Tracks (2013)

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I just want to be by myself. If you read books like The Heroine’s Journey you’ll learn that what every girl really needs at some point is some time by herself – a separation of sorts, from the noise, from the world, from the patriarchal expectations …. all that jazz. And in 1977 Australian Robyn Davidson had just about enough of all the rubbish in life and decided to trek 1,700 miles from Alice Springs via Ayers Rock and the Western Desert to the Ocean – with Diggity the dog and Dookie, Bob, Sally and Baby Goliath, four camels that she trained and befriended. The problem of financing necessitated a sponsor and that came in the form of National Geographic magazine which sent freelance photographer Rick Smolan to shoot the story and he met up with her once a month, in various states of disrepair and anguish. Mia Wasikowska has the role of her life, encountering her real self, solitude, loneliness and loss. It’s a remarkable, demanding performance in this adaptation by Marion Nelson of Davidson’s memoir, which took 25 years to get to the big screen after many false starts. Adam Driver is the unfortunate guy whose expressions of concern for his occasional travelling companion are so regularly rebuffed while the inevitable publicity brings unwelcome meetings with an inquisitive public and there’s an especially amusing incident when Robyn’s mentor Mr Eddie (Rolley Mintuma) scares them off with a presumably typical Aboriginal attitude. This is a beautifully crafted film, memorably shot and simply bewitching, with layers of meaning about personhood, the environment and the ecology of animal and human friendship. One of my favourite films of 2013. Directed by John Curran.

Last Cab to Darwin (2015)

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Rex (Michael Caton) is dying and his days are spent with his friends down the local boozer and his nights with his dog (Dog). Polly (Ningali Lawford) his Aboriginal neighbour across the street is the woman in his life and they enjoy some banter about his difficult ways. His pain has led him to pursue euthanasia, not legal in New South Wales. He sets off in his taxi to the Northern Territory to the one doctor who is prepared to assist his death. En route he picks up Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), an Aboriginal drifter who’s also a talented footballer;  and British nurse Julie (Emma Hamilton) who’s keen to experience life Down Under.  The three develop a very particular kind of friendship on the 2,000 mile road trip. The mordantly witty tone ensures that this never descends to bathos and when Doc Farmer turns out to be the splendid Jacki Weaver you are assured that Reg Cribb’s adaptation of his 2003 play (based on a true story) gets the treatment that it deserves:  a terrifically game cast performing this considered, humane, very contemporary subject of self-determination with great dignity. It even has a twist ending. Engaging and compelling. Directed by Jeremy Sims.

Snatched (2017)

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I worship Goldie Hawn. Foul Play is on constant rotation chez moi. After a terrible 15 year break, she’s back, playing Amy Schumer’s mother. I use those words with caution because in one phrase I have alienated Goldie fans and realise that Schumer fans may not even know who Hawn is. Schumer is dumped by her boyfriend in a scene that is excruciating for all the wrong reasons – too long, badly written, overly expository and revelatory of one crucial fact:  Schumer cannot act. Then after social media intervention by her mom who lives with three rather cool cats  (Andrew, Arthur and Philip) she goes home because she has non-refundable tickets for a holiday to Ecuador and nobody will go with her. Turns out there’s an autistic/agoraphobe/nerd brother (Ike Barinholtz) resident too. After more, long, excruciating, badly written scenes, we fetch up with Goldie and Amy in a luxury resort in Ecuador. Amy wants to have sex with an Aussie adventurer (Tom Bateman) but he’s just keen to bring her on a day out. She brings mom too and they’re kidnapped. There are a few funny bits – Amy has the classic millennial reaction to being parted from her smartphone;  she ends up killing someone with a spade (“Are you sure?” she asks Goldie; “I saw his brains,” Goldie deadpans in response);  they partner up with an Indiana Jones-wannnabe jungle guide (Christopher Meloni) who turns out to be a total phony with a week to live (a bit less, actually); the complete lack of interest from the State Dept.; and there’s a tribute to Alien with a massive tapeworm.  But… there’s the brother’s subplot with the State Dept. And don’t get me started on the bewildering squandering of Wanda Sykes and a mute Joan Cusack (mute! Joan Cusack MUTE!!!!) as a sidebar of handy Lesbian rescuers who just …. disappear in a manner that is literally the opposite of good characterisation and plotting . OMG. I lay most of the issues at writer Katie Dippold’s door:  the scenes are long, lazy and the episodes of (literal) toilet humour – playing to Schumer’s apparent strengths/demographic – are just vile. The story simply doesn’t make sense from scene to scene – and don’t ask me how it winds up in Colombia from Ecuador. I mean I understand South American kidnap and murder gangs don’t go through passport control, but …  Misdirected by Jonathan Levine. Schumer is morphing into Will Ferrell. I still love Goldie! Give her a better film!

A Good Year (2006)

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Ridley Scott wanted to make something light and local near his home in the South of France and someone suggested he adapt a Peter Mayle book. Instead they met up and had a chat and developed a story which became a different sort of film for Scott (and a somewhat altered version of the story in the subsequent novel by Mayle) with Russell Crowe as Max Skinner the uptight London City broker inheriting his uncle’s estate which he hasn’t been back to in ten years – despite having been brought up there. He falls for a local restaurateur (Marion Cotillard) and tries to sell up with the incursion of his uncle’s illegitimate daughter (Abbie Cornish) throwing an ownership spanner in the works, especially since she’s an oenologist. There’s mischief afoot back at work, a subplot about the vines and wine appellation with local Francois (Didier Bourdon), and flashbacks to Max’s childhood (he’s played by Freddie Highmore) with Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) and none of the stories really work in tandem with odd shifts in tone, but it looks beautiful and the women are great. Crowe would be much better served with a humorous role in The Nice Guys. Written by Marc Klein.

Sideways (2004)

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Pinot’s a very thin-skinned grape, it doesn’t like light or humidity. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a wine-loving high school English teacher and wannabe author whose best friend actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is getting married next Saturday:  road trip! To California wine country, where he can educate Jack in the mysteries of tasting. Two middle aged men on an emotional journey, one a depressive mourning his marriage, the other a past-it who can’t wait to get it up. Maya (Virginia Madsen) is the college professor’s wife waiting tables who has the best palate for wine of any woman Miles has ever met and Jack fancies her smartass friend and single mom Stephanie (Sandra Oh). There ensue some funny sexcapades (Jack), sad drunk dials (Miles), terror on the golf course and major education in oenology:  sometimes all it takes is the feel of a bunch of grapes in the hand to get the mojo going and a bottle of wine can bring anyone back to life. The marvellous Maya turns out to be the woman who coaxes Miles to his truest expression. Funny, louche, and humane with killer lines and tone-perfect performances from all concerned. Beautifully written, staged and shot, this is the comical male midlife response to Thelma and Louise, minus the violence and police. Mature, full-bodied and earthy, it simply gets better every year. From Rex Pickett’s unpublished novel, adapted by Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne. Savour it.

Wild Oats (2016)

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Shirley MacLaine is the beloved retired schoolteacher whose husband dies and her insecure unhappily married fusspot daughter Demi Moore (looking about 30 – sheesh!) brings a realtor to the funeral to assess her home for post-mortem sale. MacLaine insists upon staying there and is mistakenly sent a life insurance cheque for $5 million instead of $50,000.  Best friend Jessica Lange encourages her to make off with it and the pair of them embark on the adventure of a lifetime – fetching up in the Canary Islands where they enjoy very different romances. Divorced Billy Connolly hits on MacLaine but all is not what it seems when she wins nearly half a million euros on blackjack and a US insurance investigator turns up to ask about the unfathomably large cheque, encouraging her to bribe him and bolt while Connolly disappears. Is he a conman?! Meanwhile Lange gets involved with a younger man with a Mrs Robinson fixation. Back in the US, another company rep, the wonderfully sentimental Howard Hesseman, pairs off with Moore to bring Mom back home and face justice. It all winds up in a shootout at a winery with the island’s biggest gangster. You have to be there! For armchair tourists – this looks gorgeous and the ladies are quite the heroines. The gray dollar audience is being well catered for. This is better than assisted living! Directed by Andy Tennant from a screenplay by Gary Kanew and Claudia Myers.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

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The one with the chicken salad scene. Jack Nicholson was on the verge of becoming one of the most famous actors in the world with this portrait of alienation which just floored contemporary audiences. There had simply never been a character like Bobby ‘Eroica’ Dupea. He was the creature of writer Carole Eastman, writing under the nom de plume Adrien Joyce, albeit co-star Susan Anspach claimed that Nicholson made up stuff on the hoof and deserved credit. Bob Rafelson the director and co-writer was already a name from The Monkees but this was really a high point of New Hollywood – a departure and an arrival, with behavioural observation the strong point of a narrative that sees wildcatter Bobby shacked up with Tammy Wynette devotee waitress Rayette (Karen Black) and screwing around with his friend Elton (Billy ‘Green’ Bush). When he expresses his contempt for Elton (a ‘cracker asshole’) we get the first intimation that Bobby may not be like him: in fact he’s the estranged son of a family of gifted musicians and he himself is a former musical prodigy who has literally abandoned his talent. When Elton tells him Rayette is pregnant then Elton is arrested for robbing a gas station, Bobby takes off to LA to see his sister Partita (Lois Smith) a pianist who’s recording an album. She tells him their father is gravely ill. He takes off – regretfully – with a suicidal Rayette and leaves her at a motel while he broaches a difficult family reunion at Puget Sound including  violinist brother Carl Fidelio (Ralph Waite) whose pianist fiancee Catherine (Anspach) he beds. The final scene with his unresponsive father is hopelessly moving and the movie’s final shot when he hitches a ride on a truck away from a gas station and his car and his jacket and Rayette (who has turned up and embarrassed him en famille) … seems endless. Nicholson is allowed show all his colours here and it’s a transcendentally emotional and funny performance in a complex character study – the restaurant scene with the awful hitch hikers is a highlight, the wild sex with a pick-up another, and Nicholson’s tears are terrible to witness. He doesn’t know himself at all. This is a standout film from an era devoid of hope and this seems to encapsulate its anomie and capture it entirely. Luminously shot by Laszlo Kovacs, those burnished skies feel like the aspirations of a generation. Nicholson was officially a superstar.

The Last Detail (1973)

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I am the motherfucking shore patrol! Jack Nicholson was one of the biggest stars of the 70s after Easy Rider and this adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s terrific novel is one of the key buddy movies of the period. Nicholson plays Billy ‘Badass’ Buddusky, Signalman First Class who’s awaiting orders at Norfolk naval base with Richard ‘Mule’ Mulhall (Otis Young) when they are directed to escort young Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to prison in Maine in the depths of winter.  He tried to steal $40 from a charity collection box – and the problem is it’s a favourite of his commanding officer’s wife so he’s got eight years for his efforts.  They set out on a Bon Voyage tour of the north east, getting into all sorts of scrapes and seeing the virginal Larry’s miserable home in Philadelphia en route.  Screenwriter Robert Towne, working for the first (but not the last) time with director Hal Ashby radically altered Ponicsan’s Camus-loving protagonist with his beyond-beautiful wife and recast him as a more ultimately compromised man, adding him to the gallery of unformed underachievers that populates his screenplays:  J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, George Roundy in Shampoo, Mac in Tequila Sunrise.  All of these men are compromised in their need for the means to survive. Of these characters, it could be said that Buddusky (certainly in Towne’s interpretation of the original character as conceived by Ponicsan) is actually the least tragic (he does not succumb to the fate administered in Ponicsan’s novel, thereby rendering the title meaningless!), the most pragmatic – and the most well-adjusted. Towne’s interpretation of Buddusky aligns him in the vanguard of New Hollywood in its politicised, anti-authoritarian heyday.  While his work on the film was undoubtedly influenced by his producer (Gerald Ayres) and director (particularly, it seems, by Ashby), he wrote it with Nicholson in mind and it copperfastened his position as upcoming screenwriter in the early Seventies.  Nicholson’s casting also helped get the film made – the original draft screenplay had ‘342 fucks.’ (There were 65 in the final release.) However Towne had also envisioned the film being cast with Rupert Crosse who died before it got the greenlight so the spotlight of the film now shifted more completely to Nicholson, and the script’s emphasis was therefore changed: Nicholson simply did not have the same kind of relationship with Otis Young, Crosse’s replacement. It was now truly a star vehicle. Meadows was played by Texan newcomer Randy Quaid, who towered over Nicholson, lending even more comedy to the situation. (John Travolta made it to the last two but it was Quaid’s height which lent his character even more poignancy.) It took Nicholson’s winning the Best Actor award at Cannes to get Columbia to finally release the film which was a long time in the editing room. Nicholson still regards it as his best role – Chinatown notwithstanding! Ribald, profane, oddly touching and screamingly funny, this is a tonally perfect comic drama and one you won’t forget in a hurry. For more on it and the significance of Nicholson’s work with his greatest collaborator, screenwriter Robert Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1489670058&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Blue Murder at St Trinians (1957)

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A very deftly plotted entry in the Launder and Gilliat series adapted from Ronald Searle’s riotous school stories, this sees Amelia Fritton (Alastair Sim) in prison and with the school under military and police control, the girls contrive to win a bus trip to Europe and the father (Lionel Jeffries) of one of them returns in Ms Fritton’s place when he needs to hide out following a heist at Hatton Garden. With Terry-Thomas romancing Joyce Grenfell, George Cole doing his inimitable best as ‘Flash’ Harry running a marriage agency to get the sixth formers hitched, it’s all systems go for the anarchic crew. Bedlam, in  other words. Great fun.

The First Film (2015)

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David Wilkinson’s film probes the idea that the first film was made by Frenchman Louis Le Prince in Leeds – before Edison or the Lumiere brothers,  in 1888. The first half of the film looks at the evidence, the technology and the patent issues (Le Prince’s cameras were recognised in the US and the UK on the same day – probably coincidentally). A wide-ranging set of guests (including a rather baffled Joe Eszterhas) talk to Wilkinson, whose hipster enthusiasm guides us through his decades-long search for the truth and we are taught a great deal about the machinery, the pictorial aspects and the artistic scene in Leeds, tracing Le Prince’s origins back to Metz and Dijon. The second half of the film is about his mysterious death before the planned trip to the US where his film was due to be shown in a salon in NYC. He had returned to France to meet with his architect brother over a disputed inheritance from their mother and was allegedly last seen by same boarding a train 16 September 1890. He was never seen again. This mystery adds piquancy to a fascinating tale which lacks a certain dynamism but is more than a footnote in film history, with a pleasing conclusion using one of Le Prince’s own designs to reproduce the short film in question. A passion project.