Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

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Well, thank you, Mr. Bandit. And as the pursuer, may I say you’re the goddamnedest pursuee I’ve ever pursued. Now that the mutual bullshit is over, WHERE ARE YOU, YOU SOMBITCH?  Big Enos (Pat McCormick) wants to drink Coors at a truck show, but in 1977 it’s illegal to sell Coors east of the Mississippi River without a permit. Truck driver Bo ‘Bandit’ Darville (Burt Reynolds) agrees to pick up the beer in Texas and drive it to Georgia within 28 hours:  he’ll take his Trans-Am and act as a diversion to the tractor trailer carrying the booty by his colleague Cledus ‘Snowman’ (Jerry Reed). When Bo picks up runaway bride Carrie (Sally Field), he attracts the attention of Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Angry that Carrie has run out on the wedding to his son, Justice embarks on a high-speed chase after Bandit across Arkansaw right back to Georgia When you tell somebody something it depends which part of the United States you’re standing in as to how dumb you are. Stuntman Hal Needham moved into Burt Reynolds’ poolhouse when his marriage broke up. When they shot Gator they found nobody could get Coors beer east of the Mississippi so Needham started scribbling on legal pads and came up with a screenplay with terrible dialogue involving the transportation of beer across state lines. The story was improved with contributions from producer Robert Levy. It then got a rewrite from James Lee Barrett and Charles Shyer & Alan Mandel. With Reynolds (reluctantly) attached, the movie gave Needham his directing debut and it grossed second only to Star Wars in 1977 (and Reynolds had turned down the role of Han Solo!) This went stratospheric on a global scale. Why did it strike such a chord, not just in the US, where the southwest drive-in circuit was practically the only logical destination for the good ol’ boy persona Reynolds had perfected in White Lightning and its sequel, Gator, which he directed and which he was now keen to leave behind? It has a simplicity that goes back to the Keystone Cops, a pure exercise in slapstick and stunts that pivots on one long car chase, from the beginning to the end of the film, with an exploitation core of the redneck trickster character:  it could only be played by Reynolds, who embodied charm, daring and guile in an enviable physique.  He also had a unique way with put-downs which he did with a smirk and a wink that made you love him.  He’d been commandeering that style for a decade, even before he made it big with Deliverance. He was a star beloved of audiences after that and this catapulted him to the number one position in the box office for five straight years after the previous five hadn’t seen him outside the Top 10. His easygoing persona, wisecracking and sex appeal made him catnip to audiences. The Seventies were a particularly good era for road movies too; CB radio was popular and trucks were big news:  Cledus gets roughed up by bikers in a bar and he responds by showing us the motorsickle era is over when he tramples the gang’s machines – trucks trump bikes! Field’s naturalistic acting style makes her relationship with Bandit totally believable and Fred the bassett hound (Burt had one called Clyde) just makes us love him even more.  Without a comic foil however the setup would not work and the great Gleason is superb as the pesky ornery sheriff with an idiot son:  There’s no way – no way! – you could come from my loins.  First thing I do when we get home is punch your mama in the mouth! He’s loathsome, funny, irascible and encumbered with a jackass offspring so you hope he doesn’t suffer too much – for maybe just a minute. It’s a buoyant, feel good outing with a convoy and what amounts to a demolition derby. For the audience the prospect of getting one over on The Man is irresistible and of course what we have here is a community rallying to help an innocent anarchist over the state line. This was hugely influential on the culture – as The Dukes of Hazzard and The Fall Guy would prove, with everything crystallised by Reynolds’ screen character writ large across primetime TV for years to come. Sublime, existential entertainment. That’s a big 10-4!

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Winter Light (1963)

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Aka The CommunicantsThe passion of Christ, his suffering… Wouldn’t you say the focus on his suffering is all wrong? Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) a pastor in a Swedish village handles his own existential crisis as he fails a fisherman Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) who is suicidal about the possibility of nuclear annihilation; and his former mistress, local schoolteacher Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin) whom he doesn’t think is as good as his late wife … Some years ago at a dinner party I was asked what I thought of Bergman. Being a smartass, I responded, Ingmar – or Andrew? That was my way of sidestepping a tough question about an auteur who can simultaneously leave me cold and move me unbearably. This is one of a loosely connected spiritual trilogy (known as Silence of God) which Bergman himself said tackled certainty. Here, it’s the pastor’s inability to understand the message of The Passion and the need for physical trials and to question the existence of God. It’s a thoughtful narrative with an unlikable protagonist and reflects on Bergman’s own relationship with his father, a Church of Sweden minister, and the position of the Church itself regarding the liturgy and its uses when a priest is unable to vocalise its virtues in a way that is meaningful to people desperate for reassurance. A serious film about major issues which are tackled and somewhat resolved in an astonishing 81 minutes by Bergman’s regular ensemble, with cinematography by the peerless Sven Nykvist whose camera traces the movement of sunlight through the church’s problematic spaces. Masterful.

The Wilde Wedding (2017)

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Retired film star Eve Wilde (Glenn Close) is marrying at her beachside home for the fourth time, to an acclaimed British novelist Harold (Patrick Stewart) and invites her three sons to attend:  Jimmy (Noah Emmerich), fellow actor Ethan (Peter Facinelli) who wants her to co-star in a movie and nusician Rory (Jack Davenport) whose ex-wife rock star Priscilla (Minnie Driver) shows up with their children, one of whom is recording everything on video. When the boys’ father, stage actor Laurence (John Malkovich) shows up things start to unravel and the air of civility changes as Harold’s daughters set their sights on possible sexual assignations in the family circle,  male and female …  Damian Harris’ writing/directing effort was clearly attractive to Close and Malkovich who last appeared together in Dangerous Liaisons and executive produced here. There are so many ill-defined people in it it’s confusing. The interior of the house looks frequently like a convent – all that panelling. The dialogue is weak and all the scenes on the sunny beach and around the garden don’t enhance the lack of compelling central action.  Makes me hanker for the days when Robert Altman’s A Wedding could be seen on BBC.  Or Bergman, for that matter. Days of yore. Lazy but pretty with Stewart and Close’s respective hairpieces giving the outstanding performances.

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.

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.

The Railway Children (1970)

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Daddy my daddy! When Charles Waterbury (Iain Cuthbertson) is imprisoned on false charges of selling state secrets from his place of work at the Foreign Office, his wife (Dinah Sheridan) must move from London to a small house near a railway station in rural Yorkshire. The Waterbury children – Bobbie (Jenny Agutter), Phyllis (Sally Thomsett) and Peter (Gary Warren) – occupy themselves watching the trains,  making friends with the porter Albert Perks (Bernard Cribbins) and even befriending a gentleman (William Mervyn) who frequents the station. When the children discover what has happened to their father, their new friend provides key assistance. In the meantime they act kindly towards all those they know – even taking in a Russian dissident writer (Gordon Whiting), save the train from crashing and rescuing a boy (Christopher Witty) who gets hit in the railway tunnel while running on a paper chase … Actor Lionel Jeffries adapted and directed this and cast Jenny Agutter a year after the BBC had dramatised the E. Nesbit novel. It’s beautifully shot on locations that include the Brontë parsonage at Haworth. It’s sheerly delightful from beginning to end, a thoroughly charming story which nonetheless is grounded in the harsh reality of some adult experiences. Wonderful.

Tamara Drewe (2010)

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Life sure comes easy for the beautiful.  Famous twentysomething journalist Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) returns to the small Dorset town she grew up in and causes a stir. Once an unattractive teenager known as Beaky due to her big nose, she’s had a rhinoplasty and transformed herself into a beautiful girl. She is the object of attention for three different men: Andy (Luke Evans) a local handyman and her former boyfriend who she hires to do up her late mother’s home which he believes was stolen from his family; Ben (Dominic Cooper), a drummer in a rock band she interviews whose girlfriend has left him for the singer; and Nicholas (Roger Allam), the lauded crime writer who along with his long-suffering wife Beth (Tamsin Greig) runs the local writers’ retreat hosting several wannabes and crime writing weekends.  Bored teenagers Jody (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie)  decide to break into Tamara’s fixer-upper and start sending emails in an attempt to make Jody’s idol Ben fall in love with her instead and their interference triggers a disastrous series of events … At once satire, romcom and farce, this sly social comedy works on every level due to fantastic writing and performances. Posy Simmonds’ comic strip (turned graphic novel) reworks Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd in a contemporary setting and tilts its particular irony (and mockery) at several targets. Visiting writer Glen (Bill Camp) has spent a decade writing a book about Hardy and his findings are a commentary on the goings-on as well as providing inspiration for his romantic aspirations leading to a tragicomic conclusion his subject couldn’t have bettered. Well adapted by Moira Buffini, this is smart adult entertainment. Directed by Stephen Frears.

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!

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!

I, Tonya (2017)

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There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants! In 1991, talented figure skater Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) becomes the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a competition. We first see her as a three year old in 1970s Portland Oregon where her monstrous multiply-married mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) insists that she be mentored by Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) at the local rink.  In 1994, her world comes crashing down when her violent ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) conspires with her moronic and delusional bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to injure Harding’s friend  and fellow Olympic hopeful and biggest rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in a poorly conceived attack that forces the young woman to withdraw from the national championship. Harding’s life and legacy instantly become tarnished as she’s forever associated with one of the most infamous scandals in sports history…  When producer and star Robbie read Steven Rogers’s pitch black comedy she didn’t realise it was based on a true story (sort of). Her determination to bring this radical post-modern interpretation of one of the most notorious sporting crimes in the last quarter of a century to the big screen is testament to both her good taste and her chutzpah – this after all is her first starring role and she produced the film. She gives a powerhouse performance in a difficult role, delineating Harding’s evolution from white trash teen to triple axel-crushing rink monster routinely routed by snobby judges who want someone more ‘family’-friendly as their poster child and create the conditions for unconscious revenge against the powers that be. You were as graceless as a bull dyke. It was embarrassing! Janney’s performance has won all the awards (never forget she was everyone’s fave woman in the world in The West Wing) however she plays this crushing creature for a couple too many laughs.  It’s Robbie who has the tough job here – convincing us in this self-reflexive narrative that she really did deserve plaudits and not the horrifying level of domestic abuse which she came to expect after being reared by a veritable dragon in human form. Having each of the characters variously interviewed and breaking the fourth wall occasionally to ask why their contribution isn’t being featured at different points in the story reminds you that there are competing testimonies here.  The end credits, complete with real-life cringe-inducing footage of the ghastly individuals (this is really a documentary!) interspersed with Harding’s uplifting, magical performances makes you wonder how the poor girl ever survived the rank and file awfulness of her dreary Pacific north-west background. The interview with Hard Copy journalist Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) and the juxtaposition with the breaking news of OJ Simpson as the drama concludes in 1994 reinforces the underlying story of newsmaking in the 90s and how these two stories changed TV journalism forever. Brilliantly constructed and performed and well executed by Craig Gillespie. 6.0! Go Tonya!