The Ghost Train 1941 ***

GHOST TRAIN (1941)

Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the identity of her grandfather has been the worldwide hot topic of the last month, so it comes as a relief to identify the star’s actual grandfather as Dad’s Army star Arnold Ridley, the author of the play that this 1941 comedy-chiller was based on. Ridley wrote his play in 1923, and took inspiration from his overnight stay in a now-defunct station, where the echoes of other trains created an eerie atmosphere. Many, many film versions followed, with this particular one forming a vehicle for the familiar talents of Arthur Askey.

Askey’s trademark catch-phrase ‘Ay Thank Yow’ was appropriated by Mike Meyers for his Austin Powers films, but there’s a fair range of Askey call-backs and references here, as well as a full-blown song and dance number. Askey plays Tommy Gander, a music-hall comic who provides a perfect chance to play himself. Gander is one of a merry band of travellers who miss their connection when he pulls the emergency cord on their train in order to retrieve his missing hat. Forced to spend the night as Fal Vel junction in Cornwall, the group are warned by a gloomy Great Western Railways employee of the ghost that inhabits the station, and the ghost train which passes through…

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Ridley himself (above) played the station master in his play, Herbert Lomas takes the role of Hodgin here, and there’s also a few substantial changes in the plot, with machine-gun smuggling communists replaced by Nazi Fifth-columnists as the villains. There’s jokes about Hitler, providing it’s really not too soon for JoJo Rabbit, and also some fun at the expense of such recent public figures as Napoleon. Ridley served in both world wars, so it’s fair to give him some extra lee-way when it comes to cultural sensitivity.

The Ghost Train actually stands up pretty well as a film seen from nearly eighty years later; the comedy is sharp, the mystery is neat and the suspense elements elaborate; there’s a long set-up involving how the ghost operates that actually does pay off. What a genuine war veteran like Arnold Ridley might have made of Star Wars and The Rise of Skywalker is anyone’s guess; expectations of a night at the flicks have changed somewhat since this quaint little film-of-a-play packed them in.

 

Jojo Rabbit 2019 *****

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Taika Waititi bears the burden well, but it can’t be easy being the funniest man in the world. The New Zealander has risen through Eagle Vs Shark, Boy and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople as the great white hope-shark of comedy as we move into the 2020’s; he writes, he directs, he performs and his work is suffused with worldly humour; ‘We are like sheep trapped in a maze designed by wolves,’ is how the minister explains life to a boy in Wilderpeople, and Waititi’s ability to carve comedy out of real tragedy is what marks him out as a special talent.

Based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, JoJo Rabbit sees Waititi travel down a familiar yet treacherous route; poking fun at Hitler, Nazi Germany and, by association, the Holocaust. It worked for Chaplin, Mel Brooks and Roberto Benigni, less so for Jerry Lewis; Waititi plays Hitler, springing through the air, mimicking the gestures of the 20th century’s most notable failure of humanity. But there’s no better target for humour that the Nazi party; it just raises the bar for getting the jokes right. Waititi does go for slapstick, but he undercuts it with bitter-sweet pathos; a child follows a butterfly to a gallows in one of the film’s most striking sequences.

Otherwise, like Judith Kerr’s book When Hitler Stoke Pink Rabbit, this is a helpful way of getting young people up to speed on one of history’s darkest periods. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) suffer from an absent father-figure, and the boy has an imaginary friend in Hitler. A trip to a Hitler Youth camp results in the boy being blown-up by a grenade, which leaves him with scars. Stuck at home, Jojo begins a friendship with a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie) who Rosie has agreed to hide from the authorities.

There’s echoes of The Tin Drum here, and even David Bowie’s turn in Just a Gigolo; Nazis are played for laughs, with Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant all contributing comic turns, and yet all have more depth than might initially be expected. The specific target here is not so much Hitler, but those who chose to follow him, and why.

Jojo Rabbit will divide critics and audiences, even as it picks up awards nominations. For some, the subject matter cannot be laughed about, even if the film’s heart seems to be in the right place. Waititi takes a traditional mentor trope and turns it on its head here; what if you choose the wrong heroes to follow? There will be many who will scurry back to such fantasies as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, or prefer for reasons of taste the public hand-wringing that David Mamet described as ‘Mandingo for Jews’. Everyone has the right to grieve in his or her own way.

But like it or hate it, and whether you think it’s funny or not, Jojo Rabbit is an essential and important film for 2020; the rise of despotism and the one-man-state was, until recently, thought inconceivable in the West, and right now, the threat is sudden and real, and whatever lessons we learned in 1945 will have to be remembered and heeded again. Jojo Rabbit is a comedy with a point, and Waititi’s timing is right on the money.

 

The Good Liar 2019 ****

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It’s nice to see Helen Mirren and Ian McKellern back on screen; he’s 80, she’s in her 70’s, and at that age, wizards, crones, vampire queens and alien rulers are the kinds of parts that seem to land with a thud on their agent’s desks. So modest crime-drama The Good Liar marks something of a change of pace from the sillier Hollywood work, central roles in a two-hander con-job film that’s dialogue and character based; the source is a novel by Nicholas Searle, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher.

Bill Condon is writer/producer here, always with a waspish sense of dark humour; Roy (McKellern) is a con-man, who creates elaborate financial scams with his partner (Jim Carter) in London over a decade ago; the mobile phones and occasional period cars get the idea across. Roy is romantic but alone, and gets involved in an online dating site, which puts him in contact with Betty (Mirren), a retired history professor. Her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is suspicious of Roy’s motives, but who is Roy, and what does he really want from Betty?

Any story about con men (and women) should have the audience searching for possible marks, and The Good Liar’s title suggests that none of the information we get should be taken as read; a neat opening shows Roy and Betty completing their dating profiles, ticking the boxes for no smoking or drinking while they enjoy their vices. But Condon’s film aims to go deeper that petty personal hypocrisies, with atrocities committed during the Nazi Germany regime relevant to the narrative plot twists.

The Good Liar has reputedly, made $30 million on a budget of a third of that; a little sleeper for Warner Brothers that could probably use some awards traction to cement success. The spy quality of the story doesn’t quite fit the traditionally turgid nature of awards-season dramas; The Good Liar aims to keep us guessing, and just about makes it to the conclusion without any let-up in tension. McKellern revels in a character who fakes ill-health, only to spring into action as he enters a sleazy strip-club. Mirren, meanwhile, appears to be a soft touch, but seems to physically change when she begins to realise the truth of her situation. And there’s an edge to proceedings, with a couple of shockingly violent scenes that keep the stakes high.

Entertainment isn’t usually high on the list of qualities that awards-voters seek, and The Good Liar risks getting swept away amongst more ballyhooed work. But it’s a smart, well performed drama that perhaps goes over the score in the final scene; nevertheless, fans will enjoy a couple of vintage performances for the most respected of actors.

Marathon Man 1976 ****

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William Goldman’s novels are rarely assessed as much more than expanded screenplays; a pity that books like The Color of Light have never been filmed. But the level of detail in Magic or Marathon Man are indicative of Goldman’s well-researched feeling for the worlds he describes, and John Schlesinger brings the right level of gravity to this 1976 film. Dustin Hoffman is Babe, scholar and runner, who needs both abilities when he discovers that his brother Doc (Roy Scheider) is a double agent and that there’s a gang of Nazis led by Szell (Laurence Olivier) on his case. The dental torture scene has passed into cult history, but there’s plenty of other notably points to enjoy in Marathon Man, from the artfully convoluted construction to the utter seriousness with which the actors treat the material. Goldman was on a roll in the 70’s, and Marathon Man stands up well today as an example of how good writing can make a thriller sing, even if many sequences don’t have the snap that Goldman’s book has; the description of Babe waiting in the bathtub for the assassins to arrive is brilliant prose.

The Boys From Brazil 1978 ***

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A rare chance to see Sir Laurence Olivier and Police Academy star Steve Guttenberg in the same film, Franklin J Shaffner’s 1978 thriller is a methodical adaptation of Ira Levin’s book. Guttenberg plays Barry Kohler, who finds evidence that a notorious Nazi Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck) has set up shop in Paraguay,  with cloning Hitler the purpose of his mission. Nazi-hunter Ezra Lieberman (Olivier) takes up the chase, and The Boys From Brazil ends with a memorable stand-off between  Liebermann and Mengele, with a deadly pair of Rottweilers tearing them bloodily apart. An excellent supporting cast includes Denholm Elliot, Rosemary Harris, James Mason and Bruno Granz, who went on to play Hitler in Downfall. Shaffner’s film is weighty and sometimes ponderous, but the heavyweight cast give the pulpy ideas considerable gravity.

Bear Island 1979 ***

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Don Sharp’s 1979 thriller marked the closing of the cycle of films based on Alistair Maclean novels; Bear Island sold over eight million copies, and Sharp’s film is a big-budget Canadian production. Donald Sutherland, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and Christopher Lee are amongst the party stationed on Bear Island, which was a base for Nazi U-boats during the war. Various espionage elements are engaged in a search for Nazi gold, and there’s a notable snowmobile chase in the style of a James Bond movie. Public tastes had drifted away from this kind of stoic action by this point, but Bear Island is a decent who-dunnit that keeps the audience in doubt as to the motivations of the well-wrapped-up characters. A coda, noting that Goodbye California by Maclean was in the pipeline, proved to be misguided.

 

Apt Pupil 1998 ***

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Bryan Singer seems to make nothing but comic-book movies these days; a pity, because his straight dramas (The Usual Suspect) are very accomplished, and 1998’s Stephen King adaptation Apt Pupil is a subversive delight. The later Brad Renfro plays Todd Bowden, who discovers that his elderly neighbor Kurt Dussander (Sir Ian McKellern) is a Nazi war criminal. Bowden blackmails Dussander, forcing him to tell stories about his past in return for the boy’s silence to the authorities. Although previous attempts to film King’s story with James Mason and then Richard Burton failed due to the failing health of the actors, McKellern is more than up to the task, and there’s a powerful irony in the way that the stories of Nazi atrocities inspire Bowden to get a grip of his Californian life. Apt Pupil is a disturbing, thoughtful movie that will provoke debate and discussion; it refuses to put war crimes in a box, and suggests that the motives behind the unforgivable genocides of the past remain latent in modern society.

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Good 1996 ***

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Adapted by John Wrahall from CP Talyor’s stage-play, Good is a strong historical drama that deals intelligently with the rise of the Nazi party and German nationalism. As the title suggests, definitions of good and bad are blurred by the story of John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) whose book on euthanasia is seized on by Hitler, and Halder finds himself commissioned to write a paper justifying the extermination of the Jews. Halder’s friendship with Gluckstein (Jason Isaacs) provides an obstacle to his career as an advisor to the Nazis, and his relationship with Ann (Jodie Whittaker) further complicates matters. Isaacs was also one of the executive producers on this worthy, but never dull film, and Mortensen’s immersion in the role of Halder is impressive. One of the few films to consider the complications of 1930’s German nationalism in depth, Good is worth seeking out for those interested in the human cost of war.

The Believer 2001 ***

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Based on the true story of Dan Burros, an American Jew who joined the American Nazi Party, Writer/director Henry Bean’s 2001 feature was the first glimpse of Ryan Gosling’s abilities as an actor. Gosling plays Danny Balint, whose self-loathing moves him to become a swastika sporting skinhead punk, despite his Orthodox Jewish background. Bean’s work on Internal Affairs and Deep Cover demonstrated his ability to fashion tight, realistic storytelling, and he surrounds Gosling with strong performers, from Summer Phoenix and Garret Dillahunt to Theresa Russell and Billy Zane. Too controversial for awards recognition or a wide-release, The Believer is a shocking film that packs considerable intellectual power in its portrait of a disturbed young man.

Night of the Generals 1966 ***

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Antole Litvak’s 1966 thriller has a brilliant idea as it’s core; in the middle of the chaos of Warsaw in 1942, a Polish prostitute is found murdered, and Major Grau (Omar Sharrif) suspects one of three Nazi generals is responsible. Played by Peter O’Toole, Charles Gray and Donald Pleasance, each man has his motives, and Grau has to balance his interrogations against the feeling that the tide of the war is turning against them; what is the point of justice in a world gone mad. The script, with Paul Dehn contributing, doesn’t quite get to the core of the drama, but it’s still and unusual who-dunnit with compelling scenes, including a tense sub-plot involving Tom Courtney. Litvak’s cold, sometimes distant film would make a good double bill with Valkerie (2008)