Friday, 9 December 2011

Villain (1971)

Villain is a violent British gangster flick from the early 1970s. Set in and around London it's a classic tale of the decline and fall of East End gang leader and hard man Vic Dakin. Dakin's normal racket is blackmail and with the help of his cohort Wolfe he entices the aristocracy and members of parliament into ready made honey traps. However with the police on his tail and a rat in his gang, Dakin runs the gauntlet in organising a big money snatch on a security van. Vic has to compromise his plans by including a rival gang boss in the scheme and when the robbery is botched he's forced on the run, turning on his allies as the net closes in around him.

Villain is made from the same mould as Get Carter and The Long Good Friday although truth be told, it's probably not as good as either. It doesn't have the style of Get Carter or the political relevance of The Long Good Friday. What it does have going for it is a snarling and seething performance from Richard Burton as Vic Dakin. Throughout the 60s Burton was one of the biggest names in cinema, and one of Britain's most celebrated film stars. His fame had as much to do with his acting skills as it did his notorious drinking habits and stormy marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. Along with other such luminaries as Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and Peter O'Toole, Burton raised hell on every film set from Hollywood Hills to Pinewood Studios.

But by 1971, his star was on the wain. The iconic lead from "Night of The Iguana" and "The Spy Who Came in from The Cold" had resorted to making a series of big budget flops  with his real life co-star Elizabeth Taylor. Boom! was an overblown pretentious drama and The Comedians, although based on good source material by Graham Greene, was a mistake. The pair had bounced and riffed against each other drunkenly in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf but for the rest of the 60s their private and screen lives bled into one another and the pair lived and extravagant lifestyle of hangovers and public spats.

The role of Vik Dakin is quite obviously based on Ronnie Kray (with a touch of James Cagney in White Heat) and it lets Burton show off his brutal side. The violence is implicit right at the start when he uses a disloyal croupier as a punchbag before slicing off his tongue with a cut-throat blade for talking too much. The blood drips from the window that the dying man is hanging from and Burton quips "bleedin' pigeons". The next scene shows him returning home after a night out with the boys to his elderly and much loved mother who he dotes upon. The mother fixation is another link to The Krays, as is Burton's resonant East End accent (with a hint of the valleys peeking through) and his and his gang's dapper attire. Velvet suits, big ties, heavy leather overcoats and silk cravats and hankies abound. Dakin may not be as controlled as Michael Cain/Jack Carter but he's on a par in the cruelty and style awards. Also, no one looks more menacing and camp with a stocking over his head as Richard Burton.

Apart from his mother, the only other relationship Dakin has is an aggressive semi sexual one with Ian Mcshane's pimp and blackmailer Wolfe. It's an intriguing angle of the movie. Dakin obviously fancies Woolf and the only way he can express his desire in their main bedroom scene together is with his fists before the screen fades to black. Mcshane plays Wolfe with an easy charm, like a delinquent Lovejoy but attracted to and by both men and women. There's nothing tender about their liaison, in fact it's a very sadistic affair with Mcshane the submissive to Burton's threatening sugar daddy.

Alongside Burton and Mcshane, Joss Ackland gives a sterling and weaselly performance as Dakin's focus of hatred Ed Lowis, constantly sucking on chalk tablets to settle his bilious stomach ulcer. Donald Sindon is a sleazy presence as a dodgy MP and Del Henney, who starred in Sam Pekinpah's Straw Dogs the same year, gives it some menace as thug Webb.

Curiously Villain was scripted by comedy writers Dick Clements and Ian Le Frenais, with American actor Al Letieri (who specialised in playing gangsters himself) also getting a writing credit. Adapted from James Barlow's novel The Burdon of Proof, the script fairly crackles along with Burton getting to say some classic dialogue and one liners, all through his death mask grin. The film was directed by Michael Tuchner who has a filmography as long as your arm in television on IMDB. And Villain does has a very TV movie feel to it with low budget production values and a very quick and simple filming style. Even the claret, which flows freely, has a very ketchup look to it.

Unfortunately Villain did nothing to resurrect Burton's career and, bar his award winning role in Equus, the 70s was a lean patch for him (The Medusa Touch anyone?). Still he's at his very best as Vic Dakin and Villain is definitely worth a watch for Burton strutting his stuff and putting the frighteners on those burkes who lack respect - "Respect! Respect! You don't know what it is. Unless you're Vic Dakin. Tell 'im, someone. Tell him!"

Watch the whole movie here...

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010)

Not enough British films on here so how about we stay on the rock'n'roll tip with this homegrown gas from last year? Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is the biopic of Ian Dury, that mercurial singer, songwriter and entertainer from the capital. The film charts Dury's rise from his pub and punk rock roots in North London to chart topping stardom in the late 70s/early 80s when he reached the dizzy heights as the face of the British New Wave music scene.

Dury belongs to that long tradition of British drug fueled and psychedelically inspired poets, artists and musicians, going back to The Romantics and taking in Syd Barrett, The Beatles, Julian Cope and pop artist Peter Blake. In fact Blake taught Dury at art school and also designed the album cover to the Dury tribute album Brand New Boots and Panties which was released after the singer's death. And there's a lot in the movie that could have been designed by Blake himself. The vivid opening credits and other animated scenes mirror Dury's colourful and violent lifestyle and look straight out of the artist's hand.

Central to the enjoyment of the film is a spellbinding performance from Andy Serkis as Ian Dury. Serkis has for so long been the "undisputed king of mo-cap acting" (© Den of Geek) with stand-out animated roles in Lord of The Rings, King Kong and most recently Rise of The Planet of The Apes and Tintin. Here he gets the chance to show off his acting skills and he grabs it with both hands. Serkis plays Dury as the classic rock star - cruel, angry, selfish, foul mouthed... yet still immensely talented and inspirational with no time for fools or compromise. With his dark eyes switching from pools of pathos to menacing daggers in an instant, he totally inhabits what must be a career defining role.

Serkis is ably supported by a fine cast of British actors. Naomi Harris and Olivia Williams play his lover and wife respectively, both with long-suffering dedication. Tom Hughes cuts a modish figure as Dury's writing partner and musical sounding board Chaz Jankel. Ray Winstone and Toby Jones take up opposing roles of good and evil as Dury's father and sadistic school warden Hargreaves. Possibly best of all is child actor Bill Milner who plays Dury's son Baxter, cover star of New Boots and Panties and bewildered drifter through the bohemian milieu that Dury sets up in his North London commune existence.

The background to the story is of course Dury's battle with polio. Diagnosed with the disease as a child, the singer learnt to live with the affliction throughout his adult life, coming to terms with the fact that he was in his own words a "raspberry ripple". However, like Dury himself, the film never steeps itself in pity or asks for our sympathies. Instead it exalts the twin life skills of standing on your own two feet and of rising to prove the world wrong when knocked to the ground.

Much credit for this should go to rookie director Mat Whitecross and script writer Paul Viragh who treat their subject matter with a nice balance of reverence and levity. Whitecross learnt his trade under Brit director Michael Winterbottom, editing the music based love story 9 Songs. Before that he cut his teeth as a pop promo director (albeit for kings of bland Coldplay) so he has previous in capturing the essence of a live music performance. And indeed the movie is expertly shot and cut to showcase Dury's work, with Serkis singing all the songs live, charging energetically from one hair raising theatrical performance to the next.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll plays out as part rock concert, part music-hall and part Brechtian theatre piece as the singer introduces episodes of his life, holding court on stage as if hosting a one man show in the fringe. I guess if you were to compare it to any other film it would have to be something like Pink Floyd - The Wall, especially in it's non linear structure and the way it mixes childhood memories with music. But whereas The Wall celebrated depression and broken ideals, Sex & Drugs is all about fighting and beating the system. Or in Dury's case, how to avoid death and obsolescence by being magnificent.

Eskimo... Arapaho...

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Stop Making Sense (1984)

The name of the band is Talking Heads and Stop Making Sense is a rock concert movie directed by Jonathan Demme that captures them at their brilliant best. The film was actually shot over three nights in Hollywood's Pantages Theatre during the band's 1983 US tour to promote their album Speaking in Tongues. However the editing and continuity is so tight that you would never guess there was any break in the shooting schedule apart from what you see on screen. The band's performance is totally mesmerising. Led by the charismatic lead singer David Byrne, they take us through a greatest hits set covering their early punk and post punk classics up to the wirey new wave and Afro-funk of Speaking in Tongues, my favourite of all their albums.

The film starts as we follow David Byrne's white plimsolls onstage. With him he carries an acoustic guitar and a portable boom box tape player which he activates, telling the audience "I've got a tape I wanna play you." An electric drum beat kicks starts from the player and Byrne begins to strum the first bars of Talking Heads' classic "Psycho Killer", his head and body bouncing back and forth to the angular beat and jerky rhythm of the song. As the camera pulls back, we see the stage is bare. No backdrop, no speakers, no amps. No band. Just Byrne careering around an empty stage playing the song, every so often stumbling as the beat breaks down into staccato, and then regaining composure as the backing tape splutters back to a regular rhythm.

It's a beguiling performance from the singer, totally watchable for it's sparseness and Brechtian simplicity. Even more so when we catch sight of some backstage crew dressed in black who are fiddling about behind him, preparing more sound equipment. And lo and behold Byrne is joined on the next song Heaven by bass player Tina Weymouth who plugs into the newly arranged stack to add some resonance to the sound. As the gig progresses and the songs rack up more equipment and more of the band appear to join in the fun, including extra percussionists, some damn fine dancing backing singers and keyboardist Bernie Worrell from Parliament and Funkadelic. The band as a whole come together as one for Burning Down the House, an intense and brooding disco number, speeded up from the original for the live performance. From then onwards it's a rock and roll ride through the hits, via an interlude from Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz's hip-hop experiment The Tom Tom Club and David Byrne's infamous oversize suit, with some intriguing visual backdrops and stage props to boot. 

All of this is in keeping with the band's strong avant guard tendencies, and Byrne's art rock sensibilities. Throughout their career, Talking Heads have always been one step ahead of the game in their music, in Byrne's lyrics, in their album artwork and their pop videos. In fact Talking Heads were one of the first bands to take advantage of the pop promo as an art form. "Once in a Lifetime", from their 1980 album Remain in Light, depicts Byrne as an evangelist-like figure, chanting the lyrics and gesticulating wildly with his hands as though preaching a sermon to his flock, whilst in the background clones of the singer dance in perfect synchronisation. The video for their 1985 hit "Road to Nowhere" is one of the best of the decade, a visual feast mixing film stocks, special effects, colour tones and graphics without losing it's own unique sense of humour - something that that could never be accused of the band themselves either.

Stop Making Sense is one of the best rock concert films ever made, alongside Prince's Sign of The Times and Pink Floyd Live at PompeiObviously this one's for fan's more than anyone. If you have no desire to sit through 90 minutes of their greatest hits then don't bother! For the heads though this is far and away the best gig you never went to. This ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no fooling around!

We're gonna move right now, turn like a wheel inside a wheel

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Dark Star (1974)

Hi y'all, a little interim post as I'm going out for a while and I may be some time... this review was published by Den of Geek website earlier on this year so thought I'd re-up it on the blog in a slightly abridged format, you can read the original here. Enjoy and keeping watching the skies!

April 1974. Richard Nixon is in the last days of his presidency. The bloody war in South East Asia rages on. Abba win the Eurovision song contest with Waterloo. And Dark Star, a low budget sci-fi comedy, hits the screen. Fast forward into hyperspace almost 40 years and Dark Star has achieved a mighty cult status as a late night movie standard and a post-pub classic. Made on a shoestring budget of $60,000 by film school graduates John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, Dark Star is now a major player in the sci-fi hall of fame. Its influence can be seen in many a space opera from all mediums - Red Dwarf, Sunshine, Hitchhiker’s and Carpenter’s own The Thing to name a few. The film also proved the basis as a dry run for Alien for which O’Bannon wrote the script. Yup, Dark Star can rightly be awarded the seminal tag. Many films may lay claim to it but this one’s the real deal.

The film is set in the year 2250 and follows the trials and tribulations of the crew of the Dark Star as they career around the galaxy blowing up “unstable planets” that stand in the way of Earth’s space colonisation. The five astronauts have been stuck on the spaceship for 20 years already and are clearly bored and frustrated with each other’s company and the monotony of their existence. Like the crew of the Nostromo they are a lonely unglamorous bunch of blue collar workers who are just doing their job. With only the soothing female voice of the ship’s computer (think “Mother” with a few technical faults) to keep them company, insipid lounge music to listen to and bland space food to eat, they are slowly flipping out.

Lt Doolittle, the lead ranking officer, is a soulful ex-surfer who has created a musical bottle organ which he plays alone in his downtime in one of the ship’s many engine rooms. His main ally on board is space cadet Sgt Talby who spends his time in the observation dome at the top of the ship. Sgt Boiler is a cigar smoking grunt who practices the “knife trick” (as favoured by Bishop in Aliens) in his spare time and who also likes to use the ship’s laser gun for random target practice.

Sgt Pinback (as played by O’Bannon) is a paranoid, victimised character that acts as the ship’s scapegoat - his only solace is in watching back the video diary entries that he has kept throughout the voyage. As the film progresses it’s revealed that Pinback is actually on the ship by mistake. His real name is Bill Frugge, a fuel engineer whose attempts to save the original Pinback from suicide led to him being mistakenly identified as the astronaut just before Dark Star launched into space. The final starman is Commander Powell who accidently died in another of the ship’s many system failures, but who is kept alive in a frozen animated state in the ship’s hold.

Also on board is the ship’s mascot alien, a red spotted beach ball with webbed claws that holds court in the food cupboard and leads Pinback a merry dance around the ship at feeding time. In the film’s longest sequence Pinback, armed with a broom, chases the Alien through air locks, passageways and into the lift shaft (shades of Alien again) where he ends up stranded and hanging on for dear life.

While John Carpenter directed and scored the music to Dark Star, Dan O’Bannon seemed to have had a hand in most other facets of the film’s production. Along with acting, editing and co-writing the script he was heavily involved with the special effects for the movie. The FX, animation, set designs and costumes in Dark Star are what you might expect from a student film in the early 1970s – they are striking, but basic. For example, the space suit design follows very much the Blue Peter school of thought in its use of disused household implements. Look closely and you can see frying pans, vacuum cleaner nozzles and silver sticky tape. In the main though, the effects work and their simplicity serve to lend the film its satirical edge.

Dark Star is very much a product of its time. Channelling the disillusioned ideals of the 60s peace and love era with the darker, more paranoid mood of the 1970s, the film takes influence from a number of sources. O’Bannon was a big fan of anarchic psychedelic comics of the 60s such as Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and the graphic novels of Robert Crumb (he was reading Crumb’s “Book of Genesis” when he died in 2009) and the mood of Dark Star is very much derived from these. And it is a funny film – a mixture of slapstick and stoner schtick with a few bleaker more cynical laughs and some gallows humour to boot.

As far as influence from other movies goes, an obvious mention goes to 2001: A SpaceOdyssey. Dark Star spends much of its time lampooning Kubrick’s grand opus to good effect. The jump to hyperspace in the first few minutes is a reference to DouglasTrumbull’s “Stargate” sequence from the earlier film, although on a much smaller scale. The “character” of Bomb 20 is a direct nod to HAL as is Doolittle’s space walk and his “phenemological” conversation to try and convince the bomb not to explode in the ship’s loading bay. Director John Carpenter has referred to Dark Star as “Waiting for Godot in Space” and whilst it never tries to seriously answer questions about life, the universe and everything Dark Star is more than just a run of the mill genre spoof.

After Dark Star, John Carpenter’s career rose rapidly. As director of horror and sci-fi classics such as Halloween, The Thing, Escape from New York and They Live, Carpenter cemented his name in the annals of movie history. O’Bannon went on to work as an effects technician on Star Wars, then came Alien and he also had a hand in Total Recall. He never reached the same heights as Carpenter though and the pair didn’t work again after Dark Star completed. A new documentary on the making of Dark Star “Let there be Light” was shown at the Sci-Fi London festival earlier this year. The film’s legacy is a great one and it deserves to reside in any top ten list of outer space classics.

Flipping out in Space...

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple is a brilliant modern noir thriller from the brains of Joel and Ethan Coen. Set in the heart of deepest, darkest Texas, the movie follows a chain of events set into action by jealous and violent bar owner Julian Marty. Suspecting his wife Abby of having an affair with one of his barmen Ray, Marty hires a private detective, the insidious Loren Visser, to follow them. When Visser returns with photos of the couple caught in the act, Marty pays him $10,000 to kill them both. What follows is murderous tale of revenge, betrayals and double-crosses, mixed up communications and emotions with some nasty Gothic horror for shock value.

The movie contains all the themes that classic film noir has to offer - illicit lust, betrayal, greed and murder. Indeed in content, Blood Simple comes across like the bastard offspring of classic American pulp writers such as James M Cain and Jim Thompson with a touch of playwright Sam Shepard thrown in for good measure. Style wise the movie takes it's tips from 40s and 50s crime dramas such as Build My Gallows HighCape Fear and The Postman Always Rings Twice, with lots of sparse lighting giving many scenes a threatening edge. What light there is mostly comes from the neon signs inside the bar or a streetlamp outside a bedroom window. And when the light does pierce the sparse interiors, it comes in shards, cutting through slatted blinds or branches of a tree. It's ironic that the one of the only times we see a light bulb on in a room, it instantly results in death.

So with the story and art direction the stars of the film, the performances of the leads come across as a bit functional without being bland. Both Frances McDormand and John Getz put in good shifts as doomed lovers Abby and Ray, without having to show too many emotions apart from an increasing sense of unease as the story unfolds around them. Instead, top acting honours go a pair of great American character actors - the sleazy supporting duo of Dan Hedaya and M Emmet Walsh who play Marty and Visser respectively. Walsh has stared in over 100 films in a long career spanning 5 decades, but I don't think he's ever been better as the repulsive and corrupt private investigator Loren Visser. He plays the role as one part Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil, one part Rod Steiger from In The Heat of The Night and the rest coming from a wealth of experience.

The world of the Coen Brothers is a strange one. People end up doing very stupid and desperate things for both love and money and it's more often than not those that don't reach for the stars that remain on top... or alive. Motifs and themes are often recycled in their different films, but always in new and original ways. As writer/directors they seem to be able to hop genres at will going from 30s gangster movie (Miller's Crossing) to anti-Hollywood movie (Barton Fink), from romantic comedy (Intolerable Cruelty) to a remake of a classic Western (True Grit), yet always instilling a dark sense of comedy in everything they produce. People die in ridiculous ways like being fed through a wood-chipper (Fargo) or running across a boardroom table and out of an 80 story building (The Hudsucker Proxy). Blood Simple is no different and black humour abounds, in even the most grisly of scenes. Now, about those fish...

Watch the whole movie here...

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Sisters (1973)

No late night movie list is complete without a schlocky horror film and Sisters is schlock horror at its best. Written and directed by Brian De Palma, it's a bloody slasher flick that delivers psychodrama, shocks and plenty of ketchup to boot. Underrated and often neglected, it should be regarded as classic of its genre and is well worth catching for some midnight thrills and chills.

The film begins with French Canadian model Danielle and New York insurance man Phillip meeting by chance on TV game show "Peeping Toms" (a sly nod to Michael Powell's seminal serial killer film as well as De Palma's own voyeuristic tendencies). In an attempt to escape from her stalker ex husband Emil, Danielle agrees to go out for dinner with Phillip after the show and then takes him back to her flat for a nightcap... The next morning is her birthday which she shares with twin sister and current flatmate Dominique. Whereas Danielle seems sweet and innocent, Dominique is insanely jealous and insecure. In order to placate Dominique and earn a few brownie points with Danielle, Phillip goes out to buy a birthday cake for the sisters, but bloody murder awaits on his return. Watching from the opposite block of flats is journalist neighbour Grace who, in a stunning split screen set piece, rings the police frantically whilst she views the mayhem across the way. The film then follows Grace's determination to uncover the mystery and bring the killer to justice as she investigates into the strange and twisted story of Emil, Danielle and Dominique.

De Palma has always borrowed heavily from Hitchcock with themes and sometimes whole story lines recycled from the master's earlier classics and Sisters is no different. Conveniently near the beginning of the film, Danielle wins a set of kitchen knives for her part on the gameshow, a typical Hitchcock MacGuffin. A neighbour investigating a murder whilst spying from the flat opposite is straight out of Rear Window. The study of twin personalities and investigation into the female psyche has shades of both Psycho and Marnie whilst Bernard Herrmann's grand and spooky score could be out of any of Hitchcock's masterpieces.

But whereas Hitchcock would tease and suggest at the horror, De Palma shows the gore full on. Sharp knives slash at men's crotches, blood and entrails are smeared along kitchen floors and the claret flows freely. There's also a very nasty and sadistic underlying atmosphere to Sisters (another generic trait of De Palma's pictures) and the whole movie has a really uncomfortable feel to it. The film has a touch of the Giallo to it, the lurid Italian horror genre of the 60s and 70s that spawned Dario Argento, Mario Bava and many more. And indeed there are moments in Sisters where sheer madness and hysteria reign, where the suspense and tension is built up to such an extent that the only a shrill and piercing scream can provide release.

At the heart of Sisters lie two strong female performances. Dark eyed 70s glamour-puss Margot Kidder has never been better in her dual role as the sultry and unbalanced Siamese twins Dominique and Danielle, showing vulnerability and despair as well as a ton of sex appeal. Equally good is De Palma regular Jennifer Salt as the streetwise journalist Grace, who's determination to uncover the story and make her name in a man's world leads her to some grotesque revelations about the twins. De Palma, Kidder and Salt were all part of the same Hollywood milieu (as documented in Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders Raging Bulls), and like many films from that era Sisters was borne out of a diet of sex, drugs and film school graduates.

Post Sisters, Kidder went onto be Lois Lane to Christopher Reeve's Superman in the superhero franchise. A car accident in 1990 had major repercussions on her career and she was diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder soon afterwards (not unlike Danielle/Dominique). Salt appeared in the long running US sitcom Soap. She recently retired from acting and turned her hand to screenwriting... jury's still out on that one. De Palma went from strength to strength throughout the 70s and 80s with Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables. To be honest his films can range from the goddamn awful (Bonfire of The Vanities) and tasteless (Body Double) to taught thrillers (Blow Out) and multi-million dollar blockbusters (Mission Impossible). Whichever, they are not for the faint hearted and Sisters is no exception. Lesser mortals might view through parted fingers or from behind the safety of their sofa. Late night movie viewers should revel in the grand guignol...

The truth behind the strange story of Dominique and Danielle

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

Drugstore Cowboy is an excellent drug movie, an off-beat ride through early 70s junkie culture in Portland, Oregon. It's a cool, sparky film that never romanticises the drug habits, just the lifestyle on the road as the main characters roam from town to town looking for the next score. It's a really funny film but never flippant. Sure they have a ball when times are good, but comeuppances are handed out on the flipside.

Based on an autobiographical novel by James Fogle and directed by Gus Van Sant, the film follows Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon) and his gang of dope fiends as they drive around Portland relieving drugstores of their pharmaceuticals for personal use. Tagging along with Bob is his girlfriend Diane, his best friend Rick and Rick's girlfriend Nadine. Dillon is at his charismatic and swaggering best as the leader of the gang, and Kelly Lynch (whatever happened to...?) is a forceful and sexy presence as Diane. A young Heather Graham plays the naive Nadine, bottom of the food chain and forever trying to climb up the ladder. Hot on their tail is James Remar as the frustrated and uptight Detective Gentry, fixated with catching Bob but always one step behind the game.

The drug taking scenes are graphic. Close ups of pills, matches, needles, spoons, sponges and blood coursing through cylinders fill the screen and it makes you wince slightly. You can see where movies such as Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting learnt a few tips. The hallucinogenics themselves are played down though. Dillon stares into the void, starry-eyed as cows, trees, bicycles and hats float across his vision and the grey American skyline. It's a stark and brilliant affect.

Drugstore Cowboy isn't all hits and fixes though. There's a lot of comedy in the film as well as a hell of a lot of style. In fact the film predicted many of the 70s slacker fashions that filtered through 90s culture - leather jackets, flares, big collars, sheepskin. Even the cops look cool. Van Sant is a Portland native and alternative youth culture crops up a lot in his movies (Elephant, Paranoid Park, even the sometimes painful Good Will Hunting) whereas the grungy fashions from Drugstore Cowboy were carried through to his next movie My Own Private Idaho. Van Sant also makes films about outsiders and lowlife who choose to live that way and Bob is just that. As he says "we played a game we new we could never win, and we played it to the up most."

William S Burroughs, beat hero writer, makes a cameo appearance as a hooked reverend who Dillon encounters in a halfway house and he also acts as a spiritual godfather to the movie. A notorious drug taker himself his presence hangs large in the film and he speaks as the bitter voice of a doomed generation of junkies in a rant near the end of the movie. Look out also for character actor Max Perlich typecast forever as the speedy, insecure ratty bloke (he plays the same role in Rush and Blow).

The film made Dillon as an actor and more than just brat pack with a quiff, although his choice of roles has sometimes been a problem (Herbie: Fully Loaded anyone?). Van Sant has had a brilliantly varied career as an underground left-field filmmaker who can make good films in Hollywood as well as watchable art house flicks. And Drugstore Cowboy is a watchable and entertaining movie, ideal for the wee hours of the morn. Just be careful where you put that hat...

Friday, 13 May 2011

The Proposition (2005)

The whining sound of ricochet gunfire screams across the screen, bullet holes rip through corrugated iron walls, filtering harsh shafts of light into squalid surroundings. Distinguished Australian actor Noah Taylor is caught in the side of the head by a stray bullet, his part in the movie over before the first reel has finished. This is the opening scene of The Proposition, a violent brooding western directed by John Hillcoat. It’s one of the best films to come out of Australia in the last 10 years and it’s a modern cult classic.

At the heart of the The Proposition lies a dark poetic script written by musician Nick Cave. The story is set against the harsh backdrop of the Australian outback in the late 19th century where brutality is an everyday occurrence, the law is mostly disregarded, women are treated poorly and a low standard of living is common. Yup, life is tough. With this as his basis, Cave (who also had a hand in creating the haunting film score) has written a murder ballard for the screen - a bloody story of broken family ties, family betrayals, and the feeble British attempts to tame the wilds of the Antipodes.
The movie begins as outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his kid brother Mikey are captured during the vicious shootout described above. They, along with their elder brother and gang leader Arthur Burns, are accused of the rape and murder of a local woman and her family. The man who has caught them is Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) a British policeman stationed in the outback. Stanley gives Charlie Burns a choice. He has 9 days before Christmas Day to go out into the wilderness and find Arthur and kill him otherwise Mikey will hang. If he does so, him and his kid brother go free.

Guy Pearce is a great choice for the sinewy, steely-eyed Charlie Burns and gives a tremendous display of grit and soul in equal measure – we’re a long way from Mike from Neighbours here! Likewise Ray Winstone gives one of his finest performances in recent years as the troubled Stanley, far from home and a stranger in a strange land, his face full of regret and despair as he faces the consequences of his actions. Disillusioned with life down under but determined to “civilise this land”, Stanley cuts a weary figure as he looks out onto the arid landscape and murmurs under his breath “Australia…. What fresh hell is this?” Danny Huston plays the animal like Arthur Burns as an unseen haunting “Kurtz” like presence for the first half of the movie and as a wild and psychopathic mystic man of the hills once he finally makes his appearance.

The Proposition has five star cameos a plenty. Emily Watson portrays Stanley’s prim and disturbed wife Martha, forced to tag along for the ride and trying to create her home comforts in the middle of the desert. David Whenham puts in a good turn as the cold-blooded voice of local authority Fletcher who orders a merciless and grotesque flogging without thinking twice. Aborigine actor David Gulpilil has a bit part role as the tracker Jacko. Gulpilil first came to prominence in Nic Roeg’s 1970 “children’s” movie Walkabout and Hillcoat's casting of him here is a tribute to Australian cinema history. Best of all is John Hurt as the eccentric and murderous bounty hunter Jellon Lamb, a Falstaffian character that Charlie runs into on the hunt for his brother.“A citizen of the world and an adventurer” in his own words, Lamb provides some light relief amidst the gothic violence and heavy atmosphere.

And violent the film is! Heads explode under shotgun fire, a man manages to shoot his own feet off in error, human bodies are run through with spears, flies swarm everywhere as vultures peck at animal carcasses and blood splatters over faces and clothes as a young boy is brutally flogged. Hillcoat and Cave never shy away from the graphic or the extreme and that's what gives the film a realistic and natural edge.

However, contrasted against the blood, the grit, the dirt, the squalor and the bad teeth, Hillcoat and Cave weave wisps of poetry about the sun, the moon and the stars that seem to float across the screen as Charlie makes his journey into the wilds. Alongside the stunning photogrpahy of the unforgiving landscape, the deep red colours of bloodshed and the big orange sun that sets against the horizon, it's these metaphysical touches that set The Proposition apart from your average western.

Never raise a glass with a man who's name you do not know...

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Conversation (1974)

If you're up for some late night 1970s paranoia then check out The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola's conspiracy thriller classic. The plot is pretty straightforward. A man and a woman take a stroll in their lunch break around Union Square in San Francisco. They talk about everyday things - Christmas presents, tramps on park benches, when they are next going to meet... perhaps they are having an affair, so what? It all seems quite ordinary, yet someone wants to have their conversation recorded. And they've asked surveillance expert Harry Caul, "the best bugger on the West coast" to do it. When Harry hears a snippet of the conversation that he thinks might endanger the lives of the couple he takes measures to protect them, forcing him to question his own very strong personal values and putting his life in danger.

From this simple premise Coppola weaves themes of mistrust, paranoia and the power of the establishment to invade people's most private moments. Top acting honours go to Gene Hackman who stars as the anonymous Harry Caul. With a grey translucent raincoat, a pair of rimless specs and a truly awful 'tash as his only props, Hackman paints a picture of a very private and insecure man with no friends and no life outside his work. His only releases from his job are playing the saxophone in his drab apartment and confessing his sins to the local priest. It's a very selfless underplayed portrayal of a nobody, a million miles away from Popeye Doyle, and it underlines what a brilliant actor Hackman is. Look out too for a very young and menacing Harrison Ford and the uncredited Robert Duval as the mysterious "Director".

The other star of the show is Walter Murch's sound mixing. It's not often that sound mixing plays so prominently in a movie, but here it should share equal billing with the actors and the director. The scenes of Hackman cutting, splicing, tweaking and fine tuning the recording sit right at the heart of the movie. The sound of tapes rewinding and playing back over and over until the conversation is 100% clear are quite hypnotic and fascinating. It's almost as though we are watching a lesson in how to record sound for the cinema.

Francis Ford Coppola made The Conversation in between his first two Godfather films. That's a pretty amazing feat - sandwiched between two of the most acclaimed epics in movie history we have a beautifully crafted and personal film about the mood of the country in the post Vietnam years and amidst the lies and deceit of Nixon's presidency. Remarkably, The Conversation was conceived and shot before Watergate broke, and the political scandal casts a large shadow over the film. Coppola has even gone on record to say how amazed he was that the equipment used by Harry in the film was previously used by the Nixon administration for surveillance.

There's a heavy influence in the movie from Antonioni's Blow Up, which does the same thing for photography as The Conversation does for sound. In turn, Brian de Palma took chunks of The Conversation's themes and plot for his 1981 film Blow Out about a sound recorder trying to uncover a political assassination. And Hackman resurrected Harry Caul in Tony Scott's late 90s thriller Enemy of The Sate, albeit under a different name although the two characters are almost identical.

The Conversation itself sits in good company alongside other 70s conspiracy movies such as The Parallax View, Klute and Three Days of The Condor. However none of these films have either the depth of character or the simplicity of The Conversation. It's brilliant movie which leaves the late night viewer with food for thought long after the end credits have rolled.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

In a Lonely Place (1950)

The film poster says it all really. Humphrey Bogart holds Gloria Grahame in a passionate clinch, her eyes closed in orgasmic bliss. But take a closer look... is he actually strangling her? And is that a look of menace on his face? Perhaps she is already dead? Maybe this isn't the great romance we originally thought it to be. Maybe it's something a little more destructive.

In a Lonely Place is a film noir-come-melodrama directed by Nicholas Ray. Bogart plays Dixon Steele a cynical and not particularly successful Hollywood screenwriter with major anger management issues. Gloria Grahame plays the equally brilliantly named Laurel Gray, the sultry neighbour of Dix who firstly acts as his alibi for murder and then falls in love with him. The love story is the main thrust of the plot alongside the police investigation into the killing of a coat-check girl who was helping Dix with a script. As the film progresses Laurel's suspicions that he may in fact be the murderer increase. It is her rising panic and paranoia that drive the story along, coupled with Dix's charm and nonchalance as the net seems to be closing in on him.

The plot and themes of the movie stem from the characters and both of the main protagonists are vivid three dimensional personifications with flaws aplenty. The role of Dixon Steele has depth and complexity by the bucket load, and Bogart really sinks his teeth into it. Sardonic yet also threatening he mixes dry witticisms with a bitter rage that is always bubbling near the surface. In the first reel of the film he gets involved in two separate spats, first an angry exchange of words with another driver at a crossing and then in a bar when someone loudmouth slags off an actor friend of his. It soon comes to light that these are just the latest in a long list of altercations. The message is clear - do not mess! Yet he also reveals the lonely and disturbed side of a character low on confidence and lacking in self esteem, the bottom lip chewed to distraction in typical style. It's classic Bogart.

Likewise Gloria Grahame's performance is considered one of her best. Grahame made a career playing vulnerable yet extremely desirable femme fatales and gangster's molls who usually meet a sticky end. She had hot coffee thrown in her face by Lee Marvin in The Big Heat and was throttled to death by Broderick Crawford in Human Desire. Yet that sly Southern drawl, the merest rise of an eyebrow and the exhalation of a plume of cigarette smoke suggests a cunning and devious mind at work, most often driven by sex and desire.

The third corner of the triangle is the director Nicholas Ray. Ray was a bisexual Hollywood maverick and wild man, a hardcore drinker and drug-taker who directed some of the most provocative pictures that came out of the Hollywood studio system in the 1940s and 1950s - They Live by Night, Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause to name a few. Unsurprisingly, he drove the powers that be to distraction with his antics and increasingly left-field films and was eventually shut out by the Hollywood establishment. In his later years he was celebrated by German director Wim Wenders who cast him in his film The American Friend and co-directed Ray's final film Lightning Over Water.

Gloria Grahame and Ray were in a tempestuous marriage at the time In a Lonely Place was being made. The relationship actually broke up whilst the film was being shot. Such was Ray's macho paranoia, he forced Grahame to sign a humiliating stipulation to her contract on the movie, which gave her little or no say in the development of her role at all, nor was she allowed to vent frustration at her lack of independence. Ray even took to sleeping in a dressing room so that no one could discover the truth that director and leading lady were no longer an item. Legend has it that the couple finally divorced a couple of years later when Ray found Grahame in bed with his thirteen year old son.

It's this sense of marital mistreatment that works it's way into the heart of the movie. It's obvious by the end of the film that the "lonely place" of the title refers to jealousy, insecurity, vitimisation, low self esteem and self-destructive behaviour that ultimately leads to violence, raw emotions that can only be played out by those that have experienced them...

Bogart takes Gloria Grahame for a ride out to the dark side

Monday, 11 April 2011

The Hill (1965)

Sidney Lumet died at the weekend and as a tribute I'm putting this one forward for the late show. The Hill is set in a North African military prison at some point during WWII. It's a typical story of sadistic guards and wardens vs the inmates who struggle to survive harsh life in the slammer. The prisoners themselves are inside for the pettiest of crimes yet are treated like grade one criminals. The Hill of the title refers to a mountain of sand in the middle of the camp that the prisoners are made to run up and down in the baking hot sun every day. Presiding over the regimented daily punishment routine is hard-ass warden Harry Andrews, who takes pleasure in breaking men down in order to build them up once more into toy soldiers. When one of the prisoners dies on The Hill, the whole system is called into question, fingers are pointed, and revolution is in the air...

The Hill is an engrossing and intelligent drama. The themes that run throughout the film range from the rebel's constant need to challenge authority and the faceless machine that runs it, through to the latent and not so latent racism inherent in British society. The film is shot in stark black and white to empahsise the contrast between the punishing African sun and the bleak interiors of the prison cells and guard's quarters. With lots of tight camera angles and many close ups, the strange clanging sounds from within the cells and sudden jerky camera movements only add to the rising tension.

The film is also strangely stage-like, not surprising considering Lumet's off-Broadway background. You can imagine The Hill playing out in fringe theatre, a sparse set with the actors performing in front of and around the vast sand dune. The acting is uniformly excellent. Lumet always seemed to bring the best out of his actors in his films and this is no exception. Fresh from Goldfinger, Sean Connery stars as prisoner Sgt Joe Roberts, the main symbol of subordination and revolt. Connery excels in the role, his delight increasingly apparent as the system crumbles around him just as his frustration in his own inadequacies overwhelms him. Harry Andrews puts in one of his usual creepy performances as Warden Wilson whilst the two Ian's, Bannen and  Hendry, play good and evil respectively as the two "staff" guards in charge of the day to day running of the prison. Even Roy Kinnear puts in a good turn.

The Hill isn't one of the more celebrated films of Sidney Lumet. It's been overshadowed somewhat by his albeit terrific 70s movies such as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network as well as his courtroom dramas 12 Angry Men and The Verdict and also his final film Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. To be honnest though, this list doesn't even touch the sides. Lumet made more than 45 films over the space of 50 years, and stayed at the top of the game throughout. He was a true American great.


Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Long Goodbye (1973)

See that guy in the top right hand corner of this blog? Curly black hair, dark suit, tie loose at his neck with the top button undone on his shirt? Looks like he's been dragged through a hedge backwards? That is Elliott Gould who stars as private detective Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's 1973 classic The Long Goodbye. He's one of my favourite characters from the movies so he holds prime position at the top of this page. The film itself is a funny, knowing look at 1970s culture and private detective movies as a whole. A second viewing reveals the movie as some kind of experiment in deconstructing genres and a few myths of popular fiction. However don't let that put you off - on the surface The Long Goodbye has no high brow pretensions, it's just a damn fine film.

Loosely based on the 1953 novel by Raymond Chandler, the story begins with Marlowe being cajoled into driving his friend Terry Lennox south to Tijuana after Lennox claims to have had a run of the mill bust up with his wife Sylvia. On his return to LA, Marlowe is picked up by the police as an accessory to murder. Sylvia is dead and Lennox is the number one suspect. When Marlowe hears of Lennox's subsequent hotel suicide, he sets about trying to clear his friend's name and find the real murderer. Along the way he encounters a washed up alcoholic writer (superbly acted by Sterling Hayden) with wife in toe, a midget psychiatric "doctor", a psychopathic Jewish mobster and his gang of hoods and a bevy of half-naked chanting, yoga practising girls who live in the flat opposite.

Altman's film plays clever with both plot and themes, updating a post-war 1950s LA to the post-hippy fallout world of the 1970s. In essence the movie is a bit of an ode to Hollywood and the mass of black and white thrillers that populated cinemas and picture houses in the 30s, 40s and 50s. By setting the film in the 70s, Altman also draws comparisons between the selfish me generation of that era and a more innocent age when friendship, loyalty, morality and trust stood for something - themes that run through the majority of Chandler's work as well, although in the movie there is much humour and satire to soften the blow.

The Long Goodbye is a heavily stylised movie. The film is shot in golden textures by Vilmos Zsigmond and post flashed to add depth of colour. This means that the film is actually exposed slightly before developing so that the extra sunlight mutes the colours and creates a softer focus to what we see on screen. As such, it looks like we are watching the 1970s through a 1950s filter. Alongside this, Altman and Zsigmond use a continually moving and roaming camera, tracking, panning, zooming in and out through windows and mirrors, focusing on areas of the screen that seem insignificant and of interest only to the director, but actually serve to heighten the senses. Altman's use of John Williams' memorable theme tune also disorientates the viewer. The music plays almost constantly throughout the film in several different formats - from a jazzy lounge piano piece to a souped up supermarket background muzak, from Mexican flamenco guitar to a doorbell ring, and from a sitar led Far Eastern theme to a Yiddish tune hummed by Mark Rydell's gangster character Marty Augustine.

Central to the success of the movie as a whole is Elliott Gould's performance. At once shambolic, dishevelled and wise-cracking, Gould plays Marlowe as a man out of time - Rip van Marlowe. Constantly smoking (no one else smokes in 1970s health conscious LA) and chanting his mantra "It's OK with me" Gould drifts through the film always one step behind the plot. Roughed up, used and abused, and ultimately betrayed, it should come as no surprise when the worm turns at the climax.

The Long Goodbye came bang smack in the middle of a rich run of form in Robert Altman's career - M.A.S.H., California Split, Thieves Like Us and Nashville all achieved either box office or critical success, sometimes both. It wasn't always the case, nobody produces gold forever, but right up until his death Altman was making his own films on his term sand we salute him for that.

Marlowe shares a drink on the beach with Roger Wade...