The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

The Ballad of Cable Hogue.jpg

Appears to me you’ve been seventeen kinds of damned fool. Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) has been abandoned to die by fellow failed prospectors Taggart (L.Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin) in the Arizona desert. When he finds a water source he digs a ditch and determines to settle there and charge passers by for a drink at his way station. When fake priest Rev. Joshua Sloane (David Warner) – minister of a church of his own revelation – stops and introduces him to photos of some fresh female flesh and enquires about ownership Hogue races to file a land claim at nearby Dead Dog where he takes a fancy to feisty prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens). She joins him after being run out of town. They take leave of each other when she sees he isn’t committed to her. When Taggart and Bowen return in his absence they see an opportunity for prospecting. Then he comes back and takes charge but there’s a car on the horizon … Hogue is one of Peckinpah’s most empathetic characters, a rounded individual and funny with it and is embodied wonderfully wryly by Robards who has rarely been better. Stevens is equally at home with the material and their scenes together are remarkably tender (not for nothing did she get the Reel Cowboys’ Silver Spur award for her contribution to the western). This is a highly unconventional exercise in genre with marvellous characters adorning a story that is – as the title suggests – a kind of elegy to frontier life, with songs (by Richard Gillis) playing a large role in the narrative whose tragicomic end can be inferred. The end of the Old West is symbolised by the arrival of the motor car (or ‘horseless carriages’ as they call them here) when all at once Hogue’s little oasis is out of date. Too subtle to be a comedy western, too sweet to be lumped in with Peckinpah’s more violent fare (particularly his previous film, The Wild Bunch), this is quite a mellow and reflective essay on what a man needs to confront in his life:  change, loss and obsolescence. Written by John Crawford and Edmund Penney and beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard with split screens and speeded up scenes to remind us when it originated.

 

Advertisements

Graduation (2016)

Graduation film.jpg

Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a middle-aged doctor in a small Romanian town and father of a teenage daughter Eliza (Maria Victoria Dragus) who needs good results in a written exam to take up her place on a scholarship to Cambridge. He finds out from his mistress Sandra (Malina Malovici) who teaches at Eliza’s school that the girl has been assaulted on a building site at the school entrance where he drops her off every day. She’s narrowly avoided being raped but her wrist is injured and the headmaster wants to stop her taking part in the exam because she could have notes written on it – until Sandra intervenes. Then the police inspector investigating the attack suggests to Romeo that his daughter’s results might be improved if Romeo can find a liver for a corrupt customs inspector Bulai. Romeo discusses the situation with his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) who doesn’t want him embroiled in the national disease of corruption. When he suggests the plan to Eliza she listens but doesn’t give him any response.  Eliza finds out about her father’s mistress and threatens to tell her mother – who already knows. While he tries to pursue her attacker and she attends a lineup in the police station during which one suspect shouts at her through two-way glass, prosecutors turn up at the hospital and start asking questions about Bulai …  Cristian Mungiu’s film is mundane in its detail (and its star) but nonetheless compelling as he traces an almost Kafkaesque story of a more or less regular guy dealing with a sequence of horrible events which he has worked so hard to help his young daughter avoid as he has plotted her escape to a more civilised life since she was born. She persists in taking her own path as he can’t even persuade her that her handsome older boyfriend Marius (Rares Andrici) who openly admits to having cheated at his own final exams watched as she was attacked  – he got a screenshot from surveillance cameras to prove it.  The lack of reaction when he finds out his teenage girl is not a virgin following the attempted rape is a lesson to showier filmmakers. This is an unexpectedly gripping family drama that moves with the relentlessly grinding pace of the ghastly bureaucratic society it depicts.

The Island (2005)

The Island 2005.jpg

I have discovered the Holy Grail of science – I give life! Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) lives in a sterile colony, one of thousands of survivors of The Contamination who dream of going to The Island. One of his friends is Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) and she doesn’t believe him when he dreams things he knows he hasn’t experienced and then discovers they are clones waiting to have their organs harvested for humans outside somewhere:  he sees a moth in a ventilation shaft when visiting his engineer friend McCord (Steve Buscemi). They are really living in an elaborate organ lab run by Merrick (Sean Bean) who hires mercentary Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou) when Lincoln and Jordan escape to the real world … McGregor and Johansson are superb as the clones who realise their humanity and make you stick with a drama that takes a little while to get going in that sterile facility that we have seen a hundred times. But when it takes off it never stops and it’s pretty heart-pounding. This takes potshots at eugenics, organ harvesting, the modern day obsession with breeding that leads to murderous mass surrogacy programmes, and ultimately the kind of control by tech billionaires that we all rightly fear:  the penultimate scene using a gas chamber tells you all you need to know about where we are all heading in this Nazified world of ours which seems even more relevant 12 years after this was released. The ultimate irony about this clone drama is that it is itself a clone – of a novel called Spares and 1979 movie The Clonus Horror to the extent that a massive seven-figure settlement was made by DreamWorks to the plaintiffs for their legal claim. Nonetheless it’s a gripping portrait of futureshock and all that it implies for contemporary life. Be very afraid. 2019 is just a breath away! Screenplay by Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci from a story by Caspian Tredwell-Owen. Directed by Michael Bay.

Hanover Street (1979)

Hanover Street US poster

Nothing makes sense and then I’m with you and everything makes sense. Flight Lieutenant David Halloran (Harrison Ford) is standing in line for a London bus during the Blitz and plays leapfrog with a nurse (Lesley-Anne Down) and their antics mean they both miss the bus but fall in love over a cup of tea and then the street is bombed by the Germans. He wants to meet her on Thursday week – he has many bombing missions in between times – and she arrives, many hours late. They travel to the country and after several sexual assignations she finally tells him her name is Margaret. His squadron has another mission to fly but he notices an engine problem at takeoff and his colleague takes off in his place and is shot down. He is wracked with guilt. Meanwhile, it transpires that Margaret is married and her husband Paul Sellinger (Christopher Plummer) is a mild-mannered teacher training officers in intelligence and two have been captured and killed within two weeks of landing in Lyons:  there’s a double agent in the ranks. He volunteers to be dropped in France to photograph Nazi files to root out the culprit – and when he is allocated a pilot it’s Halloran and they’re the sole survivors of a firestorm. They have to don disguise to survive detection and find a hiding place on a farm. When Sellinger starts to describe his wife Halloran realises they’re in love with the same woman and she is giving them both reason to live … This has one of the great meet-cutes and it is overwhelming because it comes in the first ten minutes. Down and Ford are a fabulous looking pair and the (somewhat thin) story reminds you of the great WW2 romances, on which it was clearly modelled. The Sellingers’ home life is wonderfully exposed by their relationship with their young daughter Sarah played by cool girl Patsy Kensit and there’s some convincingly irritating banter between the bomb squad. We can see several Indiana Jones scenes in advance, played out here on German occupied territory albeit with a tad less humour. This doesn’t reach the heights it aims for but it’s beautifully made and the score by John Barry is simply epic. It makes you wonder why on earth the glorious Down hasn’t been cast more over the years. Sigh. There is however a rare appearance by the legendary comedian Max Wall as a locksmith. Written and directed by Peter Hyams.

Top Gun (1986)

Top Gun poster.jpg

I feel the need … the need for speed! Tom Cruise sped into the stratosphere of stardom with this emblem of the Reagan-Star Wars era of geopolitics and it performed pretty much like the recruitment video (game) that it really is. With Psychology 101 as the basis for the rudimentary screenplay by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.,  adapting a California magazine story.  Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell is sent by dint of happenstance (his better colleague quits) to the elite fighter pilot naval school. He’s dealing with daddy issues, has a great best friend and co-pilot, Goose (Anthony Edwards) and he falls for trainer Kelly McGillis. The romance is unbelievable, Goose dies in a flatspin – not Maverick’s fault, whew! – and gurning Aryan Val Kilmer is the Iceman who can. It looks great, the stunts are fabulous and the songs are still famous with a soundtrack embedded in our collective brain but this gets stranger by the year! Directed by the late Tony Scott.

Bond of Fear (1956)

Bond of Fear alt lger poster.jpg

Smart little British B movie starring Irish-born stalwart Dermot Walsh as the man taking Land Rover and caravan on holiday from Birmingham to the South of France but he never gets there because he and his wife and kids are hijacked by Dewar (Canadian John Colicos) who’s just murdered a policeman. The unlikely scenario of this middle class family hitting the road for Dover port and a crazed killer in the caravan holding them hostage is well measured with police checkpoints proving a test for Walsh as he has to lie while his son has a gun held to his head in the caravan. An indignant hitch hiker provides a particularly good scene and there’s plenty of tension when the little boy Michael (Anthony Pavey) tries to defend his dad. It all comes to a head at Dover – so they never make it to France after all. Shot mostly at Nettlefold Studios at Walton-on-Thames (another to add to my list of British outfits) and around the burbs of Southern England, this looks pretty smart (courtesy of Monty Berman and operator Desmond Davis, a future director) and has an interesting soundtrack (an uncredited Stanley Black.)  Walsh had made his mark on the Dublin stage following a few years studying law at University College Dublin. He was discovered by Rank and had good roles in films like Hungry Hill. After a brief return to the stage he spent most of the 50s doing movies like this and is best remembered for TV’s Richard the Lionheart. He wrote a play and produced several works in the theatre. He is the father of the actress Elisabeth Dermot Walsh. He died in 2002. Digby Wolfe’s story was adapted by horror director and writer John Gilling with additional scenes provided by Norman Hudis; and directed by Henry Cass, who made one of my favourite British movies, The Glass Mountain. Not chopped liver.

The Goob (2014)

The Goob alt.jpg

Guy Myhill’s Fenland drama is brutal stuff. It’s a long hot summer for Goob (Liam Walpole) who arrives home to find Mum (Sienna Guillory) shacked up at a transport cafe with ugly violent stock racing bully Gene (Sean Harris) and he has to grow up bloody fast. A gay cousin who likes to dance and cross-dress and a lovely foreign fruit picker create diversions and ultimately obstructions and Goob has to choose sides in a dangerous household that has already seen off his brother following a prank gone wrong. This is an intelligent story of violent sordid lowlifes with limited ambitions and worldviews and while convincingly and even poetically evoked at times it’s a tough watch. Guillory’s willing subjugation is hard to take while son Goob is the collateral damage. Harris, one of the least attractive individuals ever to grace a screen, is all too realistic; and the masturbation and sex scenes are somewhat de trop, as Celeste Holm might have said. Sometimes some things are best left … imagined. Spare and affecting with some really good faces inhabiting a fascinating landscape, beautifully captured in shimmering golden hour light, a new approach to British social realism.

Big Jake (1971)

Big Jake poster.jpg

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 History Boys (2006)

The History Boys poster.jpg

Nicholas Hytner directed Alan Bennett’s play at the National Theatre where it was a critical and popular hit. He took it to the big screen with some of the stage cast. It’s the story of a group of sixth formers at grammar school who need coaching to get through their Oxbridge exams. A new Cambridge grad Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) said to be based on Niall Ferguson is brought in to enhance their chances. He has a style that clashes with that of camp eccentric Richard Griffiths, who has them learn endlessly quotable poems and perform songs and movie scenes; and traditional Frances de la Tour. The boys are a racial and sexual mix. They include a range of young acting talent, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey and James Corden among them. Their path to success is paved with difficulty and includes a day trip to a monastery burned out by Henry VIII who Irwin likens to Stalin and Thatcher. An interesting sojourn, definitely, but not cinematically great.

The Kids Are Alright (2010)

The Kids Are Alright poster.jpg

It’s not an especially new dilemma not to know your real father – a friend of mine did a genealogical survey in Ireland c18 years ago and discovered that more than 20% of legitimate children in the Republic were not born to the head of household (and obviously didn’t know … national incest alert!) And in these days of alternative families and soaring rates of illegitimacy, who knows who anyone is without a DNA test?!  When restless teen son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) of Lesbian moms – control freak doc Nic (Annette Bening) and flaky gardener Jules (Julianne Moore) – goes looking for the sperm donor who gave them their family, he’s under 18 so has to get older sister Joni (Mia Wasikowska) to do the deed. They find Paul (Mark Ruffalo) a genial, bohemian restaurateur who wants more involvement with them.  The underlying tensions in the domestic unit are raised. Issues of parenthood, family life, the role of the unknown father, marital compromise, mismatched unequal spouses, sex with the (non-)ex, teenage experience and growing pains are dealt with expertly and humorously by admirable writer/director Lisa Cholodenko (co-written with Stuart Blumberg). She has made some very smart contemporary comic dramas: High Art and particularly Laurel Canyon. Part of this narrative was based on her own story:  she shares her life with Wendy Melvoin, of the duo Wendy & Lisa who were Prince’s collaborators at the height of his 80s superstardom with the Revolution (they co-wrote Sometimes It Snows in April. Sob). This is spectacularly well cast and performed with not a duff or inauthentic moment. And amongst other things, we find out why Lesbians enjoy watching gay (male) porn … TMI?  A very modern story.