Pixie (2020)

She won’t just break you she’ll take a Kalashnikov to your heart. Sligo, Ireland. Wannabe photographer Pixie O’Brien (Olivia Cooke) uses her ex-boyfriends Fergus (Fra Fee) and Colin (Rory Fleck Byrne ) to stage an elaborate drug heist on gangster priests which winds up with the men of the cloth murdered, and Colin kills Fergus with a bullet to the head. Two smitten local boys Frank (Ben Hardy) and Harland (Daryl McCormack) join her on the run from the hit man Seamus (Ned Dennehy) her gangster stepfather (Colm Meaney) has set on them when they try to sell 15kg of MDMA back to the priest Father Hector McGrath (Alec Baldwin) who runs the drug scene on the west coast. It turns out Pixie has a very personal motivation beyond money – revenge for the death of her mother who was helped along by her psycho step brother Mickey (Turlough Convery) … These guns won’t shoot themselves. Father and son team Barnaby and Preston Thompson direct and write respectively and this road trip down Ireland’s west coast (rechristened the Wild Atlantic Way to attract tourists) is bloody and violent and very funny, played by a well cast ensemble who revel in the opportunity to get up to Tarntino-esque antics in a picturesque setting shot rather niftily by John de Borman. There are some zingers but they’re often let down by the sound which prioritises a crazily effective set of songs curated by David Holmes and punch lines get lost in the mix (which does not include any songs by Pixies …). Cooke is fantastic in what is likely her best role to date as the amoral (not manic) pixie dream girl but there is also effective characterisation by Meaney and Baldwin as well as her companions Hardy and McCormack whom she seduces into a homoerotic scene that definitely was not on their cards. It’s got references from all over the shop, it’s rackety and fun with a very spirited tone. Dylan Moran appears as a very nasty piece of work indeed. You’ll cheer when you see what Pixie does to him. Naturally there’s a shootout that features nuns with guns. A great bit of craic altogether. I’m sorry we didn’t fucking cover body disposal in our economics course

Little Nikita (1988)

I was crossing into the west before you could spell bolshevik. Jeffrey Nicolas Grant (River Phoenix) is a cocky hyperactive teen living in a suburb of San Diego with his parents Richard (Richard Jenkins) and Elisabeth (Caroline Kava) who run a garden centre. Ambitious and keen to fly, Jeff has applied for entry to the Air Force Academy. During a routine background check on Jeff, FBI agent Roy Parmenter (Sidney Poitier) finds contradictory information on his parents, who have adopted identities of people dead a hundred years, making him suspect that all is not as it should be especially given the present whereabouts of a Soviet agent Konstantin Karpov (Richard Bradford) on the trail of a rogue agent Scuba (Richard Lynch) apparently killing off all the Soviet sleepers in the US. Further investigations reveal that the Grants may be sleeper agents too. Unable to arrest them as they have not done anything illegal, Roy continues his investigation, moves into the house across the street from the Grant family, and worms his way into Jeff’s confidence, eventually confronting Jeff with his suspicions and seeking his cooperation to learn more about his parents. Jeff is soon forced to accept the facts and discovers that his real name is Nikita. Meanwhile Karpov is moving closer to home and Scuba is heading straight for the Grants … Straight As. Tells his friends he gets Cs. A coming of age tale with a difference. Written by Bo Goldman and John Hill the intriguing premise is let down somewhat by the uneven directing from actor Richard Benjamin and the conclusion. Phoenix impresses as the brash teen who isn’t remotely what he thinks he is while Jenkins and Kava perfectly capture the fear implied by the big reveal. It all ends predictably enough with respect between Poitier and Bradford winning out over the presumed quarry. For Phoenix fans this is of course the perfect companion piece to the comparable but superior Running On Empty, released 6 months later, another story about a teenager on the cusp of adulthood whose parents’ politics are dangerously problematic. Shot by the legendary Laszlo Kovacs with an occasionally discordant score from Marvin Hamlisch, there’s a fabulous sequence of the Sleeping Beauty ballet choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan. You’re not my father. You’re not even my friend

Year of the Dragon (1985)

Only one Stanley White. Following the murders of Mafia and Triad leaders in NYC, Polish Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) takes it upon himself to bring down the Chinese organised crime gangs. He’s breaking the long held treaty to permit the Chinese to take care of things in Chinatown. This puts him in conflict with Tony Tai (John Lone) the ruthless leader of the organisation.  It pulls his life apart with his already crumbling childless marriage to nurse Connie (Caroline Kava) collapsing altogether when Stanley falls for the charms of ambitious journalist Tracy Tzu (Ariane). Now Tony has a major shipment coming in from Thailand and Stanley engages in wire tapping for information .. This is America and it’s two hundred years old and you need to change your clocks. This sprawling portrait of the gangs of New York was much misunderstood upon its release but it lays its cards on the table upfront: it’s all in the name (changed) because NYC’s most decorated cop is an unapologetic racist Nam vet and sexist to boot. He’s launching his own tong war. Naturally Rourke plays him as a total charmer and it works:  he has the aura of death about him, his hair is as white as his adopted name and everyone around him seems to get crushed.  As written by Oliver Stone and director Michael Cimino this adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel is remarkably discreet in some areas – and lurid in others. The major love scene between Stanley and Tracy is cleverly done as they tell each other how much they hate each other and then … Her big ‘angry’ scene when he’s moved his team into her preposterously huge loft is amusing because her acting is so poor, all stiff arms like an Irish dancer. Part of the film’s issue representationally is the obvious inexpressivity of the Chinese actors, a physical trait there’s no escaping. They make up for it by killing people. Their treatment historically in the US and their unequal immigrant experience is posited against Stanley’s veteran’s hangups, something that’s used against him.  He wants to sleep with a journalist while both he and Tony decry the media’s role in the portrayal of violence and the way ethnicity is covered. Therefore there is a balance established with Tony – that’s clever storytelling. Lone is super handsome, a great suave villain to play opposite.  The lean way in which the marital story is exposed is a good hook for Stanley’s humanity and it’s the dramatic crutch that assists the outcome. The intra-Asian racism is well dramatised and horrendously violent. Class is an issue that becomes an overriding theme. The whole thing looks incredible – shot by Alex Thomson on a set (by Wolf Kroeger and Victoria Paul) in North Carolina for NYC (except for the views from Tracy’s apartment at the top of the Clocktower Building giving a beguiling view of the city’s skyline).  There’s a fascinating and intricate score by David Mansfield with echoes of phrases from The Deer Hunter. That this is a disguised western is clarified in those final scenes on the railway track. And in this wonderful mesh of genre and tradition there is an honourable way out for one man. What a way to end. Amazingly the role of White (originally called Arthur Powers – but there’s a Stanley White credited as Police Consultant!) was intended for Clint Eastwood. Both he and Paul Newman turned it down. Just as well. Only one Mickey Rourke. He’s a good cop but he won’t stop

Young Guns of Texas (1962)

 

When two men fight it’s a duel. When somebody tries to stop them it becomes a war. After the Civil War cadet Tyler Duane (Gary Conway) is expelled from West Point military academy when his brother, a Union officer, is accused of stealing $30,000 of Army payroll. He sets out on his trail encountering trouble en route. He is befriended by Morgan Coe (James Mitchum) and preacher’s son Jeff Shelby (Jody McCrea). Morgan is in love with local beauty Lily Glendenning (Alana Ladd) but her father Jesse (Robert Lowery) opposes the marriage and wants to get his hands on the stolen money. Jeff’s father Sam (Chill Wills) initially refuses to perform the wedding ceremony but relents when the youngsters plan on going to the Mission to have a priest do it after Morgan has killed the ranch foreman. Glendenning forms a posse believing Lily has been kidnapped. Then the youngsters are attacked by Apaches and find out what happened to Tyler’s brother …  This country needs this money. Then we’ll see changes.  Of interest principally for its cast, the offspring of Hollywood royalty, this is neither good nor bad enough to enter the realm of cult. It’s a fairly standard low budget oater distinguished by the use Cinemascope photography albeit it’s to no evident visual effect. There are some nice moments with Barbara Mansell as Martha Jane Canary (the real name of Calamity Jane) who washes outdoors – Always meant to put a door on this bathroom! Otherwise, no surprises except to marvel at the physical similarities (and not a lot else) between the offspring and their famous and talented fathers. It was Ladd’s final screen appearance. The title song by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter is performed by Kenny Miller.  Written by Henry Cross aka Harry Spalding and directed by Maury Dexter. Either you’re going to be an orphan or a widow?

The Appaloosa (1966)

This horse ain’t for sale. Mexican-American buffalo hunter Matt Fletcher (Marlon Brando) returns home only to have his beloved horse stolen by a powerful bandit, Chuy Medena (John Saxon), ending his dream of owning a stud farm. Matt begins to hunt down the bandit to recapture the horse but finds matters more complicated than expected when he meets Chuy’s girlfriend Trini (Anjanette Comer) in the border town of Ojo Prieto. Trini was sold by her impoverished father to Chuy at the age of 15 but has been brutalised and discarded. Fletcher is subjected to torture and humiliation by Chuy and his gang. A foray into Medina’s camp results in a brutal arm wresting match in a bar between Fletcher and the bandido. Fletcher loses and is stung on the arm by a scorpion.  Fletcher is rescued by Trini, who despises Chuy. They get help from a kindly old peasant, which later costs the old man his life. Fletcher is then forced to choose between Trini and his beloved Appaloosa … Chuy’s not just one man – Chuy’s an army. Adapted from Robert McLeod’s novel by James Bridges and Roland Kibbee, this stately drama directed by Sidney Furie and lensed by Russell Metty retreads Brando’s slightly eccentric One-Eyed Jacks characterisation and blocks out the action with obvious obstacles forcing a psychological perspective in every scene. Pauline Kael may have christened it ‘a dog of a movie about a horse’ but it has other interesting qualities, not least in the performances, with Saxon a standout as the sadistic bandit and Comer (who would be in the later, fabulously perverse The Baby) offering wonderfully precise contrast to Brando’s masochistic rebel with a cause. And what about Mexico’s finest,  Emilio Fernandez as Lazaro and Alex Montoya as Squint Eye!  They sure had faces then. I don’t want no more trouble. I just want a peaceful life

 

Advance to the Rear (1964)

Advance to the Rear

My wife wouldn’t believe half the things that go on around here. In 1862, during the American Civil War, a company of Union infantrymen, commanded by Colonel Claude Brackenbury (Melvyn Douglas) who has a comfortable arrangement with his opposite number to exchange a round of gunfire for an agreed amount of time each morning to avoid any real conflict. However the status quo is disrupted when his junior Captain Jared Heath (Glenn Ford) captures some of the enemy. When he receives an order to attack the Confederate positions. his horse stampedes toward the rear of the front by accident. The confused soldiers, deployed in assault formation, follow their colonel in a rush. The consequent Board of Inquiry sees this as plain cowardice in the face of the enemy and Colonel Brackenbury is demoted to the rank of Captain while his executive officer,, is demoted to Lieutenant. As further punishment, together with a few of their NCOs they are deployed west to Fort Hooker where they are to take charge of a company of misfits and rejects. The new company is designated as Company Q (army slang for ‘sick list’). On the way, the demoted officers travel on a river-boat. Among the passengers there are several prostitutes, led by Madam Easy Jenny (Joan Blondell) being run out of town by the decent townsfolk. But it’s saucy Martha Lou Williams who tickles Heath’s fancy, particularly when he figures she’s got a scam going. It turns out she’s a spy for the other side but he decides to do nothing except keep her out of trouble because he wants to marry her. Then things come to a head when they arrive at their destination and the unit is required to escort a gold shipment and are captured by Thin Elk (Michael Pate) an Indian chief West Point graduate who’s in league with Hugo Zattig (James Griffith) of the Confederates …  I ain’t never seen no troops that looked quite so defeated. A period variation on the service comedies so popular in the post-war era, this Civil War gang could serve as a model for The Dirty Dozen, minus the violence or cynicism. Ford had starred in a series of military comedies since The Teahouse of the August Moon but this is the first one to be set in the Civil War. It’s mild material but Douglas scores as the unruffled General who believes in not fighting like a West Point gentleman when tea can be enjoyed instead. Jack Schaefer’s non-comedic 1957 novel Company of Cowards was adapted from a Saturday Evening Post story by William Chamberlain and the screenplay is by Samuel A. Peeples and William Bowers with uncredited work by Robert Carson. It’s a rather thin piece of work, lacking focus on the main event and coasting on Ford’s easy personality and Stevens’ charm with some nice scenes featuring Alan Hale and Whit Bissell while Blondell is fun as the blowsy madam. There are some interesting sound effects and songs by the New Christy Minstrels. Directed by George Marshall. When are we going to stop doing all this?

 

Hell Bent for Leather (1960)

Hell Bent For Leather

I used to love this country but now it seems so ugly.  Horse dealer Clay Santell (Audie Murphy) has his horse stolen where he’s camping in the hills and the culprit drops his ornate rifle when Clay shoots at him. Clay stops in the town of Sutterville. He is mistakenly identified by townspeople for a murderer named Travers (Jan Merlin) because of the gun he’s carrying, and is handed over to Marshal Harry Deckett (Stephen McNally) who wants to return him to Colorado for a jury trial. Deckett knows the truth but decides to kill Clay and pass him off as the real Travers to enhance his reputation and collect the reward money. Clay escapes and takes mother of seven Janet Gifford (Felicia Farr) hostage until he can prove his innocence. She knows the hills and after they arrive at the way station where she grew up a wounded man Ambrose (Robert Middleton) and his two brothers, who are his thieving accomplices show up in a rainstorm … How far do you think you can run? Adapted by Christopher Knopf from Ray Morgan’s novel Outlaw Marshal, this is a stunning looking wrong man pursuit western, shot by Clifford Stine in Widescreen and Technicolor in and around Lone Pine, CA. and the first of seven low budget productions Murphy made in collaboration with producer Gordon Kay. The template of three major characters in single locations kept the films profitable and this is tautly constructed, exceptionally well characterised (Farr has a decent backstory) and makes great use of the setting with intense use of shadows paying off in this morality tale. The sonorous score is by Irving Gertz and William Lava. Directed by George Sherman, this is one of Audie’s best. All you had in mind was glorifying yourself

 

Alvarez Kelly (1966)

Alvarez Kelly

I’m a reasonable man. If I weren’t I might go over to the other side. In 1864 Alvarez Kelly (William Holden) is a Mexican-Irish cattle rancher who is doing his best to stay out of the Civil War. He has no interest in which side may win or lose being more concerned about his own survival, and about making money, supplying cattle to the Union side via Major Tom Stedman (Patrick O’Neal). He soon finds himself in the middle of the conflict, however, when a confederate colonel Tom Rossiter (Richard Widmark) captures him and forces Kelly to help his soldiers steal a nearby herd of cattle, which they desperately need for food. Kelly is blackmailed into doing it by alluring and very well-named treacherous widow Charity Warwick (Victoria Shaw) but is really attracted to a madam in peril Liz Pickering (Janice Rule) whose escape he engineers. However on the trail of the rustlers is Stedman and it becomes a battle of wits as Kelly has to decide whose side he really does belong to God deliver me from dedicated men. A dynamic story that somehow doesn’t get justice which you can probably put down to the stylings of director Edward Dmytryk. The screenplay by Franklin Coen (with uncredited rewrites by Daniel Taradash and Elliott Arnold) certainly has all the elements required for a frequently comic western, albeit the humour is rooted in darkness and male sexuality. The casting is of course key:  Widmark is playing to his Tommy Udo reputation while you can see why Peckinpah wanted hyper-sexed renegade Holden in The Wild Bunch a few years later. The combination of fruity exchanges and violence creates a particularly potent admixture even if you would never credit Dmytryk with an ability to indulge humour. The scenes between Holden and Rule are especially pleasurable:  Pity is the real empty room I despise, she deadpans. They’re a sure thing. Until they’re not. The rivalry with Widmark is extremely well played, with an edge of nastiness that tips into threat and violence on many occasions. Save for a few obvious process shots it looks very well courtesy of Joseph MacDonald and gets rebalanced at the end with a tremendous pairing of stampede and shootout in a slick robbery that even impressed Lincoln. The virtuous Irish lord wasn’t able to stop his son from becoming a pirate

Showdown (1963)

Showdown

Aka The Iron Collar. You can’t do this to a man. Not to a man! Two drifters, cowpoke Chris Foster (Audie Murphy) and veterinarian Bert Pickett (Charles Drake) go into the border town of Adonde. Bert gets in a fight after getting drunk and punches out the local sheriff during a card game and he and Chris are put in iron collars, chained to an outlaw and famed killer, LaValle (Harold J. Stone) at a post in the town square. He is there with his gang members Foray (L.Q. Jones) and Caslon (Skip Homeier). They manage to escape but La Valle wants them to rob a bank and they try to buy their way to freedom with some stolen bonds … The man who said he could never be caught. He’s collared now. Written by Bronson Howitzer (aka Ric Hardman) and directed by western stalwart R.G. Springsteen, this is standard genre fodder, albeit with appropriately noir overtones for this monochrome affair. Murphy acquits himself well, Stone is a convincing villain, Kathleen Crowley makes for an admirably cynical kind of femme fatale with a sympathetic backstory and Lone Pine stands in for New Mexico with well mounted if small-scale action. When I call you come or I put you back on the leash!

Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend (1957)

Shoot Out at Medicine Bend

Aka The Marshal of Independence. Thee has to talk like them and don’t forget it. Captain Buck Devlin (Randolph Scott) and cavalry troopers Sergeant John Maitland James Garner) and Private Wilbur Clegg (Gordon Jones) all recently mustered out of the army, head to Devlin’s brother’s homestead to settle down and arrive just in time to drive off an Indian attack but just too late to save his brother. Faulty ammunition cost him his life. The three men set out for Medicine Bend to find out who sold the ammunition. The community also gives them all their funds to buy badly needed supplies. On the way however, they are robbed of everything – the money, their horses, even their uniforms. Fortunately, they happen upon a local church (who have also been robbed), and are given spare clothing. Devlin decides it would be a good idea to pretend to be Brethren while in town. They quickly connect the robbers, and later the defective ammunition, to Ep Clark (James Craig). Clark controls the mayor and the sheriff, and has his gang attack wagon trains of pioneers heading west and forces other local traders out of business. The men are up against it in their pursuit of the ruthless town boss … I prefer sour ‘bosom.’ It’s more refined. Directed by Richard Bare and amusingly written by John Tucker Battle and D.D. Beauchamp, this is standard western fare but it’s more fun than most with our leads gussied up as Quakers sorting out the decent wheat from the villainous chaff and doing the Robin Hood act.  Probably the only film you’ll ever see where that peaceable bunch do the necessary to end violence and it is of course interesting to watch Scott fulfill his contract at Warner Brothers while independently making classics of the genre under his own banner elsewhere. Garner says of the experience in his memoir, “It was always fun working with Dick Bare, and Randy Scott was an old pro, but the movie isn’t worth a damn. I was under contract, so I had to do what they put in front of me.” Angie Dickinson has a nice role as the storekeeper’s niece who is of course Scott’s love interest while Dani Crayne sings Kiss Me Quick in the saloon earning Garner’s attention. The title tells you all about how it ends. Get his partner. Give ’em a fair trial. Then hang ’em!