The White Buffalo (1977)

The White Buffalo

Aka Hunt to Kill.  The whites have no honor. White man wants death, comes out of season.  In 1874 an ageing Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson) finds his dreams haunted by a rampaging white buffalo.  He decides the only solution is to find and kill the creature. With the help of his old friend One-Eyed Charlie (Jack Warden), he sets out across the snowy plains using the pseudonym James Otis, unaware that he’s not the only one looking for the fabled beast. Sioux Chief Crazy Horse (Will Sampson) has recently lost a daughter to the white buffalo, and he fears the girl’s soul won’t rest until he kills it. Hickok briefly resumes his relationship with lover Poker Jenny (Kim Novak) and takes to the mountains to kill his quarry because he has recurrent experiences of déjà vu and believes it is his destiny … Adapted by Richard Sale from his 1975 novel, this strange western has an unsettling effect. On the one hand it uses known facts about Hickok, on the other it melds elements of Moby Dick (and the recent Jaws) into a western setting to eerie purpose.  There is some nice character work by John Carradine, Shay Duffin, Clint Walker and Stuart Whitman. Bronson is Bronson, reunited with director J. Lee Thompson after St Ives.  Oddly satisfying Freudian outing even if Larry McMurtry said that Sale had impaled himself on the mythical story. Creature work by Carlo Rambaldi.

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Book Club (2018)

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 If women our age were meant to have sex God wouldn’t do what he does to our bodies. Four friends in Los Angeles, widowed Diane (Diane Keaton), hotel owner Vivian (Jane Fonda), divorced federal judge Sharon (Candice Bergen) and married chef Carol (Mary Steenburgen) have had a book club for thirty years and this month’s choice is Fifty Shades of Grey. It causes them all to re-evaluate their unhappy sex and romantic lives. Diane agrees to a date with a pilot (Andy Garcia) she meets on an aeroplane journey which offers a pleasing diversion from her two daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) nagging her to move to their basement in Arizona (bizarre).  Vivian hooks up with Arthur (Don Johnson) the radio producer she didn’t marry forty years earlier.  Sharon goes on dates with men she meets online.  Carol hasn’t had sex with newly retired Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) in six months and their dance classes fizzle out. As the women read the next books in the trilogy their lives become more complicated … There are some frankly strange story issues here and I don’t just mean E.L. James’ source books: Diane’s daughters’ behaviour is literally unbelievable, even for a comedy (and the pregnant one doesn’t even give birth by the end, probably a good thing);  Sharon’s second date doesn’t actually materialise (with Wallace Shawn); and we never see any of them doing the deed (part of the thesis about ender relationships).   However there are pluses:  there are great innuendo-ridden exchanges, particularly in the first half, when sex really is on the table. Fonda makes a meal of them: I don’t sleep with people I like, you know that. I gave that up in the 90’s. As in life, when emotions get in the way the dialogue dips a lot which is ironic considering this is about book lovers, as it were (insert your own Fifty Shades joke here – and E.L. James and her husband even make a short appearance).   The production design (Rachel O’Toole) and cinematography (Andrew Dunn) enhance a film fuelled by female star power (the men are mostly useless) with some very nice shots of the Santa Monica Pier and the Painted Desert to liven up your ageist horizons.  Written by debut director Bill Holderman with Erin Simms who presumably wanted us all to experience some kind of late life fake orgasm.

Hampstead (2017)

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What am I, your cause of the month now? Couldn’t get anywhere with global warming, no?An American widow Emily (Diane Keaton) living in the London suburb of Hampstead and an Irish man Donald (Brendan Gleeson) who lives on the Heath in an illegally erected shack form an unlikely alliance against unscrupulous property developers in the neighbourhood  as they both confront the fallout from their respective romantic entanglements … Diane Keaton has done rather well in work about ageing, particularly in the films of Nancy Meyers. Her ditzy carapace shields a core of steel and her charm is very winning, used correctly. Here she’s just doing it somewhere else – London – and she has a grown up son (James Norton) who’s relocating abroad and she’s got a mountain of debts left by her philandering husband.  Using a pair of binoculars she finds while trawling the attic to find anything she might sell to make ends meet, she spots a man being attacked on the heath. He’s the guy she spotted swimming in the pond. Their meet cute happens at Karl Marx’s grave which is a nice trope for the class and money basis of the unlikely narrative which is in all other matters pretty superficial. While her neighbour Fiona (Lesley Manville) tries to set her up with creepy ukulele-playing accountant James (Jason Watkins) who has designs on her, her campaign to save Donald from an eviction order pits her against Fiona’s property developer husband. The tone is mostly light but Donald’s character is given some heavy lines and the bear-like Gleeson does the drama here which lends this an unevenness that is inappropriate to something that otherwise might have played like a screwball comedy. Somehow he and Keaton cancel each other out instead of making a great couple. They each have great lines but the reactions are not right because they’re mostly in differing scenes. Keaton ‘becomes’ Keaton – she spots a beret in a window and eventually her drabness is transformed into a figure we know on- and offscreen as her character gains in confidence.  She now has a cause beyond her own immediate concerns about the taxman, but her occasional shrillness can’t compensate for what feels sometimes like an underwritten script by Robert Festinger:  she only gets angry at her husband’s grave and we learn at the film’s conclusion it appears Fiona likely knew about the mistress and didn’t tell Emily. Norton’s cursory appearances seem like a last minute addition and do nothing to characterise her predicament which was devised as a fictional device to complement the real story of Hampstead Heath squatter Harry Hallowes. Phil Davis and Simon Callow are terrific in the courtroom scene but this lacks the chemistry between the leads that might have pulled it up beyond its bogus plot contrivances:  even the ending has a very obvious metaphor about navigating your path in life! These fish out of water are destined to swim away from each other, methinks. Directed by Joel Hopkins.

Nothing Like a Dame (2018)

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When in doubt – don’t. Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright gather in the country home Plowright shared with the late Laurence Olivier and reminisce, laugh and excoriate their various experiences on stage and in films in careers that began in the mid-fifties and in three of their cases (Plowright is now blind) continue in the present day. Their friendship and camaraderie is enhanced by their mutual laughter and ribbing and encouragement, with memories of Olivier (good and bad) looming large especially for Smith who was his frequent leading lady and whom he hit nightly onstage as Desdemona when she refused to do a Thornton Wilder play.  “It was the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre.” She is damning. Yet there is an extraordinary interview with her from the Sixties when she admits she steals everything from Kenneth Williams. At her side, Dench corpses frequently. Working with their various husbands, nailing kippers to the underside of dining tables at unpleasant boarding houses while touring in rep, being terrified daily on film sets, these dames have seen and done it all and love to have a good old gossip. I could watch them forever, breaking the fourth wall and mocking the crew ‘n’ all. The clips and photos are gold. Directed by Roger Michell, when he’s permitted.

Monte Walsh (1970)

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I wish I knew something besides cowboyin’. It’s the end of the great wild west era and ageing cowboys Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) arrive in the town of Harmony, where they reconnect with their old friend Shorty Austin (Mitch Ryan). The former wanderers do their best to settle down: Chet gets married and finds work, while Monte pursues saloon girl Martine (Jeanne Moreau) to a nearby township. But when the doldrums of sedentary life set in, they begin falling apart and find themselves embroiled in robbery, murder and vandalism and Monte’s failure to tame a bronco triggers a crisis… A beautiful directing debut for renowned cinematographer William A. Fraker. Its elegiac quality is underlined by the wonderfully empathetic score by John Barry, probably one of his most haunting themes. The romance between Marvin and Moreau is delightful while the shift in tone at the conclusion in this story of transition to modernity is captured sorrowfully by the photography of David M. Walsh. Adapted by Lukas Heller and David Zelag Goodman from Jack (Shane) Schaefer’s novel, this is western as metaphor. Quite marvellous.

Return of the Gunfighter (1967) (TVM)

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The odds were 6 to 1 against him! Ben Wyatt (Robert Taylor) is an ageing gunfighter who has grown weary of his lifestyle and is looking for a quiet time after being released from a five-year prison sentence. But when an old friend, Luis Domingo (Rodolfo Hoyos Jr.), asks for help defending his land, Ben can’t say no. Unfortunately, he arrives too late, finding Luis and his entire family except daughter Anisa (Ana Martín) murdered. Ben is determined to get revenge against the killers, and in pursuing them reluctantly enlists  a younger wounded gunfighter, Lee Sutton (Chad Everett). Anisa is recognised in Lordsburg  by the killers – even while wearing men’s clothes – and Ben needs to step up to save her from the men who destroyed her family but they turn out to be Sutton’s brothers … With a screenplay by Burt Kennedy and Robert Buckner this has pretty impeccable credentials. There’s a clarity (even simplicity) about the gunslingers versus hombres setup that is reflected in the glossy cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks on location in Arizona. However Taylor’s star was on the wane and it serves as a footnote to his long career, released on ABC TV with cinema distribution only outside the US. It’s interesting as an introduction to Butch Cassidy (John Crawford) and the Sundance Kid (John Davis Chandler) but there are no real surprises although it’s nice to observe the byplay between Taylor and Everett as the older man confronts his mortality.  It took me a while to even recognise him:  this is the ageing process in living colour but he would die of lung cancer within two years of filming. This was his final western and third last film and he gives a fascinating performance.  He hosted the TV anthology series Death Valley Days from 1966-69.  Directed by James Neilson.

20th Century Women (2016)

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Wondering if you’re happy is a shortcut to being depressed. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California.  Architect Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a sprawling 1905 fixer-upper boarding house at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion.  William (Billy Crudup) the contractor renting a room doesn’t seem like an appropriate father figure so Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the house and neighbour Julie (Elle Fanning) a savvy and provocative teenage neighbour who often spends the night sleeping there – to help with Jamie’s upbringing. Trouble is, she doesn’t really like what’s happening to him and finds it difficult to reconcile the female-centric education with the man she wants him to be … Mike Mills’ autobiographical film has something of an arm’s length feel which you can surmise from the title. In creating this portrait of his mother he is keen to contextualise her in terms of her time and the opportunities open to her. Jamie often excuses the attitudes of this quasi-androgynous high-achieving divorcee with the line, Don’t worry about Mom, she’s from the Depression. Framing his semi-biographical comic drama in the terms of feminist and punk politics sometimes seems like a microscope powered by sociology is being applied in a film essay style instead of a dramatic eye when you want these lives to intersect more. However the drama is triggered by the opening scene when the family car spontaneously combusts in a parking lot.  It’s a good catalyst for the series of events to follow as Jamie’s adolescence progresses and Dorothea says in a moment of truth to Abbie, You get to see him out in the world and I never will. It’s a startling admission and something in these lines fuels a powerful drama that’s concealed between the smarts and upfront sex talk. Look at Bening’s face when her son tells her he thinks it’s good for him to be informed about clitoral stimulation. She’s the one who wanted him to learn how to be a man after all – she just didn’t know how it would make her feel when he goes out of his way to learn how to be a good man. There’s a lot to like here in an ironic mode and in a sense it’s crystallised by the cultural references – culminating in the clips from Koyaanisqatsi and Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech when he says the country is at a turning point:  they serve to illuminate the theme of the personal as political.  We are all living in the fallout from what was going on in northern Cali in the late 70s and Mills captures this in an uncanny fashion, fixing on a time that has birthed where we are now (albeit now it’s monetised). The production design is just right – the mix of the early 70s vogue for Art Nouveau with the well-placed mushroom lamp, the battle between Talking Heads and Black Flag fans which has a visual result on the doors of Dorothea’s Bug. There are a lot of good aesthetic and narrative choices here coupled with some very sympathetic performances amid a raft of generational and gendered experiences, Abbie and Julie’s mother issues being succinctly handled in parallel stories within medical and therapeutic settings. There is of course a nostalgic air but it’s cut through with intellectual argument bathed in California sun. Sensitive, seductive, suprising and satisfying.

Se7en (1995)

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Just because he’s got a library card doesn’t make him Yoda.  Police Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) has a week left on the job when he is set the task of tackling a final case with the aid of newly transferred David Mills (Brad Pitt), they discover a number of elaborate and grizzly murders. They soon realize they are dealing with a serial killer calling himself John Doe who is targeting people he thinks represent one of the seven deadly sins. Somerset befriends Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is pregnant and afraid to raise her child in the crime-riddled city. By using an illegal FBI trick of tracking certain public library book titles they find a likely suspect and enter an apartment building where they’re attacked by a gunman who just might be their target but there are two more sins to go …  Andrew Kevin Walker’s dense and sharply written script is given an astonishingly immersive workout by director David Fincher and it’s one of the key films of the Nineties. Into those rain-slicked NYC streets run two great movie policemen, the grizzled Freeman and the ambitious impatient young Pitt who take such a long time to get into each other’s working rhythm. And when they do, they’re chasing the man who’s really chasing them.  This is a brutal, violent work which raises torture to a kind of poetic, along the lines of John Doe’s literary inspirations, Dante and Thomas Aquinas. As he works through the various sins the sheer horror of the scenes still shocks. This wouldn’t be the last of Walker’s dark screenplays but in some ways he has never written anything as truly horrifying as the last scene shot in the bright outdoors in stark contrast to the claustrophobic interiors that characterise the sadism at the center of the narrative. There’s a subliminal cut which will make you think you’ve seen something you haven’t. Oh my gosh this is absolutely compelling. Even if his brain weren’t mush which it is he chewed off his tongue long ago.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

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I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.  An imposing black structure provides a connection between the past and the future. When Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and other astronauts are sent on a mysterious mission to investigate an object hidden beneath the lunar surface their ship’s computer system, HAL, begins to display increasingly strange behavior, leading up to a tense showdown between man and machine that results in a mind-bending trek through space and time… One of the great auteur works that has the courage to make an intellectual (and visual) leap that would elude lesser writers and filmmakers. Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of Arthur C. Clarke’s story The Sentinel (they wrote the novel and screenplay simultaneously in their unique collaboration) has not lost its oddly intimate power and remains the benchmark for everything that followed in science fiction with its take on evolution and man’s relationship to the universe.  The Star Gate sequence, zero gravity scenes and visual effects are transcendent. Kubrick abandoned Alex North’s commissioned score for the existing recordings of classical music which he had used for the guide track. A film of utter audacity.

Going in Style (2017)

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These banks practically destroyed this country. They crushed a lot of people’s dreams, and nothing ever happened to them. We three old guys, we hit a bank. We get away with it, we retire in dignity. Worst comes to the worst, we get caught, we get a bed, three meals a day, and better health care than we got now. Lifelong friends Willie (Morgan Freeman), Joe (Michael Caine) and Albert (Alan Arkin) decide to buck retirement and step off the straight-and-narrow when their pension funds become a casualty of corporate financial misdeeds. They’re living on social security and eating dog food so what have they got to lose by taking a little action? Desperate to pay the bills and come through for their loved ones, they risk it all by knocking off the very bank that absconded with their money … The original had Art Carney, George Burns and  Lee Strasberg but in Theodore Melfi’s screenplay from the 1979 story by Edward Cannon, director Zach Braff appeals to the grey dollar audience with some of our favourite Sixties and Seventies performers with Freeman for good measure. Why wouldn’t you want to see this aged crew carry out a heist?! It’s conventionally made but has a resonance maybe moreso than the Seventies’ film did, with the banking crisis still having the ripple effect into everyone’s lives as a life’s work and savings vanish. It’s a lot of fun but says things about society and also the effect that participating in such a crime might have while quietly acknowledging that serial administrations simply permitted corporate criminals to ruin lives on an unprecedented scale and nine years later the effects are still being felt.  The guys have some good repartee and it’s pleasing to see a bunch of geezers making off with bags of swag.  Plus there’s Matt Dillon as an FBI guy and Ann-Margret for the Grumpy Old Men/Viva Las Vegas demographic.  What’s not to like?! For a comedy with a message this is a lot of fun.