The Last Picture Show (1971)

Everything is flat and empty here. There’s nothing to do. In 1951 Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) are high-school seniors and friends inAnarene, North Texas. Duane is dating Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), who Sonny considers the prettiest girl in town. Sonny breaks up with his girlfriend Charlene Duggs. Over the Christmas holiday Sonny begins an affair with lonely Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman) the depressed wife of high-school “Coach” Popper (Bill Thurman) who is secretly gay. At the Christmas dance Jacy is invited by Lester Marlow (Randy Quaid) to a naked indoor pool party at the home of Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette) a wealthy young man who seems a better romantic prospect than Duane. Bobby tells Jacy that he isn’t interested in virgins and to come back after she’s had sex. Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) bans the boys from his cafe, pool hall and cinema when they mistreat their retarded friend Billy (Sam Bottoms) taking him to a prostitute who beats him for making a mess. Sam dies while the boys are on a road trip to Mexico and leaves his property to different people, including Sonny. Jacy invites Duane for sex in a motel and eventually breaks up with him by phone, eventually losing her viriginity on a pool table to her mother’s lover Abilene (Clu Gulager). Sonny fights with Duane over Jacy  and Duane leaves town to work on the rigs out of town. Jacy sets her sight on Sonny and they elope to her parents’ fury. The war in Korea provides an escape route for Duane but there’s one last picture show on before the cinema closes down forever … Nothing’s ever the way it’s supposed to be at all. They say the third time’s the charm and so it was for neophyte director Peter Bogdanovich in this adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel about kids growing up in small town North Texas which he co-wrote with the author as well as wife Polly Platt, who was the production designer and collaborator with Bogdanovich on all his films. (Then he fell in love with his young leading lady Shepherd, but that’s another story). The film was shot in black and white following advice from Orson Welles, Bogdanovich’s house guest at the time (and the best book on Welles derives from this era of their wide-ranging conversations, This Is Orson Welles, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum).  The cinematography rendered by Robert Surtees is simply exquisite, the attention to detail extraordinary but this is no nostalgic trip down memory lane. The universally pitch-perfect performances exist in this very specific texture as a kind of miracle, duly rewarding Johnson and Leachman at the Academy Awards. But Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mom Lois has some of the best lines and delivers them with power. She and Shepherd have one amazing scene together. This is a coming of age movie but it’s also about ageing and loneliness and deception and disappointment and it’s the acknowledging of the sliding scale of desperation where the emotions hit gold. And there are juxtapositions which still manage to shock – like when Sonny looks out the window to see one horse mount another while a great romantic poem is being read in class. The realisation that Sam’s great love was Lois and vice versa. The callous way sexual manipulation is used as a casual transaction for the bored. There were controversies over scenes of sex and nudity which didn’t make it into the initial release but those parts were restored in 1992 by Bogdanovich so that the full potential of the story could be contextualised. A poignant Fordian masterpiece now firmly imprinted as an American classic.  You couldn’t believe how this country’s changed

Casino (1995)


There are three ways of doing things around here: the right way, the wrong way, and the way that I do it. You understand? Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is a Jewish handicapper asked by the Chicago Mob to oversee the day-to-day casino and hotel operations at the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas in 1973. His childhood friend, mobster Nicky Santoro (Pesci), is a made man and makes life tricky for Ace. Ace falls for call girl and chip hustler Ginger McKenna (Stone) whom he eventually marries. They have a daughter Amy (Erika von Tagen) but Ginger gets into drugs and her behaviour becomes loud and difficult. Ace has problems getting a gaming licence despite keeping local politicos happy and the skimmed money is being skimmed by people he employs. All his relationship begin to break down and the FBI are closing in when Ginger runs away with her lover and pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods) taking Amy with them … When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And for a while, I believed, that’s the kind of love I had.  At first glance it doesn’t seem elegiac yet this Scorsese collaboration with co-writer Nicholas Pileggi (from his Casino:  Love and Honor in Las Vegas) five years after Goodfellas operates as a long goodbye to a way of life essentially foreign, about strangers in a strange land. It’s adapted from the lives of Frank Rosenthal, Anthony Spilotro and Geri McGee. The mob were never at ease in the desert landscape and the story problem doesn’t end there because all the relationships here are uneven and mismatched:  Jewish and Italian, Ace and Nicky, Ace and Ginger, the Mob and Vegas. It starts audaciously: with a bomb. Yet the victim is one of the narrators. The competing voiceovers by Ace and Nicky are stark illustrations of the power plays beyond the gaming tables. The storytelling, spanning a decade to 1983 (and ‘many years before’) is a familiar one of bribery, corruption, murder, gambling, crooked politicians, prostitution, children, golf, drugs and great clothes, And the production design by Dante Ferretti lit up by Robert Richardson’s beautiful cinematography offers a stark contrast to the coarseness of these terrible people. It’s long and talky and horrifically violent and startling in terms of juxtapositions and acting. At the centre of the extraordinary soundtrack in this epic of marriages gone wrong is the score for Godard’s Contempt (Le mepris) by Georges Delerue, pointing our response in the correct direction. We are left to contemplate the magnificent, complete performance by Sharon Stone, one of the best in modern cinema, the cause and effect in this epic and tragic tale of the misbegotten. In the end it is a pitiless exploration of humanity. A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

There is no whole thing. You have to make it work. Divorced thirtysomething recruitment agent Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson) begins a romantic relationship with glamorous sculptor Bob Elkin (Murray Head), aware that he’s also intimately involved with lonely middle-aged Jewish doctor Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch).  Bob takes off from the weekend babysitting for Alex’s friends the Hodsons (Vivian Pickles and Frank Windsor) in order to spend time with Daniel. The younger man represents a break with the pasts of both Bob’s older lovers, and neither is willing to let go of the love and vitality he brings to their mundane lives although he’s planning to leave for New York … I know you’re not getting enough of me but you’re getting all there is. Film critic Penelope Gilliatt’s screenplay, suggested by material she plumbed in her novel One by One, is a deep delve into the compromises and deceptions people make in order to have a little happiness. The North London setting with its population of slightly boho middle class types conceals the fact that the story is told rather cleverly, through the shared answering service, tales that Daniel is told by his patients, the insights of the precocious children Alex is minding and her mother’s truisms about marriage. The autumnal scenes carving out a season of political unrest hint at the melancholy truth that these are people who live in fear of rejection, hesitant about commitment, afraid to make a permanent display of emotion in a film which wears its protagonists’ pathology on its shirt sleeve, a patina of loss.  It’s amusing to see both Alex and Daniel cruise past Bob’s flat late at night, fearful there might be yet another person claiming his affection. Alongside the brilliant performances of the leads, with Finch a standout, there’s legendary silent actress Bessie Love as an answering service operator; Tony Britton in search of a job and winding up with a one night stand; and a very young Daniel Day-Lewis as a car vandal. How apposite for Jon Finch to be hustling his namesake, narrowly avoiding a late night arrest in Piccadilly Circus. Directed by John Schlesinger, whose best film this is, about a world he fully inhabits. He also contributed to the screenplay for this landmark in gay representation, along with David Sherwin and Ken Levison, who are thanked for their assistance in the credits. Some people believe something is better than nothing, but I’m beginning to believe that nothing can be better than something

From Here to Eternity (1953)

You should know that in the Army it’s not the individual who counts. 1941. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is transferred to Schofield Barracks on Hawaii where his commanding officer Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober) promotes boxers but Prewitt blinded a man in a fight and won’t co-operate. He is bullied until Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) suggests he is given extra duties but gets hazed by non-comm officers. Supported by friend Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), the men go carousing to a private club where Prew falls for Lorene (Donna Reed), a ‘hostess’. Maggio gets into a row with stockade Sergeant ‘Fatso’ Judson (Ernest Borgnine) but Warden intervenes. Warden begins an affair with the neglected wife Karen (Deborah Kerr) of Captain Holmes whose promiscuous reputation hides a tragedy. Maggio leaves guard duty and gets atrociously drunk, ultimately leading to a sadistic beating from Fatso which kills him. Prew decides upon revenge on the eve of Pearl Harbour … A man don’t go his own way he’s nothing. Despite some decidedly uninspired directing from Fred Zinnemann, this tightly scripted adaptation of James Jones’ classic novel by Daniel Taradash skirts a fine line between outright travesty and censor-baiting in a bid to stay more or less faithful to the themes and the melodramatic aspects are saved before the concluding scenes when the Japanese bombers arrive. Clift gets the best of the pithy truisms, which fits the story’s construction, given that he and Sinatra are the doomed pair who have to make the tragic sacrifices and both give stunning performances. The entire cast shines and there are many great scenes, with the usual one on the beach with the crashing surf between Kerr and Lancaster excerpted as an instance of classic Hollywood romance but it’s one with an undertow of sadness, The first-rate expressive acting is what makes this special.  A man should be what he can do

Advance to the Rear (1964)

Advance to the Rear

My wife wouldn’t believe half the things that go on around here. In 1862, during the American Civil War, a company of Union infantrymen, commanded by Colonel Claude Brackenbury (Melvyn Douglas) who has a comfortable arrangement with his opposite number to exchange a round of gunfire for an agreed amount of time each morning to avoid any real conflict. However the status quo is disrupted when his junior Captain Jared Heath (Glenn Ford) captures some of the enemy. When he receives an order to attack the Confederate positions. his horse stampedes toward the rear of the front by accident. The confused soldiers, deployed in assault formation, follow their colonel in a rush. The consequent Board of Inquiry sees this as plain cowardice in the face of the enemy and Colonel Brackenbury is demoted to the rank of Captain while his executive officer,, is demoted to Lieutenant. As further punishment, together with a few of their NCOs they are deployed west to Fort Hooker where they are to take charge of a company of misfits and rejects. The new company is designated as Company Q (army slang for ‘sick list’). On the way, the demoted officers travel on a river-boat. Among the passengers there are several prostitutes, led by Madam Easy Jenny (Joan Blondell) being run out of town by the decent townsfolk. But it’s saucy Martha Lou Williams who tickles Heath’s fancy, particularly when he figures she’s got a scam going. It turns out she’s a spy for the other side but he decides to do nothing except keep her out of trouble because he wants to marry her. Then things come to a head when they arrive at their destination and the unit is required to escort a gold shipment and are captured by Thin Elk (Michael Pate) an Indian chief West Point graduate who’s in league with Hugo Zattig (James Griffith) of the Confederates …  I ain’t never seen no troops that looked quite so defeated. A period variation on the service comedies so popular in the post-war era, this Civil War gang could serve as a model for The Dirty Dozen, minus the violence or cynicism. Ford had starred in a series of military comedies since The Teahouse of the August Moon but this is the first one to be set in the Civil War. It’s mild material but Douglas scores as the unruffled General who believes in not fighting like a West Point gentleman when tea can be enjoyed instead. Jack Schaefer’s non-comedic 1957 novel Company of Cowards was adapted from a Saturday Evening Post story by William Chamberlain and the screenplay is by Samuel A. Peeples and William Bowers with uncredited work by Robert Carson. It’s a rather thin piece of work, lacking focus on the main event and coasting on Ford’s easy personality and Stevens’ charm with some nice scenes featuring Alan Hale and Whit Bissell while Blondell is fun as the blowsy madam. There are some interesting sound effects and songs by the New Christy Minstrels. Directed by George Marshall. When are we going to stop doing all this?

 

The Carpetbaggers (1964)

The CarpetbaggersThe Carpetbaggers cast poster

Living up in the air like a rich seagull. When playboy Jonas Cord (George Peppard) inherits his father’s industrial empire based on an explosives factory, he expands it by acquiring an aircraft factory and Hollywood movie studio. His rise to power during the 1920s and 1930s is ruthless. He sets aviation records and starts a passenger airline. He marries and then quickly abandons sweet, bubbly Monica Winthrop (Elizabeth Ashley) the daughter of a business rival and provokes their divorce before she gives birth to their daughter; turns his young, gorgeous stepmother, Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker), who was his girlfriend originally before his father Jonas Sr. (Leif Erickson) married her, into a self-destructive movie star; and manages to disappoint even his closest friend and surrogate father, cowboy movie star Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd) whose concealed background he uses for a movie script. Then he falls for a prostitute Jennie Denton (Martha Hyer) whom he wants to turn into the movie star of America’s dreams… If that woman ran an immoral house she’d have to pay me. Despite the lurid and sadistic content of Harold Robbins’ sensational 1961 bestseller, a roman à clef which mines the contours of a Howard Hughes-type protagonist, and censorship issues aside, this is a strangely muted adaptation by John Michael Hayes and Edward Dmytryk’s stilted direction doesn’t help. The real shocker is the fight scene between Peppard and an ageing Ladd which looks properly dangerous and finally explores Cord’s psychology but it’s truly disturbing because it feels real, unlike much of the drama. As a portrait of the Thirties movie-making scene it’s certainly got a nose for the Hollywood casting couch mentality and its general air of seedy decadence and corruption. In that light it’s an interesting take on the career of the Harlow rip off played by Baker (and she made the biopic the following year). Robert Cummings is properly horrifying as Dan Pierce, the smooth agent who is a pimp in all but name; and Martin Balsam scores as Bernard B. Norman, a dastardly studio head; but in many ways, including performance, with Peppard the main culprit, this is all trash, all surface. Ladd’s character is a mélange of Tom Mix, William Boyd and Ken Maynard:  the prequel, Nevada Smith, would be directed by Henry Hathaway from a John Michael Hayes script with Steve McQueen in the lead. Ladd died before this was released. Only you know how all the pieces fit

Alvarez Kelly (1966)

Alvarez Kelly

I’m a reasonable man. If I weren’t I might go over to the other side. In 1864 Alvarez Kelly (William Holden) is a Mexican-Irish cattle rancher who is doing his best to stay out of the Civil War. He has no interest in which side may win or lose being more concerned about his own survival, and about making money, supplying cattle to the Union side via Major Tom Stedman (Patrick O’Neal). He soon finds himself in the middle of the conflict, however, when a confederate colonel Tom Rossiter (Richard Widmark) captures him and forces Kelly to help his soldiers steal a nearby herd of cattle, which they desperately need for food. Kelly is blackmailed into doing it by alluring and very well-named treacherous widow Charity Warwick (Victoria Shaw) but is really attracted to a madam in peril Liz Pickering (Janice Rule) whose escape he engineers. However on the trail of the rustlers is Stedman and it becomes a battle of wits as Kelly has to decide whose side he really does belong to God deliver me from dedicated men. A dynamic story that somehow doesn’t get justice which you can probably put down to the stylings of director Edward Dmytryk. The screenplay by Franklin Coen (with uncredited rewrites by Daniel Taradash and Elliott Arnold) certainly has all the elements required for a frequently comic western, albeit the humour is rooted in darkness and male sexuality. The casting is of course key:  Widmark is playing to his Tommy Udo reputation while you can see why Peckinpah wanted hyper-sexed renegade Holden in The Wild Bunch a few years later. The combination of fruity exchanges and violence creates a particularly potent admixture even if you would never credit Dmytryk with an ability to indulge humour. The scenes between Holden and Rule are especially pleasurable:  Pity is the real empty room I despise, she deadpans. They’re a sure thing. Until they’re not. The rivalry with Widmark is extremely well played, with an edge of nastiness that tips into threat and violence on many occasions. Save for a few obvious process shots it looks very well courtesy of Joseph MacDonald and gets rebalanced at the end with a tremendous pairing of stampede and shootout in a slick robbery that even impressed Lincoln. The virtuous Irish lord wasn’t able to stop his son from becoming a pirate

Road to Perdition (2002)

Road to Perdition

Where would this town be without Mr John Rooney? In 1931 Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hitman and enforcer for Irish-American mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) in the Rock Island area. His son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) hides in the car one night after the wake for one of Rooney’s henchmen and sees his Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) administer a shot in the head to the dead man’s brother Finn (Ciarán Hinds) who talked too much at the event; while he understands for the first time what his father does for a living when he witnesses the bloodshed. Rooney sends Connor to kill Michael and the boy but Connor instead kills his wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and other son Peter (Liam Aiken) in cold blood and Michael goes on the run with Michael Jr in an attempt to gain revenge for his family’s murder. He finds that he has no friends and no protection and is advised by Mafia man Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to give up. He reckons without a freelance corpse photographer Maguire (Jude Law) following him and thinks that by uncovering Connor’s theft that Rooney will accept him as the son he never had … A man of honour always pays his debts and keeps his word. I like this far better now that years have passed, Newman is gone and what I originally thought of as directorial heavy-handedness is more readily recognisable as a comfort with the excessive expressionistic qualities of the source material. Hanks’ doughy face with its deep-set eyes seems peculiarly unsuited for this kind of role but paradoxically lends the performance an unexpected quality. His six-week road trip with his son gives him an opportunity to impart lessons and learn about the boy for the first time. He makes us know that Michael Jr is not to follow him into this deadly business. His scenes with Newman are marvellous – a kind of trading off in acting styles, one legend passing on lessons to the next, borne out in the storytelling. What Michael doesn’t know is that blood means more than sympathy, no matter the horrors involved in being part of the Rooney family. Of course Connor would betray his father;  and of course his father knows. It’s a hard thing to watch Michael learn the truth. Loyalty sucks. This is a gallery of masculine roles – Craig as the ever-smiling psychotic son, Law as the rotten-toothed shooter masquerading as the photographer of death – a correlative of the film’s own morbidity; Hoechlin as the boy learning at his father’s elbow as the guns go off. Hinds impresses in those early scenes, quietly seething then mouthing off at his brother’s wake, a crime which will  not go unpunished. Dylan Baker’s accountant Alexander Rance has a decidedly old-fashioned homosexual taint of prissiness. This is a linear story of fathers and sons, cause and effect, crime, punishment and revenge in an Oedipal setting dictated by the rules of inevitability that can be traced to Greek tragedy. There are no surprises but the pleasures of the production design by Dennis Gassner, the cinematography by Conrad Hall (who earned a posthumous Academy Award) and the performances make this worth a re-viewing. Screenplay by David Self from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers

First Love (2019)

First Love 2019

Aka  初恋/Hepburn/Hatsukoi. It’s all I can do. One night in Tokyo, a self-confident young boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) who was abandoned as a child and Monica aka Yuri (Sakurako Konishi) a prostitute hallucinating her late father for want of a fix get caught up in a drug-smuggling plot involving organised crime, corrupt cops and an enraged female assassin Julie (Becky) out to avenge the murder of her boyfriend who may or may be betraying his bosses. Kase (Shota Sometani) is desperate to ascend the ranks and kill whoever crosses his path to help his ambition but is plotting a scam with corrupt cop Otomo (Nao Omori) while the gang has to take on the Chinese but are unaware Otomo has infiltrated their ranks … I’m out to kill! Everybody let’s kill! A typically energetic, funny crime thriller from Japanese auteur Takeshi Miike, with an abundance of identity confusion, revenge, astonishing and surreal violence, savage humour and romance. The kind of film where the line Trust in Japanese cars is delivered with utter seriousness. Quite literally a blast from start to finish with bristling action, beautiful night scenes in neon-lit Tokyo captured by Nobuyashu Kita and brilliantly handled action. Written by Masaru Nakamura and produced by Jeremy Thomas. Still things to do before I die

Mask (1985)

Mask

I look weird but I’m real normal. Azusa, California. It’s 1978. Roy ‘Rocky’ Dennis (Eric Stoltz) is an intelligent, outgoing and humorous teenager who suffers from a disfiguring facial deformity called “lionitis” and has now outlived his life expectancy:  he’s always being told he’s got 6 to 8 months. He’s happy go lucky and indulges his passion for baseball card collecting. His single mother Florence ‘Rusty’ Dennis (Cher) struggles to fight for his acceptance in the mainstream public school system, where he proves himself to be a highly accomplished student at junior high and wins friends by tutoring them. Though Rocky endures ridicule and awkwardness for his appearance, and the classmate he’s sweet on has a boyfriend, he dreams of travelling to Europe with his best friend Ben (Lawrence Monoson). He finds love and respect from his mother’s biker gang family the Turks and particularly likes Gar (Sam Elliott) who eventually reconciles with Rusty and moves in, frequently acting as peacemaker between mother and son. He even experiences his first love when he is persuaded to volunteer at a summer camp for blind kids where he meets Diana (Laura Dern) but then her parents try to keep them separated and Ben lets him down when he says he’s got to move to Chicago ... I want to go to every place I ever read about. Absurdly moving, this wonderfully sympathetic evocation of real-life Rocky Dennis and his mom benefits immensely from being simply told, allowing the characters and the performances to do the heavy lifting. Stoltz has such a tough role but carries it with dignity and aplomb; while Cher is a revelation as the mom whose tough love and wild lifestyle add up to a complex emotional picture. Beautifully written by Anna Hamilton Phelan and sensitively directed by Peter Bogdanovich, this is a life-affirming story of real courage and love. When something bad happens to you you’ve gotta remember the good things that happened to you