Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean

I just missed James Dean. I was 9 in 1955 and just starting to get interested in movies and magazines and popular culture but I was too late for Dean's original impact but remember the fuss afterwards - magazines about him, the movies being constantly revived and how he influenced those who followed ... I was just in time though for Elvis (the first record I ever held was a cousin's 78 of "Jailhouse Rock" and I loved him in LOVING YOU and those early films and listening to his hits on the radio and those picture of him in the army etc .... my real 'moment' though came when I was 17 in 1963 and the arrival of The Beatles - I had the hair and the "look" with the boots, the black sweater etc and that first album was amazing. But back to the '50s and James Dean ...

EAST OF EDEN and GIANT were (and still are) monumental pictures helmed as they are by Kazan and George Stevens at their peak and have that rich Warner Bros look and feel, with great soundtracks too. When I was in London in my late teens revival houses always had good runs of Dean films - it was terrific to be able to see EDEN on the large screen. Dean has so many terrific moments in it (from that electrifying start with him waiting on the kerb for Jo Van Fleet (tremendous, as ever) to go by), he projects his vulnerability perfectly, I love his scenes with Julie Harris but those scenes where the father rejects his money and the climax can be cringe-inducing now. One feels for poor Richard Davalos - it is a good role but he is so over-shadowed by Dean... It is a handsome production using only part of Steinbeck's book and the captures the early California of Salinas and Monterey.

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE seems lightweight by comparison despite being brilliantly directed by Nick Ray and that red jacket image of Dean here is as iconic as Marilyn's white dress (see for instance how Joni Mitchell uses it and Jimmy in her SHADOWS AND LIGHT concert dvd). It is of course the essence of teen watching and relating to Jimmy, Natalie and Sal here. Dean though could be anything we wanted - was he gay? or bisexual? - you could just project your fantasies onto him... he was the lost little boy, the best friend one never had. One of the most iconic images is that one of him walking in the rain - he certainly knew how to project the image he wanted...

He looks amazing in GIANT too - he and Elizabeth together look timelessly iconic and beautiful. It is a perfect Warner drama from Ferber's book starting in lush Maryland as Bick and Leslie (Rock and Liz are iconic here too) meet and marry and travel back to Texas and the Reata ranch and Dean's Jett as the surly ranch-hand of Little Reata, left to him by Luz, where he strikes oil - the older Jett is certainly an oddity but Dean carries it off (as the film meanders on with the new generation of Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo and their idea of the older Hudson and Taylor).

Back then it must have been a rite of passage to go through the whole James Dean thing in one's teens or twenties, just like one did about Marilyn Monroe: the books, the films, the posters ... the legends about him in New York and Hollywood. it is nice to remember all that now. For someone who died so young the amount of photographs is amazing - all those images by Dennis Stock back in Fairmount, Indiana; dance class with Eartha Kitt, playing his bongos, his apartment, clubbing with Ursula Andress, with Pier Angeli etc.

There is that amazing story too by Alec Guinness about when he went to Hollywood in 1955 (to make THE SWAN with Grace Kelly) and his meeting with Dean and going for a ride on his motorcycle and then seeing that car and having the premonition of the disaster ahead and warning Dean not to drive it.

It was good too to get the dvd editions of the films with all those extras: the screen tests (including that one with Newman), costume tests, documentaries etc. There are some Dean songs too - the best probably being The Eagles "James Dean" on their "On The Border" album.

It is still an amazing story how this strange young actor burst out of the conformist early '50s establishing his name in the theatre and then in little over a year making three big films and being gone before the second one even opens! Like Marilyn he will always though be forever young, unlike Brando and Clift growing older and disappointing us - but we will always have Cal Trask, Jim Stark and Jett Rink. And then of course we had Altman's film of the play about the GIANT reunion, COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME JIMMY DEAN JIMMY DEAN. Amazingly, he would be 80 now....

Friday, 28 January 2011

Perfectly '60s (1): Blow-Up + Performance

One of the few remaining London revival houses ran a double bill the other day of BLOW-UP and PERFORMANCE – surely the double bill that encapsulates the swinging 60s.

I have written about Antonioni’s BLOW-UP here several times, as per labels, for me it remains a key movie and is still endlessly fascinating with those set-pieces of the park, the studio, blowing up the photos, and that picture of London emerging in the mid-60s which for those of us who were there (and I arrived in 1964 when I was 18) is so realistic with the new buildings and how the city looked. (I later lived near that restaurant they lunch at, in Chelsea). David Hemmings here is like how we used to look and dress then… the soundtrack by Herbie Hancock is also part of the film’s fabric and appeal, I have been playing it for decades, on vinyl, cd and now ipod. It was just THE movie to see and be part of when I was 21 in '67.

PERFORMANCE remains the more problematic title – filmed in 1968 by Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg it was shelved by Warner Bros until 1970 as they did not know what to do with it's decadence. It is still a disturbing film with layers one could peel off and still not get to its mysterious core. In a way it symbolises the end of the hippie dream as the drugs and violence escalate out of control. It begins with razor sharp editing as hard nut gangster James Fox who enjoys the violent life and casual sex and the perks it brings going too far and killing the man (in an incredibly powerful scene, like the murder in the woods in Bertolucci's THE CONFORMIST) who has violated him and having to go on the run from the head honcho Johnny Flowers. Chas (Fox) takes refuge, with his blond hair painted red, in the run-down mansion of reclusive rock star Mick Jagger who has lost his mojo and lives in dreamlike seclusion with two women (Anita Pallenberg and newcomer Michelle Breton) who minister to his needs in an exclusive part of Notting Hill. Chas of course gets drawn into their games and begins to lose his sense of reality as he too takes those hallucogenics.

Cammell’s previous script (as directed by Robert Parrish) the psychedelic crime caper DUFFY (also with Fox, and reviewed here, at Fox/York labels) is an amusing jaunt among the rich hippes in North Africa, which is also referenced here with those mysterious tribes out in the desert, as well as that fashionable Argentine writer Borges (whose image appears tellingly at the climax). Chas and the rock star seem to be changing identities so when the gangsters arrive at the end which one is being taken away? That’s it in a nutshell but it is a lot more elliptical and mysterious than a resume can begin to do justice to. It is still one to see and re-see … Cammell (1934-1996) went on to direct DEMON SEED (the one about the computer wanting to impregnate Julie Christie) which is his other best known credit. Roeg of course went on to be one of the key British directors of his era with those classics like WALKABOUT, DON’T LOOK NOW, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, BAD TIMING etc after photographing the likes of THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD.

James Fox was of course one of the golden new stars of the '60s [like David Hemmings, Terence Stamp, Tom Courtenay etc] and has had a fascinating career. A child actor, he was perfect for the master of that Chelsea house in Losey's THE SERVANT, and followed it with films like THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, KING RAT, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, an Italian one I have not seen ARABELLA, ISADORA, DUFFY and then PERFORMANCE - the filming of which was it seems so traumatic for him he left acting for over a decade, but returned married with a family and continued in lots of different roles, becoming one of England's most respected elder actors - his son Lawrence now carries on the tradition (in series like LEWIS).

A double bill to savour then. By the time PERFORMANCE made it into the cinemas that late 60s era of pushing the boundaries regarding sex and violence was in full swing (with MIDNIGHT COWBOY winning best film), as per the magazine covers below:

Monday, 24 January 2011

Movies I love: Minnelli's Designing Debutante

"Watch out for the ravioli, Greg"!

I have written here previously [as per labels below] on those terrific '50s treats like Cukor's LES GIRLS, or Minnelli's DESIGNING WOMAN, THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE and the like. We did not have television when I was growing up in Ireland in the '50s (it did not arrive until the early '60s) so from 1957 onwards (when I was 11) we just had the cinema for our doses of glamorous people wearing great clothes and doing exciting glamorous things ....
here are some nice new images of Greg and Lauren and Dolores (just before she tips the ravioli into his lap) in that swellegant '57 treat DESIGNING WOMAN, and Rex and Kay (those Balmain gowns!) and Angela in '58 THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE (Angela was also great that year in THE LONG HOT SUMMER with Orson, Paul & Joanne, Lee Remick & Tony Francoisa) - and Kirk and Cyd in 1962's TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Another Year

Mike Leigh's new film ANOTHER YEAR is certainly an engrossing experience and it lingers with one afterwards, as one feels one has really spent time with these people. It is perhaps Leigh's TOKYO STORY or hommage to Ozu's 1953 masterpiece? Leigh's camera too dispassionately observes his characters over the course of a year, divided into the four seasons.

Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are Tom and Gerri, the happily married contented couple sliding into their late middle years, happy with their work and home and each other, and working on their garden allotment. By contrast their happiness highlights and maybe exacerbates the misery of their friends, particularly Mary (Lesley Manville), Gerri's colleague from work whose loneliness and misery increases through the year as she despairingly latches onto them. It seems by the end though that Tom and particularly Gerri won't be tolerating her much longer ....or are they patronising her?

The films begins (and ends) with a closeup of a woman in misery - it starts with Imelda Staunton (Leigh's VERA DRAKE, but only here briefly) - with her doctor who passes her on to counsellor Gerri, who then gives her notes to Mary to type. Mary visits Tom and Gerri regularly and they seem very patient with her. Mary is 40 going on 17 - who cannot hold a relationship and drinks too much - as she does here and has to be put to bed for the night. Their diffident son then arrives on the scene and seems to be humouring Mary (at a Summer party) and agrees to go out for a drink with her, but of course he doesn't and at the next gathering he has a girlfriend of his own, driving Mary further into despair. Another friend Ken - a desperate overweight middle aged man who is a coronary waiting to happen, with his continual eating, drinking and smoking - expresses interest in renewing a relationship with Mary but that is not on the cards. The saga of Mary's car sums up her inability to get to grips with her problems. There is a birth (the doctor is pregnant) and a funeral - Tom's brother's wife dies up in Nottingham, so the family head up for a rather unnecessary funeral sequence which is rather laboured. David Bradley is Ronnie the shattered husband whom they bring back to London for a while - then while they are out at the allotment Mary turns up in a wretched state and tries to establish a rapport with Ronnie, but Tom and Gerri are not pleased when they return. Turning up out of the blue is not really tolerated .... we end as the camera circles the family table as Tom, Gerri, the son and girlfriend chat among themselves with Ronnie and an anguished Mary left really to themselves. Family life can be cruel too, leaving out those not in the inner circle... one is reminded a few times of Ozu's TOKTO STORY and its refrain of "Isn't life disappointing".

It is certainly Leigh's best and most engrossing film since that masterpeice SECRETS AND LIES - the actors as usual do not seem to be acting at all but totally inhabit their roles, which of course they create in a workshop with Leigh before commencing shooting. Lesley Manville is totally astounding and will have to clear her mantlepiece for all those awards she should be getting for the bleak life she unfolds here.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Movies I love: Heaven Knows, Mr Allison

Despite having the dvd I can always settle down and watch Johnv Huston's 1957 HEAVEN KNOWS, MR ALLISION whenever it appears on tv, so I did again this afternoon. It is simply an enduring pleasure and for me better than his previous THE AFRICAN QUEEN (of which is really a rethread, but somehow it works better), scripted as it is by veteran John Lee Mahin, and filmed in Tobago.

Ten years earlier Deborah Kerr had played Sister Clodagh when aged 26 in Michael Powell's enduring classic BLACK NARCISSUS - here she is Sister Angela, a much less complex novice Irish nun whom marine Robert Mitchum finds alone on the pacific island his boat drifts to - he being the only survivor from his ship. The war in the pacific rages around them, it is 1944. The interplay between the two characters is the story as they get used to each other and then as the Japanese get nearer and on to the island they do their bit to fight back, but just as they are on the point of being discovered in their cave ..... lovely moments along the way include the tough marine and not so gentle nun getting used to the island's hardships (eating raw fish etc) and its loneliness. The scene where they catch the turtle eches that similar scene with Mitch and Monroe catching the moose in RIVER OF NO RETURN. The marine develops feelings for Sister Angela but - they seem trapped by their respective roles. There is tension and excitement as he infiltrates the enemy camp for aid for the delirious nun who runs away into the rain resisting his drunken advances ... and the ending is just perfect. It is tough, it is gentle, it is perfect Huston the two stars shade their roles perfectly.

It is a two hander really and Kerr and Mitchum play it just right - the great rapport they have here is also evident in Zinnemann's 1960 THE SUNDOWNERS set in Australia and another enduring pleasure, Kerr really should have won the best actress that year (as indeed should have her friend Jean Simmons for ELMER GANTRY, it should have been a tie, as the culmination of their great years). Kerr and Mitch were also in the 1960 Donen souffle THE GRASS IS GREENER with Grant and Simmons making up the starry quartet - and they also did a later tv film REUNION AT FARNBOROUGH, which I caught a glimpse of once.

Beginning in the '40s the '50s was really Kerr's decade, averaging 2 films a year (3 in 1959) and she had some great roles in the '60s as well (THE INNOCENTS, Huston's NIGHT OF THE IGUANA) before her matronly era. I also saw her in a play (THE DAY AFTER THE FAIR from a Thomas Hardy story) in London 1972. Huston too had a good run in the late '50s and into the '60s, with this, his lean western THE UNFORGIVEN, THE MISFITS, and NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, classics all - and I still have to see his 1963 FREUD!

I caught up with Huston in 1972 [at the height of my obsession with THE MISFITS] at London's National Film Theatre when he was promoting his fascinating FAT CITY - it was marvellous just to watch and listen to this bigger than life character...

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

50 years on: "our huckleberry friend" is back .....

Of course,she has never been away - BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S must be the one 50 year old film [apart from PSYCHO and SOME LIKE IT HOT] that everyone knows and still watch regularly - well, all those into romcoms anyway. It is surely the prototype romantic movie for those who grew up after the classic golden age of the 30s and 40s. It is endlessly stylish too, Audrey and that black dress and accessories must be as iconic now as anything by Monroe or Jimmy Dean. [Blake Edwards was certainly a high in the early 60s, I also love DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (50 years old next year) and the first PINK PANTHER.] Capote saw his friend Marilyn Monroe in the role of Holly Golightly, I see Kay Kendall (if she had lived), but Audrey it is and she is perfect too, and I love Patricia Neal as the "very stylish girl" waving her chequebook at writer/gigolo Paul Varjak (Peppard) - there is of course a whole gay subtext here, but it works on every level, and then there is Mancini's score and that song... it is everything we feel about that optimistic early '60s and being young in a big city.

Capote's original novella was given away free in a newspaper here (in the UK) a while ago and it was interesting re-reading it. It has the perfect bittersweet ending of Holly going off to South America and they do not find the cat. The narrator keeps searching though and finds the cat one afternoon - now belonging to someone else, curled up in a window in a nice house. But of course in the movie we want that soaring choir singing "Moon River" as Cat is found and squeezed between Audrey and Peppard (did any couple ever look as good in the rain?). It is also of course one of the great New York movies - but words are superfluous... the images say it all, it's a movie of great moments and dialogue to savour. Roll it again .... it is also now back in selected cinemas in a new reissue by the BFI [British Film Institute].

Monday, 17 January 2011

50 years on: El Cid still rules

I had not seen EL CID for a few years but there it was on afternoon television (thankfully with no ads) so, despite buying the recent handsome dvd edition, I sat down for another look and of course it was just as perfect as ever. It really is perhaps the most perfectly realised epic of them all, with that dense texture and realism and real crowd scenes that you just do not get these days from CGI so-called epics (ie TROY) - as Martin Scorsese highlights in his introduction to it on the new dvd.

The design and sets are also marvellous conjuring up the dark ages and Mann's love of Spain and those striking images and landscapes he conjures up, with that great score too. All the cast are just right: Vallone, Genevieve Page as the spiteful princess, the warring princes of Fraser and Raymond, and of course Heston and Loren at their most momumental, and of course Herbert Lom and Frank Thring. [When I met Heston in 1971 it felt like he towered over me, and seeing Loren up close too in '79 was astounding]. It would seem though that the Cid and Chimene had just one night together (resulting in her twin girls) as he goes off with his soldiers the next morning! Everything about this though is sheer perfection for me. The ending with "the purest knight of all" still gets to me, just as it did when we saw it as kids back in 1961! The last section with the seige of Valencia has to be cinema at its most stirring. Its certainly the equal of or better than BEN HUR (which does get bogged down in Victorian sentimentality, from the novel, after the chariot race).