Lure of the Wilderness (1952)

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I was in here six years afore I found my way out. In the early 1900s, Zack Tyler (Tom Tully) and his son Ben (Jeffrey Hunter) are fur trappers living near Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. In the course of searching for their dog in the swamp they discover Jim Harper (Walter Brennan), a fugitive who has been unjustly accused of a killing, and his daughter, Laurie (Jean Peters), who has developed very few social skills due to her 8 years spent living in the wild. Zack becomes convinced of Jim’s innocence and attempts to set up a proper criminal defence, while Ben and Laurie begin to fall in love. But Dave Longden (Jack Elam) smells a rat and starts to think like the lynch mob that drove out the Harpers all those years ago…  What did we ever do to you ones on the outside to get this?Adapted by Louis Lantz from Vereen Bell’s 1941 novel Swamp Water (previously adapted by Jean Renoir and also starring Brennan, Walter Huston, Dana Andrews and Anne Baxter), this is a colourful, lyrical action-adventure tale, getting the full-blooded Twentieth Century-Fox treatment including an OTT score by Franz Waxman. Director Jean Negulesco always had an eye for the worthy visual (even if the Technicolor might mute the Southern Gothic sensibility) but he was not noted for his interaction with performers.  However Brennan is always worth watching and hearing him perform a song and witnessing him wrestle a ‘gator is worth the price of admission. Irish actress Constance Smith has a small but meaty role as Zack’s feisty jilted girlfriend and the fight she inspires between Hunter and her new beau helps the film attain the kind of liveliness this material demands. The midpoint sequence is the best – the murk of the swamp comes to wild life as Hunter and the darkly enchanting Peters get to know each other a little better. Just like coming back to life

 

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Gone With the Wind (1939)

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What a woman.  The life of petulant southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), from her idyllic youth on a sprawling plantation, through her survival through the tragic history of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and her tangled love affairs with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who marries his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland); and roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) who wants her for himself and makes money as a blockade runner while Ashley goes to warLand’s the only thing that matters, the only thing that lasts. The drama of David O.Selznick’s search for Scarlett is well known, so too the issues with the directors (George Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming, who was replaced for a spell by Sam Wood) but it’s the antebellum grandeur and the personalities of this epic historical romance set against the Civil War that continue to enthrall.  The beauty of plantation life is contrasted with the vivid scenes of Atlanta in flames;  the picture perfect homes and life embroidering and dancing and romancing are juxtaposed with the screams of the dying soldiers. Scarlett’s deceitful delusions about Ashley are dissipated by the reality of his cowardice. And there are the unexpected mini-dramas too:  that Scarlett becomes a can-do woman and saves Tara as her family cry bullying; when Rhett drunkenly asserts his droit de seigneur over Scarlett, she wakes up the next day as pleased with herself as the cat that got the cream. This image still has the capacity to shock (if not entirely surprise). That the screenplay and the performances effortlessly manage the extremes of humanity is a tribute to the talent behind the scenes and in front of camera. Gable is magnificent, but so too is de Havilland as Melanie, the kindest woman ever, who has the breadth of compassion to handle everything put her way and unexpectedly expresses delight when Scarlett kills a Yankee soldier. However it is Leigh’s film:  she is simply perfect as the selfish coquette who becomes brave when everyone around her is falling to pieces and she lives a wholly ironic life as a result. They say great characters make great books and I read it when I was fourteen, a great age to appreciate the feeling that Margaret Mitchell gives to these fully developed people living through the worst of times and trying in their own particular way to survive it. Expertly adapted by Sidney Howard. Wonderful. Tomorrow is another day

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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Flight (2012)

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Every pilot crashed the aircraft, killed everybody on board. You were the only one who could do it!  Veteran commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) has just finished partying with flight attendant and lover Katerina (Nadine Velazquez) and needs cocaine to kill off his hangover before he boards his flight out of Orlando.  He has a new co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) who eyes him with suspicion when Whip sucks up oxygen from his mask and asks stewardess Margaret (Tamara Tunie) for coffee with lots of sugar. It’s raining heavily on takeoff and there’s turbulence but Whip navigates into clear sky. A disastrous mechanical malfunction sends them hurtling toward the ground, part of the time upside down. Whip pulls off a miraculous crash-landing in a field near a church south of Atlanta while Ken is panicking and it results in only six lives being lost, four passengers and two crew, including Katerina. Shaken to the core, Whip vows to get sober but when the crash investigation exposes his addiction, he finds himself in an even worse situation and has to persuade his union representative Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) that it was his very lack of inhibition that gave him the courage to manoeuvre outrageously.  He tries to dry out at his late grandather’s farm in the company of junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly) who he met in hospital… No one else could have landed that plane! The first twenty-five minutes of John Gatins’ screenplay are the actions leading up to the crash and the crash itself;  the last twenty-five are the hearing and its outcome years later.  In between we see an alcoholic variously turning away from and then back to alcohol while he is engaged in a relationship with a junkie.  This feeds into the morality tale structure:  Whip needs to see addiction in another addict and all the AA meetings in the world can’t make him face up to his demons and even she cannot reconcile his problems. The balance struck here is the same one that director Robert Zemeckis makes between the astonishing scene inside the aeroplane with the intoxicated chaos in Whip’s head and the lengthy, awful aftermath.  His co-pilot has had his legs crushed and will never fly again. When Whip visits him and his wife and becomes enmeshed in their prayers we want to laugh:  Washington’s star persona has been moving back and forth between decent and ‘street’ since it began – here it’s conflated between the two aspects and it’s some feat of performance. One scene his drug dealer Harling Mays (John Goodman) is promising him the world, the next he’s on his knees. Harling comes to the rescue with cocaine in a scene where Washington reveals his star power – until he gets in an elevator and a little girl looks up his nose:  it tells us how far he has fallen and is s a metaphor (one of many) that structures the film. I’ve been lying about my drinking my whole adult life. Harling is a Dr Feelgood whose every brief appearance is heralded by a Rolling Stones riff;  Charlie is a very loyal rep but it’s Lang who needs to be convinced. Whip’s turnaround is unbelievable to both of them. And him. Zemeckis pilots the film expertly enough through the drama although the Nicole subplot weakens the film’s impact even if it gives the audience breathing space. It struck me watching this again today that a lot of pilots have been suspended for drunk-flying since this came out:  is it really better to do a Denzel and be a little loose in those bright blue skies than entirely sane and sober? Nervous flyers beware! This is terrifying. Brace yourself. That was it. I was finished. I was done

Cape Fear (1962)

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From my limited knowledge of human nature, Max Cady isn’t a man who makes idle threats. After an eight-year prison sentence for rape, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) targets Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), one of the lawyers who sent him away. When Max finds Sam and his family, he begins a terrifying stalking spree, intending to ruin Sam’s life. Desperate to protect his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin), Sam makes every effort to send Max back to jail. But when his attempts fail, Sam realizes that he must take matters into his own hands if he wants to rid his life of Max for good after he targets his family and makes the lewdest of provocative suggestions to the Councillor …  The great John D. MacDonald’s novel The Executioners was adapted by James R. Webb and director J. Lee Thompson turns the whole kit and caboodle into something absolutely sensational:  a crime thriller that has an extraordinary pair of performances at its helm and a great sense of place. Peck (reunited with his Guns of Navarone helmer) is the relentlessly decent family man driven to violence and Mitchum is extraordinary as the horrifically lascivious crim who says and does everything imaginable to torture him, playing the system to its limits for all it’s worth while Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas are on both their tails. Brilliantly shot, paced and designed and totally enervating. Fabulous.

Mother’s Day (2016)

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Mother’s Day is a thing now? Wow. More cards and festival-type activities. Speaking of Garry Marshall, who we love(d), he spent the last number of years doing these multi-strand dramedies with a few top-lining stars and a lot of… B listers. This sadly is his last directing gig and it’s … actors doing their best with middling material. Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) is the stressed-out single divorced mom of two boys whose ex has married a teenager (sort of). She can’t deal with the whole sexy stepmom thing. Friend Jesse (Kate Hudson) is married to an Indian without her folks knowing. (They’re in Texas constantly on the road in their RV – maybe…) Her sister Gabi (Sarah Chalke)  is shacked up with a woman with a sperm-donated child. She’s pretending to be engaged to a man. And there’s a playground friend Kristin (Britt Robertson) who’s shacked up with her boyfriend Zack (Brit comic Jack Whitehall) but won’t marry him despite their having a child. She says it’s because she’s adopted. More likely because she’s not old enough. Julia Roberts is the TV hostess with the mostess on a shopping channel shucking mood pendants to them all (we are in Georgia, home shopping channel capital of the world as we know from JLaw’s mop movie). Bradley (Jason Sudeikis) is the gym proprietor widower with two teenaged daughters who can’t stop looking at his late wife (Jennifer Garner) singing karaoke in videos recorded before her death on military duty. It’s been a year now so why isn’t he dating? Oh dear God why? Why not? Who cares? I hope they all had a good old time taking advantage of the State of Georgia’s generous movie tax incentives. It looks like a very nice place. I admit this PC sludge isn’t as bad as that awful multi-generational crud Christmas With the Coopers but this was no way for Marshall to go out. He made The Flamingo Kid for crying out loud! Stick a pin in me, call me a pinata, I’m done.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

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An extraordinary film in so many ways. A woman bewitches a man and ruins his life. Or does he destroy hers? She is Gene Tierney, a performer whose legacy is little recognised today but she had a great run in the 1940s. He is Cornel Wilde, a mild presence at best, perfectly suited as the mediocre writer who doesn’t quite know what he’s getting into by marrying a woman whose father he closely resembles. Or does he? She walks out on her fiance, she marries him instead, kills his crippled brother in a scene that remains one of the best ever filmed and then she kills their unborn child and THEN … frames him for her own murder after she discovers his love for her cousin, brought up as her adoptive sister and to whom he has dedicated his latest book. She might be one of the most evil women who ever lived in anyone’s imagination, or one of the most wronged. After all, didn’t he want her as a muse? And then dragged all manner of people into their domestic environment. She says early on, Every book’s a confession. And he is wanting for inspiration. Jo Swerling was enlisted by fabled producer Darryl F. Zanuck to adapt Ben Ames Williams’ bestselling novel which Tierney read and then petitioned for the role. Amazing houses, wonderful cinematography by Leon Shamroy, sublime costuming (Kay Nelson with a helping hand from Oleg Cassini) and effective direction by John M. Stahl, responsible for so many terrific melodramas. This is framed as a film noir with its flashback narration but really belongs in that genre. Tierney is genius.