Thursday, September 20, 2007

The A to B of Groovy Movies

As readers may recall a few months ago I was involved in a project for a US fanzine called 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. I ended up writing a couple of hundred reviews for the magazine. I - inevtiably - got lumbered with all the usual suspects that you'd expect me to be reviewing: European horror movies of the 60s and 70s, British war and post-war films, anything made by Powell and Pressburger, dirty French films by Claude Charbol that get shown on Channel 4 late at night ... Etc.
Anyway, I thought this might be an ideal opportunity to post up some of the segments on here and I'll be doing that over the next few months in pretty much alphabetical order.
So ...

400 Blows (1959): François Truffaut's intensely emotional story of misunderstood youth crime. Marvellously acted. Whatever the Hell happened to Antoine Doinel?

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Big, broad, surreal, mad Stanley Kubrick allegory about mankind's past ... and future. Full of startling images although whether it makes any sense whatsoever without degrees in physics, psychology and bullshit is another matter entirely. Hugely influential over three subsequent generations of SF filmmakers.

Alfie (1966): Swinging London personified as Michael Caine beds every woman he comes across (Millicent Martin, Julia Foster, Jane Asher, Shirley Anne Fields, Christ even Shelley Winters!) Marvellous Lewis Gilbert adaptation of the Bill Naughton play. Caine is simply brilliant as the philandering cockney playboy. Burt Bacharach wrote the theme. "Why don't you just go away and piss off!" This will become something of a mantra regarding Caine's moves of the late 60s and early 70s, but fer God's sake don't let the thoroughly wretched 21st Century remake put you off the original (see also Get Carter and The Italian Job).

All The President's Men (1976): Alan J Pakula's minimalist retelling of the Watergate affair could have been portentous in the extreme, but thanks to a skilful script, loads of great performances and - amid the inevitable sense of moral outrage - some admirable and perceptive comments on human frailty make this a key-text to understanding America in the 1970s.

Almost Famous (2001): Cameron Crowe's touching, awkward, stimulating recreation of his teenage years as a Rolling Stone journalist has just the right degree of wit and insightfulness to ward off potential charges of mawkishness. A rite-of-passage text, a road movie, a - genuinely important - social document and a comedy of sex and drugs and rock and roll complete with one of the best soundtracks you'll ever hear and a quotable line about every fifty second ('Rock-stars have kidnapped my son!'). The director's cut - Untitled - is even better, if only because you need 49 minutes more of this film in your life - especially the bits featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a world-weary Lester Bangs. Stunning cast - how can anybody not fall madly and instantly in love with Kate Hudson's Penny Lane? - and a glorious period feel that will impress both those who were there and those were weren't. Full of moments that will live with the audience for years. 'How old are you?'

Amadeus (1984): Handsome, lavish and lyrical biopic about the life of Mozart by Milo Forman. F Murray Abraham won the Oscar but Tom Hulce steals the show. Deeply moving, though occasionally a bit schmaltzy.

... And Soon the Darkness (1970): A thoroughly sinister gem, And Soon the Darkness cleverly takes all of the expected dramatic notions of a sub-genre that would soon come to dominate the horror world - stalk and slash - shakes them up in a bag, and then conspires to reassemble them in a most inventive and unexpected way. Terry Nation and Brian Clemens prove that they can handle the bigger medium of film by giving the audience a few potential suspects and then ending the film very ambiguously. A few ostentatious examples of chauvinism threaten to derail the carefully built tension of the piece, but never quite manage to. Robert Fuest's direction is fluid and amiable, and, taken as a whole, the film resembles a chill wind catching a loose filling on an otherwise warm summer day. Plus, Pamela Franklin wandering through the French countryside in hot pants.

Angel Heart (1987): Alan Parker's best film in years; a surreal, sensual American Gothic full of disquieting imagery and philosophical ruminations on the nature of existence. Sounds crap. Would've been crap, too, if the casting hadn't been so right. It's almost impossible to believe that Mickey Rourke's performance is only the second best in the movie but, Hell, Bob De Niro as Satan - what kind of inspired bravery is that?! Based on a very good William Hjorstberg novel (Fallen Angel).

Anne of a Thousand Days (1969): Somewhat stagy, if elegant retelling of the Anne Boleyn story starring Richard Burton and Geneviève Bujold. Probably not as deep or rich in period flavour as something like A Man for All Seasons but playfully political and beautifully acted.

Apocalypse Now Redux (2001): Seemingly the now preferred version by all of those involved, the story behind Francis Ford Copolla's Viet Nam epic is almost as good as the film itself. Whilst Martin Sheen and Brando battle for prominence pay close attention to the way the movie, like the Nung River, snakes not just through a landscape but back in time, too. If you ever want to go to war after seeing this, you want your head examined. "Not with a whimper. Bang!" Quite possibly the greatest war movie ever made.

Aristocats, The (1970): Loveable Disney animated classic about a high-class kitty and her offspring fallen on hard times and rescued by a streetwise cat. Funny, sassy, with great jazzy songs ('Thomas O'Malley', 'Everybody Wants to Be a Cat'), anybody who doesn't like this hasn't got a soul!

Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, The (2007): The most fascinating study of the celebrity stalker conceit since Misery and the best Western since The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance. A staggering beautiful visual experience. Not the easiest of films to watch but stick with it and your patience will be rewarded. The Nick Cave cameo, in particular, is great.

Back to the Future (1985): Amiable, hugely popular time-travel yarn that tapped into the nostalgia boon on the mid-80s. Fox and Lloyd are terrific in the central roles and the whole thing has a sweet quality that neither of the sequels could quite match. 'Chuck. It's Marvin - your cousin ...'

Batman & Robin (1997): Yes, it's dreadful. But, Alicia Silverstone in a schoolgirl outfit. What's not to love?

Beast Must Die, The (1974): A movie with a reputation amongst the more serious end of the horror cognoscenti that's lower than rattlesnakes piss. Yet such scowling, dismissiveness is completely unwarranted. Over-ambition isn't the worst crime in the world and The Beast Must Die, whilst not being entirely successful in all of its conceits is, nevertheless, a brave attempt to do something radical with a very conservative movie genre. By adding in several unexpected elements, the movie overcomes the more ludicrous elements of its plot (and some of the awful dialogue that it features). A great cast have fun with their characters, keeping the audience guessing the identity of the werewolf right up to (and, indeed, beyond) the point of revelation. A film very much worthy of reinvestigation. Plus, where else are you going to hear Peter Cushing doing as crap a Swedish accent as here?

Bedknobs & Broomsticks (1971): Oscar winning Disney combination of live-action and animation, tale of war-time evacuees, magic jungle kingdoms and the weirdest of football matches. Some inventive casting (David Tomlinson, Angela Lansbury, Roddy McDowell, Tessie O'Shea, Bruce Forsyth) and fun songs ('The Beautiful Briny'). 'Treguna, Makoidees, Trecorum, Sadis Dee!'

Betty Blue (1986): Disturbing, sexually provocative, violent, dirty, often uncomfortable tale of temptation, obsession, possession and schizophrenia. The opening five minutes feature some of the most ambitious, in yer face sex scenes ever filmed (complete with hilarious voice-over: 'I think I'd known her about a week!'). Over-long, it's true, but you will never fall in love with a screen icon as easily as you will with Béatrice Dalle in this. French Title: 37°2 Le Matin.

Billion Dollar Brain (1967): The third of Michael Caine's Harry Palmer movies and a definite improvement on the disappointing Funeral in Berlin thanks, largely, to Ken Russell's direction. Heavily anti-American (Ed Begley and Karl Malden are great in a plot about a complex CIA plot to overthrow Communism using computers) and very funny ('Hey English, you got any Beatles records?')

Billy Liar (1963): Dazzling John Schlesinger adaptation of Keith Waterhouse's novel of a fantasists attempts to escape the dull monotony of life in Northern town in pre-swinging England. Tom Courtney is magnificent in the title role. Part of the "kitchen sink/working class hero" movement of British cinema (see also Look Back in Angel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) but less gritty and more wry than many of its contemporaries whilst maintaining a sense of earthy realism. A masterpiece, and an influential one at that - Morrisey based an entire lyrical career on this.

Black Narcissus (1947): Exquisite Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger spiritual odyssey about a group of nuns living a lonely and hard life in a convent the Himalayas. Utterly superb performances (Deborah Kerr, Flora Robson, Jean Simmons). A metaphor for both the repression and the joy of the religious experience. The colours and the imagery will blow your mind (do not, under any circumstances, watch this on drugs). Jack Cardiff won a deserved Oscar for his cinematography. Like all of Powell and Pressburger's work, madly original, heart-felt, emotionally exact, gripping, witty, intricately observed, challenging and ultimately brilliant.

Blade Runner (1982): Intense, difficult Ridley Scott adaptation of Philip K Dick's Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep? Groundbreaking on release for it's noireish conceits and influential design, these days most people tend to prefer Scott's director's cut which strips out Harrison's Ford's narrative voice-over and tightens a few loose ends. A bit. Great cast (Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Eddie Olmos). Oscar winning art design and effects.

Blood on Satan's Claw (1970): An unexpectedly hard movie: Classy, morally ambiguous, sexually-charged and a very disturbing. Blood on Satan's Claw is a film about cynicism and the crushing weight of authority on new found freedoms in the young. Everything, thereafter, both literally and metaphorically, becomes infected by rampant paranoia and superstition. The movie's subsequent influence can still be witnessed, particularly in America where it is, rightly, regarded as an opaque masterpiece. A career highlight for many of those involved (particularly Linda Hayden) Blood on Satan's Claw helped to redraw the boundaries (and redefine the amount of dramatic licence that could be taken with some previously taboo subjects) of the horror movie. It's often compared to Witchfinder General but, in reality, it's actually a far more satisfying film.

Boucher, Le (1970): Claude Charbol's finest movie is a gripping, complex series of snapshots from the unusual relationship between a rural butcher (Jean Yanne) and his wife (the gorgeous Stéphane Audran). Sinister, intelligent, a rejection of bland bourgeois conformity marbled with a curiously touching love story. Not for all tastes but brilliantly unusual.

Blowup (1966): A European take on Swinging-London, Antonioni's hypnotic counterculture celebration is both arresting, rich in symbolism and fiercely provocative (politically and socially) and yet, at times, it's almost too clever for it's own good. Nevertheless Hemmings and Redgrave are magnificently detached in the leads and where else are you going to see The Yardbirds smashing up their gear playing 'Stroll On'? Something of a curate's egg, but the rewarding parts far outweigh the dross.