Grand Prix (1966)

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The only thing to do here is drive as fast as you know how and hope your car doesn’t brake. Have you ever been to the racetrack at Monza? It’s eerie. It has an aura of death about it. It seems to be hanging in the gloom of all those tall trees. Probably the memory of those spectators killed trackside 1961:  and the final race here in the fictional reconstruction of the 1966 season told from the perspectives of four drivers is at Monza and the death is of a driver, whose broken body is strung up on a tree as his car flies off the north ridge. It’s shocking. This is a brillant film, still the best by far of all the motor racing films, with an opening 20 minute sequence on the street circuit at Monaco that is one of the best in the history of cinema. Of course it helps to be a petrolhead, but the screenplay, by Robert Alan Arthur, is clever and artful, blending action and storytelling and characterisation as efficiently as you’ll ever see in that opening, using the TV commentary to introduce us to Pete Aron (James Garner) who causes a terrible crash sending Brit driver Scott Stoddard into hospital with appalling injuries and destroying both their Jordan-BRM cars. Pete is forced to look for a drive in Japan with Toshiro Mifune doing a take on Soichiro Honda. Twice world champion, Ferrari driver Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is looking for another title but has young team-mate Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) to contend with. If there isn’t enough drama on the track, there’s a complex of love lives off it, with Scott’s wife Pat (Jessica Walter) looking for love and finding it for a spell with Pete while her husband continues to relive his late brother’s career despite being drugged to the hilt; the married Jean-Pierre falling for American journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint); and Nino meeting Lisa (Francoise Hardy – nope, she doesn’t sing!) in a bar with an amusing exchange of perfunctory sentences before they get together and she becomes the perfect racer girlfriend, attending the races, timing the laps. This is a great sports film and one that is redolent with both danger and romance. It’s amazing looking and I only wish I could have been around for the original release in Cinerama which would do justice to the split-screen and the amazing Super Panavision 70 cinematography by Lionel Lindon with Saul Bass. It’s as tightly wound as a suspense thriller with the threat of death on every corner and it’s tough on the business side of this most unforgiving sport and the obsession of its participants. For fans there’s the joy of seeing real-life heroes like Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, oh, a whole host of legends. Adolfo Celi does a take on Enzo Ferrari aka Manetta and real-life BBC reporter Raymond Baxter interviews Nino at Brand’s Hatch. Years later, in 1996, my acting hero (Garner) met my driving hero (Jacques Villeneuve) at Monza to celebrate the film 30 years after its release:

Garner was a fine driver and after shooting this – doing all his own driving and one fire stunt with butane that nearly went fatally wrong – he founded the American International Racers team, running cars in Formula A (just below F1), driving in the Baja 100, all leading to his eventually being inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame. The Racing Scene is a documentary following the team in 1969 when he finally broke it up because of the money and time commitment. He drove the pace car at the Indy 500 in 1975, 1977 and 1985. What a mensch. He said after making Grand Prix – thanks to his Great Escape castmate Steve McQueen dropping out! – he simply had to be involved in the sport.  This won Academy Awards for editing, sound and sound effects (none for the magnificent Maurice Jarre score) but it is so much more than the sum of its parts. Simply sensational. Directed by John Frankenheimer, whose wife, Evans Evans, has an uncredited role.

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Back to the Future (1985)

 

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Are you telling me you made a time machine out of a DeLorean?! Simply great storytelling here in a knotty, brilliantly constructed time travel-adventure-comedy that has a great big throbbing heart bursting with love at its centre. When you consider it came from the wickedly funny minds of Roberts Gale and Zemeckis – remember the amazing Used Cars?! – it seems an even bigger achievement. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is an average teenager in Twin Pines, a small town with a nice square boasting a clock that hasn’t worked since 1955, a cinema running soft porn, and screwed up parents with an alkie mom (Lea Thompson), a meek dad (Crispin Glover), loser sister and a thirty year old brother in a MacJob. He has a cute girlfriend, a skateboard and an eccentric friend called Doc (Christopher Lloyd) a scientist who has wasted his family’s fortune making a ‘flux capacitor’ fuelled by plutonium. Just when the nutty professor manages to prove he can travel back in time with an Eighties sports car (to die for!) the Libyans come calling and when Doc is mown down in a hail of gunfire Marty guns the engines of the DeLorean and at 88mph is catapulted back to the week the town clock stopped working in a lightning storm. He’s initially mistaken for a spaceman and finds that his housing estate is only just being constructed.  He needs to ensure that his parents get together in high school or the future will look very different as he and his siblings’ images begin to disappear from the family photo back in 1985 and Marty’s mom begins to fall for him in one of the more brilliant takes on incest in film history!  Plus he has to get back to 1985 to save Doc’s life in what is literally a race against time! … Fast, sharp-witted and brilliantly inventive, this has the kind of gleaming detail (skateboards, digital watches, Diet Pepsi, puffa jackets for 1985;  Davy Crockett, sci-fi comics, a classic diner, a Barbara Stanwyck oater at the movie theatre for 1955) that makes it almost documentary-like in resonance and relatability. The organisation of the narrative is mind-boggling when you consider the complexity of the story elements. Add in hugely likeable stars, great one-liners, and a genuine sense of fun,  this is proof that you can rewrite history and even get some very subtle revenge on the school bully!  One of the cinema’s evergreen classics, this is tonally perfect:  it just sings with joy. Brilliant.

Donnie Darko (2001)

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This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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Raymond Shaw is the nicest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever met. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is nothing of the sort. He’s a nasty friendless well-connected Sergeant returning from the Korean War whose domineering widowed mother (Angela Lansbury) is now married to McCarthyite Senator Iselin (James Gregory) and she really is the power behind the throne:  he’s so dim he has to look at a bottle of ketchup to remember the number of Communists he says are in the State Dept. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is plagued by dreams of brainwashing and he’s not the only one. He investigates the possibility that there’s a sleeper agent in his platoon:  but what’s the plan? And when he discovers it’s Shaw, what is he programmed to do? And who could be his US control? This astonishing blend of Cold War paranoia, satire, political thriller and film noir is as urgent as it’s ever been. Brilliantly constructed visually – look at the cutting from dream to reality to TV coverage – by John Frankenheimer, in George Axelrod’s adaptation of the Richard Condon novel, this is even better tenth time around. This hugely controversial film was released during the Bay of Pigs crisis. The title has entered the lexicon and it became the go-to explanation for the major assassinations – both Kennedys and even John Lennon. This was Sinatra’s second film about a potential Presidential murder (he starred in Suddenly eight years earlier) and he stopped its distribution following the JFK assassination – but not due to personal sensitivities, moreso that his profit participation wasn’t being honoured by United Artists. His involvement was such that even a nightclub is named Jilly’s. Lansbury is simply masterful as the monster mother but the book’s incest theme is played down. What you will be left wondering in the aftermath of the film’s shocking impact is just why did Janet Leigh refer to the Chinese?! Amazing.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Nobody fucks with the Jesus. The Dude abides. Where to start with one of the most cherished films there has ever been? Not in the beginning. I may have almost had a coronary from laughing the first time I saw this at a festival screening prior to its release, but a lot of critics just did not get it. It’s the Coen Brothers in excelsis, a broad Chandler adaptation and tribute to Los Angeles,  a hymn to male friendship and the Tao of easy living with some extraordinarily surreal fantasy and dream sequences – not to mention some deadly bowling. Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey ‘Dude’ Lebowski, a guy so laid back he’s horizontal but he gets a little antsy when some thieves mistake him for The Big Lebowski and piss on his rug (it really tied the room together). Best friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is his bowling buddy, an uptight Nam vet with adoptive-Jewish issues in this hilarious offside take on director John Milius. Steve Buscemi is their sweet-natured friend Donny and John Turturro is the unforgettable sports foe, a hispanic gangsta paedo in a hairnet, Jesus Quintana. After the rug issue is handled, Dude is hired by his namesake (David Huddleston) a wheelchair-bound multimillionaire philanthropist, to exchange a ransom when his young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is kidnapped. Naturally Dude screws it up. There’s a band of nihilists led by Peter Stormare, some porn producers (Bunny makes flesh flicks), Lebowski’s randy artist daughter (Julianne Moore) and a private eye following everyone. And there’s Sam Elliott, narrating this tale of tumbleweed and laziness.  Everyone has their signature song in one of the great movie soundtracks and Dude has not only Creedence but White Russians to really mellow his day. Just like The Big Sleep, the plot really doesn’t matter a fig. This is inspired lunacy and I love it SO much.

Basic Instinct (1992)

 

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I think she’s the fuck of the century.  Paul Verhoeven’s film was notorious even prior to release – 25 years ago! – when word of the highly sexualised story got out.  Then it caused an uproar with a shot of Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs:  she’s not wearing any underwear. And the gay community in San Francisco in particular (where it’s set) didn’t like the portrayal of a psychopathic bisexual writer Catherine Tramell (Stone) – albeit we don’t know if it’s her, or her former and slighted lover, police psychiatrist Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who’s the murderess in this tricky, explicit neo-noir. That sub-genre really had a moment in the 90s, with this and the films of John Dahl – remember Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction?! Wow. Stone goes all-out here as the millionaire authoress whose books have a basis in true crime. Michael Douglas is the controversial ‘shooter’ detective Nick Curran who’s assigned to investigate the violent death of an old rock star – a murder we see in the opening scenes, bloody, sexy and ending with an ice pick applied to his neck. It’s the plot of one of Catherine Tramell’s lurid thrillers – she writes them under the surname Woolf.  Everything points to her being the guilty party. Now she wants to study him too. He got his nickname after accidentally killing tourists while he was high on cocaine. Catherine hangs out with jealous girlfriend Roxy and an old woman called Hazel Dobkins. Both of them have an interesting past. After Nick avoids being killed by Roxy when she sees him and Catherine having sex, he finds out she killed a bunch of kids when she was 15. And Hazel?  She murdered her children and husband back in the 50s. The fact that she’s played by Dorothy Malone gives you the meta-picture here:  this is practically a dissertation on the Hollywood blonde, a Hitchcock film with extra sex. Nick’s also been involved with the police psychiatrist who it turns out knows Catherine too, from when they went to college together a decade earlier.  And they may have had a relationship. This knotty tale of seduction, deception, copycat killing and betrayal leads cleverly to two very clear – and alternate – conclusions. It’s wrapped in extraordinarily beautiful and brutal imagery and the narrative ambiguity merely compounds its legend. Written by Joe Eszterhas in 13 days it earned him a record-breaking $3 million.  Yet as he stated so lucidly in his memoir, he is a militant screenwriter-auteur and the most memorable bit of the film was shot without his knowledge – and apparently Stone’s. Interpret this how you will. Some people might say that the real crime here is one against fashion – Douglas’ v-neck at the club is really something. Stone is stunning: she’s something else!

True Romance (1993)

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How do you describe the 90s bastard child of Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands? Total cool. How easy is that to achieve in a movie? Well it helps to have a script by Tarantino. And to be directed by Tony Scott. And then there’s the beyond-belief cast:  Christian Slater. Patricia Arquette. Gary Oldman. Dennis Hopper.  Christopher Walken. Michael Rapaport.  Brad Pitt. James Gandolfini. Tom Sizemore. Chris Penn. And that’s just the start of it. It’s ridiculous! It Boy Slater is Clarence, the comic book-pop culture geek who falls for the pretty call girl Alabama and makes off with a huge coke haul belonging to her pimp and pisses off a lot of the wrong people. His dad Hopper does the astonishing Sicilian-nigger speech to Walken – and how stunning are all those jaw-dropping monologues, no wonder Tarantino is so beloved by actors. (Rolling Stone called his dialogue ‘gutter poetry.’) When the gangsters come calling the violence is sickening and yet the colour lends it an appropriately ripened comic book quality.  There’s a slamdunk shootout involving Hollywood jerks and practically everyone gets killed but Clarence’s very special mentor keeps him chill. Awesome.

John Heard 03/07/1945-07/21/2017

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The death has taken place of one of my favourite actors. Apparently he died a few days after having back surgery while recuperating at a hotel in CA. I first saw him and became immediately besotted as a young kid one long ago Valentine’s Day when a film called  Between the Lines was on TV. It was about a bunch of supposed subversives working on an underground newspaper. On the one hand it appealed to my youthful and romantic sense of rebellion. Hell it was a Seventies movie!  On the other? I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Nor could writer/director Joan Micklin Silver, who then cast him again as the lead in her romantic comedy drama Head Over Heels aka Chilly Scenes of Winter – a movie that I didn’t see literally for decades because it never got to the small town where I grew up. In between he had worked for her husband Raphael in a prison movie called On the Yard which I saw many years ago, somehow, somewhere. As well as a TV mini-series adapted from The Scarlet Letter. I didn’t blame Meg Foster for doing what she did, not even a bit.  He was terrific as Jack Kerouac in Heart Beat but I didn’t see that for many years. However it was then I stumbled across the most amazing film of the Eighties after I found a book called Cutter and Bone which is still a beautiful piece of writing about California and corruption and Vietnam and PTSD.  I read it straight through without sleeping once I accidentally found out – book in hand – that my local cinema had the adaptation opening that weekend under the title Cutter’s Way. I saw it the evening I finished the book – I still can’t see a movie if it’s an adaptation without reading the book beforehand – and believed my earlier judgment of the actor to be on the money. And I still believe it. Heard is simply astonishing in a truly great film. He’s a one-eyed impotent crippled Nam vet who has the opportunity to right a wrong. He was working opposite Jeff Bridges and the heartbreaking Lisa Eichhorn. Everyone did their best work right there. He never really fulfilled that early promise and admitted as much in a late interview. He probably never got offered a role to equal it again. He wasn’t ‘seen’ in the right way by the right writer or director, maybe. Although he worked with some good people maybe the chemistry wasn’t right.  Or, he dropped the ball, as he said. Who knows why. Great films are miracles. A trained stage actor, he never ‘got’ Hollywood but he took roles that earned him huge audiences – Home Alone and its sequel being the prime example. It doesn’t matter. Cutter’s Way is one of my very favourite films. Make it one of yours. You only have to be great in one great film to be truly remembered. Vaya con dios, John.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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Les Diaboliques (1955)

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Aka The Devils or The Fiends. Paul Meurisse est le directeur sadique d’une école de français provinciale qui a été assassinée par sa femme douce (Vera Clouzot, épouse du réalisateur) et sa maîtresse endurciée (Simone Signoret). Elles le noient dans une baignoire dans la maison de Signoret en vacances et le rendent à la piscine de l’école. Cependant, son corps n’est pas situé comme prévu et il est vu par d’autres personnes sur place. Cette adaptation du roman de Boileau-Narcejac (Celle qui n’était plus) serait l’inspiration pour Psycho: Robert Bloch a déclaré que c’était son film préféré dans le genre; Hitchcock a été battu aux droits du film par le réalisateur Henri-Georges Clouzot, qui l’a adapté avec Jérôme Geronimi; et il a ensuite acquis un autre roman par la paire pour faire Vertigo. L’atmosphère dans l’école maternelle est merveilleusement réalisée; la tension entre les femmes (à l’origine un couple lesbien dans le roman) superbement créé dans leurs caractères antithétiques; le monde terrifiant de l’après-guerre créé inoubliablement; et la fin de la torsion est simplement un choc classique. Suspense supérieure et infiniment influente, avec un prototype pour Columbo dans le détective joué par Charles Vanel. Le thème de Georges Van Parys joué sur les titres est sublime.