Category Archives: Writer Recommends

Writer Recommends #7: Bullitt

Following Peter Yates recent death, it is fitting that Bullitt should be the next choice on my Writer Recommends series.  Having seen Yates’s feature film debut, Robbery, and it’s use of real locations and real time car chases to add authenticity to the action, Steve McQueen selected him as the director to take his cop movie to another level.  McQueen had been reluctant to make a cop movie because he had recognised the world was changing and had become more anti-establishment throughout the 1960’s.  Nonetheless, the novel Mute Witness and its main protagonist Frank Bullitt and his air of anti-establishment ethos within the police department, won him round.

Following the death of his witness in police protection whilst awaiting the trial of a mafia don, Bullitt sets about tracing the killers back to their boss.  Due to the death being in police custody, Bullitt is reluctant to trust his superiors and so begins a race against time to solve the crime before they realise his main witness is dead.

It’s easy to see what drew McQueen to this role, as it has Bullitt as a guy who has a heightened sense of justice and will follow that through to the bitter end, no matter what departmental bureaucracy stands in his way.  McQueen was generally a smart cookie when it came to career choices and he seemed to know his audience well.  And he knew that, in playing a cop, he may alienate a younger, more subversive, counter-culture audience (one that he felt he belonged in); but playing a cop that broke the rules to do the right thing would be a cop that the audience could relate, and even aspire, to.

With Yates at the helm, the film immerses itself in the life of a cop: the gritty realism of the crimes; the frustrating bureaucracy; the times when the job seems very distant, but is always lurking in the background.  Bullitt, is probably most famous for the hair-raising car chase rampaging through the streets of San Francisco and it is the stand out sequence in the film.  Having driven in San Francisco myself, I can vouch for how scary it is to go over the summit of those famous streets at normal speed; let alone the speeds McQueen et al tolerate.  

It’s fair to say that Bullitt helped pave the way for Dirty Harry and the numerous “rogue cop” movies that have appeared since.  I, personally, find the plot a little humdrum, but with the stylish direction of Yates and the easy cool of McQueen, it’s a movie that endures. 

 Further Peter Yates viewing:

Robbery (1967):  Put Yates on the map:  Features excellent locations and action sequences in a dramatic re-imagining of the infamous great train robbery.

The Hot Rock (1972): Fantastic crime-caper, penned by William Goldman, featuring George Segal and Robert Redford as crooks on the trail of a huge diamond.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973): Robert Mitchum is given the opportunity to show his acting chops in this gritty urban drama of small time crooks.

Breaking Away (1979): Oscar winning drama of a group of friends coming of age in small town America.

Krull (1983): Epic fantasy adventure of 80’s nostalgia.  Bernard Bresslaw’s finest hour this side of Hawk The Slayer?

Suspect (1987): Surprisingly gripping crime drama with Cher, Dennis Quaid and Liam Neeson.

An Innocent Man (1989): A guilty pleasure.  Any Magnum fan willing Tom Selleck to make it as a leading man will not be disappointed in this prison thriller.

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Writer Recommends #5: Easy Rider

1969

Directed by: Dennis Hopper

Written by: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Terry Southern

Starring: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Karen Black

Easy Rider is showing at the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham on Thursday 16th September, as part of a Dennis Hopper tribute season.

Easy Rider is a seminal movie that was the catalyst for an era of movie making that may never be surpassed.  It changed the Hollywood system forever, made a star of Jack Nicholson and entered the public psyche…and on top of that, it’s a very good film.

To explore the impact that Easy Rider had on modern movie making would contain enough information to fill a book.  Thankfully, Peter Biskind has already done that for us with the excellent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; which I would highly recommend for anyone wishing to know more.

Hollywood used to work to a system where cast and crews would be contracted to particular studios.  They could make movies for other studios, but this would require them to be loaned out, usually for a fee.  It was a hard and fast rule of movie making; quite simply “Indie” movies did not exist.  Easy Rider blew the system apart and made it regroup and adapt to survive because of the huge success that followed.

 Easy Rider is iconic for many reasons: the low slung bikes, Fonda’s American flag jacket and helmet, the breathtaking scenery and the knock out soundtrack.  The movie has entered the public psyche: who, including people who have not seen the movie, does not think of Easy Rider bikes and open road when Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild comes on the radio.  It’s a similar scenario to the phenomenon that is when people dance to almost any Bee Gees song from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack using the Travolta pointing to the sky and the floor moves – regardless of whether they have ever seen the gritty urban drama.

So iconic has the movie become that although it originally represented an American dream to those who were part of counter-culture; it has now become the American dream for many in mainstream culture throughout the world.  In a sense what the movie represents has been magnified and distorted to no longer fully reflect the original movie.

The two main protagonists are barely referred to by name, but are commonly known as Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda); they open the movie by conducting a drug sale to an unnamed connection (a cameo by Phil Spector) in LA; the proceeds of which, they hide in the fuel tanks of their motorbikes as they set off on their journey to find somewhere to retire to a simple life. 

Essentially a road movie, they make their way through the country encountering people and situations that help them to learn about themselves along the way.

Following trouble with a bike a local farmer helps them fix the bike and also invites them to dinner with his large family.  This view of the family is idyllic and could yet represent what Billy and Wyatt really want, but the families devotion to each other and god comes far too early in the duos quest for them to do much more than move on.

A hitchhiker takes them to a commune where a new society is being formed; one where freedom of expression is encouraged and people live supposedly how they want to live.  It is here that I become unnerved; the society, to me, comes across as a clique where they seem very accepting of the extremely laid-back Wyatt, but not so much the more uptight Billy.  Their liberal society seems sinister in some way, as though the brash and particularly terrible cabaret represents their society’s attempt to hide what really goes on in the commune and in any society; jealousy and ego.  It’s apparent that Billy and Wyatt won’t fit in here; they see the cracks forming in their idealism and I think they seem them as fakes.

Not so the adjoining folk who blindly follow their ideals.  They starve whilst trying to plant and grow food on their dusty plot.  These people seem terribly naïve at best and show that belief will not get you what you need.  Perhaps this is an analogical view of religion as a basis for society.  Billy and Wyatt see the flaws in their methods, sympathise and continue to move on.

After running foul of some small town law enforcement, they run into George Hanson; a lawyer and a drunk from a well to do family in the same small town.  Hanson views the pair as genuine seekers of freedom.  They are the antithesis of his life where football and law school were chosen for him rather than by him and he disappears into the bottle to forget.  In a moment of spontaneity that is as much to do with him giving his mother cause for concern as it is to truly pursue the freedom of the road, Hanson joins them on their road trip.

It is the exchanges between Hanson, Wyatt and Billy that give the movie its true message about personal freedom and the Vietnam War.  One particular exchange that I believe is the heart of the movie involves Hanson and Billy:

Hanson: You know this used to be a hell of a good country.  I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.

Billy: Man.  Everybody got chicken, that’s what happened.  Hey, we can’t even get into a second rate hotel, I mean a second rate motel, you dig?  The think we’re gonna cut their throats or something.  They’re scared man.

Hanson: They’re not scared of you.  They’re scared of what you represent to them.

Billy: Hey man, all we represent to them is somebody who needs a haircut.

Hanson: Oh no.  What you represent to them is freedom.

Billy:  What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about!

Hanson: That’s right.  That’s what it’s all about alright.  But talking about it and being it; that’s two different things.  I mean, its real hard to be free when you’re bought and sold in the market place.  Of course, don’t ever tell anybody they’re not free.  ‘Cause then they’re gonna get real busy killing and maiming to prove to you that they are.  Oh yeah.  They’re gonna talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom.  But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare them.

Billy: Well it don’t make them running scared.

Hanson: No.  It makes them dangerous.

 It is a prophecy that comes true following a particularly unsavoury encounter in a diner where local girls are intrigued and excited by the strangers, whilst the local me are much more threatening and hostile.  The camp is attacked during the night and Hanson is murdered.  And so affected are Billy and Wyatt that they turn their own search for fulfilment into a tribute to their friend and the head to the whore house Hanson so often mentioned in New Orleans.

In New Orleans, the film takes a much trippier viewpoint and seems becomes much more avant garde.  Billy and Wyatt hook up with two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni Basil…yes, Toni Basil of “Hey Mickey!” fame) and take a potent trip, presumably LSD.  Where they had been almost academic in their study of the people they had encountered so far, within New Orleans chaos reigns.  And the trip turns their studies of the human condition introspective and they learn much more organically about whom they are and who they wish to be.

Far from having made it, they realise that they blew it.

Performance wise Nicholson steals the show and it’s easy to see how this role, followed by some excellent career choices, propelled him from a B-movie actor/scriptwriter to the icon that we know now.  Strange to think that a twist of fate; Rip Torn was set to play Hanson until, legend has it, Hopper pulled a knife on him during pre-production.

Fonda, part of the Fonda acting dynasty (father: Henry, sister: Jane) plays the languid and handsome Wyatt with ease.  Fonda often seem very wooden to me (see Futureworld as an example), but occasionally a part that suits his laid back style enables him to exude charisma and Wyatt is such a part.  Fonda would go on to direct and star in the much underrated The Hired Hand.

Hopper started his career as a contemporary of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean.  But following the making of From Hell To Texas when director Henry Hathaway despaired at Hopper’s inability complete a scene (it took 85 takes), it took him 10 years to get a major part in a movie.  As you might expect there is an undercurrent of violence and menace in his performance which offers a good cynical side to the hippy counterculture peace and love themes of the movie.  Hopper famously went on to implode on his next directorial effort The Last Movie.      

Stylistically the movie owes a lot to the French New Wave of handheld cameras and gorilla filmmaking.  The cinematography wonderfully encapsulates the vast landscapes encountered on American road trips: as someone who has driven across America I can tell you how difficult it is to capture this on camera.  Occasionally it seems like it has gone one avant garde step too far: most notably the double cutting from scene to scene; but these things add to the groundbreaking nature of the movie.  Of all the things it tries to do, 99% of them work well beyond even Hopper and Fonda’s expectations. 

This is a special movie.  This is a seminal piece of movie making history in the same way that The Jazz Singer (the first Hollywood talky) is part of movie making history.  It really is that important; I could list numerous movies that without Easy Rider would not have been made.      

 “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere”

Writer Recommends #4: Junior Bonner

1972

Directed by: Sam Peckinpah

Written by: Jeb Rosebrook

Starring: Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Ben Johnson, Joe Don Baker

Sandwiched between Straw Dogs and The Getaway during Sam Peckinpah’s most prolific and successful period where he was outputting a film a year; this movie is the antithesis of Peckinpah’s recognised brand of bloody action.

Steve McQueen is the eponymous Junior, a fading star of rodeo, that returns to his home town, after many years away on the circuit, only to find the town and people he once knew are changing with the times.

Peckinpah deals with the regular theme of the main protagonists lamenting the changing times that surround them as they stick to their own old time values (see The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country for prime examples).  Except, in this case the movie does not deal in violence, but drama and the disintegration of family relationships.

Junior Bonner is as much at odds with his father, Ace Bonner (a former rodeo star), as he is full of admiration for him.  The two’s relationship veers dangerously into friendship and friendship alone meaning that when the familial roles and respects are required the lines are blurred with only his mother, Elvira, offering anything like a parental role in their lives.  Junior Bonner sees Ace as a portent of what he himself will become, so the movie deals with “progress” in terms of the town changing with the times as well as Junior Bonner’s own progression towards retirement.

Ace Bonner is still searching for the thrill that the rodeo so often afforded him and Junior Bonner is the same; he offers to pay to ride a fierce bull because he needs it.  What Bonner sees is everything changing all around him and he is scared and wary of where that will leave him when age forces his own life to change.  What place will he have in the world?  A life lived on old glories like his father or embracing progress like his brother, Curly, in a way that Junior finds as disgusting as he would impossible?

McQueen, effortlessly cool, suits the role of Bonner to a tee.  For McQueen too the times were changing; he had become the bankable star that he wanted so badly, but he had had his pride and finances badly hit by the debacle that was his pet project, Le Mans.  He had recently turned 40 and whilst still in excellent shape, he knew that there had to be more strings to his bow if he was to remain no.1 at the box office.  McQueen’s own old-fashioned values and his estranged relationship with his father probably helped him to channel much more into this role than some of his more distant and cool onscreen personas.  For me, McQueen’s collaborations with Peckinpah in 1972 (the other film being The Getaway) are the pinnacle of his glittering career.

Robert Preston excels as Ace Bonner.  Preston, as comfortable on stage as he was on screen, had not made a movie for almost a decade having been in the theatre and may have been best remembered at the time for his exhilarating performance in The Music Man.  As Ace Bonner he shows the subtleties and nuances of characterisation that offer some foresight into how he came to be nominated for an Oscar in Victor/Victoria a decade later.

By 1972 Ida Lupino was a veteran actor, writer and director and was, and still is, rightly considered a pioneer for women in the film industry.  And Lupino plays the part of the only “grown up” in the Bonner family, Elvira, beautifully.  The story goes that Lupino gave Peckinpah his first break and so he returned the favour by hiring Lupino for this movie. 

Joe Don Baker, so often associated with playing heavies in excellent 1970’s hard boiled crime movies such as The Outfit and Charley Varrick had one of his first major film roles in this movie.  He plays Curly Bonner, the more forward thinking and ambitious Bonner family member.  His performance is such that it belies his natural physical presence and he appears more as a lost puppy than the hulking man he is.

Where The Wild Bunch contains ultra-violence (as it was regarded at the time) to punctuate the underlying themes, Junior Bonner is violence-free which certainly means this movie has less immediate impact.  However, with a cast and crew that were clearly on top of their game Junior Bonner does deliver as much of a dramatic reflection upon changing times.     

 “Tell ‘em Junior sent you”

Writer Recommends #3: Swingers

1996

Directed by: Doug Liman

Written by: Jon Favreau

Starring: Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughan, Ron Livingston, Patrick Van Horn, Alex Desert, Heather Graham

The cast and crew on this movie reads like a veritable who’s who of powerful Hollywood names and familiar faces, but this was long before Bourne, Iron Man and Wedding Crashers.

Apparently based upon Favreau’s own experiences; Mike (Favreau), having been dumped by his long-term girlfriend struggles to get over her after moving to LA to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional comedian/actor.  His friends rally around him to help him move on.

This is a low budget comedy that, in hindsight, had the golden touch from the off.  But, brushing aside their subsequent successes, this movie is a fantastically fast-talking, wise-cracking feel good movie.

Mike half-heartedly attempts to move on from his ex-girlfriend, urged on by his womanising best friend Trent (Vaughan), his old buddy from back home who has come to LA to become an actor too (Livingston) and other friends (Van Horn & Desert).

 Vaughan absolutely steals the show.  His one-liners and long, raging monologues provide many of the movies laughs.  Trent’s confidence is over the top, but not so far that we can’t recognise the type and deep down it shows that Trent and the others are so desperate for Mike to move on because he is such a great guy.  There is as much in this movie about friendship as there is about getting yourself back into the dating game.

The comedy relies on rapid episodic situations that help to build up an overall picture of the story arc.  The dialogue is as snappy and sassy as you will see in any movie.  It has many quotable lines and memorable comedy scenes that will find their way into your vocabulary.  The depth and breadth of the dialogue with its rapid delivery ensure that this does stand up to repeated viewings, often a rare commodity for comedy. 

And if you ever go to Vegas, it will dominate your thoughts because, although the Vegas segment is perhaps 15-20 minutes of the film, it is such a great sequence that it stays with you.

The funding for the movie, in a similar fashion to Rocky (where Stallone, having written the movie, insisted he starred), was found on the proviso that the main cast characters would be played by the actors upon which they were based.  

The returns on such a meagre budget were superb, as was the critical acclaim, and it effectively launched the careers of those involved.

The DVD carries significant extras:

·         Audio commentary with Doug Liman and Stephen Mirrione.

·         Audio commentary with Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughan.

·         “Making it Hollywood”: 4 featurettes covering the writers, the making of swingers, swingers’ culture and life after swingers.

·         Deleted scenes.

All of which help to show, not only what a success story it was for independent and gorilla film-making, but what a labour or love it was for those involved.  The results of which are outstanding.

“You’re money and you don’t even know it!”

Writer Recommends #2: Ghost Dog The Way of the Samurai

1999

Written & Directed by: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Forest Whitaker

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a loner, living with his pigeons in a shack on a rooftop.  He lives according to the code of the samurai of ancient Japan, except this is modern day USA.  As a true samurai, he works for his master; Louie, a low-grade wiseguy for an ailing, and aging, mob outfit.  In doing so he performs hits on demand.   Contacted to hit a member of the mob who had been messing around with the mob boss’s daughter, Ghost Dog executes the hit to perfection, except he leaves the mob boss’s daughter as a witness.  This causes the mobsters to put a hit out on Ghost Dog.  Their idea is either they get Ghost Dog or they kill Louie.  Given the code of the samurai, Ghost Dog must protect his master and go after the mob himself.

As gritty as that may sound, there is a lot of dark humour to this movie.  The way that the brutality of the situation and the humour intertwines reminds me of Chopper.  The mobsters provide much of the humour in this movie; from mundane and idiotic conversations to their hap-hazard attempts to find and kill Ghost Dog.  Similar in essence to the Sopranos, these wiseguys are far from the too cool Goodfellas.

As we learn of the mobsters efforts to track down and kill Ghost Dog, so do we learn of Ghost Dog and his existence.  He is best friends with a French ice-cream seller who speaks no English, and Ghost Dog no French.  Yet they communicate sufficiently enough, even though neither is sure the other understands.  He is also befriended by a young girl who lives in the neighbourhood.  This often draws parallels with another hitman movie, Leon, but this is neither as extravagant or as outlandish.

Excerpts from “Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai” by Yamamoto Tsunetomo are read throughout the movie adding deeper meaning to each turn of events.

A stone cold killer, following his own sense of justice is usually a good basis for a movie and this is no exception and it is executed in a quirky enough way not to become anything but cool.  The brilliant soundtrack supplied by RZA of the Wu Tang Clan adds another dimension.

I suspect there are many nods and homages to samurai and Japanese culture, literature and movies; too may for me to understand or spot: a director’s commentary to explain them all would be fascinating.

I think it’s a brilliant little film that presents, in one sense, a straight forward action movie, with influences of hip-hop, mafia, kung-fu and literature that take it to the next level.

“All assassins live beyond the law…only one follows the code”

Writer Recommends #1: The Gambler

1974

Directed by: Karel Reisz

Written by: James Toback

Starring: James Caan, Lauren Hutton, Paul Sorvino

Nope, nothing to do with Kenny Rogers: although that film may feature as someone’s recommendation somewhere.

This is a gritty drama following college professor Axel Freed (Caan) through his trials and tribulations as he succumbs to his addiction to gambling.  In doing so, not only does he hit and break through rock bottom, but he brings the people he loves, and who love him, and others down with him. 

Freed owes $44,000 to bookie Hips (Sorvino) and, whilst things start amicably, Hips effectively educates Freed in what happens to others who owe him.  Freed has been given a lot of room to manoeuvre by Hips.  Hips likes the fact that Freed is an educated and cultured man and he does not want to see Freed end up like the others that he strong arms into paying debts.  But the room to manoeuvre has to run out some time because even Hips has other things to pay for and he can’t do that with a $44,000 hole in his pocket.

Tellingly, Freed seems as much addicted to risk in his life, as he is to gambling on the throw of a dice.  His lectures provide an insight into the mentality that Freed is following:  It is about belief.  Making yourself believe so much that you cannot lose, the example he uses is a 3 pointer in basketball as the buzzer sounds: most of the time, they don’t go in, so why go for it?  Because at that moment in time, you believe it will go in.

Unfortunately for Freed, you can believe as much as you like, but the odds remain the same.  The movie follows Freed as he tries to get the money together to pay his debt.  In doing so, he degrades himself by borrowing from his girlfriend (the stunning Hutton), using his wealthy family background for a hand out from his mother and even influencing one of his own students to shave points in a basketball game.

Due to Caan’s screen presence and charisma, Freed is a character almost impossible to dislike: even when he effectively comes across as a spoilt momma’s boy when bailed out by his mother.  But it is like watching a car crash – you can’t take your eyes of it, even though you know it is going to end badly. 

We follow Freed’s decent and watch him claw his way back, only to discover that it is only the audience that wishes him to have the Hollywood ending of getting out of debt, out of trouble and out of gambling.  Freed does not seek redemption.  He does not seek a way out.  If anything, he digs himself deeper into the mire.

 Reisz, director of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, provides scene after scene of electrifying tension – the height of which is surely the “Gimme a 3” scene.

It was written, as a first major screenplay, by James Toback, who has since gone on to make a name for himself as a writer and director (most recently with “Tyson”). 

There are even notable appearances from Burt Young, James Woods and Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear).

But, this film belongs to Caan.  Caan was at the height of his ability as an actor in 1974.  He was on a roll, having completed The Godfather, Slither and Cinderella Liberty and he would go on to continue his defining decade in Rollerball. Poor choices and personal issue have prevented him from being part of the “De Niro / Pacino / Nicholson” class, but he shows his potential and the reason he was so successful in full in this movie.

He carries the movie with a performance that somehow manages to combine subtlety and brute force (Caan was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance).

The movie ends with a shocking sequence that will leave you reeling.  This is not a movie about gambling.  It is a movie about addiction. 

“For $10,000 they break your arms. For $20,000 they break your legs. Axel Freed owes $44,000.”

Writer Recommends

Having been alerted to the advanced planning of Dawn of the Dad 2010 (see links) and his quandary over his first child’s movie viewing list, it made me think about a movie list that I would draw up if faced with a similar situation.

 Limiting it to child-friendly movies would be near impossible, so I expanded my thought process to this:

 We all have movies that we champion and we often feel like we champion them alone.  They rarely get featured in critics’ lists, box office lists and may even get featured in worst movie lists.  I will be presenting reviews of what I consider “hidden gems” and I also invite you to contribute.

 So, a new topic is born “Writer Recommends”, in which I will be presenting reviews of some of the movies that I think are fantastic and that you should see.  I’d like to think of them as hidden gems, but I’m realistic enough to know that many of the movies for which I feel I am the sole champion, will in fact be loved by many.  As we all know, when it comes to one person’s opinion of a movie, there is no right or wrong: even if we do still continue to debate that long into the night.

 If you have a “Writer Recommends” suggestion or want to send me a review to post, let me know.  I’m going to be totally autocratic, so I will make (hopefully, well informed) judgements on whether to post.

 Next Up: Writer Recommends #1: The Gambler