Horrible Histories: Rotten Romans (2019)

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I’m sending you to Britain./Where’s that?/Exactly. It’s 60AD. Brainy Roman teenager Atti (Sebastian Croft) is always coming up with schemes, but one of these upsets Emperor Nero (Craig Roberts), who is constantly at odds with his mother Agrippina the Younger (Kim Cattrall) for control of the Empire. For his punishment, Atti is sent to the stain of the Empire known as Britain where it’s always cold and wet and he is captured by kick-ass young Celt Orla (Emilia Jones) but they eventually come to an understanding.  She is feeling her way towards warriordom much to the frustration of her father Arghus (Nick Frost) and is encouraged by the rise of Queen Boudicca (Kate Nash) who is quickly raising an army to fight the Romans being led by Governor Suetonius Paulinus (Rupert Graves). Atti helps Orla rescue her grandmother from a rival Celtic tribe. They’re always squabbling among themselves, these Celts. To Atti’s horror, when he is back with his regiment, he finds himself pitted against Orla and her tribe at the Battle of Watling Street a bottleneck which inadvertently gives the Romans an advantage because he told them about it and it provides the setting for a mammoth showdown between the natives and their invaders … I am Fartacus!  Adapted from Terry Deary’s books and TV series, this is a funny, quick-witted, mostly innuendo-free Carry On for kids, an inventive and occasionally anachronistic take on the Roman invasion – with songs! Hilarious sequences, lots of broad and actual toilet humour, family values (good and bad) and some very contemporary touches to hit home. Familiar faces abound with Derek Jacobi’s appearance as Claudius making a lot of adults smile. Written by Caroline Norris & Giles Pilbrow with additional material by Kevin Cecil, Andy Riley, Dave Cohen and Jessica Swale. Directed by Dominic Brigstocke. We’ll put an end to bad Romans and make them all go gaga! MM#2450

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My Reputation (1946)

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You have to start being yourself. Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) is a newly widowed upper class mother to two boys Kim (Scotty Beckett) and Keith (Bobby Cooper) with a domineering mother (Lucile Watson). Her estate lawyer Frank Everett (Warner Anderson) dates her casually while her society friend George Van Orman (Jerome Cowan) decides she’d be the ideal mistress. Her friend Ginna (Eve Arden) whisks her away to Tahoe with her husband Cary (John Ridgely) where she meets Major Scott Landis (George Brent) when she’s lost skiing in the mountains. They become close very quickly part badly when he thinks she’s ready to be kissed but then he shows up in her hometown of Chicago where he’s temporarily stationed and she finally allows herself to think of another romantic relationship despite the gossips… The world allows considerable liberty to wives it has never allowed to widows. I notice, for instance, you’re no longer wearing black. One of Stanwyck’s greatest roles, she excels as the rather innocent widow who finally embarks on a relationship with a bluff man who won’t stand for any nonsense from the naysayers in her midst. And who better than Gorgeous George to save her from social suffocation?! Watson is great as the vicious old bat of a mother and Leona Maricle and Nancy Evans are good as the bitchy so-called friends. Arden is in good form as the real friend who does the necessary when Jess needs it. Expertly adapted by the estimable Catherine Turney from Claire Jaynes’ wartime novel Instruct My Sorrows, this plays to all of Warner Brothers’ strengths in female transformation stories – a woman who finds herself again despite a domineering mother, problem sons, pawsy males, social exile and doubt. A gloriously romantic drama with a wondrous score by Max Steiner. Directed by Curtis Bernhardt. I’ll never be lonely again

Vice (2018)

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How does a man go on to become who he is? Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is responding to 9/11 with other White House officials. We flash back and forth to his drunken antics as a young man, getting kicked out of Yale, his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) setting him on the straight and narrow when he’s a drunken linesman and then getting into Washington out of Wisconsin U as an intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and seeing everything close up and personal during the Nixon era. Rumsfeld’s abrasiveness gets them distanced from the office, where Cheney overhears the President discussing the secret bombing of Cambodia with Kissinger (Kirk Bovill). His father in law appears to murder his mother in law (never investigated) and Cheney and Lynne form a tighter family unit. He becomes Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford (Bill Camp) while Rumsfeld is Secretary of Defence and he is introduced by Antonin Scalia (Matthew Jacob) to the Unitary Executive Theory. He has his first coronary while running to represent Wyoming and Lynne campaigns for his seat in the House of Representatives. He then becomes Secretary of Defence under George H. Bush during the Gulf War. When younger daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out, he resigns to prevent media scrutiny. He is CEO at Halliburton when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) asks him to be his running mate in 2000 but he demurs and says he’ll help select that individual. But when he satisfies himself that Bush Jr. is incompetent he gets him to promise that mundane issues like energy and foreign policy be left to him and he accepts the role and sets up offices in every possible executive area … He would be a dedicated and humble servant to power. How is it that some of the most penetrating films about politics have been made by comedy auteur Adam McKay? Is this the only way we can take our reality nowadays? Perhaps. This freewheeling exercise in postmodernism is incredibly formally inventive, audacious even, and the film actually stops and the credits roll for the first time at 47 minutes. And then we kickstart into the real story, once again, back to 9/11 and the film’s narrator (a great joke, by the way) asks us why on earth was Cheney having a private talk with his lawyer David Addington (Don McManus) in the middle of this unprecedented act of terror? Amid the family dramas, Iraq, Afghanistan, the War on Terror, Halliburton’s involvement, the Crash,and everything else that has beset the US since that date, Cheney was the real power behind the White House controlling everything, even the terms of public discourse – ‘global warming’ became ‘climate change’, and so on. Sometimes the synoptic approach is genuinely funny, sometimes it feels too episodic. The film is all about heart – heart attacks, a heart transplant, the heart of power and family. Cheney’s final monologue tells us what we already know and Bale offers a robust picture of a seemingly bland man pummeled into unchecked power by an ambitious wife who himself becomes an untameable and unstoppable juggernaut, he’s everywhere, all of the time, at every formative event in recent Republican Party history. It’s a jigsaw puzzle moving backwards and forwards through the decades that pieces together how one person’s worldview came to predominate in the culture. Irreverent, entertaining and fairly shocking, this will make you laugh and hurl, sometimes simultaneously. Vice is the word. You have to remember that if you have power people will try to take it away from you – always

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

Red Dawn (1984)

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My father turned me in. Oh God, they do things you can’t imagine. When Soviet soldiers invade Calumet, a small Colorado town, sending Nicaraguan and Cuban paratroopers into the local high school football field, brothers Jed (Patrick Swayze) and Matt Eckert (Charlie Sheen) escape with friends (C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton) to the forest where they call themselves Wolverines after their school mascot. With their father Tom (Harry Dean Stanton) a prisoner of the invading army, the children decide to fight against the Soviets. As the country comes under increasing attack and bitter winter closes in, the group teams up with Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner (Powers Boothe) to take back their town but how long can they hold out as they discover they are behind battle lines in occupied America? … West Coast. East Coast. Down here is Mexico. First wave of the attack came in disguised as commercial charter flights same way they did in Afghanistan in ’80. Only they were crack Airborne outfits. Now they took these passes in the Rockies. What a film to watch in the week that Vladimir Putin declared liberalism dead. From a story by Kevin Reynolds, auteur John Milius bootkicks the US into surreality positing a Soviet landgrab when we all know they’d nuke the country to high heaven before that would happen. So far, so ridick, as what was supposed to be a small arty antiwar outing becomes a teenage Rambo with Milius toying with the original material assisted by General Alexander Haig, on MGM’s board of directors at the time, dreaming up a what-if scenario evolving from Mexico’s left wing sympathy splitting the US in half as Hitler’s plan for invasion is reworked.  It starts with a history class in Genghis Khan’s warring tactics and within 5 minutes of explaining his stratagems the Russian helicopters are on the ground.  Soon Alexander Nevsky is playing for free at the local cinema and William Smith is in town marshalling the Russkies (in reality he’d been a Russian Intercept interrogator for the CIA). When the drive-in becomes a re-education centre, it’s a nod to the potential for camp classic status as an ‘ironic’ acknowledgement of its own silliness but also reminds us a lot of WW2. Given that this was the first film to receive a PG-13 rating for its violence, it occupies a certain stratum of cultdom and not merely for an alt history:  here are some of the era’s top teen icons (half of The Outsiders!) shooting the hell out of everything in sight. What joy there is in seeing Lea Thompson manning a sub-machine gun and Swayze romancing Jennifer Grey long before Dirty Dancing. With astounding cinematography by Ric Waite and Frederick Elmes and an operatic score from the great Basil Poledouris, this is a salutary lesson in survivalism and resistance. Milius would describe it as “a Close Encounters with Cold War Russians”. Children did this

Since You Went Away (1944)

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Jane, dear, I’m terribly proud of the way you’ve grown up. I’m sorry Pop missed it. When her husband  Tim leaves to fight in World War II, housewife Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert) must struggle on alone to raise their two daughters, Jane (Jennifer Jones) and Bridget (Shirley Temple) in their midwestern town. With a tight budget, Anne is forced to take in two lodgers, elderly ex-soldier Col. William G. Smollett (Monty Woolley) and handsome Lt. Tony Willet (Joseph Cotten), a friend of Tim’s. However, loyal maid Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel) stays on unpaid and the makeshift household pulls together through home front hardships. Jane falls for Tony who is smitten with Anne, but when Smollett’s son Bill (Robert Walker) shows up, despite disappointing his father after failing West Point, Jane transfers her affections to him If only he could have been with me the day I went, all by myself, to the Statue of Liberty and read what it says there for the whole world to see. Do you know it? Anne Hilton, did you ever read it? Adapted by producer David O. Selznick from Margaret Buell Wilder’s eponymous novel, this is a super smooth and overlong helping of Americana from the home front, drenched in detail and emotion and amplified by the luxe shooting style of cinematographers Lee Garmes and Stanley Cortez.  It’s funny and sweet and heartwarming and touches on issues of post-combat injury with its depiction of military casualties. It’s a sweeping portrait of anxiety and unease at a troubling time when everyone is playing the same game of waiting to see if and when men will come home. Colbert does a fine job as the harried mother trying to make ends meet and dealing with the vagaries of fussy Smollett while Tony clearly wants more than friendship from her. Agnes Moorehead is superb as a catty, conscience-free neighbour. Temple is a revelation as the teenager while Jones is the romantic, wavering between crushes and finally falling for someone of her own age, with tragic consequences. Everyone is searching for a meaningful role. Directed by John Cromwell, who would later suffer under the HUAC blacklist, with uncredited work by Edward F. Cline, Tay Garnett and the ubiquitous Mr Selznick, who was also sleeping with Jones whom he later married when she and then-husband Walker divorced. Don’t you want to say good-bye?

Arizona (1940)

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Did you ever see a man’s stomach tore open by a shotgun? Phoebe Titus (Jean Arthur) is the only woman in 1861 Tucson, Arizona and after falling for Peter Muncie (William Holden) who’s passing through, offers him a job in the freight company she’s just set up with Solomon Warner (Paul Harvey) the local storekeeper but he wants to see California and promises to return. Then charming southern dandy Jefferson Carteret (Warren William) shows up as the Civil War breaks out and coerces Phoebe’s main competitor Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall) into joining in with undermining her business while pretending to be her friend. He bribes local Indians to attack her wagon supply and meantime the Confederate troops secure local allegiance but are called away and Tucson is in trouble when Peter shows up with Union soldiers …  Gets on my dander how a doggone war interferes with the plans of people who want to mind their own business. Adapted by Claude Binyon (better known for romcoms and musicals) from the 1939 Clarence Budington Kelland novel, this was shot around the Sonoran Desert and takes a male genre and turns it into a battle of the sexes story with a distinct feminist twist. That makes sense when you have Arthur as the protagonist – with that can-do attitude and the gurgle of a voice, she’s perfectly cast and knew the territory after playing Calamity Jane in DeMille’s The Plainsman. Plus Binyon and director Wesley Ruggles had previously collaborated on a number of films presenting women in a great light, including the great screwball comedy True Confession (starring Carole Lombard) as well as the previous year’s collaboration with Arthur, Too Many Husbands, a version of the Enoch Arden story (by Somerset Maugham) trumped by My Favorite Wife at the box office. The personal touch abounds in this epic, the central asymmetrical romance with Holden (years younger than Arthur, who never looked her real age) matched by the villainy of William.  While we bide our time waiting for the sublime twist ending, played beautifully by Arthur, there’s lots of shoot ’em ups, murders, wartime action and a fantastically shot cattle rush. The film was made in blistering heat which added horribly to the discomfort and budget. Nonetheless it’s a great showcase for Arthur who revels in the situation and the witty lines gifted this pioneering frontier woman. She’s one tough cookie! The music by Victor Young is a series of  inventive orchestrations of and variations on Stephen Foster’s Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.  If this is what it’s like to be in love I’m glad I’m only going to love once

A Woman in Berlin (2008)

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Aka  Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin/The Downfall of Berlin. Find a single wolf to keep away the pack.  In April 1945 the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrives in Berlin defeating the last German defence. Its soldiers rape women of any age as they occupy the city. After being gang raped by a number of Soviet soldiers, the film’s anonymous woman, German journalist Anonyma (Nina Hoss), petitions the battalion’s commanding officer, for an alliance and protection to control the terms of her rape. From now on I will decide who gets me After initially rejecting her, married Ukrainian Lieutenant Andrei Rybkin (Eugeny Sidikhin) is seduced by the beautiful battered German woman. She manifests a cool, practical approach to her life, part of an informal community that develops among survivors in her apartment building. The officer subsequently protects, feeds and parties with her and her neighbours. Other women also take particular officers or soldiers for protection against being raped by soldiers at large which works until their husbands return. Rybkin comes under suspicion and is reassigned, who knows where …  My name doesn’t matter. The book by Anonymous (Marta Hillers) wasn’t published until 1959 and even then the account of the mass rapes (2 million plus) by the Russians was hard to bear so this adaptation has a twofold problem:  not turning it into an exploitation fest; and not being so melodramatic as to remove the nature of the horror and the pragmatic decision that women took to try to survive.  On that front at least it’s a success, a clear-eyed depiction of how life was. Watching rape used as a weapon in the rubble-strewn ruins of Berlin in revenge for what the Germans did in Russia is an unedifying experience. We step over the corpses of women to get a jar of jam. Hoss is superb as the worldly woman who has travelled and lived abroad yet also been a committed Nazi who is forced to use the only means she has to keep alive – a complex portrait of ambiguity proving she’s one of the best actors around. There are moments of humorous irony – her neighbour the widow has it away for a bit of salami, as she wryly observes. Hillers died in 2001 after which the book was republished and she was identified. She didn’t live to see this, which is a great pity. It’s a tough and grim story, brilliantly constructed and performed. Adapted by Catharina Schuchmann and director Max Färberböck. War and dying used to be men’s business. That’s all over

Battle of the Bulge (1965)

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I did not lose a war to die in the back seat of a car. At the end of 1944 American Lt. Col. Dan Kiley (Henry Fonda), a military intelligence whiz and former police officer, discovers that the Nazis are planning to attack Allied forces near Belgium. Certain that the exhausted enemy can’t muster much force, General Joe Grey (Robert Ryan) isn’t convinced by Kiley’s findings, and his men pay the price when the German tanks begin their offensive in the Ardennes. In the heat of this key World War II battle, Kiley must come up with a plan when it becomes clear that the Nazis are trying to steal fuel from the Allies, there are Germans disguised as American MPs diverting traffic from the new Western Front and an ambitious German Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw) who intends keeping the war going as long as possible no matter how many are sacrificed as he leads the Panzer spearhead of the German counterattack … Having been an inspector of police does not disqualify me from thinking. Written by (formerly blacklisted) Bernard Gordon, producer Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (with contributions by John Melson), this is proper WW2 entertainment about a huge episode that involved a million men and which I once had the temerity to describe to someone as an instance of poor project management on the part of Hitler and his cronies. I love me a good war movie, better still if there are tanks (my dream vehicle, particularly the camo models in Desert Storm. So sue me!) so this is perfect Easter (or Passover!) holiday fare. Criticised for not being 100% accurate and its Spanish locations being a poor imitation of the Ardennes setting, this has a lot going for it, not least the staging and the tremendous cast. There is detail by the yard – and the weather reports are crucial. The way that the strategy and tactics are exposed is a triumph of film storytelling. Shaw is sizzling as one of the nastiest Nazis outside the Bulgarian Waffen SS and it’s a star-making role. Fonda’s doggedness is wonderfully sympathetic, especially when you have the feeling (because you’ve seen him in other movies) that he’s probably right about everything and his bozo superiors find out, soon enough. It’s the perceptive structuring of the narrative from both perspectives that makes this tick along quickly. While not setting out to be a satire (hardly, although WW2 vet Sperling was no fan of warfare) the dialogue is sparkling with zingers – aphoristic and otherwise, particularly punctuating Shaw’s scenes – and there’s one out-and-out comic scene (played straight) when Savalas returns to his business to check how things are doing. Pier Angeli pleads for some promise of marriage because this is what she understands by the term ‘business partnership’ and wants a sign. But he’s rushing back to the front so he just tells her to keep feeding the chickens (they’re looking scrawny). This amusing character sidebar is one part of a dedicated soldier and Savalas plays it to the hilt. There’s a mass execution which won’t surprise you – but someone gets away and the payoff is very satisfying indeed. There are some good map room scenes; a really funny one-word message from US Command to German Command; and a breathtaking POV section with Fonda gliding down in silence over the attack position of the German tanks on the other side of the river:  just listen to the score. Such inventive work by Benjamin Frankel. The final sequence of tank battle is suitably fiery and an injured and vengeful Savalas joins forces with James MacArthur at the fuel depot where they get to blow up more than just the gas supply. Beautifully shot by Jack Hildyard in 70mm and a fine job of direction by Ken Annakin with not a moment to spare in its 163 minutes. Never mind what Ike said – this is simply sensational. When I have a brigade of tanks – that is reality!

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

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This isn’t happening. After returning home from the Vietnam War, veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) struggles to maintain his sanity. Plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks, convinced he is in Hell when he travels on the subway, Singer rapidly falls apart as the world and people around him morph and twist into disturbing images. Girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) and ex-wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalember), try to help, but to little avail. Even Singer’s chiropractor friend Louis (Danny Aiello), fails to reach him as he appears to descend into madness… There is no out of here. You’ve been killed, don’t you remember? Bruce Joel (Ghost) Rubin’s impressionistic screenplay about life and death gets a hallucinatory treatment by director Adrian Lyne in an unforgettable psychological portrait that seems to be about PTSD but morphs into something else entirely, a metaphysical enquiry about perception. If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth. Better seen than explained, this leaves its audience in emotional distress, occupying a hellish reality where demons seem to pursue you in the subway. Robbins and the late Peña are wonderful playing out this magnificent fever dream, while Maurice Jarre’s score is a lament for the ages. See. According to this, you’re already dead