Allied (2016)

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Different kinds of bad movies are bad for different reasons but we love them just the same. Sort of. Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is the French-speaking Canadian intelligence agent parachuted into occupied Morocco on a mission during WW2.  He arrives in a bar and cosies up to his fake wife Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) who introduces him to her friends. They are all speaking French. Max and Marianne are spies and have never actually met before tonight. Before you can say Operation Desert Storm they’re having it away in a swirl of sand in their car and without even a hint of jeopardy they carry out their ostensible mission to assassinate the local Nazi chief at a lovely party. Then they fetch up in London at their wedding and while the city is bombed Marianne has their baby daughter. A year later Max is working and she’s staying at home and he’s asked to look at the evidence against his beloved – his superiors in the Special Operations Executive claim that he is sleeping with the enemy and the couple are pitted against one another as Max is forced to question everything and has to figure out if he must kill his own wife….  This starts out kinda like Casablanca. Well. That’s to say it starts in Casablanca which is not the same thing at all. But it does end in an aerodrome. The first half hour is in the realm of the ludicrous – perfect design, badly paced, poorly written and wholly unbelievable. The acting is debatable. I suppose there was some.  Marianne criticises Max’s Canadian French (I know – the worst insult I ever had in Paris was that my accent was Canadian – sheesh!). Except that it was a rainy Saturday, that was me. But it actually gets better. There’s something about dull old north London burbs that has a lingering interest and wondering how wicked Jared Harris might be in planting a seed of doubt in Max’s mind about his lovely wife – not that it lasts for long. This is a turkey that mutates into something of a hybrid spy romance melodrama. It wanted to be a classic but refined its ambitions to resemble something like Hanover Street. Oh I’m too kind. More story, less sauce, next time, you naughty boys with your Lesbian antics. Written by Steven Knight and directed by Robert Zemeckis. I know! Can you believe it? Frankly, no.

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Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

Snowbound (1948)

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Terrifically tricksy adaptation of the Hammond Innes (remember him?!) novel The Lonely Skier.  Dennis Price (you had me at hello!) is a former soldier recruited by his WW2 CO Robert Newton (Price is an extra on his film set) to pretend to be a screenwriter at an Alpine resort where a motley assortment of characters is gathering – the most English Englishman ever, Guy Middleton, Italian comtessa Mila Parely, Marcel Dalio. Stanley Holloway and a self-announced Greek, Herbert Lom (yeah, right!).  Price is producing reports for Newton in between ski runs and it eventually transpires that they’re all in search of a horde of gold stashed during the war. There’s wads of tension, a Christie-esque scene in which Holloway laughingly disrupts a gun quarrel by dint of opening a door, a marvellous torchlit search on the mountains when Price is inevitably injured by Lom – a Nazi, obviously – and left for dead, and a conflagration for a conclusion. It’s a bit too clever by far but give me mountains, give me snow, give me gluhwein, I’m there. Wonderfully atmospheric. Adapted by Keith Campbell and David Evans directed by David MacDonald. A Gainsborough production.

The Southerner (1945)

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French master Jean Renoir’s American work may not be as lauded as his films in his native France, but this is a tremendously well told adaptation of a novel by George Sessions Perry, Hold Autumn in Your Hand,  not surprisingly when you see who wrote the screenplay:  Nunnally Johnson, Hugo Butler, William Faulkner and Renoir himself. Not too dusty. It’s the tale of the Tuckers, cotton pickers in Texas. Sam (Zachary Scott) and Nona (Betty Field), their kids Jot and Daisy, and his mother (Beulah Bondi) decide to start up their own farm with nothing but a mule and some seed. They need access to water so the neighbour Devers (J. Carrol Naish) reluctantly permits access to his own supply and after a freezing winter in which their son becomes seriously ill,  the feud escalates and involves Devers’ half-wit nephew. Devers finds Sam trying to find a huge catfish that he’s been after for years and they find a way to solve their differences. The general store owner (Percy Kilbride – Pa Kettle!) who’s refused the family credit now wants to marry Sam’s mother but a terrible storm and resultant flooding ruins their entire plot and they have to start over. This is a really great story, so well told, limpidly shot by Lucien Andriot in the San Joaquin Valley and beautifully characterised and performed by a splendid cast – it cannot be fairly described. It shouldn’t be overlooked in Renoir’s oeuvre because even if it’s not as iconic a cinematic text as The Grapes of Wrath it’s an economic and beautifully framed and shot slice of Americana and it was the director’s own favourite of his American films. Scott has never been better cast and Field is simply luminous. Bondi is … herself! Really affecting filmmaking.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

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A cargo-passenger aeroplane crashes in the Libyan Sahara:  the Sixties iteration of a disaster movie, in all but name. The pilot is James Stewart, the navigator an alcoholic Richard Attenborough and there is among the cast list a man so ill he will die if they’re not rescued soon … Robert Aldrich’s tough movie is really a brilliant set of character studies that never bows to cliche.  Adapted from Elleston Trevor’s novel by Aldrich regular Lukas Heller, it’s a marvellous portrait of people reacting to both pressure and the emergence of a Superman in their midst – a Hitlerian model aeroplane designer (Hardy Kruger) whose plan to resurrect their wreck might just get them out of there as they battle fraying nerves, water depletion and sand storms. In the midst of this we have a military type who goes on a suicidal desert walk (Peter Finch) with Spaniard Carlos (Alex Montoya) who leaves his pet monkey behind, an oil company accountant (Dan Duryea), a quasi-hysterical oil foreman (Ernest Borgnine), a doctor (Christian Marquand), a mean Scot (Ian Bannen), and a nervous soldier (Ronald Fraser). There’s more! But that’s for you to find out in this race against time. That bird ain’t called Phoenix for nothing. How the men deal with each other and their increasing frustration is brilliantly managed by producer-director Aldrich and the performances are knockout. This wasn’t a hit at the time but has since become a major cult film.

A Place of One’s Own (1945)

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An old house in the country. Creaking boards. Flickering lights. Things that go bump in the night…  I’m there. This Gothic melodrama from Gainsborough originated in a 1942 novel by Osbert Sitwell and was adapted by Brock Williams to fit the mode so popular in the wartime period. James Mason was a huge star and insisted on playing the retired husband to Barbara Mullen, both of them wearing makeup to dramatically age for the parts. Directed by Bernard Knowles, Mason put much of the film’s disappointing end result down to their miscasting (blame his pliant father in law, the studio boss) and Knowles’ infatuation with Citizen Kane and those uninterrupted long shots without the redeeming features of a brilliant script or cast. However the haunting, the love story between doctor Dennis Price and young Margaret Lockwood, the couple’s companion who is possessed by a girl murdered 40 years earlier, and the sustained eerieness, remain  quite cogent and provide fiercely atmospheric chills just in time for Christmas. With Dulcie Gray, Moore Marriott and Ernest Thesiger in the ensemble for a production which makes excellent use of Chopin, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Gungl, all arranged by Hubert Bath.

The Finest Hours (2016)

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When I was a kid a friend raved to me about a film we’d both seen the previous night on TV, The Cassandra Crossing. But, I argued, what if they’d used all that money on a really good script instead? Nobody sets out to make a bad film – think of the man hours, the talent, the sheer budgets involved in mainstream filmmaking, not to mention the P&A. And yet … and yet. Here we are. Casey Sherman and Michael J. Touglas wrote a book about a daring Coast Guard rescue of a sinking trawler on the eastern seaboard off Cape Cod in 1952. We’ve sort of been here before with The Perfect Storm and that was dark and murky too and we didn’t much care about the outcome. Chris Pine stars as the brave one, Holliday Grainger is the love interest and … Ben Foster is one of the crew and Casey Affleck (who still needs a vocal implant) is sinking in tanker the SS Pendleton. If anyone had cared about how this film was received they might have concluded that starting it in the dark and staying there for 20 minutes was not advisable. Having a murky meet-cute in a bar where people barely speak comprehensible English and some ill-explained dispute between Pine and an ugly guy (one of many in this outing) doesn’t help. Ruining wonderful Eric Bana the station commander with a grey toupee also does not assist interest in the already diminishing returns. I’m all for verismilitude but not like this. Casting, people, casting. Cinematography? Switch on the lights for chrissakes. Unwatchable. Let ’em drown.

Everest (2015)

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Two things, as Denis Leary used to say, before he became a serious Actor. One:  Titanic had a very good structure (I’m referring to the film, obviously). We all know what happened. We pretty much know how it happened, but in the film’s first half hour we are brought bang up to date with the best technology telling us exactly how everything went down. Literally. So when everyone was faced with the cataclysm, we had already stored all that in our brains and were able to focus on the plight of the victims and not where the hull was, and why, and why the nearest ship didn’t respond to an SOS (bastards.) Two: scholar Hannah Hamad wrote a brilliant book a couple of years ago on postfeminism and paternity in American films in which she basically argues that male protagonists get away with EVERYTHING if they’ve spawned a child.  In other words, fatherhood is a shortcut to signify ACHIEVEMENT. (Motherhood – not so much. This we know.) This is all by way of saying that this problematic supposedly true account of a disaster in which 8 men (bearded fathers all, practically) died, commences with a medical description of what happens to people dying on mountains – cerebral and pulmonary oedema. And freezing to death. So we know what to expect. Until someone just – falls off. This looks probably like it should in reality – unclear, but it’s a movie, and the lack of visual clarity is a hindrance. Characterisation is bulked up with desperate phonecalls home to little wifey, manned by Emily Watson with an Aussie accent, tearful. As you would be, if your entire tour bus died at your hands. And Jason Clarke is the main guy. Problematic again if you don’t like him – did anyone really think he was adequate as the lead in the Planet of the Apes sequel – after James Franco?! As a wise unbearded man says at the beginning of the great adventure, Mountains always have the last word.

Point Break (1991)

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Roger Ebert was right about pretty much every film he reviewed. He said of this that it was about ‘men of thought who choose action as a way of expressing their beliefs.’ It is a sensational film in the best sense – a film about sensation and visceral feeling and action and doing and excitement and adrenaline. Quarterback Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is enjoined by FBI colleague Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) to infiltrate a surfer gang he suspects of masterminding a series of bank heists, calling themselves The Ex-Presidents. They are led by the charismatic Bodhi Zapha (Patrick Swayze) whose ex Tyler (Lori Petty) proves the necessary introduction, rescuing Johnny from drowning then teaching him to surf. Bodhi’s belief system and bucking the establishment becomes a very attractive philosophy and Johnny is drawn in. This is one of the great Nineties films, directed at warp speed by the wonderful Kathryn Bigelow from a screenplay by W. Peter Iliff (sharing a story credit with Rick King) and it’s a total rush, from start to heartbreaking finish with an ending out of Dirty Harry. One of the great theatrical experiences. Not so much a film as a way of life. Surf’s up.