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.

Jaws (1975)

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Ibsen by way of a Peter Benchley bestseller and an adventurous and gifted director called Steven Spielberg. I got caught up in this again late last night and was gripped, as ever, by this visceral tale of beachside terror which hasn’t aged a day and in many respects remains my favourite Spielberg movie. There is so much to relish. The atmosphere, aided immeasurably by John Williams’ stunningly suggestive score – which was the soundtrack in the bathroom of the late lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London – utterly terrifying!. The performances:  who doesn’t love Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist? Roy Scheider as the seaside town police chief who’s scarified of water? Robert Shaw as the drunken shark hunting Captain Quint? And those hellishly cute kids. And what about the titles sequence? There’s the politics of the summer season and the mayor who doesn’t want word to get out. The anger of the bereaved mother. The bloodied water and beach toys. The track-zoom of realisation. The clear storytelling. White sharks got a bad press out of this epic battle but there has rarely been a better exploration of the ecology of man and beast. Quite literally sensational. Classic, brilliant, the original of the species. Written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with a little assist from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, and John Milius.

Drive, He Said (1971)

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Jack Nicholson had been busy in one of the leading roles for Bob Rafaelson in Five Easy Pieces so it was 1970 before he could begin shooting on his directing debut. He had already written a number of screenplays but he was over-committed at the time he wanted to make this. He was starring in Carnal Knowledge for director Mike Nichols so he began Drive… without a complete script.  Jeremy Larner adapted his own book but Nicholson wasn’t happy with it and had begun writing a second draft himself.  He brought in Robert Towne to complete his vision on set, with the added bonus of an acting role for his screenwriter friend – that of a cuckolded, broad-minded professor. Reclusive screenwriter and director Terrence Malick also did a rewrite – prior to making Badlands (1973). The film was completed on time for Nicholson to report to the East Coast for Mike Nichols.  He edited Drive… on weekends and downtime from shooting Carnal KnowledgeDrive… is an exposé of Sixties left-liberal attitudes, set on a campus infected with radicals  and replete with ready-made mythological references which must have appealed to Robert Towne:  a leading character called Hector  (who of course  as the eldest son of the king, led the Trojans in their war against the Greeks,  fought in single combat with Achilles and stormed the wall of the camp and set it alight). And, as if we don’t ‘get it,’ Hector’s major is Greek. The radical elements were complete with the casting in the lead role of William Tepper – a dead ringer for producer Bert Schneider, whose famously radical approach to production would lead Hollywood out of the old-style studio system but would embalm him in the mid-Seventies forever. There is a romantic element that interferes with male friendship: Gabriel is the guerrilla, played by Michael Margotta. Hector is besotted with Karen Black, married to Towne’s professor in the film. Her name, Olive, signifies her role as peace-maker in the narrative.  Gabriel runs away to escape the draft.  Hector is the warrior in love – he is in touch with nature (his surname, is, after all, Bloom.) He communes with the trees in the forest, stays in a log cabin and is generally at one with everything that is not ‘the Man.’ The film was entered in Cannes and Nicholson’s efforts were the subject of scorn.  It opened in New York on 13 June 1971 where it got mixed reviews.  BBS apparently offered more money to promote it but were deflected by Nicholson himself, who was depressed at the critical reception. But its lyricism, message and sub-Godardian construction have held up considerably better than Nicholson himself believed and its countercultural theme still produces a striking effect.The film is structured around Hector’s basketball games – the opening titles are underlined in a stunning sequence by the use of cult musician Moondog’s music – later paid homage by the Coen Brothers in The Big Leboswki (1998). The filming style in slow motion corresponds with much of Visions of Eight (1973), which would itself be an influence on Towne’s own film style in his directing debut, Personal Best. For more on Nicholson’s work with Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490221804&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon

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The Southerner (1945)

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French master Jean Renoir’s American work may not be as lauded as his films in his native France, but this is a tremendously well told adaptation of a novel by George Sessions Perry, Hold Autumn in Your Hand,  not surprisingly when you see who wrote the screenplay:  Nunnally Johnson, Hugo Butler, William Faulkner and Renoir himself. Not too dusty. It’s the tale of the Tuckers, cotton pickers in Texas. Sam (Zachary Scott) and Nona (Betty Field), their kids Jot and Daisy, and his mother (Beulah Bondi) decide to start up their own farm with nothing but a mule and some seed. They need access to water so the neighbour Devers (J. Carrol Naish) reluctantly permits access to his own supply and after a freezing winter in which their son becomes seriously ill,  the feud escalates and involves Devers’ half-wit nephew. Devers finds Sam trying to find a huge catfish that he’s been after for years and they find a way to solve their differences. The general store owner (Percy Kilbride – Pa Kettle!) who’s refused the family credit now wants to marry Sam’s mother but a terrible storm and resultant flooding ruins their entire plot and they have to start over. This is a really great story, so well told, limpidly shot by Lucien Andriot in the San Joaquin Valley and beautifully characterised and performed by a splendid cast – it cannot be fairly described. It shouldn’t be overlooked in Renoir’s oeuvre because even if it’s not as iconic a cinematic text as The Grapes of Wrath it’s an economic and beautifully framed and shot slice of Americana and it was the director’s own favourite of his American films. Scott has never been better cast and Field is simply luminous. Bondi is … herself! Really affecting filmmaking.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

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A true story about a hard-scrabble twice-divorced unemployed mother-of-three who became a legal assistant and wound up helping win a class action suit to the tune of a third of a billion dollars for the citizens of Hinkley CA who were being poisoned by the water in their area. This is anything but a Sickness of the Week movie. The sharp as a tack screenplay by Susannah Grant is beautifully structured, with snappy dialogue to die for – when biker Aaron Eckhart asks Erin what would he have to do to be different to her former husbands, she says, Stay – this is anchored by good aesthetic decisions and a great performance by Julia Roberts who gives it her all. Albert Finney is her long-suffering lawyer boss (she persuades him to hire her after he loses her traffic accident suit) and this is never less than totally believable in a marvellously judged production about going up against corrupt corporations, directed (and photographed) by Steven Soderbergh. That’s the real Erin B ten minutes in, taking Julia’s orders at a restaurant.

Chinatown (1974)

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How do you describe a movie you’ve seen? How do you write a movie you’ve seen in your head so many times it’s like you lived it? The stars aligned when this one was made. Robert Towne turned down a lot of money to adapt The Great Gatsby for producer Robert Evans to decamp to Catalina Island with his great friends – the scholar Edward Taylor and his dog Hira. There, in the winter of 1971, he wrote one of the great Hollywood films, a fictionalised telling of the diversion of water from the Owens River Valley, set a few decades later than it occurred.  Private eye Jake/JJ Gittes was based on his friend Jack Nicholson, who played the role as born to it. Los Angeles, 1937. Jake is hired by a woman to investigate her cheating husband and gets mired in a mystery he could never hope to solve:  the corruption infesting the State of California and the distribution of Water (and Power), unwittingly finding himself falling in love with an heiress who’s given birth to her sister/daughter, the progeny of the man responsible for raping the land. Towne wrote a second draft which reads like Hammett, a beautiful exercise in pulp noir: I love it so much I dream about that biplane ride out to Catalina. But director Roman Polanski forced Towne into a third draft with an altered ending which is what was shot. Even with plot holes it’s extraordinary, shocking, funny, terrifying and blindingly brilliant, a sublime cinematic experience. Towne won the Academy Award. The guide at Paramount may be too young to know about it when you do the studio tour but if you want to know more  you can read my book about Towne and this film and all the other screenplays he’s written and films he’s made: https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481117503&sr=1-3&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

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The wilderness is the location chosen by the titular character to recover from what we would call PTSD nowadays as Robert Redford has had a bad war in Mexico and needs time away from everything. He lives in the Rocky Mountains, keeping himself in food by trapping and enduring a horrendous winter, resorting to fishing by hand from mountain streams. He finds a rifle in a dead man’s hands, meets Bear Claw (Will Geer) who mentors him, and has repeated encounters with Paints-His Shirt-Red (Joaquin Martinez) from the Crow tribe. He takes in a boy he names Caleb (Josh Albee) whose mother has gone mad, then rescues Gue (Stefan Gierasch) who’s buried up to his neck in sand by the Blackfeet, then he marries into the Flatheads to save his own. He’s pressured to lead US troops to a wagon train of settlers through burial ground and is seen:  he returns to find his squaw and Caleb murdered and he takes revenge… The biography of Liver-Eating Johnson  and a book called Mountain Man were adapted by John Milius in a project originally intended for Sam Peckinpah with Lee Marvin replaced by Clint Eastwood. Eastwood and Peckinpah did not get along, so it was acquired for Redford, who persuaded Sydney Pollack to come on board to direct – they had worked together well on This Property Is Condemned. Pollack was a meddler with writers;  Edward Anhalt and David Rayfiel did rewrites but Milius was brought back, repeatedly, to do the dialogue, for which he had such an uncanny ear. If you want to know how Milius got his reputation, watch this. The budget was so constrained that Pollack mortgaged his home to get through production, an arduous seven-month shoot in Utah, Redford’s adopted home. Weather conditions meant more than one take was rarely possible. The changing seasons are beautifully captured by Duke Callaghan, in this splendidly judged, humane, funny, touching piece of work. Redford turns in a very well honed performance and the ensemble are brilliant. Quite the best wilderness film you’ll see, probably, with a marvellous soundtrack composed by actors Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein.

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.

Billy Jack (1971)

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Some years ago Vanity Fair told me what I suspected for years:  my obsession with this film proved I am a film snob. What can I say? I saw it on TV when I was thirteen years old and it speaks to the thirteen year old in everyone about unfairness, killing animals, bigotry, viciousness in all its forms. In the days before you could find such things on the internet I discovered the soundtrack album on vinyl in a backstreet store on a trip to London. The hero is a half-Navajo former Green Beret back home after ‘Nam and invariably dragged into violence despite his wish to be a peace-loving law-abiding citizen who’s exploring his Native American heritage and practising hapkido. He comes to the rescue of kids at a freedom school run by Delores Taylor, who happens to be the wife of actor-writer-director-producer auteur, Tom Laughlin. This was absolutely mega on the drive-in circuit and slayed all comers upon re-release after AIP pulled out and Fox messed it up in theatrical and was the second of four movies about BJ. If you don’t love this movie you were never thirteen and you definitely never wore flowers in your long blonde hair. All you gotta do is relate. Peace and love, dudes. This is the source.