Posts Tagged ‘review’

Children Saved from the Nazis: a Hero’s Story, review: ‘a humbling story’

February 4th, 2016

The Children Saved from the Nazis: a Hero’s Story (BBC One) was an uplifting programme. Shown to mark Holocaust Memorial Day and to commemorate the death of Sir Nicholas Winton last year (at the age of 106), this was the inspiring if desperately sad story of how one man took a stand in the face of overwhelming odds and saved the lives of hundreds of Czechoslovakian children from Nazi persecution.

Nicholas Winton, seen here celebrating his 105th birthday

Visiting Prague in 1938, ahead of the German invasion, 29-year-old stockbroker Winton found himself besieged by Jewish parents begging him to take their children to safety. It was only his singular efforts and implacable refusal to be defeated by the hundreds of official doors slammed in his face that eventually led the Home Office to support his plan to transport as many of the children as possible across Europe, and convinced British families to take them in.

“The rest of the world closed its eyes, its ears, its heart and its gates,” said narrator Joe Schlesinger, 87, one of the 669 children saved by Winton – with unavoidably topical echoes.

An undated photo of Nicholas Winton with one of the children he rescued

At its most heart wringing, this was a film honouring the sacrifice and pain of parents who sent their children into the unknown to save them, while themselves facing a terrible fate. At its most hopeful, it recalled the full and productive lives lived by those rescued, and the fact that for decades Winton never spoke of, or sought any acknowledgement for, his heroic efforts.

Even his wife knew nothing of his heroics until, 40 years on, she stumbled across a trunk in the attic and the story came out – thanks largely to a feature on Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life TV show in 1988.

A humbling story, all the more powerful for this unadorned retelling.


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Churchill: the Nation’s Farewell, BBC One review: ‘bland’

January 28th, 2015

Jeremy Paxman’s regular commute to totemic moments of British history continues. He’s done the British Empire and the Great War, and for this trip in the time machine, he journeyed back half a century to the state funeral of Winston Churchill.

Churchill: the Nation’s Farewell (BBC One) was part reconstruction of the big day, part tour of a gigantic personality. But it also attempted to measure his lingering relevance to notions of nationhood, and wondered what Churchill might have made of the modern Britain in defence of whose future freedoms he stood alone in 1940.

Beyond bromides about the symbolic passing of an older Britain, there were rather more questions than answers. Could this be because Paxman has had quite enough of listening to other people’s opinions? Or is it becauseit’s difficult for us to stomach the new nice post-Newsnight Paxman? Among those he blandly quizzed were participants in the funeral – trumpeters, pall-bearers, a bell ringer, the verger where Churchill is buried in Oxfordshire. For some reason Paxman seemed keen to know whether everyone had cried (yes, though knees also knocked).

Guest star was Boris Johnson, Churchill’s latest hagiographer, who attested that Winston would be “a terrific blogger and a self-Googler of epic proportions”. Various descendants remembered the day – “We were swept along on this tidal wave of splendour,” blubbed Nicholas Soames – but they weren’t interviewed by Paxman.

In the end, Paxman nailed his colours to the mast and said what no one else could (or, in the case of Johnson, would): that for all Churchill’s flaws, “in this age of political miniatures there is no one who can hold a candle to him”. After an entire career grilling “lying b——-” (Paxman’s famous words), he should know.

Not that everyone revered the saviour of the nation. The programme’s coup was an interview with one of the Port of London dockers who dipped the jibs of the cranes as the coffin was taken up the Thames. It remains a moving image 50 years on. But the dockers wanted no part of it, and had to be paid to make this spontaneous gesture. The only union rep at the funeral was from the National Union of Bricklayers.


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Foyle’s War, final episode review: Is this really goodbye?

January 19th, 2015

We all like to see a great series go out with a bang, and Sunday night’s episode of Foyle’s War (ITV) certainly finished on a big one. But I’m not at all sure that – if I hadn’t been forewarned by last week’s sudden announcement by ITV – I would even have realised this was supposed to the swansong of one of British television’s best loved characters.

Far from it. With a plot packing in an audacious assassination attempt, postwar black-marketeering, Soviet spymasters, a scandal within the Security Service and a conspiracy to falsely incriminate a member of parliament – this felt more like a series at the height of its powers rather than an invitation to bid farewell to dear old Christopher Foyle, that most decent and understated wartime copper who latterly morphed so successfully into MI5’s only reliable chap in the Cold War’s early days.

As such, for ITV to let the axe fall on the series at this particular point seems remarkably bone-headed. Foyle’s War has, since its debut in 2002, been a firm audience favourite (recent episodes pulled in around five million viewers, or a 20 per cent audience share).

Famously, viewer protest pulled the show back from the brink of cancellation twice before. Such fanaticism can be attributed largely to a unique charm of character and performance – not only in Foyle himself, brought brilliantly to life by Michael Kitchen’s muted, charismatic acting style. Honeysuckle Weeks, too, as his impeccably mannered sidekick and driver, Sam Stewart, is another unobtrusive yet magnetic presence; her home life (Foyle doesn’t really have one) offering a window onto the times. Even her departure last night, forced by pregnancy, felt more like a momentary obstacle than a conclusive end.

For viewers inclined to hark back to a Britain united against a common foe, the series’ wartime setting had been a huge attraction. Yet Foyle’s seamless transition to the tensions of the burgeoning Cold War era cleverly maintained the hunkered down attitude while introducing us to an intriguing new era when enemies were still all around, yet no one (not even MI5) knew precisely who or where they were.

Not everything about Foyle’s War was great. The two-hour format that invited some to curl up for an absorbing night in, was for others off-puttingly slow and old hat. And if the reward was a feature-filmish sense of involvement and high production values that lavished attention on costume and period detail (not always accurately, as evidenced by many an incensed reader post on the Telegraph website), Foyle’s unhurried investigative style meant the pace rarely picked up above the stately.

Still the series had a renewed vigour of late. For many – myself included – Foyle’s bleak Cold War escapades rekindled a flagging interest. Creator Anthony Horowitz’s decision to root the postwar stories in real life cases brought new grit and relevance, exploring the early nuclear arms race and resurgent anti-semitism in recent episodes. This episode juggled wartime and postwar eras, echoing a scandal in which young British agents were sent to certain death in occupied Europe by a Special Operations Executive unwilling to admit its network had been compromised, while a subplot involving spivs and police corruption kept bringing us back to 1946. Around this was spun the mystery of an attempt on the life of former SOE bigwig Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington), who survived – thanks to Foyle – long enough to inflict her own brand of explosive summary justice upon her weaselly former SOE boss.

As an episode ending it certainly had a grim satisfaction. But for Foyle himself, the closing scenes had nothing of the finale about them. Quite the opposite. The determined set of his jaw, his lingering final glance towards enigmatic Elizabeth Addis (Hermione Gulliford) spoke, if anything, of many adventures to come.

Given this series’ history of resurrections, it doesn’t seem too great a stretch to hope that some day we’ll enjoy more of them.


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Saving Private Ryan, review

December 23rd, 2014

Director: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Robert Rodat
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies and Matt Damon.

The opening 27-minute sequence is unforgettable, depicting the Omaha Beach assault of June 6, 1944 in a way that is as graphic as any war footage. You are forced to confront the chaos that faced the poor troops on the beach, as when a soldier has his arm blown off. He staggers, dazed, open to further fire, and then he bends and picks up his arm, as if he will need it later. Few film-makers have ever plunged the audience into the nowhere-to-hide horror of battle as Spielberg does in that opening. It’s a genuinely terrifying spectacle, and a moving tribute to the men who did it for real.

Saving Private Ryan was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning five, including Best Director for Steven Spielberg

General George C Marshall decides that the fourth brother, Private James Francis Ryan, lost in Normandy with the scattered 101st Airborne, must be brought home alive and Captain John H Miller (Tom Hanks) is assigned to lead a small band of men through enemy lines to find and save Private Ryan, who is well played by Matt Damon.

Saving Private Ryan becomes a mission movie and although the bookish, decent intellectual facing up to the horrors of war for the first time is nothing new, it is a role played to perfection by Hanks.

Spielberg opens the film with three generations of an American family visiting a military graveyard in Nineties France, the grandfather clearly on an emotional pilgrimage. Spielberg is an admirer of British wartime filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and the elderly veteran’s wife is played by Kathleen Byron, who appeared in several of their films.

The climactic stand in the town of Ramelle still packs a fearsome punch and although it is a tough film to watch, there is a message of hope. “Earn it,” Miller says to Ryan in one key scene. It is the audience Spielberg is addressing.

Saving Private Ryan is broadcast on December 23 at 10pm (Channel 5)


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Dunkirk: from Disaster to Deliverance, Testimonies of the Last Survivors by Sinclair McKay, review: 'a new angle'

December 2nd, 2014

McKay’s narrative suggests that it took a cocktail of events to overcome such conflicting views to bring the nation together. He viagra canadian pharmacy cites Churchill’s passionate speeches as one of the crucial ingredients, but he also includes in his list the man in the street’s realisation that the Army had been saved thanks to a remarkable victory masterminded by the Navy.

Arguably the knowledge that ordinary citizens in their little ships had participated played its part, as did the fact that most British families had a friend or relation in the Army whose life had been in jeopardy. Whatever the true causes, McKay describes the spontaneous exhibition of public spiritedness, as more or less the whole country turned out to treat men who had left the French beaches in the depths of despair as though they were conquering heroes.

McKay’s novel way of analysing the crisis makes for interesting reading. However, such an approach has its dangers. When writing my own book on Dunkirk, I quickly realised that octogenarian survivors often had unreliable memories and did not necessarily have interesting stories to tell. Readers thirsting for vivid accounts of events on the beaches may be disappointed by the rather undramatic testimony of most of McKay’s survivors.

Neither does he always contextualise what they tell him. No one would begrudge his quotation of accounts containing incorrect statements about the Dunkirk weather if they were juxtaposed with more reliable data. McKay’s failure here might lead some to wonder whether he has been misled by the very myth he sets out to explore.

However, such minor quibbles do nothing to diminish the value of his central thesis. This is a worthy addition to the Dunkirk literature. Indeed, McKay’s approach may well play an influential role in how more conventional history books are written in future.

The 75th anniversary edition of Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man is published next year by Penguin

352pp, Aurum, Telegraph offer price: £15 (PLUS £1.95 p&p) (RRP £20, ebook £10.44). Call 0844 871 1515 or see books.telegraph.co.uk


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Unbroken, review: ‘saps the spirit’

December 1st, 2014

The book of the same name, by Laura Hillenbrand, was never not going to be adapted. The author wrote Seabiscuit, which became one of 2003’s Best Picture contenders, and her research into Zamperini’s legitimately remarkable life story looks tailor-made for a saga of American pluck and survival. What’s puzzling, though, is how a big-hitting quartet of screenwriters, including Gladiator’s William Nicholson, Behind the Candelabra’s Richard LaGravenese, and even the Coen brothers, have wrestled with the material and collectively produced a take on it this limp.

Jolie’s a fascinating actress, a fascinating star, and now a film director on whom the jury is out, with worried-face. You can detect her interest in the violence men inflict on each other bodily in war – there are next to no female characters, and for much of the film, O’Connell is stripped bare, gaunt and suffering.

When he’s forced to hoist a plank aloft all day by the POW commandant (Takamasa Ishihara, better known by day as the singer-songwriter Miyavi), Jolie’s pushing the imagery of Christian martyrdom close to breaking point. Beat for beat, the interactions between these two men follow the sadomasochistic rubric of something like Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, but in a feeble, faxed-in way – when Ishihara garbles the line “You are like me”, it sounds so cardboardy it’s a wonder he doesn’t topple right over.

Jack O’Connell’s smashing trajectory as a star also hits some bumps here, for reasons not wholly his fault. He’s at his best at sea, in the middle stretches when Louie and two fellow crew-members from his shot-down bomber (Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock) drift 2,000 miles on a leaking life-raft, dodging shark attacks and Japanese strafing runs. The logic of survival here is more practical, the you-can-do-it rhetoric unspoken, and more reliably compelling.

But when Louie’s self-belief is the only subject on screen, which is gormlessly often, Jolie presses her young lead into a lot of face-pulling, anguished grimaces and screams of violent elation. We’re not dragged deeply into either a man’s soul or his character.

Besides, the last part of Hillenbrand’s book – about Louie’s obsession with inflicting a bloody revenge on his tormentor – is wholly beyond the film’s remit. This more troubling layer to his story is sliced off, ruthlessly cauterised. To make a purely consoling myth out of his life, Louie must simply believe, triumph and survive, as inspirationally as possible, and with no inner contradictions to spike the brew. Jolie has made a 137-minute long film that gets us barely further than a poster, and O’Connell is the poster-boy.

Unbroken is released on Christmas Day in the US, and on Boxing Day in the UK


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The Passing Bells, review, BBC One: ‘unconvincing’

November 3rd, 2014

Bleak House has a lot to answer for. Until Andrew Davies’s masterful adaptation of the Dickens classic was broadcast back in 2005, few would have dared to run a serious half-hour serial in a soap-opera slot, often several times a week. Yet this gamble became a gimmick and the latest to try this method is Tony Jordan’s five-part First World War drama The Passing Bells, named after a line from Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. Giving 30 minutes over to one year of the conflict every night this week, it follows the inevitably converging paths of two young men – boys, really – from opposing sides.

Not that the latter was immediately apparent. Against a pastoral background seemingly worthy of Constable, farmer’s son Michael (Jack Lowden) was failing to get his oats. Interrupted from a roll in the cornfield by his girlfriend’s parents, he received the news of war – carefully accompanied by clear explanations of the wider political context – with relish. Likewise small-town delivery boy Tommy (Paddy Gibson, in the more lightly sketched of the two roles), as both defied their parents and slipped on a uniform. At which point, it became clear, Michael would be fighting for the Kaiser.

From there, it was a rapid whirl through training and bonding in the barracks, with supporting players briskly and effectively introduced. Already, I was wondering who, if any of them, might survive – and finding myself caring about it. Tommy was briefly captivated by the birdlife of northern France, and a poppy was prominently framed as the two men marched to the Front in their battalions. But this was the calm before the greatest storm the world had ever known. By the end of the first episode, Michael’s first pal been felled and the loss of innocence was underway. Danny Dyer will have nothing on the pre-watershed horrors about to ensue.

It wasn’t a wholly convincing start to the series, with a strain of sentimentality only underscored by the sweeping strings and penny whistle on the soundtrack. But things can only get bleaker from here. With fine performances, a welcome absence of jingoism and the beginning of a trajectory of inevitable tragedy, this offered a solid foundation for a serial which will surely accumulate emotional impact night after night. Do stick with it.


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Hitler’s Hidden Drug Habit, review, Channel 4: bull sperm and crystal meth

October 20th, 2014

Does it matter if Hitler was ill, or addicted to drugs? It’s a morally fraught question, and one handled with relative aplomb by Channel 4’s documentary, Hitler’s Hidden Drug Habit. For the first time on British television, we peered into the detailed medical diaries of Dr Theodor Morell, Hitler’s personal physician and a man nicknamed the “Reichsspritzenmeister” – loosely, the needle master of the Third Reich. He plied his needy patient with everything from sugar jabs to a potent daily cycle of stimulants and sedatives.

Anything that seeks to diminish Hitler’s responsibility for his actions should ring alarm bells – tellingly, the Holocaust denier David Irving likes to claim that medical mistakes sent Hitler into trances. While the documentary never tackled these ethical questions directly, the tone was sensitive, seeking insights rather than excuses for the “moral vacuum” at the heart of the Third Reich.

Pieced together from the diary, medical records and interviews, these insights included the rather enjoyable image of Hitler as a cranky, flatulent hypochondriac; paranoid putty in the hands of an opportunistic quack. Morell’s treatments ranged from Pervitin, a pick-me-up based on crystal meth, to a supposed aphrodisiac containing bull’s semen. The picture darkened as the war turned against Hitler. “The Führer didn’t sleep last night because of his anxieties,” Morell wrote in his diary on July 6, 1943. While hardly surprising that sending millions of men to die in vain might keep a man awake, there was a frisson to seeing it noted as medical fact.

By the end of the war, the “needle master” was administering 20 jabs a day, while his patient may have had Parkinson’s. We saw footage from 1945, originally suppressed by German censors, which showed Hitler’s hand shaking uncontrollably behind his back. At the time, he was preparing to defend Berlin from 2.5 million Soviet troops with an army of 45,000. His trembling hand was a potent image of ruined power in every sense.

There were no neat conclusions to be drawn on Hitler’s unravelling, but this was an evocative seat at the tyrant’s bedside. Where the film fell short was on explaining the medical context: it wasn’t clear how Morell’s treatments varied from conventional medicine. Whether quack and addict, or doctor and patient, one thing we know for certain about their relationship was how it ended: Morell abandoning Hitler in his bunker to the ultimate self-medication – a suicide pill.


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Saving Private Ryan, review

October 16th, 2014

Saving Private Ryan (1998) was directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Robert Rodat. It stars Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies and Matt Damon. Certificate 15; running time: 169 minutes.

The opening 27-minute sequence is unforgettable, depicting the Omaha Beach assault of June 6, 1944 in a way that is as graphic as any war footage. You are forced to confront the chaos that faced the poor troops on the beach, as when a soldier has his arm blown off. He staggers, dazed, open to further fire, and then he bends and picks up his arm, as if he will need it later. Few film-makers have ever plunged the audience into the nowhere-to-hide horror of battle as Spielberg does in that opening. It’s a genuinely terrifying spectacle, and a moving tribute to the men who did it for real.

When the initial fighting is over, John Williams’s moving score accompanies a view of the carnage and we see the name ‘Ryan S’ on a corpse’s equipment. He is the third son of Mrs Ryan of Iowa to have been killed in the Second World War. There is a haunting scene when the news is broken to her at an idyllic hilltop farm.

Saving Private Ryan was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning five, including Best Director for Steven Spielberg

General George C Marshall decides that the fourth brother, Private James Francis Ryan, lost in Normandy with the scattered 101st Airborne, must be brought home alive and Captain John H Miller (Tom Hanks) is assigned to lead a small band of men through enemy lines to find and save Private Ryan, who is well played by Matt Damon.

Saving Private Ryan becomes a mission movie and although the bookish, decent intellectual facing up to the horrors of war for the first time is nothing new, it is a role played to perfection by Hanks.

Spielberg opens the film with three generations of an American family visiting a military graveyard in Nineties France, the grandfather clearly on an emotional pilgrimage. Spielberg is an admirer of British wartime filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and the elderly veteran’s wife is played by Kathleen Byron, who appeared in several of their films.

The climactic stand in the town of Ramelle still packs a fearsome punch and although it is a tough film to watch, there is a message of hope. “Earn it,” Miller says to Ryan in one key scene. It is the audience Spielberg is addressing.


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Fury, review: ‘astonishing’

October 11th, 2014

It’s April 1945, in the heart of Nazi Germany, and only when the figure is almost upon us do we realise he’s wearing the stiff field tunic and peaked cap, emblazoned with an eagle badge, of a German SS officer. Then, suddenly, from behind the wreckage of a vehicle, something pounces – another man, quick and wiry, who knocks the officer from his mount, pins him to the ground, and sinks a knife into his eye socket. We see the attacker’s face. It’s Brad Pitt. This is our introduction to the good guy.

As in Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977) and Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980), any Hollywood gloss has been scoured away: the plot is raw, episodic and wholly unsentimental; a gruelling onward rumble from one brush with death to the next.

“We don’t murder, we kill,” says Lee Marvin’s hard-bitten sergeant in Fuller’s film; and it’s a distinction Pitt’s character all but reiterates here.

“I started this war killing Germans in Africa, then I killed Germans in France, and now I’m killing Germans in Germany,” he tells Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), Fury’s driver and the team’s newest, youngest recruit. Ayer is interested in the way these men cope with killing, and plunges them into the kind of war that doesn’t get talked about during peacetime. There is no Private Ryan-like search-and-rescue mandate. It’s not clear that anyone here is worth saving.

Pitt’s performance has more in common with his stern, authoritarian father-figure in The Tree of Life than Inglourious Basterds’ gregarious Lt Aldo Raine: as well as Ellison, he has three more filthy mouthed young men (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal) to keep in line, and the group dynamic is more familial than friendlike.

After an astonishing set-piece battle, gripping in its sheer orderliness – three Shermans against Panzers and machine guns hunkered down in a thicket, with Pitt calmly barking orders into the radio – Wardaddy forces Ellison to shoot a captured SS officer in the back, pressing the pistol into his hands, wrenching the trigger back under his fingers, twisting his head so he sees the man’s body drop to the dirt.

“Do your job,” Wardaddy roars at him. And that’s how the men justify their actions to each other: “best job I ever had,” they tell each other, half-laughing, half-commiserating, after every skirmish and ambush.

In the down-time between battles, Ayer lets the quieter moments run. In an unbearably tense sequence, Wardaddy and Ellison break into a house in a bombed-out village after spotting a young woman at the window, and there is an unspoken understanding between the four that meat, drink and beds will be shared in the search for mutual comfort.

There’s no glory in this moment, but it feels strange enough to be truthful – another encounter those back home could never hope to understand. Ayer’s film, with its fearsome, steam-hammer power, brings us as close to that understanding as cinema can.

Fury is released on October 22, and closes the BFI London Film Festival on October 19


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