Tracks (2013)

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I just want to be by myself. If you read books like The Heroine’s Journey you’ll learn that what every girl really needs at some point is some time by herself – a separation of sorts, from the noise, from the world, from the patriarchal expectations …. all that jazz. And in 1977 Australian Robyn Davidson had just about enough of all the rubbish in life and decided to trek 1,700 miles from Alice Springs via Ayers Rock and the Western Desert to the Ocean – with Diggity the dog and Dookie, Bob, Sally and Baby Goliath, four camels that she trained and befriended. The problem of financing necessitated a sponsor and that came in the form of National Geographic magazine which sent freelance photographer Rick Smolan to shoot the story and he met up with her once a month, in various states of disrepair and anguish. Mia Wasikowska has the role of her life, encountering her real self, solitude, loneliness and loss. It’s a remarkable, demanding performance in this adaptation by Marion Nelson of Davidson’s memoir, which took 25 years to get to the big screen after many false starts. Adam Driver is the unfortunate guy whose expressions of concern for his occasional travelling companion are so regularly rebuffed while the inevitable publicity brings unwelcome meetings with an inquisitive public and there’s an especially amusing incident when Robyn’s mentor Mr Eddie (Rolley Mintuma) scares them off with a presumably typical Aboriginal attitude. This is a beautifully crafted film, memorably shot and simply bewitching, with layers of meaning about personhood, the environment and the ecology of animal and human friendship. One of my favourite films of 2013. Directed by John Curran.

Starman (1984)

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You’re not from round here, are you? I hate to think how long it’s been since I first saw this. C’est la vie, une longue fleuve tranquille! Two of the most charming actors imaginable, Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges, run the gauntlet of officialdom led by the kindly Charles Martin Smith and bad cop Richard Jaeckel when he crashlands on Earth (Wisconsin, to be precise) and mutates into her late husband.  He has three days to meet up with his spaceship in Arizona or stay grounded forever …  Director John Carpenter lends his considerable heft to the mise en scene of one of the gentlest alien films while the transformation scenes are created by the great Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Dick Smith.  It’s blessed by beautifully considered performances in the best meet cute ever. The scenes in Vegas are great fun. Written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon with an uncredited rewrite by Dean Riesner, the soundtrack is composed by the estimable Jack Nitzche. Lovely!

Mojave (2016)

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A rich and unhappy Los Angeles artist takes off to the desert and meets a homicidal maniac who follows him home and wreaks havoc in his life. This curiosity from award-winning screenwriter William (The Departed) Monahan shows how a solipsistic turn can be rather problematic for a writer turned director and the casting doesn’t help:  Garrett Hedlund is pretty believable if not sympathetic as the fashionably scruffy Angeleno experiencing some sort of fugue but Oscar Isaac (Hernandez Estrada, whatever) is his usually laughable ludicrous self and sunders the screen story from the moment he appears (indeed there’s no reason as to why he actually appears at all). The subplot with lawyer Walton Goggins and whoring studio head Mark Wahlberg brings a kind of Entourage feeling to this immersion in discomfiting affluence while the requisite French girlfriend Louise Bourgoin increases the sense of literariness that suffuses a film already awash in references to Greed. Pretentious, toi? I couldn’t possibly comment. I’m far too self-absorbed to bother.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

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A cargo-passenger aeroplane crashes in the Libyan Sahara:  the Sixties iteration of a disaster movie, in all but name. The pilot is James Stewart, the navigator an alcoholic Richard Attenborough and there is among the cast list a man so ill he will die if they’re not rescued soon … Robert Aldrich’s tough movie is really a brilliant set of character studies that never bows to cliche.  Adapted from Elleston Trevor’s novel by Aldrich regular Lukas Heller, it’s a marvellous portrait of people reacting to both pressure and the emergence of a Superman in their midst – a Hitlerian model aeroplane designer (Hardy Kruger) whose plan to resurrect their wreck might just get them out of there as they battle fraying nerves, water depletion and sand storms. In the midst of this we have a military type who goes on a suicidal desert walk (Peter Finch) with Spaniard Carlos (Alex Montoya) who leaves his pet monkey behind, an oil company accountant (Dan Duryea), a quasi-hysterical oil foreman (Ernest Borgnine), a doctor (Christian Marquand), a mean Scot (Ian Bannen), and a nervous soldier (Ronald Fraser). There’s more! But that’s for you to find out in this race against time. That bird ain’t called Phoenix for nothing. How the men deal with each other and their increasing frustration is brilliantly managed by producer-director Aldrich and the performances are knockout. This wasn’t a hit at the time but has since become a major cult film.

Ten Little Indians (1974)

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Everyone knows the story of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers, one of the most perfectly constructed of her mysteries and brought to the screen with the title And Then There Were None, by Rene Clair in 1945. It’s a classic. It was made again in the Sixites, set in an Alpine chalet. I didn’t much like the recent BBC mini-series which gave it a realistic colour scheme and took it very seriously which really isn’t the point, despite the casting (Aidan Turner, amongst others). It’s a rather nicely judged narrative experiment in human behaviour and as such has something of a scientific bent:  so this interpretation, which plays and looks like Antonioni took a hold of it, is a graphic and visual delight, all angles and space. It’s set in an Iranian hotel, the Shah Abbas, and  has a totally modernist scheme at odds with the historic location, which just enhances the concept. The cast of ten includes Richard Attenborough, Stephane Audran, Charles Aznavour, Adolfo Celi, Gert Frobe, Herbert Lom, Oliver Reed and Elke Sommer with a certain Orson Welles playing a rather cool cameo. Written and produced by Harry Alan Towers, who also made the 1965 version (with an uncredited contribution by Enrique Llovet) and directed by Peter Collinson.

Tremors (1990)

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You wanted a western monster movie homage, so here it is, the deserved cult fave with Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as the laconic cowpoke repairmen bored by life in Perfection, Nevada when they find a colleague dehydrated and dead up a telegraph mast and a station wagon buried in the sand. They soon find out why – as a giant worm with massive tentacled tongues chases them across the desert. And he has some friends. They and their smalltown acquaintances have to use their ingenuity to send the monsters to kingdom come but it’s the pretty seismologist (Finn Carter) who has most of the good ideas while Reba McIntire and her hubby Michael Gross show us why sometimes it’s good to have an elephant gun in the rec room. Great fun with some cracking lines and deadpan performances, featuring a number of deadly C&W songs including Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life. Debut film by Ron Underwood, written and produced by Brent Maddock and SS Wilson and the first of a long series.

Tobruk (1967)

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Leo V. Gordon was once described by Don Siegel as the scariest man he’d ever met. The actor and writer wrote this and has a pretty neat role for himself as Sergeant Krug, one of the few to get out of it alive with Rock Hudson as Canadian Major Donald Craig who helps an Allied group destroy the Germans’ fuel reserves in Libya to stop Rommel progressing to the Suez Canal. There’s a good turn by George Peppard as the leader of German Jews working for the British Army and naturally there’s a traitor in their midst. There’s a good subplot involving Liam Redmond and Heidy Hunt as father and daughter who have a mission to accomplish a Holy War for that great Unmentionable participant in WW2 and architect of the Nazis’ plan to eliminate Jewry from the planet, Yasser Arafat’s cousin, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, not that anyone wants to talk about him in relation to Germany and Islam nowadays (or even then, given that he hid out in Switzerland and France then Egypt until his death in 1973). Ah World War 2, the gift that keeps on giving on Saturday afternoons. In real life, Operation Agreement was not a total success. Here, there’s an explosive finale and Nigel Green gets a great, terse scene when he comes face to face with the Nazi who has infiltrated them. It’s not easy to make a desert war work but underneath the stencilled livery and the tension there’s a good drama, well directed by Arthur Hiller and there’s a great scene when the raiders get the Germans and Italians to shoot at each other. PS I’ll gladly swap my car for one of those tanks. They rock.

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (2016)

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What’s good about this? It’s not actually Potterworld. So, no ugly children (well… maybe a few, but briefly) and no long-drawn out battle between Good and Evil. Maybe…. Because this moneymaker is now the first of goodness knows how many sequels due to the gazillions it’s already earned within a week of release. And it’s good. It’s not really what you’d expect. It’s got a muted palette with occasional jolts of monochrome to indicate who might be bad (that’s you, Colin Farrell) amongst the hoi polloi thronging the machine age streets  which are being subjected to some serious beast-action chopping through the bricks and cement. Meanwhile Eddie Redmayne is Edwardian magizoologist Newt Scamander, arriving at Ellis Island with some cute platypus-like creature called a niffler who has a magpie-like yen for silver and disappears in a bank looking for coins where a wannabe baker Jacob (Dan Fogler) takes his case by mistake after being turned down for a loan. Scamander is the future author of the eponymous book, which is found by Harry Potter, in other words he’s a former student at Hogwarts. He didn’t fight in WW1 – too busy fighting dragons, as it happens. NYC is on lockdown against magic and in denial about it so it’s not really a good time to arrive. Witches are on the menu and wicked foster mother Samantha Morton has her charges out campaigning against the subculture of which her eldest Credence (Ezra Miller doing Buster Keaton) is a part, which is very  unfortunate for her. Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) wants to haul Newt in to the Magical Congress for importing his funny little creatures to the country but he needs to return one of them to the desert –  which he magicks with a Mary Poppins-like flourish out of the suitcase which has been retrieved: problem is now there’s a Muggler baker in on the secret only here he’s called a No-Maj.  There’s a race against time, as we are warned by the clock at the Congress which tells us of an impending doom-like scenario. There’s an extremely funny sequence at Central Park Zoo which you have to see to  believe but it involves a mating situation. And there’s a sidebar romance between Jacob and Tina’s mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) who likes this chubster.  And a scummy nightclub scene rather like one we know from Star Wars. And there’s the big issue: a certain angry teenager who might just … explode, as PO’d adolescents are wont. A politician suffers the consequences of his rage. And Graves (Farrell) wants to find him….  and Newt. This is an enjoyable wallow in nostalgia but instead of seeing those huge offices worked by people in Vidor’s pre-Depression classic The Crowd we have darkened rooms filled with typewriters which are … typing automatically! It’s a vision for those of us amused by gadgets and tricky machines, a steampunked 1926 filled with huge department stores and smog where women wear trousers and men are either brave eccentrics or weapons of the state. More than that, beneath the vision is a message about persecuted minorities and cults and the measures they take – not very nice betimes – to secure their own existence. Including white-out chambers where people are being lobotomised, or its nearest equivalent (‘obliviated’ as they call it here). So much for human rights under self-appointed dictators, eh? And this underground lot are led by a black woman, Carmen Ejogo. Will she turn out to be Fidelia Castro?! If I have any problems here it might be to do with casting – there’s enough money floating around this world so can someone please give Eddie Redmayne (wearing Benedict’s Sherlock coat or something very like it) assistance with his diction?  He could at least enunciate correctly now that he’s not confined to a wheelchair or concealing his male parts. I can’t decide whether he’s adequate to the task, really good in an underwritten part or just plain wrong. The relationship with beady-eyed Waterston is barely worked out:  in a way you don’t care because she’s not right either. But you should . This efficiently-tooled behemoth of parallel realities comes from the mythical Potter universe ie producer David Heyman and director David Yates. It’s oddly like Ghostbusters, but … different. And there are enough plot threads to function as a preview of several coming attractions.  The screenplay was conjured by the godhead herself, JK Rowling:  is there nothing she can’t do?

Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

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What on this good earth could possibly be better than a biker film – unless it’s a biker horror film?! Adam (Stephen Oliver) and his crew The Devil’s Advocates (nominative determinism or tempting fate?!) are tooling around as bikers do until he falls under the influence of One (Servern Darden) and his cult… Donna Anders, appearing here as DJ Anderson (confusingly, her real name!) , plays his girlfriend Helen, who doesn’t like the hand of Tarot cards she’s dealt at the story’s outset. When they come across One and his gang in the deconsecrated desert church their food is drugged, she turns into a werewolf and soon infects Adam. (Is this a feminist act?!) They flee but get picked off one by one and when Adam and Helen transform in front of the others, the gang kill them. A few of them return to the church to kill the satanists but they recognise themselves in the procession …Notable for its footage of real-life bikers doing what they usually do, this was co-written by director Michel Devesque with David M. Kaufman. Oliver was best known for playing Lee Webber in TV’s Peyton Place between 1966 and 1968 and appeared in a number of other biker outings:  Motorpsycho (1965), Angels from Hell (1968), and Cycle Psycho (1973). You’ll recognise other cast members from The Last Movie. Cinematographer Isidore Mankofsky earned his stripes shooting for Encyclopaedia Brittanica but after this he made Scream Blacula Scream and in the following years got credits on films as diverse as The Muppet Movie, Somewhere in Time (sigh!), The Jazz Singer, Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer:  a versatile talent.  Likewise Levesque, who followed this with Sweet Sugar, another exploitation outing, but who also had an impressive career as an art director on such fare as Supervixens, Beneath the Valley of the Super-Vixens, Carquake and Foxes. There’s a notable psychedelic soundtrack provided by Don Gere. This is pretty good as biker werewolf movies go, which is to say, what more could you want from such a fabulously preposterous genre mashup?! If you’re hairy you belong on a motorbike! You read it here. PS cat lovers beware.

Dare to be Wild (2016)

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Wasn’t it Voltaire who advised people to tend their own (metaphorical) garden? Garden designer Mary Reynolds does it here, in spades. This story of a young country girl who believes in fairies and grows up to be a willful eccentric who wants to compete at the Chelsea Garden Show is a most unusual Irish film:  it looks great. DoP Cathal Watters and debutante director Vivienne DeCourcy obviously decided, Enough of the grey skies and the muddy vistas, and tore up the rulebook about how to present a country where it rains 10 months of the year. They might even have taken a leaf from the Irish National Gallery and noted the palette of William Leech’s garden paintings with their blistering sunlight, glistening whites and brilliant tones. This is a film of playful, rainbow colours, dominated by Consolata Boyle’s extraordinary costume design telling Mary’s story through her clothes – compensating perhaps for a rather wayward if charming performance at the story’s centre by Emma Greenwell as she makes her way gawkily through Dublin society. She has to fight for funding and gain the trust of fellow outsider Christy Collard (Tom Hughes), an eco-designer whose preoccupation with bringing water to Ethiopia sets them at odds when she appeals for his aid because his family’s business can help supply wildflowers and 200-year old whitethorn trees to build her Celtic dream garden. The tone of the film is somewhat damaged by the unnecessary caricatures of Mary’s bete noire, Shah, the socially mobile employer who steals her design book;  Madden, the Bono-like rock star; and Nigel Hogg, the head of Chelsea. These strike an odd note in a film of otherwise impeccably offbeat taste. The diversion to the desert of Ethiopia is a sensual breath of fresh air, the eventual romance hardly surprising given that Hughes is probably the most delectable flower on display, here or anywhere right now, a right royal heart throb as viewers of ITV’s Victoria will already know. In a fitting touch, Mary’s winning speech is the cosmic order tacked on her refrigerator door. Despite using the true story, the connection is disavowed at the conclusion, rather like Chelsea did to Reynolds when they wouldn’t allow her into the celebration at the Show’s finale. Quirky, lovely and just a little bit wild.