The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Nobody fucks with the Jesus. The Dude abides. Where to start with one of the most cherished films there has ever been? Not in the beginning. I may have almost had a coronary from laughing the first time I saw this at a festival screening prior to its release, but a lot of critics just did not get it. It’s the Coen Brothers in excelsis, a broad Chandler adaptation and tribute to Los Angeles,  a hymn to male friendship and the Tao of easy living with some extraordinarily surreal fantasy and dream sequences – not to mention some deadly bowling. Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey ‘Dude’ Lebowski, a guy so laid back he’s horizontal but he gets a little antsy when some thieves mistake him for The Big Lebowski and piss on his rug (it really tied the room together). Best friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is his bowling buddy, an uptight Nam vet with adoptive-Jewish issues in this hilarious offside take on director John Milius. Steve Buscemi is their sweet-natured friend Donny and John Turturro is the unforgettable sports foe, a hispanic gangsta paedo in a hairnet, Jesus Quintana. After the rug issue is handled, Dude is hired by his namesake (David Huddleston) a wheelchair-bound multimillionaire philanthropist, to exchange a ransom when his young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is kidnapped. Naturally Dude screws it up. There’s a band of nihilists led by Peter Stormare, some porn producers (Bunny makes flesh flicks), Lebowski’s randy artist daughter (Julianne Moore) and a private eye following everyone. And there’s Sam Elliott, narrating this tale of tumbleweed and laziness.  Everyone has their signature song in one of the great movie soundtracks and Dude has not only Creedence but White Russians to really mellow his day. Just like The Big Sleep, the plot really doesn’t matter a fig. This is inspired lunacy and I love it SO much.

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The Odd Angry Shot (1979)

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When Nam volunteer Bill (John Jarratt) fetches up on duty with fellow Fosters drinkers courtesy of local politicians, he’s among a group of special air servicemen led by old geezer Harry (Graham Kennedy), numbed by boredom only intermittently relieved by occasional mortar attacks and booby traps set by the virtually invisible Vietnamese. His girlfriend sends him a barely comprehensible Dear John letter, the guys make a wanking machine for the padre, they get a scorpion and spider to fight to the death, and Bung (John Hargreaves) is distraught by tragic news from home. A night with whores in the city with some black American soldiers lifts the spirits. Rogers (Bryan Brown) loses his feet and jaw in a mine and then Bung is lost, pointlessly, when they take a bridge only to be told it’s not needed any more. This plays more like Dad’s Army than Platoon but under-budget and clearly not shot in Vietnam (it was made in Queensland) the limitations serve to amplify the sheer stupidity of this historic sortie and heighten questions of class and politics by dint of the relentless focus on a small group of men in this most irreverent of tragicomedies. Adapted from William Nagle’s autobiographical novel by director Tom Jeffrey. Artless, in every sense.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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I’m not home. I never will be. I first encountered a Nam vet on Central Park West. He chased me despite being on crutches that were well past their sell-by date. I guess maybe it was because I had more legs than he did. I was waiting tables in a township on Long Island called Massapequa at a ghastly restaurant where a deranged and thankfully distant relative worked. Massapequa is the hometown of the Baldwin brothers and Ron Kovic, the subject of this impassioned film by Oliver Stone, a man whose own combat experiences had informed his previous film, Platoon, that astonishingly immersive journey of a naif to manhood in a horrifying exposition of American soldiers’ experiences. Ron Kovic’s book is the basis of another coming of age tale, this time of a Catholic boy whose parents’ devotion to JFK unwittingly unleashes their sports-mad son’s inner patriot.  I hadn’t seen this since its release and my fresh impression of its first sequences was of overwrought melodrama, underlined by John Williams’ overheated score. But this is all of a piece with the film’s intentions:  starting with a heightened picture of America’s hearth and home;  the futility and horror of war; the brutality of veterans’ experiences in epically gruesome, filthy underfunded hospitals (Kovic’s God-loving mother never even paid him a visit); the utter loneliness of being a castrated, paralysed man with a beating heart and functioning brain who is ridiculed by the anti-war protesters; the recognition that the only people with whom he now has anything in common are the other vets who are even more fucked up than he is. And so it moves into its more austere final sections. Politicisation. Separation from a family who refuse to accept he could have killed women and children and for whom he is a mere embarassment in a block where the other soldiers at least died. Is there a better correlative image in Stone’s entire oeuvre than the crane shot over the Wilson family home, where Ron has confessed to killing new recruit, their nineteen year old son William, in the dunes of Nam as the sun flared during an ambush, then he is wheeled away by a helper amid the scraps and detritus dumped in their yard and the leafy branches fade into a fluttering stars and stripes – and we are plunged into more police brutality at the 1972 Republican convention where he has joined the protest movement? This is elegant filmmaking. It is not without its humour or self-awareness. Ron has finally had his cherry broken by a Mexican whore in a sequence of T&A that reunites Stone with Willem Defoe who welcomes him to this sick paradise and he thinks it’s love – but hides his gift for her when he realises sex with a cripple is just a job for her. These vets’ wheelchair-off is a salve for those of us who might have liked to see one between Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, who beat him to an Academy Award that year (DDL gurned more). I’ve never been back to Massapequa or that cruddy restaurant but Stephen Baldwin has a small role as a schoolfriend, Tom Berenger gets him to join up, Frank Whaley is the other surviving vet who helps Ron out of his doomladen hole and Kyra Sedgwick is the gorgeous girl he loved so much he ran through the rain to dance with her at the Prom and she turns him on to the anti-war crusade. Cruise is simply great, giving a complete performance from boy to man in a narrative which exemplifies the art of juxtaposition and emotional arcs. This is cinema, utterly moving and indignant and humane. Watch it and weep.

Tropic Thunder (2008)

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Everybody knows you never go full retard! Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) is the Aussie Method actor par excellence in blackface giving retrospective advice to Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) the ludicrously vain Hollywood star who made that very mistake in his quest for Oscar. Now they’re in the jungles of Vietnam doing their version of the War years after everyone else has stopped those kinds of movies and causing no end of difficulties for hapless Brit director (Steve Coogan) who is killed in the fray. Back at the studio the vile boss Les Grossman (an unrecognisable Tom Cruise) just sees insurance $$$$ when Speedman gets separated from the crew as they go shooting guerilla style in a self-defeating move – and he’s kidnapped by drugs lords who make him act out Stupid Jack, the only film they have on VHS. Only Tugg’s agent (Matthew McConaughey) cares about his charge. The other actors, who include Fatties franchise star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) decide to rescue Tugg without realising their director is dead and this is not a movie any more … This is a Hollywood satire that also operates as a proper action movie and what a rare feat that is. Just when you think it’s a sketch show that goes on too long, Tugg kills a panda (he’s crusading for their rights on the back of Vanity Fair) and Danny McBride calls Nick Nolte ‘the Milli Vanilli of patriots.’ Gut-bustingly funny when it works, and you know all the movies it’s spoofing, Grossman was apparently all Cruise’s idea and some might say it’s a rather vicious take on Sumner Redstone as revenge for booting him off the Paramount lot when he jumped on Oprah’s couch. From a story by Justin Theroux and Ben Stiller, written by Etan Cohen. Directing by Ben Stiller. Dancing by Les Grossman!

Drive, He Said (1971)

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Jack Nicholson had been busy in one of the leading roles for Bob Rafaelson in Five Easy Pieces so it was 1970 before he could begin shooting on his directing debut. He had already written a number of screenplays but he was over-committed at the time he wanted to make this. He was starring in Carnal Knowledge for director Mike Nichols so he began Drive… without a complete script.  Jeremy Larner adapted his own book but Nicholson wasn’t happy with it and had begun writing a second draft himself.  He brought in Robert Towne to complete his vision on set, with the added bonus of an acting role for his screenwriter friend – that of a cuckolded, broad-minded professor. Reclusive screenwriter and director Terrence Malick also did a rewrite – prior to making Badlands (1973). The film was completed on time for Nicholson to report to the East Coast for Mike Nichols.  He edited Drive… on weekends and downtime from shooting Carnal KnowledgeDrive… is an exposé of Sixties left-liberal attitudes, set on a campus infected with radicals  and replete with ready-made mythological references which must have appealed to Robert Towne:  a leading character called Hector  (who of course  as the eldest son of the king, led the Trojans in their war against the Greeks,  fought in single combat with Achilles and stormed the wall of the camp and set it alight). And, as if we don’t ‘get it,’ Hector’s major is Greek. The radical elements were complete with the casting in the lead role of William Tepper – a dead ringer for producer Bert Schneider, whose famously radical approach to production would lead Hollywood out of the old-style studio system but would embalm him in the mid-Seventies forever. There is a romantic element that interferes with male friendship: Gabriel is the guerrilla, played by Michael Margotta. Hector is besotted with Karen Black, married to Towne’s professor in the film. Her name, Olive, signifies her role as peace-maker in the narrative.  Gabriel runs away to escape the draft.  Hector is the warrior in love – he is in touch with nature (his surname, is, after all, Bloom.) He communes with the trees in the forest, stays in a log cabin and is generally at one with everything that is not ‘the Man.’ The film was entered in Cannes and Nicholson’s efforts were the subject of scorn.  It opened in New York on 13 June 1971 where it got mixed reviews.  BBS apparently offered more money to promote it but were deflected by Nicholson himself, who was depressed at the critical reception. But its lyricism, message and sub-Godardian construction have held up considerably better than Nicholson himself believed and its countercultural theme still produces a striking effect.The film is structured around Hector’s basketball games – the opening titles are underlined in a stunning sequence by the use of cult musician Moondog’s music – later paid homage by the Coen Brothers in The Big Leboswki (1998). The filming style in slow motion corresponds with much of Visions of Eight (1973), which would itself be an influence on Towne’s own film style in his directing debut, Personal Best. For more on Nicholson’s work with 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=1490221804&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon

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Platoon (1986)

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I wasn’t in Nam. Hardly. The closest I ever got was playing Quasar and once being chased near Central Park West by an old one-legged vet on cheap wooden crutches. Maybe I reminded him of someone. But a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, this won a slew of Academy Awards. This being the season for it, time to pull it out again. And like the other big Nam movies – Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket – it’s pretty schematised in its design. But the letters that Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) writes home make it more personal and immersive because he’s so very young and idealistic (and ridiculously handsome) and in his first experience of ambush he’s pretty much responsible for his new friend’s death. It’s unbearably tense. The guys are stuck between the noble warrior Willem Dafoe and the deranged psycho Tom Berenger – characterised as the good and bad fathers, thus giving us Chris’ Freudian perspective on the drama. The final assault, a raid on the Cambodian border, is bloody and unbound. It’s gripping, gritty and tense, the juxtaposition between the scenes of combat and those of male bonding is masterful and the emotion not supplied by the action is there in the incredible score by Georges Delerue, with Barber’s Adagio for Strings touching the parts even he can’t reach: you won’t forget this quickly, its imagery sears the brain. Simply great filmmaking by that old tyro Oliver Stone, based on his own Nam and the first of his trilogy. Now, on the same subject entirely, where’s my copy of Hamburger Hill?

In the Line of Fire (1993)

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Frank Horrigan is the ageing Secret Service man being taunted by phonecalls from someone who knows way too much about him – including that he was on the detail for JFK in Dallas. Turns out the guy is a former CIA assassin who couldn’t get acclimatised to life after Nam. (I know!) The threat to the current incumbent who’s on the campaign trail is overwhelming and Frank wants to get with the present detail despite being on bad terms with the whole team. He’s accompanied by newbie Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) but gets to know a woman secret agent, Lilly Raines, (‘window dressing’ as he puts it), the fabulous Rene Russo who’s probably been cast for her striking resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. The brilliance of this cat-and-mouse thriller is that it’s constructed between the poles of guilt and nostalgia – Frank’s guilt at not being able to save JFK, plus what might have been – and the desire not to let history get repeated. There’s also the joy of Clint playing versions of his previous law enforcing self with Dirty Harry references in abundance, verbal and visual. The byplay with Russo is extremely witty and their first (foiled) attempt to go to bed is great slapstick – look at all the weapons come off!  John Malkovich as the disguise-happy Mitch Leary is a great choice for the loopy assassin whose hero is Sirhan Sirhan and we know that this must end in a murder attempt replaying of RFK’s death at a venue similar to the Ambassador Hotel, this time in the midwest. This is a witty, fast-moving, clever, inventive, knowing, brutal and brilliantly written entertainment by Jeff Maguire (working from a story by producer Jeff Apple), superbly directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  The score by Ennio Morricone really works with the other jazz  soundtrack licks including Clint himself tinkling the ivories in all those hotel bars. With John Heard in a supporting role, Fred Dalton Thompson as White House Chief of Staff and Buddy Van Horn looking after the stunts, we are in great hands here as all those ideas about the Warren Commission, lone assassins and your ordinary everyday conspiracy theories are unpicked while an unstoppable romance between Clint and John unfolds in deadly fashion. Fantastic.

Billy Jack (1971)

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Some years ago Vanity Fair told me what I suspected for years:  my obsession with this film proved I am a film snob. What can I say? I saw it on TV when I was thirteen years old and it speaks to the thirteen year old in everyone about unfairness, killing animals, bigotry, viciousness in all its forms. In the days before you could find such things on the internet I discovered the soundtrack album on vinyl in a backstreet store on a trip to London. The hero is a half-Navajo former Green Beret back home after ‘Nam and invariably dragged into violence despite his wish to be a peace-loving law-abiding citizen who’s exploring his Native American heritage and practising hapkido. He comes to the rescue of kids at a freedom school run by Delores Taylor, who happens to be the wife of actor-writer-director-producer auteur, Tom Laughlin. This was absolutely mega on the drive-in circuit and slayed all comers upon re-release after AIP pulled out and Fox messed it up in theatrical and was the second of four movies about BJ. If you don’t love this movie you were never thirteen and you definitely never wore flowers in your long blonde hair. All you gotta do is relate. Peace and love, dudes. This is the source.

Vanishing Point (1971)

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The very essence of 70s existentialism. In a way. Perhaps those sunburst flashbacks are not a good idea. Maybe if the script had the courage of its convictions we would just experience the desert drive with Barry Newman instead of getting backstory, romance, rationale. Kinda like Falling Down, which similarly overloaded an explosively effective social drama with causes, which wasn’t really needed and deflated the message. Here we have pillhead Kowalski fresh out of Nam who is promised his next cache for free if he brings this 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T back to San Francisco from Denver in 15 hours. A multi-state police chase ensues. Cleavon Little is the radio DJ narrating his progress. Sometimes you should trust the audience a little more. And make a fully fledged classic. Unique, terrifically atmospheric, brilliantly shot by John A. Alonzo and well directed by Richard C. Sarafian. Written pseudonymously by G. Cabrera Infante as Guillermo Cain.This is really something. And the car!

Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)

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Why mess with perfection? It seems a lot of films get out without their makers’ approval – CE3K being but one example. So there goes your auteur theory, box office and schedules being of more concern to the studios. Twenty-two years after it originally escaped Francis Ford Coppola’s hands, he got back with Walter Murch (who’d already spent two years of his life on it…) and re-edited a masterpiece, adding 29 minutes and substantial extra story to this fabular excursion on the wild side of Vietnam. The story is effectively the same, with the brilliance of John Milius’ touch all over this Conrad adaptation and those incredible, quotable lines – I love the smell of napalm in the morning! Charlie don’t surf! – but with added French ex-pats living out the last of their gilded sweaty days on a plantation (Christian Marquand helps). There is also a new sequence meeting the Playboy Bunnies upriver and more with Colonel Kurtz. The original soundtrack is quite possibly the scariest in my collection (try listening to it on your own in the dark) but more music was added: although Carmine Coppola had died in 1991, a deleted Love Theme was found and re-recorded on synths. If you haven’t seen this, or the original, you’re missing out on one of the great cinematic experiences. Stunning.