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.

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Convoy (1978)

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Boy, these lonely long highways sure grind the souls of us cowboys. Trucker Martin ‘Rubber Duck’ Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) and his buddies Pig Pen (Burt Young), Widow Woman (Madge Sinclair) and Spider Mike (Franklin Ajaye) use their CB radios to warn one another of the presence of cops. But conniving Arizona Sheriff Lyle ‘Cottonmouth’ Wallace (Ernest Borgnine) is hip to the truckers’ tactics, and begins tracking them via CB because of a longstanding issue with Rubber Duck. Facing constant harassment, Rubber Duck and his pals use their radios to coordinate a vast convoy and rule the road. En route Rubber Duck teams up with a photographer Melissa (Ali McGraw) driving to a job in her Jaguar XKE and she winds up hitching a ride ostensibly to the airport after a brouhaha in a diner which sees Wallace chained to a stool where Duck’s girlfriend Violet (Cassie Yates) sets him free after the truckers have left. The trucks set off to the state line heading into New Mexico but Wallace has an idea to use their one black driver as bait and more and more drivers join the convoy … Writer Bill (B.W.L.) Norton took his lead from the lyrics of the (literally) radio-friendly novelty country-pop song by C.W. McCall and Chip Davis to write this, which starred his Cisco Pike protagonist Kristofferson, with Sam Peckinpah (who had variously directed Kristofferson, McGraw and Borgnine) drafted in to helm. It seems an unlikely setup for Peckinpah but when you understand its anti-authoritarian drive, the idea that these guys are like modern cowboys pitted against the vile sheriff antagonist, and pair that with the director’s customary robust style (tongue firmly planted slo-mo in cheek) then this isn’t just another one of those late Seventies comic road movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Every Which Way But Loose which I’ve always thought it must have been – it has a strangely operatic confidence and cadence embodied in Kristofferson’s fiercely independent trucker. That’s perhaps another way of saying you shouldn’t look at this too seriously for deep character or narrative sense but it has fantastically sensuous pleasures to enjoy – especially if you’re a fan of Mack Trucks and getting one over on The Man. Thing is, Peckinpah brought in his friend James Coburn (Pat Garrett to Kristofferson’s Billy the Kid) to take care of the second unit and due to Peckinpah’s various addictions Coburn wound up doing much of the movie. The director’s cut was four hours long and the studio took it away from him and put in a bunch of new music.  I have vague memories of this being trailed (inappropriately) before a Disney movie when I was knee high to a proverbial grasshopper and it’s quite bizarre to have finally seen it tonight, with McGraw’s horribly unflattering perm and unsuitable travel clothes ‘n’ all. The landscape of the American Southwest is stunningly captured by Harry Stradling Jr. and there’s a handful of country and western classics on the soundtrack. It’s populist politics put together by a rebel heart with an explosive conclusion and a happily twisted ending. Yee haw!

Malta Story (1953)

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They have many more planes. There’s not much to stop them. During World War II, British archaeologist turned photo-reconnaissance pilot Peter Ross (Alec Guinness) discovers that the Italians are planning a secret invasion of Malta, a strategically important island nation critical to keeping the Allied supply lines open. Though they have few resources left, Peter and his commanding officer, Frank (Jack Hawkins), resolve to fight off the enemy and save the island. At the same time, Peter struggles to keep his relationship with a local girl Maria (Muriel Pavlow) from falling apart. Her brother is discovered spying for the Axis powers and their mother (Flora Robson) is desperate to see him in British military prison …  The convoluted origins of this post-war propaganda outing typical of 1950s British studios lay in a book Briefed to Attack by Sir Hugh P. Lloyd and an idea by original director Thorold Dickinson and producer Peter de Sarigny with a story by William Fairchild (the three had a production company) which became a vehicle for the Ministry of Information:  it was a demonstration of the wartime co-operation between the air, military and naval services and the Siege of Malta was an appropriate backdrop. J. Arthur Rank hired Nigel Balchin to rewrite the script and Brian Desmond Hurst to direct. There are some good performances here in what is quite the morality tale – Hawkins in particular has to maintain a stiff upper lip while sending men to their certain death. And all for information about enemy movements. It’s an efficient mix of melodrama and action with romance and espionage, interspersed with very tense newsreel footage and the occasional shock – like the bombing of a local island bus from which some of our protagonists have just disembarked. The spy subplot could have done with more space in the narrative however. It’s nice to at least recognise this vulnerable island, subject as it was to so many Luftwaffe attacks. The final scenes – a death, the emphasis on the decisions required in wartime and the devastation of a loved one lost, are very effective.

Possessed (1947)

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Beautiful woman. Intelligent. Frustrated. Frustrated like all the other women we see.  A woman (Joan Crawford) is found wandering around LA. She appears to be catatonic and when injected with a miracle drug by a psychiatrist is jolted into telling her story, relayed in a series of melodramatic flashbacks. She is Louise Howell, who previously worked as something of a psychiatric nurse to an invalided woman in the home of Dean Graham (Raymond Massey). She was in love with a neighbour across the lake, an engineer called David Sutton (Van Heflin) who dumps her because of her obsession with him and the idea of marrying him. When Mrs Graham drowns there is an inquest and the outcome is undetermined – did she commit suicide or did someone kill her? Louise is persuaded to remain at the DC home to look after the Graham children, a little boy called Wynn and Carol (Geraldine Brooks) who is at college. When Graham asks Louise to marry him she reluctantly agrees after a bruising encounter with David, who is doing some work for him. Then David falls for Carol and Louise starts hallucinating about doing harm to her … A fascinating portrait of a guilt-ridden woman who is steadily becoming unhinged which stands out in that group of late Forties psychological noirs in a drama that owes a lot structurally at least to Mildred Pierce.  Crawford is superb in a role which demands a lot of overwrought acting paired with more subtle intimations of the female experience and she’s matched very step of the way by Brooks as the stepdaughter who gets in the way. The story by Rita Weiman was adapted by Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall, and directed by Curtis Bernhardt who knew a thing or three about how to do a woman’s picture since he had just made the wonderful A Stolen Life with Bette Davis (and reportedly kept calling Crawford ‘Bette’). The sound effects add a marvellous frisson to proceedings and the glinting night light on the lake is something you won’t quickly forget. And Franz Waxman’s reworking of Schumann makes this so atmospheric. Quite the movie!

The Odd Couple (1968)

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Don’t point that finger at me unless you intend to use it. Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) is suicidal over his divorce and checks into a cheap hotel to off himself. Then his back gives out, he has second thoughts and he calls his friend Oscar the sportswriter (Walter Matthau) in the middle of their regular poker game. Oscar figures he can save Felix from himself and invites him to move in. Felix’s neat obsession drives slobby Oscar crazy and he arranges a double date with the English Pigeon sisters from another apartment upstairs but Felix cries about his divorce and it sends the empathetic ladies home and Oscar over the edge. Mike Nichols’ staging is replicated here to the extent that you feel you’re watching a lot of this on the other side of the proscenium. However that doesn’t detract from the strength of the performances, grounded in Neil Simon’s mordant wit:  who sends a suicide telegram?  How two mismatched men get over their divorced status and then enter a virtual marriage themselves and find out what it is that made their wives leave them is the whole show. There’s terrific support from Herb (TV’s Big John, Little John) Edelman as Murray the cop and John Fiedler as Vinnie, who get a taste for Felix’s delicious sandwiches even if the stench of disinfectant from the playing cards forces them out. With a notable score by Neal Hefti (how could you forget that theme), a screenplay by Simon himself and a rather theatrical directing job by Gene Saks, this is a good but not great comedy, but marks the first of four collaborations between the writer and Lemmon, that Everyman of Seventies cinema.

Peyton Place (1957)

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Quality is a very good thing in a roll of cloth but it’s very dull on a big date. Mike Rossi (Lee Phillips) arrives in the small New England town of Peyton Place to interview for high school principal, usurping the favourite teacher (Mildred Dunnock). He drives past a shack where Selena Cross (Hope Lange) lives with her mother (Betty Field), little brother and drunken stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). Selena’s best friend is the graduating class’s star student and wannabe writer Allison Mackenzie (Diane Varsi) whose widowed mother Constance (Lana Turner) has a clothing store and immediately attracts Mike’s interest. Allison has a crush on Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe) heir to the local fabric mill but he only has eyes for trashy Betty (Terry Moore). Allison confides in Norman (Russ Tamblyn) whose watchful mother has altogether too much to do with her shy son. All of the characters attempt to assert their individuality and grow up but malicious rumours, a rape and a suicide followed by a murder are just around the corner as Lucas forces himself on his stepdaughter and Constance reveals to Allison the truth about her obscure origins; then the newspaper carries a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor … Even decades after Grace Metalious’ novel was published it bore the whiff of scandal and my eleven-year old self carried it as though it were dangerous contraband – which of course it was, for about a minute. Part of its attraction was the back cover photograph of the authoress, a gorgeous young thing with a Fifties Tammy ponytail wearing a plaid shirt, cut offs and penny loafers – it was years before I would learn that this was a model (paid tribute by a shot of Allison in the film) and that Metalious was in reality a bloated alcoholic who died not long afterwards:  not such a role model after all!  The bestselling exposition of a horribly inward looking and vicious group of people in an outwardly lovely small town in Maine gets a meticulous adaptation by John Michael Hayes who was working carefully around the censor yet still managed to craft a moving even shocking melodrama from some explosive storylines arranged through the seasons. Lange comes off best in a film which has some daring off-casting – including Turner as the frigid so-called widow, cannily using her star carnality against the character. (In reality she would encounter her own extraordinary scandal with teenage daughter Cheryl within a year of this film’s release). Lloyd Nolan playing the local doctor has a field day in the showstopping courtroom revelation telling some vicious home truths amid some frankly disbelieving onlookers including the unrepentant gossips. Tamblyn gets one of the roles of his career as Norman, the son who is loved just a little too much by his mom… I hadn’t seen this in a long time but much to my surprise was immediately humming along again with the wonderfully lyrical score by Franz Waxman. In many ways this evocative drama sums up the morality of the Fifties even while being set on the eve of WW2 and the early Forties. A very pleasant, beautifully made and surprising reminder of a book whose opening line I’ve never forgotten:  Indian Summer is like a woman … Ah! The film is sixty years old this year. Directed by Mark Robson.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

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There are times when I think what a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life. In 1930s England James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) serves as butler to the doltish Lord Darlington (James Fox). Stevens is so dedicated that he forgoes visiting his father (Peter Vaughan) on his deathbed in order to serve a bunch of blackshirts dinner. He overlooks Darlington’s Nazi sympathies and growing anti-Semitism even dispensing with the service of two young Jewish refugees who he knows will be returned to Germany. Twenty years after the disgraced Darlington’s death and in the wake of the Suez Crisis Stevens tries to make contact once again with Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), Darlington’s head housekeeper who married their former colleague Benn (the late and lamented Tim Pigott-Smith). He travels to see her in the West Country and in the course of his trip begins to regret his blind loyalty and servitude to his former master who pursued a libel case to the detriment of his reputation and whose American critic Congressman Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve) now owns Darlington Hall. Stevens now works for him and his life is utterly unfulfilled. He must make up for lost time. The Merchant Ivory team regroup with their Howards End stars and the amazing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prize winning novel ponders class relations, political naivete and the lack of wisdom in relationships at every conceivable level. A friend of mine commented caustically on it at the time of its release, The fireplaces are wonderful. And it’s true, they are, but that is much too reductive of a project which  cannot translate the more subtle nuances of the novel instead transmitting through performance on a sometimes barely perceptible register of glances or a slight movement what mere writing cannot – the affect of loss and its immense impact on the totality of a life. Hopkins has one of the most difficult roles of his career – the stubborn butler who simply cannot accept the limitations of his boss or his father’s revelation. His refusal to admit emotionality is devastating. His humiliation at the pleasure of his lordship’s house guests makes you squirm on his behalf. Thompson is heartbreaking as the woman who loves him but hurts him rather than tell him directly. Their final leavetaking is horrifying in its simplicity and tragedy. There are two other exquisite scenes and they both predominantly feature fingers:  when Stevens finds his father collapsed and must wrench his fingers from a trolley after the old man has had a stroke;  and when Miss Kenton prises with great difficulty a novel from his own hand to declare rather disbelievingly that it is only a sentimental romance. The fear of embarrassment is all over this epic tale of a country’s honour in microcosm. It is an achievement that seems much larger in retrospect than a quarter of a century ago. A stylish, intelligent, immensely moving drama.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

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There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is the creme de la creme of Hollywood directors, maker of such fine escapist fare as Ants in Your Pants of 1939. The audiences love him! But he wants to make a social contribution and desires more than anything critical favour and socially relevant material. His butler (Robert Greig) and valet (Eric Blore – how I love him!) deplore the idea. He is followed by a fully-staffed double-decker bus provided by studio boss Lebrand (Robert Warwick) should his needs demand anything solid like a bed or food. He fails first time out but second time he determines to dress up like a hobo and find out what real life is like for the working man. He encounters a waitress known only as The Girl (Veronica Lake) who takes pity on him and he ultimately realises – after serious trials – that making ordinary joes laugh and relieving their impoverished misery is far better than any serious-minded nonsense like his planned adaptation of that crack preachy serious novel, O, Brother Where Art Thou?  McCrea is superb and Lake is stunning as the super-sweet girl who falls for this man who’s supposedly hit hard times. As if! Was there ever a finer Hollywood satire? Hardly. From the camera-stylo de Preston Sturges whose favourite players are all over the cast. He’s the only filmmaker whose office I tried to locate on the Paramount Studios tour. Oh! The hilarity! Sheer, unadulterated genius.

Summer Holiday (1963)

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Who forgot to buy the bread?!  Don (Cliff Richard) and his friends (Melvyn Hayes, Teddy Green and Jeremy Bulloch) are London Transport bus mechanics. During a miserably wet British summer lunch break, Don arrives, having persuaded their employers to lend him and his friends a double-decker bus which they convert into a holiday caravan, which they drive across continental Europe, intending to reach the Riviera. However, their eventual destination is Athens. On the way, they are joined by a trio of young women singers (Una Stubbs, Pamela Hart and Jacqueline Daryl) whose car has broken down and a runaway singer (Lauri Peters), who initially pretends to be a 14-year old boy called Bobby, pursued by her voracious stage mother (Madge Ryan) and agent (Lionel Murton). There are chases, dogs, singalongs, dance sequences with Cliff’s band The Shadows, a misunderstanding almost causing a marriage to a moustachioed shepherdess and problems at border crossings. Written by Peter Myers and Ronald Cass with musical orchestration by Stanley Black, this is chock-a-block with songs – Bachelor Boy was added to increase the running time. It’s genial, hokey stuff with England’s biggest rock ‘n’ roller Cliff making for a charming lead. His opposite number Lauri Peters was never a big name but she’d established the role of Liesel in the 1959 Broadway production of The Sound of Music where she sang Sixteen Going On Seventeen to teen Nazi Rolf played by Jon Voight who became her husband. She was overdubbed here by Grazina Frame who did the same job in Cliff’s previous film The Young Ones. The dance numbers were choreographed by Herbert Ross who made quite the director himself.  This was huge in the UK but in the US it played to empty houses – hardly surprising when you consider it was released there 54 years ago, November 24th 1963, two days after the assassination of JFK. Directed by debutant Peter Yates, this is why we all love red double-decker London buses!

Soldier of Fortune (1955)

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Nations fall when they lose their sense of humour. Jane Hoyt (Susan Hayward) arrives in Hong Kong looking for her missing photojournalist husband Louis (Gene Barry). He’s been kidnapped by the Chinese. She seeks help from an American smuggler (or shipping magnate!) Hank Lee (Clark Gable) but winds up trying her luck on Macau with Fernand Rocha (Mel Welles). However her guide is taken by the Communists en route and Rocha locks her up and gambles her money. Lee finds out from hard-drinking Rene Dupont Chevalier (Alexander D’Arcy) that Jane is probably in trouble and he uses one of his junks to travel, taking police Inspector Merryweather (Michael Rennie) against his will to ensure their safety… When Gable and Hayward meet there’s an instant attraction and one of the good things about Ernest Gann’s adaptation of his own novel is the dagger-like lines that he bestows upon each character in turn, and when she says this to Gable it’s knockout:  To me mister, you’re just a gangster, a throwback. I hope you enjoy living with yourself. Somehow it plays right into what we know of Gable from his past roles and the sense of the impending end of her marriage when she eventually reunites with her husband is written in the stars. The texture of this drama is aided immeasurably by the location photography – those HK streets really buzz , while the typical ex-pat scene of lowlifes and barflies populating the seedy Tweedie’s where so much of Jane’s learning curve occurs makes some of the action pop. The final escape from Macau into Hong Kong harbour is really something. Hayward couldn’t shoot her scenes locally because she was stuck in the US in the middle of a divorce so a stand-in was used in a few shots but it’s all very well handled by Edward Dmytryk.