Friday, May 02, 2008

The G To I Of Groovy Movies

The third in an occasional series of two hundred words-of-less (in theory, anyway) reviews of movies which are, generally speaking, worthy of an hour and a bit of your time. Or, in the case of The Godfather, three hours and a bit of your time.
Get Carter (1969) - A movie that takes place - at the turn of a decade - in the cracks between a crumbling old world and a harsh, concrete-scape new one. Michael Caine has never been better than as the cold-eyed assassin Jack Carter in this, perhaps the ultimate British gangster movie. The Newcastle and Gateshead locations are almost a character in and of themselves. (The multi-story car park that Caine pushes Alf Roberts off to his death is still standing to this day, though it's due for demolition soon - the only reason that the monstrosity has lasted this long being largely due to it's associations to Get Carter). Timeless and influential in a way that even the wretchedly-botched Stallone remake couldn't diminish.
Gimme Shelter (1970): The Maysles Brothers outstanding documentary of The Rolling Stones 1969 US tour culminating in the chaos and carnage of Altamont. Gripping stuff, particularly the oddly dispassionate way in which the murder of Meredith Hunter by Hell's Angels is captured to celluloid. Watch the camera refuse to leave Mick Jagger as he winces and squirms when watching the footage. Cinema Verité at its absolute peak.
Go (1999): Tarantino-inspired movie about a Los Angeles drug deal from three separate points of view. Flashy, fast-paced, brutally edited, with a loud soundtrack. Katie Holmes' presence is what will probably give the movie a shelf-life but keep an eye on the Desmond Askew sub-plot which is both funny and clever.
Goal (1966): The greatest football film ever made, the official FIFA movie of the 1966 World Cup has a genuine cult status in England, where it is viewed as a both time capsule to another world and as a genuinely valid social document in its own right. Numerous lines of Nigel Patrick's clipped commentary (from Brian Glanville's script) have passed into popular consciousness. ('The locals adopt the North Koreans and call them "Us". "Us" beat the Italians!') Never has mid-Sixties Britain looked more colourful and more exotic. And more real.
Godfather, The (1972): A staggering achievement given that the director was almost sacked before the first week of shooting was over, Coppolla's homage to good old fashioned Italian virtues (murder, extortion, beating the wife up) transcends less-than-appealing conceits with a series of bravura set pieces (the wedding, the hospital, Michael killing the police captain, the Sicilian car-bomb, Sonny's murder, the shooting of Don Vito) with a swagger that says to all imitators "give it yer best shot, Marty, but it's gonna have to be good to be better than this." In fact, there's only been one movie that could claim to best Coppolla's vision here and, by an astonishing coincidence, he would make it himself two years later. The cast are flawless; Brando took the plaudits but Pacino, Caan and (especially) Bob Duvall deserve a slice of the cake. Great music too.
Godfather Part II, The (1974): Sequels better than the film they're a sequel to: The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II and ... it's a pretty exclusive list! The reason for GII's superiority is simple - The Godfather had two hours of Marlon Brando. The Godfather II has two hours of Robert De Niro. 'nuff said. It may not have as many memorable moments as the first movie (although it's got more than a few - the Cuban sequences not least among them) but Michael Corleone's decent into hard-faced, paranoid psychosis whilst chanting the mantra "I'm a businessman" is one of the most chilling screen performances ever. Pacino would never even come close to matching it again (particularly in the bitterly disappointing Part III). There are numerous other fine movies on this list but The Godfather Part II is, quite simply, the greatest movie of all time.
Goldfinger (1964): Third - and one of the best - James Bond movie with Connery at his manly peak, iconic women, a classic supervillain, great gadgets (a deadly bowler hat!) and the coolest car in cinema history (that Aston Martin DB5). "D'yexssssshpect me to taak?" "No, Meeeeeezda Bont, I expectttttt you to DIE!" The movie every eleven year old boy wanted to be in!
GoldenEye (1995): 'No! More! Foreplay!' Outstanding return to form for the Bond franchise with Pierce Brosnan effortlessly slipping into Connery's metaphorical shoes. Much was made at the time of both the "back to basics" approach and the film's rejection of Bond's crass misogynistic baggage in a post-AIDS world (which, frankly, amounts to one brief exchange between Bond on the new M - Judi Dench). Outstanding support cast (Joe Don Baker, Robbie Coltrane) and the best Bond villain since Goldfinger (Sean Bean). "I trusted you, Alec." Ian Fleming would certainly have approved (and then spent the royalties on champagne). Excellent.
Goodbye, Pork Pie (1981): The best movie ever made in New Zealand? Forget Lord of the Rings and rent this gorgeous, witty, amiable and exciting road-movie about two very different men (Kelly Johnson and Tony Barry) who bond as brothers whilst dodging the law in a stolen car. Should have seen all concerned (including director Geoff Murphy) go on to many greater things but, curiously, never did. No justice.
GoodFellas (1990): Not only Scorsese's finest film, but one of the most spellbinding movies experiences of the last fifty years. A schizoid look into the dark heart of America that is by turns, amusing, warm and nostalgic and also sickeningly violent and depraved. GoodFellas pulls off the seemingly impossible and makes the audience understand (and even, on occasions, sympathise with) the murderous thugs whose story it tells, whilst never - quite - taking their side. The central trio of characters are loathsome, brutal, dangerous men that are impossible to like but, strangely (and this is a staggering tribute to Scorsese, De Niro, Liotta and Pesci), you actually do. The movie is very funny in places ("I amuse you?!") knowing exactly when to push the humour button and when not to (Tommy shooting Spider in the foot is a good example). But there is no redemption for Henry Hill at the end of this movie (unlike, say, Travis Bickle, or Jake LaMotta), as the Variety reviewer noted on the films release "sympathy is not the issue here; empathy is." We've entered into a forbidden world and we celebrate that but after a while we realise that, like all forbidden worlds, it has a grotesque, sleazy, dirty side to it. Scorsese's treatment of the wise guys women is particularly impressive.
Great Escape, The (1963) – John Sturges’ masterpiece and Elmer Bernstein’s most famous score. The cast reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood and Britain. Jim Rockford and Donald Pleasance crashing a plane! Nigel Stock being a prat and giving the game away! Steve on a bike! And, all the British getting shot at the end - what more do you want?
Great Rock and Roll Swindle, The (1979): Julian Temple's homage to the "official" Malcolm MacLaren-created version of the Sex Pistols' history and demise. Cleverly pieced together from various sources (including Russ Meyers' abandoned Who Killed Bambi?) and featuring a brilliant debut performance by Steve Jones as a kind of cockney Philip Marlowe, walking London's mean streets to find out where his fuckin' royalties went! The combination of terrifyingly brilliant archive footage just about makes up for John Lydon's lack of participation. Highlights: The Bill Grundy Show, the Thames cruise debacle and the animated 'Friggin' in the Riggin'' climax. "What a fuckin' rotter!"
Guns of Navarone, The (1961) – Based on the novel by Alastair MacLean, this explosive WWII actioner boasts a stellar cast (Gregory Peck, David Niven, Stanley Baker, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, James Darren, Richard Harris), Oscar-winning special effects and superb production values. David Niven, inevitably, gets all the best one-liners. “Heil everybody!”
Hannibal Brooks (1969): Just to prove that if he puts his mind to it Michael Winner can make a decent film as evidenced by this pleasant Oliver Reed vehicle about a prisoner of war details to evacuate an elephant from Munich zoo which turns into an escape saga and a piece of violent anti-American militarism (Michael J Pollard is terrific in a supporting role).
Hard Day’s Night, A (1964): 'He's very fussy about his drums. They loom large in 'is legend!' Pop cinema’s first twenty four-carat masterpiece. A film that, quite literally, broke all the rules. Then it invented some new ones and broke them as well. It's not just an evocation of Beatlemania, it is Beatlemania, made flesh. There are many magic moments in the movie but perhaps the best is when The Beatles break out from their prison of a TV studio and play like children in a field to 'Can't Buy Me Love'. One hundred and thirty eight seconds of pure escapism. 'You'll like this, it's "Fab!"'
Head (1969): Possibly the strangest film ever made. The Monkees fragment the mainstream zaniness of their TV show in a series of vignettes that encompass the history of cinema and some great songs ('Circle Sky', 'As We Go Along') before ending up as dandruff in Victor Mature's hair. Thoroughly weird from start to finish but often entertaining and occasionally brilliant (the cavalry sequence featuring a very young Teri Garr for instance). Director and writer Bob Raefelson and Jack Nicholson would go on to greater success elsewhere but they would never be as downright barmy as they were here - not even Jack in The Shining.
Hell Drivers (1957) – The premise is downright fruitcake – English truck drivers are forced to drive fast over death-trap roads in order to keep their jobs at a cheapskate firm. It’s all very macho stuff with some thrilling driving sequences, but it’s the superb cast that put this film on a different level to many of these kind of cheap late-Fifties efforts: Patrick McGoohan, David McCallum, Sean Connery, Stanley Baker, Herbert Lom, Sid James, William Hartnell, Alfie Bass and Gordon Jackson to name but nine.
Help! (1965): The Beatles’ second film somewhat divides opinion. Many, including at least one of the group, felt it was a let-down after A Hard Day’s Night. The alternative viewpoint - one that this reviewer very much subscribes to - is that Help! is the fantasy mirror-image to A Hard Day’s Night’s proto-socio-realism. The Swingin' Sixties that everybody imagines happened rather than the real one (because, as the old saying goes, if you can remember the Sixties then, in all probability, you weren't really there). Great cast: Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron, Victor Spinetti, Roy Kinnear, Patrick Cargill. Hugely influential, Help! personifies fantasy sixties-London in much the same way that The Avengers or The Italian Job do. Many great moments – the ‘fiendish thingy’, Paul’s Exiting Adventure on the Floor, the tiger – and, despite the overwhelming impression that John, Paul, George and Ringo are floating through the movie on a marijuana high (‘Boys, are you buzzing?’), plenty of laughs too. Help! remains massively (and snobbishly) under-rated.
Hex (1973): Weird, oddly styled combination of postfeminist Wicca/occult text, dustbowl Western and road-movie. Something of a sleeper but with stunning performances from it's mostly young cast (Keith Carradine is probably the only one you'll have heard of). Hazy, somnambulist direction by Leo Garen. One of a kind.
Highlander, The (1986) - A movie so perfect, so absolutely of its moment that it's annoying the film's memory is sullied by subsequent sequels that simply weren't needed. See the original and forget everything that came later. Even the crap theme song can be lived with.
High Sierra (1941) – Bogie plays a gangster whose day has come and gone, as oddly enough the gangster pictures that made Bogart's name were also winding down. Bogie said goodbye to his then-usual malcontent for a while, with this one, and he plays it for all he's worth, bringing some dimension to what could have been just another walk-through.
Hit, The (1984): Sharp as a needle, Stephen Frears' movie about a gangster-turned-grass (Terence Stamp) haunted by two very different hit men (John Hurt, Tim Roth) is gripping and tense in all the right places.
Hot Fuzz (2007) – “By the power of Greyskull!” An homage to that most American of movie genres – the buddy-cop film - set in a sleepy West Country village and featuring the least likely bunch of villains imaginable (with the least likely series of motives for their wicked and nefarious villainy). A startlingly brilliant movie, right out of left-field with a once in a lifetime cast, Edgar Wright's assured direction and the funniest script not only that Simon Pegg had ever co-written but also that he ever will co-write. So much more than the mere genre parody that it appears to be on the surface with hidden subplots about trust, friendship, first impressions and, erm, swans. Nick Frost threatens to steal the movie from under Pegg's nose ("Have you ever cooked any fools?!") but, doesn't quite, as Timothy Dalton's already nicked it from under his! "He's not Judge Judy and executioner!" Fantastic soundtrack too.
Hound of the Baskervilles, The (1958): Astonishing as it now seems, Hammer's gorgeous recreation of Conan Doyle's Victorian Gothicana world was considered something of a failure on its initial release. These days it is, rightly, considered to be among the most interesting Holmes adaptations. Peter Cushing (in a role he was born to play) and Christopher Lee put in fine performances, but the real star here is André Morell, whose Dr Watson can almost be called definitive. The ingenious use of comic interludes and characters and the script's lightning pace more than make up for a few minor aesthetic drawbacks. From its swaggering opening, to the climax on a studio recreation of misty Dartmoor, Hound works on almost every level with a colourful braggadocio and plenty of verve.
House of Whipcord (1974): Often alleged to be one of the grottiest, nastiest films ever made, Peter Walker's House of Whipcord is actually a very intelligent, ambitious movie with some hard-hitting things to say about corporal and capital punishment and with a very cynical view of the then-current and topical right-wing moral outrage at the permissive society. It features little nudity, hardly any blood and the film's reputation, as a kind of Citizen Kane of S&M movies, is vastly undeserved. What it is, despite all this, is a terrifyingly intense film that exposes the moral bankruptcy of those for whom no punishment is ever considered to be harsh enough.
House That Dripped Blood, The (1970): One of the great surprises of British horror cinema is Peter Duffell’s wonderful patchwork movie. A classic example of a somewhat hackneyed script saved from mediocrity and then pushed towards genuine greatness by a clever director, great casting and impressive design (the centrepiece of Tony Curtis’s interiors being the house’s sinisterly-angled staircase which is almost a character in its own right). All four separate stories have something worthwhile about them: Method for Murder and Sweets to the Sweet are droll variants on some standard genre clichés but with just the right degree of subversion in Robert Bloch's script to keep them interesting. However, Waxworks is a surprisingly sombre little mood-piece, a study of loneliness and obsession, featuring Peter Cushing at his very best. The Cloak - the movie’s best remembered segment - with Jon Pertwee, Geoffrey Bayldon and Ingrid Pitt camping it up for all they’re worth in great style amid a clever assortment of industry gags and pithy humour. Easily the best Amicus anthology movie since Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.
Hunchback of Notre Dame, The (1939) –The lovely Maureen O'Hara in one of her earliest roles as the vivacious, riveting, exotic gypsy girl Esmerelda. Oh, and Charles Laughton is quite good as the hunchback Quasimodo, too!
Hunt For Red October, The (1990): Tense John McTiernan Cold War drama about a Russian nuclear submarine apparently gone rogue. Based on the Tom Clancey novel. Fine cast headed by a truly remarkable performance by Sean Connery as the world's first Russian Scotsman. The bit where he starts talking about when he was a "wee boy, fischhhhing in the Black Sccccchhhea" will have you in stitches!
Hustler, The (1961): Paul Newman at his streetwise best as pool-shark Fast Eddie in Robert Rossen's terrific character study. Newman easily deserved an Oscar but missed out - as he did on six other occasions - before finally getting one in the - rather disappointing - sequel, The Color of Money twenty five years later.
How I Won The War (1966): Vicious Dick Lester satire on the madness, futility and greed of war. Terrific cast (Michael Crawford is especially good) and notable for John Lennon's only solo acting credit (and pretty good the alcoholic wife-beating Scouse junkie is too). Lester only gained the co-operation of the British army in the battles sequences by lying to them about the film's nature.
Ice Cold In Alex (1958): Essential British desert war movie about truth and togetherness in a harsh environment. John Mills has never been more square-jawed and Sylvia Syms never more alluring. And the bar sequence at the end - "worth waiting for!"
Ice Station Zebra (1968): 'The Russians put our camera made by our German scientists and your film made by your German scientists into their satellite made by their German scientists!' John Sturges's exciting adaptation of the Alistair MacLean novel of cold war intrigue featuring the best performances of Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine's careers and a brilliantly twitchy and sardonic turn from Patrick McGoohan (whilst he was taking a six week break from The Prisoner). Apparently this was Howard Hughes' favourite movie which shows the crazed old lunatic had some taste.
If... (1968): Lindsay Anderson's magnificent surrealist allegory of life in a British public school as 60s politics turned radical and dangerous. Malcolm McDowell's Mick Travis was the epitome of Mod cool - rejecting the past in favour of The Revolution ... but still making sure he'd be home in time for tea (how much of the events of the movie are Travis's fantasy remains a hotly debated subject). Full of startling imagery and dialogue ("Britain today is a powerhouse!") "One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place." Anderson and McDowell would follow this with the equally extraordinary O, Lucky Man! five years later.
I Know Where I'm Going! (1945): Almost the quintessential Powell and Pressburger movie, a tale of the abandonment of English conformity when love comes calling. Roger Livesey is perfect as the gentle man who steals Wendy Hiller's heart. A thirteen year old Petula Clark has a small role.
In Cold Blood (1967) – Ignore the crass, schlocky 1990s remake and stick with this, the best adaptation of any of Truman Capote's work. Robert Blake is positively mesmerizing in a role that might have been written for him.
Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade (1989) – Connery is a delight as Indiana’s bookish father; the fantastic screen chemistry between Ford and Connery leaves you wanting more. What a pity we never got it. "Nazi's, I hate those guys!" Great villains too (Julian Glover, Michael Byrne).
Insignificance (1985): What if Marylin Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe Dimaggio and Joe McCarthy shared a hotel in a mind-bending evening of relativity in the mid-Fifties? That's the premise of Nic Roeg's high-concept, funny, disturbing movie. Features Tony Curtis's best film role in about twenty years.
In the Heat Of The Night (1967): 'They call me Mister Tibbs!' Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger give us a socially-pertinent Odd Couple, without the humour. In this tale of Southern law enforcement having the Twentieth Century thrust upon it, the heat comes more from the climate and the simmering racial tension.
Invasion (1966): A claustrophobic chiller which, despite a severe lack of budget, more than makes up for it with an impressively moody and tense atmosphere. Invasion is the kind of film that, frankly, just doesn't tend to get made anymore - in which ideas are far more important the visual realisation. A sombre, intellectual look at an extraterrestrial visitation, set in one isolated location, the action in Invasion is played out slowly and eerily, with virtually no special effects, apart from some inconsequential stock footage (which, frankly, sticks out like a sore thumb). This, it would seem, forced the writers to deliver a much more literate script than the genre traditionally encompasses. Given the subsequent CV's of authors Roger Marshall and Robert Holmes, it's hardly surprising that Invasion, at times, feels like a collection of all of the best bits from a bunch of superior Doctor Who and The Avengers episodes glued together into a movie. Which is no bad thing. An often-overlooked gem, Invasion is, slowly, starting to acquire the reputation that it deserves.
In Which We Serve (1942): David Lean and Noel Coward's epic tribute to the Royal Navy - based loosely on the real-life sinking of Louis Mountbatton's ship HMS Kelly. One of a trio of British war movies (see also The Way Ahead and Way to the Stars - all made, incidentally, whilst the war was still going on) that rejected crass Hollywood notions of death or glory in favour of a more down-to-earth and realistic portrayal of heroism under extreme circumstances. Wonderful cast of reliable British character actors (it's one of John Mills's best ever roles). Richard Attenborough's film debut.
Incense For the Damned (1969): An awful, virtually unwatchable movie, with just a few interesting hints of what might have occurred had Bob Hartford-Davis been able to make the film that he wanted to. There are unmistakable signs of pusillanimous post-production tampering, with jerky editing, a narrative voice-over trying to cover gaps in the story and, above all, a ludicrous final scene that contradicts everything that's gone before it. Based on one of the great vampire novels of the 20th Century (Simon Raven's Doctors Wear Scarlet) the undoubted highlight of Incense for the Damned is a hilarious cameo by Edward Woodward, who delivers a po-faced, mumbo-jumbo lecture on the depths of human perversion that threatens to turn the movie into a camp exercise in bigotry. A startlingly good cast helps to compensate for many of the negative aspects of the production, although Patrick Macnee and Peter Cushing, in particular, are wasted in virtual cameo roles. Ultimately, what we are left with after all of the post-production nightmares is a movie that had so much potential but which has been destroyed, as an audience spectacle, by financial considerations, under-ambition and an attempt to shoehorn something with an alternative world-view into a rigid genre mould. Also known as Bloodsuckers - which probably tells you all you need to know about why it ended up like it did.
Ipcress File, The (1966): Designed as a necessary antidote to the excesses of the Bond movies, Len Deighton's Harry Palmer novels provided Michael Caine with a career-defining persona - the cynical, sardonic-yet-vaguely-sophisticated Cockney wide-boy surviving by instinct in a very dangerous world. Exceptional support cast (Guy Doleman, Nigel Green, Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson) and influential, eerie John Barry score. Followed by two sequels neither with the wit or the soul of the original.
I Saw What You Did (1965): "... And I know who you are!" A gruelling thriller about two prankish girls calling someone at random... and get a desperate guy who's just murdered his wife. Director William Castle had more or less outgrown the gimmicks by this point. Very nice!
I Start Counting (1969): The first, and best, British example of an emerging trend in world horror cinema, the schoolgirl-in-peril movie. I Start Counting is a film which, literally, straddles two worlds - the old and the new. An ambitious and thoroughly disturbing story, it delicately builds in layers to a flawed, but interesting, conclusion. The performances are terrific, particularly the young Jenny Agutter who boosted her emerging star credentials with a completely believable portrayal of naive sexual awakening. A clever move is the way in which Simon Ward's killer is not presented as a drooling madman, but rather as a lonely victim of a cruel world that has no place for him within it.
Italian Job, The (1969): Forget The Sting, this is quite simply the greatest heist movie ever made. A cultural icon in Britain where men of a certain age can chant along with the entire film and its numerous lines of memorable dialogue ('Yer only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!') Michael Caine at his Carnaby Street coolest, Noel Coward's last great movie role, tons of cameos by reliable comedy actors (Benny Hill) and rising stars (look out for a very young Robert Powell as one of the gang), the magnificent Tony Beckley utterly stealing the show as Camp Freddy in his pink suit, the Mini Cooper chase through (and over) the streets - and sewers - of Turin and the greatest (literal) cliffhanging end to a movie ever. Magnificent Qunicy Jones soundtrack (now, thankfully available on CD). Clever, funny and dramatic script by Troy Kennedy Martin (the ending was imposed on him - he wanted the gang to get away with it). Forget, too, the Christ-awful 2005 remake, THIS is the daddy.
It's A Wonderful Life (1946): And, to think, there are people who regard Frank Capra's intimate study of human scope and magnificence as mawkish and trite. People were burned for such heresy in the middle ages. One of the most warm, perfect and real cinema experiences ever. James Stewart is everyman, facing the worst and best of what life has to offer. Imitated on numerous occasions but never close to being equalled. "There must be some easier way for me to get my wings." Remember, sometimes, it's simply okay to cry.
Groovy movies will return in "The J to Q of Groovy Movies."

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