Harper (1966)

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Why so fast, Harper? You trying to impress me? Struggling private eye Lew Harper (Paul Newman) takes a simple missing-person case that quickly spirals into something much more complex. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), recently paralysed in a horse-riding accident, wants Harper to find her missing oil baron husband Ralph, but her tempestuous teenage stepdaughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) thinks Mrs. Sampson knows more than she’s letting on… The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise. Brilliantly adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald’s 1949 mystery The Moving Target featuring private eye Archer, renamed here because Newman believed the letter ‘H’ to be lucky following Hud and The Hustler. With that team you know it’s filled with zingers, like, Kinky is British for weird. Macdonald’s roots in the post-war noir world are called up in the casting of Bacall, who reminds us that it was The Big Sleep, among other films based on books by the great Raymond Chandler, that brought this style into being. Of course Macdonald’s own interpretation is consciously more mythical than the prototypical Chandler’s, with allusions to Greek tragedy in its familial iterations but it continues in that vein of a ferociously stylish, ironic, delightfully cool appraisal of California’s upper class denizens and their intractable problems. Newman is perfectly cast as a kind of wandering conscience with problems of his own, while Janet Leigh as his ex-wife, Robert Wagner as a playboy, Julie Harris as a junkie musician, Shelley Winters as a faded movie star, Robert Webber as her criminal husband and Albert Hill as a lovelorn lawyer, all add wonderful details to this portrait of a social clique. A flavoursome, perfectly pitched entertainment with lovely widescreen cinematography by Conrad Hall and oh so wittily and precisely staged by director Jack Smight, underscored by the smooth Sixties jazz orchestrations of Johnny Mandel with an original song by Dory and Andre Previn. I used to be a sheriff ’til I passed my literacy test

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Clockwise (1986)

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The first step to knowing who you are is knowing where you are and when you are. Comprehensive school headmaster Brian Stimpson (John Cleese) is obsessed with timeliness, order and discipline. He tends to add the word ‘Right’ to everything he says, which inadvertently gives people misdirections and wrong impressions.  After meticulously preparing a speech for a Headmasters’ conference, Brian misses his train. With no one else to turn to, he asks student Laura Wisely (Sharon Maiden) for a lift to Norwich. Laura, upset over a break-up with what turns out to be a married colleague of Brian’s, impulsively agrees to drive him in her parents’ car – which alarms her mother (Pat Keen) and father (Geoffrey Hutchings), who worry that she has run away with a married man so they alert the police. Brian and Laura forget to pay for petrol; crash into a squad car; run into an old college friend of Brian’s (Penelope Wilton) who gets the impression that Brian is having an affair with this schoolgirl; get stuck in the mud; and then find themselves in a monastery – all the while unaware that a growing number of people are chasing them who wind up at the conference long before Brian ever manages to get there … We can’t go forwards so we’ll go backwards instead. Novelist and playwright Michael Frayn wrote this on spec as an experiment in screenwriting and John Cleese agreed to it the moment his agent sent it to him. In his tour de force performance of a man gradually unravelling as his scheme is destroyed by one simple mistake, you can see that it’s a perfect fit for the man who made Basil Fawlty part of the lexicon. Mild-mannered English comedy it may be but at times it’s supremely funny and as well constructed as, well, a clock. Superb support from Alison Steadman as his disbelieving wife, Maiden as the worldly sixth-former eager to use her study period on an away day to make her lover jealous, and a cast of more or less familiar faces, all winding Brian up even while he tries to re-run that all-important speech in his head. Highly amusing. Directed by Christopher Morahan. It’s not the despair. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope

The Skeleton Key (2005)

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The thing folks just don’t understand about sacrifice… sometimes it’s more of a trade. Twentysomething Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson), a good-natured nurse living in New Orleans feels guilty about not being around for her father’s death while she was on the road working for rock bands. She quits her job as a carer at a hospice to work at a plantation mansion in the Terrebonne Parish for Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), an elderly woman whose husband, Ben (John Hurt), is in poor health following a stroke. When Caroline begins to explore the couple’s rundown house where Violet bans mirrors, she discovers strange artifacts in a locked room at the back of the attic and learns the house has a mysterious past to do with servants from the 1920s, Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott) and the practice of hoodoo. She realises that Violet is keeping a sinister secret about the cause of Ben’s illness and wants to get the old man out of there. When she appeals to their estate lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) for assistance she finds that he’s not quite what he seems to be …  It gets harder every time. They just don’t believe like they used to. Gotta get ’em all riled up. An immensely appealing excursion into folk horror that is as much about the history of Louisiana and race relations as it is a genre exercise (though it’s a fairly efficient suspense machine too). Beautifully staged and atmospherically sustained by that very stylish director Iain Softley, it’s written by Ehren Kruger, who burst on the scene with the surprising Arlington Road, another look at Americana (of the homebred terror group variety) who has spent his time since this either a) making a shedload of money or b) squandering his immense talent (take your pick – perhaps both?) making the Transformers films. Hudson is very good opposite screen great Rowlands while Hurt spends his time silenced by the stroke, emoting with his eyes and making a failed suicide attempt off a roof. That’s how badly he needs outta here. Gorgeous location shooting around New Orleans and Louisiana make this a feast for the eyes and the twist ending is very satisyfing, cherI don’t believe I don’t believe I don’t believe

Raw Deal (1948)

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Aka Corkscrew Alley. Waiting. Waiting. All my life I’d been waiting. For Joe. Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) has taken the rap for criminal Rick (Raymond Burr) who owes him $50,000 and now double-crosses him into a flawed escape plan from prison.  Joe’s helped by his streetwise girlfriend Pat (Claire Trevor) and his lovelorn legal caseworker Ann (Marsha Hunt) and their competing love for him complicates things as he goes on the lam and the police are on his tail while he plans to board a ship bound for Panama … Close in on him from every side. Don’t give him a chance. Anthony Mann’s post-war noir is of a different variety from most, with a striking tone. The cinematography by John Alton is delicious, capturing the early morning sea fog as it licks the shore rolling in on tides of impending doom, perfectly complementing Claire Trevor’s mournful voiceover. A tragic noir, wonderfully executed with a complex protagonist whose motivations aren’t entirely clear. The love triangle is unexpectedly moving with the differences between the women well delineated although Trevor’s is the stronger part:  Suddenly I saw that every time he kissed me he would be kissing Ann. The story is by Arnold B. Armstrong and Audrey Ashley, and the screenplay is credited to John C. Higgins and Leopold Atlas.  I never asked for anything safe. All I want is just some decency, that’s all

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

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

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Well, thank you, Mr. Bandit. And as the pursuer, may I say you’re the goddamnedest pursuee I’ve ever pursued. Now that the mutual bullshit is over, WHERE ARE YOU, YOU SOMBITCH?  Big Enos (Pat McCormick) wants to drink Coors at a truck show, but in 1977 it’s illegal to sell Coors east of the Mississippi River without a permit. Truck driver Bo ‘Bandit’ Darville (Burt Reynolds) agrees to pick up the beer in Texas and drive it to Georgia within 28 hours:  he’ll take his Trans-Am and act as a diversion to the tractor trailer carrying the booty by his colleague Cledus ‘Snowman’ (Jerry Reed). When Bo picks up runaway bride Carrie (Sally Field), he attracts the attention of Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Angry that Carrie has run out on the wedding to his son, Justice embarks on a high-speed chase after Bandit across Arkansaw right back to Georgia When you tell somebody something it depends which part of the United States you’re standing in as to how dumb you are. Stuntman Hal Needham moved into Burt Reynolds’ poolhouse when his marriage broke up. When they shot Gator they found nobody could get Coors beer east of the Mississippi so Needham started scribbling on legal pads and came up with a screenplay with terrible dialogue involving the transportation of beer across state lines. The story was improved with contributions from producer Robert Levy. It then got a rewrite from James Lee Barrett and Charles Shyer & Alan Mandel. With Reynolds (reluctantly) attached, the movie gave Needham his directing debut and it grossed second only to Star Wars in 1977 (and Reynolds had turned down the role of Han Solo!) This went stratospheric on a global scale. Why did it strike such a chord, not just in the US, where the southwest drive-in circuit was practically the only logical destination for the good ol’ boy persona Reynolds had perfected in White Lightning and its sequel, Gator, which he directed and which he was now keen to leave behind? It has a simplicity that goes back to the Keystone Cops, a pure exercise in slapstick and stunts that pivots on one long car chase, from the beginning to the end of the film, with an exploitation core of the redneck trickster character:  it could only be played by Reynolds, who embodied charm, daring and guile in an enviable physique.  He also had a unique way with put-downs which he did with a smirk and a wink that made you love him.  He’d been commandeering that style for a decade, even before he made it big with Deliverance. He was a star beloved of audiences after that and this catapulted him to the number one position in the box office for five straight years after the previous five hadn’t seen him outside the Top 10. His easygoing persona, wisecracking and sex appeal made him catnip to audiences. The Seventies were a particularly good era for road movies too; CB radio was popular and trucks were big news:  Cledus gets roughed up by bikers in a bar and he responds by showing us the motorsickle era is over when he tramples the gang’s machines – trucks trump bikes! Field’s naturalistic acting style makes her relationship with Bandit totally believable and Fred the bassett hound (Burt had one called Clyde) just makes us love him even more.  Without a comic foil however the setup would not work and the great Gleason is superb as the pesky ornery sheriff with an idiot son:  There’s no way – no way! – you could come from my loins.  First thing I do when we get home is punch your mama in the mouth! He’s loathsome, funny, irascible and encumbered with a jackass offspring so you hope he doesn’t suffer too much – for maybe just a minute. (He was allegedly based on Reynolds’ father, a police chief in Florida). Burdette is played by Pat McCormick who regularly wrote for Johnny Carson, the host of The Tonight Show where Reynolds made dozens of hilarious appearances (it’s how John Boorman found him for Deliverance when he was guest hosting a particularly rowdy set of guests). It’s a buoyant, feel good outing with a convoy and what amounts to a demolition derby. For the audience the prospect of getting one over on The Man is irresistible and of course what we have here is a community rallying to help an innocent anarchist over the state line. This was hugely influential on the culture – as The Dukes of Hazzard and The Fall Guy would prove, with everything crystallised by Reynolds’ screen character writ large across primetime TV for years to come. Sublime, existential entertainment. That’s a big 10-4!

Deliverance (1972)

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Now you get to play the game. Four Atlanta-dwelling friends Ed Gentry (Jon Voight), Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds), Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty) and Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox) decide to get away from their jobs, wives and kids for a week of canoeing in rural Georgia, going whitewater rafting down the Cahulawassee river before the area is flooded for the construction of a dam. When the men arrive, they are not welcomed by the backwoods locals, who stalk the vacationers and savagely attack them, raping one of the party. Reeling from the ambush, the friends attempt to return home but are surrounded by dangerous rapids and pursued by an armed madman. Soon, their canoe trip turns into a fight for survival… You don’t beat it. You don’t beat the river. Notorious for the male rape and praised for the Duelling Banjos scene that happens in the first scene-sequence, this film went into production without insurance and with the cast doing most of their own dangerous stunts. Reynolds is simply great as Lewis the alpha male daredevil with the shit-eating grin and a way with a bow and arrow.  This is a role that transformed his screen presence into box office. His sheer beauty affirms the audience’s faith in male potential:  when he has an accident we are devastated. What will happen now to the clueless bunch being hunted by the inbred hillbilly loons?  Insurance? I’ve never been insured in my life. I don’t believe in insurance. There’s no risk. Voight is the straight guy Ed who has to pick up the action baton, Bobby dithers and Drew may have been shot – or not. Author James Dickey adapted his own novel with director John Boorman and appears in the concluding scenes as the Sheriff. Like most of Boorman’s work there are narrative problems – mostly resting in a kind of empty sensationalism that however disturbing never truly penetrates, with visuals substituting for the environmental story.  This gives a whole new meaning to the term psychogeography. Squeal like a pig! The cast are perfection, with Beatty and Cox making their screen debuts having been discovered doing regional theatre. Finally, Voight’s character is haunted, the experience converted into a horror trope in the penultimate shots.  The power rests in the juxtaposing of man and nature, modernity versus the frontier, conjoined with the spectre of primitive redneck violence and its consequences on hapless male camaraderie where survival is the only option once civilisation is firmly out of reach. Danger is only a boat ride away.  A gauntlet to weekend warriors everywhere, it’s quite unforgettable.  Sometimes you have to lose yourself ‘fore you can find anything

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Rough Night (2017)

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Like I said to Rob Lowe – there’s no body, there’s no case.  Jess (Scarlett Johansson) is a politician campaigning for a seat who has just got engaged to Peter (Paul W. Downs) and reluctantly reunites with three of her college friends for a wild bachelorette weekend in Miami 10 years after graduation.  She’s urged on by former best friend Alice (Jillian Bell) an unhappy fat and married mother whom she’s been steadfastly avoiding.  They are joined by Frankie (Ilana Glazer) and Blair (Zoë Kravitz) and then by Jess’ Aussie friend Pippa (Kate McKinnon) whom Alice repeatedly insults. The night of hard partying soon takes a dark turn when a male stripper (Ryan Cooper) accidentally dies at their beach house after Alice jumps on him. Amid the craziness of trying to cover it up, the women ultimately find themselves becoming closer when it matters most only to discover when the real stripper arrives that the guy they killed has just been involved in a major jewel robbery. They knock out the second guy. Then when the first stripper’s friends turn up the real fun begins – especially since Jess’ fiancé has embarked on a road trip to rescue what he believes is a failed relationship … The Hangover. Not. A truly execrable waste of talent that proves women can make movies just as bad as men when they’re behaving badly including the foul-mouthed rap soundtrack that appears to be de rigeur for such raucous outings. You might enjoy seeing Demi Moore on her knees before Kravitz in a threesome with Ty Burrell but then again you have to remember these people a) read the script and b) got paid. Unlike the viewer. Miaow. Everyone here is better than this. Directed and written by Lucia Aniello who is a woman and co-written with Downs who is not. #MeToo. Not.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

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Color me gone! A mechanic (Dennis Wilson) and a driver (James Taylor) live only to race and maintain their grey 1955 Chevy. Heading east from California with no particular agenda, they give a girl (Laurie Bird) a ride, and en route she incites jealousy between the men by sleeping with them both. Meanwhile, the trio encounters an overbearing 1970 Pontiac GTO driver (Warren Oates) who makes up stories about his life and agrees to race them to New York, each side putting at stake their most prized possession: their car… Stunningly shot (by Gregory Sandor though credited to union member Jack Deerson), almost dialogue-free, this seminal road movie (when that term really meant something) is a showcase of cinematic poetry in motion exhibiting the performing talents of two of the most important music stars of the era. Taciturnity is their mojo as they engage in this eastern, a reversal of the traditional drift of men across the continent, living in the moment.  Oates is remarkable as the man living his own personal fantasy. It helps if you’re a car freak but it’s not necessary. This is a study of a society without a point. Turn on. Tune in. Drop out. Directed by Monte Hellman from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer (who plays a hot rod driver), Will Corry and uncredited contributions from Floyd Mutrux. Absolutely iconic.

The Freshman (1990)

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I had been in New York nineteen minutes and eleven seconds and I was already ruined. Kansas/Vermont/Montana boy Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick) is robbed moments after arriving in New York to study film at NYU. When he sees his mugger Victor (Bruno Kirby) through a window several days later during a meeting with his tutor Fleeber (Paul Benedict), he confronts him. Victor promises to return his property and get him a job with his uncle, Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando), who turns out to be a Mafia boss. Clark can’t help but notice his uncanny resemblance to The Godfather. His first job (for $500!) is to pick up a komodo dragon from a lot in New Jersey which escapes at a gas station when his roommate Steve (Frank Whaley) opens the car door to smoke. The dragon runs amok in a mall. When Clark tells his mom on the phone about his new job his environmental activist stepdad Dwight (Kenneth Welsh) overhears. Carmine has lined up his daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller) to marry Clark. As Clark continues his shady work for Carmine, he discovers an elaborate underworld that has caught the attention of the authorities. He’s chased by men from the Department of Justice who are particularly interested in the wildlife Carmine is importing and he’s persuaded to become an informer. As things come to a head, not everything is what it seems. The endangered species are being prepared for a deluxe meal at a gourmet club where Carmine fleeces the rich for millions … I was once asked at a dinner party what I thought of Bergman. I responded, Ingmar or Andrew? Because that’s the kind of all-round entertaining dinner guest I am! In truth I’ve always enjoyed Andrew Bergman’s movies – they never fail to engage or amuse and this is no different. In fact I’d forgotten just how hilarious this is. You ain’t seen nothing till you’ve seen Brando on ice skates. This is a genuinely funny spoof with lots of endearing performances and a couple of artfully chosen excerpts from a certain pair of classic Mafia movies serve as commentary on the narrative that pastiches them. And if you have ever taken a film studies class you will get a kick out of Benedict’s painfully apt role as the self-obsessed lecturer. Brando is quite brilliant parodying himself and Broderick even out-Ferrises himself in some scenes. Great fun.