Army of Shadows (1969)

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Jean-Pierre Melville directs Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret and Jean-Pierre Cassel in this historical thriller following a cell of French resistance fighters. 

Told in a cool, detached docudrama style with a harsh air of pessimism overwhelming even the noblest of heroics recreated. This is tough as nail. Melville entertains with drawn out, captivating set-pieces and bold, brusque masculine performances, even from a gracefully aging Signoret. But the tragedy of the doomed lives these people live is what lasts with you. Operating in a frustrated world of paranoia, abandoned missions and summary executions; they never can see the difference they are making nor can interact with the citizens they are fighting to free from Nazi rule. The world of mistrust they are lost within is painted as a greater sacrifice than the torture and death they constantly face. And we are made to feel that expertly by the French crime genre’s master director. Double Bill this with the glossier but equally slippery Allied.

7

Delirious (1991)

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Tom Makiewicz directs John Candy, Mariel Hemingway and Emma Samms in this comedy vehicle where a TV soap writer finds himself living in his fictional world, his typewriter giving him godlike powers and both female leads distracting him from getting back to reality. 

There are some light knowing asides to soap opera inanity lingering at the sidelines but this is essentially a project so caught up in running through its concept it seemingly forgets to put any laughs in. Not even one nice piece of John Candy comedy business just plot, plot, plot, plot, plot.

2

 

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

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Matthew Vaughn directs Taron Egerton, Colin Firth and Samuel L Jackson in this high octane spy thriller with a twist of spoof where a working class lad joins a posh spy squad. 

Loads of colourful fun this. Takes the winking excess of the Roger Moore era Bonds and overloads it even further. Underground lairs, ridiculous masterplans, deadly exotic sidekicks, sharp suits and cheeky asides. You get burly brawl church massacres, Strangelove-style exploding head genocide jokes and the hero having consensual bum sex after saving the world. “I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir!” The blokes down the pub deserve their films that make them nudge each other in the ribs and think “Oof… that is a bit near the knuckle” too. Especially now 007 himself has gone respectable and prestigious.  If you have no issue with Firth slaughtering a hundred men and women in two minutes then a bit of non-vanilla victory sex shouldn’t make you question your value system too much, hey? Where Kingsman stands out is it gives an A-Grade cast lots to do. It is the best use of both Firth and Jackson in years while newcomers Egerton, Sofia Boutella and Sophie Cookson all make lasting impressions amongst all the riveting freefalls, tailored finery and class comedy. A comic book blast, not to be taken too seriously.

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Malcolm X (1992)

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Spike Lee directs Denzel Washington, Delroy Lindo and himself in this biography of the assassinated black activist, following his journey from vain hustler to target for the FBI and Nation of Islam. 

I remember Malcolm X being released vividly. I remember everyone at school wearing branded X baseball caps, I remember Spike Lee telling all black children to bunk off school on opening day. To my knowledge no one from my West London secondary did but we sure all looked cool in them caps. The film itself was too unwieldy for teenagers who lived in an environment of inclusivity. But it has matured with me. It is a brilliant film. All of Lee’s trademark shots are played effectively. The rise and fall narrative gives way to some beautifully recreated speeches by Washington, his oratory is magnificent. The final day of Malcolm X is explored with a heartbreaking patience, the impending tragedy is palpable while avoiding cliche. It is a monument that grows in stature with every decade. One of Lee’s and Washington’s finest works.

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A Civil Action (1998)

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Steven Zaillian directs John Travolta, Robert Duvall and William H Macy in the true legal tale of a rich personal claims lawyer who takes on the corporations who poisoned a town water supply, eventually using all his acquired wealth to survive the process.

A glossy and effective drama that due to star salaries cost more than most blockbusters did back then and ridiculously more than the settlement the town of bereathed parents were aiming for. Maybe that is endemic of what holds this back from being merely good rather than great. It is a little too narrow sightedly worthy. A little overly po-faced. Travolta plays a scumbag millionaire huckster who sees the light and does the right thing. Maybe there would have been more entertainment value in keeping him a little amoral for a lot longer while he travels along his road to Damascus. Still Duvall is perfect as the corporate opposition who has seen it all before and is amused at watching everyone else around him flounder and scrabble. If the entire cast, and it is a fine cast, shared his casually satirical take on a juicy role we’d have a winner.

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American Assassin (2017)

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Michael Cuesta directs Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton and Taylor Kitsch in this spy thriller where an old hand turns a self taught terrorism vigilante into an asset for the U.S of A. 

Keaton sleepwalks gnarled. Cuesta reprises his 24 playbook with added gore. Everyone else is on a poor par with the much xeroxed plotline and flaccid shenanigans.

3

 

God’s Own Country (2017)

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Francis Lee directs Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu and Ian Hart in this drama about a Yorkshire farmer who starts a sexual romance with the immigrant worker his family have taken on for a week. 

I’m going to admit I felt a little duped by the strong reviews 45 minutes into God’s Own Country. I’d seen beautiful if grim landscapes, some aggressive rough trade, a few lingering shots of big cocks and chunky knit cardies. I had been sold on an insightful drama not some broadsheet friendly rural erotica. We get there in the end though. The pressures of the economics of a failing farm, family struggles and O’Connor’s leads crippling immaturity and selfishness create enough final act disruption to keep you engaged in the faltering romance.

6

 

Wiener-Dog (2016)

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Todd Solondz directs Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito and Ellen Burstyn in this anthology of misanthropic interactions linked by the owners of a dachshund.

Nasty little acts of cruelty from Solondz containing none of the long forgotten mordant wit of Happiness or two decades old effective shocks of Welcome to the Dollhouse (Gerwig’s segment acts as a mini sequel to that debut feature elevating it slightly). Like life, cruel and pointless, but with an oft ignored cute dog lingering at the bottom of the frame.

3

War of the Worlds (2005)

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Steven Spielberg directs Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning and Tim Robbins in this 9/11 inflected remake of the classic HG Wells sci-fi invasion story. 

Along with A.I., this is one of the best late period Spielberg blockbusters – albeit equally as divisive. It is that ending again, isn’t it? Spielberg, ever since Jurassic Park, has had real trouble dismounting. There either are indulgent, multiple codas or conclusions that shift too abruptly to happy and then credits. Here the doomed teenage son returning home is what jars with people. I don’t have any really issues with a film so unrelentingly bleak having a few rays of unexpected sunshine at its end. Bleak? Yep,  this is one of the darkest mainstream tentpoles ever released. A movie that consistently visually evokes the footage of the World Trade Centre’s destruction and anguished chaotic aftermath. A movie that then turns Tom Cruise into a clamouring refugee, then a cold blooded killer, then a suicide bomber. A movie that is clearly made from wholemeal rather than chaff. The fact that it includes utterly gripping action sequences (that initial attack, that movie magic seamless one-shot race along the highway, the ferry disaster) plus a convincing character arc for Cruise means it succeeds as a thrill ride and star vehicle as well as a topical metaphor on intervention, revenge and occupation. The second half shifts away from chilling allegory to expressionist fantasy; fields of red weed and basements of shadows. This is the most surreal we have seen Steven Spielrock go. And that closing shot of Cruise – the irresponsible, absent Dad who finally came through – left outside the family home, evokes The Searchers, another rousing classic on the futility of revenge. Maybe Spielberg isn’t so awful at endings after all?

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

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Steven Spielberg directs Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut and Melinda Dillon in this sci-fi epic about people making regular contact with aliens and the government attempts to contain that. 

As a massive Spielberg fan, I do suffer from the fact that some of his most highly regarded blockbusters do less for me than their towering reputations suggest. I feel he has made only one truly great alien themed blockbuster and it is controversially neither E.T. nor this. Both his hippy dippier entertainments are too bogged down in their domestic perspective wonder, plodding running times and lightshows at tremendous scale finales. Give me the Cruiser dashing through the dust of death ray obliterated humans any day of the week. CEot3K bored me as a kid, then improved for me as an adult. The visitation sequences are brilliantly tense and sustained if too sparse. The obsessive, home wrecking mania of those effected by their experiences is strongly evoked by Spielberg’s patient direction and Dreyfuss and Dillon’s low key, convincing acting. And the conspiracy itself is imbued with that neat visual shorthand storytelling you expect from the wunderkind auteur. But it never coalesces into anything that satisfies me. On this big screen viewing, I found myself drifting away, noticing how horribly ropey the alien effect work was (and I can normally forgive all manner of practical FX sins as they have been practically attempted), remembering how much more captivating and awe inspiring later, similar films like Starman or Contact are. I keep wavering on Close Encounters, it is a movie I cannot get a fix on. This viewing left me cold, next time… who knows?

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