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THE GREATEST ESCAPE

Before Goldfinger and Funeral in Berlin, Guy Hamilton directed The Colditz Story, which arguably created the template which every other POW camp film followed. Released in 1955, and based on PR Reid’s account of the prison in Germany which was designed to hold Allied prisoners of war who had attempted to escape from every other prison they were held in, The Colditz Story is released at last on Blu-ray thanks to Studio Canal. A phenomenal cast that includes John Mills (as Reid himself), Lionel Jeffries, Bryan Forbes and Anton Diffring, Hamilton displays the deft hand he has with actors and script that he showed to great effect in his later work. The tension between the various Allied camps (British, French and American) is palpable and it is well paced and exciting. The members of the cast acquit themselves well although perhaps it is John Mills who stands out here. Accompanying the film is a fascinating documentary about the real Colditz, a menacing German castle, and the various escapees over the years, which makes you realise that, despite the fact that some of the escapes in the film seem outlandish, the truth is sometimes even more unbelievable. The Colditz Story is an important and seminal British film which deserves its Blu-ray release and the transfer is crisp and clear. For anyone who has seen The Great Escape, the TV series Colditz from the early seventies or anything else that covers similar ground and wants to see the progenitor of the Second World War POW camp movie, this is the grandaddy of them all…

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A DARKER SIDE TO LONDON

It Always Rains on Sunday is a little-known Ealing Studios film, released in 1947. Directed by Robert Hamer, who went on to helm Kind Hearts and Coronets, and based on the book by Arthur La Bern, this film, juts released as a restored BFI version on Studio Canal Blu-ray, is a British noir about housewife Rose Sandigate (Googie Withers) who is put in an impossible position when her former lover, criminal Tommy Swann (John McCallum) escapes from prison and turns to her to hide him from the police. It paints an interesing picture of post-war London and the cast especially Withers, McCallum and Jack Warner as Det. Sgt Fothergill are very watchable on screen. Director Hamer keeps the action moving well, keeping the various elements of the plot engaging including a sub plot about record shop owner Morry Hyams, played by Sydney Tafler and his infidelities. Of course, noir films only end one of a few ways and it doesn’t take a genius to work out how this concludes but it is an interesting curio, showing that Ealing could tackle more than just comedies. It’s not a classic in the vein of the best Ealing work like Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Ladykillers but if you’re a fan of their films and would like to see some a little bit different, you wouldn’t go far wrong with It Always Rains on Sunday…


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A HOST OF HAMMER

People forget that Hammer was more than just Dracula and Frankenstein. This month there’s a raft of new Hammer releases from StudioCanal on DVD and Blu-ray, one of which reminds you that they weren’t just a house of horror.
Hell is A City, directed by Val Guest, is a police drama set in Manchester which was made in 1960 and is getting its DVD debut. Made like a British version of a US cop drama, Stanley Baker plays Inspector Martineau in pursuit of America criminal Don Starling (played by John Crawford). Baker, who went on to things like Zulu, makes for a good central protagonist and the rest of the cast, including cameos from a young Billie Whitelaw and Donald Pleasance, are very consistent indeed. Director Guest, who also directed films like The Day The Earth Caught Fire and The Quatermass Experiment as well as Expresso Bongo, acquits himself well here. A little bit of a hidden curio, Hell Is a City is worth checking out if you’re an aficionado of Hammer or 1960s British police films…
And there’s also three more typical Hammer films out on Blu-ray this month too. First up is The Devil Rides Out (1968), which is apparently Christopher Lee’s favourite Hammer film he appeared in. Based on Dennis Wheatley’s novel, and with a screenplay by none other than Richard (I Am Legend) Matheson, this film is arguably one of the studios’ best efforts. Lee plays against type as the Duc du Richelieu, who is concerned that his friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) has become embroiled in a satanic cult led by the malevolent Mocata (Charles Gray chewing up the scenery). Lee is very good as is Gray and it is still a slice of classic English pulp, directed with aplomb by Hammer veteran Terence Fisher. It is good to see The Devil Rides Out make the transfer to Blu-ray as it deserves it and they have done a very nice job with the picture…
Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966) is a strange film. Starring Christopher Lee in the eponymous role, it isn’t typical Hammer fare as there are no monsters or supernatural creatures. But it does still have that pulpy Hammer feel to it with Lee an interesting choice as the Russian historical figure. As with many of their films, it was shot in Buckinghamshire, which doesn’t always convince as Russia but Lee is always watchable on screen and director Don Sharp moves proceedings on with style and panache. The rest of the cast can’t really compete with him though and so Rasputin The Mad Monk feels like a minor Hammer film, worth watching but more of a hardcore fan’s delight. Again, StudioCanal have done a nice job with the transfer…
And finally, we have The Mummy’s Shroud (1967). No Lee this time but we do have Andre Morrell, from The Plague of The Zombies. This was Hammer’s attempt to resurrect another of the classic Universal Monsters after Dracula and Frankenstein and Morrell is good value. But it does feel very much like a second-string Hammer production, more like The Reptile than The Plague of The Zombies or the superior Dracula or Frankenstein efforts. It’s a bit of pulpy fun though and the mummy effects are decent. It’s a decent addition to Hammer on Blu-ray and worth watching with reasonably low expectations…
These four films show the range of Hammer over the years and it is heartening that they are attracting a new audience…
www.studiocanal.com

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SENSE OF DREDD?
I went to see Dredd 3D way back in July but it has been unofficially embargoed until around its UK release. It has been out in the UK since last Friday and it hits the US this week. It has taken a long tome to bring Dredd back to the big screen since the Sly Stallone Judge Dredd, which was  released way back in 1995. Dredd 3D is a very different beast though: apparently it is the most expensive British independent film made to date with an estimated budget of $45m and guided by comics aficionado novelist Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later), it couldn’t be further away from a bloated Hollywood studio picture if it tried. Karl Urban plays the eponymous hero/ anti-hero, who is given a new rookie partner female Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) to pass a final test on the mean streets of Mega City One, to see if she’s up to scratch. So Dredd and Anderson get embroiled in the shenanigans that are taking place in the drug-fuelled tower block controlled by former prostitute Ma-Ma (Lena (Game of Thrones) Headey). Dredd 3D is one of the most violent films released to a nominal mainstream audience and it certainly warrants its 18 certificate over here, as the viewer is unlikely to see this much viscera in any other wide release movie. It is refreshing that the take here is so different to Stallone’s Dredd, as the production team have utilised the South Africa settings, where it was shot, to fantastic effect, creating a Mega City One that has the feel of a contemporary metropolis taken to its ultimate conclusion and its brief running time means that you are introduced to Dredd’s world, he goes in and does his thing and they wrap up proceedings. Urban does look good as Dredd and the filmmakers have done a great job bringing the world of the Judges to life. But it is unremittingly nihilistic, the 3D doesn’t always work and Thirlby’s Anderson doesn’t have enough to do to gain the empathy of the audience, as Dredd is simply a force of nature and so impossible to empathise with. For all of its flaws, and its similarities to The Raid, it is heartening to see that Dredd 3D has hit the very top of the UK box office and there are positive noises that there will be a sequel. Garland and his fellow filmmakers have certainly wiped the bad taste of Sylvester Stallone from the mouths and minds of filmgoers and hopefully they will have their opportunity to correct some of the problems in a followup. If you’re a comics fan or a Dredd and 2000AD fan, then you need to see Dredd 3D.

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BACK IN TIME
Doug McClure was a regular fixture of monster movies in the Seventies and some of his films haven’t aged well. I’ve got two of his films that have just been released on DVD by StudioCanal. One is still a bit of a kitsch classic whereas the other is a bit of a stinker. The first Doug McClure here is The Land That Time Forgot (1975), based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel of the same name. McClure plays American Bowen Tyler, who finds himself in the secret land of Caprona, accompanied by a motley band of British civilians and German navy personnel. They have to put aside their differences to survive the harsh terrain of Caprona, a place chock full of deadly dinosaurs and dangerous prehistoric men. Adapted by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn, despite the rubbery pyterodactyls and artificial looking triceratops, The Land That Time Forgot is still a fun, entertaining yarn with John McEnery as German u-boat captain Von Schoenvorts and McClure stand outs here although much of the supporting cast is solid too. It’s about time, pardon the pun, to see this film on DVD…
The second film is Warlords of Atlantis, also with McClure. It’s amazing what a difference three years makes. Set during the Victorian period, McClure plays adventurer Greg Collinson, who accompanies Professor Aitken (Donald Bisset) and his son Charles (Peter Gilmore) on a sea voyage to find the lost city of Atlantis. Unfortunately things don’t go according to plan and they find themselves trapped in Atlantis as prisoners of the rulers, who are intent on enslaving the surface dwellers through their mental powers. Unfortunately, Warlords of Atlantis suffers from a poor script, dodgy special effects and scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of late seventies Doctor Who. McClure tries to do the best he can with an atrocious script but it isn’t enough. The presence of Daniel Massey and John Ratzenberger in the cast can’t rescue it either. This film is for Doug McClure completists only as it has aged very, very badly indeed. Ironically both are directed by Kevin O’Connor…

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SPYING QUALITY

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Gary Oldman in the George Smiley role, feels like a film from a different era. The TV adaptation starring Alec Guinness was set in a world where England and America were playing a game of espionage against the Russians in a period when one side may have blown the other to kingdom come (or that’s how it felt at the time). There are no jump cuts, people don’t leap through the air followed by explosions and you don’t get knife fights or pursuits over the rooftops of particularly picturesque Moroccan houses. Oldman doesn’t even speak for about the first twenty minutes of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy but his presence is feel nonetheless. The plot is labyrinthine, about a Russian traitor in the British secret service and the lengths that Smiley and his colleagues go to to expose and flush the Judas out. Oldman is brilliantly understated here with every nuance serving a purpose on screen. He is assisted by a very competent supporting cast that includes Colin Firth, playing a little against type but displaying a little more range than usual, the ubiquitous Mark Strong (who shows that he is more than just the comedically sinister villain for Hollywood movies), Benedict Cumberbatch and Ciaran Hinds. Even small cameos by actors like Stephen Graham and Roger Lloyd Pack lend something to the overall mix. Director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) has a very steady hand here, letting the performances speak for themselves. He also recreates 1970s London (and a few other places) with rare skill and attention to detail, with the help of production designer Maria Djurkovic. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a classic British spy film with some exceptional performances and assured directing. It should be remembered by posterity as it makes the case that not all remakes have to be inferior. Deserving of many awards when the season kicks off later in the year…

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LIFE IS BIUTIFUL (SOMETIMES)
I went to see Biutiful, the latest film by Alejandro Inarritu, starring Javier Bardem. Inarritu, along with Alphonse Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro, is one of the Mexican directors who has made such an impact over the last decade in Hollywood. He has made previous films like Babel and 21 Grams, movies that are cerebral with a lot to say. In Biutiful, he presents a Barcelona that is seamy, seedy and sleazy and yet vibrant and alive at the same time. Bardem plays Uxbal, a directionless man split from his crazy wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), and he has custody of his two children, a son and a daughter. To make money, he visits local funeral parlours and ‘speaks’ to the recently departed relatives of its mourners. He continues his meanderings until he receives serious medical news and it forces him to change his outlook on life. In the hands of a lesser practitioner, his part would be mawkish or disconnected but Bardem is magnificent as Uxbal: magnetic on screen, totally dominating proceedings. Inarritu is a fantastic director and, while Biutiful won’t be to everybody’s taste, anyone interested in serious cinema will be blown away by the depth and breadth of this movie, which also debates the plight of immigrants forced to live in substandard accommodation and exploited by their employers and how people come to terms with their own mortality. It is an exquisite masterwork and a more than worthy addition to the director’s other movies…
I also went to see Killing Bono, a film that is only really notable because it contains the last screen performance of Pete Postlethwaite. Directed by Nick Hamm, the film looks at two Irish brothers, Neil and Ivan McCormick (played respectively by Ben Barnes and Robert Sheehan), who went to school with Bono and the rest of U2 in Ireland and spend the rest of their lives trying to get out from under their shadow. The problem with the whole film is that the script is hackneyed, clumsy and unconvincing. The actors playing the two brothers make a decent fist of it but none of it rings true. Postlethwaite as gay photographer and landlord Karl shows why he was so well-regarded as an actor before his early passing this year but he’s totally wasted. Martin McCann who plays Bono isn’t bad but everything feels lightweight and artificial. Peter Serafinowicz as their manager, Hammond, is embarassingly awful on screen and the humour that runs through the film is cringeworthy. So not exactly a fitting epitaph for Postlethwaite, Killing Bono is the sort of British film that FilmFour used to make in the Eighties and will disappear almost as soon as it’s arrived…