Sunday, 9 May 2010

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

At first glance, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a simple heist movie with car chases, action sequences and male bonding galore. But scratch beneath the surface of the tetosterone fuelled wisecracks and gunplay and you'll find a sensitive road movie about desperate characters coming to terms with age, loss and their own mortality.

Set against the golden, sun drenched highways of the midwest, the story develops from a chance encounter on the road between Eastwood's phoney preacher fleeing from a mid sermon shoot-out and Bridges' car stealing, hedonistic drifter fresh from lifting a 73 Trans Am. On the run and with nothing to loose, the pair pitch in with each other, stealing cars, picking up girls and wearing some stylish wide collared mid 70s shirts. However hot on Eastwood's trail is very very bad guy "Red" Leary (menacingly played by George Kennedy), and his not so bad henchman Goody who are keen to recover stolen money from a previous bank heist that Eastwood helmed years before. After a hectic car chase and violent confrontation, the four flawed characters join forces uneasily to rob the same bank again...

Into this simple narrative, first time director Michael Cimino weaves classic Western themes of male bonding and friendship (which at times seem a little too friendly!), keeping up with changing times and the attempt to realise the American Dream. However the movie never gets bogged down in introspection - the pace never lets up, the dialogue is snappy and very funny and the set pieces are supremely handled. Cimino went onto big things from this - The Deer Hunter a few years later sealed his name in American film history, just as Heaven's Gate (somewhat unfairly) almost erased it. Eastwood, as we all know, is now a cinematic legend both behind and in front of the camera and this was possibly the movie that showed a slightly softer side to his screen persona than was evident in Dirty Harry and The Dollars Trilogy. But the film is as much Bridges' as anyone's and he often steals the show as the reckless good-time chasing Lightfoot, none more so when having to dress up in drag as a decoy for the robbery.

A word too about the theme tune - Paul Williams' classic peice of americana songwriting "Where do we go from here" suits the movie's mood perfectly. It was also covered by the king of rock and roll himself, Mr Elvis Presley... but it's in the film's somewhat melancholy final moments that the music comes to the fore, as Eastwood pulls on his sunglasses, snaps his cigar into the ashtray and drives off down the desolate highway.

Watch Eastwood and Bridges take a ride with a psychotic, bunny shooting redneck here...

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Build My Gallows High (1947)

Build My Gallows High has all the ingredients of film noir in spades. The film is essentially a three hander. Robert Mitchum is never better as the smart talking doomed hero, cigarette hanging loosely from his bottom lip as he helplessly watches the demons of his past catching up with him and propelling him to his destiny. Equally good is Jane Greer as the most beautiful and devious of femme fatales, her eyes intently focused as she watches two men fighting over her. Kirk Douglas completes the triangle as the shady, oily gambler, menace and violence thinly concealed behind his grimace as he draws Mitchum back into the dark pool of their shared history (the film was actually called "Out of the Past" on it's release in the US).

The script literally sings off the screen with the snappiest of dialogue and first person monologues which seem to have a poetic jazzy rhythm all of their own. The narrative plays out full of lies, lust, deception and betrayal, crosses, double crosses, all of them perfectly threaded through the plot as director Jacques Tourneur and his scriptwriters (one of who is uncredited crime novelist James M.Cain) create a mean world where men are foolish fated creatures and women end up holding all the cards. The film is really Mitchum's. He is on screen for the entirety of the movie yet his performance seems effortless as he drives dreamlike to his fate, eyes half closed, disenchanted half smile playing on his face.

Build My Gallows High was remade in the 80s as (cue Phil Collins soundtrack) "Against all Odds" with Jeff Bridges, James Woods and Rachel Ward. The story was also used as the basis for the instantly forgettable Tony Scott/Kevin Costner turkey "Revenge" in the 90s. You don't need to watch either of those, go straight to the original and accept no substitute. Now do you wanna talk business or do you wanna play house?

Watch Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer going loco down in Acapulco here...

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Diva (1981)

Set in the Paris of the early 80s, Diva is the story of moped riding postie Jules and his obsession with opera singer Cynthia Williams. The film begins with Cynthia (played by real life opera singer Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) performing a stunning rendition of the main aria from Catalini's "La Wally". After bootlegging a recording of this performance (Cynthia forbids live recordings as it is against her art) and stealing her gown, Jules finds himself in the middle of a plot involving the murder of a prostitute, a drug trafficking ring, a C90 tape incriminating the villains, and a pair of strange Taiwanese businessmen who are after the tapes he has made.

Diva is very much a film of it's era. Released almost 30 years ago, it's actually aged very well, which is surprising considering that at times it resembles an extended 80s pop promo. At the time it heralded a new era of French New Wave - the "Cinema of Look", and the empahasis of the film is most definitely on image, art direction and mise en scene. A romantic walk at dawn through Paris is beautifully shot in natural light to the tune of a touching piano melody. Jules's bare flat where he lives and dreams of opera is decorated only with giant pop art murals and mashed up cars. The scenes featuring the menacing (and slightly comical) villains strutting through the Parisian streets are accompanied by a fashionable disco-punk soundtrack.

The style over substance is most readily apparent in the scenes featuring Jules's existentialist recluse friend Gorodish, enigmatically played by Richard Bohringer. In his arty loft appartment he sits in his bath smoking cigars whilst listening to ambient music and contemplating the waves whilst a tank of water tilts from side to side and a jumbo jigsaw puzzle lays unfinished on the floor.

What saves all of this from being a complete pretentious mess is that writer/director Jean-Jacques Beiniex knows when to stick his tongue firmly in his cheek, and it's to his credit that the plot holds up under the weight of the imagery with some genuinely comic touches. You can definitely see Diva's influence in the movies of both Ridley and Tony Scott, in look if not in content, and Michael Mann along with his contemporaries Luc Besson and Leo Carax who directed Les Amants du Pont-Neuf.

Beiniex went on to make the art house smash Betty Blue but after that went off on his own artistic tangent and as a result his movies became marginalised by the film business and critics alike. To be fair, he has rarely hit the hights of Diva since. A telling line in the movie comes when Cynthia is asked why she refuses to make recordings of her voice.

“It is up to commerce to adapt to art, and not art to adapt to commerce" she replies - an accurate summary of Beineix's career for sure.

Watch Jules and Cynthia stroll through Paris at dawn here...

Thursday, 4 February 2010

After Hours (1985)

The plot is incredibly simple. Lonely boy meets kooky girl in a cafe in uptown Manhattan and arranges a date at her loft in downtown Soho.

During a hair-raising cab ride to her pad, his money flies out the window leaving him penniless and eventually destitute, and precipitating a horrendous journey into the night. Both fate and coincidence battle against him in his struggle to get back to his appartment in one piece for the morning.

Scarily funny and hilariously terrifying in equal measure, this is by far and away Martin Scorsese's most underrated movie. Made on a shoe-string budget after the undeserved flop of The King of Comedy (which will be reviewed elsewhere on the blog) and whilst he was trying to finance The Last Temptation of Christ (which won't be), After Hours makes you wonder what might have happened if Scorsese hadn't bothered hunting for Oscar glory and stuck to what he knew best on the mean streets of New York.

The film isn't just Scorsese's though. The otherwise forgotten Griffin Dunne gives a career defining performance as Paul Hackett - watch his transformation from lonely Joe Shmoe to set upon Kafkaesque hero to deranged raging bully. Look out for Rosanna Arquette (also currently residing in the "where are they now" draw) and Linda Fiorentino of "The Last Seduction" fame.

After Hours is the definitive late night movie - the sharp editing and camera movements keep this one on edge mirroring the caffeine fueled ride that Dunne's character takes into the dawn.