Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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Even these days it isn’t as easy to go crazy as you might think. Divorced Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his smalltown practice in California after being away for a couple of weeks at a medical conference. Seems like half the population has been complaining of a mysterious feeling and then not returning, claiming to be better. And the other half says family members aren’t themselves – they’re impostors, lacking nothing except emotion. When his ex Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) returns from England after her own failed marriage they visit mystery writer Jack Bellicec (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) because his double is lying on the billiards table and frankly it freaks them out. Becky’s father is a little strange too and as for the local psychiatrist…. Soon it appears the whole town is being taken over by alien seed pods now being actively cultivated to make everyone the same. Whether you take this as ‘straight’ sci fi or horror (as if that were ever a thing), a political allegory (it works for  communism or fascism) or a warning about the homogeneity and groupthink of Fifties culture or even a comment on the brainwashing techniques used during the Korean War, this is brilliant cinema. From the sly innuendo of McCarthy getting back together with his ex, to the satirical thrusts at a humdrum life, this hasn’t aged a day. The scene when Teddy sees Jack’s double open his eyes while Jack is asleep is really thrilling. And as for the pods throbbing in the greenhouse! Adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from sci fi legend Jack Finney’s Colliers serial (later a novel) it was directed by Don Siegel. Whit Bisssell is the Dr in the concluding scenes and Sam Peckinpah plays Charlie the meter reader – he was director Siegel’s dialogue coach on this and four other of his Fifties films. The prologue and epilogue were added because the studio got cold feet over the pessimistic content –  but you will never forget the sight of McCarthy shouting at the trucks on the highway, and this was its original ending. Nevertheless, this is extraordinary, urgent and fiercely exciting, simply one of the best films ever made.

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Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967)

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It’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Not often do you hear a line from Milton at the movies, certainly not in a biker film. But this was in the vanguard of that cycle (!) in the late 60s and took the lead from the previous year’s Wild Angels and ran a little farther with Sonny Barger himself on the sidelines. Poet (Jack Nicholson) is pumping gas when he joins Buddy (Adam Roarke) and his gang after having his sickle damaged by one of them and then getting set upon by a bunch of sailors. The Angels take to the road and Buddy’s girl Shill (Sabrina Scharf) becomes the main attraction for this new ‘prospect’ as they ride around and provoke violence among hapless bystanders. This was written by R. Wright Campbell (who wrote a handful of screenplays for Roger Corman) and directed by Richard Rush whose decided distaste for the material is evidenced in a variety of contrasting setups lensed by Leslie (Laszlo) Kovacs who comes into his own with the handheld photography. It starts promisingly, with a riff on Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and there are some quite bizarrely languid pastoral interludes in the breaks between outbursts of violence, which are designed and shot rather amateurishly. It will all end in flames with that woman and those guys involved … It certainly looks like a lot of kicks were had vrooming around CA pretending to be violent while the real Hell’s Angels filled in the bike seats as extras. This is notable as one of those early-ish Nicholson performances where he seems to be almost horizontal in contrast with the perpendicular effortful grimacing of those around him, particularly the leading man, Roarke. B movie directors Jack Starrett and Bruno VeSota appear respectively as the policeman and priest who cross the gang’s path.

American Graffiti (1973)

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You just can’t stay seventeen forever. From magic hour until dawn, George Lucas’ evocation of the last night of properly being a teenager in Modesto, CA c. 1962 remains one of the most truly felt, realistically dramatised portraits of that difficult age. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is arguing with high school class president Steve (Ron Howard) in the car park of Mel’s Drive-In when he says he’s changing his mind about leaving for college in the morning. Steve breaks up with Curt’s sister and head cheerleader Laurie (Cindy Williams) and vests custody of his beloved wheels to Toad (Charles Martin Smith) while the oldest teen in town, John Milner (Paul Le Mat) looks on.  Music is pouring from the school hall where Herby & the Heartbeats aka Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids are performing at the back to school hop. Steve and Laurie have to pretend they’re still getting along as they dance in front of everyone. Curt spots a blonde angel (Suzanne Somers) cruising the strip in a Thunderbird and can’t be persuaded she’s a prostitute even after phoning her. John gives little Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) a ride and she aggressively but innocently pursues her crush on him. Toad picks up Debbie (Candy Clark) in the car and she proves surprisingly sweet considering her Monroe-esque attributes. John agrees to a drag race on Paradise Road against Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) and it ends in a flame-out at dawn …  This low budget quasi-autobiographical film and tribute to hot rodding was made by George Lucas when he couldn’t get his version of Apocalypse Now off the ground. HIs college classmates Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck co-wrote his story and Richard Walter did a sexy rewrite which didn’t work for Lucas and he rewrote it all himself using his record collection as inspiration for the different sections. It wasn’t sufficiently sexy or violent enough for AIP so United Artists financed the development (whew). It looked to UA like a music montage so that was when Universal came up with the money for production. It was shot in Techniscope utilising two cinematographers in each scene to save time and money and look like widescreen 16mm. It was editor Walter Murch’s idea (after Verna Fields left the rough cut for a bigger budget movie called What’s Up Doc?) to arrange the story to Wolfman Jack’s radio show focusing on rock ‘n’ roll classics. The soundtrack budget didn’t allow for the fees demanded by Elvis’ company, RCA and it’s all curated by Kim Fowley. The songs chronicle each of the vignettes, culminating in Curt’s departure for college at the local airport. Steve stays in Modesto and the credits commence with a card telling us of what supposedly becomes of each of the four protagonists. Ironically Lucas missed his high school reunion in Modesto because of the shoot which took him to San Rafael and then Petaluma. It was done in sequence and mainly at night so the actors would look progressively more tired as the night becomes morning. Charming, cherishable, wise and funny, with a vast array of performers who became household names and starting a huge vogue for Fifties nostalgia – Rock and roll has been going downhill since Buddy Holly died, as one of the guys declares while rubbishing The Beach Boys. An evocative, classic, inspirational homage to guys, girls, cars and rock ‘n’ roll. What more do you want?! Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, whose Dementia 13 is on the marquee of the local cinema.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

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What’s the fucking charge for being pushed out of a moving vehicle – jaywalking? Daniel Petrie Jr’s screenplay for this action comedy thriller is designed to showcase the extraordinary talents of standup turned movie star Eddie Murphy. It originated as a Simpson-Bruckheimer concept and evolved when Petrie gave Danilo Bach’s original screenplay a funny rewrite and several actors dropped out to do other projects. Axel Foley is a Detroit detective taking shore leave in LA to find out who murdered his friend Mikey because he can’t do it officially. His contact there is another childhood friend Jenny (Lisa Eilbacher) who’s also a mutual friend of the murder victim. She’s front of house for Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff) an art gallerist who has a sideline in cocaine distribution. Axel winds up – and then winds up with – his BHPD sidekicks Judge Reinhold and John Ashton:  just see what he does to their exhaust pipe.  His encounter with gay Serge (Bronson Pinchot) in a posh Rodeo Drive shop would tick off a lot of people today but is pretty funny. One of the real pluses is seeing the town in the Eighties when Giorgio was all the rage so there are a lot of residual pleasures outside this incredible star vehicle. Murphy’s foul-mouthed charisma just fills the screen in the definitive Eighties action comedy with its iconic electronic signature by Harold Faltermeyer. Stephen Elliott, the villain in Cutter’s Way, turns up as the police chief while National Enquirer readers might remember the Brit-accented receptionist at Maitland’s company, Karen Mayo-Chandler, who recounted her raunchy sexcapades with Jack Nicholson for the tabloids. She died in 2006. Directed by Marty Brest, who hasn’t made half enough films for my liking. Great fun.

Why Him? (2016)

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Her spine meets the arch of her tailbone and I want to pitch a tent and live in there. Tech millionaire Laird Mayhew (James Franco) introduces himself to the print-business owner father Ned (Bryan Cranston) of his Stanford student girlfriend Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) by flashing him over Skype on the older man’s 55th birthday. Invited to celebrate Christmas in California Stephanie takes her family to her boyfriend’s modernist mansion where the tattooed ignoramous bro hugs everyone, says everything that is inappropriate (likes Mom Megan Mullally rather overtly, charms little brother Griffin Gluck) and introduces Ned to a newly constructed bowling alley decorated with his image. He is just too much. And as for his assistant Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key) who does a Cato/Clouseau act with Laird which neither recognises when Ned understands the obvious reference… But when Laird asks Ned for his blessing in marriage to Stephanie he oversteps horrifically and it doesn’t end there … From a story by Jonah Hill, this was co-written by Ian Helfer and director John Hamburg and works both as (actual) lavatory humour (a huge plot point) and Silicon Valley satire (listen to what the poor intern says) while overtly reworking the story of Father of the Bride as it negotiates the problems a dad might have with a boor screwing his daughter on a table while he’s hiding underneath Get past the foul-mouthed quasi-autistic socially awkward techno savant fatherless antagonist and enjoy Cranston’s facial expressions which were made for just such a hellish but amusing meeting of bizarrely attuned minds in this generational bromance clash where it would appear both men are hiding problems with the state of their very different businesses. Mullally gets a chance to do what she does best too while you might recognise Zack Pearlman, Adam Devine and Andrew Rannells from The Intern which makes this rather meta. Definitely for fans of the band Kiss! (And Elon Musk…) A Christmas movie with a difference.

Born to be Blue (2015)

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This faux biography of a particular episode in Chet Baker’s life plays fast and loose with the truth – which is not really what you expect. Ethan Hawke is Baker in 1954, when he’s the James Dean of jazz, getting his first hit of heroin; then he’s Baker in 1966, making a film about himself, when his dealer breaks his front teeth and almost ruins his playing career. He takes up with Jane (Carmen Ejogo) the actress playing his ex-wife Elaine and endures the usual cycle of movie portrayals of jazz musicians/junkies:  getting in trouble with the cops, making good with his parents, cleaning up, getting his girl pregnant, getting a chance again, getting hooked again. The big scene – Baker singing My Funny Valentine, the one everyone knows – doesn’t add up to much dramatically speaking despite it being quite literally the sweet spot in his career. The big irony in this interpretation is that he berates his father (Stephen McHattie) for giving up on his talent but then he has so little belief in his own that he thinks he needs heroin to play again at Birdland – a long sought gig  – after he’s got accustomed to his dentures. There are some lines thrown away about the difference between east and west coast music and Baker’s desperate quest to impress Miles Davis. The other subtext of Baker’s story was his weird desire to be part of the black community – hence his relationships with black women one presumes. This just raises more questions than it can answer. A bleak, joyless film that never conveys the utterly unfathomable improvisable beauty of a genre that I love. Written and directed by Robert Budreau.

Moneyball (2011)

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Nobody reinvents this game. Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book about the Oakland A’s during their 2002 season was initially adapted by Stan Chervin for Sony who dropped the project after going through a couple of directors. It was brought to the screen with Bennett Miller helming, and draft screenplays by Steven Zaillian then Aaron Sorkin. Brad Pitt is Billy Beane, the team’s general manager who decides to adopt a radical approach:  sabermetrics, as promulgated by super-smart Ivy League grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a composite character based on the real-life assistants. Billy trades and sacks players with impunity, ending and starting careers, buying in flawed sportsmen at low prices, confounding conventional wisdom. Against all the usual odds, the team is winning but Billy is literally Billy No Mates with his policy, killing off the scouting process as he pursues victory. He tries to maintain a good relationship with his daughter, who spends most of the time with his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn), and finds comfort in listening to the pre-teen who composes songs on the guitar he buys her. What a clever, well written drama this is:  the idea is, play the same game but with a different strategy; make a winning team out of a losing team;  make statistics real by visualising them. It uses Billy’s own backstory – with visual, narrative and musical cues – to illustrate his rationale and keep the narrative moving forward. The ongoing narration by TV baseball commentators serves both to distance us from Billy (Pitt plays an essentially unknowable, unpredictable character); and as Greek chorus, to pace the story, justify Billy’s choices (or not) and to let us know how he is succeeding with this innovative player approach. It’s a very shrewd narrative choice. And in the midst of it are Billy and Pete, a rhyming couple, teaching each other lessons. Pitt and Hill are absolutely superb in an absorbing, brilliantly constructed drama.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

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Gabba gabba hey! The kind of film you want to be brilliant but falls far short – a hodge podge of high school tropes, teen rebellion and let’s put on a show, mixed in with The Ramones – performing some of their best and worst songs. PJ Soles is the big-haired cheerleader type who’s just wild for the pre-punk rockers and is at war with the new school principal (cult star Mary Woronov) at Vince Lombardi High. 70s heart-throb Vince Van Patten (now more often to be seen on the World Poker Tour) is the geek trying to win the heart of brainiac Dey Young (sister of Leigh Taylor Young) and talks about the weather.  Soles has written a song for the band to sing but has to deal with their number one groupie (the gorgeous Lynn Farrell) when lining up for tickets to see them. There’s some OTT stuff featuring teacher Paul Bartel, a Nazi-style burning of the toxic vinyl, overgrown boy scouts working as a security detail for Woronov and some bad acting by those fake NYC bros. All the kids really want to do is dance!  Truly a cult relic but worth catching for some of the songs and the explosive finale – when the kids do what every kid ever wanted to do to their own high school! A Roger Corman production based on a story by director Allan Arkush and Joe Dante with a screenplay by Richard Whitely, Russ Dvonch and Joseph McBride – the same Mr McBride is one of the better film historians with books on Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and Steven Spielberg, among others, to his impressive credit.

Less Than Zero (1987)

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Clay (Andrew McCarthy) is back in Los Angeles for Christmas following his first semester at college and finds that his ex-girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) is now using cocaine and his best friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr.) whom he found sleeping with Blair over Thanksgiving is a serious cokehead indebted to the tune of $50,000 to the nasty Rip (James Spader – frighteningly reasonable) who runs a rent boy ring and gets his creditors to service his clients. This portrait of life in the higher-earning echelons of LA is chilling. Bret Easton Ellis’ iconic novel is a talisman of the mid-late Eighties coming of age set and the icy precision of his affectless prose is inimitable. Once read, never forgotten. Harley Peyton’s screenplay is a fair adaptation but the casting lets this down – with the exception of Downey who is simply sensational as the tragic Julian, gifted with a record company for graduation by his father (Nicholas Pryor) and then simply dumped when he screws up.  This lovable loser’s mouth drools with the effects of his addiction when rehab doesn’t work and he spirals unhappily trying to bum money off his uncle to open a nightclub. Watch the scene when he talks to Clay’s little sister as though she’s a lover who’s pushing him away – knockout. The Beverly Hills scene with its horrible parents and their multiple marriages and awkward dinners with exes and stepchildren, making teenagers grow up too fast, is all too real.  While McCarthy and Gertz just don’t really work – McCarthy’s supposed to be a vaguely distanced observer but he doesn’t convey much beyond a bemused smile, Gertz looks confused and both look too old – the shooting style is cool and superficial, like the lives it critiques. Directed by Marek Kanievska.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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What have I done? Adapted loosely from Battle for the Planet of the Apes, this continues the saga in a reboot that, for this viewer at least, worked brilliantly in the first episode and not at all in the second (horrible cast, horribly shot). Matt Reeves however is back to direct this and it’s fierce, chilling and captivating, in every sense. Caesar (Andy Serkis) now has a psychological battle (against Koba) and an actual war against an American military whose renegade paramilitary California outfit (the Alpha and the Omega) run by the ruthless colonel Woody Harrelson imprisons apes in a quarantine facility aka work camp where parent apes are separated from their children.  Torture is random and regular while a collaborator ape, Donkey, brutalises his fellows. The allusions to the Aryan Brotherhood and Nazis are inevitable not to mention the theory of eugenics which originated in that great state. Caesar’s personal motive  is now revenge after his wife and younger son, Cornelius, are murdered in raids. He takes off with his own small band of brothers – orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and Rocket (Terry Notary) – and they rescue a little human girl whom they christen Nova (Amiah Miller) who has been rendered mute but is quite the brain. Then they find a seemingly witless addition to their group (Steve Zahn) who repeats the mantra ‘bad ape, bad ape’ but turns out to be quite the strategist. He’s been in hiding since the killer simian flu outbreak. This is quite a bleak but utterly compelling fast-moving narrative with one big scene (a tad too on the nose?) between Caesar and Harrelson in which the prototypical neo-Nazi lays out his reasoning (fighting a holy war for the future of mankind) and explains how he killed his little boy rather than have him disabled by this strange illness causing the loss of speech. Harrelson looks like he did in Natural Born Killers which is probably a reference too far. The crucifying of Caesar (and others) has clear Biblical allusions (water, desert, one rebel and his few followers) and the suffering can be tough to watch. But the action is at a cracking pace. This aspires to mythical qualities and has them in abundance. You might find there is resonance with the current political situation – in many territories – or that might also be a reference too far. Whatever. There is a great but deathly dangerous escape and a tragic sacrifice. You either roll with this or you don’t. I do! Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, adapting from Pierre Boulle’s source novel which started the whole thang.