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

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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

The Lost City of Z (2016)

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You’re a long way from Government now. At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is encouraged by his superiors to redeem his family name following his father’s dissolute actions, ruining the Fawcett reputation.  Although married to the supportive Nina (Sienna Miller) with a young son and one on the way, he journeys across the Atlantic to South America to carry out a survey of the Amazon in order to help adjudicate borders and to establish national territories.  On board the ship he encounters Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson)  a man who knows the rainforest. He joins the party which includes aide-de-camp Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and they go into the Amazon, where they experience the surreal pleasures of an opera in the middle of the jungle and discover evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilisation that may have once inhabited the region, triggered by stories told them by their guide. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment back in London when he reports his findings, which contradicts their bias against indigenous populations as savages, the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, Costin and Manley, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. After another set of discoveries he is challenged by biologist James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) who falsely claims they left him for dead so Fawcett leaves the Royal Geographical Society. He is injured on the Somme when he fights in WW1 but in 1925 when his son Jack (Tom Holland) grows up he wants to help his father pursue his obsession and find the City of Z that Nina found out about in a conquistador text at Trinity College Dublin... To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? It comes off a little like Fawcett of Amazonia at first but then this James Gray film establishes its own insistent rhythm with a hallucinatory bent that comes first from obsession and then with repetition. Indeed one is forced into a world recognisably that of David Lean but also Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (quite literally, at the opera) and perhaps Conrad. However the difference is in the doggedness and the feminine element – here Nina plays a crucial part in Percy’s evolving obsession when the document she finds fuels the fire in his belly and ironically leads to increased separation. Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction book, this has some of the usual flaws besetting Gray’s films – a kind of muted incompleteness or psychological lack and a physical darkness – but the facts of the story, the deadly nature of the pursuit and the fascinating history compensate and it has a decent pace. Hunnam grows into the role as the story progresses, caring about slavery and native peoples and expressing proper awe at the sight of sculptures and ancient artefacts; and Miller is fine as the proto-feminist who reads from the letter she wrote when she thought she wouldn’t survive childbirth:  as she tells her husband, “You haven’t even seen it for two minutes,” when he protests the jungle is no place for a woman and takes off yet again leaving her pregnant. It’s an admirable corrective to the standard male-oriented expedition narratives, with an amazing coda. In the end, this is actually spellbinding. There is great irony deployed: Fawcett meets Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Ireland and years later in South America he sees the story about his assassination and is told it will trigger a great war:  his escape across the Atlantic was precisely to avoid conflict and now he is going to be catapulted back into something quite dreadful.  He has a wonderful wife and happy domestic life yet he is truly at home in an utterly alien environment where the natives happily shoot poison arrows. He goes back, again and again, despite ridicule and disputes. He has a higher aim and it becomes something verging on mystical. The cinematography by Darius Khondji and score by Christopher Spelman are quite wondrous at times. Executive produced by Brad Pitt. There is no going back. We are already here

The Train (1965)

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He won’t leave the train. I’m beginning to know him. In August 1944 art connoisseur German Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is planning to take the great art works from the Jeu de Paume gallery under the curatorship of Rose Vallard (Suzanne Flon) out of Paris before it’s liberated. She approaches officials at the SNCF to stop the train crossing out of France and into Germany with some of the greatest paintings ever produced. Labiche (Burt Lancaster) and his Resistance colleagues (Michel Simon, Albert Rémy, Charles Millot, Jacques Marin) do everything possible to keep train no. 40,0444 running late, diverting it through disguised stations and interfering with the tracks but the Allies have a new plan … Keep your eyes open. Your horizon’s about to be broadened. Decades before Monuments Men came this gripping actioner, directed by francophile thriller maestro John Frankenheimer. Scofield and Lancaster are mesmerising as the men who are protagonist/antagonist to each other, with their unreeling taking very different forms. In this scenario adapted by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis and the blacklisted Walter Bernstein from Rose Vallard’s Le Front de l’art, the political just got personal. There’s a deal of portentous and pretentious verbalising about art and its meaning to the nation, but at base this is a great cat and mouse chase and you’ll learn more than you ever knew was possible about rail yards, tracks, lines and switches. Moreau has a nice two-sequence arc as a hotelier who helps out while there are really fantastic smaller roles for a marvellous lineup that includes Franco-Irish actor Donal O’Brien (as Sergeant Schwartz) who would appear the following year for Frankenheimer in Grand Prix and then enjoy a career in Italian spaghetti westerns, horrors and giallos.  Maurice Jarre’s score is intense. And the ending? Straight out of Sartre. Parfait. No one’s ever hurt. Just dead

Serenity (2019)

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Reel him in.  Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fishing boat captain who leads tours off the tranquil enclave of Plymouth Island in the Florida Keys with assistant Duke (Djimon Hounsou) motivated by eventually catching a big tuna he calls Justice. He enjoys sex for money with Constance (Diane Lane) but his life is disturbed by inexplicable visions that seem to connect him with the son he hasn’t seen since his time in Iraq. His routine is soon shattered when his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) tracks him down. Desperate for help, Karen begs Baker to save her and their son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) from her abusive husband, criminal Frank Zariakas (Jason Clarke). She wants Baker to take the violent brute out for a fishing excursion – then throw him overboard to the sharks. But a late night visit from a mysterious company representative Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong) throws a spanner into the works … A hooker that can’t afford hooks. I like a boat thriller. Something about the infinite dramatic possibilities played out on the finite dimensions of a floating vehicle, all at sea. Like Knife in the Water. Masquerade. Dead Calm. There are enough clues in this gorgeous looking melodrama that things are off – the World’s Greatest Dad mug; the seemingly telepathic connection with Patrick; the inter-cutting with Patrick creating a world in which he is catching fish on his computer; and the frankly hysterical sex scene with McConaughey and Hathaway, a ludicrous interplanetary femme fatale, on a boat lurching in a rainstorm:  she promptly gets up and puts on her trenchcoat and hat and trots off up the pier. Bonkers. McConaughey strips off regularly evoking quite a different take on the inspirational Moby Dick: Mobile Dick, perhaps. Sex with your ex, indeed. Lane out-acts everyone by being discreet; Hounsou mutters incomprehensibly bizarre aphorisms like he’s read them off a matchbook, everyone else speaks in similarly random non sequiturs. I would have laughed out loud but I struggled to hear much of the unintentionally hilarious dialogue.  I get the meta stuff and video games but like I said, I also like a boat thriller. This ain’t it. Bad and utterly irrational, like you would not believe. Written and directed by Steven Knight. If someone invented me, how come I know who I am?