Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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I’m not home. I never will be. I first encountered a Nam vet on Central Park West. He chased me despite being on crutches that were well past their sell-by date. I guess maybe it was because I had more legs than he did. I was waiting tables in a township on Long Island called Massapequa at a ghastly restaurant where a deranged and thankfully distant relative worked. Massapequa is the hometown of the Baldwin brothers and Ron Kovic, the subject of this impassioned film by Oliver Stone, a man whose own combat experiences had informed his previous film, Platoon, that astonishingly immersive journey of a naif to manhood in a horrifying exposition of American soldiers’ experiences. Ron Kovic’s book is the basis of another coming of age tale, this time of a Catholic boy whose parents’ devotion to JFK unwittingly unleashes their sports-mad son’s inner patriot.  I hadn’t seen this since its release and my fresh impression of its first sequences was of overwrought melodrama, underlined by John Williams’ overheated score. But this is all of a piece with the film’s intentions:  starting with a heightened picture of America’s hearth and home;  the futility and horror of war; the brutality of veterans’ experiences in epically gruesome, filthy underfunded hospitals (Kovic’s God-loving mother never even paid him a visit); the utter loneliness of being a castrated, paralysed man with a beating heart and functioning brain who is ridiculed by the anti-war protesters; the recognition that the only people with whom he now has anything in common are the other vets who are even more fucked up than he is. And so it moves into its more austere final sections. Politicisation. Separation from a family who refuse to accept he could have killed women and children and for whom he is a mere embarassment in a block where the other soldiers at least died. Is there a better correlative image in Stone’s entire oeuvre than the crane shot over the Wilson family home, where Ron has confessed to killing new recruit, their nineteen year old son William, in the dunes of Nam as the sun flared during an ambush, then he is wheeled away by a helper amid the scraps and detritus dumped in their yard and the leafy branches fade into a fluttering stars and stripes – and we are plunged into more police brutality at the 1972 Republican convention where he has joined the protest movement? This is elegant filmmaking. It is not without its humour or self-awareness. Ron has finally had his cherry broken by a Mexican whore in a sequence of T&A that reunites Stone with Willem Defoe who welcomes him to this sick paradise and he thinks it’s love – but hides his gift for her when he realises sex with a cripple is just a job for her. These vets’ wheelchair-off is a salve for those of us who might have liked to see one between Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, who beat him to an Academy Award that year (DDL gurned more). I’ve never been back to Massapequa or that cruddy restaurant but Stephen Baldwin has a small role as a schoolfriend, Tom Berenger gets him to join up, Frank Whaley is the other surviving vet who helps Ron out of his doomladen hole and Kyra Sedgwick is the gorgeous girl he loved so much he ran through the rain to dance with her at the Prom and she turns him on to the anti-war crusade. Cruise is simply great, giving a complete performance from boy to man in a narrative which exemplifies the art of juxtaposition and emotional arcs. This is cinema, utterly moving and indignant and humane. Watch it and weep.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

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It was a counter-intuitive move to cast Tom Cruise as Lee Child’s protagonist:  built like a brick shithouse, the Reacher on the page and Cruise clearly bear little resemblance to each other. However much you might like to read about a guy committing GBH against every baddie he meets, it wouldn’t really work on film. So casting a wirier, less obvious action man was a good thing to do and the first film was a fast-moving surprise. This however cannot hold a candle to it in terms of a genre workout. It gets off to a good start – with a scene that was used in every EPK package used for the PR – and Reacher then meets up with army major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) after a cute phonecall but she’s banged up on faked espionage charges when he arrives for a face to face. When he breaks her out he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy with origins in Afghanistan, nailed for a murder he didn’t commit and protecting a teenage girl called Samantha Dutton (Danika Yarosh) who just might be his daughter. With a setting in and around N’Oleans this has at least the virtue of a great backdrop and those ladies run as much as Cruise does – with equal if not more screen time. That said, the adaptation by Richard Wenk, Marshall Herskowitz and director Ed Zwick lacks verve and the entire production feels identitkit, lessening the sense of jeopardy.  The idea of a glum Cruise coming to terms with unintentional fatherhood never really gets the treatment it should in this flourish-free thriller. Oh well! Child himself has a nice little cameo at the airport.

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!

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

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And that’s how you play Get the Guest. Edward Albee’s shocking 1962 play was bought by Jack Warner and the intention was to hire Bette Davis and James Mason – and how fun would that have been, having Davis quote herself with that unforgettable first line, What a dump!? But it’s Elizabeth Taylor who gets to declare the immortal line, squinting, bug-eyed with drink, into the harsh light after a night out on campus with unambitious lecturer hubby historian Richard Burton. When young marrieds George Segal and Sandy Dennis enter their den of iniquitous untruths and illusion their own marriage is laid bare as well in a devastating series of tragicomic slurs and fantasies, a miasma of lies, put downs and storytelling. Albee’s play was of course a profane satire about the sham foundations of marriage and social mores of the time;  this film helped dismantle the Production Code and was the first film Jack Valenti really had to look at in terms of what constituted entertainment for consenting adults. Albee said of the leads that Taylor was quite good while Burton was incredible. That’s in the eye of the beholder – in fact Taylor is extraordinary and it is remarkable that she gave her greatest exhibition of not merely star quality but intensely affecting emotional performances in works written by homosexual playwrights – one thinks of her in Suddenly Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, complex works that, like this, have a strain of flagrant misogyny running through them. Ernest Lehman did the adaptation which mostly cleaves to the play with just a couple of exceptions and it’s ‘opened out’ with the dance scene in the diner – and what a humdinger that is! What is perhaps most astonishing is that this was Mike Nichols’ directing debut, supposedly at Taylor’s insistence. Just look at the way he frames shots with Haskell Wexler as his DoP: he said he learned everything he knew about directing from watching A Place in the Sun. Taylor and Burton are at the apex of their careers here, particularly with regard to their joint projects. But despite the plethora of nominations it was she and Dennis who walked away with the Academy Awards – A Man For All Seasons took all the other big plaudits that year. There is a reason that Taylor is known for being the last great Hollywood star – and it’s right here. Phenomenal.

The Evening Star (1996)

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Aka Three Funerals and a Wedding. Just kidding. Well, not exactly. I didn’t love Terms of Endearment and have read neither of these novels about willful selfish Houston widow Aurora Greenway but this messy ragtag followup directed by Robert Harling is not without its charms. Shirley MacLaine is back, aged grandmother and parent to her late daughter’s tearaway grownup children, irritated by longtime housekeeper gimlet-eyed Rose (Marion Ross) and pined after by General Hector (Donald Moffat). Melanie (Juliette Lewis) is living at home but itching to get out and she shacks up with bozo Bruce (Scott Wolf) which of course ends badly – but in LA, which is not so bad, as it turns out. Tommy (George Newbern) is in prison and Teddy (Mackenzie Astin) is married to a tramp and they have a bad-mannered toddler son. Rose plots to get Aurora to therapist Jerry (the late, great Bill Paxton) who has a thing for her – mostly because as she eventually finds out she’s a dead ringer for his Vegas showgirl mom, which doesn’t stop him from sleeping with Aurora’s rival Patsy (Miranda Richardson) which has a great conclusion in an inflight catfight.  The relationship with Paxton is funny and lifts the whole show with MacLaine getting some choice lines especially when she finally meets his mother! There’s a lot of life, love and thwarted passion as Aurora seeks out the great love of her life – and eventually finds it in the arms of her disastrously unaccomplished family while some of those closest to her die. There is a distinct shift of tone when Garret Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) pays a visit in the last quarter hour but the big performances make this, with MacLaine really making it work. You might be surprised to learn that it’s Cary Grant’s daughter Jennifer who is wooed by Newbern. This was Ben Johnson’s last film and it’s dedicated to him – he was of course in McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show where he delivered a performance of incredible subtlety and affect:  not bad for a stuntman. There’s more than a hint of Cloris Leachman in Marion Ross’s performance here. Not a bad recommendation in a film which looks at some of life’s different stages and comes out in favour of them all, by and large. Written by McMurtry and Harling.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

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It behoves us on Jack Nicholson’s 80th birthday to celebrate one of his most scorching performances in a totally filthy film. In this remake of the James M. Cain novel, he’s the drifter who fetches up at a diner in the middle of nowhere and becomes embroiled in a sordid romance with the proprietor’s wife (Jessica Lange) who wants him to kill her husband (John Colicos). Director Bob Rafelson was one of those people who played an enormous role in Nicholson’s career. Nicholson wrote the screenplay for Head, the movie about The Monkees, the band Rafelson created for a TV comedy show and then they became almost as big as The Beatles. He produced Easy Rider which gave Nicholson the keys to the kingdom, pretty much. Then he directed him in Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, where he gave two of his great performances. They would reunite a decade after this for Man Trouble but this adaptation by David Mamet (making his debut as screenwriter) really hit buttons on release – I didn’t see it because I was way too young but I remember the fuss – and the trailers – and the poster!. The kitchen sex scene is one of the most jaw dropping couplings you will ever see this side of a porno and both Nicholson and Lange are simply astonishing in this tale of utter amorality. Some people don’t like the ending, but hey, you can’t always get what you want. This is some birthday celebration, eh?! Golly!

The Outsiders: The Complete Novel (2005)

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SE Hinton’s novel is a huge part of every American teenager’s life. This story of a bunch of kids in 1960s Oklahoma is a big favourite and it’s easy to see why:  well written, smartly structured, emotional.  It is a good story, well told, of the Greaser and Socs and the tragedy that befalls them. Fans at Lone Star High in Fresno California petitioned Francis Coppola to make it and he got the author to collaborate with him in the production (she appears in a cameo as a nurse) and co-wrote the screenplay with her. Virtually every actor became a household name. It’s beautifully made and shot and Coppola revisited it 22 years later, making a longer cut with different music (keeping the Stevie Wonder title track was a mistake however), a different wrap-around structure and as is customary with many films a bit of a saggy midsection.  This is a gorgeous film which is true to the novel. Stay gold.