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The Passover Plot

Devine or delusional?
I find the less mainstream interpretations of the life of Christ intriguing, they make you think.

"The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), "The Body" (2001), "Risen" (2016), "Mary Magdalene" (2018), even "Jesus Christ Superstar" all challenged the traditional view. However none challenged it quite like "The Passover Plot". Inspired by Hugh Schonfield's book, it posits that Jesus planned to survive the cross without divine intervention - just a bit of trickery.

There were violent protests over "Last Temptation" with its relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but I don't recall too much fuss over "The Passover Plot"; sex outweighs blasphemy any day.

It was filmed in Israel but there really aren't any big scenes with thousand of extras. That sort of thing was left to "King of Kings". Here, it's the story, the unexpected focus and the words that make it compelling.

Where it does go big is in the music by Alex North, a contender for the best film composer of all time. His score is sharp and percussive; it helps give the drama grit.

"The Passover Plot" paints a fascinating picture of Jesus as far more welded to the politics and lifestyle of the Jews of ancient Israel. In this telling, a paranoid Pontius Pilate is the main persecutor of Jesus; no washing of hands this time. Where I think "Plot" starts to go off course is in the connection Jesus has to the zealots and the violence. By the end, I don't feel the film is on very solid ground with the over-elaborate crucifixion scam, arresting and all as it is.

What happened to, "Love your enemies", "Turn the other cheek" and "Forgive those who trespass against you"?

The problem with many revisionists, if they even allow that Jesus existed, is the assertion that such sayings were patched onto the story. They date the gospels to so much later than the time of Christ that you'd almost be forgiven for thinking they were written by Jules Verne. And any ancient non-canonical mention of Jesus is simply put down as interpolations by decades of fraudulent friars.

Maybe "Occam's Razor" cuts to the truth - the simplest answer is likely to be the correct one - the Gospels by-and-large recount real events.

But Thomas Aquinas could have the last word on that, "To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible".

Away All Boats

Unsung heroes
I first saw "Away All Boats" during the 1950's when I was about 10 years old.

It had similarities with one of my all-time favourites, "Mister Roberts", which was released about the same time. Both films portrayed men and ships in a behind-the-scenes role during the war in the Pacific. But the thespian firepower of actors such as Jeff Chandler, George Nader and Lex Barker hardly raised a flicker when compared to Henry Fonda, William Powell and Jack Lemon in "Mister Roberts" whose performances, along with an inspired script, helped make that film such an emotional rollercoaster.

However the loneliness of command emerged as a key theme in "Away All Boats".

It's the story of the Belinda, an Attack Transport carrying troops to the beachhead during the Pacific War and landing them in landing craft. Like Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda) in "Mister Roberts, the commander of the Belinda, Captain Jebediah Hawks (Jeff Chandler) yearns for an assignment aboard a frontline fighting ship. In fact most of the characters seem to want to be doing something else - in the beginning anyway.

Maybe Jeff Chandler's stiff persona suited the character of the Captain who is aloof and awkward with his officers and crew.

George Nader always played serious, but he was a very ripped-looking guy back in the day when actors didn't necessarily have personal trainers or bench press at the gym. Nader played Lieutenant Dave MacDougall, the sort of officer that was best described in "The Caine Mutiny" as, "...the fireball, the guy who gets things done; there's one on every ship".

Although the special effects can't compete with a film such as 2019's "Midway", they still give the eerie sensation of blazing kamikazes heading straight for us as the Belinda takes part in the Battle of Okinawa, surely one of the most terrifying battles ever.

The movie was made in an era when film companies could photograph the army and marines on manoeuvre - unfortunately between wars as it turned out. Real ships that had served in WW2 also gave the film a look of authenticity that contrasted with the flatness of scenes shot in the studio

If it does anything, "Away All Boats" gives an insight into how the US Navy trained that vast force of mainly inexperienced men to perfect those epic amphibious landings in the Pacific.

Pretty Persuasion

Pretty perceptive
"Pretty Persuasion" is more outrageous than the combined monologues of Ricky Gervais on the Golden Globes Awards.

The people who will definitely get their money's worth out of this film are the easily offended; for them there is something to offend every couple of minutes.

A number of critics felt the film "...hovered uncomfortably between comedy and satire..." but who cares about genre when it's this funny.

I loved it.

Despite the high school setting - elite Roxbury Academy in Beverly Hills - it's not another "Clueless" or "Mean Girls". It possesses more the anarchic spirit of "God Bless America".

The script is clever; perception is a key motif throughout, and the way the film revisits earlier scenes to show what really happened is inspired.

Although Evan Rachel Wood's character, Kimberly Joyce, seems interested in the well-being of others, she really has no filter; manipulation and passive aggressiveness are built into her DNA. Although she blatantly parades her hypocrisy, she also exposes it in just about everyone around her - often hilariously. In the end though, vulnerabilities are exposed.

When she befriends a quiet, Middle Eastern student, Kimberly's cynical views on migrants, race, religion, sex and just about everything else come to the fore - nothing is sacred. However one commentator nailed it when he said that Kimberly does all this with such obvious pleasure in naughtiness that she's impossible to hate.

The film has an original score by Gilad Benamram. It's light and chilled, and acts as a dispassionate commentator as events unfold.

Evan Rachel Wood's performance is mesmerizing, However, I have one criticism, as others have noted, she slurs her words and speaks so fast it's sometimes hard to understand her. I found myself straining to catch the dialogue, but I didn't want to miss a word because I was enjoying it so much.

"Pretty Persuasion" is fifteen years old now, but has lost none of its bite. Forget the negative comments. This one will have you on the edge of your seat waiting for Kimberly to reveal the next nugget of political incorrectness.

Death Wish

"Death Wish" meets "Straw Dogs"
This was a surprise. It's a darker "Death Wish" and although it stretches credulity towards the end it works pretty well.

What isn't a surprise is that there are now generations that probably don't know the 1974 Charles Bronson version, possibly they don't even know who he was. So this could be the only "Death Wish" movie they know.

The basic story is still there, Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) - he's a surgeon this time around - goes to work leaving his wife and teenage daughter alone in their upmarket, suburban home. Random lowlifes get the address and pay mother and daughter a visit with dire consequences. After police more or less file the crime away, the Doc bypasses the "do no harm" clause and declares war on street criminals. He becomes a hero to some and just another criminal to others.

The film takes the concept into the digital age, but for those that remember the original, there are other differences.

Vincent D'Onofrio plays Frank Kersey, Paul's brother. He really doesn't have a lot to do. In a way, he could have played Paul Kersey, bringing his edgy style to the role without the predictability of Bronson and Willis, both of whom arrived with history - we just wait for them to explode.

Anyway, this is Bruce Willis' movie, and he projects a bit more emotion than Charlie. Interestingly, in the 1974 version, the guys who committed the home invasion don't reappear. In this one, Bruce tracks the perps down and does the business. Maybe this indicates something about society and filmmaking today. The need for revenge overwhelms all other considerations - I'm not so sure it actually indicates more maturity though.

However the biggest difference between the original and this one is the lack of a satirical tone, which did soften the violence in the Bronson version. This one is darker and grittier. In the end Bruce defends his home like Dustin Hoffman in "Straw Dogs" or is it more like Macaulay Culkin in "Home Alone"?

As far as the gun debate is concerned, director Eli Roth said, "It's not pro-gun. The movie for me really is about family and protecting your family and what do you do when you can't get justice for your family?"

But he needs to remember, it's only a "Death Wish" movie.

Little Big Man

A tall tale told well
Years after I saw the movie in 1970, I read the book. I was disappointed. The movie was such an overwhelming experience, I wasn't ready for the different tone of the book, and the different ending of key characters such as Sunshine and Old Lodge Skins. However now, I appreciate them as separate works of art.

To be honest, I couldn't have an in-depth discussion about movies with someone who didn't like Arthur Penn's "Little Big Man"; we would be on such different wavelengths that the conversation would be meaningless.

The film grabbed my imagination from the first view of Dustin Hoffman's 121 year-old Jack Crabb to the last scene as he sits with his head in his hand after telling his story - 147 minutes of emotional highs and lows that seemed to pass in a fraction of the time.

Although narration in movies is sometimes a lazy way of telling a story, in "Little Big Man" it is the perfect example of how it can make a movie absolutely compelling. As well as stars that inhabited their characters, tribute should be paid to the man who wrote the script, novelist Calder Willingham.

From Thomas Berger's complex, highly detailed novel, he captured the essence of Jack Crabb, that world weary, sometimes "crabby" old man. Willingham not only achieved that, but also invested him with some of his own sense of irony and self-deprecating wit.

The movie is now divorced from the time in which it was made, around 1970. Just before it was released, the Mai Lai massacre came to light - the shock of it went around the world. With that fresh in mind, the Washita massacre in the film hit the audience like a sledgehammer. But with that said, the film doesn't seem to have been made as allegory for the Vietnam War, the book certainly wasn't (it was published in 1964).

The film was always intended to tell a story of America's West. However in an interview about the film at the time, Arthur Penn did say, "... if we're doing the same things and if we don't learn from history we're condemned to repeat it".

Often described as a satirical western, "Little Big Man" doesn't easily fit into one genre. Although there are very funny scenes in the film, it's more a part of the human comedy, full of laughter but also tears.

Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan

Reel vs Real
As movies about real battles go, this one holds its own.

If I have a criticism it would be what director Kriv Stenders himself was worried about when he showed the film to the real Harry Smith and veterans of the battle. Stenders was concerned "... that a cinematic interpretation of the film, overdramatizing some moments and fictionalizing others, would be an issue with veterans of the battle".

Although Harry Smith told Stenders he thought the film was great, I feel those scenes, especially the exchanges between Major Smith (Travis Fimmel) and Private Large (Daniel Webber), the stereotypical "Hollywood" stuff, do sound a false note. However, the film is a technical triumph with a superb score and, for the most part, seems honest to events.

The film is similar to Mel Gibson's "We Were Soldiers": the unexpected enemy force; the cut-off platoon; helicopter pilots defying orders to provide aid and impressive firepower that doesn't overshadow the discipline and guts of the troops on the ground. Both were straightforward battles without civilians caught in the crossfire.

As an Australian, I'm not sure how non-Australian audiences will view "Danger Close". The accents could be challenging and the look of the Australians and New Zealanders is noticeably different to the helmeted U.S. Army and Marines familiar from documentaries and newsreels. Ever since the war, the respective tactics of the allies have been dissected in books and back-and-forth sessions on military history blogs. The Diggers of that era actually looked like the U.S. Army LRRPs or even the VC; styled for jungle warfare.

Another thought, a great victory is only in proportion to the toughness of the enemy. All accounts I've read also acknowledge the bravery of the Vietnamese. You do see it in the film, but it could have been stated.

Despite the rights and wrongs of Australia's involvement, Long Tan has emerged as one of our most iconic battles. Maybe it's partly guilt over the way Vietnam veterans were neglected for so long. Maybe it's also because not much was expected of the "Baby Boomers", but they stood up nonetheless.

Like Peter Weir's "Gallipoli", "Danger Close" will probably be how future generations will know this battle. With that in mind, the filmmakers and the stars, despite the odd flaw, have left us with a powerful and affecting experience.

The War of the Worlds

Report to Mr Wells' office immediately
I thought it was going OK. I didn't even mind that the main focus had shifted from a male narrator to a female narrator, Amy (Elinor Thomlinson). I liked the Victorian/Edwardian setting of the novel, but then we had an extra marital affair, much exposition seemingly aimed at today's establishment, and then there was the confusing fast-forward. However when they played old H.G.'s trump card (the germs) about half way through, I knew they had lost the plot - literally.

The Martians succumbing to bacteria, to which we have long since become immune, was the finale in the book and it worked well in George Pal's 1953 version - I love the Martian arm with the suction cap fingers crawling out of the war machine as Gene Barry looks on. Even Spielberg didn't mess with it in his movie, and even paid a little homage to Pal's version.

But the writers here tried to go one-up on Wells by grafting a post apocalyptic scenario onto the end of the story, and the whole thing comes crashing down like one of George Pal's Martian war machines after its fishing line was cut.

To be fair, the Martians look good in this version whether in their machines or prowling around on the ground, even if they owe a little something to "Starship Troopers".

All film versions of "War of the Worlds" are re-imaginings, but this one limps to a close after it sets off all its fireworks too early. The whole thing is also very gabby, and when Amy starts working on bacterial cultures à la Fleming and Florey, I slumped in my chair knowing that H.G.'s story was getting an update it didn't need.

Interestingly the speech Rubert Graves' character delivers about Britain deserving the Martian invasion, which sounded suspiciously like modern revisionist thinking, is actually based on an early passage in Wells' novel. There he cites the impact of European colonists on the Tasmanian Aborigines, "... Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"

With that said though, I can't help thinking this mini-series would have Mr Wells furiously scribbling notes in the margins of the script, before emphatically marking it with an F.

They Shall Not Grow Old

Time capsule
The author of a book about the Battle of Passchendaele made the observation that Field Marshal Haig was fortunate in the army that he had. Where others had buckled and mutinied, Haig's army responded to his every request no matter how misguided the task and bloody the results.

Peter Jackson's documentary shows us the qualities that shaped those men. The pragmatism, the discipline, the belief in the British Empire and above all that indomitable spirit mentioned in so many histories. Qualities hard to discern in jerky, grainy, century-old footage of the war - up until now that is

This amazing documentary gets up close and personal. It's hard to believe that it wasn't recreated using re-enactors, but of course it wasn't, I even recognised some of the footage from other documentaries

Over the decades we've had good documentaries about WW1. "The Great War" narrated by Michael Redgrave was the benchmark - all 26 episodes of it. However "They Shall Not Grow Old" is different. It doesn't try to cover everything, but it gives us the temper of these men. Peter Jackson and his team present 100-year old film as clearly as we see recent footage from Iraq and Afghanistan. Coupled with sound effects and the voices of veterans, we can now appreciate, more than ever, what they endured.

Shining through is the irrepressible spirit of the Tommies and others from the Dominions. Their often dentally challenged smiles tell us a lot about hard lives and hard times. I was reminded of something Wellington once said of British soldiers of another era "I don't know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me".

My grandfather fought in the war. Pop was in the Australian army; a quiet man, he was a Lewis gunner and was wounded at Broodseinde Ridge. When he returned to his small town, he was one of two who had survived out of five that had enlisted together, He was treated like a hero and it embarrassed him.

This inspired film answers some of the questions I was never game to ask him.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Wind up your Ruhmforff Lamp and come on down
"Journey to the Center of the Earth" doesn't get much of a mention in Sheridan Morley's biography of James Mason, just a couple of quotes from Arlene Dahl and Pat Boone. His main focus was on James Mason's decline as a star rather than how the film was made. Arlene Dahl even said they spent time shooting in Mexico, but maybe she meant New Mexico (Carlsbad Caverns).

It's a pity there wasn't more information about it because I have always loved the film.

I saw it in 1959 at age twelve and was sucked in by its innocent sense of wonder as the four explorers and Gertrude the Duck descend the crater at Snaefellsjökull armed with some quaint Nineteenth Century equipment and a pack lunch.

The special effects can't compare with todays CGI, but there are scenes that generate a sense of awe especially those beautiful matte paintings of Mount Scartaris and Stromboli. And although the lizards with the glued on sails playing Dimetrodons don't stand a chance against Steven Spielberg's raptors, they still look fairly convincing (and may have genuinely suffered for their art).

James Mason was an inspired choice as Professor Lindenbrook, with that leonine head and mellifluous voice he just exuded gravitas. Thayer David also had gravitas, just darker; he made a cool Count Saknussemm.

Some odd ingredients went into the mix including ducks, creaking underwear and Pat Boone's challenged Scots accent. As well as occasionally bursting into song, he also seemed to lose his clothes on a regular basis, including a scene where only a jewel-encrusted rock covered his family jewels. In another, he clasped a worried looking sheep to his nether regions. But the movie has a light touch that balances the drama.

The mood is set from the beginning with Bernard Herrmann's ominous title music as the camera draws us towards a surprisingly cloudless Earth and then into the molten interior. In fact his whole score gave the film depth that the script sometimes struggled to achieve.

"Journey to the Center of the Earth" has a touch of movie magic. Despite a leisurely build-up it's still a captivating experience.

The Last Czars

"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown"
This mini-series is based on fact, but you just couldn't make this stuff up.

There have been plenty of movies and documentaries about the last of the Romanovs: Franklin Schaffner's "Nicholas and Alexandra", the Russian "The Romanovs An Imperial Family", a sleigh load of Rasputin movies and of course "Anastasia" with Ingrid Bergman. Among the many documentaries are a couple dealing with the search for the bodies of the royal family, and the brilliant BBC2 documentary "Russia's Lost Princesses".

This Netflix mini-series more or less combines them all.

Like Netflix's "The Roman Empire" mini-series, the drama is interrupted now and then by commentary from historians. The interior sets are ornate although historical film is used to show scenes outside the palace. Unlike Lean's "Doctor Zhivago", which captured the intimate and the epic of the Russian Revolution, the grainy, century-old footage keeps us at a distance.

Most films about the Romanovs don't travel far from the royal court. The historians make the point that the Romanovs lived in a bubble and this mini-series takes us into that bubble and shows how Rasputin got in there as well. The love between Nicky and Alix is at the heart of the drama and in the best traditions of this type of thing, we not only join them in the bubble, but in the royal bed as well.

However getting to know them over six episodes makes their murder at the end hit home - even though we learn that Nicholas presided over the deaths of tens of thousands of Russians.

Playing Rasputin is a bit like playing Richard III. How does one approach the excesses of the character? In Rasputin's case, judging from photographs and footage of the real guy, it would be hard to overdo the effect. The finalists on "Face Off" would have a hard time coming up with an eerier looking dude than the real Rasputin. After all it took a plateful of poison cookies, a fusillade of bullets and finally submerging in a river to kill him. In this outing, Ben Cartwright is a fairly restrained mad monk.

However for anyone who doesn't know much about the events, this series not only brings you up to speed, but also whets the appetite to learn more.


Music of the night
The mood of this movie is all pervading- it's dark, but it grabs you from the start.

The original version of "Dementia" is such an intriguing film that it's fun to speculate on what may have influenced it. Bunuel's wince-inducing, eye-ball slitting "Un Chien Andelou" is a favourite as is "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"; the dream sequence in Hitchcock's "Spellbound" is another.

I would venture one that isn't mentioned, Val Lewton's "The Seventh Victim" (1943). It's another movie with mood and atmosphere to spare. Although it was shot mainly on the sound stage, there is an amazing sequence at the end - similar to Adrienne Barrett's streetside encounters - where Isabel Jewel's character runs through dimly lit streets and alleyways meeting innocent and not so innocent people until she goes into her dingy apartment for a finale that is as downbeat as the one in "Dementia".

Both films cross back and forth between what may be real or imagined. The way "Dementia" doubles back on itself is also reminiscent of the cycle of dreams in "Dead of Night" (1945).

The score for "Dementia" is hard to ignore. Composed by George Antheil it's wall-to-wall and encompasses a number of genres, but it flows through the film connecting the different segments. For those who love this sort of movie, George Antheil also came up with an innovative score for another offbeat film with an amazing finale, "Spector of the Rose" (1946).

Some of the visuals in "Dementia" have that sense of isolation you see in the paintings of Edward Hopper, especially the opening and closing street scene - that could be the "Nighthawks" café down on the corner. The way the camera frames Adrienne Barrett's room in the window is very Hopper-esque.

With that said, "Dementia" is such a unique work it probably was more influencing than influenced. Big budget horror films have spent more money and spilt more blood and guts without achieving the mood or the frisson of this strange little film.

Beneath the 12-Mile Reef

The sound of the sea
About 25 years after I first saw this film in the mid 1950's, I bought "The Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann". It was one of the recordings of the music of the great film music composers conducted by Charles Gerhardt.

This was back when vinyl still ruled and was at the beginning of my love affair with movie soundtracks, an addiction really, but not one likely to cause cancer or lead to holding up service stations.

The record included a 10-minute suite of music from "Beneath the 12-Mile Reef". I must admit when I first saw the movie aged about 9, I hadn't singled out the music from the overall experience, but now I found it captivating.

Among other instruments, Herrmann employed no less than 9 shimmering harps. Old Bernard could deliver an impression of the sea to rival Debussy (his score for "The Ghost and Mrs Muir" is another testimony to that).

But not everyone is going to watch a movie just for the soundtrack, although it's interesting how many reviewers on IMDb noted it. Along with a look at a fascinating niche of American culture, great location work and superb photography, Hermann's music elevated this film above its familiar love story.

It's Romeo and Juliet transferred to 1950's Florida with the Capulets and Montagues replaced with the Petrakis's and the Rhys's, rival crews of Greek-American and Anglo-American sponge-divers. There were not too many real Greeks in the Petrakis' crew, however Robert Wagner as Tony Petrakis looked the part with curly black hair, and Gilbert Roland as his dad proved, along with Anthony Quinn as "Zorba", that Mexicans made passable Greeks.

On the other side of the bay, a pre-"Have Gun Will Travel" Richard Boone as the head of the Rhys clan delivered his unique brand of gravitas.

A couple of years after this film was released, Greeks and sponge-diving cropped up again in "Boy on a Dolphin", another showcase for Fox's CinemaScope starring Alan Ladd and Sophia Loren. It also had a stunning soundtrack by Hugo Friedhofer. For these films, Hermann and Friedhofer composed two of the most sumptuous scores of the 1950s.

However Robert Wagner's character's claim, " I'm a very beautiful young man", was trumped by Sophia Loren rising from the sea in "Boy on a Dolphin" clad only in a clinging wet dress.

Roman Empire

Big Julie sandwiched between Commodus and Caligula
This is a reasonably entertaining series that is a little like those History Channel re-enactments spiced up with a touch of HBO's "Rome".

Although other reviewers have highlighted the dumb stuff, the whole thing seems researched to a point, but wisely covered with a disclaimer that states where there are gaps in the historical record they have simply made it up.

It looks like New Zealand is the latest land to erect the papier-mache Forum and put on the crested helmets for a walk among the Ancient Romans. However these days it must be hard to find suitably ripped extras that aren't covered in tats - male or female.

So far there are three seasons featuring Julius Caesar bracketed by Commodus and Caligula.

The trouble with all this is that we have seen some pretty arresting interpretations of these guys over the years and Aaron Jakubenko as Commodus seems just a little too normal compared to the edgier shadings of Joaquin Phoenix and Christopher Plummer - not to mention Ido Drent up against Jay Robinson's high camp turn as Caligula in "Demetrius and the Gladiators". Maybe Aaron and Ido just needed to chew a little more scenery

The dialogue fluctuates between too-modern sounding jargon and some surprisingly literate passages. Much of it is built around the work of ancient writers who could show today's tabloids a thing or two about spilling the goss on the Royals.

Although we learn of Commodus stacking the odds in his favour when he became a gladiator, "Roman Empire" baulks at presenting the really gross things he did in the arena.

The high point in Season One comes when Marcia, the slave girl played by Kiwi actress Genevieve Aitken, causes Commodus plenty of toga turbulence leading to treachery and his demise at the hands of an uber-jock gladiator.

By comparison, Julius Caesar's story is more familiar featuring Vercingetorix and Cleopatra, but with the imaginative inclusion of Spartacus and Crassus - more gaps in the historical record I suppose.

Season Three could almost be called "All in the Family" as Caligula has affairs with his three sisters, but it's fairly sedate compared to Malcolm McDowell's cover version in 1979's "Caligula".

All in all, I enjoyed this series and I think there's room for another season or two. However, if they tackle Nero, remember that Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov have plucked the lyre with gusto and whoever plays the part shouldn't hold back. With a bit of luck, they'll also find another spot for Genevieve.

Manhattan Nocturne

Sax, sex and secrets
I agree with the positive reviews with this one. It's a perfect piece of modern noir. It's not easy to come up with something fresh in this genre but "Manhattan Night" does it.

No spoilers, but suffice to say it has some of the basic ingredients of the best noir thrillers, but served with a modern twist: a seen it all before newspaper reporter; a femme fatale who knows her power; and a rich tycoon with a secret.

Adrien Brody's character, Porter Wren, is an old-style newspaper columnist in a blog and tweet dominated world. Brody brings world-weary insight to the role. However Yvonne Strahovski's cool, svelte Caroline Crowley has moves he doesn't see coming. Yvonne Strahovski is a stunning Australian actress, another one, and she gives Margot Robbie a run for her money with uninhibited screen sizzle.

Steven Berkoff is the cultivated Hobbs, the manipulative publishing magnate. It's a role Sydney Greenstreet would have played back in the day. I couldn't help thinking Berkoff sounds uncannily like Thayer David if anyone remembers that actor from "Nero Wolfe" and "The Eiger Sanction" - both have gravitas in spades.

"Manhattan Night" feels a little like it wouldn't have been a surprise if a jewel-encrusted bird were at the bottom of the mystery; instead it's modern-day memory cards and CCTV that has everyone agitated.

The film is saturated in mood. A lot of that is down to the score by Joel Douek. He does what Jerry Goldsmith did for "Chinatown" and what David Shire did for "Farewell My Lovely". Nothing says big, impartial city like a languid sax, but the music also expresses the intimate drama, the feeling that something sinister underpins the whole thing, and especially Porter Wren's betrayal of the things most dear to him.

"Manhattan Night" works on so many levels, for me it practically demands a second viewing.


Is the hunt over?
Part of the reason I liked this three-part series is that I miss those brilliant British detective series such as "Wallander", "Lewis", "Vera", "Shetland" and "DCI Banks", while not forgetting "Hinterland" where Tom Mathias seems even more in need of anti-depressants than Kurt Wallander.

Where did they all go? My TV viewing is diminished without them. I've been waiting for something to take their place.

"Manhunt" has many of the qualities that made those series so watchable. A difference is that it is based on a real case: the hunt in London for the killer of a young French woman that uncovers something far more.

Like those shows I loved, "Manhunt" concentrates more on methodical police procedure than on over-the-top shootouts or squealing tyres. But more significantly, it has depth of character. Martin Clunes as DCI Colin Sutton heads the task force hunting the killer. He is no-nonsense, but nowhere near as abrupt as his Aspergerish character in "Doc Martin".

Colin Sutton has a heart, he's a dad; he gets the pain the parents of the victim must be feeling. He demands they be informed face to face that their daughter is dead - not told over the phone as the French police plan to do.

There are other little touches that show his compassion. Here is the key ingredient that makes the best series work. The main character has empathy. No matter how tough the exterior, they can relate to what people are going through - although in his dedication to the job Colin does neglect his family a bit too much.

"Manhunt" ticks another box. Colin has a colleague who has his back - the buddy if you like. In this case it's Katie Lyons as DS Jo Blunt. She stands up for her boss when other members of the team doubt his methods

The series has an authentic look. Shot on the streets as weary men and women spend hours searching for clues. But it's the relentless combing through miles of CCTV footage and supermarket dockets that finally pays off.

It's a classy effort all round with a low-key background score by Niall Byrne setting an ominous mood.

There is another series coming in 2020. However at three short episodes a season I'm not sure it will totally break the drought.

I Walk the Line

Rewalking the line
Gregory Peck thought this was his worst film. However watching it nearly fifty years after it was made, it actually seems quite good.

Gregory Peck was still a big star in 1970, but he was getting older and his big romantic roles were behind him. Anyway, movies at that time were hit and miss; who knew what people wanted amid the chaos of the 60's?

However, the big star baggage he carried back then doesn't overshadow his performance now; he has grown into the role.

The story reminds me of "The Best Offer" (2013) starring Geoffrey Rush. Although "The Best Offer" is set around the Italian art scene and "I Walk the Line" is set in moonshine country in Tennessee, both feature an old guy besotted by a young woman half his age. Eventually both find they've been played for a fool all along.

At the beginning, "I Walk the Line" seemed like one of those typical old-school Hollywood movies where the older guy ends up with the beautiful young girl - as in just about every movie Grace Kelly ever made. But this film has a darker undercurrent as Gregory Peck as Sherriff Dawes betrays his wife and his colleagues, compromising himself at every turn. His self-delusional descent into tragedy is almost Shakespearean.

Critics bagged the Johnny Cash soundtrack, but the music sounds about right for the setting as Johnny acts as an unseen minstrel singing ballads marking the hero's fall from grace.

Tuesday had baggage too, but hers was as a wild child of the 1960's. She stole every scene she was in. The critic who thought she outdid Bardot made an interesting point.

Although the director, John Frankenheimer, wasn't proud of it, the film looks good. Apparently a prologue and epilogue were cut, but did it need them? I think an epilogue would have weakened that stark finale.

"I Walk the Line" gets better with age.

Prendimi l'anima

Change of mind
I saw this film after I saw "A Dangerous Method", which covers much the same territory. I didn't know it existed.

Both films feature the relationship between Carl Jung and his patient Sabina Spielrein. He became a significant pioneer in the field of psychoanalysis, but so did she. While "A Dangerous Method" deals with the morally challenged relationship, it also involves Sigmund Freud and his falling out with Jung, "The Soul Keeper" instead focuses on the life of Sabina.

"Method" has an eye-popping performance by Keira Knightley. Although I don't think "The Soul Keeper" is as successful overall, it too features a powerful portrayal of Sabina, this time by Emilia Fox. There are plenty of fireworks, but her vulnerability gets to us. Jung (Iain Glen), on the other hand, emerges as a bit of a rat.

"The Soul Keeper" uses the framing device of a modern day woman, Marie Franquin (Caroline Ducey), searching for information on Sabina's life. Grafted on maybe, but it does help bridge the gap when Sabina goes from mental patient to well-known psychoanalyst in pre-war Russia.

Marie receives help from a Scottish friend played by Craig Ferguson no less. It's a long way from his roles on the Jim Carey show or his late night U.S. talk show. This credit is buried in his CV among comedy films (I love "The Big Tease") and voice-overs for cartoons.

Sabina's transition from patient to psychoanalyst is brought out more in "A Dangerous Method" where we see her helping Jung with his work - in between spanking sessions that is. Apparently spanking and father issues were a big part of the real Sabina's hysteria. In "A Dangerous Method", we don't miss one swish of the belt, but it doesn't feature in "The Soul Keeper". However the film doesn't hold back on Sabina's degradation before her eventual recovery.

"The Soul Keeper" is well made, but the score by Andrea Guerra is overly emphatic. Howard Shore's score for "A Dangerous Method" is far more sensitive to the drama.

Both films end on a poignant note, and both reward more than one viewing.


Placing the pieces
It is fascinating watching "Sybil" after reading Sally Fields impressive autobiography, "In Pieces".

"Sybil" is the story of Sybil Dorset, a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder triggered by physical abuse at the hands of her mother when she was a child.

Sally Field reveals in her autobiography that her stepfather sexually abused her as a child. Disturbing reading, but it shows that she he had a resilient spirit, allowing her to achieve much in life.

"Sybil" was Sally Fields breakout role after years of playing "Gidget" and "The Flying Nun". By the time she made "Sybil", she was influenced by techniques that required the actor to draw on personal experiences to inform a role. Playing Sybil Dorset must have drawn deeply on those personal demons. It's a complex two-part series, but Sally Field is mesmerising in an intense, vulnerable performance.

"Sybil" is based on a book about the case. At the time it was made it was accepted as a true story. However these days the truth of it seems a bit more elusive, although the actors and the filmmakers no doubt accepted it as true.

None of that detracts from Sally Field's performance, which is many roles in one as she develops each of Sybil's personas: Peggy, Vicky, Vanessa and Marcia etc. Eventually her psychiatrist, Dr Cornelia Wilbur (Joanne Woodward) helps Sybil unravel what has caused her to retreat into the different personalities.

Although Sally Field felt that movies roles were often limited for someone who looked perennially youthful, here her unique mobile features helped her change from personality to personality. Natasha Ryan played Sybil as a young child - very believable as the same person. The revelations about what happened to Sybil as a little girl are still awful to watch as her mother administers "treatments" that seemed inspired by Doctor Mengele.

There is another echo from Sally Field's performance as Sybil and her own life. At one point, talking about Sybil's different personalities, Dr Wilbur says to her, "You can all be aspects of the same person; all pieces of Sybil". Years later, Sally Field's psychiatrist asked her if she could name all the parts of herself, "Parts or fragments or aspects or personalities, whatever feels right to you". "I call them pieces", was her reply.

The Cardinal

The trials of Tryon
From the opening scene of the tolling bell above Vatican Square followed by the gradual buildup of Jerome Moross's sumptuous score, you sense this film has size.

It came out in 1963 when we were used to big, double length movies, often with an intermission to give our bladders a break.

It wasn't until I read Foster Hirsch's "Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King" that I realised what a fraught production "The Cardinal" was.

Tom Tryon starred as Father Fermoyle, an ambitious American priest who rises through the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church in the first half of the 20th Century. There is a scene in the film where he is bound and whipped by the Klu Klux Klan - it's symbolic of what Preminger did to the actor during the making of the film.

Tryon's performance was considered wooden, even by a sympathetic co-star such as Carol Lynley who played Fermoyle's sister, Mona. However I think his reserve is believable as the young priest who knows that the rules of the church must outweigh his emotions.

Unfortunately Preminger was notoriously hard on actors who didn't stand up to him. 6'6" Tom took everything that was dished out. On the other hand, John Huston as Archbishop Glennon had no problem at all. Preminger knew Huston would shout back louder. Carol Lynley also showed she wasn't intimidated and ended up in another Preminger movie. Tom did appear in another of the shaven-headed director's movies, but gave up acting a few years later - no more Ottos for him.

A few scenes are laboured and that was probably down to the Production Code of the day. Mona Fermoyle's fall from grace is represented by her shocked family seeing her perform the tango onstage. You can imagine how Ken Russell would have handled that descent to the depths a few years later when the Code was lifted.

Nevertheless the film has many powerful sequences. Preminger's insistence on shooting on location: Rome, Vienna, Boston as well as the American South payed off.

Preminger overcame objections to make the film. Although in light of the accusations of child abuse within the church and other institutions that came out some decades later, you have to wonder what all the fuss was about.

I'm not Catholic, but you don't have to be to appreciate the scope of this film - and that wonderful music stays with you.


Pragmatic priest
Frank Perry made some intriguing movies: "David and Lisa", "The Swimmer" and "Man on a Swing". Although "Monsignor" has its moments, it doesn't reach out and grab us in the same way.

It failed at the box office and the star, Christopher Reeve, thought it was because of the editing. We jump from one episode to the next without feeling that the hero really has a heart.

Father John Flaherty is a pragmatic sort of priest. As an army chaplain in Italy during WW2 he shows he is not averse to manning a machine gun to mow down a German attack. When he is sent to the Vatican to sort out financial difficulties, we see that he believes the end justifies the means. As financial controller he engages in questionable dealings with the black market and the mafia.

However theologians would be left searching the scriptures for passages that apply when he beds Clara (Geneviéve Bujold), a noviciate nun - without telling her he is a priest. When she springs him at a major Papal ceremony, he has a look on his face like a schoolboy who has just broken wind in class.

Nevertheless over the years Flaherty advances through the ranks of the church, becoming a monsignor, but his shady associates prove his undoing. About then he finds God.

I couldn't help comparing "Monsignor" with Otto Preminger's "The Cardinal". Although "The Cardinal" also dealt with the hierarchy of the church, the central character played by Tom Tryon is guided onto a more spiritual path much earlier. For me, "The Cardinal" remains the more satisfying experience.

There was twenty years between the films and by the time "Monsignor" came around the gloves were coming off as far as criticism of the church was concerned. However the sins in "Monsignor" seem lightweight compared to the revelations about abuse within the Catholic Church and other institutions that came a decade later.

"Monsignor" suffers in comparison to "The Cardinal" in another area - the music. John Williams "Godfatherish" score isn't as appealing as Jerome Moross' impressive one for "The Cardinal" or Alex North's for "The Shoes of the Fisherman"; possibly it just needed more bells.

With that said, I still find "Monsignor" quite watchable and maybe even a bit of a guilty pleasure - and a little sad knowing what befell Christopher Reeve.


Iron Heart, iron will
People who don't have the History Channel or who are just not that interested in things that happened yesterday may never have heard of Reinhard Heydrich. Most would probably know the name of the Nazi big four: Hitler, Himmler Goering and Goebbels, but Heydrich was one step back from those guys. However he was probably the most lethal.

Maybe it was just that he was out of the picture by 1942 while WW2 still had three years to run.

Although there have been quite a few movies featuring him, mostly they concentrate on the heroic British trained Czech agents, headed by Jan kubis and Jozef Gabcik who assassinated him, but this film really is about Reinhard Heidrich.

The first half of this movie is riveting as it charts Heydrich's rise to power. Along the way are scenes that are tough to watch. Jason Clarke is amazing in the role. No, he doesn't look like Heydrich, but who ever could, he was such a distinctive looking dude. But Clarke captures something here that documentaries can only tell you about: the sensitive, artistic man on the one hand and the merciless persecutor on the other.

Some aspects of Heydrich's life were left out that would have completed the picture including the time he took out from his SS duties to fly combat missions with the Luftwaffe - before Hitler grounded him. The exact details are debated but it shows that Heydrich was an adrenaline junkie.

Jason Clarke projects a man to be feared. We sense the wariness in Stephen Graham's performance as Himmler. In reality, where Himmler shrunk back from viewing the horror of what they were doing, Heydrich never did - an iron heart matched with an iron will.

The film has a look. The killings carried out by the Einsatzgruppen have the same incidental quality as similar scenes in the disturbing Russian film "Come and See".

Although "Operation Daybreak" and "Anthropoid" did a more comprehensive job of Heydrich's assassination and the battle in the Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, this is still a powerful film with a remarkable performance by Jason Clarke.

From Ted Kennedy to Reinhard Heydrich, like Toby Jones Clarke seems able to shape shift. Here he channels the energy of a man who could have taken over the Third Reich towards the end when the top four Nazis were out to lunch. Gabcik and Kubis may have done more to win the war than they could possibly have known.

La route de Salina

Rocky road
Passions erupt in the lava beds of the Canary Islands.

This movie feels a little like those dubbed Spanish and Italian dramas of the 60's although it is entirely in English.

However as the story unfolds it defies you to stop watching and features a cast that is hard to take your eyes off.

When Jonas (Robert Walker Jr.) arrives at an isolated gas station on the road to Salina, the owner Mara (Rita Hayworth) greets him as Rocky, her long lost son. At first he thinks she is an empanadas short of a picnic, but when her daughter, Billie (Mimsy Farmer), and her neighbour, Warren (Ed Begley), also accept him as Rocky, he decides he is on to a good thing - especially as his newfound sister comes with 'benefits'. However the new Rocky finds the road to Salina a bit too rocky as he and 'sis' explore taboo territory amidst the spectacularly barren landscape of the island.

Rita Hayworth was an amazing screen presence throughout her career. She was about 50 here but still striking looking. Sadly she was already experiencing the problems that beset her at the end of her life. One wonders if acting the part of a woman with mental problems was such a good idea for someone who was really experiencing them.

A few years before, John Wayne and his crew thought she was rude and insufferable while working on "Circus World". Apparently "Road to Salina" was a happier experience and she got on well with the crew.

Still it was hard for anyone in the film to compete with Mimsy Farmer. Her Billie is about the most uninhibited performance in a mainstream movie until Nastassja Kinski prowled her way through 1982's "Cat People".

Eventually, Mimsy also shed her film career, emerging as a truly impressive sculptor. Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise when an actor's creativity shows in other areas of the arts. Many actors have drawn, painted or sculpted well: Gary Cooper, Gail Russell, George Montgomery, Dennis Hopper and Lucy Liu among many others - even Marilyn Monroe.

"Road to Salina" used to turn up on TV in the 1970's, and seems to have a bit of a cult following these days. It's worth seeking out just for the stars alone.

Between Heaven and Hell

Philippines purgatory
I first saw this film as a 10-year old in Sydney in the 1950's. Of all the war movies we saw at the time, I thought this was one of the best.

It's easy to see why it made an impression. It felt gritty with fairly convincing locations and spectacular CinemaScope action. Like many baby boomers, my father had fought the Japanese in a setting not unlike the one in the movie. Back then you couldn't escape the impact the war had made. Although Australia wasn't actually invaded (just bombed around the edges), the aura of what the previous generation did was all pervading.

In the film, Private Sam Gifford (Robert Wagner) is a troubled soldier. Although not stated, he is obviously serving in the Philippines - interestingly there isn't a Filipino in site. Sam has lost his sergeant's stripes and is sent to an outfit up in the hills. Here he encounters 'Waco', the anti-heroic company commander played by Broderick Crawford.

There were other megalomaniacal captains in movies at the time. Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in "Moby Dick" and James Cagney as Captain Morten in "Mister Roberts" had paved the way, but Broderick Crawford's Captain 'Waco' Grimes just about out-megged them all.

Sam's backstory is seen in flashback. Hailing from a wealthy, Southern land-owning family, he is married to the beautiful daughter of the colonel of his National Guard Unit. However Sam is arrogant and hard on his sharecroppers. His attitude changes when these men become his comrades during the war.

Years later I learnt more about the film. Based on a novel, it is one of the few movies to deal with the 1944-45 Philippines Campaign. It is also one of the few movies to feature differences between National Guard and Regular units of the US army during the war. The politics and rivalries that men recruited from the same area of the United States brought with them to the battlefield provided the drama in this film and also in "Attack", which featured another highly-strung captain played by Eddie Albert.

An unseen star of the film is the music. Along with "The Young Lions" and "In Love and War", the score is one of a trilogy Hugo Friedhofer composed for Fox war movies at the time. One could accomplish great things with one of Hugo's anthems sweeping you along.

For those in the mood, "Between Heaven and Hell" still holds up as a particularly well-made war movie.

Mary Magdalene

The Mary we didn't know
Although I hadn't heard much about this film, the fact that Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix were the stars guaranteed an intense experience.

Ignore the negative criticism. This is a thoughtful and powerful retelling of the story of Jesus, seen from the viewpoint of Mary Magdalene. I can't think of another film that gets closer in spirit to what it must have been like to have been one of the original followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

Shot mainly in barren locations, in a way it is like a play where nothing stands between the viewer and the actors as they capture our imaginations with the power of their words.

However, much is also told visually. A great deal depends on the silent communication of Rooney Mara as Mary and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus. Rooney Mara projects spirituality as she comes to understand what made her leave her family and follow this man. Joaquin Phoenix projects the look and the intensity usually reserved for John the Baptist in more traditional biblical movies.

There are two kinds of films about Jesus. There are the epics, which usually present episodes from the gospels in a fairly straightforward manner. George Steven's "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth" also included a distracting cast of well-known actors in cameo roles. Like "King of Kings", the epics have reverence built into them, usually starting with The Nativity.

Then there's the other kind, the psychological kind, where the filmmakers attempt to get into the mindset of Jesus and the key characters. But where "The Last Temptation of Christ" sometimes created a negative interpretation, "Mary Magdalene" is less sensational, revealing the inner struggles of both Mary and Jesus with subtlety and credibility.

My only criticism is that the film moves too quickly after the arrest of Jesus. What it does bring home is that Jesus and his followers were seen as a cult of outsiders. Most Jews in Jerusalem, after the temple episode, must have thought them simply troublemakers. It explains why the crowd asked for the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus - an event not shown in the film.

It's easy to nit-pick details in period movies, costumes, ethnicity and even the fact that everyone speaks English, but "Mary Magdalene" rises above all that; it demands your attention. Inspired performances, a literate script, an atmospheric score and considered art direction make this a memorable experience.

Blood Orange

Three men and a babe
It goes to show what a clever filmmaker can do with a good story and just four actors in an isolated house.

Or maybe that should be five actors because Kacey Clarke as Isabelle is such a full-on sexy presence she almost counts as two people.

Bill (Iggy Pop), an ageing rock star lives with his beautiful young wife, Isabelle, in a secluded villa in Spain. It's a very nice place with a large, azure swimming pool. Isabelle likes to skinny dip at every opportunity, but this distracts the only other resident of the villa, David (Antonio Magro), the pool boy, His concerns over whether the pool has the correct amount of chlorine or if leaves have clogged the filter become a low priority when Isabelle drops her towel to do a few laps.

Still it's a pretty idyllic existence until Lucas (Ben Lamb) turns up. He is an ex-lover, but also Isabelle's stepson from a previous marriage, again to an older man. Dad left her all the dough and "he died happy " as she informs Lucas. However Lucas isn't happy and he broods.

Then things happen and I wouldn't spoil "Blood Orange" for anyone who hasn't seen it because just as in "Sleuth", a small number of people generate a lot of tension and plenty of surprises.

Kacey Clarke makes you believe the turbulence Isabelle causes among the men. Giving her a run for most arresting performance though is Iggy Pop as Bill.

Bill has gained insights into human nature, which he growls out from deep in his nether regions, mainly focussed on Lucas' shortcomings. I was never one to sleep out for tickets to an Iggy Pop concert, but he is perfect in this.

Apparently "Blood Orange" is a first effort from writer/director Toby Tobias. He's a name to watch out for, but this little sleeper will be hard to beat.

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