Just been watching…(94)

Anthropoid (2016)

In 1942, the Nazi SS ruler of Czechoslovakia, Reynard Heydrich, was killed in Prague, after an assassination by Czech soldiers who had been trained in Britain, and dropped back into the country by parachute. The outcome is a matter of historical record, so no spoilers apply here.

This is not the first film made about that event, (there have already been seven made) and I doubt it will be the last.

Heydrich had been in charge of the occupied country for some time, and his ruthless actions had earned him the name ‘The Butcher of Prague’. He had all but wiped out any resistance to German occupation by 1941, and the government in Britain was concerned that this potential ally would be removed from the equation. They came up with the plan to have him assassinated, hoping that the event, and the expected reprisals that followed, would turn the Czechs against Germany once and for all. They named the plan ‘Operation Anthropoid’, and dropped teams of soldiers close to Prague, with orders to contact the Resistance, and work out a plan to kill Heydrich.

This film is not only written and produced by Sean Ellis, but also filmed and directed by him too. So his mark is over the complete film, in every way. Added to that, the locations are completely authentic, not only shot in Prague, but also in the actual streets and corners where every incident actually took place. This gives the film an undeniably convincing feel, with period details complementing this too. That extends to the cast members, costume, and all the vehicles and street furniture.

The story plays out in real time on screen, with no need for flashbacks. (Or flash-forwards) Starting from the time the men parachute out of the plane, we follow them through tense encounters with collaborators, and fraught meetings with reluctant members of the Czech Resistance. They are aided and sheltered by sympathisers, two of whom provide some love interest for the leading male stars. Everyone looks and feels right, from the main protagonists, to the numerous German soldiers encountered throughout the film. The build up to the assassination is covered in satisfying detail, and the day of the event is incredibly tense, and handled with total realism.

Cast members include the ever reliable Cillian Murphy, and the solid Jamie Dornan. Toby Jones is as good as ever, as a weary resistance leader, and many of the other roles are wisely cast to be played by Czech actors. The German soldiers and Gestapo officers are suitably ruthless and brutal, and even crowd scenes and those in bars and cafes are well done, without the need to ‘over-stuff’ the screen. My one gripe might be that the Irish and British actors playing Czechs adopt a strange accent, but that was presumably necessary to fit in with the actors who had real ones. The Germans speak German, and where necessary, use a translator. That was a nice touch.

The film builds to the well-known climax as the team of agents are trapped inside a large church. And although I already knew what happened, it managed to keep the tension wound until those final moments. A good-looking, WW2-set film, that is much better than most of the other seven versions.

Retro Review: Excalibur (1981)

There have been so many cinematic interpretations of the fable of King Arthur and The Knights of The Round table. It is but a legend, and there is no proof that the king ever existed. But we all love a legend, so what if it is made up? I am here to tell you that all bets are off, once you see this superb film from John Boorman. This is the real deal. Fantasy mixed with dubious history, a wonderful cast, and superb film-making by one of Britain’s best.

When I went to see this on release, I was persuaded to do so by a friend of my wife’s, Christine Blackwell. She has long since married, and that is no longer her surname. But I will always think of the very attractive Christine as Blackwell. (If you should ever read this, Christine, you are fond in my memory. More than you will ever know.) But I digress.

Off we went, to the cinema close to Putney Bridge, not far from where we all lived at the time, in south-west London.

I was in two minds. We had the wonderful Nicol Williamson, as Merlin. The divine Helen Mirren (then much younger of course) as Morgana. Stars crowded in. The ‘new boy’ Liam Neeson, (He later lived with Mirren for some years after this film) Nicolas Clay as Lancelot, the gorgeous Cherie Lunghi as Guinevere, Charley Boorman as a great Mordred, and even Patrick Stewart, the Shakespearean ‘luvvie’ who would go on to ‘Star Trek’. The only ‘dud’ was the casting of Nigel Terry, in the lead role of the adult Arthur. Perhaps the most crucial role in the film, and thrown away on an actor who was at best, mediocre.

So, I sat in the cinema, with my lovely wife, and the lovely Christine Blackwell, and I waited to be impressed.

And how I was, in spades. Amazing performances, scintillating (non CGI) visuals, and standout performances from Mirren, Nicol Williamson, and the young Boorman. When a film turns out to be 100% better than you expected, it would be churlish not to be impressed. I wasn’t churlish, so I was suitably impressed, and how. I forgave the sad performance from NIgel Terry. I forgave the inappropriate armour for the period. I forgave Williamson’s Merlin running away with the role, and I just relished the ‘good bits.’ And they were very good indeed. Magical, mystical, sexy, and breathtaking to behold at times, this was a complete experience, perfect in a big-screen setting.

And the soundtrack. THE SOUNDTRACK! Using Carl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ in the main, the musical accompaniment to the film was simply outstanding. It worked, and worked so well. I had never heard of this classical and choral piece before. Christine had mentioned its use in the film, and said she knew it well. When we finally emerged into the darkness of a Putney night, I was buzzing, enthused by what I had just seen, and raving about just what an experience it was. But Christine had the icing for the cake we didn’t have to eat. Back at her parents’ house, where she still lived at the time, she had a copy of Orff’s ‘Carina Burana’, on a fabulous Deutsche Grammaphon recording. Off we went to her room, and listened to the record into the small hours. As it played, I could see scenes in my mind, and re-lived that marvellous fantasy epic.

Thanks for that, lovely Christine. I have never forgotten that night.

1981 is a long time ago. But I assure you, the film is still a wonderful experience.
(Sorry about the trailer quality.)

Retro Review: The Third Man (1949)

This British thriller is considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made. I wonder if there is a film fan out there who has never seen it? If so, you are missing a treat indeed.

Directed by Carol Reed, screenplay by Graham Greene, and cinematography by Robert Krasker, this black and white film is simply stunning, in every way imaginable. And that’s even before you consider the cast, led by Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, and Alida Valli. Add an amazingly memorable soundtrack from Anton Karas, and ‘masterpiece’ is the word that springs to mind.

The setting is post-war Vienna, and location filming puts us right into the heart of that European city. Like Berlin at the time, the city is divided into zones controlled by each of the victorious allies, and Black Market dealing and racketeering is rife. American fiction writer Holly Martins (Cotten) arrives, searching for his friend Harry Lime (Welles) who has contacted him, offering a job. He is surprised and dismayed that his old friend has been killed in an accident, and goes to his funeral. There he encounters Lime’s girlfriend (Valli), and two British Military Policemen, (Howard and Lee) who tell him that Harry Lime was a notorious racketeer, and that he should go back to America.

After Holly presses for a formal investigation into Harry’s death, he is upset to learn that Lime was involved in the medical drugs racket, selling Penicillin stolen from hospitals in the city on the Black Market. He was also responsible for getting the drug diluted, to make more profits. As a result, the cure was ineffective, and many people had died. When he asks Harry’s girlfriend about this, she admits it is true, but confesses that she is still in love with him. One night on a shadowy city street, Holly spots someone watching him from a doorway, and is shocked to recognise Harry. He now knows that the death had been faked, and very soon the Military Police are pursuing Harry through the huge sewers under Vienna’s streets. Holly becomes involved in the chase, leading to the final confrontation with his former friend.

This film is simply sumptuous. Rarely have night scenes been so wonderfully rendered on celluloid. Perfect lighting casts amazing shadows across city streets, and the rippling waters in underground tunnels. The climax is exciting, period feel perfect, (it was filmed at the time such events were happening) and a marvellous script gives Welles some of his best lines ever. His ‘Cuckoo Clock’ monologue has gone down in the history of cinema, and rightly so. Every cast member feels just right for their roles, and there is nothing flashy or over stylistic about it. Unusual camera angles, taut direction from Reed, and the interjection of the soundtrack at just the right moments leave us with the feeling that we have just seen something perfect.
And we have.

I am a huge fan of Orson Welles, and no less so in this film. He takes a relatively small role, in terms of screen time, and makes it into what is undoubtedly the starring role of the film. And he does something else. He makes us root for a heartless villain, even though we know we shouldn’t.

It really is as good as it sounds. Superb.

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Bird Box (2018)

***No spoilers***

As I have recently gained access to Netflix, I thought I would try out some of its ‘exclusive’ films. This film has had mixed reviews, mostly bad ones, but I wanted to see for myself. It was free after all, and I could just turn it off if I didn’t like it. I started the film with limited expectations. Never a huge fan of Sandra Bullock, and I have seen almost every ‘Post-Apocalyptic’ thriller going. But John Malkovich was in it, so it had to be worth trying.

The film begins close to the end, and flashes back to how we got there. I don’t mind that construction, though you have to be alert to the words ‘Five years earlier’ appearing on screen. If you turned away as that popped up, it may initially have been a little confusing.

There has been a worldwide disastrous event. People have been ‘seeing something’ and it causes them to immediately commit suicide, in any way available. In the flashback segments (they appear early on, so are not spoilers) we see deliberate car crashes, various people jumping out of windows, and others using everything from guns to solid objects to kill themselves. Most of these are very well done, leaving the viewer shocked and surprised. There is little or no explanation as to what might be causing this phenomenon, but one constant is that people ‘see’ something, and when they do, they kill themselves by using whatever means are available.

Bullock plays the lead role of Malorie, a gifted artist, and a pregnant single mother. After the disaster makes its way to North America, she eventually finds refuge in the home of a man unaffected, discovering a mixed group of other people who are also sheltering there. From this point, the film takes the turn into a familiar ‘siege’ scenario, with the terrified group avoiding contact with outsiders, and bickering among themselves. But we are made aware that people must protect themselves by never looking outside. When they do venture out, they must all wear blindfolds, or cover their eyes. Failure to do this for even the shortest time means that they will see whatever it is people see, and kill themselves seconds later. For our benefit, the action flashes forward five years, so we get to see how Malorie is progressing later on. Then it returns to the dire situation the group finds itself in.
Without any spoilers, that’s more or less all I can say.

“Drum roll”.

I actually liked it! Despite everything I had read that put it down, this film had real tension throughout, and every cast member took it very seriously. The ‘blindfold world’ is a neat idea, and the difficulties of existing when unable to look at anything felt authentic. Set pieces were suitably dramatic, but use of CGI was limited, and that made things feel ‘real’. Deciding not to show ‘the monsters’, was a solid choice, leaving us with a sense of unease about what could actually be out there. In fact, we could make up our own ideas about the unseen force that is attacking mankind. Bullock was intense, but she always is. Malkovich was great, just being his usual villainous self, and everyone else seemed to fit in nicely. British actor Tom Hollander relished his short but very effective role, lifting the latter segment of the film completely. As Sandra is fifty years old, choosing her to play a first-time mum was a bit of a stretch, but so what.

And the Bird Box of the title? They discover that birds sense the presence of the ‘monsters’. By keeping them close, in a small box, their agitated cheeping gives early warning of impending disaster. Not unlike taking canaries down a mine. Nice touch.

Just been watching…(92)

The Quiet (2005)

***No spoilers***

This was a DVD ‘suggested’ by Amazon. I thought, ‘why not?’ and bought it for next-to-nothing, some time ago. Even though the reviews were not great, to say the least, I liked the idea behind the film. And Edie Falco is in it, and she was Tony’s wife Carmela, in ‘The Sopranos’.

It begins like a typical ‘high school teen’ film. Attractive young cheerleader Nina (Elisha Cuthbert) hangs out with her bitchy friend Michelle, (Katy Mixon) and all the boys find her desirable. But her contented life is upset by the arrival of Dot. (Camilla Belle) She is the God-daughter of her Mum, and has been taken in by the family following the death of both parents. She is grungy, uncommunicative, and Nina finds it embarrassing to hear her new ‘sister’ being called a ‘retard’ and ‘freak’ at school.

But Dot has good reason, as she is deaf, and unable to speak. She has to have a sign-language assistant in class, and if anyone wants to speak to her, they have to make sure she is able to lip-read. The usual high-school stuff is trotted out. Michelle is lusting after the school’s basketball star, Connor. She teases Nina for being a virgin at the age of seventeen, and simply cannot understand why Nina refuses to date any of the boys who find her so attractive. Back at the house, she takes out her frustrations on her parents with rude behaviour, and goes out of her way to make Dot feel unwelcome.

Home life is luxurious, in a nice home owned by architect Paul, (Marin Donovan) and his interior designer wife, Olivia. (Falco) But Nina’s father is trying to control her social life, and disapproves of her friends. He gets little support from his neurotic wife Olivia, a woman addicted to prescription painkillers, spending most of her life in a drugged haze. But this apparently affluent and normal life hides a dark secret within the rooms of the house, one that will erupt with devastating effect.

Dot discovers the secret.

But Dot also has an equally explosive secret.

Nina finds out that Dot knows her secret.

Then Dot inadvertently lets out her own secret to Nina.

The sharing of the secrets is a crucial part of the film, as the girls are now able to bond, helped by that shared knowledge. As events creep toward the climax that is not exactly surprising, as it really had to happen that way, the closeness of the girls becomes crucial, as other friendships disintegrate around them.

This film deals with something very dark, and perhaps doesn’t treat that as seriously as it should. (I would like to say what it is, but no spoilers!) Despite my admiration for Edie Falco, she feels strangely miscast here. She slightly overplays her role, and looks a little too old for it too. (Sorry, Edie) I found myself wishing someone else had played Olivia. The girls seem content with a by-the-numbers teen thriller performance that ends up like so many before it, and not as good as most of them. But as a film that probably went straight-to-video, it has its moments, and is certainly not terrible.

If you ever plan to watch it, then it might be best to ignore the trailer. (Trailer quality is poor, sorry)

Time Travel: ‘Stealing Time’ (2011)

Most of you will know that I am a fan of films about time travel. It is a subject that has always fascinated me. I was sent a link to a You Tube video by a friend, a short fictional film called ‘Stealing Time’. Although only 17 minutes long, this American short is professionally made, and is presented in widescreen and high-definition too. Though the story may owe its origins to the wonderful Spanish film ‘Timecrimes’, it is very entertaining, and well worked out.

If you have 17 minutes to spare, you may very well enjoy this quirky little film. I won’t add any more details, so as not to spoil it for you.

Just been watching…(91)

Don’t Breathe (2016)

***No spoilers***

This modern American crime thriller relies on some very old ideas for its story. But it brings them bang up to date, supplying some decent twists on the way.

Three young people are living unenviable lives, in the seedier side of Detroit. They dream of getting away from the grimy city, and making new lives in California. To fund the trip, they commit high-end burglaries, selling the things they steal to a local fence. They have a good edge over other burglars, as the father of one of the trio is a security company employee, with access to alarm codes and spare keys for the many properties managed by his organisation. So Alex takes the keys and codes, returning them to the office of his unsuspecting father after the robberies.

One day, the fence gives some information to Money, the tough member of the gang. He tells him about a war veteran, living in a house in a deserted district. It seems that he received a huge financial payout when his daughter was killed in a car accident, and has since lived a reclusive life. The three get together, and decide that this might just be the big job they need, to raise enough money to get to the west coast. Alex is reluctant at first, but he is in love with the female gang member, Rocky, so wants to impress her.

They go and scout out the house, discovering that the owner, Norman, is not only old, but also blind. Thinking he won’t give them too much trouble, they decide to come back in the middle of the night, and break in to find the cash he is supposed to be hoarding. He has a fierce Rottweiler guard dog, but they drug it with meat containing sleeping tablets. However, the house is like a fortress, and they have great difficulty getting in. Once inside, they have to search all over to try to find his hiding place for the cash, and we soon discover that although he may be blind, the rest of his senses are acute indeed.

They definitely chose the wrong house.

With no spoilers, it is a difficult film to review in detail. But it is enough to say that this war veteran is not about to give up his fortune easily, and the three friends find that they have seriously underestimated what they thought might be an easy burglary. What follows is an often nail-biting high tension film, with enough twists to keep me happy, and some genuine surprises, mixed in with familiar plot themes. Although much of the action is in darkness, it is never ‘too dark’ to enjoy what’s happening, something other film makers should take note of. The three burglars have very different personalities, and the young actors get that across very well throughout the film.

But the star is undeniably Norman, played to perfection by Stephen Lang, an actor who has made a good career mostly in villainous roles. Now in his 60s, he is ideally cast as the strong and determined veteran, who knows his own house so well, he can move around in total darkness with ease. He has very few lines, other than a lot of grunting and growling, but his screen presence is never less than imposing, and you can feel the fear of the young people as they try to escape his vengeance.

This is where the film scores, by changing the loyalties of the viewer seamlessly. We should be rooting for Norman. After all, he lost his daughter, and his home has been invaded by three burglars intent on stealing every penny he owns. But his relentless, almost robotic pursuit of the three inside his house makes him seem more like a blind Terminator. Like it or not, we start to fear for the safety of the burglars, instead of having sympathy for the victim of their crime. Then it switches back, then back again.

That’s clever, and I enjoyed the film more because of it.