Dressed to Kill 1980 ***

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Brian De Palma hasn’t been troubling the box-office much with ventures like Tomboy or Domino, but back in 1980, he on fire, and was hailed as the new Hitchcock. He won this accolade as much by imitation as anything else; Dressed to Kill feels like a fusion of the cod-psychology of Psycho plus some of the innocent abroad adventure of North by Northwest. The portrayal of a transvestite killer and gender reassignment treatment feels exploitative and is rather regrettable by today’s standards, and De Palma’s enthusiasm for naked female victims, hardly a unique fetish, inevitably limits the audience. But the technicalities of Dressed to Kill are still impressive; the early sequences involving Kate (Angie Dickinson) being stalked in a museum have steely control, and after she’s unexpectedly side-lined, the plot diverts to Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon) and Nancy Allen’s call girl Liz, leading to a spectacular elevator murder. The level of violence and the stereotyping are regrettable, but De Palma’s gift for tension and dramatic images doesn’t fade, and there’s nice turns from Dennis Franz and Michael Caine as the cop and the psychologist who prove useful Peter on his quest to find out who murdered his mother. they don’t make them like this any more, and that’s probably for the best, but as a snapshot of what was acceptable in 1980, this is a jaw-droppingly slick thriller.

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The Last Witch Hunter 2014 ***

the-last-witch-hunter-di-1Vin Diesel is never afraid over over-sell his material, and his prophesy of a franchise for The Last Witch Hunter seems somewhat redundant when Breck Eisner’s fantasy thriller his screens like a rotten tomato in 2015. Then again, Diesel’s Chronicles of Riddick seemed to have flatlined another franchise until Diesel brought it back from the dead, so who knows? The Last Witch Hunter certainly has something to commend it, not least some tongue-in-cheek support from Michael Caine and some nicely rendered CGI-backdrops as Kaulder (Diesel) cannons through the centuries into a big boss battle with a Queen Witch. With reams of laughable expository dialogue about Witch Prisons to stumble through, The Last Witch Hunter is a nice example of the good-bad movie; it’s gibberish, but at least it’s fluent gibberish.

Children of Men 2006 ****

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Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film adapts PD James’s novel for a bleak and grimly imagined future of 2027, with Britain crippled by martial law, terrorist strikes and general chaos. The reason is connected to the plague of infertility which has swept the planet; Theo (Clive Owen) finds himself on a mission of biblical proportions when he attempts to help a miraculously pregnant woman to reach some kind of safety. Children of Men is awash with political allusions to turn-of-century events; it’s a decidedly post September 11th film, brimming with paranoia and despair, and spiked with moment of visceral violence. Support from Michael Caine and Julianne Moore, plus Peter Mullan as a refugee-camp supervisor, makes Cuaron’s film a memorable snapshot of modern concerns.

The Man Who Would Be King 1975 ****

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John Huston belied his early promise to make some right rubbish before his 1970’s career rebirth; The Man Who Would Be King is one of his best, a rollicking adventure yard from the pen of Rudyard Kipling, a passion project for Huston who had tried to get it on screen for several decades. In 1975, he got a dream cast, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine as Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, plus Christopher Plummer as Kipling himself. The tall tale pitches the two soldiers who become gods amongst the natives during British rule in India. The Man Who Would be King questions notions of white superiority, but also finds time for plenty of star-powered entertainment; in a pre-Indiana Jones world Huston’s film is about as big and brassy as period adventure gets.

Is Anybody There ? 2008 ***

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A welcome starring role for Michael Caine, Is Anybody There? sounds a bit gloomy on paper; young boy Edward (Bill Milner) lives in the retirement home his parents run, and his life takes an abrupt turn when he falls under the spell of Clarence (Caine), a retired magician. Anne Marie Duff and David Morrisey are his parents, and there’s a full complement of British talent as the inhabitants of the home, including Rosemary Harris, Sylvia Syms and Leslie Phillips, with Peter Vaughan contributing a notable scene as the victim of a guillotine trick which goes horribly wrong. Caine gives a prickly performance as Clarence, and John Crowley’s film never overdoes the sentiment; Is Anybody There? is a rather quaintly old-fashioned coming-of-age story handled in a very British way.

Victory 1981 ***

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Known as Escape to Victory outside the US, this POW camp drama is also a sports film; it’s the story of a group of gifted footballers who find themselves captured during WWII, and forced to play a propaganda showcase game against a German team. The players are also masterminding an escape bid, but when they realise the importance of the game on morale, they’re split between their personal safety and scoring a Jesse Owens-style propaganda coup against the Nazis. John Huston’s Boys Own adventure may be in questionable taste, but with the free world’s team led by Michael Caine, and Sylvester Stallone in goals, Victory is a guilty pleasure for football and war movie fans. And the gimmick of having real football stars playing versions of themselves makes Victory a snapshot of life in 1980 rather than WWII; from Pele to Bobby Moore, they’re all clearly up for the game of their lives.

The Romantic Englishwoman 1975 ***

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Early work from Tom Stoppard, adapting Thomas Wiseman’s novel about infidelity and creativity for director Joseph Losey and creating a smart, intellectual entertainment. Michael Caine plays writer Lewis Fielding, who is troubled by his wife Elisabeth (Glenda Jackson) and her romance with uncultured playboy Thomas (Helmut Berger). Caine reigns in his charisma to deliver a sullen, moody performance that’s just right for Fielding, and Jackson does well with her character’s discomfort. Neither a crime story nor a romance, The Romantic Englishwoman is one of the best of Losey’s later works, and might finally reach and audience through its surprising appearance on Amazon Instant.