The Vikings (1958)

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What would be the worst thing for a Viking? Viking Prince Einar (Kirk Douglas) doesn’t know it but his worst enemy, the slave Erik (Tony Curtis), is actually his half brother and their father King Ragnar’s (Ernest Borgnine) legitimate heir. Their feud only intensifies when Einar kidnaps Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh), on her way to be the intended bride of the brutal Northumbrian King Aella (Frank Thring). Einar intends to make her his own. However Morgana has eyes only for Erik – leading to the capture of  Ragnar and a terrible final attempt to win her heart ...  Let’s not question flesh for wanting to remain flesh. Good looking, well put together and great fun, and that’s just the cast, in this spectacular historical epic, an action adventure produced by Kirk Douglas that capitalises on his muscular masculinity opposite husband and wife team Curtis and Leigh who get to seriously smoulder for the cameras in their love scenes:  it was the third of their onscreen pairings. With some very fruity language, mistaken identity, axe-throwing, pillaging, actual bodice-ripping, walking the plank for fun, unconscious sibling rivalry, brawny sailors, death by wolf pit, romance and swashbuckling, this has everything going for it except horned helmets. It might well be about eighth or ninth century Viking lord Ragnar Lodbrok and the probably-real Northumbrian king Aella (who died 867) but it’s really about Kirk and Tony and Janet. Jack Cardiff shoots the expansive Technicolor images, and director Richard Fleischer lets every character have their moment in this fast-paced entertainment. The beautiful tapestry-style animated titles are voiced by Orson Welles and the incredible score is by (paradoxically unsung) soundtrack hero Mario Naschimbene who brings both vigour and mystery to this good-humoured story of war and violence: you will believe that those voices in the sky are coming from the heavens. Adapted by Dale Wasserman from the 1951 novel The Viking by Edison Marshall, with a screenplay by Calder Willingham, this is one of the very best action-adventure films of all time with some great editing by Elmo Williams who also helmed the second unit and made the TV series inspired by it, Tales of the Vikings, also produced by Douglas’  Bryna Productions. Within a few short years Douglas would cement his legend as a Hollywood liberal with the cry, I am Spartacus! but for now it’s Odin!

The Weaker Sex (1948)

The Weaker Sex

I wish I didn’t feel so cut off.   Widowed Martha Dacre (Ursula Jeans) tries to keep house and home together for her two serving daughters Helen (Joan Hopkins) who’s involved with radio officer Nigel (Derek Bond) and Lolly (Lana Morris) who’s going out with sailor Roddy (John Stone);  and servicemen billeted on her in Portsmouth, a naval base during WW2. While son Benjie (Digby Wolfe) is away in the Navy she has chosen to stay at home as a housewife, but when she learns that his ship has been damaged during the D Day landings, she regrets not taking a more active role in the war and works in a canteen and as a fire watcher. The family story moves forward from D-Day to VE-Day, the 1945 general election and on to 1948. Martha eventually re-marries to her late husband’s colleague, naval officer Geoffrey (Cecil Parker) who was one of those billeted on her and has become a father-figure to her son and daughters…  Oh dear, who’d be a mother? This British homefront drama was released three years following the conclusion of hostilities so it has the benefit of victorious hindsight as well as expressing the postwar era when everyone was completely obsessed with the lack of food. Adapted from actress Esther McCracken’s 1944 stage play No Medals by Paul Soskin with additional scenes created by Val Valentine to bring it up to the year of shooting, it’s a witty drama filled with resigned Keep Calm and Carry On messages underscored by dissatisfaction at the dreariness of housework and the plight of women whose life is dictated by the unavailability of food which becomes a thoroughly good running joke:  The housewives’ battle cry – the fishmonger’s got fish! cackles housekeeper Mrs Gaye (Thora Hird). Intended as post-war propaganda, a kind of decent British take on Hollywood’s Mrs Miniver (minus the Nazi in the garden) with added politics, it’s smart, unfussy and fair, yet trenchant and involving.  Jeans is terrific as the middle class woman finding herself rather (class) envious of Harriet Lessing (Marian Spencer) living in a serviced flat and volunteering:  there’s humour to be had in a lovely payoff when Harriet gets her public comeuppance after the war as rationing motivates her to head the local Militant Housewives League and she gets caught up in an unholy scrimmage which fetches up on the front page of the papers. Parker is a great casting choice – the guy not ashamed of being seen decked out in his uniform doing the vacuuming who can say unabashed to Jeans, I never had a genuinely platonic friendship with a woman before. Of course we know where that leads. He digs in and gets creative when he’s sick of being starved of regular food – and milks a goat. I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, I woke and found that life is duty. There is a great sense of warmth in the family relationships and a scene of remarkable tension when Helen and Martha play a card game awaiting a phonecall to find out whether Nigel has survived a bombing.  Jeans tells herself when awaiting more bad news, I mustn’t back down. I must try to be of some use. Parker responds, This language of ours is so completely inadequate. They are expressing the weariness of a nation almost done in yet somehow dragging itself up to cope with the inevitability of ongoing loss. There are occasional dips into newsreel montages to bring a context to the experiences as the story commences in the run up to D Day, through VE Day, the 1945 General Election, Hiroshima and after, but the footage is smoothly integrated and doesn’t disrupt the narrative flow. Hugely successful in its day it’s a really rather spiffing reminder of how and why Britain came through the war, the importance of family and sadly that tragic deaths don’t just occur in wartime. Crisply shot by Erwin Hillier amid exquisite sets by Alex Vetchinsky and this raft of wonderful performances are very well directed by Roy [Ward] Baker. Shabby perhaps, but not yet shoddy

The Beach House (2019) (TVM)

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The beach house is not so much a place as a state of mind. Caretta (Minka Kelly) is a successful copywriter at a Chicago advertising firm but when she loses her job to her colleague and boyfriend she returns to South Carolina to Primrose Cottage, the beach house holiday home she thought she’d left behind.  She has rejected her Southern roots having left 15 years earlier, never wishing to go back until her mother Lovie (Andie McDowell) lures her there for a week in the summer. Lovie has taken in a young woman Toy (Makenzie Vega) whose family has thrown her out due to an unplanned pregnancy. Toy’s presence makes Caretta bristle with jealousy.  Flo (Donna Biscoe) helps out with the house and along with Lovie assists other locals to rescue wild loggerhead turtles during their spawning cycle but Caretta feigns disinterest in the area and the environment. She has not inherited her mother’s love of the place.  It is the only place I have ever felt like myself, says Lovie. It is my home. As Caretta helps repair the shabby house she renews acquaintance with an old boyfriend Brett Beauchamps (Chad Michael Murray) who has built up his boating business and never wants to leave.  Secrets soon start to emerge, starting with brother Palmer (Donny Boaz) who lives in the family home two hours away with his wife and children and who only sees dollar signs at the beach house which Lovie discovers he has mortgaged behind her back after leaving him to handle her finances. He has inherited far too much of his late father’s character and the brother and sister’s sibling rivalry reappears.  Eventually the rhythms of the island open Caretta’s heart in wonderful ways but she discovers that her mother has only one summer left to live and just prior to her unhappy marriage had a relationship of true love that could yet yield a welcome outcome … This may come as a surprise but not everyone wants to spend their day staking turtle rods. Executive produced by Andie McDowell, this adaptation by Maria Nation of Mary Alice Monroe’s almost literal fish out of water 2002 novel is so gorgeous that you may find yourself actively contemplating a picturesque death by the seaside, and not for the first time, when you consider that it is basically the adopted daughter of Beaches. Beautifully shot (by Peter Wunstorf), paced and performed, it’s skilfully handled by storied editor/writer/director/producer Roger Spottiswoode.  Lovely entertainment for a September Sunday. I’m still me, aren’t I?

Deadline USA (1952)

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A journalist makes himself the hero of the story. A reporter is only a witness. New York City newspaper The Day is in money trouble. Even though editor Ed Hutcheson (Humphrey Bogart) has worked hard running the paper, its circulation has been steadily declining. Now the widow (Ethel Barrymore) of the paper’s publisher wants to sell the paper to a commercial rival, which will most likely mean its end. Hutcheson also worries that his estranged ex-wife Nora (Kim Hunter) is about to remarry. His only hope of saving the paper is to increase the numbers by finishing his exposé on a dangerous racketeer Tomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel) before the sale is made final after a reporter is badly beaten up investigating the murder of a girl called Bessie Schmidt who may have been Rienzi’s mistress while her brother Herman (Joe De Santis) had dealings with him... Stupidity isn’t hereditary, you acquire it by yourself. Twentieth Century-Fox and writer/director Richard Brooks were a good fit:  a studio that liked pacy stories paired with a filmmaker whose toughness had a literary quality and a fast-moving narrative style.  Both parties wanted message movies and the message here is A free press, like a free life, sir, is always in danger. The newspaper is broadly based on New York Sun which closed in 1950 (and it was edited by Benjamin Day) although according to Brooks’ biography it was more or less based on New York World which closed in 1931. The casting is great with Bogart excellent as the relentlessly crusading editor who acts on his principles while all about him tumble to influence and threats, trying to peddle the truth rather than the expeditious. Barrymore towers in her supporting role as the publisher and their conflict with her daughters is the ballast to the crime story, with the marital scenario giving it emotional heft. Jim Backus does some nice work as reporter Jim Cleary:  For this a fellow could catch a hole in the head. A cool piece of work, in every sense of the term. Watch for an uncredited James Dean as a copyboy in a busy montage. That’s the press, baby. The press! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!

My Reputation (1946)

My Reputation

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

Jeune et Jolie (2013)

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You have an adventure but ultimately you’re alone. Seventeen-year old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) decides to lose her virginity to Felix (Lucas Prisor) while on summer holiday. But she wants more sex and takes up a secret life as a prostitute, having encounters in hotels with older men, some more sordid and cruel than others. She meets elderly Georges (Johan Leysen) regularly but he dies during one bout and the police inform her mother (Géraldine Pailhas) about her underage daughter’s dangerous lifestyle …  She’s bad to the bone. This frank exploration of female sexuality by auteur François Ozon pulls its punches somewhat – being on the one hand an erotic drama; the other, a piquant coming of age story with an especially feminine twist albeit through the male gaze, until the tables turn. It lacks the acerbic wit of the mordant thrillers Ozon makes but there is a marvellous change in the bourgeois family dynamic when this beautiful girl asserts her female power. Who knows why a lovely girl would do this? Does she know herself? We are left with no clear idea but this boasts a kindness towards the protagonist, emblemised by the use of the poem No One’s Serious at Seventeen by Rimbaud and a soundtrack dominated by the songs of Françoise Hardy. The film ends on a mysterious smile worthy of the Mona Lisa herself. You know what they say – once a whore, always a whore

The Bookshop (2017)

The Bookshop

Dear Mr. Thornton, a good book is the precious distillation of a master’s spirit, embalmed and preserved for the purpose of achieving a life beyond life, which is why it is undoubtedly a necessary commodity. East Anglia, 1959. Young widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) risks everything to move into an abandoned building and open up a bookshop – the first such shop in the sleepy seaside town of Hardborough.  This soon brings her fierce enemies: she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers and also crosses Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) the town’s vengeful, embittered alpha female and doyenne of the local scene and earmarked The Old House (as it becomes known) as an arts centre. Only Mr Brundish (Bill Nighy) a reclusive bibiliophile who develops an interest in the novels of Ray Bradbury seems sympathetic to Florence’s business… In the case of biographies, it’s better, I find, if they’re about good people, whereas novels are much more interesting if they are about nasty people. Whatever delicacy or nuance Penelope Fitzgerald’s source novel (a Booker nominee) may possess is simply flattened here by an almost inert style-free interpretation from writer/director Isabel Coixet, inept barely-there directing and some terrible miscasting in a setting that doesn’t look remotely like Norfolk or Suffolk because it’s not, it’s County Down in Northern Ireland and that’s not all that’s wrong with the production design. Mortimer is heroically trying to save a poor choice of material directed with no sense of momentum or invention and the distracting narration (by Julie Christie) is utilised to strike some interest in the premise which would otherwise be almost impenetrable. Nighy has little to do except walk about looking grumpy and Reg Wilson as Clarkson’s retired General husband looks utterly incompetent far beyond the demands of his dim character. James Lance has a good role as the poisonous shop assistant toff but his serpentine ways make the outcome all too predictable; Honor Kneafsey as little Christine the girl who becomes a book lover and gives the story a decent payoff is quite effective as a plot device to explain the narration and bring it up to date. What is good but hardly well dramatised is the way every level of a community moves against a single woman and conspires to totally destroy her utterly unapologetically. A failure but a small one since so few people will have seen it and those who have will have experienced the utter misery of the protagonist for every single second of this film in a rotten adaptation that literally never gets started. How right she was when she said that no one ever feels alone in a bookshop

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

The Old Man & The Gun (2018)

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You’re never exactly where you’re supposed to be, are you? I mean, ’cause if you are, you’re dead. In 1981 at the age of 70, Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) makes an audacious escape from San Quentin, conducting an unprecedented string of bank heists across the south with his friends Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) that confound authorities and enchant the public because he comports himself so politely and makes friends of the tellers. He’s the classic gentleman thief who never resorts to violence. Embroiled in the pursuit are detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), who becomes captivated with Forrest’s commitment to his craft, and widowed retiree Jewel (Sissy Spacek) who loves him in spite of his chosen profession.  But Dorothy (Elisabeth Moss) the daughter he never knew thinks she can assist the police with their enquiries Ten years from now, where will you be, what’ll you be doing? Now, whenever I close the door, I think: “Oh, is this the last time I’ll ever have a chance to do whatever that thing was?”  Supposedly the last film by Seventies superstar Redford, it sees him reunited with his impressive Pete’s Dragon writer/director David Lowery in a slight but engaging tale of true crime adapted from a story in The New Yorker by David Grann. The pleasures are mostly small ones, with the sense that the parallel police story interwoven with the main narrative is subtracting from the whole rather than enhancing it, particularly with a relatively short running time, even if the relationship between Tucker and Hunt is one of mutually grudging respect. It’s fun to see three old guys on a seemingly harmless crime spree:  the money doesn’t even seem to be the point, it’s more like taking on The Man and there are some witty lines (particularly one diatribe from Waits) in this lightly written piece. It’s shot nicely on grainy 16mm, reminiscent of films made in the era being depicted, a florid landscape contributing to the relaxed tone. Spacek is fine in a rare appearance, amused by this playfully persuasive career criminal but not so much that she will agree to stealing jewellery at a mall.  Redford’s cryptic persona, once described as ‘there’s no there there’ (like LA), is effortlessly distracting and self-satisfied, the film concluding on his enigmatic smile, glinting like that of the Cheshire Cat. As a film wrapping up a star text that includes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting it’s a fitting finale but it’s more a footnote than a lap of honour (that may have been All Is Lost). Redford is a true movie star and the last of a dying breed if the most recent show at the pitiful affirmative action Oscars is anything to go by. Charisma – there’s nothing like it, is there? He’s a guy… who is old… but used to be young… and he just really loves robbing banks

Winchester (2018)

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Aka The 13th Hour. A house in permanent construction on the orders of a grieving woman. In 1906 the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company solicit the services of widowed and dissolute laudanum-addicted Dr Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess the mental health of Sarah Lockwood Winchester (Helen Mirren) heiress to the Winchester fortune.  She is in the middle of a neverending building project that stands seven stories tall and contains hundreds of rooms. To an outsider, it looks like a monstrous monument to her unravelling mind but for her it is an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts – and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle with the Winchesters and her niece Marion’s (Sarah Snook) son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) seems to be the vehicle for revenge… Instruments of death have a powerful connection with the afterlife. Tom Vaughan and directors the Spierig Brothers write a not very scary supernatural horror that excavates the legend of America’s most haunted house via the ghosts of the Civil War, killed by the rifle that won it for the Union. Clarke is more sympathetic than usual while the great Mirren in her widow’s weeds isn’t given much space in a narrative that has an interesting focus on what happens in life involving the afterlife and ghosts with PTSD but seems to lose the plot. It’s lavish but I wouldn’t call it home. Do you know who the most terrifying monster is? The one you invite in