Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess. Like you said, Captain, maybe we do that, we all earn the right to go home.  Following the Normandy landings of June 1944 Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) takes his men of the 2nd Ranger battalion behind enemy lines to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) a paratrooper whose three brothers have been killed in combat. Surrounded by the brutal realities of war, while searching for Ryan each man embarks upon a personal journey and discovers their own strength to triumph over an uncertain future with honor, decency and courage… Robert Rodat’s men on a mission script has the classic features of the WW2 combat movie – a selection of guys or types from all walks of life with their own business and point of view and declamatory lines. But the first thirty minutes constitute probably the best fighting scene ever put on film:  a literally visceral evocation of the beach landings with things you’ll wonder any man could have survived.  There are images that are seared on the brain. It’s a wholly immersive set up and utterly shocking, as real as you’ll ever want a war to be.  Then the film cannily shifts in tone, content and performance from sequence to sequence ranging from the subtle to the spectacular both in terms of visuals and narrative as the story hook about the military’s single survivor policy kicks in and has its ripple effect on this battalion of soldiers reluctantly tramping across France who seem like a proper cross-section of society:  Tom Sizemore, Ed Burns, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel.  Spielberg said he wanted the kind of faces he saw in WW2 newsreels … and they work out their individual and collective issues under sniper fire and figure out what matters and try to keep going. The film has been lauded for its accuracy but some don’t like the dramatic coda.  That doesn’t matter. Hanks is brilliant as the heart and soul of the outfit. When he is on the verge of hysteria at the enveloping chaos and confusion we are on the edge of our seats, with him. The horrors of war are never hidden from the audience.  We get different perspectives – religious, personal, intellectual, about the rights and wrongs of bloody and vengeful action. It’s been a day of historical and war movies for me but I started out with Spielberg’s latest (Ready Player One) and I’ve concluded with this, one of the best WW2 films of them all, a stunning and perfectly judged achievement on every level because he is a director who can tell more in one frame than some directors can in entire scenes. Astonishing. MM#1700

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Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

 

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No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. Due to his knowledge of the native Bedouin tribes, British Army Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent to Arabia to find Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and serve as liaison between the Arabs and the British in their fight against the Turks. With the aid of the native Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence rebels against the orders of his superior officer and strikes out on a daring camel journey across the harsh desert to attack a well-guarded Turkish port… The greatest film ever made? Probably. One of my more shocking cinematic excursions was to see this at London’s Odeon Marble Arch when it was re-released in a new print:  I hared to the early evening screening, thought I was incredibly late when I got my ticket because the foyer was deserted, ran upstairs two steps at a time and took my seat. And realised I was the only person there. This is one of the most feverishly protagonist-led narratives you will ever see, by which I mean that what you are seeing is the world created by Lawrence, whether or not it is true to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the entire facts of the matter or the man.  Like Psycho, everything in it exists to explain his perspective, his character, his essence. And it starts so shockingly, in a way that horrified me when I first saw it on TV one afternoon when I was probably nine years old:  his death in an English country lane on a summer’s day on a motorcycle. This frames an action adventure rooted in archaeology, espionage, politics, propaganda and the division of the vast desert lands and their warring tribes into convenient nation-states. It’s a narrative that is  free of women but includes issues of homosexuality and torture. It uses the trope of the journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) rewriting history as it is being made. It is filled with imagery that pulses through your brain – the arrival of Ali across the shimmering sands;  the (literal) match cut;  Lawrence shot from below in his white Arabic robes, stalking the hijacked train;  the magical appearance of water. I watch this on a regular basis and get lost in it every time. It’s extraordinary, arresting, brilliant, startling, stunning. O’Toole is utterly luminous as this complex man. Blacklisted Michael Wilson and British screenwriter Robert Bolt did drafts of the script and it may not be entirely historically accurate but it is true. Shot by Freddie Young, scored by Maurice Jarre, directed by David Lean. Magnificent. Happy Birthday to me.

Our Man in Havana (1959)

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Everything’s legal in Havana. Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness) is an English ex-pat living in pre-revolutionary Havana with his vain teenage daughter Milly (Jo Morrow). He owns a vacuum cleaner shop but isn’t very successful and Milly is annoyed he’s unable to fulfill his promise of a horse and country club membership, so he accepts an offer from Hawthorne (Noel Coward) of the British Secret Service to recruit a network of spies in Cuba. Wormold hasn’t got a clue where to start but when his friend Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) suggests that the best secrets are known to no one, he decides to manufacture a list of agents from people he only knows by sight and provides fictional tales for the benefit of his paymasters in London. He is soon seen as the best agent in the Western hemisphere and is particularly happy with his new friend, the beautiful spy Beatrice Severn (Maureen O’Hara) but it all unravels when the local police decode his cables and everything he has invented bizarrely begins to come true when they start rounding up his network and he learns that he is the target of a group out to kill him… This film is, rather like North by Northwest, a taste of things to come:  an irreverent picture of the Cold War, the assumptions of the West and of course a picture of Cuba on the verge of a revolutionary breakdown (it was shot immediately after the Batista regime was overthrown). Graham Greene was reluctant to let anyone film his novels following the near-desecration of The Quiet American but this novel (the last he would term an entertainment and based on his WW2 experiences in Portugal) survives pretty unscathed with its comic tone evident throughout the cast (albeit Greene hated Maureen O’Hara). Who doesn’t love Ernie Kovacs? Or Guinness, for that matter, who perfectly inhabits this hapless effortful beast Wormold. I particularly liked his take on a game of checkers. Beautifully photographed by the great Oswald Morris  – but in black and white – in Havana?! Why?!  Directed, not by Hitchcock, who had tried to acquire the rights from Greene, but by Carol Reed. It was their third collaboration following The Fallen Idol and The Third ManOne never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.

The Red Shoes (1948)

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– Why do you want to dance? – Why do you want to live? Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) is a ballerina torn between her dedication to dance and her desire to love. Her autocratic, imperious mentor (and ‘attractive brute’) Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) who has his own ballet company, urges to her to forget anything but ballet. When his star retires he turns to Vicky. Vicky falls for a charming young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) who Lermontov has taken under his wing. He creates The Red Shoes ballet for the impresario and Vicky is to dance the lead. Eventually Vicky, under great emotional stress, must choose to pursue either her art or her romance, a decision that carries deadly consequences… The dancer’s film – or the film that makes you want to dance. An extraordinary interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, this sadomasochistic tribute to ballet and the nutcases who populate the performing universe at unspeakable cost to themselves and those around them is a classic. A magnificent achievement in British cinema and the coming of age of the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger partnership, it is distinguished by its sheerly beautiful Technicolor cinematography by the masterful Jack Cardiff. It also boasts key performances by dancers Robert Helpmann, Ludmila Tcherina and Leonide Massine with a wordless walk-on by Marie Rambert. The delectable pastiche score is by Brian Easdale. Swoony and unforgettable, this is a gloriously nutty film about composers, musicians, performers, dancers and the obsessive creative drive – to death. Said to be inspired by the relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, this was co-written by Powell and Pressburger with additional dialogue by Keith Winter. It was a huge hit despite Rank’s mealy-mouthed ad campaign and in its initial two-year run in the US at just one theatre it made over 2 million dollars.

 

The Odd Couple (1968)

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Don’t point that finger at me unless you intend to use it. Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) is suicidal over his divorce and checks into a cheap hotel to off himself. Then his back gives out, he has second thoughts and he calls his friend Oscar the sportswriter (Walter Matthau) in the middle of their regular poker game. Oscar figures he can save Felix from himself and invites him to move in. Felix’s neat obsession drives slobby Oscar crazy and he arranges a double date with the English Pigeon sisters from another apartment upstairs but Felix cries about his divorce and it sends the empathetic ladies home and Oscar over the edge. Mike Nichols’ staging is replicated here to the extent that you feel you’re watching a lot of this on the other side of the proscenium. However that doesn’t detract from the strength of the performances, grounded in Neil Simon’s mordant wit:  who sends a suicide telegram?  How two mismatched men get over their divorced status and then enter a virtual marriage themselves and find out what it is that made their wives leave them is the whole show. There’s terrific support from Herb (TV’s Big John, Little John) Edelman as Murray the cop and John Fiedler as Vinnie, who get a taste for Felix’s delicious sandwiches even if the stench of disinfectant from the playing cards forces them out. With a notable score by Neal Hefti (how could you forget that theme), a screenplay by Simon himself and a rather theatrical directing job by Gene Saks, this is a good but not great comedy, but marks the first of four collaborations between the writer and Lemmon, that Everyman of Seventies cinema.

Piccadilly Incident (1946)

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Don’t touch me! A brutally effective wartime tearjerker with WREN Diana Fraser (Anna Neagle) meeting cute with Captain Alan Pearson (Michael Wilding) in an air raid and taking refuge in his Piccadilly flat. They fall madly in love and marry because she’s being deployed abroad in 72 hours and they encounter his father, a judge (AE Matthews) in a restaurant and celebrate their hasty wedding.  They share some very sensual scenes but her sojourn in Singapore lasts a lot longer than anticipated – when the city falls and the ship she’s on is wrecked she fetches up on a desert island and is gone three years before being rescued. She is reported missing presumed drowned. Upon her return she finds his flat has been bombed and goes to his country seat where she meets the American woman Alan married in her absence and they have a baby. She watches him performing – in one of several musical segues, one of which is a ballet sequence devised by future director Wendy Toye – and pretends she’s found someone else. They are both injured in a bombing and she makes a deathbed confession as he kisses her … This romance carried out amid bombs and blackouts is bookended with the legal fate of Alan’s illegitimate son making Florence Tranter’s wartime take on Enoch Arden (screenplay by actor/writer Nicholas Phipps) both more realistic and trapped in its time:  nonetheless the accidental pairing of director Herbert Wilcox’s wife Neagle with Wilding (it was supposed to be Rex Harrison) was hugely popular (number 2 at the 1946 UK box office after The Wicked Lady) and they were re-teamed a further five times to make more, beautiful music together. No wonder.  Sob. Watch out for an uncredited Roger Moore at a table.

It Happened to Jane (1959)

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Doris plays Jane Osgood, a widowed mother of two trading lobster. When a shipment of 300 of the poor creatures dies in transit she asks her lawyer George (Jack Lemmon) to sue the railroad company and she’s awarded money. The company files against her and George wants her to take the train in lieu then the newspapers get hold of the story and she threatens to appear on TV. George is jealous of Larry (Steve Forrest) who’s a journalist she’s smitten with and the railroad bypasses the town, endangering all the businesses … Cute undemanding comedy with great stars and fun script by Norman Katkov and Max Wilk, this saw director/producer Richard Quine reunited again with regular star Lemmon and the great Ernie Kovacs, who had also appeared in Bell, Book and Candle:  he’s cast here as “the meanest man in the world”! Re-released in 1961 as Twinkle and Shine.

I Capture the Castle (2003)

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Dodie Smith’s classic 1930s coming of age story gets a beautiful treatment in this adaptation by Heidi Thomas, directed by Tim Fywell. Romola Garai is the seventeen-year old Cassandra Mortmain, daughter of the desiccated formerly successful novelist, a cadaverous James (Bill Nighy) who has been blocked for twelve years. He’s married to dedicated nudist and avant garde artist Topaz (Tara Fitzgerald), his second wife. He served time in prison for attacking Cassandra’s mother with a cake knife. They live in ungenteel poverty in a rented castle which is in a state of terrific decay with a beautiful sister Rose (Rose Byrne) and young brother Thomas. The gorgeous farmhand next door Stephen (Henry Cavill) loves Cassandra but she only has eyes for American Simon (Henry  Thomas) who inherits the whole property of which the castle serves a part; while Simon falls for Rose. Simon’s brother Neil (Marc Blucas) and Cassandra confide in each other … and while superficial romance proceeds and social niceties are observed, and a forthcoming marriage might save them all, the principal relationships fall apart and Cassandra tries to fix everything while losing the man she really loves. Fantastically observed and – it has to be said – captivating – adaptation, with spot-on performances all round. Look fast for Dolly Wells as a horrible saleswoman.

Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

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Christmas is coming so it’s time to take this out. But it works at Halloween, Easter and ice cream season too – which is all year round, isn’t it?! This classic Hollywood musical comedy drama is simply perfection. Adapted from Sally Benson’s New Yorker stories of a midwestern family at the start of the twentieth century, it tells the story of the Smiths through the seasons.  Made at the height of WW2, this fantasy about a pretty family shimmers with the lustrous care of director Vincente Minnelli, whose background in theatre design comes to the fore in terms of staging, decor, colour, choreography and performance. Judy Garland has some great moments in a film stuffed with them – The Trolley Song, the romance with The Boy Next Door, the amusing scenes with her sister Lucille Bremer; but the standout moments are mostly those with little Margaret O’Brien as Tootie, on her Halloween outing, her destruction of the snowmen and her distress at their father’s proposed move to NYC.  Judy soothes her with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Funny, sad, touching and joyous, this is a forever film.

Breakheart Pass (1975)

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You know what you’re getting with an Alistair MacLean adaptation: taut action, taciturn characters, a traitor close to home, a great payoff and a woman with a name something like ‘Mary’. Here she’s Marica and she’s played by Jill Ireland, as the daughter of the commander at Fort Humboldt, keen to be reunited with him and distressed to find out it’s at the centre of a diphtheria outbreak. She accompanies her fiance, Utah’s governor (Richard Crenna) on a train bringing medical supplies and relief troops as well as a marshal (Ben Johnson) who’s accompanied by his charge, killer outlaw, John Deakin (Charles Bronson). As the train chugs through the mountains and ravines people are knocked off one by one (literally, in some cases), the telegraph is cut off and we realise Deakin is in fact a federal agent who needs to stop a plot between criminal Levi Calhoun (Robert Tessier – scary!) and Indians led by Chief White Hand (Eddie Little Sky) to mine gold from their lands. The train is actually carrying a freight of guns and ammo and it’s down to Deakin and Army Major Claremont (Ed Lauter) to stop it as the Indians head ’em off at the Pass  … Lean, smart, filmmaking, effectively directed by Tom Gries from MacLean’s own screenplay, this is an ideal part for Bronson who of course was married to Ireland and they work well in their few scenes together. Kinda like Murder on the Occidental Express. Look quickly and you might spot Scott Newman, who made just one more film before his early death.