Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019)

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Nobody knows the fuck who I am any more. In Los Angeles 1969 fading TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is offered a job on an Italian western by agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) while his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) assists him in every area of his life including driving him after he’s lost his licence for DUI and gofering around home on Cielo Drive where Rick occupies the gate house next to the rental where Roman Polanski (Rafal Zuwierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have moved in. One day at Burbank Cliff picks up a hippie hitch hiker Pussycat (Margot Qualley) who wants a ride out to the Spahn Movie Ranch where he used to work and it appears owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is being held hostage by a bunch of scary hippies led by an absent guy called Charlie and personally attended to by Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). Cliff tees off the hippies by punishing one of their number for slicing a whitewall tyre on Rick’s car. Meanwhile, Rick confronts his acting demons doing yet another guest villain on a TV episode with Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) and considers spending 6 months in Italy, after which the guys return in August 1969 while next door a heavily pregnant Tate suffers the hottest night of the year and the Spahn Ranch hippies are checking out the residents on Cielo Drive … When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell. How much did you want to see this? And talk about repaying fan faith. What a huge ensemble cast, to start with, and with so many pleasant surprises:  Bruce Dern as George Spahn, the owner of the fabled ranch where Manson holed up;  Clu Gulager (!) as a bookseller (with a Maltese Falcon on his counter); Rumer Willis as actress Joanna Pettet; Michael Madsen (remember him?) as the Sheriff on the Bounty Law TV show; Kurt Russell as a TV director (and more besides) with Zoë Bell as his kick-ass wife; and Luke Perry in his last role; and so many more, a ridiculous spread of talent that emphasises the story’s epic nature. It’s a pint-size take on Tarantino’s feelings about the decline of Hollywood, a hallucinatory haunted house of nostalgia, an incision into that frenzied moment in August 1969 that symbolically sheared open the viscera lying close to that fabled town’s surface. It’s about movies and mythology and TV shows and music and what it’s like to spend half your day driving around LA and hearing all the new hit songs on the radio. It’s about business meetings at Musso & Frank’s (I recommend the scallops); and appointment TV; and it’s about acting:  one of the best sequences is when Rick is guest-starring opposite an eight-year old Method actress (Julia Butters) who doesn’t eat lunch because it makes her sluggish and she expounds on her preference at being called an Actor and talks him into giving a great performance. All of which is a sock in the jaw to critics about Tarantino’s treatment of women, even if there’s an array of gorgeously costumed pulchritude here, much of which deservedly gets a dose of his proverbial violence (directed by and towards, with justification), among a selection of his trademark tropes. It’s likely about Burt Reynolds’ friendship with stuntman turned director Hal Needham or that of Steve McQueen (played here by Damian Lewis, I can even forgive that) and James ‘Bud’ Ekins. It’s about an anachronistic TV actor whose star has crested but who wants to upgrade to movies after a couple of outings – and there’s an amazing sequence about The Great Escape and what might have been and actors called George. But it’s more than that. It’s about a town dedicated to formulating and recalibrating itself for the times and it’s about the joys of moviegoing. Watching Robbie watch herself (actually the real Sharon) on screen is so delightful. She’s a little-known starlet and her joy at her own role in The Wrecking Crew is confirmed by the audience’s laughter when she wins a fight scene. Robbie is totally charismatic in a role that has scant dialogue but she fills the film with her presence: a beautiful woman kicks her shoes off and enjoys watching herself – take that! The detail is stunning, the production design by Barbara Klinger just awe-inspiring. This is a film that’s made on film and cut on film (Super 8, 16, 35) and intended for the cinema. It’s shot by Robert Richardson and it looks simply jaw-dropping. It’s about friendship and loyalty and DiCaprio is very good as a kind of buttery hard-drinking self-doubting star; his co-dependent buddy Pitt is even better (it’s probably Pitt’s greatest performance) as the guy with a lethal legend attached to his name (maybe he did, maybe he didn’t) who doesn’t do much stunt work any more and some people don’t like his scene with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on The Green Hornet but it’s laugh out loud hilarious. This is leisurely, exhilarating, chilling, kind and wise and funny and veering towards tragedy. It’s a fantasy, a what-might-have-been and what we wish had been and the twist ending left me with feelings of profound sorrow.  As we approach the end of another decade it seems a very long fifty years since Easy Rider formulated the carefully curated soundtrack that Tarantino has made one of his major signifiers, and it’s exactly fifty years since Sharon Tate and her unborn son and her friends were slaughtered mercilessly by the Manson Family. People started locking their doors when they realised what the Summer of Love had rained down, and not just in Hollywood. Tarantino is the single most important filmmaker of my adult life and this is his statement about being a cinéphile, a movie-lover, a nerd, a geek, a fan, and it’s about death – the death of optimism, the death of cinema, the death of Hollywood. It’s also about second chances and being in the right place at the right time. Just as Tarantino reclaimed actors and genres and trash and presented them back to Generation X as our beloved childhood trophies, Rick’s fans remember he was once the watercooler TV cowboy and give him back his mojo. This film is where reality crosses over with the movies and the outcome is murderous. The scene at the Spahn Ranch is straight from Hitchcock’s Psycho playbook.  Practically Chekhovian in structure, this reminds us that if there’s a flamethrower in the first act, it must go off in the third. Tarantino is telling us that this is what movies can be. It could only be better if it were a musical, but, hey, it practically is. I thought I’d been waiting for this film for a year, truth is I’d been waiting for it half my life. Everybody don’t need a stuntman

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Frontier Gal (1945)

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I don’t want to be a bride – I want to be a widow! Johnny Hart(Rod Cameron)  heads for Red Gulch, looking for the mystery man who murdered his partner. He quickly meets Lorena Dumont (Yvonne De Carlo), a beautiful saloon keeper who is loved by Blackie (Sheldon Leonard), a jealous crook who doesn’t like her interest in Johnny. After he resists her seduction by saying he has another girl back home but she misunderstands his intentions, he is forced to marry her at gunpoint – an actual shotgun wedding! She turns him over to the sheriff when she learns he’s a fugitive with a price on his head. He escapes, spends a night of passion with Lorena, then is recaptured. Six years later, Johnny returns from a long spell in prison to Red Gulch seeking revenge. He now knows it was Blackie who killed his partner. Johnny’s former girlfriend is summoned to meet him, but it turns out he fathered a child with Lorena who’s now a whipsmart five year old called Mary Ann (Beverly Sue Simmons) …… Squaw easy to get. Hard to lose. This little-known western musical comedy is a lively, flavourful hoot from start to action-packed finish, with a zesty performance by De Carlo in a role intended for Maria Montez. Cameron isn’t great as her opposite number in this Taming of the Shrew knockoff, but Andy Devine is the business as Big Ben and little Simmons is just laugh out loud great as the sharp kid Johnny suddenly loves despite not knowing about her existence for five years. An underrated gem, written by Michael Fessier and Ernest Pagano and directed by Charles Lamont, this zips along to a cracking score by Frank Skinner and some entertaining songs performed by the cast although De Carlo is voiced by Doreen Tryden in one of hers. A gun so big can make a big man like me look so small

Oklahoma Crude (1973)

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Businessmen do this to each other all the time. Headstrong lone wildcatter Lena Doyle (Faye Dunaway) accepts the assistance of her ne’er do well father Cleon (John Mills) and hired gun, oilfield drifter Noble Mason (George C. Scott), in defending her oil derrick from businessman Hellman (Jack Palance) and his associates in the Pan-Oklahoma Oil Trust in 1913 …Women are even worse; they try to be like men, but they can’t cut it. I’d like to be a member of a third sex. Producer Stanley Kramer makes a broad comedy far removed from his usual solemn and socially conscious films with a vulgar, funny screenplay by Marc Norman (which he later adapted into a novel) complete with throwaway lines on sexual politics. The leads play mostly against type and Dunaway and Scott are superb bouncing off each other. They offer fascinating, stylised performances with Dunaway doing a kind of Jane Fonda impression in her dyed ‘do. A highly enjoyable frontier outing enhanced by Henry Mancini’s score and song, Send a Little Love My Way which he co-wrote with Hal David, performed by Anne Murray. Beautifully shot by Robert Surtees.  Isn’t that just like a woman? She wants to be treated like a man… and then she cries!

The Wild and the Innocent (1959)

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Aka The Buckskin Kid and the Calico Gal/The Wild Innocents. The Lord sure made a mistake letting people like you have children. Naive young fur trapper Yancy Hawks (Audie Murphy) heads to Casper, Wyoming for the first time when his injured uncle asks him to trade some pelts for essential provisions. He encounters the Stockers, a family of vagabonds headed by lazy sneak thief Ben (Strother Martin) who try to cheat him into parting with his furs in exchange for their daughter Rosalie (Sandra Dee). Rosalie escapes her cruel family and she heads to Casper with Yancy who reluctantly agrees to take her with him but they go through many hardships in the corrupt and lawless big town especially when they fall foul of a crooked sheriff Paul Bartell (Gilbert Roland) who proposes that Rosalie work in a dance hall run by Marcy Howard (Joanne Dru).  When Yancy finds out it’s actually a brothel the scene is set for a showdown … Why don’t you go back to the hills and grow up. An offbeat comedy western written by producer Sy Gomberg and director Jack Sher, the chance to see Dee in a frightwig while Murphy attempts to play it straight is too much to pass up. Roland and Dru excel in their baddie roles, Jim Backus gets to play a decent father figure/shopkeeper and the Cinemascope Eastmancolor Universal experience of Big Bear and Snow Valley is enlivened by Hans Salter’s score and the song Touch of Pink because I Shot the Sheriff hadn’t been written yet. There’s just a chance that you might be what I need

Only the Valiant (1951)

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Aka Fort Invincible. Plugged up the pass just like a cork in a bottle.  Following the Civil War in New Mexico when a vital fort guarding a mountain pass is threatened by gathering Apaches, dour West Point Captain Richard Lance (Gregory Peck) picks the most disposable bunch of malcontents and psychos to hold out until reinforcements arrive, whereupon various personal animosities bring them closer to killing him than the enemy as the Apaches cut off the water supply and they turn on each other … It’d be just as easy if the whole patrol committed suicide in there.  This tough frontier story is mainly of interest nowadays perhaps for the presence of Barbara Payton, a cult figure whose short sharp shock of a career was assisted by being involved with this film’s producer William Cagney before she went sex-mad and off the rails. Her role is mostly confined to the opening segments when her putative husband Holloway (Gig Young) rides out to his death, and she wrongly blames Lance. However it’s a really interesting piece of work that’s quite brutal in both theme and execution. Adapted by Edmund H. North and Harry Brown from a novel by Charles Marquis Warren (he would go on to become a director and created Rawhide for TV), the sense of a Fordian world (Fort Apache) is enhanced by the presence of Ward Bond, playing a seriously drunken Irish soldier always cadging people’s canteens. The reason for your presence on this patrol won’t be carried on any record book, Peck declares as he assembles his equivalent of The Dirty Dozen. There’s an amazing fistfight between two warring soldiers in front of their Indian assailants who whoop and jeer as if it’s a cockfight;  there is an explosive start to the final sequence; and the Gatling gun is introduced as a revolutionary way to cut down on soldier numbers when the cavalry finally come calling. More than a cult item after all, and while the mostly studio-bound production is sometimes hampered by odd interactions between the principals, there is striking photography and the ratcheting levels of tension are expertly maintained from the get-go. Even if Peck didn’t like this, he’s outstanding as the commander who eventually gets the respect of his extraordinarily treacherous motley crew. Watching these guys get picked off is quite the thrill. Directed by Gordon Douglas. You who know all things know nothing

The Hired Hand (1971)

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You mean you ain’t gonna go to the coast? It’s the 1880s. After seven years wandering in the Southwest during which young travelling companion Griffen (Robert Pratt) is murdered for the hell of it in a small town run by corrupt sheriff McVey (Severn Darden), drifting cowboy Harry Collings (Peter Fonda) abandons his dream of going to California and seeing the Pacific and brings along his friend Arch Harris (Warren Oates) when he returns to his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) and ranch … I wasn’t ready, that’s all. With its dreamy opening, unconventional mid-section and leisurely approach, debut director Peter Fonda was given free rein (following Easy Rider) with this Alan Sharp screenplay, Vilmos Zsigmond supplying beautifully naturalistic imagery edited into something of an occasionally hallucinatory montage by Frank Mazzola. The performances are a wonder. We are more accustomed to seeing Oates directed by Sam Peckinpah and here he is sympathetic and wise, a diametric opposite to the innocence embodied by the tragic Griffen. Then he unwittingly forms part of a new triangle with his friend’s wife. The marvellous Bloom meanwhile hints at a depth of narrative that doesn’t always reveal itself on the simple surface. She’s a frontier woman who didn’t replace a dog that’s run off – but she has herself had relations with other men during her husband’s walkabout, crudely describing the experiences as “like two dogs.” She’s one tough cookie and Bloom herself (Medium Cool, High Plains Drifter, National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Last Temptation of Christ) was a hell of an actress: she died in January of this year. The idea of a marriage being revisited is tested not just in the situation but in the visuals, as this younger husband has finally become the man his older wife needed, quietly reinventing their relationship. He’s what you went looking for. It’s not just about romance, it’s also about friendship and loyalty, travelling, hanging out, being – no doubt virtues of hippiedom mostly lost to us in the chatter of contemporary life, albeit this trip can be cut short by sudden violence, a constant trope in the most American of genres. The songs by Bruce Langhorne assist the mystical, even spiritual feel, enhanced by the cutting out of 20 minutes of more explanatory story, restored and then removed again for the 2001 re-release by its still centre, Fonda himself, who understands that the film operates like meditation.  But the beginning, and the conclusion, the alpha and the omega, as it were, are disturbing, the spectre of uneasy death all-pervasive. It’s been building up a long while

The Left-Handed Gun (1958)

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You’re not like the books! You don’t wear silver studs! You don’t stand up to glory! You’re not him! Volatile young drifter and gunfighter William Bonney (Paul Newman) works for kindly Lincoln County rancher John Tunstall aka ‘The Englishman’ (Colin Keith-Johnston) and they develop an unbreakable bond. When Tunstall is murdered by a corrupt sheriff and his cronies because he was about to supply beef to the local military company, a distraught Billy swears revenge and goes on a rampage through the New Mexico Territory, endangering the General Amnesty established by Governor Lew Wallace. Billy finally guns down all the men who killed Tunstall – but in the process he endangers the life of his old friend Pat Garrett (John Dehner), who is about to be married and doesn’t take kindly to the Kid’s erratic behaviour and vows to hunt him down as newly appointed sheriff ... One shot – one ten cent bullet, and that’s it! Gore Vidal’s 1955 Philco Playhouse TV feature gets the big screen treatment by screenwriter Leslie Stevens with Arthur Penn making his directing debut and Newman inheriting a(nother) role that James Dean was expected to play (and which Newman had played in the TV episode). Occupying that space between the psychological western and authentic approach to biography it’s a revisionist exercise that’s not 100% successful but remains a fascinating picture of Fifties acting styles as well as being a rather beautiful historical narrative. You been called. Newman plays Billy as a juvenile delinquent, a typically doomed misunderstood teen of the era who loses it when his substitute father is killed but it’s the underwritten edges he can’t quite fill out, ironically making his character all the more credible because this is all about perceptions of the heroic.  There’s nice support from Lita Milan as Celsa, Dehner as the conflicted Garrett, James Best as Tom Follard and especially Hurd Hatfield as Moultrie the travelling companion who transforms Billy’s life into a series of dime store novels that Billy can’t read and who ultimately betrays him. Got myself all killed. A dramatically arresting and visually striking, much imitated taste of things to come from all concerned, not least of which would be Penn’s own Bonnie and ClydeI don’t run. I don’t hide. I go where I want. I DO what I want!

Decision at Sundown (1957)

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You’d better leave town if you want to stay in one piece. After three years of searching and hell-bent on revenge, flinty gunslinger Bart Allison (Randolph Scott) rides into a sleepy Western town with sidekick Sam (Noah Beery) and only one goal in mind: to kill local roughneck Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), who kidnapped his wife years ago. Both men have blood on their hands over the woman’s eventual suicide. Allison and Kimbrough, wracked with guilt but boiling over with bloodlust, are set to face off for one final confrontation. Tensions mount as sunset approaches, and the townspeople must choose sides before sundown just as Kimbrough prepares to wed local girl Lucy (Karen Steele) and sheriff Swede (Andrew Duggan) assists in surrounding the men in a stables… Doc, when you have been tending bars as long as I have, you wouldn’t expect so much out of the human race. With a screenplay by Charles Lang, director Budd Boetticher reunites with Scott for their second collaboration and the usually taciturn star plays a man unravelling at the seams rather with a residual question over his psychological well-being not to mention his partial responsibility for his wife’s death, tearing at the reason for his quest and turning the tables on the town itself as the lines blur between notions of the hero and the villain. There are ugly digs at women and their predilections with Kimbrough’s mistress Ruby (Valerie French) the third point of this bad women triangle but this is compensated for by the precision of the action sequences, cut closely and distinctively, echoing the irony that underscores this unusual revenge western, offering no light relief to the brutal sense of justice at its core. What we remember is the detail of Randolph Scott’s face, etched with pointless obsession. I’ll tell you one thing, none of us will ever forget the day that Bart Allison spent in Sundown

Happy 89th Birthday Clint Eastwood 31st May 2019!

The guy in the lab. Rowdy Yates. The Man With No Name. Dirty Harry Callahan. Clyde’s friend. The musician, composer, actor, producer and director and Hollywood superstar Clint Eastwood turns 89 today. Entering his eighth decade in the industry where he paid his dues in uncredited roles in movies and bit parts before regular work on TV and the spaghetti genre made him a worldwide figure, this year’s The Mule (practically a musical!) proves he’s still got the chops and the pull to make box office gold with something to say about the way we live now. Widely recognised as an icon of American masculinity, he found his particular space with the assistance of Don Siegel but exploited his personal brand in cycles of police procedurals, comedic takes on folklore and the country and western sub-genre as well as tough westerns. Unforgiven marked his coming of age as a great director, an instant classic and a tour de force of filmmaking. While some might think he has feminist sympathies he has rarely risked acting opposite a true female acting equal – a quarter of a century separated him from Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara and Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County. It took another decade for him to make the stunningly emotive Million Dollar Baby with Hilary Swank, which marked a different kind of turning point:  he has transformed his cinematic affect from what David Thomson calls his brutalised loner to bruised neurotic nonagenarian in one of the most spectacular careers in cinema. Many happy returns, Clint!

Little Big Man (1970)

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I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers. My name is Jack Crabb. And I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, uh, uh, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand. When a curious oral historian (William Hickey) turns up to hear the life story of 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), he can scarcely believe his ears. Crabb tells of having been rescued and raised by the Cheyenne, of working as a snake-oil salesman, as a gunslinger, and as a mule skinner under General Custer (Richard Mulligan). He learned the way of the Indian and the Creation story at the foot of Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) who ponders the difference between Custer and Human Beings.  He also claims to be the only white survivor of the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn but is he telling the truth or is he the biggest liar ever?… Am I still in this world? Calder Willingham’s adaptation of Thomas Berger’s novel is a superb, caustic, funny, shocking and humane saga of the West as you have never seen it before. Told in a circular structure through this self-proclaimed adopted son of Cheyenne, it debunks myths, casting an acerbic eye over the rationale of the genocides carried out by so-called American heroes and how they have previously been dramatised. Inevitably the awful violence calls up parallels with the Vietnam War. Hoffman is quite brilliant as the ridiculously old guy who claims to have been there and done that with Faye Dunaway lending terrific support.  This grand, flavourful shaggy dog epic is beautifully crafted by director Arthur Penn making it an insidiously charming, educational entertainment that is virtually a masterpiece of Seventies cinema. I was afraid it would turn out this way