Thursday, 30 August 2012

Week 36: Ohio

"Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
 We're finally on our own;
 This summer I hear the drumming -
 Four dead in Ohio..."
 - 'Ohio',
 Neil Young

From the underpopulated North Dakota we have scooted back east to Ohio, in the industrial heartland of America. We've got some rock 'n' roll on the radio because, after all, Cleveland, Ohio, is home to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. It was a local DJ that first coined the word you see. Ohio even has its own 'State Rock Song': Hang on Sloopy by The McCoys believe it or not. And don't stop believing - Glee is also set in Ohio.
As well as being the birthplace of rock 'n' roll, Ohio also claims to be the birthplace of seven presidents, all Republican, two of whom were assassinated. It is also the birthplace of great aviators. Yes, the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, but they grew up in Dayton, Ohio. The first American in space, John Glenn, and the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong who so sadly died last week, depriving the world of one of its few true legends, also hailed from the Buckeye State. Ohio really is the heart of America. It borders one of the United States's original colonies (Pennsylvania), rural and mountainous West Virginia, genteel Soithern Kentucky, Midwestern Indiana and industrialised Michigan. Little wonder that it has recently been known as a bellweather state in American elections. Any election night worth its salt will have hordes of outside broadcasts coming live from Ohio.
As I finished off North Dakota with some horror movies I thought I would commence Ohio with some as well. My three films for Ohio are:
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • Super 8 (2011)
  • The Ides of March (2011)

Monday, 27 August 2012

The Messengers (2007)

Dir. Danny Pang, Oxide Pang
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller, John Corbett 

At last! A horror movie that is actually scary! It seems like I’ve sat through an endless stream of duff horrors so far this year (though the total figure is actually closer to half-a-dozen). So far the scariest has probably been The Shining. It has just been topped by a film of which I had not previously heard. 

I will admit that the shocks are manufactured ones. They come from sudden movement and sound cues. The scary elements have been recycled from numerous other inspirations, from The Birds to Ringu. Also, the denouement is a let down, revealing the (somewhat mundane) truth of what actually happened to the previous inhabitants. But the setting is good – I had no idea that the creaky old farmhouse had been built especially for the film, or that the interior scenes were recorded on sound stages – the direction is inventive, the visual effects good, and the cast are believable (until the aforementioned denouement).  

The action surrounds the Solomon family. After struggling in Chicago father Roy (Dylan McDermott) relocates them back to his home state of North Dakota. He buys an abandoned farm and aims to support his family by growing sunflowers. Meanwhile there is an obvious coolness between his wife Denise (Penelope Ann Miller) and his daughter Jess (Kristen Stewart). Rounding out the household is mute toddler Ben (played by Evan and Theodore Turner). The audience knows in advance that something horrific happened in that house from the pre-credits scene, showing a family getting killed by an unseen force. So the audience know to look out for the tell-tale signs such as scratch marks on the floor, stains on the walls and a child’s toy tractor at the back of a cupboard. At first it is just Ben who senses the presence of others in the house. But when he and Jess are left alone in the house (following an attack upon their father by a flock of crows) she too witnesses a supernatural force throwing the furniture around. Dead grey arms almost succeed at pulling her into the cellar. Thereafter the supernatural occurences become more and more threatening, with the dead Rollins family looming out of the dark and the crows gathering in number above the farm. 

I’m quite surprised that I had never heard of this film before. It has a ‘name’ cast, including Penelope Anne Miller (Carlito’s Way, The Relic, The Artist), John Corbett (Sex and the City, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and Dylan McDermott (who played Jackson in Steel Magnolias). Sci-fi nerds can also get their ya-yas from a cameo appearance from William B. Davis (AKA The X-Files’ Cigarette Smoking Man). Plaudits must go to the younger cast members however. I had seen Kristen Stewart with a small part in Into the Wild, but other than that only knew her as the annoying one from Twilight (which I haven’t – yet – seen). I was impressed with her performance. She really does carry the movie as the ‘ordinary sullen teenager with issues’ who is plunged into something horrific. However, and bearing in mind how much I usually hate child actors, I have to reserve my strongest praise for for the Turner boys who played Ben. Considering that they had dialogue-free roles (at least, until the end) I thought they were brilliant as the mute toddler following the action with his eyes and with his ever-pointing finger. 
Team Edward decided to teach K-Stew a lesson

Looking on the internet I see that The Messengers has not got very good reviews. Yes, I admit that it is somewhat derivative. And yes the scares come from sudden great chonking chords on the soundtrack. But it does well at creating an air of suspense and creeping terror. This is more than any other horror movie I have watched this year has managed to achieve and so I must report back favourably on The Messengers if only for that reason. It is well worth a viewing for an evening’s spine-tingler. 

What have I learnt about North Dakota?
It is very different to Chicago. I imagine the big cities must lure people away from the state. Roy obviously moved from N.D. to Chicago at some point in his past. Bobby (Dustin Milligan) says that there isn’t much for young people to do in their unspecified small town. Being bad at basketball and picking up on local gossip seem to be the biggest hobbies. Tne local feed store still has newspaper clippings on the noticeboard of people who left town five years ago. 

The terrain is suited for agriculture, and the growing of sunflowers for their seeds is one such agricultural pursuit.  Such an existence seems quite a marginal pursuit however. Everything depends upon the harvest. Bad harvests can bankrupt a farm. The local grain and seed supply stores must know this, so they take a risk letting even new farmers pay for only half their seed up front and giving them credit until the harvest. Essentially, farmers have to economise throughout the year and then pay out all their bills once the harvest comes in. 

Can we go there?
Nowhere in the film does it specify whereabouts in North Dakota the Solomon’s farm is located. It has been commented on the internet that the hills that can occasionally be seen must position it in the western part of the state as the east is exceptionally flat. 

Actually, The Messengers was filmed north of North Dakota’s western border. It was filmed in Saskatchewan, Canada. Interiors were filmed at the Canada Saskatchewan Production Studios in Regina. One hour east of Regina the farm was constructed from scratch in a suitably rural area. The actual location was a valley south of Abernethy and east of Katepwa. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Leprechaun (1993)

Dir. Mark Jones
Starring: Warwick Davis, Jennifer Aniston, Ken Olandt, Mark Holton 

I thought everybody loved the Irish? Maybe this will change after watching Leprechaun, where the monster is Life’s Too Short’s Warwick Davis spouting paradiddles and jigging about in green top hat, buckled shoes and green jacket. You see, he’s after his crock of gold. “Try as they will, and try as they might, who steals me gold won’t live through the night…” 
This particular leprechaun finds himself in America after ‘Oirish’ rogue Daniel O’Grady (Shay Duffin) catches him back in the Old Country and forces him to give up the location of his gold. When O’Grady takes the gold back to his farm in North Dakota the vengeful imp is on his tail. With the help of a four-leafed clover Dan prevails and imprisons the leprechaun in a crate in his cellar. 
Ten years later and J.D. (John Sanderford) has bought the old O’Grady farm, bringing his spoiled L.A. Valley girl daughter Tory (Jennifer Aniston) out with him. After the leprechaun is accidentally released and her father hospitalised it is up to Tory and the three local decorators - Mark Holton’s simple Ozzie, Robert Gorman’s Macauley Culkin-alike Alex and Ken Olandt’s Nathan (chanelling Kevin Bacon in a sleeveless shirt) – to live through the night and defeat the monstrous pixie. Meanwhile he terrorises the vicinity on a string of wheeled contraptions – toddler trikes, pogo sticks, skateboards, wheelchairs and roller skates. He cares only about finding his gold... and shining their shoes. Quirky!
The Irish Paralympians were determined to get gold
Tory is played by Jennifer Aniston, in her first film role. Yes, it’s a film starring Jennifer Aniston. For those of you who might have entertained even the slightest hope that Leprechaun was going to be a good movie I'm sure knowing this pretty much dispels your illusions right there. With the honourable exception of Office Space (in which she does not have a large role) Aniston has an incredible knack of appearing in absolutely atrocious movies. I must admit, I have not seen many of them, but The Object of My Affections and The Bounty Hunter must be two of the worst films I have ever watched. Others – like Along Came Polly, Marley & Me and The Switch - sound even worse from the reviews I have read. There must be someone out there who thinks there is a massive Jennifer Aniston fan club willing to see whatever dreck she is cast in. Or maybe they just know that they will get good publicity as the rumours that she is dating her co-star inevitably circulate. That being said, I must put my hands up and state for the record that she is probably the best thing about this film. Tory Redding is, essentially, Rachel Green in terrible patchwork denim shorts. Her spoilt princess is still kinda likeable and she does have good comic timing. Without Aniston Leprechaun would have had far less entertainment value.

Leprechaun is not a scary movie. It is not even particularly gory. It sort of goes for ‘comedy-horror’, but without the wit of, say, Gremlins or even Tremors. It knows it is silly and plays that up. The over-all tone is camp and kitschy. It is a schlock-horror. Unlike The Mist it does not presume to take itself seriously. I suppose its reception depends on how amusing you find Warwick Davis’s fiddle-dee-dee ‘Oirish-isms’. The character of Alex is annoying, and that of Ozzie borderline insulting. The music is straight off the Horror Soundtracks vol. III album. Worst of all, the ending sets up the resultant string of sequels. 

The final word on this pretty poor movie has to go to Daniel O’Grady himself: “Burn in hell ye little green bastard!” 

What have I learnt about North Dakota?
I have no idea why the film was set in North Dakota. It could quite easily have been set in Ireland (though I suppose people there might have been more willing to heed warnings about a murderous leprechaun). The setting only needs to be suitably isolated (though within a drive of a hospital emergency room, a convalescent home and a helpful antique dealer store). It also needs to be somewhere a Valley Girl would not appreciate spending her summer holidays (the diners don’t even serve watercress salad and Evian). The one insight we can really glean is that life is simpler here than back in L.A. and an apology will work better than offering to pay for damages. Oh, and there are opossums and bears in the backcountry. 

Can we go there?
Other than an introductory statement specifying that they were in North Dakota (and not New Mexico) there are no insights given as to where about in the state the action is supposed to occur. At first I thought that there was a clue when Tory and Nathan are seen in a diner called the Saugus Café. But this is just a clue to where the film was actually shot – Saugus just north of Los Angeles. 

Overall Rating: 2/5

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Dakota (1945)

Dir. Joseph Kane
Starring: John Wayne, Vera Hruba Ralston, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond 

1870. John Wayne is muscular scoundrel John Devlin. The film opens with him eloping with his new wife Sandra (Vera Hruba Ralston), daughter of railroad mogul Marco Poli (Hugo Haas). Devlin’s plan is to head to California and start a new life there. Sandy has other ideas. She has sold her father’s “Gainsboro” for $20,000 and plans to double their money by taking them first to Fargo in the Dakota territory. Her plan is that they can buy land locally, then sell it back at a profit when the railroad is extended from St. Paul. Unfortunately she is not the first person to have such an idea. Local big man Jim Bender (Ward Bond – Bert the cop from It’s a Wonderful Life) is in the process of consolidating his grip over the farmers of Fargo. The large estate owners are burned off their land. The immigrant small homesteaders are conned into agreeing a contract with Bender that will see them forfeit their land to him if the harvest fails. With fire-spreading heavies like Bigtree Collins (Mike Mazurka) at his call, Bender aims to ensure that the harvest will, indeed, fail. The bantering Devlins are a variable that he doesn’t much like having around. 

It’s an odd movie. With its bickering central couple it seems to foreshadow later action-oriented romantic comedies like Romancing the Stone. In that respect is seems quite forward-looking for 1945. It’s a shame that the same cannot be said for its treatment of cultural issues. The homesteaders are all happy-go-lucky thick-accented immigrants with colourful clothing (well, we are told it is colourful: it’s hard to tell in black and white). And the least said about Nicodemus (Nicodemus Stewart), the lazy, feckless black bosun on board The River Bird the better! The comedy is quite forced. An example of Wayne’s ‘witty’ banter comes when he meets a showgirl called Jersey (Ola Munson): “I thought Jersey was a state.” “Sometimes I am.” It doesn’t help that a lot of the accents are all but incomprehensible. Vera Hruba Ralston has a Czech accent that stilts her conversational skills (she, like Sonja Heine of Sun Valley Serenade) was also a pre-war figure skater. The only differences are that Ralston never placed better than seventh, she doesn’t get a chance to show off her skills in the movie, and that Heine was never nominated for ‘Worst Actress Ever’ Golden Turkey Award. Still, she is more comprehensible from what I guess is meant to be the film’s comedy star turn, Walter Brennan’s Captain Bounce. He gabbles away madly at his decrepit steam paddlewheeler. He is terrible. And, by the time Dakota was made, he was also a three-time Oscar winner, having won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1936, 1938 and 1940 (and having been nominated a fourth time in 1941). For a ‘comedy’ I’m not sure there is a single laugh in it.

It is better where it sticks to the action. Within the first ten minutes we have a carriage race through the wooded roads of ‘Chicago’ and a pretty good punch-up on a train with bodies flying over the other passengers. After that point plot starts to get in the way of fisticuffs however. The final melee is a confused maelstrom of gunfire, horses racing by and stage coaches toppling over. It’s hard to tell who is fighting who in the dark. Thankfully director Joseph Kane brings the focus back to Devlin, Bender and Collins before the audience gives up in bafflement. 

There are some good ideas lurking in the background of Dakota. Not surprising when the original screenplay was penned by Carl ‘On the Waterfront’ Forman. For a ‘classic’ Western it makes no bones that the powerful in these frontier provinces got and stayed that way because they were unscrupulous. Even in 1870 the kind of corporate chicanery that seems all too common today was still in operation. Bender has insider information and he intends to profit from it. So too, for that matter, do the Devlins. Unfortnately the film does not know what to do with that premise. It cannot decide whether it wants to be an action movie or a romantic comedy. My gut feeling is that they should have left the comedy behind in Chicago and had John Wayne shoot first and make wise cracks later. 
Ryanair's attempt to levy a 'Cowboy Hat Charge'
was the final straw...
What have I learnt about North Dakota?
Dakota features North Dakota before it was a state, when it was just part of the Dakota Territory.This was new land, fertile and cultivatable, and new immigrants to the U.S. came here to grow wheat. These ‘bonanza farmers’ are depicted as having thick accents and colourful native customes intact. Of course, not having much money or English, they were ripe for exploitation by the predatory. The native Sioux could be conveniently blamed for any mishap. 

The rail road was eventually to link the Dakotas to the rest of the nation. Until then those wishing to travel to the new towns on the very edge of the territory like Fargo or Grand Forks would have to take the train to St. Paul, the stagecoach across to Fort Abercrombie, and then head up the Red River by boat. 

Can we go there?
The places featured still exist. Fort Abercrombie has been reconstructed as a historic site. Some 35 miles north up the Red River valley is Fargo. The railroad now does indeed pass through the city, with Amtrak's Empire Builder stopping off between Chicago and Seattle or Portland. One place to visit to evoke those bygone days would be Bonanzaville. Sadly the Pioneer Days event commemorating the crossing of the Red River was last weekend. 

Of course, Dakota was not actually filmed in the Dakotas. It was a cheapy Western churned out to meet demand. The film was shot, unsurprisingly, pretty much entirely on set in Hollywood. One of the few occasions when the action spills off the sound stage is when Vasquez Rocks (just north of Los Angeles) can be seen as the stage coach sweeps into Fort Abercrombie. 

Overall Rating: 2/5

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Week 35: North Dakota

"I ain't the kind believes in ghosts
 But some nights I get pretty close
 When the North Dakota winter moans..."
 - 'North Dakota',
 Chris Knight
From North Carolina we head on to North Dakota. It's a fair old way further north, and just as far farther west. From the muggy Atlantic coast we are in to the very centre of the North American landmass, up on the Canadian border.
Boxed in by Canada, Montana, Minnesota and South Dakota I feel a bit sorry for North Dakota. It's neighbours all seem so much more charismatic. Montana is the 'Big Sky Country'. South Dakota has the Black Hills, Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore. Minnesota has the Twin Cities on the Mississippi and hundreds of lakes. Apparently North Dakota is the US's least visited state. What does it have to lure the tourists in? Missile silos, wheatfields and a state capital named after a 19th Century German Chancellor. (Bismarck - all part of a plan to attract German investment in railroads and German immigration. It seems to have been successful; 2.5% of the population speak German apparently).
We have just about visited North Dakota previously however. Its largest city is Fargo. In fact the Coen Brothers' Fargo made it on to my original list for North Dakota before someone pointed out that all but two scenes were actually set in Minnesota. So I have had to find alternative movies for this week. And it wasn't easy. I've ended up with two films that I'd never heard of beforehand, and one that is famously terrible. So it could be an interesting week...

The three films are:
  • Dakota (1945)
  • Leprechaun (1993)
  • The Messengers (2007)

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Bull Durham (1988)

Dir. Ron Shelton
Starring: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Trey Wilson 

Chance turns on the slightest things. Nowhere is this more true than in sports. What makes a great sports player? Genetic freak, like Usain Bolt? An iron will and determination to win, like Terry Butcher? Years and years of honing one’s skill? The random element: the old ‘one in off the backside’ that strikers need to rediscover their form? A gust of wind, a bobble on the green, a slip on wet grass: all these can make or break a chance. It is no surprise that sportsmen are almost perversely superstitious. 

In Bull Durham we meet a struggling minor league baseball team called the Durham Bulls. They have their superstitions. Jimmy prays before every game. Jose rubs his bat with a chicken bone crucifix, and when his girlfriend puts a curse on his glove he cannot catch a single ball. And then there is Annie (Susan Sarandon). She is a woman looking for something to believe in. After going through every religion available she has finally settled on her true calling: “the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball”. She lights candles for the saints of long gone players. And every year she picks a Bulls player to be her lover. That player always has the best season of his life. And this season she has hers eyes fixed on cocky bowler Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a gobby punk with a “million dollar arm” who needs to learn control. She gives him sensible advice (bending his back), not so sensible advice (breathing through his third eyelid) and a mixture of the two (wearing her suspender belt to remind hum to not pull his hips out). When he does hit a rich vein of form he resolves to not do anything to upset it. And this, to Annie’s increasing frustration, includes sleeping with her. 

There is one other person trying to hone LaLoosh. Laloosh likes to be called ‘Nuke’. ‘Crash’ Davis (Kevin Costner) calls him ‘Meat’. Crash is a Minor League veteran, moving wherever the next contract is. He does not have the God-given gifts that Nuke does, but he is canny and can read the game like no one else. Like Annie he is a thinker and a scholar of baseball. He has been brought in to tutor Nuke and make him ready for his move up to “The Show” (the Majors). It is his reading of the game that helps Nuke to demolish batsman after batsman with contemptuous ease, once he has trained him to not overthink. It is not a role that Crash particularly enjoys. He once played in the Majors himself, for “the 21 greatest days of my life”. And now his career is waning. He compares himself to a stable pony, a racehorse being put out to stud. His goal is to help Nuke achieve a career in the Majors, something that he himself never managed. 

Crash combines brains with ingenuity. He does not believe in superstitions. Baseball to him is, in the words of the team coach (Trey Wilson), “a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.” In the middle of a terrible losing streak some of the other Bulls wish that the next game would be rained off to give them a chance to regroup. Crash literally brings the rain – he breaks into the baseball stadium and turns the sprinklers on. He doesn’t wish and pray and hope: he takes action. This is why he walks away when Annie invites both him and LaLoosh back to her house to “try out” for the role of her favoured player for this season. He has, he tells her, never tried out for anything. His record speaks for itself, even if he doesn’t boast that he is just six home runs away from the Minor League record. He has reached the stage in his career when he is drafted in to fix a temporary deficiency, but then will have to make way for the next bright young talent the bosses want to develop (and sell on at a profit to a bigger club). It is a lonely life, and he and Annie are kindred spirits.  
He couldn't believe Crash had fallen for the old
'black eye telescope' prank again...
This is Costner’s fourth appearance this year. He cycled in American Flyers, he fought crime in The Untouchables, and he was in love with baseball in Field of Dreams. In Bull Durham he is in love with baseball again; the problem is, baseball doesn’t love him back. Susan Sarandon’s groupie is a million years away from her chaste Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking. This is Tim Robbins’ first appearance however – opposite his future wife Sarandon, whom he first met here – and it is probably his mouthy and unworthy star player that will stick longest in the memory. Not least for his own interior monologues. I love his thoughts about wearing the suspender belt, which turn from finding it actually kinda sexy, to defensively denying to himself that this makes him queer. 

Bull Durham is not your average sports movie and this makes it quite interesting. Usually the formula, as in Best Shot, is that a raggle taggle bunch of underdogs are taken all the way to the Final by a coach with unorthodox techniques. Annie certainly has the unorthodox techniques, but she is not the coach. She is merely a groupie. But we do not get the overview of the Bulls’ season. They play poorly then – when Nuke gets into his groove – they start to play really well. But the story finishes before the end of the season. LaLoosh gets his call up to the Majors. His work done, Crash is released. This gives the film a melancholic air. The undeserving shit gets the prize (as Annie says, “the world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness”), and our hero rides off into the sunset. Though he does return for a completely unnecessary five minute sex scene. Frankly it could have been longer (the film, not the unnecessary sex scene). I feel like we barely got started with the love triangle. I would have liked to have seen more of the Bulls’ season. And I would have liked to have worked out what the difference was between a fast ball, a curve ball and a break ball, because they all looked the same to me. 

What have I learnt about North Carolina?
The baseball scene isn’t the most glamorous in the world. Teams take part in the Carolina League. So presumably when Americans talk about the ‘Minor Leagues’ these are not the equivalent of English football leagues with a vertical structure across the nation, but a horizontal distribution of many different regionally-based leagues. In the minor leagues the dressing rooms are cold and bare, and the manager has little more than a desk, a chair and a calendar. They carry their own bags on to the team bus. They can, however, afford Porsches – well, those whom the Majors have their eye on, anyway. The lower-league teams seem to be feeder clubs for the larger ones. 

Baseball is watched by all generations. Games are spiced up by other forms of entertainment – dancers, money dropped from helicopters, free steaks if you hit an advertising hoarding etc.  

Can we go there?
Not only are the locations featured genuine, but so too are the teams. The Durham Bulls really exist, and they did play their home games at the stadium shown in the film, the Durham Athletic Park, on Morris Street in central Durham. Sadly the Bulls moved out in 1994. That local area is their stomping ground. Annie’s house was 911 N Mangum Street in Durham. Crash and Ebby almost come to blows in the alleyway outside Mitch’s Tavern at 2426 Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. The bar still has the glass door broken by LaLoosh. Another fight occurs in the Green Room pool hall in Durham (although the pool hall is now across the street from where it was at the time of filming). After being released Crash walks by the old Liggett and Myers Tobacco warehouses between Duke, Gregson and Main Streets. 

On their tours around North Carolina they visit the Burlington Athletic Stadium and the Greensboro World War Memorial Stadium. Crash later finds a place with the Asheville Tourists. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Nights in Rodanthe (2008)

Dir. George C. Wolfe
Starring: Richard Gere, Diane Lane, James Franco, Viola Davis 

On the storm-lashed shore of North Carolina’s Outer Banks Adrienne (Diane Lane) finds a twisted and warped piece of driftwood. She resolves to fashion it into a keepsake box. Legend has it that such a box will protect the contents placed within. The more ugly and battered the wood, the greater power it has when it is made into something beautiful.

That, you see, is a metaphor. In the world of Nights of Rodanthe it is a metaphor for the two lonely and troubled souls who find themselves in each other’s arms in an out of season hotel. Adrienne has been hurt by her husband leaving her and conflicted by his expressed desire to return. She put her own life, ambitions and career on hold to be a good wife and mother; when her son is hospitalised by an asthma attack hundreds of miles away in Florida she questions whether she is even that. Paul (Richard Gere) likewise gave up part of his life. He scarificed his role as a husband and father to be the best doctor he could be. Now, haunted by the death of a local woman on his operating table, he is forced to question whether the loss of his wife and son was worth it. These two battered individuals have washed up here on the sand. The question is, can they make something beautiful between them? 

Of course they can. Paul gives Adrienne the strength she needs to choose her own path, whether her ex-husband and children like it or not. And she gives Paul the compassion and humanity to reconnect with his son Mark (James Franco) who is working as a doctor in remotest Ecuador (we can tell that it’s Ecuador: the scenes there have a pan-pipe soundtrack). They become better people through knowing each other. The film is entirely predictable. Both Adrienne and Paul are entirely blameless for their problems. They have a glass of wine, they experience a moment of mild peril in a storm… of course they are going to end up in bed together. The one surprise is that there isn’t a happy ending. Look away now if you don’t want to know the ending (SPOILER ALERT!), but Paul is drowned by a flood of crap. After watching Nights in Rodanthe I know how he must have felt. 

There are positives to the film. It has a nice setting. The sand flats and dunes of the Outer Banks, with the wide grey Atlantic behind, form a nice back-drop. And the bed and breakfast of Adrienne’s best friend Jean (The Help’s Viola Davis) is quirky and characterful. Almost too quirky and characterful. It looks like a set from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: a tall, slightly ramshackle, clapboard house teetering on the tideline. The interior (clearly a set rather than the actual seafront property) is crammed eccentrically with local art and crafts. It is a nice enough place for two bruised individuals to hide away from the world. But the spiritual and healing house was all just part of the heavy-handed metaphors the film employs. At the end of the film Adrienne returns to Rodanthe, and what should she see running down the beach but the ‘Bankers’ the wild horses of the area, descendents of those steeds who were shipwrecked in times gone by. They too are a wild, glorious metaphor of… something. I’m not sure what. I suppose they were strong enough to escape their servitude and now represent freedom. Adrienne herself is now free. 

Passion probably wouldn't have flared had they stayed
at the Linton Travel Tavern (off Junction 9 of the M11)

The film Nights in Rodanthe is based upon a novel by bestselling author Nicholas Sparks. Sparks sets many of his novels in his home state of North Carolina: Message in a Bottle, The Last Song, Dear John, The Notebook. And so many of them have now been turned into movies (though The Notebook was relocated to South Carolina when it was filmed). Frankly, after seeing this I do not feel much urge to see any of the others. Let’s hope it was just a bad adaptation. 

What have I learnt about North Carolina?
The one strength of Nights in Rodanthe is its local colour. We travel from Raleigh (pronounced ‘Rar-lee’, not ‘Ralley’) to the coast, over by ferry to the sand spit islands. Here there is a community of salt-lashed fishermen and old timers, battered by never beaten by the area’s frequent hurricanes. They have joyous celebratory festivals when a storm passes, gorging on crabs on crckers and dancing on the piers to the music of double bass, fiddle, Jew’s harp and washboard. Or that is what the tale would have you believe. The islands are populated by wild horses, descendents of shipwreck survivors. There are legends about pirates like Edward Teach ('Blackbeard'). There are other superstitions held by by the locals too, like Jean’s great-grandmother, whose tales about spirits and tradition still resonate.

Can we go there?
Nights in Rodanthe was filmed in Rodanthe and North Topsail Beach. Both are on Hatteras Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Paul and Adrienne dance on Rodanthe Pier. And Jean’s characterful bed and breakfast really exists. The building is called Serendipity and is a rental house. Shortly after the film was released the building was actually damaged in a storm. Its present owner paid for the entire building to be moved further south and further inland and plan to open it for business again, albeit without the tide sweeping around its piles. It should be pointed out that the interiors were filmed on sets, rather than in the building. However, the owners have announced that they intend to redesign the interior to resemble those seen on screen, so you too could give in to passion in the Blue Room. If that floats your boat.

Overall Rating: 1/5

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Cape Fear (1962)

Dir. J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, Lori Martin 

In 1962 Gregory Peck played two memorable lawyers on screen. He won the Academy Award for his principled Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Earlier that year he appeared as another noble lawyerly paterfamilias, but one whose morals are increasingly troubled. This was Sam Bowden in Cape Fear.

Bowden is a different calibre of lawyer to Finch. Just looking at his grand house with its sprawling and well-kept grounds shows the viewer that he is much more successful than ‘30s small-town lawyer Atticus. Instead of two children he just has the one, Nancy (Lori Martin). He also still has a wife, Peggy (Polly Bergen). But he still strives to do the right thing. Why, eight years ago he even intervened to stop an “attack” – a rape – on a young woman. His testimony was enough to get the perpetrator jailed. 

But eight years later that criminal is out of jail and wants pay-back. Robert Mitchum portrays Max Cady as one of the nastiest characters ever committed to celluloid. He is a sadistic rapist – and kudos to writer James R. Webb for bringing him to the screen in an era when the word rape could not be uttered. Cape Fear pushed the limits of what was acceptable in the cinema. To be released in Britain around six minutes of cuts had to be made (now reinstated on the DVD I watched) and it still came out with an X rating. Cady wants vengeance on Bowden for the eight years he lost. He does not associate his imprisonment with his attempted rape; he blames it all on Bowden’s intervention. And so he seeks out Bowden. He is strong, vicious, amoral and – worryingly – smart. Eight years of studying law in gaol has taught him exactly far he can go in his war of nerves. He is careful not to overstep the mark. He lets Sam know he is in town. But he cannot be linked to the poisoning of the Bowden’s pet dog. He terrorises bad girl Diane (Barrie Chase) so that she refuses to testify after he rapes her. When Sam catches him eyeing 14-year-old Nancy he attacks Cady; Cady refuses to retaliate. And in fact Max does everything requested of him by the police – before bringing in his own lawyer to protest that he is being victimised. When the police can do no more Sam’s friend the Chief (Martin Balsam) suggests he turn to a private detective. When Charlie Sievers (a young Telly Savalas – with hair!) can do no more he suggests Sam hire some heavies to run Max out of town. Sam, desperate, finally resorts to this, but it backfires. In danger of losing his licence to practice law Sam has one last chance – to use his wife and daughter as bait to lure Cady out to their houseboat on the Cape Fear river. There he will attempt to ambush him. 

And he has to use his family as bait. It is his family that Cady targets in the hope of ruining Sam’s life – “I got something planned for your wife and kid that they ain’t nevah gonna forget. They ain’t nevah gonna forget it… and neither will you Counsellor. Nevah!” He continually makes comments about how sweet Peggy looks – and how young Nancy is developing just as well. In particular it is the young girl that he has eyes for. And what eyes! Mitchum has the heavy, lazy gaze of a predator. His entire carriage screams malevolence. No wonder Nancy runs away in terror when she spots him in the street. He has a human cunning, but no human decency. Time and again Cady is referred to as “a beast”, “an animal”; Diane tells him “you’re just an animal: coarse, lustful, barbaric” (this is actually a turn-on for her!). Sam says that he belongs in a cage. He is absolutely grotesque – but at the same time he is clever and has a sort of feral charisma. How else could he seduce Diane while being arrested? Above all he is confident, and confidence is attractive. He is confident in his own strength, he is confident in his power over the Bowdens, and he is confident that the law cannot touch him. As Bowden complains “Either we’ve got too many laws or not enough.” It really is Mitchum’s performance that lifts the story above the humdrum and turns it into something truly chilling. Classic moment? When he corners Peggy on the houseboat. In anger he suddenly grabs an egg and crushes it in his fist. This was entirely improvised and Bergen’s shock and revulsion were real. 

"Hey Atticus - I stole your hat!"

The final confrontation at Cape Fear is electrifying. I suppose we should know that Sam would win out against Max – it’s a film from 1962 from heaven’s sake, and Max is so evil and Sam is so, well, Gregory Peck, that anything else would have been unthinkable. But Cady certainly pushes it to the wire. To be honest, I think we have lost something with the move to colour films. Black and white work brilliantly in menacing night-time scenes like this. The  moonlight and the shadows of vegetation stripe Max’s half-naked body as he slips from the river and prowls into the undergrowth as lethal as a jungle beast. I find it hard to imagine how it would look in colour if I’m honest. 

Though I should know. While this was my first occasion to watch this original, I have previously seen a different version. In 1991 Martin Scorsese remade the film with Nick Nolte as Sam and Robert De Niro as Cady. In many ways the later version is superior. De Niro is a terrifying pumped-up steroidal Frankenstein’s monster. He is also mad, as becomes clear towards the end of the film. He is more of an obvious physical threat than Mitchum’s terrific shark-like circling of the Bowdens. Mitchum’s Cady is not mad; his danger comes from the fact that he is perfectly rational. At the same time Nolte’s Sam is less Dudley Do-Right. In the Scorsese version he was the lawyer defending Cady and he covered up some of the evidence in order to get his client sent down. It is implied that he is having an affair with a colleague. Sam is less scrupulous and his family is less perfect. Probably its main strength is the relationship between Cady and Sam’s daughter (now called Danielle). He infiltrates her life, and she responds to him. Mind you, she is played by Juliette Lewis! The climax is much more action-packed and ends in a death. Finally, Scorsese sets the film in North Carolina. Despite the name of the film (Cape Fear is a promontory and river in the south of NC) the bulk of the action in the original takes place in Georgia. Which I didn’t realise before I watched the film! 

What have I learnt about North Carolina?
Not as much as I would have hoped. The Scorsese remake lulled me into a false sense of security. In the 1991 version Sam Bowden practises law in New Essex, North Carolina. In the original he practices in Georgia. The only scenes set in North Carolina are those of the climax on the Bowden’s houseboat on the Cape Fear river. Frankly, the only link to North Carolina is that river – and the only reason that river is used instead of any other Georgian rivers (which would make more sense) is because it has a cool name. How could a police officer from Georgia be permitted to stand guard in North Carolina? 

But we learn that there is indeed a Cape Fear river, and that it is a recreation area. It is a maze of small islands and wild vegetation. The bird-life sounds almost tropical. 

Can we go there?
No filming took place in North Carolina at all. Filming did occur in Georgia, however – in Savannah (location of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). Several of the historic plaques can be seen around town behind the action. In an odd case of art imitating life Robert Mitchum, as a young man, had in fact been charged with vagrancy (one of the charges the police attempt to throw at Cady) and sentenced to work on a chain gang. Quite understandably he was quite reluctant to revisit the town. As a result a large number of the scenes were shot back in California. The scenes on what is meant to be the Cape Fear River were hence actually filmed at Ladd’s Marina in Stockton. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Week 34: North Carolina

"I'm a mile and a half off the tracks
 In Raleigh, North Carolina,
 With my foot all jammed up from
 Driving fourteen hours;
 And my body can't sit upright,
 Hanging around watching the TV on mute..."
 - 'North Carolina',
 Melissa Ferrick

Now I've done some research here, and fourteen hours from Seneca Falls, New York, to Raleigh, North Carolina, actually sounds about right. Maybe Melissa Ferrick is taking the same journey as us...

After a month in the 'News' (Hampshire, Jersey, Mexico and York) we now have a fortnight in the 'Norths'. But before we get to North Dakota we have North Carolina to look at. And there's plenty in the state's history to be interested in. Raleigh is named after Sir Walter, who brought back to England the potato and tobacco from here (after he'd figured out which one to eat and which one to smoke). The Roanoke Settlement was somewhere on the coast in North Carolina, and the state witnessed the first birth of an English child in North America (Virginia Dare). Tobacco remains important as an industry to this day. But Kitty Hawk out on the Outer Banks also saw the Wright Brothers make the first successful powered flight. And there are major universities and research institutions in the inland triangle made up of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

From the shoals and sounds of the sand-banked Atlantic coast, through the fields of tobacco and studenty cities and all the way to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west there is a lot to cover in North Carolina. And I only have three films to do it in. So let's turn the TV off mute and get started. My North Carolina movies are: 
  • Cape Fear (1962)
  • Nights in Rodanthe (2008)
  • Bull Durham (1988)

Thursday, 16 August 2012

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Dir. Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell

I wanted to find a film set in New York state that wasn’t set in Manhattan – and so I’ve headed to the fictional town of Bedford Falls, home to James Stewart’s George Bailey and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life 
Bedford Falls is a humble little town full of people with humble little dreams. But not George Bailey. He wants to travel the world, go to college and build great ambitious projects: bridges, skyscrapers, airfields. But he is never able to leave town. First his father dies and local tycoon Henry Potter (Key Largo’s Lionel Barrymore) moves to close down the Bailey Building and Loan Association. The Bailey Building and Loan is the only way the townspeople can afford to move out of the rented slum dwellings of Potter’s Field to their own homes. George energises the board to scupper Potter’s plans – but their condition is that he remains behind to run the business. He then hopes to hand over management of the family business to brother Harry (Todd Karns) when he returns from college. However Harry comes home with a wife and the prospect of a good job in Buffalo. So George stays on. He uses the $2,000 he had saved for his honeymoon to quell the panic when there is a run on the bank and the townsfolk try to withdraw their money from the Building and Loan. He refuses a lucrative job working for Potter and continues to underwrite more and more affordable housing developments. But when an $8,000 deposit goes missing it looks as though the family business will be closed down for bank fraud. George appeals to Mr Potter for help; Potter refuses, recognising his chance to finally close down the one business in Bedford Falls outside his control. In desperation George realises that he is worth more dead than alive. As the snow falls on Christmas Eve he staggers to the bridge to commit suicide. 

It then falls to Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) to show George the error of his ways. Clarence is an angel (second class) – George’s guardian angel. And he has been sent in answer to the prayers of so many people who care about George. He demonstrates what Bedford Falls would be like if George had never been born. His brother would never have become a decorated war hero because he would have died without George to rescue him, aged 9. Without George to recognise that the druggist Mr Gower (H. B. Warner) had made a mistake in making out a prescription Gower would have been imprisoned for murder and would now be a homeless bum. Without George the Bailey Building and Loan would have folded. Forgetful Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) would have been committed to an asylum and Potter would have finally achieved control over all of Bedford Falls – or Pottersville as it would now be called. Pottersville would be a rough town full of bars, nightclubs, striptease shows and pawnhouses. Worst of all Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), the girl he married, would now be a spinster: no husband, no children, and their house would be a decaying wreck. The realisation that he has touched so many lives for the better causes him to wake from this vision and send him running back through the streets. Reaching home he is besieged by all the people he has helped. Hearing that he was in trouble the entire town has turned out to donate whatever they can afford. A note from Clarence reminds him that “no man is poor who has friends.” Harry leads the toasts to “my big brother George: the richest man in town!”

You can criticise the film. If you’re a dick. It is sentimental – deliberately so. It has a very obvious good vs evil plotline. The angelic intervention is cribbed straight from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. And you don’t have to look very hard for a moral to the tale before stumbling on the notion that one should abandon all ambition. This is not High School Musical telling its audience that they can be whatever they want; It’s a Wonderful Life tells people to be content with their lot and give up on their dreams. For all his talk of ‘lassoing the moon’ and giving Mary whatever she wants (which he does: all she wants is him and a family and the old house they turn into a home) George negates all his dreams. He lets ‘duty’ and doing what is right take precedence over his own ambitions. But this is a very deontological viewpoint. Who knows what George could have achieved had he followed his dreams? He may have contributed more to the War as a planner, engineer and architect than selling War Bonds and saving the life of a brother who shot down fifteen enemy planes. You can see IAWL as a film about knowing one’s place. 

George Bailey: the man who put the 'Bail' in 'Bank Bail Out'

But to overanalyse the film is to lose the point of it. I said that it was deliberately sentimental, and you would need to have a heart of stone not to be affected by it. It is well crafted, Stewart is as engaging as ever as the “aw shucks!” small town boy with the simple morality, Donna Reed creates the perfect girl-next-door in Mary, nuts about George. And yes, I admit it, I had a tear in my eye in all those times when the townsfolk rally around, be it the Bailey’s abortive honeymoon arranged by Bert the cop and Ernie the taxi driver (Ward Bond and Frank Faylen) – no relation to Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie – or the final scene when everyone crams in to show George just how appreciated he is. It sees the good in human beings. Potter asks George “Why don’t you go to the riff-raff you love so much and ask them to let you have $8,000? You know why? Because they’d run you out of town on a rail.” The joy is in proving Potter wrong. They produce that $8,000 and much much more because they are all members of the same community; they look out for one another when times are tough. This is a film about love, and family, and friendship, and Christmas, and miracles. My girlfriend thought the angelic intervention at the end of the film spoilt it a little (and she’s the religious one in the relationship). But it’s Christmas in Bedford Falls. Every Christmas needs its angel to see something the rest of us cannot. It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t have a bad bone in its body. It is the very dictionary definition of ‘heart-warming’. I loved it. 

Nominated for five Academy Awards, It’s a Wonderful Life won none. It was completely outperformed by The Best Years of Our Lives. No, I’ve never heard of it neither. But IAWL sort of languished until a new generation rediscovered it some thirty years later. The American Film Institute named it America’s Most Inspiring Movie in 2006 (five places above another Frank Capra – James Stewart collaboration, Mr Smith Goes to Washington; The Best Years of Our Lives made #11). Four years earlier Channel 4 viewers in Britain had voted It’s a Wonderful Life the seventh greatest movie ever made. It has a special place in the affections of millions of fans the world over. Now it has one more. 

What have I learnt about New York?
This is New York outside NYC, a reminder that there is something more to the state than the great metropolis down on the coast. It is a land of pleasant towns whose concerns, where they lie outside the town boundaries, are directed towards Elmira, Rochester and Buffalo just as often as they are towards New York City. 

New York City may be further away from this New York town than it is from the New Jersey settings of On the Waterfront and Cop Land but it still looms figuratively on the horizon. One might suppose that the presence of such a major city spurs George’s wanderlust. When Potter offers him a job requiring him to travel down to New York City George is tempted. But although he wants to leave Bedford Falls he never manages to. A difference can be seen in local fast girl Violet (Gloria Grahame). The impression given is that she does not want to leave Bedford Falls but she cannot stand it any longer – presumably gossip about her reputation. An entire other way of living is literally just down the road.

Bedford Falls is a town with a poverty problem – probably due to a lack of local competition. The film shows how local tycoons like Potter can completely dominate a town. He has a senator dancing attendance on him in one scene, and he is more than happy to keep the townsfolk renting his slum dwellings in Potters Field rather than progress up to owning their own dwelling. He owns the store, the bank, the slums and a hundred other associated businesses. In New York City he would be gobbled up at once; out in the backwoods he can be a very big fish in a very small pond. It's notable that he has a bust of Napoleon in his office.

Can we go there?
There is no genuine town of Bedford Falls. However, the central New York town of Seneca Falls claims to be ‘the real Bedford Falls’. They have a It’s a Wonderful Life festival every December, the Hotel Clarence in town is named after Henry Travers’ angel, and they even have an It’s a Wonderful Life Museum (opened in 2010 by Karolyn Grimes who played Zuzu in the film). 

The film was made on a set – the RKO Ranch in Encino, California. The set covered four acres. To all intents and purposes a whole town was created there with 75 stores and buildings and twenty full-grown oak trees. Sadly, it was razed in the mid 1950s. It now lies under housing developments and Balboa Park. Only two locations survive. The Martini House can be found at 4587 Vira Road in La Cañada Flintridge. And the school gym with the swimming pool beneath it still exists; it is part of Beverly Hills High School. Clueless was filmed there, and its alumni include Albert Brooks (from Taxi Driver), Nicholas Cage (from Raising Arizona), Carrie Fisher (from The Blues Brothers), Betty White (from Hard Rain and Lake Placid) and director Rob Reiner.

Overall Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Taxi Driver (1976)

Dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel 

We can see the change in Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver over the course of two statements.

“All the animals come out at night: whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. One of these days a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets...”
“Listen you fuckers, you screwheads! Here is a man who would not take it any more! A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up!”
Inarticulate and insomniac, Travis has no friends. He is distant from his family. He has no particular views on politics, music, cinema. He prowls the rain-slick streets of 1970s New York at night as a taxi driver. And what he sees of life disgusts him. The streets are thick with prostitutes and pimps, crazies and killers. And in the back seat of his cab all the seven sins are played out: lust, wrath, envy, you name it. In one of the most shocking (to me) lines in the film Travis casually states “Each night when I return the cab to the garage I have to clean the cum off the back seat. Some nights I clean off the blood.” But he can put up with it. He wishes the world weren’t so, but what can you do? Only sit and wait for the rain…

But then he becomes the rain. He takes it upon himself to cleanse the city of those who bring it down. He gets “some bad ideas” in his head. The ramblings in his diary become more psychotic. He buys guns. Lots of guns. He talks to himself in the mirror – the famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene. And he starts to choose his targets. Unable to relate effectively to women he idealises them as symbols of purity. It doesn’t work. So he looks at the most important men in the lives of the women he loves, the men who have – in his eyes – corrupted them. For campaign-worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) that man would be presidential candidate Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris); for 12 year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) it would be her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), and the Mafioso brothel-owners he reports to.

Travis is in no way a good well-adjusted man. His idea of a suitable second date is to take Betsy to a porn theatre to watch a Swedish sex film. When the other taxi drivers bitch and tell tall tales he watches, but does not really interact unless he has to. Same with his passengers. He is an outsider casting a jaundiced eye on the world. In his head he fantasises. He tells his parents he has to remain incognito due to his work for the Government but that he has a nice girl. Yet he survives his killing spree and ends up a hero. Too slow to shoot Palantine he takes out his anger on Iris’s pimps. He wakes from a coma to be hailed a hero. But the savagery is not hiding very far below the surface. In the very last scene he suddenly glances up at his rear-view mirror, shock and hate etched onto his features. Travis has merely been vindicated; he is still a ticking time-bomb. 

But so is the city. This is not Woody Allen’s romanticised black and white Manhattan. This is the New York of Martin Scorsese. In his New York the darkness is only contrasted with garish neon. Sex is sold on every corner. The wet streets reflect back this world; so too does Travis. He sees the scum and takes it upon himself to clean up the city. Obviously, he doesn’t look inwards enough to recognise that he himself is scum. 

The ending looks as though it was cut and pasted from another film altogether. To appease the MPAA Scorsese deliberately desaturated the colours of the final shoot-out. This gives it a grainy, almost dreamy atmosphere. Scorsese is on record as saying that he prefers the final appearance to the original. I cannot make that comparison, but I don’t like the desaturated print. It makes the film look like some dodgy chop-socky video import. 

I told you not to pick it...

The young De Niro is amazing here. His scenes conversing with himself in the mirror are famous, but for most of the film he is flat and empty. All we have are his eyes flickering. Nor is he the only actor that appears here years before we become more familiar with them. Frankly, the idea that he won an Oscar for his fleeting appearance in The Untouchables but not for carrying Taxi Driver is an insult. Keitel – who starred alongside De Niro in Cop Land - not only has hair, he has a mane of the stuff, black and flowing. As the twelve-year-old hooker Jodie Foster is old before her times, debating her life precociously with Travis over breakfast (a breakfast that, admittedly, consists of jam and sugar toast sandwiches while she tries on different pairs of sunglasses). Scorsese himself even appears in one scene as a jealous and murderous husband. Only having seen him before as the avuncular bushy-eyebrowed Marty of recent years I completely failed to recognise the black-bearded sociopath in the back of Bickle’s cab. 

Taxi Driver also occupies an interesting place in the annals of political violence in America. In 1972 a man called Artie Bremer attempted to assassinate Alabama Governor (and Presidential hopeful) George Wallace. Scriptwriter Paul Schrader used Bremer’s rambling diaries as inspiration for Travis Bickle. Bickle, of course, sets out to assassinate Presidential hopeful Charles Palantine. A young man from New York called John Hinckley Jr. became so obsessed with Jodie Foster’s characterisation of Iris in Taxi Driver that he fell in love with her. In 1981 he decided to prove his love by – yep – trying to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley’s abortive attempt was later incorporated in to Stephen Sondheim’s 1991 Broadway musical Assassins. This means that Assassins was a curious case of art imitating life imitating art imitating life. 

What have I learnt about New York?
New York in the ‘70s is a world away from the top tourist destination we know it as now. There is nothing romantic or appealing about it. It is sordid, sleazy and dangerous and everyone knows it.  I understand now why Rudy Giullani is so feted in New York. I'm not saying that his 'Zero Tolerance' programme made all the difference between the NYC of Taxi Driver and the safe, relatively-clean city we can see today, but crikey, something was needed. It could be argued that New York has become bland, corporatised and homogenous compared to the edgy, grungy, New York of independent businesses seen in this film. But here's the question: where would you rather walk around at night?

I probably now understand more about the world of taxi drivers. They are contracted to a company, which owns the cab. The drivers aim to put enough money away to be able to buy their own license and car. Travis says that he makes $300-350 a week (is this true or just another fantasy?). Bear in mind that even when Isaac downgrades his apartment in Manhattan he is still paying $700 a month.  

Can we go there?
Really? About the only place as it portrayed in this film I would even contemplate going is Columbus Circle, where Travis fails to shoot Palantine. However, the city has changed a lot in the last 36 years. It has been cleaned out, scrubbed up and is open for tourists and business. A real rain did wash all the scum off the streets, in Manhattan at least. So the difficulty will not be in going to the locations and staying safe: it is in finding them in a very different urban landscape.

The film is quite true to the actual layout of New York City. None of this jumping from location to location to give a better-looking journey. The scenes with Iris and Sport all took place around the intersection of 3rd Avenue and 13th Street. Iris first tries to get into Travis’s cab outside the Iris the Variety Photoplay Theatre on 3rd Avenue (between 13th and 14th Streets; it has now been torn down). He later meets Iris and her friend on the 13th Street corner. Continuing down the street he meets Sport in the doorway of 204 East 13th Street. The brothel (and location for the final shoot-out) is 226 East 13th Street. In 1988 the stoop here collapsed and killed two girls, so be considerate if you do visit.

Other locations: the taxi cab garage was located at the west end of 57th Street (a snatch of New Jersey can be seen way back in the distance). It has now been torn down. When Travis goes to the porn theatre he is seen walking down 8th Avenue south of 47th Street. The ‘Show and Tell Theatre’ is long gone, but was located at 737 8th Avenue. The Palantine campaign headquarters was located at the corner of 63rd Street and Broadway. It too is now no longer there. Travis and Betsy have their first date at Charles’ Coffee Shop at the corner of 58th Street and 8th Avenue. Guess what? It’s no longer there. Their ill-fated second date was at the Lyric porn cinma on 42nd Street. It is now the Foxwoods Theatre (showing at the present time a musical about a vigilante cleaning up New York: Spiderman: Turn off the Dark). Travis calls Betsy up from a payphone located within the Ed Sullivan Theatre at 1697 Broadway. Elvis and The Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show here, and David Letterman still broadcasts his Late Show from the building. The Belmore Cafeteria was a real cabbie hang-out; it was located at 28th Street and Park Avenue South. It has since been demolished, but the building that stands in its place is still called ‘The Belmore’. Anthony Bourdain’s Brasserie Les Halles restaurant sits next door. If ever a statement needed to be made about the gentrification of New York, this is it: from cab drivers’ greasy spoon to a restaurant owned by a celebrity chef that sells sirloin steak at $32 a time. Farewell New York – we hardly knew ye’!

Overall Rating: 3/5