War Paint (1953)

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I once read a lot of books about humanity. All wrong. When we get back I’ll write a new one. With only nine days to deliver a peace treaty to Gray Smoke, the chief of a strong Native American tribe, cavalry Lieutenant Billings (Robert Stack) and his troopers are in a race against time to avoid all-out war. Since time is of the essence, Billings recruits the chief’s son Taslik (Keith Larsen), to guide the men to the settlement. However Billings and his men are unaware that a group of renegades, wary of the suspicious U.S. treaty, seek to kill the messengers before they can complete their mission and they find that the Bureau of Indian Affairs officer Kirby has been killed – by Taslik . Gradually depleted of supplies including mapping equipment, water and horses, they realise Taslik has led them in a circle but are unaware they are being tracked by his sister Wanima (Joan Taylor) who is causing the landslides and is watching and waiting with a rifle … Without water he’s as dead as we are. This western is rich in irony, not least in the casting because Stack’s impassivity is a good physical reflection of the painted features of Larsen. The backstories of each trooper are drawn out smartly:  Charnofsky (John Doucette) is Polish and says he fled the old country because the Tsar wanted to put me in the military! As the men are gradually driven mad by thirst and greed, the infighting worsens, casualties mount and there is a truly compelling account of a death by poison; one man chooses suicide rather than wait for what appears to be inevitable. The original script had a mercy killing which elicited the ire of the Production Code Administration and had to be removed. All in all a convincing narrative, shot in the relentless glare of Death Valley. It’s written by C. Fred Freiberger, William Tunberg and producer Aubrey Schenck, who wrote the original story, while the screenplay credits are to Richard Alan Simmons and Martin Berkeley. The score is by Arthur Lange and Emil Newman and any film that has a song called Elaine can’t be half bad. Directed by Lesley Selander. Kinda lost track here. Only thing that breaks up the time is the wars

Kalifornia (1993)

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What the hell did I know about California? For some people it was still a place of hopes and dreams, a chance to start over. Graduate journalism student Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) has published an article about serial killers that secures an offer for a book deal. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles,planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian’s book. Trouble is, they’re short of money so Brian posts a ride-share ad on campus. Psychopathic recent parolee Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer where Early lives with his naïve girlfriend waitress Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). Early refuses the officer’s offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day and the mismatched foursome take off cross-country one hour after Early has murdered his landlord. Carrie has immediate misgivings when she sees the white trash pair and becomes very scared when Early and Brian start drinking together and Brian becomes infatuated with guns … Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about? It’s a neat concept:  a guy obsessed with serial killers ends up sharing a ride with a serial killer and then becomes inured to the effects of that violent experience when it’s finally him or – him. It’s constructed as though this were the rite of passage for a writer of such true crimes giving him a taste for murder albeit the closing voiceover indicates he has learnt nothing because he feels nothing. So maybe we’re in the realm of unfulfilled masculinity – so much of this narrative is tied into sex and instinct. Perhaps it’s too self-satisfied, perhaps Pitt’s performance as the kinky white trailer trash is too eccentric, Lewis too retarded, Forbes too knowing, Duchovny too withdrawn. These are people whose paths would never ordinarily cross however they’re in a car together having to deal with each other. On the other hand it’s a cool piece of work with a kind of sociocultural commentary about how we are bumping up against people we disagree with on a daily basis, how some elitists have a kind of fascination for the going-nowhere working classes, how pure intellect is rarely a match for feral intuition and how serial killers can attain a celebrity that transcends mere notoriety into a form of acceptability because it is no longer possible to move us in a world where so much is abandoned and empty. It’s no accident that the finale takes place at Dreamland, the old nuclear testing site and fake town on the California-Nevada border. Originally written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy, this appears to have changed substantially in tone in development. Directed like a stylishly cool breeze by Dominic Sena in his feature debut. I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’t know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing

Stargate (1994)

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Give my regards to King Tut, asshole! In modern-day Egypt, hieroglyphics scholar Daniel Jackson (James Spader) teams up with retired US Army Col. Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell)  on behalf of the military to unlock the code of a stone gate uncovered in 1928 which it transpires is an interstellar gateway to an ancient Egypt-like world in our universe. They arrive on planet Abydos ruled by the despotic alien sungod Ra (Jaye Davidson), who holds the key to the Earth travellers’ safe return. Now, in order to escape from their intergalactic purgatory, Jackson and O’Neil have to convince the planet’s people that Ra must be overthrown but to get back home Jackson has to realign the Stargate .I’m here in case you succeed. With a copy of Erich von Däniken’s Chariot of the Gods in one hand and a panoply of special effects in the other producer Mario Kassar and director Roland Emmerich delve into the world of ancient astronaut theory (for more of this, watch Ancient Aliens on The Hitler Channel). The references to Conan Doyle, Jules Verne and George Lucas are there and there’s the added virtue of a gung ho soldier grieving his child – who you gonna call? Kurt Russell, of course:  who better to stir up the natives into a revolution on a place trapped in Ancient-Egypt time? And the other half of this double act, Spader, romances ancient Sha’uri (Mili Avital) for good measure. Nutty and plausible for the first sixty-five minutes,  then it trundles into the realm of total absurdity with Davidson’s body-possessing alien posing as fey god act just a little de trop, as Diana Vreeland (or Celeste Holm) might have put it. Epic good fun. Written by Emmerich and Dean Devlin. There can be only one Ra

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

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Aka Cemetery Girls. Remember – this is the desert and out here the sun can be destructive. Nice guy Lee Ritter (Michael Blodgett) and his pretty wife, Susan (Sherry Miles) are introduced by friend Carl Stoker (Gene Shane) to mysterious vixen Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall) to visit her in her secluded desert estate. She lives with Juan (Jerry Daniels) whom she says her family raised when his died on their reservation. However when she takes them to a graveyard where she claims her husband is buried tensions arise – trouble is Mr LeFanu was buried in 1875.  The couple, unaware at first that Diane is in reality a centuries-old vampire, realise that they are both objects of the pale temptress’ desire but that doesn’t really stop them lying in the way of her systematic seduction… Diane, I think I want to drive your buggy. This homage to Irish horror maestros Bram Stoker, Sheridan LeFanu and the recent Euro-Gothic erotic vampire genre, is the kind of cult exploitationer that should be seen more regularly but still belongs firmly in that realm despite its contemporary dayglo modern California setting, dune buggies and post-hippie glam.  While played straight, the lines aerate the daft premise with humour:  There is no life without blood, says the marvellous diaphonously clad Yarnall, a veteran of TV’s Ozzie and Harriet who died one year ago this week. You’ll recognise her from Live a Little, Love a Little as the beautiful girl who inspires Elvis to sing A Little Less Conversation. Miles is a lovably clueless ditsy blonde, barely clad in a bikini but topless more often than not. Blodgett (Lance in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) is perfectly engaging as the good guy who just can’t help himself. The low budget is put to one side by the clever setting – that Spanish Revival house in the desert where the sunlight plays havoc with those pale of skin who prefer to socialise at night but also gives costumier Keith Hodges some fun opportunities and Daniel LaCambre shoots it beautifully. There’s a well conceived climax at LA’s bus terminal and a rather appetising coda. Blues musician Johnny Shines performs his song Evil-Hearted Woman. Directed by cult fave Stephanie Rothman and co-written by her (with her producer husband Charles S. Swartz and Maurice Jules, who also co-wrote that voodoo vampire outing Scream Blacula Scream), this gives you a good idea why her point of view as a feminist filmmaker was so significant in the drive-in era and it’s a real shame her women’s movies aren’t more widely known. Roger Corman was somewhat disappointed with the finished result and released it on a double bill with the Italian horror Scream of the Demon LoverI was having the same dream

Play It As It Lays (1972)

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I’ll tell you what I do. I try to live in the now. Burned-out B-movie actress Maria (Tuesday Weld), depressed and frustrated with her loveless marriage to an ambitious film director, Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) who would rather work on his career than on his relationship with her, numbs herself with drugs and sex with strangers. Only her friendship with a sensitive gay movie producer, B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), offers a semblance of solace. But even that relationship proves to be fleeting amidst the empty decadence of Hollywood as they both start to crack up ... How do you get to the desert? You drive there. Husband and wife screenwriting team Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapted Didion’s sensational novel of alienation and its transposition to the screen by director Frank Perry captures its existential sense of crisis. Weld is perfect as the model turned actress whose flashbacks are a faux-documentary and some biker movies she has made with her husband (and Roarke starred in some himself, of course). Her narrative is determined by movie business ghouls and Sidney Katz’s editing plays into her disjointed sense that she is losing control in a chilling world where her retarded daughter is locked away and she undergoes an illegal abortion.  Weld is teamed up again with Perkins after Pretty Poison and they work beautifully together – you really believe in their tender friendship. An overlooked gem which reminds us what a fine performer Weld is and also the fact that Charles Bukowski wrote about her in the poem the best way to get famous is to run away.  A cult classic. The fact is, when an actress walks off a picture people get the idea she doesn’t want to work

The Goldfinch (2019)

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We don’t say fake. It’s reproduction. Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley/ Ansel Elgort) was 13 years old when his mother Audrey (Hailey Wist) was killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He is taken in by the Upper East Side Barbour family whose mother Samantha (Nicole Kidman) understands his fragility while his estranged friendship with her younger son Andy (Ryan Houst) is rekindled.  She discovers an engraved ring in Theo’s possession and he returns it to Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) at the antiques and restoration store Hobart & Blackwell where he recognises the lovely redheaded girl Pippa (Aimee Laurence/Ashleigh Cummings) who was standing beside him just before the bomb exploded and they become fast friends. She is the niece of Welty Blackwell (Robert Joy) whose dying words to Theo were to take his mom’s favourite painting the 1654 masterpiece The Goldfinch from the bomb site and a dazed Theo puts it in his backpack and stores it at his home.  All seems on an even keel until his freshly detoxed loser father Larry (Luke Wilson) reappears and abruptly takes him to Nevada to set up house with live-in cocktail waitress girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson). Life in the desert has an alien quality and he is befriended by sun-hating Ukrainian Goth Boris (Finn Wolfhard/Aneurian Barnard) who introduces him to a supply of mind-numbing drugs and alcohol while he himself has to deal with a violent father. Theo realises his own father is trying to rip him off and use his private school funds to gamble so escapes back to NYC where we find him as a young man working for Hobie selling upscaled faux antiques and reunited with the Barbour family:  Andy and Mr Barbour (Boyd Gaines) have died in a sailing accident and Samantha is unhinged by depression but delighted to see him again.  He gets engaged to her daughter Kitsey (Willa Fitzgerald) but before long finds out he is not her true love, while Pippa remains out of reach.  After a bad sale to vicious art collector Lucius Reeve (Denis O’Hare) Theo discovers that The Goldfinch has been used as collateral in a criminal deal in Miami. When he runs into the grownup Boris in a bar he finds the beloved painting is not in the safe place where he stored it after all… In Amsterdam I dreamt I saw my mother again.  Adapted by Peter Straughan from Donna Tartt’s bestselling Bildungsroman, I arrive unburdened by reading the 880-page behemoth, an overlength only deserving of Tolstoy or someone of that order. Even without that experience, this has clear affinities with Dickens and allusions to Salinger, carrying with it an understanding of the difficulties of childhood and the intensity of friendship in a narrative dominated by the symbolic qualities of guilt. This is the opposite of a fast-moving art heist movie. It has an endearing shaggy dog style only broken by the fragmented nature of the storytelling and a late slackening in pace followed by the sudden violence of the ending in Amsterdam where the titular painting is eventually located and subject of a wild shootout. Much of the pleasure is in the juxtaposing of alienating landscapes of arid desert and rinky dink city locales. Kidman and Wolfhard are rivetting, Fegley is quite impenetrable but that’s not a bad thing given the story and how it is revealed, while Elgort is rather problematic as usual. Some of these performances might have been more effective had the story been told in sequence. There’s a wonderful, sonorous score by Trevor Gureckis and, if you allow it, much of this film will bring you into a world of childhood and loss rarely portrayed on screen. This, after all, is about the look of love and the love of looking and their complementary rewards and the only mystery is why this particular painting elicits such desire.

Chasing Bullitt (2019)

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Without my career there’s nothing else. Movie star Steve McQueen (Andre Brooks) is at a crossroads in his career after he’s had his pet project European racing film Le Mans taken from him by the studio. He owes money, his marriage is in trouble, he doesn’t know if he will hit big with the public again. He appeals to Freddie (Dennis W. Hall) his agent to help him locate the iconic Ford Mustang GT 390 he drove in Bullitt after the studio gifted him with a fake and goes on a road trip where he reflects on his life and the mistakes and relationships that have led him to this point … You’re a movie star. Surely that comes with its own set of burdens. It’s not just a road trip. It never is. It’s a psychological journey. And in the case of McQueen that means traversing the rocky road of his marriage to Neile (Augie), an encounter with Batista (Anthony Dilio) in Cuba back in 1956 and in sessions with his therapist (Ed Zajac) ponders his good fortune at not being slaughtered on Cielo Drive August 8, 1969. (And in this cultural echo chamber of movies we of course think of Damian Lewis’ McQueen unrequited longing for Sharon Tate in Tarantino’s recent Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood). Brooks has occasionally eerie moments embodying the star such is their resemblance, his chats with hitch hiker Sula (Alysha Young) clearly designed to trigger emotional insights; there’s a very amusing exchange with Dustin Hoffman (Jason Slavkin) about the prospects of working together on Papillon; and it all concludes with a final ironic gesture regarding the car he wants to find so badly. It’s not a perfect biopic but it’s better structured than most with an incredible look courtesy of cinematographer Daniel Stilling that harks back to precisely the era it’s set – 1971. It’s a mood piece about a yearning for control. And it’s about the filmmaker’s own nostalgia. I know just how he feels. Is it the truth? Hardly. It takes dramatic licence and still skims the surface. But I’ll take McQueen however I can get him. Written and directed by Joe Eddy. They took the film away from me

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

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Alright, yeah, I think it’s some kind of pervert hotel. It’s 1969. The El Royale is a run-down hotel that sits on Lake Tahoe on the border between California and Nevada. It soon becomes a seedy battleground when seven strangers – cleric Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Ervio), a travelling vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), the Summerspring sisters, Emily (Dakota Johnson) and Rose (Cailee Spaeny), the sole staff member on site, manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) and the mysterious Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) – all converge on the hotel one fateful night for one last shot at redemption before everything goes wrong… I can’t do it. I can’t kill no more people. Doesn’t your heart go out to actors nowadays? Either they starve themselves on chicken breasts and broccoli to appear as ludicrous superheroes looking deranged from hanger and bodybuilding steroids on the subsequent publicity tour, or they wind up in something like this (or in Hemsworth’s case, both), a kind of Tarantinoesque closed-room Agatha Christie mystery trading on well-worn tropes. It’s really not right, is it? Seven strangers. Seven secrets. All roads lead here. However this pastiche is cleverly staged (with an actual state border running through the building), impeccably designed (by Martin Whist) and shot (by Seamus McGarvey) and well performed outside that narrow generic style that such material demands.  It’s overlong but florid and rather fruity with nods to Hitchcock and Lynch and the big reveal is worth waiting for. Written, produced and directed by Drew Goddard. Well, it looks like the Lord hasn’t forsaken you yet

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

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Nobody is flying the plane!  During a massive traffic jam in California caused by reckless  ex-convict (following a tuna factory robbery 15 years earlier) Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante), he crashes his car off twisting, mountainous State Highway 74 near Palm Desert. Five motorists stop to help him: dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar) and his wife Monica (Edie Adams); furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters); two guys on their way to Las Vegas, Ding Bell (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett); and Fresno entrepreneur J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle), his wife Emmeline (Dorothy Provine) and his loud mother-in-law Mrs Marcus (Ethel Merman). Just before he dies kicking a bucket, Grogan tells the men about $350,000 buried in Santa Rosita State Park near the border with Mexico under “… a big W”. The motorists set out across California to find the fortune, unaware that Captain T.G. Culpeper, Chief of Detectives of the Santa Rosita Police Department, has been patiently working on the Smiler Grogan case for years, hoping to someday solve it and retire. When he learns of the crash, he suspects Grogan may have tipped off the passersby, so he has them tracked by various police units. His suspicions are confirmed by their nutty behaviour but he may have ulterior motives for retrieving the loot  …  It’s a nice dream.  Lasted almost five minutes.  Earnest producer/director Stanley Kramer’s film may not in fact be the comedy to end all comedies as it was billed but it has most of the mid-century movie world’s best comic performers (and more besides) involved in incredibly engineered slapstick sequences, marvellously sustained as a lengthy madcap satirical farce, with some of the best colour cinematography you will ever see:  those reds and yellows and blues pop perfectly off the screen in staggering synchrony thanks to astonishing work by Ernest Laszlo. Written by William Rose and Tania Rose, it’s an epic ensemble endeavour with support and guest bits from a vast variety of mostly TV stars like Phil Silvers, Peter Falk, Jerry Lewis, Dick Shawn, Andy Devine, The Three Stooges, Edward Everett Horton and the great Buster Keaton, with Zasu Pitts in her final film,  and some lively dancing by Barrie Chase (screenwriter Borden Chase’s daughter and Robert Towne’s onetime girlfriend, previously married to Hollywood hairdresser Gene Shacove and therefore the inspiration for Shampoo!). We love Terry-Thomas (in a role intended for Peter Sellers, who asked for too much money – ironically) and his comments here about American obsessions provide the caustic witticisms that balance the narrative and characters’ unstoppable drive for money.  Sid Caesar inherited the role intended for the fabulous Ernie Kovacs following his death in a car crash driving home from Milton Berle’s baby shower (again, the irony…). A beautifully constructed gem that shows off California in precisely the way you would wish and after commencing with someone kicking the bucket in a cliffhanger opening, ends on an entirely apposite banana skin. Watching these legendary performers trying to steal scenes is a kick:  make America funny again! Beautifully restored.  Don’t call me baby

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Lucky (2017)

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The one thing worse than awkward silence is small talk. Every day in the desert town of Piru, California, 90-year old Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) does 21 reps of his 5 yoga exercises, drinks some milk, shouts Cunts! at the botanic garden that barred him for smoking and enters a diner owned by Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley) where he has a large milky coffee and does the crossword. Then he buys some smokes in Bibi’s (Bertila Damas) shop on his way back home, where he settles down to his TV quiz shows before heading to Elaine’s (Beth Grant), the local bar, where he chews the fat with a group of friends:  Howard (David Lynch) gets depressed about President Roosevelt, who, it transpires, is his tortoise,who outlasted Howard’s two wives and who’s disappeared; Paulie (James Darren) misses his late wife and Lucky reckons he is fortunate never to have married. Lucky falls over when he’s home alone (he’s always home alone) and winds up in hospital where the doctor Christian Kneedley (Ed Begley Jr) tells him he’s a medical wonder. The diner waitress Loretta (Yvonne Huff) calls to his house and they watch Liberace on TV and smoke grass and Lucky insinuates that he is homosexual and asks Loretta not to talk about it. At Elaine’s Howard is treated ingratiatingly by a lawyer Bobby Lawrence (Ron Livingston) he hired for end of life bequests who Lucky thinks is gaming his friend. Back at the diner he chats with Fred (Tom Skerritt) a tourist and fellow WW2 veteran and they share stories about the Philippines. At the birthday party of Bibi’s son, Lucky sings in Spanish and that evening finds his friends once again … All I can think is it’s a combination of genetic good luck and you’re one tough son of a bitch. Harry Dean Stanton was always old, or so it seemed. The first time we see Lucky outside it’s a conscious re-staging of that famous low angle medium close up from Paris, Texas. But now he’s thirty-five years older and it’s a different hat and he’s not on the move any longer, save for those few exercises on the floor of his house, and the furthest he walks is shuffling down the street of his small town for his unvarying daily routine. He’s an atheist looking at death and trying to figure out what matters. Every scene is detailed and deals with an aspect of philosophy, a preparedness for the next phase, set in motion by the definition of realism which Lucky finds in a dictionary when doing the crossword. It’s funny and humane and brought to life by effervescent performances from a range of actors you never dreamed of putting together, but here they are. Written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, this feels very elegiac but never depressing, more of a coming to terms with the inevitable, featuring some comic interludes which never intrude on the tone of the deep felt emotionality. Lynch has an extraordinary monologue about his tortoise that ends with the line: There are some thing in this universe that are bigger than all of us and that tortoise is one of them.  It’s a wonderfully humble moment and it crystallises the film’s central idea as well as reminding us what a lucky charm Stanton was for Lynch’s career. Those sunlit desert scenes are beautifully shot by Tim Suhrstedt while the songs are mostly by Elvis Kuehn but you’ll get a lump in your throat when you hear Johnny Cash singing Will Oldham’s I See a Darkness. Directed by veteran actor John Carroll Lynch, it ends on a shot of Lucky walking into the desert, sort of like President Roosevelt (the tortoise). A perfect conclusion to an incomparable career, this was the cherishable Stanton’s final film and he’s the leading man at last. I always thought that what we all agreed was what we were looking at