Kalifornia (1993)

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What the hell did I know about California? For some people it was still a place of hopes and dreams, a chance to start over. Graduate journalism student Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) has published an article about serial killers that secures an offer for a book deal. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles,planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian’s book. Trouble is, they’re short of money so Brian posts a ride-share ad on campus. Psychopathic recent parolee Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer where Early lives with his naïve girlfriend waitress Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). Early refuses the officer’s offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day and the mismatched foursome take off cross-country one hour after Early has murdered his landlord. Carrie has immediate misgivings when she sees the white trash pair and becomes very scared when Early and Brian start drinking together and Brian becomes infatuated with guns … Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about? It’s a neat concept:  a guy obsessed with serial killers ends up sharing a ride with a serial killer and then becomes inured to the effects of that violent experience when it’s finally him or – him. It’s constructed as though this were the rite of passage for a writer of such true crimes giving him a taste for murder albeit the closing voiceover indicates he has learnt nothing because he feels nothing. So maybe we’re in the realm of unfulfilled masculinity – so much of this narrative is tied into sex and instinct. Perhaps it’s too self-satisfied, perhaps Pitt’s performance as the kinky white trailer trash is too eccentric, Lewis too retarded, Forbes too knowing, Duchovny too withdrawn. These are people whose paths would never ordinarily cross however they’re in a car together having to deal with each other. On the other hand it’s a cool piece of work with a kind of sociocultural commentary about how we are bumping up against people we disagree with on a daily basis, how some elitists have a kind of fascination for the going-nowhere working classes, how pure intellect is rarely a match for feral intuition and how serial killers can attain a celebrity that transcends mere notoriety into a form of acceptability because it is no longer possible to move us in a world where so much is abandoned and empty. It’s no accident that the finale takes place at Dreamland, the old nuclear testing site and fake town on the California-Nevada border. Originally written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy, this appears to have changed substantially in tone in development. Directed like a stylishly cool breeze by Dominic Sena in his feature debut. I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’t know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing

Dark Journey (1937)

Dark Journey

Not bad but you need to practise. World War I is in full thrust, but Swedish fashion store clerk Madeleine Goddard (Vivien Leigh) has apparently not aligned herself with either side. When she meets German soldier Karl Von Marwitz (Conrad Veidt), she falls in love. Karl, who presents himself as a footman of low rank and supposedly disgraced officer, is in fact a high-ranking official in the German army and an aristocrat. Madeleine has secrets of her own – she is a spy and double agent, working for the Allies in a bid to uncover the new head of the German Secret Service in Stockholm. As Madeleine and Karl are pulled deeper into the escalating war, their love may be the thing that saves their lives but when her German co-conspirator Anatole (Eliot Makeham) is murdered events overtake them and their identities might just prove their undoing ... Is it a crime to be German?/It’s worse, it’s a vulgarity. This pre-WW2 drama is prescient, pacifist and fence-sitting, all at once, a notably atmospheric tale of spy/counter-spy in a Stockholm that presents rather like a certain Moroccan destination would five years later.  Leigh is inscrutable to the point of roboticism at first, then suave ladykiller Veidt comes along and she’s even more attractive than that saucy minx Brazilian socialite Lupita (Joan Gardner, wife of Zoltan Korda, uncredited producer Alexander’s brother) who seems permanently up for it. With maps, submarines, pips on the radio, coded messages on the fabric held up against lamplight and fog dappling the harbour, it’s a very attractive concoction with a terrific ensemble cast that includes Ursula Jeans, Cecil Parker and Robert Newton as a U-boat officer. With a screenplay by Lajos Biró and scenario and dialogue by Arthur Wimperis, this is assisted by nicely graduated greys and soft whites in the cinematography which was carried out at Denham Studios on splendid sets designed by Andrej Andrejew, and enhanced by a suitably suspenseful score by Richard Addinsell conducted by Muir Mathieson. Naturally, the costumes by René Hubert are rather fabulous. Directed by Victor Saville. It’s easy to touch your pocket, it’s difficult to touch your heart

Friedkin Uncut (2018)

Friedkin Uncut

That’s the beginning and end of a career – when you start to believe that you’re an artist. Francesco Zippel’s documentary about the director William Friedkin partly takes place against a travelling backdrop of three film festivals during 2017 (Lyon, Sitges, Venice) where his work was being celebrated, he was being honoured and he was screening a new documentary about a priest who carried out exorcisms.  The first subject for discussion with Friedkin himself and a variety of talking heads, from Wes Anderson to Edgar Wright, is The Exorcist, prompting an odd opening interview to camera in which he considers Hitler’s reputation versus what Jesus did but the context is then revealed to be the existence and interpretation of evil. He states that he made the film as a believer although brought up in the Jewish faith in Chicago by Ukrainian immigrant parents and he says if they’d been Catholic his mother would have been sainted. Quentin Tarantino says that 80% of a film’s success is dependent on casting and, aesthetics aside, he credits Friedkin with brilliance in that department. Full-time milkman, part-time actor (and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of That Championship Season) Jason Miller was Friedkin’s choice for the priest after he saw him on stage and he then dumped first choice Stacy Keach and waited a week for Miller to travel to LA by train. Miller was right for the role and that was that. [Ironically years later when Miller came to bring that play to the screen he cast Keach]. Friedkin claims to be looking for spontaneity rather than perfection and cast members like Ellen Burstyn speak to what she describes as his Method directing – making a suggestion and allowing the actor to run with it, frequently doing just one take. She recalls Max von Sydow, an avowed atheist, the man Friedkin says was the best actor in the world at the time, being completely blocked on his lines in the notorious exorcism scene and says that Friedkin remarked of the 100 things that he imagined could have gone wrong on the set that was literally number 100. He’s a believer in professionalism, not artistry. His films do not aspire to or reach the transcendent, like Antonioni, Fellini, even Argento, he says, as he hugs the maestro at a festival gathering. After high school in Chicago, attended by fellow director Philip Kaufman, he started out in the mailroom of a TV broadcaster and worked his way up at a time when you learned on the job because there was no film school. He shot an extraordinary death row documentary The People Vs. Paul Crump and wound up saving the man from execution. Initially he had no idea about directing feature films – until he saw Citizen Kane and recognised the power of the medium to go beneath the surface of human life. I can’t remember Orson Welles ever saving anyone from hanging but it’s documentary which is the central motivation in Friedkin’s career and it’s this directness that attracts viewers:  Coppola says that he would have explored metaphor if he’d made The Exorcist, whereas Friedkin engaged in it and showed it:  He doesn’t philosophise about evil. He shows you evil. And it’s interesting that when Friedkin tries to extrapolate messages, as in the opening interview, he falters. The French Connection speaks to his background in NYC and his familiarity with gangsters and police detectives (and Randy Jurgensen provides great background in his interview) but also his commitment to cinema veritéNobody can top Buster Keaton. He shot the Brooklyn car chase (done without permits) himself because it was so dangerous and he had discovered the camera operator was married with children; but more than that extraordinary instance of consideration, bloodymindedness and the art of filmmaking (and he says the only great chases in cinema were done by Buster Keaton, one of the handful of cinema masters he extols) people talk about the world of New York City in that film, just as they talk about the recognisable world he visualises in To Live and Die in LA.  That was when he also cast two virtual unknowns, Willem Dafoe and William Petersen, both of whom talk here and we are reminded that the director did something viewed then by critics as utterly unconventional and wrong – killing off the hero three quarters of the way through. He also portrayed the process of currency forgery with such accuracy it attracted the ire of various Government agencies. However it’s Sorcerer he says he’d like to be remembered by, if at all. He and screenwriter Walon Green took the novel behind the H. G. Clouzot (another of his heroes) film The Wages of Fear and using the basic premise reinvented it completely (as he says, they don’t say you’re remaking Hamlet). Francis Ford Coppola reminds us that in those days, when he was also making Apocalypse Now, If you wanted to show something extraordinary, you had to do something extraordinary. And photograph it. And we are watching the bridge scene in which the actors could have died and we realise we are actually watching a documentary. Roy Scheider returned from Connection in the lead which some find problematic and it may be a reason that the film suffered terrible commercial consequences – but then it was released when Star Wars was out. He’s brave. He fights. He’s got balls that clank. Even though he was not part of the Movie Brat generation he formed a company that funded Coppola’s The Conversation and there’s an amusing letter from him warning Coppola not to go over budget.  The masculine nature of his projects is effaced by interviews with Juno Temple (Killer Joe) and Gina Gershon (Bug) who both praise him not just for stripping off in sympathy with them on set but also for creating dimensional female roles. Gershon felt terrible during production but found out in a phonecall afterwards that he treated her the way he did in order to get her to give her great performance and he thought the world of her. Friedkin’s wife was the one who told her. In the mid-Seventies Friedkin realised that Fritz Lang was still alive and well and living in Hollywood and approached him for an interview. After Lang found out what Friedkin had made, he agreed and the fantastic result, Conversation With Fritz Lang is excerpted here, in which the master denies the greatness of his German output and claims to prefer his American films. Perhaps it is the association with Nazism that bothers him. As far as Friedkin’s politics are concerned, he himself denies his work is political to the delight of other commentators. Cruising attracted huge critical odium from the gay community but it is recalled that privately Friedkin was delighted by the controversy (and presumably the ensuing publicity for a film starring Al Pacino). Tarantino says that in the mid-Nineties he screened it for the mostly gay crew of a Broadway play he was appearing in and they were surprised and pleased by it. It exposed a world of S&M clubs immediately prior to the AIDS era that was not only long gone, it had barely been known by a lot of gays at the time and Friedkin had obtained access to shoot in one through the owner, a mobster acquaintance. Critic Stanley Blumenfeld likens his latterday output to that of the Japanese artists Friedkin collects – quick brushstrokes, brief lines. Direct communication.  It’s not as the title suggests uncut unless you include the bits that Friedkin himself would have left out – comments about shots, about coffee. And it’s certainly not a perfect documentary (how ironic). But it is a rather fascinating portrait of one of the more extraordinary and unapologetic filmmakers who is still in our midst if rarely making films nowadays, who recognises at this stage of his life that being a professional is the only thing, art is a happy byproduct. He contentedly drinks his mugs of black coffee in the Hollywood home that he shares with his wife, the first ever woman studio boss, Sherry Lansing, whom he happily says is, like his late mother, a saint. If you want to make a film you need ambition, skill and the grace of God. And the most important thing is the grace of God  MM#2,500

Highlander (1986)

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There can be only one! Swordsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) from the Scottish Highlands known as the Highlander is one of a number of immortal warriors who can be killed only by decapitation. After initial training by another highly skilled immortal swordsman and metallurgist, Ramirez (Sean Connery), MacLeod lives on for several centuries, eventually settling in New York City, managing an antiques shop. After watching his first wife Heather (Beatie Edney) grow old he is unable to fall in love again however in 1985, he encounters police forensic scientist Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart). He also finds out that he must face his greatest enemy, the brutal barbarian Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who wants to kill MacLeod and obtain ‘the Prize’ – a special ability given to the last living immortal warrior: vast knowledge and the ability to enslave the entire human race. They play cat and mouse through the centuries until destiny arrives in a fight played out on NYC’s Silvercup Studios’ neon sign  … You won’t drown, you fool. You’re immortal! Music video director Russell Mulcahy made the transition to features with this deliriously nutty actioner, a time travel fantasy that seamlessly moves through the ages, imbued with the tropes of Arthurian myth, a beautiful woman handy in each of the three main centuries/locations, a supposedly Spanish-Egyptian Connery speaking in his usual cod accent, brilliant one-on-one combat and wonderfully cartoony car chases. Then there’s the odd brilliant visual transition (Lambert’s face morphing into an NYC Mona Lisa mural) and a mini-pop video to soundtrack band Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever telling the story of Lambert’s relationship with Scots wife Edney until her demise, in a film that references everything from Citizen Kane to The Duellists and Star Wars. There are incidental pleasures, like spotting familiar faces such as James Cosmo and Celia Imrie. Some head shearings plus a sex scene put this out of reach of the kids but it’s fabulous fun and spawned any number of sequels and spinoffs. Written by Gregory Widen as a class project at UCLA, this had a rewrite by Peter Bellwood & Larry Ferguson. You only have one life

Play It As It Lays (1972)

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I’ll tell you what I do. I try to live in the now. Burned-out B-movie actress Maria (Tuesday Weld), depressed and frustrated with her loveless marriage to an ambitious film director, Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) who would rather work on his career than on his relationship with her, numbs herself with drugs and sex with strangers. Only her friendship with a sensitive gay movie producer, B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), offers a semblance of solace. But even that relationship proves to be fleeting amidst the empty decadence of Hollywood as they both start to crack up ... How do you get to the desert? You drive there. Husband and wife screenwriting team Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapted Didion’s sensational novel of alienation and its transposition to the screen by director Frank Perry captures its existential sense of crisis. Weld is perfect as the model turned actress whose flashbacks are a faux-documentary and some biker movies she has made with her husband (and Roarke starred in some himself, of course). Her narrative is determined by movie business ghouls and Sidney Katz’s editing plays into her disjointed sense that she is losing control in a chilling world where her retarded daughter is locked away and she undergoes an illegal abortion.  Weld is teamed up again with Perkins after Pretty Poison and they work beautifully together – you really believe in their tender friendship. An overlooked gem which reminds us what a fine performer Weld is and also the fact that Charles Bukowski wrote about her in the poem the best way to get famous is to run away.  A cult classic. The fact is, when an actress walks off a picture people get the idea she doesn’t want to work

A Dog’s Way Home (2019)

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As a puppy, Bella (played by Shelby and voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) finds her way into the arms of med student Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) a young man who with girlfriend Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) finds her in a demolition site with her friend Mother Cat and her kittens and gives her a good home with him and his mother Terri (Ashley Judd) a military vet who volunteers at the local Veterans’ Administration assisting the rehabilitating of fellow vets with PTSD and physical injuries. When Bella becomes separated from Lucas in an encounter with Animal Control, she is transported to the home in New Mexico of his Olivia’s family. She escapes and soon finds herself on an epic 400-mile journey across mountains and forest to reunite with her beloved owner. Along the way, the lost but spirited dog touches the lives of an orphaned cougar cub whom she calls Big Kitten, surviving hunters and predators, is kept in chains by a down-on-his-luck homeless alcoholic veteran Axel (Edward James Olmos) and briefly has a home with some friendly strangers, a gay couple (Barry Watson, Motell Gyn Foster) who happen to cross her path during an avalanche.  After two long years away from Lucas what will happen when she reaches her destination? … A reworking perhaps of Disney’s  The Incredible Journey, this had me at Woof. And in between the times I was blinking away tears and outright crying, it’s scary, tender, heartfelt and full of compassion. You might quibble with a CGI Big Kitten and the over-sentimentalising but there is real peril and some nasty human behaviour as well as an issue over how a dog should be classified when it comes to having a pit bull for a parent:  well, what’s new. And what’s not to love about a dog separated from her mother who finds a mother in a cat family?  And then a human family? And comforts soldiers suffering the after-effects of service? And who then befriends an orphaned cougar? At the end of the day, there’s no place like home. Sob. Adapted by W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon from Cameron’s book and directed by Charles Martin Smith, an actor who will always be Toad in American Graffiti here at Mondo Movies as well as Farley Mowat in that splendid wilderness film Never Cry Wolf. I knew now that my journey was much longer than I’d ever imagined

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (2019)

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He would craft mythical tales into voyages of the mind. Filmmaker Werner Herzog and author Bruce Chatwin became fast friends when they encountered one another in Australia in 1983. Herzog was researching Where the Green Ants Dream, Chatwin his book Songlines. They talked nonstop, bonding over their shared love of the sacrament of walking which they both believed had therapeutic even mystical qualities. Herzog narrates the story of their friendship and Chatwin’s travels and books over the course of eight chapters, commencing with The Skin of the Brontosaurus, an object in the family’s cabinet of curiosities that was really skin and fur from a sloth but which was one of the many pieces inspiring Chatwin to travel – or walk – the world, emblems of places he wanted to visit, or as Herzog says, points of a compass. Using some voice recordings of Chatwin reading from his work, archive footage and excerpts from Herzog’s own films, and interviews, he traces their interweaving stories across the continents from the neolithic structures at Avebury in Wiltshire to Australia and South America and West Africa, to the Priory in Wales that was his sanctuary, and demonstrates how their journeys and interests intersected:  Herzog famously walked to see Lotte Eisner in Paris and used Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Uidah as the basis of Cobra Verde, a film set in another deranged landscape starring Klaus (Fitzcarraldo) Kinski who biographer Nicholas Shakespeare says might best represent Chatwin as an older man, had he lived. Herzog never saw Chatwin’s annotated copy of the screenplay and Shakespeare reads out what the author thought of Herzog:  a compendium of contradictions;  remote and alone. Chatwin had led a highly promiscuous life as a bisexual and was dying of AIDS when Herzog showed him Herdsmen of the Sun, the last images he saw.  Chatwin told Herzog he was dying and Herzog reports that he responded, I can see that. As he lay dying he gifted Herzog his leather rucksack, a totem and talisman in this film about people finding their tribes – it not only played a role in Herzog’s Scream of Stone, it may have helped save Herzog’s life when he could sit on it during a particularly dangerous ice storm. Herzog defuses the myth. Chatwin asked Herzog to help him end his life and Herzog offered to either bash his head in with a baseball bat or shoot him. In fact Chatwin didn’t want his friend to see him die and was lapsing in and out of consciousness and he watched the film when he came to every so often and died shortly afterwards. As Herzog reads extracts from Chatwin one senses the echoes of his own autobiography:  One of the essential locations where he would find his inner balance.  Chatwin had liked Herzog’s film Signs of Life because, Herzog says, he was searching for strangeness.  The myth continues until the final chapter The Book is Closed when Herzog reads Chatwin’s last handwritten words, Christ wore a seamless robe. Talking with academics, correspondents, climbers and Chatwin’s widow Elizabeth, Herzog shapes the contours of an adventurous nomadic life that vibrates to this day, traced along the planet’s navigational lines and proving its very pulse. He was the internet

Chasing Bullitt (2019)

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Without my career there’s nothing else. Movie star Steve McQueen (Andre Brooks) is at a crossroads in his career after he’s had his pet project European racing film Le Mans taken from him by the studio. He owes money, his marriage is in trouble, he doesn’t know if he will hit big with the public again. He appeals to Freddie (Dennis W. Hall) his agent to help him locate the iconic Ford Mustang GT 390 he drove in Bullitt after the studio gifted him with a fake and goes on a road trip where he reflects on his life and the mistakes and relationships that have led him to this point … You’re a movie star. Surely that comes with its own set of burdens. It’s not just a road trip. It never is. It’s a psychological journey. And in the case of McQueen that means traversing the rocky road of his marriage to Neile (Augie), an encounter with Batista (Anthony Dilio) in Cuba back in 1956 and in sessions with his therapist (Ed Zajac) ponders his good fortune at not being slaughtered on Cielo Drive August 8, 1969. (And in this cultural echo chamber of movies we of course think of Damian Lewis’ McQueen unrequited longing for Sharon Tate in Tarantino’s recent Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood). Brooks has occasionally eerie moments embodying the star such is their resemblance, his chats with hitch hiker Sula (Alysha Young) clearly designed to trigger emotional insights; there’s a very amusing exchange with Dustin Hoffman (Jason Slavkin) about the prospects of working together on Papillon; and it all concludes with a final ironic gesture regarding the car he wants to find so badly. It’s not a perfect biopic but it’s better structured than most with an incredible look courtesy of cinematographer Daniel Stilling that harks back to precisely the era it’s set – 1971. It’s a mood piece about a yearning for control. And it’s about the filmmaker’s own nostalgia. I know just how he feels. Is it the truth? Hardly. It takes dramatic licence and still skims the surface. But I’ll take McQueen however I can get him. Written and directed by Joe Eddy. They took the film away from me

Hand in Hand (1960)

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Aka The Star and the Cross. She seems like a nice girl. You’d never know she was Jewish. Nine-year old Michael O’Malley (Philip Needs) attends with his local priest Father Timothy (John Gregson) and tells him he’s killed his best friend … He is an Irish Catholic boy who has formed a close friendship with school pal Rachel Mathias (Loretta Parry), a younger Jewish girl. At first, the two are ignorant of their religious differences until schoolmates raise the issue to Michael and their respective parents keep their own issues with the friendship to themselves. The kids become blood brothers and Michael attends synagogue and Rachel goes to Mass and they realise they have a lot in common. They both want to go to London to meet the Queen and Michael dreams of going big game hunting in Africa and when they have an adventure rafting on a river after crashing into a overhanging branch downstream, Michael thinks Rachel is dead … He’s a Jewish mouse. He’s mine. This kindly sermon on post-war anti-semitism in Britain is nicely handled by director Philip Leacock from a screenplay by Diana Morgan and Sidney Harmo (based on a story by Leopold Atlas), working with a talented young cast. Leacock had done the race drama Take a Giant Step so had a proven interest in social issues and he also previously worked with kids on The Little Kidnappers and The Spanish Gardener and he gets engaging performances here. The problematic scene when Michael is teased that Jews killed Christ and is then told by the boy that his father doesn’t like Catholics either defuses audience tension. Perhaps it’s played too innocent, but it’s about kids and it has a certain charm. God is love

 

Circle of Danger (1951)

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It doesn’t do to go around sobbing and putting up monuments. American World War 2 veteran Clay Douglas (Ray Milland) arrives in London to find out how his little brother was the only casualty in a British commando operation in occupied France. He follows the trail to Scotland where he meets platoon officer Hamish McArran (Hugh Sinclair) who informs him that most of the men are now dead and he provides him with information to contact the few survivors. Clay encounters children’s novelist Elspeth Graham (Patricia Roc) who meets him again back in London where he starts to track down the remaining commandos and uncover what really happened while the pair begin a very uneasy romance …  If I were you I’d spank the little bastard – hard. Shot by the great British cinematographers Oswald Morris and Gilbert Taylor, this is a handsome production adapted by Philip MacDonald from his own novel. What it lacks in thrills it makes up for in a deceptive charm and there’s a good twist. Along the way we have a cold/hot/cold romance with Roc, whose motives remain a little clouded. Nonetheless it’s an interesting insight into necessary deaths in wartime, with the guy Peter Bogdanovich once called the roadshow Cary Grant acquitting himself well in the lead, working with director Jacques Tourneur to turn a vengeful character into a more understanding one. It doesn’t stand with Tourneur’s best work but there are nice supporting performances by Marius Goring, Naunton Wayne and Dora Bryan.  I think Hank was murdered by one of the other commandos in that raid