Ace in the Hole (1951)

 

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Aka The Big Carnival. I’ve met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my time but you – you’re twenty minutes.  Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is the callous hard-drinking big city journo who’s been fired from every newspaper he ever worked for and finds himself in a small town in New Mexico on a reduced income desperate for a story to get him the Pulitzer. When treasure hunter Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) gets trapped in a mineshaft looking for Indian artifacts, Chuck colludes with an electioneering sheriff (Ray Teal) to keep the man down there in a delayed and protracted rescue effort in order to draw attention to his scoop which he uses to parlay his way back into his old job. Minosa’s wife Lorraine isn’t bothered one way or another. As played by the brilliant actress Jan Sterling she’s a brittle bottle-blonde broad who gives as good as she has to take from her violent new love interest, with Douglas as vicious as you’d imagine. This was an important film for director Billy Wilder, the first time he was out on his own as producer and writer without Charles Brackett. It was more or less inspired by the Floyd Collins cave-in story in 1925 which earned reporter William Burke Miller the Pulitzer. And a couple of years before this was made a child ended up dying in a well while thousands of people gathered to watch the failed rescue. Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman wrote the hard as nails screenplay which seems not the cynical exploitation picture it was accused of being upon release and more an accurate representation of the relationships around the press and the news they report. This gets more contemporary by the day.

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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.

Jaws (1975)

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Ibsen by way of a Peter Benchley bestseller and an adventurous and gifted director called Steven Spielberg. I got caught up in this again late last night and was gripped, as ever, by this visceral tale of beachside terror which hasn’t aged a day and in many respects remains my favourite Spielberg movie. There is so much to relish. The atmosphere, aided immeasurably by John Williams’ stunningly suggestive score – which was the soundtrack in the bathroom of the late lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London – utterly terrifying!. The performances:  who doesn’t love Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist? Roy Scheider as the seaside town police chief who’s scarified of water? Robert Shaw as the drunken shark hunting Captain Quint? And those hellishly cute kids. And what about the titles sequence? There’s the politics of the summer season and the mayor who doesn’t want word to get out. The anger of the bereaved mother. The bloodied water and beach toys. The track-zoom of realisation. The clear storytelling. White sharks got a bad press out of this epic battle but there has rarely been a better exploration of the ecology of man and beast. Quite literally sensational. Classic, brilliant, the original of the species. Written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with a little assist from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, and John Milius.

The Shout (1978)

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Psychiatrist Graves (Tim Curry) is keeping score at a lunatic asylum cricket game where the doctors play the inmates. He tells the story of a wandering man Crossley (Alan Bates) who insinuates his way into the home of an avant garde composer/sound engineer Anthony Fielding (John Hurt) and his psychiatric nurse wife Rachel (Susannah York) and uses his aboriginal magic acquired while living in the Aussie Outback to take over their lives and steal Rachel from Anthony.  He lures Anthony to sand dunes at the beach and shows him how his magical shout can kill people … This weirdly engrossing supernatural horror is the second British production from Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski – he had previously made The Deep End and the deeply atmospheric story takes its lead from the sounds that Anthony records (there’s an amazing soundtrack by Tony Banks) and unusual shot framing that makes the deep Devon countryside appear quite sinister. An odd work that repays multiple viewings.  Adapted from Robert Graves’ story by the director and Michael Austen.

Manchester By The Sea (2016)

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I can’t beat it. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a janitor in Boston, permanently hunched and haunted and beset by half-dressed female tenants who want to have sex with him and complain to his boss when he evinces no interest whatsoever and just fixes their toilets. He barely speaks. When he gets a call that older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died suddenly he is forced back to his titular hometown where people refer to him as ‘the Lee Chandler’ and he finds out from his brother’s lawyer he’s been named guardian to his irritating, underage, sexually voracious nephew Patrick (goofy ginger Lucas Hedges). It takes us a long time and a lot of repetitive scenes to get to the reason for his devastation:  the death of his young family for which he feels incalculable guilt. Patrick has no reaction to his father’s demise and just gets on with getting it on with whatever nasty teenage girls have sex with him, plays hockey and generally acts like dumb teenagers do when confronted with intimations of mortality (I was recently at a funeral when the teenage son of the woman whose death was being commemorated left midway to smoke cigarettes with several girls. This shit happens.) So much  of this is low-key and true that when these guys eventually drop their protective masks it is both surprising and shocking and explosive in terms of the situations  in which they finally let loose as much as anything else. Michelle Williams has one wonderful scene as Lee’s ex-wife (pictured in the poster) and it is of such delicacy that it elicits pure emotions not just from Affleck but the audience, otherwise her role is mainly confined to flashbacks of their marriage and its unfortunate and tragicomic ending (that ambulance scene is literally killer). So paradoxically despite its overlength the unsentimental narrative focus is somewhat diverted to the wrong situations and some scenes are consigned to montage underscored by rather obvious and ill-chosen music when we would prefer to hear the dialogue.  The flashback structure works brilliantly however. The rarely seen Gretchen Mol (the Next Big Thing, according to Vanity Fair circa 1998  when she co-starred with this film’s producer and intended star Matt Damon in Rounders) shows up as Patrick’s alkie mom, long estranged from the family. Affleck is simply masterful as this man who desires punishment but nobody wants him to suffer any more, except for a few women who believe he killed his kids. However it’s a long time getting to the point about how people deal differently with bereavement and even if we agree, such is real life, a playwright, screenwriter (and director) as smart as Kenneth Lonergan should and could have got there quicker.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

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This animation brought Disney back to its classic roots with Linda Woolverton’s screenplay (working from a painstaking adaptation by eleven scribes!) of the French fairytale hitting all the right story points at a rattling pace (84 minutes). It was the first animation to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are pretty great and use a variety of forms including waltz and they are exceptionally well positioned in the narrative:  it helps that they are performed by experienced stage vets, including Paige O’Hara as bookworm Belle, who falls for Beast (Robby Benson) after he’s exchanged her father for her in his enchanted castle. If it falls down anywhere in it’s in the sequences outside – interestingly this is the flaw shared with its progenitor, Jean Cocteau’s magical La Belle et la bete (1946), a live action version whose animated statuary proved a spellbinding lure into the rest of the tale. On a technical level, Disney had abandoned their original hand inking technique in the late 1950s and the new CAPS system developed by Pixar enabled them to utilise a wider and more subtle colour palette in conjunction with digitalisation – just wait for your jaw to drop during the ballroom scene. Angela Lansbury and Bradley Pierce as Mrs Potts and her son Chip (of the teapot Potts) are particularly good, and Lumiere, the candlestick maitre d’hotel (Jerry Orbach) is pretty wild, with a great sidekick in Cogsworth the clock (David Ogden Stiers). All girls should have a library like the one gifted Belle and have the Academy Award-winning title song sung to them. Be Our Guest! Compelling. Produced by Don Hahn, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.

A Howling in the Woods (1971) (TVM)

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This adaptation of Gothic romance queen Velda Johnston’s novel heralded the reunion of I Dream of Jeannie‘s Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman. In truth, Hagman has a glorified cameo as her husband whom she’s divorcing. Her arrival in Lake Tahoe is not welcomed – the police follow her when she hits town and stepmom Vera Miles cannot conceal her annoyance when she walks in the door of her former home. New stepbrother John Rubinstein sees her as seducible fodder but something is up since Pop never seems to be around. She takes up residence in a cabin and soon gets the distinct impression she’s in danger and there’s that dog howling in the woods  …This NBC TVM has pedigree – adapted by Richard De Roy, directed by Daniel Petrie, scored by Dave Grusin, whose work would be so significant to so many big screen features in the coming years. It operates almost completely in the suspense mode and is all the better for it, with little relief coming from the welcome arrival of Tyne Daly down the cast. Eden does very well as the woman in jeopardy. Just a shame it’s not properly available in a decent format, like a lot of early 70s TV movies.

Road House (1989)

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When I was teaching a class way back in the mists of, you know, a while, I had a really charming a-hole (these are the ones you sadly recall) who smirked at me one day and declared, I suppose Road House is your favourite movie. Well,  no, as it happens, but I’m partial to a barroom brawl as much as the next redneck and this is full of them. The beauteous Patrick Swayze is Dalton, an NYC cooler (bouncer-in-chief) with a philosophy degree lured to a bigger paycheck in a midwest saloon where things have gotten way out of control.  He finds himself at odds first with the staff then with the villain who runs things round those parts, Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara.) He falls for the doc who stitches him up, the beyond-beautiful Kelly Lynch, whose uncle is then targeted by Wesley (they have a history) and then Dalton’s mentor Wade (the great Sam Elliott) turns up to lend a hand. Dalton and Doc have some seriously hot sex scenes, Jeff Healey provides the in-house entertainment, there’s some very well choreographed fight stuff, businesses are set alight and Dalton’s past is used against him. Wesley tries to ruin everyone, and then pretty much everyone fights to the very well-staged finish in a trophy room in order to take back the town. If I didn’t live somewhere strikingly similar I’d say this was beyond belief but c’est la guerre. This fun outing was directed by Rowdy Herrington from a screenplay by David Lee Henry aka R. Lance Hill and Hilary Henkin. And that charmer I mentioned? Why, the last time we met he was waiting my table. Manners are more than a southern thang, y’all.

Tremors (1990)

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You wanted a western monster movie homage, so here it is, the deserved cult fave with Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as the laconic cowpoke repairmen bored by life in Perfection, Nevada when they find a colleague dehydrated and dead up a telegraph mast and a station wagon buried in the sand. They soon find out why – as a giant worm with massive tentacled tongues chases them across the desert. And he has some friends. They and their smalltown acquaintances have to use their ingenuity to send the monsters to kingdom come but it’s the pretty seismologist (Finn Carter) who has most of the good ideas while Reba McIntire and her hubby Michael Gross show us why sometimes it’s good to have an elephant gun in the rec room. Great fun with some cracking lines and deadpan performances, featuring a number of deadly C&W songs including Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life. Debut film by Ron Underwood, written and produced by Brent Maddock and SS Wilson and the first of a long series.

Swallows and Amazons (2016)

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Children and pirates and spies, oh my! I was dreading this when I read that Arthur Ransome’s real life inter-war intelligence activity was going to be integrated into the classic story of children messing about in boats on holiday in the Lake District. Yet it works a treat, commencing with a train sequence that’s not quite worthy of Hitchcock, when rude Rafe Spall intrudes on the Walker children while escaping the attentions of Andrew Scott and his Russian Friend;  he shows up on a houseboat when the adventurous children are desperately trying to persuade mother Kelly Macdonald to allow them sail to what they proudly christen Walker Island, where they encounter rival sailor girls and much, much more besides. This works up a head of steam and treats family tensions, sibling spats and pirate – and real – spying with due seriousness. Ransome hated the 1962 BBC version;  I grew up with the 1974 adaptation. Writer Andrea Gibb and director Phillippa Lowthorpe do a quietly impressive job. Quite charming.