4 Christmas Films

I’ve had a pretty nice Christmas this year. Liz and I went to a Christmas party night in a local hotel with a huge group of friends. We had a family afternoon get together in a nearby pub and we had family over for Christmas dinner. After that it was time to relax, pour a glass of wine, break out the mince pies and settle down for some Christmas TV.

The Railway Children

I’ve always liked The Railway Children. I’ve seen it a number of times but I’ve very rarely seen it all the way through from start to finish. The film’s title sequence involves the teenage Bobbie, played by Jenny Agutter in the lounge of her home. The camera pans over various family photos and in this way the actors and their characters are introduced to us. Bobbie, short for Roberta, is the eldest daughter and has a younger brother and sister and they all live together with their parents. During Christmas their father is taken away and we think he has been arrested for some reason. Without their father, the family fortunes dwindle and they are forced to move to a country house in Yorkshire. There the children spend time watching the steam trains and visiting the railway station meeting various people including the station master played by Bernard Cribbins. They have various adventures and eventually their father is returned to the family. The Railway Children is probably the most delightful and charming film I’ve ever seen. It was written and directed by Lionel Jefferies and released in 1970. According to Wikipedia, Jefferies read the book while returning from the US to the UK en route to film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and liked it so much he bought the film rights.

Amazing Film fact number 1: Sally Thomsett played Bobbie’s younger sister Phyllis aged 11 but in real life actress Sally was actually 20 and older than Jenny Agutter who played ‘older’ sister Bobbie. Sally’s contract forbade her to be seen smoking and drinking during the shoot.

It’s A Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those quintessential Christmas films that you can always find showing on TV at some time over the Christmas period. I love that film and come to think of it, I haven’t seen it for quite a few years. It’s about George Bailey played by James Stewart who looks forward to an interesting life of travel but then finds obligations force him to stay in the small town where he has always lived. George is beset by problems and even considers suicide but then his guardian angel -literally- arrives to help him. In order to prevent George committing suicide, the Angel shows George what life would have been like if George had never been born.

The secret of this picture is, I think, the fact that despite the fantasy premise of the film, everyone plays their parts as if they were in a serious drama. The result is that the drama and emotion of the situation rises to the surface and we are left with a vibrant and dramatic piece of cinema. The director, Frank Capra, has long been one of my favourite directors and in fact directed another of my favourite ever films, Lost Horizon.

Amazing Film Fact number 2: It’s A Wonderful Life was a box office failure when it was released in 1946. It only achieved classic status after 1974 when the film’s copyright expired and it was able to be broadcast on television without royalty fees. On TV the film found a new and enthusiastic audience.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

The Greatest Story Ever Told was directed by George Stevens who made such classic films as Shane and James Dean’s last film Giant. Stevens was a director who worked the way I would work if I was a director. He shot a great deal of film then sat back, reviewed everything and put his film together one brushstroke –or film clip- at a time. He chose Max to star as Jesus as he wanted a performer who was unknown to the general public.

Max was in a way an unusual choice to play Jesus; he was pale and blue eyed and had a faint Swedish accent. Even so, he played a good part, so much so that whenever I see another portrayal of Christ, I always mentally compare it to that of Max. As for being pale and blue eyed, I suppose it is inevitable that people everywhere will envisage their religious icons in their own terms.

He might have been better in choosing unknown actors for the other roles too because the many star appearances seem to stop the viewer in his or her tracks as we spot various top actors and actresses in minor roles.

I do have a personal reason for liking this film. Once, many years ago, my school friends and I were taken on a Christmas school trip to watch the film. We walked it as I remember in crocodile fashion from our junior school Crossacres, down Wiggins Hill and into Gatley, a small nearby village that boasted a lovely old cinema. That trip to watch this film did more for me than any teacher or RE lesson had ever done before or since and although I cannot claim to be overtly religious, I am certainly not an atheist and my respect for the person of Jesus has never been greater.

Amazing Film Fact Number 3: As I have mentioned, numerous star actors make guest appearances in the film from Sydney Poiter to Van Heflin, Angela Lansbury to Shelley Winters and many others but there is one I must mention; John Wayne as the Centurion who watches Jesus die on the cross. When Wayne uttered his immortal line, ‘truly this man was the son of God.’ Director George Stevens called ‘cut’ and asked Wayne to do the scene again but this time with more awe.

Wayne duly complied.

‘Action’ called Stevens.

‘Aww, truly this man was the son of God’ declared Wayne.

Blithe Spirit

I looked forward to watching this film with some trepidation. After all, the original version with a screenplay by Noel Coward himself and directed by David Lean was and still is a wonderful film and one of my absolute favourites. Rex Harrison plays the part of author Charles Condomine who invites Madame Arcarti into his home for a séance in order to see some of ‘the tricks of the trade’ that he assumes she will employ so that he can render these into his current novel. When the medium, played beautifully by Margaret Rutherford, conjures up the ghost or shadow of Condomine’s deceased wife neither he nor his current wife are amused. Coward himself adapted his own play for the screen and the witty dialogue presented immaculately in David Lean’s production is nothing short of a cinema gem.

Anyway, this new version starred Judi Dench as Madame Arcarti and did not in any way follow the path of Coward’s original although some of the old dialogue could occasionally be detected. Dan Stevens stars as Charles Condomine and Isla Fisher as his wife. Charles’ late wife, Elvira is played by Leslie Mann. Charles is writing a screenplay and he is suffering with writer’s block. However, on seeing what turns out to be a disastrous stage performance by Madame Arcarti, he invites her to his home where, just like the original, she evokes the spirit of Elvira. It turns out that Elvira wrote most of Charles’ books and the current Mrs Condomine isn’t amused when Elvira decides to help out with his pending screenplay.

The whole thing kept me quiet for a couple of hours but was hardly a patch on the original. For a start when current filmmakers film a story set in the past like this one which was set in the 1930’s, nothing ever looks as if it has been used before. Even though everything I’m sure was authentic; the motor cars, the furniture, the clothes and so on, everything is too good, too perfect, even down to the 30’s style haircuts and the art deco home where most of the action takes place. The other thing about the late 30s and early 1940’s is that the rhythm of the speech back then was quicker and more precise. Listen to actors like Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings and Margaret Rutherford from the original film or others from the period like David Niven, Ronald Colman and many more, their speech and delivery is so perfect and effortless, it is just a joy to listen to.

I don’t have any amazing facts about this film but the review in the Guardian was rather cutting: It can only be described as an un-reinvention, a tired, dated and unfunny period piece that changes the original plot a bit but offers no new perspective, and no new reason to be doing it in the first place.

That was a small slice of my TV viewing over the Christmas period and I can’t think of a Christmas period when my TV recordings have been so few.

Oh well, another mince pie anyone?


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Reviewing the Rocky Franchise

I’ve always liked the original Rocky film but something more interesting than the film itself is the story of how it came to be made. In the mid-seventies Sylvester Stallone was a bit part actor with few acting credits to his name. One day in 1975 he watched the Ali v Chuck Wepner fight in which Wepner lost but managed to stay 15 rounds with heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Stallone, inspired by the bout, wrote a screenplay about a washed-up fighter called Rocky who manages to stay the distance with the world champion. He passed the screenplay to his agents who took it to various producers. The screenplay was good and many producers were interested but Stallone attached one small condition to the sale, that he himself had to play the part of Rocky.

The producers who finally picked up the screenplay were Winkler-Chartoff productions. They had a contract with United Artists but UA still wanted a big name star in the title role. Burt Reynolds and James Caan were suggested but Stallone hung on and continued to insist that he played Rocky. I have always thought that Stallone was offered a million dollars to let James Caan play Rocky but according to an article I read which quoted Stallone himself, the offer went up to $340,000 and he still said no. Eventually the producers gave in and Sylvester Stallone received just $35,000 for acting and writing the screenplay plus a percentage of the profits. United Artists had a major production in the pipeline at the time, New York, New York, a big budget musical and they felt that the profits from that film would cover any losses on Rocky. In fact, the musical was a flop and those losses were covered by the success of Rocky.

The basic plot of Rocky is that World Champion Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers and based loosely on Muhammed Ali, is let down after planning a title bout to be held during the US Bicentennial celebrations. His opponent backs out and no other contender is available. Creed decides to rescue the fight by selecting an unknown boxer for the hugely publicised event. He chooses Rocky Balboa, a part time boxer and debt collector. The problem is, Creed thinks it will just be a demonstration match but Rocky thinks he can win.

The film was a low budget production but is still a great looking film. It was one of the first films to be shot with a Steadicam, a revolutionary camera mounting which absorbs movement. It was used in the fight scenes and the scene in which Rocky runs through the market in Philadelphia. In a sequence filmed at a skating rink, the producers had no money for any extras so they changed the script. Instead of skating with extras, Rocky and his girl Adrian bribe the cleaning staff to let them in when the rink has closed and is empty.

Joe Frazier makes a cameo appearance in the film and in fact some aspects of his life were used on the film as part of Rocky’s training regimen, running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and punching the meat carcass in a freezer.

Rocky was released in 1976 and grossed over $5 million in the first weekend of its national release and a later box office of 225 million dollars worldwide. The film was nominated for various awards and won the Oscar for Best Picture. Stallone’s pay packet has increased with each subsequent instalment of the film franchise but even today he still isn’t happy that the producers, rather than Stallone himself, own the rights to the Rocky character.

Verdict: 10/10

Rocky II

Given the huge success of the original there was really no doubt there would be a sequel. The film starts just where the last one left off except in the original the two fighters agree that there will not be a rematch. In this sequel, Apollo Creed does a quick reversal and is immediately on at Rocky about a rematch. Rocky is not sure what to do with his new found celebrity or with his money. He buys a house and a new car. He tries his hand at TV advertising but when that fails he sinks deeper into debt and begins to consider fighting again. His manager played again by Burgess Meredith is against the idea but when Apollo ups his campaign to get Rocky to fight and publicly insults Rocky, he finally comes on board. Adrian isn’t keen on the idea and Rocky trains in a lacklustre fashion until she gives him her blessing.

The title bout begins and at the end the two fighters knock each other down together but it is Rocky who gets up to claim the win.

Stallone asked to direct the film and when John G Avildsen, the director of the original film was unavailable, he got his chance.

I’ve seen this film before and always thought that in a way it was just a remake of the original. I watched it again for this blog and rather enjoyed it.

Verdict: 7/1

Rocky III

Rocky is doing well as the heavyweight world champion. He is settled with Adrian and has a son. He takes on various contenders but is constantly hassled by Clubber Lang, played by Mr T, for a title shot. Rocky agrees to meet Clubber in the ring but his manager Mickey, played by Burgess Meredith, is not so keen. On the night of the match Mickey dies of a heart attack and Rocky loses to Clubber. Apollo Creed decides to help Rocky and takes over his training for the rematch. After a tough match he wins back his title and the film finishes with Rocky and Apollo getting together in the ring for a friendly and private bout.

Stallone wrote the screenplay and directed the film and the theme song, Eye of the Tiger won an academy award.

I had not seen this before but watched it last week and thought it was pretty good.

Verdict: 7/10

Rocky IV

Can’t say I was totally impressed with this film. Apollo Creed decides to make his comeback with a fight against Russian Boxer Ivan Drago played by Dolph Lundgren. Creed is badly beaten by the Russian and dies from his injuries. Rocky agrees to fight Drago in Russia and takes a predictable win. It was again written and directed by Stallone and he and Lundgren traded real punches in the filming which ended up with Stallone in intensive care. Stallone’s future wife Brigitte Nielson played Drago’s wife, Ludmilla. Bill Conti who wrote the musical score for all the other Rocky films was absent from this one and instead Vince DiCola produced the disappointing music.

In 2021 Stallone released a new version of the film and the re-edited and re-released film was titled Rocky Vs Drago. The new version is only slightly longer but apparently was meant to add more depth to the relationship between Rocky and Apollo Creed as well as cutting some sillier elements like the robot Rocky gives to Paulie as a gift. A review I read in the Guardian felt that Stallone only marginally succeeded.

Verdict 4/10

Rocky V

This is probably the low point in the franchise. Original director John G Avildsen returned to the director’s chair and Stallone intended it to be the last in the Rocky franchise but it’s possible that because it was badly received, he went on to make Rocky Balboa.

Rocky returns from Russia but retires from boxing due to an injury. He then finds that his brother-in-law Paulie has given power of attorney to Rocky’s accountant who has then gone on to squander Rocky’s fortune. Rocky and his wife have to sell their home to pay their debts but Rocky finds purpose in training a young fighter. The relationship later sours and the two engage in a street fight which Rocky wins.

I have to admit that this is one Rocky film that has eluded me so far. Over on Rotten Tomatoes the review went like this: “Rocky V’s attempts to recapture the original’s working-class grit are as transparently phony as each of the thuddingly obvious plot developments in a misguided instalment that sent the franchise flailing into long term limbo.”

Verdict: Rotten Tomatoes gave the film only a 29% approval rating.

Rocky Balboa

I have two of the Rocky films on DVD. One is the original Rocky and the other is this one, Rocky Balboa. It’s a really thoughtful entry into the Rocky franchise. Rocky has retired. His wife has died and he has lost a lot of his money. His income comes from a small Italian restaurant in which many of the patrons come not just for Italian food but also to meet the former heavyweight champion of the world, Rocky Balboa.

The current champion Mason ‘the line’ Dixon has been criticised for fighting easy opponents. To get some positive publicity, he decides to enter into a computer fight with Rocky. It’s a fight reminiscent of the encounter between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali in the 1970’s. At the time Marciano and Ali were the sport’s only two unbeaten champions. They were filmed sparring for various rounds and the result decided by probability formulas entered into a computer. Two different outcomes were filmed, the version shown in the UK showed Ali winning which my father was not happy about as he loved boxing and was a particular fan of Rocky Marciano.

In the film Rocky is judged to have won the computer fight and so decides to renew his boxing licence. Mason, not happy about being beaten, challenges Rocky to an exhibition fight which both men want to win. Mason emerges as the winner but Rocky doesn’t seem to mind. His day is over and he receives a standing ovation from the crowd.

This was probably the very best entry into the Rocky series. Rather than just boxing, the film looks at Rocky himself as he gets older, mourns the loss of his wife, and worries about his relationship with his son. He revisits many of the locations in the original Rocky film including his old house and the pet store where he met his wife. The only problem I had with the film was that the actor playing Mason Dixon didn’t look much like a heavyweight boxer to me. Surprise, surprise, then when I found out that actor Antonio Tarver was in fact a former light heavyweight champion! Ah, not a proper heavyweight then.

Rocky Balboa was the last in the Rocky series although a spin off series began in 2015 with Creed in which Rocky mentors boxer Adonis Johnson, the son of Apollo Creed. Although Stallone apparently contributed to the story, he did not write or direct either this or the following films. He isn’t happy about the producers owning the rights to characters he created either and publicly tweeted his unhappiness about a reported spin off film about Drago, the Russian boxer in Rocky IV.

In a lot of ways, the Rocky films parallel Stallone’s own life. He turned down big money offers to let others play what was the role of a lifetime, took it on himself and was propelled to film stardom.


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Reviewing the Mission Impossible Franchise

It was a cold afternoon in Manchester and I mumbled something to myself about the supposed heatwave and zipped my jacket up to my neck. At the left luggage office I took out the key that had been given to me earlier and when I opened the compartment I found a small package inside. I took the package and walked the short distance to the square. I sat down on the hard wooden bench and opened it up. Inside was a small tape player and a set of earphones. I put on the earphones and pressed play. There was a short burst of static and then a voice spoke.

‘Good afternoon, Mr Higgins. In the 1970’s a television show called Mission Impossible was produced that became a minor cult TV classic. Many years later the franchise was revived with a series of feature films starring Tom Cruise. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to review the TV series and the subsequent films, look at the background to the films, try to understand why they have been successful and put together a blog post revealing your findings. The blog post must be ready for publication by Saturday at 10am.

This tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds.’

I put down the earphones and placed them and the tape player back in the package, moments later the package disintegrated and I dropped the remains into a rubbish bin and walked away.

The TV series 1966 to 1973

The TV show was created by producer Bruce Geller and concerned a team of special agents known as the Impossible Missions Force. They are a US government agency which takes on hostile foreign governments, South American dictatorships and criminal organisations.

In the first series the team is led by Dan Briggs played by Steven Hill but he was replaced for season 2 by Peter Graves in the part of Jim Phelps. Other regular team members were Leonard Nimoy, Martin Laudau and his wife Barbara Bain, Greg Morris and Lesley Anne Warren. Each played a team member with a particular skill, for instance Laudau and Nimoy played agents with a talent for impersonation and disguise, Greg Morris played an electronics expert and so on.

Mission Impossible ran for 7 seasons and was cancelled because, according to Wikipedia, the producers at Paramount found they could make more money by syndicating the existing series rather than making new ones.

A revival series was made in the 1980’s also starring Peter Graves. To save money the series was not filmed in Hollywood but in Australia but it only lasted two seasons and was largely unsuccessful.

A great feature of the series was the opening title sequence which involved a match being struck and then lighting a fuse shown over quick clips of the upcoming episode to the sound of the iconic theme tune written by Lalo Schifrin. Next would be Jim Phelps listening to his tape recorded instructions which after being played would then self-destruct. Phelps would then look through his agents’ files complete with photos and choose who he wanted for the mission. Sometimes a guest star would play one of the agents who would be introduced by Jim checking out his dossier. A team briefing would then take place and the mission would get under way.

The IMF used a great deal of gadgets to accomplish their missions, secret listening devices and other electronic hardware as well as incredible masks and make up to impersonate people. One particular episode that I remember was when the team had to retrieve some stolen gold from a South American dictator’s safe. They did it by drilling a small hole in the safe, heating it until the gold melted and ran out down the small hole then a little gadget sprayed the interior of the empty safe to cover the hole. Mission Impossible was staple viewing in our household in the late 1960’s.

Mission Impossible 1996

Paramount Studios had plans to make a movie version of the series but the plans never seemed to come to fruition until Tom Cruise expressed an interest. He had been a fan of the TV series and hoped to make the film version the first project for his own production company, Cruise/Wagner Productions. The project began with Sydney Pollack as director but Cruise later decided he wanted Brian De Palma. De Palma designed most of the action sequences in the film and the final script was written around these. It just so happens that recently Channel 4 in the UK decided to run all the Mission Impossible films on consecutive nights so that came in pretty handy to refresh my memory on these films.

I enjoyed Mission Impossible much more on this recent viewing than when I had first seen it. The film uses the fabulous TV theme and opens in a similar way to the TV series.

Cruise plays agent Ethan Hunt with John Voight playing Jim Phelps. Hunt is sent to stop the theft of a list of agents kept inside the American Embassy in Prague. The mission fails and Jim Phelps, the agent in charge, is wounded and all of his team are killed except for Ethan Hunt. There is clearly a double agent or mole at work and various things happen until we find out the mole was Jim Phelps which was just a little bit sneaky because all of us who watched the 1960’s TV series knew that Jim Phelps was a character in that show and therefore could not possibly be the mole. The fact that he was made me feel a little cheated by this film because they used my nerdy TV knowledge against me.

I read recently that Peter Graves was asked to play Phelps in the film but declined after seeing his character was the traitor. Other stars from the TV series weren’t happy either.

Mission Impossible II 2000

This second instalment of the franchise was directed by John Woo. It’s about a biological weapon called Chimera. Rogue agent Sean Ambrose steals the virus from its inventor by impersonating Ethan Hunt. He destroys the aircraft on which the inventor is travelling and parachutes to safety. Hunt was played once again by Tom Cruise and his mission is to regain the virus. The opening sequence sees Cruise doing some daring rock climbing which the studio wasn’t happy about. Cruise didn’t have a safety net but did apparently wear a harness. I didn’t like the heavy metal style version of the classic theme and as a matter of fact, I lost interest in the film early on.

Mission Impossible III 2006

This third instalment was directed by JJ Abrams and for the first time the writers decided to show a little of the background to the Ethan Hunt character. He has retired from the IMF and has become a trainer for new agents but is asked to take on a new mission. He is about to get married but his fiancée knows nothing of his espionage work. The IMF team kidnap villain Owen Davian who escapes but decides to take revenge on Ethan. The film is filled with high powered action sequences and although a little implausible, I kind of liked it.

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol 2011

The IMF are tasked to stop a man only known as ‘Cobalt’ who is trying to initiate a war between the USA and Russia. Tom Cruise as Ethan, infiltrates a Moscow prison to get to a man who has links to Cobalt. Things go wrong and the IMF is closed down by the US government when Cobalt blows up the Kremlin. The IMF team however stay on the hunt for Cobalt and follow him to various parts of the world including Dubai, where Tom Cruise has to climb up the outside of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Cruise does all his own stunts but for a long time I just assumed that all the stuff on the outside of the Khalifa was done in a studio with a green screen and the background digitally inserted. Nope, Cruise actually swung on hidden cables outside the skyscraper. Why he should choose to risk his life in that fashion is beyond me but there it is. A good film full of action and adventure with numerous shootings and explosions.

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation 2015

This next instalment of Mission Impossible is pretty similar to the previous one. The CIA director (Alex Baldwin) asks a government committee to close down the IMF and incorporate them into the CIA which they decide to do. Ethan Hunt escapes from a criminal organisation known as the Syndicate with the help of British double agent Ilse Faust. Various exciting adventures ensue including a highly dangerous motorcycle chase and a deep underwater dive without oxygen. The IMF manage to capture the head of the Syndicate in the end. A government committee decide it would be best to reform the IMF. It’s all a little fantastic but not bad for a Saturday night on TV with a couple of beers and a pizza.

Mission Impossible Fallout 2018

After a week of watching the Mission Impossible films I’m sorry to say I missed this one which is a pity because according to the reviews it’s the best in the series. Still, sometimes it’s important to move one’s lazy behind off the couch, switch off the TV and go out and enjoy oneself. Pity there weren’t a few Mission Impossible questions in the pub quiz that night. After all this research I think I might have done pretty well.

Update

It just so happened that my brother has Fallout on DVD so he brought it round and we gave it a watch. The plot is something about plutonium and atomic bombs and the IMF guys have to swap the captured head of the Syndicate for the plutonium. The plutonium gets put into 2 atomic bombs which cannot be defused but after some highly implausible action-packed chases including a helicopter chase with both helicopters crashing, rolling down a cliff and being suspended on the edge, things finally get sorted. I reckon this would have been a good one to watch in the cinema.

Conclusion

It’s not easy to reboot a successful TV series whether it’s for the small screen or the big one but the producers of the Mission Impossible films have actually done a pretty good job. The films do have something of a link to the old TV series. They have different characters and different actors but the films have kept that opening element from the TV show with the match lighting the fuse.  They have also kept that fabulous theme tune. Then again, could they have really made Mission Impossible without the Mission Impossible theme? I don’t think so.

I did read that some of the TV actors from the original series weren’t happy with the films. Greg Morris apparently walked out of a screening when it was revealed that Jim Phelps was the traitor which was exactly why Peter Graves, the original Jim Phelps declined to reprise his old role as I mentioned earlier.

Personally, with the exception of MI2 I’ve enjoyed all the films and I look forward to the next instalment in the franchise which I believe has already been filmed.

Please step away from this blog post. It will self-destruct in 5 seconds . . .


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10 Great War Films (Part 2)

I was reading a post called The 10 Best War Films Ever the other day. It wasn’t a list I particularly agreed with and in fact I hadn’t seen or even heard of quite a few of the films mentioned so I thought I’d have a go at making my own list. Here we go. As this post went on a bit I published part 1 last week so now here’s part 2.

Angels One Five

Angels One Five is another WWII film this time concerning the Royal Air Force. John Gregson plays a new pilot who is assigned to ‘Pimpernel’ squadron at a small airfield in the south of England. When he touches down he crashes and damages his replacement aircraft, not making a great impression on his new colleagues. The film follows Gregson’s character, nicknamed ‘Septic’ as he begins work at the station, first in the control room and then as a novice pilot.

Parts of the film were shot at RAF Uxbridge where a wartime operations room was located. Jack Hawkins and Michael Dennison also star in the film which shows life in the Royal Air Force in the dark days of 1940 during the battle of Britain.

Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory was a 1957 film directed by Stanley Kubrick. It was set in the First World War and starred Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax. General Broulard of the general staff orders his army to attack a German position known as the Anthill. He commands General Mireau to organise the attack. Mireau says the task is impossible but changes his mind when offered a promotion. The attack predictably fails and some of the troops refuse to attack when they see their colleagues in the first wave mown down. The enraged General Mireau orders his artillery to fire on his own men but the artillery commander refuses.

Afterwards the general decides to have 100 men court martialled for cowardice but is later persuaded to have the number reduced to three. Colonel Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, volunteers to defend the men but the trial turns out to be a farce.

The Dambusters

This is one of those films that I have always loved in spite of its sometimes amateur special effects. The original Star Trek movie has been in the news lately as it has been re released with updated special effects and I often think it would be a great idea for some older films to be updated in that way too. Anyway, the Dambusters is another classic WWII film. It starts with the inventor Barnes Wallis played by Michael Redgrave who is working on an idea to breech the Ruhr dams in Germany thus disrupting the German manufacturing base in the Ruhr Valley. He works constantly in a water testing tank refining his ideas for a bouncing bomb. After a difficult process he gets his idea accepted by Bomber Command and a new squadron, 633 squadron is formed to take on the mission. Its leader is the famous Guy Gibson played by Richard Todd. Gibson and his team take on a difficult and dangerous task. The bombs must be dropped from low level at a specific height and specific distance from the dam. I’ve often felt this to be a wonderful film that not only shows the dangers of war and combat but also shows the whole process from beginning to end of the design and inception of a new wartime project. The only disappointing aspect is those poor special effects.

Platoon

OK, that’s enough of WWII, time to move on. Platoon was a film written and directed by Oliver Stone based on his own experiences in the Vietnam war. Vietnam was a different kind of war to WWII. The soldiers were younger and many were disillusioned about being in Vietnam in the first place. Charlie Sheen stars as a new recruit arriving in Vietnam and he soon learns that his life is worth less than the fellow soldiers. They have put the time in, they have fought the Vietcong and so if anyone deserves to go home safe and sound, it is them, not him.

The platoon is led by a young and inexperienced officer but the two real leaders are two company sergeants, Barnes and Elias played by Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe. Charlie Sheen’s character, Chris Taylor, respects both men but sees Barnes as someone who is a little dangerous. In an incident at a village Barnes shoots a Vietnamese woman dead while interrogating the villagers for information. Elias arrives and breaks things up and Barnes later finds he might be the subject of an investigation into the incident. During a fire fight with the Vietcong, Barnes shoots Elias dead in order to prevent him speaking up and later Taylor shoots a wounded Barnes.

Platoon is a powerful film that won many awards including four Oscars including best picture and best director.

Born on the Fourth of July

Born on the Fourth of July was another film by director Oliver Stone and the second in his Vietnam trilogy. It tells the story of Ron Kovic who was wounded in Vietnam and left paralysed and wheelchair bound. Tom Cruise gives a great performance as Kovic, showing him go from a believer in the war to the exact opposite, someone who campaigns for an end to the killing in Vietnam. He is invalided back to the USA where the poor medical care and the state of the veterans’ hospital is graphically portrayed. Kovic goes to Dulce Villa, a haven in Mexico for wounded veterans where he spends a lot of time drinking and perhaps getting the anger out of his system. Later he joins an anti-war group and the film finishes with Ron about to address the Democratic National Convention although I thought that a better ending might have been to show him actually making his speech. Even so, Oliver Stone has produced a powerful film which gave Tom Cruise his first nomination for Best Actor and another director’s Oscar for Stone himself.

So that’s my personal Ten Best War Films. If you missed Part One last week, click here to read it. What were your favourite war movies?


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10 Great War Films (Part 1)

I was reading a post called The 10 Best War Films Ever the other day. It wasn’t a list I particularly agreed with and in fact I hadn’t seen or even heard of quite a few of the films mentioned so I thought I’d have a go at making my own list. Here we go! As this post went on a bit I’ve split it in two and I’ll post Part 2 next week.

The Great Escape

The Great Escape was based on an actual event, a real life mass escape from a German prisoner of war camp in WWII. The film though wasn’t completely true to life, in fact I don’t think any American POWs were in the camp although Steve McQueen and James Garner played major roles. I also don’t think that any escaping POW’s tried to escape Germany on a motorcycle but hey, The Great Escape is one of those easy-going feel-good action-adventure films that is one of the most well-loved films ever made. For many years it was a staple of UK Christmas TV viewing and whether it is completely factual or not it is a great film. Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasance, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson and many others play the British officers. Attenborough plays Roger Bartlett who has just been released by the Gestapo after being recaptured and interrogated in relation to another escape attempt. He now plans a mass escape from the camp and organises the digging of tunnels, fake identity papers, maps and clothing. After the escape fifty officers were executed by the Nazis although of course, Steve McQueen lived to fight another day.

The Colditz Story

The Colditz Story is another prisoner of war escape film also based on a true story. In WWII the Germans rounded up a bunch of the most prolific escapers and put them all together in an escape proof castle named Colditz. John Mills plays a British officer who is tasked with co ordinating escapes with various other groups of captives, French, Polish, Dutch and various others as previous escape attempts were failing due to a sort of free for all escaping culture. Various escaping officers are elected and the prisoners work together towards breaking out from the castle. Mills eventually escapes by using an idea suggested by a fellow soldier. It’s a simple idea involving dressing up as German officers. Not very original you might think but the officers plan to be leaving the Officers’ club which they hope will make them appear more natural. The chief British officer decides the plan is doomed to failure as the man who thought of it was a very tall officer who he thinks would be immediately recognised by the camp guards. I won’t tell you what happens but Colditz is a great British picture and well worth watching.

The Wooden Horse.

The Wooden Horse is similar to the two films above. It is based on a book which in turn was a true story, actually written by one of the escapees from a WWII prisoner of war camp. In fact, if I remember rightly, the escape was from the same camp as the Great Escape Stalag Luft III. One of the big problems of digging a tunnel in a POW camp was the distance that needed to be covered. There was quite a distance from the camp huts to the perimeter, then there was an area of no mans land before the outside world. Two escapers, both captured airmen, hit on an idea. They decide to make a vaulting horse and lead it out close to the camp fence. Inside are concealed two men who dig a tunnel while their comrades exercised above. This meant that only a relatively short tunnel was required. The film covers all the aspects of camp life, the boredom, the petty arguments with fellow prisoners and the eventual escape. The film stars Leo Genn, Anthony Steel and David Tomlinson as the escapees.

The Cruel Sea

It’s time to move on from POW camps and escaping and to take a look at the war at sea. The Cruel Sea is a classic WWII film based on the book by Nicholas Monsarrat. Jack Hawkins is the commander of the escort vessel Compass Rose. The film follows the story of the ship from its handover in the shipyard to the navy all the way through to its final demise at sea. The crew are new to naval warfare but bind together through various incidents at sea guarding convoys in the north Atlantic. The outstanding cast are all stalwarts of 1940s and 50s British cinema, names like Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliott, Stanley Baker and Virginia McKenna.

The Compass Rose is eventually sunk by a torpedo and as the survivors struggle to stay alive in the cold Atlantic, many succumb to their injuries. As they drift in the oily water the soundtrack replays echos of their recent dialogue, a marriage proposal hangs in the air over the groom who will never wed and a petty argument haunts the body of an unhappily married officer. Happily, some survive till daylight when a destroyer returns to rescue them. The film continues with the next vessel Jack Hawkins is charged with commanding until the war ends. Colditz and the Great Escape are pretty light hearted films compared to this one which tends to be grittier and more realistic in its portrayal of the war.

Sink The Bismarck

Continuing with the war at sea, this film follows the hunt for the battleship Bismarck by the Royal Navy again in WWII. It focuses on the Admiralty’s control centre as they attempt to track down the German battleship before it wreaks further havoc with the convoys that brought vital supplies to Britain. Kenneth Moore plays captain Shepard, the chief of operations, as he and his team attempt to find the Bismarck so British destroyers can attack and destroy the enemy. The film is perhaps a little different to other war films in that a great deal of the action focusses on the Admiralty control room showing the work of the unsung back room experts as they collate information and sightings and relay it to the ships under their command.

Don’t forget to check back next week for part 2 of this post.


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Three Oscar Winners

The Academy Awards are the premier awards for artistic and technical expertise in the motion picture industry. The awards are given annually to mark various categories of cinema excellence. The award statuettes are known as Oscars and were first awarded in 1929 at a ceremony hosted by Douglas Fairbanks at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The very first film to be voted as Best Picture was Wings, a first world war silent film starring Clara Bow, Charles Roger and Richard Arlen. In my DVD collection I have quite a few Oscar winners but here I’d like to look closer at three in particular. Two fairly recent films and one absolute classic.

The Shape of Water

Now, there are those who seem to think I only ever look at black and white classic movies. Not so, I like modern films too and just to prove it I picked up The Shape of Water not long ago for a few pounds on Ebay. You may remember that the film won the Oscar for Best Film at the 2018 awards and it looked pretty interesting in the various clips I have seen. Everything I had heard about the film was positive so I decided to search the internet for the DVD version. The first warning sign was the extensive availability of DVDs of the film on Ebay and the second was the rather low prices those DVDs were fetching. Anyway, I got my copy and watched it and how this film won an Oscar I really do not know.

Yes it is well acted. The photography was excellent although everything is presented in a sort of greenish hue that the director perhaps feels enshrouded late fifties and early sixties America. However the content just didn’t do it for me. It’s about a young mute woman cleaner in a top secret government installation who falls in love with a strange creature, half man, half fish, that is held captive there. She and her father rescue the fish man and take him back to their apartment high over a cinema and install the creature in the bath.

The Guardian said this about the film: ‘Guillermo del Toro’s escapist fantasy-romance The Shape of Water was the biggest winner, (at the Oscars) the story of a young woman’s love for a captured sea creature — with best picture and best director, setting the official seal of approval on what is, by any measure, a beautifully made movie to which audiences have responded with distinctively sensual delight.’

Don’t believe a word of it, the fact is The Shape of Water is a dismal weird film that completely failed to engage me and my copy will soon be available once again on Ebay. It was so bad it even made me hunger for one of Roger Moore’s dreadful Bond Films.

 

Nomadland

Now that I’ve retired I’ve often thought about spending more time in my motorhome and it’s only Liz’s recent hip operation that has prevented us from travelling over to France for some exploring. Could I live full time in a motorhome though? I’m not so sure. Everything is fine in the summer but I doubt if I could cope with the cold of the winter. Of course, we could always drive south towards somewhere a little warmer, even perhaps our beloved Lanzarote but van life isn’t, I suspect, as romantic as it sounds. Nomadland is a film that addresses this subject. A woman loses her job when the US Gypsum plant closes down in her town. Her husband has died so she decides to buy a van and go in search of work. She works for a while at an Amazon packing centre and when that job ends she goes off to Arizona where she heard fellow nomads will be meeting.

She makes new friends among the nomad community and has to overcome various problems, mainly issue with her van. At the end of the film she returns to her home town where all her possessions are in storage and finally sells them all before going back on the road again. After the first thirty minutes or so the film seemed like an actual documentary with real people rather than actors, so much so I had to pick up the DVD box and double check. It’s a slow film with little dialogue but even so it is original and realistic and examines the lives of a new breed of Americans, nomads who live in vans and spend their lives on the move, settling down where there is work and moving on when the work runs out. A flat tyre can be not just an inconvenience but a disaster as well as other problems which for us are merely distractions. Washing and showering for instance, not so easy when you have to consider whether there is enough water in the tank, where to do the laundry and so on. When a major van repair is needed the heroine of the film has to leave the van -her home- at a garage and check into a hotel while it is repaired.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this film. It’s good and well worth watching but whether it’s worthy of an Oscar I’m not so sure.

Silence of the Lambs

After watching the above two Oscar winners on DVD I fancied something a little different. The very first horror film to win an Oscar was Silence of the Lambs. It’s a gruesome film in many ways following the FBI as they try to track down a serial killer who has just abducted the daughter of a US senator. The killer known as Buffalo Bill, imprisons his victims then kills and skins them. (Told you it was gruesome!) To try and get a lead on the killer the FBI send trainee agent Clarice Starling to interview the incarcerated murderer and psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lector to see if he can give any insight into the murders, a new perspective that might help the FBI investigation.

Lector is played by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster plays agent Starling. She wants to work in the Behavioural Science Unit of the FBI and Lector, chillingly played by Hopkins, finds her interesting. He seems willing to give information about Buffalo Bill but in return he wants information about Clarice herself. He initiates a quid pro quo, he gives her information and observations about Bill and in return she must reveals snippets of information about herself, her background and her life.

Clarice becomes a pawn when Jack Crawford, the head of behavioural science, makes a fake offer to Lector. They promise that Lector will be moved to a secure unit on an island with a view of nature and wildlife in return for more information. The head of the secure unit where Lector is currently held, Dr Chiltern makes a rival offer which Lector accepts but passes on fake information about Buffalo Bill.

Clarice meets Lector again and presses Lector for the real information but Lector wants only to hear about her life, in particular when she was orphaned and terrified when lambs were slaughtered on the farm where she was staying. Lector tells her that all the relevant information to find the killer is in the case file which he has been allowed to read.

Later, FBI agents approach the suspected home of Buffalo Bill. At the same time Clarice is following a lead based on some advice from Lector. The two situations are presented in alternate clips. The FBI ring the bell of Bill’s supposed home. Clarice rings the bell of her suspect. When the FBI burst in and the house is empty, Jack Crawford, and we the viewers, realise that Starling has stumbled on the real Buffalo Bill.

Much of the content of the film is terrifying but at the same time, it is a compelling film and comes together in an exciting climax.

The film spawned numerous sequels. Hopkins reprised his role as Lector twice but Jodie Foster declined to play Clarice again blaming scheduling conflicts. Clarice was played by Julianne Moore in the follow up film, Hannibal.

Silence of The Lambs won five Oscars, Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathon Demme) Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins) Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally).

Do you have a favourite Oscar winning film?


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The Good the Bad and the Sequel

The first thing to remember about films is this, they are not a public service, they are made to make money. They start life as a business proposition. Producers start by asking would the public want to see this? Would they pay to see this? Suppose we got famous film star Mr X to star opposite film actress Miss X? One sure fire way of making the public want to see something is by making the film again. How can they make it again? By making the sequel! Sequels can be good, they can be bad but sometimes they can be downright ugly . .

Let’s start with the good.

The Godfather

The daddy of all mafia movies, this film by Francis Ford Coppola is one of the great films of all time. Based on the book by Mario Puzo and with a script by Coppola and Puzo himself it excels in just about every area of film making. The acting (Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan, Robert Duvall and many others) is excellent as is the photgraphy, the editing and the soundtrack. Coppola fought to have Brando play the title role and even had to make a screen test before Paramount executives would accept Marlon as Don Vito Corleone.

The original book was too big to be filmed so only part of the story is used. Don Corleone meets with fellow mafioso Sollozzo who asks for the Don’s help in a drug smuggling enterprise, hoping to enlist Corleone because of his political connections. The Don declines to get involved as this would risk alienating those same political connections. Sollozzo’s answer is to assassinate Corleone, however his attempt fails.

Michael Corleone then murders Sollozzo but Is forced into hiding in Sicily. The murder causes an all out mafia war. In an attempt to make peace Don Corleone meets with the other mafia Dons. The peace is made but Corleone realises that it is Don Barzini who is the true enemy.

After Don Corleone passes away Michael wins a final victory by murdering all his opponents.

The film was the highest grossing movie of 1972 and won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando) and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Godfather Part II

As I said earlier, the original novel was too long to fit into one film so Part II features a leftover narrative from the book, told in flashback and the continuing story of Michael as the new Godfather.

Robert De Niro plays a young Vito Corleone who emigrates to America to escape the vendetta that has left him an orphan and that story runs parallel with Michael Corleone’s plan to move his family from New York to Las Vegas. Michael suspects financier Hyman Roth to be behind a failed assassination attempt but decides to travel to Havana and meet with Roth to discuss a deal involving Cuban casinos. The revolution happens while they are there and Michael escapes from the island but discovers that his own brother, Fredo, is the one who has betrayed him.

The young Vito Corleone’s story continues in flashback. Having set up a successful business in New York, Vito finds that Fanucci, a local gangster wants a pay off. Vito’s colleagues are fearful and decide to pay off Fanucci but Vito persuades them to let him settle the matter. He will make Fanucci an offer he cannot refuse he says. Later, he secretly murders Fanucci and afterwards finds himself both feared and respected as the Godfather.

Michael is subjected to a Senate investigation into his activities but avoids prosecution by bringing the brother of the star witness into court. The suggestion is clear; the witness must decline to give evidence or his brother will die.

As Vito becomes more successful, he returns to Sicily to seek vengeance for his family and murders the Sicilian Don responsible for their deaths.

Michael has Hyman Roth murdered as well as his own brother Fredo, who betrayed the family.

Once again the performances are superb and one of particular note is that of veteran acting coach Lee Strasberg. He is excellent in this one off film performance as Hyman Roth. Strasberg’s workshop, the Actor’s Studio, once taught Brando, Clift and Monroe the ‘method’, the technique of acting devised by the Russian actor Stanislavski. Strasberg brought the method to the persona of Hyman Roth and created an outstanding if slimy character.

Godfather Part II won 6 Oscars and became the first sequel to ever win the Best Picture statuette.

Here’s the bad . .

Bridget Jones’s Baby

A film I’ve seen on TV during the lockdown was Bridget Jones’s Baby. The film is the third film in the Bridget Jones series following on from Bridget Jones Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. The film, like all the others in the series, was based on the book by Helen Fielding. The original film was pretty amusing, not completely my cup of tea but I enjoyed it.

The second, The Edge of Reason, was again, pretty amusing. Both films concern the adventures of young Bridget Jones. In the first film she works in London for a publishing company, has an affair with her boss and then leaves for a career in TV. Her parents set her up for a date with a guy called Mark which doesn’t work out but towards the end of the film Mark comes back for a second try and Bridget has to work out who she really wants to be with. The Edge of Reason was pretty much more of the same.

When I came to watch Bridget Jones’s Baby earlier this year I was surprised to hear the TV announcer warning me of some ‘highly offensive language’ used in the film. Bridget Jones? Offensive? Really? Yes really! Even a scene with a child swearing. OK I do swear myself now and again but some of the language in this film was actually just as the announcer suggested and was highly offensive. The other thing was that most of the actors looked really old, really haggard. Now this may have been that we were watching on our new smart TV and the picture quality is just so good these days that it can appear daunting. Sometimes, when Liz and I are at our local pub quiz, Liz will ask why am I watching the TV when it’s tuned to Sky Sports news when I don’t even like sport? Well, a lot of the time I am just amazed that I can see some football pundit’s pores or some hair that has escaped his razor. Still, the original film in the Bridget Jones series was made in 2001 while Baby was from 2016 some fifteen years later.

Film tends to freeze an actor in time and when you see them on TV talk shows plugging their new film it can be surprising to see just how old an actor has become. A while back I was watching Tom Hanks on the Graham Norton show and he had grey hair! Tom Hanks? Of course, not long prior to that, I had watched Apollo 13 which was made in 1995, 25 years ago!

Bridget Jones’ Baby finally settled down but I wasn’t totally impressed. In fact, I’d have to put it into the bad category.

Wall Street.

Wall Street was a 1987 film by one of my favourite directors, Oliver Stone. It was a big hit for Stone, in fact an iconic film really. Michael Douglas was brilliant in the role of Wall Street tycoon Gordon Gekko, a man who is happy to manipulate the stock market for his own ends. Charlie Sheen is pretty good too. Sheen plays Bud Fox, a young stockbroker who is anxious to, in his words, bag the elephant, set up a deal with his hero, Gordon Gekko.

Fox’s father played by Sheen’s real life father, Martin Sheen, lets on to son Bud that Blue Star Airlines where he works as a union rep is about to receive a favourable ruling in a ongoing legal case. The ruling will free up Blue Star to expand into new routes. Bud manages to wangle a meeting with Gekko in which he lets slip about Blue Star.

Gekko calls Bud and buys stock in Blue Star and Bud’s star as a stockbroker begins to rise. Later Gekko wants more information and Bud decides to invest in an office cleaning company so he can spy and find more insider information. Bud makes more and more money and moves into an expensive apartment. Later, the relationship between Bud and Gekko sours when Bud finds out that Gekko is planning to dissolve Blue Star and sell off the assets. Bud strikes a deal with rival investor Sir Lawrence Wildman to steal the company away from Gekko.

The film shows the world of stocks, shares and investments in minute detail, the camera moves relentlessly among the young wheeler dealers watching the stock options and moving in for the kill. The character of Gordon Gekko, indeed the entire film has become an icon for yuppies and the eighties ethos of making a quick buck. A phrase of Gekko’s ‘greed, for lack of a better word, is good’ has become synonomous with eighties success and was inspired by a real speech from an investor to the 1986 graduating class of the U.C. Berkeley School of Business Administration.

Michael Douglas won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Gordon Gekko.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Money Never Sleeps was a 2010 sequel directed once again by Oliver Stone with Michael Douglas returning to his role as Gordon Gekko. Gekko is released from prison following his conviction for insider trading and securities fraud. Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie is involved with Jacob Moore, a trader at KZI Investments. The company suffers in a recession predicted by Gekko and the managing director commits suicide. Jacob meets with Gordon Gekko and promises to help him rekindle his relationship with Winnie and in return Gekko will search for information about Bretton James who blocked help for KZI Investments.

It all gets a little complicated here but Gekko has hidden 100 million dollars in a trust fund account for Winnie. The money is freed up for Gekko to invest on her behalf but then Gekko does the double cross and exits with the 100 million in his pocket. After using it to set up his own successful company he hands the 100 million back but the whole thing is so complicated I found it hard to follow. I had thought that perhaps the Charlie Sheen character would play a big part in the film but Sheen only has a small cameo as Bud Fox. Shia LaBeouf plays the part of Jacob Moore but somehow never looks convincing, he never seems to fit in. The character of Jacob was supposed to be similar to that of Bud Fox in the original but the actor just doesn’t really look comfortable in the part. Douglas is good as Gekko once again but the whole film suffers from a lack of pace which is not helped by the complicated nature of the plot. Carey Mulligan plays Gekko’s daughter Winnie who once upon a time featured in one of my favourite episodes of the BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who.

Ultimately, an interesting film, not good, not ugly but I have to put it in the bad category.

Get Shorty

Get Shorty is a 1995 film based on the book by Elmore Leonard. The book is a fast paced read about a shylock, a loan shark called Chilli Palmer. In the film he’s played wonderfully well by John Travolta. Chilli has a couple of run ins with fellow mobster Ray Bones in which both times Bones comes off the worse. Chilli’s mob boss dies and Ray’s mob boss takes over the business and suddenly, Chilli finds himself working for Ray Bones.

Ray sends Chilli off to find out if a recently deceased client has left any money behind to pay off his loans. Chilli finds out that in fact the client is still alive after failing to board an aircraft that later crashed and killed all on board. Finding himself suddenly ‘dead’ the client takes off to Vegas with a suitcase of money to live the high life. Chilli goes off to find him but is asked by a casino owner to pay a call on producer Harry Zimm who also owes a great deal of money. Finding Zimm in Hollywood, Chilli, who is a big movie fan, pitches an idea to Zimm, a thinly veiled story of his life coupled with that of the client who missed the fatal aircraft flight.

Gene Hackman plays the producer Harry Zimm who also owes money to a drug dealer and Chilli offers to sort out the drug dealer in return for being part of a new project called Mr Lovejoy. Suddenly, Chilli is in the movie business.

Travolta is just brilliant as Chilli Palmer easily switching from friendly movie fan to hard faced loan shark. Look at me is the catchphrase Chilli uses to impress himself on a client. I love the way Chilli pops a cigarette into his mouth with accustomed ease and takes a smoke confidently enjoying the nicotine. There’s also a great scene where Chilli shows actor Martin Weir (Danny De Vito) how to act ‘tough’.

Get Shorty is funny and dramatic with tons of witty dialogue lifted directly from Elmore Leonard’s book. It’s a joy to watch and Travolta and Hackman are excellent as are Rene Russo as Zimm’s actress girlfriend and Delroy Lido as the gangster who has invested in another of Zimm’s films.

Get Shorty was a great success so fast forward 10 years to 2005 and cue Be Cool.

OK, time to reveal the ugly . .

Be Cool

Be Cool once again stars Travolta as Chilli Palmer only this time Chilli has become bored with the movie business and decides to move into the music industry. The film starts off well with the shooting of his friend Tommy Athens. Chilli offers to help Tommy’s widow (Uma Thurman) who now owes money to hip hop producer Sin Lasalle.

I enjoyed the action packed start but then just got bored watching some of the other stuff.  Linda Moon is a singer and Chilli decides to take over as her manager. Why, I don’t know because her singing isn’t that great. Her old manager might be Nick Carr played by Harvey Keitel. A guy called Raji could also be Linda’s manager or have a stake in her contract (I lost the plot somewhere about here) and he hires a hit man to take out Chilli. The hitman kills another hitman instead of Chilli and later a bunch of gangsta rappers appear wearing those crazy jeans that hang off their backsides. How they all managed to stuff handguns back there I don’t know.

The result is a dreadful dull film. I bought it on DVD ages ago on the strength of Get Shorty. I couldn’t really remember it, I’d clearly blocked it out of my memory so I watched it again for the purpose of this blog post otherwise I might have been tempted to press the eject button a lot earlier than I did. Even John Travolta, so good in the original cannot save this movie.

Take a look at the video below for a hint at how good the original was.


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3 Films about films

Every now and then, the film industry will make a film about itself, yes, a movie about the movie industry. There a quite a few I could include in a post like this but here are three of my favourites.

A Star is Born

I’m not sure how many times this film has been remade, the simple answer is plenty. There was the original 1937 version with Janet Gaynor and Fredrick March, the 1976 version with Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand and there was even a 2018 version with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. My favourite is the version from 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason. What a cracking film! In case you don’t know the story, it’s pretty simple, famous film star on the way out helps unknown star who is on the way up.

Judy Garland plays Esther Blodget, an unknown singer who meets drunken film star Norman Maine played by James Mason. Esther comes to Norman’s aid when he drunkenly wanders onto a stage where she is performing and pretends that Maine’s drunken behaviour is all part of the act. Maine later watches her perform at an after hours club and urges her to pack the band in and come to Hollywood.

The film shows Hollywood in the 1950s and the studio machine in action as it tries to remodel Esther into a movie star, with make up and costume teams, writers, publicists and of course a name change: Esther becomes Vicki Lester, only finding out about her name change when she goes to pick up her pay check.

Norman gets the studio boss Oliver Niles to listen to her singing and as a result Vicki is cast in a top Hollywood musical and becomes a star. She marries Norman but his drunken antics get worse. I won’t tell you the end in case you haven’t seen it but be prepared for great performances from both Mason and Garland. Judy was in fact nominated for an Oscar losing out to Grace Kelly.

The Bad and the Beautiful

This is one of my absolute favourite films and tells the story of a producer who wants to make it big in Hollywood. Kirk Douglas plays the part of Jonathan Shields, the son of a producer dumped by the industry who was so unpopular that Jonathan had to hire extras to come to his funeral. As the film opens, Shields has made it big but cannot get financing for a new project without the help of three former friends, actress Lana Turner, screen writer Dick Powell and director Barry Sullivan. None of them want to be involved but producer Walter Pidgeon asks them to listen to a call from Shields. As they await the call, their stories and former involvement with Shields are told in flashback.

Barry Sullivan plays director Fred Amiel who works closely with producer Shields. They make a great producer/director team but when a big break comes for the partnership, Shields betrays Amiel and gives the directing chair to a big name director. Amiel refuses to work with Shields again.

Shields works with alcoholic actress Georgia Lorrison and builds her confidence to take on a big role in one of his films. Georgia falls in love with Shields but even though he is not interested in her romantically, he strings Georgia along so she can complete her performance in the film. She is distraught when she finds out the truth but he releases her from her contract and she has great success at another studio. There’s quite an interesting moment when Shields wants to be alone after the completion of the film. The ending of a production always brings on a deep depression for him. I have to say I always feel that way after putting the finishing touches to one of my YouTube videos!

There is a third sequence involving writer Dick Powell’s character and the film ends on an interesting note; will the three collaborate with Shields for one final film? The film really brings home the background work done on a film, the writing, the production and all the other elements that make a picture. The film was directed by Vincente Minelli who went on to marry Judy Garland and became the father of Lisa Minelli.

Sunset Boulevard

Directed by Billy Wilder and starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson this is one of my all time favourite films. Holden stars as down and out screen writer Joe Gillis. He narrates the film from the opening sequence, where we see Joe’s dead body floating in a pool, right to the dramatic end.

Gillis finds his car about to be repossessed so needing money fast He heads to the Paramount lot where he tries to sell an old script. He Has no luck there but the repo men are hot on his tail. He tries to evade them by hiding in an abandoned Hollywood mansion. The mansion it turns out is not abandoned; former silent star Norma Desmond (Swanson) lives there and hires Gillis as a script doctor to work on a screenplay she has written for her comeback.

Gillis isn’t sure who she is at first but then recognises her: Cue the famous lines:

GILLIS: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be big!

DESMOND: I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!

The dialogue is brilliant as is the whole film and it’s interesting too to see the old locations such as the Paramount Studios entrance, Schwabs drugstore (8024 Sunset Boulevard) that was once frequented by Hollywood actors and extras and many other places. Wilder also cast former silent director Erich Von Stronheim to play Norma Desmond’s former husband and director, now relegated to manservant and chauffeur. Stronheim himself actually directed Swanson in some of her silent fims.

Cecil B De Mille even makes a fascinating guest appearance as himself as does columnist Hedda Hopper. Look out for Buster Keaton in a small part too.

OK, that’s my three films. All of them show the glamour of film making in the 1950’s. The big cameras, the behind the scenes action, the PR men and the Hollywood studio system. It’s sad to see most of that has gone. These days you could probably make a motion picture with just a small digital camera, maybe even the Canon G7X that I use for YouTube videos. Maybe I should be dusting off my scripts and looking for my cast!

What are your favourite films about film making?


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A Bit of a Blog or a Blog of Bits . .

This week I’ve been focussed on other things rather than blogging so I decided to take a few half finished posts and stitch them into one. Maybe it’s worked, maybe not. Here we go . . .

All of Me an autobiography by Barbara Windsor

Barbara is probably best known as the blonde from the Carry On films. It’s a niche that’s she stuck in despite her appearances in later years in the TV soap Eastenders. Maybe she likes that, maybe not but either way, she’s rather good at what she does. In this book, she tells her life story and it’s very frank and pretty entertaining.

‘Bar’ as her friends call her, doesn’t hold back and basically tells it like it is. She talks about her climb to fame and the husbands she has had along the way. First was Ronnie Knight, an East End gangster and friend of the Kray twins. Ronnie and Bar seemed pretty good together for a while but neither of them were interested in each other’s careers. Barbara would be off filming and Ronnie it seemed wasn’t bothered at all about that. He would be off to sort his nightclub out and Bar would be happy at home having to get up early for a film or rehearsing for one of her many stage roles. On one occasion in the early morning, the police burst in and carted Ronnie off to the nick for armed robbery. Barbara stuck by her man then but soon after, she’d had enough.

After Ronnie got the push, he was ‘aving it off’ with a blonde down at his club; Bar moved on to a younger guy and when that didn’t work out she moved onto an even younger guy. That younger guy, Scott, is still with her today and was in the news recently as Barbara has sadly been stricken with dementia and may have to go into residential care.

One surprising aspect of the book is that although like fellow Carry On star Kenneth Williams, I’d always thought of Barbara as a film and TV star, in fact a great deal of her career involved the stage and she appeared in many stage productions including her own one woman show.

This book, written in 2000 is a great little read and well worth picking up if you see it in the book shop. It’s written in a friendly talkative chit chat style, almost as if Bar has dictated it to someone and that’s something I particularly like about the book. The last quarter of the book though feels a little as if it has been tagged onto the end of another book. It mainly concerns her relationship with final husband Scott and is perhaps a little gushing and overly romantic and Woman’s Weekly style but I reckon Bar deserved a little romance in the twilight of her days. Nice read and a book well worth picking up.

Chaplin directed by Richard Attenborough

Searching through my old VHS videos the other day, I came across Chaplin, a film about the great silent comedian, directed by Richard Attenborough. I can’t say I’m a great fan of Attenborough as a director and this film showing us the life and times of Charlie Chaplin is lacking in many ways, but having said that it’s a pretty good film in many other ways.

I’ve often thought that if I could go back in time to any era, I’d go back to Hollywood in the 1920’s, the time of silent films. Someone, and I forget who it was, discovered that Hollywood had the perfect climate for making movies. Great weather, plenty of sun, all the requisites for making silent movies. Films back then were shot either outdoors or with basic sets without a roof, all lit by the relentless Californian sun. You didn’t need a degree to be a director in those days, just confidence and the ability to put a film together, not only in your head but to transfer it to film.

I don’t think Charlie Chaplin was really that funny, certainly not as funny as Laurel and Hardy for instance but he was the first film comedian to do more than link a series of funny images or sketches together. He added a little pathos, made the viewer feel for the character, care about the character as well as laugh at him.

Chaplin is loosely based on Charlie’s own autobiography, with a fictional editor played by Anthony Hopkins trying to add in all the bits that Chaplin didn’t want to write about, his various young wives for instance. Robert Downey Junior plays Chaplin and Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie’s real ife daughter, plays Chaplin’s mother who sadly descended into madness. Chaplin brought her to America and looked after her although he visited her infrequently.

The great loves of his life were his mother, his brother Sydney and his great friend Douglas Fairbanks. Sadly, Chaplin emerges  from his autobiography and from this film as essentially a sad fellow, someone in a way unfulfilled, although his films indeed changed the course of cinema history. In his time he was probably the most famous person in the world, his silent films were unrestricted by the restraints of language and his fame covered the entire globe, anywhere in fact that had a projector and a screen.

There are some great performances in this film, Kevin Kline is good as Douglas Fairbanks as is Dan Ackroyd playing the part of producer Mack Sennet. Robert Downey isn’t so bad either in the title role. I read somewhere that the film was a disaster at the box office. Pity. Personally I really enjoyed it.

Annoying Things Part 17

I was saving this for an ongoing blog post about annoying elements of the 21st Century which I update every now and then but instead here it is now. Having been cooped up at home for over 12 weeks I called into work ready to get back to my desk but apparently the Human Resources Department (years ago we used to call them ‘personnel’) decided I couldnt go back until August 1st. As a lot of the lockdown has eased we decided to have a trip out in the motorhome.

We found a nice spot to stop and set up our little camp, part of which involved a ground sheet. Now a ground sheet is something used by campers to lay down on the ground. It came in a smart plastic case and we unfolded it, spread it out and spent a considerable amount of time in the sun on it, lying around, reading, sunbathing and so on.

Later on when we packed up, I folded the ground sheet up but somehow it must have grown or stretched because no matter how I folded it, and I did do it according the still visible folds on the sheet itself, no way would it ever go back in that case. A similar thing happened the other week when I bought a hair cutting kit. It came in a box, the electric hair cutters, various length combs, a plug and so on. After I had performed my post lockdown personal haircut would that lot fit back in the box? Of course not! I’m sure one of the main design factors in these items is to make the box so small that the items will only ever fit in once and even then only in a certain way.

Of course I could put the hair cutters in the plastic bag from the groundsheet and then just tie up the ground sheet with an old belt. Result!


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Mars, Martians and Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Many years ago, and I’m talking over thirty odd years (funny how certain things stick in your mind) I remember coming home after an early shift, making a brew and slumping down on the couch for a bit of a doze. I was idly flipping through the channels and came across Robinson Crusoe on Mars. I didn’t pay much attention at first but gradually I realised this was a pretty good film. Just recently that film came back to me for some reason and I started searching for it on eBay. Then one day, quite recently, I noticed it was showing on Film 4.

I settled down to watch expecting a black and white 1950s film but actually Crusoe was in colour having been made in 1964 and filmed in Technicolor. Paul Mantee plays astronaut Kit Draper who is forced to eject over Mars and drop down to the inhospitable red planet. Fellow astronaut Adam West, star of the 1960s TV show Batman, also ejects but is killed on impact. Kit Draper faces the gruesome prospect of suffocating when his air supply runs out. He finds a cave and starts a fire and is excited to find that the Martian rocks release oxygen when they are heated. Making a rudimentary pump, he is able to top up his air cylinders.

Every day, the stricken main body of the spacecraft hurtles overhead ignoring all Draper’s remote signals to land. Later, in frustration, he presses the destruct button and blows the ship up.

He has a recording unit into which he keeps us, the audience, updated with his thoughts and feelings which of course is pretty handy in a film that is mostly following the actions of one single man. Later on Crusoe finds his Friday, an alien on the run from other aliens whose spacecraft dart through the skies above Mars looking for him.

I won’t tell you how the film ends just in case it comes up on your TV set anytime soon but Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a film well worth watching if you like sci-fi. It’s well made and interesting and even looks at the psychological side of being marooned when Kit starts dreaming about meeting his dead partner. The effects are pretty reasonable too and unlike many films of the period, they show space craft whooshing across the screen just like in Star Wars, not released until 13 years later.

The Martian

Just recently I was mooning about the house suffering from a really upsetting tummy bug so what else was there to do except slump in front of the TV? As I slipped through the channels I came across this movie, The Martian, a 2015 film directed by the renowned Ridley Scott, director of Alien and Gladiator, and starring Matt Damon.

Martian is surprisingly similar to Crusoe in many ways. The crew of a Mars mission is on the surface when a major  dust storm threatens to topple over their space vehicle. The crew decide to abort the mission and take off but one crew member is hit by debris and presumed dead and they leave him behind. Later, Mark Draper played by Damon awakes from unconciousness in the desert and makes his way back to the martian base camp. The bio-data telemetry from his space suit had been damaged and so made mission control assume that he was dead. Now the martian base camp is pretty basic and although it has computer stations and food and water and so on, there is no communication to earth. The next mission is not due for four years so Matt Damon’s character must find a way to survive until then on the camp’s meager supplies.

Draper decides to make part of the camp into an area where he can plant some potatoes and hopefully produce more food.

Just like in Crusoe, Mark Draper keeps us interested in what is happening by recording his thoughts in a video diary. Not only that but back on earth, observatories notice the activity taking place on Mars and realise Draper is still alive.

Still unable to communicate with earth the marooned astronaut decides to dig up an old space probe, drag it back to base, plug it into a power cable and use it for commumication. I won’t ruin everything for you by telling you everything but again, if you like sci-fi and perhaps even if you don’t, this is such a well made  and enjoyable film and well worth watching.

Mars.

Just to finish off this post I thought I’d give you a little info about Mars itself. It is also known as the Red Planet and is the fourth planet from the sun in our solar system. Mars has a thin atmosphere and a surface with valleys, deserts and even polar ice caps although pitted with craters like the moon. In the past many astronomers have commented on the so called martian ‘canals’. In the modern era, these have been revealed as optical illusions made by astronomers using low resolution telescopes. Modern hi-resolution photography and close up shots by unmanned spacecraft show no such features.

Mariner 4 was the first spacecraft to approach Mars making its closest approach in 1965. In 1976 Viking 1 made a soft landing on Mars. The Soviets had done so 5 years earlier but their spacecraft failed soon after touchdown. In 1997 the Mars Pathfinder arrived on Mars and released its robotic rover. Since then other spacecraft have successfully landed on or orbited the planet including one from India in 2014.

Below is a video from the Mars rover Curiosity from 2019. Technology, isn’t it amazing?


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.