Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971)

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I’m slow – but you’re slower!   Travelling con man Latigo Smith (James Garner) drifts into a small Western gold rush town called Purgatory, he decides to take advantage of a local rivalry between gold-mining factions. Recruiting the shifty Jug May (Jack Elam) to pose as a notorious gunfighter, Smith sets his scheme in motion, while also taking time to romance the lovely Patience Barton (Suzanne Pleshette) who likes nothing better than to shoot up the town. However, after his ruse is uncovered, Smith incurs the wrath of the real hired gun (Chuck Connors) among others, leading to a big shoot-out and his inability to ride a horse is artfully exposed:  or is it? …  This unofficial ‘sequel’ to Support Your Local Sheriff features a variation on the conman/trickster persona of Garner (playing a different character) and while James Edward Grant gets the screenplay credit it had an uncredited rewrite by director Burt Kennedy who came to make a speciality of the comedy western following his early genre work in the Scott/Boetticher cycle. This isn’t quite as sharply parodic as the earlier film and it doesn’t possess its coherence rather a series of amusing vignettes including explosions and a bar-room brawl but it has great work by Elam as the oafish sidekick whom Garner identifies to the locals as sharpshooter Swifty Morgan, nice characterisation as the bawdy madam by Joan Blondell, sporting a chihuahua (and she has a visit by fellow proprietress Marie Windsor!) and lovely support by Pleshette as the blast-happy daughter of Harry Morgan who masquerades as a prostitute but is the real love interest. Garner is great, as ever!

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Planet of the Apes (1968)

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You know what they say – human see, human do.  Three astronauts (Charlton Heston, Robert Gunner and Jeff Burton) come out of hibernation to find themselves marooned on a futuristic planet following a crash landing. Apes rule and humans are slaves, two thousand and thirty-one years away from Earth. The stunned trio discovers that these highly intellectual simians can both walk upright and talk. They have even established a class system and a political structure. The astronauts suddenly find themselves part of a devalued species, trapped and imprisoned by the apes, enslaved and treated like objects of derision and work value. However they become subjects of medical interest for archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) but Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) finds out and wants Taylor (Heston) castrated. When Taylor tries to escape he doesn’t  reckon on what he finds … Landmark science fiction, this was probably the first of the genre I ever saw (on TV) as a small child and it certainly was a great introduction to a kind of storytelling that is weirdly current and prescient, good on race relations and inhumanity as well as future shock. Pierre Boulle’s novel was originally adapted by Rod Serling but got a rewrite from formerly blacklisted Michael Wilson, who had done uncredited work on the screenplay for Boulle’s Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s a wildly exciting and unexpected story that retains its powerful examination of human behaviour. The final shot is jaw-dropping:  is it the greatest movie ending of them all? The original of the species. Directed by Franklin Schaffner, who was recommended by Heston, who himself would make a couple more terrific sci fis. Get your damn paws off me, you stinking apes!

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.

Captain Fantastic (2016)

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I’m writing down everything you say – in my mind. Disillusioned anti-capitalist intellectual Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his absent wife Leslie (she’s in a psychiatric facility) and their six children live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society,  their kids are being educated them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. When Leslie commits suicide, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time to attend her funeral in New Mexico where her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) fear for what is happening to their grandchildren and Ben is forced to confront the fact that the survivalist politics he has imbued in his offspring may not prepare them for real life… This starts with the killing of an animal in a ritual you might find in the less enlightened tribes. (Why did killing a deer become a thing a year ago?) Ben is teaching his eldest son Bodevan (George McKay) to be a man. But this is a twenty-first century tribe who are doing their own atavistic thing – just not in the name of Jesus (and there’s a funny scene in which they alienate a policeman by pretending to do just that) but that of Noam Chomsky. “I’ve never even heard of him!” protests their worried grandfather. Hearing the words “Stick it to the man!” coming out of a five year old is pretty funny in this alt-socialist community but the younger son in the family Rellian (Nicholas Rellian) believes Ben is crazy and has caused Leslie’s death and wants out.  Ironically and as Ben explains at an excruciating dinner with the brother in law (Steve Zahn) it was having children that caused her post-partum psychosis from which this brilliant lawyer never recovered. This stressor between father and younger son drives much of the conflict – that and Leslie’s Buddhist beliefs which are written in her Will and direct the family to have her cremated even though her parents inter her in a cemetery which the kids call a golf course. And Bodevan conceals the fact that he and Mom have been plotting his escape to one of the half dozen Ivy League colleges to which he’s been accepted. The irony that Ben is protecting his highly politicised kids from reality by having them celebrate Chomsky’s birthday when they don’t even know what a pair of Nikes are and have never heard of Star Trek is smart writing. Everything comes asunder when there are accidents as a result of the dangers to which he exposes them. This is a funny and moving portrait of life off the grid, with Mortensen giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as the man constantly at odds with the quotidian whilst simultaneously being a pretty great dad. McKay is terrific as the elder son who’s utterly unprepared for a romantic encounter in a trailer park. It really is tough to find your bliss. As delightful as it is unexpected, this is a lovely character study. Written and directed by Matt Ross.

Red River (1948)

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Cherry was right. You’re soft, you should have let ’em kill me, ’cause I’m gonna kill you. I’ll catch up with ya. I don’t know when, but I’ll catch up. Every time you turn around, expect to see me, ’cause one time you’ll turn around and I’ll be there. I’m gonna kill ya, Matt.Headstrong Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) starts a thriving Texas cattle ranch with the help of his faithful trail hand, Groot (Walter Brennan), and his protégé, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), an orphan Dunson took under his wing when Matt was a boy when he was the only survivor of an Indian attack on a wagon train. In need of money following the Civil War and 14 years after starting the ranch, Dunson and Matt lead a cattle drive to Missouri, where they will get a better price for his 10,000 head than locally, but the crotchety older man and his willful young partner begin to butt heads on the exhausting journey… Famous as a collision of egos and acting styles (Wayne vs. Clift, who was making his first pilgrimage from the New York stage), Paul Fix (who plays Teeler Yacey), Borden Chase and Charles Schnee adapted the screenplay from Chase’s Saturday Evening Post story Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, a fictional account of the first cattle drive west. It was shot in 1946 but director Howard Hawks was unhappy with the edit and handed it to Christian Nyby who spent a year on it. He declared of Wayne, I didn’t know the son of a bitch could act! And it is an extraordinary Freudian story in its contrast portraits of masculinity, a brilliant exposition of father-son conflict and of the kind of family romance most people don’t understand in the mythical context of the conquest of the land of the Americas. Quite profound and a great action movie too. Co-directed by Arthur Rosson.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

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I’ve studied you all these years – a little girl in a cage waiting for someone to let her out. In 1928 young Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) inadvertently causes the death of her cruel, authoritarian and extremely wealthy aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha lies to the police and Walter (Kirk Douglas), who saw the crime, corroborates the girl’s story. Eventually, they grow up and wed out of convenience; the meek and alcoholic Walter is genuinely in love, and Martha thinks that her secret is safe since she has married the one witness to her aunt’s death. As District Attorney he saw her lie on the stand and put an innocent man to death for the crime. However now Martha is trying to get Walter elected Governor and her childhood pal Sam (Van Heflin) shows up.  Martha knows her dark past may not stay a secret for long and Sam’s romance with Toni (Lizabeth Scott) – an ex-con just out of jail – threatens to come between them …  The film noir as hothouse melodrama, this has Stanwyck at her most manipulative since Double Indemnity but the surrounding performances are impressive as satellites to her cunning. Adapted by Robert Rossen (and an uncredited Robert Riskin)  from playwright John Patrick’s short story Love Lies Bleeding, this plays fast and loose with love and death, desire and obsession, betrayal and murder, marriage and entrapment. The pickup between Heflin and Scott is really something and the dialogue is really striking – just look at the way the Bible crops up at crucial plot points. Stanwyck’s string of extra-marital affairs reveals a longing for sex not often portrayed in Hollywood films of the era. Douglas makes an impressive debut as the weak husband just as capable of lying. The twisting DNA spiral of guilt and secrecy plays out brilliantly as these conflicted personalities bump up against one another in a deadly game. And what a twist(ed) ending! Listen to how the rain hits the windows of that fabulous house during some of the toughest conversations – talk about atmospheric! The cinematography by Victor Miler and score by Miklós Rósza are quite splendid. Directed by Lewis Milestone.

Cape Fear (1962)

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From my limited knowledge of human nature, Max Cady isn’t a man who makes idle threats. After an eight-year prison sentence for rape, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) targets Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), one of the lawyers who sent him away. When Max finds Sam and his family, he begins a terrifying stalking spree, intending to ruin Sam’s life. Desperate to protect his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin), Sam makes every effort to send Max back to jail. But when his attempts fail, Sam realizes that he must take matters into his own hands if he wants to rid his life of Max for good after he targets his family and makes the lewdest of provocative suggestions to the Councillor …  The great John D. MacDonald’s novel The Executioners was adapted by James R. Webb and director J. Lee Thompson turns the whole kit and caboodle into something absolutely sensational:  a crime thriller that has an extraordinary pair of performances at its helm and a great sense of place. Peck (reunited with his Guns of Navarone helmer) is the relentlessly decent family man driven to violence and Mitchum is extraordinary as the horrifically lascivious crim who says and does everything imaginable to torture him, playing the system to its limits for all it’s worth while Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas are on both their tails. Brilliantly shot, paced and designed and totally enervating. Fabulous.

Wayne’s World (1992)

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We’re not worthy! Sleazy advertising guy Benjamin Oliver (Rob Lowe) wants to take the public access show Wayne’s World to the world of commercial television. Slackers Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) battle to save the show and Wayne’s hot girlfriend, band singer Cassandra (Tia Carrere) from Oliver …  That’s just the start. This spin-off from a Saturday Night Live skit was dumped on Valentine’s Day 1992 – to a very appreciative audience as it happens. It went from here to cult fasterthanthis. Mike Myers’ McJobber Wayne Campbell became a spokesman for disenfranchised yet optimistic youth – even if we didn’t all put on a cable access show in our parents’ basement. Dana Carvey’s disciple Garth became a doer and not just a dweeb with an unfortunate overbite. These metalhead guys are lovable and full of heart and this perfectly postmodern comedy is a screamingly funny outing that has a host of sayings that still pepper my conversation while ordering Chinese food, singing along to Bohemian Rhapsody in the mirthmobile and eating Grey Poupon. Not! Directed by Penelope Spheeris. Party on! A sphincter says what?! Excellent! And monkeys might fly out of my butt! As if!

Born Free (1966)

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We spent the day in agony like the parents of a teenage girl out on her first date. At a national park in Kenya, English game warden George Adamson (Bill Travers) and his wife, Joy (Virginia McKenna), care for three orphaned lion cubs. After the two larger lions are shipped off to a zoo in the Netherlands, the smallest of the three, Elsa, stays with the couple. When Elsa is blamed for causing an elephant stampede in the nearby village, head warden John Kendall (Geoffrey Keen) demands the young lion either be trained to survive in the wilds of the Serengeti or be sent to a zoo… Joy Adamson’s 1960 book caused a sensation and was part of the beginning of a widespread conservation movement that radically informed westerners about the problems in maintaining wild populations on the continent of Africa. On a more personal level, this is an extremely moving story about her own romance with the wonderful lioness who became part of her life and how hard it was to let her go and live the life she’d been meant to have. Adapted by blacklisted Lester Cole (under the pseudonym Gerald L.C. Copley) this is a wonderfully made, utterly engrossing true story with all the jeopardy you’d expect given the setting which is tantalisingly photographed by Kenneth Talbot.  The co-stars are Girl, Boy, Ugas, Henrietta, Mara and the Cubs and they are completely fabulous. Even my little Graymalkin didn’t evince a shred of jealousy toward her large African cousins and she’s the flyingest supercat around. The soundtrack and theme song by John Barry (with lyrics by Don Black and performed over the end credits by the incomparable Matt Monro) will bring you to tears if the unsentimental drama does not (reader I blubbed all through it, all over again – I do it every time. ) The credits thank Hailie Selassie I among others. Golly. The making of the film transformed the lives of its stars, a real-life married couple who had previously co-starred in The Smallest Show on Earth. They started the Born Free Foundation which you can support here:  http://www.bornfree.org.uk/. The outcome for the Adamsons was rather different:  they were both murdered. By humans. Directed by documentary maker James Hill with uncredited work by Tom McGowan.