Sam Whiskey (1969)

Sam Whiskey

I didn’t travel four hundred miles to bury your bird. Gambling rogue Sam Whiskey (Burt Reynolds) has got his hands on a heist job that’s pretty outrageous. Drop-dead-gorgeous widow Laura Breckenridge (Angie Dickinson) wants to quietly give back the gold to the Denver Mint that her late husband had stolen because she comes from a prestigious family whom she doesn’t wish to embarrass. She approaches Sam to retrieve the gold from a steamboat wreck at the bottom of a river and smuggle it back into the mint. The widow’s beauty, and the nice sum she promises him, leave Sam powerless to resist the preposterous proposal following a vigorous bout of sex in her hotel room. Sam enlists the help of  local blacksmith Jedidiah Hooker (Ossie Davis) and old Army buddy turned inventor O. W. Bandy (Clint Walker),  offering them shares of the reward. However after they locate the riverboat they are unaware that are being followed by Fat Henry Hobson (Rick Davis) and his gang who kidnap Sam’s friends thinking that he’s dead There is a new administration. Burt is hot and funny, Angie’s insatiable and it’s all a leisurely and amusing comedy western caper in reverse with a well-engineered concluding sequence at the Mint. The screenplay by William Norton, who would help hone Reynolds’ good ol’ boy persona to perfection in the later White Lightning and Gator, gives him plenty of good moments here (including a song!) and he just radiates charisma. A lot of fun. Directed by TV producer/director veteran Arnold Laven. Stolen money burns a hole in your pocket

Night Passage (1957)

Night Passage

I’m beholden to you mister. Can’t we just leave it that way? Former railroad worker Grant McLaine (James Stewart) is making a living playing the accordion when he’s hired by boss Ben Kimball (Jay C. Flippen) to help transport the railroad’s payroll despite having left his former employ in disgrace. The train carrying the payroll has been robbed multiple times in the past by Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea) and his gang and the workers haven’t been paid in months. Kimball hopes that McLaine can successfully guard the money from the robbers. But matters are complicated for McLaine when he finds out that one of the robbers is his brother, who is now going by the name of the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy) a notorious name in the territory and the brothers have a score to settle … Colorado may be big on miles but it’s kinda short on people. One of the most beautifully shot films of its era (courtesy of William H. Daniels), this was supposed to be directed by Anthony Mann in a furthering of his collaboration with James Stewart. However he withdrew due to his unhappiness with Borden Chase’s adaptation of the source novel by Norman A. Fox and was replaced by James Neilson. It lacks the psychological complexity of those previous auteurist pairings but Murphy is perfect casting as the under-motivated baby-faced younger brother to Stewart’s conscientious sibling, jaded and saddened by loss of love. Duryea has some fantastic scenes, Elam is his usually villainous self and there’s little Brandon De Wilde exuding star power carrying the mysterious shoe box. Elaine Stewart and Dianne Foster have finely drawn roles as the women who come between the brothers. You haven’t heard anything in movies until you’ve witnessed Stewart playing the accordion and trilling, You can’t get far without a railroad in a wonderful score by Dimitri Tiomkin.  If you was boss we wouldn’t do it!

Gunpoint (1966)

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You’re not much like the man I once knew. In the early 1880s near the Wild West town of Lodgepole, Colorado, Sheriff Chad Lucas (Audie Murphy) gets shot during a train robbery not by the perpetrators, but by his jealous deputy, Captain Hold (Denver Pyle), who believes he should be sheriff instead. Left to die, Chad rallies and takes off in search of the robbers encountering attacks by Indians and horse thieves en route. Tracking them down to New Mexico, Chad and saloon owner Nate (Warren Stevens) chase after gang leader Drago (Morgan Woodward), who has taken saloon singer and Chad’s ex-lover Uvalde (Joan Staley) as a hostage but Nate is engaged to Uvalde and doesn’t like it when he discovers her past relationship with Chad I’d as soon gun down a horse thief as stomp a tarantula. This is a fairly standard oater but there’s a sense of jeopardy arising not just from how the landscape (St George, Kanab Canyon, Snow Canyon State Park Utah) is presented but in the use of animals, with a horse stampede proving an opportunity for some nice low-angle shots. Audie has some good verbal exchanges particularly with Woodward and his late reconciliation with Uvalde  gives him a nice scene immediately prior to her seeming betrayal – until Audie gets a chance to make all sorts of amends which lends a touch of psychological complexity to otherwise routine proceedings. The last of a cycle of seven westerns Audie made with the producer Gordon Kay. Written by Mary Willingham and Willard W. Willingham and directed by Earl Bellamy. Maybe all evens up in time

A Dog’s Way Home (2019)

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As a puppy, Bella (played by Shelby and voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) finds her way into the arms of med student Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) a young man who with girlfriend Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) finds her in a demolition site with her friend Mother Cat and her kittens and gives her a good home with him and his mother Terri (Ashley Judd) a military vet who volunteers at the local Veterans’ Administration assisting the rehabilitating of fellow vets with PTSD and physical injuries. When Bella becomes separated from Lucas in an encounter with Animal Control, she is transported to the home in New Mexico of his Olivia’s family. She escapes and soon finds herself on an epic 400-mile journey across mountains and forest to reunite with her beloved owner. Along the way, the lost but spirited dog touches the lives of an orphaned cougar cub whom she calls Big Kitten, surviving hunters and predators, is kept in chains by a down-on-his-luck homeless alcoholic veteran Axel (Edward James Olmos) and briefly has a home with some friendly strangers, a gay couple (Barry Watson, Motell Gyn Foster) who happen to cross her path during an avalanche.  After two long years away from Lucas what will happen when she reaches her destination? … A reworking perhaps of Disney’s  The Incredible Journey, this had me at Woof. And in between the times I was blinking away tears and outright crying, it’s scary, tender, heartfelt and full of compassion. You might quibble with a CGI Big Kitten and the over-sentimentalising but there is real peril and some nasty human behaviour as well as an issue over how a dog should be classified when it comes to having a pit bull for a parent:  well, what’s new. And what’s not to love about a dog separated from her mother who finds a mother in a cat family?  And then a human family? And comforts soldiers suffering the after-effects of service? And who then befriends an orphaned cougar? At the end of the day, there’s no place like home. Sob. Adapted by W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon from Cameron’s book and directed by Charles Martin Smith, an actor who will always be Toad in American Graffiti here at Mondo Movies as well as Farley Mowat in that splendid wilderness film Never Cry Wolf. I knew now that my journey was much longer than I’d ever imagined

The Front Runner (2018)

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Now they know who we are.  It’s 1987. Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) former senator of Colorado and one-time campaign manager for McGovern, becomes the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hart’s intelligence, alleged charisma and idealism make him popular with young voters, leaving a seemingly clear path to the White House with a strong team led by Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons). All that comes crashing down when allegations of an extramarital affair with a woman called Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) surface in the media after he’s goaded journalists to follow him in an interview with Washington Post reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), forcing the candidate to address a scandal that threatens to derail his campaign and personal life: his guarded wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) has stood by him but when the TV cameras fetch up at their house and their daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) is followed there’s some hard talking in public and in private ... I did all the things I was supposed to do to make that men wouldn’t look at me the way you’re looking at me right now. It was a great story and it ran for three weeks way back then. The good looking Democrat with great hair taunted journos to come looking for trouble and they did and they found it and the philandering politico was found on a boat called Monkey Business with a young woman who was then hung out to dry by the very people who said they’d protect her. Sound familiar? The coarsening of politics began right there, in the pages of the tabloids who found the idea of a Presidential contender openly carrying on an adulterous affair irresistible:  these are the kind of guys who sniggered about JFK’s women and let him away with everything – until he was murdered and it was open season on his legacy. Jason Reitman’s film is a serious look at an issue that has just got worse over the years (with rather paradoxical outcomes, considering the state of state surveillance and paparazzi and the interweb as we know) but it’s loud and busy for the first 45 minutes and hard to hear and hard to follow.  Only then does it settle, away from the hubbub of campaign offices and the rustle of burger lunches to focus on the man at the centre of the story who disproves his team’s views about what he should be doing – turns out he’s darn good at ax throwing. Trouble is, he’s not that interesting. Why on earth would he be a good President? He could win it – he’s got the hair. The superficial elements of campaigning are all over this (one advisor suggests that if Dukakis added a K to his name he’d take the South). The philosophical argument here which Hart is given in dialogue is that the public don’t care and he should have his privacy – and the public wouldn’t care if the journalists didn’t and Hart had never thrown down the gauntlet to them. That’s the point. So the story isn’t about a man carrying on behind the back of his wife or how Democrats are always found out in the same tedious way, it’s about grubby low journalistic standards and the free press and the dangers that poses to true political expression:  this in itself is a very conflicted narrative stance (not to Vladimir Putin, of course). Jackman does a very low-key characteristation and that compounds the narrative problems. He is a charm vacuum. We are left asking at the end of this, as Walter Mondale asked Hart (and the clip is included), Where’s the beef? Adapted from Matt Bai’s book All the Truth is Out:  The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Bai, (former Hilary Clinton press secretary) Jay Carson and Reitman, who has left his satirical knives in the drawer on this occasion. Pity.

Red Dawn (1984)

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My father turned me in. Oh God, they do things you can’t imagine. When Soviet soldiers invade Calumet, a small Colorado town, sending Nicaraguan and Cuban paratroopers into the local high school football field, brothers Jed (Patrick Swayze) and Matt Eckert (Charlie Sheen) escape with friends (C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton) to the forest where they call themselves Wolverines after their school mascot. With their father Tom (Harry Dean Stanton) a prisoner of the invading army, the children decide to fight against the Soviets. As the country comes under increasing attack and bitter winter closes in, the group teams up with Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner (Powers Boothe) to take back their town but how long can they hold out as they discover they are behind battle lines in occupied America? … West Coast. East Coast. Down here is Mexico. First wave of the attack came in disguised as commercial charter flights same way they did in Afghanistan in ’80. Only they were crack Airborne outfits. Now they took these passes in the Rockies. What a film to watch in the week that Vladimir Putin declared liberalism dead. From a story by Kevin Reynolds, auteur John Milius bootkicks the US into surreality positing a Soviet landgrab when we all know they’d nuke the country to high heaven before that would happen. So far, so ridick, as what was supposed to be a small arty antiwar outing becomes a teenage Rambo with Milius toying with the original material assisted by General Alexander Haig, on MGM’s board of directors at the time, dreaming up a what-if scenario evolving from Mexico’s left wing sympathy splitting the US in half as Hitler’s plan for invasion is reworked.  It starts with a history class in Genghis Khan’s warring tactics and within 5 minutes of explaining his stratagems the Russian helicopters are on the ground.  Soon Alexander Nevsky is playing for free at the local cinema and William Smith is in town marshalling the Russkies (in reality he’d been a Russian Intercept interrogator for the CIA). When the drive-in becomes a re-education centre, it’s a nod to the potential for camp classic status as an ‘ironic’ acknowledgement of its own silliness but also reminds us a lot of WW2. Given that this was the first film to receive a PG-13 rating for its violence, it occupies a certain stratum of cultdom and not merely for an alt history:  here are some of the era’s top teen icons (half of The Outsiders!) shooting the hell out of everything in sight. What joy there is in seeing Lea Thompson manning a sub-machine gun and Swayze romancing Jennifer Grey long before Dirty Dancing. With astounding cinematography by Ric Waite and Frederick Elmes and an operatic score from the great Basil Poledouris, this is a salutary lesson in survivalism and resistance. Milius would describe it as “a Close Encounters with Cold War Russians”. Children did this

Extremely Wicked (2019)

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I’m not a bad guy. Law student Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) is in prison receiving a visit from long time girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) but she leaves upset. We flash back to how they met, set up home together with her baby daughter Molly and how news reports of the assaults and murders of young women across swathes of the United States result in his being apprehended as his photo fit is widely published. But Liz appears not to believe that Ted is capable of such evil.  Police Detective Mike Fisher (Terry Kinney) crosses state lines to leave an envelope of horrifying information at their house to try to persuade her that they have the right guy but she doesn’t open it for years. In the meantime, Ted starts to defend himself before Judge Edward Cowart (John Malkovich) in Florida, the first such trial to be televised … You know this didn’t start with a Stop sign. This biographical drama could have gone badly wrong but it’s far from a hagiography and a lot is left to the grisly imagination. Joe Berlinger’s feature follows from his documentary series on the subject, adapted from the book The Phantom Prince:  My Life With Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall.  It’s cannily structured, starting with that flashback meeting cute with Liz so that the entire narrative feels like a seduction of sorts, giving Efron an opportunity to create a complete personality. We feel the impact of that fatal charisma and because he establishes a home life including as stepfather to Liz’s young daughter Molly, the disconnect is all the more alarming, especially interspersed with reports of serial murders from those locations where we know him to have been and shots of him with girls in bars. When we see Ted and Liz together we are imagining how he would kill her – those hands around her little neck suggest so much of what is not shown about his murderous spree. Collins doesn’t have a lot to do but the final scene between them has a big reveal – they both have something to confess. How much did she know? What did he do, exactly? Efron is utterly compelling as this beacon of toxic masculinity:  it’s all about him, as with all narcissistic serial killers. We don’t know any more, even the extent of his slaughter. You know the rest. When I feel his love I feel on top of the world, when I don’t I feel nothing

 

 

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

BlacKkKlansman

We are living in an era marked by the spread of integration and miscegenation. In the early 1970 Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself and serve in the tradition of his ex-military father, Stallworth wants to progress from the Records Room where he is daily dealt racist remarks by a colleague.  He sets out on a dangerous mission: an undercover sting operation to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. Together with a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), they team up to take down the extremist hate group as the organisation aims to sanitise its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream and they befriend the head of the local chapter, the charismatic Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) with Jewish Flip posing as Stallworth who has befriended David Duke (Topher Grace) on the telephone. Then Stallworth is assigned to Duke’s protection detail when he comes to town to officiate at the initiation of new recruits to The Organisation …  If I would have known this was a Klan meeting, I wouldn’t have taken this motherfucking gig. Goddamn. That stylish loudmouth Spike Lee has never been backward about coming forward so this confrontational true story about the KKK and more widespread issues of racism in America is as broad as it’s long, making links from the opening Gone With the Wind excerpt to the ghastly leg-spreading exams carried out by the Colorado cops on black college students who’ve been to a Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) event. The 1950s public service announcement in the prologue featuring Dr Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) lamenting the spread of integration and miscegenation is about as subtle as this comedy-drama gets with a Scooby Doo plot that is so silly you couldn’t make it up if it hadn’t actually happened – you cannot remotely sympathise with the KKK, especially as they are planning violence against the students whose union is led by the lovely Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) – and it concludes with footage of the 2017 Charlottesville race riots including footage of the real David Duke, inherently negating all that has passed before it dramatically. Washington has an amazing hairdo and Driver is fine but this is a sledgehammer polemic intended for an already ‘woke’ audience. Written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Lee.  That detective is Ron Stallworth, you racist, peckerwood, redneck, inch worm, needle-dick motherfucker!

Westbound (1959)

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Well, they tell me they got a good man runnin’ this place.  In 1864 former Union officer, John Hayes (Randolph Scott) manages the Overland stagecoach company which transports gold to the North from California. Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), a businessman who’s quit working for Overland and is secretly loyal to the South, is intent on robbing the coaches. Hoping to heist the treasure as a way to revive the Confederacy, Putnam also has a grudge against Hayes, since his wife, Norma (Virginia Mayo), was once involved with Hayes. It seems everyone in this small Colorado town is now out to help the South …  You walk out of this house and you go out the way you came in… with nothing but the clothes on your back! The sixth in the western partnership between Scott and producer/director Budd Boetticher this does not belong to the official Ranown cycle and is written by Bern Giler (as opposed to Burt Kennedy) from a story with Albert S. Le Vino. It’s not the typically taut film you’d expect from that team but it’s notable for the killing of a small child and two striking female performances by Mayo and Karen Steele (as Jeanie Miller). Scott is solid as ever. That’s a lot of woman!

Downhill Racer (1969)

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In seven years I’ve never had a hot dog like you.  Smug, arrogant and overly self-assured downhill skier, David Chappellet (Robert Redford), joins the American ski team after their star has an accident and quickly makes waves with his contemptuous behavior and his actions on the slopes, falling into conflict with the team’s coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman). He won’t ski at Wengen because he’s seeded too low. Then when he comes fourth he thinks he’s won. But he has a good face and attracts the attention of a ski manufacturer Machet (Karl Michael Vogler). A rivalry also develops between David and Johnny Creech (Jim McMullan), the man who is now considered the team’s best skier, firstly romantically as Chappelet immediately hits on Machet’s assistant Carole Stahl (Camilla Sparv) when he sees Creech with her.  The relationship lasts a season when Chappelet wins at Kitzbühel and alienates the rest of the team. Then the men find common ground when they are both in the running for the Olympic team and Chappelet realises Carole is even more driven and capricious than he is He’s not for the team, and he never will be. Written by the great James Salter (from the uncredited novel The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall), this is a classic character study told in terms of competitive skiing. The limitations of Chappelet’s smalltown origins paradoxically make him want to conquer the world – which in skiing terms means Europe. While Redford would make another kind of mountain movie in a few years (Jeremiah Johnson) this is about another paradox which team coach Hackman addresses in a press conference – why America has such fantastic mountains but lacks champion skiers (money). Chappelet wins the attentions of the glamorous Carole but he loves her money as much as the sex – when he snorts with laughter at the sight of her yellow Porsche you understand. His sketchy relationship with his farmer dad demonstrates the issue and why his tunnel vision exists. Claire is tolerant of his talent but antagonistic to Chappelet’s single-minded drive: All you ever had was your skis and it’s not enough. Chappelet may not be a nice guy, but Claire needs him and the team needs him. When a happy accident occurs, replaying a race held in jest, you know Chappelet’s glad. The almost-twist ending is just perfect. It’s amazing to realise that this was Michael Ritchie’s debut as director. He is often described as a master ironist and while the material is undoubtedly on the page, the staging is meticulously judged:  there is acute observation and colour (look at the difference a white turtleneck makes to Chappelet and how he dons blue jeans to talk to his uninterested father);  the production design in flawless in terms of contrast; there are also reverse shots that make you laugh out loud. (Look at how Claire laughs in a restaurant when Chappelet is cornered by a dumb journalist). This world is established leanly, using few reaction shots.The part is Redford’s. He had picked up on the property when Roman Polanski was working on it at Paramount prior to getting involved with Rosemary’s Baby and Salter developed the story outline from Polanski’s idea of a High Noon on the slopes, ignoring Hall’s novel. Redford and Salter travelled with the US ski team to the 1968 Winter Olympics at Grenoble and Hall picked up on an aloof quality in Billy Kidd but was also influenced by Spider Sabich and Buddy Werner who had died a few years earlier in an avalanche while fooling with a film crew. Sparv was married to Paramount Studio head Robert Evans for a few years and she has precisely the glacial attraction required for such a nonchalant self-absorbed woman. Superior, in fact. Chappelet’s need of money and fame needs that kind of woman in tow. When she doesn’t need him he is brought down to earth – literally. Claire is the warm team manager whose methods the cool Chappelet despises. There is a plot but it’s the anonymity of the slopes, the hotel rooms, the lifestyle, the effort, the brutality, that highlight the characterisations. The technical side of the film is superlative – rarely has the experience of skiing been so accurately shot and Ritchie hired cameraman Brian Probyn and sound man Kevin Sutton after seeing their work on Ken Loach’s Poor Cow. The images of Chappelet and Carole skirting the high line of the glistening white slopes under a bright blue sky are awesome. Some years ago an acquaintance regaled me with a little story about Redford at one of the Sundance Institute workshops. He kept a low profile, he said. Didn’t want to draw attention to himself. And then one morning he was out on the slopes. You could spot him without any effort:  he was the one in a hot pink suit. Somehow you just know he is channeling his inner Chappelet. Not just for ski bunnies and Jean-Claude Killy fans. Outstanding.