Red Sonja (1985)

Richard Fleischer directs Brigitte Nielsen, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sandahl Bergman in this fantasy adventure where a flame-haired warrior woman hunts the witch who destroyed two of her homes.

Red Sonja is a homeless film. Abandoned, no one wants it. The box office flop that killed the Conan franchise… even though Arnie’s mercenary thief is travelling under the name Kalidor here. The Schwarzenegger often labels this his worst movie – though this might have more to do with financial resentment that Dino De Laurentiis sharply stretched his contracted cameo role into a full supporting part rather than any qualitative judgement. The film clearly is the first cinematic live action feature release based on a Marvel Comics property but you’ll struggle to find any list or article that doesn’t bestow that crown to the equally begotten Howard the Duck from 1986. I’m a regular reader of the comics and while this lacks the curvy, hard drinking, bisexual in a skimpy chainmail bikini the juvenile in me adores… it feels like a solid adaptation for the She-Devil With a Sword. Sure, there’s none of the feminist revisionism, time travelling fish-out-of-water shenanigans and epic empire facing down of recent arcs but you get bog standard Sword and Sorcery. Questing, cliffhangers, mechanical beasts. The production design is strong… the battlewear of even minor characters is visually impressive and the artificial sets add wondrous scale to the convincing Italian countryside shoot. Nielsen is a bit bland as our titular lead, statuesque but maybe lacking the sex appeal and over-confidence of her comic counterpart. Florence Pugh would be a good modern fit if they got the hair dye out. Lack of charisma aside, the sidekicks make up for things – Arnie’s bullish rescuer, a deposed child prince who knows kung-fu and his head smashing faithful man servant. The film hits the fantasy genre target if not the bullseye deserving neither scorn nor particular praise. Perfectly adequate Friday night thrills.

5

Spotlight (2014)

Tom McCarthy directs Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo in this true story drama where the investigative journalists of The Boston Globe turn their attentions to paedophilic abuse in the Catholic Church.

First time I saw this at the cinema I admired McCarthy’s restraint and unfussy storytelling but found it all rather dry and felt maybe he didn’t fully utilise the acting talent present. When it won the Best Picture Oscar that year, I didn’t begrudge Spotlight… an intelligent, adult and unsensational piece of filmmaking… even if it wasn’t my favourite. C’mon, we all want this kinda quality outlier to be recognised over bait and mediocre flavour of the months. Fast forward four year and I popped it on late night for a revisit and was utterly gripped. I couldn’t switch it off and save the second half at 3am. I had to get to the end. The slow dedicated chase of the cover-up is quietly enthralling. The ensemble work subtle. The tragedy breaks your heart without ever tugging at it synthetically. A modern great.

9

Dracula (1958)

Terrence Fisher directs Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Michael Gough in this Hammer retelling of Bram Stoker’s vampire classic.

Fantastic casting of oddballs who would become icons. Lashings of red. A bouncy sexiness to the doomed conveyor belt of brides who exist in this adaptation solely to heave, get bitten, turn and get staked… preferably in as few scenes as possible. The book is altered in strange ways… you do sit there wondering what was the thinking that necessitated that swap or that quirk. It isn’t going to scare anyone anymore and these day even Hammer’s best are reassuringly naff rather than any high watermark of quality. A camp, nostalgic, fun take on a better told elsewhere tale.

6

Last Embrace (1979)

Jonathan Demme directs Roy Scheider, Janet Margolin and Christopher Walken in this thriller where a grieving secret agent finds himself in a Hitchcockian plot.

A pastiche of the Master that only makes fleeting sense in the passing moment. A cinematic tone poem of parody and imagery. You spend the first half of the film puzzling whether it is all in Scheider’s head… the paranoia convinces… then the second half trying to not look too hard at the explanatory mystery as it is random, unguessable and kinda dumb. The set-pieces are solid homages. Scheider is great manly value as always. Margolin makes a lot out of a very uneven, underwritten role – shifting from untrustworthy good girl to sexy fatale. Walken does impressive stuff in one fantastic scene. He’s so young here but confident in his mannerism. It is like the old legend has used that en vogue de-aging technology and sent his CGI performance back in time from 2019 to 1978. Great score and opening credits.

5

Death on the Nile (1978)

John Guillermin directs Peter Ustinov, David Niven and Bette Davis in this all-star Agatha Christie ensemble murder mystery.

“All-Star” in that it features a lot of the willowy rake-thin beauties of the era but it is only really any scene with Bette Davis or Angela Lansbury that holds the attention. Poirot taking on a cobra – meh. Bette Davis been mooned by Egyptian kids – YEAH! An adequate afternoon waster.

4

10 Rillington Place (1971)

Richard Fleischer directs Richard Attenborough, John Hurt and Judy Geeson in this true crime docudrama which recreates the serial murders of Ladbroke Grove sex killer John Christie and the miscarriage of justice that saw one of his victim’s husband’s sentenced to death.

My mother grew up in the shadow of Mister Christie. She was born just down the road from the notorious murder site and these slum buildings, where this film was shot on location, still existed on her doorstep throughout her entire childhood. When we went to the basement of horrors in Madame Tussaud’s, the animated waxwork that has stayed in my memory is Mister Christie wallpapering a body into his walls. Remembrances of the police looking for a murderer and finding the rooms at Rillington Place growing smaller and smaller as more bodies were hidden in the walls were the gruesome folk tales of my West London childhood. Don’t linger near that strange house, Mister Christie will get you. This well acted, unsensational film has the same sleazy, creepiness as Hitchcock’s Frenzy. Fleischer had done similar work with his take on The Boston Strangler case but this is the superior product. He lets the ghoulish details speak for themselves and presents the tragedies that unfold like an ambivalent god watching unfortunate fate tumble into its pre-ordained slots. There is a persuasive creepy voyeuristic tone – you do often find yourself sharing the thrill and desperation of disgusting John Christie. The legal elements of the case are just as fascinating… it doesn’t take a genius to see that Fleischer knowingly omits the moments where the police would have falsified statements and evidence to frame the wrong man. But this was made when those incompetent and corrupt figures of authority would still have been in power and a Hollywood production still wouldn’t out and out attack those the government chose to turn a blind eye to. Powerful stuff.

9

Entrapment (1999)

Jon Amiel directs Sean Connery, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ving Rhames in this heist thriller where an aged art thief plans a job with a supple young insurance investigator.

Flat and rote, lacking peril, glamour or romance.

2

Thunder Road (2018)

Jim Cummings directs himself, Nican Robinson and Jocelyn DeBoer in this comedy drama where a simple and frustrated small town cop has a series of breakdowns after his mother dies and his ex-wife sues for sole custody of their daughter.

Essentially a series of one-man show monologues from an awkward, desperate soul we are supposed to find sweet and endearing. While there are other characters and jolts of action, this most often feels like a one-man piece of Fringe theatre cinematised. If you go with it you’ll find its manipulations and indie palette pleasing. I found Cumming’s delivery of intense, haphazard, half sentence monologues draining by the end of the first scene. Not entirely sure I had much sympathy for a uniform policeman prone to violence and self delusion nor the particularly bad taste device that is kickstarted in the final scenes to set his life back on track. I can see what it was going for, see why people like it, but it wasn’t for me.

5

I’m All Right Jack (1959)

Roy Boulting directs Ian Carmichael, Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas in this British satire where a hapless posho finds himself infiltrating a factory union.

I had higher hopes for this. I just expected, given its classic status, it might have been laugh out loud funny. There’s a stellar cast of British comedy stalwarts and a fair bit of sauce. It often feels like a slightly more intelligent Carry On film. The unsung Irene Handl and Liz Fraser make the best impression as Seller’s dotty but wise wife and their glamorous sexpot daughter. And the satire swipes in every direction. The owner class happy to destroy workers’ rights, productivity and the economy to make sweat free short sighted profits rings true still. The union of professional skivers dodging any and all work has an Only Fools and Horses cheekiness to it but does feel like punching down given the plummy tone of the direction.

6

Oklahoma (1955)

Fred Zinnemann directs Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones and Gloria Grahame in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical about cowpokes duking it out over a belle.

Bright, jaunty technicolor larks on the surface but a toxic darkness lingers underneath. Two men fight for ownership of a lady while Grahame’s simpleton slut (a highlight) creates her own love triangle. It is big and distracting but has not aged particularly well in pace or politics.

6