Viva Las Vegas (1964)

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Aka Love in Las Vegas. The legendary pairing of The King with Ann-Margret is literally the whole show in a town full of them. Even for an Elvis film the storyline is surprisingly weak but the eye-poppingly colourful scene-setting by supreme stylist George Sidney mitigates the problem. Elvis  is Lucky Jackson, a talented singer and driver whose luck has run out so he’s in Vegas to raise money to take part in the Grand Prix. He sees dancer and swimming instructor Rusty (A-M) and is smitten. But so is his rival, Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova). Lucky and Rusty do some sightseeing around the Hoover Dam – nice helicopter views – and we learn a little about Nevada and her good relationship with her father (William Demarest).  Lucky winds up losing all his money in the hotel pool and having to earn his living as a waiter which leads to some nice slapstick serving Rusty and Elmo. Then his luck turns and there is the climactic race across the desert which is pretty well shot and there are some disasters along the route … The songs are terrific and the sequences of the city and casinos are wonderful. You can see Teri Garr in a bit part as a showgirl at one point but the most surprising element is that this was written by Sally Benson, responsible for Meet Me in St Louis. And then there’s the real-life romance between Elvis and Ann-Margret! In the film they marry at the Little Church of the West, the oldest wedding chapel in Vegas.

Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

American Honey (2016)

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I feel like fucking America! Whether you like this will depend on a) your tolerance for drug-addled amoral teenagers whose greatest ambition is to get knocked up and live in a trailer and if b) you don’t mind losing 157 minutes of your precious life to an almost pointless unendurable movie. Strange newcomer Sasha Lane is Star, a black girl from a dysfunctional and abusive background who falls for the spiel of magazine crew guy Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and joins this rag-tag band of scuzzy losers as they run around house to house in middle America, selling subscriptions and led by she-wolf leader Krystal (Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter). Star has sex with Jake after he steals a car owned by some well-heeled cowboys who rescue her from his abuse on the roadside – and this is after she sees him rubbing down Krystal’s shapely rear in a stars and stripes bikini. This being a movie, people act a lot like life – incoherently and inconsistently. When he takes the money she makes and drops her, she still wants him. She makes more money from giving an oil rig worker a handjob:  and he’s vile enough to criticise her. She still wants him. Krystal tells Star that she was handpicked by Jake and he fucks all the new girls – it’s his job. At the end, when there’s another apparently symbolic sequence with an animal – the only sign that there might be in this three-hour slog any indication of narrative rigour – you pray for her suicide:  or your own. What seems like artlessness is actually faux realist laziness. Were there NO editors available?? And for a movie that styles itself as a musical with all the group singalongs there’s extremely dodgy sound mixing.  I’m not arguing that the meth-taking underclass needs culling but they do exist and I’m hopeful that they don’t all listen to (c)rap. See Spring Breakers for a far more controlled (and much shorter) exposition of American youth. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who was inspired by a New York Times article.

Conflict of Wings (1954)

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Aka Fuss Over Feathers and The Norfolk Story.  That great expanse of sky and never a ripple to disturb that ancient garden. A Norfolk bird sanctuary that was the burial ground for children in Roman times is threatened by the Royal Air Force’s plan to use it as a target range for testing their new DeHavilland Vampires with a rocket system. Led by Muriel Pavlow, whose boyfriend John Gregson is an RAF corporal, the community discovers that the land was gifted to the Church by Henry VIII in thanks for assisting quell a rebellion and finds grounds for defending the sanctuary from the rocket tests. The local eel catcher starts squatting on the land, protesting his fishing rights, and everyone forms a human shield around the island to stop a test but they accidentally damage the RAF’s temporary telephone line and the base can’t be told in time to stop a launch just as clouds begin massing and impeding the pilots’ sightlines …  With its story of a community fighting to preserve their historical rights, this has echoes of Passport to Pimlico and can thus be viewed as part of a wider sense of post-war anti-establishment feeling. Nonetheless with the revelation that the squadron will be moving on to Malaya, there’s something of a triumphalist conclusion. Shot in a variety of Norfolk locations – Hickling Broad, Cley-next-the-Sea, Ludham, Wells and West Raynham, which used to have an airfield. Adapted from actor turned screenwriter and director Don Sharp’s debut novel by John Pudney and directed by John Eldridge, there are plenty of familiar faces from the era – Kieron Moore, Niall MacGinnis, Harry Fowler, Guy Middleton – in this small but satisfying drama with its wonderful setting. Planespotters will have a field day. And there’s a charming gull too! Lovely score by Philip Green who was longtime musical director at the Rank Organisation and whose stock music has been used in everything from Ren and Stimpy to Night of the Living Dead. Now that’s versatile. Made under the Group 3 scheme to encourage independent films under the umbrella of the National Film Finance Corporation.

Seven Men From Now (1956)

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Isn’t that one of the best titles ever?! Burt Kennedy’s first film script was intended for John Wayne – and his company made it – but he did The Searchers instead and it wound up being Randolph Scott’s story:  that of Ben Stride, a sheriff who blames himself for his wife’s death during a Wells Fargo robbery who sets out to avenge her death, tracking down each of the men responsible. He hitches a ride with a married couple whose wagon is stuck in the mud and becomes intrigued by the husband’s story (Greer, played by Walter Reed) while falling for the wife Annie (Gail Russell). They encounter Stride’s former nemesis Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and his sidekick Clete (Don Barry) who decide to make off with the gold haul from the robbery when Stride has accomplished his mission. There is an encounter with hungry Indians, an ambush and an admission that the haul transported by Greer is the takings from the robbery. Shot in the beautiful landscape of Lone Pine, this is an elemental revenge western. Marvin is a choice, charismatic villain and the tragic Russell is wonderfully vulnerable as Scott’s romantic foil. Scott would perfect this laconic, grimly righteous hero who always finds himself in a shootout in an empty arena at the film’s conclusion. He insisted on Budd Boetticher as director and this became the template for a further six films they would do under Scott’s own production slate with producer Harry Joe Brown. For more on this film you can read my essay on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/final-showdown.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

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You would never know that this was an Ealing comedy – it is totally unsentimental. Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) is in prison awaiting his execution when he puts pen to paper and recounts the reason for this turn of events. Born to a beautiful if rash aristocratic mother who ran off with an Italian opera singer, this orphaned young man is now working in a draper’s when his lady love Sibella (Joan Greenwood) marries a love rival. He sets out to dispatch the eight remaining members of the D’Ascoyne line to recuperate the title he feels is rightfully his. All of them – including the venerable Lady Agatha – are played by Alec Guinness. (He also played a ninth!). Louis marries the virtuous wife Edith (Valerie Hobson) of one of them. The range of their respective deaths is stunning. A sublime work of British cinema, adapted from Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank:  The Autobiography of a Criminal by John Dighton and the woefully underrated director Robert Hamer, whose masterpiece this is. Transgressive, ironic and subversive, and the ending is simply genius. Breathtaking black comedy for the ages. Perfection.

Only You (1994)

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Faith (Marisa Tomei) believes from a childhood episode with a ouija board that it’s writ in her destiny to marry ‘Damon Bradley.’ So she calls off her wedding to a podiatrist and runs away to Venice with BFF and sister in law Kate (Bonnie Hunt) to locate an elusive man who is a colleague of her husband-to-be flying there that day. They have to go to Rome to track him down. When she meets cute a man who helps with her shoe (Robert Downey) he claims to be him. But after a romantic evening he says his name is actually Peter Wright and he really has fallen in love with her. Then he gives in and apparently assists in her quest to find this fabled individual who really is in Italy. Mild, not as good as you’d wish but never as bad as you’d dread, this modern spin on Cinderella from Diane Drake is a decent romcom with delightful leads, a fantastic supporting turn from Hunt, stunning scenery and a fetishist’s appreciation of fine footwear. You want more? Sheesh! Directed by Norman Jewison.

Wild Oats (2016)

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Shirley MacLaine is the beloved retired schoolteacher whose husband dies and her insecure unhappily married fusspot daughter Demi Moore (looking about 30 – sheesh!) brings a realtor to the funeral to assess her home for post-mortem sale. MacLaine insists upon staying there and is mistakenly sent a life insurance cheque for $5 million instead of $50,000.  Best friend Jessica Lange encourages her to make off with it and the pair of them embark on the adventure of a lifetime – fetching up in the Canary Islands where they enjoy very different romances. Divorced Billy Connolly hits on MacLaine but all is not what it seems when she wins nearly half a million euros on blackjack and a US insurance investigator turns up to ask about the unfathomably large cheque, encouraging her to bribe him and bolt while Connolly disappears. Is he a conman?! Meanwhile Lange gets involved with a younger man with a Mrs Robinson fixation. Back in the US, another company rep, the wonderfully sentimental Howard Hesseman, pairs off with Moore to bring Mom back home and face justice. It all winds up in a shootout at a winery with the island’s biggest gangster. You have to be there! For armchair tourists – this looks gorgeous and the ladies are quite the heroines. The gray dollar audience is being well catered for. This is better than assisted living! Directed by Andy Tennant from a screenplay by Gary Kanew and Claudia Myers.

The Missouri Breaks (1976)

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Nicholson and Brando. A legendary pairing. Nicholson is cattle rustler Tom Logan, whose friend has been hanged by David Braxton (John McLiam) so he decides to avenge his death by buying land next to Braxton and he and his gang start stealing his horses. Braxton hires bounty hunter Robert E. Lee Clayton (Brando) to deal with them. Clayton is, to say the least, an eccentric but an efficient and ruthless killer too … Nicholson arrived on the $8 million set to discover that his role had been minimized in his absence, due to Brando’s influencing of director Arthur Penn.  ‘Poor Nicholson was stuck in the center of it all,  cranking the damned thing out,’ Brando said, ‘while I whipped in and out of scenes like greased lightning.’ He also kills while wearing a dress. He dreamed up a handmade weapon for his character, a cross between a harpoon and a mace. It should have been great but it’s disjointed and thematically incoherent. Nicholson thought it could have been saved in the editing, but his opinion was disregarded.  He didn’t like the film, and he told director Penn so.  Penn was offended and stopped speaking to him. Written by Thomas McGuane, Robert Towne was brought in to try and fix the script (like he’d done for Penn and Beatty on Bonnie and Clyde) but it is unclear as to what his contribution might have been. A Seventies oddity with an affecting performance from Brando which in hindsight we might see as an expression of a dying genre.

 

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

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The one with the chicken salad scene. Jack Nicholson was on the verge of becoming one of the most famous actors in the world with this portrait of alienation which just floored contemporary audiences. There had simply never been a character like Bobby ‘Eroica’ Dupea. He was the creature of writer Carole Eastman, writing under the nom de plume Adrien Joyce, albeit co-star Susan Anspach claimed that Nicholson made up stuff on the hoof and deserved credit. Bob Rafelson the director and co-writer was already a name from The Monkees but this was really a high point of New Hollywood – a departure and an arrival, with behavioural observation the strong point of a narrative that sees wildcatter Bobby shacked up with Tammy Wynette devotee waitress Rayette (Karen Black) and screwing around with his friend Elton (Billy ‘Green’ Bush). When he expresses his contempt for Elton (a ‘cracker asshole’) we get the first intimation that Bobby may not be like him: in fact he’s the estranged son of a family of gifted musicians and he himself is a former musical prodigy who has literally abandoned his talent. When Elton tells him Rayette is pregnant then Elton is arrested for robbing a gas station, Bobby takes off to LA to see his sister Partita (Lois Smith) a pianist who’s recording an album. She tells him their father is gravely ill. He takes off – regretfully – with a suicidal Rayette and leaves her at a motel while he broaches a difficult family reunion at Puget Sound including  violinist brother Carl Fidelio (Ralph Waite) whose pianist fiancee Catherine (Anspach) he beds. The final scene with his unresponsive father is hopelessly moving and the movie’s final shot when he hitches a ride on a truck away from a gas station and his car and his jacket and Rayette (who has turned up and embarrassed him en famille) … seems endless. Nicholson is allowed show all his colours here and it’s a transcendentally emotional and funny performance in a complex character study – the restaurant scene with the awful hitch hikers is a highlight, the wild sex with a pick-up another, and Nicholson’s tears are terrible to witness. He doesn’t know himself at all. This is a standout film from an era devoid of hope and this seems to encapsulate its anomie and capture it entirely. Luminously shot by Laszlo Kovacs, those burnished skies feel like the aspirations of a generation. Nicholson was officially a superstar.