Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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I’m not home. I never will be. I first encountered a Nam vet on Central Park West. He chased me despite being on crutches that were well past their sell-by date. I guess maybe it was because I had more legs than he did. I was waiting tables in a township on Long Island called Massapequa at a ghastly restaurant where a deranged and thankfully distant relative worked. Massapequa is the hometown of the Baldwin brothers and Ron Kovic, the subject of this impassioned film by Oliver Stone, a man whose own combat experiences had informed his previous film, Platoon, that astonishingly immersive journey of a naif to manhood in a horrifying exposition of American soldiers’ experiences. Ron Kovic’s book is the basis of another coming of age tale, this time of a Catholic boy whose parents’ devotion to JFK unwittingly unleashes their sports-mad son’s inner patriot.  I hadn’t seen this since its release and my fresh impression of its first sequences was of overwrought melodrama, underlined by John Williams’ overheated score. But this is all of a piece with the film’s intentions:  starting with a heightened picture of America’s hearth and home;  the futility and horror of war; the brutality of veterans’ experiences in epically gruesome, filthy underfunded hospitals (Kovic’s God-loving mother never even paid him a visit); the utter loneliness of being a castrated, paralysed man with a beating heart and functioning brain who is ridiculed by the anti-war protesters; the recognition that the only people with whom he now has anything in common are the other vets who are even more fucked up than he is. And so it moves into its more austere final sections. Politicisation. Separation from a family who refuse to accept he could have killed women and children and for whom he is a mere embarassment in a block where the other soldiers at least died. Is there a better correlative image in Stone’s entire oeuvre than the crane shot over the Wilson family home, where Ron has confessed to killing new recruit, their nineteen year old son William, in the dunes of Nam as the sun flared during an ambush, then he is wheeled away by a helper amid the scraps and detritus dumped in their yard and the leafy branches fade into a fluttering stars and stripes – and we are plunged into more police brutality at the 1972 Republican convention where he has joined the protest movement? This is elegant filmmaking. It is not without its humour or self-awareness. Ron has finally had his cherry broken by a Mexican whore in a sequence of T&A that reunites Stone with Willem Defoe who welcomes him to this sick paradise and he thinks it’s love – but hides his gift for her when he realises sex with a cripple is just a job for her. These vets’ wheelchair-off is a salve for those of us who might have liked to see one between Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, who beat him to an Academy Award that year (DDL gurned more). I’ve never been back to Massapequa or that cruddy restaurant but Stephen Baldwin has a small role as a schoolfriend, Tom Berenger gets him to join up, Frank Whaley is the other surviving vet who helps Ron out of his doomladen hole and Kyra Sedgwick is the gorgeous girl he loved so much he ran through the rain to dance with her at the Prom and she turns him on to the anti-war crusade. Cruise is simply great, giving a complete performance from boy to man in a narrative which exemplifies the art of juxtaposition and emotional arcs. This is cinema, utterly moving and indignant and humane. Watch it and weep.

Mrs Pollifax – Spy (1971)

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A widowed retiree volunteers her services to the CIA and finds herself drugged in Mexico City and handcuffed to Darren McGavin on a plane to Albania. A different kind of gap year, perhaps. Rosalind Russell herself adapted the promising book by Dorothy Gilman (one of a series) in a production by her husband, Frederick Brisson. Instead of the fun travelogue spoof you might expect of the era, it’s a mostly dull stint in an Albanian prison (an hour…) with just a few colour shots in Mexico and an awful lot of sparse mountains. Remind me never to go to the land of Enver Hoxha or even Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which looks like an utterly miserable substitute. Unremarkable, to say the very least. It was Russell’s last film. Directed by Leslie Martinson.

Crash and Burn (2016)

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Irishman Tommy Byrne is a legend in the motor racing world – the extravagantly talented driver who screwed around, screwed up and threw it all away, is how the story goes. He raced in F3, pissed off a lot of people like Van Diemen teammate Ayrton Senna, himself the subject of an even more ultimately tragic film, and aroused the ire of rivals like Keke Rosberg who used to hit him on the head in passing and whom Byrne openly calls ‘a dick.’ He got to drive for F1’s McLaren team at a time when they had the best car going but his attitude annoyed Ron Dennis. His lifestyle had a major question mark over it, with no money to pay his way into the sport, he took forms of sponsorship which led to his socialising in extremely dodgy company. His car was switched and he lost his drive, in every sense of the term. Instead of hanging around in Europe as Eddie Jordan suggests he should have done, he decamped to the US where he was top driver in his class and seconds away from seizing the 1989 triple crown and getting a free ride into IndyCars, another driver crashed into him and his dream was over: he lost the $80,000 winnings and his marriage hit the skids. He went to Mexico where he consorted with more gangsters, did drugs and whores and messed up all over as he drove his career into the ground. His sponsor was found dead in a swimming pool. Byrne spent a long time drinking, smoking weed and collecting ferns for a living while living in a trailer. It took years for him to get back in the driving world where he works training young up and coming champions. He could have been a contender. He should have been winning in F1. But he’s alive to tell the tale.  His current wife says she believes the sadness is still with him. Produced by David Burke and directed by Sean O’Cualain, this is just an amazing story, compellingly told, with a cast of interviewees known to every petrolhead and there’s the charismatic Byrne himself in the middle of the action, supplying VHS archives of the glory days.

Touch of Evil (1958)

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Newlywed Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas  (Charlton Heston) arrives with wife Susan (Janet Leigh) in his part of the world in the most famous travelling shot in cinema history and a car explodes ahead of the border checkpoint. That’s the audacious start to one of the best films Orson Welles ever made, in this tale of police corruption, gangs and drug running along the Mexican border. An unrecognisable Welles himself plays the crooked cop Quinlan, Marlene Dietrich shows up as trampy but honourable Tana and we have a preview of Psycho when Janet checks into a motel where a twitchy Dennis Weaver admits her as his only guest … Look out for Joi Lansing and Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Mercedes McCambridge makes a very welcome appearance. A classic that took far too many years to restore to its intended version.

Viva Maria! (1965)

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Never did terrorists look lovelier than here, in Louis Malle’s subversive take on the buddy movie with Brigitte Bardot an IRA activist teaming up in Mexico with vaudeville performer Jeanne Moreau and getting more popular as they incorporate stripping into their musical act. They fall for Flores (George Hamilton) the revolutionary leader and join him and his comrades in trying to overthrow the regime of El Dictador (Jose Angel Espinoza). When Flores is shot Maria 1 (JM) agrees to fulfill his deathbed desire and the Marias organise a peasant army …  Malle instructed writer Jean-Claude Carriere to incorporate the tropes of the action adventure and westerns like Vera Cruz, just with female protaganists and financing was finalised only with Moreau’s participation. The two ladies got on very well together during a 16 week shoot on location and this was a huge hit in its day.  Hamilton is excellent as their male foil leading Malle to wonder why he didn’t act more. The cinematography by the great Henri Decae is sublime and Georges Delerue supplies a suitably gorgeous score. The laughs never quit!

Second Chance (1953)

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RKO made some pretty fast-moving, fun noirs and this is one of them – shot on location in Mexico with good looking people, as was the wont of Howard Hughes, by now in charge of the studio. The screenplay by Sydney Boehm and Oscar Millard was based on a story by DM Marshman Jr who shared writing credit on Sunset Blvd and went back east after this to join the world of advertising. Rudolph Mate was directing for 3D so other than the pulchritude of stars Robert Mitchum as a boxer and Linda Darnell as a singer – he’s helping her escape the attention of her mobster boyfriend Jack Palance – there’s a stunning climax in a cable car. Palance was at the peak of his Hollywood heaviness and he’s as good as you’d hope.

Happy 100th Birthday Olivia de Havilland!

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“Walking through life with you, ma’am, has been a very gracious thing.” Errol Flynn’s final onscreen lines to Ms de Havilland in They Died With Their Boots On. Two-time Academy Award winner, rebel, survivor, lady and the better half of one of the most glorious screen couples. She is part of our classical Hollywood dream and we are all the better for sharing it. Thank you and Happy Birthday!

The Big Steal (1949)

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When is a film noir not a film noir? When it’s a fast and funny send-up shot in daylight by DoP Harry J. Wild on location in Mexico. The stars of Out of the Past/Build My Gallows High were reunited with that film’s writer Daniel Mainwaring (adapting from a story by Richard Wormser) and Don Siegel directed this with tongue firmly in cheek in and around Puebla. Mitchum is wrongly believed to be responsible for an army payroll robbery, he chases the culprit, while William Bendix chases him and Greer is the woman who becomes his sidekick. Ramon Navarro is the lazy local police chief and it all ends up in a noir-ish indoor shootout. Greer got the role after she rejected Howard Hughes in favour of marriage to someone else and it was originally thought to be a nothing role but she acquits herself sensationally. Both Jane Russell and Lizabeth Scott were removed as a result of Mitchum’s recent marijuana bust. Great fun, with some cracking lines and a keen sense of its own silliness. There were two more noir parodies, His Kind of  Woman, which also starred Mitchum in Mexico for RKO, and Beat the Devil, made by John Huston in Italy, but this is the original of the species. Step on it, Chiquita!

Big Jake (1971)

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This was Maureen O’Hara’s third film with director George Sherman and her fifth and final with John Wayne. After the first 20 minutes we don’t see her again! She’s the grandmother and wealthy matriarch of a family of sons whose father the titular Jake she booted out ten years earlier (possibly due to his liking for the opposite sex). A gang led by evil Richard Boone has targeted the ranch, killing and crippling ten of them and taking Little Jake (Ethan Wayne, Wayne’s own son), the grandson Jake has never met. She determines that the rescue mission “needs an extremely harsh and unpleasant kind of man” so summons her ex.  He argues with his sons (his own, Patrick Wayne and Robert Mitchum’s, Chris – this really is a family affair) about how to go about it and takes off with his mule and dog and Indian (Bruce Cabot) and has to rescue them from an ambush when their cars  expose them to the little boy’s captors. Set in 1909, this is a motorised western! The hunt takes them into Mexico where a final shootout leaves a lot of people dead. It’s written by Harry and Rita Fink, responsible for Dirty Harry. They would write Cahill US Marshall for Wayne a couple of years later. This is far from the worst of late Wayne, the comedy is fun (a running joke is that everyone thinks Jake is dead), the style is winning, it’s marvellously shot (William Clothier), Elmer Bernstein’s score isn’t classic  but you’ll recognise some riffs he borrowed (and they’re not even his own) and the motorcycle stunts are really something. Watch out for singer Bobby (Blue Velvet) Vinton as one of Jake’s boys. And as for the dog … fantastic.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

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‘Badges?  We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges’! The naysayers think this was an outrageous play for Oscars, especially by director John Huston’s papa, Walter, who duly got one. As did his son. But this is a marvellous entertainment based on B. Traven’s book about gold digging in 20s Mexico and it is skilfully adapted by the director. Wonderful interaction between the main actors and one of Bogey’s great performances. It was originally supposed to star George Raft, Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield. War intervened, Bogey was now Warners’ biggest star and the rest is …. film history! Classic.