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.

LIFE (2015)

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Luke Davies’ screenplay centring on the circumstances behind the unforgettable LIFE photo essay about James Dean in an issue from March 1955 is uncertain about who the story’s protagonist is:   the most exciting actor most of us have ever seen, as incarnated by Dane DeHaan, or photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson)? Peculiarly it is Stock who comes across as pathological, unhappy and desperate whereas Dean seems a decent sort being screwed around by Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley) who knows he’s on to something great but wants to control this rebel from bad PR. Stock supposedly met Dean at a party at Nick Ray’s when he was casting Rebel Without a Cause and the distractions are looking at an actress who looks nothing like Natalie Wood and an epicene man who only bares a slight resemblance to Ray, along with the overriding story arc of Stock’s failed teenage marriage and his unwillingness to spend time with a very young son. Dean’s relationship with Pier Angeli is artfully used to construct the parameters of his Hollywood life;  while the trip the two men make back to Indiana before the premiere of East of Eden which commences in NYC’s Times Square is of course the setting for one of most people’s favourite poster, latterly called The Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The real story here is about the relationship between a photographer and his subject, whom he virtually stalked for the story, perhaps sensing something in Dean that Dean did not yet suspect was within himself. It’s nicely put together and shot, as you would expect from Anton Corbijn, a man who knows something about the craft behind creating iconic images – his rock career is probably the most notable of any photographer/video director of the last thirty years. But somehow even De Haan’s uncanny interpretation is not the favoured performance here and the ghastly Pattinson gets equal screen time in some sort of deluded payoff to the director’s former job. I don’t get it. How’d that happen?! There seems to be some kind of queer subtext that isn’t quite brought to the surface – despite the rumours about Dean, it’s Stock who appears to be unhealthily obsessive and projecting something that isn’t really there.  It makes you wonder about all those people who made money off their Jimmy stories when he was no longer around. Oh well, better to be talked about … than not. An opportunity mostly missed, sadly.

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The Banger Sisters (2002)

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Bob Dolman’s story of two former groupies hooking up again twenty years after their heyday is long over is a mild affair sparked by the wonderful pairing of Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon. Suzette (Hawn) is fired from her job tending bar at the Whisky in LA and she needs money so decides to look up her old partner in crime Vinnie (Sarandon) who’s now a respectable Mom in Phoenix. On the way there she runs out of gas and picks up a phobic writer (Geoffrey Rush) who’s headed to the same destination to confront his bullying father. A prom night at their hotel sees Suzette bailing out Vinnie’s elder daughter (Erika Christensen) after a bad acid trip and the women’s reunion over the younger daughter’s (Eva Amurri, Sarandon’s own offspring) failed driving test starts the tightly wound Vinnie unwinding faster than you can say Cock Rock Photos (we don’t see what they look at in that drunken basement Polaroid fest).  There are some funny scenes that are underwritten – when Suzette sees the typewriter in the pool wasn’t there a smart line in that about rock star behaviour? More could have been made of the music backdrop and the family’s bizarre concept of their mother doesn’t ring true given the elder daughter’s penchant for sex in the pool.  (I’m still trying to figure out how Christensen got this gig.) Nobody really lets rip here, as one would have expected given the backstory … But the ladies are a terrific match and if it’s not Thelma and Louise it makes for a very good companion piece with Almost Famous, starring Hawn’s daughter Kate Hudson a couple of years earlier. I’ve waited a long time for Hawn to act again:  please release her next movie, like, now, already!

McFarland USA (2015)

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Filmmaker Niki Caro has form when it comes to somewhat PC work: Whale Rider, for one. And here the relationship between race (ethnicity) and race (athletics) -no! – is the two-pronged implement on which the story is structured. Luckily for me the fabulous Kevin Costner is the troublemaking high school coach who draws the short straw and is sent with his family to take over at Central Valley  in what is essentially a town full of Mexicans. He’s scared for his family, they all want to leave, he ends up coaching a bunch of lardarses to run really fast cross country.And it’s all true. I forgot what this was about while I was watching it – the last time that happened was Gangster Squad. Costner. Sports movie. WTF happened? Hand me that fork.

Never Been Kissed (1999)

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Speaking of Drew Barrymore… what do you mean a high school/newspaper movie mashup?! And here it is. She’s Josie Geller, junior copywriter st the Chicago Sun-Times, run by the hilariously irascible Garry Marshall (golly I miss him already) sent back undercover to her old high school to get juicy stories  exposing teenage culture. But only the geeks led by Leelee Sobieski like her so it takes her lovable older brother, failed pro ball player Rob (David Arquette) to re-enrol, thus conferring her with enough cool to infiltrate the best clique. Thing is, she falls for her teacher, the (then-) gorgeous Michael Vartan (seriously – what has happened to him?) There are frequent funny flashbacks to the first time round and some very knowing homages, especially to Carrie (youknowwhatimean). Talk about reinvention. Great fun and Barrymore is winsome and believable in a script by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, directed by Raja Gosnell.

Grease (1978)

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It took me a while to like this – not because it’s inherently unlikeable, but when I was a child and taken to see this on a big day out at a city cinema EVERYONE except me had seen it and knew every line of dialogue, never mind the songs which were ubiquitous at the time. I could barely hear a word over the audience recycling the whole film from start to wretched finish. But it’s so fantastic, isn’t it? The adaptation of the stage hit by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs cannily invoked the current for Fifties nostalgia in an era of huge social and political flux, reinvented song modes – he said/she said, tributes, gang chants – and put it all together in an engaging paean to the high school experience. The soundtrack album was huge – second only to Saturday Night Fever, the other half of Travolta’s twofer. What a year he had! Bronte Woodard and producer Allan Carr wrote the screenplay, which altered the stage show, added songs, and cast the oldest teenagers on the planet and somehow … it all works. John Travolta is simply a charisma machine and his idiosyncratic take on the music is unforgettable. It was his idea to bring Olivia Newton-John on board despite her scant acting experience and boy does she get the makeover treatment. Jeff Conaway is brilliant as Kenickie and as for Stockard Channing and Didi Conn:  oh!  A raft of Fifties TV personalities add to the authentic feel with Frankie Avalon appearing as Teen Angel. Daring, funny, witty, vastly entertaining. Oh my. What a wonderful film. You know the rest. Directed by Randal Kleiser.

Pretty in Pink (1986)

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Before Winona Ryder, there was Molly Ringwald. She was Warren Beatty’s protegee and had a few small roles before becoming the mascot for teens everywhere through the cinema de John Hughes, the late lamented auteur who first worked with her in Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club (I may weep). His screenplay, directed by Howard Deutch, is constructed around a prom – who will Andie go with? And yet it’s about friendship, cliques, high school, romance, class, cars, clothes, fathers and daughters. She has the greatest BFF ever in Duckie, the unforgettable Jon Cryer, a mentor in old punk Annie Potts and crushes on Blane, the rich boy, played by Andrew McCarthy. Oh golly. We get to see Dweezil Zappa, Andrew Dice Clay, Gina Gershon, Kristy Swanson, James Spader when he still had hair and Harry Dean Stanton is Dad. The 80s were great. Weren’t they?