A Bridge Too Far (1977)
Richard Attenborough’s 1977 World War II film is set in late 1944 following the successful D-Day landings of the Allies in June 1944. With German forces in retreat, British Field Marshal Montgomery comes up with a plan to claim a series of bridges in the Netherlands and hold them while additional Allied forces advance forward. This will involve the risk of dropping thousands of men behind enemy lines so it’s certainly a gamble. Operation Market Garden is intended to end the war by Christmas 1944 but instead it would become a costly setback for the Allies that pushed the conflict into 1945. Attenborough’s film has all the makings of something special. In terms of the cast you are spoiled. Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine, Robert Redford and James Caan, are just some of the names popping up here but they feel underused. The film weighs in at nearly three hours and unfortunately this also works against it. With so many characters we never get enough time with any particular one as we are jumping from those in command, to those in the field, then to the Dutch perspective, then to the German perspective and even when in the field we are shifting between various different groups so it is not always easy to keep track of everything. The film was lauded for historical accuracy but later interpretations have advised to treat the narrative with a pinch of salt when it comes to its authenticity. This would have benefited from a shorter run time and more focused narrative to do justice to what was a costly failure for the Allies. Not a bad World War II film but not one of the better ones either.
High Plains Drifter (1973)
Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, High Plains Drifter tells the story of an unnamed wanderer (Eastwood) who heads into the isolated mining town of Lago, a place with one or two secrets. The locals are in fear of a trio of convicted thieves who have been released from prison and they expect them to come back to the town in the coming days. The residents of Lago have hired a trio of men to protect them but after they end up on the wrong side of Eastwood’s stranger, the locals turn to the new arrival to help them. Will he agree to protect the town or leave them to it? On the surface this sounds like a standard Western, the plotline giving a nod to the work of Akira Kurosawa such as Yojimbo or Seven Samurai, but there is a lot more depth to High Plains Drifter. Lago is not your standard town, the locals are not all they seem to be and there is also something mysterious about the stranger that has come to potentially help them in their hour of need. What brought him to the town to begin with? Eastwood does a good job as both director and star here, his character remaining compelling right up to the final reels. This doesn’t touch the heights of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns but is an intriguing mystery and a must for Western fans, even though John Wayne disagreed at the time.
True Grit (2010)
The Coen brothers turn their hands to a Western with their adaptation of True Grit, a novel by Charles Portis, which previously appeared in a film of the same name with John Wayne. 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) wants justice for her father who was murdered by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). When she learns Chaney has fled beyond the reach of the law, she turns to US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and offers a handsome reward for Chaney’s capture. Cogburn, partial to alcohol but a deadly shot, reluctantly accepts but is stunned when Mattie insists on joining him in the pursuit of Chaney. I don’t think I have seen a bad film from the Coen brothers and True Grit has not broken that pattern. It is aided by a superb cast with Bridges excellent as Cogburn while Steinfeld makes a confident debut, having beaten thousands of applicants for the role of Mattie. Further support is found from Matt Damon as a Texas Ranger while Josh Brolin continues to thrive in Hollywood with his appearance as Chaney. Whatever the Coens touch turns to gold and it has happened again.
Mr. Brooks (2007)
Bruce A. Evans’ 2007 psychological thriller stars Kevin Costner as Earl Brooks, a wealthy businessman who has a loving wife and daughter and is a popular part of society. However, Brooks has a secret. Away from his family and respected role in the community, he moonlights as the Thumbprint Killer, a notorious serial killer that has left the authorities baffled for years. Brooks is driven by an alter ego known as Marshall (William Hurt) that only Brooks can see and drives him to kill. While Marshall loves murdering people, Brooks is desperately trying to stop but can he win over his persistent alter ego? I applaud Costner for taking on a different kind of role to what we are used to. Both he and Hurt bounce off each other well as the story unfolds. A supporting cast includes Marg Helgenberger as Brooks’ wife, Demi Moore as a Detective trying to fathom the Thumbprint Killer, while Dane Cook is Mr Smith, a troublesome photographer who gives Brooks quite a headache. There are a lot of subplots thrown into the main narrative and often these are either unresolved or not satisfactorily so which is a shame. This is worth watching for Costner and Hurt but it ends up being a good film rather than an outstanding one in its convoluted approach.
West Side Story (1961)
Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, West Side Story is an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name which, in turn, was inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Phew! It’s 1957 and in Manhattan there are two rival gangs. The white American gang – The Jets – are led by the outspoken Riff. The Puerto Rican gang – The Sharks – are led by the suave Bernardo. Law enforcement struggles to keep the two gangs away from each other and out of trouble. Violence isn’t far away. Something has to give. Riff wants his best friend and former gang member – Tony – to come back and help fight The Sharks but Tony has a job now and his mind is elsewhere. Complications arise when Tony meets and falls in love with Maria who is Bernardo’s sister. Can they find a path to happiness and can anyone bring peace between the two gangs? Although I had never seen West Side Story, its reputation preceded it and some of the scenes did seem familiar. It clocks in at 2½ hours but you certainly don’t feel it. The ensemble are fantastic, the songs and dancing exquisite and although those familiar with Shakespeare’s play will have an inkling about how it turns out, it’s still a memorable though tragic journey.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Stanley Kubrick’s World War I film is set in 1916 in the midst of the intense and violent trench warfare with our focus being on the French army. When General Mireau is asked to send his men on a suicidal attack against the Germans he initially refuses but gradually warms to the idea. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is charged with leading the assault against Anthill but when not all goes to plan the powers that be want someone to blame, someone to go to court to face a court martial for cowardice and someone to potentially face the firing squad. Colonel Dax finds himself swapping his soldier’s courage for a lawyer’s ingenuity as three of his men are chosen to be scapegoats and only he can save them. Kubrick’s film catches both the horror of war but also the madness to be found as men on the same side turn on each other in the pursuit of glory and under intense pressure. An excellent cast supports Kirk Douglas in the lead role who excels as Colonel Dax, the pillar of strength and morality who is faced with the severest of tests against his superiors. Highly recommended.
The Defiant Ones (1958)
Stanley Kramer’s 1958 drama stars Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as prisoners who escape when the truck they are on crashes. The police are soon hot on their trail and the two men are desperate to make their way to freedom but they have different ideas about how they will do this. The authorities aside, they have two problems: 1) They hate each other and 2) They are chained together so have no choice but to work as a team if they are going to make their escape worthwhile. The question is will they make it or will they be caught? I hadn’t seen this film before but had certainly heard a lot about it over the years, including the ending. Curtis and Poitier are a great pairing here, the friction between them always threatening to put them in danger but somehow they keep going as the police close in. In terms of the denouement, I can’t think of a better way to have concluded the story than Kramer does here. No spoilers, of course, but it is a fitting end to a great film.
The Barefoot Contessa (1954)
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1954 drama stars Humphrey Bogart as a writer/director named Harry Dawes who travels to Madrid with his boss, Kirk Edwards, to witness a singer named Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner). Edwards is wanting to make a film and needs a fresh face to be the leading lady that will, hopefully, light up the screen. Maria is chosen for the role and Hollywood beckons with Dawes directing her. Will she be a success and have an enduring career or will the glitz and glamour of Hollywood prove not to be what she desires? The Barefoot Contessa is peculiar with its narrative, beginning well as we explore Maria’s first meeting with Dawes and Edwards. The second half peters out though, the story taking us in a completely different direction to what I had expected, a focus on Maria’s relationships. This isn’t a bad thing, of course, but I felt the path the film headed down just wasn’t as interesting as it might have been. Gardner is beautiful and glamorous in the main role while Bogart does what he does best, bringing weathered but intriguing characters to the screen with seemingly minimal effort.
Delbert Mann’s 1955 romantic drama is the story of Italian American butcher, Marty (Ernest Borgnine), who is 34 years old and unmarried. Family and friends are constantly badgering Marty about settling down and starting a family but he dismisses them. Marty is keen to meet a woman but doesn’t have much luck. Convinced to attend a party, Marty meets Clara (Betsy Blair), a science teacher who is also single. Can the two find romance or are they both destined to be alone? Winner of 4 Oscars, Marty is a feel-good but straightforward romance with Borgnine and Blair putting in decent performances. Oscar-winning films can sometimes be divisive and although I enjoyed Marty, I wouldn’t rate it as one of the better Oscar winners I have seen.
Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 psychological thriller stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Adam Bell, a history teacher who lives a mundane existence, working by day and having his girlfriend over at night but not much else. On the recommendation of a colleague, Adam rents a movie, Where There’s a Will There’s a Way, and is stunned to find an actor in the film looks just like him. Adam becomes fixated on this actor, watching all of his films and then trying to locate him. Who is he and why do the two men look the same? The premise to the film is intriguing and Villeneuve builds it up at a careful pace, allowing us into the lives of both men, and keeping us guessing as to what is going on. The film does fade somewhat in the second half but thanks to two solid performances from Gyllenhaal it’s one that is worth sticking with right through to the puzzling conclusion.
Werner Herzog’s 1982 adventure drama stars Klaus Kinski as Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irishman in Peru who is referred to as Fitzcarraldo. He loves the opera and his dream is to build an opera house in South America but doesn’t have the finances for such a venture. The rubber industry is thriving and Fitzgerald is advised to get a piece of the action. His partner Molly (Claudia Cardinale) helps Fitzgerald buy a steamship and off he goes with a small crew deep into the Amazon basin but will his adventure be a success or a disaster? Fitzcarraldo’s reputation preceded it in what was a troubled shoot, so bad that someone approached apparently Herzog and offered to kill Kinski for him. Herzog thankfully declined! The Aguaruna people of Peru were enlisted as extras in the film which led to controversies of exploitation, not to mention injuries and deaths on set with the film crew as well. You could make a film about the shooting of Fitzcarraldo quite easily. Though such accounts are difficult to stomach and Herzog’s ethics questionable, for this review I have considered the film alone on its own merits and it is another terrific narrative. The settings deep in the Amazon are simply stunning while the film’s most famous scenes involving shifting the steamship from one river to another are spectacular but gritty. Consensus seems to rate Fitzcarraldo ahead of Aguirre: The Wrath of God, but I would favour Aguirre here, though comparisons are probably unfair. Considering Herzog and Kinski did not get along when they worked together, they made some great films.
Lilies of the Field (1963)
Ralph Nelson’s 1963 film is an adaptation of the novel by William Edmund Barrett of the same name. Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) is a handyman driving around the US and making a living by doing building and repairing work, cash in hand. One day he meets a group of nuns from East Germany that speak little English but he helps them repair a broken fence they are struggling with. The head of the sisterhood, Mother Maria, believes Homer has been sent by God and beseeches him to build a chapel and they wouldn’t mind some English lessons too. Homer just wants to be paid and move on but will he accept this divine assignment? Sidney Poitier bagged an Oscar for his performance here, the first African-American to claim a Best Actor statuette and only the second to receive an Academy Award, Hattie McDaniel being the first for Gone With the Wind (1939). Poitier is delightful in the lead, both effusive but also not one to suffer fools gladly if provoked. Lilia Skala is also good as Mother Maria who clashes often with Homer but it’s clear there is mutual respect between them. This isn’t my favourite of Poitier’s work but it’s different to his other roles I have seen. Lilies of the Field, in general, is a charming and warm drama that you will find uplifting. Amen.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 drama has a peculiar title and is, in many ways, a peculiar film. Uncle Boonmee of the title is an ageing man on his deathbed, dying from kidney disease. As he faces his end, he is surrounded by family, including his sister, the ghost of his wife who pops in for a chat and his missing son who comes back in the shape of a forest spirit. All gathered, the family listen as Uncle Boonmee contemplates his life and indeed prior lives that he has had and can remember. That synopsis sounds very strange and in many ways the film is very bizarre. It tackles some important themes such as family, love, death and throws in a touch of magic and the fantastical as Uncle Boonmee recounts prior manifestations which even include talking animals. The pace is ponderous and steady and for some periods it seems like nothing much is happening but the film is never dull. Surreal but never dull.
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
Ingmar Bergman’s comedy is a complicated farce with multiple couples, affairs and unrequited love. Fredrik Egerman is a lawyer with a new wife, the 19 year old Anne, but they have not consummated their marriage. Fredrick’s adult son, Henrik, is in love with his stepmother and also tormented by the randy servant, Petra, who keeps tempting him into sinning. Add to this that Fredrik has seen an affair with an actress, Desiree, come to an end though he still wants her. Desiree has started a new affair with an officer, Carl-Magnus, who is married to Charlotte, who happens to be a friend of Anne’s. Still with me? That’s the situation at the outset and as the film goes on it gradually gets more and more complicated. Perhaps getting everyone together in one place might resolve a few…issues? This was an enjoyable comedy, rather silly at times, and not to be taken too seriously. Bergman fans should definitely have a look but if you want to see the maestro’s best work then I’d suggest alternatives such as The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries instead of this one.
Dario Argento’s 1977 cult horror is the tale of an American dancer, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who leaves the US to attend a ballet school in Germany. Upon arrival, Suzy witnesses another girl fleeing the school in great terror and running off into the woods. Not the best of starts, you might be thinking. Well, Suzy thinks little about it, focusing on her studies but as the days go by Suzy begins to suspect that not all is what it seems at this school. Argento’s horror predates the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th but there is a sense that this may have had some influence on horror flicks such as those and other 80s scare fests. Suspiria is a short film but it gets going very quickly as Suzy finds mysterious occurrences at the school begin to accelerate and we have plenty of blood and gore thrown into the mix too. The ending doesn’t quite deliver as well as the build-up but for horror fans, this one is definitely worth a look.
Ranulph Fiennes – Heat (2015)
Sir Ranulph Fiennes is one of the greatest explorers in history and also a record holder in numerous endurance challenges. He is often associated with polar expeditions but in Heat, Fiennes writes about many exploits at the opposite end of the scale where the soaring temperatures present a different kind of problem to crossing somewhere like the Antarctic. I approached this book expecting it to be about the Marathon des Sables which Fiennes completed in 2015 and raised £2 million for Marie Curie charity. Instead, the book focuses a lot on Fiennes’ career in the army such as his time spent in Oman fighting for the Sultan against Communist insurgency. Expeditions are covered such as a hovercraft up the Nile and the 1992 trek that may have uncovered part of the lost city of Iram in Oman. Large portions focus on the history of particular countries which may or may not be of interest to the reader. The Marathon des Sables does appear but only at the very end of the book and, sadly, it is more of a quick summary rather than a detailed insight which is a great shame. It was yet another incredible achievement from Fiennes and I recall him being interviewed from the desert on Breakfast TV so would have liked to learn more about this particular challenge. This is still a decent read but if you approach it as I did then you may be disappointed.
Julian Barnes – The Noise of Time (2016)
The last and only time I read Julian Barnes was under duress at college in the form of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters and that was just one chapter, about Noah’s Ark which was very different to the original story. Barnes’ post-modern novel was simply too intellectual for my young mind and is probably one I need to revisit now I am in my 30s and have a better appreciation of literature. Anyway, I found myself intrigued by the premise of Barnes’ novel, The Noise of Time, which is a fictionalised telling of the story of Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, who lived under the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin. Shostakovich’s work was initially appreciated but he then found some of his compositions banned by the government and he even spent long periods in fear of his life. Barnes’ novel is very short but packs a great deal into its pages with Shostakovich reflecting on his upbringing, relationships with his parents, his wives and his children, while constantly looking over his shoulder expecting Soviet retribution. I’ll admit, dear reader, that classical music is something I know next to nothing about so this is the first time I have heard of Shostakovich. Bring on the shame! Barnes tells us himself that this book is not a definitive account of the composer’s life, that can be found elsewhere, but I still found it a valuable introduction and I am intrigued to learn more about him.
Rich Roll – Finding Ultra (2012)
Rich Roll was approaching 40 when he realised he could not continue with his life as it was. Struggling with alcoholism and overweight, Roll changed his life by embracing triathlons and by transforming his diet to an entirely plant-based one. The book is split into three sections. The first deals with Roll’s life and his struggle with alcohol. The second half looks at the challenges he has faced in taking on ultra triathlons including an epic one in Hawaii. The final part is an in-depth look at Roll’s plant-based diet and ideas on how others can follow this regime. The book has proved divisive from other reviews I have seen and I did raise my eyebrows to see the author had awarded himself a 5 star review on Goodreads! Very strange. I did enjoy the first two parts but would be intimidated by the idea of ultras myself, though they require time, money and resources, which not all of us have sadly. The information on a plant-based diet will be useful if that is your dietary preference but, unfortunately, Roll did seem scathing at times for those choosing not to follow this path. I still enjoyed the book but some elements were not for me.
James O’Brien – How To Be Right…In a World Gone Wrong (2018)
2016 was a tough year. A worrying amount of celebrities passed away such as David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, Prince and George Michael for a start. The UK voted to leave the EU in a controversial referendum in June that year and Donald Trump was elected as President of the US in an equally controversial election in November. The world seems to have gone mad ever since and become more hostile. Step forward James O’Brien, host of a daily radio show on LBC, who spends each day talking to people about a variety of subjects from Brexit and immigration to the so-called nanny state and the LGBT community. Over the years, O’Brien has tackled a range of callers often with divisive opinions. What makes him such a great host is he does challenge individuals but does so in a careful and meticulous way, questioning why they feel the way they do, giving them a platform to express their views but making them look within themselves to understand where such thoughts come from and to identify any weaknesses in their thought process. Some of the examples used here will leave you with your head in your hands, others are downright funny but there are situations where O’Brien acknowledges that he too has learned a lot from his callers about current issues in society. The chapters on Brexit and Trump stood out and are a sad indictment of the political landscape in the present day where the rise of social media coupled with the spread of fake news has proved so damaging to our lives and left both the UK and the US more divided than three years ago. It’s very much an us and them climate in both countries. This is a book that will really make you think and if you have yet to listen to any of James O’Brien’s shows then he is worth your time, as angry and frustrated as some of the callers will make you.
Chris Kyle – American Sniper (2012)
In this autobiography, Chris Kyle primarily recounts his time as a member of the US Navy SEALs where he trained and ultimately became the deadliest sniper in US history with 150+ confirmed kills with the actual numbers likely being much higher. Kyle takes us through his upbringing in Texas, his marriage to Taya and the four deployments he did in Iraq. The book explores the reality of war, not just in Kyle’s undoubted skill as a sniper but also the physical and emotional toll the war would take on him and his family. The book contains snippets from Taya who shares her recollections of being at home with her children not knowing if her husband will survive the war. Kyle is honest throughout the book but the reader may find him contentious at times. I raised eyebrows at his insistence that British people speak English funny (the irony!), I was always taken aback at the use of “savages” to describe the enemy, and felt Kyle’s dismissal of comrades who were afraid in the thick of combat seemed unfair. As with many soldiers, Kyle prioritises war, he loves killing and feels maladjusted when back home. It’s a frightening window into the toll that war can take on an individual and how few people come through conflict unscathed. Though divisive, this is still worth considering for Kyle’s authenticity in conveying the reality of war.