A Dog’s Way Home (2019)

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As a puppy, Bella (played by Shelby and voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) finds her way into the arms of med student Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) a young man who with girlfriend Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) finds her in a demolition site with her friend Mother Cat and her kittens and gives her a good home with him and his mother Terri (Ashley Judd) a military vet who volunteers at the local Veterans’ Administration assisting the rehabilitating of fellow vets with PTSD and physical injuries. When Bella becomes separated from Lucas in an encounter with Animal Control, she is transported to the home in New Mexico of his Olivia’s family. She escapes and soon finds herself on an epic 400-mile journey across mountains and forest to reunite with her beloved owner. Along the way, the lost but spirited dog touches the lives of an orphaned cougar cub whom she calls Big Kitten, surviving hunters and predators, is kept in chains by a down-on-his-luck homeless alcoholic veteran Axel (Edward James Olmos) and briefly has a home with some friendly strangers, a gay couple (Barry Watson, Motell Gyn Foster) who happen to cross her path during an avalanche.  After two long years away from Lucas what will happen when she reaches her destination? … A reworking perhaps of Disney’s  The Incredible Journey, this had me at Woof. And in between the times I was blinking away tears and outright crying, it’s scary, tender, heartfelt and full of compassion. You might quibble with a CGI Big Kitten and the over-sentimentalising but there is real peril and some nasty human behaviour as well as an issue over how a dog should be classified when it comes to having a pit bull for a parent:  well, what’s new. And what’s not to love about a dog separated from her mother who finds a mother in a cat family?  And then a human family? And comforts soldiers suffering the after-effects of service? And who then befriends an orphaned cougar? At the end of the day, there’s no place like home. Sob. Adapted by W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon from Cameron’s book and directed by Charles Martin Smith, an actor who will always be Toad in American Graffiti here at Mondo Movies as well as Farley Mowat in that splendid wilderness film Never Cry Wolf. I knew now that my journey was much longer than I’d ever imagined

Only the Valiant (1951)

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Aka Fort Invincible. Plugged up the pass just like a cork in a bottle.  Following the Civil War in New Mexico when a vital fort guarding a mountain pass is threatened by gathering Apaches, dour West Point Captain Richard Lance (Gregory Peck) picks the most disposable bunch of malcontents and psychos to hold out until reinforcements arrive, whereupon various personal animosities bring them closer to killing him than the enemy as the Apaches cut off the water supply and they turn on each other … It’d be just as easy if the whole patrol committed suicide in there.  This tough frontier story is mainly of interest nowadays perhaps for the presence of Barbara Payton, a cult figure whose short sharp shock of a career was assisted by being involved with this film’s producer William Cagney before she went sex-mad and off the rails. Her role is mostly confined to the opening segments when her putative husband Holloway (Gig Young) rides out to his death, and she wrongly blames Lance. However it’s a really interesting piece of work that’s quite brutal in both theme and execution. Adapted by Edmund H. North and Harry Brown from a novel by Charles Marquis Warren (he would go on to become a director and created Rawhide for TV), the sense of a Fordian world (Fort Apache) is enhanced by the presence of Ward Bond, playing a seriously drunken Irish soldier always cadging people’s canteens. The reason for your presence on this patrol won’t be carried on any record book, Peck declares as he assembles his equivalent of The Dirty Dozen. There’s an amazing fistfight between two warring soldiers in front of their Indian assailants who whoop and jeer as if it’s a cockfight;  there is an explosive start to the final sequence; and the Gatling gun is introduced as a revolutionary way to cut down on soldier numbers when the cavalry finally come calling. More than a cult item after all, and while the mostly studio-bound production is sometimes hampered by odd interactions between the principals, there is striking photography and the ratcheting levels of tension are expertly maintained from the get-go. Even if Peck didn’t like this, he’s outstanding as the commander who eventually gets the respect of his extraordinarily treacherous motley crew. Watching these guys get picked off is quite the thrill. Directed by Gordon Douglas. You who know all things know nothing

The Hired Hand (1971)

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You mean you ain’t gonna go to the coast? It’s the 1880s. After seven years wandering in the Southwest during which young travelling companion Griffen (Robert Pratt) is murdered for the hell of it in a small town run by corrupt sheriff McVey (Severn Darden), drifting cowboy Harry Collings (Peter Fonda) abandons his dream of going to California and seeing the Pacific and brings along his friend Arch Harris (Warren Oates) when he returns to his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) and ranch … I wasn’t ready, that’s all. With its dreamy opening, unconventional mid-section and leisurely approach, debut director Peter Fonda was given free rein (following Easy Rider) with this Alan Sharp screenplay, Vilmos Zsigmond supplying beautifully naturalistic imagery edited into something of an occasionally hallucinatory montage by Frank Mazzola. The performances are a wonder. We are more accustomed to seeing Oates directed by Sam Peckinpah and here he is sympathetic and wise, a diametric opposite to the innocence embodied by the tragic Griffen. Then he unwittingly forms part of a new triangle with his friend’s wife. The marvellous Bloom meanwhile hints at a depth of narrative that doesn’t always reveal itself on the simple surface. She’s a frontier woman who didn’t replace a dog that’s run off – but she has herself had relations with other men during her husband’s walkabout, crudely describing the experiences as “like two dogs.” She’s one tough cookie and Bloom herself (Medium Cool, High Plains Drifter, National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Last Temptation of Christ) was a hell of an actress: she died in January of this year. The idea of a marriage being revisited is tested not just in the situation but in the visuals, as this younger husband has finally become the man his older wife needed, quietly reinventing their relationship. He’s what you went looking for. It’s not just about romance, it’s also about friendship and loyalty, travelling, hanging out, being – no doubt virtues of hippiedom mostly lost to us in the chatter of contemporary life, albeit this trip can be cut short by sudden violence, a constant trope in the most American of genres. The songs by Bruce Langhorne assist the mystical, even spiritual feel, enhanced by the cutting out of 20 minutes of more explanatory story, restored and then removed again for the 2001 re-release by its still centre, Fonda himself, who understands that the film operates like meditation.  But the beginning, and the conclusion, the alpha and the omega, as it were, are disturbing, the spectre of uneasy death all-pervasive. It’s been building up a long while

The Left-Handed Gun (1958)

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You’re not like the books! You don’t wear silver studs! You don’t stand up to glory! You’re not him! Volatile young drifter and gunfighter William Bonney (Paul Newman) works for kindly Lincoln County rancher John Tunstall aka ‘The Englishman’ (Colin Keith-Johnston) and they develop an unbreakable bond. When Tunstall is murdered by a corrupt sheriff and his cronies because he was about to supply beef to the local military company, a distraught Billy swears revenge and goes on a rampage through the New Mexico Territory, endangering the General Amnesty established by Governor Lew Wallace. Billy finally guns down all the men who killed Tunstall – but in the process he endangers the life of his old friend Pat Garrett (John Dehner), who is about to be married and doesn’t take kindly to the Kid’s erratic behaviour and vows to hunt him down as newly appointed sheriff ... One shot – one ten cent bullet, and that’s it! Gore Vidal’s 1955 Philco Playhouse TV feature gets the big screen treatment by screenwriter Leslie Stevens with Arthur Penn making his directing debut and Newman inheriting a(nother) role that James Dean was expected to play (and which Newman had played in the TV episode). Occupying that space between the psychological western and authentic approach to biography it’s a revisionist exercise that’s not 100% successful but remains a fascinating picture of Fifties acting styles as well as being a rather beautiful historical narrative. You been called. Newman plays Billy as a juvenile delinquent, a typically doomed misunderstood teen of the era who loses it when his substitute father is killed but it’s the underwritten edges he can’t quite fill out, ironically making his character all the more credible because this is all about perceptions of the heroic.  There’s nice support from Lita Milan as Celsa, Dehner as the conflicted Garrett, James Best as Tom Follard and especially Hurd Hatfield as Moultrie the travelling companion who transforms Billy’s life into a series of dime store novels that Billy can’t read and who ultimately betrays him. Got myself all killed. A dramatically arresting and visually striking, much imitated taste of things to come from all concerned, not least of which would be Penn’s own Bonnie and ClydeI don’t run. I don’t hide. I go where I want. I DO what I want!

Pancho Villa (1972)

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He doesn’t need a doctor, he needs a change of underwear. Trigger-happy Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (Telly Savalas) is on his way to his own execution when his men rescue him. He attempts to kill bitter nemesis General Goyo (Antonio Casas) and overthrow Mexico’s government. The violent endeavour brings Villa north to Columbus in New Mexico, where he battles a group of determined American soldiers led by the no-nonsense Colonel Wilcox (Chuck Connors), and endures unanticipated mishaps and bad fortune, including a double-cross by his friend and partner Scotty (Clint Walker) when they attempt retaliation in a raid… He’s got nerves of iron and rocks in his head. History through the lens of spaghetti! This comical approach to biography is an entertaining mix of action, violence, broad humour and not a little camp – that’s right because Savalas treats us to his rumbling vocal stylings on Don Black’s song in the closing credits. In between there are pitiful villagers, an episode about a fly in the army’s soup and a bit of impersonation, amid a soundtrack full of the bells and whistles of high comedy. Connors has a ball as the straight arrow colonel and Savalas just lets rip. You’ll crack up when the lizard pops out from his clothing after the doctor scratches his head wondering why Pancho’s got two heartbeats. Anne Francis has fun as the gutsy woman in his life. This is practically a mockumentary:  all history lessons should be this fast and funny, genocidal mania aside. Directed by Eugenio Martin from a screenplay by Julian Zimet. Every great man was once a bandit

 

Crazy Heart (2009)

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You woke me up. Former country-music legend 57-year old Otis ‘Bad’ Blake (Jeff Bridges) is so broke he’s reduced to playing dives and bowling alleys in various desert venues in the Southwest. He’s always retching from a combination of long-term heavy drinking, cancer and emphysema. In town for his latest gig, Blake meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a sympathetic reporter and the niece of a talented pianist whom he’s hired as part of his pick-up band, who has come to do a story on him. He unexpectedly warms to her and a romance begins, with Bad taking to her four-year old son Buddy and regaining a kind of balance that even the need to support and write songs for his protegé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) can’t undo.  Then he finds himself at a crossroads that may threaten his last shot at happiness when he opts to have a drink one day when he’s looking after Buddy I’ve been drunk most of my life. I missed a hell of a lot. Adapted from Thomas Cobb’s eponymous book by writer, producer and director Scott Cooper, this is a tale of a mellow fellow on the outs. Played beautifully by Bridges, he’s the kinda guy that probably inspired Bradley Cooper to top himself in the latest iteration of A Star is Born:  oozing talent but permanently dying for want of a drink, ageing without mercy.  He’s got an opportunity to contact the son he hasn’t seen in 24 years and he blows it horribly. It’s a compelling portrait and Bridges is matched by not only Gyllenhaal who has some moving scenes with him, but such a ridiculous cast of co-stars – Robert Duvall (who also produces) hires him to play at his bar while the great Tom Bowers is the proprietor of a liquor store. A warm drama about a likable if flawed protagonist who’s got one last shot – and a whole lot more lined up in the bar. Bridges is an avatar for real-life country hero Merle Haggard and with original songs written by T. Bone Burnett this is a treat for music fans. That’s the way it is with good ones, you’re sure you’ve heard them before

Downsizing (2017)

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What kind of fuck you give me? What kind? American people, eight kind of fuck. Love fuck, hate fuck, sex-only fuck, break-up fuck, make-up fuck, drunk fuck, buddy fuck, pity fuck. Scientists discover how to shrink humans to five inches tall as a solution to overpopulation and global warming.  Years later, occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to abandon their stressed lives in Omaha so that they can obtain a proper home and move out from his sick Mom’s in order to get small and move to a new downsized community, Leisureland in New Mexico — a choice that triggers life-changing adventure.  Paul is catapulted in another direction by a stunning betrayal at the last minute .… A clever play on words leading to a (sort of) logical extrapolation of ideas, this is flawed at the level of characterisation, with the banal desire of people to keep their lifestyle with fewer imagined outgoings never truly drilled down to its micro-managed conclusion. There are fun concepts featuring this overweight protagonist with his anorectic wife (the nursery rhyme featuring Jack Sprat springs to mind) which in itself constitutes a challenge to the audience if you don’t like these Marmite actors.  Here, normal means uninteresting non-entity.  Even Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis and Udo Kier can’t save it. This is a bloated (130 minutes!) instance of so-called intelligent sci fi, an intriguing premise afloat on its own enlarged silliness and it turns into an end of the world scenario in some sort of guilt trip for liberal white people. Why? Size matters. Just not this much. Written by Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne,

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

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I could lay under you, eat fried chicken and do a crossword puzzle at the same time; that’s how much you bother me. When her abusive husband dies, single mom Alice (Ellen Burstyn) and her wiseass 12-year old son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter) leave their small New Mexico town of Socorro for California, where Alice hopes to make it as a singer despite not being particularly good.  She dreams of returning to Monterey where she grew up. Money problems force them to settle in Tucson, Arizona instead, where Alice takes a job as waitress in a small diner owned by Mel (Vic Tayback). She intends to stay there long enough to make the money needed to head back out on the road, but her plans change when she begins to fall for David, a rancher (Kris Kristofferson). Tommy befriends Audrey (Jodie Foster), a slightly older girl who encourages bad behaviour and whose own mother is a prostitute.  When David quarrels with Tommy, Alice leaves him until they come crawling back to one another …  Martin Scorsese (handpicked by Burstyn) entered mainstream Hollywood with this genre piece, a woman’s picture written by Robert Getchell (who died 2017) that announces itself with a parodic rose-tinted dream sequence and titles on crushed satin, 1930s-style. But it’s a woman’s picture with an underlying and sometimes overt threat of violence, despite its sunsplashed settings. So we travel with Alice as she makes her way through life as an adult who has it tough but still dreams of being what she wanted as a small child, reality notwithstanding, lurching from one bad relationship to another in the American Southwest. As this 35-year old woman’s life is unpicked, sometimes with humour and sometimes with pain, the crushing of her ambitions is hard to watch even as she maintains a certain optimism necessary just to make it through her day.  Making the decision to settle for less is something she works on every day. Burstyn’s performance is nuanced and moving, but she is matched by Lutter as her bratty son (who seems more like an argumentative friend) and Foster as his troublesome friend, and particularly by Ladd as Flo the fellow waitress with whom Alice shares home truths. Burstyn won the Academy Award, Ladd was nominated, and Getchell lost out in the Best Screenplay category to Robert Towne for Chinatown. Scorsese was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. That’s how good a year this was for movies.

Captain Fantastic (2016)

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I’m writing down everything you say – in my mind. Disillusioned anti-capitalist intellectual Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his absent wife Leslie (she’s in a psychiatric facility) and their six children live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society,  their kids are being educated them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. When Leslie commits suicide, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time to attend her funeral in New Mexico where her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) fear for what is happening to their grandchildren and Ben is forced to confront the fact that the survivalist politics he has imbued in his offspring may not prepare them for real life… This starts with the killing of an animal in a ritual you might find in the less enlightened tribes. (Why did killing a deer become a thing a year ago?) Ben is teaching his eldest son Bodevan (George McKay) to be a man. But this is a twenty-first century tribe who are doing their own atavistic thing – just not in the name of Jesus (and there’s a funny scene in which they alienate a policeman by pretending to do just that) but that of Noam Chomsky. “I’ve never even heard of him!” protests their worried grandfather. Hearing the words “Stick it to the man!” coming out of a five year old is pretty funny in this alt-socialist community but the younger son in the family Rellian (Nicholas Rellian) believes Ben is crazy and has caused Leslie’s death and wants out.  Ironically and as Ben explains at an excruciating dinner with the brother in law (Steve Zahn) it was having children that caused her post-partum psychosis from which this brilliant lawyer never recovered. This stressor between father and younger son drives much of the conflict – that and Leslie’s Buddhist beliefs which are written in her Will and direct the family to have her cremated even though her parents inter her in a cemetery which the kids call a golf course. And Bodevan conceals the fact that he and Mom have been plotting his escape to one of the half dozen Ivy League colleges to which he’s been accepted. The irony that Ben is protecting his highly politicised kids from reality by having them celebrate Chomsky’s birthday when they don’t even know what a pair of Nikes are and have never heard of Star Trek is smart writing. Everything comes asunder when there are accidents as a result of the dangers to which he exposes them. This is a funny and moving portrait of life off the grid, with Mortensen giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as the man constantly at odds with the quotidian whilst simultaneously being a pretty great dad. McKay is terrific as the elder son who’s utterly unprepared for a romantic encounter in a trailer park. It really is tough to find your bliss. As delightful as it is unexpected, this is a lovely character study. Written and directed by Matt Ross.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

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Color me gone! A mechanic (Dennis Wilson) and a driver (James Taylor) live only to race and maintain their grey 1955 Chevy. Heading east from California with no particular agenda, they give a girl (Laurie Bird) a ride, and en route she incites jealousy between the men by sleeping with them both. Meanwhile, the trio encounters an overbearing 1970 Pontiac GTO driver (Warren Oates) who makes up stories about his life and agrees to race them to New York, each side putting at stake their most prized possession: their car… Stunningly shot (by Gregory Sandor though credited to union member Jack Deerson), almost dialogue-free, this seminal road movie (when that term really meant something) is a showcase of cinematic poetry in motion exhibiting the performing talents of two of the most important music stars of the era. Taciturnity is their mojo as they engage in this eastern, a reversal of the traditional drift of men across the continent, living in the moment.  Oates is remarkable as the man living his own personal fantasy. It helps if you’re a car freak but it’s not necessary. This is a study of a society without a point. Turn on. Tune in. Drop out. Directed by Monte Hellman from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer (who plays a hot rod driver), Will Corry and uncredited contributions from Floyd Mutrux. Absolutely iconic.