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.

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Many Rivers to Cross (1955)

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Not quite a feminist western, but, you know, getting close. Bushrod Gentry (Robert Taylor) is the happy fur trapping frontiersman (no laughs at the back) whose life is saved by Mary Stuart Cherne aka Steppin’ Woman (Eleanor Parker) and then she really sets her sights on this roving bachelor. She’s described to him by her Indian servant Sandak (Ralph Moody) as “runs fast, hacks good, shoots straight” and her family of wily brothers and father Cadmus (Victor McLaglen) send distinctly mixed messages when Mary lures Bushrod to The Big Cave where she gets him to kiss her and then declares they are as good as married. “Meeting you was like declaring war on France. Or some other big country,” sighs Bushrod. 1798 Kentucky is as amorous as it is humorous in this hugely enjoyable romp written by Harry Brown and Guy Trosper, adapted from a story in Argosy magazine by Steve Frazee. Parker has never been so warm on screen (in a role intended for Janet Leigh!) with Taylor an able match for her when it comes to fighting the Shawnees. Really good whipsmart fun including a superb scene involving spectacles!  Directed by Roy Rowland.

The River Wild (1994)

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Meryl Streep, action heroine? You better believe it. Yes, the most overrated actress ever (according to President Trump) gets into her waders and tackles The Gauntlet on the Canadian border, running it and psycho killer Wade (Kevin Bacon) simultaneously. The late great Curtis Hanson wrote and directed this wilderness adventure and lets rip with the action. Streep plays Boston-based wife Gail to a very distracted architect Tom (David Strathairn) who barely acknowledges her or their kids.  She thinks her marriage is over so they take off without him away from Boston for a holiday back to where she grew up. Her folks take care of her little girl while she and young Roarke (Joseph Mazzello) prepare for their whitewater rafting trip. Roarke befriends the rock-loving Wade and just as they’re both about to take off in their respective boats, he with his friends Terry (John C. Reilly) and an injured companion who doesn’t stay the pace, Tom shows up to play father for a change. Tom irritates Roarke by not participating fully in the experience and when they realise their river companions are criminals (now down to two) they are forced at gunpoint to bring them downriver since Wade knows Gail was a river guide and they need to make a slow getaway with the takings from an armed robbery … The plot is pretty formulaic but it works beautifully because of the frisson between Streep and Bacon and all of the incredible photography – the Kootenai River, the Colorado River and the Rogue River served as the principal locations, while Buffy the dog is worth the price of admission. And as for Meryl with a gun…!!! Really good fun.

The Bear (1988)

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I was moving between several countries the year this was released so I saw the trailer in many different locations but contrived to miss the film itself. It’s 1885 in British Columbia. Orphaned bear cub Youk befriends wounded older grizzly Bart (actually a Kodiak) and they have to avoid dedicated hunter Tcheky Karyo on their journey to survival. An utterly remarkable piece of work by director Jean-Jacques Annaud with exquisite cinematography by Philippe Rousselot. Now you know what bear cubs dream about. A wilderness film more than worth waiting for. Adapted from American author James Curwood’s 1916 novella The Grizzly King by Roman Polanski’s regular collaborator Gerard Brach.  Absolutely wonderful.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

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The wilderness is the location chosen by the titular character to recover from what we would call PTSD nowadays as Robert Redford has had a bad war in Mexico and needs time away from everything. He lives in the Rocky Mountains, keeping himself in food by trapping and enduring a horrendous winter, resorting to fishing by hand from mountain streams. He finds a rifle in a dead man’s hands, meets Bear Claw (Will Geer) who mentors him, and has repeated encounters with Paints-His Shirt-Red (Joaquin Martinez) from the Crow tribe. He takes in a boy he names Caleb (Josh Albee) whose mother has gone mad, then rescues Gue (Stefan Gierasch) who’s buried up to his neck in sand by the Blackfeet, then he marries into the Flatheads to save his own. He’s pressured to lead US troops to a wagon train of settlers through burial ground and is seen:  he returns to find his squaw and Caleb murdered and he takes revenge… The biography of Liver-Eating Johnson  and a book called Mountain Man were adapted by John Milius in a project originally intended for Sam Peckinpah with Lee Marvin replaced by Clint Eastwood. Eastwood and Peckinpah did not get along, so it was acquired for Redford, who persuaded Sydney Pollack to come on board to direct – they had worked together well on This Property Is Condemned. Pollack was a meddler with writers;  Edward Anhalt and David Rayfiel did rewrites but Milius was brought back, repeatedly, to do the dialogue, for which he had such an uncanny ear. If you want to know how Milius got his reputation, watch this. The budget was so constrained that Pollack mortgaged his home to get through production, an arduous seven-month shoot in Utah, Redford’s adopted home. Weather conditions meant more than one take was rarely possible. The changing seasons are beautifully captured by Duke Callaghan, in this splendidly judged, humane, funny, touching piece of work. Redford turns in a very well honed performance and the ensemble are brilliant. Quite the best wilderness film you’ll see, probably, with a marvellous soundtrack composed by actors Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein.

Dare to be Wild (2016)

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Wasn’t it Voltaire who advised people to tend their own (metaphorical) garden? Garden designer Mary Reynolds does it here, in spades. This story of a young country girl who believes in fairies and grows up to be a willful eccentric who wants to compete at the Chelsea Garden Show is a most unusual Irish film:  it looks great. DoP Cathal Watters and debutante director Vivienne DeCourcy obviously decided, Enough of the grey skies and the muddy vistas, and tore up the rulebook about how to present a country where it rains 10 months of the year. They might even have taken a leaf from the Irish National Gallery and noted the palette of William Leech’s garden paintings with their blistering sunlight, glistening whites and brilliant tones. This is a film of playful, rainbow colours, dominated by Consolata Boyle’s extraordinary costume design telling Mary’s story through her clothes – compensating perhaps for a rather wayward if charming performance at the story’s centre by Emma Greenwell as she makes her way gawkily through Dublin society. She has to fight for funding and gain the trust of fellow outsider Christy Collard (Tom Hughes), an eco-designer whose preoccupation with bringing water to Ethiopia sets them at odds when she appeals for his aid because his family’s business can help supply wildflowers and 200-year old whitethorn trees to build her Celtic dream garden. The tone of the film is somewhat damaged by the unnecessary caricatures of Mary’s bete noire, Shah, the socially mobile employer who steals her design book;  Madden, the Bono-like rock star; and Nigel Hogg, the head of Chelsea. These strike an odd note in a film of otherwise impeccably offbeat taste. The diversion to the desert of Ethiopia is a sensual breath of fresh air, the eventual romance hardly surprising given that Hughes is probably the most delectable flower on display, here or anywhere right now, a right royal heart throb as viewers of ITV’s Victoria will already know. In a fitting touch, Mary’s winning speech is the cosmic order tacked on her refrigerator door. Despite using the true story, the connection is disavowed at the conclusion, rather like Chelsea did to Reynolds when they wouldn’t allow her into the celebration at the Show’s finale. Quirky, lovely and just a little bit wild.

A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950)

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There were musical comedy Westerns prior to Blazing Saddles and this was one of them. Co-written by Anita Loos’ niece Mary with director Richard Sale, it’s a total hoot from start to finish. Dan Dailey plays travelling salesman Johnny Behind-the-Deuces who inadvertently gets mixed up in a war between a stagecoach proprietor and a train company to get the contract to open up the town of Tomahawk in the Colorado Territory in 1876. He winds up as the train’s first passenger, corralled by Anne Baxter as the cowboy sharpshooter Kit Dodge, looking after her grandpa’s business. She’s seduced by the attractive Rory Calhoun as Dakota, a spy in the ranks, whom Johnny suspects and Pawnee her Indian friend despises. They pick up a Sextet of four ‘ladies’ who perform with Madame Adelaide as a song and dance troupe, including Marilyn Monroe in their number. Madame uses Kit’s preferred gun-oriented language to teach her how to look better. Between ambushes, an Indian war party and double-dealing, there’s a whole lotta gunfire and barbed remarks traded en route to Tomahawk:  at one point, the train has to be taken apart and carried piece by piece. The ‘ladies’ polish it back to shiny perfection while Dakota shows his hand, Johnny proves pretty useful with weapons himself and persuades Kit not to marry him and they of course wind up together at the end:  there’s a cute bit when their daughters are given the real names of the actresses playing the (ironic but appositely christened!) sextet … Curiously, Monroe doesn’t ‘pop’ off the screen at this time (even in her song with Dailey), any more than she did in the other dozen or so early films like this that she did for Fox. David Thomson says her face was ‘blank and pursed’ and she was the ‘archetypal forlorn starlet.’ Perhaps. But not for long. Really good fun and a diversion from Westminster’s extraordinary Week of the Long Knives!

Hatari! (1962)

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Sheerly enjoyable entertainment, as though it were the most relaxed movie ever made and feels like it all just happened by accident. And yet Harry Kurnitz wrote the story, Leigh (The Big Sleep) Brackett wrote the screenplay and Howard Hawks did one of his most famous ‘professional men working in a group’ efforts as the auteurists would have it. As a young child when I first saw it, I just wanted to be in the middle of this mess of beautiful people with the best job in the world (catching, not killing, beautiful animals) in the best place in the world – Africa. Henry Mancini wrote ‘Baby Elephant Walk‘ for the film. And who on earth wouldn’t want to be Elsa Martinelli? The ultimate desert island movie. Gosh this is just wonderful.

The Revenant (2015)

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A lot of this was shot in closeup and it might indeed have benefitted from the Panavision 70mm that Tarantino paradoxically used for a story in a stagecoach and log cabin. Everyone knows what this is about and that di Caprio is up for the Oscar and he should get it because he ate raw bison liver and suffered so the director could get just 90 minutes of light (magic hour, like Lean?) every day. It’s as though Last of the Mohicans met Gladiator in the wastes of northern America in the nineteenth century … exit, pursued by a bear.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

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The new Tarantino movie was controversial long before it was made:  the script was leaked by persons unknown and the director threatened not to make it as a result. However, here it is, in all its inglourious variety. This is definitely a film of two halves and it is really perplexing trying to figure out why it had to be shot on Panavision 70mm – after the initial ride through the snowy mountains it’s set for the most part in a log cabin while a blizzard rages outside. Admittedly seeing the digital transfer courtesy of Odeon is not the way it was intended. The second half really gets going however as everyone tries to kill off everyone else and the connections between the parties are revealed and sundered in the goriest way imaginable. It is basically Ten Little Niggers/And Then There Were None relocated to the Wild West, including the only woman getting a hanging in the concluding scenes. Boo, hiss etc. It always takes two viewings to understand this man’s films (I will  make an honourable exception or three for Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. That’s half his films, to be fair). And they go faster the second time. However the intermission was wasted where I saw it – rendering the second half voiceover by QT redundant if not outright puzzling… It’s as if Martin McDonagh was given a camera and not a stage. Strange. QT is really writing plays, isn’t he?