The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) attends the funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in a small Western town. Flashing back 25 years, we learn Doniphon saved Stoddard, then a lawyer, when he was roughed up by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). As the territory’s safety hung in the balance, Doniphon and Stoddard, two of the only people standing up to him, proved to be very important, but different, foes to Valance. Stoddard opened a law office over the offices of the Shinbone Star, the newspaper which is run by a steadfast editor determined to expose the reality of the violence terrorising the territory and preserve the freedom of the press. Both Doniphon and Stoddard are in love with the same woman, Hallie (Vera Miles) who cooks in her immigrant parents’ restaurant and whom Stoddard teaches to read and write. When the newspaper prints a (mis-spelled) headline declaring Valance is defeated, he takes revenge – and then the peace-loving Stoddard takes up a gun … This is a film of polarities, exemplified by the civilising influence of Ransom opposed to Valance and Doniphon’s own belief in the power of the gun (which ironically opens up the possibility for bringing law and order to the place). Vera Miles is splendid as the illiterate love of both men:  What good has reading and writing done you? Look at you – in an apron!  An eloquent essay on the genre itself, this was not received warmly upon release. And yet its entire narrative provides the content for soon to be popular structuralist analysis of the western:  the East versus the West, old versus new, the wilderness versus civilisation, violence versus law and order, reality versus myth, the desert versus the garden. Never was a cactus rose deployed to such symbolic effect! John Ford made one of the great films but it took the rest of the world a little longer to catch up. Adapted from Dorothy Johnson’s short story by producer Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah .

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Peyton Place (1957)

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Quality is a very good thing in a roll of cloth but it’s very dull on a big date. Mike Rossi (Lee Phillips) arrives in the small New England town of Peyton Place to interview for high school principal, usurping the favourite teacher (Mildred Dunnock). He drives past a shack where Selena Cross (Hope Lange) lives with her mother (Betty Field), little brother and drunken stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). Selena’s best friend is the graduating class’s star student and wannabe writer Allison Mackenzie (Diane Varsi) whose widowed mother Constance (Lana Turner) has a clothing store and immediately attracts Mike’s interest. Allison has a crush on Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe) heir to the local fabric mill but he only has eyes for trashy Betty (Terry Moore). Allison confides in Norman (Russ Tamblyn) whose watchful mother has altogether too much to do with her shy son. All of the characters attempt to assert their individuality and grow up but malicious rumours, a rape and a suicide followed by a murder are just around the corner as Lucas forces himself on his stepdaughter and Constance reveals to Allison the truth about her obscure origins; then the newspaper carries a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor … Even decades after Grace Metalious’ novel was published it bore the whiff of scandal and my eleven-year old self carried it as though it were dangerous contraband – which of course it was, for about a minute. Part of its attraction was the back cover photograph of the authoress, a gorgeous young thing with a Fifties Tammy ponytail wearing a plaid shirt, cut offs and penny loafers – it was years before I would learn that this was a model (paid tribute by a shot of Allison in the film) and that Metalious was in reality a bloated alcoholic who died not long afterwards:  not such a role model after all!  The bestselling exposition of a horribly inward looking and vicious group of people in an outwardly lovely small town in Maine gets a meticulous adaptation by John Michael Hayes who was working carefully around the censor yet still managed to craft a moving even shocking melodrama from some explosive storylines arranged through the seasons. Lange comes off best in a film which has some daring off-casting – including Turner as the frigid so-called widow, cannily using her star carnality against the character. (In reality she would encounter her own extraordinary scandal with teenage daughter Cheryl within a year of this film’s release). Lloyd Nolan playing the local doctor has a field day in the showstopping courtroom revelation telling some vicious home truths amid some frankly disbelieving onlookers including the unrepentant gossips. Tamblyn gets one of the roles of his career as Norman, the son who is loved just a little too much by his mom… I hadn’t seen this in a long time but much to my surprise was immediately humming along again with the wonderfully lyrical score by Franz Waxman. In many ways this evocative drama sums up the morality of the Fifties even while being set on the eve of WW2 and the early Forties. A very pleasant, beautifully made and surprising reminder of a book whose opening line I’ve never forgotten:  Indian Summer is like a woman … Ah! The film is sixty years old this year. Directed by Mark Robson.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

 

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There’s nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is the hardman and advisor to Irish American gangster Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who’s at war with Italian Mafia boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) at the height of Prohibition. When crooked bookie Bernie (John Turturro) the brother of Leo’s mistress and Tom’s lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) is threatened by Caspar, the dark-hearted and brainy Reagan is found out by Leo and appears to switch sides in an escalating rivalry over liquor distribution that has a huge body count… It’s hard to pick out a single sequence of brilliance in this positively baroque outing but today I’m choosing the attempt on Leo’s life to the sounds of Frank Patterson warbling Danny Boy: what a stunning declaration of visual bravura (kudos to DoP Barry Sonnenfeld). Brutal, witty, dazzling, beautiful, postmodern and classic, this is a masterpiece. The dialogue is straight out of old gangster movies (and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key) and coming out of Byrne’s accented mouth sounds hilarious:  you gasp at some of the lines, they’re so stunningly written. The narrative is constructed on well known gangster tropes and turns them inside out in a film that acts as a commentary on the genre – Tom’s asides with the Irish policemen are an excruciating Greek chorus! – as well as exulting in its excesses, its ghastly violence, its humour, its morality, its sheer decadence. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen and directed by the former, this is one of the modern greats that engages the brain, the heart and the mind with Reagan’s psychology supplying Byrne with a career-defining role. Astounding.

Electric Dreams (1984)

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Meet Edgar. He’ll make you sing, make you dance, make you laught, make you cry, make you jealous, make you nuts. Architect Miles Harding (Lenny Von Dohlen) has dreams of a brick shaped like a jigsaw puzzle piece that could enable buildings to withstand earthquakes. He’s looking for a Casio Day Planner but winds up with a cut price personal computer – the sales assistant drops it off the shelf. Then he buys extra gadgets not necessary for his work – switches to control household appliances like the blender, a speech synthesizer, and a microphone. The computer calls him Moles’ because he’s incorrectly typed his name during the initial set-up. When he attempts to download the entire database from a mainframe computer at work, his computer begins to overheat. Miles uses a nearby bottle of champagne to douse the overheating machine.  He has unwittingly caused it to become sentient and first finds out one night when he’s woken up – the computer (now called Edgar and voiced by Bud Cort) is repeating what he’s said in his sleep. Then it plays music back through the air vents to the beautiful cellist Madeline (Virginia) who lives in the upstairs apartment. She believes it was Miles who had played variations on the duet, and falls for him despite being involved with fellow musician Bill (Maxwell Caulfield). Edgar composes a piece of music for Madeline but gets jealous when Madeline and Miles fall for each other. He cancels Miles’ credit cards and registers him as a dangerous criminal. Miles and Edgar have a confrontation, leading to Miles shoving Edgar and trying to unplug it, getting an electric shock. Then Edgar retaliates in a Pac-Man like game by harassing him with household electronics. Eventually Edgar accepts Madeline and Miles’ love and seems to commit suicide by sending a large electric current through his acoustic coupler – around the world (it’s alright – he’s dialled a toll-free number!) and back to himself just after he and Miles make amends. Edgar’s pop tribute to Miles and Madeline Together in Electric Dreams plays on radio stations across California. A love triangle with a difference – a man, a woman, a personal computer. Artificial intelligence being what it now is (scary) this is actually fairly accurate despite the machine-age imagery – which will however remind some of us of early exposure to the Amstrad! (How I miss green screens…) Von Dohlen hasn’t the charisma to carry this off but Madsen’s sweetness plays nicely off the rather more possessive qualities of Caulfield. A quintessentially Eighties outing with the faults and technical quirks of the era proving a jolt to the old memory stick (not to mention all those songs). Written by Rusty Lemorande and directed by music video maker Steve Barron, perhaps most famous for Billie Jean, Don’t You Want Me, Money for Nothing and The Sun Always Shines on TV all of which pretty much led to the beginning of MTV!

Evita (1996)

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Statesmanship is more than entertaining peasants. 1952 Buenos Aires: a film in a cinema is stopped by the newsflash that Eva Peron (Madonna) is dead. Flashback to years earlier: a little girl running into a church and placing flowers on the body of the man who was her father before she is hustled out. 1930s:  Eva Duarte is sleeping with a tango singer Magaldi (Jimmy Nail) before making her name as a radio actress and then befriending a powerful man Colonel Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce) at a fundraiser following an earthquake. She becomes his mistress and encourages and hustles for him as he parlays his way to power, using her broadcasting nous to raise support for him during his imprisonment by political rivals who fear his rise. Throughout this larger than life musical drama (entirely sung through) Che Guevara (Antonio Banderas) is the shapeshifting commentator on the sidelines, positioning us in the narrative, until the final – unthinkable – departure of Evita. This is a robust, admirable adaptation by director Alan Parker and Oliver Stone of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice behemoth that bestrode theatre in the 1970s after its introduction as a concept album – a musical drama that deconstructs the life of the Argentine bastard who became an actress and whore before marrying the dissolute Peron and utilising her powers of demagoguery to help him and his Nazi thugs to Government. All of this is contextualised under the guise of sympathy for the impoverished masses of which she believed she was one because she was the illegitimate offspring of a married middle class man.  The story problem here is the persona of Evita herself – she’s a narcissistic exhibitionist whose principal passion is herself and this presents the issue of empathy for the viewing experience. It’s an epic political pageant but it’s politics as psychodrama:  you can admire the scale but it’s a mirthless spectacle about horrendous people. Madonna does an excellent job with the songs but her limited technical acting abilities aren’t helped by the parameters of the role itself, which is primarily declarative in function. The first opportunity she really gets to properly emote is on her deathbed: everything else is essentially a con job of presentation, inherent to the character herself. Banderas and Pryce are commentators and therefore essential to the interacting of the personal with the political on a broad canvas shot in muted amber tones which is admittedly captivating and occasionally jaw-dropping in ambition. There are some wonderful visual flourishes and pastiche references to classical filmmaking (Parker even makes a cameo appearance). At its heart this is a vengeful journey into fascistic madness framed by two funerals.  It’s certainly interesting to see this again (in any form) in the week in which the Perons’ successors are finally sentencing the pilots who carried out the murders of tens of thousands of dissidents by dropping them in the shark-infested Atlantic 40 years ago rather than wasting time torturing them – so many people had already invested their energies doing that and it was obviously tiring them out. Can you imagine what these toxic avengers would have done if they’d been allowed on the Falklands? Oh what a circus, oh what a show.

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

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You’re not alone Cal. You never were. Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is removed from prison where he is serving time for murdering a pimp. He’s taken to a futuristic laboratory where he’s subjected to mind-bending experiments that take him back in time to 15th century Spain, 1492 in fact. He’s transported through his genetic memory to his ancestor Aguilar de Nerha who was a member of secret society The Assassins who battle to preserve free will from the Knights Templar. In the present it transpires that his doctor Marion Cotillard and her father Jeremy Irons want to retrieve the Apple of Eden to dominate the world and stop man’s disobedience. Or something. Dreadfully written by Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, indifferently performed by producer/star Fassbender and everyone else (including the director’s marvellous wife Essie Davis who gets the insulting role of Fassbender’s murdered mother), and horribly made by director Justin Kurzel, this is an adaptation of a video game apparently. The funny thing is that uniquely – in these days of telling the entire story in advance – the trailer was really enticing aside from Fassbender’s incomprehensible diction. Yet the film itself makes you want to lose the free will to live. Now can somebody please supply me with the technology to get these two hours back and forget I ever had to endure this tripe?

The Boys from Brazil (1978)

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Will I be plagued till my dying day by that infernal Jew? Keen young Nazi hunter Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) contacts the renowned Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) from South America with the startling news that Nazi war criminals are gathering in Paraguay under the aegis of Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck). As he phones him a recording of a meeting detailing a strange plan he is killed and Mengele realises someone knows something they shouldn’t…. In Vienna, Lieberman opens a packet of photos Barry sent him and tries to make sense of what he’s heard – why must 94 sixty-five year old male civil servants in several different countries be killed by a certain date? After speaking to Nazi guard Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen) in prison he finds out that several male babies were adopted in the Sixties by women who were 23 years younger than their husbands. After speaking with biologist Professor Bruckner (Bruno Ganz) he discovers that cloning is indeed possible and not necessarily from living donors:  Mengele has bred mini-Hitlers and is having them raised in conditions akin to those in which his glorious leader lived (his father was a civil servant who died before the boy was 15). Lieberman must stop the plot to rekindle the Fourth Reich. Ira Levin’s speculative fiction is probably closer to happening now than it was in the Seventies – since which time IVF, cloning and three-parent babies are a mere thought away from what Mengele was doing in his horrifying twins experiments in Auschwitz. So this is a lot less like science fiction than it is science fact. It plugs into the real-life work of Simon Wiesenthal (with Olivier perhaps atoning for his sins in Marathon Man!) when real-life Nazis were still relatively young and of course a huge number of high profile SS men were known to be living freely in sympathetic countries like Brazil and Argentina (never mind running Austria and Germany). It also uses the Lebensborn project as a basis for what is now entirely feasible – apparently. James Mason plays Eduard Seibert, the man who comes to rain on Mengele’s crazy rainforest parade but not before Mengele makes his way to Lancaster Pennsylvania to murder Wheelock (John Dehner) the father of the fourth cloned Hitler (Jeremy Black) a child who is as obnoxious and snotty as his copies in London and elsewhere but has a crucially murderous nature which Lieberman discovers after the boy sets the family’s Doberman’s on Mengele. There is a fight to the death – but whose?  This is literally sensational and for connoisseurs of Nazi villains (in cinema) it’s bizarre to see the great liberal actor Peck have a go at Walter Gotell whom he thinks is betraying his plan for world domination. Didn’t they meet in The Guns of Navarone?! Bizarre also to see Bruno Ganz pontificating about clones when his own resemblance to Hitler meant he would play him years later in Downfall. Most bizarre is the fact that Mengele was still alive (for at least another year, possibly longer) when this was released. And for all we know all those Germans in South America (and Europe) have already got their fortysomething men waiting in the wings. Adapted by Heywood Gould and directed by Franklin Schaffner, this had 25 minutes cut for theatrical release in Germany. Poor things! When will everybody stop talking about the Third Reich already?! In the words of the great Dr Henry Jones Jr., Nazis, I hate these guys.

Runaway Jury (2003)

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Trials are too important to be left to juries! Nothing like the element of surprise to heat up a legal drama and this has it in spades. After a workplace shooting in New Orleans that kills married broker Jacob (Dylan McDermott), lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) takes up the case against the gun manufacturer for the man’s widow Celeste (Joanna Going) but has to deal with a ‘jury consultant’, Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman). When Nicholas Easter (John Cusack), a man without an apparent past, gets on the jury he seems to be able to exert influence on the outcome – with the assistance of his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) who’s operating at the end of a telephone. Both sides are approached to make them an offer to sway the decision – a situation rendered immensely complicated when they are sequestered in a motel on the East Texas border … John Grisham’s thriller was in development for half a dozen years and its original topic – big tobacco – was altered after The Insider (coincidentally featuring Bruce McGill, the judge here) but taps into the very emotive theme of gun rights, the Second Amendment and – in the big reveal – a school shooting. The setting of N’Oleans heaps atmosphere into this very effectively plotted thriller and you’ll recognise a lot of landmarks. The playing – that cast! – is exceptional with Hackman making his return to Grisham territory 9 years after The Firm in which he also essayed a very shady character. Really well managed even if the coda errs on the side of sentiment. Adapted by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman. Directed by Gary Fleder.

Prevenge (2016)

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Children these days are so spoiled, like, Mummy get me the new Playstation, Mummy kill that man. Screenwriter and actress Alice Lowe makes her directing debut in this low-budget horror thriller about a widowed seven-month pregnant woman who takes directions from her highly vocal foetus and goes on a killing spree avenging her late husband whose climbing buddies (male and female) cut the cord to save their lives on an expedition gone wrong. Interspersed with her horribly awkward midwifery appointments there are gory murders, some funny sight gags (getting stuck in a dog flap) and the big joke is about the invisibility of a pregnant woman in the world, even when murdering all before her. Her job interview with yet another guilty party exposes the prejudice towards pregnant workers.  Shot in a sporadically inventive way by Ryan Eddleston (underpass = birth canal, etc.), there are problems in the writing and exposition and in some ways this doesn’t really hit the extremes you might expect despite the violence. The twist ending materialises when the eventual arrival of the totalitarian newborn doesn’t exactly quell the maternal rage. For fans of the genre, there is the bonus of a Seventies-style score by Toydrum.   I’m not grieving I’m gestating! The expectant mother of all slashers.

Live By Night (2016)

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What you put out in the world will always come back to you but never how you predict. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is the WW1-weary son of Irish-American police officer (Brendan Gleeson) who tries to be good but you know how it is. He’s trying to make his way as a small-time crook in 1927 Boston but crosses paths with gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister) by stealing from him and sleeping with his sassy Irish girlfriend Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). He’s blackmailed by White’s rival mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to kill White or he’ll rat on the affair so robs a bank to flee to California with Emma. That was the original plan but police officers get killed and Emma apparently drowns being chased by police after White came close to killing Joe. Despite the efforts of his father he serves three years in prison for the police killings and his father is dead when he gets out so he does a deal with Piscatore to take over his rum business in Florida where he can get revenge on White. It means setting up business with Suarez (Miguel Pimentele) and he shacks up with his sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana). He and his sidekick Dion (Chris Messina) take over and then someone thought dead turns up in a photograph and Maso has a showdown with Joe and it turns into a triple cross situation  … There are a lot of admirable things in this production: the settings, the design (even if the cars are way too clean), some brilliant lines (rather than exchanges of dialogue) and a depiction of the Prohibition era in Florida that introduces the Ku Klux Klan into the mix because these gangsters are Catholic. Affleck’s commitment to bringing Dennis Lehane’s Boston Irish mythology to the screen is to be commended but his waxy inexpressiveness is central to why this doesn’t work (blank is simply not a good look in a gangster movie). Miller makes him look better than he is in their scenes together – they crackle – but she departs the story early. All the bits are here, they just don’t add up, and that usually leads us back to the screenwriter – also Affleck. There are plotlines thrown away in a photograph or a newspaper cutting. There are technical issues too – some of the sound mix particularly at the beginning is poor. A smarter filmmaker would have dropped a lot of the overhead shots and the dumb narration (look at how it doesn’t work and compare it with Goodfellas!) and cast a better actor in the lead:  just watch how Chris Cooper in his small role as police chief Figgis in Tampa wipes the floor with Affleck in his first scene and listen to him deliver the line about a fallen world. That’s when he introduces his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) who’s on her way to a Hollywood screen test:  bad move. This storyline takes a good turn paying off in a parable about evangelical Protestantism but the conclusion is just dumped for yet another newspaper story after a scene which unravels the sins of fathers who want better things for their kids. Oedipal scenarios aside, this is a guy who traffics liquor and murders people but still thinks he’s his father’s good son. Affleck looks quite laughable in his oversized suit but then you realise that he resembles legendary screen heavy Lawrence Tierney who was so incredibly nasty in days of yore.  Hmmm! What might have been. Oh! The vanity!