W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975)

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I wish I was in Dixie. It’s 1957 and W.W. Bright (Burt Reynolds) is an easygoing crook who robs banks and gas stations because he has a grudge against the corrupt businessman who owns the SOS Oil Co. He bribes the attendants not to grass on him to the cops. He meets the Dixie Dancekings, a two-bit country and western band looking for their big break when he hijacks their car running from the police. Dixie (Conny Van Dyke), their singer, gives him an alibi. He claims to be in the music business, and ends up promoting the group. Wayne (Jerry Reed), the band’s leader, does not trust him, but the others all have faith in him. W.W. only steals from SOS gas stations, so the company’s chairman sends for Bible-thumping ex-lawman Deacon John Wesley Gore (Art Carney) to track him down. Meanwhile, W.W. and the newly outfitted band go to see Country Bull (Ned Beatty), a highly successful singer-songwriter. He is willing to write them a song for $1,000. W.W. talks the Dancekings into a bank robbery (SOS has just opened a drive-in bank branch) that does not work out quite as planned. When Gore broadcasts the description of the getaway car on a radio revival show, W.W. burns up his car. He is ready to separate from the Dancekings in order to protect them (Y’all keep practising – cos you need it!) but then he hears them rehearsing Wayne’s new song. He persuades Country Bull to listen to it; the man is so impressed, he puts them on the Grand Ole Opry. There Gore catches W.W. using an exact replica of his burnt car as bait…. If I ever turn queer, that’s the guy I’d turn queer for. That’s Burt Reynolds talking about Errol Flynn in The Sun Also Rises, the film within a film featured early on at a drive-in, in this John Avildsen production. Avildsen made this in between Save the Tiger and Rocky (so this is the one right before he got the Oscar for Best Director) and it doesn’t have quite the cutting social edge or drive of either but it’s pacy and energetic and seems to be on the cusp of something mythical. That’s emblemised in the 1955 ‘Golden Anniversary’ Oldsmobile 88 (it didn’t exist but three were made for the film) and in the time period – post-James Dean, with W.W. wearing a deep orange zip jacket that calls to mind Rebel Without a Cause. Just a matter of time. And money.  And luck. And perhaps for screenwriter Thomas Rickman W.W. is a smooth-talking charming Southern version of that character all grown up and wised up and prone to larceny. It was a true star vehicle for Reynolds and he’s well teamed with Beatty, his co-star from Deliverance, as the country superstar and Reed (a legendary guitarist) his future co-star from Gator and Smokey and the Bandit (and Don Williams is also in the Dancekings lineup). You can call me anything you like but don’t you ever call me no communist. It has a nice line in irony (literally:  The Edsel’s the car of the future) and getting ahead by robbing The Man provides a nice backdrop for faux nostalgia and a behind the scenes look at the C&W music scene.  It was released just a few weeks before Nashville despite having been shot months earlier and being billed as the first movie out of that fabled quarter. Nashville however has a political element which made it a much more divisive piece of work, an effect generated by many of Robert Altman’s films. Beatty was also in that film, as the character Delbert Reese. But you’ll just die when you see him in the cowboy getup here and it turns out it really is a case of the emperor’s new clothes.  Reynolds is awesomely engaging as the shapeshifting conman, just like you’d want him to be in what is rambunctious entertainment. Rickman clearly understood how to get the best out of Reynolds and a few years later they collaborated on Hooper, which is one of his very best performances and a terrific film, an hilarious look at the life of Hollywood stuntmen.  Rickman also wrote Coal Miner’s Daughter and Everybody’s All-American, some of the best dramas of their era.  If you’re nice to people they’re nice to you right back and that’s what I like about the South

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Local Hero (1983)

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How do you do business with a man who has no door?  Up-and-coming Houston oil executive ‘Mac’ MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) gets more than he bargained for when a seemingly simple business trip to Scotland changes his outlook on life. Sent by his colorful boss Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) to the small village of Ferness, Mac is looking to buy out the townspeople and their properties so Knox Oil can build a new refinery. But after a taste of country life Mac begins to question whether he is on the right side of this transaction …  It’s their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can’t eat scenery!  Writer/director Bill Forsyth’s greatest work will remind you of Ealing Comedy and I Know Where I’m Going: wonderful antecedents and references but not entirely true to the atmosphere of this very magical film, operating with the underlying power of a fairytale. It’s primarily a film about characters and their interactions and it’s absolutely low-key and exact, sidelining whimsy for revelation.  This is truly a fish out of water scenario, about a man learning to live to a different beat in an utterly alien landscape. Lancaster’s inevitable arrival brings a sense of transcendence to the film, augmented by marvellous cinematography courtesy of Chris Menges and a legendary score by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler. I’ve been a fan of Forsyth since I nearly choked to death laughing at That Sinking Feeling so it’s sad that he never had the long career that would have been predicted. This is a romance between people and land and sky and the immensity of living a small life, alive to the wonder. The sun, moon and stars were aligned when they made it.

Gone to Earth (1950)

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Aka The Wild Heart. He put a spell on me, he did. Hazel Woodus (Jennifer Jones) is an innocent child of nature in the Shropshire countryside on the Welsh borders in 1897. She loves and understands all the wild animals more than the people around her. Whenever she has problems, she turns to the book of spells and charms left to her by her late gypsy mother.  Local fox-hunting squire Jack Reddin (David Farrar) sees Hazel and wants her, but she has already promised herself to the Baptist minister, Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack). She brings up a fox cub (Foxy) and is mother to him, insisting that he be part of her bridal party in the church. A struggle for her body and soul ensues and she turns to superstition to deal with her problems… Adapted from Mary Webb’s 1917 bodice-ripper, this is one of Powell and Pressburger’s odder films.  Given producer David O. Selznick’s involvement it’s no surprise that it stars his famously sibilant-averse wife Jones, who never seemed to age. She’s like a feral Scarlett O’Hara, feisty and strong-willed but ignorant in all essentials. Farrar makes a return to the P&P troupe, while Sybil Thorndike is excellent support playing mother to Cusack’s parson, a fine role for the Irish character actor. Hugh Griffith (as the wicked squire’s faithful man servant), Esmond Knight and George Cole get some good moments in the ensemble.  This is a stunning, full-blooded work in lush Technicolor with startling cinematography by the great Christopher Challis, relishing the opportunity to capture the strangeness and beauty of a very lovely part of the world which some readers might recall was the setting for some of Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine series of books for adolescents. Narrated by Joseph Cotten.

 

The Hireling (1973)

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Was it very bad? In the years after WW1, Steven Ledbetter (Robert Shaw) is the chauffeur of widowed British socialite Lady Helen Franklin (Sarah Miles) at Bath in Somerset. As Ledbetter helps Lady Franklin to overcome her fragile state when she is released from a psychiatric facility, he falls in love with her, but their differences in social standing seem to prevent any chance of a romance. He is involved with Doreen (Christine Hargreaves), a waitress although he tells Lady Franklin he is married, believing it will stir her interest. Meanwhile, a war veteran and rising Liberal politician who knew her late husband,  Captain Hugh Cantrip (Peter Egan) becomes involved with Lady Franklin, while maintaining a relationship with Connie (Caroline Mortimer), a presumed war widow.  It leads to tension in her household:  this cad and user was Ledbetter’s commanding officer in the Great War … You need people now. A normal life. L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between had received a lauded screen adaptation a couple of years earlier so the author’s work seemed ripe for cinema and this repeated that film’s success at Cannes, winning the Grand Prix (now the Palme d’Or). Wolf Mankowitz’s interpretation of this take on class difference, post-war trauma and deception doesn’t have the other film’s power – but that work had an extraordinary pull from a child’s point of view of tragedy (plus it was adapted by Harold Pinter). However, as a primarily psychological exploration of romance, this film’s prime attraction is the scale of performance.  Miles and Shaw are superb:  he has no idea that his class can prevent her marrying him.  He has helped her recovery but she simply has no further use for him and it’s his devastation that propels the drama toward a suicidal conclusion. The critics didn’t like Miles but she’s fascinating in the role as she goes through bereavement caused by depression and then a kind of dissemblance, disdain and dismissal.  The showdown in the car is shocking – they are almost exchanging psyches. This is a work which is far less sentimental than the reviewers would have you believe, moving slowly and oddly, filled with beautiful landscapes dappled with low light and autumnal shades. It’s very well directed by Alan Bridges who seems to be rather forgotten now. Hartley lived long enough to enjoy the success of The Go-Between but he died in 1972, before this was released. It’s an intriguing film, worth repeat viewings. It almost seems … un-English. I don’t have anything to go back to now because everything is here with you

Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)

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You’re the man. You lead. It’s WW2 and famous writer Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) get a distressing telegram. We flash back to the interwar years when a shellshocked Milne, an acclaimed playwright, leaves London for the countryside after experiencing one too many reminders of WW1. Milne’s ever-changing moods affect those around him.  Only his friend Ernest H. Shepherd (Stephen Campbell Moore) empathises as a fellow veteran. Daphne is a somewhat dim and brittle wife, unhappy and traumatised on her own account after a violent childbirth. Their nanny Olive or Nou (Kelly Macdonald) is the chief caregiver to their son, Christopher Robin but known as Billy Moon (Will Tilston). Daphne tires of A.A. and his failure to write anything and leaves for the city, ostensibly to buy wallpaper. But the wardrobes have been emptied. When Olive leaves to look after her dying mother, the males of the family are left to their own devices and start to spin fanciful yarns about Billy’s collection of stuffed animals.  Milne invites Ernest to visit and they start to put together a book with illustrations around Billy Moon’s relationship with his toys and their outings to the Hundred Acre Wood.  Tigger is better than Tiger. It’s more Tigger-ish. These stories form the basis for Winnie-the-Pooh  and The House at Pooh Corner, published respectively in 1926 and 1928. Milne and his family soon become swept up in the instant success of the books, while the enchanting tales bring hope and comfort but his relationship with his young son suffers as the boy is wheeled out in public to play the character of Christopher Robin and even their personal phonecalls are broadcast … If I’m in a book people might think I’m not real. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, Simon Curtis’ film skirts the edges of whimsy and tragedy and finds it hard to balance the demands of both – how do you make a man experiencing PTSD a sympathetic character? He wants the British public to know the reality of combat and the utter waste of the Great War.  I’ve had enough of making people laugh. I need to make them see. Giving the toys a voice isn’t even his idea, it’s his wife’s.  She sends a poem he writes to her into Vanity Fair where it becomes famous, her eye firmly affixed to publicity. The child is chirpy and aggressive. These are real people, the film is telling us, and it’s not all wine and roses creating beloved children’s stories. They make each other interesting and tolerable through the written word in a narrative that expresses the limits of people’s endurance. When Milne tells Daphne he’s going to do a book about the pointlessness of war she is riled and shrieks that he might as well try writing about getting rid of Wednesdays – he might not like them but they always come around. Making this man see what he can do and the imaginative links he forges between his son’s playthings and his own desire for escaping the reality of his past provides the main texture of the work.  It’s very handsomely handled but never comfortable, no matter how often the sun might peep through the Hundred Acre Wood. Gleeson is a limited actor and his performance is paradoxically limited by the writing but it’s an admirable insight into the writer’s life and the perilous attractions of fame. Stop. Look.

 

Brubaker (1980)

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That’s murder they’re talking about in there. And if they condone it, how are you gonna turn around and tell these guys why they’re locked up? 1969 Arkansas. Posing as an inmate at Wakefield Prison, the new warden of the penitentiary, Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford), witnesses firsthand the scams and abuse inflicted upon the prisoners by the staff (maggot-ridden food, paying for medical care) and the prisoners upon one another – rape, bullying, violent beatings. After revealing his true identity when a prisoner in the tank Walter (Morgan Freeman) takes another Larry Lee Bullen (David Keith) hostage and threatens to kill him, Brubaker brings much-needed reform to the prison with the help of supporters: trustee (prisoner turned gamekeeper) Dickie Coombes (Yaphet Kotto) and administrator at the board of governors Lillian Gray (Jane Alexander). But not everyone is happy especially not the prison governors who are profiting from years of graft. When the benefactors of the old corrupt system inside the building, like Huey Rauch (Tim McIntire) and Roy Purcell (Matt Clark) are threatened by the changes, Brubaker’s battles really begin and he realises that Dickie is correct to warn him that innocent people are going to die to prove his point … Accomplices to the Crime:  The Arkansas Prison Scandal by Thomas Murton and Joe Hyams was adapted by W.D. Richter (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) and it’s a striking and compelling film of social injustice directed by Stuart Rosenberg, based on Murton’s experiences when he was appointed under Governor Rockefeller to reform an an unprofitable prison.  The inmates were slave labour for local business, the crops on the 15,000 acres were being poisoned, the canned food was being stolen by prison officers and sold on while the inmates starved. When he discovered dozens of men had been murdered and put in unmarked graves he was dismissed. Redford is quite brilliant as the man who is at first in there undercover and then breaks out in order to save an habitual criminal who then becomes a trustee. He understands he has to play the system to make humanitarian gains but finally the demands are too much even when proposed by the woman who wanted him in there, Gray (Alexander). Freeman’s role is small but astonishing – when he sings Respect with David Keith’s neck in his hands you listen. It’s tautly written, brutal and flawlessly staged.  Rosenberg of course is the man responsible for that other great prison movie, Cool Hand Luke. This is a devastating indictment of corruption and graft and there simply isn’t a false moment.

Witness (1985)

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We’re all happy that you’re going to live, John Book.  After witnessing a brutal murder, young Amish boy Samuel (Lukas Haas) and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) seek protection from police officer John Book (Harrison Ford). When Book uncovers evidence of police corruption involving narcotics lieutenant James McFee (Danny Glover), Book must take Rachel and Samuel, and flee to the Amish countryside where Rachel grew up. There, immersed in Amish culture and tradition, Book and Rachel begin a cautious romance while he tries to fit in and the enemy closes in …  I just don’t like the idea of my son spending all this time with a man who carries a gun and goes around whacking people! Great films tend to create a narrative fulcrum based on juxtaposition and opposites:  here we have simplicity and purity versus corruption and violence, delicacy versus roughness, city versus country, child versus man. Written by Pamela Wallace and Earl Wallace and William Kelley, this was director Peter Weir’s entree to the American mainstream after a decade of extraordinary work in his native Australia. It also marked Harrison Ford’s acceptance into the acting world proper after a decade as action superstar courtesy of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. His relationships with Rachel and Samuel and his willingness to look silly – that sheepish grin when he’s in Amish clothing! – signalled a new level of sensitive and complex personification.  With a barn-building sequence out of the Dutch masters,  a romantic dance scene that is one of the sexiest ever made, and a conclusion that ratchets like a vise-like grip closing on the protagonists with an astonishing climax in a grain silo out of silent horror cinema, this is made by a master craftsman at his most cinematic and beautiful. Maurice Jarre’s score is legendary. An American classic. No. Try not. Do or do not

Lean On Pete (2017)

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You don’t get attached to horses. Don’t treat them as pets.  Horses are for racing, nothing else.  Teenager Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer)and his father Ray (Travis Kimmel) wander the Pacific Northwest as Ray goes from job to job. Charley wants stability in his life and when he encounters horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) and his race horse Lean On Pete he finds a new purpose in life. But reality intervenes when his father is beaten up by his lover’s irate husband and is seriously ill in hospital. Charley secrets lives at Del’s stables but when Lean On Pete is injured and Del wants to sell him, Charley makes a decision … Andrew Haigh’s first American film is adapted from country musician and novelist Willy Vlautin’s fine book. It’s a simple story of people’s circumstances and a chance event that turns everything around – for a while. Beautifully constructed and performed, with Plummer making such a great impression in his nuanced interpretation of a boy just looking for a decent home, a good friend, a life.  You can draw your own metaphors from the issue of the ‘stable’ that offers Charley this opportunity – and the inevitable sorrow that follows.  The desert scenes are all big sky and lonesomeness. His behaviour as he confronts his homelessness on city streets is a byword for silent communication:  how he carries himself tells us so much. There is a marvellous soundtrack, with one song by Richmond Fontaine, Vlautin’s band,  and there are good supporting roles for Chloe Sevigny and Steve Zahn. A very rewarding and affecting watch.

The Duellists (1977)

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Keep away from him. Keep ahead of him. Put your trust in Napoleon.  Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) and Gabriel Féraud (Harvey Keitel) are French soldiers under Napoleon in 1800. A trivial quarrel between the two men becomes a lifelong grudge, and as war rages on across the continent, the officers repeatedly challenge one another to violent sword and pistol duels:  in Augsburg and later in Russia, when they are isolated in the frozen wastes united against their mutual enemy. After 15 years, they have both distinguished themselves through military service and become generals and d’Hubert is happily married to Adèle (Cristina Raines); however, the rivals’ mutual hatred never ceases, even when the initial cause is long forgotten and now a final opportunity to kill each other arises …  Gerald Vaughan-Hughes adapted the Joseph Conrad story The Duel and it became Ridley Scott’s directing debut, more acclaimed for how it looks than how it moves and clearly in debt to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon even if it lacks that masterpiece’s disguised intensity. Frank Tidy’s luscious cinematography, shrouded now in fog, now in sunrise, is of the sumptuous variety and frankly once I saw the geese in the first frames, this had me at Hello. A terrific ensemble of British supporting actors rounds out the cast and for some critics this highlights the deficits in the characterising and performing of the leads – but in a sense, it merely underlines how separate they are from the crowd in their mutual obsession. They are angry, driven, and, in Féraud’s case, essentially and unfathomably vicious in his quest for superiority. As their colleagues freeze to death into statuesque stalactites in that disastrous excursion to Russia, there’s a brilliant moment when d’Hubert turns to Féraud and declares, Pistols next! Diana Quick makes a wonderful impression as Laura, a camp follower, Tom Conti is wry as Dr. Jacquin and Robert Stephens is lively as General Teillard. Alun Armstrong, Maurice Colbourne, Meg Wynn Owen (Hazel Bellamy in TV’s Upstairs, Downstairs) and Jenny Runacre all make the most of their roles. This is an old-fashioned tale of a gentleman’s honour, a concept now so outmoded and mystifying as to be from another dimension entirely. The ending is perfect. Narrated by Stacy Keach.  The duellist demands satisfaction. Honour, for him, is an appetite. This story is about an eccentric kind of hunger

On Chesil Beach (2017)

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We’re not two old queers living in secret on Beaumont Street. We’re man and wife!  It’s 1962.  New graduates historian Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and musician Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are nervously about to consummate their marriage in a seaside hotel in Dorset.  The waiters bring a roast dinner to their suite and make fun of them, practically sniffing the virginity in the ether. As the couple prepare to disrobe and attempt foreplay they recall the moments that brought them to this situation:  his chaotic home where his headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) has to deal with a brain injured wife (Ann Marie Duff) and two twin girls;  her engineering company owner father (Samuel West) and academic mother (Emily Watson) who are on the one hand consumed with matters of class and on the other distracted, the wife looking down on her husband rather! Edward and Florence recall their first meeting at Oxford, when he had nobody to tell about his first in History from UCL and she’s the stranger at the CND gathering who lets him know she got a First too, but in music;  when she walked seven miles from the train to meet him at the cricket club where he works; when she got his mother to paint a ‘forgery’ of her favourite painter, Uccello. The memories come rushing in as she lies on the bed issuing instructions and he fumbles and then she rejects him and rushes to the beach … Ian McEwan’s novella was never going to be simple to adapt.  Part of its bittersweet sting lies in the acute choice of words which cannot be replicated on screen.  It’s a romance lacking in passion and the flashback structure literally interrupts the non-coitus. The suggestion that Florence has endured abuse at the hands of her nasty father on a boating trip is skilfully and subtly worked into the story but still doesn’t fully explain her frigidity. (The tennis match she observes between Edward and her father clues us in a little more.)  Her disgust at the contents of a sex manual suggests that of a child not a grown woman and isn’t sufficiently elaborated considering the company she and her family keep (her mother is a friend of Iris Murdoch) and her deep emotionality performing music in a quartet is surely not that of someone who doesn’t understand desire. The book does something extraordinary in demonstrating in just a few pages how Edward’s life pans out and it is utterly devastating, elaborating directly how this single night has sabotaged his life. This melancholy adaptation works on some levels:  for one,  the production design whose attention to period detail gives us an innate sense of the era’s propriety and indicators of class and behaviour.  There are brave performances too:  Ann Marie Duff spends half of hers topless, brain damaged from being hit by a train door on the local platform;  Ronan and Howle do very well in suggesting the naivete that seemingly plagued newlyweds of the era. In essence the relationship fails because of Edward’s pride and Florence’s prejudice and it’s hard to dramatise although his taste in music (jazz, rock and roll) versus hers (strictly classical) sums it up – together however they lack erotic obsession or straightforward lust and this tentative attempt flounders for the same reason as their wedding night:  nobody just goes for it and Florence just won’t shut up. But unsatisfying as this is there’s a porno shot you won’t forget in a hurry. Adapted by McEwan and directed by Dominic Cooke.