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No Arc de Triomphe, 26 July 2015

I came to this two part, near four-hour telling of the story of France's great heroine after reading a biography of her short life and so was really looking forward to it. However, while it had some good points, in the end, I think it failed its noble subject for some fairly blatant reasons.

For one thing, I'm not sure the story told here was historically accurate. Things like her testy relationship with her father, the sacrifice of her brother and her "relationship" with Jean Le Metz had the whiff of contrivance about them, inserted for dramatic purposes, plus while I could just about accept the mixture of accents, few of which were authentically French, all speaking in everyday English, more than a few times phrases from the present day jarring my ears, crept in to the dialogue.

Though there was little stinting on locations, crowd scenes and battle sequences, with smoke and mud abounding, there was little actual blood on show (apart from when Joan herself takes an arrow in the shoulder) which again detracted from credibility. I thought Leelee Sobieski looked the part in the title role and acted reasonably well while as the hired heavyweight support, Peter O'Toole unsurprisingly dominates as the conflicted Bishop Couchin.

The special effects used for Joan's visions of her saints I considered a little on the tacky side, all soft focus and wing-bearing and felt that the climax of her trial and execution by burning might have been extended and made more of. At other times I felt I was watching a period-set MTV music video of the 80's, with the slo-mo camera much in evidence, this impression aided by an over-obtrusive soundtrack too. Even the descriptions offered by scene-setting graphics were over fussy.

Nevertheless, Joan's wonderful story just about breaks through but on the whole this made-for-TV movie betrayed its target audience ambitions and was guilty of over-dramatising a story which has more than enough real-life content to not need such artificial aid.

Marvellous Avengers, 23 July 2015

Possibly the best-known and most successful of the escapist adventure series from the British ABC studios of the mid-late 60's, I remember "The Avengers" fondly from my childhood. I have all the Patrick McNee / Diana Rigg episodes on DVD and prompted by the recent passing of Mr McNee, I finally indulged myself by watching a random episode (the first of the 1967 colourised series), but it could have been any one from that era and I'd have been just as well entertained, I know.

I never saw any of the Honor Blackman series and do recall that McNee and the post-Rigg Linda Thorson just didn't have the same chemistry, plus the writing and plotting was becoming too far-fetched (all that "Mother" nonsense, for example) when compared to its golden era of 1965-1967.

McNee is splendid as the debonair and uber-cool John Steed substituting a sharp-edged umbrella in place of guns and the pre-Grand Dame Diana Rigg smoulders as the enigmatic, karate-chopping Mrs Peel. Much was made of her one-piece jump-suits of the time, no doubt helpful in protecting her modesty as she dispatched yet another set of baddies with her martial arts moves, even if today said costumes look more functional than sexy. The plots are invariably flight-of-fancy fantasy, often pitting the dynamic duo against some world-threatening individual or organisation but were usually laced with subtle and occasionally sexy interplay between the two leads, top-and-tailed in every episode with a mute opening "We're needed" sequence and similarly light-hearted epilogue with just a hint of romantic frisson between them.

The best episodes tended to be written by the also recently departed Brian Clemens and the cream of British TV character actors usually made guest appearances from episode to episode.

Utterly charming and entertaining, and with a distinctive title sequence and theme tune, "The Avengers", is still well-remembered today as the epitome of style and class. The McNee / Rigg axis definitely saw the show at its best helped no doubt by its identification with the swinging 60's appeal of anything British at the time.

The Avengers to today's youth undoubtedly conjures up Marvel's comic-book team, but to me it'll always recall the classic team of Steed and Peel saving the world weekly and sleekly from some misguided criminal mastermind.

Sweet Sixteen (2002/I)
Coming of rage, 12 July 2015

Greenock is just down the road from where I live, in fact there's rivalry bordering on enmity between the town where I work, Paisley and Greenock, where this super-realistic Ken Loach film was made. I can therefore completely identify from first-hand observation, although rarely, thankfully from experience, the young, foul mouthed, ill-mannered, drug-dependant, "neds" (non-educated delinquents), who largely populate the film. In fact, in their tracksuit and trainers garb, they still roam the streets today, usually in a zombie-like, drug-hazed trance.

The central character of the film, young Liam and his best-mate Pinball obviously don't go to school and out on the streets, work the margins, both small-time partners, roaming the local pubs selling cigarettes on the fly. Liam's mum is in prison, presumably on drugs-related charges and is due for release soon, but she's in tow with a hardened, petty criminal boy-friend who Liam hates, while also in the family mix is Liam's older sister, a single parent with a young child, who doesn't get on with their mum and bizarrely, a grandfather who's into the same petty crime as the mother's boyfriend. A chance discovery of the boyfriend's drug-stash gives the soon-to-be-sixteen year-old a golden chance to make big money quickly and buy a dream caravan for the family to make a literally clean start but instead leads him into a shady underworld of crime and violence.

Everyone lets Liam down in the film, eventually himself too and at the end, we see him in the time-honoured teenage mixed-up confusion traceable all the way back to Mod Jimmy in "Quadrophenia" and of course the original cause-less rebel of James Dean. The language and violence in the film are extreme but trust me, true to life and the little snippets of humour get steadily darker as the film progresses. Liam's progress from early-on comically getting a reversing truck to run over a policeman's motorbike in a gag used before by Woody Allen to the "sting" he falls victim to when required to stab a man to death in an underworld initiation test shows how far he comes / falls in his journey into darkness.

Filmed in real locations certainly familiar to me and without his sometime trait of attendant sentimentality, I think this is one of the best Ken Loach films I've seen. The acting by the exclusively Scottish and often first-time actors is mostly convincing, with Compston in particular showing the talent that has deservedly kept him in work ever since, although usually in rather typecast strong, silent parts in movies and on TV.

This was a believable, gritty warts-and-all slice of life of a random teenager's nowhere existence in the grey, economic wasteland of latter day West of Scotland. It's grim up north, believe me.

Angel Face (1952)
Car trouble, 5 July 2015

Apparently shot in 18 days to ensure Jean Simmons filmed her part while still under contract to producer Howard Hughes, this is a fine film noir with a particularly memorable ending.

I wasn't sure I could believe Robert Mitchum, the king of world-weary sardonic-ism, falling so readily for the youthful charms of evil step-daughter Simmons, especially with a smart, pretty and loving girl of his own, but once I surrendered this point, it was easy, rather like Mitchum's ambulance-driver, to be persuaded to follow the plot here through to the bitter end.

I actually considered both leads to be somewhat cast in the film, Simmons effect dulled somewhat by a rather ugly helmet of a wig and the dialogue lacks the snap of a Hammett, Chandler or even a Spillane, but the narrative is intriguing and the ambivalent natures of both the main parts strangely compelling, plus, like I said there's a surprise, no make that shock ending, to finish things off with a knockout punch.

Director Preminger mixes up some staple noir elements of a femme fatale, her stooge of a male admirer, sex, murder and mystery, employing big-close-ups, atmospheric lighting and crisply shot monochromatic sets, perhaps only faltering over a slightly dull, over-technical courtroom scene, and the miscasting already mentioned.

Nevertheless, the story crackles along and I doubt many will anticipate the climax, which certainly caught me off-guard and yet in retrospect, delivers a finish true to the genre's often nihilistic traits.

Mitchum of course is naturally very good as the ensnared Frank, the piano-playing Simmons, dressed throughout in black and white outfits, perhaps stressing the duality of her nature, a little less so,

Another life, 5 July 2015

Interesting to watch this US TV movie on the early life of John Lennon and compare it with Sam Taylor-Wood's recent, acclaimed "Nowhere Boy" which covers almost the same time-frame in the nascent Beatle's life. The latter is a more imaginative, if less judgemental work, but as a big Lennon fan myself, while accepting the inevitable duplication in both, I enjoyed this bio-pic too.

For one thing, the actors playing their famous counterparts did quite resemble them physically, while their acting too was largely competent. Blair Brown is probably the best known actor in the cast, as John's fusty, smothering but ultimately loving Aunt Mimi, who raises him as a child to manhood, to help her hapless but adored sister Julia, the boy's mother.

I'm fairly well versed, like most Beatlemaniacs I'm sure, in the chronology of events portrayed, including the early death of his mother, his key meetings with Stu Sutcliffe, Paul McCartney and future-wife Cynthia Powell as well as the fledgling group's struggles to get to the "toppermost of the poppermost" from it would appear the bottom of the bottomest. I didn't identify too many inconsistencies in the narrative from memory, and appreciated the depiction of the young Lennon as a temperamental, confused teenager, certainly no angel in his attitudes to women, gays and even those closest to him.

There were one or two over-obvious premonitions of future events, the group crossing Abbey Road, for example, or when John and a school-friend stumble on the gravestone of one long-deceased Eleanor Rigby (wasn't that a Paul song?) and later again, almost half-expected him to say, when sitting in the grounds of the local children's home that he wished he could stay in Strawberry Foelds, forever, but with un-flashy TV-movie direction, (although there was a lazy highlights recap at the end) convincing rendering of late 50's / early 60's Liverpool, good acting and fine musical reproduction of the group's early hits, I'd definitely award this film two out of three "yeahs".

Taken 2 (2012)
Miss taken, 28 June 2015

Rather inevitable follow-up to "Taken" the movie that made Liam Neeson an unlikely action hero, like an older Jason Bourne, by which I men a bunch of bad men come after Liam's family, this time and mother makes three and live, or should that be die to regret it. There is a change of location to Istanbul which means we get some nice establishing shots of the city and one action chase across the rooftops to afford some nice views of the skyline.

Otherwise, Liam is up to his usual tricks of being able to avoid bullets at will, kill a man by just laying his hand on his face, guide his daughter go the baddies lair by having her through grenades all over the city and best of all recreate the route back to the villains himself with a combination of super hearing and total recall which wouldn't embarrass a cross between Superman and Sherlock Holmes.

Oh and there's lots of shooting, killing, fist fights and car chases, the silliest of which being when Liam's daughter tears across town driving like an Indy 500 veteran with her dad in the passenger seat, trying to avoid the pursuing would-be killers and achieving a death- defying race across a railway line which the other car doesn't...before she's even passed her driving-test.

It's all unbelievable nonsense, directed at a furious pace with cross-cuts and multiple shots of the same scene, to a pounding musical backdrop just to further reinforce the feeling that you're actually in the middle of a shoot-em-up-cum-car-chase computer game.

Neeson does his best latter-day John Wayne, but the incompetence of the baddies, plus they seem to have a far-from-threatening family ringleader means that the ending is never in doubt. In fact I'd go as far to say the beginning and middle were never in doubt either, if you've seen "Taken 1".

Pretty predictable, passionless stuff all round I'd say.

Crossing Jordon, 27 June 2015

A gripping film-noir, directed by genre specialist Robert Siodmak. Stanwyck apart, the cast is mainly B-movie grade, but as I so often find to be the case with noir movies of this era, that doesn't matter partly because the actors concerned are so good and partly because their relative anonymity just adds to the veracity of these stories of out if the ordinary events happening to ordinary people.

Stanwyck plays the femme fatale Thelma Jordon, out to hook unhappily married Assistant D.A. Wendell Corey's Cleave Marshall in her web of theft, adultery and of course, murder. Watching the movie, of course one is reminded of her star turn years before in Billy Wilder's all-time classic "Double Indemnity" and while she's perhaps a little old this time to play the scheming siren, she still convinces with a performance which covers a lot of bases as the role demands.

In support, Wendell Corey perhaps lacks a little of the personality of that earlier self-deceiving patsy Fred MacMurray plus the rather heartless way he treats his loving wife and kids stops the viewer sympathising with him too much as he loses everything by the end. I did like Barry Kelley as his enthusiastic principled superior/mentor D.A. and especially Paul Kelly as his suspecting, pursuing colleague Miles Scott while Richard Rober, wearing about the most vulgar tie you'll ever see, makes for Thelma's suitably cold, controlling paramour Tony to whom she wakens up just in time for one final act of sacrificial self-redemption.

Atmospherically and intelligently directed throughout, Siodmak is at home either when setting the action in the gloomy Gothic dwelling of Jordon's doomed aunt, the external city locations and especially the taut court-room scenes. By the end, as in most of the best noirs, everybody loses, except the viewer of another gritty, twisting good-quality thriller like this.

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My kingdom for a Norse, 26 June 2015

Big budget, starry-cast, historical, make that almost pre-historical, action movie where a one-eyed Kirk Douglas plays a rumbustious (that's putting it mildly) Viking prince and his unwitting half-brother Tony Curtis (the offspring of Douglas's dad, King Ragnar's, rape of the British queen on a previous raid, years before) a soon-to-be one-handed British slave who are both vying for the love of Welsh princess Janet Leigh, whilst Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar eggs his boy on from the sidelines. There's also a minor sub-plot about the Vikings crossing the water to remove from power the new, cruel, usurping English king who's tricked Curtis's Eric out of his birthright to be king himself and who to seal the deal just happens to get himself betrothed to the young Leigh.

The movie is beautifully shot in natural light in and around actual Norwegian fjords which look superb in big-screen colour and the recreation of the Viking long-boats by the film's carpenters is also remarkable, but if I'm starting a review by praising the backgrounds, it probably means there's a want in the foreground, and so it proves.

Douglas's boorish Einar looks old enough to be Eric's half-father and his usually drunken behaviour hardly endears him to the viewer. At one point he is determined to rape Leigh's Princess Morgana and is only stopped by Curtis's timely intervention. Curtis's character, unusually, is a man of few words but even with a beard, the young Tony doesn't completely convince playing it strong and silent. The object of their affections, Janet Leigh, appears able to bewitch these two the minute they clap eyes on her, which I suppose is fair enough as she does look lovely in her robes, but she's not really required to do much between simpering and occasionally seething.

There are some odd scenes of I presume authentic old Viking customs, if you exclude feasting, drinking and womanising on a Henry VIII scale that is, like "walking the oars" and strangest of all the method of proving a wife's infidelity which involves putting her in a set of stocks, then nailing up her outstretched hair plaits and inviting her allegedly cuckolded husband to free her by throwing axes to sever her plaits. Talk about being saved by a hair's breadth. Elswhere there's no stinting on the crowd scenes and the battle scenes are reasonably exciting if not wholly convincing.

This film was reasonably entertaining as a spectacle but for me was let down by the hackneyed plotting, use of extreme coincidence and shallow characterisation. Douglas and Curtis of course would get back into tunics and sandals a few years later, but this time with a better tale to tell and under a master director in Stanley Kubrick. To paraphrase a famous line from that movie however, this film here isn't "Spartacus".

Dead man tells a tale, 21 June 2015

Hitchcock's only previous attempt at a Hollywood comedy was the unexceptional "Mr and Mrs Smith" in the early 40's and even that came from a studio assignment rather than an original motivation. Here, with the engagement of Hitchcock at the height of his powers, you might guess this one plays a bit differently. Chock-full of (no pun intended) earthy, sometimes racy humour, this is a black comedy set, paradoxically in the beautiful autumnal hues of New England, with a non-starring cast of noticeable variety, from fresh newcomer Shirley MacLaine to the avuncular veteran Edmund Gwenn, not the first names you'd think of to appear in an eccentric piece like this.

Also on hand are a pre-"Dynasty" John Forsythe as the reasoning artist Sam and Mildred Natwick as the school-marmy spinster to complete the principal foursome who themselves get into an Abba-type arrangement as they pair off together, thwarted only it would appear by the inconsiderate corpse of MacLaine's unloved, estranged husband which keeps making unwanted appearances to spoil their mutual billing and cooing.

I can see how the movie might split Hitchcock's fan-base as there's little of his trademark excitement or tension on show, but that's not to say other of his traits aren't present, from the stunning cinematography of Robert Burks, a playful soundtrack by Bernard Herrman in his first collaboration with The Master and some typically imaginative shots to admire, probably none more so than the first shot of Harry's prostrate body, from the shoes up.

The ensemble acting is crisply played and I personally don't get the critics of Miss MacLaine harping on about her gaucheness, as she seems perfectly natural to me in what must have been a rather unusual introduction to movie-making in Hollywood.

I admire Hitchcock for taking the risk he did with this off-beat feature and strongly consider he pulled it off with aplomb. A change, after all, is as good as a cardiac arrest as I always say.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Orchestral Manoeuvres, 17 June 2015

Hitchcock, for me, was at the peak of his powers at Hollywood in the mid-to-late 50's, with a marvellous series of mostly colour films running from "Dial M For Murder" through to "Psycho". Whilst it's possible to recognise amongst the films he made those you could say he put special effort into, even amongst the, I hesitate to use the term, pot-boilers his style and mastery shine through. I'd probably put this movie, a big-budget remake of his British- made original back in 1934, in that category (along with "Dial M For Murder" and "To Catch A Thief") but watching it again, I was still greatly entertained by it.

It helps to have star power to sell the film and whilst Stewart and Day don't at first seem the most natural married couple you'll ever see on screen, their chemistry picks up as their predicament progresses. Interestingly, Hitchcock doesn't present them as a pair of doe-eyed lovers. She's given up a successful singing career, wants another baby and needs sedatives to sleep, while he's gauche, hot-headed and over-trusting of strangers. Thus, while travelling through Marrakech, they improbably stumble into a plot to assassinate a foreign prime minister in London in the near future, at a gala concert in the latter's honour.

Yes, the plotting is convoluted and of course the whole conspiracy could have quite easily been stopped at almost any time before the Albert Hall climax, but one must allow the Master his Magoffins. The screenplay even manages to introduce Day's later big hit song "Que Sera Sera" not only to give her a sing but, cleverly, as a valuable plot device.

Stewart and Day, the latter dressed by Edith Head in classic mystery-blonde grey, are fine in the leads and of the supporting cast I particularly liked the weasel-faced actor who played the would-be assassin. Those archetypal Hitchcock touches I always look for naturally abound, never more so than for the superbly orchestrated (there is no more fitting word) extended sequence at the concert as the moment of truth draws ever closer. Good to see Hitch's composer-in-residence Bernard Herrman get a turn before the camera too. The film looks great in rich Vistavision colour, the interior sets are terrific and I also enjoyed the location shoots both in Marrakech and London.

If not considered amongst the top rank of Hitchcock's films, I'd argue that's as much to do with the company it kept in the decade. For most other directors it would be a career highlight.

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