Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

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Gabba gabba hey! The kind of film you want to be brilliant but falls far short – a hodge podge of high school tropes, teen rebellion and let’s put on a show, mixed in with The Ramones – performing some of their best and worst songs. PJ Soles is the big-haired cheerleader type who’s just wild for the pre-punk rockers and is at war with the new school principal (cult star Mary Woronov) at Vince Lombardi High. 70s heart-throb Vince Van Patten (now more often to be seen on the World Poker Tour) is the geek trying to win the heart of brainiac Dey Young (sister of Leigh Taylor Young) and talks about the weather.  Soles has written a song for the band to sing but has to deal with their number one groupie (the gorgeous Lynn Farrell) when lining up for tickets to see them. There’s some OTT stuff featuring teacher Paul Bartel, a Nazi-style burning of the toxic vinyl, overgrown boy scouts working as a security detail for Woronov and some bad acting by those fake NYC bros. All the kids really want to do is dance!  Truly a cult relic but worth catching for some of the songs and the explosive finale – when the kids do what every kid ever wanted to do their own high school! A Roger Corman production based on a story by director Allan Arkush and Joe Dante with a screenplay by Richard Whitely, Russ Dvonch and Joseph McBride – the same Mr McBride is one of the better film historians with books on Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and Steven Spielberg, among others, to his impressive credit.

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.

Keeping Up With the Joneses (2016)

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Ten years, thirty countries, nobody finds us out and we don’t last a week in the suburbs! Desperate housewife Karen Gaffney (Isla Fisher) is bored out of her mind with her kids packed off to summer camp and her meek human resources guy husband Jeff (Zach Galafianakis) off to work at MBI Electronics every day. She spends her days designing a urinal. Then a gorgeous couple moves in across the street and suddenly life in the cul de sac takes on a whiff of international intrigue when she starts spying on them  … only to find that they are undercover agents. Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot are the Joneses and they insinuate themselves into the couple’s life apparently without realising they are being followed by them in turn. When the situation is reversed the average joes find themselves at the centre of a murderous espionage plot – with some treacherous neighbours implicated in industrial theft. Jeff’s people skills and Karen’s feminine intuition come in handy when push comes to shove and there’s an explosive finale involving a villain with self-esteem issues but overall the very good premise and a wonderful cast is laid waste by something – the writing? The pacing? Shame. It coulda been a contender! Written by Michael LeSieur and directed by Greg Mottola.

The Sense of an Ending (2017)

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Literariness is embedded in the very loins of this, utilising as it does the title of theorist Frank Kermode’s famous 1967 volume. Julian Barnes is a determinedly literary writer but his 2011 novel isn’t just about verbal and written narrative, it’s also a story told in pictures, photographs which document the early life of retired camera shop proprietor Tony (Jim Broadbent), divorced from Margaret (Harriet Walter) and whose daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) is about to give birth to a child she is having on her own. He receives notice that he has been left a small sum of money and an item (which turns out to be a diary) by Sarah Ford, the mother (Emily Mortimer) of his first lover, the mysterious Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), and whom he only met once at their home 50 years earlier when the older woman flirted with him and Veronica’s brother made clear his attraction to him too. The diary is not forthcoming and Tony pursues it relentlessly when he finds out it belonged not to Sarah but to Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn) his academically gifted classmate who cheated with Veronica. The unravelling of this mystery hinges on a horrible letter the young Tony (Billy Howle) wrote to Veronica (Freya Mavor) when they were all at Cambridge. What caused Adrian to commit suicide and what is the mature Veronica now withholding from him? He embarks on what his wife and daughter call the ‘stalking’ of his former girlfriend and the earlier story unspools in parallel. What this lacks in tension it makes up for in the carefully observed minutiae of performance and appearance, appropriately for a text that is all about the accumulation and capture of such information. It’s shot beautifully by Christopher Ross in an anti-nostalgic attempt to uncover a meaning to life in London’s leafy northern suburbs with tastefully restrained middle class homes:  a little ornamentation is always enough to hint at discernment if not understanding. When all the threads are gradually united there is a patina of sorrow, bringing together the book’s philosophical core interests in history and action. Adapted by Nick Payne and directed by Ritesh Batra.

Less Than Zero (1987)

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Clay (Andrew McCarthy) is back in Los Angeles for Christmas following his first semester at college and finds that his ex-girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) is now using cocaine and his best friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr.) whom he found sleeping with Blair over Thanksgiving is a serious cokehead indebted to the tune of $50,000 to the nasty Rip (James Spader – frighteningly reasonable) who runs a rent boy ring and gets his creditors to service his clients. This portrait of life in the higher-earning echelons of LA is chilling. Bret Easton Ellis’ iconic novel is a talisman of the mid-late Eighties coming of age set and the icy precision of his affectless prose is inimitable. Once read, never forgotten. Harley Peyton’s screenplay is a fair adaptation but the casting lets this down – with the exception of Downey who is simply sensational as the tragic Julian, gifted with a record company for graduation by his father (Nicholas Pryor) and then simply dumped when he screws up.  This lovable loser’s mouth drools with the effects of his addiction when rehab doesn’t work and he spirals unhappily trying to bum money off his uncle to open a nightclub. Watch the scene when he talks to Clay’s little sister as though she’s a lover who’s pushing him away – knockout. The Beverly Hills scene with its horrible parents and their multiple marriages and awkward dinners with exes and stepchildren, making teenagers grow up too fast, is all too real.  While McCarthy and Gertz just don’t really work – McCarthy’s supposed to be a vaguely distanced observer but he doesn’t convey much beyond a bemused smile, Gertz looks confused and both look too old – the shooting style is cool and superficial, like the lives it critiques. Directed by Marek Kanievska.

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

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Aka Love in Las Vegas. The legendary pairing of The King with Ann-Margret is literally the whole show in a town full of them. Even for an Elvis film the storyline is surprisingly weak but the eye-poppingly colourful scene-setting by supreme stylist George Sidney mitigates the problem. Elvis  is Lucky Jackson, a talented singer and driver whose luck has run out so he’s in Vegas to raise money to take part in the Grand Prix. He sees dancer and swimming instructor Rusty (A-M) and is smitten. But so is his rival, Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova). Lucky and Rusty do some sightseeing around the Hoover Dam – nice helicopter views – and we learn a little about Nevada and her good relationship with her father (William Demarest).  Lucky winds up losing all his money in the hotel pool and having to earn his living as a waiter which leads to some nice slapstick serving Rusty and Elmo. Then his luck turns and there is the climactic race across the desert which is pretty well shot and there are some disasters along the route … The songs are terrific and the sequences of the city and casinos are wonderful. You can see Teri Garr in a bit part as a showgirl at one point but the most surprising element is that this was written by Sally Benson, responsible for Meet Me in St Louis. And then there’s the real-life romance between Elvis and Ann-Margret! In the film they marry at the Little Church of the West, the oldest wedding chapel in Vegas.

Sunset (1988)

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Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Rod Amateau’s unpublished manuscript about the friendship between movie cowboy Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) and real life Wyatt Earp (James Garner) had the potential to be something quite brilliant:  it doesn’t carry it off due to inconsistencies of tone (never quite slapstick, never quite thriller) and performance (Willis didn’t heed his director to take his role seriously) but it retains its interest. Hollywood’s well-preserved 1920s villas provide a magnificent backdrop to a story set in 1929 just when the industry was getting to grips with the transition to sound. Earp in real life had moved to Los Angeles in 1910 but here he’s newly arrived and hired on a silent movie set to advise Mix and they get embroiled in a murder at the Kit Kat Club, a high class brothel where the whores are movie star lookalikes (shades of LA Confidential) run by the cross-dressing Cheryl (Mariel Hemingway.) Earp tries to help his old girlfriend Christina (Patricia Hodge) who happens to be married to studio boss Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell), a thinly disguised version of Chaplin, and her son, who is in constant trouble and goes missing. The mystery at the story’s heart involves police corruption with those reliable villains M. Emmet Walsh and Richard Bradford and Warhol stud Joe Dallasandro showing up as a gangster. There’s a scene at that year’s Academy Awards (not anatomically correct, but still fun) and lots of really interesting performances in the wings including John Fountain playing his grandfather, the legendary John Gilbert. Willis’ unpreparedness made for a difficult time and Garner (a gentleman) commented on it, a rare instance of his speaking out against a colleague and his own performance really saves the film. Garner had of course worked with Edwards before – on Victor/Victoria. His interpretation of Earp is markedly lighter than his earlier one in Hour of the Gun.  There’s a cute running joke about his inability to drive a car – he does it a lot and in real life Garner was an accomplished racer and stunt driver particularly on The Rockford Files. In a neat nod to that, Dermot Mulroney makes his debut – he would play (my beloved!) Rockford in a TVM reboot. The other pluses are the LA locations used including the Ambassador Hotel, the Roosevelt Hotel, Melody Ranch, Bell Ranch and Orange Empire Railway Museum. Not great Edwards but worth a watch for the idea and Garner, with the usually reliable score from Henry Mancini as well as delectable photography by Anthony B. Richmond. A missed opportunity to make a satisfying Hollywood murder mystery but heck with all that talent I’ll take this anyhow.

Donnie Darko (2001)

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This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.

The Blue Lamp (1950)

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An inordinately popular crime drama that begat Dixon of Dock Green, the long-running TV show – despite the fact that Dixon (Jack Warner) is killed by ambitious thug Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde) while he tries to reason with him during the robbery of a cinema.  Basil Dearden was directing from a sharp screenplay by T.E.B Clarke, who adapted a treatment by Jan Read and Ted Willis (of TV fame). There was additional dialogue by Alexander MacKendrick. This was the rather parochial but BAFTA-winning production that earned the ire of critic Gavin Lambert writing (pseudonymously) in Sight & Sound of its “specious brand of mediocrity.”  And it’s certainly true that it cannot hold a candle to the noirs coming out of Hollywood at the time. Nonetheless, its value lies precisely in the cosy post-war vision of England being promoted by Ealing Studios, the documentary approach, the narrative style of interlinking stories, Bogarde’s startling impact as the glamorous crim and the lush photography of London by night shot by Gordon Dines. How wonderful to see Little Venice, the White City dog track, Paddington and the dazzling lights of the West End. Mmmm… Look out for Anthony Steel as a constable.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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Raymond Shaw is the nicest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever met. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is nothing of the sort. He’s a nasty friendless well-connected Sergeant returning from the Korean War whose domineering widowed mother (Angela Lansbury) is now married to McCarthyite Senator Iselin (James Gregory) and she really is the power behind the throne:  he’s so dim he has to look at a bottle of ketchup to remember the number of Communists he says are in the State Dept. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is plagued by dreams of brainwashing and he’s not the only one. He investigates the possibility that there’s a sleeper agent in his platoon:  but what’s the plan? And when he discovers it’s Shaw, what is he programmed to do? And who could be his US control? This astonishing blend of Cold War paranoia, satire, political thriller and film noir is as urgent as it’s ever been. Brilliantly constructed visually – look at the cutting from dream to reality to TV coverage – by John Frankenheimer, in George Axelrod’s adaptation of the Richard Condon novel, this is even better tenth time around. This hugely controversial film was released during the Bay of Pigs crisis. The title has entered the lexicon and it became the go-to explanation for the major assassinations – both Kennedys and even John Lennon. This was Sinatra’s second film about a potential Presidential murder (he starred in Suddenly eight years earlier) and he stopped its distribution following the JFK assassination – but not due to personal sensitivities, moreso that his profit participation wasn’t being honoured by United Artists. His involvement was such that even a nightclub is named Jilly’s. Lansbury is simply masterful as the monster mother but the book’s incest theme is played down. What you will be left wondering in the aftermath of the film’s shocking impact is just why did Janet Leigh refer to the Chinese?! Amazing.