Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Five Easy Pieces

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.

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Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

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There was a swathe of period dramas in the wake of the 1968 riots – perhaps there was something comforting about a retreat into the past, no matter how bloody or violent. Director Charles Jarrott made something of a specialty of this in British cinema and this somewhat by-the-numbers evocation of one of the great rivalries for the crown boasts stellar performances by Vanessa Redgrave as the eponymous Catholic beauty and Glenda Jackson as Protestant Elizabeth I. It doesn’t trouble with a lot of truth although Patrick McGoohan has a field day playing Mary’s half-brother James, the wannabe Scots ruler, and there’s some interesting bed action between Timothy Dalton as Lord Darnley, planted by Elizabeth to seduce and destroy Mary, and her Italian advisor, Ian Holm, in a tale rife with adultery and bisexuality. The last twenty minutes focuses on a fabricated meeting between the two women, all the better to sweeten the dramatic pill, to a swoony John Barry score and delicious photography by Christopher Challis. Off with her head! Written by John Hale.

Jackie (2016)

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Did I really see this film?! That’s an appropriate afterthought given its hallucinatory quality, a narcotised morphine fever dream about a woman with a flip haircut, boiled wool suits and a voice from the Marilyn playbook. Natalie Portman doesn’t remotely resemble the upperclass journalist who married into the crass Kennedy family and wound up First Lady with her husband’s brains spattered into her lap on an ill-judged trip to Texas, home to LBJ. Yet that doesn’t matter because after a half hour of her narration you are sucked into this Warholesque meditation on fame and public approval. She lies constantly to journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) interviewing her for Life after the assassination and then tells him things she insists cannot possibly go to print. She will edit the image and control the myth – which she calls Camelot. That record spins as she cascades into a vortex of desperation and disbelief. This will be her version of events. She crashes around the White House, drunk; argues with Bobby and Jack Valenti about the funeral and changes her mind back and forth about how much of Lincoln’s leavetaking should be imitated, while the clodhopping Kennedy sisters try to manipulate the situation;  when her husband’s casket is put on public view she sympathises with LBJ that this should be the terrible beginning of his Presidency. One suspects it is precisely the beginning he desired. Real footage of her White House restoration tour for TV is intercut with a grainy impressionistic copy where she is coached and cheered from the sidelines by Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). Suddenly Portman’s embodiment doesn’t seem as mad. She retracts all the truthful statements from her account to White – what she did with her husband’s skull, the sound of the bullet – but it is to Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt) that she speaks about her loveless marriage, her insecurities, her need to have her dead children interred with their father. Their burial in the rainy hillside at Arlington feels like the ultimate cruelty. Archive footage is impeccably interwoven with this recreation of events in which we all have an investment, even those of us born long after they occurred. As she leaves the White House for the final time she passes Hamiltons department store and sees rows of window mannequins wearing her wigs and two-piece Chanel imitations. What is real? What is performance? she muses. One gets the distinct impression she knew more than most. And off she goes, homeless, to an unknowable, husbandless future. Written by Noah Oppenheim with a visceral arrest of a soundtrack created by Mica Levi, undercutting the sense of camp that this sad and crazy brilliance otherwise imparts. Andy Warhol is alive and well and still making movies. There is just one word for this: astonishing. Directed by Pablo Larrain. Oh!

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

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Most remakes are redundant. Philip Dunne did a cracking adaptation (1936)  of this captivity tale, the second of the Leatherstocking series by Fenimore Cooper that has occupied the minds of so many children. Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe took this classical Hollywood adventure and brought it up to date for the Nineties without losing any of its great elements – and adding an eroticism that is modern and eternal plus a portrayal of violence that is truly gruesome in its realism. It’s the middle of the eighteenth century and the Anglo-French wars are underway in the Colonies. Colonel Munro’s daughters Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) are being escorted to safety by Cora’s wannabe beau Major Heyward (Steven Waddington) through the Adirondacks when they are set upon by a Huron war party led by French scout Magua (Wes Studi). They are rescued by Nathaniel ‘Hawkeye’ Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis), adoptive son of the last of the Mohicans, Chingachgook (Russell Means) and brother to his son Uncas (Eric Schweig). They return them to Munro at Fort William Henry, under siege from the French and Cora and Hawkeye consummate their overwhelming attraction to one another. Munro wants Hawkeye hanged for sedition after Heyward lies about what they’ve seen done to a settler family whom Hawkeye knew well. Hawkeye is imprisoned. The French offer a peaceful and honourable surrender, having intercepted a message from Fort Webb stating that no English troops are coming to the aid of the garrison. But Magua has sworn revenge against Munro and raids the departing troops, carrying out his threat to take out Munro’s heart – while it’s still beating. He also wants to kill his seed because of what Munro did to his tribe, his wife and his family.  Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas rescue the women and take off in a canoe, catching up with Heyward, who has taken off without them. Their escape to a cave and waterfall leads to an inevitable outcome, Heyward continuing to wish Hawkeye hanged, jealous of what he deems to be Cora’s infatuation, with Magua and his men fast upon them … This is simply stunning. The cinematography (Dante Spinotti)  brings together a palette of scarlet uniforms in bright, musket-fired daylight with autumnal daubs appropriate to a landscape of the period; there’s a pulsating, throbbing score (by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman) that tightens the vise-like effect of the narrative; and there is a devastating eroticism between Day-Lewis and Stowe the likes of which hasn’t been seen this side of Garbo and Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil. Have there ever been more romantic lines than those of Hawkeye to Cora, No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you?! Beautifully made and performed, this is brutal, brilliant filmmaking from a master director at the height of his considerable powers. See it on the biggest screen you can. Breathtaking.

 

Chinatown (1974)

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How do you describe a movie you’ve seen? How do you write a movie you’ve seen in your head so many times it’s like you lived it? The stars aligned when this one was made. Robert Towne turned down a lot of money to adapt The Great Gatsby for producer Robert Evans to decamp to Catalina Island with his great friends – the scholar Edward Taylor and his dog Hira. There, in the winter of 1971, he wrote one of the great Hollywood films, a fictionalised telling of the diversion of water from the Owens River Valley, set a few decades later than it occurred.  Private eye Jake/JJ Gittes was based on his friend Jack Nicholson, who played the role as born to it. Los Angeles, 1937. Jake is hired by a woman to investigate her cheating husband and gets mired in a mystery he could never hope to solve:  the corruption infesting the State of California and the distribution of Water (and Power), unwittingly finding himself falling in love with an heiress who’s given birth to her sister/daughter, the progeny of the man responsible for raping the land. Towne wrote a second draft which reads like Hammett, a beautiful exercise in pulp noir: I love it so much I dream about that biplane ride out to Catalina. But director Roman Polanski forced Towne into a third draft with an altered ending which is what was shot. Even with plot holes it’s extraordinary, shocking, funny, terrifying and blindingly brilliant, a sublime cinematic experience. Towne won the Academy Award. The guide at Paramount may be too young to know about it when you do the studio tour but if you want to know more  you can read my book about Towne and this film and all the other screenplays he’s written and films he’s made: https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481117503&sr=1-3&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Journey to the Shore (2015)

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So there you are, a happily widowed piano teacher, about to eat your noodles, when your dead husband materialises in the kitchen and asks you to go travelling with him. He looks pretty good for crab meat but you go on a sightseeing trip around Japan and see the sea. That’s basically it. An alternative way to work out the ultimate marriage problem – death. Anyone expecting horror maestro Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no, no relation) to thrill them in this adaptation of a novel by Kazumi Yumoto will be disappointed. Yawn.

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (2016)

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What’s good about this? It’s not actually Potterworld. So, no ugly children (well… maybe a few, but briefly) and no long-drawn out battle between Good and Evil. Maybe…. Because this moneymaker is now the first of goodness knows how many sequels due to the gazillions it’s already earned within a week of release. And it’s good. It’s not really what you’d expect. It’s got a muted palette with occasional jolts of monochrome to indicate who might be bad (that’s you, Colin Farrell) amongst the hoi polloi thronging the machine age streets  which are being subjected to some serious beast-action chopping through the bricks and cement. Meanwhile Eddie Redmayne is Edwardian magizoologist Newt Scamander, arriving at Ellis Island with some cute platypus-like creature called a niffler who has a magpie-like yen for silver and disappears in a bank looking for coins where a wannabe baker Jacob (Dan Fogler) takes his case by mistake after being turned down for a loan. Scamander is the future author of the eponymous book, which is found by Harry Potter, in other words he’s a former student at Hogwarts. He didn’t fight in WW1 – too busy fighting dragons, as it happens. NYC is on lockdown against magic and in denial about it so it’s not really a good time to arrive. Witches are on the menu and wicked foster mother Samantha Morton has her charges out campaigning against the subculture of which her eldest Credence (Ezra Miller doing Buster Keaton) is a part, which is very  unfortunate for her. Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) wants to haul Newt in to the Magical Congress for importing his funny little creatures to the country but he needs to return one of them to the desert –  which he magicks with a Mary Poppins-like flourish out of the suitcase which has been retrieved: problem is now there’s a Muggler baker in on the secret only here he’s called a No-Maj.  There’s a race against time, as we are warned by the clock at the Congress which tells us of an impending doom-like scenario. There’s an extremely funny sequence at Central Park Zoo which you have to see to  believe but it involves a mating situation. And there’s a sidebar romance between Jacob and Tina’s mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) who likes this chubster.  And a scummy nightclub scene rather like one we know from Star Wars. And there’s the big issue: a certain angry teenager who might just … explode, as PO’d adolescents are wont. A politician suffers the consequences of his rage. And Graves (Farrell) wants to find him….  and Newt. This is an enjoyable wallow in nostalgia but instead of seeing those huge offices worked by people in Vidor’s pre-Depression classic The Crowd we have darkened rooms filled with typewriters which are … typing automatically! It’s a vision for those of us amused by gadgets and tricky machines, a steampunked 1926 filled with huge department stores and smog where women wear trousers and men are either brave eccentrics or weapons of the state. More than that, beneath the vision is a message about persecuted minorities and cults and the measures they take – not very nice betimes – to secure their own existence. Including white-out chambers where people are being lobotomised, or its nearest equivalent (‘obliviated’ as they call it here). So much for human rights under self-appointed dictators, eh? And this underground lot are led by a black woman, Carmen Ejogo. Will she turn out to be Fidelia Castro?! If I have any problems here it might be to do with casting – there’s enough money floating around this world so can someone please give Eddie Redmayne (wearing Benedict’s Sherlock coat or something very like it) assistance with his diction?  He could at least enunciate correctly now that he’s not confined to a wheelchair or concealing his male parts. I can’t decide whether he’s adequate to the task, really good in an underwritten part or just plain wrong. The relationship with beady-eyed Waterston is barely worked out:  in a way you don’t care because she’s not right either. But you should . This efficiently-tooled behemoth of parallel realities comes from the mythical Potter universe ie producer David Heyman and director David Yates. It’s oddly like Ghostbusters, but … different. And there are enough plot threads to function as a preview of several coming attractions.  The screenplay was conjured by the godhead herself, JK Rowling:  is there nothing she can’t do?

Rebecca (1940)

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Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again … One of the most famous opening lines in a novel. Daphne du Maurier got the A-treatment by new arrival to Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock, working closely with producer David O.Selznick to bring a hugely popular bestseller to the screen. It’s the story of ‘I’ (we never do learn her name) companion to obnoxious American woman Mrs Van Hopper, who escapes her bullying to marry Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the widower of the eponymous Rebecca, a glamorous socialite who supposedly drowned. When she arrives at their country house Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) jealously guards her late mistress’ domain and tries to drive this innocent girl mad … Joan Fontaine made a spectacular impact as the ingenuous Second Mrs de Winter in a production dogged by censorship problems – look at what they had to do the ending! But the recovery from those issues (adapted by Joan Harrison and Robert E Sherwood) works beautifully and is adorned by superb performances elsewhere –  George Sanders as Jack Favell, for instance, can’t you practically smell the sweat on his adulterer’s shirt collar?! There are so many great scenes – the hotel bedroom when Mrs Van Hopper stabs out her cigarette, when Fontaine arrives at the costume ball in the dress Rebecca had worn, when Danvers encourages her to commit suicide, the boathouse …    And the overwhelming monogrammed R  … It’s a textual dream. The final images are unforgettable. Rumours abounded that Selznick took over the film and overruled Hitchcock one too many times leading him to edit in camera in future, but du Maurier’s work had a strong influence not just on the great director but on Forties cinema in general. I trace the powerful connections between this haunting drama and Hitchcock’s later Shadow of a Doubt, here:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Girl-Who-Knew-Too-Much-ebook/dp/B01KTWF08U/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480331252&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Dare to be Wild (2016)

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Wasn’t it Voltaire who advised people to tend their own (metaphorical) garden? Garden designer Mary Reynolds does it here, in spades. This story of a young country girl who believes in fairies and grows up to be a willful eccentric who wants to compete at the Chelsea Garden Show is a most unusual Irish film:  it looks great. DoP Cathal Watters and debutante director Vivienne DeCourcy obviously decided, Enough of the grey skies and the muddy vistas, and tore up the rulebook about how to present a country where it rains 10 months of the year. They might even have taken a leaf from the Irish National Gallery and noted the palette of William Leech’s garden paintings with their blistering sunlight, glistening whites and brilliant tones. This is a film of playful, rainbow colours, dominated by Consolata Boyle’s extraordinary costume design telling Mary’s story through her clothes – compensating perhaps for a rather wayward if charming performance at the story’s centre by Emma Greenwell as she makes her way gawkily through Dublin society. She has to fight for funding and gain the trust of fellow outsider Christy Collard (Tom Hughes), an eco-designer whose preoccupation with bringing water to Ethiopia sets them at odds when she appeals for his aid because his family’s business can help supply wildflowers and 200-year old whitethorn trees to build her Celtic dream garden. The tone of the film is somewhat damaged by the unnecessary caricatures of Mary’s bete noire, Shah, the socially mobile employer who steals her design book;  Madden, the Bono-like rock star; and Nigel Hogg, the head of Chelsea. These strike an odd note in a film of otherwise impeccably offbeat taste. The diversion to the desert of Ethiopia is a sensual breath of fresh air, the eventual romance hardly surprising given that Hughes is probably the most delectable flower on display, here or anywhere right now, a right royal heart throb as viewers of ITV’s Victoria will already know. In a fitting touch, Mary’s winning speech is the cosmic order tacked on her refrigerator door. Despite using the true story, the connection is disavowed at the conclusion, rather like Chelsea did to Reynolds when they wouldn’t allow her into the celebration at the Show’s finale. Quirky, lovely and just a little bit wild.

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

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Or, Disney’s version of a horror movie. This adaptation of the novel by noted Gothic/YA author Florence Engel Randall was quite the thing when I was knee-high to a grasshopper and Bette Davis was there for the connoisseur. My Disney idol was Kim Richards but it’s her little sister Kyle who features here as Ellie the younger of two girls (the elder being Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan) whose family has relocated to England.  They lease an old country house and the girls are haunted by the spirit of old crone Davis’ daughter who disappeared thirty years before, in what appears to have been some sort of teenagers’ initiation ceremony in a derelict church during a solar eclipse. Jan bears a startling resemblance to the missing girl, Karen, and sees flashes of blue light in the woods while Ellie appears to be hearing voices coming from the new family dog whom she has christened Nerak – which spells Karen backwards. The messages come frequently and they have to try to rescue Karen from another dimension during the next eclipse … Children’s author Mom (Carroll Baker) has to deal with the problem while composer Dad (David McCallum) heads to London to produce a musical. Director John Hough had some form with this blend of supernature and sci fi – being a veteran of the Witch Mountain movies starring Kim Richards and featuring one Bette Davis in the second entry, Return From Witch Mountain. There was some issue with the concluding scenes and in the second version the effects happened too quickly to make sense of the story while Vincent McEveety was then drafted in to do a version that was released in 1981. Personally I was thrilled to see my old heart throb Benedict Taylor turn up in the cast – remember him in Beau Geste on Sunday evenings? And The Far Pavilions! And My Brother Jonathan. And A Perfect Spy…  Dominic Guard appears (uncredited) in Ian Bannen’s role in the flashbacks. Guard is now a children’s author himself, amongst other things. I’m almost as thrilled to see Kyle Richards on a Raleigh Chopper. (And Georgina Hale as Karen, of course!)  Adapted by Brian Clemens, Harry Spalding and Rosemary Anne Sisson, soundtracked by Stanley Meyers and nicely shot by Alan Hume. This is quite fascinating.