Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)

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I’ve never made any secret of the fact that basically I’m on my way to Australia. Calendar Colorado is lawless town rich on the proceeds of a gold find during a funeral and it needs someone to pull it into shape. A sharpshooting chancer Jason McCullough (James Garner) claiming to be on his way to Oz takes a well-paid job to clean up as sheriff, hired by mayor Olly Perkins (Harry Morgan). That involves putting the Danby family in line so he imprisons idiot son Joe (Bruce Dern) in a jail without bars by dint of a chalk line and some red paint … This sendup of western tropes gets by on its good nature and pure charm with Garner backed up by a hilarious Joan Hackett as the accident-prone Prudy Perkins whose attractions are still visible even when she sets her own bustle alight. Jack Elam parodies his earlier roles as the tough guy seconded as deputy while Walter Brennan leads the dastardly Danbys, hellbent on making money from the guys mining the gold before it can be shipped out. Written and produced by William Bowers and directed by Burt Kennedy, that expert at a comic take on the genre whose serious side he had exploited in collaboration with Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott the previous decade. Bright and funny entertainment.

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Light Up the Sky! (1960)

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What used to be called the forces comedy is a venerable film tradition but this starts out as a very stagebound vaudeville adaptation and mutates into something darker and dramatic. Narrated to camera years later by seemingly inept and dippy motorcycle-riding Lt. Ogleby (Ian Carmichael) who is actually quite bright and insightful, he regales us with the antics of a bumbling band of misfits manning a rural searchlight battery during the Blitz. Benny Hill and Tommy Steele are the McGaffeys, who take off to perform sketches at the theatre every chance they get and McGaffey the younger (Steele) is in trouble – or rather his girlfriend is. Then there’s grumpy Lance Corporal Tomlinson (Victor Maddern) who wants time off to get married.  Ted Green (Sydney Tafler) is mourning his son and tries to give advice but it goes unheeded. As the stories become stronger – someone going AWOL but being helped at the eleventh hour – the stakes are raised and there is (inevitably) a tragic sacrifice the next time a German plane comes close … Robert Storey’s play Touch it Light was adapted by Vernon Harris and while the comedy mixes oddly with the drama for the most part, it becomes a far stronger work in the concluding half hour. Directed by Lewis Gilbert.

American Made (2017)

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A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.

The Nutty Professor (1963)

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This Jerry Lewis masterpiece is a cult favourite and not just at my house. Or France. Lewis had the genius idea to reinterpret Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a supposed exploration of his own dualistic personality – or maybe he’s just having a dig at his real-life (former) other half, the cooler-than-thou Dean Martin. Julius Kelp (a character that had earlier appeared in Rock-A-Bye-Baby) is the muddle-headed buck-toothed chemistry lecturer who wants to beat the bullies and develops a serum that transforms him into obnoxious hipster Buddy Love, a hit with the glorious student Stella By Starlight, Stella Stevens, who digs him but really prefers the real guy underneath. Great nightclub scenes when Julius’ unfortunate croak breaks through at the most inopportune of moments and there’s that legendary Alaskan Polar Bear Heater routine for the real fans. Wonderful looking, with Lewis really in command of the frame and costumes by the legendary Edith Head, an apt choice for this Paramount tale of transformation. Classic stuff.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

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Comedian turned screenwriter (I Love You Alice B. Toklas) Paul Mazursky spent a weekend at the Esalen Institute with his wife and wound up writing a five-page treatment with Larry Tucker (they wrote the pilot for The Monkees) about a filmmaker and his wife whose lives are changed by just such an experience and what happens between them and their friends when they put what they’ve learned there into practice. This elegant satire of New Age mores, the counterculture and late Sixties open-mindedness hasn’t lost its power, its humour or indeed its touching qualities. The casting is everything:  Natalie Wood and Robert Culp as the gullible couple; and Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon as their friends who suffer their own psychological crises as a result of too much information, are all fantastic;  it’s impossible to pick between them since each conveys the truth of the situation in compelling fashion.  Each performs a perfect mix of comedy and drama, specific, controlled and authentic. There are some truly stomach-churning scenes of oversharing. What a directing debut for Mazursky! And it all ends in highly ironic fashion to the sounds of Jackie DeShannon warbling What The World Needs Now is Love!

Love and Death (1975)

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I fell over laughing when I first saw this on TV aged about 13 so I thought it was time to revisit and see if it holds up. With a screenplay by Allen, Donald Ogden Stewart and Mildred Cram you’d have a high expectation of this satire of Russian literature and the Napoleonic war being extremely funny and it is! Cram was a very popular short story writer and got the Academy Award for  perenially popular Love Affair (1939) which most of us know better from its modern iteration, Sleepless in Seattle. DOS of course was a famous humorist and wit, a member of the Algonquin Round Table and had a slew of movie credits to his name. He is immortalised as Bill Gorton in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. A member of the Anti-Nazi League prior to WW2, he was nailed by HUAC and had to abandon the US for the UK. Let’s just say he was a lot funnier than any of the censorious goons who hounded him out. Allen? He takes the concept of Monsieur Beaucaire and puts himself in the Bob Hope role, a coward running through swathes of Tolstoy with a disrespectful pitchfork in pursuit of real-life lady love Diane Keaton, playing the helpless trampy cousin he adores, and it’s an amuse-bouche for Annie Hall, that other devoted homage to anti-heroic schmuckery, sex and all-round meaninglessness in the face of egotistical slaughter. This is the film that birthed the exchange, Sex without love is an empty experience/As empty experiences go, it’s one of the best:  not necessarily what you’d expect in a piss-take of War and Peace. Supremely silly with screamingly witty lines and an abundance of hilarious sight gags – even the bloody battlefield scenes are a hoot. Gotta go watch it again and pretend I’m still 13. With Harold Gould, Olga Georges-Picot, Jessica Harper, and Death.

A Story of Children and Film (2013)

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Quite remarkable this. Filmmaker and critic Mark Cousins surveys 53 children’s films from 25 countries, from cinema’s early days to the present.  Under separate and related themes – like strops, school, destructiveness, parents, loneliness, loss – he assembles a mosaic of excerpts framed by a home movie of his nephew and niece. In the process he discovers the universality of film language and shared narrative tropes. Long, idiosyncratic but engrossing essay film which proves that creative commentary can be moving, instructive and funny by turns.

A Welcome to Britain (1943)

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Burgess Meredith introduces American troops to the scepter’d isle to prepare them for the bizarre rituals of the locals: this Defense Dept film was intended to smooth relations between the beleaguered Brits and the crass Yankee soldiers – with one million of them swirling around the old country up to December 1943 throwing their money around and behaving inappropriately. In an amusing series of vignettes co-directed by Anthony Asquith and star Meredith, we learn how to behave in pubs (not the same as saloons), the family home, restaurants (where there’s a variation on potato for every war-rationed course); discover the geography of the country with Felix Aylmer as ‘Mister Chips’ in a classroom; Bob Hope explains shillings and pence and Beatrice Lillie performs one of her bits. All in all fairly palatable, with the glaring example of introducing the notion of coloured soldiers which yields an exchange with a General best deemed of its time. There is some gunfire and a little action with real-life soldiers but this propaganda docu-drama is notable for having been telecast Stateside in 1944.

The Big Short (2015)

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A wildly entertaining film about the property crash that devastated most normal people in the western world? Surely you jest! Not at all. That’s precisely what comedy maestro Adam McKay – of all filmmakers! Not Ken Loach (whew…) – serves up here in a ruthlessly educational tell-all about how the sub-prime mortgage business in the US was built on NINJA loans (No Income No Job…), the unsustainable loans were bundled into bonds and sold all over the world (Ireland’s credit union movement’s entire investment was in one German bank that lost everything in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and was bailed out secretly by the German government summer 2006 – not that anyone wants you to know…) and how a bunch of crazies foresaw the crash and made millions betting against the farm, as it were. Since I come from one of the PIGS countries destroyed not merely by the crash but by coverups by the banks and journalists (nobody’s gone to jail here either, dudes) and we’ve just been stuck (despite the election non-result) with the same Minister for Finance backing the bankers and investors and gamblers against the citizen-owners, this taps into a righteous anger that is still real and seething and has 75 home-owners in court every 2 weeks in every small town all over this country trying to save their homes from the rapacious devils. I digress. McKay and Charles Randolph adapted Michael Lewis’ book. You may remember it was his book Moneyball that Brad Pitt shepherded into production and Pitt is involved here, behind and onscreen, as a sort of guru to two young garage-based wannabe hedge funders (sorta like Apple geezers but for money products), while Christian Bale is the offbeat hedge fund manager Michael Burry, a one-eyed seer, Steve Carell is hedge fund manager Michael Baum, the moral overlord who gets the truth from a multiple-home-owning Florida stripper and Ryan Gosling is trader Jared Vennett, our narrator, whose pieces to camera are just one facet of the brilliant breaking the fourth wall digressions that punctuate the overwhelming horror story (helpfully explained in a bathtub, a casino and several typed-out definitions). Stop it already! You had me at CDO!!! Great lines aplenty but one of the best is Gosling’s reaction to the American Securitisation Companies meeting in Vegas, teeming with parasites backing a disaster, when he declares, It’s like someone had a pinyata for white people who suck at golf. We all know the result. But what an achievement this is. A film about an important subject that manages to make you laugh till your sides hurt? Wow. This is sensational.  And angry? You betcha. And this reminds us that the word banker begins with W. We should all read the newspapers’ financial pages – and learn to read between the li(n)es. Otherwise it’s business as usual.

Breathless (1959)

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Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol dreamed up the story, a riff on Gun Crazy and homage to Bogart. It is celebrated for its technique but it is so much more. Jean-Luc Godard conducted an alchemical transformation with Raoul Coutard’s moving camera and jump cuts; the music by Martial Solal has a breezy quality that transports us there, to that very place, Paris, at that moment;  the cars and shirts and hats make us dream of timeless style. Belmondo is insouciant and charismatic, Seberg disarming. The quality of charm is underrated in movies:  that is what remains in this core episode of cinema, the ultimate cool. Essential.