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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Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!

Bande a Part (1964)

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Aka Band of OutsidersA Who-Dunit, Who’s Got-It, Where-Is-It-Now Wild One From That “Breathless” director Jean-Luc Godard!  Smalltime crooks and cinéphile slackers Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) spend their days mimicking the antiheroes of Hollywood noirs and Westerns while pursuing the lovely Odile (Anna Karina) whom they meet at English class. The misfit trio upends convention at every turn, through choreographed dances in cafés or frolicsome romps through the Louvre trying to set a record for fastest circumnavigation. Eventually, their romantic view of outlaws pushes them to plan their own heist, but their inexperience may send them out in a blaze of glory – just like their B-movie heroes … Isn’t it strange how people never form a whole?Ostensibly an adaptation of a novel called Fool’s Gold by Dorothy Hitchens, that’s just a skeleton on which the mischievous Jean-Luc Godard drapes his love and admiration of Hollywood genres (and Karina) over a series of apparently improvised riffs in this lightly constructed charmer. A few clues for latecomers: Several weeks ago… A pile of money… An English class… A house by the river… A romantic young girl... It’s a splendidly rackety affair, with several standout scenes providing the postmodern matrix for much of pop culture (and a name for Quentin Tarantino’s production company). It’s Godard at his most playful, joyous and audience-pleasing, exploring what it’s like to not want to grow up and how it’s always possible to have fun with like-minded people. Then, you go a little too far and someone goes and spoils it all for everyone. Maybe. Sheer pleasure. Godard said of the dance scene: “Alice in Wonderland as re-choreographed by Kafka”. A minute of silence can last a long time… a whole eternity

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

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No, I am not finished. Look, I’m gettin’ old, you hear? Ageing low-level Boston gunrunner Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle (Robert Mitchum) is looking at several years of jail for a hold-up if he doesn’t funnel information to treasury agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) so he has to decide whether to turn stoolie. He buys guns from another gunrunner, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), then gives him up to Foley, but it’s not enough. Conflicted, Eddie decides to also give up the gang of bank robbers he’s been supplying, only to find Foley already knows about them, and the mob believes Eddie snitched. The real permanent cop fink, barkeep Dillon (Peter Boyle) is called upon to render a service .. I wished I had a nickel for every name I got that was all right.  It could only be Robert Mitchum, couldn’t it, in this great gangster flick, one of the best films of the Seventies. Adapted from George V. Higgins’ classic novel, a gripping iteration of the Irish-American underworld given a stately interpretation by producer Paul Monash who knows just how to put the boot into that old saw about honour among thieves and how you really shouldn’t trust cops cos they’re just another gang.  There is nothing wrong with this film. It’s a snapshot of an anti-romantic world which we believe to be utterly true, and no higher compliment can you give a film. Mitchum is so good and gives such a committed performance as this determinedly anti-heroic loser that you cannot think of anyone else in the role. You believe a guy would shut a drawer on this bozo’s hand. The tone is just right, the danger palpable, the parameters real, the tension total. We’re looking at the world of Whitey Bulger and his gang in reality (Peter Boyle is Dillon, the avatar for Bulger, although Higgins denied the connection). Mitchum wanted to meet some of the real crims but was cautiously directed elsewhere although cast member Alex Rocco (he plays bank robber Jimmy Scalise) who had been associated with the Winter Hill gang and served a prison term during the Boston Irish Gang Wars in the Sixties prior to his name change and a Hollywood career may have made some introductions to the man who actually killed the prototype for Coyle. Let’s talk about screenwriter Monash who was a producer and TV scriptwriter (Peyton Place, among others) but really wanted to write a great novel. He was so good that Orson Welles tapped him to do rewrite work on Touch of Evil but for those of us who grew up in the Eighties he’s the guy who brought Salem’s Lot to the screen putting me at least behind a cushion and a couch to bridge the distance from the screen in order to somehow stop the fear (it didn’t); as well as a fantastic TVM remake of All Quiet on the Western Front, the series V and a very memorable film about Huey Long, Kingfish. Let’s not forget the wonderful British director Peter Yates who brings all his considerable weight and lightness of touch to this incredibly atmospheric production.  He’s made some of my favourite movies including Bullitt and Breaking Away, The Hot RockEyewitness and this. He directed my friend Shane Connaughton’s quasi-autobiographical Irish production The Run of the Country and was responsible for a fantastic mini-series of Don Quixote starring John Lithgow. Not only that, he managed the legendary racer Stirling Moss in his heyday. Good grief I love the man! This is great, resonant filmmaking, desperate, downbeat and convincing with an incredible cast, including my beloved Joe Santos, Margaret Ladd and Helena Carroll. Listen to that dialogue:  it’s rare, raw and relentless. With friends like these, well, you know.  I shoulda known better than to trust a cop. My own goddamn mother coulda told me that

Kinsey (2004)

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Are my answers typical? Professor Alfred ‘Prok’ Kinsey (Liam Neeson) is interviewed about his sexual history by one of his graduate students Clyde Martin (Sarsgaard) and reflects on how he became the author of famous studies of modern Americans’ sexual behaviour. He grew up in a repressed household headed by Alfred Seguine Kinsey (John Lithgow) and disobeyed him to study biology and became a lecturer, marrying his student Mac (Laura Linney). After completing his study of gall wasp behaviour and addressing the sexual issues within his own marriage his advice is sought by students and he begins teaching a sex ed course that raises questions he cannot answer.  He devises a questionnaire to find out what passes for normal activity among his students but soon realises that 100 completed documents are not remotely sufficient.  He commences a countrywide research project in which he taxonomises sexual behaviour inside and outside average marriages and subgroups like homosexuals at a time when all these things are illegal in several states … The forces of chastity are massing again. Writer/director Bill Condon’s biography of the famed sex researcher whose reports rocked midcentury America is careful, detailed and filled with good performances (appropriately). Both Linney and Neeson contribute complete characters and their respective realisation that Clyde wants to seduce Prok are extremely touching and when you consider it’s established in a phonecall it’s all the more affecting. Their marriage is a profile of the parameters of this study – until things become more extreme and the grad students carrying out the research offer their own services to be recorded. The issue of agreed infidelity and extra-marital sex is just one of the common behavioural tics dealt with here and deftly personalised. There are of course some limits to even these sexologists’ tolerance – and Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell) storms out when a particularly noxious individual (William Sadler) decides to regale him and Kinsey about his incest, bestiality and more, including incidents with pre-adolescent children. There are some abusive perversions that are just too tough to take. Word about the nature of the team’s methodologies gets out and their funding is cut by the Rockefeller Foundation, an issue that is particularly effective as a narrative device because it reminds us of the real-world difficulties in securing funding and the consequences that not funding this particular study might have had – its far-reaching insights into human behaviour in a highly censorious era was groundbreaking.  Oliver Platt is particularly good as the genial Herman Wells, President of the University at Bloomington whose support of the controversial work is so important. The confrontational nature of the film doesn’t descend to pornography chiefly because the humanity of the protagonists – and that of the study’s participants – is carefully graphed against the social norms. The topper to Alfred Senior’s difficult relationship with his son is very sad and crystallises the reasons behind his bullying, a habit Prock has inherited and replays with his own son Bruce (Luke MacFarlane) over mealtimes. At this point we don’t need any lectures on nature versus nurture or gene theory. The coda is a wonderful exchange between Kinsey and his latest interview subject played by Lynn Redgrave. It’s a marvellous conclusion to a remarkable film that deals with biology, family and the life force. A very satisfying experience. Where love is concerned we’re all in the dark

Searching (2018)

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I didn’t know her. I didn’t know my daughter. David Kim (John Cho) becomes desperate when his 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) disappears. He decides to search Margot’s laptop. He traces her digital footprints and contacts her friends and looks at photos and videos for any possible clues to her whereabouts and when he realises his daughter was essentially friendless and put all her piano tuition in a bank account which is now empty, he contacts the police who assign Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) to the case … Small screens on a big screen. Smartphones. Technology. Icons. Lists. Photos. Typing. Skyping. I don’t care, I want fresh air. It’s not me, it’s you. Reader, I abandoned this after a half hour. Modern life is rubbish. Bring me my quill. Directed by Aneesh Chaganty who co-wrote this with Sev Ohanian.

W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975)

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I wish I was in Dixie. It’s 1957 and W.W. Bright (Burt Reynolds) is an easygoing crook who robs banks and gas stations because he has a grudge against the corrupt businessman who owns the SOS Oil Co. He bribes the attendants not to grass on him to the cops. He meets the Dixie Dancekings, a two-bit country and western band looking for their big break when he hijacks their car running from the police. Dixie (Conny Van Dyke), their singer, gives him an alibi. He claims to be in the music business, and ends up promoting the group. Wayne (Jerry Reed), the band’s leader, does not trust him, but the others all have faith in him. W.W. only steals from SOS gas stations, so the company’s chairman sends for Bible-thumping ex-lawman Deacon John Wesley Gore (Art Carney) to track him down. Meanwhile, W.W. and the newly outfitted band go to see Country Bull (Ned Beatty), a highly successful singer-songwriter. He is willing to write them a song for $1,000. W.W. talks the Dancekings into a bank robbery (SOS has just opened a drive-in bank branch) that does not work out quite as planned. When Gore broadcasts the description of the getaway car on a radio revival show, W.W. burns up his car. He is ready to separate from the Dancekings in order to protect them (Y’all keep practising – cos you need it!) but then he hears them rehearsing Wayne’s new song. He persuades Country Bull to listen to it; the man is so impressed, he puts them on the Grand Ole Opry. There Gore catches W.W. using an exact replica of his burnt car as bait…. If I ever turn queer, that’s the guy I’d turn queer for. That’s Burt Reynolds talking about Errol Flynn in The Sun Also Rises, the film within a film featured early on at a drive-in, in this John Avildsen production. Avildsen made this in between Save the Tiger and Rocky (so this is the one right before he got the Oscar for Best Director) and it doesn’t have quite the cutting social edge or drive of either but it’s pacy and energetic and seems to be on the cusp of something mythical. That’s emblemised in the 1955 ‘Golden Anniversary’ Oldsmobile 88 (it didn’t exist but three were made for the film) and in the time period – post-James Dean, with W.W. wearing a deep orange zip jacket that calls to mind Rebel Without a Cause. Just a matter of time. And money.  And luck. And perhaps for screenwriter Thomas Rickman W.W. is a smooth-talking charming Southern version of that character all grown up and wised up and prone to larceny. It was a true star vehicle for Reynolds and he’s well teamed with Beatty, his co-star from Deliverance and White Lightning as the country superstar and Reed (a legendary guitarist) his future co-star from Gator and Smokey and the Bandit (and Don Williams is also in the Dancekings lineup). You can call me anything you like but don’t you ever call me no communist. It has a nice line in irony (literally:  The Edsel’s the car of the future) and getting ahead by robbing The Man provides a nice backdrop for faux nostalgia and a behind the scenes look at the C&W music scene.  It was released just a few weeks before Nashville despite having been shot months earlier and being billed as the first movie out of that fabled quarter. Nashville however has a political element which made it a much more divisive piece of work, an effect generated by many of Robert Altman’s films. Beatty was also in that film, as the character Delbert Reese. But you’ll just die when you see him in the cowboy getup here and it turns out it really is a case of the emperor’s new clothes.  Reynolds is awesomely engaging as the shapeshifting conman, just like you’d want him to be in what is rambunctious entertainment. Rickman clearly understood how to get the best out of Reynolds and a few years later they collaborated on Hooper, which is one of his very best performances and a terrific film, an hilarious look at the life of Hollywood stuntmen.  Rickman also wrote Coal Miner’s Daughter and Everybody’s All-American, some of the best dramas of their era.  If you’re nice to people they’re nice to you right back and that’s what I like about the South

Brubaker (1980)

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That’s murder they’re talking about in there. And if they condone it, how are you gonna turn around and tell these guys why they’re locked up? 1969 Arkansas. Posing as an inmate at Wakefield Prison, the new warden of the penitentiary, Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford), witnesses firsthand the scams and abuse inflicted upon the prisoners by the staff (maggot-ridden food, paying for medical care) and the prisoners upon one another – rape, bullying, violent beatings. After revealing his true identity when a prisoner in the tank Walter (Morgan Freeman) takes another Larry Lee Bullen (David Keith) hostage and threatens to kill him, Brubaker brings much-needed reform to the prison with the help of supporters: trustee (prisoner turned gamekeeper) Dickie Coombes (Yaphet Kotto) and administrator at the board of governors Lillian Gray (Jane Alexander). But not everyone is happy especially not the prison governors who are profiting from years of graft. When the benefactors of the old corrupt system inside the building, like Huey Rauch (Tim McIntire) and Roy Purcell (Matt Clark) are threatened by the changes, Brubaker’s battles really begin and he realises that Dickie is correct to warn him that innocent people are going to die to prove his point … Accomplices to the Crime:  The Arkansas Prison Scandal by Thomas Murton and Joe Hyams was adapted by W.D. Richter (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) and it’s a striking and compelling film of social injustice directed by Stuart Rosenberg, based on Murton’s experiences when he was appointed under Governor Rockefeller to reform an an unprofitable prison.  The inmates were slave labour for local business, the crops on the 15,000 acres were being poisoned, the canned food was being stolen by prison officers and sold on while the inmates starved. When he discovered dozens of men had been murdered and put in unmarked graves he was dismissed. Redford is quite brilliant as the man who is at first in there undercover and then breaks out in order to save an habitual criminal who then becomes a trustee. He understands he has to play the system to make humanitarian gains but finally the demands are too much even when proposed by the woman who wanted him in there, Gray (Alexander). Freeman’s role is small but astonishing – when he sings Respect with David Keith’s neck in his hands you listen. It’s tautly written, brutal and flawlessly staged.  Rosenberg of course is the man responsible for that other great prison movie, Cool Hand Luke. This is a devastating indictment of corruption and graft and there simply isn’t a false moment.

Three Violent People (1956)

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You can’t kill your brother – he only has one arm! Confederate officer Colt Saunders (Charlton Heston) returns to his Texas ranch the Bar S after the war to find his lands wanted by carpetbaggers and by corrupt provisional government commissioners Harrison (Bruce Bennett) and Cable (Forrest Tucker). When he marries former dance hall girl Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter) he gets more than he bargains for and his brother Beauregard aka ‘Cinch’ (Tom Tryon) turns up to make trouble and side with the opposition … There’s tension aplenty in this occasionally striking post-Civil War western, with some very good scenes between the top-liners. Baxter’s revelation to save a man’s life because she feels forced to admit her past as a prostitute when confronted by a former client is a standout, so too her scenes with the charismatic Tyron, whom Heston didn’t want cast. Heston and Baxter have a great meet cute, he’s unconscious and she robs him but when he comes to it’s in bed and he literally unpicks her voluminous undergarments to retrieve his gold (and that’s not a euphemism). It ends badly for one of the three, as you’d expect, but not before Gilbert Roland, as long-time family friend Innocencio Ortega, helps in the final shootout.  Spot Robert Blake and Jamie Farr down the cast list with Elaine Stritch given a good supporting role as a saloon hostess. A nice mix of soap and oats. Written by James Edward Grant from a story by Leonard Praskins and Barney Slater and directed by Rudolph Maté.

Going in Style (2017)

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These banks practically destroyed this country. They crushed a lot of people’s dreams, and nothing ever happened to them. We three old guys, we hit a bank. We get away with it, we retire in dignity. Worst comes to the worst, we get caught, we get a bed, three meals a day, and better health care than we got now. Lifelong friends Willie (Morgan Freeman), Joe (Michael Caine) and Albert (Alan Arkin) decide to buck retirement and step off the straight-and-narrow when their pension funds become a casualty of corporate financial misdeeds. They’re living on social security and eating dog food so what have they got to lose by taking a little action? Desperate to pay the bills and come through for their loved ones, they risk it all by knocking off the very bank that absconded with their money … The original had Art Carney, George Burns and  Lee Strasberg but in Theodore Melfi’s screenplay from the 1979 story by Edward Cannon, director Zach Braff appeals to the grey dollar audience with some of our favourite Sixties and Seventies performers with Freeman for good measure. Why wouldn’t you want to see this aged crew carry out a heist?! It’s conventionally made but has a resonance maybe moreso than the Seventies’ film did, with the banking crisis still having the ripple effect into everyone’s lives as a life’s work and savings vanish. It’s a lot of fun but says things about society and also the effect that participating in such a crime might have while quietly acknowledging that serial administrations simply permitted corporate criminals to ruin lives on an unprecedented scale and nine years later the effects are still being felt.  The guys have some good repartee and it’s pleasing to see a bunch of geezers making off with bags of swag.  Plus there’s Matt Dillon as an FBI guy and Ann-Margret for the Grumpy Old Men/Viva Las Vegas demographic.  What’s not to like?! For a comedy with a message this is a lot of fun.