True Romance (1993)

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How do you describe the 90s bastard child of Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands? Total cool. How easy is that to achieve in a movie? Well it helps to have a script by Tarantino. And to be directed by Tony Scott. And then there’s the beyond-belief cast:  Christian Slater. Patricia Arquette. Gary Oldman. Dennis Hopper.  Christopher Walken. Michael Rapaport.  Brad Pitt. James Gandolfini. Tom Sizemore. Chris Penn. And that’s just the start of it. It’s ridiculous! It Boy Slater is Clarence, the comic book-pop culture geek who falls for the pretty call girl Alabama and makes off with a huge coke haul belonging to her pimp and pisses off a lot of the wrong people. His dad Hopper does the astonishing Sicilian-nigger speech to Walken – and how stunning are all those jaw-dropping monologues, no wonder Tarantino is so beloved by actors. (Rolling Stone called his dialogue ‘gutter poetry.’) When the gangsters come calling the violence is sickening and yet the colour lends it an appropriately ripened comic book quality.  There’s a slamdunk shootout involving Hollywood jerks and practically everyone gets killed but Clarence’s very special mentor keeps him chill. Awesome.

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John Heard 03/07/1945-07/21/2017

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The death has taken place of one of my favourite actors. Apparently he died a few days after having back surgery while recuperating at a hotel in CA. I first saw him and became immediately besotted as a young kid one long ago Valentine’s Day when a film called  Between the Lines was on TV. It was about a bunch of supposed subversives working on an underground newspaper. On the one hand it appealed to my youthful and romantic sense of rebellion. Hell it was a Seventies movie!  On the other? I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Nor could writer/director Joan Micklin Silver, who then cast him again as the lead in her romantic comedy drama Head Over Heels aka Chilly Scenes of Winter – a movie that I didn’t see literally for decades because it never got to the small town where I grew up. In between he had worked for her husband Raphael in a prison movie called On the Yard which I saw many years ago, somehow, somewhere. As well as a TV mini-series adapted from The Scarlet Letter. I didn’t blame Meg Foster for doing what she did, not even a bit.  He was terrific as Jack Kerouac in Heart Beat but I didn’t see that for many years. However it was then I stumbled across the most amazing film of the Eighties after I found a book called Cutter and Bone which is still a beautiful piece of writing about California and corruption and Vietnam and PTSD.  I read it straight through without sleeping once I accidentally found out – book in hand – that my local cinema had the adaptation opening that weekend under the title Cutter’s Way. I saw it the evening I finished the book – I still can’t see a movie if it’s an adaptation without reading the book beforehand – and believed my earlier judgment of the actor to be on the money. And I still believe it. Heard is simply astonishing in a truly great film. He’s a one-eyed impotent crippled Nam vet who has the opportunity to right a wrong. He was working opposite Jeff Bridges and the heartbreaking Lisa Eichhorn. Everyone did their best work right there. He never really fulfilled that early promise and admitted as much in a late interview. He probably never got offered a role to equal it again. He wasn’t ‘seen’ in the right way by the right writer or director, maybe. Although he worked with some good people maybe the chemistry wasn’t right.  Or, he dropped the ball, as he said. Who knows why. Great films are miracles. Perhaps that’s the wrong way to look at his career, which was made of so much more than one extraordinary, inimitable, iconic role.  A trained stage actor, he never ‘got’ Hollywood but he took parts that earned him huge audiences – Home Alone and its sequel being the prime example. It doesn’t matter. Cutter’s Way is one of my very favourite films. A forever film. Make it one of yours. You only have to be great in one great film to be truly remembered. Vaya con dios, John.

How to Steal a Million (1966)

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You should be in jail and I should be in bed. Super stylish Sixties Art Nouveau heist comedy about a painting forger Bonnet (Hugh Griffiths) whose daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) needs to steal back a famous but fake statue (by her grandfather) that he’s loaned to an art museum and does it with the aid of a thief Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole) –  who’s actually a private detective investigating this sort of thing.   Harry Kurnitz adapted the 1962  story Venus Rising from a collection about art forgeries by George Bradshaw and despite its overlength it coasts on the sheerly delightful charm of the leads and some very sparky dialogue. Charles Boyer has a blast as O’Toole’s boss and you’ll recognise the chief security guard at the museum Jacques Marin because he played the chief of police in Hepburn’s earlier Parisian comedy thriller, Charade. Eli Wallach is an industrialist who feigns romantic interest in Hepburn to get at her grandfather’s work and there’s an outstanding score by John Williams as well as to-die-for production design. Givenchy dressed Hepburn – mais quoi d’neuf? Directed by William Wyler reunited with Hepburn 13 years after Roman Holiday. Bliss.

The November Man (2014)

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Pierce Brosnan had his eye on Bill Granger’s books for a number of years and acquired the rights to There Are No Spies (the seventh in the series) long before he brought it to the screen under the umbrella of his own production company.  Roger Donaldson is the man he hired to direct this pretty grim actioner set in eastern Europe and Russia about a betrayal in the ranks that brings retired CIA agent Peter Devereux (Brosnan) out in the open to try to rescue his former lover. It ultimately involves the kidnapping of Devereux’s young daughter – whom he had by the woman who is killed off in the first twenty minutes in a violent action sequence that clarifies that nobody is taking prisoners. The fact that his former protege David Mason (Luke Bracey) is now apparently on the opposite side of right causes all sorts of moral quandaries in a story concerning double-crossing and political expediency and rivalries.  It’s all about a former Russian General now in line to become President and the refugee case worker (Olga Kurylenko) who wants to expose him for very personal reasons that go back to the second Chechen war. That and a hatchet-faced Russian hitwoman (like Gisele Bundchen before the rhinoplasty) who has a nasty habit of shooting people in the head. There’s no doubt Brosnan was a fantastic James Bond – he played him as a dark character with some terrifically droll lines – but this is a humourless outing and the post-communist world does not look like a very attractive place. Another film has been announced but it would require a much defter hand than what’s on display here.  It was adapted by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek.

Baby Driver (2017)

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Ansel Elgort is the super speedy getaway driver with tinnitus and a soundtrack to beat the band as he works his way through a debt to heist mastermind Kevin Spacey and there’s the One Last Job that must be carried out. How much you like this depends on your identification with the leading man (it took me a while since I don’t like the actor);  your tolerance for minimal characterisation but some snappy one-liners (even if you can’t comprehend the poor delivery of one Jamie Foxx); the use of a sub-Freudian scenario (aspiring singer Mom was killed in a car crash and love interest Debora sings B-a-b-y when he first sees her in a diner);  and your capacity to take a story that more or less falls apart in a big-budget Kenneth Anger dream blowout (weelllllll……!!!) at the conclusion. Jon Hamm is the psycho banker turned Satanic cokehead robber but that’s as much development as you’ll find here in this fabulously OTT car chase of a movie from Edgar Wright who’s finally almost living up to expectations and even aspires to doing a Jacques Demy in those street scenes in this musical wannabe. Makes me want to see The Driver all over again and you can’t say fairer than that.

  1. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – ‘Bellbottoms’
  2. Bob & Earl – ‘Harlem Shuffle’
  3. Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers – ‘Egyptian Reggae’
  4. Googie Rene – ‘Smokey Joe’s La La’
  5. The Beach Boys – ‘Let’s Go Away For Awhile’
  6. Carla Thomas – ‘B-A-B-Y’
  7. Kashmere Stage Band – ‘Kashmere’
  8. Dave Brubeck – ‘Unsquare Dance’
  9. The Damned – ‘Neat Neat Neat’
  10. The Commodores – ‘Easy (Single Version)’
  11. T. Rex – ‘Debora’
  12. Beck – ‘Debra’
  13. Incredible Bongo Band – ‘Bongolia’
  14. The Detroit Emeralds – ‘Baby Let Me Take You (in My Arms)’
  15. Alexis Korner – ‘Early In The Morning’
  16. David McCallum – ‘The Edge’
  17. Martha and the Vandellas – ‘Nowhere To Run’
  18. The Button Down Brass – ‘Tequila’
  19. Sam & Dave – ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby’
  20. Brenda Holloway – ‘Every Little Bit Hurts’
  21. Blur – ‘Intermission’
  22. Focus – ‘Hocus Pocus (Original Single Version)’
  23. Golden Earring – ‘Radar Love (1973 Single Edit)’
  24. Barry White – ‘Never, Never Gone Give Ya Up’
  25. Young MC – ‘Know How’
  26. Queen – ‘Brighton Rock’
  27. Sky Ferreira – ‘Easy’
  28. Simon & Garfunkel – ‘Baby Driver’
  29. Kid Koala – ‘Was He Slow (Credit Roll Version)’
  30. Danger Mouse (featuring Run The Jewels and Big Boi) – ‘Chase Me’

The Beguiled (2017)

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You vengeful bitches! I had high hopes for Sofia Coppola’s take on the Don Siegel Southern Gothic movie that made such a difference to our perception of Clint Eastwood way back when. Coppola has created such an interesting catalogue of films that are female-centred and immediately recognisable from their diffused palettes, lens flare, sense of mystery,soundtracks, alienation from family and the ultimate unknowability of teenaged girls. Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney, the Irish soldier of fortune fighting for the North lying wounded in the woods near Martha Farnsworth’s boarding school for young ladies in deepest Louisiana when he is found by little girl Amy (Oona Laurence) on her daily mushroom-picking trip. She drags him back to the almost derelict building and the decision is made not to report him to the Confederates passing through the area despite the objections of staunch loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice, who was so great in The Nice Guys). There are only five students and the eldest is Alicia (Elle Fanning) and their teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) is the woman most obviously hot to trot – sad and clearly desperate for a man and a reason for escape. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney while he is unconscious and there are a lot of shots of water pooling in the cavities of his neck and abdomen. His objectification is writ large by the simple expedient of not having the camera include his face. Farnsworth admits to having had a man before the war when McBurney asks but as each of the girls enters his room to get a look at him and steal a kiss (a foxy Fanning) he realises he can play them off against each other. He learns to walk again and helps out, cutting wood and generally being the maintenance man. But all the while he has become the women’s fantasy. The problems really begin when each of them finds out what he is doing with the others. When Edwina invites him to her room after a particularly excruciating dinner and dance in this Gothic manse, she finds him having sex instead with Carol and takes terrible revenge …. And Farnsworth aims at keeping him there forever. There is something not quite right about the film. The control and the tone never really articulate the plot’s inherent collective madness, something that was so brutally effective in the earlier adaptation. The photography doesn’t come close to the beauty of Bruce Surtees’ work and that is surprising given Coppola’s customary attention to appearances (and the consequently unfortunate effect on the way Kidman appears). The relative containment of the story to the building doesn’t really work since so many of the shots are repetitive and one has the paradoxical desire to see more of the outdoors. Coppola has dropped some of the previous film’s elements – the black servant, the flashbacks to Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother – and this vacuum is not replaced with enough plot to sustain the story’s mordantly black tone. The performances are uniformly good and Dunst and Fanning are obviously back working again with Coppola. (And if you still haven’t watched Marie Antoinette go look at it now to watch Dunst give a complete performance as the child bride.) Farrell gives a good account of himself as a man who can’t believe his good luck even if it’s quite disconcerting to hear him speaking in an Irish accent. The young kids are very good in their roles and while Dunst’s part is not written especially well the sex scene with her buttons spilling over the floor is one of the best things in the film. Fanning is just a little too odd – but she has definitely grown up since Somewhere. Laurence is especially good as the little girl who stands up for McBurney right up until he hurts her little turtle Henry. The revenge is all too clearly telegraphed in a way that it wasn’t in the earlier film and that is the ultimate disappointment:  the staircase scene is thrown away.  There are some nice touches – the use of jewellery (Coppola loves fetishising sparkly objects) and costume and some Hitchcockian shots of the women’s hairstyles from behind. But it can’t make up for the lack of real tension. There is good use of music – that’s Mr Coppola’s band Phoenix reinterpreting Monteverdi’s Magnificat on the soundtrack and there’s apposite use of Stephen Foster’s song Virginia Belle.  Overall however this just doesn’t work the way you want it to do and despite its relatively short length (94 minutes) for a contemporary film it has its longeurs. Coppola adapted the original screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, a woman who was writing pseudonymously as ‘Grimes Grice’ which is the name mysteriously used on the film’s credits. Despite my reservations about this,  I find Coppola a fascinating – even beguiling! – director and I’ve reviewed Fiona Handyside’s new book about her in the latest issue of Offscreen which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

American Gigolo (1980)

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A romantic drama about a male prostitute. Well it would have to be the beautiful Richard Gere at the peak of his masculinity in every sense – he was the first star to be photographed full frontal. Then of course a decade later he would play the man hiring the whore in Pretty Woman – not that my three year old cousin whose fave movie that was had the remotest idea. Paul Schrader’s fantasy about procurement, licentious behaviour and surfaces plays remarkably well these days. Gere is Julian Kaye, the high class multilingual (quiet there at the back) gigolo who usually works for an elegant procuress, Anne (Nina van Pallandt) sleeping with rich older women and squiring widows about town. He takes a job as a favour for street pimp Leon (Bill Duke) which turns into a very rough trick in Palm Springs and days later he’s had a murder pinned on him. Detective Hector Elizondo pretty much knows it’s not him but has to go after him anyhow. In the interim Julian has fallen for an unhappily married politician’s wife Michelle Stratton (model Lauren Hutton) and finds himself untouchable. That’s the big irony in this cool and observant film about narcissism and control. It became famous for two things – the Blondie song in the title sequence (Call Me)  which is reworked into thematic sequences and the montage in which Julian picks out his wardrobe – all Armani. The abstract images for the sex sequences particularly between Gere and Hutton seem to crystallise emotional detachment but the final image in which Julian perversely finds freedom in prison with Michelle on the other side of a window is pure Bresson. He rescues her and she saves him right back. Very interesting indeed and a key reason for Gere’s superstardom after the studio wanted Christopher Reeve and John Travolta turned it down – as he did many roles which then fell in Gere’s capacious lap…

Elsa Martinelli 01/30/1935-07/08/2017

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One of my favourite women has died. Elsa Martinelli was one of cinema’s real cool girls. Born Elisa Tia in Tuscany, she became a model at a very young age and was spotted by French director Claude Autant-Lara after she had a small role in an Italian anthology film and within a couple of years she did that rite of passage for all italian beauties – a rice film (Mangano and Loren did one too.) Kirk Douglas – who had a taste for fresh flesh – took her to Hollywood for The Indian Fighter but it wasn’t until she played Georgia in Roger Vadim’s perversely wonderful Blood and Roses (1960) (a 20th century update of le Fanu’s Carmilla) that she gained real star status. She had already done amazing work in Mauro Bolognini’s La notte brava (written by Pasolini) so she was by now an auteur favourite.   She played opposite Anthony Perkins in Orson Welles’ underrated interpretation of The Trial (1962) which he shot in Paris and then sent up her own image as Gloria Gritti in The VIPs (1963) – with Welles as the movie mogul to her petulant movie star. Then of course she was the fabulous Dallas in Hatari! (1963) a film that really exhibited her particular brand of Euro cool and of course that haircut framing such a defiantly modern look and determinedly independent character. Never mind that she wound up with John Wayne – just think of all those baby elephants!  That’s one of my desert island movies for sure. That look was what made me pay attention to her as a kid when I spotted her in the extremely bizarre and super fashionable Sixties crime movie Maroc 7 (1967) which was on TV now and then.  She was already out of her troubled marriage into the Roman aristocracy that had produced a daughter and she eventually married the brilliant photographer Willy Rizzo. She also became one of those weird Sixties hybrids – the actor-singer (there were a few of them, like Bardot and Birkin) and if you want to hear some truly mournful and striking chansons you can check her out on YouTube which has some of her TV recordings. She made a really great impression in The Belle Starr Story (1968), a rare western directed by a woman, Lina Wertmuller (who had to make it under a male pseudonym) and continued to appear opposite top Hollywood stars like Dustin Hoffman and even Raquel Welch! In between supporting roles and cameos in Hollywood travelogue comedy movies like If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium and her final screen appearance Once Upon a Crime where she has a small cameo, she was a definite part of the fabled jet set and there are many snaps of her partying with people like Ari Onassis. Latterly she was in a number of TV series, both German and Italian, with her last role in Orgoglio, a period romance which ran for a few years in Italy with Martinelli participating in 2005. Rizzo predeceased her four years ago and she was living in Rome at the time of her death. What a wonderful woman she was.

 

Elsa Martinelli The VIPs salon

George A. Romero 02/04/1940-07/16/2017

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The death has taken place of George A. Romero, a true horror auteur whose Night of the Living Dead  (1968) extended the boundaries of the horror movie in some style – political and racial. And it gave zombies a voice!  He began his career as a gofer on the set of North By Northwest – not too shabby an introduction to the world of cinema. It would be another decade until he set the world alight – and he continued to make zombie films in a loosely affiliated series that he was going to continue as late as July 13th last when he released poster art for the forthcoming Road of the Dead, the first of the series he wasn’t going to direct. He had a lot of friends in the horror world, literary and cinematic, because they respected the tone of his films, his originality, his sensibility and his tenacity. He gave Stephen King his first screenwriting job in the anthology Creepshow, a Valentine to all those 50s comics that so influenced American writers and directors. Pittsburgh was of course home to most of his best known works and The Crazies and Martin remain minor classics. He was such an original and such a smart, conscientious filmmaker that it’s hard to qualify his contribution. Legend. Icon. Rest in peace.

Martin Landau 06/20/1928-07/17/2017

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If you’d asked me when I was a little kid who Martin Landau was I knew him from old reruns and I could have told you he was the man of a million faces Rollin Hand in the TV show Mission:  Impossible and Commander John Koenig in Space: 1999. (Anything with a colon, basically). Then I saw him playing a particularly gay henchman to James Mason in North By Northwest. And I read in a James Dean biography that they were close friends when Landau was at the Actors’ Studio, which he attended after spending a few years as a cartoonist. He was a stalwart of that institution and eventually served on the board as well as training other actors – including Jack Nicholson. Never the showiest of performers, he was a solid supporting man for a very long time, particularly on television. Then suddenly Francis Ford Coppola came a calling with one of his most wonderful and underrated films, Tucker:  The Man and His Dream, and Landau was lifted up once again to where he belonged earning a Golden Globe for his role. He had his breakthrough after 30 years. He became an auteur favourite with a brilliant leading part as a murderous adulterer in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and then for Tim Burton in the hilarious biography of the world’s worst ever film director, Ed Wood, when he played horror star Bela Lugosi. He found a kinship with the man who had been treated so terribly in Hollywood.  He won an Academy Award and it was a happy collaboration, with Burton getting him to return to other productions. He continued playing steadily in features and even returned happily to TV with memorable parts in Entourage in particular. His last film, fittingly, as leading man, was The Last Poker Game and he attended its release at the Tribeca Festival. He was married for 36 years to Barbara Bain, his Space: 1999 co-star. It was a good life, well lived.