A plane narrowly avoids disaster, but what happens when everybody finds out the captain was drunk at the time? What starts off as a very spectacular, almost blockbuster-like experience soon scales itself down into being a portrait of alcoholism, as Denzel Washington’s hedonistic yet heroic, cocky yet hopelessly addicted pilot has to come to the terms of the effects of his drinking problem. The first half hour is extremely intense and very well directed – the special effects are remarkable and the tension very well handled. Then it changes tack (effectively, I must add) and we get a fine, solid character-based drama that doesn’t go for the easy clichés, doesn’t try and make its leading man a hero (in fact, Washington’s character is pretty loathsome on occasion, and he gives a great performance) and even riskily advocates cocaine as the lesser of two evils at one point. It’s no world-beater, but Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action filmmaking has a confidence to it that makes for effective drama. Supporting performances from Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly and John Goodman are predictably great.
Plein Soleil (1960)
Recently re-released in selected cinemas but already available as an earlier DVD edition, this was the first cinematic adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, the more famous Hollywood adaptation being made many decades later. This is a leaner film to be sure, and the moments that wracked the nerves in Anthony Minghella’s very good film turn out to have worked just as beautifully the first time round. Alain Delon makes for an enigmatic, compelling Ripley, who assumes the identity of the swish playboy whom he’s just murdered and who has to stay one step ahead of everybody else to avoid his cover being rumbled. For the most part, this is a deliciously dark treat – the gorgeous locations, the shock bursts of violence and the troubling likeability of the anti-hero make it a pleasure…if only the ending (which Highsmith apparently hated) wasn’t such a neat and tidy resolution, we’d have been talking about a major contender, but compared to the chilling finale of the remake, Plein Soleil doesn’t linger in the mind the way it looked it was going to for the most part. Still, a treat, nonetheless.
Hollywood formula to be sure, but the best of its kind, Ron Howard’s thrilling Formula 1 biopic has a ball concentrating on the competitiveness between cocky, risk-taking and popular James Hunt and methodical, sensible and curt Niki Lauda during the 1976 World Championship. Sure, it’s sometimes sketchy, and a bit too obvious, but the two lead performances are fantastic – Chris Hemsworth has all the charm, swagger and magnetism that makes for a winning Hunt, while Daniel Bruhl is outstanding (and bloody funny too) as the occasionally rude, but no-nonsense and ultimately heroic Lauda. The racing scenes are phenomenally well directed, bordering on Michael Bay auto-porn, but whereas in Bay’s films they are an end in itself, for Howard it’s only the icing on the cake, a thrilling charge of sound, vision and editing that gives an extra charge to what is essentially a classic tale of rivalry and convincing depiction of why it is that racers race, despite the very dangerous risks involved. Obvious to say I know, but this really is a rush.
The Last American Virgin (1982)
Recently re-released by Arrow Video, this surprising teen movie is two thirds pretty funny sex comedy and one third heartbreaking romance – although there are hints of the seriousness to come here and there, the eventual switch to a much darker tone is nevertheless quite a swerve, and a successful one at that. Awkward, shy Gary (Lawrence Monoson) is the eponymous young lad who falls instantly in love with Karen (Diane Franklin), the new girl in town, but she seems more interested in mutual friend Rick (Steve Antin), who’s got the confidence with the ladies shtick down cold. In the meantime, Gary, Rick and chubby third friend David (Joe Rubbo) get up to all manner of would-be sexual escapades involving passing off sugar as cocaine, an archetypal lonely housewife, a literal cock-measuring contest and the embarrassment of accidentally making out with your best friend’s mum. If this all sounds a bit like Porky’s, that’s because it is for the most part, although an encounter with a prostitute is surprisingly sordid and un-sanitised, leading to a case of the crabs for all three concerned. Then, when Karen realises she’s pregnant after a night with Rick, things get a lot more serious, leading to a stomach-punch of an ending that’s as painful as it is abrupt. So yeah, there’s tits, arse, crudity and farce, but there’s plenty of heart, and the final result is genuinely moving. Fantastic soundtrack too, featuring U2, The Police, Blondie and oh yes, REO Speedwagon.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
The ultimate grimy horror of the seventies got a belated sequel twelve years later and offended the BBFC so much that they demanded twenty-plus minutes of cuts before a potential cinema release. Those cuts never happened, because in the end the film got shelved after that extreme ultimatum. You can see why the sexualised violence-phobic censors got into a panic – the most notorious moment in this wild and much more comedic follow-up involves Leatherface rubbing a failed chainsaw against the heroine’s crotch, but can’t ‘get it up’ so to speak because his actual penis is taking over rather than his substitute version. Tobe Hooper directs once more, and obviously the horror genre has changed substantially since the original, so self-parody, overt metaphors (the afore-mentioned crotch incident), extreme gore (remember, the original barely had enough blood to fill a shot glass) and cartoonish excess are on the menu. The result is not as unforgettable or immortal as the original, but this is a wild ride nonetheless – Dennis Hopper (who rated this as the worst thing he ever starred in) is top-billed but doesn’t get to do too much as the would-be hero, but Caroline Williams is a strong Final Girl, while the world’s most disgusting family get to have a lot of horrible fun, be it winning chili-cook offs (watch out for the stray human tooth in your meal), sawing the top of an obnoxious twat’s head off or, in a very, very twisted sequence, cutting off the face of one victim and draping over the face of another in order to disguise them. It’s all obviously horrific, but the excessive approach makes this a lot less disturbing than the original. Great Breakfast Club-riffing poster, too!
This little-seen but recently re-discovered oddity was the semi-feature length debut of Lindsay Anderson protégé Saxon Logan, but despite a rapturous reception in Berlin was dismissed by any would-be distributors in Britain, which led to it being shelved and only reappraised around fifteen years later, after which it’s taken another decade-plus wait for it to finally get a home video release from the BFI (and Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, who’s the chief instigator behind the label’s splendid Flip Side division of obscure Brit films). The film is a very atmospheric study of four people (two hosts, two guests) whose wildly oppositional political views make for a tense dinner before things take a turn for the outright horrific. A reflection of Thatcher’s Britain, Logan’s vicious script doesn’t let anyone off the hook – its repulsive right-leaning antagonist may be the film’s most overt villain, but even the liberal characters are taken down a notch as well. The build-up and atmosphere is palpable, while the vivid lighting and scary natural location of the guest house makes for great tension. Nevertheless, when the film does lurch into outright horror, the shift is quite surreal. Is it successful? I’m definitely more than willing to watch again to see how well the mish-mash of genres gel on a second viewing, but it’s obvious even the first time that this is a totally unique experience, and its failure to even get the chance to find an audience was a real shame. The BFI’s Blu-Ray is fantastic, compiling the main, 50-minute feature with Logan’s earlier short films, a fascinating interview with the man himself, and on a seemingly unrelated note, another British semi-feature called The Insomniac (directed by Rodney Giesler) which tells the tale of a man who may have just started dreaming a dream or who may have just woken up from one. The Insomniac is pretty alluring and extremely watchable, rounding up the features on a disc that’s one of the rarest examples of myself having watched absolutely everything on a DVD, right down to reading the great booklet that came with it.