There’s not much hunting, but a whole lot of killing in Hunter Killer; the subject is submarines in modern warfare, and Gerry Butler is the man with the answers. He’s Commander Joe Glass, a maverick who doesn’t play by the rules; he does things HIS way! Pretty much everything about Joe is a cliché, but Donovan Marsh’s thriller attempts to make up for in incident what it lacks in originality. Glass takes command of the American USS Arkansas at the Faslane nuclear base in Scotland; he’s sent on a secret mission deep into the Arctic where another submarine has gone missing. Glass ends up teaming up with Russian sub Konek and it’s captain Sergei Andropov (Michael Nvqvist) to foil a Russian coup d’etat and rescue the deposed Russian president, while back in the US, weasely Admiral Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman) watches as the action escalates. Oldman is playing a character who ducks responsibility, but he seems to take the role quite literally, rarely clearly in shot and usually scurrying out of frame; rarely has an actor looked like they didn’t actually want to be in a film. Given the manliness on show, that’s no surprise; Hunter Killer is a big, beefy Tom Clancy-type thriller that takes no prisoners. The action is decent, but unfortunately the star is stuck in a tin can for most of it. It’s becoming a modern phenomena that big, reality based action movies (Mile 22, Patriot’s Day, Deepwater Horizon) are struggling to find an audience; Hunter Killer’s straightforward, gung-ho action should pick up a few fans on streaming, with Butler a gruff centre and plenty of entertainment to be drained from the hair-trigger plotline.
Having won an Oscar for his previous period piece Tom Jones, expectations were high for Tony Richardson’s take on the famous British military catastrophe; so much so that it was the most expensive British film ever made when released in 1968. It’s clear where the cheques were cashed; there’s an all-star cast including David Hemmings, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Vanessa Redgrave, plus notable cameo roles for Peter Bowles and even Donald Wolfit in a walk-on as Macbeth. The battle-scenes are also striking in that the use of special effects to create large armies had yet to be invented back in 1968; the action involves large groups of extras, and somehow their plainness is more suggestive of the drabness of failure than the more vivid pictures which might created today. The script, written by John Osborne and Charles Wood, plays fast and loose with history, but it does relate to real incidents, like the infamous black bottle affair. The mood changes once the action moves oversees, although it was apparently the result of budget restrictions that Richard Williams was pressed into service to create animated bridges to inform the action; using political cartoons of the time, Williams creates wonderfully vivid tableaux that say just as much about the vain-glorious mind-set of those involved that rest of the the film itself. Made at a time when the Vietnam war was raging, this version of The Charge of the Light Brigade is a politically astute look at failure and blame, and deserves better than a rather musty reputation suggests.
2018’s rather drab Entebbe casts minds back to fondly reminisce about mass –murderer Idi Amin, whose genocide made exploitation fodder for this lurid 1980 feature. Played by Alien star Yaphet Kotto, Amin is a mischievous, brutal presence, seen at one point casually opening a fridge to take a bite of human flesh cooling within. There’s no whitewash here, just the dramatization of tabloid headlines. And yet, a plotline about Amin’s relationship with a British journalist, arrested and imprisoned by Amin’s regime in defiance of the UK, feels authentic, not least because the character is played by the journalist in real life. Such a Paul Greengrass-style verisimilitude adds a certain vividness to the proceedings, but there’s also an admirable directness to the way Amin’s hubris and downfall are captured. Whether this happened or not, it’s compelling to watch a film so contemporaneous as a primary source.
It’s a rare thing for a director to make nothing but masterpieces; a film like Insomnia would be the crowing glory of most director’s careers, but for Christopher Nolan, it’s just a rehearsal. Films like Memento, The Following, Interstellar and Inception have established Nolan as a brand name that can attract an audience just on his reputation; Dunkirk shows him at the height of his powers. There are plenty of films dealing with the mechanics of war; Nolan’s summer blockbuster has the mind-set of a student film, splitting three narratives (elementally themed as air, sea and water) and sculpting in time to bring them together as the British army looks for any way home from the beaches of Dunkirk as the Germans close it. Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot has the biggest wow factor, even if his face is largely obscured, while Kenneth Branagh and Harry Styles from One Direction wait anxiously to be rescued. Dunkirk is a challenging and original war film that reaches for the mythic rather than the practical; it’s a stunning demonstration that a big, popular movie can have brains as well as brawn.
Paweł Pawlikowski is a man whose name critics love to invoke, even if they have to to cut and paste it. He seems to have given up wrestling with the text of his Vernon God Little adaptation, but that’s no great loss; the Polish director has a style of his own that doesn’t need to be piggy-backed on another property. The standard-issue information, that Cold War is shot in black and white, and got an 11 minute ovation at Cannes, would make any prospective viewer’s heart sink; it sounds like the kind of three hour ‘Latvian people arguing at a kitchen table’ snorefest that provides good reason to hate art cinema. Cold War tells, in simple, stunningly composed images, the story of a love story between a musician and the singer who auditions for him. They meet and separate in various countries, across borders, through concerts and dances, until fate finds a way to bring them together ‘until the end of the world’. This is cinematic poetry of the highest order, plain yet lush, riddled with subtle yet jaw-dropping compositions. The black and white photography, so often the banal choice of an art director on a perfume commercial, is truly lustrous, and the leads are luminous; the director discovered Emily Blunt amongst others, and Joanna Kulig and Thomasz Kot should return to our screens again again before long. The late John McCain’s line about not ‘hiding behind walls’ is relevant here; it’s a timely story about how borders, and politics, can bend and shape our most vital relationships. Given that the same director’s previous film, Oscar-winner Ida, felt more worthy than entertaining, Cold War is a huge personal statement by the director and a scintillating film to watch in HD.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 comedy about the end of the world really shouldn’t work. Outside of the Pink Panther franchise, most Peter Sellers films are vanity projects, particularly when the star is encouraged to take on multiple roles. The director also tinkered dramatically with the source novel Peter George’s novel Red Alert, while his fear of flying made the film’s largely airborne setting something of a nightmare. And yet Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a timeless classic, chilling rather than comedic, but with a mordant view of the futility of human existence. Sellers send up British army intelligence as RAF Group Captain Mandrake, who attempts to stop a crazy US general from obliterating mankind). Meanwhile in the war room, Buck Turgison (George C Scott) tries to put a brave face on the crisis for the President Merkin Muffley (also Sellers) and his advisor, the mysterious Dr Strangelove (Sellers once more). Ken Adams pulls off a coup with the War Room set that established a template for Bond films for decades, while Adams’ experience as an RAF pilot helped with the authenticity of the action. Ultimately Kubrick is the big winner here, indulging his star but still pulling off a clinical, acerbic comedy that nimbly demonstrates weapons to be a danger to all humanity.
Billy Wilder’s touch came and went; not all of his comedies sit well today, as only the best in humour stands the test of time. One, Two, Three was a flop in 1961, out of step with public interest, but it’s now clear that it’s Wilder at his best. James Cagney plays C.R. MacNamara, the manager of the US Coca-Cola operation in Berlin, a city still divided into East and West. When his boss sends his daughter over for a few months, MacNamara rises to the challenge of keeping the girl out of trouble, but the day before his boss arrives to collect her, the girl vanishes, only to reappear married and pregnant. Despite a two-hour plus running time, One Two Three plays as a farce at breakneck speed, with Cagney ripping through his dialogue with real verve. There’s wonderful touches, like the secretary performing as a dancing girl to charm Russian businessmen, the vibrations of her dancing on the table causing a huge Communist portrait to fall off the wall, the photo of Khrushchev revealed to be plastered over an image of Stalin. References to John F Kennedy and the pop-music of the day are knowing but not overplayed. There’s a reason why Billy Wilder and screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond are regarded as all-time greats when it comes to wit; there’s an edge to the jokes about Germany’s past which, given that Wilder would later flirt with making Schindler’s List, indicate a pointed and political political point of view. Music by Andre Pervin.