Two-Lane Blacktop 1971 *****

two-lane-blacktop-vintage-movie-poster-original-40x60-2989Having a car seems like a full time job in Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, a road movie that sits neatly in the slipstream of Easy Rider and Vanishing Point. The subject is a cross-country road race, and the film was one of the inspirations for the Cannonball Run race. But we’re not talking celebrity cameos and car crashes here, and although we see several illegal car races, this isn’t franchise material either, although Fast and Furious Presents; Two Lane Blacktop is a title that potentially intrigues. Singer James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson are two men who race their souped-up jalopy in one small-town after another; they soon pick up a girl, and get into a rivalry with GTO (Warren Oates). How GTO got his dazzling yellow sports car is never fully explained; the truth is not in him, and yet an odd friendship develops from their rivalry. All the characters are ciphers; as in Walter Hill’s The Driver, they are named for their function; Girl, Driver, Mechanic. GTO functions much like Jack Nicholson’s character in Easy Rider, an emblem of a lifestyle that the protagonists still can’t help but reject, even if he’s still pretty counter-culture. A downbeat line about the life-cycle of cicadas nails the film’s sociological ideas pretty succinctly, and the studied naturalism is something of a joy. Two Lane Blacktop has been tough to find and locate over the last fifty years, but it’s really worth the effort. Wikipedia’s plot summary says, “The film ends abruptly’ but that’s something of a dry understatement; it ends as it begins, in an unconventional style that’s rarely been bettered.

 

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Reuben, Reuben 1983 ****

reubenWhy do some truly great films fall into neglect? Reuben, Reuben is a perfect case in point. Tom Conti won an Oscar nomination for best actor in 1983 for his performance as a drunken poet, with Dylan Thomas a clear inspiration. The screenplay, adapted from a novel by noted humourist Peter De Vries and then a play called Spofford, is by Julius J Epstein, who wrote everything from Casablanca to Cross of Iron, and that was also Oscar nominated as one of the five best adapted scripts of the year. It was the first film of Top Gun star Kelly McGillis. And it’s a funny, sweet and yet harsh and original story about excess and survival that’s not dated in any way. And yet there’s no Criterion Collection revival, nor even a spot on Amazon or iTunes, just a rare DVD or Blu Ray that, at twenty bucks a piece, won’t ensnare many casual viewers. The reputation of Robert Ellis Miller, director of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and this, was practically zero when he died in 2017, and that’s a shame for anyone with career highlights like this. Conti is ideal as Gowan McGland, a Scottish poet in suburban American, seducing women, drinking excessively, generally mooching off everyone and unaware that his behaviour is leading to a sticky end, and not one that he can possibly imagine. The problem is more than sex or alcohol addiction. Like Ray Milland in The Man With X Ray Eyes, McGland’s problem is that he sees too much; his wit pulls people towards him, but then pushes them away. It’s a tragic-comedy of the highest order, and it’s well-past high time something was done about restoring the reputation of Reuben, Reuben, which takes its title from the old song, and from the last line of dialogue in a devastating, surprising final scene.

Childless 2008 ****

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Another entry in the growing file of vanished films; writer/director Charlie Levi’s film Childless gained some traction on the film festival circuit and won a few friends in 2018. In 2015, it snuck out on limited release, yet somehow there’s no actual reviews on the imdb page from professional critics or members of the public. Barbara Hershey leads an impressive cast including Mamet regular Joe Mantegna, Diane Verona and James Naughton; the subject is dark, sure, not for everyone, but the acting is top notch in this depiction of parents struggling to deal with the loss of daughter Katherine (Natalie Dreyfuss). Hershey in particular is blistering; when given the chance (The Entity, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Last Temptation of Christ), she rules the screen, and the straight-to-camera styling here allows her and all the actors the chance to shine. Levi dares to find dark humour in this situation; coming from one of the producers of In The Bedroom, this is a fresh and original take on superficially similar material. Childless now pops up on Amazon Prime in the US, essentially free to view for anyone with a subscription. It’s a minor gem of a film that had little or no fanfare, but is deserving of both an audience and a critical reassessment. Attempting to plug films like this into an audience is one of the purposes of this blog; how else are viewers going to know these films exist?

https://www.amazon.com/Childless-Barbara-Hershey/dp/B010O7UXU0/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=childless+film&qid=1564832003&s=gateway&sr=8-2

The Last Photograph 2017 ****

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Danny Huston’s CV runs from cigar-chewing villain in the first Wolverine spin-off to his outstanding performance in Bernard Rose’s Ivans Xtc. He’s hardly a prolific director, but his work in front of and behind the camera in The Last Photograph is impeccable. What’s near criminal here is that aside from a handful of festival screenings, his 2017 film The Last Photograph is pretty much invisible; there’s no user reviews on imdb, and not even a single-line Wikipedia entry for it. Perhaps there are reasons, but it’s not any reflection on the film-making. Huston plays Tom Hammond, a book-shop owner struggling to forget the death of his son, one of many casualties of the terrorist attack on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1998. When a book is stolen from his shop, containing a photograph that connects Hammond to his son, it awakens memories of the night in question, and a search for justice that’s been suspended. Huston is immense in this role, angry, grieving, but without an outlet; as a director, he’s sensitive to the portrayal of a complex, nuanced character. The real-life tragedy referenced here is well-handled, with newsreel footage mixed with the film’s narrative in a non-exploitative way. The subject of The Last Photograph appears taboo; few dramas have explored Lockerbie, and perhaps that’s why The Last Photograph appears to have been obliterated by market forces; this is the kind of film that deserves a second wind through streaming services, and it’s a shame that it’s so hard to locate. Maybe Huston’s pay the rent job in –yikes- the unanticipated Angel Has Fallen will cash him up for self-distribution and get this worthwhile film out there.

The Amateur 1981 ****

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Reputed to be in development as a reboot for Hugh Jackman for a good few years now, Charles Jarrott’s The Amateur is a tense, effective revenge thriller than makes the best of its mix of cold-blooded espionage and hot-blooded anger. A sense of righteous grievance is harnessed by a shocking opening as a terrorist gang storm the American embassy in West Germany and execute an American (Sarah Kaplan) while being filmed by live-tv crews. Widower Charles Heller (John Savage) is no secret agent, his speciality is mathematics and decoding messages, but when the CIA intelligence forces that he works for don’t respond for political reasons, Heller takes things into his own hands by infiltrating Eastern Bloc spy-networks in the hope of finding who killed his wife. This is all rather more plausaible that usual, Heller uses his ability to hack into the CIA files to find declassified information and force the CIA to offer him some grudging support by blackmailing them; The Amateur makes a virtue of its savvy view of dirty black ops. Christopher Plummer, Marthe Keller and Arthur Hill are all names familiar to genre fans, and Robert Littell’s screenplay ducks many of the clichés expected. The Amateur seems to have been taken out of the system for some reason; just for fun, below is included a link to purchase a DVD for a cool $100 plus. Why that should be so high is an interesting question; The Amateur does a violent but professional wet job that should have left more of a cultural imprint than it did.

https://www.amazon.com/Amateur-John-Savage/dp/B0007WQGW2/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=the+amateur&qid=1564310377&s=gateway&sr=8-3

https://trakt.tv/movies/the-amateur-1981

Staircase 1969 ***

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Charles Dyer’s acerbic play is opened up for the screen by Singing in The Rain director Stanley Donen, with Richard Burton and Rex Harrison stretching their range by playing a gay couple who operate a barbers shop in 1969 London. The endless bitching, mewling and backstabbing of 1960’s gay stereotypes are present, but Donen’s film rises above that, with pathos as the couple fight, re-unite, issue ultimatums and generally bicker their way through some exquisitely arch, camp dialogue that has to be heard to be believed. A theatrical experience, but one with two ‘out-there’ star performances that are well worth seeing.