Catch-22 (1970)

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Help the bombardier. Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) an American pilot stationed in the Mediterranean who flies bombing missions during World War II attempts to cope with the madness of armed conflict. Convinced that everyone is trying to murder him, he decides to try to become certified insane but that is merely proof that he’s fully competent. Surrounded by eccentric military officers, such as the opportunistic 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian has to resort to extreme measures to escape his dire and increasingly absurd situation... All great countries are destroyed, why not yours? Not being a fan of the rather repetitive and circular source novel aids one’s enjoyment of this adaptation by director Mike Nichols who was coasting on the stunning success of his first two movies (also adaptations), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, which was also adapted by Buck HenryThe critical reception for this resisted adulation instead focusing on a flawed construction which really goes back to Joseph Heller’s book and does not conform to the rules of a combat picture as well as contracting the action and removing and substituting characters. But aside from the overall absurdity which is literally cut in an act of stunning violence which shears through one character in shocking fashion, there is dialogue of the machine gun variety which you’d expect from a services satire and there are good jokes about communication, following orders, profiteering and stealing parachutes to sell silk on the black market.  There are interesting visual and auditory ways of conveying Yossarian’s inner life – in the first scene we can’t hear him over the noise of the bombings, because his superiors are literally deaf to what he’s saying, a useful metaphor. The impressionistic approach of Henry’s adaptation is one used consistently, preparing the audience for the culmination of the action in a surreal episode worthy of Fellini. I like it a lot, certainly more than the recent TV adaptation and the cast are just incredible:  Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen and Orson Welles among a large ensemble. Even novelist Philip Roth plays a doctor. It’s shot by David Watkin, edited by Sam O’Steen and the production is designed by Richard Sylbert. Where the hell’s my parachute?

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

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Play something else. Bored Boston millionaire Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) devises and executes a brilliant scheme to rob a bank on a sunny summer’s afternoon without having to do any of the work himself. He rolls up in his Rolls Royce and collects the takings from a trash can without ever meeting the four men he hired to pull it off. When the police get nowhere fast, American abroad Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), an investigator hired by the bank’s insurance company, takes an interest in Crown and the two begin a complicated cat-and-mouse game with a romantic undertone although Vicki is also assisting police with their enquiries via Detective Eddy Malone (Paul Burke) who stops short of calling her a prostitute due to her exceedingly unorthodox working methods. Suspicious of Anderson’s agenda, Crown devises another robbery like his first, wondering if he can get away with the same crime twice while Vicki is conflicted by her feelings and Tommy considers giving himself up I’m running a sex orgy for a couple of freaks on Government funds. Dune buggies. Gliders. Polo ponies. Aran sweaters. The sexiest chess game in cinema. Those lips! Those eyes! Those fingers! Has castling ever seemed so raunchy?! Super slick, witty, rather wistful and absurdly beautiful, this classic caper is the epitome of Sixties cool, self-consciously clever, teeming with split-screen imagery, bursting with erotic ideas and boasting a brilliant if enigmatic theme song Windmills of Your Mind composed by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman. The breeziest, flightiest concoction this side of a recipe for soufflé, it benefits from both protagonists’ identity crisis where everything comes easily to Tommy and life is a game, and yet, and yet … while Vicki is genuinely hurt when Detective Malone hands her a file on Tommy’s nightlife affairs with another woman. Written by Alan Trustman, also responsible for Bullitt. The production is designed by Robert Boyle, shot by Haskell Wexler and directed by Norman Jewison while the editing is led by future director Hal Ashby.  This is deliriously entertaining.  And did Persol shades ever look as amazing? It’s not the money, it’s me and the system

Address Unknown (1944)

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The quicksand of despair – and just before we died a man pulled us out. When Martin Schultz (Paul Lukas), a German expatriate art dealer living in the US, visits his homeland, he begins to get attracted by the Nazi propaganda and breaks ties with his close Jewish friend, Max Eisenstein (Morris Carnovsky) whose daughter Griselle (K.T. Stevens) an aspiring actress is engaged to marry his son Heinrich (Peter Van Eyck) and she has accompanied Martin to Munich to pursue her career for a year. But Martin is swiftly recruited by Baron von Friesche (Carl Esmond) to work in the Culture Ministry with devastating repercussions … You can’t sit on two stools at once. At least not here in Germany. Kressmann Taylor’s 1938 novella sounded a gunshot over the ramparts about the dangers of Nazism and the screenplay by Herbert Dalmas does it justice – and then some. Director William Cameron Menzies deploys the style of German Expressionism (shot by Rudolf Maté) in the service of all that is decent and the escalating tension is brilliantly paced. The near-lynching of Griselle at the theatre is shocking and concludes in the tragic manner you know to expect. The atmosphere of intimidation and dread is expertly sustained while Lukas’ encroaching guilt over his role in the desperate developments in Germany grinds to a logical conclusion in the form of coded communication as the visuals veer from film noir shadows to straightforward horror mise en scène. A superb evocation of how two intertwined families suffer in the murderous Nazi terror. The old Juncker spirit and German arrogance are gone

Dark Journey (1937)

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Not bad but you need to practise. World War I is in full thrust, but Swedish fashion store clerk Madeleine Goddard (Vivien Leigh) has apparently not aligned herself with either side. When she meets German soldier Karl Von Marwitz (Conrad Veidt), she falls in love. Karl, who presents himself as a footman of low rank and supposedly disgraced officer, is in fact a high-ranking official in the German army and an aristocrat. Madeleine has secrets of her own – she is a spy and double agent, working for the Allies in a bid to uncover the new head of the German Secret Service in Stockholm. As Madeleine and Karl are pulled deeper into the escalating war, their love may be the thing that saves their lives but when her German co-conspirator Anatole (Eliot Makeham) is murdered events overtake them and their identities might just prove their undoing ... Is it a crime to be German?/It’s worse, it’s a vulgarity. This pre-WW2 drama is prescient, pacifist and fence-sitting, all at once, a notably atmospheric tale of spy/counter-spy in a Stockholm that presents rather like a certain Moroccan destination would five years later.  Leigh is inscrutable to the point of roboticism at first, then suave ladykiller Veidt comes along and she’s even more attractive than that saucy minx Brazilian socialite Lupita (Joan Gardner, wife of Zoltan Korda, uncredited producer Alexander’s brother) who seems permanently up for it. With maps, submarines, pips on the radio, coded messages on the fabric held up against lamplight and fog dappling the harbour, it’s a very attractive concoction with a terrific ensemble cast that includes Ursula Jeans, Cecil Parker and Robert Newton as a U-boat officer. With a screenplay by Lajos Biró and scenario and dialogue by Arthur Wimperis, this is assisted by nicely graduated greys and soft whites in the cinematography which was carried out at Denham Studios on splendid sets designed by Andrej Andrejew, and enhanced by a suitably suspenseful score by Richard Addinsell conducted by Muir Mathieson. Naturally, the costumes by René Hubert are rather fabulous. Directed by Victor Saville. It’s easy to touch your pocket, it’s difficult to touch your heart

The Mephisto Waltz (1971)

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There’s no reason to be scared. A frustrated pianist who spent four years at Juilliard, music journalist Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) is thrilled to interview virtuoso Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens). Duncan, however, is terminally ill and not much interested in Myles until he observes that Myles’ hands are ideally suited for piano. Suddenly, he can’t get enough of his new friend and thinks he should perform; while his daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins) thinks Myles should act, and Myles’ wife, Paula (Jacqueline Bisset), who believes he has a great novel in him, becomes suspicious of Duncan’s intentions. Her suspicions grow when Duncan dies and Myles mysteriously becomes a virtuoso overnight... Hands like yours are one in a hundred thousand.  Adapted from Fred Mustard Stewart’s novel it’s easy to dismiss this as an unambiguous Faustian followup to Rosemary’s Baby but it’s better than that. Once-blacklisted screenwriter Ben Maddow does a fine job (on his final screenplay) in conveying the book’s deep sense of dread and Jurgens is terrifying as the man whose influence stretches beyond mere existence. It’s set in California in a change from the original New York location. No matter how lusciously lovely it looks (courtesy of William W. Spencer), it’s shot through with death and strangeness, odd setups, underpinned by Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score (and a guy called Liszt) and highly effective performances, particularly by Bisset who is fantastic as the horrifyingly cuckolded wife, and by the imposingly scary soul-switching Satanist Jurgens. I feel unfaithful – he’s like three different men, says Bisset after having sex with the newly-transfused Alda.  Even Parkins impresses as the seductive daughter whose own father clearly loves her outside the usual limits. Unfortunately Alda is the weakest link and seems more like a lucky social climber. It remains a terrifying film, with glorious visual insinuation and eerie dream sequences, wonderfully directed by Paul Wendkos. The only feature production by legendary TV producer Quinn Martin.  Success makes you miserable, doesn’t it

Downton Abbey (2019)

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It’s like living in a factory. It’s 1927. Excitement is high at Downton Abbey when the Crawley family headed by Robert, Earl Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) learn that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are coming to visit. Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) is perturbed that Maud, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) Queen Mary’s lady-in-waiting, is included in the tour. Maud is Robert’s cousin and her closest relative. The two families have fallen out over who should inherit Maud’s estate, Robert or Maud’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton). Tom Branson (Allen Leech) makes nice with a stranger known only as Major Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore) who he believes is keeping him under surveillance for his Irish Republican sympathies. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) scrambles to get the household ready but butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is proving inadequate to the task and Carson (Jim Carter) is quickly summoned out of retirement. But trouble arises when the cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), Daisy (Sophie McShera), housekeeper Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and the rest of the servants learn that the king and queen travel with their own chefs and attendants – so when the Royal Page of the Backstairs (David Haig) arrives with the entourage the stage is set for a showdown below stairs Secrets always muddle things. Julian Fellowes returns to the big screen with a country house tale nearly two decades after Gosford Park which inspired the hugely successful Downton Abbey TV show in the first place. There’s less plot than one of those episodes and it picks up approximately 18 months after the last one but the characters are so barely skimmed over and it all looks so pretty you’ll hardly notice – the only possible controversy is with an attempted royal assassination, trouble with the monarch’s daughter Princess Mary’s (Kate Phillips) marriage, Barrow’s trip to the Twenties equivalent of a gay rave, Lady Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) mysterious retreat from independence into the world of ladies who lunch (which she only addresses late in the story) and a lightly trailed retirement of the world’s favourite pantomime Dame Maggie who lands all of the best lines. Well she would, wouldn’t she. Even Isis the dog makes a return albeit she isn’t called. Nary a hint of revolution save a mention of the General Strike which leads the Dowager Countess to observe that she noticed her maid was rather curt to her. Featherweight entertainment, as light and fluffy and non-calorific as one of Mrs Patmore’s soufflés. Directed by Michael Engler.  I know I’m going to forget my lines

 

Holmes & Watson (2018)

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He and I co-detectives? Not I. Not here. Not even in my rapturous moments of private fantasy! Renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) join forces to investigate a mysterious murder threat upon Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) at Buckingham Palace. It seems like an open-and-shut case as all signs point to Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), the criminal mastermind and longtime nemesis of the crime-solving duo. Both men are diverted by American women – Dr Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her companion Millicent (Lauren Lapkus) whom she insists is her electric shock treatment subject, a woman reared by feral cats. When new twists and clues begin to emerge, the sleuth and his assistant must use their legendary wits and ingenious methods to catch the killer who may have been hiding in plain sight very close to home I have the oddest feeling. Like knowing, but the opposite. Blending the steampunk approach of the Robert Downey films and the flash-forward visual detection of Benedict Cumberbatch’s TV Sherlock, this also has anachronistic shtick (Titanic in the life of Queen Vic, anyone?) and a cheeky reference to one of the more arcane Holmes incarnations in the casting of Hugh Laurie as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft – TV’s House, geddit?! (That’s a scene that doesn’t work, sadly). Some of the best sequences and laughs are with Hall and Lapkus, between the misogyny and the bits about nineteenth century medical treatments, with some genuinely amusing romantic farce and bromantic jokes.  This is beautifully shot by Oliver Wood, exquisitely designed by James Hambidge and costumed by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Naturally it’s only a matter of time until someone says No shit Sherlock and it’s from the mouths of Dickensian runts straight out of Oliver!  There’s a funny passing song that occasions a joke about musicals when the film finally lets rip à la The Muppets giving it more promise than it delivers and there are some highly contemporary visual and political references. So there’s wit and invention aplenty but it’s not quite clever enough all the time. Rather like Holmes. Minus the innuendo and lewdness this could have been a marvellous comic outing for children, agreeably silly with some easy but amusing targets but you know, these guys, they just can’t help themselves, with Ferrell doing too much of what he likes as the ultimate defective detective and Reilly as his hapless foil, a Johnson in more ways than one (until the roles get switched, which happens constantly and is confusing). The ladies are fantastic and Fiennes brings that immaculate class as is his wont and manages to be the only one who doesn’t actually twirl that comedy moustache; while Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald and Steve Coogan (as a one-armed tattooist) get their moments of infamy. Written and directed by Etan Coen. No, not that Coen, obvs. Terrible and clueless but not totally awful. Go figure.  A sniff of morning cocaine always helps the brain

The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

Dumbo (2019)

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You should listen to your kids more. Struggling travelling circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists a former equestrian star, WW1 amputee Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and son Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for Dumbo, a baby elephant born with oversized ears to Mrs Jumbo. When the family discovers that the animal can fly, it soon becomes the main attraction — bringing in huge audiences and revitalizing the run-down circus. His mother is separated from him leaving him distraught then his magical ability draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life entertainment venture Dreamland where he intends his spirited  Parisian trapeze artiste Colette Marchant (Eva Green) will use the little fellow in her act…  You have something very rare. You have wonder. You have mystique. You have magic. In this latest pointless live-action remake of Disney’s brilliant animated features, Ehren Kruger’s screenplay (welcome back to the big leagues) has to tread a fine line between the exigencies of the House of Mouse with its unadulterated classic sentiment and the Gothic flourishes and flawed excesses of director Tim Burton who reassembles some of his usual actors (DeVito, Green, Keaton) alongside Disney’s latest humanoid fave, Farrell. Dumbo is the greatest animation ever made and a personal favourite, an utterly beguiling story of grave majesty and emotionality. This is never going to reach those heights no matter how many high wire acts, freakshows and armless motherless humans are dramatised as reactive tropes, how many of the circus’ darkest inclinations are exhibited, how many cartoon baddies (with Afrikaaner accents) are on standby, how good Keaton (as the anti-Walt Disney!) and DeVito are, how sweet the family message. The Art Deco interiors and production design are splendid, there is real jeopardy and the CGI elephants are beautiful, but you don’t need elephants to save your blank-eyed expressionless soul (Parker has no acting ability whatsoever) which is this film’s message. It expands on the original adaptation of Helen Alberson’s book and it’s not the anticipated travesty that  the horrific Alice in Wonderland was for the same auteur pairing but that’s not saying much.  If you really want to do something for the plight of their species stop all those vile African natives and American trophy hunters from brutally killing them and ensuring their imminent extinction. Back to the drawing board. Fly, Dumbo … fly