracking down his predecessor before Prohibition and the Blackout, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who appears to have something to do with the rebel replicants underground …. Where to start? This hybridised metafictive spawn of one of the greatest achievements in cinema is no easy ride. The way it looks for one. It’s horrible. Mostly greys with occasional harking back to the navy and neon and a sour yellow, a nod to the burnished autumnal shadings of the original. The Orientalised appearances are now more subtly rendered but are even more prevalent as though mixed into a Caucasian blender. Then there are the women. Luv is clearly meant to remind us of Rachael (Sean Young) while the reference to Nabokov’s Pale Fire is intended to tell us that there are two fictional characters sparring with one another here – but the question is, which two, and of them, who’s real and who’s a replicant? The quasi-Oedipal story steers right into a quagmire of identities and dreams and purported flashbacks. Other quotes – Kafka, Treasure Island, and even the songs that play as holograms in a burned-out Vegas – also serve to get us to look one way, instead of another. The idea of relationships as a figment of your imagination – literally, a hologram – is conceptually brilliant and well executed (in every sense) but takes too long as a narrative device to be told and then unravel. The ending is enormously clever and draws on facets of Philip K. Dick’s own backstory: it’s literally a tidal wash of action and memories. But are they real? Are they implants? Hampton Fancher is back but with co-writer Michael Green this time instead of David Webb Peoples. You can see the spliced DNA with Harlan Ellison (an insistence on procreation) as well as PKD  (what is humanity? what is reality?) and the literary turns which have some good jokes. There are some nice lines too and even if they’re on the nose they actually future proof it somewhat:  You’ve never seen a miracle.  Or, I know it’s real. Or, Dying for the right cause is the most human thing you can do. They actually conceal what is paid off by misdirecting us.  It gets away with its visual tributes to the original cast with the prostitute who looks like Darryl Hannah and Hoeks who clearly resembles Sean Young even in ill-fitting costume.  Directed by Denis Villeneuve who is one of the most audacious mainstream directors at the present time with Ridley Scott producing,  I appreciate what they’re doing here but it’s a pale twenty-first century facsimile, more replicant than human.  Ford enters the fray so late and Gosling is not my favourite actor albeit he acquits himself well as someone who starts to feel things he shouldn’t given his somewhat obscure origins as a police functionary. But I have feelings too. Nothing can compare with the sensory overload that is Blade Runner, the daddy of the species. Notwithstanding the foregoing, as all the best legal minds argue, the ending is brilliant. Oh! The humanity.