Great Films You Need To See – The Candidate (1972)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout May with the theme of ‘politics’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case the Robert Redford-starring The Candidate.

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when the political process finally surrendered to the whim of the media machine and devolved into little more than a playground trade-off centred on bite-sized slogans and soundbites.

The Candidate - as relevant and contemporary now as it was at the time of its release in the dark days of Nixon

The Candidate – as relevant and contemporary now as it was at the time of its release in the dark days of Nixon

‘Playing the game’ has become a damning pre-requisite for those who seek to govern us, as Robert Redford’s idealist-turned-stooge Bill McKay comes to learn in Michael Ritchie’s expose of the business-as-usual cynicism at the empty heart of party politics.

Largely filmed as if US Senate candidate McKay is being shadowed by a documentary crew, often with the sort of overlapping dialogue you’d expect to hear under such frantic circumstances, The Candidate painstakingly (and painfully) shows how the hamster wheel of campaigning chips away at McKay’s principles.

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) - guaranteed to lose in The Candidate

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) – guaranteed to lose in The Candidate

A respected community organiser who has never registered to vote (“he’s never seen the point of it”, according to his wife), McKay is assured by campaign manager Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) that he can say and do what he wants because he doesn’t stand a chance against long-serving incumbent Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) – a deal Lucas seals by scribbling the words “you lose” on the inside of a matchbook.

However, before he can say “read my lips…”, McKay is being maneuvered from the liberal left to the safe centreground; be it getting a haircut, donning a suit and tie just like his retired governor father (brilliantly played by Melvyn Douglas), or having his views skillfully edited by media manager Howard Klein (Allen Garfield) for the purposes of ‘man of the people’ TV ads.

A better way? - Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

A better way? – Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

McKay may spout hot air about being stifled from saying what he really thinks (for instance, when Lucas suggests McKay’s opinion on legalised abortion that “every woman should have that right” be watered down to “it’s worth studying”), but he ultimately does what he’s told – especially when the polls indicate the gap is closing on Jarmon.

Inversely, the further McKay moves away from the principles he once had, the more accomplished and popular he becomes with the people, who spout back his slogan “A better way” in ever-growing numbers.

Father and son: John J McKay (Melvyn Douglas) and Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

Father and son: John J McKay (Melvyn Douglas) and Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

Much like Warren Beatty, whose under-appreciated Bulworth (1998) is The Candidate turned on its head, Redford wears his politics on his sleeve. However, he cleverly undermines his liberal poster-boy image in his portrayal of a weak-willed puppet unable and ultimately unwilling to break the mould.

When real-life political commentator Howard K. Smith cuts to the bone of McKay’s campaign by exclaiming that “the Madison Avenue commercial has taken over as his standard means of persuasion; the voters are being asked to choose McKay as they would a detergent”, the candidate can only watch with the look of someone resigned to their fate.

Robert Redford plays Bill McKay in The Candidate

Robert Redford plays Bill McKay in The Candidate

The absurdity of the situation is encapsulated late on when a frazzled McKay self-mockingly starts jumbling his speeches together into one giant meaningless soundbite, while the lost boy look he gives Lucas when he asks “what do we do now?” after their unexpected election victory is priceless.

As relevant and contemporary now as it was at the time of its release in the dark days of Nixon, The Candidate is a reminder should one be need one that the house always wins.

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Great Films You Need To See – Dark Star (1974)

Before he became a master of horror, John Carpenter went where no hippie had gone before with his gloriously goofy sci-fi debut that put the space into spaced out.

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star's slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star’s slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre

In the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solaris (1972), science fiction had entered a new, grown up phase, one where contemplation and big ideas had replaced explosions and cheap entertainment.

For Carpenter and fellow University of Southern California student Dan O’Bannon, Kubrick’s masterpiece represented a summit they could never hope to reach. In response, they cobbled together $60,000 and made Dark Star, a film that may represent the mirror image of 2001, but has proved just as influential.

Pinback (Dan O'Bannon), Doolittle (Brian Narelle) and Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) - the crew of Dark Star

Pinback (Dan O’Bannon), Doolittle (Brian Narelle) and Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) – the crew of Dark Star

Without the budget to lavish on grand sets or grander special effects, Carpenter and fellow screenwriter O’Bannon came up with the inspired notion of injecting a dose of blue-collar mundanity to their vision of space travel.

Think about it for a moment; who would you expect to see being sent on a 20-year mission to blow up unstable planets in systems marked out for future human colonisation? Dark Star’s crew – Doolittle (Brian Narelle), Pinback (O’Bannon), Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) and Talby (Dre Pahich) – are the other guys; the ones who do the donkey work so that others more glamorous and well-paid than themselves can take all the credit.

State of the art special effects, ahem, in Dark Star

State of the art special effects, ahem, in Dark Star

This ‘truckers in space’ approach has been used in numerous sci-fi movies since, most notably in the O’Bannon-scripted Alien (1979), while Carpenter himself has elaborated on the blue-collar Joe Schmoe concept in The Thing (1982). Anyone who’s watched Ghostbusters will also spot where that film got its idea for Murray and co’s jumpsuits.

The shorthand dialogue and bored, petty resentments between the crew, especially from the highly strung Pinback, are completely plausible, as is their unkempt appearance. After all, with only each other for company, why bother cutting your hair or trimming your beard?

The solitary Talby (Dre Pahich) in Dark Star

The solitary Talby (Dre Pahich) in Dark Star

Shoulder-shrugging observations about the deteriorating state of the ship are another nice touch, such as Doolittle’s ship’s log report about the Dark Star’s stock of toilet rolls blowing up thanks to a computer malfunction; a previous explosion which has destroyed their sleeping quarters; and the ship’s complement of talking bombs, which have become increasingly unpredictable and are responsible for the film’s darkly humourous final act.

The mind-numbing length of their mission also suggests itself in nicely observed exchanges and asides (“chicken again!”), with Doolittle’s admission that he can no longer remember his own first name being an amusing case in point.

The cheeky alien beachball in Dark Star

The cheeky alien beachball in Dark Star

With only a shoestring budget to play around with, the decision to use a beachball to represent a squeaky-voiced alien the crew have adopted as a mascot is brilliantly inspired. Pinback’s increasingly desperate efforts to first feed and then track down the mischievous creature is its own mini-movie; half-slapstick and half-dramatic that drives much of the film’s middle section.

Surfing on a space wave in Dark Star

Surfing on a space wave in Dark Star

The limited finances are also evident in Dark Star‘s wonky special effects, which have an old-school DIY aesthetic that gives the film an anti-establishment feel in keeping with its theme of sticking two fingers up to the Man. Meanwhile, Carpenter’s otherworldly score (a long-running constant throughout most of his oeuvre) harkens back to the sci-fi movies of his youth.

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star‘s slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre.

Great Films You Need To See – Hardware (1990)

As part of the BFI’s Days of Fear and Wonder Sci-fi season, The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context, is running a series of sci-fi-related features. My contribution is a piece about Richard Stanley’s cult 1990 sci-fi horror Hardware. It was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

Richard Stanley’s grim and gory debut may never be counted among the greats of science fiction, but that hasn’t stopped it chiseling out a place among the affections of a loyal band of cult followers.

Richard Stanley would go on to direct one more feature, 1992's Dust Devil before slipping out of sight. It's a shame as the director of a film as demented and dynamic as Hardware deserved bette

Richard Stanley would go on to direct one more feature, 1992’s Dust Devil before slipping out of sight. It’s a shame as the director of a film as demented and dynamic as Hardware deserved bette

Squabbles over the rights to Hardware meant the only way to check it out for a good few years was through a less-than-ideal VHS copy and it wasn’t until 2009 that it finally made it onto DVD. The shenanigans surrounding the film following its modestly successful 1990 release have lent Hardware an edge in keeping with a down and dirty punk attitude.

A nomadic scavenger wanders the apocalyptic wastelands in Hardware

A nomadic scavenger wanders the apocalyptic wastelands in Hardware

Ex-soldier ‘Hard Mo’ Baxter (Dylan McDermott in one of his first starring roles) buys a nasty-looking robot head from a nomadic scavenger and gives it to his metal sculptor girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis), not realising his gift has the ability to reassemble itself to become a machine whose only purpose is to kill.

Despite the meagre budget, Hardware‘s doom-laden industrial world, scarred by nuclear war and controlled by a government that isn’t exactly looking out for its citizens, is impressively realised on screen thanks to solid production design and vivid lighting (the heavy use of red throughout to symbolise the bloodbath that’s to come is especially evocative).

'Hard Mo' Baxter (Dylan McDermott) presents a gift of a robot head to girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis) in Hardware

‘Hard Mo’ Baxter (Dylan McDermott) presents a gift of a robot head to girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis) in Hardware

The killer robot premise is hardly original and the nods to genre stablemates The Terminator (1984) and Demon Seed (1977) are clear to see, but the film rises above the schlock-fest it could so easily have become thanks to the vision of its one-of-a-kind writer/director.

Stanley started work on the film in the immediate aftermath of a terrifying stint in war-ravaged Afghanistan where he had been making his documentary Voice Of The Moon. The horrors he no doubt witnessed are channelled into Hardware, particularly in the freakiness of the TV footage we get to see – grainy images of the Holocaust sitting alongside dystopian news footage, footage of thrash metal merchants Gwar and Robocop-style satirical adverts (“radiation free reindeer steaks”). As if that wasn’t enough, the robot head is painted with the Stars and Stripes to make a none-too-subtle observation about American imperialism.

The impassive killer robot in Hardware

The impassive killer robot in Hardware

He had originally intended to set the film in Britain, but decided to make the location non-specific following the addition of American leads at the studio’s insistence. It’s a smart move that works to the movie’s advantage as the multi-national flavour is entirely in keeping with the world created.

This being a killer robot movie, it’s necessary to buy in to threat posed by the machine and it’s here where Hardware amps up the gore. The scenes within Jill’s apartment, which take up a good chunk of the film’s running time, exude a real menace as the robot impassively goes after anyone it can.

'Hard Mo' Baxter (Dylan McDermott) with his robot hand in Hardware

‘Hard Mo’ Baxter (Dylan McDermott) with his robot hand in Hardware

While Simon Boswell’s soundtrack doesn’t do the film any favours, Stanley makes better use of musicians in other capacities, with Motörhead frontman Lemmy playing a taxi driver who recommends Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades to Mo; and Iggy Pop as DJ Angry Bob, “the guy with the industrial dick” whose at one point says: “As for the good news… there is no fucking good news! So let’s just play some music!”

Stanley would go on to direct one more feature, 1992’s Dust Devil before slipping out of sight. It’s a shame as the director of a film as demented and dynamic as Hardware deserved better.

Great Films You Need To See – Man Push Cart (2005)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about Rahim Bahrani’s masterful 2005 debut Man Push Cart was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

Few images more powerfully evoke the stark reality of 21st century city survival than the Sisyphean struggle of Pakistani immigrant Ahmad dragging his cart along the indifferent Manhattan streets in Rahim Bahrani’s mournfully poetic debut feature.

Man Push Cart remains an important milestone from a turbulent decade and marked itself out as the first words from a unique and exciting new voice in American cinema

Man Push Cart remains an important milestone from a turbulent decade and marked itself out as the first words from a unique and exciting new voice in American cinema

It’s an image Bahrani revisits throughout the extraordinary Man Push Cart (2005) as Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) toils away day in and day out selling coffee and bagels from his push cart in the hope of affording a place in which he can live with his estranged son.

Bahrani isn’t interested in lecturing us about the plight of Asian immigrants in post 9/11 America or wailing against the world’s injustices; instead he casts a soft light on the invisible people who eke out a living on the fringes of first world society with a quiet dignity befitting of his protagonist.

Ahmad's (Ahmad Razvi) day begins - again - in Man Push Cart

Ahmad’s (Ahmad Razvi) day begins – again – in Man Push Cart

The Iranian-American director spent a year getting to know Razvi, who had been working as a push cart vendor for some time, before approaching him to star in their respective first features. The mutual trust that clearly developed over time reaps its reward as both director and actor mirror each other in their approach and let the natural drama of each scene play out.

Ahmad, we come to learn, is a former rock star in his native Pakistan living in the shadow of a recent tragedy that has left him grief-stricken and struggling to hold onto even the smallest dream. His life seemingly takes an upward turn when he forms a connection with young Spanish immigrant Noemi (Leticia Dolera) and befriends wealthy Pakistani businessman Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), who recognises Ahmad from his days as a minor celebrity and makes promises about getting him back in show business. However, in spite of the better life each option potentially presents, his past won’t let go that easily.

Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) strikes up a connection with Noemi (Leticia Dolera) in Man Push Cart

Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) strikes up a connection with Noemi (Leticia Dolera) in Man Push Cart

Bahrani uses a tight focus to reflect the lack of options Ahmad faces and adopts an unshowy, documentary-style approach that befits the performances.

The shadows of Ken Loach and Robert Bresson fall over the film (Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) has been cited as an influence), while Ahmad’s quiet desperation reflects that of Antonio Ricci’s tragic protagonist in Vittorio De Sica‘s neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves (1948).

Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi)'s Sisyphusian existence in Man Push Cart

Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi)’s Sisyphusian existence in Man Push Cart

Ahmad sees the cart as a means of escape from the desperate situation he finds himself in, although it’s difficult to get away from the impression that it more closely resembles a millstone that’s slowly dragging him further down.

Man Push Cart remains an important milestone from a turbulent decade and marked Bahrani out as a unique and exciting new voice in American cinema whom the late Roger Ebert hailed as “the new great American director”.

In the end, it’s that evocative image of Ahmad pulling his cart that lingers longest in the mind. Ahmad is our everyman and his struggle is universal.

Great Films You Need To See – Contact (1997)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 sci-fi classic Contact was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

If they ever considered stopping by our planet, aliens should prepare themselves for a rough welcome if our exhaustive list of films featuring malevolent little green men is anything to go by.

Contact ultimately lets us decide for ourselves whether the mysterious signal is the work of an alien intelligence or not. It's a question really of how much you believe

Contact ultimately lets us decide for ourselves whether the mysterious signal is the work of an alien intelligence or not. It’s a question really of how much you believe

Aliens have been many things in the movies, but peaceful is rarely one of them. Even Steven Spielberg, who waved the flag for benevolent beings from outer space in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), ended up making War Of The Worlds (2005). Needless to say, those guys weren’t interested in making music or phoning home.

Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 adaptation of cosmologist Carl Sagan’s novel Contact feels like a riposte to the biggest evil green men movie of them all, Independence Day, which had been released the previous year.

Jodie Foster stars as SETI radio astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway in Contact

Jodie Foster stars as SETI radio astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway in Contact

Ostensibly about the mystery that surrounds a signal of possibly alien origin detected by radio astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), Contact is more concerned with exploring the uneasy relationship that exists between religion, science and politics.

While James Woods’ National Security Advisor Michael Kitz represents the hawkish impulse of authority to control what isn’t fully understood; the push/pull connection shared between Ellie and Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) suggests that scientific conviction and religious certainty are two sides of the same coin.

Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) mulls over the role of God in all this in Contact

Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) mulls over the role of God in all this in Contact

Indeed, the genius of Contact is in the way its obsessive leading character finds herself acting increasingly on faith the closer she gets to discovering the ultimate truth behind what is, potentially, the greatest scientific breakthrough in human history.

Although she doesn’t believe in the afterlife, a revealing moment early on (following the extraordinary opening shot which pulls back from Earth to follow humanity’s radio broadcasts through the solar system, the Milky Way and beyond) comes when a young Ellie asks her father if they can contact her dead mother via radio. This is reflected later in the film when, following an apparent trip to the other side of the universe, she finds herself in heaven, for all intents and purposes.

The 'alien' machine is  made a reality in Contact

The ‘alien’ machine is made a reality in Contact

Foster is perfectly cast in the role of the dogged and inquisitive Ellie. Not everyone can carry off speeches that contain the words “Einstein Rosen Bridge” (aka wormhole) and Foster imbues her lines with a conviction that could have you fooled into thinking she’s Professor Brian Cox’s mentor.

While not the finished Oscar-winning item he would later become, McConaughey brings his good ol’ Southern charm to the role of Joss, who gets to present the other side of the argument without succumbing to Bible-thumping craziness (that role’s taken by Jake Busey’s wildly exaggerated preacher in one of the film’s only missteps).

Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) prepares for the ultimate trip in Contact

Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) prepares for the ultimate trip in Contact

After incorporating Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon into Forrest Gump (1994), Zemeckis went one better by interweaving footage of sitting US President Bill Clinton’s press conferences into the narrative of Contact.

It’s a gamble that works and adds an extra layer of authenticity to a film that never apologises for wanting to make you think, rather than suggesting you switch off your brain on the way in.

Contact ultimately lets us decide for ourselves whether the mysterious signal is the work of an alien intelligence or not. It’s a question really of how much you believe.