Track of the Cat (1954)

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Got to keep drunk to forget I’m married to a clothes pin.  It’s the 1890s. In a snowbound homestead in Arizona, the Bridges family lives in contentious squalor. Brothers Curt (Robert Mitchum) and Harold (Tab Hunter) fight over the attentions of their beautiful neighbor, Gwen (Diana Lynn), while the boys’ boozing father (Philip Tonge) suffers under the abuse of their religiously minded mother (Beulah Bondi) who keeps spinster daughter Grace (Teresa Wright) under wraps. The family dysfunction only intensifies when a panther kills Curt’s timid brother, Arthur (William Hopper), and Curt sets out to slay the animal… There are traces of film noir leaving their track across this western, with its heightened stylised drama, vicious male-female antagonism and intense visuals, all complemented by contrasting performing styles. A.I. Bezzerides adapted Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel.  It’s directed by William Wellman, whose pet project this was, wanting to make a black and white film in colour and choosing some extremely interesting setups in collaboration with cinematographer William Clothier. It’s good to see Wright and Mitchum years after Pursued. Because it was produced by John Wayne’s company and didn’t do especially well it was taken out of distribution and remained unseen for many years due to his son’s refusal to have it put on DVD. Since his death his widow has made sure some previously lost films are now available. This is one of them.

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Tamara Drewe (2010)

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Life sure comes easy for the beautiful.  Famous twentysomething journalist Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) returns to the small Dorset town she grew up in and causes a stir. Once an unattractive teenager known as Beaky due to her big nose, she’s had a rhinoplasty and transformed herself into a beautiful girl. She is the object of attention for three different men: Andy (Luke Evans) a local handyman and her former boyfriend who she hires to do up her late mother’s home which he believes was stolen from his family; Ben (Dominic Cooper), a drummer in a rock band she interviews whose girlfriend has left him for the singer; and Nicholas (Roger Allam), the lauded crime writer who along with his long-suffering wife Beth (Tamsin Greig) runs the local writers’ retreat hosting several wannabes and crime writing weekends.  Bored teenagers Jody (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie)  decide to break into Tamara’s fixer-upper and start sending emails in an attempt to make Jody’s idol Ben fall in love with her instead and their interference triggers a disastrous series of events … At once satire, romcom and farce, this sly social comedy works on every level due to fantastic writing and performances. Posy Simmonds’ comic strip (turned graphic novel) reworks Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd in a contemporary setting and tilts its particular irony (and mockery) at several targets. Visiting writer Glen (Bill Camp) has spent a decade writing a book about Hardy and his findings are a commentary on the goings-on as well as providing inspiration for his romantic aspirations leading to a tragicomic conclusion his subject couldn’t have bettered. Well adapted by Moira Buffini, this is smart adult entertainment. Directed by Stephen Frears.

20th Century Women (2016)

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Wondering if you’re happy is a shortcut to being depressed. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California.  Architect Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a sprawling 1905 fixer-upper boarding house at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion.  William (Billy Crudup) the contractor renting a room doesn’t seem like an appropriate father figure so Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the house and neighbour Julie (Elle Fanning) a savvy and provocative teenage neighbour who often spends the night sleeping there – to help with Jamie’s upbringing. Trouble is, she doesn’t really like what’s happening to him and finds it difficult to reconcile the female-centric education with the man she wants him to be … Mike Mills’ autobiographical film has something of an arm’s length feel which you can surmise from the title. In creating this portrait of his mother he is keen to contextualise her in terms of her time and the opportunities open to her. Jamie often excuses the attitudes of this quasi-androgynous high-achieving divorcee with the line, Don’t worry about Mom, she’s from the Depression. Framing his semi-biographical comic drama in the terms of feminist and punk politics sometimes seems like a microscope powered by sociology is being applied in a film essay style instead of a dramatic eye when you want these lives to intersect more. However the drama is triggered by the opening scene when the family car spontaneously combusts in a parking lot.  It’s a good catalyst for the series of events to follow as Jamie’s adolescence progresses and Dorothea says in a moment of truth to Abbie, You get to see him out in the world and I never will. It’s a startling admission and something in these lines fuels a powerful drama that’s concealed between the smarts and upfront sex talk. Look at Bening’s face when her son tells her he thinks it’s good for him to be informed about clitoral stimulation. She’s the one who wanted him to learn how to be a man after all – she just didn’t know how it would make her feel when he goes out of his way to learn how to be a good man. There’s a lot to like here in an ironic mode and in a sense it’s crystallised by the cultural references – culminating in the clips from Koyaanisqatsi and Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech when he says the country is at a turning point:  they serve to illuminate the theme of the personal as political.  We are all living in the fallout from what was going on in northern Cali in the late 70s and Mills captures this in an uncanny fashion, fixing on a time that has birthed where we are now (albeit now it’s monetised). The production design is just right – the mix of the early 70s vogue for Art Nouveau with the well-placed mushroom lamp, the battle between Talking Heads and Black Flag fans which has a visual result on the doors of Dorothea’s Bug. There are a lot of good aesthetic and narrative choices here coupled with some very sympathetic performances amid a raft of generational and gendered experiences, Abbie and Julie’s mother issues being succinctly handled in parallel stories within medical and therapeutic settings. There is of course a nostalgic air but it’s cut through with intellectual argument bathed in California sun. Sensitive, seductive, suprising and satisfying.

Message in a Bottle (1999)

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Choose between yesterday and tomorrow.  During her morning jog on the beach, journalist Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn) discovers a bottle protruding from the sand. Inside it, she finds a heartbreaking, anonymous love letter. After her paper publishes the letter, Osborne tracks down the letter’s reclusive author, world-weary widower Garret Blake (Kevin Costner), in the Carolinas. But, as Osborne finds herself falling hopelessly in love with Blake, she becomes wracked with guilt over the real impetus for her visit. As she deals with her own marital mishaps and life back in Chicago with her young son Jason (Jesse James) she can’t bring herself to be truthful with Garret, all the while exploiting his personal tragedy for her newspaper… Adapted by Gerald Di Pego from the Nicholas Sparks novel, it took me a while to see this:  it was released February 1999 and I was travelling from N’Orleans to New Jersey and it seemed to me to be always playing a township or three too far to travel that snowy Spring. It was worth waiting for. It’s a gloriously romantic confection, with conflict, high stakes and a guilty secret or two at its core – there are real lessons to be learned here from the grown-ups with mirroring marital and parenting dilemmas. Penn is terrific as the journo who is basically a stalker and Costner is perfect as the romantic foil whose life is much more complex than she suspects. And guess who plays his father? Paul Newman, that’s who. There are nice bits in the office with Robbie Coltrane revelling in the role of editor and Illeana Douglas as her best friend at work while John Savage is impressive as Costner’s brother in law. This works because it’s tough on the characters even through a rose-tinted lens and the ending, well, it’s not easy but it’s immensely satisfying. It was the first Sparks novel to be adapted to the screen. Love letters?  Message in a bottle? A tragic sacrifice? Death? I hear ya. Just gorgeous cinematography by Caleb Deschanel and music by Gabriel Yared. Sniff. Directed by Luis Mandoki.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

 

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No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. Due to his knowledge of the native Bedouin tribes, British Army Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent to Arabia to find Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and serve as liaison between the Arabs and the British in their fight against the Turks. With the aid of the native Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence rebels against the orders of his superior officer and strikes out on a daring camel journey across the harsh desert to attack a well-guarded Turkish port… The greatest film ever made? Probably. One of my more shocking cinematic excursions was to see this at London’s Odeon Marble Arch when it was re-released in a new print:  I hared to the early evening screening, thought I was incredibly late when I got my ticket because the foyer was deserted, ran upstairs two steps at a time and took my seat. And realised I was the only person there. This is one of the most feverishly protagonist-led narratives you will ever see, by which I mean that what you are seeing is the world created by Lawrence, whether or not it is true to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the entire facts of the matter or the man.  Like Psycho, everything in it exists to explain his perspective, his character, his essence. And it starts so shockingly, in a way that horrified me when I first saw it on TV one afternoon when I was probably nine years old:  his death in an English country lane on a summer’s day on a motorcycle. This frames an action adventure rooted in archaeology, espionage, politics, propaganda and the division of the vast desert lands and their warring tribes into convenient nation-states. It’s a narrative that is  free of women but includes issues of homosexuality and torture. It uses the trope of the journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) rewriting history as it is being made. It is filled with imagery that pulses through your brain – the arrival of Ali across the shimmering sands;  the (literal) match cut;  Lawrence shot from below in his white Arabic robes, stalking the hijacked train;  the magical appearance of water. I watch this on a regular basis and get lost in it every time. It’s extraordinary, arresting, brilliant, startling, stunning. O’Toole is utterly luminous as this complex man. Blacklisted Michael Wilson and British screenwriter Robert Bolt did drafts of the script and it may not be entirely historically accurate but it is true. Shot by Freddie Young, scored by Maurice Jarre, directed by David Lean. Magnificent. Happy Birthday to me.

Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

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It’s not a hangin’ matter to be young… but it maybe should be a hangin’ matter for a – man of middle age – to – try and steal the youth from a young girl. Especially, a man like me and a – girl like you. You were meant for the wide world, Rose. Not this place, not this. Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) is the daughter of publican Tom (Leo McKern) in a small seaside Irish village during World War One where the nationalist locals taunt the British soldiers stationed nearby in the wake of the failed Easter Rising of 1916. Rosy falls for Master Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum) the local widowed schoolteacher and imagines they will have an exciting life but he has no interest in sex. Major Randolph Doryan (Christopher Jones) arrives from the Front crippled and suffering from shellshock. Rosy assists him when he collapses in her father’s pub and they commence a passionate relationship as Charles becomes suspicious and the local halfwit Michael (John Mills) finds Doryan’s medal and wears it around the village. The Irish Republican Brotherhood want to retrieve arms from a wrecked German ship offshore but while the villagers assist, Ryan tips off the British and Doryan and his men are waiting for them.  When the villagers put two and two together they conclude that Rosy is the culprit and wreak revenge …  In a week’s time it’s the 110th anniversary of the great British director David Lean’s birth and this was released 47 years ago this weekend. It’s almost St Patrick’s Day and in honour of our favourite national holiday it’s time to watch this again, the hugely controversial film which caused his career immense difficulties. The British critics reserved a rare kind of contempt for the directors who mastered the visual – as though it were inimical to the cinematic form:  look what they did to Michael Powell. But this elicited ire from the other side of the Atlantic too – Roger Ebert believed the scale of the production was antithetical to the size of the story (as though one’s feelings are supposed to be as controlled as those in Brief Encounter. Someone should have told Shakespeare.) It’s hard to understand why this should be from this vantage point – it’s a women’s picture, as so many of his films were – it looks wonderful, the acting is attractive even if Jones’ chops don’t match up to his good looks and the scenario of a problematic marriage between a young woman and a much older stick in the mud is hardly unusual. In fact it originated in Robert Bolt’s desire to make a version of Madame Bovary to star his wife, Miles. It was Lean who suggested transposing the idea to a different setting using the same kinds of characters and construction. Perhaps it’s the issue of the gloriously melodramatic backdrop – the impact of the First World War and the British Government on a remote Irish seaside village. Perhaps it was the timing. Or perhaps reports from the set alienated the budget-conscious journos – Lean waited a full year to get the right kind of storm and took the unit to South Africa to film it because it never materialised while on location in Kerry and Clare. However this was big at the box office and there are moments and scenes to savour even if you feel that John Mills’ performance as the cretin can make you wince betimes. Surrender to the tragic romance and the feeling of a love worth fighting for in an epic drama scored by Maurice Jarre. It’s David Lean, dammit!

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

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This never happened to the other fellow. Secret agent 007 (George Lazenby) and the adventurous Tracy Di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg) who is mob boss Draco’s (Gabriele Ferzetti) daughter join forces to battle the evil SPECTRE organization in the treacherous Swiss Alps. But the group’s powerful leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas), is launching his most calamitous scheme yet: a germ warfare plot that could kill millions! … What most true Bond fans know is that this is the probably the greatest of them all. It’s self-referential but is also true to the book; it has real emotion and not the ersatz pastiche variety underwriting past iterations and which sadly wouldn’t make a proper reappearance until the Eighties;  it’s a real action movie with life at stake;  it has Bond’s only functioning romantic relationship; the action is breathtaking and the safe-cracking scene is one of the best crime process scenes ever shot; it has one of the greatest songs ever written, never mind in the Bond canon – We Have All the Time in the World is just swoonsome and literally timeless; and Telly Savalas is a marvellous Blofeld, ensconced in his Alpine tower surrounded by pretty women – like Joanna Lumley. Lazenby isn’t given an easy ride taking over from Connery primarily because he spends a lot of the time undercover pretending to be a bespectacled man called Sir Hilary Bray presumed to be researching allergies and who must deal with Blofeld’s henchwoman Irma Blunt (Ilse Steppat). Rigg is a brilliant romantic foil, taking no nonsense and being quite Bond’s equal which makes the perfectly tragic ending so devastating.  For tourism porn there’s any amount of Alps, the cable car station and the Piz Gloria revolving restaurant above Bern, the Arrabida National Park and the Palacio Hotel in Estoril, Portugal – stunning scenery that still delights. Written by Richard Maibaum with additional dialogue by the fascinating Simon Raven and directed by Peter R. Hunt who had done assistant work on the earlier films. Simply brilliant.

Battle of Britain (1969)

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The essential arithmetic is that our young men will have to shoot down their young men at the rate of four to one, if we’re to keep pace at all. Britain’s Finest Hour. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (Laurence Olivier) must rally his outnumbered pilots against Hitler’s feared Luftwaffe. Besieged by German bombing runs, the Brits counter with an aggressive air campaign of their own but the argument rages as to whether the Big Wing strategy is helping or hindering. Within months, the Nazis find themselves on the run, thanks to Dowding’s tactical genius and the work of talented squadron leaders (Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer) and other brave patriots… An all-star cast was assembled for this little-screened epic adaptation of Derek Dempster and Derek Wood’s book The Narrow Margin by James Kennaway & Wilfred Greatorex. Director Guy Hamilton (himself a WW2 vet) does a pretty crackerjack job of balancing the politics with the dogfight aerobatics and the toll taken on both sides (Curt Jurgens is Baron von Richter) as the brave young men take to the skies in this do-or-die campaign in which even well-known names are sacrificed for the greater good. If you want a really great written account try Len Deighton’s book but in the interim this will do very well. Fabulous stuff if the dialogue is a tad on the wonky side, with luminous cinematography by Freddie Young and a stirring score courtesy of William Walton.

To Rome With Love (2012)

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The kid’s a communist, the father’s a mortician. Does the mother run a leper colony?  Four tales unfold in the Eternal City. Architect John (Alec Baldwin) encounters American architecture student Jack (Jess Eisenberg) living in Rome with girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and whose romantic woes remind him of a painful incident from his own youth; retired opera director and classical music recording executive Jerry (Woody Allen) discovers that his daughter Hayley’s (Alison Pill) future father-in-law is a mortician with an amazing voice, and he seizes the opportunity to rejuvenate his own flagging career; a young couple Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi) have separate romantic interludes; a spotlight shines on an ordinary office clerk (Roberto Benigni) who becomes a celebrity overnight, hounded by TV journalists and paparazzi… Another Woody Allen film shot in Yerp that seemed like much less than the sum of its parts at the time but has worn well and is a mature entertainment, modelled on the portmanteau films made by a lot of Italian auteurs in the early Sixties. When I first saw this I thought it took a great deal of imagination to cast puddingy little Ellen Page as the voracious bisexual femme fatale wooing Eisenberg but obviously someone had the inside track. Baldwin is good as the man musing on his own foibles and the integration of his character as Jack’s invisible friend is nicely achieved. Allen is very funny as the man who has to get a shower on stage at the Opera so that the mortician will reach his peak performance and while we might wince at Penelope Cruz being cast as a prostitute entering the wrong hotel room and embarrassing a young man about to meet the in-laws, it’s actually a lot of fun – as is his fiancée’s own pre-marital adventure. Benigni’s overnight fame is a nod to Allen’s earlier Celebrity albeit with more humanity.  It’s nicely played by a really interesting ensemble – the incredible Ornella Muti shows up as famous Italian actress Pia Fusari in Milly’s story! – and like all of Allen’s lighter work it just gets better with each viewing, Darius Khondji’s mellow cinematography bathing us all in Roman light. Allen originally called this Bop Decameron but nobody got it …

Convoy (1978)

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Boy, these lonely long highways sure grind the souls of us cowboys. Trucker Martin ‘Rubber Duck’ Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) and his buddies Pig Pen (Burt Young), Widow Woman (Madge Sinclair) and Spider Mike (Franklin Ajaye) use their CB radios to warn one another of the presence of cops. But conniving Arizona Sheriff Lyle ‘Cottonmouth’ Wallace (Ernest Borgnine) is hip to the truckers’ tactics, and begins tracking them via CB because of a longstanding issue with Rubber Duck. Facing constant harassment, Rubber Duck and his pals use their radios to coordinate a vast convoy and rule the road. En route Rubber Duck teams up with a photographer Melissa (Ali McGraw) driving to a job in her Jaguar XKE and she winds up hitching a ride ostensibly to the airport after a brouhaha in a diner which sees Wallace chained to a stool where Duck’s girlfriend Violet (Cassie Yates) sets him free after the truckers have left. The trucks set off to the state line heading into New Mexico but Wallace has an idea to use their one black driver as bait and more and more drivers join the convoy … Writer Bill (B.W.L.) Norton took his lead from the lyrics of the (literally) radio-friendly novelty country-pop song by C.W. McCall and Chip Davis to write this, which starred his Cisco Pike protagonist Kristofferson, with Sam Peckinpah (who had variously directed Kristofferson, McGraw and Borgnine) drafted in to helm. It seems an unlikely setup for Peckinpah but when you understand its anti-authoritarian drive, the idea that these guys are like modern cowboys pitted against the vile sheriff antagonist, and pair that with the director’s customary robust style (tongue firmly planted slo-mo in cheek) then this isn’t just another one of those late Seventies comic road movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Every Which Way But Loose which I’ve always thought it must have been – it has a strangely operatic confidence and cadence embodied in Kristofferson’s fiercely independent trucker. That’s perhaps another way of saying you shouldn’t look at this too seriously for deep character or narrative sense but it has fantastically sensuous pleasures to enjoy – especially if you’re a fan of Mack Trucks and getting one over on The Man. Thing is, Peckinpah brought in his friend James Coburn (Pat Garrett to Kristofferson’s Billy the Kid) to take care of the second unit and due to Peckinpah’s various addictions Coburn wound up doing much of the movie. The director’s cut was four hours long and the studio took it away from him and put in a bunch of new music.  I have vague memories of this being trailed (inappropriately) before a Disney movie when I was knee high to a proverbial grasshopper and it’s quite bizarre to have finally seen it tonight, with McGraw’s horribly unflattering perm and unsuitable travel clothes ‘n’ all. The landscape of the American Southwest is stunningly captured by Harry Stradling Jr. and there’s a handful of country and western classics on the soundtrack. It’s populist politics put together by a rebel heart with an explosive conclusion and a happily twisted ending. Yee haw!