The Wrecking Crew (1968)

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Faster! You’re an awful driver! Matt Helm (Dean Martin) is assigned by his secret agency, ICE, to bring down an evil count named Contini (Guy Green) who is trying to collapse the world economy by stealing a billion dollars in gold. Helm travels to Denmark, where he is given a guide, Freya Carlson (Sharon Tate)  a beautiful but bumbling woman from a Danish tourism bureau. Two of Contini’s accomplices, the seductive Linka Karensky (Elke Sommer) and Yu-Rang (Nancy Kwan) each attempt to foil Helm’s plans. The former is killed in an ambush intended for Helm, the latter in an explosion. On each occasion, Freya’s clumsy attempts to assist Matt are helpful, but not particularly appreciated…  My hat’s not broken! Dean Martin returns in the fourth (and final big-screen) outing for Donald Hamilton’s spy, taken out of retirement. It’s all day-glo, great locations and slapstick with Tate an utter joy as the klutz, a Stella Stevens role in the original The Silencers, with her girlfight opposite Nancy Kwan a particular highlight (and as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood acknowledges, Bruce Lee was her martial arts trainer). Dino makes out to his own songs – asking Elke when she wants her dress zipped, Which way – up or down?  – there’s a runaway train with the bullion, combat scenes galore and lots of bombs. Go-go boots ahoy for groovy girls and boys! Directed by Phil Karlson, making a welcome return to the series. Screenplay by William P. McGivern. If your sweetheart puts a pistol in her bed, you’d do better sleepin’ with your uncle Fred

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019)

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Nobody knows the fuck who I am any more. In Los Angeles 1969 fading TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is offered a job on an Italian western by agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) while his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) assists him in every area of his life including driving him after he’s lost his licence for DUI and gofering around home on Cielo Drive where Rick occupies the gate house next to the rental where Roman Polanski (Rafal Zuwierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have moved in. One day at Burbank Cliff picks up a hippie hitch hiker Pussycat (Margot Qualley) who wants a ride out to the Spahn Movie Ranch where he used to work and it appears owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is being held hostage by a bunch of scary hippies led by an absent guy called Charlie and personally attended to by Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). Cliff tees off the hippies by punishing one of their number for slicing a whitewall tyre on Rick’s car. Meanwhile, Rick confronts his acting demons doing yet another guest villain on a TV episode with Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) and considers spending 6 months in Italy, after which the guys return in August 1969 while next door a heavily pregnant Tate suffers the hottest night of the year and the Spahn Ranch hippies are checking out the residents on Cielo Drive … When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell. How much did you want to see this? And talk about repaying fan faith. What a huge ensemble cast, to start with, and with so many pleasant surprises:  Bruce Dern as George Spahn, the owner of the fabled ranch where Manson holed up;  Clu Gulager (!) as a bookseller (with a Maltese Falcon on his counter); Rumer Willis as actress Joanna Pettet; Michael Madsen (remember him?) as the Sheriff on the Bounty Law TV show; Kurt Russell as a TV director (and more besides) with Zoë Bell as his kick-ass wife; and Luke Perry in his last role; and so many more, a ridiculous spread of talent that emphasises the story’s epic nature. It’s a pint-size take on Tarantino’s feelings about the decline of Hollywood, a hallucinatory haunted house of nostalgia, an incision into that frenzied moment in August 1969 that symbolically sheared open the viscera lying close to that fabled town’s surface. It’s about movies and mythology and TV shows and music and what it’s like to spend half your day driving around LA and hearing all the new hit songs on the radio. It’s about business meetings at Musso & Frank’s (I recommend the scallops); and appointment TV; and it’s about acting:  one of the best sequences is when Rick is guest-starring opposite an eight-year old Method actress (Julia Butters) who doesn’t eat lunch because it makes her sluggish and she expounds on her preference at being called an Actor and talks him into giving a great performance. All of which is a sock in the jaw to critics about Tarantino’s treatment of women, even if there’s an array of gorgeously costumed pulchritude here, much of which deservedly gets a dose of his proverbial violence (directed by and towards, with justification), among a selection of his trademark tropes. It’s likely about Burt Reynolds’ friendship with stuntman turned director Hal Needham or that of Steve McQueen (played here by Damian Lewis, I can even forgive that) and James ‘Bud’ Ekins. It’s about an anachronistic TV actor whose star has crested but who wants to upgrade to movies after a couple of outings – and there’s an amazing sequence about The Great Escape and what might have been and actors called George. But it’s more than that. It’s about a town dedicated to formulating and recalibrating itself for the times and it’s about the joys of moviegoing. Watching Robbie watch herself (actually the real Sharon) on screen is so delightful. She’s a little-known starlet and her joy at her own role in The Wrecking Crew is confirmed by the audience’s laughter when she wins a fight scene. Robbie is totally charismatic in a role that has scant dialogue but she fills the film with her presence: a beautiful woman kicks her shoes off and enjoys watching herself – take that! The detail is stunning, the production design by Barbara Klinger just awe-inspiring. This is a film that’s made on film and cut on film (Super 8, 16, 35) and intended for the cinema. It’s shot by Robert Richardson and it looks simply jaw-dropping. It’s about friendship and loyalty and DiCaprio is very good as a kind of buttery hard-drinking self-doubting star; his co-dependent buddy Pitt is even better (it’s probably Pitt’s greatest performance) as the guy with a lethal legend attached to his name (maybe he did, maybe he didn’t) who doesn’t do much stunt work any more and some people don’t like his scene with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on The Green Hornet but it’s laugh out loud hilarious. This is leisurely, exhilarating, chilling, kind and wise and funny and veering towards tragedy. It’s a fantasy, a what-might-have-been and what we wish had been and the twist ending left me with feelings of profound sorrow.  As we approach the end of another decade it seems a very long fifty years since Easy Rider formulated the carefully curated soundtrack that Tarantino has made one of his major signifiers, and it’s exactly fifty years since Sharon Tate and her unborn son and her friends were slaughtered mercilessly by the Manson Family. People started locking their doors when they realised what the Summer of Love had rained down, and not just in Hollywood. Tarantino is the single most important filmmaker of my adult life and this is his statement about being a cinéphile, a movie-lover, a nerd, a geek, a fan, and it’s about death – the death of optimism, the death of cinema, the death of Hollywood. It’s also about second chances and being in the right place at the right time. Just as Tarantino reclaimed actors and genres and trash and presented them back to Generation X as our beloved childhood trophies, Rick’s fans remember he was once the watercooler TV cowboy and give him back his mojo. This film is where reality crosses over with the movies and the outcome is murderous. The scene at the Spahn Ranch is straight from Hitchcock’s Psycho playbook.  Practically Chekhovian in structure, this reminds us that if there’s a flamethrower in the first act, it must go off in the third. Tarantino is telling us that this is what movies can be. It could only be better if it were a musical, but, hey, it practically is. I thought I’d been waiting for this film for a year, truth is I’d been waiting for it half my life. Everybody don’t need a stuntman

The Karate Kid (1984)

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Go find your balance. Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) moves West to Southern California with his embarrassing mother, Lucille (Randee Heller) and quickly finds himself the target of a group of school bullies led by Johnny (William Zabka) who study karate at the Cobra Kai dojo led by psycho Nam vet John Kreese (Martin Kove). Fortunately, Daniel befriends Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita), an unassuming Okinawan repairman at his apartment complex who just happens to be a martial arts master himself. He  winds up doing a lot of chores in exchange for karate lessons and starts putting together his own ideas about life from Mr. Miyagi’s aphorisms. Unfortunately, Daniel likes a lovely upper class girl at school Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) who also happens to be dating Johnny, who simply continues his campaign of bullying. Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing, training him in a more compassionate form of karate (Goju) and preparing him to compete against the brutal tactics of Cobra Kai … Come from inside you, always right picture. This fusion of Carrie with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Rocky (which shares director John Avildsen) is equal parts feel-good morality tale and teen fantasy, with a transformation story and a nice boy at its heart. Daniel is played beautifully by Macchio – goofy and cute, irritating and charming, all at once – while the bullies are clichés (maybe they all are) and the girl is just super nice. A little more heft is given the story with Daniel’s resentment at not having been given a choice at the house move, putting him into the path of these violent classmates whose actions are worthy of adult vigilantes (and numbering Chad McQueen in their midst); and Mr. Miyagi’s life isn’t a bed of roses either as Daniel discovers when he finds him drunk and reads a letter.  If you’re not up and cheering at the pleasing, rabble-rousing ending then you should probably check your pulse. It’s too long, but it’s pretty wonderful. And the soundtrack is fantastic.  Written by Robert Mark Kamen. Wax on, wax off

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

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Do you know what good ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like this?  Hard-boiled truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) gets caught in a bizarre conflict within and underneath San Francisco’s Chinatown. An ancient Chinese prince and Chinatown crime lord Lo Pan (James Hong) has kidnapped a beautiful green-eyed woman Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) engaged to marry Jack’s best friend Wang Chi (Denis Dun).  It happens right before their eyes at the airport just as she sets foot on American soil. Jack must help his friend rescue her before the evil Lo Pan uses her to break the ancient curse that keeps him a fleshless and immortal spirit but has to battle old Chinese gangs, a 900-year old sage, an ancient army, sorcery and a monster in a labyrinthOnly a dream can kill a dream. John Carpenter revels in macho self-mockery, dumb heroics and Chinese tropes (or clichés) in this kung fu comedy thriller with Russell gleefully playing hard as the wisecracking bozo trucker who just has to help out his friend especially if it means getting the other girl in the picture, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) who brings to mind Hawksian heroines. W. D. Richter adapted the original 1880s-set western written by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein and turns it into a rambunctious modern genre-bending martial arts fantasy with tongue set firmly in cheek, much in the style of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This doesn’t let up until the final frame – and even that promises more action! Russell is ideally cast in a role which director Carpenter described as a sidekick who thinks he’s the leading man. Great, daft fun. Take what you want and leave the rest – just like a salad bar! 

Say Anything … (1989)

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– Diane Court is a Brain. – Trapped in the body of a gameshow host. Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) is an underachieving eternal optimist who seeks to capture the heart of Diane Court (Ione Skye) an unattainable high-school beauty and straight-A student who’s been hot-housed by her Dad and barely knows anyone else at high school. She delivers the class valedictorian speech to no appreciative laughs – Dad got it, they don’t. It surprises just about everyone when she goes out with Lloyd to a party where she meets her classmates properly. And it goes much further than even he had dared hope. But her divorced father (John Mahoney) doesn’t approve and it will take more than love to conquer all…  Yup, the one with the boombox!  And what a surprise it was, and remains. A heartfelt, funny and dramatic tale of adolescent love and a first serious relationship after graduation. She’s gorgeous and serious and can Say Anything to her desperately ambitious dad, He’s a kickboxing kook with zero parental obligations (they’re in Germany in the Army) and his only close family in the neighbourhood is his divorced sister (Joan Cusack, his real-life sis) and her little son whom he’s educating early in the martial arts. Cameron Crowe’s debut as writer and director hits a lot of targets with wit, smarts and real empathy for his protagonists who live complex lives in the real world where people go to prison for tax evasion. Lili Taylor has a great role as the semi-suicidal songwriting friend who finally sees through her beastly ex after writing 63 songs about him. Growing up is tough but there’s so much to recognise here not least the fact that every guy in the Eighties had a coat like this! I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen. With lines like this you know you’re not in an ordinary teen romance. This is human, charming and utterly cherishable.

Billy Jack (1971)

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Some years ago Vanity Fair told me what I suspected for years:  my obsession with this film proved I am a film snob. What can I say? I saw it on TV when I was thirteen years old and it speaks to the thirteen year old in everyone about unfairness, killing animals, bigotry, viciousness in all its forms. In the days before you could find such things on the internet I discovered the soundtrack album on vinyl in a backstreet store on a trip to London. The hero is a half-Navajo former Green Beret back home after ‘Nam and invariably dragged into violence despite his wish to be a peace-loving law-abiding citizen who’s exploring his Native American heritage and practising hapkido. He comes to the rescue of kids at a freedom school run by Delores Taylor, who happens to be the wife of actor-writer-director-producer auteur, Tom Laughlin. This was absolutely mega on the drive-in circuit and slayed all comers upon re-release after AIP pulled out and Fox messed it up in theatrical and was the second of four movies about BJ. If you don’t love this movie you were never thirteen and you definitely never wore flowers in your long blonde hair. All you gotta do is relate. Peace and love, dudes. This is the source.

Doctor Strange (2016)

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At last. A superhero film I can get behind even if Robert Downey Jr isn’t in it. There is actual dialogue – as opposed to a (c)rap soundtrack substitute for the Asian market. There is humour, much of it deriving from the ubiquitous character’s name. There is – shock – even a vaguely comprehensible story and a sense of its own ridiculousness. And also – and this is crucial – it’s under two hours.(Knowing when to leave is a biggie in my book.) This episode from the Marvel multiverse is about gifted arrogant neurosurgeon  Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who loses the use of his hands in a car crash. His career is over. When conventional medical procedures don’t help he resorts to a spiritual odyssey in Nepal (Tibet won’t work for the sensitive Chinese, sadly) where he encounters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton in kung fu monk mode) and learns to subsume his ego to permit him access to mystic powers. Right there you have ingredients mashed up from James Bond, The Lost Horizon and Doctor Kildare. Cumberbatch is fantastic even when his own clothes are hitting him. (And you’ve got to admit that a man with that watch collection has oodles of style – particularly when he chooses to wear Jaeger-LeCoultre! Even the product placement is stylish.) Except you also have the crazed Master Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, still seeking a sibilant replacement app) who wants to use dark powers to end the world and engage on some seriously impressive building-bending and folding in Greenwich Village and Hong Kong, the likes of which we haven’t seen since architectural origami exercise Inception. The effects are so good you’re left wondering why they couldn’t do something about that unsightly mole on Dr Christine Palmer’s face – Rachel McAdams is otherwise funny in a role that requires some very good real world reactions. Strange’s mission becomes that of intermediary between the world as we know it and the forces beyond. His self-discovery has global implications and reconciling what the Ancient One is really made of is central to what he becomes. It’s not just time that’s relative here – mor(t)ality too. Sidekick librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) enjoys a very humorous relationship with the new mandala master in his cloak of levitation. Steve Ditko’s comic book hero gets a fast and furious makeover from writer/director Scott Derrickson with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill. Physician heal thyself ! And then some. Pretty great. With a neat cameo from Stan Lee himself reading The Doors of Perception to drop an implicit joke about hippies and drugs… Ho ho ho! Make sure you sit out half the credits for a preview of coming attractions …

Foul Play (1978)

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Beware the dwarf! I just love Goldie Hawn. And I love pretty much every single thing she’s ever done: now how many actors or actresses can you say that about? Seeing her puts a smile on my face. And this Hitchcockian farce from the pen of Colin Higgins is screamingly funny. She’s quiet divorced librarian Gloria Mundy who picks up Scotty, a hitchhiker with a roll of film concealed in his cigarette packet, and gets embroiled in a plot to assassinate the Pope in San Francisco. There’s an albino killer, a dangerous dwarf, a snake, a sexy cop (Chevy Chase) and a most unseemly setup at the Catholic bishopric. There’s a brilliant sidebar relationship with sex addict Dudley Moore, regular interludes with a fellow librarian who’s convinced every man is after her for sex and all the while Goldie is trying not to get killed for something she knows nothing about. It’s laugh-a-minute hilarity from the get-go with Barry Manilow’s songs to soothe the fevered brow as the antics proceed at breathtaking pace performed with gusto by a wonderful cast. A must-see.