Country (1984)

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We’re not dealing in real estate. We’re trying to farm.  Jewell (Jessica Lange) and Gil Ivy (Sam Shepard) run a farm in Iowa that has been in her family for generations. They make enough to just about get by until two devastating events threaten to take their land away. First, a tornado tears through the farming community and devastates the area, then the Farmers Home Administration calls in loans owed by most of the area’s farmers, which most are in no position to repay. The stress buckles Gil and he resorts to getting loaded every night leaving Jewell to do the math and figure out a way to save their way of life… William Wittliff’s screenplay is a properly political piece of work, focussing on the specifics of a family’s response to economic disaster in the era of Reaganomics – to the point that the President decried it which means it hit home.  Gil isn’t exactly a wastrel but his father in law (Wilford Brimley) leaves us in no doubt that he believes he has thrown away an opportunity to make a financial surplus on the best land in the county. Was his drinking to blame for the threatened foreclosure? Terrific performances in this detailed portrait of family life with a standout lowkey characterisation by Levi Knebel as teenaged son Carlisle. There’s an opportunity to see famed drama coach Sandra Seacat play neighbour Louise Brewer whose husband hides sheep from the banks on the Ivy land. The auction scene makes you weep. Heartfelt, powerful stuff. Produced by Wittliff and Lange and directed by Richard Peerce.

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The Founder (2016)

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It’s the name. That glorious name, McDonald’s. It could be, anything you want it to be… it’s limitless, it’s wide open… it sounds, uh… it sounds like… it sounds like America. In 1954 struggling Illinois salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) beefs up his pitch by listening to recordings of self-help books to help him on the road selling milkshake makers to drive-in restaurant proprietors. Then he meets Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), who are running a very speedy burger operation in 1950s Southern California. Kroc is knocked out by the brothers’ hyperefficient system of making the food and sees franchise potential. With the help of a financial expert Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) who directs him to look at the property side of the business nationwide, Kroc leverages his position to pull the company from the brothers and create a multi-billion dollar empire… This tale of venality and daylight robbery is shot in presumably ironic glossy light by the estimable John Schwartzman, crowning a dazzling performance by Keaton who is really on top form here.  His phonecalls to the brothers are the underpinning of the narrative structure and how he splits them from their joint decision-making process is a masterclass. It operates like a thriller, showing Kroc go down by mortgaging the home he shares with his unhappy hangdog wife Ethel (Laura Dern) and then rising to the top by deceiving the brothers horribly – Mac is susceptible to his sales patter, Dick regrets the day they bought his milkshake machine – and, as we suspect he will, marrying franchise operator Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini) who is as grasping as himself:  when they look in each other’s eyes they see dollar signs (they duet on Pennies From Heaven in front of her husband, played by Patrick Wilson). Then they conquered the world with their disgusting fake food and counted their money in Beverly Hills. How depressing. Greed is not good. Produced by Jeremy Renner, written by Robert Siegel, directed by John Lee Hancock. To be filed under True Crime.

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.

Run for Cover (1955)

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Do you think putting a gun in his hand will cure what is in his heart? After being mistaken for train robbers and shot and injured by a wrongheaded posse an ex-convict drifter Matt Dow (James Cagney) and his flawed young partner whom he’s just met Davey Bishop (John Derek) are made sheriff and deputy of a Western town. Bishop is deeply resentful of the people who’ve crippled him while Matt befriends and then romances the daughter Helga (Viveca Lindfors) of the recent Swedish emigrant Swenson (Jean Hersholt) who takes in the pair while Davey is getting medical treatment. Then the crime rate surges with the re-appearance of an outlaw who Matt knows from his time in prison where he did six years in a case of mistaken identity …  Winston Miller’s screenplay is from the story by Harriet Frank Jr and Irving Ravetch. It lacks the baroque weirdness of Nicholas Ray’s previous western, Johnny Guitar and the soaring emotionality of his forthcoming Rebel Without a Cause, but it is notable that in a script featuring a mentoring relationship of the father-son type that the focus is on the older  man’s experiences with Derek becoming a substitute for Cagney’s son whose death ten years earlier is not explained. Derek plays a prototype of the aspiring juvenile delinquent character that would be front and centre of Rebel but here he’s the antagonist whose bitterness is supposedly because of being crippled courtesy of the town’s lynch mob but whom Cagney finally realises is rotten no matter what the cause. Not a classic but interesting to look at for Ray’s compositions in an evolving cinematic signature and for the contrasting performances. There are some nice lines too, such as when Matt asks Swenson for his daughter’s hand in marriage:  Ever since you leave she go round like lost heifer. Derek’s role is a pointer to many of the tropes in the JD cycle to come with Cagney very far from giving him soft soap treatment:  Why don’t you stop going round feeling sorry for yourself! Other people have it far worse!

 

The Furies (1950)

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I have no stomach for the way you live. It’s the 1870s. Widower T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) rules his sprawling New Mexico ranch with an iron fist, a born-again Napoleon who pays with his own currency, TC’s. But his authority doesn’t extend to his strong-willed daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), who both hates and loves her father with equal ferocity. He abandoned her mother for an inter-racial affair and she died at The Furies, her bedroom a mausoleum left precisely as she left it with Vance fiercely guarding it. Tensions rise when Vance falls for bad boy saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), whom T.C. buys off. But the family conflict turns violent when T.C. decides to marry Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) and evict Vance’s childhood friend Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) from his land… Charles Schnee adapted Niven Busch’s novel and Anthony Mann does quite an exquisite job of staging the action, with his customary mountainous settings providing an objective correlative for a literally furious woman to take revenge. The interiors are no less impressive with the Gothic trappings enhancing the Freudian subtext with both Oedipus and Electra active in the arena of gender identification. There is a mythical quality to this classic narrative and the visuals reinforce a sense of homoerotic voyeurism in a film which constantly veers toward the psychosexual. Stanwyck is magnificent in one of the key roles of her career and the first of her seven western parts in the 1950s which laid the groundwork for her Big Valley matriarch a decade later. There is a domestic scene of horrifying violence that is for the record books. Rivalry was rarely so vicious. Notable for being Walter Huston’s final film performance.  It was shot by Victor Milner with uncredited work done by Lee Garmes and Franz Waxman provides the aggressively tragic score. I write about Stanwyck’s Fifties Westerns  in Steers, Queers and Pioneers, which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/stanwyck-part-1/.

 

 

 

 

 

Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983) (TVM)

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I’d left it too late. That’s the funny thing – everyone thinks they’re exempt. It’s 1974, and Barbara Dean (Judi Dench) is a British assistant manager and loan officer in a foreign bank in Saigon.  She’s something of a depressive and has to ward off the advances of her co-worker Donald (Roger Rees) while her narration informs us she has been a woman of secrets ever since having an affair with a friend of her father’s at a very young age. She meets an American Bob Chesneau (Frederic Forrest) at the end of a party one night when she’s waiting for a taxi home. She has fended off the interest of Frank (Wallace Shawn), a US Embassy officer with whom she plays bridge. She and Bob begin a relationship and she realises that he’s not a cultural attaché but he works for the CIA and knows that the fall of South Vietnam is very near because sources suggest the North Vietnamese are stepping up plans to take Saigon. Things are heating up at the bank when a member of the public comes in armed with a gun demanding all his money. Barbara delays planning her departure even when she’s helping the locals get passports for their own hasty exits. Bob tries to persuade his boss Jack Ockham (Josef Sommer) and the US Ambassador (E.G. Marshall) to evacuate the South Vietnamese who have been working for them but the Ambassador wants to appease President Thieu’s regime. Bob and Barbara’s relationship suffers under the strain …  Made for Thames TV, this is a real auteur work – an original teleplay by theatrical giant David Hare and directed by Stephen Frears the year before he made The Hit. Dench was likewise a lady of the theatre albeit with some TV in the bag but it was a long time before America discovered her properly in Goldeneye. If the direction feels a little clunky at times, and perhaps it’s due to both the low budget and the schematic constraints of Hare’s writing, there are some good elements. There’s a nice juxtaposition when the Jolly Green Giants swoop into the city and White Christmas is on the soundtrack – as Bob has said, When the radio stations play all Bing Crosby Americans know it’s the end.  This is a rather obvious trope but is used to signify that the US military are really out of their depth. There’s a nicely mounted tension and the intermittent meetings between the US Ambassador and the nervy hard-drinking Ockham, with Shawn’s character providing a kind of Greek chorus, add to the sense of fear. Spooky to think that of the cast it’s Judi Dench who went from strength to strength while the marvellous Forrest has been more or less retired for decades. I haven’t seen him since he played in John Frankenheimer’s last movie 16 years ago, coincidentally another TV movie about Nam, Path to War. Now that is a real injustice. I miss him. George Fenton’s score is nicely understated.

 

Wall Street (1987)

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Life all comes down to a few moments. This is one of them.  Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is an impatient and ambitious young stockbroker doing what he can to make his way to the top. He idolises a ruthless corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and using information from his union leader father (Martin Sheen) about his airline persuades him into mentoring him with insider trading. As Fox becomes embroiled in greed and underhanded schemes including spying on a British CEO Lawrence Wildman (Terence Stamp) and is blindsided by a fake romance with interior decorator Darien (Daryl Hannah) who is actually Gekko’s mistress, his decisions eventually threaten his dad’s livelihood. Faced with this dilemma, Fox questions his loyalties…A veritable barrage of aphorisms pours from the mouth of Michael Douglas in this slick, showy, unsubtle exposition of moneymakers in the wake of a real-life insider trading scandal which gave this movie so much traction back in the day. With their contrasting acting styles, Douglas, Sheen (and Sheen pere) make this forward-moving father-son drama fly as Bud forges his way through life trying to discern false and real gods and placing his faith in the wrong guy long enough to get into real trouble. This journey from naif to adult is a good showcase for Sheen whose preternatural beauty solidifies into knowledge and maturity as the film progresses and it provides a great offset to an amazing Oscar-winning performance since the brutal Douglas as the man who will do anything to make money bestrides the drama. Greed is good. Lunch is for wimps. I look at you, I see myself. You’re not naive enough to think you’re living in a democracy are you? This is the free market! How he makes these Sun Tzu-isms sing! Oliver Stone’s muscular screenplay doesn’t flag and it’s nice to see Sean Young (as Mrs Gekko) reunited with Hannah years after Blade Runner as the latter does a horrifying makeover on Bud’s new apartment. Truly an iconic work.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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You sit here and you spin your little web and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Up in Heaven Clarence (Henry Travers) is awaiting his angel’s wings when a case is made to him about George Bailey (James Stewart) who’s thinking about jumping off a bridge and into a wintry river at Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve 1945. Clarence is told George’s story: as a young boy rescuing his brother Harry from an icy pond, to his father’s death just when his own life should have been taking off and he winds up staying in this loathsome little town running the bank and having his honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) ruined when there’s a run on the bank’s funds … and losing himself amid other people’s accidents, deaths and rank stupidity while the town runs afoul of greedy financier Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George is such a great guy with dreams of travel and adventure and the truth is he never leaves home and becomes a martyr to other people. I’ve always found this immensely depressing. What happens to him – the sheer passive aggression directed at him and the loss of all of his ambitions in order to satisfy other people’s banal wishes at the expense of his own life’s desires  – is a complete downer. Reworking A Christmas Carol with added danger it feels like a post-war attempt to make people feel happy with their very limited lot. Which is why I watch this very rarely and with complete reluctance precisely because its petty moralising is achieved so beautifully and rationally … So sue me! Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling and directed by Frank Capra.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

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Appears to me you’ve been seventeen kinds of damned fool. Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) has been abandoned to die by fellow failed prospectors Taggart (L.Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin) in the Arizona desert. When he finds a water source he digs a ditch and determines to settle there and charge passers by for a drink at his way station. When fake priest Rev. Joshua Sloane (David Warner) – minister of a church of his own revelation – stops and introduces him to photos of some fresh female flesh and enquires about ownership Hogue races to file a land claim at nearby Dead Dog where he takes a fancy to feisty prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens). She joins him after being run out of town. They take leave of each other when she sees he isn’t committed to her. When Taggart and Bowen return in his absence they see an opportunity for prospecting. Then he comes back and takes charge but there’s a car on the horizon … Hogue is one of Peckinpah’s most empathetic characters, a rounded individual and funny with it and is embodied wonderfully wryly by Robards who has rarely been better. Stevens is equally at home with the material and their scenes together are remarkably tender (not for nothing did she get the Reel Cowboys’ Silver Spur award for her contribution to the western). This is a highly unconventional exercise in genre with marvellous characters adorning a story that is – as the title suggests – a kind of elegy to frontier life, with songs (by Richard Gillis) playing a large role in the narrative whose tragicomic end can be inferred. The end of the Old West is symbolised by the arrival of the motor car (or ‘horseless carriages’ as they call them here) when all at once Hogue’s little oasis is out of date. Too subtle to be a comedy western, too sweet to be lumped in with Peckinpah’s more violent fare (particularly his previous film, The Wild Bunch), this is quite a mellow and reflective essay on what a man needs to confront in his life:  change, loss and obsolescence. Written by John Crawford and Edmund Penney and beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard with split screens and speeded up scenes to remind us when it originated.

 

Ghost (1990)

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It’s amazing, the love inside. You take it with you. Potter Molly (Demi Moore) and banker Sam (Patrick Swayze) are young and in love and living together and planning on a long happy life together. When he’s murdered after uncovering a money laundering scheme run by his colleague Carl (Tony Goldwyn) at the bank where they work, Molly is distraught and attends a wacky fake medium Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) who pretends she communes with the dead. Then she’s shocked out of her own skin when Sam really speaks to her – only she can see him – and wants to let Molly know she’s in danger from Carl … Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay channels both religious belief (guardian angels in the form of ghosts) and the supernatural (vengeful spirits) in this odd mix of fantasy, ghost story and thriller. The weird thing is it actually works, and how. Why? Because the characters are totally believable and you want them to be happy. Plus it’s set in a very recognisable modern world of yuppies and charlatans. That’s a very canny approach to writing. People we really like, wonderfully played in a genre-bending comic-fantasy-drama. There are several standout scenes here but let’s face it, you’ll never look at a potter’s wheel the same way again. Wonderful! Directed by Jerry Zucker.