When Eight Bells Toll 1971 ****

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The title is from a sea-faring term; Alistair MacLean’s adaptation of his own novel makes appropriately salty use of the author’s own experience in the navy. Filmed in and around the Scottish coastal village of Tobermory, here fictionalised as Torbay, Etienne Perier’s actioneer was intended to spark a new series to rival if not succeed the James Bond films, which were in mid Connery/Lazenby contractual free-fall when this was being made. Alas, no other film featuring Phillip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) were made, but this gives a good flavour of what a potential franchise might have been like.

Calvert is introduced storming a hi-jacked ship; he’s a professional secret agent for the British Treasury, and clearly knows his stuff. MacLean gives Calvert plenty of animosity against his London-based superiors, notably Robert Morely as Uncle Arthur, Calvert’s handler and a man who seems more consumed with the availability of egg sandwiches than solving the mystery of the missing gold bullion. The nearby boat of shipping magnate Sir Anthony Skousas (Jack Hawkins) suggests who might be responsible, but Skouras’s wife Charlotte complicates things by getting attached to Calvert.

There’s a couple of duff-process shots, but for a film made in 1969, When Eight Bells Toll looks amazing today, with great location work in and around the Isle of Mull, terrific use of boats and Westland helicopters, and action that derives directly from the narrative, rather than feeling tacked on. The way Calvert attaches a live grenade to a rope and swing-balls it backwards into his enemies during the final confrontation is genius; without being a super-hero, he’s an ingenious, likeable hero.

When Eight Bells Toll is surprisingly modern in outlook and scope, and the presence of Hopkins, a versatile and thoughtful leading man, lends it a real sense of gravity. This is derring-do and Queen and Country stuff, but leavened with a healthy air of cynicism; enjoy a grand old action movie that still works in 2020.

 

Meet Joe Black 1998 ***

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If Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt find themselves in the same line for a wheatgrass juice at Ralph’s on the day before the 2020 Oscar ceremony, it would be interesting to know what these nominees might think of their second pairing in Meet Joe Black. Pretty much everyone agrees that Brad Pitt will fully deserve his mooted Oscar for Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood; not only is he pretty much playing a leading role, but he was also excellent in Ad Astra. In truth, Pitt has generally been a great movie star since his debut in Thelma and Louise; Meet Joe Black was one of his few misfires, but it was a significant one. Director Martin Brest was coming off the back of helping Al Pacino to awards from his Scent of a Woman performance as an older man explaining the pleasures of life to a younger, less experienced figure. Brest reunited Pitt with his Legends of the Fall co-star Anthony Hopkins for a remake of Death Takes a Holiday, a venerable property. So what could go wrong?

Or indeed, did anything go wrong? Meet Joe Black pretty much doubled its budget with it’s $150 million worldwide box-office take. And Hopkins got great notices for his role as Bill Parrish, a multi-millionaire businessman who is awakened at night by a premonition of Death, who soon turns up at his New York State mansion in the form of Joe (Pitt). Death wants a holiday, or at least a mini-break, and postpones taking Parrish’s soul so he can spend a weekend eating peanut-butter and cookies, speaking patois, looking good in suits and tuxes, and lusting after Parrish’s daughter Susan (Claire Forlani). Parrish demands that Joe will only come to collect on his own soul, not Susan’s, but Joe is as much a sap for Susan’s sweetness as he is for all other confectionary, while Parrish’s business interests threaten the legacy he was hoping to leave.

The languid, glacial pace has put passing viewers off Meet Joe Black, but the last hour of the film is pretty compelling. The detail of Parrish’s life, dinner parties, dinner tables, board-rooms and waiting helicopters, is convincingly done. But the mystery at the heart of this film is Pitt, who dials back all the things we’d later come to love about him as a star. He plays Joe as blank and distant, and yet when he crosses Parrish, there’s a sense of otherworldly malevolence that’s very much at odds with the film’s conventional romance. Playing a personification of death isn’t easy, but Pitt leans into the darkest aspects; his Death is banal, but no less deadly.

Some of the mechanics of Death Takes a Holiday, or the play on which it was based, seem to be lost in translation; it seems odd that Susan will accept either Death or a guy from the coffee shop as her suitor; anyone will do for Susan, as long as they look like Brad Pitt. Maybe that’s not so strange after all, but it doesn’t quite chime with the otherwise thoughtful and melancholy nature of the film. Meet Joe Black was savaged by critics at the time, but looks a more interesting prospect today, not least because we know how just how far outside his comfort zone Pitt’s deeply strange, yet memorable performance is.

 

The Two Popes 2019 ****

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There’s been plenty of criticism of the lowest common denominator programming on Netflix; from Bright to The Ridiculous Six, there’s often a pervasive, musty aroma of a bottom drawer project that no-one else wanted. Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quite a different kind of animal, a carefully wrought adaptation of Anthony McCarten’s play about the changing of the guard in the Vatican. As a roman a clef, it bears more of a resemblance to The Crown in that it features a decidedly populist view of historical events; while hardly worth faking a box-office run for, it should do Netflix no harm to demonstrate that yes, they can generate genuinely meaningful content.

Let’s be honest, here, a lot of the fun of The Two Popes is in the margins. Did you know that Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) was a huge fan of Kommisar Rex, a tv show about a crime-fighting dog? Were you aware that his successor, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) would drink Fanta and eat pizza with him like a couple of home-boys while they plotted the future of the Catholic Church? A funny end-sequence has them on the couch watching football; the de-mythologising of the papal home-life is a big part of the appeal here. An opening sequence, in which Francis whistles Abba’s Dancing Queen seeps into an orchestral version that provides a surprising and irreverent soundtrack to the initial selection of Benedict as Pope.

Meireilles hasn’t done too much to open up the play; the beautiful backdrops at the pope’s retreat and at the Vatican provide much to engage the eye while two great actors bring the popes to life. This is a two-hander piece much like Volker Schlöndorff’s excellent 2016 film Diplomacy, with vivid flashbacks to Francis’ struggles as a young man in Argentina. Both Hopkins and Pryce give big, relish-able performances as quite different men, and the script never lets sight of the weight that both men suffer from a deep sense of despair at their church’s failure to act over internal abusers.

The Two Popes has surprised many by coming straight out of the traps to secure Golden Globe nominations; given the pedigree of the cast and director, it’s certainly in the running for awards attention. Perhaps it’s too wordy and worthy for pop-corn-swilling crowds, but it’s an excellent, thoughtful film, and it would be nice to think that it may well end up with a higher competition rate than Roma or The Irishman; it’s a tighter, more disciplined film that either of these prestige pictures. If nothing else, it’s a great start to Netflix’s Papal Cinematic Universe, (PCU) with plenty of other key figures ripe for Pope-sploitation.

A Chorus of Disapproval 1989 ***

Alan Ayckbourn’s work as a dramatist hasn’t proved an easy fit with cinema; then again, would you give Michael Winner the chance to make a film version of a cherished project? Winner’s gift for comedy in the 1960’s was substantial, but his touch eluded him after sinking into the mire of Death Wish sequels, and although this is probably the best film of his last two decades as a film-maker, that’s largely because of Ayckbourn’s wordplay and the cast assembled here. The argument between Winner and Ayckborn have been detailed elsewhere; the result is that a clever back-stager about a Scarborough theatre company attempting to stage John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera has been broadened with an unfaithful emphasis on sex. Jeremy Irons is Guy, the businessman who gets involved with the tyrannical director Dafydd (Anthony Hopkins), and ends up sleeping with his wife (Prunella Scales) and the wife of another man; Gareth Hunt and Jenny Seagrove are the swinging couple. The cast are dotted with recognisable thespians, from Richard Briers to Lionel Jeffries, and there are sections of dialogue which feel like Winner hasn’t quite managed to ruin them; the initial sparring between Guy and Dafydd works well, and Irons and Hopkins can’t be accused of phoning in their performances. The picture of provincial British life in the 1980’s is pretty horrible, and that’s very much on the director; the side-lining of modish female talent (Patsy Kensit, Alexandra Pigg) indicates the male-dominance here, and the rampant egotism of an arrogant director who failed to transform material that didn’t need much transforming.

The Wolfman 2010 ***

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If the public flock to see a galaxy of superheroes, why wouldn’t they flock to see a universe of monsters? That’s the conundrum as yet unsolved by Universal’s proposed Monsterverse, which aimed to bring together Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, the Wolfman and more, but has faced several false starts. These IP are better known that anything Marvel or DC offer, and yet there are narrative issues; aside from origin stories, what would the public want to see the monsters do? With a script co-written by Se7en’s Andrew Kevin Walker, Joe Johnson’s The Wolfman tries harder than most to invigorate the clichés; Shakespearean actor Larry Talbot (Benicio del Toro) returns home to Blackmoor, and Talbot Hall specifically, after hearing word of his brother’s disappearance. His father Sir John (Anthony Hopkins) is already in on the werewolf family secret, and Larry finds himself involved with his dead brother’s fiancé Gwen (Emily Blunt) as well as the usual mistrustful villagers. Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving) of Scotland Yard is also on the case, fresh from his work on the Jack the Ripper murders. The Wolfman looks great, and has some cool make-up from Rick Baker, plus better acting than most horror films. There’s a duff ending, and an overall lack of suspense, possibly due to re-cutting, although a medical inspection at the hands of Anthony Sher’s asylum manager goes amusingly and spectacularly awry. Universal seem to have been somewhat dismissive of the outcome, but The Wolfman is better than it’s dire reputation suggests; it’s clearly a loving attempt to revise a classic story, with top talent del Toro, Hopkins, Blunt and Baker all on message, and a few neat moments for genre fans to enjoy, even if the final wolf-on-wolf fight is risible.

The Looking Glass War 1970 ***

Something of a curiosity in the John le Carre stakes, this 1970 thriller gets quite a few elements right, notably the personnel at The Circus; George Smiley is dropped from the original book, but Anthony Hopkins, Sir Ralph Richardson and Paul Rogers all fit the bill as the crumpled espionage handlers with the power and life and death in their hands. The film’s centre is Leiser (Christopher Jones) a Polish defector who becaomes a pawn in international espionage games when he’s recruited to spy on East German missile sites. The first half of the film does well to suggest how and why Leiser accepts the offer, but things get a little simplistic once the mission begins, and a final bookend doesn’t quite work. Hopkins seems to have been none too impressed by Jones and his James Dean mannerisms, but it kind of works for the film that Leiser is so much of a fish out of water. The Looking Glass War feels like a compromised efffort, but with a script by le Carre himself, it springs to life whenever Hopkins and Richardson are on screeen, and Frank Pierson, director of the 1976 A Star Is Born, creates some striking compositions.

Westworld 2016 *****

westworld.jpegWestworld is a model of what a reboot should be; everything is bigger, better, more thoughtful and more expansive that the original sci-fi cult classic about a futuristic theme park with a Western theme. With Jonathan Nolan and JJ Abrams at the helm, that’s no surprise, but what is very much surprising is the way they’ve moved the narrative on. The early scenes make it seem that James Marsden’s cowboy will play a similar role to Richard Benjamin and James Brolin’s vacationing thrill-seekers in the original; it turns out that Marsden’s character is actually a robot. Similarly, Ed Harris’s Man in Black seems to cut a iconic figure in the same way as Yul Brynner’s android gunslinger, but again, roles are reversed; Harris’s character is actually a tourist on a permanent vacation of sorts. And the biggest reversal of all is that the robots are the heroes, as their AI gives them a self-awareness that slowly reveals that they’re nothing but playthings for a corrupt elite; their gradual understanding of the need for revolution makes for gripping viewing. Evan Rachel Wood is the key identification character in Delores, but there’s an all-round stunning cast, from Thandie Newton to Jimmi Simpson, and best of all Anthony Hopkins as the park’s co-creator, Ford. Sir Richard Attenborough’s last iconic role was as a Jurassic Park owner in another Michael Crichton story, and Hopkins was probably the actor he used most: seeing Hopkins play God as his creations run amok is just one of a myriad of viewing pleasures on offer. And the action, violent and spiky, is cleverly scored to popular classics; if there was a moment in cinema in 2016 to compare to the astonishing Paint It Black scene in the opening episode, we’re yet to see it.