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

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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!

Little Big Man (1970)

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I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers. My name is Jack Crabb. And I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, uh, uh, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand. When a curious oral historian (William Hickey) turns up to hear the life story of 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), he can scarcely believe his ears. Crabb tells of having been rescued and raised by the Cheyenne, of working as a snake-oil salesman, as a gunslinger, and as a mule skinner under General Custer (Richard Mulligan). He learned the way of the Indian and the Creation story at the foot of Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) who ponders the difference between Custer and Human Beings.  He also claims to be the only white survivor of the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn but is he telling the truth or is he the biggest liar ever?… Am I still in this world? Calder Willingham’s adaptation of Thomas Berger’s novel is a superb, caustic, funny, shocking and humane saga of the West as you have never seen it before. Told in a circular structure through this self-proclaimed adopted son of Cheyenne, it debunks myths, casting an acerbic eye over the rationale of the genocides carried out by so-called American heroes and how they have previously been dramatised. Inevitably the awful violence calls up parallels with the Vietnam War. Hoffman is quite brilliant as the ridiculously old guy who claims to have been there and done that with Faye Dunaway lending terrific support.  This grand, flavourful shaggy dog epic is beautifully crafted by director Arthur Penn making it an insidiously charming, educational entertainment that is virtually a masterpiece of Seventies cinema. I was afraid it would turn out this way

The Return of Frank James (1940)

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I can’t talk without thinking, not being a lawyer. When Jesse James’s murderers the Ford Brothers are set free, his brother Frank (Henry Fonda) who’s been lying low farming, vows revenge and, accompanied by his gang, sets out to track them down. To fund his manhunt, he robs an express office and is subsequently wrongly accused of the clerk’s murder, but an aspiring newspaper reporter Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney) is determined to find out the truth… Sam Hellman wrote a sequel to the earlier Henry King film and it was directed by renowned German director Fritz Lang, his first colour film and his first western. Notable for also being Tierney’s acting debut, she was appalled at her voice and thought she sounded like an angry Mickey Mouse:  she remedied the problem by developing a lifelong smoking habit. She plays nicely opposite Fonda who returns from the earlier film and has several great scenes, including the theatre episode when he’s watching a dramatic ‘re-enactment’ portray his brother’s murder by the Fords while he runs away – the Fords play themselves – and registers his disgust, drawing their attention to him and commencing a chase with Bob Ford (John Carradine). There’s a very funny scene when he and young brother Clem (wonderfully characterised by Jackie Cooper) imprison a nosy Pinkerton detective who’s alerted Stone to their true identities. When justice is finally seen to be done after a trial, Clem steps in to help and the final scene between them is very touching. Wonderfully staged and played, this is a consummate, straightforward revenge western, well told.

 

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 .

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.

The Queen (2006)

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31 August 1997. We all know where we were when we heard the news. It was our generation’s JFK. Or John Lennon. In London the scent of the flowers left for Diana at the gates of Buckingham Palace was overpowering, stretching out to the west, as far as Heathrow Airport. Peter Morgan’s screenplay grasps the nettle of this story’s symbolism – Diana the huntress, hounded to her death. The Queen, a hunter, hiding out in Balmoral. And he extends the symbolism to the hunting of a stag whom she finally feels is a kindred spirit and who is wounded by an investment banker on a neighbouring estate and fatally shot in order to be relieved of his agonies by the proprietor’s men. The knotty issue of Queen Elizabeth II’s controversial response to her former daughter in law’s death in Paris is teased out both on this dramatic cord and that between her and her new Prime Minister, freshly elected Tony Blair (and boy was that a moment). “She hated her guts,” declares Cherie Blair while her husband wrestles with a public announcement which will culminate in his famous speech written by Alastair Campbell, with the line ‘the People’s Princess.’ “”They screwed up her life, let’s hope they don’t screw up her death,” Tony says to Cherie. Prince Charles wants a private jet to take Diana home. The family objects. Ironically he fears being shot, such is the growing public anger to which the Queen and Prince Philip appear oblivious on their 40,000 acre Scottish hunting estate. It’s a private family matter as far as they’re concerned. Roger Allam as Robin Janvrin the Queen’s secretary, plays go-between as the staff at Number 10 try to deal with the mounting crisis, with daily newspaper headlines and TV vox pops expressing public distress at the Queen’s failure to appear in London or even to raise a flag at half mast. “One in four,” muses the Queen when she hears how many people want the monarchy to end. “I’ve never been hated like that before.” How the compromise is reached between this model of royal restraint and the arriviste smiling moderniser is masterfully accomplished with a brisk, clean style effectively delivered by Stephen Frears. And, as Cherie Blair whoops, “At the end of the day, all Labour Prime Ministers go gaga for the Queen.” Witty, sharp, smart as anything and goodness what a time it was, as the extremely well chosen archive clips remind us. Helen Mirren won the Academy Award for a particularly well observed performance. Peter Morgan continues to write about the Royals, to some acclaim! And Mirren continues to play the Queen now and then. But the elephant in the room of course is the absent woman at the drama’s centre – and what a shadow the People’s Princess has left. A considerable achievement in all respects.

Bewitched (2005)

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Way back when, a friend saw a movie before me and her review was succinct:  “The fireplaces were marvellous.” And, aside from a wonderful cat called Lucinda who greatly resembles my own lovely Frodo, for a while that’s pretty much how I felt about this Nora Ephron outing – exacerbated in no small way by the fact that at the screening I attended there was a soundtrack of contemporary music for the first 10 minutes – the projectionist’s personal choice. So much for postmodernism – for that’s exactly what this is, an interweaving of the old TV show with a modern interpretation of how a reboot is put together by egomaniac freshly divorced and failing film star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) who bumps into the best nose-twitcher in LA, Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman). She’s a newbie to the Valley in an effort to enter the mortal realm and be normal – so she becomes an actress. Only in LA. She falls hard for Jack but his weaselly agent Ritchie (Jason Schwartzmann) rubbishes the idea in her hearing. She wants to put a spell on him and it works, for a while. The scriptwriter (Heather Burns, who also acted for Ephron in You’ve Got Mail) gives her great lines and shows up Jack/Darrin. “Nobody likes Darrin!” he whines when the preview numbers are in and she’s a hit and he’s not. Nora and Delia Ephron wrote this with Adam McKay who’s long been house writer/director of that bromance crew led by Ferrell. Here, warlock dad (Michael Caine) isn’t too impressed with the real world translation of immortal shenanigans but co-star Iris playing Endora (Shirley Maclaine) literally puts a spell on him because she’s got a witchy secret of her own. Halfway through Isabel rewinds her spell on Jack and their story re-starts – right in the middle of his guest interview with James Lipton, which is absolutely appropriate. Steve Carell and Carole Shelley have nice bits as Uncle Arthur and Clara, Ferrell gets to go naked in front of Conan and Nicole has a ball in a light as air souffle, just as Ephron would have served up for one of her carefully constructed meals, with an I Love You scene that perfectly fuses the structural ambitions of this postmodern romcom. Are Isabel and Jack in love with each other? Their characters? The idea? Themselves? That is the question … “I’m about to be killed by a fictional character!” squeaks Jack at one point. Well, duh. And the kitchen is marvellous!

Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)

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Why mess with perfection? It seems a lot of films get out without their makers’ approval – CE3K being but one example. So there goes your auteur theory, box office and schedules being of more concern to the studios. Twenty-two years after it originally escaped Francis Ford Coppola’s hands, he got back with Walter Murch (who’d already spent two years of his life on it…) and re-edited a masterpiece, adding 29 minutes and substantial extra story to this fabular excursion on the wild side of Vietnam. The story is effectively the same, with the brilliance of John Milius’ touch all over this Conrad adaptation and those incredible, quotable lines – I love the smell of napalm in the morning! Charlie don’t surf! – but with added French ex-pats living out the last of their gilded sweaty days on a plantation (Christian Marquand helps). There is also a new sequence meeting the Playboy Bunnies upriver and more with Colonel Kurtz. The original soundtrack is quite possibly the scariest in my collection (try listening to it on your own in the dark) but more music was added: although Carmine Coppola had died in 1991, a deleted Love Theme was found and re-recorded on synths. If you haven’t seen this, or the original, you’re missing out on one of the great cinematic experiences. Stunning.

Room 237 (2012)

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Peace pipes. Baking soda. The end of history. Impossible windows. The Holocaust. Subliminal sexual imagery. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining is bloody scary. And for some people who have a nitpicking obsessive completionist brain,rather like the 200 IQ Kubrick himself, there’s a world to be found in this film, frame by frame. Rodney Ascher’s documentary issues a disclaimer clarifying that nobody that ever had anything to do with the production of The Shining was involved in this in any way. Arranged in nine categories, the voice over theories are matched to (very) repetitive sequences from both The Shining and other Kubrick films (and referenced works). This is nutsville, on one level, and then you find yourself agreeing with … a lot. (Isn’t repetition and protein deprivation what the Moonies do? I digress).  Kubrick’s phenomenal intellectual breadth and depth leads you to conclude that maybe everyone here is right. And not to get too postmodern about it, meaning is in the eye of the beholder, regardless of the auteur’s intentions. He’s not around to confirm or deny, and in the words of Scatman Crothers, Room 237 is nothing. Maybe …