Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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I’m not home. I never will be. I first encountered a Nam vet on Central Park West. He chased me despite being on crutches that were well past their sell-by date. I guess maybe it was because I had more legs than he did. I was waiting tables in a township on Long Island called Massapequa at a ghastly restaurant where a deranged and thankfully distant relative worked. Massapequa is the hometown of the Baldwin brothers and Ron Kovic, the subject of this impassioned film by Oliver Stone, a man whose own combat experiences had informed his previous film, Platoon, that astonishingly immersive journey of a naif to manhood in a horrifying exposition of American soldiers’ experiences. Ron Kovic’s book is the basis of another coming of age tale, this time of a Catholic boy whose parents’ devotion to JFK unwittingly unleashes their sports-mad son’s inner patriot.  I hadn’t seen this since its release and my fresh impression of its first sequences was of overwrought melodrama, underlined by John Williams’ overheated score. But this is all of a piece with the film’s intentions:  starting with a heightened picture of America’s hearth and home;  the futility and horror of war; the brutality of veterans’ experiences in epically gruesome, filthy underfunded hospitals (Kovic’s God-loving mother never even paid him a visit); the utter loneliness of being a castrated, paralysed man with a beating heart and functioning brain who is ridiculed by the anti-war protesters; the recognition that the only people with whom he now has anything in common are the other vets who are even more fucked up than he is. And so it moves into its more austere final sections. Politicisation. Separation from a family who refuse to accept he could have killed women and children and for whom he is a mere embarassment in a block where the other soldiers at least died. Is there a better correlative image in Stone’s entire oeuvre than the crane shot over the Wilson family home, where Ron has confessed to killing new recruit, their nineteen year old son William, in the dunes of Nam as the sun flared during an ambush, then he is wheeled away by a helper amid the scraps and detritus dumped in their yard and the leafy branches fade into a fluttering stars and stripes – and we are plunged into more police brutality at the 1972 Republican convention where he has joined the protest movement? This is elegant filmmaking. It is not without its humour or self-awareness. Ron has finally had his cherry broken by a Mexican whore in a sequence of T&A that reunites Stone with Willem Defoe who welcomes him to this sick paradise and he thinks it’s love – but hides his gift for her when he realises sex with a cripple is just a job for her. These vets’ wheelchair-off is a salve for those of us who might have liked to see one between Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, who beat him to an Academy Award that year (DDL gurned more). I’ve never been back to Massapequa or that cruddy restaurant but Stephen Baldwin has a small role as a schoolfriend, Tom Berenger gets him to join up, Frank Whaley is the other surviving vet who helps Ron out of his doomladen hole and Kyra Sedgwick is the gorgeous girl he loved so much he ran through the rain to dance with her at the Prom and she turns him on to the anti-war crusade. Cruise is simply great, giving a complete performance from boy to man in a narrative which exemplifies the art of juxtaposition and emotional arcs. This is cinema, utterly moving and indignant and humane. Watch it and weep.

Top Gun (1986)

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I feel the need … the need for speed! Tom Cruise sped into the stratosphere of stardom with this emblem of the Reagan-Star Wars era of geopolitics and it performed pretty much like the recruitment video (game) that it really is. With Psychology 101 as the basis for the rudimentary screenplay by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.,  adapting a California magazine story.  Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell is sent by dint of happenstance (his better colleague quits) to the elite fighter pilot naval school. He’s dealing with daddy issues, has a great best friend and co-pilot, Goose (Anthony Edwards) and he falls for trainer Kelly McGillis. The romance is unbelievable, Goose dies in a flatspin – not Maverick’s fault, whew! – and gurning Aryan Val Kilmer is the Iceman who can. It looks great, the stunts are fabulous and the songs are still famous with a soundtrack embedded in our collective brain but this gets stranger by the year! Directed by the late Tony Scott.

The Land Before Time (1988)

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Littlefoot and his mom are caught up in the Big Earthshake and he is now orphaned, left to find The Great Valley on his own, but with her tree star (a leaf) and instructions on how to get there. He teams up with other little dinos and they endure obstacles and giant dinosaurs from other tribes as they attempt to survive. This thinly-rendered visual exploration of what could have happened is however charming, well voiced and established and comes courtesy of Don Bluth who established an animation outfit in Ireland for a spell. We don’t learn what species these kids are but we can relate to the difficulty of being in gangs, remaining friends with other kids you fear or dislike or don’t trust and how to cope when you’re all alone in the world. Dazzling score by James Horner. Sweet as anything but not for the gun-totin’ Creationist in the family.

Risky Business (1983)

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What was it about Chicago’s North Shore that inspired such good movies in the 80s? It’s hard to believe but it’s 34 years since Tom Cruise became a star – and this smart, tart satire about sex and money is the reason why. Joel Goodson (Cruise) is mostly a good boy but his grades are not top notch and his dad is trying to get him into Princeton. The folks are going out of town for the weekend so it’s time to bust out some bucks and deliver some guys of their innocence courtesy of some hookers after one attempt goes wrong. One of them is Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) who as well as spending the night, has an idea for some moneymaking activities to pay her bill – and the damage to the family Porsche – which coincide with the visit from the Princeton rep (Richard Masur): Joel has turned his folks’ house into a brothel. He makes a pile of money. Then Lana’s pimp (Joe Pantoliano) wants a piece and holds the furniture ransom.  Cruise is flawless in Paul Brickman’s directing debut (working from his original screenplay.) We all know the iconic moments – Cruise dancing in his pants, his winning smile, the sex act on the train (the last time Cruise knowingly participated in such a thing onscreen – and performed to Phil Collins of all people!) but it’s a sharp social commentary too, with a great soundtrack courtesy of Tangerine Dream (remember them?!) as well of course as Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll. This was really on the money and retains its impact. Classic.

The Dark Crystal (1982)

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A long time ago, on a planet far, far away … I had to be persuaded to watch quest narratives after mistakenly wandering into the Ralph Bakshi animation of Lord of the Rings instead of Superman at a very young and impressionable age. No such worries here. It’s a straightforward fantasy in all but one respect – it’s performed by animatronic puppets, and very attractive and convincing they are too, created by Jim Henson at his creature workshop. Jen (Stephen Garlick) is the last surviving Gelfling who has been raised by The Mystics. They need to restore balance to the world by replacing a shard in the eponymous crystal which has long stopped shining, otherwise the evil Skeksis will retain control of the universe. A prophecy foretells their defeat … On his journey he encounters Kira (Lisa Maxwell) and a romance of sorts develops as they tackle various obstacles – particularly the very funny vultures they are trying to vanquish. There is a highly amusing Delphic Oracle, witchlike Aughra, a hilarious pet (Fizzgig), impressive Longstriders, frightening Garthim (crab monsters) and tremendous production design so inventive and multi-faceted you want to dive through the screen. Gorgeous, magical, somewhat sinister and pretty much perfect. And it’s only 94 minutes long! Written by David Odell and directed by Henson with Frank Oz.

The Shining (1980)

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In the bigger scheme of things I have no idea what this film is about and I don’t know anyone who does. It started as an adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel but it evolved into something he disliked intensely.  It boasts a key performance in Jack Nicholson’s career – in which those eyebrows are utilised to express something truly demonic and he launched a million caricatures not least when he hymned Johnny Carson.  The bones of King’s novel are here – wannabe writer Jack Torrance decamps with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and little son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains to act as caretaker in the off season, hoping to overcome writer’s block. His son has psychic premonitions, possessed by the building itself, which however do not manage to overwhelm him and he shares their secrets with chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) with whom he communicates telepathically. Then Jack senses the hotel’s secrets – it’s built on a Native American burial ground – and he starts to lose his mind as we begin to connect the dots with a party that took place in 1921 and a photograph …  What happens here is not as important as how it looks.  Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson remove all the tropes that characterise the haunted house novel and we are left with overlit flatness and unsaturated colours that repeat and repeat and create their own rhythm. There are images that sear themselves on your brain:  the elevator pouring blood into those endless corridors that get longer and longer as Danny cycles up and down the hotel;  the twin Grady girls; the bar that suddenly opens up;  the nubile young woman who turns into an old crone; Wendy finding out what Jack’s been typing for months and months on those sheaves of paper;  Danny’s voice, growling red rum, red rum;  and Jack hacking through the bathroom door with an ax as Wendy cowers; Jack killing Dick, whose return to the hotel is because he senses that Danny needs him; the maze filling with snow as Danny tries to escape his lunatic father. Kubrick’s authorial vision produces something very odd and compelling and against the notion of the traditional horror film, perhaps minus all those strange theories promulgated by the documentary Room 237 which has a major preoccupation with presumed spatial discrepancies in the building’s layout. This is notable for Garret Brown’s use of the Steadicam, another instance of Kubrick’s obsession with using all the then-new technology to create powerful visuals. This production may have arisen from the master’s deep need to make a commercial hit after the failure of the beautiful Barry Lyndon, but one thing’s for sure about this ghost story like no other – once seen, never forgotten. Here’s Johnny!

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

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It behoves us on Jack Nicholson’s 80th birthday to celebrate one of his most scorching performances in a totally filthy film. In this remake of the James M. Cain novel, he’s the drifter who fetches up at a diner in the middle of nowhere and becomes embroiled in a sordid romance with the proprietor’s wife (Jessica Lange) who wants him to kill her husband (John Colicos). Director Bob Rafelson was one of those people who played an enormous role in Nicholson’s career. Nicholson wrote the screenplay for Head, the movie about The Monkees, the band Rafelson created for a TV comedy show and then they became almost as big as The Beatles. He produced Easy Rider which gave Nicholson the keys to the kingdom, pretty much. Then he directed him in Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, where he gave two of his great performances. They would reunite a decade after this for Man Trouble but this adaptation by David Mamet (making his debut as screenwriter) really hit buttons on release – I didn’t see it because I was way too young but I remember the fuss – and the trailers – and the poster!. The kitchen sex scene is one of the most jaw dropping couplings you will ever see this side of a porno and both Nicholson and Lange are simply astonishing in this tale of utter amorality. Some people don’t like the ending, but hey, you can’t always get what you want. This is some birthday celebration, eh?! Golly!

Dead Calm (1989)

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This was the film that introduced Nicole Kidman to the wider world – and she makes quite a splash, even with her original face. She and husband Sam Neill are recovering from the death of their child on a pleasant ocean sailing trip … and then they make the classic mistake of picking up sexy hitch hiker Billy Zane who of course is a total psycho who murdered his fellow sailors in a spree. Taut, brilliant storytelling, expertly directed by Philip Noyce, working from Terry Hayes’ adaptation of Charles Williams’ claustrophobic novel. Beautifully performed and made with an enviable Great Barrier Reef setting and atmospheric score by Graeme Revell. Top notch entertainment.

Big Business (1988)

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Is this how you dress for the office? You look like a blood clot! Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin in a reworking of The Comedy of Errors? (With maybe a touch of The Prince and the Pauper… and Aesop).  NYC 1988?  The Plaza? Hell yeah! They’re the two mismatched pairs of identical twin sisters separated at birth in a country hospital in the 1940s and now … the bumpkins are coming to the big city to deal with the proposed takeover of their family firm in Jupiter Hollow which is being handled by … their posh twins whose socialite folks were just passing through forty years earlier! And neither set knows the other set exists! And they have the same names – Rose and Sadie – because the poor farmer overheard the rich guy naming his daughters! Bette is the obnoxiously bitchy divorced CEO with a kid she pays to do better at school, Lily is the timid flibbertigibbet sister who can eat anything and is sympathetic to the factory at Jupiter Hollow because their father wanted it in the family to honour their birthplace; and Bette is also the louder bumpkin with the skinny sweet sister who runs their company. When they get the posh women’s suite at the Plaza all sorts of screwball mixups ensue which should be a little funnier – costume and accents are not as riotous as they might be but when push comes to shove country Sadie’s wannabe beau (Fred Ward) turns up and the company’s execs think he’s a conman – who doesn’t get it when they invite him to sleep on their couch (they’re a gay couple).  The finale – the meeting with the stockholders – is run like a scene from Dynasty because country Rose has studied Alexis Carrington like a book. The writing (by Dori Pierson and Marc Reid Rubel) lets this brilliant premise deflate – not to get too Aristotelian about it there are  no real scenes of ‘recognition’ other than the failsafe one in the Ladies’ bathroom and the original baby switch which leads to the concluding life swap is never dealt with satisfactorily in terms of even reference to it – this convoluted plot never really stands scrutiny. But it’s a breezy show even if these fabulous women never really get their considerable comic chops into it. Wonder what would have happened if Barbra Streisand and Goldie Hawn had starred, as was intended?! Heck, the clothes are just great. Directed by Jim Abrahams.

Platoon (1986)

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I wasn’t in Nam. Hardly. The closest I ever got was playing Quasar and once being chased near Central Park West by an old one-legged vet on cheap wooden crutches. Maybe I reminded him of someone. But a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, this won a slew of Academy Awards. This being the season for it, time to pull it out again. And like the other big Nam movies – Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket – it’s pretty schematised in its design. But the letters that Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) writes home make it more personal and immersive because he’s so very young and idealistic (and ridiculously handsome) and in his first experience of ambush he’s pretty much responsible for his new friend’s death. It’s unbearably tense. The guys are stuck between the noble warrior Willem Dafoe and the deranged psycho Tom Berenger – characterised as the good and bad fathers, thus giving us Chris’ Freudian perspective on the drama. The final assault, a raid on the Cambodian border, is bloody and unbound. It’s gripping, gritty and tense, the juxtaposition between the scenes of combat and those of male bonding is masterful and the emotion not supplied by the action is there in the incredible score by Georges Delerue, with Barber’s Adagio for Strings touching the parts even he can’t reach: you won’t forget this quickly, its imagery sears the brain. Simply great filmmaking by that old tyro Oliver Stone, based on his own Nam and the first of his trilogy. Now, on the same subject entirely, where’s my copy of Hamburger Hill?