My DVD Films: A stack from the front

Continuing this occasional series about the collection of DVD films stored on my bookshelves, I slipped this stack of six from one of the front rows earlier. The selection surprised me. Even though I have watched all the films reviewed in these posts, I am guilty of sometimes forgetting what I actually own.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

Based on the book by Helen Hanff, this was produced by Mel Brooks, and starred his wife, Anne Bancroft, alongside the always reliable Antony Hopkins. This is a true story that gave rise to Hanff’s book, which was followed by a stage play, on which the film is based. An American researcher writes to a bookshop in London, and receives a reply from the manager. So begins a series of increasingly intimate letters between the two that lasted for nineteen years, though they never met.

This may not seem like a riveting film plot to those of you who haven’t seen it, but the perfect performances of all involved, and the fine sense of period conveyed over the years, all adds up to making this one of the best feel-good films ever made. The development of the relationship between Hanff (Bancroft) and Doel, (Hopkins) as well as members of his staff and family, is never less than completely believable, and handled with great warmth. Bancroft won the BAFTA for best actress for her portrayal of Hanff, and Judi Dench was also nominated, for her part as Mrs Doel.

This may seem to some to be little more than a weepie, or one of those films popular on afternoon TV schedules. But it is a great deal more. It is about a love of books, respect, manners, human kindness, and long-distance relationships based on trust and goodness. It is just wonderful.

The Tuskegee Airmen

This is an HBO TV film from 1985, released as a DVD in the UK. It is the based-on-truth story of the all-black unit of combat airmen who flew for the US Air Force in the Second World War. Subject to the usual prejudice and racism, at first the fliers are not allowed to participate in any action. After a visit from Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the president, they are reluctantly allowed to go onto combat duty. They show a real flair for fighting in the air, and eventually become escorts for bombing missions into Europe, flying the famous Mustang fighter aircraft. They paint the tails of these planes red for identification purposes, and earn the nickname ‘Red Tails’, from both friend and foe.

A star-studded cast lifts this film from its inherent sentimentality and TV roots. Lawrence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Junior, Courtney B. Vance, and John Lithgow, are just some of the familiar names and faces that you will see. The combat footage is convincing, and occasionally quite exciting too. So if you are interested in a glimpse into the history of both war in the air, and the treatment of black servicemen by the US during that war, this will be something you might enjoy.

Black Robe

Directed by Bruce Beresford, in 1991, this is an Australian/Canadian production (English, Cree, Mohawk, and Algonquin languages, with subtitles) about the life of the early settlers in 17th century Canada. If you are thinking it sounds similar to ‘The Mission’, or ‘The New World’, you are in the right area; but it is far superior to both, in every way imaginable. Lothaire Bluteau plays Father LaForge, the black robed priest that gives the film its title. He is sent on a dangerous mission into the territory of the Huron natives, with a group of Algonquin indians as escort. This journey is a cinematic treat in itself, with canoes paddling quietly along vast waterways, surrounded by breathtaking scenery.

They meet some of the Montagnais tribe, who have never encountered Europeans. LaForge is disliked by their holy man, the shaman of the tribe, and he convinces the Algonquins to abandon LaForge, and to leave for their hunting lodge. But they feel guilty, and soon return, to try to save him. This ends in disaster, when the party are captured by Iroquois, and dragged off to their camp, where they are beaten and tortured. Even after they manage to escape, wounds and weather get the better of some of them, and the survivors eventually accept LaForge’s pleas to convert to Christianity.

This is a compelling and convincing look at early European settlement of the Americas, and of the cultural and spiritual differences that existed for so long, before all the tribes were eventually subdued. The different native American nations are shown with great respect, and efforts are made to explain why they behave as they do. The locations are stunning, the cast near-perfect, and the ending is far from the easy option it might have been.

Heaven’s Gate

This epic from 1980 is probably more famous for its huge budget overspend, and the antics of director Michael Cimino, than for its content. With a running time of over three hours, an enormous cast, and covering events over a period of more than thirty years, it is not something that can easily be explained in this short appraisal. It is rumoured to have cost over $45 million dollars to make, and almost broke the studio and financiers that backed it, when it failed to recoup a fraction of this sum at the box office. It signalled an early end to the burgeoning career of Cimino, who had enjoyed huge success with ‘The Deer Hunter.’

This is a western, set around the time when the cattle barons and big landowners were coming into conflict with settlers and immigrants who wanted to create small farms and new communities. It follows the fortunes of two Harvard graduates. One becomes a marshal in Wyoming, the other an alcoholic drifter, espousing causes, and spouting poetry. It is very loosely based on real events know as The Johnson County War, which culminated in a violent shoot-out between armed settlers and farmers, and the hired guns of the cattle barons.
In the meantime, we are treated to a very accurate representation of the period. It is always a delight to watch, and strong performances by the leads hold together the sprawling plot. Less attractive is Cimino’s insistence on using ‘real sound’ (trains drown out conversation, for example) and some of the lingering set pieces, such as the roller skating in the hall known as ‘Heaven’s Gate’, which gives the film its title.

The cast is a who’s-who of the period. Kris Kristofferson, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken, Isabel Huppert, and many, many, more. Don’t be put off by the criticism of Cimino, and the negatives that surround this production. It is worth the effort, I assure you.

The Army Of Crime

A worthy French film (Original language, English subtitles) from 2009, this deals with a band of resistance fighters during WWII. It focuses on the Manouchian Group, led by an Armenian immigrant, which operated against the German occupiers in the areas in and around Paris. Because he was a Communist, and many of his group were Jews, the Nazis labelled them ‘The Army Of Crime’, attempting to insinuate that they were foreign criminals, rather than French patriots.

The film doesn’t try to glamourise the fighters, and readily shows how disorganised, and occasionally shambolic they were. Yet their efforts are effective enough, and they also grow large, with up to 100 members in their complex organisation. The Germans were so keen to arrest them, they issued the famous ‘Affiche Rouge’, (Red Poster) showing the photos and names of more than twenty of the ringleaders. It was on this poster that they were first called ‘The Army Of Crime.’

The film has a realistic, everyday feel to it, which also makes it a little dull in places. Sense of period is good throughout, and the eventual downfall of the group, and the imprisonment and execution of most of them, is all dealt with in detail. One for fans of the genre, but a very good effort.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped

France again, (Original language, English subtitles) this time from 2005. This film was released to great critical acclaim, five-star reviews, and also won many awards, including a BAFTA. I read a review of the film in Empire magazine that was so good, I bought the DVD as soon as it was released. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. This will give you a rough idea of the story.

Thomas is a shady estate agent who together with his partners, spends time doing dodgy property deals, and helping out his equally crooked father, who specialises in acquiring property by intimidating the tenants. His father also gets into serious trouble with Russian gangsters, asking Thomas to help him out. Meanwhile, Thomas rediscovers his childhood talent for piano playing, and employs a glamorous Asian piano tutor, Miao Lin, to bring him up to concert standards. Before his audition, he gets involved in another deal with his partners, arrives unprepared, and fails miserably. Going to tell his father, he finds him dead, apparently killed by Minskov, the Russian gangster.

The film moves forward in time. Thomas is now Miao Lin’s manager, and he once again stumbles across Minskov, who he fights with at the concert hall.

Are you still interested? I wasn’t. But surely all those critics cannot be wrong? I must have missed something. Perhaps I was unable to comprehend a masterpiece. I will never know.

There you have six more from my collection. They are quite varied, and offer something for most tastes.

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23 thoughts on “My DVD Films: A stack from the front

    1. I can only agree. I will look for ‘Fingers.’
      Thanks for following, Bill. Not a lot of film stuff on here though. It comes in fits and starts, as we say here. Best to just glance at the relevant category, or you may get bored…
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  1. I must get hold of 84 Charing Cross Road. It sounds fabulous. I’ve also missed some of the others on your list, although Heaven’s Gate I enjoyed, and I remember the beautiful photography.

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  2. I saw “Heaven’s Gate” when it was released in movie theaters and liked it very much. Your mention of “The Tuskegee Airmen” made me wonder if you’ve seen “Red Tails” (2012), which earned mediocre reviews. I would like to see “Black Robe.” That sounds like a great movie!

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    1. ‘Red Tails’ got bad enough reviews to put me off, David. It also starred people who were from the music industry, and other origins, rather than acting. Enough said on that one!
      ‘Back Robe’ is well-worth your time, if you ever get the chance to see it.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  3. I think I might have to watch it again tonight. 84 Charing Road is such a wonderful film. Anne Bancroft is amazing and, I don’t know, it just captures the time, the relationship and the emotions so incredibly well. Love it. I actually bought the film after I read the book. I like stories about bookstores so I bought it and then had to see the movie. 🙂

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