I Want My Films To Get Audiences (Stephen Frears)

Stephen Frears, the British film director, served his apprenticeship in cinema at a time when London was swinging & homegrown cultural talents were finding an international audience. In 1966, when he was 25, Frears was assistant to director Karel Reisz (“Saturday Night Sunday Morning”, “Who’ll Stop the Rain”) on “Morgan:A Suitable Case for Treatment”, a brash comedy where David Warner’s Marxism switches from Karl to Harpo. He was P.A. to director/star Albert Finney for “Charlie Bubbles” (1967), a return to Manchester for the international star, Liza Minnelli’s film debut, the wonderful Billie Whitelaw & a script by Shelagh (“A Taste of Honey”) Delaney. As straight outta Salford as the Smiths. Frears was also an assistant to Lindsay Anderson for “If…” (1968), the best British film of the decade, a satire on a public school system that was anachronistic then (we all thought/hoped it would really be shot to hell) & still is now. The British Film Industry…remember that ? Blimey !

 

It was Albert Finney’s company that gave Stephen Frears his break as a director. “Gumshoe” (1971) stars Finney as Liverpudlian bingo caller Eddie Ginley whose Sam Spade/Bogart fantasies lead him up unlikely mean streets. It’s a smart spoof detective story, Ms Whitelaw & an outstanding cast of British character actors add value. The opportunities to make films were fewer & for the next decade Frears became established as a leading director of prestigious, quality one-off dramas made by both (!) TV companies which were as good as TV got in the 1970s. There were memorable collaborations with writer Alan Bennett. “Bloody Kids” (1980), a script by young gun Stephen Poliakoff, explores youth alienation, social discord, voyeurism & surveillance, the dark side of a society taking a wrong turn, it’s brilliant. In 1982 “Walter”, a moving story of a man with learning disabilities & his grim life in a psychiatric institution with a great performance by a young Gandalf, attracted much attention when it was the centrepiece of the opening night of Channel 4, a whole new TV channel.

 

 

In 1984 Frears returned to the big screen with “The Hit”. It’s an existential gangster road movie…triple whammy ! Of course I love it. Hit man Braddock (John Hurt) & his apprentice Myron (Tim Roth) are sent to Spain to sort out supergrass Parker (Terence Stamp), that’s quite a cast. Stamp, a major star in the 1960s, had a quiet 1970s (apart from being General Zod in 2 Superman movies). Here he’s not as volatile as he was in Soderbergh’s “The Limey” (1999). He’s accepting of & resigned to his fate & he’s up to something. John Hurt is vicious while Tim Roth, in his film debut as Myron, the YTS assassin (a part offered to Joe Strummer off of the Clash), is perfect as the young Brit abroad. Laura del Sol is a hostage in a very tight dress while the great Fernando Rey follows the trail of blood & bodies. The 1980s saw a revival of the British gangster film (those not featuring members of Spandau Ballet), “The Hit”, tense & tough, is one of the best.

 

There followed a run of Brit flicks. 1985’s “My Beautiful Laundrette” was a breakthrough role for Daniel Day-Lewis as a gay skinhead. Hanif Kureishi’s South London story of Johnny’s relationship with his childhood friend Omar was sensitively & effectively told & gained an international audience. “Prick Up Your Ears” (1987) is the singular story of Joe Orton, playwright, a working class hero contemporaneous with John Lennon & his tragic relationship with Kenneth Halliwell. Gary Oldman & Alfred Molina are outstanding in the lead roles, Alan Bennett’s script is faultless. It’s my favourite of this phase of Frears’ career & it’s on the Y-tube, watching it again is time well spent. “Sammy & Rosie Get Laid” (1987) is another hook-up with Kureishi, another slice of urban life in Thatcher’s Britain.

 

 

These opening credits of “The Grifters” (1990), Los Angeles in black & white, Elmer Bernstein theme, signpost that there’s a film noir ahead. There’s some heavy hitters involved, produced by Scorsese, a screenplay by Donald E Westlake from a novel by pulp great Jim Thompson. Frears had directed the film of Christopher Hampton’s play “Dangerous Liaisons”, a large-scale European production with major Hollywood stars but this was his first American movie. The triangle of confidence persons is well cast. Young Roy Dillon (John Cusack) is still learning, painfully, the small-time scams. Myra (Annette Bening) offers more than the chance to score big while his mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) has been working the angles longer than both of them. Any unflinching attempt to transfer Thompson’s dark spirit to celluloid would inevitably alienate a mass audience. “The Grifters” is tough & violent while diluting themes of incest & violent misogyny. It’s a glossy modern noir, no-one can be trusted & it’s bound to end badly for Roy. It became Frears’ first Academy Award nomination for best director.

 

That’s 7 feature films “directed by Stephen Frears” then & it’s not easy to pin him down to any individual style. His films effectively capture the often hermetic world of his characters, a car in Spain, a Vauxhall laundrette, an Islington bed-sit. Certainly his screenplay choices are impeccable & his skill is in delivering that quality to the screen. He is more than a safe pair of hands, able to adroitly blend drama & comedy. In the 1990s he returned from Hollywood to make parts 2 & 3 of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy. They lacked the musical attraction of part 1 “The Commitments” but both “The Van” & “The Snapper” certainly retained the sweet soul. “Mary Reilly” (1996), another Hampton script starring Julia Roberts & John Malkovich with a $47 million budget was Frears’ first real stutter.

 

 

Like many European directors who make it to Hollywood Frears made his crime movie & then his western. “The Hi-Lo Country” (1998) is set in a post-World War 2 West so cannot be anything but elegiac. Woody H, Billy Crudup & Katy Jurado, a link to the great cowboy films. It’s been a while since I saw it but it has moved to near the top of the list. “High Fidelity” (2000) transposes Nick Hornby’s novel from North London to Chicago. “Fever Pitch” had dealt with the football & Hi-Fi covers those other 2 lynchpins of a boy’s life, music & women. All of us music obsessives have spent just enough time in record shops & too much time compiling Top 5 lists. No-one minded the transatlantic shift because if anyone is going to represent us then let it be John Cusack, by now a film star & he seems to be a nice guy. We don’t, perhaps, have Catherine Zeta Jones, Lisa Bonet or Iben Hjejle in our pasts but we’ve had our moments. Not sure we would contact our exes to ask about a break up, pretty sure we wouldn’t want to hear some of the answers. It’s only a movie & one that gets the tone right from Jack Black’s Monday morning tape to Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe” playing over the credits.

 

The later films of Stephen Frears have been mostly British or European productions. He has continued to work with talented writers, Steven Knight’s 1st screenplay “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002), Steve Coogan “Philomena” (2013). He has also returned to directing event TV dramas in Britain & the US. I’m not too interested in the Queen so Helen Mirren as “The Queen” (2006) passed me by. There was great interest though, Ms Mirren scored an Oscar & Frears a nomination for best director. This film & “Philomena” made serious money from relatively low budgets, the kind of numbers that will keep a now veteran director in work. His latest film “The Program”, a dramatisation about the delusional, drug cheat bike rider Lance Armstrong, does not match the comprehensive documentaries on the same subject. Any road up, there’s another movie in post-production, Meryl Streep in “Florence Foster Jenkins”, & a body of work, spanning 45 years, of such variety & quality that his reputation as an outstanding director is secure. Oh, I forgot to mention “Mr Jolly Lives Next Door” (1987), the funniest non-Python related thing ever shown on British TV !

 

 

 

What Do You Do For Fun? I Don’t (Thomas McCarthy)

Thomas McCarthy, the American film director, has a new film ready for release & I am a little worried. McCarthy’s previous 3 films have been big favourites round our yard. All 3 have featured convincing actors whose characters & relationships develop beyond the overture. Their reactions & perspectives alter as situations change & new shit comes to light. Y’know, like I do, like you do, like real people  do.  This time around “The Cobbler” stars Adam Sandler. OK, what about “Punch Drunk Love”, isn’t that a good movie ? It is but I have seen “Little Nicky”, “50  First Dates”, & (Un)”Funny People” & each time resolved that me & the man-child Sandler could get along without each other fine thank you. Hey, “The Cobbler” also features Steve Buscemi (always a good thing), Dustin Hoffman (heavyweight) & a Brit off of “Downton Abbey” (Downright Shabby..ho-ho). It’s co-written & directed by Thomas McCarthy so it will be at the top of my to-see list.

Mr McCarthy takes his time making films, the first 3 are spread over 10 years. His day job is as an actor in films that you have probably seen. He is Dr Bob in “Meet The Parents” & “Little Fockers”. Back in 2005, when George Clooney was attempting to establish a liberal cred, McCarthy had parts in “Good Night & Good Luck” & “Syriana”. In series 5 of “The Wire” he played Scott Templeton, a Baltimore Sun journalist who’s over-ambition led him to exaggerate & falsify stories…a nasty piece of work. I guess that one reason for the time between films is that care is taken to achieve a script that is properly finished. These are satisfying dramas with a beginning, a middle & an end, in that order. I see too many acclaimed American movies which end with me going “Huh” !

“The Station Agent” (2003) is an absolute gem of a movie. I carried the DVD around for years, spreading the word, assuring people that a night with this film would be time well spent. Is Peter Dinklage a star now because of “Game of Thrones” ?  I knew him from Tom DiCillo’s brilliant comedy “Living In Oblivion” (1995) & the part of Fin is tailor-made for him. Fin, a person of restricted growth, has had enough of being different in a world that really doesn’t handle difference well. He inherits an old train station & sees a chance to walk away, preferring solitude to the prying eyes of stupid people. In McCarthy’s films the world finds a way of coming back at you.

This is a film about friendship An odd menage develops between the taciturn Fin (Dinklage), Olivia, an artist touched by sadness (Patricia Clarkson, the Queen of Indie movies) & the gauche but you gotta like him Joe (Bobby Cannavale). These dissimilar people keep company with each other because the solitary alternative is really a non-runner in a world shared with other people. There is a humanity about “The Station Agent” that is Vonnegutian, the highest praise. If you have seen it then it is one of your favourite movies. If you haven’t…well, what is this, a staring contest ?

Next time around was “The Visitor” (2007), another slice of the American pie often avoided by US cinema. This film’s loner, Walter Vale, is a college professor, stranded by the death of his wife, choosing to shut himself down & pretty much check out on most social interaction. Walter is played by Richard Jenkins, best known for playing the dead father in “Six Feet Under” who since this film has shown up in Coen Brothers joints, movies starring Will Ferrell & Channing flipping Tatum. Watch the clip, you know the guy, he’s a good actor.

“The Visitor” concerns Walter’s rather reluctant return from Connecticut to his New York apartment to find that 2 illegal immigrants are living there. Once again circumstance, Life, gets in the way of a man’s decisions about how he should live. The liberal academic is exposed to a modern America of which he is unaware, emotions which he thought he could avoid. This serious story is confidently handled with humour, pathos & sentimentality, proper sentiment not Hallmark Channel bullshit. “The Visitor” is a touching, memorable film and Thomas McCarthy was hitting 2 for 2.

“Win Win” (2011) has a wider scope than it’s precedents. It has more characters & things get a little more complicated. It’s the way when more people are involved. Mike Flaherty, a small town attorney & high school wrestling coach, is played by Paul Giamatti, the finest American actor of his generation (sorry Mr Seymour Hoffman) so we are already ahead. Amy Ryan (classy) is his wife, Jackie, The incomparable Burt Young, the always funny Jeffrey Tambor are there, Bobby Cannavale (yay !) returns. This cast is solid.

So Mike is shot-down about making the monthly vig to support his family &, hoping he is doing the right thing, is tempted into some financial shenanigans involving a geriatric client. It is his secret to keep from his wife. The client’s grandson shows up, his mother’s in re-hab & he needs a hand which the Flaherty’s provide. These are good people. Kyle , Alex Shaffer’s debut comes on like a young Sean Penn, is a star wrestler so that’s great for Mike. Once again Thomas McCarthy’s screenplay & direction are pitch perfect. He was a high school wrestler himself & these parts of the film are just right.There is a reality, an honesty & an empathy about “Win Win” that I just don’t find in many modern Hollywood movies. Check the clip, it’s The National’s “Think You Can Wait”, (with Sharon Van Etten), the closing track, combined with a making-of the movie. Cooler than a trailer & as cool as the film.

Thomas McCarthy is getting a little busier. As well as “The Cobbler” he wrote “Million Dollar Arm”, this year’s baseball movie. His next film “Spotlight” is a serious story of the exposure of child molestation starring Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton & Mark Ruffalo. I am maybe being pessimistic that quicker work, bigger budgets & movie stars will dilute the quality of his work. Whatever, we have his great humanist trilogy, films that will be appreciated for many years, which make him an outstanding American director.

A Society Would Be Wise To Pay Attention To The People Who Do Not Belong (Arthur Penn)

When Arthur Penn was still a teenager he was in the US Army, in Europe & in the Second World. I’ve only been in

brando-pennthe middle one, I would imagine that the full set gave him a little perspective to bring back to his acting studies. He was in the right place at the right time for NBC, an expanding TV network where he served an apprenticeship as a director before returning to the theatre then into film direction. His older brother Irving was a big-time fashion photographer for “Vogue” so Arthur knew how far having a discerning eye could get you, His first film, “The Left Handed Gun” (1958) was a study of that troubled American youth Billy the Kid with Paul Newman stepping in when James Dean was unable to make the gig. In the next decade he made considered, provocative movies before directing a film which has come to be regarded as a spearhead of modernity in American cinema.

Arthur Penn was a Kennedy Democrat, a contemporary of the brothers in the White House. After 2 terms of a Republican general as President there was an optimism & a determination to address social issues which had been neglected during the Cold War politics of the 1950s. “The Miracle Worker” (1962) is the story of Helen Keller, a deaf, dumb & blind kid & a tutor’s attempts to communicate with her. It’s intense though it flicks obvious emotional switches. When I was a kid I was affected by  the film but I was so much older then. “The Miracle Worker” is a Liberal’s wet dream. Like  another pile of self-satisfied sentiment, “That Shawshank Thing”, the Academy loved it. Oscars for Ann Bancroft & Patty Duke but… nah !  “Mickey One” (1965) is more like it. It’s a surreal riff on film noir with a bigger thing for the French New Wave than Hollywood. A paranoid story of a stand-up comedian (Warren Beatty) who is, or thinks he is on the run from the mob. In 2010 Penn spoke about the film’s reflections on McCarthyism…” it was in repudiation of the kind of fear that overtook free people to the point where they were telling on each other and afraid to speak out. It just astonished me, really astonished me. I mean, I was a vet, so it was nothing like what we thought we were fighting for.”  Arthur Penn was a man with a message & a mission to pass it on. His films are worthy of consideration because of this.

“Bonnie & Clyde” (1967), now let’s see if I can do this thing without using the word “zeitgeist”. Two young American outsiders, double the trouble. The bad guys & gals had never looked so beautiful, sexy, fashionable & cool. The violence never more casual, shocking & in slow motion. There was a great cast to support Warren Beatty & Faye Dunaway, the whole gang, Estelle Parsons, Gene Hackman, Michael J Pollard, was Oscar nominated. We laughed at the crime & the cops as Flatt & Scruggs picked out “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. The whole package, script, cinematography, editing, was shaking the tree. If there was such a thing as New Hollywood then this was it. Those objectors to the violence, to the lack of accuracy, to the attitude (“a squalid shoot-em-up for the moron trade”) were kicked to the kerb as a  $2½ million movie grossed $70 million. The film critic of the New York Times was sacked after his negative review. Arthur Penn & his crew showed that the rock & roll youth market would go to the movies if the studios offered a little more to see than Elvis’s latest piece of joyless dross.

A director who knew what the Woodstock Nation would pay to watch was hot. His next film was adopted from a counter-culture anthem, Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”. The 18 minute song is a rambling hippie monologue which finally comes to a point about avoiding the draft & that war is bad…m’kay. From this insubstantial foundation an almost 2 hour long movie made rather heavy handed points about the  rubbishness of the “straight” world. Hollywood Hippies…f**k ’em ! Next time round, with more capacious material, Arthur Penn was back on it.

“Little Big Man” (1970) may be a mess but it is our mess. In the same year  Dee Brown’s best selling book “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” reflected an identification with the ecological, anti-materialist concerns of Native Americans by the counter culture, “Little Big…” is a story told by 121 year old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) who has, he says, seen things & done things. The film, like Crabb’s life, is long & sprawling, playing fast & loose across moments in American history. Kind of like “Forrest Gump” only watchable & not at all sappy. Then, like “Dances With Wolves” only without the condescension, Jack spends time living as a Cheyenne, taught the ways of the “Human Beings” by Old Lodge Skins, played by Chief Dan George who nicks the film with his performance & his “good day to die” schtick.

Picaresque is the very word for this film. Story lines are resolved by “with one bound he was free” or are just left hanging. The changes in tone from tragedy to comedy are capably handled, the satire is sharp. Hoffman’s little man shifts with the winds of change. Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam & a manic Richard Mulligan as Custer are just passing through but leave an impression. It’s only recently that I’ve been picking up copies of classic 70s movies. “Little Big Man”  fits right in there.

I was at the front of the queue for Penn’s 1976 Western. “The Missouri Breaks” starred not only Jack Nicholson in the one after “Cuckoo’s Nest” but also Marlon Brando in the one after the “Godfather”/”Last Tango” double. Hell yeah !  A film of its time, a little out there, lots of black hats & no white ones, a low key story of muddied morality. It was not the meeting of movie mahatmas we expected. Brando felt it would be best if he improvised his part. Penn, aware that the whole emphasis of the film would be changed but vulnerable against star-power, let the cameras roll & hoped to influence the post-production. Jack, seeing he could not compete with Marlon’s excesses, reined himself in to counter his co-star’s energy. Critics, offended by what they saw as Brando’s self-indulgence, set about him & the film was a box office flop.

From a distance & with repeated viewing  the method in Brando’s madness becomes more apparent. Despite unpredictable meanderings of his accent the “regulator”, Lee Clayton,is an impressive, very watchable performance. He is hired to eliminate a funky bunch of horse thieves led by Nicholson , including Harry Dean Stanton, Fred Forrest & Randy Quaid, who all have fun with Thomas McGuane’s snappy script. “The Missouri Breaks” is a beautifully filmed piece with some unforgettable Brando business which fits right in with the new Westerns of the 1970s.

There’s no room here for “Night Moves” (1975), Penn’s New Wave take on the crime thriller. Another time, maybe in a riff on Gene Hackman because he was at the top of his game as the disenchanted shamus Harry Moseby. Penn’s career faltered in the 1980s, while he continued his reflections on the changing times in America his disillusioned outsiders were never as sharply, smartly showcased as they were in the early films. Back then it was his & his generation’s time & he was one of the most assured, articulate film directors around. It’s not just the 3 movies featured here that will reward anyone who appreciates intelligent, concerned movie-making.

California Seoul (Kim Jong Un Thinks I’m At Work)

Having lived long enough to be certain that Hell is other people, these days I rarely attend an actual cinema to see a film the proper way, on a big screen. Anyway,most of the movies that tempt me to part with my hard-earned do not star Sandra Bullock (“The Heat”, are you kidding me ?) or Seth Grogan so are not exhibited by my local multiplex. It was a worthwhile 60 mile round trip to catch Terry Gilliam’s “Zero Theorem”. We had to go further afield for “Stoker”, the Hollywood debut of master director Chan-wook Park. You are not just talking about a night at the pictures with Park’s films are you ? This is Cinema, Art which will still resonate long after that DVD of “Knocked Up” is just landfill.

It was Park’s “Vengeance” trilogy which put us on to Korean films. Tartan Video’s “Asia Extreme” releases covered movies from  Japan & Hong Kong but they were not all of the quality of  “Battle Royale” or “Hard Boiled”. “Oldboy” (2003) was an irresistible, visceral, bunch of amazing & it encouraged you to take a chance on other Korean films in the World Cinema rack at the video store (just 30 titles, all the culture you were gonna get down that street). These films were sharp, a little strange & of the 21st century. Cool, fresh entertainment that shook up the accepted ways of filming in both East & West.

Now the Koreans are moving to California. Park will always make provocative, beautiful movies on any continent. Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” (2013) is as good a sci-fi romp, unpretentious & exciting, as I have enjoyed for a while…if you have not seen it then…Perhaps the most interesting debut is that of  Kim Jee-woon who last year revived a genre which seemed to be over & done. “The Last Stand” is, oh yes, a Schwarzeneggar movie.

“A Bittersweet Life” (2005) is an addition to that Korean genre, the vengeance movie. It is a stylish, ultra-violent take on my favourite cinematic thing, the gangster film. Kim Jee-woon tips his hat to “Infernal Affairs”, the Hong Kong flick that is the touchstone for modern crime thrillers. There is also respect paid to “The Godfather”. The intricate set-pieces are operatic & tense, just like Francis Ford made them. Those big fights from HK were all getting a bit Jackie Chan…you get me ? In both “Kill Bill” & “Kung Fu Hustle” the battles are not only choreographed but actually became dances. Our hit man with a beef is less interested in busting a move with a gang of goons than ensuring that they choke on their own blood. Cool & deadly “A Bittersweet Life” is on the Y-tube. I got my copy for just 1 of our English pounds when the video store closed down. If you like gangster films then you know what to do.

There’s an “otherness” about this  modern Korean cinema. Seoul is a world city forged in the white heat of shiny new technology. It is though still close to the traditional agrarian society of the generation not on the Seoul train (ouch !). There’s plenty of “Blade Runner” city-of-the-future glimpses in these films but they also often remind me of Yashujiro Ozu’s perfect studies of a changing Japanese society. Anyway, how cool is the eastern promise of an Oriental mob ? Triad, Yakuza, whatever these Korean boys are, they are all good.

Next up for Kim Jee-woon was “The Good, The Bad & The Weird” (2008), an Eastern Western. That he was given the green light for his homage to Sergio Leone is a sign of the confidence of Korean cinema. Of course it is a rip-roaring romp of a movie only it’s a little long & the 3 protagonists a little lightweight. The shoot-outs, the chases, the pyrotechnics are just beautiful & the most fun you can have watching a film. Kim was ready for Hollywood but his film took just $128k at the US box office out of over $44 million worldwide. Come on America, this is fresh, the best there is, get on it, it’s only a sub-title.

Today I woke up to the sad news that Eli Wallach, Tuco, Il Cattivo had passed away. He was an  essential part in the creation of an enduring piece of cinema. “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” inspired Kim to make his film & influenced any future film director who was paying attention. R.I.P. Mr Wallach.

I am not a big Arnie fan, of his films or his politics. I came up with tough guy heroes like Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, not big men but you would want them on your side. Schwarzeneggar & Stallone were steroidal mean motor scooters, half killing machine, half man of few words. Just some dumb ass one-liner & that’s it. Besides I had read the 1976 Rolling Stone interview (the same issue that Hunter S backed Jimmy Carter). I had seen “Pumping Iron”, I found Arnie’s narcissism & his intimidation of poor Lou Ferrigno unattractive. He & Sly were the action heroes that  the Reagan era wanted & deserved. “This ain’t  really your life…ain’t nothing but a movie”.

 Ah but I was so much older then & Arnie is now 66, “The Last Stand” is part of his post-political career return to films & this thing is right up my street. Now, let me think why…Those Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez grindhouse joints are my thing too but they are always a little knowing. I still have to see “Machete Kills”. I know that there will be nods & winks to the audience tipping us off just how smart the director is for making a 1970s exploitation movie in the 21st century. That’s OK, all those films are entertaining. “The Last Stand”, with a hole-filled plot & some dumbass dialogue in a strange Austrian accent, just gets on with being imaginative & intelligent. A drug baron has escaped in a car from the future but, no problem, it’s only the Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) who is on the case. The Dog has strayed from the Way of the Samurai & the bad guy is getting away but has to pass through Sheriff Arnie’s burg. It’s a great cast, Peter Stormare, Luis Guzman, Jackass Knoxville & others but Kim Jee-woon is all over this film & knows what he’s doing.

The hardware (cars & guns) fetishism is as cool as you like. The climactic crescendo is a proper cinematic tour of force, a thrill free of video game mimicry or apocalyptic CGI nonsense with the spirit of Leone looking on. Arnie gets to do what Arnie has to do & gets some trademark one-liners too. “The Last Stand”, the cult action movie brought up to now.

Whether this “golden generation” (it’s a football thing) of Korean directors continues to work in the USA or returns home I will want to see what they create. It may be a little harder to do so because  Tartan Video’s success was followed by a  rush of  releases which were not always of the same quality. There is a limit to the number of cyber-animanga movies that you need to see & Tartan folded in 2008. It has been tougher to discover new Korean movies since then, the multiplex has got some over-priced popcorn to shift & good films by established directors struggle to be seen. Maybe Arnie & Kim Jee-woon can stay together for Sheriff Ray Owens in “The Last Stand 2”. Hang on…that doesn’t make sense !

Cinema Never Saved Anyone’s Life… It Is Only An Aspirin. (Luc Besson)

Luc Besson, the French film-maker, currently has a couple of franchise titles on the go. He is filming “Taken 3” for a 2015 release. Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), I’m guessing here, won’t know who you are but he will find you and he will, no doubt, fuck you up. Also, after a 6 year break, 3 more installments of the “Transporter” series have been announced. If up & coming Brit Ed Skrein adds to his rep before the release of #4 then the apotheosis of charisma, Jason Statham, may not be missed behind the wheel. These are no-frills action movies, uncluttered by symbolism or psychology. They run the gamut of emotions from A to B & this is why they are so successful.

Our man will not be directing any of these films. Nowadays he is a movie mogul. Luc Besson’s company owns 62% of Eurocorp, an independent studio that integrates all aspects of the motion picture business & makes serious money. The new “Taken” & “Transporters”  use characters created by Besson. He will be credited as a producer, executive or otherwise & has become an international player. Luc Besson has always known the constituents of  a good movie.

The “Cinema du look”…remember that ? A new wave of French film directors in the 1980s with their slick, stylish modern ways. Jean-Jacques Beineix made “Diva” (1981), operatic bootlegging shenanigans, our first view of Dominique Pinon as a cool & deadly thug. Leos Carax’ “Mauvais Sang” (1986), sci-fi but still gangster. Denis Lavant acrobatically caroms down the street to Bowie’s “Modern Love”. Luc Besson’s debut, “Subway” (1985), mobsters in Le Metro but much more than that. Très, très chic, the wonder of Isabelle Adjani, inventive & a little chaotic the film did the trick. In France President Mitterand was as implacable & as divisive as Thatcher & Reagan. These films were Gallic Punk, gobbing at the forces of reaction.

Next time in the director’s chair, in 1988, Besson made “Le Grande Bleu” (“The Big Blue”), a fictionalization of an actual lifelong rivalry between 2 friends. This is an international movie in French, Italian & English, an epic rather than a blockbuster. Who knew that free-diving, a personal voyage to the bottom of the sea, could be so emulous, so engrossing. The submerged environment furnishes a mystical, beautiful element for the movie. I saw this film at an all night showing of “Blue” movies along with “Betty…” & “…Velvet”, heavy hitters but it still made  a lasting impression. This montage includes Jean Reno, with Besson since the beginning, as the diver Enzo. The casting of too nutty for Hollywood, Rosanna Arquette, a talented & striking film star,  is a right stroke. There are dolphins, being rescued, in dreams, all over the place. There is, also, the affecting, appropriate  music of Eric Serra, Luc Besson’s composer of choice. Serra’s overture is absolutely in on Besson’s attempt at modern classicism.

In the USA the distributor wanted a happier ending where one of our heroes survived. They replaced Serra’s score with one by an American composer too. What is wrong with these people ? It is only a French film, it is only art. There is nothing to be afraid of.

Obviously I checked for Besson’s films after this. I found a video copy of his first film “Le Dernier Combat”, (The Last Battle, 1983) where Reno is madder than Max in a black & white, non-verbal, post-apocalyptic wasteland. “Nikita” (1990) was everything you needed in a stylish, intelligent action movie. Anne Parillaud a beautiful state-sponsored weapon of mass destruction. Besson set the standard for designer violence, pre-empting  Tarantino by 2 years. I loved “Reservoir Dogs” but I wasn’t shocked by it. I had seen “Nikita” mate. For his next film Luc Besson inevitably went to Hollywood.

Leon: The Professional” hits the spot. The odd couple of Leon (Reno) the killer & the girl Mathilda (12 year old Natalie Portman) are brought together by a drastic brutality, their alignment sealed by revenge & justice. Besson’s characters are often rather broad, almost caricatures but their recognition of the value of love in a dissonant world shows a humanity which charms & stays in the memory. The slaughter of Mathilda’s family by Norman Stansfield, the sadistic, drug-addled, Beethoven-loving DEA agent is choreographed mayhem. A tightly structured set-piece which places Gary Oldman high on any list of screen villainy. Again composer Eric Serra steps up to add value to a scene which is quite over the top already thank you.

“The Fifth Element” (1997) has more than an odour of overconfidence about it on first viewing. Besson’s 23rd century adventure is a bombardment of sights and sounds some of which are bound to fall on stony ground as the next novelty pushes forward for attention. Us Baby Boomers, despite an early diet of B-movie trashy delights, take our science fiction very seriously. “2001”,  “Blade Runner”, “Alien” & others, the futurist pantheon, have been beyond challenge for too long. Even films made for children, “E.T.” & “Star Wars”, are considered significant. Allowing Gary Oldman  greater licence to overact than in “Leon”,  encouraging an even more excessive performance from Chris Tucker is asking for trouble from the Guardians of the Galaxy Far Far Away.

This film gives up a lot on repeated viewing. Bruce Willis’ cracking wise John McLane-in-space, getting the girl & saving the planet, will always work for me. Milla Jovavic’s Leeloo has her attraction, Ian Holm, off of “Alien” & “Brazil”, tips a hat to the Tradition, the shape-shifting Mangalore goons are fun &, oh yeah, here comes Oldman & Tucker again. “The Fifth Element”, (& “Twelve Monkeys”) may play fast & loose with science fact but has all the inventiveness & imagination that you need. The Diva Plavalaguna is a brilliant extra-terrestrial entertainment. Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” segues into Serra’s “Diva Dance sung by a technologically enhanced soprano, Inva Mula while Leeloo kicks alien butt..strange, camp & memorable.

Next Besson directed a big budget, unrestrained biopic of a great French icon. No not Napoleon, the other one, Joan of Arc. The film got some terrible reviews. The Dallas Morning News wrote “The English are uniformly and broadly portrayed as villainous louts”…how dare he ! He took a break from directing to develop his production company. The films were still action packed but some of the scripts seemed to be no more than sketches. I rented “Wasabi” (2001), Besson’s name on the box as writer/producer, Jean Reno as a rogue cop in Japan…mistake. The films changed while the price of admission remained the same. If his company made 10 films a year & 2 were hits then money was made. He has produced some good movies, “Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005) is one of the best films of this century. “Bandidas” is a western starring Penelope Cruz & Selma Hayek…say no more. Maybe “Transporter 6”, whenever it is made will be a favourite too, maybe not. I doubt that Luc Besson will again direct films as significant as those from the beginning of his career but those he did are enough.

 

Morons I’ve Got Morons On My Team (Strother Martin)

Strother Martin was a noted character actor in, mainly, the Western movies. A former National Junior Springboard Diving champion he moved to La-La Land to work as a swimming extra in films’ water scenes…apparently that’s a real job ! It was not all rooting & tooting but most of the work Strother obtained in films & television did involve wearing a gunbelt & a hat. A distinctive sneer, an air of general malevolence, meant that the hat was usually a black one. He became one of a small group of actors who added value with any performance, recognisable to both audiences & casting directors. In 1967 he delivered, according to the American Film Institute, the 11th most memorable line of the cinematic century & it was not “Nobody puts Baby in the corner”.

In “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) Strother plays Captain, the sadistic warden of a Florida prison where war veteran Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) is sentenced to 2 years on a chain gang for the imaginative crime of cutting the heads off parking meters. Luke’s travails have parallels to McMurphy in “…Cuckoo’s Nest” It is an anti-authoritarian, modern, masculine movie which, together with “Hombre”, marked Newman’s move from fine actor to film star. There is an amount of religious imagery in the film… whatever…it’s a cracking film with memorable set pieces (egg eating, car washing, communication breakdowns ), Strother Martin keeping a cold, cruel eye on a bunch of cons which includes the talents of Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton. Pa Walton & Oscar winner George “Dragline” Kennedy.

After a “failure to communicate” Strother Martin’s star was rising. In 1969 he appeared in all 3 of the year’s major Westerns. The top-grossing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” was another Paul Newman joint, they made 5 films together. He was becoming a regular in John Wayne’s movies too. “True Grit” was the 4th time Martin had worked with Duke. He was also a member of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (above ) & was retained for the director’s next western romp “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”.

Strother was perfectly cast as part of the  “egg-sucking, chicken-stealing gutter trash” pictured. It was as a member of a gang that he had first shown out in the big films. In John Ford’s marvellous “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962) our man Martin, along with Lee van Cleef, were the sycophantic sidekicks of my man Lee Marvin (Liberty), hired gun, all-round rotter & the scourge of Shinbone. In “Hannie Caulder” (1971), a Western vehicle for the pneumatic but limited Raquel Welch, the Clemens Brothers, a trio of inept, despicable, probably malodorous outlaws, are played with such relish by Strother, Ernest Borgnine & Jack Elam that they steal the movie more effectively than they rob banks.

It wasn’t all lollygaggin’ around various saloons though.

“Slap Shot” (1977) is some kind of movie. Paul Newman & director George Roy Hill had collaborated on 2 super successful box-office smashes. Their story of the Charlestown Chiefs a losing ice hockey team in a threatened industrial town crams a lot into its 2 hours. Player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Newman) is similarly facing an uncertain future in approaching retirement. The introduction of new tactics, “old time hockey”,  a bit of the old ultra-violence, revives the teams fortunes. “Slap Shot” adroitly combines broad, coarse comedy with a dark realism (better than “Dodgeball” then). Strother plays the tightwad, conniving General Manager, Joe McGuire, with his customary perfectly pitched exuberance. Most of the cast help the film along.

“Slap Shot” was not a big success on it’s release. The biggest movie star around was effin’ & jeffin’ a little too much for the mass market. There is a list of good 1970s sports comedies & this, with “North Dallas Forty” is at the head of it (“Bad News Bears”…anyone ?). They are all better than anything starring Adam Sandler. Strother more than does his bit to make the film a success…Oh yeah…then there’s the Hanson Brothers !

Hey…if marijuana doesn’t damage your brain then how come so many people find Cheech & Chong funny ? These fabulous furry freaky guys were a very big deal in the 1970s. Their records were in the Top 10 & “Up In Smoke” (1978), the original, possibly the best stoner movie was a great success too. It is the cinematic link between Abbott & Costello &  “Wayne’s  World” (don’t mention Harold or Kumar). Like the other contender for the title, “The Big Lebowski” the movie is a bunch of quotable scenes, all equally hilarious when randomly shared with your relaxed friends. Strother Martin is Tommy Chong’s irascible father, an absolute humdinger. A shout out to a great friend, Bernie, who chose to celebrate the night before his marriage in the company of his buddies, his collection of Cheech & Chong videos & his bong. What a guy !

It’s no surprise that “Up In Smoke” makes it as the 3rd clip. C’mon it’s a classic ! There are other candidates for inclusion because Strother Martin was busy throughout the 1970s. His spark & ebullience brought something memorable to all of his scenes. In “Pocket Money” (1972) a dream team of Newman & Lee Marvin work for Strother’s sleazy rodeo agent. “Hard Times” (1975) is a macho treat in which he plays an opium addicted doctor, third wheel to Charles Bronson & James Coburn. The co-stars were not always such big names, the scripts not that great but Strother Martin was always noteworthy. You know him…the “failure to communicate” guy…mmm…the “goddamn Finkelstein shit kid” cat…oh yeah…he’s great.

By 1980 Strother had cardiac problems & unfortunately suffered a fatal heart attack in the August of that year. One of his final jobs was to host US TV’s biggest comedy show “Saturday Night Live”. You don’t get that gig unless people know who you are. In a sketch he played  the strict owner of a French Language camp for children. The problem was…a failure to communicate…bi-lingually ! Strother Martin…a dude.

It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad War (War Movies 1970)

By 1970 the United States government were looking for a way out of a snakebit, calamitous intervention in South East Asia. Troop numbers in Vietnam had been reduced from the high of two years earlier but evening news bulletins still relayed death & atrocity into American homes. The Vietnam War was not only unpopular it was becoming to be perceived as unwinnable. Since 1945 Hollywood’s war movies had confirmed that History is written by the winners. Many Brits, including my father, were not impressed by Errol Flynn’s key role in the 1944 invasion of Burma. (“Objective Burma !”- liberating cinema from the truth). In 1970 war films got to change, got to reform. They were all going to be about Vietnam now. The audiences throwing ice cream at screenings of John Wayne’s propaganda “The Green Berets” (1968) were ahead of their time

Hey, the film of the book… OK. Literature has been a constant & fructuous provider of raw material for Hollywood. A great book becomes a greater film ? That is not going to happen. You think so ? You’re wrong. “Catch 22” is rightfully included in the pantheon of American literature of the late 20th century. Joseph Heller’s World War II novel, where the most sensible reaction to an insane world is don’t get even, go mad, is placed in the company of all the greats, Shakespeare, Kafka, Bilko, Tom & Jerry. It’s a rambunctious, intrepid work, non-linear & multi-charactered. Readers in the millions had their own ideas about how this book should look. The odds on pleasing all of them ? That’s one of the big numbers to 1.

Mike Nichols, a relatively new kid in Tinseltown, already an Oscar winning director with “The Graduate”, took the job. He hired Buck Henry, a fellow dry, erudite humourist (not comedian…OK) to write the screenplay & pitched the film somewhere between those other ensemble pieces of the decade, “The Longest Day”(1962) & “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963). Two hours of film could never match 450 pages of print. The patient enveloped in bandages has 2 bottles attached to him by IV.When one is full & the other empty they are simply swapped around. This simple silliness still makes me laugh now. Onscreen you blink & you miss it but I would have been peeved if it had been left out. “Catch-22” is a spirited, assured venture & by no means a failure. It’s just that  man, that’s a good book.

The film, more than many, benefits from repeated viewings. Alan Arkin is Yossarian, paranoid & rightly so, his life is in the hands of a crazy gang who, if not unbalanced, are dangerously incompetent. The casting & performances of this bizarre band of brothers bring you back to this movie. It’s a long, illustrious list & here’s some highlights. Let’s see…Jon Voight, perhaps a little young to play capitalism incarnate Milo Minderbinder, lugubrious Bob Newhart as Major Major. The classy Charles Grodin is Capt. Aardvark & of course General Dreedle is only Orson flipping Welles. There’s a bunch of them…everywhere…someone & something different every time. Yup, “that’s some catch, that Catch-22,”. Oh Paula Prentiss is there too, not nearly enough.

The hit anti-war drama/comedy of 1970 was “M.A.S.H”, the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Robert Altman’s film, the counter-culture comes to Korea, cost $3.5 million & grossed over $80 mill, 3 times the take of “Catch-22”.There are many similarities between the 2 films. War is stupid, people are stupid…we’re all singing from the same song sheet here. There is plenty of gore but “M.A.S.H” is a buddy movie with the “pros from Dover”, Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland, a new star about to steal “Kelly’s Heroes”, another war movie, off of Clint & Kojak) & Trapper (Elliot Gould) work hard & play hard while those around them are dying from enemy fire & bureaucratic incompetence. They are a fine team, 1970’s Butch & Sundance.

“M.A.S.H” is an ensemble movie too. Altman’s was not only free of any literary limitations, his skill in directing large casts was part of a new American cinema. Nichols made a trio of modern movies, “The Graduate”, “Catch-22” & “Carnal Knowledge” while Altman was pushing it along & innovating. The film was successful because of an anarchic energy & humour not because of its message. Robert Duvall as Major Frank Burns is great support, Radar O’Reilly became a national treasure when a spin-off TV series became very successful. Oh yeah, Major Margaret  “Hotlips” Houlihan is played by Sally Kellerman. That is all

.

Now “Patton” was the product of an entirely different infinite number of monkeys. General George S Patton’s tour of Europe & North Africa in World War II established his reputation as a crackerjack live act & as a winner. His notable speech to the Third Army just before D-Day 1944 opens the film. It portrays a straight-talking charismatic leader. I don’t know if the backdrop was an outsized Stars & Stripes though I am sure that the chestful of medals on display is not historically accurate. If all you know of Patton is from this movie then it is not the full story.

“Patton” is a good film. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director & Best Actor. I, unlike many British men of the 20th century, have never been asked to fight in a war. I have been afforded the luxury of being a pacifist & of expressing my opposition to such aggression. I can appreciate the qualities of this film, admire the powerful central performance by George C Scott, but “Patton”, still, seems to me to be an exercise in myth-making & the creation of an American hero.

This validation of rugged individualism…how the war was won…The American military was in a crisis of leadership, a small communist country was kicking their butt & in late 1969 the news broke about Charlie Company’s actions in My Lai where up to 500 unarmed civilians were murdered. Little wonder then that the United States needed, in Gil Scott-Heron’s words, to go ” back to those inglorious days when heroes weren’t zeros. Before fair was square. When the cavalry came straight away”. Look, I was so much older then…you get me. I am able to see more than two sides to most stories now but “Patton” was Richard Nixon’s favourite movie & that will not stand. The idea that we can only defeat the evil sons of bitches with those of our own…well, fuck that noise. This film was not made for people like me.

George C Scott had declined an Oscar nomination for “The Hustler” in 1962. He did the same for “Patton” but won the award anyway. Scott refused to accept & was quoted as saying , “The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade. I don’t want any part of it.” A different world indeed.

100-Proof Women, ‘n’ 90-Proof Whiskey, ‘n’ 14-Carat Gold? (Richard Brooks)

In 1955, Jacques Rivette, a pioneer of French new wave cinema, wrote in the magazine Cahiers du Cinema that Richard Brooks was one of the 4 auteurs of modern American cinema. Brooks’ film “The Blackboard Jungle” (1955) introduced rock & roll to Hollywood & it proved to be an eruptive combination. The story of an idealistic new teacher (Glenn Ford) & his delinquent students (a breakout by Sidney Poitier) attracted a large & exuberant teen audience. In the UK there was a “moral panic” when it became quite the thing for the local Teddy Boys to riot during the film. “Jungle” became MGM’s biggest box office of the year &, naturellement, the dollar shouts louder than some garrulous French critic in “The Big Orange” (What !). Richard Brooks got to make bigger films now.

He spent a decade at MGM. He learned that the short rein of studio control meant that his original screenplays got chewed up by the movie-making machinery. Brooks became known as a talented adaptor of dramatic & literary works. Any writer who attempts to wrestle “The Brothers Karamazov” on to celluloid is going to be a long shot to pin “the most significant novel ever written” (Sigmund Freud). There were more successful undertakings, with MGM & independently, before a lavish & long-planned project missed it’s target audience & lost a lot of money.

Richard Brooks followed “The Brothers K” with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, a Tennessee Williams adaptation which made Paul Newman a star. His first stab at independent production was the outstanding “Elmer Gantry” (1960) from a Sinclair Lewis novel. Burt Lancaster’s charismatic huckster won the Oscar as did the director’s screenplay. After another Williams drama Brooks followed his dream & threw a lot of money at his take on “Lord Jim” (1965). Cinematic versions of books by Joseph Conrad are not always easy…ask Francis Ford Coppola. The film was made in the UK & on Far East locations, Peter O’Toole headed a talented cast. Brooks pinched David Lean’s star cinematographer Freddie Young, he was definitely going after that “Lawrence Of Arabia”/”Doctor Zhivago” market. The broad sweep of history in these 2 hit films was not matched by the Malay tribal wars of “Lord Jim” however beautifully shot. Conrad will give you an adventure but you also get a dark heart. Even Omar Sharif would sweat to make  “the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of to-morrow” into mass entertainment. Richard Brooks learned that you can lose a pile of your money with an independently produced epic flop. He needed to work fast.

“The Professionals” (1966) is a Western where a Gang of Four, an A-Team, ride into Mexico  a whooping and a whopping every living thing that moves. There are great hats, great guns, baroque explosions, whip-crack-away dialogue, so much good stuff. Oh & there is Claudia Cardinale…oh my. Lee Marvin was 40 years old & silver-haired before he got to play title roles. In “Cat Ballou” he displayed a range not shown in 15 years as Hollywood’s best tough guy in western (“…Liberty Valance”) or gangster flicks (“The Big Heat”). It was his time, Rico Farden was the first of 3 roles that made him the kind of actor that guys like me love. We all knew how good Burt Lancaster was in Mexico, we had seen him steal “Vera Cruz” in 1954. Robert Ryan looked after the horses while watching & learning for his part in “The Wild Bunch”. Woody Strode,as the scout/archer, was quietly tougher than tough. The Dozen were dirtier, the Seven magnificent but this is a great cinematic outfit in pursuit of Raza,  Jack Palance’s mad, bad guy.

In 1966 “El Dorado” was a re-make of “Rio Bravo” by the same director, Howard Hawks. This time around Robert Mitchum played the drunk, James Caan is Ricky Nelson & John Wayne, with the help of a wig & a corset, he played John Wayne. It is a good film but it is rooted in the tradition of the great 1950s westerns. Richard Brooks had a brand new bag.  Something was happening & Howard Hawks did not know what it was.”The Professionals” is a harbinger of not only the new westerns of Peckinpah & Leone but of a new style of cinema. I loved it when I was 13 years old & I still love it. Did I say that Claudia Cardinale is in it ? Oh my, oh my.

Brooks was back on it, his next film was the hottest literary property of the day. “In Cold Blood” is the magnum opus of Truman Capote. The author’s propensity for self-promotion & doubts about the veracity of his reportage have clouded both Capote’s & the book’s reputation. The pellucid prose, matched by few novelists or journalists, meant that the “true account of a multiple murder & its consequences” became an international best seller & a pioneer of both the style & faction of New Journalism.

Brooks was chosen by Capote to adopt his novel for the screen. By electing to film a story of small town USA (Holcomb, Kansas, 1959) in black & white, then to cast two unknown actors in the lead roles, the director went against the prevailing Hollywood snazz. There’s a noirish element to “In Cold Blood” as well as a touch of documentary. The story of the two young murderers is told in flashback, though we know the outcome Brooks is a more thancapable navigator of a disturbing story. Quincy Jones’ Oscar nominated soundtrack does its thing too. This is the benchmark of true-crime movies.

Richard Brooks never got this good again. He directed only 3 films in the 1970s. One of these, “$” (1971)stars Warren Beatty & Goldie Hawn…anyone ? There was a return to the western, with Gene Hackman & “Bite The Bullet”, that definitely merits another look. For 10 years he made intelligent, challenging, adult cinema including one of my favourite westerns of all time, a tough list to get on to. He’s a Face.

Music and Movies (Quentin Tarantino)

At college one of my fellow students was a very attractive Scottish woman who, incredibly, did not find the notion of being in my company to be just too ridiculous . Part of the deal was that I had to listen to Stealers Wheel, supposedly a Caledonian Crosby, Stills & Nash but…well, they were never that. The LP’s hit single took its time to make a mark, the co-writer/singer had left the group before it was chartbound. I went with her to see the group (without Gerry Rafferty) & it seemed a dispiriting experience for both performers & audience. It was 20 years later that a young first time director, with the talent to match his ambition, used the “Dylanesque, pop, bubble-gum favorite” as accompaniment to a scene where Michael Madsen danced a psycho-shimmy of mutilation around a cop. Quentin Tarantino took “Stuck In The Middle With You”, a pleasant enough 70s hit, hooked it to a new visual stimuli & made it kind of creepy. It turned out to be something that he did quite adroitly…well played sir !

In “Death Proof” (2007) another Brit-hit, “Hold Tight” received the same treatment. A ridiculous (untrue) story about Keith Richards nearly joining Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich is followed by by a car crash of such violence that it is just too much for me to include the clip. “Stuck” misses out because it is too obvious, “Hold Tight” because it is too bloody. Hey, I’m possibly the last person around here to be drawing lines but, y’know, think  of the children ! Any road up, here are the opening credits to “Death Proof” (2007) which recycle “The Last Race”, a Jack Nitzsche composition originally  used in “Village of the Giants” (1965) “Delinquent teens ingest a substance and grow to 30 ft tall, then proceed to take over a small town”. Now that’s old school grindhouse.

“Death Proof” is QT’s riff on cars & girls. The great tune from a forgotten movie is the perfect start to another tangle of the low & highbrows of cinematic culture. The affectation that Tarantino is making an early-70s exploitation movie permits the director to play fast & loose with the peripheries, plot, characterization, pointing the camera in the right direction. In these 3 minutes the  mangled title credits are followed by some rather attractive bare feet tapping along to the music, fast cars, Sydney Poitier in a mirror image of a photograph of Bardot ( Sydney is the girl with the bong). A poster for “Soldier Blue” a mainstream movie with scenes of such violence that it seems to have been written out of Hollywood history. Oh & a young woman holding her crotch because she really needs to pee. There is probably a whole lot more that I have missed. The Tarantino way is to throw a bunch of stuff at you. If you miss some that’s fine, there will be something coming along right about now that is just what you have paid your money for. There will be no reprimand here for his over-referential style. I know “Vanishing Point” from “Two Lane Blacktop”. A bunch of attractive women shooting from the lip with imaginative rapid fire dialogue. Snake Plissken as the bad guy. “Death Proof” was made for people like us.

QT’s first 3 films really are a triple whammy & it was 6 years between “Jackie Brown” & “Kill Bill Vol 1”. It’s likely that even after the notoriously creative accountancy of Miramax he saw some big dollars. When he returned his budget was bigger & so were his ideas. I think that this 2nd phase of Tarantino’s career does have a touch of the ignis fatuus about it. His envisioned 4 hour “Kill Bill” and the Grindhouse double header were his idea of “event” cinema but just how did he expect such high-falutin notions to be received. He was not the first director overrate his own reputation (“John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars”…anyone ?) but surely he knew enough about cinema to avoid the fallacy that the longer a film is, the better it will be. These films, if released, would demand a change of habit, a commitment from the cinemagoer to tip their nights over to Tarantino. A hard-ass head of studio like Harvey Weinstein, who was all about the box office, would indulge his director’s B-movie pretensions but he had 4 movies here not 2 & that’s what happened.

So here came “Kill Bill Vol 1” (2003), the ultimate revenge movie with a plot borrowed from a 1973 Japanese movie, fealty paid to every genre of action film you know & then putting on the QT style to show you some new ways of going about it. The soundtrack is an equally eclectic melange. There are songs by Sonny Bono, Isaac Hayes, Neu !, Quincy Jones’ “Ironside” theme, film music by Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone & Luis Bacalov, the Argentinian composer of 151 scores, every one a belter ! I will not attempt to deconstruct “Vol 1” in a couple of snappy sentences, similarly this clip is the one where he hired a band he liked & then pointed a camera at them.

Tarantino shoots some impressive bars & clubs, the Titty Twister may be off the beaten track & tend to get a little late-night messy but it’s some place. Likewise how great did Jack Rabbit Slim’s look in “Pulp Fiction. So, if you are in his idea of an izakaya then the 5-6-7-8’s will be playing there. An Oriental Ronettes playing their own instruments & an approximation of surf/rockabilly. “I’m Blue” is an Ike Turner song, recorded by the Ikettes. There’s a good story about QT’s discovery of the band but extra paragraphs are creeping into this thing…Google then.

“Kill Bill Vol 2” (2004) is the substance to its predecessor’s style. Bill (David Carradine…yay !) shows up & we learn some things about those characters who had spent “Vol 1” fighting & being flash. We knew QT could do exposition because we had seen “Jackie Brown”, anyway there are enough whistle & bells in the film. Uma is still beautiful, the buried alive scene is a 21st century classic & the soundtrack just keeps on keeping on…again. “About Her” is Malcolm Maclaren getting cute but staying correct with a mix of Bessie Smith & the Zombies to a trip-hop rhythm. Malcolm did not seem to have any significant attention span about much at all but when he applied himself to the music it could stick around.

After Grindhouse Tarantino seems to have settled a little. This 3rd stage of his film-making has seen him direct his war movie & his western. “Inglorious Basterds” & “Django Unchained” are not sprawling attempts with an eye on posterity, they are not even in 3D. They are still event movies, still get me to hand over my hard-earned to the multiplex & are significant contributions to modern cinema as art & commerce.  Next up is “Kill Bill Vol 3″…we will see. Tarantino’s use of music in his films is, I think, as considered  & as stylish as the rest of the package. We got back home from”Django earlier this year, found the soundtrack online, then discussed the movie while we listened again. Really, that only happens with people like Fellini, Hitchcock or Scorsese. The music is that good.

Music and Movies (Kevin Smith)

In 1999 we were driving around Birmingham, the UK’s Motor City, when I was surprised to see that the biggest roadside billboards were pushing the movie we were going to see anyway. That week’s unlikely blockbuster was “Dogma”, the 4th film from director Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse. The preceding 3 were some of the freshest, filthiest & funniest American films around but hardly the product to accompany the popcorn for a packed multiplex on a Saturday night. We do hate it when our friends become successful, I need not have worried. “Dogma” is a very good movie but a scatological, theological, intelligent film where the heart-throb angels hack off their wings & Alanis Morrisette plays God was not going to push ahead of Kevin Spacey’s mid-life crisis or “The Blair Witch Project” at the box office.

For his next film Kevin went back to the dick, fart & drug  jokes big time. If you are either under 18 or are easily offended then please do not press play on the approaching clip.

From “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back” (2001), the touching story of how our favourite small-time drug dealers met. I doubt that when Smith was maxing out his credit card to make “Clerks”, he & his stoner friends thought that there would be over $30 million of the Weinstein brothers’ money around to film himself (Silent Bob) & Jason Mewes (Jay) screwing around & doing some crazy shit. The rap sets the tone for the movie which then happily rolls around in the gutter for 105 minutes. I absolutely get the criticism of Smith’s films, the self-indulgence, the dumbing down &, more seriously, homophobia but come on, “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back” is not about pie-fucking, there is no-one called Wayans in the film. This was their 5th time around, you should know what was coming. Reviews threw around words like juvenile, shambolic & boorish as if these were bad things.

For two & a half films Kevin Smith seemed to do little more than write about young Americans talking about sex & Star Wars. He did it well, smart & sassy. Then the second half of “Chasing Amy” became the sharpest, most discerning examination of modern sexual attitudes in American cinema for some time. It was not really a surprise, the intelligence was always there, but it was good to see he could do it. I watched “Chasing Amy” with my favourite teenage lesbian niece & instantly it was her new #1 movie. After “Strike Back” Smith made another film about romance.

“Jersey Girl” (2004) became an ill-fated project when his star & long time collaborator, Ben Affleck’s romantic involvement with J-Lo became of interest to everyone in the world except you & I. “Bennifer” were quickly figures of derision, their film “Gigli” set new standards for critical & box office disasters. It was winning awards for being the Worst Thing Ever & the couple’s next movie was bound to suffer from the backwash. Now I am a Kevin Smith fan, I like it when there is less testosterone , more engagement of the brain & the heart. I really do like “Jersey Girl”.

There is a lot to like. The soundtrack has Springsteen singing Tom Waits, Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open The Door”, “High” by the Cure &, surprisingly, a track by Mike Heron off of the Incredible String Band. It is one of the Laws of Hollywood that any film is improved by the casting of Liv Tyler. The usual cameo appearances by Smith’s mates is freshened up by Will Smith while George Carlin, Mike Starr & Stephen Root are funny guys. Raquel Castro, 9 years old, as smart as a whip & as cute as a button is just the ticket. The clip is from an elementary school concert when, after interminable versions of a song from “Cats”, the family perform an entirely unsuitable excerpt from “Sweeney Todd”. The look between father & daughter is not the only sentimental moment of the film but is the pay-off to an enjoyable story about some pleasant people. I have watched too many rom coms, we all have. I would prefer Kevin Smith to make these films than to watch any more with the cold heart of Stiller or the dead eyes of Aniston. In the credits to “Mallrats” Smith had thanked John Landis & John Hughes for the entertainment provided by their films in the 1980s. “Jersey Girl” is his attempt at such a movie.

So to “Clerks II” (2006), a film that Smith always had up his sleeve if he really needed to make some money for Miramax. The original is an indie classic & the sequel has plenty going for it. It’s a better late than never coming of age movie with crackling dialogue, lots of laughs & a shocking donkey sex scene which still makes you blink. There is also this scene when Rosario Dawson dances to the Jackson 5. It’s part of the deal that the geeks & nerds who direct movies get to make the most beautiful women in the world look good. Hitchcock’s unmatched ability now seems overshadowed by his relationship with his female stars. Woody Allen was doing it in the 1970s. Tarantino was getting Uma Thurman to dance while both he & Smith have filmed Salma Hayek strutting her stuff in her underwear. Rosario Dawson is, in the words of  a friend, “always watchable”. She was great in “Sin City” & “Death Proof” & I guess that she is a big star now. She has never appeared to be as sweet, natural & beautiful as in this scene dancing to “ABC”.

It seems that Kevin Smith has stopped making movies now. He spent too long in the bosom of the Weinsteins so missed the chance to undertake the superhero film he should have made. Ah, I’m sure that he would have not given the studio what they wanted anyway but it could have been fine, career ending fun. The 3 he has made since “Clerks II” are of varying quality. He made money with the Bruce Willis vehicle “Cop Out” but Bruce complained about the director’s on-set marijuana consumption. “Red State” is an enjoyable genre movie with a twist which, as his career completed a circle, he had to finance himself. I have these last 2 on DVD, I am a fan. My friends & I like to watch the characters in Smith’s films talking shit to each other just as much as we enjoy it in Tarantino’s movies. It does not matter that it can be a little basic & it certainly does not have to be particularly about anything. Man, let those who are outraged be so. Kevin Smith is a funny, intelligent film maker & his slacker, stoner comedies are a refreshing change from the formulaic routines of mainstream cinema. And that is enough.