Ice Station Zebra (1968)

Ice Station Zebra

We operate on a first name basis. My name is Captain. Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson) captain of the American nuclear attack submarine USS Tigerfish (SSN-509) is ordered by Admiral Garvey to rescue the personnel of Drift Ice Station Zebra, a British scientific weather station moving with the ice pack. However, the mission is actually a cover for a classified assignment and he is obliged to take on board a British intelligence agent known only as ‘Mr. Jones’ (Patrick MacGoohan) and a U.S. Marine platoon; while a helicopter brings them Captain Anders (Jim Brown). The sub is also joined by Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) a Russian defector and spy who is a trusted colleague of Jones. As they try to break through the ice near the Orkney Islands when approaching the last position of ICZ the sub floods in an act of sabotage and it’s retrieved – just. But Lt. Mills (Murray Rose) is killed.  Ferraday suspects Vaslov and Jones suspects Anders. Ferraday orders the Tigerfish to surface and they find the weather station in ruins, the personnel nearly dead and Jones and Vaslov are soon discovered to be looking for something – a capsule, valuable to both sides in the Cold War, because it contains film of missile sites … I’ve saved a lot of lives by teaching men to jump when I speak. Notoriously the favourite film of one Howard Hughes, if ever there were a time to watch a long movie about the Cold War (actualised in freezing temperatures)… it’s now. I hadn’t seen this since I graduated from Jennings and Billy Bunter books to the oeuvre of Alistair MacLean aged  11 or thereabouts, so it’s both a time-warp exercise (when times were good!) and a deviation from a less visible issue tearing at the world’s synapses. (It makes one vaguely nostalgic for good old-fashioned political intrigue). There’s a deal of nudge-wink dialogue of the sticking torpedoes up spouts variety but the also the odd tart line such as Hudson grumbling at a nervous sailor’s prayer, Do you mind son, we’re trying to think.  Hudson is fine as the mariner under pressure but MacGoohan is particularly good in the most interesting role. Alf Kjellin impresses in his necessarily short sequences as Ostrovsky, the head of the Russian paras and it’s nice to see legendary footballer Jim Brown as Anders as well as actor/producer Tony Bill playing the quite showy role of Lt. Walker. Borgnine is much as you’d expect as a villain of sorts, a part intended for Laurence Harvey. There are some good setpieces centering on jeopardy – when the sub floods;  when some men fall into a crevasse once on icy territory; the tussle between Jones and Vaslov at the staion; and the final clincher which is literally a cold war shootout.  There are some clunky visual effects particularly in the latter stages but there are some fantastic underwater scenes too and the atmosphere is well sustained. It gains a frisson of recognition from knowing it’s based on two real incidents that apparently took place a) in 1959 near Spitsbergen, in Norway, involving a CIA/USAF strategic reconnaissance satellite called … Corona!;  and b) a few years later when two American officers parachuted to an old Soviet weather station.  Michel Legrand’s score is particularly effective in a film constricted by those claustrophobic physical locations and then there are those limitations imposed by all that political and generic roleplay. Adapted by Douglas Heyes, Harry Julian Fink and W.R. Burnett. Directed by John Sturges, who was responsible for the earlier MacLean adaptation, The Satan Bug.  I chose my side out of conviction not by accident of birth.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The Man Who Knew Too Much 1934

Let that be a lesson to you. Never have any children. On a family holiday in Saint Moritz, Switzerland, Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and his wife, Jill (Edna Best), become friendly with Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) who is staying in their hotel. He is assassinated in their presence, but as he is dying manages to passes along a secret to Jill, asking her to contact the British consulate. To keep the pair silent, a band of foreign assassins kidnaps their teenage daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). Offered no help by the police, Bob and Jill hunt for their daughter back in London as they try to understand the information that they have before tracing the kidnappers and once again encountering the cunning Abbott (Peter Lorre) in very compromising circumstances while an assassination is due to take place during a concert at the Albert HallYou must learn to control your fatherly feelings. Providing a template for much of director Alfred Hitchcock’s subsequent career, this is written by Charles Bennett and D. B. Wyndham Lewis with a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlinson (and additional dialogue by Emlyn Williams) and it’s a gripping and blackly comic suspenser with a simple lesson – if a gun goes off in the first act it’s bound to go off again in the third, in order to bring things to a pleasingly grim conclusion in an extended siege and shootout. Hitchcock’s experience in German cinema is telling in terms of editing and design (for which Alfred Junge is responsible) and it moves quickly and effectively, suiting his talents far better than the slow-moving melodramas he made after the coming of sound, with nary a moment to contemplate some of the zingers which particularly work for Lorre’s sly delivery. Above all it’s a fascinating portrait of subversives in the seedier parts of London, influenced by the 1911 Sidney Street siege, a Conradian subject of anarchy to which Hitchcock would soon return. You’ll be agog at the gathering at the Tabernacle of the Sun and amused by Banks and his mate Clive (Hugh Wakefield) singing out instructions to each other to the tune of a hymn. Hitchcock’s future assistant and producer Joan Harrison has a small uncredited role as a secretary but it’s Best you’ll remember as the brilliant sharpshooting mother – you don’t want to mess with the woman. Don’t breathe a word!

Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters

You’re flushing your career down the toilet for a cowhand. Corporate defence lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is approached by his grandmother’s farmer neighbour Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) to investigate the deaths of hundreds of his cattle in Parkersburg, West Virginia, probably due to a poisoning incident by manufacturer DuPont. The company’s lawyer Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) promises to help Robert but stalls so Robert files suit to get discovery and with nothing useful in an Environmental Protection Agency report he finds information about an unregulated chemical called PFOA which turns out to be Teflon – and it’s on and in everything including the water supply, poisoning with a substance the body cannot tolerate or absorb and causing six cancers and facial deformities. It transpires that DuPont carried out tests and did not make the findings public. The case drives Robert’s behaviour to cause his former lawyer wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) to worry for him and he eventually collapses from ill-health as the years wind on, with Wilbur and his wife Sandra (Denise Dal Vera) getting cancer from the infected water they’ve been consuming. They refuse DuPont’s offer of settlement – they want justice. Robert finds that Medical Monitoring is permitted in West Virginia and undertakes a class action lawsuit with the biggest sample of epidemiological data in history but after seven years there are still no results, his marriage is in difficulty and he’s taking yet another paycut  … Better living through chemistry. Adapted by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael  Carnahan from three articles in The New York Times and The Intercept, this is a grimy looking drama about corporate malfeasance that’s paced as slowly and deliberately as Bilott’s lawsuits, with some touches of conventional genre paranoia in one thriller sequence (in a car park, surprise surprise).  It unfurls chronologically, a decade-and-a-half-long story of terrible, destructive deceit – a toxic pollution arrangement covertly blessed by Government agencies, yet another searing indictment of structural inequality and the impunity with which big companies abuse power and kill people, no questions asked. It’s a David and Goliath procedural tale that has global ramifications and despite its desperately dull appearance and some flawed and oddly impersonal directing choices there are some great moments especially for Tim Robbins as Ruffalo’s boss; and Bill Camp, who exudes his usual authenticity beneath some truly eccentric eyebrows. Hathaway’s stay-at-home wife gradually gets a better arc than at first appears; while Ruffalo is shuffling and in pain, dressed in too-big clothes in a whistleblowing role that clearly is a labour of love, a wannabe Hulk gravitationally pulled to earth, feeling the hurt of all his sick, suffering and dying clients as he does his due diligence with dignity and perseverance. Stick with it. Like the Teflon on your frying pan that’s killing you every day. Directed by Todd Haynes. The system is rigged

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

For Whom the Bell Tolls

In our country, General, they say never blow a bridge until you come to it. During the Spanish Civil War, an American professor of Spanish and explosives expert, Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) allied with the Republicans finds romance with freedom fighting peasant Maria (Ingrid Bergman) during a desperate mission to blow up a strategically important bridge in the mountains while the Axis powers attempt to establish a base in Europe … Each of us must do this thing alone. Bergman got another Oscar nomination for her performance and Cooper displays his stoic masculinity in Dudley Nichols’ romantic (and lengthy) adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel. The protean quality of both stars is much in evidence here – Bergman is luminous as the Loyalist and Cooper is a perfect hero, strong, reliable and deeply felt. I’ve always loved you but I never saw you before. They make an awesome couple.  They don’t shoot you for being a Republican in America. However the adaptation isn’t as focused on action as it ought to be, the dialogue is occasionally too on the nose (explaining that Germany and Italy are using Spain against Russia) and overall this is not especially well staged, confined as it is to studio settings (imagine if they’d done this somewhere as lush as Northern Spain). Katina Paxou got the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award and she’s tremendous as the tough plain-speaking older woman Pilar in this story of betrayals and compromise – and, inevitably, sacrifice. With Akim Tamiroff, Arturo de Cordova, Vladimir Sokoloff and Joseph Calleia in a characterful ensemble, this doesn’t lack for interesting exchanges or tension which escalates as the moment descends. The original running time was trimmed from 168 minutes to 130 and then restored to 165. It’s too long but as a relic of classic screen performances and despite the issues it’s still one of the better Hemingway adaptations and simply must be seen. Directed by Sam Wood. Each of us must do this thing alone

The Call of the Wild (2020)

The Call of the Wild 2020

He was beaten but he was not broken. It’s the 1890s. Buck is a big-hearted St Bernard/collie mix whose blissful domestic life in Santa Clara, California, at the home of an indulgent small town judge (Bradley Whitford) gets turned upside down when he is suddenly uprooted by a thief and transplanted to the exotic wilds of the Alaskan Yukon during the Gold Rush. As the newest addition to a mail-delivery dog sled team led by Perrault (Omar Sy) and his wife Françoise (Cara Gee), Buck has to learn to toe the line behind alpha male Spitz but then he bests him and becomes leader of the pack, heeding the call of the wild that intervenes to periodically remind him of his canine forebears. When the team is sold with the advent of the telegraph the team is acquired by nasty adventurer Hal (Dan Stevens) who is about to kill Buck when the dog is rescued by grizzled old John Thornton (Harrison Ford). John is drinking heavily to get away from his own family home – he has left his wife following the death of their son and decided to follow the boy’s dream to depart from chartered territory and find his heart’s desire where X marks the spot. Buck and his new master are true friends and battle the natural elements where Buck becomes his true self in the wild until Hal seeks revenge … This is not the south lands. Michael Green’s adaptation of the 1903 Jack London wilderness classic takes some liberties and makes some changes, presumably for reasons of political correctness, ensuring a direct hit on kids’ sensibilities without the fear factor or the race aspect. The shortcuts and alterations minimise the human cruelty, probably a good thing. The first five minutes are hard to watch, as though shot at double speed and played back fractionally slower (Hobbit-like), but then the physicality of the film slows down to set up the story, again a little differently from the book. Tactile Buck may be but his actions were laid down by renowned actor and gymnast Terry Notary and then he was magicked into life by CGI:  in an interview Ford said the scale and scope of the film could not have been achieved otherwise. And who would want any animal put through their paces as these sled dogs are? The titular call is actualised in the image of an ancient black dog who appears ghostlike every so often but it is a clear representation of Buck’s personal growth, a sign that he is becoming his true wild self. And as he does,  John and Buck save each other. The end is of course tragic in part but Buck reaches his destiny, in the wild. It’s a rather brilliant fable and very well told. That lump in your throat is definitely not a special effect. Directed by Chris Sanders.

Climax (2018)

Climax

I’m so happy. I couldn’t be happier. Winter 1996. A French street dance troupe led by Selva (Sofia Boutella) and Lou (Souheila Yacoub) is rehearsing at an empty boarding school in the middle of a forest on the eve of a tour.  LSD-laced sangria apparently made by their manager Emmanuelle (Claudia Gajan Maull) causes their jubilant after-party to descend into a dark and explosive nightmare as they try to survive the night – and find out who’s responsible – before it’s too late and they become even more animalistic… No need to do it all right now.  Argentinian-French controversialist Gaspar Noé’s dance film straddles wild and violent horror and thriller tropes, more or less riffing on ideas about creation (followed by swift destruction), while also indulging his largely unprofessional acting cast in improvisational techniques that devolve into highly sexualised discussions.  This is a low-budget production made quickly and chronologically and without scripted dialogue, located in one set.  There are several uninterrupted takes, the lengthiest of which lasts 42 minutes, strikingly shot by Benoît Debie who also worked on Enter the Void. The opening scene – blood on snow – is fantastically drawn, a painterly portent of what’s to come in three chapters, Birth is a Unique Opportunity, Life is a Collective Impossibility and Death is an Extraordinary Experience, split more or less between the performing first half to the after effects and the horrendous comedown. Based on an incident that actually befell a group of French dancers in the 90s, the excesses are all the director’s own blend of hysteria and provocation in an immersive trip to Acid Hell – with a techno soundtrack. Probably the oddest musical ever made, welcome to the crazy, pulsating, sensory inferno that is other people and their micro-dosing, graphically illustrating the very thin veneer of civility that protects us from each other. I don’t want to end up like Christiane F, you know?

Les enfants terribles (1950)

Les enfants terribles

Aka The Strange Ones. Beauty enjoys immense privileges, even from those unaware of it. Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and her brother Paul (Edouard Dermithe) live isolated from much of the world after Paul is injured in a snowball fight at school. As a coping mechanism, the two conjure up a hermetically sealed dream of their own making filled with fetish objects and strange obsessions. Their relationship, however, isn’t exactly wholesome and when their ailing mother (Karin Lannby) dies the wider world intrudes and they are taken on holiday to the seaside to try to readjust. Back home their friend Gérard (Jacques Bernard) moves in and jealousy and a malevolent undercurrent intrude on their fantasy life:  he secretly likes her but she proves difficult to know.  Elisabeth starts modelling for Gerard’s uncle’s (Roger Gaillard) company and invites the strange girl from work Agathe (Renée Cosima) to stay with them – and Paul is immediately attracted to her:  she resembles all the images of the people – male and female – he hero-worships, as well as his nemesis, Dargelos. Elisabeth marries Michael (Melvyn Martin) a rich Jewish American man but he is killed immediately after their wedding and she inherits a large apartment. There, Paul tries to replicate the bedroom he shared with Elisabeth and reveals his love of Agathe to the shock of his sister  … Elisabeth never thanked anyone. She was used to miracles, also they came as no surprise. She expected them, and they never failed to happen. Jean Cocteau’s poetic 1929 novel translates to the screen as a mesmerising study in adolescence, obsession and solitude, testing the limits of imagination, impossible wish-fulfillment and the consequences. Director Jean-Pierre Melville directs Stéphane to the height of controlled hysteria and betrayal with the insinuations of many sexual inclinations subtly inflected in the text. The dream sequences are perfectly announced in the use of Vivaldi – such a startling and memorable combination in a narrative told by Cocteau himself. She married him for his death

Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997)

Smillas Sense of Snow.jpg

Aka Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.  The devil assumes many forms. Copenhagen police say otherwise, but amateur scientist Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond) who studies ice crystals in a university lab thinks her young Inuit neighbour Isaiah (Clipper Miano) was chased by an adult before he fell to his death from the roof of their apartment block. The daughter of an Inuit who spent her childhood in Greenland, Smilla learns that the boy’s father died while working for Dr. Andreas Tork (Richard Harris) in Greenland who heads a mining company and she is directed by former accountant Elsa (Vanessa Redgrave) to get an Expedition Report from the firm’s archive.  She asks her father Moritz (Robert Loggia) for help interpreting the information but has to deal with his young girlfriend who resents her interference in their life. After sharing her murder theory with a mysterious neighbour called The Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne) who never seems to go to work, she pursues her suspicions and her life is endangered as the impact of a meteorite hitting Greenland in 1859 is revealed in a reanimated prehistoric worm which proves toxic to human organs Why does such a nice woman have such a rough mouth? Peter Høeg’s novel was very fashionable in the Nineties and encompasses so many issues – identity, language, snow and ice, ecology and exploitation, friendship and bereavement, medical issues, astronomy, being far away from home, being motherless … that you can quite see how difficult it would be to fillet from this a straightforward thriller which is what the cinema machine demands. Ann (Ray Donovan) Biderman does a good job streamlining the narrative threads which form an orbit around Ormond who has a tremendous role here but director Bille August doesn’t really heighten the tensions  sufficiently quickly that they materialise as proper threats. What works as a literary novel seems rather far-fetched on screen when stripped of all those beautiful words. Nonetheless it’s a fascinating story and it’s a shame Ormond’s feature career never had the momentum it once seemed to possess. Costuming by Marit Allen. The way you have a sense of God I have a sense of snow

Little Women (2019)

Little Women.jpg

If the main character’s a girl she has to be married at the end. Or dead. In 1860s New England after the Civil War, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) lives in New York and makes her living as a writer and teacher, sending money home, while her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) studies painting in Paris under the aegis of her wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Amy has a chance encounter with Theodore Laurence aka Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), a childhood crush from the upper class family next door who proposed to Jo but was ultimately rejected. Their oldest sibling, Meg (Emma Watson) is married to impoverished tutor John Brooke (James Norton) ,while shy sister Beth (Emma Scanlen) develops a devastating illness that brings the family back together under the leadership of their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) who is sad about her husband (Bob Odenkirk) being away in the War as a volunteer for the Union Army. As Jo recalls their experiences coming of age, she has to learn the hard way from a newspaper editor Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) and a fellow schoolteacher Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) that her writing needs a lot of work if it’s to authentically represent her talentI will always be disappointed at being a girl. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved American classic jumps around pivotal episodes and reorders them from present to past and back again, back and forth, to create a coherent, rising and falling set of emotions. Each sister has a distinct personality and aspirations;  each is valid, according to their wants and needs and desires; and each is bestowed a dignity. Ronan shines as Jo but all four are carefully delineated and Pugh as selfish Amy has the greatest emotional arc but she should sue the costumier for failing to tailor her clothes to her stocky figure. Watson isn’t quite right for Meg and her lack of technique is plain. Somehow though it’s always poor Beth who doesn’t get what she deserves:  charity does not begin at home in her case. Some things never change. Despite the liberties taken structurally the story feels rather padded and at 135 minutes it could do with at least 20 minutes being cut because the screenplay keeps retreading the same territory and spoonfeeds the audience in issues of equality and womanhood with whole dialogue exchanges that sound as though they’ve come from a contemporary novel. Even Marmee confesses to being angry all the time. The issue of copyright introduces an aspect of authorship in the last section which has a few different endings. Being a creative writer is one thing;  being an editor is quite different. Each serves a purpose and that is to serve the story well. A film that ultimately has as little faith in its audience as publisher Mr Dashwood has in his readership, this is undoubtedly of its time and it can stand the tinkering that has introduced Alcott’s own story into the mix with the ultimate fairytale ending for any writer – holding her first book in her hands.  Produced by Amy Pascal, who also worked on the 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong. Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for