The Omega Man (1971)

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Richard Matheson’s vampire-zombie classic I Am Legend got the germ warfare-futureshock treatment in this coolest of cool sci fis. Army doctor Charlton Heston is the last man on earth, saved by a serum, roaming a deserted Los Angeles in daylight two years after the Sino-Russian War has wiped out everyone and he spends his days robbing cars and watching old movies on a loop. Except he’s not alone, he’s trying not to get caught and killed by albino mutants known as The Family, led by former TV host Anthony Zerbe. Then he encounters Lisa (Rosalind Cash) who is in fact part of a group of survivors untouched by the plague. Let battle commence …. This extraordinarily potent thriller still works. Los Angeles looks so strange and empty (they shot on Sunday mornings) and the culture (the Manson-like Zerbe, the Black Power issues) in which it takes place make it very much of the time but somehow it occupies a place of utter plausibility. Screenwriter Joyce H. Corrington was a doctor and insisted on some of the changes to make it more modern. There’s a kiss between Heston and Cash which is pretty historic. When Heston was interviewed years later by Whoopi Goldberg she got emotional mentioning its place as one of the the first interracial kisses in cinema. Heston surprised her by kissing her then and there! The ending is a killer. As a kid I saw this and loved it and seeing it again makes me pat myself on the shoulder. I love Heston. He made such consistently interesting films when he really got his mojo going.  His memoir The Actor’s Life was the first book I ever read by a film star. When I met him at a book signing many years ago for the launch of In the Arena, its follow up, I commented to him that it was the best book on screen acting ever written. He looked at me and in that inimitable Mount Rushmore growl stated categorically:  “This one’s better.” Heston is marvellous but he’s matched every step of the way by the wonderful, interesting cast. This is just super cool, directed brilliantly by Boris Sagal (father of Katey) who died horrifically on a film set a half-dozen years later.

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The Land Before Time (1988)

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Littlefoot and his mom are caught up in the Big Earthshake and he is now orphaned, left to find The Great Valley on his own, but with her tree star (a leaf) and instructions on how to get there. He teams up with other little dinos and they endure obstacles and giant dinosaurs from other tribes as they attempt to survive. This thinly-rendered visual exploration of what could have happened is however charming, well voiced and established and comes courtesy of Don Bluth who established an animation outfit in Ireland for a spell. We don’t learn what species these kids are but we can relate to the difficulty of being in gangs, remaining friends with other kids you fear or dislike or don’t trust and how to cope when you’re all alone in the world. Dazzling score by James Horner. Sweet as anything but not for the gun-totin’ Creationist in the family.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

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John Goodman has always terrified me. I find him about as funny as a funeral. So it’s not much of a surprise that when Mary Elizabeth Winstead comes to after a car crash that she finds herself chained to a wall in a survivalist’s bunker – and he’s the main man. This unofficial followup  to Cloverfield is a different kind of monster B, with the connection only clarified 80 minutes into its running time, at which point Goodman has dispatched the other unfortunate captive and MEW goes outside to find … a new kind of world order. Damien Chazelle gets a writing credit on a story originated by Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken, and it’s directed by Dan Trachtenberg. A Bad Robot Production. Sigh.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

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The wilderness is the location chosen by the titular character to recover from what we would call PTSD nowadays as Robert Redford has had a bad war in Mexico and needs time away from everything. He lives in the Rocky Mountains, keeping himself in food by trapping and enduring a horrendous winter, resorting to fishing by hand from mountain streams. He finds a rifle in a dead man’s hands, meets Bear Claw (Will Geer) who mentors him, and has repeated encounters with Paints-His Shirt-Red (Joaquin Martinez) from the Crow tribe. He takes in a boy he names Caleb (Josh Albee) whose mother has gone mad, then rescues Gue (Stefan Gierasch) who’s buried up to his neck in sand by the Blackfeet, then he marries into the Flatheads to save his own. He’s pressured to lead US troops to a wagon train of settlers through burial ground and is seen:  he returns to find his squaw and Caleb murdered and he takes revenge… The biography of Liver-Eating Johnson  and a book called Mountain Man were adapted by John Milius in a project originally intended for Sam Peckinpah with Lee Marvin replaced by Clint Eastwood. Eastwood and Peckinpah did not get along, so it was acquired for Redford, who persuaded Sydney Pollack to come on board to direct – they had worked together well on This Property Is Condemned. Pollack was a meddler with writers;  Edward Anhalt and David Rayfiel did rewrites but Milius was brought back, repeatedly, to do the dialogue, for which he had such an uncanny ear. If you want to know how Milius got his reputation, watch this. The budget was so constrained that Pollack mortgaged his home to get through production, an arduous seven-month shoot in Utah, Redford’s adopted home. Weather conditions meant more than one take was rarely possible. The changing seasons are beautifully captured by Duke Callaghan, in this splendidly judged, humane, funny, touching piece of work. Redford turns in a very well honed performance and the ensemble are brilliant. Quite the best wilderness film you’ll see, probably, with a marvellous soundtrack composed by actors Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

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Johann Wyss’ book was a big part of my childhood and when I went to the Disney theme parks I loved seeing the treehouse – I’m old fashioned, dontcha know and it was a toss-up between that and Alice’s tea cups as to what was my favourite thing. Napoleon’s on the warpath so it’s time for the Robinsons to depart Europe for Guinea – but their ship is wrecked, chased by pirates onto rocks and the crew have abandoned them to their fate. So they set up home on an uninhabited island, experiencing crazy adventures with wild animals, fighting off the returning pirates and generally making themselves very handy indeed. Then another ship is run aground …  Mom and Dad are played by Dorothy Maguire and John Mills, the kids are James Macarthur, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran,  cute as a button, as always. And you might recognise Turk the Great Dane,  (future) star of The Ugly Dachshund. Supreme action adventure beautifully shot in Widescreen and Panavision by Harry Waxman, with a rousing score by William Alwyn, adapted by Lowell Hawley and directed by Ken Annakin. The real treehouse in Tobago remained until it was destroyed by Hurricane Flora in 1963.

 

Swallows and Amazons (2016)

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Children and pirates and spies, oh my! I was dreading this when I read that Arthur Ransome’s real life inter-war intelligence activity was going to be integrated into the classic story of children messing about in boats on holiday in the Lake District. Yet it works a treat, commencing with a train sequence that’s not quite worthy of Hitchcock, when rude Rafe Spall intrudes on the Walker children while escaping the attentions of Andrew Scott and his Russian Friend;  he shows up on a houseboat when the adventurous children are desperately trying to persuade mother Kelly Macdonald to allow them sail to what they proudly christen Walker Island, where they encounter rival sailor girls and much, much more besides. This works up a head of steam and treats family tensions, sibling spats and pirate – and real – spying with due seriousness. Ransome hated the 1962 BBC version;  I grew up with the 1974 adaptation. Writer Andrea Gibb and director Phillippa Lowthorpe do a quietly impressive job. Quite charming.

Couple in a Hole (2015)

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A title that does what it says on the box?! That’s just what this is. A Scots couple live in a hole in the Midi-Pyrenees.  He goes out and forages, she mostly stays in. Very feral and even primal. But … why? When she gets stung by a spider he has to find a pharmacy and he becomes frenemies with a local who ironically caused their cave-dwelling but we find that out incrementally, when the man’s wife starts to lose it big time. Paul Higgins and Kate Dickie are the couple, and their performances are marvellous in their complementary polarities:  she’s a traumatised agoraphobe wife, he’s a sociable supporter hunter gatherer who likes to eat sausage. Jerome Kircher is the farmer who killed their son and Corinne Masiero is the wife who finally can’t take the guilt. There is an unexpected ending and yet for a film that rests entirely on metaphor (we’ve all been in one…) it’s not unacceptable. Extraordinary in many ways with an exceptional soundtrack by Geoff Barrow. Written and directed by Tom Geens. One of the year’s best films.