Back to the Future (1985)

 

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Are you telling me you made a time machine out of a DeLorean?! Simply great storytelling here in a knotty, brilliantly constructed time travel-adventure-comedy that has a great big throbbing heart bursting with love at its centre. When you consider it came from the wickedly funny minds of Roberts Gale and Zemeckis – remember the amazing Used Cars?! – it seems an even bigger achievement. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is an average teenager in Twin Pines, a small town with a nice square boasting a clock that hasn’t worked since 1955, a cinema running soft porn, and screwed up parents with an alkie mom (Lea Thompson), a meek dad (Crispin Glover), loser sister and a thirty year old brother in a MacJob. He has a cute girlfriend, a skateboard and an eccentric friend called Doc (Christopher Lloyd) a scientist who has wasted his family’s fortune making a ‘flux capacitor’ fuelled by plutonium. Just when the nutty professor manages to prove he can travel back in time with an Eighties sports car (to die for!) the Libyans come calling and when Doc is mown down in a hail of gunfire Marty guns the engines of the DeLorean and at 88mph is catapulted back to the week the town clock stopped working in a lightning storm. He’s initially mistaken for a spaceman and finds that his housing estate is only just being constructed.  He needs to ensure that his parents get together in high school or the future will look very different as he and his siblings’ images begin to disappear from the family photo back in 1985 and Marty’s mom begins to fall for him in one of the more brilliant takes on incest in film history!  Plus he has to get back to 1985 to save Doc’s life in what is literally a race against time! … Fast, sharp-witted and brilliantly inventive, this has the kind of gleaming detail (skateboards, digital watches, Diet Pepsi, puffa jackets for 1985;  Davy Crockett, sci-fi comics, a classic diner, a Barbara Stanwyck oater at the movie theatre for 1955) that makes it almost documentary-like in resonance and relatability. The organisation of the narrative is mind-boggling when you consider the complexity of the story elements. Add in hugely likeable stars, great one-liners, and a genuine sense of fun,  this is proof that you can rewrite history and even get some very subtle revenge on the school bully!  One of the cinema’s evergreen classics, this is tonally perfect:  it just sings with joy. Brilliant.

Basic Instinct (1992)

 

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I think she’s the fuck of the century.  Paul Verhoeven’s film was notorious even prior to release – 25 years ago! – when word of the highly sexualised story got out.  Then it caused an uproar with a shot of Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs:  she’s not wearing any underwear. And the gay community in San Francisco in particular (where it’s set) didn’t like the portrayal of a psychopathic bisexual writer Catherine Tramell (Stone) – albeit we don’t know if it’s her, or her former and slighted lover, police psychiatrist Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who’s the murderess in this tricky, explicit neo-noir. That sub-genre really had a moment in the 90s, with this and the films of John Dahl – remember Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction?! Wow. Stone goes all-out here as the millionaire authoress whose books have a basis in true crime. Michael Douglas is the controversial ‘shooter’ detective Nick Curran who’s assigned to investigate the violent death of an old rock star – a murder we see in the opening scenes, bloody, sexy and ending with an ice pick applied to his neck. It’s the plot of one of Catherine Tramell’s lurid thrillers – she writes them under the surname Woolf.  Everything points to her being the guilty party. Now she wants to study him too. He got his nickname after accidentally killing tourists while he was high on cocaine. Catherine hangs out with jealous girlfriend Roxy and an old woman called Hazel Dobkins. Both of them have an interesting past. After Nick avoids being killed by Roxy when she sees him and Catherine having sex, he finds out she killed a bunch of kids when she was 15. And Hazel?  She murdered her children and husband back in the 50s. The fact that she’s played by Dorothy Malone gives you the meta-picture here:  this is practically a dissertation on the Hollywood blonde, a Hitchcock film with extra sex. Nick’s also been involved with the police psychiatrist who it turns out knows Catherine too, from when they went to college together a decade earlier.  And they may have had a relationship. This knotty tale of seduction, deception, copycat killing and betrayal leads cleverly to two very clear – and alternate – conclusions. It’s wrapped in extraordinarily beautiful and brutal imagery and the narrative ambiguity merely compounds its legend. Written by Joe Eszterhas in 13 days it earned him a record-breaking $3 million.  Yet as he stated so lucidly in his memoir, he is a militant screenwriter-auteur and the most memorable bit of the film was shot without his knowledge – and apparently Stone’s. Interpret this how you will. Some people might say that the real crime here is one against fashion – Douglas’ v-neck at the club is really something. Stone is stunning: she’s something else!

Dunkirk (2017)

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Survival’s not fair. A great disaster. Hundreds of thousands of British and French troops got at from all sides by the Nazis. A young guy Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) running down the streets of Dunkirk shot at from every direction with all his fellow soldiers mown down beside him. Then he gets to the beach and sees what looks like half the British Army waiting … and waiting. And the beach is strafed by German planes. In the clouds Tom Hardy (masked, mostly, like in his last Christopher Nolan outing) is playing cat and mouse in his Spitfire. His fellow pilot is shot down. Back in England Mark Rylance and his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local lad (strange Irish actor Barry Keoghan) take their pleasure cruiser plus dozens of life jackets out with them before the Navy can check them dockside. These stories with their differing timelines (1 week, 1 hour, 1 day) don’t converge until 70 minutes in. In the interim there is a lot of water. – The tide is turning. – How do you know? – The bodies are coming back. Drowning. Suicides. Shootings by the Germans. If you’re afraid of water you will be very queasy. The word for the viewer experience is immersive. Quite literally. The bigger picture is only put in the mouth of Commander Kenneth Branagh in conversation as the safe place for berthing destroyers (the Mole) is being blown asunder when he talks about the war. That’s when we hear about the callout for small vessels to attempt a rescue on the beach. Otherwise we are escaping with Whitehead as he accompanies Harry Styles (in his film debut) and a Frenchie pretending to be English and they have to try to survive in the bottom of a sinking boat being fired upon; Rylance and son and the traumatised man they rescue from the hull of a sunken boat (Cillian Murphy) who tells them to return to Blighty and kills their assistant;  and the pilots – watching one almost drown is quite traumatic.  For all the enormous budget we never get a sense of the enormity or the scale of the enterprise:  far too few soldiers, hardly any boats. The stories are told in convoluted fashion due to the differing timeframes for each of them. So just when you think you’re ahead, you’re catapulted back to an explanation. And then … it’s over. This reminds me of the problem with Inception which it took me a while to work out:  that film is really a video game. This is also that in one significant part – I too have seen those YouTube Battle of Britain videos, Christopher Nolan, and they’re stunning:  I love a good airborne catfight.  And even though we see very little of Hardy, this is the first time I thought he’s a movie star at last. But that’s not it really. This is actually a tone poem. It’s more like a Derek Jarman film than anything I’ve seen since that great visual artist’s death. And that’s an issue presumably for most of the paying audience who like a good yarn. There is some characterisation – there is bravery, cowardice, viciousness, swagger, kindness and terrible suffering. But what little there is cannot make up for the lack of actual dramatic structure and story. And Churchill’s words are said in the most desultory fashion and barely make an impact because of the actor’s speaking voice and the sound mix even if it’s a very canny and surprising move in how it’s delivered.  But mostly there is Hans Zimmer’s astonishing score:  it’s an unforgettable, breathtaking symphony that deserves a better film. There. I’ve said it. Where’s W. H. Auden when you need him? It’s rumoured that Hitler gave the Brits a fighting chance by only allowing the bombing of the beaches instead of launching a full-scale ground attack and invading Britain:  Nolan simply dismissed the vastness of the story and loses its importance in the doing.

How to Steal a Million (1966)

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You should be in jail and I should be in bed. Super stylish Sixties Art Nouveau heist comedy about a painting forger Bonnet (Hugh Griffiths) whose daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) needs to steal back a famous but fake statue (by her grandfather) that he’s loaned to an art museum and does it with the aid of a thief Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole) –  who’s actually a private detective investigating this sort of thing.   Harry Kurnitz adapted the 1962  story Venus Rising from a collection about art forgeries by George Bradshaw and despite its overlength it coasts on the sheerly delightful charm of the leads and some very sparky dialogue. Charles Boyer has a blast as O’Toole’s boss and you’ll recognise the chief security guard at the museum Jacques Marin because he played the chief of police in Hepburn’s earlier Parisian comedy thriller, Charade. Eli Wallach is an industrialist who feigns romantic interest in Hepburn to get at her grandfather’s work and there’s an outstanding score by John Williams as well as to-die-for production design. Givenchy dressed Hepburn – mais quoi d’neuf? Directed by William Wyler reunited with Hepburn 13 years after Roman Holiday. Bliss.

Christopher Strong (1933)

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Aka The Great Desire and The White Moth. Don’t ever stop me doing what I want. Fascinating and startling Pre-Code drama starring Katharine Hepburn not as the eponymous Member of Parliament but a daring aviatrix modelled on Amy Johnson. Lady Cynthia Darrington meets the married Sir Christopher (Colin Clive) at a party and they can’t help but fall for each other. His wife, Lady Elaine (!) (the fabulous Billie Burke) worries about their daughter but the frankly virginal Cynthia stirs Christopher, especially when she dons a silver moth costume for a fancy dress ball and to hell with marriage and flying… for a while. The clever way to illustrate sexual congress – a bedside lamp switched on with just Hepburn’s bangled wrist in shot as we see from a clock it’s the wee small hours – the use of altimeters not just as a signal for her ambition but a correlative for this extra-marital relationship – and of course Hepburn’s striking look in her second film appearance – make for a stylish Art Deco picture. Cynthia’s final flight after she discovers her pregnancy still gives her an opportunity for personal expression and record-breaking and it is this aspect – and the fact that the film was directed by Dorothy Arzner (with a little help from silent director Tommy Atkins who also assisted on Hepburn’s debut Morning Glory) – means this was rehabilitated over the years by feminism. Adapted from Gilbert Frankau’s novel by Zoe Akins. Quite dazzling.

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The Day of the Jackal (1973)

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Frederick Forsyth was my gateway drug to faction:  novels based more or less truly on historical incident. You could trust him because he had a long history as a respected and conscientious journalist. And what a way with plot! This story of a 1960s assassination attempt on the despised French President Charles de Gaulle by disgruntled members of the exiled OAS (the militant underground) would seem to have nothing much going for it on the surface:  the outcome, for one. But the trick here is brilliant.  These patriots hire a British hitman (Edward Fox) who is completely unknown to the authorities. And as he gathers the materiel required for such an audacious once-in-a-lifetime evenement and removes all the human obstacles in his path, we realise, at the foregone but nail-biting conclusion, that we know absolutely nothing about him at all.  This is narrative sleight of hand at its best. And it is crucial to the tension that the ruthless professional Jackal remains a complete enigma, a mystery at the heart of a brilliantly staged action thriller with a great supporting cast. His nemesis proves to be a Parisian police detective (Michael Lonsdale) determined to root out this threat to democracy.  Adapted by Scottish-American screenwriter Kenneth Ross who would perform the same miracle with The Odessa File. Gripping outing by director Fred Zinnemann who meshes his predilection for documentary-style realism with all the tricks of a cinema of attractions. Flawlessly executed.

The Lawless Breed (1953)

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I love you the way you are. The way you really are. Legend has it that gunslinger, card sharp and outlaw John Wesley Hardin once shot a man because he was snoring. In this Universal-Technicolor version of a story he wrote about himself – his real life, as it were – we get the fast-moving, adventurous western that veteran director Raoul Walsh favoured, with a luminous performance by Rock Hudson in the role that made him a star. It starts with a beautiful framing device:  freed after 16 years from a prison sentence, the aged Hardin (and Hudson looks just like he would twenty years later in MacMillan and Wife!) leaves those portals and the first beings he touches in many years are a donkey and a dog. He has us at hello. Then he walks into a print shop and hands over a manuscript – his autobiography. It’s a great opening. Then we relive his life from his point of view in one long flashback:  as a young man he’s whupped by his strict preacher father (John McIntire) and launched into a life of crime following a card game. “It was self-defence,” becomes his mantra. He’s followed through Texas by Union soldiers, takes refuge with his sympathetic uncle (also played by McIntire), continues his relationship with the most beautiful girl in the State, Jane (Mary Castle) and eventually takes refuge with the saloon girl who understands him, Rosie (Julie aka Julia Adams). It’s a fatalistic tale which became a Bob Dylan song but this being Hollywood we don’t see the sordid ending that actually befell the man and Hudson imbues his character with wonderful gentleness.  When he returns home to save his grown son (Race Gentry) from his destiny the reason for writing his memoirs becomes clarified. Great, rousing tale, brilliantly handled by Walsh with his usual terrific staging and pace and doesn’t it look beautiful, like all movies should. Very loosely adapted from Hardin’s book by the great (and blacklisted) screenwriter Bernard Gordon. Never mind the facts – print the legend!

Tracks (2013)

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I just want to be by myself. If you read books like The Heroine’s Journey you’ll learn that what every girl really needs at some point is some time by herself – a separation of sorts, from the noise, from the world, from the patriarchal expectations …. all that jazz. And in 1977 Australian Robyn Davidson had just about enough of all the rubbish in life and decided to trek 1,700 miles from Alice Springs via Ayers Rock and the Western Desert to the Ocean – with Diggity the dog and Dookie, Bob, Sally and Baby Goliath, four camels that she trained and befriended. The problem of financing necessitated a sponsor and that came in the form of National Geographic magazine which sent freelance photographer Rick Smolan to shoot the story and he met up with her once a month, in various states of disrepair and anguish. Mia Wasikowska has the role of her life, encountering her real self, solitude, loneliness and loss. It’s a remarkable, demanding performance in this adaptation by Marion Nelson of Davidson’s memoir, which took 25 years to get to the big screen after many false starts. Adam Driver is the unfortunate guy whose expressions of concern for his occasional travelling companion are so regularly rebuffed while the inevitable publicity brings unwelcome meetings with an inquisitive public and there’s an especially amusing incident when Robyn’s mentor Mr Eddie (Rolley Mintuma) scares them off with a presumably typical Aboriginal attitude. This is a beautifully crafted film, memorably shot and simply bewitching, with layers of meaning about personhood, the environment and the ecology of animal and human friendship. One of my favourite films of 2013. Directed by John Curran.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

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You would never know that this was an Ealing comedy – it is totally unsentimental. Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) is in prison awaiting his execution when he puts pen to paper and recounts the reason for this turn of events. Born to a beautiful if rash aristocratic mother who ran off with an Italian opera singer, this orphaned young man is now working in a draper’s when his lady love Sibella (Joan Greenwood) marries a love rival. He sets out to dispatch the eight remaining members of the D’Ascoyne line to recuperate the title he feels is rightfully his. All of them – including the venerable Lady Agatha – are played by Alec Guinness. (He also played a ninth!). Louis marries the virtuous wife Edith (Valerie Hobson) of one of them. The range of their respective deaths is stunning. A sublime work of British cinema, adapted from Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank:  The Autobiography of a Criminal by John Dighton and the woefully underrated director Robert Hamer, whose masterpiece this is. Transgressive, ironic and subversive, and the ending is simply genius. Breathtaking black comedy for the ages. Perfection.

Jaws (1975)

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Ibsen by way of a Peter Benchley bestseller and an adventurous and gifted director called Steven Spielberg. I got caught up in this again late last night and was gripped, as ever, by this visceral tale of beachside terror which hasn’t aged a day and in many respects remains my favourite Spielberg movie. There is so much to relish. The atmosphere, aided immeasurably by John Williams’ stunningly suggestive score – which was the soundtrack in the bathroom of the late lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London – utterly terrifying!. The performances:  who doesn’t love Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist? Roy Scheider as the seaside town police chief who’s scarified of water? Robert Shaw as the drunken shark hunting Captain Quint? And those hellishly cute kids. And what about the titles sequence? There’s the politics of the summer season and the mayor who doesn’t want word to get out. The anger of the bereaved mother. The bloodied water and beach toys. The track-zoom of realisation. The clear storytelling. White sharks got a bad press out of this epic battle but there has rarely been a better exploration of the ecology of man and beast. Quite literally sensational. Classic, brilliant, the original of the species. Written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with a little assist from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, and John Milius.