Retro Review: The Last Valley (1971)

***No spoilers***

Very few films have been set during the Thirty Years War that ravaged Europe from 1618-1648. I can only think of two, and this is one of them. But it is not really about that war, although it features a short battle scene. It is about what people will do survive, in a land ravaged by not only war, but the Black Death too. A time when wandering bands of fierce mercenaries were paid to fight for one religion or another, and would change sides for a better offer. It is also about the hypocrisy of religion, and how old beliefs and customs came to be associated with witchcraft, during an era dominated by opposing faiths.

Vogel, a wandering teacher, (Omar Sharif) is fleeing the pestilence and combat consuming the country. By chance, he discovers a fertile valley, and a village inhabited by prosperous and suspicious villagers with little knowledge of life outside their idyllic existence. Meanwhile, a mixed bag of mercenaries and deserters, led by a man known only as ‘The Captain’, (Michael Caine) is heading in the same direction, stopping on the way to kill, rape, and steal anything they can find. Vogel is taken in by the reluctant villagers, for fear he would tell on them if he was sent away.

When The Captain and his men finally stumble across the village, it seems the fate of everyone is sealed. But the clever Vogel steps in, persuading the village headman (Nigel Davenport) and The Captain to reach an agreement. The soldiers will protect the village from outsiders for the winter, and in return, they will supply women to service the sexual needs of the men, and provide adequate food and shelter for them all. An uneasy truce is declared, but tensions remain high, especially as summer approaches, and some of the soldiers feel they should return to the army.

This film shows its age now, but not in a bad way. Despite its ‘epic’ status, and big-name cast, it feels more like a Hammer film at times, especially during the parts concerning witchcraft. The supporting cast is on form too, with hunky Michael Gothard impressive as a baddie, and the scene-chewing Brain Blessed relishing an all-too short role. You also get the British actor Jack Shepherd, and the Greek actor Yorgo Voyagis as Pirelli. Throw in some more international stalwarts, and there is something for everyone, in a film destined to be shown all over the world. Female desire is dealt with by the inclusion of Florinda Bolkan, and Madeline Hinde. Direction and writing is in good hands too, with the experienced James Clavell.

One word of warning, and it’s not a spoiler. Michael Caine adopts a strange German accent throughout the film. Not his best choice, in my opinion.
That said, this is hugely enjoyable, and very different.
The trailer is almost as good as the film!

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Retro Review: Brassed Off (1996)

***No real spoilers***

Sometimes, the ‘small’ films are the best. They may not create a storm on the international market, win awards, or plaudits for the cast. But they stay with you, enter your heart and soul, and strike a chord within you that can never be reached by the biggest blockbuster, or Oscar-winning classic. When the British make a very good film, few others can do it better. This is a fine example of just that, and one of the greatest little films I have ever seen.

The setting may be unfamiliar to those outside of Britain. Sorry about that, as it works so well, if you happen to be English. Ten years after the devastating miners’ strikes, mines are still closing. Private owners are taking over, and taking on the unions too. The Conservatives are still in power, and the traditional mining towns in the north of England are facing imminent disaster, with the closure of the last remaining pits. But they have hope, and a diversion too. That is supplied by their love of brass band music, traditionally associated with the different collieries around the UK. After a hard day at work, the band members will lose themselves in wonderful renditions of different styles of music, played on their beloved brass instruments. At weekends, they will compete against other northern brass bands, hopefully getting to the grand finals in London.

Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald looking very young and attractive) has been sent back to her (fictional) home town of Grimley, in the north of England. She is working undercover for the industry, seeking to establish whether the mine there should close, or remain open. She meets up with her former boyfriend, Andy, (Ewan McGregor) who is still working as a miner. He plays in the brass band, and Gloria auditions for a role too. Despite never having had a female member, the band are impressed with her undoubted talents, and she is accepted. Getting to know the rest of the miners, and becoming attached to Andy again makes her undercover job difficult, and her emotions are torn. The band leader, Danny, (a wonderful turn from Pete Postlethwaite) is struggling to keep his band motivated, and is also seriously ill.

Most of the film concerns the break up and reformation of the band, as they enter a regional competition to win a place in the Grand Finals in London. Gloria throws herself into helping them, as even though it seems the fate of the mine is sealed, they still have the desire to go out with a winning performance. This film works at almost every level imaginable. The locations are superb, the script sparing and sharp, and the political points are made, but not hammered home uncomfortably. Then there is the music of course, with the band’s performances supplied by a real mining band, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. It harps back to the golden age of British cinema, with often laugh out loud moments contrasted by genuinely powerful emotions, real warmth, and a cast of wonderful characters you will really care about.

As well as those already mentioned, acting talent in abundance is supplied by Jim Carter, Philip Jackson, Stephen Tompkinson, Melanie Hill, and Sue Johnston. One of the finest British films ever made.

In addition to the official trailer, I am including a clip of Gloria’s audition. Please watch that too, because the music in that is one of my favourite pieces, the Concerto D’Aranjuez, and it is fantastic.

An A-Z of Actors: P

Please add your own favourites in the comments. As usual, I have tried to avoid the most obvious names.

Following his service in WW2, English star of stage and screen, Donald Pleasance, resumed an acting career that would last until his death, in 1995. Highly acclaimed on stage, including his appearances in the plays of Harold Pinter, he also worked on television, most notably in the famous BBC adaptation of Orwell’s ‘1984’. His film career took off in earnest with his role in ‘Look Back In Anger'(1959), opposite Richard Burton. His sinister looks and bald head made him popular for casting in horror films too, including ‘The Flesh and The Fiends’ (1960). In 1963, three films made him a big name in cinema, and guaranteed he would continue to be noticed. ‘The Great Escape’, ‘Dr Crippen’, and ‘The Caretaker’. After that, he never stopped working, relishing roles like Blofeld, in ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967), and Thomas Cromwell in ‘Henry VIII’ (1972). In 1978, he appeared as Dr Loomis in John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’, and featured in the later sequels too.

American Chazz Palminteri is a playwright, screenwriter and producer, as well as acting in some memorable roles. His name might not bring his face to mind, but if you have seen any of the following films, I am sure you will remember him. ‘A Bronx Tale’ (1993), where he co-starred opposite Robert De Niro. This was based on Palminteri’s own play of the same name. ‘Bullets Over Broadway’ (1994) again based on his own play, directed by Woody Allen, and starring John Cusack. The superb ‘The Usual Suspects’ (1995) with Chazz in the role of the FBI agent, Dave Kujan. David Lynch’s film, ‘Mulholland Falls’ (1996), and ‘Analyze This’ (1999), again with Robert De Niro. As well as his film work Chazz has enjoyed a lucrative TV career, and recently appeared in the story of the Kray twins, ‘Legend’ (2015), with Tom Hardy.

Canadian actor Barry Pepper is another character actor whose name you may not be familiar with. But if you have seen some or all of the films listed, then I am once again sure you will remember his face. Although he has played a variety of roles, he may be best known for his portrayal of soldiers, in war films. In ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998), he was the left-handed sniper, Private Jackson. In ‘We were Soldiers’ (2002), he appeared as Joe Galloway, and in ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ (2006) he had the role of Sgt Strank. But his talents extended past military roles, with his convincing performance as a prison guard, in ‘The Green Mile’ (1999), and as Jack, in ‘Broken City’ (2013). He may be destined to never be a big-name star, but his work is solid, and never less than reliable.

Michelle Pfeiffer is not only undeniably good to look at, but also has acting talents in many genres. She began working in 1978, with minor roles on TV and in films, before getting her big break in ‘Grease 2’ (1982). The following year, she appeared as the self-destructive Elvira in ‘Scarface’, followed by three more films until her next standout role, in ‘The Witches Of Eastwick’ (1987). She also demonstrated great flair for historical roles in ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ (1988), and ‘The Age of Innocence’ (1993). Michelle added singing to her talents, performing as the lounge singer Susie Diamond’ in ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’ (1989), opposite the brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges. And who can forget her deliciously sultry Catwoman, in’Batman Returns (1992)? She continues to work to this day, with her latest film due for release in 2019.

My last choice today is the Welsh actor, Jonathan Pryce. As well as winning numerous awards for his stage performances, and much acclaim for TV work too, Pryce has appeared in numerous films, in a great variety of roles. His first notable film role was in the surreal film from Terry Gilliam, ‘Brazil’ (1985), though I was greatly impressed by his starring role one year before that, in the British film ‘The Ploughman’s Lunch’, directed by Richard Eyre. He won a (Spanish Film Festival) best actor award for ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ in (1992), and went on to win two more awards for his role as Lytton Strachey, in the biopic ‘Carrington’ (1995). Almost never out of the limelight, he starred in ‘Evita’ (1996), ‘Regneration'(1997), and the Bond film, ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (1997). Since then, he has appeared in more than thirty other films, including ‘The Pirates Of The Caribbean’ franchise, as well as continuing to star in TV dramas in Britain, and in the theatre too.

An A-Z of Actors: O

A tricky letter, as not that many acting surnames start with ‘O’. I will limit myself to just three selections, to give some scope for your own choices.

A British stage, film, and television actor, Clive Owen is well known on both sides of The Atlantic. Rising to stardom on British TV in ‘The Chancer’, following an early stage career at The Young Vic, in London. Critical acclaim followed a lead role in Stephen Poliakoff’s film, ‘Close My Eyes’ (1991), and he went on to make an impact in ‘Gosford Park’ (2001). More mainstream roles followed, including parts in ‘The Bourne Identity’ (2002), and ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’ (2003). Since then, his career has been on a roll, starring in ‘King Arthur’ (2004), ‘Closer’ (2004), ‘Sin City’ (2005), and ‘Inside man’ (2006). That same year, he received great reviews for his role in ‘Children of Men’, and the following year, starred in both ‘Shoot Em Up’, and ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’. Since then, he has made 18 more films, with the most recent due to be released in 2019.

Irish-born actress Maureen O’Hara started out as a singer and amateur actress, in her home city of Dublin. In 1937, she was offered a contract by a production company headed by Charles Laughton, and embarked on a film and television career that lasted until 2010. As well as working with Laughton in ‘The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’ (1939), she also made five films for John Ford, including ‘How Green Was My Valley’ (1941), and ‘The Quiet Man’ (1952), starring opposite John Wayne. Other successes included the pirate epic, ‘The Black Swan’ (1942), ‘Miracle On 34th Street’ (1947), and ‘Our Man In Havana’ (1959). She died in 2015, aged 95.

My last choice today, is Londoner Gary Oldman. He has worked on stage, screen and TV since 1979, getting his film break in Mike Leigh’s ‘Meantime’, in 1983. He continued to work with The Royal Shakespeare Company, but got additional attention for his film roles in ‘Sid And Nancy’ (1986), and ‘Prick Up Your Ears (1987), a biopic of playwright Joe Orton. He made the transition to playing American characters, with a role in ‘State Of Grace’ (1990), followed by his outstanding performance as Lee Harvey Oswald, in Oliver Stone’s film, ‘JFK’ (1991). Villainous roles suit him well too, and he played the bad guy in ‘True Romance’ (1993), ‘Leon’ (1994), and ‘The Fifth Element’ (1997). As well as roles in the Harry Potter films, and The Dark Knight Batman films, he most recently won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill, in ‘The Darkest Hour’ (2017).

An A-Z of Actors: N

Don’t forget, it is surnames beginning with ‘N’. Please add your own favourites in the comments. As usual, I have mostly avoided the most popular choices.

Edward Norton is an American actor, writer, and director who always seems to take his work very seriously, delivering memorable performances as a result. Still under 50, his career has already made him a household name, and a familiar face on cinema screens. He became known to most of us in 1996, when he appeared in three films that year, including a remarkable performance in ‘Primal Fear’, acting Richard Gere off the screen. Two years later, another outstanding role in ‘American History X’ cemented his talent in my mind, and I began to look for his next work. ‘Fight Club’ (1999) made him a star, and this was followed by ‘The Score’ (2001), then ‘Frida’ and ‘Red Dragon’, both in 2002. He has not stopped working since, and has been nominated for numerous awards along the way. Other notable roles include ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ (2005), and ‘The Illusionist’ (2006).

British actor Jeremy Northam has had a long career on stage, television, and screen, often featuring in historical dramas, and adaptations of classics. He played a marvellous Captain Stanhope, in ‘Journey’s End’ (1988), and featured in the 1992 remake of ‘Wuthering Heights’. Hollywood beckoned, and he starred opposite Sandra Bullock, as the heartless villain, in ‘The Net’ (1995). This was followed by parts in ‘Mimic’ and ‘Amistad, both in 1997, before his superb portrayal of Sir Robert Morton, in the remake of ‘The Winslow Boy’, in 1999. In 2001, he shone as Ivor Novello, in ‘Gosford Park’, later delivering a powerful Thomas More, in the long running TV serial, ‘The Tudors’. Most recently, he appeared in the hit series ‘The Crown’, playing former Prime Minister, Anthony Eden.

American Nick Nolte (double ‘N’!) is a man known for playing tough, no-nonsense roles. Coming to notice in 1970, in the popular TV series, ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’, he soon moved into mainstream films, starring alongside the distinguished Robert Shaw, in ‘The Deep’ (1977). Since then, his gravel-like voice and rugged appearance have guaranteed him no end of work, with starring roles in ’48 Hours’ (1982), ‘Under Fire’ (1983), and ‘Down And Out In Beverley Hills’ (1986). The corrupt cop in ‘Q&A’ (1990) was one of the high spots of his long career, and his powerful portrayal of Lt Col Tall in ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998) was outstanding, and never to be forgotten. Since then, he has appeared in more than forty other films. Not always great films, admittedly, but he is never less than a real presence on screen.

English actor Robert Newton was a hard-drinking, hard-living star of stage and screen, who started out on stage in 1921. After an early career in London’s West End, he began working in films, with the famous director Alexander Korda. At that time, he was usually a featured supporting actor, with roles in ‘Jamaica Inn’ (1939), ‘Hell’s Cargo’ (1939), and ‘Gaslight’ (1940). After serving in WW2, he returned to acting, starring in the wonderful ‘This Happy Breed’ (1944), directed by David Lean, and in Olivier’s Henry V, also 1944. In 1948, he showed amazing power as Bill Sykes, in Lean’s film adaptation of ‘Oliver Twist’. A move to Hollywood gave him the role of Long John Silver, in Disney’s 1950 production of ‘Treasure Island’, and he claimed that character for all time. He died in 1956, aged just 50, as a result of his excessive lifestyle.

My last choice today is the attractive, and often underrated, Kim Novak. She began as a ‘starlet’ in 1954, with her obvious talent soon projecting her into starring roles opposite some of the most famous lead actors of the day. In the film ‘Picnic’ (1995), she starred with William Holden, and won a Golden Globe for her performance, going on to be one of the best things in the Frank Sinatra film, ‘The Man With The Golden Arm’, that same year. She starred with Sinatra again, in the musical ‘Pal Joey’ (1957), before her role with James Stewart, in Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’, the following year. She delighted in her lighthearted role as a witch, in ‘Bell, Book, and Candle’ (1958), again opposite James Stewart. However, by the late 1960s, she had become disillusioned with fame, and though she still occasionally appeared in films, she lived a mostly secluded life, raising horses on her farm. She is still alive, now aged 85.

Lucky 13 Film Club

I am very pleased to be co-hosting the June edition of this club, over on the estimable blog of the lovely Cindy Bruchman. Cindy is a published author, a fan of film and literature, and also posts great photos of her travels. Even if you are not that bothered about the films of Brian De Palma, this month’s topic, there is a lot to see there. Please follow the link, for a great blogging experience.

L13FC: Brian De Palma

An A-Z of Actors: M

The halfway mark, and up to ‘M’. Please continue to add your own favourites in the comments.

Mads Mikkelsen (Double-M!) is a Danish actor with distinctive looks, and obvious talent. Known for his work in European television, his big break was in the ‘Pusher’ trilogy, a dark trio of crime films that began in 1996. He was then introduced to international audiences, with a part in the 2004 version of ‘King Arthur’, starring Clive Owen. Worldwide fame came with a Bond film, when he played the villain in ‘Casino Royale’ (2006). Mads later took the lead role in the TV serialisation of the Hannibal Lechter story, ‘Hannibal’, but I would like you to ignore that, and instead concentrate on his excellent roles in lesser-known films. ‘Open Hearts’ (2002), the gripping ‘Valhalla Rising’ (2009), the wonderful WW2 drama ‘Flame and Citron’ (2008), and the epic ‘A Royal Affair’ (2012). I would urge you to seek out those foreign-language films, and see him at his very best.

Toshiro Mifune was a Japanese actor, best known for the sixteen films he made in collaboration with the wonderful director, Akira Kurosawa. Despite that, he made more than one hundred other films, and is a legend in Japanese acting, and cinema. I will concentrate here on those Kurosawa films, as I know them all so well. Mifune was a literal powerhouse on screen. His style so distinctive, it is hard to remember any of the other fine actors he was opposite. He started in films in 1947, and his portrayal of historical characters and samurai warriors is well known to anyone who loves cinema. He starred in landmark films, many of them considered to be among the best ever committed to celluloid. Here are just some of his legendary performances. ‘Rashomon’ (1950), ‘Seven Samurai’ (1954), ‘Throne of Blood’ (1957), and ‘The Hidden Fortress’ (1958). He later starred in the mini-series, ‘Shogun’, and worked in television until 1984. He died in 1997, remembered by me as one of the greatest cinema actors of all time.

Ann-Margret was born in Sweden, in 1941. But she is best known as an American actress, who has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the film industry, since 1961. Few actresses have ever attracted me in the same way as Ann. She got better with age, a rarity, and I have always found her to be overwhelmingly attractive. She is often associated with the early films she made with Elvis Presley, highlighting her talents as a singer and dancer. But for me, she came into prominence later, when her wonderful looks and obvious talent made her irresistible, in middle age. From ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ (1965), I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Then came ‘Carnal Knowledge’ (1971), where she was every young man’s dream, through to ‘Tommy’ (1975) when she played Roger Daltry’s mother in that rock opera, at the perfect age of 31. In 1978, she was looking at her delectable best, opposite Anthony Hopkins, in ‘Magic’, and in 1993, she played the ‘ideal widow’ in ‘Grumpy Old Men’, with Walter Matthau. Still amazing, at the age of 52. Since then, she has continued to work to this day, and I have continued to find her to be just adorable.

My next choice is the overlooked English actress, Vivian Merchant. From the 1940s, she was an acclaimed actress on stage and screen, and was also married to the famous playwright and screenwriter, Harold Pinter, appearing in many of his plays and productions. In 1964, she was nominated for numerous awards for her role in the film ‘Alfie’, and won the BAFTA, for Best Actress. She appeared in many important films at the time, including ‘Accident’ (1967), ‘The Offence’ (1972), and Hitchcock’s ‘Frenzy’ (1972). A long television career ran to 1982, sadly the same year that she died, aged just 53. She deserves to be better remembered, in my opinion.

For my final choice, I cannot avoid choosing the wonderful Dame of British acting, Helen Mirren. Since her work with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967, she has had an illustrious career, that continues to this day. Stage, screen, and television have all welcomed her talents, and at the age of 72, she has never been more popular. Her film and TV credits are enormous, so I will select just a few. Her collaboration with Peter Greenaway gave us the unusual role in ‘The Cook, The Thief. His Wife, and Her Lover’ (1989). Before that, she had amazed audiences in ‘Caligula’ (1979), ‘The Long Good Friday’ (1980), and ‘Excalibur’ (1981). This was followed by numerous later films, including ‘The Madness of King George’ (1994), ‘Calendar Girls’ (1993), and ‘Gosford Park’ (2001). Meanwhile, she was thrilling UK TV viewers with her role as detective Jane Tennyson, in the long-running series ‘Prime Suspect’, as well as making films every year. She was in four films in 2018, and two to be released in 2019. She has never been busier.