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the arrival of the motor car (or ‘horseless carriages’ as they call them here) when all at once Hogue’s little oasis is out of date.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.

 

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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

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Everybody’s got a right to be a sucker once. When Budd Boetticher wrote this story he thought it would be a perfect return to Hollywood after his near-decade long Mexican odyssey when the subject of his bullfighting documentary died and he nearly bought the farm himself. But his career was effectively over and this was rewritten by Albert Maltz, another (blacklisted) resident of Mexico and instead of his hoped-for Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr starring, it was supposed to have Elizabeth Taylor in the lead. She gave the script to Clint Eastwood on the set of Where Eagles Dare (in which he co-starred with Richard Burton) and the whole game changed when it wasn’t going to be shot in Spain. In fact it became a Mexican co-production.  Eastwood is Hogan, a mercenary en route to assist Mexican revolutionaries against the French who were then engaged in an invasion of the country, with the promise of enough gold to set up a bar in California. He rescues nun Sara (MacLaine) who has had her clothes ripped off her by a bunch of marauding cowboys and he shoots them dead. She proves to be much more resourceful than he expects and enjoys drinking, smoking and helps him stop an ammunition train in its tracks as they make their way to a French fort on behalf of the Juaristas.  It turns out that the nun’s garb is just a costume that covers up her real vocation, that of prostitute … Gorgeously shot by Gabriel Figueroa (assisted by Bruce Surtees) this is a sensational comedy western with two gripping star performances. Don Siegel didn’t like MacLaine whom he declared unfeminine because she had too many balls. It was the last time Eastwood got second billing and also the last time that he would agree to an actress of stature as his co-star until Meryl Streep acted opposite him in The Bridges of Madison County. Siegel takes a spaghetti-style story and gives it some nicely sardonic twists with some terrific scenes – when MacLaine is giving a former client the last rites; and playing for time with General LeClaire (Albert Morin) while children dump a dynamite-filled pinata at the fort, to name but two. Boetticher was appalled at the alterations to his original story and when Siegel said he woke up every day to a paycheque, Boetticher responded he woke up every day and could look at himself in the mirror. Nonetheless this is engaging, smart and funny and a really great acting masterclass. Ennio Morricone’s insistent, brutally repetitive score is a plus.

It (2017)

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Aka It:  Chapter One. Go blow your dad you mullet-wearing asshole. Stephen King’s 1986 novel gets the big screen treatment here after a 1990 TV two-parter that has a fond place in many people’s memories.  It sticks with the first part of the novel – the kids’ experiences, and moves them forward, to the late Eighties. In 1988 Derry, Maine, little Georgie sails his  paper boat and it floats down a drain in a rainstorm and he is pulled in by Pennywise the Clown, becoming one of the town’s many missing kids. When school’s out next summer his older brother Bill sets out to find him with a bunch of other kids who all have their issues:  big mouth Richie, hypochondriac Eddie, germophobe Stan, overweight newbie Ben, pretty Bev (the subject of false sex rumours) and black home-schooled Mike.  They are the Losers Club and have various problems with the parental figures in their lives. Ben’s research in the library proves that Derry has a very high mortality rate particularly when it comes to kids and every 27 years this demonic shapeshifting character manifests through their fears when he reappears to feed. But in the midst of their search they have to avoid the Bowers Gang, horrible greasers who violently terrorise them as they search the area’s sewers to find the centre of Pennywise’s hellish underground activities … Part of why this works so well is that the kids are taken seriously and their problems in the world are immense:  we’re talking child abuse and Munchausen by proxy, to name but two. We feel for them because they are fully rounded characters who have legitimate reason to fear grown ups. A clown in the sewers is as nothing compared to Dad waiting in the hallway to feel you up. It’s a perfectly judged drama. Another reason this works is because it inhabits familiar territory for many of us who recall Spielberg films of the era – the sight of a squad of boys on bikes recalls ET – and the King drama Stand By Me which was so iconic and one that also treats its protagonists respectfully. We also think about The Goonies:  the spirit of adventure is overwhelmingly attractive despite the dangers to this bunch of nerds and scaredy cats.  The Netflix show Stranger Things is an overt homage to all of these, mixing up the paranormal, horror and nostalgia for thirty years ago and the presence of cool girl Winona Ryder is such a plus.  Adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman;  directed by Andy Muschietti who gives the scenes equal weight and doesn’t give into the massive temptation to exaggerate the horror element, allowing each character to fully blossom. This is a coming of age story with panache and clowns and a wonderful ensemble of wholly believable kids and Bill Skarsgard donning the whiteface. Personally I can’t wait for part two set 27 years from 1989 when It reappears: wouldn’t it be really meta to cast Molly Ringwald as the adult incarnation of the Molly Ringwald lookalike? Awesome idea!

The Sense of an Ending (2017)

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Literariness is embedded in the very loins of this, utilising as it does the title of theorist Frank Kermode’s famous 1967 volume. Julian Barnes is a determinedly literary writer but his 2011 novel isn’t just about verbal and written narrative, it’s also a story told in pictures, photographs which document the early life of retired camera shop proprietor Tony (Jim Broadbent), divorced from Margaret (Harriet Walter) and whose daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) is about to give birth to a child she is having on her own. He receives notice that he has been left a small sum of money and an item (which turns out to be a diary) by Sarah Ford, the mother (Emily Mortimer) of his first lover, the mysterious Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), and whom he only met once at their home 50 years earlier when the older woman flirted with him and Veronica’s brother made clear his attraction to him too. The diary is not forthcoming and Tony pursues it relentlessly when he finds out it belonged not to Sarah but to Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn) his academically gifted classmate who cheated with Veronica. The unravelling of this mystery hinges on a horrible letter the young Tony (Billy Howle) wrote to Veronica (Freya Mavor) when they were all at Cambridge. What caused Adrian to commit suicide and what is the mature Veronica now withholding from him? He embarks on what his wife and daughter call the ‘stalking’ of his former girlfriend and the earlier story unspools in parallel. What this lacks in tension it makes up for in the carefully observed minutiae of performance and appearance, appropriately for a text that is all about the accumulation and capture of such information. It’s shot beautifully by Christopher Ross in an anti-nostalgic attempt to uncover a meaning to life in London’s leafy northern suburbs with tastefully restrained middle class homes:  a little ornamentation is always enough to hint at discernment if not understanding. When all the threads are gradually united there is a patina of sorrow, bringing together the book’s philosophical core interests in history and action. Adapted by Nick Payne and directed by Ritesh Batra.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Nobody fucks with the Jesus. The Dude abides. Where to start with one of the most cherished films there has ever been? Not in the beginning. I may have almost had a coronary from laughing the first time I saw this at a festival screening prior to its release, but a lot of critics just did not get it. It’s the Coen Brothers in excelsis, a broad Chandler adaptation and tribute to Los Angeles,  a hymn to male friendship and the Tao of easy living with some extraordinarily surreal fantasy and dream sequences – not to mention some deadly bowling. Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey ‘Dude’ Lebowski, a guy so laid back he’s horizontal but he gets a little antsy when some thieves mistake him for The Big Lebowski and piss on his rug (it really tied the room together). Best friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is his bowling buddy, an uptight Nam vet with adoptive-Jewish issues in this hilarious offside take on director John Milius. Steve Buscemi is their sweet-natured friend Donny and John Turturro is the unforgettable sports foe, a hispanic gangsta paedo in a hairnet, Jesus Quintana. After the rug issue is handled, Dude is hired by his namesake (David Huddleston) a wheelchair-bound multimillionaire philanthropist, to exchange a ransom when his young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is kidnapped. Naturally Dude screws it up. There’s a band of nihilists led by Peter Stormare, some porn producers (Bunny makes flesh flicks), Lebowski’s randy artist daughter (Julianne Moore) and a private eye following everyone. And there’s Sam Elliott, narrating this tale of tumbleweed and laziness.  Everyone has their signature song in one of the great movie soundtracks and Dude has not only Creedence but White Russians to really mellow his day. Just like The Big Sleep, the plot really doesn’t matter a fig. This is inspired lunacy and I love it SO much.

Les Diaboliques (1955)

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Aka The Devils or The Fiends. Paul Meurisse est le directeur sadique d’une école de français provinciale qui a été assassinée par sa femme douce (Vera Clouzot, épouse du réalisateur) et sa maîtresse endurciée (Simone Signoret). Elles le noient dans une baignoire dans la maison de Signoret en vacances et le rendent à la piscine de l’école. Cependant, son corps n’est pas situé comme prévu et il est vu par d’autres personnes sur place. Cette adaptation du roman de Boileau-Narcejac (Celle qui n’était plus) serait l’inspiration pour Psycho: Robert Bloch a déclaré que c’était son film préféré dans le genre; Hitchcock a été battu aux droits du film par le réalisateur Henri-Georges Clouzot, qui l’a adapté avec Jérôme Geronimi; et il a ensuite acquis un autre roman par la paire pour faire Vertigo. L’atmosphère dans l’école maternelle est merveilleusement réalisée; la tension entre les femmes (à l’origine un couple lesbien dans le roman) superbement créé dans leurs caractères antithétiques; le monde terrifiant de l’après-guerre créé inoubliablement; et la fin de la torsion est simplement un choc classique. Suspense supérieure et infiniment influente, avec un prototype pour Columbo dans le détective joué par Charles Vanel. Le thème de Georges Van Parys joué sur les titres est sublime.

 

Moonlight (2016)

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What’s a faggot? This sensuous journey through three chapters of a black man’s life won the Academy Award for Best Picture and its experimental nature, its subject and its lack of narrative sense all make that a problematic and strange choice. It’s a fairytale without a happy ending – a story about gay sex that avoids showing it directly. Director Barry Jenkins, a Florida SU film graduate, adapted it from an unproduced and very visual play written for a  drama programme, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney which used several voices back and forth to tell a story of a gay boy in Liberty City, one of Miami’s projects. It wasn’t dramatised because it didn’t really work for the stage, structured with three different guys of different ages playing the same character in the course of a day. It was apparently very unclear. When Jenkins found it, he changed it and it now tells the story of Chiron, the son of a junkie single mom Paula (Naomie Harris, who is superb) at three different stages of his life in three separate stories. The first 37-minute chapter (Little) is about him as a young boy (played by the very striking Alex R. Hibbert) getting solace from visits with Juan (Mahershala Ali) a drugs dealer, and his girlfriend (Janelle Monae). Their father-son friendship is sundered when he realises Juan is selling his mom crack. As a teenager (Chiron) he’s a sullen withdrawn kid (now played by a very different looking Ashton Sanders) terrorised in high school, bullied daily for being gay and he takes a public beating directed by the nattily dreadlocked Terrel (Patrick Decile) but carried out by Kevin (Jaden Piner) who’s had sex with him on the beach.  He’s taken away by police. In the final forty-minute episode (Black) we’re introduced in Atlanta to a garish grill-wearing earring-bedecked drug dealer – and it’s him, now played by Trevante Rhodes. He looks like a powerful guy with a bodacious workout ethic but when he takes a call of apology from Kevin (Andre Holland), a decade after the violence, it starts him on a different path. He visits Paula in a drug rehab centre where she’s become institutionalized and she finally seems to comprehend what her lifestyle drove him to do. We follow him back to Miami to the restaurant where Kevin works as a short order cook following a spell in prison. It’s shot superbly but with the art-house touches of a student film – and the shots singling out the adult Kevin lead us to believe we are in black Warhol territory and something major is going to happen. (Do you really think that’s smoke?! Someone remembered Blow Job!)  He doesn’t know why Black is here – but the camera tells us as it sensually caresses Black’s face:  Black practically has an orgasm watching Kevin and the cinematography has us primed for mano-a-mano action. (The shots are separated by several minutes but the intent is clear.) But Kevin has a kid with a girl they knew at high school and he’s on probation after a spell in prison: Kevin is not gay. Their reunion over a few bottles of wine (Chiron doesn’t drink) makes us realise that Black is a hollowed-out man and his confession to Kevin, who introduced him to the phenomenon of physical love, is – eventually – deeply touching.”This is not you,” Kevin tells Black.  So nothing happens. With all those pretty boys! Talk about leading a person on! Naomie Harris is the acting heart of the film primarily because aside from a fine performance as the strung out mom, she appears in all three chapters which are otherwise quite disconnected and Little/Chiron/Black is basically mute. So much of the story’s emotion depends on the heightened expressivity of the actors in the final section and Rhodes and Holland are just breathtaking in their physicality. James Laxton’s camera just loves Rhodes (and Holland too, to be entirely fair…) Black actors often suffer visually because of the lighting issues with skin tone but here they used an Arri Alexa digital camera and worked on the colorising with great attention to detail to achieve a different kind of texture in each chapter. There is however a narrative disconnect between the three sections not helped by the totally different actors with Harris the only source of continuity. (Jenkins and McCraney grew up in neighbouring projects with junkie mothers so there is a hint of autobiography in the story.) And yet despite its major shortcomings it’s oddly memorable. Some readings of this suggest that it’s a story of a boy who finds support from his community. Golly. The community bullied him senseless for being gay and he became a sexy virginal shell of a man who puts people in fear for not buying his supply. This is all foreplay and no … well I told you already. All mouth and no trousers, as it were. Talk about a p***ktease.  Next year:  #OscarsNotRemotelyGayEnough. Watch this space!

Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

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Christmas is coming so it’s time to take this out. But it works at Halloween, Easter and ice cream season too – which is all year round, isn’t it?! This classic Hollywood musical comedy drama is simply perfection. Adapted from Sally Benson’s New Yorker stories of a midwestern family at the start of the twentieth century, it tells the story of the Smiths through the seasons.  Made at the height of WW2, this fantasy about a pretty family shimmers with the lustrous care of director Vincente Minnelli, whose background in theatre design comes to the fore in terms of staging, decor, colour, choreography and performance. Judy Garland has some great moments in a film stuffed with them – The Trolley Song, the romance with The Boy Next Door, the amusing scenes with her sister Lucille Bremer; but the standout moments are mostly those with little Margaret O’Brien as Tootie, on her Halloween outing, her destruction of the snowmen and her distress at their father’s proposed move to NYC.  Judy soothes her with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Funny, sad, touching and joyous, this is a forever film.

Mamma Mia! (2008)

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Producer Judy Craymer had a brilliant idea for a theatre musical:  use the songs of Abba for a jukebox production, wrapped into a story written by Catherine Johnson. And then she hired Phyllida Lloyd to direct it and it became a huge global hit – and then Lloyd got to do the film version too. Amanda Seyfried is Sophie, the twenty-year old daughter of hippie single mom Meryl Streep who’s brought her up in splendid desolation  on a Greek island in a rundown hotel. She’s engaged to be married to Sky (Dominic Cooper) and when she finds her mother’s diary realises her father could be one of three men – Planned Parenthood not being a priority round these parts. So she invites all three candidates to the nuptials without telling Meryl, who’s bringing her own besties, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski:  the potential dads are Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard. The Rule of Three is used a lot in this film of Greek choruses. Sophie figures she’ll know her father when she sees him. She doesn’t. There’s intrigue, slapstick, group choreographed singalongs and then everyone begins to twig what Sophie has done.There’s a showdown in front of the Irish priest at the wedding. Everybody sings, the men are notably terrible. It’s awfully badly made. It’s camp as a caravan site and tasteless in the extreme. It’s a truly, truly terrible film. It’s also one of the most enjoyable you’ll ever experience and definitely the best karaoke session you’ll ever have. And you ain’t seen nothin’ till you see some of the finest actors on the planet disgrace themselves discoing during the end credits sequence. Inexplicable.

Groundhog Day (1993)

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It’s no accident that weatherman Phil Connors shares his name with the beaver that surfaces (or not) every February 2nd to forecast the end of winter:  Punxsutawney Phil is a metaphor for the crisis besetting a man whose cynicism needs a serious reboot. He relives the same day. Over and over again. The irony for the viewer is that the more often you see this film, the repetition becomes more meaningful, the karma more poetic, the lessons more refined. A work of utterly incomparable comic genius approaching philosophical brilliance, written and directed by the late, great Harold Ramis from a story by Danny Rubin. Simply classic.