Cleopatra (1963)

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Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus. The Seventh Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) manipulates and falls in love with both Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) in her ill-fated attempt to save the Egyptian empire from a takeover by the Roman Empire. This love triangle is one of the most famous ever to be captured on film, with betrayal by trusted Octavian (Roddy McDowall), the murder of Caesar, the escape of Cleopatra who has borne Caesar’s son and the final, terrible defeat at Actium in Greece … What gets lost in the palaver about this truly epic historical saga which ruined Twentieth Century Fox for a while is just how good it is:  how it measures the scale of the action to the depth of performance. Elizabeth Taylor is imperious, vulnerable, scathing, dictatorial, brilliant and moving: What can I do? Where can I go in a world suddenly without you? You believe her. And she is matched by the acerbic Harrison, the slyly snide McDowall (we’re a long way from Lassie!), loyal Rufio (Martin Landau) and what about the very sad end of Burton whose line to Octavian makes you gulp with emotion:  Is there nobody who would grant Antony an honourable way to die? Oh! Based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra by C.M. Franzero and the histories by Plutarch, Appian and Suetonius the much-laboured upon screenplay is by Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman, and director Joseph Mankiewicz who certainly suffered for everybody’s art as the man to take over the botched first attempt aborted in London and relaunched at Cinecitta in Rome. As legendary as this is for its effect on Hollywood, what shouldn’t be forgotten is what a brilliant spectacle it is. It’s quite breathtaking.

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Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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Kong’s a pretty good king. Keeps to himself, mostly. This is his home, we’re just guests. But you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs, unless you’re picking a fight. Scientists, soldiers and adventurers unite to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean. Cut off from everything they know, they venture into the domain of the mighty Kong, igniting the ultimate battle between man and nature. As their mission of discovery soon becomes one of survival, they must fight to escape from a primal world where humanity does not belong. Tom Hiddleston is Conrad, the British Special Forces op (retired!) hired by monster hunter Bill Randa (John Goodman) who’s finagled money for the expedition from a disbelieving Senator. Samuel L. Jackson is Lt. Col. Preston Packard, in charge of a special chopper squadron chomping at the bit for a final military excursion. Brie Larson is Mason Weaver (hmm…..) a photographer and anti-war activist. She’s there for the Pulitzer. This is one last op for Nam vets who ain’t too happy at ‘abandoning’ a losing war. A man who believes in monsters. A Bermuda Triangle-type of island where God didn’t get to finesse His creations. Set in 1973, ie the Vietnam era and just before the 1976 remake starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges of the wonderful 1933 classic, this is a kind of gung-ho Apocalypse Now retread with extra monsters and gore. Yeah, right:  if you thought Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) was a gorilla. And there’s more than that because Marlow is played by John C. Reilly and he’s a soldier who’s been hanging on the island for nearly 30 years waiting to be rescued and he knows that Kong is in fact their only hope in this island that is hollow at the centre – and Kong needs to win the turf war against some incredibly frightening creatures who are even worse to humans than he is! So this plugs into modern myths too – all those Japanese soldiers on Pacific islands not aware WW2 ended long ago. The character of Marlow narrates all of Joseph Conrad’s books, including Heart of Darkness, establishing the framing story. Hmm, now you’re talking. With a horrible, unlikeable cast (what is it these days? Why are actors so yucky?) and a screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly you might think at some point someone would have pulled the plug or cast people empathetic enough for an audience to perhaps care if they survive an encounter with a gorilla minding his own business in his own home. Nope. They had to do it. They went there. But it is saved by the built-in snark (okay, self-awareness) that is a de facto part of all action blockbusters nowadays, reflecting from early exchanges in the dialogue the knowledge that the monster is …. us.  Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist till you’re looking for them.  There’s a very high body count and the romance is at a minimum but it looks dazzling and moves quickly – even with a little jungle stealth and camouflage. This takes no prisoners – it eats them. I blame the parents. Golly! Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Lost Command (1966)

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This isn’t vengeance, it’s pointless slaughter. You’ve turned warfare into murder. Following a botched incident in Indochina in which his under-resourced paratroopers are overrun by communists at Dien Bien Phu, Basque Colonel Pierre Raspeguy (Anthony Quinn) is freed from Vietnamese war prison to assist in quelling the resistance to French rule in Algeria being led by Mahidi (George Segal) a former French lieutenant. Raspeguy is helped by Captain Esclavier (Alain Delon) a military historian who has tired of fighting and Captain Boisfeuras (Maurice Ronet) who breathes war. Raspeguy has to shape up an airborne unit to fight the insurgents with the promise of being made General and marriage to a beautiful countess (Michele Morgan) the widow of the man who died helping reinforce Raspeguy’s garrison. Meanwhile Esclavier meets local girl Aicha (Claudia Cardinale) and believes she’s on their side and not the FLN (National Liberation Front). After participating in a murderous ambush in a village Esclavier starts to take a different view of his nation’s activities in the name of war  … The bestselling French novel The Centurions by Jean Larteguy was acquired by producer/director Mark Robson and adapted by Nelson Gidding. It has lots to recommend it – several well-staged action scenes, issues of retribution and redemption and a to-die-for cast, reuniting as it does the beautiful young lovers from The Leopard, Delon and Cardinale, and it gives Quinn an excellent showcase in a vaguely biographical role (that of Marcel Bigeard, the commander in Indochina) as the colonel keen to justify himself after taking the fall. Political subtleties are necessarily worked out in broad characterisation with Cardinale as the stunning woman who plays both ends against the middle. Despite simplifying issues in the narrative this remains a rare English-language attempt to get to grips with a war that still has huge ramifications in France. The last image, with Delon leaving the military and seeing an FLN child activist painting a graffito, is a brilliant conclusion to a complex scenario.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

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It’s sort of weird being honored for the worst day of your life. A young Iraq war combat veteran (Joe Alwyn) and his Bravo Squad comrades are honoured at halftime during a football game home in Texas approaching Thanksgiving in 2004 . Parallel flashbacks (to the incident being honoured;  to a previous homecoming?!) are intercut with the game. The high point of the event is a song performed by Destiny’s Child (in reality some stand-ins shot over the shoulder) and this is intercut with the assault in Iraq in which Billy rescues his hurt commanding officer, the mystically minded Shroom (Vin Diesel). His dad’s in a wheelchair, Mom doesn’t want politics discussed at dinner, his sister (Kristen Stewart) is the reason he volunteered after he injured her boyfriend following a car crash that left her with a scarred face. She wants him to get an honorable discharge because she feels guilty. A film so lacking in dramatic impetus as to be almost entirely inert with a lousy structure that drains the very lifeblood from the narrative. There’s some old faff about the soldiers’ story being put onscreen and the deal is welshed on by team owner Steve Martin who is clearly having a laugh in a straight role. Garrett Hedlund, as the head of the squad, is the only actor to attempt anything resembling a performance. Adapted by Jean-Christophe Castelli from a book by Ben Fountain and shot at pointlessly high speeds by director Ang Lee who probably did it that way to stay awake. Mystifying to the point you’ll feel like you have PTSD afterwards.

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

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Everybody’s got a right to be a sucker once. When Budd Boetticher wrote this story he thought it would be a perfect return to Hollywood after his near-decade long Mexican odyssey when the subject of his bullfighting documentary died and he nearly bought the farm himself. But his career was effectively over and this was rewritten by Albert Maltz, another (blacklisted) resident of Mexico and instead of his hoped-for Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr starring, it was supposed to have Elizabeth Taylor in the lead. She gave the script to Clint Eastwood on the set of Where Eagles Dare (in which he co-starred with Richard Burton) and the whole game changed when it wasn’t going to be shot in Spain. In fact it became a Mexican co-production.  Eastwood is Hogan, a mercenary en route to assist Mexican revolutionaries against the French who were then engaged in an invasion of the country, with the promise of enough gold to set up a bar in California. He rescues nun Sara (MacLaine) who has had her clothes ripped off her by a bunch of marauding cowboys and he shoots them dead. She proves to be much more resourceful than he expects and enjoys drinking, smoking and helps him stop an ammunition train in its tracks as they make their way to a French fort on behalf of the Juaristas.  It turns out that the nun’s garb is just a costume that covers up her real vocation, that of prostitute … Gorgeously shot by Gabriel Figueroa (assisted by Bruce Surtees) this is a sensational comedy western with two gripping star performances. Don Siegel didn’t like MacLaine whom he declared unfeminine because she had too many balls. It was the last time Eastwood got second billing and also the last time that he would agree to an actress of stature as his co-star until Meryl Streep acted opposite him in The Bridges of Madison County. Siegel takes a spaghetti-style story and gives it some nicely sardonic twists with some terrific scenes – when MacLaine is giving a former client the last rites; and playing for time with General LeClaire (Albert Morin) while children dump a dynamite-filled pinata at the fort, to name but two. Boetticher was appalled at the alterations to his original story and when Siegel said he woke up every day to a paycheque, Boetticher responded he woke up every day and could look at himself in the mirror. Nonetheless this is engaging, smart and funny and a really great acting masterclass. Ennio Morricone’s insistent, brutally repetitive score is a plus.

Light Up the Sky! (1960)

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What used to be called the forces comedy is a venerable film tradition but this starts out as a very stagebound vaudeville adaptation and mutates into something darker and dramatic. Narrated to camera years later by seemingly inept and dippy motorcycle-riding Lt. Ogleby (Ian Carmichael) who is actually quite bright and insightful, he regales us with the antics of a bumbling band of misfits manning a rural searchlight battery during the Blitz. Benny Hill and Tommy Steele are the McGaffeys, who take off to perform sketches at the theatre every chance they get and McGaffey the younger (Steele) is in trouble – or rather his girlfriend is. Then there’s grumpy Lance Corporal Tomlinson (Victor Maddern) who wants time off to get married.  Ted Green (Sydney Tafler) is mourning his son and tries to give advice but it goes unheeded. As the stories become stronger – someone going AWOL but being helped at the eleventh hour – the stakes are raised and there is (inevitably) a tragic sacrifice the next time a German plane comes close … Robert Storey’s play Touch it Light was adapted by Vernon Harris and while the comedy mixes oddly with the drama for the most part, it becomes a far stronger work in the concluding half hour. Directed by Lewis Gilbert.

Churchill (2017)

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There was a Prime Minister called Churchill, he was married to Clementine, World War Two happened, and Operation Overlord aka D-Day was planned with or without him leading the charge. And that’s what concerns this film written by an historian called Alex Von Tunzelmann. Other than that, this film bears scant relation to documented historical fact. Brian Cox gives the cigar-chomping depressive egotist with his finger on the nation’s pulse some wellie, Miranda Richardson does her best as his long-suffering but intuitive other half, and John Slattery does nothing to enhance his reputation as Ike. Why? Etc. At least the map room is nice. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky.

In Harm’s Way (1965)

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I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way. This sprawling WW2 naval epic from producer/director Otto Preminger is set amid the Pacific battles with the Japanese and starts with the attack on Pearl Harbour. John Wayne is Captain Rock Torrey who’s demoted after surviving that encounter because his ship is then damaged in a subsequent episode. He meets the son (Brandon de Wilde) whom he abandoned 18 years earlier, and the boy is now in the Navy himself. He starts to romance a nurse (Patricia Neal) but he and his troublemaker colleague Commander Paul Eddington (Kirk Douglas) are tasked with salvaging a dangerous mission … This is an underrated war film with a brilliant cast, a mix of old-timers (Franchot Tone, Bruce Cabot, Dana Andrews, Stanley Holloway, Burgess Meredith, Henry Fonda) with new talent (Tom Tryon, Paula Prentiss, James Mitchum) who together bring a brisk sense of character to a realistic and unsentimental portrayal of men and women in war.  It’s another in Preminger’s examinations of institutions, with a story that has romance and work relationships aplenty with a keen eye for toughness:  what happens to de Wilde’s girlfriend (Jill Haworth) is quite the shocker. There are no punches pulled when it comes to relaying the heavy price to be paid for victory and the concluding scenes are impressively staged. This is a film in which the characters never suffer from the scale of the narrative. Wait for the credits by Saul Bass, who also designed the wonderful poster.  Adapted by Wendell Mayes from the book by James Bassett.

Father Goose (1964)

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Great blood! A battle of the sexes comedy masquerading as a wartime spy film, this features Cary Grant’s penultimate screen outing as history prof Walter Eckland living as a beach bum and persuaded by his old friend Commander Frank Houghton (Trevor Howard) of the Australian Navy to report for the Allies on Japanese activities around his remote Pacific island following an evacuation in the area. He’s a lousy watch and spends most of his time drinking so he’s ordered to fetch his replacement on a nearby island. Instead he finds stuck-up French teacher Catherine (Leslie Caron) who was washed ashore with seven of her charges, the children of diplomats whose ship was wrecked. In between the sparring the romantic sparks fly and Eckland’s unexpected rapport with the children leads one of them to speak for the first time. And the difficulties between the adults dissolve leading them to contemplate marriage over the radio with a Navy chaplain presiding. Then the Japanese arrive … once, twice and then with feeling. It’s time to get off the island and into a submarine. Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff adapted S. H. Barnett’s short story A Place of Dragons and their screenplay won the Academy Award – definitely not what you’d figure in these PC days when clever light comedy is far from the trophy room. It was Stone’s second script for Grant after Charade and while it doesn’t have the depth or construction or even the raft of smart dialogue (there is some nursery rhyme byplay) of that Hitchcockian thriller, it’s an agreeable way to spend a couple of hours. It looks lovely and Grant and Caron are very good together. But here’s the thing:  Grant turned down My Fair Lady to do this and he wanted his Charade co-star Audrey Hepburn to co-star with him in this but she had already committed to My Fair Lady … Wow! Apparently Grant felt this was the screen role that most resembled him in real life which is pretty incredible when the general belief was that he was the suave smooth talking gent he generally portrayed. He got on so well with the children he kept in touch  with them as they grew up and had their own families – and of course he married after this and had a daughter of his own. Directed by Ralph Nelson.

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.